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The Baba Yaga is described as being the third book in the Weird Space series, which was created by Eric Brown and then passed over to Una McCormack, who wrote this book and the soon-to-be-released sequel. I haven't read the two books Brown wrote, but I didn't really feel that it mattered, as the opening chapters gave enough background that I didn't feel I was missing anything.

The novel is set sometime in the distant future, when humanity has recently made a fragile peace with the alien Vetch, largely in response to a new threat from the Weird, strange alien beings from another dimension whose encounters with humans and the Vetch to date have been catastrophic. This isn't a utopian Star Trek future; old enmities and suspicions are hard to put aside in the face of new threats, and humanity is split on whether to try to destroy the Weird before it destroys them or to find some way of negotiating a peace. The central character, intelligence analyst Delia Walker, is on the side of negotiations, and has heard rumours of a distant planet where humans and Weird live in harmony. Forced out by the hawkish ascendency in the Intelligence Bureau, she sets off in search of this world, which may well just be a myth.

Part space-opera quest, part Spooks-style thriller, the real delight of this book is in the characters, who are complex and three-dimensional and sympathetic while not always being likeable. Also, almost all of them are women, and reading an SF novel full of well-drawn, non-token female characters was an utter and unexpected joy. And that was before I got to the part where McCormack creates a society which is basically a 1970s feminist utopia brought into a 2010s novel.

Although you don't have to have read the previous novels set in the same universe to understand this one, the ending is very obviously setting up the sequel and although some of the sub-threads are tied off the wider plot is very far from being resolved. Apart from that, the only slight quibble I have with it is that the Kindle edition could have benefitted from more thorough copy-editing, as there were a lot of small errors, particularly missing words or moments where part of a sentence had obviously been rewritten but some of the grammar of the surrounding text needed to be updated to match. But overall, I loved this book, and am really looking forward to the sequel.

(Disclaimer: Una McCormack is an online friend, and I might well not have bought the book in the first place if not for wanting to support her. I'm really glad I did, though, and I'll be buying the next one because I want to read it.)
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One of the people I spent time with at Nine Worlds mentioned that she was going to the Gollancz Festival this weekend, and as T was going to a 50th birthday do which meant he'd be away from Friday to Sunday afternoon I thought I'd go along for the morning and afternoon sessions yesterday.

It was an enjoyable though rather tiring day out (I got the 7:45 train to London and had booked on the 19:35 home; in fact I would actually have been able to make the 19:05, but hadn't wanted to take the risk of missing it given that I was buying super-cheap advance tickets and if I'd missed it I'd have had to buy a new full-price ticket); it was great to catch up with people and spend the day listening to conversations about books. I also spotted on Twitter that a university friend I hadn't seen for about 25 years was there, replied to him and got to catch up at the mid-session break*. I bought several paper books, and later several more in the festival ebook sale**. I did find that after spending two three-hour sessions sitting in rather uncomfortable chairs which were packed closely enough together to leave very little leg or elbow room, even for someone as short as me, I was quite achy and very happy to be able to relax into a comfortable train seat, and the auditorium at Foyles was also mostly uncomfortably hot, but those were minor irritations.

Less minor was the fact that the panels were firmly set on "transmit", with no opportunity for audience questions ("Why?" called one inspired heckler after a panel chair explained that he'd been told that they couldn't take questions), so as well as being six hours of sitting in uncomfortable chairs in an over-hot room, it was also six hours of being talked at; unlike something like Nine Worlds, where the membrane between audiences and panels is fully permeable, here it was very clear that they were the experts and we were the audience. Also, because the panellists were all authors, there was a tendency for them to talk mostly about their own work and not more widely about books in general, and I never find authors talking about their own work as interesting or helpful in terms of getting recommendations as people talking about other writers' work they've enjoyed.

More serious, though, was the lack of diversity among the panellists. In the morning, of 17 people on stage, 6 were women (including one moderator); in the afternoon, there was one female panellist and one female moderator out of 16 people. The table of books for people to buy and get signed also skewed heavily male, even given that it was necessarily a reflection of the authors there, as there were multiple books there from several of the male author while I didn't see more than one from any of the women; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, when the panellists did mention the work of other authors very few of authors mentioned were women. There were also no BME or visibly disabled panellists. C and I both tweeted about this repeatedly during the afternoon using the festival hashtag, with no response from Gollancz (though C, who also went this morning, has tweeted that one of the organisers did acknowledge the issue when she mentioned it in response to being asked how they were finding the festival). I realise that because this is a publisher-organised event the list of potential speakers is going to be restricted to Gollancz's authors, but it does rather suggest that they aren't very good at publishing women, BME and disabled authors.

I also thought that the organisation of the festival into completely independent sessions wasn't ideal from a logistical point of view. I can see that it would have made setting up the booking system much easier to get people to book for each session separately, but it meant queuing up multiple times to have our names checked off the list and get into the room, and, because each booking entitled the attendee to a goody bag, people attending more than one ended up with multiple identical bags, and while the bags themselves were great (nice sturdy canvas totes), the contents mostly consisted of promotional postcards and book samples, the vast majority of which have just gone straight into my recycling bin. I couldn't help feeling that it would have made more sense, at an event where a lot of people were going to multiple sessions, to have devised a system with multi-session bookings, and only offer one goody bag per person. Or even put different things in the bags for each session; I might still have recycled a lot of the samples as not really looking like my kind of thing, but I'd have felt better about it if I wasn't recycling two of some things.

*Not that there's actually that much you can say to someone you haven't seen in 25 years in a 15-minute break, because where do you even start? But it was really nice to see him again. Surprisingly, he didn't look that different, and I can't have changed that much either because he realised I was sitting two rows in front of him. I suspect that if we hadn't each known the other was there we'd just have thought "that person looks vaguely familiar" rather than "oh, hello long-lost friend!", though.

**Two of the three paper books I bought turned out to be in the 99p ebook sale, but as they were the ones I thought I'd really like to read, rather than "I'll buy this because it's cheap and might be worth reading", I don't really mind. I still love my Kindle, but I love paper books too.
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Ursula Le Guin's A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else is one of the books that got me through my teens, and although I hadn't read it for years before finding a copy in the second-hand bookshop in Stratford last week I've often thought about it. Unlike most of Le Guin's work, it's not SF; instead, it's a fairly simple story about two geeky contemporary teenagers. It's also less than 100 pages long, which I hadn't remembered, but even so it's probably the truest depiction I've ever come across of what it's like to be a thoughtful teenage loner, trying to learn how to do the human act and work out what the point of all the years stretching ahead of you are. It's also one of the very few books I encountered in my teens that touched on the subject of depression (the other one is Fire and Hemlock); it doesn't refer to it by name, but when I first read the narrator's description of the mental fog that descends on him I knew that he was feeling the same way I was, and I didn't feel quite so alone any more.

Thirty years later, I still found it beautiful and moving and insightful; it was good to be reminded of some of the things it taught me about living but which I'd half forgotten over the years.

(Interestingly, I think the UK edition must have been anglicised in a way I don't think happens so much now; there are references to "maths" and "primary school" and a few other things that now strike me as incongruous in an American book.)
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The second of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo books takes her hero (now definitely Nicholas, rather than Claes, and leader rather than apprentice) on a trading mission to Trebizond in 1461. Having looked up Trebizond when I read The Towers of Trebizond, I knew from the start that this wasn't likely to be an entirely uneventful trip, as indeed it wasn't, featuring Dunnett's trademark twisting plots; sequences that had me turning the pages, unable to put the book down until I found out how Nicholas and his comrades would get out of the latest tight spot; and other sequences where her hero's dazzling audacity pulls off feats that are simultaneously amazing and hilarious. I think I must be getting used to Dunnett, though, as while I couldn't have begun to guess at how most of the plot twists would unravel, there is one unwelcome final turn I saw coming a long way off.

Having started to unravel the enigma that is Nicholas in the first book, this one gave a bit more insight into his own thought processes. Certainly more than we ever get of Lymond, though I do love the way the Lymond Chronicles pretty much never show scenes from Lymond's point of view; saying that, I'm not sure how trustworthy Nicholas is as a viewpoint character. Several supporting characters also return and are further developed, and I felt that the cast of this series were really starting to come alive. Also, it reminded me how much I love Dunnett's women, who manage to be tough and independent while never feeling as though they are modern characters dressed up in historical costumes.

I'm definitely warming to the series after being a bit lukewarm on the first book, and look forward to moving on to the next one soon.
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Recent RSC price rises have meant that we're more inclined to watch the live broadcasts at the Picturehouse than to go to Stratford, but I got an email last week offering £15 tickets for Cymbeline and, as I'd got the week off work anyway, we decided to return our cinema tickets and go to this afternoon's matinee instead.

I didn't know the play at all beforehand. The plot felt like something of a mash-up of elements from other plays; the jealousy plot from Othello, the faked death being mistaken for real from Romeo and Juliet, cross-dressing, long-lost siblings. I'd always thought it was a tragedy, but although the production featured a fair amount of gore there were surprisingly few deaths, and the ending was much closer to that of a comedy, with lovers reunited, lost children restored to their true heritage, general celebration and rejoicing. It did feel rather as though Shakespeare was phoning this one in; definitely more of a curiosity than a sadly neglected classic, I'd say.

The production was very much played for laughs, particularly bawdy ones, as well as for gore and brutality (within the confines of a stage production, some of the violence was still quite shocking). Visually, the look was definitely aiming for near-future dystopia, with the British in patchworks of tweed and denim (and Cymbeline herself in Ugg boots and a long patchwork cardigan a lot of the time) and the Romans in military uniforms and sunglasses, while the set featured graffiti and a decaying-industrial-landscape vibe for Britain (for me, it very much caught the aesthetic that Gwyneth Jones's Bold As Love series suggests) and a sleek nightclub atmosphere for Rome. The non-British characters also spoke at least some of their lines in non-English languages, reinforcing their differentness; the Romans, obviously, spoke Latin, Iachimo spoke Italian and the French character French, with the English originals projected onto the backdrop.

