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!

Buy-in

My reading for pleasure has disintegrated over the last few months. And that’s just a recipe for struggle as, for a fiction writer, there’s little more important than to refresh your well of ideas with plentiful outside influences.

Why it’s gone – well, once upon a time my primary opportunities for reading were work-related: the commute, the job itself (lots of quiet periods sitting with little to do), the coffee breaks.

Since then a change in employment has sabotaged these opportunities – and the pandemic has taken even these. I’m not good at taking time out of my home-day to read; this is, fundamentally, where I’m going wrong.

Fortunately, I’m currently going through one of my busiest periods ever as an editor, and I’m getting plenty of new fiction that way. It’s not the same – as I’ve said before on this blog, I think you consume stories differently when you’re searching out errors as opposed to just going with the flow – but it’s still a damn good way of keeping the inspiration-mines productive.

I’m experiencing the newest fiction and, for the most part, I’m overwhelmed with admiration for the authors, for their creativity, and I’m left wondering if I can ever achieve something that would make over people react the way these authors make me.

I currently have a novel out on submission to a publisher. I just have no idea how to gauge my chances. It’s a good story, I know it is. But it’s not going to win awards for its prose (decent is not the same as lyrical, or heart-rending, or haunting). Nor is the plot particularly original or earth-shattering. A good novel doesn’t have to be one that changes the world.

It might be commercial, but who am I to judge that?

Does it stand up alongside the novels I’ve been editing? Well it’s different, that’s all I can say for sure. Some I feel are better than mine, a (very) few worse. But I know that I’m not capable of reading my own work in the same way that I can read someone else’s. Maybe, one day, some lone proofreader will be reading my work with the same sense of admiration that I feel for other novels. Or maybe they’ll just be slogging their way through an endless slough of despond.

Maybe I’m unique; probably this is universal. I have no idea how my own writing will communicate itself to an outside reader. And it’s because of this that we try and get as much buy-in as possible: we trust beta-readers, we pay for editors; if we’re lucky enough we have agents and the editors are paid by someone else.

All because we haven’t the first idea. I still remember the feeling of being blindsided by the criticism I received the first time I took my work to a writing group. I thought I’d taken a piece that was beyond anything but minor criticism – ah, the arrogance of inexperience! But truly it’s never got any better, not for me, at least.

It’s foolish to put too much store in one person’s opinion, or one publishing house’s commercial judgement, but we do. Which is why it’s important to get as much buy-in as possible, to cast our nets widely.

There is no point to this. Apologies for wasting your time. You, at least, are wonderful.

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.

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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

Re-proof

I’m taking it easy this week. After all I’ve posted about in the last few weeks, it’s time for me to take some pressure off myself.

I have finished the final final proofs of Human Resources, finding a mighty total of two errors (one typesetting, one artistic). It’s a hard process, finishing a book. As well as around nine drafts – I lost count somewhere along the way – of the damn novel, I have had to answer to my copy edits. Then, over the last month, I’ve gone through pre- and post-proofread drafts to ensure the product is as good as it can possibly be, given the massive drag factor of my brain.

That’s a lot of reading in not much time. And it aint what you call fun reading, either: not only is it your own stuff but it’s stuff that you’ve already moved on from, mentally. It’s like you’re being called back to court to answer to charges you’d thought had been heard long years ago.

Which is why I’m having a rest this week. I shall return to my Old Testament intergenerational epic of an edit with something of a sense of relief: at least here is something new, a sort of mental palate-cleanser.

And as for this blog? Well, much as I love you, I’m not going to break my back with a search for something new to say. No, you can make do with this and be happy.

I do love you, though. Never think otherwise

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.

 

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

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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.

Reading and not reading

James Coates

‘Woman Reading’ by James Coates

If you ever take a look at my book log you’ll notice that my reading has tailed off considerably over the last year. This almost exactly coincides with the leaving of my last job – and, more pertinently, the lack of a regular bus-rides and lunch breaks.

This is a cause of considerable distress to me. I love reading. It remains the source of unalloyed joy and learning and I am always mindful of Stephen King’s maxim: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

But that’s not the whole story, for I have been doing a bunch of reading that hasn’t appeared on my blog, and that’s the proofreading and copy-editing I’ve been doing professionally. I’m not entirely sure why but I don’t think it’s professional to put this on my blog: there’s thoughts of anonymity and confidentiality in mind but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Regardless, there’s another reason for not putting my proofreading work on my blog and that’s because it’s not reading. It’s work.

I learn a lot from my regular reading-for-fun. It’s how I developed my writing skills and how I learnt as much as I have about the world. But it’s above all for pleasure. I read because I love to read, no matter what the subject or the genre.

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‘Spring’ by Lee White

Proofreading and copy-editing is an entirely different experience. It’s not about enjoyment; it is, first and foremost, work, and it requires discipline to get through. That’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasure – my favourite book of the year so far was one I was given to proofread – but really if you get lost in a proofread you’re not doing your job properly. You get swept up in the flow and the mistakes you’re paid to find slip past.

So I have been missing out on a lot of pleasure over the last year. I need to get back in the saddle – and maybe that will involve dropping some of the worthy books, the non-fiction weighties, and concentrate on sheer pleasure. Maybe that’ll give me a road back in.

But why impoverish myself like that? Maybe it’s better to try and carve out some dedicated reading time – half an hour minimum per day? Surely that’s not much to ask?

Or maybe I should just relax and not let it bother me. I’m still reading. I’m still learning. I’m still in love with books. Circumstances will change again, sooner or later.

I just miss those days of getting through three books a week. What a heavenly time that was.

Events forthcoming

Imposter syndrome is vicious and cruel and unfair. It’s also not forever. Fresh off last week’s soul-torment I now find myself in the crisp, clear waters of a restorative weekend away where I did nothing, achieved nothing, but found good news awaiting on my return.

Sadly, good news (especially that which you can’t share) makes for less than interesting copy. So let me fill this column with a couple of forthcoming events that I’d love to see you at.

First of all, I’m doing a ‘meet the author’ session at the library in which I used to work. This’ll take the form of a brief chat, a similarly brief reading, and then (probably) the briefest of all Q&As; all on 31st May at 17:30.

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Earlham library was the best of places for me; I loved that job – not only working with books but helping people of all stripes for the sheer love of helping; I – and all other library assistants the world over – work without any self-interest; nothing is being sold, there is no ulterior motive but to make other people happy. How wonderful is that?

It’s also the place where I started both reading and writing seriously. Before I started there, in 2005, my reading-for-pleasure had been subsumed by studies and my writing had been a series of starts-and-fails. By the time I left (2011) I’d written three novels and was contemplating the story that would eventually turn into Night Shift.

So this signing is deeply personal to me. Expect me to tear up at least once throughout the evening, even if, as I kinda expect, it’ll only be a few friends and me.

Secondly, I’m going to be at Edge-Lit in Derby on July 13th. This is my first convention, if one doesn’t count its younger sibling Sledge-Lit, and the first I’m attending as an author. I’m going to be doing a workshop (‘The Art of Description’), a panel (The Future of Grimdark, with some of the best authors ever) and a reading.

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I’m pretty terrified (imposter!) about all this. So please do come along and tell me it’s all going to be okay, hmm?

They say nothing succeeds like success. That’s bollocks. Really what they mean is nothing makes success like friends. And I really hope to both meet some old and make some new over the course of these events.