CategoryEvents

Eastercon: Olympus 2012

It’s been a week since I went to Eastercon (the British National Science Fiction Convention), and I must conclude that it was the best convention I’ve ever been to. Olympus 2012 was my second full Eastercon, and one I was particularly looking to – partly because I knew so many more people there than I did two years ago, and partly because I was signed up to be involved in more.

Probably the most significant event from my point of view was the panel on mainstream-published sf and fantasy, where I took the role of moderator for the first time; joining me were critics Maureen Kincaid Speller and Damien G. Walter, author Nick Harkaway, and publisher Jo Fletcher. I was too busy concentrating on managing the discussion to really judge how it went; but the feedback I had at the convention was positive, and confirmed that we’d managed (as I aimed) to avoid the defensiveness which so often seems to come along in discussions of the subject. I’m glad that people enjoyed the panel; I certainly enjoyed moderating, and am already thinking about possible topics for future panels.

My second event as participant was Niall Harrison’s Fantasy Clarke Award panel, in which I and my fellow-panellists – Nic Clarke, Erin Horáková, Edward James, and Juliet E. McKenna – debated the ‘shortlist’ of UK-published fantasy novels from 2011 that we’d previously drawn up (namely Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes; Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; Kate Elliott’s Cold Fire; Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade; Frances Hardinge’s Twilight Robbery; and Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox). After a vigorous hour’s discussion, we had it down to The Heroes and Mr Fox, with Abercrombie’s novel ultimately winning out; which is not a bad result at all, in my view.

What this panel – and the traditional Not the Clarke panel, in which a group of former judges discuss the current Clarke Award shortlist – brought home to me was what a difficult job the Clarke jury (or the judges of any literary award, for that matter) must have in narrowing pools of books down. I might think I’ve reasoned out my opinions on the six novels in advance; but, bring them up against the equally-reasoned opinions of four other people, and it’s clear there is a whole lot more thinking to be done – and probably thinking on aspects of the books which I hadn’t even considered. Tough though it was to agree on which books we’d jettison when (and I’m sure all of us had moments of compromise), the Fantasy Clarke panel was also a rare chance to discuss a set of books face-to-face in some reasonable depth, and I could happily have continued longer. Afterwards, the consensus among the audience seemed to be that we should repeat the exercise next year, and I think it would be great if the panel became a regular occurrence.

It wasn’t all great, of course – not in a weekend which included John Meaney’s spectacularly ill-judged speech introducing the BSFA Awards. There’s nothing I can really add to what has already been said elsewhere across the internet; I was one of the people who walked out, and so missed the actual presentation of the awards. But my congratulations to Christopher Priest, Paul Cornell, Dominic Harman, and the team behind the SF Encyclopedia for their respective wins.

Socially, it was – as ever – great to catch up with familiar faces and meet unfamiliar ones for the first time (whether that’s the first time in person or in general). Those unfamiliar faces included Damien, Edward, Erin, Maureen, and Nick from the panels I mentioned above; as well as Nina Allan, Kev McVeigh, Ruth O’Reilly, Tom Pollock, Gav Pugh, Adam Roberts, and Ian Snell – apologies to anyone I’ve omitted to mention. The fluid nature of social interaction at a convention meant that I didn’t always get as much chance to speak to people as I’d have liked, but I hope that we will meet again in times to come.

My overall sense was of a convention that was great both within and beyond my personal experience of it. The event had that general atmosphere of a lot of people having a good time, whatever their particular interests in terms of programming or guests. I’ve long thought that a mainstream literary festival structured like an Eastercon would be fabulous; and Olympus only confirmed to me what a great format this can be for getting people together to share an interest in books (or what-have-you). I’m already planning to attend Eight Squared Con in Bradford next year; so let me say thank you to this year’s Eastercon committee, and good luck to next year’s!

Eastercon schedule

In a coupler of weeks, I’ll be going to Eastercon, the British National Science Fiction Convention; Olympus 2012 is being held at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow (the same venue as when I last went two years ago). The draft programme has now been announced, so it seems as good a time as any to post about what I’m going to be doing at the convention.

I’ll be attending all weekend, but am down to appear on two panels. On Saturday 7 April, at 1pm, I will be moderating a panel on mainstream-published science fiction and fantasy. Regular readers of this blog will know that’s a particular interest of mine; my particular aim for the panel is to explore the place of mainstream-published work within the contemporary sf field. Joining me for that discussion will be Jo Fletcher; Nick Harkaway; Maureen Kincaid Speller; and Damien G. Walter.

My second panel, ‘A Fantasy Clarke Award’, takes place on Sunday 8 April at 2pm. There isn’t a fantasy equivalent of the Arthur C. Clarke Award (that is, a juried award for UK-published novels); this panel is all about discussing some books from 2011 that might be contenders for such an award. Niall Harrison is in the moderator’s chair for this, and my fellow-panellists are Nic Clarke; Erin Horáková; Edward James; and Juliet E. McKenna.

A dozen Penguin authors

On Thursday night, the good folks of Penguin General (the Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, and Viking imprints) hosted their second annual bloggers’ night, in the 5th View cocktail bar at Waterstones Piccadilly. This event was on a different scale from last year’s, with almost twice as many authors, and quite a few more bloggers – I don’t know if this was the largest-ever gathering of UK book bloggers, but I imagine it must have been close.

I was particularly pleased to get the chance to meet Nat Segnit, whose Pub Walks in Underhill Country was one of my favourite books from last year; he also gave one of the best readings of the night. But all twelve readings were good; so let’s go through them.

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Naomi Alderman’s new novel is so new that there aren’t any advance copies yet, so she read from her laptop. The Liars’ Gospel is a retelling of the life and death of Jesus; Alderman read from the very beginning, which describes the ritual sacrifice of a lamb – and, if the rest of the book is as well-written as that, it’s one I want to read.

I already had a copy of Jennifer McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree, on the TBR pile. It’s set in South Africa in 1880, amid rumours of a smallpox epidemic in the diamond mines. There was some really good use of detail in the domestic scene which McVeigh read, and that bodes well for the rest of the novel.

Have I still never read anything by Marina Lewycka since A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian? (Answer: no, I haven’t.) I should probably rectify that, and Lewycka’s  reading from Various Pets Alive and Dead was a good reminder of why. Her extract effectively sketched the four main characters in the novel, and included some sharp description of place.

Next up was Greg Baxter, whose first novel, The Apartment, was the second book from tonight already on my TBR pile. Baxter was a measured, precise reader, which went well with the spare style of his extract. I’m now still further intrigued to read the whole book.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson tells of a Polish family reuniting in England after the war. I’m not quite sure whether this is a book for me, but I found the particular extract Hodgkinson read to be a good character sketch.

Now on to the only non-fiction book and author of the evening. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is about the ancient paths ofBritain, the stories intertwined in them, and how people have been shaped by them. Macfarlane read an extract concerning an the encounter with Hanging figure by the sculptor Steve Dilworth; fascinating stuff, and definitely a book I’d like to read.

The second half of the evening began with Elif Shafak’s reading from her latest novel, Honour, which focuses on a Kurdish-Turkish family who move toLondon. Shafak read from the beginning of the book, where the daughter of the family prepares to meet her brother on his release from prison (he was convicted for murder). This was a strong set-up for the rest of the novel, and I look forward to reading on.

Set in 19th-centurySomerset, Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk is the account of a girl named Mary, who is sent to work for the local vicar’s wife, where she has good reason to write down what happened to her. Leyshon’s excerpt gave a hint as to what that reason might be, and her reading brought Mary’s character vividly to life.

Then it was Nat Segnit’s turn to read from Pub Walks in Underhill Country – and it was just like discovering the book all over again. Segnit was an excellent reader (an audiobook of this read by him would be wonderful), and the extract he chose hilarious. Seriously, if you have not read this novel, you should.

From a novel I already loved to one of which I’d never even heard. Tom Bullough’s Konstantin is a fictional account of the life of the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; it was tricky to judge from the reading what the book as a whole might be like, but I started reading it on the train home, and it’s shaping up to be interesting.

The next author to take the stage was Nikita Lalwani, reading from her second novel, The Village. The set-up sounded intriguing – a documentary-maker travels fromEnglandto make a film about an Indian village which is also an open prison – and Lalwani’s reading only confirmed that view.

The evening closed with a reading from a Booker-winning author – James Kelman. Mo said she was quirky is a novel chronicling a day in the life of a single mother; on the evidence of Kelman’s reading, it’s also a novel very concerned with voice – it felt like a novel to be read out loud. I look forward to reading and finding out if that impression is correct.

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And then, as Joshua Ferris put it, we came to the end. My thanks to everyone involved for such an enjoyable evening.

Simon & Schuster bloggers’ event, 29 Feb 2012

Yesterday, those fine folks at Simon & Schuster opened their doors to a group of bloggers for a panel discussion with four authors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen four more different (and yet similar – in, for example, the sense of craft underlying their work that came across from all) writers together on the same panel. Here’s who they were:

Rebecca Chance

I’ll read most sorts of fiction, but it is fair to say that Rebecca Chance writes the kind of books that aren’t for me. She was fabulous in the discussion, though.

Penny Hancock

The other writers on the panel were all first-time novelists. Penny Hancock’s book is a psychological thriller about a middle-aged woman who becomes infatuated with a teenage boy, to the point that she holds him captive in her garage. I read about half of Tideline on the train home, and it’s intriguing so far.

Lloyd Shepherd

Lloyd Shepherd piqued my interest in his historical mystery The English Monster when he talked about being influenced by horror/speculative fiction; though his mention of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy made me a little wary – the proof will be in the reading.

Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether Revivals was a book I’d already pegged as one to read; if it hadn’t been, I suspect that hearing Benjamin Wood speak here would have encouraged me to pick it up. Comparisons with Donna Tartt, and a synopsis mentioning a brilliant student conducting medical experiments with Baroque music, sound promising. It’s a very nicely designed volume, too.

After the panel came an opportunity to mingle… and browse a few books. As well as the Hancock, Shepherd, and Wood books, I earmarked copies of Edward Hogan’s The Hunger Trace (about which some of my fellow-bloggers have been very enthusiastic); Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (a hotly-tipped title which falls squarely at the mainstream-speculative intersection that interests me); and The Humorist by Russell Kane (who I’m hoping will, like Mark Watson, prove to be a comedian with a flair for fiction).

Thanks to all at S&S, and the writers, for a fine event!

ShortStoryVille and the Bristol Short Story Prize

Last Saturday was the inaugural (and, I’m sure, not the last) ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol, in which Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize had kindly asked me to participate. When I arrived in Bristol that morning, the weather was grey, miserable and damp—in other words, perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. But it was great to see how many people had instead made the trip to the Arnolfini arts centre to hear short stories being read and discussed.

In the day’s first panel, the writer and critic Bidisha interviewed Sarah Salway, Alison MacLeod, and Janice Galloway about the art of writing short fiction. The three authors also read from their work, which really brought home to me how much their work seemed intended to be spoken; with Galloway’s piece especially, it was a completely different experience hearing the rhythms of her prose read aloud. Following on from the writing panel, we flipped it around to discuss reading short stories, and this was where I joined Scott Pack and Clare Hey in conversation with Tania Hershman; I think (and hope!) that we managed to say something interesting and useful.

The second half of the day began with Joe Spurgeon of the local magazine Venue interviewing Helen Oyeyemi and Stuart Evers about their latest books; if you haven’t read them, do, as both are very good indeed. Then came a series of readings from local writers, compèred by Bristol Prize chair of judges, Bertel Martin; the authors involved were Sarah Hilary, Patricia Ferguson, Gareth Powell, Emma Newman, Tania Hershman, and Amy Mason. Between their readings and recommendations, I have yet more books I want to investigate.

And after ShortStoryVille came the presentation of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Emily Bullock, who won for her story ‘My Girl’; I read it on the train home, and it is a worthy winner. My thanks to Joe Melia and everyone else involved in ShortStoryVille for superb day; I am pleased to have been a part of it, and hope that it will turn out to have been the first of many. At a time when the BBC has announced plans to reduce the volume of short fiction programming on Radio 4, it’s good to have an event like ShortStoryVille to reassert that the short story is a vital art form.

Elsewhere

Some more write-ups of ShortStoryVille…
Vanessa Gebbie
Clare Hey
Tania Hershman

Helen Oyeyemi at London Literature Festival, 11 July 2011

Suzi Feay’s interview with Helen Oyeyemi at the Southbank Centre last night provided a good example of how hearing an author speak about her work can cast new light on a book. After an opening section in which Oyeyemi discussed her love of fairytales as a child, and how she first began writing (crossing out the parts of Little Women that she didn’t like, and writing in her own version—and in a library copy), she read the tale of ‘Mr Fox’ (the English version of Bluebeard), as collected by Joseph Jacobs in the 19th century; followed by the opening pages of her novel Mr Fox, which draws on different versions of the Bluebeard story. Even though I’d already read that book, hearing the author reading aloud from it was almost like encountering it for the first time again.

