Origin story

I could read and write before I went to school – my Mum taught me using comics, I seem to recall, and I remember writing my name in big bold capitals – JOHN – before my aunt, who was a teacher, told my mother off for not teaching me to write lower case letters first.

So when I went to school, I had a slight advantage, and was always treated as an advanced reader. I burned through school reading books faster than they could assign them to me, so my teachers used to have to dig out other books for me to read. When I was around seven years old, my teacher gave me a book that contained tales from mythology – Thor and his hammer from Norse mythology, Finn MacCoull from Celtic legend, and Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxons. How I loved those stories! The memory of that book stuck with me for decades, although of course I couldn’t remember what is was called, or who it was by.

It’s been nearly 40 years since I read that book, but even now I have a fascination for myths, legends, fantasy, and history. I studied Classics at university because I was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. Of the six books I’ve written, five have been fantasy, and one history. This book is my origin story – this is the bat bursting through young Bruce Wayne’s window; this is my radioactive spider-bite.

So of course it was extremely annoying that I couldn’t remember what the book was called. I tried searching on the Internet, but I didn’t have much to go on – it was a school reading book available in the early 1970s, and it had Beowulf, Finn and Thor in it.

Then I got lucky, and found a mention on a web page of a book that had similar myths – it was called They Were Brave and Bold. It didn’t sound quite right – it seemed very American, from an American publisher, and I recall the stories being very European – but I ordered a second-hand copy from Abebooks, just in case.

It wasn’t the right book. It didn’t have Beowulf, Finn, or Thor. All the stories were from North America. Further research suggested that this was a cut-down paperback version of a previously-published, much larger hardback. But I was pretty sure the book I’d read hadn’t been a big thick book at all.

More trawling through the listings at Abebooks brought another edition to light. Another paperback, but with a different selection of stories – and it was issued by a British publisher. James Nisbet published the Janet and John series of early reading books, so they definitely had a connection with British schools. This was looking promising!

I ordered a copy. It turned up:

Brave and Bold

It’s called Brave and Bold (note the omission of “They Were” from the title) and the authors (although I presume in this case, editors would be the more appropriate term) are listed as Miriam Blanton Huber, Frank Seely Salisbury, and Charlotte Huber (the same editors as the other, American, editions).

I pulled the book carefully from its envelope and checked the tablet of contents:

Brave and Bold TOC

Thor! Finn! Beowulf! There was just one more thing I needed to check. I remembered that the Thor story involved the theft of Thor’s wife’s hair, and its replacement by the dwarfs with a golden wig… was that in there? If that was included, there could be no doubt.

I turned to page 87 and started reading. Yes! There it was:

“[Loki] was determined to steal the golden hair. As noiselessly as he could, and more like a thief than a god, he crept into the palace, cut off the golden locks, and carried them away.”

I read through the rest of the book. The story of Finn disguising himself as his own baby and pretending to squeeze water out of a stone – that had stuck in my mind, too. Beowulf and the dragon – that was so familiar.

Beowulf and the dragon

I’d finally found it.

Strangely, I had no recollection of the Sinbad story, or The White Cat – although my Mum had a beautiful volume of The Arabian Nights with fantastic glossy colour plates in it that I read over and over when I was young, so that may have pushed out the earlier memories of Sinbad. The White Cat is a delightful fairy tale that is apparently related to the Brothers Grimm’s Puddocky and also to The Frog Princess, but perhaps 44-year-old John appreciates it more than 7-year-old John did.

The illustrations – by Florence and Margaret Hoopes – are beautiful. From the frost-giants on the cover to Grendel on the back, through all the full-colour pictures that accompany each story, each picture fits perfectly. The Beowulf story in particular has pictures full of dynamism and energy.

I’m so glad that I’ve found this book at last. Not just for the nostalgia, but for the influence it had on me as a young reader. I must have read hundreds of books in those very early years, but this is the only one that’s stuck with me – and now I have my own copy.

