books

Not just a year but a decade in books

As is becoming sort of traditional, I thought I’d have a quick look back at what I read during the last year. The photo below is by no means a scientific sample but it does skew towards non-fiction, which is what the year felt like it did.

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Some of the books I read in 2019

However, given that the Guardian kept on reminding me it wasn’t just a new year but a new decade, I had a look back through my reading lists 2010-2019 and as a proportion I actually read more non-fiction in both 2018 and 2013 than I did in 2019 so I’m not sure why it felt so prominent.

As ever, there were library books (only 2 that I got all the way through, it’s scandalous), e-books (8), and books I’ve subsequently given away (2) and hence aren’t represented in the picture. Plus the ones I couldn’t be bothered to pull off shelves in 3 different rooms and pile on the floor (apologies to Messrs Hobsbawm and Wodehouse, among others).

Standout novels of my reading year were probably the first two volumes of the Dark Gifts trilogy by Vic James (I still haven’t read the third) and the Joe Sixsmith series from Reginald Hill (from the nineties, by the author best known for detectives Dalziel and Pascoe).

I read such a range of non-fiction in 2019, from Bruce Dickinson’s fab autobiography What Does This Button Do? to a selection of books about the north or being working class, the brilliant Gig by Simon Armitage, and a couple of economics books. It doesn’t make sense to say which was ‘best’ but Erebus by Michael Palin, The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson, and Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane both got me thinking and got me wanting to write some kind of follow-on or response.

I only read 39 books in 2019, the joint lowest total of the decade (alongside 2011). I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been writing so much instead, but it’s really not. Just over half the fiction was sci-fi or fantasy, which is about average for the decade, and just over a third was crime, which is on the high end. Though come to think of it, both novels so far in 2020 have been crime so maybe I’m going through a phase (riding a crime wave?). I should dust off the half-written detective novel this year.

Over the decade I’ve read 479 books, though I’m quite sure a few of them will have been the same book again (there’s a book on writing crime fiction that I remember getting out of the library twice, for a start). It might be a lot if you stick them in one bookcase but less than 500 in 10 years is not that many. When I think about how many new books come out in a year, even just in the genres I’m interested in, it gets a little overwhelming. It also makes me feel less bad about abandoning a long fantasy series partway through if it’s no longer absolutely compelling me to read on. I never felt guilty about not reading the must-reads and award-winners just because someone told me to, so no change there.

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.

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

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!

 

Audiobooks: do they count as reading?

The answer, as with most things worth thinking about is ‘it depends’. It depends on the person and their intention, and it probably depends on the book.

This topic seems to keep flaring up on social media and it gets quite heated. Accusations of laziness on one side, snobbery on the other, and all manner of unpleasantries in between. I don’t understand why anyone thinks there’s a blanket judgement to be made (or indeed why it matters, outside of education where a reading assignment might have a particular intention to do with recognising words).

For the sake of a straightforward look at this, let’s say we’re only talking about comfortable adult readers (or confident teens), not anyone who’s still developing their reading skills. And we’re only talking about unabridged versions of the books.

Many years ago my Nana’s cousin went blind and I remember her huge talking book machine with its chunky buttons, and tapes (easily the size of video cassettes) that she’d get in the post regularly from the RNIB. She would sit in her armchair in the same way she used to sit and read a paperback, and devote her entire attention to the novel being read to her, using her imagination in just the same way. I would class that as her reading a book – if you asked her afterwards about plot and characters or a host of other questions about the novel, she’d be just as able to answer them as she would if she’d sat down ten years earlier and read the words from the page herself.

On the other hand I listen to audiobooks all the time and I don’t call my experience reading at all. My local library uses Borrowbox, so you can borrow ebooks and audiobooks if you have the app on your phone or tablet. If I was sitting down to concentrate on a book I’d read it for myself because that’s a pastime I enjoy, which means audiobooks are always an added extra – I’m washing up, I’m doing stretches for my back, I’m eating my tea. My attention isn’t fully on the text. And unlike with a book where I would realise I was distracted (or perhaps hadn’t fully understood something) and read the paragraph again, I rarely rewind the playback on the tablet. I know I’ve missed bits, sometimes crucial bits, but perhaps because it feels like I’m listening to the radio and therefore just have to put up with a response drowned out by a neighbour’s excited dog, I shrug and continue.

Often, OneMonkey and I will put an audiobook on if we’re finding it hard to fall asleep, too many things buzzing round the brain on a Sunday night, for instance. The idea is we focus on the book instead of the distracting thoughts, but if it does its job really well, we fall asleep before the reading ends (Borrowbox has a handy timer for just such a situation). Do we rewind the next time we listen? No, of course we don’t. We’ll pick it up eventually, we think, and often if it’s fiction we’re right – the plot might still make sense even if we’ve missed some subtle twists and turns. If it’s non-fiction we’ve likely just missed a chunk and we’ll never know what it was. In either case we have of course missed out on some particular phrasing or use of language that the author worked hard on, so in the same way that I personally wouldn’t say I’d read a book if I’d skipped a chapter, I wouldn’t say I’d read any of these books either.

That ‘personally’ is an important word. I wouldn’t say I’d read a non-fiction book with a lot of graphs in it, if I’d skipped over all the graphs. Someone else, who doesn’t get as much out of graphs as I do, may well do, and that’s fine. Some people skim-read as a matter of course. Someone with better concentration than me (or who thinks to use the rewind facility) might have fully savoured and imagined every fiction audiobook they’ve ever listened to and properly considered all the non-fiction ones, in which case they could participate in discussions with other people who’d read them and no-one would know they hadn’t literally sat and turned the pages themselves, unless they happened to mention it.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to, for me – what did the reader/listener get out of the experience? Half the time when I listen to an audiobook (or a podcast) I’m looking for background noise, and if I absorb a bit of a story or some information it’s an added bonus, more akin to flicking through magazines in a waiting room than actually sitting down with a book. On the other hand if the book is your focus then it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a paper copy and bending the page corners over, swiping your way through an ebook, listening to a mellifluous reading by a well-known actor, or having it transmitted directly to the brain via some neural connection that’s bound to be along in a few years. No one method is definitively better* than the others, it comes down to personal preference.

*as in a better experience for the individual, not level of word recall or any other quantitative aspects people have no doubt researched.

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.

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.

National Flash-Fiction Day 2018

It’s National Flash-Fiction Day today (in the UK) and as usual they’re releasing fabulous morsels of flash every ten minutes or so at FlashFlood. For the first time in years (since it started?) I haven’t even submitted anything to the flood, because I’ve been so busy preparing for the event I did with Alice Courvoisier at York Festival of Ideas on Thursday (more of which later, probably tomorrow). However, I was fortunate enough to have a piece selected for this year’s anthology, Ripening, which you can purchase on Amazon. There are so many great contemporary flashers in there, you’d be daft not to.

So, read some flash today – by definition, it won’t take long and it might brighten up your day or make you see something in a different light. There’s still a couple of hours left for me to enjoy the flood before I settle down to listen to the Argentina match (happy World Cup everyone…)

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.

Might need a new bookshelf soon

Wow, I’ve got a story in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology! Although I’ve had a few pieces of flash fiction released in their Flash Flood on the day itself over the years, the previous couple of times I’ve submitted to the anthology I haven’t been successful. Much rejoicing at this news this week then, particularly since so many fellow-flashers from Twitter are also in the list, including Ilkley Writers’ own Emily Devane. The anthology is due out in June (NFF Day is the 16th) so I’m looking forward to seeing that sitting on my shelf.

Confingo 9 and Crossing the Tees anthology

Contributor copies

Meanwhile, in the last week or so I’ve had a couple of other publications in the post, as pictured above. Confingo 9 is a lovely magazine with colour artwork inside and a story of mine called Last Post. The Crossing the Tees anthology (which I think is only available from libraries in Teesside) houses my Time Team inspired story, Ghost Bridge, and is a pleasing paperback that I’m looking forward to reading.

As if that isn’t enough strain on my bookshelf, I went on a tour of the local charity shops yesterday with OneMonkey and my parents. Between us we got a big enough haul of books that OneMonkey had to drop some of them off at my parents’ car before we could continue (“That should keep us going for a couple of days,” said my dad). It’s dangerous letting me near a buy one get one free offer involving second-hand books, but at least I can safely say I’m unlikely to run out of reading material any time soon.

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Some of my eclectic purchases

Two anthologies and a magazine

This is a busy weekend, or to be precise, coincidentally three stories of mine are being released into the world within a few days of each other.

Firstly, I have a 100-word story in Tritely Challenged Volume 1, one of Christopher Fielden’s challenge anthologies which is out today. With this one, the challenge was to fit as many cliches in as possible and as it was kicked off while he was hosting workshops at last year’s flash fiction festival in Bath, there are contributions from Jude Higgins, Kit de Waal, Louise Mangos and Helen Rye, among others. Every book sold shoves a quid in the direction of Book Aid International, so it’s all in a good cause and is a fun collection. You can find more info, and links to buy paperback or electronic copies here.

Secondly, if you’re in the Middlesbrough area, I believe the Crossing the Tees short story anthology is now available to buy in libraries. Inside is a 700-word story of mine called Ghost Bridge, which was inspired by an episode of Time Team (for those of you outside the UK that’s a long-running, popular, and now sadly defunct archaeology series) and I guess might come under the magic realism heading. I couldn’t attend the prize-giving on Thursday evening but it sounds like a good time was had by all.

Finally, Confingo issue 9 is out on Monday. You can buy a copy online or at a handful of shops in the UK, and if you do you’ll get to read my story Last Post. It’s roughly 1700 words of a man not coping well with bereavement, but I think (I hope) you can see in its absurdity and sparks of humour the debt my writing owes to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

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

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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.

New flash fiction in Flash, I love you!

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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.

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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?

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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…