Best Books of 2017

Cat and books

Happy 2018 y’all! Sorry it’s delayed, but I was in hospital just before Christmas. But now I’m back and exactly the same as ever. And, without further ado, it’s time for…

The Best Books of 2017!

…but not before a quick note. In previous years I’ve limited my choices to books released in the year in question. I’ve now decided to abandon this policy as I really don’t read enough brand new books. Maybe in the future I’ll be invited to all the great publishers’ pre-release parties, but at the moment I’m still picking up the crumbs in my own sweet time and at my own expense. I’ll still use 2017-ness as a tiebreaker – I’ll favour newer works – but it won’t be a prerequisite. That okay?

So, without further ado, here is my

Book of the year 2017

The Stone Sky: NK Jemisin

…and we start straight away with a cheat because I’m really meaning the whole ‘Broken Earth’ series, not just this, the final volume. But my blog, my rules.

If you’ve not come across this series before, a quick précis: this is the multi-award-winning story that breaks rules with an almost spiteful joy. Large chunks in second person? Why not. War crimes committed by the hero? Yes please. Combining sci-fi and fantasy in a way that takes it beyond both? Oh, go on then.

The simple fact is that it’s brilliant. The writing and the world-creation are masterful. It’s one of those rare books that makes you re-examine your own writing and asks you why you’re holding back. And then demands you go and check out Jemisin’s entire back catalogue.

Other excellent reads:

Ninefox Gambit: Yoon Ha Lee

This is the other book that everyone’s going on about. The sequel to Raven Strategem, this takes us further into the world of exotic maths, religious heresy and giant space moths. Like Jemisin’s work (and Ann Leckie), this redefines how we think about science-fiction.

The truth is, though, I was all prepared to be disappointed. The lead character of the first book seemed to be missing and without her I felt loss, both on a personal level (she was great) and on the dramatic. The story needed her.

But Yoon Ha Lee rescued the game in the last third, setting up a rousing climax and a thoroughly satisfying ending.

The House of Binding Thorns: Aliette de Bodard

This is the sequel to the excellent The House of Shattered Wings in the ‘Dominions of the Fallen’ series. It works as a stand-alone novel as focus shifts from House Silverspires of House Hawthorn. Madeleine, angel-essence-addict, is the main link between the stories.

This is a novel of intrigue set in a Paris recovering from an onslaught of sorcery. The feel is Gothic, decadent and decayed, with Dragon princes, drug trafficking and fallen angels running the city like a mafia.

Beautifully balanced with characters both old and new at the forefront of the novel, this story both satisfies and tempts the reader to a third act which surely must be in the pipeline. Can’t wait.

The Collapsing Empire: John Scazi

Scalzi is a genius at introducing concepts with the minimum of fuss; of gripping you right from the start and propelling you forwards at breakneck pace. I’m not sure how he does it. I suspect he’s one of those authors whose cleverness and skill is overlooked as he makes it all look too simple. I want to break done his novels line-by-line to see how he does it.

The Collapsing Empire is as fun, fast and foul-mouthed as the rest of his work. The underlying themes, however, are about power and its abuse. To quote from this review, “Each of the main characters may be, as one puts it, ‘an asshole,’ but they are also fumbling toward having an ethical position on how to save people from impending disaster.”

You’ll read it so fast that you barely notice the pages turning.

The Delirium Brief: Charles Stross

We all know that Charles Stross is a great writer. We all know that the Laundry series on novels is a cross between Lovecraft, Fleming and Le Carre with a special dash of humour poured in for good measure. What we hadn’t seen is how dark his satirical tongue is.

The Delirium Brief is not only a great novel in itself but takes a surprisingly trenchant stance on issues such as privatisation, religion and media exposure. It follows on from The Nightmare Stacks in a way that might lose readers new to his work but magnificently raises the stakes. This is another book you’ll simply fly through and come out desperate for the next in the series.

Damnation: Peter McLean

Well this – and the whole series – is just fun. I mean really fun. Gritty urban noir with deep sarcasm and real punch. This is another book you’ll fly through – only to be shocked awake by an ending that demands the next book be read immediately. Or it would if it were out yet.

The characters are magnificent. Such a shame to see them damned all to hell.

The Essex Serpent: Sarah Perry

This was 2016’s hot ticket and I’m running a year behind. Which, to be fair, is quite good for me.

I came to this without knowledge beyond the title and its reputation. Turns out it’s a historical novel: it is, simply, a story of life the conflict between rationalism and superstition in the late nineteenth century. What sets it apart is wonderful writing and an ending that defies convention.

The female lead is unorthodox and convincing; the male foils – especially surgeon Luke Garrett – are perfectly drawn. This is a quiet novel and won’t be for everyone, but the quality of the writing alone earns itself a place here.

Glorious Angels: Justina Robson

I’ve done my best to track down all of Justina Robson’s works (Mappa Mundi in particular is worth tracking down) but in recent years she’s slipped from notice; this was released in 2015 but I only found it this year. And it’s great. A hierarchical society with women in power; ancient technologies that are used without understanding: and an archaeological dig that could cause a war.

There are more details in this review which also acts as a counterpoint to my opinions. This book, it appears, is not for everyone. Still, this is my blog, I loved it, so here it sits.

Leviathan Wakes: James SA Corey

Space opera on a grand scale; conspiracies, conflict, and a deadly alien contagion. Explosions, murder, all that stuff…

But the more time passes the less sure I am about it and I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. I could probably write a whole blog-post on it, but suffice to say that there is just something slightly… um… ‘white male’ about it that makes me a little uncomfortable. Although there are physical differences (between the inner planets and the asteroid-dwellers) that could be taken as ‘racial’ the story feels very monoculture.

What struck me, though, is that there are no homosexual characters in a novel with a large cast. More than that, none of the characters seem to have considered homosexuality a possibility. This just seemed to me bizarre. There are also criticisms of total unfettered access to information that seemed undeveloped.

So yes, this gets my recommendation and I want to read more in the series. But not unreserved praise.

Best non-fiction

Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: Ben Blatt

This is a novel of statistics. No, hang on, come back! I loved it, and, if you have an interest in books and writing, so will you. The basic premise is that you can use mathematical modelling to work out how an author constructs their books: not only their ‘favourite’ words (the titular Nabokov’s ‘mauve’, for example, or my ‘wrangling’) but the little words that can tell you whether a book was mainly constructed by a big-ticket author or by his writing ‘partner’.

The book also looks into writing ‘rules’, like whether we should really avoid adjectives and whether it really is a sin to describe the weather in the opening sentence. The only complaint is that you feel there’s so much more he could cover (Did Shakespeare really write those plays? What about my genre?) that the book feels a little short.

Also recommended:

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer: Sarah Bakewell

Philosophy. Thoroughly enjoyable philosophy at that. Montaigne was a French estate owner who dabbled in politics and diplomacy and left several volumes of thoughts about sex, farting, foreign travel and love. It’s his ordinary blokishness that shines through, ably brought to life by Sarah Bakewell and her innovative approach to his life and beliefs.

I came across Montaigne through Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which serves as a useful primer to the subject and the ways it can help you. Consider this a tiny bonus recommendationlet.

Best Graphic Novel

Saga: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I know, I know, I know. It’s hardly a surprise selection. It’s already, if Wikipedia is to be believed, won widespread critical acclaim. And I know I’m wildly out of date in only just getting round to it.

But it’s really good. The characters are beautifully rounded, the artwork sumptuous, the world (universe) convincing and just odd enough to keep us on our toes.

It’s even good enough to beat The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to top spot. And you have to be good to do that.

Best Doctor Who:

Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet: James Goss & Douglas Adams

Well this was just a blast. An old Adams script has been expertly adapted by James Goss and for a dyed-in-the-wool H2G2 fan like myself it was a dream. Full of delightfully odd characters like the Pirate Captain and his nurse, this is Adams through and through.

The parrot – sorry, the Polyphase Avatron – steals the show, though. Kudos to Goss to making a brilliant, confusing, insane story into a fantastic and coherent novel.

Best Classic

Pride & Prejudice: Jane Austen

I know, I know. But I’d never read it before (I missed Austen week at school. I’ve not read any of the Bronte’s either) and I’ve always managed to avoid the adaptations too. I never thought I’d actually find it full of irony and dry wit.

There’s not much I can say that’s new; I’m sure you can find a line-by-line textual analysis cheap on ebay if you’re that way inclined. Let me just say that I found it much wittier and livelier than Dickens and no-one ever told me Austen was funny!

Best Short

A Rare Book of Cunning Device: Aaronovitch, B

This year’s ‘Best Short’ nominees consist of two novellas, both by Ben Aaronovitch. But limited opposition does nothing to diminish the joy with which I hold the Rivers of London series.

This is a short but perfectly formed little adventurelet set in the basement of the British Library. It’s only available as audio only – which is fine by me as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is the perfect companion.

* * *

And that’s all folks. My prize picks from an excellent year for reading. I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have, and, if you’ve read any of these, whether you agree or not.

Here’s to 2018. It’s shaping up to be another fantastically-fictational year.

New year’s reading

*Today’s blog is brought to you in the spirit of having started the damn thing three times and finally realising that I have nothing really intelligent to say*

xmas-books

Father Christmas brought me many wonderful books this year. I must have been good at hiding my tracks.

All writers start as readers. Reading teaches you more than any creative writing course can (although sometimes it helps to be told explicitly what you’ve been absorbing subconsciously ever since you were a wee bubba). Which is why I always have a good sprinklin’ of books on my mental wishlist and am a regular at my local library.

Christmas has always been bounty-time. I have my passions all fully represented: the history/geography selection which is my own secret love; the books on words and writing; a little SFF because you can’t go wrong; and a few little oddball-selections to bring the shits-and-giggles.

