Friday, 27 September 2013

Iris Wildthyme Series Four is out!

Available for order - HERE!

Katy Manning and David Benson are back as Iris Wildthyme and Panda in three unique audio adventures in Time, Space and the little bits in between.
Whatever Happened to Iris Wildthyme?
Written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
Iris is living the life she always dreamt of, swanning from one party to the next. From the swinging Sixties to the roaring Twenties to Freddie Mercury's 40th birthday bash via Ancient Rome, Iris has become the ultimate party girl. What more could she want? But who are those sinister ticking figures hiding in the mist? Why are partygoers snapping out of existence? And who is this Panda she keeps talking about?
Iris at the Oche
Written by Mark Wright
Super, smashing, great! It's the annual Pondside World Darts Championship. As down-at-heel pub darts player Ted Taylor steps up to the oche, Iris realises that the fate of the entire universe depends on the result of this one game of arrows. What are the calculations streaming through Ted’s mind, why are the bullish Hankians determined to drag a Kent Country Club into a temporal rift and will Panda ever get to enjoy his chicken-in-a-basket in peace? Game on!
A Lift In Time
Written by David Bryher
Ever get a tune stuck in your head? Annoying, isn't it? Especially when it transforms you into a mindless, murderous zombie. After years of righting wrongs and wronging rights, is the fat lady about to sing for Iris Wildthyme? As Panda becomes the next big thing and the bus is stolen by an insane artificial intelligence, Iris’s future finally catches up with her. Ding ding, going down...
Directed By: Gary Russell


Katy Manning (Iris Wildthyme), David Benson (Panda), David Ames (Alex), Ayesha Antoine (Amanda), Bernard Holley (Ted Taylor), Sophie Aldred (Lady Bow'n),Simon Fisher-Becker

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Ten Years Since We Knew Who Was Coming Back...

Is that right? It’s ten years since the announcement of the return of Doctor Who to TV?

I was at UEA, lecturing in Creative Writing, with an office door plastered with the book covers of my own Doctor Who books. The first thing anyone saw when they knocked at my door was the cover of ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen.’ I got a bit patronized by some of the more earnest souls in the place, I guess – but I was glad to fly the flag in those days before anybody in the ‘real world’ cared about Doctor Who.

I always had an inkling Russell T Davies would be the one to bring it back. And I always, always knew that one day it would come back. Even when people laughed at me for saying so. The most surprising people would say that it was dead and gone forever. But I think I always knew. It’s like saying Robin Hood will never return, or Merlin, or Sherlock Holmes.

The night before the strange, muted announcement, I’d been at a friend’s and he was introducing me to the wonders of DVD. I’d never even seen a DVD played before and he chose the recently released ‘Earthshock’ as my entrée into this digitally versatile and pristine world. And how shiny and new it all looked! And how wonderfully the story held up – and I could remember so clearly the excitement of that particular show going out in 1982, when I was twelve. Its twists and revelations – and the feeling of Doctor Who as an ongoing series and a going concern and a shared public narrative.

Watching Earthshock that night I had a feeling. An intuition, if you like. I knew something was about to happen. I really did. And then, the next day, I think it was the BBC Cult site that I looked at – and there was a little announcement. Telling me – telling us all – to keep calm, sit down and have a cup of tea. Wait for it. Here is the news. RTD. Six hour-long episodes. Classy reinvention of a much-loved cult favourite. Expected in 2005.

It seemed like the world suddenly became a better place. In a flash. I’m not retrospectively hoiking up my reactions and over-dramatizing. I really felt like that. Doctor Who had vanished – had abandoned me! – in 1991, when I was on the brink of adulthood and finishing my degree and not having a clue how to go about the rest of my life. He’d been gone for all those years.

Now I just want to remember that moment in 2003, when Autumn was starting in Norwich and we knew that the Doctor was on his way back – again.

I’ve had my ups and downs with New Who in the years since. Sometimes frustrated at its brashness and its sentimentality. Sometimes in thrall and in love with its writing, sometimes less so. But I’ve always loved the fact that it’s here and it’s beloved by everyone again.

Ah – and to the person who put a comment on my blog recently about me being ‘bitter’ because I’ve never been asked to write for it?  Well, I’m not bitter, thanks, lovey – but of course I’ll always be disappointed. Of course I will. It’s something I was made to write. I know I can write Who stories like no one else can. (By which I mean – my stories are like no one else’s at all…!) But, you know – never mind, eh? I’ve got lots of things to be getting on with – and part of that has been writing little bits and pieces of Who around the edges of the cultural monolith our little old series has become, while meanwhile getting on with my own made-up worlds.  

I’m still glad Doctor Who is back. It’s all still new to me. All the time, every time. I know that I’ll never start to take it for granted.

Special Effects are often boring...

Special effects in scifi are often boring. When I say I prefer the pre CGI era it isn't necessarily because I find ropey-looking stuff camp or quaint. It's because when resources were limited and string and tins cans and plasticine were used the writers had to use more ingenuity. They had to rely on metaphor or suggestion rather than mere spectacle...

For me it's about a sense of human involvement. The Harryhausen monsters look palpable and pliable - we could reach out and touch them. They're invested with soul because someone has spent time with them, moulding them physically. you can sometimes see thumb prints in them. Similarly, in computer animated films it doesn’t feel tactile to me - you can’t see the human hand drawing these things. (Rewatching for the umpteenth time 'The Rescuers' the other night I was delighted by what look like actual, scratchy pencil marks around the characters.) 

In the pro-cgi argument there's an assumption that everyone is after greater verisimilitude and improving technology helps film-making move towards an assumed desired goal of having everything (however outlandish) look real. I'm not sure that's the case..? Also - to my eye - cgi gives far more detail than I'd ever see in real life (awfully short-sighted as I am) - and so it all feels overdone and weirdly unreal in its insistence of being nearly – virtually - real.)

The other thought I had about the more primitive physical effects is that - when we as kids could see that space ships were made out of washing up liquid bottles and monsters were painted egg boxes, etc - it made you feel like you could make them yourself once the show or film was over. It made them palpable and copyable. Nowadays things are so glitzy they are impossible for kids to make with the stuff at hand. (And essentially these are kids’ films and TV shows we're talking about, aren't they? There's another argument to be had about the predominance of effects-led movies and its infantalising of mainstream cinema...)

Primarily I guess I find spectacle boringly overdone these days. Just because you can show something, doesn’t mean you need to. I’m much more verbal. I like dialogue. I like character. Current trends in genre film and TV seem geared to turning the viewer into passive spectator rather than active participant, I think.

The best thing I've seen for ages - blending many different techniques - both computery and physical - has been ParaNorman. But that's full of wonderful writing, acting and design as well. You can tell that they - plus the story - have been put firmly first.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

My First Afternoon Play on Radio 4 - Next Week!

215pm on Thursday 3rd October! That's when 'Imaginary Boys' - my first Afternoon Play on Radio 4  - goes out and I'd be pleased as anything if you listened in. It'll be on Listen Again on the BBC website for a full week afterwards, too.

It's all down to Producer and Director Scott Handcock that it's come this far and has been commissioned, produced and is ready for broadcast. I've heard it and I'm very proud of it. The cast are fantastic. I hope you enjoy it!

The new Radio Times makes it one of the day's top choices and gives it a lovely review. And there's even one of those edge-of-page illustrations - this one by Stuart Manning and perfectly fitting the play.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Paradise Snare by A C Crispin

When it comes to ‘original novels’ based on a franchise – especially a science fiction franchise – I think I expect them to have grown up with me, rather than the more usual vice versa. It happened through my teens and twenties with both Doctor Who and Star Trek, with the tie-in writers producing richer, more sophisticated explorations of ideas and images from their parent shows. In terms of getting older just as the books were getting broader and deeper, in both cases I timed it just right.

Star Wars was different. As a child I was obsessed with the film and the comics and the novelisation and the radio version and the play figures – everything that existed in the late seventies. But it was all too easily outgrown. Even the first two film sequels – at the age of ten and thirteen respectively – didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Alan Dean Foster’s ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ – the very first sequel to ‘Star Wars’ – was a novel and it meant more to me than anything else that came after. So, I was ready and waiting for some more novelly elaborations of the Star Wars world.

When the novel series started up in the early 90s I somehow missed out on it. I think I thought it would just be all about spaceships and stuff. When the ‘special editions’ of the original movies came out I felt even less inclined. And then the prequel movies were such a let down. They seemed to be made by a man who had forgotten what was so great about his original film; a man who just wanted to produce hollow spectacle and reduce characters to chess pieces he was moving around a sketchy melodrama he’d probably tinkered with for too long.

And this is where I part company from much SF (and other genres, too) – when the tropes and the plotting get in the way of characterization. What was great about Star Wars was that they were real people getting caught up in a galactic muddle. Real, grown-up people with all their anxieties, foibles and quirks.

This is a long introduction to saying that, in picking up A. C Crispin’s first Star Wars novel, ‘The Paradise Snare’ – from back in 1997 – I feel a bit like I’ve been reintroduced to the world of Star Wars – and found it inhabited by living, breathing people with everyday problems played out on a cosmic scale… rather than a parade of gadgets and gizmos and flickering computer-generated creatures.

This is the novel that delves into the backstory of one of the series’ most fascinating characters, Han Solo. We see his early life as a pirate’s slave, growing up in space and bonded to an elderly Wookie grandmother (who we just know isn’t going to make it past the first few chapters.) There are ingredients here woven from cowboy tales, war stories and pirate adventures, reminding us that Star Wars was best when it was playing genre-games and sampling every kind of story. When Han is forced to learn pickpocketing – we even get a touch of Oliver Twist, as he’s instructed in the art by a droid called F-8GN.

Crispin writes with great verve and wit – and takes us off into an adventure to do with a fake religion created by drug-dealing slug creatures who sit in mud baths and chortle together about duping the faithful. She gives us brand new characters such as Han’s seven-foot tall cat bodyguard, and a new love interest called Bria… all of them wonderfully convincing – with their own stuff at stake and their own destinies to face. It’s the first book in a trilogy, so we feel the worlds opening up before us – and I get that sense again, that Star Wars once gave, that everywhere was reachable somehow. Any planet could be got to within about half an hour, given a rusty old bucket of bolts and a gung-ho sense of adventure.

What A C Crispin does is put the human element back into these stories. Even into – especially into - the giant cats, the gangster Hutts and the grandma Wookies. I even cheered when the villains were soundly routed – with Zavaal the Hutt losing control of his ant-grav platform and zooming disastrously about a priceless art collection… exactly like a giant slug in a china shop. It’s funny and exciting and everything Star Wars ought to be.

I’ll have to read the next two in the series as soon as I can. See? It’s given me back that sense I had – as a teenager, mostly – that, having started a series, I had to get the next and the next until the whole story was over. And it’s true – I feel like I’ve rediscovered a whole galaxy that I left behind a long time ago. But I suspect it’s A C Crispin’s universe that I’m enjoying, rather than simply Star Wars – just as it was Alan Dean’s Foster’s world I was digging when I read and reread ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.’ These are writers who, by writing well, expand the remit and limits of the tie-in and make the world their own.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Return of Downton

Lovely to have Downton back. But couldn't they have found more for everyone to do? Mary is mourning and milking it a bit. A food mixer has arrived in the kitchen. Penelope Wilton has taken in a music hall comedian (what?!). A butler rattles a tea tray at the wrong moment. Nanny gets sacked. Maggie Smith has become nice. And 'Why have you given up on sheep?'

It seems to me that they've forgotten what was good about the programme was the melodrama and the slightly dark humour. Remember the affair of the dead Turk in Lady Mary's bed? O'Brien leaving the cake of soap under the claw-footed bath? There was an air of ludicrousness about the whole thing... and a feeling of it being a bit tongue in cheek.

I wonder if there's a danger of them all taking it all too seriously, now that it's a worldwide hit?  Luckily, Maggie Smith is on hand with her wry glances and cocked eyebrows and single lines delivered with delicious aplomb.

I wish it had a touch more 'Cold Comfort Farm' about it. I wish they had united at least two of the limp narrative strands dangling in last night's show and revealed Nanny doing something unspeakable with the new food mixer.

And I really hope the writer(s) aren't starting to take seriously things like our unstinting adoration and huge viewing figures and to believe that they're actually any good...  

Friday, 20 September 2013

Coronation Street in 1967

The other night I dipped at random into a Coronation Street boxed set of DVDs and watched what is probably one of the best episodes I’ve ever seen. It’s from 1967 and has the whole street in something of a kerfuffle because Elsie Tanner’s gentleman friend from the days of the Blitz is back in town – a handsome GI called Steve.

‘We were called good time girls. And we did have a good time. A damned good time!’

Elsie’s out in the countryside having a nostalgic walk with Steve, who she hasn’t seen in over twenty years. It’s all equal parts nostalgia, regret – and just a touch of bitterness. It’s endearingly seemingly clunky, too, in the way the mood switches from happy laughter to melodrama (she stands and walks to a tree, where she poses like Garbo at the end of Queen Christina – hair streaming in the breeze.) But it’s modeled on the melodrama of the 30s and 40s movies that Elsie even references in the script – when she says she first dyed her hair red to be like Rita Hayworth (she felt Steve lose interest in her when they sat in the pictures and Hayworth came on the screen.) Elsie goes into a story of how she did a home-dye job and made a hash of it.

This is very dense, beautifully layered writing. It’s camp as anything – but wonderfully subtle. It’s about characters looking back and mythologizing their own lives, and gently sending up their own foibles and pretensions and hopes  – with talk of tragic non-meetings and leave-takings under Warrington town hall clock. Then, later, when we get regretful scenes from Elsie (who secretly feels too past it for all this sudden romance) we get funny stuff about how, back in the old days having a plastic handbag and a sixteen guinea suit meant you really were something. There’s a level of self-parody in all the self-pity and introspection, and that’s why it always rings true to me.

It can only be the work of Tony Warren, the series’ creator. It’s so different from everyone else’s Corrie work, before or after. It’s not just a case of hitting the right notes in the salty vernacular – it’s about the warmth and pathos – and the characters being in charge of what they’re saying.

It’s never about the writer’s cleverness at the expense of the character – and what a hard trick that is to master.

Every one of Warren’s beloved characters get their moments and they all reveal something we never knew. Old Ena Sharples talks about the US with Steve the GI and we learn she once visited her brother there, but she never took to the place. Except for the funeral parlours of Nebraska. Later, she harangues Elsie outside her house about how she used to have all the soldiers round – and the jeeps would come up these cobbles at such a clip. But it’s not as straightforward as simply having a go at Elsie’s loose morals. Ena wants those old days back as much as anyone – you can see that and hear it in her performance.

The whole episode is astonishing, I think. And while it seems mostly frothy fun – there’s this weight of years and wasted time sketched in masterfully behind every moment. And then – just when you think you know where it’s going – the lights dim and dip in the Rovers and there’s an unearthly screeching explosion from outside. Len Fairclough comes bursting in, full of panic. A tram’s crashed through the viaduct. And now, instantly, there’s a disaster movie going on outside.

I was completely thrown by this. I knew this happened in Corrie, sometime in the late 60s, but not right then. It arrives in this episode with the horrible shock that real life events do. And the whole show lurches into a different genre, in those final, sickening moments – but because the characters are drawn so brilliantly we really care what happens next.

It’s a street like any other. That’s what the show was always about. You could chose any narrow street with pressed-together houses and smoky chimney pots anywhere in Manchester, or any northern city, and you would find dramas like this. And faces from the past can arrive to stir everything up in any street, too. And dreadful disasters can happen, too. It’s everyday melodrama – and watching it the other night I was struck by its immense subtlety and blending of genres. 

And the fact that it can still make me laugh and gasp out loud like no other show.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Doctor Who - Seeds of Death

Not really a review or a proper blog about this 1960s Doctor Who story – more a simple observation… but isn’t ‘Seeds of Death’ terrific?

Over twenty years ago I had the Betamax videotape, one of the earliest commercial releases from BBC Worldwide, and at that point they were editing out all the episode credits and titles, so what we had was a hugely overlong and slightly fuzzy movie that looked as if it had been filmed in someone’s dusty cupboard. I haven’t been able to play Betamax tapes – along with the rest of humanity – for quite some time, and so I was pleased to be able to sit down with this story again on DVD (thanks, Stu!)

In recent months I’ve been a bit cheesed off with Doctor Who. Or rather, the feeding frenzy hullaballoo all around Doctor Who. I’ve found the show itself a little overblown and portentous – and all the backslapping and brouhaha becoming just a bit much sometimes (‘I’m a genius! You’re a genius!’ ‘We’ve raised the bar!’) It all seemed to be more about the people making the show and their glittering careers rather than the actual story and characters themselves. And some of the story-telling wasn’t quite working for me, either.

I loved Peter Capaldi suddenly appearing onscreen in the Who equivalent of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – emerging from the dry-ice and clutching his lapels. I loved that he talked as a Doctor Who fan – and about how ‘we all made Doctor Who. It belongs to everyone.’ I think he was talking about the show as a collective enterprise that involves not just the star actors or writers… but also the set-painters and rubber-suit-wearers, the viewers who wrote in to complain when it was taken off the air, and those who cheered when it came back – and even those who wrote the humble tie-in fiction that bridged the various gaps.

That little moment reminded me about Doctor Who as a fun thing that was all about imagination and daring and feeling like you were taking part, somehow. When the story and the effects needed you to suspend your imagination – when they weren’t spoon-feeding you, and your investment of creative energy in watching led to you feeling more involved.

‘Seeds of Death’ has some of that feeling about it. It’s from a more innocent time – when no one involved in front of or behind the cameras are expecting to springboard to a Hollywood career on the back of this serial. It’s hugely silly in places – but they really embrace all of that. They revel in the silliness at times – as per the celebrated scene with the Doctor drowning in extraterrestrial foam. But alongside the daftness there’s a deadly seriousness about the story and the predicaments involved. There are some shocking casualties amongst the guest cast (Mavis’ Victor from Corrie meets a sorry end…)

The whole thing is a delight – spiced up hugely by some startlingly stylized flourishes. I’d forgotten completely about Troughton being chased by Ice Warriors through the moonbase, and entering a kind of funhouse of mirrors. And so – for no other purpose than sheer, exciting entertainment – we get one of those priceless ‘wild zones’ that I’ve often noted in the really great Doctor Who stories. By ‘wild zones’ I don’t quite mean fantasy sequence or fighting scenes, dream scenes or crazy chase montage… but something like a cross between all of these things. Watch out for them – it’s the part where the story cuts loose for a moment and somewhat strange and brilliant things happen. (Many of the contemporary 42 minute stories – lacking a full third act - forget to include these sequences – and hence their feeling I get that they’re missing something.)

