Category Archives: Recommendations

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…

Recent summer reading

A few recommendations from recent readings:

Spin by Nina Allan

I read this novella in one sitting, perched outside in my garden on a sunny day, which was the perfect place for it. Beautiful, sensory writing which made me want to run off and coast around the Mediterranean, but with touches of darkness (the crushing of the sea snails for ink was a particularly disturbing scene). Something about this reminded me of the stories in Tokyo Cancelled. The SF elements are lightly done, but it’s that suggestion that even in the most technologically evolved world there is room for myths and strangeness – that things can still slip through the cracks – that I loved about this story. Last week I also picked up Allan’s new collection Stardust, which I’m very much looking forward to.

How The Dead Dream by Lydia Millet

Millet has been on my to-read list for a while. I can’t remember where I saw the recommendation, but I spied a copy of How The Dead Dream in Skoobs earlier this year and picked it up. It was a challenging book, in theme (we’re talking mass extinction and dementia, there was a point where I wasn’t sure I could bear to finish it, despite the black humour) and in prose (it’s dense) but I think it’s one that will stay with me. In summary – a child obsessed with money grows up to be an investment/property mogul, but in the wake of a shocking event becomes obsessed with animals on verge of extinction and starts breaking into zoos to sit with those that are ‘the last’. What makes it work is the surreal, sometimes funny, always exquisite language and Millet’s handling of T., the protagonist, whose final journey seems completely plausible, despite his unlikely beginnings. The final section was the knock out for me. A kind of Drowned World / Heart of Darkness descent.

Martian Sands by Lavie Tidhar

A totally mad and very enjoyable book. The closest comparison I can think of is Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 – Tidhar does the same thing of taking a overwhelmingly serious subject (in this case the Holocaust; in Slaughterhouse 5, the bombing of Dresden) and applying to it a surreal and farcical lens – using humour to highlight tragedy, which is of course what the best theatre does. Through the multi-stranded narrative, from sentient bullets to simulacrum leaders (the Golda was undoubtedly my favourite character), weaves the mysterious, never quite defined figure of Bill Glimmung. There are nods to all sorts of things, many of which I’m sure I missed, but I particularly enjoyed the Wizard of Oz moment in the Martian warrior section. See also: a couple of links to Tidhar’s story in The Lowest Heaven.

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

Soft Apocalypse was a book I very much enjoyed last year, and I’d been looking forward to McIntosh’s new one for a while (just check out the gorgeous cover art for a start). This is very much an ideas book, fast paced – I raced through it in a weekend – and character based. For me, it’s the engagement with social media that is most fascinating – projecting into a future world where public profile is Everything, and being seen is more important that what is being done – it’s not the event, it’s the story you tell about the event. McIntosh presents a more extreme version of, say, the concluding chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. The plot centres around the exploitation of women in such a world, and depressing as this was to read, it also rings uncomfortably true. In this sense, and in the public-private debate it explores, Love Minus Eighty is very much a contemporary novel.

Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgeway

This was one from last year that went on my to-read-for-2013 list after seeing many people rave about it. And it did not disappoint. Another fragmented, perplexing narrative, another book where you feel like you are looking at the world through a distorted lens, another writer whose prose I am in lost in envy reading. Phrases like (okay, I was always going to love this) ‘drops of neon’ to describe a cat’s eyes. The language has a rhythm, a flow to it. As when I read The Virgin Suicides, I know there are phrases and images that are going to stick with me (there is one obvious parallel with the Eugenides but it would be a giveaway to say what). See also: a blistering invective of Tony Blair, the war in Iraq and our mental health services. As for the final chapter… well. Just read this book.

Current reading: I usually only have one book on the go but somehow at the moment I’ve got four. How, I’m not entirely sure.

The Girl in the Photograph by Lygia Fagundes Telles
The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt
And finally, about 3/4 through the stories in The Lowest Heaven. And if you’ve enjoyed the Lowest Heaven, here’s a great list of where to find other work by the contributors over on the Pornokitsch site.

This week’s fangirl moment: meeting Evie Wyld in the Review bookshop in Peckham.

Spring reading

A few book recommendations from recent reading:

Communion Town by Sam Thompson. I picked up the lovely hardback edition last year and read the first couple of chapters, or stories, depending on how you view it – the book is described as ‘a city in ten parts’.  I’d been reading so many fragmented narratives at the time, I ended up putting it aside and finally got round to reading it properly this year. The writing is gorgeous, with gems of prose shining through even when the voice is deliberately stylised, as in the noir detective chapter. The stories aren’t really linked in the way that, say, David Mitchell does in Ghostwritten, but each one is mesmerising and strangely beautiful and I found myself increasingly hooked the more I read on. Certain chapters will definitely linger with me – the guitarist’s tale, in particular. If you need convincing further, Christopher Priest has a detailed piece on the book over on his website.

Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta. I saw a review by Nic Clarke which put me on to this and it could very well be the best thing I read this year. Dasgupta uses the framing device of passengers stranded in an airport overnight after their flight is delayed, to tell a kind of contemporary Arabian Nights. It has all the things I love – stories within stories, stunning use of language, incredible invention – but what I really loved about this book was the juxtaposition of a modern, globalised society with folklore and fairytales. So you get call centres in India and daughters locked up in towers; a woman who turns into a department store in New York through the mysterious workings of Oreo cookies. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I hadn’t read Evie Wyld’s first novel so had no idea what to expect. This is a really clever, haunting novel, and a brilliant exercise in suspense. I don’t want to talk about plot because I think it’s one of those that works best if you come to it without knowing too much. Again, beautifully, quite starkly (though very visually) written with an intriguing narrator whose past unfolds in ways you don’t necessarily expect.

Currently reading: Light by M. John Harrison. After several chapters of having no idea what was going on, I’m now half way through and really enjoying this one, especially Seria Mau Genlicher, who must be my new favourite character name.

Ordered and waiting for delivery of: Spin by Nina Allan and Martian Sands by Lavie Tidhar. Recently acquired: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan and Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Looking forward to all of these.

A quick note re Night Shade Books, my US publisher, and the proposed sale to Skyhorse/Start. If you haven’t heard about the Night Shade business, Tobias Buckell has a super-summary of what’s been going on over at his blog. A couple of people have asked me if this has any impact on the UK publication of The Osiris Project trilogy. The answer to this is no: I’m continuing to work on Books 2 and 3 and Cataveiro is currently scheduled for UK publication in September 2013. More updates on the US front when I know more.

Progress on CATAVEIRO

A progress report, and a few updates:

Last week I sent the manuscript of CATAVEIRO, Book Two of The Osiris Project, to my editors at Night Shade Books and Del Rey UK. I’m beyond happy to have reached the stage where I can look forward to receiving editorial feedback, and coming at the MS with a fresh eye in a couple of weeks or so. All being well, CATAVEIRO is scheduled for August 2013 from Night Shade, and September 2013 from Del Rey UK.

I started some very early work on CATAVEIRO a few years ago, but in between completing my initial draft of OSIRIS and signing with Night Shade, I ended up writing a novel completely unrelated to the trilogy (now consigned to a drawer until post-Osiris Project), so one of the biggest challenges in writing the second book has been feeling my way back into a very different headspace, whilst at the same time promoting OSIRIS – another huge learning curve. It’s a balance I hope I’ll get better at over the next year, as I begin work on Book 3. Meanwhile, I owe endless thanks to my brilliant sister Kim who has read and advised on the versions I wouldn’t dare show anyone else. I keep telling her she should be an editor…

With the UK release, OSIRIS has seen some new reviews – I’ve tried to ban myself from reading them whilst completing the new manuscript, but the odd tweet, FB and email I’ve received over the last few weeks about OSIRIS has been a massive boost and an incentive to put in those final, difficult hours on the sequel – so thank you!

Anthology news – the table of contents for The Lowest Heaven anthology from Pandemonium was announced on the Pornokitsch blog on Friday, and includes my story Saga’s Children. So excited about this, and just looking at that list of contributors makes me feel immensely humbled to be a part of it. The Lowest Heaven will be published in June 2013.

Briefly, some reading recommendations from the start of the year:

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer – what a gorgeous piece of storytelling. I have huge envy. Gargantuan. Bring on Trafalgar. And please someone translate more of her work!
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson – well, she is one of my heroes, and this memoir doesn’t disappoint.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil – a sinuous dream of a novel. Stories within stories within stories.
Budapest by Chico Buarque – a Brazilian ghostwriter becomes obsessed with the Hungarian language. Clever, surreal and poetical.

A couple of short stories – I loved Immersion by Aliette de Bodard and Strigoi by Lavie Tidhar, both of which I believe are available online.

Currently reading: dipping in and out of Aloft by William Langewiesche, and now well into the rather dazzling Communion Town by Sam Thompson. At some point I must write a post on some of the books that have inspired CATAVEIRO – there have been some wonderful discoveries. But that’s all for today.

Twelve for 2012 and upcoming for 2013

With all the ‘best of 2012’ posts around I couldn’t resist a little list-making of my own. Last year, with official writing deadlines for the first time, I was more aware than ever how little time I have to read, especially as I’m a slow reader. The one positive outcome of this is choosing my next book more carefully, and happily everything I’ve read this year has been either good, very good or deeply excellent. So, my twelve recommendations from 2012’s reading (listed in the order I read them) are:

tdtdotw_uk_ppbk1. The Devil That Danced On The Water – Aminatta Forna (2010)
Beautiful and heartbreaking memoir of Forna’s search to discover the fate of her father, an influential Sierra Leonian minister who disappeared when she was ten.

2. Soft Apocalypse – Will McIntosh (2011)
A near future portrayal of American society slowly breaking down as resources run out, while the protagonist just wants to find a girlfriend. This was a great read.

3. Of Blood and Honey – Stina Leicht (2011)
Inventive urban fantasy set amidst the Troubles of Northern Ireland, another read that zipped along with totally convincing characters.

4. Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi (2011)
Mr Fox, haunted by his muse, the inveigling Mary Fox, is torn between Mary and his wife. I’m green with envy over Oyeyemi’s turn of phrase.

5. 1Q84 Books 1 and 2 – Haruki Murakami (2012)
Classic and epic Murakami with a wonderful heroine. I still need to read Book 3. But The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle remains the masterpiece.

Osama tidhar6. Osama – Lavie Tidhar (2011)
Private detective Joe is hired by a mysterious woman to find the obscure author of pulp fiction novels featuring one Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. A real inspiration and beautifully written.

7. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino (1979)
I’d been meaning to read this for ages and it did not disappoint. Gloriously clever.

8. The Islanders – Christopher Priest (2011)the islanders
There was a line which describes the work of the sociologist character Caurer, and it exactly sums up how this gorgeous book works. I want to quote it but won’t because it’s a joy to discover.

9. The Dervish House – Ian McDonald (2010)
Another writer I’d been meaning to read for ages. I read the beautiful opening description of the storks flying over Istanbul and was hooked from there.

last_evenings10. Last Evenings On Earth – Roberto Bolaño (2006)
Darkly satirical collection of stories by Chilean writer Bolaño, the first of his work I’ve read. The final piece in this collection is just mind-blowing.

11. The Passage – Justin Cronin (2010)
I don’t normally read horror, being a total wimp, but got hooked on this after the first two chapters. After that it was like stuffing your face with a box of chocolates.

12. Nine Nights – Bernard Cavalho (2007)
Part memoir, part imagined history, the author becomes obsessed with an American ethnologist who committed suicide in the Amazon jungle in 1939. Dreamy and mysterious.

And thirteen for 2013 – things I hope to get round to reading this year:

Spin – Nina Allan (2013)
The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes (2013)
2666 – Roberto Bolaño (2004)
Budapest – Chico Buarque (2005)
The Hired Man – Aminatta Forna (2013)
Kalpa Imperial – Angelica Gorodischer (2003)
At the Mouth of the River of Bees – Kij Johnson (2012)
Redemption In Indigo – Karen Lord (2010)
Love Minus Eighty – Will McIntosh (2013)
The Adjacent – Christopher Priest (2013)
Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgeway (2012)
Communion Town – Sam Thompson (2012)
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal  – Jeanette Winterson (2011)

And if I get through all of those I’ll be happy!

Happy New Year all and here’s to the books to be discovered in 2013.