Force of Nature, Jane Harper

I listened to The Dry on audio last year, and loved it for the characters, the sense of place and the finely drawn claustrophobia of going back to a small town where everyone knows you. Aaron Falk was a great character, so I grabbed a copy of The Force of Nature as soon as I saw it in the bookshop. I read it in an evening and I almost wish I’d gotten it on audio as well so I’d enjoyed it in a more leisurely way. On the other hand, give it a while and I can get the audio anyway. Not that I’ll forget the story but audio is a different experience so it doesn’t always matter.

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A Force of Nature kicks off with a woman going missing. Alice Russell disappeared on a hike with others from her company when they were all on some ghastly team building weekend. What gets Aaron Falk involved is that Alice was a whistleblower for her company, BaileyTennants, who seem to be heavily involved in all sorts of financial irregularities. Without Alice’s information, the trail goes cold, so Aaron and his partner, Carmen, have a vested interest in finding out what happened. Plus, Aaron has a frustratingly incomplete message on his phone from Alice, that must have been made not long before she died.

The story switches between two narratives, day by day of the investigation into Alice’s disappearance, as well as day by day of what actually happened on the hike. There’s also a sub-narrative, because the area the team is hiking in is notorious for some murders that happened 20 years back. The last body was never found, so the fact of another woman going missing is enough to raise old fears.

None of the women on the hike is particularly likeable, and for all that the point of the exercise is team building, no one is really trying. They’ve been dumped together for a variety of different reason: Bree is considered to have potential so she’s building her career, whereas her twin sister Beth is at the ground floor at the same company. Alice herself has been accused of bullying, Lauren has been underperforming. Jill is one of the owners of the business, along because it’s the right thing to do. It’s exactly the sort of ‘resilience building’ bullshit you can see a corporate pulling on its staff.

The schisms reveal themselves pretty quickly. Bree, who has been stuck with the navigating, gets them lost early in day 2, and the fragile relationships start to break down almost immediately. The woman are out of food and water, both of which they’d have picked up at their campsite for the night if they’d made it. They lose the stove they’d need to cook with when it falls in a river. Alice impatiently takes over navigating, insisting that they’re heading west, west, west, until Beth points out that the sun is setting in completely different direction. The squabbles aren’t serious, but for a bunch of women who don’t like each other anyway, it doesn’t take much for it to escalate to physical violence. And it is a serious situation, as they’re off the trail in a vast territory where they stand a real risk of not being found.

Did Alice head off on her own and get lost? Or did one of them kill her? Any of them could have done so and it would have been pretty understandable. Meanwhile, Aaron and Carmen are interviewing the four women who did finally make it back from the hike, and figuring out where the stories fall apart…

There was such a lot going on in this novel, that the mystery isn’t anything like the whole of it. All the relationships are complicated, with a level of toxicity to them. Bree and Beth, despite being twins, have some real negative history that affects their behaviour. Lauren and Alice also know each other from schooldays, while Alice’s daughter has been dating Jill’s son. What ultimately happens in the bush is the result of a whole lot of bitterness, anger, resentment, fear and love. This is the same trick that Harper pulled off in The Dry and it’s what makes the novel so gripping, and ultimately, tragic.

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New Year reading

There are two main things that are driving my reading at the moment. The first, the positive, is that I’ve started a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and glory be, it gives me access to a bit of an academic library. The course is at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, and the library has only a small classics section. Still, I will happily take the academic crumbs that come my way, so I scooped up some basics and have The Cambridge Companion to Ovid to play with.

It’s only a 10-week course and we aren’t reading all of Metamorphoses, so the tutor has given out a reading plan that allots us a section or two each week. It’s about 20pp maximum, so I’ve put together my own supplementary reading list to complement the selections from Met. 

  • Euripides’ Medea
  • Mr Heracles – Simon Armitage
  • The Odyssey – transl. Emily Wilson
  • The Aeneid – transl. Robert Fagles
  • Euripides’ Ajax
  • Lavinia – Ursula LeGuin

I’m really liking the look of that mix of original text and reception. I’ve got Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid  and Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey as well, so I may throw them into the mix too, if I have time.

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The painting is Apollo and Daphne, by Antonio del Pollaiolo. In one of many rape or attempted rape scenes in Met., Apollo chases the nymph, Daphne. She prays for help to escape him and is turned into a laurel tree. Apollo promptly declares that the laurel will be his symbol, because even though the woman is turning herself into a tree to avoid him, he still can’t bloody well take no for an answer. Plus ca change, and all that.

The second driver is that I’m in that state of mind where it’s an effort to get myself to work every single day. I’m very actively job hunting and let’s hope something comes up soon. Anyway, audiobooks to the rescue: instead of getting in the car to drive to work, I get in to listen to the next instalment of my audiobook. It’s a small mental trick, but it works. I don’t have the same anxiety when I’m working from home – don’t know why it’s all so much more focused around the physical location when it’s the job itself that is the problem, but hey. More crumbs of comfort.

I’ve been chain listening to Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the University of North Norfolk, and DCI Harry Nelson is the local copper. Ruth helps him out on cases sometimes, and they also had a very brief affair that resulted in Ruth having a daughter, Kate. While Nelson will never leave his wife, Michelle, he loves Kate and has very mixed feelings for Ruth. How all three of the adults navigate this scenario makes an interesting backstory to the murders or mysteries of the individual volumes.

I’d read a few of them but it’s one of those series where the next book is never on the shelf in a bookstore when I go in. (Unlike Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, when the next book is nearly always there. Spooky.) The individual books just about last me a week on audio, but I’ve now spent so many hours listening that I’m addicted. Plus, I find myself getting a bit confused as to whether Ruth and Nelson are real, and thinking back on things they’ve said and done before remembering that in fact, I don’t know them.

I’m also starting to really want to visit Norfolk again. Ruth’s cottage is set on the edge of the salt marshes, which sounds like a wonderful, liminal landscape. I can’t shake the longing for a blustery, sea-salty walk amid lots of sea and sky. What I’m really craving is mental space, of course, but I always think that a geographical open space will clear my head as well. Sometimes it does.

Interview don’ts for women

I’ve been reading/seeing/hearing a lot of information about how women unconsciously undermine themselves at work recently, and I see some of it in practice too. Partly because I’m job hunting and partly because I’ve reviewed a couple of CVs for friends lately, I started thinking back to the last interview I had. It was for an internal role that I did not get, and at the time I was fine with that. I knew I didn’t have much experience, the role would have been a step up for me, and I was looking forward to working with someone new that I could learn from.

Scroll forward a few month and now I’m witnessing the entirely mediocre performance of the person who did get the job, and I’m feeling the burn. It goes along the lines of ‘How did I lose out to that?’ and all I can think is that they talked a great game and I did not. So I offer this up in case anyone can learn from my mistakes. I’m not saying that I’d have gotten the job if I’d take a different approach, but I do think I could have been a stronger contender. Instead, I downplayed my own abilities because I knew going in that I didn’t tick every box on the list.

  1. What I did: because it was an internal interview, I assumed an element of familiarity –  I figured that the interviewers would be aware of both my past career history and my history within the company. I thought that this conversation was part of an ongoing discussion about opportunities for development within the company. (I still think it should have been, but that’s a different story.) What I should have done: Put on my best game face and treated it as though it was an external interview.
  2. What I did:  downplayed my own management experience and talked about the fact that I still felt I needed to learn more formal managerial skills to help me have better conversations with a team. What I should have done: Talked up the fact that since joining the company, I had rounded out my considerable existing experience with the in house training available, although, of course, as a manager you never stop learning.
  3. What I did: let my awareness of what I didn’t know overwhelm what I did know. What I should have done: Focused on everything I did know about the business, my stakeholder reach, my industry knowledge. Unless a role demands a specific technical skill, then say ‘The rest is just common sense, isn’t it?’ Because mostly, that will be totally right. I have yet to have a job that at base, is any more complex than that.
  4. What I did: Fail to make the most of the interim role I was doing. In retrospect, I think I was almost apologetic about stepping up. What I should have done: Owned my own capability.
  5. What I did: Felt like I was getting a favour by even being at second interview and that maybe if I was lucky I’d be given the chance to develop into the role. What I should have done: Recognised that I had every right to be there, based on my existing professional competence and acted like it.

I did what I think a lot of women do – I focused on my weaknesses, and not my strengths. Because we don’t think we’re good enough, right? And that can become a self-fulfilling cycle because we’ve sabotaged ourselves.

So next time I interview, I have promised myself that I will go in saying ‘I am good enough.’ No apologies.

Adventures in exercise

The badge holders will be rolling their eyes at this point and saying ‘Here we go again.’ But no! This is not yet another post about how I hate exercise and have failed to keep running. This is the first post about something that seems to be working. I know, right? I’m as surprised as you are.

The backstory: injured shoulder, dodgy foot, lack of time, lots of travel/driving, total inertia. That was most of last year, and the weight crept on. I don’t know if anyone else noticed and I don’t care, because the point is I knew and it did my existing body dysmorphia no good at all.

A friend of mine who had a rough year had decided to become a coach for Beachbody.com and in desperation, I decided I needed a fitness intervention. I asked for her recommendation and she suggested the site. (I don’t love the name, because basically, way to get a beach body: take your body to the beach.) But setting that to one side,  I find myself a subscriber to said site, with a newly minted workout habit of five days out of seven. I think, but I’m not actually counting.  My friend is my coach, so she keeps me accountable, without giving me a hard time when I forget to dry my workout gear and opt for chips and wine instead.

I decided not to buy a load of kit before I knew if I’d stick to the plan, so I did the first 21 day programme using my trusty tins of Heinz as weights. At the end of 21 days, even without paying any attention to the accompanying food plan or replacing meals with protein shakes, I’d lost a few pounds and a muffin top. I think, but I don’t do before and after pictures, so this is based on how my clothes fit and how I feel.

The weird thing is, I don’t hate it. There’s a ton of stuff that is only half an hour, and although I am fabulous at making excuses for myself, I cannot excuse myself out of fitting in half an hour. Or 25 minutes. It is mostly HIT stuff, so it’s effective and it’s tough. I staggered through those workouts, I did the modified versions, I simply laughed at the number of pushups they expect. But I did some, and then I did more.

The fact that my clothes fit better is great; a few items that I’ve been overlooking for months are now back in rotation. But better than that, I’m sleeping more, have more energy, can stay up later and generally feel all round better. I know we all know the benefits of exercise. But it’s really easy for those benefits to look a long way away, while the sofa is very close at hand. It took me the best part of a year to get to the turning point where I knew I needed to close that gap.

So of course I kept going. Now I have weights, sliders, resistance bands and a new yoga mat… I still don’t like working out in the morning and there are plenty of days when I don’t want to at all. But I do, anyway, because, c’mon, half an hour. I allow myself to play what I think of as my joker card once a week, usually when I’ve somehow screwed up my evening schedule. There is no guilt, and I haven’t failed, because I’m taking it one day at at time and life happens.

I’m not saying ‘Hey everyone, Beachbody is awesome, you should totally subscribe!’ I am saying, if you’re thinking you’d like to do more exercise but it feels like a really hard thing to make happen, it doesn’t have to be. That’s all.

Let’s get this show on the road

First week back at work under my belt and I am not exaggerating to say that on the way home from my first day in the office, I stopped and bought half a case of wine. The next morning, the cats woke me up at 5am and I failed to get back to sleep for the next two hours because I was worrying about work. When I sat down to work at 8am, I immediately wanted to go back to sleep. There is a little knot of something hiding just behind my ribs, to which my response was not ‘Oh what’s that?’ but ‘Oh, it’s back.’

I thought that the way I felt at the end of last year was due to it being the end of a stressful year. I had a solid break at Christmas, I didn’t get ill, I barely left the house, I slept and read and relaxed and did a pretty good job of losing track of the days and living in the now. My main concern was ‘Is it too early to open Prosecco?’ (Of course not, it’s never too early to open Prosecco.)

So I just about have enough critical distance left to hold my symptoms up to the light and say ‘That’s work related anxiety, that is.’

And it can fuck off. I’m not having it. It infuriates me that my job, which is essentially a transactional relationship, can have such a negative effect on me. It feels very much like the oldest profession in the world: I get fucked over and then paid for it. You might say that I work in the corporate world so I asked for it. I couldn’t say you’d be wrong. The salary and the car allowance and the bonus package are what I get for continuing to participate in an abusive relationship.

But, the salary and the car allowance and the bonus package don’t cut it any more. Last year, alert to the fact that I’d be very lucky to match that deal even in London, I panicked and stayed put. This year? I’m older and less risk averse. So I’m thinking, suck up the pay cut.  Could I work part time? Could I get my own business of some kind off the ground? Can I build a portfolio career that keeps me afloat and lets me work from home most of the time? And if I try it, and fail…? Well, then, so be it.

So: I’m registered with recruitment agencies; I’m heading to a networking event in a couple of weeks; a friend has put me in touch with one of her friends about one of the ideas I had, and my sister has a contact for me too. It’s not coincidental that I’m tapping into a network of capable and competent women, because they are the people who immediately come up with the practical and actionable advice.

It could be a year of big change. It could be a year in which I fall hard, and retire to lick my wounds. But if I’m going to suffer anxiety anyway, then I’ll damn well inflict it on myself.

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10 years of musings

I only realised as I was re-ordering the ‘Books read’ pages that I’ve had the blog for 10 years.

10YearAnniversary

Blimey. Although, it must be said that for the past few, I’ve done the absolute bare minimum. Well done those four or five people who still rock up on occasion. I’m not joking – the stats are genuinely pathetic so you are all part of a very small, and incredibly discerning group. Maybe I should get you all badges?

10 years feels like a good innings, and I’ve been wondering if it’s time to let the blog slip quietly into that dark night. But, it seems a shame not to see this tenth year out, so instead, I shall try harder and see how it goes this year. I’m not making any resolutions but, I suspect in common with most people, it won’t do me any harm to put my phone down and focus more on what I’m reading instead.

And on that note, I kicked off the year by reading A Very Short Introduction to Classical Mythology by Helena Morales. This is because I’ve had the full week off work over Christmas and now I’m panicking about going back and my brain atrophying again. So to stave that off, I signed up for a short course at the local university’s continuing education department. Of course, this being Oxford, I’m doing a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Of course, being me, I immediately high tailed it to Blackwell’s to buy the reading list, deaf to all warnings that if the course gets cancelled you still have to pay your debts at the bookshop…  So far I’m on to Book III of Metamorphoses, and I’ve also read one of the essays in  the Blackwell Companion to Ovid.

So, the VSI was a quick romp through to the tune of ‘what have myths done for us and what are they anyway?’ Answer, ooh, loads, and they’re fluid so open to interpretation, re-use and misuse. Because current mood = feisty, I particularly liked the bit where Morales discussed what might have happened if Freud had chosen the Antigone story rather than the Oedipus story on which to found his whacko theories. What if psychoanalysis had had more space for strong female characters and a foundation myth that explored the nature of right and wrong?

It’s been a long, long time since I read Ovid. I know I studied some of Metamorphoses for my degree, but that was about a billion years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve got Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid hiding on a shelf somewhere, so that will be a good companion piece as well. The course starts on Jan 22 and I’m going to be prepared. You might say over-prepared. I couldn’t possibly comment (yes, I read most of the House of Cards trilogy over Christmas, did Michael Dobbs originate that formulation for FU, or does it pre-date him?)

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper

 

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Like all sane people, I’m joining in with Robert McFarlane’s Twitter read along of The Dark is Rising (#TheDarkisReading). It’s one of my standard Christmas reads anyway, but it’s certainly made more special to be part of a far flung group who are sharing their reactions either to this latest re-read, or to their first experience. I’ve read all five books in the sequence so many times that it’s hard to take a step back and look at the Dark is Rising as it unfolds as a stand alone. But my plan is to read the chapters roughly in time with how the action unfolds, and to write a bit about each chapter as I get to it.

20 December 2017

The novel begins on Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday. From the start, it establishes both a sound sense of place and of fear. Will is the youngest in a large family and the reader is quickly slotted in to the established noisy bustle of family life. The sense of strangeness that comes to possess Will is all the more disquieting for being immediately at odds with that everyday domesticity, and Cooper builds the tension beautifully. She does it in small ways: the radio crackling, the rabbits being afraid of Will, Farmer Dawson suddenly not being quite the same as Will has known him all his life. He knows something is wrong, and building, but not why.

The culmination of that first night, when the rooks join with the snow and break the skylight window in Will’s bedroom, is really scary. Will doesn’t know that it’s the Dark trying to terrify and isolate him; and the Dark doesn’t understand that Will’s family will look after him, so he’s not isolated. That scene is pivotal, because it’s the Dark’s one real chance to frighten Will enough to turn him from the path ahead of him. It fails, and sets the scene for future failures because those of the Light are never alone and unsupported, in a way that those of the Dark simply don’t understand.