My best reads to June 2022

2022: The Halfway Point! So far this year, my reading has been overwhelmingly dictated by research for my current manuscript — I am surrounded by piles of pretty dense non-fiction. When I have found time for fiction, I admit I’ve mostly opted for ‘safe bets’, novels I hope and expect to fall in love with. This is not the most adventurous approach, and I do wonder if it’s part of the effect of lockdown on my reading habits.

So here is a selection of my personal top reads so far in 2022, roughly in the order in which I read them.

The Fell by Sarah Moss (Picador, 2021)

A must-read for me, as I love Moss’s previous novels Cold Ground, Ghost Wall and Summerwater. The Fell is a Covid novel, mostly told through interior monologue which feels appropriate, for Moss’s characters are coping with loneliness and isolation, their thoughts constantly pin-balling. The question at the core of this novel is posed by a crow who appears to the protagonist in an hallucination: What mistakes have you made in your life that led you to make this ill-fated decision to break isolation?

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Jonathan Cape, 2021)

I greatly admired this book, as I did her previous novel, A Separation. Kitamura’s writing is cool and measured, a style that reflects the incisive, deliberate work of her main character, an interpreter at the International Court in The Hague. She tries to detach herself from the victim testimony. Having lived in many countries as a child, the interpreter feels unmoored and now finds herself adrift in an unfamiliar city, tentatively making new friends and taking a lover. Meanings fall between the cracks in often-stunted conversations. The novel raises complex issues around who is held accountable for their crimes and who is not.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador 2022)

Where to start? So much has already been written in reviews, so I will be brief. This is a long novel, a tome, and it could have been trimmed by a hundred pages or so. But I felt ready at the start of this year to lose myself in a work of this weight. So, whereas I would normally feel frustrated (preferring, as I do, short novels to long ones), I simply went with the flow. This is a multi-stranded novel with repeated character names and a sense that the story dips into the successive, dispersed generations of one family. I love a fragmented narrative, and I am glad to have read it! There, I said I’d be brief.

Double Blind by Edward St Aubyn (Harvill Secker, 2021)

Another complex novel with a fragmented structure. Double Blind has multiple viewpoint characters, and the point of view switches within chapters. Within each chapter the timeline shuttles back and forth. The novel’s form thus appears to mirror the complexities of the natural world and the scientific disciplines being explored by a wealthy start-up investor. I thoroughly enjoyed this ambitious novel. The characters and their relationships are intriguing, and Sebastian, a schizophrenic, is the star of the show for me.

News of the Dead by James Robertson (Hamish Hamilton, 2021)

An excellent multi-stranded novel, part historical and part contemporary, exploring the stories and myths that surround a fictional Christian hermit. The story unfolds against a backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a subtle book about survival: the survival of a hermit, the survival of left-behind inhabitants in a Scottish glen, the survival of an educated but impoverished journalist, while (some) soldiers return from of the Napoleonic Wars. At the same time, this novel is about the survival of ancient stories, their inevitable distortion over time, and the readers’ obligation to fill in the gaps. Heart warming, humorous, absorbing.

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela (W&N, 2019)

As a recent convert to bird watching, how could I resist this title? A story of three Muslim friends on a road trip to the Scottish Highlands. A tender and revealing portrayal of three women’s differing experience of immigration and integration. It delves with sensitivity into the power relationships between these three friends, and the reader witnesses the subtle shifts as they spend time together in close proximity.

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband, 2021)

A super-smart, nested story that splices fact and fiction, leaving this reader dizzy but enthralled. A story centred on an anti-psychiatrist, Arthur Collins Braithwaite, who takes pot shots at leading psychiatrists of the day, lambasts the inhumane treatment of shell-shock victims, and writes his own treatise on the treatment of mental illness in a fictional book titled Untherapy – comprising anonymised case notes on several of his clients. Interspersed through the novel are the notebooks of a young woman who blames Braithwaite for a family tragedy. Who is real in this novel? Do we really need to know? Burnet’s brilliant novel explores the notion of selfhood, asking if we ever know ‘the real me,’ or if we each embody a range of ‘real me’s’.

I am currently reading Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World by John Walsh, which is a delight of literary gossip. Also, Jan Carson’s dark and hilarious novel, The Raptures. Next on the pile are How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and Adam Roberts’ The This. I have already purchased a non-fiction title on my go-to subject matter: Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford.

