Podcath part III: sci-fi audio drama edition

Radio drama is making a big comeback in the form of podcasts, with plenty of high quality science fiction to choose from. Here are some of my favourites.

I’ve been a science fiction fan since I first read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids as a kid. I quickly graduated to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (I’m proudly sporting a “Vote Zaphod Beeblebrox 2016” t-shirt as I write this), Red Dwarf, and countless other books, TV shows, and films – some of them great, some of them terrible, some of them (my favourites, if I’m honest) somehow managing to be both.

I’ve also been a podcast fan for many years. Ironically, however, given the origins of my beloved Hitchhiker series as a radio programme, I’d never combined the two interests until very recently; my phone’s playlist was full of documentary series. But then CBC Vancouver ran a story on a locally made paranormal mockumentary podcast, The Black Tapes (The X-Files meets Serial), and I suddenly found myself in a whole new world of audio drama – and discovered some phenomenal new science fiction.

The podcast format is ideal for old-time radio drama-style productions, which are making a big comeback. There seem to be new shows launching every week, and unfortunately many of them just don’t work – even when the story’s decent the characters’ voices sometimes all sound too similar, the actors haven’t rehearsed properly and are obviously reading from a script, or it’s not clear what’s going on in the big action sequences (apart from an awful lot of banging and shouting, usually). But when it’s done well, it’s a truly immersive experience and a wonderful way to enjoy some quality sci-fi while you commute, exercise, or plot galactic domination at the head of an army of evil robots.

My all-time favourite sci-fi podcast has to be Sayer (miraculously resurrected recently for a fourth season). The story of a colony established by a private company on an artificial moon is told almost entirely in one voice, that of the eponymous AI entity who runs the operation. The first few episodes focused largely on a single new member of the colony, and were fairly light in tone. However, the series got darker, more thoughtful (downright philosophical at times), and a lot more intricate as it went on to explore the origins and likely fate of the colony, and I was completely absorbed by the extremely clever use of sound and music (I almost missed my bus stop several times). They even managed to pull off an extremely satisfying ending to the original three-season arc, which is all too rare for a much beloved series. Very cleverly done, and highly recommended. I shall be listening to the whole thing all over again in anticipation of the new episodes.

Back on Earth, The Bright Sessions is also excellent. Imagine if Professor X ran a psychiatry practice instead of a school for gifted youngsters, and you’ve got the premise – Dr. Bright specializes in counselling young people with extraordinary powers, including time travel and telepathy. The early episodes each comprise a single session with seemingly unconnected patients, but as the story progresses the dots begin to connect into a larger conspiracy.

To The Manor Borne (By Robots) rounds out my top three. This utterly charming podcast consists of stand-alone stories, as told to placate a Beast, Destroyer of Worlds. The episodes are held together by an ongoing swashbuckling, time-travelling, body-swapping tale about the quest for the Beast’s origins and the means to its downfall. It’s enormously good fun, and I only wish the episodes came out more frequently.

I also enjoy ars PARADOXICA (time travel shenanigans), Limetown, (mockumentary about a mysterious town and its scientific shenanigans)and The Message (another mockumentary – the format works well on audio podcasts – about scientists figuring out a mysterious signal)Away from the strictly sci-fi genre, I highly recommend Greater Boston (if you like Wes Anderson movies, you will like this), Hello from the Magic Tavern (silly), The Lift (spooky), The Magnus Archive (creepy), and Uncanny County (quirky). If you’re still looking for more radio drama content, there’s a good list of paranormal and sci-fi podcasts on Reddit, and you can find additional shows on Twitter via the #audiodramasunday hashtag.

Whole new worlds are waiting for you on your phone!

Posted in fiction, reviews, silliness, technology, why I love the internet | Leave a comment

Brits! You can buy my book now

“Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide” is out NOW in the UK. It’s also available for pre-order everywhere else, and will be released on March 14th in the USA and on March 20th in Canada and elsewhere. Links to all major vendors are available here – or ask your friendly local independent bookstore!

I’ve also set up a Goodreads profile, because I am a proper author now, you know*. Add/follow me/my book!

I received my advance copies on Tuesday, and everything looks fab. It is so cool to actually hold it in my hands after all that work over the last couple of years!

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The books I write seem to keep getting smaller (but more interesting)

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I had to break it to Saba that she’s not in the book because she’s the wrong kind of cat

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You’ll be glad (?) to hear that some of my cheesy puns survived the editing process

This has all been very exciting! I hope you like the book 🙂

*I colleague asked me last week where she could buy the book; I said “Amazon”. “REALLY?!” she replied, somewhat incredulously. I said “Yes! It’s, like, a real book!”

