Book of the year 2018

DTRH 2

Yes, folks, it’s that time again: the year is drawing to a close and so I must select my favourite books of the year.

But I fear I must begin with an apology. I have simply not read enough. All was going swimmingly until I moved house, leaving the comforting bosom of the job in and around of which I did most of my reading. Thus we have been operating in dribs and drabs ever since.

We will have to treat the future on its own merits. For now, though, let us look back at the books I have enjoyed over the last twelvemonth and see if we can’t scrape some sort of purpose out of the whole hideous morass.

Blimey, I’ve encountered some superb books this year. So many, in fact, that I’m not going to choose a simple ‘best’. Instead I’m going to give a few of my favourites.
So, in no particular order:

Fiction:

The Honours – Tim Clare

The Honours

Tim does occasional novel-opening-critiques on his excellent podcast so I decided to turn the tables and do the same right back to him (in my mind only) when reading this. That attempt lasted less than a page before I was lost in his beautiful world. I originally wrote about this in this blog-post. It’s simply a wonderful book that I dare not tell too much about for fear of dispelling the mystery of what the hell this is actually about.

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Vanishing Box

If you want to write a crime novel, read Elly Griffiths. I mean, seriously. The plotting is just so good; the way she gives her characters depth – just enough so you think you can see a way through to the murderer; just enough in each scene to make you think ‘no, hang on, maybe I was wrong’. In every scene.

Elly’s novels aren’t always perfectly realised. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t work as well for me, for example, and I wasn’t too sold on The Dark Angel (though this again contained magnificent character development; in fact, if I was writing a how-to book I’d probably start right here). But part of the fun of Griffiths’ books lies in the relationships between the main characters. And The Vanishing Box is perfect.

Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

QoaC

Rod Duncan: lovely man, drinker of black tea and dreamer of dark waters. Here he takes his story of the Gas-Lit Empire out across the ocean and shows us that the world we thought we’d got to grips with is not only full of stories but full of stories we’d never even imagined possible. Like the star-cruiser* at the beginning of Star Wars you suddenly realise that what we thought was the big picture was merely docking bay.

Britain is only a small island trapped between sea and continent. And the seas themselves can harbour as many monsters as ever walked on land. Elizabeth Barnabus is on the hunt for her best friend, last seen on a zeppelin that was shot down somewhere in the Atlantic. Might she have survived? Who fired the shot?

The next in the series is out in January. I can’t wait.

*I have no doubt this craft has a proper name that you’ll no doubt be eager to share with me. You all know the one I mean though, right? If not, insert mental image of the opening credits of Red Dwarf.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

If I have a criticism of Adam Roberts – and I do – it’s that he’s more interested in ideas than stories. Thus we have we literal people-with-no-heads in Land of the Headless; we have the ‘what-does-animal-rights-truly-mean?’ of Bête. And the oh-God-it’s-the-very-nature-of-reality of The Thing Itself.

By Light Alone has a similarly high concept. Genetic modification has enabled people to ‘eat’ sunlight directly through their hair. So only the rich eat ‘real’ food and flaunt baldness whilst the poor are a tidal mass threatening to bring the whole edifice to the ground. This novel scores by having a very human story at its heart: a rich man’s world comes tumbling down when his daughter is abducted. And then, a year later, comes back into his life.

But is she all that she seems? And does it really matter when their world seems doomed anyway?

Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

Shadow

The first volume in the Book of the New Sun quadrilogy, this is… weird. On the face of it, we’re dealing with a traditional high fantasy epic. But the further we progress, accompanying Severian on his journey to a distant city, the more we come to realise that we’re part of a different story altogether.

This series has been hugely influential; Neil Gaiman, for one, has written of its power, and it regularly features is lists of the best SFF novels ever. It’s not the easiest read – not because of any flaws but because it requires the reader to work; we are so deeply embedded in Severian’s mind that he doesn’t see the need to explain the many sudden ‘wait, what?’ moments.

It is, in short, something that rewards reading and rereading. And possibly doctoral theses.

The Doomed City – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Doomed City

Well now, just about everything I said about Shadow of the Torturer applies here. Weird? Check. Doctoral theses? Check. Challenging? Check. Hidden from the Communists? Che- no, wait. That only belongs to this novel, the origins of which are almost as interesting as the story itself. Long story short: originally writing in the early seventies with writer-brothers who knew it would never pass Soviet censors. Only two copies existed, hidden carefully in friends’ apartments, until 1989 when publishing restrictions were lifted.

The city of the title is the key figure in the story. It is an impossible place, complete with moving buildings and a sun that switches on and off. It’s populated by people taken from different periods in history (or at least the 20th century). We follow Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad. At the start of the story he is idealistic and naïve. Then, after a fascist coup, he becomes careless, almost cold. It is significant that one of the most important characters is Jewish.

The climax shows an exhibition to cross the no-man’s land beyond the city’s edge – to find out, in essence, where they are and why they’re there. It’s a complex novel, difficult and full of ideas. Anyone who’s seen the (very good) film Dark City will see The Doomed City’s influence.

It’s begging for a sequel, and for that reason should never be given one.

Caveat emptor. There are very few women in the novel and those that are there (Andrei’s wife, notably) are treated horribly. Also antisemitism, though this is part of the plot.

Godblind – Anna Stephens

Godblind

This is another wonderful, powerful novel that can only really be described as grimdark fantasy – Lord of the Rings with feeling – but dares also give us love.

A spoonful of love helps the horror really hit home.

Warring gods and their pawns on earth; corruption and unbelievable cruelty. The ingredients are nothing new, but Stephens gives them urgency and passion and serves up probably the most convincing battlefield I’ve ever read.

The most sickening thing is that this is her debut. Makes you spit, really.

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

the-wasp-factory

Don’t read this. I mean please, just don’t do it to yourself.

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderfully written. This horribly damaged narrator in his horribly damaged life is so utterly, utterly convincing. The banality with which he talk of the things he’s done – brilliant.

Also horrible. Caveat. There aren’t enough caveats in the world.

Thornhill – P Smy

Thornhill

Another I wrote about previously, this is a YA book that mixes a story told through diary entries intercut with a wordless graphic novel. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun

Aha! The one that’s going to win all the awards. Revenant Gun is the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series that began with Ninefox Gambit. The whole series takes our ideas of space opera and blows them up with malice aforethought.

Some people will find the detail of exotic physics* and mathematical arcana dull. Some also won’t like the genderqueerness of – well, just about everything. That’s fine. I loved it and felt it really underpinned the structure of the previous novels.

These are game-changing books and worthy of your time whether, ultimately, you like them or not.

*Magic, but interesting

Rogues – GRR Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds)

Rogues

I’m not a big short-story reader and this is the first time an anthology has appeared in my ‘best of’ lists. But I feel I have to include this here because not only did it take FOREVER to get through but because it was a consistent delight. The 21 stories are all based around the morally dubious. Most are great fun.

As is the nature of these things, some (Gaiman’s ‘How the Marquis got his Coat Back’ for one) I’d read before. Some are better than others.

Personal favourites:

‘Bad Brass’; Bradley Denton (though one Amazon reviewer rates this as one of the worst in the collection, which just goes to show)

‘Tough Times All Over’; Joe Abercrombie

‘Now Showing’; Connie Willis (another story the other reviewer disliked)
‘A Year and a Day in Old Theradane’; Scott Lynch.

Worst story:

‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’; GRR Martin. This isn’t a story. It’s a list of things that happened. As far as I can see, no reviewer liked this one.

Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

Embers of War.jpg

Space opera done well. I could go on at length about the ethical questions that Powell raises, at the universe he’s created, and at the depths he gives his characters – all of whom have carefully drawn backstories that never get in the way of the here-and-now. I could say all this, but all you really need to know is that he’s created a sentient warship called Trouble Dog. And that she’s one of the best AIs ever created.

Volume two coming in 2019. Can’t wait.

