The joy of reading strange new worlds.

The intention of fiction is to transport the reader to another world, a one that simply can’t exist in our real lives. Even contemporary or literary fiction exists in a fantastical bubble where lives and events follow narrative plot structures and (usually) the conclusion brings about some form of ending to the story. It is the simple joy of reading these tales that draws readers back to imagined worlds, or persuades them to open a new book in the hope of discovering a strange and new world.

Dragon
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Consider genre fiction. There are many familiar worlds and locations to excite the imagination. From Narnia to Middle Earth, Hogwarts to Wonderland, these are familiar places. It is easy to find wonder in these safe and classical fantasy worlds. Strange forests inhabited by giant spiders, uncharted waters with lurking monsters and mystic misty mountains abound. The same is true for science fiction: Ringworld, Iain M Bank’s Culture universe, William Gibson’s cyber-punk future, and Wells’ far future of Morlocks and Eloi are amongst many imaginations worth repeated visitations.

Recently, and perhaps not coincidently, worlds familiar to our own yet unconventionally different from the classics have begun to emerge. These are new places in which to find pleasure, explore and to get lost in. Fresh and intriguing fantasy realms and potential futures. These are books so terrific that they stay with you long after the characters’ stories have concluded. You want the book to end so you can find out what happens but you never want to finish it! You won’t find the traditional tropes of genre fiction here.

Day FourSarah Lotz has created something exciting and innovative in her books The Three and Day Four. This is a universe very much like our own. It is familiar, yet just a degree or two off-centre. Events and people seem to be plausible. We have an evangelical cult and a spooky Japanese forest for example (The Three), and the cruise ship and the beach they find (Day Four) which are unsettling indeed. The fantastical elements don’t contain the ghosts of horror novels but the situations the characters find themselves in send shivers down your spine. There are no space ships but despite Lotz’s universe being just like our own, feels alien. Not in the way a traditional invasion story might feel, but something less tangible. In both novels, it is the pay-off in the endings that make the Lotz world such a fascinating place to visit.

The Golem and the DjinniWe think we know all about Golems and Djinns, but nothing can prepare you for the pure pleasure to be attained in Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Published in 2013 and criminally under-read, it features both a 19th century New York where magic is real and a distinct, evocative Arabian imagination-scape. This isn’t the magic of traditional fantasy. There are no wizards with staffs and long, grey beards or teenagers with wands. This is an ancient magic. Real and steeped in tradition. The reader sees these versions of our world through the lonely eyes of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni). These are characters of ancient civilisations. Whereas Middle Earth has a written history, The Golem and the Jinni has real mythology. It is hard not to read this in sepia imagination and, perhaps, some inherited understanding. Wecker portrays her world in such a way that despite the loneliness and tragedy, it’s a place you love to visit.

A different kind of Arabian fantasy is portrayed in G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. The fictional Middle-EasternAlif ‘City’ is a gateway, between the world that we think we know and the world of Islamic supernatural creatures and myths. The magic in Wilson’s story is almost that of technology. Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer with primeval spirits and vengeful jinn calling the shots. It is a blending of genres. You don’t readily find science fiction in fantasy novels and you rarely get wondrous mythological creatures in near-future cyberpunk. The journey through the City’s streets and alleys engenders a desire to visit somewhere like Cairo that you can almost taste the desert dust in your throat as you romp through the adventure.

You might say that Wilson’s is a new kind of urban fantasy, whereas Kate Griffin’s is a fresh take The Minority Councilon classic urban fantasy. Her Matthew Swift books (Madness of Angels, etc) are pure magic for anyone who has even lived in a dark and sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s walked home alone at night and heard that indescribably noise from just around the corner. Swift, the Midnight Mayor, uses the magic of the electric blue angels to conjure strange creatures and fight unearthly foes. Some of the expected elements are present and correct. Swift casts spells and recites chants. Monsters come and go. However, these are monsters made of grease and broken machines. These are spells made of the names and history and the very foundations of London. Stephen King’s Dark Tower and JRR Tolkien’s Barad-dûr and Orthanc are replaced with the likes of London’s iconic Centre Point and the Shard. If you are familiar with the reality of living in a dense urban landscape, visiting Griffin’s London is a rare and rewarding treat.

Station Eleven proof.inddA final nod in the direction of science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel is the recent winner of the Arthur C Clarke award for her brilliant Station Eleven. On the face of it, a post-apocalyptic journey with a rag-tag bunch of Shakespearian actors might not seem like a joyful read. While the characters are captivating and are enjoyable company to keep, it is the pre- and post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes that are fresh. You might be familiar with the idea of survivors carving niches for themselves in the remains of dying cities, but maybe not in the remnants of an average no-name airport close to the Great Lakes where a museum of relics crops up. Imagine a fantasy with a travelling troupe of mysterious performers or a magical dust-bowl Carnivàle and transport it to a world where the majority of humanity has died. These scenes are interspersed with (amongst others) live revolving around a theatre in Toronto. The juxtaposition works! While not as bleak as some (The Road for example) Mandel’s worlds have depth and realism not often found in this genre.

Finding yourself in one of these worlds and universes and others just like them, brought into being by such talent and imagination, is a rare gift and should be appreciated for what it is. Our real world can be tough to live in, and these escapes provide the highest of rewards. They educate and inform as well as entertain of course, but their primary purpose is pleasure. These fantasy and science fiction worlds don’t have wizards and aliens, mysterious apocalyptic diseases or quests for the magic MacGuffin, and are all the better for it. Joy is an apparent simple emotion but the enjoyment gained from these books, and others, is not readily quantifiable. It is easy to pick up a book and find yourself lost. And smiling.

Image credit: The Fire Dragon CC BY 2.0 by johanferreira15

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The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Magician's LandSomething nags at me with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, and it’s not whether or not you’d class them as traditional fantasy in the vein of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books, or as more adult-based urban fantasy (say of the Dresden Files for example). I think the problem is the magic itself. Not that it exists, but the way Grossman describes it.

The Magician’s Land is and entertaining and enjoyable conclusion to the trilogy which began as a lot of sweary teenage Harry Potter types (The Magicians, 2009) and morphed into a darker kings and queens of the magic lands adventure (The Magician King, 2011). There is a lot to admire in Grossman’s writing, and his ideas. We left off the story with our hero, Quentin Coldwater, back on Earth trying to make a life for himself after his expulsion from the magical land of Fillory. Julia is out of the story, while Elliot and Janet were left ruling Fillory with Josh and Poppy. Quentin is now in a bookstore with a bunch of other magicians, being tested for a potential quest. Suddenly, however, Quentin is back at Brakebills, his former magical school, and is a new professor. One student, Plum, is trapped by Quentin’s old love, Alice (who is now a niffin) when a prank goes wrong. Quentin rescues Plum, but he’s sacked and Plum is expelled. Quentin again it seems, goes from hero to zero. We’re now back to the bookstore thread and Quentin and Plum have been recruited by a bird to find and steal a magical object. Meanwhile, Elliot and Janet discover that Fillory’s days are numbered.

Grossman plays with time in the early narrative of the book, so it takes a while to settle into a coherent plot. This is a good thing! It makes the story intriguing and asks the reader to pay attention. The early chapters feel cold and distant, as if Grossman is deliberately making it clear that this is an adult novel with adult themes. But then on our first trip to visit Elliot, we’re back on profane but amusing magician territory again. There’s some deft touches and pleasing nods to other genre pieces (the talking horse sighing in exasperation at the end of the world, again!). There are some nice touches throughout the book which respect the fans of the series but I suspect someone picking this up without the back story might be a tad confused.

There are a few rare passages, such as when Quentin and Plum become whales, that are truly magical; full of wonder and imagination. And I think that is the problem with The Magician’s Land. Throughout the book, there are descriptions of magic, such as when the ‘land’ is created, which are just dull. He tries to portray magic as natural; scientific. More like chemistry than a thing of beauty and wonder: “all very theoretical, and Quentin wasn’t that into theory” – me neither. Grossman throws a great deal of imagination into these descriptions, but they don’t feel like magic. They feel like the narrative treading water. Which is a shame.

The story is quite episodic in nature. I enjoyed Grossman’s storytelling. Whenever I thought I’d found the point of the tale, I soon discovered another direction was soon upon me. Even the title of the book can be taken a number of ways. Subtexts? Several. Connections to the past; friends and family. What it means to love someone. What it means to love magic. What it means to grow up into a different sort of person. Quentin isn’t the typical hero; he doesn’t always win the girl and save the day. It is brave of Grossman to make is main character someone who has more than a few negative traits, and mix him up with other characters in ways you wouldn’t expect. Like everyone in the book, I expected more from Quentin’s relationship with Plum, although by the conclusion, it was more real that those expectations never came to pass. Unfortunately, Alice’s reaction to her new condition was more than predictable.

In Grossman’s world, magic is imperfect and the hero’s don’t live happily ever after, which is a good thing. He tries to make it as real as he can, given the genre conventions and deconstructions. Aside from the occasional magical drift; the skilled narrative, complex character relationships, imaginative world-building and back story all add up to a decent diversion into a magician’s land.

This review is courtesy of NetGalley

End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

Hang Wire, by Adam Christopher

There is a fairly common assertion that a work of fiction belongs to a particular genre. When authors try to bend genres or combine styles, some people get a bit jittery. I’ve read a couple of attempts at cross-genrefication that haven’t been successful, in my opinion. They always focus too much on the wrong thing.

Hang WireSo, after a dozen or so pages of Adam Christopher’s Hang Wire, I was getting worried that this would be another one of those failures. Glad to say I was wrong on almost every level.

We begin our story in San Francisco, 1906. We’re in the middle of an earthquake; the earthquake. Robert is caught in it. But he’s not behaving normally. Is he helping? Is he lifting huge slabs of debris? Now it is 1889 and what will become Oklahoma. Joel is travelling west, seeking his fortune. He has a coin and comes across a cave. Something draws him inside. Now we’re in San Francisco again, this time the present. Something odd has just happened to Ted, involving a fortune cookie. He’s also sleepwalking, which is a concern.

And then there’s a circus which has mysterious acts such as Highwire (no-one sees his face) and a tribe of Celtic fire dancers who, when no-one is looking, appear to drag naked, ash-clad women out of the earth. Meanwhile, something is stirring beneath the city. Another big earthquake perhaps? Bob, who dances half-naked on the beach for the pleasure of tourists, knows something is coming. Something like last time. While all this is going on, someone, or something, is murdering young women and tying them up with steel cable: the Hang Wire Killer.

Now that’s a lot of story. We also follow Joel in a series of interludes as he searches out various items on a murderous spree across both time and the USA. We get a sense that this is all being driven by an alien presence. Ah, so this is literary science fiction. A story told through the ordinary lives of its characters.

To be honest, I think Hang Wire could be a little longer. That might seem like an odd criticism. It takes 55 pages (out of more than 350) before a character makes a second appearance: that’s 3 prologues (2 of which almost feel like short stories in their own right) and 3 full chapters before Ted pops up again. There is a lot of story and it needs time, especially during the latter parts of the novel. The first half of the book is fine, better than fine. It slowly reveals itself to be what it really is. My first thought was an attempt at literary superhero fiction. Urgh! Well, it has costumed protagonists with powers looking for a serial killer with impossible strength, all told via character vignettes.

I find literary fiction dull, but Hang Wire, once you get with the characters, is anything but. They start to reveal the truth about themselves, and you can see how all the stories and incidents are connected. Christopher is very adept at bringing these together. It becomes almost Lovecraftian in its menace. It reveals itself to be a fantasy above all else. And yet you can’t work out whether the mythology is a real-world one or Christopher’s invention. I kept wanting to Google the answer, but refrained until I completed the book.

Once the characters are revealed and Joel’s story comes to a conclusion, the climax of the book seems a little rushed. I would have liked more time exploring the mythologies of the characters, and why they were in San Francisco. However, then it might have ended up being unfairly compared to other works of fiction exploring similar ideas.

Christopher has compiled a very interesting and tantalising mythology with some good writing and some interesting characters. The relationships between Ted and Alison, and Ted and Benny could have been fleshed out a little further, however. I’m not sure that giving the mysterious acrobat the name Highwire works. Surely, as he was why people were coming to the circus, he would have been the number 1 suspect to being the Hang Wire killer, but the police don’t pursue that line of enquiry.

The success of Hang Wire, however, is that it feels like an old story, but one told in a fresh and relevant way. Which to me means it is excellent storytelling. It could be read as almost anti-science or anti-science fiction even (anti- as in opposite, not against), reflecting past-times when horrors such as earthquakes and comets were explained by supernatural events.

So, what is Hang Wire? A very good piece of storytelling. A damn fine read. Its label doesn’t matter.

First published on Geek Syndicate: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/2013/12/26/book-review-hang-wire/

A Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

The strength of Mur Lafferty’s A Shambling Guide to New York City is the character of the city itself. The New York she describes is one populated by Shambling Guidethe familiar tropes and characters of horror and urban fantasy, but because of the vignettes from the fictional guide book and how she uses our protagonists, this novel feels like a fresh and fun book that you want to spend time in.

We begin with Zoe, who has moved to New York after losing her job and her lover. She is seeking employment in the publishing world, and specifically, should she find it, the travel guide sector. Fortunately, Phil is looking for someone just like her. But not quite. Phil is a vampire and tries to dissuade Zoe from applying. Despite her recent past, she’s still got balls so pursues the job until Phil finally reveals to her the dark secret of New York. Vampires and zombies and magic are real. The Public Works is the human’s monster police force, only the monsters hate being called that. They are a community of like minded but different species known collectively as coterie. (coterie, noun, a small group of people with shared interests or tastes, especially one that is exclusive of other people).

The first half of the novel is fairly plotless, as Zoe finds out about the newly opened up world about her, while getting to grips with her new job. The plan is to write a guide for the coterie who both live and visit New York; the titular travel guide. Each chapter has a snippet from the guide as a way of introducing part of this new world. They are often humorous, and are probably the most interesting part of Lafferty’s novel. So we meet Morgen and Gwen and John; a water sprite, a death goddess and an incubus respectively. There are plenty of other characters and fresh ideas too. A mentor character who is a granny-type. A baker who is a type of incubus who feeds of the appreciation of his eaten pastries. Zombies who retain their higher brain functions providing they eat plenty of fresh brains. Restaurants for the coterie serving whatever is required. All described with a certain amount of wit and imagination.

And then odd things start to happen. Zoe’s past starts to creep up on her. Only now does the book start to feel like a story, rather than simply a clever world-building exercise. By this point, however, you’re only here with the goodwill offered by the interesting characters, rather than the events that are happening to them. It almost feels like Lafferty had a great idea and a fun bunch of monsters/coterie but no tale to tell. There’s an opportunity to talk more about gangs, cults, racism, bullying and other issues associated with minorities, but these don’t get any real thought, especially when you can just turn a plane into a golem and have the showdown and big reveal in Central Park. There’s nothing wrong with Lafferty’s writing – although I wasn’t particularly bowled over by the prose – and her imagination is clearly full of cracking ideas.

I did enjoy A Shambling Guide to New York City, but was disappointed by lack of proper story. The blurb on the cover aims the book at fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I think there was much more depth in an average episode of Buffy, but there are similarities in tone. Of course, it is a journey of discovery for Zoe and a chance to put pay to her past, but I wanted a lightly comic urban fantasy to have a little more depth, threat and meaning. What I got was a fun monster, sorry coterie, mash.

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.

Half Term Report 2013

I’ve read some books. I tend to do that. Let’s look at what I’ve read in the first 6 months of 2013, which by the way, is not enough. Probably.

12875162I’ve read a bunch of comics and graphic novels. Which is not a surprise but not the point of this post.

I’ve read a few bits of none fiction:

David Miller – Peter Cushing, Will Stor – Heretics, Francis Ween – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, Scarlett Thomas – Monkeys with Typewriters, Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma. One book on writing which was great. I even did the exercises. One book on an actor who lived where I live and would have been 100 years old this year. And some books on various aspects of culture. All good, none great.

One collection of short stories crossed my path, and I read an individual short story: Chris Beckett’s collection, The Peacock Cloak, was interesting and enjoyable. Ian Sales’ The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself was refreshing.

16 bits of fiction in 6 months. I’d read 19 in the first six months of 2012. Not good enough? Well, 2 in particular took ages because I found them dull. Really dull. Disappointing. So, in some kind of order:

  • Mary Shelley – The Last Man 1.5/5Angelmaker
  • Benedict Jacka – Fated 2/5
  • Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden 2/5
  • Clifford Beal – Gideon’s Angel 3/5
  • Paul Cornell – London Calling – 3/5
  • Tom Holt – Doughnut 3/5
  • Cory Doctorow – Pirate Cinema 3/5
  • Nick Harkaway – Angelmaker 3.5/5
  • Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross  – The Rapture of the Nerds 3.5/5
  • Chris Beckett – Dark Eden – 3.5/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – Poison 4/516094514
  • Martin Millar – The Good Fairies of New York 4/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – The Shadow of the Soul 4/5
  • G Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen 4/5
  • Juli Zeh – The Method 4/5
  • Jeff Noon – Vurt 5/5

17401136Which I think is a bit disappointing. The best book I’ve read so far this year is one of my all time favourites which was the third time I’d read it. Generally disappointed by the books that had been hyped up, especially the Cornell, the Harkaway (but then I wasn’t overly keen on his debut either) and the Jacka. I was massively disappointed by The Child Garden and The Last Man. In fact, the latter put me off my SF challenge, although I hope to get back on the horse soon. Also less than totally impressed by Doctorow’s entries. On the other hand, couple of good Sarah Pinboroughs. The Wilson and the Zeh were enjoyable and the most satisfying reads so far. Out of the 16, only 6 really enjoyable reads. So maybe my choices have been poor? I’m influenced by the books I’m asked to review, reviews in SFX and other places, and books on shortlists for awards. I’m thinking about knocking the whole awards-influenced reading on the head.

Quick look at the breaksdown: 8 science fiction, 5 urban fantasy, 2 fantasy and 1 comic fantasy. No horror. No none-genre.  Meh.

Let’s hope that the next 6 months do me more favours. I have a number of books on the ‘to read’ pile which I have high hopes for:

  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

 I also hope to pick up the new Lauren Beukes and Neil Gaimen. I also plan to re-read American Gods. I will try to get a hold of Adam Robert’s Jack Glass and Blackout by Mira Grant.

So here’s to the second half of 2013.

London Falling, by Paul Cornell

There are two types of urban fantasy novel; those where the magic and supernatural are up-front and in your face, and the protagonist is usually steeped in those elements; and those where the fantastical are hidden and discovered by our heroes, who then need to deal with the consequences of having their reality shattered. Paul Cornell’s London Falling can be found in the latter camp. It reads like a police procedural novel; a crime thriller. Only the criminal is not of our world.

Indeed, the story begins with DI James Quill successfully arresting major crime figure Rob Toshack, with the help of deep undercover operatives Costain and Sefton. However, Toshack is murdered in custody in extremely bizarre circumstances. Almost unbelievable, you might say. With the help of intelligence analyst Lisa Ross, Quill and his team start the investigation into the mysterious death. Here’s an odd thing. Some argue that football is England’s national obsession, and yet it rarely features in fiction. I can’t think of any genre fiction of any kind that has football as a major plot point. So credit Cornell for seeing the obvious and maintaining originality at the same time. Someone is killing footballers. Specifically, anyone who has scored a hattrick against West Ham United. And something connects this serial killer and Toshack.

The three coppers and Ross begin to see the power of London. They are gifted, or cursed, with the Sight. Investigations lead them to realise that the suspect in the murders was the same who killed Toshack, and that she is no ordinary woman. Using traditional police procedures and their new gift, they realise that this woman can bend space and time, and even alter memory. She commits the most personal of crimes against DI Quill and as time runs out, West Ham take to the pitch. And who is the smiling man and what is his involvement in it all?

Cornell is best known for his Doctor Who tie-in novels and previous ventures into science fiction, comic books, and non-fiction writing. He can clearly write. What he does particularly well is drama and atmosphere. He gives a real sense of how these ordinary people are drawn into extraordinary circumstances. The police apply commonplace proc16094514edures to extraordinary crimes. The characters are not clichéd and he writes them dealing with their new powers and scary situations as we ourselves might react. He has taken an almost traditionally English horror trope and updated it without it feeling hackneyed and boring. Yet I found the whole less than the sum of its parts. It was somewhat un-engaging. The perspective changes between the four main protagonists frequently in the short and punchy scenes, often within chapters. Sefton and Costain almost felt interchangeable. While they had significant differences in characterisation, I’d occasionally forget who was who. These switches in viewpoint left the narrative stuttering. London doesn’t quite work as a character either. Cornwell tries to imbue the city with magic – nowhere else in the story is magical (when the characters look south away from the city, they see nothing) – within its history and its foundations. His attempts feel a little vague. You don’t feel any power in the text or in the places he describes. The other issue with this type of urban fantasy is that the magic and supernatural elements often jar with the real world inhabited by the main protagonist. Without giving away spoilers, for example, when the nature of the villain is revealed and her crimes are made public, the reaction of the general public and the media is far from believable. There is real magic in this fictional world but there are too few references to real cultural supernatural films or books or characters. Which is odd considering the references to football.

What Cornell has steered away from is the typical what if Harry Potter was a… concept. Credit for that. Our protagonists have not been granted hidden magical powers of their own (other than the Sight itself), and there is no Gandalf-style figure to guide them. Instead he has produced a well plotted and character-led supernatural drama. He has created an honest story. He has set up a nice, if not quite there-yet, universe for our heroes to deal with the supernatural. He has created a few interesting characters that react in a believable way to the magic around them. And he has set up a possible series of crime thrillers with urban fantasy elements. An enjoyable, if far from perfect, venture into magic.

Science Fiction Shortlist Season

Kitschies
Image from the Kitschies’ website

So not even awards season, but awards short listings season has begun. And with it the bickering. Blimey, Twitter was on fine form with the back-and-forth about these lists. Is there enough Sci-Fi in the BSFA awards? What is Sci-Fi anyway? Do particular awards speak to particular audiences? Are there enough women nominated and is that the fault of the publisher or the fans? Are the shortlists too UK-centric or not enough? There really should be a bickering award. However, under the surface of all this strife there are a number of important and interesting points:

  • They spark a debate, which is probably what awards in any field are really about (if only the squabbling could become real informed discourse).
  • They challenge the concept of what is a good book.
  • They are a marketing tool.

So, the BSFA (and that is the British Science Fiction Association) shortlist for best novel is:

  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
  • Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
  • Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • 2312 by Kim Stanley-Robinson (Orbit)

12875162Questions and comments? Three publishers – a couple of majors and an independent. Seems fine to me. All men. Not read any of them, which is a shocker. However, I’m a slow reader and am always behind the times. The Macleod and the Roberts are on my to-read list. I’m a fan of both authors. Not interested in the Harrison (read the first two of the series and both left me cold) or 2312. Not sure about Dark Eden. Again, it’s on my to-read list, but it’s a low priority. All fairly traditional science fiction tropes.

Now for the far cooler (apparently) Kitchies. First, best novel:

  • The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington (Orbit)
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (Heinemann)
  • A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • The Method by Juli Zeh (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer) (Harvill Secker)

And their shortlist for debut novel:

  • vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot)
  • The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (Heinemann)
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Doubleday)
  • Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher Books)
  • The City’s Son by Tom Pollock (Jo Fletcher Books)

Again, not read any of them, but many are on the to-read list, especially the Ashby, the Zeh, and the Pollock. I think it’s interesting that the best novel nominations are major publishers (Zeh’s excepted) while the debut are a mixed bunch of publishing houses. There are an assortment of genres and six women from the ten authors. Clearly, a much more eclectic selection. Adam Robert’s is the only consensus across the awards. In the bag for him then?

So, the big question is this: are the Kitchies more representative, or do they deliberately skew the nominations to be more inclusive? I couldn’t possibly comment, because I don’t know. To be frank, I don’t actually care. In both cases, some people come together, read some books and talk about the ones that they liked the best – regardless of how that process comes about. Who’s to say the most vocal decriers of the awards would come up with the same list or not? All I know is what makes a good story. I didn’t read very many books that were published in 2012 and those I did were mostly horror and fantasy (due to reviewing obligations and catching up with 2011 releases). Maybe I should try harder to read books as they are released.

Of course, the Arthur C Clarke award has yet to announce their shortlist, but thankfully, Christopher Priest hasn’t published a book this year so there might not be any public spats. I wonder if China Miéville’s Railsea will get a nod (not read it). For some reason, I always try to read these shortlisted books before the winner has been announced. Maybe I should try to read the above titles too?

I have my own views on genre and about what science fiction is and should be. This is developing as I work through my History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge. I like to mix up the books I read in terms of depth. So I will read a light urban fantasy and a challenging magic realism, then I’ll go for a werewolf followed by a near future science fiction telling me about societies problems. You can’t live on broccoli alone. Sometimes you need a bacon sarnie.

1738986I don’t think about the author too much when reading and choosing books. Let me qualify that slightly. Of course, I am a fan of particular authors and genres. However, I’m not at all interested in whether Mira Grant is American or George Orwell is male. Many years ago I read Tricia Sullivan’s Someone To Watch Over Me and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite pretty much back-to-back. I had read short stories by both of them in an anthology and enjoyed their writing so hunted out their books. Turns out one is an American living in the UK and the other is from Yorkshire living in the US. One is gay, one isn’t. Guess what? Not interested. I enjoyed Ammonite more than Someone… although I prefer much of Sullivan’s later works. Did Griffith’s work speak to me on some level other than story-telling? I wouldn’t have thought so but then I’m not a physiologist. What I look for in a book is this: story, character, depth or lightness (broccoli or bacon) depending on my mood, entertainment, good writing, and sometimes to be challenged. I wouldn’t not read a book because of an author’s anything (gender, religious preferences, birthplace, eye colour, whatever). I don’t understand anyone who would.

As far marketing is concerned. We live in a capitalist society where competition is king. I don’t particularly like that, but I live little choice but to live in it. There is so much out there and so little time to read everything. I personally appreciate having the shortlists because they highlight books I may have ordinarily missed.

If M. John Harrison wins I still won’t read it. It’s not for me, but I appreciate why he has the acclaim that he does. I might give 2312 a go but I doubt it, as I have too much else I want to read. You know who I hope wins the BSFA award and the Kitchie’s? The most enjoyable and best written book that the panel have read, using a democratic decision to reach an agreement. End of story.

Image from BSFA website
Image from BSFA website