books

Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets

Cover of Two Hundred and Twenty One Baker Streets

If you, like me, are lucky enough to find Two Hundred and Twenty-one Baker Streets in your local library, grab it and run to the issue desk. Edited by David Thomas Moore, it’s an anthology of fourteen reimaginings of Holmes and Watson across time, space and gender, and it’s almost entirely brilliant.

I came to Sherlock Holmes in the eighties via my dad and Jeremy Brett but I’m not precious about the characters so a ‘based on’ or a ‘reworking of’ is fine by me as long as it’s done well. In this collection there are stories set in America, England, Australia, even a high fantasy universe (courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky). There’s a female Watson with a male Holmes, and vice versa, there are pre-Victorian stories, present-day stories, one set in the future, even a couple of stories where the main characters are not called John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. And yet in each one the essence is there, some riff on the famous partnership, a recognisably Holmesian character who always puts facts before feelings. There is also, naturally, Mrs Hudson.

I only recognised one of the names on the author list and I’d never even read any of his work – I borrowed this book on the strength of its Sherlock Holmes connection. I’m glad I did, as I’ve now found a few new names to look out for. Two-thirds of the way through the book, as I finished another story and declared how much I loved it, OneMonkey pointed out that I’d said that after every one so far. Some work better than others in terms of mystery or solving a puzzle, but there’s plenty in the collection for any Sherlock Holmes fan with a predilection for alternative history or SF.

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Penguin WriteNow Newcastle – a summary

Yesterday was long and tiring and still slightly unbelievable – I went to Newcastle, got feedback on the semi-rural fantasy from a Penguin Random House editor, then they sent me away with free books.

The books I got from Penguin WriteNow Newcastle

The Pelican book is actually a notebook.

I chatted to Abir Mukherjee and I’m looking forward to reading his historical crime novel, set in India in 1920. I never quite plucked up the courage to speak to Kirsty Logan (whose novel The Gracekeepers I reviewed for Luna Station Quarterly a while ago).

There were talks from literary agents, authors, Claire Malcolm from New Writing North, and Katie Hale who’s currently being mentored via the first WriteNow scheme from earlier this year. I spoke to other writers who’d been chosen for WriteNow (everyone greeting each other with ‘what’s your book about?’) and Penguin Random House staff, including an editor from Penguin Classics who I obviously had to talk to about Morrissey (I reassured him that I’d enjoyed the autobiography but had to admit I couldn’t finish the novel). Realising that I was talking to someone who’d met Morrissey was more exciting than it probably should have been.

I learnt some stuff (enter competitions; agents aren’t scary; it takes at least 13 passes for a good edit), wrote copious notes, and got unreasonably nervous waiting for my one to one with Mikaela Pedlow. I needn’t have worried – she had useful advice and pertinent questions as well as embarrassing praise (I need to learn to accept compliments without getting awkward and fidgety) and I have some ideas for how to improve the novel. Even without getting onto the mentoring scheme (which could still happen, shortlisting is a couple of weeks away) this has been one of the most exciting experiences in my writing life (entire life?). And because I was in Newcastle I got to eat a cheese savoury stottie for my tea.

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?

Crowdfunding hitches: the skint and the tight

Crowdfunding’s been around for a while in its modern form, and even Victorian novels were sometimes funded by pre-orders, but publishers who use crowdfunding to support their new books are having a surge in popularity (or publicity) at the moment. Dead Ink and Unbound each had a few books on the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize longlist earlier this summer, for instance, and I know that 3 of Cups Press are funding their first anthology at the moment via Kickstarter. It feels like half the people I follow on Twitter have crowdfunded novels or short story collections either already out or in the pipeline.

Naturally enough, I went to pledge for one of these books this week on Unbound and got a shock at the prices. First off, note that while the author isn’t someone I’ve met, we have a few mutual friends/acquaintances (in real life, not just online) so I’m naturally inclined to do him a good turn. Secondly, having read the blurb it’s a novel I’d choose to borrow if I ran across it in the library, so from purely selfish reasons (getting hold of a book I want to read) I want it to get published. Unfortunately it looks like the cheapest option is £10 for an ebook (which I didn’t want), £15 plus postage for the paperback, with (as far as I could see) no option to chip in a smaller amount as a simple donation. It stopped me from pledging, and I bet it stops others as well. There needs to be a lower threshold.

Now, before we go any further I’ll do my usual disclaimer about supporting the right of authors, proofreaders, editors and all the rest to reasonable remuneration for their time and effort. However, that £15 seems a bit steep compared to £7.99 or £8.99 for a full-price paperback, and we all know that in reality via Waterstones 3 for 2 offers, Amazon’s undercutting or supermarket bestsellers, many paperbacks aren’t even purchased at full price. Even if someone’s used to buying full-price new books, you’ve still got to give them an incentive to buy yours rather than the new one from the big name, the prizewinner, or their favourite author. So what’s the incentive to pay double here? Well, apart from the warm glow at supporting an independent publisher or encouraging an author, you get your name in the book. For higher pledges of course you get extras, special editions, original artwork, meet the author, that kind of thing, which seems fair enough. I’m not bothered about getting my name in a book though, I’d rather have the opportunity to buy the paperback at normal paperback sort of prices. Or just donate a small amount, get nothing but the warm glow in return, and maybe buy the book later once it’s out and I’ve got more spare cash.

Once I’d thought about it a bit I wondered if this is another instance of the long-running ‘privileged backgrounds in publishing’ saga (see also my recent posts about the cost of writing competitions). Both Dead Ink and 3 of Cups Press happen to have slightly lower prices than Unbound for their ebooks and paperbacks, but crucially they both have donation options. If you can only spare a quid this week, you still get to feel like you contributed towards a publication that means something to you, even if you don’t get a copy of the book out of it. I was once chatting to a student environmentalist (accentless, bit snobby, apparently from a well-off background) who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t switch to eco-friendly brands as the prices were so similar and clearly it was the right thing to do – I remember trying to explain to this bemused lad that for many people the choice is not between Andrex and Nouvelle or Fairy Liquid and Ecover, it’s between the value brand and the eco version, and their budgets simply might not stretch that far even if they thought it was a good idea. As I confessed to Sam at Lounge Books on Twitter this morning, most of my reading material comes from the library, charity shops, or I get review copies. Before the reviewing it was mainly libraries and charity shops, and most of my family and friends are the same – for us £15 isn’t just usurping two novels we’d buy in the shops, it’s more like five on the expensive side from Oxfam or 30 from the charity shop near my parents. Crowdfunding publishers might be asking for a bigger investment from us than they think.

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.

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.