Category Archives: Books

In conversation with Speculative Fiction Author Anne Charnock

ACharnockPortrait

Anne Charnock

I met Anne Charnock (@annecharnock) last summer when we shared a panel at LonCon 3, with David Hebblethwaite and Adam Roberts, discussing writers who cross the boundary between mainstream fiction and science fiction.

Since then, I’ve completed my trilogy, The Osiris Project, and Anne has finished her second novel, Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind. Anne’s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award 2013 and The Kitschies Golden Tentacle 2013.

We felt it was time for a catch-up chat—about past writing and future plans.


Anne—
So, E.J., we’ve both written fiction in which climate change is part of our world-building. Tell me how you became interested in this subject and the part it plays in your trilogy The Osiris Project.

E.J.—Climate change was something I’d had a growing interest and awareness of for a few years, and then I read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and that was really a game-changer for me. The geo-political scenarios it hypothesizes were at once utterly horrifying but also, from a fiction writer’s point of view, fascinating. I’ve always been drawn to isolated landscapes – the bleak but beautiful. When it came to writing The Osiris Project, I had the world map in mind very early on – a world radically altered by climate change, with borders redrawn and civilization shifted towards the poles. And that underpinned so much of the trilogy, in terms of character, society, political agendas, particularly in the second novel, Cataveiro.

Anne, how important was climate change as you were developing the world of A Calculated Life? Because as a reader, it feels like a noticeable but very subtle element, which I loved – for example, the vineyards, olive and citrus groves surrounding Greater Manchester.

ACalculatedLifeAnne—In any dystopia there are winners and losers—in terms of wealth and freedom—and it’s the same with climate change. I felt it would be interesting to locate my dystopian world in a region benefiting overall from climate change. In my imagined future world, Manchester and the north west of England become the new Tuscany of Europe. I’ve been tuned into climate issues for many years because I studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, home of the Climatic Research Unit. I remember ice-cores being delivered to the department for historical climate analysis. And in 2006, I helped launch the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project in the community where I live. It’s now an exemplar for grassroots action thanks to the community’s enthusiasm. So far we’ve cut our carbon emissions by 25% through behaviour change and we’ve set up a Community Energy Company to generate power from solar energy. Our primary school now has free electricity!

Now that I’ve written two standalone novels, E.J., I’d love to know how you approached writing a trilogy. When did you realize your subject was too big for a standalone novel? And was it instantly clear to you how to break the narrative into three books?  

E.J.—I actually wrote Osiris as a standalone novel in the first instance, but when it came to submitting to agents I had a feeling I’d be asked about plans for sequels, and I left the story deliberately open-ended. The only thing I knew about the second book was that the location would move to outside Osiris, with an almost entirely new cast – I didn’t want to end up writing three variations of the same book, but rather to expand the canvas and the narrative points-of-view with each installment. But then I had so much fun with Cataveiro, the challenge in the third book was pulling everything back together, when my mind wanted to be off exploring an entirely different story! I think if I ever did another trilogy (and it’s definitely not on the cards anytime soon) I’d approach it quite differently. I love those trilogies where you might have hundreds, even thousands of years between books. And hopefully I’d be more organized too…

By contrast, I think you’re doing almost the opposite with your current novel, in terms of structure? Can you tell me a bit about the approach you’ve chosen, and why?

Anne—I spent several years mulling over this novel—Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind—before I settled on the structure. One of my main themes is the nature of success including, more specifically, how women’s achievements have tended to be overlooked. I decided to write three inter-weaving storylines set several hundreds of years apart. A trilogy of sorts!

I hoped this fractured structure would create a sense of immediacy. It’s proved both a challenge and immense fun to write. The settings are Renaissance Florence, present-day China and a future London in which The Academy of Restitutions is attempting to lift women out of undeserved obscurity.

My first novel, A Calculated Life, is dystopian science fiction so, as you can see, I’m now moving into new writing territories—that of contemporary and historical fiction. How do you feel about entering new territory—switching to standalone novels following the success of your trilogy? Do you feel it’s a risk?

E.J.—I’m really looking forward to the era of standalones, I like the containment of the single novel. Of course you can’t guarantee readers who liked one book will automatically be interested in the next, but that goes for series too. I think perhaps the greater risk is moving around genres – the book I’m currently writing has a contemporary setting, and it’s quite different in tone to The Osiris Project books, though it also contains speculative elements. One writer I really admire for this versatility is Genevieve Valentine, whose novels aren’t constrained to any one genre – she’s gone from steampunk circus to 1920s prohibition to future eco-thriller, and seems to be able to turn her hand to any subject material.

I should say I’m a big fan of multilayered and intersecting narratives (writers like David Mitchell, to cite an obvious example) and I absolutely love the sound of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Both of your novels have explored future projections – would you say you’re naturally drawn to the speculative in writing (and in art!), or is this just coincidence?

Anne—I think I’m naturally drawn to speculative writing because it offers a huge canvas. Having said that, I prefer to create plausible scenarios. In my new novel the main characters are connected to the art world—I’m making use of my background as an artist—and two of the main characters are based on real people in Renaissance Italy. I feel the future storyline in my novel is perfectly plausible.

Your current work-in-progress, E.J., brings to mind Ben H Winters’ novel The Last Policeman in terms of setting because Ben’s premise is science fictional but it’s really a contemporary novel! There’s an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and the story imagines how people react when they know the world will end in a year’s time. I find that combination of contemporary fiction and speculative fiction extremely engaging so I can’t wait to see how you bring them together.

Sometimes I test my ideas in a short story—for example, to try out a different style of writing or to find the voice of a character. Your short story “The Spiders of Stockholm” was long-listed for 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. Many congratulations. What an achievement! Can you describe the attraction of short form for you?

E.J.—Thanks, Anne! That was the loveliest surprise – I’d completely forgotten my editor had even submitted the story. “The Spiders of Stockholm” was part of the Irregularity anthology from Jurassic London, who are a joy to write for because they always put together such thought-provoking briefs (in this case, the tension between order and chaos in the Age of Enlightenment).

I don’t feel that I’m a natural short story writer, so I like having some ideas to springboard from. But one thing I love about the form is the opportunity to hone your language at the editing stage, whereas with a novel it feels like there’s always something that escapes you. Having said that, some of my favourite novels are short story collections in disguise, like Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, or Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and I’d love to write something in that vein one day.

Have you published your short stories, and if so, where can we find them?

Anne—My short story, “The Adoption”, will be published this autumn in Phantasma an anthology of horror, SF, urban fantasy and paranormal fiction, including stories by J.D. Horn, Roberta Trahan, Kate Maruyama and Jodi McIsaac Martens.

Other than that I’m currently hoarding several drafts of short stories—more like vignettes. They’re on a single theme—how human relationships will be affected by advances in human reproduction technologies. I’m a huge fan of fragmented narratives and I’m now inclined to incorporate these vignettes in larger piece of writing, possibly a full-length novel.

One of my favourite examples of fragmented-narrative writing is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and I’ll definitely read Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial. Thanks for the recommendation. I do feel that short form and split narratives suit me as a fiction writer. It’s possibly a throw-back to my days of rattling off short pieces of journalistic writing. Having said that, short fiction requires a great deal more honing that journalism deadlines ever allowed.

Let’s have another conversation, E.J., when some of our plans have played out. And good luck with your current writing.

Anne’s new novel, Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind, is published by 47North in November 2015. You can pre-order it here and find out more about her work at her website.

Best of 2014 and a few things to look forward to

The Christmas tree hasn’t yet gone out, which means there’s just about enough time for the obligatory end of year round-up and looking ahead to what 2015 has to offer.

A few things I loved this year which I’d thoroughly recommend (note – not necessarily published in 2014, but from this year’s reading) –  some I’ve written about previously but their merits are well worth reiterating.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
With its innovative approach to the time travel narrative and clever use of format echoing theme, this was a fantastic read, intricately plotted, with a proper punch of an ending.

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
A brilliantly-realized near future setting in India/Ethiopia, combined with a sharp, vibrant voice and nods to mythology made this one of my favourite reads of the year.

The Race by Nina Allan
With its beautifully crafted, intertwining narratives, an evocative sense of place and dreamlike playfulness with reality, I would love to see both this and the Byrne on some awards list later this year.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
The story of how Macdonald trained a goshawk in the months following her father’s death, and the story of the troubled writer T.H. White. A gorgeous, deeply empathetic memoir.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
I adored Oryx and Crake, but was less enamoured with The Year of the Flood. I was delighted to enjoy the conclusion to the trilogy as much as I did the first volume – Atwood never fails to surprise and delight with her inventiveness and style.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Engaging and ever-so-slightly unnerving story of a novice writer who finds herself embroiled in the dubious clique of the eponymous literature society, this is a marvellous read.

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
I enjoyed The Violent Century but this is much closer to the territory of Tidhar’s Osama – intelligent, troubling, funny, at times harrowing, an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish.

And a few things I’m looking forward to in 2015, in no particular order:

Company Town by Madeleine Ashby, Persona by Genevieve Valentin, The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, The First Bad Man by Miranda July.

Next on the reading list is Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, which I’ve been looking forward to for ages, and I’m just waiting for the paperback editions of Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

Plenty to look forward to in 2015.

Reading recommendations – summer 2014

Some recommendations from the last few month’s reading – wonderful books all:

A Woman in Berlin – Anonymous

I stumbled across A Woman in Berlin in the history section of the beautiful Scarthin Books in Derbyshire – one of those oh this looks interesting moments that reminds you to browse bookstores more. The diaries of a German woman – a journalist in her pre-war career – during the final phases of WWII, it chronicles the Russian invasion and sacking of the city of Berlin. It’s a rare first-hand record of the civilian experience of defeat, and the history of its publication is equally fascinating – the first German-language edition in 1960 received such negative reactions that the text was withdrawn, and it was only in 2003, following the anonymous author’s death in 2001, that it saw print again. With its subject matter of rape and sexual collaboration for survival, this is not the easiest read, but what stays with me is the voice of the narrator; the resilience, the dry humour and lack of self-pity, the will to survive. I was especially struck by the author’s reflections on the returning soldiers. The myth of man, she says, has crumbled – ‘That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex’ – an observation which sadly was not to be proven in the post-war era, but makes this even more of a relevant read today.

tale for the time beingA Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Japanese schoolgirl writes a diary which in the aftermath of a tsunami washes up on a remote coastline in Canada in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. I loved the premise of this. Nao’s diaries are instantly engaging (so much so that I missed her initially during Ruth’s chapters); inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. As Ruth becomes immersed in Nao’s diary, the novel expands to reveal the fascinating histories of Nao’s family, including her ‘anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun’ great-grandmother Jiko, her kamikaze pilot grandfather Haruki #1, and her post-Dot Com Bubble computer programmer father Haruki #2. Exploring the dynamics of power and bullying, Ozeki examines what it really means to be a hero.

hired manThe Hired Man – Aminatta Forna

I was blown away by Forna’s memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and her novel The Memory of Love. The Hired Man is outwardly a quieter novel, but one that creeps up on you with increasing power. Protagonist Duro creates a slow-burn narration, flitting between a seemingly peaceful present, and the darker memories of the past, as the secrets of a Croatian town in the aftermath of civil war are gradually uncovered.

harry augustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has an outwardly simple premise: narrator Harry lives, and dies, and lives his life over and over again, each time retaining the memories of his previous lives. The way it is told is gorgeously intricate. I loved the circular narrative, the employment of form to echo theme, as the book moves back and forth through Harry’s lives, with some playful and at times truly dark historical visitations. The relationship between Harry and his one-time student Vincent is fascinating; as are the philosophical debates eschewing from that relationship. This is a great read from start to finish.

girl in the roadThe Girl in the Road – Monica Byrne

Two journeys are at the heart of The Girl in the Road – Meena, fleeing from India across the Trail, an energy-harvesting floating bridge which crosses the Arabian Sea. And Mariama, a young girl crossing from West Africa to Ethiopia, bewitched by fellow traveller Yemaya, who she worships as a goddess. There were so many things I loved about this – the wonderfully-rendered near future setting; the way the two characters’ journeys intertwine through stories and mythology; the fierce, at times savage voice combined with a gorgeous use of language. I also liked the way it touched on issues such as race, class, sexuality and mental health, whilst not foregrounding any of these; the narrative always comes first.

bad characterA Bad Character – Deepti Kapoor

Kapoor’s A Bad Character explores a very different Indian setting. Sometimes after reading something particularly epic it’s a joy to really focus down, and Kapoor’s novel is exactly that: a distillation of a relationship. Poetic, evocative, burning with suppressed desire and sexuality, it’s told in a series of staccato vignettes by a young woman in Delhi whose name we never learn.

Helen-Macdonald-H-is-for-HawkH is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

If you read one thing this year, read this. Macdonald’s deeply empathetic memoir encompasses two narratives: it’s the story of how she trained a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death, and the story of the troubled writer T.H. White. It’s a book about nature and a book about struggling with grief. By turns exquisitely poetic and unflinchingly raw, Macdonald explores what it means to be wild and what it means to be human, and the at times perilously precarious bridge between the two.

Reading recommendations – spring 2014

It’s been a while since I posted about recent reading – but I’ve finally got round to some recommendations from the first half of this year.

NW – Zadie Smith

Taking the Willesden area of London as its epicentre, NW follows the intersecting lives of a group of Londoners, at the centre of which is the intriguing relationship between once-and-ostensibly-still best friends Leah and Natalie. Each section is stylistically, experimentally different, but I particularly enjoyed Natalie’s narrative. Despite Natalie’s struggle to reconcile the shift in her lifestyle and identity, and a voice that seems designed to distance the reader, Natalie somehow ended up being the most relatable of all the characters. I loved the sense of London, and the cultural references which are cleverly embedded, if at times a little too oblique. On a related note, I was excited to read that Smith is reputedly planning to write science-fiction. Her short story Meet The President! in the New Yorker may be a taste of things to come – something to look forward to.

God’s War – Kameron Hurley

It felt like I’d read a lot about God’s War a long time before I got round to actually reading it, despite a general tendency to avoid reviews as much as I can until after I’ve finished a book. Originally billed as bug-punk, I just wasn’t expecting God’s War to be my kind of thing, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found myself hugely enjoying the book. It’s a fast-paced narrative (the much-quoted first line grabs you by the teeth and it doesn’t let go from there on), but character always trumps plot for me, and much of my enjoyment was in the superbly-rendered character of bounty hunter Nyx, and the shifting dynamics between her motley, multinational crew. For a far more eloquent review take a look at Nina Allan’s thoughts over at the Arc blog, but in brief – if, like me, this isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually pick up – do give it a go. You may be surprised…

The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve been a big fan of Tidhar’s work since reading the superb Osama, and despite not being especially well-versed in the superhero genre, I had no doubt that I would enjoy The Violent Century. And I did, very much so. It took me a while to settle into the short sections and clipped prose, but the style comes into its own as the narrative moves back and forth through past and present, and conflict echoes after conflict. Tidhar is by now a dab hand at integrating pulp culture, historical figures and events, and in this The Violent Century is no different, by turns irreverent and deeply haunting.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest

There’s a wonderful analysis of The Adjacent in Adam Roberts’ 2014 Clarke Award round-up over at Strange Horizons, but suffice to say this has all the classic trademarks of a Priest novel – multiple selves, magicians, counterfeits, creepy and inexplicable happenings, world wars and intricate plot devices. The narrative moves between various settings, visiting WWI, WWII, a near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain which is blighted by climate change (the description that stayed with me is of a building that appears “clamped” to the ground to withstand the storms), and at one point hopping across to the Dream Archipelago of previous works. As always, the complexities of the plot are belied by the clear and eloquent prose. One of my favourite passages was towards the end, as the protagonist is watching a series of Lancaster planes take-off from an aircraft hangar, which was so beautifully rendered you can practically hear the engines and smell the gasoline.

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

There’s so much to say about 2666 it’s difficult to know where to begin. For a start, it’s over a 1000 pages long, an epic undertaking that’s taken me three months to read – but it has been worth the investment. There are five parts to the novel, which was published posthumously and may or may not have originally been intended by the author to be published as five separate novels: The Part About the Critics, The Part About Amalfitano, The Part About Fate, The Part About the Crimes, and The Part About Archimboldi. Despite its length, the prose tends towards sparse rather than bolstered with description. It’s a maze of a novel, packed with narratives embedded within narratives, stories leading off at random tangents, down levels upon levels of digression, but somehow always leading back to the original pathway or protagonist/s.

Bolaño’s classic themes of writing/the writer and violence are ever-present. Over the course of 2666 he takes us from the landscape of literary criticism in Europe to the scene of serial killings in Mexico and back in time to the German writer Archimboldi’s experience of World War II. I struggled immensely with The Part About the Crimes. This section forms a centre piece which all of the other narratives reflect back on. It takes the form (in as much as Bolano adheres to form) of a police procedural: a fictional account of a real-life proliferation of unsolved serial rapes and murders of women, which occurred in Mexico in the 1990s. Bolaño’s fictional Santa Teresa is a stand-in for the border town Ciudad Juarez. The 300-page section is utterly relentless as a read, not because the violence is gratuitous (indeed, much of Bolaño’s power lies in what is not said – for example, the detective reflecting on a woman who suffered five heart attacks before she died – we are left to imagine exactly what manner of torture brought on those heart attacks) but in the sheer volume of deaths, the often clinical style in which this section is narrated, and the brutal reality of the lack of justice for these women, which we are never allowed to forget.

It’s an extraordinary work and I’m glad to have read it; equally I’m glad to have finished it. I will definitely be reading more of Bolaño’s work, but not just yet.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After an epic 3-month read I raced through Americanah in a week. I’d been looking forward to Adichie’s latest since it came out in hardback last year, and the novel proved a delight. The back cover blurb describes it as a love story, but although the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze forms an underpinning narrative, Americanah is primarily about identity, belonging and growing comfortable with the person you are. Ifemelu is a forthright, complex character; the social observations on race and culture are cleverly drawn and at times very funny. With a writer’s (and SF) hat on, I was very interested to see how Adichie portrayed the experience of adjusting to a different culture. Ifemelu’s childhood and adolescence in Nigeria feel familiar, even though – as a British reader – her experience is not familiar; whilst when she reaches the USA, the American experience feels strange and disorientating. It is only once Ifemelu reaches America that comparisons are made with back home, and when she returns to Nigeria there is a shift again, and her perceptions change as she readjusts once more. Overall, this is a thoughtful and highly enjoyable read.

Just started reading: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara.

Publication day: Cataveiro

The UK edition of Cataveiro, second volume in The Osiris Project trilogy, was released this week from Del Rey UK in trade paperback and ebook. Del Rey have done a truly beautiful job with the cover and I’m delighted to see the book out in the world.

Second novels are notoriously tricky and it was important to me to create something that could stand on its own, as well as being a sequel. Here’s a bit more about the book:

A shipwreck. And one lone survivor.

For political exile Taeo Ybanez, this could be his ticket home. Relations between the Antarcticans and the Patagonians are worse than ever, and to be caught on the wrong side could prove deadly. For pilot and cartographer Ramona Callejas, the presence of the mysterious stranger is one more thing in the way of her saving her mother from a deadly disease.

All roads lead to Cataveiro, the city of fate and fortune, where their destinies will become intertwined and their futures cemented for ever…

I was really happy to see Nina Allan’s review of the book over at The Spider’s House. You can read the full review on her blog, but here’s an extract:

“… the standard dystopian set-up has given way to a compellingly drawn post-collapse world that feels scorchingly real and virtually limitless in its horizons. This is a very human book, a boldly compassionate book, a novel bulging with important questions about our own world which cannot fail to engage the sympathy and imagination of the reader. I try to avoid the term worldbuilding wherever possible, but I have to concede that I found the worldbuilding in Cataveiro to be a thing of great beauty: both robust and poetical and – that word again – enviably assured.” 

I’ll be blogging and guest posting more about the book over the next month or so, and Del Rey will be hosting an extract which I’ll link to once it’s up.

You can order a copy of Cataveiro through Random House here, or via your preferred retailer (links for AmazonWaterstones, and Foyles.)

Year’s end, and the year ahead

Ends/beginnings of years inevitably call for round-ups, and 2013 has been an eventful one. On the writing front, I was thrilled to see the UK debut of Osiris with Del Rey UK in its trade, audio, and paperback forms, and the Osiris US paperback released in August with Night Shade Books, now part of Skyhorse Publishing. I finished work on the second in The Osiris Project trilogy, Cataveiro (pronounced ca-ta-veh-ro), which is scheduled for publication in February 2014, UK trade paperback, and July 2014, US hardback. I also had a short story, Saga’s Children, in the solar-system themed Pandemonium anthology The Lowest Heaven, and saw The Complex reprinted in Best British Fantasy 2013. I’m now working on the third novel in The Osiris Project and this will be the focus for the first half of 2014. After that – well, plans are in the works.

For the last few years I’ve kept a record of books read, and after some slightly disconcerting analysis of my own reading habits I made a decision that from last year I would read an equal ratio of male and female authors. A lot of the writers that I came to love at university, when I had more time to read than I probably ever will again, were male – looking back, and thinking about the bias of the course curricula, this is no real surprise. So this year I’ve split my reading 50-50.

In total I read 26 novels, 13 male and 13 female authors, plus a few anthologies. As part of my research for Cataveiro I discovered some superb Spanish and Portuguese-speaking authors, and would particularly recommend Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings On Earth, Chico Buarque’s Budapest, and Bernardo Carvalho’s Nine Nights. I started but haven’t yet finished Lygia Fagundes Telles’ The Girl In The Photograph. I found recommendations for several other female writers I would have liked to read but alas, couldn’t find a translation. Meanwhile, Bolaño’s epic 2666 is still on the shelf, awaiting its moment.

I’m usually a year behind with new releases as I tend to wait for the paperback (hardbacks are beautiful but I can’t bear to see them get messed up on the tube, and although I love my Kindle, as a writer there is no substitute for a library you can flick through) so I caught up on a number of older releases. I read a lot of brilliant fragmented novels this year: Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgeway, Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta, Communion Town by Sam Thompson, The Race by Nina Allan. I’d thoroughly recommend the beautiful and haunting All The Birds Singing by Evie Wyld, and was delighted to find Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me to be just as clever, funny and touching as one of my favourite novels of recent years, A Visit from the Goon Squad. My last read of 2013, What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a clever, intriguing conundrum of a novel.

Going to be spoiled for choice for reading in 2014: I want to catch up on novels by Aminatta Forna (The Hired Man), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah), Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries or The Rehearsal), and Kate Atkinson (Life After Life), just for a start, and of course, a new David Mitchell novel, The Bone Clocks, out in September.

Here’s to 2014!

Recent reading – autumn 2013

It’s been a while since I posted any book recommendations – I blame The Kills for taking up two months of my reading life – but these are a few I have to post from the last few months’ reading:

The Falling Sky – Pippa GoldschmidtFalling_Sky_170x176.270

Simply and effectively told, The Falling Sky is the story of Jeanette, astronomer, and Jeanette, daughter and sister. The science is beautifully written and accessible, a fascinating exploration of not only the methodology of astronomy, but the competitive academic world where discoveries are made. Goldschmidt pitches the vast, mysterious quantity of space against the lifelong impact of an individual tragedy, as Jeanette struggles to come to terms with past and present. A quiet and lovely novel.

 

The Race – Nina Allan (read in manuscript)

I’ve really enjoyed Nina Allan’s previous work, and I was thrilled to be asked to read The Race, Allan’s first novel, to be published next year by NewCon Press. A beautifully crafted novel in four parts, The Race explores the intertwining fates of the Hoolmans, the Pellers, and the smartdogs of Hastings. The directness of the writing cuts right to the emotional heart of the characters, but it is also the details, the sensory descriptions, which linger. Allan’s work always reveals a strong affinity with the natural world, and in this case the novel is a damning indictment of the environmental consequences of fracking on the Sussex countryside; an engagement with place at once lyrical and political. Evocative and compelling, this is an irresistible read.

The Kills – Richard House

What can I say about The Kills? It’s such a huge book, in every sense of the word – it took me two months to read but it was worth the time and effort. House’s four-novels-in-one is a sprawling masterpiece which among other things offers a blistering examination of post-war Iraq. For me, the dominant theme was of exploitation and appropriation, both deliberate, and the unforeseen yet inevitable consequences of a single action. One line which has stayed with me is ‘sutler’ Ford’s observation of travelling student Eric, as someone who wants to “become someone who has been somewhere and done something”. But The Kills is much more than a book which has something to say – it’s superbly clever, metafictional, layered with connections and intersecting motivations. The writing is clean and sharp in that effortless way that you don’t even notice, and when House wants to pack a punch, he really does. The final sequences of each book – in particular, Rem’s recurring dream of hovering over the motorway – will linger with me for a long time to come.

man with compound eyesThe Man With The Compound Eyes – Wu Ming-Yi

“So this was what a mountain was like, the same as a person: the more you know, the less you fear. But even so, you still never know what it’s thinking.”

I really wanted to love this novel and even by the end I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it. Theoretically, it caters to all my favourite traits – the relationship between humans and the natural world, subtle fantastical elements, a mesh of narrative styles, a quite astonishing ending, and even a cat thrown in for good measure. All this I loved. However, there was something rather odd going on with the translation. Not knowing the original language, I don’t know what the intention was behind it – there were moments of real lyricism and some gorgeous observations, but at other times the rough colloquialisms felt clumsy, and pulled me out of the narrative exactly when I wanted to be immersed in it. This particular quibble aside, I would absolutely recommend this book. Look out for a wonderful section where each character tells the tale of ‘their’ island.

Just finished reading: Any Human Heart by William Boyd. Just a joy, really.

Next in line: Dear Life by the marvellous Alice Munro, which I’m hoping will inspire me for a couple of short fiction projects.

Meanwhile: stuck into the first draft of the third book of The Osiris Project. It’s going to be a long writing winter. So here’s Jeanette Winterson on ‘Why I adore the night‘ for some inspiration though the dark days…