I feel the need, the need to read

I remember seeing a sign outside a supermarket a while back, Run out of wine? it asked, and I scoffed. Wine is a luxury item, staples are what you run out of and need to rush to the shop last-minute for, I said. Who considers themselves to have ‘run out of’ wine?

It could be relevant at this juncture to point out that I don’t drink wine.

I do read books though, and with no reviewing going on at the moment (the Bookbag’s cupboard has been relatively bare for a while) I’ve worked my way through a great chunk of my To Read pile. There’s still one Christmas present to read but it’s non-fiction and yesterday afternoon, with only half an hour’s worth of second-hand crime novel to go, I realised I wasn’t quite in the mood for it. I could have bought the next Tad Williams novel for the kobo, as I’ve still got an unspent voucher from my last birthday. I could have stuck to the half-finished short story collections I’ve got lying around, but I like to pick at them and leave time between morsels. I looked at the To Read list (books to borrow or buy when I get round to it) and made a decision.

At that point I had an hour before the local library closed, not to reopen until Monday morning. It takes fifteen minutes to walk to the library if I’m brisk, so I had plenty of time. I checked the online catalogue, selected two books that were available, made a note of which shelves they were on, grabbed a bag. We had a minor domestic crisis (feline related), but I opened the front door twenty-five minutes before the library shut. The wind, which had sounded fairly gusty indoors, was howling and once I reached the next street, blowing me backwards. I was fighting to step forwards instead of on the spot. I checked my watch halfway down the hill. Ten minutes till closing time.

The grille was half across the door when I got there, the library empty save for one man behind the counter. I dashed across the room to social sciences, grabbed Grayson Perry’s Descent of Man, hurried over to history and spotted Stuart Maconie’s Jarrow book as I approached, reaching out for it as I neared the shelf. Within a minute and a half of entering the building and still with a couple of minutes to spare I was handing my books over, out of breath, hair at all angles, scrabbling in my pocket for the library card I hoped I hadn’t left at home. The librarian looked bemused, but he’s seen me many times before so I assume he’ll have realised it was an emergency. Because as everyone knows, although you can’t run out of wine, you can run out of books.


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.

New flash fiction in Flash, I love you!


Flash, I love you! is the fabulously titled new flash fiction anthology from Paper Swans Press and the table of contents reads like a Who’s Who of flash fiction at the moment. Gratifyingly, it includes one of mine called Life’s Struggles. You can buy a copy at the Paper Swans Press website, it is a lovely item (as well as having great contents) but I admit I was shocked at the price. Don’t blame me, none of it’s coming my way.

If you haven’t yet got the previous anthology with a story of mine in, you can still buy Ellipsis Zine One. It’s cheaper (admittedly the print version is stapled not perfect-bound) and has more stories in, features similarly good writers (some, like me, have stories in both), and it pays royalties to those writers (hurrah for Steve at Ellipsis).

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.

Warning: timeshift approaching

Preparing to leap into 2018 with renewed vigour and a sense of purpose (no, really) I thought I’d wrap up the year with some random observations, mainly springing from Christmas.


OneMonkey’s parents kindly bought me a couple of graphic novels for Christmas: Grandville Force Majeure, and Blacksad. The Grandville novel is the final volume of Bryan Talbot’s fantastic series about a badger who’s a detective in an England where France won the Napoleonic wars, and I’d been looking forward to it immensely (I read it the day after I got it, and it was tense, thrilling, and a fabulous end). I think OneMonkey’s parents have bought me all five of the Grandville novels, and before that they supplied a few volumes of Cerebus the Aardvark (which kickstarted my love of comics, as detailed here in 2010) so maybe there was a need to fill the gap, or maybe the lass in the Newcastle Travelling Man was particularly enthusiastic, anyway they hit upon Blacksad. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s from Spain, sounds good, and is about a detective (spot the theme?) who’s a cat. OneMonkey immediately noticed the abc of anthropomorphic lead characters in his parents’ gifts (aardvark, badger, cat) so I’m intrigued to know where I might go from here. Any good ones about dragons kicking about?


I got a couple of other books for Christmas (the Mike Savage one has graphs in, that’ll keep me happy for a while), some notebooks, a beautifully distracting Moomin diary to keep on my desk and write deadlines in, and a pen and pencil set from The Nephew (who I didn’t see until a couple of days after I took the photo). Not many books were exchanged in our house on Christmas Day this year, though we gave The Nephew three: two as presents and one I’d finished with and thought he might like (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow). And come to think of it I bought three for Big Brother and my dad gave him a Robert Rankin novel I was returning to the Library of Mum and Dad (basically he didn’t have anywhere to put it and Big Brother was sitting next to him on the sofa). So some of us did ok for reading material.

I’m yet to count up how many books I’ve read this year, but not as many as in 2016 I think. That could be the lack of a commute beginning to show, or it could be related to the number of story submissions I’ve made this year (again, not counted up yet but a huge increase on 2016). The final submission of the year was made this afternoon, now I’m going to get my reading and writing back in balance by settling down with a cup of tea, the last mince pie, and a half-read copy of Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

Wishing you all a peaceful 2018 filled with all the books you want to read, all the creative endeavours you’ve got the energy for, and a liberal sprinkling of quiet contentment.

Literary fiction and why I avoid it

I can be something of a snob sometimes, particularly the inverse snobbery of the chippy northerner. I dismiss entire author lists as a bunch of poncy southerners and expect to leave it at that – why would I need to provide further explanation or analysis? I’m not saying it’s a great character trait, but I do admit to having it. However, listening to Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme Where Are All The Working Class Writers? some of the people she spoke to talked about middle class literary novelists having a different mindset from someone with a working class background, and also about the concept of not seeing your own life reflected in fiction in bookshops and thus being put off reading it. I wondered if some of my antipathy towards literary fiction was grounded in that feeling.

I have never read any Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Will Self or Julian Barnes. Not because of the author (well, maybe in the case of Will Self) but because none of their books have appealed to me. It’s not just old white men though, the same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. In fact I had a look at the Booker Prize longlists 2010-2017 and I have only read one of the books on them; for the other 103 books I hadn’t even read any books by the author. That one book was surprising, it was Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, shortlisted in 2011. A novel by a Canadian author, with characters and settings from America, France, Germany and mainly set in the late 1930s and the second world war, it could be argued that Half Blood Blues is less connected with my mindset or reality than anything by McEwan et al, yet not only did I choose to read it but I really enjoyed it. Is it just that the usual suspects are neither familiar nor exotic enough?

I have read and enjoyed five AS Byatt novels, and there’s no getting away from their classification as literary fiction. Does the fact that she’s originally from Yorkshire, and each of those books is partially set in Yorkshire, make that much of a difference to me? (Probably, though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Ben Aaronovitch and Robert Rankin books set in London)

It can’t be a complete aversion to a stratum of life: I’ve read plenty of upper/middle class novels by PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Trollope. Each of those has humour though, often laugh-out-loud, and even though Trollope is Victorian Literature now, he was a popular novelist in his day. None of them are highbrow.

I don’t want to read the same kind of book all the time (hence Anthony Trollope, sci-fi, crime, fantasy, PG Wodehouse, historical fiction, etc) so even if some of it had some connection to my life, most of it wouldn’t and it can’t be that reflection of life that I’m looking for. Most of what I read, however, has what you might call plot.

I’m reaching the conclusion that what puts me off literary fiction is the label as much as anything else. I see a novel under that heading and I expect it to be full of dull wealthy people, sighing and arguing and having affairs and mid-life crises, probably in a place they don’t describe because Everyone has been there (except I probably haven’t), and really nothing much happens and nobody laughs. I read the synopsis with all that at the back of my mind and a description I might be half-interested in without that bias puts me off immediately. So yes, it’s mainly personal prejudice, and it’s yet another argument for not splitting the fiction in bookshops and libraries into all the fiddly sub-categories.

Ethically sourced books

I bought my first brand new full price paperback novel in a long time, at the weekend (written by a friend, released by an indie publisher), and it got me thinking about how and where I get my reading material, and whether the author gets anything out of it.

Last week I was discussing e-book pricing with a selection of strangers on Twitter. Sam from Lounge Books pointed out that readers are now used to paying less for e-books than paperbacks:

I then commented that you can’t get second-hand e-books, so for those of us used to charity shop prices, even a discounted paperback price for an e-book can seem unusually high. Libraries, as usual, are the answer – the author gets a payment, the reader gets it for free (covered by some tax they’d have to pay anyway). But do I practice what I preach?

Pie chart of the books read by JY Saville in 2017

If in doubt, make a chart. First I looked at books I’d read so far this year, and where I got them from (strictly speaking Library of Mum & Dad this year actually means Big Brother). I’m only looking at books I’ve read the whole of, so if I gave up on it (like the book I took back to the library on Friday morning after 3 chapters), or read only part of a collection or reference book, it’s not counted. Neither do I count audio books.

What we can see from this is that more than half the books I’ve read so far this year haven’t directly contributed to the author’s earnings. I say directly because you could (if you were grasping at straws) argue that all those review copies generate a review that drums up sales or library borrowing. So am I always this bad?

Column chart of sources of the books read by JY Saville 2014-17

Er, pretty much, yes. I bought a few e-books in 2016/17 because I got a Kobo voucher for Christmas 2015 (so should they all be under gifts?) and I watched for special offers and made that voucher stretch as far as I could. Even the gifts aren’t always bought new, as we often give each other second-hand books in my family (including friend T), though I have bought a few new books to give to other people over this time period. Free e-books are mainly the out of copyright variety though one or two were special offers (and one was a digital textbook that came with an online university course).

In my defence, when I buy second-hand books it’s almost always from a charity shop, so at least some charity benefits rather than a private vendor. And if there’s a copy of a book I want to read available in the Library of Mum & Dad, it would seem rude not to borrow it. I’m not about to give up the thrill of getting books through the post, either, often before they’re out there in bookshops. Maybe I could wean myself off the discount e-books, however, and borrow more from the library, as I understand authors get more cash that way.

A promise to frequent the local library more? That shouldn’t be hard to keep. Who’s with me? Last one to the issue desk buys the tea and biscuits…