Busy weekend

Busy weekend

On Friday morning, someone drilled through one of the water main pipes leading via Liberton to the centre of town. A large part of Edinburgh had no water for about 24 hours! Fortunately, although we live near the affected area, we still had our hot & cold running. But when I took the no. 7 bus to work in the morning, it took a detour around the flooded roads (it must have been pretty bad). Instead of going down Liberton Hill, it went down Kirk Brae instead. Friday was a lovely day, and this route seemed so pleasant that I though it would be nice to walk into town this way on Saturday.

And so we did. Although Saturday wasn’t quite as sunny as Friday, it was still warm, and we spent most of the morning taking a leisurely stroll with B in the pram.

There was a magnificent sight about two-thirds of the way down Kirk Brae. We came around a corner of this narrow and steep street, and before us we saw a view all the way to Edinburgh Castle. In the distance, the Castle looked almost like Hadrian’s mausoleum in Rome. A broad, tree-lined avenue seemed to lead all the way up to it, but this was just an optical illusion. But because of the framing of the view (houses on either side of the street) you couldn’t see what lay off to the sides of the avenue. We were free to imagine that the trees stretched out in both directions, and that the road was a straight line through a park like the Villa Borghese. With the warm sun on our backs, it was like we were back in Rome.

At the foot of Kirk Brae we crossed the road and headed for the Royal Observatory. This is one of these places we’ve always been aware of, but have never visited. We didn’t visit it this time either, really: we just walked up Blackford Hill and sat on a bench and fed B. The observatory is surrounded by a nature reserve, and has magnificent views of the South of Edinburgh. People jog, and walk their dogs there. We chatted for a while with a woman who walks her three dogs there every day. B even stroked one of the dogs! (Well, Abi stretched his arm out and rubbed the back of his hand against the dog’s fur. It was still enormously cute.)

Once B was fed and rested, we headed back down the hill (noting the opening times of the observatory, and the fact that they are open for public night viewings in winter). We walked through more parts of Edinburgh we’d never seen from on foot before, and eventually ended up at the Meadows, with a pizza and a couple of bottles of refreshing beverage.

After replenishing our own energy sources, we snuffled around the shops on South Clerk St., and bought some books before finally taking a bus back home. By this time, B’s nappy had almost reached bursting point from all the smelly poo, and we had all got a good deal of sun. B mostly got it on his face. His little cheeks were all pink.

Most of the baby books will tell you that it’s a bad thing to expose their delicate skin to the sun at this tender age. I don’t think it did him any great harm, but he did seem quite uncomfortable, hot, and fussy afterwards. Who wouldn’t be? But this was his first experience of a minor sunburn, and it must have come as a bit of a surprise to him.

The up side of this is that he looks all bronzed today. It looks like he has inherited Abi’s skin colour, and her ability to go from pink to brown in the space of, oh, about two hours.

The down side is that he may still have been a bit dehydrated. Mum & dad & Scott & Ange were all round this afternoon, and B howled his way through pretty much all of their visit. After they left, we checked his temperature with a little colour-coded forehead thermometer, and found that he was slightly fevered. After carefully examining the label and instructions, we gave him a tiny spoonful of Calpol, which is paracetamol syrup for babies. Abi also fed him most of a bottle of water flavoured with apple juice, which he slurped down thirstily. Then finally he went to sleep for about half an hour. When he woke up, he seemed his normal happy self again.

So we’ve survived his first fever!

Also this weekend…

We trimmed the tops of the tall conifers in our back garden, which were blocking out a lot of our neighbours’ afternoon sunlight. Also, they look much tidier now.

And I’ve been installing Linux. Again. Mandrake 8.0, which is a damn sight better than any other version I’ve tried, but it’s still a chore. This is the third time I’ve installed it recently , and my practice of taking extensive notes is now paying off. It gets easier with every try, but there are still so many things that are difficult to configure, that you take for granted when running windows.

For example: fonts. Because Mandrake’s creators realize that a lot of their target audience is Windows users who want to try out Linux, they have included a utility (DrakFont) which makes it easy to import your Windows TrueType fonts and use them in most desktop applications. But will StarOffice make use of these? Hell no. You have to jump through hoops to convert these TrueType fonts to PostScript type 1 fonts, and then make StarOffice aware of the fonts separately.

This is a consequence of the way Linux works: you have choices. On Windows, you don’t have a choice of where you get your fonts. They’re part of the operating system, and all applications just use the standard Windows font functionality. On Linux, however, there are several “standard” ways of doing fonts. Application developers can’t be certain which will be set up on a user’s machines, and so they have to cater for all the different possibilities. Or they can invent a new one. Or they can use an obscure standard, and make users download a third-party tool before their package will install.

Most users really don’t want to be bothered with this–if they can even figure it out in the first place. Linux’s flexibility is its downfall in this case. If you want freedom from a proprietary standard (Windows), you have to put up with a multitude of competing “standards”. You gain the ability to tune your system to your way of life, but you lose the ability to take a piece of software and know that it will install off-the-shelf.

