writing

A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction

The first book review I’ve written for Luna Station Quarterly has appeared today (Doctor Who novel, nailing my colours to the mast at the start), which is exciting and I urge you all (assuming you’re a partaker of speculative fiction) to go and read it, then lose yourselves for a couple of hours in the vastness of their archives. Further reviews should emerge quarterly, in a column I’ve called ‘A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction’, mainly because I’ll be reviewing whatever I happen to have stumbled across that’s good, so it’ll be a bit random (but also because I once did a research project involving random walks, and you know me and maths jokes).

In other exciting news, my friend Alice and I will be holding a story-telling event at the York Festival of Ideas on June 10th (I’d link to their site but it still has the 2014 details up, I’ve seen a proof of the programme this week and when it’s available I’ll mention it here). The theme of the festival is Secrets and Discoveries, so our evening will focus on the importance and the dangers of secrets, through myths and fairytales, and a couple of stories I’ve written (one historical, one sci-fi).

What with all that and the writing workshop I’m going to in the morning, I feel positive and busy, but none of this is getting me any further with editing the sci-fi noir novel…

Faint memory fragments through a different lens

A couple of weeks ago, a coincidence of reunions. Two people I know slightly, when brought into the same room turned out to have been at university together, more years ago than either would probably care to dwell on. Earlier that day a friend had told me about meeting the husband of an acquaintance – I know him, she said, now where from? Then the memory resurfaced, of one brief conversation 30 years ago in the woodwork room, with this boy who wasn’t in her class. She even remembered his name.

I reassure myself, when facts, dates and details escape me, that it’s all in there somewhere and I could retrieve it if I really had to. Whether that’s true or not, it’s the junk that remains a little nearer the surface that’s interesting, and the way it differs for everyone. In both instances I mentioned, one of the pair had a memory sparked off by the other’s presence while the other took more prompting (or didn’t have any recollection at all but was too polite to say so). Was it seeing the person that triggered the memory, or would they have spontaneously surfaced if the recaller had been asked half an hour earlier to think of people from university, or from school?

It made me wonder about all the paths I’ve crossed at 4 schools and 3 universities, not to mention everywhere else I’ve ever been. Spontaneously, I can remember all sorts of odd details about people even if I never knew their names, regulars from the bus I stopped catching 5 years ago, or girls the year below me at primary school. Do they remember me at all, or do I show up on the radar of people I wouldn’t even recognise if they introduced themselves to me at a party? Not that I go to parties, but maybe if they ran into me in the middle of Bradford or strolling through Eldon Square one Christmas. Does the girl whose pristine set of plain wood casing colouring pencils from WH Smith (W Aitchsmith, as she always said) that I can still picture so vividly remember that she owned them, aged 8? If she remembers me at all, is there some detail in the forefront of her mind that I’ve long forgotten?

I dread to think how some people remember me, and I’m absolutely certain I’ll have faded from some memories I’d rather have lodged in, but I’d like to think there are a couple of people in the East Midlands with hazy 30-year recollections of a little girl who always had a Snoopy flask full of tea.

Easter, lounging, and ripping up the to-do list

The Easter break looked full of potential, as it always does. I had 5 clear days without having to go to work, and apart from Sister Number One’s birthday gathering, very little in the way of plans. This time I decided to tackle it differently. Not for me the long list of tasks that would only be of use for self-flagellation when I hadn’t done any of them by the end of the holiday. I was going to avoid the avoidance tactics by not giving myself a list of things that (though most of them were things I actually wanted to do) needed avoiding simply because they were on a list. By this cunning use of reverse psychology I would clearly achieve great things.

Five days of mixed weather later I can chalk up the following:

  • Watching several films I had been meaning to see for ages or hadn’t seen for twenty years
  • Putting nail varnish on for the first time since Christmas (spring green, since you’re wondering)
  • Watching a sunbathing squirrel from the study window
  • Talking politics with Big Brother
  • Eating chocolate rabbits
  • Reading a crime novel I didn’t even enjoy, desperate to know how the plot worked out while being too well-behaved to simply skip to the last couple of chapters
  • Strolling by the river listening to birdsong and feeling unfamiliar warmth on my face

On the other hand, I can’t say I managed any of these:

  • Revising the sci-fi noir novel according to the excellent idea I had just as I was falling asleep one night last week, which now escapes me
  • Finishing the crime short story that I’ve been putting off writing (and therefore undoubtedly spoiling) the ending of for about two years
  • Finishing the novella about the young girl looking for her brother (who doesn’t exist)
  • Writing a small batch of blog posts to act as a buffer when I’m busy

But that doesn’t matter, because I never said I was going to.

A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado

Cover of A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli SalgadoMinoli Salgado’s debut novel A Little Dust on the Eyes takes as its trigger a family wedding in Sri Lanka in late December 2004, which the reader knows is about to be disrupted by the Boxing Day tsunami. In the couple of weeks of calm beforehand, lonely PhD student Savi takes the opportunity to escape an English winter and try to reconnect with the family she left behind years ago.

The story is told with gentle insistence, and the vivid images juxtapose and mingle grey Britain with colourful, exotic Sri Lanka. We shuttle back and forth in time and place, from the south coast of England to the south coast of Sri Lanka, from the present day to points in Savi’s childhood or the more recent past. Revisiting a place you remember doesn’t necessarily match up with revisiting the memory, and if you’ve been away for long enough are you a visitor or going home? Memories, stories and truth – how closely are they connected, really?

Savi’s struggling thesis has her studying her native land from afar, through literature. Her cousin Renu on the other hand, whose formal education was interrupted by the civil war, is studying recent history through the gaps and inconsistencies in what people say when they talk about relatives who disappeared during the war. The core of the novel is the connection and contrast between these two women, practically sisters in childhood, whose lives have then been so different. One sent to an English boarding school, out of harm’s way but also out of family life, the other growing up in a community turning against itself, where everyone turns a blind eye and no-one wants to know the truth, just in case.

Dr Salgado lectures in English at the University of Sussex, and this academic background comes through via technicalities in Savi’s research, as well as the list of references at the end of the novel. Interestingly I felt almost cheated when she acknowledged the real source of a couple of quotes she puts in characters’ mouths, yet I assume (and probably expect) novelists in general are poaching dialogue left, right and centre, from a choice phrase at a bus stop to a neat summary sentence on the news. I know I do it now and then.

A minor niggle for me was the lack of a sense of timescale in the book – I wasn’t altogether sure how long it had been since Savi last visited Sri Lanka, or had seen her cousin, how long she’d lived in England or even how long Renu had been unofficially working with the NGO investigating abductions. That aside, I was captivated by A Little Dust on the Eyes and I imagine anyone who liked Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll (see my review here) would also enjoy it.

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Casting the actors in your head

When I read fiction, it’s kind of like watching a film in my head through a murky window – the events play out in my mind’s eye, but not with absolute clarity, though the voices are usually distinct. Often I’ll end up with a real actor playing the character, either because the physical description put me in mind of them, or because they’ve played a similar character in something I’ve seen. Jack Shaftoe in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, for instance, is for whatever reason played by a young James Bolam.

Where I’ve seen a TV or film adaptation, the casting for the version in my head is more straightforward. Both Marlowe and Spade are forever Bogart thanks to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, I probably saw those films before I started reading either Chandler or Hammett. Hercule Poirot can’t be anyone other than David Suchet, again the TV adaptation might have just come to my notice before the books did. Maigret is a trickier one, however. I can no longer remember how I pictured Maigret, or how he spoke, when my dad first introduced me to a shelf of Simenon, but ever since we watched the TV adaptation in the early 90s, Maigret has been Michael Gambon whenever I’ve read the books. It’s with mixed feelings, therefore, that I read of Rowan Atkinson’s role as Inspector Maigret in two new TV films – I’m sure he’ll be good, I just don’t want to muddy the Gambonesque waters.

Interestingly (at least to me), OneMonkey doesn’t always read aloud/hear character voices in his head when he’s reading a book. Nor does he always picture the events being described. Naturally I assume I’m the normal one and he’s odd, but it would be fascinating to find out how other people read (as OneMonkey says, long descriptions of how a room looks are often wasted on him – as a writer am I generally wasting my time on that sort of thing or do most people get something from it?). Feel free to comment here and let me know.

Lines from a sniffling Discworld reader

This is the danger of being brisk and businesslike and getting straight down to the intended blog post instead of idly browsing the web for half an hour beforehand. Now that I’ve done the idle browsing for a few minutes and learnt the shocking news of Terry Pratchett’s death, I shall go reminisce with OneMonkey about how the Discworld brightened up our teenage years and introduced us to a series of wonders…