From Lovecraft to Kafka, from Akutagawa to Walpole – the first month of weird

fox_spiritI wondered if reading the amazing compendium of The Weird would have an effect on my mind, memory or dreams. I decided to read an average of 1 story per day over winter. These stories are tales of ghosts and gods, supernatural and preternatural and I thought that reading so many might infect me in some way.

So, with the first 30 days over with I’ve read 25. Which I think is ok. Not great but not bad. The authors haven’t particularly leapt out at me, other than James, Lovecraft and Kafka. I guess there’s a reason why they’re so well known, in the west in any case. I have to say, however, that with only a couple of exceptions, I haven’t found them particularly weird. They generally have traditional short story structures, be they long or short, and are all written in the style of the times – the early 20th century. Most are dry narrations.

So, my favourites so far are probably Blackwood’s The Willows, Merritt’s The People of the Pit, Irwin’s The Book, and Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats. I also enjoyed the stories by Akutagawa (The Hell Screen), Walpole (The Tarn) and James (Casting the Runes).

As I mentioned, only a few have been genuinely weird in my eyes. I guess Kafka’s In the Penal Colony has an oddness about it, especially the premise if not the style. The stand outs are probably the aforementioned Hagiwara Sakutaro’s story of a town fully inhabited by the spirits of cats which bends reality effectively, and Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass. In this tale, you’re never sure of what is happening and why. It is an unsettling story of a man visiting his father in a sanatorium, where time seems to run differently for different people, and everyone sleeps most of the time.

But no oddities in my reality thus far. 25 tales of the weird in 30 days and not a dream or thought out of place. Is that a good thing? I’m a tad disappointed, but I’m cracking on…

Winter of (not so) Weird – Initial impressions

I don’t know if my expectations are skewed or my definition of weird is different to most, but 6 stories in (in 10 days, I know, I’m already slacking) and I’m barely getting the weird. Only Lord Dunsany’s very short story comes close to what I think is weird.

So, what do we have so far?

Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side is the utterly forgettable opener. In fact, without looking back at it I can barely remember what it was about. Some kind of sleeping sickness and maybe a plague. Or is it a dream? A bit Lovecraftian I suppose, but not at all what I would have hoped for to get my winter of weird under way.

Algernon Blackwood.jpgThe Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford is a much better and more memorable tale of a revenge from beyond the grave with a suitably grizzly conclusion. And this followed by Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows is a terrific one two. The latter is a genuinely creepy tale of two men lost in a flooded river surrounded by who knows what. Some great supernatural set-pieces and characterisation of terror. However, they are both – in my eyes – just great ghost stories. The mysterious creatures in The Willows might well be unknown inter-dimensional beasts, but ghosts would equally fill the role.

However, Saki’s Sredni Vashtar is a nicely odd little tale of a personal god, and revenge. Which I liked a lot, especially the idea that a deity would understand a vague prayer. Both this, and Lord Dunsany’s How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art are the shorter stories and all the weirder for it. In fact, having on read the later yesterday, I’m still not sure what it was about. Suitably odd and although I preferred Saki’s, this was the kind of thing I expected.

Sandwiched in between these oddities is the brilliantly classic Casting the runes by M.R. James. However, it is just a devilish tale, nothing too weird or different. Just a delicious read.

I’d heard of all the above authors except Saki, and had some expectations. The next batch from 1912 up to Kafka’s 1919 In the Penal Colony are all completely new names to be. Bring on the weirdness.

Image credit: Algernon Henry Blackwood By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31294059

Favourite 7 literary monsters

I’ve only read one piece of fiction, if memory serves, about a Mummy. Interestingly, it was called The Mummy, and it wasn’t very good. By Jane Loudon, it was originally published in 1827, and set in the future, which is at odds with many concepts of the Mummy as a horror icon. I mention this only in passing as momentum starts to build towards to the new Universal Monster share universe. I’m a huge fan of some of the original Universal movies, especially Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (which of course, as everyone knows, should be called Bride of the Monster), and the later Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – sadly I’ve never read a book featuring a gill-man.

FrankensteinSo, as news trickles through of these films, I got to thinking about what were my favourite monsters in literature – the classical kind, that is. So here I present, the forgottengeek guide to monsters that I’ve read. So not at all comprehensive then!

We will start, naturally, with one of my all-time favourite books and winner in the category of man-made monster. Not much more can be said about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). My original review is here. What many people don’t realise (those fools that haven’t read it), is that much of the classic cinematic imagery of the good doctor in his laboratory building the creature isn’t at all in the book. The monster is a fairly sympathetic character until his encounters with people make him a monster.

We, as a species, are good at making monsters. In fiction at least. There are supernatural and there are man-made zombies. My recommendation for the latter type is Feed (2010) by Mira Grant. The first book in her ‘Newsflesh’ books, the zombies Grant creates are a result of the mixing of two initially beneficial viruses. Set in the future, the story of the apocalypse and how it came about is told via media-savvy bloggers. The zombies themselves are fairly peripheral characters – attacks are rare. As in the best horror, the humans are worse monsters…Plus it has a character called Buffy! What’s not to love.

kalixI’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but there is no better depiction of the werewolf than Kalix and her clan in Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007) and sequels. Kalix is a loner but is surrounded by an absolute menagerie of colourful characters. Millar’s imagination and skill as an author are formidable, and Kalix is a werewolf everyone should spend time with. There is plenty of horror in this series as well. Werewolves, hunters and others regularly destroy each other. Kalix is a lot more complex that you might think. She’s not just a miserable teen goth, but a unique and special person trying to understand her place in the world.

