Episode #153 End of year round-up: Manda’s favourite podcasts, fiction and non-fiction of 2022
As we do each year, we’ve curated a list of the Accidental Gods’ favourite podcast and books of 2022. Enjoy!
Nate Hagens The Great Simplification – fourth of four (so far) with Daniel Schmachtenberger
The Sustainable Food Trust episode with Dr Michael Antoniou
Global Governance Futures with Jacqueline McGlade
‘It’s Bloody Complicated’ by Compass – Episode with Byron Fay of Climate 200
Catherine Weetman Circular Economy Podcast
Catherine with Simon Hombersely of Xampla
The Rest is Politics with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart – episode w Mark Drakeford
The Club on the Edge of Town – Alan Lane
Flourish – Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn
A People’s Green New Deal – Max Ajl
Our Farming Life – Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer
(also A Dairy Story – David and Wilma Finlay of The Ethical Dairy)
How the World is Making our Children Mad and What to Do about it – Louis Weinstock
The Barn at the End of the World:The Apprenticeship of a Quaker Buddhist Shepherd – Mary Rose O’Reilley
Novels – Manda’s personal favourites
The Kingdoms – Natasha Pulley
Tuyo – Rachel Neumeier
Kingdom of Silence – Jonathan Grimwood (also Jack Grimwood and Jon Courtenay Grimwood)
Naomi Novik – The Golden Enclaves – Lesson 3 in the Scholomance Trilogy
The Stranger Times – CK McDonnell (also The Dublin Trilogy by Caimh McDonnell) BUNNY McGARRY
Ink and Sigil series – Kevin Hearn
Manda: This is the time of the year where we’re heading down to the solstice, to the kind of cultural festival of acquisition and reflection, hopefully more of the latter than the former, where I take an episode to outline the things that I’ve read or listened to over the past year that I found really inspiring, and that I want to share with you, and that you may want to share with family and friends. In previous years, we’ve mainly done books with a bit about podcasts at the end, but thanks to some feedback after last year, this year we’re going for the podcasts first. And these come in no particular order. I just spent the morning exploring my listening for the past year and wondering what I really enjoyed, and I’ve decided as an addition this year that I will tell you about the podcast in general, but I’m going to focus in on one specific episode that has really stood out for me in each one. There’s going to be five podcasts, five fiction books, five hardback books with a possible couple of extra editions if I get round to it.
So here we go, people of the podcast, things that I think are worth listening to and reading from the past year. The first of the podcasts is Nate Hagen’s The Great Simplification. I came to this quite late this year and I hadn’t really got on top of who Nate Hagens was, which now I look at it, was obviously a huge gap in my understanding. Nate Hagens is the director of the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future, an organisation which, it says on the website, focuses on educating and preparing society for the coming cultural transition. Allied with leading ecologists, energy experts, politicians and systems thinkers, the Institute assembles roadmaps and off ramps for how human societies can adapt to lower throughput lifestyles. And if that doesn’t sound like accidental gods, then one or other of us hasn’t been paying attention. So his podcast is really specific. Nate’s thing is that our elephant in the room, our blind spot, is our energy use. And he talks to a whole series of very well informed, very interesting individuals. The overwhelming majority are white men, which is kind of interesting. And he’s begun to step out of that silo a little bit recently. But on the whole white men. Which doesn’t stop them from having really interesting views and understanding and knowledge.
I was going to highlight the episode with Simon Michaux, who’s an Australian mining engineer, currently living and working in Helsinki and looking specifically at supply chains and material flows. Because that was one of the most devastatingly fact filled podcasts I’ve heard in quite a while. But Simon Michaux is coming on Accidental Gods sometime in February, so I thought instead I would highlight in the show notes the conversation with Daniel Schmachtenberger. Those of you who listen regularly, will know that I think Schmachtenberger is one of the sharpest thinkers of our age. He is extremely good at delineating the breadth of the systemic crisis that we now face and of finding ways of explaining the systems ness of it, that are clear and succinct and easy to grasp. Which doesn’t make it short. This podcast is over 2 hours long, and it’s the fourth of what is going to be an ongoing series. The series is called Bend Not Break; Modelling the Drivers of the Meta-crisis. If you have the stamina, I would strongly recommend that you go back to the first one and listen to them all in order, but that’s going to take quite a while. If you’ve only got time for one, then I think you can pick up on the fourth one, because they kind of precis what they’ve done in the rest of the conversation. And it is the leaping off point to the fifth one. Which is having delineated the problem they are then going to begin to look at what Schmachtenberger sees as the solutions.
And I really want to know what he has in mind, if nothing else I can perhaps incorporate ideas into the book. But definitely we can begin to form some kind of a cohesive narrative of where we could be going, as opposed to where we are going and why we need that. So this is a very ideas dense podcast episode and having foisted it on a number of friends recently, it seems that some of the language might be difficult to get your head around, until you get used to the way that Schmachtenberger speaks, in systems speak. I think it’s well worth persevering, because the ideas behind it are the ones that we need to be running with. So that’s that. The great simplification with Nate Hagens and the episode with Daniel Schmachtenberger.
Next to my list is the Sustainable Food Trust Podcast with Patrick Holden. Those of you who listen closely will know that Patrick has been on the Accidental Gods podcast. He also came and talked to us in the Thrutopia Masterclass earlier in the summer. He used to be director of the Soil Association, which is one of the UK’s organic certifiers, and now he’s the founder and the chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, whose mission is to accelerate the transition to sustainable food systems. Inspired by their philosophy of the interconnectedness of the health of soil, plants, animals and people. The Trust’s vision is for future food and farming systems which nourish the health of people and planet and are equitable and accessible to all. And because Patrick is one of the Gods of the sustainable, regenerative, organic, whatever we call it, farming movement in the UK, his podcast is able to invite some really high powered guests. They’ve had Simon Fairlie, who was co-editor of The Ecologist magazine, Anya Hindmarch, who’s a fashion designer, Dan Saladino, who’s a journalist and broadcaster, really well known in this area.
And then the episode I’ve linked in the shownotes is with Dr. Michael Antonio, who’s a leading molecular geneticist and head of the gene expression and therapy group at King’s College London. And he’s talking about gene editing and pesticide use. Which is, I have to say, largely glyphosate use, roundup in the UK. And if you want the data and the arguments for why you never, ever want to use glyphosate on any land anywhere near you or eat anything that has had glyphosate on land anywhere near it, then this is the podcast you need to listen to. It’s not necessarily easy listening, but again, it’s the kind of thing that once we know it, we can share it, which is one of my current themes. I think that all of us, whatever else we’re doing, can write letters to the local newspaper or blogs or reviews of podcasts for the local parish magazine in which we include things like this, in a list of others. Just people, if you want to know why never to use round up in your garden ever again, this is why. And then it’s possible, I think, to get lots of local residents together to ask the local supermarket to just not stock the roundup and keep that movement going. Because biosphere destruction is right at the top of the list of things that are going to finish off the entire planet. And glyphosate seems to me to be one of the absolute keys to this. We need to stop using it. And if we can do it locally on a small scale, then the ripple effect of that spreads outwards and it can be stopped on a broader scale. So listen to this podcast. Get out there and see what you can do to stop glyphosate use in your area.
Next on my list is Global Governance Futures, the podcast of the Global Governance Institute, which is part of University College London, and is a university wide initiative promoting cross-disciplinary research and informed public debate on possible solutions to global societal challenges. And again, this is a podcast that invites some really spectacularly interesting people to come and talk to it. And the episode that I’m highlighting in the show notes is with Jacqueline McGlade, a professor of resilience and sustainable development at UCL. She’s also the Frank Jackson Foundation professor of the Environment at Gresham College and professor at Strathmore University Business School in Kenya. All of which is really impressive.
What really struck me about this podcast is she lives in Kenya and somewhere a while ago she ended up marrying a young chieftain in the Maasai tribe. And so she spends at least half of her time in the Masai Mara Nature reserve in Kenya. And I am not going to spoil the podcast by telling you how this came about, but it was one of those stories that just resonated with me and continues so to do. And what I found really interesting was the extent to which she is now able to speak from both halves of a cultural divide that is not crossed very often. Not many of us are at the academic level that she is, and able to see things from a completely different tribal cultural perspective. To give us a sense of where the gaps are in our Western educated, industrial, rich, democratic, weird vision of the world. It was a really, really interesting podcast. All of their podcasts are well worth listening to, but this one in particular definitely worth an hour of your time.
Next up is it’s Bloody Complicated, the Compass podcast. Which more or less is aimed at people in the UK. I apologise to all those of you, not in the UK. There will be something similar, I hope, in wherever you are in the world. For us, Compass is the home for everyone and anyone who wants to be part of a much more equal, democratic and sustainable future. And again, Neal Lawson of Compass was a guest on the Accidental Gods podcast a couple of weeks ago. His vision of a future political settlement that we could move to if we can manage to get PR going in the UK, was, I thought, extraordinary. Although I would like to see other countries who already have PR moving towards that. I don’t think it’s a given, but it was definitely an exciting idea. The episode I pulled into the show notes is probably the least parochial. It’s the lessons from the Teal Independents in Australia. So it’s Neal in conversation with Byron Fay, who’s the CEO of Climate 200 and one of the core supporters of the Teal Movement. And they’re discussing the ways that they managed to use local kitchen table conversations to build a movement of independents in Australia, that had significantly moved the Overton Window and the actual results significantly, at least towards the centre, if not towards the left. I have quite a lot of doubts about a movement that seemed to me to be looking for a green agenda with a neoclassical economic foundation, because I think that’s utterly impossible. As you’ll know, if you’ve listened to any other episode of this podcast ever, I think predatory capitalism is not compatible with the continuation of life on the planet as we know it. So I don’t quite see how they square that circle, but that doesn’t stop it from being an interesting lesson of how to build a political movement from the ground up. So, It’s Bloody complicated, from Compass, with Neal Lawson is number three.
Fourth is the Circular Economy Podcast with Catherine Weetman, author of The Circular Economy Handbook; How to Build a More Resilient, Competitive and Sustainable Business. And actually, I’ve decided in the end to link two podcasts to this one. I was originally going to link to the one with Simon Hombersley, who’s CEO of Xampla, which is a university spinoff company that has created the world’s first plant protein material for commercial use. Pioneering the replacement of the most polluting plastics with natural alternatives, which is pretty good. And I used to work at Cambridge and I like it, and I think this is a good thing and it’s a lovely podcast and it’s quite inspiring. And one of the great things about Catherine’s podcast is that she does bring business leaders, often really high powered business leaders, into a place where they can be often quite brutally honest about the waste in their particular industry and what they’re trying to do to become more sustainable. But then there’s the question of what sustainability is and whether sustainable and regenerative are different things. And later, when we get on to the book Flourish, which is one of my favourite non-fiction books, the authors of that are really clear that sustainability just means doing slightly less harm, whereas regeneration means repairing the harm we’ve already done and is essential.
And so I was really interested that Catherine’s most recent podcast at the time of recording this, it only came out a couple of days ago; is does circular mean it’s sustainable? And let’s assume for the sake of argument that Catherine uses sustainable as I would perhaps use regenerative. So this is more of someone who’s deeply involved in business, and in business that believes in sustainability as something more than greenwash, as something that they actually want to do. And she’s beginning to look at the question of whether the circular economy is what we need. What she says in the show notes is over the last few years, she’s come to realise that the circular economy is not fit for purpose. It’s not helping create the future we need. Instead it’s being watered down and cherry picked and she’s seeing increasing numbers of businesses and policy makers choosing strategies that are circular but aren’t improving sustainability. And she’s going to be talking about the loopholes, rather than the loops, on the basis that we are at a critical turning point and that we need to evolve the circular economy into a framework that supports the futures we want. The future we know is possible. And that sounds well into what Accidental Gods is trying to do. So that one, too, is really worth a listen.
And then narrowing down to the last one for number five was really hard. There are all the ones that I mentioned last year: The Hive, Upstream, Tristan Harris with Your Undivided Attention. And then there are new ones that have come to my attention in the past year; particularly the Debunking Economics podcast with Steve Keen, which for me is an absolute must listen. But I kind of think you need to be an economics geek to get that one. So I’m kind of wary of suggesting it to people who might not find economics quite as fascinating as I do. In a similar vein, I’m not pushing on you the podcast called Drinking from the Toilet, even though I think it has the best title in podcast land. Because it’s really geeky animal behaviour, particularly dog behaviour. And if that’s not your thing, you’re not really going to like it. But then I’ve chosen quite a geeky political podcast for my last one, and that’s both parochial and possibly slightly focussed on politics again, as was It’s Bloody Complicated. But then I am at the point where living is political. You cannot be in this world at the moment and not have a political position. Even if you do nothing, it’s a default to the people who are ruling us. And having spent the last year trying to write a novel that drags us through, into the more beautiful future our hearts know is possible, I am 100% certain that we need to change the political system.
And up to a point, for me, that means I need to broaden my horizons a bit. I do live in a progressive, eco, regenerative, forward future flourishing bubble, and so I need to listen to people who don’t necessarily live in that bubble, without actually blowing every blood vessel I’ve got. Which is why number five is The Rest is Politics with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart. And yes, Alastair Campbell was spinmeister for Tony Blair, whom I loathe with a passion beyond speaking. And Rory Stewart was a Tory politician. And I’m right there with Nicola Sturgeon on my view of Tories. Which for those of you outside the UK, there was a bit of a ruckus a couple of weeks ago because Nicola Sturgeon, who is the First Minister of Scotland, was asked whether she would like to combine with the Tories or with Labour, both of which are Unionist parties and therefore not really what she’d want to combine with anyway. And she said, I despise the Tories and everything they stand for. And the Tories all went, Oh my God, she said she despises us! Which was hilarious, given the kinds of things they normally say on Twitter, should you happen to look that way. So I’m with her. I despise the Tories and everything they stand for. I have never met a Tory that I didn’t utterly despise. But if you’re going to have one that might be less despicable than the rest, then Rory Stewart would be that one. He’s not an MP anymore. He’s not even a member of the party anymore. So I can listen to a podcast that is basically someone who is…. Let me rephrase that. Someone who considers themselves to be left of centre, which is Alastair Campbell. And someone who considers themselves to be right of centre, which is Rory Stewart, I consider them both to be a long way to the right of where I would put the centre. But I am prepared to concede that my centre might be somewhere off the scale of everybody else’s; and it is proving really interesting to listen to their views on the world. Not least because both of them have quite strong links to the subcultures of the UK political establishment. Such that, for instance, Alastair Campbell was on a train, going to some football match somewhere recently, while the whole U.K. let’s pick a prime minister for the week thing was going on. And he said that the anti Sunak brigade in the Tory party, which is to say the racists, had set up a number of WhatsApp groups and it was really easy to hop onto them (really easy for Alastair Campbell to hop onto them) and he did so. And then he relayed to us what he found. Which was basically that they’re all racists and they hate the idea that somebody not white might be prime minister of the United Kingdom. Surprise, surprise.
So I am finding it one of my must listens of the week and I’m sharing it with you. The one that I’m putting into the show notes is the episode with Mark Drakeford, who is the First Minister of Wales. Who is one of the sanest politicians I have ever heard, bar none. Listening to him is like listening to a slightly older, male, Welsh version of Jacinda Ardern. He’s just very good. And I thought, wherever you are in the world, to listen to someone who actually gets it and can express that they get it in intelligent terms, even while being needled by someone who clearly doesn’t get it, which is Rory Stewart. It’s worth it. It’s fun. I hope you enjoy it. So that’s it for the podcasts.
Manda: We’re going to move on now to hardback books, and I’ll run through those a little bit more quickly. The first of these is called The Club On the Edge of Town by Alan Lane, published by Salamander Street Press. And I’m going to read you a little bit from the back cover: There are children in Holbeck without crayons, living in a city with an opera company. An opera company paid for with money from all of us. Until everyone has crayons, no one gets opera. That’s what I believe. And that’s Alan Lane. And this is subtitled A Pandemic Memoir, which is probably the dullest subtitle you could possibly imagine for a book that is so exciting. Alan Lane will be coming onto the podcast in January, I think, sometime in early 2023. He’s director of the theatre company Slung Low, which is currently in Holbeck, which is one of the most deprived areas of Leeds, which is one of the most deprived cities in a nation which is busy creating of itself a really deprived status. And Alan achieves things. Slung Low became a foodbank distributor during the pandemic, but even before that, they’ve taken over the oldest working men’s club in England, which was about to go bankrupt, and turned it into what sounds like an extraordinary chimaera. Because the people who had previously run the oldest working men’s club in England, were not interested for instance, in it having a different title. Or in having people who weren’t old and white and probably readers of the Daily Mail, as part of their clientele. And he got it going, and they had their standard membership in the bar downstairs. And when he came on to Thrutopia for us in the summer, he said that upstairs they would be hosting the local LGBT Asian women’s football team. Of which he said they didn’t play football very well, but they won all the fights in the car park. Which just I’m sure that’s a very good thing to be able to win all the fights in the car park.
Alan is extraordinary, and this book reads with such fluency. As a writer, I am genuinely in awe of the prose and the way that it flows. And as a memoir, it’s mind blowing. Honestly, I am buying copies of this for almost everybody that I would give a book to, over whatever we’re going to call this winter season. Which isn’t, I have to say, very many people. But if you’re one of them, you will be getting a copy of the club on the edge of town, so don’t go out and buy it. The rest of you, definitely do. Buy it for yourself, buy it for your friends. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful book and an extraordinary beacon of hope of what’s possible, if we just get together. Their basic rule is: be kind, be useful. Everybody gets to do what they want. Nobody gets to say what somebody else can or cannot do. And yes, they did discover boundaries to that last one, particularly in a place where they went through Brexit and then a pandemic. So people were being told what they could and couldn’t do. But generally, basically as a baseline belief, they have lived it. And it’s amazing.
Manda: Second of my non-fiction must reads, and another one that I’ve already bought for a number of friends, is Flourish by Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn. Subtitled Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency.
Manda: And this is just a book that blew my mind. Any book that opens with a quote from Murray Bookchin and is immediately followed by Arundhati Roy has to be a good book. I’m going to read you both quotes. First Murray Bookchin: ‘If we do not do the impossible, we will be faced with the unthinkable’. Indeed. And then Arundhati Roy, the one you all know: ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’. And this is a book by a designer and an architect, but everybody needs to read it. It’s not a design textbook. It’s a book about how we look at the whole of our world and redesign it in ways that will work. It’s a book that highlights what systems thinking is about and then how can we use it. I keep thinking about writing a non-fiction book basically called Yes, But What Can I Do? And I read Flourish and thought, Well, I definitely don’t need to write it for a wee while. Because this is, not perhaps on an exactly day to day basis of okay, so shift your bank account, join Compass and whatever other local political units there are; begin to change how you eat. Those kinds of things. It’s not that. But in terms of systemic thinking and ideas, it’s absolutely right on the nail. I’m just going to read you the chapter highlights.
First one is: Possiblism, evidence, uncertainty and agency. The next one is Co-evolution as Nature: stewardship and living systems. The third one is A Longer Now: deep cyclical time and holarchic progress. The fourth is Symbiogenesis: Mutualism, citizen activism and public luxury. And the fifth and final one is Planetary Health, Qualitative development, living metrics and flows. It’s got everything you need; of where we’re at and how we can begin to move on a systems level. And I just think you’ll love it, really do give it a go.
Third on the list is A People’s Green New Deal by someone whose surname I don’t really know how to pronounce; Max Ajl. I need to explore that. And everybody knows that green new deals are either greenwash or going to save the planet and nobody seems to know which it is. And this is the book that outlines why the corporate Green New Deal is greenwash, but there is a potential for one that would actually work. Reading from the back, Jason Hickel, author of Less is More, who is one of my absolute heroes, says ‘this is hands down the best book yet on the Green New Deal. Courageous, bold, refreshing. It envisions an eco socialist transition that is rooted in principles of global justice’. Rob Wallace, author of Dead Epidemiologists (cracking title), says ‘If you really want to learn what will be necessary for our species to survive climate apocalypse, read this’.
So there we go. What better recommendation could there be? Again, this is a really well thought book from someone who understands the systemic nature of what’s happening and is prepared to grapple with numbers and concepts and statistics and boil them down into actual human actions at the ground level. I think if everybody listening read this book and then went out into the world and endeavoured to make it happen, we could really get there. So I recommend if you’re listening to this podcast, you read this book. And then having read it, if you enjoy it, pass it to as many of your circle as you can and we can begin to get these ideas flowing in the world, as if they were the new normal.
Moving on the non-fiction list would not be complete without something that involves regenerative farming. And this year it’s Our farming Life by Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer. And we did speak to Lynn back in the summer on the podcast. But the book is really well-worth reading. These are two young women who decided they wanted to live the dream and ended up buying a derelict croft on the side of the Cairngorms in Scotland, which is not the most hospitable land in the world. And they’re making it work. And it’s a really raw, unflinching view of how hard that was. There was a point where they got a grant for trees and the two of them planted 47,000 trees to a deadline. And yes, it did help that they had both worked for the National Trust and were both quite familiar with how to plant trees. But even so, that’s a lot of hard work. So it’s nonetheless an incredibly heartwarming and beautiful, encouraging book. And if you’ve ever felt that what you wanted to do was just kick in the urban life and go and live the dream without it turning into a nightmare, then this is definitely the book for you. Shout out in the same vein to A Dairy Story by David and Wilma Finlay of the Ethical Dairy, which is another story of turning farming towards regeneration. Which if you’ve listened to the podcast at all you will know is exactly where I think we need to go. And it again, is a no holds barred story of the journey from conventional farming to organic, to 100% pasture fed, to regenerative calf on cow dairy. It’s the kind of UK’s equivalent to Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil, which was one of the founding books of the regenerative farming movement. So I throw that in as an extra in the farming slot.
And then we move on to Louis Weinstock book, How the World Is Making Our Children Mad and What to Do About It, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It tells us how the world is making our children mad, and then it tells us what to do about it. But this is not only a book for parents because this tells us, I think, how the world is driving our inner children mad. Even those of us who don’t have children are at the stage where those parts of us that feel raw and threatened and unable to cope, are going quietly mad and screaming in the corner. And Louie’s book is so full of compassion and emotional intelligence and ways that the wise adult parts of ourselves can talk to the child quivering in the corner; in the spaces of our own minds, our own egos, our own energy fields, whatever you like to call it. So again, I think this is one of those books that each of us needs to read and then to hand to anybody and everybody that we know.
And the final one on the list is one that I bought recently for a friend. It’s called The Barn at the End of the World. It’s by Mary Rose O’Reilly. And the subtitle is The Apprenticeship of a Quaker Buddhist Shepherd, which is definitely enough to grab your attention. Right. So I’m going to read you the first couple of paragraphs because it is just beautiful: ‘Restless I go down to the barn and attempt to dissect the concept of peace. As I help Anna cleaning out the lambing pens, my skirt pinned up under an apron, mind and body begin to alter their usual relationship to each other. I cannot think about peace. I cannot think about anything. This is a natural consequence of doing the kind of repetitive work called mindless by those who disdain it. Yet my mind is not so much absent as still; it’s not at its usual station in my head, but diffused throughout my body. Or slid beyond my body even, to encompass all that’s going on in the barn. My hands are efficiently chucking down clean straw. And as I watch the ewe position herself for the scrambling lamb my nipples contract in the reflex of a nursing mother. If I were not well past the childbearing years, my blouse might be soaked with milk. This is a passing negligible sensation, a product merely of being present. I do not stop working to examine it. A casual dissolution of boundaries, body to body, happens when you work in the barn. With animals it’s safe and pertinent to have no edges. It helps you to manage sheep and them to manage you. If I bother to retrieve my mind, I find it shared out among the ewes, who have made good time with it’.
It’s beautiful. And again, if you have the time and the space and the stillness to read it, I really recommend this book. And then, again, buy it for all and any of your friends who would enjoy the beauty and the lyricism, the sheer poetry of that writing, and who would get all of the sentiments underlying it.
Manda: And now we come to the fiction. And first on this list, and this is definitely top of the list. Nothing else has been in order, but I’ve discovered Natasha Pulley, and I can’t quite believe I hadn’t discovered her before, because now I know that everything she writes is going to be my favourite book until the next thing she writes. So I started off with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and carried on to its sequel, The Lost Futures of Pepper Harrow. And then I have saved a middle one for a point when I’ve got some space because it’s a standalone as far as I can tell, and I want to read it alone. Then I got to The Kingdoms and then very recently The Half Life of Valerie K and it’s been really hard to choose between those two. So in general, these would be counted as literary books because they’re not easy, effortless reading, but they definitely bear the work. The language is so beautiful, the characterisation is just extraordinary and her capacity to play with time is amazing. The first two, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Lost Futures of Pepper Harrow, have a central character who can see down timelines and influence things. Which is how I came to them, because that’s what I was writing in the book I’ve just handed in. Then we get to The Kingdoms, which is, I think, the one that I’m going to put in the show notes, which is an extraordinary dual timeline book that centres around a lighthouse and on an island off the west coast of Scotland.
And there is another book that came out at almost exactly the same time, by another young woman who teaches literary fiction or literary writing, rather, at one of the universities in Scotland, which is also set around a lighthouse on an island off the west coast of Scotland. And each of these lighthouses have the capacity to slip people through time. There’s a time gateway there, and The Kingdoms rocks back and forth around the potential Napoleonic invasion of the UK. The Battle of Trafalgar, really, and who won it. And what happens if somebody from a future where Trafalgar was run by the English, ends up back in time before the battle and the French find out that this is the battle that they need to win. Which sounds really complicated and actually is really complicated. And as a writer, I am in awe of how she manages it. Because she flips backwards and forwards through the timelines. There are two primary characters, and I’m going to read you a couple of paragraphs from the opening from Joe’s timeline, which is in London in 1898, 93 years after the Battle of Trafalgar.
‘Most people have trouble recalling their first memory because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes. But Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his 43rd birthday. He stepped down off the train. That was it, the very first thing he remembered. But the second was something less straightforward. It was the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but that at the same time it was all wrong. It was early in the morning and cursedly cold. Vapour hissed on the black engine right above him. Because the platform was only a couple of inches above the tracks, the double pistons of the wheels were level with his waist. He was so close he could hear the water boiling above the furnace. He stepped well away, feeling tight with the certainty it was about to lurch forward. The train had just come in. The platform was full of people looking slow and stiff from the journey, all moving towards the concourse. The sweet carbon smell of coal smoke was everywhere. Because it was only just light outside the round lamps of the station gave everything a pale glow and cast long, hazy shadows. Even the steam had a shadow; a shy devil, trying to decide whether to be solid or not. Joe had no idea what he was doing there’.
So that’s Joe arriving off a train from Glasgow. And the fact that quite a lot of the story is set in Scotland is, of course not the reason that I loved it. Genuinely. I absolutely love this book. I have already bought copies for a number of people of my acquaintance and I will be sending more copies to other people. Because frankly, if you’re going to buy something for people at this time when we should absolutely not be adding to the conspicuous consumption of the world, I think buying books is probably still okay. And the other book that I will also be buying for people is her most recent one, which is called The Half Life of Valerie K. And just because I can, and this is really… I’m just taking advantage of you now, but this is just so beautiful. So this is set in Russia. And it has one of those premises that you think you just can’t write a novel about that. It’s about a guy who’s in Siberia in the Gulag. He’s a scientist, and he ends up being dragged away. This is not a spoiler. I’m not telling you anything you’re not about to find out. And he’s part of the Russian nuclear program. And you think, right, this is not a novel I would want to read, honestly, but I promise you, it is. Here we go. This is Siberia, 1963:.
Manda: ‘Possibly because French made it sound fancy and respectable, the wake up call for the prisoners was called Revi. In fact, it was just one of the guards banging a bit of pipe against an iron bar outside the barracks. If he was in the right mood, the guard would take rhythm requests. On what Valery Kolkhanov did not yet know was his final morning, it was blue suede shoes. Valery eased himself upright, one hand in the roots of his hair, because it was frozen to the pillow. The hessian blankets crackled. There was frost on the top side of the weave. He touched the rafters, which were just above his head and sparkling too, and bent forward to stretch out his shoulders. Something fluffy, scuffled into his lap and squeaked. Boris, the sociable rat. Valery stroked his ears in the dark. For reasons known only to himself, Boris stole nails from all over the camp. He gave Valery the latest and then rolled over to have his tummy scratched. ‘Who’s a good rat?’ Valery said, pleased. Everyone used nails as needles for darning, and if Boris brought in four or five a month, Valery could get an entire can of condensed milk, just by selling them on. He wasn’t sure why Boris had decided that he, Valery,ought to get the nails. But he wasn’t in the habit of looking gift rats in the mouth.’.
Manda: So there we go. There’s something about the quality of the relationships that Natasha Pulley creates, that are beautiful and almost ethereal and deeply, deeply moving. I think she creates men who have real depth. But she’s a woman writing men. And I’m a woman reading a woman, writing men and I would be really interested from anyone out there, from a male perspective, as to whether they feel as authentic to you as they do to me.
Manda: Anyway, we’ll move on swiftly Tuyo by Rachel Neumeier. And these books are a recent discovery. There’s a series of them and they are self-published. And this is one of the interesting features of the modern world, leaving aside the fact that we’re in the middle of, you know, an entire systems wide breakdown in crisis. Self published books are getting better. Or perhaps it is that some very, very good books by some very, very good authors are being self published, and this is definitely one of them. This is a fantasy series set in a world where there’s a kind of Mongolian steppes, horse based warrior culture on one side and a more urban, sophisticated, sexist, patriarchal… That’s hard to say actually… You could say that the steppes culture was quite patriarchal too. But it’s not, actually. These two are in opposition. Each hates the other. And the fundamental premise is that a young warrior of the steppes culture is left, as a kind of a ritual sacrifice, at the site of what would have been a battle had his elder brother, who’s the war leader, not taken all of their warriors away. So he’s left in what is one of their warrior traditions, as ‘we leave you this person to do with as you will, so that we can get away’ and the acknowledged result of this is, that you won’t come after us.
And the people who are coming after him are the soldiers of the more Western, what we would call civilised, urban, structured, very patriarchal, soldier based army which would have beaten them. And obviously he doesn’t die on the second page. That’s just obvious. But it’s brilliant. Again, the relationship between this young warrior and the leader of the army that picks him up is beautifully done. And through them we see the interchange of two cultures who have grown up, mistrusting each other, being told to loathe each other. One of them has magic that the other one considers to be utterly taboo. It’s just brilliantly done. I realise I’m doing this very badly and I can’t think how to do it better, because this is one of the books that I passed on to Faith. Faith has a first in English literature and generally speaking, is not that fond of fantasy. I spend a lot of my time reading fantasy, because I think some of the most exciting writing in the present world is done under the often young adult fantasy bracket. And I handed these to Faith and went Trust me, you are going to love this. And she did. The writing is beautiful and intelligent. The characters are full of emotional intelligence and there is no stereotyping. This is not the kind of book where you can predict 50 pages out what’s going to happen next, which is it was perfect and one of the reasons why I really, really like it.
And because it’s self-published, you can go on to Rachel Neumeier’s website and see that she’s writing the third full length novel in the series as we speak. But that means it’ll be out quite soon. The second one is already out, and there’s three short story novellas, quite long short stories, actually, quite long novellas that take some of the subsidiary characters and follow their paths. And they’re brilliant. Really. Honestly, they’re just inspiring. Everyone that I’ve pushed these at has come back to me afterwards saying that they’re in mourning, waiting for the next one to come out. And the thing that I think is really inspiring, is that the sense of honour in the steppes clan based culture is so striking. I bought a copy of this for my nephew. I am about to buy copies for every young man I know who’s aged between ten and 15, because I think if this sense of honour and integrity and utter respect for women were to be spread widely in our culture, the world would be a very, very different place. So I recommend that you read this and then decide who in your circle of family and friends it’s worth spreading to.
And then moving swiftly on… Kingdom of Silence by Jonathan Grimwood is another beautiful love story. It’s a many threaded timeline that shifts between the First World War and the Second World War. It’s beautifully written by a man who has many hats. Jonathan Grimwood writes the literary novels, where Jon Courtenay Grimwood writes a really, I think, rather good series of fantasy novels set in a fantasy version of Venice. And then Jack Grimwood has written a series of, again, very beautifully written Second World War ish novels that are more spy novels than war novels, and really cleverly plotted with really strong, beautiful central characters. His writing is outstanding. I don’t understand why he split himself into three people, because I think any intelligent publisher would have been able to handle the fact that the same person is churning out really quite high volume of extraordinarily well written books. So the Kingdom of Silence came out recently and I totally recommend you read it. The other is just go onto the website and hunt him down. He has so many guises and there’s nothing he’s written so far that I’ve read that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy.
Moving on again, we have Naomi Novik’s The Golden Enclaves, which is called Lesson Three of the Scholomance. And definitely if you haven’t read the first two books in this, you absolutely have to read them: A Deadly Education, and then The Last Graduate. And then we get on to the Golden Enclaves. These are the school series with magic, written by somebody with real emotional intelligence. Which is grand, because her earlier novels, The Temeraire Series, were brilliant. Spinning silver was just one of my all time favourite books. And then we came on to these; and when I first started reading them, I hated the voice. The primary character who’s writing first person or who is expressed first person, is a really irritating schoolgirl, and I hated her attitude, her constant snarkiness, her way of approaching the world. But the world that she is approaching is worth wearing that for. Each book, I would pick it up and put it out and pick it up and put it down and think ‘but Naomi Novik’s brilliant. Why is this just so horrible?’ And actually, once I got into them, they’re amazing and exceptional and again, deeply emotionally literate with highly complex interrelationships between the characters, that work. Unlike some other school based novels, these are not full of cardboard cut-outs of people who do exactly what you predict they’re going to do. They are unpredictable. And sometimes the people that you think are doing things for the worst of motives turn out to be doing them for probably quite laudable motives. So these are hard. I’m not suggesting they’re not the writing is not beautiful in the way that Natasha Pulley or Rachel Neumeier’s writing is beautiful. But it’s intricate and it has depth. And they are here because when I got to the end of the Golden Enclave’s, I was really, really glad that I’d persevered.
And then fifth of my five books of fiction. I think I’m going to go for The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell. But also I would really recommend his Dublin trilogy, which comes out under the name Caimh McDonnell. And I think the fact that absolutely nobody knows how to say that is why his publisher has changed to his initials. So the Dublin trilogy is a series of crime novels where the central character is a policeman called Bunny McGarry. And Bunny is a huge, lumbering alcoholic. He’s kind of like the Cracker figure that Robbie Coltrane, May he rest in peace for ever, played in Cracker. They’re good. They’re really good. They flow really well. He’s really got the language of the place.
And then we move to Stranger Times, which is set in Glasgow, where I come from, and he’s got the language of the place there, too. So he can definitely do big Celtic cities. And The Stranger Times is premised on a newspaper called The Stranger Times in Glasgow, which goes out of its way to find all the weird stuff. You know, Elvis lives on Mars, that kind of thing. And then the primary protagonist is a young woman who takes a job there, when everything else has gone wrong, and she can’t find any other jobs, but she can at least speak English and she can edit. And it’s got a central character who’s a bit like Bunny McGarry, also a little bit like the central character in Mick Herron’s Slough House series. So you can tell they’re basically gross men who nonetheless managed to pull out all the stops for their team and get them through. And again, this was another one that I started several times. So I realise I’m pushing on you books that I found quite hard to begin with. But each time I got to the end and thought, Oh yeah, that was amazing. Actually, that was well worth it. So strange at times by C.K. McDonnell.
But as an also ran that I very nearly came to: Kevin Hern Ink & Sigil, which is book one of the Ink & Sigil series, also set in Glasgow, also somewhat magical. And has one of the greatest sub characters I have ever met, who’s kind of a lesbian woman who fights in a fight club in the heart of Glasgow and therefore is the ultimate ideal bodyguard for someone who is the interlocutor between the lands of the Fae and the lands of ordinary life and has to pretend to look normal in Glasgow. I won’t say any more because they’re just great fun. The first two are out, the third one is coming soon. Definitely worth a look. So that’s one extra. Sorry, I should have stopped at five, but we’re done now.
Manda: I hope you enjoyed all that. I hope you find things to listen to and to read that give you a sense of hope of the way forward, as we stand right at the edge of the turning points of our huge multi systemic crisis. Everything that we do now, everything that we say, everything that we are shifts the energies of the world, either I think towards collapse or towards that more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible. It is still possible. We just need to find the visions of the way forward. And I think everything here gives a sense of hope. Even those things that are set in the past or set in worlds that are highly tangential to ours. Nonetheless, they show the depths of human courage, of human decency, of human compassion in all its forms. And these, I think, are what are going to get us through.
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