Animal Farm – George Orwell

October 18, 2016 at 16:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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animal-farmDo you suffer from insomnia? Well, if you do I may have the answer. It takes the form of a BBC radio programme called ‘In Our Time‘, in which exceptionally plummy-voiced academics discuss incomprehensible subjects in soporific tones.

It just takes a little of Melvyn Bragg’s introduction (‘and joining me to discuss the influence of thirteenth century epic poetry on the development of the Romance languages are, Edwin Higginbotham, Emeritus Professor of Nearly Everything at the University of Somewhere….) and I’m asleep. It’s one of my favourite programmes, and I assume all this erudition is somehow lodging itself into my somnambulistic brain.

A little while ago, I stayed awake long enough to pick up that the following week’s programme would be about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This prompted me to read the original book, which I’m not sure I had ever actually read.

The story is, of course, very familiar. The animals of Manor Farm rise up against the brutal and incompetent farmer, and after chasing him away begin to manage the farm for themselves as a sort of co-operative utopia. In those first very heady months everything goes well, with all the animals working together to improve their conditions.

However, it soon starts to go sour, as the pigs (the intellectuals of the farm) start to take more and more for themselves as they exploit and terrorise their fellow animals until, in the famous last scene, the pigs and men in the farmhouse appear indistinguishable from each other, the pigs having turned into the very oppressors they sought to overthrow.

It is a searing commentary on the events of the Russian Revolution, and the eventual rise of Stalin, although written at a time when Britain was in the throes of the Second World War, with Russia as an ally. Because of this, here was significant pro-Russian sentiment in the UK at the time, and Orwell struggled to find a publisher. It was eventually published just after the war, at a time when the pro-Russia sentiment had evaporated and the horrors of the Stalinist regime were becoming more clear.

However, the historical overlay is not necessary to enjoy the book; although it’s a bleak read. It has a kind of relentless inevitability about it; from the moment the pigs first take the milk for their mash the spiral down towards the final outcome seems somehow fixed. It is of course a classic, and worth reading again if you haven’t read it for a while.

Having read it, I then looked forward to the programme to further sharpen my appreciation of the book. But alas, I was asleep within a few minutes of it starting…

 

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The After Party – Anton DiSclafani

October 2, 2016 at 19:49 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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afterpartyFollowing my resolution to read a book from the library every time I take the kids there, I picked up ‘The After Party’ from the display of new books by the children’s section, without really even glancing at it. It’s not a book I probably would have chosen normally, but I think this new ‘grab from the library’ strategy has quite a bit going for it, as you get to read some interesting and unusual books.

This book is set in 1950s Houston, and drips with period detail – the rich, bored, un-emancipated housewives of rich oilmen live in a dizzy world of socialising and manners. Their lives are at once luxurious and stifling.

The book revolves around two characters in this world – Joan, from one of the oldest and richest families, and Cece, her friend, confidant and sometime chaperone. Joan is unconventional; straining against the barriers of convention. She is the darling of the gossip columns as she moves from one outrageous incident to another. Cece, desperately wanting to conform to  the expectations of society, is drawn to Joan and spends her life in Joan’s orbit, both enthralled and appalled as she attempts to understand and corral Joan’s behavior.

The novel explores the relationship between these two women as Joan’s life spirals out of control, and DiSclafani deftly explores their obsessive and stifling friendship, set against the backdrop of rigid societal expectations.

It’s an enjoyable book, but not exceptional, and the pace drags a little sometimes. It is an interesting window into both the era and the dynamics of female friendship.

Nod – Adrian Barnes

August 15, 2016 at 21:57 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nod adrian barnesHurrah! I finally got around to reading another book. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that the ‘book’ part of my blog title seems rather irrelevant. Apologies for this, dear readers. I will do my best to make amends.

I picked up ‘Nod’ by Adrian Barnes from my local library, when I was there with the junior Chillikebabs. Aren’t libraries great! Just like bookshops, except the books are free, and there is fast wifi. We go there a lot, but only ever get out kids book. So my new resolution is borrow (and then read) at least one grown-up book on each visit.

Nod is a dystopian novel, set in a contemporary world where, suddenly, almost no-one is able to sleep. As sleep deprivation takes hold, society falls apart alarmingly quickly. A few lucky individuals, including the books main protagonist and narrator, Paul, are able to sleep – but they all have the same strange dream. And some children are also able to sleep – but are rendered mute and unemotional, moving to live rough in a park all together.

At all sounds very weird when I write it like that, and I guess it is; as the book progresses it becomes more and more dream-like, mirroring the decaying mental state of the ‘Awakened’ – those that are unable to sleep. Strange cults begin to develop, behaviour becomes savage and violent, and through it all glide the serene ‘Sleeper’ children.

I enjoyed it a lot, although felt it was just a bit short of being a great book. Some of the literary allusions are a bit too forced, and at times it descends into a zombie-horror-flick parody. However, those are minor criticisms, it’s a book that stays with you for a while after you read it and which has some thought-provoking themes.

 

The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling

September 15, 2015 at 08:30 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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This is, of course, casual vacancy JK rowlingJK Rowling’s first adult fiction book, published to much fanfare in 2012. It explores the interwoven lives of the inhabitants of a small English village, touching on themes as diverse as racism, drug-taking, bullying, domestic violence, teenage sex, crime and prejudice.

Rowling herself has described it as a ‘black comedy’, which is an apt description of many of the characters. As in her children’s books, Rowling has a knack for creating extreme caricatures that somehow remain believable, and this cast of grotesques do have a certain dark, comedic quality. The plot and storylines, however, are far from humorous in their explorations of the darkest sides of human nature.

The cast of characters is large, and there are multiple storylines and plots that run throughout the book. Other reviewers have found this difficult to follow, but I didn’t find this confusing; the characters jump off the page and are so memorable it’s easy to keep up.

The writing, whilst somewhat clunky in parts, flows along well enough, despite the book’s length – although it does feel like it could do with a bit of judicious editing. There are some quite poignant moments, as well as some challenging ones – but there are also some rather long, tedious passages that could do with trimming.

It’s worth a look – it’s easy to read, and quite fun – but it’s not a great novel.

Fly6 rear bike camera review

August 21, 2015 at 16:17 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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fly6boxAs will have been apparent to regular readers, a little while ago I kitted myself out with a rear-facing camera – the Fly6.

This has already been the subject of numerous reviews – not I’m not going to let that stop me offering my own opinions! What attracted me to it was that is is uncompromisingly designed for cycling – this is not an ‘action camera’ that also works for cycling, but was designed from the ground up for putting on the back of a bike.

To that end, it has an integrated rear light (with the usual flashing and steady modes), the necessary fixings for a seatpost and is waterproof. This last point is crucial – a fair weather camera is no good to me, and given it’s position above the rear wheel it’s going to get pretty drenched in the rain.

The other thing I liked about it is that is records video on a loop, automatically deleting the oldest footage once the memory card is full. This means you never have to worry about having to delete old files, or it stopping recording because the memory is full. As far as I know this is the only such camera that has this small but exceptionally useful feature. It records in 10 minute segments, each recorded as a different file, which does mean if you want to make an epic movie of your ride you will need to stitch them all back together in a video editor. It also means it’s much easier to locate the footage of a particular bit of your ride, and the file sizes remain manageable, which I think is on balance more helpful.

It has a an integrated rechargeable battery that is good for about 5 hours of recording, and good for several more hours of just lights after that – claims that seems about right from my general use. Hence you don’t need to be recharging it too often – twice a week is fine for me. The various bleeps and flashes when you turn it on tell you the current battery level, and are clear and easy to understand. Once the battery is getting low the recording stops, but the light remains working for several hours – another bonus, and much better than my other rechargeable lights, which have a habit of dying mid-ride.

It comes packed in a lovely box with every accessory you could imagine – shims for different seatpost angles and also for aero posts (for those hardcore time triallers out there). There are two clips, so you can have a clip on a couple of bikes, a charging / data cable and a 2GB memory card (enough for about 1.5 hours of recording). There are also a bunch of stickers, and a small manual to get started (the full manual is available as an online download).

fly6 cameraThe video quality is I think good. It’s up there with the lower-end action cameras  – it records at 720P, which for some purists is not good enough, but it’s plenty OK for most purposes. Details are crisp, number plates are easy to read. You can see some footage here, but there’s plenty more around on the web. In the dark obviously things are a bit less successful, but by no means useless; on a street with good streetlighting you can still make out most of the details. If it is very dark, then things do just become a blur of points of light, but I guess for a sub-$200 camera that’s asking a lot. The sound is OK – it’s never going to be that good on such a small device, but it is better that I expected, without too much wind noise. It will pick up intelligible speech in the vicinity, providing there isn’t any background noise – so essentially sound recording works if you are stopped (if you are moving, then it’s unlikely you’ll hear anything over the wind / tyre / traffic noise).

Since I’ve had it, I’ve used the footage once to go to the cops to report someone for poor driving, and taken many many hours of entirely boring footage of me cycling to work. It’s been drenched by heavy rain, with no problems at all, and the battery life holds up well.

fly6 on bikeSo it everything unrelentingly positive, then? Well, there are a few niggles. The clip design is not the best. As I mentioned, it comes with two clips. I mounted it into one of the clips to fit to the bike – and it was immediately clear that it is very unwilling to come out of that clip. I’ve been at it with some tools, lubricated it with oil, hauled at it – but it took a lot of effort to get it out. (top tip – do it with the clip mounted on the bike). It’s also impossible to get out without some sort of tool such as a small screwdriver (or the tip of a key), as you can’t push back the tab on the clip with your finger whilst pulling the unit out of the clip. All this means that half the time I just use the rubber straps to take it on and off (which is easy to do in any case), but it does mean the little rubber shim can get lost (if has a sticky pad to hold it to the clip, but repeated taking it on and off loosens this quite quickly).

I also had a bunch of problems connecting it to my PC. When I got it, I connected it, and it appeared as a drive, and I was able to set the time and date and so on. But then, a few days later, it stopped connecting. My PC then started reporting ‘USB driver failed to load’ when I plugged it in. I tried it on several PCs, and got the same result each time. Reading the Fly6 forums, this is not an uncommon issue.  Since then I have upgraded the firmware on the device (which entailed using a different PC it apparently would connect to) which seems to have helped, as it now connects to my home PC. My work PC still won’t connect though (although it did once, but never again, so I don’t think it’s a permissions thing). Not a major drama as I can just remove the memory card to get the footage, but it’s a bit frustrating.

Those gripes notwithstanding, I am very happy with my purchase. It does what I need it to to do with a minimum of fuss, is low-profile and discreet and is easy to use.

Apparently there is a Fly12 front camera in the offing. Something to consider….!

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

August 15, 2015 at 16:19 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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It’s always a pleasure to open a nmcewan children actew book by Ian McEwan. Familiar as an old pair of jeans, yet always fresh and new. From the moment you sink into the luminous prose to the point when you emerge, blinking, from the fine textured world McEwan conjures, you are swept along by the sheer technical mastery of the medium. McEwan is truly a great author, a master of his craft.

And yet, and yet, something niggled with me slightly about this novel. Not that it wasn’t executed with the customary brilliance. Not that the plot wasn’t intriguing and though-provoking, and the characters fully rounded and believable. No, somehow, there was this niggle in my mind that it was somewhat formulaic. A really good novel, yes, but ‘just another Ian McEwan’, rather than some new statement. It sounds almost sacrilegious to say it, but I was strangely reminded of  Dick Francis’ novels – basically all the same story, but made (somewhat) interesting by the illuminating background research into whatever the protagonist happened to be – a photographer, a wine merchant, a computer teacher etc etc.

In ‘The Children Act’, the main character is a family court judge, and the book revolves around both her troubled marriage and her caseload, most particularly Adam, an intense teenager who wishes to refuse lift-saving treatment for religious reasons.

And, à la Francis, we also get quite significant discourses on the processes and ethics of the family court system in England, coupled with expositions on the religious mores of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This is a much, much better novel than an airport thriller. But somehow, for me, the assemblage of raw materials failed to gel into a great book.

