Books of the year 2021

Yup, it’s that time again, my lovely blog-friends. Time for my favourite reads of the year. Now sadly reduced, as I’m way out of having a proper reading regime. I’m trying, I promise, but the works I select are from a narrow pool.

 Some of these books won’t be out until next year, some have been out for a while, but they all have one thing in common: they’re all great. Read on, read beyond and, as ever, feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.

Stringers – Chris Panatier

Ben knows more than he should. Sadly, that ‘more than he should’ is pretty much limited to insect sex. Turns out Ben is a Stringer, someone blessed – or cursed – by the memories of past lives. And one of those lives happens to know the location of the Chime (whatever that is), and someone has sent a flesh-construct bounty hunter on his tail just to get it.

Consistently funny, Stringers is wonderfully written and elegantly put together. I found myself cursing the author’s talents as I read it, so jealous am I. The turn at the end – of which I will say no more – was wonderfully handled, full of pathos and so right for the story. Definitely one to look out for when it’s released next year.

Prison of Sleep – Tim Pratt

Everything Tim writes is worth reading. He’s just consummately skilled, consistently interesting and never without merit. This, the sequel to Doors of Sleep (see last year’s recommendations, folks), deals with a pesky cult, one that succeeds in destroying what sense of family Zaxony had gained in his previous adventure and sending him out into the multiverse again.

But this is only partly Zax’s story; it’s also the tale of Ana and how she came to ‘rescue’ Zax at the end of the last book. Her voice is strong and confident and welcome, as is that of Zax’s new companion, Zaveta of the Broken Wheel. There are a lot of strong women in Tim’s books.

Retelling the first book from a different perspective; expanding the mythos; adding a new and terrifying antagonist. All check. As I said, Tim is an outstanding writer and this is well worth your time.

The House of Cats and Gulls – Stephen Deas

Another sequel! And yes, obviously another worthy of your time or I wouldn’t be wasting mine writing about it, would I?

Ahem. This is a novel of troubled pasts that won’t quite let you be, and the fear of what you might become, as Myla seeks to save her family, Fingers searches for a missing brother and Seth explores the history of a dead warlock. But as they converge on a conspiracy against the throne, an incomprehensible enemy attacks the plague-ridden city of Deepwater, making all their efforts look worthless.

I stupidly passed up on the opportunity to get a free copy of book one, The Moonsteel Crown, through not reading an email carefully enough. This book two is more clearly part of a series than some sequels I’ve read, but I still found it incredibly enjoyable, engrossing and various other positive adjectives. Deas is an excellent storyteller, his characters fully-rounded and well worth getting to know.

Can’t wait for book three.

Spidertouch – Alex Thomson

Ah, this is an interesting one. I can’t think of another story that tells of the translator’s lot – especially one who acts as the go-between betwixt an enslaved population and their cruel masters, who ensure loyalty by sending the people’s children to work in the mines – essentially holding them hostage against their parent’s good behaviour.

But Razvan, as one of the few masters of the ‘spidertouch’ – the tactile method of communication the silent rulers employ – is in a unique position to change the fate of his city. As discontent is fanned by the arrival of a besieging force outside the city walls, can this middle-man subtly begin to change the message? Can he not only win the freedom from the encircling army, but from his superiors too?

Twenty-Five to Life – RWW Greene

A colony mission is leaving Earth on a mission to save the species. But what about the billions who are left on the planet? Life goes on… but what’s the point?

For Julie the answer is to run away and seek a new life in the Volksgeist, a loose culture of tramps, oldies, artists and ne’er-do’wells who have elected to ride out the end of the world in their campers and converted vans.

A road-movie in all but name, this is a witty and perfectly observed tale of life in elegant decay. It’s also the story of searching: for the life you wish to live, for the person you wish to be. Although the protagonist is 23, it feels like a coming-of-age story. It’s also beautifully written, never more so than in its depiction of an America that’s slowly coming to pieces.

The Offset – Calder Szewczak

You know of this one, right? It seems to have got a lot of press, although that may just reflect the circles in which I move (Twitter, basically). Climate-fiction, it’s the story of an overpopulated, environmentally ravaged world where stringent measures have been put in place to save the planet. Most notably, there is the Offset: for every child born a parent must die.

Miri is about to turn 18 and must choose which of her mothers is to be sacrificed. Her choice would be simple, except that the one she hates, the one she left home to get away from, might just be the only person who can save the world.

Melancholy, yes, and tragic, The Offset is also beautiful and horribly plausible.

