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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King – review — 17 August, 2015

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King – review

vJinkxbMiMQ3t2v8sJsmoTFzI wasn’t really aware that Stephen King had a problem with Kubrick’s film of The Shining until recently. If that’s surprising, it just demonstrates my own particular lack of interest in this most successful of all genre writers. In truth, I saw The Shining years ago and didn’t think much of it (certainly didn’t find it frightening), and more or less forgot all about it until by chance I started watching it with my ‘A’ Level students and discovered its technical virtues and through them started to appreciate it. I went through much the same process with any number of other movies, including The Exorcist.

Now, I thought I’d adequately supplied myself with books to read this summer, but it turns out I was wrong by a long way. In fact, I ran out of (printed) books to read after the first week. I had a few electronic books on my phone but we’ve established I shouldn’t read off a screen.

So I went on the hunt for some anglophone books and thought I might have to drive the two hours or so to Strasbourg to get some. Turns out (again!), there’s a small section of books in English in the Fnac in Belfort.

Bar one book (a fourth in a series of which I’ve only read one so far), there wasn’t really anything there to my taste. I hesitated over Under the Dome simply because it’s over 1000 pages, but with memories of the terrible TV series in my mind, I put it down in favour of Doctor Sleep, which (it turns out) is a sequel to The Shining.

I might have read The Shining, but so many years ago that I’ve long forgotten it. It would have been, ooh, around the time the film came out I guess, or shortly before. I think there was a kid in my class at school was reading it and he may have lent the book to me. I would have been in my mid-teens anyway, pre-sixthform.

Anyway, I was aware there were some key differences between film and book, and Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the book, natch. King very deftly fills in the background, without doing a great big exposition dump, so even if you don’t remember the book, you get the idea.

The story is inspired by a reader question: what happened to Danny Torrance, you know, afterwards. The answer is in Doctor Sleep, in which the young boy who survived the Overlook Hotel disaster with his mother drifts into an unhappy and lonely life, until he encounters a kid who has the shining even stronger than he did as a child. The ‘horror’ aspect of the story is the group of predators the two encounter: a vividly drawn group of characters who pose as retirees on a road trip in their Winnebagos. I put ‘horror’ in scare quotes because, again, I don’t find this stuff (or much so-called horror) at all frightening. But: it is kind of creepy the next time you see a group of camper vans.

As a non-fan of King, I found it very readable (duh), not necessarily unputdownable, but entertaining throughout. It probably took 300 pages (too many, as these things go) to grip me, but it never bored me, and it was a good choice for a holiday read, took me through a week. King’s style is familiar, and he does make this kind of thing seem deceptively easy, which of course it isn’t. This probably isn’t his best work (I wouldn’t know), but it seemed like more than a throwaway, cash-in sequel.

Heading South — 16 August, 2015

Heading South

P1020679I’ve already done my complaining about the South, the narrow strip of coast that seems to attract the whole of France and points beyond every summer, creating a crush of humanity and noisy traffic. Sitting here looking at this view, yes, this view, you’d wonder why anyone would complain. Yes, this rental house is ideally situated for me. It’s quiet, up in the hills, has a pool. But the family are all down at the beach this afternoon, sharing a postage stamp sized patch of gritty, sticky sand, and being cooled by the (strong today) breeze.

But I wanted to complain anew about the drive South, which has to be one of the worst experiences you can have in a car.

Nine hours on the road to make a journey that would take seven hours without traffic. We’re heading in from the East, so the first bit of the journey is all right. The motorways are quiet, the drivers sane. But it all changes as soon as you get South of Lyon and are joined by the traffic from the rest of France, particularly those city dwellers from the Island called Paris.

Then the traffic gets M1/M25 heavy. The British are used to this, of course, but most of the French experience it twice a year, once on the way down, and once on the way back. And they go a bit crazy, it has to be said. The mad lane-swapping, for example, with sudden lurching manoeuvres to make up one car length and get ahead, oh yes, of the rest. And the super-aggressive tailgating, in the apparent belief that if they can intimidate you, the car in front of them, to move aside, then everything will be all right. Only there’s always another car, and so the aggression gets ramped up and up and up.

