Book Review: My Evil Mother by Margaret Atwood

This is only the second piece of fiction by Margaret Atwood that I’ve read, both short stories and both highly enjoyable and funny.

As the cover of the short story points out, Margaret Atwood is the author of the Handmaid’s Tale, which is on my ‘to read’ list. Me and my lovely wife started to watch the TV series, but gave up after four or five episodes because it was so bleak, depressing and uncomfortable. That is partly the point, although you can imagine Mike Pence reading it and thinking that it was a manual for the perfect future. Much like how the Conservative party seem to have decided that George Orwell’s 1984 described a utopian future and not a dystopian one.

Anyway, I’m getting off track. My Evil Mother is all about a woman who says she is a witch, and only wants to protect her only daughter, who slowly learns more about her mother as she grows older, marries and has children of her own.

My Evil Mother is only available as an Amazon exclusive e-book, however it was only 99p, probably $0.99 in America. Highly amusing and I gave it 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Bodies by Ian Winwood

Subtitled, Life and Death in Music.

Incredibly interesting book about the music industry, focusing on the bands and artists themselves, written from the point of view of a music journalist. Mostly the book looks at the excesses, and how these are normalised in the industry.

Ian Winwood has been a music journalist for 25 years, and over that time has seen almost everything, as well as making and losing lifelong friends. Most of his articles were written for Kerrang! so there is a definite hard rock/heavy metal element to most of the stories. Ian also doesn’t hide away form the fact that he also partook in many excesses, mainly drink and drugs, and ended up being sectioned a number of times, before eventually turning his life around. Many of the musicians in this book didn’t manage to survive.

However, the book doesn’t just look at these excesses, it also describes how poorly treated many musicians are, and just how much money the record labels actually make. Two cases spring to mind. Firstly when George Michael sued his record label and despite his earnings being in the millions, they were less than a quarter of what his record label make. Secondly when Fergal Sharky states that to make minimum wage, a song needs to be streamed over 7 million times every month.

The most harrowing chapter by far is the story of the Lost Prophets. A group of six friends from Wales who achieved success from 2000 to 2012 selling over 3 million albums. The singer ended up being sent to prison for 29 years, and the effect this had on the rest of the band is devastating. Over the years that Ian Winwood knew them, he gradually realised that the singer wasn’t actually very nice, and he documented many instances of when the rest of the band tried to help their former friend, not realising that his problems were much worse than just drink and drugs.

The book also looks at those bands and artists who managed to stay completely separate from the drinks and drugs, for example, Chumbawumba, who had one huge hit and tried to shine spotlights on the social problems of regular down trodden people in the UK and around the world. For their efforts they were routinely slagged off by much of the music press and nearly all of the mainstream press.

Towards the end of the book the author writes about Frank Turner, who they did many spoken word talks together, where Frank would answer questions from the audience and Ian Winwood would attempt to keep everything on track. Frank’s discussion about the negative effects of Twitter is eye opening, where he states that he no longer reads any of the comments, and only uses it to announce stuff to his followers, rather than the micro-blogging intention of the sight.

Ian Winwood doesn’t shy away from naming people. For example he names a journalist who nearly destroyed the lives of a couple of female journalists, or the person who was in charge of Kerrang! for a few years and made an enjoyable job absolute hell for many of his staff.

A very thought provoking book that I found to be highly enjoyable. 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King

I have to admit that I’m a sucker for a good end of the world novel by Stephen King, and with Sleeping Beauties you get two Kings for the price of one. Owen King, author in his own right, is also one of the sons of Stephen King and co-wrote this book.

The premise here is that once women fall asleep they don’t wake up, becoming wrapped in a cocoon. Slowly, over the course of a week, nearly all women eventually fall asleep, leaving men to fend for themselves. All except for one woman, who possibly killed a couple of ‘meth heads’ in a violent altercation and is now housed in Dooling’s women’s correction facility. The small Appalachian town of Dooling is where the story is set, and at the beginning of the book there is a long list of all of the main characters. One drawback of an e-book is that it is hard to refer to this. See also maps in fantasy books.