It’s all wonderful. The only downside? This is my current to-be-read shelf…

tbr-pile

…and this in the midst of a clearout that’s already seen a few dozen books dispatched to charity.

Hey ho. We all have our crosses to bear.

I’m also reminded of the importance of non-fiction in the writer’s arsenal. Nothing, for me, stirs the little grey cells like a good book about ancient worlds. Which is why I’ve started the post-Christmas reading with Nicholas Crane’s mighty tome The Making of the British Landscape. I’m already loving it. It’s written in stirring, energetic prose that contains real beauty, real love and passion. Consider this a recommendation.

Happy new (western) year, y’all. I hope 2017 brings you much joy and many, many, wonderful words your way.

Book of the Year 2016

books

It’s that time of the year again: a chance to reflect on all the wonderful books I’ve read in what has been a pretty scary twelve-month. Reading has rarely provided a more welcome retreat from a world that’s rarely seemed more chaotic or terrifying.

So, without further ramblage, here’s a short selection of my favourite books of the year. Apart from the ‘Discovery’ choice, all have been published (in the UK) in 2016. Which brings me to my first confession: I’ve not read that many new books this year. Casting a quick eye over my book log I see that 2016 has been a year of catching up with books I missed on first release; books I always meant to read but never quite caught.

Book of the Year:

 Custodian of Marvels; Rod Duncan

It’s been a year of sequels. Sorry about that. But the sequels I’ve read have been top quality and none more so than this.

The Custodian of Marvels is the third book in the Elizabeth Barnabus series, and is that rare thing: a follow-up that surpasses the original. In (and beyond) the richly-drawn lands of the Gas-Lit Empire we see an alternative world that is neither utopia nor dystopia but plausible and fulfilling. Almost every scene tells us more about about both characters (and Elizabeth Barnabus is a wonderful creation) and society. A mention should also be given to the dwarf Fabulo, who enriches every scene he’s in.

Also, I’ve shared the odd Twitter-word with Mr Duncan and he’s a lovely man. Makes me want to live in Leicester.

Honourable mentions:

 The Murder of Mary Russell; Laurie R. King

Book #14 in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, this is a triumphant return to form after the slightly disappointing Dreaming Spies. It explores the history of Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson, giving one of Conan Doyle’s minor characters the depth and resonance she previously lacked.

I’ve read the whole series and, to me, King’s books are the closest you can get to the continuation of the Holmes canon. The characters are so well drawn, so plausible; they take the ‘afterlife’ of Holmes into new – but totally believable – directions.

The Woman in Blue; Elly Griffiths

I started reading Elly Griffiths because this crime series (Ruth Galloway; this is #8) is set in Norfolk, a county I still think of as home. I was immediately struck by the use of the present tense, which I found slightly jarring at first but now want to try out for myself.

This might be the best of the series; a wonderful setting (the holy village of Walsingham) and great supporting characters. But the real joy is the growth and awkwardness in the relationships between the central characters: adultery, confusion, the sheer humanity of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. It’s utterly convincing.

And there’s a murder in there too. What more can we ask for?

Best Dr Who

 Shadow in the Glass; Justin Richards & Stephen Cole

Okay, so the 6th Doctor is probably my least favourite. His personality grates. Add in Hitler and the myths around his death (yawn?) and there are all the recipes for a disaster here. And yet…

A great ‘assistant’. Real horror. A proper kick-in-the-teeth ending. Somehow this novel really works. This is Doctor Who stepping a toe firmly into nightmare – and getting it absolutely right.

Best Graphic Novel: also Best Non-Fiction

The Trouble With Women; Jacky Fleming

Hilarious. Horrifying. Dripping with cynicism. This is one of those books that you read and then think ‘who can I give this to?’

To say too much about this would be to spoil it. Read it. Laugh. Learn.

And then get angry.

Best Short:

The Summer People; Kelly Link

Well. This is a bit of an oddity. I got a free copy of this from a Twitter-based giveaway; the publishers said ‘anyone want one?’ and I put my hand up just because you can never get enough books.

And it’s really good. Written with delicacy and grace, the borders between reality and fantasy slowly disintegrate. Gothic, fairytale, coming-of-age; it’s amazing how much this packs it in such a short read. This is just one of those books you finish saying ‘Yes. That just felt right.’

Best Discovery

This is my section to explore my favourite reads that weren’t published in 2016: that I somehow missed and have crawled back to, tail between the legs.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Admission: I’d never heard of Scalzi until he started appearing in my Twitter-feed. Enough times was he retweeted for me to get a sense that he was worth hunting down.

I could talk at length about the story, but what really struck me was the simple quality of his writing. His novels move with real pace it’s amazing how he manages to pack in such depth – in character, in world, and with such humour. I always admire writers who can get wit into their stories as it’s a trick I’ve never managed to pull off.

This is how Twitter works, folks. Don’t just shout about your work. Be human. Be nice. The readers will come.

Discovery Mentions:

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ah, charity booksales. Where would we be without them? This is where I get to pick up things I’ve heard of and think I should read. Occasionally you get gems.

This is a long book that feels much shorter because the writing flows so freely. The topic – religion and obsession – and setting (12th century England) are heavy but Follett makes them look easy. As you might have guessed, I love books that hide the hard work behind smooth writing. This deserves the respect it’s garnered since its release.

Ack-Ack Macaque; Gareth Powell

I’d heard vague rumours of this and took it on a punt. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much. Monkeys and Nazis. Humour and silliness: at best I was anticipating a fun adventure.

It’s a lot more than this. It’s a steampunk-inspired story with surprising heart. There’s a lot to it: the future of artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and real depth of character. There’s a lot to make you think, a lot of deep philosophy carefully contained in – yes – a fun action-adventure. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

*          *          *

And that, good people, is that. Another year done. Another year of wonderful books, most of which have probably passed me by and slipped off into the ether.

I hope it’s been a magnificent year for you and yours. See you in January for more book-based banter and writerly witterings. Just remember: as those most bodacious philosophers Bill S. Preston esquire & Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan entreated us, be excellent to each other.

Reading for pleasure and profit

book art 3

I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.

A lovesong to the libraries

Libraries. What’s the point of ‘em, eh? After all, you can get Amazon to deliver a book to your door for only £2. So why are we spending money on such a waste of resources? A luxury, that’s what they are. Sure, we can use one or two but, in a time of austerity, we can use the money more wisely.

The stupidity, the banality, the shallowness of this statement leaves me breathless. That otherwise intelligent, rational people can put forwards such a facile argument makes me sick. So this is my paean to the library: to the irreplaceable, invaluable system that’s imperilled by people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Earlham library

My former home, beloved and wonderful. Photo courtesy of Norfolk County Council, used with permission. My old work-mug is still in there, waiting for my return

Stories

Let’s start with books. Can we at least agree that books and reading are good things? Let me just refer you to a previous post, where I campaigned against stopping convicted prisoners from receiving books in jail – a campaign that has, thanks to all you petition-signatories, been won. Stories are one of the most important tools in our make-a-human-being kit. Can we at least agree on this much?

Reading increases empathy, thus reducing crime and antisocial behaviour
It boosts intelligence, vocabulary and all that sort of thing
It aids relaxation and mental health
It benefits concentration and memory, including in Alzheimer’s sufferers
And it’s fun

Can we agree on this much? If you have any doubts, do a simple web-search on the benefits of reading.

Cost

I’m basing this section of the figure of £2 a book, as given in an argument I had a few days ago – the argument that inspired this post. I won’t bother debating this – though you might – because the precise number isn’t that important. But let’s break it down a little further. The under-fives read at least a book a day. It’s what bedtime is for, right? One of the essential building-blocks of a well-balanced human being. £2 a book is £14 a week. £56 a month. £672 a year. Still look like a minor expense? It’s also 365 books that you either have to store or dump. Over 1,800 before a child turns five.

Let’s turn to a different audience and look at those with poor eyesight. An audiobook is around £8 on the same monolithic retail-site as I mentioned above. Large-print books are at least £4. It doesn’t take long before these costs mount up. And these are the cheap ones; new audiobooks regularly clock in around £20 each. See where I’m going with this?

Discovery

That’s one thing. That’s a start. But I’ve never been too concerned with money. Money is either there or not there. I’m more concerned with this: how will people know what books are? I don’t know any parent who hasn’t bred their child in the library. Every single time I go into the library I see children experiencing the same joy of books that I felt when I was small; just to be surrounded by images, worlds, ideas – empathy – is a miracle. I was made in the library. If you’re reading this then I’m prepared to bet that you were too.

You can’t go on Amazon and choose a book. Amazon exists for those who know what they want. You can’t browse. You might be able to find something that catches the eye – but, week in, week out, that’s not what the internet is for. You can’t hit gold with random searches unless you’re magnificently sure of a genre, a style, a type of book. And, in that case, whence the empathy? Whence the discovery? Whence the finding concepts that you’d never previously been exposed to?

Every single time I go into a library I see things I’ve never seen before. I wander aimlessly, half taking in titles, covers, dreams, visions; concepts I never knew existed. If I shopped only online I’d never have discovered half of the authors I’ve come to love, to regard as friends, to build as deep parts of my psyche. Some days I’ll come home with nothing. Some days I’ll come out with only what I went in to find. But there’s always, always the possibility that I’ll come out with treasure. And it’s not only me who’ll benefit. Every day I try and understand the world, to see things a little clearer, have a broader, more expansive perspective. Surely the world can only benefit?

All this is true of physical bookshops, of course. Except libraries allow us to take risks. The cost is negligent: the risk of an overdue charge, perhaps. A little time. How many new authors have you encountered through Amazon? I can’t think of a single one, save maybe for the odd present I’ve bought for someone else and decided it sounds the sort of thing I’d actually like to gift myself. Libraries let us try new things, they let us test both new authors and ourselves.