At the time of my original reading, I was struck by the sheer range of Mr Fox; but that was brought home to me again here when Oyeyemi talked about the many influences that went into the novel. It wasn’t just the many different versions of Bluebeard, or all the writers whose work had an impact (I’m reminded once again that I really should read Angela Carter); It was also that there were ideas in Mr Fox on which I hadn’t picked up—for example, Oyeyemi employed the 1930s New York setting partly from a love of noir, and partly to explore conceptions of masculinity that emerged from the First World War. The discussion made me want to go back to Mr Fox to see what else I could find in it.

Feay also asked Oyeyemi about her creative process, but I gained the distinct impression that even the author herself found it rather mysterious; Oyeyemi talked about her characters’ often doing surprising things, and how she attempted to study for an MFA, but found it too restrictive. When writing Mr Fox, she wasn’t even sure who would want to read that kind of book. I’m pleased that there are people who do, because I am coming to think that Oyeyemi’s is one of the most singular imaginations at work today; and this interview and reading only cemented that view.

Seven Penguin authors

Earlier this week, Penguin Books held a reading event with seven of their authors, each on their first or second novels. A bunch of bloggers and friends gathered at the Union Club in the heart of London to hear about some new books – and it was a very enjoyable evening.

First up was Joe Dunthorne, whose debut novel, Submarine, has just been made into a film. He read an extract from Wild Abandon, about young Albert, who is convinced the world will end in 2012. Attempting to dispel his fears, the boy’s mother persuades Albert to imagine a conversation with his sixteen-year-old self, thereby reassuring himself there is life beyond a couple of years hence. But the plan doesn’t quite work out as Albert’s mum intended… The conversation that Dunthorne read out was very funny, and I’m sure I’ll be checking out Wild Abandon when it’s published in August, and perhaps also Submarine before then.

Luke Williams’ The Echo Chamber (due in May) was already on my radar because it has the sort of crossover speculative premise (the life of a woman with preternatural abilities of hearing) that particularly appeals to me. I’m not sure how well I can judge from the opening extract Williams read here just what The Echo Chamber will be like as a whole (and he did say that the novel goes through a number of styles as it progresses), but it is still a novel I want to investigate.

The next author was Jean Kwok, whose novel Girl in Translation concerns Kimberly Chang, who moves with her family from Hong Kong to a squalid apartment in Brooklyn, and finds herself caught between the worlds of great achievement at school, and working in a factory at night to help make ends meet. Kwok told how she drew significantly on her own life experiences for the novel, which sounds an interesting story.

I’ve been meaning to read God’s Own Country, the first novel by Ross Raisin – a fellow native of West Yorkshire – for some time now. I will get around to it – honest. Tonight, Raisin was reading from his forthcoming book, Waterline (to be published in July), which is set amongst the shipyards of Glasgow. As it’s written partly in dialect, Raisin said, it didn’t sound right in his natural voice; so he affected a Glaswegian accent to read his extract. How good he was, I’m in no position to judge; but the extract itself was nicely atmospheric, and bodes well for the whole novel. I’ll probably read God’s Own Country first, though.

On now to Rebecca Hunt, whose novel Mr Chartwell was the only one of the seven featured writers’ that I’d already read. Essentially it’s the story of Churchill’s Black Dog of depression come to life, well worth a look. Hunt was an excellent reader; had I not known about the novel already, the strength of her reading alone would have made me want to seek it out.

Helen Gordon’s debut, Landfall – about an art journalist reassessing her life when she moves temporarily back to the suburbs – is not published until October, so it was quite a treat to hear an excerpt of it so early on. The snapshot Gordon read was a conversation between the protagonist and her daughter during a car journey; again, I’m not sure how much of a sense of the wider novel I have from this, but it was a nicely observed extract and I am intrigued.

The final author to read was Hisham Matar, a Booker nominee for his first novel, In the Country of Men. He read an excerpt from his newly-published second book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, which concerns a boy dealing with the disappearance of his father. Matar’s description was vivid, and left me wanting to read more. A fine conclusion to a strong set of readings.

Firestation Book Swap on Tour @ London Review Bookshop, 3rd February 2011

There were five-and-a-half months between my first and second Firestation Book Swaps; but only two weeks between my second and third. Well, I reasoned, they don’t come to London very often, so I’ll go whenever I can. Back I went, then, to the London Review Bookshop (which, let me tell you, is a dangerous place to go browsing when you don’t really want to buy anything – so many interesting books!), where hosts Marie Phillips and Robbie Hudson (Scott Pack not being available for this one) welcomed William Fiennes (whom I remember from Picador Day at Foyles last year) and Nikesh Shukla (whose Coconut Unlimited was one of my favourite reads of 2010).

Marie began by distributing pens and paper to the audience for them to write their questions (mine was ‘Is February a better month than January?’ – alas, it wasn’t used), and explained how the swapping process worked – using One Day by David Nicholls as one of the hypothetical books, because, she said, someone always brings a copy of that to the Book Swap.

At this point, Marie paused and asked who had brought One Day with them this time.

But no one had.

And the logical impossibility of this caused the universe to spontaneously self-destruct.

Not really; I’m joking – but it is true that no one had brought a copy of One Day. I have to say, there were some epic swaps tonight: Will Fiennes had something like six offers of swaps for his copy of The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (in the end, he chose a book of Frank O’Connor short stories); and I got three offers for my copy of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre AffairThe Great Gatsby (which I already have); Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (which I don’t); and the one I went for, The Cat in the Coffin by Mariko Koike. I’d never heard of the book, or its author; but, for me, part of the point of going to Book Swap is the chance to be introduced to unfamiliar books and writers.

The conversation was the usual eclectic mix, with questions ranging from ‘What would your hip-hop name be?’ to ‘Which is your favourite foot?’ And it was great to meet Nikesh in person, along with his felliow Quartet author Gavin James Bower, who introduced me to another writer, Niven Govinden, whose work I shall now also be investigating. A great evening, as always.

Firestation Book Swap, 20th January 2011

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Firestation Book Swap on Tour at the London Review Bookshop last August, I thought it was about time I checked out the Book Swap on its home turf; so off I went to Windsor last night. The Firestation Arts Centre is a lovely little theatre space in what used to be, yes, Windsor’s fire station (it still has the bright red doors), police station and magistrates’ court. The stage was decked out with chairs for the hosts, sofa for the guests – and, of course, a table full of cake.

Tonight, Scott Pack was joined by a guest co-host, Robbie Hudson, and the two guest authors were Elizabeth Buchan and Emma Townshend. I hadn’t read books by either of the latter, but certainly became interested in doing so after hearing them talk about their work. Of the two, I was instinctively more interested in Townshend’s book, Darwin’s Dogs (which examines the significance that Darwin’s pet dogs had in shaping his work), and it is now definitely on my to-read pile; but Buchan’s Separate Beds (about a couple whose relationship is already under strain who then have to deal with their family moving back in because the financial situation demands it) also sounds worth a read.

The conversation was as varied and entertaining as I remember last time; this is the sort of event where an author may be asked, ‘What’s the difference between Darwin’s genius and Shakespeare’s genius?’ just as she’s about to tuck into a macaroon, or the host may give impromptu tips on how to get five minutes’ silence at a children’s party. You just never know.

Speaking of which: the swapping. I took along my copy of Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, and ended up swapping it for Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book, which is about as random a swap as I can imagine. Sitting next to me was my fellow-blogger Jackie from Farm Lane Books, who tried unsuccessfully to exchange her copy of David Nicholls’ One Day (the most-swapped book in the history of the event, said Scott), and very kindly gave it to me afterwards – thanks, Jackie!

And so, I returned home with new books to read, and further books to go on the ‘must read that some time’ list. Oh, and the cake was delicious, too.

The second UK Book Bloggers’ Meet-Up

Following on from May’s gathering in London, yesterday saw another meet-up of UK book bloggers, this time in the beautiful city of Oxford. Unfortunately, it was down on numbers from last time, as many people had to cancel at the last minute; but that didn’t stop it from being a highly enjoyable day.

In the afternoon, a group of us went on a tour of the city (courtesy of Simon and Becca), which took in a couple of bookshops, the Ashmolean Museum, and Somerville College. Then it was off to a nice little pub called Far From the Madding Crowd, for a meal and book-swapping; courtesy of Annabel, I unwrapped a copy of Obstacles to Young Love by David Nobbs, which isn’t a book I knew before, but it sounds interesting.

The full list of attendees, and their blogs, was:

Annabel – Gaskella
Becca – Oxford Reader
Harriet – Harriet Devine’s Blog
Jackie – Farm Lane Books
Peter – Morgana’s Cat Speaks
Sakura – Chasing Bawa
Simon – Stuck in a Book

It was great to see everyone, but those I’d met before and those I hadn’t – and, of course, the number of books on my TBR pile is a little higher than it was two days ago…

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