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.