Book Review: George’s Run #1by Henry Chamberlain

A biography in comic strip form, a perfect blend of genres

George's Run 2

 

As I said in my previous post, sometimes it’s good to get out of your reading comfort zone and to read something that’s not in the genres you usually favour. And I suggested trying graphic novels if that’s not something that’s on your bookshelf. I also mentioned comics author Henry Chamberlain and his blog.

I was reminded of the power pictures have to tell stories with few or no words when I discovered Henry Chamberlain’s Comics Grinder blog. Henry is a cartoonist whose blog is a richly stocked shop window and showcase for all sorts of comics, graphic novels and cartoons and their creators, as well as associated movies and conferences.

For all writers, whether it be of fiction or non-fiction, the construction and pacing of content is crucial to the finished work’s effectiveness and appeal. But for the graphic writer it’s crucial. A whole scene, or indeed a chapter, might have to be contained in a single picture. But this constraint can work in the graphic form’s favour as it gives it immediacy.

And perhaps that’s why Henry’s idea of writing a biography in cartoon form is such a good one. A huge amount of detail can be told economically and powerfully.

Henry Chamberlain’s book about the life and work of American science-fiction writer, George Clayton Jones, someone it’s obvious he admires, is coming out in serial form–– very appropriate for the genre and the subject. And Part One of George’s Run is out now.

Sadly Johnson passed away shortly after the publication of the first instalment but Henry’s work promises to be a fitting tribute to the man.

George Clayton Jones born in 1929, was part of the pop and counter-culture world of the 1960s. He wrote for the TV sci-fi series The Twilight Zone, a scary and fascinating series I remember from the black and white days of my youth and from long before the X-Files were even a twinkle in television’s eye. Jones also wrote the first ever episode of Star Trek–– legacy enough when you think how that series developed. And as well as that he was a co-writer of the original Ocean’s Eleven on which the much later movie is based. But for true sci-fi fans his greatest achievement is probably as co- author of the cult classic Logan’s Run.

This first part then of George’s Run is based on a face-to-face interview Henry carried out with George and is an introduction to the man and his work and how he grew up in a time of all sorts of possibilities and imaginings and was influenced by the radio and the movies, the new media of the time.

The pictures are charming and expressive and Chamberlain succeeds in having them do that picture tells a thousand words thing. It’s a great start to the full biography of an interesting and, yes, groundbreaking writer. It also seems particularly apt to tell this life story in graphic form. Perhaps more biographies could or should be done in this way.

George’s Run is available on Kindle in the UK here and the US here

Henry also has a collection of his best comics stories available in his book A Night at the Sorrento and Other Stories.

Night at the Sorrento

 

Best Blogs Part 1: Comics Grinder

Comics Grinder

One of the best things about blogging is connecting with fellow bloggers. I follow a wide variety blogs and am always entertained, educated and excited by them. Over the next while I plan to post about some of the blogs I consider to be amongst the best.

First up is Comics Grinder the home of fellow WordPress blogger, graphic novel author and illustrator, Henry Chamberlain. You can visit his highly informative and knowledgeable blog here.

George's Run 2

Henry is a prolific poster. And the standard of his posts is consistently high. He reviews graphic novels, comics and comic conferences. He includes every sort of work aimed at all sorts of audiences. He generously highlights the work of other cartoonists and comic authors. But he’s also a talented comics author in his own right and is working on a graphic biography of George Clayton Johnson, the co author of Logan’s Run and the writer of the first ever episode of Star Trek. Part One is called George’s Run #1 (Amazon UK link) is available on Kindle. (Amazon US Link)

Comics: not just for kids but a good place to start

Comics were something I enjoyed when I was a child when I read the Beano, the Bunty and the Diana, to name just a few. I loved all the usual suspects. The anarchy of Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street kids was just fab, if not politically correct. Later I graduated to the Jackie and I devoured the comic strip tales of teenage love, and  Cathy and Claire’s problem page.  And of course, when I was a child no 1960s Scottish Christmas was complete without the comics latest annuals –  along with the new Oor Wullie or The Broons collections.

But then, once I grew up, apart from revisiting some of them when my children were young, I moved on from comics.

That is until many years later, when I made the move from my role as a primary school class teacher into the much more challenging role of a support for learning teacher. I had pupils who struggled to read or write anything – either because it was an intellectual challenge that left them feeling defeated before they even started, or because their emotional problems, or way of seeing the world, acted as a barrier to any kind of engagement with the printed word. I tried lots of things that didn’t work well and then I had a breakthrough. I rediscovered comics and the ‘grown-up’ version of the preschool picture book – the graphic novel.

The old saying a picture is worth a thousand words was never so true. I soon discovered even the most reluctant or cut-off child found a graphically told story irresistible. Stories like The Wolves in the Walls, or The Day I Swapped my Dad for a Goldfish, both  by Neil Gaiman, or The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan worked their magic. And before long my pupils were wanting to write their own graphic novels, or in the case of pupils with communication difficulties such as autism, use a comic format to compile a social interaction script that they could share with others. But the most unexpected thing about using the comic/graphic format was it also worked with more able children. I was sometimes asked to support and stretch these children too. Children who’d been coasting, who’d lost motivation because things came so easily to them, they too were inspired by the genre to experiment, to try new things in their writing and in their reading. Pictures can be the key to storytelling. They’re efficient, economic and vivid.

Comics and Graphic Novels for the grown-ups

Comic books have been around a long time for sure – think of all the Marvel heroes. But I think they’ve come to the fore again in our now highly visual,  online, picture-based world of Tumblr, Instagram and the selfie-based, shared status update. And the effect of that goes way beyond just children’s or young adult’s reading.

Comic books, graphic novels and graphic non-fiction are increasingly popular with grown-ups too. For example there’s Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis about her life in Iran, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home about living with her secretly gay father, and  Joe Sacco’s Palestine or his more recent Journalism. If you’re not a comic format fan why not get out of your reading comfort zone and give them a try? Any of the above would be a good place to start. As of course would Henry’s blog and his book George’s Run, Part 1 which I will review in my next post.

Discover a Great Blog and Learn More about the Graphic Arts

But in the meantime, if you want to know more about the grown-up world of comics and graphic novels then do visit Henry ‘s blog.  There’s everything from Wonder Woman to Star Wars. And Henry’s a welcoming host who’s happy to interact.

Book Review: Life Class by Gilli Allan

Life Class

Having already read, enjoyed and reviewed Torn by this author, I was expecting Life Class to be a good read too. And it was.

Genre: Contemporary Women’s Fiction/Romance

The Blurb:

Four people hide secrets from the world and themselves. Dory is disillusioned by men and relationships, having seen the damage sex can do. Fran deals with her mid-life crisis by pursuing an online flirtation which turns threatening. Stefan feels he is a failure and searches for self-validation through his art. Dominic is a lost boy, heading for self-destruction. They meet regularly at a life-drawing class, led by sculptor Stefan. They all want a life different from the one they have, but all have made mistakes they know they cannot escape. They must uncover the past – and the truths that come with it – before they can make sense of the present and navigate a new path into the future.

Review:

As in Torn, the setting and characters are the main strengths of the story.

The descriptions of places are subtle but just detailed enough for the reader to draw up their own pictures of the area, homes, classroom and studio where most of the action takes place. Read More »

Book Review: Talk of the Toun by Helen Mackinven

Talk of the Toun 2Genre: Contemporary Fiction

It’s 1985 in central Scotland in this pre-coming of age story by debut novelist, Helen Mackinven. And it’s an impressive debut.

A natural storyteller, Mackinven presents an, at times, claustrophobic (in a good way), sharply observed story of growing-up, of the early teenage years of Angela and Lorraine, of the ups and downs of their intense friendship, of moodiness, menstruation and the mysteries of boys. All the 1980s stuff is there, ra-ra skirts, Frankie goes to Hollywood and Cagney and Lacey on the telly.

There’s a lot that’s colloquial and local in this tale, but the themes are universal in terms of both place and era. The characters at times aren’t particularly likeable, but that’s because they’re human failings are very much on show. And the author skilfully uses their flawed humanity to make them interesting and real. It’s to the author’s credit that the reader comes to care very much about Angela and Lorraine. Read More »

Book Review: Human Rites by JJ Marsh

Its publication day today for the latest in the wonderful Beatrice Stubbs series of crime thrillers.

Human Rites 3

And it’s another absolute cracker!

An exciting  and well-paced plot, another combination of great settings, and the introduction of several great new characters all ensured that this was as gripping a read as its predecessors.

This is latest book in JJ Marsh’s series of European based crime thrillers. As before it features, Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs. It had a lot to live up to in terms of my expectations as I’ve read and very much enjoyed the three previous books. It didn’t disappoint.

There are beautifully described and fascinating settings, compelling, suspenseful and twisting plotlines and a cast of wonderful characters both familiar and new.

You don’t have to have read the earlier books in order to follow this one. Like the rest of them this one will also work as a standalone, but it is nice to be re-united with characters you’ve become fond of. Beatrice’s  old friend and neighbour, Adrian, is back, as is his now-ex lover Holger. Her grumpy boss Hamilton and her not-living-together yet partner Matthew also feature once more.

However, there are also some captivating new characters too. What’s not to love about the septuagenarian art expert, Frau Professor Eichhorn who has a Howard Jones hairstyle and wears a red coat and black boots? Then there’s the hairy and adorable Daan and his crazy husky, Mink. There’s Cucinca, Adrian’s new assistant in his wine shop, described as Bow Bells meets Bucharest and who makes a disproportionately big impression considering her short amount of page time. Likewise Tomas, the socially awkward,  computer data-analyst  member of the German police team who is another relatively minor but memorable character. And what a wonder is the tastily handsome, but also  nuanced and layered, character of German Detective Jan Stein.

The plot has two main strands.

There is the criminal investigation which, as before, requires D.I. Stubbs’s to leave her London base and travel to Europe to work in co-operation with colleagues there. This time the crimes requiring investigation are a series of art thefts in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Hamburg. These are aggravated burglaries that seem to be efficiently organised and co-ordinated, and also seem to target a very specific form of German Expressionist art.

Added to this there’s unrelated problem of a possibly malevolent stalker threatening the wellbeing of Adrian one of Beatrice’s closest friends. He decides to accompany Beatrice when she goes to Germany. By getting away  from the stress and fear of the situation, he hopes he can regain some perspective on the reality of any threat to his wellbeing. And he can also visit his ex-lover, Holger, who lives in Hamburg and with whom he is still on good terms.

These two storylines provide a good balance to the action. There’s the logic, control and rationality of the police investigation with its insights into the methods and teamwork employed. And alongside there’s the fear, suspense, suspicion and twists of the stalking situation.

And then there are the wonderfully described settings. The action takes place  mainly in Hamburg and on the island of Sylt which sits just off Germany’s north-western tip.

Hamburg in the December snow, with its wide streets, its waterways and bridges, and its spires, museums and galleries is so beautifully described that I’ve now added it to my ‘cities to visit’ list. And, there’s a moment in the book, when the sighting of a sinister figure against this backdrop recalled for me the mysterious appearances of the small, red-hooded figure in Venice in the Daphne du Maurier story Don’t Look Now.

Then there’s the island of Sylt. It is vividly presented as a beautiful but remote and windswept place, the perfect location in which to isolate a character in potential danger.

Woven throughout the action there are small but significant moments, moments of introspection such as when Beatrice reflects on her bipolar condition when she’s introduced to the concept of an ‘inner pigdog’ (yes, you read that right), and when she contemplates her approaching retirement from the police force and finally settling down to live with her partner. There are also unexpectedly poignant moments––one in particular stands out as it’s so unexpected but affecting. And the issues raised by the characters, their motivations and situations, also cause the reader to reflect on friendship, compassion and love, on the facts of ageing and mortality, but also on greed, obsession and hatred.

And finally, as an already smitten fan of Beatrice Stubbs, I was delighted to see several new Beatricisms. I counted six instances of her taking a well known saying and mangling it to great comic effect – for example the description of something as being ‘no more exciting than watching pants dry’.

And I also learned two new words––imbiss which is a German word meaning snack and spheniciphobia which is the fear of nuns or penguins. Who knew? Not me.

But what I do know is that Human Rites is a first class novel and is in the running for my favourite read of 2015.

Type of read: Glass or two of Barolo or other quality red wine to hand, curtains drawn against the wet, windy night, log fire, comfy chair and dog curled up at your feet. Relax in the lamplight and enjoy!

Human Rites is published by Prewett Publishing and is available as an e-book and as a paperback.

I was given a free, pre-publication review copy as I’ve reviewed previous books by this author. There was no pressure either to write a review or, if I did, that it had to be positive.

Book Review: The Girl on the Ferryboat by Angus Peter Campbell

Girl on the Ferryboat

Genre: Contemporary fiction

I had already read a previous book by Angus Peter Campbell, Archie and the North Wind,  I reviewed it here. So I came to read this one expecting great things. I wasn’t disappointed.

The writing is lyrical. Yes, there are smatterings of Gaelic, but this in no way interferes with the reading of the book in English, on the contrary it adds another layer of texture to an already beautiful work of prose.

There’s a sort of magical realism quality to the telling of the tale. It’s a story of love––of love and its possibilities––of lifelong love, of love lost, love unrequited and love found. And intertwined with the lives and loves of the characters there are the opposing forces of chance and fate.

The main character, Alasdair is prompted to look back over his life after a chance re-encounter with Helen whilst travelling on a Hebridean ferry. The two had first met on a similar ferry crossing about forty years before. That meeting had been brief as they passed each other and exchanged a few words on the staircase between decks on board. But it had made an impression on them both. Alasdair reflects on what might have been and what has been. He recalls the time in his youth when, on leaving university he returned home from Oxford to the island of Lewis and worked with a local boat builder to build a boat for a couple of elderly neighbours. These elderly neighbours had experienced a long and happy life together and still had hopes, plans and dreams. He then recalls his own experiences of love––of his first love and then his own long-lasting and happy marriage which ended with his wife’s death. Helen’s story is also told. Indeed there’s a lot of head and time hopping but the whole remains coherent.

The Scottish Hebrides, especially the island of Mull, are beautifully represented as are the ways of island life. But this is no parochial tale. On the contrary the characters are well travelled and worldly wise. Yes, it’s an introspective story, but it’s also outward looking and universal at times.

And although there’s a wonderful magical wistful a quality to the story, the nostalgia is never hopeless. On the contrary the mood is one of acceptance and of hope. Alasdair acknowledges that misunderstandings can have long term, sometimes negative, implications on a person’s fate. But he also recognises that active decision making can lead to positive effects.

This book is a short, poignant, sweet but not sickly, journey through the lives of its characters. in places it reads like a memoir.

Campbell has crafted a tapestry––a tapestry where some of the panels are rather abstract yes, but the whole is well stitched together. It could have got horribly messy but it doesn’t. And, ultimately as with any art,  it’s down to the reader to interpret the meaning.

Type of read: Evening, in a quiet room – just the sounds of a ticking clock and a crackling fire, curtains drawn and with a whisky to hand.

The Girl on the Ferryboat is published by Luath and is available in hardback, paperback and e-book formats.

Book Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Jessie Lamb 2

Genre: Contemporary earth-based science-fiction

This is Jane Rogers eighth book, but it’s the first one that I’ve read by her. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was a bestseller and Man Booker nominee when it came out in 2012 and I’m ashamed to say it’s been languishing on my Kindle since then. But at last I recently got round to reading it and I’m very glad that I did. A reviewer writing in Scotland’s Herald newspaper described it as The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) colliding with The Children of Men (PD James) and to me that seems very apt.

It’s a deeply unsettling tale set in the near future and tells of humanity facing extinction. Due to a bio-toxin having been released, presumably by bio-terrorists although this isn’t fully explained, a disease known as Maternal Death Syndrome or MDS now afflicts any woman who gets pregnant. The disease is a sort of cross between CJD and AIDS and is always fatal. Research into a cure is ongoing but in the meantime all that can be done to protect fertile women is to give them a contraceptive implant. And with no babies being born, humanity’s future existence looks to be doomed.

The story is told by a first-person narrator, teenager Jessie Lamb. She experiences all the usual teenage angsty stuff – parents who don’t understand her, issues with friends, the rush and the awkwardness of first love, and a need to strike out, rebel and be herself. But this is all overlaid and undermined by the presence of the deadly MDS.

When a vaccine that will ensure very young, i.e. under sixteen-and-a half-years-old, surrogate mothers will be able to be implanted with and carry to term pre-MDS frozen embryos, it seems like there might be hope. But it will come at a price. The vaccine only protects the babies. The surrogate mothers will still succumb to MDS and they will die.

Jessie decides to volunteer herself as a surrogate. It’s part selfless act, part naive, part rebellion and it’s a heart-wrenching read as the reader follows Jessie’s feelings and her parent’s and friend’s reactions to her decision.

The author raises other questions about how human’s have messed up. There are subplots dealing with green and ecological matters, with vegetarianism and animal cruelty. They didn’t seem to me to be entirely necessary and sometimes they were a bit clunky in their intrusion into the main story. But that would be my only complaint.

Type of read: Overall this is an excellent, thought-provoking and intriguing, if rather scary, read. Read it in a well-lit room with a dram or two of good whisky to hand.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is published by Canongate and is available as a paperback, an ebook and as an audio-book.

 

Book Review: Mariah’s Marriage

Mariahs Marriage 2

Genre: Historical Fiction

Charming, beguiling, captivating – all words I most likely used when I reviewed author Anne Stenhouse’s previous book, Bella’s Betrothal. And they most certainly apply to Mariah’s Marriage – both the story and its heroine.

Mariah is a young woman living in nineteenth-century London. But the accepted and expected pursuits of a lady of her age and class are not for her. Mariah is independent and ahead of her time in her outlook. She teaches poor children who would otherwise have no education. Her commitment is wholehearted. The she meets and falls in love with Tobias Longreach (I just love Anne’s choice of character names). But pursuing this relationship brings her work into question and even endangers her life.

Great storytelling, conscientious attention to detail, credible and interesting characters all make for an absorbing read. And there’s plenty suspense, intrigue and romance too.

A warm and satisfying read.

Type of read: Romantic enchanting escapism. A curl up with your e-reader of choice and a glass of something red and full-bodied and prepare to indulge in some delightful escapism.

Mariah’s Marriage is published by MuseItUp and is available from Amazon and other e-book outlets.

Book Review: City of a Thousand Spies

City of 1000 Spies2

Genre: Spy/Romance Thriller

This is the third in the ‘Conor McBride’ series but it’s not necessary to have read the previous novels Deceptive Cadence and The Silent Chord in order to enjoy this excellent book. However, if you haven’t read them I do urge you to so.

City of a Thousand Spies sees Kate now also working for MI5 along with Conor. They’re still doing their day jobs of hotel keeper and classical violinist respectively. Indeed Conor’s role as a musician will provide their cover for their next mission. A mission that takes them to the beautiful city of Prague. And it’s a mission that develops into something much more complex and dangerous than either of them had anticipated.

The author describes Prague vividly and well. The atmosphere and the pace are pitched as perfectly as Conor’s violin. The characters are fascinating and very well drawn. There’s suspense, peril and such poignant romance. What’s not to love. For me, it’s definitely in the ‘couldn’t put it down’ category.

Type of read: Romantic and exciting. A wet Sunday afternoon, curled up on the sofa, coffee and cake to hand, kind of read – and a do-not-disturb sign on the door.

City of a Thousand Spies is published by Kiltumper Close Press and is available as a paperback and as an ebook.

Inside the Crocodile – Book Review

 

Genre: Travel/Memoir

Trish Nicholson is, amongst other things, a social anthropologist and she has travelled extensively in this capacity. She is also a very good travel writer.

Inside the Crocodile is based on the diaries she kept during the five years she spent as a development worker as part of a World Bank funded project in Papua New Guinea. She arrived there from Scotland in the late 1980s and stayed until the early 1990s. It’s a first-class example of a travel-memoir and it’s an enthralling read.

Trish tells of how, in order to do her job, she had to negotiate a very tricky path within a complex system of local politics and bureaucracy and an even more complex grace-and-favour social system. She warmly describes her remarkable colleagues and how she formed strong working relationships and friendships. She paints a vivid picture of this (to me at any rate) unfamiliar part of the world. The reader can visualise the dramatic scenery, feel the humid heat and taste the exotic food.

There are accounts of many dangerous moments – in tiny aeroplanes flying low over high peaks, of jungle hikes involving rickety bridges over deep ravines, and of her own brush with death due to malaria.

There’s a real TV documentary feel to this book – so clear and vivid is the writing. You feel as you read that you’re experiencing life in this jungle landscape, including the appearance of the eponymous crocodile.

This is a superb account of a brave and resourceful woman’s time in one of the world’s most remote and challenging locations.

Type of read: Escapist, educational and entertaining. Relax on a comfy armchair on a cold rainy day, mug of tea and some nice biscuits to hand, and be transported away from ordinary life to somewhere unfamiliar and compelling.

Inside the Crocodile is published by Matador and is available as a paperback and as an ebook.