Again, there are elements of both horror and humanity in Sunshine (2003) by Robin McKinley. This novel is my favourite vampire book and features the enigmatic Constantine as the vampire who comes to find a connection with Sunshine; a baker and magician who narrates this tale. There is an ethereal darkness and a surreal brightness to Sunshine that might be seen as an exemplar for vampire tales. Constantine can be interpreted as a sympathetic vampire – a bit like Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer perhaps? But that’s how the reader can relate, and how Sunshine becomes his friend. And by the way, Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is boring!

The Golem and the DjinniI’ve only read one work of fiction featuring a Golem/Gollum. I talked about Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni (2014) before over here. Of course it also features a djinni, another classic horror monster.           There is little horror here at all; only fear of loneliness and of being a migrant in a strange city. Like Kalix, both the golem and the djinni are finding their way in a strange world. Wecker’s depiction of the golem having to hide its inherent golem-ness even though it would mean an easier life is poignant. The djinni is a creative character who again must come to terms with being different.

Are ghosts monsters? Any more than a golem, for example? In The Haunting Of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, you might ask, are there even ghosts? Is the house itself evil and malevolent? Too many questions. What I love about Jackson’s short novel is that the tension and creepiness is palpable. Whether or not Eleanor is being haunted by a ghost, a house, or whether it’s all in her mind are irrelevant. It is the power of Jackson’s writing that sends shivers down your spine and means you sleep with the lights on.

Again, I’ve not read too many books with a witch as a monster but Hex (2015) by Thomas Olde Heuvelt stands out. The witch in this Kingian tale of small town America is a human creation – a woman persecuted back in the day, and now taunted by bored teens. Like many of the monsters here, you side with her at times, or at least understand her motivations. Humans are the bad guys once more. Olde Heuvelt’s writing is enjoyable. A proper horror page-turner in tune with the modern age. As all good horror fiction should be.

Monsters of a less tangible nature that get the nod in this list are The Stand (1990) by Stephen King, of course. Man makes the plague that wipes out most of humanity, and evil comes to town in the undefinable presence of Randall Flagg. A demon, a man, an evil wizard, or something else? Perhaps a little like Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, and Steven King’s The Shining (1980) – ok, a hotel but still a building – it is the house itself (maybe) that is the monster in Mark Z Danielewski’s remarkable House of Leaves (2000). Hard to describe, it is a work of metafictional genius that creeps the hell out of me! Read it. A nod of course must go to another Universal monster, the classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is much weirder than you might imagine and although short, highlights the inner struggle between good and evil, and the external struggle between classes in Victorian Britain.

Interest in horror has always been high and there appears to be a resurgence of interest in the classics. Read these books as a starting point, then go and explore.

Ripley: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”. Aliens (1986).

I must read Cabal (1988) by Clive Barker at some point – Midian sounds like a fun place!

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

The Somnambulist and the Psychic ThiefThe fantasy and science fiction written in Victorian times has a very male bias. Often, novels only feature women as cooks or maids or worse. In modern, more enlightened times, much of the fantasy and science fiction set in Victorian times are a whole let misogynist. Which can only be a good thing. In The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle, the protagonists are female and male detectives, and while some characters within this novel act surprised by Miss Lane’s chosen profession, the fact that she’s a woman is not a barrier to a cracking page-turner of a mystery.

Miss X is a leading light in the Psychical Society and Miss Lane is her friend and collaborator, until the latter discovers the former is a fraud. She ups sticks from Scotland and heads to London, not at all convinced she knows what tomorrow might bring. En route from the train station to an employment bureau, she finds herself swiftly in the employ of Mr Jasper Jesperson, detective, and with a room alongside the same and his mother. Times are tough, and cases aren’t so forthcoming. With some imagination and charm, the detectives almost conjure up a case out of nothing, from their landlord in exchange for rent. They are to look into a somnambulist and to find out why after many years the sleepwalking has returned. Soon, the detectives are investigating the disappearance of several mediums while a new star in the spiritualist world, America’s Mr Chase, is taking London by storm.

Tuttle’s story is a genuine mystery, set against the backdrop of the London’s society being fascinated with all things spiritual; mediums, ghosts, ectoplasm, disembodied heads and other psychic phenomena all get a moment to shine in the novel. The mystery itself is not really the point of the book. It is a who-done-it, but the point isn’t to figure it out so much as to enjoy the company of the story. Tuttle sends us on a clever misdirect for most of the book, with the re-introduction of Miss X and her replacement for Miss Lane; Signora Gallo is a psychic who can ‘read’ a person from personal objects, especially jewellery.

The villain of the piece is fairly clear as is the role of the somnambulist, and the climax no huge surprise. Victorians loved a show; a big climax, and Tuttle doesn’t disappoint. Said climax, set in a theatre has a few surprising turns but with the expected conclusion.

Some things don’t add up or are glossed over. The original case of the somnambulist was meant to pay the rent, but that issue is never mentioned again. When Miss X joins the case, mid-way through the story, there is some initial trepidation from Miss Lane, but the whole abandonment issue from the prologue and associated psychic fraud is barely acknowledged. The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is told in first person by Miss Lane. It works really well as we only know what she knows and understands. We deduce clues pretty much as and when she does. However, in the last quarter of the book, events take an unpleasant turn for Miss Lane. Tuttle must explain what is going on to the reader so introduces diary entries ‘from the personal notebook of J.J. Jesperson Esq.’. This felt a little shoehorned, and might have worked better if introduced earlier.

However, these are minor issues within the book which don’t really dent the enjoyment of the story. Tuttle is as skilled in prose as she is in characterisation. Spending time with Mr Jesperson and Miss Lane, and the rest of the characters, was a delight. Their relationship – a bit of a Mulder and Scully – is expertly drawn. They are both flawed and they both know it too – Miss Lane admits she has to work on many elements of her personality and skillset. There are hints of further developments which need to be discussed in future tales – see the cat in the tree! The prose was an easy read, with the plot cracking along at a terrific pace. Tuttle writes it in the formal style you would expect in a Victorian detective novel, and it feels effortlessly precise. Tuttle’s skill is that the storytelling appears effortless as the plot moves around London and the cast of characters. I was never bored reading this book. I especially liked the fact that the main character was a female detective and that is wasn’t laboured on that she was a woman in a man’s world. Just an interesting, smart and pragmatic character doing her thing. There were plenty of other interesting characters for Lane and Jesperson to encounter, both male and female, and it was refreshing to see them characterised as just people, some interesting, some good, some flawed, but never made an issue of.  The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is less of a thought-provoking complex mystery, and more of a fun dance through spiritualism and Victoriana with a lot of heart and soul.

 

Originally published: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/07/the-curious-affair-of-the-somnambulist-and-the-psychic-thief-by-lisa-tuttle/

Top 10 women in modern fantasy worlds

I like my fantasy not so much swords and sorcery and a tad more modern, but I do like magic and mystery, monsters and mirth. For me, fantasy is not some wish fulfilment or quest to obtain the all-problem solving doodad or girl’s (or boy’s) heart. Which is odd, as I grew up with the Hobbit and Greek myths. Maybe it was my love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… The magical in the mundane, the unreal in the real. Fantasy is an exploration of those things outside of science and reason (although not always, clearly). Fantasy doesn’t always need magic but it definitely needs spirit and soul. It needs something that can’t easily be explained by rationality and evidence.

Books explain personalities that I don’t readily have access to. Books are my windows on how other people think. However, I’ve been alone in London, as Kalis is. I’ve been lost in a good book – see Thursday next. Of course I haven’t been trapped a mansion with a vampire or battling my ex-friend the mad scientist as the end-of-the-world approaches, but these are all women I’ve learned something from.

As I am who I am, I find myself drawn to these characters, written mostly by men, which probably says something, although I’m not sure what.

So, not in any particular order here are my top 10 female characters in modern fantasy fiction (I’ve taken modern to be any time since I’ve been alive).

Bellis Coldwine from The Scar (2002, China Miéville)

TheScar(1stEd)

Defining quality: Fortitude, plus she’s a librarian (albeit reluctantly, and she destroys a book…hang on…)

Kalix MacRinnalch from Lonely Werewolf Girl and sequels (2007, 2010, 2013, Martin Millar)

Kalix

Defining quality: Independence (and reluctant tolerance) but oh so much more. I love Kalix!

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (1995–2000, Philip Pullman)

Amber Spyglass

Defining quality: Moral compass (and curiosity and loyalty and…and…everything)

Tara Martin from Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012, Graham Joyce)

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Defining quality: Faith in the magical.

Thursday Next from The Eyre Affair and sequels (2001-2012, Jasper Fforde)

EyreAffair

Defining quality: Love (of books, of her family, etc)

Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y (2006, Scarlett Thomas)

The End of Mr. Y

Defining quality: Scholarly fascination.

Sunshine from Sunshine (2003, Robin McKinley)

Sunshine

Defining quality: Bravery (and loyalty and magic…)I love Sunshine as much as Kalix.

Zinzi December from Zoo City (2010, Lauren Beukes)

ZooCity

Defining quality: Determination

Nao from A Tale for the Time Being (2013, Ruth Ozeki)

Tale for the Time Being

Defining quality: Beautiful solitude.

Patricia Delfine from All the Birds in the Sky (2016, Charlie Jane Anders)

All the birds in the sky

Defining quality: Empathy with the natural.

All these women bring something to my table. Who else should I seek out?

Literary tricks: Thoughts after reading Day Four by Sarah Lotz.

Day FourFine lines. Brilliant fiction is often about fine lines.

I like a literary trick. I find them clever (I like clever). Providing they’re not at the expense of a plot. When the author is going all hey look at me, aren’t I clever but there’s no story, I’m not so keen. You can admire the effort but find the result and even the intention pretentious. Almost all fiction that I read, probably what anyone reads, is standard format: chapters and prose; first person or third. I often ache for something different, original, challenging. But again, not at the expense of story. When I read, story is paramount.

In Sarah Lotz’s The Three, which was presented as reportage, the ideas and plot where left open to interpretation. I was delighted by the book. It was a refreshing read, although not really a literary trick. Reportage is reasonably common in fiction. The Three, thankfully, defied genre and left questions unanswered. I was eager for more. When I started to read her follow up, Day Four (which incidentally can be read as a sequel or a standalone – no previous knowledge required) I thought, nice, she hasn’t tried to repeat herself. No, instead Lotz does something more rewarding.

The Three was a thriller which could be read in a variety of ways. When four planes crash with only three survivors, speculation is rife about what it might mean. Day Four is a more conventional tale of a disaster aboard a cruise ship. The first few chapters are, apparently, standard narrative. It is day four on the ship’s voyage. We meet a PA of a superstar medium. Then Gary; a man with a perverse secret. Next up is one of the ship’s crew – a chambermaid called Althea. By now I thought I wouldn’t like this one so much. Straight forward pot-boiler and lots of characters it would take a while to get to know. I sometimes struggle with novels that begin with multiple viewpoints because each time a chapter begins it feels like a new book is beginning. These things take time. The next chapter features a couple of elderly women. The one after, a medic called Jesse, who has a dubious past. And then Devi, another member of the ship’s crew. Oh, and now we’re into day five and there’s a blog post. This is a lot of POVs. And then we’re back with the PA and the chapter headings are repeating. Intriguing.

So the ship is floating without power and the passengers and crew are becoming restless. Weird shit goes down, although we as readers, are never spoon-fed. Each chapter, from the POV of each character, moves the plot on nicely without repetition or cliché. As one chapter ends, the next takes place a few moments later, but without telegraphing or an obvious handing over of the baton. Lotz’s skill is to make us care about each character, although we spend precious little time with them, while presenting an intriguing plot, with more questions than answers. The skill is also to forget the literary trick and simply follow the narrative. The feel of the book is more of a classic ghost story with a medium as the conduit for the action, although there are hints of other weirdness going on. I’m not usually a fan of the page-turner, the pot-boiler or what-ever you might call it, but I couldn’t put Day Four down. When the coda comes along, again in a changed format, I hadn’t an inkling of what was going on. When the denouement presented itself I was more than happy to go along with it because Lotz had proved herself to me. I wasn’t being played with. I was being told a decent story in a captivatingly different way.

Day Four isn’t a profound novel. It doesn’t say a whole lot about the human condition that hasn’t been said elsewhere. It’s not a particularly original story either. The sub-text, as with The Three, is minimal – people are basically animals. But it comes with an ending that makes you reflect on the story and the style of writing as a whole (and whether or not a sequel follows I’m happy with my own council). However, it is an interesting story, without being stuck up its own arse. This fiction stays on the right side of a fine line. It isn’t brilliant, but is highly enjoyable and eminently readable. What elevates it into something more is the interesting style. Lotz’s isn’t going on about how clever an author she is – and she is clever – but she can write a readable story in an attention-grabbing style. And for that, I thank her.

On reading YA fiction: Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

ShadowboxerTricia Sullivan is best known for her uncompromising visions of the future. She’s tackled far-future genetics, brain implants, AIs, consumerism and designer violence amongst many other tough topics. So it was a raised eyebrow that I picked up her latest, Shadowboxer, which seems at first glance to be set very much in the present, if not maybe tomorrow, and is demonstrably not science fiction. It is also very much of the genre currently labelled as YA (Young Adult).

YA is very topical at the moment. I’ve seen arguments (mostly on Twitter) both for and against adults reading YA books – in other words not the target market. Personally, I’m indifferent about it. I won’t chose what I want to read on whether something is labelled YA or not, or is currently following a trend. I read what I read because of recommendations, previous experience of an author, or if something looks interesting.

I’m a fan of Sullivan, and have read all her books, and so I wanted to read Shadowboxer for that reason alone, although the subject matter rather than the target market was more of a concern. I have no interest in mixed marshal arts. However, I’ve read several books from the point of view of a young woman and enjoyed some. Interestingly, a recent read, Terra by Mitch Benn, is from the POV of a 12-year-old girl, but that wasn’t targeted at the YA market.

However, the few YA books I’ve read in the past have led to a struggle. I haven’t enjoyed them for a number of reasons, although not because I couldn’t relate to the protagonists. SHadowboxer  is an odd beast for me to pick up.

We meet Jade, the first person narrator. We quickly learn that she’s a hot-headed young mixed martial arts fighter. The main personality trait appears to be that of a typical teen – she can’t control her life, despite an assuredness and control when in the ring. She’s confident, no, arrogant, as any young person on top of their game would be (“I’m really fast”) and while Sullivan has an immediate handle on writing her as a teenager, using what feels like the correct language, she doesn’t over-egg it. Jade appears to be fairly normal. Not a cliché. And so thanks to Sullivan’s writing, within a few pages, I’d dismissed my trepidation and soon became engrossed in Jade’s character. She’s very believable. But then, we’re suddenly in a forest with characters called Mya and Mr Richard. What’s going on? There’s still no real hints of anything science fiction or fantasy. Has Sullivan written a contemporary novel? Now, however, it appears that we’re in Thailand and there the clichés appear (Mr Richard especially talks in corny phrases). After a few chapters of What the hell is going on? we’re back with Jade and some exposition. In the first few chapters (up to about the Smart Phone chapter) it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere much. This is just the story of a tough young fighter who must learn a lesson. Nothing particularly exciting. Soon after, however, things start to make sense. Now we have a plot coming together and the two strands of fiction begin to make sense.

So Jade is sent to Thailand to train and as a punishment, but before long she’s back in the US gearing up for the fight of her life. The cat she made friends with in Thailand is with her. A mysterious young journalist, Shea, comes into her life. It seems that her trainer, Mr B, might be into more than just fighting. Food is going missing from her flat. People are after a phone that keeps turning up. Some other people are found dead, apparently mauled by some large animal. And then there’s Mya. The little girl who can disappear into a house plant. This is a thick and complex plot, but it is always engaging, and you constantly want to know what’s happening and who is this and why are they behaving like that.

Sullivan weaves modern culture into the novel, with references to Instagram, Jennifer Lawrence and clothes brands, amongst others. This is a double-edged sword. The story is of the moment and therefore gives it a solid grounding, but will it date? If people read it in 30 years’ time, will they laugh at the tech? Maybe, but then isn’t that always the danger? Sullivan also uses emails sporadically as narrative devices. Not sure they work. There is a lot of ‘of the moment’ bits and pieces – the subtext if you will – in the story, and not just the tech stuff. There is a lot about racial and female inclusion. There’s movie and celebrity culture in general. Family abuse gets a mention. But when intersectionality pops up, I wondered if Sullivan had included a topical issue too many. Not that there’s any reason why these topics shouldn’t be discussed, however, it sometimes reads almost like a checklist of teen issues. Of course, many teens experience many and varied complex issues, so this may be exactly what the YA market wants to read about.

Jade is very much aware of who she is and her personality is the main strength of Shadowboxer. Despite her flaws and failings, she’s very much someone you enjoy getting to know and spending time with. When she loses a fight early on, she takes it in such good grace. I liked the fact that Sullivan didn’t feel the need to describe all of Jade’s training and fights in detail – that would have become boring fast. A book doesn’t need a training montage video. Once the fantasy elements kick in, with Jade in first person and Mya in third, the narrative reminded me of the juxtaposition in Sullivan’s Maul. Which is a good thing. The plot picks up and becomes more interesting. Clues come and go, and not all are as obvious as you might think. Not everyone or everything is who they seem. Once the fantasy elements is established, the story all comes together like a delicious and very satisfying pizza.

There’s a sentence Sullivan writes just before the final scenes which deserves a special mention. I laughed out loud. It mentions a superhero and an animal. Any more would be a spoiler, but when you get to it you’ll know. It just about sums up what this book is about. Enjoyable characters with depth, interesting and unexpected plotting, terrific and knowing writing. This novel features a 17 year old girl as its main protagonist, and the younger Mya as the second lead. Once I was into the story, which I was, it never crossed my mind that I was reading something specifically YA. I was reading a decent story with decent characters. So while it’s as far removed from Sullivan’s past science fiction novels, I didn’t disappoint. I’m clearly not the target audience, and although it’s far from perfect, it is a very enjoyable and original take on modern fantasy.

The original review parts of this post were first post here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-shadowboxer/ 

Thoughts after reading The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeThere’s something I’ve noticed in the last few years. It’s definitely a trend and I for one am delighted. Actually, there are a couple of trends, and they are both exemplified by my copy of The Three by Sarah Lotz. Although my copy is a pre-release proof, it is still a gorgeous book. All black and shiny, and with each page trimmed in black too. I’ve seen pictures of the hard back and it looks awesome. This first trend exhibited is the clear effort that publishers are putting into making books more attractive to have – a response, I guess, from the e-book market. As a bibliophile I couldn’t be happier. My recent hard back edition of Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea by Adam Roberts also shows off this trend. When was the last time you read an adult novel (as opposed to a YA or children’s book) with illustrations? Love it.

Once I’d admired the actual physicality of the book and started reading it, I was immediately struck by the difference in format. I am constantly striving to find something different in life, be it in music, art or whatever. I am tired of the same old same old. There is a lot of repetition in the creative world. I have not read a book (to the best of my memory) that is quite like The Three. The only reportage style I’ve experienced before is Max Brooks’ World War Z and Carrie by Stephen King (although its 20-odd years since I read the latter). I’ve learned this style is called an epistolary novel (which apparently also refers to novels such as Dracula – I have read and it is a tedious book – which are almost all letters). Reading The Three felt like a genuine piece of non-fiction. Almost like a documentary. Credit must go to the author. The final section of the novel plays on this in a very clever way.

The Three is the story of survivors. Four planes crash almost simultaneously; in the USA, Japan, South Africa and off the UK coast. American Pam survives the Japanese crash long enough to leave a message. Then she dies. This message has the potential to change everything. Three children also survive, against all odds – in Japan, USA and UK. The novel follows the tales of these children as a fictitious author pulls all the strands together in a variety of formats (interviews, transcripts of recordings, online messages, transcripts of Skype interviews and more). The children are subject to speculation and conspiracy. In the US, they are believed to be incarnations of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Is there are forth surviving child? There are suggestions of aliens and ghosts. Whatever, the children are genuinely creepy in their portrayal. By the end, you don’t know what to believe or who. Even the fictional documentarian, Elspeth Martins, may have an agenda. Which is a great idea. Most non-fiction authors and documentary film-makers have a natural bias. Lotz captures this with apparent ease.

Trend number two [spoiler alert]. This is another book from my recent pile that defies genre. On the face of it, it is a conspiracy thriller – four plane crashes, why? Surely there must be a reason, although none are revealed. Some are suggested but nothing is concrete. And then…what becomes of the survivors? Is this just a human story; contemporary literature? But. It also has elements of ghost stories (the Japanese suicide forest is properly haunting), religious end-of-the-world akin to the infamous Left Behind novels (which have their own version in Lotz’s world) and there is even the possibility of an alien invasion novel. Is this a horror novel? Science fiction? Fantasy? None of the above. We never know the truth so it is both all and none of these at the same time. Lotz’s imagination and writing skill are brilliant and self-evident, but it is her ability to blend ideas and genres without it feeling forced is a triumph and is exactly what I’m looking for in a novel.

I hope that this is hugely successful book because this is one of those rare novels that come along all-too infrequently. Something a bit different (even if elements are from other books or genres), something I’ve not read before and something un-put-downable. Something that will turn heads and make the reader excited (both by the content and the physical book itself). This is what I want in speculative fiction. In the last few years I’ve read more and more of these novels which defy genre classification. While I’ve recently enjoyed some classic science fiction, horror and urban fantasy, it is novels such as The Three that are exciting me the most and I plan to seek out more like this. Authors such as Sarah Lotz are the future of genre (and non-genre) fiction. More power to them.

But a final thought, if not a plea. I hope there is no sequel that explains things. I love an ambiguous ending, a one where it is left up to me to decide what happened. I know in my mind what I think happened in The Three. I don’t want the author’s truth, I want to keep my own.

 

The totally honest and pointless adventures of an NaNoWriMo effort: Day 1

Day 1: 25 October 2013

(c) NaNoWriMo
(c) NaNoWriMo

So I figured I’d need to do some prep work. I’d signed up to NaNoWriMo 2013 with no idea what to do. Not strictly true. I’m working on a short story at the moment which is set to become part of a collection, called Monsters. However, due to a lot of other writing commitments, and work of course, this has been on a bit of a back-burner. I have no idea why I signed up, as I’m almost certain I won’t have the time to write 50,000 words in November. But I’ve already started Monsters and I want to take my time over it and it will be way longer than 50,000 words anyway, so that wasn’t the path to follow.

Once I signed up, I started mulling over the kind of thing that would work without that much preparation and without that much time given over to it. I kept thinking of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and to a lesser extent, of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. These are both short but highly effective works of fiction. Simple stories with a deeper meaning using beautiful language.

Stop right there! No, I’m not at all thinking I can write anything like those two wonderful books. But what I can do is write a short, creepy, affecting novel. At least I hope I can.

I have a first line buzzing in my head – which to be honest, is one that’ been there a while, and I might have even used it before in an abortive attempt to write something else. But I like it and I’m going to use it.

Luckily, I was off work yesterday (Fri 25 Oct) so I took myself and my notebook off to my favourite cafe to plot and plan over an awesome cooked breakfast and refills of coffee – yes I know I’m living the cliche. Get over it. I’m now typing with jazz music in the background. Live with it already.

When I was walking to the cafe I saw a woman in the street waving goodbye to someone. I couldn’t see who she was waving to. So that was my opening scene, writing itself. I decided to divert from the cafe for half an hour to walk along the beach. I had to procrastinate. What was in my head?

Being a big fan of Twitter has its downsides. Everyone knows Twitter is a place for ranting and rowing, trolls and Twitterstorms (is that in the dictionary yet? Should be). But what I find anyone more than anything is that people presume to speak for one group or another. Just because you’re a famous open-rights campaigner or feminist, your opinion doesn’t mean the same as someone elses. And more importantly, your opinion isn’t fact. Even if your one of the biggest and/or most respected voices in your shouting arena. No-one speaks for me. No-one has the right and no-one should have that presumption. But people do. If I say I like a book and you like the same book, it doesn’t give you the right to think you know me.

So, there is a theme and an opening scene. By now I was in the cafe and the breakfast was ordered. It was a particularly warm autumn day and the cafe was full, so I took the only vacant table and tried to cool myself

down for a second. I thumbed through my notebook at previous ideas and

lines I’ve had. I then wrote down ‘The Inherent Loneliness of the Human Mind’

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AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by sutti http://bit.ly/1da21zE

and the word ‘horror’. And I was off. A couple of pages later and I have a rough plot, a couple of opening scenes, some subtext and a potential ending to aim towards.

Now I’ve got other stuff to do but I’ve now got just a few days to come up with some characters and names. And then, who knows…

8 gateway novels into speculative fiction

After reading a few lists recently concerning the kinds of books genre fans should get non-genre fans or people who might be new to science fiction and fantasy to read, I feel that people are missing the point somewhat. After reading Which science fiction book you would give to a first-time SF reader? from io9 people seem to think that just because they like a particular science fiction book, if they give it to non-genre fans, they would like it. I’ve read similar arguments elsewhere too. It’s not just that these people don’t know that The Blue Sword and A Canticle for Leibowitz exist. It’s the assumption that once they do, they’ll immediately be interested and hooked. The idea that someone who doesn’t like Science Fiction and would pick up Hyperion and love it is hilarious.

Missing the point.

I previously wrote about 5 books that the mainstream have already embraced. What I now present are 8 titles which I’d describe as gateway novels into genre. I’ve said away from the obvious, such as Pullman, Tolkien, Meyer, Rice and Rowling. These are novels which are, in some ways, half way between genre and non-genre. They are ghost stories, alien invasions, dystopian, vampire and more. Welcome. There are the books that people who might want to venture into the mysterious waters of science fiction and fantasy should read.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984)

The novel: The glamour is true invisibility, bestowed on a few people. It has always been thus, but is almost completely forgotten, until now. The story follows three people. One of these people doesn’t know it, but has lost his memory after a bomb blast. One has the ability and uses it to pursue the third, who only has a partial control of the gift. As the  Glamourcharacter with the memory loss slowly becomes aware of the glamour, the reader joins him in understanding the reality of this invisible world.

The author: To describe Priest as enigmatic is to say that the sun is a bit warm. While generally regarded as literary, he frustrates as many readers as he delights. Many of his novels deal with delusions, perceptions and as a result, seem to play games with the reader. He presents puzzles, some of which, I assume, are not meant to be solved. Most are deeply speculative yet remaining charismatic. He cites HG Wells as a strong influence, although his prose is much warmer.

Why it should be read: Priest is a master of mystery, but not so much as you might lose faith in him or his characters. The Glamour is a character driven piece. The fantastical elements are not thrust to the fore, although they are the primary motivations for the protagonists. This is a work that is genre-defying, and yet wouldn’t work without the central concept. The Glamour is as close to both mystery and literary fiction as fantasy gets.

What to read next: The Invisible Man by H G Wells

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce (2013)

The novel: Set in 1976, the protagonist tells us of his experiences of working in the long hot summer of that year. He his struggling with the ghost of his dead father – but is it a real ghost? He gets a job in a holiday camp and becomes involved with a femme fatale and also a pretty dancer. He becomes involved with the National Front and some other dodgy dealings. Will his relationships end in tragedy and will he find the truth about his Dad? Feeling both noir-ish and yet intensely bright, Joyce explores both the nature of relationships and his own history.

17976979The author: Graham Joyce writes young adult and general speculative fiction, mostly described as fantasy. He has won the British Fantasy Award a few times and the World Fantasy Award winner in 2003 for The Facts of Life. You can’t really classify him, however. His stories feature ghosts, mysticism, folklore and fairytale. His prose seems to be effortless beautiful. He is also known for strong female characters. In The Year of the Ladybird, the dancer is called Nikki. For a young woman in 1976, she is especially vibrant and headstrong. Joyce calls his style ‘Old Peculiar’.

Why it should be read: If you take the idea that this is about ghosts of the past, and not real ghosts – and there is some ambiguity in its reading anyway – then this novel is pure contemporary fiction – albeit set in the 1970s. What it does, is take a snap-shot of history – the rise of the National Front, the very real plague of ladybirds, etc – and add some fictional relationship dramas. It may be a real ghost story. After reading this, you will almost certainly want to read more of Joyce’s beautiful prose, regardless of subject matter. After reading this, you will end up reading ghost stories, contemporary fairy tales and more.

Read the full review

What to read next: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

The novel: Meet Kathy. Kathy’s life is not all it seems. Her childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school in England, has sinister overtones. The teachers are known as Guardians. TheNever curriculum has no life skills. Her friendships are all peculiar, distant. In time, Kathy becomes friends with Ruth and Tommy, before they learn their bleak but inevitable destiny.  The novel moves onto a later time, when the protagonists are in the later teens. They begin to have contact with the outside world. Romance and sexuality are explored, all with a foreboding sense of doom. The final act reveals the full horror of the dystopia.

The author: Ishiguro, as an author, is a complex beast. The Japanese-born writer has published 6 novels to date, covering many ideas and themes: family drama, post-WWII, historical class-based drama, Eastern-European dream/surrealist, historical crime and dystopian science fiction albeit set in a version of 1980s/90s England. Most of his work, however, is about human failings and how life just goes on (or doesn’t).

Why it should be read: The writing. Plain and simple. It doesn’t get much better than this. Kathy’s first person narrative is as evocative and as gripping as any you’d read elsewhere. Of course, the characters are interesting and the relationships are complex. The mood is as bleak as you could imagine but the prose is so beautiful and so well thought out, it feels like these characters could have been friends of yours (if you’re a certain age, of course). Never Let Me Go is the best example of science fiction that examines our very humanity, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What to read next: Spares by Michael Marshal Smith

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)

The novel: Set in Scotland, Faber’s debut features protagonist Isserley, who is not exactly a local. Turns out, in fact, that she’s not even from Earth. However, she still has a job to do. Her employer is the equivalent of a multi-national corporation. Her profession is farmer. She harvests hitchhikers who are then sent to her homeworld as a delicacy. This Undersatirical piece is about big business and the environment. Most importantly, however, it is about people and identity.

The author: While living in Scotland, Faber, perhaps best known for the novel The Crimson Petal and the White, is Dutch who was raised in Australia. Like Ishiguro, he writes a variety of genres about a range of subjects. His work has been described as, at the very least, informed by feminism. He also takes inspiration from Scotland, Dickens and mythology.

Why it should be read: No doubt that this is an alien invasion novel, although the invasion isn’t as Hollywood as you’d imagine. It is discreet and subtle. Nevertheless, this is as science fiction as they come. The aliens are ‘people’ too, however, with motivations, flaws and desires we can relate to. The writing is easy yet subtle and to be honest, it takes a while before you even notice that Under The Skin isn’t just a character study, but instead a satirical study of corporate greed. If your idea of aliens comes from Star Trek or Independence Day, this will surprise and delight you.

What to read next: Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

The Radleys by Matt Haig (2011)

The novel: A vampire novel like no other, The Radleys is the story of a middle class family in middle England whose lives are over-turned when an outside influence is added to their mildly dysfunctional, but perfectly normal existence. The thing is, they are abstainers. The parents hide the truth from their children, but inevitably, the fact of the secret leads to inevitable chaos. While this is a novel about vampires and how they exist in England, it is really a family drama. It is about children growing up and fleeing the nest, and all the pain and trauma that brings. There are emotional truths found here that are not usually found in horror fiction.

The author: Haig is a journalist and so is well aware of human stories. His debut was published in 2005 and he’s been producing novels every couple of years since. His main theme is family life and how outside elements affect it. He doesn’t always write in speculative genres and is heavily influenced by Shakespeare. Indeed, his first and second novels are Radleysre-tellings of Henry IV, Part 1 and Hamlet.

Why it should be read: It would be easy to say that this is just like Twilight or the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but it isn’t. It’s so much more. This is a genuine novel about family and the pressures they face. It is witty and thoughtful and you think back to your own teens and relate to the situations the characters find themselves. And of course, it has elements of horror and vampire mythology, which aren’t too overblown for the novice. You start off interested about the lives of the family and end up wondering all about the lives of vampires.

What to read next: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Generosity by Richard Powers (2009)

The novel: Imagine a book about happiness. Imagine a book about tolerance and acceptance. Think about all those science fiction novels and films about post-humans and then imagine the story set just around the corner where all these begin. Professor Kurton has found the genetic key to happiness and wants to re-wire all of us. He found it in the DNA of Thassadit Amzwar, studying at Chicago University, who is otherwise known as Miss Generosity. Despite the many hardships in her life, she radiates bliss. Her writing teacher is determined to find a medical explanation. This is a witty examination of mental health, jealousy and medical ethics. It is also a work of near meta-fiction, as it examines the act of reading.Gen

The author: Wikipedia classes Powers as an exponent of literary fiction, and yet his work is intensely speculative and mysterious. A fan of the Greek classics, he trained in English literature and computer science. His novels reflect this, mixing arts and science, history and philosophy. Generosity is not his first foray into science fiction as he has previously delved into nuclear war, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist for 2006’s The Echo Maker.

Why it should be read: This book is the beginning point to a whole section of science fiction and yet it has no such pretensions. It is an engaging and intriguing human story. Sure there is some science that takes it away from a straight relationship drama, but it is no more off-putting than, for example, a forensic crime drama. If you are interested in what will happen next in human evolution, whether that is a speculative fictional version, or a more genetic/science-based curiosity, Generosity is a great place to start. Plus it has interesting characters with depth, and of course, it’s very well written.

What to read next: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

A Matter Of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

The novel: In the not too distant future, the recession has hit hard. The world is run by a mysterious company called The Bank, who seem to control everything, including the police in London. Cass is a dodgy detective who couldn’t care less about the bigger picture. A failing marriage, a serial killer called Man of Flies, the shooting of school boys and the suicide of his loving brother are more than enough to keep him busy. And who is Mr Bright and what does he want with his family? Hints of ghosts and other, bigger, supernatural goings on weave all these plot points expertly into a gripping climax.A Matter of Blood

The author: Before the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, Pinborough was known for straight forward horror and, young adult fiction and writing Torchwood spin-off novels. She expertly blends super-natural and the mundane. Taking only a few elements away from A Matter Of Blood would leave it to be a complex police procedural thriller. A prolific user of social media, Pinborough is clever, dark and very witty.

Why it should be read: Just read it. It’s great.

Read the full review

What to read next: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

 The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

The novel: The initial glance at this story might but it in the same bracket as AS Bryant’s The Possession as the protagonist – Ariel – is a PhD student who’s research of a 19th Century writer seems to have a direct effect on her life. Set in an (un-named Canterbury), she finds a rare copy of this writer’s titular book, which is apparently cursed. Ideas in the book come to affect Ariel’s reality as Thomas explores homeopathy and quantum physics. The themes of exploring multiple realities are common to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.

YThe author: Previous to The End of Mr. Y, Thomas, a Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Kent, had not written anything remotely genre-esque. Her earlier books explore youth culture and her most recent, Our Tragic Universe, is an examination of the story and the writing process, and how they affect by cosmology and physics. She is clearly interested in both the bigger picture and the smaller details. How the large affects the small and vice versa.

Why it should be read: Thomas has managed to put a whole bunch of disparate ingredients into a blender and come up with something rich, flavoursome and memorable. It takes a recognisable story and moves it to an unusual place. For an authority on creative writing, the plotting and characterisation are as great as you’d expect. I love the way that, although the name of the city is never mentioned, the descriptions of it are so accurate (and sharp) that it is a delight to read.

What to read next: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Honourable mentioned: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall.