reading pile


Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin

Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is one of the most charming and interesting books I’ve read in a long time.

Charming, because it is a collection of thoughts on nature, throughout the seasons, from one of our most well-respected British nature writers. Interesting, because it is unplanned; unstructured by the writer himself, who passed away in 2006, a couple of years before the book was published (it was compiled by Robert Macfarlane). Interesting, because it seems to distil so many things into pithy observations or philosophical reflections about a man living with wildlife at the centre of his existence. These are thoughts of someone so engaged in the business of watching the world in which he lived (predominantly at Walnut Tree Farm, in Norfolk), but also talking of the farm in the context of the wider world. Month by month, through all types of weather, through all times of the day, through all sensations one may experience with the natural world, this is all filtered through an acute and deeply sensitive lens; these are Deakin’s genuine attempts to understand not only his surroundings, but his reactions to it.

All of us, I believe, carry about in our heads places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that ‘feels its life in every limb’ in Wordsworth’s poem ‘We are seven’, our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far from them.

There are mentions or discussions, of a few writers and artists who have themselves engaged with nature, but more importantly Deakin discusses his interactions with the sentiments of those writers, an effort to engage with what they meant. In another sense, it becomes more than a book about nature, but a kind of free-form prose poem itself.

On Walnut Tree Farm nature is more than just a subject; it seems to be the medium through which Deakin understands literature.


Henning Mankell – The Troubled Man

I’ve been a fan of this series for years, but Henning Mankell’s Wallander had long ago worked on his last case – or at least, that’s what I thought. In The Troubled Man, Wallander steps out of retirement (figuratively, he’s not retired), in his first novel for ten years. Mankell had something left to say.

I like this idea. I like the fact that Mankell is busy doing plenty of other novels with a political twist, and doesn’t even particularly like Wallander, but there was more to say. That makes it a rather rare novel: something that clearly isn’t a cash-in yet, being the first for a few years, has a lot of catching up to do in terms of narrative.

This means Mankell is forced to reference a lot of the artificial world that he has built up over the years: past plots are mentioned; characters from Wallander’s past send postcards; one turns up for a final farewell. I’m conscious of these being artificial creations, as we’re taken down memory lane. The experience becomes a little meta, and it is an odd read, though not bad in any sense – merely odd.

Wallander, now nearly 60, is still miserable, and comically miserable things happen to him. Misery, misery, misery – I really have missed it. I even like the sketchiness of the narrative, which seems to suit the illness that awaits Wallander as he advances into old age. Images aren’t quite right, things aren’t described that strongly. There’s a memory mismatch. This is Swedish minimalism without a hint of Ikea sheen.

I’ve not even got to the plot yet and I’m not going to dwell on it: Wallander’s daughter, Linda, has recently given birth, which adds a rare charming dimension to matters. Linda’s new in-laws are the crux of the novel. Hakan von Enke, a retired submarine commander, goes missing; later, so does his wife . Wallander sifts through their secretive lives to identify what has happened to them whilst seemingly battling to recall and repair his own life.

Wallander shows us a different side to Sweden; this is a post-Cold War thriller that clearly suggests much about contemporary foreign affairs as well as a casual critique of fascist views. One of the things I’ve admired about Mankell is his ability to simply show things as they appear, rather than have Wallander pass political comment. This is all done through the lens of the Left, of course, but to the reader it is only a lens.

Once you get a few books into this series you realise it has always been about more than a simple police procedural, and this is even more apparent – perhaps most apparent – in The Troubled Man. It’s beautiful despite its many flaws, and it’s morose, but no more miserable than life really can be for many people. There’s a raw, depressing honesty about this novel.


Notes on The Fellowship of the Ring

So, my great The Lord of the Rings re-read stalls after The Fellowship of the Ring. This is due to the arrival of the new Wallander novel (the first in ten years), so everything must be dropped to get to it. You understand.

Anyway, like Tolkien needs another review. Instead, here are some thoughts on the ageing process (it’s a good six or seven years since I last read through it).

1. I don’t like to say it, but the language is, uh, not quite how I remembered. Not at all. Was it pedestrian even in its own time, I wonder? Compared to other books written in that period, it seems so. There is no great mythical language being evoked here. It just plods on.

2. Hobbits still seem pretty charming, naive fellows, and their ways even more bucolic. You can’t help but smile at them.

3. Strider is cooler than I remember; he has much more presence.

4. Samwise Gamgee seems a much stronger character.

5. The descriptions go on and on and on and on and on. Paragraphs of visual details – and not all of them that precise. Much of the description (stars especially) seem to repeat themselves.

6. The worldbuilding still knocks the socks of all modern fantasies. The background seems richer this time around. There are far more subtleties than a lot of fiction.

7. The films seem far darker than Tolkien presents this world in the novels. The Black Riders so far aren’t that scary this time around.

8. Tom Bombadil… Hmm… (to be fair, I felt the same the first time around).

9. The films dominated my reading experience, and you could even say removed some of the pleasure.

10. Class and status isn’t as much as an issue as I thought it would be.


Recent Reading

The first few CJ Sansom books I read were enjoyable, but frustrating at times. The character, Shardlake, Tudor lawyer and hunchback, was perhaps too delicate and, well, a bit wet for me to really enjoy following (especially after reading The Name of the Rose), yet I stuck with them for the intrigue and the rich historical detail and because I love a good bit of monk action (don’t ask).

Everything changed with Revelation – this was utterly compelling. I’m not one to even like the term ‘page-turner’, but this indeed was a very effective one. Personally, since I write, I find it hard to switch off the analysis; but this book made me forget all about that. I just enjoyed it.

It is a Tudor thriller that’s put together in a beautiful way; which is saying something for what is a novel that has some thoroughly dark and grotesque moments. The scene: Henry VIII is about to get is leg-over for the sixth time and a serial killer is set loose on the streets of London, a killer that is using the Book of Revelation as his guide for a set of truly brutal murders. Shardlake’s old friend is slaughtered right at the beginning, and Shardlake and his trusty sidekick are drawn into a sickening series of crimes. At first, nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps, but it’s the way it’s done.

I think why this works is because, oddly for a historical novel, the structure relies less upon history than its own internal mechanisms: the juxtaposition of inner turmoils and plot; the parallel examples of possible insanity; that this was something that could work well in any time period. All of these things with effective deceiving of the reader, a tricksy ending, and good in that it doesn’t opt for the easy way out. The fact that you learn a bit of history is a boon.

I’m certainly hooked.

Next up is actually a whisky book, Peat Smoke and Spirit, which might oddly enough be one of the most wonderfully written books I’ve read all year. Then I can get on to the books my editor sent me.


Best Of The Year

Here are a few things that I’ve particularly enjoyed this year. Click on each image to see what I said at the time, or a link to another review if I didn’t talk about it here. (P.S. A note to publishers: make it easy for people to acquire large high resolution images of your books so people can plug them – marketing isn’t rocket science.)


The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Before you go any further: spoilers.

You can file me safely in that category of people who wished things weren’t down to psychology, or eeriness. I’m one of those wishing the Big Horrible Creepy Thing turned out to be a Genuine Nasty Gribbly instead of human psychology / implied horrors – or then again, that could ruin the tension. Even the sort of weirdness you’d get in The House on the Borderland seems preferable in my mind, and generates a real fear. I found myself trying to explore why this might be, but I didn’t find a satisfactory answer.

Though, back to this novel: I love the mood, the suspense, the human interaction, the general teasing and cleverness of Shirley Jackson’s writing in The Haunting of Hill House. Over to wiki for the plot summary, kids:

Hill House is an eighty year-old mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain. The story concerns four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural; two young women, Eleanor, who is shy, resents having lived as a recluse who cared dutifully for her demanding invalid mother for years, and Theodora; and a young man, Luke, the heir to Hill House, who is host to the others.

Things happen. Lots goes bump in the night. The events are given the ‘scientific’ treatment, in order to give the reader buy-in that this is ZOMG really happening. Jackson certainly has a deft way with characters, a soft and subtle touch, which is something to be admired. She creates a wonderfully evocative mood here, building up the layers of anticipation and dread. The gothic manor house – Hill House – is described wonderfully, in all its multi-dimensional glory, with a good deal of foreshadowing – and perhaps my problem was that it felt almost too calculated a description at times, something very much by the recipe book. I liked the fading away of Eleanor, her gradual disconnection from the group and her eventual madness, but sometimes you just want a weird monster to come along and sort things out.

So it’s a classic haunted house tale as an analysis of a young girl going steadily mad. I wasn’t hugely impressed, but then again I wasn’t disappointed either.


“Dracula” by Bram Stoker

I read this many years ago, so long ago that perhaps I was too young to fully appreciate the psychological nuances of the text. And since today is also Bram Stoker’s birthday, a solid review seems an appropriate way to celebrate it.

Oh yeah: spoilers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, is comprised mainly of diary entries and the odd newspaper report. It’s a fantastic structure for this piece of gothic horror, mainly because it allows Stoker to so perfectly show the reader varying points of view and more information than each of the individual characters can possibly know, as well as giving it a grounding in reality. It also generates incredible tension throughout the novel.

Dracula begins with perhaps the most famous and most regurgitated section of the novel (particularly in movie form): the diary of Jonathan Harker, a solicitor, who travels to Transylvania to meet up with Count Dracula in order to arrange real estate affairs back in England. Very soon, Dracula goes from gracious host to imprisoning Harker in his castle, and, through Harker’s observation and perseverance, we begin to see the night-time habits of Dracula, Harker’s intoxication with three female vampires and his eventual demise into some temporary mental illness.

This section of the novel is much smaller than one might think, given the more recent interpretations; and then the narrative skips to Whitby, a moody seaside town on the north east coast of England where, having worked his way through the crew of a ship, Dracula bounds onto English soil in the form of a black dog (which probably explains why the town is the location for a huge goth festival).The accompanying cargo contains boxes of earth from Transylvania, upon which the count intends to rely for sanctuary (and which later become targets for his demise).

Dracula is hunting down Harker’s fiancĂ©e, Mina Murray, and the 19-year-old Lucy Westenra, a friend with whom Mina corresponds (their letters taking up some of the narrative). We now are presented with Dr. John Seward, Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming, and to whom Lucy becomes enganged); much of the novel is made up of these individuals’ journal entries, letters, telegrams and so forth, and this medium provides simple descriptions of events and feelings at their rawest.

In Whitby, Dracula (being able to flap through the open window in the form of a bat) manages to bite Lucy, and she then commences her strange transformation (the reader does not yet know what to expect). It’s a slow, painful, emotional, horrendous process, whereupon Seward sends for Professor Abraham Van Helsing, to help study Lucy’s condition. Lord Godalming and the other men watch Lucy’s disintegration (she is young, beautiful, and about to be wed, and it becomes clear what an utter waste her life would be). Van Helsing, upon arrival, soon notices what the problem is: he places garlic flowers around her neck, seals the windows, states no one must enter, and commences with blood transfusions in order to keep her alive, at first using Arthur’s blood, then that of the other men – so they are quite literally giving part of themselves in order to keep her alive (it should also be mentioned that the two other men were also infatuated with her). Eventually, they fail, and Lucy dies.

What’s also interesting at this stage is that Dr. John Seward, who is in charge of an asylum, has a particularly fascinating patient, who tries to eat flies, spiders, cats, and other creatures; a wonderful mirror of Dracula’s own intentions, which also provides a spooky and useful analysis of the predatory nature of the count. There is some morbid curiousity at this fine line between sanity and madness; also, the nature of the patient being studied suggest that what Dracula is doing is very scientific. Given the Victorian age and the frontiers of science and rationality, I would think that it lent much sensibility and “truth” to the actions and biological effects of the count. And yet, as Stoker suggests in Chapter 14:

But there are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes, because they know, or think they know, some things which other men have told them. Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.

Once we have enough of the occurences given reason, the reader can have faith that there is truth in the Dracula myth.

Stoker then shows us newspaper reports of “the bloofer lady” (from what I can gather, this is a corruption/common slang for “beautiful lady”), taking children from the streets of London. The bloofer lady turns out to be Lucy, who is rising from her tomb at night to prey upon them. Van Helsing recognises what is going on and shows her actions to the rest of the aforementioned characters (who are now deeply connected to stopping the count).

[Van Helsing] looked up at me, and evidently saw the change in my face, for he said almost joyously, “Ah, you believe now?”

I answered, “Do not press me too hard all at once. I am willing to accept. How will you do this bloody work?”

“I shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body.”

It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. And yet the feeling was not so strong as I had expected. I was, in fact, beginning to shudder at the presence of this being, this UnDead, as Van Helsing called it, and to loathe it. Is it possible that love is all subjective, or all objective?

What follows (and indeed for much of the novel) is a tense chase across the country, from London to Exeter, and eventually back to Transylvania, in order to seek and destroy Count Dracula. We never really see the count for much of the narrative; like all great, psychological horror, the monster remains unseen. We learn about his actions and impact through reports and through Van Helsing’s discussions. His myth is reconstructed through their fears. Towards the final scenes, the sense of sheer desperation and of self-sacrifice is immense and weighty, and the last act (not at the hand of Van Helsing) comes as a relief.

In Dracula there are no ninja kicks, swooning teenage girls, sparkling vampires, cool catchphrases, emos or yearnings to be bitten by a vampire. Dracula is a cruel, sadistic monster, with no redeeming values other than a little charm. He generates an almighty fear, deep paranoia, and psychological breakdown in his victims, preying upon them with a relentless energy. Vampires, here, are nothing cuddly, nothing cool, nothing to fantasise about; yet they are not mindless, zombie-like fodder. As Van Helsing explains, in accented English:

[Dracula] is only stronger, and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil. This vampire which is amongst us is of himself so strong in person as twenty men, he is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages, he have still the aids of necromancy, which is, as his etymology imply, the divination by the dead, and all the dead that he can come nigh to are for him at command; he is brute, and more than brute; he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not; he can, within his range, direct the elements, the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things, the rat, and the owl, and the bat, the moth, and the fox, and the wolf, he can grow and become small; and he can at times vanish and come unknown. How then are we to begin our strike to destroy him?

This is a novel that contemplates human biology and psychology; love and loss; the line between life and death and considers disturbing questions with emotional honesty. In fact, I mention love and that is quite a contrast to most other vampire fictions (in whatever media) that I have experienced: Stoker seems more concerned with love rather than sex – no, love against the erotic, perhaps symptomatic of the sensibilities of the era, though perhaps something more.

Dracula is everything that the modern depiction of vampires is not.

This is precisely why it should be read.


Recent Reading

I’ve not read much this year, it seems. My writing (and associated activities) takes up a huge amount of mindspace, and so reading fiction has been affected (non-fiction is on the rise, however). That said, I recently enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. This was largely a wonderful book – charming, with powerful descriptions, vivid characters and lively dialogue. I loved the hopelessly restrained and British eloquence when it came to the central romance, but the general novel itself seemed strangely empty compared to the only other Mitchell book I’ve read, number9dream. It lacks urgency (particularly about halfway through), but makes up for it in exploring the backdrop and historical detail, which was perhaps a little infodumpy and so obviously researched (such is the clichĂ© of this genre). Mitchell is at his best when he’s trying more ambitious novel structures, but that’s not to say this novel itself lacked ambition. It’s just that, all in all, it was an entertaining and simple love story, and I can see the intellectually wishy-washy book clubs of Middle England being all over this like a rash.

I blitzed through Captive State, by George Monbiot. This has been on the to-read pile for the better part of a decade (though I’ve been a regular reader of Monbiot’s articles for years) and perhaps this taught me a lesson, since much of the detail and relevance was a little out-of-date. However, it is a meticulous and honest account of the most dishonest parts of the New Labour era – notably, how they sold the country (and state assets) to corporations, and was particularly critical of Private Finance Initiatives. What’s wrong with this? Well, for one, companies with shareholders, by law, must maximise value, which often – nearly always – comes at the expense of providing good services for the public; and ultimately they cost the tax-payer more in the medium to long term. (Just check out some of Monbiot’s online articles on the subject of PFIs.) The most amusing and frightening part of the book was the list of various corporate CEOs who were involved with or held positions in government departments, displaying a conflict of interest that would make you laugh out loud (and then perhaps cry at the injustice of it all). Covering subjects from universities to Private Finance Initiatives to GM crops, it’s a scathing criticism of Tony Blair’s era in government – I honestly don’t think anyone who has read this book (which provides constant evidence and references) could ever take what New Labour achieved seriously.

With this in mind, I dread to think what the Tories are up to…


Climbers by M. John Harrison

Not a review, this – just some impressions. First I’ll be upfront: I’m a big fan of Harrison’s work. Nearly everything that he’s written is of superior quality. His descriptive power is second-to-none, and he can distinguish any environment with remarkable power. This is especially noticeable in Climbers, his non-SFF novel.

It’s the story of Mike, his recovery from a failed marriage, and his integration into the rock climbing community over the Yorkshire Moors. The culture of climbing, and the people involved, are discussed at great length – observing their experiences at the rock-face and in cafes and pubs. The story is presented as various reminiscences for the most part, so don’t read this expecting a simple plotted narrative. Like memory, it jumps around. These collections of images and stories build a picture of what is, ultimately, an obsession with climbing, the perfect climb, and how everything else in life seems to fade away amidst this lifelong yearning. I personally didn’t feel these collections provided the emergent properties of Light; which is to say that the collections remained mere observations, and you drew the weight of emotions from them yourself (this is perhaps a technique gleaned from Katherine Mansfield, of whom Harrison is a noted fan). The book was beautiful, that’s for sure. The depiction of the landscape is so accurate and vivid, and the prose… well it’s Harrison on perfect form.

What I find especially fascinating is observing how Harrison approaches his non-SFF novel. Much of the same level of alienation seems present; as does his way of making the texture everyday life seem utterly bizarre. Some of the rock formations which the characters tackled might well have been on another planet. I’d love to see him handle urban environments in a similar way – it would no doubt be up there with Iain Sinclair and J.G. Ballard.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder: how would other genre writers cope with writing mainstream fiction? Would the themes and nuances be the same? Do we rely too much on worldbuilding and wow-factor to carry us through? (Perhaps this is projecting my own concerns.)


Confessions Of An Eco Sinner (Not Quite A Review)

The neoliberal culture has led to our complete disconnection from the food we eat, or the clothes we wear. We merely consume, never thinking of where our goods come from, only that they’re in our hands.

With this in mind, Fred Pearce wanted to explore the paths of everyday items, the totems of every day life, from the gold in his wedding ring, to green beans, to our furniture, to the cotton from which his socks are made.

Without agenda, each territory is explored with gentle facts: a pint of mass market lager requires some 24,000 beer miles – transport of crops etc – whereas a pint of local ale requires 600 beer miles at best; Mauritania only abolished slavery in 1981, though it persisted much later than that; Britain is the second largest importer of illegal timber; an explanation of how the EU buys the rights of tropical fish stocks so that they may be strip-mined to the point of no return.

Around this, the harsh detail is built. He follows the ridiculous journey that, for example, our t-shirts take; from cotton farms in Uzbekistan, uncovering the appalling human rights abuses and child and/or slave labour and environmental destruction.

If I can put this simply, our obsession (yes, my obsession too) with ever cheaper jeans is not just helping to sustain the dreadful conditions in Bangladeshi sweatshops, it is also helping enslave the Uzbeks, desecrate their land and finish the emptying of the Aral sea.

Accounts of environmental degradation are dealt with in a very accessible way. Carbon footprints are mentioned here and there; it is shown how intense agriculture destroys the very land on which people depend; how the loss of mangroves creates coastal instability. But the focus is mostly on the people behind our products. Pearce shows the conditions in which people work to bring us our food and clothing (there are some horrendous factories, and where labour laws are poor and unions are weak, it’s barely above the level of slavery). Pearce explores the influence of business and governments in undermining the quality of life of individuals. All of this is done in a conversational style, a gentle “You know, I just wanted to find out where so-and-so came from, and this is what I saw.” It’s not preachy, it’s just a bunch of deeply sad, but occasionally uplifting observations.

The absence of any solutions is rather telling, perhaps, but there are some positive things we can do: yes, generally speaking it’s better to buy organic. Organic Indian cotton farmers are actually more profitable because they’re spending less on pesticides, plus their soil is of a significantly better quality, which means they need to use less water and put less of a strain on resources. Yes, buying Fairtrade products (when not done via major supermarket brands) provides a significantly better quality of life: better prices, more community projects, children with a hope of a future – there is no spin, it does what it’s meant to. Buying local is also a boon – the mileage some of our food takes from field to dinner plate is spectacular. I would like to have seen a more thorough investigation into the politics – how, for example, US and European agriculture subsidies undercut the poorest farmers in developing nations so that they are forced to buy from abroad and become dependent upon them. But perhaps that wouldn’t have sat well with the tone of simple observation.

The most telling thing about this book is that it has prompted me to review how I actually consume items. It’s made me think about where my food and clothes come from. The thing is, if more consumers changed their buying habits, if more consumers questioned companies on where their products were sourced and what they were doing to help promote a fairer existence for workers, then people’s lives in far corners of the world would improve. But that’s unlikely to happen, because as we wonder around the aisles of supermarkets, we do not look these workers in the eye, and we remain unmotivated to change our ways. The neoliberal culture lacks the human touch.

When the bottom line is profit (cheaper prices that customers demand), in the global economy, people lose out massively. It’s often mooted in defence that when we buy crops from foreign farmers, we’re helping them out with an income, and there certainly is some truth in that; but when a surge in our demand for, say, green beans forces women to work illegally long hours and travel home across a dangerous country on their own at night… well, you get the picture. These are the things the balance sheets neglect to observe. People we will never meet are worked to their limits in order to satisfy the whims of our bellies.

I urge everyone to read this book.

Fred Pearce’s remarkable Confessions of an Eco Sinner is published by Eden Project Books.