Book of the Year 2016

books

It’s that time of the year again: a chance to reflect on all the wonderful books I’ve read in what has been a pretty scary twelve-month. Reading has rarely provided a more welcome retreat from a world that’s rarely seemed more chaotic or terrifying.

So, without further ramblage, here’s a short selection of my favourite books of the year. Apart from the ‘Discovery’ choice, all have been published (in the UK) in 2016. Which brings me to my first confession: I’ve not read that many new books this year. Casting a quick eye over my book log I see that 2016 has been a year of catching up with books I missed on first release; books I always meant to read but never quite caught.

Book of the Year:

 Custodian of Marvels; Rod Duncan

It’s been a year of sequels. Sorry about that. But the sequels I’ve read have been top quality and none more so than this.

The Custodian of Marvels is the third book in the Elizabeth Barnabus series, and is that rare thing: a follow-up that surpasses the original. In (and beyond) the richly-drawn lands of the Gas-Lit Empire we see an alternative world that is neither utopia nor dystopia but plausible and fulfilling. Almost every scene tells us more about about both characters (and Elizabeth Barnabus is a wonderful creation) and society. A mention should also be given to the dwarf Fabulo, who enriches every scene he’s in.

Also, I’ve shared the odd Twitter-word with Mr Duncan and he’s a lovely man. Makes me want to live in Leicester.

Honourable mentions:

 The Murder of Mary Russell; Laurie R. King

Book #14 in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, this is a triumphant return to form after the slightly disappointing Dreaming Spies. It explores the history of Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson, giving one of Conan Doyle’s minor characters the depth and resonance she previously lacked.

I’ve read the whole series and, to me, King’s books are the closest you can get to the continuation of the Holmes canon. The characters are so well drawn, so plausible; they take the ‘afterlife’ of Holmes into new – but totally believable – directions.

The Woman in Blue; Elly Griffiths

I started reading Elly Griffiths because this crime series (Ruth Galloway; this is #8) is set in Norfolk, a county I still think of as home. I was immediately struck by the use of the present tense, which I found slightly jarring at first but now want to try out for myself.

This might be the best of the series; a wonderful setting (the holy village of Walsingham) and great supporting characters. But the real joy is the growth and awkwardness in the relationships between the central characters: adultery, confusion, the sheer humanity of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. It’s utterly convincing.

And there’s a murder in there too. What more can we ask for?

Best Dr Who

 Shadow in the Glass; Justin Richards & Stephen Cole

Okay, so the 6th Doctor is probably my least favourite. His personality grates. Add in Hitler and the myths around his death (yawn?) and there are all the recipes for a disaster here. And yet…

A great ‘assistant’. Real horror. A proper kick-in-the-teeth ending. Somehow this novel really works. This is Doctor Who stepping a toe firmly into nightmare – and getting it absolutely right.

Best Graphic Novel: also Best Non-Fiction

The Trouble With Women; Jacky Fleming

Hilarious. Horrifying. Dripping with cynicism. This is one of those books that you read and then think ‘who can I give this to?’

To say too much about this would be to spoil it. Read it. Laugh. Learn.

And then get angry.

Best Short:

The Summer People; Kelly Link

Well. This is a bit of an oddity. I got a free copy of this from a Twitter-based giveaway; the publishers said ‘anyone want one?’ and I put my hand up just because you can never get enough books.

And it’s really good. Written with delicacy and grace, the borders between reality and fantasy slowly disintegrate. Gothic, fairytale, coming-of-age; it’s amazing how much this packs it in such a short read. This is just one of those books you finish saying ‘Yes. That just felt right.’

Best Discovery

This is my section to explore my favourite reads that weren’t published in 2016: that I somehow missed and have crawled back to, tail between the legs.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Admission: I’d never heard of Scalzi until he started appearing in my Twitter-feed. Enough times was he retweeted for me to get a sense that he was worth hunting down.

I could talk at length about the story, but what really struck me was the simple quality of his writing. His novels move with real pace it’s amazing how he manages to pack in such depth – in character, in world, and with such humour. I always admire writers who can get wit into their stories as it’s a trick I’ve never managed to pull off.

This is how Twitter works, folks. Don’t just shout about your work. Be human. Be nice. The readers will come.

Discovery Mentions:

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ah, charity booksales. Where would we be without them? This is where I get to pick up things I’ve heard of and think I should read. Occasionally you get gems.

This is a long book that feels much shorter because the writing flows so freely. The topic – religion and obsession – and setting (12th century England) are heavy but Follett makes them look easy. As you might have guessed, I love books that hide the hard work behind smooth writing. This deserves the respect it’s garnered since its release.

Ack-Ack Macaque; Gareth Powell

I’d heard vague rumours of this and took it on a punt. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much. Monkeys and Nazis. Humour and silliness: at best I was anticipating a fun adventure.

It’s a lot more than this. It’s a steampunk-inspired story with surprising heart. There’s a lot to it: the future of artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and real depth of character. There’s a lot to make you think, a lot of deep philosophy carefully contained in – yes – a fun action-adventure. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

*          *          *

And that, good people, is that. Another year done. Another year of wonderful books, most of which have probably passed me by and slipped off into the ether.

I hope it’s been a magnificent year for you and yours. See you in January for more book-based banter and writerly witterings. Just remember: as those most bodacious philosophers Bill S. Preston esquire & Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan entreated us, be excellent to each other.

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A question of literature

Is there a difference between literature and genre fiction? Where are the lines? Is there any practical difference in the way you go about writing one rather than the other?

What it all comes down to is that I want to write the best novel I possibly can. I don’t want people to say, ‘well, it’s okay for sci-fi’. I want people to think my work’s good full stop. But I’ve spent the last week mulling over some criticism I received and also the faint praise I garnered in response. My writing, it was said, was not descriptive enough – it was crying out for detailed, harsh, uncomfortable nouns and soulful sweeping sunsets. Other people said that the amount of description I used was ‘fine for genre’.

What does ‘fine for genre’ mean? That crime novelists inherently write weaker prose? That horror is just blood and shock? Of course not.

So now I don’t know whether I want to be re-writing to work on psychology, characterisation and plot, or whether I want to be filling my worlds with texture and beauty. Can you have it both ways? That’s really what I don’t know. Of course you want the words to be as communicative as possible, but there must be a point at which literary flourishes diminish the flow of the story. I just wish someone would tell me where that line is.

It’s fun. It’s fun to ask questions. To think things in a way you’ve not considered them before. But now I have a tiny invisible man on my shoulder telling me ‘no, it’s not literary enough! You can do better!” Is this a good thing? I really have no idea if I’m improving the work or just thickening up the stew.

So what, really, is the difference between genre and literature? Someone out there must know. It can’t be the location or the form of the plot, can it? Because setting is just a medium for ideas, and every novel has a story, right? And if it’s not those it must be something in the quality of writing.

Or is it time to dispense with the term ‘literature’ altogether as a meaningless relic of another age?

Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.

Chivalry

We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.

Australis

Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.