Apart from the translation, the text was also changed to allow for the fact that several of the parts were gender-swapped; in this version, Cymbeline is a queen rather than a king, and her scheming spouse is a Duke rather than a fairytale-style wicked stepmother, while the elder (and bloodthirstier) of the two long-lost children is a daughter rather than a son. I felt this did interesting things to the dynamics of the play; apart from the fact that if Cymbeline had been a king it would have seemed a lot more reminiscent of King Lear, it replaces the standard trope of the woman scheming for the advantage of her own child over her stepchildren with a man trying to bring down a powerful woman. Meanwhile, the men mainly seem to be Terribly Poor Stuff, especially Posthumus who not only lets Iachimo talk him in to a stupid bet but believes the lies he is told in return; Iachimo, this one at least, is no Iago and his manipulation doesn't come across as particularly subtle, while the reelvant lines from Ovid are projected on the backdrop when he mentions the story of Philomel, in case anyone in the audience wasn't aware of what was being referenced. It felt like quite a feminist reading of a play which could easily have been anything but.
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My mother mentioned Simon Armitage's Walking Home, an account of his walk along the Pennine Way, to me when I was reading Hunter Davies's A Walk Along The Wall in preparation for our walking holiday, and then Armitage was on last week's Great Canal Journeys talking to Timothy West and Prunella Scales about the Pennine landscape and, as I was between books (having just abandoned Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light because it simply wasn't managing to interest me at all; I know it's an SF classic, but maybe it's just too much of another time, or maybe it was just the wrong time for me) I bought the Kindle edition and started reading it straight away.

The thing I don't understand is how many books about walking appear to be written by people who don't actually enjoy walking. I know that I was really worried, before our walk, that I wouldn't enjoy it; I think I was actually more worried that I'd have a miserable time than that I wouldn't be physically capable of completing the trail, but in fact once we started it was quite simply the most amazing experience, and minor discomforts were as nothing compared to the sheer joy of being out there, surrounded by the countryside, just having to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not having to worry or even think about anything else. If it rained, well, we had waterproofs, and Gore-Tex lined boots, and waterproof covers for our backpacks, and if it wasn't very warm, well, after half an hour's walking I was generating enough body heat that I was quite pleased the outside temperature was only around 15C and I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt, and if my legs ached after a day's walking, it was a good ache, accompanied by a rather smug feel of satisfaction at having really achieved something. Armitage also had doubts before he set off, which is hardly surprising, as he was a middle-aged man with no experience of long-distance walking embarking on what is probably the most challenging of British long-distance walks (the toughest section of the Hadrian's Wall path shares its course with the Pennine Way, and Armitage's book confirms my suspicion that that is one of the easier bits of that trail), but even once he starts walking a lot of negativity remains; the frequent complaints about the rain and fog and cold, the difficult terrain and hard-to-follow path all give the impression that he really isn't enjoying himself. He can also be rather snide and mean-spirited about the people he encounters. I particularly disliked his comments on a "slower and heavier" couple he and the Pennine Way Ranger he's walking with pass one day, who then arrive at the summit ten minutes after them and "crack open a tin of biscuits"; Armitage can't see them, from where he's sitting, but he "can hear their giggling and the sound of chubby fingers prising bourbons and custard creams out of the plastic packaging". From which I can only assume that he must have amazing powers of recognising biscuits by sound alone, as he's already said he can't see them, and that he doesn't think fat people should be allowed to climb hills and if they do, they shouldn't opt for biscuits as a convenient and calorie-dense snack when they get to the top. I also wonder whether the owners of the B&B in Byrness were particularly chuffed with the way they were portrayed, mocked for the number of signs put up for the benefit of their guests and for the old-fashioned range of snacks on offer in their tuck cupboard.

However, Armitage is a poet, and has a poet's way with language, and he grew up in Marsden, just off the Pennine Way, and has a real feel for the Pennine landscape. He writes beautifully, and the book is definitely at its best when the focus is on the countryside and its flora and fauna; which, to be fair, is actually most of it. Even if he didn't enjoy his long-distance walk, he reminded me of what I enjoyed about mine, although I'm not tempted to try the Pennine Way any time soon (I'm realistic about my abilities, and apart from anything else I don't have three weeks to spend on a walking holiday).
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I absolutely adored Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword when I first read it at the age of 11 or 12. It had a capable, likeable heroine who didn't need anyone else to get her out of trouble, and a big loyal cat, and some wonderful friendships, and a romantic subplot which was sweet but not threateningly sexy, and after discovering it in the library I read it and the prequel, The Hero and the Crown, several times each. I never owned my own copy, though, but when someone posted a picture of the cover of their copy for a book meme on Facebook recently I found myself really wanting to re-read it, so I sought out a secondhand copy on Amazon (the availability of McKinley's books on Kindle is quite patchy, and this isn't available, though The Hero and the Crown is).

Re-reading something you used to love so much is a slightly scary undertaking. What if the book has been visited by the Suck Fairy in the intervening years, and the amazing story turns out to be rather dull and ordinary? Happily, The Blue Sword remains as wonderful as it always was; Harry is still likeable, her friends are even lovelier than I remembered, and Corlath hasn't turned into the kind of masterful hero who makes me want to throw books across the room. I was a little bit worried that the book's setting, which is fairly obviously a kind of fantasy-British-Raj-India, might have aged badly, but while I can't really see it as anything but a fantasy India analogue the details are vague enough for it to read as Generic Fantasy Hot Country With Some Critique Of Colonialism rather than anything more appropriative. There were even a couple of really very ordinary sentences (really, really very ordinary - one of them was "He did not look very majestic while glaring at a cat") which I found had spent the last 30 years sitting somewhere in the recesses of my memory, completely detached from their context, so that I was both surprised to find that this was where they were from and delighted to encounter them again.

It's still a lovely read. I can see why I read it so much as a child. Harry starts off rather lonely and feeling adrift in life, unsure of her place in the world, and ends up finding love and community and a place to belong, which is a fantasy I very much needed in those days, when I was awkward and geeky and never seemed to be able to make real friends. (I loved the Chalet School for much the same reasons, but that didn't have swords.) It's not a book that deals in shades of grey; the enemies Harry has to fight are barely glimpsed but demonic and evil, so there's never any question that there might be two sides to the war, while all the human characters are genuinely nice, thoughful and noble and trying to do good, with only some very minor disagreements and misunderstandings to get in their way. I suspect that, having rediscovered it, it'll continue to be a book I reach for when I want a comfort re-read, and I'm very glad it's held up as well as it has done.
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Before reading it, my impression of We Have Always Lived In The Castle was of a cross between I Capture The Castle and the Addams Family, and actually I don't think I was all that far off. As well as titular references to castles, both it and I Capture The Castle have female first-person narrators in their late teens, girls on the verge of adulthood, perhaps a bit consciously naive, and relationships between sisters are at their hearts, while the isolated Blackwood house and the shunned, eccentric family within are certainly examples of the same American Gothic tradition as the Addams Family.

It's a short book, but there's a lot in it. The story of Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood and her sister Constance, who live alone apart from their disabled uncle, isolated from their community following the deaths of the rest of their family in a notorious mass poisoning which Constance was accused and acquitted of, it's often extremely creepy and quite disturbing, exploring themes of madness and bullying and how society reacts to difference (I think if the novel had been written now rather than fifty years ago Merricat would almost certainly be considered neurodivergent) in a similar way to classics of feminist literature such as The Yellow Wallpaper and Wide Sargasso Sea. And yet it's also utterly charming, and not actually an unhappy book at all.
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Falconer's Lure, recently reprinted by Girls Gone By Press, fills in a lot of the gaps that confused me as a child reading Antonia Forest's Kingscote books; how the Marlows seemed to live a long way from the school at first, and then much closer, and who Patrick was, and why he only appeared later on, and where the hawks came from. It's a much more "typical" children's holiday story than The Marlows and the Traitor, or indeed Peter's Room which I finally read a couple of years ago, with a loose and episodic plot covering typical (and not so typical) summer holiday activities; swimming, riding, hawking. Forest being Forest, though, this isn't your typical sunny summer holiday book; death and bereavement loom large, and the Marlows continue to be deeply dysfunctional in a stiff-upper-lip kind of way and not entirely likeable.

There are some really stunning passages in this book; the scene where Nicola and Patrick are on the Crowlands, watching Jon's plane in the distance, struck me in particular (I knew from reading later books, online synopses and fic what was going to happen, but it was still incredibly well done). I love how Forest shifts the viewpoint from character to character, never letting the reader completely sympathise with anyone but giving everyone, even the rather difficult characters like Ann and Ginty, at least a moment of sympathy. And Peter's diving scene reminded me of the thing I most loved about the Marlows as a child, and still do now: the way they use quotations and scenes from fiction and poetry to understand and interpret the world. I never really identified with any of the Marlows; they were all too brave and sporty and outgoing for me, apart possibly from Lawrie in whom I can see a lot of the things I least like about myself, but I absolutely recognised that way of filtering life through art, and I don't think I'd ever seen it described before. Certainly not in such a recognisable way. (Also, the idea of Peter and Selby earnestly debating whether Childe Roland defeated what was in the Dark Tower or not until the person behind them got fed up is wonderfully entertaining, and also absolutely the kind of thing I would do too.)

There's now only one Marlows book I haven't read, The Ready-Made Family. I was going to wait until Girls Gone By reprinted it, but having just realised that it comes after The Thuggery Affair and not before and is therefore likely to be more like 18 months away than 12 I have ordered an expensive secondhand copy. I hope this one turns up - I did try this once before and was then told that the book had been returned to the sender after being damaged in the post, though I can't help wondering if they actually had it to send in the first place.
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I bought Mary Beard's new(ish) book about Rome* to read on holiday, though in fact I only started it on the last leg of the journey home. This was probably just as well; it's interesting, well-written and very accessible, but it is a serious academic book and not really the ideal thing to read to unwind after a tough day's walking. (Or, indeed, after a busy day at a convention, so I read very little of it last weekend.)

