book review

Oppressive regimes in recent SFF

In Vox by Christina Dalcher, America has been taken over by fundamentalist right-wing Christians: a woman’s place is once more in the home. Only this time, she’s only allowed to speak 100 words a day. The Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James is set in contemporary Britain with an alternative history, where only people with magic in their blood are full citizens with acknowledged human rights. Quite different styles and settings, but both give well-crafted and thought-provoking portrayals of oppressive regimes and how people react to them.

Vox has been on prominent display in three for two offers and the like at WHSmith and Waterstones on and off for months. It’s been in bestseller lists, and praised as a new Handmaid’s Tale left, right and centre. Which is why I’d delayed reading it, even though Christina is one of the flash fiction crowd I chat to on Twitter and I’d been so excited when she first announced her novel was going to be A Real Thing. Sci-fi that appeals to people who don’t read sci-fi is rarely satisfactory to those that do, in my experience (see my review of The Bees). I’m so glad that Vox turned out to be chilling, thrilling, near-future sociological SF with a healthy dose of science in it, and I can honestly say I really enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say much about Vox without giving away plot-twists. I thought the idea of the slippery slope was handled brilliantly, the glimpses of the path they’d gone down to get to the current state. At what point does behaviour cross a line between being the preserve of a weird minority it’s safe to ignore, and prominent enough that right-minded liberals (as the phrase would probably go, in the USA) should react against it? Can a person look back and pinpoint the moment they should have stood up for their (or someone else’s) rights, their last chance to change the course of society? What about if someone you love edges step by step along a path you abhor, following one seemingly reasonable (in isolation) argument after another? Then there’s the science element, laced with ambition and ethics. It’s all biology/medicine so I have no idea how real or plausible any of it is, but it did make me think about the way lots of scientific research can be used for good or ill, and all we can do is trust that it won’t be weaponised.

My one reservation is the epilogue; I personally would have preferred the book to end after the climax and do away with the hindsight summarising. However, I have similar views on the Jeff Vandermeer novel Borne, but that didn’t stop me loving the novel and recommending it. I’m happy to recommend Vox too.

I’ve only read the first two of the Dark Gifts trilogy so far (Gilded Cage and Tarnished City), though the third is lurking on my Kobo ready for me to dive into when I’ve finished the book I’m reading just now (Christmas-themed, therefore timebound). The main characters are the children of two very different families, ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties, with much of the action revolving around two boys in their late teens who end up bonded by circumstance in a fascinating (and not at all friendly) way.

Britain is powered by slaves; every non-magical person must do a ten-year stretch. Meanwhile the magical aristocracy (the ‘Equals’) live on their country estates in luxury, and the country is ruled by the heads of these powerful families. A mixture of propaganda and the silence of the traumatised ensures that the wider public never hear about, or simply don’t believe, the treatment of slaves in some parts of the country. When the Hadleys opt to do their slave-days as a family, on an aristocratic estate, their belief in the basic fairness of the system and the inevitability of slavery begins to wobble. Of course, even within the Equal society, some are more equal than others, and the tensions between and within families play out on a large scale.

Gilded Cage is very good on how ordinary people either turn a blind eye or simply miss the hints that all is not well – with busy lives and faith in basic decency they don’t want to rock the boat and assume the nastiest rumours are trouble-causing nonsense. It also portrays complexity and grey areas well, and the way that individuals don’t necessarily align with the group you expect them to. There are some fabulous characters in the trilogy, Silyen Jardine in particular keeps wrong-footing me and revealing yet another facet. Tarnished City kept the pace and tension and developed some of the characters in interesting ways, I’m looking forward to reading Bright Ruin, the final instalment.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

2018 via a stack of books

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A selection of books I read in 2018

Those of you who’ve been around a while know this year (for me) has been mixed to say the least, yet I still apparently managed to read 47 books, some of which I piled on the living room floor and took a photo of so you can approve/despair of my taste, a bit like I did for 2016.

Despite taking weeks and weeks to get through River of Gods I was surprised to note that 27 of those 47 books were fiction (at least a dozen speculative fiction). 13 of the remaining 20 were, as you might expect, covering history, the north, class, or a combination thereof.

I read 38 physical books and 9 e-books (hence the Kobo in the photo – it’s displaying The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad). Shockingly I only read 5 library books (2 of them were e-books) in 2018, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t borrow others and give up on them. I also borrowed 2 books from The Library of Mum and Dad, read 4 out-of-copyright e-books (the Conrad, an Anthony Trollope, Wordsworth’s guide to the Lakes, and a history of Hinduism and Buddhism from 1921), 13 books I’d either received as a present or won, one review copy from The Bookbag, 15 I bought second-hand, and a paltry 7 that I bought new. And all of the new books were bought with book tokens or Waterstones/Kobo vouchers that people had given me as presents – does that actually make it 20 of the year’s 47 that were presents and prizes?

