Red Seas Under Red Skies is part 2 of The Gentleman Bastards series (here’s my review of book one).

Locke’s thieving life continues in Red Seas, this time focusing on one Big Con that will hopefully set Locke and Jean up to live comfortably the rest of their lives. Of course, complications arise, and his plans get more and more tangled.

Red Seas has got almost all the good bits of part 1 (colourful environments, snappy dialogue, humour, lots of action) and is free the most obvious weakness of part 1 (a chopped-up narration because of frantic cutting between past and present). The pacing really is a lot better. We come in towards the end of the run-up to the big heist, and while there are flashbacks to Locke’s earlier preparations, these are few and well placed.

As the title hints, this book has got not just thieves but pirates, too. Halfway through it goes from being a Big Con book to being a pirate book – it’s really two stories in one. Most of the time that’s OK but the whole thing gets quite frantic in pace at the end when all has to be resolved.

I was a bit disappointed that the book doesn’t take the overarching story of Locke’s life any further. In the first book he grew up, became a thief, made friends, got a gang etc etc. Here he just spends a few years of his life thieving and conning, and by the end of it, not much has changed. I’m hoping for more of a long-term plan in book 3.

I also hope he gets a new gang or at least some more friends in the next book. Book 1 had a fair number of colourful likeable characters, but in book 2 instead of a whole gang there’s just Locke and Jean most of the time. That gives us too few people to care about, although we do get some pirates to care about for a while.

The pirates are of course as good and decent inside as the thieves. All this pirating, killing and looting is just a job. In fact, most of the time the series strongly romanticises crime and violence. There are likeable thieves who steal only from the rich, beautiful female pirates, exciting escapes and so on. It could almost get tasteless… but then at regular intervals in both books, a conflict ends with the death of someone Locke cares about. It’s not all fun and games, being a thief.

Speaking of dying, Lynch seems to have a great fondness for cruel and unusual punishments. In his books people invent ever more bizarre poisons, torture others for fun, organise violent games, or exact revenge through slow and painful death. None of this leads to more than raised eyebrows – no outrage, no campaigning for ending cruelty to the poor. The morals in Locke’s world must be different than in ours.

But all these complaints are minor quibbles. I found Red Seas to be a very enjoyable book, great fun to read, a book that makes time fly past. It’s like a good James Bond movie, complete with evil overlord and a ticking bomb kind of death threat, lots of action and flair and fun in exotic places. I’m already looking forward to book 3.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.

A few months ago I wrote about Ingrid’s crying and tantrums, about how strongly they affect me, and how I cannot ignore them. The more I think about it, the more I think that is a good thing, and I shouldn’t try to ignore her crying.

A commenter said she is immune to her child’s wailing if it’s not because he is sick or hurt. But then I thought about what would make me sad, and I can think of many things that would upset me more than plain physical pain. Disappointment, frustration, loneliness, anxiety, loss, fear… I am sure these all are as upsetting for a child as for an adult, if not more. Frustration and disappointment in particular must be a big part of a toddler’s life. They are just starting to understand the world and want to do more with it, but still have very limited power to express their wishes and to affect the world around them.

Sometimes the root cause of the unhappiness is something that can be solved. Lonely and tired and don’t want to sit in the pushchair? OK, we’ve got a baby carrier for that (a whole stash of them in fact). Other times I either cannot or will not solve the problem. Upset because I don’t allow her to stab the kitchen table with her fork? Too bad, I still won’t allow it. Disappointed because the playroom we were going to visit is closed? Well, so am I, but there’s not much I can do about it.

But even if I cannot fix the problem, I don’t want to ignore Ingrid’s crying. She has no other way of expressing these emotions, after all – I can hardly expect her to sigh and say “I’m really disappointed”. She has had so little experience of disappointment in her short life, of course she’s going to be bad at dealing with these feelings! Over time she will learn to recognise these feelings, understand, express and control them. At the moment, however, she needs adult help. So I do it for her: I talk to her, and say the things I think she might want to say if only she knew how.

Of course she would eventually stop crying if I ignored her as well. But I believe it is more productive in the long run if I help her handle the situation.

PS: Things may change when Ingrid grows older and we get to real attention-seeking tantrums, exaggerating the unhappiness because of the reaction it provokes, making noise because it might get you things. But that’s not what’s happening now.

I was looking (online) for a new bikini. My old one is, I think, over 10 years old. Old enough that I cannot remember how old it is!

And the internet is full of totally ridiculous tiny pieces of cloth being sold as bikinis. I’m no prude but when wearing a bikini requires not just a shaved bikini line but a shaved everything, and it looks like it barely covers the relevant body parts, the whole thing looks indecent, frankly, and faintly disgusting (to the point that I don’t want that picture on my blog). Better to go naked, then: I would prefer wholesome natural nudity to this affected “covering up”.

Swimwear appears to fall into two categories. On the beach you bare everything (limited only by your notions of decency); in the swimming pool you wear a one-piece swimsuit. There’s very little in between – very few bikinis that look like they would be comfortable and actually allow me to move as well.

In the end I found some from BonPrix that appear comfortable, although they do make me think of middle-aged ladies… But then again I will mostly be using mine in a middle-aged setting (in the swimming pool with Ingrid), not strutting around on the beach like a teenager, so I guess it’ll sort of fit in.

Having read and enjoyed Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, I picked up Gregory Maguire’s other retelling of a fairy story: Wicked, telling the behind-the-scenes story of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

If Oz is a wonderful childhood memory for you, you may not want to read this. This book takes Oz as a starting point and twists it so it is barely recognizable apart from the basic structure. The Wizard, it turns out, was a cruel and repressive dictator, while Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was far more interested in science and politics than in sorcery.

The book is presented as an exploration of what it means to be evil, about the nature of evil. In fact the book does not say much interesting about evil at all. But if you ignore this false marketing and approach it simply as a story, the book is very well worth reading.

It’s the story of Elphaba’s life. And it’s not a very uplifting story. Oz is a dismal and dreary land, and Elphaba’s life is a tragedy more than an adventure. She has a harsh childhood (with her father a religious fanatic and her mother dead when Elphaba is only five years old) going on through a rebellious adolescence to stormy adulthood. She has a strong moral sense and great courage, but nevertheless she doesn’t succeed in changing any of the wrongs she sees around her. She leads a passionate but generally lonely life. As the years pass she comes to feel like a failure, becoming somewhat unbalanced, in the end probably slightly mad. And when Dorothy’s party of travellers comes along (and she is fully aware that they’re there to kill her) and cruelly slaughters her favourite dog, she goes over the edge.

Or maybe it’s really the story of her death? It’s not quite as obvious as getting to the end of the book and then seeing how all the pages, all the events before were leading up to that point. But to some extent it is like that. We know from the beginning that she will die, even how she will die, so we know where the story will end up.

Several reviewers complain that the book doesn’t have a plot, that characters come and go without warning, that story threads run out without being tidied up. There is no climax and no conclusion. That’s all factually correct but it didn’t bother me at all. This is Elphaba’s story; what happens to the other characters is only relevant to the extent it affects Elphaba’s life. And how many lives have a climax and a dramatic conclusion? Very few, I’d imagine. Instead we live, perhaps struggle to achieve something, until we die, one way or another.

Despite all this, I somehow didn’t find the book depressing. I thought it was a great story, imaginative and engaging, and well told. Well worth reading.

If you want more reviews, go here for a negative one and here for a positive one.

Amazon US, Amazon UK.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The Exquisite seems to be the story of a drunk, mentally unstable thief named Henry and his friend Mr. Kindt. Mr. Kindt is an older gentleman with a passion for herring who may be a crime boss, a descendant of the subject of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, or both. Somehow he manages to come across as spooky rather than silly (at least mostly), as do his associates, the contortionist twins and a beautiful tattoo artist named Tulip. Henry visits Mr. Kindt in his apartment, has long conversations with him, and sort of becames engaged to perform certain “services” for Mr. Kindt.

Interspersed with scenes of this story is another one, where Henry is in the hospital after a traffic accident. Mr. Kindt is also in the hospital, and they are cared for by a Dr. Tulp. People sharing names and characteristics float from one story to another, and it never becomes quite clear whether they are the same people or not – just as it is never clear whether these parallel scenes precede, follow, or coincide with the main story.

Even though there are sequences of events, the book doesn’t exactly have a plot. The whole thing is vaguely dreamlike and has a hallucinatory feel – as if Henry was floating through the world only half-aware of what was going on around him, and occasionally mixed up dream and reality.

I found it hard to really get engaged in the book and struggled to keep reading it. It wasn’t exactly bad but it didn’t pull me in at all. Reviews that I’ve seen of the book have ranged from positive to glowing. Perhaps this is another one of those too-modern books that some of us just don’t “get”.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.