Beard concentrates on the first thousand years of Rome, from its mythical founding (bringing a sceptical eye to the stories of Remus and Romulus and Aeneas), through the growth and fall of the Republic to Caracalla's extension of Roman citizenship throughout the Empire in 212CE. Her focus is mainly on events in Rome itself, though one of the final chapters takes a wider look at the Empire and its provinces, and necessarily more on the wealthy and powerful men whose words and memorials still survive than on women and the lower classes, but she tries to look beyond the obvious stories. Rather than taking the more traditional approach of presenting Rome as the great empire we should learn from and model ourselves on, she considers Rome largely in the light of its influences on our world, from models of government to rhetorical devices. The structure isn't strictly chronological; she starts with Cicero's conflict with Catiline, towards the end of the Republic, and then goes back to tell the story of how Rome got to that point and forward into the empire, although all the way through she makes links between events in different periods and references later retellings (Cicero in particular looms large across the whole Republican period).

I feel I learned a lot about Rome from the book**, though I'm not entirely sure how much of it is going to stick!

* not, as I keep worrying I've told people, Mary Berry's book about Rome, which would be a very different beast. Dormouse pie, anyone?

** probably not hard, as most of my prior knowledge of ancient Rome came from Rosemary Sutcliff, who has been thoroughly Jossed by modern archarology, and I Claudius.
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Last year I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a day ticket to Nine Worlds and see what a con was actually like. I enjoyed it enough to buy a full weekend ticket at the early-bird rate (not much more expensive than the day ticket bought just before the con) and this weekend was my first ever full three-day con experience. Now I wish I hadn't let shyness keep me from taking the plunge and actually going to a con for so long, because I had a brilliant time. I went to some really interesting and engaging panels; particular highlights were Twin Peaks Wild Speculation, a talk on Minerva in London, Transformative Works and the Colonisation of Historical Space, Recreating Ourselves With Stories, the Joss Whedon Singalong*, The Limitations of Strong Female Characters and Historical Headcanons, though everything was good with the exception of the panel on "Writing Utopia" where none of the panellists appeared to have a very clear understanding of what a utopia actually was.

Also, somewhat ironically given that I didn't go to cons for so long because I was worried about not knowing anyone, I spent a lot of time just hanging out and socialising, largely with friends-of-friends I'd only met for the first time that weekend; by the end of Friday I'd found myself introducing myself to a complete stranger who I recognised as someone [personal profile] aella_irene had told me to look out for by her costume and knitted BB8 and spending half an hour drinking tea with her, playing a game with three people I'd only just met via [livejournal.com profile] triskellian, who'd had to go off to babywrangle, and spending half an hour after a panel having an in-depth conversation about feminism and parenting and life choices with C who I know as a knitter and two of her friends, as well as spending some time chatting to [personal profile] coughingbear and [personal profile] hano and briefly seeing [personal profile] sir_guinglain (who I did manage to catch up with properly later in the weekend).

The venue this year was the Hammersmith Novotel, which was much better than last year's, both in terms of location (it made it very easy to stay elsewhere and get to and from the con, and to pop out to buy food and just have a bit of a breather) and also in terms of layout (wide corridors that didn't feel overcrowded when people were milling about between sessions, and enough food and drink outlets that getting tea and snacks didn't take up the entire break).

I've already bought my ticket for next year (super early bird rate until the end of August).

*which I found surprisingly emotional, as well as really good fun; something about singing "Going Through The Motions", which absolutely nails how depression feels for me, while feeling so happy and alive and surrounded by likeminded people had me getting a bit tearful.
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So, I have now walked the whole of the Hadrian's Wall National Trail. The official website says that the trail is 84 miles long, but T's Runkeeper app claims that we actually walked a smidgen under 112 miles; some of this is due to having to divert away from the trail to get to our overnight accommodation (a couple of times this was two or three miles out of our way) but we were consistently getting higher numbers than we expected and eventually decided that this might be because the mapped distance is calculated as if it was a two-dimensional line whereas the app takes elevation into account and a mapped mile up or downhill involves travelling further than a mapped mile on the flat. Well, that or the app is just inaccurate, which is also a possibility, but it did seem to be most inaccurate on the hillier stretches.

While the trail isn't rated as a very difficult path and can be attempted by anyone who's reasonably fit, as people without a great deal of walking experience we did find bits of it quite challenging, particularly in the central section which does, essentially, cross the north Pennines*; the uphill bits were OK, if slow, but getting down almost-vertical slopes was less pleasant, though the views were spectacular and there's also a lot of the Wall remaining through that section, presumably because it was too remote for people to bother carting the stone away for building as happened in a lot of the lowland bits. We'd planned an itinerary which gave us plenty of time to stop and look at the sights along the way, as well as stopping for refreshments and just to admire the view, though it turned out that our shorter days (about 9 miles) were a bit too short and the three longer days at the end (16 miles each) were almost too much for us**; I think 12 to 14 miles would probably have been perfect.

If you don't follow me elsewere on social media (in which case you'll have seen them already) you can see my photos on Instagram.

We used Sherpa Van for baggage transfers and also booked our accommodation through them (mainly B&Bs, but also a couple of pubs with rooms and, on the last night, a wigwam, which was surprisingly cosy and actually had the best shower of the trip) which made it much easier, as we then only had to carry daysacks with waterproofs and water and snacks rather than lugging absolutely everything around.

After a week and a half at walking pace it feels rather odd to be home again, and not walking, though also quite nice to have a break; my new walking boots were really comfortable, but my legs were pretty tired by the end of each day. Still, it was a brilliant holiday, and I definitely want to do more long-distance walks. I feel much more relaxed than I did before I went away, and even found myself enjoying knitting again and finishing the pair of socks I started in February. It makes me realise that the reason I seem to have stopped enjoying all the things I used to like recently is probably just because work has been taking up so much time and energy that I simply haven't had anything left for fun. However much I love my job, I really need to try to stop myself getting to that point again.

*I'm not sure I would have suggested the walk as a holiday if I'd realised it would involve walking across the Pennines, because that sounds stupendously hard, but we managed it.

**The second-to-last day was the one that felt like a real slog; by that stage we were close enough to Carlisle that there were no more remains of the Wall to see, and we just seemed to spend most of the day trudging through fields and increasingly suburban villages. It also didn't help that the pub in Crosby-on-Eden had closed and that meant that there was nowhere to stop for a drink or to go to the loo until we got to Carlisle itself. On the last day there were still no Wall remains, but we were leaving the city behind us and there was the Solway Firth and saltmarshes to add interest.
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I ended up reading rather less on holiday than I normally do, which I suppose isn't entirely surprising as mostly after spending the day tramping up hill and down dale by the evening I wasn't fit for much more than watching something undemanding on TV before falling asleep at 9pm, even we hadn't staying in B&Bs where there wasn't anywhere to sit but on the bed(s), which invariably led to lying down on the bed(s), which in turn led to sleep rather than reading; so in the end I only managed to finish the book I'd been reading before we left and read one other.

I wanted to like Nicola Griffith's Hild a lot more than I actually did. It had some brilliant moments and some clever ideas; I loved the sense of place I got from the writing, and Griffith's depiction of seventh-century Britain as a complicated melting-pot of cultures and races: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Britons, Franks; pagans, Celto-British Christians, Roman Christians, all living, working, trading and fighting in a shifting web of alliances which felt much more real and vivid than the segregated world Rosemary Sutcliff imagines in Dawn Wind, set about fifty years earlier. I also loved the themes of spinning and weaving that run through the book, both as literal activities carried out by the novel's female characters (the ubiquity of spindle whorls at every museum I've visited lately only goes to demonstrate just how important the production of cloth was in pre-industrial societies) and as metaphors for the interconnections between the various kingdoms of Britain and the pattern of history being formed between them. I appreciated the way Griffiths was obviously trying to create a women's history in the gaps of the official records, a story of influences and intrigues rather than power and battles, and I liked that novel's emphasis on trade as the main driver of its history, rather than battles (for a long time I had a very 1066 And All That view of history as being about battles and kings and thought trade was boring, but in recent years I've come to realise that it's actually utterly fascinating, and also where the real story lies). And because I was walking through Northumberland the Northumbrian setting felt appropriate (even if I'm pretty sure that when Griffith talks about people riding along "the Redcrests' Wall" she actually means they were riding along the Stanegate, which is a couple of miles south of the Wall itself and much more suited for riding, and which goes through Corbridge and Haltwhistle which she name-checks).

Despite all this, I didn't find the plot terribly gripping; it's very slow-moving, with a string of episodes from Hild's early life interspersed with reports of events that Hild isn't actually present at. I was surprised to discover that the book's 560 pages barely get Hild to adult life; I was expecting the novel to cover her whole life, but in fact it appears that there will be at least one sequel. More than this, though, despite the thoroughly-researched historical background, I increasingly found myself feeling that, particularly in matters of personal relationships, the characters behaved with a very modern sensibility that didn't really ring true to me. Obviously, records of the time are limited and deal more with politics than personal lives, so there's a lot of scope for authorial imagination, but while it seems quite plausible that women would have had bawdy conversations among themselves the default assumption that sex would be pleasurable and the sheer amount of extramarital sex going on seemed much too modern, while the suggestion that any unwanted pregnancy could be easily dealt with by taking the right herbs struck me as downright irresponsible in an age where access to abortion is still far from universal. I was also not particularly happy with Griffiths's decision to invent a formal partnership structure between women for which there is absolutely no historical evidence and make this central to the Anglo-Saxon society she depicts; I don't think that the absence of evidence that something didn't happen is sufficient grounds for inlcluding it in a historical novel when it's something that significant. I suspect I might have been more comfortable with Hild if it was a work of historical fantasy, but as historical fiction it didn't really work for me, and I don't intend to read the sequel.

After finishing Hild, I wanted something light and entertaining and suitable for a walking holiday. John Buchan seemed to fit the bill perfectly, so I read Castle Gay, the second Dickson McCunn novel and one I hadn't read before. I liked it a lot; the McCunn novels are gentler and less full of danger and intrigue than the Richard Hannay books, and the two of the three I've read so far both start with their heroes embarking on walking holidays, which seemed appropriate. This was a mainly peril-free caper with some delightful descriptions of walking in south-west Scotland (not too far from where I was myself, just across the Solway Firth), some entertaining commentary on the role of the Press in British society (maybe things haven't actually changed that much in 80 years) and a plot about a timid, isolated rich man being redeemed by contact with nature which was rather reminiscent of a Chalet School book. All in all, great fun from start to finish.
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My mother mentioned Hunter Davies' 1974 A Walk Along the Wall to me a few weeks ago as something that might be ideal reading for someone preparing to spend their summer holiday walking the Hadrian's Wall National Trail, so I sought out a secondhand copy and read it over the weekend. It's an interesting and enjoyable read, a mix of personal travel journal, history (though I suspect that many of the archaeological details Davies recounts may have been Jossed in the 42 years since the book was published) and reportage of life along the Wall in the early 1970s. It's piqued my interest in the sights of the Wall more than just reading the guidebook managed (though I read most of it with the guidebook and maps beside me) and made me feel much keener on the prospect of the walk than I had been, though in fact what I found most interesting was the glimpse of the world I was born into, which seems unimaginably distant now: a world where the Swan Hunter shipyard was still a thriving concern, with the workers out of strike for an increase in their wage of £34 per week, where many of the farmers, landowners and government officials Davies spoke to had held their posts since before the War, which was still very much a living memory, and where the Hadrian's Wall tourist industry was very much in its infancy, with very few decent hotels and even fewer restaurants to be found. Even on the Wall itself, some things have definitely changed; Davies walked along the top of the Wall remains, where there were any extant, which is very much not allowed now, and occasionally had to pay farmers for the privilege of following the trail across their fields whereas now the whole trail is open to the public, and several features which were barely visible in his day are now fully excavated tourist attractions, although I suspect that if anything the decline of industry and agriculture and their replacement by services and tourism will only have increased the sense of isolation and suspicion of visitors and government officials expressed by some of Davies' interviewees.

It's not a perfect book; Davies doesn't have the charm of a Patrick Leigh Fermor or a Robert Byron, and I was particularly put off him by a quip about having made his wife carry the rucksack when they went hiking in their student days, except through villages for the sake of appearances. I also thought for a while that he didn't know the difference between a monogram and a monograph, but later typos make me suspect dodgy OCR in the production of the 2000 edition I had coupled with inadequate proofreading. It's a book to read for the subject-matter and not for the writing, but it was definitely a good thing to read in preparation for my own walk.
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I decided that what I needed was a comfort read, by which I don't mean fluff. I don't find fluff particularly comforting; it doesn't occupy enough of my brain to drive away the fear and anxiety. What I want in a comfort read is something engaging and entertaining, with vividly drawn characters and a plot that catches my interest. What I really wanted was another Lymond book, but having read the last one a few months ago I decided to start on Dunnett's House of Niccolo sequence instead.

Niccolo Rising is a slower burner than The Game of Kings, and Nicholas, when we first meet him as the large, clumsy, cheerful apprentice Claes, is less immediately attractive than Lymond, althogh it quickly becomes clear that there is a great deal more to him than meets the eye, and his cheerful approach to life is a nice change from Lymond's epic manpain. The large supporting cast includes a number of interesting and likeable characters (I particularly like Marian de Charetty) as well as a few interesting and definitely unlikeable ones and some who are just interesting and ambiguous. I enjoyed the setting, and having discovered a previously unsuspected fascination with trade history while reading The Ringed Castle I loved the setting and the background detail of the world of 15th-century merchants and bankers. The plot doesn't seem to twist and turn as much as the Lymond plots do, but I think that may actually be deceptive as the last fifty pages or so turn quite a lot of things on their heads.

I think the main difference to The Game of Kings is that that is a book that can stand on its own, presumably because when Dunnett wrote it she had no idea whether it could be published, let alone that it would be the start of a series, whereas by the time she came to Niccolo she was an established author, and Niccolo Rising very definitely feels like the first act of a much longer story. I'm looking forward to reading the others, in time, and I suspect that I'll like the Claes of the first book better when I know more of the later Nicholas.
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Although I have loved Garner's children's fantasy novels since I was a child, I have been slow to read his adult novels. This one is really four linked short stories, focusing on four generations of children from the same family in Garner's familiar territory of Alderley Edge, learning how they fit into the world and the community of artisans and labourers they live in. It's a short book, but beautifully written, vividly evoking the place and the life of the community.
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Rosemary Sutcliff's Dawn Wind is full of the tropes of YA postapocalyptic fiction. It opens with the 14-year-old protagonist waking up to the realisation that everyone he ever knew is dead and he is all alone in the world; later, he and a girl he meets eke out a living in the burnt-out and deserted ruins of their home city, foraging for food and having to avoid lawless bands of armed men. So far, so standard; but the difference here is that the book begins in around 680AD, and is historical fiction, not science fiction, and the world that has ended is the last relic of Romanised Britain, crushed by the Saxons in the battle that takes place just before the story begins. Somehow this was the book Station Eleven most reminded me of, and made me want to re-read. It's also a hopeful book, as Owain serves out the years first as thrall and then as trusted retainer to a Saxon family and sees the beginnings of co-operation between Saxons and the British remaining in Wales; the "dawn wind" of the title beginning to blow after the dark century when the remains of the Roman civilisation were slowly destroyed by the invaders.

Dawn Wind isn't my favourite Sutcliff; that will always be Frontier Wolf, and more generally I much prefer the novels set in Roman Britain. The Saxon Britain of Dawn Wind is a much poorer place, a land of isolated farms in clearings in the woods, each settlement much more cut off from its neighbours than the Roman towns, as the roads crumble away and groups of bandits roam the land. It's a sad book; there's a real sense of how much has been irrecoverably lost. In the light of Recent Events, I got a bit teary at this bit:

For the space of two men's lives at least, we have stood alone, we in Britain, cut off from all that Rome once stood for, from all that we thought worth dying for. And today we have joined hands with those days of the Long Wandering [...] - a light clasp yet, and easily broken, but surely it will strengthen. [...] Not the dawn as yet, [...] but I think the dawn wind stirring.

Actually, I got a bit teary at quite a few bits. It's not an easy read, but I found it very rewarding this time round; I think it's probably one of Sutcliff's less well-known books, and that's a shame, as it deserves a wider audience.
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I generally try to avoid postapocalyptic novels, on the grounds that they only tend to exacerbate the underlying fear of the end of the world that I've lived with since I was a child in the 1980s. (I didn't always avoid them; I can remember reading Children of the Dust and Z for Zachariah searching for some hope, a faith that there might actually be something on the other side, a future after the Bomb dropped. Children of the Dust is actually quite optimistic, a few generations on. Z for Zachariah, not so much.) But lots of people had told me how good Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven was, so I thought I'd take advantage of the fact that the current political situation has made me so gloomy that I don't have much room for the fear of everything falling apart, so I thought I'd give it a try.

In essence, Station Eleven tells the stories of a group of people, all loosely connected by an actor who collapsed and died onstage the night that a devastating flu pandemic began. The stories circle around that night, lives before and after the coming of the illness that wiped out almost the entire human population and brought about the collapse of modern civilisation. The book doesn't follow a linear structure, moving instead between the post-collapse future, where people live in small isolated communities in the ruins of the modern world (one of the largest communities is in an abandoned airport, where people live in tents on the airport concourse or inside planes which will never fly again), the only fragile links between them traders and a travelling band of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare to the communities they pass through, and the mundane pre-collapse lives of jobs and relationships, marriage and divorce and friendship, global travel and instantaneous communication.

It's actually not a gloomy book. The post-collapse world is short on comfort and long on danger, and the sadness at the loss of the old world is always present, but Mandel is good at conveying the beauty of the natural world, and of the world returning to nature, as her characters move through it. There is still art, and friendship, and love, and a hope for the future. The pre-collapse world, on the other hand, is full of people communicating with each other without really saying anything, people who spend their lives doing things they hate surrounded by the bleak impersonality of cities. Like the more optimistic post-apocalyptic novels of my youth, there's a sense that maybe a return to a simpler world might be a good thing, and as far as ways of killing most of the human race go a virulent flu virus which results in death within hours of infection isn't as bad a way to go as some (we only actually see one character succumb to the virus, and it seems relatively painless). And it's beautifully written. On the other hand, I'm not sure it was the ideal book to read in an afternoon while alone in the house...
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I had very little memory of The Fifth Elephant, though I knew I had read it before. I bought it in hardback the day it was released, and I think I ended up skim-reading it and finding it disappointing, as I did with a lot of mid-period Discworld books; I missed the broad comedy of the first books, and didn't appreciate the subtler humour of what Pterry was trying to do.

It probably is still one of the weaker books, but a weaker Pratchett is still worth several of most other people. Reading it this week was an interesting experience, because it turns out to be about diplomacy and international relations, and trade agreements, and werewolves who are basically Nazis (but really, quite English Nazis - two are called Nancy and Unity), and racism (well, all the Watch books from Men At Arms on are about racism) and how to be a leader, and what happens in a society when some people want to embrace new ideas and accept people's differences and others want to stick to the old ways, and a lot of it hit very close to home. And then there was this footnote:

Vimes had once discussed the Ephebian idea of 'democracy' with Carrot, and had been rather interested in the idea that everyone had a vote until he found out that while he, Vimes, would have a vote, there was no way in the rules that anyone could prevent Nobby Nobbs from having one as well. Vimes could see the flaw there right away.


Rereading now, I continue to be amazed by the complexity of the Discworld books from the late 90s, and also by the incredible clarity of Pterry's reflection of humanity. I thought I was politically engaged and well-informed about current affairs, but there are so many things recognised here that I didn't become aware of until a good five or ten years later. And I wish, more than ever, that we hadn't lost him so soon, not just because the world is a much poorer place without him, but because we really need people who can see that clearly and the explain it to the rest of us.