A list of lists

I’ve been kept warm and cozy by all the lovely mentions of my books on people’s best-of and most-looking-forward-to lists over the past few weeks. It’s been a wonderful end to a remarkable year, and I am more honoured and grateful than I can say. One of the things I use this blog for is to keep track of memorable moments in my writing life; so here is my list of lists. THANK YOU ALL.

Favourite 2013 Debuts | A Fantastical Librarian

Best Books of 2013 | Tor.com Reviewers Choice | Liz Bourke

Best Debuts of 2013 | Shadowhawk’s Shade

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing & Listening in 2013 | Ambling Along the Aqueduct | Cheryl Morgan

The Best of 2013 | Over the Effing Rainbow

Best Covers of 2013 | Shadowhawk’s Shade

The Year That Was | Sleepless Musings

Anticipated Science Fiction & Horror (Winter-Spring) 2014 | A Fantastical Librarian

Most Anticipated Books of 2014 | Shadowhawk’s Shade

And of course, the first two lists that kicked off my personal season of joy:

Best Science Fiction of 2013 | The Guardian

BSFA Awards 2013: Nominations so far | BSFA

UPDATE 3 Jan 2014:

Anticipated Books 2014 | The Book Plank

UPDATE 7 Jan 2014:

Books to Look Out For | Sleeps With Monsters | Tor.com

UPDATE 8 Jan 2014:

MIND MELD: Our Favorite SF/F/H Consumed in 2013 | SF Signal


#WomenToRead and Reviews

A quickie post to draw your attention to two cool things that happened yesterday, both discovered by me during what *should* have been a fifteen-minute tea break. One was the #womentoread meme on Twitter, started by Kari Sperring in response to the Strange Horizons analysis of SF book reviews in 2012, broken down by gender of author and gender of reviewer (the not-so-surprising conclusion: more books by men were submitted; more books by men were reviewed; more reviewers were men).

The analysis is interesting but hardly surprising, certainly not to anyone who’s been paying attention to the storm of controversy surrounding the Hugo and Clarke awards shortlists and the broader and deeper issues they illuminate about the challenges facing female writers of science fiction. For those who haven’t, the headlines are: it’s felt that it is generally harder for us to find an agent and/or publisher; that our books are less likely to be stocked by bookshops; and less likely to be reviewed, either by bloggers or more mainstream critics.

(I have to pause here for a moment to shout from the rooftops that MY AGENT AND PUBLISHER ARE EXCEPTIONS! Ian Drury represents a clutch of female authors who write SF, and Jo Fletcher Books has published not one, not two, but THREE science fiction novels by women so far this year: Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds in January, Naomi Foyle’s Seoul Survivors in February, and Gemsigns by yours truly in March. Gemsigns is being carried by most bricks-and-mortar retailers – and is being added by more – and all online retailers. And I’ve been getting a steady stream of reviews, long may they continue. That doesn’t mean the problems people are talking about don’t exist, of course; just that so far I personally have nothing about which to complain.)

The #womentoread hashtag unleashed a torrent of names, in which I was flattered to find myself included several times by several contributors. For an author who has, as of today, been published for all of a month it feels like a real validation. But more importantly, there are literally dozens and dozens of authors listed there – maybe hundreds by now – writing in all genres, from all over the world. They are the writers other writers turn to for inspiration, instruction and entertainment, and they are well worth checking out.

The second cool thing was another good review of Gemsigns, by Sophie Atherton for Starburst Magazine. Thank you Starburst and Sophie – both for the review itself, and for bucking the trends described above.

I should note that, as promised a couple of weeks ago, I have reorganised the menu structure of this site in order to put up a Reviews tab. I’ll post links to every review I’m aware of there (unless they contain unflagged spoilers, which I will NOT link to, no matter how good the review might otherwise be). And I do mean every review; so far they’ve all been really positive, and of course I hope that continues to be the case, but as I said in an earlier post I expect – and respect the right of – reviewers to not all like the same thing. So as long as reviews are decently written, not spoiler-y and not abusive, I’ll include them.

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

There is not just one you, there are many yous. We’re part of a multiplicity of universes in parallel dimensions – and Everett Singh’s dad has found a way in.


So begins the jacket copy for Planesrunner, Ian McDonald’s first novel aimed at a YA audience. In truth it’s also a great first novel for anyone unfamiliar with McDonald’s work, or leery about novels full of heavy-duty science. McDonald builds Everett’s story around his favourite themes of quantum physics and the possibility of an infinite multitude of parallel universes; but here he goes a little slower and explains a little more than in the very adult, densely packed storyscapes of Brasyl and River of Gods, which I found indisputably brilliant, but which would probably prove more challenging reads for someone completely unfamiliar with the ideas he riffs on.

