Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

Creative payment: the digital tip jar

How many times have you contributed to an author, artist or musician’s coffers when you’ve had the (legitimate) alternative of downloading for free? I’m guilty of neglecting the digital tip jar myself, I’ll download a book (usually a pdf) because it’s free (might as well) but I’ll wait and see if it was any good before I part with any money (after all, anyone can supply any quality of writing for free as a pdf). A couple of years later I haven’t got round to reading it, or if I have I can’t remember where it came from so whether or not I rated it, the author hasn’t got anything from me. It would take a more dedicated person than me to go back and pay in a separate transaction from downloading the book (album, etc) anyway. Given all this, I can hardly complain at the lack of funds flowing through my own tip jar (the biscuit and biro fund, accessible where you can download my novel, my SF collection or The Little Book of Northern Women).

For a while, a few years ago, both Wasted Years and The Little Book of Northern Women were for sale on Amazon, and people took a chance and paid real money for them (thank you, if you were one of those adventurous souls). I took them off Amazon because I’m not comfortable with their dominance and, longterm user of open source software that I am (and having now read PostCapitalism by Paul Mason I appreciate that I’m apparently prefiguring the transition to a post-capitalist society) it made more sense somehow to make them freely available under a Creative Commons licence and ask people to chip in if they’d enjoyed it, then do the same for everything else I wanted to get out there. Think of it a little like crowdfunding: everyone who contributes only pays a small amount they’ll hardly notice, but it adds up across all the contributors so that the author, musicians or whoever (in this case me, and OneMonkey who does most of the proofreading, formatting etc and designed the cover for Cracks in the Foundations) gets a reasonable amount of money. The trouble is, as mentioned earlier, not that many people do it (even me).

I completely get that if you only have a small amount of money to spend on books I can’t compete with the new Stephen King or JK Rowling, just like some local band with their first album out can’t compete with Iron Maiden. I also understand that even with good intentions (like me) people don’t go back to donate once they’ve read the book or listened to the album. And I’d rather know loads of people were reading my stuff (and, I hope, enjoying it) than put off the potential readers that can’t afford to take a chance. But digital tip jars don’t seem to be the answer. Given that all writers, artists and musicians need to eat even if they’re not household names, does anyone know how we make this kind of deal work?

Budget airline luggage charges are nothing new

Researching something else entirely in local newspapers online, I was distracted by a legal case from August 1858. In the County Court at Keighley a Mr Busfeild was attempting to claw back his unfair fee from the Midland Railway after it had decreed that his child’s pram did not constitute ordinary luggage and therefore they had no obligation to carry it without charging him. The railway company did not dispute that the pram was within the size and weight limits they set out for luggage.

Busfeild v. The Midland Railway Company. Are Perambulators Luggage?

The judge retired to think about it, and his verdict was delivered the following day and reported under the headline above in The Leeds Mercury. He went around the houses a bit, and eventually decided that since luggage was ‘clothing and such articles as a traveller usually carries with him for his present convenience’, a pram was not luggage. The judge did not think that a family trip to the seaside ‘usually’ involved a pram and therefore the railway company were within their rights to charge an extra fee for carrying it. The general manager of the Midland Railway, a Mr Newcombe, claimed that if you started allowing prams as luggage, next thing people would be wanting small basket pony carriages on trains! With a slight updating of the specific items in question I can imagine spokesmen for budget airlines coming out with similar justifications today. Interesting to think they’re part of such a long tradition.

End of the summer days

Where does the time go? One minute you’ve got 12 work-free days up ahead, ready to be filled with all manner of excitement, the next there’s a day and a half to go before you resume the day-job and the to-do list’s as long as your arm and you haven’t written so much as a blog post. Or is that just me?

Squirrel_crop2

This picture of a red squirrel from last week might give you a clue as to what I’ve been doing instead of writing. A day at the seaside, some walks on the moors, a lazy summer afternoon with my sisters, a birthday visit to Big Brother, lots of quality time with paperbacks on trains. And then there’s the small matter of redecorating the study.

The study had pastel candy-stripe wallpaper and cream floor to ceiling cupboards, a relic from the previous owner. In our usual make do and mend fashion we’d covered the lot with posters and got on with our lives for five years. Fuelled by tea and a stack of old cassettes (AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Coverdale Page and The Blues Brothers) it’s now got colourful cupboards, revealed hearth tiles (sadly no fireplace) and two of the walls are papered in carefully selected pages from an out of date children’s encyclopedia. Wall number 3 is largely bookcase which makes it a task for another time. As OneMonkey pointed out, the room needed renaming since neither of us actually study in here any more, it’s more of a creating space like a workshop. Ooh, or a shed! (Influenced by Joanne Harris, I suspect). Behold, The Shed:

TheShed

So here I am, ensconced in The Shed with a mug of tea and good intentions. Best get down to some writing.

(And yes, the title was a Tyketto reference. You should know my questionable musical taste by now)

Dangerous Northern Women

I’ve been writing a bit of non-fiction lately (I mean apart from this blog, and the usual book reviews). Some of it is now up at the Dangerous Women Project in the form of a piece about the Bradford Female Educational Institute and its worrying policy of actually trying to teach working class women stuff, back in the 1850s when that really wasn’t cool (I know – Bradford, education, working class history and northern women all at once!). You can read it here: http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/08/17/bradford-female-educational-institute/

I was planning to tell you all about the project in advance, but I didn’t want to seem like I was crawling while my piece was under consideration and I didn’t realise it would be up so soon after acceptance, so I never did. Suffice to say I recommend having a good look round the site, there’s a lot of different topics which all have something to do with the idea of being a dangerous woman, pushing boundaries in some way.

If the image had been freely available, I would have liked the drawing from this 1856 magazine page to illustrate it, but sadly it wasn’t to be.

Forthcoming Ostragoth comic: an interview with the illustrator

In between watching live streaming from this year’s Wacken festival, OneMonkey has been working on our new comic. It’s an adaptation of my short story Waiting for Boothroyd (which you can read in my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations).

Boothroyd-svg

OneMonkey has done lettering, odd bits of artwork, and general editing/layout/adding brilliance for Ostragoth’s previous comics, but this time he’s taking on all art-related duties. To the backdrop of a Saxon gig I asked him why, how, and all those kinds of things.

I dabbled a bit last year and I thought I’d got the lettering I needed but I couldn’t get the character style right so I put it to one side. Coming back to it this year I hit on a good character design but that didn’t work with the previous lettering at all so I had to go back to the drawing board on that.

The character design is still under wraps because it may well change (I think it’s good, but I guess I’m slightly biased).

Thinking back to the odd 60s cartoons I used to watch, I wanted something along those lines. I saw a couple of what turned out to be Saul Bass-inspired fonts and they were close but not quite right. So I started from scratch, roughing out the outlines in the gimp then creating the vectors in Inkscape.

He’s like that. He sat and drew then re-drew all the letters until he was happy (a couple of days later). But now we have something unique.

Waiting for Boothroyd is planned to be a dynamic svg comic but we’ll have to see how that turns out. Not like I’ve ever done one before.

That doesn’t usually stop him. I for one am eagerly awaiting the completion of this version of Waiting for Boothroyd. I’ll keep you posted here.

My writing life:having a wonderful time, wish you were here

It’s been a good couple of weeks at Chateau Monkey. I’ll forgive you if you missed my story Breakfast in Bradford over at The Flash Fiction Press a couple of weeks ago (but perhaps not if you don’t pop across and read it now…). Since then I’ve submitted to a few more magazines and a couple of story competitions, had another piece of flash fiction accepted (for issue 8 of Firefly Magazine, due in September I believe) and shepherded Ilkley Writers through an evening of writing microfiction.

I’ve made progress with a sci fi story I’m quite pleased with (begun in March 2012 I think – I have to let things ferment at the back of my mind), and started on a ruthless edit of awkward length fiction (12,000 words. Short novella? Long short story?) that I finished in April. There’s a rewrite underway for another submission I made a few weeks ago, and if the rewrite is deemed suitable I’ll be immensely chuffed and will shout loudly about it on here.

Oh, and OneMonkey is hard at work on a comic, just the two of us this time (though there are other plans afoot with Mark, as usual). I’m hoping to be able to give you an update soon, but it’s looking good so far. And he gets to geek out over fonts.

I hope your projects are buoyant too, it’s a good feeling. Let me know in the comments below, or say hello on Twitter @JYSaville – sometimes it seems awfully quiet around here. I don’t bite, honest.