Friday 29 August 2014

Loncon 3, Edinburgh, VanderMeers & FantasyCon

OK a lot of stuff has happened and I've not blogged due to lack of computer access, lack of time and dread lurgy. So now I'm remedying that .. read on for a looong post on what I've been up to

Friday 15 August 2014

Meatspace review

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla


Kitab is an author with one book to his name, greeted lukewarmly by the literati. He’s supposed to be working on a second book but is slowly frittering away his inheritance whilst spending so much time on social media his girlfriend dumps him. When he gets a friend request from someone with the same name as him his life takes an odd turn. This is a funny book that makes you think, a hard trick to pull off. Shukla’s voice shines through the prose and he’s a funny guy. It’s a meditation on identity, identity theft and the Facebook generation. But, you know, in a funny way. There’s an extra level of meaning for someone who hangs around the lit scene in the city and frequents readings. It’s often self-referential and finger on the pulse but what Shukla achieves with the core theme is always engaging and the pages just fly by. Interspersed with the main story are extracts from a blog about Kitab’s brother going to New York which is like a shaggy dog story and just as entertaining, if not more so, as the main story.

Overall – highly enjoyable second novel about a guy writing his second novel. Recommended 

Thursday 14 August 2014

Art of Forgetting - Review

Art of forgetting: Nomad by Joanne Hall
 Nomad cover

This is the second part of a duology –

First half review: (The art of forgetting: Rider)

Rhodri is a foundling and has a perfect memory. He clearly remembers his father but knows very little about his early childhood. This is an important plot point, which does raise a few questions, no spoilers but he had a pretty famous father who I just thought may have been mentioned once or twice in Rhodri’s hearing before the plot dictated the reveal. However this minor point didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book which is a - 'young lad joins the army, becomes a man' -format, but told in an engaging style which never gets dull. All the usual stuff happens, first battle, first love (with both sexes), first loss, friendships and enemies. Rhodri becomes a rider in the king’s third (As it’s fantasy and is about a cavalry officer there is a lot of horseyness in parts!) who patrol a city called Northpoint (which was instrumental in a civil war that happened in the past but very much informs the events of the book). We see that healers and magic users exist but they don’t have much impact on the lives of the men of the King’s third and in one memorable incident there is a river demon. However it is mostly a low fantasy book concentrating on the lives and loves of Rhodri and his friends as he goes through training and on to a posting at the edge of the country which the second book will explore. This is very much the start of the story and the next instalment is coming soon in which the epic part of the fantasy will probably come more to the fore. The author explores some big themes in this part of the story around identity, gender and sexuality. She does make the characters come alive and I am keen to read the second book.

Second half review –

The book starts where the last one finished in a direct run on, which is a nice touch if you are reading both together but took me a short while to remember what had happened in the first book, although I’m glad the author didn’t spend much time doing the always tedious to read “and this happened in the first book” explanations. However it does make it difficult to discuss the plot without spoilers for the first book. So I won’t. Needless to say there are bigger battles, more death, more magic (of the Shamanic variety) a new culture, and a different part of the map, to explore and lots more love and agst. I think I’d recommend buying & reading both parts together for full effect. The writing is always engaging and easy to read and the characters are mostly fully developed. I’d say that if you enjoy the first one, you’re very likely to enjoy the second one, after all you get to see how things end up. I suspect there will be more books set in this same world as some of the characters didn’t have a neatly tied up ending at the close of the book.

Overall – Enjoyable fantasy

Tuesday 12 August 2014

That was the Nine Worlds that was

First off I'd like to jut say wow! OK that's not that erudite or enlightening is it? Well it is appropriate. Nine Worlds last year impressed me a lot, this year was just as good! How difficult is that to pull off?

We went down Thursday night but missed most of the program items so spent our time in the very expensive bar - bottles of wine seemed the way to go and we sold shares in one of the bottles we bought. Yes it was that expensive. I'll not mention it again, except to say that our final bar bill was more expensive than one night's accommodation in the hotel. We spent some time at the nearby pub for food too ...

