A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado

Cover of A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli SalgadoMinoli Salgado’s debut novel A Little Dust on the Eyes takes as its trigger a family wedding in Sri Lanka in late December 2004, which the reader knows is about to be disrupted by the Boxing Day tsunami. In the couple of weeks of calm beforehand, lonely PhD student Savi takes the opportunity to escape an English winter and try to reconnect with the family she left behind years ago.

The story is told with gentle insistence, and the vivid images juxtapose and mingle grey Britain with colourful, exotic Sri Lanka. We shuttle back and forth in time and place, from the south coast of England to the south coast of Sri Lanka, from the present day to points in Savi’s childhood or the more recent past. Revisiting a place you remember doesn’t necessarily match up with revisiting the memory, and if you’ve been away for long enough are you a visitor or going home? Memories, stories and truth – how closely are they connected, really?

Savi’s struggling thesis has her studying her native land from afar, through literature. Her cousin Renu on the other hand, whose formal education was interrupted by the civil war, is studying recent history through the gaps and inconsistencies in what people say when they talk about relatives who disappeared during the war. The core of the novel is the connection and contrast between these two women, practically sisters in childhood, whose lives have then been so different. One sent to an English boarding school, out of harm’s way but also out of family life, the other growing up in a community turning against itself, where everyone turns a blind eye and no-one wants to know the truth, just in case.

Dr Salgado lectures in English at the University of Sussex, and this academic background comes through via technicalities in Savi’s research, as well as the list of references at the end of the novel. Interestingly I felt almost cheated when she acknowledged the real source of a couple of quotes she puts in characters’ mouths, yet I assume (and probably expect) novelists in general are poaching dialogue left, right and centre, from a choice phrase at a bus stop to a neat summary sentence on the news. I know I do it now and then.

A minor niggle for me was the lack of a sense of timescale in the book – I wasn’t altogether sure how long it had been since Savi last visited Sri Lanka, or had seen her cousin, how long she’d lived in England or even how long Renu had been unofficially working with the NGO investigating abductions. That aside, I was captivated by A Little Dust on the Eyes and I imagine anyone who liked Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll (see my review here) would also enjoy it.

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Popular authors, some vague musings

Looking at the top 10 list of fiction borrowed most often from Leeds Libraries in 2014, a few thoughts scudded across my mind (nothing too deep, I’m sleepy and full of cold right now). One was that they’re mostly authors who’ve been around for a long time (John Grisham, JK Rowling, Ian Rankin), another was that there’s a hefty dose of crime and thrillers on there, and the third was that there are a couple of authors with a Yorkshire background (Kate Atkinson, Peter Robinson). Which got me wondering how this sort of list varies across the UK – do crime novels with a local link prove popular everywhere? Are there places where you can see the influence of the Richard and Judy Book Club, for instance, or where it’s all Booker Prize longlisters and recommendations from the Guardian review section? How does it match up with book-buying habits (are we getting the Hmm, not sure but let’s see what all the hype’s about out of the library, and buying the ones we think we’ll treasure)?

As I don’t have the answers to any of that (though I’d be interested if anyone else does – have I missed a similar top 10 list from Dorset library service this week?) I’ll merely note that I did read 3 of those authors last year (Peter Robinson, Kate Atkinson, and Michael Connelly) though not the books mentioned, and all borrowed from the Library of Mum and Dad rather than Leeds.

My most-read authors of 2014 are (and this will tell you more than you need to know about me, I’m sure):

New Grub Street by George Gissing

One of the nineteenth century novels I read in 2014 and am now trying to get away from, New Grub Street was a book I’d heard of but knew very little about, except some vague connection to the Radio 4 comedy Ed Reardon’s Week. I have a feeling it was a Guardian article that finally nudged me into downloading the ebook and diving in.

As an entertaining character study, Jasper the ambitious carefree hack (he will essentially write anything for anyone as long as they pay him well and/or provide useful connections) is amusing in a thoughtless, I’m alright Jack sort of a way. Edwin Reardon, his contrasting best friend, is a wonderful caricature of the moody, introspective, ‘artistic’ writer, waiting for his muse and harping back to a critically-acclaimed novel or two that he wrote in his youth. Beyond that, however, lies just another Victorian romance, and I felt it descended rather towards melodrama as it neared the end.

There is, naturally, the loyal girl who gets thrown over – a doormat of the first order who exasperated me quite early on. There is also Edwin’s heartless, selfish, entirely unsympathetic wife (can you tell I wasn’t keen on her either?), though she at least was interestingly modern in her musings on the idea of a woman leaving her husband and starting a new life. There is noble poverty, and desperate illness, and the odd death and wedding.

If you are a writer, or live among writers, New Grub Street will amuse you with its observations about tit-for-tat reviewing, the triumph of luck and networking over talent, and various other features of the life that every generation of writers seems to think it’s the first to experience. If you’re looking for a good Victorian romance, however, you’d do better to pick yourself a random Anthony Trollope instead.

Welcome to the future

How can it possibly be 2015? We’re so far into the realms of sci-fi settings that life seems perpetually surreal in its mundanity. And yet I’m still reading nineteenth-century novels.

Totting up my list of books read in 2014, I realised more than a quarter of them were old enough to be available as public-domain ebooks (mostly 19th century but a couple of early PG Wodehouse). Only 4 books I read last year were first published last year, and one of those was non-fiction. No surprises then that my unofficial resolution for this year is to read more newly-published fiction. Of course, I’m already failing in that regard by reading a graphic novel from 2010 at the moment, and having 1 novel and 1 story collection from 2014 left over on the To Read shelf, not to mention the 2004 novel I just bought as an ebook. But once I’ve read all them, I’ll get right down to the 2015 newbies.

Nova Swing by M John Harrison

cover of Nova Swing by M John HarrisonAward-winning SF noir novel from 2006, the resolution (or lack thereof) perhaps unworthy of the set-up, but worth reading if it’s one of your sub-genres of choice.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide, leading wealthy tourists to the unstable edges of Saudade, where reality isn’t as real as it could be and no-one knows what you might find. In between clients he hangs out at Liv Hula’s bar with Fat Antoyne, who only wants a chance to fit in. Together they watch the cats stream past twice a day, and the ships taking off and landing in the city, largely minding their own business. Sure, Vic smuggles the odd artefact out of the event site for collectors and the mildly eccentric Detective Aschemann keeps half an eye on him, but it’s not such a big deal. Until it is, and Vic really finds out who his friends aren’t.

With any kind of noir it’s the details that make it, and when you’re weaving some sci-fi world-building in, doubly so. The details in Nova Swing really make it work. There’s a musical theme which I liked, as well (playing it, listening to it, watching performers in bars).

Nova Swing is described as the sequel to Harrison’s earlier novel Light, which I haven’t read but I understand it to be set in the same place with completely different main characters. I didn’t feel like there was a gaping hole in my understanding as a consequence, it just felt like I’d been dropped into a complete world where life went on before I started observing the place, and will continue (after a fashion) after I’ve gone. That should be the case with any well-written fiction, anyway.

I didn’t feel completely satisfied by the time I closed the back cover, one too many loose ends perhaps. Nevertheless I’d enjoyed my time in Saudade and I was left with a dreamy feeling of enlightenment being just beyond the grasp of my sluggish brain. If you don’t mind having some questions remain unanswered as long as you’ve absorbed the atmosphere of the place during the investigation, then this might be just the SF noir for you.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This 2013 novel of displacement and tested principles set in 1850s Ohio sees Tracy Chevalier back on top form. The unobtrusive detail translated into a supremely believable setting, and the naturalistic characters were of the right muddy quality to illustrate the compromises and contradictions inherent in the situation.

Honor is a Quaker from a town in Dorset. She’s grown up in a happy family within a close community, but for reasons not always clear even to herself she decides to accompany her older sister as she emigrates to semi-rural Ohio in 1850. The rest of the novel is, in part, about the overthrowing of everything Honor has known, the feeling of dislocation, of not belonging, and her attempts to make a new place for herself among people she doesn’t understand.

Quakers believe everyone is equal before God, and in Dorset where there are no black slaves, it’s always been easy to stick to that principle. Honor is shocked to find segregated pews in a Quaker meeting house on her way across America, and when she reaches Ohio -sandwiched between slave states and the Canadian border, and therefore regularly crossed by fugitive slaves – she finds that principles sometimes bend under the weight of reality, even among her religious community. The new Fugitive Slave Law imposing fines on those who refuse when asked to help recapture fugitives only makes things worse.

I thought the little differences were picked up on brilliantly, the constant subtle reminders that Honor is not at home. There are different words for common items, the same words for different flowers or trees. The birds and animals so common to the locals are exotic to Honor, and for a town girl the self-sufficiency and isolation are disturbing. Even the quilts Honor spends so much time sewing use different techniques and patterns on the other side of the Atlantic.

This could so easily have been a depressing novel, but although it has its dark moments there is a thread of hope, and the characters laugh and love like normal people. The Last Runaway makes you examine slavery and abolition, equality and altruism via people – not abstract concepts or amorphous groups (slaves, slave-hunters, Quakers, women) but individual characters with different motivations. In particular circumstances how many of us would stick firmly to what we believe in and stand up for weaker neighbours? Would we at least waver a bit, even if we acted for the greater good in the end?

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Tracy Chevalier novel before, you’ll probably love this one. Or if you like a hint of romance and adventure with your political history, give it a try.