B is for Banks

Choosing my favourite author on my shelves with a surname beginning B was much easier when I stopped thinking too hard about it and went with my gut. Iain Banks. Or Iain M Banks if you only like his sci-fi. I remember being grossed out by his first novel, The Wasp Factory, then astonished by his science fiction Cultureseries, which did what (to me) Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Asimov’s Foundation books couldn’t – create a manifestly credible future galactic diaspora and make it entertaining.

It’s a tragedy that Banks is no longer with us, taken by cancer in 2013 when he was only 59 years old. He would undoubtedly have gone on to even greater success, but he is, and will remain, one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

My Banks book choice (if only the other letters could be so alliterative) is The Player of Games, the second of the Cuture novels, where a board game specialist is recruited on a mission to a the Empire of Azad, where social position, wealth and political influence depends on success in the game which gave its name to the entire Empire: Azad. If he succeeds in mastering the game, then the Culture’s influence will spread, but if not…

The Player of Games (Literature) - TV Tropes

Another notable bookshelf B (damn, I’m going to miss this letter) is Octavia Butler – vastly underrated writer suffering the indefensible disadvantages of being a woman and being black writing at a time when white men’s domination of speculative fiction (amongst other things) was barely questioned (and, frighteningly, that’s really not that long ago). 1979’s Kindred is a must-read. She, too, died an untimely death aged 58 in 2006.

Kindred: The ground-breaking masterpiece: Amazon.co.uk: Butler, Octavia E.:  9781472214812: Books

Other Bs jostling for third place on my shelves are another Scot, the prolific Steven Baxter, whose books are often entertaining (I particularly love Anti-Ice) but often frustrating (for instance, the hugely readable Flood made me think for ages -still am – about how irrational and (worse) unlikely the world’s response in the book to inexorably rising sea levels. Then there’s the impressive Paulo Bacigalupi (don’t miss The Windup Girl), Ray Bradbury and James Blish. I was tempted to select (relative) newcomer Chris Beckett, for his engaging Dark Eden books, but his latest, Two Tribes, is (in my opinion) a mis-step.

Outside the comforting confines of the geek halls, though, Charlotte Bronte’s enduring work still resonates with me – Jane Eyre is magnificent.  If I did succumb to the indulgence of a third choice, however, it would be James lee Burke, with his gritty and wry pulp-ish crime novels, often set in the Deep South. My favourite is Dixie City Jam – but there’s a long list.

james lee burke - dixie city jam - AbeBooks

So there you have it: Banks, Butler and Burke. Sounds like a particularly dependable law firm. Or a trio of exceptional writers.

A is for Atwood

In an effort to make sense of my bookcase, which if I was feeling generous I’d call eclectic and if I was being more honest I’d just call random and disorganised, I’m going to flag up some of the great writers buried there and howl in anguish over the gems I’ve missed.

They’re all filed alphabetically, which is helpful (though some authors seem determined to mess things up. Do I File Marion Zimmer Bradley under Zimmer or Bradley? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle under Conan or Doyle?)

So I’m going to start with the favourite author on my shelf whose surname begins with A and work up to Z, assuming my stamina holds out. Since there isn’t an even spread of surnames through the alphabet (how inconvenient), there are going to be richer pickings for some letters than others and, just to be clear from the start, we’re skipping Q and X, because no matter how good Roberto Quaglio (or any of the other handful of authors beginning with Q) is, he ain’t on my shelves. And I might have been able to stretch a point and include Qui Xiaolong in both absent letter categories if only I had one of his books. Sigh.

This series of posts is going to inevitably skew towards speculative fiction because that’s how my bookshelf skews, but there are plenty of more mainstream possibilities, and I have no idea what I’ll go for with my selections. I’m just going to take it one letter at a time.

Anyhow, enough waffle, on to A. Quite a few to choose from here. The classicist in me thinks I should go for Jane Austen (though Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would undeniably split the voters, if there were any – and before I get comments, I know she didn’t write the zombie bit, not really, unless she secretly hid an alternative manuscript…).

The sci-fi geek hard wired in me is telling me to go for Isaac Asimov, one of the big three back in the day (along with Clarke and Heinlein), but, y’know, there are better choices. Yes he invented robots (I know, not really) and I used to think Foundation was a work of visionary genius, but then I recently reread it and, given the sharper perspective of many years and many books, the ideas don’t seen as sharp and the writing feels less tight.

So who? Monica Ali? Douglas Adams? Martin Amis? Kate Atkinson? Joe Abercrombie? They’re all on my shelves and I like them all (well, maybe not Martin Amis. He might write well but he’s too insufferable for my tastes). But Margaret Atwood is in my collection, too, and she definitely gets my vote.

Margaret Atwood, then, is the first of my author picks. Most famous for the Handmaid’s Tale she’s been writing thought provoking fiction that straddles the boundary between literary and speculative for many years. A Canadian, now in her 80s, she’s won multiple awards, most recently jointly winning the Booker Prize (2019) for the Testaments, her follow-up to the Handmaid’s Tale.  Handmaid is better, because it’s more original, more thought-provoking and more ambivalent. It’s also more prescient, as real-life America lurches more towards the (religious) right where truths become denounced as falsehoods and the authorities commit violent atrocities in the name of ’law and order’.  The Republic of Gilead may be chilling to most of us, but, I suspect, not everyone, and Atwood succeeds in unsettling her readers with the prospect of what we might be capable of, given the wrong circumstances, even though when she wrote it that the prospect seemed more distant and far removed than it does now (as I write legendary Democrat and champion of civil rights Ruth Ginsberg has just died, leaving open the prospect of the Supreme Court being further skewed towards the right. Roe vs Wade is already being talked about as a possible early casualty of this shifting landscape, though I’d like to think that’s scaremongering. More, inevitably, to follow). Encouragingly, though, The Testaments is more optimistic in tone than The Handmaid’s Tale. Let’s hope.

But if we ever get to the end of the alphabet and start on AA, don’t bet against Ben Aaronovitch (and not only because he doesn’t have any competition).

I never learned to juggle…

The last post may have been a bit confusing. I’ve got two WordPress sites and I posted to the wrong one – my ‘author page’. In my other life, as some of you will know, I’ve started a small publisher – Wyldblood Press – and we’re about to launch a magazine. I try not to cross-contaminate, but, you know, life and podgy sausage fingers. There. Outed as a writer AND a publisher. (though not a publisher of the writer – I’m looking elsewhere for that). Still, if you ARE looking for slighty weird science fiction…

Midweek roundup

We’re getting some great stories in and we can’t wait to share them with you. Last Friday’s Flash, It Lives, is still up and proud on the website, and it’s going to be joined this Friday by College Survival Tips for Girls and Wolves by Avra Margariti.

We’re also putting the finishing touches together for our second newsletter (sign up here) and we’re thinking of including some micro flash fiction in it, as an exclusive for subscribers. Our ‘micro’ definition is 250 words or fewer (could be many fewer – if six words is good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it’s good enough for us).

The (Urban) Legend of Ernest Hemingway's Six-Word Story: "For sale, Baby  shoes, Never worn.” | Open Culture

For writers, next Monday (14th) is the last day you’ll be able to send us short stories for a while, so don’t leave it too late (we’ll open our doors again in December). Click our submissions page for details.

We’ll remain open for flash fiction and novels.