Among the books I am absolutely desperate to read are the latest releases from Hannah Kent (Devotion), Amy Liptrot (The Instant), NoViolet Bulawayo (Glory), Jennifer Egan (The Candy House), Emily St John Mandel (Sea of Tranquillity), Geoff Dyer (The Last Days of Roger Federer) and Haruki Murakami’s non-fiction release coming in November, Novelist as a Vocation.

As ever, I look forward to other readers’ book recommendations!

In the meantime, back to my scribbling.

Happy reading, everyone!

My favourite reads in 2021

Looking back on this second pandemic year, it appears I took a scattergun approach to my book reading — fiction and non-fiction, variously set in contemporary, historical and futuristic times. I took some surprising turns. In the latter half of my reading year, for example, I found myself deliciously embroiled in all-things-Tudor, as though I needed to inhabit a totally different world to our present one.

Here are some of the top highlights of my reading year, roughly in the order in which I read them. I hope you find a book in this list that appeals to you!

Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Press, 2014)

I do like a short novel, and art history is a go-to subject for me. Hotel Andromeda is about an art historian, Helena, who struggles with how to structure her next work of non-fiction. She is researching the life and work of surrealist Joseph Cornell who constructed collages within box frames made from scrap wood or drift wood. These collages often incorporated prints from books on astronomy, and one of his best-known works is Hotel Andromeda. Helena’s sister, Alice, works in an orphanage in Chechnya, and a friend of hers turns up unannounced at Helena’s flat. The novel draws out the difficulties we encounter in trying to understand another person, the dangers of miscommunication. Helena cannot seem to understand her sister, and yet she tries to understand Cornell, the most opaque of artists. She has an uncommunicative relationship with Tom, her downstairs neighbour, who is mining Helena and Alice’s relationship for his novel. And Helena’s elderly upstairs neighbour, Ruth, is a sounding board for Helena’s struggles with her book — is it better to analyse the full span of Cornell’s works, stick to a single artwork, or delve into his personal life. A short, complex and rewarding novel.

Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald (Jonathan Cape, 2020)

This collection of short essays was a must-read for me because I loved Helen MacDonald’s novel, H is for Hawk. Vesper Flights did not disappoint! Among my favourite essays were Field Guides, Tekels Park, The Student’s Tale, In her Orbit, The Falcon in the Tower, Vesper Flights… well, I could go on! Perfect reading to turn my thoughts away from the pandemic.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2020)

The opening chapter of this novel offers an unforgettable depiction of a heat wave in India, which causes 20 million deaths as the wet bulb temperature reaches 35C. Following this gruesome opening, Robinson focusses on game-changing innovations — a cooperative model for business, employee ownership, carbon coins and geoengineering. And the novel touches on issues of sustainability and species diversity with reference to wildlife corridors, rewilding, electric transport, dirigibles and no-till agriculture. The overall effect is one of optimism, which is one of Robinson’s trademarks.

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy (Chatto & Windus, 2021)

The Last Migration merges eco-fiction and psychological mystery. McConaghy draws a fascinating parallel between the migration of the last Arctic terns and the human impulse to get away, to leave people behind. She deals deftly with the tragedy of loss. The Last Migration is, for me, reminiscent of Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea (see last year’s favourite reads) in presenting a young woman in the throes of self destruction, set against the backdrop of humankind’s destruction of habitat.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2021)

This collection of essays is my top read of 2021, and I believe it will be loved equally by writers and readers. Saunders offers brilliant insights into the writing process and the games that writers play to hook the reader’s interest. He picks apart seven classic short stories by Russian writers Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. Such a generous set of essays, I am sure I will read this book many times over the coming years. It left me feeling inspired to write more short stories!

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber, 1987)

This three-part novel has been on my TBR for several years and finally, in 2021, it reached the top of the pile. I relished the novel’s complex structure and its disconcerting mood. Akin to walking on quaking ground, I felt unsure of where the book might lead me. Detective fiction with a surreal slant.

Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (Fourth Estate, 2009 – 2020)

Midway through 2021, I embarked on what would prove to be a deeply rewarding experience, a decidedly unusual one for me. I rarely tackle novels in a series, so I surprised myself by reading back-to-back Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and The Light. This second pandemic year left me somewhat rudderless, and I felt comforted to inhabit the Tudor court for several weeks! Mantel’s trilogy led me to devour a range of non-fiction books and tv dramas set in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I approached the end of 2021 thoroughly steeped in Plantagenet and Tudor history.

Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories, 2021)

I was fortunate to read Malcolm Devlin’s second short story collection prior to its publication. I loved it so much I endorsed the collection thus: “Malcolm Devlin dissects our everyday decisions, our individual tragedies, and summons the haunted feeling that our other selves are out there living alternate lives, and in doing so he offers the reader an unexpected and surreal consolation.” Another fantastic release from Unsung Stories.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (W&N, 2020)

The Weekend is a refreshing novel in bringing together three main protagonists who are all in their 70s. Their friendship spans forty years, and they come together at Christmas to clear the home of a recently deceased friend. All three characters reach a crisis point during this short novel. It’s a brilliant study of women who share a history of mutual support underpinned by the withholding of criticism. For me, this is a novel about tolerance. A good novel to read at the end of this difficult year.

Among my other favourite reads are Grove by Esther Kinsky (Fitzcaraldo, 2020), Exit Management by Naomi Booth (Dead Ink, 2020), and The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, 2020) – a worthy winner of The Arthur C Clarke Award. And this morning I finished Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2021), a blistering, heartrending novel that will take me some time to assimilate.

On my bedside table: Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Jonathan Cape, 2021), The Fell by Sarah Moss (Picador 2021), Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (Influx Press, 2020). I expect these three novels will be on my Best Books list for 2022! Let’s see…

Many thanks to all of you who have posted your own favourite reads this year.

Happy reading, everyone!

“All I Asked For” reaches BSFA shortlist

This comes as wonderfully cheering news during a long spell of grey days on the Isle of Bute. My short story “All I Asked For” is shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Short Fiction Award 2020. It’s in grand company, and here’s the full shortlist:

Eugen M. Bacon, Ivory’s Story, Newcon Press.

Anne Charnock, ‘All I Asked For’, Fictions, Healthcare and Care Re-Imagined. Edited by Keith Brookes, at Future Care Capital.

Dilman Dila, ‘Red_Bati’, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, AURELIA LEO. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, ‘Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon’, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, AURELIA LEO. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.

Ida Keogh, ‘Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe’, Londoncentric, Newcon Press. Edited by Ian Whates.

Tobi Ogundiran, ‘Isn’t Your Daughter Such a Doll’, Shoreline of Infinity.

Illustration: Vincent Chong

I wrote “All I Asked For” as part of a series of short stories, “Fictions: Health and Care Reimagined,” commissioned by Future Care Capital. Other contributors are Keith Brooke, Liz Williams and Stephen Palmer, and the series is illustrated by Vincent Chong. It’s a great project to be involved with and I have two more stories lined up for publication in this series during 2021.

All I Asked For” is published online and is free to read here. Illustrations by Vincent Chong.

And the BSFA’s full awards’ shortlists can be found here. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors! And many thanks to the BSFA members for their votes!

My favourite reads in 2020

I imagined at the start of lockdown that I would play catch-up this year by reading all the still-unread books on my shelves. Great idea! 

However… new releases inevitably proved too tempting. So my favourite reads during 2020 include both old and new releases. At times, I’ve found it a challenge to read long form, when news stories seemed evermore urgent. I overcame this problem by turning to books I can’t resist—those delving into writers’ lives, whether fictional or non-fictional. And that’s where I will start with year’s round-up.

Lampedusa by Steven Price (Picador 2020)

I read Lampedusa as the reality of Covid-19 unfolded, as the virus started to spread from Italy. I was in France at the time and decided to dash home to Scotland. Steven Price’s novel, set in 1950s Sicily, depicts a time when Europe still reeled from the destruction of the Second World War. The novel imagines the last days of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa as he struggles to finish his novel, The Leopard, a classic of Italian literature, published posthumously. Once wealthy, he now lives in poverty with his wife in the bombed ruins of their mansion. An intimate novel, ultimately uplifting, and one that has stayed with me.

Barnhill by Norman Bissell (Luath Press 2019)

In a similar vein, Barnhill is a well-researched, fictionalised account of the time George Orwell spent on the Isle of Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Norman Bissell adds much to my appreciation of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. At Barnhill farmhouse on Jura, Orwell contended with great hardship, growing his own food, catching fish, while battling with poor health and caring for his son, Ricky. The novel moves back and forth between Jura and the literary world of London during Orwell’s final years. As an aside, I was delighted to learn he took the steamer between Glasgow and Jura, passing the Isle of Bute where I now live!

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Granta 2013)

Following the joy, last year, of reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and essay collection Coventry, I picked up Leaving the Atocha Station—the first in Ben Lerner’s trilogy—hoping for the same auto-fictional thrill. Leaving the Atocha Station follows Adam, an American poet, during his writing residency in Madrid. I loved this witty novel! Initially the narrator inhabits a zone of uncertainty owing to his poor Spanish, and he almost enjoys mis-communicating with the people around him. He repeatedly loses his way in the streets of Madrid, constantly on the verge of spinning out of control with his medication, hash and booze. He tells lies about his family because he can get away with it—no one in Madrid knows his background. But gradually his Spanish improves and his lies start to catch up with him. I expect I’ll read the next two books in the trilogy pretty soon.

The Love-charm of Bombs—Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury 2013)

As we all entered lockdown, I found myself—along with many writers!—dwelling on how to write fiction in the era of Covid. So, I looked back to see how writers approached their fiction during the Second World War. The Love-charm of Bombs provided a lengthy yet compelling reading experience at a time when I struggled to tear myself away from news bulletins. Lara Feigel gives a detailed insight into the writing lives, loves and wartime occupations of key writers of the era—Graham Green, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber 2018)

Two intertwined storylines are set in Vineland—a 19th-century utopian community, but now an unfashionable suburb. A modern-day family grapples with complex relationships between generations. A traditional family in the 1870s aspires to climb the social ladder. We meet Mary Treat, the real-world naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin, and this provides an enchanting thread, the most seductive part of the novel for me.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Clerkenwell Press 2017)

A Separation delves into the minutiae of a marriage in the process of disintegration, and is mainly set in rural Greece—a Peloponnese landscape scorched by wildfires. The atmosphere is menacing, conveying a sense of impending disaster regarding the main character’s missing husband and the future of the natural environment. Kitamura’s writing is precise, exquisite. The narrator’s observations about her husband, boyfriend, in-laws and hotel staff are penetrating. Simply breath taking.

Ghost Species by James Bradley (Hodder & Stoughton 2020)

Ghost Species is a captivating novel and it formed a wonderful, early highlight for me in 2020. The story brings together a tech billionaire, a secretive laboratory in a remote location in Tasmania, and the vexed issue of species resurrection. The relationship between scientist Kate and Eve, a child, is beautifully and sensitively drawn. It’s an emotional read. And, if you’d like to know more, read this piece in Los Angeles Review of Books – “Writing Fiction in the Era of Climate Catastrophe: A Conversation Between Anne Charnock and James Bradley.”

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press 2020)

Without doubt this contemporary novel is both powerful and brutal. The parallels are clear between the unnamed narrator’s self-destructive tendencies and our self destruction as a species regarding climate catastrophe and species extinction. Absolutely, I feel the author achieved what she set out to achieve. So, full marks. The narrator is an aspiring writer who works shifts as an emergency-dispatch operator. She appears to believe she has no control over events affecting her life. In the same way, I suppose many people, in the face of rolling ecological disasters, feel a similar attitude of surrender-to-circumstances. This intimation of defeatism Ieft me feeling dispirited, but I’m certainly glad to have read The Inland Sea.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Picador 2020)

I enjoyed Sarah Moss’s previous novels, particularly Cold Earth (see last year’s favourite books). Summerwater is a quiet novel with multiple points-of-view, much to my taste. I see this novel as a subtle form of eco-fiction, with a contemporary setting on a holiday park in the Scottish Highlands. By turns, Summerwater is dark and light, menacing and humorous, centred on everyday family tensions and holiday dramas.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel (Picador 2020)

I held high hopes of this novel, and it delivered! I particularly enjoyed the tense relationship between the main character, Vincent, and her half-brother, centred on his theft (or appropriation as he saw it) of her five-minute video collection. A complex narrative, multi-stranded, about the wealthy people brought down by a Ponzi investment scheme. But for me the novel also described the conflicting attractions of city life versus living closer to nature and wilderness. As such it seemed to speak to our pandemic experience.

The Divers’ Game — Jesse Ball (Granta 2019)

Impressive and deeply unsettling, The Divers’ Game holds a mirror to the current splits in society and the fear of otherness. The story is set in a future where poorer people and immigrants are segregated. They’re treated with contempt and cruelty. Society is controlled by fear and the population enacts bizarre public rituals, grotesque—in my minds’ eye, reminiscent of Goya’s darkest work.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (Dialogue Books 2019)

I met Yvonne Battle-Felton in the Second Life Book Club during lockdown where our avatars gave readings! Remembered is an historical novel opening in 1910 in Philadelphia amid city riots. The main character, Spring, explains to her dying son about their family history. And so the novel develops as a multi-generational story, which takes the reader through the years of slavery and emancipation. It’s a novel of revelations, about the heart-breaking decisions mothers were willing to take to undermine the plantation owners.