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

January 13, 2015 at 13:53 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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dawkins

When I was at  high school, I took classes in both French and German languages. My grades in both had been patchy, until in my third year I was taught French by a lady called ‘Miss Smith’. She was an excellent teacher, and suddenly French became much easier for me (and ultimately became the subject for which I got the highest grade when graduating). So in my fourth year, I was thrilled to also score Miss Smith for German classes too. Weirdly, friends who had had her for German previously all seemed to hate her, but I ignored them in the lead up to the new academic year. And yet, she turned out to be a terrible German teacher. She shouldn’t have been; German was her primary subject, and she was a native German speaker. But therein lay the problem; she was so familiar with German she struggled to teach it; couldn’t understand why we were struggling and got impatient, shouting at us rather than helping us.

I got a Richard Dawkins book for Christmas this year – The Magic of Reality. Unlike his other books, which focus on his own field, biology, this is a science ‘primer’ aimed at a general audience – specifically a non-scientifically literate audience. So here we have one of the worlds’ foremost scientific minds trying to make his subject accessible to those who may have in the past struggled with science, whether in school or more generally.

It is clearly a work of passion. Dawkins really wants everyone to know, understand and be inspired by science. In this book he covers not only his home turf, the evolution of life on earth, he also covers a range of other topics in geography, astronomy, physics and probability. he does this by asking a question (What is a rainbow?, Why to bad things happen?) and then using this as a springboard into the underlying science.

He also starts each section not with the science, but with some examples of how such questions have been answered in the past, with various myths, legends and religious stories. These then form a comparison with the actual explanation, with Dawkins intent to reveal that the scientific answer has more interest, awe and ‘magic’ than any explanation cooked up by shamans or prophets. As a structure this works well, with Dawkins amply demonstrating that the wonder of the natural universe far exceeds those limiting and colourless tales.

It’s an easy book to read, although the subject matter was all very familiar to me. However, at times the tone come across as rather condescending. Now, I’m not in the target audience for this book, so perhaps it’s just me. But there was a few things he keeps doing which really started to grate.

One is when he is explaining something, and either he uses a generalisation or there is an exception to the general rule. He just kind of leaves with a brusque ‘Actually, in this case they are not… blah blah… but I’m not going to go into why that is.‘ He does this over and over in various ways, and it started to get a bit maddening. Perhaps it’s because I already know the material, so those exceptions and side-points are actually more interesting to me than the main text, whereas Dawkins is trying to not confuse someone new to the topic. But it would have been better I think if he had either just left them out altogether (although I can just see the dilemmas that would have left Dawkins with, being pathologically unable to write something not 100% accurate!), or (more elegantly in my view) perhaps put in a small footnote to say that this is a slightly simplified explanation, and you can read a better one somewhere else, with some kind of reference. Heck, he could even write them himself (or invite others to do so), host them on a website somewhere, and use it to deliver audience engagement and various other marketing spin-offs. I’ll waive my usual marketing consultancy fees for that idea, if you’re reading, Richard…

The other one is is his exhortations to see his metaphors solidifying in your mind. ‘Can you see it … developing in your mind as you read this description?’ Can you? Can you really? Really? Now, I realise he’s trying to be chatty, but it’s a bit like a slightly crusty Oxford don trying to connect with a slightly disinterested teenager. Either your metaphors are going to good enough for us to grasp, or they are not, Richard, and no amount of exhortation is going to change it…

The penultimate sentence in the last paragraph is laced with deliberate irony, because of course that is exactly what this book is. Dawkins is a slightly crusty Oxford don, and this book is aimed at a non-technical audience probably slightly disinterested in science.  I’m not in that target audience, so perhaps not a fair judge of this book. But whilst it is customarily well written and accessible, I have a horrible feeling Dawkins has missed the mark slightly. He hasn’t fallen into the trap Miss Smith fell into, and shouted at us. But it’s notable that the chapters not on evolutionary biology are much easier to read and more interesting than those covering his own specialty.

A comparison point is Bill Bryson’s 2004 book  A Short History of Nearly Everything. This too aims to introduce a non-technical reader to the wonders of science, but I remember it to be a much more entertaining read. Tellingly, it’s written by a non-scientist; indeed someone who by his own admission initially knew nothing about the world or how it was made – it was going on that voyage of discovery that led to him writing the book. It’s a bit out of date now in some respects, but whilst ‘The Magic of Reality‘ has a lot to recommend it, I’d still recommend Bryson over it to anyone interested in broadening their scientific horizons.

 

 

Eyrie – Tim Winton

January 4, 2015 at 09:15 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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eyrieTim Winton is one of Australia’s Living Treasures. He is widely acclaimed as one of the world’s great literary writers, gifted with an ability to create fiction that is as readable and accessible as it is award-laden. So the story goes.

However, I’m going to have to admit something now – this is the first Winton book that I actually finished. I have started two others (including his most popular book, ‘Cloudstreet‘), but somehow never finished them; although I have no doubt that this says more about my philistinism than Winton’s ability. What has happened in the past is that I have started them, and certainly enjoyed the evocative writing and characters (although I find the style a little heavy going sometimes). But then I put the book down for a few days, and when I pick it up again it just all goes incomprehensible. For some reason I can’t remember anything I have previously read; it all makes no sense and after half and hour or so of hopelessly flicking back and forth trying to get back into it, I give up.

I picked up his latest, Eyrie, in the hope I would be third time lucky. I also vowed not to put it down for too long, in case the mysterious Winton amnesia might strike again. As it happened, I had little difficulty sustaining my momentum to the end of the novel – it’s oddly gripping, and had me turning the pages.

It is the story of Tom Keely; a former high-flying environmental campaigner now unemployed, divorced and down on his luck, scraping along and living in the seedy Mirador apartments. He drinks, battles hangovers, takes too many pills and tries to be invisible. However, when a long-forgotten childhood acquaintance, Jemma Buck, moves into the apartment just down the hallway together with her strangely intense young grandson, he gets drawn into their world, battling to help them, help himself and keep his fractured life from disintegrating completely.

Eyrie is a slightly strange and unsettling novel; we see the world through Tom’s eyes as he battles to make sense of the world around him, his hold on reality sometimes seeming to stretch thin. There are also flashes of black humour and beautifully observed characterisation. The ending is satisfactorily ambiguous, with many loose ends left floating.

It’s not a novel everyone is going to enjoy, and it’s a book that needs a degree of concentration and focus to read. However, I did enjoy it – and I also felt a slight frisson of satisfaction when I finally reached the end of a Tim Winton novel…

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

December 31, 2014 at 19:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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lightoceiansNot since I read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ do I remember being so enthralled and emotionally engaged with a novel as with M.L. Stedman’s ‘The Light Between Oceans’. The former book I read in a single sitting on a long train ride in Thailand, and likewise I read ‘The Light Between Oceans’ from start to finish on a plane journey from New Zealand. Indeed, I didn’t quite finish it, even when reading it in the taxi on the way back to the house, so rather than going in to greet my family after my trip away, I sat on the grass verge outside to read the last few pages first.

When I then did go in, I think my two little girls were bit taken aback with the emotional welcome I gave them, fueled as it was by this extraordinary tale, set in post WW1 Australia. It concerns war veteran turned lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, who lives with his wife, Isabel, on an isolated rock miles from the mainland. They struggle to have children, and when a boat washes ashore containing a dead man and a tiny crying baby Isabel thinks her prayers have been answered. However, the ramifications of the decision Tom and Isabel make that night reverberate through the following years as events become more and more entangled and desperate as the child’s true provenance emerges.

I highly recommend this book – you should read it.

Fractured – Dani Atkins

August 13, 2014 at 20:37 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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fractured atkinsThis was a cheap purchase for my kindle that I bought before a plane journey, along with some other books. I bought it without really looking to see what it was about, except that it seemed to have mostly good reviews, and was going for a song on the ‘daily deal’.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s a gawky, two-dimensional romance based on the could-have-been-intriguing-but-actually-rather-clunky  premise of waking up from an accident in a world at once very familiar but also changed.

The revealing of that plot device happens early on in the novel, and is probably the best bit. After that, it all goes downhill rather quickly, with stodgy prose and unsympathetic characters. I suppose you could try and analyse this book as some sort of exploration of the pragmatic reality of our life choices set against the unfulfilled dreams we set aside, but that’s a bit of a stretch (rather like arguing a Mills and Boon romance is some sort of commentary on the passions of the human condition).  Unfortunately the ending is very disappointing, and of the ‘and then I woke up’ variety.

Hey ho. Clearly a lot of people have enjoyed this book, and that’s fantastic for them and for Dani Atkins. It just didn’t do anything for me.

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