Category Archives: Book Reviews

freedom by jonathan-franzen

Jonathan Franzen is an easily understood genius

freedomAt some point Jonathan Franzen decided to write easily understood works of literary genius. It was likely while writing his 1994 essay Perchance to Dream which tries to find some purpose for the novel in the technological consumer culture of the late 20th / early 21st century (alternate title “Why Bother?”) It’s a decision that has made Franzen the most successful literary novelist of recent decades. And also one that has won me as a reader.

*There may be some spoilers ahead. It’s not the kind of book that is easily spoiled. But if you worry about such things, you have been warned.*

Freedom is a big book about…freedom. It’s a family saga, although in truth while it appears to follow the Berglund family over a number of decades, it is actually all about one pivotal relationship at the heart of that family’s life and identity. The Berglund’s are a midwest American upper middle class family, which is so much Franzen’s societal stomping ground he’s now frequently called on it as a limitation by reviewers. Lots of the story unfolds during the college years of the central characters, so Franzen can also enjoy writing a campus novel. There’s a love triangle, and at heart the book is a very moving story about the relative value of love, marriage and commitment.

And, of course, freedom.

Franzen tips the reader off that this is a book about freedom by calling the book Freedom. He’s trying hard to make sure you don’t miss this, because without having it front and centre in your mind, you’re not going to enjoy the many clever ways Franzen explores the theme of freedom. This is of course an American novelist, writing an American book about American culture. Freedom is the foundational myth of America, the “home of the free.” So literally any observation of contemporary American life an also be re-tooled as an observation on what it is to be a “free people”.

The large but not sprawling cast of Freedom – Walter and Patty Berglund, their two children Joey and Jessica, their oldest friend and rock musician Richard Katz, their relatives and in-laws and – pivotally – the supporting chorus of neighbours Franzen employs for comic relief – all represent different approaches to living a free life. Or not. In response to their freedom The Berglunds choose a not very healthy but very common form of codependent relationship – marriage. Richard Katz chooses total independence, and all the loneliness and craziness that comes with it. Neither is vindicated in their choice, they are merely different responses to the existential problem posed by freedom.

We know Franzen is doing this, because whenever he is done illustrating the conundrum that is freedom in a particular character, he slips in a sentence or two about being free, or living freely, or having freedom.

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

OK. The instances of free and freedom aren’t actually highlighted in the book. But they may as well be. How stupid would you have to be for the word freedom not to come flying off the page at you while reading a book called Freedom? Which is precisely the point. Franzen knows how stupid we are, and he knows how much he has to compensate for the stupidity of the average reader.

Franzen occasionally confuses his argument by using the word freedom in an entirely literal and non-thematic context. And I’m confusing my argument by being a person regularly guilty of extreme snark who now sounds like he is being snarky when actually he’s being 100% sincere. We need writers like Jonathan Franzen who can say intelligent things and aren’t too proud to highlight them in neon markers for a readership who simply aren’t very good at reading. I’m a professional book reviewer, and *I* need this, so I hate to think what the average bloke on the street needs.

We are a culture of surface and sensation. The cultural activities we actually do willingly are things of immense visual spectacle – stadium sports, blockbuster movies, widescreen home video games etc etc – and they in turn are experiences of intense sensation. We like food that burns our mouth with spice, drinks saturated in sugar and acid, news that soaks us with fear sweat and dramas that make us shriek and weep at the villainy and heroism on screen. We fill our real lives with fast cars, high power careers, extreme sports and hallucinogenic drugs. All of it, all of it, every last shred, to escape from the mundane life we would have to live if these things did not distract us.

Literary fiction does none of these things. It is, arguably, the antithesis of surface and sensation. It is the stripping away of fantasy and delusion to take us back to mundane reality. And it does this to help us see that it’s in the actual lives we are living that all the most valuable things are to be found. Love. Relationships. Emotion. Meaning. Hope. But to get there we have to re-engage with all the mundane stuff we’ve been avoiding. Lost love. Relationships gone sour with lack of care. All the emotions of grief, fear, hate, anger and the rest that we try so hard to avoid feeling. But without feeling them we can’t find any meaning or hope. It’s why literary fiction so often seems gloomy and depressing. It’s taking us back to our own gloomy depressing reality, without which we can’t find any true joy or happiness.

This is the first reason why literary fiction is a hard sell. It’s so much easier to escape in to a fantasy than to face reality, and there are whole genres of fantasy for readers who would rather do that. The second reason is somewhat more prosaic. As a culture of surface and sensation, we simply aren’t conditioned to look at the subtle internal life that literary fiction directs us to. In fantasy grief is solved when the hero kills the villain and saves the princess. In reality, grief is never solved. Things and people lost generally stay lost, and every time we lose something else the grief gets worse. That’s reality. It’s hard. Literary fiction can help show us – as Freedom does beautifully – how grief can be transformed in to redemption and renewal. But for those of us conditioned to look for a comforting fantasy, following the subtleties of real emotional experience and human behaviour is hard.

Franzen understands that for the potent medicine of literature to get through to readers, it sometimes has to be blunt. It’s tempting for literary writers to make the subtleties of emotion and experience ever more subtle. Maggie goes to the kitchen and washes a mug, and from this we’re supposed to divine that Maggie has found piece with the loss of her elder brother some years before. Well, frankly, most of us aren’t going to get that. We need writers like Franzen who’ll already have told us repeatedly that this was Johnny’s favourite mug, and will then have Johnny’s pet pitbull enter the kitchen with a note tucked in its collar from Johnny that he wrote as a joke just before dying which ironically lists all the things he finds annoying about his kid sister. Now, some of the audience at least are following along.

Freedom is one long series of well placed notes strapped to pitbulls. It’s a highly engineered work of fiction about important and subtle realities of life that almost anyone will be able to read with pleasure and take at least something from. In a world that seems to have fewer meaningful stories, and ever more escapist fantasies, that makes Freedom a book of immense power and value.

Closed to Print Editions

I am closed to print editions of books to review for the time being. Read on for more information why.

At some point after I started writing for the Guardian books blog, people started sending me books. When I started writing my own column, more people started sending me books. A couple of years on, it’s fair to say I get sent a lot of books.

I’ve always loved being sent books. As a young urchin, I was both properly poor and from the kind of chaotic family background that meant library memberships never lasted long, and may the the Big Guy forgive me, I stole books if I wanted to read them. Lots of books. (I’ll tell you the full story some other time). So having books turn up in the post, for free, has always made me giddily excited.

However, I’ve recently moved to a new abode, and I want to decrease the amount of post arriving at my door. So, if you ever happen to send me books and happen to be reading this then please take it as a polite notice that I probably won’t be receiving them. If you have a specific arrangement to send me books for review, then that will continue, but please make sure you have my new address. Apologies that I can’t notify all publishers directly

I’m happy to accept e-arcs, and much more likely to read them.

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5 indispensable guides for fiction writers

Many people say writing can’t be taught. But it can certainly be learnt.

(I actually think it can be taught as well, or I would not teach it.)

When we’re young and full of beans we like to think we know it all. It’s hard to admit to yourself you don’t how to do something. But it’s the first and most important step in learning anything worth knowing. The idea that writing is a mystical skill which only comes to those with some unknown combination of genetics, education and / or the grace of a supreme creator is just another way of not admitting that you don’t know how to do it. If it can’t be learnt, well then you might as well just go right on not learning it, avoid all that hard work and continue just waiting for inspiration to strike instead.

Learning to write good fiction does take time. I would say  roughly five years, for someone with strong literacy and who already reads widely and deeply to begin with. But it can also take WAAAAAAAY longer than that. Without the right inputs, the outputs will always be rubbish. That input can be teaching. A good writing teacher can help you take quantum leaps forward in a few hours that might take years to stumble in to. It can also be one or more good writing guides. The right guides can help you master what Stephen King calls ‘The Writer’s Toolkit’, everything from basic grammar, paragraphs and sentence structure to character, narration, scene, plot and themes. For a novice, a good writing guide should take you from enjoying texts as a reader, to understanding their structure and the tools and techniques used to build them as a writer. That’s an important shift, and one that will save years of trial and error in the learning process.

While there is a law of diminishing returns with writing guides – the more of them you read the more you find the same information repeated – the good ones, as with those I have chosen below, always reveal the unique wisdom of their authors.

James Woods : How Fiction Works

This is the writing guide I would most like to see read by all writers of genre fiction who disdain ‘literature’. James Woods is one of the worlds best literary critics, and Professor of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Fine credentials, in this case backed up by a slim but erudite volume on How Fiction Works which I would rate as the single best book for writers trying to achieve depth and complexity in their fiction. The worst writing guides replace craft with market knowledge. They tell the writer what will sell, which often means discouraging them from subtlety or complexity because these aren’t always valued in commercial fiction. For instance, it’s often taken as gospel by genre writers that a text’s narrative point-of-view stick to one character per scene or chapter. Unfortunately while this makes life easier for weak readers, it also robs prose of one its great strengths, which is the ability to reflect the viewpoint of many characters even within the same sentence. Woods’ book has an excellent section on exactly this topic, as well as many other gems that will set any writer who spends more time considering the market than the craft back on the straight and narrow.

Ursula LeGuin : Steering the Craft

I love this book so much that I regularly re-read it for pleasure. Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers I trust absolutely to say only wise and decent things, so any advice she gives on writing is instantaneously at the top of my To Be Read list. Being a genuine and good person is an underestimated skill for writers. If you aren’t, why would anyone choose to spend hundreds of hours hanging around in your imagination? Le Guin doesn’t explicitly share ideas on how to become as wise as she in this book, instead she focuses on the often neglected fundamentals of good fiction – voice & rhythm – but it’s always possible some of the wholesomeness might rub off just through continued exposure. There are also excellent writing exercises which I have come back to again and again.

 

Samuel R Delany : About Writing

Have you ever had the experience of struggling for hours with a technical issue – maybe an intractable computer problem thats kept you up in to the wee hours – when in desperation you call in an expert who fixes it in about 18 seconds? That’s basically every other page of Delany’s hefty tome of collected writing advice. The small section on natural vs. dramatic narrative structure (Location, Action, Emotion…which most people present in reverse, thereby boring / confusing the reader) is worth the high price of this rare book in and of itself. But don’t let the fact that I’ve revealed it here stop you! There are many, many more wise words from one of the grandmasters of SF to glean from About Writing. Delany is also a vastly experienced writing teacher, so he spends some time talking about the very subtle differences that sepearte a successful student who blooms as a writer from the many others who, however technically accomplished they become, just never grow as artists.

Christopher Booker : The Seven Basic Plots

I have misgivings about recommending this, because it has almost as many crippling failings as it does magnificent strengths. Paramount among the failings are the hundreds of pages Booker – a social conservative – spends attempting to construct a revisionist history of modern literature as a victory of the Ego over the Self. However, Booker’s core argument that stories reflect our deepest psychological structures is a fascinating and also demonstrably true one. He isn’t the first to make it, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been much more significant in enlighteneting writers to this way of approaching story, but Booker does make an excellent critical analysis of and argument for his seven archetypal plot structures. If you want to write archetypal fiction in the heroic / high fantasy mould then this is an essential read, and will very likely change forever how you approach that task. Just ignore everything Booker has to say about modern literature and you will be fine!

Gail Sher : One Continuous Mistake

The relationship between meditation and writing is one that has been explored quite widely from the 60′s onwards, when the counter culture brought many aspects of Eastern spiritual practice to the west. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most famous, but Gail Sher brings a sensitivity to the subject that makes One Continuous Mistake quite unique in its Zen-like precision. Writing is a task which requires intense insight in to our inner life, and precise mastery of the balance between the waking logical mind and unconscious dreaming imagination. Gail Sher provides a compassionate guide on how to strengthen both and hence strengthen your writing, using meditation exercises, and also through the longer term practice of your craft and creativity. For anyone who has been overly schooled in the ‘write 2000 words a day, sell a book a year, meet the demands of the market’ way of writing, this book might be just what you need to overcome those ego driven desires and get back to your true self as a writer.

A few I didn’t include and why: Story by Robert McKee because it’s great for screenwriting but can misguide prose writers. On Writing by Stephen King because, come on, you’ve read this right? Are there any other hidden gems of writerly craft I have ngelected?

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7 literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels you must read

At any given moment on the inter-webs there are probably dozens of irate Sci-Fi / Fantasy fans getting agitated about those damn literary authors coming and writing genre, while genre writers themselves miss out on the credit they deserve. Which is about as silly as shouting at someone for stealing your flowers when they have plucked some bluebells in the forest. (Unless you happen to own an entire forest. Do you? Well OK then.) SF and Fantasy are common ground that any writer can build their house upon, but pretending to own them just makes you look silly.

And it’s doubly silly if you’re an aspiring writer of the fantastic, because you may be hurling away the best chance to learn you will ever get. If as a writer you are only as good as what you read, then how good can you expect to be if your book diet is filled with derivative works of pulp fiction? A fast food diet may please the taste buds, but you wouldn’t expect to dine out on Big Macs every day and become an olympic athlete. So why expect to write even a good book without reading them first?

What makes these novels distinctly ‘literary’ as opposed to the genre novels they resemble? Put simply, they are better. More ambitious, deeper in meaning, both intellectual and poetic. They might be harder work for readers trained to the easily digested conventions of commercial fiction. But if you make the effort to read these books on their own terms, there are incredible feats of imagination to discover in their pages. They feature many of the tropes of genre SF & Fantasy, but in the hands of writers who understand what those fantastic metaphors are really all about. But most of all these are books which reveal something about what it is to be human and living in our strange  world. If genre novels create fantasy worlds to escape in to, these books show the fantastic reality of the world we all live in.

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from it’s first publication in 1943. Hesse spent over a decade writing this, his last novel, which completed the body of work that won him the Nobel prize for literature. The Glass Bead Game of the title is played by the intellectual elite of Hesse’s future world. Through it the eras great thinkers synthesise and interweave all knowledge, from scientific equations to musical compositions and great works of art. It is often noted that Hesse’s novel predates and predicts the digital revolution driven by computer technology, which allows us today to easily manipulate all forms of human knowledge. But the Glass Bead Game is much more than simple futurism. Hesse, who had established himself as one of the 20th centuries great spiritual philosophers in Siddharta and Steppenwolf, is interested in his created game not as a hymn to technology, but as a critique of knowledge and the severe limits of the human intellect. For anyone living and working in the knowledge driven society of the early 21st century, The Glass Bead Game has perhaps more insight to deliver than ever.


The Road by Cormac McCarthy is regularly excoriated by genre fans for being just one among hundreds of post-apocalypse novels, and no more worth the literary plaudits it received. Which is about  as ignorant as asking what’s so special about E=MC2 when there are so many other five symbol sequences in the alphabet. On one of its many levels of meaning The Road is indeed a post-apocalypse novel. On another level it is an allegory for the history of human civilisation, with each stage of human culture represented, from our tribal roots to modern industrial society, exposing our cannibalistic tendency to exploit other human life for our own benefit. And on another level it is a story about fatherhood, and the devastating weight of responsibility all parents feel bringing their children in to a world which is so often brutal and harsh. And on yet another it is an epic poem, as lyrically muscular as Homer and as critical of modern existence as T.S.Eliot. There simply is no equal to McCarthy’s vision of apocalypse.


Shikasta by Doris Lessing, in which the author of The Golden Notebook succeeded in uniting the infinities of the far future and intergalactic space with the psychological depths of human mythology and spirituality WHILST laying a feminist critique of the entire history of human civilisation. AND it has some of the absolute trippiest, mind warping imagery of any SF novel ever written. The alien civilisation of Canopus, who live on a plane of existence above ours, send an emissary to the colony planet Rhohanda in an attempt to prevent its corruption by the rival civilisation of Shammat. Despite his failure the emissary returns many times to the renamed planet of Shikasta, which it transpires is our Earth. Doris Lessing essentially rewrites the entire history of mankind in this book, to the end of unifying our generally opposed scientific and spiritual worldviews, and argues convincingly that they need never be opposed. All of which helped Lessing become the second Nobel prize winning SF author on this list.


One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is often cited as the leading example of the South American magical realist movement, in which Marquez combined the realist literary tradition of the that continent’s European colonists with the mythic stores told by its indigenous peoples. The novel follows seven generations of the Buendia family and the others who join them in founding the town of Macondo. The fantastic permeates Marquez’ grand metaphor for the modern history of Colombia on every level. From the early appearance of the gypsy Melquiades who brings fantastic scientific contraptions to the town, to the novels incredible conclusion where *SPOILER* the entire village history of the village becomes only a few notes in Melquiades journal*END SPOILER*, any sense of reality in Marquez world is continually undermined by the suspicion that reality is as much a fiction as any story. This book actually left me shaking when I had finished it. And I do not shake easily.


The Magus by John Fowles. Magic. You can’t stumble far in Fantasy without tripping over some, but no other author has ever come closer to describing what magic really is than John Fowles. The young Nicholas Urfe journeys to the greek island of Phraxos to take up a teaching position and escape a relationship he feels trapped in. But Nicholas has all the emotional intelligence of a dishrag, and having abandoned the only person in the world who really loves him, promptly has a complete existential breakdown. In this vulnerable state he is drawn in to the mysterious world of millionaire recluse Maurice Conchis, where he is ensnared in an ever more complex series of psychological games and experiments. Is Nicholas a victim of a sadistic manipulator, or is he being helped to understand the mysteries of a world he barely begins to comprehend? The Magus never entirely resolves the mystery at its heart, but it does explore how the human heart uses magic as a pathway to its emotional and psychological growth.


Orlando by Virginia Woolf is, like all great Fantasy, as much a book about the imagination as it is a product of the imagination. There is probably no writer who epitomises the sterotype of the ‘literary novelist’ than Woolf. English, upper middle class, a Bloomsbury bohemian and the author of plotless novels about upper middle class English women wondering what life is really all about while aimlessly wandering around starring at things. In to which Orlando bursts like an explosion of pure colour and joy. The story of an Elizabethan nobleman who decides to live forever, sleeps with Elizabeth I among many others and changes sex before roving through English history on a quest for sex and adventure. But in amongst all these hi-jinx Woolf plays some post-modern games of literary revelation. Is Qrlando real? Or a character in a fiction? Do we care, or are we happy just to enjoy the ride? Like Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote, which very nearly made this list, Orlando is at heart a story about the labyrinthine quality of the stories we tell ourselves.


Lanark by Alasdair Gray is a novel in four books, presented out of order as Book Three, a Prologue, Book One, Book Two, Book Four and an Epilogue four chapters from the end of the novel, and illuminated with Gray’s own extraordinary illustrations, both book and pictures calling to mind Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell. Lanark awakes with no memories in the city of Unthank where he falls in to a life of bohemian unemployment and poverty. His body begins to grow scales and he is sucked down a tunnel to The Institute where he rescues his love Rima, transformed in to a dragon, from being exploded for fuel. Lanark is shown his history by an oracle, which reveals his past life as Duncan Thaw, a sickly young artist and, possibly, murderer growing up in industrial Glasgow. None of this does justice to the book, which unfolds a vision of heaven and hell so staggeringly forceful that I had to stop reading for a year half-way through to give myself time to recover. Alasdair Gray’s novel is nothing less than a vision of how we create heaven and hell on Earth, through our own selfishness, ignorance and incapacity for love. It has inspired dozens of great authors including Iain Banks, whose novel The Bridge is something of a homing to this great Scottish novel. If you read only one book from this list, make it Lanark.

A few books I did not choose and why…

Anything by Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1984 or Brave New World…because you have already read these, right? No? Well then…

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Winter reads: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This potent rite-of-passage tale offers readers some useful pointers on keeping the heart warm in allegorically wintry times.

The novel that raised Haruki Murakami to literary superstardom ranges across the seasons, but the heart of its meaning is found in winter. When 30-something Toru Watanabe hears a fragment of the titular Beatles track after a long airplane flight, his memories are returned to his days as a young student and his love affair with the beautiful but damaged Naoko. Toru walks beside Naoko for the last time in the snow-blanketed woods surrounding the mental institution where she is undergoing intensive therapy. Shortly afterwards Naoko commits suicide in that frozen landscape, and while Toru’s life continues, a part of him remains forever wandering in winter.

Read more at Guardian books.

What are reviews for ?

I’ve been reviewing books for a few years now. I wrote occasional reviews right from the outset of this blog, and then not long afterwards began reviewing from the (much missed) The Fix. And my regular articles for The Guardian often hide a few book reviews.

So I’ve been enjoying a brief exchange of views about the nature of reviewing between @gavreads @paulgrahamraven @nialharrison and @cherylmorgan and probably a few others by now, started by Gavreads proclamation “The point of reviews: should you spend your money on this book – yes or no? The rest is just filler.”

Needless to say I disagree. I believe the job of a reviewer is to open up the meaning of a book for readers. I want a review to cut to the heart of a book, reveal what it’s really about and show how it works. And I want a review to put the book in its context and tell me the authors influences and the dialogues the books is part of. Saying whether a book is good or bad or ‘worth buying’ is probably the least interesting thing a review can do in my opinion.

But I might be wrong, it has been known to happen. What do you want from a review? Do they help shape your thinking about the books you read? Or do you just want a indication of where to spend your next £8.99?

Steampunk Reloaded reviewed by Lauren Westwood

Lauren Westwood is graduate of Loughborough University’s MA in Creative Writing and was a project intern for the Writing Industries Conference. She is a young writer with a passion for SF and Fantasy, but had never heard of steampunk until accepting my challenge to review the Steampunk Reloaded anthology. Here she gives a fascinating insight in to how the genre seems to an outside eye.

Steampunk Reloaded
edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
reviewed by Lauren Westwood
 
I’ve grown up on a diet of Star Wars – I feed the habit often, unashamedly and without judgement. When it comes to being flung into galaxies far far away, I can’t get enough. But science fiction literature, it seems, is now an altogether different cauldron of aquatic vertebrates.
 
I’m interested sure, but I’m also the first to admit that I know next to naff all about it. Recently I’ve dipped an inquisitive big toe in the pool by sampling some Philip K. Dick; a name I’ve come to associate with ‘master’. But I’ve arrived at ‘soggy socks’ having only briefly paddled. To properly understand the genre I’m going to have get wet.
 
So, I’ve waded in with Steampunk Reloaded. I scroll along the list of names on the cover, a few of which I recognise. When I say ‘a few’, I mean it in the pure, unembroidered sense of the word. No recollection of the countless other names lining the page appear to be scrambling from the memory bank. Gibson. Baxter. But that’s it. So, where do I start? A vaguely familiar face or a stranger from the unknown? In the end, I opt to begin at the beginning.
 
What the heck is steampunk anyway?
 
Luckily, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, the architects of Steampunk and its sequel, are on hand to help explain. Modern steampunk, it appears, has derived from the Victorian fantasies which drew heavily from the steam-powered inventions that defined the period. I’m picturing a mad professor dreaming up his latest contraption over a mug of steaming PG tips. Although it’s possible that there’s slightly more to it…
 
Correct…And I’m only in up to my ankles!
 
William Gibson kicks things off with The Gernsback Continuum and doesn’t disappoint. The interconnecting realities of the alternate history he invents for 1930s America reveals that steampunk isn’t restricted by its Victorian roots. Instead it’s made relevant and resonates with a reader intrigued by new visions of a future that never was; I’m hooked.
 
Steampunk Reloaded offers a tangy taste of the genre; fab, retro illustrations set the ol’ cogs of imagination rolling in reverse and easily-digestible chunks of captivating fiction are crowned by a couple of essays about the culture itself. In identifying the connection between style and literature, steampunk author, Gail Carriger, asks Which is Mightier; the Pen or the Parasol? Here she refers to the fashion of steampunk, ‘the buttoned up brass beauty of old tech and new ideas’; an aesthetic concept that harmonises entirely with the overall design of Ann and Jeff’s anthology. It’s a work of art!
 
Having splashed about a bit, I’ve learned that steampunk is one of sci-fi’s many appendages, but it’s not a lifeless limb by any means. Alternate history, speculative fiction, time travel; these all exist under the gargantuan gazebo of literature that pokes and plays with known reality, and steampunk nestles in nicely, holding its own as a valued member of the gang. As the Vandermeers testify, the sub-genre is ‘alive and well and manifesting in a myriad of different ways’, and this collection demonstrates exactly that.

Buy Steampunk Reloaded on Amzon.com

Best SF of the Noughties

Sarah Crown over at The Guardian book blog today asks readers for their top books of the noughties. Unsurprisingly my picks are quite speculative in nature, and there are so many that I eventually gave up trying to list them all. It was also complicated by the fact that many of my favourite books read this decade were not published this decade. So here goes my top 10…the first 9 in no particular order (and not all SF!).

  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville – a book with many great parts and more than a few awful ones, but done with such ambition that it has to be applauded.
  • Look to Windward by Iain M Banks – the last of the real Culture novels and for my money Bank’s best, especially if read with Consider Phlebas.
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – this book had an incredibly profound effect on me. Probably the only book I’ve read that captured the detached nature of being twenty something in the twenty first century.
  • Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland – a read this in a night then had to take a sickie from work because I spent all day crying. Darn you Douglas Coupland.
  • Light by M. John Harrison – this is the book I give people who don’t think SF can be literary. Or just when I want to deeply, deeply disturb them.
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link – if you don’t like Kelly Link then I question your membership of the human race. So there!
  • Shriek by Jeff Vandermeer – I just love this.
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – if you don’t like Ted Chiang I question your status as a sentient entity of any kind.
  • Micah by Laurel K Hamilton – for personal reasons this will always be in my Top 10 Books of All Time.

I’ve probably left many of my favourites out and will have to revise the list tomorrow when I remember them. And my Number 1? Well it probably comes as little surprise that Neil Gaiman snags that spot for American Gods. I’ve read it three times, and listened to the audiobook twice, so what else was it going to be? It also wins in terms of influence. Contemporary fantasy would be a very different genre today without this book.

A couple of slightly interesting links…

The Everything is Nice blog link to my post on bookshops. I appreciate the detail they have gone to in their response, but don’t agree with their points.

Geoff Ryman edits an anthology of real science fiction, using real scientists and everything!

 

Listening to – The Bible: A Biography

Recently I’ve discovered the non-fiction author Karen Armstrong, via her short book A Brief History of Myth. I found the book fascinating and brilliantly well written. Armstrong is currently in the news for her book The Case for God, which has been vying for position in the bestseller lists with Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (read a great article putting both authors head-to-head here) I’m yet to read the Case for God, but this week I am going to read The Bible: A Biography in audiobook version from Audible. This book looks at the complex history of the bible as a book, a subject that as a writer I find fascinating. I’m going to post some notes on the book when I’m finished. If anyone out there would like to read or listen along and join in with some discussion of the book then please do.

In and Out

On my last trip to San Francisco I discovered In’n’Out burgers. If you don’t live in California, In’n’Out might need some explanation. Imagine the greasiest possible burger, accompanied with the worlds most artificial cheese, wrapped in a bun that almost resembles bread and chips that no one believes are even related to a potato. And there you have an In’n’Out burger and fries. It is by every objective standard barely even a foodstuff. And yet, what have I been hungry for every minute of my flight accrosd the Atlantic. Yup…you guessed it.

I’m reading David Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten on the flight. I’ve had this novel sitting on my shelf for about a decade, since exchanging it with a friend for a dog eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. No offence to Robert Pirsig but I think I got the better of the deal, even if it has taken ten years to discover.

Ghostwritten is really a short story collection, not a novel, however much the publisher and critics claim otherwise. It reads as though Mitchell wrote a short novella in each of his favourite genres and then jammed them all in one book. There is a definite literary sensibility to the writing. DM is all about the interior life of his characters, and he manages the impressive task of writing nine stories in 1st person which can be read back to back without all the characters collapsing into a mellange of the authors own voice. But the lit technique is matched with the kind of ingenuity, pace and plotting more familiar in good genre fiction. I think what shines through Ghostwritten is that DM loves stories, loves books and fiction and loves writing. You really get the sense that he is playing in the book, introducing voices simply because he can, telling stories just for the joy of telling them. I think thats what makes the writing so compelling.

Stopped reading for a while to look out of the window at the Canada wilderness going past. The world is a big place, much of it is cold and forbidding. I’m glad to be headed to the Bay Area, and can already tase that burger.

Surprise Translation

I was nicely surprised to wake up this morning to find a wonderful translation of Im Abendrot in my inbox. I have posted before about this poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, which I discovered via the music of Richard Strauss. Teh generous spirited Richard Gardner found my ear;y post and has furnished me with a brand new translation all his own, which sticks rigourously to the structure and rhythm of the orignal. I love this translation…it may even be my favourite. Continue reading