Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I picked this up in Waterstones, partly as it looked interesting and partly because Stephen King recommended it. Not personally, obviously, although how cool would that be if he had.

The blurb on the back mentions that Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern has been awarded a place at Yale. She will be monitoring Yale’s secret societies as they tamper with forbidden magic, raise the dead and sometimes prey on the living. However, a local girl has been murdered and everyone apart from Alex thinks that the case has been solved.

There is a lot going on in this book, and the first fifty pages can be confusing with eight different secret societies, all of whom specialize in different aspects of magic. There is also a very detailed map of Yale University at the start of the book, which I found myself never actually looking at. Slowly over the course of the book we find out about Alex’s past and that the reason she was drawn to Yale is because she can see ghosts.

I was a little unsure about the style of the book early on, worrying that it might be an adult version of Harry Potter meeting The Sixth Sense. However, once I’d pushed on through the first fifty pages, Stephen King was right, in that it was impossible to put down. The story cracks along at a good pace, with twists and turns aplenty, although a couple are telegraphed. My only quibble would be with the ease in which magical devices are appropriated, seemingly from nowhere. The secret societies have been a law unto themselves for too long, and they’ve never met anyone like Galaxy Stern.

I gave the book five stars, which was a little generous. However, a sequel has been written which I am very much looking forward to reading.

10,000 Steps and Covid

A few months ago I wrote about walking 10,000 steps a day, and how I had never managed it for a full month. Generally this is because at least one or two days a month I might go for a swim or a long bike ride and don’t feel like a long walk as well. However, over a full month I have never managed less than 10,000 steps on average per day (read my post here).

At the moment, I still haven’t managed a full calendar month with 10,000 steps every day. However, I have managed a streak of 46 days from early December up to a few days ago. Thursday morning I went for a gentle five-mile run feeling really good. Thursday night I had the worst nights sleep ever as I succumbed to the dreaded Covid. According to my Garmin, I managed 90 minutes sleep with a sleep score of zero.

I don’t suppose I should have been surprised as my lovely wife had spent the previous four days either in bed or on the sofa. I was hoping that I would be immune. I’m not. I should have had a booster jab at some point, although it didn’t help Helen. Three years, that’s how long we both managed to avoid it. We have no idea where we caught it, but I was in the office on the Monday, mingling with plenty of people and traveling on a packed train.

I’m starting to feel a little more like myself, although I still have absolutely no energy. My total number of steps for each of the last four days has barely been above 1,000.

Covid also ended a streak of over 1,000 days where I had uploaded an activity to Strava. The activity might have only been a two mile walk with Nelly, or it might have been a 35 mile run, either way my Ron Hill type streak has come to an end.

I’ve Reached the End

Finally, after eons, I have finished the complete Jack Reacher series of books.

No Plan B

Jack Reacher is in the middle of nowhere, minding his own business, when he spots a woman being thrown in front of a bus. He follows the killer and Reacher is almost put out of commission. The local police decide that it is a suicide, but Reacher follows the trail. He teams up with Hannah, who has also recently lost someone. On top of this there is 15 year old Jed, who might have found his real father. All roads lead to a prison in the town of Winson.

As with nearly all Jack Reacher books I gave this four stars. It isn’t the best Reacher book, but it probably is the best one co-written by Andrew Child. There are numerous twists and turns, and the ending was very unexpected. If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher book, this probably isn’t the one to start with, although with 27 full length books, where do you start?

No Middle Name

Probably one for the fans rather than the casual reader as this is a collection of Jack Reacher short stories. The book is set out chronologically, so the first story is set when Jack is only 12. The collection adds depth to Reacher character and fills in a few blacks from when he was in the army. The stories are short enough that I could read one and then put the book down to read something else. As I said though, probably one for the diehard fans only.

Sour Howes and Sallows

Friday morning the weather was icy cold but sunny. Me and my lovely wife decided to take our silly old pooch for a short walk in the lake district, ticking off two Wainrights, Sour Howes and Sallow.

Starting off from the village of Troutbeck we headed up an initially steep trail, which soon levelled out to a gentle slope up. We’d walked part of this route last year in the other direction. After a mile we turned off the track onto a very steep footpath, navigating a difficult ladder stile, difficult for Nelly, followed soon after by another tricky ladder stile. We were know up on the higher fells, enjoying great views over Windemere. We stopped for an obligatory selfie.

We continued up in the sun until we reached the summit of Sour Howe.

We then did a quick little detour to the summit of Cappel Howe, which isn’t a Wainright but it seemed a shame not to add in an extra mile.

We followed our trail back to the top of Sour Howe and continued in a circular route up the gentle slope of Sallows. At the top we again admired the views and had a snack. We then followed a steep path back down to a wider but very icy track.

We hadn’t seen another person all morning, until suddenly we were inundated. Two runners, chatting as they ran uphill, followed by a mountain biker and then loads more walkers.

We followed the track back into the village. Our six mile walk had taken exactly 3 hours with 500m of climbing. An excellent little walk where we were back home before 1pm, and two more Wainrights ticked off, only another 190 to go.

Iron Maiden

The mighty Iron Maiden were the very first band that I saw live, way back in 1983. They had only just released their Piece of Mind album, and the very first date on the Piece of Mind tour was at Hull City Hall, with me in attendance. It was their second album with the vocalist Bruce Dickinson and the first album with their new drummer Nicko Mcbain. It was a fantastic concert and over the course of the next few months I also saw Saxon and then Motorhead.

Fast forward 40 years, and I have bought tickets to go and see Iron Maiden again, this time in Manchester. The band have all of the same members from when I saw then the first time, with the addition of a third guitarist, Janick Gers. The ticket prices have changed.

Iron Maiden have also been immortalized on a series of stamps, so naturally I bought a first day cover edition, stamped in the area of London where they performed their very first gig.

The two sets of stamps consist of eight of the band spanning most of their career, and four featuring Eddie, their long standing mascot. Iron Maiden are only the fifth band to feature on a set of stamps behind The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen and the Rolling Stones.

One Year of Wordle

Amazingly, this morning was my Wordle anniversary. I’ve played 365 days in a row. I’m still enjoying it and I’m still using the previous days answer as my starting word. Quite often it isn’t a very good starting word, but that’s just how I like to play.

My stats for the year are 97% win with a current streak of 16 and a maximum streak of 56. I still rush each game, mashing the buttons without thinking hard enough. My wife has started to play again, and has 100% win. We also have a Wordle WhatsApp group which includes her eldest son. They are also playing Contexto, which is way too hard for me.

I was worried that when the New York Times took over the game that it might end up behind a pay wall. This hasn’t happened, which is good, although I will stop playing if I have to pay, along with millions of other people.

Do you play Wordle?

Undead Ultra by Camille Picott

What could be better than a series of books about running and zombies. Obviously, the zombies don’t do the running, unlike in the George Romero remake where they did. Everyone knows that zombies can’t run!

There are four books in the main series, with a short prequel with different characters, although the main character is still an ultra runner. The prequel is similar to the start of the main series, in that an ultra runner is out on a long training run when he comes across zombies. He only survives because he’s a runner. The he bumps into a father and son out hunting, who are not runners, but between them they make it back to safety.

The main series starts off with Kate and her best friend Frederico out on a long run, when all hell breaks loose. Zombies are attacking people. Can you believe it, real zombies. Kate’s only thought is trying to get to her son at college 200 miles away. The zombies are blind but have really good hearing, which means driving is out of the question. The roads are also littered with car crashes and zombies. The pair of them start running, and on their route they meet a deranged drug kingpin, who uses zombies for protection. They also meet a soldier who lost his whole platoon, as well as hundreds of zombies.

The second book is all about setting up camp with Kate’s son and his friends at their college. However, there are rogue soldiers and a group of bloodthirsty students, along with hundreds of zombies. There isn’t very much running in book 2.

Books 3 and 4 involve lots of running, and lots of zombies, as Kate and her son’s friends try to rescue a camp which has been taken over by the same drug kingpin that we met in book 1. We’re also introduced to Alpha zombies who can communicate and lead hundreds of regular zombies.

Overall I gave the books either three or four stars, although they are definitely a niche series. If you don’t like books about zombies or running, then you won’t like this series. If you like zombie books, but not running, you’ll probably like this addition to the genre. However, if you enjoy books about ultra running, but don’t like zombies, then this series isn’t for you, even though the ultra running descriptions are fairly accurate. I would hazard a guess that Camille Picott is an ultra runner, or is very good friends with people who are.

The Slummer by Geoffrey Simpson

I am a sucker for a good dystopian futures book, and if it was combined with running, then even better. This is in essence what The Slummer is all about; a dystopian future where the main character likes to run. My lovely wife also knows my taste in books, which is why this was such a good Christmas present from her.

The book is set in 2083, and Benjamin, the main character, lives in one of the slums, hence the name Slummer. Anyone who lives in one of the slums is considered to be less than human and aren’t even allowed to vote. They are shunned by the rest of society, even though they make up a considerably percentage of the population.

Benjamin and his father and brother work in the local steel mill for slave wages. They currently have a flat, but their precarious existence means that they could lose it at any moment and end up in tent city, where only the strongest survive. Benjamin likes to run, much to the annoyance of his family as they feel it brings unwanted attention. Benjamin’s girlfriend also likes to run, and when a local five-mile race opens their entries to Slummers, they both sign up. Benjamin wins, even though he’s up against better trained athletes and runners who have had their genes altered at conception to make them better runners. A little later in the story, Benjamin meets an old man who also lives in the slums who used to be a coach, and between them they set up an audacious plan for Benjamin to race at the National 10,000m championship.

I gave this book four stars, and I very nearly gave it five, but the ending sort of petered out and I wasn’t sure about how people knew that they were Slummers, apart from if they were wearing old and tattered clothing. A couple of times in the book it is inferred that it is because they have brown skin, but this isn’t explored further. Are the slums a futuristic apartheid based on race, or is there more to it, because this premise changes the nature of the book. Additionally, if the slums are based solely on skin colour, then by the year 2083 the slums would consist of half of the population, based upon current trends.

Despite this, there are some really good descriptive passages all about running and training, including “Quarters Till Death”, which is the sub-heading of the book. This is basically the legendary Zatopek’s training regime, where you run 400m as many times as possible until you can’t run anymore.

Overall a good book, but possibly one for running fans.

Donut Dust

I’ve had a busy little morning today. I took our dog for a two mile walk and I then went for a short swim. On the way back from the pool I went food shopping, and as a treat bought a packet of five custard donuts.

Once the shopping was put away my lovely wife and I sat down for a brew and a donut. My wife has a brilliant way with words, and when our dog tried to lick some of the excess sugar off her plate, my wife phrased it as Donut Dust, which is one of those phrases which I will now always use whenever I’m eating a donut or other sugary based treats.

Helm Crag, Gibson Knott and Calf Crag

Wainwright bagging has begun. As I wrote last week, my lovely wife gave me a Wainwright Bagging book and map (read about it here), so we set off towards Grasmere to tick off three more fells.

Once again we were blessed with amazing weather. It was cold, but there was very little wind and no rain. Setting off early we parked in the main carpark in Grasmere and started walking in the same direction as when we’d walked to Easedale Tarn (read about it here). However this time we turned off our previous route and began climbing.

The next mile was a very steep climb with amazing views as we eventually reached the summit of Helm Crag, famous for an outcropping of rock at the top called The Lion and the Lamb.

There were a number of other walkers and runners enjoying a rare day without rain as we continued over the top and across a saddleback towards our second Wainwright, Gibson Knott. Before we reached it we past a second outcropping of rock called The Howitzer, as it vaguely resembles a large shell stuck in the ground. There was a man who had climbed up to the top. We waved and declined to join him.

There’s not a great deal to say about Gibson Knott, except that we stopped to eat a ham sandwich before making our way towards our final Wainwright, Calf Crag.

At the summit of Calf Crag we patiently waited for another pair of walkers to vacate it so that we could take our turn taking photos. Looking back we could see both of the previous summits and the valley for our return route.

Off the top we turned sharply and steeply down into the valley. If we’d continued we would have eventually reached a number of other Wainwrights, including High Raise, Ullscarf and Sergeant Man. We were now out of the sun and it was colder as we continued down, picking our way over icy sections until we reached the valley floor for the last few miles back into Grasmere.

Grasmere was busy, and despite wanted to find a cafe for a brew and cake, none of them felt particularly welcoming. A number of cafes had signs saying No Dogs, so we continued back to our car. The car park was chaos as it was overflowing with visitors, so we quickly headed on home.

Our walk had taken a few hours even though it was only 9 miles, mostly because of how steep the main ascent and descent had been. However, we ticked off another three Wainwrights, leaving only 196 remaining. It might take a while.