Feb 08

BSFA Shortlist – Best Novel

The British Science Fiction Association shortlist was announced on the weekend.  As with last year I’ll be reading the five books nominated in the Best Novel category:

  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz)
  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
  • Glorious Angels by Justina Robson (Gollancz)

Some quick observations of the nominees:

  1. This year I’m tracking publishers so it’s interesting to see that three of the novels were published by Gollancz (last year it was only 1 novel out of the 8 nominated).
  2. As with the PKD Award, four of the novels nominated are part of a series – although it might be all five, I’m not sure if Glorious Angels by Justina Robson is a standalone novel.
  3. Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden is a sequel to Dark Eden a novel that won both the Clarke Award and the BSFA. As I haven’t read Dark Eden I could opt out from reading this book.  But a quick squizz of the internet indicates that Mother of Eden, while set on the same colony world as the first book is set many generations after the events of that novel so can be enjoyed as a standalone. We shall see…
  4. As a side note congratulations to all the nominees in all the categories, but especially Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, Jonathan McCalmont and Nina Allan.

 

Feb 05

Week 5: A New Podcast, Flying Saucers and Russian Mix Tapes

Books Read

After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Currently Reading

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

(1)

Last weekend (31 January) Jonathan Strahan, James Bradley and I got together to discuss Adam Roberts’ superb novel The Thing Itself on the newly launched Coode Street Roundtable. The reason this podcast exists is explained in the episode but suffice it to say it’s given me the excuse to read more novels published this year.

In our discussion of The Thing Itself we noted that part of what makes Roberts such a remarkable writer is his refusal to write the same or similar novel again and again. In fact the only certain thing about Roberts’ work is that he’ll bring a level of erudition and wit to each project. But the subject matter, and more than that the shape and tone of the novel, will change significantly from book to book. This is exciting, but sadly it’s not very commercial and while we were effusive with our praise, there’s this lingering sadness that writers like Roberts aren’t better appreciated and more successful.

This segways neatly into Douglas Lain’s After the Saucers Landed which is precisely the sort of book, while not perfect, that deserves attention simply because it’s not a variant on something we’ve seen before. It’s also the sort of book that may struggle to find a wider audience because, like Roberts’ work it challenges rather than comforts.

(2)

Douglas Lain’s After the Saucers Landed is definitely a book that sits firmly in my wheelhouse. Not because it’s deliberately self-aware or because it’s a “post modern” and “post capitalist” take on the UFO phenomena or because it wears its academic and literary influences on its sleeves. It tickles my fancy because it’s like nothing I’ve read before. And given the amount of cookie cutter fiction that’s published on a regular basis, reading a novel that doesn’t give a shit if the reader “gets it” is genuinely exciting and, yes, enjoyable.

The novel’s title is a neat summary of the central conceit. In 1991 UFOs land on the front lawn of the White House. The aliens that emerge are straight out of an old B-Movie, humanoid and dressed in sequined jumpsuits. Even the saucer’s internals look like something that’s been cobbled together on a shoestring budget. The ordinariness of the aliens shatters the beliefs of Ufologist Harold Flint who expected something so much more profound. Flint, who’d written a number of novels about the UFO phenomena (prior to their arrival) and who is dealing with the death of his wife, decides to walk away from his life’s work. But then one day his co-writer, Brian Johnson, brings home a female alien named Asket who asks Harold to return to his investigation into UFO phenomena. While Flint says no he’s steadily drawn into an increasingly paranoid world of missing time, identity swaps and the most banal of invasions.

While the UFO craze hit its straps in the 1950s, it’s never really left us as exhibited by Mulder’s lengthy conspiracy rant during the opening episode of the newly resurrected X-Files. But Lain pokes fun and wonderfully deconstructs the mythology, all those poorly lit rooms hiding coffee stained files of alien infiltration, by having the Pleidiens (the aliens) reflect a nostalgic expectation of the flying saucer phenomena. The cherry on top is that rather than rely on alien probes and men dressed in black, the Pleidiens invade by converting people to their version of New Age enlightenment.

Identity sits front and centre throughout the novel, specifically the fragile nature of human consciousness. Lain cuts the topic in a number of ways, both through the philosophy of  Rene Descartes and via hypnosis as Asket details her identity swapping adventures. Lain’s overall thesis might be that we’re losing (or have already lost) our identities to a capitalist / consumerist culture that prides the Real Housewives and the Kardashians over genuine philosophical interrogation. At least that’s the message I took away from the novel.

If I have a problem with After the Saucers Landed it’s that it lacks a human touch. Brian Johnson, our narrator, but not necessarily the protagonist, is a thinly drawn character. There’s a plot reason for this, but it does mean that I found it hard to engage with Johnson’s plight, in particular the disappearance of his wife who may, or may not, have surrendered herself to the Pleidiens. Asket, who follows Johnson for most of the novel, is a far more interesting and developed character – which is ironic given her personality never stays stable for more than twenty pages.

