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!
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!
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!
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 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!
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.
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 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!
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.
Ever since I read about the world’s eight Poles of Inaccessibility – while carrying out research for Dreams Before the Start of Time – I hoped that one day I’d reach the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility.
Last month I made it!
In Dreams Before the Start of Time, Toni and Atticus have a conversation on a train about this particular pole. The conversation takes place towards the end of the novel, but that’s not a spoiler!
So, here I am, standing at the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility – one of several stopping off points during a month-long journey taking in Kazakhstan and China. This pole marks the most distant point on the Eurasian land mass from the coastline. Geographers have hotly debated its precise location, but in any case a monument was built in the 1990s, so that’s where Garry and I headed! It’s located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far northwest of China, towards the Kazakhstan border, southwest of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
The monument is impressive – judge for yourselves from the photos – and the setting is stark. It felt REMOTE!
This proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. We travelled by Russian and Kazakh trains from Paris to Moscow, onwards to Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan, and from there to Ürümqi in China. We then took a flight to Beijing before returning home this week.
I’ll be writing more blogposts about the trip when I’ve unpacked!
My head is still spinning from a fabulous night at Foyles in London where Dreams Before the Start of Time won the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award. I feel so honoured! I was thrilled to have the opportunity to thank my brilliant editor, Jason Kirk, at 47North and to thank my wonderful ‘first readers’ — the Charnocks — Garry, Adam and Rob.
Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors. I was delighted to find myself in such fine company and I hope we’ll all get together sometime for a panel discussion, because our novels cover the whole spectrum of science fiction.
And what a treat to see this coverage of the award in the Guardian.
I need to sit in a dark room for a few hours to calm down, but before I do so, I’d like to thank the Arthur C. Clarke Award directors – Tom Hunter, Dr Andrew M. Butler and Stephanie Holman – for their superb work throughout the year. And of course my heartfelt thanks to the judges who have read so many books, no doubt putting their lives on pause.
The award ceremony was such a fun evening and it was wonderful to celebrate with such a passionate bunch of writers and readers of science fiction.
This is such an honour, and I’m overwhelmed! Dreams Before the Start of Time (47North) is shortlisted for The Arthur C. Clarke Award 2018.
The shortlist was announced today at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival by award director Tom Hunter. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors! Below is the full shortlist of novels. And there’s time for you to read them ALL before the winner is announced in London on 18 July.
Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz)
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock (47North)
American War by Omar El Akkad (Picador)
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar (Sceptre)
Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed (Tinder Press)
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (Fourth Estate)
My thanks to the jury for all their dedication in reading 108 submitted novels! The jurors are:
Dave Hutchinson, British Science Fiction Association
Gaie Sebold, British Science Fiction Association
Paul March-Russell, Science Fiction Foundation
Kari Maund, Science Fiction Foundation
Charles Christian, SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival
Want to know more about the novels?
Alasdair Stuart gives his thoughts on the six novels today on Tor.com and refers to the “scalpel-precise character drama of Dreams Before The Start of Time.”
I’m delighted with his assessment of the book:
In 2034, Millie and Toni are trying to figure out whether they want to be mothers. Their choices, the obstacles they face, and the consequences of their decisions will change the lives of people for generations to come.
Charnock’s work is focused on character, and this is a deceptively small-focus, intimate study. It’s reminiscent of Cloud Atlas in a way, pinwheeling between characters as we move forward in time—but as the novel progresses it becomes clear just how wide a remit Charnock is aiming for, and just how successfully she covers it. This is a novel about the evolution of family and humanity and how inextricably they’re tied together. It’s a unique, challenging, and immensely successful story.
Alasdair Stuart says good things about the other books, too! See here.
I’ve just returned home to Bute after a remarkable weekend at Follycon in Harrogate where I’ve enjoyed many fascinating conversations with authors and readers, and to top it all… I’ve come home with the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Shorter Fiction for my novella, The Enclave (NewCon Press). It’s a huge honour given the shortlist and previous winners and it’s particularly exciting to gain this award in the BSFA’s sixtieth year. I was thrilled to receive the award from acclaimed author Nnedi Okorafor. The Enclave is set the world of my first novel A Calculated Life (47North). The whole experience of returning to a familiar world was intensely rewarding and certainly enjoyable.
My novel Dreams Before the Start of Time was shortlisted for the Best Novel Award, which was actually awarded to Nina Allan for her wonderful novel The Rift. We were delighted to celebrate together!
— Glyn Morgan (@GR_Morgan) March 31, 2018
In accepting this award I took the opportunity to thank my family. I’m actually very fortunate, even unusual, as an author in having close family members who are excellent beta-readers, each bringing something quite individual to my manuscripts. I value their insights and suggestions enormously. Whenever I send a manuscript to Garry, Adam and Robert, I always say something along the lines of: “I know you are busy but it would be great if you could find time to read this and comment.” They know that what I’m really saying is this: “Drop whatever you are doing!!! Read this carefully, give it your undivided attention and get back to me without delay.” They have never disappointed me.
Congratulations to all the BSFA Award winners, see here, and all the nominees. Thank you to publisher NewCon Press for inviting me to write a novella. And many thanks to the BSFA, and BSFA members for voting!
Also from Harrogate
The stand-out event for me was a three-way discussion about the 1960s/70s New Wave science fiction movement, which can be seen as a resurgence of surrealist writing. The discussants were John Clute, Kim Stanley Robinson and Christopher Priest. Their conversation conveyed an enthralling mix of facts, reminiscence, personal anecdotes and the end-result was a fresh, even revisionist, account of a revolutionary period of fantastical writing.
Making the best of a bitterly cold weekend on Bute, I curled up on the sofa beside my new stove, and read a pre-publication copy of Matthew De Abaitua’s Self & I: A Memoir of Literary Ambition. I fully expected both an insightful and a witty read!
The premise is irresistible — De Abaitua reflects on the mid-1990s when as a young, searingly ambitious graduate from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme he’s hired as live-in writing assistant, or amanuensis, to the already successful, much-in-demand author, Will Self.
Did the book live up to expectations? Well, yes it did!
Will Self has decamped from London to a remote cottage in Suffolk. De Abaitua’s daily tasks range from clearing the fire grate, cycling to the nearest village on postal and shopping errands, transcribing taped interviews (one between Self and JG Ballard), brewing opium tea and taking messages from Self’s agent, publishers and commissioning editors at newspapers. The job constitutes a lucky break since the alternative for De Abaitua is returning to the north to pick up his old job as a security guard on the Liverpool docks.
I felt lucky myself in reading this memoir; the reader seems to eavesdrop in effect on conversations between Self and De Abaitua on lofty literary matters, about modernism, the morality of style. Fascinating stuff. All the while, De Abaitua casts around for subject matter as a springboard for his own writing, though he worries that as a young man he hasn’t lived long enough to make a decent stab at writing fiction: “Beginnings are all you know”. The memoir suggests to me that De Abaitua had plenty of material to mine from his own tough teenage years, but I expect he needed a bit of distance, two decades of distance, to make sense of it all.
He takes a tentative step forward by asking his friend Nelson to taperecord conversations at the bar where he works. De Abaitua transcribes these tapes in his spare time in Suffolk hoping, trusting, that he’ll find inspiration from this collection of incoherent fragments. He recognises that incoherence is truthful.
Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Life is mostly middle.
With my past life as a visual artist, I’m especially intrigued that while De Abaitua is holed up in Suffolk his ideas for fiction projects seem akin to conceptual art projects. Nelson’s tape recordings of bar conversations prompt De Abaitua to consider writing a story about a collector of such tapes called William Mooch.
Mooch can source, for the right price, a recording of any conversation a client requests; the pillow talk of the rich and powerful, the itemised guilt of the confession booth, and all the things they say about you behind your back.
I’m reminded of Tom McCarthy’s surrealist novel Remainder (one of my all-time favourite novels), and Don DeLillo’s Zero K (one of my favourite reads last year) in which the novel’s settings convey the atmosphere of art installations.
Adding to this surrealist bent, Will Self suggests to De Abaitua that, as an exercise in attentiveness, he should attempt to give physical form to an object he sees in a dream. De Abaitua takes the advice. In one dream, he stands by the white dome of Sizewell nuclear reactor and he holds a black frying pan with the shape of a crescent moon cut into the pan’s base. An irridescent glow fills the crescent. With this image in mind, he tries to commission a Suffolk ironmonger to recreate his dream vision by cutting out a crescent shape in a pan. But sadly the plan doesn’t pan out (sorry!) The ironmonger chases him off the premises. In a change of tack, De Abaitua considers recreating moments from his dreams as short films.
Ambition, rites of passage and the various measures of success (and failure) are themes throughout this generous and honest memoir. De Abaitua muses, towards the memoir’s end, that employing an amanuensis might itself be a measure of a writer’s success.
By the way, De Abaitua did eventually use the bar room conversations as a starting point—for a short story “Inbetween”, published in the best-selling anthology of rave fiction, Disco Biscuits. He now has three novels to his name and his debut novel Red Men was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008.
Self & I (Eye Books) by Matthew De Abaitua will be published late March 2018.
Other reading this year
I decided to read a few more novels published in 2017/18 that are vying for shortlists this year and next:
Euphoria by Hinz Heller (translated by Kári Driscoll)—a short and brutal post-apocalyptic novel with a strong concept—four blokes emerge from a weekend reunion in a ski chalet to find a devastated world.
Paris Adrift: I read a pre-publication copy of E.J. Swift’s wonderful novel centred on bohemian life in contemporary Paris, neatly slipstreamed with a time-travel story. This is political speculative fiction at its best, beautifully written. Swift’s characters are absolutely believable as young drifters and dreamers, part of a Parisian sub-culture of low-wage bar workers. I can see this book transferring brilliantly to the screen!
America City by Chris Beckett. This is another example of political SF, set in a future US when politicians face the problem of major internal migrations from storm-lashing on the east coast and desertification in the south. This story stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker, a compelling experimental novel, a fragmented dystopian story, which won the Goldsmith Prize in 2017.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a contemporary story of refugees seeking a safe place to live, with a fantastical story device allowing people to flee from one continent to another through magical doors.
Happy reading, everyone!