G is for Gaiman

G is for Gaiman

In my A-Z run through of my favourite writers on my bookshelves (real and virtual) G throws up a conundrum or two. The contenders: Neil Gaiman, William Gibson and Ursula LeGuin. Surely the mother of Earthsea and the father of cyberpunk deserve the shout? Well, yes, probably, but they’re sharing an initial with Neil Gaiman.

Sandman, American Gods, Stardust, Coraline. Need I say more? Well, yes, because Good Omens (co-written with the late, great Terry Pratchett) has always been one of my favourite novels. It’s witty, sharp and readable – the end of days with jokes.

So G is for Gaiman and Good Omens is the book.

F is for Faulks

Because Birdsong is the Dog’s Bollocks. End of.

Longer version: continuing my bookshelf A-Z of favourite authors and their top stories. F’s not a prolific author surname, but there are some standouts, Ian Fleming, much derided in the 1050s by sniffy contemporaries like Graham Greene for being a hack not an artist – but um, let’s see – Brighton Rock or 25 Bond films and counting? Then there’s Jonathan Frantzen for his magnifient The Corrections – surely one of the finest novels of recent generations, And the incomparable F. Scott Fitzgerald with his masterpiece The Great Gatsby – period-heavy tale of love, obsession, class and teh American Dream (again sniffed at by his contemporaries).

So why am I choosing Sebastian Faulks’ BIrdsong over Bond or Gatsby? Well The Bond novels don’t represent great writing even though the character is, undewniably, iconic and enduring. And Gatsby? There’s a car-crawh plot contrivance at the end that’s always bothered me. Bridsong’s not without its issues either, It’s mostly set against the backdrop of the First World War but for the first 100 pages or so (it’s a long novel) there’s nary a trench in sight – early on, the story concentrates on an illicit love affair between a British businessman and a married Frenchwoman. And then the war kicks in. Layered, intricate and engaging, Birdsong timeslips before, during and after the war to great effect examining love, loss, war and sacrifice. The (relatively) modern day sections are probably a mistake, but they’re short. And there’s a sequence towards the end – where our hero is trapped in tunnels under enemy lines – that build up suspense and tension better than any writing I can recall. Astounding writing. F is for Faulks and for Birdsong.

Birdsong: Amazon.co.uk: Faulks, Sebastian: 9780099387916: Books

E is for Eliot

Continuing my A-Z roundup of best on my shelves.

I know, I know – all getting literary around here and no zombies or space opera in sight. But George Eliot’s Middlemarch is the standout best book of the 19th Century, in my opinion. And then there’s The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, Silas Marner…

I think part of the reason for my choice is that poor old Mary Anne Evans had to change her name in order to get published. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been for her to find a publisher, let alone the encouragement to continue writing in such a male-dominated world. Her writing was far from stereotypical either – Middlemarch is all about death, obligation, debt and disgrace. It challenges the notion that women can’t be strong and independent as it entertainingly portrays 19th century life. This book, and this writer, have stayed with me for decades, so this selection is straightforward. E is for Eliot and particularly for Middlemarch.

Portrait of Eliot, c. 1849

Darker more contemporary choices would be Bret Easton Ellis for the disturbing but magnificent American Pshycho and Harlan Ellison for just about everything, though he could have been a bit nicer about it (a legendary staight talking curmudgen). F will be more modern, I promise!

D is for Dick

D is for Dick

Pin on Philip K. Dick Book Covers

Philip K Dick, that is. He’s my bookshelf selection for my favourite author whose surname begins with the letter D, nestling between Colin Dexter and Charles Dickens.

Easy choice, really, if you’re a science fiction writer. I could have gone for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but (whisper it) I find his writing turgid, repetitive and uninspired. I could have gone for Dickens, too, but I am occasionally conscious we’re living in the 21st Century and all that rich boy unexpectedly finding themselves poor then regaining riches nonsense gets a bit wearing after a while. Still, Miss Havisham. Now there’s a gothic legend.

Dick, though, has influenced me way more than Charles Dickens (reputedly the world’s most famous novelist of all time – in print continuously since 1837). Growing up, it was all Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein – until I discovered Philip K Dick. There was something… off about his fiction. It wasn’t all square jawed pilots and hardy space explorers with Dick. No, it was all stuff to make your head spin. Dreamscapes, people who weren’t people at all. People with other people in their heads. Androids. Nazis winning the war. Dystopia. The paranormal. World War III. All written with an unsettling confidence each page, each idea primed to set his readers off balance.

The world didn’t really catch up with Philip K Dick until after he died an untimely death of a stroke in 1982, aged just 53, an agonising three months before the release of Blade Runner, based on his pacey but thoughtful exploration into humanity Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. After that our screens were full of Dick adaptations – Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and (on Amazon Prime) The Man in the High Castle. I learned from Philp K Dick that fiction doesn’t have to be ordinary and straightforward. It can be irreverent, take twists and turns with logic and ideas and really take a poke at what is and what isn’t. And that’s why D is for Dick.

C is for Carter

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.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: Amazon.co.uk: Carter, Angela,  Simpson, Helen: 9780099588115: Books

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…