Space to Work, Rest and Play

So I did my back in. I managed to get a new TV corner unit on special offer, and had help getting it into the car, but had to get it out on my own. I was well impressed with my own display of Herculean strength, until I got up the following day with a stiff back – a condition that got steadily worse. Soon, I wasn’t able to stand up straight. I was walking around tilted over, like a cyclist taking a right turn. If you’ve ever suffered from a bad back, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, be glad. Mine is okay most of the time, but ten years of martial arts training (including countless times being slammed onto the floor) has left me with an absolute humdinger of a gremlin in the base of my spine. On the rare occasion when it shows up, my life has to slow down.

It was still bad the following day, and the day after that I had to cancel a session in the JCSP library in Killinarden Community School (sorry again, Helen). Back Injury SignThe next day, it was still giving me trouble, so I had to sit down through both the sessions in Mullingar Library, which I don’t normally do unless I’m dealing with very young kids.There’s nothing you can really do with this thing, you just have to rest it and keep it warm and it sorts itself eventually. I was doing better,  and then, a couple of days ago, I had to change the wheel on the car, and that set me right back to square one again.

Add to that, the fact that I’ve had a gluey cold for the last few weeks that I couldn’t shake, and I was in no shape for sessions at all. The last bit of that cold is passing away, but I’ve had a few sneezes that jolted my back – my yelps, grunts and cursing would sound hilarious to anyone who heard them.

It got me thinking about my work environment again. Over the years, I’ve moved my studio many times, and I normally have to fit it into whatever room I can make free in the flat or house. When I came back from London, I made two standing-height desks to work at, one for the computer and one for the drawing desk, so that I wouldn’t be sitting down all day (we learn that particular bad habit in school and it stays with us for life). It’s helped a lot, but there’s still a lot about my workspace that still doesn’t come up to scratch – not least the chair I have to use at the desk; it’s really hard to get a chair that high which is also good for your back.

I have high hopes of having a whole studio space built-to-purpose some day soon, instead of trying to fit a mixed batch of furniture into ill-suited spaces.

ImaginosityLast Sunday, we took the kids to Imaginosity in Beacon South Quarter in Sandyford. It’s a fantastic building, packed with activities for everyone from tots to brats (we have one of each) over several floors, including a roof-top set-up. It’s an environment that encourages physical play, interaction, make believe, and curiosity. Our baby daughter’s only problem with the place was sensory overload – there was too much to see and do. But she had a ball, especially in the areas that weren’t aimed at her. Our nine-year old was just barely catered for, having already sold his soul to football and computer games, but stick him and his sister anywhere and they’ll have fun together. She particularly liked the spinning cup-seats up on the roof and demolishing the well-ordered kitchen and post office.

These play centres are great, but I sometimes think they are part of a continuing tendency to create manufactured playing environments for our kids. They’re one more reason not to send the kids out on their own, to make up their own games and play, y’know . . . for free. Without the need for a ticket, or a supervisor with a childcare certificate.  One good part of Imaginosity was that it wasn’t supervised – the older kids could wander on their own, and you had to stay with your younger kids and play with them. Next time we have a day out, though, we’re going back to our nearest forest, or a park.

Just to catch up on the reports of my gigs; before the Easter break, I visited the JCSP Library in Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun, one of many great JCSP projects, (I’ll be back down that direction next week to talk about Dorian Gray, sin, vice and hedonism). I did a day’s course for Inkwell Workshops, a very professionally run outfit altogether, and spent that Saturday talking shop with a lovely bunch of people.

Middlesex Uni Lit FestOn the 23rd of March, I was over in London for the Middlesex University Literary Festival, where I gave a talk with Frances Hardinge, author of ‘Fly by Night’ and ‘Verdigris Deep’. The college is on spacious, forest grounds, with a beautiful manor house as its centre, but they’ve  been trying to rebuild their boxy old faculty buildings for years and may have to move because they can’t get planning permission. They should come to Ireland; seems you can build any oul’ shite over here if you build it big enough.

I’ve blogged earlier about the event in Trinity with Philip Reeve and Conor Kostick and, of course, explained above how I missed Killinarden in Tallaght. I did get to Mullingar Library, which boasts an amazing new building where, as I arrived, people were queuing to get in and get libraring. Last week I visited  Glenasmole National School, a small country school in the hills above Tallaght, though despite its proximity to the Big Shmoke, it could have been anywhere in rural Ireland. They were out playing tag-rugby when I arrived. It was nice to see the walls covered in murals. We need more of that!

Kids Reading BoothI took the opportunity to take a peek into the new Tallaght library (well, new to me) and was well impressed, particularly with the kids’ section. Unlike so many of the old libraries my generation grew up with, these are places full of light and space, welcoming layouts and innovative features. The folks in Tallaght had some really cool little book-rack/reading booths that the kids must love.

This week I was in the JCSP library in St Paul’s CBS in Brunswick St, talking to a cool, good-natured bunch of lads. Then I did a few sessions  for the junior infants up to second class in St Mary’s in Blessington (so close to my beloved Wicklow Mountains – God, it’s been a long time since I got out hillwalking!). I’ve been there before, and it’s a big, busy, buzzing school. And I’m not just saying that because they gave me wine and chocolates as we said goodbye.

While I was in St Paul’s, Annie the librarian there, told me that the contracts for all the JCSP librarians run out on the 31st of August. They have no idea if they’ll all be out of a job come September. I’ve seen enough of these libraries to know what a hugely positive impact they’re having. Ireland’s schools have suffered for years from having no proper libraries, and we’re still playing catch-up with places like the UK. Mary CoughlanIt’s not enough that we just save these projects from going under – we need them in every secondary school in the country.

Take note, Ms Coughlan, our new Minister for Education and Skills: books may be made with wood pulp, but educations don’t grow on trees. And those imaginative, enlightened, educated kids will be vital to your plan, as you put it: to market Ireland as the innovation island  ‘like Einstein explaining his theory of evolution’.

Truly, these kids will need all the help they can get – it’s survival of the physicist out there.

To end this spatial exploration on a positive note,  I recently heard about  the Room 13 project in Scotland. We need more of this kind of thing over here.

The Hard Facts

Charles Stross, one of the UK’s most successful sci-fi writers, and a compulsive and prolific blogger, has written a series of posts about writing for a living, but there’s one post I think everyone should see, about the lifestyle of a writer. Charles StrossThere are a lot of blunt truths here – though there are some key differences in the life of a children’s writer – so if you’re considering trying to get published, or if you are published and you’re wondering ‘Is it like this for everyone?’ (Answer: Yes, it probably is.), you should have a read of this post.

In the article, Charlie refers to a survey carried out by the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) on writers’ incomes in the UK. It makes for sobering reading. The Irish Copyright and Licensing Agency (ICLA) and the Irish Writers’ Union recently carried out a similar survey. I haven’t seen the full results yet, but I got a peek at some of them and, as might be expected, things are even tougher in Ireland. I’ll post more when I have more.

Something Old, Something New . . .

I would be wary of claiming that I could define what makes great art, or what qualities bestow the term ‘classic’ on something – particularly when that term can turn most kids off it quicker than pressing the power button. Addams Family ValuesBut for me, a great story is one that ticks all my various and demanding boxes and leaves me saying ‘I don’t know how they could have done that better’. And ‘Addams Family Values’ has that effect on me. The first film, ‘The Addams Family’, was really good, but the second outdid it. It is just beautifully darkly weird and wickedly  funny, with the kind of script that just leaves you waiting for the next character to speak. It’s perfectly cast, imaginative, theatrical and visually fantastic, but it’s the dialogue that does it for me. There are just so many good lines in it. This was a big influence on my Wildenstern books. If you haven’t seen it already . . . what the hell’s wrong with you?

I had been meaning to pick up ‘Harry Brown’ for a  while. The other night, while I was out browsing through Xtra-Vision, I decided that it might fit my requirements for a well-paced, intelligent film that wasn’t going to be too taxing on my tired brain. Harry BrownAs it turned out, Michael Caine’s latest was just the ticket. He once said of his prolific career: ‘I wanted to do so many films, that by the time people realized I wasn’t a big star, I’d be one’. That might explain how he’s managed to be in quite a few absolute turkeys (keep well clear of  ‘On Deadly Ground’ with Steven Seagal). But he rarely gets it wrong, and when he’s on form, he as good as anybody. And ‘Harry Brown’ is a prime example. The plot is hardly original – an old man who turns vigilante after the death of his friend – but Caine brings an ordinariness, a pathos to it that lifts it above being just another revenge film. He’s ably assisted by Emily Mortimer and some scarily realistic thugs.

Anybody who had Charles Dickens forced on them in secondary school probably, like me, wondered if the definition of literature was supposed to be a dense text full of archaic language and meandering narrative that had to be analyzed to death. And I had really good English teachers. But these books are good, it’s just hard to appreciate that when you’re being made to read something that doesn’t reflect your interests. And when the language, we are told, is beautifully written English but is, at the same time, difficult for anyone in their teens to understand. So every schoolkid is left wondering: Is that what we’re supposed to be aiming for? The curriculum has a lot to answer for, but there’s a reason Dickens is considered a cracking writer, and ‘Bleak House’ is a great example. I downloaded it onto my phone a few weeks ago (for when I’m in the car, or out walking), from South Dublin Libraries’ website.

It’s probably not ideal material for an audio-book, as it’s long, with a wide range of separate plot-lines that take time to weave together, and a massive cast of characters. And at the start, I was only listening to it from time to time, so it took a fair bit of recalling to remember everything that was going on. After some begrudging years studying long, old-fashioned novels, printed in small, dense type, it’s easy to forget how colourful and distinct Dickens’s characters are, how witty the dialogue and the level of near-slapstick humour and wonderfully over-the-top description he uses at times. Bleak HouseThe description of Mrs Jellyby’s house, whose grand plans for building homes in Africa result in her own house falling down around her ears and her children running riot, is brilliant – and the scene featuring Mrs Pardiggle’s bulldozer opinions on social justice, her destructive skirts and her long-suffering sons is hilarious. As is the scene where we first meet the Smallweed family, headed by the malignant Grandfather Smallweed and his slingshot cushion. Imagining his feeble body barely containing his vitriolic hatred for his wife’s babblings just has to put a smile on your face. The book is packed with humour and character and wisdom and a mastery of language. But students take note: that language is just how Dickens told his story – we don’t have to write like that today!

Speaking of classics, this year’s ‘One City, One Book’ campaign for Dublin has adopted ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. I read the novel years ago, but now I’ve just read the graphic novel, adapted by writer Ian Edginton. Picture of Dorian GrayI’ve enjoyed Edginton’s work on comics such as  ‘HG Wells’ War of the Worlds’ and ‘Leviathan’, so I was looking forward to this. With illustrator Ian Culbard, he has delivered a sound adaptation.

There are loads of comic versions of the classics, but most of them are crap – badly adapted and drawn by amateurish illustrators. Edginton is a pro, and Culbard’s simplistic (but well-executed) drawings with their brush-stroke portraits and crude digital paint toning have a flavour of European comics and I think the look works well. It’s a deceptively hard style to do, and I’ve seen better, but Culbard makes it work. There’s not much money to be made in books like this, so you rarely see them being done (competently) in any very realistic or finished style, and this is a story that leans heavily on Wilde’s cutting dialogue anyway. This is a fine adaptation of a classic story of hedonism, sin and the destruction of the soul.

I also checked out the recently released film adaptation, directed by Oliver Parker, entitled simply: ‘Dorian Gray’. Well worth a look (especially as it delves with a little more detail into the sins that Wilde brushes over – wa-hey!), I saw a couple of mediocre reviews for it, but I think it’s better than that. Dorian Gray FilmBen Barnes (previously known as Prince Caspian) does well as Dorian, going from innocent to cursed with great aplomb – although I’d wonder if he quite has the charisma to carry the whole film – and Colin Firth is excellent as Lord Henry Wooton. Modern CGI also gave the painting a whole life of its own, which could have spoiled it, but was nicely underplayed.

I’m going to be giving a talk next week in Ballymun Library about the story, specifically the comic adaptation, to Transition Years, so I’m working on a pitch that will grab their attention. Despite all my chatter about modern adaptations and how classics can have universal appeal, I know that making these kinds of stories relevant to teenagers is a tall order. So, only time will tell if I’ll be able to put an acceptable face on the eminent Mr Dorian Gray.

Something Wicked This Way Came

Well, it’s been an interesting week. I’ve been struggling with my web connection, first because of some kind of breakdown in the line, and then having to juggle the settings on my Mac and other devices to get everything back up and running again. I love the way you pay for a service and end up doing most of the maintaining yourself.

I will some day soon have to replace my computer, along with a few other pieces of very old kit. Anyone who has spent years maintaining a growing collection of hardware and software, constantly tinkering to keep it all working together, will know the terror involved in taking it apart and setting it up again. Can’t wait for that little ordeal.

On Friday, I went with my mother, brother and his wife to see the wicked Mr Derren Brown live in the fantastic new Grand Canal Theatre. We saw his show a few years ago, and loved it. This new show, Enigma, didn’t disappoint either. He has a unique ability to wreck your head and leave you completely intrigued as to how he did it. Derren BrownThe fact that he explains how he did some of it just makes things worse, as anyone who has watched his shows for any length of time will know you can’t trust a word he says. I don’t want to say too much about the show, in case I spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it included planting various subconscious suggestions in our collective brains, cold reading (how psychics read your body language to con you into thinking they can read your mind), ‘contacting the spirits of the dead’, putting much of the audience into a trance and giving us a bloody good laugh the whole way through. A brilliant performance. And it’s funny to see how worked up he gets himself by the end.

While I’m on the subject of smoke and mirrors – well . . . mainly smoke – I had a meeting cancelled, for the first time ever, because of a volcano. I was supposed to meet the managing editor of Random, my UK publisher, on Friday. But her flight was cancelled because of the much-publicized eruption. I think it was a pretty acceptable excuse. Eyjafjallajökull volcano (I have no idea how to pronounce that) in Iceland has, as everyone in the world should know by now, caused massive disruption for air travel. I heard one person on the radio say that they were stuck in an airport abroad and the earliest flight they could get on was on the 14th of May. I really think airlines should be giving priority to those who have to get home, rather than trying to keep to their schedules for the benefit of those whose flights have yet to be affected. Better that someone have their holiday cancelled and have to drive home again, then someone having to be stranded in a foreign country without a place to stay, eating airport food and blowing the limit on their credit card.

VOLCANO ASH FLIGHTSI once had to stay just one night sleeping in an airport, and it was a pretty miserable experience. And I was young with no family to look after. The benches were so uncomfortable to sleep on I just lay on the floor with no cover except my jacket. They don’t turn off the lights all night, the cleaners work at night, so it’s not that quiet even then, and I couldn’t help worrying about somebody nicking my stuff while I was asleep – and this was in a London airport with hardly anybody else in the Departure lounge. I can only imagine what it’s like day after day in a crowded airport. Given that the last time this volcano erupted, it lasted for fourteen months, airlines should be taking better care of the people who find themselves stranded. Those companies are going to need a lot of good will – and as few lawsuits as possible – to stay in business as things get even tougher for their industry.

For anyone who’s interested, I found this description of what volcanic ash (which is basically particles of vaporized stone) can do to an airplane, on Wikipedia:

Sandblasting effect

Ash can “blind” pilots by sandblasting the windscreen requiring an instrument landing, damage the fuselage, and coat the plane so much as to add significant weight and change balance. In addition, the sandblasting effect can damage the landing lights, making their beams diffuse and unable to be projected in the forward direction. Propellor aircraft are also endangered.

Clogging of the plane’s sensors

Accumulation of ash can also block an aircraft’s pitot tubes. This can lead to failure of the aircraft’s air speed indicators.

Electromagnetic wave insulation

Volcanic ash particles are charged and disturb the communication by radio.

Combustion power failure

Volcanic ash damages machinery. The effect on jet aircraft engines is particularly severe as large amounts of air are sucked in during combustion operation, posing a great danger to aircraft flying near ash clouds. Very fine volcanic ash particles (particularly glass-rich if from an eruption under ice) sucked into a jet engine melt at about 1,100 °C, fusing onto the blades and other parts of the turbine (which operates at about 1,400 °C). They can erode and destroy parts, drive it out-of-balance, and cause jams in rotating machinery.

The effect on the operation of a jet engine is often to cause it to cut out — failure of all a plane’s engines is common (compressor stall and flameout, fooling of the engine temperature sensors). The standard emergency procedure when jet engines begin to fail had been to increase power, which makes the problem worse. The best procedure is to throttle back the engines, and to lose height so as to drop below the ash cloud as quickly as possible. The inrush of cold, clean air is usually enough to cool, solidify, and shatter the glass, unclogging the engines.

So, I’m happy for the airlines to play it safe and keep those birds on the ground until the air has cleared. Whenever that happens.

Apparently, Eyjafjallajökull is right next to a much bigger volcano named Katla. It could erupt with a force nearly ten times greater than its smaller neighbour. Every time Eyjafjallajökull has erupted in recorded history, Katla has gone up not long after. Not a pleasant thought for anybody wishing to fly over Europe in the next year or so . . . I might well be taking the ferry next time I have to do any events in the UK.

Philip PullmanOne additional casualty last weekend was the Philip Pullman event in Trinity on Saturday, for which I had tickets. I was looking forward to a good row between himself and the fundamentalists over his new book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’. But it seems Catholic Ireland, at least, has been spared his wicked, blaspheming presence.

So, this volcano thingie. . . Act of God, d’you think?

Ideas for the Future

I’m borrowing the theme/title from Trinity Week for this piece, partly because of the great event I got to do with Philip Reeve and Conor Kostick last Tuesday, and partly ‘cos it fits nicely with the other stuff I want to talk about . . .

An article I read recently on Publishers Weekly about new apps for the iPad and the iPhone is the best one I’ve seen so far about how children’s publishers are becoming pioneers into all the new formats that are exploding into existence. Children's Digital LibraryThis article is about Apple’s tablet, but it’s what is being created for the device that’s interesting, with applications that still centre around reading, yet offer animation, audio, interactive text and activities such as digital painting, puzzles and games. There are also services like the International Children’s Digital Library, offering its content from creators all over the world for free as apps.

Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, one of Ireland’s best picture book creators, sent me this link she found for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ on the iPad. They’ve done a lovely job on it.

But I’m still a great believer in always bringing things back to basics when it comes to developing essential skills. All the best digital artists learned their trade with pencils, paper and paint, working the old fashioned way first. Before it all becomes buttons and styluses and touchscreens, kids should get crude and mucky and feel the textures under their fingers and get the smells of the different materials. It’s bad enough that all the drawing they see on television is done with a marker (or even worse, on a computer screen) without making any mistakes. It makes it look like a magic trick and leaves them with a terrible impression of how art is supposed to work.

Writing should be approached the same way. A good story shouldn’t have to rely on gimmicky features to work; those features should enrich the core experience, not substitute good storytelling. And the same applies with learning to read.

Niamh Sharkey – whose wonderful book, ‘The Ravenous Beast’ has been released as an app – sent me this link to an article by Sharon Glassman on the Publishing Perspectives site. Ravenous BeastIt features a discussion with Antonio Faeti, President of the Jury for the book prizes of Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and is about the how the world of picture books is evolving, and the importance of these books to the new generation of kids, with regard to equipping them to deal with an increasingly complicated world. I thought this bit was particularly interesting:

‘He cites a study at the University of London that prescribes exposing infants to picture books starting at five months of age as a way of helping them “manage a high-stimulus society.”

‘A brain formed on multi-layered images will be more prepared to tackle the mental double-espresso of multi-tasking in years to come, this argument says.

The point ends with:

‘The ability of beautiful books to prepare infants and children for a high-tech life adds a new dimension to bookselling.’

It’s certainly an argument that strikes a chord with me. This technology is part of our world now, which means that developing the skills and the maturity to use it properly is all the more important. But I’d be a little concerned that children start to see books, or any large collection of text, as more and more like vegetables or vitamins (a positive comparison in the article). Faeti goes on to say:

‘A brain formed on sound bites and headline news doesn’t have the skills to dig deep and ask, “How does these events compare with the original ones? How much of this news is hype and how much is reality?”

“Generations are growing up who can’t distinguish,” warns Faeti.’

Reeve at Trinity–Me DrawingThat’s my single biggest concern if we can’t produce the stuff that can hold these kids’ attention and extend the attention spans. Speaking of holding kids’ interest, the event with Philip Reeve and Conor Kostick in Trinity College last Tuesday went very well. I got an extra treat in the form of a mini rostrum camera that could film a drawing I did and display it on the huge screen behind us – what one person referred to as ‘drawing live’. I normally have to use a desktop easel, or a flipchart and they’re no good for big crowds. We had about three hundred and fifty in the lecture hall that day.

I’ve done a bunch of events with Conor – we both had our first novels published by the O’Brien Press around the same time. He’s a good friend and is always interesting to listen to. He has a huge interest in the blurring of boundaries between reality and virtual reality and the possible  social consequences. Philip is one of my favourite authors, and it was a nice to discover he’s a sound guy too, articulate and passionate about his work. And as interested in history as he is about the future, which is one of the elements I think gives his sci-fi stories such a rounded feel.

Reeve at Trinity-TrioThanks to the organizers of Trinity Week and the gang at Children’s Books Ireland for setting  up the event, and to Karl Burke and Trinity College for providing the photos.

The interview between Philip and Robert Dunbar that evening, attended by many of the great and good of Irish children’s books (aka The Usual Suspects) went down very well, and the whole day emphasised the current craze for accessible, innovative science fiction. But that demand is also, as Philip pointed out, for sci-fi that is not only about ideas, but characters too. If ‘mainstream’ science fiction has a common flaw, it’s that the concept often crowds out the character and storytelling.

That’s a luxury you can’t afford in young adult books – story is king – so I think that’s why young adult or ‘crossover’ books are becoming so popular with grown-ups. Particularly as real life starts catching up on science fiction, and real technologies become more and more electrical, virtual, invisible, intangible – harder to understand and relate to. Technology is reaching the point where it is almost magical to anyone without a relevant education. I don’t think this is a good thing, but it’s hard to know enough about everything.

I believe that, as the effects of that technology on our lives and its integration into them become increasingly hard to separate from life’s fundamentals, it will take ever more clever storytelling to explain it, investigate it, make it understandable and still spin a good yarn to engage a reader on an emotional level so that they stay interested. Space InvadersI’m not a scientist, a computer programmer or an engineer, although I have a very amateur interest in the effects of these things on our lives.

But we will need writers who really know their stuff, and can also turn these issues into gripping stories (a rare mix), to help us understand our fast-evolving world, give us a structure for lives within that world, and help us keep things in perspective. ‘Cos that’s what great stories do.

And just to sign off on this post, here’s a link to ‘Pixels’, by Patrick Jean, a spectacular short film that should bring a smile to the face of anyone who grew up in the 8-bit, chunky pixel era of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and the unfortunately named Pong. And if you didn’t, you’ll probably like it anyway.

Unidentified Inflated Objects

Following reports of strange objects spotted in the sky over Trim on Easter Sunday, the Weird-Wide News Team (in this case, me and the wife and kids) dropped our chocolate eggs and made our way hurriedly to the edge of that historic town to investigate. There, in a field just across the river from Trim Castle, we came upon an odd sight. Well, actually a whole field of odd sights, including an enormous can of Guinness and a gigantic Panasonic battery rising up over the landscape.

Sonic Hedgehog BalloonIt was the Trim Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, struggling against typically damp and cold Irish weather. Sonic the Hedgehog, a giant chicken, a cat and the Boyne Valley Honey Bees all made an appearance. Apparently Darth Vader’s head, a colossal slice of orange, Bertie Basset and Thomas the Tank Engine were all there over the weekend. Aviator Brian Jones also paid a visit, in a replica of the balloon in which he and  Bertrand Piccard became the first people to fly all the way around the world in a hot air balloon without stopping.

The balloons should have been the main event, and they certainly attracted crowds, but it was a pity to see such fantastic sights slowly inflate, only to be allowed buckle and fold back down again because the wind threatened to drag them away.

There were no flights taking place, as they only happened early in the morning or in the evening, when we couldn’t go. Balloon BurnerI fully intend to get up in a hot air balloon sometime soon, and apparently Trim is one of the centres for ballooning in Ireland.

There were a lot of stands around, with various foods, games and activities, as well a big inflated ball you could roll down a hill in, crazy golf, inflated slides and people in the ballooning baskets scattered around so you could see how the burners worked and get your picture taken as you triggered a jet of fire into the sky. But the weather really put a dampener on things.

When you think of the gorgeous weather we had last weekend, the organizers of the festival must have walked outside, and let off some colourful language as they saw the sun shining down out of those lovely clear skies a week too late.

And speaking of balloons . . . in ‘Strangled Silence’ I had a war where nothing was what it seemed and tricking the eye – and the mind – was all part of the game. Russia's Military BalloonsIn yet another case of fact being as strange (or even stranger) than fiction, Weird-Wide News has discovered that the Russian military are ‘faking it’ for real, with balloons that look like military equipment. These life-size decoys are used to make a base or airfield look as if it’s better defended than it actually is, or to attract the attention of attacking aircraft away from real troops and hardware.

It’s like some of the stuff I read about in the book, ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ (now a major film – a pretty good movie, but could have been better), except not quite so unbelievable and scary.

I love this idea of balloon decoys. I can see the Gardai using this in a few years, putting inflatable police cars by the side of the road to stop people from speeding. Or maybe property developers will start putting up inflatable houses, to fool people into thinking we still have a building industry . . .

Almost as Strange as Fiction

In ‘Small-Minded Giants’, I described a city built in the form of a machine that could generate electricity using the movement and activity of the people living within in it. Since then I learned about a train station in Tokyo where they had a very simple version of this idea built into the floor at the ticket barriers, the passing travellers contributing electricity to the station just by walking across these sensors. The amount being generated is still very small (the level of powering a light bulb or an LCD display), but it’s only a fledgling technology and has already become ten times more efficient than when it was first installed in 2006.

Pavement Power DancefloorThen I was sent this link, about an experiment in Toulouse to generate electricity for street lamps using pedestrian power – based on a technology that was first used to light the dance floor in the Watt nightclub in Rotterdam.

Honestly, sci-fi writers can barely keep ahead of the real world these days. No wonder we’re all writing nostalgic, steampunk stuff at the moment.

The Vile Desire to Scream

TVDTS-Ebook CoverFinally! A few months later than planned, but it’s been a weird period in the life of this particular author/illustrator, for reasons that I won’t go into yet. Anyway, here it is – my first (and by no means last) ebook novella: ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’, available to download for free.

Here’s the blurb:

‘If no relatives are involved,’ said Nate, ‘then somehow an enemy has infiltrated our home – one who is able to get past our guards, take Daisy without a struggle, and navigate the hazards of the house without detection. Which would make him a formidable opponent indeed, and an unknown quantity.

‘For Daisy’s sake, I hope that is not the case.’

‘Bloody right,’ Gerald sniffed. ‘With enemies like that, who needs relatives, eh?’

This is part promotional tool, part experiment and partly done just for the craic. It’s a short read, the kind you could finish in a lunchtime. The story is set between ‘Ancient Appetites’ and ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’, but you don’t have to have read either to follow the storyline.

My technical department (ie. my brother) and I have tried to make it as universal as possible – there’s nothing more annoying than something being released as a file that only works on one kind of system, or for one kind of software. To make it as accessible as possible, there’s a pdf, an epub file and a mobipocket file to choose from. There are simple explanations for each on the download page to help you make your choice.

It’s been an interesting experience, particularly creating epub files for the first time, and I intend to do more of this in the future. I hope you choose to read this story, and if you do, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, tell your friends, tell people who aren’t your friends, tell strangers you meet on the street – tell the whole world and see if I care . . . ‘cos, well . . . I do.

Fun Lovin’ Storytellin’

So I finally got to see the Fun Lovin’ Criminals perform live. Though the fact that I saw them in Navan made it a bit surreal – especially during ‘The King of New York’, when Huey Morgan had the Naaaaavan crowwad chanting ‘Free John Gotti’ over and over again. Did they know Gotti was a gangster and a murderer – and already dead? Did they care? Probably not.

Fun Lovin' CriminalsBut it was a brilliant gig, a real class act that combined hip-hop, rock, blues, jazz and funk. They first showed up in the nineties with their album ‘Come Find Yourself’, although I didn’t appreciate them (or start paying proper attention to music generally) until later. When I did finally get the album, I was delighted to find there wasn’t a bad track on it. The next record, ‘100% Columbian’ is pretty good too, but didn’t tighten my nuts like the first one.

Apart from the tunes themselves, I loved the way Morgan’s gravelly drawl often told a story with songs like ‘Bombin’ the L’, Methadonia and their show-stopper, ‘Scooby Snacks’ (although ‘Fun Lovin’ Criminal’ is probably still my number one). Observation, humour, atmosphere, all wrapped up in a distinctive voice. His delivery – and guitar playing – was every bit as good on stage. And apart from the drumming, the multi-talented Brian ‘Fast’ Leiser did everything else: synthesiser, bass, trumpet, harmonica and backing vocals, often doing two or three at a time. They were excellent.

A Serious ManPossibly my favourite writer-director team in cinema, the Coen brothers, demonstrated a very different style of storytelling with ‘A Serious Man’, which I got out on DVD the other night. There’s a mix of psychological thriller, black comedy, action and atmosphere in their films that just does it for me every time. And they cross so many genres, without getting stuck in any of them, and without losing that gripping style. I mean, I just wish I could have been there when they pitched ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ to the studio. That must have been interesting.

‘A Serious Man’ is a bit of a departure from most of their other stuff – it’s most like ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’, which is probably my least favourite of their films (it’s still pretty bloody good).

Like that one, ‘A Serious Man’ is a slow-paced, observational piece that is driven almost entirely by character. Much of the film centres around Jewish culture, so I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of the references, and it’s the type of film I have to be in the mood for, but you could just sit there and soak up the gallery of entertaining moments. Films influence my writing at least as much as books, and as ‘the two-headed director’, Ethan and Joel Coen (they both write, direct, produce and normally edit their films) are the kind of creators I’d aspire to be.

Here Lies ArthurAnd finally, for now, to the oldest style of spinning a yarn, oral storytelling – or at least the type narrated in book form. ‘Here Lies Arthur’, by Philip Reeve, is a retelling of the King Arthur legend. A story within a story, it’s about a cunning storyteller and his young apprentice, and their series of tricks and creative spin (ie, blatant lies) that established one of the world’s most well-known legends, based on the life of a man who was essentially a complete blackguard in a world populated by barbarians, rather than the shiny-armour-suited gentlemen we think were around at the time. Reeve is one of my favourite authors for young adults (or old ones, for that matter) and this book has it all, a gripping story, sophisticated plotting, action (including some pretty unflinching violence), suspense, intrigue, humour, a bit of weirdness and some great characters.

I will have the pleasure of doing an event with Philip Reeve, along with my mate Conor Kostick, in Trinity College next Tuesday. The kids’ event is booked out, but Reeve is doing an interview with Robert Dunbar that evening. If you can, you should check it out.