March, 2019

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Having recently read and enjoyed The Absolution, the third in the ‘Freyja and Huldur’ series, I returned to the first book – The Legacy – in my ongoing Icelandic crime fiction reading marathon.

A prologue begins with three children being split up by social services – something that will clearly have ramifications later. And indeed, when we move forward to current-day Reykjavik, a woman named Elisa suffers a particularly grisly fate.

Huldur is sent to investigate along with members of his team. Finding a motive for the crime seems to be key, but there doesn’t appear to be one. There is a witness in Elisa’s daughter, Margrét – but the child is understandably traumatised. So the police need to work with ‘Children’s House’ where we meet Freyja.

Iceland is a small place, and it’s particularly unfortunate that Huldar and Freyja had a one night stand that ended with Huldur running away in the morning. Things are going to be a little frosty.

One key component of this tautly told tale is a shortwave numbers station, which unusually is broadcasting in Icelandic. What could it mean? And how is it linked to the case?

A good start to the series, with a few sharp barbs along the way.

The Island by Ragnar Jónasson

It’s 1988, many years before the events recounted in the first of the Hidden Iceland trilogy, The Darkness. A pair of teenagers have headed out to a remote summer house for a weekend of passion – but things don’t go quite the way they’d planned. Next thing, the girl’s father has been arrested and charged with the murder of his daughter.

We fast forward another ten years, and Hulda Hermannsdottir is in America, trying to track down her father. Her mother never told her who he was, but he was stationed in a US base in Iceland and she has a first name.

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, the friends of the girl who’d died ten years earlier have gathered together to celebrate her – this time on a remote island. Again, things don’t quite go as planned.

It’s into this mess that Hulda returns from America, looking to work out whether a new death was an accident or murder. And how are two events related?

It’s not uncommon in crime novel series for the individual titles to be relatively standalone for new readers, but in this case, I’d strongly recommend going back to The Darkness and reading these titles in order.

We know from the earlier book that Hulda is someone who’s a bit of a loner, and feels as though her career is stagnating. Once more, it feels as though there’s been sloppy detective work –  Jónasson does not portray the Icelandic police service in glowing light in these books. And as ever, there are lots of hidden things below the surface, brooding away.

What’s absolutely certain is that the story is another real page-turner, and the remote settings provide a distinct flavour. My only frustration is that we’ll need to wait until 2020 to learn the conclusion to this series!

Thanks to Penguin UK, Michael Joseph and Netgalley for the ARC. The Island is published in hardback on 4 April 2019.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

Following on from the latest Yrsa Sigurðardóttir novel, I thought I’d stay in Iceland and catch up with Ragnar Jónasson who I’ve been meaning to read for a while. His latest series of books are the Hidden Iceland trilogy, and The Darkness is the first of the three novels.

Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching her retirement, and isn’t really sure what she’s going to do. She lives alone, her daughter and husband both having died years earlier. A friend in a rambling club has shown a little interest in her, but she’s disappointed that her career spluttered and others have long passed her by getting promotions in Reykjavik’s CID.

Suddenly, even her final retirement is upon her, a new younger guy being able to start in just a couple of weeks. Her cases are removed from her and she has nothing to do. She persuades her boss to let her look at one cold case before retirement finally arrives, and she re-opens a case of a Russian refugee who was found dead at the foot of some remote cliffs. The case had been called a suicide and swiftly closed.

Has she got enough time to get to the bottom of what really happened? What will her colleagues make of her reopening something they thought they’d already dealt with? And then there are her actions involving a hit and run that the book opens with.

As the book’s title implies, this is a darker tone of crime novel. We learn more about Hulda’s own circumstances; her frustrations and lack of willingness to work with others. But a sexist police environment is also there – slapdash work done to get cases closed.

This is a fine opening to a new trilogy, and it keeps you turning the pages until the gripping conclusion, about which I will say nothing.

The Absolution by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The Absolution is the third in the “Children’s House” series of books from one if Iceland’s leading crime writers. 

A teenager has been brutally murdered, with the perpetrator first capturing some kind of apology and then sharing the video to victim’s friends on Snapchat. The police race to capture the video while it’s still there and to try to understand why a seemingly popular girl should have been targeted. 

Police detective Huldur is tasked with some responsibilities in the case, although he feels ostracised. A brief affair with his boss has gone wrong, and office politics are getting in the way. Freyja from child services gets involved because the police need a liaison when interviewing kids. Between them, the two begin to suspect that bullying might be involved. 

Bullying is a very relevant theme, and given the magnitude of what can be done digitally, it’s not such a stretch to believe that it might be a rationale for murder.  

I came to this series fresh, not having read either of the other books in the series, although I have read several of her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series. Sigurðardóttir conveys enough backstory to get newer readers quickly up to speed, and ongoing storylines properly developed.

Icelandic crime writers do have plenty of challenges specific to that country to keep readers engaged. Collectively writers have created vastly more murder victims than the country actually has in 2017 there were a total of four murders, which was twice the usual rate. The country’s population is less than 340,000 which means that while everyone doesn’t literally know everyone else, it’s not far off. And then there’s the deCODE database, which famously featured in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, which has DNA profile of a large proportion of the Icelandic population. As such, it’s a bit like mobile phones in horror films – you have to work around the problems that they can present. 

This book is thoroughly engaging, and I shall go back to the previous two titles in the series. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Hodder & Stoughton for my ARC. The Absolution is out in hardback on 18 April 2019.

NAS Upgrading Fun

I’m documenting this, just in case there’s someone out there for whom it’s useful.

I had two NAS drives, both made by Synology. I have a DS210j that I bought back in 2010. It had a pair of 2TB drives in it with a mirror RAID array, and perhaps the most important thing stored on it is my offline music library. The drive was about 75% full. The RAID setup means that if one drive fails, the data should be safe on the other. I can then replace the failed drive and get back to parity.

The other drive is a DS214se bought in 2014. This had a pair of 3TB drives also in a mirrored RAID array. This was over 90% full. It’s home to a lot of my archived video projects as well as much of my substantial Lightroom photo library (essentially, everything I’m not currently working on).

Diskstation Manager (DSM) is Synology’s software that runs on these NAS drives, and it was not happy that I have less than 10%. In any event, it was clear that I needed to expand my storage in the near future. So I’d been keeping my eye out for cheap large format hard drives. I reckoned that 8TB is probably the sweet-spot at the moment in terms of value per TB. But there’s a very odd thing in the hard disk market.

If you go to somewhere like Amazon, and look for a WD Red 8TB drive or Seagate Ironwolf 8TB (both versions of their drives designed to run in NAS drives), the drives will cost you around £218-240. Now those prices can fluctuate, but north of £200 is common.

However, having spent some time in the Reddit Datahoarder group, there are plenty of folk on there who will tell you that the drives that come in some WD MyBook or WD Elements external drives are actually pretty good for using in NAS drives. Indeed at one time, they were actually Red drives. These days, they’re not strictly the same drives as you can buy on their own, but they’ll still pretty good.

More importantly, the price of these things can drop very low indeed. If you use a service like CamelCamelCamel to keep an eye out, you can stay ahead of the game. Last week, the price dropped to as low as £129 for an 8TB WD MyBook. I didn’t get onto it in time, and the price jumped back up to over £150. But then it came back down to £139, where at time of writing it still is. So I jumped in and bought two.

When they arrive, they’re of course designed for use as external drives. They come with smart plastic cases and power adaptors. Fortunately, there are YouTube videos that show you how to open these cases non destructively, a process called “shucking.”

This video worked well for me – the design in the video still being the current WD design. You just need a spudger or knife, and something to keep the tabs open. In the video, he uses guitar picks. I used a few business cards.

Then it’s just a question of sliding the case apart and unscrewing the drive from the plastic container.

Obviously you could use brute force, but that runs the risk of damaging the drive. Furthermore, if you keep the drive cases intact, you can re-purpose your old NAS drives as external hard drives. I put my two 3TB drives back into the cases as 3TB external hard drives are useful to have around. However, at time of writing, I’ve yet to work out how to format them away from Synology’s Hybrid RAID format.

Now you have your two new 8TB hard drives out. So it was a question of replacing the drives in my newer DS214se. Now I did wonder whether it was worth upgrading my NAS at the same time. As I mentioned above, my NAS is now getting on for 5 years’ old. There’s only 256mb of RAM in it, and it’s not powerful enough to do anything fancy like host 4K video and then transcode it. But in fact, that’s not a problem. I do keep some videos on my NAS for Plex (the in-home streaming platform), but I use an Nvidia Shield TV to run Plex server (i.e. run the main software) rather than run it on the NAS drive itself – something that many more powerful NAS drives can do. Instead, I just point the Nvidia Shield TV towards the video library stored on one of my NAS drives.

Similarly, I’m not doing anything like hosting a website on NAS (again – something that’s completely do-able). But I asked the question. The equivalent Synology NAS today to my DS214se is probably the DS218j. This is another £150 and in actual fact, isn’t that much more powerful than my older one. I’ll probably upgrade at some point, but not today.

Instead, I needed to replace the 2 x 3TB drives in the existing DS214se with my 2 x 8TB drives. This is relatively straightforward – but it just takes a while.

The process is basically:

  • switch off your NAS (actually – it quietly shuts itself down properly)
  • open it up (give it a good clean while it’s there – I had lots of dust in mine)
  • take out one of the 3TB drives, and replace it with an 8TB one
  • close it all up and switch on

Once it boots up, it start beeping at you. It’s noticed that one of the drives has “degraded.” It hasn’t really of course – you’ve just taken one away. Nonetheless, your next step is to “repair” it.

In essence, “repairing” it is just a matter of backing up all the data from the remaining 3TB onto the new 8TB drive.

This takes some time. 8+ hours in my case.

So I went to bed.

The next morning, there once the final couple of percent in the process had completed (you can monitor it all within DSM), it was time to switch out the other drive.

Another 8+ hours later, I was out. But the device sends an email when anything major happens. So I got the email and knew that all was fine.

At this point the system also notices that it has 8TB on each drive, so it ups the overall size available, and I was only using 35% or so of my space.

But I wasn’t quite finished. My older DS210j has been annoying me of late. While it’s not full, the discs rattle constantly – it’s noisy. Remember, you need these drives on at all times if you want to access the data, and in general, I tend to leave them on. Indeed, I can remotely access files on them if I need to.

For me, the next step was going to be copying all the data across from one NAS to the other.

The key thing with this process is not to do it via your PC (or Mac). Certainly, I have both NAS drives attached to my PC and I could do the whole thing in File Explorer in Windows 10. But that’s not smart. Instead, there’s a built in app called FileStation.

You just need to make sure that from your destination NAS (the DS214se in my case), you’ve mounted a remote drive to a folder on it. Once you’ve done that, you can then copy (or move) the files from one drive to another.

My older device actually has two Volumes on it – effectively two separate drives, although the second volume is tiny. I chose to do this one step at a time. Copying the first volume across resulted in FileStation telling me it would take 17 hours or so. A little more than making a cup of tea. And this is only an unfilled 2TB drive. But it’s a one time thing. While the estimate was initially 17 hours, the process actually took more than 24 hours. I had to leave it copying files for two consecutive nights.

Fortunately, I didn’t need the second volume – system files for a Plex server I was no longer using. So finally, I was able to retire the older NAS drive. I’m left with one NAS, and I still have about 46% of space left.

A final note is to say that I sync my Lightroom library to Amazon Photos – mainly because it’s an inexpensive bolt-on for Amazon Prime members, giving unlimited storage for photo files (including RAW photo formats). What it doesn’t include free is video.

I used to use Amazon Drive to back up both NAS drives completely, when Amazon Drive allowed unlimited storage. But that’s gone. I have to pay a modest extra fee for all the sidecar data that Lightroom stores. Non destructive editing requires a lot of these files. But it’s not too bad.

My ideal would be to securely backup all my files offsite. This is very do-able, and there’s an app within DSM precisely for that. However the costs begin to mount up. For 4.5-5TB of storage, you’re looking at £/€300-350 a year. Getting the data back might increase those costs. Amazon, for example, has Amazon Glacier. I assume that it’s stored on a tape format. The idea with Glacier is that you don’t need to get the data particularly regularly – just know that it’s there. That’s as well, because recovering the data is actually quite expensive.

In my instance, this is really about securing photos, music and video – with a few documents thrown in. If my flat where to burn down, or someone steal my NAS drive, then I’d know I could recover everything. But doing that in a cost-effective manner is tricky.

One solution is finding a friend with a big internet pipe who’s willing to let you put a second NAS drive in their place. You could then keep the two in sync. You could obviously “host” a NAS drive for your friend in your house at the same time.

A previous “off-site backup” solution I’ve used in the past is to simply buy another external hard drive (perhaps one of those 8TB WD MyBooks!), back the NAS up to that, and then keep that drive securely in your workplace. If you then brought it home once a week/fortnight/month, you could update the backup and return it to work the next day. You’d never be more than a week/fortnight/month behind if the worst happened. Indeed, you could buy two drives and shuttle them back and forth – keeping one at home and one at work at all times. But that may be over-kill.

I realise that this isn’t the most exciting thing to write about. And when I talk to people, I realise that relatively few people really look after their data. If you don’t have all that much, you can perhaps rely on cloud storage services. Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud all give you a bit of free space, and will charge you for more. OneDrive can be good value if you want Microsoft Office. But many of these max out at 1TB in space. Even Google, who used to be quite generous with Google Drive space, giving it away with Android phones or Chromebooks, seems to be more inclined to charge these days.

Your parents’ or grandparents’ photo albums may seem quaint, but those albums will be much safer than a lot of photos that are only stored safely while users hang on to their social media accounts…

Orchids – Colours of Colombia at Kew Gardens

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Somehow it has been years and years since I last visited Kew Gardens. I managed to visit on the penultimate day of their Orchids – Colours of Colombia exhibition, which seems to have proved wildly popular. I got down to Kew just after opening on Friday and the guy at the ticket desk suggested that if I wanted to see the orchids I head straight there.

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This proved to be a smart move. Sure, there was a slightly noisy school party who didn’t seem quite as excited by the vivid colours of the plants as their teachers were, but later on, once I’d left, I saw a queue snaking right back down the path towards the nearby lake, long past the “25 minutes from this point” sign I’d walked past on the way in.

I brought two lenses with me to shoot with – my regular “walkabout” 16-50 lens, and a 90mm macro lens. While I didn’t explicitly see anything on Kew’s website about tripods, I didn’t bother bringing one because I knew it’d be busy and tripods would get in everybody’s way. However, shooting macro photos without a tripod isn’t especially easy because you really need to manually focus, and the focus range can be fractional. My workaround was to shoot high speed while fractionally adjusting the focus ring on my Tamron lens. That gave me a better likelihood of capturing sharper images.

The bigger challenge photographically was the change in humidity between inside and outside. Camera lenses don’t like rapid changes in humidity, and as I strolled in from around 8C into the humid Princess of Wales Conservatory, my lens instantly fogged over. Wiping it with a lens cloth doesn’t help much either – it fogs over again. You just have to wait a bit for the lens to acclimatise.

Anyway, as well as the shots here, there are plenty more over on Flickr.

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Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

It’s the early 1980s and our narrator, Lizzie Vogel, is about to leave home for the first time, and move from her village into the city of Leicester. Her first fulltime job is to be a dental assistant working for the awful JP and his partner Tammy. The job comes with its own flat, and initially reluctantly, Lizzie leaves the family home and moves in.

There is much humour to be had early 1980s dentistry, the introduction of McCain’s Oven Chips and freemasonry.

This is the third book in Nina Stibbe’s wonderful series about Lizzie, although they all work as standalone novels. It follows Man at the Helm, when Lizzie and her sister tried to find a partner for their newly single mother, and Paradise Lodge where Lizzie worked part time in an old people’s home while still at school.

The details are as ever pitch perfect. Lizzie devours waiting room copies of magazines like Women’s Own, tells horror stories of meals in Fenwick’s department store, and notes that a local accountant has built his own nuclear bunker, but it’s supposed to be secret.

As well as moving out, Lizzie is dealing with having her first proper boyfriend and learning to drive. But Lizzie moving out has meant that her mother is able to get on with a novel, a science fiction epic that she is determined will be published by Faber & Faber.

Stibbe handles all this masterfully, and it’s the eye to detail that absolutely convinces you.  

Thanks to Penguin Books (UK), Viking and Netgalley for my ARC. Reasons to be Cheerful is published on 28 March 2019. And no, this book is nothing to do with the excellent Geoff Lloyd/Ed Miliband podcast of the same name!