Chelsea to Tel Aviv?

“I created one super successful football club. Maybe I should do it again. In Tel Aviv.” Picture source: WikiMedia

This may not be the most mature response to Roman Abramovich’s new status as an Israeli citizen, now that he has pulled the plug on the Chelsea stadium project, and there are rumors he is trying to sell the club and quit his commercial ties to the UK. However, I cannot help hoping that Israel’s richest citizen does sell Chelsea and then buys Maccabi Tel Aviv, turning it into a European giant of a club that puts Israeli soccer on the map, big time. Boy, would that seriously trouble the BDS activists in Europe!

I know it’s very unlikely, but it’s an intellectual and emotional pleasure playing with the possibilities. I mean, if deals could be done fast enough, the dream outcome would be the double signing of Gareth Bale and Cristian Ronaldo…

[Not so incidentally, if you look at the mainstream media discussion boards about this – for example, the Guardian – you will see that some of the comments are infused with what can only be called antisemitism. It seems that a certain group of people were glad to have Roman while he was their team’s benefactor. But when he is said to be departing, suddenly he is evil, corrupt, and Jewish. As I have said before, the ability of people posting on these boards to hide behind pseudonyms, gives them the ‘courage’ to post vile hate and naked antisemitism. If they were forced to give their true identities, I wonder how many of them would be so bold? Or, is it better that they vent their spleen? Not a short topic. But it needs dealt with.]

All Systems Red – Martha Wells

This is a science fiction story about a robot/android who hacks his way into sentient independence, but doesn’t reveal this to his human owners. Murderbot – as he calls himself – is a SecUnit, deployed as a security guard with a team of scientists working on a planet to see what is there and what might be the best way of developing it. There is another team working on a different part of the planet with their own SecUnits.

This is a universe of mega corporations, where everything must be approved and supplied by corporate masters. And, since contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, quality and safety are not high on the list of priorities. Meantime, Murderbot secretly watches soap operas, hoping the humans will leave him alone so he can work out what exactly he is.

Our hero has a bit of a black mark in his employment record: he slaughtered a team of miners he was working for. His memory of that is incomplete, but it lingers at the edge of his consciousness as he interacts with his current team members. Do they know? What do they think, if they do?

Events take a turn for the worse, and Murderbot becomes the only thing standing between the scientists and their demise. The action that follows is a mix of shoot-em-up and clever maneuvering, with a fairly relentless cranking up of the tension.

This novella is good fun, and it led to me looking for more of the same. I have refrained from buying any others because, although all of novella length, they are priced the same as full length novels, and there is that creeping sensation of ripoff. I’ll maintain a watching brief.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

This gets the prize for quirkiest murder mystery I have read in a while. As you will guess from the title, it is set primarily in a bookstore. Lydia Smith, the bookseller with a social conscience, tends to and is sympathetic to the homeless and the oddball characters who are regularly present there as a refuge from the outside world.

One such regular is Joey Molina. His death triggers an investigation into his life and the connections he had, all delivered by messages fashioned by him from books in the store. Lydia has to track down the books, decode the messages, and work on what these clues mean, and what part they play in explaining Joey’s life and death, and Lydia’s role in his world.

This is a touching, lovingly told tale, with some nice characterization, and a gentle style that eases you along despite the death and tragedy that underpin the investigation and search for the truth.

This is one to be savored, especially by book lovers.

The Toughest Challenge

“I think I’m being followed.”

Sovev Yerushalayim (“Around Jerusalem”) is a mountain biking event that was originally started as part of the celebrations to mark the opening of the Tachanah (“Station”) complex in Jerusalem, where the old Ottoman era train station was. It has continued each year since then, with a range of events – 8, 20, 40, and 50 km – to suit riders of all abilities.

Susan, Shosh and I have habitually done the 40 km event, starting and returning to the Tachanah, and feeling totally exhausted. Last year, Susan suggested we should aim to do the 50 km event in 2018. So, that’s what we decided to, though I was fearful that the extra 10 km was a bit too much.

Then real life interfered:

First, Susan had too many bouts of illness to properly train, so it was left to Shosh and me to live up to Susan’s suggestion!

Second, the event was postponed from 27 April (due to bad weather) to 11 May. It was bound to be hotter.

Third, they changed the route to keep us away from the Tachanah and the center of Jerusalem. Instead, we started and finished at the zoo. It was a much harder route even without the extra 10 km.

So, on the day, Shosh and I turned up ready for the 6.45 AM start we had in our welcome pack. Unbeknownst to us, the organizers had brought the start forward for the 50 km riders to 6.30 AM. As we were late, and ignorant of this, it meant we were caught in the much bigger mass of 40 km riders. The effect was to slow us down. Not that we would have been riding too much faster, but we would have avoided the stop-start delay at various choke points on the route, where the trails were not wide enough for everyone to pass at the same time.

The 50 km route included a circular 10 km add on to the 40 km route. When we eventually got to the start of that add on, many of the 50 km riders were finishing it. Needles to say, the add on was 10 km of hard, mostly uphill riding. And the sun was starting to make its presence felt.

