Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dangerous Worlds - Comments on Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

I have a confession: I rarely read Pratchett. I used to but I felt it all went through a bit of a lull until recently in the adult books. My wife gave me Wee Free Men (and the other two but they will be the subject of later posts) and I sat and devoured it whilst actually laughing.

To my mind a Pratchett book works best when it isn't playing for laughs but getting to the nub of a matter. The heart of the book (and it appears the series from the other jacket blurbs) is the deconstruction of children's fantasy and how it operates. Sort of like Neil Gaiman's Coraline, especially in the use of the mirror eyes (button eyes in Coraline) and the grey edges to the undreamt world. Pratchett makes it very clear that the versions of fantasy dependent on the person - the Wee Free Men's heaven is somewhat different from Tiffany's. We live in the age of the Multiverse after all. This series of Discworld novels appears to be bent on rescuing fairy tales from middle class clutches and releasing it back to readers as a novel which meanings and levels can be read into.

Sometimes you need a sad side to the humour and so it is with the construct of the Witch. The way he uses Tiffany to pull apart the fairy tale image of the evil hag in the forest (made all together too popular by the Brothers Grimm (but more anon) or Andersen's Snow Queen) or at the edge of the village. Women's and folk knowledge are far too underrated really. Pratchett does deliver some laugh out loud lines though to lighten the atmosphere.

The Wee Free Men's war cry takes apart the rationale for having a monarchy (let's face it they tend to be arrogant so and so's) in fantasy. It frees up the world and gives the characters far more room as well as reflecting the real world. The queen very much comes across like Gaiman's Other Mother in her attempt to control everything, leaving Tiffany in her version of creation. It is up to her to find her own way through, like Alice in the forest. Tiffany has to develop her own sense of the world and perhaps this is what children's fiction from the 1990s onwards is really about.

More on the other books as I get around to reading them...


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Rage against the Skin - The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

The Black Tattoo, Sam Enthoven's debut novel, is a book of fits and starts. But more anon.

Jack and Charlie are knocking around London when they are drawn into a dark battle which may involve the Earth. Crispy duck is an odd dish to have. In a mysterious room above a theatre, they are given a test, transforming Charlie and giving him a distinctive black tattoo on his back.

Finding a way to Hell (in an entrance slightly reminiscent of Pratchett), Charlie begins to lose himself and finds himself becming a Prince of Hell. As social climbers climb, those above must be displaced and the guardians of the peace (including some mad French men) call to aid restore the balance of power.

The Black Tattoo is a wonderful study of divorce and how some children deal with it - ultimately this is about the internal world falling apart and the rage that sometimes arises. The locales of London and Hell are well known but Enthoven doesn't come with his own take on them. Yet they reflect the inside. The two find their way around the strange cities but Charlie is completely lost.

Enthoven's major influence is Asian cinema (the real McCoy, I suspect, that rarely makes its way over here unless its in independent labels) and most of the action comes from martial arts. Sometimes this overshadows what is essentially a solid book.

There are great ideas and artefacts in the Black Tattoo but they do get a little lost. It might pay for the author to slow down a little and allow for the words to breathe rather than being frenetically busy. Just a thought. That's just the parts.

The whole is a book that injects itself under your skin, festering away and growing on you. He's certainly somebody to look out for in the future.

Sam Enthoven

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Celestial Arachnids - Thoughts on Philip Reeve's Larklight

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series marked him as an outstanding author who could get his head around outlandish engineering and fantasy, bringing the two together in a wonderful state.

Larklight carries on the obsession with floating domestic spaces but this time he has a floating house in space.

There's a real feeling of Victoriana, mainly from the use of the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a climax, but also in the science fantasy which is reminiscent of HG Wells and Jules Verne. There is a real disquiet under the surface between the marvellous technology and the lack of the human in the face of encroaching technology. I'd need to think about it more but it comes across with the unease of Souvestre and Robida in the late nineteenth century.

The style is pleasantly varied, moving from third person narration to diaries, representing the different voices of the children who very much lead the story. Out of this comes a wonderful adventure sub-plot which reminds me of Treasure Island and to some extent Peter Pan.

Reeve captures a tension present in fiction - where do we go now with the conflict between science and religion? The gorgeous illustrations enhance the writing (which is mercifully pocket sized) which certainly caps Reeve's crown as one of the most inventive writers of children's fiction.

I'm not going to write too much more on this at the moment as I'm reviewing for an online publication but when I've written my piece, I'll link through to it.



Friday, December 29, 2006

A smell so sweet yet so bitter

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Perfume is an odd novel, slight in length, but deep.

Jean-Pierre Grenouille is born into the ordure of Paris though lacking any smell himself. His peculiar sense of smell horrifies midwives and priests and he finds himself abandoned. Moving from menial job to job, he finds himself drawn to a particular scent carried on the breeze. Following it he finds young lady whom he kills for her perfection, thus beginning his secondary career as a murderer. He joins the establishment of a perfume creator by reverse engineering the scent of a rival. He builds both of their reputations, garnering fame and wealth until he leaves the city. Having spent seven years in the wilderness, he comes back to the wealth of a court of lord. Grenouille decides to further his perfume teaching by travelling to a town specialising in perfume making. Once again he apprentices himself to a teacher and learns the finer arts of scent, enhancing his own nasal capacities. In paradise a canker must eventually come and once again he scents a perfect scent, hidden from view, launching him onto his final murderous spree. His capture allows him one more, orgiastic climax before his demise.

The Gothic, certainly the classic form, shouldn't work post-Northanger Abbey but in Suskind's hands it does wonderfully. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, compressing the reader into the psychotic world of our protagonists, mainly using the sense of smell.

What does seem to be missing from the reviews that I've read is the wonderful critique of capitalism that mirrors Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and Easton Ellis's American Pyscho (though in this the murders are not in his head). Grenouille's savage chase of the scent seems analogous to the pursuit of wealth and the killer deal at all costs, though with the European Gothic's gallows humour.

This cult classic deserves more attention and I hope that the film will get a few more people reading the book.


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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Of Infinite Attics and Rediscovered Time - Garry Kilworth interviewed

Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?
Since I first started to read. It was only the classic authors at first - Wells, Haggard, Poe, etc - only later did I get into sf, in my 20's - I just didn't know it was there before then. But one of my greatest influences were American comics, and especially a series called Classics Comics where they retold stories like The Black Tulip and The Fall of the House of Usher with pictures.

What do you read these days?
I read a lot of quirky history books now, about shipwrecks in the 1700s and a lot of non-fiction books about exploration in the 17th and 18th century. I still read sf and fantasy. Historical novels too, Patrick O'Brian - even Georgette Heyer, an author I love.

Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
Yes, I won a school competition when I was 12 - a fictional story about a woman pilot based on Amy Johnson.

Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?
It's not that I'm pinned down to a genre. I just love IMAGINATIVE tales set in exotic places (like Samarkand, or Mars). I don't enjoy stylistic literary novels - they leave me cold - as do crime novels or 'reality' novels set in places like the East End. I like the colourful swirl of magic and mayhem, of distant places, of weirdness and quirkyness, and anything strange. I am basically a storyteller. I believe the storyteller to be the high priest of fiction. The literary guys have got too prosy, too lost in erudition. Kipling and Stevenson would never have won the Booker today.

Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who likes something different from an author.

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?
My plans consist of five to ten page outlines. I write when I can these days, which is about four days a week, mostly in the mornings when I'm fresh. I sit down about 8.30 and stay there until I have 2000 words done. I revise as I write, then revise the piece again the next time I sit down, before the next 2000 words. I find my creative juices drying up after about four hours.

How did your first book sale come about?
I had won the Sunday Times/Gollancz short sf story competition and so attempted some novels. I still have four of them in my sock drawer, unpublished. I met Robert Holdstock who had just sold his first novel to Charles Montieth at Faber and Faber. He suggested I follow his lead. I did, with IN SOLITARY a short sf novel about Earth domination. Charles liked it and published it, to my enormous delight. Nothing equals that first sale. It was a tremendous feeling.

What's your most popular book? Why?
The Welkin Weasels double-trilogy - now up to about 70,000 each book and still selling. Why? Who knows? If I did, I'd do it again, but at a guess it's probably because they've got a lot of humour in them. Readers like to laugh, I guess.

Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?
The Polynesian mythology trilogy, The Navigator Kings. It got massively good reviews but sold pitifully. Fantasy readers wanted high fantasy I guess, not some saga set in the Pacific Ocean. Blood sweat and tears went into that trilogy and I think it's the best thing I've written, though few would agree with me.

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with? What writers did you read as a child and have you reread them since?
In answer to the first part of the question, Robert Sheckley and Larry Niven, to name but two. My natural length is the short story and I feel it's my forte. In answer to the second, Rudyard Kipling, Wells, Stevenson, Haggard, Richmal Crompton.

What does Fantasy offer younger readers and writers that realism doesn't? Why is gaining popularity among readers?
Not so much escape as a chance to fly imaginatively.

Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?
It does for me, so I guess it must do for others.

What are you currently working on?
Jigsaw, a fantasy novel set on an island off Borneo, where a peculiar experiment is going on.

Reading Attica, I had the distinct impression of having lost time and
the analogue sense of time in particular. Is this something that you feel we've done in the Internet age? (The irony of doing this via email is really not lost on
In one sense time has been stretched - people are living longer, having fuller longer lives - yet in another sense everything is instant and time has lost meaning. A motorist will risk death to get one place up in a line of cars, save a few seconds, for what? A computer operator curses the internet for being nano-seconds too slow. Yet what do they do with those extra seconds they've saved? (Is this an old man talking?)

Why do you think secondary worlds are so popular in children's fantasy? I had the distinct feeling of the Borrowers as well as Narnia in reading Attica.

There's a sense that the children need to learn the rules and dangers of the world around them but they don't necessarily learn the rules. Is this an acceptance that modern children may not have the same understanding of the older world which they are thrown into?
I don't think things have changed that much. When I started school the World War Two had only been over 4 years, yet to me it was ancient history, way back along with the Romans invading Britain. I think the biggest impact on the world of children is the mobile phone. They never have the chance to be alone. They're always in contact with someone. I frequently got lost as a child, coming home along a country lane after picking potatoes, or out in a desert in Arabia, and those times were shaping times. I see young men out on a date, not talking to the girl they're with, but chatting on a phone to some mate or who knows, maybe another girl? I think kids are interested in worlds (like Attica or Narnia) where mobile phones don't work and people actually do get lost and are really alone.

Do you feel that we've begun to forget innocence? Do you think that the adult world has become too authoritarian on issues of how children should think, be it religiously or scientifically, rather than encouraging them to explore and learn that actions have consequences?
Wow, this getting hard! Well, they certainly don't have the innocence of an upper class Victorian family, but did a working class Victorian child have innocence? Did a Spartan child have innocence? Did a 17th century drummer boy of 10 years old, away at a foreign war have innocence? Again the Victorians were enormously authoritarian. I think it depends on which corner of society the child is raised in, but I do think we should give children the freedom to take risks and learn by experience rather than be cossetted and protected from the world. Yes, they will get hurt occasionally, physically, but in the long run I believe it's essential for them.


Fact and Fiction - Stephen Lawhead interviewed

When did you first get interested in young adult SF/Fantasy? Was it a conscious decision to write Hood for a younger audience than your previous books?

Publishing Hood as a YA novel was a decision that was made by my editor at Atom/Orbit – his call, which I trust entirely. That said, in the US, it is being published as an adult novel, and I know for sure that in Germany it will be the same. Obviously, in recent years the line between YA and adult has become quite blurred – so, I was advised just to write the book as I saw fit. And that is what I did.

What do you read these days?
Oh, anything! Our family (my wife, sons, and daughter-in-law) have decided to do a book club. When we're together next, we’re going to discuss Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. I'm really enjoying that one, and Zorro, by Isabelle Allende is just delicious. As you would expect, I have to read a fair amount of history by way of research, so exciting books like England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075 - 1225 also crowd the bedside table.

Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
I suspect many writers start out as I did: practicing on the neighbour kids. I told a lot of stories, and made up plays and movies and such, before I ever started writing down anything.

Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?
Basically, I enjoy stories that are plot-driven, whether I read them or write them -- and that invariably leads to genre fiction. I suppose that writing what one would like to read is a good place to start, creatively speaking. I don't know the reason why I'm drawn to SF over mystery, say, or fantasy over horror. Personal preference, I guess. Actually, on second thought, I probably do know why I prefer heroic fantasy over shock horror: I want a book to have some sort of vision, and for the story and characters to experience some sort of ultimate redemption.

Who is your ideal reader?
Anyone who buys hardbacks for themselves and their friends.

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?
I am a disciplined writer, and not precious about it. Because I've moved around a fair bit in the past few years, I've had to write wherever I am, under whatever circumstances. If I can slap on the earphones, I can create enough isolation to get on with the job. I just need some time. I do write most days, but never, never on a Sunday.

Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?
The book I most enjoyed writing was Merlin. It flowed from the first sentence, and I had a lot of fun exploring such a mesmerizing character. Also, I am very proud of Byzantium, a book that I poured a great deal of energy into for a very long time, and it never wore out its welcome. Of course, the book I'm writing now -- Scarlet, the follow-up to Hood -- is my current favourite because it's what's in my head at the moment. And it is, by the way, a jolly good book.

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?
Honestly, I have no idea. But if you ask me what writers inspire me, I’d say Dickens was a guiding light, and Sir Walter Scott, and Mark Twain. My wife thinks that Ian Fleming has had an unusually strong influence on my sentence structure and characterization.

What does Fantasy offer that other kinds of fiction can't? Why is it gaining popularity among readers?
It's the vision thing again. I came across this passage in Norman Davies' epic history, Europe, in a section analysing the ultimate collapse of European communism. He said: 'Artists and believers were often the only people who could imagine a world without communism.' To the extent that fantasy books paint a picture of a world that is in some way more heroic, more humane, more beautiful and hopeful than this one ... that is something that people really respond to, and I'm all for it. Perhaps the number of people who are willing to wade through a hopeless and depressing book is dwindling.

Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?
Absolutely. It's certainly shaped my worldview, and I have heard from many people saying that what I've written has shaped their lives in one way or another. This is either dangerous territory, or holy ground -- depending on what a person chooses to bring into his or her life and experience through reading. That being the case, I think that more writers need to be aware that once a book is 'out there', it may have human consequences.

How aware were you of the Matter of Britain as you wrote Hood? How aware
were you of different cultures between the English, French and Welsh?

I’m always very aware of the special place the Matter of Britain holds in these legendary tales. I enjoy working with it, and I respect it. As for the difference between the English, French, and Welsh – hey, I get it. Contrasting these cultures is the basis for much of the dramatic tension in my books.

Do you feel that the power of story telling has been forgotten?
Never. Not even for a minute.

There seems to be a critique of powerful people wielding religion as a tool. Is this a comment upon the current politicians? How far is faith an individual thing to you and should it be imposed in a young adult book or should it be explored?

Big questions. I'm not consciously trying to dis current politicians -- as tempting, and easy, as that may be. And I'm not trying to impose anything on anyone; that is, I’m not writing propaganda. On the other hand, it’s my book, so it’s going to come from my point of view. Like any writer, I naturally take up what I know or what I’m interested in. In Hood, for example, I liked exploring the distinction between these highly organised, politicised, corporate-type Norman priests ... and the more disorganized, unsophisticated but often more spiritual Celtic clerics.

How difficult was it to break fact and fiction and recreate the story of Robin Hood?
I wouldn’t call it difficult – I’d call it fun. I like weaving together the known threads of fact and the suppositions of fiction. The idea is to create a seamless whole out of the two. And the two elements – fact and fiction – aren’t really competing. In each case, it’s all about the story. Factual history is already a story – and creating a more personal story out of the mega-story of historical events seems a very natural thing to me.

What are you currently working on?
, the second book in the King Raven series; where life in the greenwood gets increasingly dodgy. It’s bigger, bolder, and badder in every way, and all told from Will Scarlet’s unique point of view.


The Puppeteer of the Land - Steve Cockayne interviewed

When did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?
Ever since I started to read, I have enjoyed stories that take place in imaginary worlds. Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Henry the Green Engine, Swallows and Amazons – these were the books that were my earliest influences. I read a lot of SF in my teens, and I became interested in fantasy a little later.

What do you read these days?
I find that I have to read a lot of non-fiction for my research. I enjoy crime fiction for its plot structures. I don't read too much fantasy or SF, and that's really from a fear of unintentionally borrowing other people's ideas! I wish I could find more time to read for pleasure.

Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
I started making up stories at the age of three. My mother wrote them down in a little book which I still have. One early piece, Peter Rabbit Breaks the Plates, won me a certificate from the National Book League. And, in my teens, I produced strip cartoons about a secret agent called Herbert Wilkinson. Later, I discovered film and television, and didn't start writing again for many years.

Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or
I never set out to write genre, and I never set out to write in a particular style. For my early books, I developed a format that conveyed what I was trying to say, and it just seemed natural to set the stories in an imaginary world. It was my publishers who decided that I was writing fantasy fiction.

Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who loves wonder and mystery and excitement and humour. Someone with imagination. Someone who doesn't want everything spelled out for them. Perhaps someone a bit like me….

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you
write every day?
Each book is written from a detailed plan that takes me several months to develop. This means that, when I'm doing the actual writing, I don't have to worry about the key plot points, but I can still find enough space for inspiration and improvisation as I go along. I work on my books every day, but I'm not always writing – sometimes I'm planning, researching or just thinking.

Of your own books, do you have a favourite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?
My first book, Wanderers and Islanders, was written with the most passion, because the story and the characters reflected what was happening to me at the time. But some of the later ones are probably easier to read. It would be wonderful to recapture that first tidal wave of creativity, but to be able to express it with the more elegant technique that I like to think I've developed subsequently.

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with? Which authors did you read as a child? Have you come back and re-read them recently?
There are a handful of authors that I have read at intervals throughout my life without ever becoming bored. CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Mervyn Peake. And I love The Once and Future King by TH White.

What does Fantasy offer to younger readers? Why is it gaining popularity?
I think that in an age that is increasingly governed by technology, people are starting to rediscover the value of magic. And perhaps, with the decline of religious values, we are all searching for something that touches us spiritually.

Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?
Yes, of course. Every single thing that we see or hear or experience surely has some influence, whether positive or negative, on the way we think and feel. But writing is especially powerful because the writer can speak directly to the reader without anything getting in the way.

Reading The Good People, there's a certain feeling of a lost paradise,
that children need to be reminded about a time of more innocent play. Do you feel that this is so, that we've begun to forget innocence? Do you think that the adult world has become too authoritarian on issues of how children should think, be it religiously or scientifically, rather than encouraging them to explore and learn that actions have consequences?
In The Good People, I have been exploring the consequences of trying to hang on to your innocence for longer than you should! Every character except for Kenneth eventually stops believing in Arboria, but Kenneth never abandons his belief. I am sure that, if there had been any adults around, things would have turned out differently. But the best children's stories don't seem to have too many adults in them, and perhaps this is because adults have always tended to be authoritarian where children are concerned and, in stories at least, the children need more space to explore. Perhaps the healthiest option in the real world would be exploration with a little guidance.

I kept wondering whether the world was real or not, whether the armies were entirely happening or being imagined by the children. Was this deliberate, to keep the reader constantly questioning the reality/sanity of the narrator?
Absolutely! The question that I am asking in this book is "How real are our fantasy worlds?" And I've deliberately not provided a firm answer, so that each reader can work out their own. Does Kenneth find his Arboria, or has he gone raving mad? I've scattered plenty of clues through the book. The truth is there for each reader to discover.

What are you currently working on?
I am planning another fantasy for young readers. It uses some of the same settings as The Good People, and it explores many of the same themes, but this time it takes place in the 1960s. There is an outline for another Legends of the Land book in my bottom drawer. And I'm just finishing a biography of the great English puppeteer Waldo Lanchester. (Are there any publishers reading this?)

The Good People

Friday, July 28, 2006

David Gemmell's death

The BBC have just reported David Gemmell's death at 57. Apparently he had had heart bypass surgery two weeks ago and was thought to be making agood recovery.
Source: BBC

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The end of Harry Potter

I missed the actual show (as I forgot that it was even on) but I'm kind of glad that Rowling has said enough Harry Potter when number 7 comes out. Expect two more deaths of characters (I still think the whole Dumbledore episode smacks of the Resurrected Man which we find in children's literature) and wrist strain from even carrying the book (if previous size increases are to be continued).

Source: BBC

Friday, June 16, 2006

New online sf magazine and news of Jim Baen

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing has just posted news of a new free online sf magazine, Helix, run by Lawrence Watt-Evans and William Sanders. It joins Baen's new one, Baen Universe, though hat one isn't free.

Talking of Baen, Jim Baen has been taken to hospital following a stroke. The company is running under an emergency plan detailed by him. More details on the Neilsen Hayden blog. Please don't send flowers but rather prayers of what ever faith/appropriateness.

Update: Jim Baen died on 28th June.
Source: David Drake's blog and Boing Boing
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