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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Joyous Puppies

I’m fed up with the Hugos. Not the awards themselves, but in the stupid, pointless and vitriolic campaigns by the Puppies – both Sad and Rabid – to swing the vote in a way that in no way serves to promote the work of themselves and their bestest buds.

I suppose I should bung up some links to get you who haven’t been following up to speed: just one second…

Here’s a good overview
And another
Some analysis of their motives
…and what I’ve said previously about writing and politics.

Right. That’s that out of the way. Now here’s my perspective.

I am a man. I’m white. I’m middle class (by upbringing if not by dirty dirty moolah). I’m heterosexual.

I also love reading books by people who aren’t like me.

I love books with black, white, gay, lesbian, intersex, disabled protagonists. I like to read thought-pieces on politics and society, whether left-wing or right-wing – if they’re well-written I’ll read them. Some I might disagree with. Some might make me feel uncomfortable. Some may challenge my preconceptions or just make me massively angry. But how are we to learn if we don’t empathise, don’t explore the lives of others? How are we to grow, to make ourselves stronger if we limit our intake to that which we already know?

There is a place for the kind of fun novels that the Puppies promote. Although I detest the political agenda that seems to dominate their thinking (and what is it but the last fearful grab for power that’s been theirs solely by accident of birth, and now they feel slipping away?) I don’t have a problem with the writing in itself. Unless it’s bad.

But I am fed up with this non-controversy. I am fed up with science-fiction/fantasy being tarred with this pathetic mudslinging. I am fed up of talking about it.

So I am hereby launching my own group. Let us be known as the Joyous Puppies. A group that delights in diversity, who feels that there is room for all members of the writing community to be who the hell they want, to write what the hell they want for the sake of producing great stories.

Happy puppy

A joyous puppy. Because it’s all we need

The SFF world has never been in ruder health. Hell, all of writing is in a golden age. Never has there been more diversity; never have I seen more people reading, talking about, loving books. Finally, after years of being a slightly embarrassing secret, readers and writers from all walks of life are stepping out into the sunlight, stretching, and taking a good long look around them.

Let us celebrate all voices. Let us promote authors who don’t have the fortune that we’ve had. Let us read widely; let us learn and be challenged – hell, let us argue passionately about the merits of particular writers on the basis of the work they produce, not what they look like or where they come from.

Let us celebrate a community where there are no hard and fast rules about what we can write or who can join. Let us be open to all.

Let us dance and sings and get drunk and pass out in the dewy grass and wake with blinding hangovers in the blazing sun of an alien world.

Let us reclaim the SFF world for great books and let’s celebrate those books.

Joyous Puppies – saddle up and ride out!

Yes, It’s F**king Political

As Skunk Anansie told us, years ago, Yes, It’s Fucking Political. Of course it is. Everything’s political, when you get right down to it. We’re readers, we’re writers; for all we might like to think that we’re above the mundanities of the dirty world, we can’t escape it. You think Dickens wasn’t political? How about Shakespeare? Arthur Miller? And you’re into politics too.

At the moment it seems that there is a move – read ‘giant lurch’ – towards the right-wing in writing, and especially in science-fiction. Actually, that’s almost certainly not true; these voices have always been there, as have an equivalent bunch of Lefties. But circumstances have now propelled a small minority of extremists into the limelight. Check out this little slice of delight, for example; and we’ve barely just got over the Rabid Puppies contretemps.

Let me just go on record and say that I detest these people, and most especially their loathsome figurehead Vox Day*. I‘m not here to talk about them specifically; nor am I going to rehash old arguments. I want to talk about the nature of writing – and indeed, life – and SF in particular.

All writing is political. Hell, the clothes you wear, the way you talk – it’s all political. Mostly it’s something you never think about – you can perfectly enjoy the Shopaholic books without ever considering the consumer society in which the characters operate. Some writers are more overt than others – Orwell, of course, is an obvious example, and I could point at the doyenne of American libertarianism, Ayn Rand.

But no story exists in a vacuum. There are underlying concepts, a framework, behind every novel. Even historical fiction has to make a choice between presenting things we now find repellent – such as the treatment of women or slaves or rampant antisemitism – with a modern eye or in the most accurate light of the time. This is a political decision, although not necessarily done for political purposes.

But science-fiction is different. Everything science-fiction is political, almost by definition. This is because we either have to create a whole new world ourselves, or because our stories are born of that classic old question: what if..? Thus are born some of the greatest writers, and stories, in the canon. Asimov and Dick are the classic examples; if you’re after a more modern examples I’d point to the great Terry Pratchett – whose Discworld series is all about the real, modern world – and Adam Roberts, who has taken as themes religious extremism, communications and animal rights in his writing.

It’s inherent in science fiction – no, not all, but some – to look into ones fears, to find trends in the modern world and extrapolate them into the future. Now, I don’t believe in censorship; nothing should be off-limits. Science-fiction is not about hiding – it is about exploring, and the most beautiful explorations are those of the human condition. A novel on the rise of Islam, or the ‘spread’ of homosexuality, or of Liberal hand-wringing (a la Mr Covington in one of the above links) can have its place.

If it’s done well, and sensitively, and explores the issues rather than just demonising those the author finds distasteful.

It’s not just the Right that politicises. The Sad Puppies – the ‘political wing’ of the more extreme Rabids – originally set out to protest at a perceived bias towards the Left in the Hugo awards and in publishing in general. More personally, I am writing my new novel, Oneiromancer, with a left-wing slant: nothing overt, but with an underlying theme of society in peril from a biased media.

This (I hope) does not do my own work justice. I write about people first and foremost, with a bloody good story laid upon them. That, at least, is the plan. But I am a product of my upbringing, my (continuing) education and my environment – just as you are too. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But it’s something we should be aware of. It’s perfectly fine to explore the big issues – in fact, it’s a necessity for the good of mankind – but you ignore the consequences, the way others with perceive your work, at your peril.

Because yes, it’s fucking political.

Everything’s political.

And if you’re writing about white supremicism, or religious extremism, then you must know how the work will be taken. You must know that those who aren’t your race or religion are exactly the same as you, with their own hopes, fears, and prejudices. And you must acknowledge this in your work.

Otherwise you might be accused of foaming a little around the chops.

*This is a link to his Wikipedia page. I would never, ever link to his blog as every hit gives him the oxygen of publicity. I’m not too happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen. Besides, too long spent in his electronic company leaves me needing a good wash and, possibly, a lobotomy.

Adventure time

I don’t trust genre.

When you walk into your friendly local library you’ll see the books all neatly corralled, forced to comply with a regime that dictates their neat characterisation. Crime must not rub shoulders with Classics. Literary fiction is too good to mix with the SF/F oiks. Romance must – at all costs – be kept from the tiny LGBT shelf. And conspiracy theories demand a place in non-fiction, despite… well, despite evidence.

And that’s all well and good. But the fact is that a science-fiction novel can have more in common with mythology than it can with its immediate neighbour. It’d make as much sense to shelve books according to their settings as to their body-count (one or two corpses = crime: a million corpses = either space opera or political commentary). Think about it: books set in London all together on one shelf, be they sagas or gangland thrillers. Makes about as much sense as anything else.

Genre-division really doesn’t give you any idea of what any particular story is about, or how it’s told. What’s Agatha Christie got in common with Patricia Cornwell? The stories they tell are so different in voice that they might as well be from different planets. CJ Sansom cohabiting with Ellis Peters? SF/F is equally confusing. Ursula Le Guin next to Terry Pratchett? I love them both but hardly see them as interchangeable.

Which is why we’ve got all these subdivisions within genre. And that’s great. But it still doesn’t give us an idea of what any story is actually like.

See, I’m currently writing an Adventure. It’s an action story, told in a linear fashion: no flashbacks, little circularity save in location. Each scene will lead inexorably to the next as the tension grows, the stakes get higher…*

But of course it won’t be classified as an adventure. There isn’t really an adventure genre any more; not since the heyday of Wilbur Smith and Ian Fleming, not since we Gave Back Our Colonies has such a thing existed. It’s why Bernard Cornwell – the man who taught me everything I know about writing action – is historical fiction. And it’s why Oneiromancer will be classified as Urban Fantasy.

Adventure isn’t so much a genre as it is a way of telling a story. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are adventures. Some of you may know of Christopher Brooker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’; for those who don’t know he divided all fiction into the following categories:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

You can take issue about these categories. I wasn’t entirely convinced with some of his analysis. But a library or bookshop based on this categorisation would make at least as much sense as its current system. Genre, as we know it, really describes a book’s ‘dress’ – its setting or basic theme – rather than what it’s really about. Add a few more categories if you like: Extended Metaphor; Not-So-Subtle Political Manifesto; Loosely-Camouflaged Autobiography; Celebrity Cash-In; The Monster Within.

Really, we only accept the narrows of ‘form’ because a) we all grew up with it, and b) we know it well enough to navigate its treacherous undertow. But it means that I, and many, many other writers will feel ‘misfiled’ because the clothes matter more than the body beneath. And that, if you stop to think about it, is just a little bit strange.

*The right is thoroughly, completely and emphatically reserved to completely change this pre-emptive description of my future novel. What am I, a fortune teller?

What you know

Write what you know. Limiting, isn’t it? Who wants to read about an ordinary day in an ordinary life in an ordinary town where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens? It’s just a recipe for dullness that won’t get you into the top 10 ‘Amazon Bestsellers: Banality’ subgenre, let alone catch the eye of an agent. It also seems to rule out the very existence of fantasy, science-fiction, and any even vaguely outlandish title. So why is it such a well-known and well used saying?

The fact is that you know a lot. Even if you have the most boring job, the most boring life in the world, you know a lot. You know how to feel, for one thing. You have beliefs and empathies and skills, no matter how esoteric. See, I think the saw ‘write what you know’ is totally misunderstood and misused. It doesn’t refer to your life story at all. It’s all about emotions.

You know how to love. You know how to fear. You know how to be angry and how it feels to run or to shout or maybe to smash pottery on a hard concrete floor. This is what you know. And writing what you know isn’t about repeating isolated snippets of information, it’s about taking strong emotions and transporting them into situations that are way beyond your life. It’s why I treasure moments where I can say ‘oh, so that’s how it feels.’ Because then you can take that little snowglobe of feeling, wrap it up somewhere safe and warm, and then put your feelings of helplessness and isolation into the middle of a grand space opera, or below the deepest sea, or…

Imagine you’re on a bus, or on the underground. You’re going for a job interview, or for your first day at school. It’s crowded, hot (or cold) and noisy. Shoulders keep jostling you, shaking your grip on your bag. A few seats away a group of youths are playing some horrible tinny music, all bass and swagger. They’re laughing and you wonder whether it’s at you or at that girl across the aisle…

Now take that image and the feelings that it builds in you. Change the circumstances. Now you’re not on a bus but on a planetary shuttle coming in to deposit you and a bunch of soldiers onto an interstellar warzone. The situation’s completely different – but do the emotions differ? How so? Surely there’s something you can take from the one to use in the other. You’ll never be a crewmember on a 19th century whaler but you might know what it’s like to feel the knife-edge of terror and exhilaration as the deck pitches beneath you.

Congratulations. You just wrote what you know.

Your scenes can be the most alien, your characters the biggest bastards, it can all be terribly surreal and impossible. ‘What you know’ doesn’t refer to plot or setting; that’s a job for your reason and your imagination. But the way you bring these situations to life is to transplant your emotions into that world

No matter how implausible and impossible the situation, it is the heart that only you can bring that makes your voice cross centuries and your story come alive.

Humbug

After the giddyness of last week’s blog, a more sober entry this time. On Sunday night – which shows how hard editors work – I received my rejection from the publishing house who’d asked for the full manuscript of Night Shift.

This is no surprise. Some publishers only put out half a dozen books a year, and every author knows that they’re up against pretty stiff competition to be one of those releases. And the rejection itself was nicely phrased:  ‘I found the basic concept of a “base under siege” in the Antarctic in the near future to be very attractive. Unfortunately, I found myself always looking for the “monster” or something that gave a sense of the “other”. The thriller elements of the novel meant that the real antagonists were “off-stage” and, while I liked your main character, I kept on wanting more of a Science-Fiction slant – and I’m aware that is my own personal view.’

So, no hard feelings. And, intellectually, I know I’ve lost nothing. But every time you get your hopes up (no matter how much you tell yourself you won’t) and you get rejected, it’s a blow. And you start to ask yourself – where now? I’ve approached most of the agents who take SFF (as science-fiction & fantasy is referred to in the Twitterverse) in the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and got nowhere. I’m running out of publishers too.

Just keep swimming…

As an aside, I know I’ve made mistakes with the marketing of my work. I sent it out too soon. My covering letter is constantly evolving. I fear I blew my chances with the publishers and agents I initially submitted to by being too hasty. Live and learn.

And now I fear that once again I’m going to be caught in a cross-genre trap. Melding sci-fi, murder mystery and psychological thriller seemed like a great idea when I was doing the actual writing, but how do I sell it? Can’t be crime – it’s set in the future. But is it sciency enough to get in with the SF crowd?

Grumble.

But let’s be positive. I’ve written a book that I’m sure is of publication standard. My cover letter/pitch is getting me attention (and I’ll blog about submissions at some point in the future). And all the while I’m learning, learning, learning – and also cracking on with new writing. New Gods should be finished this week, possibly even today. And when I say ‘finished’ I mean the first draft, which does not mean ‘finished’ at all. Not that I can do anything with it anyway: as the third in the trilogy, there’s no way of selling it on its own…

I realise that you may be saying ‘but if you’ve got all these problems with publication, why not go out and do it yourself?’ Well… not sure if I’ve got a good answer to that.  Go back through the archive to see my previous posts on self-publishing. The simple answer is that I still want to be published properly. But I’m not sure why – maybe just because I’m a people person. I like the idea of co-operating with editors and art designers and of having deep, involving conversations about books and business with professionals. And it all being about me.

My ego may be uglier than yours, but at least I know when it needs feeding.

You can see why writers get reputations for being a little strange, can’t you? Can you blame then for going a little crazy when, after years and years of being told you’re not good enough, they finally get their moment in the sun?

Anyway, back to the matter in hand. I’ve decided I’m going to keep on going ‘trad’ at least until I’m happy with Australis. If nothing’s happened by then I’ll sit down and have a good long think about bunging it out myself. In the meantime I’ll keep shoving out submissions, haranguing agents and publishers until one of them gives in and, in a desperate plea for mercy, agrees to take me on. My dad had a good attitude to this sort of thing: he says that whenever he got a rejection (he wrote for children, more history than fiction but with the occasional toe-dipping) he sent another three submissions on the same day. Kept him going, and certainly that sort of resolve is what I need right now.

Incidentally, does anyone know if it’s a good idea to resubmit work? How long should you leave it?

Prepare to be harassed once more, all you industry professionals!

I invented the Wii

I invented the Wii.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. But I did come up with something surprisingly similar in Chivalry a year or two before the console was released. I also predicted the London riots. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the concept of geostationary orbit.

Yes, we live in interesting times. Technology is developing so quickly that it seems like some idle thought that might make a cute idea for a story is suddenly there on the high street a month or so later. It’s annoying: we missed the moment. What might have been visionary had we been published just a little earlier is now old hat.  No point getting wound up about it. It’s just the way of the world.

But this is an amazing age. It seems as if there never have been so many possible futures. The Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, that inspired so many seminal authors, has been replaced with a general uncertainty. Are we heading for Utopia or for dystopia? The fear of mutually assured destruction has diminished somewhat and has been replaced by so many questions. Now the villain’s not the Soviets but the planet itself.

All this is fantastic for authors. Never has there been so much inspiration all around. It makes for hard work, of course – all the probability paths, stretching out ahead of us: which do we chose? Which are dead ends? But it’s hard for a writer of speculative fiction to go on the internet or switch on the news and not see something to play with.

How will social media develop in the future? Will we need to leave our homes again? Will military drones and spy-planes become the robotic killers we all fear, or will they be remotely controlled by humans? Either way there are stories there. How will technology affect development, both individually and as a society?

Buggered if I know. But it’s good fun to speculate, even better to take one of these threads and run with it and create your own personal future. Which is, in essence, all that science-fiction is. The only rule is that you have to be consistent within the world you’ve built.

I reckon it’s pretty clear that, just like the classic 50s sci-fi, a lot of the societies created by modern authors will be proved to be ‘wrong’. Remember all the robots that we though would be strolling around today? The underground cities of Asimov? The post-nuclear wasteland that was all that was left of the old world? My favourite ‘error’ of those novels was the way that everyone, every single person, smoked cigarettes – even in worlds set some three hundred years in the future.

Of course, this doesn’t make 50s science-fiction any less memorable and enjoyable. Science-fiction (and, for once, I am including my preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ here) is perhaps the most philosophical of genres. The whole point is to create an imagined future, and that, almost by definition, involves a philosophical viewpoint. And that view almost always reflects to society in which it was written. Thus the McCarthyite terror of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Of course, it’s much, much harder to see these themes at the time. We need hindsight to provide perspective, to filter out the ‘noise’ of other genres and of the many, many exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps the 10s (I assume that’s what we’ll call this decade; I’ve not actually heard anyone use it yet) will prove to be the era without a theme. Perhaps there are just so many possibilities that we end up with a spaghetti-plate of twisting ideas that defy classification. Perhaps the ‘theme’ will be a lack of unification, just a plethora of different thoughts without any sort of commonality. Or maybe we’ll see an age that responds to global austerity by producing a weight of dystopian hells. Or the opposite as we imagine a better world ahead.

As for me, it’s too early in my career to really self-analyse. If there is a common thread in my writing, then I guess it’s one of the ‘odd man out’; and that in itself is influenced by the culture of the 1950s. Not science fiction, but film noir. I’ve never really got on with the perfect protagonist. It’s the Everyman who fascinates me; the idea that it could be you. That anyone can affect the world if thrust into the right (or wrong) situation.

Maybe that’s a reflection of my own subconscious desire to be special, to be different. Am I just revealing my own insecurities through my writing? No idea. I wonder if all this musing, this self-reflective whimsy, is part of what makes me a writer. It’s all what if..? what if…? what if..?

And there’s no better starting point for a story.