Books: Best of the Year for 2023

It’s that time again when I cast my eye back over some of my favourite reads of the year just gone, from science fiction to espionage history to biography to children’s picture books, and of course my beloved graphic novels (I don’t read quite as many as I did when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, but my comics DNA remains!). As usual, I am sure I will realise I’ve forgotten someone after I have posted this, but that’s usually the way!

And if you fancy trying any of these, please do consider buying from your local, Indy bookshop if you can, rather than the chains or the Giant Website That Shall Not Be Named (if you don’t have a local independent bookshop in your area, but would still like to support one, you can buy online via Bookshop.org)

Fiction

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor / PanMacmillan

The third and final part of Adrian’s gripping Final Architecture series, dealing with a future where the human diaspora is spread across the galaxy after the destruction of the Earth by the Architects, a mysterious, unknowable, unspeakably powerful race appears from hyperspace and “reshapes” planets, as if making celestial sculptures. Along with other races the survivors on other colonies live in constant fear of their return, and desperate measures are taken, exploring the very fabric of the reality of the universe. Again we see this from the eyes not of great heroes, but our mismatched crew of an old salvage vessel, caught up in politics, crime and galactic destruction.

Despite the size of the book, this is a fairly quick read, as it is so damned gripping and rides along at a terrific pace. Said it before and I will say it again, Adrian is one of the UK’s SF writers to add to your shelves, if you haven’t already, I recommend him regularly in our bookshop.

Starter Villain, John Scalzi, Tor / PanMacmillan

This was an utter delight to read – Scalzi is in his “let’s have fun” mode here. Charlie has had a run of bad luck – he’s relying on a temp job after losing his other work while looking after his ailing father, his marriage broke up, he is back living in the old family home with nowhere else to go, and his siblings want to sell it now their father has passed on. It’s just him and his cats against the world. Then he learns his estranged uncle has passed on, a billionaire and corporate titan, who fell out with his father after his mother’s death, and has never been in touch since.

Now Charlie has inherited his uncle’s business and must arrange the funeral, at which a succession of odd character appear, including some who take to attacking the corpse to ensure he is really dead. It turns out his uncle’s business as just one side of his life, the other was, well, supervillain, complete with a volcano lair on an island (waters patrolled by smart dolphins who want to form a union to get better working conditions). Oh, and his cats are genetically engineered spy cats his uncle slipped into his life to keep an eye on him. And his uncle’s many rivals now scent opportunity as Charlie has to learn the business. Along the way Scalzi manages potshots at the “tech bro” mentality and the idiocy of many of the super-rich (who all assume they must be incredibly clever if they are so rich, of course). This left me smiling.

Dragonfall, L.R. Lam, Hodderscape

I’ve known L for a while as one of our Edinburgh writers, so I was looking forward to this (she had me at the promise of “sexy dragons”!), and as a bonus we had a triple-header of women writers for an evening event at our bookshop, with L, Hannah Kaner and Anya Bergman (see next choices), which I had the pleasure of chairing (great event). This is the start if a new “romantasy” (romantic fantasy, a growing subgenre), which does something interesting and different with one of the most fabulous of mythological creatures, the dragon, and also gives us a compellingly-crafted bit of world-building, including a society with a different take on gender norms.

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner, HarperVoyager

Hannah was also one of our guests at out evening of women fantasy writers event, and I absolutely loved her debut. We have a realm where the royal family outlawed the many gods that existed, which were destabilising society, with gods of all sorts, from the mighty, like fire gods or ocean gods, to tiny, like a god of lost sandals, each with their icon and altars for worship (which fuels their existence), and while many toe the king’s law in public, in private many wish again for their gods. As conspiracies grow across a troubled land, in the best tradition we have a misfit bunch shoved together on a journey.

Hannah brings the characters to rich life, especially on the emotional front – you will really come to care for them. Despite often harsh, brutal elements, there’s also a warm strand of humour woven into it. I’ve just been reading an advance copy of the second volume, Sunbringer, which will be published in February 2024.

The Witches of Vardo, Anya Bergman, Bonnier

We had Anya as part of our trio of women fantasy writers, although this is more historical fiction with a wee smattering of (possible) magic. Drawn from surviving Norwegian court records of witch trials centuries ago, the main characters here are all real people named in those documents, and it will often make your blood boil to read it and realise that, although this is fictionalised, there were women with those names who were treated this disgraceful way by a patriarchal power-base terrified of the idea of women getting ideas above their station.

There’s just enough in there that you could explain some of the more unusual moments away, but equally you could also decide there is indeed some magic involved, the writer leave it to the reader. There have been some great “witchlit” novels in the last year or two, but this one stands out, not least for the historical trial records which underpin it.

The Boys in the Valley, Philip Fracassi, Orbit

I enjoy a good, creepy horror, preferably something that takes the time to build atmosphere, and Philip does that superbly well here – set in a harsh, rural, winter in the US, I was sent this in the middle of the summer, but I still felt those cold winds! The sheriff and his posse seek help at a Catholic orphanage during a snow storm, dragging a hideously injured man they shot earlier, a man covered in arcane tattoos cut into his flesh, a man who should be dead.

He and others had been carrying out some sort of dark ritual, including sacrifices, when the sheriff took them. When the strange man finally dies of his wounds, it is as if the evil in him seeps out into the orphanage and everyone there, like an infection, changing behaviours, unleashing darkness. Delightfully creepy, in the Exorcist vein.

A Haunting on the Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Sphere / LittleBrown

Hand, an acclaimed writer, is, appropriately, a multiple winner of the Shirley Jackson Award; here she is revisiting Jackson’s classic masterpiece, the Haunting of Hill House. Cleverly she side-steps the obvious sequel, instead this is a theatre group hiring the house in the modern era, only to find strange noises and sights and thoughts. Like the original it eschews cheap jump-scare tactics or gore, instead this is psychological terror and atmosphere. I love the original and I have to say I really enjoyed this – ideal for those looking for a creepy, haunting tale on the long, dark nights.

Red River Seven, Anthony Ryan, Orbit

I knew nothing about this book in advance, when the publisher sent me a copy to look at, and within the first few pages Anthony had me hooked right in. A man wakes up on a boat, with no personal memories. He still has knowledge and skills he learned, but nothing about himself – his name, if he had a family, anything of that nature. Others wake up on the ship, save one who appears to have shot himself just before they woke. Each appears to have different skills, as if someone had assembled them as a team, but again no personal memories.

Each bears marks of recent surgery on their skull and torso, and a tattoo with a name (each is given the name of a writer). The boat’s controls are sealed, it is on an automatic course to … somewhere. A radio comes to life, and an artificial voice gives them strict instructions to follow, and will not answer their questions. I won’t say much more because of spoilers, but this has elements of Cube, John Carpenter and even Jeff VanderMeer in its DNA; I found it totally gripping. (full review here)

Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey, Orbit

I’ve been reading Mike’s work since his comics writing days, and here he is doing something new for him – his first foray into Space Opera, with a big, widescreen, multiverse of a setting. In a world very like ours, near future, wars and exhausted natural resources and pollution and environmental collapse, a scientist in Africa has created a portal to parallel Earths – potentially the way to save the world, giving access to near limitless resources.

But there is already a vast confederation out there, of cultures spread across the multiverse, and they really don’t care for anyone else poking their nose into portal technology… Along the way Mike layers in some nice references to racism, bigotry, imperialism and environmental issues across these different but parallel worlds.

Mr Breakfast, Jonathan Carroll, Melville House

I’ve loved Carroll’s works for decades; highly respected by those in the know, and among many other writers, it is a mystery to me why he’s not more widely known. He has a remarkable talent for creating stories that come at you in interesting, different angles than most. Here he has Graham Patterson, a failing stand-up comedian, whose life is falling apart. After one final, poor show, he decides to quit, buy a stupidly large truck, and drive slowly across the US to his family on the opposite coast where he will take up a more mundane job, giving up his dream. On his way he stops overnight in a small town, and is taken with the art on display in the window of a tattoo parlour, prompting him to choose one of their designs.

What he doesn’t know is that this tattoo is special, it gives the wearer a glimpse into alternative versions of their own life, then choose one (or remain in their current life). It doesn’t offer an easy way out – for instance, you may see a version of you that is successful, happy, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be that way, because, well, life. Along the way he starts taking photographs, and these start to weave themselves into the multiple versions of his lives as he attempts to decide who he wants to be.

More Perfect, Temi Oh, Simon & Schuster

Temi gives us a near future in a world very much like ours, but more so, where almost everyone is linked to the Panopticon, a neural net that links not just computers, as we have today with the web, but minds, sharing ideas, even dreams – never be alone! Not everyone loves this idea, and of course it is also wide open to huge abuses, but just as it is seen as odd not to have web access in today’s society, this anti-Panopticon group is viewed as eccentric at best, as a threat to society at worst, and we will experience this world through the eyes of a young woman finally connecting (as was her desire for years) and a young man who has been isolated from it all his life by his dissident father. Shades of the Matrix, Inception and Bill Gibson are woven in with a fresh perspective from Oh (and with a rich seam of diversity too) – she’s a writer to watch, I think.

Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop, PanMacmillan

I’ve known David for years through our comics connections (he is a former Tharg, the editor of the legendary 2000 AD comic), and he is also a regular in our bookshop, so when he had the first of his new historical crime novels set in Renaissance era Florence, I had to have a look, and I was hooked. This is the third in the series, and sees our main detective-like character, Aldo, sent out into the surrounding countryside to patrol, sent away from the city, just as a series of gruesome murders of influential Florentines starts, all seemingly linked to an insane religious zealot of a monk who had wreaked havoc a few decades previously, before being put to death.

It’s compelling, with some truly gruesome ends, and David kept me guessing right up to the last few pages as to which way he was going to take it – reading so much I often sense where a story arc is going, but not here, and that was refreshing and welcome. Looking forward to book four this summer.

Viper’s Dream, Jake Lamarr, No Exit Press

When an advance copy of this arrived, I had to have a look – billed as a “jazz noir”, one of my colleague rightly commented, this one must be for you. We follow Viper’s life through a changing Harlem, from the 1930s to the 60s, and the changing scenes around him. Leaving his rural life behind he thinks he will become a great jazz musician, but it turns out he’s terrible, so instead, after a stint working in a jazz club, he becomes a heavy for the owner’s sideline in drugs supplied to the musical fraternity, rising in the ranks, befriending many famous names (people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear as background characters).

