Book Reviews

It’s been a while since I finished reading something, and this month I managed to finish two things.  One was a full length book, the other was a piece of short fiction.  Here are my reviews.

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

I received this book as a gift at Christmas this past year, and is a story I’ve had my eye on for quite a while.  What I didn’t know about it: it was originally written in Swedish, translated to English (and presumably many other languages since).  It’s a simple story, and starts exactly as the title suggests: A 100-year-old man climbs out of his window and disappeared, launching a man-hunt for him across Sweden.

It earns many comparisons to Forest Gump, mainly because the story of his past is told in parallel with the present-day story.  In his past, he interacts with many different historical figures and winds up inadvertently shaping historic events simply by dumb luck.

I’m normally not a fan of descriptions that compare the book to another work of fiction, simply because it saddles a lot of preconceptions onto the new work.  I tried not to think about the Forest Gump comparisons but after finishing the novel, felt that it was a pretty apt description.

The story is pretty funny overall, and the pacing was generally quite good.  At some points I thought that this wasn’t the case; some of the telling of his life in the past felt slow and left me wanting to get back to what the main character was up to in the present day.

I give it an A-, definitely worth a read.

Dead Trees Give No Shelter

Dead Trees Give No Shelter
Dead Trees Give No Shelter

This is a shorter piece of fiction, about 40 pages.  Wil Wheaton (yes, THAT Wil Wheaton) wrote it with an intended release for Halloween, as a break between a longer novel that he’s working on.

It’s a supernatural / horror story, which coincidentally also moves between the past and present day (and a quick jaunt into the year 2031).  I didn’t intend to pick two stories to review that had a similar story mechanic, it’s something I just realized.

Here’s what I wrote about it on Goodreads:

A quick but very enjoyable read. Wil Wheaton created a moody atmosphere and did a really good job of “hiding the monster” until it needed to come out of hiding. The story has a certain symmetry to it as well. At one point when I was reading it, I was listening to the E.T. soundtrack, which perfectly fit the tone that I think Wheaton was aiming for. There were some instances where the dialog didn’t work for me, but it wasn’t enough to make me give up reading in disgust. Solid read – pick it up after watching Stranger Things (or watch Stranger Things after reading this).

I really liked it.  Around the time that I finished reading this I also binged through the rest of Stranger Things, which was great.  Similar atmospheres, which I think is exactly what Wheaton was going for.

Since you probably won’t need help finding The 100 Year Old Man… on book shelves, I’ll just give you a link to Dead Trees Give No Shelter.  You can pick it up in multiple forms – I personally bought the eBook.  You can also listen to the Audiobook, which was narrated by Wil himself.

What’s next?  I’m going to finally read Timothy Zahn’s Survivor’s Quest + Outbound Flight; I’ve also got a World War II book I picked up from a bargain table that looks interesting.  I definitely have no shortage of things to read on my bookshelf.

Podcast Update for June

Here’s your podcast update for June!  There’s actually a lot going on for what is usually considered an “off-season” for entertainment.  If you want, you can download my subscription list at http://www.noformatblog.ca/podcasts_opml.xml

Dropped Podcasts

I don’t recall dropping any subscriptions.  Good news!

Returning Shows

This list is somewhat long!  That’s really cool.

  • The Pitch is back!  Three new episodes came out, and while I was disappointed with the unannounced break I’m pretty happy there are new shows to evaluate.  Season 3 started June 14th and is now part of Gimlet.
  • Grant Lawrence is back on CBC Radio 3!  Which is now “Canada Sounds”, which I need to listen more for a proper evaluation.  I guess they got tired of doing the usual show of just playing cool music with the occasional feature.  Now it sounds like something tied even more strongly into Canada.  Episodes are short, it seems!
  • Radio Free Burrito – Wil Wheaton is trying to keep to a weekly schedule.  So far so good.  I’ve always liked this show, and it’s pretty much an audio version of his blog.  A show I usually listen to first as soon as it comes out.
  • Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder – season 2 seems to be looking at the Daniel Morgan murder from a slightly different perspective, assuming that the listener is familiar with the story.  Leans heavily on the host’s new book.

Recommended Listening

  • Overthinking It Podcast episode 464: E.T.: I Learned it from You, Alien Dad! 
    • Why this episode?  Because for a long time I’ve been meaning to re-watch E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  I keep seeing it on Netflix and I don’t think I’ve watched it in 20+ years.  This episode is a deep dive on what’s going on with the movie E.T. (as opposed to covering the apparently terrible Alien Covenant), and was really fun to listen to.  They touched on so many aspects that I’d never noticed before so I had to watch it.
    • Pair this listening with a viewing of E.T.  You won’t regret it!

New Subscriptions

Just one – Back to the Futurama.  For the longest time, Futurama Pedia was the only Futurama podcast around but that’s changed!  Back to the Futurama is going through all of the Futurama episodes in order, from what I can tell.  I haven’t listened through everything, and still need to finish listening to their Space Pilot 3000 episode.  But it’s pretty good!

Got any podcasts you’d like to recommend?

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua Review

I recently had to send my regular phone in for repair (I got it back today!  Quick service, Rogers!), and received a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua as a loaner unit so I could still function in the real world.  Here’s a review of the device and my short time with it.

The Screen

My “daily driver”, as the tech junkie parlance goes, is a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which sports a 5.5″ screen.  It’s capable of displaying what Samsung calls WQHD or something.  Either way, it’s a really good screen, so this is the first thing I noticed on the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua.

The Xperia’s screen is 5.0″, so not significantly smaller than what I’m used to.  The resolution is only 720×1280, a rather large dropdown from Samsung.  But everything on the Xperia is bright and generally looks good.  This probably sounds strange, but everything looks “flat” but that works for the device build (which I’ll get to).

The adaptive brightness seems to work really well, and really quickly.  I was outside BBQing Monday night, in bright sunlight; at first it was hard to read the screen but within seconds the brightness dialed up and I was able to read it no problem.  Admittedly it’s probably a tad slower than most high-end devices but it’s good enough for me.

Software

I was happily surprised to see that the device launched with Android 6.0.1.  I was expecting to see Android L, as I knew pretty much nothing about the Xperia line.  For a 2 year old device, that kind of OS software support is pretty good.

It looks like Sony has kept a mostly stock Android feel to the device, unlike Samsung which layers on its TouchWiz experience that makes their version of Android look very different from stock.  The only reason I recognize the stock look of 6.0.1 is because I briefly used Cyanogen on my old Galaxy SIII a couple of years ago, and it looks pretty much like what I see on the Xperia M4 Aqua.

I quickly installed Nova Launcher on top of it though, so my user experience was almost identical to what I’m used to on my S7.  I wasn’t really a fan of Sony’s default interface, and they install a lot of bloatware.  Luckily I was able to ignore or disable most of it to be able to dive into actually using my device.

Performance

I noticed some sluggishness with the phone – but that’s going to happen when the chipset used is significantly inferior to what I’m used to.  I don’t understand the full differences but suffice it to say, it is noticeable.  However, there were only a handful of times when I felt annoyed by the lag on the device, so overall I’d say it’s acceptable.

Plus, I turned on Developer Options and turned off all of the animations – and that made a huge difference.  Cosmetic perhaps, but it worked for me.

It was a bit slow to open the camera on demand, so quick pics are probably not going to happen easily.  But I didn’t get many photo ops while testing the device, so a very minor knock against the unit.

Speaking of which…

Camera

I own a Sony DSC-H300, so I was looking forward to some “camera synergy” with the Xperia M4 Aqua.  I wasn’t able to dig too deep with the settings but most of the familiar camera modes were there, including a pretty robust “Pro” mode, which I was happy was there.  I took a few shots – I think the quality is good, but not great.  Much better than the other reviews I read of the phone.

They definitely look better on a proper display than how they showed at the time on the device.

