fiction

Reviews of a couple of books

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I’ve had a couple of new reviews up in the last week or so. My review of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (as promised a few weeks ago) is now at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s a sort of fairy tale, certainly a beautifully imagined SF novel, and surprisingly for my Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction slot, pretty recent (out in paperback in the UK either this month or last).

The other review is The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, another free book from The Bookbag. Nothing SF about this one, it’s about an old widower from York having a series of entertaining/poignant adventures.

Go read the reviews, then read the books. I’m enjoying the lifting of my self-imposed Trollope ban by reading The Prime Minister at the moment. I shan’t review it, but you can imagine the joy it’s bringing me.

Radio catch up

This time last week I was still buzzing from the excitement of being on the radio. Those of you with flash enabled can catch up on the Chapel FM website, we start about a quarter of an hour in, with a burst of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (and we finished with a quick blast of The Damned’s version of the same song. I chose that one, did you guess?). Feedback so far has been positive, and we had a fabulous time making the programme. I have a new respect for radio presenters.

In the programme there are 2 stories by Andrea Hardaker, a story and 2 poems from Rosalind York, and 2 stories from me (Viv’s 64th from The Little Book of Northern Women, and a short piece of comic fantasy called Can’t Stop the Rock. It’s about reanimating dead rock stars, I wrote it a couple of years ago but maybe this is the year we need to put it into action).

Constructive criticism welcome, as always, but I hope you enjoy listening.

Quick round-up

I hope regular visitors haven’t been pining too terribly, but in my defence I’ve had visitors, been ill, and lost track of the days during a week off work for Easter. I have been reading lots of books though, and there’s a couple of new reviews up at The Bookbag, both crime novels of a sort. Firstly, from a few weeks ago Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers, in which a couple of old women get caught up in sinister goings-on while trying to help a homeless young woman in a genteel village. Then there’s The Bursar’s Wife by EG Rodford, where a grumpy middle-aged private detective (who must be related to Ed Reardon) does surveillance work around Cambridge and stumbles into something sordid that ends up a bit close to home.

I’ve also read another one of the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch, in which PC Grant continues to learn magic in a forgotten branch of the Metropolitan Police. Grant is such a likeable character and there’s such an obvious love for and depth of knowledge about London that they’re a delight to read. Essentially police procedurals but involving weird stuff that the everyday police don’t want to get involved in if they can at all help it.

My most recent read was The Gracekeepers by Glasgow-based author Kirsty Logan, which is fabulous and magnificent, and I shall be reviewing it forthwith. Huge thanks to my eagle-eyed dad for spotting a review of it in The Guardian a while ago and suggesting it should go on my To Read list.

Right, that’s about it for now. Did I mention I’m on the radio soon? As the schedule stands right now (though we’re still tweaking) I’ll be reading two stories – one from The Little Book of Northern Women, one you won’t have come across before – Andrea Hardaker will be reading two stories, and Rosalind York will be reading a story and a few poems. All interspersed with snippets of The Cure and The Kinks, The Fall and The Rolling Stones. Chapel FM, April 17th, 2.15pm (full schedule for the festival here). Be there or be awfully disappointed.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

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Set mainly in November 1912 among the chaos of suffragette-besieged London, this debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a romp through Edwardian society.

Frankie George (Francesca to her mother) is a trouser-wearing twenty-something reporter for the London Evening Gazette, relegated to the Ladies’ Page due to her gender (and, if we’re honest, her inexperience). With ageing ex-courtesan ‘Twinkle’ she writes week after week about fashion and high society when what she really wants is breaking news. Ebony Diamond is a suffragette who is also a trapeze artist, and when she goes missing shortly after Frankie tries to interview her, Frankie decides she could be on to something.

What follows is an adventure through hidden London, taking in the circus, Soho clubs, fetishists, suffragettes and sensationalist reporters. It’s done with a light touch despite featuring a couple of murders, and the outrageous character of Twinkle provides some highly amusing interludes.

Although the suffragettes feature heavily, I would say this novel is more about independence than about suffragettes specifically. Working women, trouser-wearing women, women who’ve left their husbands or want the vote, but in all cases don’t want the conventional life set down for them at birth. It makes for some odd alliances, and shows how it’s possible to be forward-thinking in one respect but utterly closed-minded in others.

Frankie was an endearingly flawed character, liable to go off half-cocked, untidy and disorganised, constantly broke and seemingly forever noticing how bad she smelt (sleeping in her only clean shirt yet again). The ‘Sapphic tendencies’ people kept accusing her of were never explicitly confirmed, but it added an extra dimension to the struggle for independence. She was generally optimistic and trying hard to help others and further her career.

That dilemma at the heart of her journalistic efforts was another good strand of the book. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean you should publish it, it could ruin lives. How far is she willing to go for her newspaper career?

Lucy Ribchester had obviously done plenty of historical research (and then played fast and loose with bits of it, as any good historic fiction writer needs to), but at times it did feel a bit like she’d thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the book. There were a couple of circumstances or sub-plots that I assumed would become relevant later, but never seemed to.

I wouldn’t be sure how to categorise this novel. Historical fiction yes, but with humour and a modern touch that made me (who has read a fair bit of steampunk) keep expecting it to take off on a flight of fancy. In a way that was supplied by the trapeze element, I certainly learnt more about circus performers than suffragettes from reading The Hourglass Factory. There was a murder investigation running through the book, but it wasn’t really a whodunnit. There is an element of thriller later on as facts come together and the race is on. In the end it’s about Frankie trying to get on with life on her own terms, and landing herself in varying amounts of trouble and friendship along the way.

Reviewing The Last of the Bowmans

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For today’s stop on the blog tour for The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson I’m not going to write a review. You’ve already read a few of those I’m sure, and anyway I wrote one for The Bookbag about a month ago (go read it now if you like, I’ll wait). Instead, I thought I’d tell you why I wrote the review in the first place.

Reviewing books for The Bookbag is always a thrill because I get to pick from their list of available books, some of which haven’t even been published yet (the exclusivity!), then I get a book dropping through the letterbox, which perks up the day no end. The fiction list usually includes debut authors, authors who’ve been around a while but haven’t crossed my radar, and authors I’m familiar with. New and emerging authors often sway me, they probably benefit more from a review than a bigger name with an established fanbase, and I might turn up something unexpected. J Paul Henderson wasn’t a name I’d come across before, having completely missed his debut novel Last Bus to Coffeeville despite both Leeds and Bradford libraries having copies in stock. The last few books I’d reviewed had been crime or fairly intense sci-fi so I was looking for something lighter, though not necessarily out and out comedy. I looked at the details of What a Way to Go by Julia Forster (hmm, maybe) then The Last of the Bowmans (his brother’s doing what and his Uncle Frank WHAT? Visited by his dead father?!). It certainly sounded different and it was the little details in the synopsis that grabbed me and made me take notice. His father wasn’t just dead he was in a bamboo coffin, of all things; his brother’s not just a stalker but stalking a woman with no feet. Intriguing. Could go either way, I thought, depends how he’s likely to come at it – what else do we know about this author? He’s from Bradford – done deal.

In case you haven’t read a review or even a synopsis yet, here’s what the novel’s about: Greg Bowman’s been in America for a few years, staying in touch with his dad Lyle and Lyle’s barmy brother Frank, but not with his own brother Billy. Never the most reliable member of the Bowman family, nevertheless Greg makes it home for Lyle’s funeral and sticks around to help sort out his affairs and do up the house, in no way using it as an excuse not to return to his girlfriend in Texas (honest). It’s while Greg is sitting down to dinner at his dad’s house after a day of planning and inventories that the ghost of Lyle appears to him and asks him to take over some unfinished business – sorting out Frank and Billy. Henpecked Billy has become a stalker, and Uncle Frank the Planet Rock listening Wild West aficionado is planning, aged nearly eighty, to rob a bank. Greg reluctantly starts unpicking family secrets and finds a startling one of his dad’s that he’s not sure what to do with.

Comedy’s never an easy thing to pull off in a novel, and comedy drama (I think) is even harder, but The Last of the Bowmans cracks it. I once described A Touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood as ‘understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best’, and The Last of the Bowmans definitely follows in its footsteps with its odd characters and surreal situations interleaved with the humdrum. It’s the mundane details that make it, they ground the whole thing so that it’s that much easier to accept a ghost in a ballgown having a chat with his son, for instance. I’m not saying it’s flawless (neither was A Touch of Daniel, few books are) but it found its groove early on and powered along at a fair clip. In my (biased) opinion, northern writers tend to handle comedy drama better than most because it chimes with a certain northern approach to life, a general attitude that doesn’t take the world too seriously. The tragicomic prologue of The Last of the Bowmans where eighty-three-year-old Lyle dies in the pursuit of a chocolate bar sets the mood nicely, and you can’t beat a good funeral scene in a book like this. Particularly if you’ve got a cantankerous old bachelor like Uncle Frank there to wind up the vicar and assorted attendant old women. The book is dedicated ‘For the Uncle Franks of this world’ and I have to say Frank was probably my favourite character, I like an eccentric that goes his own way and his love of Planet Rock helped.

As well as the obvious family themes (commonalities among differences, misunderstandings and different viewpoints or versions of past events) there’s the idea of the returning wanderer with Greg. Through his eyes we see what’s changed (and what, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t) in the seven years of his absence. The distance, both from the place and the people he left behind, has given him a different perspective on his family and – partly because he’s cleaned up his act, partly because of his mission from Lyle – he’s attuned to things he would once have missed. Having left West Yorkshire and family myself for a similar amount of time to Greg, I remember that dual feeling of coming home and being a stranger and I think that helped draw me in. There are extra resonances for me in that Billy lives in an unnamed small town in the Wharfe Valley that could well be heavily based on the bit of Wharfedale I can see from my study window, and one of my sisters (like Billy) was forced into a change of direction fifteen years ago when the mills closed and her niche job didn’t exist any more.

Whatever your background, if you enjoy a good black comedy The Last of the Bowmans will make you laugh even as it makes you think about how much you really know your nearest and dearest. And if you do happen to be from West Yorkshire, so much the better.

The Last of the Bowmans was released by No Exit Press on January 21st and you can get it in print, for Kindle, or as an epub (see the No Exit Press website for details). My proof copy came via The Bookbag (thank you!), so I could review it for them over there.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

If you’ve dismissed Stephen King as ‘just a horror writer’ but you like a good thriller or a tense detective novel, swallow your preconceptions and give Mr Mercedes a go. There’s less gore than in many a contemporary crime novel, and not the slightest hint of the supernatural. I’ve been a Stephen King fan for nearly twenty-five years (though I do think he’s had a few sub-standard offerings over the years, everyone has off-days after all) and I think this is up there with his best.

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective, lonely and bored without the job that made up his entire adult life. Mr Mercedes is the one that got away, the last big case of Bill’s career. We as readers know his identity from the start (from the synopsis on the back cover, in fact) and we have to sit back and bite our nails as Bill Hodges is (unofficially) back on the case, hunting the guy down as he prepares to strike again. He’s not a policeman any more, he doesn’t even have a private detective licence, all he can do is use his brains and all those years of experience, and sail as close to the wind as he needs to.

As this was Stephen King, the characters felt like real people, the book itself was easy to read, and the cranking of tension was spot on. The only bit I didn’t buy was a particular character having an AC/DC ringtone (same one as OneMonkey’s, in fact) – he just didn’t strike me as a metaller and it’s never explained. I think we can agree that’s a minor point though.

What struck me as particularly interesting (especially as, like I said, I’ve been reading Stephen King novels for close to a quarter of a century) was the amazing cultural disconnect I felt while I read this novel. All the other books I read last year that were wholly or partly set in America (of which there weren’t many, actually – an interesting fact in itself) were set in a historical or alternative past – I can’t think when I last read contemporary American fiction. Mainly it was the little things, characters reaching for their ‘cell’ rather than their ‘mobile’, or some TV channel or brand of beer I assume is real (because I did recognise some others) but haven’t heard of. In what version of reality is chicken, gravy, biscuits and coleslaw an acceptable meal, let alone one you would buy as the default offering in a fast food restaurant? I’m fairly sure that ‘biscuits’ in this context doesn’t mean what it means in the UK, but I honestly can’t think of any plausible definition of biscuits that would make this make sense. Why on earth is getting someone cremated (not buried) a big deal, why would you mock up a coffin to look like metal (when they’re usually wood, hence the term ‘wooden overcoat’) and is it usual for families to put corpses on display at a funeral home, where they then hold the service (rather than at a church or crematorium)? Fascinating, but oddly more foreign-feeling than all the Scandinavian crime novels I read last year.

Not writing a novel in November

Suddenly, in burst a man with a gun. “What the hell are you doing?” I cried. “Blasting you out of a plot hole, sugar,” he said around a dog-eared roll-up.

NaNoWriMo, month of furious writing. I have been taking part this year, but you might not have realised because I’ve been relatively quiet about it. Those of you of an optimistic bent are now picturing me hunched over a computer keyboard, fingers a blur of caffeine-fuelled activity. Those of you who know me (not to mention my typing skills, usual coffee intake, and the state of my back) have a whole different idea, and you’re probably nearer the mark.

So far I’ve written just over 6,000 words, which is 6,000 more than I had on October 31st. It was never intended to be a novel – keeping it realistic, I was thinking maybe a novella. It’s called Larry Price is Missing and here’s the synopsis I put on my NaNo page:

Larry Price’s wife sent him on an errand but – typical Larry – he doesn’t turn up to meet her where he was supposed to. Not for the first time, her Saturday afternoon shopping trip is spoilt by her selfish husband and she’s not happy about having to traipse round their small town looking for him. When he isn’t in any of the obvious places she begins to wonder if he hasn’t just forgotten about her, after all. Might he be genuinely missing?

It’s based on an idea I suggested for Ilkley Writers months ago, when we were first kicking around ideas for this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival – we would each have done a monologue from a different character linked to a missing middle-aged man. In the event, we ended up doing something entirely different (and you can hear me reading the final performance story, and the one I wrote for the intervening idea here) but I liked this idea and decided when I had time I’d write all the monologues myself. Only in the meantime I read the wonderful Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (you can read my review of it here) and it gave me the confidence to try something a bit different in terms of structure.

So that’s the novella I should be writing at the moment. Why haven’t I got further with it? Well, I’ve been reading and reviewing books (there’s a new one at The Bookbag if you haven’t seen it – gentle South of France mystery for gourmets and art-lovers), following up new possibilities for Ilkley Writers (more of which soon, I hope) and entering a couple of writing competitions. Plus of course, it being November, I’ve spent a few days wrapped in a duvet, sneezing.

A restrained hurrah, then, for my minor wordcount achievement (and the month’s not over yet), best of luck to those of you sprinting to the 50,000-word mark, thank you to all the spouses (spice) etc that make all this extra writing fit into busy lives relatively painlessly, and sorry to those who get sick of hearing about it.