My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
Image

What if drugs help you to find the thing that makes you special?

Ellie and Skip meet in the group therapy sessions at the addiction clinic they’ve been committed to, one of those “circle of truth” approaches many therapists seem to love and pretty much everyone else hates. And like many such groups, the “true” stories the patients are made to share are frequently less true than the therapists would like to think – addicts and their ability to lie to suit their circumstances are an integral part of this tale; you really can’t trust what they say about themselves, their past, their motivations.

Which offers up the reader a pretty interesting dilemma – we’re presented with these oh-so-young characters, and we can’t entirely trust what we learn about them. While that is quite a clever device for generating suspense and intrigue for the reader (no godlike narrator who tells the reader everything, we have to take bits and pieces and try and decide which are true), it could also have been a problem. After all, if you can’t be sure what the characters are really like, how can you start to buy into them, empathise with them? It’s an approach which could alienate the readers, but this is Brubaker and Phillips we’re talking about, and they take that potentially double-edged approach and use it quite brilliantly; despite, or perhaps even because we can’t trust their accounts of themselves I found these characters utterly irresistible.

To begin with this feels like the classic star-crossed lovers, a young woman, a young man, pushed together by unusual circumstances, bonding not just through their shared youth but the confinement and the rules of the sanatorium, chafing at them, leaving them eager to strike out against those rules and authority figures. Romeo and Juliet by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those rebellions start small – stealing the head doctor’s cigarettes while she is being lectured (a nice touch, the person telling her how to beat her addiction and how wrong it is to indulge thinks nothing of puffing away on her own addictive thrill while doing so), sneaking out of the building at night to smoke, talk, to make out. Romance and an up-yours to the authority figures at the same time.

This is beautifully handled – Phillips brings just perfect little touches to the visuals, such as a close up on Ellie’s face during the group therapy, her inner dialogue contrasting with what is being openly said in the group session, her gaze catching Skip’s as someone else talks, the expression just perfectly rendered, an elfish, knowing smirk that captures in a single panel how she’s feeling at that moment (as she admits to being a bad influence and having no plans to change), then the following visual interchange between them as the group and therapist continue unaware.

That rebellion will grow, however – sure these are young lovers, full of screw-you attitude, and it is easy to go along with their joie-de-vivre, to hell with the consequences approach. There’s always something intoxicating about that youthful rebellion and we-know-better-than-everyone pose. Except we know there are consequences, and, as noted earlier, these are addicts, we can’t entirely trust their motivations or their life stories. Not everything or everyone is what they seem here, and there will be some revelations, some may not be what you might imagine, although I shall say no more on that front for fear of spoilers.

I guess Billie Holiday is where it started.”

Threaded through all of this is a love of music, of how important music is in many of our lives, how sometimes it feels like a singer has written those lyrics just for us, the soundtrack to moments of our lives. And particularly here so much of the music Ellie loves was created by performers who struggled with addiction. There is a morbid sort of glamour to that, and come on, any of us who love music know that, we’ve felt it – actually we’ve felt it not just with music but with poetry, prose, pretty much every artform humans have crafted has been touched by those who have indulged, many argue for the better.

There are shades of the late, great Bill Hicks here on his stand-up diatribe on the War On Drugs, where he acknowledges the damage drugs can do but also notes how nobody picks up on the other side of it, like the stunning music that came out of some of that psycho-chemical experimentation, the old kicking open the Doors to Perception. There’s a fascination, even a sort of sick romance about all of that, especially tied to that spirit of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, most of us have felt it, maybe even flirted with it even if just in imagination while blissing out to that music. Ellie tells the therapist as much when it is her turn to talk in the group sessions.

Like Welsh’s Trainspotting though, this book doesn’t glamourise drug use, it shows the mess it can and does make of lives, but it also, like Trainspotting, shows the highs and why they are so attractive – addictive. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies doesn’t get on the soap-box to preach condemnation, nor does it paint that lifestyle as overly romantic, it mixes both, showing that just like everything else in our lives the positive and negative aren’t always clearly separated, they can be messy, intertwined. That theme is in itself attractive and compelling, but here it is just the garnish to an engrossing story, with shifting sands beneath the changing characters that draw you in deep. It’s simply brilliant. And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading. I’m starting with some Billie…

Now you see it, now you don’t

Well, a day after my final turn at FP I go to check something on the FP Blog and… It wasn’t there. Taken down already, virtual corpse not even cold. That’s an extra kick in the pants, I thought it would be archived online so those years of articles, reviews, interviews and guest pieces wouldn’t just vanish. As one person remarked, she was upset as she had several items bookmarked to read. Just as well most of my reviews are also here on the Woolamaloo Gazette, including that final post which was up for basically a day on the actual FP blog before it was zapped. Sad to see all of that work just wiped away like that.

Meantime the search for a new job goes on – hint to publishers and arts and culture organisations out there, knowledgeable, experienced, passionate bookseller with a flair for promoting good writing and reading online, available for hire…

And it’s over – So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

Well, the day I have been dreading for several weeks has come to pass: I’ve been living under the cloud of imminent redundancy, and as the termination date has crept closer and closer I felt increasingly bad. It isn’t just the practical side of things – having to look for a new job, the crushing feeling of not getting posts you are well suited to, the way it saps your morale and sense of self worth, the worry about being able to pay your bills – it’s the emotional side. Not just that it fuels the wee black voice, there’s also a sense of loss: having drinks with some of my colleagues yesterday was very odd, I’ve worked next to some for thirteen and a half years, I’ve known them since before some of their children were born and it is very peculiar to think we’re not going to be part of each other’s daily lives anymore, quite upsetting. We’ll see each other from time to time, but it won’t be as it was before.

Always hard moving on, even when it is by choice, when it is forced on you it makes it harder. Here’s a copy of my final post from the Forbidden Planet Blog:

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Richard has already taken his final bow on the blog (see here), and now it’s my turn. Truth be told I have been putting this off all week, and here I am typing it now, on my last day at FPI. Quite emotional, as you can imagine; I’m trying to persuade colleagues in the Edinburgh store, beneath which the Blogcave lurks, deep under Edinburgh’s ancient Old Town, right above the haunted undercity, that they should play the sad piano music from the end of the old Hulk TV show as I walk out for the last time tonight.

Thirteen and a half years: I started the blog when I began working on the webstore for Forbidden Planet International, looking after the graphic novels and books. I had pitched the idea to Kenny of using a blog so we could highlight some of the titles we sold in the stores and online, celebrate them, draw reader’s attention to them, recommend books, use it for announcing news, not just our own but news and events from others in the comics community, to give them an added voice (especially in pre-Twitter days). To his and FPI’s credit they agreed and also supported the idea that we would keep the blog pretty non-commercial – of course we’d trumpet our store events and offers, we’d link reviews to the webstore where you could buy the graphic novel we were reviewing, but that was about it, it was left mostly as a space to celebrate comics, science fiction, fantasy, horror and animation, all our geek loves. I think Kenny saw it as a nice way to give something back to the comics community, and that’s a nice way to think of it.

As time went by more contributors came onboard, allowing us not only to cover more, but also to take in a more diverse range of tastes. Richard continued from the sort of recommendations and reviews he had done when he worked in our Nostalgia & Comics store in Birmignham – it was something we had in common as I too had organised mini-reviews and staff recommendations in my old bookstore, and I knew that A) readers loved those personal recommendations and B) it often gave a new creator a chance to be spotted by readers. To be honest, as time went on Richard was less a reviewer and more a co-editor with me; I can’t imagine having run the FP blog this long without his help, as well as his articles and reviews, and while we all reviewed numerous small press works, Richard was king on those, writing up on so many small press comickers that it often felt like they saw us as “their” site, which frankly we loved.

