Thursday, 15 April 2010

Not all books are fantasy...

Much as I love speculative fiction, there is another genre that will always attract me and that is Rock Autobiography/Biography. I am currently reading Just Kids: From Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel, a Life of Art and Friendship by Patti Smith, the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in 70's New York and beyond. I have long been enthralled by Patti Smith and so far I have not been disappointed in her writing.

There are some classic rock biographies, one which got me into the genre was No-one Gets Out Of Here Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman. The life story of Jim Morrison, poet, shaman and outrageous lead singer of The Doors, did not have a happy ending, but man, that guy lived! The life of Bob Marley was protrayed in the excellent Catch A Fire by Timothy White. Other recommended reads are:
  • Sweet Scars of Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols
  • Scar Tissue: The Autobiography by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
  • White Line Fever: Lemmy - The Autobiography by Lemmy Kilmister
  • The Dirt - Motley Crue: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Neil Strauss, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, and Mick Mars
  • Slash: The Autobiography by Slash and Anthony Bozza
  • Bit of a Blur by Alex James
  • When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall
  • Hammer of the Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorised by Stephen Davis
  • Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Life of Ian Dury by Richard Balls
  • Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss
So what is the attraction of a rock biography? Personally speaking, it is to understand the person behind the music, away from the headlines and scandals. What drives their creativity and how they deal with the excesses of the rock business fascinates me, especially as so many are tortured souls in one way or another. The hedonistic lifestyle that surrounds rock superstars destroys that it claims to worship, and is a monster in its own right. But the music always triumphs in the end even if the artist does not survive.

There are some quality rock writers around today, many of whom cut their teeth on UK music weeklies like the NME, Melody Maker or Sounds. Collections of their writings are available and provide a wealth of interviews and articles on the music of the day. Some favourites are listed below:
  • Shots from the Hip (Penguin originals) by Charles Shaar Murray
  • The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music 1972-1993 by Nick Kent
  • England's Dreaming by Jon Savage
  • The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 by John Robb
Many music journalists go on to pen biographies, and I have found the quality of the writing to be of a consistently high standard. A good biography, especially on a controversial figure, can add dimension to the music itself. After reading Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis by Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade I gained a deeper appreciation of Joy Division lyrics and the darkness that enveloped the singer.

So, if you like music and want a little break from fiction, check out the music section in your local bookstore. You might be surprised at what you find there.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Are bookstores killing themselves?

There is an excellent article in the Guardian bookblogs section on this year's Hugo Award nominations "Hugo awards 2010: the shortlist"
China MiƩville excepted, the finalists for this year's best SF novel have one thing in common: mainstream invisibility
Sadly this statement is very true. Where are the displays containing the 6 shortlisted books in mainstream bookstores? Most booksellers highlight mainstream awards such as the Man Booker or Orange Prize for Fiction with a showcase of the nominees. Even the Richard and Judy Book Club (now The TV Book Club on Channel 4) gets pride of place positioning in Waterstones and WHSmiths. Sadly, with the demise of Borders, the mainstream has a stranglehold on book selling in the UK, leaving little room for 'outsiders' such as the Hugo Awards or the Arthur C Clarke's. Is this symptomatic of the disdain in which Science Fiction and Fantasy, as a genre, is held? Probably, yet, given the slightly obsessive book-buying nature of many SFF fans, are the big UK chains losing a potentially lucrative market by ignoring major genre awards?

Well, if I am indicative of an average SFF fan, the answer is a resounding YES! I spend most of my monthly book-buying budget online now. I can't remember the last time I ventured into my local Waterstones, mainly because whoever is in charge of the SFF section just does not appear to know the genre particularly well. The table-top display is OK, but if I understand correctly [see Mark Charan Newton's blog for more discussion on book selling techniques], this space is paid for by publishers wanting to promote their latest releases. The shelving, on the other hand, tends to be a mixture of TV tie-ins, urban fantasy, paranormal romance and 'standards' such as Pratchett, Rankin, Jordan, Eddings and Gemmell. Very similar to what WHSmiths offer in their larger stores. No innovative or cutting-edge titles to be seen. Not even any China MiƩville...

I choose to shop online because of the range of authors and titles available to me. They make it easy to click and buy, the wishlist facility is a very useful tool, and customer reviews, lists and recommendations etc. are really helpful. And the books arrive quickly, without the strain of carrying them home yourself! But I miss browsing in a bookstore... the thrill of spotting an intriguing title or enticing cover and physically picking the book up to find out more. It is not the same online. More convenient, I agree, but soulless.

Personally speaking, I miss the local independent bookshops. Even Borders was an improvement on the WHSmiths/Waterstones monopoly, as at least their staff were interested in the sections they managed. Sadly, my local Waterstones have lost their once excellent and informed staff, to be replaced by shop assistants who 'might read a bit'. I may be doing them a disservice here, but hey, they lost my business some time ago. If I want some trashy pulp, mainstream bestsellers or even literary fiction, then I'll go to my local charity shop as there is plenty of choice and the occasional gem can be found hidden amongst the Nora Roberts and Dan Brown. However, if I'm after the latest Chris Wooding or Jacqueline Carey I will just boot up my netbook and click my way to my electronic shopping basket. And often as not, 2 or 3 other books will accompany them, as one site in particular is rather good at presenting you titles that compliment those you have just purchased. You gotta love their algorithms!

It is the range of titles available online that appeals to me. In the evening I can read a review on a blog, check online and have the book waiting on my doorstep by the time I get home from work the following day. Bookstores, of course, cannot physically stock the same amount of books as an online store, but they could improve their ordering and online services. They could also return to a branch-based stock policy rather than a centralised distribution system that ignores regional variations and local culture.

Waterstones, when it first started, was a pleasure to shop in. Their large store in Kingston was a haven in the madness of the Bentall Centre on a Saturday afternoon... and they had a huge SFF section! But over the years the section shrank and became full of 'standards'. The offbeat and unusual books were out and tie-ins became the norm. I checked out the new Borders when it opened and was impressed that they had researched the local area and had a huge Manga section - there is a large South Korean community in the Kingston area and the kids love their Manga, it was always busy. Waterstones had, by this time, become more 'corporate' and lost out on this high-spending customer base by not being in tune with their local customers.

So, are bookstores killing themselves? I really hope not. There is something very soothing about mooching around a well stocked SFF section, where new authors are promoted via staff reviews and the stock has been selected by someone who actually knows the genre. It's not that difficult, but I fear that the 'hard-core' book buyer (and I include myself in this group) has long gone to the vast emporium that is online. With the advent of eBooks and the iPad/iBooks physical bookstores are further under threat. Will the big chains stop and re-evaluate their business model in a fight to survive? Or are we watching the death throes of the hidebound bookstore chains?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Murf's Wishlist - March additions

I tend to use my amazon wishlist as a way of listing books I want to read. I know I should be using GoodReads or LibraryThing, but I have been browsing amazon and trawling through Listmania for new titles for years now and it's a hard habit to break.  Now that I read a lot of book reviews - see the list of Blogs I follow in the sidebar - I have new sources of reading material, recommended by reviewers whose opinions I respect.

At the beginning of every month I will post a list of the books I have added, be they pre-orders, new titles or classics. If it is crossed through, then I have bought it!

  • Guardians of Paradise by Jaine Fenn
  • Dead Souls by Ramsey Campbell, et al.
  • Horns by Joe Hill
  • Mina: the Dracula Story Continues by Marie Kiraly
  • The Alchemist and the Angel by Joanne Owen
  • Riddle Master by Patricia A. McKillip
  • The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima
  • The Convent by Panos Karnezis
  • A Matter Of Blood: The Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy by Sarah Pinborough
  • The World House by Guy Adams
  • Spellwright by Blake Charlton
  • The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow & Thorn) by Tad Williams
  • Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Eastercon, Odyssey 2010 - or Murf's big day out!

61st BNSF Convention, Heathrow, London 2 – 5 April 2010

Saturday 3rd April 2010: First I must admit I had never been to a convention before and was slightly nervous as I approached the hotel near Heathrow airport. I need not have worried as I was immediately greeted by a group of fellow bloggers and tweeters in the foyer. It was at this point, at the start of the day, where I was introduced to Mark Charan Newton and the man next to him, Joe. This turned out to be Joe Abercrombie of Before They Are Hanged fame, and to my later embarrassment I did not recognise him at all. Introductions over, I collected my day pass and was handed a goodie bag. Now that was a pleasant surprise! Along with a mug, pen and assorted bumf, was a free book; D.B.Shan’s Procession of the Dead, no less, his first foray into adult fiction.

Then it was off to the first panel discussion: “Female Superheroes – WhyAren’t There More of Them?” It was a shame this was scheduled so early (9am) as there were few people present. A larger audience would have provided more debate and possibly challenged the panellists. These included Sam Sykes, author of the forthcoming fantasy adventure Tome of the Undergates and Paul Cornell, double Hugo Award nominee and future Guest of Honour at Eastercon 2012, alongside Esther Friesner and Roz Kaveney. I am not a comic/graphic novel fan, and while some salient points were made about how the genre is improving, I was not really convinced that the negative female stereotypes no longer predominate…

Panel over, it was off to the treasure trove that is the Dealer’s room. Books, books, shiny silver trinkets and more books! In amongst the stalls were some amazing and friendly people. I spoke to Jaine Fenn, author of Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven, about how I am eagerly anticipating the release of the third in the Hidden Empire series in September 2010. I was introduced to Aliette de Bodard, who wrote Servant of the Underworld (which I reviewed here), by Lee Harris of Angry Robot Books, currently the hottest book imprint in the UK at the moment.

And I chatted about which Doctor Who was the best with Rob Shearman, who wrote “Daleks” for the Christopher Eccleston Doctor (my own favourite was Jon Pertwee, closely followed by Colin Baker). He was at the British Science Fiction stall with a group of guys who persuaded me to buy 2 short story collections after we all agreed that K9 was a mistake! The collections are both edited by Ian Whates; Celebration, including stories from Stephen Baxter, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Alastair Reynolds; the other is Myth – Understandings, a collection of stories by women including Storm Constantine, Sarah Pinborough and Gwyneth Jones. Other books I picked up throughout the day, as I just couldn’t resist popping back to the Dealers room, were The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Bone Song by John Meaney, Slights by Kaaron Warren and The Wild Wood by Charles de Lint.

The afternoon panels I attended were both internet related. The first was "Writers and the Web" and the panellists were Joe Abercrombie, Mark Charan Newton, John Meaney and Maura McHugh. This was a lively debate where the power of the web to promote both authors and books was discussed. The role of book bloggers in particular was highlighted alongside the ability of the internet to bring authors closer to their readership through their personal websites.

The third and last panel was "Bridging the Gap: SF/F and Social Media". It was recorded and broadcast as #livecon and the panellists were Paul Cornell, Loudmouthman, and David Devereaux and chaired by the excellent Danie Ware from Forbidden Planet. Twitter was particularly relevant to the debate as it transpired that around 70% of the people in the room were actively tweeting throughout.

When not at panels or browsing the bookstalls, a group of book bloggers held court in the Polo Lounge bar. This, for me, was the best part of the whole experience. I had arranged to link up with two fellow convention novices: Amanda from Floor to Ceiling Books and Jason from Kamvision [left]. Having conversed via Twitter for a while, it was great to meet them in person. They are part of the team behind the very useful new resource Scrying the Fantastic, which posts “forthcoming releases in the field of speculative fiction”, and they are both very passionate and knowledgeable about books! As were Adrian (@Figures) and Adam (@Ghostfinder) [below right] with whom I had some fascinating discussions. I also got to meet @Nextread at last, Gav being one of the first people I ‘met’ on Twitter and through his Nextread website I discovered the world of book blogging.

The biggest revelation to me, as a convention novice, was how approachable and friendly the authors were. I was in awe at the breadth of talent contained within one hotel. While I admit I did not recognise many faces other than those I have encountered through Twitter, my wishlist has suddenly lengthened as a direct result of meeting so many gifted and interesting writers. It’s not everyday you find yourself discussing Java in a bar with Tony Ballantyne, or admiring Alex Bell’s new shoes!

Having time to reflect on the bus home, I found myself admiring a friendly and open community, filled with intelligent and thoughtful people, all with a shared love of books and speculative fiction. For me, Eastercon opened my eyes to a whole new world, one where I can indulge my reading habits and have discussions on the merits, or lack thereof, of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant character. I have caught the convention bug…I’ll be back!