Books of the year 2019

trophyIt’s that time again. Not quite awards time – I’m not even going to pretend I’m wearing a specially rented tuxedo and have just stepped from a Limousine to deliver this preamble (and charged myself an astronomical fee for the privilege) – but time to celebrate some of the wonderful books that have crossed my path this year.

Here’s a list of my favourite books of the past twelve months. I’m not limiting myself to 2019 publications but happily freewheeling through the years; I don’t see enough current releases to focus solely on the most recent publications. I’ve never met a loop I wasn’t out of.

Here we go, then – fourteen books that have uplifted me this year:

The Imaginary Corpse – Tyler Hayes (2019)

Imaginary corpse

This is beautiful. An impossible, ridiculous concept – a stuffed triceratops detective; a noir mystery in a cartoon world of forgotten ideas – that brings out the heights and depths of the emotions.

Tippy lives in the Stillreal, a world where ideas go when they’re not needed anymore. There he solves mysteries and battles his own trauma – until he runs into The Man In The Coat, a creature who can do the impossible: he can kill an Idea permanently. Now Tippy must solve the case before there is nothing left but imaginary corpses.

A mad idea written with such beauty and delicacy that it utterly convinces. Were I awarding a Book of the Year this would be a strong candidate.

The Breach – MT Hill (2020)

BreachI crammed my way through this in two days, thanks to deadlines. But I feel like it’s still unfolding in my brain, even a month after finishing it. Intense, lyrical and creepy as hell.

Shep is a steeplejack with a second life as an urban explorer, breaking in to abandoned structures to document their existence and for the sheer thrill of it. But when he discovers a mysterious nest on one such foray, his life will be forever altered – and maybe much, much shorter.

Meanwhile a down-on-her-luck journalist, Freya, is investigating the death of another urbex adventurer. She meets Shep and follows him across the world to try and get to the bottom of just what is making people act so strangely.

Just what is out there? And what is trying to get in?

Dark River – Rym Kechacha (2019)

Dark RiverTwo mothers, with 8 millennia between them, struggle to save their children in this brooding, suspenseful novel of climate change.

In Doggerland Shaye makes an epic journey to perform a ritual that will secure a future for her son. In London in 2156, Shante waits for a visa that will allow her to extract her family from an angry Thames and make her way to the safer north. On the way both women will face trials and tests that will push them to the limit.

Written without speech-marks, Dark River is a flowing, liquid read that sweeps you along relentlessly right up to its devastating conclusion.

The Outside – Ada Hoffman (2019)

OutsideA lot’s been written about this already, with its autistic main character and its great AI Gods and semi-human Angels. It’s worth the hype.

After Yasira’s prototype energy drive malfunctions and destroys the space station its mounted on, her work is deemed heretical and Yasira is abducted by angels. Her mission becomes one of tracking down her old, vanished mentor, who has been committing atrocities not only against people but against the known laws of the physical universe.

With her own home planet infested by impossible monsters, Yasira must choose who to trust: the AIs and their harsh angels or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics can open doors to impossible space.

An elegantly put together story that manages to bring something new to the table, and introduces mind-twisting concepts in a way that doesn’t twist your mind!

Angelmaker – Nick Harkaway (2012)

AngelmakerThis is great fun. Gangster noir meets James Bond meets absurdist comedy in this book of clockwork, of secret doomsday weapons, mad museums, dictators and octogenarian secret agents.

Joe Spork is a clockmaker and son of a famous mob figure. He is drawn into a conspiracy by the seemingly normal pensioner Edie Banister, who, sick of a life of fighting the nations foes, plots to activate a secret 1950s doomsday machine. Joe now has to fight not only the government but Edie’s arch-nemesis – a mad Asian dictator with a cult of mysterious monks at his behest.

A sprawling, thrilling adventure that always leaves a smile on your face, this is a big, fun thrill-ride that never bores despite its considerable bulk.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – KJ Parker (2019)

Sixteen waysThis was an unexpected delight. A colonel of engineers is, thanks to a series of unfortunate events, left in charge of a Classical city just as it’s invested by a vicious enemy who’s promised to kill all of the inhabitants. To save the city would be a miracle, but Orhan – a cheat, a liar, a man with a serious problem with authority – might just be the perfect person to pull off the impossible.

Witty throughout and with characters you really come to love, the beauty of this really is in the telling; the style is light and irreverent and simply a pleasure to read.

The Ninth Rain – Jen Williams (2017)

Ninth RainA cut above the normal fantasy epic, this is the first in a trilogy set in the world of Sarn: the ancient protectors of the planet, the Eborans, are all but dead from disease, their ancient god powerless and dormant. The planet is littered with the remnants of past wars.

Tormalin the Oathless, one of the last Eborans, leaves his home to wander and live a dissolute life. That is until he meets scholar and antiquarian Vintage de Grazon and the escaped fell-witch Noon. They find themselves hunting old relics in warped and mutated ruins whilst fleeing Noon’s old foes from the Winnowry. And, should they survive that, there is the prospect of the waking of the foes of all – the ruthless and totally alien Jure’lia. They are coming. And the ninth rain will fall…

The Ninth Rain is a wonderful book, the dark mood totally lightened by Williams’ wonderful touch with characters. The central players are all wonderfully drawn, their sarcasms and dry wit brightening a fairly dark world to produce a truly compelling trilogy.

This Dreaming Isle – Various (Dan Coxon ed) (2018)

Dreaming IsleA short story collection of dark and twisted folk tales from the British Isles. Fifteen stories, all depicting something unsettling about this land. Some explore myth and legend, others root themselves very much in the here and now. All are fascinating and it’s a real credit to editor Dan Coxon that he’s produced such a coherent body of work from a disparate and high-powered cast of authors.

 

 

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (2019)

Outlaw UKDisclaimer – I call Rod a friend so you can feel free to disregard my opinion. Nevertheless, this is great. Rod blasts his Elizabeth Barnabus series into the New World with this explosive novel set on the frigid isle of Newfoundland where tattoos bear witness to laws and oaths.

Elias is an outlaw, a man who was cheated out of his place in society – and his thumbs. He wants revenge. Is the mysterious woman who landed unwontedly on the island’s rocky sure, a way for him to reclaim his honour? Or will she just lead them to their deaths?

A fantastic adventure filled with great characters and a real feel for the cold, hostile landscape, this is definitely worth a pace in my favourite books of 2019. Indeed, my next read will be the last book in the trilogy, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.

Fleet of Knives – Gareth L Powell (2019)

Fleet of KnivesAnother second-in-trilogy book here, and another cracker from this Golden Age of British SFF that we’re living through.

The story concerns the former warship Trouble Dog – one of the best AIs I’ve ever come across – and its crew answering a distress call from the crew of Lucy’s Ghost, who have taken refuge aboard an enormous alien generation ship. Meanwhile the Marble Armada have decided to enact peace at any cost – including the destruction of many human ships.

Can Trouble Dog and her crew survive being trapped between chaotic alien monsters on one side and the Marble Armada on the other?

The Winter Road – Adrian Selby (2018)

Winter RoadThe Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.

With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .

A very fine work filled with characters you really feel and care for. A little different to the run-of-the-mill fantasy works it’s competing with, its plant-based ‘magic’ a tonic after the years of wizards. Highly recommended.

Embedded – Dan Abnett (2011)

EmbeddedThe role of journalists in war is the premise in this intriguing SF tale of warring factions.

Lex Falk is recently arrived on planet Eighty-Six, a dull place without much more than minor military skirmishes to cover. But when Lex gets the runaround from the military, his interest is piqued. He gets himself chipped to share the consciousness of a front-line soldier. But when that soldier is killed, Falk must use all his resourcefulness to get back to his own body – and maybe, on the way, he’ll find out what on earth the fighting is really all about.

Lovely writing, an interesting premise and believability are all strong plusses here. There are also strong echoes of contemporary conflicts and the role of journalists within war-zones. Is access to the frontline worth being channelled to give what is essentially military propaganda?

An excellent novel.

Darksoul – Anna Stephens (2018)

DarksoulAnother second of three; Darksoul is the sequel to Godblind and, though it manages not to be quite as nasty as the first book, Darksoul is still pretty grimdark.

The veil that kept the red gods from walking the earth has been torn down. The Mireces army controls the fields of Rilpor. All that stands in the way is the city of Rilporin – and the mind of a soldier with the eyes of a fox.

Bloody, action-packed and thrilling from start to finish, this is a fine book. I really must get around to reading book three.

The Tiger and the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2018)

Tiger and WolfAll people have two shapes: human and the animal to whose tribe they belong. This is the simple and fascinating concept behind The Tiger and The Wolf. And it works brilliantly.

Maniye’s father is the Wolf clan’s chieftain, but she’s an outcast. Her mother was queen of the Tiger and these tribes have been enemies for generations. Maniye can take on tiger and wolf shapes. She refuses to disown half her soul so she escapes and the killer Broken Axe is set on her trail.

Beautifully written and with a real feel for landscape and character, this is a fantastic novel.

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And that’s that for another year! I’m going to take a break, now, until 2020, unless something thrilling and dramatic happens inbetweentimes that I just have to share. Otherwise, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and much, much, happy reading.

 

Closing in

victory

If the quality of my rejections is anything to go by, I’m getting closer.

Yes, it’s another round of ‘near but not near enough’. Last time the rejection was because only special novels need apply. This time it was ‘something about the tone just doesn’t sing with me.’

But the rejection was personalised – which is relatively rare – and some lovely things were said. ‘[Characters] are brilliantly realised’; ‘the writing has real zip and purpose’. I’ll take that, for sure.

I’m getting closer. I’m getting the cover letter right, and I know my work is good. And yes, this may be self-delusion but I believe in what I’ve written. Today, at least; I may feel different tomorrow.

The problem is that I’ve run out of agents to target. Or at least I’m finding it hard to track any more down. I’ve been on the manuscript wishlist website and I’ve been through the Writers’ And Artist’s Yearbook but I don’t want to do things like that anymore; no more blank sending out of queries. I want to find an agent that I feel a connection with, and that basically means liking what they say on Twitter.

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Maybe I should go back to lists and try and hit out randomly. I don’t know. There just seems to be a limited pool of agents who work in the field and I’ve already struck out with most of them. Certainly in my world the same names seem to come up again and again.

So what do I do? Well, I won’t get into a panic or allow myself to get too down. I’ve probably forgotten about a dozen people who are worth submissions. I’ll get to them, I’m sure. I’ll check who my favourite authors are repped by and see if I can’t jump on that particular bandwagon (assuming I’ve not already fallen flat on my face).

And I will of course keep on writing. The best book to sell is always your next one; it’s always the best you’ve ever written.

I am on the right track but it is a tortuous, pitfall-filled road with many slips ‘twixt cup and lip.

But I am making progress. I’ll get to my destination one day.

Unless, of course, this is all massive self-delusion. Don’t be surprised to read a remarkably similar post from me in a year, two years, five years’ time. The industry works slowly, and so do I.

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No flow

flow

At the time of writing I am 47,000 words into my new, refuses-to-be-named, manuscript. And I don’t think I’ve ever written something that’s put up such a fight. And, possibly, is as ropey.

It has been a struggle to get this far. I’ve had to claw for every sentence; at its most difficult I’ve literally taken a break after every few words. Yes, I have become that cliché. But I have kept going, still building one word upon another until an edifice of characters has arisen, rickety and unstable, out of the detritus of my mind.

What I have not yet done is enter a flow state where I lose myself in writing and everything – well, everything flows. I’ve not been in the zone, which is a shame because I’ve been there before and it’s a wonderful feeling; euphoric, even, as you lose yourself in your world and your writing and time seems to disappear as the words amass without, it seems, much input from you.

But that’s okay. And it’s not a problem that I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the words I’ve got down are, in fact, rubbish. It’s hard to tell, when first drafting, whether you’re producing perfect prose or barely-salvageable trash. I suspect the latter.

 

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It’s always easier to rescue a damaged project than it is to start afresh, and so I am forging on. I am, in fact, mostly blocking out my novel, both on a macro- and micro level. I am working out what happens across the whole flow of the story. And I am working out what happens in individual scenes. This high-level thought is taking priority over finding the right words, even over building perfect atmosphere or character.

And it’s hard work. Designing a scene, for example, where protagonist #1 finds herself in someone else’s dream and must fight off a troll and a wolf: there’s a lot of movement, a lot of drama to be created. This is the real imagination-work.

I am, essentially, storyboarding with words and at the same time trying to work it into novel form. Not easy.

Makes me wonder – again – if I should have written an outline – the novel equivalent of a storyboard – before starting the Big Write. But I haven’t, and that’s alright too. As long as the words go down you can write a novel any way that works for you.

Maybe next time I’ll do it properly.

Or maybe not.

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Autodidact

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It’s not something I’m proud of, especially; it’s not as if one method is better than any other. But when it comes to writing I am more or less entirely self-taught.

This is both true and not true: I must confess, for example, that both of my parents are writers and so from the very start I had access to beta-readers who could teach me about things like dangling modifiers, not leaving too much space between a question and an answer, and the unmangling of metaphors.

But in terms of education I am a nobody. English was never my favourite subject in school and I didn’t learn much from it. My highest writing qualification is a GCSE grade B, which is nothing compared to those highfalutin’ MAs and MFAs I see floating around.

I guess I have a tiny inferiority complex about this. I often fantasise about doing a course in fiction writing, especially those in either De Montfort University so I can learn from my friend Rod Duncan (buy his books, they’re great) or at the UEA, with its world-renowned MA in creative writing.

But what would I learn from such a course? That’s what no-one has ever actually explained to me. What could be taught that I haven’t already picked up for myself on my misadventure of a life?

Autodidact cartoon

I should say that I’ve read extensively on the art of fiction. I do enjoy a good writing guide. I’m not sure how much I learnt from any of them, though. They tend to pass through as white noise, with only the odd phrase or two entering my consciousness. I guess that, whilst they don’t change how I write, they at least serve to make me aware of what I’m doing and perhaps influence how I treat voice, or structure, or some such. Just a little, you understand.

But truly most of what I’ve learnt has come courtesy of writing groups and beta readers. Being critiqued has been, for me, the best way to improve and to grow as a writer. Taking criticism seriously, with the respect it deserves, is important and a key driver to my own personal development. I was shown what I was not good at and I did my very best to get better at it.

That and reading, of course. Not reading to improve, nor of reading dry text books, but simply reading for fun. Books for adults and for children, classics and potboilers. Just reading because I love to read. That’s the other half of the equation. Reading and writing both together.

Would I have been a better writer if I’d got an expensive education to go with it? Maybe. If anyone out there has an MA in creative writing I’d love to hear from you. What did it give you? Was it worth it?

Let me finish by listing a few books on the subject that have helped me become the writer I am today. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a recommendation or not:

  • Chuck Wendig: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing
  • Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling
  • Laurie R. King & Michelle Spring: Crime and Thriller Writing
  • Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
  • Rib Davies: Writing Dialogue for Scripts
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature

Cheery bye.

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The hangover

bookhangover-epicreads

This week I have been mostly doing proofreading. This is a job with actual deadlines and suchlike, so please excuse my recent lack of a proper social media presence – or, indeed, any particularly witty or erudite comments here.

What I have been doing is cramming: reading a novel very, very quickly. Over the course of two days I have demolished a pretty intense novel, which is certainly rapid by my recent standards. And it occurs to me: the speed with which we read must affect our experience of the novel.

Is it the same to read a novel slowly over the course of a few weeks, as it is to race through it in one sitting? Does one get the same experience if one reads last thing at night and you’re drifting into sleep with the last words you read?

For me, reading this intensively often leaves me with a sort of book hangover. What I’ve been reading hasn’t been able to unpack properly, and so I find I’m still experiencing the novel in quite visceral – not always pleasant, given the book I was reading – ways a few days later. Is this a symptom of over-speedy reading, or is it just the sign of a good book?

emotionally crippled

Anyway, I have more cramming to get on with now – deadline #2 is well past the horizon, marching double-time to give my shins a good kicking – so I will just ask you this: how do you read? What techniques give you most pleasure, and are they the same ways as give you most understanding?

All the best, you wonderful dreamers out there. Hopefully there will be more coherence next week.

Rejections redux

sorry

If, by any fluke of social media or suchlike, you see me as an established author then let me reassure you that I still get rejections. I want an agent, see, and I am at the moment completely failing to get one.

This Monday morning, first thing, saw a fresh rejection arrive in my inbox. It was kind. They said I wrote with intelligence and imagination and that they enjoyed my sample. But it wasn’t enough for them to fall in love with, to make them fall over themselves with the burning desire to read more.

The rejection contained the specific message: good is no longer good enough; to get a debut accepted you have to be special. And with it the unspoken criticism that my work is not special.

Now I’m not here to criticise this agent – or any agents – or the publishing industry. I’m writing this more of a self-analysis, and a sort of follow-up to the post I posted a few weeks ago. The thing is this: I want to be special. I want to be good at something – properly good. And I’ve been getting a little disheartened recently. I’ve been reading a lot of debuts and yes, in the main they are excellent.

I can’t compete.

snoopy-rejection (1)

Which is a damn shame because I’m getting older all the time and this – writing – is my last hurrah. I’ve tried sports, tried music, tried academia and this is the last thing I think – I thought – I could actually be good at and build a proper career.

This is, of course, silly. Writing isn’t (directly) a competition. I should be enjoying these great new authors. And I am. I’m also learning from them, if by learning you mean shaking your head in admiration and finding your mind expanded by sheer proximity to their mighty, mighty brains.

But I want what they have. And it’s for all this that I want an agent. I want someone to help me with my work, someone on my side who can see the potential of what I’m doing and believes in me; who advises me on how hard I can push self-promotion and when I’m pushing my luck; who knows the industry and can show me wider audiences and greener fields. The money, the deals – they’re secondary.

I know, I know. I have a book traditionally published and another on the way. There are people who would (not literally, I hope) kill for what I’ve got. I’m shallow and selfish and egotistical. This is more of a confessional and a mental purgative than it is a true reflection of where I am.

Also I need to say that I don’t mean to put anyone off writing, or seeking representation, or going the traditional route into publication. It is often harder to find an agent than it is to get a book published; Peter McLean, for example, had three excellent books published before he found his agent. You can do it – I’m sure you’re better than me anyway. You really are special.

The other takeaway from this is that you should be reading as many debut authors as possible. They’re all brilliant.

The hardest part

Brian John Spencer - Ernest Hemingway

There’s always debate: which part of the novel is hardest to write. Some say beginning, some argue passionately that no, it’s the end where the problems doth dwell. For me I think it’ll always be the bits in the middle. Specifically the bits between the inciting incident (at around 15-25% through) and the mid-novel climax.

Beginnings are easy: find a good cinematically happy starting point and start writing. No doubt you’ll change your mind half a dozen times before you’re satisfied, and maybe it’ll be a headache in the revision process, but for first drafting I’ve never found it too much of a problem.

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As for endings – well, it can be complex to tie up all your threads in a way that’s concise and satisfying, but at least by that point you know what all your threads are. After a certain point you’re writing downhill anyway: you’ve released all your pigeons and now they’re coming home to roost. I find that endings tend to come more or less naturally after all the hard work you’ve put in to the set-up.

No, it’s middles that stymie me. Especially early middles where you’re still unspooling the wires and making big decisions.

Let me illustrate this by giving a few of the major determinations I’ve made in just this section of my current WIP:

  • Having a major character be abducted (my inciting incident)
  • Deciding how much faffing around my characters should do before she’s found
  • Wondering how insane to make major character #2
  • Having the ‘court intrigue’ subplot result in major character #3 being exiled from the castle
  • Working out how minor character #1 can assist in the search for major character #1
  • Working out a location for the character to be held in
  • Working out if my characters can go straight there or if there should be a misstep along the way
  • Working out the location/details of this misstep
  • Working out how this misstep is carried out, with specific reference to French policing techniques and equipment
  • Deciding what monster my characters must face at the mid-novel climax – the MNC itself being a whole subset of big doomladen decisions

Every single one of these steps was complicated and involved a lot of deep thought. I’m still setting up the framework for the adventure to come; trying to anticipate my needs for later in the story and giving enough clues, enough evidence to set me on the way to a resolution that convinces and has enough emotional wallop.

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I’ve crawled through this section. Writing has been attritional, chip after single chip as I attempt to hew the novel from the great mass of Possibility. And it seems to me that it’s always been like this: this section of the novel contains so many choices, so many set-ups that the rest is almost easy in comparison.

This is, of course, rubbish. Every single bit of a novel is difficult. Everything is the hardest part. That’s just the nature of the beast, kid.

But this is my hardest part. And it probably reflects my lack of outlining or planning to any great degree. Which is ironic, given that I had considered this to be my most planned novel yet attempted. Just goes to show what I know.

Yeah, come to me for advice, folks. I really know what I’m doing.

Stick with me for another month and I’ll be going on about how hard the third quarter of the novel is to wrote.

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