books

Nova Swing by M John Harrison

cover of Nova Swing by M John HarrisonAward-winning SF noir novel from 2006, the resolution (or lack thereof) perhaps unworthy of the set-up, but worth reading if it’s one of your sub-genres of choice.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide, leading wealthy tourists to the unstable edges of Saudade, where reality isn’t as real as it could be and no-one knows what you might find. In between clients he hangs out at Liv Hula’s bar with Fat Antoyne, who only wants a chance to fit in. Together they watch the cats stream past twice a day, and the ships taking off and landing in the city, largely minding their own business. Sure, Vic smuggles the odd artefact out of the event site for collectors and the mildly eccentric Detective Aschemann keeps half an eye on him, but it’s not such a big deal. Until it is, and Vic really finds out who his friends aren’t.

With any kind of noir it’s the details that make it, and when you’re weaving some sci-fi world-building in, doubly so. The details in Nova Swing really make it work. There’s a musical theme which I liked, as well (playing it, listening to it, watching performers in bars).

Nova Swing is described as the sequel to Harrison’s earlier novel Light, which I haven’t read but I understand it to be set in the same place with completely different main characters. I didn’t feel like there was a gaping hole in my understanding as a consequence, it just felt like I’d been dropped into a complete world where life went on before I started observing the place, and will continue (after a fashion) after I’ve gone. That should be the case with any well-written fiction, anyway.

I didn’t feel completely satisfied by the time I closed the back cover, one too many loose ends perhaps. Nevertheless I’d enjoyed my time in Saudade and I was left with a dreamy feeling of enlightenment being just beyond the grasp of my sluggish brain. If you don’t mind having some questions remain unanswered as long as you’ve absorbed the atmosphere of the place during the investigation, then this might be just the SF noir for you.

A love affair with libraries

Libraries are in the news a lot lately, rarely for the right reasons, though the Liverpool branches reprieve this week was a moment for celebration. Belatedly (though not too late, I hope) the Great British Public are remembering why they love libraries so much, and telling anyone who’ll listen. BBC 6Music (my station of choice, at least in rooms where Planet Rock reception is bad) are in the middle of a fortnight of library celebration, not all to do with borrowing albums. The Guardian are promoting the love letters to libraries campaign from Book Week Scotland. Regular visitors will recall that I’m quite fond of libraries, often have to be dragged away from them (this morning, for instance) or overload myself with books. Thus, while I’m not about to write a love letter as such (far too uptightly English for that) I will share some of my library experiences, in the hope that some of you out there might share back.

In the dim past that was the 1980s I vaguely remember a basement children’s library. I remember wooden cubes full of large-format books you could flick through, and my dad’s legs towering above me in corduroy. I remember Big Brother in the record department at Bradford City Library in his parka, and the LPs he’d borrow and carefully take home in the library-issue carrier bag (which finally broke in about 1996). There were the walks to the local library with my grandad (never without a stack of library books in the house) and the friendly librarian at Cockermouth (a library I spent many a Saturday morning in, from early childhood to leaving home). I first read Anne of Green Gables from Cockermouth library, and Raffles and Maigret. Later on I borrowed Aerosmith and Alice Cooper tapes, Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, and chocolate-themed baking books I never seemed to bake anything from.

Through the 1990s I stopped joining libraries but still made plenty of use of them. My dad borrowed Little Angels and Metallica CDs on my behalf in his lunch-hour (yes, Metallica – this is the beauty of libraries, you can try things without blowing all your pocket money), OneMonkey borrowed my choices from the fabulous Newcastle Central Library (not as fabulous last time I went, most of the books seemed to be missing). When my parents moved to a North Yorkshire village while I was at university, Big Brother and I would take my dad’s library tickets (still the brown card pouches – technology arrived there rather slowly) up the main street to the tiny library in the holidays and load up for our reading and listening pleasure.

Come the new decade I was in Scotland, loving the old-fashioned grandeur of Edinburgh Central Library and marvelling at the Carnegie library in his home town of Dunfermline, with stock a much bigger town would be proud of. OneMonkey and I somehow borrowed an AC/DC boxed set for the cost of borrowing a single CD, and went mad at a library book sale where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes for The Nephew (still in single figures at the time). By the turn of the following decade I wasn’t far from where I’d started out and I’m still using the local library constantly. I even borrowed the books I reviewed for the Ilkley Literature Festival this year from there.

I haven’t mentioned all the university libraries I’ve been in, the school library friend T and I spent our lunchtimes in (much more civilised than having to hang around outdoors in the drizzle), Bradford Local Studies Library or the decorative tiles in Leeds. I could go on for hours (pages) more but I’ll spare you. Instead I’ll make a cup of tea and wallow in warm memories of libraries I have loved; I can only recommend that you do the same, and if you can’t think of any you need to go find yourself a good library, fast.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This 2013 novel of displacement and tested principles set in 1850s Ohio sees Tracy Chevalier back on top form. The unobtrusive detail translated into a supremely believable setting, and the naturalistic characters were of the right muddy quality to illustrate the compromises and contradictions inherent in the situation.

Honor is a Quaker from a town in Dorset. She’s grown up in a happy family within a close community, but for reasons not always clear even to herself she decides to accompany her older sister as she emigrates to semi-rural Ohio in 1850. The rest of the novel is, in part, about the overthrowing of everything Honor has known, the feeling of dislocation, of not belonging, and her attempts to make a new place for herself among people she doesn’t understand.

Quakers believe everyone is equal before God, and in Dorset where there are no black slaves, it’s always been easy to stick to that principle. Honor is shocked to find segregated pews in a Quaker meeting house on her way across America, and when she reaches Ohio -sandwiched between slave states and the Canadian border, and therefore regularly crossed by fugitive slaves – she finds that principles sometimes bend under the weight of reality, even among her religious community. The new Fugitive Slave Law imposing fines on those who refuse when asked to help recapture fugitives only makes things worse.

I thought the little differences were picked up on brilliantly, the constant subtle reminders that Honor is not at home. There are different words for common items, the same words for different flowers or trees. The birds and animals so common to the locals are exotic to Honor, and for a town girl the self-sufficiency and isolation are disturbing. Even the quilts Honor spends so much time sewing use different techniques and patterns on the other side of the Atlantic.

This could so easily have been a depressing novel, but although it has its dark moments there is a thread of hope, and the characters laugh and love like normal people. The Last Runaway makes you examine slavery and abolition, equality and altruism via people – not abstract concepts or amorphous groups (slaves, slave-hunters, Quakers, women) but individual characters with different motivations. In particular circumstances how many of us would stick firmly to what we believe in and stand up for weaker neighbours? Would we at least waver a bit, even if we acted for the greater good in the end?

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Tracy Chevalier novel before, you’ll probably love this one. Or if you like a hint of romance and adventure with your political history, give it a try.

Introducing my first SF collection – and it’s free if you want it to be

As promised last week, a treat (I hope!) for sci-fi and fantasy readers. A dozen stories in the realms of speculative fiction, some previously published, some you won’t have seen before, all nicely packaged as an ebook which you can download here. As with my (non-genre) novel Wasted Years, it’s pay what you like, which means you can even have it for free.

This is the rather snazzy cover that OneMonkey put together for me:

Cracks in the Foundations by JY Saville

Wasted Years available for free

During the last couple of years you’ve been able to download my comics for free, but I had a novel and a short story collection for sale on Amazon. To redress the balance slightly, Wasted Years – the novel – can now be downloaded here instead, and you can pay what you like via Paypal – yes, that means you can have it for free if you want. It’s available as an epub file (easily convertible to other formats) under a Creative Commons licence.

Cover of Wasted Years by JY Saville

If you’ve ever enjoyed any of my fantasy or sci-fi output (or haven’t yet, but think you might) then you may want to check back here in a week as you could be in for a treat.

Queen Lucia by EF Benson

This 1920 novel of middle-class country life never fulfilled its comic potential, sadly. There were a scattering of amusing episodes that went nowhere, and an awful lot of everyday life that made me shake my head in despair rather than laugh.

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known as Lucia due to her pretentious scattering of Italian phrases in conversation, is undisputed queen of Riseholme society. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize to me, as the village of Riseholme appears to house some of the most vain, selfish, mean-spirited, shallow and catty members of the idle rich around. Nevertheless, where Lucia leads her subjects gleefully follow, at garden parties, musical evenings and the like. She sets the local tastes in art and literature despite having little qualification to do so. During the summer of this book, however, there are stirrings of rebellion – some of her subjects start trying to think for themselves, and what’s more, there are outside influences. Naturally, chaos ensues.

At times Queen Lucia feels like it’s going to be a satire, at other times a farce, but for me it never quite works as either and perhaps it only set out to be a gently comic novel that I’d have enjoyed if I’d been around at the time. It’s not angry socialism rearing up, for I’ve enjoyed a multitude of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and F Scott Fitzgerald novels containing more than their fair share of spoilt rich creatures. I just couldn’t find any point of contact with patronising Mrs Lucas and her ‘silvery laugh’ and her baby talk (‘Me vewy sowwy’) though I did have some sympathy for her sidekick, camp middle-aged bachelor Georgie with his dyed hair, and talent for embroidery.

Queen Lucia is the first in a series and I believe some or all of the novels have been adapted for TV. That might be more successful as the comic potential could be developed and brought to the fore. I downloaded it for free so anyone who feels they might have more luck with it can do the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Don’t give up the day job

Huffington Post ran an article on The Bizarre Day Jobs of 20 Famous Authors, so of course I sidled over to have a look, hoping that some over-hyped, pompous writer had once been in charge of artificially inseminating llamas or something. However, the reality was both more mundane and more peculiar. I will grant you that oyster piracy (Jack London) is a bizarre way of making a living, but engineer (Dostoyevsky), barrister (John Galsworthy), surgeon (Arthur Conan Doyle)? Some of them are pretty well-known facts, too. Disappointing. Maybe what we actually need is a list of jobs that seem peculiarly fitting for particular authors, though perhaps it would be as well to restrict it to the dead just to be on the safe side of libel…

The thing about day jobs, bizarre or otherwise, is that your average writer gets masses of inspiration from them. Office politics. Legal jargon. The way llamas stamp their feet when you get too close. Although it’s sometimes a pain trying to fit writing around work and everything else with a claim on your day (like reading Huffington Post articles or catching up with 3 days’ worth of Twitter-feed) I do think it keeps you more in contact with (at least a portion of) the outside world.

Speaking of which, that bookaday thing is still going, but it’s getting a bit specific now (I guess there’s only so many open questions about reading you can come up with). It’s now at We Love This Book and as usual I’ve come to it late. I’m not going to go through the lot, but I will make the following comments: Do people buy books for the cover (4th)? Surely every reader gets sparked off by a different book or type of book (21st). Lots of books make me question everything, that’s how I know they were good (29th). And if I had a cup of tea for every time I’ve been likened to Arthur Dent (14th)… I’d have several cups of tea.