Another colleague then ordered the book while sitting next to me at a symposium. He let me click the “place order” button. I am so cheesy.

Posted in furry friends, photos, publishing, writing | Leave a comment

Last Saturday:

 

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Photo taken outside the Trump building. I borrowed the sign from a lovely group of people I met at the march

Up next: March for Science (the Vancouver chapter)

What I learned from protesting against Harper and his war on science:

  • Take care of yourself and each other, first and foremost
  • Pace yourself
  • Pick your battles
  • Don’t burn out

Hugs and solidarity to you all!

p.s. Canadians, there’s a petition you can sign “calling on Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Hussen to immediately rescind the “Safe Third Country Agreement”, and that immediate steps be taken to allow special consideration of humanitarian and compassionate reasons for entry to Canada as enabled by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.” Asylum seekers facing deportation from the US back to dangerous situations in their home countries would currently be automatically rejected if they seek asylum in Canada, as they’re supposed to make their claim in the first safe country they reach. The US is still designated as a safe country. The petition isn’t about automatically accepting all asylum claimants coming from the States – it’s about not automatically rejecting them. I think they should be given the chance to state their case and make a claim. I’d already written to my MP about this issue so I know it’s on some of our representatives’ radar already, and hopefully the petition will help to bump it up the priority list.

Posted in activism, Canada, current affairs, feminism, personal, photos, politics, science, the resistance | 2 Comments

I WROTE A BOOK!

This excuses my long absence from this and other blogs, right?

And I’m so excited that the cover and the publisher’s page have been finalized so that I can tell you about it at long last!

I was approached last year by a commissioning editor from Icon Books, who publish the illustrated Graphic Guides series. My editor (and may I tell you how cool it is to use those words?) was looking for someone to write the text of a new Introducing Epigenetics entry in the series, and found me via my articles for The Guardian (so, many thanks are due to Jenny, Richard, and Stephen for setting that whole thing up!). I wrote the text last summer, did a major round of edits over Christmas and New Year, and am now waiting to see the illustrations that my very talented co-author Oliver Pugh is currently working on! The book’s coming out on February 2nd in the UK, and on March 14th in Canada, Australia, and the US. Details for other countries TBC.

The process was tough – it took up 100% of my evenings and weekends for several months, and I had to pass on lots of really fun invitations – but really fun. Due partly to needing a break after the two writing/editing sprints and partly to a ridiculous 6 month cluster of grant deadlines at work, I’ve taken a break from writing anything of substance since the edits were finished in early January (which you may have noticed). However, I’m looking forward to getting back into writing Guardian and other blog posts when I get back from my August and September travels (a holiday followed by being on the organizing committee of two conferences in, what else, epigenetics). I have a list of ideas, from my experiences volunteering at the last federal election to book reviews and more. I just need to get back into the groove!

I wrote a book, you guys! Properly, this time! Yay!

Posted in blog buddies, personal, publishing, science, writing | 7 Comments

Voting didn’t feel like enough this time

There’s a federal election in Canada tomorrow. I’ve always been very interested in politics, but this time around I feel more invested than ever before. Specifically, I want Harper out, with extreme prejudice. (If you don’t follow Canadian politics and aren’t sure what a politician could do to inspire such hatred, this recent Guardian article is a great place to start).

Things are scarily close, though, and there’s a very real danger that the centre and left could split the vote again (Harper got a majority government last time with 39% of the popular vote on a 60% voter turn-out – i.e. less than a quarter of eligible voters chose his party. Hopefully we’ll end up with a government that wants to explore electoral reform). I’m nervous and antsy, and have been so throughout this entire (longest ever) election campaign.

I always knew I was going to vote for the New Democratic Party (NDP). I overlap with them, the Liberals, and the Greens on various issues, but the NDP are the best overall match to my values (as depicted by my answers to this year’s Vote Compass survey).

In addition, my local candidate Don Davies is a good guy and a great local representative – very responsive and hard-working. If I lived in another riding I would be seriously thinking about voting strategically to block the Tories, but luckily I don’t have to do that in Vancouver Kingsway, where the Liberals have come in third in the last couple of elections. Yay for getting to vote the way I want to, even in an outdated first-pass-the-post system!

So, my vote was already secure (in fact I’ve already voted for Don, in the advance polls last weekend). But this time, voting didn’t seem like enough. Yelling at my TV during every Harper commercial and ranting on social media (sorry, non-Canadian Facebook friends) didn’t seem like enough either. I don’t just want Harper out, I want to help make it happen. So I’ve put my money, my time, and my vacation days where my mouth is:

  • I helped set up, serve hot dogs, and clean up at Don’s campaign launch BBQ back in August, giving myself a mild case of heat stroke in the process (I shouldn’t have cycled there and back – I’d have been OK if I’d taken the bus! It was a crazy hot summer this year).
  • I ordered a honking great sign for our front yard. I hadn’t done this for a federal campaign before, but I displayed my first ever political yard sign during the municipal elections last year, when I felt bad for being too busy to volunteer with Vision Vancouver as I had the time before. It already feels like a normal thing to do!
  • I attended Tom Mulcair’s first rally in Vancouver in August. It was my first ever political rally and I had no idea what to expect! There seemed to be a lot of regulars there who all knew each other, but I found some people to talk to. (One of them was a very new citizen and seemed a bit confused – she asked me if Green party leader Elizabeth May would be speaking! Sadly, she didn’t show – I don’t vote Green, but I love May. She’s awesome). The introductory speakers (two new local candidates and one of Mulcair’s sisters) were good, but I thought Mulcair himself was playing it a bit too safe. The NDP were leading the polls at the time and he seemed overly cautious, at least to me. I wanted to see Angry Tom! Still an interesting experience though. I didn’t go to the next two Vancouver rallies, although I would have gone yesterday if I wasn’t still recovering from a cold – instead I went for my election day training then straight home to lie on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of lemon tea.
  • I donated money to the local and national NDP campaigns – not very much at all in the grand scheme of things, but better than nothing.
  • I took part in one of several “transit blitzes”, handing out fliers about NDP transit strategy outside a SkyTrain station one evening.
  • I went out door-to-door canvassing one fine sunny afternoon. Not so much trying to convince people to vote for Don (although we did a bit of that too) – more just asking people who they were planning to vote for so HQ could update their records and plan more targeted door-to-door campaigns. I was pretty nervous at the beginning, but it was actually really fun! They put three of us newbies with Vision Vancouver’s Nikki Sharma, who is super nice and has a ton of campaign experience. Everyone we met was very polite, even the people who said “definitely voting Conservative” (I imagine it’s a different story in other parts of the world!), and as an added bonus we got to have a wee nosy at lots of people’s homes and gardens, which I thoroughly enjoyed. If I wasn’t in the middle of an unprecedentedly ridiculous grant deadline cluster (13 grants in 3 months) I would have done more of this!
  • I went to the all candidates debate for my riding – another first for me! I went with a friend who was on the fence between NDP and Green, but who left leaning towards the NDP. Don was the best candidate by far – very personable and polished (experience pays), spoke without notes, answered the questions asked. The Green candidate was nice but waffly and vague, while the Liberal candidate read pre-prepared answers from notes, even if they didn’t really address the questions asked. (It was fairly clear from the first question onwards that the Liberals and Greens aren’t running their strongest candidates in Vancouver Kingsway, no doubt choosing to focus their efforts and resources in more winnable ridings). The Libertarian candidate was atrocious – short, vague, non-answers – and the Marxist-Leninist representative was all over the place. The Communist Party candidate, Kimball Cariou, was unexpectedly awesome though! He holds the Canadian record for the most consecutive unsuccessful federal election campaigns (this is his 12th, all in the same riding) and while some of the things he said were quite outrageously radical, he was very genuine and passionate. I submitted a question about how the candidates’ parties will reintegrate science and evidence into policy decisions when the Harper era ends, and Cariou’s answer was definitely the most vehemently anti-Harper, so points for that. (The NDP and Green reps also gave good answers. The Liberal candidate read something about healthcare from his notes. The other two seemed entirely baffled).
    You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Conservative candidate. That’s because he didn’t show up. Apparently he hasn’t shown up to a single event, including the ones organized by local high schools for their students. Apparently this is a nation-wide phenomenon – orders from the top, doncha know.
  • I’m burning a vacation day to volunteer all day tomorrow. I’m an outside scrutineer and a count scrutineer, which will involve spending the day going to known supporters’ addresses to encourage them to get out and vote, and then observing the count at one of the many polling stations in the riding to make sure there are no shenanigans. I’ll be on the go from 8 am until whenever the count finishes (polls close at 7pm), and then heading downtown for the Vancouver NDP results party, which hopefully will be very celebratory!

If Harper retains power I will no doubt feel like I should have done more. Hopefully it won’t come to that. I’d obviously prefer Mulcair over Liberal leader Trudeau, but if Trudeau’s our prime minister on Tuesday morning it will be such an improvement over Harper that it’ll be hard to feel too disappointed about it! Especially if he’s heading a minority government with support from the NDP and Greens (a reasonably likely outcome), so that we can finally start to see some compromise and co-operativity in our government.

We can dream, eh?

Fingers and toes all crossed for tomorrow! ABC!

Posted in Canada, politics, science | 4 Comments

Book reviews!

An inner monologue, recently: “oh! I have a blog! I should write something. But the most exciting thing that happened this year isn’t really bloggable yet; the second-most exciting thing was the wedding in England of a very dear friend who would not want her wedding photos posted on the internet, and also that seems too long ago to write about now; and most of the other things that happened this year involve grants, and no-one wants to hear about that even though I did set a new department record by submitting six grants in the same week this week.

I have read quite a lot of books, though. Maybe I’ll blog some book reviews”.

(Yes, my inner monologues contain semi-colons).

So, here you go! In no particular order, but now with ratings 🙂

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. 10/10

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I started it during my aforementioned trip to England, and could barely put it down. At one point I took it out of my bag to read during lunch in the café in the British Museum, and an hour and a half later had to remind myself that I was surrounded by some of the most interesting objects in the world and could read the book some other time. It was a tough call though.

The eponymous Harry is born in the North of England between the two world wars, grows up poor, survives WWII, grows old, and dies… and then is born again. Same body, same time, same place, same life. And then again. And again. In his early lives Harry struggles to understand, seeking out answers in all the countries and religions of the world. In later lives, he learns to exploit the situation and meets some fellow travellers, called Ourobourans.

It’s ever so cleverly done: Groundhog Day meets The Time Traveller’s Wife, but better than both – whole lifetimes repeated instead of a single day, and concerning broad swathes of human history instead of one couple’s love story. The meat of the story concerns Harry’s attempts to prevent a fellow Ourobouran from destroying the world, but the real joy of the book lies in how cleverly North has worked out the logistics of how this kind of existence would actually work. For example, one device is that Ourobourans can pass messages forwards and backwards in time. A young child visits a dying elder, giving them a message from the child’s future that the elder can take back to the year of their own rebirth, so that they can find a dying elder during the childhood of their next life and send the message back even further. “At last, something new to talk about!”, exclaims one such dying elder when he first receives the message of the end of the world.

I’ve just started North’s new book, Touch, which I’m really enjoying so far. Again, the logistics of having a rare kind of gift are explored in a delightfully clever way.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. 7.5/10

I think I’d have enjoyed this new book by the author of Cloud Atlas more if I hadn’t read it immediately after Harry August. It contains a similar theme of a small community of people who live multiple lives, except that they’re reborn as different people in different places and times with each new life, but just wasn’t as satisfying.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, with its initial hints that something is not as it seems followed by a gradual unfolding of the nature of the mystery, and I also liked the final section, set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. However, the penultimate section spoiled the overall experience for me. There was a very sudden and jarring change of pace, with lots of breathless action interspersed with some long information dumps explaining what was happening. I enjoyed the slower, more gradual revelations of the earlier chapters a lot more. It was as if Mitchell suddenly realized “crap, I’d better explain some of this stuff before I can wrap up the rest of the story” and then just sort of rushed through it. Great characters, good story, and some superb writing – shame about that one section though.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. 7/10

OK so I’m a bit dim sometimes. This was a book club pick, and I read more than half of it thinking it was a novel rather than an autobiography. I only realized my mistake after I complained to a friend that it was a bit disjointed and didn’t really flow logically! Needless to say, I liked it better after the reason for that became clear (and after I read the part describing the drive back from Mexico, which was hilarious). There were still some unsatisfying parts – really, you lived in a junkyard with a bunch of feral kids for a few months and barely even mentioned it in passing? – but I did enjoy it, and I’ve bought the next installment (but haven’t read it yet).

The funniest part was at the book club meeting in Beth’s apartment. Each of the “book club discussion points” that Beth found on the internet could have been a PhD thesis. One of them was something like “to what extent do issues of race, gender, and class intersect in this book, and in that time period in American history in general?” We laughed and laughed as Beth read down the list. We’re not a very serious book club.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker. 7.5/10

A re-telling of the Pride and Prejudice story, but from the point of view of the Bennett family’s servants. The original story is seen in glimpses – oh, Mr. Collins has arrived! ooh, here comes Mr. Darcy to propose for the first time! – but the real action takes place downstairs, where the staff are scrubbing Miss Elizabeth’s muddy petticoats and conducting romances of their own. Light and frothy (except for the chapters set in the war that Mr. Wickham et al. were supposed to be preparing for), and very enjoyable except for the less than kind take on Mr. Bennett (oh, Mr. Bennett, how could you?!).

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. 5/10

Weird book. A friend of mine recommended it very enthusiastically when she was about halfway through, but her tone seemed to have changed when she’d finished reading it and asked me if I was enjoying it. I was about halfway through it myself at that point and said that yes I was, very much – but then it all went wrong.

The first half is lots of fun, with a really interesting structure, but then it just gets sort of messy and frustrating (and preachy. Very preachy). The topic is animal experimentation, and the flip side point of view that “the lab in question has done great work on Parkinson’s – these are not easy questions” is barely mentioned in passing. I ended up more annoyed than anything. The friend who recommended it agrees, and we both learned a valuable lesson about being sure to read the whole book before recommending anything to others!

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. 3.5/10

I avoided all the media hoopla about this book in an attempt to avoid spoilers. I was aware that there was some controversy over whether the book should have been published, but didn’t know any of the details. I ended up wishing that I’d paid more attention so I could have avoided reading this (and thus spared my book club from reading it, too – this was my most recent pick. Sorry, ladies). There were some good elements, but the pacing and voice were all over the place. The editor who said, “I’m not going to publish this, but you can obviously write and hey that back story sounds pretty interesting” made the right call.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. 8/10

I was slightly dubious about this book club pick, wondering how interesting the fictionalized version of the invention of the theremin could really be. But it was actually a very good read! The inventor himself, Lev Termen, didn’t exactly make for the most charismatic and engaging character in literary history, but the book’s very well and smoothly written and the settings and story are very interesting, especially after Termen returns to the USSR. Definitely recommended.

How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. 8/10

This is a riot! A working class British teenager reinvents herself as hard drinking, hard partying music critic Dolly Wild and goes off on a hilarious crazy sex-fueled adventure – until it all goes horribly wrong. The only thing that spoiled it was that the author seemed to suddenly try to wring some kind of serious message out of it at the very last possible moment, when it might have worked better as pure frothy fun.

Posted in book review | 8 Comments

Missed opportunity

From my Facebook feed:

Beehemoth

It should totally be called a beehemoth! Whoever first called it a wasp moth sucks!

Posted in freakishness, nature, photos, silliness | Comments Off on Missed opportunity

Conspiracy deathmatch

I realized recently that, in the best tradition of fighting fire with fire, it’s possible to counter some conspiracy theories by invoking other conspiracy theories. The best two examples I’ve come up with so far are as follows:

  • The anti-vaccination movement is just an Illuminati plot to thin the ranks of the masses via the resurgence of preventable disease! The same is probably also true of the persistent cancer-hoax myth that encourages people to forego conventional treatment. Don’t let the Illuminati win – vaccinate, sheeple!
  • Of course the moon landing was real! NASA got there by secretly translating and implementing the wisdom left to us by ancient aliens in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics, duh. All attempts to convince people that the moon landing was faked are actually designed to prevent us from learning the truth about these mysterious beings and their other technological gifts to us, which are currently being kept from the public by NASA and other government agencies.

These are the best matches I could come up with, but there must be other effective pairings out there too. Add yours in the comments!

Posted in medicine, pseudoscience, quacks, science, silliness, technology | 2 Comments

Book review bundle

I was inspired to start this post by Beth‘s 2014 book list, and to finish it by Stephen‘s – although my list spans 20 months rather than 12! Bad blogger.

Beth also invited me to join a newly-formed book club a few months ago, which is a first for me. I was ambivalent at first, thinking that I don’t seem to get around to reading the books I’ve chosen myself let alone the ones other people select for me, but I’ve enjoyed the two meetings I’ve managed to get to so far and I’m hosting the next one in a couple of weeks. Yay, new friends! Who like books! And wine!

Fiction

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. This was the first book selected for the new book club; we decided that a short kids’ book would be an ideal way to get us into the swing of things. It’s a pretty simple story of a friendship between a young boy and a young girl, in a rural part of the US where the two friends’ love of books and the world of the imagination marks them as outsiders. It’s very well written, and the ending made me literally cry (damn PMS! That’s my excuse, anyway). Several months later I’m still angry at basically all the adults in the book, except one teacher.

We Need New Names: A Novel, by NoViolet Bulawayo. Also a book club selection – my choice, as I’m hosting the next event. My sister got me this book for Christmas last year and I hadn’t got around to reading it yet, so it seemed like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone! The novel falls into two halves: the narrator’s life in an impoverished part of Zimbabwe, stealing mangoes and playing games with her friends, and then her life after moving to Detroit to live with her Aunt. I enjoyed reading the book, especially the first half with all its colour and life, but I felt like it didn’t really have a strong storyline and then it just ended abruptly, seemingly mid-chapter (Beth and I both wondered if we’d accidentally read a misprinted copy with the last few pages missing, but apparently not). Thinking about it more, the main character was at something of a crossroads at the time the book ended, finding herself with deep connections to two countries but belonging to neither (an accurate reflection of the immigrant’s experience, I think), and facing an imminent decision about her future education, so maybe the indecision and ambivalence are the whole point. If not, then I’m not sure what is…

Burial Rites: A Novel, by Hannah Kent. Also a gift from my sister, who consistently has very good taste! I absolutely loved this book, which transported me to the unfamiliar world of 19th century Iceland. An accused murderess is sent to live with a local family while she awaits trial and sentencing. She’s shunned at first, before her hard work gradually encourages the family and the wider community to begin to accept her. Parts of her story gradually start to come out as the community prepares and then hunkers down for the long, cold, dark winter – although no-one hears the full story until the very end. Beautifully written, with an absorbing story – definitely my favourite of the books on this list. 

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. I loved Boyden’s first two books, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, so I was excited to read his new novel. The Orenda is set during the years when the first French missionaries were beginning to contact Canadian First Nations people, and uses a rotation of three narrators (a Huron leader and his adopted daughter, and a French missionary) to tell the story of the ongoing wars between different First Nations groups, the toll of the diseases brought by the newcomers, and the growing influence of the French. This book is not for the squeamish, as it features a lot of bloodshed, torture, and sexual violence (the first two described in graphic detail, the latter left more vague); I have a pretty strong stomach for fictional violence, and I found the torture scenes in particular to be a bit too much. This is probably why I kept putting the book down for a few weeks at a time, before the strength of the narrative drew me back. Overall I didn’t find the characters or the book as a whole to be as compelling as Boyden’s previous novels, but it’s very well written and again brings a very different voice and perspective to those I’m used to reading.

Cloud Atlasby David Mitchell. I decided to read the book after being delightfully confused by the film, which I had to watch twice to (kinda) figure out what was going on. The book stays on one story for much longer at a time than the film does; as a result it makes much more sense, and adds a lot more context, especially to Sonmi’s story. The connections between the stories from different time periods also seem clearer now; I think the use of the same actors to play multiple roles in the film version set me off on the wrong foot in a couple of instances. I enjoyed both versions very much, but the book more, and I do now see why people who read the book first weren’t very happy with the adaptation. I’m very much looking forward to reading Mitchell’s other books now!

The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak. I didn’t love this book, which I know is a minority opinion. The story of a young Jewish man hiding in the Munich house of his father’s WWI buddy during the Nazi years, and of the young girl of the house who befriends him, was fine; it was well written; I loved the characters, especially the little girl’s father; and I really did enjoy the device of having Death as the narrator – but the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts. A large part of the problem was that too much was given away too early – a little foreshadowing’s one thing, but outright telling you “this character will die soon, you know” is another – so there was zero sense of tension and anticipation. Disappointing.

Accordion Crimesby E. Annie Proulx. Recommended by Henry, for which thanks! I really enjoyed the structure of this book, which follows the lives of the various owners of an accordion as it passes from its Italian immigrant maker to a series of people of all races and cultures all over the US. The last Annie Proulx book I read, Postcardswas unrelentingly depressing, and Accordion Crimes has some similar elements of people falling on hard times, but at least there’s a reset in the misery levels every time a new owner’s story begins, and the quality of the writing more than makes up for the sadness. Definitely one of my top picks from this list.

The Windup Girlby Paolo Bacigalupi. I have very mixed feelings about this book. On one hand it’s an incredibly visual novel, describing a fully-formed future world into which you’re suddenly dropped with no explanation for how things have come to be the way they are; you infer the story of genetic engineering gone wrong, food crop pestilence, and mass starvation gradually as the story progresses, which is the way I like it. On the other hand the thinly-veiled anti-GMO message is too preachy at times, there are vanishingly few sympathetic characters, and the sexual violence scenes were gut churning (although thankfully brief). Apparently there may be some sequels coming out, and I really don’t know yet whether I’ll bother reading them or not.

Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish – A Novel by, David Rakoff. I saw Rakoff perform at the This American Life live broadcast I mentioned a while ago; he was talking about how he’d lost the use of one arm due to cancer treatment. He sadly did not survive the cancer, and although I’d heard of him before the live show, I didn’t truly appreciate how good a writer he was until after he died and TAL, Wiretap, and other podcasts I listen to started to air their tribute episodes. Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die was published posthumously. It’s a short novel told entirely in rhyming couplets, and while it’s very clever indeed (my favourite rhyme was seance / crayons), it’s probably not the best introduction to Rakoff’s work. It made me smile, I admired the cleverness, but overall it felt like eating too much junk food – filling, but not entirely satisfying. Still worth a read for those who appreciate unusual structure and clever wordplay though!

The Selectby F. Paul Wilson. This is the best by miles of the StoryBundle* books I’ve read so far, and the only one I’d consider reading again. The plot features a female student who wins a scholarship to an extremely selective private medical school, where there’s much more going on than meets the eye in both the instruction and the research spheres. None of the big twists are all that earth shatteringly surprising, but it doesn’t really matter because everything else is so well done, and I found myself racing to the end to find out how it would all end.

The Hour Before Darkby Douglas Clegg. Also from StoryBundle, a decent enough supernatural/horror thriller. Not my usual genre, but I found this book to be sufficiently creepy and well-executed to keep me reading. It’s a little predictable, but entertaining.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boyby Helen Fielding. I absolutely loved the first two books, which made me literally laugh out loud in public several times. I downloaded and read this third instalment one sleepless night at my mother-in-law’s this summer, when I wasn’t feeling well, hoping that the lighthearted humour would cheer me up. Unfortunately, large parts of the book were actually heartbreakingly sad – Bridget is now widowed with two young children – and the humour that was present just felt repetitive and out of place in the new context. I’m still glad I read it – it felt like catching up with an old friend – but it wasn’t funny. My brother-in-law walking buck naked into the kitchen where I was reading at 2am, on the other hand, was hilarious, after we’d both got over the surprise of seeing each other there!

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governorby Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. Look, we all have our moments of weakness, OK? I was on a long flight home, I’d finished my own book,  Mr E Man had picked this up in the airport on our flight out, and it was right there. (It was surprisingly entertaining actually, although I will not be rushing out to buy the sequels).

Non-Fiction

A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. Our second book club selection was this memoir written by Canadian journalist Lindhout, who along with an Australian colleague was held hostage for more than a year in Somalia. She was treated horribly by her captors – beaten, isolated, sexually assaulted – and it made for harrowing reading. Lindhout came across as pretty naive, and we all agreed that something about her narrative didn’t seem to quite gel; I’d be interested to read the book her colleague wrote, as apparently his version is quite different from hers and the two of them are no longer in contact. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book, as the stress of reading it isn’t quite balanced out by any strongly positive features.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. Now this is a gem. I laughed so hard throughout the descriptions of how human cadavers are used in various flavours of research that it didn’t seem quite decent. The only part I didn’t find hilarious involved in-depth descriptions of plane crashes, which I do not recommend reading while you’re on a plane as I did. The rest of the book was brilliant though. As soon as I’d finished I immediately downloaded all of Roach’s other books and am currently halfway through Bonk. I also looked into local cadaver donation options and have received (but not yet completed) some paperwork from UBC. I do plan to go ahead though, if Mr E Man agrees. Now that’s what I call a book with an impact!

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New Yorkby Deborah Blum. I’d heard great things about this book, which tells the story of how one man revolutionized New York’s approach to forensic toxicology and thereby set the standard for the rest of the world. Stories about individual poisoning cases are interwoven with chapters about forensic method development and the politics of policing and prohibition. It’s well done, but reading it immediately after Stiff made it feel somewhat flat. I also hadn’t realized how much of the book is about prohibition, a very US-specific obsession that has never particularly interested me.

Half Emptyby David Rakoff. This collection of personal essays is a much better introduction to Rakoff’s dry wit than the rhyming couplets novel reviewed above. The book inspires more wry smiles than actual chuckles, but it’s very amusing and has more substance to it than the clever rhymes do. It really made me wish I’d read more of his work while he was still alive.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I guess this is non-fiction? The book version of one of my favourite blogs of all time comprises a mix of new stories and stories already told on the blog. I wanted to love it, but unfortunately the old stories are the best entries, and the new ones aren’t as good. You should read the blog instead. All of it. The stories are a better fit for that medium, and I’ve never laughed more at a website.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition, by the Project Management Institute. Not recommended.

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I usually end my book review posts with a request for new book recommendations, but I’m currently swamped with unread books and un-acted-upon recommendations! So don’t you dare suggest any new titles to me. Unless they’re really good or something.

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*StoryBundle is the site I’ve mentioned before that sells monthly selections of books by independent authors, all on the same theme or from the same genre; members can pay whatever they think the books are worth, and can split the profits between the authors and the site however they wish. As you’d expect the results are a mixed bag; I’ve bought two bundles and only read two books all the way through, if you don’t count the several extremely short stories written by primary school children (I’m sure it was a thrill for the kids, their families, and the school to see the stories published and sold, but there is no thrill involved in reading stories written by young children to whom you have no connection!). The rest were so bad I couldn’t get through the first few pages. There haven’t been any bundles that interest me for a while, but I’ll probably buy another selection at some point.

Posted in blog buddies, book review, movie review, personal, science | 9 Comments

Hogma-Nay.

When I still lived in the UK, New Year’s Eve was always a really big deal for my friends and me. We usually went up to Edinburgh for the huge Hogmanay street party, which involved being out on Princes Street from about 10pm until 4am, pushing our way through massive crowds, drinking cheap wine from plastic pop bottles, kissing random men in kilts, walking the several miles back to our friend’s Dad’s flat, then sleeping like sardines on the floor. We spent the 1999-2000 celebration in similar style on Newcastle’s Quayside, and also spent a very cold and snowy night at Glasgow’s street party one year. It was always loud, rowdy, and tons of fun.

I went back to the UK for Christmas and New Year the year that I moved to Canada, but stayed on this side of the pond the following year. My Dutch friend and I, plus our Canadian then-boyfriends-now-husbands, had the genius idea of trying to recreate the European street party experience by heading to Whistler, which we’d heard was the place to be for New Year’s Eve. Sadly, however, we were misinformed.

The actual street party element of the Whistler Hogmanay experience lasts for approximately 20 minutes either side of midnight. Before and after the big countdown, everyone’s inside at various bar parties and the snowy streets are almost deserted. This was particularly disappointing for us because the party we’d chosen was the saddest New Year’s Eve party of all time.

We should have known something was up when we could actually get tickets that didn’t cost $200 each; I think ours were more like $30. It looked OK though – cozy, intimate – when we first arrived and grabbed a table right by the as-yet empty stage. They were playing decent music, and serving decent beer – but then the couple on one side of us started to have a massive argument. Even the arrival of the singer didn’t stop them, and their relationship continued to unravel as the singer settled in with her acoustic guitar and started to sing country-pop ballads about her own breakups and other relationship disasters. She was actually pretty good, but her songs were kinda depressing – and apparently the couple on the other side of us agreed, as they commenced a very serious conversation about the state of their relationship that didn’t seem to be heading anywhere cheery.

The sad songs continued. The woman from the first couple left the room in floods of tears, and did not come back. Her apparently now ex-boyfriend looked like he was going to cry into his beer. Another sad song. The second couple had decided that their futures did not include each other, and were sitting pointedly not looking at each other, in silence. And then the singer announced, “oh, hey, someone just pointed out that it’s 12:04! Sorry, I missed the countdown. Oh well, happy New Year!”, before launching into the saddest song yet. We all burst out laughing, downed our complimentary glasses of sickly sweet cheap champagne, hugged and/or kissed each other, and headed out into the Village Square to witness the last few minutes of the street “party”. Back at our table a few moments later, we agreed that it was one to remember.

My subsequent Canadian Hogmanays have been much less depressing: a mix of bar parties and house parties with friends, happy music, and no more breakups. Lately, though, the downsides of the evening – the feeling of pressure to do something “cool”, the crowds, the ridiculous prices, the loooooooong wait in the cold for a taxi – have felt more pronounced. Last year we decided to do something different, and just invited a few friends over for dinner and board games, and you know what? It was really, really nice. I guess we’re getting old.

We were planning to do the same thing this year, but then we both came down with colds over Christmas. I’m starting to feel better but I’m still coughing and hacking, and Mr E Man is a couple of days behind me, so we ended up cancelling. The friends we’d invited have all had some health problems this year and we don’t want to get them sick, plus we’re just not really feeling up for a big night. We’ve stocked up on delicious food to cook, we have some good beer and a mini bottle of fizz that my boss gave me when I passed my PMP exam, and so we’ll be home tonight watching movies and playing cribbage and backgammon, like the old folks we apparently are. No sad songs, no drama, no crowds, no taxi queues, no hassle. I wouldn’t want to do that every year, but this year, it’s just perfect!

A very happy New Year to all of you, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing! I hope 2015 is good to you!

Posted in drunkenness, getting old, personal | 3 Comments