A charming coincidence

A charming coincidence:

Lavie Tidhar’s “Bag Man” has been shortlisted for a CWA Dagger - selected as one of the year’s best crime stories. Fantastic news, and congrats to Lavie.

The Outcast Hours, containing “Bag Man” (and twenty-odd other stories) is currently on sale for 99p on Amazon (UK, US), Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Have a lovely weekend.

The Good, The Bad, and The Patterson

Update on my self-imposed Edgar Debuts reading challenge - I’ve now read 26 of the 74. The list is here.

Since the last newsletter, I’ve endured a fairly lengthy run of ok books in there: The Expats, A Cold Day in Paradise, The Faithful Spy, Act of Fear and The Thomas Berryman Number (more on that last one).

They were all fine.

This is not damning with faint praise. Well. Objectively. They were, genuinely, fine. I read them. And I don’t regret it. Win and win. Behaviourally, I played more games on my phone during this particular streak, which doesn’t bodes well for how ‘engaging’ I found them. Or ‘gripping’, as the blurbs would say. But no complaints. Ergo, fine.

The thing is about creative quality - or cultural quality - or however you want to call it - it is a fantastic living experiment in watching your own standards erode. If I read, or ‘consume’, a lot of stuff in a row that’s fine, I very, very quickly find that ‘fine’ becomes ‘ok’, or even ‘good’. My own expectations become managed, as I convince myself that what I’m consuming is satisfying, simply because I’m consuming it. The sunk cost fallacy + a DIY shift in social norms = boiling the frog of quality. (And, of course, this very much applies to any other area as well, from Netflix binges to creative campaigns.) Given enough adequacy, you can forget what good looks like.

But then… you stumble on actual greatness, and that puts everything else back into perspective. That’s where the damnation of faint praise occurs. Relatively speaking, ok is ok. But it is also long, long way from great.

In this case, greatness came in the form of John Dudley Ball’s In The Heat of the Night. All the clever detailing and intellectual rigour of a traditional detective novel, but interlaced with powerful social commentary and gloriously rich, complicated characters. There are several different voices in this short novel, yet each and every one is distinct. Heat has a lot to say, and uses the mechanics of the mystery as the way of getting it all out there. Moreover, despite the mystery not being ‘the point’, it is an incredibly good mystery. It manages to capture far more than its genre, while still being true and loyal and loving to the genre itself.

In fact, that latter point is one of the (many) reasons Heat is stuck in my mind. I’m - and steal yourself - not a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the stories immensely, and still remember reading them for the first time in a battered brown paperback omnibus, smuggled into the back of class. And, like others of my generation, Holmes is Jeremy Brett (or perhaps vice versa).

As I’ve grown up though, the appeal of Holmes has faded. I find it to be the Asimovian mystery: all about the intellectual rigour and the bitty detail, but with character - and to some degree, story - lagging behind. Kudos to a centuries-old fanbase who have worked tirelessly to give Holmes the sexiness, personality, and depth that’s just not present in the original texts. Holmes as written is ‘Hard Detection’. (And don’t get me started on Agatha Christie, who I find about as interesting as reading an IKEA manual with the front cover missing. AHA! It was a Detolf all along! I sussed it when we opened the second bag of dowels!)

In the Heat of the Night features a Sherlockian uberdetective, in this case, Virgil Tibbs. He’s a highly-decorated homicide officer, a martial arts expert, a master of deduction, and, also, black. The last is particularly important, given, in Heat, he’s tasked with solving a murder set in a small town, in the deep South, in the mid-1960s. Imagine all the admirable intelligence and deductive prowess of Sherlock Homes, but in a character completely devoid of privilege. Unlike Holmes, Tibbs’ authority is never taken for granted. The police aren’t Lestrade-like, bumbling goofballs, they’re actively opposed to Tibbs’ every move. Two-thirds of Tibbs’ witnesses won’t even talk to him, and the remaining third won’t make eye contact. Every single statement he makes is challenged; no deduction goes without thorough cross-examination. He can’t utter a word without being contradicted, shouted down, or flat-out ignored by everyone around him. Gallingly, they’re all his intellectual inferiors, and as the reader, we know. Tibbs has no resources, no connection and no allies - frustratingly, the people he’s trying to help are the ones most keen to reject him.

It is infuriating, but also, in a literary sense, completely wonderful. Holmes is Superman - a perfect, alien being who has to disguise himself as a relatable human being. Tibbs, however, is a lightning rod for human frailty. While Sherlock has fans, Tibbs suffers fools. He’s every female academic that gets mansplained their own subject matter on Twitter; every person of colour told to ‘go back where they came from’; every hard-earned success that’s undermined by pettiness and aggression. In Bells’ novel, we have the satisfaction of knowing that Tibbs is right. We watch him slowly, inexorably, grind towards justice (and edge those around him just the tiniest bit towards progress). It is a beautiful and deeply, deeply rewarding sight to witness.

I suppose the only downside of the whole thing is that the book that followed - The Cold War Swap - would, in other circumstances, be the best I’d read on the list. It is very, very good indeed. But it isn’t In The Heat of the Night.

We all deserve a touch of goodness in our lives, if only to remind us not to settle for ok.

Get: Anyone in a position of creative judgement
To: Not stop at ok
By: Reminding them what good feels like

* * *

Alluded to above: James Patterson’s The Thomas Berryman Number.

I am not a Patterson reader. I’ve tried Patterson’s books. I did not like Patterson’s books.

As a result, I was not particularly keen to read The Thomas Berryman Number when it appeared on my challenge, but I am extremely courageous so in I went. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not the cheeseball straight-to-Cinemax thriller that I anticipated. Instead, Berryman is an intricately-constructed character study. It isn’t perfect, but it is, in fairness, fine. Possibly even pretty good. Something like The Last Picture Show by way of George Pelecanos. Occasionally tedious, definitely messy, but atmospheric and pleasantly ambiguous.

Patterson fans haaaaaate it:

James Patterson is usually a good writer, so I'm surprised he hasn't pulled this one. Granted, I only got half way through, but still couldn't make heads or tails of it.

🔥

I can usually read his stuff in a day but this was not the case. It took forever to finish and I wanted to throw it away half way through the book. It never got better.

🔥

If I had read this before any of his others I dont think I would have read any of his other books!

🔥

Constantly through all my reviews on Patterson books I have continually said that i have yet to find a bomb so to speak. The Thomas Berryman Number was my 21st Patterson novel and how ironic the bomb i would find planted within the Patterson bibliography would be his very first book ever??!!

🔥🔥🔥

I'm a big fan of Patterson and have read most of his work. I have been looking forward to reading his first novel for some time and was very dissapointed. If there is one possitive thing to come out of this book it is that James Patterson's story telling has greatly improved since he penned this work. Quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Ow.

Berryman is the third-lowest rated Patterson title on Goodreads. Its supremely shitty 2.86 rating puts it squarely behind such treasures as The Lifeguard, The Homeroom Diaries, French Kiss, Give Thank You a Try, Mistress (Free Preview Edition), Zoo: Graphic Novel Edition, Private: Delhi, Middle School #12 (also, de facto, #1-11), The $10,000,000 Marriage Proposal, and the immortal Penguins of America.

The only two Patterson titles with lower ratings are: Trump vs Clinton: In Their Own Words and The Candies Save Christmas.

Meanwhile, Patterson, by the numbers:

  • 114 New York Times bestselling novels

  • 67 #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author

  • One in 17, roughly 6%, of all hardcover novels sold in the United States

Patterson. He’s an overwhelming commercial success, he’s connected through the supply chain, he aggressively reaches out to different reading audiences (including new ones), he has a clear value in ‘the story’, and he’s converted his name into a brand that’s far more iconic or recognisable than any publishing imprint or logo. Dude has won publishing.

Yet, it wasn’t until his 8th (I think?) book, Along Came a Spider, that Patterson began his evolution into THE PATTERSON: the birth of a brand. Berryman is arguably both the purest form of Patterson and the book most distant from THE PATTERSON. As the author’s debut, it was written with no personal industry context: no pressure, no precedent. The pilot: the book Patterson wanted to write, and written, relatively speaking, in a vacuum. The evolution of THE PATTERSON, the commercial powerhouse, is utterly fascinating. Was this a conscious choice? Is it incremental? How does this work?

Just like trying to piece together ‘influences’, this is an impossible question to answer. I like Patterson a lot (see above, especially as regards using his clout to reach - and create - new readers). Knowing that he can, when he chooses to, write a pretty good, Edgar-winning novel, only increases my respect for him.

* * *

Stuff happening: I’ll be in Dublin in early August (exact programming tbd - negotiations ongoing). I’m reading for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. The Outcast Hours sold really well at Bradford Literature Festival (thank you, THE NORTH), and is still available at all good bookshops. And, of course, Djinn.

The One Constant in Life

From the introduction to The Best of British Fantasy 2018:

When starting a new tradition - and I sincerely hope this inaugural volume of The Best of British Fantasy becomes one - the respectful thing to do is study what came before. And then promptly do the opposite.

In the case of the “year’s best” subgenre, introductions tend to take one of two forms. The first approach is that of the annual overview. The editor heroically attempts to catalogue all things related to the genre that occurred in the calendar year. Some of these introductions can run into the hundreds of pages: an annual index of trend-spotting that captures publications, movies, comics, awards, theatre, and beyond.

I suspect the reasoning behind this approach stems from the sub-genre’s distant origins – that is, “before the internet”. It is flattering to be part of a tradition this ancient, but, in 2019, I think these details are best captured elsewhere. There are a host of formal and informal resources that capture this data for posterity far better than I ever could.

The second approach found in “year’s best” volumes is the imposition of thematic consistency. The editor stares at the year’s fantasy outputs until the void stares back - and then helpfully whispers a single, unifying truth. Future readers then learn that 2018 was entirely about the apocalypse. Or nostalgia. Or any other themes that could, with the appropriate amount of pruning or plumping, define the historical record. As a fan of brutal simplicity - and of sweeping statements - I can appreciate this approach.

However, as much as I admire the ambition, I’m not comfortable with how the thematic approach deceives when it comes to chronology. All of the stories enclosed in this volume, for example, were definitely published in 2018. They were not all written in 2018. Some were written and published that same day: the miracle of self-publishing. Others were written in the interminable past, then sent forth to run the submissions gauntlet: the vagaries of traditional publishing. Some were inspired years before being written; some were constructed on the spot in workshops. Nor can we even ascribe “publisher intent”. The websites, anthologies and magazines that published these stories all began their own selection and publication processes at various times.

As much as I would love to declare 2018 to be the year of the apocalypse, nostalgia, or anxiety, that would be a false imposition not only of my own perspective, but of what even constituted “2018”.

What unites both approaches - the fact-collecting and the theme-building - is the sense of writing for posterity. These are introductions not for readers in 2018 (or even 2019), but in 2028, 2038, and beyond. They are attempts to provide valuable context for future readers of the collection. To explain not only that these are the best stories of the year, but to provide a ‘why’: what it is about the stories that makes them so very 2018ish.

But if the ‘facts’ are best provided elsewhere, and the ‘theme’ is chronologically suspect, what else is there?

Only the most important thing of all: the reader.

Whenever they were written, commissioned or conceived, all of these stories were first read in 2018. The reader is therefore the ultimate context. Who are the people who read these stories? And how would the stories have reflected their attitudes, or their perceptions?

* * *

Because I like self-inflicted pain, I then spend the rest of the introduction actually trying to answer those questions. If you enjoy spurious use of data, please do pick up the book.

I’m fond of this introduction for two reasons. (Three, if you count my natural attraction to my own voice.)

The first, in the past, I’ve written a pretty venomous review of a “Year’s Best” volume for presenting personal opinion from an authoritative platform. I’ve also gone on record writing about the flaws in the cataloging approach. I am probably the only person that remembers either of these articles, but… I still needed to find a new path for this book’s introduction.

The second - and this is a little less personal - it follows some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a planner: everyone will always listen to the audience.

As long as the strategy is based on evidence of what the audience is saying or thinking, it is sound. As a debating tactic, it is solid: you can’t argue with what the audience feels. As a planning tactic, it is even more solid: remove yourself from the equation, and all the subjectivity that goes with it. This isn’t about you: it is about the people you are setting out to influence. And, finally, as a sales tactic, that’s one of the core pitches of any agency: you’re providing a client with insight into the attitudes and behaviours of their user or consumer.

I’ve been swinging the ‘audience-first’ club a bit more vigorously recently - especially in speaking with practitioners and academics. Both groups have a tendency to go in with the hammer mentality, and will immediately start searching out nails. Taking a step back and reviewing the audience(s) - again, we want to influence - and what they’re thinking, feeling, or doing - isn’t just best practice, it is essential.

* * *

Relatedly, I’m now taking submissions for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. All the details are here. Please share about, if you can.

* * *

I’m at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend and next.

There’s been a slight schedule rejig, which works out well for everyone involved:

  • On the Industry Day, the marketing panel will now have an arts, culture and publishing focus (the organisers: ‘there will be a lot of publishers there, do you have anything to say to them?’, me: ‘I CAN THINK OF SOMETHING’.)

  • And on the 7th, Anne and I have swapped Takeover panels, so I’ll be leading the discussion around Dystopian Fiction, while she’ll be talking Stereotypes. Sort of a win-win for everyone involved.

  • You can also find me talking Fatherhood and the Night, two topics very near and dear to my heart right now. And, as you might expect, interlinked.

All my recent books will be at the festival, but in case you aren’t: The Best of British Fantasy, The Outcast Hours and the perennial favourite, The Djinn Falls in Love. Enjoy.

* * *

Pub simulator, complete with Orcs.

The Mystery of Choice

I’m a very streaky reader.

Some of this is due to external circumstances. For example, I’ll be spending the latter half of the year reading anthologies for The Best of British Fantasy 2019. Some of this is also due to the power of marketing. Just because I’m a professional nudge-crafter doesn’t mean I’m immune to them myself: Kindle’s ‘buy the next book’ pop-up is particularly effective, and means I tend to read my regency romances in series-long marathons.

Some of my streakiness is also by design.

I hate the ‘what do I read now?’ panic: the paralysis that comes from being surrounded by unread books but having none of them feel, you know, absolutely right. This may come as a surprise, but we have a lot of books (a lot of books). Late in the evening, when the Iguanodon has dozed off, or very early in the morning, when I’m dashing to the Tube - the one thing I don’t want to do is make a choice.

By deciding in advance that I’m only reading female fantasy authors, or books recommended by Dorothy Parker, or whatever, it makes the daily grind that tiny bit easier. Like all the Silicon Valley goofballs that famously wear the same expensive t-shirt every day. Except less annoying.

I don’t hold with the belief that we have a finite amount of decisions within us, but I do think choice can be stressful. That’s not only important when choosing something deathly important (a mortgage, a house, a ring), but also when we’re choosing how to relax. That’s why we still rely on the (terrible) suggestions that Netflix pushes on us, or the (intrusive) suggestions from Amazon, or the (oddly inaccurate) top picks on Just-Eat. Even relaxing can seem like work if we have to think too much about it.

* * *

My latest streak is a particularly odd one: Edgar Winners for Best First Novel.

I’m not even entirely sure how I wound up here. I had a vague awareness of the Edgars, which somehow(?) wound up looking at the Wikipedia list. I was surprised by how many of these debuts went on to become absolutely massive commercial successes: Jonathan Kellerman, James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Tana French, and Patricia Cornwell among them.

But, lest we crown the Edgars as kingmakers, the list also includes some total obscurities. 12 of the winners have less than 10 Goodreads ratings, including 3 with zero. And, in between, the list is punctuated with titles that have meandered along as, at best, cult reads.

As you can imagine, this strange inconsistency makes for an appealing reading challenge. Why did some of the books ‘make it’ and others disappear? Is there a secret formula?

I’m about a 1/4th of the way through the list (18/74), and no closer to an answer, but, hey, some opinions:

In the Woods by Tana French (2007) - What struck me most was how Secret History this was: unlikeable, chilly characters; classical references galore; themes of memory, belonging, and false identity. The same fragmented, poetic sense of storytelling, with long lucid descriptions of the deeply personal (and totally irrelevant) while the core mystery goes largely ignored. Whenever Anne asked me if I was enjoying In the Woods, I’d say ‘meh’. Yet, at the same time, my commute mysteriously got a lot shorter. One night I got home after a 45 minute delay and hadn’t even noticed. I’m still not sure if I liked this book, but, you know what? Behaviourally, I was super into it.

Don’t Cry for Me by William Gault (1952) - A ‘loser’ little brother of a society figure, at a loss on how and where he fits in, but too proud to trade on his family name. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit! Forced to play detective! Caught up between society (shockingly corrupt) and the mob (surprisingly honourable)! There’s a dame involved! It is fun to compare Don’t Cry with In the Woods, however spuriously. The two books play with many of the same themes (including a stylistic devotion to literary references). But Don’t Cry does the trick at 1/6th the length, and with a certain pleasing directness. I’m also proud of myself for guessing the whodunnit early on. Go me.

Go Lovely Rose by Jean Potts (1955) - I did not catch the whodunnit on this one - although the introduction on my edition did its very best to give it away (urgh). A young woman returns to her childhood home after the death of an elderly (and truly vile) family retainer. She’s soon caught up in small town intrigue: a crush of loves and losses. Like most of the older books on the list (and, in fact, many of the not-so-old), Rose showcases some pretty outdated, and thoroughly reprehensible, social norms as to race, gender, and disability.

Dorothy Uhnak’s The Bait (1968) is similarly problematic/intriguing. These are both books that are trying to push the boundaries of female protagonists, and, in many ways, are bold enough to address social and gender roles directly. But neither are able to move too far from the entrenched views of the time. Which is a shame. Incidentally, The Bait, on Amazon, is actually a totally different book (THE IRONY). The copy I picked up was actually Codes of Betrayal - Uhnak’s last novel. I got really into it before realising it was the wrong book. I went back and got The Bait as well, and, in conclusion: Codes is better.

When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman (1985) - Speaking of reprehensible social norms, man, the 1980s weren’t that much better, were they? Alex Delaware is a young, sexy, vastly successful, preternaturally jaded burnout, who is avoiding the rat race with his sexy, awesome house and sexy, cool car. Also he plays guitar, because of course he does. Chicks dig him, and he totally loathes himself for how he uses women, except, you know, that doesn’t really stop him, and the book always gives him a free pass, and yeah, psychology, man.

I am a huge fan of John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee, but that doesn’t mean I give a free pass to every ultra-macho-but-secretly-sensitive detective with a penchant for introspective monologues. Delaware is simply ridiculous. There’s an awkward ‘try hard’-ness around progressive issues (he’s got a GAY FRIEND who he teases in an accepting way! He is totally happy to manipulate women of ALL RACES into sex) which somehow comes across as even more distasteful than the straight up misogyny and homophobia of earlier books. Plus, there’s peak 1980s plot that combines evil politics and evil business and evil do-gooders and child abuse - because, of course, every thriller for a fifteen year period was basically about child abuse. Kellerman’s debut is as much a historical artefact as the Gault at this point, and with much less upside.

The Last Billable Hour by Susan Wolfe (1990) - Billable is a procedural thriller set within the confines of a law firm - and predates The Firm by a year, so comparisons are inevitable. I think Billable is a sweeter, more enjoyable book. The mystery itself isn’t great, and the rushed resolution doesn’t have a lot of tension to it (contrast, again, with The Firm, which, despite its many flaws, somehow even makes photocopying dramatic). The more interesting contrast, I suppose, is Billable vs its 1980s counterparts: Howard Rickover - squidgy and lost, with a penchant for cooking shows is the polar opposite of the lean and hungry men of Kellerman.

Squaw Point by Ruth Shimer (1973) - A meandering novel set in the islands off of the Alaskan territory. A large cast of protagonists steal pelts, dodge storms, save relics, press flowers, and occasionally murder one another. It feels like an Elmore Leonard, although with less overt humour. Almost a Western in tone, Squaw Point captures the spinning moral compass of its unique setting, and how people juggle faith, law, morality and instinct in a search for what’s right. The ebook edition is cheap, but unfortunately produced. All the text is bold which makes for a very disjointed reading experience. It deserves better.

* * *

Given I’ve mentioned ebook production twice, here’s an interesting technical note.

Of the 74 books:

  • 44 are available as ebooks on Amazon.co.uk

  • 5 are available as audiobooks, but not ebooks

  • 25 are not available in any (digital) format

Of the 44:

  • The cheapest is 90p - Fredric Brown’s The Fabulous Clip Joint (1948)

  • The most expensive is £14.39 - Peter Blauner’s Slow Motion Riot (1992)

  • The mean price is £5.18; median £4.68.

  • 19 are at set at a ‘charm price’ - that is, something that ends in .49 or .99. The 25 others are priced messily at numbers like “£2.38” or “£6.43”.

Draw your own conclusions - and please share them - but a few I leapt to:

  • In an industry utterly devoid of NPD, audio has caused a gold rush for rights. A lot of books, especially older ones, will be out of contract - or on contracts that never even contemplated the existence of audio rights. Audible swoops in - and whammo, that’s five audiobooks on the market. We had the same rush a decade ago with ebooks, and, as shown above, there are still plenty of books/rights available. And as evidenced by this list, the inconsistency of production quality can be particularly maddening. Meanwhile, audio production is even more time- and resource-intensive, so… is this sustainable? Who knows?

  • The 25 books set at weird prices (£6.43? I mean, really?) will be books where the world digital rights are held by an American publisher. Which means the prices are all set in dollars by someone (or some database) in America, and not finessed to fit the local market. I find this oddly upsetting: even if it makes the smallest of incremental differences on sales, it simply looks better, and shows respect for the local market.

  • All of the ‘brand’ authors and series books are cleverly set at low prices to make them an entry point to the greater body of work. Quite a few of the older titles have been tidily converted, packaged with modern intros, and slapped with cheap, but not totally hideous, covers. And then sold at a low, commodity-type price. Because why not?

This is a better-than-random sample of books. As award winners (no matter how niche), these are, in many ways, books that have been pre-vetted for quality and potential readership. But there’s a bonkers amount of variance in:

  • how (or if) they are available

  • how they’re priced

  • how they’re formatted

  • even how they look (this is not ok, y’all)

Contrast all that with the relative uniformity and structure of a physical bookshop. Retailers are curators in a broader sense than simply selecting which products to carry. They choose how to present the content as well - price, display, context - the works. Amazon’s laissez faire approach is one extreme; perhaps something like an airport W.H. Smith would be the other, with every inch of shelf-space rigidly controlled.

All in all, I’m not sure what patterns I’ve picked out about the last half-century of popular mystery fiction, but I’m learning a lot about the digital market in 2019.

* * *

Quick links:

The Best of British Fantasy 2018 is now available (and so lovely, thanks Matty!)

The companion website is ticking on with recent articles about Andrew Lang, Terry Pratchett, and W.E. Bowman.

You can find me at the Bradford Literature Festival at the end of the month.

And an oral history of Veronica Mars.

If you don't have a strategy, just use bullet points

It has been a long time since the last newsletter. The drafts folder abounds with half-baked ideas, but none of them have fully risen yet.

Instead, some distractions:

  • a pretty picture

  • an invitation to a party

  • some reading recommendations

  • more upcoming events

Bulleted, to make it seem like I have a plan.


The Best of British Fantasy has a cover. The incredible work of Matty Long!

Behold!

It is both charming and clever. Matty has packed it with references to the stories hidden in the artwork. (And, yes, that is a Mario mushroom.)

Best of British Fantasy also has a launch date: please join us on June 1 at London's Star of Kings pub, from 1pm. There will be drinks, books, and a vast array of the ‘besties’ (sorry) in attendance.

For those that can’t make it, the best way to get your paws on a copy is still directly through the publisher.

A final note on Best of British Fantasy (for now): the companion website is now going strong, with lots of articles by neat people (mostly writers) about their favourite fantasy works (mostly books). Recent pieces include:

As always, I’m looking for further contributions. Details here.


What I’ve been reading:

  • Baghdad Burning by Riverbend. The collected blog entries of an anonymous female Iraqi blogger, 2003 - 2007. It is snarky and punchy and bloggy. Baghdad Burning is a striking combination: a cozy, nostalgic 00’s-epistelory style, but on a powerful, heart-breaking topic. Riverbend is writing for history, but also in a mode that already feels historical. It is an jarring combination and makes the author’s perspective more, not less, striking.

  • Anne on “Anastasia”. Part of her ‘Monsters & Mullets’ series - although it contains neither (zombie bugs?). Hilarious, and also a look into the power of nostalgia, history, Disneyfication, and humanity in art. (Also sexy cartoons, but in a non-disturbing way, mostly.)

  • The Gameshouse by Claire North. I read these individual novellas when they were first published, and have been longing for a collected (print) edition. Three stories of ‘players’ at an establishment where the games involve human lives. The stories increasing in scale, but the message - about what it costs to stay human - remains the same throughout.

  • This Buzzfeed article on an Alabama ISIS bride wanting to come home. Heart-breaking, and does a good job capturing the high stakes of one of our most pressing, and complex, challenges.

  • Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole. Cole is better known for the, more recent, Extraordinary Union (which is, indeed, exceptional) - she’s one of the most high-profile writers of colour in romance, and she’s also really, really damn good. (I really like her take on the Scottish rogue trope with A Duke by Default). Radio isn’t set in my favour milieu: I’m a little skeptical about post-apocalyptic romances by default. But Cole does a very good job of threading the needle between individual gain (romantic) and collective loss (apocalyptic). It is funny, and sweet, and scary and human - escapist (and saucy!) without being self-indulgent. [By contrast, I’m currently struggling to write a review of an apocalypse-themed anthology. Three dozen apocalyptic stories that are all directly and literally about the apocalypse simply aren’t as interesting.]


Finally - I’ll be lurking about the Bradford Literature Festival at the end of June.

I’ll be taking part in the Creative Sector Industry Day and several panels across the first week or so. This includes a discussion of ‘the night in literature’, featuring Cassandra Khaw, Maha Khan Phillips and Matthew Beaumont. (Maha’s “Gatsby” is one of the stand-out stories in The Outcast Hours, and I’m really looking forward to the panel.)

Lavie Tidhar’s near-future noir, “Bag Man” (also from The Outcast Hours), is up for a Dagger from The Crime Writers’ Association. A well-deserved nod for Lavie. Plus, it means that Mahvesh and I are now officially award-nominated crime editors. Thanks, Lavie! Next up: romance!

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