Anyhow. Panels, lots of them, and fun -

(looking forwards panel with Nick Harkaway, Sarah Lotz, Fabio Fernandez & Lauren Beukes)

Friday we spent mostly dipping into the "All the Books track" which had collected an impressive list of authors and topics. Oh and it also included me, on the "Writing the inhuman" panel (I'd like to thank my amazing panelists - Adrian Tchaikovsky, Laure Eve and Jen Williams) where we explored the meaning of inhumanity, who the true monsters are and writing the inhuman.

We also went to a panel on Time Travel (ably moderated by Paul Cornell) & Looking Forwards but I'm not going to list all the panels/events/cool stuff we went to as that'd take too long. It was lots and it was lots of fun.

I also read at the "New Voices: Class of 2014" my short story Roadkill  - which can be heard on the BristolCon Podcast "Fringe in a flash" here:

There was cosply (not me, I don't do the dressing up thing) and lots of catching up with old con acquaintances and meeting new ones.

Oh yeah and we had dropped a bunch of books off with the All the Books bookshop, here's Adele doing a fine job (and you can see Airship Shape on the table)

And then on Saturday we got up and did it all over again, more fabulous panels, more chat, more fun. As a bonus we'd signed up for the Alchemist Dreams liqueur tasting which was great fun, not least because we got to taste the smell of musty books (better than it sounds).

 But perhaps after a late, and full of liquid refreshment evening, on Friday starting the day with a deep discussion on the philosophy of video games wasn't the best choice (fascinating as it was, too much thinking without enough tea).

Oh and we went to "Just a Moment" which was just as mad and entertaining as usual (well done Mr Cornell & all the panelists)

There were also cabarets and discos and music and more time in the bar, where I met a couple of new friends, and the Saturday crop of New Voices where Stark Holborn stole the show by having John Honor Jacobs read out the dialogue. Also worth watching is Pete Newman (the voice of the butler on Tea and Jeopardy).

Sunday felt a little sleepy in comparison, but we were up earlier and at a 10 am panel (The neuroscience of swearing) and, after a massive lunch at the Pheasant pub (recommended for sensibly priced food & drink outside the con) we hung around for a bit, not settling in any one panel, slightly disappointed that the last panel for the All the Books track was cancelled, we grabbed our unsold books and headed home. Tired but enlivened, inspired and happy and ready to buy tickets for next year.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Solaris Rising 3 - interview with the editor Ian Whates & a review

I managed to catch up with Ian Whates, the editor of this fine anthology and asked him a few questions -

For anyone who hasn't come across a Solaris Rising book before can you describe what they're all about?

Good question.  Let’s see if I can formulate a halfway decent answer.  I’ve compiled many anthologies over the past nine years, mostly via my own NewCon Press with a few The Mammoth Book of… titles thrown in for good measure.  However, these have all been themed.  With the Solaris Rising series I wanted to take a different approach.  I saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate the strength and breadth of science fiction, to highlight the sheer variety that the genre contains.  The intention is to provide established SF fans with entertainment value via a veritable smörgasbord of high quality stories but also, hopefully, to showcase what modern SF has to offer for new readers or those who have lost faith with the genre.  Science fiction continues to be a vibrant, inventive, and relevant form of literature.  If somebody comes away from reading one (or even all) of the SR volumes having discovered a new author or two whose novels and work they want to explore further… Job done.    

I guess the obvious question is - how do you choose the stories/contributors?

I start by drawing up a shortlist of authors I’d like to include in the book, then set about approaching them, giving as much notice as possible and hoping their many other commitments enable them to submit within the time frame.  Of course, there are always those who can’t, those who agree to but then find that life sneaks up on them, and those who submit stories that aren’t quite what I’m looking for.  SR3 features at least two (Ian R MacLeod and Ken Liu) that I’ve been badgering for submissions since the very first book, while there are still a number (Gwyneth Jones, Elizabeth Bear, etc) whom I’ve yet to persuade.  I primarily approach established names, conscious that the line-up has to contain enough well-known authors to attract readers, but I invariable sneak in one or two lesser known writers as well, those whose work I’m confident can sit comfortably in such company. 

As the stories come in and are either accepted, set aside for further consideration, or rejected, I begin to build a picture in my mind, not so much of subject matter as the tone and feel of the accepted pieces, and going forward this helps decide what I continue to take.  Sometimes I read a story and think, “Yes, that’s the perfect opener,” or, “That provides the final word I’ve been looking for.”  Generally, though, I leave the ordering of the ToC until after all the stories are in.

As well as this excellent collection what's coming up next? What are you currently working on?

Funny you should ask…  On the writing front, I have a number of new short stories set to appear in the next few months, including pieces in Galaxy’s Edge, Stupefying Stories, Daily Science Fiction and PostScripts, as well as in several anthologies.

On the editing/publishing front, I’m about to publish several new titles via NewCon Press at the London Worldcon, with a launch party on the Friday afternoon.  These include The Race, debut novel from Nina Allan, who is a wonderful writer.  She won a BSFA Award earlier this year and also France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.  Then there’s Marcher, a novel by another wonderful writer Chris Beckett, who won the Edge Hill Prize a few years back (from a shortlist that included a Booker Prize winner and two Booker shortlisted authors) and the Arthur C Clarke Award last year.  This novel was originally released as a paperback in the USA in 2009 but Chris was never satisfied with it, so he’s taken the opportunity to completely rewrite the text, even changing the perspective from first to third person and giving us a different ending.  I’m also releasing Sibilant Fricative, a book of critical essays and reviews of literary and cinematic SF by Adam Roberts, whose pithy putdowns have to be seen to be believed.  And then, of course, there is Paradox

This features all new stories inspired by the Fermi Paradox, and I’ve managed to prise stories from some fabulous authors (Mike Resnick, Pat Cadigan, Paul Cornell, Paul di Filippo, Robert Reed, Adam Roberts, Eric Brown, Keith Brooke, Tricia Sullivan, George Zebrowski, Mercurio D Rivera, Stephanie Saulter, Adrian Tchaikovsky, etc) as well as a number of scientists. The book features a fascinating introduction by astronomer Marek Kukula and his colleague at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Rob Edwards, while the hardback finishes with an essay by Stephen Baxter.  I’m really excited by this one, in fact by all the new releases. 

You say the best opening line in the book is by Laura Lam (“I thought I would write and tell you what happened after you died.”) - How important are opening lines in your opinion?

A good opening line is a tremendous asset for a story.  It helps hook the reader (or the editor receiving the submission), which means they immediately have something invested in what follows.  Of course, if what follows fails to live up to that initial promise, then the best opening line in the world will go to waste.  However, it’s very easy for a writer to underestimate the importance of that opening line.  Always worth a little bit of extra care with that one, as it sets the tone.

You've worked with lots of names in the field, is there someone you'd really like to work with but you've not had the chance to yet & if so why them?

Good Lord, yes.  Loads of them.  The day there isn’t is the day I’ll pack up being an editor.  My two biggest thrills in editing are: 1) when I get the chance to work with an author whose writing I love, whose books and stories I’ve devoured as a child/teen/adult, and 2) being able to publish the work of a really exciting new or lesser known author whose writing excites me as much as any of the big names.  Sorry, I haven’t been specific here because there really are so many authors I have ambitions to work with, and if I provided a list of names I’d only look at this an hour or so later and think, “How could I possibly miss him/her out?”  As for why… Because in every instance I love their writing.  Simple as that.

You say that you'd like to showcase SF "without placing any restraints on the authors’ imagination by imposing a theme", why is that principle important for Solaris Rising? Can you envisage future themes?

Not with the Solaris Rising series no, not unless the publisher was to decide on a change of tack and asked me to – at the end of the day, this is their series.  I’m simply the custodian who has the privilege of marshalling the books on Solaris’ behalf.  As explained in my opening response, the whole intent of SR is to showcase variety and quality; that’s been my mission statement since I embarked on the project and, in a sense, provides a very loose set of parameters in itself.  

What is your criteria for defining a short as Science Fiction, as opposed to any other genre?

Hah!  The old hoary dilemma: put any twenty science fiction fans or writers in a room and ask them to define ‘science fiction’ and you’ll end up with twenty different answers…  I suppose it comes down to my own internal compass.  I know what I consider to be science fiction and what not.  Whether I could ever express that in a concise and consistent manner is a different question.  Over the years there have been submissions, including some from big-name authors, which I’ve rejected for various SR volumes because they simply weren’t SF (in my opinion).  At the same time, each volume has included stories, particularly those that veer towards the weirder side, which others might have disqualified were they in my shoes.  For example, Jayne Fenn’s “Dreaming Towers, Silent Mansions” and Tricia Sulivan’s “The One that Got Away”, both from volume 1, and Mike Allen’s “Still Life with Skull” from volume 2.  Even Nina Allan’s “The Science of Chance” in volume 3 may have its sceptics, since this is a police procedural in an alternative reality Russia, but I’ve always considered that a branch of SF.

I suppose, at the end of the day, a story’s tone and the language used, its structure and ambition, play as much a part as its content.

Actually the series has included one story that definitely isn’t SF, although it is about the genre: Peter F Hamilton’s “Return of the Mutant Worms” from volume 1.     

Do you think there is an ideal length for a short story?

No.  There are some great flash pieces and some fabulous novellas, stopping off at just about every point in between.  One of my own pieces that I’m particularly satisfied with, “Digital Democracy” (which was commissioned by Ken MacLeod), consists of just four lines and comes in at 42 words.  I’m a great believer in a story being as long or as short as the narrative demands. 

What, for you, are the elements that go to make a perfect short story?

I don’t think it’s possible to specify them in any definitive way.  One of the joys of the short story, in fact of any length of story, is its variety.  By all means I can highlight important factors but to suggest they’re vital or indispensable would be an oversimplification, because I could then point out fantastically crafted stories that lack one or more of those elements.  Action pieces, mood pieces, clever stories with a twist, innovative tales that explore new concepts, mysteries, chilling stories, humorous stories, etc, they all have different requirements, different emphases.

A story has to engage the reader first and foremost.  Whether that be by piquing their curiosity or setting their heart racing from the off, or enchanting them or amusing them.  A convincing setting and engaging characters can often be key, but in the more confined limitations of the shorter form this often has to be accomplished with a few deft sentences, relying on the reader to fill in the rest as the narrative develops.  A story has to have a strong opening, whether that’s a languid scene that builds as we go, or a piece that throws you straight into the action, it has to have a purpose rather than simply stumbling into the narrative, and the ending is, of course, important.  Even an open ending is still an ending. 

From a writer’s perspective, the important thing is to determine at outset what you want to achieve, what the story is intended to convey, and then deliver that to the best of your ability.       

Dave Gullen popped into Bristol Book Blog a short while ago ( to talk about the first anthology he edited - and one of the points he made was that "story order is important", do you agree? How do you set about arranging the stories in the Solaris Rising books?

As mentioned earlier, I generally decide on the opening and closing stories during the reading and editing process.  These will invariably be stories I consider to be particularly strong, although not necessarily the one I deem the strongest.  Sometimes you receive a truly outstanding piece that, for reasons of pacing or content, simply doesn’t work at either end of the book.  I often have these lurking in second or third spot to pounce and catch the reader unawares.

After I’ve chosen the stories at either end, it’s then a case of working forward and backward from those two anchor points.  I always position a story so that there’s a link, however tenuous, to those on either side.  The link may be thematic, it may be conceptual or something I consider common in character or setting, it may even be a contrast in pacing: a mood piece followed by an action one, to vary the tempo.  When I’ve finalised the ToC (and there’s often a good deal of toing and froing before that happens) I’m able to see a chain of links that runs throughout the book.  I might be the only one that sees that, but it’s there.

In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?
Be thick skinned, don’t take rejection personally; oh, and join a writers’ group; having your work reviewed and critiqued by contemporaries and, as importantly, the exercise of critiquing their work, can teach you a hell of a lot.  Okay, that’s two pieces of advice.  This isn’t a maths exam, is it?

Many Thanks to Ian for taking the time to answer the questions, the Bristol Book Blog review is below

and now for some reviews

Stein: On writing by Sol Stein

Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of…

I’ve now read enough writing books to know that most aspects of good writing can be taught, although some of it comes natural to some writers. It is both an art and a craft and good writing books teach you the craft. Sol Stein’s is a good writing book, as you’d expect from a famous editor. He has probably the best explanation of “show don’t tell” that I’ve read. he is a bit sniffy about "commercial" fiction though ...

Overall -  If you’d like to learn what makes good writing good then read this book.

Steering the craft by Ursula Le Guin

Steering the Craft: Exercises and…

I find I don’t have much to say about this book, which I read some time ago and have not got round to reviewing. Whilst it is a good introduction, with examples and exercises, of how to write I didn’t find that it spoke to me.

Overall - Worth a read for aspiring writers but no earth shattering insights

The writers and artists guide to How to Write by Harry Bingham

The Writers and Artists Guide to How to…

This is a fine writing guide with lots of modern examples, a comprehensive guide to writing (but not editing) that is easy to read and follow.

Overall – useful guide, but not one for dipping into

Weirdmonger by D F Lewis

Weirdmonger by D.F. Lewis


You want a longer review? Well this is a collection of writing from D F Lewis. Writing, words on the page, no more no less and certainly not stories. So my question is, why? Why produce a thick book of writing that has no trace of story? Maybe I’m missing something?

Overall – No really, why?

Station eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven: A novel by Emily St. John…

In the here and now Georgian flu explodes across the world with a mortality rate of 99%. Twenty years after the collapse of civilisation the travelling symphony moves through northern America performing concerts and Shakespeare plays because, as is written on one of their caravans ‘survival is insufficient’. The book cleverly weaves the stories of its main protagonists together throughout time skipping forwards and backwards to the days before and after the flu, adding layers of detail and revealing new depth as it goes.

We get to see the interconnectedness of the world through the relationships surrounding Arthur, an aging film star, in the lives he touches. There is Kirsten, a child actress who becomes a key member of the symphony and who carries a comic called Station Eleven written by Arthur’s first wife. Jeevan, a former paparazzi turned paramedic who is at a production of King Lear that Arthur and Kirsten are appearing in. Clark, Arthur’s friend who, after the flu, builds the museum of civilisation. The flu is a device, a background one that is not gone into in much detail, this isn’t [The Stand] and Mandel spends little time dwelling on how the flu spreads or how civilisation collapses. We do see some of the collapse through the eyes of Jeevan but he mostly just watches out of a window. But this isn’t what the book is about, it doesn’t concern itself with distasteful survival, it concerns itself with how to live and with beauty. Survival is insufficient.

There is a message that many people are just sleepwalking through their lives, highlighted most obviously in Clark’s pre-flu story with his unfulfilling life, or Jeevan’s story about having no justification to be a paparazzi, and later an entertainment journalist, or even Arthur whose own story explores the shackles that success and fame can bind you with. There are themes that come forth in the art and story of the comic which gives the book its title and King Lear is obviously of importance too and there are echoes, reflections, resonances with the comic and the play to be found within. It is an accomplished, often spellbinding and affecting book that took a while to get a grip on me, but once it did I breezed through the second half in no time at all.

Overall - This is ultimately a book about relationships on a very human scale and what makes life worth living. Impressive and recommended.

Monday 4 August 2014

Another book giveaway

Today I have 3 copies of "Anger - How to control it so it won't control you" to give away. To win a copy just email BRSBKBLOG at gmail dot com with your name and winners will be drawn at random in 2 weeks time.

Solaris Rising 3 Giveaway

Congratulations to Nelly Geraldine GarcĂ­a-Rosas & Matt Zitron for winning the Solaris 3 giveaway by correctly identifying that there had been three (or more properly two and a half) Solaris Rising Anthologies - 1, 1.5 & 2 before this one.

Books will be winging their way to the lucky winners soon.

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