Tuesday, February 27, 2024

peat repeat

You'll recall my frustration at being thwarted in my plans to do a long circular walk in the Black Mountains back in May of last year. As I unexpectedly had a couple of days' leave to use up I found myself at a loose end yesterday and decided to go and have another crack at it. After the extreme fuckery involved with trying to pick out a route up through the forestry last time I decided to keep any involvement with it minimal this time, and not get involved with the area I was in last time at all. 

There are two car parks on the road up the Grwyne Fawr valley, the first being Pont Cadwgan where I parked last time, and the second, further up towards the reservoir, which just seems to be called Mynydd Du (Black Mountain). This is where I parked this time and headed up in a roughly north-east direction to get onto the long ridge just before the summit of Chwarel y Fan, which makes the rather grandiose claim to being the highest point in Monmouthshire. I mean, I daresay it is, but it's not a summit in any real sense, just the high point of the ridge which gradually descends from north-west to south-east. It does have a cairn, though. 

So the first thing you'll notice here is that I'm attacking the walk anticlockwise, rather than clockwise which was the intention last time (not that you'd know from the route map). This is partly because the car park is on that side of the road, partly because most of the clearly-visible paths from near the car park head in that direction (and I was keen to get a fast start and defer any navigational fuckery until later) and partly because my loose rule-of-thumb for walks dictates having the high points (the summits of Waun Fach and Pen y Gadair Fawr) in the second half of the walk. 

Anyway, once on the ridge the route proceeds almost dead straight north-west towards the trig point at the summit of Rhos Dirion (at 713 metres, 2339 feet) - again, a summit in name only as it just marks the point where the long ridge ends and drops off the steep northern face of the Black Mountains escarpment. At this point you turn 90 degrees left along the ridge that heads up over Pen y Manllwyn towards Waun Fach, which, as I'm sure you'll remember from 2010, is the highest point in the Black Mountains. You'll also recall that when I went up it then it was after a period of very dry weather and it was still a treacherous boggy nightmare on the summit plateau. Well, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the National Park authorities, starting in what seems to have been around 2015, have done some extensive restoration work and landscaping on the top of Waun Fach and the surrounding area, created an understated summit monument (with a little OS logo embedded in it, just so you know it's legit) and laid some paths by dumping what a quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests must have been SEVERAL GAJILLION TONNES of stone and gravel up there. Before and after summit pics (i.e. from 2010 and yesterday) are below. 



In addition to being able to stand at the summit for a photo without gradually slurping knee-deep into a peat bog, you can now walk along a pleasant gravel path across the summit plateau and (via a bit of down and up again and, yesterday, quite a bit of slightly slippery ice and snow) to the neighbouring summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr, which is a much more satisfying mountain summit but happens to be about ten metres lower than Waun Fach. I don't make the rules. From there you drop off the east face of Pen y Gadair Fawr for a steepish descent back down to the Grwyne Fawr valley. Suspicions of further navigational fuckery which arise as you approach what appears to be an unbridged and unfordable section of river at the bottom of the slope are curtailed as the path takes a sharp right turn along the riverbank to a footbridge which takes you back onto the road and back to the car park. 

Overall, a round trip of around 18.3 kilometres or 11.4 miles, considerably shorter than the original walk would have been (this post suggests the full circuit from Pont Cadwgan via the trig points on Crug Mawr and Bal Mawr is about 20 miles) but more than enough on a chilly February day. Considering the time of year the weather was pretty good - high cloud, no rain - but it was quite windy most of the way round. Not as bad as on this trip up Pen y Fan, but still a bit exhausting after a while.

Back up a bit though, Dave, you'll be saying: what about this whole path-landscaping thing? I'm slightly uncomfortable about that. Shouldn't we just leave the landscape to do its thing without constraining it and making life easier for people? No-one has to go up there, you know; if you don't fancy getting your boots muddy maybe you should just stay at home and do some macrame or something. What next? A train up, like on Snowdon?