Also Recommended:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark

Non-Fiction:

Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman

Daemon

A collection of essays mostly on writing and occasionally on Pullman’s personal philosophy. There’s a huge amount to glean from this, especially if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials. It delves into the role of story in life; in education, in religion and science. Very interesting, though, in truth, I can’t actually remember much about it now.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – D Adam

Man who couldn't stop

Well this is just fascinating. On the face of it it’s simply the memoir of a man’s struggle to understand and overcome his own obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what it really serves to do is to make us look at our own behaviours and reevaluate our drives and urges.

Wonderfully written; lyrical and elegant, this is one of the best examinations of mental illness that I’ve ever read. Really, really not just for sufferers and really, really not a misery memoir; humour and sly wit underpin even the darkest episodes.

Liable to Floods – JR Ravensdale

Liable to Floods

This isn’t so much a recommendation – not unless you’re interested in the history of three villages on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fen.

Or maybe that’s not true. There is a great deal for the novelist here – if you’re interested in the way mediaeval (or fantastic) settlement and survival, floods and fires, you could do a lot worse than this.

Either way, it’s elegantly written and, even if it’s now out of date, deserves its place here.

How to Read Literature – Terry Eagleton

Read Literature

I have been flattered that Eagleton’s writing style is not a million miles from this blog. Well, maybe. Still this is a lovely book, clearly written and full of wit. It is a book about literature and I suspect its main audience will be university students; it’s slightly highfalutin’ for the likes of me.

Still, anything that makes you reevaluate all you thought you knew about popular texts is worth reading. Eagleton makes it easy. And his reinterpretation of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as a socialist manifesto will live long in the memory.

Graphic Novel:

Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga 6

Second year in a row. Read the last ‘Best of’ for more; but, simply put, this remains unique; a wonderful jewel buried under a mountain of superheroes. The sheer imaginative power that can create Prince Robot and Lying Cat, and have a ghost as a major character, is incredible. And that’s just the surface.

Wonderful stuff

* * *

And that’s it, apart from all the books I’ve forgotten. Please share your own personal favourites; I’m always looking for new authors, or even new opinions.

Have a wonderful holiday, all you lucky folk who get such a thing. I’ll be back in 2019 with more dubious knowledge and half-baked theories.

If you’re interested, check out my previous years’ Best of lists here:

2017
2016
2015

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First-draft doubts

I forgot a character for 100 pages. How do you do that? Just completely forget his existence whilst at the same time building for his denouement? Takes a special kind of dysfunction to hold contradictions like that. Fortunately I’m a writer. I’m in a permanent state of dysfunction, capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

So, the work-in-progress then. I’ve talked before about how the first draft is essentially a walk-through; a dry run, showing what scenes you need, who’s where and when and how to get from one world to another. For that reason I’ve spent little effort in description or in making the world itself come alive. I’ve been concentrating on where people are at and where they’re going.

I’ve also written a fair bit that will likely be completely cut. It’s one of the perils of this kind of procedure: unless you plan every scene in detail before first setting metaphorical pen to paper you’re likely to write in redundancy and waffle. Similarly, you’ll likely find yourself omitting scenes that, in later drafts, you’ll wonder how you ever did without.

That’s the nature of the game. It’s the nature of my game. And I’m sure you’re there wondering if I’m going to turn round and advocate a more logical, planned approach. Nah. I’m still in the process of discovery: I’m telling myself stories, I’m learning and I’m happy. Even though it can be an absolute pain.

Yesterday I hit the 100,000 word mark, which in itself doesn’t mean much. I’ve always envisioned this novel would weigh in at about 120k: more important is that I’m building up to the final climax, the last battle. I’m at the stage where, having a solid idea of where I want to end up, I’m now in the process of manipulating my characters so they get to the right place at the right time. In this particular case I have to work out how to break into a London police station that’s already on high alert.

Logic moves slowly. Characters are rightly suspicious of manna from heaven; the buggers see traps in everything. To get from one place to another without a massive wrench is a case of a thousand tiny corrections, of a series of decision that all make perfect sense in themselves but inexorably lead my cast to where I want them to be.

Hence these scenes that may well end up being cut. I have to write them. I have to know how this line of reasoning works – or if it simply doesn’t. Even if it all seems like a pointless slog, it’s much easier to write something and later cut it out than to have to go back and insert whole sections. Besides, you never know – and you always hope – that although you’re going through the motions your readers might love the quiet, tension-building scenes as much as the noise. You might just have written something really good, and this is just standard first-draft doubt.

Incidentally, whilst I was lying in bed the other night I suddenly realised that I might want to take out a whole loop of action: around 20,000 words would be erased with just a snap of the fingers. That’s still an option. Every story is about the roads walked: but sometimes the roads you’ve not gone down are the ones that fascinate the most. The road not travelled. And there’s no time better to see those than when you’re first-drafting.

So where goest I now? Well, I go the only way I know and that’s onwards. One foot in front of the other, marching, hobbling, ambling down that road. This isn’t the time to look back, to wonder if there wasn’t a shortcut better taken. It’ll have to be examined later, when I can properly sit back with a map and review all the junctions and signposts and ghost-towns I passed on the way. There are always other options. All those brilliant stories you fell in love with throughout your life? In another world they’d all end differently. Some would be better for it.

Some, of course, would just be a whole lot weirder.

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?

I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you here…

Hello all. Welcome to my blog.

Let’s be up-front about this. I’m writing this in order to promote myself. I don’t see any point lying.  The fact is that I’m an author, that I have ambitions to be published, and in this day and age, you need to be able to promote yourself.  Hence a blog – the fashionable weapon of choice.

It’s a horrible thing, really; I’m in a position where I have to talk myself up at every opportunity.  That sort of thing doesn’t come easy to me. I am, after all, British – home of reserve, modesty and concealing one’s true feelings. For example: I said above that I’m an author. But I’m not published – does one need to be published before you can call yourself an author? When people (rarely) ask what I do outside work I tell them that I write. Not that I’m a writer, but that I write. And it’s taken me many years to get to that point, to remove the apology from my voice and be confident about it. For there does seem to be some sort of stigma attached to any creative activity done without recompense: it’s still not the sort of thing that leads to drinks being showered upon you in the pub. Not in a good way, at least.

So. Yes. Newly confident writer.

This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but what do you write? And what can I expect to see in this blog? Will it be worth my time and the wear and tear on my mouse-finger?

I write genre-fiction. That’s the broadest answer I can give. More specifically, I write a mix of science-fiction, crime and adventure, emphasising human relationships in pressure situations. It’s also my eternal ambition to write a quality historical novel at some point, probably set in Saxon times.

Slightly less broadly I like the term ‘speculative fiction’ to describe my work. I only came across this concept a few months ago; roughly speaking, it means that the starting-point for the novel is a ‘what if?’ question.

So, for Chivalry (my third novel) the underlying idea was: what if a game could start a war?

For Night Shift (fourth, and the one I’m currently promoting): what is the next step for humanity in an overcrowded and resource-poor world?

Speculative fiction could be taken as simply a new term for science-fiction and fantasy, but I think those terms tend to be straitjackets, especially for new authors. I ran into this wall especially painfully when I was trying to market Chivalry. This is not science-fiction. I am determined on this – digging in and preparing to face enemy fire. But because part of the action is set in a computer-recreation of twelfth-century Syria (and also because it’s over 140,000 words long) it has immediately become labelled as such.  Nonsense, I cry! I don’t think any serious science-fiction publisher would be happy if I sent it to them. Although that hasn’t stopped me trying.

No, it’s speculative fiction all the way for me.

And what’s in it for you? Well, I hereby promise that I’ll do my very best to post an entry a week on this site. I’m hoping to give free samples of my writing – although I’ve no idea what, yet – along with musings on life, love, and the pursuit of liberty. Hopefully this will be typo-free and vaguely interesting. I’ll probably ramble on about life as a writer as well as more everyday concerns. I reckon you’ll get a pretty good idea of myself and my style as the weeks roll by.

Well, that’s probably enough for now: in these days of short attention-spans this is probably all I can get away with. Please, check back next week for another exciting instalment of This Blog.

Cheerio

Rob