The Great North Run – 2022

In the days leading up to the Great North Run, I had two targets. The first was to try and at least get a time similar to my half marathon PB (1:43:39, set last month), even if I couldn’t be precise given that the GNR would present a very different environment. The second was to soak in the experience and enjoy it as much as possible.

On Sunday morning, I joined my sister and some of her running friends in taking the bus into Newcastle. It was when we stepped onto the gathering point on the Town Moor that the sheer scale of the event hit home; sixty thousand people were gathering to run, and it was a job to keep track of each other when moving through the throng. In spite of this, dropping off the baggage and making a final toilet stop proceeded smoothly, and then we split up and headed to our respective start zones.

Leaving the Town Moor and heading onto the A167, it felt like a very long way past the start line to my zone. Naturally, the pre-start buildup was rather more sombre than it might have been, with the passing of the Queen earlier that week, an event that had made it uncertain for a time whether the run would go ahead at all. There was a minute’s silence, a rendition of the national anthem – now God Save The King – and then, far ahead of me, the race began. At that point, it was a matter of waiting and slowly drifting forward, my autistic side feeling decidedly uncomfortable amongst the packed crowd of strangers and with the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

Then, finally, my wave reached a point where we could start running – and instantly, just as at previous events, the running was all that mattered.

I was pleased to find that I had room to run at my intended pace right from the start. Spectators were lining the route to cheer everyone on, and would continue to be present for almost the entire distance, along with several music stations; they certainly served as great motivation. For the first half, I was doing so well that I wondered if I might not snatch another PB after all.

In the second half, however, it became rather more gruelling. It wasn’t an easy course; there seemed to be one uphill section after another. The need to constantly seek out gaps to pass other runners in the crowd, or slow down when another runner would suddenly cut in front of me, was also draining. The fact that it was a surprisingly warm day probably took its toll, although I was less conscious of that.

With around two miles to go, we came to a particularly long uphill stretch in South Shields, and I just had to pull over to the side and walk, finally taking advantage of the spectators’ generous offerings by accepting a welcome slice of orange. I still find it difficult to accept when I don’t have enough energy to run continuously during an event – but at least I didn’t have to walk for as long as I did at previous half marathons before I was able to start running again, at a slower pace.

Knowing that there would definitely be no PB that day took away some of the mental pressure, and when passing the next water station, I slowed to a walk again for a leisurely drink. A few moments later, the North Sea finally came into sight; driven on by the sound of kind strangers calling my name (from my running number), I kept running, and even managed one last little sprint over the finish line.

My time was 1:48:17 – not quite what I’d hoped for, but out of the five official half marathons I’ve now run, it was still the second best. (I still seem to be alternating between running a very smooth half marathon and what feels like a more challenging one.) Aside from a sore back, which quickly got better when I was able to sit down on the metro, I didn’t feel too bad either. The Great North Run was certainly very challenging, but I enjoyed the majority of the experience, and I would like to give it at least one more go to see how I deal with the less comfortable aspects with better anticipation.

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A New Half Marathon PB!

This September, I’ll be taking part in the Great North Run, one of the biggest half marathon events in the world. I’ve never been to a running event of that size before, and as I don’t know when I’ll get the chance again – standard entrants are selected by ballot due to the numbers involved – I intend to make the most of it. That, among other things, means being able to run the distance as well as I can.

With my half marathon events so far, there’s definitely been a lot of learning involved. Following a virtual HM just after lockdown in 2020, my first official event was in November 2021; running in freezing conditions, I set off too fast, and finished the course barely able to speak, feeling a bit sick, and unable to properly appreciate my time of 1:49:39. For my second HM event in January, I was able to keep a better eye on my pacing thanks to the smartwatch I got for Christmas; I finished slower at 1:52:02, but feeling a lot happier. Then things went downhill again at my third event in Morecambe, where everything seemed to be going against me: it started raining (after a week of fine weather, naturally), I got cramp early on, and we had to run on sand at one point. Reduced to walking by the end, I was surprised to finish in 1:52:05.

In the last few months, however, I’ve gotten into a different place with my running, through a combination of regular push-ups and dietary recalibrations. I’ve been setting some great parkrun times, and before taking on the GNR, I wanted to know I could run an HM where I set a time in line with my current abilities without totally exhausting myself. So I signed up for the Windmill Half Marathon in Lytham, setting a personal target of 1:45, roughly eight minutes per mile. Based on my more over-enthusiastic training runs, I might have been able to go faster, but taking things gradually is another lesson I’m currently taking onboard.

