writing

Kate Atkinson and style envy

I haven’t even read all of Kate Atkinson’s novels, just the Jackson Brodie series and a couple of the others (Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet) but she’s a writer I frequently point to and say ‘that, that’s what I’m after’.

Like Stephen King or Terry Pratchett (both of whom I’ve long admired) Kate Atkinson makes it look easy and tantalisingly attainable. She has a natural, almost conversational style even when she’s sounding like Literature (with a capital L). She makes you care about the characters not because of their grand tragedy (though many of them do have tragic circumstances) but by details, little glimpses into their mildly disappointing childhood or a wholly inappropriate first love.

With her tightly connected web and echoes of actions reverberating throughout the book, she manages to make even the most odd circumstances seem somehow plausible. I know some people find the coincidences and neat connections in her novels contrived but I like the way it makes it feel almost like a fairytale. Which sounds contradictory, given I’ve just praised her seemingly down to earth style, but she has a way of taking something ordinary, presenting it as magical, and thus emphasising its ordinariness. If only I could work out how she does it.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as it seems to be called. I read this a couple of years ago (another illustration of the benefits of free out-of-copyright books for e-readers) but with all the Corbynomics kerfuffle it seemed a good time to mention it.

I read it in the spirit of Know Your Enemy, since Adam Smith seems to get blamed/credited with everything free market from Thatcher onwards that I oppose, but I was pleasantly surprised. His views were not quite what I expected, I even agreed with a fair bit of it (though some might have worked with a smaller population and a different system of banking etc but isn’t applicable today. And sometimes he seems almost naive in thinking people will do what’s fair or best for the country rather than what provides most short-term advantage to themselves).

He’s by no means a socialist but the provision of a living wage and progressive taxes seem to fall naturally out of his style of pragmatism. He doesn’t have much time for the idle rich, or greedy merchants who whisper in government ears to make sure their own interests come before those of the nation. Which I’m sure would come as a great disappointment to half the people who point to him as the foundation of their economic beliefs, but haven’t actually read this book.

What’s the moral of this tale? That Tories aren’t always as bad as you think? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far… However, go to the original source whenever possible, that could be one lesson to learn. Like reading Corbyn’s economic policy for yourself instead of believing the doom merchants.

Stormy Sunday

A lazy afternoon in a warm garden with a satisfyingly chunky book. Breeze riffling the pages, the occasional yew needle landing in my hair. The breeze picks up, the sky turns grey. Still warm, but bring the book inside for safety and sit by an open window instead. The sky darkens, lights on in the afternoon like it was November. A distant flash from the corner of my eye, then the sky lights up and the rain turns on like the most invigorating shower. Rain like a grey curtain concealing the valley, the wood, the nearby houses. Rain hissing and splattering as it fills the gutter and pools on the neighbour’s garage. Rain drumming on the roof demanding to be let in, competing with the thunder. Rain running down the road, the pavement, pooling where it can, straddling the T-junction. Wildflower meadow flattened, its strimmed paths obliterated. The cat yowls to be let out, to show that this is his territory and not even the forces of nature can drive him out of it. But I keep him in the dry warmth of the living room, listening to the rain, within easy reach of the hand that isn’t holding the book.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

My review of Lives of the Monster Dogs is now up at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s science fiction from 1997 with a pleasingly old-fashioned (19th century) aspect, so if that sounds at all like your thing, bob over there and read the whole review. If it doesn’t, stay here and read something else…

READ, carved in rockYou could try my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations, which you can download for free here (tip me if you enjoy it).

A quick news and reviews round-up

I’ve got a new review at The Bookbag this week, for The Affinity Bridge by George Mann, a steampunk mystery that might appeal if you like both Sherlock Holmes and the popular novels of Robert Rankin. Another book that Rankin fans may enjoy (which I don’t have time to review properly, I’m currently reading Confluence by Paul McAuley to review for The Bookbag, and it’s a huge doorstopper of a volume with a whole trilogy in one book) is Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs which I picked off a library shelf at random, as is my wont, and was captivated by. Frankenstein’s monster’s wife Brenda is running a B&B in Whitby, and in between washing sheets and frying breakfasts she investigates supernatural mysteries with her best friend Effie. Lovely interplay of old Northern ladies, understated humour, bonkers plot twists, a hint of a romance, and proper tense scary bits. It’s part of a series so I shall be going back for more.

As for the news, well the Ilkley Literature Festival programme came out this week, and as part of Ilkley Writers I’ll be reading a story at the Fringe again, Thursday 8th October:

FestivalProg2015

Humblebrags and other bits of popular culture I seem to have missed

This week I learned (from a management newsletter at work, no less) that the humblebrag is a turn-off and best avoided. I had hitherto been unaware of the existence of the humblebrag so I looked it up, the example given in the newsletter not being clear, and I remained unenlightened. It is apparently the act of bragging in a self-deprecating way, which made me wonder if it’s largely an American phenomenon, as self-deprecating is (I always thought) the polite British default. I am now in a constant state of mild anxiety in case I commit this modern faux-pas without realising (I couldn’t see anything wrong with the half-dozen examples I read, which leads me to believe I’m either a) dense, or b) doing it all the time).

On the same day a colleague made an allusion to someone’s name being similar to a character from something. I not only had to have the character explained, but also the TV channel. When I last had a TV it had 4 channels (Channel 5 not being worth the effort of tuning in) and no remote control. I watch probably a couple of films or BBC programmes a week on iplayer but it’s not the same experience as I’m not even aware of what channels I’m not watching, I don’t see trailers for other programmes, and of course I don’t see TV adverts (I’m sure I mainly watched the BBC when I had a TV, yet I seem to remember loads of 1980s adverts. I’ll blame Channel 4 and their alternative comedy output). Occasionally people refer to a current advert at work (or on a Radio 4 comedy) and I’m completely clueless.

What with the lack of channel-hopping, and not reading newspapers (going straight for stories of interest on The Guardian or BBC News) I also don’t know who half the latest celebrities are. I saw a film review the other day that claimed the cast list was full of ‘Hollywood hot property’ and I only recognised one name (and couldn’t tell you a single film he’s been in).

It does sometimes make me worry, being a writer and yet soaking up so little of my own time. Have I spent too long reading Trollope? I have been sticking to my quest for more recent literature this year, but several of those have been set in the past (or an alternative version of it) so it might not be helping as much as I want it to. Is it middle-age hitting full-force (the accuracy of being referred to as mid-thirties sadly waning) leaving me baffled by popular (youth) culture? Thinking about it, I’ve never been quite in step with my contemporaries (Big Brother’s influence on my musical tastes had a lot to do with that) so I suspect I shall continue in partial ignorance. I certainly don’t intend to start listening to Radio 1 and reading celebrity gossip pages to catch up.

The Corbyn effect: when the political becomes personal

Some of the socialist and working class history books on the shelf of JY Saville

I’m feeling optimistic at the moment, generally sunny and bright and like anything is possible. These things are never simple, we all know that, but I can attribute part of it to Jeremy Corbyn (he’s not the messiah he’s a very lefty boy). Tenuous, you may say, trying to drum up a bit of blog traffic by latching on to the man of the moment, but regular readers should know I don’t have much appetite for that, and you don’t have to know me long to realise I’m a socialist (honestly I can bring politics into most conversations, appropriate or otherwise), so it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out I’d be supporting him.

It’s quite sad how refreshing it is to listen to a politician that sounds like they believe the words coming out of their mouth, and seems like they might actually have some principles they might stick to. I’m not saying politicians can never change their stance on anything, we all change our minds, maybe we’ve heard new evidence or thought about some consequence that never occurred to us before. All too often though, politicians seem like they’re swaying in the wind of public opinion. Honestly, I don’t care if you agree with me, I’d rather have a good lively debate, but you can’t do that if your heart’s not in it. I’d got a bit sick of politics, full of the same old insincere voices, wealthy and isolated in the Westminster bubble, until Mr Corbyn leapt into the leadership contest (wealth of Corbyn unknown but seemingly immaterial as it isn’t coupled with an I’m all right Jack attitude).

People are saying yes but would you want him as PM. To me that’s missing the point. It’s not that the socialists of England are only happy when they’re on the losing side, clearly winning an election and getting to put all these ideas for a fairer society into practice would be brilliant, but winning isn’t an end in itself. Pretending to be a branch of the Conservative party in order to trick a few floating voters seems pointless. Much better to be in opposition but standing up for what you and some portion of the electorate believe in. So I’m optimistic, the fifty shades of Tory politics of the last few years might be on its way out, we might get a debate on what Labour (or anyone else) stands for in the 21st century, and I might be able to vote with my conscience instead of tactically, holding my nose as I make the pencil cross. I’m fired up again (me and 50,000 other people, apparently).

While I’m feeling so good I’m getting stories finished, I’m entering writing competitions, I’m submitting to magazines more than I have in ages. If I make any money out of this sudden proliferation of work, I’ll have to send Jeremy a few quid for his leadership campaign as a thank you.