A Memory of Wolves

My year’s reading for 2023 culminated in a terrific novel fusing psychological drama, murder and a strong environmental message, plus a collection of great SF stories. I’m now looking forward to another great year of reading in 2024.

Issue #57, Sunday 7 January 2024

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Cover of Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

An astonishingly good novel by this Australian author. Almost the last book I read in 2023 and yet it ended up in my top ten for the year. A fusion of crime, psychological thriller and a passionate environmental message. It won the Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel in 2022. I hear that her earlier novel, Migrations, is even better: it must be damn good, then.

The story is told from the first-person viewpoint of Inti Flynn. There’s a good deal to learn about Inti. For a start, she’s one of a pair of identical twins, though her sister Aggie is much bolder and more outgoing. For another, Inti has a rare psychological condition called mirror-touch synaesthesia. Her brain makes her body feel the sensations she sees. So if she sees someone being hurt, she feels it too.

The book begins in this startling way:

When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.

Not literally, we soon find out. When he demonstrates cutting open and gutting a rabbit he has trapped, Inti falls to the floor and screams and screams in pain and terror.

As awkward and scary as this condition would be, it does give Inti a great deal of empathy with animals. With humans, though, she tends to be terse and abrupt.

Many years later, when Inti is an adult woman, we find her in the north of Scotland, part of a group called the Wolf Trust, which has the aim of re-introducing wolves to the land. This re-wilding is (in real life) being attempted in a number of places in the world, and has been particularly successful at Yellowstone National Park in the United States, where the re-introduction of wolves has restored a natural balance and radically improved the ecology of the park. As the book’s title says, once there were wolves in Scotland, before they were all hunted down and killed a couple of centuries ago.

However, the local inhabitants, particularly the farmers, are not at all happy with the idea of bringing wolves back, fearing for their sheep and cattle, and for that matter their children. Inti and her group have a number of angry confrontations with the locals but nevertheless, they go ahead and introduce several groups of wolves (brought from Canada) into the Scottish forest.

The other thing we discover about Inti is that her twin sister, Aggie, has been severely traumatised in some way. She is living with Inti, but rarely speaks in words, though she uses a private sign language from time to time, and is terrified to leave the small cottage where they are living. We discover the shocking details of what happened to Aggie much later in the book.

Inti and her group continue to track the movement and monitor the development of the introduced wolves. Inti has both positive and negative interactions with the locals, and becomes particularly angry about Stuart, a local farmer she is certain is abusing his wife. When one night she finds his body, apparently having been killed by one of her beloved wolves, she faces a terrible dilemma.

This is a gripping, powerful story. There’s a romance, there’s a murder mystery,there’s a nail-biting struggle for survival, there’s the deeply involving backstory of Inti and Aggie, and through it all an environmental message which is by no means as clear cut as it might seem at first.

Loved it. I think I might read it again soon.

Memory’s Legion by James S. A. Corey

Cover of Memory’s Legion by James S. A. Corey

This is a collection of all the short fiction in The Expanse series of “hard” SF.

If you’ve read the books, or even if you’ve just watched the TV series based on them, then these stories are very interesting in the way they fill in the back-stories of major characters, or extend out the story of a character after the main series comes to an end.

These are the stories which stood out for me:

One of these days I’ll attempt a comprehensive review of the whole Expanse series, but it would end up being very lengthy if I am to do it justice. Let’s just say that if you like well-written “hard” SF with characters which have some depth and interesting back-stories, then I don’t think you can go past it.

Mind you, this whole ten-book series stretches for some 42 cm on my bookshelf, so don’t go collecting them unless you have the shelf space!

White Holes: Inside the Horizon by Carlo Rovelli

Translated from the Italian by Simon Carnell.

Cover of White Holes by Carlo Rovelli

Rovelli is a remarkable science communicator, able to illuminate highly esoteric physics for the layperson, at the same time fusing his writing with poetic insights.

That’s certainly the case here with this small book in which he makes the case for saying that passing into the interior of a black hole may not be how that experience is viewed from outside the hole. He suggests that quantum effects may prevent an endless collapse of the interior and indeed may allow it to “bounce” or transition to a new state where material begins to be ejected. The black hole may spontaneously become a white hole.

All this is fascinating, but made far more interesting and intriguing by his apposite use of quotations from Dante’s Divine Comedy throughout his narration, which briefly covers the relevant history of our understanding of the phenomenon of black holes before, quite literally, plunging in:

So here we go. We are at the edge of the horizon. Let’s cross it. …we are not afraid that the world will end here. It is not the first time that dark advice — Abandon all hope, ye who enter here— turns out to be unduly threatening.

We enter then with the courage of those who launch themselves towards the unknown. With the voice of Ulysses in our ear: Do not pass up the chance to experience, beyond the sun, the world where no one lives. Consider your origin: you were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge. And like the companions of Ulysses, on this mad flight we’ll make wings of our oars.

Lovely stuff. Am I convinced that white holes actually exist? Well no, but neither is Rovelli. As he himself says earlier in the book:

It’s an idea that seems quite beautiful to me. The idea that I want to tell you about here… I do not know if it is correct. I do not even know if white holes actually exist. We now know a great deal about black holes—we see them; no one has seen a white hole. Yet.

Just such a delight to read.

Shakespeare, the Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench

Cover of Shakespeare, the Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench

This book was a delightful Christmas present from my lovely wife at the end of last year. It is comprised of a long series of vastly entertaining discussions between the wonderful British actress Dame Judi Dench and the actor and director Brendan O’Hea who has known her for decades.

Conducted over a period of four years, the interviews focus almost entirely about Dench’s experiences in playing Shakespeare in the theatre. But naturally much more ground is covered in doing that, including her relationships with other actors, her husband and fellow actor Michael Williams, her thoughts on rehearsals, costumes, directors, and the profession in general.

Dench comes across as a warm, very funny and often outspoken personality, and her close friendship with O’Hea is obvious in the back and forth of the discussions.

Each of the Shakespeare plays in which she has performed is discussed in some detail, to such an extent that even if you have not seen or read a particular work you will have no trouble following along with a great deal of interest. Dench seems to have a remarkable memory and remembers many of the key lines of dialogue from the plays under discussion.

There were also several surprises: I hadn’t known before this, for example, that Judi Dench played the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet as directed for the stage by Franco Zeffirelli, before he went on to direct the 1968 movie version for which he is justly celebrated.

I devoured this book in about four days after Christmas, and enjoyed every bit of it. Definitely recommended.

Currently Reading

My New Year’s Resolution this year is to knuckle down and read a number of books on my shelves which I have owned for some time but am yet to read. We’ll see how that goes, but the following books are a start on that resolution.

A History of the Bible by John Barton
Cover of A History of the Bible by John Barton

Subtitled “The Book and Its Faiths”, this is a comprehensive look at how this profoundly important book came to be. It’s fascinating, whether you are a person of faith or not (I’m not). I’ve had this on my shelf for more than three years, only now getting around to reading it.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Speaking of books which have been on my shelf for a while, I have an omnibus collection of the more well-known novels of Graham Greene, which has been on my shelf unread since 1980. Yes, 43 years!

For no particular reason other than that it is the earliest book by this author in the omnibus, I’ve started on Stamboul Train. Enjoying it so far.

And that’s all for this issue! See you next time.

If you’d like to make a modest contribution to my efforts in this newsletter, I’d love it if you would buy me a coffee.

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