book review

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?

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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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).

Science writer for hire

I had a revelation recently: I haven’t lost my love of physics, it had just faded for a while, and that being the case I could potentially combine science with writing.

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Because I loved the one on the left and have never been able to get rid of the one on the right

I do write sci-fi, you can read some of it in the Cracks in the Foundations collection (which also contains fantasy stories), and I’ve continued to read it even in my science-free years but I’d got out of the habit of reading popular science books or New Scientist and it hadn’t occurred to me to write factual science articles. Until now.

Last summer I did a story and science evening with Alice Courvoisier for the York Festival of Ideas and helping Alice put together her relativity presentation made me realise I was still fascinated by physics. For the last few months I’ve been giving private tuition in GCSE physics (with occasional forays into maths and chemistry) and loving those moments where understanding dawns. My don’t-inspect-too-closely analogies are definitely improving. Considering all this, when I say that I finished reading an interesting and well-wrought popular science book on the same day as I got an email from a MOOC provider (you know I love my free online university courses) advertising a science writing course, you’ll have guessed that I signed up immediately.

I’m hoping to get some science-related writing published soon. If anyone would like to point out any opportunities or offer work along those lines, the usual methods of communication apply (@JYSaville on Twitter; jy at ostragoth dot co dot uk; or leave a comment here and mark it private so I don’t let it through moderation).

In the meantime you can read my review of Marcus Chown’s book The Ascent of Gravity here at The Bookbag.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

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As soon as I stopped looking for female-authored SF to review I read a cracking fantasy novel which would have counted. Not that I knew the author was a woman until I looked online to see if this was part of a series, and saw her referred to as Victoria. The same article also informed me that she’s American, which explains the sudden mention of ‘tight pants’ which jarred me out of the story for a moment…

This is the story of not just one London but four, one of them being our own eighteenth century version, which is a bit quiet on the magic front compared with the others. Kell is unusual in that he can travel in a carefully controlled way between three of the different Londons, as a kind of diplomatic courier. He’s from Red London, the one with the most fairytale kingdom feeling to it, but there’s also White London which is downright bloodthirsty and dangerous. Hang on – didn’t we say four Londons? As is the way of these things, there’s a London we don’t talk about, a London that collapsed under its own excesses so long ago it’s become a myth. Black London is real though, and it might not be as firmly sealed in the past as was generally believed.

It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but there is a strong female character, nicely complex, and a pretty-boy prince who I found kind of irritating but since I find plenty of real people irritating that didn’t disturb me too much. There’s tension, excitement, natty dressing, magic, and I didn’t once contemplate throwing the book across the room for crimes of mushiness or sentimentality.

Although this is the first in a series, it didn’t feel incomplete as some fantasy series novels do, rather it felt that there was scope for further adventures if we cared to know about them. I liked the world and the main characters so I think I’ll be going back for more via A Gathering of Shadows.

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

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Although it’s not a comedy I can see this novel appealing to fans of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Lots of philosophy, weirdnesses (technical term) of time and space, and it’s not too heavy (i.e. it’s got its share of farce and sarcasm, you can tell it’s a British novel). Having said that, as well as being a Douglas Adams fan I do have a degree in theoretical physics which included as many philosophy modules as I could access, so I may be part of a niche target audience. Mobius Dick is one of the few books I’ve come across where the main character is a theoretical physicist, which is actually what swayed me when I picked it up in a charity shop last summer, having heard of neither the book nor the author. Speaking as a partial insider then, I don’t know how much you’d have to be comfortable with the idea and philosophy of quantum mechanics to get into this. If ‘what would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse’ is just a string of words to you then you might find it a bit hard going (and potentially uninteresting).

There is also an undercurrent of thriller, with some peculiar goings-on at a nuclear research facility in Scotland that we as readers want to get to the bottom of. I read almost the entire book on a return train journey to Liverpool, becoming immersed and zipping through the pages, whereas OneMonkey (who also has a degree in theoretical physics, sorry) found it hard to get going because it chops and changes between different times and places and people, with chapters from fictional memoirs interspersed as well.

Part of what I saw as the Dirk Gently aspect was the key question of coincidences – are they significant or do we only ascribe them meaning when they chime with us? Alongside the recurring motifs of Moby Dick (and its author), the composer Schumann, and the physicist Schrödinger, coincidences and many-worlds hypotheses are the philosophical meat of the novel. It takes in the topics of re-lived lives, the nature of time, the nature of dreams and reality, causality, attractors in space-time folded time, and of course: What would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse? If that list is freaking you out, then maybe it’s not one to add to your To Read list, but if you like philosophy and the accidents and what-ifs of history then you’ll probably like being made to think by this book.