I only wrote a review of a few books I read this year, but to quickly run through a few others…

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is Indian-set sci-fi with strong AI themes, which will probably appeal to Alastair Reynolds fans. It has a large cast of characters, some of whom come together in the manner of a traditional multi-protagonist epic, others (if I recall correctly) skim by each other, more in the mode of Pulp Fiction. If this sounds appealing, I reviewed a fantastic sci-fi noir by Alastair Reynolds, and another Ian McDonald book (Brasyl).

Creation by Steve Grand is from nearly 20 years ago so artificial intelligence has come on since then, but OneMonkey (having read it back then and remembering it was still in the bookcase) recommended it to me around the time I started reading River of Gods and it was a fascinating and thought-provoking (non-fiction) read. My grasp of biology is pretty shaky but I have a strong programming background: some combination of those is probably useful to get the most out of it, but there’s a lot of pure thought in there (philosophy, if you will).

The Lost Words was our Christmas present from friend T, and is just beautiful. If you haven’t come across it (and if you haven’t, where have you been?) it’s a response to various nature words being removed from a new edition of a children’s dictionary. Those words have been gorgeously illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it’s aimed at children (they won’t appreciate it – get it for yourself).

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is sci-fi set in Thailand; climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism, it’s got the lot. I hadn’t heard of the author, I picked it up in a charity shop BOGOF and I’m so glad I did. The setting was unusual (I believe the author is American) and it was brilliantly written and suitably tense. There are some pretty nasty bits in it though.

The Tempest Tales by well-known crime author Walter Mosley (whose Easy Rawlins books I’ve enjoyed but never, it appears, reviewed) was an unusual novella. A man is mistakenly killed by the police in Harlem and St Peter decides he’s not allowed into heaven. The man argues that he’s not a sinner, he’s only ever done the best he, as a black man on a low income in the place and time he lives, could do – there follows a loosely connected novella/story collection showing episodes in his life as he tries to persuade the angel that’s been sent back to earth with him to let him into heaven. Humour, philosophy, and some good characters.

Finally, Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird was an odd but great book that I raced through. The bulk of it is set at Dundee University in the 70s and has more than a hint of Tom Sharpe about it (I used to love his farces set in higher education). However, this being Kate Atkinson there’s a big family mystery wrapping the whole thing up, which I think will particularly appeal if you enjoyed Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

I hope you enjoyed some great books in 2018, and that your To Read shelf is looking as enticing as mine. In the spirit of admitting my limitations I’m intending only to blog once a month in 2019 so hopefully I’ll see you here on the last Sunday of January.

Happy New Year!

 

Grayson Perry on masculinity

I knew very little about Grayson Perry (other than that I wasn’t keen on his art) before I happened to catch part of his Reith lectures, ‘Playing to the Gallery’ in 2013. I sought out the rest on catch-up, read something he’d written in the paper when he made a TV programme about men and maleness, and added his 2016 book The Descent of Man to my To Read list as soon as I heard he’d written it. Having finally got it out of the library in January, I read it quickly and with great interest, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the thorny topic of gender in the modern age as well as anyone interested more broadly in contemporary politics and society. I don’t have to agree with him on everything to applaud the kind of book he’s written and the approach he’s taken, though I think I do agree with his assertion that “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.”

I’d like to think gender was irrelevant in modern Britain and I’ve refused to join women-only groups in everything from the Institute of Physics to the local branch of the Labour Party, so I’m not a habitual reader of gender-focused texts. I don’t, for that reason, know if The Descent of Man is a good example of its kind, but for the general reader like me it seemed a thought-provoking introduction to the topic. The tone of the book was none too serious, which helped. His comments on the parents of Islington made me laugh for instance, how they undoubtedly claim to bring up their sons as tender and gentle, away from gender stereotype, “I’m sure they do, and the young men in question are probably delightful,… and I’m pretty sure their mothers still do most of the childcare and housework or employ other women to do it.”

I thought Perry’s identification of Default Man was interesting, the white middle-class heterosexual male who is (as a broad group) at the head of all things, from banks and universities to media outlets and politics. Everyone else is measured against them – neutral means what Default Man uses, does, wears, like the uniform of the sober suit with a tie (colourful clothes are suspect), and anything else is automatically Other. Once you look at society with Default Man in mind, lots of things start to make more sense. As well as Default Man we have the Department of Masculinity, a member of which provides the voice in your head telling you not to be a “sissy”. Which, he argues, leads to confusion and aggression and worrying about what other people think. Or in other words Toxic Masculinity and its detrimental effects on mental health.

We need more public intellectuals if you ask me, we’re losing the art of debate and the ability (maybe even the desire) to question things. They might not cover a topic from all angles and they will bring bias with them, consciously or otherwise. They haven’t always found solutions, even if they think they have, but they’ve thought about it, asked some good questions, and made us think about it too. So hurrah for a potter with no qualification other than that of being a man himself, daring to provoke us into thinking and talking about what it means to be a man in modern Britain.

How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

Quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, so full of love and sadness I felt like I might burst, so painful in places I had to look away.

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck lives by the sea with her fisherman dad, who takes her to school every morning on the front of his bike. It’s not a Raleigh or a BMX, just a bike, and therein lies one of the truths at the heart of the book: Ellie Fleck’s family is not like everyone else’s, and all the kids in her class can tell. Most of them, as is the way with kids, punish her for it.

Set in the 1980s at the edge of the North Sea the story teeters between worlds: land and water, innocence and experience, all mod cons and an older way of life, boring everyday facts and the deeper truth of stories. Ellie has been filled with and shaped by stories, whether sea stories from her dad, ancestral stories from her Irish mum before her breakdown, or saints’ stories from church, so it seems natural that in this motherless world (“She’ll be better by Christmas”) Ellie surrounds herself with stories to get her through. But just because a wolf’s in a story, doesn’t mean it can’t bite.

Carmen Marcus had already acquired a reputation as a poet prior to writing this, her debut novel. This background is apparent in her use of language; I loved the repetition of words like thudtickticktick that (in context) conveyed so much and helped to describe Ellie’s world so vividly. Some of the imagery will stay with me for a long time, too – there’s a wonderful blend of fairytale and the natural world, sprinkled with small, child’s-eye details like the behaviour of a dunked biscuit, and just enough (hedgehog haircuts and ski jackets) to set it in its time and place.

Ellie’s a complicated character in a complicated situation and there’s no black and white of who should have behaved how, but the way the circumstances are explored (and the way several points of view are used within the book), the reader is fully caught up in the story of Ellie and the story she’s creating. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, Ellie’s mum in particular is not in a good place, but it’s a powerful one and it delivers moments of magic to soothe the gut-punches.

Because of the central elements of fairytale and sea, I can see How Saints Die particularly appealing to fans of Kirsty Logan, but I’d recommend it to anyone who can take a bit of magic in their fiction and thinks they could find some fellow-feeling for a confused child.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s own introduction to the novel from her Read Regional appearances earlier this year: http://newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional/carmen-marcus-how-saints-die/

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alastair Reynolds so far (a novella, a few novels and short stories) but his 2004 novel Century Rain is not only the best I’ve read from him, it’s the most enjoyable sci-fi I’ve read in a while.

Earth has been uninhabitable since the Nanocaust, but field archaeologists like Verity Auger still make trips there to study its artefacts. When she messes up on one of those trips, Verity is handed an offer she can’t refuse and finds herself on a secret mission for which her expertise on twentieth-century Paris will be invaluable. Government scientists have discovered an unstable entrance to a poorly-understood galactic transit system whose origins they know nothing about. This particular branch appears to lead to nineteen-fifties Paris, though not quite the same version Verity’s studied. All she has to do is use the transit system and retrieve the belongings of a murdered government agent who went through before her.

Meanwhile jazz-loving Paris-based private detective Wendell Floyd is on his uppers as usual, and takes on a murder case against his better judgement. At least, the client thinks it’s murder but Floyd’s inclined to go along with popular opinion and stick to accident or suicide. Until he starts to wonder if the victim was actually a spy, particularly when another one shows up.

This is part spy thriller, part space opera, part beautifully-rendered fifties noir, and I loved every minute. With more twists than a journey through an unstable pseudo-wormhole, Century Rain has tension, romance, dry humour, and a suitably tear-jerking Casablanca reference or two. It touches on ethics and the unknown consequences of new technology, but it can be approached simply as a wild adventure. I can particularly recommend it if you’re a sci-fi fan who likes Raymond Chandler or Maigret, and if you’ve read and enjoyed Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer you’ll probably love this.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Stories of empire

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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

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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.

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.