The Fallen – Ada Hoffman

Another sequel, and I suspect another middle-of-the-series book. This takes up after the events of The Outside have forced moderately-mild-mannered Tiv Hunt to become a guerrilla leader, trying to free his planet – and the universe – from the influence of the ‘gods’ and their cruel angels. Impossible physics abounds, neurodivergence is everywhere and the cruelty of the powers-that-be universal. It just comes in different flavours.

As well as the gods, Tiv and partner Yasira are hunted by disgraced angel Akavi, former servant of Nemesis, who adds a very important element of bastardry into proceedings – especially in his dealings with their subordinate, with whom we perhaps empathise with most.

The Fallen ends on a partial resolution, setting up for a third book that I’ll very much be looking out for.

Ring the Hill – Tom Cox

A curious book this. One for landscape lovers everywhere, this is presented rather like a short-story collection but is actually roughly biographical; longish essays on aspects Cox’s life in different places he’s lived. That there is less on his cats then there has been in previous books of his might disappoint some – though they are there, always there. But, as I said, this is a book mostly about landscape, about the natural world and the ways in which one can inhabit that world.

By turns magical, mystical, and ruthlessly grounded, it is perhaps a hard sell. But Cox’s writing – and, one suspects, his personality – is lovely. There’s always something interesting, some new adventure, to be found in his words. A pleasure to be around.

Saga Book 1 – Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

A graphic novel! And also a cheat, as this is a re-read of a story I’ve featured in these pages several times before.

But it’s also brilliant; a Romeo-and-Juliet story about lovers running from their warring planets and the loose confederation of people they draw into their orbit – and also about the forces sent to track them down.

Beautifully written, wonderfully imaginative and perfectly brought to life by Fiona Staples, this is a story one can truly fall in love with. Can’t wait to receive part 2 for Christmas, he says in hope.

What Abigail Did that Summer – Ben Aaronovitch

He’s simply a damn good writer. What more can I say? This is the only novella in the list and is a side-step in the Rivers of London series, which is also excellent but suffers from ‘the protagonist’s with the wrong woman’ syndrome.

Maybe that’s just me. Regardless, it doesn’t detract from this beautifully constructed little piece, which takes apprentice wizard Abigail and a posse of talking foxes into the wilds of Hampstead to try and discover who’s luring teenagers away – and why.

It’s simply great fun. Sit back and enjoy.

The Sandman (Acts 1 & 2) Audio – Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs (audio)

Yes, of course I’ve read this before, but the audio treatment, which I’m specifically recommending here, just takes it to another level. The cast is magnificent. The narration, by Gaiman himself, works beautifully. The work Maggs has put into the adaptation is so subtle that no seams can be seen.

Something about the experience of hearing it brings out the horror of the tale – for it certainly touches horror in numerous places – and makes it transcend its source material. And I say this, realising that I’ll be accused of heresy by many graphic novel fans. But still – and again maybe this says more about the way I absorb my material than it does the material itself – I couldn’t listen to this for long stretches as it unsettles so.

Doomed. Tragic. Beautiful. Human.

Wonderful.

Senlin Ascends – Josiah Bancroft

A bewildering, bewitching world of the many realms – ‘ringdoms’ – that make up the Tower of Babel are here explored as we follow Senlin in his quest to find his missing wife. Through madhouses, theatres, airships; past (and with) rogues and tyrants and thieves and actors we go. Upwards through the tower we go on this mild-mannered man’s quest.

A triumph of invention and imagination, Senlin Ascends is bursting with wit and energy. Would that I were reading at something like a normal rate I would have devoured the whole series already. As it is I must merely anticipate what the future will bring as Senlin makes his way up the Tower, ringdom by ringdom.

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And that’s it. Hope you’ve enjoyed this brief canter through books I can barely remember more than to say ‘yeah, liked that’. Hope I’ve not been too spoiler-y but enough to whet the appetite. Remember, you can always leave your comments or your own reviews below – I love to read them all.

Have a great end-of-year, my lovely friends. Happy reading!

More on the morass

Green Morass, by Zdenka Kezele

It is a matter of personal taste: would you like to struggle more with the beginning, the middle, or the end? I know of writers who find getting going excruciating – every word a struggle until enough brain-lubrication has been got down and their pistons can fully come online. The ending – well, I don’t know of anyone who’s fought too badly with this, but presumably there are those who have to hack away with the machete of will to get out of a novel.

Me, I’m a middle man. Specifically, I’m a ‘the bit from 25-40k’ man. It seems like on every novel I get hung up about this point; the words don’t flow no more and every session is a slog. Progress can be measured in paragraphs, not pages, and a decent conversation is a joy as it means you can feel like you’ve really got somewhere, even if the word count is still crawling.

To put it another way – because word-count doesn’t mean all that much, not really – it’s the section from the inciting incident to the central conflict that I really struggle with. To those wot don’t speak Hero’s Journey (or whatever we’re calling it today), the inciting incident is that occurrence that means the central character can’t sit around in their armchair all novel and must go out and do something: their house mysteriously burns down, say, or their attempts to rebuff the kindly old wizard finally come to naught: the band have got together and they’re on their way to adventure.

The central conflict is the conflict at the novel’s heart, where all things flip and the protagonist is sent in a new direction.

It seems that I always struggling with this section. It’s not necessarily that I’m stuck for ideas, though often the slowness is caused by having to think – an occupation of which I Do Not Approve. Rather it’s… Well, I’m, honestly not sure what it is. I just know that, for two novels in a row, I have been pulling words like teeth precisely at this juncture. If I could remember I’d swear it was other novels too.

This is where novels are abandoned. Where they’re set aside ‘to stew’ and never quite get picked up again. Or where a new project suddenly looms on the horizon making all that’s come before seem like a waste of time.

If you are struggling with this, or with any part of your novel, I wish I had answers for you. The only real advice I can give you is to keep going. For each word you write – even the wrong ones – get you closer to the end. You’re not in a race (unless you are). You’re not (usually) writing to a deadline. All progress is good and it does get easier (or so I tell myself). You’ll have good days amidst the struggle, and soon you’ll find that all the hard work has not only moved you forwards considerably, but that now you can ‘write downhill’ and dance through big chunks of story because you’ve done all the hard prep already.

I suppose that’s the real trick of writing. That it has to be done. There may be shortcuts – proper prep and gestational work – that I’m not an expert on, but at the end of the day it comes down to getting the words down on (electronic) paper.

Keep going. No matter how slowly you move, no matter how many hours spent thinking, or not thinking, keep coming back to that manuscript and make words happen.

Soon you’ll be looking back, amazed at how much you’ve done. And eventually you’ll have a finished draft.

First draft morass

First drafting is an inefficient thing. When the initial rush has worn off, when there’s nothing left but vague ideas and you’re stumbling around to try and find a clear path, the clumsiness is clear. The only maps are long out-of-date and the natives none too friendly; forwards a few paces, then sideways, then over a strange fold that seems to take far longer to cross than by rights it should… Inefficient.

Sometimes an inch takes an hour, sometimes you seem to fly. Like a punch-drunk boxer you sway and stagger and when the bell rings for the end of a round it’s all you can do to hope you’ve somehow engaged the enemy.

But the only enemy is the shape of the story in your own mind. Can you design a vessel for the ideas? Can you channel them – whether in a familiar fashion or in a direction you’d completely failed to anticipate – into something story-shaped?

So I trip and I stumble but I keep going forwards. There’s nothing glamourous about this. It’s hardly sitting at a keyboard and letting the fingers dance, as the media would have you believe. It’s stop-start, it’s distraction, it’s having an idea whilst you’re in the middle of another and so you have horrible nesting conversations where no-one gives an answer to the preceding question but is instead discursing on the history of the East India Company.

Conversations especially have a way of getting out of control. Because what you want to say is always hijacked by the characters, how will insist on responding to imagined insults when you’d rather they helped move the plot along.

Writing is a mess. First drafting is a mess. It’s why I so admire people who can plan books out properly and don’t have all this chaos in their life. I’ve never been able to manage it, personally; I always say ‘okay, this will be the novel I outline fully before setting pen to paper’ but it never works – or, at least, I’ve still not found a way to make the actual writing any easier.

At the moment I’m all tangled up in backstory, but the buggers will insist on interrupting, telling things arse-over-tip, and generally being messy. Characters are like that.

I guess I should really try to embrace the chaos, get it all down and tidy during Round 2. But inefficiencies can be paralysing; we can’t do that until this is sorted.

There is no point to any of this. I will struggle onwards because it’s what I do. But my mind is all a bit of a muddle at the moment. I need to remind myself that it does get better – because it surely does. I’m just at that horrible 30k mark, where everything eternally is a slog.

Back to the coalface to chip, chip chip away. I’ll keep going. It’s what I do.