What if you could sell your dreams but can’t buy them back, and now all you have are nightmares? My fantasy short story collection Dreams and Visions is avaiable now through Amazon (paperback and e-book). Monsters, wizards and impossible decisions. Plus demons.
Continuing my A-Z of (my bookshelf greats.
Choosing an author whose surname begins with the letter ‘C’ wasn’t straightforward. A was always going to be for Atwood and B for Banks, but C? Orson Scott Card wrote one of my favourite books (Ender’s Game) and Arthur C Clarke takes most of a shelf, but both are flawed and neither is truly great. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is surely one of the best fantasy novels of recent times (though her back catalogue is too sparse for this selection) and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler (from very different perspectives) have filled many of my hours with gripping tales of crime and detection (though I prefer my writers to take themselves – and their characters – a little more seriously). Lewis Carrol’s there, as are Jack L Chalker and Edmund Cooper (relatively obscure hidden pleasures), but again they’re too light for my selection. James A Corey (author of the Expanse series) would have been there, and probably would have been my choice if he actually existed, but the two people who actually write the books, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, haven’t done enough on their own to demand a place on this list.
For style and substance, there’s only one real choice. Angela Carter. Read her 1979 short story collection, The Bloody Chamber for a profoundly unsettling experience (particularly the title story), or pick up one of her layered novels such as Nights at the Circus (1984) or The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972).
Magic realism? Fantasy? Horror? All of these and more. Here tales are feminist gothic mixed with the fantastic and sinister, and her ideas are challenging and subversive, making her one of the great writers of the 20th century. She died when only 52 in 1992. C is for Carter and The Bloody Chamber is my book choice.
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…
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.
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.
So there you have it: Banks, Butler and Burke. Sounds like a particularly dependable law firm. Or a trio of exceptional writers.
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).
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…
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).
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.
I’ve collected some of my fantasy stories in Dreams and Visions, available via Amazon
It’s got monsters from the sea, pens with a mind of their own and a shop selling dreams, amongst other things. It would be great to hear what you think about it and, if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon.
I’ve been messing about with my wordpress sites and I tried to change the theme on one of them – something experimental I started last year reviewing the (many) fish and chip meals I’d had. Well the themes switch ended up effectively destroying the site but fortunately I didn’t lose the blog entries themselves. As there weren’t actually too many of them (my enthusiasm wavered once Autumn set in) I’ve copied them across here. Enjoy.
The Sun Inn, Bassenthwaite Village, Saturday 3rd August 2019
7 out of 10
This is a long overdue first entry into the Fish and Chip Diaries, a project I’ve been mulling over for a year or two. Because fish and chips has always been my default option for pub food, and I’ve always got something to say about it. Chips too big, too small, too sparse, just right, not chips at all but (gasp) ‘fries’, fish too small, batter too soft, batter nice and crispy, cod as big as a whale. And so on. Don’t get me started on mushy peas (because I’ll be started soon enough anyway). Or, for that matter, tartar sauce (WTF the actual F is that? And more to the pointy, why?)
Right at the outset I should make it clear that fish and chips is the default choice for this blog because decent pies are so very rarely available (I’m from Yorkshire and pies are therefore a necessary part of life). And, mindful that there may be Americans reading this, a pie is not a pizza, it’s a pastry thing stuffed with meat or something else savoury (unless it’s pudding, but that’s another whole conversation). So from time to time I reserve the right to veer off into The Pie Chronicles (though chips will feature large there too, probably).
So what should the perfect fish and chips look like? Well to get ten out of ten it needs to include a massive slab of fish (traditionally cod, but I’m up for more sustainable choices) covered in beer batter (makes it tasty and crispy) and cooked just right. Pubs are pretty good at that, chip shops very poor because they tend to keep the fish hanging around getting all overcooked. Chips should be golden, fat and plentiful (triple cooked is good). Chippies generally do great chips but pubs tend to experiment (what the hell is a ‘sweet potato fry’ and why would anyone think they’d be a good accompaniment to anything, let alone a great big hunk of cod?). Back in the up North of my (sadly distant) childhood memories they were always cooked in lard, unlike the inferior Southern versions which were lathered in vegetable oil or axle grease or something equally noxious. But times have changed, and my arteries (nor my conscience) would have a hard time with lard (do they still have lard butties in the sandwich shops in Sheffield?), so vegetable fat is fine. Mushy peas? Of course, but remember the salt. Slice of lemon? Scratches head.
Which brings me to the Sun Inn in the small Lakeland village of Bassenthwaite. We’re close by here on holiday, the Partner in Crime, the Hound and me, so, first day into a potentially rain-sodden holiday we took advantage of the novelty and a rare break in the clouds to check out the local pub, half an hour down a series of narrow country tracks. Bassenthwaite’s more functional than picture-postcard but it’s suitably isolated and the pub serves the local beer, Jennings, which is worth a trip all by itself. Now obviously, being a more or less essential accompaniment to pub food (if you’re someone who likes it), beer will feature heavily in these columns, too, and The Sun Inn didn’t disappoint. Now Jennings is what I’d affectionately call Old Man’s Beer but the PiC had a pint of San Miguel and apparently that was fine too, if you like that sort of thing. We ate outside, more out of hope than anything, given the likelihood of rain, but for once hope triumphed.
Friendly staff, quick service and there it was, massive piece of fish in beer-batter cooked to perfection, accompanied by mushy peas (none of your pointless ‘garden peas’ even offered, which is a big plus in my eyes) and a small smattering of chips (which is a massive minus), plus a pointless lemon wedge. Enjoyed it, but what the hell happened to the rest of the chips? The PiC had something vegetarian that tasted like pepper spray and we bought the Hound off with something long, chickeny and chewy. All in all not bad, but they lose marks for the lack of chips and since the bill came in the wrong side of the Contactless limit (£30, or around $35) they’re not quite there in value for money. Still it is the Lake District and, despite trying to look as cool as possible in designer shades and all black clobber, we are tourists so happily sucked it up and paid with a smile. 7/10 (and remember the chips next time, please).
The Churchill Inn, Ambleside. Tuesday 6th August 2019
It’s the Lake District so, inevitably, on Tuesday it rained. Buckets. So instead of a long walk up Scafell Pike (yeah, like that was actually going to happen) we walked around tourist-packed Ambleside in our kagoules, hiding from the showers in various overpriced and underequipped mountain gear shops. Ambleside really only exists these days for tourists (it seems) and tourists inevitably means fish and chips. Before we get to that though, where were the Americans? Or for that matter anyone anyone not from south of Derby? I’m used to London and Paris and Rome and other places where you can’t walk down a street without hearing American accents so it’s a bit of a shock to only encounter Liverpudlians and Glaswegians. I know the Lakes is five or six hours from Heathrow on scruffy motorways with seemingly permanent roadworks but it’s worth it, it really is, apart from when it’s raining.
But is it worth it for the fish and chips, that’s the question? On this evidence, further research is needed. The Churchill Inn wasn’t my choice, though it’s a perfectly acceptable old style British pub which like most of the others these days since the smoking ban has become some sort of pseudo diner with added fruit machines. We were there because The Hound decided that was where we HAD to go. One sniff of all that real ale maltiness and we were dragged through the door, Now the Hound is a cocker spaniel and last time we weighed him he came in at 17 kilos, which is only marginally above the derisory luggage allowance on Ryanair these days, but when he wants to go somewhere having your arm yanked out of its socket is a distinct possibility.
So we gave in. Friendly staff, good beer (Wainwrights, which at least sounds local) and a pleasant if touristy atmosphere, fast and efficient service and mushy peas. Now we’re only two entries in and you’ll have sussed by now that good mushy peas is a bit of a quality benchmark on my quest for the perfect fish and chips, but unfortunately the Churchill let itself down by giving me something that was closer to mushy pea soup rather than the somewhat firmer product I’d anticipated. Fortunately, it tasted better than it looked. Chips were not bad and plentiful enough, though they did have the feel of straight out of the packet about them. The fish was a bit disappointing – enough of it (though in two bits) but it was slightly overcooked and didn’t taste of much. All was accompanied by an unnecessary pot of tartar sauce (why? why?), the ubiquitous lemon wedge (why? why?) and some random bit of green something that sat looking forlorn at the side of the plate wondering what it was doing there. The PoC had a tuna sandwich with salad and crisps which was nice, apparently (though she did wonder why bread in tuna sandwiches always seemed a bit stale. She was of the opinion that it was all about the tuna imbuing staleness on the rest of the plate. I’m way more cynical). PoC wondered why there was a picture of Churchill on the wall, which was amusing given the name of the pub (but does beg the question – why is it called the Churchill Inn?).
It wasn’t raining in the pub and the beer was good, all of which redeemed things to a solidly satisfactory score of 6/10.
I’ve just launched a writer’s facebook page, where I’ll be updating and posting from time to time. Why now? Well I’m about to publish a short story collection and, y’now, social media. For that reason, I’m likely to me more active here and on Twitter as well. Oh and I’ve now got an Author page on Amazon. I don’t know how any of this works yet, of course, but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.
Also, since the last post I’ve sold to Electric Spec (Undertow), Serial (Sideways) and Aether and Ichor (From the Sea) and I’ve finally finished my novel (which I’m very excited about). Now all I’ve got to do is sell it!
K-Zine have kindly published my short story ‘Twins’ – out today (http://www.kzine.co.uk). Twins is a separated siblings tale speculating that their uncanny ability to communicate with each other (one person two bodies) might extend even if they were separated by light years.