Two novels about ecological disaster

Invited back to Ann Rawson’s Substack writing and reading blog. I’m enjoying this. Have you read either of these books? What did you think?
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Guest Post on The Accomplice

I’ve been pushing The Murderbot Diaries for a while and now my friend (and excellent crime writer) Ann Rawson is addicted too. She kindly asked me to explain why I love Murderbot so much on her new blog about the writing process, The Accomplice.

So as I said in my previous post, here’s some more about Murderbot.

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My 2021 in books

In the dim distance of the first lockdowns, my book of the year for 2020 was The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) for its richness of characters, historic events and scenery, its distances travelled and its wonderful overall arc.

So, aside from books by friends (some of which I’ve blogged in previous posts) here are a few notes on 2021’s reading highlights:

This year, on Mother’s Day, my son dropped his Kindle into my lap and insisted, ‘Read this, Mum.’ It was All Systems Red by Martha Wells, the first in her Murderbot Diaries Series. Murderbot’s voice is superb and I was hooked. I promptly read the full series and my book of the year for 2021 is Network Effect (now winner of the Hugo Award for best 2021 novel, while the Murderbot Diaries won best series, so just for once I’m on trend). More about Murderbot and Wells in something else soon.

That set me off on a SFF spree, devouring books by Nnedi Okorafor and N K Jemisin and Adrian Tchaikovsky (more on these another day too). My second favourite series of the year was Yoon Ha Lee’s Machinery of Empire trilogy, starting with Ninefox Gambit because the ideas are so brilliantly complex and so cleverly woven together. I had to re-read it as soon as I’d finished to pinpoint the foreshadowings slipped sneakily into such an immensely dense plot. The story is a total mind-fuck with its calendrical warfare and suicide calligraphy: best to go with the flow and marvel at the speeding imagery. Online I saw people complaining they don’t “get it” because (I guess) they want it to make more immediate sense. Stick with it: there is a complete universe by the end of book 3 – though I think YHL could make considerably more of a few scenes.

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radach (Ancillary) series comes close third. Also not a simple read but compelling.

My one-off novel favourite was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, with its skilful blending of genres from fantasy through thriller to police procedural and even romance. Again, it’s the narrator’s voice that draws the reader in and onwards, sharing the character’s incredible world and unexpected thought processes. Also again, it’s necessary to trust the author and let the flow take you as a reader.

Talking of going with the author’s flow, I’m more tolerant of opening pages not grabbing me straight away, but less tolerant if I am part way through a book and it’s still evading me. I won’t mention the (few) books I gave up on (and none of them was hurl-across-the-room bad, which is better than in the past).

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Review: The Governor’s Man, by Jacquie Rogers

I’m so excited that this is now out. I was lucky to be a beta-reader and I thoroughly recommend it. If you like historical fiction and/or crime fiction this is for you.

It is AD 224 and Rome’s administration wants to know if Britannia’s silver mines are depleted (as their controller claims) or if the empire’s silver is being stolen at source. Who better to send to audit fraud in such a dank and uncivilised colony than Frumentarius (Emperor’s investigator) Quintus Valerius, who fought in the Emperor’s Caledonian campaigns fifteen years ago in his teens, so knows the lands. His old Tribune, who saved his life back then and has since risen to Provincial Governor, has asked for Quintus by name.

Quintus is, if not happy, at least relieved to leave Rome. Since a scandal drove his father from the senate, his snobbish wife (a marriage arranged by his snobbish mother) is divorcing him. His house is up for sale and his mother intends Quintus to leap into action to clear his father’s name and reclaim the family reputation. Quintus would rather slip quietly away.

Even so, as long-buried memories surface (violence, comrades, a girl), Quintus wishes he had declined the summons. As well as Roman politics, murders and a suspicious dearth of silver from the mines, there are rumours of a resurgence of Druidism in the local tribes. To add to his problems he finds himself assigned Tiro, an illiterate drunk, as a very unpromising assistant: they dislike each other on sight.

A great set up for a frumentarius procedural, then: mismatched investigators, tribal unrest, colonial corruption and complications – including, of course, that girl, Julia Aureliana, now a powerful tribal leader and healer. Can the three of them overcome their mistrusts and different backgrounds to solve a murderous plot before they become its victims?

