Book Review: ‘Downtime Shift’ by Robert Holding

Downtime Shift by Robert Holding


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Downtime Shift’ has a great premise: agents of the 29th century are sent back in time – a whole number of turns from ‘Point Time’ round a ‘loop’ of some 800 years to ‘Down Time’ (our own time) – to steer their past events in order to tweak their present-day, perfect civilisation, a civilisation completely overseen by the EYE, a vast and complex AI.

We meet Evelyn in the prologue which alludes to her intense training preparing her to take her place as one of these agents: a ‘Shifty’. It is implied that she was somehow ‘surplus to requirements’ in her pre-training life, but this is never fully explained.

Tension builds slowly as one is led to wonder what the motives of Psychologist Dr Janeen Hellander are: does she not want Evelyn to complete the task assigned her? And if she doesn’t – if she’s a saboteur – will General Tarran McAndre find out?

We get a lot of Evelyn’s inner world – the account of her meditation at the close of chapter 1 is particularly evocative, as are many of the landscape descriptions throughout. The landscape, it turns out, in a way has its own secrets…

What made the story drag a little for me was the lack of much conflict or suspense after that. Everything just seemed to go off too well, with hardly any obstacles or surprises for the two main characters.

There was plenty of psychological to-ing and fro-ing, with different characters ‘squaring up’ to each other for lack of trust, feeling-out for each other’s weaknesses. In many of these encounters the reader is made to hop between the characters’ points of view, which not only makes the narrative hard to follow but also destroys the tension – if you know what both are thinking, you know what the outcome will be – and worse, you are not properly ‘in’ the mind of either.

The dearth of dialogue ‘tags’ or small beats during the long exchanges of conversation made the logic hard to follow at times, and a programme (‘Echo’) is mentioned only once throughout – we never get to find out what it is.

The story, at its heart, is a lively and futuristic exploration of two questions in ethics: the classic ‘trolley problem’ – should you deliberately kill in order to save a greater number of lives? – and the more contemporary question of to what extent we should allow Artificial Intelligence to take over our lives, even if it is for the common good.

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A walk in the fog

An eerie stillness on the A19. No, that bus-stop definitely isn’t haunted – what were you thinking?

Illuminated leaves, and light-paths across the silent road.

There should be a film noir figure in a dark coat and hat lighting his 3rd cigarette under that lamp.

The Millennium Bridge looking like a Portal to Another World.

Isn’t it strange how the fog, by taking away parts of the view, gives you more to think about?

Book Review: Babel

Babel by Gill James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the second book in a Young Adult trilogy with an exciting ‘premise’: in a fractious interplanetary empire the Peace Child is half-negotiator, half-hostage. With an interesting twist on the classic ‘prophecy/chosen one’ narrative, we meet Kaleem and wonder, what will he be called upon to do, and will he be able to deliver?

The story opens with a ritual euthanasia (‘Switch-off’) whose Master of Ceremonies, although evidently quite experienced with his role in a practice which appears to have been customary for some time, is nevertheless haunted with guilt.

Only in the story’s closing chapters do we find out why.

The cultural background has some reflections of our own world, including culture shock – we meet young women who are dealing with the differences between progressive planet Zandra and more ‘traditionalist’ planet earth (‘Terrestra’). One point that puzzled me and which was never fully explained was the agonising over why they ‘had to teach’ somebody from Terrestra ‘about there not being a God’, when this didn’t seem particularly necessary.

We get to meet the two main characters very much ‘from the inside’, with plenty of inner monologue of their thoughts and plans and, in a nice ‘nothing-ever-changes’-type touch, Rozia’s diary. Her notes seem a little soppy at first, but we soon see her true character. The portrayal of awkward teenage love is particularly realistic.

Although many of the earlier chapters end with wrap-ups, there are still some good points of tension:

What was Kaleem’s mother’s involvement with the immiserated and resentful ‘Z Zone’?

Will Kaleem’s antagonist succeed in raising the population there against him?

And will Kaleem succeed in reconciling the freedom-embracing, impoverished but life-loving people of the Z Zone with the more ‘civilised’, complacent, and even a little selfish (through having had life too easy), people of the Normal Zone?

