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Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Is it time for a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize?

I’m heading into London later today for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. No, I have no idea who’s won. But I can tell you one thing for certain. All the prize winners will be men because the shortlists are all male this year. No, I’m not criticizing the DGLA administrators for that, or scolding the thousands of fantasy fans who take the time to nominate and vote for their favourites each year, and I absolutely respect and admire the shortlisted authors, hard-working professionals all.

But this does nothing to help the ongoing problem of lack of visibility for women writing epic fantasy.

Yes but, I can hear someone saying, this is just one award. Look at the progress towards gender (and other) equality in other areas.
Three of the last four winners of the Arthur C Clarke Award have been women.
The Nebula Awards were dominated by female authors this year.
The British Science Fiction Association best novel award has been won jointly by Ann Leckie and Gareth Powell.
The Hugo Award shortlists are encouragingly diverse, despite blatant attempts to game the system by die-hard sexists (and worse).
Even the British Fantasy Society is offering a wide-ranging slate for 2014, including a Best Newcomer shortlist that’s all women after so many years dominated by male nominees and a definition of fantasy heavily skewed towards horror.

All that’s absolutely valid. And that means this whole issue is worth a closer look rather than simply deciding it just means these Gemmell Awards are an unfortunate aberration.

Look closer and you’ll see all these recent awards and shortlists I’m citing come from Fandom with the active participation of juries in many cases. These are driven by the high-volume readers (and writers) who actively engage with genre debates and developments through conventions and online venues, blogs and forums. This is where so much recent change to broaden diversity and inclusion within SF&F has happened and continues to be driven forward, not without difficulty at time and with profound thanks to the determination of those who refuse to be silenced.

By contrast, the Gemmell Awards are a popular vote and as such, these shortlists reflect the entirety of fantasy readers, the majority of whose tastes and purchases are driven by what they see in the shops, what they see reviewed in genre magazines and blogs, and such like. Where male writers dominate. I’ve written repeatedly about the gender skew in Waterstones (and a full blog post on that is forthcoming) and just this week, I got a ‘Top Fantasy Titles’ email from Amazon, offering me fifteen books by men and just one by a woman writer. Female authors are still consistently under-represented in genre reviews and blogs.

Why? Because of conniving hard-core sexists upholding the patriarchy? Er, no. Because retail is a numbers game and that means it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation. To revisit an example I’ve offered before –

When a non-fan bookseller, eager to capitalise on Game of Thrones, is making key decisions about what’s for sale, and all the review coverage and online discussion indicates a majority-male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay – that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, some editor will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, that passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work to prompt him to stock it at the front of the shop – because genre magazines and blogs have the same skew towards conservatism, on the grounds that ‘we have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the ones they’re clearly interested in.’

And so the self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete. Which how we end up with all male shortlists for the 2014 Gemmell Awards.

And it is absolutely no answer to say ‘oh well, look, there are plenty of women coming in at the debut stage now, so we just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ Because we have decades of evidence to show that this simply isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in the law, in medicine, in academia, in any number of other professions. If it did, these arguments wouldn’t keep recurring.

So how do we break this cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy? What would get women writers in SF&F noticed outside genre circles, which is what needs to happen if female authors are to have any chance of the sustained writing careers which their male peers can achieve.

How about a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize? Because prizes garner press coverage and column inches outside the genre in the mainstream press. Just google any of those awards I listed earlier to see that. Prizes get the attention of publicists and booksellers who aren’t specifically interested in genre – any genre. The same’s true for crime, romance, etc. Shortlisted books get reviews because a magazine or newspaper that might not have otherwise noticed them now has a specific reason to take a look.

No, I’m not volunteering to set this up. I know full well how much hard work goes into administering and fund-raising to support an award, year round. As a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award, I got a good look at the busy team behind the curtain and I’ve been a supporter of the Gemmell Awards since the first discussions about how to go about setting that up and whether it should be a juried or popular vote. Establishing a new award like this would not be an easy undertaking, even with the active support of genre publishers willing to supply yet more free copies of books, if this was a juried award rather than a popular vote. And that’s just one of the complex issues that would need discussing, alongside eligibility and other criteria.

