Friday, 29 April 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Arthur C Clarke/Angry Robot Books: South African author Lauren Beukes won the 25th annual Arthur C Clarke Award with the excellent Zoo City. Set in Cape Town, this is a Science Fictioner in which people are plagued with their guilt hanging around in animal form, like a His Dark Materials universe where every daeman is a physical manifestation of some horrendous crime. I’m sometimes intimidated by books that win awards – not so with Zoo City – this is an accessible, intriguing and well-oiled read. On accepting her prize (complete with wrap-around Sloth), Beukes said the speech she’d planned went something like this: ‘Curse you, McDonald!’ As Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House originally looked set to win (having been nominated for a Hugo and as it won the British Science Fiction Association’s annual award). But Beukes can prop her books up with her new ornamental bookstand with pride, and in the knowledge that she and her shelf deserve it. Check out the article in the Guardian where it refers to Angry Robot Books as ‘tiny UK press’, which is both adorable and probably soon-to-be inaccurate after this win.

British Library: you know you’ve made it in history when you’re featured in a British Library exhibition, just ask the dinosaurs. Now Lauren Beukes, thanks to her Clarke win, along with China Miéville, George Orwell and Audrey Niffeneger, will be part of an incredibly exciting exhibition on Science Fiction called ‘Out of this world: Science Fiction, but not as you know it’. Available from 20 May through to 25 September this year, the exhibit’s blurb grandly states that ‘Science Fiction is revealed not merely as a popular literary genre but as a way of looking at today’s world and presenting alternatives: radical ideas about science, politics, society, the future… and the nature of reality itself.’ Asking questions like ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is reality?’ and, perfect for a Sunday afternoon pondering, ‘When and how will the world end?’, from earliest writings to modern film, this is bound to be a thrilling, insightful look into a genre that demands limelight, but doesn’t get it nearly often enough. I can’t wait.

Hugo Awards: the nominations were announced at Eastercon last weekend. The full list is on the Renovation website, but the Best Novel category is as follows:

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Orbit: I bet you’ve been thinking ‘Hey, that A Genteel Black Hole hasn’t been talking about Jim Butcher for a while, I do hope she’s OK.’ Luckily, Orbit have presented me with the perfect opportunity for me to hammer the fan girl love home. They’re currently marketing his Dresden Files short story compilation Side Jobs, which I read this week. These short stories are mostly from existing compilations and slot in-between his main titles, including (insert squeal here) Changes and Ghost Story. Squeal. Side Jobs is a much-needed filler in the extended wait for the next instalment of The Dresden Files, Ghost Story. Aside from the usual prerequisite moments of arousal at inappropriate times of battle (can no one see a bare neck without biting back a primal roar of need?), this was a superbly written master class in the short story form, with the final original novella (I won’t spoil whose POV it is) showing off Butcher’s increasingly developed talent (insert wizard’s staff pun here). Highly recommended.

Voyager: there has been much love for Voyager author George RR Martin in the last few weeks with the airing of the HBO TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones, the first in his acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series. Unfortunately, in the past this hasn’t stopped the deplorable torrent of abuse Martin suffered at the hands of so-called fans for the long waits between books (how dare he eat/sleep/breathe when there’s writing to be done?! etc). The sharp Martin cut to the quick, blogging back: ‘You don’t want me to pull a Robert Jordan on you.’ You probably won’t have missed the continued confusion over whether he’s finished/ about to finish/ will never finish A Dance with Dragons, although Voyager have announced a release date of 12 July 2011 (yes, 2011). As for me, I’m currently reading A Feast for Crows in preparation, and, while not a rabid fan (loving, yes, but not foaming at the mouth), I do wonder how short this series would be if he cut out the names of all characters not relating directly to the plot. I am torn between wanting the richness and depth of the universe these names and histories convey, and just wanting the story to shine through without being bogged down by Ser Wainwright of Gallinfry whose claim upon the Bronze Throne was waylaid in 1044 by the damned Water Voles, lead by Ser Hillary the Waterlogged, who came up the river Blessed, following in the footsteps of his great uncle Baldric the Befuddled, whose voyage was doomed when he travelled 217 miles in the wrong direction on the shady advice of Dudley the Duplicitous, his fourth cousin twice removed. Basically I’m just moaning because he forces my brain to function instead of offering me the plot on a plate. Damn him. Meanwhile, oh look, Sean Bean!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Eastercon: where I wish I was this weekend, instead of sitting in my pyjamas eating an unholy amount of peanut butter, bananas and honey on toast whilst watching MTV. Eastercon is a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention that has been put on over Easter (what would you do without me explaining these things?) since 1955 for meeting and greeting like-minded individuals. This year authors Peter F Hamilton and David Weber will be there speaking (and eating and drinking too no doubt), as well as publishers like Tor UK and Angry Robot Books. Although you’ll probably find out more by following them on Twitter (@2011illustrious) than you will from their website, which has more information on the Hilton’s excessive corking fees than the event itself. I’m currently living vicariously through the hashtag (#eastercon). Programmes throughout the weekend include Medical Horror Stories, Recognising Classics, Digital Fixes, Read This Novel! and SF&F for Kids. So far it looks like there’s been a lot of meeting, greeting and drinking and talk about the upcoming Hall Costume Day, which sounds both mysterious and exciting. I would go as a long, well lit one with a church pew in it.

HarperVoyager/HBO: A Game of Thrones started this Monday on Sky Atlantic, based on George RR Martin’s incredible A Song of Ice and Fire, an epic series of phenomenal scope and detail, so naturally it’s a ten-part series just for book one. There’s a minimum of four more books to go, and as it takes a good few years for each one to be released, the odds are that the current actors will be passing the baton to their own children at some point to keep up the illusion that the events have taken place over the mere months the series has spanned so far. There were some really positive reviews of it, but also some infuriatingly ignorant ones, like this one from the New York Times. I’m all for people having their own opinions, but please Ginia Bellafante, don’t speak for me and all women everywhere.

Just one enraging quote: ‘I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.’ The most bizarre part of this review, is that the aspect that Bellafante has determined has been ‘tossed in’ for the ‘ladies’ (snarl), is the incest. Not that my delicate sensibilities can’t handle a bit of twin sex, but really? If so Mel Gibson’s What Women Want would have been an entirely different breed of romantic comedy.

Filmed in Northern Ireland and Malta, the slick production values and top notch cast (Sean Bean et al) mean that the luscious scenes of Westeros really come to life and you can practically smell the offal. I won’t go into much detail here (it is ‘bite-sized’ after all), but I loved it, and although it was sexual and gory, that wasn’t the entire focus of the plot, and I didn’t feel that any of it was overly gratuitous or out of place. I can’t wait to see more of my favourite character Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), as people who haven’t read the books (yet) would be forgiven for assuming he’s a character whose only function is to have sex with voluptuous prostitutes. A gross misconception, he also likes to tie people up in verbal knots, as well as just knots in general.

Tor UK: 1: A few of their authors have had short stories based around climate change published by the Guardian online, including 'Covehithe' by China Miéville. 2: SFX magazine are helping Tor with an artwork competition. Fans are invited to submit their original artwork for the chance for their design to be on the eBook front covers of two of Peter F Hamilton’s short stories from his collection Manhattan in Reverse. Tor are releasing two stories from the collection a month earlier than the paperback, in eBook format. The deadline hasn’t been given yet, but keep checking the SFX site for information, all you budding artists/ have-a-go-heroes.

Orbit: the first of Orbit’s eBook shorts will be available soon. Brent Weeks will be publishing 'Perfect Shadow' in the US and UK in June 2011, which features the background of his character Durzo Blint so it will be set in the world of his Night Angel trilogy. A wily choice for one of Orbit’s first eBook shorts, with a simultaneous release of the audio version to boot (although I'm not entirely sure what 'to boot' means).