View post on imgur.com

View post on imgur.com

View post on imgur.com

Phone Build

Here’s where I felt the phone suffered.  It felt very cheap, like it was just a piece of plastic and not a phone.  It’s very light.  On the other hand, the device is apparently fully waterproof and features a dedicated camera button so you could take pictures under water if you wanted to!  That’s pretty neat.

I count this next app as a hardware “tick” because it requires physical components to work.  The Xperia has a built-in FM radio!  Yeah, not a big deal when you can stream things all the time…but sometimes I just want good old FM radio.  I used to have a Nokia phone that had a built-in FM tuner, and it was great.

Overall Impressions

You can probably tell from the body of the review that I enjoyed using this phone.  I was expecting something lacklustre, but was (marginally) blown away by the quality under the hood, even though it looks and feels like a cheap phone.

I would most definitely recommend this phone for someone who needed a cheap replacement, but it’s definitely not going to compare to a flagship device.  I might also consider finding a cheap unlocked version of my own to use as a backup / media device.  I was that impressed with it.

Flash Fiction Prompt

I was listening to Episode 35 of Anthology yesterday which covered the topic of genies.  It got me thinking a little bit about something to write, but as usual I was on a walk while I was listening to this is all based on memory!

Anyway, I thought I’d provide everyone with a Flash Fiction Prompt.  If you’re not familiar with the term “flash fiction”, you may want to familiarize yourself with the Wikipedia entry.  The short version (or “flash” version, if you will) is that Flash Fiction is really short, usually no more than 1000 words.  The shortest most-known story is of course The Six Word Story.

Flash Fiction Prompt

All I remembered from my walk was this prompt:

A genie grants you three wishes.

And that’s it.  Run with it!

Meaning in Songs

I’ve heard the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros twice in the last 2 weeks, both times showing up in one of my Spotify Daily Mixes.  It got me thinking about meaning in songs, because “Home” holds a special meaning to me.

Intended vs Derived Meaning 

I’ve written before about how I sometimes have trouble identifying with music; specifically because I don’t focus on the lyrics.  So a lot of the time, I miss out on the intended meaning of a song.  Even then, sometimes I’m a little obtuse when it comes to metaphors in songs and I get surprised at the “real” meanings.

So most of the time, I put more importance into the derived meaning of songs.  What I mean by that is the feelings and thoughts I associate with that particular music.  For some things – like The Barenaked Ladies’ “Maroon” or Our Lady Peace’s “Spiritual Machines” – I associate them with a particular time in my life (high school).  They bring back some memories of when I first listened to the albums and songs, but I don’t really find a deeper “meaning” to them.

But then there’s a seemingly simple song like “Home”, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (released in 2010 I beileve).

Home 

I call it simple but it works just fine for me.  I can’t remember when I first heard this song, but I do know that it hasn’t always held a significant meaning for me.  The main lyric of the chorus says it all about the song:

Home is wherever I’m with you.

I always liked it because the beat is great and the vocals are fun and light.  But two years ago, my wife took a job in another city; for a year and a half we lived apart.  For the first year or so, we kept our house we were renting.  It made sense – the job was at the time just on contract.  Then when her job turned permanent, it didn’t make sense anymore to keep the house, and we moved out, marking the time until I could figure out how to move my job to be with her.

In the end, it all worked out – but in that period of time that we were apart, I listened to this song a lot.  Even when I was still in our house, I didn’t feel like I was at home.  It was that point that the song started to mean a lot more to me than being a catchy pop tune that I really liked.

So now whenever it comes on at random, I try to take some time to just listen to the song.

For me I think the derived meaning of songs is much more important than the intended meaning.  I’m sure that artists are always thinking about the meaning in their music, and that’s good, but just like writing, being able to put your own spin on a song when you hear is what makes it a more personal experience.

Yeah, sure, I always have time for songs you just crank up the volume for when you drive.  But when I can infer a deeper meaning in songs, it makes the experience that much more enjoyable.