This idea is still worth discussing though. And if you don’t think it’s a good idea, feel free to come up with some other solutions, to offer female authors of epic fantasy some reason to keep on writing in the current hostile retail climate.

Invisible: essay collection edited by Jim Hines. See Why Diversity & Inclusion Matter in SF&F

I’m all in favour of diversity and inclusion. It matters to me personally and professionally. I have felt that bafflement at being excluded just for being female. I have felt that bitterness at being expected to ask permission to be included when men are not. I have felt bloody angry over things too numerous to mention; like being labelled arrogant and pushy where a male author doing far more self-promotion than me is congratulated for his initiative.

So I understand that the inclusion which I’m entitled to should extend to those of different race, sexuality, and mental or physical make-up to me as a matter of natural justice. The thing is though, I understand that by way of reason and logic. On an intellectual level if you like. I can sympathise with those who suffer the same or worse exclusions, for reasons different to me. I can stand beside them as an ally. But I struggle to truly empathise. I have never walked a mile in their shoes.

This collection of essays relates first-hand experience told with clarity and bravery, from the points of view of children, parents, those in the world of work and those with the life experience to see how things have changed. It really, really helps me see what those other paths are like. Not just for folk who I’d think of, if someone asked me to list excluded groups, like gay, lesbian and trans* or wheelchair users. You’ll find insights into living with mental illness in reality and as it’s portrayed on screen. I’d never noticed how gendered such portrayals are, in addition to their other flaws. Personally I dislike The Big Bang Theory TV show but discussion in another essay of what Sheldon means to those living on the autistic spectrum rocked me back on my heels. Then there’s the Evil Albino trope which I’d never considered until now and is truly chilling.

The ebook is $2.99 and all proceeds are going to the Carl Brandon Society, for Con or Bust – helping folk of colour/non-white people get to SFF Conventions.

You can find links to the book on all the usual ebook outlets – and if you’re not already reading Jim Hines blog (and books) I heartily recommend you start.

Meantime I will be continuing to do all I can for diversity and inclusion in SF&F. These essays have reminded me that for some, finding folk like themselves in fiction is literally a lifeline. So it’s not just enough for the books to be written. We have to make them visible both to those who need them, and to those who who will benefit in ways they never expected, when they look outside their own experience and broaden their mental horizons.

Westeros Is Not The Only Realm…

Ah, Game of Thrones! We’re planning on heading round to some friends who have subscription TV on Monday evening, to catch the opening of Season Four. Meantime I’ve now read the books as far as they correspond (mostly) to the end of Season Three. One of the things I enjoy most about watching the series is I don’t know what’s going to happen! So I read a chunk of the books after each season, to fill in the omissions and alternations necessary when adapting from text to screen. So yes, I am a fan.

However… I see yet again that bookstore fantasy fiction promotions remain focused on Westeros and a narrow selection of fantasy books by pretty much the same few authors as last year and the year before that and the year before that. Don’t get me wrong – these chaps work hard, I’ve met a good number of them in person and they’re excellent company, interesting writers and absolutely deserve their success.

However… there are so many other fine fantasy worlds out there that deserve their share of attention. I’ve just written my Spring review column for Albedo One magazine, and I really was spoiled for choice. The books I picked to review were Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton, Irenicon by Aiden Harte and Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper. All well worth seeking out.

I could just have easily reviewed the latest books by Freya Robertson, Helen Lowe, Stephen Deas, Gail Z Martin, Evie Manieri, Tom Lloyd, M.D.Lachlan… and many more besides.

So what are your favourite fantasy worlds you’d like introduce new folk to?

