Confluence by Paul McAuley

If you fall into that centre bit of the Venn diagram of fans of Dune (Frank Herbert), Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) and Shadowmarch (Tad Williams) that likes all three of those series, may I recommend (assuming you haven’t already read it) the Confluence trilogy by Paul McAuley, which I’ve written a nice review of over at The Bookbag this week. I can’t believe I hadn’t read any of his novels before!

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)

A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction

The first book review I’ve written for Luna Station Quarterly has appeared today (Doctor Who novel, nailing my colours to the mast at the start), which is exciting and I urge you all (assuming you’re a partaker of speculative fiction) to go and read it, then lose yourselves for a couple of hours in the vastness of their archives. Further reviews should emerge quarterly, in a column I’ve called ‘A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction’, mainly because I’ll be reviewing whatever I happen to have stumbled across that’s good, so it’ll be a bit random (but also because I once did a research project involving random walks, and you know me and maths jokes).

In other exciting news, my friend Alice and I will be holding a story-telling event at the York Festival of Ideas on June 10th (I’d link to their site but it still has the 2014 details up, I’ve seen a proof of the programme this week and when it’s available I’ll mention it here). The theme of the festival is Secrets and Discoveries, so our evening will focus on the importance and the dangers of secrets, through myths and fairytales, and a couple of stories I’ve written (one historical, one sci-fi).

What with all that and the writing workshop I’m going to in the morning, I feel positive and busy, but none of this is getting me any further with editing the sci-fi noir novel…

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Festive highlights, week 1

The first of my two weeks off work is just about over, and as was inevitable I’ve done a pitiful amount of writing. I have, however, read most of Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (bit gruesome in places, but then it is set in hell), eaten quite a few mince pies, a wedge of stollen and an awful lot of roast potatoes, and listened to some great radio.

The radio in question naturally includes the adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens I’ve been looking forward to for months. Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap as Crowley and Aziraphale are fantastic, and it’s actually made me want to go back and re-read the novel, though I probably won’t as the To Read pile is teetering as it is.

I’ve also listened to the final ever Cabin Pressure, John Finnemore’s superb airline sitcom (I do like a series that ends properly instead of drifting on till they stop commissioning it), and the first episode of a fantasy series called Pilgrim (think old magic, think English countryside, think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but more to the point). All of this has sent me scurrying off to half-finished stories of my own (mainly of the comic fantasy variety), all fired up and ready to type. Right after I’ve had another mince pie.

Introducing my first SF collection – and it’s free if you want it to be

As promised last week, a treat (I hope!) for sci-fi and fantasy readers. A dozen stories in the realms of speculative fiction, some previously published, some you won’t have seen before, all nicely packaged as an ebook which you can download here. As with my (non-genre) novel Wasted Years, it’s pay what you like, which means you can even have it for free.

This is the rather snazzy cover that OneMonkey put together for me:

Cracks in the Foundations by JY Saville

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprisingly short book, for modern fantasy. Or perhaps I just read it particularly fast. I seemed to be completely immersed for a brief moment, then I emerged into the sunlight again and it was all over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

This is a novel about childhood (and myths, and books). The different priorities, different realities, of children and adults. It’s about deeper truths, small pleasures, and what happens as we grow up (or grow older, anyway). The vast majority of the book is told from a seven year old boy’s point of view, as remembered by his middle-aged self; childlike, with a grown-up veneer. It’s a dark fairytale bordering on horror story, with a wonderfully British cosiness round the edges. It’s about a little boy, befriended by the older girl down the lane who claims her family’s duckpond is an ocean.

If you much preferred American Gods to Stardust, then you might not be immediately grabbed by this as it’s closer to the spirit of the latter than the former, I would say. If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman but enjoyed John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, or even Lisey’s Story by Stephen King, give The Ocean at the End of the Lane a go. Vivid imagery and a rattling pace, with a poignant core.