Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Books 2015, 4)

I won this in the raffle at a BSFA meeting several months ago (actually over a year: October 2013), when Mary Robinette Kowal was the guest. From her talk, it sounded like it would be a lot of fun, and now that I get round to reading it, it lives up to that expectation.

We are in Regency times, except this is not exactly the Regency of our own past; in this one, magic exists. At least in a limited form: “Glamour” allows people to form illusions by manipulating folds of the ether. Most people can do this to some degree, and well-brought-up young ladies are taught the art along with music and painting. But there are those who are more talented.

Our heroine, Jane, is one such. But as the novel opens, and for most of it, she is more concerned about the fact that, unmarried at 28, she seems destined to become (or already is) an “old maid”. Her prettier sister, Melody, is more likely to make a good “match”.

There are, of course, balls, officers, heartbreaks, and more. If you enjoy Austen, and fantasy you’ll like this, I predict. It’s the first in a series, and I look forward to reading more.

One thing slightly puzzled me. When Kowal was at the BSFA meeting, I recall her saying that she is a Doctor Who fan, and that she likes to slip a mysterious traveller into each of her books. If she slipped him into this one, she did it so subtly that I didn’t notice it, even though I was expecting him. There is a brief appearance from the local surgeon, a Dr Smythe, so I guess that’s him. Oh yes. In fact, she says in that piece, “if you [notice him], then I’ve done it wrong.” So, nicely done.

But anyway, well worth a read, though I daresay the purist would say you should read all of Austen first (which I haven’t; only Pride and Prejudice).

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (books 2015, 3)

This is all very meta. It’s a story within a story, with at least one other story within that (the last of which is not very relevant). And the two main ones are more intertwined, rather than one enclosing the other, with typefaces used to distinguish them.

The largest story is that of a young woman during her time at Dundee University — in fact really just a few days in one term thereat. She’s a bit of a drip, just drifting along letting stuff happen to her — including repeatedly getting into a car with an unknown strange man who claims to be a private detective.

But the same time she (and I can’t remember her name, which can be a problem with first-person characters, because how often do you use your own name?) is holding an extended conversation with her mother (who, we’re repeatedly told, is not her mother) on a remote Scottish island whereon they are the only residents. She is trying to get her mother to tell her story. The mother is not keen to do so.

The slice-of-student-life in seventies Dundee is interesting enough. I’ve never been to Dundee, but I was a student in Edinburgh in the eighties, and it doesn’t sound all that different. Indeed, that story could be enough to carry a novel, if you had a slightly more active protagonist, and more of a plot.

The plot, such as it is, is in the island story. Well, the mystery is mainly told there, let’s say.

I enjoyed it all well enough while I was reading it, but can’t help but wonder what it’s really for. That’s not something I would normally ask of a novel — they are their own justification, generally; they exist to tell their story, and that’s all you need. But here, well… there isn’t quite enough of a story. It describes itself — within the island story, of the Dundee story; that’s part of the metaness — as a “comic novel”. And yes, there’s humour in the university story, and maybe beyond. But it ‘s not exactly funny, you know?

And the last section is a detective story that the protagonist of the Dundee story is writing. But it doesn’t really relate to either of the other stories — except maybe by some imagery — and it doesn’t go anywhere. So I don’t really see why it’s there.

When I read Atkinson’s debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I likened it to The Crow Road. Sadly, this doesn’t live up to that promise. Luckily she went on to write Life After Life, which as you’ll recall, I loved.

The first time

I’ve probably meant to write about this kind of thing for years: first records, the first bands I saw live, and so on. I was prompted to finally visit it by a post over at The Reinvigorated Programmer.

The Programmer tells us of his first record, and links it to his impending trip to see Paul McCartney. I note that, irrespective of his first single, he knows what the first album he owned was. I don’t. I can tell you the first singles I was given (one now spoiled by the epidemic of 70s celebrities having been slimeballs), the first I bought by choice (maximally embarrassing), and various other details. But the first album? I’m not sure. Not sure at all.

I can tell you the first album we owned as a family: it was called Bing and Louie, by Messrs Crosby and Armstrong. We had gone to a hi-fi shop in Glasgow to buy a stereo (which for some reason my parents pronounced “steer-ee-oh”, and did for years thereafter). We hadn’t had any kind of record player before then. I must have been about seven, maybe?

Anyway, the guy in the shop was using this Crosby and Armstrong record1 to demo the turntable, and my Mum liked it so much that he gave it to us. As I recall it was always really badly scratched — crackly, not sticking — so it makes me wonder why on Earth he was using it to demo anything. Unless it was like, “This system is so good you’ll hear every crackle.”

After that initial record, my parents mainly had soundtrack albums — or at least, those were the ones that I remember listening to. The Sound of Music, Paint Your Wagon, Cabaret… I know, the latter was most unsuitable. Except the music isn’t (unless you’re overly influenced by “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”). It was years later before I saw the film.2

And as I think back to the cupboard under the stereo, I’m remembering a couple of albums that were bought for me that are not the one I was going to mention (inasmuch as was going to mention early albums at all, which I wasn’t when I started writing this).

There was an album of really bad versions of TV themes — mainly SF ones, I think, as the only ones I can remember are Doctor Who and Star Trek. The former was bad, but the latter was so bad that I remember my friend Scot saying, “The shite’s coming out” when it started playing one time, after I had described it as “shite”.

Why did we listen to it, then? I dunno. I guess we were musically starved to death.

And something from when I was a bit younger, called, if I recall correctly, Tubby the Tuba. I don’t even want to google that.

I think there was also at least one Disney soundtrack album. Maybe the animated Robin Hood?

The thing I was thinking of, though, that was at least something like a rock or pop album, was given to me by my brother one Christmas. It was called Blockbusters, and it consisted of songs by The Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro, making it a seminal influence on me. And I still have that one.

The connection between the three, as the well-informed musicologist will know, is that they were all Chinnichap artists. Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman were the Stock, Aitken and Waterman of their day.3

It was a great album, with all the hits you could want: “Blockbuster” itself, of course; “Tiger Feet”; “Dynamite”; and of course, “Devil Gate Drive”, and more.

It was only years later that I realised that they weren’t by the original artists. These were the days before compilations like the Now That’s What I Call Music! series, which reliably package up a selection of the year’s chart hits, properly credited and in their original single form. Back then, every year saw another album in the Top of the Pops series, which shared only the name with the TV show. On them you got a selection of the year’s hits, performed by a studio band doing passable clones of the originals.

My Blockbusters album was the same kind of thing, but focused on a single songwriting team.

It was still good, though.

But none of this leads me any closer to remembering what the first album I chose to buy (or asked to have bought for me) was. Possibly it was something by The Beatles. It wasn’t till my sister gave me a reel-to-reel tape of Beatles singles that I really got into music.

But I suspect the only way to be sure will be to do a careful inventory of my records. Which is project for another time.

By now, though, you’re probably desperate to know about those embarrassing or spoiled early singles. Or, you’ve completely forgotten about them.

Some time after we got the stereo, I was given two singles: “The Laughing Gnome” by David Bowie; and “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I am)” by Gary Glitter. Who’d have thought that the second of those would come to be the more embarrassing?

Then a few years later, after Britain’s Eurovision triumph, I took a liking to the Brotherhood of Man, and bought “Oh Boy (The Mood I’m In)”. Which — oh my god! — was in 1977. I am ashamed.

I bought it in Boots (the shop, not the footwear), if I remember rightly. Remember when they were kind of a department store, and sold records?


  1. I’m kind of sure it must be this one, except that’s shown as Bing & Satchmo, and I’m sure the title was as I gave it above. []
  2. And I’ve still never seen Paint Your Wagon. []
  3. I’m kind of amazed to read that they wrote Toni Basil’s “Mickey”, as well. []

URLs and searching

URL hiding

A while ago, I read a piece called “Improving the URL Bar” (turns out it’s almost a year old, but never mind). I made both mental and Pinboard-based notes of it, because my response to it was, “That’s not improving the URL bar, it’s destroying it.”

Reading it again now, I don’t feel quite so strongly; I partly agree with what the author was getting at. But I feel we lose something important as we make URLs less visible. They show something of the hierarchy of a site, its structure — or at least that’s the origin of the path part.

The argument against that of course is that the path part is an implentation detail that doesn’t need to be seen by users, and perhaps more importantly, the whole thing is meaningless at best, confusing at worst to most users.

Well, maybe so. But to those of us who do understand them, hiding them can be confusing, even annoying.Of course you can click in the URL bar, or press Cmd-L or Ctrl-L, to see the whole thing. More usefully, In Safari, which I’m currently using, there’s a preference called “Show full website address”, which overrides the behaviour. So you can have your choice.

Searching

But then there’s this whole thing that we have now, of browsers doing a search when you type something in URL bar; especially (though not exclusively) when it’s not obviously a URL that you’ve typed or pasted.

I don’t like it.

Or I didn’t. I’ve been using Safari since I wiped and reinstalled this Mac because it was getting really slow (successfully, I might add). I decided to keep things as stock as possible (within reason — I wasn’t going to switch back from Lightroom to iPhoto, for example, or from MailMate to Mail.app). And Firefox can sometimes be a bit of a resource hog.

But I spent quite some time trying to find out how to give Safari a separate search bar like FF has (or can have — it may be a plugin, but if so it’s one that I install without thinking). I had muscle memory that went Cmd-T, Cmd-K (or Ctrl-T, Ctrl-T when I’m on Windows) when I want a new tab I’m going to search in. Still have it, actually, because I still use FF on Windows on my work machine.

It turns out that you can’t have that on Safari. You just have to search from the URL bar. So I just got into the habit of doing that. And now I find I do it even on Firefox (you have both options there).

I don’t know; I still feel that the URL bar should be for URLs, and searching should be something else. but it doesn’t offend me like it used to.

Still, the effect is to further blur the distinction between searching for a site and going to a specific site. I see people — even experienced, technically knowledgable people — going to Google’s home page and typing “facebook.com” into the search box. I mean, what?

Oh, and of course if you search from Google’s home page in Chrome, your cursor jumps to the URL bar! Or it did the last time I used Chrome. Which blurs the distinction between site and browser, as well as between site and search.

In the end it doesn’t matter that much — people mostly get where they mean to go — but by making it less than clear what is going on when we navigate around the web, we make it harder for people to understand how it’s all put together, and I think we lose something important in doing so.

On missing out on Zane

I feel strangely that I’ve missed out on Zane Lowe — on knowing who he is as a DJ, as an interviewer; maybe even as the inheritor of John Peel’s Radio One mantle. And now he’s off to Apple.

I’ve just been listening to an interview with Lowe on Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces podcast, and he comes across as very interesting and informed. And I heard about his Apple move recently on another podcast, wherein Myke Hurley talked about his move and how he had been the best introducer of new music at Radio One since Peel.

(Podcasts are the new rockn ‘n’ roll radio: discuss.)

And I’ve never knowingly heard his show.

Which is a shame, on one level. But on another — how often have I listened to Radio One since Peel died? — maybe it’s not really my music any more.

Though on yet another hand, Lowe namechecks Neil Young and various other people that are my music, so…

As to what exactly he’s going to be doing at Apple, no-one outside knows for sure. “Music curation” seems to be the consensus, something to do with the streaming service they might be launching on the back of the Beats acquisition. The Pip podcast was recorded back in October, before he announced the move, so he doesn’t talk about it.

It’s clear, though, that, like Peelie, he’s a music fan above all else.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Books 2015, 2)

There’s an old saying by Robert Heinlein (or by one or more of his characters): “It steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time.” Technological advances — and implicitly, other changes, such as social ones — will happen when a certain weight of events and situations accrues, irrespective of the individuals involved. The steam engine would have been developed around that time with or without Stephenson; the radio in its era even without Marconi, and so on.

By that token these few years seem to be time-jump-story time. For here we have a story that, superficially at least, is very similar to Life After Life, which I wrote about last year as part of The First Three Books of the Year.

The similarity is that we have a character who lives his life, dies, and then lives it all over again. The major differences in this case are that he remembers his previous lives; and that there are others like him.

Also in this one the characters — some of them, at least — question their situation, wonder about how and why it happens. They make use of their gift or curse. As such it is more a work of SF than Life After Life was.

Claire North, we are told at the start, is the pseudonym of a British author. Turns out it’s Catherine Webb, of whom I’ve written before, here. I see that I was critical then of her plotting, and the ending. The current book is much stronger in both regards.

Though it’s not entirely satisfactory. I find it slightly annoying because — and I’m moving into spoiler territory, so you might want to stop reading — while the people who have this affliction — members of the Cronus Club, or kalachakra, as they are called — do ask some questions of their situation, the only one who really tries to explore, to investigate, to understand it: he’s the bad guy. The engine of the plot is to preserve the status quo.

True (within the book, and probably in reality), messing with the status quo — trying to make significant changes to the way historic events play out — tends to make a big mess of things, because history is too complex for anyone to really understand all the causes and effects and so guide it. But Vincent, the antagonist in question, is at least trying to gain some understanding. An alternative to trying to stop him might have been to work with him, but find a less destructive way to do it.

On the other hand, of course, that would have made for a less interesting, less fun story. And as it stands, this is both. So I can’t really complain.