Old or new. For instance I’m delighted to see Barbara Hambly’s back list is now available in ebook. If you’ve never read The Darwath Trilogy do check it out. any other classics of the genre you’d care to recommend?

Me and the eBook Experience

As good friends will know, I’m generally at the trailing edge of new technology rather than the cutting edge. It has been said with some justification that my cosmic role with regard to tech is to balance out the enthusiastic early adopters. But when I find I have a genuine need for some piece of kit, I will get it…

Of late, I’ve been concluding that I really do need an ereader. I’m involved as a writer with a couple of ebook-first projects such as Tales of the Emerald Serpent and Aethernet Magazine and while reading the other writers’ stories on a computer screen at my desk is doable, I’d much rather be sitting on the sofa and enjoying them in ‘reader’ mode rather than in my ‘writer’ environment.

There’s also the undeniable fact that we have run out of physical space for books in this house. Seriously. I have stacks ten and twenty deep on the floor in the study and along the landing upstairs. That’s after we have disposed of over 250 books to friends, the local school and Oxfam’s charity bookshop in recent months.

Thanks to seasonal family generosity I now have a Samsung Galaxy 3 tablet, the 8-inch one, since I really couldn’t convince myself that buying a single-use piece of kit like a basic Kindle or Kobo ereader was my best option. I want something I can use as well as or instead of a laptop when I’m out and about. I’m already finding that’s proving extremely useful.

Yes but what about the book reading? And for pleasure, not just using it as a work tool

I initially found myself extremely reluctant to get started. More so than I expected, so I wondered why that might be. I realised that when I’ve read ebooks on my phone and back in the day, on my palm pilot, I have always found myself being aware of using a piece of tech, rather than losing myself in the story in the same way that I do with a book. I’ve been reading books for 45 years after all. Where I’ve been really engaged in the story, notably with Jo Walton’s Farthing, I found that wasn’t a problem overall. Where it took me a while to get into the story, I found that sensation became a barrier to me, to the extent of me abandoning a couple of reads I found uninspiring. That’s just not something I do with print books, unless they’re really, really failing me…

Okay, that was then, this is now. So what to do? Let’s start with books I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy, and see how I get on. Oh and also, ideally ebooks I can pick up cheaply to begin with… because I still found myself reluctant to pay out good money for pixels… I have the same problem with other digital media. When I buy something I expect to have something physically in my hand, a CD, a DVD. Yes, I accept that’s because I’m a product of my generation but that doesn’t make my reluctance to buy something I perceive as ephemeral any less real. Though as an aside, I have already used my tablet to access the digital versions of assorted DVDs we’ve bought recently which have offered that facility bundled with them. Publishing really does need to adopt that model.

So, anyway, I began with Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix since that looked like a fun entertainment from a skilled writer which I was likely to enjoy. Yes, that’s what it turned out to be and if you like the idea of a light-hearted and at times distinctly tongue-in-cheek Regency Romance with magic in it, I recommend you check it out. Personally I’d love to see him write some more complex tales in this setting. As to the ebook experience, I found I got on pretty well with it. I was still aware that I was using a new piece of tech but I got well into the story regardless. Good.

Then I picked up The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox when it was on a 99p daily deal which I saw flagged up via Twitter. I’ve been curious about this book for a while, but not curious enough to pay the full price for it, pretty certain it was going to be a ‘read once only’ book and I generally get those out of the library. But 99p? Okay, let’s see how that works as a test. Well, it’s a good read, though I would say it’s much more Divorce of a Fleet Street Fox than an overview of life as a journalist. There is colourful and entertaining detail about the realities of the London news trade but it is primarily the story of a year dominated by domestic upheaval. That’s illuminating of itself, in what it has to say about modern life and behaviour but my interest in such stories is pretty limited. I definitely got my 99p’s worth. I might have felt a bit short-changed if I’d paid the full rate.

