NaNoWriMo 2021: Year Thirteen!

Most of my writing efforts this year have been focussed on editing, and while I haven’t managed to keep it up every single day, I’ve definitely done a lot more across the year than I have previously. But now it’s time to put that aside for a month, as National Novel Writing Month is upon us once more.

I had several potential ideas, which I eventually narrowed down to the next instalment in my historical series (a direct continuation of last year’s NaNoWriMo) and a story about dinosaurs. When I struggled to decide, I did my tried-and-tested method of going for a walk to somewhere quiet and green, and meditating on the issue to see which idea had the stronger pull. The result was that the dinosaur idea won out – but I had no idea what the plot would be; I just thought that it would be fun to write about dinosaurs after the concept has been on my ideas list for so long.

So first I did some brainstorming by asking myself, ‘What do I want to see in this story?’ This included such concepts as the characters encountering dinosaurs in both their natural habitat and the present day, and a list of particular dinosaurs and prehistoric settings, as well as a few ideas that fell more within the science-fiction area. Once I had established the method by which humans and dinosaurs would be brought together, I had to lay down ground rules and look for potential queries that needed to be addressed. What I ended up with felt like too much for one story, which means more projects for future NaNoWriMos or Camp NaNoWriMos – but with follow-up stories in mind, I would still need to figure out a three-act structure, conflict and resolution for this initial story for it to be satisfying. Using the Snowflake Method, I was able to pull together a decent plan. The characters, meanwhile, are a mix of fresh faces, characters I initially came up for an unfinished story many years ago, and characters I’ve had in my head for a while without having a proper story for.

Having already completed NaNoWriMo so many times, and knowing what kind of prep I usually need to get through it, I was able to get all the necessary groundwork laid down by the middle of October. Now I feel ready to just jump in come the first of November. It should be fun!

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My 600th Post: My Running This Year

As well as being a good year for reading and writing, 2021 has turned to be a positive year for running too. After completing a virtual half-marathon last year, I felt as if I lost my running mojo to a degree. I was still going out to run, but I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it, particularly when winter set in and the weather became less inviting. June of this year, however, proved to be a turning point, when I made the decision to cut down on the comfort eating I’d unfortunately gotten into since lockdown. The payoff came pretty quickly: as I shed weight, my running speed increased, and I found myself feeling happier on my runs. Various audiobooks on running were also providing motivation: 26.2 Miles to Happiness by Paul Tonkinson painted a detailed and honest picture of what it’s like to run a marathon, and The Lost Art of Running by Shane Benzie had plenty of good tips about improving your running form.

But I was still just a little dissatisfied with running on my own. I wanted to take part in an event again – which, thanks to Covid, I hadn’t been able to do since the last Parkrun in March 2020. With the pandemic situation apparently easing, I felt safe booking a half-marathon and the Preston 10K for September, and I was excited to find out how fast I would be by then.

Then there came the long-awaited day in July: Parkrun was back! I headed down to my local event, definitely enjoying the feeling of being among fellow runners again. Fuelled by excitement and pent-up energy, I ended up setting a new personal best of 23:58! Unfortunately, it turned out that I might have been a little too excited. When I went out for what was meant to be a gentler run the following day, I was a few kilometres in when I was struck with pain behind the middle toe of my right foot. I turned around and limped home; and in the subsequent days, despite application of ice and a great deal of hoping, the injury didn’t appear to be healing quickly.

I ended up going to a physiotherapist, who reckoned that I had aggravated a tendon, possibly from the way the foot bends when running up a hill. My big fear had been that it was a stress fracture, but apparently it’s quite hard to get a fracture in the middle of the foot. All I could really do was keep up the ice and rest, and let it get better – and in the meantime, I was going mad from not being able to run at a time when I was most loving it. It might have been the wrong time to listen to the audiobook of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, a book which places a lot of emphasis on the joy of running which fuelled such athletes as Ann Trason and Emil Zatopek. I had listened to books about ultra-marathon running before, but Born to Run was the first one that made me think I might want to give it a go one day. (Of course, I’ll need to complete a marathon first, then see how I feel.)

A month after my injury, my foot had healed enough for me to resume running, and I was pleased to find that my condition hadn’t deteriorated too much. When I felt confident that all was well, I went to Parkrun again, this time taking it more gently. The following morning, I reckoned there was no harm in having another run – so off I went. A short distance in, I found a pedestrian approaching me on the pavement – with social distancing now a habit, I came off the pavement to avoid them. As I was coming back on, I tripped on the kerb and fell, painfully grazing my hand and my knee. I began to wonder if I was under some ‘day-after-Parkrun’ curse.

At least this was only a superficial injury, so it didn’t hold me back much. Due to my earlier foot injury, I had moved my half-marathon booking to another event later in the year, but there was still the Preston 10K.

I turned up on the day of the 10K feeling a bit anxious. There had been a route change at the last minute and the map didn’t make it especially clear where the first few kilometres were going; plus the clouds were looking ominous. Yet as soon as the race began and I started running, all my anxiety was turned off like a light switch. I was just focussed on the familiar movements; I was in the zone. The route proved unproblematic to follow, though it wasn’t the easiest in terms of effort: there were several uphill sections, including a few long, gradual stretches that are more insidious and draining than short, steep hills. It was, however, a very satisfactory result: I finished with a chip time of 48:41, just sixteen seconds slower than my 10K PB!

So right now, I’m going to keep up my running as we get into autumn, while taking care to allow recovery and not overreach myself to minimise the risk of more injuries. Hopefully before the year is out, I’ll have completed a half-marathon at an actual event. My goal for 2022 is to get more half-marathons under my belt – and then, when I feel ready, to move to the next level and sign up for a full marathon!

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The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag – 2021 Edition

This has been a very good reading year for me so far: I set myself a target of 70 books for the year and I’ve finished 46. So I thought I would do a mid-year review with this tag from last year.

  1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2021

Currently still Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – it’s at least as good as The Martian, if not slightly better.

  1. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2021

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. I got the whole five-book Percy Jackson series for my birthday in March; although by the third book, I was a bit dissatisfied that they all seemed to involve the heroes doing the same things but with different monsters, the fourth and fifth books certainly picked up. The fifth book, The Last Olympian, was my favourite, providing an epic and satisfying finale.

  1. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

Locked in Time by Dean Lomax, a non-fiction book on how the behaviour of prehistoric animals can be inferred from certain fossils. The podcast Space and Things also keeps providing new releases to add to my list, like Beyond by Stephen Walker, which is about Yuri Gagarin.

  1. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield – a space thriller by an actual former astronaut holds great promise!

  1. Biggest disappointment

Contact by Carl Sagan. I wanted to like this book more than I did, having enjoyed both the film based upon it, and Carl Sagan’s non-fiction. Unfortunately, while there are moments of beauty – particularly when painting pictures of the cosmos and having philosophical discussions – a lot of the content is poorly paced and feels very dry, with some scenes that should have some drama making little effort to instil an emotional response in the reader. Apparently the concept started out as a screenplay – and ultimately, it works a lot better as a film.

  1. Biggest surprise

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. I got the audiobook of this as I was in the mood to try some fantasy – but it’s often hard for me to predict whether I’m going to enjoy a fantasy novel or not. I tend to either really enjoy them or be indifferent to them. I decided to try The Blade Itself as it was one of those recommended for readers of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch, and I was pleased to find that this was a solid recommendation. I think I prefer fantasy stories where the main conflicts stem from worldly concerns, like political manoeuvring and foreign invasions, rather than some vague, dark, magical threat – though there are possible hints of something like that to come in the First Law trilogy, the rest of which I’ll be checking out at some point in the future.

  1. Favourite new author (debut or new to you)

Rick Riordan. Given how much I love Greek mythology, it’s really taken me too long to start reading his books. Having gotten through the original Percy Jackson series and thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to reading the subsequent Heroes of Olympus series.

  1. Newest fictional crush

I don’t do fictional crushes.

  1. Newest favourite character

Rocky from Project Hail Mary. Amaze!

  1. Book that made you cry

I still don’t cry at books, but a few particular scenes in Project Hail Mary got the biggest emotional response out of me.

  1. Book that made you happy

Spaceman by Mike Massimino. Former Shuttle astronaut Massimino is a great storyteller, both in terms of his writing and how he narrates his own audiobook. This, along with the interesting subject matter, and a combination of funny and poignant moments and positive guidance, made this book a real pleasure.

  1. Most beautiful book you’ve bought (or received) so far this year

Marvel Greatest Comics: 100 Comics That Built a Universe by Melanie Scott was at least the most aesthetically pleasing, inside and out.

  1. What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

This year, I’ve been building a list to keep track of what I intend to read this year – including new discoveries (e.g. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E Taylor), books by authors I like (e.g. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari), books that have been on my shelf for a while (e.g. Forever Young by John Young), and old books that I fancy re-reading (e.g. American Gods by Neil Gaiman). But of course, that list keeps getting longer, so who knows if I’ll get through them all by Christmas?

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Book review: Project Hail Mary

I’ve been doing really well for reading so far this year. After setting a Goodreads target of 70 books, I’m at 37 already (text and audiobooks), and there’s been some really great ones there too. I’ve written short reviews of most of them on Goodreads, but I decided to write a full review of the latest audiobook I finished as it left such a big impression on me. That book is Project Hail Mary, a new release from Andy Weir, the author of The Martian (one of my all-time favourite books) and Artemis (which I liked more than most people seem to).

As the book begins, our hero, Dr Ryland Grace, wakes up from an three-year-long induced coma with no idea where he is or even who he is. Gradually, he pieces together that he is on board an interstellar spaceship, the Hail Mary; and with his two crewmates having died while comatose, he is the only one left to control the ship. Earth, it transpires, is in dire straits: an alien microbe known as “astrophage” has infected the Sun in sufficient numbers to drain its energy, threatening to plunge the Earth into an ice age and trigger a mass – perhaps even total – extinction. Ryland’s mission is to explore a nearby star system that is somehow immune to the effects of astrophage, and hopefully discover a solution to the biggest threat that his home planet has ever faced.

Readers of Weir’s previous novels will certainly notice trademarks present in Project Hail Mary. There’s plenty of snarky humour from Ryland, which makes him feel very similar to The Martian‘s Mark Watney to begin with. He is, however, ultimately different to Watney in many ways which become evident as the story progresses. One way is that he’s more of a pure scientist; I really liked how his passion for science comes through, and how he approaches many of the problems he faces by carrying out experiments. As in The Martian and Artemis, the “science” part of this science-fiction feels very believable; Weir takes the opportunity to explore real topics like relativity (a necessary consideration of an interstellar journey) while also getting creative with fictional concepts.

Without spoiling how the story progresses, there are so many good things about it. First, it’s very well-constructed: Ryland’s initial amnesia allows the reader to learn about the present situation as he does, and the background of Project Hail Mary is gradually revealed in flashbacks as more of his memories come back to him. These flashbacks reveal just what we need to know, and pop up in just the right places so as not to spoil the flow of the present events. Second, it’s really engaging: some parts got me especially tense, some parts shocked me, and there were even a few scenes where I got a little emotional, which not many books can do to me. The situation that Earth finds itself in certainly isn’t sugarcoated; the Sun’s diminishment is going to cause a lot of suffering no matter what happens with the Hail Mary, and some of the flashbacks involve very difficult and alarming decisions about what is necessary to give humanity any chance of survival.

Overall, Project Hail Mary is at least as good as The Martian, and a must-read for fans of science fiction and space travel. Rating: 5/5!

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How Not To Do Camp NaNoWriMo

Unfortunately, April’s Camp NaNoWriMo has not gone according to plan.

The intention was to treat it like November and write a whole 50,000-word story: a sequel to my 2015 fantasy project, which was my second choice for last November’s effort. This target quickly proved unrealistic when I didn’t quite manage to finish my previous WIP before the end of March, and I couldn’t focus on both projects at the same time. So I decided to revise my Camp target to 40,000 words and finish the WIP first – which I did, on 5th April.

Even then, however, I just couldn’t get into the flow of writing this new story. I’ve failed previous Camp NaNos because I didn’t have enough of a plan beforehand, and because I’d been busy with the previous project the last few months, I had only made a basic outline for April. But I told myself that I at least knew how the first few scenes would go, and that I could work on developing the outline as I went along. Sadly, this didn’t work out any better than it has in previous Camp NaNos. To me at least, the task of writing a certain number of words every day takes up so much focus and mental energy that there isn’t much room to do more than tweak the outline here and there; building it practically from scratch wasn’t going to happen.

Without a clear idea of where I was going, I quickly lost enthusiasm for the project; even reducing my target again and trying to write isolated scenes only helped for a few days. Finally, I decided to give up on this project, until such time as I could do it justice, and spend the rest of April playing with other ideas to keep up writing momentum. With all of those words included in the count, I technically met my twice-revised target, but it feels less like a victory and more like drawing a line through this month’s goal so I can move on to something else.

I’m not feeling too downhearted, though. I am still writing, and the problems of this month have taught me more about what works and doesn’t work for me as a writer. I already knew that I need some kind of plan, but now I know for certain that the plan needs a particular level of detail if I’m going to have a chance of success, and that I need to make sure I can devote my mind entirely to just writing during the month itself. Right now, I’m still thinking about what to write next; eventually, with proper preparation, I will come back to April’s intended project, perhaps for the next Camp NaNo in July.

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I Finished A Second Draft!

Twelve years of participating in National Novel Writing Month have left me with a sizeable collection of first drafts for novels. I’ve attempted to edit some of them before; a few of my Camp NaNoWriMo projects have involved full rewrites. But today, I finally hit a writing milestone and finished a novel’s second draft!

Last year was when I finally cracked getting into the habit of writing outside of NaNoWriMo. Basically, I told myself to do some writing every day, without putting on any pressure as to how much it needed to be, even if it was just a few sentences. My hope was that I would gradually build momentum – and ultimately, it worked. Writing has become a daily habit now, and subsequently getting into the habit of doing some in both the morning and the evening has increased productivity further.

The novel I was editing was my Camp NaNoWriMo 2012 project, The Approach to the New World. I started out just reading through the first draft, picking out things that needed improvement, and trying to address them one by one. Then, after reading Save The Cat Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody, I reworked the plotlines of the three main characters, based on the Save The Cat perspective of a character arc being driven by the character pursuing what they want and ultimately discovering what they need; I was able to create new, more satisfactory outlines for each of the three plotlines this way. Later, I read another book on writing advice: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. This book offers another perspective on character arcs: each protagonist has an incorrect psychological model of the world based on past experience, and goes on a journey to correct it. I tried incorporating this into my character profiles as well.

I went into January determined to keep writing on most days, keeping a log of what I worked on and how many words I produced each day. However, I ended up going back and forth between projects based on what I felt like doing each day: sometimes I’d work on the second draft, sometimes I’d fill in gaps in my NaNoWriMo 2020 story, sometimes I’d do something entirely different. This wasn’t the way to get my second draft finished, so I laid out a plan: no more jumping back and forth – work through the first plotline in a linear direction, then the second, then the third, based on the outlining I had already done. It worked: I stayed focussed on the second draft from then on.

The finished second draft is 75,915 words, making it 39% longer than the first draft. This is mainly because there are a lot of extra conversations between characters, or entirely new scenes, to flesh the characters out and make their development clearer. Significant changes include two of the three main characters having their backstories reworked to fit their arcs better; a character who lives in the first draft, dying in the second (sorry, Elizabeth); a side character being given more to do, while another is reduced to having just one scene; and characters from two separate plotlines getting to meet each other when they hadn’t in the first draft. The whole thing definitely isn’t fit to be shared yet, and there will probably be more reworking to come; but I take a lot of satisfaction in knowing that it is a significant improvement on the first draft, which was itself one of my favourite NaNo projects. It’s also taken several months to accomplish, but then, my practice run before my first ever NaNoWriMo took four months to finish; hopefully with practice I can get faster at this, too.

My hope was to finish the second draft in time for Camp NaNoWriMo this month. I haven’t quite managed that, and being focussed as I was on this project, I don’t have much more than a basic outline for Camp. But now I’m ready to put the second draft aside and focus on something new for the rest of April. After that, I want to try writing some short stories that I can produce more quickly and share with others to get some feedback. And then at some point, I’ll re-read my second draft, and based on that, get to work on the third one!

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Doctor Who – New Year’s Special 2021: “Revolution of the Daleks”

  • I know we’ve had to wait longer than this for more Doctor Who, but it still feels like it’s been forever. Seeing that title again felt good.
  • Just that scene at the tea booth made me feel nostalgic for the days without masks. And no doubt plenty of people understood how the Doctor was feeling being stuck inside a small space with limited movement.
  • Shouldn’t people recognise the Daleks from their invasion in The Stolen Earth?
  • Also, I thought that Ptings couldn’t be kept in captivity because they would eat their way out of anything.
  • The dialogue in those scenes between Jack Robertson and Jo Patterson just made me switch off. We know from the RTD era that scenes involving politicians don’t have to be dull. In fact, comparing those scenes to the ones in this episode, I’m left wondering whether the political environment was actually less grim in 2005, or if I just didn’t pay as much attention to it.
  • Fortunately, the Doctor and Captain Jack’s escape quickly injects some excitement into things, and it’s uphill from here.
  • Really, Leo? You find some alien DNA inside an artefact – might as well not only grow it, but plug the resulting creature into your network where it can access its own tech! What’s the worst that could happen, right? It’s not like aliens are ever hostile in films and TV! I never would have expected Robertson to be the sensible one in any situation.
  • I like the scene between Yaz and Jack. Couldn’t help but wonder from Yaz’s behaviour if she really is meant to be attracted to the Doctor.
  • I like the design of the Robertson Daleks too, even if it’s presumably a one-episode thing.
  • Both of the central concepts in this episode – Daleks using humans to replicate them, and different factions of Daleks fighting each other – have been done before all the way back in the Classic Series.
  • So did the Doctor seriously just drop Robertson back at home without any kind of punishment for his actions?
  • Ryan and Graham’s departure feels more akin to when Classic Series companions left, in that it’s relatively understated and just has them deciding to go rather than being forced to leave. I am glad that they’re left alive and happy, but given that the whole Fam dynamic never really lived up to its potential, I’m hoping that things will be better with just the Doctor and Yaz – except that apparently John Bishop is going to be joining the TARDIS now.

This was a decent story overall, with some good action and John Barrowman making a more fulfilling return as Captain Jack Harkness – it’s left me eager for the next series, whenever that may be. Rating: 3.5/5.

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2020 and 2021: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Ever since March, 2020 has been a year of unique challenges: a year of health fears, cancelled plans, and severe restrictions on what people can do, where they can go and who they can see. And while there is hope on the horizon, the problem of the coronavirus pandemic and all its consequences are still ongoing as we enter a new year, and the lives we knew at the beginning of 2020 will take a long time to be fully restored, if they are at all.

I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve been relatively lucky: I have a job which allows me to work from home, and I have a support bubble which allows me to talk to people. The first weeks of lockdown were certainly hard, and made me realise how important the opportunity to socialise at work really is; but I’m pleased that I was able to adjust to the new routine, and find solutions to the challenges that the situation presented. There have been other positives to this year, too.

  • I completed my resolution to run a half-marathon for the first time.
  • I completed some personal development exercises which have greatly improved my self-awareness of what motivates me and how to develop in the future.
  • With my planned holiday abroad having been put back, I was able to take a staycation to see some sights in Britain that had been on my list.
  • I actually got into good writing habits outside of National Novel Writing Month, and feel like I’m really getting somewhere with the second draft of my work in progress.
  • I completed National Novel Writing Month despite having a lot going on in November which made writing more difficult.

A lot of my resolutions for 2021 involve developing what I currently have on the table, rather than doing something new. Some things I want to do – namely, things which involve physically going out into the world – are obviously dependent on the Covid situation. But I’ve got plenty of other goals that I should be able to work on regardless of that. Having been struggling to find motivation for running since the half-marathon, I signed up for Race At Your Pace in January to give myself a target – and once I’ve done that and I’m hopefully back in my flow, I want to try running the half-marathon distance again, even if it’s not for a particular event. My confidence in my writing is growing, and I find myself properly believing – when perhaps I haven’t before – that I can finish a draft and produce something that I can share with other people.

Whatever your situation is right now, I hope that 2021 brings positive developments at the very least. It doesn’t feel quite right to say ‘Happy New Year’, but it might still be a better one.

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My Favourite Books (and Films) in 2020

Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t been a great film-watching year for me, at least in terms of new releases. Since January, I’ve seen a grand total of six films in theatres, as well as three new releases via streaming services and one on Amazon Video:

  1. 1917
  2. Parasite
  3. Birds of Prey
  4. Over the Moon (Netflix)
  5. Ammonite
  6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
  7. Soul (Disney Plus)
  8. Enola Holmes (Netflix)
  9. Misbehaviour
  10. Tenet

On the other hand, having to spend most of my time at home hasn’t hurt my reading habits, while daily walks provide the opportunity to listen to audiobooks which my commute previously granted. I’ve read/listened to 72 books this year, just beating last year’s total of 70.

Favourite Fiction Read in 2020

10. Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline
I was a big fan of Ready Player One, and while the sequel doesn’t quite hit those heights (or maybe that’s just because of the novelty wearing off), I liked it a lot. It generates a new source of conflict to drive the story that expands on what’s already been set up without feeling tacked on, though I was a bit irritated that Wade essentially has to re-learn the same lesson he did in the first book. The story has a different feel, being more event-driven than character-driven; but the nostalgic indulgence and the virtual world’s limitless possibilities are still out in full force.

09. Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
This is the first Star Wars novel I’ve read/listened to, and I enjoyed learning more about this universe beyond what we see in the films: getting down to ground level and having Empire soldiers as the main characters. Thrawn is a fascinatingly smart and competent character and I certainly want to read more of his stories. The audiobook version is very well produced, with background sound effects and appropriate voices for familiar characters like Emperor Palpatine. My only problem with the story is that some of the political and tactical machinations get a bit complicated and when listening to it, I sometimes lost track of things.

08. The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann
The TV series The Animals of Farthing Wood was a big part of my childhood, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read the book earlier. One thing that surprised me – and isn’t the best reflection on the source material – is that several characters who were female in the series (Adder, Weasel, Owl, Kestrel) are male in the book. In fact, there are very few female characters at all here, and with the exception of Vixen, they aren’t given personalities or even names – they’re just somebody’s mate. The show did a better job of giving characters’ deaths emotional impact, as well.
Aside from that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s an exciting story where the animal characters have to face many different sources of conflict, most of them manmade. This fits in with the strong conservation message, which, coming from the animals’ perspective, feels earnest rather than preachy. And most of the animals have distinct personalities which come out over time – Adder is still my favourite character, even if their gender is different.

07. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
A fascinating and profound sci-fi story which explores a lot of interesting concepts in a relatively short space, from how humanity would develop under a benevolent dictatorship of aliens, to the idea of an overreaching system in the wider universe that is beyond our understanding on every level.

06. Troy by Stephen Fry
After Mythos and Heroes, I had expected the third volume of Stephen Fry’s Greek mythology series to cover both the Trojan War and the Odyssey – but if it takes separate volumes to do these stories justice (assuming that a fourth one is coming in the future), so be it. This is another excellent re-telling of classical mythology which does its best to flesh out the characters and get into their heads, though some parts (e.g. the abduction of Helen) are skimmed over so quickly that they’re a bit dissatisfying. Odysseus is my favourite character in this, so I do hope that Fry will indeed be giving us more of him.

05. Devolution by Max Brooks
This is a brilliant monster story on multiple levels: the themes of humans’ over-reliance on technology and loss of familiarity with nature, and how our true selves come out in a crisis; the gradual, tense buildup before the horror really begins; the epistolary format, with interviews being used to give background info on the Sasquatch; and the mix of different characters who react in different ways to the situation.

04. The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin
When it comes to fantasy, especially those stories set in other worlds, I usually either love them or am indifferent to them. This was one of those that I loved. I loved the sheer vastness and diversity of the world of Earthsea, and the intelligence of Ursula Le Guin’s writing, which doesn’t feel the need to spell things out to the reader, and contains a lot of interesting philosophy on life, death and the sense of identity.

03. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith
The Cormoran Strike books have generally gotten better as the series has progressed, and this one is my favourite so far. The central mystery, the various subplots, and the fascinating character introspection all come together really well. Even though the main story involves a cold case so the protagonists are hardly ever placed in personal danger this time round, it’s still gripping enough to keep you reading. I did have a couple of minor gripes: there are so many suspects involved that it can be hard to keep track, and it is a bit frustrating to see more instances where Strike and Robin continue to keep things from each other until it all comes out in an unhealthy outburst. But this is another great detective story and character study, and I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

02. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
I’ve previously read Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth, and while the setting of Fall of Giants is very different (early 20th century), it’s also a story spanning many years, involving a large cast of characters whose lives intertwine – and it’s similarly enjoyable too. As well as how interesting the characters’ various conflicts are, they’re placed in roles that allow the regular exposition regarding the First World War and European politics to feel natural instead of forced. More than other historical fiction I’ve read, this feels like an informative history book disguised as a novel, but it doesn’t suffer for it – it’s excellent.

01. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
It took me a few chapters to get into this book: there’s not a huge amount of plot, and I was a little irritated by how easily the narrator appeared to get side-tracked. But eventually something clicked, and I found myself loving it. There are so many great things about this book: what a brilliant character Owen Meany is, the rich atmosphere of Fifties and Sixties America, some very funny moments (e.g. the Volkswagen), how emotionally powerful it is, the reflection it encourages in the reader – and how, even though a lot of depressing things happen, it still manages to leave you feeling positive. Such is the power of Owen Meany.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2020

10. The Body by Bill Bryson
This is a fascinating book done in Bill Bryson’s usual style, combining interesting facts (on just about every area concerned with the body, with enough detail to be satisfying) with stories about the people involved with the relevant discoveries (many of whom deserve to be more well-known than they are). It’s frequently emphasised how much we still don’t know about our own bodies, and that the modern western lifestyle is having worrying long-term effects on us. While it is a little frustrating that the book talks about our unhealthy diets and insufficient exercise without giving detailed science-based answers on what is necessary to resolve either issue, that may because real life is too messy to apply general figures to everybody (another point that frequently comes up) or because the answer – eat what you know is healthy, but not too much of it, and be as active as you can – doesn’t really require overthinking.

09. The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era by Gareth Russell
I picked up this book wanting to learn more about the world in which the Titanic‘s passengers lived. It certainly delivers in that regard, though the focus is on the first-class passengers: using a few characters as case studies, like the Countess of Rothes, it provides interesting details on the attitudes and expectations of their society, and how the Titanic itself reflected that society. Less time is spent providing details on the sinking as a whole – that is a subject for other books – though the author does sometimes deviate to pointedly debunk erroneous ideas like the Olympic-switch theory and the coal bunker fire theory.

08. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to write but is struggling to actually do it: its a short book and could well give you the kick you need by adjusting your mindset. I liked how it describes the forces of both resistance (which keeps you from writing), making you understand what it is and how it can be overcome; and the positivity of creation, as the author taps into the feelings that drive writers. The differences between amateurs and professionals also give a particular mindset to aim for. It’s a well constructed book that will hopefully make you want to write and believe you can produce something.

07. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
A very powerful book, which inspires sympathy and admiration for the titular women in their suffering and fight for justice, and anger towards the radium companies who put profit above human lives and refused to accept responsibility. There is real emotion behind the writing, which makes it more engaging; the author does a great job at narrating the audiobook version, as you can feel her passion even more.

06. Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford
As well as being a very detailed and immersive account of Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott’s respective expeditions to the South Pole, this book gives plenty of insight into the differing attitudes of both men and their cultures, and offers applicable lessons in demonstrating why Amundsen succeeded and Scott failed. Huntford framing practically everything about Scott in a negative light can seem a bit extreme, but in most cases, he does have first-hand accounts and evidence to back up his views.

05. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
A fantastic book which not only has a lot of funny jokes and anecdotes, but also gives a serious insight into the trials and tribulations of being a doctor, and why they still choose to do it (and deserve appreciation from the rest of us).

04. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
An excellent personal development book, that covers many different aspects of increasing the likelihood of success in a positive, understandable manner.

03. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
If you like Pixar films and you’re interested in what goes on behind the scenes, this book certainly provides some interesting anecdotes. Mostly, it provides some great advice and examples for either a manager or an artist to learn from. The main thing I took from it is to not be afraid of not getting something right the first time, as even Pixar films need a lot of time and tweaking to get right.

02. On a Sea of Glass by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstedt
This is by far the most detailed book on the Titanic that I’ve read. It delves deep into the ship’s construction, maiden voyage and sinking, with practically nothing being considered too insignificant. The accounts of survivors form the meat of the book, with multiple accounts covering each stage of the voyage, and the reader is able to get a good feel for who many of those on board were as people. Everything is backed up with sources, with even generally accepted “facts” about the disaster being called into question based on the evidence; it’s a necessarily slow read partly because I kept checking the endnotes. Essential reading for Titanic enthusiasts, who may be surprised to find out what they didn’t know about the subject.

01. Save The Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
Anyone who’s either writing a novel or intending to write one should check this book out. It breaks down beautifully what a story and its hero need in order to work well, reinforcing its points with case studies (of different types of story) to make sure they are understood and stick in the memory.

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The Right Stuff on Disney Plus

Recently, I finally took the plunge and subscribed to Disney Plus. The big push I needed was that it was the only way to legally watch the final season of Agents of SHIELD, which had been infuriatingly dismissed by British terrestrial television. However, among much else, it also gave me the chance to watch the Disney/National Geographic series The Right Stuff. While both the original book by Tom Wolfe, and the 1983 film adaptation (which I’ve previously talked about with Rachel Wagner), start out by covering the activities of American test pilots like Chuck Yeager prior to the Space Race, the series focusses entirely on Project Mercury – the project to put an American into space – starting with the recruitment of the first astronauts, and ending with the first flight by Alan Shepard and President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the Moon.

The Right Stuff does a good job of balancing its historical content with the drama that gets the audience engaged with the characters: the astronauts coping with their new status as national heroes, the competition between them, and their relationships with their wives and children. (Personally I wouldn’t have minded a bit more “space stuff”, but that’s just me.) Jake McDorman and Patrick J. Adams give excellent performances as Alan Shepard and John Glenn respectively, highlighting the differences between the two men and the conflict that is subsequently generated between them. Shepard is portrayed as a jock, serious and driven when it comes to his career, but not especially responsible in his down time; Glenn, meanwhile, is “Mr Clean Marine”, devout and well-behaved but certainly not perfect, his judgemental attitude sometimes causing problems for him. I also liked Eric Ladin as Chris Kraft and Patrick Fischler as Bob Gilruth, who provide a good look at the management and flight control side of things.

There were also things I wasn’t so happy with, however. Despite having more time to work with than a feature film, the series feels like it missed its opportunity to flesh out all of the Mercury Seven: instead, most of the focus goes to Shepard, Glenn, and Gordo Cooper, the same as in the film. Meanwhile, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton and Scott Carpenter only get brief moments of development, while Wally Schirra is barely even present. The Right Stuff also definitely has its share of inaccuracies, mostly with regards to the timing of events, which can be all over the place. It wasn’t a bad idea to foreshadow things that are going to become more relevant further down the line, like Shepard having problems with his ear or Carpenter’s readiness being called into question; but the former at least is a significant deviation from history as Shepard only started having symptoms a few years after his Mercury flight. Deke Slayton being grounded due to his arrhythmia before Shepard’s flight is even more bamboozling; in reality, he was grounded almost a year after that, and had actually been the first choice for the second orbital Mercury mission.

The Right Stuff is a decent portrayal of the early days of American space flight, which I liked slightly better than the film overall. It looks like a second season hasn’t been confirmed yet, but I hope that it goes ahead and we get to see how it handles the rest of Project Mercury and beyond.

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