Monthly Archives: July 2012

Booker Longlist 2012

Oooh exciting!

At first glance, this looks to be one of the most inspiring Booker longlists in quite some time and so much better than last year’s. I applaud the comment from Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and this year’s chair of judges, stating that the main criterion for selection was that ‘a text has to reveal more, the more you read it.’

“If it’s disappointing that novels by famous writers aren’t there, then so be it. That’s the difference between Man Booker judges and buyers at Waterstones. We’re not looking for books that you can pick up in a shop and say ‘I must have that’. We’re looking for books that are good value for money, that you don’t leave on a beach, that you read again and again. I love the idea of people taking the longlist to read on the beach, but these are books I want people to bring back.”

As someone who believes that the best test of any great novel is the desire to reread it, nothing could please me more in this context than this kind of attitude. And I have to say I love the look of this longlist. It feels adventurous and ambitious. There’s style as well as story. There’s even some speculative fiction on there, by God! These are books you actually want to read and talk about.

I’m especially thrilled to see Sam Thompson’s debut Communion Town making a showing. I was lucky enough to have access to an ARC of this, and I thought it was wonderful. Its inclusion was a real surprise (whether it’s actually a novel is a debatable point) but a delightful one. My review of Communion Town will be up at Strange Horizons on Friday.

It’s also good to see Ned Beauman on there. I thought the first half of his debut Boxer, Beetle was excellent – sardonic, imaginative and just a little bit whacko – and although the book lost its way for me in the end (premise to die for, wasted on an inconsequential caper novel) I still think Beauman is a writer with amazing promise.

I’m a huge fan of both Nicola Barker and Hilary Mantel, so that’s two more ticks. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse has already been recommended to me by Nick Royle, and I can’t wait to read it. I like the sound of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home so much I’ll be ordering it as soon as I’ve finished writing this post. I’ve also just been listening to Jeet Thayill read from and talk about his novel Narcopolis. The prose is gorgeous – resolutely poetic and yet uncluttered – and the idea of this book excites me greatly.

Even the Will Self sounds interesting! My only regret is that I won’t have time to read the whole list before September, because ideally I’d love to blog each book and be a proper armchair judge this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to get part of the way there, though, and I know there’ll be plenty of informed opinion and debate cropping up online for me to enjoy as I go along.

Clearly the stink that was kicked up over last year’s Booker has had some effect. Let’s just hope we’ll be able to say the same about next year’s Clarke…..

Black Static #29

Just received my copy of the latest Black Static, and can’t resist sharing the wonderful artwork, by Ben Baldwin, that accompanies my story ‘Sunshine’.

I think it looks great! I also really like the new format for the magazine. It’s smaller, but there are more pages. The interior looks cleaner and crisper and with the slightly larger font size it’s actually much easier to read. The whole production has a very pleasing ‘journal-like’ feel to it and I’m delighted to see ‘Sunshine’ included in its pages. There’s plenty of other good stuff in there too that I’m looking forward to catching up with, including a novelette by Ray Cluley and an interview with Nicholas Royle.

You can find more details and subscription links here.

Currently reading: Denis Johnson’s Angels, which is pretty astounding.

Currently listening to: Kathryn Williams’s Dog Leap Stair. I’ve had the album for ages, but suddenly rediscovered it again and have been playing it over and over again this week. I find it almost impossible to listen to music when I’m first-drafting, but when I’m second-drafting and if things are going well it’s sometimes OK. What tends to happen is that I’ll find an album that fits with my rhythm, that seems to complement my thoughts rather than interrupting them, that fuses into a kind of weird symbiosis with the story itself. The two works – the story and the album – often remain inextricably linked in my mind. Considering what I’ve been writing about this week, its relationship with Kathryn Williams seems totally bizarre, but that’s the way it sometimes comes out.

Anyway, it seemed to work, because that story’s done now. Pleased with that. Now to begin a read-through of the first draft of my novel…..

Empty Space

M. John Harrison’s novel Empty Space, the final instalment in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, is published today.

The first thing I ever read by MJH was his story ‘The Ice Monkey’. I came upon the story completely by chance, in a second hand copy of an anthology called New Terrors 2. It was just a scrappy little Pan paperback, but I bought it the moment I saw it, firstly because it was edited by Ramsey Campbell and secondly because it contained a story by Christopher Priest (‘The Miraculous Cairn’) that I hadn’t read yet.

It’s interesting to look back at older anthologies (New Terrors 2 was first published in 1980) because they present a fascinating portrait of who has survived. NT2 contains stories by US horror stalwarts Robert Bloch and Charles L. Grant, both sadly no longer with us, both now members of horror’s hall of fame. There are a number of other stories by writers who were clearly promising at the time but who have since, for whatever reason, stopped publishing.

But of course it’s Priest and Harrison that stand out most strongly from this table of contents. Both young, both British, in 1980 both just getting into their stride, quite obviously these were the two to watch.I wonder what stories the anthologies of today will tell us in thirty years’ time?

‘The Ice Monkey’ bothered me. It bothered me because I’d never read anything like it before and I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to make of it. Here it was in a horror anthology, but although I found it acutely disturbing there was no way it could be placed in the same bracket as, say, the Charles L. Grant. Was it SF? Again, I wasn’t sure. It kind of reminded me of Ballard’s The Drought, another masterpiece I’d recently discovered, but it didn’t have anything so overtly SFnal as a world apocalypse going on in it.

I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it compelled and drew me and nagged at me. I knew I loved the writing, the imagery, that godawful abandoned house in the middle of an industrial wasteland. I knew that this, whatever the hell genre it was supposed to be, was the kind of story I wanted to be reading and learning about and I couldn’t keep away from it. I must have read that story three or four times right through before I could leave it alone. Subsequent to that I was thrilled to discover Signs of Life and, a little later, The Course of the Heart. I acquired MJH’s new collection Travel Arrangements as soon as it came out. I was sold.

When Light, the first book in what has come to be known as the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, was first published in 2002 I bought it eagerly but found myself a little bemused. The Brian Kearney strand – prizewinning physicist becomes serial killer in order to fend off existential monster – was precisely the kind of stuff I’d come to expect from MJH, home turf, if you like. But the interwoven stories of Ed Chianese and Seria Mau Genlicher? What was I, so at home in the disintegrating worlds of Choe Ashton and Isobel Avens, to make of these far future montages, which seemed to me inextricably enmeshed in quantum ironies, so multilayered I could scarcely untangle them. They were also such…… fun. Fun makes me nervous. What was I supposed to do with it?

I wasn’t sure, so I kind of left my thoughts about the book in limbo. Nova Swing, when it appeared in 2006, I found easier to penetrate. It seemed to be a loving and awesomely creative riff on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, a touchstone book for me since forever, and this presented me with a ‘way of reading’ the Light books that began to give me a clearer insight into what MJH was doing – with SF, with the trilogy, with his writing. On completing Nova Swing I read Light again and this time I got it immediately.  I laughed, I cried (this is literally true) and it was a revelation. When I recently reread Light for a third time, as a preparation and a lead-in to reading the final act of the trilogy in Empty Space, I found it so good it was frightening, the kind of book that, as a writer, makes you sit down and bury your head in your arms and keep saying ‘shit.’

It’s hard to talk about Empty Space without referring back to the other two books, because of course you’ll find characters reappearing, story threads unravelling or, occasionally, tying themselves up, moods and places and events recurring in droves. But you’ll also find that Empty Space is a rather different kind of book from either of its two predecessors, which are both in turn rather different from one another. If Light was the definitive grand opera of space opera, the exact point where SF stops being SF and becomes proper metaphysics, and Nova Swing was an intrepidly successful experiment in time travel, both backwards and forwards,  then Empty Space is a meditation, both a resolution and deconstruction of its own (totally awesome) internal narrative. If Light segued effortlessly into metaphysics, then Empty Space segues effortlessly into poetry. MJH has repeatedly cited T. S. Eliot as an early influence, and if Nova Swing takes you deeper into the Zone, Empty Space revisits ‘The Waste Land’, only not then, and more so.

You can read Empty Space – or either of the other two – perfectly well on its own. Its internal logic and poetry makes it complete and completely satisfying unto itself. But read one, and trust me you will demand to read the others!

In his recent interview with Simon Ings at ARCfinity, MJH talks about there being ‘no contradiction’ in his mind between the Light books ‘giving good value’ as space opera whilst at the same time making the whole concept of space opera rock in its foundations. To say that all three books – both singly and together – succeed, absolutely, on both levels is kind of a cataclysmic understatement. I loved the story of Empty Space, as story I was barely able to put it down. But Empty Space is so much more than just story. At a sentence level, as writing, Empty Space is like an infinite jewel casket. As a novel, it makes you pull up short and reappraise everything you’ve ever read or tried to write. As a statement on where we are now, where we are headed and what the fuck we think we’re going to be doing when we get there, Empty Space is a nostalgic reverie, a philosophical treatise, a thrown gauntlet.

Buy it and read it and start discussing it asap.

The witching hour

After loving Mr Fox (and previous to that The Icarus Girl) I’ve been using my reading time this week to catch up with Helen Oyeyemi’s third novel, White is for Witching. I remember the reviews at the time being mixed, which is most likely why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it.

Turns out I was a total idiot. Taking too much notice of reviews like this, a distinctly sour-faced write-up which seems to ignore the point of the book so entirely as to make it meaningless, always carries with it the risk that you’ll end up missing out on something truly worthwhile, the kind of book that divides the critics, because it’s unclassifiable, because it’s elusive, because it’s difficult.

Trust the writer, not the reviewer, I say.

And White is for Witching is not difficult, for God’s sake. It’s complicated, yes – and deeply complex. It jumps back and forth in time and between narrators. Its language alternates between a lively and illustrative contemporary vernacular and the high poetry of witchcraft, densely allusive. Its stories are nested one within the other, back touching stomach, spooned together as its two principal characters, Miranda and Ore, lie spooned together, their knees hooked at dangerous right angles, like the legs of spiders. Times, cultures, terrors, manias, all intertwined like lovers, like interlocking pieces of some beautifully constructed and arcane jigsaw puzzle.

But all this does is to make the book sublime, not difficult, and certainly not ‘difficult’ or, even worse, ‘confused.’

Helen Oyeyemi is so for real. She’s a writer bursting with natural talent – her prose has that instinctive assurance, that quality of wildfire, that is a sure sign that she was born to do this – yet she is also a writer acutely aware of what she is doing. Her literary sensibility, her understanding of the texts that inspired her (Dracula, Uncle Silas, The Fall of the House of Usher) makes White is for Witching possibly the most elegant and knowing homage to the high Gothic that I have ever read, whilst at the same time extending the reach of this novel far beyond that, to encompass contemporary concerns in a direct and bold and strikingly original way.

White is for Witching is also bloody terrifying. In stark contrast with The Guardian‘s reviewer, I found the sense of mounting claustrophobia in the novel, especially in the scenes near the end where Ore is trying to make her escape from the house, to be as unsettling and actively upsetting as anything in Dracula and more so. This is now, after all, this is here. There’s an acute sense of realism in White is for Witching, of believability, that still has me absolutely spellbound.

This book is brilliant, in every sense. Read it. And do listen to Helen Oyeyemi talking about White is for Witching here.

After finishing the first draft of the novel last week I am now leaving it to simmer while I catch up on a couple of other smaller but not unimportant bits and pieces. I’ve been finishing my author profile for PS, to accompany the release of Stardust, and now I’m completely absorbed in writing the piece that will complete my collection for NewCon, to be published in 2013 as part of the Imaginings series of short story collections. The story is called ‘Higher Up’ and I’m within touching distance of finishing a first draft. It’s rather different from the story I thought it was going to be but – well, I’m kind of liking that.

A beautiful achievement

I’m delighted to hear that Sarah Hall has been named the winner of this year’s Edge Hill Prize for the best short story collection to be published in 2011. Her collection The Beautiful Indifference also carried off the Readers’ Prize, awarded to the collection judged to be the best by Edge Hill students.

I read The Beautiful Indifference at the back end of last year and loved it completely. I tend to prefer collections that consist of fewer, longer stories rather than a random host of unconnected shorter ones, and Hall’s collection, with its seven fine stories, three of them at almost novella length, certainly delivered on that score. I felt particularly drawn to the sense of unease that runs through all these pieces – ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, which was selected for Granta’s ‘Horror Issue’ in October last year, was undoubtedly my favourite horror story of 2011, and the title story, ‘The Beautiful Indifference’, left me mute with admiration.

Although the stories are different from one another in terms of their subject matter and narrative voice, I never strayed far from the sense that they were nonetheless linked, through their tone, which is one of dread, of trouble in waiting, and then of course through their language, which is resplendent, richly coloured, accomplished in that way that feels effortless and yet is the mark of highest craftsmanship.

SF readers will already know Sarah Hall for The Carhullan Army, which was shortlisted for the Clarke in 2008. These stories are more proof that Hall does have a slipstream temperament. I sincerely hope she will want to explore this territory further in future works. In the meantime, I do recommend this wonderful collection one-hundred percent.

Congratulations to Sarah Hall. Brilliant result.

Very pleased also to see that novellas four and five in the aforementioned TTA novellas project have now been announced. I’m particulary glad to see that Country Dark, by James Cooper, will be part of the line-up.  James is a fantastic writer, and if you’ve not yet read his collection The Beautiful Red then you’re in for a treat. This is weird fiction of the highest quality, compelling and dark and weird and wonderfully crafted. For me, it has that quality of genuine and genuinely frightening strangeness I look forward to in my favourite Robert Aickman stories.

A new story by James Cooper is always something to savour – and to learn from.

In other news, I’m happy to report that I finished the first draft of the novel on Thursday. If I haven’t said anything before it’s because I’m still feeling slightly bemused.

More on this in due course!

Spin

I’m delighted to be able to announce that TTA Press will be publishing my novella Spin. This is a brand new work – you might remember me mentioning it towards the end of last year – and I’m really excited about it, because after all the usual messing around I have to contend with when I’m getting started (I think there are three different beginnings for this one, all of them still in files on my hard drive) I was pleased with the way it turned out and this story remains very important to me.

Spin is a highly personal reimagining of a Greek myth. It’s a story I began work on shortly after returning from a visit to the place where my father now lives, a small village in the Peloponnese not far from where Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin once both had their homes. The Mani is a stunning and unique place, rich in mythology and with a proud historical tradition of independence from the Greek mainland. What I wanted from Spin most of all was to convey a sense of that fierceness of spirit and its embodiment in the landscape, its dry earth, its heat, its continually evolving potential for story.

As you’ll see from Ben Baldwin‘s marvellous cover art it also contains spiders.

I’m sure I’ll be saying more about Spin in due course, with an update on the publication schedule as it’s made available. In advance of that, TTA Press are currently running a special limited time subscription on their new line of novellas, whereby you can pre-order the first five titles for just £25 post free to anywhere in the world. As well as Spin, the titles so far announced are Eyepennies by Mike O’Driscoll and Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone. Titles four and five to be revealed shortly! You can read more about the TTA novellas project here.