After the Saucers Landed might be described as pretentious by some. There were certainly easter eggs and references scattered throughout the text that I didn’t register until later, such as the antecedent to the name Asket. Other reviewers have noted a level of critical theory embedded in the novel that, if there, went completely over my noggin. But Lain’s mix of philosophy, nostalgia and identity is interesting and exciting because it does require some chewing over, because it doesn’t speak down and because it takes the risky move of avoiding cliché.

(3)

I didn’t read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena back in 2013 when it attracted critical hype and was nominated for a National Book Award. Now that I’ve finished Anthony Marra’s second novel, The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories (and it is a novel, inspite of the word “stories” implying otherwise) I’m not only going to go back and read his début but I intend to add Marra to a small but growing list of writers whose work I’ll read on publication.

At first blush the book is a mosaic novel, a suite of interlinked, though self-contained, short stories set In Russia and Chechnya. Aesthetically Marra constructs the book like a cassette tape, with a Side A (featuring four stories, or tracks) and a Side B (also featuring four stories or tracks). In between there’s a bridging story, but I’ll get to that in a second. The four tracks on Side A, beginning with a gut wrenching piece set in 1937 during Stalin’s purges dealing with a “correction artist” whose job it is to paint over and erase those no longer loyal to the Party, are all self-contained. While the subsequent “tracks” on Side A do link briefly to each other through characters and events – all featuring a 19th Century landscape painting that grows increasingly in importance as the book progresses – each one tells a complete story.

Things change though once the cassette is turned over to Side B. First off, there’s a bridging story – the longest piece in the novel – that’s not only a powerful exploration of brotherhood, lost opportunities and the possibility for redemption – but it also reinforces the connection between the first four stories. It’s also the first piece that’s not self contained because as a bridging story is relies on the reader having read Side A to fully appreciate it. That’s the case for all the stories on Side B. While each distinct in terms of perspective and tone, there’s a clear shift in momentum as each piece, like the best type of mix tape, builds on the one before. This all comes together in the penultimate piece, a story that features all the main characters (well, the one’s who are still alive) and has the same effect as the climax of a traditional novel. The final track is more a coda, a beautiful, heartbreaking piece that earns every tear I shed precisely because of what had come before.

In a recent piece on his blog David Hebblethwaite discusses the manipulative nature of fiction, especially in how it evokes an emotional response in the reader.  He argues that the better novels are those where the very shape of the narrative, it’s structure and tone, is critical to the story that’s being told.  The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories is an example of that type of book.  Tell the same story but without the unique structure and you’d have a vastly different and – I would argue – less interesting book.  Because while Marra’s insights about Russia of the 1930s and Russia under Putin are disturbing and upsetting, what truly elevates the novel is how each track provides a different flavour, different taste – whether it’s a story about a man obsessed by the photo of a ballerina whom he’s been asked to erase; whether it’s a story about an ex Director of a Museum in Chechnya who now finds himself providing tours to Chinese businessmen; whether it’s a story about an old woman who allows drug dealers to use her house as a place to package their product – which marry together into one magnificent voice. A chorus that bemoans the war in Chechnya, that is horrified at those who suffered in the mines of Siberia, that sheds tears at the thousands of innocent people who were interrogated for alleged disloyalty to the Party and, most importantly of all, finds love and hope and laughter in among it all.

Jan 29

Week 4: Opposities attracts, Immigration and Fun and Familiarity

Books Read

Archangel by Marguerite Reed

Windswept by Adam Rakunas

Currently Reading

After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain

(1)

The big news this week, at least from a literary standpoint, was that Frances Hardinge won the 2015 Costa Book of the Year for her novel The Lie Tree. I’ve only read one of her books, the wonderfully inventive Cuckoo Song, but the excitement on my Facebook feed indicates a writer who is loved and admired and clearly deserving the wider recognition. I’d be surprised if The Lie Tree doesn’t garner some genre love, but no matter this year’s awards I’ll certainly be reading it.

So a hearty congratulations to Frances Hardinge on her much deserved win.

And now for this week’s books…

(2)

There’s a lot to like about Marguerite Reed’s début novel Archangel. The writing is good and at times sublime, especially when describing the colony world of Ubastis. The world-building is rich with detail, in particular the predominant Muslim culture that administer Ubastis. The characters – including our protagonist Doctor Vashti Loren – are complicated and while not necessarily likeable always compelling. The novel’s main themes, specifically the effect open immigration can have on a fragile environment, are crunchy and thought-provoking and just a tad controversial. And for the most part the pacing is well judged, with enough plot beats and dramatic moments to keep things moving.

However, the novel has one, near fatal, flaw that for me came close to undermining all of Reed’s good work. That would be the relationship between Doctor Loren and the Beast.

To provide some context, as noted above Archangel is set on the fledgling colony world of Ubastis. Vashti Loren is part of the second wave of colonists that, at the young age of 15, came to the planet to both tame it but also understand the flora and fauna. More than a decade later the administration of Ubastis is fighting a losing battle against profiteers and the like who want to open Ubastis to hundreds of thousands of colonists. Loren is against this move knowing that the planet’s fragile ecology, which they don’t entirely understand, is not ready for a significant influx of immigrants.

