Friday, 17 August 2018

Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison: Marginally less bleak than The Road

Perhaps it's not surprising that a book set during and after an apocalypse is bleak, and this is less bleak than Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but in many ways it's still a book that I'm not sure the word 'enjoy' attaches to.

A sudden, rampant plague starts to kill people in massive numbers. Women seem even more effected than men, perhaps only a tenth as many surviving, and not a single child survives birth.

A maternity nurse recovers from the fever, waking in her apartment to witness that the ravages she had been trying to treat - or ameliorate - have left devastation. Her first encounter with another human being is an attempted rape, and she quickly decides to disguise herself as a man for safety.

Her travels to eventual safety are fraught and disturbing. ( This is not a spoiler, by the way; the novel is prefaced with a future monastery-like scene where a woman leads some boys in making copies of the Book of the Unnamed Midwife, so we know there is some sort of continuation ).

One thing that gave me pause - not while I was reading it, as the writing is of such a high quality that it wasn't until I paused that questions came - is that in the first part of the book her encounters with men portray them almost exclusively as wanting to rape and and own and control the few remaining women in the most horrific ways. I don't think the evidence of how the vast majority of people behave after disasters maps onto this (although this is of a scale unseen; I know complete devastation has happened more locally and would be interested to see if there is a difference) but then I began to see this as much of a metaphor for toxic masculinity as anything else. If this were written by a man it would probably come across as some awful rape fantasy like those appalling Gor books.

As the story progresses we get asides, mentioning what happens to some of the people the wanderer ( she chooses different names constantly, and I do like how Elison then sticks to that name while it is in use ) or just to mention what is happening in other parts of the world - all of which tend to be at least as bleak as the main narrative.

Well worth reading - but, of course, bear in mind the sexual violence warning, and general timbre - but I think I'm genuinely looking to the next volume. I'm hoping this will be less bleak.

original review on goodreads

Friday, 10 August 2018

Friday Run: Beautiful Backroads to Bolsterstone and back

I've not been on a long run in a while and had planned one for today anyway, but after the team meal at Akbar's last night I felt the need to burn some calories. It also helped that it was much cooler, positively fresh even as the day reached noon.

As so often, I had little idea of which way I would go as I left the house - Rivelin Valley? Up over Loxley Common? Bradfield? Wharncliffe Woods? Toward Sheffield? A moments indecision and I set up Wadsley lane and the steady climb toward Worall, with that familiar view of the fields dropping down into the valley and the woods climbing the far side.

At Worrall I almost baulked at seeing how overgrown the path the Hagg Stones was, but pushed and high-stepped the couple of hundred metres through high grass, nettles and brambles before it opened onto the field beyond. I've never been entirely clear where the path goes across this field, but sticking close to the tumbledown remnants of the wall has always seemed the best bet.

Sharply down a hill then the path leads to Burnt Hill Lane which climbs for a kilometres before the turn onto Onesmoor Bottom and another couple of km of climbing. It is glorious here; it is rare to see a car, just the rolling fields and woodland stretching away on all sides. Cows, sheep and horses in occasional groups in the fields. The stiff wind whipped the dust from the back of a combine cutting back the stubble and some grouse chased in to pick over the remains

The sky is a in uneven quilt; one side different textures of grey, flat or roiling, the other gloriously chaotic stacks and rags of clouds bobbing like cotton wool or twisting up into the shapes of creatures of ancient myth. Further on it become more broken and leaks out golden light that will shower its blessing somewhere around Hoyland or Wombwell.

Here, the first spots of rain immediately fill the air with petrichor; thought it is now cool the ground is dry and hard still after these arid months.

The road crests and begins to descend, at first shallowly and then precipitously, switching back to mitigate the gradient. but I spot a path and this brings me sharply down the the edge of Broomhead reservoir by stairs and the roots of trees. The reservoir path itself I've walked and cycled, but i'm not sure I'e ever run here before, and I glory in taking its twists and turns, and, higher up, as it becomes a matter of close focus to step correctly between the gnarled roots and rough stones. It stays this way along the south bank, around the east tip, and all the way back on the north bank of the Broomhead, until a gate at the tiny Ewden Village leads out onto the road that continues the rest of the way down, past the lower More Hall Reservoir all the way down to the road at the bottom, this stretch of which is actually called Main Road.

I follow it back though Wharncliffe Side to Oughtibridge. The heaviest of the rain came down while I was in the woods around the reservoir, although it's still steady, so I decide on the cover of Hollins and Beeley Woods, running the path in the reverse of my usual direction. Surprisingly, I feel I have the energy to eschew the footbridge at Middlewood and carry on along Clay Wheel Lane, taking and extra loop down the the bottom of Hillsborough park before swinging home to bring the distance above 25k.

That was joyous. It took me perhaps 4 km to find my legs but it is far too long since I had a long, meditative run like that. And I think I burnt off *most* of the curry, too.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Book review: Gnomon by Nick Harkaway: Catabasis for Democracy, with Shark

I'll admit up front that Harkaway's debut, The Gone-Away World, is one of my favourite books and his subsequent novels aren't too shabby either, but his fourth is quite remarkable. It is set partially in a near-future Britain run by the System, a data network that both organises the citizenry into an active direct democracy and keeps their lives efficient and safe. Data privacy is a thing of the past; you can query someone's identity and life by direct access to the System and Harkaway skillfully shows how this affects social mores.

This set up, of course, immediately makes the hairs of discomfort prickle on the napes of our necks; whether liberal or conservative or whatever mix, such phrases as "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear", "Those who give up liberty for safety, deserve neither" and "Panopticon" cannot help but spring to mind, thought the author does an excellent job of being even-handed in his presentation of the view.

The book starts with a death of a subject in interrogation by the Witness, the security arm of the System. This is presented as a unique occurrence, and immediately taken seriously and handed to the talented and driven Inspector Mielikki Neith. The manner of the interrogation is disturbing and reinforces fears about the ubiquitously invasive arm of the state, but this is leavened over time by the seriousness with which this event is treated and, well, by the fact that the System seems to work, and seems to be benevolent and effective.

I had said the book is set partially here. We soon are introduced to narratives which seem entirely unrelated - centred around a brilliant Greek mathematician who, following personal tragedy, has turned his skills to the stock market; the former lover of the 4th/5th century Bishop Augustine of Hippo, herself a philosopher and alchemist; and a talented Ethiopian artist who (barely) escaped his country for England in the political chaos following the fall of Haile Selassie.

Each thread is superbly written, capturing the differing voices and setting and moods. The writing contains a density of allusion and meaning and texture - yet with a lightness of touch - that immediately brought to mind Umberto Eco or Neal Stephenson at his more focused, and Paul Auster. It seems clear that these stories cannot be divergent and Harkaway indeed begins to weaves threads between them, though some of the clues turn out to be fish that, at the least, seem to be scarlet in certain light.

In weaving the threads together we are treated to an exploration of liberty versus safety and convenience, public transparency and the dangers of the malicious hacking of the democratic process (I cannot possibly imagine where that last idea came from...) but, as well as the clues to the central mystery, the nested narratives also show real human stories of tragedy and love and loss and betrayal and reconciliation and hope. There are also some beautiful metaphors about books, and the power of good ideas and arguments to succeed by literally changing the person who hears them.

This novel is a tour-de-force, brilliant and important and a bloody fantastic read. It could be argued that, toward the end, Harkaway explains things a little too clearly and leaves less ambiguity than Eco or Auster would, but this is, I think, due to the wider audience for whom he is writing; frankly, this book already asks a great deal of the reader and such ambiguities on top of that are not to the taste of a lot of people. However, this book deserves plaudits and huge sales and awards scifi and literary alike. It will stay with me for a long time and I am sure that, when i re-read it, I will find layers I missed this time around.

A word on format. I read this on my Kindle, partly as the 700 page paperback appears to be printed in 8-point font (yes, the info page says 11.5-point, but I suspect that to be the System gaslighting me) and found this all the more useful as I could immediately check unfamiliar words and references. If you are reading a hard copy and don't have a thorough knowledge of Greek mythology, I suggest keeping close to wikipedia.

( originally published on goodreads )

Monday, 9 July 2018

Sunday bike ride in the woods and on the road

I've been on the road bike a lot recently, so decided to take my trusty Kona today to give me more variety - and, hopefully, stay more in the woodland shade. Out through Beeley Woods, then the climb to Wharncliffe and the cinder roads, which then joins the trail made on the route of the old rail line. I used to come out this way a lot, but the trail has been even further improved - the surface, far more seating areas and informational signage, a few "Wild Wood!" trails for kids through areas of coppiced birch. The main trail is mainly gravel packed into the dirt, which has worn away on some stretches and occasionally narrows to less than two metres. My 29" wheels eat it up whatever, and it's smooth enough that I lock out my suspension.

I suspected I'd get the 19 km to Penistone and head back from there by road ( I have an almost pathological aversion to returning by the same route if I can possibly avoid it ) but carried on out on the long curve of the Trans Pennine Trail section of the National Cycle Network until it hit road at Dunford Bridge and then a climb and drop to meet the A628 Woodhead Road.

It took a real effort of will to turn left toward home instead of taking the long, glorious loop above the Bleaklow Moor out toward Manchester, to circle back via Glossop, the Snake and Ladybower, but I sensibly turned left.

A phenomenal fast descent on the road - easily topping 50 kph on the mountain bike, I'd probably have reached seventy had I been on the Tifosi. Not a huge amount of traffic, but some drivers really have no idea about passing. The closest was one tiny hatchback whose wing mirror actually passed below my jutting elbow.

I decided against joining the trails that lead south a couple of km down, as from memory they get pretty extreme, climbing and dipping over the valleys formed by various streams, instead joining a gentler bridleway that lead to Langsett Reservoir, then a mix of trails and glorious back roads past Upper Midhope, Midhopestones and Underbank to Bolsterstone, again unfortunately missing the Male Voice Choir practice.

The long fast drop to Wharncliffe Side ( slightly held up behind a BMW being sensibly cautious inits descent ) and I'm all but home. Feeling it a little in my legs, but managed a final climb up Langsett Avenue which is quite pleasing after by far m longest ride in some years.

It's almost like my summer Sunday mornings as a kid. I'd rise early and head out on my Carlton racer to Castleton, Glossop, Wakefield - sometimes the same trans-moor loop that formed part of my return today - to get back for 2 PM and my mum's enormous Sunday dinner. No wonder people would joke I must have hollow legs from the amount I ate. I kind of wish I'd had this mapping technology then. to see the hours and distance I managed in my early teens, those three and four and five our rides, or other times exploring the city or heading down into Derbyshire. But, had these technologies been around perhaps I'd have been distracted by other things and those rides may not have happened.

Ride and pics at

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Book Review: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson: Eco-punk, time-travel, business & politics

A wonderfully fresh, inventive, lively and thoughtful read.

We are at some point in the future where humanity seems to be rebuilding itself following various disasters, largely ecological one of our on making. I say "seem to be" because Robson never states this, just has the characters allude to things in their history - or, rather, things in their present that hint at the history. This naturalism is one of the things I loves about the writing, the way the ordinary interplay of the characters builds a vision of the world for us. Which works, at least in part, as the characters are so well drawn.

The two main characters are Minh, an old-guard ecological systems designer who moves around on six tentacled prostheses instead of her 'natural' legs and is of the generation who have gone through the hardships of trying to recolonise the surface after decades of subterranean life and Kiki, a young, ambitious engineer who initially idolises the older woman.

One of the conflicts of the book is that the banks, who had made money through investing in recolonisation and the surface habitats (and seem to hold everyone in massive debt; an ongoing theme is how all the characters just seem to accept crippling levels of ongoing debt as part of existence, a comment on student debt in the US and elsewhere I assume) are turning their focus to the lucrative business of time travel.

Minh and Kiki are part of a team hired to travel back to the Tigris basin, around 2000 BC, to take environmental samples to bring back to the present. There is conversation that this real work of time travel is being minimised due to pressure to take tourists (critique of the distorting effect of commerce on pure science), but i was never quite sure what the end-game of the mission was. I had thought it was to find hardy specimens to help restore the ravaged planet, but there was later reference to changing history.

I loved the layout of the book, each chapter beginning with a short segment from the viewpoint of the king and priestess of the small civilisation of the Tigris as they begin to see changes brought on by the technology of the visitors - the new stars of communications satellites, for example - followed by the building of the main tale.

Very much worth a read, and I look forward to more from Kelly Robson

Sunday, 1 July 2018

First 20+ km bike ride in far too long - and it was magnificent

That was not so early a start as planned, nor as long a ride, but it was glorious. It’s been some years since i swapped wheels for running shoes as my main form of exercise and recreation and, even then, I’d explored these lanes on a mountain bike rather than the slight, fleet frame of a proper racer

As usual, spoilt for choice I set out with little initial idea of where I was headed; I had a general urge to go out past Bradfield onto the roads with their race-smooth surfaces, but began by heading up toward Worrall before turning up Burnt Hill Lane, taking Onesacre Bottom and Onesacre Road to climb up into the hills.

It is stunningly beautiful; fields of sleepy-headed wheat are ripening toward bright yellow, the trees are almost shockingly green against a sky of white-smeared blue that makes the hedgerows seem listless, almost military olive drab and khaki by comparison with this wanton lushness.

There follows a wonderful 5 km stretch as the road drops around a hundred metres. It is all dips and rises and bends on amazingly smooth grey tarmac, bounded by walls of ferns in all their cool, frenzied verdancy. I move along at a fair clip, watching ahead as much as I can with the turns and sudden elevations for traffic coming the other way, or even walkers, though my only encounter is a farmer in his Land Rover on one of the straighter stretches. It would be glorious to close this stretch off for a race; hurtling along here would be better than any rollercoaster.

Reaching the wonderfully named Wigtwizzle, I’ve the decision between turning up toward Mortimer Road, where I could take the long circuit bordering the moors above Derwent Reservoir, but I’m not sure if I have the legs for that in this heat, so drop sharply to the right (again, resisting the urge to loose my brakes and plummet down the steep curves) down past Broomhead Reservoir and the sharp climb toward Bolserstone. Downhill again to Ewden Village - a road so steep that you almost feel gravity will  tip you over the handlebars, my caution with the brakes warranted by a family out for a stroll,spread across the width of the road as though a search party scanning the terrain.

Here I made an error. I couldn’t remember whether the semi-private road that follows the north shore of More Hall Reservoir was fully suitable for my flimsy wheels, so carried on rather than taking the turn. I’d completely  forgotten about Fairhurst Lane, possible blanked from my memory by pain, shorter though just as punishingly steep as te hill down which I’d just come. Even though I didn’t quite make it all the way up, it left my legs twitching and wobbly. That said, it lead to the stretch of Carr House and Thorn House Lanes, another couple of kilometres of smooth, winding, dipping joy, dropping me to Wharncliffe Side and the 5k steady descent by the River Don leading me home.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Book review: A Murder of Quality by John le Carre: Smiley goes Sherlock

This is an odd entry in the works of le Carre, chronicling the later life of George Smiley. Following the events of Call for the Dead Smiley, no longer with the service, is living a quiet life in London. He is contacted by an old colleague about the a letter she has received from the wife of one of the masters at a venerable Public School (that is, a very old, expensive and exclusive private school) in Dorset, in which she states the fear that her husband is intending to kill her. Smiley calls another master there, the brother of one of his late friends, to find that this woman has indeed been murdered, so travels down to hand the letter over to local detectives and becomes embroiled in the investigation.

So, this is George Smiley as a free agent, outside the Circus. It seems that le Carre may have been toying with setting his character up as a detective - more Father Brown than Sherlock Holmes, although there is something Holmesian in the way the plot unfolds, with Smiley's vast, if ponderous, intellect processing all the details and building a picture nobody else can see. There is also something of Agatha Christie about the layers of upper-class English manners and class distinctions, in this book those stratifications are precisely the point rather than being, as with Christie, simply the medium on which the puzzle of the plot is hung.

It is clear from early on that this is a blistering attack on the British class system and the snobbish, restrictive forms, rules and structures that protect those at the top - something the author confirms in both the original afterword and a new one, added to this edition in 2010.

In this, le Carre also acknowledges the book's shortcomings as a thriller (although, by modern terms, I would not class it as a thriller at all, but a mystery) and this is indeed true, perhaps largely as it comes between his excellent debut and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which may be the finest spy thriller ever written. The novel is very old-fashioned, some of the supporting cast are fairly flat sketches, and some of the attitudes - especially those toward women - are very much of their time (although that balanced against some very progressive notions) but he already shows his eye for detail and ability to infuse a scene with colour and meaning (even if most of colours are the shades of grey of post-war Britain) and, despite the flaws, this gripped me enough to read in three sittings.

Now, I am very much looking forward re-reading The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.