Posts Tagged ‘reviews’
John Self recently wrote a post on reading and specifically his relationship with reading at different points in his life. This includes a stage of life I’ve just reached myself:
A parent is a willing player in the project of being pushed into a corner of their own life… As it happens, I managed pretty well to keep my reading up after our first son was born. The thing about two parents and one child is that you outnumber them: you can give your partner a break, and vice versa… With two children, the first thing you realise is how easy it was with one. Now there are no hiding places, no spare hands. Once they’re both sleeping through the night (and with our second, currently 16 months old, we’re still waiting for that), you have the evening free; but you’re too tired to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet. Most of all, with two young children, you’re never really alone…
Deeds of possession for property speak of the tenant or owner having “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. Those two words placed together will have most parents scratching their heads with quizzical eyebrows. Quiet enjoyment is not part of the deal. But it is essential if you want to read, or write, or write about reading. It is essential if you want to engage with a book that can’t be fully absorbed with Octonauts playing in the background.
Whilst my short fiction reading has increased, I haven’t opened a novel for three months. And if reading is hard, writing is harder. Two years ago I published my 50th review for Strange Horizons, a figure achieved over nine years. My 52nd review, Railhead by Philip Reeve, has just gone live. I describe the novel as “the first New Weird children’s space opera” which probably oversells it. Reeve couldn’t write a bad book but this is not a particularly memorable one:
Does this mean that Reeve’s proud demi-gods will persist in the imagination as long as Awdry’s squabbling schoolboys? I doubt it. Though thrilling and humane, Railhead ultimately feels transitory—more style than substance.
Yes, that is a Thomas The Tank Engine reference. Not only have my reviews slowed done substantially, their frame of reference has shrunk dramatically. This is not something that can be said of other recent Strange Horizons reviews. So I’d like to write to more reviews in 2016 but I’d also like to write different reviews. I’m just not sure where I’ll find the time.
My review of Astra by Naomi Foyle is up now at Strange Horizons. I make a big deal of it not being A Door Into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski’s radical ecofeminist, pacifist utopia from 1986:
Since reading Slonczewski’s novel, I’ve been yearning for a modern version—something unabashedly aspirational—and, at first, Astra by Naomi Foyle promised to be that book. It is tantalizingly close, but Foyle had other plans and deliberately subverts her story which, for me, makes it less subversive. Nor is it literary fiction of the type a front cover quote from the Poetry Book Society and funding logo from Arts Council England might suggest. Yet it is still an unusual and appealing novel and does perhaps point towards the emergence of a new breed of core genre British publishing.
I conclude by saying:
Since 2013, however, we have seen the launch of Jo Fletcher Books (publishing Foyle, Karen Lord, and Stephanie Saulter) and Del Rey UK (Kameron Hurley and E. J. Swift). These build on the pioneering work of Angry Robot (Madeline Ashby and Lauren Buekes) to create a cohort of medium-sized, risk-taking commercial publishers who have put the larger houses to shame. Here’s to more fascinatingly flawed mainstream science fiction novels that dare to be different.
This is perhaps slightly ironic given Quercus (of which Jo Fletcher Books is part) were acquired by Hodder today. But I’ve noticed that more and more my individual reviews are in conversation with each other, as if flailing towards a Grand Unified Theory of SF Publishing, so it might be worth reading the context of some of my other recent reviews. On which note, Astra is actually my 49th review for Strange Horizons. Bloody hell.
My review of Wolves by Simon Ings is up now at Strange Horizons. It is a conflicted review for a conflicted novel but it is ultimately a positive review for an exciting novel:
Wolves, then, is best understood not as a triumphant return but as a fascinating work of transition. Ings is taking bold, vigorous steps forward but this is treacherous terrain and it is no surprise that he slips backwards from time to time. Sometimes though, he is just too cavalier. I’ve mentioned several authors as reference points throughout this review, each with a strong personality; the point is not to hold Ings to another’s standards but to set out the company he is confidently keeping. These are some of the most important figures in SF and Ings is moving into this territory, he just needs to fully commit. If he currently seems stranded half way to Harrison, I don’t think it will be for long.
I try to avoid anything about a book before I write my review but once I’d emerged from my shell, I discoverd three interesting pieces that touch on issues I raise. Firstly, a lovely tribute to Iain Banks from Ings. I see a lot of both Banks and M John Harrison in Wolves so was particularly struck by his opening anecdote:
I first met Iain Banks at Lumb Bank, a writing centre near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The area has since become the hairdressing and financial services capital of the western world, but back then you could still find the odd lock-in. Banksie (always and forever Banksie: the other one is a parvenu) was teaching a course in writing science fiction. Mike Harrison was his guest reader, a prickly bugger who’d just finished a story called Small Heirlooms, for my money one of the great short stories of his or anyone’s career. I didn’t get how Banks and Harrison were such mates — the one bristling with psychic armour, the other ebullient, friendly, and without any apparent side to him at all.
Secondly, Toby Litt’s rave review in the Guardian. Having played the game of supposed influence myself, I probably shouldn’t throw stones whilst standing in a greenhouse but I think the connection Litt sees to JG Ballard is a bit of a red herring. I loved his suggestion that Ings was an “SF Thomas Hardy” though:
And here is where the Ballard comparisons stop short – because what is strongest in Wolves, and what gives the novel its greatest power to dominate the mind, is something it has in common with Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands or Nicola Barker’s Wide Open. That is, an action that comes out of those scraggy edgelands where earth and water mix, where the shore is never certain.
This chimes with a wider point I make in my review:
Unnamed and unnameable; in contrast to Ings’s two globe-trotting previous novels, Wolves is ageographic. It takes place on some other island, an unnamed place linked only to Earth itself by the odd reference to things like “the Turkish quarter” and by the ghost of the British landscape. The combination of the tongue-tip familiar and the estrangingly alien is all part of the highly effective destabilising strategy Ings is deploying.
Thirdly, there are Ings’s comments on the genesis of the novel: “The deepest truth is that for over a year Wolves sat in my drawer, unsellable, malign, predicting, chapter by chapter, the worst year of my life.” This is extraordinarily candid stuff. It is also a perfect example of what a reviewer doesn’t want to read whilst they are working! Reading it after my review was complete answers some questions but poses others. So there is much more to say about Wolves – on influence and landscape and biography – and I am hoping to be able to write more about it myself later in the month. But for now, one more link: Jonathan Gibbs on Jeffrey Alan Love’s wonderful cover.
My review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is up now at Strange Horizons.
Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can’t see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.
The backstory is that about four years ago, I started hearing interesting things about a writer called Mark Newton. He’d already published a short novel for a small press but his full debut, Nights Of Villjamur, was coming out shortly for PanMacmillan so I asked him for a copy so I could review it for Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was very good. Firstly, the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be whilst simultaneously trying to be too many different things. (If you will allow me some speculation, I think that Newton’s split career as bookseller, publisher and author played a role here and that some triangulation and second-guessing occurred that was ultimately unhelpful to writing the novel.) Secondly – and at a fundamental level – it wasn’t very well written.
Now, you may assume that nothing gives me more pleasure than to write a negative review of a debut novel in a field I love by a person I am well disposed to. Certainly, that was the assumption of several of the people who left comments underneath my review. It didn’t and I resolved to make sure I read Newton again in the future, although I thought it would probably be best to skip the rest of Legends Of The Red Sun series. So when his new book came through the post, it went straight to the top of the pile. As the quote above suggests, I wasn’t able to write the review I had hoped to write this time either.
Drakenfeld has definitely solved one of the problems I identified: Newton has a very clear idea of the story he wants to tell and is equally focused in delivering it. This clarity is a welcome change to the mess of Villjamur but seems to come hand-in-hand with a suggestion that the ambition he signaled but didn’t deliver on early in his career has now been completely abandoned (the triangulation has succeeded, if you will). The bigger problem, however, is that the novel still isn’t very well written.
As it happens, a couple of weeks after I wrote my review, I bumped into Newton in a pub basement in Brighton. We had a chat and he predictably was a lovely bloke. So why am I publishing something that damns his work and threatens his livelihood? Surely, if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The answer is that the author and the work are two separate things and the only way to be a book reviewer is to successfully compartmentalise them. I can like Newton as a person and dislike his work and there needn’t – shouldn’t – be any connection between the two. Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.
Of course, human nature is messier than that; intellect and emotion can’t be so easily divided. Creating art is a hugely personal endeavour and what is being criticised is the product of blood, sweat and tears so it is natural to feel wounded. On the other side of the fence, the whole reason I am writing this is because of a residual sense of sheepish hypocrisy. But the concept of manners simply doesn’t apply here and it is dangerous to import it from social situations. It goes without saying that I think negative reviews have value (to inform and entertain potential readers and to contribute to a wider discourse). It should also go without saying that criticising a professional writer’s published art is entirely different to telling someone that their shoes are ugly or the dinner they’ve just cooked you tasted of ass. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and negative reviews are often seen as direct attacks on the author – and, increasingly, their fans – unless they are couched in the politest and most equivocal terms.
My review is not polite and it is not equivocal; it baldly states that Drakenfeld is a bad book and it does so in pretty scathing fashion. This tone is not thoughtless rudeness, it is an integral part of writing a review that has value beyond merely telling a prospective customer whether they should spend their money on it. It is a public, performative piece of criticism to partner a public, performative piece of art.
Anyway, the next round is on me, Mark.
My review of Dark Waters Of Hagwood by Robin Jarvis is up now at Strange Horizons.
Dark Waters is the sequel of Thorn Ogres Of Hagwood and is a book I never thought I’d read. But, after twelve years of waiting, Dark Water has been published, only for me to find it a huge disappointment. As I said in my review: “What I’ve always loved about Jarvis is how much respect he has for his audience, but it seems absent here.”
I reviewed Thorn Ogres as well so you can compare one of my first review with my most recent. As we’ve discussed before, there is quite a difference. Much of this journey has taken place at Strange Horizons, the best place for speculative fiction criticism on the web. It is also free so, if you’ve enjoyed the work of me and the other reviewers – not to mention authors, poets, columnists and many other contributors – then you might want to consider supporting their annual fund drive. There are prizes!
My review of Sea Of Ghosts by Alan Campbell is up now at Strange Horizons.
The book was selected for review by Brian O’Leary as a donor reward for contributing to last year’s Strange Horizon fund drive. I volunteered as I had been a fan of Campbell’s previous work. I’m very happy with the outcome – the pull quote for the review is “Alan Campbell might well be the best writer of adventure fiction in the UK at the moment” – and I hope Brian is too.
You might notice that the review is a little shorter than normal. This is because between reading and reviewing the novel, my son was born. This is awesome but it does mean my free time is a little squeezed. My reading rate has gone down to a book a month and my writing rate has dropped even further. I am planning to finish The Space Opera Renaissance this year though, honest.
The Arthur C Clarke Award was announced on Wednesday and I was at the ceremony at the Royal Society so I could join in with the massed ‘oooh!’s when Dark Eden by Chris Beckett won. Not many people were expecting his name to come out of the envelope but I’m pleased – it is a very impressive novel.
To coincide with the announcement, it has been Clarke Award week at Strange Horizons. Niall Harrison has offered his thoughts on the shortlist and Abigail Nussbaum’s two part piece has been the main event for the reviews section. As a change of pace, my review of No Return by Zachary Jernigan is the final piece up at Strange Horizons this week.
One of the criticisms of this year’s Clarke shortlist was that it took an overly rigid view of what constitutes SF in comparison to previous years. For example, in 2001 China Miéville won the award with Perdido Street Station, a secondary world fantasy. That type of speculative fiction is something many would consider orthogonal to science fiction but I think it is an issue that the award is going to have to continue to address:
Is this fantasy? Is this science fiction? It doesn’t matter. This fusion reaches its apotheosis in the epilogue, which takes us back inside the mind of Adrash and presents a wonderfully disconcerting creation story in the form of a sort of dreamtime space opera where humanity hatches from iron eggs. Steph Swainston was perhaps too far ahead of the curve when she published The Year Of Our War in 2004; now it seems all the best new writers take this hybridity for granted. Quietly, without any fuss, the New Weird has won.
Night Shade Books are one of the publishers that have provided the space for this secret revolution: Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (2011), for example, meets No Return in New Weird territory coming from the opposite direction. Obviously Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen have no idea how to run a business but their programme of debuts over recent years has been a huge boon for readers.
No Return won’t be on next year’s Clarke Award shortlist because it isn’t published in the UK. God’s War might be, however, since Del Rey UK have just published it here. I hope a British publisher picks up Jernigan because he shows a lot of promise but No Return isn’t the finished article.
As far as I’m aware, this is the first review in which I’ve used the word ‘aubergine’. To continue the food theme, it doesn’t matter how ambitious, inventive or skillful you are if what you serve up simply doesn’t work: Jernigan’s souffle has collapsed. Or, to make a comparison to the other major announcement of the week, he’s done a Larkin.