Visits to Cambridge and The Middle of Nowhere

I’ve been away for most of this week, and for once it wasn’t part of the never-ending Oliver and the Seawigs publicity tour…

Photo: Sarah McIntyre

I’d been invited up to Cambridge, to be presented with an Honorary Doctorate by Anglia Ruskin University. I’m sort of an old boy, since Anglia was where I studied illustration back in the ‘eighties. In those days it was just plain ol’ CCAT – the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology – but it’s now morphed into a fully fledged university, and the illustration course has become one of the best in the country.

I’ve never attended a graduation ceremony before, let alone had to make a speech at one, so I was very glad that Sarah McIntyre came along to lend me some moral support, as did Dave Shelton, author of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat and a fellow graduate of the old CCAT illustration course, and Farah Mendelson, SF scholar and critic and author of The Intergalactic Playground (among many others), who is now part of the faculty. I also got to meet Pam Smy, whose illustrations for the forthcoming Siobhan Dowd book The Ransom of Dond which I glimpsed at David Fickling Books earlier this year – it looks astonishing.

And Philip Pullman was also being given a Doctorate, so I was able to meet him at last! (That’s him in the photo at the top of this post.) Apparently he’s had thirteen of these honours already, so I still have Some Way To Go. He gave a very good and serious speech about what a degree means, and used a lovely phrase about us ‘living in a time that is still warmed by the background radiation from the enlightenment’. (I mostly just reminisced about my college years and made cheap jokes about McIntyre’s hat.)

As if meeting one legend of children’s lit wasn’t enough, my second appointment of the week was at the W Hotel in Leicester Square, where I was part of a discussion with Geraldine McCaughrean and Nicolette Jones to celebrate the launch of Geraldine’s latest novel The Middle of Nowhere.  Geraldine has been my favourite writer since long before I was published, and I’m still in awe of the way in which she turns out so many books, all on very different subjects, but each perfect, and very much her own. She’s also one of my favourite people, and I still can’t quite believe it when I’m asked to share a stage with her. I shall try to put a full review of The Middle of Nowhere here soon, but don’t wait for that – run out and buy it NOW, it’s flippin’ brilliant.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat

I’m very pleased to see that Dave Shelton’s A Boy and a Bear in a Bear in a Boat is one of the titles on the shortlist for this year’s Costa Book Award!  This seems like a good excuse to dig out my review of it, which I posted earlier this year on my other blog, The Solitary Bee.

This is probably the most original cover I’ve seen on a children’s book in recent years, and, happily enough, it’s wrapped around one of the most original children’s books I’ve ever read.
Dave Shelton is already familiar to readers of the DFC and The Phoenix Comic as the creator of the ongoing canine-noir detective series Good Dog, Bad Dog and several fine stand-alone strips. A Boy and a Bear in a Boat contains a number of his beautiful illustrations, but it’s his first story in prose, and it’s a remarkably assured debut.
This is not a book where very much happens.  The title pretty much says it all.  There is this Boy.  And this Bear.  And they’re in this Boat.  That’s pretty much it.  Where have they come from? Where are they going? We never find out.  Why? Again, we are never told.  The Bear is the captain of the boat, but his slightly pompous confidence in his own navigational skills seems misplaced; they are quickly lost, and the only map on board is the one on the cover – a pretty unhelpful expanse of plain blue sea.
Of course, events do punctuate the voyage.  There are storms (beautifully illustrated storms, at that). A landing upon an abandoned, drifting ship.  A sea monster.  And a very funny sandwich.  It’s all described in clear, spare language, and in precise detail: reading it aloud to Sam, I almost wondered if it had started out as an idea for an animated movie. It’s a bit like watching a cartoon in your head.
Sam (who’s 10) enjoyed it largely for its humour.  There are plenty of good slapstick sequences, and the loveable but often incompetent Bear appealed to him, as did the Boy’s resourcefulness, and the growing friendship between the two.  He thought it was a funny book, and he’s right.  But reading it as an adult, I sensed something darker going on.  Where has this boy come from?  He has a family; they are mentioned from time to time.  Why has he had to leave them?  What is this voyage he is setting out on?  And at the end – and I don’t think is a spoiler – there really isn’t an end: boy and bear sail on hopefully towards the next horizon and the next, but the reader senses that they will never arrive, and that their futile journey will go on for ever.
Are they, I began to wonder, dead?  The set-up is instantly reminiscent of  Charon the ferryman rowing the spirits of the departed across the Styx and Acheron.  Is the boy in Limbo, or some Existentialist afterlife?  Is it just a funny story about a boy and a bear in a boat, or is the whole thing an absurd parable about the meaninglessness of life in a Godless universe?
The book drops few hints.  It’s extraordinarily self-disciplined, resisting any temptation to expand the world of the story beyond its three basic elements.  In some ways, it’s powerfully depressing.  But only for grown-ups.  And in a good way!  Read it, and see for yourself.
A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is published by David Fickling Books, and is available at good bookshops, or HERE.

Book Review: Katya’s World

For the last few years I’ve been keeping my occasional book and film reviews separate from my personal stuff and news about my own books, by publishing them on my other blog, The Solitary Bee.  But this blog gets so many more hits than the Bee that it’s a bit unfair to the authors I review to hide them away there, so in future I’ll be posting reviews here as well.  If you haven’t read my reviews of recent books by Tim Maughan, Gareth L Powell, Kim Lakin-Smith, Deadly Knitshade, and Dave Shelton,  you can find them all here.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard
I’ve sometimes been heard to say that science fiction will be the Next Big Thing in YA fiction, or at least that it ought to be.  There have certainly been an awful lot of more-or-less SF-ish ‘dystopian’ novels recently, but most of them don’t seem very interested in actual science, so it’s nice to welcome one which is: 
The first volume of a projected trilogy, Jonathan L Howard’s Katya’s World is set on a distant planet called Russalka which has been inhabited by colonists of mostly Russian ancestry.  Since Russalka has no land, only an endless, storm-swept ocean, the inhabitants mostly live in pressurised environments beneath the sea.  The prologue explains how and why this came to happen, and how the colony came to be first abandoned by, and then involved in a war with, its one-time masters on Earth.
The prologue is, unfortunately, the book’s major weak point. Oh, how the heart sinks when a SF novel kicks off with a whole chapter-length chunk of exposition! And it’s largely unnecessary in this case, because  all the information it contains could easily have been revealed as and when we need to know it, in the course of the action. In fact, I’d be ready to bet that that’s how it was originally intended to be revealed: the prologue reads like something tacked on at the behest of an editor who thought young readers might be confused if everything wasn’t neatly explained up front. But don’t worry: as soon as it’s out of the way and the actual story gets going, Katya’s World exerts a grip which won’t let up till the final page.
Russalka is a greasy, grimy, ‘used future’, reminiscent in some ways of films like Alien, in which mankind has somehow developed interstellar travel and anti-gravity devices but continues to build claustrophobic submarines with technology pretty close to our own, and to indulge in familiar forms of inhumanity and political oppression.  It’s full of shadowy cabins, dank corridors and the dim glow of computer screens, and although Jonathan L Howard doesn’t waste many words describing his settings it’s all very atmospheric.
The wider backdrop is interesting too: an uneasy political situation in the aftermath of war, with growing tensions between the submarine cities and the surface-dwelling Yagizban Enclaves. Into this mix come swimming a mysterious and hugely powerful war machine, the Leviathan, left over from the conflict with Earth and connected in some sinister way with Kane, the political prisoner whom young Katya Kuriakova and her uncle are ordered to transport aboard their civilian cargo submarine.
Needless to say, their apparently simple voyage goes quickly and desperately wrong, and before long Katya is involved with traitors, pirates, and terrifying artificial intelligences.  There are quite a few chases, firefights and escapes, and several well-described submarine battles. There is plenty of awesome technology both under and above the sea, presumably all based on plausible science (I confess I can’t imagine how the anti-gravity machines are supposed to work, but what do I know?) and a lot of the action is built neatly out of the way submarines actually operate. There’s even a floating city called FP1, for people who like really obscure movie references.
Most importantly, the characters are engaging.  All these submarines would quickly grow dull if we didn’t care about the people they contain, but Katya is a strong and likeable heroine, convincingly frightened for much of the time, but quick-thinking and intelligent enough to come up with sound solutions to most of the problems which the plot hurls at her. Kane is an intriguing figure, too  – is he a villain or not? – and the rest of the cast (mostly pirates, submariners and gruff military types) are nicely rounded out, so that the good ones have their bad points and the bad ones are never wholly bad: even the charmless Officer Sukhalev gets a chance to shine.
And at the end there is an actual ending, which is always a worry when you start the first book of a trilogy. Plenty of loose ends remain a-dangling, ready to be gathered up in the next book, but this story concludes with a proper, spectacular climax rather than a cliff-hanger. It’s a highly effective, thought-provoking YA novel, and it left me looking forward to the next volume.
Katya’s World will be published by Strange Chemistry in November 2012