Friday, 16 December 2011

Something for the weekend..

Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

There's a lot of talk about everyones' favourite pipe smoking sleuth at the moment. What with the (excellent) BBC Series returning very soon, the sequel to the (hugely popular) film by Guy Ritchie about to hit the silver screen, and Anthony Horowitz's  new addition to the canon just released (House of Silk) it's a boom time for the clever dick.

Deservedly so in my opinion, Holmes' adventures are a cracking read, so in this 'Something for the weekend' I'm suggesting you go back to the original stories. For me it all began in 1982, I wanted to watch the Bbc's 'Hound of the Baskervilles' because this 'Holmes' person looked like Dr Who (see picture). In an attempt to find another vehicle for the incredibly popular Dr, the beeb put him in a deerstalker & sent him off to battle a large dog painted green. Well i liked it. I also enjoyed Jeremy Brett's terrific turn during the 80's & early 90's, it was comparatively recently though, that i actually read the source novels.      
If like me you are entering Conan Doyle's world quite late, be prepared - there's less than you think! There are only four novels (& they aren't very long - perfect for the weekend in fact!), the rest of his work is made up of short stories in various collections. Having said that i mostly prefered the short stories, they tend to work better structurally. Indeed the one odd thing that struck me about the novels (except 'Hound') is the curious way Doyle waits until he gets two thirds of the way through before one of the characters will sit Holmes down and explain the back story to him in intricate detail. But it's all part of the fun.  

And what fun it is! Holmes is a lovably pompous genius, Watson his loyal dependable sidekick and of course the narrator of 99% of the work. Together (well Watson is there) they solve devilishly clever crimes mostly set in foggy London with a motley collection of ne'er do wells, with a dash of cocaine, simple Policemen to make Holmes look clever and some soothing violins - what's not to like?

So this Christmas treat yourself, watch the TV version, go to the flicks if you like, but most importantly go back to where it all began.

(this was not an excuse to get a picture of Tom Baker on our blog. Honest)


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

(Now that would be) Telling - Steampunk Guests

(Now that would be) Telling brings together contemporary art, literature and history through a big dollop of imagination. The project features site-specific artwork made by Hayley Lock and texts written by Jessica Hart, Lucinda Hawksley, Ben Moor, Hallie Rubenhold and Liz Williams for five stately homes.

Using the portraits and collections in the houses as starting points, Hayley created parallel worlds through her work. She used the documented histories as much as rumour and hearsay, mining the lives of the people living, working and visiting the houses for inspiration. Hayley has also collaborated with a different writer in each house to bring out a different aspect of the work.

At Ickworth, Ben Moor wrote Please Wait Here, a contemplative and often absurd tale of a questionnaire writer suffering a block for the remarkable and barmy Ickworth House in Suffolk. Historical novelist Lucinda Hawksley created stories of those In the shadow of Ruskin for Brantwood in Cumbria. Romance novelist Jessica Hart created a bodice-ripping yarn full of torrid affairs amongst the noble classes; broadcaster. Novellist Hallie Rubenhold penned The Johnsonian Mysteries, including an entirely fabricated contents page full of wry references for scholars of Dr Johnson. Finally, science fiction and fantasy writer Liz Williams wrote the lifetime in a day of the Parminter cousins who built A la Ronde in Devon, their octagonal house created to have a room for every function throughout the day.

Hayley's works are densely layered in terms of their references and their facture, with a mix of digitally manipulated imagery, hand drawn and collaged surfaces decorated with intricate lines of glitter, gems, feathers and textiles. The references threaded through the writer's texts too, with tartan squirrels appearing in Ickworth and characters dancing from one form to another. A dark glass appeared in every house and in several stories, a connecting principle with occult undertones. The Claude glass was originally a drawing tool - a darkened convex reflective glass - but became synonymous with the all seeing eye and various connections to another world. We have brought them to the houses as part of a meta narrative and darkened heart showing views of other worlds.

Historical houses offer guided tours and information about what visitors are seeing, interpreting their own histories. Part of our aim is to inspire visitors to create their own versions of history, to see the rich heritage of the UK as starting points for adventures and magic. The stories take different forms - visual, written - and hopefully don't stop with the work created by the artist and writers, but continue with each visitor's imagination.

We are delighted to bring some of these works into a dramatically different context to The Kitchies’ Steampunk Evening at Blackwell’s, an entire event celebrating the folding of history through imagination. We're looking forward to seeing the works on their own and reading the texts in a space where books are king. I suspect that, whilst you can take the work out of the homes, you can't take the homes out of the work, so I like to think we're bringing them too.

Catherine Hemelryk is the Curator of 
(Now that would be) Telling and is on the panel of judges awarding The Kitschies’ Inky Tentacle.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Something for the Weekend

Kobo Abe- 'The Woman in the Dunes'

Kobo Abe's 'Woman in the Dunes', made into a award winning film in 1964, is surreal and often absurd tale of imprisonment and isolation. Jumpei, a tourist visiting the beach, misses the last bus and home and is offered shelter in a nearby village. He is then kept captive with an unnamed woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit, forced to shovel the sand that threatens to engulf the village. As  all his escape attempts fail he slowly becomes closer to the woman he is being held captive with and has to accept the horror of his situation.

Written in sparse prose you feel like you are in the pit shovelling the sand whilst reading it. The kafkaesque feeling of being persecuted by unknown people for unknown reasons lends a sense of futility to the story. The sand becomes a character itself, more threatening than those who are holding Jumpei hostage. A powerful statement on what happens when people are faced with nightmarish situations and how the mind can learn to cope in extraordinary circumstances.

'The Woman in the Dunes' is short, I read it in only two sittings, but I was shaking imaginary sand from my  hair for weeks after.