Between gasps for breath and prayers for the pain to stop, I could admire the beautiful scenery: stunning views, fantastic panoramas, a glorious impossibly blue sky, and the buzz of a great biking event. Then back to the pain… Keep pedaling!

Shosh and I persevered, helping one another keep going until, eventually, we made it to the finish.

At the end, having long since drunk my water dry, I gladly accepted a bottle of water thrown to me by the staff at the finishing line. I took off the top and poured it over me. Unfortunately, the bottle had clearly been out in the heat too long, because it gave me a hot shower. Oh dear. Well, you cannot get everything you want, can you?

I was so exhausted, that I could not raise my bike enough to get it on the bike rack. I had to put it down and grab a five minute nap, to add a little charge to my drained batteries. I also drove home much more slowly than usual, conscious that I was not at my most alert.

“Five minutes rest, then I’ll put you on the rack.”

That 50 km event was the most physically demanding challenge I have ever faced. Immediately afterwards my feelings were along the lines of I’m never doing that again. In fact, I’m not doing the 50, the 40, the 20 or any part of the Sovev next year.

Of course, with the pain and effort slipping from my memory, I am not that sure what I will do. One thing is for sure though: next year, Susan is joining in, no matter what!

Earthly Remains – Donna Leon

A fine addition to the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, being an adventure built around our hero’s partially enforced break from the Venetian Questura, on one of the islands in the laguna. With his contacts, accommodation is available, complete with caretaker, one Davide Casati. Brunetti bonds with Casati, and becomes a witness to the man’s environmental concerns.

What happens next is that Brunetti reverts to his role as a policeman, investigating the disappearance of his new found friend after a terrible storm.

There are secrets to be unearthed, and much disruption to be introduced into the lives of some who thought they were safe and secure from the forces of law and order. Brunetti digs away until he gets, inevitably, to the shocking truth.

As usual, the book is packed with the details of life in that part of the world that make the backdrop as much of a character as Brunetti. The supporting characters are generally enough to get the action moving, though Casati is a wee bit more roundly presented.

The plot is easy enough to unravel, but for best entertainment it is best to let the author tell it in her own way, with a smooth, peaceful narrative that holds back the righteous anger deserved of the baddies. The journey, with Leon, is beautifully presented, restrained, and ever thought provoking.

Although there are many books in the series, you can read this on its own. But, if you want my recommendation, start with the first – Death at La Fenice – and continue in order. You won’t regret it.

The Berlin Project – Gregory Benford

This book sets out to tell what could have happened had the Allies been able to put together a working atom bomb by June 1944. The central scientific idea is that there was a quicker way to create the uranium isotope needed for the bomb, although in reality a combination of factors saw the scientists go down a different, slower route.

Be warned – spoilers ahead!

The main character for our purposes is Karl Cohen, the scientist with the key to making the bomb that much faster. As part of the Manhattan Project, he deals with a slew of scientific talent, many with their own foibles. The book lets us meet greats such as Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi and more. Unfortunately, from an entertainment perspective, some of this nuclear development is turgid and boring. The book sags. It’s full of strange asides that don’t make sense until later, when you discover that Cohen was not only a real person, but was the author’s father-in-law! (Indeed, much of the historical details, like documents, are real items appropriated by Benford to stiffen his book with authenticity.) When you have the connection, it does not make the pace that much faster, but at least you understand the author’s perspective. File it under interesting rather than enthralling. And if you are not a history buff, it might not even be interesting.

The second half of the book improves, as the bomb is used and the hell that is war – up to now kept well away from the scientists and their research – is brought up front and center. Cohen becomes involved almost at the sharp end, and the full thrust of the alternate history is let loose. This is where the book is at its best.

This is a fascinating novel for the way the author has built something out of his own family history. I get the impression this was his love letter to his family, and that wonderful appreciation fired his imagination enough to want to tell a story. The trouble, from my perspective, is that the story does not have the same impact or attraction as might have been expected. Perhaps this occurred because Benford chose to stick as close to the truth as he could, and made no concessions for the sake of dramatic effect.

To mix a metaphor or two, this was not a dud, but more of a near thing; a failed experiment that I am glad I read, if only to momentarily to bring back to life the (largely unsung) heroes who toiled to advance the cause of freedom in the face of great evil.

The Way of Kings (Part One) – Brandon Sanderson

Highly regarded sword and sorcery fantasy novel, this left me cold, cold, cold.

The book runs several narrative threads, with a diverse range of characters each apparently on their own plot line.

There’s a lot of invention, but that hopeful indication is let down by one dimensional characters – ie good or bad – and page after page after page of nothingness delivered by way of overwritten, under-edited prose. Sanderson can write, but not always to the required level of quality. And the lack of action dropped the pace so much i nearly fell asleep reading it. The plot is OK, but while it doubtless took some work to construct, it neither drew me in, nor convinced me of its plausibility. Partly that was because the characters also failed to entice me.

In summary, this was like watching an animated cartoon that had been slowed down so much, you wondered if you were ever going to be able to see any action. Nice colors, though.

Overall, this gets a “D” for disappointing.