I see what you mean, but bear in mind that the previous set of prevailing conditions up on top of Waun Fach in particular - vast expanses of black mud, everyone taking their own route to try and keep their boots dry and trampling all the plant life - was a man-made thing as well, and one of the reasons for constraining people to walk a nice dry path is that now everyone goes the same way, stops eroding the peat and trampling all the wildlife and lets the rest of the summit plateau return to its former state. And what about the paths elsewhere? Would you have those removed as well? It'd make mountain hiking a considerably slower and more tedious business. No, we just have to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in. And, after all, when you think about it, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot LIKE LIFE.

Route map and altitude profile are below. Open in a new tab for larger versions, as always, and note that the altitudes are 50-odd metres too high. This seems to be a feature of my phone's GPS rather than the visualisation software. 




don't be skirridiculous

Been out for a couple of walks recently that seem worthy of note (hey, it's my blog) so here's the first.

It was my birthday a couple of weekends ago so we headed off up to my parents' place in Abergavenny for tea and cake. On the way I'd decided that we should have a crack at the Skirrid as it's a fairly short walk, I'd only been up there once, twenty-odd years before (on what collective family memory seems to think was Boxing Day 2000, which sounds plausible), and it was a nice sunny day.

Note that this is Ysgyryd Fawr ("big Skirrid"), not to be confused with its little brother Ysgyryd Fach ("little Skirrid") which is nearer Abergavenny, lower, and generally less interesting. The main feature of the big Skirrid is the major landslip which appears to have cleft the mountain in half when you approach it from the correct angle (from the north or south, broadly speaking - the photo below is looking from the north). I should say here that "big" is strictly relative - it's 300-400 feet lower than both of its near-neighbours the Blorenge and the Sugar Loaf

It's a pretty straightforward walk and there's a dedicated car park which pretty much constrains your route - we went clockwise round the route shown below which basically means a nice gradual uphill ramble through some pleasant woodland to a perfect lunch spot sitting on some big rocks right in the middle of the cleft of the landslip (the top left corner of the red route). What you would normally do then is carry on and skirt round the north side of the hill and head for the summit by one of the paths that go up it from that side (the major one which carries the Beacons Way approaches from the north-east). However, Hazel's boots - quite a decent pair of Meindl ones, albeit 15+ years old - had decided to throw a spanner in the works by disintegrating and partially shedding their soles. So we effected a makeshift repair with the bootlaces and my trouser belt and sent her and my Dad back along the low-level path to avoid further disintegration. That left me and the three kids, and Nia, sensing an opportunity for some fun, suggested that we just smash straight up the slope in front of us to get to the top rather than messing about with any more low-level walking. 


Needless to say I was up for it, and so too, commendably, were Alys and Huwie, so we went for it. I did manage to persuade them to take a slightly diagonal route rather than attempting to scramble straight up a cliff, and, as usually happens, once you get in close to the slope it's easier than it looks from a distance. We all got onto the summit plateau safely, doubled back, bagged the trig point and then walked back along the full length of the ridge before dropping down through the woods to the car park. A round trip of somewhere between 5 and 6 kilometres depending whose electronic device you believe. Nia's Fitbit gave the higher number but she did a lot of running off ahead and doubling back and occasionally diving off into the woods to climb a tree, which the more sober walker might decide to skip. Anyway as walks of around three-and-a-half miles go it's packed with interest and I recommend it. As you can see from the map there is a low-level path around the other side of the hill as well which you could take, as Emma and Ruth seem to have done here

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Red Bull Formula 1 head honcho Christian Horner, currently *cough* in the midst of some, erm, personal issues, and Scottish comedian and internet provocateur Limmy, whose current incarnation as a video game streamer on Twitch I find somewhat baffling but which clearly makes him happy and pays the bills, so it's all good. The longer-form TV stuff he used to do is pretty good, and the things like the compilation of short clips originally posted to Vine featuring his increasingly deranged plasterer is a thing of bleak Beckettian brilliance.


