November Newsletter

I post my newsletter three times: first to my mailing list, then again to those on the mailing list who didn't open it the first time, then I post it to Facebook and here on my website. This time around I've had to completely rewrite the opening three times because, frankly, the world keeps changing at lightning speed. When I first put this out like, a week ago, there was no sign of an end to the pandemic, Trump still had a chance at winning, and there was no vaccine in sight. So, I make no promises about anything that happens between the time I write this addendum and when you actually read these words. Anyway, moving on...here's my November newsletter...this time with added Tony Ballantyne.

You may have seen in the news that Taiwan, where I've been living for several years now, received some praise due to its handling of the crisis. Where I sit right now I'm only maybe a couple of hundred miles across the Taiwan Strait from where Covid first broke out, yet there hasn't been a single recorded case of infection here for more than two hundred days. What few cases there have been originated with people arriving from abroad and then diagnosed while undergoing mandatory quarantine.

While life here continues largely as normal. I know it doesn't for many of you, and you have my sympathies. The world will be a very different place by the time we emerge from this crisis (written pre-vaccine announcement).


So far as life being relatively normal here goes, I recently purchased a second-hand electric bicycle, manufactured by Giant, one of the biggest bicycle manufacturers in the world and a company native to Taiwan. It's a neat little machine, halfway between a scooter and a traditional bicycle, and I got it primarily so I could load my dog Cooper into the front basket and take him to some different places around the city for the sake of variety as much as anything else.

Here you can see Cooper sniffing around under Fuhe Bridge, which connects Taipei to New Taipei City, a few miles from where I live. Past the open space you can see here there's a bunch of kids on rollerblades circling around under the watchful eye of a trainer, and past them is a badminton court. To the right is a long-running flea market, although you can't quite see that either.

And now the weather is cooler here, following a typically ferocious Taiwanese summer, I'm hoping to get out and do a little more regular cycling on my road bike. It's been some time since I tried to conquer any one of the hills and mountains surrounding Taipei, and I'm starting to feel that urge to visit them again. The scenery is frankly spectacular, and I'll try and make a point of taking some pictures and show you in the months coming.


I seem to be writing more short stories these days, mainly because my writing group here have been playing around with flash fiction prompts, and it's led me to realise can generate some half-decent short story ideas on the fly. Right now there's about half a dozen of these bouncing around different magazines in the hopes of finding a home.

And speaking of short stories, it's the return of the author feature! Those of you who were here at the start when I started putting out regular monthly newsletters will recall I ran some features covering new publications by various authors whom I felt might be of interest to you.

This time around it's Tony Ballantyne. Tony had several novels out from Tor UK about the same time I did, and since then he's also had books published by Solaris. Most recently, he's released a collection of short fiction called Midway via Keith Brooke's Infinity Plus imprint, and which got a very good write-up in the Guardian quite recently. Here's a few words from Tony about his book:


Short story collections don't sell. Everyone in publishing will tell you that.

Every writer who has a few short stories under their belt loves the idea of having them collected into a slim volume.

Unfortunately, very few people are interested in reading them.

Best selling authors have the clout to get their anthologies published. You can see them smiling in the publicity photographs, delighted that their precious children are out there in the world. Look closely and you'll see their agent and editor exchanging glances in the background. They're waiting for their charge to get back to the PC so they can start on the next novel. That's where the real money is.

And that's best selling authors. You'd have to be mad to write a short story collection.

I didn't intend to write Midway. I had an idea for a novel set in an old cotton mill near where I live. I was working on the preliminary notes when my father took ill. The next six months, the last months of his life, threw everything into turmoil. The mill stories got caught up in my thoughts at the time and became my way of dealing with the situation. I wrote little else that year, but it didn't matter. Midway was my catharsis. But I finished the book and life moved on.

I wondered at first about seeking publication. The stories were very personal. It was my wife who persuaded me to send them out into the world. As she pointed out, other people had been through the same thing. They might find them helpful.

It turns out she was right. This is the first book I've written that my friends have read. By that, I mean my non-writer friends, my friends who aren't SF or Fantasy fans. The vast majority of the people I know, in other words.

Of course, my friends have bought my books in the past, but that was just out of politeness. They read the first chapter, but it wasn't for them.  I don't have a problem with that, we all have different tastes and interests.

But to my surprise, this book connects with many people.  No, not to my surprise. My wife said it first, and she was right. This book is for people who've been through the same thing. People who recognise the situations depicted in it.

Someone said to me: this book made me cry. Well, that's why I wrote it, to try and understand those feelings. I think I understand them better now.

So, the book is out, it's published. If it sells a hundred copies I'll be delighted, but it doesn't matter.

Publication wasn't the primary aim of this book.

Get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Midway-Tony-Ballantyne-ebook/dp/B08KFGX1RP


GHOSTLAND by Edward Parnell

in some ways, this almost feels like a companion piece to Tony's collection of short stories, except rather than being fiction it's a work of creative non-fiction. Edward is a fan of a very particularly British kind of supernatural story, ranging from M R James through to Nigel Kneale and beyond, and uses the book to address those parts of the landscape of Britain that featured heavily in works by those writers and others of their ilk.

Along the way he visits the locations in which a number of famous stories were set and also the locations of a number of the more odd television productions of the 1960s and 1970s such as Robin Redbreast and Penda's Fen, both made for the BBC's at the time highly influential drama production series Play for Today. Parnell uses this as a springboard for writing about his family and the series of overwhelming tragedies visited upon them through those same years. All in all, it's nearly impossible to categorise, but endlessly fascinating if like me you have memories, however distant, of some of the odder corners of British culture and storytelling.

OBSCURA by Joe Hart

A curious one this, and I wasn't sure whether to recommend it. A woman is sent to a remote space station in order to carry out research into a kind of viral Alzheimer's that seems to be affecting the crew and where a paradigm-shattering scientific breakthrough has implications for the future of humanity on Earth.

All in all, it's an enjoyable story, but not one that hangs together quite as well as I had hoped. Nonetheless, it has some moments of bravura tension and some well-placed twists and surprises.

THE TEST by Sylvain Neuvel

A novella this time, and a very British one, centred as it is around the British Citizenship test for immigrants with its peculiar and, frankly, bizarre real-world focus on the most ridiculous minutiae of British history, most of it sufficiently obscure the average "man in the street" in the UK almost certainly couldn't answer a number of those same questions. And yet it's somehow a requirement for people seeking a new life in Britain.

This is set a little way in the future, however, and Things Are Not Quite What They Seem, and events soon take a very dramatic and very unexpected turn. I'd been meaning to check this out for a while, and learning it had been optioned by a major film company gave me the final push to check it out. Recommended.

And that's it for reviews and for this month! Currently, I'm listening to the audiobook of Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown.