I don’t always put the comic/graphic novel stuff on this blog but it occurred to me that readers here might be missing out because they ‘don’t read comics’. Mark Pexton’s art is (in my biased opinion) pretty special at times, and if you’ve enjoyed any of my sci-fi or fantasy stories you might like the one about werewolves on a frontier planet. So try our comic The Moon of Endine which (like we did for Boys Don’t Cry) we’re now making available online for free under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND, though you can still buy the print copy over at our comicsy shop or at Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man in Leeds. You can download the pdf if you like, or just sit and page through it here (it opens up a full page when you click on it)…
Apart from the release of my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women (more of which in a moment), I’ve been listening to the new BBC radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Richard Mayhew helps a girl in a London street and finds himself caught up in the disputes of London Below, with its fiefdoms and tangential relation to the London Richard’s familiar with. I enjoyed the TV series when I first saw it on DVD a few years ago, but it’s true the radio series had more scope and is therefore in some respects better. There’s a well of darkness in Neverwhere that can only fully be dredged when your imagination’s supplying the images (I was picturing most of the characters as they appeared in the TV series, but they weren’t being confined to scenery I’d actually seen them in). It remains a good story, which is the main thing, and though I knew the plot I was still finding it tense and unsettling at times.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Little Book of Northern Women, which I self-published via Amazon at the weekend (though it should be easily convertible to non-Kindle formats; I’ve got it as epub on a Kobo) has given me a thrilling few days so far. Kelvin Knight has become a one-man publicity campaign on my behalf, a role which I neither asked nor expected him to play, but which is much appreciated. The other stalwarts of the Telegraph Short Story Club have, as usual, been most encouraging as well, tweeting and generally shouting about the new book’s existence. So far, the feedback has been good and people have been enjoying the stories they’ve got round to reading (which for some eager people is all of them), but I would love to hear what anyone else thinks of the collection or any of the stories in it – you could leave a comment here or write a review somewhere and point it out to me.
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).
I hadn’t heard much about this novel before I read it, but I kept seeing it in charity shops and the library and eventually I read the back because it had an intriguing title, and it sounded like the kind of thing I might enjoy. A historical fantasy novel in which Yorkshire is a key place, and one of the two characters named in the title is a Yorkshireman. Excellent.
English Magic is in a bad way. There are no practical magicians any more, and the Golden Age is long over. Mr Norrell strongly feels it’s time for a revival, but only if it’s done properly. Which is to say, by him. As a curmudgeonly old Yorkshire recluse, he doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a trip to London to interest the government in English Magic. Magicians are not quite respectable, so society feels. However, he must try, and when he gets himself a pupil in the form of handsome young Jonathan Strange, the fate of English Magic looks much rosier than it has in a long time. Nothing is ever that simple, of course, and by drawing attention to themselves Strange and Norrell evoke the envy and enmity of some powerful people.
I almost feel bad for saying anything negative about this book; the plot is entertaining and at times tense, the characters are well-drawn and the era is vividly evoked, not least by the writing style. The length, however… Well, the length in itself isn’t a problem (about a thousand pages in the paperback edition I bought), I have books that are as long or longer by Tad Williams and Stephen King. It could be the apparent lack of activity for long periods, but then I enjoyed Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past which is a longer book in which less dramatic things happen at less frequent intervals. I think in my view the very thing that makes the novel so unique has brought about its downfall.
The book is set in the early years of the 19th century, in fact the Napoleonic Wars feature prominently during one part of the book. The author has therefore taken the (at first glance brilliant) decision to write in the style of a Georgian or early Victorian popular novel; the spellings sometimes look odd (chuse, shew rather than choose or show) and the long-winded style with asides into gentle social satire or an examination of manners reminded me a little of Anthony Trollope (which, as regular readers will know, I intend as high praise). However, when it comes down to it this is a fantasy novel, a novel in which the stakes are lives and kingdoms and ways of life, not who will marry whom and when. While it was amusing to read of magic in England in such a commonplace manner, and much as I enjoyed the reply to a question on whether a magician could kill someone by magic (‘I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could’), ultimately I found it was too laid-back a style for what was happening.