Then Our Man In Belgium, Wim, provided us with Our Continental Correspondent columns, bringing European works and comics trends to the Anglophone audience. I think any of us who truly love the medium are in awe of the status of the Franco-Belgian comics market, where bande dessinee is seen as “the ninth art”, a respected status those of us in the UK, Canada, America and other countries could only dream of (although that has changed a lot – look at Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Costa Award win for instance – and is still changing for the better here). Wim not only brought us news and reviews of European comics, from new talents and revered veterans, he did it the way I hope everyone on the blog did, with their own personality and passion for the medium (I think we all used our own voices, kept it personal, never a house style or corporate tone, and I think that’s another reason readers liked it).

I learned a lot more about European comics through editing Wim’s posts, and it only sharpened my hunger to see more of these works translated and published in English. And, rather wonderfully, that sometimes happened because of his pieces, especially his Translation, Please columns where he would champion some astonishing new comics work he’d seen in French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, and highlight why this was an author and a book Brit and North American publishers should be looking at and thinking of buying English language rights to. Several publishers told us they looked specifically for those European publishers and creators on their trips to continental conventions on the back of reading about them through Wim’s columns, and several ended up making deals and translating those books. I call that a pretty good result.

More people joined us through the years, some for a short time, others longer, but all added to a plurality of voices and tastes and subjects covered. My old Irish chum from our days on The Alien Online (early SF & comics review site some of you may recall fondly) Pádraig contributed some long, thoughtful interviews, not least with the mighty Alan Moore, Zainab brought a new perspective with her own tastes and an eye for creators and titles that were not as well-represented as they should be, especially women and ethnic creators (an increasingly happening area in comics coverage, I am glad to see, but Zee was doing it well ahead of the curve and continues to do it now), Nicola, then working at our Glasgow store (now a Grande Fromage at the Glasgow Comic Con) brought an impassioned fangirl rush to her picks from the week’s new releases (and got me reading some I would otherwise have walked past).

Matt Badham would do us some great pieces and some cracking interviews, which, in what I thought was a nice touch of solidarity and cooperation, would be published by ourselves and John Freeman’s Down the Tubes at the same time. There was something nice about that – not competition, working together, all part of the bigger community. Hannah Chapman wrote some great pieces on the Indy scene and on women in comics and webcomics, now she’s a creator and pushing the splendid Avery Hill comics. Malachy from our Belfast store and my book group chum Misti joined me in my eternal love of good science fiction and fantasy, so we could cover more of the prose side of geekdom as well as the graphic, Stephen, under his Garth Cremona pen-name, was our resident movie fiend, and another Irish chum, James Bacon, would contribute not just reviews but all sorts of interesting articles, from a gallery exhibition of comic art to some science fiction stage plays and reporting from San Diego Comic Con (along the way also chatting to local comic store owners in California and getting their views).

And that’s not counting everyone – a lot of others would contribute when they could (remember most of us were doing all of this in our own free time), and then we had numerous guest blogs. That was something I always wanted – when we ran our guest Best of the Year posts each December we would have a different writer, artist, editor, publisher, reviewer every single day in December, picking their favourites, before the blog crew chose their own; it meant we got a wider net, more reading tastes, that works we hadn’t seen or had time for got shout outs. Most sites would have a Best of the Year article around December, but I don’t think anyone did it quite the way we did with so many diferent guests getting a chance to shout out their faves.

Similarly our guest posts gave creators free reign to use the blog as a platform to talk directly to the readers about their work. We had reviews, previews and interviews, but it seemed to me there was something missing – reviews are our opinion, in interviews creators only get to answer the questions put to them… Why not have a feature where we removed ourselves from it and gave the slot entirely to them, to talk about their new work in their own words, in any way they wanted to. It gave readers some insight into the creation process, what elements of the story meant to the creator and why they worked the way they did, and at the same time served to highlight their new work and interest readers.

I remember one year we did a whole themed Director’s Commentary run with not just the winner but all shortlist nominees for Myriad’s First Graphic Novel prize, after one of the judges, Bryan Talbot, commented on the high standard of all of them, so we arranged to let each and every one of them do a guest spot about their entries. I know I am biased, but I think that was a damned good use of the platform we had to share. After the debacle of the all-male creator Angouleme shortlist a few years back a whole bunch of women writers, artists and publishers did a coperative guest spot with each highlighting women in the medium.

We loved being able to use the blog for something like that and other things, and as we’ve been seeing with certain sad groups attacking women, LGBT and ethnic creators virulently, it’s important those with a decent platform use it to defend diversity: more diverse voices means more intersting and unusual reading for us, which is a win-win situation. And, simply, it is the proper and decent thing to do; comics and scifidom are communities, and communities support and celebrate one another, and when we do that, we all win. Many are continuing that push, and all power to them; the blog here may be going quiet, but those of us who worked on it still have your back in the comics and SF community.

We’d all love to have done more, to turn the blog into a virtual journal, perhaps. But we all had work and life and other commitments, and we were all doing most of our reading, viewing and writing in our own time, after the day job. That’s a lot of hours of our own time, and always there would be more good stuff out there that we just couldn’t get time to cover. In a way though, that is a sign of how much comics, especially in the UK, has changed even just in those thirteen and a half years of the blog’s existence. When we started we had a pretty vibrant small press scene, with a couple of yearly events like Caption and then Thought Bubble celebrating them, and just a handful of UK graphic novel publishers, like Cape, or veterans like Knockabout. But then more events – mainstream and small press-friendly, from tiny local, small town events to European style comic art festivals like the Lakes were added to the calendar, and the already thriving small press scene got bigger, better, more diverse and interesting.

And the number of Indy publishers also grew in the UK: Myriad, Blank Slate (run by our own Kenny), SelfMadeHero, Soaring Penguin, Avery Hill, Nobrow and more. And many of those bloomed over those following years: suddenly UK comickers went from thinking why don’t we have our own Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf or Fantagraphics here to having those and seeing them prosper and reach new audiences. Just last month I chaired events with SelfMadeHero and Nobrow authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest literary festival on Planet Earth, and there were our Indy comics presses strutting their funky literary stuff, alongside small press creators given their own comic fair on opening day. We also saw some of those new Indy publishers here translating European comics for an English language audience, and then, oh so gloriously, taking their UK titles to European festivals and seeing them picked up for translation there. Wow. So many good changes over those years.

I’m honoured we got to be a small part of those changes, that we got to enjoy reading those works, and had a megaphone to shout out those creators and publishers and watch others pick them up, other sites like Broken Frontier coming along and adding their voices to this flowering of talent and creation. It has been a remarkable time for comics, especially in the UK. And it still is; if anything it is just getting better and better, and I hope very much that lending our voices to the chorus helped those creators and publishers, and I know more than a few readers who have told us over the years they only knew about a new work because of one of our articles, that they picked up a book they would never have seen otherwise. That, my comics chums, is a very, very nice feeling when you hear that.

(I’d like to think this is Richard and I going out in a blaze of six-gun glory, but fear we are more Pooch and Sunlounger than Butch and Sundance, and no, I don’t know which of us is which)

And… well, there’s more, but I have already gone on far longer than I intended to. I meant this to be shorter, pithier, but I am writing it on my last day here as it comes into my head, and I think I’m going on so long because I am reluctant to finish, because it is my last FP Blog post. Like David Tennant’s Doctor “I don’t want to go.” But go we must, things change, and let’s face it, thirteen and a half years is a pretty good innings for a comic blog. It has been a pleasure to be able to cover so many fine writers and artists, to celebrate the success of new publishers and watch comics culture flourishing as never before, from small press and Indy to the maintream, covering every subject from adventures to gender to health to science to poetry and more, and quite wonderful to have been a small part of that. I’m sad to leave the blog, to leave FP, the thought of not seeing colleagues I have worked years beside is, naturally, upsetting. But mostly I am proud of what we did, with few resources and a bunch of book and comics readers working away in our own time simply because we loved good reading.

So long, and thanks for all the fish. And always, always know where your towel is.

And keep reading. Always keep reading.

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And there it is, the last post after thirteen and a half years. I think we did a lot within our constraints and I’m pleased we helped a lot of writers, artists and new publishers to get noticed. But it’s over, and I’m looking for new work, still. So any publishers out there, bookseller for hire with decades of literary knowledge, passion for promoting good reading, huge range of experience in highlighting good authors through events, reviews, interviews, social media and literary festivals. I’m also house-trained.

Turning Widdershins: Finding Baba Yaga

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books


(cover image by Shutterstock, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill)

So, this is a tale
Both old and new,
borrowed, narrowed,
broadened, deepened,
rethreaded, rewoven,
stitches uneven,
re-plastered, re-harled,
rehearsed, reworked
until it’s my own.

Love comes through a back door,
leaves by the front.
Not all baptisms occur at the font.
Witches are made, of blood and bone.
Witches are made, not only born.
A story is, not always means.
We pass on our genius
as well as our genes.

You think you know this story.
You hope you know this story.
You want to tell this story,
perhaps now you will.”

Our many cultures in our world are rich in folklore and myth, tales and characters that persist for generations, centuries, even outlast the millennia; passed down, by oral storytellers originally, later through the written word, later still radio, film, comics, online. They never go away, prove an endless spring of inspiration to creators of each age because the old stories that have endured the battering winds of the centuries without eroding speak, at their heart, of very human conditions, of love and hate, isolation and belonging, fear and hope, youth and age, ignorance and wisdom, cowardice and bravery, treachery and loyalty. These tales can feature trickster spider gods like Anansi, or brave but flawed heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh; gods, heroes, villains, talking animals, magical creatures like dragons. But all of them, really, are about us, about people. It’s why they still fascinate us.

We denizens of the 21st century are no different in that respect from any of the people who went before us, from that writing explosion fueled by libraries and journals in the 19th century back to the medieval monk in a scriptorium working by candlelight, the storyteller sharing his tales by firelight at night as the caravan camps in its desert crossing (a tradition still honoured in some remote places), the wandering bards going from town to town to spin their tales to the Classical Greeks, right back to our ancestors painting tales on rock walls (again, not entirely gone, the Aboriginal people of Australia still honour this practise, telling stories and singing them to the land and the people).

Certain stories echo more frequently, prove truly flexible and adaptable to each new age, yet without losing their ancient roots, and that great figure of Russian and Eastern European folklore, the Baba Yaga with her iron teeth and chicken-leg house that wanders the forest is one of those. In very early versions of the Russian language her name can mean midwife. Or sometimes a seer or fortune teller, or a witch. Those multiple possible meanings nicely illustrate the complex nature of the Baba Yaga: sometimes she can be a kindly woman who helps a traveller, sometimes she is feared, flying through the air on her giant mortar and pestle, kidnapping children to devour. For others she is a protector of the wild nature of the land, or even a spiritual guardianr of the nation.

(Above:the Baba Yaga as depicted from the great Mike Mignola in Hellboy, published Dark Horse; below Ivan Bilibin’s 1902 illustration of the Baba Yaga)

The prolific and highly gifted Jane Yolen gives us all those aspects of the Baba Yaga and more; she plays both with the mythic tropes and archetypes and yet at the same time she gives us a rounded, real character we can believe in, not just a mythic figure, but a person. This is no mean feat and takes dexterous writing skill; to do it in verse takes even more ability, and I can’t help but wonder if it added to the difficulty for her in penning this story. But it was a good decision: some stories simply work better in verse. I’m not sure why, they just do. I think poetry, sometimes, can touch our emotions and immerse the reader further into a feeling, a setting, than prose can (I often find when prose creates those feelings so well in me that it almost becomes lyrical, poetic). Poetry can be like jazz is to classical music, or magic to science, a different perspective on the world, on people.

In Finding Baba Yaga, Jane Yolen gives us Natasha, a young girl in a troubled home, running away, going into that place that so many of our old stories warn us about, into the deep, dark forest that still haunts our collective dreams, and it is there, after walking by the silver moonlight, that she will find that famous chicken-legged house and the iron-toothed old lady inside. Had she been a pretty young lad she’d have ended up in the pot, but, grumpily and yet acceptingly, almost as if she (and the house) knew she would come, the Baba Yaga lets her enter, lets her stay, and as their relationship forms the young woman comes to understand more of the world, of its stories, of her place in those stories, of her own past, her future, and her own being, her own power.

There’s a strong element of the feminine throughout the verses in Finding Baba Yaga; there are a few male figures, such as the handsome (and crafty) prince, but they are very much relegated to supporting characters, ornaments there to help the story unfold. It is the women here who are the important characters, and with the arrival of pretty Vasilisa they become, for a time, a trio, which again harkens back to myths, some older than Baba Yaga’s, the three women who are also one (think the Kindly Ones in Gaiman’s Sandman or Medusa and her sisters or a thousand other takes on this ancient belief of a trinity of womanhood). It also manages to weave some sly, often dark humour into the tale – the Baba Yaga remarking about her sister’s house made of gingerbread and candy and how impractical that Hansel and Gretel house actually is (bears eat parts of it), and how dirty it is inside because she can’t help herself, she always bundles her young help into the oven and eats them…

It is, quite simply, a beautiful, magical, immersive piece of storytelling. I was extremely fortunate to find that the regular science fiction evenings in Edinburgh that the Shoreline of Infinity journal team organise had Jane as a guest earlier in the summer, and months before the book came out she read some of it to us. Poetry is, I find, often best when read out loud, especially by the original writer, so this was an absolute delight to hear Jane reading from her tale in verse. In a nice bit of coincedental timing I had just received an advance copy a few days before that event; it’s rather nice when coincidence turns into a little spark of magic like that.

Event Horizon June 2018 08
(Jane Yolen reading from Finding Baba Yaga at the Shoreline of Infinity’s regular Event Horizon evening in Edinburgh, photo from my Flickr)

This is another of the extremely welcome little novellas which Tor has been publishing over the last few years both physically and in digital form. We’ve reviewed quite a few on here, some by writers new to us, some by established favourites, but all a short but delightful dip into that writer’s world. I think Tor are to be commended for continuing to support and publish these novellas (which cover everything from hard sci-fi to fantasy to horror and even, as here, poetry); it’s a terrific way for readers to encounter new writing without the investment in time a larger book may require, and a good showcase for the writers (as are Tor’s regular short stories they post on their site). It’s also an ideal format for this unusual form of storytelling, of spinning a new take on the bones of old myth, a young woman’s journey seen through the magical power of poetry.

