Spring and surroundings

Spring’s officially here, though we’ve had a heavier frost this week than we had all winter. Naturally, I’m reading a novel set in mountain country when the first of the winter snows are sweeping in and causing problems, but then I have a habit of being contrary.

There has been the odd burst of sunshine lately, plenty of flowers are appearing (mainly purple, in my garden) and the longer days mean it’s not already dark or dropping dark when I get home. It struck me as a good time to have a fresh look at things, while everywhere’s refreshing itself and throwing off the winter blankets.

Tomorrow on the way to work, or while you’re peering bleary-eyed from the kitchen window waiting for the first pot of tea of the day, take a good look at your surroundings. Maybe the winter storms have opened up the view by half a tree, or you’d forgotten there were daffodils on the roundabout. Maybe it’ll make you smile, or bring back memories. Maybe it’ll only remind you of some crucial maintenance you’d been putting off. Hopefully though, it’ll put a spring in your step.

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.

Looking back on 2013

The year’s not quite done yet but given my recent form, this could well be the last post of the year. What better time to have a look at what 2013 brought?

Strictly speaking it was the last few days of 2012 that brought my e-reader; I’ve had it a year today and most enjoyable it’s been. Somewhere in a post I can’t put my finger on at the moment, I mentioned my epiphany on the e-reader (the Walkman to complement the bookshelf’s LP collection), and I’m glad that realisation came. I’ve read a whole host of books I wouldn’t have got round to in print, at least in part because of their size. Most of them have come from ManyBooks.net, but some were borrowed from the library (Leeds Libraries have loads of new ebooks available, North Yorkshire libraries also provide an ebook service, Bradford doesn’t as yet but has a list of places to obtain them free of charge. Check your local library but remember Kindles don’t work with library loans); I’m already planning my borrowing to brighten up the commute in January.

I seem to have read my traditional mix of SF, Doctor Who novels, crime fiction, writing manuals, and socialist history this year. A bit of Anthony Trollope and a lot of John Ruskin sprinkled throughout. I’ve only put 7 book reviews up this year, but you can read them all here.

My short story submissions and my attendance at the Telegraph SSC have both been woefully inadequate, particularly in the second half of the year, which is not unrelated to my NaNoWriMo effort (still limping towards 40,000 words, thanks). Sci-fi noir, what was I thinking? Actually I was probably thinking how much I’d enjoyed The Manual of Detection, or Finch, or Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series. If you think that might be your kind of thing, check one of those novels out while you’re waiting for mine to be finished (I may be some time).

Back in March I released my first short story collection, The Little Book of Northern Women, which was positively received. It’s nearly sold as many copies as my novel Wasted Years, which had a 7-month head start. In August I tried an audio version of the final story in the Little Book, and I’d still be interested to hear what you think. I might try recording other pieces in the coming year.

Probably all that’s left to do is wish you all a peaceful 2014, and I hope you read some good books and travel to some interesting lands via the power of words.

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.

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.

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 Moon of Endine: free sci-fi werewolf comic

I don’t always put the comic/graphic novel stuff on this blog but it occurred to me that readers here might be missing out because they ‘don’t read comics’. Mark Pexton’s art is (in my biased opinion) pretty special at times, and if you’ve enjoyed any of my sci-fi or fantasy stories you might like the one about werewolves on a frontier planet. So try our comic The Moon of Endine which (like we did for Boys Don’t Cry) we’re now making available online for free under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND, though you can still buy the print copy over at our comicsy shop or at Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man in Leeds. You can download the pdf if you like, or just sit and page through it here (it opens up a full page when you click on it)…

If I blog about tweeting, then tweet this, will I be stuck in an infinite loop?

Prompted in part by Louise Doughty’s recent post at the Telegraph SSC where she asked if any of us tweet, I’ve finally taken OneMonkey’s advice and joined Twitter (@JYSaville, since you ask). So far I’ve resisted the urge to tell the world what I had for breakfast, when I’ve poured myself another cup of tea (if I did that, I’d never have time to write anything else) or what colour I’m painting my nails. In fact, so far I haven’t said anything.

In the last few years while I’ve been aware of Twitter, I’ve dipped a toe in every so often without signing up. I’ve looked at Neil Gaiman’s page or friends who’ve already taken the plunge, and I could never get beyond the impression that this was a jumbled transcript of all the different one-sided phone conversations heard on a bus during a long journey. None of it made any sense, I found it hard to tell who was saying what to whom, and I couldn’t understand the appeal. Then I read something in an explanation of Twitter which suggested it was an information-gathering system in which you could immerse yourself and filter out the bits of interest. Suddenly it doesn’t matter who’s speaking, if I overhear that magazine X is now looking for stories on theme Y I can just go investigate. It’s a nudge in a particular direction. And if someone insists on talking about their preferred biscuits I can ignore them for now, until Twitter starts to make some sense.

I’m not what you’d call a social animal and I haven’t gone out of my way to build up networks while blogging; if people stumble across my blog and enjoy bits of it that’s fantastic, and if someone takes the time to comment I’ll respond, but that’s about as far as it goes. With Twitter it’s all about following – how can I gather snippets from those eavesdropped conversations if I’m not having them directed my way? It wouldn’t even let me finish signing up without following at least 8 people. However, I’m already reconsidering following Neil Gaiman because he seems to retweet hundreds of things (where does this man find the time to write?!) and it’s just confusing. I’m trying to follow people that either stay roughly on topic or just don’t say much at all, for now. Far from being a modern mobile user of social media, I’ll be checking Twitter maybe once a day at home, and probably not for long. If wading through all the accumulated tweets since the last time takes up my whole writing slot, that somehow misses the point.

Favourite haunts

As a rule on my lunchbreak I spend as much time as I can in the library near where I work, writing. I get 45 minutes there if I’m really being efficient with my time, but even half an hour is plenty of time to get words down or ideas flowing (preferably both). I go there because it’s relatively peaceful, even when it’s busy (which it often isn’t) and aside from people-watching there are few distractions. I sit as far from the shelves as I can to stop me idly reading titles, and there are no ground-level windows in the room I favour.

I noticed myself seeking out a writing space by looking for well-padded chairs, one lunchtime (some seat-cushions have been worn into the grooves of other people’s buttocks over many years, and some of the chair frames wobble alarmingly or lurch if you touch them) and wondered if the more ‘writerly’ thing to do would be always to sit near the Anthony Trollope novels, or books relevant to the topic I’m writing about at the moment.

It got me wondering about other writers’ rituals. Or indeed readers’ rituals. Where do you always sit to write, or to settle down and read, if you can? The corner of the coffee shop where you can watch new arrivals in the ornate mirror on the adjacent wall? The travel section of the library, where you can dream of faraway places? The basement of the local bookshop where there’s a comfortable armchair and you know that the staff will forget about you and leave you in peace? What about inside your house – do you have a quiet attic room, a study or a shed, or are you facing away from the TV you’re trying to block out while the rest of the family watch it? Do you need to have the cat in your lap, the dog at your feet, a view to glance out at from time to time? It’s sheer nosiness on my part, I guess, but I’d love you to leave me a comment and let me know.

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.