Gollancz: author Ben Aaronovitch will be signing copies of his book Moon Over Soho and ‘well, anything that gets shoved in front of me’ in Waterstone’s, Romford today at 13:00pm. It’s the sequel to the very excellent Rivers of London and my (unsigned) copy is due to arrive today. Romford, another place I wish I could be, if only I didn’t have more pressing matters to contend with (*wipes peanut buttery crumbs from pyjamas*).

And finally, Doctor Who: tonight, BBC 1, 6pm. Need I say more?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

London Book Fair 2011: a student's experience

#LBF11: the London Book Fair – a summation of my own experience as a student on an MA Publishing course wishing to ask Science Fiction and Fantasy editors a series of questions for my dissertation, and as an exhibitor on my university press (very small) stand.

Day one:

Steeled myself for targeting the Gollancz/Orion stand first. Got to front desk, woman told me that Hachette Livre don’t own Gollancz. I apologised profusely and bimbled away. A quick Google check later and I was back: ‘Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry, but it appears you do own Gollancz. I can see them over there. On your stand…’ Woman looks at me in silence. A man leaps up to me with an Orion ID badge and directs me over to the lovely Gillian Redfearn, who saw me last year too, and who willing submitted to my abysmal interview ‘techniques’.

Tried Orbit/Little, Brown. Was told no one could see me. Asked about James Long, the new editorial assistant. Was told to come back on Tuesday when he’d be happy to answer my questions.

Tried HarperCollins, same girls who were on the front desk last year, uber tall, thin and stylish and looked at each other when I asked if I could see Emma Coode. Without checking, they told me she wasn’t on the stand, they didn’t know when she would be on the stand, and had no knowledge of her schedule. I stumbled awkwardly away with my many bags, feeling very northern, uncool and old.

Came back later with a friend from my course and saw HarperCollins were having a drinks reception. Recognised someone from my work experience and latched on to him. We grabbed a glass of champagne each and headed for the huddle in the centre of the stand. It’s all about confidence. It also helped that we’d already fortified ourselves with wine (note: not recommended if you wish to retain your dignity). Ate small sandwiches.

Day two:

Headed straight for Little, Brown and spoke to James Long. He didn’t have time to see me so gave me his email address. At some point during our conversation I took one hopeful step onto their stand, he didn’t move back, so whilst maintaining eye contact I carefully stepped back off it again, hoping he didn’t noticed the difference in my height. Awkward.

Went to a seminar where Philip Pullman was on the panel. Afterwards he signed World Book Night books. There were five of us left in the queue when the next seminar was due to start, so Pullman gestured for us all to follow him outside of the room. Happily, the five of us trailed after him across Earl’s Court 1, wondering where he was leading us, only to stop short as he went into the men’s toilet. We hot-footed it back to the seminar room, where we pretended we had been all along when he came back and kindly signed our books for us. If he’d noticed he’d been followed, he politely didn’t mention it.

Tried Angry Robot Books/Osprey stand to try to speak to Mike Ramalho. I had my ‘student’ badge eyed up by a very well-dressed man and was told to ‘Watch out for him in the aisles’ as he wasn’t on the stand. Rather than admit that the only way I was going to know what Ramalho looked like was to shout his name loudly and see who turned around, I thanked the man and walked away with poise (in my mind).

Went back to my own stand (recalling I was there to work) and helped some MA students out with their questions. As they were leaving one said, ‘Thank you for speaking to us like we are people.’

Accidentally ended up in a ‘Getting ahead in publishing’ talk, for people who already worked in publishing. Slightly embarrassing, especially as I bumped into a girl from the Little, Brown stand who had been lovely to me the day before, when I’d quite clearly explained to her that I was a student. I nodded to her and took my seat. It really is all about confidence (or, in my case, ignorance).

Day three:

Decided to try my luck with Orbit one last time. ‘Did you speak to James?’ / ‘Yes, he told me to email him.’ Slight pause. ‘Well… do that then.’ Yes, I did feel like an idiot, but you have to be persistent at the LBF and sometimes, sometimes it pays off. Which means that the majority of the time, you do look like an idiot. Or a stalker. I felt like they were mentally filling in the restraining order every time they saw me on the approach (signed, the Little, Brown stand and witnessed by the HarperCollins stand).

