reading pile


More Recent Reads

Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are The Angels, published by my overlords at Tor UK. Bell has written literary fiction under another name, but this is his genre debut. It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie novel, where the zombies aren’t central to the narrative. Think Cormac McCarthy (the prose really does channel this particular style – even down to the punctuation, such as a lack of quotation marks), and which taxonomically branches off from I Am Legend. Focussing on a young girl called Temple, the narrative follows her arduous road trip across a future USA, a deeply disturbing setting, and one which offers more questions than resolution. Because of these qualities, do not go looking for pulp entertainment: that isn’t to be found here, and Bell neatly bypasses all the zombie uprising froth. Instead he presents us with a connection of haunting images years after the shit has hit the fan, each scene revealing a little more about the world, but never too much to explain it all away.

The prose is marvellous, full of acute observations:

He looks like someone who could slap you or kiss you and you wouldn’t be able to tell which one is coming and it would mean the same thing either way.

And wonderful, heady descriptions:

The next city she comes to is a big one, growing up around her like something organic. Thick with overgrowth, it has reverted to wilderness and old times under the shadowed canopy of spindly oaks. The trees grow beards of Spanish moss that hang nearly to the ground and float their ancient white tails in the breeze. Spreading out from the main avenues like twigs from branches, the broken asphalt roads give way to brick lanes, brittle barbeque shacks with torn screen doors and collapsing roofs tucked into alleyways behind big white colonials hidden behind gates of thick ivy, which, in turn, are secreted behind the commercial districts of block stores and low-stacked parking garages.

Temple is a loner for the most part, and even when she pairs up it’s with a mentally ill man, Maury, so we see much of her thoughts projected onto him – a clever move that maintains, possibly even heightens, her sense of isolation. She’s tough – self-sufficient and with a truly lethal edge – but her companionship with Maury betrays her stubborn streak of warmth and compassion. It’s her care of Maury, her quest for his return to safety, which is the subtle narrative drive. For the most part of this journey (a road trip: an American icon), Temple is being hunted across this desolated landscape by Moses Todd, who often catches up with her only for Temple to escape, and we see her at her most human when she is in dialogue with her enemy.

Oh, the zombies. Yeah, they’re there – but as I said, they’re not the stars. The ‘slugs’ are background music for this often horrific landscape, present for a quiet juxtaposition. Because this is a novel of humanity stripped of any humanity, of the raw limits of existence; it’s a flux of dreamy and bleak images, a blurring of the lines between being a human and an animal. And I loved every word of it.

I saw a pretty abysmal review of this in SciFi Now, where the novel was handed to a poor reviewer who gradually betrayed their hope that it would have been something else entirely, instead of exploring the details presented within this text. I wouldn’t like this book to be dismissed so simply, and though I’ve not really championed many current novels (it all feels a little new and awkward for me if I’m honest), I will certainly rally behind this one.

I’m slowly working my way through many of the Fantasy Masterworks range, and next up was The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip.

Sybel is a woman cut off from the world of Eldwold, and lives in a woodland glade in the mountains, more or less in isolation. But she doesn’t quite live alone: she can communicate telepathically with animals, and has the ability to reach out to their souls. Though it sounds a little twee, I was utterly charmed at this point – it was very well rendered and evocative. A man called Coren, arrives at her cottage and leaves her with a baby, which she is to look after – Tamlorn, the son of a king, and of a queen who has died. If not loved then the child will be found and killed.

A decade or so later, Coren returns for Tamlorn, and Sybel is more than reluctant to hand him over, since she is convinced that he’ll be used as a political weapon. But she gives him up eventually. Numerous chaps arrive at her door, the king, and also Coren, who are both so wrapped up in her beauty, and we’re generally led to believe all men are incredibly stupid and horrible (and throughout the novel, this is almost to the point of misandry). I reflected on this point quite a bit; then I realised women had been so badly treated by male writers for decades – and still do – so this is probably what it feels like. If that was McKillip’s point, which I’m inclined to think it was, then touché, it was bang on the money.

It kind of fell apart a bit at the end, but all in all, it’s a smart, charming rural fantasy.


Recents Reads

Weymouth Sands, by John Cowper Powys is a big book in every sense. Set in 1934, it’s a properly interconnected, multi-POV rambling around the town of Weymouth, in Dorset, and discusses the big issues of life, love, death, sexuality, and doesn’t shy away from a spot of philosophy. I couldn’t even begin to summarise the plot in one blog post – kudos to the author for that – but one of the main thrusts is of a brutish man, Jobber Skald, and his intentions to kill the local quarry owner, whilst coming to terms with his affections for newcomer, Perdita Wane. Add to that mix a famous clown and his mad brother (though Powys’s non-judgemental ways of handling the madness were wonderful), a middle-age teacher and his affections for a questionably young lady (whose love is possibly directed elsewhere), a gypsy, a philosopher (Richard Gaul – perhaps a voice of Powy’s himself) and “Hell’s Museum”, a residence / mad-house in which experiments on people and dogs take place… you get the picture. All in all, it’s like Thomas Hardy on acid, and if you can get to grips with the intense exposition – which I loved – and the representation of the local dialect, then it’s worth picking up in order to discover this often-forgotten classic writer.

Perhaps reacting to the horrid smoke and grime experienced during my trip to London, I bought Wildwood, by Roger Deakin. Like any example of nature writing, it’s as much about the author’s relation with the natural world than nature per se, and I couldn’t help at times but feel that it was a kind of rich-boy childhood reminiscence fetish (I know, I said to myself, I’ll just buy a Tudor house with a moat – anyone can do it!). It was good, cleansed me of the Big City, but never really scratched my itch. Instead, I had to pick up Richard Mabey’s fantastic Flora Britannica, which is one of the best books around for understanding how the natural world really is a foundation of British culture, and how plants still play a significant role in our lives.

I shall return to the fantasy genre shortly.


More Recent Reading

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay is a brilliant book. It’s huge – in themes, in scope, and in sheer fun. I’m not going to review it, but I wanted to at least tell people they should read it. The book follows the lives of two cousins. One is a Czech artist called Joe Kavalier (also trained as an escape artist), and Sam Clay, raised in Brooklyn. It’s set mainly in the years leading up to the Second World War, where the cousins become major comic writers as the industry enters the Golden Age. I love the themes of escape that prop up this beast of a novel (Kavalier, who is trained as an escape artist, escapes his homeland because of the build up to WWII, and who then seeks to help his family escape). Chabon, whilst not quite as stylish as Letham at his best, certainly knows his way around a sentence, too.

Then, onto C. L. Moore, the first lady of weird fantasy. I read the collection Black Gods And Scarlet Dreams, the Masterworks edition, and even in the first story, I could see it contained more imaginative power than a lot of this year’s combined fantasy output. My initial excitement wavered a little after that, for there were endless descriptions of psychological reaction, of emotion, of fear, of abstract shapes and entities. And I’m all for a little exposition, but some of this was way beyond heady. I admit I stopped halfway, after the adventures of Jirel of Joiry – a hugely important character in genre taxonomy, because she was the first proper female warrior/lead. I was impressed: Jirel was utterly non-sexualised, not made into some leather-clad male fetish – she was properly hard as nails, the equal of any male warrior.

I’m now half-way through a bound manuscript of Kraken, by one China Miéville. (I should say here how wonderful my publicist and editor are for supplying me with a copy.) About a hundred pages in and by god it’s good fun.

After that, I’m hoping to escape core genre for a bit. Possibly, I’ll read some John Cowper Powys, though I’m not hugely knowledgeable on some of his output. I very much enjoyed Wolf Solent – which was written in the style of a horny Thomas Hardy on speed. JCP’s books look intimidatingly big, so if anyone out there knows of some of the smaller tomes, suggestions would be welcome. I found some available on Faber Finds, their Print on Demand range, but I’m not forking out £15 for a copy.


The King Of Elfland’s Daughter

This isn’t a review, but the book deserves more attention that being rounded-up with another post. The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany, is a heck of a novel. There is much of the fairytale here, and I was reminded of the fantasies of William Morris. There’s something very ornate, something elegant about the aesthetic, and the prose, though at first densely structured in olde speak, is crafted in the same manner.

The story concerns proper magic and a country’s thirst for it. Because of the demands of his citizens, a king sends his son, Alveric, across “the fields we know” to find Elfland, in order to find and wed Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter, and bring a spot of magic back to his own kingdom. Which Alveric does, pretty early on, and returns with her to find that some considerable time has passed.

It’s really the theme of time passing which runs deep throughout the novel – since time does not really pass in Elfland, it makes ageing and death so prominent and issue in our own world. (It’s something that crops up in Dunsany’s other stories, too.)

Much of modern fantasy literature is criticised for its use of magic as a way out of any tricky situation, like some fancy oh-so-useful weapon, but many writers could do worse than study how Dunsany has used it here, most of which doesn’t really become apparent until the end. It’s bound up in the setting and characters so well, influences motivation and outcomes, and reflects much deeper, primitive desires. I was impressed how well fantastical elements were used, and that in itself puts a lot of modern writers to shame – Dunsany is clearly proud to explore elements of the phantasmic.

As an aside, I very much noticed an influence on Neil Gaiman, and it came as no surprise that he wrote the introduction to this edition. So, well worth a read, and I shall certainly be reading more.


Events & Recent Reads

Convention goodness. The Eastercon draft programme is up, and it ranges from the very sensible to the very bizarre.

I’m on this panel on the Saturday:

Writers and the Web – Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc. 2pm- 3pm. Room 12. Is it essential to be on the Web to promote sales of your book? Which media are used in which ways? How do you interact with your readers online? Do you link to your bad reviews as well as your good ones? Joe Abercrombie, Maura McHugh, John Meaney and Mark Charan Newton.

Aside from that, I’ll probably be in the bar on the Saturday, or thereabouts. I have no idea where else I’ll be, but do come and say hello. Or if you want a proper sit-down, drop me a line in advance to sort out a cup of tea. I’m there from the Friday lunch to Sunday morning.

Another reminder that you really should be going to Alt. Fiction in Derby, on Saturday 12th June. If you’re a reviewer, you’ll find lots of authors milling about. If you’re looking to be a writer, lots of advice is on hand, as the event is kind of suited more for those of a literary bent, rather than anything else. I’m probably going to be doing something with City of Ruin, though I’m not sure what.

Book three. I’m currently 50k words into book three, which has a title that a lot of people like, and I like very much, but I won’t be sharing at the moment, because these things can often change and I will end up looking more silly than usual. It’s back in Villjamur, which is a little more difficult for me, as I’m one of those writers who likes new stuff and creating stuff, and going back to old places provides new challenges. But all is going well. Again, it changes focus from the first two books, and I hope it can be something rather unique. I will say only that I’m trying to play with the concept of superheroes, which is difficult in a secondary world where magical stuff happens anyway. It seems to be working so far.

Currently reading: The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany, which is charming and delicate, yet still more imaginative than a lot of fiction these days, and reminds me a lot of the fantasies written by William Morris. I finished American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, which I rather enjoyed. It was a sprawling, weird, beautiful beast of a novel, and had some superb ideas. Perhaps a little rambling in places, but that’s being nitpicky.

Finally for those of you who missed it, and because I can’t help myself, someone said something nice about City of Ruin:

“Newton combines strange and vivid creations with very real and pressing concerns with estimable commitment and passion.” — China Miéville

Which makes me happy.


Recent Reads

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

My random historical spree kicked off with perhaps the most famous of them all. Eco’s heady and intense novel of a chain of murders at Melk Abbey. Rather self-indulgent at times, but I’ve been accused of worse myself. Blistering use of semiotics, theological studies, and the general state of the Catholic church circa 1327. In fact, though I know little of those times, Eco offered some gentle learning throughout, with a some good old-fashioned blood-and-guts killings to boot. Far too clever for its own good.

Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Continuing the monk-action was C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. A much lighter read after the Eco, this follows a hunchback lawyer into the inner sanctum of a monastery in southern England, around the time of the Dissolution, when Henry 8 was looking for an unusual solution to a break-up. Sticks to the modern crime formula, with enough of a mystery to keep that page turning. Elegant prose, very good lead character with lots of depth, lots of dodgy monks, a good slice of history – what more can you want? I’ll definitely pick up the rest of the series.

Q, by Luther Blissett

No, not the footballer, but the Italian intellectual and anarchistic collective, Luther Blissett. Fucking amazing book. Slaps down any novel you wish to give the moniker ‘gritty’. This is a full on, turn up the volume, medieval (well, early modern) gore-fest, all in the shape of one of the greatest socialist upheavals, that of the Reformation. It follows an anonymous figure through the turbulent times, the Münster Rebellion, the Battle of Frankenhausen etc., all the time being tracked / screwed over by Q, a Catholic spy. Puts a heavy socialist slant on things. Contemporary and stylish prose, which I know will piss off those hoping for authentic ye olde speak, but they can get over themselves. It jumps back and forward through time, uses extracts of letters, very jazzy structure. This is politics and sex on a grand scale, but don’t read if you’re a Tory.

Future reads: The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier, 54 by Wu Ming.