comic fantasy

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Lines from a sniffling Discworld reader

This is the danger of being brisk and businesslike and getting straight down to the intended blog post instead of idly browsing the web for half an hour beforehand. Now that I’ve done the idle browsing for a few minutes and learnt the shocking news of Terry Pratchett’s death, I shall go reminisce with OneMonkey about how the Discworld brightened up our teenage years and introduced us to a series of wonders…

Festive highlights, week 1

The first of my two weeks off work is just about over, and as was inevitable I’ve done a pitiful amount of writing. I have, however, read most of Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (bit gruesome in places, but then it is set in hell), eaten quite a few mince pies, a wedge of stollen and an awful lot of roast potatoes, and listened to some great radio.

The radio in question naturally includes the adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens I’ve been looking forward to for months. Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap as Crowley and Aziraphale are fantastic, and it’s actually made me want to go back and re-read the novel, though I probably won’t as the To Read pile is teetering as it is.

I’ve also listened to the final ever Cabin Pressure, John Finnemore’s superb airline sitcom (I do like a series that ends properly instead of drifting on till they stop commissioning it), and the first episode of a fantasy series called Pilgrim (think old magic, think English countryside, think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but more to the point). All of this has sent me scurrying off to half-finished stories of my own (mainly of the comic fantasy variety), all fired up and ready to type. Right after I’ve had another mince pie.

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.