It’s Transport, But Not As We Know It

Anyone who knows me, or has read any of my books, will know that I have an interest in unusual machines – well, anything unusual really, but machines too. Transport-Martin Jet PackHere are a few that have grabbed my attention lately.

One of our Weird-Wide News roving reporters sent me this link – a bit of film about a New Zealand man who has created a jet-pack. The Martin Jetpack is the first of its kind that anyone can buy (a snip at just $75,000) and learn how to fly! There have been experimental rocket-packs around for years, but they were the kind of thing that highly trained test-pilots strapped on and risked their lives to fly at air-shows for thirty seconds or so before the thing ran out of fuel (hopefully after you’d landed). Apparently, anyone can learn to fly this one, and it can fly for up to half an hour.

Transport-TractorDuring a recent parade, this tractor was spotted. Take a look at it . . . now look again. Yes, it is actually made up of two tractors, welded on end-to-end, with the front wheels taken off. You might ask: ‘How?’, or even ‘Why?’, or possibly ‘Well, why not?’. And did they make anything out of the two sets of front wheels they took off?

Transport-Wrapped-up JeepThis car was spotted in Dublin. Now, either somebody is making a really low-budget science fiction film, or they’ve covered some poor sod’s car in tin foil and cling-film (or both). I suspect that somebody was getting married and this was a parting gift from his friends, before he gave up his free-wheeling lifestyle.

Transport-Elevator ButtonsAnd finally, I was visiting a sick relative in a hospital in Drogheda recently, and discovered these buttons by the doors of one of the elevators. Most people would expect elevators to go either up or down. That is the essential nature of the mechanical lift. This elevator, however, would appear to move in another dimension. I was desperately disappointed to learn that – when the mysterious button was pressed – the lift did not move sideways, or break the fabric of time and space. It just went up.

But then . . . maybe I pressed it in the wrong  way, or at the wrong time. This is a matter that demands further investigation . . .

Listen Up

Strangled Silence AudiobookI’ve just received my author copies of ‘Strangled Silence’ on audiobook, ably narrated by Clare Corbett. This recording is published by WF Howes on their Clipper label. It’s a CD in this case, but it will soon be available on their excellent Playaway device, an mp3 pre-loaded on a dedicated player that you can borrow from libraries.

Here’s the blurb: Amina Mir is a doing work experience at a newspaper in London when she meets Ivor McMorris. Ivor is convinced he’s being watched. He served in the war in Sinnostan and believes that someone interfered with his memories while he was there. He’s afraid that if he tries to do anything about it, the watchers might make him disappear.

Chi Sandwith investigates conspiracies. He has spoken to soldiers who, like Ivor, are haunted by their experiences in Sinnostan. They speak in fearful tones of a covert operations group known as the Scalps. People who ask too many questions about the Scalps tend to suffer ‘accidents’.

Tariq is Amina’s teenage brother. He’s taking part in a new school programme, run by the Army. They are using action-packed computer games to teach parts of the curriculum… and he’s loving it. But he starts to suspect that the games have another purpose.

Some questions are better left unanswered. Some mysteries are best left unsolved. The truth is out there – but it could get you killed…

So I’ll soon be indulging in listening to someone else reading my words out loud. Always a slightly dislocated experience.

Speaking of speaking, it’s been ages since I mentioned any visits. Last time I did, I think I was on my way to Bennekerry N.S. in Carlow back in February. Those sessions went really well, I had a fine time – despite breaking one of their chairs and falling flat on my back while in the throes of Mad Grandadding.

On the 27th of February, I ran a four-hour workshop on Children’s Fiction for the Limerick Writers Centre, and have since done sessions in St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan, as well as Drogheda and Dundalk libraries for World Book Day. That day included an interview on local radio in Dundalk. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been back to those libraries now – they probably have me registered as a part-time employee.

P-Con LogoOn the 6th of March, I sat on a couple of panels at the seventh Phoenix Convention (P-Con to its friends), a sci-fi and fantasy convention that focuses on books and writing. These cons are always good craic – a sense of humour is a must. Contrary to popular belief, you won’t find any Klingons or stormtroopers mingling with the crowd. And I never fail to pick up some news about publishing or learn the names of a few new writers to check out.

This year, I was discussing, with Ruth Long and Maura McHugh, how the nature of our writing tools has changed with new technology . And on the second panel, myself, Steve Westcott and Colin Harvey talked about how we got where we are and the business of being a writer once you get published. If you’re into Genre stuff (sci-fi, horror, mystery, fantasy etc.) then you’re bound to have a good time at these cons, and the lines between speakers and audience are very thinly drawn. If you’ve never been to one, ready my beginner’s guide in my Articles section or on Sci-Fi London’s website.

Alice in Wonderland-Mad HatterOn the 10th of March, I spoke at handed out prizes at the awards ceremony for the MS Readathon, with Sarah Webb again, at the cinema in Dundrum Town Centre. This is a great campaign; over a million euros was raised this year to help sufferers of multiple sclerosis, and there were some serious prizes won, including a laptop, a bicycle, digital cameras and thousands of euros worth of books. About three hundred kids attended from all over the country. Afterwards, they were treated to a free 3D showing of Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Congrats to everyone involved.

The following day, I was in St Colmcille’s GNS in Swords, talking to some very lively and excitable girls, and then yesterday I was in Skerries Community College, talking to second and third years. So, things have  been busy, considering I’m supposed to be writing and illustrating for a living. Tomorrow, I’ll be at Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun, and finishing up a six-week course I’ve been teaching at the Irish Writers Centre. They’ve been struggling since their Arts Council funding was cut, and as part of their fundraising campaign, they’re holding a piano recital and readings on Friday. Check it out.

The Cat Who Walks Through WallsWhile out on the road, I’ve been listening to ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls’ by Robert A Heinlein on mp3. I downloaded this from South Dublin Libraries, and had been looking forward to it – Heinlein is considered one of the giants of modern sci-fi, not to mention one of the few fervent right-wingers in a genre dominated by lefties. So I was expecting a challenging read.

Unfortunately, it was challenging for all the wrong reasons. I have since heard that you shouldn’t try to read this book unless you’ve read a bunch of his others, as it is set up as an intersection for many of them. That was no comfort. It starts off well, with a good chunk of suspense and drama backed up by some interesting concepts (a must in any ‘hard’ sci-fi story), but the plot just petered out halfway through, surrendering to long-winded ‘witty’ banter, some aimless descriptions of time-travel, gratuitous sexual encounters (though he veers away from any detailed description – no fun at all) and endless introductions of additional characters whose only apparent purpose is to be named before being sidelined again. And it’s a shining example of a writer ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’

Yuri GagarinAnd for the record, space travel was not born the moment Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, as Heinlein implies in ‘The Cat Who Walks Through Walls’. If that honour belongs to anyone, it’s cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the Earth, back in 1961 (just ahead of the Americans). The first woman was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. Perhaps Heinlein felt they didn’t count because they were both Russian communists, so he picked a part of the space race that the US did win.

Oh, and the bloody cat hardly features at all, and has no bearing on the story.

I was disappointed to say the least. I will pick up another one of Heinlein’s books, but this time I’m going to get someone I trust to specifically recommend one.

Dressed for Battle

I’ve been working on a project for much of the last year, but haven’t been able to talk about it up until now. I haven’t actually been given the go-ahead about it now, but it’s all over the web already anyway, so here it is:

Armouron-Armoured GhostI was commissioned last year, by Random House Children’s Books, to write a series of books for a project entitled ‘Armouron’, about a team of young knights in a futuristic world.

The first two books are due out in May – ‘The Armoured Ghost’ and ‘Lying Eyes’. There are another two already in production, plus more by another writer, Richard Dungworth, who’s handling the other half of the job. The series is aimed at readers of books like ‘BeastQuest’ or ‘The Edge Chronicles’ and fans of the Power Rangers and Ben 10 franchises.

It’s been an interesting process, the first time I’ve written stories based on initial ideas that weren’t my own (if you don’t count my work in advertising as fiction) – although I’ve been in on the conceptual work for the story-lines almost from the start. Because I’m working on this on a commission basis, I’m using the name ‘O.B. McGann’ to mark these as slightly different to my usual stuff.

There will be a toy range, produced by Bandai, coming out in connection with the series. These will be suits of armour with interchangeable parts. Apart from being pretty cool in their own right, it’s hoped they will encourage kids to get more involved in constructing their own combinations and get back to playing in more physical ways (you know, fighting and stuff – ‘horseplay’ as our parents used to call it in their wholesome way). Here’s the introductory text to the series:

‘For centuries, an order of knights worked to keep the peace across the galaxy. Mighty warriors, the Armouron Knights fought for Honour, Duty, Compassion and Justice. They battled organized crime and helped defeat cruel dictators. They prevented wars. Life in the galaxy was not perfect, but people knew justice and peace.

Armouron-Lying Eyes‘Then, on one planet after another, huge corporations began to seize power. They wanted to control the entire galaxy – and only the Armouron Knights were stopping them. The corporations spread lies about the knights, turning people against them. They sent their private armies to defeat them. Terrible battles were fought, but one by one, the Armouron Knights were captured or killed.

‘Now the last of the Armouron are scattered around the edges of the galaxy. Not many are left, and they are getting old. A new generation is needed. Planet Earth is controlled by the Perfect Corporation. They call it a Perfect World, but in truth, it is a prison. Here, on Earth, one of the last remaining knights has recruited five young warriors to train in the ways of the Armouron. They lack experience, but they make up for it with raw talent and determination. They are the only hope for a new generation of knights.

‘And the galaxy needs the Armouron more than ever . . .’

At this point, you’ll know if this is up your street or not. If you’re still reading, we’ve packed this series with the kind of stuff Richard and I (and the rest of the production team) loved as kids; action, pace, suspense, colourful characters, humour, strange creatures, cool machines, weird weapons, more action, shape-changers, dangerous robots, mad scientists and a bit more action in case things were getting slow.

We hope you enjoy the stories.

I Pass on the iPad, But Swear by iPaddy

I’ve had an ongoing love-hate relationship with Apple for many years. The affair started back in the early days of my illustration and design career. It was a time when the print industry was moving away from print-ready artwork. At that point, every aspect of a page design had to be laid out on a board and photographed to make printing plates. But things were already moving over to the desktop-publishing, digital-led processes we use today.

Believe it or not, that was only in the early nineties – for some of us, that doesn’t seem that long ago, even if it was in the last century.

Anyway, that was when I started using Macs. I loved them, because they were less techy and more instinctive than Windows’ PC’s. Also, they more or less cornered the design industry for this reason, so I had to use them. I hated them – and still do – because of the way they control the hardware, narrow your options, and make you pay extra for stuff that comes as standard on every other damn computer ever made. And because of stupid things like having to dump an icon in the wastebasket to remove a piece of hardware, or because my Mac seems to suffer inexplicable mood swings from time to time.

That said, I have been working on this same Mac for years. I won’t tell you how old it is, but there’s a handle at the back for winding it up. Like an old married couple, we understand each other, and stay together for the sake of the work, even if the love is gone.

Which brings me to the iPad.iPad

As someone who reads a lot for pleasure and even more for work, and who spends a fair bit of time on the road, I was really interested to hear about the launch of Apple’s book-sized tablet. I have long wondered when we were going to see something with the readability of an eReader and the functionality of an iPhone.

Surely, this was where mankind’s relationship with text was heading? You can read what you want, the way you want, whenever and wherever you want, and carry it with you without hauling round a laptop case. But then I started reading the reviews. So, to put it in concise fashion, here are the main (and, as usual with Apple, bleeding obvious) reasons why I won’t be picking up an iPad just yet.

  1. No multi-tasking. This is a major problem for me. If I’m away from my computer and need to make some notes, maybe do some research online, I want to be able to surf and write and, hell, use the dictionary – AT THE SAME TIME, without shutting down and starting up programmes.
  2. No Flash player – same as the iPhone.
  3. No USB slot, despite the fact that one of the big ‘selling points’ is that it’s a great tool for sorting and viewing your photos. How do you get them onto the bloody thing off your non-Bluetooth camera? Oh yeah, you have to buy an adapter kit.
  4. Without the USB slot, there’s no way to plug in a keyboard, unless you want to use a typically expensive Apple one (or perhaps buy an adapter kit). I’m a touch-typist, so the touch-screen keyboard might look good, but would slow me down – and I don’t like Apple keyboards. So I couldn’t use it to type for any extended period of time. If I was travelling, I’d still want my laptop with me. So why carry another device?
  5. Carrying round lots of adapter kits does away with the whole point of having a convenient, slimline device. So I might as well just carry my laptop around with me.
  6. There’s a substantial extra charge for giving it a mobile phone connection. That’s just annoying.
  7. You can only buy software products/files from Apple outlets. See what I mean about controlling? I’m not paying several hundred euros for the pleasure of being able to shop only at the Apps Store, iTunes or iBooks.
  8. It has a back-lit screen – which is perfectly understandable, given everything it can do. But that means it can’t be read with the same comfort, and for the same duration, as an eReader without giving you eye-strain.
  9. I have an iPhone, an eReader and a laptop (which I only really use for surfing the web and for work while I’m travelling). Give me something that replaces two of those three and I’ll buy it.

iPaddy IconMeanwhile, ‘The Feckin’ Book of Irish Slang’ by Colin Murphy and Donal O’Dea, has gone digital, in the form of the iPaddy app (I think they were forbidden from using the original name by the Apps Store). Part of a series of books that’s great craic for cute hoors and bowsies, this venture into the online world by O’Brien press is pitch-perfect.

As an avid collector of slang, this kind of thing is actually useful for me – although I already have a few of the original books. But for anyone who wants a laugh while they’re out in the pub, or simply wants to learn to speak and swear like a true Paddy, this is an indispensable guide.

On a marketing note, this is just the right kind of thing for OBP to start online with: it’s funny, the kind of thing you read in short snippets, it’s non-linear and lends itself to other media (there are audio files that act as pronunciation guides). It’s a great concept and I hope it does really well for them.

Weathering the Storm

Why is it so hard to make money from something that so many people love so much? What is it about books that they put those who love them most through the mill? It can be hard to love books sometimes.

Hughes & Hughes ShopfrontI learned the other day that the Hughes & Hughes bookshop chain is closing down – in fact some of their branches have already closed, including the one in Dundalk. I’ve heard as many as 225 people will lose their jobs in total, although up to 120 could be kept on now that Eason’s are taking over H&H’s airport shops.

But this is still a real blow to the book business in Ireland. Hughes & Hughes were the kinds of shops we needed here; bright, friendly, well-stocked with a good range and the kind of enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff to guide you through it. As we lose an increasing number of local, independent bookshops, book-loving chains like H&H are needed all the more.

I can’t help wondering if the demise of H&H is less a result of a stormy book market, and more the crash of the property market and the attempts by landlords to raise rents. High street rents are becoming a major bone of contention in Ireland, crippling otherwise healthy businesses. Another reason to hate the greed-obsessed ****ers who got us into this mess.

To all the staff of Hughes & Hughes, I hope something can be worked out, and if not, I hope you can manage to stay in the book world. Good luck.

On another negative note, it was with some grinding of teeth that I read an article in the most recent issue of ‘Books Ireland’ the other day. It was talking about the levels of funding given to each branch of the arts by the Arts Council.

I think we can all agree that, of all the arts, it is for writing that Ireland is best known (all right, I know U2 are gigantic, but they’re not a whole art form in themselves). We have a literary pedigree that is second-to-none, with a bucketful of Nobel prize-winners and some of the most recognized literary names across the world. We are a surprisingly big fish, given the size of our little pond.

The New PolicemanIn the world of children’s books, Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan and Derek Landy occupy the top of the charts, while adopted Irishwoman Kate Thompson has seized one award after another, not least the Whitbread Children’s Prize (and almost the main one). And do I really need to mention Roddy Doyle? Irish writers are the pride of their country, one of the single greatest factors raising its profile.

So it would be safe to assume that when it comes to the funding of the arts, literature must be high up on the list of priorities, right?

Apparently not. In terms of funding, it comes behind Film (E2 million), Dance (E2.6m), Opera (E3.6m), Visual Arts (E4.2m) and Theatre, which got – wait for it . . . 13 million euros this year. More than six times the budget for literature. The Irish Writers Centre recently had its budget cut completely, along with numerous other literature organizations and publishers. The branch of literature that receives the bulk of the funding is poetry.

According to the Arts Council, a writer only needs a pen and paper to work, while things are very different for a theatre company. Truly we are a cheap date, compared with other, higher maintenance, art forms.

Has this anything to do with the fact that, of the Arts Council’s twelve members, at least five are theatre people? We are assured it isn’t. Literature has one representative, Colm Toibin. I can’t really blame the theatre people, they’re looking after their own. Except you’d think, if they’re running a body that’s supposed to be representing ‘the Arts’, they’d be looking at the wider picture.

We’re a small country facing big waves of products washing in from other countries, so the arts here all need a bit of helpSelective Arts Funding. But if theatre cannot survive without that disproportionately large life-belt, they should learn a few new strokes from publishers (who need more than a pen and paper to produce books), and devote a sizeable part of their resources to making stuff people will pay to see. Sure, we all want to make art, but like authors, their first challenge is to engage their audience. When Shakespeare put pen to paper, he knew he had a crowd to please.

And don’t even get me started about opera.

But to end on a positive note, there is new life emerging in Irish children’s publishing, in the form of the launch of Little Island Press. With the firm hand of Siobhan Parkinson at the wheel as commissioning editor, they are putting forth into troubled waters. Knowing Siobhan (who has never been short of imagination – or nerve), I expect they’ll be producing some great work. They’re particularly interested in bringing some of the best works published in other languages into the Irish market – something we’re not very good at over here. More power to them. It’s nice to see a new contender out there.

The Water Babies: 2, Oisin: Nil

Goddammit, I tried. I tried to read ‘The Water Babies’ when I was a kid, maybe between ten or twelve. For those who don’t know, it’s a classic nineteenth century children’s story by Charles Kingsley.

The first time I read it, I think I just made it to where the plucky young chimney sweep, Tom, screws up the job, escapes from his cruel boss, Grimes, and finds his way to the stream where he is transformed. It may have been sheer exhaustion that got me. The first chapter is thirty-three pages of dense text. And those chapters don’t get any shorter. Modern young readers need to come up for air a bit more often.

Water BabiesI recently picked it up again. It’s been itching at me for a while to see what I had missed. It is a very light-hearted story, narrated in a lyrical way, with a fatherly tone that makes you imagine you’re sitting on Charles Kingsley’s knee as he tells you this tale.

Unfortunately, I found that first chapter the most engaging. The rest is very playful and imaginative, but it also has the didactic Victorian moral tone laced through it and not much in the way of plot. I got about two thirds of the way through, and just had to admit I was struggling to keep my attention on it. As someone once said to me, life is too short and there are too many books for you to waste time reading ones you don’t like (actually they said ‘crap books’, but that woud be unfair to Mr Kingsley).

I like a lot of nineteenth century stuff. I believe that much of the storytelling we use in modern publishing finds it roots in stories from this era, and ‘The Water Babies’ is recognized as a great book. But maybe my attention span is getting shorter these days. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, or was too busy to give it the time it needed. Or maybe I would always get bored before I reached the end. Whatever it was, there are too many other things I have to read.

To reinforce my image as a complete philistine, I have to mention ‘JCVD’. This is, wait for it . . . a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Now, I like action films – they are my junk food for the brain. But even I normally draw the line at Van Damme’s straight-to-video offerings. He and Steven Seagal have cornered the market in formulaic martial arts shite. And I was a martial arts shite fan for many years, so I know what I’m talking about. How could they always have the money for pyrotechnics and stunt men, but could never find themselves a decent script?

JCVD CoverSo, anyway, it was with some surprise that I found Mags and Tom from CBI recommending one of Van Damme’s films to me – particularly as it is named after him. To my astonishment, ‘JCVD’ is a really good film. Funny, sharply written (and I’m not just saying that ‘cos half of it’s in sub-titles) and well-shot, solidly rooted in a thriller plot.

Even the man himself comes across well – or rather he doesn’t, appearing jaded, frustrated, vulnerable and struggling with a career that has got into a tiresome, dead-end rut. He actually brings some pathos to the piece. Who’d have thought it? This is not going to drive you into arthouse foreign film territory, but it’s head and shoulders above the formulaic action films that are too easy an option on a lazy night in.

I’ve also just finished reading the fourth book of ‘100 Bullets’. This is one of the best comics series I’ve come across in years – hard-boiled crime thrillers whose writing and artwork are excellent and perfectly matched.

100 Bullets CoverIn each story, the enigmatic Agent Graves approaches someone who’s down on their luck and makes them a proposition. He gives them a briefcase. In this case is proof of how one culprit has ruined that person’s life, and a handgun with one hundred bullets. If these bullets are used to kill someone, any investigation into that murder will cease once the bullets are identified. Use this gun, and you will get away with murder.

And so each person who receives this case has to decide whether to use it, and how they will go about it. If you’re into crime thrillers, or comics in general, or just a bloody good story, you should pick these up.

So, I’ve just knocked a nineteenth century classic and recommended a comic and a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Shocking.