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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 03
(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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 01

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - A Graphic Novel of Women 03

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - John Dunning Michael Kennedy and Javi Rey 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - John Dunning Michael Kennedy and Javi Rey 02

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - John Dunning Michael Kennedy and Javi Rey 03

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Darryl Cunningham 02

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Frank Quitely 04

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Frank Quitely 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Frank Quitely 06

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Jean-Pierre Filiu 02

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Jean-Pierre Filiu 04

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Jean-Pierre Filiu 06

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Karen Lord and Paul Magrs 02

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alexis Deacon & Joe Todd-Stanton 03

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alexis Deacon & Joe Todd-Stanton 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alexis Deacon & Joe Todd-Stanton 02

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).

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alan Lee 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Alan Lee 04

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.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 02

Book Festival After Dark 03

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

Arm of the Sphinx

Arm of the Sphinx,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books


(cover art by Ian Leino, design by Lauren Panepinto)

Some scholars believe the Sphinx must be a supreme mesmerist to bring so many to ruin. He spellbinds his victms into self destruction. Other students of the Sphinx, however, contend that, rather than hypnosis, he practices the black art of legal contracts.”

In my review of the first of the Books of Babel series, Senlin Ascends (see here), I described Josiah Bancroft’s debut as “An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher.” )in fact you can see that quote on the back cover of the new book!) So you can imagine that I have been eager to read the second book and see if it lived up to the promise of that compelling debut. Well, the short version of this review is yes, it does, and then some.

Thomas Senlin, our errant fish out of water headmaster is still determined to locate his missing wife, but now it seems as if he is further away from that goal, both physically and emotionally. He is now going by the name Tom Mudd, captain of a piratical airship, with his small, motley crew, and as far as actual piracy goes, they tend to be rather gentlemanly, as poor Tom is reluctant to surrender all of his remaining principles, already eroded enough by his misadventures in the first book. But circumstances are becoming increasingly dire – months have passed, our little crew is glad to be free, each from their previous form of entrapment, and they seem to be forming a genuine bond together. But as desperation presses them they find they are going to have to take bigger chances, returning in their stolen airship to the Tower of Babel, this time to levels we’ve not yet encountered, and it goes without saying that if the lower ringdoms of the Tower have a habit of enmeshing unwary visitor, these new levels are even more dangerous, their inhabitants even more devious and with much more opaque motivations.

So far we’ve heard whispers of secretive (or possibly whatever the Tower equivalent to urban legend is) figures, powers behind the scenes (if they exist, many think they are just legend), Luc Marat, the Hod King (the Hods being those unfortunates enslaved and who do much of the work that maintains the Tower life), and the even more mysterious Sphinx. Tom’s first mate on the airship, Edith, confirms reluctantly that the Sphinx is indeed real – her marvelous mechanical arm which replaced her damaged fleshly appendage, is a construction of the Sphinx, powered by the same red fluid batteries Tom has seen before in the vicious Red Hand in an earlier level. It seems the Sphinx has fingers in many pies throughout the levels of the Tower, and makes contracts with some he selects, such as Edith, with certain services required further down the line. But what game are these two shadowy figures playing? They seem to extol certain ideas but clearly also have other agendas, some of which may be contrary to their more openly espoused aims. Which are the real goals, how will Tom and his crew fit into their plans and will they survive them?

This is an immensely satisfying sequel to Senlin Ascends, and the book is full of multiple possible meanings, right from the title itself – the Arm of the Sphinx could literally refer to the mechanical arm he replaced Edith’s missing limb with (leaving her in his debt), or it could refer to his reach, connecting to all the various ringdoms of the Tower. And it comes as no surprise that a being named after the mythical riddler is something of an enigma – we don’t even know if this is the same Sphinx as the legends. If it is then he is far older than any human being could possibly be, or is there something more to the person, or the legend? And if so what, and why? Marat too, sitting in the ruined level of the former Golden Zoo (an eerie location if ever there was one, it has that creepiness of a funfair after it has closed for the night) seems to be more welcoming and genial, more humanitarian in his mission than the Sphinx, but like many who seem to be selfless and committed to a noble cause rather than their own aims, he may well be the opposite of what he appears to be.

