New Year Status Report 2015

I did one of these status reports on each of my projects last year, and I think it’s a useful thing for me to evaluate my progress (or lack thereof!) on an annual basis.

The Chimney Rabbit

My first completed book. After being sent to 27 agents and publishers, it received just one request from an agent who was interested enough to read the full manuscript, but has now been shelved indefinitely.

The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice

A direct sequel to The Chimney Rabbit, written in naivety and optimism. Will never see the light of day.

Tales of the Ancient Rabbits

A stand-alone prequel to The Chimney Rabbit. Sent around agents and submitted to one competition, didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t shelf it immediately, because it became:

The Panopticon Papers

A rebranded version of Tales of the Ancient Rabbits, with the action transposed to an alternate history of the real world instead of a fantasy world, and with human characters instead of anthropomorphic animals. Sent around agents, didn’t get anywhere. Submitted to the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust competition, and actually made it onto the longlist of 25, but didn’t make it onto the shortlist. I think this one has run its course.

The Dragon on the Tower

A story of northern Scotland in the Dark Ages, featuring a Pictish girl and her dragon friend. I’m not particularly happy with this one, so it’s currently sitting in a virtual drawer until I feel like I’ve got a handle on what I can do to rewrite it. Still needs a better title.

The Wreck of the Argyll

A story of plucky Dundonian youngsters foiling a First World War plot by German spies, set against the real-life wreck of the Royal Navy armoured cruiser HMS Argyll on the reef off Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1915. This was written specifically for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize, and to my delight it was one of three books shortlisted. I’m travelling up to Dundee in March to see if it has won. If it doesn’t win (and the competition looks pretty strong indeed) I’ll be sending this book out to as many publishers and agents as I can as soon as I get back from Dundee.

My Dragon Has No Nose

My work-in-progress novel, currently sitting at about 27,000 words out of an estimated 33-35,000, featuring a singing and dancing music-hall dragon in 1890s Edinburgh. This is a bit of a fun project that I don’t have any real plans for – The Wreck of the Argyll is taking up all of my attention for the next six months at least, I’d say – but I get itchy typing fingers when I’m not writing, so I didn’t have much choice.

Best of 2014 part three: Adult books

This is the third and final part of my round-up of the books I’ve enjoyed most in 2014. See my posts on the best comics and best children’s books for the first two parts.

As with children’s books this year, I’ve read an awful lot of great general fiction. But after a lot of careful consideration, I whittled the list down to the five books that I’ve enjoyed the most. Perhaps not the best books, but “best” and “most enjoyable” aren’t synonyms, are they? The latest Haruki Murakami was excellent, and by any objective standards would probably get a place on this list, but in the context of his oeuvre it fell slightly flat, so it didn’t quite make it.
So finally I came up with my five. Well, six, if you count the two books in the same series I lumped together.

Then my partner gave me The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber for our anniversary. I finished it this morning, and after pondering it all day, I don’t see how I can leave it off the list. But then again, I don’t want to drop No. 5 from my list either, as I really, really enjoyed those books.

So here are my top 6 adult books of 2014. My gaff, my rules.

No. 6 – Where the Devil Can’t Go/Death Can’t Take a Joke, by Anya Lipska

Where the Devil Can't GoDeath Can't Take a Joke

I don’t read an awful lot of crime – the occasional Ian Rankin, I suppose, and the triumvirate of supernatural crime Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, and James Oswald, if they count – so I’m not entirely sure how I came across Where the Devil Can’t Go by Anya Lipska on the Kindle store, nor what possessed me to buy it. It’s just one of those serendipitous events, I suppose. See, it can still happen in the digital age! This book, along with its sequel Death Can’t Take a Joke, feature Janusz Kiszka, a sort of private investigator and unofficial “fixer” for London’s Polish community, and Natalie Kershaw, a rookie Detective Constable in the Metropolitan Police. They attack the same case from completely different angles, meeting at tangents and bouncing off each other. The crime investigations are well constructed, the characters sharply realised, the dialogue vivid and evocative, and the setting just that little bit different from the metropolitan norm. The comic relief is provided by Kiszka’s friend Oskar, who provides some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. My only problem is that I wish there was a guide to Polish pronunciation in the back – I often heave a sigh of relief when Kershaw messes up a Polish word and Kiszka corrects her phonetically! Amazon list a third book in the series coming next year, which is great news.

(Edit – I am informed that the print edition of Death Can’t Take a Joke does in fact contain the very guide I was looking for, and Ms Lipska is looking into getting it included in the electronic edition.)

No. 5 – Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a pulp adventure set in a steampunk alternate history, where the British Empire covers three-quarters of the globe, airships sail the skies, and Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire, has his tales of derring-do immortalised in penny dreadfuls. Inspired by these stories, when Gideon Smith finds out that his father is lost at sea, and supernatural forces seem to be at work, he sets off from Yorkshire to track down help. On his journey he encounters Maria, the mechanical girl of the title, and his adventures only get stranger from then on. It’s a cracking read, reminiscent of the pulp adventures of the past injected with a modern sensibility. Various characters from history and literature crop up from time to time; the Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bathory subplot is especially entertaining. The second in the series, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, is on my “to-read” list, and the third, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, is due out in 2015.

No. 4 – Toad Words, by T. Kingfisher

Toad Words

T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, a writer and artist probably best known for winning the Hugo for her comic Digger in 2012. Under the Kingfisher brand, she’s put out three self-published books: Nine Goblins, a comic subversion of fantasy, which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed, Toad Words, a collection of short stories, and The Seventh Bride, a fairy tale re-telling of the Bluebeard story, where a new wife-to-be tries to avoid the fate of her predecessors. All three are excellent, and show her wonderful facility with myth and fairy tale. By their very nature, short story collections can be uneven, but each story in this collection works for its place. The highlight has to be “Boar and Apples”, a new take on the Snow White story that seemingly does the impossible by making this most familiar of stories seem fresh and original.

No. 3 – The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber writes an awful lot of science fiction and fantasy while still managing to be shelved in the general fiction section of the bookshop. I’m not quite sure how he does it, and given that The Book of Strange New Things features space travel, an alien world, and alien creatures, I’m completely at a loss as to why it doesn’t appear in the Science Fiction section. I suppose you could make the argument that the book isn’t about aliens and alien worlds, exactly, but is about Christianity, but that never stopped bookshops from placing Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man in the sci-fi section, so I think we just have to chalk this up to the irrationalities of the book trade.

Peter Leigh is a Christian pastor who is recruited by a faceless corporation for a mission to an alien world. The inhabitants there have demanded a missionary, and after undergoing a long series of evaluations, Peter fits the bill. He leaves behind his wife, Bea, and tries to adapt to life both in the outpost and in the aliens’ encampment. He finds a group of aliens who are desperate to hear about Christianity, so he sets about making the bible (which the aliens call the “book of strange new things”) intelligible to them. His only method of communicating with his wife is through the Shoot, an ansible-like device that allows only the intergalactic version of email, but the messages he receives give him no comfort as his wife tells him about the slow mundane collapse of civilisation on Earth.

Peter’s faith is treated sympathetically, but you can’t help feel that his religion has betrayed the aliens when the reason for their fascination with the book of strange new things is revealed.
Is it a criticism of religion, that offers wonders then says “ah, but, that’s a metaphor” or offers healing then says “but only if God wills it”, or is it a criticism of literal-minded people who can’t see the functional difference between a universe where God works in mysterious ways and a universe in which God doesn’t exist at all? I don’t know, but it’s a fascinating book that provides plenty of food for thought.

No. 2 – The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Patrick Rothfuss is best known for his epic fantasy series The Kingkiller Chronicles, which to date comprises two mammoth tomes The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is set in the same world, and is a novella featuring one of the subsidiary characters from the series. It possibly wouldn’t make an awful lot of sense if you hadn’t read the other two books, but at the same time it’s completely different in tone and in style. It’s a poetic meditation on the troubled and singular Auri, who lives in the abandoned passages beneath the university where much of the other books takes place. The language is lyrical, there is no dialogue, there is no plot other than the machinations within Auri’s own head and her struggles to impose order on the chaos of her inner universe. From the reviews I’ve read, it’s a book that either touches you or doesn’t, with very little in between, although the way in which it touches people seems to vary. For me, it was the way that Auri imposes personality and character on inanimate objects – it was a tendency I had when I was younger, and although it’s faded with age and time, it struck a chord with me. Very much a Marmite book, but if it reaches you, it can have quite an effect.

No 1 – City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer

City of Saints and Madmen

Where do you start with this book? City of Saints and Madmen is a vast, ornate, baroque, monster of a novel. If novel it is, because it’s formed of disjointed novellas, short stories, histories, appendices, letters, and glossaries that together build up a picture of Ambergris, a city of horrors and wonders, where mushrooms and giant squid have a hold on the imagination and minds of mankind, and there are rather more madmen than saints. The city’s history is hinted at, with recurrent threads tying the whole thing together, so that the whole is very much more than a sum of its parts.

Some of the individual pieces would be fascinating and entertaining pieces of fiction on their own, but its only when taken together, with all of their reinforcing motifs, that the whole picture emerges. Not that you’ll ever know everything about Ambergris, no indeed – there are mysteries that will never be explained – but the city seeps into your imagination. In terms of scope and ambition, I can only compare it to a work like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, which is probably the highest compliment I can pay a work of imaginative fiction.

I’ve just finished Annihilation, the first volume in Mr VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and while it’s a very different book in tone and style, Area X is definitely the wilderness counterpart to the city of Ambergris. I’m going to evaluate the trilogy as a whole when I’ve completed all three books – I’m willing to bet that it finds a place on my 2015 top books.

Check back in a year to see if I was right.

Best of 2014 part two: Children’s books

I’ve already covered my best comics of 2014, so next on the agenda is my list of the best children’s books of 2014.

Last year, in my round-up of the best children’s books I read in 2013, I had a hard time whittling the list down to just five, and in the end I ended up with six (giving two Joan Aiken books top spot), plus a list of honourable mentions. This year I’ve given up all pretence of being able to come up with a list of just five – this is a top ten instead. There have just been so many great books.

No. 10 – Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret, by D.D. Everest

Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret

I reviewed Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret back in October. It’s a Harry Potter clone that transcends its form and provides a cracking good story, with enough wit and originality to keep it fresh, backed up by some lovely illustrations by James de la Rue. I’ll be keeping an eye out for future volumes with some interest.

No. 9 – Gods and Warriors: The Outsiders, by Michelle Paver

Gods and Warriors

It’s no secret that I consider Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother (which made it into the top 5 last year) one of the finest children’s adventures ever written, and Gods and Warriors: The Outsiders is more of the same. The setting has changed from neolithic Northern Europe to Minoan Greece, but the vivid characterisations and subtly depicted magic are familiar. Where Wolf Brother told part of its story from the point of view of a wolf, here we have a dolphin give us a different perspective on events. If you like Wolf Brother, you won’t be disappointed with this.

No. 8 – The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil

In a world where fairy tales are real, where do the princes, princesses, witches, and monsters learn how to play their parts? Why, at The School for Good and Evil, of course! Sophie and Agatha, childhood friends, are whisked away to join the school – but of course they end up on opposite sides, one good, the other evil. Will they be able to work together, or will their true natures be revealed? A splendid tale with an imaginative setting. Nicely illustrated by Iacopo Bruno, too.

No. 7 – Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell

Rooftoppers

A baby is found floating in a cello case on the English Channel, and is adopted by Charles, who names her Sophie and proceeds to raise her in an unorthodox but utterly charming way. Eventually, though, Sophie decides she must track down her mother, which leads her from London to Paris, and there onto the rooftops where Matteo and his friends live – the Rooftoppers of the title. Charming, exciting, emotionally charged.

No. 6 – Cakes in Space, by Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve

Cakes in Space

Oliver and the Seawigs was the first book in an unrelated series that McIntyre and Reeve created, and it was a joy to read and a pleasure to hold. Cakes in Space has the same high production values as Seawigs, with fully-illustrated pages throughout, but it’s even more fun. Astra is off into space with her family, but in the middle of nowhere, light years from her destination, she’s awoken from her suspended animation when everyone else is asleep, and is confronted with the worst danger imaginable – cakes! Not just normal cakes, but living, breathing, hungry cakes. People are supposed to eat cakes, not the other way around! Before long the mayhem increases with the arrival of spoon-loving space pirates, er, salvagers, and their Nameless Horror. Also contains robots, just in case you were worried that the book wasn’t completely batty. Fun, funny, exciting, with delightful illustrations and some beautiful descriptive passages.