If everything seemed to be wrong at Morecambe, then everything at Lytham looked perfect from the get-go. There were no problems with getting there or parking, and the weather was clear and bright, with an excellent view of Southport across the Ribble Estuary. Setting off, I quickly settled into my chosen pace and felt fairly comfortable. The route was mostly flat, and with plenty of spectators cheering everyone on. The main difficulty was having to run into the wind for about half of the course, which required a significant effort on the second lap of the two-lap course. Yet even this wasn’t all bad; the wind kept me cool in the sunshine, and also happened to be behind us following the turn-around point – you could both feel and hear the difference.

By Mile 10, I felt like I was cruising steadily. By Mile 12, I was definitely wanting to finish, but wasn’t feeling so bad that I had to slow to a walk. The sorest part of my body was my feet; I wouldn’t want to be feeling that way at the halfway point of a full marathon, so I can only hope that the necessary training will toughen them up. (Plus, I suppose, I won’t be going quite as fast.) The final quarter-mile was mental agony, as it was a straight stretch toward the finish line, which was looking very far away. Following some advice I’d recently received on finishing the GNR, I tried not to look at the finish as I ran the final section.

In the end, I accomplished exactly what I wanted: my chip time was 1:43:39, better than I expected and well beyond my previous PB – and while I certainly felt very tired by the end, it wasn’t to the point of feeling like I was dying. It was a great run, one which has definitely boosted my confidence leading up to the GNR. In the meantime, I have more parkrun tourism planned – including a visit to Bushy Park, the location of the very first parkrun – before the fun in September!

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Film review – Jurassic World: Dominion

The third Jurassic World film has now come out, and despite critics and reactions on social media being generally negative, I felt I should still go and see it to form my own opinion. And…yes, the consensus is correct with this one.

The ending of the previous film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, left us with a potentially interesting premise: following the destruction of Isla Nublar, the surviving dinosaurs from Jurassic World are now running wild on the mainland. Jurassic World: Dominion starts off by re-establishing this fact – while also having this rather small collection of dinosaurs establish sustainable populations and spread worldwide, which rather stretches credulity (no more than anything else in this franchise, I suppose). Clearly, there is plenty to explore in this dynamic; it’s a high-stakes situation with no easy solutions, worthy of the conclusion to a trilogy.

Yet, inexplicably, the film shrugs its shoulders and simply can’t be bothered with doing anything interesting with what’s been set up. The main conflict of the film doesn’t revolve around the dinosaurs: instead, it involves InGen’s rival genetics company, BioSyn, unleashing a plague of genetically modified locusts which eat any crops that aren’t BioSyn-produced. Oh, and there’s also some shenanigans involving Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), the clone girl from Fallen Kingdom. (It’s worth noting that the film re-introduces BioSyn chief Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott), who briefly appeared in the first Jurassic Park and has a role in the original Michael Crichton novels – and rather than a worthy villain, he is an ineffectual idiot; though that’s the least of this film’s problems.) Part of the reason I stopped watching the Netflix series Camp Cretaceous at Season 4 was that the conflict of evil corporations mistreating the dinosaurs and using them for their own ends felt like it had run its course – but at least that conflict still involved the dinosaurs themselves!

For the most part, the dinosaurs are just obstacles to be utilised in action scenes, like enemies in a video game. All those new prehistoric beasts that we saw in the trailers are just there to be used briefly in one or two scenes, and then they’re gone. When it comes down to it, Jurassic World: Dominion is little more than a standard action movie that happens to feature dinosaurs; there’s little to nothing in the way of deeper themes, interesting character journeys, or building on the franchise’s overarching story. To make matters worse, it’s one of those action movies where all tension gradually dissolves, as you realise that the characters never actually get hurt and you stop expecting that they might be. Even the special effects aren’t that good compared to the previous films: for example, there’s an early scene involving Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) riding a horse across a snowy plain, where the green screen effect is pretty obvious.

One of the big selling points of this film was that it brings back the three main characters from Jurassic Park – Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum respectively). This aspect certainly isn’t too bad: these three old hands get to interact with each other (unlike with another recent trilogy from a certain big film franchise), have a significant chunk of screentime, and make solid contributions to the plot. Yet having seen a far superior sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, so recently, I can’t help but compare this to how that film utilises established characters and their histories. As pleasant as it is to see the old gang of Alan, Ellie and Ian back together, interactions between them are either focussed on the plot or just small talk: there’s nothing comparable to Maverick’s scene with Iceman, or the tension between him and Goose’s son, to make us care for these characters in the here and now; there just isn’t any heart. Not to mention, nostalgic affection for Alan, Ellie and Ian easily usurps whatever feelings may exist for protagonists Owen Grady and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and re-emphasises what weak characters the latter are in comparison.

I would give Jurassic World: Dominion a lower score, but while it may be little more than an action movie with dinosaurs, it’s still an action movie with dinosaurs and therefore has some entertainment value. (I’d still rather watch this than Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.) Yet it’s sad that this is what the Jurassic Park franchise has been reduced to. It certainly doesn’t feel like an epic conclusion; but then, thanks to the power of money, the franchise probably won’t become extinct just yet. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Film review – Top Gun: Maverick

The original Top Gun holds a special place in my heart; it’s the first film that I can remember truly falling in love with. Whenever my dad upgraded the sound system on our TV, this is the film he would use to test it; the sound of an F-14’s afterburners lighting up, before launching straight into Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, is still associated with movie magic in my mind. Packed full of iconic quotes, incredible aerial photography, and with a soundtrack that I still love listening to, Top Gun is basically untouchable to me. But what of this sequel, more than three decades on?

I was certainly pleased that there was going to be another Top Gun film, but also tried to be realistic; I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as the first film, particularly in the current age of film where unnecessary and underwhelming sequels and remakes are ever more frequent. On the other hand, even if it was a disappointment, the original would always be there. Following multiple delays for obvious reasons, and then the fact that I was out of the country for the release date, I was positively itching to see Top Gun: Maverick by the time my dad and I finally got to the cinema.

Was it worth it? Yes, and then some.

It’s difficult to say whether Top Gun: Maverick is better than the first film. Naturally my long-time love of the latter is going to influence my thinking, but there’s also the fact that the two films have been produced in very different times. What can be said is that Top Gun: Maverick successfully takes the original concepts and translates them into the modern day. The film’s opening scene illustrates this perfectly: it’s essentially a remake of the original’s opening – modern F-18 jets taking off from an aircraft carrier, viewed from seemingly every glorious angle, accompanied by the ever-reliable ‘Danger Zone’ – which certainly helps to show the audience that they’re in for something both engagingly fresh and reassuringly familiar. The film as a whole has just the right amount of enjoyable callbacks to what came before, without overdoing it and coming off as lazy or forced.

The story reflects this approach as well; rather than just rehashing, clear effort has put into making it a natural, satisfying follow-up. Our hero, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), is now a Navy test pilot, unwilling to either retire or be promoted into a non-flying position. Unexpectedly, he is called back to Top Gun for a teaching role: a group of graduate pilots has been selected for a special mission over enemy lines, and Maverick – having experience of engaging enemy aircraft – has the necessary experience to train them. It’s certainly not an easy assignment: not only is the mission itself exceptionally difficult and dangerous, but one of the pilots being considered is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s best friend Goose, whose death still haunts him.

Just about everything works to make the film entertaining from beginning to end. The flying scenes, produced mostly with practical effects, are intense and immersive, putting the audience right there in the cockpit with the actors to the point that you can almost feel the G-forces. If what’s on screen wasn’t enough, the power of the sound effects – from the very first scene – make it clear why this needs to be experienced in a cinema. Harold Faltermeyer returns to handle the musical score, accompanied by Lorne Balfe, Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga, and the result is wonderful.

Tom Cruise, naturally, is the heart of the film, smoothly settling back into the role of Maverick: from when he first appears on screen, everything about him reassures us that while he may be older and more mature, he’s still the same Maverick at heart. It’s not all about cocky smiles and defying orders, however, as Maverick has plenty of emotional baggage to deal with: his identity as a pilot and what his future looks like; the lingering impact of Goose’s death and the tension between him and Rooster; and his relationship with his old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Cruise brings it all across excellently, even if the love story is a slightly underdeveloped weak link compared to everything else. The rest of the cast handle their roles perfectly too, including Val Kilmer, who makes a welcome appearance reprising his role as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, in one of the most affecting scenes in the film.

On an objective level, Top Gun: Maverick probably has more emotional layers and intensity than the first film. Subjectively, I can simply say that I enjoyed watching it just as much. It is everything that a Top Gun sequel ought to be, and more. Rating: 5/5!

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Film review – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Fantastic Beasts film series has not exactly been a success, at least as far as critical reception goes. The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was merely mediocre; the second, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, was an absolute disaster that left me both angry and laughing at how bad it was. With this third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it does at least seem like Warner Bros took onboard some of the criticism; while J.K. Rowling got the sole screenwriting credit for the first two films, here she shares it with Steve Kloves, who wrote the scripts for most of the Harry Potter films. So, with a more experienced screenwriter helping out, does The Secrets of Dumbledore mark a turning point and give hope for this series? Well….no, not really.

Granted, it’s a definite improvement on Crimes of Grindelwald (not that that’s saying much); Kloves’s influence on the script is clear, as the story feels a lot more cohesive and does flow better. The trouble is, it’s still not an especially well-presented story. As Story Writing 101 tells us, a protagonist needs a goal, but as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his allies set out at the start of this film, it’s not made clear to the audience just what they are trying to achieve. Yes, we know they want to stop Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), but we’re left to gradually work out exactly what they’re stopping him from doing and how.

I had gone into this film with cautious optimism as the trailers did suggest some intrigue, but in fact the first and second acts are rather boring, partly because of the aforementioned unclear overall goals of the characters. The first bit of interesting action doesn’t come along until about an hour in. The film doesn’t even look very nice, presented mostly in a dull, faded hue. A few isolated scenes that hint at more interesting world-building and character development, and even indulge in the same sort of wild magic as the original Harry Potter films, just highlight how this one is failing to live up to its potential. The third act, at least, is significantly stronger with an established direction; meanwhile, the big revelation from the end of Crimes of Grindelwald – which greatly annoyed me at the time – is explained here in a way that at least isn’t as major a violation of canon as it first appeared, but does still feel a bit forced.

With Johnny Depp having been dropped from the series, Mads Mikkelsen takes over as our villain, Gellert Grindelwald. He immediately scores points for not having such ridiculous hair as Depp, and his performance is certainly a better fit for how Grindelwald was described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the parallels of his maneuvering in this film with the rise of Nazism in Germany – happening around the same time in-universe – are clear without being shoved in the audience’s face. Professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) is the strongest addition to the cast, providing many of the film’s most enjoyable moments. Otherwise, the characters feel pretty underdeveloped: Credence (Ezra Miller) doesn’t really feel essential here despite how important he was supposed to be in the last film; and the resolution of Jacob and Queenie’s relationship ends up being rushed, though Alison Sudol does put on a convincingly conflicted performance with what screentime she’s given.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is disappointingly vanilla, and not especially magical. It happens to end in a way that suggests Warner Bros are reconsidering adding more films to the series, and if they decide to just leave it there, I certainly won’t complain. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Film review: The Batman

With continuity in the DC Extended Universe having become so messy that it’s difficult to keep track, Matt Reeves’s new film The Batman keeps things refreshingly simple by steering clear of any connections to the DCEU and – for now, at least – standing alone as another reboot for the Dark Knight. So, after so many other live-action Batman films, what does Reeves bring to the Bat-Table?

When this film begins, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been active as Batman for two years, long enough to become a source of fear for Gotham City’s criminals, and form a tense alliance with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Now he has a new case to deal with, when the mayor of Gotham is murdered by a masked man calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano), who appears determined to draw Batman into some sort of twisted game. As the Riddler continues to target other city officials, Batman follows the clues and is led deeper and deeper into a complex web of corruption and painful truths.

Clearly trusting that the audience don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down for the umpteenth time, Reeves drops us into a point in Batman’s career where he’s established enough to have gained a reputation, but not so established that he’s fully found his feet; the police and public’s general mistrust of him makes for some extra conflict, and he occasionally questions whether he’s really making a difference for the better. The overall plot – Batman’s pursuit of the Riddler and the deeper revelations that this leads to – takes the form of an intriguing crime thriller which grows increasingly complicated as the film progresses, though it’s not too difficult to keep track of the main threads. It’s a long film at nearly three hours, but most of the time it keeps moving at a satisfactory pace. It differs from the likes of The Dark Knight in that it’s very plot-driven and any character exploration or development is kept to a minimum – for the most part, it’s just Batman doing his thing. With this approach, the film is still mostly fulfilling, just not as much as it could have been; maybe Reeves wasn’t sure if he could contribute much new material in terms of exploring who Batman is at his core.

In terms of aesthetics, this film gets live-action Batman just right; there’s no rubber suit or chain-smoker voice here. The Batsuit looks like effective armour, while still retaining the recognisable Batman look. This version makes me think of the Batman from the Arkham video games more than anything else; not just in terms of appearance, but also the array of interesting gadgets that Batman employs specifically for detective work. Gotham City itself appears to be a balance between the modern look of Christopher Nolan and the run-down cesspool of Joker, with a dash of more gothic architecture here and there. The city generates its own grim atmosphere, with the most of the film taking place in the dark, though thankfully it’s never so dark that we struggle to see what’s going on – unless the director intends it that way. I particularly liked one of the early scenes where we see a series of criminals going about their business in Gotham, then fearfully staring into the shadows, half-convinced that Batman could emerge from any of them.

Beforehand, I did have my doubts about Robert Pattinson; as versatile as he undoubtedly is, I wasn’t sure he had the look for Batman or Bruce Wayne. In the event, the latter hardly matters, as Pattinson spends most of his time onscreen in costume (this film is the opposite of The Dark Knight Rises in that regard). He is at least able to pull off Bruce Wayne the brooding recluse well enough, but I’d like to see what he does with Bruce the playboy in future films. In the meantime, Pattinson fits into the Batsuit very nicely, and delivers everything that we expect from Batman as a character: stoic, intimidating, unwilling to let his emotional walls down, and determined to deliver justice whatever the cost to himself.

