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.

Films, biscuits and shared ideas

I don’t need much of an excuse to eat jammie dodgers, but if I did I could use the first rejection from my batch of submissions this weekend (actually I usually just shrug and move on – often a story that one person says has no potential, another person is prepared to pay for). That’s good in a way, it means the story’s not tied up for long and I can try it again somewhere else straight away. Except of course we all know I’ll sit here with biscuit crumbs on the keyboard and think about it for a while, file it in the mental To Do list and get round to it in a few weeks.

In the meantime I’ve been scribbling ideas cobbled together from things that Mark and OneMonkey said yesterday: one muses on X and Y happening to Z, the other then says maybe X would happen to A and Y would happen to Z but in a different universe, and I take X happening to Z in the different universe and see where it gets me. I do that a lot with things OneMonkey says, he’ll mention a good idea in passing and I take the core, strip away the bits I’m not so keen on, add a few twists of my own and write something. I can’t decide whether that means I have no imagination of my own, or I’m just good at being sparked by snippets of someone else’s thoughts.

Which made me think of a film I saw recently, on Mark’s recommendation, called Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. It had its flaws (the big one being why on earth would the other two hang around with Pete, but OneMonkey reckons it’s because they worked at the same place) but it was quite fun and strange. Three friends in the pub encounter a time slip, a time traveller, adulation, fear, the apocalypse (possibly) and out of date crisps. One of them is a struggling writer of speculative fiction who often works on ideas based on conversations the three of them have had, or things the other two have said. It’s British, it’s funny, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it reminded me of our Thursdays at the pub before French friend A (potential translator of Boys Don’t Cry) went off to do adventurous outdoorsy things for a few months (though in the film they have a drink each whereas we, being tight, had a maximum of two between four of us. And I don’t remember ever stumbling out of my own time). It does feel like a film that could have been written by three friends in a pub, and I mean that as a compliment.

Full of cold, surrounded by books

Full of snot and self-pity as I’ve been this week, I’ve been doing a lot of reading when I haven’t been asleep. The main book of the week was The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, which I enjoyed much more than its follow-up The Fourth Bear (I do have a tendency to read books in the wrong order these days, which occasionally gets confusing but now I have an insight into my dad’s approach to Robert Rankin’s Brentford novels, and an even greater respect for his brainpower). I honestly can’t say whether that’s because it’s better, because I’ve read a few Ffordes now and I have greater tolerance for him trying too hard (it’s the really contrived names that get to me), or because I’m not well and was therefore approaching it much less critically and more with a view to a few hours’ amusing diversion.

The Big Over Easy is one of Fforde’s Nursery Crime Division novels, and if you say ‘Humpty Dumpty’s fallen off a wall in Reading and died; DI Jack Spratt and DS Mary Mary are trying to find out how and why’ it just sounds a bit daft, but in fact it’s a proper gripping detective novel, a bit gruesome in places, full of twists and brilliantly built-up tension. There’s a healthy dose of satire and an affectionate (I assume it’s affectionate) poke at the classic detective canon, as well as quite Rankinesque absurdity (I was going to say Pythonesque, but it’s a lot more internally consistent than that and it does generally follow its own logic). Berkshire is a long-established safe-haven for anthropomorphic animals, apparently, and Reading has a disproportionate number of nursery rhyme characters, all of whom fall under the jurisdiction of Jack Spratt and his tiny underfunded team. And he’s happily married with five children. No wonder no-one takes him seriously as a detective.

Read it if: you like comic fantasy but watch the occasional Poirot; you like detective novels and have a sense of humour that embraces Life of Brian; you are bored, would like your brain exercised in the pursuit of a whodunnit but are sick of depressing, nasty or twisted police-related stories.

Brief update

Back in January I mentioned a hope that some book reviews I’d written might appear somewhere soon. Well, look out for two of them in the next few weeks at SFReader, a speculative fiction review site (they do films as well as books). With luck (if I get myself organised) there should be more to follow, there and elsewhere; not all of them will be speculative fiction although I do read quite a bit of it.

Writes and responsibilities

Last year I read a couple of comic fantasy novels by Walter Moers which I largely enjoyed but would probably have enjoyed more if they were only two-thirds the length. One of them was The City of Dreaming Books, a kind of satire on the literary machine (authors, agents, publishers and book-buying public), as well as being an adventure in which a dinosaur gets imprisoned in an underground labyrinth and runs into all sorts of peculiar creatures before he eventually makes his way out. The dinosaur has set off to fulfil the last
wishes of his ‘authorial godfather’, who has been responsible for his literary education, having first taught him to read and write. The idea of an authorial godfather struck me as brilliant, though if you were to ask OneMonkey’s long-suffering nephew he’d probably say I’d already taken up the idea years ago; I’m sure we did buy him something that wasn’t a book, once, it’s just that I get so enthusiastic about books I long to share them with people.

In our early years (together, I mean, not when we were toddlers) I was forever recommending books to OneMonkey, but thankfully he usually ignored my suggestions and stuck to reading things he’d chosen for himself. It was a long time coming but I did finally realise that not everyone will enjoy Proust as much as I did, and also that it’s not necessary or even desirable that they should. I think (hope) that this realisation helped me choose books for OneMonkey’s nephew on the basis that he might enjoy them, rather than just giving him books I thought he should read. Big Brother handled part of my musical education that way, steering me gently in the direction of Led Zeppelin a couple of times before I decided I liked what I heard, but mainly he was waiting with an extensive record collection for me to plunder when I got there under my own steam (I never did reach Bob Dylan but I don’t think BB’s entirely given up on me on that front yet).

Lately I’ve come across a lot of lists of books in newspapers or on blogs, that someone has decided they, or other people, should read. I’m not sure I hold with ‘should’ (that goes for many more things than reading books), and in that sense I’m not in a position to cultivate an authorial godchild; I’d have a mental list of books I’d like them to like, but once they were old enough to show some preferences I’d have to modify it or cast it aside. In a few weeks I’m going to the baptism of a young relative of mine (hopefully more of a family gathering and celebration of her existence than a religious occasion) and I was pondering what to give her as a lasting present. Having already given her a whole stack of books she won’t be able to read for a few years, that were passed on to me from her mum when I was little, I wasn’t sure a complete set of AA Milne would stand out. I might sit down and write her a recommended reading list, not to be prescriptive you understand, just as a guiding hand through the overwhelming world of literature.

Beware of living in the moment

This weekend I’m reading a Doctor Who novel (why do I admit these things?), featuring the eighth doctor (my favourite one, sadly underappreciated) which is, as too many of the recent adventures are, set on Earth in the year it was released (in this case 2004). I would never expect a Doctor Who novel to be a literary classic, but the way the contemporary references are shoehorned in to this one is quite annoying. I was in Britain, in my mid-twenties, in 2004 and yet I still don’t get some of the references – TV programs I’ve heard of, but never seen (haven’t had a TV since March 2002, if I remember correctly), pop stars I know the name of but don’t know enough about to fill in the background.

In general I find this kind of writing lazy (that’s not to say I never do it myself); using a currently well-known person, song or film as a shorthand for some attitude you can’t be bothered to describe. Assume for a moment that the story in question isn’t a passing fad, and someone reads it in twenty years’ time – they might have heard of Damon Albarn or Jamie Oliver or David Beckham, but will they know there was anything more to them in the public perception than a pop singer, a chef or a footballer? I find this kind of thing crops up a lot in comic fantasy (or maybe I just read too much comic fantasy), and if it was written in 1985, well I remember 1985, but I remember it in terms of what I did at school, my burgundy corduroy jacket with the hood, and the terrified dog we adopted, not in terms of popular culture and world events, and a lot of the passing jokes pass me by.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s all about trying to look cool, sprinkling hints throughout the text that, despite the fact the author is a middle-aged man who writes lightly humorous fantasy novels for a living, he has an intimate knowledge of chart music, vacuous celebrities and late-night TV. How that counts for cool I’m not sure, but it would also partly explain the habit of sci-fi authors picking up on cutting-edge technology, destined to fade away within a few years, and extrapolating fifty years into the future with it. The first example that springs to mind is the Philip K Dick novel (sorry, can’t remember which one) written in the 50s and set around 2000, where owning a tape-recorder is the ultimate in cool; not only is it a tape-recorder, but it’s about as genuinely portable as the old 14-inch portable TVs that were anything but.

Which is one of the many reasons why I like Robert Rankin. Sort of comic fantasy, in the sense that it’s funny and not hugely realistic (or maybe it is, I’ve never been to Brentford to find out), but even when it’s set in 1997, the pub still closes for the afternoon, payments involve shillings more often than not, and his best loved characters are a pair of 1960s likely lads that could have had bit-parts in half a dozen classic British films. It’s so clearly not trying to stick to a particular time-frame that you forgive any anachronism he throws at you.

I’m hoping the non-specific setting might save a short story of mine which is doing the rounds at the moment. It’s what you might call (if you were into this sub-genre labelling lark) slipstream, but one of the actions that sets off the main chain of events is a character having a shower to cover up the fact that he’s been to the pub while his girlfriend was out at keep-fit. The only reason he needs a shower is the smoke, but I started writing the story a few weeks before the smoking ban for England was announced, and by the time I had a reasonable version ready to show anyone, the ban had been in force for a while. Without the shower, there is no story, and (I think) it flows naturally from the trip to the pub whereas any other situation would seem contrived. I don’t think there’s anything in it that ties the story down to any particular point between the mid-80s and 2007, but without anything definite to the contrary it makes sense to read it as though it’s happening now. With luck, an American magazine will pick it up, and unless they’re unusually immersed in British culture, the lack of smoke in pubs these days won’t be the first thing they’ll think of.