In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

World Book Day. Kind of.

It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.

Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.

Mixed genre messages – a bad idea?

Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.

Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.

Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

Putting faces to names at the Ilkley litfest

It’s that time of year again, both the Morley and Ilkley literature festivals are on and West Yorkshire is abuzz with writers and their fans. In these days of media saturation when everyone has their photo on the web or at the top of their newspaper column (whose silly idea was that? It’s like DJs, my mental image is often more suited to their style so a photo of them looking too young, old, cheerful, grumpy, fashionable or tweedy only spoils things) I suppose I’m not literally putting faces to names. Seeing people in person is quite different though.

So far the famous names I’ve been to see are Jonathan Dimbleby (at Any Questions, a marvellous experience which left me bemoaning the lack of a modern-day William Cobbett. Again), Peter Snow (the enthusiasm of the man! An hour of him waving his arms around on stage could make me interested in almost anything) and on Wednesday, Louise Doughty.

Regular readers will have seen that name before, as she heads the fun (occasionally bonkers) community that is the Telegraph Short Story Club. Having been semi-regular there for over a year, when I introduced myself at the signing table she greeted me like she knew me, thus turning the tables on the sort of familiarity from strangers she must experience all the time. Having been to panel talks before when I’ve only had something (probably second-hand) for one person to sign, and having said to someone at another signing table ‘I read your book out of the library, it was good’ before moving on leaving us both slightly embarrassed, this time I excelled myself. Apple Tree Yard, the novel Louise was promoting, having only come out in hardback this summer, I’d joined the queue for the solitary library copy at the start of August, finally collecting it two days before the talk. Not only did I not have the book for her to sign, I’d only read the first 20 pages.

Of course, being a pro she happily signed my Wallace and Gromit notebook where I’d written the first draft of my response to this week’s SSC Friday Challenge. Next stop, Melvyn Bragg. I haven’t got anything for him to sign, either.

August and the disruption of routines

This week it feels like pretty much everyone (except me) is on holiday. On a train where people are usually standing in the aisles, I’ve had an empty seat beside me every day. The building I work in is quiet, little footfall on the stairs, no banging of doors or ringing phones. The library at lunchtime is almost deserted.

Partly because I’m in a writing lull brought on by the lethargy of warm summer days and partly because I’ve got the opportunity, I’m shaking it up a bit, not sitting in my regular seat. Yesterday I was among distracting art books, today I walked past the tempting colours of an enormous book on stained glass and settled in an alcove of poetry and plays. A wall of Shakespeare to one side, and Milton, Donne and Marvell to the other.

Investigating my surroundings – which, after all, was the point of sitting somewhere new – I felt slightly guilty to notice several names on the Milton et al wall that I didn’t recognise. I don’t always remember the names of authors even when I’ve read a novel of theirs, but I find that particularly with poetry or short stories the name doesn’t have time to imprint in my mind so it’s not necessarily a sign that I’m unfamiliar with their work (though that’s probably the case as well, here). Having re-attempted poetry recently (reading it, not writing it) after a long period of apathy or confusion, I’ve come to the conclusion that I hadn’t flicked my poetry off-switch as I’d thought, I was just reading the wrong poetry.

A couple of months ago I picked up a book helpfully titled Modern Poetry (post-WW1 to the sixties, I think) and started reading one or two poems per evening. I spent enough time to reflect on subject and language but not so long that it started to feel like I was dissecting the poem. If, after that reflection, I still didn’t get it I moved on and accepted that one poet (or maybe even one poem) wasn’t for me. Along the way I’ve discovered that I like some poets I’d never heard of, I don’t like a few whose names were familiar, and interestingly I already knew a few poems by poets I would claim never to have come across (and whose names have already escaped me again, but now I know where to look them up, at least). Maybe tomorrow I should return to the poetry and plays alcove, pick an unknown and dive in.

Choosing books with a Yorkshire theme

As I’ve said many times before: so many books, so little time. Leaving aside for the moment the deeper question of why I’m adding to the problem by publishing my own, the main question is how to narrow the field. A slightly arbitrary and parochial way of doing it is to seek out books with some relevance to where you live, or were born, or spent the happiest years of your life, or… You get the idea.

Regular readers will have spotted that I’m a proud Yorkshireman (Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t sound right) so what better way to navigate through the overcrowded bibliographic waters than to look for books with a Yorkshire connection.

Friend T has assisted on this front several times, introducing me to the delights of AS Byatt via Possession (“you’ll like it, it’s partly set in Whitby”), and Kate Atkinson via Behind the Scenes at the Museum (read my review here). I mentioned these gifts on Twitter recently and Pamela Hartshorne pointed out this website of York authors which I’ll need to look into further. (Incidentally, has anyone done a similar site for Bradford yet?)

Please don’t imagine that I only ever read books with some connection to the county of my birth; that would just be weird. However, in the packed genre of crime for example, I like a helping hand, a nudge in some direction because there are just so many books out there to choose from, and I’m not alone in this. My mum started reading Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels because of their Yorkshire setting, and I recently started her off on Peter Robinson’s books for the same reason.

As a child I had a couple of bad experiences of Yorkshire-related works, but thankfully it didn’t put me off. I remember The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett being recommended as it was set in Yorkshire but I can’t remember if I got to the end. I seem to recall (bearing in mind I haven’t touched it in twenty-five years or more) Yorkshire dialect written in a way that almost seemed like a caricature, and only for characters you were supposed to look down on (see my earlier post on written dialect). Jane Eyre (the Brontes usually being classed as Yorkshire writers) was a book we had to read at school, and I know I didn’t get very far with that, in fact I didn’t know what happened after Jane’s friend dies of TB, till I looked up the plot online this evening. Some of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books make a bit more sense now.

Even now, choosing a book on this basis isn’t a guarantee of success (see my reviews of Saville and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) but if you don’t know where next to turn in your quest for literary satisfaction, it’s a way of taking a step in a new direction. You might find some surprising gems.

Oh, and Happy Yorkshire Day.

At Home by Bill Bryson

As a rule I like Bill Bryson books, they’re cosy while not being afraid to point out some uncomfortable truths, and they’re usually quite funny while they’re about it. At Home definitely had its funny moments, and a plethora of interesting facts, but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

At Home is subtitled ‘A Short History of Private Life’, and promises to give us insights into history via a tour of Bryson’s Norfolk rectory; the chapters are named after each of the rooms in his house. I enjoyed (via the iplayer) Lucy Worsley’s TV series If Walls Could Talk, in which she explored the changing nature of household life and the notion of privacy by looking at the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room over the centuries, and I anticipated something similar in this book. Though probably with a  lot more asides and entertaining anecdotes.

In the end I think I found there were so many asides I lost track of the point, if there ever was one. In some chapters I was left with the feeling that he’d dug up some fascinating stories and couldn’t think of an obvious way to tie them to a room, so he’d sort of shoe-horned them in using a link so tenuous it had become invisible. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, as is usually the case with Bill Bryson, and I did enjoy (and read to the long-suffering OneMonkey) most of it, plus I learnt a few things (always a good thing when reading). However, it did feel a bit like a jumble at times, more like one of those books they put out at Christmas and people keep by the toilet for occasional browsing, than a history of anything in particular.

One (minor) niggle was that while he’s using an English house as a starting point, and mainly talking about English history, occasionally he’ll drop something American in. Logical, you might say – he is American, after all – but there was the odd startling fact that made me sit up and say ‘Really? I never knew that’ then it would become clear that I never knew that because it’s not true over here. That would have been fine, but there were places where I wasn’t sure if he meant in England, America or both, and I was left wondering.

All that said, I would imagine if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bill Bryson book you will find much to please you in At Home, particularly if you go into it without expecting much of a thread.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

To say how huge and influential Neil Gaiman is, he hasn’t written many novels (not true of comics of course or, latterly, children’s books). I enjoyed Good Omens, which is how I first discovered Neil Gaiman as a teenage Terry Pratchett fan in the early 90s, and in the last 10 years I’ve read Stardust and Anansi Boys (a particular favourite) but somehow not got round to American Gods, despite there being not much else to go at in the way of prose.

Turns out it was worth the wait. One of those total immersion novels where you completely believe in the world that’s created. And belief, when it comes down to it, is what the book is all about.

Shadow is in his early thirties, he’s about to be released early from prison and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again. In the event, he’s released a few days earlier than he was expecting, so he can make it to her funeral in time. Three years of aching to be back with the person you love most, and she dies in a car crash before you can get to her. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? Directionless. Ripe for being swept up into events beyond your control or comprehension. Something like, say, a war between gods.

It’s a road trip, it’s small town America, it’s mythic and epic and reverent and irreverent at the same time. It’s almost like Stephen King read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, let it stew at the back of his mind for a few years then wrote a book haunted by it. Except it’s also unmistakably Neil Gaiman. There are coin tricks and cons, magic that’s misdirection and sleight of hand, and magic that is real and a lot less showy. It’s about love, loyalty, remembering and believing – be it in religion or yourself or your family, and it’s about what happens when the world moves on.

I very much doubt I’ll be waiting a dozen years to read the new one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Print to ebook: what happened to the back-cover blurb?

Quite often when I’m reading a novel, usually during the first couple of chapters or if I’ve put the book aside for a few days, I’ll need to remind myself what the book’s about or where it’s set. Now I don’t think I’m particularly forgetful, and I doubt I’m the only person who has this problem, but it stems from never getting only one book out of the library at a time, and frequently leaving a book on the To Read pile for ages before I get round to it. Questions such as these arise:

  • Is this the one where the vaccine gets stolen, or the one where they accidentally travel forward in time and start a war?
  • That detail seems a bit out of place – is this in fact set in the 1960s? Or Australia? Or 1960s Australia? By default and until instructed otherwise I read contemporary-ish fiction as though it’s set in contemporary-ish England.
  • Is this a crime novel or literary fiction? If the former, the crime that’s just taken place will be what I need to focus my attention on, if the latter it’ll all be about the aftereffects, so I needn’t bother trying to spot clues.
  • Isn’t this a fantasy novel? So far it’s all in 1980s Manhattan and nothing unusual’s happening.

Particularly where it’s an author that’s new to me, and the title’s not giving that much away, I might have picked up a novel I’m not quite in the mood for today, which is where the synopsis on the back of the book comes in really handy. Simply flip the book over, scan the paragraph or two on the cover and you’re as clued in as you were when you first chose the book from the library or shop. Except you can’t do that with an ebook.

It seems fairly common with ebooks (and I’ve done it myself. Twice) that the front cover and the whole contents of the book are set up as if for a print book, with the copyright page, acknowledgements and all the rest of it. All that’s missing is the back cover. The blurb sits on the webpage that you found the ebook on, which is great when you’re choosing books, but by the time you get round to reading the thing three weeks later, on the bus with no wi-fi access, you have no idea what that blurb said. If I should ever release another ebook I’ll try and remember to slot the back-cover in somewhere, even if it’s not actually on the final page. In the meantime, compilers of ebooks please take note – some of us need a little reminder to put a novel in context.

Out of Time by Monique Martin

A few weeks ago I was looking for light entertainment, easy to read and not necessarily wholly serious. Out of Time by Monique Martin proclaimed itself a time travel mystery and was free to download from the Kobo site so I decided to give it a go.

Simon Cross is a (British) professor of occult studies at a Californian university. On the fringes of interdisciplinary research – meaning none of the departments really want to claim him – he’s content as a crotchetty loner. His graduate student Elizabeth West does her best to smooth the ruffled feathers he leaves in his wake and is sure there’s a good man in there somewhere, but so far he’s resisted all her friendly overtures. An accidental time hop to 1920s Manhattan means they have to get to know each other better as there’s no-one else to rely on when they get the chance to get a bit more practical with their occult researches than either of them was planning on.

As a piece of escapist fun the novel is fine, as long as you don’t mind feeling like you’ve opened a Mills and Boon in error at the start. There’s mystery, danger, romance (quite a bit of that actually – if I’d been paying attention to the Kobo categories I would have spotted historical romance as well as historical fantasy), ancient artefacts and the odd paradox. On the whole, it was an enjoyable romp which probably wouldn’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but the same could be said for many other time travel novels. Personally I found it a little romance-heavy so not quite my cup of tea. Not that good SF novels never have a will-they-won’t-they subplot or main characters in a relationship, but the approach and the language used here did make me think of an out and out romance novel and for that reason I doubt I’d read the others in the series.

In the epistolary tradition

Looking for light, easy reading on the recent (sunny!) bank holiday I reached for a book a friend gave me last year. It had that pleasing newness that I rarely experience (reading mainly ebooks and second-hand or library copies), and it was slim (230 pages). Just the size and form a paperback should be, somewhere in the recesses of my idealised memory. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff The book itself was actually two even slimmer (non-fiction) volumes in one: 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff. I zipped through the first with little effort and a sort of drowsy amusement in the early evening sunshine, and instead of starting the sequel, I began to think.

84 Charing Cross Road consists of the letters exchanged between Helene Hanff (a writer in New York) and the staff (and assorted relatives) of a bookshop in London, at irregular intervals between 1949 and 1969. In one sense it’s mainly made up of orders for (usually antiquarian) books but because of the length of time, and the familiar tone of Hanff’s letters from the start, there is a certain amount of friendship that grows up, and there are glimpses into various lives at a particular point in history. There’s also a mild curiosity as to whether she ever gets to visit England, and the bookshop in particular, as plans are made and money is saved along the way.

Lazing in the last of the sunshine I began to wonder how the book came into being. Who thought that the reading public would enjoy reading the correspondence (some of it missing, as this is real life and papers go astray) between a writer and her favourite bookseller? Not that I’m knocking the book, it was just the thing for the mood I was in on Monday evening, but in 1970 when it was published there wasn’t even the curiosity value of history (typewriters! The Coronation! Postal orders!) wrapped up in it so what was the thinking behind it? Is it just that the reading public are scandalously nosy and can’t resist a peek at someone else’s letters?

Plenty of novels have been written as an exchange of letters, but in my personal opinion the form works best for comedy. Not necessarily laugh out loud comedy, but the kind of thing that’s easy to read, that you want to breeze through with a close-to-permanent smile. It lets both writer and reader get deep into the mannerisms of a character, allows glimpses of other aspects of their life, and lets the reader fill in their own jokes or scenarios based on a passing reference. While I think it’s true that plots too slight to make a good story have been successfully rendered in letters, it’s probably advisable to start with a good plot and work from there.

I had gone on to wonder if there were any good versions using emails rather than letters, when I remembered one of the most consistently funny radio comedies in recent years (I haven’t read the books), Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the marvellous delivery from Patricia Routledge and Prunella Scales but the writing is strong as well. There have been a number of series now but the core is the long-standing friendship between Vera and Irene, which allows them to get away with saying all sorts of outrageous things to each other, and of course using email means there are the inevitable missives written in haste or anger, late at night after a little too much sherry, and the ones sent before they were finished or riddled with typos.

Not only did 84 Charing Cross Road provide a couple of hours’ light entertainment this week, it’s got me fired up to try an epistolary story. I suspect it might be harder than it looks.

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

A crime novel a little off the beaten track for me, but I enjoyed the film LA Confidential, so when I saw that novel plus a couple of Ellroy’s others in a charity shop, I thought I’d give them a go.

The Big Nowhere is not for the faint-hearted, though I did appreciate as I read it that some events were put across in a couple of matter of fact sentences, when in a more salacious setting they could have been lingered over in awful detail. Even so, there’s a fair bit of violence, some nasty murders and a couple of forensic scenes, not to mention bizarre sex crimes. I kept marvelling at the fact I was still reading, but the power of the writing and characterisation was such that I had to know how it all worked out, I had to know who was responsible for what.

Set in the first days of 1950 in Los Angeles, The Big Nowhere follows a murder investigation seemingly linked to gay men, and an investigation into Communist activity in the motion picture industry, at a time when being gay or being Communist were about equally likely to turn you into a pariah. This is the scuzzy underside of the city, rife with corruption and blackmail, victims no-one cares about, and rivalry between city and county police. It seems there are no good guys or bad guys, only bent cops and gangsters with half an eye on justice. Sometimes they’re the same person.

It’s a complicated novel, the pieces of the puzzles so intricate that I occasionally had to re-read to make sure I’d got it straight before I moved on. On the whole it had an urgent tension to it that kept me reading, but every so often the police procedural aspect of it slowed me down (lists of names, licence numbers, addresses that people read out over the phone to each other, for instance) but I’m not sure how else you’d be able to do it so that the reader sees the information and can put two and two together at the same time as the character. It has a gritty, dirty feel to it, and was depressing in places but I like the fact that it didn’t have a neat uplifting ending with all loose ends tied. Once I’ve cleansed my palate with something uproariously funny, I’ll be back for more of Ellroy’s harsh urban style.

Review of the week (it’s been an exciting one)

Apart from the release of my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women (more of which in a moment), I’ve been listening to the new BBC radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew helps a girl in a London street and finds himself caught up in the disputes of London Below, with its fiefdoms and tangential relation to the London Richard’s familiar with. I enjoyed the TV series when I first saw it on DVD a few years ago, but it’s true the radio series had more scope and is therefore in some respects better. There’s a well of darkness in Neverwhere that can only fully be dredged when your imagination’s supplying the images (I was picturing most of the characters as they appeared in the TV series, but they weren’t being confined to scenery I’d actually seen them in). It remains a good story, which is the main thing, and though I knew the plot I was still finding it tense and unsettling at times.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Little Book of Northern Women, which I self-published via Amazon at the weekend (though it should be easily convertible to non-Kindle formats; I’ve got it as epub on a Kobo) has given me a thrilling few days so far. Kelvin Knight has become a one-man publicity campaign on my behalf, a role which I neither asked nor expected him to play, but which is much appreciated. The other stalwarts of the Telegraph Short Story Club have, as usual, been most encouraging as well, tweeting and generally shouting about the new book’s existence. So far, the feedback has been good and people have been enjoying the stories they’ve got round to reading (which for some eager people is all of them), but I would love to hear what anyone else thinks of the collection or any of the stories in it – you could leave a comment here or write a review somewhere and point it out to me.

The Little Book of Northern Women, released today

The short story collection I promised back at new year is now available at last for the princely sum of 99p (or whatever Amazon translate that to in other currencies – it’s available on all Amazon sites) for 9 stories, 8 of them previously unpublished. The Little Book of Northern Women is, as the title suggests, a collection of stories in which women from the north of England feature rather prominently. Those women are young, old, middle-aged; coping with oppressive mothers or the passage of time; gentle, angry, strong, defiant, bemused. Some of the stories are light-hearted, others quite dark, set in the 1930s, 1980s and more recently. I decided to stick with non-genre stories (though I was tempted to include one about a female-slanted android in Bradford), but just because the central characters are all women, I sincerely hope the package doesn’t seem unpalatable to male readers.

As with Wasted Years, the e-book is DRM-free, which means (among other things) that if like me you don’t own a Kindle, you can convert the file to something more compatible with your hardware (epub for a Kobo, in my case). I’ll leave you with the cover image (featuring a photo my Nana took of her Nana), and I’d love to know what any of you think of the collection.

Cover image, The Little Book of Northern Women

Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! by Terry Brooks

An enjoyable, light-hearted fantasy novel that I’d somehow missed, by a well-known name in the genre.

When I was a teenager, Terry Brooks novels were everywhere, and it seemed to me that every one I picked up was book 7 of the Long-Winded cycle or part 2a of book 4 of the second quintet of the High Fantasy Epic. Undoubtedly if I look now I’ll find he’d only written four novels by then but in a way it doesn’t matter. The point is, I avoided his work. I associated him with Anne McCaffrey and David Eddings (both of whose prodigious output I had dipped into on the recommendation of a friend with whom I have overlapping reading tastes) and I assumed he wrote the sort of po-faced high fantasy I couldn’t stand, slightly wet with an unsubtle moralistic overtone, spread over a dozen volumes.

On the basis of Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! it seems I may have been wrong (it does happen occasionally). It was a quick and easy read, laced with humour (by no means comic fantasy, but definitely not always straight-faced) and with a few original twists to its comfortable tale of dragons, fairy magic and quests.

Ben Holiday is a lawyer in Chicago with a successful career, millions in the bank, a flash apartment (this being the 80s, that means a lot). Trouble is, his wife died a couple of years ago, he’s staring 40 in the face, and he’s beginning to wonder what the point of it all is. The answer’s either suicide or a long break from his old life, so the advert in the Christmas catalogue offering a kingdom (complete with dragons, fairies, wizards and knights) for a million dollars seems too good to be true. And we all know what they say about things that seem too good to be true.

It hasn’t made me rush off to read all those Terry Brooks books I dismissed out of hand all those years ago, but if you’re a high fantasy reader who also doesn’t mind the odd Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, you could do much worse than to read this novel. (If you’re wondering how come I picked it up in the first place, a friend mentioned it then I noticed it in the library a couple of weeks later and thought why not).

Thomas More’s Utopia

I’ll refer to it as Thomas More’s Utopia because, despite the modern meaning of the word, it wouldn’t be for everyone. For a start, they have slavery. However, given it was written in the 16th century there’s still a lot in there to learn from, and if you replace the word ‘prince’ with ‘prime minister’ I would endorse a big chunk of his advice to anyone ruling a nation (Messrs Cameron and Osborne, please take note. Or perhaps someone could give Ed Miliband a copy).

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s couched as a conversation taking place between More and a well-traveled man who has found through vast experience that the most contented and best-governed nation in the world is the (fictional) nation of Utopia. He then explains to More and his friend why it is that Utopia is so great, and how it differs from England or other European nations of the time. This includes its justice system, foreign policy and welfare system, parts of which are now in place, parts sound ludicrously old-fashioned, and most of it I’m sure would have been thought mad (or subversive, or both) in the 19th century, let alone the 16th.

I believe it may have been written in Latin, so possibly depends on the English edition you get hold of, but I found it surprisingly easy to read, of great historical interest, and it shone a light on the great constants of socialist thought (for Utopia is a recognisably socialist nation, for all its oddities of antiquity).

Utopia is a book I vaguely intended to read in my late teens, but put off by the idea that it might be hard to read because of its age, and potentially long and dry (it turned out to be neither), I never got round to it. Being of Yorkshire birth and ancestry, naturally the prospect of free e-books piqued my interest so when I did get my e-reader a couple of months ago, I went straight to the online repositories of out of copyright books. A combination of resurgent interest thanks to Jonathan Rose’s book (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes), and the ease of carrying several long books at once, plus a novel for light relief, means that I’ve been reading all sorts of books I never quite got round to at nineteen, as well as ones that weren’t on my radar back then. I’ve particularly been enjoying John Ruskin lately, and for that alone I salute the rise (but never the domination) of the e-reader.

A constant drip wearing away the stone of literature

No, I am not referring to myself as a constant drip. The title is supposed to conjure images of gradually breaking down a formidable structure. Keeping on chipping away. Little and often. That sort of thing.

Since I got my e-reader for easier, lighter reading material on the daily commute, I’ve been leaving the doorstop books for reading at home. Except the daily commute is my main reading time, and for a while I wasn’t getting very far. Then I took to reading a chapter last thing before bed. Half a chapter while dinner’s in the oven. A couple of pages while OneMonkey’s left the room mid-conversation to let the cat in. Before I knew it, I was zipping through.

As ever I pounced on the lesson in there: this applies to writing, too. We can’t all write full-time (we wouldn’t all want to), but I’ve found before that it’s possible to get a surprising number of words on the page without it taking you away from other activities too much. Most of the time, I’m lucky enough to be able to write at lunchtime. If I’m quick about getting to the library I can get 45 minutes of solid writing in, without much in the way of distractions, and if I do it regularly so I can pretty much remember what I’d written last time, I can watch the wordcount grow quite quickly.

If you’re prepared (by which I mean, have suitable writing materials to hand and have thought a bit about what you want to say next) you can write a paragraph while you’re waiting for the kitchen timer. Or sitting outside your child’s after-school activity (or if they’re older, outside the party they swore they’d be ready to leave at ten). Or in the doctor’s waiting room, at the bus stop, during the interval at a theatre, in a long post office queue, or in the last fifteen minutes before bed. Each time you write, it might not seem like much. Eventually though, it could become a novel.

The Cult of the Classics

Working men making their own exploration into culture in the 19th century were often stuck in the past as far as their reading material went. They looked to Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle etc. All of which I as a teenager, beginning to explore literature for myself, read or attempted to read, or felt guilty for not reading. The kind of books that featured on Sir John Lubbock’s Victorian list of books you ‘should’ have read in order to be considered cultured. Although for working men in the 19th century, reading the whole lot wouldn’t guarantee that. But I digress…

More than 100 years later, for GCSE in the early 1990s, I studied Shakespeare and Wordsworth. We have stagnated, or worse, we are regressing because every year that goes by takes us a year further from the time when any of those works was fresh and new. And as the list is added to (very slowly) the chances of anyone getting through the lot at a reasonably young age grow slimmer.

It is important to know what foundations your culture was built on, but at what cost? If you have to struggle with the language, delve into sideroads of history to understand what was at the time a passing reference to a contemporary person or event, doesn’t that lose some of the pleasure? Which is not to say you shouldn’t do that if you want to – overcoming the challenge may lead to a depth of enjoyment hitherto unknown – but I don’t think it should be expected.

These books or authors were held up at their own times and those just after as the best example of, in Dickens for instance, social conscience in literature. Haven’t we got any other examples yet? If not, we must be doing something wrong.