Every time we step into a library we go on an adventure. We enter a land of magic and miracles. We’re pirates hunting hoarded gold. What right have we to deny our children this world of jaw-dropping mind-expanding majesty?

Computers

It is astounding how arrogant we are. How comfortable in the face of our own privilege. We think that because we don’t need things that no-one does. Well here’s a shock for you: not everyone has a computer. Not everyone is free. I used to work in a library – feel free to point out my biases – and much of my time was spent aiding people with the computers. Those that needed most assistance were the elderly, struggling to get to grips with what, for them, was new technology. There were also people running businesses from the library, buying and selling. People working on CVs, managing finances and the like.

The users that touched me most, though, were the migrants. Not refugees in my case, although there must be many people whose only connection with home was via a tentatively held email connection with family and friends left behind. The people from homeless hostels, desperately trying to find work, find social housing, to better themselves – or simply for warmth. What right have we, the (relatively) wealthy and well-educated, to deprive the poorest people of such a place, such an opportunity?

Integration and social interaction

This overlaps with the other headings because neat boundaries are always illusions, and libraries are always boundary places. They’re open to all. You know how rare and important that is? Where else can the well-to-do mix with the poorest of the poor, tacit agreements making everyone welcome and respectful of the needs of others? They are the great centre-ground, non-political, non-judgmental.

Libraries are places where every ethnicity is welcome. It’s where people go to learn English (or where English people go to learn foreign languages). It’s where immigrant mothers bring their children to make them part of wider society. It’s often the first port-of-call for new arrivals – whether inter-nationally or beyond – to find out more about their new home, to find ways of belonging, to fit in.

When I worked in the public library service I knew a family of Bangladeshis that came in most days. The mother spoke not a word of English but the kids were fluent. The oldest girl acted as a proxy for her mother, bringing in letters from the council for us to translate and explain. Even if the girl hadn’t spoken English we’d have been able to help because libraries offer a translation service covering most languages you can think of.

In the meantime the kids were reading books, learning English, exploring our world. Occasionally they were pesky, but that’s kids for you. And I tell you my heart melted when one of them drew a picture for me.

Other families were Polish. How much did it mean to them that we could provide them with books in their native language? We also got regular supplies of books in Tamil for another family. Some organisations claim that migrants don’t seek to integrate with western society, and yet these same people also want to close libraries. It’s bewildering. It’s maddening.

And, of course, it’s not just a question of race. Libraries bridge generations too, like no other place I can think of. They provide refuges for vulnerable people; company for the lonely, the ill and the isolated. They make happiness. They give essential social contact and ask nothing in return.

A safe and neutral place

I’ve left this until last because it’s not the most obvious advantage of libraries. But it is, for me, the single most important. I’ll say it again: a library is a safe, neutral and welcoming place. Do you know how vital this is? Can you think of any other places in western society that offers warmth, shelter, education, information and entertainment for no charge? I can’t. Not only is there no charge but there’s no expectation. No pressure, no sponsorship, nothing but books, magazines, aid, assistance.

My library was at the interstice of some of the very wealthiest housing in the city and some of the poorest. Every day, when the schools closed, the young teens would come in to use the computers. Sometimes they were annoying. Sometimes we had to turf them out. But they kept coming back, and they kept being welcomed, because they knew they were safe. What would they do if the library didn’t exist? Stay at home all afternoon? Many of them were single-parent and poorly educated: for some, home wasn’t a refuge. Should they hang around in gangs? Is the alternative for them to discover sex and alcohol at a horrendously early age? I’m not saying that the library prevented this, but at least it gave them an option, a chance.

And whilst they were in the library, what did they see? They saw other races. They saw other ages. They mixed – hell, some even helped the aforementioned elderly with their problems. No-one judged. I want to say they were free, but there were controls: the library staff work hard to maintain a place of equality for all, respecting everyone’s right to be themselves free of harassment and judgment. Sometimes that means saying no.

I ask again: where else in this society does such a place exist?

It makes me sick, absolutely sick, to see this under threat. And it makes me rage to think that the people responsible for the closure of libraries are those who have never used them. This mandate comes from the rich, from the privileged. They see only a useless repository of books – simple compressed vegetable matter that’s increasingly redundant. Saying that ‘Well I can’t see the point of libraries, so there can’t be one,’ is arrogance of the highest order.

I don’t need libraries. Really, I’m comfortable enough in my life to get by without. Certainly I’d lament them; I wouldn’t know what to do with myself on my Wednesday mornings. But I’d cope.

But I will not go gently into that good night. I know how necessary they are not just for me but for those less fortunate than me. I want society to be healthy and happy, and that can only be achieved with places like libraries that benefit everyone without exception.

The future of libraries is one where we combine traditional services with other underfunded – but essential – provisions such as mental heath and social services. In Rob’s Paradise there’d be staff on hand to give advice to all on a need by need basis. I suggested once that libraries should take on some of the services of the embattled Post Office: there are considerable practical difficulties there – a legal mandate to lend cash and security concerns – but I still think it’s a good idea. Libraries already host police surgeries. Why not mental health counselling or just basic financial advice?

A safe, neutral place. Libraries shouldn’t be cut, shouldn’t be hamstrung by targets and finances. They should be expanded and broadened. We need to stand up for what we have before we’re forced to face up to what we’ve lost.

Finally

If I’ve come across as angry here, if this has felt like a rant, then I’m sorry. And then I’m also not sorry, because I am angry, and because there are some things worth ranting about. I spit at the vandals who are doing their best to dismantle the love – yes, love – that libraries have provided not just for me but for millions like me. I spit at them – but I also pity them. They are not proper humans. They are half-baked. They are sociopaths.

Most of them are merely ignorant. I’d weep for them, but I’m too busy weeping for the world I love.

The trouble with women

2hrs 37mins. That’s how long it took for a woman to speak in my latest audiobook. A tenth of the whole story without a female speaking part. More than that: only one other woman was mentioned in the first three hours, and she a nameless ‘wife’.

This post isn’t about this book in particular; it’s as much about the way this struck me as strange. See, I’ve read other books with heavy gender imbalances. Catch-22 has very few female characters. Jane Fletcher’s ‘Caelano Chronicles’ are entirely man-free and I love them. Hell, even Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all time favourite books – has only one prominent female character and the supporting cast is resolutely masculine. So why did I particularly notice this one book above all the others? Why has it prompted me to write about it?

I’ve touched on politics in writing before. Elsewhere there’s been great reams of metaphorical ink spilled on the lack of people of colour and women in fiction. Maybe the difference is simply my awareness: exposure to issues raised by others has sharpened my awareness of the imbalance.

The thing is this: it is perfectly justifiable to write a novel without (many) women or men or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri. Certainly this particular book is set in a very male-orientated world and the absence of women is not irrational. I believe that people should be able to write what they want; I don’t believe in quotas or that people should be forced to write in a spot of diversity just because it’s the prevailing culture. My wife – who is a woman – defended the novel when I said how strange I found it. Why shouldn’t an author be able to present a masculine culture from a masculine point of view?

If you’re a man, in general, it’s harder to write female characters than male ones. Fact.’ This is from Joe Abercrombie’s blog, the author of the book in question. Now before you go and make your snap judgments based on that I should say that the quote was posted in 2010 and the blog has a coda in which he says that he now winces at some of the things he said. So don’t rush out to hang him.

I enjoy writing female characters. I can’t honestly say that I write women as well as I write men (or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri) because I don’t know, but no-one has said that I don’t do it with at least equal incompetence. Is it fear that stops us from being diverse? The fear of doing it badly?

That doesn’t stop me finding a lack of diversity a little odd. I’m used to fiction containing many different notes, perspectives and tastes. Maybe the strangeness I feel is more of a reflection of my own experiences and the fact that – as I first began this post – the story seemed a little one-note and needed more colour. Since then the novel’s been growing on me as the characters have developed.

It’s an author’s right to describe a civilisation in which I don’t feel comfortable. It’s an author’s right to add or omit elements that strike me as uncomfortable or unreal. But it’s the reader’s right to find it all a little strange. Ultimately it’s their right to put the novel to one side and never pick it up again.

The title of this blog, incidentally, is stolen from Jacky Fleming’s book, which is excellent.

A punch in the gut

Punch me in the gut. Go on, hit me hard. Wind me, knock me down. Make me weep.

That’s what I expect from a novel. I want to be moved. I want to surface, gasping for breath and blinking at my surroundings. I want to feel. I want to be reminded of my humanity. I want the experience to have meaning.

Not all novels have a punch-in-the-gut moment, but many do. It usually falls either just before the climax as a driver for the protagonist’s final absolution (ie revenge) or in the climax itself at the bittersweet ‘won the war but lost what really matters’ moment. At its best it’s a leftfield blow that leaves you devastated and numb. At its worst it’s cheap melodrama. You can find good examples in Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Cole & Richards’ Dr Who: Shadow in the Glass. Bad examples probably include everything I’ve ever written.

The punch-in-the-gut is so common as to be almost ubiquitous. It’s what gives the novel resonance and depth and bind you, the reader, into the emotions of the survivors. It’s not quite the same as the plot-twist although there is a lot of overlap, and often they’re combined. And I love it.

Except I kind of don’t.

Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable. I had this argument with a die-hard literatus regarding McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; yes, I can admire the skills and talents and feel like I’ve gained as a person when I’ve hit a tragic ending. And it is a great book. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fun experience.

Working-class people go to the theatre to be entertained: middle-class people go to be made miserable.

So the saying (or quote; or simple homespun wisdom – I only ever heard from my Dad and was never sure of its original provenance) goes. It’s wisdom I’ve always wondered about. Because it’s not true. Is it? Was there ever such a division – when the workers would go to the music halls to be entertained whilst the prosperous would go to Shakespeare and opera to be reminded of their humanity?

I am poor but educated: although my wife roundly mocks me when I deny my middle-classity, I have never felt like I belong. And I like happy endings. Sorry. Can’t deny it. Which leads me on to the next piece of wisdom that has never seemed to quite fit in my soul:

Write the book to want to read.

I read widely. I try to get as diverse a diet as possible, make an active effort to fit ‘classics’ into my body to make it as fit, strong and flexible as possible. But I have my favourites. My cake-books: the ones I read purely for pleasure. I like wit and intelligence, and adventure and if all these can be combined with something I can learn from the experience then so much the better. It should come as no surprise, then, that I love Pratchett. I love Gaiman, especially Neverwhere. I feast on Dr Who novels, although they tend to be empty calories: the SFF equivalent of Mills & Boon.

Also cat books. I like cats, okay? Sue me.

But I don’t write like this. The books I produce are dark and fear-filled; lost little orphans with nightmares and visions no mortal mind can hold. And I don’t know why. There always has to be a punch-in-the-gut moment near the end, where either a hero dies or some revelation breaks her heart. Possibly both.

I don’t know why I do this. Is it because I’m so deep in character that the fundamental tragedy of the situation needs to be felt, or is it just because I’ve been inculcated to think that this is what a novel needs to be ‘good’? Or is it just a manifestation of the darkness within my soul?

What do you think? All you writers and readers; I’d be interested to hear good or bad examples you may have come across in your literary voyaging. Do you enjoy being punched, or do you seek out comfort and warmth?

Joyous Puppies

I’m fed up with the Hugos. Not the awards themselves, but in the stupid, pointless and vitriolic campaigns by the Puppies – both Sad and Rabid – to swing the vote in a way that in no way serves to promote the work of themselves and their bestest buds.

I suppose I should bung up some links to get you who haven’t been following up to speed: just one second…

Here’s a good overview
And another
Some analysis of their motives
…and what I’ve said previously about writing and politics.

Right. That’s that out of the way. Now here’s my perspective.

I am a man. I’m white. I’m middle class (by upbringing if not by dirty dirty moolah). I’m heterosexual.

I also love reading books by people who aren’t like me.

I love books with black, white, gay, lesbian, intersex, disabled protagonists. I like to read thought-pieces on politics and society, whether left-wing or right-wing – if they’re well-written I’ll read them. Some I might disagree with. Some might make me feel uncomfortable. Some may challenge my preconceptions or just make me massively angry. But how are we to learn if we don’t empathise, don’t explore the lives of others? How are we to grow, to make ourselves stronger if we limit our intake to that which we already know?

There is a place for the kind of fun novels that the Puppies promote. Although I detest the political agenda that seems to dominate their thinking (and what is it but the last fearful grab for power that’s been theirs solely by accident of birth, and now they feel slipping away?) I don’t have a problem with the writing in itself. Unless it’s bad.

But I am fed up with this non-controversy. I am fed up with science-fiction/fantasy being tarred with this pathetic mudslinging. I am fed up of talking about it.

So I am hereby launching my own group. Let us be known as the Joyous Puppies. A group that delights in diversity, who feels that there is room for all members of the writing community to be who the hell they want, to write what the hell they want for the sake of producing great stories.

Happy puppy

A joyous puppy. Because it’s all we need

The SFF world has never been in ruder health. Hell, all of writing is in a golden age. Never has there been more diversity; never have I seen more people reading, talking about, loving books. Finally, after years of being a slightly embarrassing secret, readers and writers from all walks of life are stepping out into the sunlight, stretching, and taking a good long look around them.

Let us celebrate all voices. Let us promote authors who don’t have the fortune that we’ve had. Let us read widely; let us learn and be challenged – hell, let us argue passionately about the merits of particular writers on the basis of the work they produce, not what they look like or where they come from.

Let us celebrate a community where there are no hard and fast rules about what we can write or who can join. Let us be open to all.

Let us dance and sings and get drunk and pass out in the dewy grass and wake with blinding hangovers in the blazing sun of an alien world.

Let us reclaim the SFF world for great books and let’s celebrate those books.

Joyous Puppies – saddle up and ride out!

Cake or death!

This year I have been gorging mostly on cake. I’m not getting enough broccoli in my diet and I can feel my body becoming bloated and torpid as a result, my world becoming smaller as I lay waste to the confectionery stand. Soon I will be scraping up the crumbs like an addict, left only to lament the damage I’ve done myself.

I am, of course, talking about my reading habits over the last year. Now I have my Book Log I can review where my mind’s been going over the last twelvemonth, and it’s not an especially pretty picture. There’s not much in there other than cake. That delicious, melt-in-the-mouth delight which gives you the sugar-rush, which can fuel great things but ultimately will leave you craving more and more and more…

Once upon a time I used to work in a library. It was always my great delight to unpack the brand new books, to smell their virgin musk and run my hands lovingly through their indices. My diet was so rich and so varied. One day I’d be feasting on a sci-fi, the next I’d find a history of the railways to distract me. Then a creative writing handbook (I’ve read a lot and I’m still not sure if any of them have actually helped) might be followed by an aperitif of crime and a tiny soupcon of erotica. It was rich and it was varied and I was spoilt.

It’s always been my assertion that wannabe writers must read as widely and deeply as possible, which is why it’s somewhat unnerving to see that my own reading seems to have been shrinking in on itself. This last year has been a splurge of science-fiction with the occasional crime and fantasy novel thrown in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself – I am, if any such genre-ising can apply to anyone, a writer of sci-fi/crime. It makes sense that I’ve homed in on genres that relate to my work. Indeed, I made a special point of reading a bit of Mankell and Nesbo because I have been known to claim a link between my work and Scandinoir.

Still, I’ve not got enough non-fiction inside me this year. I really, passionately believe that non-fiction – the wider world – is the best inspiration for a writer. I know of a famous science-fictiony-bod who reads extensively on parasites to inform his hyper-organic futures. Others read the scientific or technology news and then extrapolate (‘what would this trend be like if extended to its logical conclusion?’) to fuel their ideas.

For me it’s history. Now I’m sure all you sensible folk out there are asking yourselves how it’s possible to build a future from the long-dead past, but that’s not quite where I’m going. What I’m seeking for – all my life – is to understand how people felt at any given time. To understand life. And these things are remarkably easy to translate into fiction. I’m fascinated by how societies operate under stress, and if you can’t bring elements from a Saxon great hall into an isolated sci-fi future then there’s something wrong with you. Similarly, if you’re fascinated by human rights or the plight of refugees or whatever – what better way to begin a future novel than by having a shipload of immigrants suddenly arriving on an unsuspecting planet?

But that’s me. I’m sure you all have your own interests, all of which shape your world-view and your writing in your own idiosyncratic way. And that’s fantastic. So keep reading. Keep learning, keep finding out more and more about your passion, whatever it might be. Never stop learning, because the true progenitor of fiction is a busy, active and enquiring mind. Cake is great, but remember you also need some broccoli in your life. Something to make you see the world in a different way, something to shift your paradigm. Without fresh injections of knowledge, eventually the flesh will hang heavy on your bones and your work will be as empty as the calories you’re consuming.

Listen very carefully

I’m a voracious reader. I devour books, racing through the pages as if it’s some sort of competition. I feed on the words, barely giving them chance to breathe before I shove them in my maw and swallow them whole to be digested at my leisure. But that’s not the only way to read.

I’m semi-envious of the gourmets, the ones who take their time, linger on every syllable and drink deep of their meaning. These people find every subtext and double-meaning and who really think of the story in the moment and let it draw them slower into the atmosphere, the world of the novel.

I’ve just finished an audiobook – an occasional pleasure that, for the past decade, has always been dependent on my local library’s stock. It struck me just how different an experience it had been from the way I normally read. When I have a book in my hand I occasionally skim through brief sections. I have a mortal fear of embarrassment and sometimes I rush through scenes of personal humiliation, or awkward dates and the like. Can’t do that with an audiobook. By listening to a recitation a reader loses their control on the material. You’re forced to listen to every single word.

More importantly, you’re made to experience the work at a more measured, slower pace than normal. And just by slowing things down you’re fundamentally changing your experience. The pregnant pauses you skipped, the descriptions that went past in a blur; here they’re all measured out, apportioned. You’re listening to someone else’s interpretation of the text and you’re being told details that you’d have missed, or only absorbed subconsciously, if it’d been you reading.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I’ve come across for authors is that they should read their own texts out loud as an extra test of the material. This tendency to skip words affects authors as much as readers; it’s quite amazing how much bad writing you miss when you’re editing. For some reason the brain just doesn’t see it. At some level you know you’ve written a scene or paragraph that doesn’t have real purpose but, because there’s nothing actually wrong with it you pass over. Again and again and again. The lazy part of the brain refuses to let you focus on the problem. Forcing yourself to read every single work out loud makes you face up to your errors.

But for me it’s just a pleasure. To allow words to roll over you, to experience the visceral thrill of the imagination in a way that seems to pass through your ears and enter the brain directly. Now the only words I miss occur when it’s time for a coffee, because I can bear to hit the pause button. I’d much prefer to lose a bit of meaning than to lose the atmosphere that these soft voices build in us.

Thanks to a birthday present from my significant other (or ‘wife’, depending) I now have a regular supply of audiobooks at my command. And I can’t wait to immerse myself in other worlds. It’s never easier to lose yourself in a story than when it’s being read to you, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re four or forty. We should never let ‘growing up’ take away the glory of the imagination.