This quality of the book extends to our small crew as well – Bancroft takes great pains to show us the many failings and weaknesses of each of the crew, but he balances this out by showing their better characteristics, not least their increasing bond to one another, a growing, genuine affection. They’re becoming a family, and like every family there is bickering, there are mannerisms and habits that drive others mad or to despair, and yet through all of that their fondness and loyalty to one another wins over, and it’s rather endearing. It all combines to give us far more three dimensional characters, flaws and all, and makes them both more believable and more relatable – I’ve become very attached to Tom, Edith, Erin, Voletta and Adam, and that emotional attachment, of course, draws me further into their story.

I praised Bancroft’s use of language in the first book – I was not surprised to learn that he was a poet before he turned to prose, as many of his lines and paragraphs have a beautifully worked, lyrical flow to them; this is a writer who really knows their wordcraft. And again the descriptions are remarkable, rich and evocative – think an SF&F version of Raymond Chandler on the descriptive phrases front, with lines like “the marble statues with robes no thicker than spilled milk”. It’s a wonderfully rich reading experience, the character developments, the twisting narrative twining its way up the Tower like writhing snakes, the labyrinthine, possible Machiavellian motivations of the hidden power plays of Marat and the Sphinx, some deliciously slow reveals about the history of the Tower (even this monumental structure may not be what it seems, continuing the theme of hidden or double meanings).

The middle books of a series often suffer by comparison to the beginning and end volumes, but here there is no such problem, Bancroft’s writing is too skillful. In fact this serves to draw you ever deeper into the mysteries of the Tower, the lives and trials of our main characters and narrative, leaving the reader eager for the third volume, The Hod King. Senlin Ascends made my annual Best of the Year list, and Arm of the Sphinx will doubtless make this year’s list, which is as strong a recommendation as I can make.

You can read an excerpt from Arm of the Sphinx on the Orbit blog here.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

250 Years of Women in Brit Comics – The Inking Woman

The Inking Woman,

Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,

Myriad Editions

Comics and cartooning have often been labelled something of a boy’s club, both in terms of creators and most of the readership, and that’s a criticism that is not without some fairly solid truth behind it; in fact it’s still, even now in 2018, a subject of much debate. We’ve certainly seen change though, quite a lot of change, even just in the last couple of decades, and especially in the realm of Indy comics, small press and zines (the mainstream, while improving, is, as is often the case, lagging further behind). And while the larger visibility of female comickers in the last few decades is very welcome, they didn’t spring out of nowhere, like their male counterparts most of them have been inspired by those who went before them, and that’s one of the things Inking Woman does, and does very well, illuminates a side of British comics history that hasn’t been well served, and by doing so places those creators in a more understandable context, from pioneers like Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era (Marie is the subject of another recent, and much recommended Myriad release) through cartoons in Suffragette publications to the 1960s underground scene, the 70s and 80s rise of women’s liberation, the Rrrriot Girls of the 90s, the contemporary small press and zine scene and many points in between.

In fact that placing of cartoonists and comickers into some historical context is evident right from the beginning, and I am pleased to say not just historical but cultural and societal context (for example, the rowing women’s lib movement of the 70s leading to more cooperatives creating publications, which in turn provides both material and a space for women comickers to show their work, those comic works feeding back into the growing social and commercial groups by women, aimed at women). In her introduction co-editor Nicola Streeten mentions the likes of Jacky Fleming and Ros Aquith’s work that she read in her teens as powering her own ambitions in her comics work later on. I’d like to think that somewhere there is a teenage girl who will read Inking Woman and it will inspire her, to let her know she can create her own comics works too, and perhaps in a decade she’ll be citing Nicola and Cath’s work here as one of the starting points that got her going.

The book takes the form of entries on a multitude of women comickers from the 1770s to the present day, interspersed with chapters explaining some of the history and changing cultural elements throughout that period, such as the rise of the women’s Suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, the rise of feminism in the 70s, the influences of other parts of our ever-changing culture, such as Punk, with its DIY ethos (an influence I think you can still see strongly in the modern small press scene), the expansion of women-lead publishing like Virago or the Women’s Press, Cath Tate with her own publishing, discovering new and existing talents and reproducing their work.

Between those sections on the changing culture and history we have so many entries with brief biographical notes and a quick recap of the work of those women – in a rather nice touch more than a few of those entries contain quotes from the creator in question, talking about their own work or what it was like trying to establish themselves as a female creator, in their own words. Understandably there is much more material from the second half of the twentith century to today, and especially on the creators of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s, there simply being more creators working then. And as the authors note themselves, much of this is still living history, the woman comickers from that explosion in the 70s still with us to share that history, and many of them still actively drawing away. And as you move closer to the present you find many names that will be familiar to you – a lot of those creators have featured here on the blog, on Down the Tubes, on Broken Frontier. You’ve read some of those reviews, you’ve seen some of those creators at conventions like Caption and Thought Bubble, and, increasingly, at literary festivals, and chances are you’ve bought some of their comics from them.

The book doesn’t shy away from discussing how difficult it has been to fight through a very male-dominated industry and society, or from commenting on other elements of diversity, such as much of the earlier work in particular coming from women who, while still having to fight sexism, did start from a much more privileged area of society (a criticism often aimed at the 70s and 80s feminist movement, for example, that it came predominantly from a well-educated, white, middle-class perspective that didn’t take in the experiences of working class women, or of women of colour, or LGBT people – but these things are always, hopefully, evolving and learning to be more inclusive and diverse).

But overall this is a very positive, in fact I would say optimistic book, especially as it moves closer to the contemporary era – the number of creators increases, they are more and more coming from different backgrounds, tackling all sorts of subjects from social issues to bringing Shakespeare to a modern audience , from using comics to openly and honestly explore their experiences, from encountering racism to dealing with illness or the loss of a loved one to out and out humour and satire. As the book moves into those later sections it felt as if it was, a bit like the comics community itself, gathering pace, growing in confidence and numbers and mutual support, in fact it felt rather joyful, and it isn’t hard to feel that enthusiasm and delight and want to share in it.

This is a wonderfully warm look at an important part of British comics history, it is also a history of the challenges of gender, class and more and how they can be overcome, of how the medium is part of that society and that societal change as well as reflecting it, or sometimes even leading the vanguard demanding that change, placing those changes and the changes still to come into a larger context of pioneers and inspirational creators in turn inspiring new generations to realise they are free to create, to say something. The discussion of the rise of small-press friendly cons and other events, co-operatives like Team Girl Comics or the Strumpet/Whores of Mensa also sends a positive message, something I must admit I love about our comics community, the amount of mutual support and encouragement.

Flipping through the various individual entries on creators will likely bring cries of recognition at some of the names while also, hopefully, bringing creators who are new to the reader’s attention. I think many readers will come away from this not just with a more informed perspective on the history of Brit comics, but with a list of creators whose work they really want to read. And to return to what I said earlier, who knows, perhaps some young girl will be reading this and it will be the spark to her creative outlets and in ten years perhaps we’ll be reviewing one of her comics. I really like that idea.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Bizarre Romance

Bizarre Romance,

Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell,

Jonathan Cape

Now Blanche lies on the bed and waits to become a page in the book…”

I would happily read any book from Audrey Niffenegger or Eddie Campbell, so you can imagine my delight when a book collaboration by both of them turned up in the Blogcave, a collection of short stories on themes of relationships and love, some prose with illustrations, other short comic strips. As with any collection there are always stories that you like more than others, such is the nature of individual taste, but I can honestly say that while I did have my favourites, there really isn’t a tale here that I didn’t enjoy. In fact even the introduction is enjoyable here, as the pair relate a little of not just this their artistic partnership, but their real-life romantic one, once a tentative, very long-distance relationship, then full-blown romance and marriage: “now we are living happily ever after.”

That fairy tale phrase in the introduction is perhaps setting a bit of a tone – quite a few of the stories here have the scent of the fairy tale around them. Some fairly obviously are modern tales riffing on older fairy stories, such as RoseRedSnowRidingBeautyShoesHoodSleepingWhite, which starts with a sister and brother trying on last minute ideas for Halloween costumes in a store, a single splash page of the pair in front of the dressing room mirrors, costumes hanging from the racks, full of colour and hints of a chance to be someone else, at least for a while (it’s also, to those of us of a certain age, reminiscent of the start of Mr Benn’s adventures in the old kid’s animated series. And just like Mr Benn Roselyn is whisked away on a magical adventure, via the age-old portal of the mirror (reflecting surfaces long a gateway to the Otherworld). Faeries appear in other stories, with their own sneaky agendas, as the Fair Folk usually have.