Paul Dano is a far cry from the traditional green-suited Riddler who lives to fuel his own ego; instead, he’s more of an emotionally unstable basement-dweller, and is certainly volatile and dangerous enough to make for an effective villain. True crime buffs – or fans of David Fincher – will easily recognise the influence of the real-life Zodiac Killer on this version of the Riddler, from his costume to his love of ciphers and cryptically taunting the authorities. All of the side characters play their parts very well: Zoe Kravitz as a cynical and combative Selina Kyle, Jeffrey Wright as a Jim Gordon who is prepared to work with Batman without being able to fully trust him, and Colin Farrell being practically unrecognisable as the Penguin, who manages to be a highlight as one of the side villains.

The Batman is definitely one of the better Batman films – certainly on par with Batman Begins, if not The Dark Knight – and I look forward to seeing what comes next for this version of the character. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Looking Back on 2021

2021 has felt like a fairly conservative year, which I suppose is only to be expected. With the Covid-19 pandemic still very much ongoing, there was a certain cautiousness about getting out and doing things even when restrictions were lifted. Now, with the Omicron variant, the future still feels uncertain, and all you can do is be resilient, take sensible precautions (including vaccinations), and make the best of things as they stand. In spite of everything, I’ve been able to do quite a lot this year that I’m pleased with:

  • I completed a second draft of a novel for the first time – am currently working on the third draft.
  • Running has been going really well, especially after losing the weight I put on from lockdown comfort eating. I completed an in-person half marathon event for the first time, and went to two non-local Parkruns; I’ve also started volunteering at Parkrun.
  • I read or listened to 83 books – and I’ve got one more audiobook I’m expecting to finish before the New Year.
  • In the summer, my dad and I walked a 21 mile walking/cycling route – it took us 6 hours and 34 minutes, including a couple of breaks.
  • I went on another UK-based holiday, where I walked around London and also had a daytrip to Oxford. Easily the highlight was going to see the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, which has a very impressive collection of aircraft, including my all-time favourite, the SR-71 Blackbird (the only one on display outside the United States).

Favourite Films Released in 2021

  1. Free Guy
  2. Spider-Man: No Way Home
  3. Tick, Tick…Boom! (Netflix)
  4. The Mitchells vs The Machines (Netflix)
  5. Eternals
  6. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
  7. The Suicide Squad
  8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  9. Black Widow
  10. Encanto

TV Series Watched in 2021
The best TV I’ve watched this year has been on streaming. The Marvel TV series on Disney Plus have all been worth a look at the very least, with WandaVision and What If being my favourites. I also enjoyed Squid Game (Netflix) and For All Mankind (Apple TV).

Favourite Fiction Read in 2021

07. The Vampire Lestat – Anne Rice
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked this book much more than its predecessor, Interview with the Vampire. Lestat is undoubtedly a more compelling narrator than Louis, and while the prose is still thick, it always has interesting things to say. I liked how the book presents the different philosophical and spiritual viewpoints of its characters, and how there are vampires who have wildly different lifestyles and are perceived in different ways by themselves and others, despite coming from the same blueprint. It even seems to incorporate the shift between the monstrous, skulking vampire of old and the more recent popular incarnation that can move among mortals and present itself as desirable.

06. The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
When I try a new fantasy novel, it’s often hard for me to predict whether I’m going to enjoy it or not: there are some well-regarded ones like The Name of the Wind or Assassin’s Apprentice that I just couldn’t get into. I decided to try The Blade Itself as it was one of those recommended for readers of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, my favourite fantasy series set in another world. This was definitely a solid recommendation.
The Blade Itself takes a lot of old ideas – plenty of familiar fantasy archetypes are here, from the wise old wizard to the rugged, internally conflicted barbarian warrior – but uses them in interesting new ways. It does a great job of gradually building its world without the need for exposition dumps, and it’s a very large and varied world too; one thing I particularly liked was the culture shock when characters from different places and backgrounds come together. The main conflicts stem from worldly concerns, from political manoeuvring to foreign invasions, rather than some vague, dark, magical threat (though there are possible hints of something like that to come), which is what I personally prefer reading about in fantasy. There’s a wide cast of compelling characters, and plenty of grim humour. I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the First Law trilogy.

05. The Blue Gemini trilogy – Mike Jenne
This is a series of fascinating, intelligent and well-paced Cold War thrillers. I liked the details of the secret American and Soviet space programs which are featured within, and the relationship between the two main characters, Drew Carson and Scott Ouerecky, seeing them grow from reluctant partners to loyal and devoted friends. The final instalment, especially, sets up the tension in its various subplots very well – particularly with regards to the threat of nuclear war – and brings the story to an emotionally satisfying, if bittersweet, conclusion. I would recommend this series to anyone with an interest in space exploration (as well as novels).

04. The Evening and the Morning – Ken Follett
This historical fiction novel is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, and while I don’t tend to like prequels, I certainly liked this one. Its independence from the original story probably helps: it takes place long before any of the characters in The Pillars of the Earth were even born, and its purpose as a prequel is rather to show how the setting of Kingsbridge evolved into how it was by the reign of Henry I. Of course, that’s generally background detail; the real focus is on the compelling, well-paced story and the large cast of characters.

03. The Midnight Library – Matt Haig
The concept of this story is that the protagonist, who has a lot of regrets about her life and is suicidally depressed, gets the chance to live the infinite lives she could have had if she had made different decisions. The way such a concept should progress seems predictable: one expects the protagonist to try out these alternate lives, find they’re not so great, and realise that her real life isn’t so bad after all. But that doesn’t do justice to The Midnight Library; it’s more complicated and thoughtful than that. It delves deep into the human psyche, exploring themes like where our regrets come from and how valid they are, how much we live for ourselves or other people, and how much is dependent on our perspective rather than objective reality. It ends up being a beautiful and cathartic story that might well give you a new perspective on things and appreciation for existence.

02. The Percy Jackson series – Rick Riordan
It’s taken me too long to get round to trying out this series: Greek mythology combined with an urban fantasy element – what’s not to like? I enjoyed plenty of things here: the main character and how he grows, the well-paced adventures, how the different mythological elements are used, and how it balances the lighter, more humorous parts with the darker side of its world. (I now understand why the film adaptations are so universally loathed by the fan base.) I’m planning to check out the sequel series, Heroes of Olympus, next year.

01. Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir
While I can’t go too far into the story without getting into spoilers, it’s well structured in terms of revealing information to the audience, with the protagonist starting off with amnesia and gradually regaining his memories as selective flashbacks. There’s plenty of tension and high stakes – with some alarming parts exploring the level of sacrifices and hard decisions necessary to save a whole planet – and some parts even made me a bit emotional. The style of snarky humour is also very similar to Weir’s previous works. There’s also plenty of clever and inventive application of science; I liked how much the process of experimentation is used. If you like science fiction and space travel, this is a must-read.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2021

10. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
Of the author’s previous works, Sapiens talked about the past and Homo Deus about the future, while this book focusses on the present. So is it a useful tool for living your life in the here and now? Well, it certainly provides some worthwhile ideas about how the world around us works and where our current paths may be leading us in the near future. Many of the possibilities it raises are unnerving, or perhaps that’s just because change in general is scary. In terms of guidance for the years to come, it provides enough for some vague pointers to be inferred. The latter stages of the book get quite bewildering as it examines our existence at a basic level and delves into whether we really have free will or a true, singular identity. The conclusions may be uncomfortable, but they certainly encourage contemplation.

09. Into the Woods – John Yorke
This book delves into why we tell stories and why most stories can be boiled down to the same structure, and I got a lot out of it. It has a variety of interesting ideas and perspectives on stories, from five-act structure to fractal symmetry. Though its content isn’t framed as directly offering advice to writers, they can still glean a lot of useful knowledge from it – and there are also some psychological and sociological ideas on storytelling (some taking examples from modern television) that provide much food for thought in general.

08. 26.2 Miles to Happiness – Paul Tonkinson
I enjoyed the author’s motivating and insightful perspective on running; the comedic moments are unexpectedly balanced out with some serious and honest personal reflection; and the picture it paints of how it feels to run a marathon is very informative for a runner like me who isn’t quite at that stage yet.

07. Spaceman – Mike Massimino
Another really brilliant astronaut autobiography. Mike Massimino is a great storyteller (and audiobook narrator): he manages to structure his personal story like a novel, right down to the climax repairing the Hubble telescope. While not an especially long book, it’s still very dense: Massimino covers a great deal about what it’s like to be an astronaut, along with some very poignant moments and plenty of positive guidance on how to approach life. My own interest in space travel has generally been focussed on the Apollo days, but the more I learn about the achievements and culture of the Shuttle era from books like this, the more enthusiastic I become about it.

06. The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting – Evanna Lynch
This is a well-written, highly engaging and devastatingly honest memoir. While the majority of it centres around Lynch’s experiences with anorexia – going into heart-wrenching detail about the thought processes involved – the disorder is ultimately one part of a bigger issue that outlasts it and to which just about everyone can relate: insecurity. Lynch’s whole journey toward fully loving herself is well worth the read; while Harry Potter – the part of her life for which she is best known – only makes up a small part of it, one certainly gains a new perspective on her connection with Luna Lovegood, a character who is totally comfortable in her own skin.

05. Why We Eat (Too Much) – Andrew Jenkinson
This book contains a lot of interesting information (backed up with understandable science) on how our body regulates our weight, why many people try to diet but can’t keep the weight off long-term, and the impact of the unhealthy Western diet on our various systems. While I intend to check other sources regarding some of the information presented – particularly regarding saturated fats – for those interested in nutrition and improving your diet, it certainly provides (forgive me) food for thought.

04. The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr
This guide to writing really appealed to me as it places reading and writing stories in a scientific context: it explains why and how stories appeal to us psychologically, which subsequently leads to plenty of logical guidance about how to construct a compelling character and a story arc for them.

03. Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker
A very informative and valuable book which explains all about the various functions of sleep, how it is internally controlled, and the severe medical consequences of not getting enough of it. If you’re like me and don’t get as much sleep as you’d like, reading this will certainly give a better appreciation of sleep, and motivate you to try and improve your sleep hygiene; while the book is focussed on the science behind sleep, there’s plenty of useful tips to be inferred from its content.

02. Limitless – Tim Peake
I really loved this book. Even though Tim Peake’s time as an astronaut is only covered in the last third, that hardly matters as he has so many fantastic and interesting stories from his time as a military pilot. The style of writing is very honest and wonderfully British; Peake may not have grown up dreaming of being an astronaut, but the qualities that suited him to that role when the opportunity arose really come through. (I also went to see Peake’s live show in November, and it was brilliant.)

01. Born to Run – Christopher MacDougall
A fantastic book for runners. The story and writing style are compelling and motivating, and while I’m not sure I’ll try barefoot running myself in the immediate future, I really enjoyed the emphasis on running for the joy of it (and the examples of Ann Trason and Emil Zatopek) and the theory of how humans evolved to be excellent distance runners. I’ve read other books about ultra-marathons, but this is the first one that made me think I might go for it someday.

My resolutions for 2022 are largely based around developing the same areas I have been in 2021. With regards to running, I have two more half-marathons booked, and I’ll see how I want to progress after those. I also want to expand on my Parkrun tourism – I’ve been to four different Parkrun locations in total, and I’d like to get up to at least twenty. I’ll continue to work on my novel editing, as well as finding the courage to write something I can share with other people. There are a lot of books that I still want to read in the near future, as well as re-reading some of my favourites. And, hopefully, I can finally take the holiday abroad that I’ve now been waiting nearly two years for.

Have a Happy New Year, wherever you are!

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Doctor Who: Flux – Series 13 – Final Thoughts

Doctor Who: Flux isn’t bad. Indeed, at its strongest, it probably represents the best of the Chibnall era. Yet there’s still something dissatisfying about it. By the final episode, I was rather troubled by the fact that I wasn’t too disappointed to see this storyline conclude.

Undoubtedly part of the reason for this is that Doctor Who: Flux has one of the most convoluted storylines that the revived series has ever attempted. As unfortunate as it was to have a Doctor Who season with only six episodes, having the whole series centre around a main storyline while also factoring in smaller, episode-long stories was a promising concept; in fact, it brought to mind similar story arcs from the classic era, like The Keys of Marinus. It can’t be coincidence, however, that the best episodes of the series – War of the Sontarans; Once, Upon Time; and Village of the Angels – were the ones that functioned best as self-contained stories. As for the main plot involving Division, the Flux and the Ravagers, I could barely begin to try and explain it to you; I had given up trying to properly understand it by the end of Survivors of the Flux.

Jodie Whittaker gets more room to flex her acting abilities in this series as the Thirteenth Doctor is tested more than previously; the series does its best to continue to develop the Timeless Child revelations from Series 12, though with mediocre results – perhaps it’s too recent and controversial a development to be fully emotionally invested in. Any hope that Yaz would have more room for development with Graham and Ryan out of the picture sadly proved in vain, as she has little opportunity for introspection and spends much of her time away from the Doctor. John Bishop’s Dan Lewis is a pleasant chap, but there’s not that much more to him; perhaps he will be best remembered for giving birth to the Evil Dan meme.

Kevin McNally’s Professor Jericho is easily the best side character, subverting expectations by proving to be much more capable than he appears at first glance; fellow side characters Vinder and Bel, meanwhile, provide a charming but ultimately irrelevant love story. As for the monsters, the Sontarans make good use of their surprisingly large role, and the Weeping Angels go back to their roots in being utilised for effective horror. The Ravagers, Swarm and Azure, have a great look and start out as very intimidating – but like Vinder and Bel, they end up feeling superfluous by the conclusion.

When I heard that Russell T Davies was coming back as showrunner, my first thought was that if anything could possibly please the complaining fans, it was this one. Now, after two-and-a-half seasons for Chibnall’s style, I myself feel eager for a change. As much as I’ve found value in Series 11 and 12 – and indeed, Flux – this current era of Doctor Who is like a brand of fast food that tastes good and even a little novel at first, but loses its initial appeal after you’ve eaten it enough times.

Series 13 Episode Ranking:

  1. Once, Upon Time9/10
  2. War of the Sontarans8/10
  3. Village of the Angels8/10
  4. Survivors of the Flux7/10
  5. The Halloween Apocalypse6/10
  6. The Vanquishers6/10

So, now we have another New Year’s special coming up – making a tier ranking of Christmas specials on Twitter recently caused me to realise how much I miss watching Doctor Who on Christmas Day. Then, after two more specials in 2022, we shall see who the Fourteenth Doctor is and how Russell T Davies manages the second time round. I look forward to it.

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November: Two Different Endurance Challenges

The end of November saw a couple of achievements to reflect upon. First, I completed my thirteenth National Novel Writing Month – here are some thoughts on how this one went:

  • I’d done a lot of prep work beforehand, yet on the first day, it took me a little time to get going as I hadn’t looked at my notes for a while.
  • This year was pretty straightforward as NaNoWriMo goes: there were only a couple of days where I didn’t write at least 1,667 words due to external circumstances wearing me out, and I didn’t feel the need to skip ahead in the story as often as I usually do.
  • For some reason, there were several days where I thought about writing and felt anxious that I wouldn’t be able to produce anything. In these cases, however, the hardest part is just starting to write – once I was underway, the words tended to come fairly easily.
  • It was certainly enjoyable to write a dinosaur story; some of my favourite scenes involved exploring the prehistoric environments that the characters found themselves in, with one of them – a palaeontologist – taking the time to put what they were seeing in context. Turns out, in a science fiction story, you can get a lot of words out of scientific exposition.
  • Another fun little thing I did was feature the protagonist of a previous NaNo project about vampires – or rather, an alternate version of her. This character intended to become a policewoman before being turned into a vampire – so, in this alternate universe where vampires don’t exist, I had her fulfilling her dream and filling a small role in the story.

The story itself is nowhere near finished, so I intend to continue into December, and then use future NaNoWriMos or Camp NaNoWriMos to write sequels.

At the same time, throughout November, I was training for my first proper half-marathon event (after running a virtual one last year soon after lockdown). My training runs had gone so well, I was feeling confident of not only finishing, but setting a good time. I brought my NaNo project to 50,000 words on the last Saturday in November, in time for the race on Sunday. That morning, the weather was freezing cold, but at least the worst of Storm Arwen had passed and there wasn’t much wind. As we set off, I checked my time against each of the mile markers, and was very pleased to find that I was ahead of my expected pace and still feeling strong. Just before the halfway point, it began to snow, but what did that matter? This was great!

The feeling didn’t last, however. By the 10 mile mark, I was having to will myself to keep going, and by 11 miles, I had very little left in the tank. Finally, I had to alternate between jogging and walking. (There was a nice moment at this point when another runner, passing me, gave me a pat on the back in encouragement.) In the end, I put in one last spurt over the line for a chip time of 01:49:38. It was a great time, though I couldn’t appreciate it immediately as I was exhausted, cold, a little queasy, and had apparently lost control of my mouth as I could barely speak or even smile for my post-run selfie.

So this half-marathon was both a positive result and a learning experience; next time, I need to be more mindful of my pacing and how much it matters over a long distance. I already have another event booked for the New Year; my aim for that one is a mental reset, where I just go at an easy pace and try to enjoy myself the whole way round.

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Doctor Who – Series 13, Episode 1: “The Halloween Apocalypse”

  • Excellent cold open to kick things off, complete with references to Nitro-9 and the Doctor previously being Scottish.
  • I’m liking Dan Lewis so far, though given how positively he’s framed with sharing his passion for Liverpool and helping out at a food bank, I hope we get some flaws and additional development to make him more rounded. I’m wondering if it was John Bishop’s idea to stick in the praise for Liverpool F.C. – not that I’m complaining. (Doctor: “I watched the Barcelona match nine times!”)
  • So, how do the Doctor and Yaz interact without Graham and Ryan? They argue like an old married couple and provide more food for the shippers.
  • Mixed feelings about the various alien designs in this episode. I certainly liked the twisted skull-like look of Prisoner Swarm. It’s pretty funny when Karvanista comes barging in like a proud alien warrior and then reveals himself to be a furry humanoid dog; but he has barely any ability to express himself through his makeup. As for the new Sontarans, I preferred their look from earlier seasons.
  • It was around when the Weeping Angel appeared that I thought, “How much are they going to throw into this opening episode?” – though I did like how that scene took the Weeping Angels back to basics with the tense horror approach. And then right after that, another new character named Vinder is introduced. By the time the couple in the Arctic Circle reappeared, I’d forgotten about them.
  • Presumably Prisoner Swarm is linked to the Flux given their similar effect on people – but is his reference to previously battling the Doctor, which the latter doesn’t remember, linked to the Timeless Child?

A decent enough starter for this season-long arc, but it already feels like they crammed too many different elements into this opener and there’s already too much to keep track of. Well, we’ll see how it goes. Rating: 3/5.

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