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.

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

French Blood – my novel, now on Kindle

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 09.31.07French Blood was inspired by some of the research my wife did when she was looking into her family tree a few years ago. We did a lot of work hunting and scanning old photographs, visiting cemeteries, and listening to stories from the olds. There were a few interesting details, and a few secrets that struck me as intriguing.

Then last summer, and for a few holidays before that, we stayed for six weeks in the old family farm house, and did quite a lot of work in and around it. We hunted through the junk in the cupboards, moved furniture, opened boxes… Outside the house, we tidied up a lot, and moved the legendary cantilevered log-pile from the front of the house to the old chicken shed.

In real life, it was mere drudgery, but in my imagination, it became  more: what if there was something buried at the base of the woodpile? We did in fact find field canteens, bullets, shells, and all kinds of detritus from the two world wars. We did also find a 1917 American rifle under one of the beds upstairs.

So when I sat down to do National Novel Writing Month in November 2013, this was all on my mind.

When Pete Fraser’s estranged sister dies and leaves him a house in France, he takes the opportunity to leave his problems behind and start a new life. He finds a 200 year-old property full of the junk of generations—and family secrets dating back to the Second World War.
What looks like history soon becomes something more urgent when the bodies start appearing and Pete starts seeing connections that nobody has made before…

For the 2013 NaNoWriMo experience, I encouraged my A Level Creative Writing students to participate, and I think this helped me to (a) finish and (b) encouraged me to work on the rewrites.

When you’re on the NaNoWriMo, you’re obsessed with word count: getting to 50,000. As you rewrite, you add details. Someone on Twitter likened this process to being the second unit director on a movie: you capture the insert shots and cutaways, the fine detail. After a couple of drafts, you have to become ruthless in the editing suite. I actually cut out three whole chapters. The resulting novel is a 250-pager, which is the noveling equivalent of the 35–40 minute vinyl album.

Thanks to my sister for checking one of the drafts for typos. I hope I haven’t added too many since then.

French Blood is available for Kindle now, and will shortly be available in paperback. Purchasers of the paperback will be able to download the Kindle version free of charge.

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