A few years ago when I was guest writer at a local university writing class I was asked, “Do you read much science fiction these days?” My immediate response was to say that I only usually read SF when I’m paid to do it. Then I realised that sounded quite bad. What I meant by my answer, and went on to explain, was that much of my reading – in any genre – is dictated by what I’m asked to read for reviews and critiquing, so it’s usually a luxury for me to get to sit down with a book I’ve actually chosen for no other reason than that I want to read it.
I’ve read some fine books this way, and made some lovely discoveries, but I do miss the opportunity to just go off and explore books like I used to many years ago.
This year I’ve managed to find a bit more of a balance, though. Add that to my good fortune in finding some superb review books and the first half of 2014 has provided some of my best reading in a long time.
One of the highlights was Simon Ings very welcome return to SF with the stylish augmented reality whodunnit, Wolves. My Guardian review of this won’t appear until the mass market paperback edition of the novel appears later this year, but in it I draw comparisons with JG Ballard and Christopher Priest. It’s weird and unsettling, presented in an understated manner that almost sidesteps the fact that it’s an SF novel until everything builds up and all the elements pull together. I’d love there to have been more from Ings over the years, but with this novel alone he’s rapidly playing catch-up.
Another Guardian review book, Alison Littlewood’s The Unquiet House reads like a classic haunted house story that, save for the obvious contemporary elements, could easily have been written at any time in the past hundred or more years. Throughout, Littlewood strikes a pitch-perfect balance between mystery and steady revelation, building anticipation and fear with the kind of verbal brushstrokes you’d expect from Joyce Carol Oates. A master class in haunted fiction.
I reviewed Andy Weir’s The Martian for the Arc blog, and here’s my opening paragraph:
Please indulge me while I get this out of the way at the start: Wow! Andy Weir’s The Martian is an incredibly accomplished first novel. Hell, it’s an incredibly accomplished anythingth novel.
It’s a space survival thriller, cleverly loaded with technological detail and balanced with a jokey first-person confessional narration. A book so full of mathematical extrapolation (just how long will the oxygen etc last?) really shouldn’t be such a gripping page-turner, but it is. This is the kind of thing that hooked me on SF as a teenager, and it’s the kind of book the proves SF is a genre still full of life and potential. Great stuff!
As well as these three stand-out review books, as I said earlier I’ve been reading more for pleasure, too. In genre fiction, the real highlight has been Neil Williamson’s The Moon King. This is stylish, quirky fantasy at its very best. Beautifully written, full of fabulous imagery and strikingly original, this novel follows events in an island city dominated by the cycles of the Moon in what may be the end days as the machines tethering the Moon to the city’s skies begin to fail. Williamson has written some deft and moving short fiction over the years, but with this novel he’s really hit his stride and this is a novel that should feature prominently on the big award shortlists next year.
Moving away from genre fiction, this year I’ve returned to one of my all-time favourite writers, Roddy Doyle. I started with the free short story, Jimmy Jazz, which picks up the story of Jimmy Rabbitte, former manager of Dublin soul band The Commitments, now in his late forties and trapped into listening to jazz in order to please his wife Aoife. Doyle’s a genius for characterisation and voice, with dialogue that makes me smile like a madman as I’m reading and a particular knack for creating powerfully moving moments that sneak up on you unnoticed until they deliver the body blow.
The short story did its job: I went straight out to find The Guts, Doyle’s novel set a year before Jimmy Jazz, telling the story of Jimmy’s battle with cancer as he struggles to keep his music business going in the face of recession. It’s right up there with Doyle’s best work, which for me means it’s among the best novels I’ve ever read.
Partway through reading this, I was slightly taken aback to realise that while I’ve watched the movie several times, and went to see the West End musical soon after it opened, I’d never actually read the original novel of The Commitments. So I bought it, and now I’m partway through reading it, and loving it, naturally.
Still only in July, and I’ve read some absolutely superb books. While I hadn’t exactly fallen out of love with reading, I think I’d become a bid jaded. These are the kinds of books that put the fire back into reading, though: I’m full of enthusiasm again, and that feeds into my writing, too – reading good books makes me want to write them. And read more, of course.