The traffic is heavy, and every service area is slammed, crowded with humanity queuing for a pee. There are no parking spaces, and people are basically abandoning cars just anywhere, just like they do here in the South, where there is never anywhere to park, and even the supermarket car park is full all the time. The atmosphere is febrile, desperate, and the closer you get to your destination, the hotter it is.

I was using Google Maps as my satnav, as is my habit, and apart from one application crash, it worked brilliantly. How brilliantly? Quite early on, just as the traffic was getting worse, straight after Lyon, one of the grey alternative routes indicated it was 9 minutes faster. I immediately swept the car off the motorway at the junction in question and followed what was, essentially, an impromptu diversion around a traffic jam. We’re sharing this house with my brother-in-law and family and they set out twenty minutes ahead of us. We caught up with them at a service area near Bourg-en-Bresse (they always stop for ages because they’re French), and they set off again about five minutes ahead of us.

While we were on the Google Diversion, we overtook them, somewhere to the left of us, sitting in a massive bouchon (traffic jam). We could see the motorway, but we were on the more or less empty parallel National road. The ‘nine minutes faster’ turned into ninety minutes faster. We got back on the motorway, but we were now an hour and a half ahead of them, as they remained stuck in a slow moving nexus of traffic all the way South. Sure, we hit slow spots, but we still managed to arrive three and a half hours before them. Thanks, Google.

The worst bit, for me, came after one of the gares de péage, which was when about 20 lanes of booth traffic tried to merge into the three lanes of the motorway after the péage. For a British person who believes in queuing, taking turns, and fair play, it was the worst place in the world.

Dunno about going back. It was bad, heading the other way. Do we hang around for most of Saturday, setting off in the evening? Do we leave before the crack of dawn, as we did heading South? I suspect the former, but I worry about the cat. We left Oscar in Auxelles, being cared for by neighbours, and he’s already thrown up on the floor.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu – Review — 8 August, 2015

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu – Review

three-body-coverThe hyphen in the title is important, of course. Without it, you could be forgiven for thinking of this as some kind of thriller, in which a killer has the problem of disposing of three bodies. The hyphenated title refers to the problem of calculating the chaotic orbits and relative positions of three massive objects or bodies (stars, actually) in space.

Nominated for several awards, I picked this up at the same time as The Goblin Emperor. Whereas one is a fantasy with steampunk accessories, this is a hard science fiction novel* set against the background of Chinese society in the years since the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. There are helpful footnotes (from the translator), for those of you who didn’t study relatively recent Chinese history for ‘O’ level. I did, in 1979! Although this novel doesn’t make mention of The Gang of Four. The Cultural Revolution is important here, because if you ever wondered what might make someone completely lose faith in humanity…

It’s an alien invasion story, though you wouldn’t necessarily realise this in the opening half of the book, which jumps between the mid-1960s and (more or less) the present day, with odd interludes spent inside the virtual reality environment of a sophisticated computer game (more of a puzzle than a game). The science here is hard (as in hard SF), and the book does spend considerable time explaining it all to the reader in lengthy exposition dumps. It doesn’t let up, either. In the last few pages there’s a lot of discussion of folding protons into various numbers of dimensions. Just as they do in the movies, these info dumps do have the unfortunate effect of throwing you out of the plot and keeping you at a distance from the characters, who are hard to root for.

*In fact, I’d go as far as to claim that the multiple exposition dumps make this more of a Menippean Satire than a novel. I noticed a similar effect with Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids and his earlier Islands in the Net (neither of which I enjoyed) and (of course) with Don DeLillo’s unreadable Ratner’s Star (and his more readable The Names, arguably). In Menippean Satire, a central character meets a variety of other people, who take turns explaining or attacking a point of view or philosophy. There’s no plot to speak of. It’s surprising how often you read something marketed as a novel that turns out not to be.

