Friday 29 January 2016

Review - Mutants by Toby Litt

Mutants: Selected Essays by Toby Litt

Mutants is a collection of essays from accomplished novelist and creative writing lecturer Toby Litt. Full disclosure - I received my copy in return for a review here. I'll leave it to you to imagine how daunting it is to write a review/essay on someone so erudite and talented knowing that they will read it! Also knowing that I'm a fan and that [Deadkidsongs] is one of my favourite books should tell you that although this is an honest review, the expectation is that I would enjoy the book (spoiler alert - I did!)

The book is split into two halves - "What I think" and "Why I think it" and includes the text of several of Litt's summer lectures on creative writing. Litt teaches at Birkbeck which is one of the top Creative Writing courses on Unistats. And, judging by these lectures, you can see why. Being a writer, aspiring to be published, as I am they really hit the spot for me - but you don't have to be a writer to get something from them, for example you'll get an insight as to why some authors have the swing and others don't.

However these lectures, including one on how jazz can teach you about writing (hence the swing comment above), come after a series of essays on writers as varied as Tolstoy and Spark. It's obvious that Litt is well-read and reads well. These are insightful, and often entertaining essays. I especially liked the one on Muriel Spark, a writer I admire. The description of headfuck literature in an essay entitled - Headfuck fiction versus Carlos LabbĂ© really chimed with me too, especially since I read Navidad Y Matanza in 2014.

The "what I think" section then is full of confident opinion pieces, but what of "why I think it?" Well here we get some insights into reading, on perversity, on monsters, on ghost stories and why historical fiction is problematic. These essays are just as insightful as the first half's. For example the essay on Sebald clarified what it is that I've been struggling to express about the writer since reading The rings of Saturn and The Emigrants.

I also enjoyed the essay on Hogarth and London, having attended the same exhibition that sparked the essay and the insight it gave into Litt's own novels -  especially Hospital another of his books I'd recommend.

If there were any criticism it would be that some of the information contained in what are clearly originally standalone essays is repeated in others that were not originally meant to be read together. But there are only a couple of examples of this, and it didn't mar my enjoyment of the collection.

Overall - This is a collection you should read if you are interested in literature, in reading it or writing it and/or you're a fan of Litt's fiction.

Highly Recommended.

Thursday 28 January 2016

Reviews - The Discoverability Challenge

At the beginning of the year Joanne Hall invited me to take part in her discoverability challenge as I'd commented on how few women I'd read in 2015. There's all sorts of data that shows that publishing is skewed towards men so it is important to make a conscious effort to read more women. The essence of the challenge is to read a female writer new to me at least once per month.

So it was with delight that I saw that NewCon Press, as part of their decade in publishing celebrations, were publishing two new anthologies with all women contributors.

Obsidian: A Decade of Horror Stories by…

Obsidian: A decade of horror


Digital Dreams: A Decade of Science Fiction…

Digital Dreams: A decade of SF

I immediately requested copies...

Included in both anthologies were names that I'd been meaning to get around to reading, and what better way to see if they were for me than to sample a short story by them. But the names that I didn't know I needed to read were just as valuable a find.,

Digital Dreams has stories from Pat Cadigan, Kim Lakin-Smith, Heather Bradshaw, Sarah Singleton, Jaine Fenn, Una McCormick, Lauren Beukes, Tricia Sullivan, Nina Allen, Ruth Booth (an award winning story no less), Justina Robson, Rachel Armstrong, EJ Swift and Rebecca J Payne.

From space opera, to futuristic war, to new technology to a fear of flying. There's something to interest any SF fan. My personal favourite in this collection was The Crepuscular Hunter by EJ Swift  - a very well-crafted dark tale of involuntary disconnection. I'd also highlight The Honey Trap by Ruth Booth and Collateral Damage by Jaine Fenn although, to be clear there weren't many that didn't hit the spot in this collection.

Of even more interest to me was Obsidian, since I've been getting back into horror recently. This has stories in by Sarah Pinborough, Liz Williams, Marie O'Regan, Kari Sperring, Tanith Lee, Kelly Armstrong, Alison Littlewood, Molly Brown, Donna Scott, Susan Sinclair, Lisa Tuttle, Emma Coleman, Maura McHugh and Laura Munro.