Felines feature several times – Secret Life, With Cats is a short prose tale with illustrations, this one less about grand romantic love and more the warm companionships we can form, with other people and with our furry friends (and they with us, in their own manner, of course), while Digging Up the Cat is a short comic strip meditating on family, on home, on moving, on growing up, on parents getting older and of the furry members of our family, while another tale ponders the parental-child bond and the elements that changes as both grow older (and the elements that never change, no matter what our respective ages, if we are lucky).

Motion Studies plays with the still-fascinating early photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge which showed, as if by magic, the range of human and animal motions caught frame by frame (long, long before the Matrix’s clever “bullet time” method of multiple cameras), and allows Eddie to frame the strip like Muybridge’s famous photographic studies. The model, Blanche, normally poses for the life classes in the art school, the students trying to translate her likeness through mind, hand and brush, “to transform her into art”, but here Muybridge seeks to capture her exact image in slivers of frozen time, turning, rising, bending. Brand-new science which appears as magic, and yet both her appearances as artist’s model and as photographic subject are re-rendered here as comics artwork now, another transformation (are any of them really true representations of her or does each capture just a facet?). I found this one particularly fascinating, visually, the peculiar Muybridge with his still-compelling imagery and new way of looking at people, animals, the world, science and art and magic.

There are thirteen tales, all told, and I’m not going to go into the rest here because one of the joys of short tales is that you briefly immerse yourself into another world, or see through other eyes, but their very brevity means it is far, far too easy to spoil an important element in a review, and I really don’t want to do that. The stories rotate around love and loss and grief and joy, but there is a quite delightful playfulness running through them all, a deft lightness of touch, such that even the stories that have sadness in them are never maudlin or overly sentimental but leave you with a warm feeling. Bizarre Romance is an utter delight, an artistic collaboration between two writers and artists, not just of great storytelling skill, but who are, quite clearly from that lovely, warm, light tone, sharing a very good space together, and that warmth permeates the stories quite beautifully.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: the eternal tangle – Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,

SelfMadeHero

I have been waiting for this third volume in the Best of Enemies series for a while – back in the summer of 2015 author Jean-Pierre Filiu (a former French diplomat and now history lecturer) was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on a double bill with Martin Rowson and chaired by Teddy Jamieson. At that point the second volume had only just come out, and the audience were treated to a fascinating discussion by an author who didn’t just have deep academic, historical and cultural knowledge of the issues, but a lot of first hand experience from his years working in an NGO and as a diplomat.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Jean-Pierre Filiu & Martin Rowson 02
(Jean-Pierre Filiu signing previous volumes of Best of Enemies after his event with Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, photo from my Flickr)

Ally this with some quite remarkable cartooning art by the great David B and you had two totally fascinating volumes of recent and modern history that has shaped – and continues to shape – our planet’s geo-politics. Jean-Pierre explained that the amount of work involved in researching and then illustrating the books had taken quiet a toll on David B, hence a bit of a gap between those two and this third volume, which covers US and Middle Eastern relations from 1984 -2013. And that right away makes an already absorbing read even more compelling, because we’re moving from history, both older (18th century and the earliest foreign policies of a young USA) and recent (mid twentieth century) to events most of those reading will have lived through, have watched on the news, often with varying degrees of anger and despair.

And this third volume also takes a quality all of the best histories have, the ability to show that history in today: why our world is now as it is, because history is never just the past, dates, facts, events, it’s a rich tapestry, perhaps the most elaborate tapestry humans have created, so many inter-connecting threads all forming the today. The previous two volumes had this too, but with volume three covering such recent periods it really, really brings that aspect of history home to you, and that’s a damned good thing. In fact that’s one of the reasons many of us like to read history – we know the here and now is an expression of so many elements and events that preceded it, and we cannot hope to have any understanding of the now without that grasp of the earlier woven segments of that vast and never-ending tapestry.


And even though the book comes to an end at 2013, it leaves things open, because that history is still rolling on, as we know all too well just from our news bulletins – this volume takes in events we’re still reeling from in horror right now, such as the vile slaughter in Syria. It is all but heartbreaking as Filiu and David B show how policies and events from decades before in different capital cities created the scenario whereby Syria could fall into the seemingly endless civil war that has horrified us all and which the world seems powerless to stop. We see American and European activities with Israel, Iran and Iraq and how they pulled in Egypt and Syria, adding dominoes to the line that would later fall with such horrendous consequences.

We see Reagan, Bush (Snr) and Gorbachev, the USA and USSR both involved in talks in the Middle East, only for fledgling peace processes to falter and stall. We see that USSR collapse a little after those attempts to broker talks, then some years later the revived Russia under Putin intervening forcefully in those same regions. Of the globalisation of the “war on terror”, going from a supposedly noble aim (if you believe the propaganda about who we were supposed to blame, sometimes, but not always clear or true) to an easy excuse for any power to use for overt, powerful, often illegal actions.

Extra-judicial killings and torture? This justifies it. Breaking the terms of a peace process? We have to, because we are fighting the same terrorists as you, so you have to support us. As Israeli PM Sharon says by way of an excuse “Everyone has his own Bin Laden”, to justify breaking the terms of peace talks and use of military force. Putin uses similar excuses in Chechnya, leaders even in supposedly democratic countries use it to justify civilian deaths in military adventures, torture and the erosion of civil rights. Yes, this will leave you not just upset, but angry, bloody angry, and you should be. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight here, always useful, those who made the decisions that started these various dominoes did not, but they also failed to make much of an attempt to look forward at the potential repercussions of their actions and policies, sacrificing the tomorrows to the expediencies of today, as politicians all too often do.

David B’s artwork is, once more, absolutely superb – this is the work of a comics master at the height of his powers. He summons both humour and horror, satire and sorrow – invading armies during the Gulf Wars are shown as giant soldier’s helmets on legs with giant cannon barrels projecting from them, he again uses differing sizes to denote the relative power of different players (so the US presidents and generals are shown as huge frequently compared to other leaders, despots like Saddam are small compared to US presidents in the art but huge compared to some of his own enemies like the Kurds). There’s humour to be had – a bellicose Saddam Hussein yelling threats takes the form of a giant thunderstorm of a speech bubble, like an adult version of the “swearing” in an Asterix album, or Clinton depicted with Pinocchio nose a he lies about Monica Lewinsky, but distracts everyone with a missile strike against terrorists, only for one of the missiles raining down to turn out to be his Pinocchio liar’s nose.

And of course the artwork conjures disturbing, even horrific imagery. A panel depicting an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Lebanon where, as usual, there were no clear winners but very clear losers – the civilian population (as in so many wars). The panel only shows a little, the bare feet sticking out from under the blankets covering the bodies, but it is more than enough, and it is echoed by later pages on the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. Another panel depicts uniformed skeletons, all that is left of large numbers of Iraqi soldiers after the mass bombing on the “highway of death”, or the gunning down of protesters and crushing of suddenly raised hopes during the Arab Spring, yet another a starving child in Syria, hungry mouth open but the only thing falling into it is barrel bombs, all depicted in clear, powerful black and white artwork.

These histories take in cultural movements, political posturing, chicanery, greed, opportunism, nationalism, religious zealotry (Christian as well as Muslim), but also attempts at peace, noble aims of freedom and equality. In short these pages take in much of the worst and best of human nature, and they do so in a way that doesn’t point one accusing finger, for there is no one guilty party here. What this book and the preceding two volumes make eminently clear is how interconnected it all is, the actions and reactions and counter-actions from many different leaders in different years in different countries, all contributing to lead us to this point where we have madmen murdering innocents with airplanes into towers and others dropping bombs on civilians, and all of them in the name of some imagined higher purpose.

These are immensely complex woven threads in the grand tapestry of history, but Filiu’s expertise and deft analysis coupled with David B’s remarkable comics art makes it far more accessible and understandable than many prose works could. And we need to understand these things, we need to be aware of them to try and have some grasp of what is happening and why, and so what could be done to steer towards a more peaceful course eventually. Sadly I doubt many of the world leaders who could really do with learning from these books will ever read them, but that should not stop us from doing so – this is essential reading, and a fine example of the power of the comics medium to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable to readers. I highly recommend this and the preceding volumes.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog