Category Archives: news

Gotta read ’em all!

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this morning, and what a strong shortlist it is. I’ve already written about Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which remains potent in the memory as much for what it does with form as for its urgent storyline. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is the book I most want to read next. I adore Batuman’s essays, and her memoir about Russian literature, The Possessed, is a thing of rapturous beauty. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is also high on my list, not least because of the contradictory reactions it’s been garnering. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Sing, Unburied, Sing have been outliers for me up till now, but I’m planning to read both before the winner is announced, if I possibly can.

The novel I want to comment on today though is Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. If I read a more important book this year, I will be surprised. People have been describing this novel as a memoir of domestic abuse, which it is, but such a bald description fails to convey the majesty of all that is in it. If I were forced to use one word to describe When I Hit You it would be triumphant. It is a triumph not just in terms of victory of the spirit, but in terms of the writing art. The very act of writing – the act that most enrages the narrator’s solipsistic, jealous, controlling, abusive and above all selfish, selfish, selfish husband – is celebrated in these pages to the absolute utmost. Indeed, I cannot think of a better riposte, a sweeter revenge for the violence the narrator has suffered than this excoriating, empowering book about womanhood and violence, art, the practice of sanity, language and freedom of expression. I cannot think of a book that would be a more worthy winner of the Women’s Prize than this vital, supremely intelligent text, superbly realised. Angry but never embittered, I would come forward and say that this is a novel every woman – and for fuck’s sake, every man – needs to read as soon as they can.

The thing that strikes me – and pleases me – most forcefully about this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist is its seriousness. These are books that are not afraid to take the personal and make it political. These are books that are not afraid of going in hard on big questions. These are authors that are unapologetic about their love of language, their joy in experimentation, their determination to be heard, their willingness to be difficult. It will be very interesting to see if any of these turn up on the Booker longlist, announced in July. Congratulations to all the writers, and also to the judges on the boldness and brilliance of their choices, on showing us why and how the Women’s Prize continues to be so important.

Tentacles!

As I’m still more or less dumbstruck by the news, earlier this evening, that The Rift has been awarded The Kitschies coveted Red Tentacle for Best Novel, I’m just going to post the words read out on my behalf at the ceremony by Cath Trechman, my editor at Titan Books:

“Even in a calendar overflowing with exciting and thought-provoking literary awards, The Kitschies are special. They’re special because of their particular approach to genre fiction, which has from the beginning been innovative and fearless, and also because of the ubiquitously high quality of their shortlists, which year after year have presented readers with books that challenge and broaden their perceptions of what speculative fiction can be and do. It is an honour and a privilege for The Rift to be counted among their number. For it to win is a joy, not to mention an enormous surprise! 

I would like to thank the judges for furthering and cementing The Kitschies’ tradition of radical innovation. I would like to thank the marvellous team at Titan Books for their enthusiasm and professionalism in bringing the book to market and championing its cause. I would like particularly to thank Cath Trechman, who has been such a staunch support throughout. Thank you, Cath, for your insight and determination – none of this would have happened without you. 

I’m so sorry not to be with you all this evening. Hope you’re having a great night!”

I am indeed honoured and thrilled. Because seriously, what could be more beautiful than a tentacle?

Massive, massive thanks to everyone involved, and congratulations to my fellow tentaculans. Do check out the full list of nominees and winners here.

Follycon 2018, Harrogate

As part of a lively and highly enjoyable Eastercon weekend, I’m delighted to report that my second novel The Rift won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, an achievement made all the more memorable for being awarded alongside Anne Charnock’s win for Best Shorter Fiction. We won’t be forgetting Harrogate in a hurry!

Photo by Glyn Morgan

See the full list of winners and nominees here.

 

Now that’s tentacular!

Utterly delighted to hear that my novel The Rift has been shortlisted for The Kitschies Red Tentacle!

The best thing? The shortlist itself, which includes books that are entirely new to me. Michelle’s Tea’s Black Wave I know about and love – I included it on my own preferred shortlist for this year’s Clarke – and Jess Richards is familiar to me from her amazing Cooking with Bones but I didn’t know she had a new novel out. Deon Meyer and William Sutcliffe sound fantastic and go straight on my Kindle.

As always with The Kitschies, the joy lies in being excited, challenged, surprised. This year I’m honoured to be part of that surprise myself.

Do please go and check out the full and marvellous shortlists right here and right now! Hearty congratulations to all my fellow nominees.

The starting gun

[Disclaimer: for the purposes of this essay, I am writing as if my own novel, The Rift, were not on the list.]

The 2018 Clarke Award submissions list is finally here! The number of books is slightly up on last year, with non-genre imprints – I’m delighted to see – making a particularly good showing. As always, there are any number of fascinating shortlists lurking amongst those 108 titles, with each combination highlighting a different and specific approach to genre. What such selections might theoretically reveal about individual critical standpoints – what constitutes science fiction and its current direction of travel – is what makes submissions list time so exciting and intriguing for me. While we must assume that the Clarke jury have already decided upon the six novels that will make up the official Clarke Award shortlist, for the Shadow Clarke jury, today is just the beginning. Even as I write this, they will be scanning the list intently, trying to decide which titles they hope will appear on the official shortlist, which they would most like to see discussed within the context of science fiction now.

I’m strictly an onlooker in the Sharke process this year – but of course that doesn’t stop me from wondering what I would pick! I’ve actually read more of the submitted titles in advance this time around, and there are even more on the list that I want to read. It’s interesting what hindsight will do. Looking at my choices from last year, it is clear to see that I made a conscious decision to go for a personal shortlist made up of titles from genre and mainstream literary imprints in equal proportions – in an attempt to curb my own biases, no doubt. If I had the choice again, and since having read the entire Sharke preference pool and then some, I would pick Don DeLillo’s Zero K, M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors, Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance, and Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives – all books that live in the memory in spite of any imperfections they may carry. My personal winner would still be Infinite Ground, a novel that even now is influencing my thinking, not just about science fiction but about the project and purpose of fiction in general.

In this revisionist state of mind, I’m going to play devil’s advocate this year and pick the shortlist I most want to see, a shortlist I know doesn’t stand a hope of actually happening – in fact I’d go so far as to say I’d be surprised if even one of these titles ended up on the official shortlist – but that best expresses my own current hopes and desires for science fiction literature. The reader might infer from this list that I have come to not give a damn about genre and they might well be correct, which is not to say that I don’t continue to believe that speculation in literature –  whether that be in the matter of subject, form or language – is its most radical expression.

My personal preferred shortlist is as follows:

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker. This choice won’t come as any surprise to anyone who reads my blog. I have long believed that Barker is one of Britain’s most interesting and important writers. For me, H(A)PPY was a magical and deeply unsettling reading experience, a book that will last and – most crucially – would deliver an even richer experience on rereading. As science fiction it is provocative and new, making use of established concepts to create a narrative whose originality lies not so much in its synopsis as in its execution.

Sealed by Naomi Booth. I’ve been hearing such great things about this and Booth’s novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, was excellent, beautifully written and tautly imagined. Going by the online preview, Sealed is even better, playing with themes similar to those that appear in Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From but with a harder edge. I liked the Hunter and it has stayed with me but I think I’m going to admire Sealed even more.

Memory and Straw by Angus Peter Campbell. ‘I know now that my ancestors had other means of moving through time and space, and the more I visit them the simpler it becomes. For who would not want to fly across the world on a wisp of straw, and make love to a fairy woman with hair as red as the sunset?’ I will be writing in greater detail about this book in due course. Angus Peter Campbell is a poet as well as a prose writer, as every page of this short novel about time, place and memory amply demonstrates. Campbell’s writing is pure imagination, made word.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway. The big beast on this list in more ways than one! At more than 700 pages in length, Gnomon requires some commitment, but the reader will find that commitment amply rewarded. Freedom, information, truth – Harkaway paints big themes across a sprawling canvas in what is without doubt his most strongly achieved and important novel to date. The truly odd thing about Gnomon is how much in common it has with H(A)PPY in terms of its subject matter and what it chooses to do with it, though comparing the two might prove as difficult, if I may continue with the art analogy for just a moment, as comparing Vermeer’s The Lacemaker with Delacroix’s The Raft of the Medusa. My outright preferred Clarke winner this year would be either H(A)PPY or Gnomon, and I can see arguments for choosing either. To ignore them both would be a serious failure of nerve and imagination.

Euphoria by Heinz Helle. As far from Gnomon in terms of scope as it is possible to get, Helle’s novel focuses closely on a small group of friends at the dawn of an unexplained apocalypse. The language is terse, fractured, a shattered mirror to what is going on within the narrative. With a distinctly European accent on existential crisis, Euphoria was one of my favourite books of 2017 and one I will definitely be revisiting.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea. Billed as a ‘countercultural apocalypse’, this was on my list of books to read with the Clarke in mind in the immediate aftermath of last year’s award. I have only just got round to it, but I am loving it so far and it seems like exactly the kind of novel – existential, metafictional – the Clarke should be taking notice of, not to mention the Goldsmiths. The language alone – direct, abrasive, provocative – qualifies it for a place on my preferred shortlist in and of itself.

Very narrowly missing my cut are The White City by Roma Tearne – the writing is so wonderful that if I’d actually read the whole of this book at this stage then I might well have found it edging out one of the others – and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is a vitally important text right now and a strong novel. Ask me tomorrow and you might find either or both of these on my list, and I’d be more than delighted to see the jury select them.

In my column for this month’s Interzone, I examined the reasons why science fiction might have found itself considerably better off had Hugo Gernsback never ‘invented’ the science fiction genre. Before Gernsback, speculative conceits floated freely in the mainstream of literature alongside every other kind of idea: political, social, metaphysical, confessional. Now more than ever, the ideas that for decades found themselves confined to the science fiction ghetto have been leaking out into the broader river of world literature, which – now more than ever – is where they belong. For proof of my thesis – that there is no such thing as ‘science fiction’, only books that make use of speculative ideas – look no further than the six (or indeed eight!) very different, challenging and original books above. If science fiction is truly to have a future, then this is it.

Shortlisted!

Pleased to announce that The Rift has made the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Awards in the Best Novel category.

With Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Ann Leckie’s Provenance also making the cut, that makes it a fascinating list to be on and hopefully one that will encourage discussion.

I’m especially delighted to report though that the Shadow Clarke project also made the shortlist, in the Non-Fiction category. This means a huge amount to me, not least because the individual Sharkes were so energetically committed to making this project a success and so clearly deserve this nomination, but also for what it means for science fiction criticism generally. This project truly has opened a new round of the conversation – we need only look at the wonderful personal intros from this year’s Sharkes to see how the project is evolving and opening out – and I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. Congratulations, Sharkes!

It should also be noted that, what with Anne Charnock hitting the shortlists again in the Shorter Fiction category for her beautifully crafted novella The Enclave, the west coast of Scotland isn’t making too bad a showing, either. Could the Isle of Bute be the most speculative spot in the UK right now? Voters, it’s over to you.

Many congratulations to everyone who made the shortlists. You can find the full line-ups here.

Open borders

I cannot think of a more appropriate or timely piece to post this Christmas than Kevin McKenna’s article in today’s Observer about the twenty-four Syrian families who have come to make their home on the Isle of Bute. McKenna is at pains to highlight the ways in which the relationship between the island and the refugees is a reciprocal one: as the Syrian families have found safe harbour here, they in their turn have brought hope to the island, through their integration into the community, through breaking down barriers, through carrying with them a sense of the wider world, through their very presence. Bute needs the Syrian families – and more like them – to grow, to rediscover its energy, to be a part of a modern Scotland, where borders are permeable.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a showing of The Barbers of Bute, a short film by Joe Steptoe that follows the story of Mounzer Al Darsani, who lost everything in his flight from Syria and who has now begun to rebuild his life – and his career – on the island. The film also focuses on a woman barber from Edinburgh who has similarly found sanctuary here, and the ways in which her story and Mounzer’s are the same. Our only regret was that the film wasn’t longer. The refugees’ stories would be an ideal subject for a full-length documentary and we very much hope that Joe will return to the island to make it.

It has been an enormous year for us. As I stepped off the ferry on Tuesday evening following a lunch with friends in Glasgow, I couldn’t help thinking about the strangeness of it all. A decade ago I was living in London. There is no way I could have predicted that ten years later I would be living on a Scottish island. If anything,, the island lifestyle has proved more compelling and more grounding than I could ever have imagined. The idea of not living on an island now seems downright weird. My frequent journeys to and from Glasgow this past year – to see friends, to participate in events, to catch movies at the GFT – have offered me access to the wider world, even as they have weathered the rhythms of the island more deeply into my system and my thought processes.

We love it here, and that includes the weather. Of course I have ambitions to write about the island, to bring something new to it as it has brought so much to me. Chris has already done so, and his new novel, An American Story, will be published next September. With the Pavilion project now fully underway, new businesses and new islanders and a renewed sense of purpose, this is an auspicious time for Bute. We are thrilled to be a part of it.

It has been impossible, this year as last, not to think about politics, all of the time. Finding the courage and energy to speak and write when both Westminster and Washington seem so divisively and – ultimately – pointlessly hell-bent on turning back the clock to outmoded ways of thinking, of governing and of relating to the world can feel difficult and dispiriting, yet there are fires of hope, even now, and being part of an outward-facing community with a stalwart heart is something to be celebrated indeed.

Happy Christmas everyone, and may our gods keep faith with us.

Tips for writers

“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”

William H. Gass 1924 – 2017

Our new neighbours!

Earlier this year, Anne Charnock and her husband Garry stopped over on Bute on their way north to Applecross. It was fantastic to see them, of course, and we spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon and evening touring the island and talking books.

We all agreed things would be even better if they decided to move to Bute permanently. And so they did!

We’re thrilled beyond measure to have them here. Above is a photo of me and Anne, taken by Garry in the only-just-furnished living room of their new home. If I remember rightly we were discussing the possible outcome of next year’s Clarke Award…

Return to Eden

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked as a writer is how I first became interested in horror fiction. The answer I usually give – because it’s true – is that I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in horror fiction. Some of my earliest memories involve me badgering my grandmother to invent stories for me – stories that featured (in no particular order) ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and giant robots. I was born with a love of the weird, in other words, a love that began struggling to find expression as soon as I could form coherent sentences.

There is one memory in particular though that feels central to my development as a horror writer, and once again it involves my grandmother. Gran lived by the sea, in a post-World War Two prefab bungalows that she resolutely refused to trade for bricks and mortar, and that had a strange, if not haunted then certainly resonant atmosphere all of its own. As a child, I loved visiting her there – and I loved being allowed to sort through the boxes and drawers of strange artefacts from earlier periods of her life: pieces of costume jewellery inherited from aunts and godparents, wooden mantelpiece ornaments brought back from her time in Kenya, the silver-plated cruet and biscuit barrel that once graced the sideboard of my great-grandparents’ house in Croydon, the half-hunter pocket watch that eventually became the inspiration for The Silver Wind.

My grandmother also had books. A whole host of them, many of them dating back to before the war. In one corner of her living room there stood a 1930s teak veneer bureau, the lower portion of which had glass sliding doors that were always difficult to open because of the books, crammed three layers deep on the shelves behind. It became one of my favourite pastimes while at my grandmother’s house to remove all the books from the bureau and then replace them in such a manner that they could be more easily seen. Of course they were always out of order again the next time I visited – but this only redoubled the pleasure of setting them to rights.

Many of the books in that bureau were mysterious to me – multi-volume family sagas, a subscription set of Dickens with minuscule print – and I never examined their contents, even while knowing their titles and cover blurbs by heart. Others – The Boy’s Bumper Book of Scientific Puzzles, Adventure Stories for Girls, The Wise Robin, a Tales from the Arabian Knights with pop-up illustrations – I read and reread until the stories and mottoes and intricate line drawings became as familiar to me as snapshots in a family album.

One book, more than the others, held me captive. It was called The Beach House, and I can only imagine it was the title that had appealed to my grandmother, or prompted one of her friends to give it to her as a gift – that random, ultimately spurious connection with the place she lived. Whether she had ever read it I never discovered. I felt shy of asking her, for some reason – I think because I did not want to reveal to her, or to anyone else, that I knew about the book, that I had read it. I think I was afraid someone might deem it ‘unsuitable’ and get rid of it without telling me.

The Beach House told the story of Simon Fletcher, a middle-aged man who retires to a run-down bungalow on the Sussex coast. We know little about him at first. He spends his days renovating the bungalow, only breaking off to undertake long walks along the beach that begins at the end of his road. Sometimes on his walks he encounters a woman in a black hat. Fletcher believes he has seen this woman before, somewhere, and as his obsession with her begins to take hold, we finally learn of the tragic events that brought Fletcher to the beach house in the first place.

The Beach House was not a long book, and yet the atmosphere it evoked – its vision of a lonely, self-deceiving protagonist trapped in a hell of his own making – exerted a powerful hold on me. I reread the book many times over the years, always returning it to its accustomed place in my grandmother’s bureau ready for the next time.

When Gran died I was away at university. I returned home briefly for the funeral, but by the time I next came home on vacation, my grandmother’s home had been dismantled. Together with most of the rest of her personal possessions, the books from the bureau, including The Beach House, had gone to house clearance.

I never saw the book again.  I have never been able to find another copy.

*

If you’d asked me at the time if I’d heard of the Eden Book Society I would have said no. The Beach House for me was simply The Beach House – a book I loved as a teenager and that nobody but me seemed to have heard of. It was only much later, when I began taking a professional interest in horror fiction, that I started seeing references to the Eden Book Society in horror magazines. I still didn’t twig the connection between the Eden books and The Beach House, and it was only when someone on a panel at the World Horror Convention at Brighton a couple of years back happened to describe the cover of The Beach House exactly – they remembered it was an Eden book, but not the title or author – that I was able to join the dots.

For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Eden Book Society is that even though it existed right through until the internet age, there is still remarkably little information about either the society or its authors to be found online. There is no complete list of titles, for example – and this in spite of the efforts of various ardent Eden fans to put one together. Virtually every reader or writer of horror fiction you run into at conventions or film festivals or book events will have a story to tell you about an Eden book that particularly affected them, or about a mad year they spent going round second hand bookshops trying to fill the gaps in their Eden collection. What is more surprising – and actually quite weird – is how rarely you will find their story or memory or snippet of Eden folklore overlaps with your own.

It is almost as if our memories of Eden occupy parallel universes, with a different list of titles for every one.

When I first heard that Dead Ink had acquired the rights to the Eden back catalogue, I almost – almost – felt a twinge of regret. Would this wondrous slice of British horror history finally after all these years lose its mystique? The idea was terrifying, and rather sad. But on reflection I have come to the conclusion that we have nothing to fear. The Eden Book Society is bound to create new mysteries about itself, even as the old ones – some of them, anyway – are revealed. That is and always has been its nature. Most importantly, the books themselves – all long out of print – will be returned to us, and at affordable prices.

Which will be your favourite?