Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I found this book too upsetting to enjoy, I’ll say that straight away. It’s well-written, and full of fascinating dialect words, but there comes a particularly brutal point in the story, and I couldn’t go on. I kind of skim-read, fast-forwarded through the rest, which I feel bad about, but that was all I could do. The difference is, if I thought it was a bad book (The Night Circus, The Goldfinch), I’d have just set it aside.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

Harrowing is the word.

It’s written stream-of-consciousness style, and uses only minimal punctuation. This is not a book which one would use to demonstrate the correct use of punctuation for speech or paragraphing. Which is not to say that I think there is really any such thing as correct, but as a man who spends his working life trying to get young people to write with clarity, I do tend to favour tradition.

I’ll not be the first person to observe that this reminded me of Alan Garner’s Red Shift, which is a book I read following a Backlisted podcast episode.

Garner tells his story across three times, using mostly mimesis (dialogue) and very little diegesis (narrative). His setting is very similar: up there on the borders, where the Roman empire once hit a wall, and where there is mithering and clarting and thrutches and bannocks. And Garner’s book, too, contains horrific and harrowing brutality directed towards young women, which leaves you wondering who is this for?

So, Ghost Wall: Northumberland, iron age, archaeology, sunburn, students and professors, fathers and daughters. The female characters are better drawn than most of the men; the male students are barely there. But it’s good, but it’s harrowing. And if you don’t like being harrowed, clart yourself and stop mithering.

Podcastination Nation

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Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.

I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pension exactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.

Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.

Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)

I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.

Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.

There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.

Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.

One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.

Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

cloudbound_comp1-1Cloudbound is the sequel to last year’s well-regarded Updraft, a YA fantasy novel that I liked a lot, and which was shortlisted for a number of awards, winning a couple. What I liked about Updraft was its world-building and its pacy style. I always felt as if the author knew much more about this world than she was telling us, and it was fun to work it all out. Unfortunately, all of these elements are missing from the sequel, Cloudbound, which lumbers along in a meandering and repetitive way, with a leaden narrator who is seems wilfully obtuse. The overall effect is as inspiring as reading something like the minutes of a staff meeting at the council housing department.

Updraft was narrated by Kirit – the ambitious daughter of a trader, who is taken by the Singers (monk-like enforcers of the City’s many rules) and initiated into the secrets of their society. She’s lively, curious, rebellious and fun to read. Cloudbound, on the other hand, is narrated by her far less interesting friend, Nat. Now, Nat seems to continually get the wrong end of the stick about everything, trusts everyone he shouldn’t, and needs to constantly stop and remind us about what just happened, what he wants to happen, and why we’re all here in the first place. It says something about Nat as a character that my heart immediately sank when I opened the book and started reading, realising that his was the narrative viewpoint.

The vividly described bone City of Updraft is now sketchy and vague, with unclear geography, and our characters seem to spend an awful lot of time tumbling around, out of control, plummeting towards and into the clouds. Which would be fine—except that in Updraft, dipping below the clouds was certain death, but now is suddenly apparently perfectly safe. Down and down and down they go.

Nat supposedly has loved ones – a wife or partner who is pregnant, apparently – but they’re never around for long, and Nat doesn’t seem to have much passion for his lover or concern for his unborn child. It’s very strange, as if written in short bursts but never actually read through to see if it hangs together.

The plot seems wafer thin, padded out by lots of repetition and by lots of half-baked plans which go wrong immediately. Make your hero suffer, right? Except I cannot root for any so-called hero who is both indecisive and inept— so much so, that he can’t come up with a workable plan, even when surrounded by otherwise competent friends. Down and down they go.

And then you get close to the end, and you realise that there is going to be no final act in which our heroes finally get it together and defeat their enemies. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops, almost mid-sentence, and with dismay you understand that you’re holding in your hands the problematic middle child of a trilogy. Which, obviously, I’m not going to be reading to completion. You end up feeling like you’ve been sitting in a bath that’s slowly emptying. And then it’s over and your skin is cold and you forgot to bring a towel.

If you read Updraft and enjoyed it, I’d stick with that, and not let the experience get sullied by this lukewarm sequel.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

1260745459712720788Obviously, I knew about this book a while ago, but like any normal human, I was offput by its extreme length. At 850+ pages, this is not for the faint hearted.

Another slightly offputting thing was the idea that this novel included a depiction of humanity approximately 5000 years from now. I’ve read enough science fiction to be wary of that kind of thing. You know, the posthuman, post singularity stuff, featuring gene spliced beings with elaborate, stratified social mores and technology indistinguishable from magic. The kind of thing that was visible in that movie Jupiter Rising. I don’t object to that kind of thing per se, but I do sometimes get impatient with all the made up words and the exhausting process of detective work, trying to ascertain what’s going on.
But then a colleague lent me Seveneves, so I started to read it and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the question of style. It’s written in perfectly clear, plain English, and though it does feature extended discussions of orbital mechanics, it does so in a way that makes you, the arts/humanities student, feel like you understand it.
Secondly, my colleague said that the only (major!) problem was that the plot doesn’t start to happen until the final third of the 850 pages. This is true in the sense that it could in fact have been published as the final third, with the reader left to fill in the complicated back story, in that aforementioned offputting way. You could also, effectively, publish the first two thirds as an Appendix to the final third, for those who want to fill in the ins and outs after reading the main story. But I think that would be to do Seveneves a disservice.

Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

The premise is that something destroys the Moon, which in turn has catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Within two years, some means of surviving off-planet has to be improvised. That’s the exciting first third of the book: exactly what could we do, right now, with the technology and resources we have. I found this section readable and fascinating, and so far from what I expected that I began to feel undaunted by its length.
The next section details the what now? moment, at which point the surviving humans have to decide how to survive and even thrive. Inevitably, they are riven by conflict and disaster. A small group wants to go to Mars. Others want to go into a higher orbit to avoid Moon fragments. A third groups want less of an eggs in one basket solution. The catastrophic end result is that, five years in, just eight people survive, all women, only seven of them able to bear children.
So ends the second third of the novel, with the Seven Eves deciding what to do next.
The final third takes place 5000 years later. There is a thriving, if not united, civilisation in space, and the sterilised Earth has been reseeded with life. There are seven races of humans, with some hybridisation, but in the main we’re supposed to believe that there are seven distinct personality types. Frankly, this is all a bit handwavy, and it is slightly more complex than my description.
The main plot of this last third concerns the discovery of a group of humans who survived by building a space-type habitat under a mountain. But the real reason for reading is to learn about the nuts and bolts of this far-future society.
And here’s the thing. On a human scale, 5000 years is a long time. I think the Great Pyramid was built around 4500 years ago. What the last third of this novel tries to do is summarise the whole story of a civilisation and provide a narrative plot. In narratology terms, this is fascinating. But it doesn’t quite work because as much book as this is, it ends up being not quite enough. You kind of need less of the first two years and more of the end bit. And yet, the setup matters, because that’s where we meet the Seven, and come to understand them as characters.
That this is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, I’ve no doubt. It’s though provoking, educational and fascinating. But it’s a flawed masterpiece that probably needed another 200 pages.

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 21.32.28I’m not big on watching modern documentaries. I always make an exception for the music ones, but I won’t give time to the mainstream popular history or nature documentaries, simply because I cannot bear the padding of the content with the recaps and the previewing of information. Journalist Robert Hutton tweeted a brilliant parody of this structure a while ago:

 

Which is all by way of saying that I haven’t watched any of Mary Beard’s history docs on the telly, but I do have an abiding interest in the history of Rome, so when I saw this book on an Amazon Lightning Deal, I snapped up a hardback copy for a tenner.

Origin of this interest? Not sure. Almost certainly related to reading Rosemary Sutcliffe when younger, but also because I did (I actually did!) Latin at ‘O’ Level, which involved the study of the Cambridge Classics (Caecilius in Pompeii, just like in Doctor Who), the Aeneid, and Pliny’s letters.

I had Michael Grant’s The History of Rome on my shelf for years, but found it very dry and unengaging. As a popular historian, Mary Beard’s style is far more accessible, and the footnotes are deliberately in the format where you don’t even know there are footnotes unless you look in the back.

Beard’s tone is skeptical throughout: skeptical of founding myths, of anything written about the early and fabled Roman Republic by self-serving politicians from later eras who are always scoring points. She does her best, in fact, to produce a history of Rome that doesn’t focus on emperors and conquest but tries to concern herself with everyday life for ordinary people: hence her enduring interest in inscriptions, graffiti, and the contents of ancient rubbish dumps. What did they eat? How long did they live? How did they earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage was the condition of slavery?

Many of us were raised on the idea that history is about Emperors, Kings, and occasional Queens. This is the version of history that Gove and co. wanted to force back into the curriculum. Dates and battles, and Great Men. This is a far cry from the liberal days of the late 70s, when my own History ‘O’ Level included study of the Chinese revolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Beard refutes the conservative view. She laughs at the notion that anything much before what we now call Common Era can be dated. She gives us some detail on the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, then more detail on the first of the emperors, Augustus (who really seems like a completely different person once he changes his name – I could well believe a version of this story that argues that the person called Octavian/Augustus was actually two different people), but then goes on to argue that for the next 180 years, under various dynasties, life for ordinary romans was pretty much the same, whoever was in charge. It seems to have been a fairly stable period, when most of the monumental building work was completed. And after that, things become less stable and the Empire fragments, and even the monuments are remixes of previous work.

(Isn’t that always the way? You know, how rock music was invented in the 1950-1979 era, and then everything afterwards was a remix, a mashup, a sample, or a simulacrum of the origin music.)

Beard’s approach will be frustrating for anyone who dives in looking for a narrative, Grand or otherwise. The surviving materials are both too fragmented and too often self-serving for any one narrative thread to hold for long. Which suits me. Narratives are weapons, after all, and we live surrounded by political and media narratives that support and prolong preposterous levels of inequality. Why, it’s almost as if we, the voiceless ordinary people, are ruled by a super-rich class with no visible means of support (other than plunder and exploitation), who surround us with the evidence of their greatness while leaving us to live hand-to-mouth. What do we eat? How long do we live? How do we earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage is the condition of zero hours contract?

Yes, the parallels are there, and so is the hope. The Emperors lost their influence, the centre couldn’t hold, the old Empire crumbled away. Looking back, that 180-year period of stability, the period of Augustus and Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian and the rest, was a brief interlude, and maybe our own epoch of vast inequality will also be a brief interlude. One day historians will look at the ruins of London’s glass towers and wonder how ordinary people lived.

One note on my copy: I obviously got one from the first print run. The imposition of the pages was a bit off (page margins varied a lot, rather than being uniform), and there were a couple of typos, one involving text going missing from the main body and apparently being incorporated into a picture caption (or it was already repeated there). Anyway, I tweeted this with a mention of the author herself, and she was kind enough to reply and offer to arrange for a replacement to be sent. I declined the offer. I prefer to own one of the first print run.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice was a tour de force, a book that shifted your perceptions and blew the genre/gender cobwebs from your mind. It had 517FZqyUbGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_multiple points of view (that were all, ultimately, the same point of view) and it had multiple time-lines. And its narrator/s called everybody she, even if they were male, causing you to picture every character as a woman, even the men.

The first sequel, Ancillary Sword was a continuation of the story, but in a different way that disappointed some readers. Gone was the widescreen, galaxy-spanning, time-shifting space opera narrative in favour of a small, contained (confined, even) story of local government and politics in a single, temporarily isolated system with one planet and one space station. Another tour de force, in a way, like an unexpected reboot. Many of the same characters were involved, but this was a completely different sub-genre within the genre of contemporary SF. Throw in an alien ‘translator’ who appeared to be human but was anything but, and you have the makings of a slow-motion diplomatic train crash that will have repercussions for all and leave you impatiently anticipating the conclusion.

Which brings us to Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the sequence, which is best understood as a little bit from box A and a little bit from box B. Here, both the local politics and the galactic empire civil war come to a head, with a fish sauce guzzling alien wild card. The narrator still calls everybody she, and you, the reader, still read every character as a woman. Ann Leckie doesn’t remind you who is actually male. If you want to read the first novel over again and be reminded, here and there, of which character presents as anatomically male, you can. But I didn’t, because who cares. I still think the female pronoun thing is a stroke of genius, something that makes me want to trumpet this trilogy from the rooftops for all to read. The simple power of the overlooked pronoun is a shotgun blast to the face of people who think that language choice doesn’t matter.

The story comes to a somewhat satisfying conclusion. You can see how the future is going to go. What I particularly love/hate about this trilogy is that each volume isn’t 1000 pages. The trilogy itself doesn’t even add up to 1000 pages. Instead of the weight and heft of A Song of Ice and Fire or any number of other genre series, the Ancillary trilogy comes in light. Comes in light but shines very bright: it has more ideas and more food for thought than just about anything I’ve read in recent times. If Sword felt like something lesser after the triumph of Justice, Mercy takes you back to the feeling you got reading the first. Being on the short side (or of average length, in other genres), the trilogy is more accessible for the casual reader. But when you get to the end, when you read the final 75 pages or so in one sitting, with your late night self screwing the next day for your morning self, when you do that, you immediately regret it. The following day you feel a deep sense of loss because you no longer have Ancillary Mercy to read.

(Annoyingly, my copies of the first two in the series are digital, dating from before my decision to abandon screen reading and go back to books, so if I want to read this again I have to suffer the indignity of reading off my iPhone screen. Like an animal.)