An interestingly prescient aspect of the plot is the source of the movement against ‘Switch-Off’ in the Normal Zone. No spoilers, but they wouldn’t have been ‘the usual suspects’ for radical thinking when the book was written, back in 2011.

The story confronts the reader with a moral dilemma – ‘Switch-Off’ vs. letting people fall ill and die naturally. The premise is that the fight against illness will sharpen people’s minds and empathy, and indeed the medics’ expertise in dealing with imperfection, for example when people get injured, or have to deal with new diseases such as the ‘Starlight Fever’ mentioned as an incident in the past in the opening chapter.

My one criticism would be that the prose is uninspiring – there’s too much “he was anxious” “she was relieved”, “there was something bad going on and he had no idea what it was,” and the like, when better and more immersive expressions could easily be found. And we never get convinced of why ‘Switch-Off’ is so dreadful that it must be stopped – other than its being the only way of reconciling Z-Zone with the rest of Terrestra.

‘Babel’ is a very Moral tale – bordering on too moral (depending upon your point of view). The choice of name for the population management programme particularly jarred, at least with me.

However, in the end the ‘Chosen One’ trope gets a nice twist, and we are left wanting to know what happens in the next book of the trilogy.



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The Evening Lands – cover reveal

The good people of Rhetoric Askew, based collectively in California, Oklahoma and Florida, have battled Fire, Riot and Pestilence to craft this amazing cover design for The Evening Lands.

What more can I say?

We have yet to name a date for publication but it is close – so damned near now!

A walk to a mill

There’s been a mill on the site of Howsham Mill since before the Norman Conquest (and subsequent massacre of all things Northern) – it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book.

It’s taken me this long to get round to seeing it. We took a walk there, from Kirkham Priory. This is all that remains of the priory now. The grounds are peaceful, well-tended, and have picnic tables.

From there we headed up into the woods.

The keen-eyed among you might spot a rather cheekily-shaped mushroom at the foot of a tree to the right of the path. More mushrooms were growing on a tree nearby – not edible, as far as I know:

Leaving the wood took us out onto farmers’ land, then a quiet road. A tree had dropped hundreds of tiny apples onto the verge and the tarmac. Many of them have now found their way to places where they stand a better chance of growing. Not into trees with sweet, edible apples to be sure, but at least into trees. This country needs all the trees it can get, and this is just the time of year for-

Pears??


I have never seen a pear-tree, at a random roadside, drop perfectly edible pears (we tested a few) onto the road like this. Pity to waste them…

We crossed a proper staffed level-crossing. Inside the office, we noticed, the windowsills were stacked with books. Perfect job for someone!

And so to the River Derwent:

And on to the Mill.

The present Gothic pile was built in 1755 as part of the Howsham Estate – apparently the gentlemen of the house wanted a bit of a conversation piece, visible from their stately home, as well as a useful source of income.

But bit by bit, over the next 200 years, grinding first flour, and then animal feed, became less and less profitable. The last miller left in 1947 and the building fell into such bad disrepair that some bright spark in the 1960s (of course) put in an application to demolish what was left of it.

Luckily, conservationists intervened.

In the early 2000s local enthusiasts formed the Renewable Heritage Trust with the aim of getting it rebuilt and running, both as a source of electricity and a venue for educational outreach and the like.

Our writers’ group had even booked a day there, but sadly it got Covid-ed.

The Mill now has two sources of renewable electricity: a classic mill-wheel that generates about 10 kW (about enough energy to fire the boiler to heat a small house), and an Archimedean Screw (a spiral rod that the water turns as it passes down a tube – particularly good for venues with a low height difference between the water arriving and leaving, as the Derwent has in this flat landscape) which, when we turned up, was generating about 45 kW.

It also has a picnic table – so we had lunch.

The volunteers who run it all appear to be retired engineers. I worry that, as the national retirement age is raised, life expectancy stops its historic 200-year upward trend, and the supply of rail and other mechanical experts dwindles, we’ll be short of the good types who keep this kind of project on the road, and who are willing and able to start up new ones.

Book Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Suzanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


In the dark, cold winters of the dawn of the nineteenth century, a mysterious visitor arrives at the venerable ‘Society of Magicians’, expressing a desire to ‘restore magic to England’.

The Society of Magicians – argumentative but mostly harmless elderly gentlemen who would no more practice any magic than they would ‘expect astronomers to re-arrange the Cosmos’ – are of course for the most part outraged at the very notion.

And so we meet Mr Norrell, his formidable book-hoarding habit, and his exploitation as a sort of travelling show by the dreadful Drawlight, who’s only in it for the money.

We do not meet the first titular character until ‘Volume 2’, with a portrayal of events in his family background reminiscent of Gormenghast. This episode appealed to me the most in the entire book, because it was among the few in which any character evoked any sympathy, or displayed anything but superficial motivation.

We constantly hear of the desire to ‘restore Magic to England’ – usually as a simple, bald statement – but nothing in any of the characters involved ever seems to bring out any deep reason for wanting to do so. Some of their actions, including one central to the plot in which Norrell suddenly decides, after all his disparaging comments about him and about the futility of the exercise, to take Strange on as a pupil, appear arbitrary and contrived.

I have to admit that with the exception of Lady Pole and slave/King Stephen, I found it difficult to care enough about any of the characters to read on through a thousand pages and find out what became of them. I couldn’t even get excited about ‘restoring magic to England’ in the end because nobody seemed to have any deep reason for wanting to do so, nor much of a personal stake in the outcome.

Indeed, too many of the characters seemed purely to be playing tricks on each other for no deeper reason than ‘because they could.’ Partly for that reason, the plot read more like a series of episodes than a rounded ‘story’. Even the end was inconclusive.

If you love the idea of getting lost in a book with prose as evocative as Dickens’, with landscape and buildings almost more real than the characters who move through them, and you don’t mind that the tale meanders along where it might ‘chuse’ to do, than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for you. If on the other hand you want characters who are more than just quirky, and you’re the sort who likes to follow people whose fate you care about, then there are better books to spend your time on.






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Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




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Book Review: ‘Follow Him’ by Craig Stewart

Follow Him by Craig Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A haunting hallucination, a disturbing power relationship, and the sense of impending doom pull the reader into the very first page of Follow Him.

Much of Part 1 is too ‘male gaze’ for my tastes, including the sex scene and the supposition that the woman involved – but not the man – ends up ‘sacrificed’. Too obvious, guys – in fact the trope is nicely twisted as she returns later as a vital part of the narrative, and he ends up paying a price too.

The characters begin to show their true depths as the plot progresses. Their backstories, their emotional ‘pressure points’ so ably abused by the cult, and how they came to join it, ring realistic to a worrying degree.

The second part reads like a taut, psychological thriller. Nina’s inner dialogue initially comes across as a little too sentimental and verbose, and her Catholicism could be a little more three-dimensional, but she toughens-up, and becomes more self-consistent, as her journey to rescue her man plunges her deeper into the darkness that is the Shared Heart.

Will he love her again? Will she get over-run by the part of her that wants to punish him? Will he stop blaming her for the blood-stained incident in their past that wasn’t her fault (in fact, if they are being held up as an embodiment of Love, should he have been blaming her – before he joined the cult – at all? This rather jarred – again, male viewpoint.) Will the nosy neighbour accidentally betray her as she hides the man she loves in the only place that offers space enough for her to begin the process of reconstructing his mind? Will the cult find them and reclaim him? And if they do, what might they do to her?

And finally: where do the collective nightmares of this Crowley-like cult come from? Will they, in fact, be revealed not to be nightmares at all..?

Like a Horror version of Ken Follet’s ‘The Hammer of Eden’, but one in which the cult is darker and the Demons are real, this tale is literally not for the faint-hearted!




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The Third Kingdom

What is it?

It’s an alien growing out of a dead tree-stump. Not animal or plant. I spotted it on New Walk.

New walk has a strange history: it was constructed along the riverside, a mile or so outside town, with no obvious origin or destination. Its purpose was solely to enable grand, Regency types to promenade of a warm evening and show off their finery. So it was basically a glorified catwalk (or runway, if you’re from the USA.)

It was planted with stately horse-chestnut trees of which this, in the picture, was once one. Most of the rest are still thriving, and the path has since been extended all the way to Skeldergate Bridge to the north and beyond our allotments to the south. So it’s basically my walk into town – which is why bits of it feature on this blog so often.

This time of year and the next month or so are the best for spotting fungi of both the edible and inedible sort. Telling the former from the latter is a black art mostly lost to us Brits. But some of us are married to Central or Eastern Europeans, so we get to cheat a bit. We get our other half coming home from ‘a quick bike-ride’ with things like this little lot:

(The egg-box is for scale)

Peeled and stewed, Boletus Mushrooms are great with gently-fried onions and mashed spuds. They have, ounce-for-ounce, a protein content that’s not far shy of the best steak.

And our Unidentified Fungal Objects at the top of this post? Apparently they’re Dryad’s Saddle – at least, according to the first answer to my query to The Facebook Hive-Mind. And they’re edible, but not once they get as huge and tough as the one in the picture…

Unless, of course, you know different.

10 things I love (and 3 I do not) about Fulford Show

10 things…

  1. Walking there from our house – so no battling with Bank Holiday traffic!
  2. Early morning mist on the expanse of field as we get there first thing to help put up the stalls and gazebos
  3. Being one of the few ‘veterans’ who knows how to put up an old-style gazebo! Getting all the numbered poles in order, and raising the edifice in such a way that its legs don’t drop off at the crucial moment is a Black Art.
  4. Bacon butties and coffee for helping
  5. The queue at the Social Hall door: people carrying everything from giant beetroots (complete with leaves) to bottles of wine, floral displays and model castles. I have to get there with our wine and fruit before the doors ‘close for judging’ at ten – it’s almost apocalyptic.
  6. Fulford Community Orchard stall – I generally put my name down on the rota for the whole day. The produce we sell there – jams, chutneys, cake and cards with arty pictures of the trees in all seasons – helps pay for tree maintenance and insurance. Barry brings his apple-press and we hand out juice to the kids, who always want to know how the almost steampunk-looking device works.
  7. The other stalls! We take turns away from our own stall to amble around. I’ve bought some amazing (and very cheap) things over the years: big planters, winter pyjamas, an entire set of bed-linen – deep purple with a design of cursive letters (for £1), lego Vikings, numerous books and even a book-case. One year someone came selling nothing but root ginger. We bought enough to keep us in stir-fries for months.
  8. The actual ‘show’ part: seeing everyone else’s beautifully-crafted work, seeing if Dee or Azzie have won in the Jam (‘Have you got your jam ready? Let Midsomer Murders commence!’) and finding out what I’ve won for my wine. It always wins something because so few folk enter wine. It’s a bit of a cheat, really, but it’s nice to say ‘my prize-winning wine’…
  9. The ‘auction’ – well it’s a bit more like a free-for-all. Everyone has the chance to buy any exhibits that haven’t been ‘reserved’ in advance. I’m afraid I reserve our wine, but not the fruit or veg.
  10. The takings! For our stall these help keep the Orchard going for another year. For the show as a whole, they keep the whole thing on the road – the show pays for itself.

3 things…

  1. Taking down the gazebos – it means it’s all over for another year. Worse still if it’s raining and they’re all sodden wet.
  2. Weather lottery! We’ve sweltered in 30 degree heat (and none of us was used to it), and braved freezing squalls. Some August Bank Holidays it’s blowing enough for a poorly-anchored tent to get airborne. More than one year we’ve been in pouring rain – not too terrible by itself, but grievous if it’s also windy and you’re having to wrestle putting up the gazebo ‘sides’ before everything gets wet. But then, at least it’s something to boast about afterwards.
  3. The field is silent this year, and I’m at home. The Social Hall is locked and empty – I checked, moved by that strange way you think that if you return to a place where you once lived, then you’ll also go back in time to the years you lived there. Or just in case someone had decided to go ahead with a few informal stalls anyway. I have no idea how long a tradition the show is, but I like to think it’s one of those things that ‘Hitler couldn’t stop’ back in the day. We even had a Spitfire flyover last year, for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings. But this year, Plague has done what War has never managed. It makes sense to hold off at the moment, but it’s too sad. To cap it all, Barry – our apple expert and Custodian of the Press – passed away in March. Of a heart attack – not Covid. He always was a one-off. We have a bottle of his home-made cider waiting in the kitchen. This evening we’ll drink to his memory, and to the Return of Fulford Show.