There’s sort of a plot in The Three-Body Problem, but it is really more of a set-up than a full-blown narrative. Inevitably, when it comes to this genre, there are two sequels, forthcoming, and reading to the end of this merely puts you into a position to experience the next volume. Huh. The problem with Three-Body Problem is that I didn’t really enjoy it enough to consider picking up the next in the series. In fact, I’m more inclined to pick up the second of The Hunger Games series, having just read the first book in order to prepare for teaching it next year.

It’s kind of interesting to experience science fiction from China, but it also left me a bit cold. All in all, perhaps, I would rather The Three-Body Problem had omitted its hyphen and had been some kind of SF-Thriller in which an anti-hero was forced to dispose of three corpses.

Ashley Monroe: The Blade – Review — 6 August, 2015

Ashley Monroe: The Blade – Review

This is an update to my earlier partial review, in which I gave the opinion that even though I’d only heard half of the album (the pre-released tracks), The Blade was set to be the best album of 2015.

Now I’ve had the whole thing for a week or so, I’m just as firm in that opinion. I still find the modern release cycle annoying, but at least The Blade was available in the UK at the same time it was in the US – even if the UK iTunes store totally ignored it in favour of the stuff they’ve had in ‘New and Notable’ for the last two years.

The three hookiest tracks of The Blade are country-soul songs with a Fleetwood Mac style groove in the rhythm section. These are the opener, ‘On To Something Good’, ‘Weight of the Load’ (co-written with producer Vince Gill), and ‘If Love Was Fair’. I’m pretty sure the bass playing on these three is by Michael Rhodes, who also played bass on Vince Gill’s Guitar Slinger, which features a similar rhythm section groove on ‘Tell Me Fool’. These three tracks stand out to me as the most commercial-sounding, and the most likely to appeal to a broader audience – ‘On To Something Good’ was a good choice as a lead single, even if it was ignored by Country radio. Each one is a fabulous song, lifted by a great middle 8 and just beautifully arranged by the production team.

The album really revolves around five ballads, exemplified by the powerful title track, ‘The Blade’. The others are ‘Bombshell’, ‘From Time to Time’, ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’, and ‘Mayflowers’. These tracks showcase Monroe’s crystal clear and fluid singing voice and her mastery of this kind of material.

Then there are three retro-sounding genre tracks, dipping into the history of country and rockabilly to demonstrate Monroe’s versatility.  ‘Winning Streak’ is done in 50s rockabilly style, complete with Buddy Holly style doo-wop backing vocals. ‘I’m Good at Leavin’’ is a traditional country waltz (could be a Pistol Annie’s track), while ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’ is a standard drinking song, delivered with a timeless arrangement that could have come from any era. What separates these from their templates are the lyrics, which have a contemporary wit and verve, joyful in their updating of country music tropes.

Finally, there are a couple of darker, bluesier numbers. First up is ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’, co-written with Matraca Berg, and the other is ‘Dixie’. I’m less fond of these, but that’s more to do with my personal taste than with the overall quality of the record.

All of the songs here, with the sole exception of the title track, were co-written by Monroe with a variety of top-drawer country songwriters, such as the aforementioned Matraca Berg and Vince Gill, but there are  several written with Berg’s pal Jessi Alexander and even one written with fellow Pistol Annie, Miranda Lambert.

Production is by Vince Gill with Justin Niebank, and Gill also supplies guitar and BVs, with (best in the business) Paul Franklin on pedal steel. The song arrangements really are exquisite. Gill doesn’t supply blistering solos but does layer guitars over guitars. Each part is perfect and a perfect compliment to all the others, and the effect is a shimmering, clean, and open sound that showcases Monroe’s crystal clear vocal perfectly.

Apart from the quality of the songwriting and the great vocal performances, it’s the production sound of this record that makes it my clear album of the year.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson — 28 July, 2015

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

AURORA_KIM_STANLEY_ROBINSONI swore off KSR after reading his novel 2312, which I found turgid and tedious, and so I skipped his recent novel Shaman and wouldn’t have considered Aurora, but for the fact that I stumbled across a Guardian review which praised it as the best ever SF novel about a generational starship. After a KSR hiatus, I was ready to dip in again. I needed lots of reading for the summer, and I knew that a KSR novel would be dense and substantial.

Is it the best ever book about a generational starship? No: that would be Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo — but Aurora is pretty good all the same. It’s thought-provoking and stuffed with ideas and arguments.

The more or less omniscient narrator is the Ship itself, which has an artificial intelligence which has been trained or augmented or improved by a member of the crew who took a particular interest, and then tasked the ship with writing a narrative history of the voyage, which as we join it is already around 160 years into a 12 light-year voyage to Tau Ceti, and starting to decelerate. This conceit allows the author to meditate on the nature of narrative, diegesis, and language. The AI rejects metaphor in favour of analogy, and observes that language itself is almost wholly metaphorical, taking us into Lacanian territory, Name of the Rose territory. The real is unattainable, signs can only be interpreted with other signs, and so on. This is what you might call literary science fiction, then.

I love a good generational starship story, but most of the ones I’ve read have taken a pessimistic view of this method of space exploration for humans. In Ship of Fools, the crew have forgotten their original purpose. In Aurora, the problems of a closed (‘island’) ecosystem, even in a ship whose dimensions are measured in kilometres, are manifold. Biomes! Biomes! Humans don’t understand ecosystems well enough to control them effectively, and yet that is what we are continually trying to do. The analogy here, of course, is that crew is to ship as humanity is to earth.

Our anchor character is Freya, daughter of Devi, one of the ship’s main engineers (fifth or sixth generation), who takes personally the many faults built into the ship’s design, and passes some of her personality on to her daughter. The ship was built too small, the systems not efficient enough, the pioneers essentially mad, volunteering their descendants to face developmental problems, a violent end, or simply, possibly, starvation. Devi is permanently angry about the ship and the fate they’ve been left to; she rails against the people who put them in this situation, the designers of the ship, who were too stupid or careless to see the inherent flaws.

Six generations in, and much has happened on the ship, some of it forgotten, but they arrive in the Tau Ceti system and begin to explore the Earth-like moon of one of the planets in the habitable zone. Here, KSR hits you between the eyes with the challenges of finding a suitable planet to colonise. Size and density affects gravity. Too much gravity would be too much! Imagine living on a Super Earth with gravity three times greater than the one we know! The habitable zone means liquid water, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but is the oxygen created by splitting water molecules with sunlight – or through biology? If there is biology, well, then would we even have the right? And if we did attempt to interact with this alien biology, to remove a helmet and breathe the air, it would almost certainly be poisonous to us. Spores, bacteria, viruses, prions! (See Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios for more on that topic.) If there is no life, it would appear to be safe for humans to begin to live there, and attempt to introduce biology. But is there soil for agriculture? Soil implies biology, so if there’s no soil there has to be something we can turn into soil, and how long does that take? Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to terraform, and terraforming takes time. How much time? Who knows? Could be thousands of years. Can we do it? Do we know how? Could we start to do it and somehow avoid killing ourselves with a fatal build-up of waste products or stubborn chemicals – or simply by starving to death?

So there’s the gravity problem, and the atmosphere problem, and the biology vs. a sterile environment problem. Which is before we get to the nature of the light and our Earth biology which has developed over billions of years under this sun and its light. What if it’s almost twice as bright? Or bluer? What about the length of the day? What if a ‘day’ is the equivalent of nine days? What if it never really ever gets dark? What about the weather? What if there is a permanent gale force wind? You’ve travelled for 180 years and when you get there you find that the wind almost never stops.

KSR’s attitude to this idea of a generational starship is critical, it’s clear. He’s clearly taken a leaf from the book of critiques of the closer-to-home Mars colony idea. The designs are flawed: people would be dead within 68 days of CO2 poisoning. In this case, how can you hope to send a viable set of ecosystems on a 180-year voyage and expect things to work properly? People and animals get smaller, appear to get dumber. Bacteria evolve more quickly than we do. They become resistant, super-bugs. We die in a thousand ways, like playing a computer game that’s designed so you can never win. The ship gets infested with bugs and corrosive substances. Critical systems fail and people don’t know why. And then people can’t agree on a course of action when they arrive and things continue to go wrong. Aurora offers a pessimistic view of the generational starship, and an equally pessimistic view of human nature. The question is asked about the original 20 million or so volunteers: from what were they trying to escape? We were all thinking this about the one-way-mission-to-Mars volunteers. Almost by definition, they were unstable, slightly or completely crazy. And in the case of the generational starship, they also don’t live to get where they are going and instead have volunteered their children and grandchildren for some unknown fate out there in the stars. These people are born into a situation they had no say in creating, and have to deal with the consequences of decisions made long before they were born.

You don’t have to dig very deeply to discover the analogy KSR is trying to draw. As we fuck this planet up for our descendants, we are bequeathing them a set of problems they didn’t volunteer to face. Our stewardship of the planet is shoddy, to say the least. The super-rich think they’ll survive the cataclysm, especially if they have all the money, but they don’t know, any more than the rest of us know how to grow fruit and vegetables without blights and diseases and bugs eating them. Nature tends to do better without us.

Earth itself is a pretty big starship. None of us asked to be born here, but we’re stuck with it. And the message is clear: this is all we have. There is nowhere else we can go, and even if by some miracle we could build such a ship and get there, we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and create a new, safe, habitable, Earth. And for Robinson, the very notion that we might be able to find somewhere else is part of the problem with the way we treat this Earth, and each other. It’s a mass delusion, analogous to those dangerous religions which propose that this life doesn’t matter, because there’s another life to come. And think about it: even if they designed a generational starship and started sending people out to colonise the stars — if there was any chance of survival, who would get to go? Only the rich, only the children of the rich. Stop deluding yourself.

The novel ends tellingly: on a beach somewhere, with waves crashing in and the white noise of surf and sand, the endless pounding created by the extraordinary gravitational pull of a moon, the heat radiation from the nearest star. This wonder, this planet, these forces that are more powerful than us, that we can never hope to harness.

A great book, this, and an important one. People need to read this. Maybe there are answers to some of KSR’s criticisms, but I’d like to see them stated as rigorously.

How to turn a caring lefty into a foam-flecked hateful Tory in just 90 of your minutes — 24 July, 2015

How to turn a caring lefty into a foam-flecked hateful Tory in just 90 of your minutes

Somebody asked me about the Channel Tunnel situation a few days before we left. What did I think, were there risks etc. I didn’t think there was really much danger of a migrant jumping in your car. What’s the solution, though? They asked. Let them in, I said. Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.

What is it, 3,000 or so people? They’ve all suffered enough, and the economic impact of the channel blockade, Operation Stack, and delay after delay must be considerable.

But of course, they won’t let them in. Beef up security. Turn your back on all that abjection, hope it goes away on its own.

I was keeping an eye on the Channel Tunnel Twitter account, keeping abreast of the Operation Stack business. I knew what to expect when we drove down in the middle of the night on Wednesday/Thursday. These summer journeys are always hard. Closed junctions, diversions, roadworks. And that’s before you even get to the M20 and the lorry park on the southbound carriageway. The bit where the M1 joins the M25: closed. The bit where the M25 joins the M20: closed.

Deep breaths. Zen and the Art of Arriving Eventually.

The matrix signs were not helpful. I was aware there was a diversion in place from J8, but the matrix signs offered contradictory advice. Use the M2, go this way, go that way. In the end, it was better just to reach J8 and follow the diversion. Google was aware.

We arrived, checked in. Didn’t seem to busy, at three in the morning. We had a bacon roll from Starbucks and a coffee, and I went to close my eyes in the car and listen to the Accidental Tech Podcast. Suddenly, our letter was told to proceed. It was over an hour early. We waited a bit to avoid the border control search, savvy travellers that we are, and drove around. Lined up in Lane 16 and waited a bit. Then we were heading round for the train, the car in front wasn’t even faffing too much, and it looked like we’d be leaving an hour ahead of our booked time.

But not. Loaded on the train, we then sat for 90 minutes. Why? Because a migrant had got on top of a train on the French side, and they were ‘undertaking safety checks’. After an hour, they announced we’d be leaving in around 10 minutes. Five minutes later, the on-board staff came around saying we’d be going in about 10 minutes. 20 minutes later, the train lurched.All the way through in the dark, I expected it to come to a shuddering halt.

While you’re waiting there, during the 90 minutes, you’re getting anxious because the worst case is they open up the train again and get you to disembark on the British side. Go around and board again, but later. It had been so quiet when we arrived, though I imagine that by the time we finally departed (30 ironic minutes after our original booked time), the traffic was building up in the terminal.

So this delay, this 90 minutes of anxiety and boredom, was caused by a migrant jumping the fence. You find yourself thinking, they should just let them die, let them be electrocuted, in the tunnel. Don’t delay my crossing!

And so you turn from a compassionate left winger who would open the borders and let the people come and go as they want to a rabid Ukipper, a foam-flecked Tory who wishes people would just die already and not ruin my holiday.

Which maybe explains why more effort is not being made to do something permanent about the situation. Thousands of trucks and tourists face delays this summer, and every single one of them will have to make an iron-willed effort not to blame the migrants. So it’s well played, isn’t it? A minor inconvenience multiplied thousands of times leads to opinion polls in which the British people show a remarkable lack of tolerance, understanding, and compassion. Which in turn drives the political and media agenda, and means that the pro-immigration counter-argument withers and dies. It means that harsh countermeasures, when introduced, are met with an indifferent shrug,

So, yeah, I was mightily pissed off, but my opinion stands: open the door, let ‘em in. Give them somewhere to live, welfare benefits, free NHS treatment and a free education. This is how you export British values to the world.

*

P.S. After the marathon trip, the remarkable thing for me was that Google discovered an alternative cross-country route for us, taking us on the final stretch from motorway to our village by what seemed like a more direct and less busy route. It felt quicker, anyway.

Synching feeling — 22 July, 2015

Synching feeling

I know I’ve gone on a bit about Apple Music/iTunes recently, but when something frustrates you on a daily basis, it grates.

In all of the coverage, across all the sites, on all the support pages, I have almost never seen mention of the particular problems we’ve been having. Both daughters have had issues – especially with the business of Music on the phone deciding to download enormous numbers of tracks for no discernible reason. One of my daughters has also had a problem I frequently have, which is the difficulty in persuading the phone to sync the music you want from your main iTunes library.

I do not use iCloud Music Library, and I have switched off Apple Music but I still can’t get my phone to simply contain the music I specify. When you have spent (literally) hours setting up playlists, this can cause the red mist to descend. My current problem is one I’ve had before: I have a number of painstakingly created playlists, but the iPhone and iTunes between them decide I also want to have a list of manually added songs and an additional single random track from my library.

How fucked up is this? Take a look at the graphics below. The first one shows the size of the Music library on the phone and the amount of free space remaining with the Alison Krauss track ‘Forget About It’ checked. Note that I didn’t do the checking. iTunes does this on its own.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 07.58.38

You’ll note that with this one track selected, my iPhone shows 29.52GB free space. Now, look what happens when the only change I make is to deselect that single (7.9MB) song from the library:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 07.58.53

Yes, miraculously, deselecting this 7.9MB file frees up over 4GB of space on my iPhone. Except it doesn’t because when I click Apply, the phone syncs and then the Alison Krauss track has checked itself again and the list of ‘Manually Added’ songs repopulates itself.

So what you have to do is delete all the music from your phone, plug the phone into a Mac, uncheck ‘Sync Music’ and then sync the iPhone with no music on it at all. Then you can recheck ‘Sync Music’ and try again.

My argument here is quite simply that these are the kind of problems that an awful lot of people have: daily frustrations that drive you crazy, and yet get ignored by the tech press in their rush to provide a ‘hot take’ or an instant review of Apple’s New Music service. These glitches and bugs may eventually get squashed, but not before millions of people have wasted millions of hours dealing with them. The headlines have all been about the iCloud Music service, the use of DRM, the mis-matches with iTunes Match, the curated playlists, the Beats radio. Everybody knows that iTunes is a shitty piece of software, but not many people take the time to spell out the quotidian details.

When it comes to solutions, the scorched earth approach I just took (delete everything, sync with no music, then resync everything from scratch) really puts people off, makes them groan with frustration. And it takes time, and it helps to have a Mac. Maybe my problems are because I do have a Mac, I don’t know, but I can’t imagine dealing with this shit without a central iTunes library with all my music in it. Dealing with this over the Cloud? Jesus…

Tortoising — 21 July, 2015

Tortoising

turtle-bike_350pxI haven’t written much about cycling this year, and there are a number of reasons. The main one is that I allowed the stress and exhaustion of my horrible job to get on top of me, and have neglected to get out on the bike on weekdays – even when the evenings were long. So I’ve only really been out on the bike at the weekends, and even that I haven’t managed every weekend.

When I have been out, I have not enjoyed myself, and have even questioned why I’m doing it at all. I’ve complained on the Twitter a few times about the wind. It has been windy this year! It has. For example, at noon today, the wind speed around here was 25km/h – and so it has been, most of the times I’ve been out since April. Anything over 20 km/h, frankly, feels like something I don’t want to be in, especially in the negative frame of mind I’ve been in of late. Doesn’t matter that I’m on a loop: the wind direction always seem to be such that the wind feels like it’s against you all the way.

So I’ve not been out much, and when I have been out I’ve suffered. I can only think of one time when the legs felt better, stronger, than they had on the previous ride. There have been other positive signs, though. On my most recent ride, I encountered three other cyclists around my age. (I’m assuming their ages based on hair colour – all were greyer than me, but then I’m mousy and the grey doesn’t show much.) Usually, this means me being overtaken, severally, as I struggle up the slightest gradient. On this occasion, however, I managed to catch and overtake one of them – not because I was racing, but just by dint of my steady pace being slightly faster than his steady pace. I try to ride with the same level of effort all the way around, which also meant that when the second of these cyclists overtook me, I eventually caught up with him when he was resting at the side of the road, obviously having overcooked it.

I was aware he was probably going into the ‘old man red’ as it were, because when he did overtake me (and the other guy, the one I overtook too), his legs were spinning in a very low gear, comparative to the one I was in. He’d clearly put in an extra effort to overtake the two of us, but I saw him stop twice to let his legs recover, which is when I went past him.

The third guy also overtook me, and went off a hundred metres or so ahead, but then stayed at a more or less fixed distance in front of me. This was clearly another case of a guy putting in an effort to ‘breeze’ past and then having to dial it back a bit. Again, I wasn’t chasing, but I was being the tortoise to the hares. This last guy turned off the route I was on anyway, so we’ll never know if the tortoise would have caught him.

All of this stuff – this measuring of myself against other people – is not really me. I have never seen cycling as a social activity, and I have zero competitive spirit. Which is not to say that these guys are the same as I. Clearly, at least two of them saw a fellow cyclist ahead of them as a challenge to be met. This is the part of manhood I find depressing and boring. All that said, I am always in a battle against myself, my pathetic legs and my lack of stamina. The ultimate project here is simply to prolong my active life. Both of my parents became more and more immobile as they got older, and I don’t want to end up like them. So, yeah, it did mean something to me that I was out there on the road with other 50-somethings and able to sustain a reasonable pace – for an hour at least. I remain concerned at the lack of stamina. If I could manage two hours on the bike I’d be happier with myself, but that would probably mean dealing with the hip/back/foot pain problem all over again.

So I’m off to France, and the bike is coming with me. Last year, I reached a level of fitness before the summer that meant I was more ready for the mountains than I am at the moment. Then again, I have also felt in the past that I peaked too early in the summer, and struggled for the last couple of weeks in France. No danger of that this year.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison — 20 July, 2015

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinemperorIt’s not what you think it’s going to be.

Those are the words you’ll hear frequently in connection with the Nebula/Hugo-nominated The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison’s novel of court intrigue against the steampunk backdrop of a fantasy kingdom of goblins and elves. (Which immediately puts me in mind of Woody Allen’s ‘The Ransom Note‘ routine, in which he is ushered into the back of a van by kidnappers who promise to take him away to a land where ‘everybody is fairies and elves.’)

Why the fantasy backdrop? It’s a novel of emperors and princes and court intrigue, but it’s not historical, and the use of fantastic beings allows Addison to write about race and gender, prejudice and oppression, whilst maintaining some critical distance.

If I were to criticise The Goblin Emperor, I’d have to admit to some confusion about names. Too many characters who appear briefly, or once or twice, are referred to by complicated names following the arcane rules set out in the appendix, and I struggled to keep track of them all. There’s a list in the back of the novel, but it’s not all that useful, given the variations in names given for the same people, and given that the terse descriptions of who they are don’t really tell you much.

But that naming problem is all part of the world building, and of course allows you to empathise with the titular character, a half-goblin child of a political marriage, who has been living in exile with a bullying relative, and who is plucked from obscurity when his father and all of his older brothers die in an airship disaster. His confusion and bewilderment at court manners and politics are mirrored by your own difficulty in keeping track of all the strange names.

Maia is a sympathetic hero, and as he comes to terms with his new exalted position, he soon realises that the airship disaster was no accident, and doesn’t truly know who he can trust. It’s a fascinating story, offering the political manoeuvrings of Game of Thrones without quite so much visceral violence, and it genuinely becomes quite moving at times.

Yes, I too, was offput by the title and the very notion of reading something about goblins and elves – but it’s not what you think it’s going to be. Recommended.

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free —

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560-560x560

After catching on – late, thanks, iTunes – to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, I pre-ordered his 2015 offering Something More Than Free immediately.

It’s pretty much more of the same good stuff – possibly an even better collection of tunes. Isbell has a pleasant, gruff voice, and sings with an oddly affecting deadpan that allows his lyrics to shine through the song arrangements.

The mood shifts between driving rock rhythms (’24 Frames’) and gently strummed acoustic guitar (‘Flagship’), with the lightest touch of country. ‘Children of Children’ turns out to be quite heavy with a long coda featuring a wig-out guitar solo against a bed of strings – one of my favourite sound combos. ‘How to Forget’ is upbeat but obviously rooted in desperate sadness. It has a jaunty rhythm and a spiffy but short guitar solo. On ‘The Life You Chose’, Isbell drops Sylvia Plath references and the drums shuffle along as he reflects on his feelings for an old flame:

“Are you living the life you chose?

Are you living the life that chose you?”

But this is no typical man-who-thinks-he’s-wronged cliché. By the end, it’s clear that the singer’s questions are more directed more towards himself than the old flame.

The standout track for me so far is ’24 Frames’, which has intriguing if gnomic lyrics. What does it mean? 24 frames represents the space of a second, it’s the way the eye is tricked into seeing moving pictures. So I’d guess the song is about the dream-like quality of film but also the way that things can change – be lost – in an instant.

You thought god was an architect now you know

He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow

And everything you built that’s all for show

Goes up in flames in 24 frames

An excellent set, which in spite of its downbeat moods leaves you feeling oddly hopeful.

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