Monday, February 05, 2024

I hate you, leopard

I'm sure that you, like me, are a deeply tedious and unappealing person to be with at parties owing to your propensity for offering up "fascinating" trivia factoids at the drop of a hat: Birmingham has more canals than Venice, Gary Oldman is thirteen days younger than Gary Numan, et teeth-grindingly cetera. Those two do at least have the virtue of being true, though the Birmingham one is considerably less impressive than it sounds once you consider the relative sizes of the two cities. 

Another one that I've heard a few times is: did you know that Olive out of On The Buses was married in real life to Ape Being Attacked By Leopard from 2001: A Space Odyssey? This one is only really suitable for trotting out in the company of people old enough to remember On The Buses - a group, I should add, which actually excludes me as I don't think I've ever seen it. This is partly because I was only three when its original run ended in 1973 and partly because it was on ITV, which there was a largely-unspoken ban on in our house for reasons I've never quite been able to fathom in hindsight. Anyway, Olive was one of the main characters, requiring actress Anna Karen, in real life a slim occasional model, to don large amounts of padding, an unflattering wig and glasses. It's fair to say On The Buses doesn't see much repeat action these days as it's no doubt Highly Problematic in a whole variety of ways. 

Anyway, back to the claim - what is certain is that Anna Karen was married to a guy called Terry Duggan, from 1967 to his death in 2008. He was a comedian and actor who appeared with his wife in several things (On The Buses included). His Wikipedia page does make brief and slightly vague reference to him having also "learned acrobatics which led to film stuntman roles", but there is no mention of 2001 in his filmography. Go to IMDb, though, and you will see that he is credited with the role of "Ape Attacked By Leopard". So who is right?

Well, closer examination of the Wikipedia edit history reveals that there was an update - fairly recently, in late 2023 - that removed that role from his list. There is an explanatory note which says that the role was indeed played by a bloke called Terry Duggan, but a different one, and links to this article. Lots of interesting stuff there related to the shooting of the Dawn Of Man sequence at the start of 2001, ending with the famous match cut from the flying bone to the spaceship, and in particular this:

Terry Duggan was a acrobat and stuntman born in Coventry in 1935 (no relation with Terry Duggan the comedian). Duggan had already worked with the Chipperfield's, a famous british circus, and later joined a member of the family, Jimmy, who had started a film animal business and at that time of the shooting of 2001 was operating Southampton Zoo. 

There is also a footnote, as follows:

(dec.11: the article has been updated with the removal of the picture of Terry Duggan the comedian, who was not the Duggan involved with the Chipperlfield's and 2001. As Mission Control would say, IMDB and Wikipedia are "in error" in saying that they were the same person. Source: Mr.Duggan' sister thanks to Jamie Clubb.)

There is a link to the blog of the Jamie Clubb mentioned in the footnote, and some relevant entries are here and here. This is the most relevant paragraph:

The bounce article referenced Terry Duggan, a wild animal trainer who worked with my two great uncles and my grandfather when they ran "Chipperfield's Circus". I am not directly related to the Duggans, but we share cousins and they have been connected to my family for a very long time now. Terry and my great-uncle, Jimmy Chipperfield, were involved with the prologue sequence of Kubrick's film, where a leopard attacks a member of a tribe of australopiths.

On the other hand, there is this page which purports to be written by a relative and which does make the 2001 claim in relation to Terry Duggan the comedian and husband of Anna Karen. So who do we believe?

My gut instinct is to believe that these were two different people; it seems implausible that someone whose day job was as an actor and comedian would be entrusted with the job of wrestling a leopard, still less be inclined to accept it. On the other hand, someone who worked pretty much full-time with circus animals would be an ideal fit for the job. 

So I think we tentatively conclude that this is a myth - that obviously shouldn't stop you from watching 2001, though you might want to secure 3-4 undisturbed hours and get lightly baked first. As for On The Buses, I couldn't say I'd recommend it, but you do you.

priest: deceased

2023 was a pretty average year for The Curse Of Electric Halibut, although there was a brief flurry of activity in the summer when Cormac McCarthy and Milan Kundera both died in quick succession. As if exhausted by the strain of taking down two mighty literary behemoths in quick succession, the Curse then kicked back and took the rest of the year off, leaving the authorial deaths total at three. 2015 remains the deadliest year on record with five.

But, evidently refreshed by the Christmas break, the Curse has started off the new year strongly by snuffing out Christopher Priest, author of two books on this list, Inverted World and The Affirmation. Priest was 80, which puts him slightly below the average age for inclusion, and the curse length of a little over nine years puts him slightly above the average, those numbers being just over 82 and just over six years respectively.

Priest was one of the authors included in Granta's Best Of Young British Novelists list in 1983, along with several other featurees on this list including Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, William Boyd and Graham Swift. Priest was older than most of those people (he scraped under the 40-year age limit by only a few months) and a bit of an outlier genre-wise, much of his output falling broadly into the category usually labelled "science fiction". I've rambled at tedious length about the stretchiness and meaninglessness of this term before, but while Inverted World is pretty definitely science fiction, The Affirmation is a science fiction novel only in the very loosest sense, and you could certainly reasonably ask the question whether it's more science-fiction-y than, say, Never Let Me Go

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
José Saramago 9th May 2009 18th June 2010 87 1y 40d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
David Cook 24th February 2009 16th September 2015 74 6y 205d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
William McIlvanney 7th September 2010 5th December 2015 79 5y 90d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 94 13y 254d
John le Carré 21st February 2008 12th December 2020 89 12y 295d
Joan Didion 14th December 2010 23rd December 2021 87 11y 12d
Hilary Mantel 22nd October 2010 22nd September 2022 70 11y 338d
Greg Bear 4th October 2021 19th November 2022 71 1y 48d
Russell Banks 4th December 2018 7th January 2023 82 4y 35d
Cormac McCarthy 22nd September 2009 13th June 2023 89 13y 265d
Milan Kundera 27th March 2008 11th July 2023 94 15y 105d
Christopher Priest 6th January 2015 4th February 2024 80 9y 26d

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

the last book I read

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

West Germany, the late 1950s. Not such a bad place, though there are a few things brewing on the horizon, including the escalation of the Cold War resulting in the construction of the Berlin Wall. Michael Berg is just a regular fifteen-year-old, though, more concerned with those disturbing feelings, you know, down there than any wider geopolitical concerns. 

When he is struck down on the way home from school by an acute bout of sickness which turns out to be a precursor to an attack of hepatitis, he is helped by a gruff but compassionate thirtysomething woman from a nearby block of flats who helps him clean up and then sends him on his way. A bit later, having recovered, he decides to pay her a visit to thank her for her kindness, and finds himself having a mishap trying to help her get some coal out of the bunker attached to her apartment block, needing a bath and, well, you know, one thing leads to another and the next thing he knows he's getting FURIOUSLY TOWELLED OFF.

Michael and his lady friend, Hanna Schmitz, fall into a regular routine of him secretly visiting her, reading to her from various works of improving literature, them taking a bath together and then some furious bratwurst action. Hanna works as a tram conductor and is a fairly taciturn character seemingly keen to retain some emotional distance between herself and Michael. But why? Just a naturally reserved nature? An acknowledgement of their age difference, and, implicitly, the borderline abusive nature of the relationship (for all that Michael is going WAHEEYYYY and climbing on with some gusto)? Or something else?

Eventually the growing conflict between Michael's school studies and friendships with people his own age and his relationship with Hanna starts to be a source of tension, and one day he calls round to find she has upped sticks and left without leaving any contact details. Michael mooches around glumly for a while but then moves on with his life, although with some emotional hang-ups that blight his future relationships with women. 

Some years later, as part of an assignment for his course at law school, Michael is tasked with observing the trial of some former Nazi concentration camp workers for war crimes. To his surprise, Hanna is one of the defendants. After it emerges that she had people assigned to her in Auschwitz to read to her, and behaves oddly when accused of writing a report relating to the burning of some civilians in a church, Michael belatedly realises the truth: Hanna is illiterate, and is prepared to go to prison rather than reveal her secret.

