Monday, May 28, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Tomato and Pesto Tart

Lady Chocolat and I were at a barbeque on Satuday, for which we were asked to bring something for the buffet. So, LC duly looked through the various cookbooks, and picked out a number of options for things we could put together. She then told me which one we were going to do, which was convenient but perhaps rather negated the point of having options.

Anyway, the chosen food was the aforementioned Tomato and Pesto Tart, from Gordon's "Fast Food". And so, off we went to Tesco for those few ingredients we didn't have in stock. And, as an additional wrinkle in the plot, we had sufficient pastry for two tarts, and no alternate use for the leftovers, so we each made a tart...

The book certainly lived up to its promise. The tarts took about ten minutes to assemble, if that, and then a further twenty minutes in the oven. In truth, they barely counted as cooking at all, so simple was the process.

Anyway, they came out of the over and went into a box, and off to the barbeque we went. And, after that first traditional burger, it was time to try them.

Well, at least the rest of the barbeque was nice.

In truth, they were okay. But no better than okay, and certainly not living up to their promise. Lady Chocolat's effort was clearly the superior of the two (sob!), but the problem was a bit more fundamental than that - too much pesto, and not enough other flavour, coupled with it being that bit too dry. Basically, it was food, and perfectly edible, but... I don't think I would have it again.

(That said, it was noted that they would probably be more successful in bite-size form - a coin-sized circle of pastry, a blob of pesto, a little onion and tomato... That might be worth considering. Or we could just add bacon.)

#18: "Pathfinder: Raiders of the Fever Sea", by Greg A. Vaughan

Friday, May 25, 2012

Traffic Lights

Back when I was at university, we had a number of computing lectures talking about scheduler priorities. I especially remember the illustrations that were given, which were all to do with road management.

(Incidentally, I'm about to talk about these things in a UK context. If you live in one of those crazy countries where they drive on the wrong side of the road, then by all means swap 'left' for 'right' in what follows... What do you mean that that's just about everyone else?)

See, a roadabout is a good example of both blocking processes and round-robin scheduling. What happens is that every time someone turns right (actually, "not left"), they block the cars trying to come into the roundabout on the next extry along. This, in theory, allows a vehicle from the next-but-one entry to sneak in. And if they're going right, that frees up another entry, and so on.

It's actually quite interesting watching that at work. And it's really interesting seeing just how bad so many drivers are at handling this. Here's a hint, guys: You get a short window of opportunity... take it.

But more interesting than roundabouts, which are largely unstructured, are traffic lights, which have a strict ordering on them, and which therefore impose priorities on the traffic.

(The combined case, where you have traffic lights at a roundabout, are actually no different from just having the traffic lights. Here, the only reason for having the roundabout at all is that it cuts down on sharp turns, which may or may not be beneficial in itself. Unless, of course, the lights are themselves part-time.)

Which brings us to Moodiesburn.

Following the endless work (now finished) on the M80 upgrade, the powers-that-be saw fit to install a new set of lights at one of the entries to Moodiesburn. Which is good, because it's a pretty complex junction with lots of routes and lots of traffic.

I'm constantly bemused at how badly they managed to get it wrong. Not only are there long waits for the other directions to go, often when there are no other cars on any of those paths, but there is an entire section that acts as an airlock - when the light getting in is Green, the light getting out is always Red, and vice versa. It's a mess, leading to long and pointless delays.

But the best thing about the lights became apparent to me a couple of weeks ago, when I came to it from another direction. There, there were two lights, one heading left and the other right. Both were Red when I arrived. But shortly thereafter, the light for the left-most route started changing, and then the light for the right half a second later.

What this means is that somebody, probably somebody very clever indeed, sat down and went through a process of working out exactly how that junction should work in some detail. And that person went far enough to realise that there was obviously a need for the left lane to go a fraction before the right.

Somebody went to a great deal of trouble to get those lights utterly and horribly wrong.

And now, because I'm that sort of a guy, I'm going to tell you how they should have fixed it...

Firstly, they should have built proper filter lanes on both the route out of Moodiesburn and the one from the M80 Eastbound. There are small lanes, but only two cars each. Make the investment, and boost them to at least five cars each (ten or twenty would be better, of course). And then, fit filter signals to the left-turning lanes. This gives you a much greater flow of traffic, at no cost to other road users.

Secondly, fit sensors to the damn lights! Frankly, this should be standard procedure on all traffic lights these days; in fact, it should be illegal to build lights without them. That way, when I'm the only car at the entire junction, I don't need to wait several minutes for all the other lack of cars to go first!

(And, of course, when the junction is busy, you just switch to your hard-coded scheduling algorithms.)

Thirdly, get the guy who wrote this thing to go back, watch cars go through the junction for a week or so (24/7) and then rewrite the algorithms, actually getting them right this time. Bluntly, it's shocking that this hasn't been done, not least since this is the one that can be done without having to fit any more infrastructure.

(Incidentally, this brings me to my invisible point four. If we're really concerned about the environment, why do all our traffic lights run at night? That's a huge waste of energy. Switch them off at non-peak times. If they really want, they could then put sensors on them, so that they relight if a car approaches. But, honestly, in most cases they should just switch them off entirely - when there are only one or two cars about, they're generally able to sort themselves out. And those few muppets who can't are also the sorts of muppets who are liable to ignore the lights anyway.)

Anyway, that's my "traffic lights" rant... for today.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Scottish Pipe Band Championships 2012

Saturday was cold. Very cold.

The day began at 6am, when I woke from a blessedly refreshing sleep, and proceeded to get myself ready for the competition. So, breakfast, teeth, shave, shower, dressed... I packed my bag for the day, lamenting that my plan to have "interesting lunches" for the season had already fallen by the wayside - I had two chicken sandwiches, a bananana, and some almonds for lunch, plus two yoghurts for snacks, two packets of crisps just because, and a big bottle of water. (This was later to be supplemented by chips, a Mars, and quite a lot of Irn Bru - it was a tough day.)

And then along to catch the bus. That was 7:30.

The journey to the competition was okay, if dull. I spent most of the time reading a large section of my current book, which I'm not really enjoying, although it is very interesting to see all the stuff that was, er, lovingly adapted for Discworld.

We arrived much earlier than planned, but that was probably a good thing as there is always the risk of bad traffic. So, we had time to explore the site, get a programme of events, and generally relax a bit. At this point, we found that the ground was pretty much a swamp. However, it wasn't raining, which was good, and the high winds that had so battered us last year were likewise not in evidence.

Eventually, time came to get ready, and then to perform. And it was good - a good start, a good performance throughout, and then a really good stop. We were happy with it throughout. Even the issues with tone that we had identified from the previous week were gone, due in large part to replacing all the chanters and reeds. Huzzah!

And then, the wait. Never fun, this was made worse by the cold, which wasn't quite numbing, but which just sucked. Plus, I'm extremely tired - the last two weeks have been vicious. So, I went for a little sleep, which was a mixed blessing. I ended up a little less tired, but much stiffer.

And then the march-past, which went okay, although we were one of the first bands on and got the 'enjoyment' of watching another 100+ bands parading onto the field. It seemed to take forever.

We didn't win a prize. And, that established, I was dispatched to get the results sheets. We came 12th overall, out of 21 bands in our grade. Not a great result. Worse, we came 14th and 18th in piping, which was very disappointing. Rather better, we came 10th in drumming, and 6th in ensemble.

Unfortunately, at this point I find myself wondering what the point of continuing with this season is. We're simply not going to dramatically improve, and it definitely seems that what we're offering is just not what the judges are looking for. Worse, it looks to me like we could actually do really well - all we would need to do is identify our 8 strongest pipers, drop everyone else, and we would jump up the rankings. So, if all we want to do is win, we have that option. Problem is, we really don't want to do that - we have a lot of kids in the band, and they genuinely are improving at a rapid pace. Dropping them would stop that progress. And yet, as Alex Ferguson has said, "you don't win anything with kids."

So, tough times for the band. On the other hand... two years ago, we were one of the best bands in Grade 4B. Last year, we were one of the worst bands in Grade 4A. And this year, thus far, we're around the middle of Grade 4A. Perhaps what we need to do is stop worrying about making a big 'breakthrough', and instead just carry on making incremental improvements year-on-year. Problem is, each year that passes my fingers get that little bit slower and less controlled. I don't know how many more years I can continue competing even at this level, never mind taking the step up to a higher grade, and I think I would like to see how far we can go before it's too late.

(And, just to head off the inevitable question - I'm not inclined to leave this band to go join another at a higher grade. The disappointment of competing aside, I'm generally enjoying playing with this band. More importantly, I feel I'm making a very significant contribution to the advancement of this band, and by extension to my local community. For me, the rewards of doing that outweigh any potential rewards of being able to compete at the next grade up, which is probably my limit anyway.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

So much for Fringe

I found it extremely difficult to get to sleep last night, and when I did finally nod off, it was only to wake up a little after 4. As sleep thereafter proved impossible, I eventually gave up, got up, and took the opportunity to watch the last episode of "Fringe" before starting my day.

Technically, it was only the last episode of the fourth season, but for me it appears it was the last ever - I no longer have any interest in watching further.

Throughout the fourth season, the show has been suffering that malady that I've noted in the past - by the end of the second and third (very good) seasons, the writers had used all their best ideas up. In an attempt to freshen things up, they took a dramatic step with the setting and premise of the show... and the result was a largely-incoherent mess.

It had looked like they were gradually resolving that mess, and that by the end of the season they would have not only gotten back to where they were, but the would have explained just why they messed things up in the first place. But, alas, it didn't happen.

Instead, the episode was a mess of technobabble (worse than usual!), it chickened out on both the major character cliffhangers, it ended on two utterly predictable 'setting' cliffhangers. Oh, and it has now been revealed that both versions of one of the major characters is really sloppy in one aspect of her life, while being utterly in control of every other aspect.

So, I won't be back.

And the result of this is that I now have only one show on my current 'watch' list, being "Game of Thrones" (which has also gone downhill in the second series - as one critic of the books commented, they've now killed off all the main players, so we're now basically watching the second-stringers, and they're not that interesting).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

To the Imaginarium!

Just so you're aware, I have started a new blog!

But don't worry - Part Four will continue as before, so you can continue reading all about my adventures with the band, with sock conspiracies, and with experimental cookery right here.

As you know, I'm a rather big fan of RPGs, and all things related. As such, I have been occasionally posting here about the topic. However, I'm also keenly aware that virtually everyone who reads the blog (both of you) are not particularly interested in RPGs, and so if I were to just constantly post on the topic it would get really tedious (as tedious as my "Independence" posts got a couple of months ago).

Hence, new blog.

So, for anyone who is interested, you can read my pedantic witterings on the subject of RPGs over at Stephen's Imaginarium.

(Incidentally, I may well post the occasional RPG-related matter here, if I think it's of more general interest. And, indeed, I may well post the same thing in both places where appropriate. However, I'm not going to pollute this blog with 500 posts on RPGs to the exclusion of all else!)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dunbar Highland Games 2012 - the season starts

Last week was an incredibly busy week for the band - practice on Monday and Thursday, a committee meeting on Tuesday, a gig that got cancelled as we were en route on Thursday (we had a practice instead), two nighttime events on Friday and Saturday. And, of course, the start of the competition season at Dunbar on Saturday.

The day dawned bright and hopeful. It was sunny, albeit rather cold, which was about the best weather we could have hoped for. The journey to Dunbar was therefore quite pleasant, despite our obvious tiredness from the night before.

On arrival, we spent a bit of time getting used to the place, then went through the process of tuning up. So far, so good. Then we moved down to "final tuning", where we first ran through the tunes for the competition - and they just fell apart on us.

Oh dear.

It seemed that a combination of the cold, the fact that we were playing outdoors, and the nerves of the occasion had conspired to really mess us up. The tunes weren't controlled, they weren't together, and they were far too fast.

We played a few more times, and they seemed to get a bit better. Still, not too hopeful. Indeed, I almost spoke to the Pipe Major at this point, advising him that he should probably drop the young man next to me, who was really struggling. Harsh, but...

Still, we went on with our full array of players. And we put forth our best performance of the day. It was much better than before. And, indeed, the guy next to me was absolutely fine - under pressure, some people focus while others fold; it appears that he is of the former sort.

Sadly, for being our best of the day, it still wasn't terribly good. One other player (another younger member of the band) really messed up, while a second sounded his pipe chanter earlier, which is a major no-no.

The end result is that we weren't happy with the performance. We know we can play better. Much better, in fact.

The final result matched up with our expectations - we came 10th overall, out of 12 bands in our grade, scoring 11th and 10th for piping, 4th for drumming, and 10th for ensemble. Dear, oh dear.

The only two positives from the day were that we knew we could, and should, have played better, which means there is reason to be hopeful next week; and we now have a guide as to some specific areas that we should work on. In theory, this should mean we're much better placed to do well next week at the Scottish Championships. Well, I guess we'll see.

On the plus side, we won't be quite so knackered next week, what with not having a performance at 11pm the night before!

Experimental Cookery 2012: Minted Peas

The epic dinner that I reference in my previous post was mostly not experimental. While extremely nice, the roast chicken, roast potatoes, and baked carrots were all things that I had done before. That this was the first roast dinner I had cooked in the apartment, and also the first roast dinner that LC and I had shared since we moved in, made it marginally experimental, but that's hardly blog-worthy. (Now, if we were talking about Twitter here...)

But the thing that was experimental was the other vegetable. (Because, of course, you have to have two. That's practically a rule.) And that other vegetable was peas.

Now to date my adventures with peas have been rather limited. (Because, after all, they're peas - just how adventurous can you really expect to be. In fact, even writing "my adventures with peas" leads me to question just how absurd a concept that might be.) Basically, it has been my policy to stick them in a pot with some water, and apply heat for a few minutes. As a consequence of which, yep, they taste like peas.

But I did find myself rather intrigued by the notion of minted peas, and last night proved to be the opportunity for which I had been waiting. And so, I drew forth "Jamie's Ministry of Food", and turned to one of the few pages I hadn't faced before...

It turned out that preparing the peas was dead easy, but pretty tedious. Suddenly, my exciting two-step process had become a full paragraph of text, and involved onions, lettuce, and even flour.

And the result? Well, actually, it was not at all appetising - a slimy mush was the result. Somewhere in there, there just wasn't enough liquid in the method, or too much heat, or something. So, that needed fixed.

Anyway, that done, the peas once again looked more or less like they should, albeit considerably less impressive than the carrots. They were served, tried, and they were... okay.

Ultimately, the minted peas were just too much effort relative to the result. They were nice enough, but I think I preferred my peas unadorned. A shame, really - I quite like peas, but they were very definitely the weakest link in the epic dinner.

Infamy and Betrayal!

Lament with me, gentle readers, for the inevitable has happened...

With the arrival of Lady Chocolat, life in the Apartment of Mirth has seen a great many changes, many of them trivial and others far more significant. One that seemed trivial was LC's quite unreasonable assertion that my policy of doing my washing on a Thursday was totally unacceptable. (It's not like I have a shortage of clothes, you understand - I had a suitable abundance of socks that I could last a whole month if pressed to it.)

Anyway, I managed to get away with it for the first week. LC was distracted with the task of moving in and finding homes for most of her stuff, and so I was able to merrily postpone the weekly wash until Thursday. And all was well with the world... for a while.

It couldn't last, of course. I had to return to work last week, and so was not able to stand guard any longer. And, as we all know, the price of not having your t-shirts ironed is eternal vigilance...

And so, yesterday while I was busy cooking an epic dinner, LC stealthily hijacked the living room and did a whole bunch of ironing, quite in defiance of the "no housework at weekends" policy. Truly, it was a horror!

But worse was to come later, when I found myself confronted with a pile of t-shirts, all of them carefully ironed and folded! I mean, what was I to make of this new infamy? Clearly, t-shirts are not meant for such things - they should be washed, hung, and any remaining creases left to fall out when subjected to body heat. That's the rule, and if it leaves them a bit scruffy-looking, well, that's just part of my Han Solo-esque charm. (!)

Well, it turned out that even that was not the full extent of the horrors to come. In fact, the ironed t-shirts were nothing more than a cunningly-placed distraction, because when I turned to the pile of socks...

No, I can't go on. It's too painful.





When I turned to the pile of socks, one of them was missing!

Yes, it's true. After more than a decade of doing my own washing, and never once losing a single sock, and then less than a week after letting my guard down, the sock conspiracy have struck!

(And this after LC spent months, months denying the very existence of the conspiracy, and becoming quite indignant that I persisted in my scepticism! Oh perfidious sex! Oh, sweetest betrayal! And to think that my poor socks must pay the price!)

(Oh, ridiculous hyperbole?)

Lament with me, gentle readers. The inevitable has happened...

(Incidentally, if I can find a way to tie this in to EU recycling targets and the end of the Mayan calendar, I might just have the plot for my bestselling novel - "The Sock Conspiracy", an hilarious parody of a Dan Brown novel in which our hero, a professor of sockology unveils an horrific secret...)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What to do about Shakespeare?

As you probably know, I have The List - a list of books that were voted as being particularly good by a bunch of people, and that I've been gradually reading through. The List is actually a composite of two "Top 100" lists, one each from the UK and the US. Once the overlap of the two was eliminated, this left about 150 entries to read through, of which I have 103 remaining.

Actually, I'm starting to think that the list may be unduly influenced by Oprah and/or Richard & Judy, both of whom have "book clubs" in which they recommend novels. (Feel free to insert a cynical rant here about whether they actually read and enjoy the novels themselves...) I just started to notice that WH Smiths periodically do sales of the "book club" novels, and the overlap is pretty obvious, at least as soon as you move beyond the obvious 'classics'.

But that's not actually all that important right now. One of the other issues with The List is the question of what to do about Shakespeare. See, both "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" and "Hamlet" appear on The List (actually, both appear on the BBC-compiled part of The List... I didn't make it up). However, it has long been my contention that Shakespeare's plays, being plays, are not really meant to be read; they're meant to be seen performed. And, actually, there's an argument that the sonnets shouldn't really be read, either, but rather that because much of their effect will come from hearing them (that same argument would apply to "Ulysses" too, of course).

Of course, the odds of being able to find performances of all of the plays, and especially finding performances using the entire and unedited text, are pretty slim. "Hamlet" is easy, of course, but the same is not true of the rest.

So, what to do?

(The answer, for now at least, is to leave Shakespeare for the time being. Lady Chocolat brought with her a copy of the Complete Works, so reading them is an option... but she also brought many other books with her that I can just as readily read first.)

Incidentally, for anyone who's interested, here's the rest of The List. Note that this includes only those entries that I have not already read. Note also that the numbers given here are not the same numbers from the two original lists; Jane Eyre, for example, was actually #3 on one of the lists, and much lower on the other.

  1. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  2. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
  3. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
  4. Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery)
  5. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
  6. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
  7. Little Women (Louisa M Alcott)
  8. Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
  9. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
  10. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  11. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
  12. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
  13. The Stand (Stephen King)
  14. Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  15. The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald)
  16. Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
  17. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
  18. Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)
  19. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  20. Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
  21. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
  22. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)
  23. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
  24. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
  25. Dune (Frank Herbert)
  26. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
  27. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
  28. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
  29. Emma (Jane Austen)
  30. Persuasion (Jane Austen)
  31. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
  32. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
  33. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
  34. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Louis De Bernieres)
  35. I know this much is true (Wally Lamb)
  36. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
  37. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
  38. Winnie the Pooh (AA Milne)
  39. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M Auel)
  40. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  41. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
  42. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)
  43. Far From The Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)
  44. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
  45. Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt)
  46. Atonement (Ian McEwan)
  47. She's Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
  48. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
  49. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
  50. Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
  51. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)
  52. A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth)
  53. The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
  54. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
  55. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
  56. Love In The Time Of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  57. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
  58. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
  59. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
  60. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
  61. On The Road (Jack Kerouac)
  62. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)
  63. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
  64. Bridget Jones' Diary (Helen Fielding)
  65. Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie)
  66. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
  67. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
  68. Shogun (James Clavell)
  69. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
  70. Notes From A Small Island (Bill Bryson)
  71. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
  72. Ulysses (James Joyce)
  73. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
  74. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  75. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
  76. Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome)
  77. Germinal (Emile Zola)
  78. The World According to Garp (John Irving)
  79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
  80. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)
  81. Possession (AS Byatt)
  82. A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
  83. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
  84. The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
  85. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  86. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
  87. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  88. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
  89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
  90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
  91. The Faraway Tree Collection (Enid Blyton)
  92. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
  93. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
  94. The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck)
  95. The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)
  96. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
  97. A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)
  98. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
  99. The Outsiders (SE Hinton)
  100. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
  101. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
  102. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
  103. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)

Monday, May 07, 2012

Active and Passive Characters in Literature

When I read "Rebecca" a couple of years ago, I was less than impressed by the weakness of the lead character. She basically spent the novel being buffetted by outrageous fortune, and spends most of the novel whining about how weak and stupid she is. I felt that what was needed was a good feminist (or even a mediocre one) to stand up for herself, to declare that, no, this was not right. That it wasn't right that her husband neglected her, that it wasn't right that the house was haunted by the memory of the ex-wife, and that the household staff damn well would respect her authoritah.

The root issue here was that the lead character was reactive, rather than proactive. She utterly failed to make any decisions; indeed, she failed to realise that she had any decisions to make.

When I read the "Soldier Son" trilogy, I likewise found myself extremely annoyed. There were huge numbers of words. Endless, endless words. And most of them consisted of the main character whining. But that trilogy was even worse. See, "the magic" had selected him to perform some great task, but he hadn't been informed what that task was. And whenever he failed to act as the magic wished (whether intentionally or otherwise) he would be punished. That was bad enough, but worse was to come - later in the trilogy, the lead character literally became a passenger in his own body; he literally couldn't take any meaningful action to affect the plot.

And, actually, almost any novel that features a long journey suffers from this problem - if the author isn't careful, the character's choices reduce down to just two: keep going or turn back. Where "turn back" isn't much of an option. And so, unless the journey itself is particularly interesting (spoiler alert: it probably isn't), then every word spent detailing that time is just wasted time. Skip to the end, please - what happens when they get there?

I was reminded of this when reading "A Dance With Dragons", the latest novel in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Here, G.R.R. Martin takes his most interesting character, Tyrion, and puts him on a long journey from one court to another. Now, Tyrion was really interesting because he spent his time scheming and plotting, playing one faction against another, and generally being sarcastic. And even when he was a prisoner with, seemingly, no power at all, he was still fun because he could still find allies and weave plots.

But during this journey... well, he's on a boat. Then he's on a horse. Then he's on a boat. Oh, and now he's been diverted. Ah, now he's this close to his goal...

And we end up, somehow, with a thousand-page novel in which nothing happens. We waited five years for the fifth part of that story, or eight years for the continuation of Tyrion's part in the plot (he didn't appear in book four, due to writer's block), and we would have been better off just skipping the novel entirely and reading the plot summary on wikipedia instead.

(And even "Lord of the Rings" isn't immune to criticism here. The journey in "Fellowship..." is fine, since the characters have several choices and interesting debates ensue. But once Frodo and Sam are on their own in "The Two Towers", the story becomes much more limited. They endure, because they have little choice. When entire chapters can be boiled down to "swamp", it's maybe not for the best.)

Of course, it's possible that I'm over-sensitive to this. In RPGs, there is a concept of "railroading", where the player characters aren't given any real choices, but have to follow the pre-determined path. Of course, this is a concept that doesn't really apply to novels, since the author makes all the choices for the characters - every novel is a railroad on those terms. Still, there is a difference between a character who is active rather than passive. And just as you should write in an active rather than a passive voice (because it's more interesting), so too should authors try to write about characters who are active rather than passive, for exactly the same reason.

(Oh, and by the way, the issue with Tyrion is not the only thing that is wrong with "A Dance With Dragons", nor "A Song of Ice and Fire" as a whole. Basically, it's going exactly the same way as "Wheel of Time", with a plot that's quickly fragmenting, too many characters, and far too many words for not enough plot. My advice to people new to the series is to read the first three books, and then treat it as one of those great unfinished series.)

#15: "A Dance With Dragons: Dreams and Dust", by George R.R. Martin
#16: "A Dance With Dragons: After the Feast", by George R.R. Martin (Note that these two constitute a single novel, which was split into two volumes for the paperback release. Because of my "one cover/one book" rule, they count as two entries here.)
#17: "Pathfinder: The Wormwood Mutiny", by Richard Pett