This being a Stephen King (and Owen) book, the whole idea of men being on their own is taken to the violent extreme. Also, if anyone tries to wake up a sleeping beauty, they turn incredibly aggressive. People soon realise that it isn’t wise to try to wake them. Anyway, where have the women gone, and who is the mysterious woman in the prison who appears to have supernatural abilities.

A lot can be gained from the overall story. In a world without women, how long would men survive and would the world be better or worse. Vice versa, in a world without men, how much better would it be for women. It made me think of the Icelandic Women’s strike of on 24th October 1975, where over 90% of women did absolutely no work for the whole day, paid or unpaid, in a effort to obtain equal wages and end unfair employment practices. I’m sure somewhere there is a longer version of the book which explores this idea in greater depth, and even though this isn’t a short book, it does focus more on the Stephen King-isms.

There are some nice ‘in’ jokes. The books the female prisoners mostly read are horror, and the three authors mentioned are Peter Straub, Clive Barker and Joe Hill. For those not in the know, Peter Straub is an old friend of Stephen King and they co-wrote The Talisman, Clive Barker is one of the best horror writers/creators ever having invented Hellraiser and Pin Head, and finally, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s other son.

Anyway, I enjoyed another roller coaster with ‘the master of horror’ and gave the book 4 stars. However, the reviews on Goodreads are very mixed, with an average score of ‘only’ 3.73.

Parkrun and Dogs

At the start of April parkrun introduced a ban on running with your dog with a waist harness. The reasons being that it is harder to control your dog and they are more likely to get in the way of other runners or even trip people up. I understand this and can sympathise, but seeing as how me or my lovely wife Helen, take part in parkrun with our dog, Nelly, I decided to add my thoughts.

When Nelly was young, Helen tried running with a waist lead. Nelly is too excitable and too wayward, always heading off to follow an interesting scent or a small animal. Helen gave up with the waist lead. Pointers are very strong dogs, much stronger than you would expect, and running with a regular lead you can feel like your arm is being pulled out of your socket. The only way we could run with Nelly when she was younger was with a lead that wrapped around her snozzle, stopping her from pulling. She hated it, but didn’t learn that if she stopped pulling she wouldn’t have to have the horrible lead. Now that she’s 11, she doesn’t pull as much, which is good for all of us.

Before Christmas we went to Lytham Hall parkrun and bumped into another Pointer, amazingly from the same breeder. Fred was 4, massively strong, huge and a proper handful. His owner, John, ran with a waist harness.

Due to the strength of Fred, John doesn’t do parkruns anymore, as he can’t run with a regular hand held lead, which is a shame.

Not all dogs cope running at parkrun, with so many other runners some dogs can get very excited, especially if there are other dogs about. We’ve had to sprint past other dogs to avoid causing chaos. However, earlier this year at Lancaster parkrun, we overtook a lady with her dog, on a regular handheld lead, who was causing absolute chaos, and nearly tripped up half a dozen people. 5 minutes later we overtook a man with a dog on a waist harness who was the perfect little 4 legged running partner.

Dogs are an easy target if things go wrong, however, it is down to the owner. Not all dogs have the right temperament for parkrun. Not all owners are happy to slow down if their pooch is tired. Some owners really want their dog to be first dog. It isn’t important. My parkrun times are generally 2 or 3 minutes slower when I run with Nelly. We start at the back and only overtake when we can. We’ll stop for water or a ‘comfort break’, and now that Nelly is a bit older, the last km can be quite slow, and we’re both OK with that.

I would hate parkrun to ban dogs entirely, and I don’t think it’s likely, but I can sympathise to those dogs and owners who used to take part, but now don’t or can’t.

Pennington Flash Parkrun

It has been a few years since I’ve been near the town of Leigh, the nearest town to Pennington Flash. I worked there for two years and I wasn’t too worried when we moved office. Pennington Flash is also the location for the swim and bike start for Ironman UK, which this year is on 3rd July. As you can see the lake doesn’t look too bad for swimming, although I am a long way from being able to do even the swim part of an Ironman.