Everett’s dad is a quantum physicist and Everett is a ‘physics brat’, a kid who’s grown up so immersed in the esoteric worlds of theoretical physics and multi-dimensional mathematics that he can instinctively grasp concepts which even learned scientists struggle with. When his father is kidnapped off the streets of London right in front of him, he manages to send Everett one clue: an app on his iPad, the Infundibulum, which Everett is able to recognise as a map of the multiverse. One of the many things I love about this book is the fact that Everett is so unabashedly smart; there’s none of the apologia one often gets for that, the sense that there are negative social consequences to being really really intelligent and aw-shucks, you wouldn’t really want to be that clever, would you? Yes you would. Everett is geek to the core, but it’s made very clear that geekiness is cool, and that it does not prevent you from being good at other things too. Everett is also a star goalkeeper, and a stand-out cook.

Those interests are shared with his newly divorced dad; the descriptions of them screaming in the stands at Tottenham Hotspur matches or concocting dinners on their weekend ‘cuisine nights’ are delightful, and subtly reinforce the message that this is a normal family. The relationship between Everett and his father is in many ways the core of the book, which is interesting given that we see them together only very briefly; but Everett knows his dad and his dad knows Everett, and that closeness drives the story. Dr Singh knows Everett can work out the Infundibulum. Everett knows his dad would not have sent it to him otherwise, and therefore also knows he can do it. And that’s another thing I love; McDonald has not descended into the tired trope of angry, angsty teenager at odds with parents he doesn’t understand and who don’t understand him, which we see so often it feels as though all of literature is populated by dysfunctional parent-child relationships. No, he’s written normal: the far more prosaic – yet profound – reality that most parents and kids know each other well and love each other a lot and and have happy, comfortable lives together.

So hurrah for geeks, hurrah for ordinary, loving families, and, finally hurrah for diversity! This is not a story populated by the default Western-SF-standard of middle-class white people with a token brown or foreign person thrown in as a minor character, like a too-small dash of seasoning in a generally bland stew. Everett is a Londoner of mixed ethnicity, and the descriptions of the Punjabi side of his family are another delight. When he escapes to a gloriously electropunk London on a parallel earth in search of his father he meets Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness – and finds himself part of the community of the Airish, a sky-going subculture with their own language, fashion, manners and customs. It’s a precise, insightful depiction of a different kind of caste and class system; the Airish are not defined by skin colour, national origin, religion or the other ethnic signals we’re used to, but they are nevertheless a very distinct group, and subject to very recognisable prejudices and presumptions as a result.

Despite all the fancy science and exotic scenery, Planesrunner is (like all good books) a recognisable story about kids and parents and society and challenges and relationships. It’s also a cracking adventure that jumps through worlds full of of super-cool heroes and cold-hearted villains, bizarre landscapes and alien technology, and offers up three new mysteries for every one solved. It’s the first book of the Everness series, and I can’t wait for the next one.

The City’s Son shines

I’ve just finished reading one of those books that grabs hold and hangs on and gets in your way until you’re done with it; or until it, possibly, is done with you. The kind that interrupts my own writing and even my sense of place; I’ve looked up a couple of times over the last couple of days, slightly dazed to find myself in a sunny garden in Devon instead of a wintry, smelly back alley in the Big Smoke in the company of garbage gods and warrior cats. Urban fantasies of alternate Londons are almost a genre of their own now, what with your Neil Gaimans and China Mievilles and Ben Aaronovitchs and … I could go on, but you get the picture. You’d think there wouldn’t be too many new takes on the idea, not too many opportunities to seduce a fairly jaded reader like myself. You’d be wrong.

Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son is a delight. Nominally aimed at the young adult market, I think all you have to be is young at heart to appreciate this beautifully written, cleverly constructed tale of a city whose very fabric is alive and vital – a city of sodium-light dancers and tower-crane demons and the ghosts of trains, a city where the Pavement Priests are made of stone and bronze and the Mirrorstocracy are, quite literally, no more than reflections of former glory. Into it stumbles graffiti artist Beth Bradley, fleeing tragedy at home and trouble at school, only to find herself in the company of Filius Viae, abandoned son of the city’s absent Goddess. Together Fil and Beth must find a way to save their city from his mother’s ancient enemy, Reach, the King of the Cranes. And that’s as much of the story as you’re getting from me. All I’ll say is that the outcome isn’t obvious; Pollock, like Mieville, has a fondness for turning tropes on their head. That’s not all he’s got going for him; his characters jump off the page at you, fully realised and recognisable in the space of a few words (not unlike Gaiman, and believe me when I tell you, coming from me that’s very high praise). And like Aaronovitch, the story is full of snarky humour and a palpable love of London.