In addition Vashti’s husband, the revered Lasse Undset who led the second wave of colonists, was brutally murdered by a Beast (a genetically enhanced super soldier). Still coming to terms with Lasse’s death – which she witnessed and only just survived – Vashti is horrified and furious when the Governor’s wife smuggles a Beast onto the planet. Struggling to cope with this constant reminder, Vashti thoughts start to drift toward the topic of revenge.

Loren makes it clear that she has a deep and abiding hatred of Beasts and especially the one that has been smuggled onto the planet. But what’s also clear is that she’s attracted to this specific enhanced super soldier. Now, Loren shrugs off the attraction, maintaining her hatred, but it’s also abundantly clear that this is going to be the case of opposites attract, that at some point Vashti Loren will not only befriend The Beast but they will also become lovers. In other words whiles Vashti plans to kill The Beast, the reader knows that this isn’t going to happen, that Vashti will never pull the trigger, no matter how much she wants too. And while I’m not against a romance that starts from conflict, Loren’s stubborn refusal to deal with her emotions makes for a frustrating and predictable read as we wait for the penny to drop. If not for the prose, the setting and the themes I’d have given up.

Still, it’s hard to dislike a novel that’s brave enough to discuss the issue of immigration and its effect on the environment. While it’s clear that an ecology will be threatened by a sudden influx of people (or any new species, I’m looking at you rabbits) when this is then applied to the issue of immigration, or limiting the number of people that can come to a village, city, country or colony planet, the controversy meter goes up exponentially. This is where those frightened by the Other will hide behind the environment to disguise their racism. Reed doesn’t necessarily explore that side of the debate head-on, but it lingers in the words of the profiteers who talk about children trapped on spaceships who will never have the privilege or opportunity of breathing in the fresh air of Ubastis. Yes, Reed leans heavily on the side of those opposed to open immigration in support of the planet, and yes there’s an element of the strawman in the form of an evil politician looking to undermine the Ubastis administration, but I give Reed props just for raising the issue.

So while Archangel does have it weaknesses and one near deal-breaker for a flaw, there’s a strength of voice and character to the book that makes it a worthwhile read.

(3)

Fun and familiarity. These are the two opposing thoughts that cross my mind when I consider Adam Rakunas’ novel Windswept. In terms of fun the novel moves at an almost chaotic pace as Rakunas constantly ups the ante, never giving the reader or his protagonist Padma Mehta an opportunity to take a breath, to take stock of the situation. But there also a familiarity about the novel. Not the setting, the planet Santee where sugarcane is grown and harvested and where indentured slaves of the big three companies escape in the hope of breaking their contract and joining a Union. No, the setting has a genuine spark of originality. The familiarity stems from the characters and the plot. While the novel is clearly science fiction Padma, with her fast talking, quick thinking, take no shit attitude could have been cut and pasted from any number of urban fantasy series. And that urban fantasy gloss carries over to the plot where the twists come thick and fast in the last third but also have a sense of inevitability about them.

I can’t pretend though that I didn’t have fun with Windswept. Padma may not be the most original of protagonists, but I did appreciate that Rakunas mostly avoided the smug and irritatingly self-aware dialogue that plagues characters of this type (thank you Joss Whedon). And some of the set-pieces, especially early on, are genuinely funny. Padma’s attempts to corral a small group of “breaches” (people looking to break their contract with the mega corporations) had me laughing out loud. It has a slap-stick, Laurel and Hardy / Keystone cops quality to it.

At the point where the novel goes all cinematic – larger than life action scenes involving high-speed cranes – is when the familiarity sets in. This is mostly because the novel lacks depth beyond the mechanics of the plot. To be fair, Rakunas tries to inject a level of profundity. Padma has mental health issues as a result of working with one of the mega-corporations. In particular she’s plagued by a voice in her head that she calls The Fear, which constantly tries to derail her, make her doubt her own self-worth. But after a while the intrusion of The Fear becomes annoying, a set of italicized insults that provide no great insight into Padma as a person beyond her desire to retire and own a distillery so she can keep The Fear at bay.

And then there’s Rakunas’ attempt to discuss class issues. The Big Three have essentially enslaved the majority of humanity and it’s only refuges like Santee that provide people with the opportunity to be free, or at least unshackled from these mega-corporations. However as a commentary on slavery and class, it’s hard to take any of it seriously given how The Big Three are characterized as nothing more than villains who will order the destruction of an entire planet just to ensure that their shareholders are protected. What’s never made clear is how it got like this, how the mega corporations obtained so much power over the populace. We have to take the word of Padma and her friends for granted, and aside from being a lop sided and biased position it adds little texture or depth to Padma’s world.

However, I don’t want to underestimate the fact that I had fun with this book, that for the lack of depth and growing sense of familiarity I never felt compelled to stop reading. Rakunas clearly knows how to deliver an engaging story, and for this reason alone I would still pick up a book with his name on it, though unlikely one set in the Windswept Universe.

Jan 22

Week 3: A sad farewell, Cliches and Transhumanism

Books Read

(R)evolution by PJ Manney

Edge of Dark by Brenda Cooper

Currently Reading

Archangel by Marguerite Reed

(1)

On January 20 2016 David G. Hartwell, senior editor at Tor books, passed away after suffering from a massive stroke.  The many tributes that have been published make clear the role Hartwell played in influencing and shaping science fiction, fantasy and horror over his fourty years as an editor. He edited or co-edited well over fifty anthologies and was editor to Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe and countless other writers still working today.  As Jonathan Strahan pointed out on Facebook, Hartwell was always looking forward, searching for the next new voice to nurture and develop.

He was also a mensch.  I say that from personal experience having not only met him at Worldcon but also in New York when Moshe Feder took me around the Tor offices in the flatiron building.  Sporting one of his incredible ties, David wouldn’t let me leave unless I’d taken with me, literally, a suitcase worth of books.  (In fact so many that a bunch of them had to be shipped back to Australia).  I’ll always remember that.  His generosity, his friendly nature and his passion for all things genre.

I pass my condolences on to his family, to his wife Kathryn Cramer, to all those at Tor who worked alongside him and for all of you who knew him.

(2)

If 2016 was a video game I’d be pressing the restart button.

Anyway, onto this week’s books.

(3)

I read more than half of PJ Manney’s (R)evolution before I gave up on it.  I’m not sure why I lasted that long, why I didn’t put the book down a third of the way through when it was clear I was no longer engaged but rather hate reading. I suppose it’s that completest bug that compels me to keep churning through the pages even when I know it’s a lost cause. In anycase (R)evolution has the infamy of being the first book I’ve given up on in 2016.  Aside from some awful, plodding writing (and one sex scene that was laughably horrible) what shat me about (R)evolution was how predictable it was.

The novel’s plot revolves around a scientist named Peter Bernhardt and his revolutionary brain therapies using nanobots. When those very same nanites are used to kill 70,000 people at a Las Vegas tech conference Bernhardt’s company and life falls to ruin. And then, from stage left, he discovers that his best mate from school is a member of the Phoenix Club, your average secret society which wields great power and influence. The Phoenix Club offers Bernhardt membership promising to support his work with money and resources. Not surprisingly their offer like a Nigerian 419 scam is far too good to be true.

(R)evolution is a checklist of shitty clichés.

  • The Phoenix Club turns out to be evil – check;
  • Bernhardt’s wife apparently dies off-screen only to turn up alive – check;
  • Bernhardt’s best friend betrays him – check;
  • Bernhardt is a saved from the Phoenix Club’s clutches by a sexy woman – check;
  • He ends up fucking said sexy woman – check…

And so on.

Bleeding edge advancements aside – and here I’m assuming that Manney knows her tech – there isn’t a single original idea in this novel.  Worse than that, Manney inflicts on us an unsympathetic protagonist (early on Bernhardt describes his wife as his very own Pocahontas, I kid you not) and a fellow scientist and genius named Ruth who speaks in a series of cringeworthy Yiddish phrases. I’d call Ruth a horrible stereotype, but stereotypes usually have some basis in reality.

This novel was nominated for the PKD Award and while I accept that taste is subjective, I can’t understand why anyone of sane mind and disposition would nominate (R)evolution for anything.  I can only pray that the rest of the PKD nominees aren’t this dreadful.

(4)

Fortunately Brenda Cooper’s Edge of Dark is a shitload better than Manney’s novel.  Interestingly both Cooper and Manney are futurists, detailing transhumanism and humanity’s next evolutionary stage of development.  But whereas Manney’s take is mired by horrible prose, caricatures masquerading as people and a cliché instead of a plot, Cooper provides us with some robust world building, decent prose and a narrative that’s fuelled by the novel’s transhuman themes.

Edge of Dark is set in the same Universe as her previous two novels (the Ruby’s Song duology) though prior knowledge isn’t required. Ruby Martin is mentioned a couple of time but only because she’s part of the background (or mythology) of one of the lead protagonists, Nona Hall.

I’m awful at summarising plots, and there’s quite a bit going on in this novel.  But to reduce it down to the basics, The Next, a loose society of cyborgs who were banished to the edge of the solar system – not our solar system – have, many years later, decided it’s time to return home.  For the residents of the Glittering, the many space stations that populate the solar system, some of which orbit the planet Lym, this goes down like a lead balloon, especially after The Next destroy one of the outer space stations in a ruthless and savage moment of violence.  Chrystal lives on that space station and she and her family – her two husbands, Yi and Jason and her wife Katherine – survive the attack only to have their consciousness transferred into synthetic bodies.  Chrystal’s close friend Nona, believing Chrystal is dead, is sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to parlay with The Next.  Along for the ride comes Charlie, a resident of Lym who has spent most of his life restoring the ecologically ravaged planet.  The Next want to mine Lym awakening all sorts of fears in Charlie.

*Takes a deep breath.*

So yeah, plenty going on and Cooper handles it well.  Her main theme, that old Science Fiction canard as to what it truly means to be human – is our physicality as important as our consciousness or “soul”? – is neatly weaved through the narrative.  And while Cooper doesn’t provide any real breakthroughs on the topic, Chrystal’s struggle with her own humanity, now that she part of the Next, is the strongest part of the book.

Where Edge of Dark struggles, at least for me, is the depiction of The Next.  Cooper seems to be having a bet each way in that The Next are demonstrated to be cold, ruthless killers, slaughtering men and women and children who aren’t deemed as valuable, while also characterising them as a society that’s willing to negotiate and avoid war with The Glittering. Given how powerful they are (it’s often remarked that they’re unstoppable), their decision not to methodically destroy The Glittering makes very little sense. It’s a bit like The Borg turning up on Earth’s doorstep and asking to have a chat and a nice cup of tea.  If Cooper is trying to create a sense of ambiguity about The Next and their aims, it didn’t ring true with me.

It’s possible the second novel in the series will explore this idea further.  I doubt I’ll be reading it though.  Edge of Dark is nice enough book – the characters are engaging without being memorable, and the plot has some nice moments without providing any surprising plot beats.  And overall while well-integrated into the book – far superior to Manney’s attempt – I don’t think I’m the audience for Cooper’s or anyone’s brand of transhumanism.

Jan 20

This years nominees for the National Books Critics Circle Award have been announced

The NBCC nominate books in a number of categories, I’ll be focussing on the fiction category only.  The full list can be found here.

The nominees for best novel are as follows:

  • Paul Beatty, “The Sellout” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Lauren Groff, “Fates and Furies” (Riverhead)
  • Valeria Luiselli, “The Story of My Teeth,” translated by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)
  • Anthony Marra, “The Tsar of Love and Techno” (Hogarth)
  • Ottessa Moshfegh, “Eileen” (Penguin Press)

imageLast years list of nominees averaged a 7.6 out of 10.  One of the books nominated was Marlon James The Brief History of Seven Killings a book that didn’t win the NBCC in 2015 but deservedly took home the Man Booker Prize last year.  Have you read it yet?  And if not, why not!?

Anyway, this list includes Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies which I really didn’t like at all.  It’s a novel that like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara has divided the critics.  In the case of the Groff there was obviously enough consensus and praise to see it nominated.  Well, you can’t account for people’s terrible tastes (especially critics).

I hold out more hope for the other four nominees.  The Moshfegh and the Luiselli provide an interesting case because last year I read their nominated works for the Believer Award and was less than overwhelmed.  (The books were McGlue and Faces In The Crowd  I liked the Luiselli more than the Moshfegh).  Even so it was clear from my exposure of their work that they were interesting writers doing interesting things with narrative and voice.  The fact that those particular works left me cold isn’t enough to avoid the books nominated above.  Having said that I do have some trepidation.

The Beatty was one of the five books listed by the New York Times as their best for 2015.  The Marra is a short story collection, and while I’m not familiar with this particular book, I am aware (though I haven’t read) his first novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (a National Book Award nominee in 2013).

I’m cautiously optimistic about the four nominees I haven’t read.  Except to see my weekly thoughts about the novels in February.

Jan 19

An Analysis of 2015’s Literary and Genre Awards: Part 3 – Subjectivity

What you’re all dying to know in this the third and final part of my analysis of Literary and Genre Awards is what were the best and worst shortlists for 2015.  Of course the subjectivity here is all mine and the mileage of other’s will vary.

What I’m going to do is list the top 3 and bottom 3 shortlists.  But before I do it’s worth noting that of the 108 unique shortlisted books I read, the average mark I gave out of 10 was 7.2.  At first I though this was a bit high.  Anything over 7 would be considered as me liking the book and as a 40 something white guy who finds cynicism and irony in the nicest of things, that average should be closer to 5 or 6.  Additionally, if science fiction and literature are suffering from a dearth of fresh ideas, new voices and different ways of telling story, then how can I be liking the majority of books.  Maybe I’m a traditionalists.  Or maybe the fact that I’m reading award shortlists means I’m exposed to the cream of the crop and in fact 7.2 all things considered is actually pretty low, that your average award shortlists should be hitting more 8’s and 9’s then 6’s and 7’s, especially if they’re meant to represent the best in a given field in a given year.

It’s something to ponder as I keep reading.

Anyway – let’s get down to it –

THE BEST SHORTLIST FOR 2015 AS JUDGED BY IAN MOND WAS…

*DRUM ROLL*

THE FOLIO PRIZE with an average of 8.1 per nominated book.

Here is the Folio Prize shortlist for 2015:

  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner (Granta)
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber)
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Granta)
  • Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta)
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma (Faber)
  • How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (Viking)
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber)

There are some seriously good books here.  The Smith I’ve gone about for the last 12 months, but also fantastic are the Toews, the Offill, the Cusk, the Sharma and the Adhiambo-Owuor.  The Lerner and the Tolbin aren’t awful, each has merit, but they don’t compare to the other six novels.  Seriously, if you want to read the best Lit for 2015, then read this shortlist.

IN SECOND PLACE IS…

THE KITSCHIES – BEST NOVEL (RED TENTACLE) with an average of 8.0 per book so just behind the Folio Prize.  Here is the shortlist:

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allan (NewCon Press)

Lagoon and The Race are outstanding novels.  The Way Inn by Will Wiles is also very good though it falls apart a little at the end.  I liked the Smith because it’s a bit crazy and was disappointed by the Gibson because it’s a bit too expository, but this is a very consistent shortlist of novels.  Nothing that’s truly terrible and Lagoon and The Race are must reads.

IN THIRD PLACE IS…

THE CLARKE AWARD with an average of 7.8 per book.  (It just pipped the BSFA which came fourth).  Here is the shortlist:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey (Orbit)
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Canongate)
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager)
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North (Orbit)
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

If not for The Girl With All The Gifts – a book I seriously didn’t like – this shortlist would have won the chocolates this year.  Take out the Carey and the average goes from 7.8 to 8.6.  The best genre novel for the year is on this shortlist – the Hutchinson – and it keeps company with some fine novels, especially the Mandel and the Itaranta.  Combine this list with the Kitschies above and you’ll be reading the best genre for 2015.

So there you go, the top three shortlists.

So what were the bottom three?  Well here they are:

  • The Hugo Award with an average of 5.5 per book
  • The Nebula Award with an average of 5.8 per book
  • Locus Award Young Adult category with 6.1 per book

Sad Puppies can be blamed for the top one.  Yes, the shortlist was better than what it might have been because of authors not accepting a nomination or pulling out, but given I didn’t finish the Kevin J Anderson – which means it automatically gets a 1 – and didn’t think much of the Butcher or the Leckie, the last place ranking is no shock.  With the Nebulas the blame can be laid at the feet of Charles E. Gannon (didn’t finish the book) and Jack McDevitt (finished the book but it wasn’t very good).  As for the Locus Award Young Adult category, I didn’t finish the Carriger which was the main reason it only scored a 6.1.  Without the Carriger the average shoots up to 7.0.  As a by the by and not to draw any long bows or jump to conclusions but it might say something that the three weakest shortlists were those not voted on by judges but rather the reading populace at large.  Clearly we need our gatekeepers!  Clearly!

So there you go.  My top three awards provide you with a pretty decent reading list.  So go out and enjoy them books!

Jan 15

Week 2: Hilarious Hijinks in Space and Immanuel Kant

Books Read

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

Slade House by David Mitchell 

Currently Reading

(R)evolution by PJ Manney

(1)

This week saw the passing of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both from cancer and both at the age of 69.  While we might despair, they leave behind enduring legacies.  They will be missed but not forgotten.

(2)

This week I recovered from tonsillitis (which is good) and read three books (also good), two of which I can’t really speak about (see below).

This week also saw the announcement of the PKD Awards, the first genre award for the season (which goes from January to October with barely a break).  With the announcement of the PKD nominees I thought this would be a good time to mention how I’m treating this award season in terms of my reading.

First off, I’m reducing my shortlist output from 22 to 16 awards.  This will – or should – free me up to read more books published in 2016.  Second off, I’ve instituted two rules for the shortlists I will be reading.

  • RULE ONE – I will not read a novel by an author whose previous work I haven’t liked.  (I’ve already activated that rule with the PKD shortlist);
  • RULE TWO – I will not read books that form part of a series unless the book nominated happens to either be (a) Book 1 or (b) part of a series that I’m up to date with.  Unsurprisingly last year I struggled to engage with the second or third books of a series if I hadn’t already read the first.

Those two rules will, possibly, reduce my reading further.  It does slightly rankle my completist urge to read everything nominated, but life, as we’ve seen this week, is too short to be fucking around with novels that I’m unlikely to engage with.

So, onto the books…

(3)

As the concluding volume of a space opera trilogy that’s dealt with revenge, slavery, colonialism, privilege and gender the last thing you expect from Ancillary Mercy is that it’s going to be funny.  And yet I found myself laughing out loud more than once.  Much of the humour comes from the relationship between Translator Zeiat (the Presger are awesome!) and the ancillary Sphene.  The book still has moments of drama and tension, but it’s lovely that there’s a few laughs to undercut all the seriousness.

What’s also refreshing is how Leckie refuses to make this a dark and angsty and tragic conclusion.  Breq is still fighting a war against the evil side of Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radch Empire, and that particular battle certainly comes to ahead in this book.  But Leckie does the smart thing of keeping the focus tight and narrow throughout.  There are no climactic space battles or violent moments of hand to hand combat.  But rather there’s many a cup of tea and negotiation and, yes, some skullduggery as well.  Because you won’t beat the ruler of the Radch – or at least one aspect of her – unless you have a few cards up your sleeve.

The low-key nature of the final volume means that the narrative does drift, especially in the middle where Breq and her crew leave the Station and essentially hide out in hyperspace from Anaander’s forces.  It does give Leckie the opportunity to delve deeper into the interactions between Breq’s crew, especially the relationship between Seivarden and Ekalu, but these scenes, for me, were not as interesting as to what was happening on Athoek Station now that Anaander had taken it by force.

Having said that the last third is fantastic.  Still low-key.  Still intimate.  But a conclusion that ties up the loose ends satisfactorily and is smart and mature.  The key theme of the novel is autonomy and free-will and the rejection of slavery and I like how those themes became critical to the climax of this book and the series.

In the end Ancillary Mercy is a fitting end to a very good trilogy of novels (even if I wasn’t entirely keen on Boom Two – Ancillary Sword).  It may not have the pyrotechnics of traditional space opera but it’s a shit load smarter and more insightful.  And I do love the Presger.

(4)

I can’t say much about Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself.  Not because the book has so dazzled me with its Kantain remodelling of reality that my views on the novel have become unstuck from space and time and the categories of perception – though there’s an element of that – but because I’ll be discussing the book elsewhere and I don’t want to foreshadow what I’ll be saying.

However, if you’re friends with me on Goodreads you’ll get an idea of whether I thought the novel was a pile of transcendental idealistic gibberish, spitting in the face of immaterialism and the fine work of Bishop Berkley or one of the best books of 2015.

(5)

The same goes for Slade House by David Mitchell.  No, not the transcendental idealism but the fact that I’ll be chatting about it elsewhere (with my co-host Kirstyn McDermott on the Writer and the Critic).  Again, Goodreads provides a spoilerific insight into my thoughts.

Jan 14

An Analysis of 2015’s Literary and Genre Awards: Part 2 – Gender and Diversity

In the case of Gender and Diversity I’m going to report the facts while avoiding commentary, opinion or analysis.
I know this isn’t particularly brave on my part, but I’m not willing to draw conclusions based on one year’s worth of award data.  That’s not to say some clear conclusions can’t be drawn. The stats, as you’ll see, do lean a certain way – especially in regard to genre and diversity – but just for the moment I’m going to let the statistics speak from themselves. If they spark conversation, all the better.

Gender

Let’s begin with the overall figure including duplicated books (that is the novels that appears on more than one list).

154 books – 79 Male / 75 Female (51% vs 49%)

Now if we take out the duplicated novels and only count them once we get the following:

108 books – 56 Male / 52 Female (52% vs 48%).

So only a very slight change in the distribution.

Things get a crapload more interesting when we do the Genre / Literary split. For this I’m not going to consider duplicates, in other words the figures here will be drawn from the 108 unique novels rather than the overall figure of 154.

Genre – 62 books, 38 Male / 24 Female (61% vs 39%)

Literary – 46 books, 18 Male / 28 Female (39% vs 61%)

But, I hear you cry, you’ve counted the Bailey Prize in your analysis and that only nominates literary books written by women.  Fine. Here are the figures without the Bailey Prize.

Literary – 40 books, 18 Male / 22 Female (45% vs 55%)

In conclusion, while the overall figures show a close to equal split in terms of gender, this is most definitely not the case when we divide the books between Literary and Genre fiction (even without the Bailey Prize).  Why is this the case? Again, I don’t feel confident enough to answer that question – but it does look like that you’re more likely to be exposed to a female voice if you’re reading literary fiction compared to genre.

I should point out that my analysis doesn’t include Young Adult novels – other one Locus award category. Others, with more expertise in YA fiction can explore whether an award like the Andre Norton has better female representation. A very quick look at the last couple of years would seem to indicate that this is the case.

Diversity

This is a very, VERY basic analysis of diversity given that I’m only looking only at people of colour (POC) – non-white writers.  I’ve tried to ensure accuracy when determining an author’s cultural background though I’m aware that making such assumptions is controversial and treacherous waters.  Consequently,  I’m not willing to put my hand on my heart and say that the figures below are 100% accurate.  Though, I think they’re pretty close.

I’m skipping straight to the overall (unique) figures, that is only counting a book once.

108 books – 18 POC (16%)

And now the Literary and Genre split

Genre – 62 books, 5 POC (8%)

Literary – 46 books, 13 POC (28%)

The figures are low no-matter how you cut it. But if you’re a person of colour than your chances are more than tripled in terms of featuring on a literary awards list than a genre award.

In genre we know there’s an issue of diversity in terms of the publication and promotion of novels by people of colour. Again, why this is the case is not something I feel confident enough to comment on. But by the by these are the five books by a POC that were nominated for an award:

  • Elysium – Jennifer Marie Brissett
  • The Three Body Problem – Liu Cixin
  • Confessions – Kanae Minato
  • Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor
  • The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanagihara

On the above, I’m more than happy to make the raw stats available if anyone wants to check my figures.

Jan 13

The nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award have been announced

The PKD is the first genre award for the year and celebrates the best original paperback published in the previous year.  This years nominees, announced while I was fast asleep, look something like this:

  • EDGE OF DARK by Brenda Cooper (Pyr)
  • AFTER THE SAUCERS LANDED by Douglas Lain (Night Shade Books)
  • (R)EVOLUTION by PJ Manney (47North)
  • APEX by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot Books)
  • WINDSWEPT by Adam Rakunas (Angry Robot Books)
  • ARCHANGEL by Marguerite Reed (Arche Press)

There’s a wonderful and exciting hit and miss quality about the PKD Awards.  In one breath the judges can choose vibrant and extraordinary works like Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett or last year’s winner The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison and, on the same ballot, more mainstream, less innovative and middle of the road novels like Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches or The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter (of course your mileage may vary).  It’s the award’s eclectic nature, and it’s willingness to promote small press, that makes it a must read every year.

While six books have been nominated I’ll only be reading five of them.  That’s because I’m instituting a new rule this year whereby I don’t read a novel by an author whose work I’m not keen on.  Ramez Naam’s Apex is the third book in a series of which I read the first, Nexus, and thought it was not very good.  I know I’m a minority in regard to Naam’s work but there you go.

Of the others, I’m really looking forward to Douglas Lain’s novel, an author I’ve been meaning to read but because I’m apathetic have never got around too.

I’ll report on each of the five novels in my weekly journal entries.

Jan 11

An Analysis of 2015’s Literary and Genre Awards: Part 1 – Unique Books

[I apologise in advance for the lack of schmancy fancy graphs or illustrations.  But I’ll bold all the important stuff.]

UNIQUE

So like I said in the introductory post I read the shortlists of 22 genre and literary awards.  At the time I thought this was an insane thing to do given I’ve struggled to read 100 books per year.  What I was banking on was that there’d be overlap between awards, a duplication of critically acclaimed novels.

And that’s precisely what happened.

Overall, 154 novels were nominated.  Of these 101 novels were genre and 53 books were literary.  The doubling of genre novel versus literary novel is partly because I read more genre shortlists but mostly because (a) I read the four novel categories for the Locus Awards (amounting to 22 books) and (b) the John Campbell Memorial Award nominates 17 finalists.

The important point is that of these 154 novels 108 of them were unique, that is the novel only appeared once across the 22 shortlists.

But while the multiple appearance of the novel makes my life easier (in terms of the number of books I need to read) it does reduce the number of voices being heard.  I think we want some duplication – the best books, like Ali Smith’s How To Be Both which was nominated five times (across the 14/15 literary season) deserve to be recognised and promoted.  But too much duplication and it feels like that either we’ve run out of ideas or more critically the gatekeepers (those who choose the best books in any given year) are growing increasingly conservative in their choices.  And when we see the same three or four novels crop up in the Nebula / Hugo / World Fantasy award shortlists, we (or maybe it’s just me) despair about the lack of variety.

Anywho we know there were 108 unique novels (which is unique-rate of 70%).  But when we split it between genre and literary we see a genuine divide.

Genre – 101 novels / 62 unique / 61% [this is from 12 awards shortlists]

Literary – 53 novels / 46 unique / 87% [this is from 10 awards shortlists]

If we remove both the Locus and John Campbell Memorial Awards from contention the results are better:

Genre – 62 novels / 45 unique / 73%

There’s one more thing I should do and that’s look at the Literary Awards from September 2014 to August 2015.  In other words a season that starts with the nomination of the Man Booker shortlist and ends with the novels chosen for the Bailey Prize.  In many respects this is a fairer comparison than simply looking at the Literary award nominations over a calendar year.  The reason for this is because while genre awards always look backwards – i.e. always look at the works published in the previous year, some Literary awards, like the Man Book and the National Book Award, look at the novels published in the year of the award.  They can do this because the judges are given ARCs, galleys etc of books that have yet to be published.  As a result, the Literary awards that are announced earlier in the year, like the Folio Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award are feeding off the same books that the Man Booker or National Book Awards considered the year before.

Confused?

Don’t worry.  The point is if we consider the literary books nominated between September 2014 and August 2015 we get this result:

Literary – 53 novels / 39 unique / 74% 

Which is near identical to the results generated by Genre when we remove the Locus and John Campbell Memorial Award:

Genre – 62 novels / 45 unique / 73%

Literary – 53 novels / 39 unique / 74% 

My conclusion, for what it’s worth, is that the Locus and JCM are so large in quantum and so different to anything in the literary world that you need to remove them to make a fair comparison.  And that comparison shows us that both Genre and Literary are nominating a fair amount of unique novels.  Or more to the point the balance seems right in terms of promoting the best books in a given year – the books that everyone loved – and profiling an array of different voices.

THE PAGE AND WORD COUNT

It will be a surprise to no-one that genre novels are longer than literary novels:

Genre – 363 pages / 106,000 words

Literary – 319 pages / 92,033 words

Someone better at maths can work out the standard deviation and the variance (happy to provide the figures).  But based on gut instinct and a quick scan of the figures there’s a greater consistency in novel length when it comes to genre than when compared to literary novels.  I doubt I’m going to win many prizes making that observation.

So that’s Part One complete.  Next Part – Gender and Diversity!

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