I’m still trying to figure out which way I prefer.

B came this close to rolling over

B came this close to rolling over from his back to his front this evening. He had twisted his hips well past the vertical so that his legs were almost completely turned over, and he was lying on his side. But he just wasn’t able to get his arm out of the way, so it blocked him from flipping over completely. As usual, his lower body is preceding the rest of his torso in terms of strength and coordination. Shouldn’t this be the other way around?

We also measured him from head to heel today, and he came in at 66cm (26 inches). According to the development charts we have, this puts him just under the 98th percentile for length.

His weight, though, has consistently been tracking just below the 50th percentile curve.

Basically, he’s a bit of a string bean. Rather than normal chubby baby legs, he has thoroughly muscular thighs and quads. His favourite game at the moment is “standy-up man”, which is where I pull him up to a vertical standing position, and he wobbles and smiles and giggles. I don’t have to support his weight–he does all of that himself.

He doesn’t have the balance yet to even sit up unsupported, let alone stand without falling over. But I’m sure he has the leg muscles for running already…

Lee Child – The Visitor

I finished this book a couple of days ago now, and since then, I’ve been trying to figure out why I disliked it so much. Because in theory, I should have loved it.

The story is about a former military policeman, Jack Reacher, who gets pulled in for questioning by the FBI, because he fits the psychological profile of a deviously clever serial killer they’re tracking. The first two victims were women who used to be in the army, and had been subject to sexual harassment. They had both pressed charges, resulting in the conviction of the men in question. The FBI investigators suspect a military connection: they think someone blames these women for ruining good men’s careers, and is out to avenge them. When Reacher was an MP he worked on both of these women’s cases, and knew them personally.

He isn’t the killer, though, and the FBI knows this. They’ve been following him for a week, and in that time another woman has been murdered. But they do need his military connections and help in tracking down the killer, and they’re not willing to take no for an answer.

So far, so good. I like serial killer crime novels. (John Sandford is a particular favourite.) The story gets even better than this, because it turns out that the killer is so clever, he doesn’t leave behind any forensic evidence at the crime scene: no fibres, prints, DNA, or any trace of violence. And the coroners examining the bodies can’t even figure out how the women died. So we have a seemingly impossible mystery as well. I have a penchant for locked room murder mysteries as well, and even though the rooms aren’t locked in these cases, they might as well have been.

Jack Reacher, the book’s hero, is another reason I should have liked the book: he’s a tough guy, a loner who does things his own way, and who isn’t afraid to bend or break the rules to set right what he sees as an injustice. He’s smart, he’s strong, and he’s not afraid of anything. Not entirely unlike Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, or Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole, two of my all-time favourite private eyes.

So why did I come away so disappointed? Where did Lee Child go wrong? What is the missing magic ingredient that could have made this alphabet soup taste sweet?

At first I thought it was Reacher’s arrogance and know-all attitude. He considers himself smarter and better than the FBI agents he’s forced to work with. Because we’re seeing the story through Reacher’s eyes, the FBI come across as generally unpleasant characters of frequently dubious morality and competence. This emphasises Reacher’s high opinion of himself, and his firm belief that he is the only person who is capable of solving this crime.

But that’s not it. I think back on the number of books in which Spenser has taken on the hardest cases and toughest villains armed only with his wits, muscles, and stout heart. I enjoyed those books. Spenser’s attitude has never bothered me.

Then I considered the plot and the narrative. The story follows Reacher throughout, except for brief interludes where we briefly see what the killer is doing or planning. I have no problem with this in general; John Sandford does it in almost every book. Child does break the rules when he shows you the viewpoint of someone completely unrelated acting suspiciously, and lets you believe you’re seeing the killer. But this is no worse a piece of misdirection than you’d see in any Agatha Christie novel. And so what if I’d figured out who the killer was, and how they’d done it by the end of the book? The thrill of the chase is till there, and the tension builds up to a nail-biting climax regardless.

Okay, so I was definitely disappointed by how linear the plot turned out to be. The story feints and dodges a couple of times, but ultimately it charges straight at you like a two ton rhinoceros. It’s not subtle, and it’s not intricate. The only deviousness lies in the meticulous planning the killer has put into the crimes in order to confound and deceive the FBI, and all of this is explained (in loving detail) by a smug Jack Reacher at the denouement. But again, this is not the main source of my discontent.

No, what really bugs me about this book is its complete and utter lack of humour or joy. Jack Reacher is cold, miserable, and selfish. When the FBI take him in at the start of the book, he claims that their profile of the killer is “obviously” wrong because it fits him, and he would never do such a thing. But you know what? He would. After being exposed to Reacher for 500 pages, I was convinced that if the circumstances were right, he would not hesitate for a second to be just as deep-down unpleasant as the killer.

