Category Archives: books

FantasyCon, Scar City and Nottingham Contemporary

I’ll be in Nottingham for FantasyCon this weekend. The con is taking place at the East Midlands Conference Centre in University Park, and looks like being a very good gig all round. I’ll be taking part in two panels, both on the Saturday:

Room: Conference Theatre
3.00pm British Horror Present & Future
Horror fiction and fiction have a rich history in the UK. But where is it currently at and what does the future hold? Our panel of writers and horror-lovers explores the state of play and tell us whose work is exciting (and terrifying) them at the moment.

  • the market: are there enough horror writers, readers, publishers?
  • what trends are we seeing in terms of different types of horror?
  • how much is diversity changing the nature of British horror?
  • horror as an increasing element of fantasy, crime, SF fiction

Moderator: James Everington
Panellists: Nina Allan, Cate Gardner, Stephen Jones, Alison Littlewood, Adam Nevill, Simon Kurt Unsworth

Room: Suite 1
6.00pm The Short Story: Short-Lived or Part of the Long Game?
Our panel of published short story writers and anthologists considers some of the key challenges of the form, what makes for a memorable short, and the differences between writing short stories compared with novels.

  • markets for short stories: publications, anthologies, collections, competitions etc. What are they looking for?
  • what impact has ePublishing had on the longevity of the short?
  • the business of submitting: persistence, patience and dealing with rejection
  • the role of short stories in a writer’s development & career

Moderator: Allen Ashley
Panellists: Nina Allan, Gary Couzens, Andrew Hook, Laura Mauro, Marie O’Regan

aickman1-682x1024I’m looking forward to both of those! I’ll also be signing copies of Aickman’s Heirs at the official UK launch for the anthology, which is taking place on the Saturday also at 9pm. Undertow Press will also be launching V. H. Leslie’s debut collection Skein and Bone, so make sure you come along and grab a copy – Victoria is a talented writer, and it’s fantastic to hear that it won’t be long before we get to read her first novel, Bodies of Water, which is out from the equally wonderful Salt Publishing early next year. skein-and-bone-cover

In another piece of exciting book news, FantasyCon also sees the first appearance of a new collection by Joel Lane, Scar City, which is published this month by Eibonvale Press. Scar City is the book Joel was putting together shortly before he died, and assembles twenty-two previously uncollected stories first published in magazines and anthologies in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, broadly spanning the length of Joel’s career. Scar City was one of the last things Joel and I spoke about by email, so seeing the collection finally coming to print feels very special. The book also contains my essay on Joel’s three novels, which I wrote specially and with great pleasure.

If you can’t get along to FantasyCon, you can order Scar City direct from the Eibonvale website here. There will also be a London launch, closer to Christmas – details at the Eibonvale blog once the date is confirmed.



And as if all this wasn’t enough for one weekend, I will be staying on in Nottingham to do an event on the Monday evening at Nottingham Contemporary, in which Dave Hutchinson, Farah Mendleson and I will be assembling for Thinking Worlds, discussing ‘the alien’ and, I suspect, current trends in science fiction generally as part of Nottingham’s Popular Culture lecture series. This should be great fun, and what’s more, tickets are free! You can book your place here.

A Little Life – altogether too small?

littlelife.yanagA Little Life, the 700 pp second novel from Kitschies Golden Tentacle nominee Hanya Yanagihara, has been greeted by ecstatic reviews, in the US especially. Even in the UK, where the book’s reception has been a little more muted, the critics seem to be in broad agreement that, in spite of its flaws, the novel is something of a masterpiece. A Little Life is currently the bookies’ favourite to take the Booker prize, and readers especially have warmed to the book, losing themselves in its extended narrative like rabbits in a warren. I’ve seen a large number of reader reviews stating that for them, A Little Life is one of the most affecting books they’ve ever read.

I don’t get it. As someone who loved Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, A Little Life was one of the novels of 2015 I was most looking forward to. To say I’ve been disappointed would be something of an understatement. The People in the Trees was characterised, above all, by its author’s masterful control of her material: a heinously unreliable narrator, brilliantly drawn, a grasp of form, of the novel as a conceit that has not at all ridiculously been compared with Nabokov’s, a sense of place so vibrant and detailed the reader leaves the book convinced of the reality of everything in it, and a story so compelling it remains with me still as one of the literary highlights of last year. Yanagihara has stated that The People in the Trees took her more than a decade to write and it shows: her passionate attachment to the manuscript is visible at every juncture, and the result – a provoking, terse, brilliantly observed narrative of speculation – is entirely worthy of the time investment, both hers as writer and ours as reader.

A Little Life, on the other hand, took just eighteen months to write, and again, it shows. What we have here, it seems to me, is more like a vast, working outline for a novel, a ream or two of notes. Enthusiasm for the project blazes through, and occasionally we are caught up in the rush of that enthusiasm, but this is not the finished article. Not the superbly finished article that The People in the Trees was, at any rate. In short, it’s a decent enough first draft – decent enough to catch the interest, worth reworking definitely, but no one (unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates) can complete a 720-page behemoth of a book in just eighteen months and hope for it to be her best work.

I’m not going to go overboard in rehashing the plot here – plenty of people have done so already – but briefly what we have is the story of four friends, room-mates in college, who progress from renting scuzzy apartments in Lower Manhattan to forging conveniently meteoric success in their chosen careers, namely art, architecture, acting and law. Things toddle along for a while. The boys get richer and go to more parties. We gradually discover that two of the four (Malcolm and JB) are pretty much sidekicks, that the story (such that it is) is mostly about Willem and Jude, and Jude in particular. In spite of his success as a lawyer, and his universal belovedness among his friends, Jude has a troubled past, and injuries to both body and mind that have left him crippled. A Little Life presents the gradual uncovering of Jude’s secrets.

The whole ensemble would have been improved a millionfold by making everyone in it less offensively, less boringly rich. The easy accession to success, to wealth, to an entirely unconflicted symbiosis with the jet-setting, gourmet-fed, gorgeously housed capitalism of the highest-end American glossies robs the novel’s ongoing present of agency, tension or of anything more than a passing, disconsolate curiosity. Is this meant to be inspirational, allegorical, what?? It certainly isn’t cautionary – the text seems as at ease with its prevailing attitudes as do the characters that populate it. Everyone loves these guys. everyone knows them or wants to know them. Is this the American Way? For a tiny minority, maybe. But to put it in context for UK readers, how would you feel about a novel in which the four protagonists were a corporate lawyer who specialised in exonerating multinational corporations from allegations of environmental vandalism, an architect hell-bent on levelling large parts of the East End to make way for luxury apartment complexes, an artist who made it his life’s work to portray – uncritically – members of the economic elite, and – let’s say Jude Law? (No offence to JL but his persona as a cypher for Willem’s fits more or less exactly.)

If you were me, you’d probably want to punch everyone in it. Moreover, the whole endeavour would be doomed to instant cultural irrelevance, not to say ridicule.

It would have been so simple to make these guys ‘normal’, to introduce some genuine struggle and conflict into their lives. Not to do so seems one of the oddest authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered.

The lack of any discernible story, conflict or point is not A Little Life‘s only problem, however. For me, the manner in which it is told – endless swathes of the most colourless, tedious form of exposition, punctuated by desultory minor episodes of what passes for action – is the most telling indication of what I’ll call first draft syndrome: the author telling herself what the novel is about (fine) and then forgetting to shape, refine, and above all prune, prune, PRUNE the damn thing into the form of an actual novel. The excess of padding in A Little Life could comfortably fill several king-sized (ideal for one of Malcolm’s boutique apartments in fact) sofas. ‘This happened, then that happened, then the other happened. Then Jude remembered he had a friend who had a private plane, so he wouldn’t be late for their reunion dinner in Paris after all’. Whatever.

Some critics have commented on the novel’s atemporality, the fact that there’s precious little sense of place, no mention of politics, presidents, AIDS, 9/11, indeed anything that might have given A Little Life a greater cultural, geographical or sociological resonance, so I won’t repeat those observations here except to say amen.

