Monday 28 January 2013

Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit (aka MPASU)

Who's a lucky girl?  I am! I am! I am!
I won a competition over on Twitter (@ladawncp) hosted by the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit (@mpsinthesky) by answering a simple question:  what are the registrations for their 3 helicopters?
And yes, I am a big enough geek to know the answer to that question.  I know the answer to that question because I follow them and their adventures in hunting down bad guys hiding in bushes, finding lost people and reducing the general mayhem caused by vehicle pursuits.  They take lots of beautiful pictures.  And they almost always get the bad guys.
And they engage with the community they serve and protect, which is really the key to their success.  They have nearly 31,000 followers over on Twitter and if you don't follow them, you should.  Even if you don't live in London, you should, if for no other reason than it will give you plenty of ammunition to speak to your local police force and get them to communicate with your community as comprehensively as these officers do!
The ASU is based in Loughton, Essex so I had a trip of 50 miles (or so) around the top of the M25.  I had left the house in plenty of time but found I had forgotten my picture ID so had to turn round to get my passport.  Once on my way, I thought I was under the gun.  Luckily, the usual parking lot that is the M25 was clear.  I was there within 50 minutes. 
I rang the buzzer and was directed to my parking.  When I found the office, I was told I was an hour early.  Oops, I got the time wrong.  Better an hour early than an hour late, I always say. 
I got a fantastic cup of tea courtesy of the Old Bill and put my feet up for an hour and waited for my geek compatriots (other people who had also known the helicopter registrations) to join me.  We were also joined by a few officers visiting from Northern Ireland who were there to observe the ASU for the day.
The base is a former WWII POW camp.  The buildings are listed and have a beautiful view of across all of London.
We were led to a classroom and shown a very professional slide deck all about the ASU including the role and responsibilities of the members of the team, the type of activity the ASU performs, and the best part, the nuts and bolts of the helicopters.
These machines are very impressive.  They cost £5m each.  They are reliable and flexible.  Safety is obviously a big concern for the ASU. One helicopter was in the hangar in bits under maintenance. All 3 are Eurocopters manufactured in Germany and the ASU has one in maintenance most of the time to ensure that they are always in tip top shape.  All the internal fittings can come out and can be reconfigured in any number of configurations.  The camera is the most impressive.  The quality of the zoom picture is seriously impressive (and a wee bit scary).  From a great height, the camera on the helicopter can zoom in and display amazing quality pictures!
The helicopter is kitted out with numerous display screens showing infrared imaging, zoom pictures, and maps.  The ASU can enter an address and pinpoint it on their map.  Conversely, they can pinpoint a location and their computers tell them the address.
I was afraid to touch anything.  I wouldn't even get into the helicopter despite the encouragement from the PCs to do so.  I was afraid I would knock something and be billed £10,000 for it. 
We then watched the helicopter take off which was almost as impressive as watching it land.  What was absolutely incredible was the quality of the camera work.  From the helicopter, the ASU can send photos to the commanders on the ground.  There's even a gadget that allows the force on the ground to see what the helicopter is seeing.  This helps find baddies hiding under bushes, in sheds, under cars and running down alleyways. It also helps find missing people, particularly useful in the water as long as the person's head is still above the water.
I am most happy to report that despite expecting to be the only female on the premises, not only was I joined by 4 other female geeks (and Twitter aficionados), there was also a female PC on the MPASU team. 

@mpinthesky is providing a fab service to the public and I applaud the old bill for embracing this new and scary world of social media.  They are doing it right, using humour, building relationships with the public and setting an example for forces all over the world.  I really hope more follow suit, specifically Thames Valley, who beyond having an account aren't really engaging with the public.
I'd like to say a huge thank you to Tony and Ricc who did a great job on the day and were the most gracious and courteous of hosts.  Your time and enthusiasm is greatly appreciated!

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben

In the last 18 months, I have devoured all the Reacher novels so I needed to start looking for a suitable replacement or be left as one of those sad souls who pine away for the release of the next installment standing in a drizzly rain outside a book shop.  No, that will never be me.  Well, maybe perhaps not ever.  But certainly not for Jack Reacher.

My search introduced me to Myron Bolitar, who isn't nearly as intimidating or good looking as Jack Reacher.  He is not ex military nor can he kill anyone with one strategically placed strike from his hands of retaliation.  Myron is not sexy.  Even is name is a bit of a damp squid.

In fact, most unlikely, Myron is a sports agent who repeatedly finds himself in the middle of murder scenes.  This sports agent business is far more dangerous than you might imagine.  And far more entertaining.

Deal Breaker is the first in the series and, similar to the Child series, these are easy to read, a bit like opening a packet of crisps and eating the whole bag in one sitting.  Christian Steele is a rookie quarterback (this is American football, people) and a big client for Myron's struggling business.  All the people around Christian keep disappearing or getting themselves killed.  In an attempt to salvage his client's career and secure his 10% commission, Myron swoops in to limit the damage to Steele's reputation and put an end to the killings.

Myron doesn't have the sex appeal of Jack Reacher but he does have some side kicks who provide some comic relief.  The good guys and the bad guys were a bit more clear cut than in a Reacher tale.  And Coben doesn't have as great a story to tell as Child.  His first novel was published when he was 26.  He's won numerous awards in his genre.  His novels tend to go straight in at number 1 on the New York Times best seller list.    I gotta be on to something good here, no?

I'm looking forward to reading some more books in the series and seeing how Myron develops as a character.  I may get bored very quickly with the whole sports angle but I'll give it a go.  I gave this book a 3 out of 5 stars just for its originality in characterisation.

Monday 14 January 2013

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Ages and ages ago I was given an advance copy of Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson which has just been chosen as one of Richard & Judy's Book Club reads.  Somehow I got it into my head that Jasmine Nights was the sequel to East of the Sun and my mild case of OCD means that I could never ever possibly read a sequel before I read its prequel.  Which sent me to the book story.  I know, lame excuse but one has to do what one has to do.

East of the Sun tells the story of a select few from the fishing fleets: the groups of young women who would leave their families in search of marriage to a suitable officer in the British Military during the last gasp of the British Raj.

The novel centres on 3 women in their 20s each at different stages of their quest:  Rose has become engaged to a military officer whilst he was on a brief period of leave.  She hardly knows him and knows even less about the nature of marriage.  Victoria has her heads in the clouds and is taken advantage of by every Tom, Dick and Harry (excuse the pun).  She has barely a penny to her name and her chaperon is wholly unsuitable for helping her find her way.  Finally, Viva, who has misrepresented her qualifications, experience, and motivation as a chaperon.  And although Viva's last intention is to find a husband, she does yearn for the excitement and independence that she imagines life in India as a single woman in the 1920s might bring her.  That wouldn't have been my destination of choice in those days but to each their own.

Thrown in for good measure are innumerable eccentric and exotic characters which is exactly how I imagine the British expatriates behaved during this time.  Perhaps I read too many books.  One of the most troubling characters in the book is Guy Carver who is clearly afflicted with what would today be diagnosed as either bipolar or schizophrenia, both serious mental health illnesses which have many different and effective methods of treatments today.  However, in India in the 1920s it is fair to say, he was not treated very sympathetically although Gregson barely touches on this area.  She could have developed him as a character much more effectively.  I think this would have been a very different book had she done so.

Also, the quest for Viva's trunk is somewhat disappointing.  It takes Viva ages to go on the search and when she does go the result is more than a mild let down.  I suppose that's the point.  Viva had these unrealistic expectations of all of her questions being answered by the contents only to find that mold and decay had eaten up any and everything that was there.  And, in fact, nothing there would have brought her peace anyway.  It was a clever device to keep the plot moving but was ultimately disappointing.

This is the first book that I've read about this time period although several others are now on my To-Read list and after reading this they have made it to the top of the pile.  I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars.  I think most of you would really enjoy this.

Friday 11 January 2013

Jack Reacher by Lee Child

I can't help myself.  The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is candy floss for the brain and whilst trying to juggle the demands of the Christmas holidays, I find his stories irresistible.  They are like breath mints in between courses of heavier literary duty.

I read 3 in the series in December, 61 Hours, Worth Dying For, and The Affair, which are number 14, 15, and 16 respectively.  They take little more than a day to power through.  Similar to John Grisham books, the plots are very similar in every book, as are the characters.

Jack Reacher is an ex-military, hottie nomad who travels the United States of America, usually by bus but sometimes by hitchhiking or stealing cars.  He most likely seduces the one beautiful woman in the story.  He always kicks the shit out of the baddies to save the small town/helpless locals from some rampant corruption.

There are no surprises.  You always know how it is going to end.  The locations change and I do love the fact that Lee Child is a Brit from Coventry, UK but has probably travelled to and stayed for a time in all 50 states just to get the local dialect and culture just right.

He's not going to win any prizes for high brow literature but I don't care.  They are fun. They make me believe that some stranger is out there fighting to take out the baddies without a care for the justice system or unrestrained violence. Of course, I wouldn't want my real world to be like this but a fantasy is always useful.

SIDE NOTE:  Tom Cruise has been woefully miscast in the role of Jack Reacher.  No, I haven't seen the film and I doubt that I will for several reasons:
  1. Reacher is 6'5".  Cruise is 5'7" in heels.
  2. Reacher has a 50-inch chest and weighs between 210 and 250 pounds (100–115 kg).  Cruise does not.  Not even close.
  3. Reacher has ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. Cruise does not.
  4. Reacher has very little body fat, and his muscular physique is completely natural. He is exceptionally strong but is not a good runner. Reacher is strong enough to break a man's neck with one hand and kill a villain with a single punch to the head or chest. In a fight against a 7 foot, 400 lb steroid-using thug, Reacher was able to lift his opponent into the air and drop him on his head.  Cruise does not and cannot not.  Not even with Hollywood magic.
  5. Reacher is supposed to be ruggedly good looking.  Cruise looks like a baby.
  6. Reacher is supposed to have been emotionally and physically scarred by his time as an MP in the US Army.  Cruise hasn't had a day of hard graft in his life and no amount of makeup is going to make him look like he has.
  7. There are a million other better casting choices.  OK, maybe not a million but I can name a few here:   a) Ray Stevenson, b)Viggo Mortenson - my personal favourite, c) Russell Crowe, d) Josh Holloway.  I should become a casting agent.

Instead I will let Reacher live on in my imagination.  And let the world be a better place with Reacher in it.  However, Child's betrayal of millions of fans who have spent roughly £7.99 on each of the 16 installments, and thus, making him a very rich man, will not be tolerated by this fan.  I will not buy another book by Lee Child.  I will do my best to avoid his pseudonyms.  My love affair with Jack Reacher is over.  Finished.  Finito. Done.  Complete.  The End.

Thursday 10 January 2013

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Oh, how I wish I had studied the classics.  The tales of the Greek Gods are filled with violence, jealousy, superstition, romance and sex.  What more does one need for a good story?  To start with, a command of this indecipherable language would be helpful.  Not Greek necessarily, but the poetry and structure in which The Iliad and The Odyssey were written have left them out of the reach of typical readers like myself, who decided a degree in computer science would be a far more useful.

One would think these stories, having been told for thousands of years, do not need to be told again.  Ah, but you would be wrong.  The Iliad weighs in at a mere 482 pages but the text can be somewhat (dare I say it?) incomprehensible to those mere mortals amongst us.   Put the same stories in the talented hands of Madeline Miller, these heroes and their tales of war come alive with their faults and flaws, love and lust, courage and foolishness.

The Song of Achilles provides a beautiful account of the alleged love story and sexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles while at the same time painting a brutal scene of the war and conflict that dominated their world.  And all in a language that I can read, enjoy and understand rather effortlessly.  The homosexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was never explicit in the Iliad and the nature of the word love can mean many different things:  love for a child, love for a friend, love for a lover, the act of loving, etc. But there is no such ambiguity in Miller's novel.  Miller embraces whole heartily the sexual nature of their relationship.  But there is more to this story than the sex.  The violence of the war, the disregard for the value of life, the egotistical drive to be the best:  the themes dominate the Greek myths and Miller makes it all fascinating as well as accessible.

I found the novel intense and engaging (read "I couldn't put the bloody book down").  The tender love between the lovers developed over decades.  The grief ravaged me and I cried when Patroclus died and Achilles wept inconsolably.  I felt his rage and commitment to revenge.  I don't doubt for one second, after reading this novel, that Achilles loved Patroclus with every fibre of his being, in every way possible.  The summoning of such anger would be difficult to imagine without the existence of such love. 

This wins the honour of being in my Top 10 2012 Reads and it gets 5 out of 5 stars from me.  If you haven't read it, do so.  Now!

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

I have a confession to make.  I am not a fan of Dickens.  Yes, I hear all the sharp intakes of breath.  How can I admit to such heresy?  Easy, I say.  I have tried and tried to read several of his novels and I have simply found them incomprehensible.  Bleak House and Oliver Twist top the list of books I  have failed to finish despite repeated attempts.  I am well aware that this means some of you may never trust another book review I write.  I am willing to take this risk.  I doubt my life will be ruined any more than it already is.

It does mean, however, that I may  have enjoyed this novel more if I had read and committed to memory the tome, Great Expectations.  It would appear that everyone else has.  Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and was the runner-up for the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year 2008.  Not sure what Oprah thought of it but she probably loved it.

Thankfully, I don't put too much stock in these literary prizes, that is until I win one.  I started reading this novel several times but it always made its way back into my pile to "to-read" as pile when I failed to make it beyond the first 30 pages or so.

The novel is set on a fictional but all too familiar tropical island beseiged by the horrors of an inexplicable civil war.  The native inhabitants of the island check every box on a list of cliches.  Mr. Watts is the only white inhabitant and has decided, I presume, that this qualifies him to be the teacher.  Regrettably, the only text book available is a copy of Great Expectations, which does at some point go missing entirely. His star pupil is a young, impressionable but questionably bright girl named Matilda.

I found the story mildly entertaining and Jones' prose is, at times, beautiful, although poetic might be stretching it a bit.   The savagery and randomness of the civil war is told with the same lyrical tone as the uplifting and heartwarming rhthym as Matilda's quest for knowledge and the truth.  I was, and will continue to be, dismayed by Mr Watt's cotinued presence on the island.

I gave this novel 3 out of 5 stars, mostly for originality in plot and the use of language.  But there is a pile of books unread next to my bed and I wish I had chosen something else.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes

Over the Christmas holidays I gave my final push towards my goal of reading 60 books in 2012.  I exceeded my target by 9 books!  Woo Hoo!  Now I get to tell you all about them.

This was the first book by Jojo Moyes that I had read and, to be honest, if it hadn't have been a free gift in my Red Network Event gift bag, I probably wouldn't have bought it.  Which would have been a huge mistake.

Set in the First World War, this book tells the story of a French artist and his muse who are torn apart by the horrors wreaked upon northern France and its citizens during the invasion and occupation by German Forces.  Edward Lefevre leaves his wife, Sophie, to fight on the front lines but Sophie is left with her own more subtle but nevertheless wretched battles to fight in their small village.
Interwoven is the story of Liv, who has also lost her husband and is suffering in the depths of her grief.  When a precious painting, a gift from her late husband, is suspected to be a stolen artifact from the war, Liv must pick herself up and fight to keep her most prized possession.
Other than Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, I have read few novels about the first World War.  I simply find them too harrowing.  This tale was no different.  But sometimes we must read that which frightens us.  Enjoyed is the wrong word to use to describe how I felt when reading about the suffering of the village and Sophie, in particular. I was moved by her dedication to Edward and compelled to keep reading whenever her story was on the page.
Liv's story on the other hand was less engaging.  As a character, I didn't relate to her at all.  Specifically, the relinquishment of her total life to her husband's choices was annoying.  I found her story tedious and read through the chapters with her story as quickly as possible.
The ending is predictable but satisfying, especially the fate of Edward and Sophie.  I enjoyed this novel tremendously which is why it gets 4 out of 5 stars. The only thing holding back that coveted last star is that I felt more time could have been spent developing a more plausible plot and likable character in the modern day storyline.

Monday 7 January 2013

Use What You Got

The start of a new year is also the depths of winter.  Having come from one of the sunniest places in the world (aka Colorado), I find this time of year bleak.  The sun has made exactly one appearance over the last 3 weeks.  The children have been out of school since mid December and although we have unconditional love for each other, every day brings a new opportunity to keep them from killing each other.

Despite what my nutritionist tells me, I refuse to buy strawberries or any other fresh fruit or vegetable that is out of season.  My cupboards are also stuffed to bursting with tins and packages of items that jut simply didn't get used over the last year.  We've all spent way to much money over the festive holidays and we have probably set ourselves some resolutions about improving our financial standing over the next year.

We get a box delivered to us from the wonderful people at Abel and Cole every week.  The beauty of this arrangement is that they only deliver what is in season.  The challenge of this arrangement is that I am occasionally (aka usually) baffled by the contents.  Turnips, celeriac, and cabbage don't typically feature on my grocery list when I go to the shops but the rule is "If they send it, we will eat it."

With these objectives in mind, my children embrace (aka tolerate) the wonders of my Recipe Imagination. My husband will eat anything I put in front of him, so I worry less about him. His stomach is a slut.  My goals are to use up all the beautiful in season produce delivered that week and to empty my cupboards, fridge and freezer of the various bits and bobs that have been hanging around for far too long.  This also means I suspend the need to go to the grocery store or have a load delivered when, in fact, my family has plenty and doesn't need anymore.

I've tried referencing cookbooks, both online and printed.  I have an extensive collection of cookbooks.  I read them like novels.  But they have failed to provide me with a cupboard cleaning remedy.  So, into the depths of my imagination I have gone.

So far, my imagination hasn't let us down.  Or poisoned us.  Here's the first success!

3 Bean, Beef and Turnip Slow Cooker Chili

1 tin kidney beans
1 tin chickpeas
1 tin Berlotti beans
4 carrots, peeled and sliced thickly)
4 small turnips, peeled and chunked into bite size pieces
3 onions, peeled and sliced
1 tin whole tomatoes
2 cups beef (we had some leftover from our Christmas rib roast that I chunked up and threw in)
1 Tbsp cumin
1 Tbsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp mild chili powder
1 tsp salt

Throw it all in the slow cooker for 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low.  Serve over tortilla chips with grated cheddar cheese and a dollop of sour cream.  

This got 5/5 stars from my husband and I.  4/5 stars from my son.  And a mere 1/5 stars from my daughter.  She hates anything that isn't bread right now so I wouldn't put much stock in her opinion. 

May all your cupboards be bare (temporarily)!