Brave and Bold back

Review: The Battle of the Braes by Margaret MacPherson

The Battle of the Braes

Recently, I was thinking about some of the books that influenced me when I was younger. In particular, I was thinking about The Hill of the Red Fox, by Allan Campbell McLean, which I re-read a while back when I picked up a second-hand copy on my trip to Hay-on-Wye – it’s a book that has had a great effect on my writing, and served as a significant inspiration for The Wreck of the Argyll, my Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize entry. It brought me to thinking of some of the other books I read when I lived in Portree on the Isle of Skye, and in particular books set on that island.

One of the books suggested to the class by my Primary 7 teacher was The Battle of the Braes, by Margaret MacPherson. It’s the fictionalised story of what is sometimes known as the last battle fought on British soil (although that probably overstates the case!) – the 1882 revolt of the crofters of Braes, just outside Portree, against the unfair practices of the landowners denying them grazing rights. The crofters withheld their rent, forced the Sheriff Officer to burn the eviction notices, then, when fifty policemen were shipped in from Glasgow, fought a pitched battle with sticks and stones before five of their number were arrested and taken to Inverness.

The book tells this story of the viewpoint of young Sam Nicolson, from one of the crofting families whose livelihoods are threatened. He takes an active part in the revolt, gets into a significant amount of trouble, and learns some lessons about the consequences of actions. Not for one moment does he ever doubt that the crofters are in the right, and at the heart of the book is the struggle between Justice and Law. Law is on the side of the landlords; according to the schoolmaster, even God is on the side of the landlords, because God is on the side of the Law; but Sam is convinced that the crofters are in the right.

The questioning of authority, and the mistrust of people who value money over communities, is still a valuable message to this day.

Margaret MacPherson herself lived on Skye (in fact, her granddaughter Lizzie was in my class in Portree) and her grasp of the cadence of Gaelic-affected speech is wonderful. There are few Gaelic words or even much in the way of dialect to get in the way of the story, but the way the dialogue is stitched together makes it absolutely clear that this is a distinct and separate culture she’s writing about.

The interweaving of the historical event with the boyish adventures of Sam works well, too. You never feel like you’re reading a history book – it’s an adventure. It just so happens that it’s an adventure that’s based on real events.

Margaret MacPherson’s books are no longer in print, but it’s worth searching them out. I got a lovely ex-library hardback in excellent condition from Abebooks, and plan on hunting down some more of her books (when I’ve got through some of my enormous tottering to-read pile).

It would be a shame for such great stories to be forgotten.

Nosy Crow Children’s Fiction Masterclass

Registration for the Nosy Crow “How to Write Children’s Fiction” Masterclass was due to start at 9:30. To make sure I wasn’t late, I booked train tickets leaving Leicester at 7am. To make sure I didn’t miss the train, I booked a taxi for 6:20am. To make sure I didn’t miss the taxi, I set my alarm for 5:10am.

Then I woke up at 3am anyway.

It’s safe to say that I was pretty excited about attending the Nosy Crow Children’s Fiction Masterclass. Excited, and a bit nervous – because as part of the course, attendees were offered a critique of a synopsis and three chapters of their work. I’d sent off a chunk of my Dundee First World War book, The Wreck of the Argyll, and it’s always nerve-wracking when someone reads my work.

Nosy Crow

I travelled down with Colin Jones, a fellow aspiring writer who works for the same company as I do, and we arrived at the Nosy Crow offices in Dickensian Lant Street just after 9am, despite making a stop at Hatchard’s bookshop in St. Pancras. They were still setting up, so we wandered off and had a coffee in the fabulous Terry’s Cafe just around the corner, where we ended up in conversation with a pair of elderly well-spoken gentlemen about Wolf Hall (“terribly good actors, but I can’t understand a word Anne Boleyn says”) and Scottish politics (“Henry VIII might have sorted out the Scots in Tudor times, but the SNP are going to hold the balance of power after the next election”) before it was time to head back to the Nosy Crow offices.

There were about 20 attendees for the class, several from London but some from further afield – I chatted to a chap who’d come down from Preston and a woman who’d come from Cumbria. (We were wearing name badges on lanyards, but for some reason they had a habit of being flipped around to show a blank face every time I looked, so apologies for not knowing anyone’s names!) The room was pretty full – I don’t think they could have squeezed any more seats in. Cosy, but not cramped.

It was a packed timetable – eight sessions, plus the critiques over lunch, with two coffee breaks, and drinks afterwards.

Introduction

Kate Wilson, the Managing Director of Nosy Crow, gave a quick introduction to the day, to Nosy Crow, and to the state of the industry in general. There were graphs. Lots of graphs. Children’s fiction makes up a huge part of the market, out-performing adult fiction in a lot of ways, but most importantly, perhaps, it remains a resolutely paper-based market. While adult fiction is becoming more and more dependent on the ebook market, well over 90% of children’s books are paper. The older the book’s audience, the more important ebooks become, but still, any dreams you might have of putting your middle-grade adventure up on the Kindle store and storming the market are pretty unlikely.

Kirsty Stansfield

Kirsty Stansfield is Nosy Crow’s Fiction Editor, and she gave an editor’s perspective on writing children’s fiction. A constant source of contention is the appropriate length for middle-grade fiction – when I wrote my first two books, I looked at the lengths of books for comparable audiences, and worked out that a length of 70,000 words wouldn’t be unreasonable. How wrong I was! Kirsty said that in her experience, fiction for 8-12 year olds should be between 20,000 and 45,000 words. This is a slightly wider range than I normally see, where most people suggest 30,000 to 40,000 words, so I reckon you’re not going to go wrong sticking to the 30-40K mark.

One thing that caused some discussion was the use of strongly-gendered covers for books. There’s a strong feeling amongst many writers that we should let books be books, and not limit the audience, but from a publishing point of view there are often better returns by slapping some glitter and princesses in pretty frocks on the cover. Sometimes a book that the author might think has broad appeal might actually do better if marketed to girls – one example that Kate came up with later in the day to corroborate this was Christopher Edge’s series. The first book has a very striking cover:

Twelve Minutes to Midnight

but the feedback Nosy Crow got was that the main character was a bit too androgynous. For the second book in the series, the cover looks like this:

Shadows of the Silver Screen

 

with a much more feminine picture.

But this is all marketing. Writers don’t get a say in the book cover! From a writer’s point of view, what you you need to do is to make it clear what audience you’re targeting. But more importantly than that, you need to convince a very busy editor that your book is worth spending their time on. And that you, as a writer, are a sane human being with whom they can do business.

Paula Harrison

Paula Harrison is the author of the Rescue Princesses series for younger children and the Red Moon Rising series for older children. Her talk covered writing series fiction. She distinguished between series for younger readers, like Rescue Princesses, where each book is self-contained and can be read out of order because in general there’s no story arc (although there might be some elements of continuity), and series for older readers, where there’s a definite story that’s split across multiple volumes. But of course, as a fly in the ointment, even for older readers, they might pick up the books out of order, so they need to make sense on their own – this might involve a recap of the previous volumes.

Paula’s suggestion for series fiction was to write, edit, polish and submit the first book in the series, while preparing an outline for the next few – don’t write multiple volumes, as you might get a call from an editor saying “great idea, but how about if…” and then suddenly you don’t have one book to rewrite, you’ve got six…

Gemma Cooper

Gemma Cooper is an agent with The Bent Agency, and discussed the role of the agent. Gemma sees her job as managing the career of the writer, not just representing individual books. But that takes a lot of time and effort, so there’s limited opportunity for new writers to join the team. In the course of a year, Gemma will receive thousands upon thousands of submissions, and she may end up taking on only two or three new clients.

The odds are not in the writer’s favour.

So to make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself and making your odds even worse, follow the submission guidelines. Definitely don’t read the guidelines, break them, then say in your letter “I didn’t follow the guidelines because…” as there’s no way to finish that sentence without infuriating an agent.

If you can find out what the agent likes, so much the better. Not all agents publish their wishlists; in fact, some agents even make it difficult to find out who their clients are. If you’re going to compare your work to something else, you’re going to have a better chance if you don’t compare it to a blockbuster, but instead to a book that the agent represents, or that you know they like.

Critique

The morning flew past. Four sessions in the blink of an eye. I knew there had been a lot of content, though, because my fingers hurt from writing in my notebook.

The lunch break, though, seemed to last for hours. Because I was waiting for my critique session. They posted a list – Kate, Kirsty, and Gemma were all running sessions with the attendees who’d provided their three chapters, and I was on Gemma’s list. Last.

Four or five hours later (or so it seemed), I was ushered into the office to sit with Gemma. She’d gone through my sample chapters and synopsis, and provided some great advice about retaining the close third-person POV and not head-hopping into another characters POV, about breaking up the dialogue with beats, and about making sure that I kept the story rooted in the emotional reactions of the protagonist to the unfolding events: “How does this make her feel?” is Gemma’s favourite comment!

However… The Wreck of the Argyll has two intertwined stories – one with the plucky Dundonian youngsters foiling the spy plot, and the other on board HMS Argyll, where the POV character is a midshipman, not much more than a boy, on his first voyage. Gemma didn’t like the sea-based chapters, saying they were too much like YA fiction because Harry was a couple of years older than Nancy and Jamie (midshipmen were regularly 15-16 years old when they got their first berth). She said I should cut those sections out.

Which would leave me with half a book. 17,000 words.

Which is obviously not viable. Which would mean a complete rewrite. And a new ending (which is one of the bits I’m most pleased with). And… well, it would be a completely different book. I’d pretty much have to start from scratch, and maybe salvage a few bits and pieces from the original.

My confidence has taken quite a knock. After I’ve been up to Dundee for the competition result, if The Wreck of the Argyll doesn’t win (and the competition looks very strong), my intention was to shop the manuscript around agents; but it’s distinctly possible that Gemma’s objection to the Midshipman Harry Melville bits would be representative of other agents’ reactions.

So I’m not sure what to do about that. Much thought will be required.

Helen Peters

Helen Peters is the author of The Secret Hen House Theatre and its newly-published sequel The Farm Beneath the Water. Her session covered what she went through turning her original draft of Secret into a publishable form. It took years and years, draft after draft, polishing and restructuring and rewriting.

In particular, it meant being brutal with chopping out setup. Get right into the action – or as Helen put it, paraphrasing William Goldman, for each scene, get in late, get out early. Don’t build up and tail off. Maintain the tension.

I’m incredibly impressed by her tenacity, and her belief in her story – to keep working on it for so many years, she must have had such faith that it was a story that needed to be told. And it’s all been worth it – The Secret Hen House Theatre is funny, touching, exciting, and moves at a cracking pace. I’d normally never read a book like this – a girl living on a farm sets up a theatre in an old hen house? Where are the battleships? Where’s the magic? Where are the dragons? – but it’s been one of my favourite books this year, and I jumped at the chance to pick up the sequel, hot off the presses, at the Nosy Crow offices.

Ellen Renner

Ellen Renner is the author of the middle-grade fantasy books Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves, and the YA books Tribute and Outcaste. Her books are rich fantasy novels in the vein of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – I hope she wasn’t offended when I told her I thought Castle of Shadows reminded me of Joan Aiken. I once asked Iain Banks if The Bridge had been influenced by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – not meant as an accusation, but as a compliment.

Ellen’s talk covered world-building in fantasy, and if there’s one thing I’ll take from her talk, it was the danger of telling your readers all about this great world you’ve invented. World-building isn’t an end in itself. For J.R.R. Tolkien, the world-building really was an end in itself – he was more interested in the philology of Quenya and Sindarin than he was in telling a story. In Tolkien’s case, the story is a vehicle for the world-building, not the other way around.

Ellen contrasted this approach with the great Diana Wynne Jones, whose fantasy worlds were every bit as richly imagined, well thought out, and consistent as Tolkien’s, but who never stopped to give the reader a ten-page lecture on genealogy or etymology.

Philip Ardagh

Before the penultimate session of the day, Kate shuffled all the chairs back a couple of feet so we wouldn’t get a crick in our necks looking up at Philip Ardagh. Six foot eight with a beard like W.G. Grace’s more hirsute brother, he commands attention when he walks into the room – then he proceeds to crack everyone up laughing. He can’t help it. He’s naturally funny – and this comes across in his writing.

Philip’s session was primarily (and I say primarily, because one of the other themes was, arguably, poo) about authorial voice. When the first Eddie Dickens book, Awful End, was about to be published, Philip was told that he could have 44 illustrations, and could he specify which bits he wanted illustrated, please?