And it’s not just Reacher’s character. The whole book seems to take itself far too seriously. Fair enough it’s a thriller, but I don’t remember cracking even a wry smile at any point throughout the book. Every paragraph is fuelled by aggression, every chapter fed by violence. It’s all plod, plod, thump, thump. There is no redemption, no joy. No peek into the human soul to see a pocket of goodness and light despite the persistent darkness that surrounds us. Every single character wears a mask to protect their own loneliness. The ending may look happy on the surface, but take it apart and you’ll see that the people you thought were smiling are merely frowning upside-down.

At the time I found it exciting, but in retrospect it feels like the book mugged me and robbed eight one-hour bills from my wallet. Writing this review has crystallised in my mind just how depressing a book The Visitor actually is. Buy the latest Robert Crais or Robert B. Parker instead, and be pleasantly surprised by how literate, humorous, and touching a hard-boiled detective novel can be.

Jeffery Deaver – The Empty Chair

A couple of years ago (is it really that long?), the film The Bone Collector was released. It was based on the book by Jeffery Deaver, and starred Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. The trailer looked slick: a forensic expert is left crippled by an accident while tracking down a serial killer, and his young protegée must take up the investigation where he left off. Many tense, and intense shots of him directing her actions from the confines of his bed. Very dark and broody, much in the style of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.

Unfortunately, I never caught the film while it was showing at the cinema. Then, a couple of months ago, it was playing on cable pay-per-view. I didn’t see it then, either. But now that I have read The Empty Chair, I sense a trip to Blockbuster in the very near future.

The Empty Chair features the same two main characters asThe Bone Collector: Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs. Lincoln Rhyme is the world-famous, brilliant, arrogant quadriplegic forensic expert and criminalist who is capable of tracking down a killer from mere grains of sand left at a crime scene. Amelia Sachs is his beautiful, sharp-shooting, fast-driving, former model, former patrol cop sidekick. With arthritis.

To be honest, when I was bombarded with these character sketches (developed over the course of the first few chapters rather than in the space of two sentences) I was put off by their blatant unreality. These people are perfect heroes, with perfect flaws to make them perfectly sympathetic. Over the course of the book, however, they do take on much greater depth and become more plausible.

The story starts with Rhyme, his personal aide Thom, and Sachs travelling to a clinic in North Carolina. Rhyme is going there to undergo radical therapy that may restore some of his mobility. Before he even checks himself in, though, the local Sheriff comes and asks him for help in an urgent kidnapping case. Ga
rrett Hanlon, a local teenager known as the “Insect Boy” because of his fondness for the creatures, has killed one man and abducted two women. The police believe that if they don’t find him quickly, he will kill the women as well.

Rhyme, anxious for nothing to interfere with his scheduled surgery is initially unwilling to lend his assistance, but Sachs talks him into it. They set up an improvised forensics field office at the local police station. Sachs goes out with a search party to try to track Garrett, and acts as Rhyme’s eyes and ears, while he sits like a spider at the centre of his web, evaluating the evidence and clues she finds. All the while, the narrative is cutting between Garrett and Lydia (the most recent kidnapping victim), Sachs, and Rhyme, showing the action from all angles.

At this point (about a hundred or so pages in), I expected the book to turn into a standard thriller cat-and-mouse chase. There would be blind alleys, some of the evidence would be misleading, and the bad guy would seem to gain the upper hand just before the good guys win through. I could not have been more wrong.

At less than half way through the book, the police actually track down Garrett and take him into custody. They rescue his second victim, but he is unwilling to tell anyone where he has stashed away the first woman. This is where the plot starts to take devious turns. All the while this manhunt has been going on, Deaver has been developing an intricate cast of secondary characters. They appear to fall into standard stereotypes: Lucy Kerr, the female cop who feels threatened by the presence of Amelia Sachs. Jesse Corn, the male cop who is infatuated with Amelia. Mason Germain, the disgruntled cop who bears a grudge against Garrett, and who is angry at not being sufficiently involved in the investigation. The three local rednecks trying to hunt down Garrett’s victims on their own to collect the reward that’s being offered.

None of these people turn out to be as straightforward as they seem. But then, neither does Garrett Hanlon….

It’s been a long time since I’ve ever come across a book with as many twists and turns as this one. Every time you think you’re following the main plot, Deaver ties up that thread and reveals the next layer of the mystery. And even though this is a series book with recurring characters, he made me feel like I couldn’t rely on them all finding a happy ending, or even surviving to the end.

This is always a problem with series books, or TV shows: most of the time it is be all too obvious that no matter how much danger you place your heroes in, they’ll make it through to the next book, or episode. Even if the writer doesn’t kill off any of main characters, if they can make you believe that they might, you care about them much more strongly.

Deaver has this all figured out. The second half of the book hits you with reversals of fortune at an ever-increasing pace. Towards the end, every chapter is a heart-stopping cliff-hanger followed by a startling revelation. And while I may not have cared much for the characters at the start, the last few pages produced a minor lump in my throat.

The greatest compliment I can pay an author is to go out and buy more of their books. That is exactly what I’m going to do. If you enjoy a good edge-of-your seat mystery thriller, The Empty Chair is definitely a book for you.