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.

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.

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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?)

Smoke and Whispers, Mick Herron

It’s the Jackson Lamb books that are getting displays in bookstores at the moment, as Spook Street has just come out in paperback. And it is a great series, doing something different with the spy genre, undercutting any notions of James Bond or even Le Carre. The only character who can see round the corners and through the corkscrew twists of the latest internal machinations is Jackson Lamb himself. The rest of his spooks, flawed and failing, stumble through the action with such good intent and lack of understanding that it sometimes gets them killed. Slough House isn’t kind to its denizens.

And Mick Herron isn’t kind to Zoë Boehm either. She is the heroine, or anti-heroine, of her own series of books, of which Smoke and Whispers is the last. It starts with a body, that could be Zoë’s, floating down the Tyne. The body has Zoë’s belongings and Zoë’s clothes, and it’s a testament to the strength of the preceding books that the reader can both fully believe that yes, Zoë could have ended up face down in a river, and yet not want that to be the case. It would be an unsurprising end, but not a fitting one.

Zoë Boehm is an independent detective, based in Oxford. You’d think that Morse had Oxford covered, but Zoë’s city is not one in which a Jaguar could stay safely parked. Over the several books, her own car gets stolen and torched by an ex-policeman, she gets beaten up in Jericho and nearly drowned in the canal (and now I’m wondering if that was foreshadowing). Her Oxford is one in which the nice jeweller’s is fencing stolen goods, and the nice hotel is the starting location of a clever woman’s campaign to present herself as an abused wife before knifing her husband in the heart. No quadrangles here.

Unusually for me, I read the first book in the series and then I’ve listened to the rest. I’m listening to Smoke and Whispers at the moment and I’ve been trying to work out what makes Mick Herron such a good writer. So far, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fact that every sentence is crafted. There’s no makeweight in a Mick Herron sentence, each word lands with direct authorial intent. One paragraph can contain more observation than lesser writers display in entire novels.

And he’s great at writing female characters. Zoë is a detective first and foremost. She doesn’t get home at the end of the day and start maundering about the size of her thighs or the fact that she hasn’t got a boyfriend, in order to signal to the reader that she’s also a real, relatable woman. She is not primarily defined by her physical characteristics or what she wears: Zoë just puts her jeans on, they don’t cling enticingly to long, elegant legs that are tanned and toned from her early morning runs. Her black jeans, red top and black leather jacket may be identifiably hers but about all they say is she doesn’t pay enough attention to bother dressing to impress. She also doesn’t have a phone full of specifically skilled, male mates who can help her out when a case gets difficult. It is, frankly, a relief to read a female character who is allowed to get on with her job without also having to perform being a woman at the same time.

So far, most of the investigating in Smoke and Mirrors is being done by Sarah Tucker, someone whose life Zoë saved in the first book in the series (Down Cemetery Road) and who is now her only friend. Sarah has identified the body found in the Tyne as Zoë, but that’s based more on the conclusive leather jacket than on recognition. Something isn’t stacking up for Sarah. Maybe at first it was just unwillingness to believe that her friend is dead, but she’s now beginning to think that an old case caught up with Zoë and might be reaching out to entangle Sarah herself as well…

In Down Cemetery Road, Zoë didn’t get introduced until the endgame. I’m hoping that’s what happens here too, and maybe Sarah saves her. Then again, maybe Mick Herron isn’t going to be kind to his readers, either.

 

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, Enid Blyton

Really, I was looking to wrap up reading about the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, but Blackwells didn’t have the next volume. But I’d been thinking about the Cherry Tree Farm and Willow Farm books, although I now know I was mixing them up in my head with another book/series that I can’t remember the name of.

Anyway. Who knows how long ago I first read these, but it just goes to show how formative and influential one’s early reading can be. I was brought up on Enid Blyton, from The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree, to Mr Galliano’s Circus, finishing up with The Famous Five, Malory Towers or the aforementioned St Clare’s. I read them again and again and again, probably long after I was technically too old for them. I always read a lot and I never had enough new books, so I got very familiar indeed with the old favourites.

I desperately wanted to go on an adventure with the Famous Five and I also desperately wanted to board at Malory Towers. Enid Blyton introduced me to the solid, middle class, mid 20th century life that I definitely wasn’t living. There were lovely Mummies and jolly Daddies, bustling cooks, scary but essentially kind teachers. Her books are easily challenged these days on the grounds of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, being xenophobic, racist and privileged, and I’d be hard pushed to defend them. Then again, a fairly wide swathe of literature from the 30s onwards shares some similar traits, so are we supposed to stop reading all of it?