Illustration number 1 – Philip Ardagh:

Philip Ardagh

Why? Because in the Eddie Dickens books, the narrator, the authorial voice, is as much a character as Eddie Dickens or Malcolm the Stuffed Stoat.

For a funny, larger-than-life character like Mr Ardagh, this is ideal. His voice comes across in his fiction – he makes you laugh when he’s in the room, and he makes you laugh when you read his books.

But no-one wants to listen to a boring middle-aged Scottish technical author, so I’m going to have to make do with the voices that belong to my characters.

Kate Wilson

The final session of the day was led by Kate, who gave us a presentation on what she saw as the role of the publisher – all the jobs that a publisher does, from number one, most importantly, paying the author, right through to making sure the warehouse roof is kept clean of decomposing pigeons.

Kate is energetic, driven, and committed to honesty and transparency in her business. If you ask her where the money goes, she’ll tell you. (It’s usually on cheese and Minstrels.) You can see why authors want to work with Nosy Crow – it’s a small publisher making a big impact and trying to do things right.

By the end of the day, my head was full to bursting. I had a notebook full of scribblings, my annotated chapters from Gemma, and a couple of new books from the Nosy Crow shelves, graciously signed by Philip and Helen. (Ellen signed a copy of Castle of Shadows for me, too – she doesn’t have any books out with Nosy Crow yet, so I had to bring this one from home.)

Colin and I missed our tube stop at King’s Cross St. Pancras because we were so engrossed in conversation talking about the day, but we made it onto the train. Which then got stuck outside Leicester because of a signal failure. I made it home at about 11pm, about twenty hours after I woke up that morning.

It’s going to take a while to process everything I learned. The whole day really was an incredible experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and I’m grateful to all involved for sharing their expertise.

I don’t know if Nosy Crow will be running any more of these courses (apart from the forthcoming sister masterclass focusing on picture books) but if you ever get the chance to attend one, grab it with both hands.

Just try to get a decent night’s sleep first.

Review: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front, by Kate Saunders, is a modern sequel to the Psammead books by E. Nesbit, which began with the classic Five Children and It. It moves time on a few years from the original books; it is now the beginning of the Great War, and the children, some of whom are now more-or-less grown up, find that their lives are dominated by the war.

The Psammead, or sand fairy, the “It” of the title, who in the original book was a grumpy wish-granting imp who lived in a gravel pit, encounters the children again; but things have changed. The children are older; the baby, known as the Lamb, is now a boy, and there’s even a new little sister, Edie. But more importantly, the Psammead is no longer in control of his magic, and can’t indulge the children’s whims. Instead, his magic is guided by something else… something that appears to be guiding him towards repentance for his past. Each bit of magic shows the children something of the war, and casts light on the Psammead’s history.

This is a book with a great deal of humour, mostly arising from the grumpy Psammead and his somewhat shaky grasp of modern life. It’s also a book with rich mythology behind it, with the investigations into the Psammead’s time as a desert god (a vindictive and nasty desert god) many thousands of years before.

It’s also a book that looks at the changing social attitudes of the early years of the 20th century, particularly in the form of the young working class soldier and scholar Ernie.

But most of all, it’s a story about loss, and the horrors of war. Cyril goes from a young, naive Lieutenant looking forward to the adventure of war, glad that he’s got the opportunity to see some action before it’s all over, to a grim-faced veteran writing good-bye letters every time he goes over the top. The book does not shy from the deaths and crippling injuries that the war produced. While there are no graphic descriptions of injuries, there’s enough horror to upset a child. Hell, I’m 44, and there was enough to upset me.

But it’s not something children should be shielded from. I do worry that this is one of those children’s books that’s mostly read by adults who’ve read the original and seen the glowing reviews and prizes that have been heaped – deservedly – on the book. Because that would be a waste. It’s a book that children should read, and maybe cry over, and then talk to a parent or a teacher about.

If there’s one small criticism I have, it’s that book depicts the effects of war as almost entirely physical rather than psychological. People are horribly maimed and yet stay almost relentlessly cheerful. But then, a depiction of shell shock and other psychological horrors in the vein of Pat Barker’s Regeneration would perhaps be a step too far for a children’s book.

Kate Saunders has written a rich, layered, beautiful and terribly sad book. Highly recommended.

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 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.