Plus Jane uses the word “widdershins” several times, which I find quite pleasing…

Finding Baba Yaga, a short story in verse, is published by Tor in October

We Shall Fight Until We Win

We Shall Fight Until We Win: a Century of Pioneering Political Women,
Edited by Laura Jones, Heather McDaid & Sha Nazir,
404 Ink / BHP Comics

Two small Indy Scottish publishers, BHP Comics (who are also behind the Glasgow Comic Con and the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival) teamed up with 404 Ink to create this anthology of “pioneering political women”, We Shall Fight Until We Win, which marks the century since (some) women got the vote in the UK with an all-woman creator team (nicely diverse line up too in terms of age, orientation, ethnic background, all encouraging to see) with short pieces on women from different decades across that century.

It’s a very interesting read, some tales being several pages, others being but a single page, and I admire the fact that they decided this would not take the route of only picking subjects most can admire, it also takes in subjects such as Margaret Thatcher because, even for those who loathed that very divisive politician the book cannot ignore that she was the first woman prime minister and the effect she had on changing politics in the UK, for good or ill, and while I personally cannot stand her I think it was indeed important that an anthology of this nature acknowledged her.

The range of subjects is as wide as the backrounds of the creators here, some well-known – Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Sturgeon, Dianne Abbot – while others may only be familiar to those who have an interest in specific parts of history. That’s a good thing, of course, because it means even if you consider yourself fairly well-versed in history there is a good chance you are still going to find out about a remarkable person you hadn’t heard of before. I like that aspect of these kinds of works, it is no bad thing, regardless of age, to be exposed to new people and ideas and events.

I’m not going to go through each individual chapter and creators, but I must mention a few that stood out for me personally. I liked Kathryn Briggs and Heather McDaid’s The Glasgow Girls right from the first page; I loved the style, infused with touches of Mackintosh and Art Noveau, and the title, riffing on the famous Glasgow Boys art movement. While most of the entries here opt to highlight a particular individual, this one has a warm, cooperative, social, community feel to it, celebrating a group of young women – school girls at the time – who saw immigrant families being settled into their local neighbourhoods in and around Glasgow, many of whom had fled terrible circumstances.

The children of these refugee families would attend local schools and they became part of the community, so when the seemingly eternally short-sighted and cold-hearted Kafkaeque monster of the Home Office opted to eject some from the country, placing entire families (including children) into detention, these young girls acted, they organised, they protested, they whipped up support, they stood up for their friends, and by god they made a difference. I was very touched by this particular story, partly because it showed the power of good will, well directed, but also because it chimed with an element of Scottish identity which is dear to many of us, that “we’re aw Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (essentially meaning we’re all the same, regardless) and that no matter where you came from, when you live here with us, you are one of us. Which is not to say we don’t have bigotry and racism in Scotland, sadly we do have that ignorant hatred too, but there is a song social and community strand to the national identity that still wants to embrace that inclusivity and standing by one another, and it was wonderful to see such young women taking that lesson and applying it to help others.

Jenny Bloomfield and Grace Wilson’s Life and Times of Mhairi Black, the very young, working class woman who became an SNP MP and brought her blunt, no nonsense approach to the stuffy, rule-obsessed House of Commons and showed it what she thought of their arcane rituals and customs (she was there to represent her electorate and didn’t give a damn about the games and rituals older MPs played by, much to their ire), had me smiling as it summed up this firecracker. Hannah Berry told of a woman I hadn’t heard of, Jayaben Desai, who stood up not just against misogyny and racism but the simple exploitation more than a few uncaring company’s have used on their workers over the years, organising together, as a union, to fight for their rights, something that affects all of us.

Hari Conner and Durre Shahwar’s story of Noor Inayat Khan was remarkable, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who volunteered to serve in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) during WWII, then trained by SOE and parachuted behind into Occupied Europe as a wireless operator, risking life and torture by the Gestapo to help liberate it from the Nazis, and paying the ulimtate price. I could read a whole book on that unbelievably brave woman, who was executed in the hell of Dachau, her last word reportedly a defiant “Liberte!”

I think the one that most emotionally affected me was Sabeena Akhtar and Erin Aniker’s The 60%. Like The Glasgow Girls this wasn’t about an individual, in fact this time not even about a small group, it was about, well, about most women. Not the ones in the history and politics texts who are remembered for their deeds and thoughts which changed the world, but for all the other women who didn’t have the “privilege to fight and franchise”, the mothers, aunt, the working women who then went home from that work to raise children and look after husbands. Your mother, my mother, our aunts, sisters and others who changed the world in other ways while raising us, carnig for us, teaching us, setting an example while nurturing us. I think that particular story is pretty universal “and though you haven’t read their names, I’d wager you know their faces.” Of course we know their faces, they are our own family and friends.

I was lucky enough to hear BHP’s Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer, and 404 Ink’s Lauren Jones (see below) discuss the project on the opening day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (my report on some of the comics and SF events from this summer’s festival is here), and it was fascinating to listen to how they went about this collaboration between the two Indy publishers (404’s first forary in comics). Not just in terms of embracing creators from a diverse number of backgrounds (something BHP has a strong ethos about, to their credit), but also from the production side – much of this work from new talent and established creators like Hannah Berry and Denise Mina (and our old chum and former FP blog reviewer Nicola Love, who I must give a shout out to) was solicited and completed and edited within two or three months.

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(Heather Palmer, Sha Nazir and Lauren Jones signing after their Edinburgh book fest talk, pic from my Flickr)

If these were two big publishers cooperating they would still be working out a legal document before they had started at that point! But being small and nimble BHP and 404 could push ahead quickly on that deal and the actual project to have it ready in a remarkably swift time period. I’m also heartened by hearing that copies have been going out to many school libraries in Scotland, and after chairing an event later at the festival with Sha Nazir several school librarians came over to chat about the book and other titles BHP had, and to note down other suggestions for graphic works they could use to help kids learn about complex subjects. It’s nice to know that this will be read in many of our schools.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018

I’ve just been enjoying a couple of weeks at the world’s largest literary festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, seeing a number of fascinating author events and also being fortunate enough to chair several comics and science fiction events too, from Young Adult science fiction and graphic novels to graphic non-fiction covering science, gender and history, as well as taking in two very famous, gifted but different artists, Mr Alan Lee, and Scotland’s own Frank Quitely.

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The comics folks were out in force on the first day of the book festival, with the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival gang organising a free comics fair for small press and Indy creators in the hotel right across the road from the main festival in Charlotte Square, which was a very nice touch, giving the small press comickers a chance to shine at such a huge lit fest, in the middle of a city buzzing as the Fringe and International Festival were also going on and it feels like half the planet has packed into our ancient volcanic city to enjoy the biggest arts and culture bash in the world, a terrific place for our fellow comickers to strut their funky stuff.

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The opening day also saw the regular lovely old Spiegeltent being used for more events, with a talk involving BHP Comics’ Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer and 404 Ink’s Laura Jones discussing We Shall Fight Until We Win, an all-woman creator anthology celebrating the centenary year of (some) women in the UK getting the vote, with a female figure from each decade of that century explored by the different writers and artists. Both Indy Scottish presses, BHP and 404 Ink, had collaborated on this, and in a remarkably brief timescale – much of the writing, drawing and editing was achieved within a couple of months. Larger publishers would probably still be going over contracts at that point, but small publishers can be swifter and more nimble on this kind of turnaround, as the panel explained. The audience was pleasingly mixed, as far as I could see, comics readers but also a lot of regular book festival goers who had come along partly out of interest in the subject and also perhaps to help support local publishers.

I had the most people I’ve ever had on stage at any event I’ve chaired at the festival for a SelfMadeHero evening, which included John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy talking about the amazing Tumult and Javi Rey discussing his beautiful graphic adaptation of Jesus Carassco’s Out in the Open. Javi’s English was fine for one on one chats but on stage we had an interpreter, Carolina, so all in all there were five of us packed onto the small stage (Carolina is also an Indy publisher as well as interpreter, and she brought that to the proceedings too).

Both books were very different, but there was a lot of common ground too, especially in the way the two different artists had used light and colour, and rather nicely it ended up being one of those events where instead of just me asking questions the comickers all started commenting on each other’s answers and asking each other questions too. There was a lovely flow between Michael’s art and John’s writing in Tumult, the art achieving the difficult task of showing the same woman but hinting at the different personalities which manifest in her, while Javi chose to adapt the novel into comics by dropping most of the words, letting the art – including some stunning, Sergio Leone-esque landscapes – carry the story, more an interpretation than adaptation. Interestingly he told us the publisher in Spain approached him and asked him to adapt the hugely successful novel into comics form. At the post-event signing Javi produced his watercolours box and proceeded to paint colour art for every person who signed. I can’t recommend Tumult and Out in the Open highly enough, two of the most fascinating and beautifully crafted graphic novels I’ve read this year.

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I was delighted to see Darryl Cunningham, returning to the book festival (he was here previously for Supercrash), bringing his quite excellent Graphic Science from Myriad Editions (reviewed here) to the festival. He had been put on with computer scientist Ursula Martin, who had written on one of the woman pioneers of computer science, the great Ada Lovelace, which proved a good match as Darryl’s graphic work explores several scientists who are less well known and respected than they should be because of gender, class, income or colour, and it was a good reminder of the power of intellect and learning, for the individual of any kind, and the positive effects their work, if they are given the chance, can have on a wider society. I was also cheered when Darryl was introduced as writing graphic non fiction but in his talk he said some of the terms like that applied to creators were clumsy, and he said he simply thinks of himself as a cartoonist. I was very proud to hear him use the “C” word.

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Frank Quitely gave a great late night talk at the festival, taking his recent Drawings + Sketches art book published by Glasgow-based BHP Comics as the basis of the evening. Frank had pages of his work from the Drawings book on screen, and he and chairperson Stuart Kelly used those as a good way to explore not just Frank’s impressive body of work, from Broons parody The Greens in Electric Soup many years ago in Glasgow to major works from US publishers such as We3 with Grant Morrison and Jupiter’s Legacy with Mark Millar. The fact this covered everything, from the roughest doodles and sketches to variations in ideas for characters, costumes, layouts, all the way to the finished works, gave the large audience a terrific insight into the creative process.

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Frank was also generous with his praise for others, such as the writers he has worked with, the importance of work largely unseen by readers proved by editors and others behind the scenes, and discussing some of the other creators whose work he hugely admires. Dave Gibbons was one artist Frank singled out for praise, mentioning how every so often he likes to take out Watchmen and have a look at some specific scenes, to see just how Dave planned and drew them, except, he added with a smile, the story is so well done that he soon finds himself reading away, lost in it, before remembering he was meant to be studying Dave’s art and layouts from a technical point of view. Despite it being a late evening event the turnout was good and there was a solid line for the signing session afterwards (props to the bloke who arrived clutching a branded bag from the sadly now defunct Plan B Books in Glasgow).

I was very pleased to see Jean-Pierre Filiu returning to the festival this year. Jean-Pierre, a former French diplomat, now writer, lecturer and historian, wrote the absorbing trilogy of graphic history/politics books The Best of Enemies, a history of US-Middle East relations from the very creation of the American Republic in the late 1700s to the modern era. The series offers a fascinating insight into this complex history of competing influences and alliances, wrapped up in some truly astonishing artwork by one of France’s greatest comickers, David B.

Last time he was here Jean-Pierre explained there would be a gap between book two and three as the demands of the complex artwork had exhausted David B, and he required a break. The third volume was published in English by SelfMadeHero earlier this year (see my review here), and was one I was eagerly awaiting. Jean-Pierre commented how the third volume, covering the most recent years, was in many ways the hardest to do, principally because this was a period he had personally experienced (he was actually in Baghdad one evening as Allied airstrikes hit it, a planned outing to a classical concert changed to a cellar after the venue was hit by a Tomahawk missile), and how much harder it was to maintain balance and not become too emotionally entangled.

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He also explained the final pages, wordless images of a wide selection of men and women from across the Middle East, Arab, Israeli, young, old, all just looking out of the page at us, looking directly at us as if to say “what will you do? How will you help make this better? We’re just people like you and want to live with our families in safety and prosperity”. Fascinating and extremely compelling, and not a little emotional too.

I had the pleasure of chairing some events in the Children’s Programme this year too; I’ve chaired author events many times before at the festival, but this was the first time I worked on the kid’s programme events, and it really was fun. I had a terrific chat about YA science fiction with Barbados writer Karen Lord (who has one of the brightest and bestest smiles I’ve ever seen) about The Galaxy Game, a follow-up to The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Paul Magrs (who many of you will know for his Doctor Who and Big Finish tales) who was there with the third part of his Lora Trilogy, The Heart of Mars, following a young teenage girl’s journey to save her family and friends across a future, terraformed Mars.

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While both books were very different they had a lot in common, both with complex and well-realised societies with rich traditions and customs, and both, I found as I read, avoided the “omniscient narrator” and gave the reader only the same information as the main characters, which had the effect of placing us right there in the journey with them, learning right alongside them, this process immersing us more into the book and cultures and also empathising more with the characters.

The theme of this year’s book festival was freedom, and Gutter Magazine had produced The Freedom Papers, a collection of personal essays on what freedom means to different people, by over fifty writers from around the world, including Karen and Paul, and instead of reading from their own books they both read their essays. Given some dozen important authors (many from African and Middle Eastern countries) were blocked by the incompetent, Kafka-esque Home Office from obtaining their visas to visit the book festival, this discussion on freedom was all too relevant to those of us at the festival – freedom of movement is important, denying it can be, in effect, a form of censorship, and for a government to stop so many lauded writers from entering the UK to its largest celebration of the written word was utterly shameful and hardly does much to enhance the UK’s reputation of being open to the world.

Also on the children’s programme I got to work not only with a pair of Nobrow/Flying Eye creators, Alexis Deacon, there with the first two volumes of his beautifully illustrated YA fantasy graphic novels Geis (pronounced Gesh, as in the old Gaelic term for a form of curse or enchantment), and Joe Todd-Stanton with the second of his Brownstone’s Mythical Collection tales, Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx, and The Secret of Black Rock. Joe’s work mixed elements of the classic children’s picture book format with elements of comics to create a delightful hybrid, and boasted some quite gorgeous scenes – in fact Alexis drew attention to a two-page spread by Joe depicting the Egyptian god Ra’s sunboat traversing the sky, all shown in a cutaway fashion, like those lovely Dorling Kindersely books, and the audience of youngsters all agreed with him how beautiful some of those scenes were. It’s always nice when instead of just you as chair asking the authors questions, they interact with each other and discuss each other’s work and processes on stage too, and it becomes more of a natural conversation rather than interview.

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With so many young readers in the audience both Alexis and Joe were happy to discuss how they got into illustration and comics (in Alexis’ case this was his first proper comics works, his previous, award-winning works being picture books, but he had long harboured a desire to do longform comics), and how they create their works, from ideas for a story and little doodles to the finished page. Unsurprisingly many of the youngsters there liked the idea of making their own stories and comics, and they seemed to especially enjoy hearing Joe and Alexis explaining to them about how they go about making their tales and their art.

