fiction

New flash fiction and a review

My just missed the long-list entry to Reflex Fiction’s first flash fiction contest is now up on their site. It’s less than 500 words long, it’ll take you a couple of minutes to read so what are you waiting for? It’s called The Invisible Woman, and I wrote it after going to a literary event with a writing chum – we were both introduced to someone, and a while later they could remember my name but not hers. Why does no-one ever remember my name she complained when we were out of earshot, and a story idea was born. She is not called Catherine, or Emma, or Diane (or Sue, Caroline or Jo, for that matter) and I have no idea if she has a sister.

While you’re in a reading mood, I’ve got a new review up at the Bookbag, for a historical crime novel called None So Blind by Alis Hawkins. It’s set in West Wales in 1850 in the aftermath of the Rebecca Riots, and is pretty tense and nicely done. I’ve written a few stories now with Luddite themes, and I keep toying with the idea of using some of my family history research to write a novel set around Drighlington amid the Chartist riots (I was thinking of making it a detective novel too) so this has given me some further inspiration. Don’t hold your breath though, I’ve got a few other novels to finish/redraft yet (I’m struggling through a major edit of the sci-fi noir one at the moment).

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New story, new author photo

It’s been a while since I had a new short story (as opposed to flash fiction) available, but Letters From the Past is now on HeadStuff in their Fortnightly Fiction slot. It’s primarily about a woman who’s been looking for her ‘real’ father, by which she means the one she shares genes with. It’s also about how genes don’t necessarily make a family, how time passes by quicker than you think, how it’s easy to put things off till it’s too late, and how you can spend all your time searching for something that you had all along. I urge you to go read it. And you can always leave a comment to let me know what you think of it (politely…).

When the story was accepted, they asked me for a square photo. I thought it would be nice to use something a bit more up to date than my familiar Twitter picture, which is from summer 2015 as I recall. I trawled through our photos and realised the ones of me basically fall into two camps: leaning my head on someone (usually OneMonkey but occasionally a sister or friend) or wearing a paper hat at Christmas (possibly also whilst leaning my head on someone). There were two on northern beaches with my hair clearly showing which way the wind was gusting, and one of me surveying the damage when the moor had been on fire (which I wrote about here). I decided to use that, it’s out of date too but it’s nearly a year more recent than the Twitter one.

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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.

Week 15: Spoken word in Leeds, among other things

The highlight of this week was Friday night at Anything Prose, the occasional poetry-free offshoot of regular open mic night Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. Hosted by Mark Connors, the stand-out performances for me were from headliners Lynn Bauman-Milner and David Williams.

Lynn was introduced as a horror writer and my heart sank, but although one of her stories veered into gory territory, it was so well-written that I barely noticed. The others were unsettling, chilling, darkly wonderful and not what I think of when I think of horror. Maybe I assume horror covers plausible events in the real world, featuring scary evil humans, whereas I’m fine with dark fantasy involving strange creatures and other worlds. Impressively there were T-shirts for sale as well as books. I should have checked the back to see if it had a list of open mic nights and library readings she’s done, in the vein of a band tour T-shirt, but I didn’t.

David read a scene from his thriller 11.59, and as well as brilliantly conjuring up the setting (a down at heel pub, largely populated by steady drinkers) he made me interested in the main character, a late-night talk radio DJ, in a relatively short time. As David Williams seems to write in many formats it was perhaps unsurprising that he’s made a foray into Twitter fiction, with a book collecting 1000 story tweets. He was one of three people during the evening to read some of their Twitter fiction and though I like it (I had my first Twitter fiction published in 2009, long before I was on Twitter) and there were some great examples on Friday night, I find it a bitty experience at an open mic. Reading one or two straight after each other is fine, but a succession interspersed with titles and comments seems to break the flow too much for my liking.

Naturally, I read a piece of flash fiction myself, a response to Hemingway’s famous baby shoes six-worder, featuring mermaids. I was halfway down the half of real ale before I considered it might be detrimental to my performance of a couple of tricky lines, but it seemed to go off OK and I’m looking forward to going to Anything Prose again sometime.

Other events this week included a free webinar on how to blog more effectively (which I’m clearly following to the letter. Er…) and a Twitter fiction competition which was only open to staff, students, and alumni of Edinburgh University, to launch a new journal. First time I’ve used that maths degree in ages. I’ve sent two sketches to Newsjack this week, breaking out of my one-liner comfort zone to write a Yes Minister pastiche and a sketch about Donald Trump (swore I wouldn’t, but he’s proving too tempting). And tonight it’s the penultimate meeting at Chapel FM before this year’s Writing on Air festival. Excuse me while I put my feet up for ten minutes.

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

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Although it’s not a comedy I can see this novel appealing to fans of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Lots of philosophy, weirdnesses (technical term) of time and space, and it’s not too heavy (i.e. it’s got its share of farce and sarcasm, you can tell it’s a British novel). Having said that, as well as being a Douglas Adams fan I do have a degree in theoretical physics which included as many philosophy modules as I could access, so I may be part of a niche target audience. Mobius Dick is one of the few books I’ve come across where the main character is a theoretical physicist, which is actually what swayed me when I picked it up in a charity shop last summer, having heard of neither the book nor the author. Speaking as a partial insider then, I don’t know how much you’d have to be comfortable with the idea and philosophy of quantum mechanics to get into this. If ‘what would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse’ is just a string of words to you then you might find it a bit hard going (and potentially uninteresting).

There is also an undercurrent of thriller, with some peculiar goings-on at a nuclear research facility in Scotland that we as readers want to get to the bottom of. I read almost the entire book on a return train journey to Liverpool, becoming immersed and zipping through the pages, whereas OneMonkey (who also has a degree in theoretical physics, sorry) found it hard to get going because it chops and changes between different times and places and people, with chapters from fictional memoirs interspersed as well.

Part of what I saw as the Dirk Gently aspect was the key question of coincidences – are they significant or do we only ascribe them meaning when they chime with us? Alongside the recurring motifs of Moby Dick (and its author), the composer Schumann, and the physicist Schrödinger, coincidences and many-worlds hypotheses are the philosophical meat of the novel. It takes in the topics of re-lived lives, the nature of time, the nature of dreams and reality, causality, attractors in space-time folded time, and of course: What would happen if the wave function didn’t collapse? If that list is freaking you out, then maybe it’s not one to add to your To Read list, but if you like philosophy and the accidents and what-ifs of history then you’ll probably like being made to think by this book.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

My writing life:having a wonderful time, wish you were here

It’s been a good couple of weeks at Chateau Monkey. I’ll forgive you if you missed my story Breakfast in Bradford over at The Flash Fiction Press a couple of weeks ago (but perhaps not if you don’t pop across and read it now…). Since then I’ve submitted to a few more magazines and a couple of story competitions, had another piece of flash fiction accepted (for issue 8 of Firefly Magazine, due in September I believe) and shepherded Ilkley Writers through an evening of writing microfiction.

I’ve made progress with a sci fi story I’m quite pleased with (begun in March 2012 I think – I have to let things ferment at the back of my mind), and started on a ruthless edit of awkward length fiction (12,000 words. Short novella? Long short story?) that I finished in April. There’s a rewrite underway for another submission I made a few weeks ago, and if the rewrite is deemed suitable I’ll be immensely chuffed and will shout loudly about it on here.

Oh, and OneMonkey is hard at work on a comic, just the two of us this time (though there are other plans afoot with Mark, as usual). I’m hoping to be able to give you an update soon, but it’s looking good so far. And he gets to geek out over fonts.

I hope your projects are buoyant too, it’s a good feeling. Let me know in the comments below, or say hello on Twitter @JYSaville – sometimes it seems awfully quiet around here. I don’t bite, honest.