A magician achieves something not achieved for hundreds of years, he’s alone and it’s dangerous, but because of the style this feat is described almost as though he’s dressing for dinner, and there is never any insight into whether he was afraid or what the consequences might have been. His wife does make him promise not to try it again for a while, but there’s no sense of her being terrified of what might happen. The asides and the scene-setting (amusing dialogues at society parties or in Cabinet meetings, for instance) do help place the story in time, but tension that has built up dissipates during these sections and I’d almost forgotten what jeopardy a character was in the last time we saw him, by the time he turns up again some chapters later in different circumstances.
OneMonkey started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but gave up after about 300 pages. He said he kept thinking something was about to happen, then it didn’t, and in the end he grew tired of the anticlimax. I persevered to the end of the novel because I wanted to know what happened to the characters (who I had been made to care about), and I was impressed by what had been attempted with the book (the setting and the style), but I confess I wasn’t racing through chapters in a dash to the end, in fact it took me longer to read than any novel has for many years. In short, I want to recommend this book for so many reasons, but I’m reluctant because 9 out of 10 of you will resent me for wasting weeks of your time.
Friend D (otherwise known as David Lear of Firestone Books) has been interviewed over at Teresa Stenson’s blog, which you may be interested in not just because he’s a long-standing friend of mine (though really, that makes him instantly fascinating to you all, doesn’t it?) but because he’s looking for submissions of (genre) novels and – get this – short story collections. I won’t be submitting, to avoid accusations of nepotism (if he accepted it) or uncomfortable silences over dinner (if he didn’t), but if I wasn’t in this position I’d be looking into it because next to no-one accepts story collections as far as I can tell.
The Manual of Detection is fantasy noir, one of my favourite genre-blending combinations. First published in 2009, it won Jedediah Berry a couple of awards, and seems to be his only novel to date.
Charles Unwin is a clerk at the city’s gargantuan detective agency, efficient and ordered. He works on the fourteenth floor, is not permitted to speak to the detectives from the 29th floor, the watchers from the thirty-sixth, or visit the archives where his meticulous files find a permanent home. The only logical descriptor for such intricate, compartmentalised and rigid bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, but at least at the start it doesn’t feel sinister. Unwin is comforted by his known and predictable place in the vast machine, and proud of his achievements therein; this is Kafka wearing warm socks, drinking cocoa, and cuddling a purring cat.
Unwin has been assigned for many years to the agency’s star detective, Travis Sivart, and when Sivart goes missing his clerk finds himself thrown into the world of detection head first. After all, who knows Sivart better than the man who’s spent twenty years typing up his case reports and excising irrelevant details? Armed with The Manual of Detection, which he doesn’t have time to read properly, Unwin stumbles his way through the beginnings of a case, using Sivart’s years of written descriptions to find his way through unknown parts of the city, and recognise criminals. All the while he worries about his increasingly damp socks, the possibilities of rust on his bicycle chain, and how to sort out the administrative error that’s landed him on the 29th floor. Eventually Unwin gets drawn into a confusing web of connections and lies, dreams and reality, and acquits himself better than anyone imagined.
Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending (the post-climax wrapping up of loose ends, rather) I enjoyed the book and would recommend it widely. This is noir with literary pretensions, and all the richer for it. Sad and dreamy, and almost fussy in its detailed descriptions, the atmosphere of the rainy streets brought to mind the wonderful film Dark City.
Yet another day in the greetings card manufacturer list of approved spending times has gone by, but it seemed like a reasonable excuse to muse on literary love. That could mean a favourite relationship between characters, a character you wish was real so you could spend the rest of your life (or a romantic evening) with them, or even your love affair with a particular book.
Los Angeles Without a Map, by Richard Rayner, is quite a good book about mad impulsive infatuation (though the film may be better: it stars David Tennant and is partly filmed in Bradford, which is how come I went to see it at the pictures with Big Brother). Boy meets girl, girl goes home to Hollywood, boy follows bizarre whim and flies there to start a new life (girl not necessarily that impressed). It’s an amusing account of an Englishman out of place in a world where everyone wants to be in movies and nothing is quite as it seems.
Dare I mention Aragorn and Arwen, or is that too predictable? How about Magrat and the Fool, in the Discworld? I clearly don’t read the right sort of books for this, I can’t think of any characters suited to romantic evenings but I will give a special mention to Forral, from Maggie Furey’s Artefacts of Power quartet, who in my head was always more or less OneMonkey.
Anyone out there care to chip in?
It looks like the post a week thing has finally crumbled, but I’ll let myself off because over the whole year I’ve missed very few weeks. It’s the festive season, specifically that weird bit between Christmas and New Year when everything’s on hiatus. Including, apparently, me.
I’ve been avoiding writing since I’ve been on holiday, too much like hard work. I’ve got the Debut Dagger entry to put together, which is frankly terrifying, and I should tidy up some mostly-finished stories to send off to places. Inevitably of course I’ve been eating mince pies, doing vastly important rearrangements of the newly reinstated bookcase, and generally filling up my days such that I go to bed wondering where the time went.
Thankfully, Neil Gaiman has set me back on track. Not personally, of course, and I haven’t even been reading his usually absorbing journal lately. I have been travelling on trains a lot though, and yesterday I picked up a book almost at random (it had a purple cover, which was enough to catch my eye) from the To Read pile. It was Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, which has a long introduction with notes on each piece.
One of the things I like about Neil Gaiman’s journal is its feeling of honesty (I’m not saying it is honest, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t filtered and buffed up and slanted in particular ways); the illusion that here is this perfectly ordinary Englishman, with the same problems of self-doubt, occasional laziness, lack of inspiration, and looming deadlines as the rest of us. Here, we think, is something I could aspire to, it’s not entirely beyond my reach, no superhuman powers needed. Of course that’s glossing over the ability to write gripping stories well, but that’s not necessarily relevant at this point.
And so to Smoke and Mirrors. I’m about halfway through and though I confess I’ve been more puzzled than anything by the poems (I think I knocked my poetry Off switch a couple of years ago and I can’t seem to accidentally elbow it back into life), almost all of the stories so far have made me berate myself for letting such a book languish on my shelf for six months. Though if I’d read it immediately in the summer, it wouldn’t have been available to provide that much-needed spark of inspiration now. Which it has. The stories themselves have fired me up, but the notes in the introduction have been useful in an Ah, he does that too sort of a way, like a narrowly-focused version of his journal.
Not having a hat with me, I’ll raise my sister’s jaunty Christmas-pudding-shaped hat to Mr Gaiman and wish him a marvellous festive season and all the best for 2012. And that goes for you, too.
Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).
I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.
On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.
A fantasy novel translated from French, which doesn’t happen that often; it’s set in Paris in 1633, the Cardinal in question naturally being Richelieu and the Blades his finest and most elite soldier-spies, who had been disbanded 5 years earlier for political reasons. A good portion of the book is the ‘we’re putting the band back together’ section, where the Blades are located and plucked from their dayjobs, which is light and enjoyable.
Although it’s a fantasy novel, for almost the entire book except the climax it’s easy to forget that and assume you’re reading a historical swashbuckling adventure. As you might expect from the setting, it’s full of spies and double-agents, intrigue and political scheming, sword-fights and heroic rescues. And, thankfully, humour. The fantasy element arises from who some of the spies and double-agents are working for, and what additional power that might give them, though I don’t think that aspect was fully explored.
I enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed all the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, the Three Musketeers and the Man in the Iron Mask. If you don’t think they’d be your sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend this book, but if you like high boots, doublets, rapiers and repartee, and you don’t mind the occasional dragon, I’d say you were in for a cracking read.
One of the books I borrowed from my local library recently was a chunky SF novel (science fantasy?) called The Margarets. Margaret Bain is a lonely little girl, the only child on the research station at Phobos. To entertain herself she creates imaginary selves with different traits and personalities: a queen, a warrior, a healer, a shaman. At major turning points in her life, the separate identities seem to take on a life of their own, even long after she has grown out of them – are they dreams, parallel worlds, or a strange reality? It’s interesting to see how different experiences shape each identity in different ways.
On Earth as an adolescent, Margaret faces the ravaged planet for the first time, with its overcrowding and damaged ecosystem which has fallen foul of the body which seems like a kind of interplanetary UN. However, Earth has some friends among the other, older races and their minor gods. When they learn of a threat to humanity, it seems they can’t combat it without the help of all the scattered Margarets, each of which is involved on the fringes without realising it.
I did find this novel a little confusing and had to resort to the reference table of Margarets, their locations and associates (which can give big hints to later plot-points so is best approached carefully) but that may be partly because of the bitty way in which I read the first half, ten minutes here and there between other activities. I also had to grit my teeth through the first part: the whole novel is first-person, from the point of view of one or other of Margaret’s identities, and since she’s a child as the story begins, that part is written from a child’s perspective and it grated a little. Overall though I enjoyed it, I thought the story was interesting and unusual, strong enough to pull me past my reservations on the style (a bit soft-focus and girly in places, not my usual fare though I’m not saying I never read anything like that). Mainly well-written, though a shiftless redneck family with members named Billy Ray, Joe Bob, Billy Wayne, Lou Ellen etc seemed a bit stereotypical, as did the dialogue of the pseudo-West-African tribes on one of the planets.
I’m sorting out, this weekend. Tidying up, replying to overlooked emails, filing pieces of paper (and electronic equivalents). Last time I did this, I discovered the anthology some of my twitter fiction is in had been for sale on Amazon for a while without me noticing. This time I was reminded of something I meant to mention here but I don’t think I did – it was a most favourable review of said anthology, which brightened up my day.
I also don’t think I’ve mentioned that a reasonably long (9500 words or thereabouts) fantasy story of mine should be coming out at Strange, Weird and Wonderful in half a year or so, which I’m quite excited about. There has been a whisper of the possibility of an audio version – for all my talk of the well-spoken Yorkshireman, I have to say I’m not one of them, and I wonder if such stately prose (at least, it was intended that way) would survive my verbal mangling. Something to ponder over the coming months. The story was (though the location is never explicitly mentioned) set vaguely in the New Forest and Wales, though I’m not sure that has much bearing.
The other thing to mention is of course Neil Gaiman’s fantastic, oh so Gaimanesque episode of Doctor Who, which I saw on the iplayer. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I saw it mentioned in his journal (yes, I know, I really am beyond help), and I’m delighted to say I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. Someone asked me earlier this week what I wanted to do with my life, and the answer that sprang forth before I’d quite got my truth-filters in place was that I’d like to be Neil Gaiman. Not literally, you understand, but I wouldn’t mind following in his literary footsteps. Back to the story-crafting…
Among the semi-random books I got out of the library recently was a collection of stories by Clark Ashton Smith under the title Out of Space and Time. Never having read anything by him before I thought I’d give it a go, but the first story, The End of the Story, put me off. The phrase ‘purple prose’ suggested itself; it was from 1930 but seemed 40 or 50 years older at least (more, even – Poe sprang to mind), a suspenseful mild horror story set in the 18th century and concerning a forbidden manuscript in a monastery library. It may be that he’d overdone it on this story as he wanted to create that historic feel, but I had a small pile of other library books demanding my attention so one story was all I gave it. It is of course purely a matter of taste, and if you like that kind of style, you’ll enjoy Clark Ashton Smith’s works much more than I did.
Part of the reason I wanted to try this collection at all was the feeling that I hadn’t read many of the classics of the genre. I read Jules Verne and HG Wells when I was an adolescent (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter), and naturally I’ve delved into Tolkien and Philip K Dick, but there are plenty of other names I’ve heard often enough but have no first-hand experience of. I don’t think I’ve read any HP Lovecraft (I might have read one story in an anthology but it obviously hasn’t seared itself on my brain), I haven’t read any Edgar Rice Burroughs, EE “Doc” Smith, Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut… Given my cynical assumption of Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome whenever ‘classics’ are mentioned, I’m often in two minds whether to read them or not. On one hand they’re important influences, it’s a way of tracing the history of stories that I have enjoyed, and I might find that I enjoy some of these classics themselves. On the other, many of them are quite old now, possibly old-fashioned or in a style that’s not to my taste; some of them (I’m thinking sci-fi rather than fantasy here) are even irrelevant and eclipsed by later discoveries.
For when I’m in the mood to read the old stuff, I have discovered a rather wonderful site where you can download (for free) thousands of public domain books in several languages and formats, including a whole host of science fiction, fantasy, gothic and horror (and a pulp section which covers plenty of SF). A bibliophile’s paradise.
When I put a book review up here, it’s always of a book I finished reading. That’s a fairly obvious statement, but it means that due to my more recent policy of abandoning books if I’m not enjoying them (life is short, but the bookshelf is long), if I’m reviewing it it’s a fairly safe bet that I enjoyed it. There are the odd exceptions, where I’ve had high hopes so I’ve given the book as much of a chance as I could, and read the final page with a sense of disappointment, but in general if it’s not grabbing me, I stop reading (I do still give each book more of a chance than OneMonkey does – he has been known to fling it aside after page 1, but it depends what mood he’s in).
I took my own advice for a change and got 10 books out of the local library in the past couple of weeks, largely at random from the sci-fi/fantasy and graphic novel shelves. With barely a scan of the back-cover blurb I chose a selection that either OneMonkey or I (or both) might enjoy, some by authors I’d heard of, some not. There were some triumphs (Finch, for instance) and some I didn’t choose so well. So I thought I’d tell you about a couple of those – not to pull them to pieces, but because someone else may well enjoy them.
Jasmyn (by Alex Bell) had an interesting premise and enticing artwork on the cover but ultimately left me unsatisfied after a few chapters and I’ve still got most of those Doctor Who novels to read. Jasmyn’s a young woman whose husband has died suddenly, very sad, one of those things, life goes on. Except Jasmyn’s finding it very hard to let life go on and is instead moping around in her pyjamas (quite understandably in my view) and has arranged to take a term off work (she is a music teacher, as I recall); her husband’s family, who never seemed to approve of the marriage, are being less than supportive, and she starts to feel isolated. Then she discovers strange things are happening (or appear to be happening, but she does consider that she might literally be mad with grief) and her husband may have had a whole other side to his life that she never knew about.
Jasmyn’s husband wrote books on mythology and folklore, and the whole set-up and cover-art had a dark fairytale feel to it, despite the contemporary suburban setting. However, the style also seemed quite fairytale in the sense that the language, construction, and elements of repetition gave it a simplistic feel which wasn’t really for me. Or perhaps I wasn’t gripped enough by the story to overlook it.
Death Most Definite by Trent Jamieson: I wish I’d been able to read this to the end, OneMonkey enjoyed it, but there was just too much death (I know, what do you expect from a title like that). To give a quick overview, reaping souls (‘pomping’ them into the afterlife) is sort of a franchise but it tends to run in families, so Steve is a young man who has drifted into the family business but gives the impression that he’d have been fired by now if he wasn’t related. This book is the first in a series, and is set in contemporary Brisbane (what a refreshing change from American SF – not that I don’t like American settings but it’s good to get a different perspective sometimes); it’s first-person, in a light conversational style with plenty of references to rock music, films and SF, even in the few chapters I read. The premise is that someone’s making a play to be the next regional manager for all of Australia, and to do it they need to eliminate the competition. Which is pretty much anyone capable of doing the job, including Steve, his family, and most people he knows. From what OneMonkey tells me it does sound like it got quite tense and exciting, and even had a bit of romance in there, but the scale of death (and some of the detail) was harrowing and I couldn’t plough through it. My loss, I think.
Finch is at least a couple of books in one. It’s a detective thriller in the noir tradition. It’s a novel of resistance and rebellion in occupied territory. It’s other-world urban fantasy. Whichever one of those attracts you, read it.
John Finch is a detective in Ambergris, a city-state that’s featured in a couple of Jeff VanderMeer’s previous books (which I haven’t read). It’s a city occupied by the oppressive grey-caps, a race of something like walking mushrooms who took over the city a few years earlier. The essential otherness of all the non-human characters was conveyed well, and the organic technology and all-pervasive fungal growths were vividly imagined and described.
The novel opens with Finch being called in to investigate a murder he’s not sure is a murder; he does get the feeling that if he gets it wrong (in the eyes of his grey-cap boss) then that will be the end of the road for Finch, so a lot is resting on this case. The detectives are toyed with by their fungal superiors, fed parts of the picture and left to flounder. Finch clearly has a Past, which we are allowed to glimpse gradually as we are let into the backstory of this city – civil war, long years of building aggression, spies and double-crosses, shifting temporary alliances. Betrayal.
As well as being a gripping adventure (a bit bloody in places but nothing gratuitous) this is a poignant and moving novel about friendship, trust and allegiance. What (or who) do you hold onto when everything else is lost? The souvenirs from a dead past that allow you to hold on to the last of your sanity.
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.
It’s the second annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day – I know this because I made it up a year ago. The aim was to draw some attention (no pun intended, I swear) to the illustrators who interpret and enhance stories (or novels, with cover art) and enrich the reading experience. It’s probably more relevant if you read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy but I’d like to encourage you to take this opportunity to highlight an artist you’ve enjoyed in a recent magazine, or leave a comment on someone’s blog. You might think they won’t care, but even apparently successful artists may well appreciate some confirmation that someone’s noticed what they do.
To that end, I’ll point you at Darren Winter, stand-out artist in the last Interzone I read, and of course Mark Pexton who hasn’t been in Interzone for a while but we’ll forgive him because he’s been working on our stunning graphic novel (I’m allowed to refer to the art as stunning, I didn’t do it).
Flicking through an old copy of Mslexia and wondering if I should submit to their One I Love feature (short piece about a book that’s important to you), it occurred to me that they only cover books by women. Before I go on, I should say I always have my misgivings about magazines that only allow women to write for them, apart from anything else I think most women associated with such a thing would fume at any men-only equivalent, but a (male) writer friend of mine once cautioned me (in this context) about cutting off my nose to spite my face (which I am prone to) so I tell myself that it’s no different from a magazine for Scottish writers or Northumbrian writers or whatever, and get on with it.
Off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any personally important books I’d read by women, so out came the trusty notebook where I’ve logged my reading for nearly 20 years. Since the start of 2001 (roughly 10 years so that’ll do as a sample) I’ve read 353 books, of which 52 (less than 15%) were written by women – that’s 30 novels (including 5 Tracy Chevalier, 5 AS Byatt, a 4-volume fantasy series by Maggie Furey, 3 detective novels chosen at random in the library and 2 Margaret Atwoods given to me by a friend), a graphic novel, a short story collection, 9 books for children (basically Harry Potter, plus the ones I passed the time with when I worked in a charity shop and ‘junior fiction’ was next to the till), 7 history books and 4 other assorted non-fiction. Back in 1994 I didn’t read a single book by a female author, and in 1995 and 1996, no female-authored fiction. Surprising, interesting, but does it matter?
I noticed that (since I’m yet to start on the pile of second-hand CJ Cherryh novels I picked up recently) none of those 30 novels in the last 10 years were science fiction; 8 were fantasy, but the rest were mainly ‘literary’ (AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood – though she does write sci-fi as well, I believe) or historical (even all but one of the detective novels were historical). I suppose the traditional male-domination of science still largely applies (and unfortunately I’ve met a few academics who would prefer to keep it that way) so it seems logical that the science fiction audience could be mainly male and hence the subset of that audience that becomes the next generation of authors will be mainly male. The last thing I would want is a patronising leg-up for female sci-fi writers, as the editors and publishers try to shift the balance.
It did make me wonder about unconscious bias, though. CJ Cherryh – initials, hence gender neutral and I don’t think I realised until after I’d bought the pile of books that this was a female author. I do like to use my initials generally (Big Brother’s fault, he’s always called me JY) but when I started submitting sci-fi stories I made a deliberate decision not to use my full name. It wasn’t to hoodwink editors (I sort of assume, though I may be wrong, that these days there’s no conscious gender bias on their part, unless they’re running a gender-specific magazine) but to stop readers from passing my story over, or pre-judging it. I like to think I don’t notice the gender of authors when I pick up their books or flick through a magazine but I’m realising with some shame that I see a woman’s name and assume fantasy rather than sci-fi, and I’d probably guessed others would do the same, hence my use of initials. Of course some female authors go the whole hog and use a male pseudonym to circumvent this, so maybe I’ve read and enjoyed sci-fi short stories written by women, without realising it. I’m not about to deliberately seek out sci-fi by women (just as bad as deliberately reading sci-fi by men), but I’ll try harder to give it an equal chance. I’ll let you know how I get on.
It seems ages since I had my story All the Room in the World accepted for Bards and Sages Quarterly, but the October 2010 issue in which it appears has now been released. Unusually for me (at least so far) it’s not free to view, you actually have to buy a pdf or a paper magazine if you want to read it. To encourage you in that direction, I’ll let you know that it’s a kind of lightly humourous science fiction (science fantasy? If you call Doctor Who sci-fi, then this is probably sci-fi, if not then we’ll stick with fantasy but of a sciency bent), it runs to two pages and is set in a British university (or probably strictly an English university). I enjoyed writing it, several people have enjoyed reading it so far, so I hope at least some of you do too.
This week I’ve read two novels and been to see a film based on a comic so I thought I’d share.
Necrophenia, the most recent Robert Rankin paperback to grace my dad’s bookshelves, was pretty much what you’d expect from the founder of far-fetched fiction. While I wouldn’t perhaps recommend it to those new to Rankin (start at The Antipope and work your way through, would be my advice. Only you needn’t bother with A Dog Called Demolition, as OneMonkey is possibly the only person who’s ever enjoyed it), others with a long-held affection for Rankinesque fantasy will probably enjoy it as much as I did (which is to say quite a bit). The themes and some characters may be familiar (Elvis Presley, rock ‘n’ roll, 1950s private detectives or specifically Lazlo Woodbine and his bar-tending friend Fangio, the Ministry of Serendipity, not to mention the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter. Which he does, twice) and of course it does involve an other-worldly threat to the Earth (not just Brentford) and its inhabitants, which is (almost) thwarted by an unlikely sort of hero, but if you like that sort of thing (which I do) then it’s worth a read as it’s done very well. And he’s really toned down on the swearing these days (not that I particularly minded anyway).
The other book I borrowed from my dad (I’m not being tight, it’s an eco thing. Well OK, but I’m not just being tight) was Lullaby Town by Robert Crais, a 1990s contemporary-set novel featuring LA private detective Elvis Cole. I’ve read a few Elvis Cole novels now, and I like the character (and his friend Joe Pike: cat-loving, vegetarian, largely silent tough guy who wears shades no matter how dark it is), and I usually enjoy the plot (enough human interest without being soft, enough violence to be plausible without straying into brutal). However, the thing that really bothers me is the excess of description – yes I know it might tell you something about the bad guy that he’s wearing green socks with a sharp suit, but when he’s pointing a gun at Elvis Cole I don’t need to know which side his hair’s parted or what make of gun it is. And since it’s written in the first person, are we supposed to believe that Cole has noted all these details in the middle of the action? As usual, all the brand names mean nothing to me so maybe it would be better to say expensive/cheap/mid-range/out-moded rather than relying on all readers being familiar with American brands. That aside, Lullaby Town was a fairly fast and satisfying read: Peter, an immature, self-centred film director wants to find the wife and child he walked out on ten years earlier, before his success – all in a day’s work for Elvis Cole, but then it gets a bit more complicated and Peter learns the hard way that money can’t buy him everything, and dealing with the mafia isn’t as easy as it looks on the big screen.
The film was Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I was expecting good things from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and I wasn’t disappointed. Adapted from a series of comics, set in Toronto and full of good music, the film was one of those that leaves you with a buzz for a few hours after you’ve watched it. Although Scott Pilgrim himself mostly just needed a slap, his room-mate Wallace was brilliantly portrayed by Kieran Culkin, and several characters were real enough that they kind of reminded me of people I used to know back when rock music and being cool were major themes of my life. Visually, the comic book and dodgy old pixelated computer game theme worked, though it seemed to be forgotten later on, outside of the fight scenes. It was funny, it was fast-paced, people had superpowers with absolutely no explanation or apology, and it should serve as a self-esteem boost to geeky gawky bass-players everywhere.