books

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.

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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.