A year in whatnow?

Back in the days when I used to meet new people – or indeed people of any kind other than supermarket checkout operators – once we’d gone beyond the initial phase of the conversation they’d often ask me why I live in Sweden. For some reason, the other end of my peripatetic existence, in rural France, never seems to attract so much comment!

What’s perhaps more peculiar is that I don’t actually have a simple answer. I mean, now I can say that I’m happy with the Swedes’ approach to the pandemic, and shortly before that I could, and frequently did, bang on and on about how grateful I am to have been plucked from the slobbering jaws of Brexit by Migrationsverket.

But it’s hard to say exactly what it is about Sweden that makes it feel like home. The people tend to be a bit stand-offish, the grey bit of winter goes on far too long even in the far south, the food is execrable, they’re more than a touch racist and their habit of mixing light – and even heavy – industry with residential and historical construction has resulted in some horrifying juxtapositions (my ‘favourite’ example of this is the probably 11th century castle in the pretty Baltic Sea town of Åhus. Google “Åhus castle” then use StreetView on the red marker for the full effect – it really is worth those few minutes’ effort).

And yet… it is home. Partly because that’s where most of my friends are, despite the stand-offishness, and I suppose partly because when Swedes do technology it generally works, unlike the French version. In Sweden you really do feel like you’re in the 21st century. At least, you do in the new bits of the towns. Out in the sticks, not so much.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that I recently re-read a book I edited a few years back which tells the story of two Brits moving to rural Sweden. And it reminded me what it is I enjoy about being in Sweden.

Red Swedish farmhouse in the background, mossy wall with rusted horseshoe in the foreground.
Sweden is a lot scruffier than you’d expect!

A Year in Kronoberg” is, of course, modelled along the same lines as Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence”. Each chapter relates the events of a particular month, from the snows of January to… well, the snows of December. But in between are descriptions of what it’s really like to live in Sweden. Not in the cosmopolitan cities of Gothenburg and Stockholm, but a small village in the rural south.

How do the Swedes cope with snow? Are they really all blond-haired and blue-eyed and obsessed with fika? Are there moose everywhere, and do they actually get drunk from eating apples? And is it true that you can’t buy alcohol in Sweden? As the seasons change and the two Brits become increasingly Swenglish, we get answers to all of these questions, together with many others.

We meet a variety of the colourful characters who really do seem to be everywhere in rural Sweden, from beautiful Carina who works in the village shop to Olof the plumber and his terrible jokes, encounter huge Vikings and their even more enormous tractors, learn how to pronounce “Växjö”, discover the Swedish obsessions with sheds, ice-cream and hotdogs, and find out why you should never get excited about a Swedish history trail – or go swimming outdoors after mid-August.

In other words, if you want to know the truth about living in Sweden, you should read this charming, light-hearted and humorously informative book.

You can buy it here.

How to build audience loyalty: a lesson from Sam Peters

isbn9781473214750A few weeks ago, I listened to an audiobook – “From Darkest Skies”, by Sam Peters – and  enjoyed it so much I immediately emailed the author about it. This is extremely rare for me. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it in nearly seven years of Audible membership.

It’s an SF book, but in practice it’s very much in the noir genre. On a particularly inhospitable planet, someone’s up to no good, and it’s down to the hero, Keon Rause, to work out exactly what and exactly who. And do either of these answers involve his dead wife? She says not.

Sam Peters’ worldbuilding is enviably complete, and the planet Magenta’s hideous weather and back-breaking gravity feel real right from the start. And to aid him in his sleuthing, Keon has probably the most realistic team of characters that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, all of whom come across as real, rounded people, especially in the version narrated by Peter Noble.

One of these characters in particular was the reason I wrote to the author. Voiced as though he comes from the north of England somewhere (Burnley? Bolton?), Bix Rangesh is a total nightmare to work with – he doesn’t stick to procedure, he’s got no respect for authority and he’s far too familiar with the various players in the Magentan underworld. But he also gets results, and clearly whenever Bix is around it’s party time, whether you felt like having a party or not. Increasingly, as the book went on, I found myself worrying that he was going to be killed off. Yeah, he’s that good.

So I wrote to Sam Peters and said, essentially, ‘nice job, thanks for Bix, glad he’s not dead’.

And I didn’t get a reply.

Now, I know that authors are busy people. I gather that “From Darkest Skies” has already been optioned for TV, which is pretty good going for a début novel. And there are a couple of sequels planned. But I did think I’d get a standard “Thank you”.

However, what with the weather and renovation, this hasn’t been uppermost in my thoughts, and I was still intending to download the audiobook of the next installment as soon as it arrives on Audible.

Then yesterday, I did get a reply.

A reply to me, personally, referencing something I’d said in my email, from Bix Rangesh himself!

I actually have, in my inbox, a little piece of original Sam Peters writing! How cool is that?

Anyway, it turns out that the next book in the series, “From Distant Stars” is out for pre-order now from Amazon. Personally, I’m going to hang on for the audio version because it’s so fabulous, but I’ve pre-ordered the paperback version anyway, because according to Bix, “pre-orders totally make a difference to some algorithmy stuff”.

So if you like SF but you only read paper books, buy “From Darkest Skies” and I’ll send you my copy of the second one as soon as it arrives (this time next year).

And if you’re really into audiobooks, buy that instead. In either case, you won’t regret it!

Orion books page for “From Darkest Skies”

Audible page for “From Darkest Skies”




The musical semi-colon – and a You Must Read This

I’ve just finished reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I picked it up last week in my favourite bookshop, simply because I liked the title. The cover blurb says very little about what’s inside, and I’m not going to describe it either. Because you don’t really understand what it’s all about – or even what genre you’re reading, if that’s important to you – until you get to the very end.

It’s a tough read in some ways, because it’s structured as a set of interlinked episodes told in non-chronological order over several decades and from different points of view. Imagine trying to understand a painting as complicated as a Breughel simply by looking at small, random sections of the canvas, and then finally standing back and seeing the whole thing – you can’t quite see where the individual bits fitted in but you know it worked and you know that it’s great. Like that. I’m going to have to read it again, possibly with a notebook so I can keep track of the different characters and how they relate to each other.

Anyway, there’s one whole chapter written as a series of PowerPoint slides, which sounds a bit naff but is in fact a thing of beauty, describing an entire family and their interactions in very few words and at the same time talking about the power of the pause in music.

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I’m not keen on any of the tracks mentioned, but I’ve always been fond of this musical device. It’s used to great effect in many of my favourite techno tracks (such as DJ Mismah & DJ Tim’s Access; there are even better examples in the genre but I can’t remember offhand – or more probably never knew! – any of the titles), and it always works best when what comes afterwards is a kind of a “See?” It’s like a musical semi-colon; my favourite punctuation mark.

Here’s one where the artiste really got that. (Although this version skips shortly after the pause, which comes at around 4.36, so I’d recommend listening to it on a music streaming service if you’ve got one.)