It’s a short but atmospheric tale, watching the world and the music scene change around him as the decades roll past, while a personal history recurs again to prompt his own story arc through this. You don’t need to know jazz to enjoy this book, it is a solid, period Noir tale, but if you do like jazz, it’s a bonus. (full review here)

The Second Murderer, Denise Mina, Harvill Secker

“The Montgomery’s money was so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”

One of Tartan Noir’s great crime writing queens, Denise Mina, turns to Raymond Chandler, with a brand-new tale of his iconic Philip Marlowe, one of the most legendary gumshoes of all time. I really wasn’t too sure about this at first – normally I am not mad on a writer doing a deceased writer’s characters, but I know Denise wouldn’t try this unless she thought she could do it both well and with respect for the original material, and indeed she does.

I adore the Chandler novels, and yes, I loved this too – it felt exactly like having that character and world again, but maintaining Chandler’s feel while never slavishly copying, bringing something of her own style to it too. One for fellow lovers of Chandler and classic Gumshoe Noirs.

Graphic Novels

The Hard Switch, Owen D Pomery, Avery Hill

Owen’s previous graphic novel, Victory Point (also Avery Hill), was one of my books of that year, so when Avery Hill had their annual Kickstarter for upcoming new releases, this is one I jumped at backing. Very different from his previous book, this is science fiction, set on a run down, working spaceship scavenging wrecks in a universe where the material that allows faster than light travel is running out – when it is totally gone, people will be effectively stuck on the planet and its solar system they are on, so everyone is scrambling to get what they can then settle somewhere before it happens, while law and order is eroding. This has a real Firefly vibe to it, and again the artwork is a beautiful, clear line style.

Why Don’t You Love Me?, Paul B Rainey, Drawn & Quarterly

 

Back when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, Paul’s serial Why Don’t You Love Me? Was one we shouted out many times. Fast forward several years and D&Q produced this lovely, big hardback collection of Paul’s fascinating series, a brilliant comic strip that has you thinking it is one thing, then another, then another, slowly revealing layers upon layers – it’s original, unusual and really draws you further and further into it to see where it is really going. It has, rightly, been appearing on best of the year lists all over the UK and US, and I’m delighted that this veteran of the UK Small Press comics scene is getting such wider recognition for his unique style of comics.

Transitions: a Mother’s Journey, Élodie Durand, translated by Evan McGorray, Top Shelf

“I thought I was open-minded… The news of my child’s gender change hit me like a tidal wave, sweeping away all my certainties. Sweeping away the comfort of my tidy little life.”

The ongoing discussions, debates – and sadly sometimes screaming matches – over the issues of Trans identity in our media can sometimes obscure the fact that, when you look past ideologies, social expectations and norms (and often prejudices which many of us probably never even realised we had), much of it boils down to something very, very simple, something that in one form or another we all do: a person trying to figure out who they are, how to live, how to be comfortable in that skin. Durand takes a mother suddenly finding out her girl actually has found herself identifying as a male for some time, now becoming a Trans man.

There is the initial shock and surprise, the mother wondering how this happened, did she do something wrong somehow? But then through a mixture of musings and performing her own research, she does what any good parent does – she tries to understand so she can support her child. A compelling mixture of informative and compassionate.

Alison, Lizzy Stewart, Serpent’s Tail

In lesser hands, this story of a now-famous artist recounting how as a young, naïve woman she met a famous, much older artist and fell into his orbit would be one where it was mostly concerned with the older, more sophisticated, experienced man taking advantage of a younger, less worldly woman, but Alison is far more nuanced. Although it doesn’t shy away from looking at that aspect of the relationship, it also explores a genuine relationship and romance, despite the age and social difference, and the way she is slowly encouraged to learn more about art, then develop her own, part of the path that lead to her later becoming an acclaimed artist in her own right.

It’s a fascinating tale, also an interesting take on that subject of the older artist and younger muse/lover, and one which I am glad to say does not relegate her to just being that, but explores her as an actual person and artist.

Big Ugly, Ellice Weaver, Avery Hill

When we’re younger, especially in our teens, we often think we’re clueless, that everyone else seems to know what they want to do with life, how to act in most situations, unlike us, but hey, when we are older, we’ll have it all figured out. Then, of course, we find out differently, and we realise actually although part of us still thinks others have a handle on life, unlike us, really they’re mostly thinking the same as us. Ellice creates a story of two siblings, sharing a home as adults after one goes through a rough time, that family dynamic of both feeling and wanting to be needed and help while sometimes resenting being needed, of casting back to youthful incidents that somehow you’re convinced are part of what marked your present, adult self, if only this had been different, if someone had done that instead of this your life today would be so much better…

It’s very recognisable stuff to many of us, while Ellice’s unusual art style reminds me (pleasantly) of stills from a cool animated film, with a nice mix of intimate panels and the odd double-page splash, drawing you in.

Non-Fiction

For The Love of Mars, Matthew Shindell, University of Chicago Press

The Red Planet has fascinated humanity for millennia, from deciding it was a sign from the God of War in antiquity, to early science fiction convinced life existed there, to our modern era where we have been mapping and exploring our near-neighbour. While this is a good popular science read, it is also much more – Shindell covers our scientific explorations and knowledge gained of Mars, but he also takes pains to put the planet into a cultural context, what it has represented to humans in our culture as well as our science, which makes this more human and approachable, and all the more interesting.

Making It So, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gallery / Simon & Schuster

I don’t read a lot of biographies, but, well, this is Patrick Stewart… Obviously there is the very important Star Trek element to this, but the other decades of his life are also compelling reading, from a childhood in a small town in rural Yorkshire, on the edge of poverty (outdoor toilet, hiding with his mum when the rent man came to call) through to being bitten by the acting bug, slowly realising that yes, actually working class lads from Yorkshire can go to drama school, not just the posh folks, the Old Vic, landing his dream job at the RSC, starting to get film work and more.

There’s a strong sense of humour running through it all, and he’s not shy of turning that humour on himself at some points (a couple of times it put me slightly in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs). Through all of it shines a love of storytelling, especially with Shakespeare, and the sense of a man who realises how fortunate he has been and is enjoying that life. (full review here)

Wise Gals, Nathalia Holt, Icon Books

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, and often hidden, subject – espionage. The women here all served in the early incarnations of the US Intelligence services, during the scramble to create such departments as WWII raged (some served as spies and resistance leaders behind the enemy lines, risking torture and death), and then helped to set up the new CIA after the war. That in itself would be compelling reading, the tugs and pulls of war, politics and ethics all clashing, and the women themselves ranging from rural, small-town gals to sophisticated society ladies who spoke multiple languages.

What they had in common was a determination to do a good job for their country, and the bravery to see it through – although this also brings them smack into the incredible sexism of the era – they don’t get the pay or promotions or respect male counterparts do, despite often being as good or better at what they do, so they use their intelligence gathering training to construct data on why women are so important to the CIA to campaign for their rights. This is history, politics, culture and feminism all in one, absorbing read.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens, Atria Books

I’ve loved Buster Keaton’s astonishing silent comedy films since I was a child, watching them with my dad (we both still enjoy watching them!), so this was always going to grab my attention. But Stevens hasn’t created just a simple biography, although this does take us through Buster’s life, from childhood on the vaudeville stage, to the new medium of cinema, to his old age, dispelling myths along the way (such as him effectively disappearing into a bottle when his principal movie stardom faded, despite the fact he was very active in a number of fields for decades after this era).

What she has done is take his life and career, but also use it as a way to look at how entertainment, culture and society all changed across Buster’s lifetime, from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, how the newly evolving technology of film affected popular culture, how people like Buster innovated in that embryonic medium, through to the rise of the corporate studio systems, and to the emergence in the 50s and 60s of TV, which revived interest in these almost-lost silent classics. It’s as fascinating for those insights as it is for reading about the life of one of the first, great movie stars. (review here)

Children’s & YA Books

Bumble and Snug: the Shy Ghost, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

I absolutely loved Mark’s Bumble and Snug series, and have been recommending it constantly in our wee bookshop, and am delighted to say quite a few of our younger readers have been just as delighted with them! In this third volume our bestest friend Bugpops are preparing for a magic show, when they befriend a ghost – but, as the title suggest, the ghost has a crippling shyness, and the thought of trying to do something in front of people is very scary, so of course they try to help them.

As with the previous books, there’s a lovely wee adventure here, a lot of humour, but also again an underlying theme of friendship and trying to be kind to others, to understand feelings, that we have them and so do others around us – it’s a good message for young readers to learn, but mostly as with the first two books, the main thing I took from this is just pure joy.

100 Tales From the Tokyo Ghost Cafe, Julian Sedgwick and Che Kutsuwada, Guppy Books

I had the pleasure of working with Julian and Chie at their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, following their previous collaboration, Tsunami Girl, which likes this is an intriguing mixture of both prose and manga. As with Tsunami Girl, the two forms overlap, compliment and indeed enhance the other, the manga performing some storytelling tricks that prose cannot, and vice versa, giving a very rounded view into the characters and the world(s) they explore.

Drawing on famous Yokai tales of Japanese spirits, folklore and myths, our main characters – avatars of the authors – are travelling through Japan to research these tales, each leg of the journey opening up other tales, but with a connecting narrative thread running throughout. There are even some rather lovely nods to characters from Tsunami Girl (you don’t have to read that to get this, but it will add to your experience if you have), in a book which presents rich, Japanese folklore in a very accessible manner, but also in one which is often deeply emotional and personal too.

Mexikid, Pedro Martín, Guppy Books

After chatting to some lovely folks from Guppy Books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, they very kindly sent me a copy of their edition of Pedro’s autobiographical graphic novel, Mexikid, and I am so glad they did! We’re back in the 1970s, with his large family (eight kids!) in a busy, busy household, and about to become more crowded as they are packing up for a road trip south of the border, back to Mexico – their abuelito, grandfather, something of a legend in the family, is going to be coming back with them to the US.

What follows is part family history, but also a gentle exploration of both Mexican and American lifestyles and cultures, and events which shape families and individuals, all delivered in a wonderfully warm, engaging and often very funny way, with much of the humour coming from a child’s point of view, and the tangled nature of family dynamics (something anyone from any culture can identify with!).

Sam Francisco, King of the Disco, Sarah Tagholm, Binny, Rocket Bird Books / Barrington Stoke

Oh but this picture book had me smiling and laughing – we finally find out what cats do when they are out all night long, and it turns out it is partying as DJ Sam Franciso spins the most awesome tunes around! Of course this does keep some others awake, including the street’s grump, Buzzkill Bill, who unleashes his dogs on the cat rave. Except the dogs join the party, as does everyone else!

Whose Dog Is This?, Andrew Sanders and Aysha Awwad, Macmillan Children’s Books

I loved Andrew and Aysha’s previous picture book, Where Has All the Cake Gone?, and this features the same father and young son, and a similarly tall tale as the boy seems to be inventing ever-more elaborate excuses to explain his naughty behaviour, which becomes ever more imaginative and convoluted (including stealing top secrets and the intervention of a brilliant spy dog, no less! It builds to a crescendo that, like the previous book, leaves you wondering if it was really all made up as an excuse, or if there was just a bit of truth to it, leaving you with a huge smile. I’ve read both this and the previous books at our regular Under Fives Storytime, and they went down well.

Rose Wolves, Natalie Warner, Top Shelf

This is a deceptively simple, beautiful tale, told entirely without words, the art carrying all of the story here. A young girl finds an unusual flower in the forest, a flower which blooms magically into an unusual creature, the Rose Wolf. The animal is missing a leg, just as the wee girl is missing an arm, and the two quickly bond, leading to an adventure to find out where they belong in the world around them. Reminding me a little of Slade’s Korgi series (also a wordless, all-ages comic), this is an enchanting, gorgeous, warm delight for both younger readers (the wordless nature makes it especially suitable for any with reading problems) and adults.

Ning and the Night Spirits, Adriena Fong, Flying Eye Books

Ning has trouble making friends with the other children in his village, and also wonders why the villagers always light lanterns to scare away night spirits. It isn’t long before he goes exploring and find he can make friends, starting with the night spirits in the forest. This is an utterly beautiful work, part picture book, part graphic novel in style, with the usual high standards from Flying Eye. Colourful, enchanting and gorgeous, this is ideal for those who adore Studio Ghibli.

Monster Support Group, Laura Suarez, Flying Eye Books

Channel some of your inner Addams Family with this gorgeously ghoulish tale of young Lowell – 12 years old and worrying about body changes. No, not just the usual ones, Lowell is turning into a werewolf!! He finds the local Monster Support Group where they “don’t judge witches by their warts, nor ghouls by their groans.” It’s a lovely little comedy-horror about growing up, changing, learning to be comfortable with yourself and finding the people who will accept you as you are, all with that Addams Family / Tim Burton twist to it. Made me chuckle!

“Pure joy” – Bumble & Snug return in The Excited Unicorn

Bumble & Snug and the Excited Unicorn,
Mark Bradley,
Hodder Children’s Book

The titular unicorn isn’t the only one who is very excited here – I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return to Bugpopolis (population 8,956, 012 with 6,282 hat shops, and 1 punctured blimp), ever since reading the first of Mark Bradley’s utterly delightful graphic novels for younger readers (see the review posted here last summer),our resident children’s book wizard has been desperate to nab the early copy I was kindly sent, and more than a few of our regular younger readers in our little Indy bookshop are waiting for it to appear. So, y’know, no pressure on Mark there at all!!

In the first volume we learned that there were a number of interesting areas surrounding Bumble and Snug’s home city of Bugpolois, including the Sleeping Giant Mountains, She Sells Seashells Bay and – oh yes! – the Unicorn Forest! I think you can quite possibly hazard a guess as to where our duo of bestest friends are going to be heading for their trip…

Bumble, as always, is a dynamo of enthusiasm and excitement (coupled with impulsiveness), while Snug tends to think it out a bit more; this manifests itself even in simple things like poor Snug not getting a chance to pack for their trip because Bumble is so hyped up she just can’t wait to get there, grabbing Snug and zooooom! Off they go! She even explodes out of the picture frame! The Unicorn Forest is brought to life in fabulously surreal, brilliantly colourful life, like Mark is channelling Willy Wonka via an explosion in a magical sweet store. We get close up panels and lovely double-page splashes of this magical place, including the Sherbet Fountains and Candy Caves – not to mention the super-rare Jelly Bees!!

It’s this last part where our chums come unstuck – as Bumble uses her abilities to change shape to lift Snug up to sample the jelly, they inadvertently startle the Jelly Bees, and find themselves being chased by a horde of sweet-making but very angry insects. Until they are magically transformed into colourful balloons – enter our eponymous unicorn, and new pal for Bumble and Snug, Sparklehoof. Sparklehoof saves our intrepid pair by magically changing the bees. Our new unicorn chum is terribly excited to meet them and to become friends (the other unicorns don’t much care for Sparklehoof).

Sparklehoof seems to have a dash of both Bumble’s over-excitement and enthusiasm, with some of Snug’s instinct to help people in trouble. Not bad attributes, of course, as long as, like everything in life, you don’t get too carried away for too long. And as our new buddies decide to use Sparklehoof’s magical powers to become superheroes and help people, it seems like a terrific idea. And, at first, it is, they dash around in their new superhero costumes, sorting wrongs, helping out people in Bugpopolis, until they get too carried away. In fact Sparklehoof gets so carried away that an onslaught of “help” is soon causing huge problems in the city, not least a giant kitty (shades of the Goodies and Kitten Kong for those of us of a certain age!).

I’m not going to spoil any of the story by going into it any further here – besides which, like the first book, this is one of those comics where summarising the plot really doesn’t do it justice; Bumble and Snug have to be experienced! Mark’s artwork is an utter delight to the eyes – lovely, clear work, colourful without overloading the senses (except when required for certain scenes!), and with a nice flow from smaller, four panel pages to large double-page spreads. It’s all designed to appeal to the reader, more specifically the young reader, to catch their eye, fill them with interesting details to spot but without over-complicating it which could confuse their reading (a task much harder than it sounds for any artist, especially when creating work for younger readers).

As with the first book there are extras, encouraging youngsters on how they can make their own Bugpops, draw Bumble and Snug, and also, once more, talking about the emotions in the story, and how important feelings are, but also how we need to understand them and be aware not everyone around us feels the same way we do all of the time (all gentle but nice lessons for developing minds). But mostly this is just pure, unadulterated joy, even for us boring, old grow-ups. It’s even more fun than a bouncy castle on top of a jelly trampoline!

The format is also nicely designed for little hands – it’s perhaps just a little smaller than the average manga digest size, something kids can easily carry around with them or stuff in their backpacks. It’s also super-fun for adults who still keep in touch with their inner child too! Can’t recommend this enough for anyone looking for good reading material for their kids! A great mix of fun, adventure, feelings and cake! Honestly, I am smiling just thinking about the book as I write this! Joyous!

Bumble & Snug and the Excited Unicorn will be published by Hodder Children’s Books on July 21st; this review was originally penned for Down the Tubes.

 

Reviews: Bumble & Snug and the Angry Pirates

Bumble & Snug and the Angry Pirates,
Mark Bradley,
Hodder Children’s Books

In our wee Indy bookshop we’re always on the look-out for new reading to excite many of our younger regulars looking for recommendations. We’ve had a lot of success with graphic novels for kids, rather satisfyingly this success is both with regular readers and also some kids who are reluctant readers, or have problems with reading. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series and Jamie Smart’s fabulous Bunny Vs Monkey series from the Phoenix comic have proven particularly popular, alongside evergreen classics like Tintin, Blake and Mortimer and Asterix. I think after reading the first of Mark Bradley’s Bumble & Snug books, I can safely add them to this list, because we’re going to be recommending the heck out of this one.

For those who haven’t encountered them before on Mark’s site, Bumble and Snug are bestest friends, and a kind of monster called a Bugpop, living in Bugpopolis (population 8, 504, 028, with 5, 867 hat shops) – there’s a handy map at the start showing the city, the nearby She Sells Seashells Shore Bay, Mercreature Lake, the Forest of Unicorns, Vampire Castle, Dragon Caves and Sleeping Giant Mountains. Bumble and Snug live at 18 Hijinks Row, and are forever getting into all sorts of fun-filled adventures.

Bumble (the blue Bugpop) is very excitable, she loves noises, constantly trying new things and making friends. She’s “50% enthusiasm, 50% energy”, and can change her size and shape. Snug is a bit more thoughtful, being “33% kindness, 33% caring and 33% brains”, loves supporting and helping others, especially his friends, and his favourite place is the library. Between the two of them they get themselves into some wonderful amounts of trouble, then back out of it by working together.

The togetherness theme is pretty central here, mostly seen through Bumble and Snug’s friendship, but also in the way the interact with the others they meet, even a bunch of seemingly dangerous pirates – there’s a lovely subtext here about understanding others, being patient with them and trying to be kind and supportive, all qualities I think we want our little readers to grow up with. Story-wise we have enormously fun and enjoyable adventure, as the pair go off for a picnic which goes wrong, seeing them stranded on an island, finding hidden pirate treasure (X marking the spot, of course!), then having to deal with the furious pirates and a rather upset sea monster too.

Honestly, adventure, pirates, treasure, an angry giant octopus, picnics, balloons, glitter and ice-cream, I mean what more do you need in a story?!?!?! I laughed throughout Bumble and Snug – it cracks along at a terrific pace, throwing in some lovely gags and visuals (to reach their chosen picnic site Bumble blows herself up to giant balloon size to float them there) constantly, at just the right tempo to keep young minds happily occupied and engaged, and it’s wonderfully funny throughout, with a lovely, clear, uncluttered but very effective art style (the facial expressions especially work, and often cracked me up on their own).

This is an absolutely joyous delight to read, for kids and for adults who still know how to speak to their inner child, it will entertain them, make them laugh, and as a bonus it weaves in lessons about friendship and compassion and dealing with emotions too. In fact it comes with little extras talking about understanding feelings, as well as neat little guides to how to draw your own Bugpops and make your own comics pages (and if there is one thing most kids I know love even more than reading a good comic, it’s feeling inspired to draw their own).

I’m highly recommending this to anyone with young readers looking for their next comics fix.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Life During Lockdown: Some Reading & Activities For You

I’ve noticed a number of my book and comics chums on Twitter very generously making some of their works available for free online – short prose stories, comics, activities you can download and print off (like pictures to colour in) to keep the kids occupied during the virus Lockdown, videos and more. I’ve been re-tweeting those but felt it may be better to compile a list on here that people could refer to (and frankly I feel the need to do something positive, however small).

It’s wonderful of these creative friends to make material available free just to help people a little, especially when they, like most of the rest of us, are taking a big financial hit during the crisis (so please, when it is all over, consider buying some of their books, preferably from an Indy bookshop if you can, or from their own site).

I will add to the list as I see others posting material, or if you are an author or artist making some material or activities available online, drop me a line here – lestat_ultraviolet (at) msn (dot) com – or get a hold of me on twitter and let me know so I can add it here as a handy resource for everyone while they are cooped up and wondering what they can do. If it is material or reading for children, let me know roughly what age range you are aiming at.

ALL-AGES

C o l i n   B e l l  &  N e i l   S l o r a n c e

I’ve reviewed Colin Bell and Neil Slorance‘s delightful Dungeon Fun and Pirate Fun on here previously. It is terrific for young readers and adults alike (or better still, read them together!), and the guys have made both series free to download here. The guys have also made a Dungeon Fun Colouring Compendifun available to download too.

L e  V a r   B u r t o n

Actor and director LeVar Burton (of Star Trek fame), is lending his wonderful voice to some readings online, doing one for children, one for Young Adults and one for adults each week – check his Twitter feed for details and updats.

FOR YOUNG READERS

S a r a h   M c I n t y r e

Sarah McIntyre is an old chum and a wonderful creator of comics, picture books and more, and often encourages her young readers to join in with their own artwork and ideas. She has activity sheets based on her various books available to download from her website here, and Drawing With Sarah videos on her YouTube channel. Sarah has Don’t Call Me Grumpycorn coming out in May, and her and regular partner-in-crime Philip Reeve’s book Kevin’s Great Escape is available now.

N e i l   G a i m a n

(illustration from The Graveyard Book, art by the fabulous Chris Riddell)

Neil requires little introduction from me, I think! He has videos of himself and others reading from his wonderful younger reader’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book available free on Mouse Circus here.

M e t a p h r o g

I have adored Glasgow-based Metaphrog‘s work for years, from their beautiful Louis graphic novels to their recent run of quite gorgeous graphic adaptations of tales by Hans Christian Andersen, with The Little Mermaid and The Red Shoes (highly recommended, beautiful books for young readers that adults can enjoy too). They have their new graphic novel Bluebeard coming this May, and have acitivities for young readers to enjoy – download pages from The Little Mermaid to colour in here.

M o o s e   K i d   C o m i c s

These are older, but still online, still free and I’d imagine still new to a lot of young readers – an anthology of some terrific UK-based comics creators who made some issues to inspire children with quality comics fun. The two issues and the special include works from Jamie Smart, Sarah McIntyre, Mark Stafford, Steve Tillotson, Gary Northfield and many more – you can read them online or download them here. If your young readers have been enjoying works like Dogman or Bunny Vs Monkey, they will love these.

P a p e r c u t z

Papercutz have very generously made a bunch of their comics collections for younger readers available to download free, including The Smurfs, Chloe the New Girl, and Dinosaur Explorers – check them out here.

D o l l y   P a r t o n

Dolly is much loved in the booktrade, as the world-famous singer is also well-known for being a huge supporter of children’s literacy, and as part of her charitable work in making books available, she is doing a bedtime story on her YouTube channel for younger readers!

D a v i d   W a l l i a m s

Comedian and writer, and bestselling children’s author, David Walliams is doing daily readings from his works to entertain young readers during the Lockdown – details on his site here.

O l i v e r   J e f f e r s

Oliver Jeffers is a firm favourite in our bookshop, and is doing a Stay At Home Storytime every day – you can find it on Oliver’s Instagram here.

ADULT READERS

T a d e   T h o m p s o n

I’ve been recommending Tade Thompson – now an Arthur C Clarke Award winner (see, told you he was good!) since I read the first of his superb Rosewater series, set in a near-future Nigeria. Tade has his collection of seven stories, Household Gods and Other Narrative Offences online to download and read free during Lockdown. The PDF can be found here, the MOBI version here, and the Epub edition here.

N e i l   G a i m a n

Edinburgh International Book Festival - Neil Gaiman 06
(Neil signing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, pic from my Flickr)

Neil Gaiman has been one of my favourite authors for many years, and a jolly nice chap to boot. He has short stories, essays and interviews available on his site that you can read here, and you should check his Twitter for more material or links to fellow creators and their work that he often shares. For younger readers you can find video of Neil and others reading from the wonderful Coraline and The Graveyard Book on Mouse Circus here.

S h o r e l i n e   O f   I n f i n i t y

Shoreline of Infinity is an excellent journal of science fiction produced here in Edinburgh (disclaimer, I write book reviews for Shoreline), home to to short fiction, poetry, articles, reviews and more (with an associated regular happening, Event Horizon, that takes place in Edinburgh with readings, music and more). In the spirit of helping out during self-isolation and Lockdown, you can get a taster of the first eleven issues free until April 4th.

A d r i a n   T c h a i k o v s k y 

Cymera 2019 - Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky02
(Adrian Tchaokovsky, on the far right, with Gareth Powell and Ken MacLeod after our Cymera Festival event in 2019)

I’ve seriously enjoyed Adrian’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin in the last couple of years – clever, immersive, millennia-spanning science fiction with an evolutionary slant – and was lucky enough to chair a talk with him, Ken MacLeod and Gareth Powell at the first Cymera Festival last year. Adrian has put up Short Changes, a collection of short stories (including one with Keris McDonald, which you can get hold of free here.

A l i e t t e   d e   B o d a r d

I love Aliette’s work – she crafts some amazing worlds that are outwith the regular, Anglophone Western science fiction and fantasy tradition, different, enticing. She has a short story, In the Lands of the Spill, on Avatars Inc (artwork by Priscilla Kim)

COMICS

L e e   R o b s o n

Lee Robson, along with collaborators Alfie Gallagher, Jim Lavery and Lord Brignos, has put up some of their comics work from Zarjaz and FutureQuake. As many of you will know, those are some top UK Indy small press comics works, with a heavy 2000 AD tilt (in fact the guys at 2000 AD like them and some of the official writers and artists have been known to do the odd strip for the fanzines!). They have a collection of works available to download free here.

2 0 0 0   A D

The droids at the Galaxy’s Greatest Comics are making Thrill Power available free during the lockdown – you need to register or use the 2000 AD App, but the material is free, including an entire 400-page Judge Dredd: the Complete Case Files Volume 5 (which includes the legendary Block Mania and Apocalypse War tales), with work by John Wagner, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Mick McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Steve Dillon and more.

J o e   L a t h a m

Joe Latham has generously put three of his Indy comics up on Gumroad – A Seed Named Hope, Digby is a Wizard and Losing Sleep – to download for free here.

B r y a n   T a l b o t

Bryan is, for my money, one of the foremost masters of comics in the UK, award-winning writer, artist and damned fine chap to boot. James Robertson, who maintains Bryan’s official site (great place to see a lot of his work, previews of upcoming work and more), has worked with Bryan to make a bundle of Bryan’s comics work available online, covering a huge swathe of Bryan’s long career, with CBR versions here and PDF versions available here.

M a r v e l

Mighty Marvel Comics has made a bunch of comics works available free online via their Marvel Unlimited App, and nice to see they are encouraging readers to buy issues from local Indy comics shops once it is safe again too.

Maddy Kettle: the Adventure of the Thimblewitch – a gorgeous all-ages tale

Maddy Kettle: the Adventure of the Thimblewitch,
Eric Orchard,
Top Shelf

Maddy Kettle eric orchard top shelf cover

I have been looking forward to this first Maddy Kettle book for months – Eric Orchard regularly posts and tweets some of his work in progress and the Maddy work has been drawing me in with its lovely, luscious art. The book opens with young Maddy on a train at night (a gorgeous scene, a steam loco running under a bright, starlit sky), accompanied by her special floating toad Ralph and her parents, who are now mice. Maddy is arguing with them about the best way to have the spell on her parents reversed – she is all for the adventure, anything to save her mum and dad, but her mum and dad, now mice or not, are still her parents and they tell her in no uncertain terms that she can’t, that it would be too dangerous, she is “just a little girl.”

Back then our lives were all about books.”

maddy kettle eric orchard top shelf 02

From there we flashback from the night-time train to the bright light of day, Maddy’s home with her parents in the Kettle’s own bookshop, her father just returning from a book-buying trip and Maddy is delighted at the thought of her dad being home and of them being surrounded by even more wonderful books. But there is more – her dad has brought her a special gift, a rare floating spadefoot toad – Ralph – who, as he floats, will need to be kept on a piece of string. This unusual companion takes a bit of getting used to (sleeping floating upside down in the air outside the window!) but he’s such delightful company he’s soon beloved by the whole family and Maddy’s school friends.

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And then came that “terrible night”…Maddy and Ralph awoken by banging and crashing in the house in the middle of the night – she discovers her mother and father turned by magic into mice and glimpses Thimblewitch flying away and some terrifying Spider Goblins, all dark-featured and glowing-eyed menace. And just like that Maddy’s happy family bookstore home life is turned upside down. She’s determined to find a way to restore her mum and dad, even if they forbid it, but when a second intrusion by the Spider Goblins takes them from her altogether she finds she simply has to try now, and embarks on a quest to find the Thimblewitch, face her somehow and get her parents back.

Along the way she will meet all sorts of wonderful characters, such as Harry and Silvio, who fly in their balloon to do ‘cloud cartography’. They’re shocked to find the Thimblewitch has done this to Maddy’s parents as she used to be known as a good person and a protector of the Cloudscape, a first clue that not all is, perhaps, not as it seems. Harry and Silvio kindly offer to help Maddy on her quest and Maddy sets off with them into a remarkable cloudscape.

maddy kettle eric orchard top shelf 04

I’m not going to go any further into the plot for fear of spoiling this utter delight of a story – suffice to say that Maddy only knows the little she has glimpsed of events, but there is much going on here that she has no knowledge of yet, and we find out alongside her on her quest, a journey which, as all quests and journeys should, changes Maddy a little as she meets new people and learns along the way. There are some beautiful scenes that take you off on lovely flights of imagination (in the case of Silvio and Harry’s balloon, almost literally) and Orchard suffuses the entire book – even the darker, scarier parts like the Spider Goblins raid – with a magical feel, going from charming whimsy to outright wonders, and there are lessons to be learned (never a bad thing in a book for young readers – or older readers come to that), about judging others, about making up your mind before you know all sides, the value of good friends and family, all filtered carefully through the story so those messages aren’t hammered into young readers but will sink in naturally through the narrative and leave a lasting impression on them.

maddy kettle eric orchard top shelf 05

The artwork is simply gorgeous throughout, from the cosy warmth of the Kettle family in their bookstore to those star-bright, deep indigo night skies, or the dark menace of Spider Goblins, red eyes glowing in the dark, or the wonder of the Cloudscape Harry and Silvio share with Maddy. This is a truly wonderful book for the young reader, and those of us who still nourish our inner child and who never lost that sense of wonder. Adventure, friends, family, both scares and wondrous delights await, and you will find yourself frequently just stopping to admire the artwork; all of this and a nice lesson in consequences and morality too, as well as a brave and resourceful young female lead character. Maddy Kettle is a pure delight, one to share with your younger family members, or better still, read it alongside them. Then go back, wallow in that gorgeous artwork and know this is one of those books you will come back to repeatedly. Simply wonderful.

maddy kettle eric orchard top shelf 01

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog