Thursday, November 30, 2023

Book of the Month: Shards of Earth

I'm just about scraping this book of the month review into this month. But I'm pleased with myself as I bought this book in Browsers Bookshop in Porthmadog during our  break in North Wales last week and have managed to read all 533 pages of it already.

This is the first big, fat science-fiction book I've read in several years. I used to read a few a year but since my reading animus unexpectedly evaporated during the pandemic I've barely touched any fiction. Getting thoroughly absorbed in this book felt like a slight reawakening.

I picked the book up because I recognised Adrian Tchaikovsky's name. I really enjoyed his book called Children of Time, which was a deep time epic charting the evolution of a sentient race of giant spiders after a terraforming experiment goes wrong. Among other things, it changed my feelings towards spiders. The follow up book, Children of Ruin, wasn't as good although this time it was octopuses evolving into a civilisation. I already liked octopuses, but there were a couple of other issues with the book as it wove in an alien life form that complicated the storyline. 

Shards of Earth is in a different future-verse. In this story, Earth has been destroyed by an entity called an Architect which turned the planet into an abstract sculpture. Thus began a war across known space between humans and their alien allies against the Architects who could appear without warning and destroy a planet, moon, asteroid, or anywhere else where humans were trying to live. 

The story focuses on an 'Int' (short for Intermediary) called Idris who is a human who underwent radical brain surgery to try and unlock psychic communication powers. Idris and his fellow Ints were able to eventually communicate with the Architects and ask them to stop killing humans - and they did, disappearing from the universe. 

And now it seems they are back, so it's up to Idris to save the human race again. He is helped on his quest by Solace, a genetically engineered warrior woman from the Parthenon sisterhood and the crew of the spaceship he had been working on as a deep space pilot. The story is well-paced, moving quickly across several interesting locations for fights, heists and daring escapes. 

This is the first book in a trilogy called The Final Architecture (which even has its own Wikipedia page already!). However, even though it's the first of three, the story does have a conclusion and could be read as a stand alone. I am keen to find out what happens next but this book doesn't end with all the crew in peril or anything really annoying like that. 

Tchaikovsky populates this universe with some interesting, and inscrutable, alien races. I like the way he leaves some of those races ineffable and hard to understand. In a weird way that felt realistic and kept the aliens alien. 

He also captures tensions between ordinary humans who both fear and need the genetically engineered humans of the Parthenon, and the Partheni who have become a bit isolated and don't really understand ordinary humans any more. The all-female soldier army is clearly based on the Amazons of old legends, although there was a touch of the Space Marines from the Warhammer universe alongside the female Martian soldier Bobbi, in The Expanse books. There is an interesting debate at one point over the ethics of genetic engineering that captured the nuance of what might be lost by smoothing out weaknesses in the human genome, but it's kept short and doesn't derail or overshadow the story.

Another race linked to humans are the machine intelligences known as Hivers. They were created by humans but subsequently gained their autonomy. They are formed of several tiny machines that aggregate to form disparate entities before reverting back into the general swarm of tiny robots. Conceptually, they were much more interesting than the average robot or android. I felt they were the best machine characters I've read about outside of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks. 

Amidst all the chaos and dread of the return of the Architects there are also some moments of warmth and humour. One line, delivered by a Hiver character was so acidly sarcastic it actually made me laugh out loud while reading it, while there were several other interchanges that made me smile. 

So, at some point, I will be getting book two in the series and hopefully it will hook me in to read it just as quickly. Keep an eye out for a future blog post review of it!

Monday, November 27, 2023

Wythnos yn yr Gogledd, Tachwedd 2023

We had another week in North Cymru as a result of a combo of a few days leave, two days off in lieu of a worked weekend, Cathy's birthday, the opportunity to go to a football match in Caernarfon, and the holiday flat we stayed in back in the summer being available (and very reasonable). Unlike my rather frenetic week off in October when we went to DisneyLand Paris which I followed up with an epic quest to Hartlepool, this was a proper relaxing, low voltage week away.

The weather was mixed but pretty good overall. We had a superb, crisp winter sunny day on Anglesey, when we got to visit one of our favourite beaches, Traeth Llanddwyn near Newborough. 

We also got ice cream and sorbet from Red Boat in Beaumaris. I had bara brith ice cream for the first time. It was delicious.

We had a day in Porthmadog, where I got to unexpectedly see a steam train in action. The railway has virtually closed down for the winter, but they had fired up the Double Fairlie to film an advert promoting Wales as a tourist destination. 

I saw Barry Town win with a late goal screamer at Caernarfon Town - and made my debut as a radio commentator for Bro Radio.

We had two trips to the cinema - one to see The Nightmare Before Christmas on its 30th anniversary re-release into cinemas. Cathy and I went to watch it together 28 years ago when it was on it's first UK release (18 months after it hit the screens in America). We also went to see The Marvels at the Galeri Arts Centre in Caernarfon - where the film started at the time advertised without having to sit through the gaudy tedium of multiple adverts. If I get a chance I will blog some thoughts about The Marvels, but to summarise, I'd suggest not bothering unless you have a good grasp of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although if you like cats you might find it very amusing in its own right. 

We didn't visit any castles this time, although we drove under the watchful gaze of the battlements in both Caernarfon and Conwy. We did find time for a museum though - the Storiel in Bangor. It had several small, contained permanent exhibits and an interesting small temporary exhibition of sleep through the ages. I liked the local angle, including Bangor City FC memorabilia and the chair that Thomas Telford used to sit in when he stayed in a local hotel overseeing construction of the Menai Bridge. 

We even got to drive home via Shrewsbury to see the folks, and chose to drive over the Llanberis Pass. As we topped the pass near the youth hostel, we drove into sunlight. The mountain sides fell away, with the steep valley snaking away to Beddgelert enlivened by sunlight and for a moment it made me catch my breath at how beautiful it looked. It was an emotionally uplifting way to end a lovely week. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Snack of the month: European chocolate adventures

Last month we went to Disneyland Paris and while we were in France I took the opportunity to try some chocolate bars I hadn't seen before. I've decided to review them here but the delay between me eating them and me reviewing them means the reviews might be quite short!

The chocolate bars were:

Nougatti by Cote d'Or

Snax by Cote d'Or


Joyfuel - chocolat au lait & cookie dough flavour

Nuts by Nestle

By far the best ones were the Cote d'Or bars as they has really nice chocolate on them. I'd eat the Nestle 'Nuts' bar again, but it wasn't as nice as the Cote d'Or bars. The Balisto was OK as something to try. The Joyfuel bar was one of those protein power bar things that are on trend over here and are basically the equivalent of energy drinks in the beverage aisle. A lot of promises and a weird inauthentic taste. I mainly bought it so I could send a picture to my niece, Joy.

And on to the more detailed reviews...

Composition-wise, the Nougatti bar was pretty much what you might expect - a soft nougat wrapped in chocolate. It had enough consistency to get slightly stuck on your teeth, as nougat is wont to do. 

The Snax came in two parts and from the wrapper I thought it might be peanut butter in a thick chocolate shell with peanuts embedded in it. 

Instead, the central core was a whipped nougat, like you'd find in a Mars Bar. There was crisped rice in the chocolate which gave an added crunch. It also came in two pieces, which makes it a good bar to share. I scoffed both pieces myself, though - and too quickly to take any pictures!

The Nuts bar was like a Mars Bar, complete with nougat and soft caramel, except for a line of hazelnuts down the middle of it. It was a good combo although the sweet flavour of the nuts couldn't compete with the sweetness of the nougat, caramel or chocolate. Generally I find Nestle chocolate overly sweet and this didn't dissuade me of my opinion. 

Balisto was two thin biscuits with an unmemorable fondant creme on top. Like I've already said they aren't a bar I'd bother eating again if there were other options. I ate my Balisto in the dark in DisneyLand and didn't attempt to take any photos. 

The Joyfuel bar had a weird composition. I couldn't taste the 'cookie dough' flavour and there didn't seem to be any bits in it that were meant to be cookie dough, although it was chewy. 

It probably goes well with a can of Monster or a bottle of Prime. I'd certainly class it in with the stuff that is more hype than flavour. 

But my niece Joy liked the photo I sent her, so it was worth it. 

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Football recap - October 2023

Continuing my account of this season (and freeing up space in my round up of the month for other things!)

Game 22: Cardiff Metropolitan University 2-1 Barry Town

Reason for going: An easy away trip for Barry. Although Cardiff Met is one of my least favourite away grounds to go to. The fan experience there is dismal and it feels like the club actively want to make it as dismal as possible. 

Point of interest: Barry's academy graduate, Callum Huggins, came on as a sub and scored Barry's goal with his first touch. It was his first senior goal.

I made a major error and didn't take any photos of this game so you all get to miss out on the dismal dismalness of a plastic pitch next to a massive sports hall in north Cardiff. 

Game 23: Cardiff Draconians 0-4 Swansea University

Reason for going: It was a beautiful sunny Saturday and this was one of the nearest games on. Plus I like going to watch the Dracs.

Point of interest: the players posed for a photo to show their commitment to 'give racism the red card' - if you look closely in the background you might be able to spot me!

I took a photo of the photoshoot as well.

Game 24: Barry Town 6-0 Porthcawl Town Athletic

Reason for going: This was a very late choice. I was working supporting a virtual conference that finished at 2pm - which was the kick off time for this Welsh Cup game. I decided as I logged off that I would see if I could get to at least the second half of the match. I actually made it in the ground about ten minutes before half time. I'd missed the first goal but I saw all 5 that were scored in the second half.

Point of interest: Callum Huggins came on as a sub and scored with his very first touch for the second game in a row! 

Game 25: Stockton Town 1-1 Dunston UTS

Reason for going: I was in the North East of England because my friend Tom was having a big birthday party and it felt like a good opportunity to see a completely random football match. Tom felt the same so off we went. 

Point of interest: This wasn't our first choice of game. A lot of matches were off because of Storm Babet. We stood in "The Shed" with the noisy Stockton fans who kept us entertained with their banter if the game was getting a bit dull. 

Game 26: Briton Ferry Llansawel 3-1 Carmarthen Town 

Reason for going: I'd not been to the Old Road ground before and this game was on a Friday night, which was the only slot I had free to attend a match on the last weekend of the month.

Point of interest: I think this was the first time I've heard bilingual announcements on the tannoy system for a normal league game.

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Recap of the month - October 2023

October was a very busy month of travelling. In addition to our trip to DisneyLand Paris, I spent a weekend in Hartlepool (where, yes, I saw the monkey in the Marina!), and had a day working in London as well. 

The trip to London was to do some filming in the Diabetes UK London office. It meant an early start. I also had an extra-late finish because I broke my journey home in Reading, to attend the Quality in Care Diabetes Awards. One of the projects I worked on a couple of years ago, How to Manage a Mammoth, was nominated - and won!

As I said on LinkedIn, it was a long journey from the initial discussion around a kitchen table about doing this kind of book. My friend Rose wrote it. Another friend of mine, Richard, illustrated it. And now it's published and been turned into a short cartoon as well

It was a great night out for many of my colleagues from Wales. My friend Scott, who I keep bumping into at football matches, won an award too. And my former colleagues on the SEREN education programme were highly commended for one of their modules. 

Fist pump from Scott

"Team Cymru clean up again"

An added bonus was catching the train home afterwards with my friend Sara, which gave us a fab opportunity for a proper catch up!

Photo on the bus that took us to the train

The next week we went to DisneyLand. The day after we returned, I drove up to Hartlepool. It was during Storm Babet, and it felt like most of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire was under water. 

I went up for a birthday party for my friend Tom. He had insisted on a dress code of "double denim" and had decided to complete the look with a mini mullet haircut. We all have different ways of dealing with growing old.

The final weekend of the month saw even more travelling as Cathy and I headed over to Gloucestershire to meet up with more family. I didn't take a photo of us all, but I did take a photo of the amazing cupcakes that Bonny made - all Sesame Street characters.

I really liked the look of Count von Count, but someone else called dibs. So I ended up eating Ernie instead.