Monthly Archives: November 2013

Joel Lane

I had a bad shock earlier this evening, when I learned that Joel Lane has died.

Joel was just fifty years old. He never enjoyed the best of health, and he’d been under some strain recently because his mother has not been well, but his tragically early death is something no one could have anticipated, never in a million years. It’s truly awful. I can still scarcely take in the news.

Joel’s name first became known to me in the late 1990s, when I started reading The Third Alternative and many of the Year’s Best fantasy and horror anthologies. Joel rapidly became one of my favourite new writers. I identified with his style at once – his anxiety at being, ingrained awareness of the numinous and the rock solid sense of place that was always a prominent characteristic of his work sang out to me, the weird, dark music of a comrade in arms, and I began to actively seek out his stories.

I read his first novel, From Blue to Black, with grateful astonishment as one of the finest pieces of writing about music I have ever encountered. How this work is not better known is an absolute mystery to me, and I know was a source of disappointment to him. The novel that followed it, The Blue Mask, was very nearly as fine. I read him with delighted envy as a core inspiration, recognising him as someone I wanted to emulate.

I first became acquainted with Joel personally at a book launch in 2007, and was thrilled when he later invited me to submit a story to the anthology he edited with Allyson Bird, Never Again, stories against tyranny in aid of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. I was delighted to meet up with Joel again properly at the Nottingham FantasyCon in 2010, where the book was launched. We corresponded regularly after that, and met up many times at various events. I found him to be the most gentle of men, a self deprecating, wryly humorous presence. He always had a story to tell, he was always generous with his time, and with himself. I remember we especially enjoyed sitting on the ghost story panel together at last year’s FantasyCon – two Aickmanites against the Jamesians, we loved every moment.

One of the highlights of this year’s World Fantasy Convention was hearing Joel’s name read out as winner of the World Fantasy Award for his most recent collection, Where Furnaces Burn. Not only is it a beautiful collection, but the award was so well deserved, so much the right choice, it was a fitting moment. Sadly Joel could not be there to collect the award as his mother was in hospital, but I wrote to him about it afterwards and I know he was thrilled.

Joel and I last exchanged emails just a few days ago. I was eager to know when the second part of the extended essay he was writing on Robert Aickman was going to be ready for me to read – Joel’s knowledge of and passion for weird fiction was incredibly extensive, and more insightful than I can easily describe. I loved his non-fiction almost as much as I loved his fiction, and I was looking forward to that essay with genuine excitement. He told me he’d been sleeping better, and presented me with a short and gritty poem he’d recently written on the passing of Margaret Thatcher. He also said something that now seems eerily prescient, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing these words, which sum up Joel and his attitude to life with a wonderful perfection:

“A crude, dogmatic pessimism has now become so prevalent on the internet that I’m becoming more focused on a sort of critical optimism, a sense of ‘seize the day before ithe night comes back’, that I think has always been my core attitude, and that’s helping me a lot at the moment.”

A treasured friend and colleague, a beautiful writer, a special person. I am already missing him very much.

EDIT 30/11/13: read heartfelt tributes to Joel from Simon Bestwick, Lynda Rucker, and Conrad Williams, among many others.

Fifty years. Who’d have thought it?

Yes, it’s true. If I were writing a story about the Doctor I’d make him more of an explorer and less (much less) of a superhero. I’d forbid him from towing planets with the TARDIS, or penetrating the lower atmosphere on a motorbike (whose idea was that, exactly??) I’d swap fantasy for proper science fiction. I’d bring back the cliffhanger, or at the very least introduce ninety-minute episodes that could explore deeper concepts on a broader canvas and thus removing the irksome necessity of having everything resolved (too often preposterously) in the last five minutes. I would love to write a companion with a life of his or her own, desires and ambitions that did not centre directly around the Doctor, decisions to make other than which bloke they most wanted to spend their life with.

But isn’t that the glory of Doctor Who? That you can imagine, or re-imagine it for yourself? That the nature of the story actively invites you to do so? That the concept at the story’s core is that simple and that personal? A traveller in space and time, the places he goes and the people he meets and the things that happen. There’s nothing new in this and that’s its beauty. The idea of the Eternal Wanderer is as old as story. What makes it new is – you.

When I came upstairs yesterday evening after watching The Day of the Doctor, I found an email from my dad, asking if I was still hiding behind the sofa after all these years and telling me he was thinking of me. And to think that millions of similar emails, messages, tweets were being exchanged by millions of others in that same moment, all over the world – that alone would make the show something special.

I started watching Doctor Who when I was six years old. I was passionately committed to it from that first unbelieving encounter right up until I left home for university. I have never entirely shaken off the secret belief that the programme was created especially for me. There are good episodes and there are bad episodes (oh, and then some), but it was Doctor Who that first opened my imagination to the realms of the fantastic and for this reason alone I could never not love it.

I thought The Day of the Doctor was a true classic, a worthy and joyful celebration of these past fifty years in the TARDIS. It was funny, moving, knowing, it looked gorgeous, and most importantly of all it was beautifully scripted. (Any script for Doctor Who that gets the Priestian seal of approval – ‘Yes, there were some bits that were really quite good’ – can’t be half bad!) I thought John Hurt was marvellous, a Doctor to die for, and it’s just a pity he can’t stay on for a season or two, or ten…

Tom Baker’s cameo brought real tears to my eyes. The quiet dignity of it, the very physical reminder of thirty years passing, that this is what time does, to all of us.

Good job.

It’s been a wonderful weekend of celebration, which deserves a huge and heartfelt thanks to everyone involved, past, present and future. As our own contribution, here’s a little missing fragment of Whovian history, a hint at what might have been, what might still be..? Yes, those two scripts still exist, I’ve read them, they’re good. Imagine on that.



Nina’s Crime Blog #5

The Lighthouse by P.D. James

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Cornwall, visiting my mother and doing the kind of things I always look forward to during those visits – touring around the Lizard and Penwith peninsulas, checking out the latest art exhibitions. We were lucky with the weather and it was an invigorating, inspiring few days all round. Something else I look forward to when I visit Cornwall is the train journey. It takes eight hours, pretty much, door to door, which makes it a bit of a long haul. The upside, of course, is that there’s nothing else to do during those hours but read.

I took two new SF novels with me. Both have been enthusiastically received, both look set to feature on awards shortlists in 2014. I found myself crushingly disappointed with both. I’ll have more specific things to say around Clarke time, no doubt, but for now I’ll summarize by saying that I found the first of these novels to be an accomplished and committed piece of work but not nearly as original as it thought it was. In the end, for me, it proved too shallow for its subject matter, all shiny surfaces and no characterisation. The second, whilst straining hard for Le Guinian reach and strength of purpose, struggled to come even close to Le Guin’s achievement, stylistically or intellectually. Reading it felt to me like being trapped inside one of the more interminable episodes of original Star Trek. One long infodump, once again zero characterisation, and tedious with it.

Have we lived and fought in vain, I grumbled to myself as The Cornishman finally pulled into Truro station. But the horror was not over. I looked forward to selecting something more inspiring to read from my mother’s shelves, but here also I would find myself thwarted. My mother is an eclectic and avid reader, but unlike me she is a convert to the Kindle. As she now does most of her novel-reading onscreen, the space given over to fiction on her bookshelves is decreasing. I couldn’t face Anita Brookner and I’d read all the E. M. Forsters, and so it was that I ended up choosing a 2005 novel by P. D. James, The Lighthouse. I could cover it for my crime blog, I thought, and by happy coincidence it turned out to be set in Cornwall.

I read a lot of P. D. James in my twenties, and enjoyed her a lot. In my memory, those novels of hers I liked best – Devices and Desires, The Black Tower, A Taste for Death, The Skull Beneath the Skin and especially the non-series Innocent Blood – had been meaty psychological studies tending towards weirdness and satisfyingly heavy on sense of place. I was curious to see how I might find her now. It had been well over a decade since I last picked up a PDJ, and I read differently now in any case. Everything I read, I read as a writer. I am looking for different things. I am definitely more critical, less easily satisfied.

The God of Bad Books clearly had it in for me this weekend, because reading The Lighthouse was not an edifying experience. The story, as in all country house murder mysteries and their many variants, is a simple one and none the worse for that: a famous writer, Nathan Oliver, goes missing on the exclusive Cornish island-retreat of Combe. Shortly afterwards he is found dead. Is it suicide, or murder? Inspector Adam Dalgleish and two more junior officers are summoned to find out. The small cast of suspects are introduced and questioned in the traditional way. More trouble ensues as old eminities are uncovered and the case is further complicated when Dalgleish suddenly goes down with SARS. This plot development in particular comes across as contrived and banal – three guesses which ‘superbug’ was hitting the headlines when James was writing this one. Rifling current news stories is always a risk for a writer – one wrong move and your book will appear catastrophically dated almost before it is published. P. D. James’s SARS subplot falls harder than a lead balloon. Sadly this is not the only problem with this novel.

As I recall it was PDJ herself who compared the country house murder mystery with the poetic form of the sonnet: far from being restrictive, having to adhere to a recognised plot structure is actually freeing and no bar to originality, no matter how many other writers have been there before you. I have no problem with that idea – you only have to consider the infinite possible variations of a 12-bar blues to see the truth in it.

But when a writer gets lazy, problems begin. James does not so much create a variation upon a theme as present us with another tired repetition of that theme,  using masses of extraneous detail as a mask for clunky writing. We go along with it because we love the idea of the story and because we want to know what happens. Even when PDJ presented me with a completely redundant 30-page prologue (in which Dalgleish and his officers are (re)introduced and the scene set, all information I would encounter again in the following pages) I still wanted to know what happened. Two hundred pages and many needless repetitions, embarrassing passages of dialogue and teeth-grittingly out-of-touch social observations later I felt angry with and embarrassed for the writer and desperate to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible.

I had a similar experience recently when reading Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, coincidentally also first published in 2005. I love Vine’s earlier novels – they’re richly observed, compelling, suspenseful, enviably fine work. But this one just seemed… half cock. The crises seemed false, the characters misjudged, and the moral climate inextricably and inappropriately immured in the 1950s. Thus in The Lighthouse we have PDJ attempting to bring her narrative up to date in small and largely insignificant ways – Dalgleish writes his reports on a laptop, people communicate using mobile phones – whilst failing utterly in terms of the overall ambience. Characters make reference to contemporary novels and television programmes, the author is not shy of dating her narrative specifically in the early 2000s – and yet this is still a world of butlers, boarding schools and housekeepers, of burning shame over illegitimate parentage, of adult offspring unconvincingly in thrall to despotic fathers. James speaks of ‘the race warriors’ and ‘the animal rights people’ in bland and occasionally offensive terms of received opinion rather than personal passion and one cannot escape the feeling that these were subjects she thought she ‘ought’ to include rather than issues she actually wanted to write about. I don’t even want to talk about her cringe-inducing characterisation of Emma Lavenham’s (lesbian) college friend, and I found her attempts to convey street vernacular particularly horrible. Here’s eighteen-year-old Millie, a runaway from Peckham who is treated by the rest of the assembled cast as if she were still in nappies, vehemently countering insinuations that the murder victim might have been interested in her sexually:

“That’s disgusting. Course he didn’t. He’s old. He’s older than Mr Maycroft. It’s gross. It wasn’t like that. He never touched me. You saying he was a perv or something? You saying he was a paedo?” (p235)

This might not be so bad, were it not for the fact that Millie alone is presumed to speak in this way, while everyone else, regardless of age or gender, continues to hold forth in the same pompous brand of BBC English like characters from Brief Encounter. Dalgleish’s deputy Kate Miskin is not that much older than Millie, yet her dialogue makes her sound like the headmistress of a pre-war girls’ grammar school:

“The vestments when finished must be heavy and valuable. How do you get them to the recipients?” (p312)

I don’t think I’d be alone in finding something of a credibility gap here.

There is a perfectly good story hidden at the heart of The Lighthouse, but the novel as it stands is not it. It’s careless, misjudged, cumbersome, and stuffed with unnecessary padding. It’s awful to see James struggling to make her work appear more socially ‘relevant’. Literary ventriloquism of this kind is invariably a mistake – James would do far better taking the time and trouble to write in her own voice, on subjects and about characters that genuinely inspire her.

It’s disturbing to note that if this were a first novel by an unknown writer, such bum notes would see it laughed out of court. (See Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo for a still more egregious example of unearned approbation.) No writer should rest on her laurels, no matter how verdant. I admire P. D. James greatly for the determination she demonstrated in becoming a writer in the first place, for her tenacity and commitment, for the continuing pleasure she clearly takes in what she does. I only wish I could admire her actual writing more than I do.

The Bowl of Cthulhu, by Monica Allan

Cottages, St Just

The Pier, Porthleven

Buildings, St Keverne

Nina’s Crime Blog #4

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Devlin came closer. He felt overcome – though by what kind of sentiment, he did not exactly know. George Shepard’s whisky had warmed his chest and stomach – there was a blurry tightness in his skull, a blurry heat behind his eyes – but the gaoler’s story had made him feel wretched, even chilled. Perhaps he was about to weep. It would feel good to weep. What a day it had been. His heart was heavy, his limbs exhausted. He looked down at Anna and Emery, their mirrored bodies, facing in. They were breathing in tandem.

So they are lovers, he thought looking down at them. So they are lovers, after all. He knew it from the way that they were sleeping. (The Luminaries, p622)

“It is complex in its design, yet accessible in its narrative and prose. Its plot is engrossing in own right, but an awareness of the structure working behind it deepens one’s pleasure and absorption. As a satisfying murder mystery, it wears its colours proudly, yet it is not afraid to subvert and critique the traditions and conventions of its genre. Best of all, while maintaining a wry self-awareness about its borrowings and constructions, it is never a cynical novel. At times, it can be unapologetically romantic, in both its narrative content and its attitude towards the literary tradition it emulates. It is a novel that can be appreciated on many different levels, but which builds into a consistent and harmonious whole.” (Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books. A superb review – read it.)

A man walks into a bar. His name is Walter Moody and he has just arrived in the New Zealand goldmining town of Hokitika. He’s seeking rest, sustenance and a little peace and quiet after a harrowing sea voyage. The first two are what The Crown hotel’s business is all about, the third seems less immediately attainable as Moody is pitched almost at once into a mystery that will take some months and not a little bloodshed to be fully resolved. And even then there are some mysteries that even the most adroit of detectives – for everyone in this novel is to some extent his or her own detective – cannot fully explain.

The twelve men previously gathered in the bar of The Crown elect Moody as their confidante. He is newly arrived, he knows none of them, any advice or worldly wisdom he might have to offer must surely be objective. But Moody himself has a story to tell, a tale of terror that will finally reveal him to be connected to the men in the bar in ways that could never have been remotely guessed at when first he happened to enter upon the stage.

You won’t see The Luminaries advertised as a crime novel. But at its most basic level that’s precisely what it is: a rollicking great belter of a murder mystery that will keep you entertained and in suspense until the final page. In its massive story arc, its picture perfect character studies, its punctilious and awe inspiring attention to detail, it does in many ways bear kinship with the best of the ‘box set’ TV series Catton has said she admires.

I’ve thought a great deal about how to describe the experience of reading this book, and the best I can come up with is to liken it to completing one of those maddeningly complex 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles your gran used to keep on top of her wardrobe: at first there seem to be so many disparate elements you despair at ever making sense of it, but the more you stick with it, nibbling away at the edges, the more pieces fit into place until suddenly, there you are, whacking those odd-shaped little chunks of wood into their spaces as if they were pixels, flowing seamlessly together to make a lustrous, singular and inexorable whole.

I find myself utterly bemused by those critics who have dismissed this novel as Victorian pastiche. As with Catton’s debut The Rehearsal, I have seldom come across a book more self-aware, more clearly and keenly intent on its purpose. That Catton is able to sing her way into the rhythms and cadences of nineteenth century realism with such adroit and pleasing technical accomplishment is just one of the many talents this writer has put on display. In her use of irony – social, literary, historical – and her delightfully dextrous (for she wears her huge ability so lightly) manipulation of her subject matter I can think of few to better her and in a second novel even fewer. Catton has blown the curse of the ‘difficult second novel’ out of the water.

When this year’s Booker longlist was announced, the two novels that immediately interested me the most were Richard House’s The Kills (because I loved the idea of it from the outset) and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (because I thought her first novel was outstanding and I was eager to find out what she’d done next). Now that I’ve read both, I can say with confidence that they are equally worth your time. As crime novels they are both vast in ambition, superlative in achievement, and bloody exciting into the bargain. As contributions to the ongoing project of The Novel, they are both brave, inspiring and yes, bloody exciting. They are also both so wonderfully different from each other. Although my first instinct would have declared The Kills to be more immediately relevant, more  harrowing, more gripping even, as I waded deeper and deeper into The Luminaries I found myself obliged to reconsider. Catton’s novel is equally gripping and harrowing (when I discovered the truth about how Anna came to be in the situation in which we find her at the beginning of the novel I experienced a depth of rage as potent as any I felt while reading The Kills, not least because much the same thing is happening to vulnerable young women on the streets of our cities at this very moment) – it just has a different way of speaking.

You will need stamina to read The Luminaries. You will need to invest both your time and your patience as you pick your way through the intricate pathways of the novel’s long and complex opening section. But it will be a wise investment with a significant return, as you glean from it the truest and best pleasure that reading has to offer: the sense of personal discovery and growth that is almost invariably the product of intimate and prolonged contact with a diverse, original and practised imagination.

I loved this book. Bravo.

John Tavener R.I.P.

So sad to hear that the composer John Tavener has died, at just 69 years of age.

I was listening to him only yesterday on Radio 4’s Start the Week, together with Jeanette Winterson, Andrew Marr and John Drury in a most fascinating discussion on the subject of art and faith.

The sense he had, of living on borrowed time after coming ‘back from the dead’ following a series of unexplained heart attacks, reminded me of another favourite composer, Alfred Schnittke, who died still more prematurely at the age of 64.

I just found this wonderful interview Tavener gave to Tom Service at the Manchester International Music Festival in July:

His physical burdens seem to disappear the moment he starts talking about music, though: his face beams as he tells me about the epiphanies he had while listening to Mozart and Stravinsky at the age of 12. “They made me want to write music,” he says.

As an artist, Tavener has much in common with composers such as Gorecki, Kancheli and Silvestrov, who began their careers as modernists but later found expression in a looser, more overtly expressive style that might be described as ‘lyrical minimalism’. It’s so interesting to read how he was beginning to find renewed inspiration in the more intellectually rigorous late works of Beethoven and Elliot Carter.

Britain has been blessed with whole generations of incredibly gifted composers throughout the twentieth century. Tavener’s special gift lay in touching so many who previously believed they couldn’t understand or find a way into contemporary music.

Sleep well, John. And thank you, so much.

John Tavener in 2005 phoyo by Clestu

Best Newcomer

So – that was World FCon, one crazy weekend, and the third year in a row that Brighton has played host to a convention of the fantastic. This year’s revels were bigger, noisier, and considerably wetter than in previous years. Dashing through the streets of Brighton without benefit of coat or umbrella is a) stupid and b) best undertaken only when suitably fortified with generous helpings of sliced pork in hot chili oil, as served by the superb Sichuan Garden restaurant on Queen’s Road.

Con highlights for me included Ian Whates’s wonderfully warm and insightful interview with Tanith Lee, and Neil Gaiman’s interview with Susan Cooper, who held her large audience completely enthralled. It was an honour to be present.

Best of all, perhaps, was seeing Helen Marshall take the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Some of you may remember me reviewing Helen’s debut collection Hair Side, Flesh Side for Strange Horizons, and the book remains for me one of 2012’s standout titles. The jury certainly got this one right, and it’s great to know that Helen is already deep into working on new material.

Visit Helen’s website here, where you can sample her work and share all her latest updates.