Buy it here

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Young Adult and Middle Grade Steampunk

We were super pleased to be asked to write an article about Steampunk for the site and have opted to do some recommendations for both middle grade (9 – 12 years) and teen (and older) readers.
Our list is by no means exhaustive but shows there is a strong market for books of this genre for a young audience. The books below above are all superbly written and character driven novels; where the setting helps enrich the world but where the world isn’t everything.

Teen & Young Adult 
Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Atom)
The Looking Glass Wars, Seeing Redd and Arch Enemy by Frank Beddor (Egmont Books)
Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince and Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare (Walker)Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore (Bloomsbury)
Incarceron and Sapphique by Catherine Fisher (Hodder)
Airborne, Skybreaker and Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel (Faber and Faber)
Arcadia Snips and the Steampunk Consortium by Robert C. Rodgers (Steam Powered Press)
All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen (Tor)
Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances (Constable & Robinson)
Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories (Walker UK)

Middle Grade 

Kaimira by Monk & Nigel Ashland (Walker)
Airman by Eoin Colfer (Puffin)
Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling, Lamplighter and Factotum by DM Cornish (Corgi / Random House)
The Mortal Engines series, as well as Larklight, Mothstorm and Starcross by Philip Reeve (Scholastic)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)
The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, The Obsidian Dagger and The Doomsday Thief by Catherine Webb (Atom)
Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath by Scott Westerfeld (Simon & Schuster)

More titles are due in 2012, including Tiffany Trent’s The Unnaturalists, which sounds fantastic:

"The City of New London is all Tesla’s fault. If his experiment had not broken the walls between London and Fairyland, New London would not be here at all, and Fairyland would not be in jeopardy. The tear in the fabric of space and time brought things from every era of London—Vauxhall Gardens, the Tower, Nonesuch House. With it also came the belief that Science would cure all ills. Soon, the descendants of Tesla learned how to turn magical energy into power, using a substance called myth. Just as Old London relied on coal and gas, New London relies on myth. It’s in everything from lanterns to sealing wax. It powers machines. It provides heat and light.

But all of this comes at great price.

In the Museum of Unnatural History, fifteen-year-old Vespa Nyx has spent the last two years since her expulsion from Seminary learning to identify, catalog, and mount rare sylphs. Even as the black desert of the Creeping Waste threatens New London, young Syrus Reed seeks Vespa at the behest of the mysterious Manticore. Whether they can learn to trust each other and work together in a race against time and greed is at the heart of this steampunk adventure."

Doesn’t it sound simply superb? We couldn’t be more excited. Long may writers continue creating Steampunk stories to enjoy and talk about. It is one of those sub-genres where it feels like literally anything can happen... and it usually does. All the writer has to do is ask: what if...

Liz - creator and instigator of My Favourite Books. Her tastes in reading material vary from picture books to YA to crime and fantasy novels for adults. She also has a penchant for literary fiction, but don't hold that against her. Find her online as
@LizUK on Twitter.
Mark - Mark is an avid gamer who has a penchant for archery, fencing and medieval sword. Mark's reading is as eclectic as his taste in music - he enjoys fantasy, crime, science fiction (and is a Black Library devotee) and historical novels. Find Mark on Twitter as @Gergaroth.
Sarah - Sarah is My Favourite Books' YA guru. As an aspiring YA writer, Sarah has made it her goal to read every single YA book in existence and she loves the challenge. She knows more about vamps, witches and weres than your local priest. Find Sarah online as @esssjay on Twitter.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Cory Gross on Steampunk Part Two

If comic books appeal to your beloved Steampunk, then one might invest in Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack by the team of Shannon and Dean Hale with artist Nathan Hale. Fairy tales fuze with a Weird Western setting, retelling the stories of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk with a progressive attitude. Unlike many modern failed efforts, these are neither gratuitously perverse nor artificially hip whilst being genuinely stylish.

Not that I am one to slander Disney by any means. I would highly recommend a copy of the two-disk DVD special edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This film almost single-handedly brought Jules Verne back into the public consciousness when it was released in 1954, and 20K collectors Larry and Paul Brooks did a fantastic job working with Disney to extract rare material from the vaults. If one really wanted to go the extra mile, enclose a ticket to Disneyland Paris or Tokyo Disneysea with that DVD, as both themeparks have attractions based on Captain Nemo's exploits. If not that, then perhaps Hallmark's recently-released Nautilus ornament as a consolation.

After Disney's film, perhaps the most critically-acclaimed was Michael Todd's 1956 adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Shot on location around the world – from the bull rings of Spain to the Great Buddha of Kamakura to the vistas of the American frontier – this star-studded epic cleaned out the Oscars, including a victory in Best Picture over The Ten Commandments. Warner Bros. has released a very nice two-disk DVD profuse with archival and documentary features.

If aural adventures playing across the mind's eye are more one's style, visit to download mp3 dramatizations of Verne, Wells, Conan Doyle and more. Alien Voices was founded by Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie, employing the talents of fellow Star Trek alumni to revitalize interest in the beginnings of the genre that made them famous. Such talented performers do the source material proud.

A wry commentary on Steampunk is made by Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series of novels. The trilogy begins with The Strange Affair of the Spring-Heeled Jack, continued with The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, and concludes with Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon. Hodder's history diverges from our own when a time traveller form the future accidentally makes the 1840 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria successful. The result is a wretched, polluted Steampunk age spiralling towards apocalypse, whose heroes desperately search for a way to restore the proper timeline.

If a more obvious satire is to your taste, you might prefer the Larklight trilogy by Philip Reeve. Though he undervalued the young adult novels Larklight, Starcross and Mothstorm in his quite public – and spot on – denouncement of Steampunk's staleness, they are an uproarious and fond riff on the pretensions of high Victorian-Edwardian planetary romances and boys-own-adventure.

There is so much more I could recommend, from James Gurney's fully painted Dinotopia books to Edward Erdelac's stories of a demon-hunting Jewish gunslinger begun in The Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter to fun mid-century films like Twentieth Century Fox's Journey to the Center of the Earth and Five Weeks in a Balloon to Paul Guinan's Boilerplate. Suffice this list to give a good starting point for explorations beyond the usual scope of Steampunk fashion, into the richness of the Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romance tradition, its adaptations, and playful responses to it in the modern age.

A quality Christmas, for those wont to celebrate it, is not as well served by culturally bland stories of sterile starships. Humbug! The warm comfort of the Yule log begs for the equally warm stories of pith-helmeted and petticoated adventurers.


Cory Gross is a museums and heritage professional from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to working at or volunteering for a number of science, nature and cultural history organizations in the city, he also runs the weblog Voyages Extraordinaires dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Futurism. It can be visited at

Cory Gross on Steampunk Part One

Ah, Steampunk Christmas... Ash falling lightly like snow, the tree bedecked with gears hanging from each bough, striped stockings tacked on the mantle of a gas fireplace built entirely of brass plumbing fixtures from Home Depot... What a horrible idea!

I am a firm believer that nothing needs to be Steampunk'd that actually existed in the Victorian Era, and nobody perfected Christmas like the Victorians. Christmas became a symbolic victim of the centuries of sectarian squabbling between Puritans and Catholics in the United Kingdom, the latter for it and the former against it. By the beginning of the 19th Century this had finally calmed down and the Victorians began to rediscover the holiday, looking back nostalgically at the days of Merrie England. The poem popularly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas was composed in 1822. The tradition of Christmas carolling began here, with many songs composed or printed for the first time. Charles Dickens cast a long shadow with his 1843 tale of hearth, home and the redemptive power of human fraternity, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, his ghosts, and their mid-19th Century winter frivolities have become as central a Yuletide fixture as Santa Claus, Rudolph and the Christ child. The first Christmas cards were printed that same year. As recreationists clamber over each other to lay primeval claims to the Christmas tree, we know for certain that it was Prince Albert who introduced the Tannenbaum to Buckingham Palace, and the rest of the kingdom followed suit. Though presently an act of consumerist gluttony, Boxing Day was originally invented in the Victorian Era as an act of charity to those caught under the grinding wheels of industrialization.

Over here in the colonies, my favourite winter activity is visiting the Banff Springs Hotel. Nestled into the Canadian Rocky Mountains, this Baronial castle completed in 1928 is truly resplendent in its Christmas outfit. Without, silent snow thickly blankets the fir trees and limestone peaks of Canada's first national park, created in 1885. Within, roaring fires in stone fireplaces warm eggnog sipping lovers. Mediaeval battlements constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway are jewelled with spruce and golden ornaments while beloved carols performed on bagpipes stir my 1/8th of Scottish blood. Such a beautiful experience could not happen without the unique intermingling of European heritage and North American landscape shaping Canada's cultural traditions.

Such a scene is all the better if I can curl up with some Dickens, or Verne, or Twain. The ethos that nothing Victorian need be Steampunk'd is more than a labour-saving convenience: it is a recognition that the very appeal of Scientific Romances hinge on their historicity. It is Science Fiction that is not artificially divorced from the aesthetics and traditions of our history, a tomorrow that does not forget yesterday. Within these pages and between these celluloid frames is the opulence of railway travel raised into the atmosphere, space ships made livable with Persian rugs and potted ferns, and exotic adventure without the loss of civilized comforts. Verne declared his objective to recount the scientific history of the universe with a decadent, French sense of style that can only come from a comprehensive grounding in aesthetic traditions as well as technological innovations. On Her Majesty's Aether-Ship Enterprise, you are guaranteed that the children of Earth have not forgotten to celebrate Yuletide.

It is also guaranteed that something genuinely Victorian looks better than something Steampunk'd. Sepia was the colour of 19th century film stock, not 19th century clothing! Victorians assiduously avoided the crudity of industrial equipment, preferring to adorn their steam engines with gilt rather than themselves with ornamental gears and rivets. One could certainly do worse than place some nice, large coffee table books about Gothic Revivalism, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Japonisme, Orientalism or Queen Anne style under the tree. What would I want beneath my tree, however? Or more to the point, what would I recommend for those of you with a Steampunk to buy presents for or a list to give to your non-Steampunk relatives?

My first recommendation is the indispensable gift of an e-reader. With such a marvellous tool, classics of Scientific Romances become easily accessible. The Steampunk in your family will have no excuse not to visit Project Gutenberg and download the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Garrett P. Serviss, Edward Everett Hale, Harry Collingwood, George Griffith, Rudyard Kipling, Sir H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edward S. Ellis, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Jacob Astor, Edward Bellamy, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Flicker Alley has compiled two very fine collections of pioneering French film in Georges Mlis: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) and Georges Mlis: Encore. Between the two, all 199 extant films by the auteur best known for A Trip to the Moon are preserved. The majority of these 15 hours of video are short trick films employing his techniques as a stage magician. However there are many astonishing long subjects drawing inspiration from such figures of French heritage as Joan of Arc, Charles Perrault and Jules Verne.

Speaking of France, the continental music group Dionysos released a tandem concept album and novel several years ago under the title La mécanique du cœur. The story tells of an infant named Jack, born in 1874 on the coldest night in history. To save his life, the midwife stimulates his heart with a clockwork mechanism. The unfortunate side-effect is that the frail boy can never fall in love or else his heart will break. The book by band mastermind Mathias Malzieu, translated into English as The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, tells the tale in a direct way while the album shines the poetic, musical facet. The enhanced CD also links to a site whereupon one can view the amazing video for the single Tais Toi Mon Cœur, done in the style of a Tim Burton stop-motion film.

