fiction

It’s that month again

Ridiculous challenge warning: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t yet know (and really, it’s getting harder to avoid) stands for National Novel-Writing Month. Except it’s international, and some people seem to write a collection of short stories instead. Anyway the point is you write 50,000 words during November and hope that enough of them will be good enough that you can call it the first draft. I’ve taken part once before, in 2011 (though I have also done the now defunct ScriptFrenzy which left me with a decent graphic novel script and a radio play I could have written better when I was twelve), when I wrote just over 22,000 words that I wouldn’t otherwise have got round to. For me, NaNoWriMo is an excuse to tackle something big that I’d normally put off ‘for when I’ve got more time’. This time it’s an idea from over a year ago, and I’ve spent October writing 60-odd pages of notes (filling up one of my Wallace and Gromit notebooks and getting a fair way through the next) on character, setting, plot. I’ve got street-plans, sketch-maps, a diagram of the main character’s apartment, and her family tree. I’ve still got a fuzzy grey spot where the main business of the plot should be though.

My tools of choice this November

My tools of choice this November

For reasons of expediency I’m writing this novel longhand, thus adding hours to the total project time with the need to type up eventually, and frustrating OneMonkey every time I stop after a couple of paragraphs and quickly count the words I’ve just written. However, it does mean that if all I need is an A6 notebook and a biro (usually one I’ve picked up for free somewhere along the way) I can write on the train, for five minutes before dinner, at the interval in the theatre (and inevitably there are 2 or 3 things I want to see this month). On Day 1 this seemed to work brilliantly and I wrote far more than I expected. Day 2, however, when I was at home all day with little to do except write, my relative lack of wordcount completely cancelled out the achievements of Day 1. Lashing rain, thunder and lightning, scarily strong winds – you’d have thought it would have been the perfect day for curling up with a notebook and retreating to another world. Maybe the problem is that the other world is bone-penetratingly cold and in the grip of an energy crisis, full of corrupt officials and with not much hope in sight at the moment. Yes, not only am I attempting a detective novel this time, it’s a sci-fi detective novel. OneMonkey asked if it was going to be as good as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch; no, I replied (still haven’t got the hang of this self-promotion lark). Not interested then, he said with a grin. I guess I’d better go get writing and aim a bit higher.

An audio experiment: the author reads flash

For no particular reason other than it’s a bank holiday weekend and I’ve had no pressing concerns (read that as: I’ve nearly finished writing a novella and I’m putting off the serious business of the culmination of ideas), I’ve recorded a clip of myself reading Not Such a Cold Fish, which you can access here:

There’s no deep reason why I chose that story. It’s short, the after dinner mint at the end of the banquet that is The Little Book of Northern Women (the only part of that collection that was already available elsewhere), and as this post title suggests, this was something of an experiment. A couple of years ago I had concerns about trying an audio version of one of my fantasy stories (admittedly it didn’t come from a collection with the word Northern in the title) but OneMonkey has persuaded me to stop doing bad impressions of the Queen and embrace my normal speaking voice. He described an earlier take as sounding like a parody of Alan Bennett. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I had vaguely thought of adding audio tasters of various stories here, and I’d be interested to know what anyone thinks of that. In these multi-tasking times you wouldn’t even have to read the first page to decide whether you want to continue; I (or possibly OneMonkey if a Geordie accent works better) could read it for you while you’re clicking on tins of beans at an online supermarket or flicking through your holiday snaps.

Stretching It by Mandy Sutter

I first encountered Mandy Sutter in 2005 and when I spotted a couple of years ago on her website that there was a novel in the offing I knew I’d have to read it when it came out. This summer it’s finally available and thanks to this video taster it shot up my To Read list and has now been devoured, with pleasure.

Stretching It by Mandy Sutter

Jennifer Spendlove is 32, overweight, and lives with her elderly hypochondriac mother on the outskirts of Leeds. One of those gentle souls too nice for their own good, Jennifer gets taken advantage of regularly but instead of standing up for herself she seeks solace in snacks and the creation of papier mache sculptures. In between the regular ferrying of her mum to the doctor and the hairdresser, Jennifer is trying to sneak off for a series of dates, the result of a lonely hearts ad in the local paper. Of course, finding a soulmate – or even a decent boyfriend – was never going to be that simple, but her loss is our gain as she perseveres through a queue of unsuitable men. And all this while the new regime of efficiency at the cash-strapped factory where she works overturns her everyday world.

I mostly read Stretching It on the train, and mildly embarrassed myself when the laughter wouldn’t stay silent, or when tears prickled my eyes. It was a quick, easy read and I stayed up late to finish it, so it’s fairly safe to say I was caught up in it. I cared enough about Jennifer to groan at bad decisions and gasp at jeopardy, and I even formed a grudging attachment to her self-centred mother Alicia. On the whole the book is light and humorous so the two darker scenes later on particularly stand out and come as something of a shock; I actually felt bad for laughing at something that comes shortly after the second one. However, the mildly unsettled feeling soon passed and I enjoyed the rest of the novel, putting it aside with a warm glow.

I think anyone who enjoyed my first novel, Wasted Years,would probably like Stretching It (and hopefully vice versa); you could describe both as being about a young woman in West Yorkshire working her way through unsuitable candidates in the search for love, though Stretching It is more overtly comic than Wasted Years. I wouldn’t usually read anything described as a romance novel (see my review of Out of Time by Monique Martin), so if that applies to you as well, don’t be put off by the centre-stage appearance of Love – there is nothing soppy here.

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.

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.

Kzine issue 6, a short review

Of course you’ll all be eager to buy issue 6 of the SF/horror/crime magazine Kzine because it has my Self-Aware and Living in Bradford in it, but in the unlikely event that you need further persuasion, here’s a quick guide to what else is on offer (apart from mine, and The Judgement of the Peacekeeper, all the rest seem to be set in America).

A Bedtime Chocolate by Nicola Tanquary: a young girl has to deal with grief alongside the discovery of an unknown side to her father. Fairly dark urban fantasy.

Real Predictions by Regina Clarke: the new warden at a women’s prison has an escaped prisoner to find, with a little help from the Tarot. Crime.

The Judgment Of The Peacekeeper by Diana Doherty: Peacekeeper Verity and her Familiar investigate a crazed wyvern near an outlying village, in a land of magic.

Requiem For a Rodent by Gef Fox: You know it’s going to be a bad week when you run over your son’s hamster during the weekend visit. Horror.

Seeding Day by Michael Siciliano: Two brothers begin the annual ritual of protecting their family from invaders at the solstice. Science fiction.

When It’s Ajar by G.A. Rozen: Welcome to Forrest Door B&B, resting place for weary travellers. Horror/dark fantasy, and probably my favourite of the collection.

Self-Aware and Living in Bradford by JY Saville: Artificial intelligence research in Bradford, with a nod to the film version of Billy Liar. Have a word cloud, I really do like those things… Word cloud for Self Aware and Living in Bradford

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.