Are there flaws? Of course there are, but they are few and forgivable. The speed with which Beth’s dad and best friend accept the altered reality in which they find themselves seems a bit unlikely under the circumstances. The friend, Pen, is subjected to horrific ordeals in both Londons but the one in the ‘real’ world, although an inciting event for much that happens later, is pretty much glossed over. And I found myself wondering how the cataclysmic events in the ‘other’ London were perceived and explained in ours, and why the police didn’t seem to be involved in the hunt for two missing teenage girls. In a lesser book these would have been real problems; here they are quibbles. Pollock’s prose flows so beautifully it would disguise far greater sins. I’ve read a fair few first novels recently that are long on story but short on storytelling, in which the craft of writing seems neglected by writers in love with the tale, but not the telling.

The City’s Son works the way all magic works; by paying attention to the details that seduce and misdirect, using turns of phrase and moments of imagery to channel emotion and imagination. Tom Pollock didn’t just tell a great story; he’s a great storyteller. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Jamaica: divine retribution

In honour of Jamaica’s 50th year of independence celebrations today, and my countrymen Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake’s exploits last night – and also because I’m still not getting around to much blogging of my own – here’s what an Olympic-class reader thought of John Crow’s Devil by the Jamaican writer Marlon James. Amazing how it fills my heart with joy to know that someone loved a book I thought they’d love.

Jamaica: divine retribution « A year of reading the world.

Thoughts on Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

For once it’s easy to choose Goodreads 5-star rating for a book, given that the rollover reminds us this means ‘it was amazing’ rather than the 4-star ‘I really liked it.’ Lolita was amazing. I’m not sure I really liked it. I’m very glad I read it. I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350+ pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through – and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement – the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.

Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental to her is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.

It’s easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It’s a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov’s achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much for us later generations of wordsmiths to learn here – and be intimidated by.

Book Review – Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

This review was originally published on Goodreads.

It would be easy to pick apart Alain de Botton’s manifesto on the usefulness of religion, and indeed I’m left wishing that he had not left quite so many obvious holes through which grenades can easily be lobbed. In his generally insightful analysis of the benefits a secular society (or more specifically, secular citizens) can achieve by appropriating the mechanisms and approaches of religion, he often writes ‘down’ to his fellow nonbelievers, as though we were not just occasionally but always bereft of structure, guidance and certainty about how to live our lives well. He limits his examples to the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, ignoring the juggernaut that is Islamic culture as well as the less globally prominent, but no less socially significant practices of the Hindu, Shinto and animist religions. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge (maybe, as a lifelong atheist, he isn’t acutely aware of the fact) that religions and the religious often fail to live up to their own declared ideals and can be just as petty, grandiose, directionless and poorly grounded as the rest of us. And he virtually ignores some of the aspects of human existence that religion does deal with particularly well, such as loss and grief, in favour of a focus on more nebulous characteristics like tenderness and pessimism.

Nevertheless this is a good book, and you should read it.

Why? Because for all its omissions of fact and lapses in rigour, de Botton is onto something here. He takes as his starting point a shared presumption that no religions are true – this is a book for atheists and agnostics, not believers – but argues that religion, as a human artefact still in use after tens of thousands of years, must be getting some things right.

He examines this premise by looking at how religion structures and lends weight to our sense of community, our approach to education, the transformative powers of art and architecture, and the institutionalisation of core precepts and plans. Religion, by being about more than just the individual, confers a sense of perspective and (paradoxically perhaps) longevity. Ritual and repetition are useful constructs to help us both contemplate and internalise the lessons we learn as we go through life, and to become better people along the way.

The central thrust of his argument is that the structures of religion help us transmute knowledge into wisdom, collected facts into considered purpose, individual effort into shared endeavour, and beauty into transcendence – and if we reject those structures, simply because they are religious in origin, we lose a significant portion of our own cultural and social heritage. So he posits an appropriation of religion’s structured, ritualised approach to the business of living into the secular sphere where, devoid of superstition, it can still meet our many and varied emotional and organisational needs.

You may argue that we don’t need this structure, that your sense of self and community and purpose are just fine, thank you, and that the last two centuries’ shift towards more individualistic, morally relative, non-judgemental societies is just as it should be. I for one have no wish to turn back the clock; I cherish my individual freedom and right to self-determination, society’s growing intolerance of intolerance, and the breadth of thought, daring and ambition that is the birthright of the 21st century. But it is also true that in our headlong rush into the future we are in danger of dismissing the totality of social structures and cultural mores of the past as being of no value or relevance. This would be a mistake. De Botton deserves credit for trying to start a rational conversation about how to take the best bits with us.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

  • Upcoming Events

    No upcoming events

  • Latest tweets

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,079 other subscribers
  • UK edition


    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK edition


    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK Edition


    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition


    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition


    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition


    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • Meta

%d bloggers like this: