Tag: lists

November wrap-up

Book of the Month

November turned out (by accident rather than design) to be a month where all the books I blogged originated from this year. And the best of the lot was Christopher Priest’s first novel in nine years, The Islanders — an exquisitely crafted piece of work which provides a set of narrative pieces in the form of gazetteer entries, and leaves readers to construct the story (or stories).




New Voices: the W&N sampler

So I was lucky enough to win a copy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s ‘New Voices’ sampler, containing extracts from the beginnings of six of their forthcoming debut novels. As I’m always keen to discover interesting debuts, I have decided to read and rate each extract; as with my round-up of the Waterstone’s 11 earlier in the year, the ratings are based on how strongly the extract makes me want to read the book.

Shelley Harris – Jubilee (Dec 2011)

In this extract, we meet Satish Patel, a Ugandan-born doctor who came to the UK as a child. At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the young Satish was the central figure in a photograph which has become iconic – great for Andrew Ford, the photographer; but Satish’s relationship with the image has been more ambivalent. Now, thirty years on, Ford wants to stage a reconstruction of the photo.

Of all the extracts, this is the one that for me has the best individual turns of phrase, and I find the set-up very intriguing indeed. The excerpt presented here is probably too short for one to get a firm impression of the novel, but I’d certainly keep an eye out for Jubilee in the shops.

Anticipation rating: ***½

(EDIT, 8th Jan: I’ve now reviewed Jubilee here.)

Ayad Akhtar – American Dervish (Jan 2012)

Akhtar’s introductory note says that he wanted his novel to give ‘a felt sense of what it was like to grow up Muslim in America’. His narrator is Hayat Shah, whose mother’s friend Mina comes – at Hayat’s mother’s instigation – to the US in 1981 from Pakistan, where Mina’s husband has divorced her and left her (for the time being) with their baby son. The extract goes up to a few weeks after Mina’s arrival, and suggests that she is an extraordinary individual who will change the lives of Hayat and his family.

These first couple of chapters aren’t bad, but neither is there anything in them which makes me feel particularly inclined to read on. Of course there’s every chance that American Dervish takes off further in, but I’ll be checking the reviews first.

Anticipation rating: ***

Harriet Lane – Alys, Always (Feb 2012)

Frances Thorpe, sub-editor on a newspaper’s books desk, is out driving one Sunday evening when she comes across a crashed car and an injured woman; she helps as best she can, but later learns that the woman has died. Though Frances thinks that is the end of that, she discovers that the dead woman – Alys –  was married to Laurence Kyte, a celebrated novelist – so she accepts the opportunity of meeting the victim’s family. The extract ends as Frances is embellishing her account of what happened at the scene of the accident, and formulating plans to attend Alys’s memorial service.

Now, this has caught my attention. It’s not so much particular turns of phrase, but there’s a real energy and momentum to Lane’s prose, which I find compelling. There’s a sense at the close of the extract that Frances’s story could go anywhere; and I want to find out where, so I will definitely be reading this book.

Anticipation rating: ****

J.W. Ironmonger –The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder (Mar 2012)

Adam Last ‘s friend Maximilian Ponder has died. As he lifts the body on to the dining room table, Last describes the scene in careful detail, just as Ponder would have wanted. Before he calls out the police, Last begins to go through the volumes of Ponder’s attempt to catalogue the entire contents of his own brain.

This extract has perhaps the most distinctive style of the six; based on what I’ve read, it’s a slightly mannered, slightly long-winded style which has the potential to be either gloriously eccentric or just annoying. I must reserve judgement for now, but err on the side of optimism, and am certainly intrigued.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Kenneth Macleod – The Incident (Apr 2012)

Macleod’s narrator is a British lifeguard in Germany; we establish from the short prologue that he feels responsible for the deaths of two children, but learn no specifics. The narrator then turns to recalling the story of his grandfather, Gordon McInness, in the Second World War: Gordon is a merchant seaman whose ship is pressed into service as a tanker; the extract ends as the ship is hit and sunk by a torpedo from a U-boat (though the crew survive).

There’s some good imagery at the start of this extract, but the rest of it didn’t hold my interest so much. The novel as a whole promises to show how its different narrative threads – including a third one, set in the Cold War – link together. That overall picture may well be interesting, but The Incident won’t be going on my to-read list as yet.

Anticipation rating: ***

Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Jun 2012)

Bee Branch’s mother, Bernadette, has vanished (presumably she has walked out on her family; it’s not clear just from this extract). The text of the novel (insofar as the excerpt goes, anyway) is presented as a compendium of documents from the weeks running up to the disappearance, compiled by Bee in an effort to piece together what might have happened and why.

As with the Ironmonger, I suspect that Semple’s narrative technique has the potential to enthrall or frustrate; for now, I like it – the extract is drily amusing, revealing a burgeoning dispute between neighbours over rampant blackberry vines; a ridiculously laid-back school; and more. I reckon Where’d You Go, Bernadette could be well worth a look.

Anticipation rating: ***½


Out of six extracts, then, I definitely want to read one of the novels (Alys, Always), and am intrigued by another three (those by Harris, Ironmonger, and Semple). I think that’s pretty good going.

October wrap-up

Book of the Month

This month, I read the winners of both the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize. The latter won out for me, so my pick of October’s reads is King Crow, Michael Stewart’s intriguing study of a teenage boy obsessed with birds, who gets led astray by a new friend.

Now here’s what else was on the blog this month…





One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five (again!)

Simon from Stuck in a Book has posted another edition of the reading-snapshot meme he created in May. I enjoyed answering it the first time, so I thought I’d do it again; as you’ll see, it is a full house of 2011 titles for me.

1) The book I’m currently reading

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man

Bennett’s first novel, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite reads of 2010, so naturally I have high hopes for this sophomore effort. I’m a little too early on in The Company Man to say firmly what it’s like, but so far it is an intriguing noir-ish novel set in an alternate 1919 with more advanced technology.

2) The last book I finished

The Guardian Review Book of Short Stories

Free with yesterday’s Guardian, this is an anthology of eleven original shorts from writers including Margaret Atwood, William Trevor, and Audrey Niffenegger. It’s a very diverse selection that almost certainly does have something for everyone. I particularly liked the stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mohsin Hamid.

3) The next book I want to read

Helen Gordon, Landfall

It was way back in March when I saw Gordon read from her debut novel at the Penguin General bloggers’ evening. Between that and the blurb of Landfall, which promises “one of the most surprising and destabilizing endings you’ll have ever read, I’m keen to read the book as soon as possible.

4) The last book I bought

Ian R. MacLeod, Wake Up and Dream

I haven’t bought any books since FantasyCon at the start of the month, so I had to think back to work out which was the last. MacLeod’s follow-up to the Clarke-winning Song of Time imagines Clark Gable as a private eye in a ’40s Hollywood where the movies can be transmitted directly into your brain. That makes two books out of five on my list which are noir fantastications — quite an odd coincidence.

5) The last book I was given

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

A big thank-you to Bianca Winter for very kindly sending me her copy of this year’s Booker winner, which was also the subject of my latest review.

The Clarke Award and posterity

Last Friday, Adam Roberts posted a thought-provoking blog piece on literary awards, taking in the Man Booker Prize, the British Fantasy Awards, and more besides (do check it out if you’ve not read it). One of Adam’s key points is that it’s important for the selections made by awards to be able to stand the test of time; I was interested to see how successfully that happens, so I’m going to look at some award-winners and see how posterity has treated them. I’ll be concentrating on the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as that’s the one I feel in the best position to consider.

This is not about whether the books are good so much as how history seems to have judged them from the viewpoint of me as someone with a reasonably good knowledge (though not an expert knowledge) of fantastic fiction. I’ll be rating each Clarke winner for posterity using the following scale:

5 stars – an acknowledged and enduring classic, or the pinnacle of a distinguished career.

4 stars – a very important book, or a likely classic-in-the-making.

3 stars – a moderately significant novel, or a newer work whose long-term importance is still unclear.

2 stars – a book which has evidently not been treated well by posterity.

1 star – a work which has largely been forgotten.

I’ll try to be as objective as I can (but of course that is not going to be entirely possible). Here goes…

Continue reading

World Book Night 2012 Top 100

This year, World Book Night asked people to nominate their top ten books, to create a list that would feed into the selection of next year’s titles to be given away. That list, the Top 100, was announced today, and here it is; in time-honoured book-blogging tradition, I’m emboldened the books I’ve read.

The 2012 Long List – ordered by number of votes:

1    To Kill a Mockingbird    Harper Lee
2    Pride and Prejudice    Jane Austen
3    The Book Thief    Markus Zusak   
4    Jane Eyre    Charlotte Bronte
5    The Time Traveler’s Wife    Audrey Niffenegger
6    The Lord of the Rings    J. R. R. Tolkien   
7    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy    Douglas Adams
8    Wuthering Heights    Emily Bronte
9    Rebecca    Daphne Du Maurier
10    The Kite Runner    Khaled Hosseini
11    American Gods    Neil Gaiman   
12    A Thousand Splendid Suns    Khaled Hosseini  
13    Harry Potter Adult Hardback Boxed Set    J. K. Rowling
14    The Shadow of the Wind    Carlos Ruiz Zafon
15    The Hobbit    J. R. R. Tolkien   
16    One Day    David Nicholls
17    Birdsong    Sebastian Faulks
18    The Help    Kathryn Stockett
19    Nineteen Eighty-Four    George Orwell
20    Good Omens    Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman  
21    The Notebook    Nicholas Sparks
22    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo    Stieg Larsson
23    The Handmaid’s Tale    Margaret Atwood   
24    The Great Gatsby    F. Scott Fitzgerald
25    Little Women    Louisa M. Alcott
26    Memoirs of a Geisha    Arthur Golden
27    The Lovely Bones    Alice Sebold
28    Atonement    Ian McEwan
29    Room    Emma Donoghue 
30    Catch-22    Joseph Heller
31    We Need to Talk About Kevin    Lionel Shriver
32    His Dark Materials    Philip Pullman  
33    Captain Corelli’s Mandolin    Louis De Bernieres
34    The Island    Victoria Hislop
35    Neverwhere    Neil Gaiman
36    The Poisonwood Bible    Barbara Kingsolver
37    The Catcher in the Rye    J. D. Salinger
38    Chocolat    Joanne Harris
39    Never Let Me Go    Kazuo Ishiguro
40    The Five People You Meet in Heaven    Mitch Albom
41    One Hundred Years of Solitude    Gabriel Garcia Marquez
42    Animal Farm    George Orwell
43    The Pillars of the Earth    Ken Follett
44    The Eyre Affair    Jasper Fforde    
45    Tess of the D’Urbervilles    Thomas Hardy
46    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory    Roald Dahl    
47    I Capture the Castle    Dodie Smith
48    The Wasp Factory    Iain Banks
49    Life of Pi    Yann Martel
50    The Road    Cormac McCarthy
51    Great Expectations    Charles Dickens
52    Dracula    Bram Stoker    
53    The Secret History    Donna Tartt  
54    Small Island    Andrea Levy
55    The Secret Garden    Frances Hodgson Burnett
56    Lord of the Flies    William Golding
57    Persuasion    Jane Austen
58    A Prayer for Owen Meany    John Irving    
59    Notes from a Small Island    Bill Bryson 
60    Watership Down    Richard Adams
61    Night Watch    Terry Pratchett   
62    Brave New World    Aldous Huxley
63    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time    Mark Haddon
64    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell    Susanna Clarke
65    The Color Purple    Alice Walker
66    My Sister’s Keeper    Jodi Picoult
67    The Stand    Stephen King
68    Cloud Atlas    David Mitchell
69    The Master and Margarita    Mikhail Bulgakov
70    Anna Karenina    Leo Tolstoy
71    Cold Comfort Farm    Stella Gibbons
72    Frankenstein    Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
73    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society    Mary Ann Shaffer
74    The Picture of Dorian Gray    Oscar Wilde  
75    Gone with the Wind    Margaret Mitchell
76    The Graveyard Book    Neil Gaiman
77    The Woman in White    Wilkie Collins
78    The Princess Bride    William Goldman
79    A Suitable Boy    Vikram Seth
80    Perfume    Patrick Suskind    
81    The Count of Monte Cristo    Alexandre Dumas
82    The God of Small Things    Arundhati Roy
83    Middlemarch    George Eliot
84    Dune    Frank Herbert
85    Wolf Hall    Hilary Mantel
86    Stardust    Neil Gaiman    
87    Lolita    Vladimir Nabokov
88    Midnight’s Children    Salman Rushdie
89    Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone    J. K. Rowling  
90    Shantaram    Gregory David Roberts
91    The Remains of the Day    Kazuo Ishiguro
92    Possession: A Romance    A. S. Byatt
93    Tales of the City    Armistead Maupin
94    Kafka on the Shore    Haruki Murakami
95    The Magus    John Fowles
96    The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas    John Boyne
97    A Fine Balance    Rohinton Mistry
98    Alias Grace    Margaret Atwood
99    Norwegian Wood    Haruki Murakami
100    The Wind-up Bird Chronicle    Haruki Murakami