I would be remiss not to mention volumes one and two of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Recently republished by Fantagraphics, this French comic by Jacques Tardi is a love letter to Penny Dreadfuls, faithful in style and tone. Fantagraphics also republished Tardi's The Arctic Marauder which painstakingly replicates the effect of illustrated engravings and connects to the Adèle Blanc-Sec mythology.

To be continued...


Cory Gross is a museums and heritage professional from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to working at or volunteering for a number of science, nature and cultural history organizations in the city, he also runs the weblog Voyages Extraordinaires dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Futurism. It can be visited at

Friday, 2 December 2011

Something For The Weekend - Iron Man

It'd be easy to write off Iron Man as a low brow 'man in a armored suit flies around biffing bad guys' if you've only seen the multiplex posters, but Iron Man has always had a depth to him I've found fascinating.

Tony Stark, the billionaire, industrialist, genius weapons designer has plenty of problems. He has little control of where his weapons end up once he's made them, and no say in who uses them to what ends. What he does have control over is the Iron Man suit and the technology that makes it work. Stark doesn't sit well with the title of 'warmonger' easily and there's a real sense of a man struggling to do the right thing (especially in Warren Ellis's Extremis). And there's the fact that Stark is an alcoholic, something Stan Lee wrote into the character way back in 1963.

Extremis is particularly satisfying because it's part character study, part  classicsuper hero versus super villain, but also has a strong emphasis on believing in a better future. An added allure to Extremis is the fact that the writer really is straight off the top shelf on this outing. Ellis combines his passion for technology and social commentary with a generous side helping of scathing humour.

Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca's run on Invincible Iron Man follows on neatly from Extremis and deals with Stark less comically than Robert Downey Jr.s wisecracking version. Stark must not only deal with inventing devices and running his company, but also act as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate or Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, versions differ).

He also dons the Iron Man suit and gets into the thick of it when trouble rears its head. The first six issues (collected as Invicible Iron Man Vol.1: The Five Nightmares) pits Start against Stane, the son of an old business rival. Stane has perfected using parts of Stark's technology to create high yield explosive devices ideal for suicide bombers.

Once again Stark feels his responsibility. He is both part of the problem and the solution, but he can only convince himself that he truly is the solution as long as he stays one step ahead in the arms/technology race. Invincible Iron Man is beautifully drawn and rendered collection that benefits from some grade 'A' writing. Tony Stark might be difficult to empathise with on account of his wealth and privledge, but Fraction imbues him with plenty of humanity, and that's what makes heroes great.

Expect to see more of Iron Man on bookshelves and at the multiplex with the arrival of The Avengers in 2013.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Flip a Switch and Kill a Fairy

One of the strengths of science fiction and fantasy is its ability to visualise real-world problems. From metaphors for apartheid (Zoo City) to overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar), genre fiction’s ability to dramatise issues is part of its eternal relevance.

Steampunk, for all its frills and fripperies, has made inroads into discussions of class and gender politics. (If nothing else, this seems to come with the territory with any fiction based on the Victorian period.) However steampunk has proven itself truly excellent when it comes to the representation of industrialization, and specifically, the consumption of natural resources.

The British Empire lived on coal - vast, terrifying quantities of the stuff. By 1914, nearly two-thirds of the world’s coal was mined in Britain, and one in ten British men were working in the coal industry. Although many books (from many genres of literature) have looked at the impact this made on working conditions and class struggles, what steampunk has done is investigate the underlying issues by actually anthropomorphizing the coal.

Jonathan’s Stroud’s Bartimaeus Chronicles tell the story of Nathaniel, a young magician in an alternate Victorian London. The trilogy follows his relationship with his summoned djinni, the titular Bartimaeus. Their interactions are alternatively charming and funny, with Nathaniel ambitions tempered by Bartimaeus’ cheek. The core of Stroud’s world, however, is surprisingly dark. The Empire is powered by magic. Magic, in turn, is the essence of the ‘demons’ (the broad term for all the spirits like Bartimaeus). Bartimaeus and his kin aren’t just slaves, their very being, their essence, drains away with every day they work. They’re both the miner and the coal, and the arc of the series develops as the demons grow more and more desperate.

The His Dark Materials trilogy adds a religious subtext into the mix as well. In Philip Pullman’s beautifully detailed world, children are connected to their shape-shifting animal familiars by invisible, magical bonds. The bond ostensibly represents their state of innocence. It also represents a possible power source. Throughout the books, children are kidnapped and severed from their familiars in order to harvest the strength of that bond. In this case, the children become representations child labor - losing their innocence (or metaphors thereof) in the magical workhouses. The religious (or irreligious) metaphor is obvious, but the sacrifice of adorable fuzzy magical creatures on the altar of mechanical power is equally striking. Would you still burn coal if it had big soulful eyes and a bushy tail?

Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers goes a bit further down the slippery slope. Half the book is set in the contemporary ‘real’ world, the other half is in the kingdom of Faerie, a magical world with distinctly Victorian style. The ruling houses (all named after plants, in the best flower fairy tradition) have seen our world and are keen to match our technological prowess - at any cost. Of course, Faerie isn’t a realm with traditional power sources. Instead, the magic comes from the fairies themselves. The ruling families run the factories figuratively, the fairy proletariat literally. Although structured as a traditional high fantasy novel (down to the lost prince, back to claim his throne), the book’s industrial underpinnings merit a closer read.

Steampunk enables authors to examine the costs of industrialization from a previously unvoiced perspective - the fuel itself. Be it fuzzy-tailed, fairy-winged or filled with bad puns, these are three different representations of both the social and environmental costs. And nor are these the only ones - Ian MacLeod's Light Ages, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter all take place in alternative Victorian histories where the Empire is powered by the consumption of magic... and magical creatures.

So make sure to turn the light off when you’re not using it - you’re wasting the fairies.


Jared Shurin is a judge for The Kitschies, the prize for progressive, entertaining and intelligent genre literature – now presented by The Kraken Rum. Jared is also part of the team at the geek culture blog Pornokitsch and the new genre imprint Pandemonium Fiction.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Something for the Weekend

Ernest Hemingway- 'A Moveable Feast'

Paris between the wars became for many writers and artists the only place to be. Among the scores of Americans who crossed the Atlantic seeking a place at the epicentre of western culture was a young Ernest Hemingway. He had recently quit a promising career as a journalist to dedicate himself to writing fiction, was newly married, and he was skint. 'A Moveable Feast' is his memoir of those years.

I say 'his memoir' because all sorts of things are inaccurate or unfair. He wrote it towards the end of his life and there is a fair amount of score settling (with the Fitzgeralds and Gertrude Stein in particular) as well as the customary Hemingway bluster. All that is entertaining knockabout stuff, but not a good enough reason to write the book. On closer reading Hemingway seems to be settling scores with himself, trying to comfort himself that he was not always the man he had turned out to be: a man he couldn't stand.

His evocation of Paris life, the characters, cafes, apartments, is extraordinarily powerful. He and the reader both feel its pull still. In a jocular, paternal tone he encourages the romantic and idealist in us all that romance and idealism have integrity, and that being poor doesn't have to be the end of the world. Of course nostalgia colours his view, and in those years the dollar allowed Americans to live very cheaply in Europe but that is not the point. It is a wonderful book. It will cheer you up. It is beautifully written, very entertaining, and it is very short so can be read easily on a Sunday afternoon.

Buy it here

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Bulgarian Steampunk: A Brief History in War By Harry Markov

Speculative fiction fuels itself with war. The most dynamic stories are born in troubled times. Epic fantasy and its sprawling military campaigns, urban fantasy and its back alley wars and science fiction with its fleets are all examples of large scale conflict establishing tropes and traditions in genre. Steampunk is no different. It runs on war. That's the 'punk' part. It's the mechanical force that propels the cogs of the genre onward. It's why I consider steampunk and Bulgaria to be a fruitful pairing.

It's impossible to discuss Bulgaria and not mention war. Bulgarians know war. We breathe it and live it. Through history we have conquered and we have fought to keep our land. We've lost battles. Fought for freedom. Fought to found our country again and we continue to fight, even though the wars we lead today are against our circumstances and each other.

Queen Victoria's rule coincides with Bulgaria's most turbulent historical period. During her reign, Bulgarians started upheavals, organized a resistance, fought wars for liberation and then unity. After centuries of slavery and slave mentality, a transition in this mentality was forced from two sides. The perseverance of Bulgarian culture and religion and the subsequent fierce oppression from the Ottoman empire, which went as far as to kidnap first sons and train them as Muslim soldiers with no trace of their heritage and no compassion for Christian slaves. The subsequent establishment of the Apostles of Freedom and the Freedom committees, whose aim was to mobilize all Bulgarians for one massive rebellion, can host a cat and mouse game between Bulgarian revolutionaries and Ottoman lawmen.

Bulgarian Steampunk could sit comfortably against the backdrop of political and military unrest after our first insurrections. The April Uprising - a planned nation-wide rebellion, which failed when the Ottoman Empire discovered the plans before the scheduled date - could be the best setting for a story of betrayal. On this note, I can recommend Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov as an example of how preparation for the April Uprising in Bulgarian villages ran and the demise of a village, which managed to join the rebellion.

Under the Yoke is a book every child in the Bulgarian school system has to read and study twice, once in middle school and once in high school. Vazov captures the spirit of the time, the mentality and the way the Bulgarian spoke and behaved at the time. If you want to have a glimpse into how an enslaved nation battled a century long fear, then this is an appropriate read and it has been translated in more than thirty languages worldwide.

Although I haven't read any papers in this field, I know there are many of these. My own knowledge about Bulgarian history comes mostly from my high school history textbook, History and Civilization, written by Ivan Lazarov, Ivan Tytyundjiev, Rumyana Mihneva, Luchezar Stoyanov, Milko Palangurski and Violeta Stoycheva. (I doubt there is an English translation yet.)

Now imagine if all these events occurred in a world of zeppelins, mechanical mounts and automaton armies. Where revolutionaries swing swords along with steam-powered rifles. The adventurous motives are already present and provide fertile ground for a multicultural reimagining of a genre that preoccupies itself with aesthetics - though I imply nothing negative with it. The Balkan passion, as well as the patriotism that accompanied this Bulgarian National Revival, would provide soul and fire for the characters.

For more reading suggestions on this topic, please see 'War, Steampunk, Bulgaria' at Beyond Victoriana.


Writer, reviewer and columnist, Harry Markov has most recently become the official minion of one Jaym Gates, publicist extraordinaire. His personal soapbox is Through a Forest of Ideas, and you can follow him on Twitter @HarryMarkov. You can find Harry Markov's non-fiction at Innsmouth Free Press, Beyond Victoriana, The Portal, Pornokitsch and The World SF blog.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Kim Lakin-Smith on Dustpunk

'We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real."

Avis D. Carlson: The New Republic magazine, 1935

The dust storm is one of Nature's deadliest, rising up from the wastes to suffocate the landscape. But alongside the devastation, there is something captivating about dust's dark beauty, from the apocalyptic streak of grey at the horizon to the quiet drift of motes in the atmosphere. Despite its natural origins, dust has a creepy, alienesque quality which appeals to me as a reader and a writer. The dustbowl is the perfect setting for offbeat, character-driven narratives. Dust speaks of poverty, barrenness, vigilantism, lone gunmanship, makeshift mechanics, and the endless search for hydration aka salvation.

In literary terms, dustpunk is a grittier, desert-based alternative to steampunk. The term is sometimes applied to stories set in 1880s America, specifically the Wild West. For me though the subgenre borrows from 1930s American dustbowl narratives. The landscape is bleak, the people forced to colour it with travelling shows, miracle elixirs, sit-up-and-beg trucks, tumbledown farmsteads and religion. Think Carnivale, The Wizard of Oz's pre-twister Kansas, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, but with a generous dose of the science fictionally weird and mechanically corroded.

In many ways, dustpunk is less akin to steampunk than the dystopian ecopunk of Mad Max. Fuel is a scarcity fought for and fought over. Alternatively, old tech mechanics are adapted to suit new fuels derived from minerals or self-sustaining plant life. Either way, dustpunk is not a genre suited to gleaming brass, well-greased pistons and an elegant turn of the ankle; this is a violent wasteland of make-do and subsistence. Which is not to suggest these are stories without hope or wonderment, only that the dust narrative is a rawer breed of 'punk'.

Inside its own barb-wire boundaries, dustpunk varies wildly in tone. The Book of Eli is an exquisitely dark narrative, the focus being on an epic quest through an often deserted, sometimes violent, setting. In contrast, Tank Girl is a gutsy, girl-with-gun riot laced with humour and the downright peculiar. Solipsist Films have recently brought the rights to a vampire story set in the dustbowl of 1930s America - the as-yet-unpublished graphic novel, In The Dust, written by George Mahaffey. My own stories range from the dustbowl mining planet of Cyber Circus to the desiccated coral bed of Deluge. Both are themed around scarcity, corruption and geological wilderness.

Steampunk is often accused of superficiality, in particular of aesthetics taking priority over substance. But this is where it is important to emphasise the 'punk' aspect of these alternative histories/other worlds. Dustpunk's edginess is quite literally grounded in its sore earth. Stories should be a darn good yarn, but they should also make readers think and feel. Just like the dust of Avis D. Carlson's 1930s America, they should become Real.

Kim Lakin-Smith's latest book, Cyber Circus, was released in September 2011 from NewCon Press. Kim lives on the first floor of a Victorian gothic mansion house with her mini demon of a daughter and dark lord of a husband.


Join us on 8 December at Blackwell's for our exhibition & exploration of this fascinating sub-genre of fantastic literature. Guests include Adam Roberts, China Miéville, Kim Lakin-Smith, Jonathan Green, Lavie Tidhar, Philip Reeve and a host of amazing artists and craftspeople. Plus, Plarchie!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Turning Up The Heat – Steampunk at Blackwells

‘So what is this steampunk business then?’ asked one of the managers. And with those simple words a can of worms was opened and those worms will remain wriggling until our steampunk night on December 8th. And beyond.

The books chosen for the steampunk promotion aren’t necessarily classic definitions of the genre, but are designed to invite discussion. Which trappings and tropes have particular authors picked to adorn their imagined worlds? Is steampunk merely about top hats, dirigibles, or moral values of a bygone age? Do steam engines and goggles get in the way of examining Victorian society, and what does this glimpse back into our Imperial past tell us about the world we live in today?

For me, personally, steampunk is lovable mutt. Not a thoroughbred like traditional Hard SF or High Fantasy, but a weird stew of influences. Which other genre mixes historical fiction with SF, frequently adds a dose of ‘boys own adventure’ and dares to examine how society functioned in a bygone age? Steampunk, like all good SF, holds a mirror up to the way we live now, not by reflecting back the possible future, but instead comparing us to an impossible past.

Let’s take a look at some of the promoted titles:

Even a punch-drunk navvie who’d fallen face-first from a Zepplin (beg pardon, dirigible) would know that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) is the birth of this contentious sub-genre. The Difference Engine is an alternate history novel set in 1855. Much of the novel focuses on a missing set of computer punch cards, used by Charles Babbage’s analytical engines. Sterling and Gibson explore (often through the protagonists, but sometime through vignettes) how the computer-aided steam age has changed Britain and her Empire.
Heart of Veridon (2009) on the other hand is not set in this world. The City of the Cog is a vast industrial affair, and the inhabitants have learned how to fuse technology with their bodies. The protagonist, Jacob Burn, is a failed airship pilot and now spends his days among the criminals of the city. However, it is his noble birth that places him at the heart of a conspiracy and he is deceived and hounded by the authorities at every turn. Heart of Veridon is followed by Dead of Veridon, making up the first two books of Tim Akers; Burn Cycle.
Gail Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti novels fuse steampunk with paranormal romance. Soulless (2009) is set in an alternate history where werewolves and vampires are functioning members of society. Much of the novel is concerned with etiquette and decorum, but there’s also plenty to get your teeth into, including the mystery of several missing vampires. Carriger’s other novels in this series include Changeless (2010), Blameless (2010), and Heartless (2011).
The Windup Girl (2009) is set in Thailand during the 23rd century. It focuses on the fate of Emiko, the titular Windup Girl. In a world controlled by calorie companies, beset by bio-engineered plagues, Emiko finds herself amid seething conspiracies and ambitious agendas. 

Other titles on our list include:

Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004) by China Mieville.
Retribution Falls (2009), The Black Lung Captain (2010) and The Iron Jackal (2011) by Chris Wooding.
Swiftly (2008) by Adam Roberts
The Diamond Age (1995) by Neil Stevenson
Fever Crumb(2010) and The Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve
Cyber Circus (2011) by Kim Laikin Smith
The Bookman (2011) by Lavie Tidhar
Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus (2010) Jonathan Green

What titles would be on your list? Are there novels listed above that don’t fit your definition of ‘steampunk’? Let us know in the comments or come and discuss it with us on 8th December.

Den Patrick is full-time bookseller, part-time writer and lover of all things Geek.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Something for the weekend..

How I escaped my certain fate (the life & deaths of a stand-up comedian)

By Stewart Lee

Hello & welcome to 'Something for the Weekend', a weekly post where one of us Blackwellians gives you an idea of a weekend reading treat. (That introduction was for all the Steampunk fans/haters busily scrolling down to find the more steamy & punky stuff ).

I've always liked Stewart Lee, from his early duo days with (the also very funny) Richard Herring, to his solo return of smallish venues to his more recent BBC2 television series. He is to put it very simply an extremely funny man.

At first i thought this book was a straight biography & (as i like biographies) I was at first disappointed to realise it's only partly that. The majority of the book is taken up with transcripts of 3 of his shows (direct transcripts so you get the 'er's & pauses etc). Aah well I thought those will still be very entertaining. But they are much more than that - Each show is littered with hilarious & incisive notes (some so long they take whole pages up), so basically it's a book with a commentary. Now I know that will put some of you off but give it a try, some commentaries are great! (e.g Ricky Gervais, Kevin Smith).

There is some biography here too, but again that is full of Lee's trademark dry, self deprecating wit. There are also lots of nice indie music references for the over 30's, and some entertaining appendices. All in all it's a quick, revealing, entertaining & most importantly very very funny read.

buy it here


Thursday, 17 November 2011

An Introduction to Steampunk

Steampunk. The inexorable tension between corsets and brass-banded blasters; the tug-of-rope between Victorian themes and Victorian images; the tightrope act involved in balancing present-minded respect and past-minded romanticism while negotiating the vanishingly-thin line between. Love it or loathe it, steampunk has become an indelible feature of modern geek culture.

It seems that almost anything with some sort of Victorian-y trappings is accused of steampunkery these days – from the obvious (Gail Carriger!) to the arguable (China Miéville) to the unsustainable. (Alexandre Dumas?) And, occasionally, not even that. (see e.g, Regretsy's list of 'Not Remotely Steampunk' Etsy offerings.)

And, as with anything wildly popular, steampunk has its own faction of vocal detractors.
An informal internet poll has led to this sweeping and likely wholly unfair generalization: the anti-steampunkers have two bees in their bonnets. One: they don’t think there’s much Quality Writing in steampunk. Two: they’re just tired of steampunk.
To address the second issue first: yes, there’s a lot of steampunk around right now. A lot. And it can be exhausting – cons are drowning in steampunk panels, made up of the begadgeted and attended by oceans of the becorsetted, all waggling their brass-bound pith-helmets and solar-powered x-ray goggles back and forth at each other in a fervid mutual appreciation society. If you’re tired of steampunk, you’re not alone in that feeling. But you are, I’m sorry to say, unfortunate in it. Steampunk is everywhere, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

The other anti-steampunk argument, however, is worth considering in some detail. There is a lot of steampunk writing out there, and it’s not all great. Steampunk has rife with lousy characterization, bad science, plot holes within plot holes, and derivative ideating. Of course, the same is true of any subgenre – or, you know, all writing in general. Not all the writing in any one genre is going to be great. Or even very good. But that doesn’t mean it’s all terrible, either.

Author Catherynne Valente for example, has argued that steampunk novels are just adventure stories, not "astonishing novels that pluck the strings of the soul, [books] that make you clasp [them] to your chest and love [them] because [they] say something real and authentic about your life… books that you put in your sig file, that you quote endlessly because they said something you just couldn’t say any other way."

The fact of the matter is, most books aren’t capital-a astonishing. That steampunk hasn’t produced one person's"burst into tears at the thought of it" book yet? I’d be willing to put money down that most subgenres haven’t produced that book yet. I'd also be willing to argue that there are readers out there who have found that book, and that, in some cases, that book is a steampunk novel.

The fact of the matter is: most books aren’t astonishing. That shouldn’t devalue what those unastonishing books are.

But let’s accept,for the sake of argument, that there is not a lot of astonishing steampunk writing out there. That steampunk hasn’t had its Nabokov or its Proust, its Hammett or its Sayers, its Brontë or its Woolf; that it isn’t well-written or it isn’t thoughtful or it isn’t this or isn’t that or isn’t the brass-bound other.
That's an awful lot of isn't.

So let’s stop talking about what steampunk isn’t. Let’s start talking about what steampunk is.

My first submission: steampunk is fun. It’s about adventure, excitement, invention and derring-do. Fun is okay. Fun is fine. Fun is great. Fun is awesome, you guys. There is nothing wrong with fun. It’s time to stop bashing on unabashed escapism.

Secondly, steampunk is modern. Steampunk has given authors and readers a new way to approach older, tiresome, even moribund subgenres. Historical romance novels, for example, are a dime a dozen. But drop a dirigible and a steam-powered personal flying apparatus into your novel about Lord Thaddeus Lovejoy and the plucky middle-class second-daughter who loves him, and suddenly the creaking old romance novel is interesting again.

Third, steampunk is progressive. It walks the line between fantasy and science fiction in ways older subgenres don’t. As the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy crumble away, steampunk rides their erosion into the future – that marvelous, not-so-imaginary world where it’s okay that sci fi and fantasy have a lot in common. And steampunk can be a way of writing about society, about social structures and class and gender and race and imperialism and modernity. Those were real problems in the real nineteenth century, so pulling them out and examining them under a twenty-first century lens – which can be steampunk goggles as well as scanning electron microscopes – is as valid a way of interacting with them as any other.

Fourth, steampunk is intelligent. No, not all of it – because not all of anything is ever everything. But it contains the seeds of its own potential within its very name. Steampunk definitionally requires some sort of science to operate within its own ambit: it’s about the nineteenth century, roughly, and the great technological advances of that period, both real and imaginary. Do some steampunk authors just make stuff up and drop it into their books irrespective of whether or not that technology would work? Of course they do! Exactly like science fiction authors have been doing for a century.

Fifth, and finally: steampunk is young. Not young in the sense that it’s read primarily by a youthful demographic, or written by under-25s. Young in that it hasn’t been around very long. All the arguments laid out here are worth having – they’re not just important, they’re vital – but it’s always worth remembering that they’re about a subgenre that, in the final analysis, people are just really starting to explore.
In sum, steampunk is one of the most robust things to happen to genre in decades. Steampunk is here. It may not be here forever, but it’s here now. So let’s start talking about it like it matters.

Because it does. Steampunk matters.

Anne Perry talks the big talk over at Pornokitsch. She's supposed to be working on a Ph.D., even though she seems to spend most of her time thinking about monster movies. She recently edited Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse.

The Kitschies are an annual award for those books which best elevate the tone of genre literature.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Christmas is coming...

and here's a little taste of what we're up to.

If you've been into our shop recently you may have noticed there's a distinct flavour of Christmas happening at Blackwell's. We've decked the halls with garlands, the Christmas trees are twinkling, and we have tables groaning under the weight of exciting and beautiful books.

We've decided to get an early start on the celebrations of Dickens' birth (February 2012 is his 200th), by stocking up on a range of Victorian treats for that traditional festive feel. So we have a table of Victorian novels past and present, which includes all the classics (Dickens, Collins, Hardy) and some of our favourite modern novels set during the period (Sarah Waters, Michel Faber, Angela Carter). We've also got great books on Victorian London and social history.

Most thrilling of all we have two special late night events in December. December 8th sees the launch of our Steampunk night in partnership with the Kitschies.

There will be literary and artistic goodies galore at this special evening, including tasters of Kraken Black Spiced Rum to warm us up. More about this event can be found here and on Facebook.
Don't know much about steampunk? Our guest bloggers will be posting scintillating articles here over the next few weeks to tempt you in, so keep on checking the blog.

The second of our late nights may appeal more to those who are not into fantastical machines and leather corsets. Historians Kate Williams (Becoming Queen, England's Mistress) and Louise Raw (Striking a Light) will be celebrating women's lives in Victorian Britain, from queens to fallen women, over some free wine and mince pies.

Both events are free and anyone can come and get into the holiday spirit with us while browsing our incredible books. We'll be dressing up in bustles and top hats, you are welcome to join in with that, too! Watch this space for more information...

Friday, 11 November 2011

Something for the weekend..

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

As a reader with an addiction to detective novels, I wish Golden Age crime writer Josephine Tey had written more than a handful of books, and for years have hunted unsuccessfully for a biography of the author. It seems I am not alone! Upson set out to write a biography of Tey (one of several pen names of Elizabeth Mackintosh), but found it so difficult to uncover information about her that she ended up writing a series of crime novels which star Tey, interweaving fact and fiction.

The result is a fun, engrossing series which begins with An Expert in Murder. Set in 1930s Theatreland, Josephine's play Richard of Bordeaux is in its final week. But what should be a celebration of the play's success turns sour when a young woman is murdered. Josephine's detective friend, Archie Penrose, sets out to solve the case with Josephine and a cast of intriguing characters caught up in the drama.
This book's vision of 1930s London is glamorous and sordid at once, with a real sense of the devastation of WWI still hanging over the city and the characters.

One of the things I love about Tey's novels is the whisper of a queer subtext that can only be hinted at during the period, and Upson does a brilliant job of making this more overt for a modern reader. All this, plus I failed to identify the murderer before the end of the novel. A weekend treat.

Sarah T.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Something for the weekend.

Keith Richards - Life
It's been a long time coming, with too many unauthorized Rolling Stones biographies to mention, but finally we have the ultimate, and at times shocking, first hand account of Keith's experiences in what he would lovingly refer to as "the crossfire hurricane".

Hands down THE music biography of the year, Life is awash with Keith's affectionate matter-of-fact honesty and reads like an endless roller coaster of Jack Daniels-fueled adventures. Great rock autobiographies are a rare species, but this book by Richards (amounting to almost 600 pages!) is an absolute joy to read.

No stone is left unturned (excuse the pun) and the amount Keith actually remembers is phenomenal. The book meticulously covers everything from his childhood in Dartford, Kent and every misadventure in between, ranging from the famous drug bust in Fordyce, Arkansas to the awe inspiring and now infamous Exile On Main Street recording sessions, through to Keith's ability to stay awake for nine days straight (when under the right influence) and his enormous admiration for buddies Gram Parsons, Bobby Keys and shepherds pie.

At the core of the book is the Jagger/Richards relationship, which has gone through phases of almost tender brotherly love to intense visceral hatred, and ends with Keith simply dismissing Jagger's ludicrous knighthood and deciding to let things be (as long as their dressing rooms are at least a mile apart).

Life is a surprisingly fast paced and exciting book, and probably the only biography this year to include an in depth and personalised recipe for bangers and mash.

Graham Bywater
Buy it here: