The Editorium Strikes Back!

I’m deep in the middle of copy-edits at the moment. It is a doom-filled process and one I intend to write more about when I’m not too damn busy doing.

So in the meantime please enjoy these pictures of the all-new singing and dancing Editorium! A room of one’s very own (apart from all the family stuff that’s temporarily – he hopes – dumped in here for the interim) that actually has a view. I’ve spent the rest of my writing life staring at a wall; now I merely have to turn my head slightly to the left and I see fields! And trees. And a big, big sky.

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Typically I’ve waited until the heatwave has ended before taking my photographs. That’s just how I roll.

The most wonderful thing about this space is that I can cocoon myself in books. How wonderful, how warming, to be surrounded by some of my very best friends.

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The obligatory shelfie

My actual writing-desk is a hideous mess at the moment. I’d like to say that it is a work-in-progress, which is true. I suspect, though, that there’s always going to be debris scattered all over. The more mess changes the more it stays the same.

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Besides, I like a little mess. This is a work-space, not an Ideal Home installation.

Now I’m off to get back to my edits. Hopefully I’ll have a more enlightening post for you next week.

Happy writing.

 

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Everyday jargonism

Kenning

Last week I talked about Stephen Fry’s The Liar and how it described a world from which I felt alienated. Now it’s time to elaborate on that in yet another book-based ramble. We can but hope that at least one of you will find it interesting.

*Clears throats and adopts lecturing stance*

I’m pretty well grounded in genre fiction: that big, wide tent that covers not only SFF but crime, thrillers, spy novels and horror and, to a lesser extent, LBGT stories. I don’t know so much about literary fiction and, save for inevitable overlap, ‘popular’ fiction such as that produced by Dan Brown and James Patterson. This is another way of saying that I know the ‘rules’ (or tropes) of some forms of fiction but not others.

Knowing the rules is another way of saying that I understand the jargon. I know the shape of a crime story: I understand the differences between a police procedural and a noir thriller. I can instinctively – instinct being another word for experience – tell the difference between epic fantasy and grimdark. Each genre and subgenre has its own shape and structure.

My snobbery is that I have developed a mistrust of literary fiction. I see it as elitist and, to be honest, I’m just not sure what it actually is. Thus I have written off the McEwan’s and Amis’ of the world as being about English professors who attended fee-paying schools before spending three hundred pages agonising over whether or not they should boink their students.

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Martin Amis & Ian McEwan; an image taken from a joint 2014 interview

Which brings us back to The Liar. I felt excluded from this novel – especially in the first half of it – because it described a world I didn’t understand. It was hard for me to feel empathy with its characters because I’ve never known anyone like them. The jargon passed me by, the jokes too ‘in’ to welcome me.

And that got me thinking: this must be what other people feel like all the time.

Literary fictioneers don’t understand genre¹. They feel excluded. All that talk of elves and dwarfs and magic: it’s just another way to determine the in-crowd. It’s easy to pour scorn on something you don’t understand, to say ‘oh, it’s just escapism’ because they can’t imagine that might actually be a metaphor.

Similarly, I don’t get the subtleties of the romance genre. I know a little about the way Mills & Boon, in particular, are written to a formula but I don’t get the subtleties that distinguishes a potboiler from a beloved classic.

But these are little things. Some groups are excluded from the world of books altogether. Which leads us neatly on to Lionel Shriver.

“…literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

Ms Shriver has courted fresh controversy with her complaints against the move for diversity within the publishing world. She worries that welcoming minority groups (especially if it’s a sort of quota system of positive discrimination) into fiction will be detrimental to quality. Why this should be isn’t immediately clear: it implies that the aforementioned gay transgender dropout is incapable of writing quality prose. It overlooks the great advantage that she herself received as a graduate of a private school and all that that implies.

[I last wrote about her views here. Spoiler: I disagreed with her then, too.]

First of all, it’s worth noting that a big reason why literary fiction is what it is because white middle-class men ran publishing for at least a century (and still do, though possibly to a lesser extent). Naturally they gravitated towards books they understood, that spoke to them: that were written in the jargon of their daily lives. Thus the ideal of ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ was to a great extent homogenised, one great circle-jerk of self-congratulatory smuggery.

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So it’s no wonder that minority groups see reading as not for them. When people feel that you’re not allowed to wear trainers in a bookshop², just how off-putting is it for BAME readers to be expected to wade through books with not a single character with a name like theirs?

No wonder ‘working class’ people don’t read when the books they like – the romances, the thrillers, the Dan Browns and James Pattersons³ – are derided as ‘silly’ or ‘simplistic’ or ‘unworthy’. Why should they bother? It’s not that books are uncool; it’s that they’re ridiculed for the books they’re drawn to.

[And this can go right back into childhood. So many girls’ stories are about princesses and boys have only ogres to model themselves upon. I’m not sure if it’s available to watch now, but if you get the chance I’d really recommend this documentary for more on the harm we do children through the small sins of stereotyping gender]

I like myself

People like to see themselves in the books they read. There has to be something they can grasp; some aspect of the character or their world they can relate to. That can be as simple as having a woman as a significant character, or someone not born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or as complex as a world with suspiciously familiar nation-states (or planets) in constant turmoil and warfare. Knowledge and experience all count here.

All this might make you think that I’m railing against The Liar and books of that ilk, but I’m not. What I’m doing is coming to terms with my own shortcomings. People who went to public school absolutely deserve to be served by the stories they read – but so do the rest of us, especially those who are typically unrepresented.

Repeat after me: not all books are written with me in mind and that’s okay.

Publishing has for too long been an Old Boys’ Club. Literary fiction is unduly represented in awards and the status it’s accorded is, in my view, unmerited.

Everyone deserves good books. If you want your writing to read a wide audience (which is not that same as more readers; there’s a reason why genre conventions exist in book covers) it might be worth looking at what you’re doing to exclude potential readers, and what you can do to embrace more people.

Oh and Lionel Shriver can just, please, go away.

***

¹Massive generalisation for the purposes of illustrative effect. I’m sure there’s a Classical term for the way I’m using it but the internet has let me down. Hyperbole is the closest I can get.

²This is taken from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanne Harris on 28/05/18 with regard to the struggles of UK chain WHSmiths. Her initial statements are thus:

While it may not be the coolest shop on the High Street, research suggests that WH Smith, and not Waterstone’s, is the place where most working-class people buy books. If we care at all about promoting literacy, we should at least be aware of this.

All the replies from well-meaning, middle-class people saying; “Yes, but it needs to stop selling cheap chocolate and tat” may have missed my point. Some people may like cheap chocolate. They may like the fact that WH Smith provides a nonthreatening, familiar environment.

Research strongly suggests that readers from certain backgrounds are less likely to go into Waterstone’s because it looks expensive and intimidating to them. WH Smiths, with its “cheap chocolate and tat”, looks more welcoming. They buy their books there instead.

But I’m also drawing from the responses to this conversation. I personally have no facts & figures, sorry.

³Like Footnote no.1 this is a massive, crude oversimplification. I don’t think that the ‘working class’ only read blockbusters, and that blockbusters are only read by the working class. Hell, I’m not even sure who the working class are anymore. Please don’t hate me. I’m just trying to make a point

 

The darling books of May

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Photo from this Buzzfeed article

In the absence of anything more interesting to ramble about, I’ve decided to share a few quick thoughts about last month’s reading; not so much a review, more a quick recap of sentiments that might – yes – might just include the odd recommendation. All these are listed in my book log if you want an at-a-glance account of those listed below.

Belle Sauvage

So, without further ado, let me begin with La Belle Sauvage, the first in the new (planned) trilogy of Philip Pullman. Of course I am somewhat biased because my daughter’s named after the lead character in the His Dark Materials series. But this was, in anything, better that the latter. The writing was just a little clearer, a little cleaner, and the main character is a delight.

The only negative I have is that the whole novel reads like an adventure – except for one small episode two-thirds of the way through where fantasy intrudes. Of course I know the series is a fantasy, but after the mood being resolutely realistic thereunto, it jars – especially as we have no real sense of resolution.

Freakonomics

Freakonomics (Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt) is another book I am well and truly behind the times with. It’s economics with a hand grenade, and whilst it’s fascinating and paradigm-shifting, I have slight reservations about some of the preconceptions the authors introduce into their findings: the value of exam results in determining success and failure, for example. Still, anything that makes you think is precious.

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You might by now be sick of my new obsession with Tim Clare: I promise I’ll stop going on about him shortly – just not before I rave again about his novel The Honours. It’s not only the best book I’ve read this month, It’s also my favourite so far this year. I can’t say too much about it because I think anything I can tell you will detract from the pleasure.

Part of the joy in the novel is determining whether we’re dealing with a coming-of-age story, an upstairs-downstairs tale of the aristocracy, a spy thriller or a fantasy. So I’m not going to spoil that for you; don’t read the blurb, don’t read reviews, just start on page one and go from there.

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John Scalzi’s Lock In is entirely different; resolutely sci-fi and highlighted by the wonderful writing that makes Scalzi a joy to read. If anyone wants to learn how to write fast-paced stories that you just fly through then study Scalzi. This isn’t his best, though, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because nothing’s really stayed with me. Fun but ultimately forgettable.

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The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark) was a surprise. I picked it up on spec because I liked the cover and because that’s what libraries are for (all these books bar four were sourced from my local library) and was fully prepared to dislike it. But I didn’t. A murder mystery set in Victorian Hull scores points for originality, though at first I was a little uncertain because the story feels medieval, not nineteenth-century. But the quality of writing pulled me through. And maybe that’s what life was like for the common man: half primitive, half bang up to date. (And is the way we live now any different?) So this is a surprise recommendation from me.

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The Good Story, by contrast, was a disappointment. It’s a epistolic discussion between JM Coetzee and psychologist Arabella Kurtz on the nature of psychotherapy and story. But it is, frankly, hard work; and the format – neither essay nor discussion – does it no favours, and neither does the over-literary tone invite the reader to share in their profundity. There are moments of interest and revelation but I don’t think it’s worth the effort and, if anything, serves to steer me away from Coetzee’s novels.

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The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks), on the other hand, drew me right in. This has been on my shelf for years, always deferred because I had a terrible foreboding that this would be really, really sad and I don’t like sad stories. Sorry. A personal failing, I know, but there it is.

And sad it was, but also somehow wonderful. The main character is a monster and a victim and sometimes it’s hard to share their head. But the writing pulls you along, drip-feeding you revelation. This, I feel, is a novel I’ll never forget. Sometimes I’ll wish I could, but that doesn’t stop me recommending it here.

Thornhill

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is magical. Sold as YA, it’s two stories in one: the diary entries from a girl who lived in the Thornhill children’s home thirty or so years ago, and the ‘silent’ graphic tale of a lonely girl who discovers her story. The art (also by Smy) is wonderful and evocative, the wordlessness perfect for the tale its telling; the diary entries are haunting and tell the tale so well. I read the whole thing in a day.

Silver Locusts

I’ve read a few Ray Bradbury’s before and loved the lyricism in the prose, so The Silver Locusts – a boot-sale bargain at 20p – came as a disappointment. It’s not the writing that was disappointing, simply that the story was so completely out of date.

I can cope with the bad science (Mars having a breathable atmosphere; there being ‘Martians’); it’s the social changes that really grate. It’s not that everyone smokes – hell, every novel written in the fifties is full of cigarettes and cigars – but that, aside from a very few minor (and barely significant) characters, everyone is male. Bradbury never even considers that women might have an active part to play in the story.

Similarly, whilst I can cope with a racist character using the ‘n’-word, the description of the Jim Crow-era South went over my head. The depiction of the black population came close to the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, and an interesting idea (what happens to a land when the ‘workers’ leave en masse) got subsumed by the distance between the writing and the reading. The book is interesting, but more for the historian than the SF fan.

King of Dreams

Phew. On to The Sandman: King of Dreams. This is a companion/hagiography of Neil Gaiman’s graphic series and Kwitney’s book was a fine, fun read. There wasn’t that much to it, though, and all it really did was made me want to re-read the source material again.

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Speaking of fun reads, Sean Grigsby’s Smoke Eaters is a great little high-concept adventure. Here firemen don’t put out blazes – they fight dragons. What Grigsby does really well is convey the mundanity of life post-cataclysm (the catastrophe has passed and normal life is normal again) – and also the great wasteland that much of the planet has become.

If I have a criticism it’s that we don’t see enough of the world, and that there’s so much that’s left unexplained (where did the dragons come from?). But that just means there’s loads to look forwards to in the promised sequel.

The Liar

Finally: The Liar by Stephen Fry. This is… curious. It is good. It was a pleasure to read, and yet… it’s so damn elitist. It’s the story of a public schoolboy going on to a top university to meet over-privileged professors and their circles. I take a look at the cover-quotes and review-samples and I wonder: how many of them went to fee-paying schools?

I felt alienated. I felt angry at the arrogance of the class represented in this novel. The references and classical allusions left me on the outside looking in. It made me wonder if this is true of all novels: if every ‘target audience’ has this sort of jargon that excludes outsiders. Why shouldn’t public schoolboys have their moment too? There is a future blog-post on this, once I’ve managed to untangle my own feelings.

Anyhoo, Fry kind of won me over in the end. I enjoyed The Liar, though it’s a hard novel for me to recommend

And that’s all. If I repeat this round-up I’m going to have to read less books; this has been a marathon. In summary:

Book of the Month: The Honours – Tim Clare
Book to Avoid: The Good Story – JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz
Biggest Surprise: a tie between Thornhill (Pam Smy) and The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark)

Happy reading, y’all

Trigger warning

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The book was actually called Tower of Destruction, but there is no universe in which this is not better

So I had a blog-post all ready. I was going to write about the expectations a cover gives a reader and how these expectations can give a good book bad reviews; I was just dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s when this happened.

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Originally taken from TG’s Facebook page but now widely shared online. Don’t be that guy, mmkay?

There’s a lot to unpick here. First and foremost I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you not to act like this. Criticising your own publisher is not a move conducive to success. As is pointed out by cleverer, more knowledgeable people than me, a book design is a collaborative effort. The artist works to a brief provided by a publisher. Sometimes an author will be consulted, but it’s not a given.

Secondly, Terry Goodkind has previous. If you’re in the mood, read this. Indeed, type ‘Terry Goodkind is an asshole’ into Google. See where you end up. Shout-out to Chuck Wendig for that top tip.

But let’s just roll back and ask: has TG got a point? Is this a bad cover? What makes a bad cover? That’s not such a simple question as it seems; Fire and Fury has a terrible cover – but that’s a good thing as it works for the genre. “It’s important that it follows the design conventions of political books, as anything more bespoke and crafted could restrict its potential audience and pigeonhole the content. Obviously, there’s scope for a more creative and explicit design response, but I think that misses the point with a book such as this,” says Clare Skeats in this article.

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Design by Rick Pracher; copyright Henry Holt & Company

TG’s cover is, to my eyes, a good piece of art. Maybe stylistically it’s a bit old fashioned; it’s a traditional fantasy cover. But to really judge the merits you’d have to know the story (and artists/designers don’t usually read the story they’re producing work for). It would indeed be a bad cover if it failed to reflect to tone of the book – not only specific characters or events but the way the story feels.

The cover above suggests a novel of swords and sorcery and that it’s written in the style of that particular subgenre. Contrast that with a version of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

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Copyright Orion Books; I couldn’t find an individual artist to credit

We expect a different type of read from Terry G’s novel. The language we expect to read changes. And though both could be described as high fantasy (font choice, the semi-hidden symbols, the ripped parchment), we’re told to expect a marked difference in the experience we receive.

If someone chooses your book to read it’s (unless they’re compelled by education or work) because they want something from it. They might want to be scared; they might want to be thrilled. They might want wonderful wordplay. They might just want to switch off their minds for an hour or so. They have a motive, a goal, and they’ve chosen your story because they think you’ll give them that.

That choice is influenced – if not determined – by the book’s cover. It’s down to your artist – be that yourself or a design team or a freelancer – to give the audience the right cues. You have to tell your readers what they’re about to get. You can judge a book by its cover, and this is why.

There’s an interesting article on cover design here, if you’re interested.

A cover doesn’t have to tell a story. It doesn’t have to show specific events, or characters, or anything at all: a blank page is a choice in itself. It doesn’t have to be ‘good’ – it just has to help sell books.

Your cover is your trigger warning. It’s there to tell your readers what they’re about to get into. And (in most cases) to reassure that it contains not a single morsel of Trump.

More on bad books

Bad books

I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer and have nothing against her and her work. But I still find this funny because I’m a horrible person.

I’ve finally finished Trudi Canavan’s Priestess of the White. It didn’t get any better. And whilst I could ramble on about its flaws and failings, let me ask another question: why did I follow it all the way to the end? It was hardly short – 688 pages; over 19 hours in its audio version – and yet I stuck through it. Why? And, more generally, why do ‘bad’ books become hits? I’m particularly thinking of Dan Brown and EL James here: critically reviled and yet astonishingly successful.

‘Life is too short to waste your time with bad books’, says Michael Kruger. Joyce agrees: ‘Life is too short to read a bad book’, he says. Piffle and poppycock, says I. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that someone has labelled ‘bad’ – even for reading a book you yourself know to be bad. Here’s a few reasons I might stick with a non-critically-lauded anti-masterpiece:

  • Bad books can be easy reads

Bad books often use simple language. Not only that but every sentiment will be rammed home myriad times. Every subtext will be explained. This means you don’t have to worry about missing a key fact or ‘clue’ because the significance will be hammered home. You know what’s important. You never get lost.

All this makes a ‘bad’ book easy, undemanding company: sometimes you want simplicity, especially if you’ve a busy, complicated, life, or if you only get to read in short snatches and are frequently interrupted. Bad books (of the Dan Brown variety) do not make heavy demands on you, and sometimes it’s nice to be told what matters.

  • A bad book can have excellent elements

You can fall in love with characters. You can be gripped by plot or seek out sizzling sex scenes. You might be desperate to see what happens. A ‘bad’ book can still seize you by the neck and refuse to let go despite flaws so large they can be seen from space.

This is the Philip K. Dick defence: the writing’s bad but the ideas are so strong that it’s worth the effort. At some point you might decide that the book’s not bad after all. But you can’t honestly say that, by the basic ‘readability’ test, it’s not pretty damn poor.

I promise never to write the phrase ‘sizzling sex scenes’ ever again. Urgh. I feel dirty.

  • Bad books help you learn

Why is a book bad? If overuse of a word sticks in your craw then you’ll know not to make that error yourself. If a deus ex leaps out at you you’ll make sure you appropriately foreshadow in your own work. A writer cannot live on badness alone but bad books can be invaluable adjutants in the long march to brilliance.

  • Morbid curiosity

Part of the appeal of EL James and Dan Brown is that they’re supposed to be bad. Who doesn’t like the odd ‘scoffee break’ in their lives? See also: all women’s mags ever*. I suspect that, in reality, it’s really difficult to hit that sweet spot between compelling and crap that these two have hit. And that’s why they’re rich and you’re not.

*My personal favourite: Take A Break’s psychic special – ‘Help – my bowel is haunted!’**

**No, really.

  • A bad book is better than no book

This is clearly self-evident.

  • Stubbornness

This is my sin. I just can’t bear to give up on a book once I’ve committed to it. If I’ve made a decision to read past a certain point then I want to see it home. No, I don’t know what that point is. And yes, unless you’re a reviewer or beta-reader or have some similar excuse, this is stupid.

  *        *        *

Anyone got any recommendations for can’t-miss bad books? What makes you stick with a book even though part of you wants to hurl it at the nearest wall? Are some sins just too much to bear? Comments, as always. welcome.

The most anticipated releases of 2018

Stack of books

Morning all. After a quick canter through my favourite books of 2017, here’s a simpler post: the books I’m most looking forwards to getting my grubby little protuberances on in 2018.

The Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

This, the first of The Map of Unknown things series, is already out and garnering excellent reviews. I’ve just finished the first chapter and am already seized.

Rod is a great writer (and a lovely chap) and Elizabeth Barnabus is a great character. I can’t wait to see how the Gas-lit Empire will finally fall. I’m just hoping it involves more of the dwarf Fabulo.

Out now

The Dark Angel – Elly Griffiths

I don’t read as much crime as I used to but I still can’t resist the lure of a good murder. The Ruth Galloway series is a wonderful example of how to carry characters over long arcs – this is the tenth book and the pleasure is as much in the protagonist’s uncertain relationship with (married, but not to Ruth) DI Harry Nelson as it is with solving mysteries.

Also it’s set in my spiritual home of Norfolk and features an archaeologist in the lead role. What’s not to love?

8th February

Smoke Eaters – Sean Grigsby

Grigsby is a new author for me; another I came across via Twitter. Smoke Eaters will be his debut novel and the idea – firemen versus dragons – is temptation enough on its own. The buzz for it is building, and that – along with an excellent cover – is enough to intrigue.

He also runs the Cosmic Dragon podcast, if you’re at all interested.

March

The Soldier – Neal Asher

I used to recommend Asher to all and sundry; he’s certainly one of the best sci-fi writers out there with his mix of AIs, interstellar warfare and viral contamination. Sadly, his politics means I can no longer extol his praises. His ‘Owner’ trilogy was just too much for me.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly anticipating his new release. I’ve learnt a lot from his writing over the years – he’s one of those surprisingly influential writers that seem to creep up on you unawares.

May

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

 The concluding part of the ‘Machineries of Empire’ trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee is one of the authors (along with Ann Leckie) who has really changed the way we look at science-fiction other the last five years. This series isn’t for everyone, but it is great. Looking forwards to this immensely.

14th June

Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch

I love the Peter Grant series. I can’t express just how much I wish I could write with this much smart humour. And, as ever, it’s the audio version for me: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice is perfect

21st June

The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

In The Delirium Brief Stross left us with the government killed and an elder (evil) God in charge of the country. How will we get out of this one? Bob only knows.

And no, you’re not allowed to complain about spoilers. You’ve had months to read it. And spoilers only whet the appetite. It’s true. I read it on the internet.

July

Priest of Bones – Pete McLean

I’m not so massively up on grimdark. I respect it, for sure, but I like some sense of hope in my life. I like to be able to feel that things might some day be better.

But Pete McLean is a great writer. I trust he’ll bring some smart humour to illuminate the darkness.

October

The Widening Gyre – John Scalzi

Sequel to The Collapsing Empire, I recently learned that the series was inspired by musings on the trade empires of the colonial era, and what would happen if the winds suddenly changed. And if that’s not enough to get you reading, I don’t know what is.

October

Night Shift – Robin Triggs

Cheap plug alert! 2018 should see my debut release. Yes, I’m in a state of eager, anxious anticipation. Stay tuned for more news.

Late 2018

The Thorn of Emberlain – Scott Lynch

Volume the fourth in the Gentleman Bastard series, and if you’re not up on the Gentleman Bastard series you’re missing out. They’re wonderful: the long con is a wonderful game to watch, like an episode of Mission: Impossible set in a nightmare fantasy-land of depth, conviction and – yes – horror. Really looking forwards to this. We just have to hope that it actually comes out this year after a series of delays.

Who knows?

Winds of Winter – GRR Martin

Will 2018 finally see the release of the next book in the Song of Fire and Ice series? To be honest I’ve almost forgotten about Martin: I’ve avoided the TV show because I want the characters to still be the ones I’ve created in my head and it’s been such a long time that they’ve become lost to me.

But maybe, just maybe, this will be the year it all comes flooding back…

Maybe?

*          *          *

This little lot, plus the three shelves of books still to be read from last year’s accumulation, will keep me busy. But I’m always distracted by new shinies: my local library will no doubt tempt me from the straight and narrow. And you, lovely reader – what’s tempting you this year? What have I overlooked? All recommendations gratefully received.

A second note: I came across several of these authors (and others without scheduled 2018 releases like Aliette de Bodard) through Twitter, and through them being nice people. The rest I found through my local library. These things work, folks. Make use of them and make the world a better, more interesting place.

Best Books of 2017

Cat and books

Happy 2018 y’all! Sorry it’s delayed, but I was in hospital just before Christmas. But now I’m back and exactly the same as ever. And, without further ado, it’s time for…

The Best Books of 2017!

…but not before a quick note. In previous years I’ve limited my choices to books released in the year in question. I’ve now decided to abandon this policy as I really don’t read enough brand new books. Maybe in the future I’ll be invited to all the great publishers’ pre-release parties, but at the moment I’m still picking up the crumbs in my own sweet time and at my own expense. I’ll still use 2017-ness as a tiebreaker – I’ll favour newer works – but it won’t be a prerequisite. That okay?

So, without further ado, here is my

Book of the year 2017

The Stone Sky: NK Jemisin

…and we start straight away with a cheat because I’m really meaning the whole ‘Broken Earth’ series, not just this, the final volume. But my blog, my rules.

If you’ve not come across this series before, a quick précis: this is the multi-award-winning story that breaks rules with an almost spiteful joy. Large chunks in second person? Why not. War crimes committed by the hero? Yes please. Combining sci-fi and fantasy in a way that takes it beyond both? Oh, go on then.

The simple fact is that it’s brilliant. The writing and the world-creation are masterful. It’s one of those rare books that makes you re-examine your own writing and asks you why you’re holding back. And then demands you go and check out Jemisin’s entire back catalogue.

Other excellent reads:

Ninefox Gambit: Yoon Ha Lee

This is the other book that everyone’s going on about. The sequel to Raven Strategem, this takes us further into the world of exotic maths, religious heresy and giant space moths. Like Jemisin’s work (and Ann Leckie), this redefines how we think about science-fiction.

The truth is, though, I was all prepared to be disappointed. The lead character of the first book seemed to be missing and without her I felt loss, both on a personal level (she was great) and on the dramatic. The story needed her.

But Yoon Ha Lee rescued the game in the last third, setting up a rousing climax and a thoroughly satisfying ending.

The House of Binding Thorns: Aliette de Bodard

This is the sequel to the excellent The House of Shattered Wings in the ‘Dominions of the Fallen’ series. It works as a stand-alone novel as focus shifts from House Silverspires of House Hawthorn. Madeleine, angel-essence-addict, is the main link between the stories.

This is a novel of intrigue set in a Paris recovering from an onslaught of sorcery. The feel is Gothic, decadent and decayed, with Dragon princes, drug trafficking and fallen angels running the city like a mafia.

Beautifully balanced with characters both old and new at the forefront of the novel, this story both satisfies and tempts the reader to a third act which surely must be in the pipeline. Can’t wait.

The Collapsing Empire: John Scazi

Scalzi is a genius at introducing concepts with the minimum of fuss; of gripping you right from the start and propelling you forwards at breakneck pace. I’m not sure how he does it. I suspect he’s one of those authors whose cleverness and skill is overlooked as he makes it all look too simple. I want to break done his novels line-by-line to see how he does it.

The Collapsing Empire is as fun, fast and foul-mouthed as the rest of his work. The underlying themes, however, are about power and its abuse. To quote from this review, “Each of the main characters may be, as one puts it, ‘an asshole,’ but they are also fumbling toward having an ethical position on how to save people from impending disaster.”

You’ll read it so fast that you barely notice the pages turning.

The Delirium Brief: Charles Stross

We all know that Charles Stross is a great writer. We all know that the Laundry series on novels is a cross between Lovecraft, Fleming and Le Carre with a special dash of humour poured in for good measure. What we hadn’t seen is how dark his satirical tongue is.

The Delirium Brief is not only a great novel in itself but takes a surprisingly trenchant stance on issues such as privatisation, religion and media exposure. It follows on from The Nightmare Stacks in a way that might lose readers new to his work but magnificently raises the stakes. This is another book you’ll simply fly through and come out desperate for the next in the series.

Damnation: Peter McLean

Well this – and the whole series – is just fun. I mean really fun. Gritty urban noir with deep sarcasm and real punch. This is another book you’ll fly through – only to be shocked awake by an ending that demands the next book be read immediately. Or it would if it were out yet.

The characters are magnificent. Such a shame to see them damned all to hell.

The Essex Serpent: Sarah Perry

This was 2016’s hot ticket and I’m running a year behind. Which, to be fair, is quite good for me.

I came to this without knowledge beyond the title and its reputation. Turns out it’s a historical novel: it is, simply, a story of life the conflict between rationalism and superstition in the late nineteenth century. What sets it apart is wonderful writing and an ending that defies convention.

The female lead is unorthodox and convincing; the male foils – especially surgeon Luke Garrett – are perfectly drawn. This is a quiet novel and won’t be for everyone, but the quality of the writing alone earns itself a place here.

Glorious Angels: Justina Robson

I’ve done my best to track down all of Justina Robson’s works (Mappa Mundi in particular is worth tracking down) but in recent years she’s slipped from notice; this was released in 2015 but I only found it this year. And it’s great. A hierarchical society with women in power; ancient technologies that are used without understanding: and an archaeological dig that could cause a war.

There are more details in this review which also acts as a counterpoint to my opinions. This book, it appears, is not for everyone. Still, this is my blog, I loved it, so here it sits.

Leviathan Wakes: James SA Corey

Space opera on a grand scale; conspiracies, conflict, and a deadly alien contagion. Explosions, murder, all that stuff…

But the more time passes the less sure I am about it and I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. I could probably write a whole blog-post on it, but suffice to say that there is just something slightly… um… ‘white male’ about it that makes me a little uncomfortable. Although there are physical differences (between the inner planets and the asteroid-dwellers) that could be taken as ‘racial’ the story feels very monoculture.

What struck me, though, is that there are no homosexual characters in a novel with a large cast. More than that, none of the characters seem to have considered homosexuality a possibility. This just seemed to me bizarre. There are also criticisms of total unfettered access to information that seemed undeveloped.

So yes, this gets my recommendation and I want to read more in the series. But not unreserved praise.

Best non-fiction

Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: Ben Blatt

This is a novel of statistics. No, hang on, come back! I loved it, and, if you have an interest in books and writing, so will you. The basic premise is that you can use mathematical modelling to work out how an author constructs their books: not only their ‘favourite’ words (the titular Nabokov’s ‘mauve’, for example, or my ‘wrangling’) but the little words that can tell you whether a book was mainly constructed by a big-ticket author or by his writing ‘partner’.

The book also looks into writing ‘rules’, like whether we should really avoid adjectives and whether it really is a sin to describe the weather in the opening sentence. The only complaint is that you feel there’s so much more he could cover (Did Shakespeare really write those plays? What about my genre?) that the book feels a little short.

Also recommended:

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer: Sarah Bakewell

Philosophy. Thoroughly enjoyable philosophy at that. Montaigne was a French estate owner who dabbled in politics and diplomacy and left several volumes of thoughts about sex, farting, foreign travel and love. It’s his ordinary blokishness that shines through, ably brought to life by Sarah Bakewell and her innovative approach to his life and beliefs.

I came across Montaigne through Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which serves as a useful primer to the subject and the ways it can help you. Consider this a tiny bonus recommendationlet.

Best Graphic Novel

Saga: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I know, I know, I know. It’s hardly a surprise selection. It’s already, if Wikipedia is to be believed, won widespread critical acclaim. And I know I’m wildly out of date in only just getting round to it.

But it’s really good. The characters are beautifully rounded, the artwork sumptuous, the world (universe) convincing and just odd enough to keep us on our toes.

It’s even good enough to beat The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to top spot. And you have to be good to do that.

Best Doctor Who:

Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet: James Goss & Douglas Adams

Well this was just a blast. An old Adams script has been expertly adapted by James Goss and for a dyed-in-the-wool H2G2 fan like myself it was a dream. Full of delightfully odd characters like the Pirate Captain and his nurse, this is Adams through and through.

The parrot – sorry, the Polyphase Avatron – steals the show, though. Kudos to Goss to making a brilliant, confusing, insane story into a fantastic and coherent novel.

Best Classic

Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen

I know, I know. But I’d never read it before (I missed Austen week at school. I’ve not read any of the Bronte’s either) and I’ve always managed to avoid the adaptations too. I never thought I’d actually find it full of irony and dry wit.

There’s not much I can say that’s new; I’m sure you can find a line-by-line textual analysis cheap on ebay if you’re that way inclined. Let me just say that I found it much wittier and livelier than Dickens and no-one ever told me Austen was funny!

Best Short

A Rare Book of Cunning Device: Aaronovitch, B

This year’s ‘Best Short’ nominees consist of two novellas, both by Ben Aaronovitch. But limited opposition does nothing to diminish the joy with which I hold the Rivers of London series.

This is a short but perfectly formed little adventurelet set in the basement of the British Library. It’s only available as audio only – which is fine by me as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is the perfect companion.

* * *

And that’s all folks. My prize picks from an excellent year for reading. I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have, and, if you’ve read any of these, whether you agree or not.

Here’s to 2018. It’s shaping up to be another fantastically-fictational year.