The Truth About Sharks and Pigeons — Matt Phillips

There are links to buying this books from Amazon in either Kindle format or paperback format at the bottom of the post.

The Truth about Sharks and Pigeons by Matt Phillips.

Neither the book or the author have a Wikipedia page. Perhaps I should learn how to code Wikipedia nonsense? Idea for later.

Author bio in brief: Matt Phillips was born in the United Kingdom, read Anthropology at Cambridge, and then moved to New Zealand. This isn’t such a surprise, as The Truth about Sharks and Pigeons (hereforth referred to as The Truth) is set initially in the UK and then moves to New Zealand. Nifty.

“Wing B, did they enter Room IIB?” snapped Mr Gring, unable to keep the concern from his voice. “We are not sure, sir. There was quite a detonation, and it knocked out the cameras. We know that security was breached in a room in that area, we should know soon. It may have been IIB.” “Know soon, know soon?” Mr Gring seethed. “It may have been IIB? Good god, man, was it IIB or not IIB? That’s the bloody question!”

So, that’s pretty much how it goes. It’s not quite Douglas Adams, it’s not quite Terry Pratchett, but it’s getting there. The off-beat humour works, the surreal ideas play out, the characters are generally just setups for really bad puns.

Bill sat at a small pine table, the three chairs arranged around it were mismatched, one had a tear in the fabric cushion on the seat and the other had a tendency to collapse if you used it the wrong way. ‘Using it the wrong way’ included things like sitting in it. It had never been an issue, as in all his time at the flat Bill had never had more than a single guest. That was of course unless you counted the time he had been burgled.

Our progatonist (Bill Posters) is introduced to the truth by a pigeon spy. Teamed up with the incredibly well-trained Fern (upon whom he promptly develops a crush), they travel via science fiction device (it’s just simpler to leave it like that) to New Zealand to do battle with, well maybe it’s best to use a quote again:

On top of talking pigeons and Segway-riding sharks he now had a psychic link with a geriatric sheep.

The writing is solid, the pacing is pretty good, and whilst it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of Adams or Pratchett, it’s a decent effort. This is Phillips’ first full-length novel, and I’ll be looking forward to any follow-ups.

Bonus features: the edition read was the 8-month-and-4-day special anniversary edition. It came with Alternate Endings, Deleted Scenes, Bloopers and Outtakes, a soundtrack, and a very silly competition. I’m pretty certain everything other than the Deleted Scenes are just additional silliness. As with most deleted scenes, it’s best that they were deleted. At least this is a sign that there is a strong editor behind the scenes.

(As I was writing this, I was being criticised for writing too much. Apparently I’d lose people by this point. If you’re not reading this, turns out my critics are correct.)

The Kindle version: The paperback version:

Thursday Next 7: The Woman Who Died A Lot — Jasper Fforde

There are links to buying this books from Amazon in either Kindle format or paperback format at the bottom of the post.

Thursday Next 7: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

This is my first write-up of a book, so I’m still trying to work out what’s going to work, and what’s not. Try not to judge me too harshly.

Brief author notes: Jasper Fforde is a living British author, quite prolific (twelve full-length novels in as many years, with at least another four in various planning stages), who writes alternate history, comic fantasy, surrealist humour fiction. He is currently working on books in four series: the Thursday Next novels, the Nursery Crime Division novels, the Shades of Grey novels, and the Dragonslayer trilogy. And yes, I’ve read all of them.

As The Woman Who Died A Lot is the seventh in the Thursday Next series, it’s bringing a reasonable amount of previous story along. Thursday Next first appeared in The Eyre Affair (via Amazon) in her mid-30s in the mid-1980s. It is twenty years later, and the superhero Thursday who could jump easily between the real world and the BookWorld (where literature is reality) where she worked for Jurisfiction, the policing agency within fiction, is long-gone. Instead, Thursday, with husband Landen Park-Laine, super-genius teenage daughter Tuesday, and moody, formerly-head-of-the-Chronoguard-but-no-longer-due-to-time-travel-never-having-been-invented son Friday, is recuperating from an debilitating injury outside of Swindon. Through political manuvering, she is made head of the Fatsos All You Can Eat Drinks Not Included Wessex Library Service (I did mention this was surreal, right?), which she is required to juggle the needs of the preservation of the world’s literary history and the desires of the Special Library Service, who wish to perform dawn raids in cases of overdue library books. Swindon is due to be smote by God at the end of the week (he has decided to take a more hands-on role with Earth, to the effect that smitings are now a regular occurence).

Good grief, I’m exhausted just trying to explain the setup. Happily, Fforde does a far better job than I am doing. The book takes place over a week, and is set solely within the real world, rather than the BookWorld. There are heavy lashing of punning, the ridiculous, and some prodding at our society.

…so I took a seat at the counter and ordered a mocha and a marmalade on white from a very intense waitress who had clearly been thoroughly indoctrinated by the hyper-efficient Yo! Toast training.
‘Butter or margarine?’ she demanded.
‘Butter.’
‘Thin or thick cut?’
‘Thick.’
‘Orange or lime?’
‘Orange.’
‘Right,’ she said, and hurried off.

My toast arrived and I took a bite. It was excellent. Perfectly toasted, a hint of al dente about the crust, and a tangy blast of marmalade on an aftertaste of melted butter. It wasn’t difficult to see why toast had become the faddy buzz food of the noughties, with TV chefs falling over themselves to write entire books dripping with pretentious toast recipes – and a legion of critics who claimed that food chains like Yo! Toast were paying their staff too much, and criticised the lack of unsaturated fat and salt on the menu.

No more attempting to tell you what the book is about, more on telling whether I liked it. I did like it. (That didn’t take as long as I expected it to.) Fforde writes well, the imagery is good, the style is inventive, his use of the actual text as the joke (less so in this one than previous books–for example, a long unattributed dialogue which ends with a query from the characters as to which of them is speaking), and he is not afraid to let the characters progress. Subplots from previous books are wrapped up and dispensed with. Change is allowed to occur: characters die, politics within the universe of the novel change, new technologies develop. The writing and the setting are not stale.

Whilst it would be terribly helpful to have read the earlier novels in the series to appreciate some of the more subtle jokes, it’s not mandatory, and just jumping in with the seventh book would do no harm at all.

The obligatory Amazon link:

Living with Linux, Part Three (Finally, books!)

More Linux, I hear you cry? When are you going to get to the humorous, thoughtful, witty reviews of books? Well, I need some more Linux to get there.

Here’s how is works. I’m going to need Calibre, which is where my ebook library is stored. My calibre library is stored in my Dropbox. Actually, everything is stored in my Dropbox—my work files, my research stuff, my teaching stuff. Hence, getting my Dropbox up and running is next on the list.

Oh, and an update: it turns out that gedit (part of the standard Ubuntu installation) has nice LaTeX highlighting, which would have worked too. There is no immediate way to typeset files, so I’ll stick with TeXWorks for the time-being.

Dropbox is in the Ubuntu Software Centre, making life easier. Also nice is that the Dropbox website gives the command-line commands. (About seven thousand files sync’d later….!)

Calibre is in the USC, however “Canonical does not provide updates for Calibre”. As the packaged version is 0.8.38, and the latest stable is 0.8.66, I’ve decided to go with the manual install. Happily, there are instructions at the Calibre website. Copypasta’ing a line, and a script does its thing.

My Calibre library loaded fine, the interface looks the same as it did on Windows (that is, ugly but functional—sorry Calibre devs! It’s not really a criticism.) And the question now becomes, what next? That will be another blog post, I feel.

Update: my week with Linux-only didn’t really hold. It became too much of a hassle to take my laptop into work each day, so I went back to using my work PC with XP. However, I’ve been trying to keep the programmes that I use the same as what I use in Linux: Thunderbird, Firefox, TeXworks, some kind of JRE (though I suspect I’m using the Oracle version rather than the FOSS alternative), and that’s essentially it.

Living with Linux, Part the Second

Continuing from last time, I have a working Linux installation (Ubuntu 12.04), I have feet up on the coffee table, and I’m starting to work out what will be required to do my work tomorrow on this laptop. (The whole using Linux for everything includes work, and hence I need my laptop to be ready for this.)

As I write, Ubuntu Software Centre is downloading and installing TeXLive. There are apparently plenty of options to get a TeX-system up-and-running with Ubuntu. However, I wanted to just use the USC. No command-line, no compiling my own package, no arcane editing of host or .conf files or whatever else.

There is an interesting thing, however; the TeXLive system on the USC is the 2009 version. That’s seriously out-of-date. I’m curious as to whether this is going to be a problem or not. If it is, I suppose tomorrow will see me reading forums and help pages and goodness knows what else. There is a forum thread on the official Ubuntu forums, regarding this, a bug on the tracker, and a variety of ways that involve the command-line.

At this moment, Ubuntu Software Centre is telling me that TeXLive has been downloaded and installed, and … I have no idea what to do next. Searching for TeX, LaTeX, texlive (and a wide variety of capitalisations of those themes) in Dash Home shows nothing. How on Earth am I supposed to launch the programme now? Off to the internets, but surely there has to be an easier way to do this. I thought Ubuntu was supposed to be user-friendly.

Apparently it’s installed. If I write a small .tex file, navigate to it in the command-line, and type latex test.tex something happens, and then typing xdvi test opens it. There has to be a better way. (By the way, we’re at about forty minutes of internet-searching at this point. I’m rather annoyed.)

Alright, I’ve installed TeXworks, and apparently I can process standard .tex files.

That was ridiculously more complicated than it needed to be. Maybe I should help with documentation. If only I knew what I was doing, so I could write about in the documentation.

Next, getting the cloud happening. (I read a statistic today that more than half of Americans think that poor weather negatively affects cloud-computing. I’m sure that’s made up, but I want to believe. <cue the X-Files musics>.)