After a punitive prison sentence is handed down, Michael once again returns to his life. He marries and has a daughter but the relationship ends in divorce five years later - blighted, we are invited to infer, by some unresolved issues on Michael's side. Eventually he re-establishes contact with Hanna by recording some readings and sending them to her in prison. Some time later, he receives a painstakingly written reply - Hanna has made use of her ample free time inside to start to learn to read and write. Michael never writes back, but continues to send the tapes in and occasionally receives a note in return. Some years pass and eventually Michael is contacted by the prison governor - Hanna is up for parole, it is highly likely that it will be granted, and Michael seems to be the only person she knows in the outside world. Can he help find some accommodation and employment suitable for a woman who'd now be about sixty? Furthermore, can he come and visit before her release date?

Slightly reluctant to re-open an area of his life he'd closed off and put under lock and key, Michael nonetheless feels some responsibility for Hanna, and so he comes to visit. As you might expect, after eighteen years of confinement (we'd be in the early 1980s by now) Hanna isn't quite as he remembers her - a bit older and fatter, but then aren't we all? Michael and Hanna talk in a cautious way about the trial, and about her earlier life during the war, and Michael departs. A short time later, on the day of her release, Michael turns up at the prison only to be told that Hanna had hanged herself earlier that morning, clearly a premeditated action as she had made no attempt to pack or prepare for her release. Michael is charged with carrying out the wishes contained in her will, which basically amount to making some small redress for her actions during the war by distributing a small sum of money to the surviving victim of the church fire.

So, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, then. It's quite a subject, isn't it? And a challenge to address fully in every aspect in a 200-page novel, so most novels that concern themselves with it don't even try, instead either focusing on a very narrow sliver of specific personal experience, or approaching the subject very obliquely while telling a different story. The book on this list with the most similar subject matter is probably The Dark Room; other novels featuring World War II and the Holocaust in particular as themes include The Nature Of Blood, The History Of Love, Turbulence, Island Madness, Empire Of The Sun (World War II but Japan, not Germany) and Free Fall, and much more tangentially as a sub-topic in FiskadoroNot That Sort Of Girl, The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, Sweet Caress, Shuttlecock, Spies, Restless, A Small Death In Lisbon, The Remains Of The Day, Marathon Man, The Ministry Of Fear and What's Bred In The Bone. The particular angle being explored in The Reader is the most painful one for post-war Germans: easy to condemn Hitler, Goering, Himmler and all the conveniently dead cartoon bad guys, but what to think about all the other Germans who lived through the war and didn't heroically sacrifice themselves in acts of resistance to the Nazi regime? Could it have been possible by a series of small incremental life choices to have drifted into a position where you suddenly step back, reflect, and say, Christ, I am an actual MASSIVE Nazi - how did that happen?

In Hanna's case her illiteracy seems to have been a partial cause in her drift into becoming a concentration camp guard and thereby responsible for the lives and deaths of many people: she accepted the job as an alternative to a promotion within the job she held at the time with Siemens as she felt that would be likely to require regular written communication and therefore risk exposing her. Does that exonerate her? Of course not. Does understanding her circumstances help? Yes, although it's less comfortable to think of the people perpetrating the crimes (and remember that the cartoon baddies delegated the actual shooting and gassing to the ordinary folks) as regular people like us, as that prompts the thought: well, what would I have done? That's a question to which we might not find an honest answer very palatable. 

Anyway, I enjoyed The Reader without finding it as devastating and insightful as some of the critics evidently did. Maybe having this particular topic as your novelistic subject matter gives you a bit of a free-of-charge critical leg-up in the same way that having it as a filmic theme gives you a boost when Oscars season rolls around. Just ask Kate Winslet, who as if to prove her own point, won the Best Actress Oscar in 2008 for portraying Hanna in the film version of The Reader.

The Reader was of course originally published in German; the list here tells me that its predecessors on this blog are The Piano Teacher and Auto-da-Fé. One interesting side-effect of the translation is a bit of loss of subtlety with the novel's title: "reader" can imply silent or out-loud reading in English, whereas the original German title Der Vorleser specifically implies the latter (Der Leser would imply the former). Once again German has a compound noun for every occasion. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

the last book I read

Love And Summer by William Trevor.

We're in Ireland, probably 1960s or thereabouts, in the little town of Rathmoye. All the usual caveats about small towns apply here - everyone's business highly visible to everyone else, and moral judgment swiftly and ruthlessly dispensed, especially with this being 1960s Ireland and the whole S-E-X thing being wholly off the table, both in terms of talking about it or, God forbid, actually doing it.

Those would certainly have been old Ma Connulty's views on the subject, not that we can ask her, what with it being her funeral. Her two children, now middle-aged themselves, are left to dispose of her assets and attend to the family business (running a hotel/B&B). Most of the town turns out to pay their respects, including Ellie Dillahan, a convent girl employed as housekeeper to a local farmer, a widower whom she subsequently married. Also in attendance is Orpen Wren, former retainer to an old aristocratic family who lived in a grand house on the outskirts of Rathmoye. The family have long since moved away and the house is derelict, but Orpen has a few kangaroos loose in his top paddock, still imagines himself to be in their employ and carries around a sheaf of papers for safekeeping in anticipation of their eventual return.

Also hovering round the fringes of the funeral is a stranger, on a push-bike and brandishing a camera. This turns out to be Florian Kilderry, son of a bohemian Irish-Italian couple, both of whom are now dead, leaving Florian the sole custodian of a rambling country house a short bike ride from Rathmoye. Florian has been rattling around the house for a while, hanging out with his dog, mooning around wistfully remembering glorious summer days in the company of his gorgeous Italian cousin Isabella, whom he clearly remains hopelessly in love with, but is slowly coming to the realisation that he needs to snap out of it, get a grip, sell the house, which is in need of extensive renovation and clearly impractically huge for one person, and move somewhere else, probably England. 

Florian and Ellie strike up a conversation on one of her periodic trips into Rathmoye - her husband Dillahan preferring not to venture into town often as he fears gossip after the death of his first wife and child in a farming accident that was partly his fault. This all proceeds innocently enough at first but they are soon arranging secret meetings in one of the ruined houses outside the town. Ma Connulty's daughter, who does have a name but is pretty universally known as Miss Connulty, has noticed the change in Ellie's behaviour patterns, her Unsuitable Men radar especially sensitive after a similar brush with trouble in her own youth (and a clandestine trip to Dublin for a back-street abortion). 

Ellie imagines herself to be in love with Florian, his talkativeness and interest in her a refreshing change from her kind but taciturn husband, prone to haunted silences when his thoughts turn to his first wife. Florian seems to be taking a more measured attitude to the whole thing, recognising that Ellie is taking all this more seriously than he is, and that realistically their tentative relationship isn't going to survive him selling up and leaving. Eventually a firm date for the new owners to move in and for Florian to leave Rathmoye is agreed upon - will Ellie's increasing desperation induce her to some sort of indiscretion that will prompt more than the vague murmurings that have been heard in Rathmoye so far? Will Miss Connulty be able to intervene and bring Ellie back down to earth? Will Orpen Wren's slender grip on reality make him say the wrong thing to the wrong person and inadvertently reveal something? 

Well, you can see any number of ways in which this might end, especially if the answer to some of the above questions is "yes" - Ellie attempting to run away to England with Florian, Dillahan finding out and coming after Florian with a shotgun, Florian being racked with guilt and throwing himself off the roof, that sort of thing. Nothing as lurid as that happens, though - Florian heads off to England and Ellie returns to Dillahan and the farm and the status quo is broadly restored.

Some previous William Trevor books - certainly the two I've read, The Children Of Dynmouth and Felicia's Journey - have had an undertone of something slightly weird and troubling going on in the background. Nothing like that here - in fact I would agree with Sebastian Barry's assessment of Love And Summer as "fabulously benign", without intending it as quite as much of a compliment as Barry does. There's an interesting and salutary contrast with this book's predecessor on this list, Ancillary Justice, here - if you're not going to write a thrilling story of space warfare and treachery, and instead choose to write a book where precious little happens (even between Ellie and Florian - by the third or fourth episode of chaste hand-holding in a flowery field the impatient reader is tempted to get a bit JUST FUCK ALREADY) you have to hold the reader's attention in other ways, in particular by acute observation of how people are; how they act and interact with each other, what they say, and, equally importantly, what they don't say. Trevor is masterful at this and there's plenty of it here, though the edge of tartness, the salt in the caramel if you will, in the other books mentioned above probably makes them a more rounded and satisfying read.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

let me show you my BOTY

Last of the book-related housekeeping for 2023 - I'd forgotten that I'd introduced the idea of doing a sort of loose Books Of The Year thing back in March; that post retrospectively collected all the years up to and including 2022. I had suggested doing it every January for the previous year's collection of books, without, cleverly, actually definitely committing to anything. Well, here I am doing it; these are my nominations for 2023. As before, the Comment text is lifted verbatim from the linked review as a sort of amuse-bouche, if you will.

Year Author Title Comment
2023 William Gibson Count Zero his brain is wired to explode, his hair has the plague, his entire leg is a missile, etc.
Tarjei Vesaas The Ice Palace her semi-frozen corpse should slurp out of the ice and spoil someone's picnic
Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad Well, North Carolina will be pretty much like South Carolina, right? Only, you know, further north and all

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

the last book I read

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

Breq is on Nilt. That sounds like a diet supplement involving two delicious milkshakes per day, or a product that can supposedly reverse the effects of male pattern baldness, but it is in fact a planet. And a pretty cold and inhospitable place it is too - inhospitable not just in terms of the dark and chilly climate, but also the natives, who are a bit, well, inhospitable, especially to mysterious strangers. 

Breq is there for a very specific reason, but has to do some basic stuff first like finding somewhere to stay and some stuff to eat, and it's in the course of doing this that she trips over a naked dead body face down in the snow in the street. So what, you might be saying, just shrug and move on, like I do whenever I encounter a naked dead body face down in the snow in the street, but Breq has noticed that, by an extraordinary (to say the least) coincidence, this person is known to her, and so she feels obliged to do something, especially when it turns out that the supposed dead body is in fact Only Mostly Dead

So here's where we back the old spaceship up, turn it around a bit, and get some exposition in. The way this works here is that alternate chapters describe Breq's adventures on Nilt, and then the interwoven chapters describe a series of events which took place about twenty years earlier, on a different planet, Shis'urna, when the current single human entity known as Breq was an AI in charge of a vast starship, Justice of Toren, and an army of ancillaries. These are humans, captured and stored in suspended animation after one of the dominant civilisation's frequent annexations of whole planets, which are made use of as sentient drones when required by hoicking them out of their vat of preservative goop and downloading the ship's AI consciousness into them, in the process unceremoniously yeeting whatever consciousness was previously occupying the physical substrate. 

There are some complex political machinations going on on Shis'urna but the outcome of all of it is a massacre of some of the natives at the behest of the visiting Lord of the Radch, head honcho of the dominant civilisation. Some of this massacring is done by some of Justice of Toren's ancillaries, these guys having the great advantage (as far as the higher powers are concerned) of obeying orders immediately and unquestioningly, even when those orders are a bit on the genocide-y side. The Lord of the Radch, whose name is Anaander Mianaai (it's not clear whether Anaander is a given name or a title, but it doesn't really matter) later appears on board Justice of Toren, and after a series of odd events and a few more deaths engineers the total explodey destruction of the ship, with only a single ancillary surviving by launching an escape pod in the nick of time.

And so we're sort of back up to date - just to join the dots for you, in case you're not keeping up, the single ancillary, formerly known as Justice of Toren One Esk, is Breq, now the sole vessel for the ship's entire AI consciousness but with some all-too-human quirks, such as a love for music - a bit of retained consciousness or brain wiring from the original occupant of the body? - who knows? Breq and the now-revived corpse, who turns out to be a Radch officer called Seivarden, who briefly served on Justice of Toren many centuries before, find their way off Nilt after a series of adventures and head for the Radch galactic HQ to confront Anaander Mianaai, and, in Breq's case, kill her with a special weapon whose acquisition was the reason for her being on Nilt in the first place.

There is a problem with just turning up and popping a cap in Anaander Mianaai's ass, though, quite apart from there being a whole crack team of security personnel whose sole job it is to prevent anyone from doing it, and it's this: many centuries before, Anaander Mianaai had her consciousness copied into a whole host of physical bodies, presumably at least partly to prevent exactly this sort of thing (i.e. being assassinated) from happening. The problem is, as Breq herself is discovering, consciousnesses loaded into physical bodies and then left to do their own thing diverge and develop their own ideas about things, and some of the unexplained events that have been happening (including Justice of Toren's destruction) are as a result of Anaander Mianaai essentially being at war with multiple other versions of herself.

Nonetheless Breq (disguised as a traveller from a faraway galaxy) and Seivarden rock up at Radch Central where Anaander Mianaai's main residence is and attempt to engineer a meeting. However, Anaander Mianaai didn't get where she is today without being pretty shrewd, and thanks to her own army of AIs is able to determine that the newcomer isn't who she says she is, and is therefore able to be prepared when Breq makes her move. There is a limit to how prepared she can be though, and so there is a climactic shootout and spaceship battle, at the end of which it appears that most of the properly deranged Anaander Mianaais have been rubbed out and an uneasy truce prevails.

Ancillary Justice was Ann Leckie's first novel, published in 2013 and garlanded with just about all the major science fiction awards in that year and 2014. The most significant ones were (as always, my list indicates the ones I've read; links are to reviews on this blog):

Before I say anything else I will say that I enjoyed it very much and was entertained throughout. Breq is an appealing central character with some easily-graspable motivation to put right a wrong that was done - whether any of the actions she ends up taking go any way to achieving this is a moot point, but that was no doubt intentional. The moral and philosophical questions raised by the whole concept of ancillaries are interesting, and presented without bashing the reader over the head with them or getting into a tedious blizzard of exposition. 

A few quibbles, though: the early chapters set on Shis'urna are a bit slow compared with the excitement going on in the other story strand and the reader is inclined to skim through them to get back to the exciting stuff. It's also not completely clear what was so special about the gun that Breq acquired on Nilt, or at least what was special enough to make it worth a risky expedition to an icy planet. And the ending is a bit unsatisfactory; something that makes more sense when you realise that Ancillary Justice is the first book in a trilogy (its successors being called Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy), and some plot strands had to be left dangling for the sequels to pick up on. The business of using she/her pronouns for everyone regardless of their biological sex (a concept we are invited to infer does still exist) is an interesting one but you do get a bit YES YES ALL RIGHT I GET IT with it after a while. But why is it important to know what sex anyone is? Well, we can manage without, but it's just extra information, like knowing how big they are or how many limbs they've got. Whether Leckie thought it was an interesting device for doing a bit of a rug-pull and disorienting the reader or was trying to make some other point I couldn't say.

The main criticism, if it can be called a criticism, though, is that the whole thing had a strong whiff of Iain M Banks about it, without, I would say, being quite as good. Things like ships with near-omniscient (and occasionally quirky) AIs and near-immortality through constant body-swapping are well-worn Banks tropes (though by no means exclusive to him), the business with the Radch's uneasy truce with the hugely-advanced and largely incomprehensible Presger alien civilisation is reminiscent of some of the stuff in Excession, the quest for a powerful and possibly mythical weapon is familiar from the most recent Banks on this list, Against A Dark Background, and the device of having two stories - one in the "present", one in the past - take place in alternate chapters is familiar from Use Of Weapons, although here both strands do at least move forwards in time, thankfully. Even Breq's name partly echoes that of the principal female protagonist in Surface Detail; I think Banks might have drawn the line at having an alien species called the Rrrrrr, though. I mean, I get it, it's our best approximation with our puny human throats to their REAL name, but still.

Anyway, it was good but I'm probably not going to be rushing out to acquire the sequels; if I happen to see them going cheap in a second-hand bookshop then, well, maybe.