Quintus has a resigned dignity at life’s exactitudes; a quiet man with interesting depths as we get to know him. His companions also come vividly to life as the story progresses, and the landscapes are beautifully drawn, from Rome’s administrative refinements to the wilds of the Mendip Hills. (I know the latter, having grown up in Somerset. We’d call the old mining hollows and humps “gruffy ground”.)

Who is behind the silver thefts and murders? Just how high does corruption extend? Why is someone deliberately stirring up religious unrest?

There are nods to Lindsey Davis’s The Silver Pigs with the missing Britannia silver and a romance, but Rogers’s Quintus is a very different character from Davis’s wise-cracking detective, Falco, and the plot twists completely original.

I gather this is book one of a planned series and I can’t wait to read what Quintus, Tiro and Julia find themselves up against next.

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Review: The Witch House, by Ann Rawson




“The day I found Harry’s body started well.”

The opening line of The Witch House draws us into this twisty psychological whodunit with the death of someone familiar to the narrator, Alice Hunter. Alice’s day had been going down-hill in more prosaic ways before she discovers Harry’s corpse.

Alice may not be a reliable narrator. She doubts herself because she has been told she is unreliable. Should we doubt her, too? After her beloved grandmother’s death, Alice knows she set fire to many mementoes but she can’t remember much and evidence sometimes contradicts what she does remember. On that basis she was sectioned and spent months in a mental health facility. She’s still uncertain of herself, adjusting to relative freedom at last, when she find’s Harry’s corpse, laid out as if for a satanic ritual. Is it murder? Or has someone turned a natural death into a macabre spectacle?

Why are so many people, including the police, convinced Alice is the prime suspect in what may not even be a murder at first examination? Why do so many locals have so many secrets that involve Alice’s family? Her most trustworthy companion is a friend made during her stay in the dreaded institution who is on the run and comes to Alice for help.

The Witch House is deliciously complex, with fascinating characters. Alice has inherited the house from her grandmother, Frances Hunter, once a working class servant who, in her youth, discovered a Roman silver hoard, gave birth to an illegitimate baby (Alice’s mother, Helen), became high priestess of the local Wiccan coven and ran a respected business in the coastal town of Cuckmere.

Stiff-backed yet warm-hearted, Frances had taken in her granddaughter, Alice, as an infant when Helen wanted to live her own life, sometimes not bothering to visit Alice and Frances for months – even years, at one stage. When Helen was around, she undermined both her daughter and her mother given any opportunity. Helen is thoroughly selfish: whatever story she tells it will be the one that makes her the central victim, and she twists incidents to suit her without any second thought, gaslighting anyone who argues with her jealous imagination.

Now Frances is gone, Helen wants the house: as daughter it should be hers by right, she reckons, even though she has inherited other properties outright and the will was specific. Meanwhile, smooth-talking local politician and developer, Mark Stockman, is sure there must be more Roman treasure and Frances would have known where it was buried. All the characters seem to know more than they are admitting and several are adept at manipulating others.

As Alice unravels the tangled threads of The Witch House’s history and relationships, she finds herself in the centre of a web of deceit and discovers, in adversity, she is strong. If Alice isn’t responsible for Harry’s death, who is? If Alice is sane, who is mad? How far will they push their murderous intent?

Rawson’s narration is elegantly spare, letting her characters come alive through dialogue and Alice’s thoughts. Cuckmere’s coast and streets are a vivid setting for the story. The first chapter reminded me a little of the one Sophie Hannah novel I’ve read so far but after that I was captivated. (I know, I should read more Sophie Hannah because I will like her work eventually: my bad.)

I should confess that I’ve been a fan of Rawson’s writing for some time and I’m delighted to see The Witch House, her second novel, out with such an enthusiastic indie publisher as Red Dog.


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Review: The Becoming of Lady Flambé by Holly Magill

I’ve been to many poetry events over the last fifteen years and I love that frisson of meeting a new (to me) poet who has something beyond what I know in their poetry; something special and exciting. I felt that the first time I heard Magill read and I’ve been a fan ever since. Her work is closely observational, ventriloquist and often disturbing.

So, disclaimer: she’s a poetry friend (we only live a few miles apart so often meet at events) and I was delighted to learn Indigo Dreams were publishing The Becoming of Lady Flambé, which is a fabulous gem of a pamphlet.

Each poem can stand alone but, taken together, there’s enough character and plot to fill a full multi-volume saga here, distilled into precise poetry. You could write fan fiction (or poetry) based on this slender volume.

“I’m guessing most girls don’t get their first kiss / with a lad who eats fire seven nights a week, / and two matinees at weekends.” (Firestarter)

Lady Flambé has an unusual start in life, born into a circus, then injured as a toddler when Steve the elephant backs into her, crushing her foot. No pony acrobatics for her; she has to find her own way and deal with life as she meets it. “… I’m not allowed // to throw knives after that, Even so a man can function / with only one ear, and a missing testicle is a small matter.” (A small matter)

A tale of belonging, not belonging, difference, life, death, love and revenge in 35 pages. “This is my final match – I scrape its naughty / end across the box, watch it bloom blue-yellow-gold, / shiver in air that tastes like the first man I ever fucked.” (Bringing the house down)

“Legs stretched out – both feet bare / to the grass, the normal and the other.” (The becoming of Lady Flambé)

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Review: Assembly Lines by Jane Commane


Ledbury Poetry Festival is huge. I managed to get to a small fraction of events but, of those I went to, my stand-out single poem of the festival this year was Jane Commane’s UnWeather from her collection Assembly Lines (Bloodaxe Books). Without mentioning Brexit it captures: “…when dread moves in you like botulism / as the little island tilts on its foundations…”

A poem in five fiery stanzas.
A poem that considers what we are, were, should be, will be.
A poem deep-rooted in language and history and how both influence us now.
“We need a new word for how the bigotry in the mortar / became the bricks and stones and broken windows”

Assembly Lines X-rays middle England’s rotting back bone: a sense of place and time from “teenage angst […] between glasnost and things can only get better” to Brexit.
Here is not the England of Eton and country mansions, The Proms or grouse moorlands, cream teas, the National Trust, any Shakespeare Experience for awe-struck grockles.

“Someone tows the […] British Iles / further out into the Atlantic and cuts it adrift” (National Curriculum).

It’s not just Brexit but other aspects of the Midlands’ identity crisis that come under scrutiny. Midlands kids mourns a future “misplaced down the gap in the back seat” “of the long-gone marques of British manufacturing”.

There are also more cheerful poems: love songs for the Ordinance Survey, dogs, otters and Coventry; glorious joy even in the face of fear. But it’s Commane’s anger at betrayal that sears: “… unable / to bite the hand that fed us / our daily dish of lies, / such cold, damnable lies.”

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Review: #MeToo, ed. Deborah Alma

#MeToo exploded into public consciousness with Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace last October. Male interviewers were stunned that almost every woman added their own #MeToo incident. Many men were disbelieving. Women were shocked to discover we had so much in common that we had kept to ourselves: our shameful secrets became powerful overnight. Predictably there has been a backlash and a dragging of feet.

As I uploaded my review copy of the #MeToo poetry anthology the sleaze of the President’s Club’s men only “charity” event was exposed by undercover reporters from the Financial Times. A couple of days later Larry Nassar was sentenced for his sexual abuse of more than 160 women and girls under his care.

#MeToo has kicked-up to another level politically.

The foundations of #MeToo were laid long before hashtags were an internet thing by activist Tarana Burke supporting abused women of colour in downtown Brooklyn. Then, in October 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase to show solidarity with women abused by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as that scandal unfolded. Within days millions of women had responded relating incidents from the usual #EveryDaySexism of catcalls, followings and ‘Give us a smile, luv,’ to gaslighting, coercion and, yes, brutal rape and other forms of misogynistic power-driven violence.

Very few women are lucky enough not to have something in their past even if it might be something that can become an amusing anecdote (my husband’s tiny grandmother once saw off a twenty stone flasher by laughing at him and my granny proudly recalled shoving a handful of sheep droppings into the face of one amorous swain who tried to take advantage of her on Wearyall Hill in 1918).

There are a few women (and a lot more men) who say abuse is rare, that the low end “inappropriate behaviour” is misunderstanding; that snowflakes need to toughen up. But the thing is, it’s not rare behaviour, as #MeToo has shown; and the lack of respect of perpetrator for victim runs from pinched bottom to forced coitus. And it’s not all men, no, not by any means, but how do we know which are safe and which are wolves? Many of us have somehow found our way to gentle, kind, honest men who respect us and whom we can respect in turn. The serious abusers are almost always opportunistic serial offenders, as any study of sexual predation shows. They get off on what they can get away with. It’s not so much about sex but about power.

So far, so not a book review but I needed to get that off my mind and I should add the disclaimer that I could have considered writing poems about many aggravating, embarrassing or unnerving episodes (that groper in a packed carnival crowd; the pissed medical student who bit my buttock, drawing blood even through trousers, and ran away, laughing) but the only poem already written was Ode To My Rapist and the title makes the actual poem rather redundant. #MeToo.

The #MeToo poetry anthology is a snapshot of historic attitudes challenged here and now. Many poems draw on childhood and teen memories as well as highlighting workplace and general abuse. It’s not necessarily just one incident that upsets but the sheer weight of apparently minor incident after incident and always being vigilant for the next incident (because it might be serious) that gets to us, as Jo Brand wearily enlightened male panellists on Have I Got News For You.

There are men who already got it before #MeToo broke (all of those kind, generous men mentioned earlier who do not measure their worth or strength by abusing others in their care); there are those who are assimilating the facts (“But they must have known what kind of event it was,” a chap plainted on Facebook yesterday regarding the President’s Club; my friends explained that, no, how could they? and then elucidated the art of victim-blaming, an understanding that seems to have escaped Germaine Greer recently.) Mark Steel is brilliant on the President’s Club evening: “What do women expect? Men can’t help it. So often you sit down for dinner and out comes the penis onto the table without you even seeing it. They’re attracted by roast potatoes.”

There’s precious little comedy in #MeToo. If you’re looking for a light read for the darkest days of winter this is not the anthology for you. If you’re looking for positive masculine role models this is not the anthology for you. The poems come from all angles and backgrounds (as do abusers) but they are stark reminders of damage and hurt, mental and physical. The final section offers poems of hope, which are very welcome by then. If you are looking for honed catharsis this is the book to buy. All profits will be donated to Women’s Aid UK.

#MeToo opens with a poem by Wendy Pratt, Reeds:

…A disused quarry         the pits
…Men fish here.

Men and monsters. The #MeToo anthology is a horrific litany of lecherous and violent men and boys (and a girl) – often older, knowing how to coerce, knowing their power – looming through the poems that follow. The youngest victims are innocent, naïve in their betrayed trust and near-miss escapes while the older women abused are as wide a mixture as humanity. They keep secrets. They blame themselves, as in Helen Mort’s poem My Fault, where the fault becomes a physical manifestation of the narrator’s experience:

…smile of a moon
above the house they’d say I shouldn’t

have been in, rim of the glass I shouldn’t
have touched. It turns into a zip, slit

Some victims are frozen (it happens: I can vouch for that – another reason for self-blame, of course); others put up a fight. Vasiliki Albedo’s narrator (Tumescence Inflammatoria) poisons or contemplates poisoning her attacker with aconite flower pollen “a pistil’s flick from his tea.” In Now, When I Think About Women Emily Sernaker’s narrator moves to New York as

a girl my age went for a run.
People said it was her fault…
…before she died she bit her attacker
so hard her teeth cracked.

Only one narrator takes on the voice of an abuser in Jaqueline Saphra’s disturbing To Hear a Mermaid Sing:

Tailless, tongueless, witless slut of the waves.
…She was salt and sand.
Fed her vodka. Dunked her in the sea.

The focus of the anthology is, axiomatically, narrow but Saphra’s gender switch leavens the mixture. Later in the book Saphra questions Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, Adam (Spunk):

Would you, with longing, spread your legs for this,
bear more like him? It seems so far to fall.
Must this man be the father of us all?

We’re Stuck with these monsters who have taken pleasure damaging us for their satisfaction, as Judi Sutherland’s poem pictures her narator cringing at male banter:

So, this joke’s an opportunist in a lift
… I’m pressed against
these sliding doors that closed and will not open.

There are uplifting lines. There is hope. The anthology is testament to this. In What You Do When Your Child Is Born Of Rape Louisa Campbell ends “You find a hundred ways to teach her not to take what isn’t hers.”

In This Poem is for You Roz Goddard imagines “women gathering me in boat arms…until I was strong.” The final poem by Pippa Little, Spartica, avows we are no longer alone in our shame: “we stand together…each voice stronger”.

Our sisters, our daughters and our granddaughters-to-be will now know that this is how it has been – how it was – and things change. Abusers’ sons and descendants will not have women’s complicity in secrecy. Change is happening but it will take continued vigilance and determination. As Rachael Clyne’s You Will Never Be Anyone Else says,

It’s that simple,
I didn’t say easy.


#MeToo, ed. Deborah Alma, Fair Acre Press will be published on March 8 (International Women’s Day)

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Poetry Click Bait

Poetry, like song, is as old as human speech. Perhaps song is even older, a hark to community from pre-Homo sapiens; cadences without words but yet full of meaning. The first stories were carried in memory and poetry lends itself to memory with its rhythms and word chimes. It’s no accident that much ancient religious text is poetic. By the time we come to recorded history poetry can morph into a written medium and lend itself to many forms: romance; political rabble rousing; humour; religion; ballads of deeds gone by. All with their audience, their place, their time, their passion.

Our urge to create art, to communicate, to be something more than ourselves fights back against mass media, slick promotions and accepted norms. This is what art does. It is what art has always done: it sets out culture and, at the same time, it challenges culture. Meanwhile it’s all become big business. Music is a huge boost to the British economy; Ed Sheeran brings in millions.

Even poetry is big business. Not usually in book sales or reading fees but in workshops, training and, above all, in academic settings: preschool picture books; SATs; cultural studies; languages; literature; creative writing MAs and PhDs.

In the early Twentieth Century the imagists disagreed with the Georgians; the Dymock crowd did their own thing despite Eliot and the war poets captured horror that moves us still. Poetry movements and manifestos proliferated.

These days new poetry book sales are small – a few hundred units if we are lucky; an ad showing on the telly, perhaps – but poetry’s influence extends far beyond its sale units. While academic poetry studies the cannon (all too often great white men chosen by white men who would like to join their ranks) and the “best” of the new (see previous brackets though women are now allowed) the swamps beyond our ivory towers bubble up all kinds of poetics. Because poetry is still the most basic of the arts. It’s still something that is in our brainstems and our guts. It’s something a lot of us post on the internet and take to local cafes or pubs to share with others of a like mind.

Poetry and song. Pop pap vs hip hop and rap. A mainstream that plays for money. An unashamed search for emotional punch, crowd-pleasing, ego-teasing, obliging or the opposite: defiant.

Punks and ranters telling it in the eighties – Attila the Stockbroker, Seething Wells – and still telling it now but maybe in rap – Kate Tempest, Dreadlock Alien.

We laugh it when it’s out of tune, amateur and uncertain. Kids singing karaoke in their bedrooms; Grandad reciting If at the Christmas party. We denigrate it when it sells. Anything that sells must have sold out, right? It only feels “authentic” if it’s edgy and on the edge; Ed Sheeran is embarrassing rubbish. Hollie McNish is crap. We can see where they’re coming from. It looks easy.

Try it: it isn’t.

Ed Sheeran learned guitar very young and sang in his church choir from the age of four. He was already writing songs in Middle School and recording them when he was in his early teens. He made use of social media and home tech to record, network and collaborate with other young musicians. He helped others who helped him. He worked and then worked some more. A combination of talent, creativity, sociability, hard practice, skill and, above all determination, carried him to his breakthrough album at only twenty. Whether or not you like his music he knows exactly how to grab his audience and carry them.

Would you send an opera expert to review a Sheeran gig for an opera magazine? Would you even mention a new Ed Sheeran album in an opera magazine? No. So why is academic magazine PN Review setting a determinedly classical poet to review a new book by Hollie McNish? The resulting embarrassment and upset all round was foreseeable, surely. The review is utterly inappropriate at best and, at its vilest, vilifies the poet and her audience not just the book.

I’ve been writing poetry for fifteen years now (and reading it since childhood) but I am what Patterson labels as amateur (2004 TS Eliot lecture). As I asked at the time, how does one become a poetry apprentice? By taking a degree tutored by him?

And now he’s done a volte face, blurbing McNish’s Plum.

I’m coming at this from a rarefied corner, perhaps. I am an academic by training but in science not the arts. I am working class and middle class, depending on mood (my gran went into service aged 12 but I went to uni and worked at Cambridge and Stanford). I love well-crafted, intelligent poetry – page poetry, though I always read it aloud to myself – and I love a good performance, too.

Above all, if you are reviewing something you hate but others apparently love, try to work out what it is you lack, rather than denigrating its wider audience’s lack of taste, education and intelligence.

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Fat Man Blues: song by Richard Walls and Tone Tanner

A novel about the blues now has a song to accompany it.

Malvern Writers' Circle

Richard Wall’s Fat Man Blues project recently featured on Spillwords with a song in collaboration with Tone Tanner. Click on the image to hear the song (and read its lyrics):

18 01 fat man blues on spillwords

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