Category Archives: books

The Wolf Border

sarah hall the wolf borderSarah Hall has been on science fiction’s radar ever since 2008, when her third novel The Carhullan Army, a feminist re-imagining of the near-future dystopia, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Those hoping for a similarly explicit exploration of speculative themes in Hall’s new novel The Wolf Border may find themselves disappointed. Yes, the book is set in an alternate near-future, but the differences between this world and our own – or at least those differences Hall chooses to show us – appear undramatic: the Scottish referendum results in a ‘yes’ vote, pound notes still exist. Such divergences aside, the world as we know it today continues unchanged.

Hall’s process is more subtle than that, however. The stories in her recent collection The Beautiful Indifference could fairly be classified as ‘realistic’ – as mainstream literary fiction, in other words. And yet. There is a sense of something other there, too, the intercession of the numinous, the speculative, the raw nerve endings of the horrific (I would count her story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, which contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, as one of the greatest horror stories I have read in recent years).  It is to this realm of the speculative – mysterious, unstated, instinctive – that The Wolf Border belongs. As a writer, Hall seems to be growing stronger with each book she publishes. The Wolf Border is unsensationally sensational.

The novel tells the story of Rachel Caine, a woman in her early forties who has devoted her life to the study and conservation of wolves in the wild. She has spent the past ten years in Idaho, tracking the migrations of the native wolves to and from the Canadian forests. Being in America suits Rachel just fine, not only because of her work on the reservation but because her native Cumbria has become a place of regret, family disagreement and troubling echoes from the past. A new job offer, plus a sudden and dramatic change in Rachel’s circumstance brings her home at last. The novel charts Rachel’s personal journey towards a new beginning as naturally as it charts the passage of the seasons. There is drama and there is conflict, there are hidden secrets and reawakened griefs, there is heart-stopping joy. All these things feel real, as the weather of Cumbria feels real and the plight of the wolves feels real. The plot reveals itself as the subset of character, rather than (as so tediously often) the other way around. There is no sense here of artificially upping the ante for the sake of ‘narrative drive’ or ‘jeopardy’ or some other, similarly treacherous commercial convention.

Instead, there are moments of true wonder, and what The Wolf Border reveals most tellingly is the magic that exists in the world, in our own private dialogue with existence, in our relationship with the landscapes that mark us, in the necessity of working out who we are and what we are for. I’m being deliberately unspecific about this novel, because I loved it so much. The most helpful thing I feel I can say about it is that I cannot remember the last time I cared so passionately, so personally, about a story’s outcome. The Wolf Border is the perfect fusion between fiction and reality, between the speculative and the mimetic. Hall brings insight to the commonplace, illuminating and ambushing the real with the revelatory spotlight of hyper-reality. It is such insistent modes of being and seeing that, for me, help to define the core of what speculative fiction is mostly about.

The horror? Which horror?

We had friends to stay a weekend or two back. Most of our conversation, unsurprisingly, revolved around books. During the course of our discussions, one of our friends mentioned that she hadn’t read any horror fiction in quite a while and felt like getting back into it. “I’m not sure where to start, though,” she said. “What would you recommend?”

I relished her question, not just because it offered me the opportunity to make a list (I’m always up for that) but because when considered side-by-side with science fiction, horror is undoubtedly the Cinderella genre. A lot of the discussions and arguments I take part in on the subject of horror tend to centre around the question ‘is it even worth reading?’ Even if they don’t care for science fiction particularly, most people are able to gain a sense of why others might enjoy it and find it relevant – it speculates about the future, it deals with pressing social or environmental concerns, it explores the possibilities of the human mind, man and machine, computers, life on other planets. Horror though, what’s that about? Monsters, and murderers, people getting themselves killed in disgusting ways.

That’s rubbish, of course, as much of a tired and inaccurate shorthand as the one about science fiction being about squids in space (and no, I’m not having a go at Margaret Atwood here. Most everything Atwood’s written in the past decade has been SF, her next novel is SF, she’s one of the most important practitioners of SF currently writing – who gives a stuff if she got a bit muddled over our esoteric terminology?) Horror literature goes back as far as science fiction, possibly further (and if you’re going by the Gernsback dictum, definitely further). It’s not just a matter of who got there first, though. These two strands of literature are different from one another in fundamental ways. There’s a stimulating and persuasive argument around this to be found in John Clute’s mini-masterpiece The Darkening Garden, the ‘short lexicon of horror’ now happily available again as part of Clute’s most recent collection of essays, Stay. Even if you don’t agree with his thesis, it’s a fascinating read, one that will get you thinking and questioning yourself about exactly what horror literature is, and what it means to you.

For myself, I would argue that horror literature is, above all, the most deeply and strikingly personal of the genres. Horror is very revealing, not just of the writer, but of the reader, too. Not just regarding questions of what you might be afraid of, but what aspects of yourself might be frightening, or hidden. Horror literature, as works by H. P. Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell powerfully demonstrate, is not revealed through a series of brutal actions, but through imagery, allusion, psychology, a slanted and peculiar vision, a personal worldview.  There’s nothing like reading or writing horror for putting you in the zone with yourself.

The death knell for horror literature is sounded roughly once every decade. But although the fashion for vampires or zombies (bless ‘em) may come and go, horror literature lurks, stalwartly (can you lurk stalwartly? I’m going to go with a yes) on and always will. So long as a writer can sit alone in a room and then, for no reason at all, start worrying about what might be on the other side of the door, it’s here to stay.

Which still leaves us with the question of where to start with reading it. I was going to go with a top ten books, then realised how impossible that would be – way too restrictive – and so I’m going with ten favourite writers instead. There may yet be overspill. And no need to mention that this list is highly personal. I’ve tended to steer away from classic weird – Poe, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, even my beloved Aickman – because there’s plenty of opinion and top ten lists built around these writers already. I’m concentrating on what’s being written now, and on the writers I personally return to, again and again. Horror was my first love. (And in no particular order) here’s why:

Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s understanding of the gothic is sensitive, articulate and refined. Her enthusiasm for the gothic is brutal, breathtaking and no-holds-barred. The thing with Oates is that she is never going to write hackneyed, generic horror fiction – and yet boy, can she deliver on the ‘yeuccchhh’ factor when she’s in the mood for it. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction, and I mean a lot, and the closest I’ve come in recent years to not being able to finish a horror novel through sheer ‘no, this is too much’ discomfort with what I was reading was JCO’s Stoker-Awarded short novel Zombie. Do soldier on with it though, because it’s brilliant. There are at least three JCO short fiction collections devoted to horror stories of one stripe or another – I’d recommend any of them. For those who want to get stuck into a real JCO marathon, I’d recommend her masterpiece Bellefleur, her luscious, gorgeous, immortal take on the vampire novel, and The Accursed, which will reward your commitment – this is a long book and a tough climb in places – by giving you something lasting and extraordinary, including a Lovecraft-influenced chapter of sheer virtuosity.

Caitlin R. Kiernan. I first came across Kiernan’s work in a Best New Horror anthology towards the end of the nineties, and knew from the first moment of reading her that this was the kind of horror literature I had been looking for. If I were restricted to bringing one horror writer’s oeuvre to a desert island, it would be Kiernan’s. Her obsessive, inward-looking narrators, her natural instinct for the weird and above all, the eloquent beauty of her language makes Kiernan, for me, one of the most important horror writers of our time. I would recommend The Drowning Girl as the most accurate rendition of what it might actually feel like to be haunted, as well as the greatest horror novel of the last ten years. The Red Tree is almost as good. Or any of her short fiction, really.

Ramsey Campbell. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Ramsey Campbell, both to me and to British horror fiction generally.  For anyone interested, I wrote about my own discovery of Ramsey’s fiction in a short essay, Rediscovering the Fantastic. But for anyone starting out on their own journey, I would say that Ramsey Campbell is probably the most important post-war British writer of horror fiction, and that if you have any interest in the horror genre at all you need to read at least one of his novels. Campbell’s emphases lie firmly on character and place – specifically his native Liverpool – and it is his understanding and empathy towards those characters that make us care so much, as readers, about what happens to them. Which, be warned, is mostly not good. My favourite Campbell probably remains Midnight Sun, but The Long Lost and Incarnate are pretty special too, and as the first Campbell I ever read, The House on Nazareth Hill has a preferred place in my heart. For short fiction, go with Ghosts and Grisly Things, one of Campbell’s more recent collections and every story a classic. And if you’re after more material about horror fiction, Ramsey’s collection of essays and reviews, Probably, is essential reading.

Stephen King. It would be easy not to include Stephen King in this list. Everyone’s heard of King, no need to talk about him, right? Wrong. King really is too important to ignore. More than that, he’s too much of a pleasure to ignore. I would count Stephen King as the writer who, for me, has most consistently that most elusive quality: page-turnability. King can tell stories like no other in my universe, and I love his voice. Favourites? I’m going to be contentious here and suggest The Tommyknockers, which scared the shit out of me for some reason (most diehard fans consider it ‘bad King’), The Shining (of course) and my personal favourite Hearts in Atlantis. Another essential read from King is the non-fiction Danse Macabre, his personal history of twentieth-century horror literature and film. It’s as readable as any of his novels, packed with personal insights and wonderful reading suggestions. A kind of horror bible!

And while we’re on the subject of King, don’t forget to sample the work of his son, Joe Hill. Hill broke into the genre with his extraordinary debut collection Twentieth Century Ghosts and I bet his dad was damned proud.  You can see the family relationship, if you’re looking carefully, and Hill has certainly inherited his father’s raw storytelling talent. But Hill’s stories are very much his own – there’s a bizarreness, a quirky twistedness to them that’s very different from King Sr. I ripped through Twentieth Century Ghosts in a day and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Kathe Koja. I’d been meaning to read Kathe Koja for ages. Then towards the end of last year, I read her reissued first novel The Cipher and wondered why I’d waited so long. I loved everything about this book: bizarre, Roadside-Picnic-like scenario (the entire novel is about a hole in the floor, basically), spiky, difficult characters (and that’s putting it kindly) and throughout a kind of obsessive, steadily worsening compulsion to do the unwise thing. I love novels with a small cast of interesting characters that hint at larger issues beyond the book’s parameters, and The Cipher is this kind of novel, exactly. I love Koja’s writing, too – there’s an urgency to it, a flickering darkness, a unique disquiet. I’ll definitely be reading more of her. Read this book!

Robert Shearman. I happen to think that Rob is one of the most talented writers working in Britain at the moment, and as a horror writer his unique vision is exactly what the genre has been waiting for. Rob’s stuff is so much his own it’s difficult to find anyone to compare him with. As a writer who first found his feet in the theatre, he is a master of dialogue, of conflict, of dramatic tension. But there’s more – his ideas are just so off the wall, so delightfully surprising and often so downright scary you’re left almost literally biting your nails in anticipation of what might happen. But then, Rob’s stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, too. Start with Remember Why You Fear Me and They Do Things Different There. Inimitable, and readable verging on addictive.

Otsuichi. I can’t remember now how or where I first heard about Otsuichi’s first collection to be translated into English, Zoo, but I’ll never forget the thrill of delight I experienced when I read that first story and realised how brilliant it was. Another truly unique voice, Otsuichi’s stories have a deadpan, ironical cast to them that I find irresistible. More irresistible still is his prose, matter-of-fact and weirdly poetic at the same time. One of the things I love so much about Japanese horror cinema is that it doesn’t in the slightest rely on familiar Hollywood tropes, and Otsuichi’s fiction has that same offbeat edginess about it.

Helen Marshall. When I read Helen’s first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side, I found it so complete and so achieved I could hardly believe it was the work of a debut writer. Her new collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, is even better, and it’s wonderful to know she has a novel in the works. These stories are dark – they’re full of thwarted passions and untimely deaths – but Marshall’s prose is so rich and so detailed, so beautiful, that the effect never becomes oppressive. There’s almost a Clive Barker-y feel to some of her writing – see ‘The Mouth, Open’ from Hair Side, Flesh Side, for example – but without the rampant bloodlust! (Oh, and talking of Barker, EVERY horror fan MUST read The Books of Blood – possibly the most important set of horror stories since M. R. James’s ghost stories and still astonishing in their power thirty years after they were first published.)

Joel Lane. Joel’s stories were a revelation to me when I encountered them, first through Year’s Best anthologies, and then in the magazine The Third Alternative. Joel was in the vanguard of the so-called ‘miserabilist’ fiction movement in the 1990s: writers who focussed their attention on what was happening in Britain in the wake of Margaret Thatcher, and who used the language and imagery of dark fantasy and horror fiction to highlight sense of place and the troubled inner states of their protagonists. The way Joel wrote about cities, and memory, and the yearning sense of displacement of the alienated individual within a deconstructed society, spoke to me so eloquently, as did the ambiguous, understated tone of his stories. For me, Joel’s writing will always epitomise the very British horror of my own generation, and I know I’ll feel forever in his debt. Joel’s work is quiet but tremendously powerful. If you can, get hold of his first novel, From Blue to Black, because I think it’s his masterpiece. Otherwise try his collections The Lost District and Where Furnaces Burn.

Kelly Link. This is a cheat really, because Kelly Link isn’t a horror writer as such. But she’s too good not to mention – and her stories do include vampires, and dead people, and plenty of other weirdness that has them leaning towards the dark side more often than not. Kelly Link has spawned a generation of imitators, but no one can touch her for sheer force of imagination and irresistible storytelling. Like King, she’s unputdownable and the only thing wrong with her fiction is that there isn’t enough of it! Start with her new collection, Get in Trouble.

Peter Straub. Straub’s fiction is magisterial in its weight and quality. He is one of those writers who is criminally overlooked by the mainstream, even now. There’s something Oatesian in his ambition, and his novels Ghost Story and Shadowland are landmark works for me. The first Straub I read after Ghost Story was his collection Houses without Doors, and that too is a classic (his story ‘A Short Guide to the City’ is a perennial favourite). One of those writers I could easily immerse myself in for months at a time.

Jeff VanderMeer. As with Kelly Link, VanderMeer isn’t strictly a horror writer, but much of what he does trespasses on horror territory. VanderMeer’s first novel, Veniss Underground, was a kind of warped, noir-future Orpheus and Euridice story. As a debut it still feels monumentally strong, and VanderMeer’s work has only got better since. The denseness and richness of his language is all-absorbing, and of particular interest to me is the way VanderMeer likes to play around with form, whilst never letting go of the drive to tell a story. I would count his most recent work, the three-part Southern Reach trilogy, as one of the most important contributions to speculative fiction so far this century. It’s science fiction, but there’s a horror vibe deep enough to satisfy the darkest appetite.

Livia Llewellyn. Together with Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side, Livia Llewellyn’s collection The Engines of Desire is one of the most impressive horror debuts I’ve ever read. I loved every story in the book, but two of them, the horrific post-apocalypse tale ‘Horses’ and the Lovecraftian novella ‘Her Deepness’ shone out for me not just as brilliant but important. The thing I love most about Llewellyn’s stories – aside from her wonderful use of language, that is – is their willingness to be really bleak. ‘Horses’ is one of the most powerful horror stories I’ve read in this regard – not a single punch pulled, and you end with this sense of ‘fuck’ that doesn’t go away. I do hope that we’ll see a new collection, or even a novel-length work, from Livia Llewellyn in the near future (because I want to read it).

Yoko Ogawa. ‘Long after I realised that my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, then finally a layer of mould appeared.’ (From ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ by Yoko Ogawa) Ogawa is the queen of disquiet. As in the above paragraph, she lets ordinary objects and everyday actions take on sinister aspects through context, setting up resonances and metaphors that spread out through the reader’s consciousness like small ripples on otherwise calm water. One of the things I love best about Ogawa is her own fondness for the linked story format, which for me has always been more interesting and flexible than straight linear narrative. Begin with the collection ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ comes from, Revenge.

Well, I think I count more than ten there, but I warned you there might be overspill. (This list could have been twice as long, easily.) I hope these suggestions act as a good starting point for anyone curious about the horror genre – there really is something for everyone. If I were forced to select just five books that summed up everything I love about horror literature, they’d be (again, in no particular order): 1) Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl 2) Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun 3) Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed 4) Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood and 5) Otsuichi’s Zoo. But then you’d be missing out on House of Leaves, North American Lake Monsters, Sourdough, The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All, The Beautiful Red, The Secret Life of Houses, White is for Witching, Fugue State, The Barnum Museum, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, We Have Always Lived at the Castle, Don’t Look Now, Darkmans, Dr Haggard’s Disease… … … … … …

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

Other doors than these

I came across this interesting post earlier today, in which book blogger David Hebblethwaite explains most eloquently how paper books will, for him, always trump the ebook as a reading experience:

When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me… If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

David goes on to explain how with an ereader he finds himself ‘focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context’. I’ve heard this argument rehearsed before, or variants of it – that the ereader encourages a cursory, somehow surface reading, and that the experience, once completed, leaves no residue. Take this piece in The Independent for example:

One study showed that in a group reading the same book, e-readers had a lower plot recall, which was credited to a lack of “solidity”. When we can’t see the pile of pages growing on the left and shrinking on the right, the book is, apparently, less fixed for us.

I would once have sided with these kind of arguments absolutely. I have enjoyed a passion for physical books literally for as long as I can remember. Like many devoted readers, I can remember individual copies of specific books right back to my nursery school days. I feel saddened, even now, when I think of the way many of our public libraries have been semi-denuded of actual books, those heavy, plastic-jacketed hardbacks so particular to libraries, rank upon rank of them, with their particular, magical smell, the weight of them in your arms as you queued up at the desk to have them stamped and then hugged them to your chest as you carried them home. All memories, all precious. For me, the text of a book has often allied itself almost seamlessly with the physical substance of a particular copy – the book is the book, if you like, a form of imagic identification that I would venture to suggest attaches itself to books and books alone.

Because books are magic. I’m not ashamed to say it and I hope I never will be. I’m also one of those people who still buys CDs because I like the liner notes and the album covers and the lyrics sheets. I don’t actually own a stereo at the moment – I copy new albums on to my hard drive more or less as soon as I acquire them – but the idea of purchasing a download rather than the actual physical item? Not for me.

It’s just about twelve months now since I flew out to Australia. I looked forward to the flight as a time of reading, and packed accordingly. I should have known better. I need natural daylight or bright lamplight directly on to the page to read comfortably. Seated away from the window and with only the pallid, ambient light of the aeroplane cabin to see by, I was unable to read more than two or three pages for the whole twenty hours. (I had to content myself with Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instead, just in case you’re wondering… ) As someone who finds it more or less impossible to sleep on planes, this was not a fun experience.

On arrival in Tasmania, the problems continued. Although perfect in every other way, the cabins and cottages we stayed in lacked any kind of adequate reading lamp, and I was instantly reminded of all the dozens of similar experiences I’d endured in hotels over the years, having to remove the lampshade from the pathetic bedside light in order to have even the faintest chance of reading before sleep. In Tasmania I was lucky. My mother, a convert to the ereader ever since her first trip to Australia some years before, generously lent me her Kindle, while she took over one of my physical books instead. What a revelation.

This was my first experience of using an ereader, believe it or not. I had no ideological objection to them – they just weren’t for me, or so I thought, which turned out to be pretty stupid, because the Kindle might have been designed especially for me.  Instead of struggling with closely packed .8 text on mottled, semi-translucent, poor quality paper, I had properly spaced .12 on a clear white background. Instead of having to sit right by a window or beneath an Anglepoise, I could read wherever I wanted to, up to and including an unlit room, because the Kindle would automatically adjust its light settings to my comfort level. It is difficult to express the delight this discovery brought me, and still brings.

Because of the steadily declining quality of most mass-market paperbacks, I’d already been purchasing second-hand hardbacks wherever I could, and failing that trade paperback editions, which are mostly better made and certainly better designed with the reader in mind. I’ve certainly no regrets about this – I’ve amassed some beautiful books this way, and given that the physical book is no less an object of veneration for me than it has always been, this is all to the good. But there were certain books I wanted very much to read, but put off reading because there was no decent hardback or trade paperback edition out there, and I knew the struggle with the blurry micro-text of the mass-market paperback would more than half-destroy any pleasure the book might otherwise have brought me. The most notable example here was Delany’s Dhalgren – the original mass-market paperback of this text is a tiny monstrosity, and even the new Gollancz Masterworks edition, with its closely packed, slightly blurry text, would have been a trial. Now, suddenly, Dhalgren and other books with similar print-quality issues were available for me to read in comfort. Far from losing concentration, my mind became liberated to contemplate the text. Suddenly I could read, rather than having to grind away at the difficulty of physically reading.

My reading speed went back up again, too. I’m not quite as fast as I was when I was in my twenties, but getting up there.

I still adore physical books – they’re piled all around me as I write. My experience of certain texts is still bound up in the memory of certain books, their physical presence, their weight, their smell, their specialness for other reasons. I am as emotional about books-as-things as I ever was. I think I may even subscribe to the belief that a book read electronically will never carry quite the same power and import, over time, as a book held in the hand, closed shut last thing at night. But I want to speak in passionate defence of the ereader also, for the freedom it has brought me, that it has no doubt brought to thousands of others, to enjoy books where physical limitations might have made them inaccessible.

And if I read something on my Kindle that turns out to be more than just a book I want to read – a book I want to keep, and hold, and flick back and forth in, run my fingers down its spine as I gloat over my amassed book-treasure – then I can look forward to the pleasure of buying it again in used-hardback format. A pleasure I’m looking forward to right at this moment with Hanya Yanagihara’s quite simply amazing The People in the Trees

Crime blog #6

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright tony&susan.cover

Susan Morrow, comfortable if not entirely content in her marriage to hospital consultant Arnold, is contacted out of the blue by her first husband Edward. Edward always wanted to be a writer – indeed, his decision to abandon his law studies in pursuit of what Susan privately considered to be a hopeless dream was at least part of what led to the breakdown of their marriage. Now it seems that dream wasn’t so hopeless after all – Edward’s letter accompanies the manuscript of his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he wants Susan to read. ‘You always were my best critic’, he reminds her. Will she take a look at what he has written, and let him know what she thinks of it?

Of course Susan can’t resist. Was she right to dismiss Edward’s ambitions all those years ago, or does her ex have a genuine talent? Besides, with Arnold away at a conference, possibly with an old flame, Susan needs something to divert her. She begins reading more or less straight away – and finds herself propelled back into the past with disconcerting speed.

I honestly don’t know what I think of this book. I loved the concept, the way the book alternates between Susan-reading and what Susan is reading, i.e the story of Tony Hastings in Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals. Susan’s sections are both a commentary on that novel, and a story in their own right – the story of her marriage to Edward and her current suspicions about her second husband, the arrogant, unimaginative and rather blokish doctor Arnold.  The first chapters of Nocturnal Animals, in which Tony Hastings has his life torn apart while en route with his wife and daughter to their summer place in Maine, are without a doubt the most compelling part of the whole. At this point I felt a genuine sympathy for Tony, as well as a driving compulsion to discover what happened next. I admired the style of the narrative, pared down and terse yet still fascinatingly introspective. Susan’s sections worked brilliantly with the Tony chapters, providing an effective contrast and an intriguing counterpoint with the shocking events as they unfolded in Nocturnal Animals.

So where did it all go wrong? For me, I think Tony and Susan began to come unstuck as Nocturnal Animals began to turn from tragedy to farce. Tony-the-victim is a pitiable figure. One feels for his initial predicament – indeed one suspects that one might not have behaved much better in similar circumstances – and the horror of the immediate aftermath of that predicament is brilliantly described. Yet Tony-the-avenging-angel is ridiculous, annoying and frustratingly gullible. His acquiescence in what happens next – a crime almost as repulsive and wrong-headed as the crime that led him there – proves the final nail in the coffin of credibility. I’d be fine with all this if I were convinced Austin Wright meant us to feel this way, if Nocturnal Animals were intended as some kind of Dostoevskian comment on the criminal-as-us, but I’m not convinced this is the case. The whole thing feels clumsily handled, as if Wright – and through him, Edward – wasn’t entirely sure what he meant us to think of Tony, and by extension the novel as a whole.

And in the end, Susan’s own story isn’t interesting enough to compete with Tony’s. I’d be the last reader to demand melodrama, but I was left wanting more here, and not in a good way.

I would definitely recommend Tony and Susan, because in spite of the novel’s flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy.  There’s the form, for a start, so full of the potential to fascinate, which for a lot of the time it absolutely does. And whatever you think of the ending, or the characters for that matter, I absolutely guarantee you won’t be bored. You’ll keep on reading, turning those pages just like Susan, both excited and afraid of what you might find.

James Herbert Award – the inaugural shortlist

Well, it seems we have a new SFFH fiction prize to add to the excitement of the annual awards season. The James Herbert Award for Horror Writing is a juried award, with a prize of £2,000, set up with the purpose of showcasing excellence and diversity within the horror genre. Administered by Pan Macmillan and chaired by Tom Hunter, the award is open to novels written in English and published within the UK and Ireland within the given year. The inaugural shortlist is as follows:

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey (Orbit)

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Headline)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)

Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Harper/Voyager)

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (Tartarus)

An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman (Titan Books)

Initial thoughts? Unfortunately I haven’t read any of these, so I can’t comment on individual titles. (Indeed, this list brings home to me how much my reading has been dominated by science fiction recently – perhaps I need to do something about that and catch up on some horror?) But as someone who has a special fondness for Tartarus Press (my first professional sale was to Tartarus, my story ‘Terminus’) it’s lovely to see one of their titles on this list. And Frances Hardinge is an amazing writer – Cuckoo Song is already on my e-reader, ready and waiting.

For the most part, I’m one of those people who stand in favour of literary awards, mainly because I believe anything that gets people excited about books, and most importantly the discussion of books, cannot be a bad thing. So it’s nice to see a British award specifically for horror writing, something we’ve not had to date, and a prize that will, I hope, be a welcome alternative and complement both to the invariably and hugely US-dominated Bram Stoker Award.

Some questions occur, however. What’s this stipulation about works having to be ‘written in English’? Does this mean that translated works, appearing for the first time in English in the year in question, are to be actively barred, and if so, why? I would think the award would be the poorer for not admitting work by Johanna Sinisalo, say, or John Ajvide Lindqvist, or Otsuichi (one of the best horror writers working today, in my opinion), and that’s to name but three.

And then, all too quickly, we’re forced to confront yet again the accusation that horror as a field is narrow and blokish. I’m just going to come out and say that the Stoker preliminary ballot is horrifically male-dominated this year, and everyone knows that this has always been the rule rather than the exception. It’s sad to see, and YES, to anyone who still doubts it, this DOES matter.

Excluding translated works from the Herbert isn’t going to do much for its commitment to diversity, and neither is repeating the predictable and retrograde biases of the Stoker.

Of course, any new award is going to take a while to find its feet and discover its identity. I would wish the Herbert well, whilst hoping it actively seeks to develop the kind of imaginative insight and progressive approach that will enable it to properly live up to its stated ambitions.

That will be something to get people talking.

EDIT Feb 12: I’ve just heard from the James Herbert Award’s administrator, Tom Hunter, that there is no bar on translated horror fiction, and that any work appearing for the first time in English in the given year would be fully eligible for the award. Which is fantastic news. Here’s hoping we see some of the amazing European and World horror fiction that’s out there appearing on the Herbert shortlist in future years!

Into 2015

lagoon.nnediI’ve just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, and what a surprising, inventive and above all enriching text it is. It took me a while to get into this novel, but suddenly it all started coming together for me and by the end I felt literally breathless with excitement at what I’d read. This is a story – with its jump cuts, tessellations and chaotic crowd scenes, Okorafor encourages us to view it as a film – about aliens invading the city of Lagos, but such a bald summary seems too straightforward for a book that will feel unlike any other alien invasion story you’ve ever read. Science fiction cohabits with fantasy in the most relaxed, devil-take-it manner, producing a vigorous, gorgeous mutation, a runaway train of speculation that is, well, exactly what the book-doctor ordered. It’s fearless.

Predictably, it was the deft post-modernist touches that, for me, lifted the novel beyond the good and towards outstanding. I loved the ‘I was there’ chapters – non-linear snapshots of narrative from random people caught up by events – and those ‘wink’ moments when Okorafor steps out of the text to ask her readers: ‘How would you have felt?’ Of course I’m going to love the Spider the Artist sections, and indeed all the chapters narrated by non-human characters (a swordfish, a bat, a tarantula, a man-eating road) were pure narrative joy. I loved the ‘deleted’ chapter set in Chicago, too – there are so many memorable moments and ideas. Oh, and did I mention the richness of the language, the textures of languages, plural, that permeate this book? I could go on and on.

I am lost in admiration of Okorafor’s creativity, the way she seizes her themes, weaving humour and beauty and stark political commentary seamlessly together. I especially appreciate what Lagoon has to say about instinct and logic, how both are important and indeed essential – to art, to science, to a balanced view of the world, to life.

SFF like this – SFF that obeys no pre-set archetypes and invents its own rules – is such a breath of fresh air. It reminds us of the limitless possibilities of the genre, encourages us to try writing (or indeed reading) something new and inimitably personal to us.

What a wonderful book, and what a perfect start to my reading in 2015. How it surprised me. I love it when this happens.

For the year ahead, there are still some 2014 titles I want to read before I start turning my attention to what’s coming out this year – 2014 seems to have been an exceptional year for SFF novels, I think, which should hopefully make things interesting as awards season rolls around. I’m also intending to shore up some of the gaps in my SFF knowledge in 2015 by making a conscious effort to read more back catalogue SF – I’ve not read A Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, or Dhalgren, The Female Man, Kindred and that’s just for starters.

And what about 2015 titles I am looking forward to? I’m sure there are loads I don’t know about yet, hopefully with many exciting discoveries among them. But of those I do know about, books I’m especially looking forward to include Kelly Link’s new collection Get in Trouble, China Mieville’s new collection Three Moments of an Explosion, Catherynne Valente’s Art Deco Hollywood-in-space novel Radiance (if it’s anything like as wonderful as ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ it’s going to be fantastic), Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Anna Small’s The Chimes and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (both these last sound really intriguing). Looks like a good year to me!

A new year, a new Europe…

His life had been erased like his books, set alight, reduced to ash and scattered. It no longer existed. But then, all lives were ultimately extinguished,  and in their passing nothing remained of the person who’d been – their dreams, their thoughts, who they loved, what they’d hated – from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon and down the ages to Jews.

Yet Shomer lives still.

(A Man Lies Dreaming p79) amld.ltidhar

I loved Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. In terms of both content and form that novel presents a bold statement, and its recognition in the World Fantasy Awards was the ‘yes!’ vote of its year. I was less fond of Tidhar’s follow-up, The Violent Century. Unlike some others, I found no problem with the author’s decision to eschew speech marks, and the terse rhythms of the narrative, styled to mimic the speech bubbles of a graphic novel, worked fine by me. It was the narrative itself that never won me over. Twentieth-century history with added superheroes? The Bond-style plot is paper thin, the bolt-on romance seriously unconvincing. As a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, Nick Harkaway’s more recent Tigerman, for me at least, does a far more interesting job.

Tidhar’s latest novel, A Man Lies Dreaming displays not only a return to form but a solid improvement. This is a brave book. Any writer as intelligent as Tidhar will be well aware of the near-impossibility and inherent foolhardiness of taking on a subject of the magnitude and gravitas of the Nazi holocaust as a material for fiction. So many have been there before him. Some have flailed around embarrassingly, others have exploited shamefully, a few have succeeded in increasing the sum of the world’s literature with grace and fervour. That Tidhar dares to go there is one thing. That he has managed to create a work that is original, and funny, and angry, and moving, and significant, beautiful even – these are achievements he should be proud of. Bravo.

Shomer, a Jew, a father, a writer of pulp fictions, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. He imagines a reality in which the communists won the 1933 elections, in which Hitler was expelled from Germany and forced to make his living as Wolf, a private detective in a London populated by his erstwhile comrades, all now similarly reduced in circumstance, scraping along the best they can, reviled as immigrants by Oswald Mosley’s ascendant Blackshirts.

Wolf’s farcical exploits and sexual misadventures are the stuff of pulp fiction – Shomer’s pulp fiction. It’s all very funny and very repulsive at the same time. But there’s more to it than that.  The alternate history in A Man Lies Dreaming kept reminding me of the real history in Menno Meyjes’s 2002 film Max, in  which John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a wealthy Viennese art dealer who feels a strange comradeship with the disaffected war veteran Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). This 1919 Hitler is history in embryo, an embittered ex-corporal still torn between his former yearning to be an artist and his newly found visibility on the political stage. Max shows us a glimpse of what might have been, a turning point in history where had circumstances been minutely otherwise, Hitler might have remained what he was at the time: a nonentity with pretensions.

He had begun to perceive the great conspiracy behind all things; perhaps even then, so early, he knew it was his destiny to fight it; and yet, in the final tally, he had lost. The Fall had made a mockery of Wolf. Imagine if he had succeeded, if Germany was his, its military and its citizens, to wield as he saw fit: what would have happened to the Jewish people then?

(A Man Lies Dreaming p 99)

And of course we as readers, living in the alternate world of Shomer’s imagination, know the answer to that question all too well.

The way Tidhar tackles his subject – linking it with contemporary issues such as American expediency politics, the casual (and not so casual) racism that continues to permeate British political culture, demonstrates how it is still not only possible but necessary for us to keep writing about the Nazi holocaust, that this task can still be accomplished with impact and originality and (perhaps most difficult of all) personal commitment. As Howard Jacobson does, rather differently, in his meta-dystopia J, Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming shows us the holocaust as part of a historical continuum. It is not over, it is certainly not nearly enough to speak of it in hushed tones and then promptly forget about it. Given the airtime currently being lavished upon certain would-be members of parliament in our midst, the material relating to Oswald Mosley’s theoretical election victory near the end is particularly hard to read:

‘[Communism] has flooded our country with refugees. We have opened our borders, our arms, our homes to them, in friendship. And they came, in their thousands, in their thousands of thousands. Our cities reek of their cabbage! Their children speak foreign tongues in our schools. They are draining our country of its resources, they are taking the very bread from our own people’s mouths!’ (p238)

Tidhar’s novel also shares with Jacobson’s J the sense of being not just an exercise in possibility but a deeply personal, deeply committed statement by the author. This is what drives the book beyond mere cleverness and towards significance. (There is information relevant to this in the Historical Note at the end, but it is important to note that the novel stands perfectly well without it.)

And it is precisely because Tidhar has such fluent command of the non-fiction behind his fiction that he is able to play with it, to bend it so successfully into such bizarre shapes. There are hundreds of jokes in here – asides, quotes, comments, unmaskings, language-plays, amusing truisms about writing, there’s even an Elder Gods reference in amongst it all – the kind of tricks that only a writer who has fully assimilated their source material could pull off. As with any successful meta-text of this type, it is so soundly constructed as story that a reader who is less familiar with the history, politics or cultural background will be able to enjoy this novel perfectly well without having to consult a history book at every other page. For those who come to it more fully prepared, it will be a tour de force of ferocious ingenuity. It is also worth noting how splendid this book is as science fiction, and as a subversion of science fiction. Here again Tidhar knows his stuff, and lets it sing:

Eleven, old Ben struck, and the second stretched and stretched and in its expectant silence Wolf saw the city as he had never seen it, rising before him like a metropolis dreamed of by Fritz Lang: huge shining buildings rose amidst the squalor of old London, by London Bridge a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pierced the sky. From the City of London there rose a phoenix egg of metal and glass, and a giant wheel spun and spun on the south bank of the Thames like a mandala. This city of the future was brighter, brasher, awash in an electric glow which faded as he watched, the ghostly outline of this futuristic could-have-been slowly washing away. Wolf held his breath and Big Ben tolled, twelve, and one day ended, and a new day began. (p237)

I was worried when I first started reading that A Man Lies Dreaming was going to be too much like Osama, that in redrafting some of the narrative assumptions and stylistic techniques of the earlier novel, Tidhar was going to run the risk of making his own highly successful innovations look old hat. As I progressed through the novel I was relieved to find those apprehensions to be misplaced. Yes, A Man Lies Dreaming draws on the repertoire of techniques that laid the foundations in Osama, but it expands upon them, too – there’s a load of new stuff here, and a new fluency.  Tidhar isn’t just trying his strength any more – he’s grown into a mature writer who knows what he’s doing and why he is doing it. This is a good book. It deserves to be talked about, and Tidhar deserves to be praised.

 

autumn.hutchinsonFollow that, Dave Hutchinson! Remarkably, he does. If A Man Lies Dreaming hides its artifice behind the facade of our recent past, Europe in Autumn revolves around the lodestone of our possible future. If Tidhar knows his stuff, then so does Hutchinson. I have rarely seen the ambience of middle and Eastern Europe more succinctly and accurately captured by a British writer. This isn’t your usual kind of mitteleuropaeische Wehmut, though, this is a post-Soviet Europe, ravaged by stag weekends and fin-de-siecle exhaustion.  It’s superbly realised, with almost Scandinavian levels of deep irony and an economy of style that I (as a writer who tends to obsess over minutiae) found laudable and convincing. No fuss, no fannying about, just seriously good writing.

In a near-future Europe disenchanted with Schengen and fractured into a profusion of micro-states (each with its own hyper-evolved bureaucracy), Rudi is a chef minding his own business. How he manages to get co-opted into a secret pan-European organisation of spies and information traffickers is a mystery even to him. But there are bigger mysteries in store, and Rudi’s life will soon be in danger – as will the life of anyone associated with him…

To pigeon-hole this fabulous, tightly constructed, expertly wrought little masterpiece of science fiction merely as a spy caper would be to do it a serious injustice – yet the spy caper stuff is great, too. Funnier than James Bond, written with a level of literary understanding and invention that far surpasses anything muddled together by John Le Carre, Europe in Autumn is massively entertaining. It’s also the kind of SF one longs to see more of, the speculative materials used not merely as ornament but as backbone, handled with the lightness of touch that signals a continuing serious engagement and long, fond familiarity. I adored the reveal, the core concept. I’m not normally one for sequels, but I can understand how Europe in Autumn almost demands one.

Both these books are a joy to read, the kind that serve as markers along the road of SF’s great journey. Recommended.

Only forward

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?

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Favourite Hallowe’en reads

I’ve seen a lot of people posting their best-loved Hallowe’en reads this week, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few of my own.

1) Peter Straub – Ghost Story.

A modern classic, and rightly so. Straub’s stories are always complex, lush with detail, and multi-layered. You’re already deep into the story before you fully realise what’s going on, that wandering-in-the-forest feeling epitomises everything a Hallowe’en read should be. Anyone who lists slasher movies or serial killer thrillers among their Hallowe’en favourites is missing the point. Hallowe’en – All Hallows Eve – is the night when spirits traditionally walk abroad. This is a time for exploring spirituality – both of the dark side and the light – for coming to terms with hard truths, for delving into the secrets of the past and perhaps uncovering something less than pleasant in the process. For the four ageing members of Straub’s Chowder Society in Ghost Story, this is a time of facing up to the consequences of their past actions – big style. I adore this book. I adore Straub’s erudite, meandering and occasionally obscure style. I’m also very fond of John Irvin’s 1981 film based on Ghost Story which, though it cannot hope to convey all the subtleties of the original novel, seems to me to be the epitome of what a great Hallowe’en movie should be: quiet, reflective, mysterious and chilling at the core.

2) Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching

One of my very favourite ghost stories of recent years, this short novel plays out big issues on an intimate stage. Its evocation of a particular milieu – the English seaside town – is perfectly executed, its portrayal of relationships, the closeness and distance between people, is razor sharp in its accuracy and pathos. White is for Witching is equally a tense family drama and a forthright examination of the divisions within contemporary British society. I read this in a single sitting. Haunting and masterful.

3) Joyce Carol Oates – Bellefleur

Ah, Bellefleur! This is sumptuous, gorgeous, genius, the vampire novel that dare not speak its name. The language, the irony, the beauty, the madness, the STORY! Oates’s intuitive understanding of the gothic is both articulate and sublime. For those who don’t have time to sink themselves into a 600-page epic just now, try the stories in Haunted instead. This exemplary collection was my first introduction to Oates and she’s been right there at the centre of my personal pantheon ever since.

4) Ramsey Campbell – The House on Nazareth Hill

I honestly do think this could be the perfect Hallowe’en read. It’s a haunted house story, basically, and as my first encounter with Ramsey Campbell’s fiction I’ll never forget the impact it made on me. I couldn’t put it down, and kept reading it far later into the night than I should have done. The central character, Amy, remains with me still as a powerful presence. And that inner room with no windows – brrrrr!

5) Clive Barker – The Books of Blood

Seminal works in the field of British horror literature, Clive Barker’s two collections of stories contain everything from ghosts to monsters to ur-beasts to mad obsessives in the best Dr Frankenstein tradition. Particular favourites among the stories include ‘The Forbidden’, ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, ‘The Skins of the Fathers’, ‘Son of Celluloid’ and how could I forget ‘Rawhead Rex’?? But by far the best way of reading The Books of Blood is to start at Book 1 and read the whole lot through chronologically. Although the stories aren’t linked as such, their cumulative effect is considerable and their overall ethos is such that they demand the concentrated reading you might lavish on a novel. The Books of Blood were groundbreaking in their time and they have lost none of their power. Anyone – and I mean anyone – interested in writing horror fiction should and must read these stories.

And what will I be watching tomorrow evening? The Haunting (Wise’s 1963 version) is perhaps the quintessential Hallowe’en entertainment, and is pretty faithful to the original Shirley Jackson masterpiece into the bargain. If it’s atmospheric ghost stories you’re into then Amenabar’s The Others is pretty good, too.  I have a crazy, perfect love for the 1993 portmanteau film Necronomicon, the third segment of which scared me so badly the first time I saw it that I couldn’t sleep for a weekend (I tried it out on some friends a few months later – they were not amused, and I ended up having to bring a duvet downstairs for them all to hide under). My favourite film adaptation of Dracula is still the Coppola, no matter what anyone says. And for a dose of sheer Hallowe’en madness – with flying head-drillers and trans-dimensional dwarfs – what about Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm?

On balance though, I think tomorrow evening might be the perfect time to revisit a little-remarked-on but for me unforgettable adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Released as a TV movie in 1973 and starring James Mason as Polidori and David McCallum as Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein – the True Story is lush and overlong and over-the-top and with enough of the earnestness and passion of the original story to make it compelling. I first saw this in 1974, on the night ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’. My parents were having a Eurovision party downstairs (they were young, they were foolish) and my brother and I were treated to an unlimited supply of Twiglets and the free use of the black-and-white portable TV in their room upstairs. I was nine years old, my brother only seven, so I’m really not sure if Frankenstein was the kind of viewing Mum and Dad had in mind, but we watched it anyway. It seemed to go on for hours, and I was mesmerised throughout. It was many years before I saw it again, but I still remembered whole scenes perfectly and, perhaps because it was one of those so-important early influences, it had lost none of its power for me. Jane Seymour’s night at the ball, Elizabeth in the ice, the final pursuit to the cave. When I saw that Frankenstein – the True Story was to be released on DVD, I pre-ordered it at once. And having talked this out here I’m decided – tomorrow at around 9pm I’m going to unleash the monster from its cellophane wrapping…