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books 2012)

Last year I dipped into this essay collection, but this year I read Sightlines straight through. Kathleen Jamie’s landscape writing is poetic, authentic and unshowy. She takes the reader to the most remote islands of Scotland as she studies petrels and gannets, seals and orcas. In her essay “Pathologies,” Jamie takes the reader into the pathology lab of a Dundee hospital as she inspects diseased cells through a microscope, detecting those details that signal a patient’s chance of survival. It’s almost an odd-one-out essay in the collection, and it completely swept me away. I’ve thought of it repeatedly during this pandemic year, as Jamie’s microscopic observations offer a strange consolation.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr (Penguin Books 1980)

How have I not read this gorgeous short novel before? It offers proof that novels do not need to be doorstoppers to convey emotional depth and offer real insights about our relatively modern history. A Month in the Country depicts the poverty of post-First World War life in rural Yorkshire, where a de-mobbed and shell-shocked young man renovates a Medieval fresco in the village church of Oxgodby. Art, history, romance, and an archaeological mystery. Wonderful.

Next on the reading pile:

The Silence by Don DeLillo, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici.

Happy reading, everyone! And here’s wishing you a happy holiday season even if it’s a quiet one!

Bridge 108 – Publication Day!

Bridge 108, my fourth novel, is published today by 47North in hardback, paperback, audiobook and eBook editions! I’m over the moon.

This is my first novel to appear in hardback. And what a gorgeous hardback it is, with a beautiful dust jacket covering stunning book boards. How to make an author happy!

A stormy Isle of Bute in Scotland. Bridge 108 is my first book release since moving here two years ago!

I’m grateful to my wonderful editor, Jason Kirk, and the whole 47North team, the Brilliance audiobook team, and the cover designer David Drummond. The audiobook has six narrators for the voices of Caleb (Will M. Watt), Ma Lexie (Moira Quirk), Skylark (Fiona Hardingham), Jerome (Steve West), Jaspar (James Langton) and Sonia (Elizabeth Knowelden), and I am thrilled to bits with their fantastic performances.

As some of you know, Bridge 108 is set in the world of my debut, A Calculated Life, though either novel can be read first. Whereas A Calculated Life focuses on ‘the haves’ in late-twenty-first century England, Bridge 108 focuses on ‘the have-nots.’

Early reviews in The Guardian, Financial Times, Locus, Interzone, and more, are positive – see them on my Press page. Author interviews are in the pipeline so keep an eye on my tweets, and here on my website if you are curious.

“Charnock tells her story through the lives of ordinary people caught up in situations beyond their control, and Bridge 108 is all the more powerful for that.” — The Guardian

“Anne Charnock’s Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as her terrific 2013 debut A Calculated Life…(Bridge 108) seems horribly prescient. With the inclusion of climate refugees, child trafficking, and slavery, Bridge 108 adds that final touch of verisimilitude to Charnock’s post-Brexit nightmare.” — Locus Magazine

Are you are interested in fiction that relates to climate change? I’ve made recommendations on — Five Recent Books About Climate Catastrophe.

Many thanks, all, for your continuing support for my scribblings.

Here is the back cover blurb for Bridge 108:

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award–winning author, a dystopian novel of oppression set in the climate-ravaged Europe of A Calculated Life, a finalist for the Kitschies award and Philip K. Dick Award.

Late in the twenty-first century, drought and wildfires prompt an exodus from southern Europe. When twelve-year-old Caleb is separated from his mother during their trek north, he soon falls prey to traffickers. Enslaved in an enclave outside Manchester, the resourceful and determined Caleb never loses hope of bettering himself.

After Caleb is befriended by a fellow victim of trafficking, another road opens. Hiding in the woodlands by day, guided by the stars at night, he begins a new journey—to escape to a better life, to meet someone he can trust, and to find his family. For Caleb, only one thing is certain: making his way in the world will be far more difficult than his mother imagined.

Told through multiple voices and set against the backdrop of a haunting and frighteningly believable future, Bridge 108 charts the passage of a young boy into adulthood amid oppressive circumstances that are increasingly relevant to our present day.

Happy reading, everyone!

My favourite reads in 2019

At this time of year I love to look back on the books I’ve enjoyed reading, those that made a lasting impression on me. I keep a log of my reading and of the 45 books I read in 2019, these are (some of) my highlights:

The Cemetery at Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Press, 2018)

A short novel that obliges the reader to make guesses. I felt I’d tuned into a radio play having missed the first five minutes. It denies completion for the reader and emphasises the unfinished nature of most experiences.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (Granta, 2010)

Another novel that had me searching for answers. It’s a compelling story about a remote archaeological dig. Are the archaeologists truly stranded? Is everyone in the outside world dead? Will the plane arrive on the agreed date? Are members of the team hiding the true gravity of outside events. Are other team members colluding? And there’s an undertone of humour—all these characters with PhDs but minimal survival skills.

After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus (Penguin, 2017)

I love writer biographies and this is a fine example. Acker made her mark as an experimental writer in 60s New York. She flitted between New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and London. Her connection with the art world figures—Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, Martha Rosler, Dan Graham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Serra, Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt—offers fascinating asides. A biography that gets into the detail of Acker’s writing methodology.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber and Faber, 2018)

Although some readers found this book challenging, I found myself sucked in straightaway. I learned a great deal about daily life during The Troubles. I felt extremely grateful for this insight, and I’ve recommended Milkman to all my friends.

How Should A Person Be by Shiela Heti (Vintage, 2013)

This is a novel—part memoir, part fiction—which explores how to navigate the world as a creative person. At the core lies a simple question about the main character, Sheila: Will she or won’t she finish writing her play? But the over-arching question posed by Heti is whether art is a narcissistic endeavour. An authentic story about a playwright who is a hairdresser by day.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (William Heinemann, 2018)

At the outset, I felt slightly daunted by the length of this novel, but I found myself zipping along thanks to the four-part structure and a fascinating range of point of view characters. For me, the highlight is found in the wonderful character of Patricia Westerford, a tree specialist, who I’ve thought about many times since I finished reading the novel. Her academic reputation is trashed by male peers when she suggests that trees can communicate. A fascinating and redemptive storyline, within an ambitious novel.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (Macmillan,1970. Flamingo, 2010)

Sophie Bentwood lives in Brooklyn and is bitten by a stray cat, leading to her uncharacteristic decision to go for a middle-of-the-night drink with her husband’s business partner. And in these strange circumstances, she rashly reveals to him that she has had an affair. She reflects on that affair through this short novel, and on her husband’s disinclination or inability to explore his feelings, or other people’s motivations. The novel’s theme—that chaos might overwhelm polite society at any turn—is brilliantly set up in the opening pages in its descriptions of a part-gentrified but still seedy Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray, 2019)

I was intrigued to read how Amitav Ghosh addressed climate change in this novel, coming in the wake of his non-fiction work The Great Derangement—his reflection on realist fiction’s limited ability to handle environmental and climate catastrophe. I enjoyed this novel partly for its setting in the mangroves of the Sundarbans, the delta of the Bengal River. It deals with the human impact of flooding. And one of his main characters is Priya, a marine biologist who investigates the beaching of freshwater dolphins. This novel feels one step removed from realism as it delves into local myth and doesn’t shy away from unrealistic coincidences in its plot.

Outline Trilogy and Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Faber and Faber, 2014-2019)

Cusk’s Outline trilogy and her collection of essays, Coventry, provided the high point of my reading year. I read the first two parts of the trilogy—Outline and Transit—in quick succession. Later in the year I read Coventry and, finally, the third part of the trilogy, Kudos. Cusk is one of the most audacious writers around at the moment, experimenting with form, specifically with the visibility or invisibility of her narrator. I’m glad I read these four books in the order I did, because her essays informed how I read Kudos. The trilogy is a brilliant and I can’t wait to read more of Cusk.

The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber, 2019)

Unlike some readers, I feel the most successful part of this climate-change novel is that set on The Wall. I felt drawn into the life of Kavanagh who patrols this massive coastal defence, aimed at repelling climate migrants. Lanchester slows down time as he describes, in pared back prose, the detail of being on shift, with the monotony and the ever-present fear of attack. There is sufficient backstory. Minimal info-dumping. And for me the elements of concrete poetry worked well. The later sections seem a little rushed but the ending is satisfying.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker (Doubleday, 2019)

This is a compelling, fragmentary, multiple point-of-view novel that deals with violence against women. More specifically, it examines how a violent event has shaped the psyche of a creative writing tutor. Smart and very readable. A true literary thriller.

Always North by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories, 2019)

A novel of two halves. The first is set on a seismic survey vessel operating illegally in the Arctic and is totally convincing in its detail of seismic operations. Jarrett successfully creates an eco-thriller vibe with strong characters. The second is set some years in the future revisiting some of the original crew members who are now surviving as best they can in an environmentally ravaged world.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones (Granta, 2019)

This is a poetic and beautifully structured novel set in a world that is suffering water shortages as a result of climate change. The story is told in the form of vignettes, which are linked by the various characters’ sometimes tenuous relationships. I do recall, back in the late 70s, some serious discussion about the feasibility of towing icebergs from the Arctic to the Middle East. In Stillicide, icebergs are towed to the UK!

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Granta, 2018)

Another short read and my last of 2019. I’ve been meaning to read this since its release and following multiple recommendations by friends. It didn’t disappoint. I enjoy the detail of other people’s working lives and I truly warmed to this convenience store woman whose personal motto seems to be, If you are going to do a job, you might as well do it well. A good note to end my year on!

In addition:

I was fortunate to read ahead of publication, M. T. Hill’s novel The Breach, which will be published in March 2020 (Titan), following his well-received 2019 novel, Zero Bomb. The Breach is a crossover of psychological thriller, horror and hard SF. Hill displays his signature gritty style, and The Breach is the most visceral of his novels to date. Hill brings together the worlds of journalists, climbers, steeplejacks and urban explorers among a cast of totally authentic characters.

Happy reading, everyone!

BBC Radio 4: Babies In Bags

This month I took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Babies In Bags, in which I discussed the issues raised in Dreams Before the Start of Time, as part of a half-hour programme on human reproductive technologies. The show’s host, Dr Jen Gupta and Alice Fraser, were absolutely brilliant at bringing together both the fiction around this subject and the actual science!

This was the first of six episodes in Stranger Than Sci-Fi and here are the details from the BBC website: Read more

Bridge 108 — Cover Reveal!

I’m thrilled to reveal the stunning cover art for my novel Bridge 108. This is my fourth novel and it will be published by 47North on 14 January 2020. The cover designer is David Drummond, who also designed the wonderful cover of Dreams Before the Start of Time.

Bridge 108 will be published on 14 January 2020. Cover art by David Drummond.

Bridge 108 is a standalone novel and it is set in the dystopian world of my debut novel, A Calculated Life (47North) and my BSFA award-winning novella, The Enclave (NewCon Press).

When I first started drafting A Calculated Life, way back in 2002, I set my story against a backdrop of climate change. The north of England has shifted from a wet, temperate climate to one that’s closer to mediterranean. In Bridge 108, I focus on those people living at the bottom of the heap in late 21st century society — the economic losers living in the enclaves, the climate migrants and their traffickers.

Here is the back cover blurb:

From the Arthur C. Clarke Award–winning author, a dystopian novel of oppression set in the climate-ravaged Europe of A Calculated Life, a finalist for the Kitschies award and Philip K. Dick Award.
Late in the twenty-first century, drought and wildfires prompt an exodus from southern Europe. When twelve-year-old Caleb is separated from his mother during their trek north, he soon falls prey to traffickers. Enslaved in an enclave outside Manchester, the resourceful and determined Caleb never loses hope of bettering himself.
After Caleb is befriended by a fellow victim of trafficking, another road opens. Hiding in the woodlands by day, guided by the stars at night, he begins a new journey—to escape to a better life, to meet someone he can trust, and to find his family. For Caleb, only one thing is certain: making his way in the world will be far more difficult than his mother imagined.
Told through multiple voices and set against the backdrop of a haunting and frighteningly believable future, Bridge 108 charts the passage of a young boy into adulthood amid oppressive circumstances that are increasingly relevant to our present day.

Bridge 108 will be released in hardback, paperback, eBook and audiobook editions.
Pre-orders are now open!

A race to the finishing line, and 2018 highlights

Yes, I’ve fallen radio silent of late, necessarily so! I’ve been racing to the finishing line for my fourth novel, Bridge 108, which is set in the same world as my debut, A Calculated Life.

And I made it with several days to spare as it turned out. I emailed the manuscript to my editor as my first family visitors arrived for the holiday season. Bridge 108 is due to be published in early 2020.