So, that’s 22 titles that I’ve read (and I’ve just started The Great Gatsby, which will make 23), which is a higher percentage than I usually manage with this kind of list.

As for the list itself:  it’s the typical mixture of established classics, more recent favourites, and talked-about titles from the past year or two, that one might expect — and, from that point of view, I think it’s not a bad list. Quite remarkable showing for Neil Gaiman, though, I must say, with a full five titles (including one co-authorship) on the list.

And if I were going to choose one of these books to give away? I think I’d go for Notes from a Small Island.

Man Booker shortlist 2011

The shortlist for the Booker Prize has been announced, and here it is:

  • Juiian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
  • Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
  • Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues
  • Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English
  • A.D. Miller, Snowdrops

I still haven’t read any of these books myself, and so can’t add much more to my original thoughts on the longlist. But I will share my thoughts on hearing the shortlist.

Overall, I find this year’s Man Booker shortlist surprising and interesting. The Barnes sounded a typical ‘Booker novel’, and it’s no surprise to me to see it here; the same goes for Pigeon English, which seems to have been featured and talked about all over the place this year. I couldn’t make a call on the Edugyan, but the other three shortlisted titles certainly sounded less obviously ‘literary’ (I appreciate I’m making crude judgements here) than I would traditionally associate with the Booker.

Though I may be surprised with the shortlist, I’m also pleased, as I think it makes for rather a diverse selection of books. Also, three of the four books I named in my longlist post as those I most wanted to read have made it on to the shortlist, so I may well read at least some of the shortlist before the announcement of the winner on 18th October (any reviews will, as ever, be linked in the list above).

Congratulations to all six nominees; I wonder who will win.

August wrap-up

As August draws to a close, here’s the usual look back at activity on the blog.

Book of the Month

No contest this month — the best book I read in August was Robert Shearman’s superlative story collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. Certainly the best book of short fiction I have read so far this year, I expect it’ll also feature on my best-reads-of-2011 list.



Science fiction in the mainstream: Clarke Award contenders

Two things struck me during a recent Twitter discussion on favourites for next year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. The first was that relatively few genre names came to mind; a few Clarke stalwarts were mentioned — China Miéville, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Neal Stephenson — but only enough to be a very small proportion of the 50-60 books which make up a typical list of submissions for the award (and it’s not even certain that the relevant books by all the writers I’ve named above will qualify as sf).

The second thing that struck me was that the number of mainstream-published novels which could be read as science fiction is rather high this year. ‘You should do a blog post!’ said Martin Lewis; so here is a list of those titles I know about (note that I haven’t read them all, so I’m going purely on the synopsis in some cases).

David Almond, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean

The first adult novel by children’s author Almond (Skellig) is a dystopian story narrated by young Billy in his own vernacular. With its manner of telling, comparisons with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy may well ensue.

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

A near-future tale of gangsters, set in a fictitious part of Ireland. Seems to be gaining acclaim for its prose style in particular.

Marius Brill, How to Forget

A magician with a murky past becomes involved in an experiment on memory which may allow him to forget the things he can’t help but remember. The potential is there for this to be reminiscent of Richard Powers’ Generosity from last year’s Clarke shortlist (albeit of course with different subject matter).

[EDIT: I’m wrong! How to Forget isn’t actually science-fictional at all.]

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Probably the best-known book on this list. I felt the novel was good, but no more than that; and only tenuously justifiable as science fiction — but, then again, I did find its sf content rather effective. My instinct is that Goon Squad is not a likely Clarke nominee, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Benjamin Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The memoir of a chimpanzee who acquires human language and intelligence. A very long book which seems to have attracted relatively little attention, but I’ve seen some very positive commentary.

Sam Leith, The Coincidence Engine

Interesting developments come to the attention of the ‘Directorate of the Extremely Improbable’, beginning with the spontaneous assemblage of an aircraft during a hurricane. Leith’s novel may or may not fall under the heading of Barleypunk, but it would seem to have a similarly self-aware approach to that of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, the Mark Wernham title that was shortlisted in 2009.

Simon Lelic, The Facility

A near-future political thriller revolving around a secret detention centre. I think the novel takes an interesting approach to its form, but in doing so becomes less successful as sf, which might weaken its chances of being a real Clarke contender.

Anna North, America Pacifica

In search of her mother, a seventeen-year-old girl heads towards the only temperate land in a frozen world. From recent Clarke shortlists, this brings to mind Marcel Theroux’s excellent Far North; one can only hope it’s as good.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The science fiction novel that made it on to the Booker longlist. May make an interesting point of comparison with the David Almond title above, as both seem to focus on young narrators who are key to their worlds’ survival.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus

A tale of life among the have-nots in a near future where complete genetic selection is available to the haves. I think the evocation of the setting is the greatest strength of this novel; whether that’s enough to make it a likely Clarke contender, I’m undecided.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading

Of all the novels I’m listing here, this is probably the one that looks least like science fiction at first sight, as it comprises a sequence of historical novellas on portraits and their subjects. But the final chapter is set in the future and makes sf out of the rest. I rather liked this book, and Adam Roberts really liked it; instinct says it may be too obliquely sf-nal to be shortlisted for the Clarke — but then, Cloud Atlas was shortlisted, so that instinct may be wrong (and I’d have no problem if that turned out to be the case).

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

The last on my alphabetical list and, conveniently, the one I’ve read which I like the most. Set in an alternate England where those of religious faith were exiled to an island off the north-east coast, Wood’s novel has a great sense of place and is a fine portrait of its world. I would certainly be happy to see this on next year’s Clarke shortlist.


There we have a dozen non-genre sf novels receiving their first UK publication this year, though I doubt very much that my list is comprehensive (for a start, it doesn’t include YA, which is not a field I know much about); I’d welcome any suggestions of books that I’ve missed.

What I don’t doubt is that mainstream-published work is a key part of the UK science fiction landscape at the moment, and it would not surprise me to see that reflected in the next Clarke Award shortlist. The Clarke hasn’t gone to a non-genre title since The Calcutta Chromosome in 1997 — will that change next year? Of course, until we see the shortlist and read the books, it’s impossible to say; but I suspect the genre titles will have a run for their money.

July wrap-up

Another month ends; here’s what was on the blog…

Book of the Month

In July, this blog was mostly concerned with short stories, and it’s a collection of those which takes the top spot this month: Stuart Evers’ Ten Stories About Smoking.



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