A favourite part of Seeds of Death is when the Ice Warriors catch up with him and he tells them ‘you can’t kill me! I’m a genius!’ And I love the way he has to admit to it at the point of a sonic weapon – only grudgingly does he bellow it, as if the words are being forced out of him.

The Doctor is only a reluctant boaster… and how I wish some of his latterday creators were…

So I’m back enjoying Doctor Who. Cautiously. Remembering why I loved this soppy old show.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks

 This is a proper, old-fashioned weepie from Nicholas Sparks. It’s an interestingly shaped story: alternating between ninety-one year old Ira Levinson as he lies in the wreckage of his car, and the points of view of Sophie and her cowboy Luke, as they meet and quickly fall in love. It’s a lovely comparison – to see these people at the beginnings and ends of their stories, and to learn how they inevitably overlap. It makes for a fascinating shift in perspective with each chapter – and a shift in scale, too – as we pass years with Ira as he lies there for a weekend, flashing back through his whole life with Ruth – and then we progress through the complex phases of falling in love with the young couple at the heart of the book. Ruth also appears as a kind of ghostly figure – nine-tenths Ira’s imagination, surely… but a vivid haunting in her own right, too, as she converses with him, chiding and cheering him on as he struggles to stay alive and the snow falls about the wreckage.

I loved the tales of how the childless Ira and Ruth made a life together, building their collection of twentieth century art treasures in ad hoc fashion. It’s just a little eccentric and all the more believable for it – and it’s wonderful to imagine their house and its walls getting more and more full with all that Abstract Expressionism and Pop art. At the same time there is a very touching sub-plot about the orphaned pupil that the couple almost adopt, and who they lose when he suddenly gets moved away – thrown out of their lives by forces they can’t control.

I really like the way Sparks makes his big plot beats all to do with the everyday forces of mischance that govern our lives. Similarly, in the contemporary story, Luke’s obsession with winning these rodeo bull-rides turns out to be rooted in the secrets that he’s trying to hide from Sophie. There is a reason for everything that happens here, and usually it’s to do with people coping with things that have gone disastrously wrong. All these twined narratives are about people patching together the damaged fabric of their lives and keeping it all together. There’s a very good portrait, I think, of Luke’s mother, Linda, who faces financial ruin and the loss of the ranch she grew up on – but at the same time she's simmeringly furious that her son keeps risking his life in order to help her.

The various plots dovetail together very neatly by the last third. Every joint slides into place like carefully sanded wood. And maybe we can see certain developments coming a mile off, but Sparks is sussed enough to surprise us with a few gentle twists. Rather than shocks and melodrama, this romance is all about wishful thinking and just desserts. Sometimes that’s just the kind of read you need – and I think this is a satisfyingly gentle, genial novel – all about weathering the storm and staying in the saddle.

 (Thanks to Sphere for the review copy. 'The Longest Ride' is published tomorrow - 17th September.)

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Return of the Scarlet Empress

There's a wonderful blog piece today by Daniel Tessier about my book, 'Doctor Who - The Scarlet Empress.' This month it's fifteen years exactly since my first Who book was published. (C'mon BBC Books / Ebury - where's the E-Book..?!)

Iris's anniversary is being celebrated elsewhere by a fourth season of audio adventures from and a new anthology of a short stories from

But today I thought I'd mark the moment by posting an excerpt on my blog from one of my recent novels featuring Iris Wildthyme, 'Wildthyme Beyond!', which Snowbooks published last year. Like its 2011 predecessor, this novel features a return to the wild, perplexing world of Hyspero - as fans of 'The Scarlet Empress' might be interested to learn...

(The conceptual artwork for Iris' bus is completely nicked from the internet. If it's yours - let me know!)

She was the oldest - therefore the smallest and the most obscure - Empress of Hyspero.

Her reign had been so long ago that hardly anyone remembered it. There were monuments to her everywhere, including within the Scarlet Palace itself, but no one ever thought about Euphemia much any more.

Certainly no one thought she was still alive.

But I am, I am! She cackled triumphantly inside her glass jar. Not only am I still alive after so many millennia on this world, I’m currently sitting at the back of a double decker bus on a road trip across the inhospitable sands of Hyspero!

Never in her previous life had she travelled so widely. Reigning Empresses had a rather dull time of it, actually. They crouched inside their jars in the throne room and various supplicants and officials would shuffle in to ask them things and whatnot. No one ever thought of the Empress as a real being inside her glorious jar, no one really thought of her as a woman. It was a dreadful life, really. And then, at the end of it, they took out your withered, exhausted body and crammed it into a different, much smaller jar. They took you down into the labyrinths beneath the palace and stored you away like winter fruits in the furthest, driest corner they could find.

Euphemia had lived there for many thousands of years, seething with boredom and a horrible feeling of betrayal. She had watched the internment of the Empresses who had followed in her path, and she saw them installed in their own hidden niches. Dozens and dozens of Scarlet Empresses, long past their sell-by dates.

Out of all of them, it was the original who had kept her marbles and her wits most about her. While the others sunk into misery and inactivity Euphemia managed to keep that spark of life glowing inside her. Somehow she always knew this wasn’t the end for her.

And one day she was proved right, because she was rescued from that subterranean obscurity.

A thief stole into the passageways beneath the palace. Euphemia was aware of him at once. A man! There was a man down here! Her mind came alive with possibilities. She used her mental powers to reach out and investigate this terrible thief… he probed the gloom and tip-toed towards her, intent on stashing her away in his bag. She was secretly thrilled and longing for the touch of his hands on the glass jar that contained her…

And this was the way she had been set free upon the universe once more. So long after she was meant to have died.

After that there were all sorts of complicated events to do with being taken to a distant world called Earth, and ending up in the hands of a young man who had inherited a bookshop. And Euphemia had passed into the hands of the members of a secret Earthling society known as MIAOW. And then she had been ineluctably drawn into the orbit of a space and time traveller known as Iris Wildthyme.

It was her bus that Euphemia was now travelling aboard, feeling much happier than she had in ages. Also, she was in the care of a youngish, rather snappy woman called Jenny. There were other companions too, all of whom Euphemia found more or less interesting, including Simon, the said owner of the book shop, Barbra - a kind of living machine, and Iris Wildthyme herself, who seemed a rather difficult figure to pin down. Sometimes she was incredibly happy and excited at the prospect of traversing the face of Hyspero in her bus, and other times she went off in the most incredible sulks about it all.

Euphemia sat in her jar and mulled it all over. Occasionally she would issue out through the lid and manifest herself fully, into her favourite form – a kind of very glamorous dwarf. She liked to do this in order to feel fully part of the quest.

Oh yes, it was a quest they were on. And Euphemia was quite glad to hear that she was at the heart of it.

So far they had skimmed across the forest floors in some region or other Euphemia had never heard of. They had navigated a murky and terrible swamp inhabited by uncouth reptiles she had never come across before. There had been some kind of ravine thing that the bus had to be carefully driven through and everyone had had to pipe right down in case a single sound dislodged a deadly avalanche. And now they were in the blazing desert, driving through the day and camping at night. Iris spent long hours consulting maps, charts and her single remaining volume of her diaries and her friends did the best they could. Barbra the machine jollied everyone along, in a way the Empress Euphemia found grating to her nerves. She was tired of being offered something called ‘crisps’ and ‘pop.’

The Empress got the idea that they were taking her back to the City of Hyspero. At least she thought that’s what they were intending. Her memory had become slightly fuddled recently – probably something to do with the time she was spending jumping in and out of the jar. It might be bad for her – so used to seclusion – to be as active as this, but she didn’t care. Yes, the idea, surely, was to return her to the palace and the city she herself had created… and there to… and there she must…

No. No use. She couldn’t remember. She didn’t know why it was so essential she return. It was a troubling thought, too… the very idea of going back to that place and possibly being taken far underground again, back to her dusty shelf. Why, it hardly seemed any time at all since she had been liberated by that thief – that fabled man with two plastic arms – and she was loathe to give up that freedom now.

Euphemia had fallen into the hands of travellers. She was in the company of adventurers. She wanted to tell them – I’m happy like this! I’m content to stay on the road with you forever! Please don’t take me home! Not yet… please! Let me stay with you, aboard this double decker bus…!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Through the Post

Exciting book loot brought by the postman today!  Sphere have just sent me a copy of the third in Jane Sanderson's 'Netherwood' saga, 'Eden Falls'. This series has become an annual treat - and this time we're promised an exotic shift in location, while at the same time keeping up with the characters still at home...

Here's the blurb:

"Jamaica 1909. Millionaire Silas Whittam is struggling to bring his dream of a luxury hotel to life. He’s relieved when his sister, Eve, arrives – basking in the success of her Yorkshire pies and puddings business. But as Eve befriends the staff, secrets hidden by Silas begin to emerge. In England, the Earl and Countess of Netherwood try to hide their empty marriage, as they enjoy the whirlwind of the London season. Yet the Earl’s suffragette sister, Lady Henrietta, could disgrace them all. And for new Labour MP Amos Sykes, times are tough. Especially with his wife decorating the homes of the very aristocrats he would like to see ruined."

The news of A. Crispin's death made me reread her wonderful Star Trek novel, 'Yesterday's Son' - and I found it just as wonderfully entertaining as I did 25 years ago. Looking at everything she'd written I wondered why I'd never read her fab-sounding Origins-of-Han Solo trilogy of novels for the Star Wars series. (And I remembered - possibly because the piss-bloody-awful prequel movies put me off ANYTHING to do with Star Wars for a loooong time.) Anyway - off I went to order a copy of 'The Paradise Snare' so I could find out how Han started out...

"Before the Star Wars movie, before the titanic battles that freed the galaxy from the iron grip of the Empire, here is the never-before-told story of the young Han Solo. In Book One of this exciting new trilogy, the famed rogue, con man, smuggler and theif struggles to survive on a sinister world where the chief export is slavery. THE PARADISE SNARE He was a child without a past, a Corellian street urchin, abandoned, foraging for scraps of food, when the cruel Garris Shrike whisked him away to a nomadic band of spacefaring criminals. Now, years later, chafing under Shrike's sadistic tyranny, driven by dreams of adventure and glory, Han fights his way free, his goal to become an Imperial Navy pilot. But first he needs hands-on experience flying spacecraft, and for that he takes a job on the planet Ylesia - a steaming world of religious fanaticism, illicit drugs and alluring sensuality…where dreams are destroyed and escape is impossible."

And finally - here's something that arrived last week, and I'm halfway through it. Nicholas Sparks' new novel, 'The Longest Ride' is published next week, and it's another effortless page-turner. It's like eating a whole bar of Dairy Milk in one go. I'll tell you more next week, after I've finished and thought about it - but I'm liking it so far.

"Ira Levinson is in trouble.  At ninety-one years old, in poor health and alone in the world, he finds himself stranded on an isolated embankment after a car crash.   Suffering multiple injuries, he struggles to retain consciousness until a blurry image materializes and comes into focus beside him:  his beloved wife Ruth, who passed away nine years ago.  Urging him to hang on, she forces him to remain alert by recounting the stories of their lifetime together – how they met, the precious paintings they collected together, the dark days of WWII and its effect on them and their families.  Ira knows that Ruth can’t possibly be in the car with him, but he clings to her words and his memories, reliving the sorrows and everyday joys that defined their marriage.
A few miles away, at a local bull-riding event, a Wake Forest College senior’s life is about to change.  Recovering from a recent break-up, Sophia Danko meets a young cowboy named Luke, who bears little resemblance to the privileged frat boys she has encountered at school.  Through Luke, Sophia is introduced to a world in which the stakes of survival and success, ruin and reward -- even life and death – loom large in everyday life.  As she and Luke fall in love, Sophia finds herself imagining a future far removed from her plans --  a future that Luke has the power to rewrite . . . if the secret he’s keeping doesn’t destroy it first.
Ira and Ruth.  Sophia and Luke. Two couples who have little in common, and who are separated by years and experience. Yet their lives will converge with unexpected poignancy, reminding us all that even the most difficult decisions can yield extraordinary journeys: beyond despair, beyond death, to the farthest reaches of the human heart."

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Remembering Reading A C Crispin

In an interview I saw ages ago Tom Baker said this wonderful thing. He said that he could understand the fan mentality. He knew why people were fans. It was all to do with loving something – a TV show, a book, a pop star, anything – and it was something that reminded you of being young. You were put back into your youth by enjoying that thing all over again.

This really strikes a chord with me and I thought about it again when I saw on Facebook the other day that the novelist A C Crispin had died. Instantly I thought about her books and what they meant to me. I’ve only read a few. Nothing like the whole lot of them. But enough to feel fond of what she did while she was here.

I was thinking about being fifteen at Woodham Comp and becoming a school prefect in our house block, Brancepeth. All this really meant was that you got to stay indoors when it rained and wear a burgundy enameled badge. A whole bunch of us used to play table tennis through grey lunchtimes. We had the most broken-down table that hardly fit into the room, and we’d play twenty people all at once, with most of us using textbooks for bats. We’d run round the table like the creatures in the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland, and then someone would shout out and we’d all go counter-clockwise.

It rained and rained that school term and when we weren’t playing ridiculous games I got a lot of reading done. It was when I read all of the first three Dune novels and Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, and huge swathes of Ray Bradbury stories. And I also read the novelizations of ‘V’, that great sf alien-invasion TV series – written by A C Crispin. Whereas the ‘classic’ sf I was reading was mostly set on exotic worlds, in bizarre circumstances, the V books were about ordinary people in suburbia dealing with the idea that earth was being taken over by the monsters. ‘V’ and ‘V: East Coast Crisis’ were thick, generous novels – more detailed and quite a bit racier than the TV show they were based on.

Only a few years later I read Star Trek novels by Ann Crispin – ones in which she humanized and fleshed out more TV characters, making even the stiffest of them human. It seems like such a long time ago, reading these. The terrible news this week has made me want to reread her wonderful novel, ‘Yesterday’s Son’ – (the one about Spock and the paternity suit from the land that time forgot.)

I love the fact that she was a writer who gave world-famous characters such as Spock, Han Solo and Jack Sparrow backstories that their fans could take to their hearts. And I love the fact that she also had her own universe…! The world of StarBridge is a star-spanning space opera in seven volumes and it’s every bit as grand and colourful as the tie-in worlds she moonlighted in. They’re all currently available on Kindle (that amazing twilight space in which book series can return to perpetual orbit.) I’m looking forward to reading and rereading her books.

Imagine – leaving galaxies behind you when you’ve gone!

I love her (almost) final words on Facebook, too –

I wish all aspiring writers the will to finish and a good contract.”

Friday, 6 September 2013

'Ghost Hawk' by Susan Cooper

It’s a very rainy end to the week – a week’s that’s felt very much like the first in a new school term. I’ve diligently kept trying to work (even with the roofing men above plus J. doing DIY indoors)… and I’ve made some advances on a new project that I hope will go somewhere. This week I even found a new café to work in – a very homely one with excellent bacon barms at the Antiques Centre on Levenshulme high street. It’s essential to have good, local cafes nearby to escape to. Writing five hundred words seems so much easier when it’s just you, your notebook, coffee and a bacon sarnie in a place full of strangers…

Since finishing it on Thursday, I’ve been thinking a lot about Susan Cooper’s new novel, ‘Ghost Hawk.’ There are some extremely vivid, wonderful moments – especially in the first third, when our hero goes into the wilderness for three months to prove his mettle. His death-tussle with a lone wolf is a fantastic episode. There are a few of these incredibly sharp, clear moments in the book and they put me right back into the world of the very best of this author’s work.

I have to say that ‘The Dark is Rising’ (the whole sequence, but number two especially) is, as I’ve said before, one of my favourite things ever and I reread it every few years. It’s an immersive experience and, though I think he’s pompous in the way he extols it, I agree with Philip Pullman about the reach of its influence and its ‘importance’ (though I dislike it when writers bang on about each other’s ‘importance.’ Ugh. You can hear the long, hollow echoes of their endless backslapping like the Rank Organisation gong…)

I do think Marcus Sedgwick in last week’s Guardian review was a bit over-generous with his response to ‘Ghost Hawk.’ I don’t find it the best of her work, or as profound and moving as he did. The spectral viewpoint of the second half (no spoilers here) actually meant that I felt even further from the action and the focus of the story. The steadiness of the tone and its matter-of-fact delivery already meant that I felt I was seeing things at a slight remove. When we focus on the English boy in the second half, that effect was doubled and whole sections of the book felt a little summarizing in tone – especially when great swathes of time were passing.

Perhaps, in the end, the book is a little too ‘on the money’ for me? It’s about the English and the untold harm they caused to the tribes of Native Americans in the years after the landing of the Mayflower. The book flags up at every level that this is what it’s all about – and the enduring spirit of the native tribesman and how a bit more empathy might have proved beneficial to both sides… and this is exactly what we get. It’s bang on the money.

Interesting that in her afterword, Cooper talks about Ursula Le Guin being the child of a groundbreaking anthropologist and the author of a definitive work about the plight of the last ‘wild’ native American. It sounds like an amazing book, actually – but it also reminded me that when Le Guin approaches similar themes in her own writing it’s most often obliquely, and through allegorical or fantastical strategies. (I haven’t read all of Le Guin – far from it. A meagre five or six of her books. But that’s true, isn’t it?)

So I think I realized – at the very end of Susan Cooper’s novel (which is lush, dramatic, beautifully-written, of course) that my problem with it is that she isn’t affording herself the creative licence of seeing the subject obliquely as she does in her earlier books. Even with the introduction of the uncanny element, it all feels a bit too literal and obvious for me.

But I’ll go on thinking about it! Her books are always rich and thoughtful and it might just be me not quite getting it yet.

And since then I’ve been romping through the second Brian Aldiss anthology, ‘More Penguin Science Fiction’, from 1963. And it’s as playful, profane, erudite and brave as the first. Even more so, in fact. You get the sense of people writing in a genre where they were beginning to realise – ‘We could go anywhere with this…!’ (And they didn’t mean outer space. They make the idea of going into space seem a rather rash and vulgar thing.)