Donna Scott's tale of Grimoire's in The Grimoire was very clever and a must-read for any book lover, the Underfog by Tanith Lee and On the Grey Road by Alison Littlewood were both very good, the first being about wreckers and the second about Scottish folklore. Sarah Pinborough's Did you see? ticked all the right boxes for me. Maura McHugh's tale Valerie will stay with me for a while, and I won't look at rubber fetish gear the same way ever again! and Lisa Tuttle's Paul's Mother was really quite disturbing.

overall - it's obvious that NewCon have great taste and these collections showcase a lot of talent. I now have a longer list of names to look out for at the bookshop... and I read many female writers who were new to me.

If you can only afford to buy one of these books - borrow some money so you can get both!


Monday 25 January 2016

Book Reviews

You may remember this blog post from summer last year

when I pretty much gave up on reviews. You may not, the TL:DR version is that I pretty much gave up on reviews...

So - onto 2016:

I found that not writing reviews doesn't help me think critically about books, about writing and about the craft of writing. So I'm going to attempt to write reviews again.


One of the reasons I stopped reviewing is that a review takes some brain time, even if it's short, and some writing time. And writing time, I thought, would be better applied to, well, my own writing.

And then my writing tailed off (i think mostly due to other writing like activities - editing, reading slush piles, interviews etc.) But maybe, just maybe, there is a correlation. I sometimes used to write reviews as a warming up exercise and I think that I've missed that.

Towards the end of the blog post above I said - "I would like to use the books I read to cogitate on matters and, as my thoughts are clarified when writing, my cogitations will make their way on to these pages."

I think what I need to do is find something that's cogitate-worthy (that's a word now, live with it) in most everything I read.

I also got overwhelmed by the number of ARCs I was getting & so my decision was to only do one a month - I'm also amending that. I'll review ARCs when they've grabbed my attention and are "good enough" (interesting, shiny etc) to bump another book - as that TBR is still growing (14 books for Xmas & Bday and an extra book that I bought specifically for holiday... )

If you want to follow my LT challenge this year it's over here: (but a lot of it is just repeating things I review here) & I'll definitely be sharing thoughts about the discoverability challenge...

Guest post - The Horrors of Writing by JM Thorne

JM Thorne is the author of the literary horror novella, Watching, written as part of the creative piece during a masters degree in creative writing. Stories have been written in other genres, such as speculative fiction, and romance, and have been published in the US, UK and Australia. Currently enrolled in a PhD candidate in creative writing, the genre now of focus is a gritty historical family saga, where there is bound to be hints of horror. Soon there will be another story in the world of Watching

Watching by JM Thorne
available at Smashwords and Amazon

"They come to see us bleed." Captured by aliens, Roo is bled to near death in performances for their viewing pleasure. His survival depends on how long he can last during his time on the stage. The longer he performs the greater the chance he has to succeed in turning others against the aliens. But that's not easy when you have to perform each night in a show that bleeds you close to death.

You can follow her on Twitter @jmthorne29 & visit her website here

Tuesday 5 January 2016

First book of the year - and it's a leftfield one

Spoiler - It's a Piers Morgan book

Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God, and…

The tagline to this book reads - "Guns, Gays, God and George Clooney"

This was a present, I need to stress that right? I unwrapped this on Christmas day and thought - wuh?

But turns out that the gifter knew more about me than I thought - it was a compelling read, in a way, and repulsive too.

Morgan comes across exactly as you'd expect. There is somtheing amphibious or even mollusc-like about Morgan. His rampant ego, his superciliousness, the fact that he was the editor of the News of the World, the company he keeps. He's a huge fan of the royals, and Trump (except I wonder what he'd think about him now - the book was written in 2013) and literally fawns over Murdoch.

And for the first half of the book this was the car-crash entertainment of reading about him in his own words. He thinks he's being self-depreciating but it's not even vaguely funny (apparently Yanks don't get his weird English humour... well it's not just Yanks really) and not in the realms of humble brag, since there is a lot of just plain old-style playground bragging in there too. The book has naff all to do with George Clooney by the way, he's just one of the many names Piers feels he needs to say are his friends. It impresses me as much as a cab driver saying "I had that bloke from Eastenders in my cab once" - interviewing people is his job. He gets to go to parties where the rich and famous hang out, of course he's going to meet celebrities.

It's about him taking over from Larry King on CNN and written in 2010-2013, it'd be interesting to see how things have changed in the last couple of years I think.

When building his team at CNN some of King's people don't want to work with him - which is understandable.

"I suspected the hand of Wendy Walker, Larry's long-time producer, and erupted in anger in an email to Jonathan (his manager).

'Right,' I wrote. 'Fuck them. Let's go to war. Wendy and her coterie have wasted enough of our time.'
'I think you "Replied All", so they'll get the message loud and clear,' he wrote back."

There is a "Oh God I didn't" but no thought as to how hurtful that could have been...

There's a section on the phone hacking scandal, and how Rebekah Brooks is such a wonderful person unfairly treated, how in fact the whole tabloid industry is unfairly treated. Then he watches as Murdoch, who he absolutely gushes over, is giving evidence -

"... a protestor ran forward and tried to hit him with a custard pie. Rupert's young wife, Wendi, sprang from her chair and punched the guy. It was a magnificently quick, gutsy reaction. I was still laughing about it an hour later... "

There are also some interesting insights into the way the establishment has co-opted the 4th estate, which should hold them to account, not cosy up to them.

This bit on Gordon Brown especially -

"Gordon Brown is in LA to make some speeches, so Celia (Morgan's wife) and I had dinner with him and his wife Sarah tonight.

'Where are you watching the football match tomorrow?' he asked as the bill arrived. Arsenal, the team I've supported since I was a boy, were playing a big match.
'My place, want to join me?'
'That would be great'"

And so he does - I know Brown is no longer PM at that point, but isn't it a bit weird to be so friendly with a journalist? This is also what's wrong with Cameron having Coulson as his communications guy and being such good friends with Brooks. It's insidious.

A later episode, he just can't help brag about Prime Ministers he's met and talked to, is to do with the Queen. His gushing praise is so smarmy it is truly nauseous. However irritating it is to this republican to be told that anyone against the royal marriage (William and Kate) didn't understand the true meaning of royalty (spit) that's not the telling part:

"But if you ask me what the queen's most important 'point' is, I would say it's the weekly meeting she has with her prime minister.
I spoke to three of them - Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - about these encounters ... [They each go on to praise the Queen's wisdom, experience and intelligence. Brown said she'd "never hesitate to challenge me on something if she didn't agree"]
I suspect a lot more British government policy is decided over a cup of tea in those meetings than in any cabinet meeting."

And there, in a nutshell, is a major problem with the monarchy. They have a huge influence on policy. In private. With no accountability. Just because they were born to it. But this is no place for a republican rant!

But then there are signs of a turning point - there are a few mass shootings that he's sort of vaguely aware of and baffled by the average American's reaction to. But then his daughter is born and there is the Sandy Hook school shooting and suddenly he's all over gun control like a randy dog on a visitor's leg. With as much subtlety and as welcome.

But! He actually makes good points and puts them across intelligently (in this writing - I can't really attest to how it came across on the show, this is in his own words after all) and persists in pushing for gun control on his show, despite, to some extent (the method, not the cause itself), it being against the wishes of his editor and manager.

I mean, he continues to hustle for ratings, he continues to name drop and brag (it sounds like he was all over Clinton like a rash, one caught in embarrassing circumstances too) but he does stick to his guns (pun intended) on the issue. It's nice to see someone being principled, but on Morgan it's a little weird. But good on him.

Sadly it kind of fizzles out - there is no crowning moment (he tries for that for an award he wins from an anti-gun organisation) but the book just kind of stops. The show was cancelled in 2014 - I'd have liked Morgan to write about it start to finish - but then he didn't know in 2013 that it'd be cancelled (probably) although ratings were plummeting and possibly the gun control stuff was his downfall?

As far as the prose goes, Morgan, being a former journo, can write good copy and it's a very easy read.

Monday 4 January 2016

Happy New Year

Image result for celebration
It's 2016!

As usual BRSBKBLOG will be doing a category challenge over on Librarything 

No clever theme this year, just an attempt to read everything that enters the house in 2016 AND tackle the surplus of books from former years.

Back onto doing reviews (as and when) too - there was a raft of ARCs and review copies from people in the business I know, and I found it difficult to a) keep up and b) say positive things about all of them (sorry, but it's true) so that put me in a book review slump.

As you can see from the LT Challenge I've taken up the gauntlet of Jo Hall's Discoverability Challenge

It should be easy to acquire & read 1 book a month from a woman writer new to me, right? (suggestions welcome)

If you want to keep up on my own writing exploits I'm aiming to add a blog section to my other website there's a bunch of books coming out this year which have stories in by me!

First up is the Speculative Bookshop Book with a launch event in Glasgow on the 8th January. Sadly I cannot make it but if you're in the area you should drop in anyway!


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