As part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Young People a group of schoolchildren – calling themselves Codename F – worked with the festival programmers on choosing events, and in fact Alexis and Joe were authors they had specifically asked to have at the festival (you can imagine how delighted they were to learn that!). Three of these youngsters took part in the event with us, talking to us beforehand in the Author’s Yurt, they then introduced the three of us at the start of the event (unusual experience for me, normally I am introducing the author, this time I was being introduced with them!) and they had lined up questions for the audience Q&A segment after our on-stage chat. The kids were so enthused at being part of the book festival, and over the moon at meeting some of the authors they had loved reading, getting to talk to them, getting their books signed (both Alexis and Joe did them lovely wee sketches too), they were absolutely beaming, one youngster telling us that this was the best day of his life. It was wonderfully sweet, even to a cynical old bookseller like me, and quite wonderful to see the children so involved and happy at book events. I think that was one of the nicest events I’ve ever done…

On the last day of the festival on the holiday Monday I had my last event, and boy, what an event to finish on: illustration royalty in the form of the great Alan Lee. HarperCollins are publishing the final JRR Tolkien tale, The Fall of Gondolin, this week and this was the first proper event in the world to celebrate that landmark. Ironically this final publication is the earliest Middle Earth tale – Tolkien himself noted in a letter to a friend that this was the first proper tale in his world that he ever started – begun during a break from the horror of the trenches in the Great War. Tolkien, as he often did, rewrote and changed his story over the years, so much so that although parts have appeared before, the full tale, as seen in this book, was thought unlikely to ever see the light of day. His son Christopher Tolkien painstakingly, forensically reconstructed the full tale from multiple versions and drafts (including one saved from destruction by his mother), and the book comes with copious notes on how he put it together and explaining how it fits into Middle Earth history, which is as compelling as the actual tale.

Who else could illustrate this almost lost tale of the First Age of Middle Earth, millennia before the time of Lord of the Rings, but already setting up ideas and sowing seeds that would come to fruition so much later chronologically, in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion except Alan Lee. An impeccable pedigree of world-class illustration in pencils, inks, charcoals, oil and watercolours and awards from the Kate Greenaway Medal to an Academy Award, he is one of the artists most responsible for how legions of readers worldwide visualise the rich tapestry of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (and of course that is why Peter Jackson asked him to work on the films with him).

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Instead of the usual Q&A session format, Alan had explained he had put together an illustrated talk, and I was happy to forego the time for the Q&A to hear it alongside the packed audience. Alan took us through his work in chronological order, from early works with the great Brian Froud in Faeries to illustrations for Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed children’s takes on the Iliad and Odyssey, the glorious illustrated Mabinogion tales (I still have a copy of that edition, those rich, ancient Celtic myths, source material for much Arthurian lore, married to Alan’s paintings, just enchanting) and of course his many Tolkien works, sharing with us sketches and finished paintings from Lord of the Rings to the Fall of Gondolin, and also his works for the film adaptations with Peter Jackson.

Alan showed us a sequence of works depicting the great city of Gondor, explaining how as well as showing the city from the plains he would then make multiple sketches, effectively tools for himself, taking himself through the streets and buildings so he had a full understanding of how it all connected and worked and looked, inside and out. Part of this found him drawing the different levels and streets as Gandalf rides up to the summit of the city; flicking through these sketches quickly was reminiscent of an animatic used by film-makers to plan a sequence, and indeed Alan added that this eventually went on to be used in the film itself. Alan was also kind enough to include a plethora of sketches and other works which he hasn’t published or shared before, save showing to family or friends, including works from notebooks and sketchbooks he carried with him, and a number of landscapes which he liked to capture in a sketch then would often use later for inspiration for book illustrations, noting Tolkien would have approved given the landscape was such a huge inspiration to him and his writing.

The turnout for this event was huge – sadly we ran out of time and didn’t have space to do the usual audience Q&A session, but everyone agreed it was worth sacrificing those moments to let Alan finish his illustrated talk, and the round of applause for this master wizard of the brushes was enormous and heartfelt. The audience did get a chance to ask him questions at the signing session afterwards, and ye gods, what a line! The queue snaked out of the signing tent, down the walkway then doubled back on itself – by the time I had to leave, a full hour and a half after the end of our event, Alan was still signing for a line of people! Rather nicely I noted that he avoided the chair behind the table provided for the signing, and instead chose to stand in front of it to chat to each reader in turn, right next to them, then sign and sketch for them.

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We all know the “Roads go ever ever on, Over rock and under tree”, but here we were, at the end of our journey through Middle Earth, returned to the very beginning, a long journey Alan has also taken with his achingly beautiful art. Although we didn’t get time for a Q&A on stage I did get to chat to him beforehand as we were getting ready, and I asked him if it had been a bit emotional for him, as an artist, to have followed this long journey through Middle Earth, to end up on the final book and going back to the First Age, and yes, of course it had been. A remarkable journey, made all the better for Alan’s artwork keeping us company along the long road.

And now it’s all over for another year, the Book Festival village will be folded away, the Fringe and International Festival have finished, the thronged streets are suddenly passable once more, and the posters for the multitude of events hang slowly fading from walls and railings like ghosts. Always a peculiar feeling just after the festivals finish, a mixture of relief at reclaiming the city and an ennui at the party being over. Until next year, of course…

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist


The children are nervous… When they hear any noise, even if you only knock at the door, they can get very afraid.”

The world is currently experiencing its one of its worst refugee problems since the Second World War, with masses of people being displaced through war, famine, economic poverty and more. You’d hope by this point, in the 21st century, humankind would have learned and moved on from this sort of wretchedness, but no. And apart from the physical and practical problems of countries coping with a mass influx of often desperate refugees, there are those who shamelessly use such an awful situation to whip up xenophobic hatred, turned to their own cynical purposes to garner political and popular support. German creator Kugler does something which is desperately needed, puts a very human, very personal face onto some of those refugees.

We see in the news regular statistics – this many drowned in a ricket boat crossing to Europea, this many in camps, this many asking for asyulm in countries that are worried about the impact of so many so quickly, even in nations who have traditionally been open and inviting. Kugler does not pretend to have answers to these enormous practical and ethical problems, what he does here is give us people, not statistics, not some politician’s ideologically driven rhetoric. People. Men, women, kids, families. People just like us, like our friends, our families, our neighbours, our communities.

The images we see from the news, even by the most well-intentioned journalists, often gives a distorted view. We see people grubbing in the mud of a camp like the infamous Jungle in Calais, or an overflowing city of tents in Kurdistan, and those images can give us the wrong impression, make us judgemental in the same we it is too easy to be when seeing someone begging or sleeping rough on our own city streets. We don’t know the stories behind those images, behind those people, what they have endured, are still enduring. Kugler gives us that, and does his level best to do so without interjecting himself – there is a very clear desire by the author to make sure that as much as possible he presents these people in their own words.

Many of these refugees are well-educated folk from a decent background, college-educated with degrees, a nice family, pretty home (one speaks movingly of missing their little vegetable garden by their home, where they grew oranges and lemons right by the house, home now gone, even the trees that grew for years ripped up by the uncaring war). There are teachers here, lawyers, computer specialists, nurse, doctors, even psychologists like Suzan who helps MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers, the same charitable organisation many of you will remember Guy Delisle’s wife working for in his comics travelogues).

Kugler goes to various locations to talk first hand to people who have had to flee Syria, some because the war came literally to their doorstep (if they were lucky they all escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, if they were unlucky they escaped after shells had killed some of their family in front of them), taking us from Kurdistan to the Greek island of Kos, to the “Jungle” camp in Calais, to Britain and Germany where some of the refugees have been allowed to settle, the most fortunate reunited with other family members already there, he takes us from those struggling in overflowing tented camps where charities and local authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, to those trying to make a new life for themselves in Europe.

It’s often heartbreaking, especially hearing from the children. Not for the first time I was reminded of the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, from the WWII Italian campaign when they came across a village where a child had become a casualty of the fighting; “the adult world should forver hang its head in shame at what is has done to children” commented Spike, and he wasn’t wrong. But while much of this is, as you might imagine, very upsetting, this is balanced with that quality we all need, especially these days: hope. We see the fortunate make new homes for themselves; they miss their old hometown, their country, but they are relieved to be in a place that is safe, where their children can go to school and thrive.

Several times the kids briefly forget the traumas their young eyes have seen and grow excited like any other child, telling Kugler what they want to be when they grow up and leave school (“a nurse!” “an engineer!!”). The fact they can overcome those traumas and think about a future again, to play and dream of being a doctor or an engineer when they are older, is a wonderful thing to see in those children. In an especially touching scene Kugler visits some in Germany – the kids of the family now go to his old school.

Rather than a series of sequential panels, Kugler opts more for (mostly) coloured sketches taking up an entire page, or sometimes running across two pages, with text telling the person’s own story, rather than speech bubbles. Thoughtfully these chunks of text running around the art are numbered to make it easier to follow around the art layout. The sketches themselves tend to focus on characters central in the image, they are depicted with the most detail, the colouring, and most importantly, the expressions, coming through clearly, while around the periphery details and people there are sketchier, not as detailed, perhaps not even coloured in.

It felt as if the artist was using this approach to hint that for every couple of people he talked to, centre on the stage of the page, there were so many others around the edge; he can’t talk to them all but he can infer to the reader that they are there and the too matter. There are small details added in like a little arrow pointing to something small in the background and text explaining “chocoalt bar”, “plastic flowers”. It all serves to normalise these unusual scenes, the bric-a-brac of everyday life scattered around just like it would be anywhere.

There is also a remarkable amount of hospitality and welcome shown here by many refugees. As Kugler explains not everyone wants to be drawn or photographed, understandably given their circumstances (many still have family back in war-torn Syria and fear anything they say could cause trouble for family still there). But many, even those in the regugee camps with so little to their name, still do their best to offer warm hospitality when he visits. One man who had managed to make himself a wee business while stuck in the camps, running a small stall selling coffee, drinks and other snacks sees him standing in the cold and mud waiting on his interpreter to arrive, and offers him hot, sweet coffee, refusing payment. Others, in tents or in homes in Birmingham or Simmozheim, Kugler’s home village in Germany welcome him into their homes, be they tents in a camp or actual homes in the country managed to get asylum in.

Even for those settled in Europe the scars are horribly visible, both physical (one man shows his bullet wounds), others mental (children still scared when they hear a helicopter passing overhead, or the sudden roar of a train going over a bridge as they walk under it. Again I was reminded of Milligan, how his nerves shattered by the war, he would find himself in tears of sudden fear just from the sudden sound of a car exhaust backfiring). God knows what some of them have been through – despite many opening up to Kugler, it’s obvious this is barely scratching the tip of the iceberg. We all know how bad a place we can be in when dealing with emotional upsets – illness, losing a loved one – and how emotionally hard it is to cope, and that is us with our home, rest of our family and friends around us. Imagine having those kinds of traumas and losing your home, the town you lived in destroyed, having to flee your own land and throw yourself out hoping desperately for help.

That’s what Kugler does so well here, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees, and a reminder of that old saying, there but for the grace of God go I. How swiftly could everything we think is normal be destroyed just as it was for these people? Home, work, school, going to a restaurant, the movies, day out with the kids? Suddenly all gone. And how desperate would we be, how much would we rely on our fellow humans to show kindness if it were us in such a situation? No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.

The doctor is in – Greta Helsing returns in Dreadful Company

Dreadful Company,
Vivian Shaw,
Orbit Books

(delectable cover art by Will Staehle)

“An absolute delight.” That was what I said about the first of Vivian Shaw’s Great Helsing novels, Strange Practice, around this time last year (see here for the review). In fact you can see that quote on the back cover of this second book; it really was one of the most enjoyable novels I read in 2017 and made my annual Best of the Year list. So you can imagine that when the second book, Dreadful Company, showed up on my desk you would have seen me shiver with anticip…. ation…. Did the that difficult “second album” live up to the promise of the first book? Nope, in fact it surpassed it; Vivian has taken all of the best elements (characters you really get to know and care about, sly sense of humour, clever references, some social commentary), allied them to an intriguing new story and along the way also nicely expanded the world Greta and her friend inhabit.

Greta is, like almost all GPs, constantly run off her feet, but her medical practice in London takes in an unusual set of patients, ones who otherwise would struggle to obtain healthcare – vampires, ghouls, werewolves, mummies and more, Greta treats any who need it. Unusually Dreadful Company takes her away for a few days, both from her practice and from London, invited to fill in at short notice at a medical conference for those with her unusual selection of patients, Greta is in Paris for a few days. Lord Ruthven returns from the first book (yes, that Lord Ruthven) and he is delighting in escorting Greta, treating her to the finest the City of Light has to offer – sumptuous hotel, elegant evening dress, a night at the opera in the Palais Garnier. Vivian has a delicious line in descriptive prose, and here the overly ornate opera house decor as possessing the “same kind of uninhibited, glittering cheer as a polished drag queen’s performance.”

The use of the opera house offers up the first in a number of references to one of the great classics of horror literature, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, even down to a scene on the grand staircase where Ruthven feels as if another presence is watching them close by (a nice nod to the 1920s film version of Phantom with Lon Chaney Snr, which used some remarkable early colour for the staircase scene and remains an astonishing piece of early cinema). Of course they are indeed being watched, there are local Parisian vampires at the opera – opera being one of those things that just attracts vampires, as is noted wryly in the book. And it isn’t long after Ruthven has to take his leave that Greta finds herself in trouble, snatched by the leader who has an entire coven of vampires in the infamous catacombs near the Père Lachaise cemetery (where else??), and this leader has a grudge against Ruthven, putting Greta in a huge amount of danger.


(the ball sequence in the opera house from the 1920s Phantom of the Opera)

Into this mix come new characters such as the werewolf St Germain (a nod to the famous vampire novel series?), who is effectively the supernatural protector of Paris. In a nice touch St Germain’s origins allude to the real historical mystery Beast of Gévaudan from 1700s France (still a fascinating mystery to this day), and two immortals who are very good at clearing old haunting sites, helping spirits move on, Crepusculous and Brightside, who put me in mind (in the good way) of Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens. The kidnapping plot is just the tip of the iceberg here though, and Vivian weaves an increasingly compelling story with many winding side-branches that twist around much like those ancient Parisian catacombs, before very satisfyingly coming together again, both the narrative and the character arcs being rounded up nicely. And no, I’m not going to say any more on the plot because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you.

There is a real sense of world-building going on here – Vivian is expanding that mix of the real and the supernatural world that Greta lives in, the history, the geography, the characters, and it is all tremendously satisfying – it reminded me of early Jim Butcher Dresden Files novels in that respect, in that each book had a self-contained tale but also built up that world with more details in each book so you became more immersed into them. As well as the expanded sense of Greta’s world and a compelling story, the wicked sense of humour in some of those descriptions there is also a nice line in geek-friendly references from the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera and Beast of Gévaudan to tips of the hat to Armand’s subterranean coven of blood-drinkers in The Vampire Lestat and how many other writers manage to work in an underground jail scene which manages to take in both “Oh whistle and I’ll come, my lad” and The Prisoner? This is the sort of book which will deserve a second read further down the road and I am sure I will spot more references, not just thrown in but nicely woven into the actual story. This is an utterly delicious read.

High tension in Adrift

Adrift,
Rob Boffard,
Orbit Books

(cover design by Charlotte Stroomer)

With a history degree and little chance of going straight from college to a nice museum job, and reluctant to take a post with her oh-so-successful older sister or parents, Hannah has, like many a young undergrad or graduate, decided to travel and take on a low-level job to pay her way, get some work experience and fund that travelling. In her case it isn’t tending a bar in Ibiza though, but becoming a tour guide at Sigma Station, a massive station which serviced trade and mining processing for the outer colonies, but which is now also a luxury hotel and tourist destination, boasting spectacular views of one of the galaxy’s greatest sights, the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s not going well though – she’s not even settled in and gotten used to the place before she is put to work, and like many low-paid jobs she gets tossed right in with hardly any training and, unsurprisingly feels overwhelmed, clumsy and out of her depth. Hardly how any of us want to feel at any time, harder still for a young woman in her first job and her first long distance trip away from home on her own, hardly a confidence booster. One of her first tasks is to be the perky, cheery guide for some of the station’s tourists who are taking a local trip on the Red Panda, a basic small vessel, the space equivalent of the wee converted fishing boat that you get at the seaside, all aboard the Mary Jane, twice around the lighthouse and back in time for fish and chips!

It’s not helped by a surly Russian captain who refers to her only as “Guide” rather than by name, or that the small group of tourists are made up of bored, or grumpy types, and several are the type who seem to like belittling anyone in the poorly paid service post below them (we’ve all seen plenty like that). Oh, and then there’s the sudden, violent destruction of the station and the mass slaughter of the thousands of unarmed civilians within just after the Panda had launched…

(the Horsehead Nebula, some 1500 light years from Earth, infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope)

A ship of unknown origin appears and attacks the station with weapons unlike any they’ve seen before. Who are they? Why have they attacked such a huge civilian outpost without warning? The human worlds have been putting themselves back together after a costly war between the Earth-lead planets and the colonies (as with such wars throughout terrestrial history, the colonial power expands to take in more resources, but when those colonies become successful, strangely enough they start to question why they should be breaking their backs to send most of their hard-earned resources back to the motherland). But the war is over, peace returned, hence the return of tourism to the frontier. And that strange attacking ship didn’t look like anything from the colonies, or Earth, and the tech seems too high… Who are they? Why are they attacking? Are there more of them?

And meantime the small, disparate group of tourists and Hannah have to survive on a tiny ship designed only for short, local sightseeing trips – this is a small pleasure craft, not an interstellar starship, it was never meant to be far from support. Assuming they can avoid meeting the same fate from the mystery ship they’re still in desperate straits, cut off from any support, on a ship with limited supplies and systems, light years from the next base. A mixed group flung together, it isn’t long before the divisions and arguments start, making an awful situation worse. And this is all just in the first few chapters…

This is a tale that stamps on the accelerator right from the start, launching our characters from an everyday situation into a terrifying position in an instant, and then taking that situation Boffard expertly turns the crank on this emotional rack, tightening the ropes, increasing the tension in a desperate fight for survival mixed with conflict and conspiracies. It makes for a read as gripping as a hungry anaconda. It’s a story that has a lot of DNA in common with the likes of Hitchcock’s classic Lifeboat, and like that film it cleverly maximises the almost single-setting to its advantage, building tension laced with claustrophobia and rising panic, anger and division. I hate using a cliche like “page turner”, but oh boy, this is indeed a page turner…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Autonomous

Autonomous,

Annalee Newitz,

Orbit Books


(cover design by Will Staehl)

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Annelee Newitz’s name, being the co-founder of the major SF site IO9 among many other hats she wears. To that hatstand we can now add science fiction novelist with this, her debut from Orbit Books. An oh boy, what a fabulous debut. Robots, love, sex, pirates, copyfighters sticking it to giant mega corporations, shady morality and a future that’s drawn partly from the present and history, making elements of it sadly all too plausible. All of this wrapped up in a very well-paced narrative with flawed characters who work their way into your affections, flaws and all (perhaps more so because of their flaws).

Jack is a highly trained scientist with a lifelong hatred for the big megacorporations, especially big pharmaceuticals. In her younger days she and others pushed for free labs and works being published without copyrights, freely available to anyone to make themselves when needed, or for other scientists to take and twist and alter and enhance. It’s a stance which attracts a lot of other like-minded people and, predictably, the ire of these giant corporations, which use their agents to crush them and make an example of them, seemingly above the law around the world, able to get people imprisoned, or use coercion and violence on those who oppose them, and get away with it while authorities, hungry for the funds that can come with working with those big corporations, look the other way.

It’s a life which instead of cowing Jack has pushed her further into her beliefs – she’s become a pirate, hacking the drugs produced by these megacorps, which make obscene amounts of money and make drugs and therapies which only the well-off can afford. She hacks these, breaks them down and then makes her own versions which are distributed to a black market among various medical staff; it makes her a living (albeit one that gets her hunted) and at the same time people who couldn’t possibly afford those medications are able to get hold of them cheaply.

Except now, as her submarine nears the coast for a new drop, she is hearing news of multiple cases of problems with a drug, one she fears she sold – she checks, her work is good, but the original company’s drug she hacked has a serious flaw (or is it deliberate?), it is highly addictive. Her mission to do good has gone wrong in spectacular, if unintentional, fashion and she is going to need help to fix it. Worse, as this will draw the copyright agents closer to her – not motivated to make sure not only that her pirating is stopped but no news of their dodgy chemistry makes the news – she is going to be running from hiding spot to hiding spot to try and fix it while looking over her shoulder, and knowing she is potentially putting everyone she deals with in danger.

This is an absolute cracker of a debut – it runs along at a fine pace, keeping you glued to it. Where some may give you good heroic characters and their villainous counterparts, Newitz instead gives a much more satisfying mix of flawed characters – many of those on the “sticking it to The Man” side of things are not all entirely clean, and they are, basically criminals (even if some do it for a greater good – at least they think they do), while the agent hunting them, Eliasz, and his robotic companion Paladin, commit morally horrible acts to try and deal with some of those they are hunting, and yet neither is really a villain as such, they think they are doing the right thing, upholding rules and laws, stopping criminals, and there is a strange relationship forming between man and machine which starts as somewhat disturbing but soon becomes actually rather sweet.

It’s a disturbing future drawing on a lot of elements from our current world and our shared history, which makes it all the more terrifyingly plausible. Not only robots are indentured for years (earning their autonomy from those who created them by working off that debt), huge swathes of humanity are similarly indentured, recalling the way more than a few colonists came to the New World back in Colonial-era America, with no resources other than their own labour, selling themselves into an indentured contract, and with the erosion of worker’s rights to suit giant corporations (which have more power than national governments) it’s not hard to imagine a form of that being tried again. The hacking and pirating of chemicals and treatments from giant companies is something we have seen already – think of those Brazilian companies in the 80s and 90s making their own generic versions of big pharma companies’ AIDS drugs, illegal, sure, but on the other hand it made those drugs available to thousands who needed them and couldn’t afford them. That sort of moral ambiguity is laced throughout the book and makes it all the more engrossing. A must-read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog