Tag Archives: Philip Reeve

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

Life, my friends, is getting in the way again. I’m busy, distracted, not altogether in the peak of health, and struggling with tiredness like nothing I’ve ever struggled with before.

I’m fine, of course. All will be well. But my own work has ground to a crushing halt (which I deeply regret), and I don’t have any pithy advice to dispense, and I am all out of clever ways around writers’ block (unlike these guys), and I certainly don’t feel like much of an authority on anything these days, besides self-pity.


This is a post about some stuff I’ve read lately which I’ve found particularly inspirational, interesting and/or useful. Not all of it is about writing – some of it is just about life. But it’s all good. Put the kettle on, relax, and share a cuppa with me, won’t you? Good-oh.

Aaah. Lip-smacking good! Photo Credit: markhassize11feet via Compfight cc

Aaah. Lip-smacking good!
Photo Credit: markhassize11feet via Compfight cc

On Being a Fat Bride

Some of you who’ve been around these parts for a while may know about my struggles with body image, weight and self-esteem. It’s something I take a huge interest in, this cultural obsession with thinness, and particularly the ‘health trolling’ which can surround commentary about women (in particular) and their bodies in the media. People feel it’s their right to treat those with weight issues like they were less than human, sometimes, and worthy of nothing but disrespect and ridicule. I hate that more than I hate almost anything else in the world. I am a person who struggles. I am a person who has struggled all her life. Most importantly, I am a person, and I deserve to be treated as such – not simply as a person who is fat. Sadly, this is so often not the case.

Several years ago, I got married. I felt great on the day, but I had trouble finding a suitable dress in the weeks and months leading up to the event itself. I had to think about things like covering myself up, pulling myself in, camouflaging things I hated about my appearance, and making sure the gown I chose was ‘flattering’. So, when I read this article by journalist Lindy West, about her own wedding day and how she was a happy, joyous, celebratory – and unapologetically, unashamedly fat – bride, it made me well up. Like Lindy, I loved my wedding day. Unlike her, I didn’t have the same sense of freedom around my appearance. I regret that I didn’t allow myself the space to enjoy my body, and that this is something I generally have trouble with. The article inspired me. I loved it. Have a read. But if you come across any comments, either relating to this version of the article or any of the numerous versions of it which were reprinted in other media outlets, do yourself a favour and skip those. Trust me.

On the label ‘MG’ and what it signifies

I love Philip Reeve. He’s a creative powerhouse and a central figure in the world of children’s books, both as a writer and an illustrator. He wrote a blog post in recent days about the label ‘Middle Grade’, or ‘MG’, and why it gets attached with such alacrity to children’s books outside of the United States, where the term ‘middle grade’ is meaningless. This is something which has bothered me, too, for a long time, but I could never articulate it quite the way Reeve has done. Perhaps his take on the issue is rather contentious, and somewhat divisive, but I largely agree with him. And, for once, the comments are ace and well worth reading (probably because most of them are written by children’s book professionals!)

On Illustrating, Illustrators, and the Hard Work of Being Creative

Sarah McIntyre (who has, incidentally, regularly worked with Philip Reeve) is another children’s book professional whom I admire hugely. She is an illustrator and a creator of picture books, and for a long time now she has been building a campaign online under the tagline #PicturesMeanBusiness, which aims to ensure illustrators start to get the recognition they deserve. I will hold my hands up and say that before I came across this campaign, I was a typical ‘text-fixated’ type; illustrations (whether they were on the cover or dotted inside the book) were, for me, an added bonus, but not something I thought about too deeply. That has all changed now. Before, I used to make sport of finding the illustrator’s name (usually in tiny type somewhere on the back of the book, or in the copyright/publication metadata at the front, and sometimes not included at all); now, I’m not happy unless illustrators get full credit, whether it’s online or in clear font, somewhere visible on the book jacket. I hope more people will get on board with this, and that we’ll see a change beginning in the world of publishing. For more, see Sarah McIntyre’s recent blog post on the process of producing illustrations, and how it’s a lot harder than it looks.

On Being a Weirdo (and Why it Rocks)

I’ve never read Laura Dockrill’s books, despite the fact that she seems like a fascinating person with a unique voice. This article, which she wrote for the Guardian during the week, might make me take the plunge into her wacky imaginary world, for once and for all. In it, she talks about the importance of being yourself, no matter how weird you might be – in fact, the weirder the better, it seems. This is one of the reasons I love books for young readers; they have such power to shape thinking, to alter the course of a life for the better, to influence and affect and make a difference. Not only do children’s books possess some of the most imaginative world-building, language use and characterisation in literature, but they make the children who read them feel part of something bigger, comfort them in times of challenge, make them see they’re not alone, and (hopefully) help them to be happier in their own shoes. And what could be better than that?

Nothing. That’s what.

And finally there’s this great list of reads from some of the contributors to the site (gasp!) Middle Grade Strikes Back, which details what people are bringing off on holiday with them to keep them company by the pool. I’ve read several, but most are new to me. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too.

Au revoir for now, poupettes. Stay well. I hope I’ll be back soon – and that there’ll actually be some writing news to tell you!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Predator’s Gold’

Predator’s Gold, first published in 2003, is the sequel to Mortal Engines, the first book in the Mortal Engines quartet. I read Mortal Engines last year, and absolutely loved it; it’s taken me longer than I’d have liked to hunt down and devour Predator’s Gold, but now I have, I’m delighted with it.

Image: thelookingblog.blogspot.com

Image: thelookingblog.blogspot.com

The Mortal Engines books take place in a world which has been ravaged, almost one thousand years in the past, by what was dubbed the ‘Sixty Minute War.’ Everything we might be familiar with has been destroyed, or changed utterly, including the cities, which are now not fixed and stable but mobile, travelling around what remains of the earth on massive caterpillar tracks. These ‘traction cities’, arranged in tiers like a large cake or (as I imagined it) the decks of a ship, run on steam-power and ingenuity, and can be home to thousands of people. Some – like London, the primary setting for the first novel, and Anchorage, aboard which much of this second novel takes place – have names which we might recognise, but others (like Traktiongrad and Peripatetiapolis) are wonderful half-understood places, which we don’t see but whose existence adds texture and fullness to the novel’s imaginary world. One of the many things I loved about this book, and its predecessor, is its use of words, including names and puns and references to our reality. The best of these, for me, was the inclusion of the lost map of Vineland which, in this fictional world, purports to show the way to the green, empty plains of America (or what is left of it, at least); to this ex-medievalist reader, that reference raised a grin.

Our hero (Tom Natsworthy) and heroine (Hester Shaw) escaped the clutches of Shrike, a reanimated corpse-cum-cyborg, in the first novel, and, at the opening of Predator’s Gold, find themselves aboard the airship Jenny Haniver, bequeathed to them by the deceased aviatrix Anna Fang. They have spent two years since the events of Mortal Engines falling in love and becoming an inseparable couple (though the mechanics of this isn’t hugely focused on in the book, and it certainly isn’t a soppy ‘romance’ by any stretch of the imagination), as well as travelling the world, earning their living. In the port of Airhaven they are approached by a certain Professor Pennyroyal, who convinces them to take him on board as a passenger (in reality, he is fleeing a creditor), and they leave in haste. Their airship, recognised as the one which used to be flown by the late, lamented Fang, is attacked and chased by enemies unknown, and in the course of making good their escape, Tom, Hester and the good Professor are rescued by the city of Anchorage. Under the rule of its young margravine, Freya Rasmussen, the city of Anchorage is making for the mythical land of America, where green and pleasant land is rumoured to lie. The radioactivity left over from the Sixy Minute War is supposed to have dissipated enough to make the country livable, and so – based on nothing more than rumour and legend – the desperate city is making its way across the icy wastes in the hope of reaching sanctuary. One of the main sources for these rumours and legends is none other than Professor Pennyroyal himself, who has earned a pretty penny (royal or not) from writing books about the bountiful land of America which he has supposedly visited and explored in detail. So, when he arrives in her city, Freya is only too delighted to receive him, and immediately appoints him Navigator.

Gradually, unease begins to grow between Hester and Freya, focused (of course) on Tom, but this isn’t the usual ‘teenage girls being stupid over a boy’ nonsense. Freya, as her city’s leader, needs to make a good marriage to keep her line going, and after a plague aboard Anchorage claimed most of her prospects, along with both her parents, she sees Tom as more than just a handsome stranger. He is the future of her family. Hester, naturally enough, isn’t happy about this. In a course of action which the reader at once deplores and completely understands, Hester takes her leave of Anchorage and does something devastating in an effort to win Tom back; of course, it spectacularly backfires, leaving Hester captive and a massive predator city on Anchorage’s trail.

For, of course, in this world, Municipal Darwinism reigns supreme. The larger cities hunt, eat, and destroy the smaller ones, and it is most definitely ‘survival of the fittest’ – or the fastest. Because of Hester’s actions, Anchorage and all its passengers, including Tom, are left in mortal danger – and there’s nothing she can do.

Until she meets another Stalker, one who was, while alive, a person Hester knew quite well…

Predator’s Gold is an excellent book, with a rich and complex plot, and this summary has only given the bare bones of one of its many storylines. I haven’t told you about Uncle and his team of burglars, or Windolene Pye, or the loyal Smew. I certainly haven’t mentioned Widgery Blinkoe and his five wives. You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out all about them, and I sincerely hope you do.

If I was forced to make a criticism of Predator’s Gold, I’d have to say that I felt the ending was a little hasty. It seemed like things were wrapped up too quickly, in a sort of ‘and then this happened, and that happened, and finally this happened, and then it was happily ever after’ way, instead of the tense, dramatic and powerfully described style which preceded it. I’m not sure why this is: setting up the third novel, perhaps. Making the reader impatient for more. Whatever the reason, I’m sure there was one, and one thing I know for sure – I’m now on the hunt for Infernal Devices, book three of the quartet. Onward, traction cities!


Book Review Saturday – ‘Inverted World’

Where do I even begin with this book review? I mean… I don’t know what I mean.

Image: wherearewegoingwaltwhitman.rietveldacademie.nl

Image: wherearewegoingwaltwhitman.rietveldacademie.nl

First published in 1974, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (called The Inverted World in some editions) is, to my mind, a strange beast. It’s an SF Masterwork, which is why it found its way home to me; I’m a total sucker for that series of books, as you may remember from this post. I was intrigued by it in the main because of the fact that it is about a giant city which is mobile, winched along a huge system of tracks in order to try to catch up with the mysterious ‘optimum’, always slightly ahead of the city and always just out of its reach. I’ve read (and loved) Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, a children’s book which uses a very similar idea – that of giant cities mounted on tracks which must keep moving or die – and so I was intrigued by the idea of this earlier book, and curious to see how different or similar it would be to Reeve’s work. I’m also prepared to admit that Inverted World had a lot to live up to – I really do love Mortal Engines. So, perhaps it was overburdened with expectation from the start.

There is a lot to enjoy in Inverted World, however, not least of which the intriguing use of narrative voice. The book begins in third person, telling the story of a woman named Elizabeth (Liz) Khan who appears to be working as a medic in a dusty frontier-type town. After our brief introduction to Khan, we are then thrown into a first-person narrative in the voice of Helward Mann, who is, in his own words, ‘six hundred and fifty miles old,’ or just at the age of maturity. After this section in first-person, we enter a third-person narration, distancing us from Helward but still following his life. Then, it’s back to first-person Helward, and finally back to third-person Liz Khan. It’s an interesting structure, which I admired. I also admit to being riveted by Helward’s opening line about being ‘six hundred and fifty miles old’; it’s one of the most effective introductions in fiction I’ve ever read.

Helward lives on board a giant city, known to its inhabitants as Earth, which is slowly and painfully being winched across the surface of a distant planet. This planet has a strangely-shaped sun and an odd gravitational field; time works weirdly here, and a complicated system of guilds within the city work hard to keep the populace ignorant of most of the realities of their world, including that the city is moving at all, what the outside world looks like, how their synthetic food is made, and why their world is the way it is. The city of Earth must keep moving, because if it does not it risks destruction; even without this extraordinary pressure, however, it is in danger. Its population is declining because far more boys than girls are being born, and because there are so few women a system of bartering takes place as the city moves, which sees women from ‘outside’ convinced to come to the city, procreate with its men, and then return home. The city’s guilds also use the labour and resources of the people who live in the areas through which it passes; this labour, despite the pains which are apparently taken to look after the workers’ rights, is perilously close to exploitation.

For at least three-quarters of this book, my disbelief needed to be propped up repeatedly. I’m all for immersing myself in a fictive world, but for that to happen it needs to make sense and be clear. I had to admit that I couldn’t get my head around the city of Earth. This wasn’t because of the fact that it was on tracks, which had to be laboriously lifted from behind it and re-laid in front, nor the fact that it needed to move for mysterious reasons, nor even the fact that there were members of the Futures Guild who scouted out the terrain in front of the city and came home strangely changed – all of that, I had no problem with. I found it hard to imagine because of the fact that they were clearly not alone on this planet. The fact that the inhabitants of Earth were constantly negotiating, dealing and interacting with other humans – people who spoke Spanish and who lived in dirt-poor conditions compared with the relative luxury of the city – kept dragging me out of the world Priest was creating. I didn’t like Helward much, either; he seemed unnecessarily dense, and his attitude towards women (particularly his wife, Victoria) got on my nerves, but perhaps that was the point. Also, the book was a little slow, particularly during the early sections which deal with Helward’s apprenticeship and his education on the tracks – which was, I guess, supposed to mirror his experience – but when we get to the point where Helward starts to put things together, the pace picks up and things get much more enjoyable. I found the end fascinating from an SF point of view, but from a narrative point of view it was a bit rushed and disappointing.

So, all in all, this book was a mixed bag.

Image: users.skynet.be

Image: users.skynet.be

From a science perspective, and a hard SF perspective, this book is a deserved and acknowledged classic. From this reader’s point of view, though, the end is a little too ‘deus ex machina’ and the start too detailed and hard to plough through. If you’re going to read it, all I’ll say is: keep going through the opening sections, because the latter parts are worth it. It’s not a reader-friendly book but it is a marvellous piece of imaginative fiction and the truth behind Earth city (albeit, to my mind, clumsily handled) is intriguing. It’s the sort of ending that makes the whole book which has come before it morph into a different reality in your mind, and I like that.

I’m not much into giving ‘ratings’ for books, but this one would be a 6.5 for readability and an 8 for concept. So, draw your own conclusions!

My Top Reads of 2013 (Children’s and YA)

And so, as promised, here are a few of the books (in the categories of ‘Children’s Literature’ and ‘YA Literature’), read over the past year, which made enough of an impression on me to stick in my memory. As with my previous list, they’re not all books published in the last twelve months, for reasons pecuniary and otherwise, but maybe some of them will be new to you anyway.

Image: mychildbook.com

Image: mychildbook.com

Favourite Reads of 2013

I read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder in one sitting, like taking a long drink of water on a hot day. The story of a young boy named August who has a facial deformity – and, crucially, of his sister Olivia (or ‘Via’) who struggles to cope with her feelings surrounding August’s condition, and the way people treat him as a result – it’s a beautiful little book. Some critics have called it ‘maudlin’ and ‘over-the-top,’ and, to a certain extent, it is, but I loved it anyway. I loved August, and his wonderful voice, and I really loved the way we hear from Olivia, too, and how she deals with her own feelings of jealousy (because August is ‘the special child’), as well as her overprotective tendencies and her absolute devotion to her brother. Some of the characters, particularly the adults, are a little one-dimensional in this story, but that’s not even important. This book is not about adults – it’s about one little boy, doing the best he can with what he has. Its catchphrase, ‘Always be Kinder than Necessary,’ is something I particularly remember from my experience of reading it.

I finally managed to read Frances Hardinge’s Verdigris Deep this year, too. In contrast to her other novels, this one is set in a contemporary setting, and tells the story of Ryan, Chelle and Josh who, when stuck for money to pay for the bus home one night, steal some old coins from an abandoned wishing well. From that moment on, their lives begin to change. Strange events start happening, and – in a brilliantly creepy piece of ‘body horror’, white bumps start to erupt on Ryan’s hands, which turn out to be more than just a skin infection. Then, Ryan begins to have visions of a woman who tries to speak through a torrent of water gushing out of her mouth, and he understands enough to know that this is the Well Witch, and by stealing her coins the youngsters are now bound to do her will. Ryan and Chelle try to break the spell and release themselves from the Witch’s bonds, but Josh seems to enjoy the new-found power that granting the Well Witch’s wishes gives him, and breaking him out of it is not so easy… An utterly brilliant book, ‘Verdigris Deep’ is a quick read by comparison with Frances Hardinge’s other work, which tends to be set in fantastical times and places with huge amounts of world-building. That doesn’t mean I loved it any less than her other books – on the contrary, it has become my second favourite, behind ‘A Face Like Glass.’

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

All Fall Down and Ways to Live Forever are novels by Sally Nicholls, and they couldn’t be more different – well, besides the fact that they both deal with death, that is. ‘All Fall Down’ is set in England during the time of the Black Death, and tells the story of Isabel and her family, who live in a small village called Ingleforn. They are peasant farmers, but seem happy – Isabel is part of a loving family, and her future has already been mapped out for her. She will marry Robin, her childhood friend, and they will raise their family the same way her parents have raised her, and so on forevermore.

Then, the pestilence comes, and everything changes.

This story isn’t so much about ‘suspense’, because anyone who knows anything about the Plague will understand what’s going to happen. It’s more a story about family, bonds between people, the sheer human tragedy of the death toll during 1348-9, and one teenage girl’s indomitable will to survive.

Ways to Live Forever is the story of Sam, who is an eleven-year-old cancer patient. He is inquisitive and wants to know everything he can – and there’s so much he wants to do before his time comes to die. He makes a list, and then his doctor tells him he has much less time left than he thought… This book made me cry in great shuddering sobs, but it’s still one of my favourite reads this year. Sam made a little nest in my heart, and he’ll never leave. I loved it, but it’s a challenging read if you’re emotional. Fair warning.

Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines was finally read by me this year. How did I leave this one so long? Heck knows. Anyway, we’re in a world where cities move on huge tracks, trundling across the land devouring one another when they can, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism rules all – the town which moves the fastest lives the longest. One of New London’s chief Historians, Thaddeus Valentine – a man seen as a hero by most everybody – is the victim of an attempted assassination by a young girl with a hideous scar running across her face. Valentine is saved at the last moment by the heroic actions of a young Historian, Tom Natsworthy, but when Tom he sees the young would-be assassin, the passion and hate in her eyes intrigue him. When she flings herself off the moving city, presumably to her death, Tom follows her. What follows is a story of intrigue, conspiracy, airships, battle, resurrected corpses used as unbeatable soldiers, heroism and sacrifice which stands with the very best SF, let alone SF aimed at young adult readers. It’s an amazing book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the series.

Image: bookzone4boys.blogspot.com

Image: bookzone4boys.blogspot.com

The novels of David Walliams were a present last Christmas, and I devoured them with great glee. The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny, Billionaire Boy and Mr Stink have lots of things in common, including compelling and lovable protagonists, several recurring characters, a focus on family and love, and not making snap judgements about people based on their appearance, and to top all that off they’re well written and extremely funny. I haven’t yet read Walliams’ new books, Ratburger or The Demon Dentist, but I plan to. If you’re looking for a gift for a child from about 7 or 8, or you just want to laugh your socks off (and cry a little, too), you can’t go wrong with these.

Image: ashclassbookblog.blogspot.com

Image: ashclassbookblog.blogspot.com

A few runners up:

I also read The Fault in Our Stars, along with the rest of the world, and I wept (like everyone else), but it wasn’t one of my favourite books this year, for a lot of reasons; I read The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket and enjoyed it right up to the end, which I felt was a disappointment; I finished Veronica Roth’s YA series which began with Divergent and was left a little underwhelmed by the conclusion (in Allegiant, the third book in the series.) ‘Allegiant’ is unnecessarily long, I thought, and the double-narration style is difficult to follow because the voices sound exactly the same.

So, there you have it. My list of favourite reads, as of today. Hopefully I’ve given you some gift ideas, or even some reading ideas, or maybe I’ve bored your socks off. Either way, happy Tuesday!