Friday 26 February 2016

The Kitschies and the BSFA shortlists

This is undoubtedly the best stretch of the year when it comes to prize shortlists: the Costas, the BSFA, the Kitschies, the Clarke and then the Baileys. I enjoy the Twitter coverage and the debates and love reading the shortlists so I can, in comradely fashion, and in good spirit usually, agree or disagree with the decisions made.

The BSFA look like this:

Best Novel

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

Best Short Story

Aliette de Bodard: “Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” (Clarkesworld 100)
Paul Cornell: “Witches of Lychford” (
Jeff Noon: “No Rez” (Interzone 260)
Nnedi Okorafor, “Binti” (
Gareth L. Powell: “Ride the Blue Horse” (Matter)

The Kitschies look like this:

Red Tentacle (Best novel)

The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)
Europe at Midnight: Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Reflection: Hugo Wilcken (Melville House)
The Fifth Season: by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
The Thing Itself: by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut),

The Shore: Sara Taylor (William Heinemann)
Blackass: A. Igoni Barrett (Chatto and Windus)
The Gracekeepers: Kirsty Logan (Harvill Secker)
The Night Clock: Paul Meloy (Solaris)
Making Wolf: Tade Thompson (Rosarium)

See the full lists here and here.

These are excellent, exciting lists. 2015, it seems, was another good year for speculative fiction. Surprises? Perhaps that there is no room for Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora since it featured so heavily on best-of-year lists. I also note that many of the books picked out by Nina Allan on her blog haven't featured either. I DO trust her judgement.
[Do we also need a prize that celebrates short story collections? Kelly Link and China Mieville both published great collections last year - I'm sure there were plenty of others I don't know about.]

Anyway no gripes on content whatsoever and I'm really looking forward to all the reading. That said I have a major gripe about the Kitschies. The judges spend ALL that time and effort reading, discussing and deliberating and now I/we get 2 weeks to read them all. Possibly 10 books! I don't get it.  I thought the 3 weeks last year was just an aberration. I'm sure there are various commercial pressures and considerations that I don't know about and I suspect that the whole enterprise runs more on good will than anything else. But if it wants to succeed in ITS CRUCIAL ROLE of offering us a range of diverse speculative fiction then there has to be time for reading, discussion and debate. People can legitimately say of course that it doesn't stop anyone reading the books afterwards. Fair enough, it's just not very realistic when there aren't enough hours in the day to read all the things we want to anyway. Moreover having a say in the result when you've read all the books is fucking FUN - it's a buzz. The last thing I want to do is be miserable about the Kitschies, a prize I love and have been following from the start. Nor do I want to criticise individuals, but there has to be a better way...otherwise it will lose support, credibility and goodwill.

I've already read The Thing Itself (see here), Europe at Midnight (see here) and The Shore - a really, really brilliant novel that could have easily earned a place on the Red Tentacle list. I just blasted my way through The Reflection (see below). I started The Fifth Season last night. I hope to manage the Atwood and 2 of the others if I'm lucky before the Kitschies are announced on 7th March. Then I'll get stuck into the BSFA.

A few thoughts on The Reflection.

Hugo Wilcken's novel is right up my street - it reminds me of old loves - Auster, Hitchcock, noir, Pamuk, Murikami, Kafka and Priest.
It answers to an old need too - of solving mysteries and needing answers. Life was turning out to be difficult, dissatisfying and meaningless but that teenager who had just found 'literature' wanted to understand - anything, everything - and books were a mystery to be solved. Read enough criticism and I might just unlock the key to understanding Auster or Fowles. I'm not the same anymore but there's still enough of that young man, desperate for meaning, in me now.

That said, I can't decide after one reading. It makes me me want to reread The Glamour and New York Trilogy so I can contrast and compare and work out exactly what Wilcken is up to. John Self's enthusiasm is compelling - he has read it three times and was ready for a fourth. I have doubts - is it saying anything new? Is it a little overcooked? Is it as urgent as Hutchinson or as rich as Roberts? Not sure, but Auster, Priest and then a reread does seem like a fab and compelling way to spend a week. Let's hope the Suck Fairy doesn't pay a visit if I get round to it.

Thursday 25 February 2016

The Outrun, The Shore, Dark Orbit and Angel

So, half term was great: I ran, I went to the gym, I walked in the Lake District and I read four excellent books, all by women. First up was Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit. I'm not sure what I was expecting but it wasn't this. I really, really enjoyed it. I found it richly imagined and absorbing and I loved its focus on female characters. I guess I don't read that much 'straight' sci-fi (whatever that is) and nor have I read enough sci-fi to know whether some of the ideas in the novel have been explored before or explored better before. There were hints of Le Guin in there I think and I remembered too her essay on the Carrier Bag. The writing felt like a wonderful mashup - parts that were simple and elegant; parts that carried a pulp sensibility. Every now and then, especially in the first third, there were sections with a little too much explanation and the satire at the expense of scientists was a little overdone. But these are minor quibbles. Highly recommended.

The Shore by Sara Taylor

Sara Taylor's The Shore has bagged a place on the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Debut novel) shortlist but it's so good it could easily have earned a place on the Red Tentacle list instead. Nina Allan's review over at Strange Horizons says it all. If I have a 'Books of the Year' roundup come December The Shore will be in it.

I was going to carry on reading sci-fi but saw a conversation on Andy Miller's Twitter feed. He'd just read Elizabeth Taylor's Angel and lots of people were joining in with the Taylor love. I only discovered Taylor after seeing M John Harrison praise her work (a number of years ago now) and I love her novels and stories so much that I've been trying to eke them out over the years. But I couldn't resist it and so reread Angel.
Elizabeth Taylor is one of those rare writers who have it all. My copy is marked on every page - not with amazing metaphors or juxtapositions, but with satire, cruelty, longing and bathos. She mixes hardness (I've tried to come up with a better word but the texts ARE hard and sharp) with empathy and kindness, cheeky humour with an implacable gaze. You get the sense that she looks at life without flinching and somehow matches that with the textures and rhythms of her writing. Part of me sometimes thinks she tells us too much or she can be too cruel and then in the next paragraph I'll be won over again immediately. Hopefully I'll be brave enough to write about one of the novels in more detail.

The Outrun

Finally I read Amy Liptrot's The Outrun. I'm glad to see this is getting plenty of praise in the media because it is brilliant in every way. Her story of fighting alcoholism in London and returning to her home in Orkney is full of fine, direct writing. She communicates the otherness of Orkney and island life and their different ways of living fantastically well. It's impossible not to admire Amy's resilience and bravery, her lust for life, her curiosity and openness to experience. Her book is full of hope and a sense of wonder. I identify very closely with much of what she writes about. I too grew up with a manic depressive father and struggle with addictive tendencies. The restlessness and dissatisfaction that she writes about so brilliantly haunt my life. Many, if they are anything like me, will find inspiration, courage and solidarity in these pages.
It's a book I'll return to again before too long for the companionship and the peace it brought me.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

January reading and Costa award.

I'm not very good at sticking to a reading plan but this is not too bad.
January and February is usually about catching up with last year's sci-fi and fantasy ready for the prize shortlists but I decided to read various things to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day too - so I've lots to do.
6 men, 7 women. All white I'm afraid. Will try to turn that around over the next couple of months.

Still, some very good novels here - nothing has disappointed. I love the Atkinson. The things she does with time helped me to think in new ways. Melissa Harrison's novel is almost as good - seriously good in other words - swirling through a community, consciousnesses and time.
Anne Charnock's novel is unlike anything I've read in some while - beautiful in its sensitivity to history and its small moments of grace and imagination. And it's kind in all the right ways.
Dave Hutchinson's novel is flawed but brave and political in ways most contemporary novels don't dare to be. I can't stop thinking about Adam Roberts' The Thing Itself: he just gets better.
And since I'm there, how on earth did Roberts' Bete and Lavie Tidhar's A Man Lies Dreaming not get on the major Sci-fi shortlists last year? Weird. And wrong.
What a good year for the Costa awards. Still have various bits to read but so glad Frances Hardinge won. She's been producing brilliant novels for some years now and should have been recognised way before now - for Fly By Night, Gullstruck Island or A Face in Glass.

Marceline Loridan-Ivens' memoir is heartbreaking and beautiful. Sarah Helm's history of Ravensbruck is, I suspect, going to leave an indelible mark on my consciousness and my vision of the future. 

Also, I'm going to try and get through most of le Carré during the year, presumably two a month from now on. [I'll never do it!]

Adam Roberts - The Thing Itself
Jeff Vandermeer - Annihilation
Kate Atkinson - A God in Ruins
Anne Enright - The Green Road
Melissa Harrison - At Hawthorn Time
Colm Toibin - Brooklyn (reread)
Jeff Vandermeer - Authority
Jeanette Winterson - The Passion (reread)
Dave Hutchinson - Europe at Midnight (read and reread)
John le Carré - The Spy who came in from the Cold
Anne Charnock - Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind
Marceline Loridan-Ivens - But You Did Not Come Back
Sarah Helm - If this is a Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (10%/ongoing)