From Enid Blyton, I did learn about some good, solid values. Anyone who wasn’t quite the thing learned the error of their ways, whether they simply wouldn’t try at games or were too boastful, or stole sixpence from the mantelpiece. The important thing to do was to own up and take responsibility for your actions, whether you’d left the farm gate open or almost burnt the whole place down. I also learned about the countryside, a place that up until my 30s I thought was somewhere that you occasionally visited rather than lived. So the countryside was exotic, exciting, a little bit intimidating. I wasn’t quite the city child who had never seen a cow, because when I was 9, I was lucky enough to participate in the Farms for City Children programme and spend a week at Nethercott House. But most of what I knew was gleaned from books like the Cherry Tree Farm series, my first experience of nature writing.

They are very straightforward, plunging straight in with liberating four London born children from their unhealthy city existence into the robust healthfulness of the country. The children’s parents have to go to America (children’s books of this time always seem to pack the parents off to America – see also The Children Who Lived in a Barn) and so Rory, Sheila, Benjy and Penny are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle at Cherry Tree Farm.

They have to learn to help out on the farm at a point when farming was still only beginning to get mechanised, and at least in the Blytonsphere, was still profitable. So they feed chickens, bottle feed lambs, milk cows by hand, churn butter by hand (so that’s how you make butter!) All of this was completely alien to my own experience, of course, but when you’re  young there is so much that’s new that you can take a lot more of it in your stride.

This still leaves the children plenty of time to become friends with the ‘wild man’, Tammylan. Despite living in a cave in winter and a tree house in summer, Tammylan is locally respected for his skill with and knowledge of animals, so the children are given the all clear to spend time with him. Ah, more innocent times.

It’s Tammylan who gives the children the important first lesson of not littering the countryside, when they allow their sandwich wrappers to blow away after a picnic. Subsequently, over the course of the books, he introduces them to a hare, rabbits, a red squirrel that Benjy gets as a pet, and a fox. He shows them a weasel, teaches them to distinguish between a grass snake, an adder and a slow worm and is very clear that bats do not get into people’s hair. It’s down to Tammylan that I found out that hares live in a form; that stags grow their antlers every year and that the covering their new antlers first have is known as velvet. Without having ever seen either, I know how to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel:

‘The stoat is easily told from the weasel/ By the simple fact that his tail is blacked/ And his figure is slightly the bigger’.

It’s probably down to Tammlyan that I’m anti fox-hunting, because, in one book, a tired, old fox takes refuge from the chase in his cave.

Of course, now I re-read the books I can spot the thin plot lines, lack of exposition, recycled characters and the bits where Blyton is just running out of steam. Even the familiarity is distant, grasped at, a memory of a memory. But there was a little girl, 30-40 years ago, who didn’t hear anyone calling her name because she was reading.

The Crimes of Winter, Philippe Georget

This is the third Inspector Gilles Sebag mystery, and I have to say, I was worried. (Here be spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out if his wife was cheating on him.)

I was worried because I’m tired of the usual middle-aged, miserable, hard drinking, loner detective thing. Which is not to say that I’m not still partial to a bit of Rebus, but even Rebus has a dog and a girlfriend these days. Sebag has seemed to buck the trend and go happily home at the end of the day. But alas, in book 2 (Autumn, All the Cats Return) he suspects Claire has had an affair, and at the beginning of this book, that’s confirmed by a text message that Sebag intercepts.

So Sebag goes off the rails a bit, keeping  cheap whiskey in his desk drawer, sleeping in the office, racked with jealousy. His partner guesses but, in a rare and expected display of tact, Molina doesn’t say anything. It’s terrible timing that the cases Sebag has to deal with are all concerned with infidelity, reflecting his own situation back at him. A mysterious ill-wisher is contacting cuckolded husbands with photos of their wives with other men. In one case, this provokes a murder, when the jealous husband shoots his wife; in another, a suicide as the betrayed husband kills himself. A third incident is avoided, when Sebag manages to talk the man down from setting fire to his wife, his house and the neighbourhood.

With all this going on, what’s mostly occupying Sebag’s mind is the future of his own marriage. Oddly, or perhaps, Frenchly, there’s not a whole lot of moralistic debate going on. The novel avoids the banal simplicity of whether infidelity is right or wrong by acknowledging that marriages are not that straightforward. The more interesting question is what happens afterwards. The book presents various alternatives, from the violent to the accepting and by the end, Gilles too has found a way forward that he can live with. And caught the bad guy, of course.

So I’m relieved, because I hope for more Gilles Sebag novels and he’s more interesting as a happy family man than a bitter sot.

 

Slightly later than mid-year reading roundup

After  a rocky start to the year when I thought I’d try not buying any new books for a bit and promptly read nothing, this reading year hasn’t gone too badly. I’ve read/listened to 59 books so far and there’s been some good stuff in there. So, in no particular order…

Best re-read/listen

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. I mixed this up so I could read a volume, then listen to a volume, which worked really well. For fans of Audible who also have long drives, this sequence is a great listen. Although I’ve just looked up who some of the characters are based on, and I’m somewhat distressed to find that St John Clarke is based on John Galsworthy, because I really like The Forsyte Chronicles. I hadn’t realised, either, that X Trapnel is based on Julian MacLaren-Ross. Anyway, I don’t care who Widmerpool is based on, he’s too monstrous.

Best new translated fiction

Summertime, All the Cats are Bored and Autumn, All the Cats Return, Philippe Georget. These are French police procedurals, set in Perpignan and starring Inspector Gilles Sebag and his sidekick, Molina. Sebag is a good detective who is madly in love with his beautiful wife, Claire, but begins to suspect that she is having an affair. His personal concerns then run alongside his investigations. He’s mildly tortured by his doubts about his marriage, but beyond that he’s a good cop so not another hard-drinking, rebellious outsider. They are not about cats.

Best Australian novel

The Dry, Jane Harper. I listened to this but I’d be tempted to read it as well because it was proper gripping and astonishingly accomplished for a debut novel. The brutal murder/suicide of the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra draws Aaron Falk  back there. Luke Hadler’s family want him to investigate, because they don’t believe their son murdered his wife and children, then shot himself. Luke was Aaron’s boyhood best friend, but Aaron himself was run out of town 20 years ago for a supposed murder and has hardly seen Luke since. As Aaron gets drawn back in and starts to investigate, all the old secrets and tensions start cropping up again.

Best book about the madness of WWII

A Good Clean Fight, Derek Robinson. I’ve previously read A Piece of Cake, which introduces Hornet Squadron, but I hadn’t immediately realised this was a sequel of sorts. The squadron is now in North Africa, being sent out on ridiculous missions to try to lure the German airforce out by strafing low level targets in Libya. The tactic doesn’t work and the squadron gets shot to hell, but their batshit commander, Barton, keeps sending them out.

Meanwhile, Lampard of the SAS is leading near suicidal missions across the desert, behind German lines, to blow up aircraft while still on the field. There’s an horrific scene where the Germans, attempting to follow suit, set out in motorised vehicles across the desert but are so totally unused to its ways that vehicle after vehicle launches itself from the top of a sand dune and crashes on the other side.

What’s always so startling and depressing about military novels, and in fact military history, is how character driven it is. Which is fine when those characters are sane, sensible types and not so fine when they’re megalomaniac nutters who absolutely don’t care about the men whose lives they hold in the balance. A Good Clean Fight is heavy on the megalomaniac nutters, as I suspect WWII was in real life.

Best action hero

I am so firmly on the Jack Reacher bandwagon that I am glued to my seat. I’ve read Die Trying and Tripwire so far this year and I doubt that’ll be the end of it. Reacher has only been out of the army for a while, he’s travelling around, living off his savings and whatever work he can find, but trouble keeps finding him. He doesn’t talk much, he’s built like a brick shithouse, handy in a fight and a sharpshooter to boot. You’d think trouble would know better. Fortunately for my reading future, criminals and low lifes are dumb-asses, so there’s plenty more Reacher ahead of me.

Best novel that everyone else is recommending as well

I’ve written separately about The Power, so I’ll go with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman. This was a real journey as I got to know Eleanor. It’s written from her perspective and she’s weird. Not defiantly weird, but she lives a life of such solitariness that she simply doesn’t understand normal human interactions. She is incredibly lonely, although this is something she has to realise for herself as the novel progresses and her realisation and reaction to that is utterly compelling. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has no reason to comply with social norms because she’s simply not aware of them, or of any acts of transgression. But this means that her responses are often very funny, particularly because she’s intelligent and articulate. She is gradually revealed as a joy of a character.