book review

Stories of empire


Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.


Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Paperback of Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Mandy Sutter is very good at those little moments of awkwardness that say so much about a character. The small but crucial details of a life, usually presented with dry and distinctly British humour. I was intrigued, therefore, to see what a collection of stories based on a couple of years spent with her (white, English) parents in Nigeria as a child would be like.

Only nine of the twenty stories are actually set in 1960s Nigeria, with others set in England just before or after this period, or later in the life of Sarah, the little girl whose father’s oil-company job takes the family to this strange, hot place, so far away from Nana. Nine stories also happen to be written from Sarah’s point of view, with another four from the perspective of one of her parents, and the rest from an assortment of acquaintances and teachers. Thus, in snapshots from different angles and at different times, we get glimpses of Sarah’s life, and the context of the family’s time abroad.

Seeing Nigeria through Sarah’s eyes as a child, we get a more matter-of-fact view than an adult might give, it’s just one more new thing at an age where many situations and long words are also new. There are still boring lessons, playground games, going to a friend’s house for tea, even if the surroundings have changed, and the etiquette with it. A mild object of interest in Nigeria, Sarah stands out just as much on her return home, where she is referred to at school as Miss Nigeria, after the teacher “had been the first to call Sarah by that name and now everyone did.” At first glance, Sarah seems to blend her English and Nigerian experiences more successfully than the adults, as with her borrowed rituals following a family bereavement, in Seed. Three for the Price of Five, and Mobylette Dreams could be tales of any awkward, unhappy teenager, unsure of her place and using either comfort eating or belligerence as a shield.

For Sarah’s mother the colonial feel of their existence in Nigeria is bothersome: the servants, the behaviour expected of the company wives, the empty days. She seems happier on her return to the English suburbs in Iroko-man, with tamed rubber plants in pots, back to normality (“What made us buy all those coffee tables?”). Sarah’s father, on the other hand, seems to leave part of himself behind on his return to England, never quite settling, with whisky gradually filling the void until eventually God takes its place. Throughout all the stories, Mandy’s eye for detail takes us right there. She conjures up the heat, the vegetation, the out of date kitchen in Nigeria, the unpreparedness of Sarah’s mum and the contrast between staid 1960s England and the slightly chaotic life they have in Nigeria.

I keep referring to this book as a short story collection because I remember Mandy talking about it in those terms a couple of years ago, and three of the chapters have appeared as stand-alone pieces elsewhere. As such I approached it as a collection even though it seems to be being marketed as a novel, and it worked well as linked stories, with the links between some more obvious than others. Someone else who’d also read it expecting a collection of stories said to me, “I’d be disappointed if I was expecting a novel”. I’d at least be confused. Perhaps neither of us reads as many experimental novels as New Welsh Rarebyte have assumed.

As a collection of short stories, however, this is a delight. Although there’s an obvious hook for anyone who’s interested in Nigeria or has been through a similar relocation, like all good writing Bush Meat is universal. It’s about childhood, and what shapes you, the long reach of events in the past, and how the same set of circumstances are experienced and remembered differently by members of the same family. Bush Meat is available now in paperback and ebook, via the publisher New Welsh Rarebyte.

Reading, writing, exciting

I’ve been inadvertently quiet for a couple of weeks. So busy editing the SF noir novel and reading books that I forgot to blog. To those of you who missed me: sorry. To those of you enjoying the respite: tough, I’m back.

I’ve got a couple of book reviews out there that you might not have seen, and they’re all great novels. First was Wychwood by George Mann, he of the Newbury and Hobbes series of occult Victorian steampunk mysteries. This novel is the start of a new series of contemporary police procedurals, also with an occult twist. You can read my review at The Bookbag.

Then I read We Are The End, the debut novel by Chilean writer Gonzalo C Garcia. Really it’s about being young, feckless and in love, but it has a flavour of computer games and rock music so maybe if you enjoyed the film Scott Pilgrim vs The World you might particularly appreciate it. Anyway you can read my review at Disclaimer magazine.

Yesterday I finished Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, a big-publisher reissue (out in January 2018) of a fantasy novel he self-published a few years ago. It’s the first in a series, located in the fabulous setting of the Tower of Babel where a small-town headmaster has become accidentally separated from his wife on their honeymoon, and I’m itching to read book two and find out what happens next. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got flash fiction in an actual print anthology from Ellipsis Zine, which you can buy here if you feel like it (I get royalties…). The book is full of work by the serially-shortlisted of the flash world, the names that crop up again and again, and I can’t wait to get my hands on my free copy. I’m in seriously good company.

This week I’ve also been plotting and planning with Andrea and Roz, my friends from Ilkley Writers who you’ll have heard on the radio programme we did about libraries in April. An audacious idea for a library-based writing festival grew out of that programme, and yesterday we agreed on a final form for said festival, with our lovely contact at a local library. When we know whether the library’s funding bid has been successful (sometime before Christmas, we hope) we’ll know what scale our festival will be on, and I’ll tell you more about it. Until then I’m fizzing with excitement at the thought of getting people writing, getting people into libraries, and adding further evidence to Why Libraries Are A Good Thing.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow (free e-book)

Cover of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

This is an odd book, there’s no denying it, but it’s a good one if you take it on its own terms. At its simplest it’s an urban fantasy set in Toronto in the early 2000s. Middle-aged former shopkeeper Alan refurbishes a house in the bohemian area of Kensington Market, befriends his student/drop-out neighbours (one of whom has wings) and gets involved in a community project to deliver free local wi-fi. Much of the book is taken up with the day to day goings on around all that. However, (and here’s where you have to like a particular sort of oddness) Alan’s father is a mountain, his mother is a washing-machine, and three of his six brothers are nested like Russian dolls and can’t exist without each other. The innermost nested brother goes missing, the other two turn to Alan for help and it looks like their brother Davey, who they all killed years ago, has returned for revenge.

Full of interesting characters and with some affecting flashbacks to Alan’s childhood, I thought there was a good undercurrent of living with secrets and fitting in, getting on, being normal – whatever that means. It gets pretty dark at times but it has its lighter moments and some beautiful imagery. I have only two minor quibbles with the novel: names and chronology. Though Alan is mainly referred to as Alan, he is for no particular reason I could fathom also referred to by any other name beginning with A, similarly with his brothers B, C, D, E, F, G so that sometimes they change name within a paragraph, and Andrew and Drew refer to two different people (Alan and Davey). Mainly the book is in the here and now in Toronto, or Alan’s childhood further north, but occasionally there’s a flashback to earlier in Toronto that isn’t clearly a flashback (confused me anyway), and it’s not always clear how much time has passed between events (or how old Alan is, but that may be deliberate).

If you enjoyed, or think you might enjoy the superbly odd graphic novel The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis you’ll probably love this Cory Doctorow novel. And, because he like me is into the Creative Commons stuff and sharing art, you can even download it as an e-book for free so what have you got to lose?

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley


I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Things of mine you can now read

I have new flash fiction over at Visual Verse, where each month’s submissions are prompted by a picture. Mine is called A Splash of Unexpected Brightness, in which a depressed young artist does a nice thing for his friend and she doesn’t quite see it that way.

I also reviewed a book called Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan, over at The Bookbag. It’s quite short and not much happens but it’s nice on atmosphere and detail and a snapshot of criss-crossing lives in a restaurant that’s about to close down. Remember, you can see all the books I’ve reviewed there by going to the reviewed by JY Saville page, so if you’ve got overlapping taste in books with me, you might find something there that interests you.

New flash fiction and a review

My just missed the long-list entry to Reflex Fiction’s first flash fiction contest is now up on their site. It’s less than 500 words long, it’ll take you a couple of minutes to read so what are you waiting for? It’s called The Invisible Woman, and I wrote it after going to a literary event with a writing chum – we were both introduced to someone, and a while later they could remember my name but not hers. Why does no-one ever remember my name she complained when we were out of earshot, and a story idea was born. She is not called Catherine, or Emma, or Diane (or Sue, Caroline or Jo, for that matter) and I have no idea if she has a sister.

While you’re in a reading mood, I’ve got a new review up at the Bookbag, for a historical crime novel called None So Blind by Alis Hawkins. It’s set in West Wales in 1850 in the aftermath of the Rebecca Riots, and is pretty tense and nicely done. I’ve written a few stories now with Luddite themes, and I keep toying with the idea of using some of my family history research to write a novel set around Drighlington amid the Chartist riots (I was thinking of making it a detective novel too) so this has given me some further inspiration. Don’t hold your breath though, I’ve got a few other novels to finish/redraft yet (I’m struggling through a major edit of the sci-fi noir one at the moment).