My workday today started with me getting stuck in an elevator for an hour. First the elevator stopped. Then it went dark. And then I got a chance to try one of those little alarm buttons.

And then I waited. They called an engineer but it took about an hour before he got there. In the meantime I learned to play the puzzle game on my phone (and had time to wish that it had better games) and ate my breakfast sandwich. Very disappointingly I had a yoghurt as well, and I really wished I could eat it, but I had no spoon. I have many useful things in my handbag but no spoon just now. Note to self: always carry a spoon.

After six and a half years in London, we have decided to move back to Sweden.

London has always been a temporary place for us. We’ve always known that we’ll move back sooner or later, but it’s always been one to two years in the future. But now we’ve made up our minds.

Ingrid is the main reason. London is fun when you’re young and free – there is so much to do. Now we can’t really do many of those things any more. Instead we notice that there is no greenery, nowhere for Ingrid to play, and no family. We feel a bit isolated. We also want Ingrid to be closer to her extended family. She has two small cousins in Stockholm. They both really enjoy meeting their extended family, and our visits are always big events for them. We want Ingrid to have that kind of opportunity as well.

The contract on our apartment runs out in March, so it was either move now, or move next year. So now it is.

On Sunday we had our first evening out since April. We went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. We’ve seen, I believe, all their shows that have come to London, and generally buy tickets for each one as soon as as they become available (about a year in advance).

The show wasn’t bad, but I felt it was not up to their usual standard. It was not as innovative as I had expected. Are they running out of ideas, getting stale? Or is it just me, getting used to their thing? In any case it wasn’t quite worth the money I thought (given how horrendously expensive the tickets are, plus the expense of 5 hours of babysitting).

Nevertheless a good show. As usual, a Cirque du Soleil show has to be seen as a whole rather than separate parts. The costumes, music, the acts themselves, etc all have an overarching theme and a coherent feeling. The costumes in particular were fabulous, impressive enough on their own and then even more impressive when you stop to think that the artists can move freely in them without destroying the costumes.

You can’t go wrong with skilled acrobats and tumblers, and two of the strongest acts of this show were acrobatic. One was a tumbling act: two men reclining on their back, spinning their partners with their feet. (Youtube video – you can skip the first 2:30 of the clip which is just general prancing around.) The other one was a Russian swings act – acrobats launched from swings high into the air where they turn and tumble, and then impossibly land on each others’ shoulders, or gracefully “land” high up on a large canvas nets stretched out behind them. (Youtube video.) In both acts the feats that the acrobats perform become gradually more and more impressive until I sat there with my mouth open and could hardly believe the things I was seeing.

At the other extreme of the scale were some totally boring swirlers (marketed as a Georgian dance) and an almost-as-boring hand-balancing contortionist doing nothing new. The swirling dancers were so boring I don’t understand why they were even included in the show. If someone turns up at a circus with swirling as their only skill, you wouldn’t generally expect them to be hired!

My favourite act was an aerial one – two men hanging from wrist straps, swinging high and wide across the scene, sometimes together, sometimes apart. When they first appeared, in tight low-cut black leather, my first thought was, “how much did they pay them to wear those costumes?”. But the act itself was beautiful, well-coreographed and very expressive. Refreshingly, they were not aiming for a pretty result (which is where most aerial acrobatics end up sooner or later) – it was angular and sharp, full of heels and elbows. Very fittingly the performers are two brothers (Andrew and Kevin Atherton). (Youtube video.)

I look back at what I wrote last month, and I see that a month ago Ingrid had just learned to walk. That seems so long ago now. Walking was, of course, just the first step (if you pardon the pun). Walking opened the way to carrying things around, which is hard when you’re crawling, but is apparently enjoyable. Walking led to more climbing. And walking also meant that we can now go to playgrounds. Previously the swings were the only things that we could use, but now that Ingrid can walk around she can explore the whole playground and decide for herself what she wants to do.

In general Ingrid has become stronger and more coordinated. When we go swimming, she can hold onto the bar so well that I don’t need to support her at all. She likes being swung and spun and thrown up in the air, and bounced on my knees. When I stop, she jumps up and down until we do it again and again. I thought that this kind of activities was more for babies, but Ingrid enjoys them much more now than she did as a baby – she shrieks with laughter.

She also enjoys singing and music more than ever. She likes me to sing for her, and to listen to music, and she will bob her head and try to dance to the music. The theme music for Futurama is a particular favourite of hers. One day last week I even managed to cut her fingernails without any screaming, because I was singing to her all that time.

Toys are still mostly boring. If she plays with anything, it’s my gloves and hats. She can get a hand into a glove, and almost a hat on her head. But she is much more interested in picture books. The bigger the book, the better, is the general rule, although she also likes Muuu, säger kon and even a story book – Max bil. She can now turn the pages in those herself even though they are paper and not cardboard, although a few accidents have happened and the Max book has required some major repairs.

This month Ingrid has also learned to sign so she can now tell us when she is finished with something, and when she wants milk, food, or sleep. This has made life quite a lot easier.

No new teeth (still 8). Eating habits swing wildly, apart from breast milk which she likes as much as ever. For a while cream cheese was a great favourite but then that passed as well. Now the latest thing seems to be bread. Fruit, which used to be pure ambrosia, is now mostly rejected – even mandarins. Fruit juice however is good. Go figure.

This Saturday we went to see the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum. Advance tickets are all sold out but they release 500 same-day tickets every morning. I was there when the ticket desk opened and had no trouble getting tickets – if you haven’t seen it yet you still have a chance. (By the way they now keep the exhibition open until midnight Thursday to Saturday – the demand for tickets must be enormous.)

The exhibition space was rather crowded. One has the choice of queueing and moving at a snail’s pace, or standing outside the queues and therefore viewing some of the exhibits over other people’s shoulders. We chose the latter.

This First Emperor of China is the man who united various warring states into a Chinese empire, and who built a 7000-man terracotta army to stand guard over his tomb. I’m not going to write even a short overview of all the other things he did and achieved; you can find all of that elsewhere on the Internet (starting with Wikipedia for example). Instead I’ll just focus on what I saw and what I thought about it.

The focus and main draw of the exhibition was a small fraction of the terracotta army. There were archers, warriors, horses and chariots and charioteers, and more unexpectedly, acrobats, musicians and civil officials. Before seeing the exhibition I thought the army existed to guard the tomb, but I understand that it was really to provide the emperor with all he might need in his afterlife. And of course, for a good life one needs much more than just warriors.

The statues were surprisingly realistic and also surprisingly individual. I imagined that they would be stylized and mass produced – because there were so many of them! The main body parts were indeed mass produced but from multiple moulds, and faces, hair, mustaches etc were added by hand, making each one different. The emperor must have been something of a perfectionist given how detailed the statues were, all the way down to individual rivets on plates of armour, and hobnails on the soles of their shoes.

As with antique statues from other cultures (ancient Greece for example) the statues were originally coloured but have now lost all colour. So photos of 7000 clay-coloured statues give a somewhat misleading impression of what the ranks of the army would have looked like originally. Based on traces of paint found on the statues, one was reproduced in an approximation of its original state – and just as with ancient Greek statues, the result looked garish and loud compared to the stylish dignity of terracotta (or white marble).

While the statues were fine and interesting, I was a bit disappointed to see so few of them. They were far too few to really convey the sensation of grandeur and immensity that 7000 of them would do. So in a way, the Terracotta Army can be more impressive on picture. But on the other hand, seeing the statues up close, you can see and appreciate the details. The statues were very nicely exhibited in such a way that we could see them from all angles, and reasonably close up as well. It made a big difference to have no glass between us and the statues.

The rest of the exhibition was really there to provide a background to the army. There was a brief intro to the emperor’s life and works, explanations of how the army and the emperor’s tomb were built (by conscripted workers and convicts), and how they fit into the general fabric of his society. For example, the legs and bodies of the terracotta warriors were built much like the water pipes in the emperor’s new palaces. And the manufacturing process was highly standardised, just as the emperor standardised many other things (including coinage, weights, writing and the manufacture of weapons). One of the more interesting exhibits was a miniature panorama sculpture showing a team of workers making one statue of a warrior and one of a horse.

Emperor Qin must have been an extraordinary man. It is one thing to conquer your neighbours (other warrior kings have done that, too). But this emperor obviously had a grander plan. He was not just a great general but must also have been a great administrator, in order to successfully rule an empire. And he certainly achieved immortality, just as he wanted.

The BBC has some photos (not good but the best I could find).

Here’s an interesting review.