comic fantasy

Part 2 of #Bookaday

Time for the second instalment of my responses to this:
BOOKADAY_June
I’d got as far as number 8 last time, so let me think of something film or TV related. Obviously there are masses of books on the shelves that have been made into films or TV series, or indeed vice versa (like some of the early Doctor Who novels). However, the one I’m going to pick is a boxed set of 3 paperbacks from the Michael Palin travel programmes: Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Full Circle. The paperbacks don’t have all the photos that the big coffee-table versions had, and I probably saw less than half the episodes on TV, but Michael Palin’s gentle enthusiasm for foreign parts forms the core of my (very much armchair-based) interest in far-flung places.

Which book reminds me of someone I love? Quicker to list the ones that don’t. Among the many given to me by friend T there’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which set me off on Tracy Chevalier. There are the ones that used to belong to my dad’s late uncle, unashamedly intellectual with a dreadful line in puns (much like my dad, in fact). The one I’m going with though is a book I’ve only got an electronic copy of, having first read Big Brother’s paperback many years ago: The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels. Inextricably bound up with Big Brother, his outlook and influence. For better or worse (make your own mind up), he’s a big reason I am who I am today.

Ah, the pull of secondhand bookshops. Even now I have to make a big effort to walk past an open charity shop, and I have great memories of exploring the ever-expanding labyrinth of Michael Moon’s cornucopia of books in Whitehaven as a child. The majority of my books, and the ones in the Library of Mum and Dad are second hand, many of them with irritatingly limpet-like price stickers from the now defunct Roblyns in Huddersfield, regular haunt of my dad in the late 80s. One wonderful day in the early 90s, friend T and I were taken round every bookshop in some small Pennine town by her dad and had a fab time unearthing treasures. We once had a family day out to the old station bookshop at Alnwick. Can you see why picking one gem might be tricky? How about William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, bought from a second hand bookshop at Pitlochry station moments before our train pulled in?

I’m not sure I always pretended to have read the books I was supposed to read at school, and outside of that the question doesn’t make sense so I’ll move on to laughter. Humour’s a tricky one to pull off, much harder to write than you might think (believe me, I’ve tried) so I have great respect for those authors who manage it consistently. Do they make me laugh though, really? Is it more of a smile to myself as I pass over the page? Strongest contenders could well be from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde or the broader realms of comic fantasy. I’ve read a lot of comic fantasy (which you might not expect if you came across me in one of my more serious moods), I’ve written a fair bit too and most of it’s not very good. Except All the Room in the World which made it into Bards and Sages Quarterly a few years ago.

Phew, this is getting long so 14 is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ’nuff said. Calvin’s dad from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons gets my vote for top fictional father, though I read the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice a while ago and Mr Bennet’s long-suffering wit reminded me of my dad and therefore deserves a mention.

Back to the books…

Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! by Terry Brooks

An enjoyable, light-hearted fantasy novel that I’d somehow missed, by a well-known name in the genre.

When I was a teenager, Terry Brooks novels were everywhere, and it seemed to me that every one I picked up was book 7 of the Long-Winded cycle or part 2a of book 4 of the second quintet of the High Fantasy Epic. Undoubtedly if I look now I’ll find he’d only written four novels by then but in a way it doesn’t matter. The point is, I avoided his work. I associated him with Anne McCaffrey and David Eddings (both of whose prodigious output I had dipped into on the recommendation of a friend with whom I have overlapping reading tastes) and I assumed he wrote the sort of po-faced high fantasy I couldn’t stand, slightly wet with an unsubtle moralistic overtone, spread over a dozen volumes.

On the basis of Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! it seems I may have been wrong (it does happen occasionally). It was a quick and easy read, laced with humour (by no means comic fantasy, but definitely not always straight-faced) and with a few original twists to its comfortable tale of dragons, fairy magic and quests.

Ben Holiday is a lawyer in Chicago with a successful career, millions in the bank, a flash apartment (this being the 80s, that means a lot). Trouble is, his wife died a couple of years ago, he’s staring 40 in the face, and he’s beginning to wonder what the point of it all is. The answer’s either suicide or a long break from his old life, so the advert in the Christmas catalogue offering a kingdom (complete with dragons, fairies, wizards and knights) for a million dollars seems too good to be true. And we all know what they say about things that seem too good to be true.

It hasn’t made me rush off to read all those Terry Brooks books I dismissed out of hand all those years ago, but if you’re a high fantasy reader who also doesn’t mind the odd Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt, you could do much worse than to read this novel. (If you’re wondering how come I picked it up in the first place, a friend mentioned it then I noticed it in the library a couple of weeks later and thought why not).

To Edinburgh, with towel

Somehow I’d entirely failed to hear about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tour. The one with (mostly) the original radio cast. The one where Neil Gaiman will be the voice of the Book for one night only. Even he only mentioned it as an afterthought at the end of a longish post on his journal, but thankfully I spotted it, and in a moment of blinding insight into the state of my soul, my inner teenager reared up screaming Buy tickets now! So I did (listen to your inner teenager, sometimes it knows you better than the outer grown-up does) and now I’m eagerly awaiting a weekend in Edinburgh in which my Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman strands will collide in what I hope will be an evening of pure joy. It should be, at the very least, a unique experience.

Story a day update, Dirk Gently, and Peter Tinniswood

In the first 6 days of March I wrote just over 5000 words, spread among 5 different stories – not bad for an arbitrary self-assigned task, and the wordcount doesn’t include the copious notes I’ve made on what happens between the point I reached and the end of the tale. I’d been hoping for one or two completed flash pieces; all the topics I’ve tackled so far seem to warrant a longer work than that but I’ve still got over 3 weeks left.

Thanks to the brilliant BBC iplayer I’ve watched the first episode in the new Dirk Gently series. If you approach it not as a follow-up to the incomparable Douglas Adams novels but as a programme of the sort that a Douglas Adams reader may enjoy, it’s well worth a watch. Gently and MacDuff are well cast, the plot was suitably convoluted, silly, but with a twisted logic to it, and there were a few nods to the original. And I do love the fact that he’s still driving that Austin Princess (I actually have a story in my unpublished pile which features a car of that very type – many years ago my dad had an electric blue one).

Also thanks to the iplayer, on which I’ve caught various episodes of Uncle Mort’s South Country and Uncle Mort’s North Country (never in the order they were intended), I read a Peter Tinniswood novel a couple of weeks ago. A Touch of Daniel is the first of his novels featuring the Brandon family, of which Uncle Mort is a member by marriage. Written in the late 1960s and set among working class characters in a northern town, the novel could happily sit alongside better-known classics such as A Kind of Loving or Room at the Top. However, Tinniswood wrote comedy, and comic novels are hard to pull off though he manages it here brilliantly: this is understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best. There are running gags, the on-off-on engagement which put me in mind of Bob and Thelma in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, a shotgun wedding featuring a most unlikely couple, bizarre deaths and apparent miracles. All wrapped up with a houseful of elderly (and slightly potty) relatives, a staunch mother, wayward father, and taciturn Carter Brandon the put-upon young man at the centre of it all. If you like Robert Rankin and the Likely Lads, you could do worse than read this book.

 

Rex Libris: I, Librarian by James Turner

I couldn’t resist a graphic novel with a title like that, and when I pulled it from the library shelf the art-deco artwork sealed it for me (though actually the interior art style is nothing like that, more like early 90s computer graphics). The introduction by Dave Sim helped, too (if you’ve read the Ostragoth blog you’ll know he single-handedly got me into comics as something that went beyond The Beano).

Rex Libris was a librarian at the great library of Alexandria, and is still going strong in the present-day. He’s a good librarian, he likes discipline and order. And if that means chasing overdue books across the galaxy and fighting evil warlords, that’s what he’ll do. Since he feels that librarians don’t always get the credit they’re due, he’s chosen to break the code of silence and describe his life and adventures via a series of comics.

You can read this graphic novel (which collects the first five comics) as an entertaining adventure story with enjoyably ludicrous plots, but you can also appreciate a dose of satire and a handful of classical and literary references if you feel like it. On the whole I liked it, but I confess I didn’t understand why Rex occasionally said ‘dat’ and ‘dis’ instead of ‘that’ and ‘this’ (I couldn’t see any pattern to it and it seemed a little out of character), and a few instances of spelling mistakes, repeated or missing words in the captions/dialogue jumped out at me. I will be looking out for further volumes though.

My literary life, or I Blame Douglas Adams

It’s amazing what books influence your life. It might be nice to think some weighty literary tome (or some weighty non-fiction?) had the biggest impact, but if you’re anything like me (which may be a long shot) it’ll have been some light entertainment that you may even dismiss yourself. It just might take you a while to realise it.

Take the mug on my desk now (actually, don’t – I haven’t finished with it yet): it contains camomile and spearmint tea. A couple of years ago OneMonkey and I were both drinking it while reading novels by Philip K Dick, and we commented on how he loves to run words together, usually to make something sound modern and technologically advanced. We should call it camspear, we joked (yes, maybe we should get out more). And we did, and it stuck, and we still do.

Without intentionally ‘making a reference’, I have been known to attribute something unexplained to the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter – Robert Rankin novels have clearly permeated my being.

Mark the artist was talking to me recently about my writing, and I think he must have asked how long my novel Wasted Years is (81,000 words or thereabouts). There then followed a conversation about my early attempts at writing, aged about 16; So long and thanks for all the fish being the volume of the Hitch-hikers trilogy nearest my desk, and said trilogy being apparently my paragon of noveldom at the time, I did a rough wordcount of So long… and that was my target length (45-50,000 words if I remember correctly). Even for Wasted Years (started age 25, and not in the least bit ‘genre’) it was the point at which I hit that wordcount that I felt like I was writing a ‘proper’ novel, despite most fiction being much longer than that now.

For all my attempts at ‘serious’ writing and ‘mainstream’ (non-genre) writing, is it all down to Douglas Adams in the end? Maybe it’s about time I admitted that and started having more fun.

The Well of Lost Plots

Having started with Something Rotten and been largely confused (partly because I didn’t know the plot of Hamlet), I’ve caught up with myself as far as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series goes. The Well of Lost Plots is the third in the series and I think the best I’ve read so far.

A complicated and quite thrilling plot (with very little in the way of those trying-too-hard character names that marred my enjoyment of the first two books), plenty of in-jokes, literary references, and some wonderful ideas and imagery. Unpublished novels where scenery disappears because the author’s decided to use it in his new book; a black market in plot devices; slightly steampunk-esque machinery that transmits images to the reader’s mind… Trying to write a coherent review of this novel is too hard, partly because it’s the third in a series and partly because so much goes on (and not all of it makes sense) so it would be very easy to give things away. As I said to OneMonkey earlier, while I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly, I would say that if you enjoy the works of Douglas Adams or Robert Rankin (leaving aside a Dog Called Demolition) this should probably be on your To Read list.