No. 5 – Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

Maggot Moon

Standish is an odd boy. His dyslexia means that he’s not considered very bright, but he also sees things in a different way to most people, and his idiosyncratic prose makes him a fascinating narrator. Maggot Moon, the unfolding story of his stand against a totalitarian state, is bleak and terrifying, but the power of the book comes from way it depicts the political horrors on a personal level. It’s 1984 for kids.

No. 4 – Teddy Edward Goes to Mount Everest, by Patrick and Mollie Matthews

Teddy Edward Goes to Mount Everest

Back in the 70s, there was a BBC television series called Teddy Edward, in which the veteran newsreader Richard Baker narrated the adventures of the soft toys Teddy Edward, Jasmine the rabbit, Snowytoes the panda, and all their friends. The narration was accompanied by still photographs of Teddy and company. Virtually nothing of these broadcasts survived the BBC’s over-zealous wiping of tapes, but you can still get the books, which, while they lack the mellifluous tones of Mr Baker, still contain the wonderful photographs and stories. In Teddy Edward Goes to Mount Everest, Teddy goes on an expedition to the Himalayas, and encounters Snowytoes’ brother Domtuk. An absolute delight from start to finish.

No. 3 – Thirteen Chairs, by Dave Shelton

Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton

I wrote a review of Thirteen Chairs just after Halloween. Suffice to say that it’s an excellent collection of creepy stories held within a framing narrative, ideal for cold and spooky winter nights.

No. 2 – I Am Otter, by Sam Garton

I Am Otter

Otter is a naughty creature. She gets up to all sorts of trouble, but always manages to pin the blame on Teddy or Giraffe, her friends. Sam Garton’s book tells the story of Otter’s exploits, fully illustrated with some of the cutest animal drawings I’ve ever seen. Otter goes on further adventures on her website and often hosts Q&A sessions on Twitter. Just don’t believe her when she says it’s Giraffe’s fault…

No. 1 – The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate diCamillo

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Kate diCamillo was appointed as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature this year, which is basically the US equivalent of the UK’s Children’s Laureate, currently held by the wonderful Malorie Blackman. If Kate diCamillo had never written anything other than The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, that would have been credentials enough.

Edward Tulane is a vain and selfish china rabbit who doesn’t appreciate the love that his owner bestows upon him. When misfortune befalls him, and he falls overboard on an ocean trip, he embarks on a journey that will introduce him to a whole array of new owners, each with their own needs and desires. Through disaster after disaster, through misery after misery, his selfish nature is burned away.

I’ve seen reviews where parents have said that they had to stop reading the book to their children, because it was upsetting them. Maybe so. But if art doesn’t make you feel, what’s the point? This is a book of beauty, wonder, melancholy, and, most of all, love.

Best of 2014 part one: Comics

It’s December, so that means it’s time to fill up column inches with “best of” articles. I did it last year, and if nothing else, it was a welcome opportunity for me to look back on the year. 2013 was a bad year made better by some good books, while 2014 has been a much better year. But how were the books? Read on…

Here’s part one of the Chimney Rabbit Best of 2014. As with last year, I’m splitting the list into three categories – children’s books, adult books, and comics. Part one is comics – a broad term that encompasses web comics, printed comics, graphic novels, and manga.

Same rules as before. The publication date has absolutely no bearing. This is purely a list of the best comics I read in 2014.

No. 5 – Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction et al

Hawkeye 2014

Hawkeye, the story of the world’s greatest archer when he’s not hanging out with the Avengers, was the best ongoing sort-of-superhero comic of last year, and this year is no different. Things have changed – half the stories are now about Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye, who has decamped to the West coast. The artists have changed, too, with David Aja’s East coast stories being complemented by Javier Pulido and Annie Wu’s West coast action. The split storylines make for a slightly disjointed narrative, but I usually get a stack of three comics at a time from Page 45 in Nottingham, so it works out OK. With the exception of the new Sandman series, which is in far too early a stage to judge, this is the only ongoing series I’m still buying. Which shows just how good it is.

No. 4 – I Am Fire, by Rachael Smith

I Am Fire

I bought I Am Fire in Page 45 in Nottingham, after picking up a copy of Rachael Smith’s One Good Thing at the Leicester Comic Con. One Good Thing is an exceptional diary-style comic, but it’s I Am Fire that shows a tremendous maturity of talent. I don’t know if she’s inspired by John Allison, but when I say that I Am Fire reminds me of Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round, that’s about as big a compliment as I can pay an artist and writer.

No. 3 – May Contain Sharks, by Jess Bradley

May Contain Sharks

May Contain Sharks was bought in Page 45 on a complete whim as it was sitting on the counter looking all mad and fun and exciting. A series of one-page silly comics in Jess Bradley’s inimitable style, from the Smartest Bear in the World to my personal favourite, the Red Panda – Nature’s Jerk. Bright, colourful, dynamic, cute, and never less than utterly, utterly, silly, if this doesn’t bring a smile to your face, then you’re dead inside.

No. 2 – To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark

To End All Wars

To End All Wars is a 300-page hardback anthology of graphic stories about the First World War. From comic legend Pat Mills’ fiery, passionate, and angry introduction through the 27 stories, told in a variety of styles, with diverse artwork, this volume is gripping from start to finish. This is not a boys’ own adventure. This is a savage indictment of the madness that led Europe into a war that slaughtered a generation. In this centenary year of the start of the First World War, this is an important counterpoint to the at-times jingoistic and self-congratulatory commemorations that have filled our newspapers and television screens.

No. 1 – Expecting to Fly, by John Allison

Expecting to Fly 1Expecting to Fly 2

Last year, my best comic of 2013 was John Allison’s Bad Machinery volume 1, and I made the rash prediction that Bad Machinery volume 2 would be the number one in 2014. I was wrong. Because while The Case of the Good Boy was brilliant, exciting, and as wonderful as you’d expect from Mr. Allison, and it would have topped this list, there’s something even better.

Expecting to Fly is a two-issue limited series, done in classic 1996 Marvel-homage style (complete with fake, tone-perfect adverts for subscriptions to non-existent comics) that takes us into the back story of some of Allison’s best-loved characters, Shelly, Ryan, and Tim, while they were at school. There’s no mystery to be solved, no supernatural shenanigans – this is the familiar Scary Go Round/Bad Machinery universe stripped down to its most basic level – its characters.

It’s funny (and I mean really funny), it’s dark, it’s touching, it’s visually inventive, melancholy and uplifting at the same time. The artwork is effortless, and the dialogue sparkles as you’d expect from John Allison. This is, quite possibly, the finest thing he’s ever written.

I am no making no predictions about next year’s best comic. But it’s going to require some spectacular effort to overtake Expecting to Fly.

Review: Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton

Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton

Dave Shelton’s previous book, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, was a masterpiece of the absurd. His latest book, Thirteen Chairs, is a completely different kettle of fish – it’s a compilation of creepy tales, contained in a framework where Jack, a curious boy, listens to twelve ghostly figures tell stories of death and horror.

In some ways this approach is reminiscent of the old horror anthology films like Vault of Horror or Tales from the Crypt. But where Vault of Horror gave you four tales within its framing narrative, Thirteen Chairs delivers a delicious smorgasbord of thirteen stories.

Each story is distinct – some are historical, some are modern; some are gory, others are creepy; some echo folk tales while others have more in common with Poe. Each narrator has their own quirks and individual voice.

My particular favourite (although it’s hard to choose!) was “The Girl in the Red Coat”. Small girls in red coats are inherently terrifying to anyone who’s seen Don’t Look Now, obviously, but this story unfolds beautifully, with the young narrator’s matter-of-fact description of her encounters with schoolyard monsters both natural and supernatural.

It’s the versatility of this book that impressed me the most – the stories are all so different, yet each one fits perfectly into the framing narrative, where Jack sits in the thirteenth chair, waiting for his turn to tell a tale.

The illustrations – by Dave Shelton himself, the talented git – work perfectly with the stories. Each story gets a full-page title illustration, dark and inky black.

I saved this book to read at Halloween – it seemed appropriate. It’s a book for dark evenings and chilly nights. That way you can blame your goosebumps on the cold.

Shortlisted

Great War DundeeI have no idea how to write this post! For once I’m at a loss for words.

My First World War book, The Wreck of the Argyll, has been shortlisted for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize, a competition run by Dundee Libraries in association with Cargo Publishing. The brief was quite specific – to write a children’s book about Dundee in the First World War. My story was a tale of two plucky Dundonian youngsters who foil a German spy plot, set against the real-life historical wreck of the Royal Navy armoured cruiser HMS Argyll on the reef near the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

I’m tremendously excited by this, as you can imagine! There are just three books that have been selected for the shortlist, and in March next year, I’ll find out whether my book or one of the other two stories has won the prize, which includes publication by Cargo Publishing. Even if I don’t win, it’s amazing to have been selected as part of such a small shortlist, and you can be assured that any future submissions I make to agents will proudly proclaim that I was shortlisted for this competition.

Dundee is a city that’s building a real cultural reputation for itself. This isn’t the first Dundee literary competition – the Dundee International Book Prize has been running for over 10 years. There is a V&A Museum of Design forthcoming in 2017, a £45 million project set in a spectacular Kengo Kuma-designed building. The award ceremony for the Great War book competition will be held at Discovery Point, an exhibition and museum built around Captain Scott’s ship the Discovery – coincidentally, this is my partner Sandra’s favourite part of her native Dundee. I lived in Dundee for a year when I was at Dundee University doing my Master’s degree (more years ago than I care to remember), and every year when we visit Sandra’s family I’m amazed at how much the city is changing.

It’s quite an honour to be part of this cultural renaissance, even in just a small way.

Review: Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret by D.D. Everest

Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret

Let’s get one thing out of the way, before we start the review proper. It is almost completely impossible to write a review of Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret without using the words “Harry” or “Potter”. The titular character is an orphan who has grown up in the care of a relative who does not want him to know that his parents belonged to a magical society that runs parallel to (and hidden from) modern Britain. He has a very British, slightly old-fashioned first name, and a common Anglo-Saxon surname. On his birthday, he receives a mysterious letter that opens his eyes to his heritage, and launches him on an adventure into a strange institution where he is taught the ways of magic; along the way, he makes friends with a boy and a girl who share his gifts, discovers that he has an unusual magical language ability, and foils the plans of a dark wizard to seize a powerful magical artefact.

So let’s just take it as read that there are an enormous number of similarities to Harry Potter, and judge the book on its own merits.

Archie Greene lives with his Gran. On his twelfth birthday, a mysterious book arrives in the post, along with a letter that tells him to take it to a particular bookshop in Oxford. Archie’s Gran tells him to go, and to visit his relatives the Foxes, who (by no coincidence, as you will see) live in Oxford. It turns out the bookshop is a front organisation for the Museum of Magical Miscellany, an institution dedicated to the location and preservation of the magical books that survived the fire in the Great Library of Alexandria in 48BC. Archie discovers that his aunt, uncle and two cousins Thistle and Bramble are all involved in this magical society, and within a short time he himself becomes an apprentice to Old Zeb the bookbinder. Archie discovers that he has the rare magical ability to speak to books – he’s a book whisperer – and soon there are rum goings-on and dark deeds afoot. Does it have anything to do with the book he received on his birthday? What does it mean, that he’s the first book whisperer for hundreds of years?

There are magical creatures, suspicious magicians, and dark family secrets as well as burgeoning friendship with his cousins Thistle and Bramble. Archie has to learn quickly and trust his courage to overcome all the obstacles in his path and foil the plots of the evil wizards.

The mythological background is nicely thought out. The magic of the world of Archie Greene is based on books – so anyone who had a sneaking suspicion that books were somehow magical is going to feel right at home. Books can talk – if you’re a book whisperer, that is – and fly, and manifest heroes and monsters from their pages. The history of these magical books goes back thousands of years to the Great Library of Alexandria – in this history of the world, Alexander the Great wasn’t just a conqueror, but also a collector of magical artefacts, and magical books in particular. When the library burnt in 48BC, the magical books were corrupted by the dark wizard Barzak’s sorcery, so were brought to Oxford, where the Museum of Magical Miscellany was set up to keep them safe. Evil wizards known as “Greaders” – greedy readers – still try to get their hands on the most powerful of books, even though the damage they could cause is almost without limit.

On the clasp of Archie’s book, and on the title page of this book, is a symbol:

monas hieroglyphica

This is an actual magical symbol, the Monas Hieroglyphica of Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan magician and court astrologer. It symbolises the unity of the cosmos – in it, you can find the astrological symbols for the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – Uranus and Neptune hadn’t been discovered when Dr Dee was alive. The real Dr Dee is mostly known for being duped by a charlatan called Edward Kelley who convinced Dee that he had the power to communicate with celestial beings, including teaching him Enochian, the language of the angels.

Dr Dee plays an important part in the story – and just like in the real history of Dr Dee, he is duped by a miscreant playing on his desire to learn Enochian.

I liked these little touches of magical mythology in the book, from the concept of Alexander the Great rampaging across the globe in his search for magical books to Dr Dee’s gullibility and desire for esoteric knowledge leading him astray. These touches add a depth to the book that raise it above the Harry Potter clone that it might otherwise have become. Even without those, however, the book has a strong story, with interesting, colourful characters and a cracking pace – it’s a real page-turner of the book, and I devoured it in three sittings.

Let’s not forget about the illustrations – James de la Rue has produced some stellar work here. The full-page illustrations dotted throughout the book complement the text perfectly. I particularly like the way he draws bookshelves – the picture of the bookshop in Chapter 22, A Midnight Excursion, with its shadowy hatching on the books is claustrophobic and atmospheric, while the illustration in Chapter 30, Magic Spills, where the books serve as the backdrop to the monsters bursting from their pages, is dynamic and full of energy. You can see some of his work, including some of the illustrations from Archie Greene, (although unfortunately not the two I mentioned) on his website.

In short, forget about Potter, and spend some time in the company of young Mr Greene for a change. It’ll be a magical experience.

21 years

On October 4th, 1993, which is 21 years ago today, I became a professional writer.

Technically, I’d been paid for writing before – in June 1990, when I was 19 years old, a small-press magazine agreed to pay me £13.75 (0.5p a word) for my short story The View from the Window. But one cheque doesn’t make you a professional.

So I consider today to be the 21st anniversary of me becoming a writer. For the past two-and-a-bit decades, every penny I’ve earned has been through putting one word after another. Words have fed, clothed, housed, and entertained me. I hate to think how many thousands of words I’ve produced over the years. How many pages.

Unfortunately, the words that I’m paid to produce are technical words in technical manuals. I’d much rather I made a living through writing fiction, but that’s not the way things have turned out. Despite being made redundant three times, I’ve always found it relatively easy to make a living through technical writing. By contrast, that £13.75 I made for my first short story is the only money I’ve ever made writing fiction.

We were digging through some boxes recently and found an album of photos that we took in Rome in 1991. My girlfriend was studying art history, and I was studying classics, so we spent the best part of a month living in a tent just off the Via Aurelia, filling our days with visits to archaeological sites and tracking down Berninis and Caravaggios. The young man I was then had no idea he was going to spend 21 years as a technical author. What would he have thought? He wanted to be a proper writer. Have I disappointed him? Or did he realise, even back then, that making it as a writer was an unlikely outcome? I can’t remember. Would he be angry at all the years I’ve wasted by not taking fiction writing seriously? I mean, I’m 44 years old, and I only managed to complete my first novel two years ago. If I’d started ten or fifteen years earlier, I might have been published by now.

Ha! He was the one who started all those novels in university and didn’t finish them! If he’s disappointed in me, then I can be a bit miffed with him, too. The slacker.

Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

These days Haruki Murakami is so well known that his book jackets simply say “Murakami”. Which is a bit weird, as there’s another author Murakami – Ryu – who, while not as quite popular, is certainly not unknown, with works like Coin Locker Babies and Audition – which was made into a film – in his catalogue.

In fact, our household is divided down the middle. When I say “Murakami”, I mean Haruki, while when my partner says “Murakami”, she means Ryu.

Nevertheless, a new Murakami, H., book is a publishing event. Foyles in London had a midnight opening for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Living in Leicester, that’s not something I could take part in, but since 1Q84 I’ve been buying Murakami in ebook format anyway, so my copy was automagically delivered to my Kindle overnight.

I think it’s fair to say that if you like Murakami, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never been a fan, this book won’t convince you otherwise. It’s full of traditional Murkami touches, although the parallel worlds have been toned down (although, it seems, not removed altogether) and there are no cats at all. No scenes of spaghetti-cooking, either. But still, it’s unmistakably Murakami. Where 1Q84 had Janáček’s Sinfonietta as its musical theme, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage has Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” from his Years of Pilgrimage suite.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a recognisable Murakami protagonist, too. He is a man alone and lonely, neither young nor old, who is scarred by an event when he was young. He was part of a close-knit group of five people, three boys and two girls, who were inseparable until suddenly they all told him, without explanation, that they never wanted to see him again. This event, this betrayal, this sudden and catastrophic desertion, defines the emotional journey of the rest of his life.

All four of his friends have surnames that include a colour in their name – Akamatsu, red pine; Oumi, blue sea; Shirane, white root; and Kurono, black field. Only Tsukuru Tazaki has a surname that doesn’t have a colour in it; it becomes a joke amongst them – Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki. But it’s a joke that serves to separate him from his friends, even if just a fraction. Even in the close-knit group, he’s an outsider. So when he’s cast out from the group, he accepts it.

By the time of the events of the book, he’s in his 30s. It’s been sixteen years since he was deserted by his friends, and he’s had difficulty forming any lasting relationships. He’s prompted by a new relationship with a woman called Sara to go back to his home town and find out just why his friends deserted him.

For me, it’s a book about the differences between our perception of ourselves and the way other people perceive us. Even in the close-knit group of friends, Tsukuru Tazaki’s perception of himself was completely different to the way his friends perceived him. Neither viewpoint is ever entirely correct, though. Even though we live inside our own heads, we’re often completely clueless about our own characters, our strengths and weaknesses. While other people don’t have that privileged inside view, they at least have the benefit of an external perspective. The truth is often somewhere in between.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage ends without resolution, with questions unanswered, such as what exactly happened to Shiro, or what will happen with Tsukuru Tazaki’s relationship with Sara. But nevertheless it’s a satisfying conclusion that leaves you thinking about the book long after you’ve turned the last page.

Competition time

In addition to submitting my work to agents in the (probably futile) hope of eventually getting a publishing deal through that route, I’ve sent my novels to a handful of competitions.

The good thing about competitions is that you know that there is an actual possibility of getting published; that one person out of all the entries will actually make it into print. The odds are (massively) against me, of course, but they’re definitely no worse than when I submit to agents.

Last year I sent Tales of the Ancient Rabbits to the Chicken House competition. I have to admit, I was a bit a sad case when the day for the long list announcement came around, and I was on the Chicken House website hitting refresh over and over until the inevitable disappointment came.

This year, I’m giving the Chicken House competition a miss. The disappointment of missing out last year was one factor, but the other factor is the onerous nature of the submission guidelines. They expect the full printed manuscript, bound with an elastic band, in a cardboard wallet, with a postcard for acknowledgement. I don’t have a printer capable of getting through a novel-length print run, so I had to get a USB stick and take a PDF to a local copy shop. It took ages and cost a fortune. Even finding an elastic band of the right size was a pain. The first pack I bought had been on the shelves so long they snapped as soon as I tried to put them on my manuscript. As for blank postcards – I just couldn’t find anywhere that sold them any more, so I had to print my own onto card and cut it down to size. In this era of digital communication, it all just seemed so anachronistic.

Fortunately most competitions allow electronic entries these days.

This year, I’ve entered The Panopticon Papers in the Scholastic Montegrappa competition, which publishes its shortlist in a couple of weeks. I’ve also entered it in the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust competition, which won’t publish its shortlist until March next year. Being published by the prestigious Scholastic or Bloomsbury almost overshadows the prize money on offer: Scholastic published Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and Bloomsbury published J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

I’ve also written a novel specifically for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize Competition, The Wreck of the Argyll, which announces its winner (no shortlist, it seems) in March next year. The competition is run in partnership with Cargo Publishing, an absolutely splendid independent Scottish publisher. They’ve got works by Mark Z. Danielewski and the incomparable Alasdair Gray in their catalogue. Tony Black’s The Last Tiger is on my To Be Read list, too. They’re a small publisher making a big impact.

Prize money would be nice. Getting published would be much nicer. Becoming a stable-mate to Pullman, Rowling or Alasdair Gray – now that would be priceless.