Diana Wynne Jones

April 1, 2011

I just read that Diana Wynne Jones died this week.  I feel genuinely sad at her loss.  She was one of my favourite authors.

It was one of her books that first inspired me to write.  I mean to really write, not just mess around thinking about it and scrawling out the occasional 100 words.  Up until reading her I had thought of writing, as most beginners do of any activity, as rather straightforward.  I imagined that anyone could do it. When I began Howl’s Moving Castle, the first book of hers I ever read, I was immediately struck by just how clear her writing was.  How imaginative, witty, wise and beautiful that good writing could be, whilst always remaining entertaining and, in this case, suitable for children.  This was before Children’s writing was enjoying its current renaissance.

I also became aware that I couldn’t write that well – anywhere near that well – and this opened my eyes to the realisation that writing was something that you had to work at.  That’s what made me become a writer – I wanted to write as well as Diana Wynne Jones.  I haven’t managed it yet, I don’t know if I ever will, but I keep trying.

I never met her, I was bitterly disappointed when I found out we once stood near to each other at a convention.  I would have loved to have said hello and tell her how much she inspired me, but that’s life: missed opportunities.  At least I got to read her books.

I was going to put a link here to Amazon and my favourite book of hers: Fire and Hemlock.  I was going to, but the cheapest second hand copy was £15.

Instead, here’s a link to Charmed Life.  It’s also good, but, to be honest, I’d recommend just about anything by her.

The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater

September 15, 2010

“When there is a wind on the moon, you must be very careful about how you behave.  Because if it is an ill wind, and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and then you will behave badly for a long time to come.”

So says the Major to his daughters, Dinah and Dorinda, before heading off to a foreign country.  Unfortunately, when the girls’ attempts to help their father with his packing go wrong, they decide that they must indeed be naughty girls, and as the wind has now got into their hearts, that’s the way they must act.

So begins one of the most bizarre children’s books I have read.  For the next 300 or so pages, the story twists and turns in the most unlikely directions as the girls visit a witch, turn themselves into kangaroos, make friends with a Puma, solve the mystery of the missing ostrich eggs, and rescue their father from the evil Count Hulagu.  Along the way, they meet a wide cast of characters including a singing vicar, a newspaper reading bear and an incompetent giraffe detective.  All this sounds very wacky, but what lifts the book up into the top league is that fact that, regardless of the off-the-wall nature of the characters, there is something very real about them, with more than a hint of satire in the actions, and a darkness at the heart of their nature which can be unexpected in a children’s book.

What impressed me most about the book, however, was that despite the seemingly random paths the story takes, all of the apparently insignificant diversions are there for a reason, and they all tie up in a satisfying conclusion.

The Wind on the Moon won the Carnegie Medal when it was published in 1944; I can’t believe I only heard of it when a friend bought my daughter a copy for her birthday. If you know a child age 10+, buy them a copy and then borrow it.  Better yet, buy your own.

The Wind on the Moon, 364pp, Jane Nissen Books. Recommended.

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke

April 14, 2010

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog on the Small Presses being one of the most significant developments in the field of SF/Fantasy over the past twenty years.  Here’s a book that illustrates my point.

Frankie Finnegan is an unhappy dreamer: he’s bullied at school and his home life is falling apart.  To compensate, he escapes into the imaginary world of Faraway.  But what happens when Faraway becomes real and Frankie finds he has the power to shape his own world?

How many people haven’t thought of something like that as a plot for a story?  It’s like the portable hole, an idea that sounds like a good one until you try and write it.  Keith Brooke, however, has the skill and imagination to make the story work, and then some.

Frankie Finnegan is a believable hero.  Irritating, sympathetic and pathetic in equal measures, he stands up to his bullies by feigning obsequiousness, thus winding them up further.   In his struggle to assert himself, he always ends up sowing the seeds of his own further destruction.  When he succeeds in creating the mock Victorian Freakshow world of Faraway, that same character trait is ever present asserting itself, and Frankie gradually comes to understand that it’s not his world that needs to change, but Frankie himself.

This is an elegant little gem of a book:  unsettling, funny and exciting in equal measure.  Keith Brooke has enjoyed some success as a children’s author writing under the name Nick Gifford, and this book would perhaps fit in well with that work.  It is a children’s book, but a book that can be read and understood by adults too- conjuring up memories of childhood and wistful sense of understanding.

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie (Newcon Press, 2010) by the seriously underrated Keith Brooke.  Recommended.

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds

February 6, 2010

Possibly my favourite comic book ever.

One thing I’ve always loved about comics is the way that the background can be as important as the foreground. Reading a book is linear thing, your eyes are dragged along a sequence of words, you watch a film at a rate of 24 frames per second, but with comics you can take as long as you like over each panel.  A good comic book writer can develop several stories in the background in a way that isn’t possible in prose fiction; they can also set the background to characters and events quite literally in the background.

Posy Simmonds does this to great effect in Tamara Drewe.  Tamara transforms herself with plastic surgery, a new wardrobe and a confidence that makes her the focus of attention in the remote village where she grew up, eventually  leading her to be regarded as a man-eater, home wrecker and even a slut.

Tamara Drewe originally appeared as a serial in the Guardian, and the restrictions of  a one page strip per week brought a wonderful economy to the writing.

But even more than the story, I love the artwork.  If anything it reminds me of Herge with its super realistic backgrounds and simplified foregrounds: some of the characters barely have two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, just like Tin Tin.  It doesn’t matter – Simmonds has a fine eye for character, and the poses they strike, the clothes they wear are just so right and familiar.

But it’s the backgrounds that I adore, be it the contents of a bathroom, the vegetables on a chopping board or just the right mobile phones for two teenage girls.  (One is spoilt by her guilty father and so everything he gives her is just a little better quality than her friend.)  This is the power of comics, showing and not telling.  The machinery is just right, the line of cars parked outside a pub, the little bus that takes the teenage girls into town, even the device for killing ducks (and if you want to know what that is, read the book.)

A few reviewers suggested that Tamara Drewe should be entered for the Booker Prize.  Whilst I applaud the sentiment, I have to disagree.  You might as well suggest that Ivan Fischer’s recording of Mahler’s 4th should win.  It’s good, yes, but its a different art form.

Tamara Drewe shows just what comics can be.

Fire and Steam by Christian Wolmar

August 24, 2009

This has nothing to do with either Robots or Accordions, but it was one of the books I took on holiday with me, and I thought it worth a mention here.

Now, there is nothing quite like the sight of an SF author lying on the beach reading a history of Britain’s railways to get the pulse racing, but let’s stick to the matter in hand…

Fire and Steam traces the history of the railways from the Liverpool to Manchester railway to the present day. (Wolmar doesn’t count the Stockton to Darlington line as a proper railway.  One reason for this is that the line was intended to be leased to any operator who cared to run a vehicle across it, in the manner of a turnpike.  As someone who grew up within the vicinity of the S&D route  I felt a little aggrieved by this, but I follow Wolmar’s reasoning).  The book is a polemic in the best sense, championing the railways and questioning the orthodoxy that they were badly run, particularly in the days of British Rail.  It’s a fascinating history, peppered with interesting facts (for example, the plan to surround London with  a circle of railway lines around which armed trains would run to defend the Capital.  If I’d known that at the time of writing, I’d have included a similar scheme in Twisted Metal for defending Artemis City)

I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in railways, but that’s too obvious.  There seems to be a real interest for this sort of thing within the SF genre and beyond.  Think of the popularityof Steam Punk, for example.   There is something comforting about technology that we can all understand, something very satisfying at looking at a machine and knowing how it works from start to finish.  This book treats the entire railway network as just such a machine, and you might want to give it a look even if you think you don’t like trains…


Primeval and Schismatrix

June 10, 2009

I watched the last episode of Primeval last night. Although I’m not a huge fan, I’ve nothing against it. I find it does what it sets out to do- entertaining families on a Saturday evening.

But is it Science Fiction? Well, I would say yes. It features time travel and exciting gadgetry, and I’m sure that an eight year old would find the idea of someone going back in time to wipe out the first human beings quite a mind blowing concept. (I remember being similarly awe struck when I first read Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder). But to us SF fans the idea is an old one.

Does that matter? There are always writers who do an excellent job of putting a new spin on old ideas, they present well structured and excitingly told stories, seasoned with just a hint of their own philosophy. (Eric Brown’s Helix and Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star are good examples of these excellent but oddly old fashioned tales). I like to call these Level 1 stories.

The point is, though, that SF has moved on from the level of Primeval and other TV shows like it. There are a lot of Level 2 stories out there, waiting to filter through to the mainstream. New ideas that are built on the foundations of the Science Fiction that has gone before us. Read Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, for example. Written more than 20 years ago, and, by today’s standards, oddly pre-singularity  (and if you don’t know what I mean by pre-singularity you’re not reading modern SF), but it’s crammed full of new ideas. The spaceships and spacestations and spacepirates of Level 1 SF are there, but they are in the background, barely seen, the platform from which a mind blowing array of new concepts are launched. I often wonder, though, if level 2 books like Schismatrix would make any sense to someone who hasn’t read their Asimov (or, maybe nowadays, watched their Star Wars).

Anyway, getting back to the beginning, that’s why I support shows like Primeval. It’s not just that they keep families entertained, it’s that they’re grounding kids in the Level 1 concepts they’ll need to read the Level 2 SF of tomorrow.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

June 1, 2009

Every SF fan should read this book.  Why?  Because it is an anti SF novel.  

Let me explain…

The book begins with what would be a classic (though oddly punctuated) SF line.  

Now what I want is, Facts.  Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.  Facts alone are wanted in life.

The words are spoken by

Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities.  A man of facts and calculations.

In other words, a sterling SF character of the old school.  The thing that makes this book the opposite of SF, though, is that it sets out to show that Thomas Gradgrind is wrong.  How?  By demonstrating what happens to his children due to their logical upbringing.  Gradgrind realises the error of his belief in a world of facts and logic when he sees his daughter married to the wrong man and his son exposed as a thief, and all because they believe they are doing what he wished.

Now, this entry is not intended to criticise Dickens (that’s not what this Blog is for, after all.)  Hard Times wasn’t written as SF (nor should we expect every book to be), it was written to “Shake some people in a terrible mistake of these days” (Dicken’s own words), and it contains some excellent descriptions of life for the working classes in Coketown.  Anyway, I love Dickens work. 

However, Hard Times does beg the following question:

Does SF have an answer to this depiction of Gradgrind’s supposedly flawed character?    

Of course it does.   A good SF novel finds beauty in facts, it can find emotion and sensitivity in the cold equations of the universe.  That’s one of the many things that makes SF worth reading.

That’s what’s original about the genre.

Pat Mills

May 12, 2009

I’ve included this entry in the Interviews category to make up for the fact that I forgot to mention Pat Mills…

Let me explain.  Interviews usually include a question along the lines of “Who are your biggest influences”, but it wasn’t until I was reading this weeks 2000AD I realised I hadn’t been mentioning one of my biggest: Pat Mills.  Now, its not within the scope of this blog to write biographies (its scope is Robots and Accordions, as I’ve mentioned before), so follow the link if you want to know more about him, but I’m including this entry to make up for Mills’s omission from recent interviews.

So why Pat Mills?  Well, his stories Robusters, ABC Warriors and Metalzoic all featured robots and were an undeniable influence on me, but there is more to it than that.

I grew up on three great comics writers, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Pat Mills.  Mills was always my favourite:  for the breadth of his imagination (Nemesis book 4 is surely the birth of Steampunk), his attention to detail (the research that went into Slaine spawned many imitators), but mostly for his depth of character.  Fitting real characters into SF or Fantasy settings can be a challenge, Mills manages it better than the others, to my mind.

I could go on, in fact I think I will  in another entry some time, but for the moment, here are some recommendations:

Marshall Law

Charley’s War

Nemesis Book 1 

The Turing Test by Chris Beckett

March 28, 2009

The Turing Test is written by one of my favourite authors, Chris Beckett, and is a collection 14 short stories that originally appeared in Asimov’s and Interzone.

Now, as it says in Al Reynold’s introduction to the book, in a perfect world you wouldn’t need me to tell you why you need to read this collection, but, sadly, this is not yet a perfect world. 

So why read it?

Well, Chris Beckett writes a form of literary SF that is under-represented in the shoot ’em first and then torture ’em later sort of Sci Fi that makes up the bulk of stuff published today.  He has a facility for taking a straightforward idea and then drawing out the story for the reader to see.  What emerges can leave you with the feeling I should have thought of that, accompanied by a growing sense of unease at where the story is going to take you, a little like being trapped on a genteel roller coaster that you know is going to take you, despite its leisurely pace, on an extremely uncomfortable ride.  All this written in a economical but descriptive style that is easy to read to but deceptively hard to master.

Now, as I’ve said before, this blog doesn’t do reviews, (In case you’ve forgotten, it does Robots and Accordions), so if you want to know more you’ll have to search elsewhere (and I suggest that you do), but think on this:

Chris Beckett’s reputation is growing all the time, but there’s still time to get in on the ground floor and have the great pleasure in later years of saying “I told you so”.