The info from the Pennington Flash website states that there is a small free carpark just as you come off the main road, however, this is currently closed. The main carpark has plenty of space and is £1.50, not £1.20 as parkrun suggests. The meter also only takes cards, and you can only pay using an App on your phone. A couple of people tried to pay with their phones and couldn’t. Also, a new café is being built so before 9am there is only one portaloo (with a long queue), but after 9 the temporary toilets are open. Finally, the start of parkrun is a ten minute walk from the main carpark, so be prepared and don’t arrive too late.

Once we reached the start, as we were lining up someone asked me if Nelly was a Pointer. (She is). He then started to mention about a friend of his, John, who runs with his Pointer called Fred. Amazing coincidence as we ran with John and Fred at Lytham parkrun last year. Fred is a big strong lad, and due to the ban on waist harnesses they no longer do parkrun, which is a shame. Nelly has always been too wayward to run on a waist lead, but she used to almost my pull arm off when she was younger running with a regular lead. It’s hard to believe just how strong Pointers are.

Anyway, Pennington Flash parkrun involves a 400m section before three laps and then the same 400m section back to the start/finish area. We set off near the back and with the narrow paths it wasn’t until the end of the first lap that we could run at our pace, although ‘our pace’ was a little slower than usual. I could see that the heat was getting to Nelly so at the start of the third lap we took a short detour to the lake for a drink. Later that lap Nelly stopped for a poo, so I had to carry a full poo bag all the way back to the finish. There was a man running with a baby jogger, who we leapfrogged about three times on the last lap, much to the amusement of small child.

Our time and position was slower and lower than usual, but neither of us were too fussed. I’m fairly sure that Nelly was first dog, but again, she doesn’t have anything to prove. After barcode scanning we jogged back to the car where I gave Nelly another long drink before heading home. Results had already arrived by the time I sat down at the kitchen table for another brew.

Pennington Flash was another really good parkrun, with 170 participants it wasn’t too busy, although this was slightly higher than average. The whole park has lots to do with pitch and putt, children’s play area and lots of trails to walk/run.

Strava – Relative Effort

This makes a change. I’m not blogging about parkrun, a book I’ve read or a family adventure. Instead I’m writing about the fairly obscure ‘number’ you find for every Strava activity.

What is Relative Effort? Basically, it describes how hard or how much ‘effort’ you put into an activity. It takes into account the length of time and how high your heart rate was. It means you can compare different activities, and compare with other people. All things being equal, if we all ran a 5km as hard as we possibly could, we’d all have the same Relative Effort score, even if you ran five minutes quicker than me. It’s all quite clever.

When I first joined Strava I had an old Garmin with a heart rate strap, but after a couple of years the battery ran out on the strap, so I stopped measuring my heart rate. This time last year, my amazing wife bought me a flash smart watch, so once again I can look at my relative effort.

My highest score is a massive 760, at the Ullswater 20. There is a reason why it is so high. The day before I had my second Covid jab, and although the effects were no way near as bad as the first, within a couple of miles I knew it was going to be a long day. Added to this, it was incredibly hot and hilly, as well as being 22 miles not the advertised 20. In hindsight I should have done the 10 with my wife who had a great day out. Anyway, my Strava activity can be found here.

My second highest score was at last year’s Backyard Ultra, where I managed nine laps, or 61.6km. That was a much longer day than the Ullswater 20, but as my heart rate was lower, even over a much longer period, my Relative Effort was lower. Strava activity here. Backyard Ultra blogging can be found here.

Finally, my third highest Relative Effort was way back in 2013, and it was cycling. I completed the Bowland Badass, arguably the toughest sportive ever put on. 167 miles over every single climb around the Forest of Bowland, plus a few others for good measure. Also, as I didn’t have a car at the time, I cycled to and from the start, rounding my day up to 301.7 km. Oh, and there was over 5,000m of climbing. My Relative Effort score was a mighty 492. A measure of how Strava has changed in almost nine years, is that for this monster ride I only received 27 kudos. Anyway, Strava link here, Badass website here, and a photo of me just over half way at the top of Cross of Greet chatting to a random couple of cyclists who couldn’t believe what we doing.

Do you every look at your Relative Effort score?

Family Howgills Adventure

With four days off over Easter we were determined to make the most of it. Knowing just how busy the Lake District always is over Easter, my lovely wife organised a tough long walk in the Howgills. As we had all day and weren’t in any rush we arrived in Sedbergh just after 9am. After a few minutes ‘faff’ as we worked out exactly where the route on Helen’s Garmin went, we set off up the correct trail. Three years ago we completed the Howgills Half Marathon (read about it here), which I said at the time was the toughest half marathon I’d ever done. Our walk today would follow an almost identical route (cutting a couple of corners and one massive unnecessary hill), except going in the opposite direction.

The first mile was through a whole load of fields full of lambs, with tricky styles to negotiate, so Nelly was kept on a tight lead. However we soon left the baby sheep behind and walked along a low level path full of coconut smelling gorse bushes.

We knew that the first few miles would be relatively easy, so we stopped for a short rest, some food and drink, next to the River Rawthey, before tackling the tough climb. Nelly could also cool her paws and have a drink.

It was a shock to suddenly find loads of other walkers, as we’d hardly seen anyone up to that point. They were mostly heading in the same direction that we were, up past Cautley Spout, which is the highest cascade waterfall, above ground, in England, at 198m high.

The photos don’t really do justice on how steep and long the climb was. As expected the views were amazing, although as we neared the top we paused to allow a group of walkers with dogs to pass. Annoyingly, one dog was off a lead and it wasn’t really the time or place for him to be so exuberant, as we were slightly precarious, balanced at the top of a very steep climb. Wayward dog was eventually harnessed so that we could safely continue to the slightly easier section of climb.

I don’t like to moan, but there was a group of three walkers who were walking quicker than we were, so we would let them overtake, and every time we did, they would stop, blocking the path.

As I said, once we reached the top of the falls, the climb eased off as we made our way alongside Red Gill Beck towards the famous Calf, the highest peak in the Howgills. There was also an Iron Age settlement that we passed, and unfortunately I can’t find any information about it.

A little further on and we reached the saddle between The Calf and Calders summits. Having climbed The Calf as part of the Howgills Half Marathon, and as we were a little tired, we turned left to head back towards Sedbergh.

We then had almost three miles of continuous downhill, but not a nice easy downhill as much of it was steep or technical. We were both feeling tired as we walked back into the town, with aching knees and sore toes.

Sedbergh is also known as a book town, and in the bus stop there was a free library, where I managed to snag a Jack Reacher novel. Hopefully you don’t need to read them in order as the one I picked up is the 21st in the series. We then grabbed an ice cream before heading home.

I have to say that once home we all collapsed and pretty much did nothing for the rest of the day. However, we had walked 10 miles, with one huge climb, in glorious Easter weather, and I am always happy to have tired legs after a family adventure.

Book Review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Warning, the subject matter of this book makes it a difficult read.

Marcos is second in command of a ‘meat’ processing plant. He doesn’t enjoy the job but the pay is good enough to afford to place his father in a well run nursing home. Marcos lives on his own after his wife left him, unable to cope with the death of their small child. He spends most of his time either at work, or visiting the local butcher, the crazy Japanese tannery owner, the head of an award winning laboratory, or the owner of a breeding farm. One day the owner of the breeding farm gives Marcos a specimen of the finest quality, probably as a bribe. Marcos can either sell the specimen on, or butcher it himself. Instead he keeps ‘her’ in his barn, to deal with later.

Set in a dystopian future where all animals have contracted a deadly virus and have had to be slaughtered, many humans craving meat have turned to cannibalism. Before long the eating of human meat has become sanctioned and licensed. The book was written by an Argentinian, and although it could be set anywhere, Argentina has a very meat based diet, specifically beef. I would hope that the world would decide that vegetarianism or veganism would be the preferred option.

From very early on I knew that this book wasn’t going to have a happy ending, and I was right. However, the ending was very different to what I was expecting. Also, despite the horrific subject matter, the book is very well written, with well fleshed out characters. The book is helped along by not being too long. At just over 200 pages I read it in a couple of days. I gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads, partly because I didn’t feel comfortable giving such a dark book 5 out of 5. You shouldn’t enjoy it too much, although I have a good discussion about the book with my lovely wife, who has absolutely no intention of reading it.