I’ve completed this novel while unpacking at our new home on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, and embarking on some pretty disruptive house rejigging. A more sensible person would have avoided further complications. But I embarked on the finickity business of organising train tickets and visas for a month-long journey from Paris to Beijing, via Moscow, Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan, and Ürümqi in north west China. Garry and I set off at the end of August, returning in early October after a remarkable and unforgettable adventure.

2019 will be a tad quieter! We plan to explore the west coast of Scotland in our free time, see the islands that we’ve not already visited.

Highlights of 2018:

Umm, well, I still pinch myself over the biggest news of all—Dreams Before the Start of Time won the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award. And my first novella, The Enclave, won the British Science Fiction Association’s Award for Best Short Fiction. These successes have brought me new opportunities, and I’m delighted that I am now represented by the Sarah Such Literary Agency.

The journey across Central Asia proved to be an exceptional experience, with many individual highlights. I’ve already posted about the amazing visit to the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility. However, I’d like to end 2018 by telling you about two wonderful writers who I met en route.

I arranged in advance to meet Zira Naurzbayeva in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

One the highlights of my year: meeting Kazach writer Zira Naurzbayeva, author of The Beskempir.

Zira and I met on a Saturday afternoon at the National Library, and our conversation was as memorable as any I can recall in all my travels either as a fiction writer or, in my earlier career, as a journalist. I had arranged to meet Zira after reading an extract from her non-fiction work The Beskempir, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. The Beskempir translates as Dragon Grandmothers and the book relates the experiences of a generation of women who struggled with the transition from village communities in the Soviet era to modern-day urban life in Kazakhstan. You can read the extract, here.

Hopefully, one day soon, Zira will find an English-language publisher for this book, so we may glean a fascinating insight into the 20th century history of Central Asia.

Little did I know before meeting Zira, that her own family history mirrored the political upheavals and economic catastrophes endured by Kazakhstan—the confiscations of livestock by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, the push by Joseph Stalin to collectivise farming and fishing, the decline of the fishing industry at the Aral Sea, and the impact of the Soviet nuclear testing programme in eastern Kazakhstan.

We chatted about the difficulty of writing family history, how members of a family can hold diverging recollections of important events. And how some people prefer to move on rather than rake up the past.

But I came away, wishing that Zira would write a family history. I’m so thrilled that we managed to meet and I’m grateful to Shelley Fairweather-Vega for making the introduction.

In Beijing, I was honoured to meet Lin Zhe, author of the brilliant novel Old Town. A wonderful end to my west-east journey.

In Beijing, I met the prolific author and scriptwriter Lin Zhe whose novel Old Town is a remarkable family saga set in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s an eye-opening read, and it’s been a big hit both as a novel and as a popular TV series in China. We had a fun afternoon together, which involved much eating of cake! And it was fascinating to talk about the merging of fiction and memoir in Old Town.

In fact, I’ve read a good number of memoirs in 2019. It may seem odd, but when I’m drafting science fiction, I often prefer to read, by way of a mental break, either non-fiction or novels with a contemporary setting.

So, here’s my top memoir reads this year:

Self & I – A Memoir of Literary Ambition by Matthew De Abaitua

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

Good Children of the Flower by Hong Ying

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The Cost of Living and Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is the Place to be by Lara Pawson


Thanks for all your support in 2018!

Stay well in 2019, and happy reading, everyone!

Book deal: Bridge 108 revealed!

As announced in The Bookseller today, I’m delighted to reveal the news that I’ve signed a contract with 47North for my fourth novel, Bridge 108. I’m so thrilled to be working with my editor, Jason Kirk, once again.

This latest novel is set in the same world as my debut, A Calculated Life, and it will be published in hardback and eBook editions in early 2020. Although these two novels are set in the same near-future world, they are ‘standalones’. Read them in whichever order you prefer!

Bridge 108 follows a young climate refugee who is trafficked into slavery in the north of England. To quote from the press release: “Bridge 108 is a warm yet deeply heart-rending story about a boy who is too trusting and inevitably falls prey to malevolent forces on his long trek. Yet he never waivers in his pursuit of success in a deeply divided and locked-down England.”

I signed the contract on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair as I arrived back in the UK from my travels in Kazakhstan and China. So it’s been a whirlwind of late! Many thanks to my agent Sarah Such.

Read the full news announcement here.

By the way, have you noticed my new author photos? These were shot by my talented friend Marzena Pogorzaly. I’m so pleased with them. Here’s one on my bio page.