I could write a whole separate essay on the portrayal of women in A Little Life (or at least I could if I’d been arsed to take proper notes as I went along). I don’t think it would be unfair to state that women have been almost entirely erased from Yanagihara’s narrative. Where they do exist, women are either saintly helpmeets (Julia, Ana, Sophie) or comical walk-on lesbians. If the male homosexual relationship is the main focus of interest (one reviewer even refers to A Little Life as ‘the great gay novel‘ – I think they’re completely wrong, I think A Little Life shoots as wide of the mark here as it does in other respects, but that discussion lies beyond the scope of this essay) that’s one thing, but it in no way explains why the novel goes in for such wholesale belittling of lesbians and lesbian relationships. ‘A certain kind of moustachioed lesbian’, ‘like a certain kind of lesbian couple’, ‘i knew it would only be a matter of time before you two ended up like a pair of old lesbians – the only thing missing is the cat’. I stress I’m quoting from memory here, but there really is a lot of stuff in precisely this vein, and I’m asking why??? I for one got roundly sick of it. Indeed the book seemed strewn with the kind of casual sexism that left me blinking in bemusement. I might not have noticed it so much, had the four central male characters been more interesting or more compellingly written. But they just weren’t.

There is some good stuff here. The scenes following the traumatic event described on p 627 (I’m avoiding spoilers here, because what happens at this point genuinely did surprise and affect me and I wouldn’t want to deny that unexpectedness to anyone else) and dealing with the nature of grief, the psychological motivations and self-controlling mechanisms behind anorexia, self-harm and suicidal depression are very well drawn indeed: unflinching, convincing and necessary. As everywhere in this novel, the potential for greatness is strikingly evident. Which makes it all the more of a pity that the block of marble has only been rough-cut, and not fully sculpted.

I do get why readers have enjoyed this novel. The experience of reading A Little Life is not unlike watching a TV miniseries. Once you get even a little bit invested in the characters, the whole thing rolls along more or less unassisted and it’s difficult to opt out. For a novel of this length, the hours you put in (I made sure I read fifty pages a day, just to make sure the book didn’t dominate my life for weeks and weeks) pass surprisingly quickly. The relationship between Willem and Jude is touching and – in places – well drawn. At the level of simply reading, even the stodgy exposition can work reassuringly, being reminiscent of the feeling you might remember from being read aloud to as a child. Readers like to follow characters through the course of their lives and travails – that’s why the Bildungsroman is a classic form and still popular. A Little Life, in its way, is a classic family saga.

Nothing wrong with any of that, and there is no denying the book is, even if only for its bizarre missteps, memorable. But there is, I feel, something wrong with the unequivocal praise that has been heaped upon this novel. It is ambitious, but it mostly fails in its ambition. It believes it has a remarkable story to tell, but for a greater proportion of its run-time it does not tell it very well, thus rendering it, ironically, unremarkable. In sum, I don’t think A Little Life is anywhere near as good as people seem to think it is, certainly it’s not as good as Yanagihara’s first novel. It does have ‘Booker book’ written all over it, though, so the bookies at least are on to a winner…

Two futures

charnock calculated lifeAnne Charnock‘s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle last year. I remember thinking that it looked like one of the most interesting books in contention, but by the time I finally got around to reading it (last weekend) I found I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about it. This turned out to be a good thing, a wonderful thing, even. I’m one of those people who takes pleasure in information-gathering, and usually when I sit down to read a novel I’ve already consumed at least half-a-dozen reviews of it. I know, broadly, what to expect, and whilst I’ve never found my enjoyment of a text to be impaired by this kind of advance preparation – if a film or a novel genuinely can be spoiled by spoilers, it probably didn’t have that much substance in the first place – it’s great to be reminded of how surprising and thrilling it can be, to go into a book completely blind.

I found the first dozen or so pages of A Calculated Life to be curiously affectless. The prose seemed rather blank and toneless, the point of view character – a young woman named Jayna, working for some kind of faceless corporation in a vaguely futuristic Manchester – rather flatly drawn. The story was oddly hypnotic, though – I think I may have previously mentioned that I always enjoy reading about work – and so I kept reading. My initial feelings of vague frustration with the text were soon replaced by admiration and increasing pleasure as the narrative became more complicated, its particular use of language entirely comprehensible, and I discovered what Charnock was really up to.

It turns out that Jayna is a construct, an artificially grown simulant, one of many thousands leased out to (read ‘owned by’) high-end businesses that make use of their superior abilities – in calculation, in business modelling, in predicting future patterns in behaviour and trade – in the race to get ahead.  Jayna has been designed to be perfectly happy with her life, the small freedoms she is allowed giving her – and the rest of her kind – just enough of a sense of independence to stop her demanding more.  Something is changing, though. Jayna is curious – more curious than perhaps she should be – about the unexpected results of some of her calculations. Her investigations lead her in a risky direction.

I’m aware that in giving this brief outline I’m making A Calculated Life sound like Bladerunner, or 1984, even. But although it shares aspects in common with these two SF masterpieces, Charnock’s novel is entirely and definitively her own. It is lovingly crafted, beautifully made in the economical, expert way a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture is made – pure lines, and perfectly suited to its intended purpose. In the spare, clean language of her novel, Charnock makes a valid and convincing attempt to imagine how a person – for of course she is a person – like Jayna would think and feel. I found Charnock’s writing about mathematics, and pattern recognition especially to be – well, the only words that come close for me, paradoxically, are moving and beautiful.

Additionally, I found Charnock’s AI community a great deal more involving and realistic-seeming than Ann Leckie’s portrayal of Breq in Ancillary Justice, the novel that eventually won the Golden Tentacle and just about everything else that year. I’m not knocking Ancillary Justice here – it’s a different book, with different aims – but I do feel that A Calculated Life has been very hard done by in comparison, and should have received a great deal more attention than it did.

Anne Charnock is clearly a gifted and sensitive author of acute intelligence, writing science fiction of a kind – quiet, intense, thoughtful – we could do with more of. I’m looking forward to her second novel, Sleeping Embers of An Ordinary Mind, with some anticipation. It’s published on December 1st, and I’ve already pre-ordered it.

The future depicted in Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story in the latest edition of Clarkesworld, ‘The Occidental Bride’, is several degrees harsher and yet displays some striking parallels to the one we find in A Calculated Life. The continent of Europe has literally been shattered, devastated by some new and terrible kind of weapon. One of the engineers of that weapon, a woman named Kerttu, has more in common with Charnock’s Jayna than we might initially imagine: sold by her mother at the age of six, she becomes the property of the state, indentured intellectual labour with no rights to her own life. At the beginning of the story, we see Kerttu being purchased again, this time by Heilui, a woman living on the other side of the world both politically and geographically. Heilui seems to hold all the cultural and material advantages, but as we discover, she too is the prisoner of political forces, and has her own deadly service to perform.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things I admire most about Sriduangkaew’s stories is their complete lack of sentimentality, their willingness to be dark in a way that picks at the soul. Although there is always a temptation to refer to her language as ‘lyrical’ – because it’s so descriptively intense, I suppose – the more I read of her the less this word seems to jibe with what’s on the page. Sriduangkaew’s visions are too fraught, too disturbing for that, and even the word ‘haunting’ does not wholly convey the discomfort that comes to sit with you as you read them. As with many of Sriduangkaew’s protagonists, both Kerttu and Heilui are brittle, driven characters who exude the sense of having only just survived their memories. The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass – bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths beneath before revealing them full force.

Heilui monitors Kerttu’s progress, trying to use the map of her wife’s virtual wanderings to create an image that would pierce the inscrutable, remote shell. A crucial piece that would make the Kerttu she is seeing cohere with the Kerttu the mass murderer who created weapons that destroyed the shattered continent, the war criminal. Often she thinks of asking, Did you understand what you were doing? At the beginning, she mustn’t have, a prodigy whose supple intelligence was exploited, whose mind was slowly conditioned to regard her work as normal.

The keenest pleasure of this story is the disquiet it engenders. The cultural commentary – on terrorism, on exotification, on the whole concept of mail order brides – is fiercely articulate and uncompromising. Sriduangkaew’s science fiction is radical in a way we don’t see often enough: it is angry – about the past, about the future that past is forcing upon us – and it is unapologetic in insisting that we should know it.

I would rate ‘The Occidental Bride’ as Sriduangkaew’s finest story since her 2014 ‘Autodidact’. It makes me hungry to see more longer-length work from her and I’m hoping it won’t be too long before we do.

The World Before Us

When Jane sits back down to her files and notes, we gather around her again, though sometimes she reads too fast for us to follow because even a quick glance at a word like button seller can call to mind a shop with a wall of oak drawers along its length; the smell of the wood polish applied every morning before the doors were opened for business. We see teacher or joiner or clock repairer and suddenly some of us can feel the grit of chalk dust, see holes bored into wood, hear a broken chime drag its heels across the hour – some version of our selves appearing in these notices, a hint of relation, though the details are so scant they don’t make room for the person we were starting to feel we were; someone who may have taken delight in snowfall or a child’s curtsey, the canter of a horse or the efficiency of stamps, or the rough ardour of a washerwoman. These files say nothing of generosity, playfulness, the wing-collared jacket one of us believes he preferred, the bowl of ripe fruit one of us remembers painting in art class, a fly sitting on the leaf of the strawberry. (The World Before Us p 195)

hunter 2The act of remembering, the action of time upon memory – twin subjects, twin preoccupations, and the central concern of my new novel The Rift, not to mention pretty much everything else I’ve ever written.

I remember when my own memory changed. Not the exact day or even the year, but at some point during my thirties I realised that my own past wasn’t available to me the way it once had been. Up until that point, my life appeared to me as a continuous passage, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of that word. I was walking along the passage, occupying the ever-shifting end-point and with only a fraction of a moment’s glimpse into the space beyond the space I currently occupied. But at any time I could, if I chose, turn around and look back down the passage, opening up a vista that encompassed an almost infinite number of moments, all equally fresh, all equally real. In the manner of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I could travel in time through the action of memory. It was an ability I took entirely for granted.

At some point, that changed. Although I was still able to travel back in time, the passage was not continuous, as it had been before. It was as if I’d turned some kind of corner, and now when I looked behind me there was a wall. There was still a door in that wall through which I could pass, but I had to think about it, make a decision, turn a key. The memories behind the door were no longer part of a continuum, but instead had transformed themselves into something else: something more distant, something behind glass, something that could definitively be labelled ‘the past’.

I found this frightening and I still do. More than any physical signs of ageing imposed by time upon my body, it is my most concrete, constant reminder of getting older.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is one of the most beautifully achieved and penetrating examinations of memory that I have read. Its protagonist, Jane, is a museum archivist who begins to research the disappearance of a young woman, N. from a Victorian mental asylum in the 1870s. This story would be fascinating enough on its own, but Hunter has provided her readers with a delicate tracery of interlinked narratives, threads of memory weaving in and out of one another, a tapestry of knowing. Jane’s interest in the asylum reaches beyond the academic and deep into the personal, for the adjoining woodland where N. went missing was also the site of the traumatic event that defined Jane’s adolescence. Jane is accompanied on her quest by a chorus of ghosts, inmates of the asylum and others closer in time, all bent on recapturing, through Jane’s enquiry, their own memories of who they were and how they came to be there.

I thought at first that I would find Hunter’s ‘ghost chorus’ annoying, an over-ambitious affectation, an imposition of whimsy upon a narrative that would have been just as compelling – and better conceived – without it. I was wrong, though. Hunter handles her ghosts beautifully. They add to, rather than detracting from, the story in hand – their memories form an inextricable part of what is happening to Jane, and one quickly grows used to and looks forward to their presence. Their whispered confidences fuse the novel to a seamless whole.

I would probably never have encountered this novel, were it not for thishunter 1 insightful review at Strange Horizons. I loved the sound of the book, and ordered a copy more or less immediately. The copy I ordered was second hand, and turned out to be an advance proof. The cover image is formed by the 1877 letter sent by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to the governor of a local lunatic asylum and Hunter’s original inspiration for the novel. I found the idea of this proof cover quite beautiful, and wish the publishers had retained it for the final version.

Hunter’s writing in the book about objects, and specific or special objects as touchstones of memory, is especially insightful and to me, driven as I am by similar obsessions, beautiful and moving. Needless to say, my own copy of the book has now become an object-memory in its own right: nearing the end of the novel, I thought I’d go outside to read the last few chapters. I placed the book on the area of concrete hardstanding near our back door while I went to make a cup of tea. While I was doing this, Chris mock-threatened one of our cats with the length of hosepipe attached to the cold water tap next to our log store. The game over, he laid the hosepipe down, and unbeknown to him, a residue of water left in the hose crept out on to the concrete. By the time I returned to my book a few moments later, the water had snaked up to it, soaking the back cover and the last thirty pages right through.

It dried out fine, and the accident was no one’s fault, but it left the book marked, the back cover slightly torn from where it came up off the concrete, the last sixth of the book permanently wrinkled in a wave pattern. I find it sad to look at this damage to what was a beautiful object, but at the same time there’s something magical and almost lucky about it – part of that time, the specific details of that afternoon, captured within a physical object for as long as that physical object itself exists.

I’m kind of glad it happened. I’m very glad I discovered the work of Aislinn Hunter, a writer of true insight and powerful vision. Her prose is quiet but it cuts deep. I loved this book.

(You can read an interview with Aislinn Hunter here. Recommended.)

Man Booker Longlist 2015

Awards again, and after days of heady anticipation at what might be on there, I found myself scanning this year’s Booker Prize longlist as it was revealed yesterday with something approaching gloom. The more I looked the more disappointed I felt, and yet I found it difficult to articulate clearly why this might be. There was no book (well, perhaps one) I could point to that I felt shouldn’t be on the list. The line-up was, as some commentators have pointed out, one of the most encouraging in terms of diversity and gender parity that we have so far seen from the Booker. So why did the longlist leave me underwhelmed?

I could of course point to the list’s very low speculative fiction quotient as a source of dissatisfaction. There is only one novel of SFF interest in evidence, and that novel, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, is one of the most disappointing I’ve read all year. Smaill is clearly a gifted and sensitive writer but as a novel The Chimes is as weak as water, a book that is completely overshadowed by its derivative second half. What with the exceptional novels of literary SF that could have been chosen instead – Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me, Sara Taylor’s The Shore to name but three – I couldn’t help asking myself which of the judges had insisted on pushing The Chimes. One who loved the use of musical terminology and who by some fluke happened never to have read a single dystopia or YA novel? Some readers will know what it costs me to say this, but I would rather have seen Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things on the Booker longlist than The Chimes. I couldn’t stand the Faber but I couldn’t mistake its ambition either. The Chimes is just bland.

[EDIT: someone has very kindly pointed me towards this fascinating review at Locus, in which Paul di Filippo (very convincingly I might add) compares Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with PKD and particularly with Ballard, which reminds me that I really should have mentioned Tom McCarthy in this discussion. Booker junkies will well remember 2010, when McCarthy’s C made the shortlist and was hailed as a great modernist gamechanger for doing so. I remember C with great affection – the prose is superb, refined and clear and pure as Caithness crystal – and looking back on that 2010 shortlist now it seems the best book on there by a marathon’s distance and obviously should have won. Which brings me to the point about Tom McCarthy and the Booker, and the reason I subconsciously sidelined him in my thinking: Satin Island is clearly the sacrificial lamb on this longlist, the single curt nod to modernism the judges felt compelled to deliver or else fall foul of the usual criticisms about the Booker being hidebound and conservative. Satin Island stands proud from the overall tone and tenor of the shortlist as a whole like a pulled stitch in an elaborate tapestry. McCarthy will not be allowed to win any more than he was in 2010. I doubt he will even be allowed to progress to the shortlist this time. Still, the prompting towards di Philippo’s review has reminded me that I need to read Satin Island – in fact I’ve just ordered it – and here’s hoping I’ve been totally wrong and unfair in prejudging the judges!]

It would be wrong to put my disappointment down to SF-related disgruntlement alone though, especially given that the Booker could hardly be described as a prize that centres its attention on speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the main reason I felt disappointed was simply because the longlist was not the longlist I would have chosen. It was the same with the Clarke earlier this year. Plenty of people loved that list. I found it stolidly centrist, a representation not of the hardscrabble edgelands of the genre but of its commercial heartland. The progressive edge of that heartland, to be sure, but still nothing you could point to (except, ironically, the Faber!) as actively adventurous. I suppose my feelings about this particular Booker longlist are somewhat similar, compounded by the fact that the Booker submissions process is now so tortuous and preferential that we cannot even be sure which novels were allowed to be in contention in the first place. I know that Clarke Award chairman Tom Hunter has sometimes agonized over publishing the Clarke Award submissions list: does anyone really gain anything from seeing this list, or does it just open another big can of worms? I assure you, Tom, the transparency surrounding the Clarke’s award process is one of its strongest attributes and should not be compromised.

My disappointment with the Booker longlist list is certainly no more valid than anyone else’s excitement. It does, however, serve as a reminder that all juried prize selections are a compromise at some level, the sum of a small number of personal proclivities and a healthy dose of mutual horse-trading. It has often occurred to me that most prize selections are probably more instructive in retrospect, offering an overview of a literary scene whose trends and peculiarities become properly visible only with distance. Within the context of its given year, the Booker longlist is always going to look pretty random.

Which is all the more reason to get as many random snapshots as we possibly can. Rather than be depressed by a prize selection, how much more interesting and productive to use it is a starting point for exploration and discussion. As ordinary readers we don’t have the resources to award writers the lucrative prize monies that the Booker, for example, is able to offer. What we can do though is share our passion for the books and writers that excite us. Which is why I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and put up my own personal preferred Booker longlist just for the fun of it, as selected from those of the eligible novels I’ve read, those I have sampled and others that I’ve heard about and can’t wait to get stuck into.

1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One from the official longlist, one I think will almost certainly make the shortlist, and one I definitely intend to read before the winner is announced. ‘I don’t think it was a book that anyone loved’, said Yanagihara in a recent interview of her first novel, The People in the Trees. Well, she’s wrong in at least one instance, because I did love that novel. I loved the form it took – fictional (auto)biographies are a favourite of mine, especially when combined with fictitious footnotes by a fictitious editor, and recounted by an unreliable narrator as superbly drawn as Yanagihara’s odious Norton Perina. For me The People in the Trees remains firmly on my favourites list for 2014. Yanagihara’s follow-up, A Little Life has had some of the most rapturous reader reviews I’ve seen in 2015 and with the excellence of Yanagihara’s writing in mind I can’t say I’m surprised. The premise doesn’t grab me nearly as much, I have to say – from where I’m sitting now, the novel seems to have a little too much of The Goldfinch about it for my liking, a baggy-monster-y, Franzen-y, conventional-narrative-y kind of a novel, the kind that all too often has me thinking:  this is great to read but what’s the point?? My curiosity has the better of me, though, and I’m going to have to read it just so I can make up my own mind. We’ve already pre-ordered it, so watch this space.

2) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Another from the official longlist, and a book that grabbed my attention from the moment I first started reading about it, when was it, around March time? This takes me back to 2013, when the two books from the Booker longlist I felt most determined to read also happened to be the two longest: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Richard House’s (utterly superb and still under-appreciated) The Kills. I emerged enriched by the experience, though, and I’m hoping and expecting I will do so again this year.

3) The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. As a reader, you can never predict with absolute certainly what books you’re going to love the most, and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border is the proof of that for me. As I become more and more enmeshed in my own weird little corner of literature, the more difficult I find it (much to my regret) to become ensnared by what might be described as a ‘straightforward’ linear narrative. Which makes it all the more magical when it does happen, and I can honestly say that I haven’t loved a book as much as I loved The Wolf Border in the way I loved The Wolf Border in quite some time. I identified strongly with the protagonist, I cared passionately about the outcome, I found the sense of place exquisite and hugely important, with Hall’s writing flawless to the point of invisibility. Hall missed out on a Baileys listing and her non-appearance on the Booker longlist is incomprehensible to me. Please read this book.

4) Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. I have a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons, which I don’t want to pre-empt too much by saying: go out and buy this stunning debut novel right now!

5) Rawblood by Catriona Ward. So excited for this, as the grammatically mangled but colloquially compelling saying goes. It’s set on Dartmoor, it has intertwined narratives, it has a haunted house vibe. The opening pages are wonderful and I can’t wait to read it.

6) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Another book that caught my attention earlier in the year. Another one from the official longlist, too, so maybe that official longlist wasn’t so bad after all…

7) Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett. I bought this on the strength of John Self’s review and the Kindle preview. I adored what I read and this may very well be next up on my TBR.

8) The Making of Zombie Wars by Alexandar Hemon. I love and admire everything Hemon writes, and his new novel features ideas for imaginary zombie movies. How could I not want this right now? Pre-ordered.

9) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m choosing Atwood for my ‘big hitter/previous shortlistee’ spot, because she’s a personal hero of mine, because this novel is full-blown SF (seriously, when are people going to stop saying that Atwood is a dabbler? Most of her output for over a decade has been science fiction) and because the word on the street is that it’s her best novel in years. Seriously excited for this.

10) The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips. An intertwining of narratives featuring Emily Bronte, the character of Heathcliff and a woman in the twentieth century struggling with issues of sanity, family and identity. I read reviews of this and loved the premise immediately. The prose is mouthwateringly good. TBR asap.

11) Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. A woman on death row in Harare writes an account of what brought her there. Petina Gappah is one hell of a writer, as evidenced by her first book, the story collection An Elegy for Easterly. This is her first novel and I can’t wait.

12) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. This novel fills my ‘devil’s advocate’ slot (or the Wil[Sel]f Slot as we call it in this house – perhaps we should start calling it the Tom slot instead…) Cohen’s novel has divided opinion pretty much equally between those who say it’s the funniest, cleverest book of the year and those who say that everyone in it is a dick and that the author must be a dick to have written it, and a pretentious dick, too. Certainly everyone in the book seems to be an absolute arsehole, but since when has that put me off reading anything? I love metafiction, and I can’t help feeling intrigued and attracted by what Cohen is doing here. In spite of myself, I want to read it. Only time will tell if I come to regret that desire.

13) The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan. Coming in on the indie ticket we have a novel from Galley Beggar, who brought us Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2013. Galley Beggar have published some remarkable books already, and I have heard such wonderful things about Trevelyan’s debut. It comes with a fantastic speculative conceit, too.

So that’s the fantasy longlist out of my system. And my on-the-spot predictions for the actual Booker shortlist? Based purely on personal hunches, I’m going with:

A Little Life


The Year of the Runaways

The Fishermen

The Illuminations

The Green Road

We’ll find out what the judges thought on September 15th.

Slow Books

The piece I’m working on at the moment is a story about climate change. It’s part of a project I’ve been asked to contribute to, and it’s particularly interesting to me as a work in progress because I’ve chosen to approach it by revisiting characters that first appeared in a much earlier story. I like this kind of challenge, not only because it gives me the opportunity to answer at least part of a question I’m frequently faced with – what the hell happened next? – but also because extending a story in this way casts a fascinating backward light over the original piece. My two-part story ‘En Saga’ was built like this, so too, in a way, were my story cycles The Silver Wind and Stardust, although each of the chapters in these sequences was written in the knowledge of others to come.

I can’t say much about my own climate change story yet – the project it’s a part of is still under wraps – but I do want to talk about another climate change project that’s caught my attention recently. The writer Nicky Singer, perhaps best known for her YA novel Feather Boy, is currently running a Kickstarter to produce and launch a new novel, Island, an adaptation of her own play for young people originally staged at the Cottesloe in 2012. Island tells the story of Cameron, a young boy who travels with his mother to an island close to the Arctic Circle and his growing awareness of the calamity being wrought there by climate change. Nicky was inspired to turn her play into a novel after receiving enquiries from people who’d seen the play and who wanted to know what had happened to Island: was there a book? Would there be another play? How could they bring the story to a new and bigger audience?

Nicky has written the novel – but as she has discussed in a recent interview, her long-term publisher has turned it down on the grounds that it’s ‘too quiet’:

“In its previous incarnation, as a play at the National Theatre, it was quite a noisy thing. It played to sell-out audiences in the Cottesloe, did a thirty-school London tour and enjoyed a raft of four-star reviews…I liked the extra space in the book. My day-job is as a novelist. I believed I made a pretty good fist of the re-write. In fact, I rather thought the last 100 pages were some of the best I’d ever written.

My long-term publisher disagreed. ‘It’s too quiet,’ they said, ‘for the current market’.”

Well, I thought this was shameful, to be honest. Not only is there a desperate need for books like Island, an audience demand for this particular book has already been demonstrated. I could write a long screed – indeed I may already have written a few – about how publishers have been falling into the trap of underestimating their audiences. But suffice it to say that I feel almost as passionately about this as I do about the urgent necessity of confronting climate change. In a case like this, where the two matters are so intrinsically linked, it seems the most appropriate thing for me to add is please support this project, if you can, either by pledging or simply by passing on the information.


The production of the finished book will be overseen by Charles Boyle of CB Editions. If you needed another reason to support Island, there’s one right there. CB Editions are magic – one of the best indie presses currently on the scene (I bought their edition of Andrzej Bursa’s stories before I even knew they existed, if you see what I mean, and more recently they’ve put out books by Agota Kristof, Will Eaves, and May-Lan Tan, whose collection Things to Make and Break made the Guardian First Book Award shortlist in 2014. Charles’s blog is also fantastic).  You can read an extract from Island at Nicky’s Kickstarter page – I have, and it’s beautiful: sure, muscular, compelling writing that draws you instantly into the story and towards the characters. I know kids would love this book, would respond to it – and perhaps the most vital part of Nicky’s project is her aim of taking Island into schools, of talking to young people directly about the issues raised and getting them to think about and discuss what’s being done to our planet and what we can do about it.

I think this is the crux of it, really. One of the most insidious things about our current predicament is how powerless we, as ordinary citizens, feel with regard to effecting change. There are things we can do, though – we can talk, write, argue, discuss, refuse to be blindfolded. It seems to me that Nicky is reaching out to do all of these things, and that we should support her.

I’d also highly recommend you read the rest of Nicky’s interview here – it’s a brilliant piece, perceptive and enlightening in so many ways.

Crime blog #8

What She Left by T. R. Richmondwhat she left.richmond

The books that annoy me most are usually those I feel most let down by. When I first heard about What She Left I couldn’t wait to read it. The novel was billed as a crime story with a difference, an account of a death and the solution to a mystery, pieced together from emails, letters, diary extracts, online forums and newspaper reports. I like found documents, I like mosaic novels, I like non-linear narratives. I was expecting to like this novel very much. In fact, the experience of reading it was like watching Broadchurch or Missing. You know that point about half way through the series when you know you’ve been duped into thinking this would be good (less pointless, more strongly characterised and better written than all the other crime dramas you’ve become unwillingly addicted to over the years) when it patently isn’t, when you wish you had the willpower to end your relationship with the programme right now but you can’t quite do it? Reading What She Left feels just like that.

The plot is pretty simple: on an icy February morning in 2012, the body of a young journalist, Alice Salmon, is found floating in a river in Southampton. Alice, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Southampton some eight years before, was by all accounts a lovely person: adored by her friends, admired by her colleagues, cherished by her family and boyfriend. Who could possibly have wanted to kill Alice? And surely her life had too much going for it for her to consider suicide? Her death must have been an accident – she was drunk, the bridge was icy, she slipped and fell… But of course there are secrets in Alice’s past, as there are in everyone’s. Enter Professor Jeremy Cooke, a TV anthropologist, lecturer at Southampton University, ex-mentor of Alice. We soon learn that Cooke was once intimately acquainted with Alice’s mother, Liz, and has more than a passing interest in the case. Newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, he sees it as his final mission to discover what really happened to Alice, to set the truth on record in the form of a written account. The book he eventually publishes, compiled from the various documents Cooke has gathered together and its conclusions a secret until now, is ostensibly the book that you are holding in your hands.

Which would all be great, if only, well, so many things. If only Richmond had taken more care in the creation of his various found documents, for a start. As it is, we have letters and diary entries that read pretty much like standard narrative prose, complete with conventionally formatted dialogue and extended flashbacks. Of course it would be OK for the writer to take some liberties here, it would be impossible not to, but no one writes letters like this, it just doesn’t happen. It’s as if Richmond enjoyed the idea of constructing an epistolary novel, then found out how difficult it would be to convey a whole story in that way and decided that no one would notice if he cheated. The blog entries and emails are, if anything, worse. The blog posts are nothing like the kind of blog posts anyone would actually publish. Richmond tries to get around this problem by having the point of view character (in this case Alice’s best friend Megan) make self deprecating remarks along the lines of ‘only six people read this blog anyway, so who cares what I write here?’ which do nothing to mitigate the unfitness of said entries for stated purpose. Indeed, Richmond’s conception of ‘internet language’ is a problem generally. The novel contains numerous self conscious instances of young people making jokes about the cluelessness of old people on the internet, couched in language that already sounds like old people on the internet. Does anyone use the term ‘bestie’ except ironically? Did they ever? When employed by those writers with a decent ear for it, the language of the internet (like any other spoken or written language variant) can take on the characteristics of poetry. In What She Left it is tepid at best and more often a matter for squirming embarrassment. This book was already dated before the publisher hit ‘print’.

But there are other problems, too. If you’re writing a thriller, you need either an amazing plot or compelling characters. Ideally you’ll have both, but all writers have their different strengths and if you skew more naturally towards one of these key ingredients that need not matter. If you write your favoured key ingredient well enough, your reader may well not notice that the other is lacking. But they are certainly going to notice if you people your completely banal standard-issue yuppie thriller plot with completely banal standard-issue yuppies. Professor Cooke is your typical kind of lecherous middle-aged lecturer, still ogling his students, still looking back nostalgically to the days when his ogling actually got him somewhere, still regretting that he was never as brilliant as his (off-page) brilliant best friend. He reminisces about roaring around the Hampshire lanes in his TR7. (Who ever heard of a university lecturer driving a TR7? A beat-up Fiat Uno was more par for the course when I was at uni.)  He’s a dick, in other words, but he doesn’t even have the consideration to be a dick in an interesting way. His narrative is egregious, self-serving, and above all dull. The character of Alice fares no better in Richmond’s hands. She too is dull, and Richmond gives us no reason to care about her or be interested in her, save for the fact that she is dead. Her narrative voice veers excitably all over the dial from too-young to too-old, she’s meant to be into hard-line vigilante crime journalism but her portions of the narrative – the unconvincing diary entries, mostly – give us no sense of this other than her feeling sorry for old ladies on the tube or whatever. Her much-vaunted interest in Sylvia Plath is a clichéd not to say lazy touch, put there for the sole purpose of advancing the plot (in a really corny way – but you’ll get to that).

It should also be noted that the novel is sexist in a dozen unthinking, low-level, predictably depressing ways. Alice is there to be ogled and stalked, Megan is there to be treacherous and crazy, Liz is there to be alcoholic and unbalanced. Professor Cock, sorry Cooke is there to analyse these scintillating facts for us, to patronise literally every single woman who walks into the narrative and to normalise the ogling and objectification. I don’t automatically go around checking whether works of fiction pass the Bechdel test, but does this one? No, of course it doesn’t.

Do I even need to add that the eventual denouement is preposterous?

This novel made me want to weep for the opportunities lost. It doesn’t have to be this way, I wanted to say. Take the time to make this book how you imagined it would be, I wanted to say. I suppose what this all boils down to is that characters in thrillers are people too, and the thriller writer should take the trouble to reveal them as such. To give them interests and passions and character traits rather than spurious motives and annoying quirks. To portray them in language that reveals a hinterland and not just a surface. Give them something to say, in other words. It gives me no pleasure to state this, but this book had nothing to say.

dirty weekend.zahaviFor a crime novel with plenty to say and some to spare, might I suggest you turn instead to Dirty Weekend, by Helen Zahavi. This novel, first published in 1992, caused something of a stir in its day. The Observer called it ‘more offensive than pornography’. Salman Rushdie, writing for the Independent on Sunday, called Dirty Weekend a ‘hideous, kinky little revenge-novel of violence done to men’. Unfortunately the book came out just before the days of universal internet archiving, and so I haven’t been able to source Rushdie’s review in its entirety. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to have pulled it apart more. As it is, I feel confident in saying that his words reveal far more about Rushdie and his attitudes than about Helen Zahavi’s barnstorming debut.

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

Thus the novel’s opening lines encapsulate the entirety of what is to come. To put it simply, Bella goes on a killing spree. Her targets are not random. We as readers are made a party to everything that happens. I should warn you that this book is violent. It’s right out there. What it is not is gratuitous, pointless, exploitative, hideous or kinky. It is dark, powerful, angry, brutal, piercingly intelligent and brilliant. Most of all, there is the language. Helen Zahavi writes with such thrilling assurance it leaves you breathless. Being trapped inside Dirty Weekend is like being on a roller coaster – you scream as you laugh, laugh as you scream. The rhythmic potency of Zahavi’s language – like rap, like hip-hop – had me wanting to read whole pages aloud. Her dialogue is exceptional, and hilarious. Kathy Acker puts it best:

Above all Dirty Weekend is a novel composed of language so gorgeous, so precise and witty, that I found myself laughing and thought, I should be crying instead.  Nothing pleases me more than to be surprised into consciousness.

Dirty Weekend made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. It also had me wanting to hide my face from what was going on on the page. A novel like this does not come along every day. What it says about the world we live in needs to be read. What it does in terms of language and structure needs to be shouted about. It also has a brilliant sense of place – this is Brighton after lights out, make no mistake. It’s a tough book but absolutely worth your time. I would also recommend you read Helen Zahavi’s essay, written for The Guardian, on answering the critics.


Ghost in the machine?

“The Familiar is a sprawling mess of a book, and it’s hard to find anything positive to say about it besides that it’s printed beautifully,” says Michael Schaub in his review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s long-awaited new novel for The Guardian. “But a novel that appeals chiefly to people who like to look at books rather than read them isn’t a meaningful contribution to the world of literature, and it’s hard to imagine why Danielewski would release a book so impenetrable and willfully obtuse.

I’ve not read The Familiar – I don’t even own a copy (yet) – but reading Schaub’s highly entertaining and voluble review yesterday evening reminded me of what I did already own: a copy of Danielewski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, purchased on impulse on my first visit to the new Foyles last year and as yet unread. It’s a fat little book – 284 pages in all – but there aren’t many words on each page (or even on all of the pages) and Mr Schaub’s review made me feel like sampling some Danielewski there and then. (Negative reviews are like that sometimes, especially when they’re as well constructed as Schaub’s and present a contentious argument – they egg me on.)

If you glance at the online reader reviews you’ll see that The Fifty Year Sword divides opinion (as it divides everything else, apparently) which is pretty much par for the course with Danielewski. Some have loved the book, revelling in Danielewski’s obsession with innovative formats (as well as the ‘stitched’ illustrations, The Fifty Year Sword utilizes a system of differently coloured quotation marks to differentiate between the – allegedly – five distinct narrators of this single story) and his everywhere-evident love of the book-as-object. Others have thrown it aside in disgust, dismissing it as a gimmick and a con, a mostly uninteresting short story tortuously stretched to ten times its natural length.

It took me a little under half an hour to read The Fifty Year Sword. Here are the notes I made (I’ve taken to doing that this year) immediately after finishing it:

I know I shouldn’t, but I loved this. So much depends on the book-as-object, that is clear, but this is also a perfect and gorgeous piece of poetry as it stands. A book from a true original. Wonderful story!

Thinking about the book again this morning – well, there you go, I’m still thinking about it. Pared back to its basics as a horror story, The Fifty Year Sword is short and simple and packs a fair punch: a woman unwillingly attends a Hallowe’en party where, to her horror, someone from her past is also present, someone she very much does not want to see. She is tempted to leave right away, but stays on out of politeness, and so as not to disappoint the children, five orphans under the care of the very old and, one supposes, very rich host. A story teller arrives, ostensibly a Hallowe’en entertainment for the children. Ancient-Mariner-like, the bard recounts his tale. The adults are sceptical, the children enthralled. A horrific, and touching, and persuasive denouement ensues.

‘Here,’ he blinked quickly at a blade at least four feet long tapering to a blunt tip. ‘This one took me three winters to make. It kills the taste of salt. The one next to it kills the smell of Wild Lupine, Blackberry Lily and lush Evening Primrose. There’ – turning to a fat blade suspended in the buzzing grey – ‘that one kills the colour green.’ 

Shorn of the unusual formatting and intricate illustrations, this would still be a great little story, a tale with a classic feel, rather like ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ or something similar.  But it wouldn’t particularly stand out. What makes The Fifty Year Sword into something special is Danielewski’s transformation of the text into an art installation. And like most conceptual art, its success or failure depends on how far the reader – the viewer – is prepared to enter into a personal relationship with it. This is how all art functions, of course – a work that leaves you unmoved (whether to joy or to anger or to perplexity is of lesser importance) has fallen short. But in the case of Danielewski, it is not just his words you must fall in love with, but the way he has chosen to arrange them. Those coloured quotation marks – do they tempt you, even slightly, to go back through the text and read each strand of narrative in isolation, as the author has hinted you should? I’m tempted, but I haven’t done it yet – if I were writing a paper on Danielewski I suppose I’d have to. For the moment – and because the narrative works perfectly well without having to dissect it in this way – I’m content to feel intrigued that the option is there.

It should perhaps be noted at this point that The Fifty Year Sword the physical book is a beautiful artefact. It is gorgeous to hold, to weigh in your hand. The paper is of a refined and lovely quality. The illustrations – all taken from actual embroideries designed by Danielewski and stitched by Regine Gonzalez, Claire Kohne and Michele Reverte of Atelier Z – are stunning to behold. The book even has a red stitching in the binding, glimpsed periodically as you turn the pages. This book is a privilege to own, and I don’t know precisely how I feel about that. My own tendency is to believe that text should stand without adornment, that a book could and should make as much of an impression as a plainly bound ARC as it does in its sleekly jacketed finished state. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that The Fifty Year Sword the book does something to you. It reminds you of what a ‘book’ actually is, metaphorically, symbolically. It reminds you of the unique magic of turning pages. It reminds me, in particular, of how I felt when I was eight years old, turning the pages of a beautifully illustrated pop-up book of The Arabian Nights my gran used to own. Of how the book was a treasure chest, of how the stories inside were more than just the text, they were the text plus my own questions and wondering about it, the acceleration of my heartbeat when I came to the fold-out illustration of the elephant and the tiger.

If The Fifty Year Sword the book allows me to feel those things again, can that be a bad thing? Absolutely not.

I picked up Danielewski’s House of Leaves (in the old Oxford Circus branch of Borders, if you want to know) completely by chance shortly after it was published, not because I was aware of the hype surrounding it – I wasn’t online much in those days and had literally no idea the book even existed – but because it looked to me like a big fat horror novel of the kind I might enjoy and because the cover quote from Brett Easton Ellis lured me in. Since then, I have made three separate attempts to read it. each time grinding to a halt about half way through, not because I’m not enjoying it (I love what I’ve read), but because I find the book so uncomfortable to read. Not psychologically uncomfortable, but physically. The sheer heft of the volume, combined with pages and pages of text that’s too small for me to read without magnification, acres of Courier New and other fonts I find difficult, make House of Leaves something of a visual assault course. I am committed to completing it, though – next time I set out on this journey I am determined to see it through to the end. Not just because I’m stubborn, but because the imaginative landscape of this novel – lost letters, embedded texts, faded polaroid photographs, Johnny Truant, the Navidson Record, Zampano and his insane footnotes – has remained in my mind, important to me even in this, its incomplete state, a book I wish I’d thought of and dared to compile and that I feel glad exists.

There’s this thing with the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Some people look at the smears and splashes and fountains of raw colour and say: that’s just paint flung at a wall. A child could do that.  They say the same of late Picasso also and it just isn’t true. To create works such as these, which appear to have been flung together in moments, Pollock and Picasso (and Joan Mitchell and wonderful Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, who is a much better painter than her husband Jackson Pollock, in my view) had first to develop a relationship with paint, with light, with composition, that was so flexible, so felt, so much an embedded part of them that it allowed them to throw all their shit at the wall (that’s paint I’m talking about here, not literal excrement, although I’m sure some artists have conducted experiments in that direction) and make something new.

Writing demands exactitude, intent, perhaps more so than painting even. And yet so much of writing is feeling, in spite of that. Danielewski has legions of fans, readers prepared to follow him anywhere, who expend pages of thought and deductive effort trying to untangle what it is he really meant by such-and-such, what his novels stand for. He has, I would think, an equal number of anti-fans, perhaps more, people who dismiss him as an unbearable pseud and his books as so much MFA bullshit.

I feel that Danielewski has a relationship with words – with text – that lifts him beyond that. When I read his sentences I get a charge from them, the same charge I get from poetry, the sense that this writer has personally selected this or that word for a reason, that he has placed it next to another, equally specific word for a reason. That I might not immediately be able to discern that reason, or that the reason I imagine for myself is not the same reason as the artist’s, is of lesser importance.

Danielewski has his imitators, of course, and if many of the works that aspire to ‘be’ House of Leaves fall short of that ambition, it is because they are so busy in trying to imitate its surface textures that they entirely fail to grasp the most essential thing: the centrality of the author’s relationship with words. The JJ Abrams/Doug Dorst construct, ‘S’, was just that – a construct, a bunch of surface, Lost in book form. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes was just plain annoying (can’t be bothered to write anything new this year? Why not cut up one of Bruno Schulz’s books instead?) Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel I had high hopes for, turned out to be all surface also, a poor copy of Danielewski’s tropes without any of his genuine weirdness or imaginative reach. Night Film does the imaginative equivalent of leading you down the rabbit hole into a shopping precinct. Dressed up in post-po-mo clothes, the actual story in Night Film is as banal and retrodden as any Monday night ITV crime drama.  Night Film angered me deeply, not so much because I felt I’d been conned as because the novel broke my heart in not living up to its potential. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Tests on the other hand I loved very much. It also has the advantage of being a novel you can read without recourse to a magnifying glass. Hall loses his nerve a bit towards the end though, doesn’t he? Putting it bluntly, Raw Shark could have done with being weirder.

I love what Danielewski does, because it is clear to me that he loves words. The weight and heft of them, the way they look on paper, the resonances they set up with the objects and feelings they represent, the harsh intimacy of their relationship with memory. The thing is, I think he means it, which makes his work, and what it’s doing, interesting to me. Am I planning to read The Familiar? I haven’t decided – there’s twenty-seven volumes of the thing, for goodness’ sake. But I do know I’m glad it’s out there. When Schaub quotes from The Familiar in his review he seeks to mock it as being sub-Joycean, rip-off Joyce, in fact:

“How to get at the whole pluvial thing, another Anwar beaut, which Xanther remembered, pluvial, because it was like this … rainstorm going Plooey! to a town, a ville, a … Plooooooeyville!”

I’m sorry, Mr Schaub, but I kind of like it. I like the idea of a rainstorm going Plooey! to a town. It’s something I can feel, and hear. It’s the sound of a downpour, and a character’s feelings about a downpour, expressed in words I’ve not seen used before, and I like that a lot. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, Danielewski said the following:

It’s easy for any mode of writing to calcify into received tradition. When we come across something that works, we repeat it, and ultimately institutionalize it—even though it might come at the expense of other things that might be witnessed or participated in. But one of the joys of literature is that we can always push back against established ways of speaking and seeing—and nothing has to be blown up. No one has to be dispensed with. Huge tracts of land don’t have to be obliterated. By means of these fragile panes of paper, or lighted technological tablets, we start to mingle with other possibilities.

I like that, too. You can read the rest of this very interesting interview here.

Ruth Rendell 1930 – 2015

I was first introduced to Ruth Rendell’s work in 1985 by Dr Lindsey Hughes, later to become Professor of Russian History at SSEES, then head of the soon-to-be defunct Russian department at the University of Reading. Lindsey was a great woman, a brilliant scholar, and a lasting inspiration. She died of cancer in 2007 and as I have just discovered I still find it difficult to talk or write about her without becoming upset at the ridiculously early age of her passing away. Lindsey first told me about Rendell in the front living room of her house in Donnington Road, the unofficial hub of Reading’s small but vibrant Russianist community and the site of many a late-night election debate (over vodka, of course) or folk singing session. “You have to read her,” she said to me of Rendell. “Her books are completely addictive.” She was certainly right about that, as she was about many things. I remember a couple of years afterwards, thanking Lindsey for her recommendation and enthusing over The Bridesmaid, Rendell’s then most recent novel and for me at least a continuing favourite. I must have listened to the 1995 Radio 4 adaptation a dozen times and more. I enjoyed Claude Chabrol’s 2004 film of the same book, but for me it lacked an essential something, that quality of eccentricity that made Rendell’s work such a vital and permanent cornerstone of the English crime canon.

I loved Rendell because I found her unputdownable but also enduring. Her keen literary sensibility, combined with her clear and obvious passion for telling stories, made many of her books classics even as they appeared.  I’ve raced through many Rendells two pages at a time on first reading in a fever of longing to know what happens, only to savour the novel at a more leisurely pace on a second or even third reading, discovering new details and – and just remind yourself at this point how rare this is with crime thrillers – a pleasure that is absolutely equal with that first enthralled encounter with the plot.

Among my favourites of Rendell’s work would have to be the Barbara Vine novels. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer”, Rendell said of her own talent. Like PD James, I would have to disagree. In the superb Asta’s Book (1993), No Night is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995) Rendell did things with character, psychology and sense of place that make many contemporaneous so-called literary novels appear pallid and insubstantial by comparison. Her underappreciated 1987 novella Heartstones is a classic of the form. Her short stories are masterclasses of concision and suspense. I hope Rendell knew that her work will still be being read and enjoyed a hundred years from now, and counting.

Her legacy is evident equally in the inspiration she offered to other artists. I find it especially interesting that the most eloquent and startling film adaptations of Rendell’s work have come not from British but from European directors. I think Chabrol’s 1995 film La Ceremonie, an unnerving and visually stunning adaptation of A Judgement in Stone, is even better than his adaptation of The Bridesmaid. Almodovar’s 1997 movie Live Flesh is as idiosyncratic and watchable and brilliant as anything he’s done. Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001), a free adaptation of Rendell’s 1984 novel The Tree of Hands, is so good it’s a crime (ha!) that it’s not better known.  It’s strange that thus far British directors haven’t responded to Rendell’s oeuvre with anything approaching the same levels of originality and depth. The small-screen adaptations of the Wexford novels, whilst deservedly popular, do not offer anything beyond the usual run-of-the-mill TV entertainment, and I can only hope that in time, one of our many talented British film makers – Andrea Arnold or Ben Wheatley, for example, I could see doing great things – will take a look at the treasure trove of material Rendell has laid in store for them and make some magic of their own.

Whatever happens though, we have her books. Thank you, Ruth Rendell, for the perennial thrill we find in discovering and then rereading them.

Clarke Award 2015 – what’s in a shortlist?

Having now read all six novels on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, and with just two weeks to go before the award ceremony itself, I thought I’d try and bring some order to my thoughts on the books in contention. What’s interested me most about this year’s shortlist is the almost overwhelmingly positive reception it has received. People like this shortlist – I don’t think I’ve seen a single dissenting opinion or online rant (yet – it could be that people have been too preoccupied with Puppygate), which must be a first in itself. So what is it about this list that sets it apart?

I think the word that sprang to mind first for me as an adjective to describe this list was cohesive. In a way that few of the more recent shortlists have done, the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist seems to present a unified vision, a statement of intent: here is a snapshot of science fiction in 2015, make of it what you will. It also has an air of balance about it. Gender parity, for a start, also an interesting mix of novels from both genre and mainstream literary publishers. (Niall Harrison has more to say about this in his characteristically excellent and fair-minded write-up at Strange Horizons.) There is a sense that books on this list really could reach across the genre/mainstream divide and win new readers for science fiction. Several of the titles – The Girl with all the Gifts and Station Eleven in particular – have already enjoyed considerable commercial success.

So this list is popular, balanced, cohesive, appealing and commercial. It showcases a science fiction that is inclusive and gregarious, a literature that is lively and engaged. What could possibly be wrong? Well, nothing, and I’m not going to be the Jeremiah who steps forward to proclaim this a baaaad shortlist (oh Jeremiah, where are you when I need you?) But even as the six books were unveiled, I couldn’t help feeling that the Clarke Award shortlist 2015 could just as easily be defined by the books that don’t appear on it as by those that do. 2014 was – and I think we’re all agreed on this – an exceptional year for science fiction. The judges could easily have picked four or five completely different and equally acceptable shortlists from the books on offer. I do find I have to ask myself: why this one?

For me, this is a shortlist of two halves. On the one hand we have Europe in Autumn, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and Station Eleven. I like and admire all three of these books, for various reasons, and I think any of them could make a worthy winner. On the other hand we have The Girl with all the Gifts, Memory of Water, and The Book of Strange New Things, all books I dislike, somewhat vehemently, for equally differing reasons. But once again it’s interesting to note how little distance, in terms of tone, ambition and execution, there is between them really.

girl.careyI know a lot of readers have loved M. R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts, and I can understand why. This is a zombie story with a difference – a zombie point of view, in fact – and unlike some authors of the slash ’em and burn ’em school, Carey has taken care not only to provide us with a story that is rooted in character but that also comes complete with a convincing scientific rationale for his zombie apocalypse. I get that, but I hated it anyway. Not only did the semi-intriguing opening act rapidly give way to your typical small-band-of-survivors-make-their-way-through-the-zombie-infested-wastes-exploring-their-cliched-and-ultimately-irrelevant-backstories-as-they-go kind of book (and why did the junkers swamp the army base with zombies in the first place? Because the plot needed them to, that’s why), but I later discovered that the part of the book I admired most – the carefully detailed scientific explanation behind the zombie plague – had actually been explored before, via a multi-million-selling computer game. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the sensitivity of the writing in The Girl with all the Gifts, but although I found it perfectly serviceable for the most part, the too-frequent intrusion of embarrassingly clunky and overworked metaphors really wasn’t a plus, to say the least. The characters, with the possible exception of Melanie herself, are blandly plot-bound. The Girl with all the Gifts is a highly readable, skilfully executed piece of commercial genre fiction – just the thing for a long train ride, and that ending is unexpected.  But given what the judges had to choose from, I honestly have no idea how or indeed why it ended up on the shortlist for an award charged with finding the best SF novel of the year.

I reviewed Memory of Water for Arc magazine, so there’s no need for me to memory.itarantago over old ground by explaining why this novel didn’t work for me. Again, other readers have loved it – for an opposite view to my own, please do seek out Katherine Farmar’s review at Strange Horizons – and Itaranta is clearly a thoughtful and painstaking writer with her heart in the right place. I am genuinely interested to see what she does next – but for me, Memory of Water still only makes sense for me as YA, the kind of book I know I would have enjoyed as a younger reader but that feels tentative, unformed and insipid to me now, and with no clear direction.

bosnt.faberThe Michel Faber. Well, I think I voiced my feelings about that one clearly enough in my review at Strange Horizons! Safe to say I wasn’t keen. The thing is and for all my personal dislike of it, I’m finding myself respecting the judges’ choice of this book more, because for all its faults and failings (of which there are many) The Book of Strange New Things is so clearly an ambitious attempt to do something (though I’m still not clear what) by a writer I’ve loved in the past and hope to see a lot more of in the future (Faber’s moratorium on novels for the time being does not, we would hope, extend to short fiction). You never know what you’re going to get with Faber, which is part of the joy of him. He keeps pushing himself, which is what all writers should do. And I’m intrigued and provoked by the fact that the judges took this (impossible white elephant of a) book to their hearts and thence to the shortlist.

Like The Girl with all the Gifts, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August presents us harry.northwith a skilfully written, commercially successful slice of pure genre. But oh, did I prefer Harry August.  This novel is narrated entirely from the eponymous Harry’s point of view, so whether or not you’re going to like it will depend at least in part on how well you get on with him. I loved Harry’s knowing style, his death-black humour, his ironical wit. I also loved the way the book extrapolates the grandfather paradox to its logical conclusion, the expertly woven plot threads and time streams, the novel’s overall cohesion. As I was reading, I kept thinking (not without some sorrow) that Harry August is exactly what Doctor Who could and should be like, if only the people in charge of that particular juggernaut had the balls to commission and produce some decent science fiction stories instead of the timey-handwavy claptrap they continue to foist upon us. Harry August is smart, well-made, and – in spite of the slew of ‘repeated lives’ novels we’ve been seeing recently – original. If i have a criticism, it is that the book drags in the third quarter. Overall it is about a hundred pages too long. Some judicious cutting of repeated information would have improved the pace of the story no end.

autumn.hutchinsonWith its wit, irony and black humour, Europe in Autumn shares many positive traits in common with Harry August, and in overall tone and general smartness of attitude, these two novels reminded me of each other quite a lot. I loved Rudi’s glum stoicism as I loved Harry’s arch ironies. I similarly enjoyed the wonderfully evoked post-Soviet ambience and the central conceit – parallel Europes this time, and with a secret map to boot. If Europe in Autumn has the edge over Harry August for me it’s because it’s just a little rougher around the edges, a little less slick, a little less calculated. I actively enjoyed the way the novel wanders, in seemingly unconnected segments, over the continent. In contrast with some readers, I had no problem with the lateness of the reveal. There was plenty to keep me happy along the way, and the central premise, when it finally becomes clear, is well worth waiting for.  This is British science fiction of a kind – cerebral, funny, eccentric and vaguely glum – we need more of. I like this book. A lot.

Of all the novels on this year’s Clarke shortlist, Station Eleven is, for me, the station eleven.mandelmost complete and satisfying as a work of literature. The story as such is pretty conventional in terms of its science fiction: superflu pandemic escapes from a medical laboratory somewhere in Europe, 99% of the world’s population dies, the survivors struggle to make a new world amongst the ruins. So far, so yawn-inducing. (In fact when I describe it like that, I almost begin to hate it myself.) Where Station Eleven finds its strength though is in the depiction of the inner lives and minor struggles of the central cast of characters in the years before the final catastrophe. The characterisation, the interweaving web of people and circumstance, is so finely, so expertly wrought that it arguably makes Station Eleven, of all the books on this shortlist, the novel that would most reward a rereading.  It’s a beautiful book, and largely deserving of the critical attention it has received. If there’s a but, in terms of its Clarke nomination at least, it has to be centred around the business of its science fiction. Even as someone who rates this novel, I am bound to admit there’s nothing particularly new here. For a more robust discussion of the pro and contra of Station Eleven, you should check out the heartfelt disagreement between Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond at The Writer and the Critic. Great listening.

So that’s the shortlist we’ve got. But what of the shortlist we could have had? For my money, the most incomprehensible omission from this and from other awards shortlists this year has been Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even leaving aside the business of whether the Southern Reach trilogy could or should have been considered as a single work (and I for one believe that VanderMeer’s awards chances have been compromised by confusion over this very point), Annihilation is, by itself, one of the most significant SFF novels of 2014 and the idea that The Girl with all the Gifts, say, could have been prioritised over it provokes, in me at least, a moment of genuine ‘whaaafuuu??’

And what of Monica Byrne? Even if I felt a little disappointed that the masterful worldbuilding and original science fictional concepts that so beautifully characterise the ambience of The Girl in the Road were not foregrounded a little more in the novel’s plot development, there isn’t a smidgen of doubt in my mind that Byrne’s debut is an exceptional work of literature. Even where there are vague conceptual similarities – both books present visions of a near future – The Girl in the Road‘s use of language, breadth and depth of vision, daringness in terms of ideas, its sense of direction and overall cohesiveness all set it on a different plane entirely when set alongside Memory of Water, say. Another ‘whaaafuuu???’ moment for me, then, not to mention the sense of a missed opportunity: just imagine, for a moment, a shortlist that swapped Carey and Itaranta for VanderMeer and Byrne.

Personally I’d go one further and swap an old hand for a new kid – Michel Faber for Hanya Yanagihara, if we want to name names (and yes, of course we do). If I had to sum up The Book of Strange New Things in a single phrase, I would describe it as a wonderful idea that went woefully awry. The People in the Trees, on the other hand, is a debut so strong it’s difficult to believe that it is a debut. The science fictional conceit – a tribe of people who have inadvertently discovered the secret of eternal life – runs like a silver thread through this novel, which foregrounds subjects key to contemporary near-future science fiction such as aggressive colonisation, environmental degradation and the exploitation of indigenous societies to meet Western needs. Yanagihara’s narrator is one of the most loathsome and compelling voices I have encountered in literature recently, brilliantly realised, and the somewhat Nabokovian introduction and footnotes by a ‘frame narrator’ were just the icing on the cake for me. In sum, the inclusion of Yanagihara would have made for an edgier, more propulsive feel to the shortlist that would have been most welcome.

In fact, if I were to define what it is, precisely, that feels absent from this year’s Clarke shortlist it would be that sense of edginess, of risk. Taken as a whole, the six books we have make up a solid group that no one, least of all the judges, should feel ashamed of. But that’s the word, isn’t it? Solid. Am I alone in feeling I’m missing the raw edges of Simon Ings’s Wolves, the wild speculation of Adam Roberts’s Bete, the uneasy post-colonial meditations of Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, the antic anger of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, the linguistic panache of Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, the manic experimentalism of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon? Aside from the minor narrative discontinuities of Europe in Autumn and the alternation between present day and flashback sequences in Station Eleven, we have nothing on the shortlist-as-is that so much as hints at formal experiment, or challenges us in terms of language, or discomfits our sense of what science fiction might be for.

It all feels a bit safe to me, in terms of both audience expectations and market demands. And the last thing science fiction needs is to be safe. It should be radical and it should be provocative. I think we’ve missed a trick here, and that is a shame.

My vote for May 6th, for what it’s worth, goes to Europe in Autumn, easily the most subversive book on the list and all the more rewarding for those tricky sharp bits.