This isn’t even the first book that I’ve read with this gruesome topic. A few years ago I read Meat by Joseph D’Lacy (read my review here), which had a good premise but was let down with some very dodgy unexplained pseudo science. I am also sure that if I searched I could find a few more books in this vein, however, I think I’ve had my fill.

St Helens Parkrun

With my lovely wife still not running, it was just me and Nelly heading off for another tourist parkrun. I had intended to head to Ormskirk, but I checked for dogs, and they don’t allow them there. Last minute change of location to St Helens.

St Helens parkrun is within Victoria Park with the old Mansion House at the centre. Built in 1850 in what was soon to be called Cowley Hill Park, and then to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee it was changed to it’s current name. Restoration work is ongoing, although the house can be hired for weddings and corporate events, as well as having a cafe.

Enough history, the parkrun finish and announcements are held at the bandstand, with a Easter themed fancy dress competition today. Me and Nelly didn’t enter. The park, on the other hand, did look like it could do with a tidy up as there was quite a lot of rubbish strewn around.

The start was behind some bushes around the corner from the bandstand, with the route being three large loops of the park followed by a smaller loop to the finish. As we set off Nelly was keen as we made our way up the field, passing the only other dog. The park is on a small hill so there was a climb, but nothing like you would find at Lancaster. After two laps Nelly was slowing down. It was a little warm for the old girl.

With so many laps it can be difficult to overtake people and unlike at other three or four lap parkruns, there wasn’t any instruction to run on the left, so we had to weave about a bit. Fortunately there were only 170 finishers.

The volunteers were all friendly, cheering on Nelly, and occasionally me as well. We peeled off for the final smaller lap, which went around the duck pond. Nelly was very interested in the duck pond and the ducks.

With a few hundred metres to go we were overtaken. I suggested to Nelly that we should ‘get him’, but she was slowing down, so we ambled in behind him.

As I was handed my finishers barcode, I was surprised to see that we were 20th overall, with Nelly being 1st dog. At the finish there was a dog bowl full of water and a container with biscuits, which was much needed, for Nelly, not me.

The webpage states that the average number of finishers is 250, but I assume that with ten other runs within ten miles, many of them fairly new, this might be why there was only 170 on a perfect running day.

Another brilliant little parkrun and one I would recommend, although there is now a parkrun in the park where The Dream is located, which I will not be doing without Helen. The very large statue is otherwise known as the St Helen’s Head and featured prominently in the recent Netflix series Stay Close.

Graves Parkrun

Back in November we managed to get away on holiday. My lovely wife had booked a cottage in the small village of Over Haddon, a couple of miles from Bakewell. Being a family that likes to do a tourist parkrun, we had a look at what was available. The nearest parkrun was Monsal Trail, about one mile on the other side of Bakewell from where we were staying. Unfortunately it hadn’t started after the long Covid layoff. The next nearest was Millhouses, but you weren’t allowed to run with a dog, so that was out. Next up was Graves. It was on and they allowed dogs, so that was where we went.

Graves Park is a large park a few miles south of Sheffield. It was nice and sunny, there were toilets as well as lots of other people and a smattering of dogs, some of whom looked fit and fast, much like old Nelly does.

To try and keep everyone apart, the start was a rolling start, which made a change. Nelly was properly keen, pulling like a dog half her age. The paths were quite narrow, and as we’d started nearer the back we struggled to over take people for most of the first lap. The course was two laps of a very nice large undulating park, with duck ponds and a small animal farm. There was also a photographer who managed to miss me and Helen completely, although Nelly sneaked into one photo.

The finish was also very hard as it was located near the top of a long steep hill, but considering everything we were happy with 29th overall and 1st dog. Helen came in a couple of minutes later, in the top half of the field, looking surprisingly chipper, considering her hatred for running up hills.

Anyway, that was the first day of our holiday and was a great start to one of the best holidays we’d had. Lots of walking, lots of running and lots of eating cake. Who could ask for more.