There was one last stand to try. Tor UK/Macmillan. Surely, they wouldn’t speak to me. But I had to get rejected by the last publisher on my list or I’d feel like I hadn’t truly put myself through the wringer. I approached warily. The women on the desk immediately put me at ease. Julie Crisp hadn’t arrived yet but of course they would take my details to pass on. I wasn’t made to feel naive for asking for some of the Editorial Director’s time, they were just happy to help. Then, Julie arrived. The girls on the desk leapt over to her and asked for a moment of her time. She’d had a cancellation, she was happy to withstand my incredibly awkward interview ‘skills’. Persistence. It does sometimes pay off. Luck helps too. But after those, you’re on your own.

The London Book Fair – stressful, and full of disappointments, adrenalin rushes, and that giddying feeling of achievement when you hit the right stand, at the right moment. I love it.

And finally, a vow. If I ever do get into publishing, and I end up on the other side of a publisher’s stand at the LBF, I will always endeavour to speak to students when I have the chance, or explain to them if I cannot. Let’s say it together, everybody: Students – they’re people too.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

bite me: the week in bite-sized chunks

Genre for Japan/ Floor to ceiling books: Amanda Rutter has been doing something amazing with the SFF genre in recent weeks – helping to raise money to assist relief efforts in Japan. She and a few other highly dedicated individuals have been requesting items to auction off from publishers, editors and authors. Together, they raised £11,203.36, which is, frankly, amazing. Some of my favourite donated items were signed copies of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, the Angry Robot e-book collection, a year of books by Tor UK, a signed and stamped edition of I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, the chance for you to be in a novel by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, a signed proof of The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman… This actually just turned into a list of what was on offer, because it was all phenomenal, so you might as well just have a look yourself.

Orbit: have launched a unique, visually stunning advertising campaign for Simon Morden’s Metrozone series, about a worldwide nuclear disaster with a Zombieland-esque lead character who has survived by adhering to his own strict rules and ‘equations of life’, and then breaking them. Throughout London graffiti artwork has been appearing, warning citizens of the arrival of the Metrozone, and the pending apocalypse. This is such a brilliant, creative way of advertising a Science Fiction (or any) book, rather than the usual picture of cover and standard ‘have you read this yet you should do’ line. More please.

Locus Awards: the tickets are on sale now for the Science Fiction Awards Weekend, taking place June 24-26 in Seattle. So if you happen to be in the area and want to pop on by (and who wouldn’t?), purchase your tickets now.

Gollancz: are celebrating 50 years of publishing Science Fiction and Fantasy and they’re giving you the opportunity to vote for your favourite Gollancz book. There’s quite a surprising mix on there, including William Heaney/Graham Joyce’s Memoirs of a Master Forger, which I had the pleasure of reading recently and completely fell in love with it. Such a beautiful, whimsical read and highly recommended. If you vote you’re also entered into a prize draw to win a subscription to SFX magazine and the top ten books in the charts this autumn. Worth it.

Tor UK: China Miéville in interview at Only the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy blog, with questions from Pornokitsch, Mithril Wisdom and Dauntingly eloquent, his verbose discussions include: losing his shit with excitement (who hasn’t?), being a lover of squid, Eygptian shabtis (right?), ‘Is urban the new fantasy’ (what?) and shenanigans. Choice quote: “(Do you mean) ‘The adjective "urban" is becoming increasingly disaggregated from what one might have thought its referent would be, and instead portending various fashionable aesthetic tropes actually contingent to metropolitan quiddity'?” End quote.

Voyager: is a review by me, so here it is again, as if I haven't flashed myself about enough with little regard for any of our dignity.

#lbf11: it’s the London Book Fair next week and I’m going down hellishly early tomorrow to set up the University of Central Lancashire stand in order to wax lyrical about the MA Publishing course and our Letters to Africa project. When I say wax lyrical, I of course mean babble incoherently. I will also be walking past the stands of major publishers attempting to pluck up the courage to see if anyone will speak to me.

A little list: Publishers I would like to see: Voyager, Tor, Gollancz, Orbit (although, they weren’t there last year, but Atom was)… and I think that seeing some independents would be just as exciting, particularly for my dissertation – Sparkling Books and Angry Robot in particular.

If you’re off to the fair, I’ll probably be hovering in the background somewhere near you on my 60th circuit.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

book review: Robin Hobb's The Dragon Keeper

See this review in a much more exciting place - the Voyager Blog. Go on, you know you want to. Or stick around, read the rest of my stuff, whatever.

Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series of books so far include The Farseer, Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man trilogies, and continues with The Rain Wild Chronicles, which are also set in this alternative European Medieval world.

Published in 2009, The Dragon Keeper is the first title in the Chronicles and follows almost immediately on from the events that occurred in the first three trilogies. Set in a time of fragile peace the story mostly takes place in the Rain Wilds where the residents bear physical afflictions from life there and the towns and cities are built high in the trees that line the riverbank.

The dragon Tintaglia has fulfilled the agreement she signed with the Trader cities and protected them against the invading Chalcedeans, so it’s now time for the Traders to complete their end of the deal. They are to help the ailing serpents migrate up the Rain Wild River in order for them to hatch from their cocoons into dragons. But the serpents were too old and emerged from their cases too soon, and the few that have survived are stunted dragons, unable to fend for themselves and costing the Trading cities a fortune to take care of.

When Tintaglia herself abandons the weak creatures after finding a surviving male dragon, the people of the Rain Wilds are left wondering whether to break their agreement. They are only too eager to comply when the dragons manipulate them into planning a trip up river to the legendary Elderling City of Kelsinger, which exists in their hazy ancestral memories.

As usual, Hobb expertly builds the narrative from varying points of view. Thymara, a sixteen-year-old girl who has black claws and scaling on her skin, is one of the dragon keepers that the ruthless Rain Wild Council enlists to travel the unchartered waters of the Rain Wild River. Alise Finbok is escaping from Bingtown and a loveless marriage in the hopes of using her knowledge of dragons to become an established scholar. Captain Leftrin owns the liveship Tarman that will transport them all through the shallow, acidic waters of the Rain Wild River to the dragons’ homeland.

For fans of the previous books it will feel like coming home; a home populated by liveships and dragons, obviously. Any newcomers (although it’s highly recommended that you start with the phenomenal Farseer trilogy) will be treated to a fully-fledged world with its own rules, people, politics and magic.

What makes The Dragon Keeper unique is that it doesn’t build to your typical climatic final scene; it doesn’t need to. Its power lies in the way Hobb deftly and gently manipulates her readers into making assumptions of her characters, before just as deftly shattering that preconception. One such character is Sedric, Alise’s aid on her journey to the Wilds and close friend of her cruel husband, Hest. His hidden agenda overshadows the events in the book, and yet he obviously cares for Alise and the reader can’t help but emphasise with him. There’s no good or bad in the Hobb-iverse. Each of her characters, human and dragon alike, go on a journey of self-discovery – in this case quite literally – which is filled with hardship, heartbreak and love, and emerge changed, whether for better or good.

Writing under the Hobb pseudonym allows contemporary fantasy author Megan Lindholm to indulge in descriptive passages and linger on the fine details, which for the newcomer may seem daunting. But these tomes are an indulgence worth taking time over. The varying narratives and viewpoints allow for the reader to see something from all angles. The tree city of Cassarick is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, as described by Thymara, dizzyingly alien to Alise and disdained as barren by Sintara and the rest of the stunted dragons. The fine detail is never wasted and you know every line, every word spoken adds meaning to the story as a whole. Hobb is a masterful character author, and she painstakingly creates complex characters so believable they could walk off the page, complete with Rain Wild scaling.

The Dragon Keeper is Hobb on form. There are several jumps forward in time but this stops early on and the book settles into a smooth, well-oiled narrative. An amazing read in its own right, it also sets the course for the following title, Dragon Haven, in which the hidden agendas, conflicting motives and forbidden love interests established in this title must come to a head.