So that’s something else I can see me specifically doing with ebooks; keeping an eye open for special deals on books I’ve noted as likely to be interesting but not compelling enough to be a ‘must-buy’. And in this case, I also got to try out the low-light facility, since I woke up early one day over the Christmas break and read it in bed, without having to put on my bedside lamp and disturb my husband who was having a well-earned lie-in. I found that worked very well so that’s another definite tick in the plus column.

Okay but what about a book I would otherwise have bought in hard copy? Because that’s the ultimate aim, isn’t it? So when was I going to do that, and what was I going to buy? Well, Sainsbury’s gave me a push by adding a ‘500 bonus Nectar points if you buy an ebook’ on to the special offer vouchers they print out with their receipts nowadays. So I went looking on their website for Bleed like Me by Cath Staincliffe.This is the second book she’s written featuring the Scott & Bailey characters from TV. I really enjoyed the first one, as an excellent complement to the drama series, set in the gap between the first two TV seasons. So I bought it and yes, I really enjoyed this one too. It’s a fine crime novel in its own right as well as adding depth and breadth to the stories we’ve seen on the screen.

On the ebook aspect, what’s worth noting is I had to download Sainsbury’s own ebook app in order to read it rather than use one of the three other ereader apps I already had loaded and used. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Sainsbury’s own software. I ended up changing the font and background to find something easier on the eye and had to manually dim the app’s settings for reading in bed rather than just being able to tick the ‘auto’ box for the tablet itself. That didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book in the least but does make me much less likely to buy ebooks from Sainsbury’s unless there’s some kind of bonus or special offer attached.

At the same time, I’ve still been reading actual hard copy books, some re-reads and some new. Now I find I’m aware of reading a paper book in a way I haven’t been before, noting the differences like not being able to adjust the screen-light level or print size… Okay, that’s new…

So I think that the more used I get to reading ebooks, the more use I’m going to be making of them, if that makes sense. I don’t imagine I’ll abandon new print books altogether, not least for the authors I’ve been buying for years and periodically re-read but for authors new to me and read-once things? Yes, I think I’ll be training myself to look for ebooks rather than defaulting to paper from now on.

I’m also going to be looking out for the ebooks of favourite authors’ backlists which have gone out of print and are being made available by the authors themselves.

This is what I’m doing with The Tales of Einarinn, of course, and that’s shown me one last unexpected thing. I’m currently proof-reading The Warrior’s Bond as we prepare the ebook edition. I downloaded the file onto my tablet yesterday and began reading on the sofa. After half a chapter, I had to go back to my laptop and sit at the desk. Because I realised I was already too far into ‘reader’ mode and losing myself in the story, rather than picking up the formatting and word-break typos that I was supposed to be looking out for! Maybe I’m getting used to ebooks more quickly than I realised…

Albedo One – Issue 44 – now in ebook formats

The latest Albedo One magazine is now out – and is the first issue to be available in a comprehensive range of ebook formats.

My review column in this issue is ‘Tales from the Unexpected’, where I’m looking at writers doing something different to the books they’re best known for. Specifically, Ian McDonald – Planesrunner (YA SF), Charlie Stross – Merchant Princes series (parallel worlds more fantasy than sfnal), Patricia Briggs – Aralorn (epic fantasy) and Stella Gemmel’s The City – not the Gemmell you were expecting to write this epic fantasy.

Click here to check it out.

Weekend reading recommendation – The Falconer, Elizabeth May

Lady Aileana Kameron, youthful and pretty, tries to combine her life in polite society with her determination to rid her world of murderous fae. The setting’s an agreeably atmospheric steam-punkish alternate Edinburgh in the 1840s. The author nevertheless remains clear-eyed on historical inequalities perpetuated by class and gender, not heavy-handedly moralising but simply weaving such elements into the pacy and entertaining story. Some will see echoes of a certain Slayer here but don’t let that put you off – and let’s remember the tradition of Scots lasses taking on faery foes goes back to the tale of Tam Lin. I’ve seen this labelled as a YA book and it’s a ‘safe’ read as far as graphic sex or violence goes while still offering plenty of action, tense and humorous by turns, and thoroughly convincing villainy. The exploration of love, loss and duty makes it a thoughtful read for all ages. Minor caveats; it’s the first of a series and has a markedly ‘to be continued…’ ending. Also it’s written in first person, continuous present tense which I’m really not a fan of – but here, I was able to get past that within the first few pages as the story engaged me.

click here for Elizabeth May’s website

Weekend reading recommendation. Fade to Black by Francis Knight.

This is a secondary world fantasy with the distinctive and imaginative twist of a post-feudal world where magic exists alongside early experiments in electricity and gunpowder – and that’s a very uneasy mix for a whole lot of reasons. And no, this isn’t a quasi-seventeenth century world but something entirely of itself, the action all set within a multi-level city, both in terms of geography and society.

The central character Rojan Dizon is doing the best he can down in the depths, trying not to fall any lower. He’s doing pretty well until he gets caught up in a crisis involving the family he’s grown apart from. Now he must find his way through a maze of manipulation and misdirection. Will doing his best be good enough?

I really enjoyed this – the story’s well paced and nicely structured, I engaged with the characters and the author doesn’t take easy options or duck hard questions.

And why am I reading this? Well, I’m on a panel next week at the World Fantasy Convention, looking at new female voices in fantasy and SF. Since my reading over the past two years has been dominated by the Arthur C Clarke Award, I soon realised I had some catching up to do. I’m very pleased to find there’s some extremely good reading out there from new women writers.

And since I’ve been flagging up the issues of visibility for women writers at the moment, I decided it’s time to put this blog where my mouth is, and start posting some short, non-spoilery reviews, to flag up books you might like to look out for. So watch this space.

– and adding a link to the author’s website would be a good idea, wouldn’t it? Find out more about Francis Knight and her writing here

Women in SF&F Month – Inequality of Visibility for Women Writers

Over at Fantasy Cafe, April has seen a truly splendid array of posts by female writers exploring a wide range of issues relating to women’s writing, recommending any number of great books, highlighting some of their own favourite authors, flagging up examples of favourite sorts of characters – and more besides. Treat yourself to a good long browse.

Given my year so far has been majorly taken up with the Arthur C Clarke Award and with EightSquaredCon – UK’s 2013 Eastercon, my contribution is what’s turned out to be a lengthy piece examining the lack of visibility for women writers – how it arises, what it means and why it matters. Because it does matter – to us all, irrespective of gender. You can find the piece here.

Chicks Unravel Time – Publications Date(s)

Appropriately enough for a book about arguably the world’s most famous time travellers, Chicks Unravel Time is published today/tomorrow, depending on your local time zone.

There are three reading/signing events for lucky fans in the US. Nov. 17 in Worcester, MA at Annie’s Book Stop; Nov. 24 at the Chicago TARDIS convention and Nov. 28 at The Churchill in NYC. I wish I had a Time Lord on speed dial so I could be there.

There’s also giveaway running this week which includes a copy of the anthology, the 50th Anniversary planner and Doctor Who sticky notes. Details here – and we’re told that next week’s giveaway will have even cooler stuff…

You can keep your diary up to date with future events via the Facebook page where links to reviews are also starting to appear. These are all thoughtful and positive and making me even more impatient to read the other contributors’ essays.

Finally, yes, I appreciate that a lot of my recent posts have been about new books. You and your bank balances have my sincere sympathy. It’s just that I keep getting asked to do such interesting things…

I did start writing a blogpost yesterday refuting some arrant nonsense Some Opinionated Bloke was spouting about the book trade. I found reviewing and explaining the assorted idiocies and screw-ups of the past couple of decades which have got us into the current mess so depressing I gave up half way through. Today I am thinking there’s not much to be gained by going over that old ground. The way forward is, well, forward. So onwards and upwards we go!