1. Serial Reader: This app takes books that are out of copyright and chops them up into bite-sized chunks called “issues” (10-15 minutes reading time). It delivers one issue of your selected work to you every 24 hours. It’s been a great help to me in getting me to sit down and read full-length novels again. H/t to [personal profile] fred_mouse for bringing it to my attention. Since installing the app a few months ago, I have re-read most of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries (3-5 issues each), Northanger Abbey (30 issues), The Secret Garden (37 issues), The Importance of Being Earnest (9 issues) and Anne of the Island (32 issues). I’m in the middle of Moonfleet (32 issues), which is new to me, and also Anne’s House of Dreams (33 issues), which is a childhood favourite. I do most of my reading on the train or in the bath, and keeping up with 2-3 serials at once is perfect for those activities.

  2. Fitbit: The bloke got me a Fitbit Charge for UK Mother’s Day (back in March). Just to be clear that this was not foisted upon me, let me assure you all that I asked for it in advance. Exercise and weight stuff )

  3. Spotify: The bloke upgraded his Spotify account to the Family version so I could use and we could put it on the tablet for the kids. I don’t think I’m overstating matters when I say that this, combined with dropping a little cash on a decent pair of earbuds, has improved in my mental health. Over the past few years, I’d gotten out of the habit of listening to new music. Much as I love joking about being an aging rivethead with musical tastes stuck in 1994-2003 (which is still true of my preferences in EBM), I have missed the kick of finding a new song I really liked and listening it to death, seat-dancing to it on the train and memorising the lyrics. Amongst the things I’m currently obsessing over are the latest Goldfrapp album, MØ and the Suicide Squad soundtrack.

    Also, it was wonderful to be able to (almost) immediately download Ukrainian electro-folk band ONUKA’s entire oeuvre on the app in the middle of watching Eurovision. Learning to love Eurovision after moving to the UK is a whole entry in itself, but suffice to say it is now an annual ritual, involving cooking the food of the host country (Ukrainian flatbread and beetroot salad, thank you, the bloke!), drinking silly cocktails and shouting a lot in disagreement at the judging (Azerbaijan was robbed).

    In conclusion: Spotify! Brilliant! Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a decade late to the party. Whatevs. I still love my MP3 library, even if most of it is pre-2004.
I recently scored tickets to a recording of the long-running BBC Radio 4 programme "Just a Minute". For those who are unfamiliar with it, four panelists are given, in turn, a random topic by the host and must speak for one minute on it without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The other three panelists try to catch them out, and if they score a correct challenge, they take over the topic and continue speaking. A single round can take quite a lot longer than one minute whilst the panelists and host argue over whether or not the challenges are in fact correct. Or end up chatting about something else entirely.

This was the first recording I'd attended that wasn't at Broadcasting House. It was in the Shaw Theatre, between Euston and Kings Cross stations, and it has greater capacity than Broadcasting House. Unfortunately, it isn't air-conditioned. It was also packed full, because "Just a Minute" is a cultural institution and is still very popular. Nicholas Parsons has been hosting the show for almost fifty years, and the adulation he received at the start and end of the recording made it practically impossible to hear his greetings and farewell.

We had a little unintentional pre-show entertainment. The ticketing system works thus: You turn up an hour before the doors open, present your ticket and are given a sticker with a number on it. When the doors open, the production guests (wearing wristbands) file in first, and then the ticket holders are allowed entry in groups of fifty. It all works in quite a civilised fashion despite the crush in the lobby, because British people love queuing.

However, once we'd (nearly) all sat down, it became evident that there'd been some sort of cock-up involving the seating of the production guests. Four people wearing viridescent wristbands were stood at the front, looking up at the full rows of seats with evident displeasure. One was a blonde woman in a white jacket with a formidable aspect. I should not like to have been the young production assistant attempting to mollify her and receiving the pointy end of said displeasure. Hands were waved about. The small number of solitary seats scattered about the theatre were indicated and obviously rejected. Eventually, some audience members were convinced to shift around slightly to permit the foursome to sit in pairs on opposite sides of the theatre.

This had all taken a good ten minutes, by which point the ostensible start time of the recording had passed. The drama had now attracted the attention of literally every person in the audience. When the formidable woman sat down, the entire theatre broke into a cheer. She stood up a few seconds later to hand her empty drink cup (two will get you seven that it was a large gin and tonic) to a frazzled usher. The audience booed. Unfased, she turned around, smiled beautifully and resumed her seat gracefully. I was impressed, as I suspect most of the rest of the audience would have died of embarrassment right then.

It was not until the very end of the show when Nicholas Parsons was bidding us farewell that we had the measure of what had transpired. "If," he said, with a twinkle in his eye "you happen to run across the fellow who tore the sign reading 'Reserved for Nicholas Parson's wife' off the seats in the front..." He made a small, meaningful gesture with his cane.

The four panelists were Paul Merton, Tony Hawks, Zoë Lyons and Julian Clary. I shall say no more of the two very funny shows that were recorded, but I think I can safely share another pre-recording anecdote. Nicholas Parsons asked each panelist to speak into their microphone for the sake of the sound engineer at the back. Not one to pass up an opportunity for innuendo, Julian Clary put on his most deliberately camp voice and said, "Hello, David, are you receiving me in the rear?" Nicholas Parsons: "Yes, I think so. Poor David. He can't hear anything now."

After departing the Shaw, I arrived at my place of sleep around 22:30. I walked in the door and was greeted by the smell of freshly baked apple & rhubarb crumble and vanilla custard heating on the hob. A whisky glass was placed in my hand and unopened bottles of Lagavulin and Scapa presented upon the kitchen island for my perusal and selection.

Sometimes, I am a very lucky Nanila indeed.
I'm spoiler-immune AND I read the book before I went to see the film, so I will do everyone who is spoiler-sensitive a favour and simply put this entire post behind a cut.

Spoilers, spoilers everywhere I'm sure )

Still, A++++, will def get on DVD and watch again.
nanila: me (Default)
( Nov. 22nd, 2013 01:14 pm)
The bloke and I been listening to this adorable radio series since it started re-running on BBC Radio 4 Extra a couple of months ago.

Written by John Finnemore, it features four people who crew a private airline. They get up to hilarious hijinks whilst flying bonkers passengers around the world. The voice actors are people whom you just might recognise:

  1. Owner and Operator of MJN Air, Mother, Architect of Adventure: Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, voiced by Stephanie Cole (also known from TV series Open All Hours and Doc Martin, amongst many others)

  2. First Officer, Sarcastronaut: Douglas Richardson, voiced by Roger Allam (I know he is a srs thespeean but I will always think of him as Mannion from The Thick of It)

  3. Flight Attendant, Momma’s Boy, Dogsbody: Arthur Shappey, voiced by John Finnemore

  4. Aeroplane: Gertie, who forebears silently the antics of her crew, and finally,

  5. Captain, Fastidious Fusspot, Target Practice for Douglas: Martin Crieff, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (who’s been in some stuff lately that a few people on the internet are mildly fannish about).

Anyway, the plots are ridiculous, the dialogue is wonderful and you should listen to it on iPlayer Radio (Currently re-running Series 2, available everywhere in Europe, not sure about outside though). You can also purchase it from AudioGo on CD or as MP3 downloads (it’s on my Christmas Non-Sectarian Festival Holiday list).
nanila: (kusanagi: sometimes it's true)
( Nov. 20th, 2013 04:17 pm)
I went to see Thor: The Dark World with some of my work colleagues last night. So, was it the pseudoscience that wrecked our suspension of disbelief and thus, temporarily, our enjoyment of the film? Was it the phase meters and quantum field generators? Was it the dude flying around being manly in armour and wielding a magical fecking hammer?

No. No, it wasn’t. That stuff just causes us all to piss ourselves laughing.

What ticked us off was the unnecessary mucking about with the geography of the London transport system. )

So that was the biggest problem I had with this film. Totally rational, I think, because it would’ve been so easy to correct with minimal fact-checking, whereas giving a solid theoretical explanation for interdimensional travel by manly hammer-wielding dudes would not.

(Side note: What is it with filmmakers and planetary alignment every five thousand years to bring about death/destruction/dark powers? Tomb Raider. The Fifth Element. Thor. What others am I missing? I’m sadly certain that there are others.)
nanila: (me: art)
( Jan. 26th, 2013 12:42 pm)
This film could be adequately summarised as Craggy-Faced Chap Looks Soulful Against a Backdrop of Sweeping American Skies, Accompanied By Slide Guitar.

There is a coherent and moving story involving the breaking and mending of familial ties and some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen, but even if that hadn’t been present, this is a joy to watch because of the cinematography and the phenomenal body language of the actors. Harry Dean Stanton (the aforementioned Craggy-Faced Chap) has the ability to convey the way words bubble up and choke in the throat and refuse to come out. His painful emergence from his reticent, amnesiac shell is facilitated by his brother and his brother’s wife, who adopted his son during his long absence. They pick him up and put him back together. He repays them as well as might be expected, while remaining an entirely sympathetic character. Not, I hasten to add, with violence, but with the deep emotional hurt humans bestow on one another through inescapable self-absorption.

All this takes place below the hot dry skies of Texas and California. Long looks in rearview mirrors and a distinct lack of seatbelt usage enable the poignant scenes that take place in some truly magnificent battered beasts of American cars, throwing up clouds of dust as they rumble through the desert. It will made me long for a particularly American flavour of road trip: staying in shabby motels, eating diner food in the company of silent truckers, drinking cold beers in dive bars and squinting into the blazing sun.
I have thus far failed to explore all three of the authors I mentioned at the end of my last post (Octavia Butler, Seanan McGuire and Ben Aaronovitch). I’m afraid this is because I got completely sucked into the Vorkosigan saga and have not been able to put it down since I started. (I can hear the gleeful cackles from the peanut gallery. Shush. I’ll get to that in a minute.) Also, I still haven’t moved from Cambridge to Birmingham so the dead-tree edition ban continues, barring me from obtaining Octavia Butler’s works.

In chronological order, here’s what I’ve read since the last post (DW/LJ).

Lauren Beukes Moxyland (near-future dystopian cyberpunk, author recommended by [personal profile] ceb)

I must say I’m glad I read Zoo City, her second effort, first. Moxyland was a bit like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (which was better overall): trying too hard to be cool. The cyberpunk world, technologies and the self-absorbed twenty-something characters are underdeveloped and unconvincing. The invented jargon serves to confuse rather than enlighten an already muddled plot, and the ending, while successfully tying off some of the loose ends, left me cold. If the revolution falls this flat, I expect no one will even notice that it’s happening.

Verdict: Forgettable. Read Zoo City. I hope this indicates the author is on an upward trajectory and that her third effort will be better.

Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London (urban fantasy detective novel, author recommended by [personal profile] pbristow and [livejournal.com profile] imyril)

Ah now, this was a breath of fresh air after Moxyland! The endearing bimbling of half-Nigerian, half-English PC Peter Grant into an alt!London full of magic, accompanied by his mentor, Thomas Nightingale, and his fellow PC, Lesley May, is peppered with wonderful historical anecdotes and wry humour. Nightingale balances a more mature perspective against the youthful Grant’s, while May* provides a healthy dose of skepticism and the rigour of proper investigative procedure against Grant’s intuitive leaps. Together, they work toward a solution to a set of grisly murders, with near-fatal consequences to themselves. A delight to read, with a full cast of multicultural characters.

*Side note: Why do so few of the reviews mention her? Grumble.

Verdict: Wonderful! Yes! More like this, please.

Ben Aaronovitch Moon Over Soho (urban fantasy detective novel)

RoL broke my determination to switch authors. I had to get the sequel right away and read it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as its predecessor. I suspect this is due in large part to the temporary shelving of both Nightingale and May. Although both novels are told from PC Grant’s perspective, I found him much less appealing without the tempering influences of the other two. The mystery is not quite as engaging, lacking the sense of discovery in the first novel and becoming a bit heavy-handed in its “acceptance of otherness” message (applied to fantastical creatures rather than human race or culture). Still, I liked it, and the little teaser at the end gave me hope that the next installment will restore the balance of characters and plotline.

Verdict: Mildly disappointing sequel, but still engaging enough to make me anticipate the third installment.

Lois McMaster Bujold Cordelia’s Honor (space opera, comprised of two novels, “Shards of Honor” and “Barrayar”, recommended by lots of people)

I admit it: I fell in love with this pretty much instantaneously. Cordelia Naismith! What a wonderful heroine. I was not at all put off by the heavy dose of romance that starts things off. In fact, I think it’s necessary to offset the horrors of the feudal political machinations in the story. I love the societies LMB creates in Beta Colony and Barrayar. I love their contrasts and complexities. Each has advantages and freedoms that the other lacks. Neither is better. On Beta Colony, for instance, all persons are encouraged the full range of sexual expression and experimentation from puberty, but you need to pay and qualify for a licence to have a child, and the barriers to having more than two are nigh insurmountable. On Barrayar, Victorian mores reign, but you can have as many children as you like. I love way these cultures are embodied, expressed and flexed by Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. I loved reading about them so much that I nearly missed my Tube stop on three separate journeys.

Further thoughts are a bit spoilery )

Lois McMaster Bujold Young Miles (military space opera, comprised of two novels, “The Warrior’s Apprentice” and “The Vor Game”, recommended by lots of people)

The first of the two novels is all about wielding the power of an amazing ability to meet a situation and blag it. Miles is the son of Cordelia and Aral, born with brittle bones and barely 4’9” tall in a society that values physical strength and shuns deformity. Reason for this: mild spoiler. ) He has, however, both a brilliant mind and a remarkable gift of gab. He is a manipulator. A situation that he can’t talk himself out of, rare in itself, will usually end up going his way because of the loyalty his reckless personal risk-taking inspires in his associates. He manages, by dint of scraping people out of gutters and giving them second chances, to make himself a pirate captain. In space. Seriously. How was I not going to love this book?

The book introduces a dizzying array of cultures besides Barrayar and Beta Colony (both descended from Earth), including the Oserans and the Felicians. These are not quite as well developed as in Cordelia’s Honor, which delves deeply into Barrayar and Beta Colony through the two main characters. However, the tantalising glimpses given by the peripheral players in “The Warrior’s Apprentice” hooked me deeper into the series, if such an action could be deemed necessary. Miles’ internal dialogue is priceless and his eagle-eyed companions keep him from getting too enraptured with his successes - or sunk by his failures.

I resented the time I had to spend not reading this book.

The Vor Game’s pace proved less whirlwind than the first novel’s, maturing to match Miles’ development as he finishes his military training. A good portion of it is set in Barrayar rather than interstellar space. Barrayar being a rather sombre place, this made the tone less rambunctious. Once Miles manages to wriggle away from his minders (as usual) and off-planet, things pick up. They heat up a good deal more when he manages to land himself smack in the middle of his companions from the previous novel, an interplanetary struggle for control over a wormhole hub and a woman’s insane lust for power. Watching him attempt to sort all this out is both highly amusing and suspenseful.

Verdict: I’m trying not to rush through the entire Vorkosigan saga before the end of my pregnancy, when I expect I’ll be able to do little other than lie in bed read. I imagine, however, that there is a world of high-quality fanfic out there for me to explore when I do.

Currently reading: LMB Cetaganda (another Miles Vorkosigan, yes yes, I know, so much for not rushing), Thomas Levenson Newton and the Counterfeiter, and David Lodge’s Nice Work in dead-tree format. The last was a leaving present for the bloke from his Cambridge research group. It’s about a failed Cambridge academic who ends up taking a job in the fictional English town of Rummidge -- which happens to be positioned in the same place as Birmingham. Hrmmmph!
One of the positive things I got out of the discussion about EasterCon was a heap of recommendations for science fiction authors to check out. I started with the three listed in the subject line and bought, respectively, two collections of short stories and a novel to help me decide which ones to pursue.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Proto Zoa (author recommended by [personal profile] pbristow)

This is a collection of five early short stories. The first three are prosaic modern-life tales of woe in which the petty problems of ordinary people are solve humourously by the intervention of powers sufficiently advanced to look like magic. I was amused, but not engaged enough to consider reading something novel-length by this author.

Then I read the fourth and fifth stories.

These make the leap to wonderfully developed future worlds and hint at the potential for masterfully crafted space opera. The first, "Dreamweaver's Dilemma", is a psychological/technical suspense thriller in which an artist tries to solve a crime before it is committed. The second, "Aftermaths", is a gentler character exploration that deals, with melancholy tenderness, with the unpleasant business of post-war tidying up. It could easily have been transplanted from its setting in space to many points in humanity's history. I understand these last two are related to the Vorkosigan saga. As an introduction to and appetizer for those books, this pair of short stories performs beautifully.

Verdict: Moar please. What's the first book in the Vorkosigan cycle?

Maureen F. McHugh, After the Apocalypse (author recommended by [livejournal.com profile] pax_athena)

The first of these stories seemed promising. It reminded me of "I Am Legend", with a main character of unelevated social status (a convicted criminal) forced to survive in a collapsed society overrun by zombies. But the unsatisfying ending was, unfortunately, a harbinger of what was to follow in the remaining stories. Many of them can't rightfully be called short stories, but are vignettes. I couldn't find one that had a clear resolution and some of them seemed to be character sketches that made little sense without the context of a larger work. I found a few characters appealing enough to overlook the thinness of the plot, such as the Chinese girls taking on their corporate masters (and winning). But the attraction was to the characters rather than their context.

Verdict: I'm glad I sampled this, but I probably won't seek out more by this author.

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (author recommended by [personal profile] ceb)

Ah, now this was satisfying to read. It's set in alt-present Johannesburg, with a highly intelligent sharp-tongued cynical ex-junkie anti-heroine (whom most other authors would probably have made male) named Zinzi December. Outcast in more ways than one - she's an aposymbiot as well as being an indebted ex-con - she ekes her living off her uncanny ability to sense what other people would very much like to keep hidden. Until someone hires her for an improbable sum and she senses that something is very wrong indeed. The twisted cyberpunk setting is well developed and woven cleverly into the plot, which can be read as a highly enjoyable detective novel or as a complex exploration of cultural mores or both. I note that some reviews of the book found the ending abrupt or slightly unbelievable, but I found it perfect. The good guys don't always win. And they're not always good. Or guys.

Verdict: There is only one other novel available, Moxyland, which I'll certainly be reading.

Up next are Octavia Butler, Seanan McGuire and Ben Aaronovitch. Further suggestions are most welcome.
nanila: (old-skool: science!)
( Mar. 31st, 2012 10:17 pm)
I watched Contagion recently, a film that depicts the origin and spread across the globe of a highly contagious virus with a mortality rate of 25-30%. The virus later mutates and become more lethal. It was praised for, among other things, the quality of its portrayal of scientific research. I enjoyed it immensely.

It managed to pull together the threads of several stories without leaving the viewer baffled or dissatisfied. Kate Winslet played the field doctor (Dr Erin Mears) trying to deploy containment mechanisms for the Centers for Disease Control, overseen by Laurence Fishburne (Dr Ellis Cheever). On the research side, Jennifer Ehle (Dr Ally Hextall) races to find a vaccine for the disease. Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff) plays an ordinary man - Spoiler. ) It is mostly through his perspective that we see the effect of the spread of the disease - the devastation wrecked by familial loss, slow and inadequate distribution of reliable information, panic buying of false cures, overwhelmed police and emergency services, and the eventual restoration of order. Marion Cotillard (Dr Leonora Orantes), working for the World Health Organisation, and Chin Han (Sun Feng) provide glimpses of the effects in rural China. All of these portrayals are as understated and realistic as possible. Spoiler. )

One thing that I thought many reviews overlooked is that this film provides absolutely magnificent role models for girls aspiring to become scientists and doctors. Spoilers ) Most of the male characters fail badly in some respect. Spoilers. ) The women are the key drivers in the resolution of this film. Their characters are nuanced - they have moments when they act out of fear or haste or anger - but they are also overridingly intelligent, competent, perceptive and principled. Combine this with the tight pacing, the carefully woven plot and the positive portrayal of research and my recommendation becomes very enthusiastic indeed.
Despite being of an age at which I prefer to stand near the back of the concert hall than the front, and at which I remember to bring earplugs so I don’t have tinnitus for three days afterward, I managed to rock out at the Evanescence show. Mostly because Amy Lee’s voice is just that epic.

They started off with songs from their new album. I hadn’t heard it before the show and judging from the response of my fellow back-row denizens, neither had they. See: Don’t care about having new music right away like I used to. See also: Old. The front-row crowd, on the other hand, already knew every word. By the time they played an older Evanescence song (Going Under), we were all bursting to sing along. Without the sound cranked up to maximum volume, there was a real danger that the whole show could have descended into bad karaoke.

Amy Lee didn’t say much during the show. The band kept plowing forward with song after song, although there were two charming audience interactions. The first was when she said, “Thank you for still believing in rock. Rock believes in you.” The second was when she said she was going to play a song she hadn’t rehearsed in months because it was her husband’s birthday. The first notes of Good Enough were almost overwhelmed by cheering. On the other hand, it was the only one of her glorious, haunting piano numbers (Lithium, My Immortal) that didn’t get drowned out by the band when the overpumped sound system kicked in. Despite being slightly unhappy with this, I still managed to get the shivers during Bring Me To Life.

Feeling quite satisfied and with a new glow-in-the dark tee tucked into my handbag, I hopped onto the Tube at the same time as a girl and her parents, who were probably in their late forties. She was about twelve, and they had just bought her tour swag. They had her model her new t-shirt and hoodie for them. She was asleep contentedly on her father’s shoulder by the time we arrived at Kings Cross. For some reason, witnessing that felt like fitting closure to the night.

Except it wasn’t.

I managed to board the last fast train to Cambridge at Kings Cross. It was packed, as it always is on a Friday night. A woman sat down next to me, and we exchanged smiles as we settled into comfortable positions. I overheard her book a taxi from Royston and then she went to sleep while I became absorbed in my Kindle.

Forty minutes later, I was startled out of Gulliver's Travels by the sound of a whistle. I peered out at the station platform. We were at Royston. I looked at the woman next to me. She was asleep, and I mean really passed out - mouth open, leaning off the seat. I shook her arm gently. “Excuse me,” I said. She didn’t react. “Excuse me!” I insisted more loudly. Still nothing. I shook her arm hard. Finally, she opened her eyes. “We’re at Royston,” I said. “Get off the train, quick! We’re about to leave.”

She stared at me, bemused. “We can’t be at Royston,” she muttered. “We are,” I replied. “Hurry!” She gathered her handbag and stumbled onto the platform. As we pulled away, I watched her standing there, blinking.

The girl across from me smiled. “Well done,” she said. “Too bad she didn’t thank you.”

I smiled back and shrugged. I must say, though, that if I’d woken up late at night on a train because a panda-eyed goth was shaking me and shouting in my face, thanking her wouldn’t be the first reaction I’d have. “I’m never falling asleep on a train again” would be more like it.