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.

*

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!

Dropped

It’s finally happened. It’s over.

How to talk about this without overstating or making this into a bigger thing than it is? First of all, the bald facts: I have been dropped by my publisher. They have decided that sales of Night Shift and Human Resources aren’t good enough to justify picking up the third novel in my Antarctic trilogy and have decided to move on from me.

This is perfectly fair and, really, it’s hard to argue against. I too have been disappointed with sales (of NS; I’ve not seen any for HR yet) and I suppose the writing has been on the wall. I bear no ill-will to the publishers and wish them well. They gave me my chance and – hey – there’s nothing to say I’ll never work with them in the future. I still want people to rush out and buy my books from them!

My publisher’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of writing; they were keen to emphasise that. It’s purely a business decision, and I respect that.

But it is heartbreaking. I feel like my career is done. I don’t know what to do with myself.

Most immediately, I have the third book in a trilogy that I desperately want to get out there. I feel it’s the best in the series and provides a neat, satisfying climax to the story of Anders Nordvelt. Without it I’ll always feel like my work is incomplete – because it is. I want readers to know that there is an ending; there is happiness, of a sort, for my protagonist.

I have also lost my safety net. I have another complete, ready-to-go novel that I’ve been unsuccessfully hawking to agents. This now becomes my primary weapon. I now should be putting it out to publishers as well – but now I feel a much greater vulnerability. Without the option of Flame Tree Press, I feel rejection to a much greater degree, especially if my primary choice, the company for whom I do most editorial work, should take a look and turn me down.

I don’t dare send it out. I can’t bear the pain.

So it feels like my career is over. And I just don’t know what to do with myself.

Books of the year 2020

My reading has been desultory this year. I’m sorry. Changes in work patterns and getting out of the habit of listening to audiobooks – it’s cost me.

So this year’s Best Books list is a little thinner this year. Not that the books I’ve enjoyed have been any worse than they have in previous years – the recommendations are as strong as ever – just that I’m drawing from a shallower well. Mea culpa.

But still, without further ado…

My eleven favourite reads of 2020, in rough order of reading:

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – Rod Duncan

The third book in the Map of Unknown Things trilogy sees Elizabeth Barnabus travelling across America in search of her missing family. Crossing the border into the wilds of the Oregon Territory, she discovers a mustering army, a king who believes he is destined to conquer the world, and a weapon so powerful that it could bring the age of reason crashing down.

The future of the Gas-Lit empire rests on the back of a conjuring trick.

A superb finale from Rod, which explores ideas of gender and gender-identity, of family and missing mothers; and the intrigues of court-politics and the essential glamour and fakery of magic.

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

I didn’t like this at first. There just weren’t enough empathetic characters – every was bitchy and snarky and, whilst fun, I didn’t feel like I was going to fall for it as I did. Just as the enemies-turned-lovers(?) trope turns, so did the alienation-turned-admiration work in the reader, and, by the end, I was rooting for the characters to solve the mystery.

It’s not perfect and won’t be for everyone. It relies on roguery rather than humanity. But it won me over and earns its place on this list.

The Gutter Prayer – Gareth Hanrahan

The city has always been. The city must finally end. When three thieves – an orphan, a ghoul, and a cursed man – are betrayed by the master of the thieves guild, their quest for revenge uncovers dark truths about their city and exposes a dangerous conspiracy, the seeds of which were sown long before they were born.

A beautifully-written and imaginative dark fantasy in which the city is a real character in itself and which brings genuinely new ideas into the genre.

Small Robots – Thomas Heasman-Hunt

Well, how to write about this? If you’re not following the @smolrobots Twitter-feed this might not make sense to you.

Part art, part therapy project, this is simply a collection of Very Useful Robots (apart from the ones that aren’t), who are resolutely monopurpose, often to the point of being faintly (or gloriously) ridiculous. Simple drawings filled with character and humour, it’s just a lovely thing.

The Last Emperox – John Scalzi

The final part of John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, this is a wonderful finale, filled with shocks and revelations and a conclusion that is utterly convincing. aPlus there’s the benefit of Scalzi’s effortless prose that keeps the pace moving throughout. He’s simply a very good writer, damn him.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Okay, I really don’t get why this exists.

This is the ‘literature’ entry in this year’s list, and it suffers from the problems of all its type: just…why? It’s the tale of three generations of a family, from their forced migration from Greece to America, their growth into solid, prosperous citizens, and the final emergence of the intersex character to whom the title belongs.

As I said, I don’t really get it. There’s no real purpose to it, no great challenge to overcome (save one of identity, in which case why not focus on Callie/Cal and drop the preceding generations?); I just don’t understand the purpose behind writing this story in this way?

But I can put this down to being a genre writer, and, more specifically, a genre-reader. This book is here simply because it is so beautifully written. It carried me with it through its sections, ages and many, many pages because the prose is lovely and effortless in the way that good writing should be; not drawing too much attention to itself, just picking the right words at the right time.

The Fun Stuff – James Woods

Another book I found beautiful in its prose and yet wouldn’t recommend unreservedly. This is a collection of essays written by critic and columnist James Woods. You might find it heavy going; for me the subject matter was all a little too worthy – I’d not read a single one of the reviewed authors save for a single book my Ian McEwan. Oh, and I’ve seen the TV adaptation of War and Peace.

Even so, I now feel I can have a conversation on any number of the featured authors – or at least nod along intelligently – because Woods constructs his arguments so well. As I said, his writing is virtually faultless and I find myself swept up in admiration for the author. Maybe if I exposed myself to counter-arguments I may re-evaluate this, but I’m not especially likely to and so this stands as a uniquely elegant book of criticism.

Composite Creatures – Caroline Hardaker

Ah, this is a wonderful, heartbreaking piece. It won’t be out until 2021 (thus neatly escaping the HellYear) and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for.

It’s a simple tale, all told. In a hostile world (though no obvious dystopia) the rich can buy themselves exclusive medical treatment and – for some – this means matching you with your exclusive genetic partner and getting your own little bundle of joy which will… what?

That’s the beauty of this novel; the gradual unrolling of the details both of what Norah and Arthur have signed up for and the gradual reveal of what Norah has given up to get to this point in her life. And what she continues to lose.

A beautiful, haunting novel that is wonderfully written and will not leave you alone.

Flame Riders – Sean Grigsby

Ah, Sean Grigsby; top chap and top writer of dragon-based action. Flame Riders is the third third-in-series book in this list and it’s certainly involves the kicking of most ass. Another novel set for 2021, the story revolves around the misadventures of a New United States Army deserter and possible smoke eater (one immune to the effects of dragon smoke and partially resistant to flames) in a world where smoke eaters are persecuted and the army little more than mercenary thugs.

Of course, wouldn’t you know it, but the scene is set for a brutal confrontation between the NUSA and the smoke eaters… plus dragons. Always dragons.

Witty, sarcastic and inventive, with excitement aplenty. What’s not to like?

Oh, and if you want to hear me and Sean chatting (a long, long time ago now), check out this link.

Doors of Sleep – Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt has never let me down. After his Axiom series, upon which I had the fortune to do a small amount of work, I was shown a pre-release version of his latest, The Doors of Sleep. It is a wonderfully inventive tale of a man who wakes up in a new universe every time he sleeps. All is transient: utopias, dystopias, rural paradises or urban nightmares: all are gone after a few days maximum.

Accompanied by the wonderful Minna (human, plant, or something in-between?) – the real star of the show, along with the AI Vicki – Zax is desperate to stay one step ahead of the maniacal Lector.

Always moving forwards, sometimes isolated and never able to build more than one relationship at a time, this as much a study in loneliness as it is an adventure. A wonderful tale.

Within Without – Jeff Noon

Let’s finish on the weird, shall we? Jeff Noon does weird well. Another 2021 release, this is the fourth book in the Nyquist series of fantastic adventures. The previous one Creeping Jenny was set in a small village where every day was a saint’s day, which had its own actual, physical ‘law’ that must be obeyed. This is set in the city of Delirium, a place defined by borders, each one different and shifting.

Nyquist has been hired to find an actor/musician’s ‘image’; his glamour, the thing that gives him that extra 20%, that has been torn from him. Thus begins a tangled tale that sees Nyquist confronted by rogue enchanters, kingdoms within kingdoms, his own literary self, and always, always, the boundaries that separate them.

Magical, mad and magnificent, that’s Jeff Noon for you.

***

And there you go. Hope that’s given you some inspiration for those last-minute Christmas presents, even those ones labelled for yourself, as well as some things to watch out for in 2021. I’m off until the new year now; have a great holiday, those of you who get one, and have a great few weeks those of you who don’t. See you in a little while; be well x

PS: I nearly forgot: feel free to add this to your Christmas lists as well…

Blog tour

Hello all!

It’s been a busy week for me, what with Human Resources being released and all. So I don’t have much to say right now (other than that, if you missed the news, Human Resources is out now – please consider thinking about picking up a copy), except that I should be in the middle of a blog tour as we speak.

Now I confess to not knowing much about blog tours, but if you check out any of the contributing websites on the appropriate dates or after, you should see reviews or other features on the book. Which of course I urge you all to do forthwith.

And that’s all for now, save to say that, if you missed it, I put a chapter of the aforementioned novel on YouTube, if you wish to see my particularly bouffant beard in all its glory. Check it out to hear me reading and to get a taste of Human Resources.

See you all next week!

x

Human Resources is out now!

It’s here! It’s now! It’s out! Hopefully, by the time you’ve read this, your copy will either have already reached you or be in some kind postie’s knapsack, rapidly approaching your doorstep.

If you’ve not got a copy on pre-order, let me assure you that Human Resources is very much available from all good booksellers – go indie if possible, but I’m not going to Amazon-shame anyone – and is not only an excellent read but also makes an excellent Christmas present for all.

Four days to go!

Four days to go! It’s still not too late to pre-order; get your shiny new book on release day by asking of any good bookseller or, failing that, Amazon.

Normally I’d be desperately promoting my new release through the odd bookshop signing, convention attendance and as many radio interviews as I can possibly con my way onto. This time around there is much less for me to do.

Which is not to say that my publishers have been sitting on their thumbs all this time. There are review copies out in the wild; there is a blog-tour in the planning; there are many other things behind the scenes that I am barely aware of. All to sell my book. Bless them.

But it feels a little odd to be sitting here doing virtually nothing. I should be out there! I should be helping! My face – or at least voice – should be ubiquitous throughout the etherwaves. It’s an odd feeling, becalmed, itching to crack on and yet unable to do anything.

We live in interesting times. There are bigger things going on in the world. Nothing to do but suck it up.

Still: only four days to go before the release of some excellent lockdown reading. Don’t miss out!

Bad books

beware-of-the-book-1280x720

I want to read bad books. I’m sick of coming up against five-star extravaganzas. I want poor plots and painful prose, especially in debut novels. I want to feel like my writing has a chance. I want to be able to compete.

It’s my own fault. A lot of the new reading I give myself is because I see hype on Twitter and I think I’ll give that author a shot. I should know that, if it’s hyped, it’ll probably be of a decent standard. At least it’ll be technically accurate. Oh! for a debut that consistently misjudges commas or over-purples the prose.

Why do I want this? Because every good book I read makes me feel like I’m less of a writer myself. Established, successful writers can be as good as they like; that doesn’t bother me. It’s the newbies that get me; seeing my stable-mate, a debutante like me, getting starred reviews in the press (or getting press in the first place) – I can’t compete with that!

I’m being silly. I’d never wish anything less than success on my partners-in-writing. And I love to be thrilled and transported by novels both old and new.

But my insecurities, and the void into which my writing has fallen, pull at me. Every single novel I read at the moment seems to excellent – more than that, they seem to be ‘special’, that undefinable quality that one agent told me, mid-rejection, that new novels have to be nowadays.

I say again, I can’t compete with that.

So it’d be nice to pick up, just once, a new and hyped book and think ‘how the hell did this get published?’ To think ‘oh, well of course I’d never make such a silly mistake.’ Or even ‘pah! At least I can use ellipses properly…’

But no. They’re all great.

Damn you, publishers and agents, for doing your jobs!

sad book

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.

 

Book of the year 2018

DTRH 2

Yes, folks, it’s that time again: the year is drawing to a close and so I must select my favourite books of the year.

But I fear I must begin with an apology. I have simply not read enough. All was going swimmingly until I moved house, leaving the comforting bosom of the job in and around of which I did most of my reading. Thus we have been operating in dribs and drabs ever since.

We will have to treat the future on its own merits. For now, though, let us look back at the books I have enjoyed over the last twelvemonth and see if we can’t scrape some sort of purpose out of the whole hideous morass.

Blimey, I’ve encountered some superb books this year. So many, in fact, that I’m not going to choose a simple ‘best’. Instead I’m going to give a few of my favourites.
So, in no particular order:

Fiction:

The Honours – Tim Clare

The Honours

Tim does occasional novel-opening-critiques on his excellent podcast so I decided to turn the tables and do the same right back to him (in my mind only) when reading this. That attempt lasted less than a page before I was lost in his beautiful world. I originally wrote about this in this blog-post. It’s simply a wonderful book that I dare not tell too much about for fear of dispelling the mystery of what the hell this is actually about.

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Vanishing Box

If you want to write a crime novel, read Elly Griffiths. I mean, seriously. The plotting is just so good; the way she gives her characters depth – just enough so you think you can see a way through to the murderer; just enough in each scene to make you think ‘no, hang on, maybe I was wrong’. In every scene.

Elly’s novels aren’t always perfectly realised. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t work as well for me, for example, and I wasn’t too sold on The Dark Angel (though this again contained magnificent character development; in fact, if I was writing a how-to book I’d probably start right here). But part of the fun of Griffiths’ books lies in the relationships between the main characters. And The Vanishing Box is perfect.

Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

QoaC

Rod Duncan: lovely man, drinker of black tea and dreamer of dark waters. Here he takes his story of the Gas-Lit Empire out across the ocean and shows us that the world we thought we’d got to grips with is not only full of stories but full of stories we’d never even imagined possible. Like the star-cruiser* at the beginning of Star Wars you suddenly realise that what we thought was the big picture was merely docking bay.

Britain is only a small island trapped between sea and continent. And the seas themselves can harbour as many monsters as ever walked on land. Elizabeth Barnabus is on the hunt for her best friend, last seen on a zeppelin that was shot down somewhere in the Atlantic. Might she have survived? Who fired the shot?

The next in the series is out in January. I can’t wait.

*I have no doubt this craft has a proper name that you’ll no doubt be eager to share with me. You all know the one I mean though, right? If not, insert mental image of the opening credits of Red Dwarf.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

If I have a criticism of Adam Roberts – and I do – it’s that he’s more interested in ideas than stories. Thus we have we literal people-with-no-heads in Land of the Headless; we have the ‘what-does-animal-rights-truly-mean?’ of Bête. And the oh-God-it’s-the-very-nature-of-reality of The Thing Itself.

By Light Alone has a similarly high concept. Genetic modification has enabled people to ‘eat’ sunlight directly through their hair. So only the rich eat ‘real’ food and flaunt baldness whilst the poor are a tidal mass threatening to bring the whole edifice to the ground. This novel scores by having a very human story at its heart: a rich man’s world comes tumbling down when his daughter is abducted. And then, a year later, comes back into his life.

But is she all that she seems? And does it really matter when their world seems doomed anyway?

Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

Shadow

The first volume in the Book of the New Sun quadrilogy, this is… weird. On the face of it, we’re dealing with a traditional high fantasy epic. But the further we progress, accompanying Severian on his journey to a distant city, the more we come to realise that we’re part of a different story altogether.

This series has been hugely influential; Neil Gaiman, for one, has written of its power, and it regularly features is lists of the best SFF novels ever. It’s not the easiest read – not because of any flaws but because it requires the reader to work; we are so deeply embedded in Severian’s mind that he doesn’t see the need to explain the many sudden ‘wait, what?’ moments.

It is, in short, something that rewards reading and rereading. And possibly doctoral theses.

The Doomed City – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Doomed City

Well now, just about everything I said about Shadow of the Torturer applies here. Weird? Check. Doctoral theses? Check. Challenging? Check. Hidden from the Communists? Che- no, wait. That only belongs to this novel, the origins of which are almost as interesting as the story itself. Long story short: originally writing in the early seventies with writer-brothers who knew it would never pass Soviet censors. Only two copies existed, hidden carefully in friends’ apartments, until 1989 when publishing restrictions were lifted.

The city of the title is the key figure in the story. It is an impossible place, complete with moving buildings and a sun that switches on and off. It’s populated by people taken from different periods in history (or at least the 20th century). We follow Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad. At the start of the story he is idealistic and naïve. Then, after a fascist coup, he becomes careless, almost cold. It is significant that one of the most important characters is Jewish.

The climax shows an exhibition to cross the no-man’s land beyond the city’s edge – to find out, in essence, where they are and why they’re there. It’s a complex novel, difficult and full of ideas. Anyone who’s seen the (very good) film Dark City will see The Doomed City’s influence.

It’s begging for a sequel, and for that reason should never be given one.

Caveat emptor. There are very few women in the novel and those that are there (Andrei’s wife, notably) are treated horribly. Also antisemitism, though this is part of the plot.

Godblind – Anna Stephens

Godblind

This is another wonderful, powerful novel that can only really be described as grimdark fantasy – Lord of the Rings with feeling – but dares also give us love.

A spoonful of love helps the horror really hit home.

Warring gods and their pawns on earth; corruption and unbelievable cruelty. The ingredients are nothing new, but Stephens gives them urgency and passion and serves up probably the most convincing battlefield I’ve ever read.

The most sickening thing is that this is her debut. Makes you spit, really.

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

the-wasp-factory

Don’t read this. I mean please, just don’t do it to yourself.

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderfully written. This horribly damaged narrator in his horribly damaged life is so utterly, utterly convincing. The banality with which he talk of the things he’s done – brilliant.

Also horrible. Caveat. There aren’t enough caveats in the world.

Thornhill – P Smy

Thornhill

Another I wrote about previously, this is a YA book that mixes a story told through diary entries intercut with a wordless graphic novel. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun

Aha! The one that’s going to win all the awards. Revenant Gun is the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series that began with Ninefox Gambit. The whole series takes our ideas of space opera and blows them up with malice aforethought.

Some people will find the detail of exotic physics* and mathematical arcana dull. Some also won’t like the genderqueerness of – well, just about everything. That’s fine. I loved it and felt it really underpinned the structure of the previous novels.

These are game-changing books and worthy of your time whether, ultimately, you like them or not.

*Magic, but interesting

Rogues – GRR Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds)

Rogues

I’m not a big short-story reader and this is the first time an anthology has appeared in my ‘best of’ lists. But I feel I have to include this here because not only did it take FOREVER to get through but because it was a consistent delight. The 21 stories are all based around the morally dubious. Most are great fun.

As is the nature of these things, some (Gaiman’s ‘How the Marquis got his Coat Back’ for one) I’d read before. Some are better than others.

Personal favourites:

‘Bad Brass’; Bradley Denton (though one Amazon reviewer rates this as one of the worst in the collection, which just goes to show)

‘Tough Times All Over’; Joe Abercrombie

‘Now Showing’; Connie Willis (another story the other reviewer disliked)
‘A Year and a Day in Old Theradane’; Scott Lynch.

Worst story:

‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’; GRR Martin. This isn’t a story. It’s a list of things that happened. As far as I can see, no reviewer liked this one.

Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

Embers of War.jpg

Space opera done well. I could go on at length about the ethical questions that Powell raises, at the universe he’s created, and at the depths he gives his characters – all of whom have carefully drawn backstories that never get in the way of the here-and-now. I could say all this, but all you really need to know is that he’s created a sentient warship called Trouble Dog. And that she’s one of the best AIs ever created.

Volume two coming in 2019. Can’t wait.

Also Recommended:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark

Non-Fiction:

Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman

Daemon

A collection of essays mostly on writing and occasionally on Pullman’s personal philosophy. There’s a huge amount to glean from this, especially if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials. It delves into the role of story in life; in education, in religion and science. Very interesting, though, in truth, I can’t actually remember much about it now.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – D Adam

Man who couldn't stop

Well this is just fascinating. On the face of it it’s simply the memoir of a man’s struggle to understand and overcome his own obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what it really serves to do is to make us look at our own behaviours and reevaluate our drives and urges.

Wonderfully written; lyrical and elegant, this is one of the best examinations of mental illness that I’ve ever read. Really, really not just for sufferers and really, really not a misery memoir; humour and sly wit underpin even the darkest episodes.

Liable to Floods – JR Ravensdale

Liable to Floods

This isn’t so much a recommendation – not unless you’re interested in the history of three villages on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fen.

Or maybe that’s not true. There is a great deal for the novelist here – if you’re interested in the way mediaeval (or fantastic) settlement and survival, floods and fires, you could do a lot worse than this.

Either way, it’s elegantly written and, even if it’s now out of date, deserves its place here.

How to Read Literature – Terry Eagleton

Read Literature

I have been flattered that Eagleton’s writing style is not a million miles from this blog. Well, maybe. Still this is a lovely book, clearly written and full of wit. It is a book about literature and I suspect its main audience will be university students; it’s slightly highfalutin’ for the likes of me.

Still, anything that makes you reevaluate all you thought you knew about popular texts is worth reading. Eagleton makes it easy. And his reinterpretation of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as a socialist manifesto will live long in the memory.

Graphic Novel:

Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga 6

Second year in a row. Read the last ‘Best of’ for more; but, simply put, this remains unique; a wonderful jewel buried under a mountain of superheroes. The sheer imaginative power that can create Prince Robot and Lying Cat, and have a ghost as a major character, is incredible. And that’s just the surface.

Wonderful stuff

* * *

And that’s it, apart from all the books I’ve forgotten. Please share your own personal favourites; I’m always looking for new authors, or even new opinions.

Have a wonderful holiday, all you lucky folk who get such a thing. I’ll be back in 2019 with more dubious knowledge and half-baked theories.

If you’re interested, check out my previous years’ Best of lists here:

2017
2016
2015

Not-quite-a-launch-party #2

Btl2

Another day, another book-signing! This one was on a Friday night in the world’s smallest bookshop* and it went much better than I could have imagined. Not only did my daughter arrive too late to heckle me but the place was packed**. Huge thanks to the staff at Between the Lines, and the people of Great Bardfield, who gave me this wonderful book as a thank-you gift.

Whether they were there for me or for the free prosecco is a moot point***. Applause was polite. Books were sold. There was only one left in the shop when I rolled out at the end of the evening, all the customers (not, for the most part, my target market) having remembered cousins, sons and friends for whom it might make a good present.

In completely unrelated news, Night Shift is available now and makes a great Christmas present for all those cousins, sons and daughters (not just for boys!) and spouses and rabbits (tasty pages!) the world over.

And that’s it. That’s all the promo I’ve got lined up. Hopefully I’ll get something lined up for the new year, but, as we stand, it’s back to the real world for me.

It’s been a busy week. Maybe now I can get on with some real writing****.

btl5

*It’s not actually the smallest bookshop in the world. That honour goes to this place. But it is pretty small

**It would feel packed with six people in. That’s how small it is

***Prosecco. No doubt

****Just been told that BBC Radio Guernsey want an interview. Reality is postponed. Here’s your surreality-replacement service. Please don’t wee on the seats