Gollancz Festival 2016

Two weeks ago, I went to London, to go to the Gollancz Festival, at Foyles on Charing Cross Road. Because I had to get there on Saturday morning from the Wild West, I opted to attend the Saturday afternoon panels session and, with much more trepidation, the author party in the evening.

I’ve read a few Gollancz books – Scott Lynch’s three, Joanne Harris’s The Gospel of Loki, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy plus one or two of the standalones and maybe a couple of others. I was mainly going for Lynch – The Lies of Locke Lamora has been my favourite book for about nine years now. I know I’ve never written a post about it. I want to and I’m going to but it’s difficult to talk about a book I love so much.

There were four panels of three authors – as listed:

Utopia vs Conflict
Ezekiel Boone, Al Robertson & Jon Wallace

The Comfort Zone: Leave or Remain
Alex Lamb, Miles Cameron & Christopher Priest

Don’t Make Me Laugh
Stephen Deas, Tom Lloyd & Simon Morden

Does Anyone Need a Wee?
Ben Aaronovitch, Ed Cox, Joanne Harris & Scott Lynch

I can’t remember everything – most of it, in fact. I wasn’t taking notes. Most of the authors came across as bright, smart, friendly people, people I liked, even if I didn’t like or had no interest in their books. We were given goodie bags which contained, amongst other things, samplers of new Gollancz books. I read Boone’s The Hatching which I enjoyed but it’s horror, monster horror, and I can’t and won’t read the full book. One about dragon-riding, I couldn’t even finish the sampler. I’ve read Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London which I thought was ok but it didn’t grab me in the way it seems to have grabbed a lot of people. But all the authors seemed nice – surprising number working other jobs as well as writing. I guess I thought once you’d got a full-size novel published, that became your full time job, especially if you’d published a few but evidently not necessarily.

Scott Lynch forewent the mic (“I’m American, we make our own”), Christopher Priest kept not paying attention to the questions in a hilarious way, Joanne Harris started off with no idea what she was going to talk about and Ben Aaronovitch is just generally fantastic. I did enjoy the last panel most – surprise surprise, that was the one I went to see. Logistics in fantasy and worldbuilding, or worldbuilding vs story.

Miles Cameroon answered a question by asking who in the audience was a writer or an aspiring writer. Three quarters of us, it turns out. I don’t really feel like I belong in those numbers – SF/F fans can be somewhat elitist and I often feel I don’t fit but also I can’t and will not write science fiction or fantasy. Other than very short stories if I’m in the right frame of mind, I can’t write fiction at all. It’s not my thing. My writing projects are I Am A Polar Bear and the Arctic travelogue. A novel remains a very distant and probably unachievable daydream.

I got my battered nine-year-old copy of TLOLL signed by Scott. He had the longest queue of all the authors – it held up the party. (And I was quietly pleased to see how many of the books he was given to sign were brand new, unread and picked up from the table as the signing began. New fans are good but now it was my turn to feel elitist because I’d already read and loved them, and here’s a battered and much-read book to prove it).


The party didn’t go quite so well. I’m not a person who’s any good at mingling with strangers. I had a glass of something sweet and fuzzy and nearly wine-colour and I sat on the floor at the back, as did another two girls, warily watching proceedings.

The Gollancz folk are great. First Gillian Redfearn, Publishing Director herself, came to squat in front of me to make sure I was ok and comfortable and had a drink and tried to encourage me to come and talk to people in yellow lanyards, before taking to the stage with Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd to interview them about their special tenth anniversary editions.I came close to watch that. And then I wandered and looked at people and got more drinks and then I was seized by another lovely Gollancz lady whose name I didn’t get, who dragged me off to find whichever author I wanted to chat to. (None of them. What can I say except “I really liked your book!” or “”I’ve never read your book or heard of you”? I did enjoy spotting Stephen Baxter – ten years ago, my friend Nigel spent an entire car journey from the valleys of South Wales to Canterbury telling me every detail of the story of the Xeelee Sequence. I’ve still never read any of it.

This lovely lady dragged me over to Tom Lloyd, joined in his chat and once he was settled into talking to someone and I was standing nervously beside him, she hopped off to mingle with someone else. I like Tom a lot, he seemed like what my dad might call “a good chap” but… I’d never heard of him, never heard of his books, never read the books. Even if I was a chatty person who’s naturally good at talking to strangers, what can I say to him?

I decided my best bet was to lurk next to the book table, read the backs of them, add some of them to my mental reading list and hope that it would soon be over. But then there was a lady next to me, asking me about them and I found myself trying to explain the books I’d read and the books I’d heard of. I sort of wondered if she was a mole, a Gollancz person without a Gollancz lanyard, partner of one of the authors. But she wasn’t, she was just a friendly Kiwi, accompanying her husband to an event she didn’t have much interest in herself, pulling me over to talk to her husband and another stray friend they’d made.

It finished at 8.30pm promptly, to my relief, despite everyone’s efforts to involve me. I’d been on my feet, with my knees more or less locked for nearly four hours and it hurt to hop down several flights of stairs, glad to be away, back into the dark of London.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith


I feel sort of awkward mentioning this one because everyone reads it for the one and only reason that it was actually written by JK Rowling.

So I feel like I need to clarify that 1) I’ve never read, and am not particularly interested in reading, The Casual Vacancy 2) the news that JK Rowling had secretly written a crime novel elicited little more than a shrug from me.

I was in Frankfurt in December 2014, armed with a not-brilliant kids’ fantasy series when I spied The Cuckoo’s Calling, in English, in a bookshop under the station and I was immediately filled with an urge to read it. I don’t know why, when I’d never been interested before, maybe because of the gorgeous jewel-toned cover or the unexpectedness of finding an English book in Germany or because I was tired of the books I’d brought. I resisted – English-language books abroad cost an absolute fortune. English-language books bought abroad on the Kindle app on my phone, on the other hand…

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Caving Literature

Being a mad caver (or more accurately, and heartbreakingly, having been one in a former life), caving stories are some of my favourite stories. But it’s a bit of a niche genre and like the films, tends towards horror. Have you seen The Descent or The Cave? I’ve seen one of them – no idea which it was – and I felt the horror elements were unnecessary when caves are already a fairly inhospitable environment. As a student, I hoovered up caving-themed books.

At the top of the list, we have Beneath the Mountains. This is a true story, written by several members of Oxford University Cave Club about their big expeditions in northern Spain the 70s and 80s. It’s magnificent, funny, horrifying, stark at times. I haven’t read it in years – I don’t own a real copy but I used to have a home-printed bound copy somewhere. I need to read it again. There’s a scene in which a yellow minibus gets trapped trying to turn round in a narrow road in a remote Spanish village and the villagers dismantle a wall to free it. I once saw a very similar scene from an upstairs window as a student and I immediately thought of this book and laughed.

Next in classic caving literature comes Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. As a lover of Iceland and of caving, this ticks a lot of boxes. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Verne ever went underground and he certainly never went to Iceland. I will nitpick about how I don’t think you can see Snaefellsjokull quite as clearly from Reykjavik as he seems to think – yes, you can see it but only from the tip of the peninsula on a very clear day and back then, Reykjavik was much smaller and not positioned at the tip of modern day Reykjavik – but I’ll leave any criticism of the caving, because this is obviously scifi/fantasy caving in which there is weather and sunshine and fields of giant mushrooms deep under the ground and you can walk fairly easily underground from Iceland to southern Italy.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel already, there’s a good section of the sixth Chronicle of Narnia (chronologically sixth, not sixth published, as goes the old argument), The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. Prince Caspian’s son Rilian is held prisoner underground and Eustace and Jill go underground with Puddleglum to find him. It’s quite good, actually. A proper crawl around in the dark, with rocks and scrambles and a sense that maybe CS Lewis had been caving. I doubt he did but he’s got it down better than just about anyone else I’ve ever read.

Now we leave the realms of reasonably classic caving literature and go to pulp. This post has come up because this week I re-read Mark T Sullivan’s Labyrinth, and then had to repeatedly explain to people at work that it’s nothing to do with the David Bowie film. Labyrinth, to put it succinctly, is about a mad scientist and a group of escaped prisoners who take a caver and his fourteen-year-old daughter hostage while they’re doing a NASA training exercise in an unfeasibly massive cave in Kentucky, in order to get them to lead them to a moon rock that can turn things into gold. Yes, that’s about how sane it gets. But it’s fun. I get the impression that although Sullivan went caving as part of his research – he describes in excruciating detail things like some complex SRT that just couldn’t be done by a beginner like most of the prisoners are – but he really doesn’t have a feel for a cave. And he also uses a lot of Americanisms that just sound jarring to my ears. I loathe the word “spelunking”, it’s “descending” not “rappelling”, why are they wearing white two-piece undersuits (white will just turn brown within five minutes and two-piece means it will ride up and be uncomfortable and give you a cold back. Cavers invented the onesie years ago, only we called it an undersuit and made it from good tough fleece),  UK cavers generally use bobbin descenders rather than racks, why don’t they seem to have any upwards-rope-climbing stuff (surely you need it for the complex SRT mentioned above?!), why do the real cavers in the book always recite a mantra “never give the cave a chance” before they go in, and why, oh why does Sullivan try to claim on the very first page that some of the dents in the moon were caused by flying debris flung at the moon by the Big Bang? I can’t believe how many times I’ve read this book and not noticed that it tries to say the moon existed before the universe did. I can cope with the magic moon rock, it’s a sort of scifi/caving/thriller but honestly, dragging the Big Bang into it?

The only other one that I can think of that’s a novel rather than a manual or a memoir (and I admit, even Beneath the Mountains isn’t really a novel) is a less well-known Jules Verne book called The Child of the Cavern or The Underground City which I read between shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year and was delighted to find the protagonist lives in Edinburgh and the first few chapters are set right where I was sitting. It’s about a man who works in a mine and decides to make his home there when it’s closed. He lives in a house with his son at the bottom of a mine and never comes out. But who or what else is lurking down there in the darkness? Other than, of course, another underground lake which isn’t regarded as a huge bit of dark, freezing terrifying water. I love caves but I’m not so convinced that they make such good homes.

I can’t finish this without a mention of my favourite ever caving book. It’s a manual and a very technical one at that, called Alpine Caving Techniques. I read it at the Wessex Cave Club hut as a student and very much a beginner caver while the grown-ups went and tackled Eastwater (“East-where?!”), a cave I’ve still never had the opportunity to go in. On their return, my caving guardian angel was delighted to hear that I’d been reading it and wanted to answer any questions I had. Unfortunately, being such a beginner, it was all so far beyond me that I didn’t even know what questions to ask. So the caver in question brought the book with him to the next club meeting and sat explaining rope strengths and testing to me. Since then, I’ve acquired my own copy and I now understand a lot more of it.

But I was really after caving stories, so if you know of any, please let me know.

Book Analysis 2013

I like to keep track of how many books I read (I’ve been doing it since 2008) but I’ve not really done much analysis other than an occasional, vaguely guilty realisation that I read a lot of of kids’ books. So first, some statistics and then some Q&A I got from Google.

2008 – 78
2009 – 44
2010 – 29
2011 – 48
2012 – 73
2013 – 64

Number of new books:
2008 – 38 (49% of total)
2009 – 12 (27% of total)
2010 – 13 (45% of total)
2011 – 2z (46% of total)
2012 – 31(42% of total)
2013 – 22 ( 34% of total)

Number of kids’ books:
2008 – 35 (45% of total)
2009 – 21 (48% of total)
2010 – 17 (59% of total)
2011 – 19 (40% of total)
2012 – 38 (52% of total)
2013 – 26 (41% of total)

Number of scifi/fantasy books (sorry to lump these together; sometimes it’s not easy to pick which one a book fits into)
2008 – 52 (67% of total)
2009 – 12 (27% of total)
2010 – 12 (41% of total)
2011 – 19 *40% of total)
2012 – 34 (47% of total)
2013 – 34 (53% of total)

Number of crime books:
2008 – 0
2009 – 0
2010 – 2 (7% of total)
2011 – 11 (23% of total)
2012 – 8 (11% of total)
2013 – 9 (14% of total)

Number of non-fiction books:
2008 – 6 (8% of total)
2009 – 5 (11% of total)
2010 – 0
2011 – 2 (4% of total)
2012 – 3 (4% of total)
2013 – 2 (3% of total)

Number of plays:
2008 – 0
2009 – 2 (5% of total)
2010 – 0
2011 – 0
2012 – 1 (1% of total)
2013 – 2 (3% of total)

And now some questions:

1. Best Book You Read In 2013? (If you have to cheat — you can break it down by genre if you want or 2013 release vs. backlist)

I guess it has to be Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora – it’s a long-standing favourite and it’s going to take quite a book to steal my heart from it. In second place is… the entire Once and Future King series by TH White. Another long-standing favourite.

02. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Rivers of London. People raved about it and… I enjoyed it, I didn’t hate it but I was expecting it to be The Best Book Ever and it was only quite good.

03. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2013?

The Wallander series by Henning Mankell. Because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much I devoured pretty much the entire series in a few weeks. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was the most surprising but not so much in a good way.

04. Book you read in 2013 that you recommended to people most in 2013?

Oh, that’s always the Lies of Locke Lamora. I’ve been recommending it to people for years. Don’t tell me if you don’t enjoy it, I don’t want to know that.

05. Best series you discovered in 2013?

I enjoyed Hugh Howey’s Wool series. Technically I didn’t discover the Wallander series in 2013 but that’s when I started reading. Either of those.

06. Favorite new author you discovered in 2013?

Alright, let’s say Hugh Howey. I picked up the first one at Heathrow, the second at Edinburgh Airport and I sought out the last one in a non-airport bookshop. To be fair, Wool was the only book in all of Heathrow that looked worth even trying to read that evening.

07. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?

Macbeth. I’m neither a Shakespeare fan nor a fan of reading plays but I really liked Macbeth. It’s so dark!

08. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2013?

Dust, third in the Wool series. I read that during a comedy show, or at least I started it and I felt a little like the comedian in question was interrupting me when he came onto the stage.

09. Book You Read In 2013 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

All the Scott Lynch ones. I’ve read them every year since I started keeping records. Probably some of the Artemis Fowl ones.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2013?

That’s just unfair. No, I won’t answer that. Wool has a great cover. The Thursday Next books are very eye-catching. The Republic of Thieves is nice.

11. Most memorable character in 2013?

Uncle Oswald, from My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl, mostly for totally the wrong reasons.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2013?

After much consideration, I think I’m going to say The Once and Future King, the five TH White books. They’re a work of art and they tell a great story. (I could give The Book of Merlyn a miss, though)

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2013?

That’s the Once and Future King as well. I read it in my tent in Iceland and dreamed about knights almost every night. I very rarely dream about what I’ve been reading so that clearly got into my head.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2013 to finally read?

Old Magic by Marianne Curley. Only because I bought it years ago and was certain I’d read it. But I didn’t remember any of it and the book looked untouched so I can only conclude that I didn’t. Not in a “I can’t believe it’s only now that this masterpiece has come to me!” way.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2013?

Easy. Njal’s Saga:

One day, [Guðrun] asked to go to a nut grove to amuse herself, and Asvard went with her. Hrapp went looking for them and found them in the grove and took her by the hand and let her off alone. Asvard went looking for her and found the two of them lying together in some bushes. He ran at them with his axe raised and hacked at Hrapp’s leg but Hrapp moved quickly and Asvard missed him. Hrapp sprang to his feet as fast as he could and seized his axe. Asvard tried to get away; Hrapp hacked his backbone in two.
Then Guðrun spoke: “The deed you’ve just done means that you may no longer stay with my father. But there is another thing which will displease him even more – I’m going to have a child.”
Hrapp answered, “He won’t learn this from others. I’ll go back and tell him both these things.”
“You won’t get away from there with your life then,” she said.
“I’ll take that chance,” he said.
After that he took her to the other women and he went to the hall.
Guðbrand was sitting in his high seat and only a few men were in the room. Hrapp walked up to him holding his axe high.
Guðbrand asked, “Why is your axe bloody?”
“I have been taking care of Asvard’s backache,” he said.
“Not out of good will, I suppose,” said Guðbrand. “You must have killed him.”
“That’s true,” said Hrapp.
“What was the reason?” said Guðbrand.
“It will seem petty to you,” said Hrapp, “but he was trying to cut off my leg.”

That was written a millennium ago. Isn’t it beautiful?

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2013?

Shortest was Artemis Fowl & the Seventh Dwarf because it’s a wee little World Book Day booklet. Longest must have been Njal’s Saga which is not only long but very hard-going, despite gems like “he was trying to cut off my leg”.

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc. etc.) Be careful of spoilers!

The entirety of My Uncle Oswald. I think there’s a post about it on this very blog. I want to tell everyone about it but childhood hero Roald Dahl writing about quite graphically raping his way around 1920s Europe may not be to everyone’s tastes.

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2013 (be it romantic, friendship, etc).

I think it’s Arthur & Lancelot from the Once and Future King. Lancelot is just such a mess of emotions and he loves Arthur but he’s also having an affair with Arthur’s wife and Arthur knows it. Or Njal and Gunnar from Njal’s Saga. Their wives are murdering as much of Iceland as they can and the men just stand aside with gritted teeth and reassure each other that this isn’t going to affect their friendship.

19. Favorite Book You Read in 2013 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. I really like Scott Lynch and I’ve been waiting for Republic of Thieves for about five years. I was always going to love it.

20. Best Book You Read In 2013 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:

I don’t really take recommendations very often. I think I read the Wallander books on the strength of a Tumblr post I stumbled across but that’s the only one.

21. Genre You Read The Most From in 2013?

Scifi/fantasy. Again, sorry for crushing those two genres together. I hate it too but it’s hard to decide which category the likes of Thursday Next should go in.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2013?

I don’t really do that. I did have a ridiculous crush on TH White’s Lancelot as a teenager; I suppose that got rekindled a little bit this year.

23. Best 2013 debut you read?

The Republic of Thieves. As I said, having been anticipating it for a long time, chances were I was always going to love this book.

24. Most vivid world/imagery in a book you read in 2013?

The Artemis Fowls, the Thursdays Nexts and Wool. I can picture all three of them so vividly it feels like I’ve seen a film of them.

25. Book That Was The Most Fun To Read in 2013?

The Practical Princess is fun – no damsels in distress here. Or the Starlight Barking because it’s a bonkers scifi/fantasy sequel to 101 Dalmations, which is utterly unexpected if you haven’t read it before. Do read it, it’s not huge or complicated but it does make you wonder what on earth Dodie Smith was thinking to write this as a sequel to 101 Dalmations.

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2013?

I don’t think I can think of a book that’s ever made me cry or want to cry. I can think of at least two books that have given me nightmares, though.

27. Book You Read in 2013 That You Think Got Overlooked This Year Or When It Came Out?

The Republic of Thieves! I know the market’s flooded with scifi/fantasy but honestly, I think Scott Lynch is great and more people should read these books.