A Book Review: ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was one of those classic books that had been on my radar for a while, but for some reason I never received the proverbial kick up the backside that I needed to make me choose that title before any others on my massive to-read list. The kick I’d been subconsciously waiting for came earlier this year when one of my greatest inspirations, Sir Billy Connolly revealed that A Confederacy of Dunces was his favourite book as part of his Made in Scotland documentary. If the book was good enough to earn such high praise from the Big Yin, I knew I had to grab a copy post-haste.

A Confederacy of Dunces is a cult classic American humour novel by John Kennedy Toole, although first written in 1963 it didn’t see print until 1980 following the efforts of Toole’s mother to get it published after the author took his own life. Despite its unorthodox and tragic route onto the world’s bookshelves, the novel is a rib-tickling romp that leaves the reader feeling a million miles from melancholy.

The book tells the story of one Ignatius J Riley, a hilariously pretentious, morbidly obese, highly educated, bone-idle moustachioed man-child with delusions of grandeur and a temperamental pyloric valve. Despite his natural intellect and inflated self-importance he remains blissfully unemployed, living with his mother in a blue-collar New Orleans neighbourhood populated by kooky residents. Ignatius is a walking ball of contradictions, he complains bitterly about the 20th Century’s lack of taste and decency yet he’s as flatulent as a Jersey cow. He has the ego of a Greek god but the dress sense of a vagrant; his everyday attire consisting exclusively of a baggy flannel nightshirt and a green hunting cap that he takes off so rarely, it might as well be stapled to his head. He is forever decrying the moral impurity of the motion picture industry, but goes to the cinema on a weekly basis. It is these stringently held beliefs and unconscious hypocrisies that inspire him to write. Our pompously puritanical protagonist spends most of his time locked in his bedroom penning a comprehensive critique of the modern age, scribbling frantically about anything that offends his medieval ideals.

Some of the novel’s funniest passages are excerpts from Ignatius’s vitriolic musings in which he rants at length about his run-ins with some of the wildest and wackiest people in New Orleans. These oddball adversaries include local cop Patrolman Mancuso, the staff at The Night of Joy, a nearby bar that Ignatius brands “a den of vice and iniquity” and his neighbour Miss Annie, a nosy older woman who doesn’t appreciate his nocturnal trumpet playing. Mr Reilly would be quite happy to remain at home composing his scornfully highfalutin manuscript for the rest of his days but after he accidentally incurs a hefty debt, his mother forces him to get a job.

The book then follows Ignatius on his comically tempestuous forays into the working world. His first experience of gainful employment comes at the offices of the Levy Pants Company, a local firm that has catered for the trouser-related needs of New Orleans folk for generations. Try as he might Ignatius simply isn’t cut out for life as a humble clerk and soon unleashes his own unique brand of chaos on his colleagues and superiors. After placing himself at the epicentre of an industrial up-rising Ignatius parts ways with Levy Pants and becomes a hot-dog salesman. He proudly pushes his Paradise Vendors cart all over the city, merrily flogging frankfurters as he goes but things soon turn sour when he is found to be eating more than he’s selling.

In Ignatius J Reilly, the author created one of the funniest, most unpleasant main characters in all of literature and his journey from slothful slob to working boy would be enough to fill a novel in its own right, but our man Reilly’s absurd antics are just one facet of this comedic yarn. Almost every character with whom Ignatius interacts throughout the novel have their own richly detailed backstory that runs concurrently with Ignatius’s. 

There’s Ignatius’s mother Irene, an anxious liquor-quaffing widow whose disappointment in her offspring is made sadly apparent.  Patrolman Mancuso, a lawman with a penchant for naff disguises who is Ignatius’s sworn enemy and Irene’s bowling partner. Other characters who play essential roles in the book’s vast interlinking plot include, Jones the supercool, highly astute cleaner come doorman at the Night of Joy, his coldhearted boss Lana Lee and many more besides. 

Another vital and often hilarious vein of storyline that runs throughout the novel is Ignatius’s correspondence with his pen pal and on/off love interest Myrna Minkoff. Myrna is a fiercely intellectual and rebellious New York beatnik who is Ignatius’s academic equal. Ignatius holds Myrna in high regard, but he fears her social and sexual freedoms worrying that she will rob him of his closely guarded virginity.

A Confederacy of Dunces is a colossal work of comic fiction, bursting at the margins with absurd humour and caustic wit. John Kennedy Toole’s storytelling and exquisitely crafted imagery is wonderful, his sentences like brushstrokes that vividly paint each raucous character inside the reader’s head. I’ve read a lot of books in my time, but never have I known flatulence be described in so many varied and poetic ways. Toole’s comic timing and gift for characterisation is undeniable, but his plotting and story structure is far from seamless. 

In any given chapter the story can flit from a standard third person narrative focusing on Ignatius to an extract from his handwritten ramblings, then dart off into another third person sequence in The Night of Joy before going back to Ignatius and a transcript of a letter from Myrna. This scatter-brained pacing sometimes proved discombobulating and would certainly be a turnoff to some readers. 

Another thing that struck me as I read was the frequent sprinkling of un-PC language and terminology that looks quite shocking through contemporary eyes. However I realise all books are products of the times they were written in and it would be unfair to condemn a 20th Century work by 21st Century standards. 

No matter how erratic and multifaceted its narrative may be, A Confederacy of Dunces is a very enjoyable novel full of memorable characters who stay with you long after the covers close.

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A Tribute to Lindsey: My Teacher and Friend

I was truly saddened and shocked to hear that Lindsey Bailey had passed away. She was an incredible writer and a lovely person who will be missed by many. This one’s for you, Linds… 

I first met the wonderfully talented creative dynamo known to the world as Lindsey Bailey when I was a member of the Polesworth branch of Writing West Midlands’ Spark Young Writers Group. I was an ambitious bookworm of a teenager who along with a like-minded cluster of kids would rock up to the monthly class to let our imaginations run free. It was the start of a new term and we all arrived at Polesworth Abbey (the headquarters of our geeky gang) to find the group had two new tutors. The freshly appointed Lead Writer was author and journalist Alex Townley and the new Assistant Writer was of course, Lindsey Bailey, a wordsmith and teacher with an endless supply of enthusiasm and a smile bright enough to outshine every star in the Cosmos.

From their first session onwards Alex and Lindsey put their own stamp on our group and changed it for the better. The Abbey’s refectory room where our writing took place transformed from a hub of silent swotting to a vibrant laboratory of storytelling.

This was due in no small part to Lindsey who would kickstart every Polesworth session by doling out at least two packets of biscuits to raise our energy-levels to a sugary crescendo before setting us one of her ever inventive warm-up activities.

It was anyone’s guess what intriguing new creative challenge Lindsey would give us each month, sometimes she’d have us compose lengthy poems on the beauty of the changing seasons or task us to write detailed journalistic reviews of what we had eaten for breakfast. She’d also encourage us to embrace the silliest aspects of our imaginations by getting us to pick three entirely random words from a bag and use whatever we selected as the title for our story. Such delightfully daft tales as Purple Elephant Trampoline were written as a result. Other times she would lead us outside into the Abbey grounds to take inspiration from our green and pleasant surroundings.

‘Let’s all write a story from the perspective of that bee,’ Lindsey would say, pointing towards the stripy rotund insect as it pollinated a nearby hydrangea. And off we’d go to spend the next fifteen minutes penning The Unauthorized Biography of Bobby the Bumble Bee. 

Lindsey would spend the remainder of the sessions darting up and down the room at the speed of light, offering advice or constructive feedback as we all scribbled in our notebooks. She radiated kindness and her love of the written word was truly infectious. Lindsey was as hungry to teach us as we were to learn and I know that every young person in our class left it with a deeper appreciation for both the art and craft of writing.

By the time Lindsey moved from our Polesworth Spark group to become the Lead Writer over in Burton and later Walsall, I’d already started publishing my own work via this blog. We stayed in touch on Twitter and she would always be the first to give me a retweet and spread the word whenever a piece of my writing went online. We’d always keep an eye on each other’s literary progress and every time we met up at various Writing West Midlands events we always talked shop. I’d congratulate her on the work she was doing with her brilliantly innovative StoryChefs workshops or the publication of her children’s book The Cape of Courage while she’d advise me on my latest projects

It was also at those events where Lindsey and I would share a good few biscuits and laughs before the conversation inevitably drifted onto our dogs. I, like Lindsey, cherish my canine companions (Tolkien the Goldendoodle and Merida the Labradoodle) and it was always nice to hear about the latest adventures of the superstar schnauzer himself, “Bostin Austin”.

Lindsey was the first person I contacted when the good folk at Writing West Midlands appointed me the new Assistant Writer at Polesworth. She was pleased that I would be taking over her former role, but I knew I had big shoes to fill.

Not only did I get the chance to follow in Lindsey’s footsteps at my new gig but I also had the joy of being her Assistant when she came back to Polesworth Abbey to lead a couple of classes. It was like she’d never left, both the sessions I worked with her ran on biscuits and magic, just like old times. The only difference being I was now on the other side of the writing table, listening to the stories instead of reading them out. 

After the first of our co-run sessions, Lindsey reeled off an aptly poetic turn of phrase about The Student becoming The Teacher, and smiled proudly. That particular snapshot in time has taken on a new level of poignancy since her passing and has become a memory I shall treasure.

I feel privileged to have called Lindsey both my teacher and my friend. This world of ours seems like a much darker place without Lindsey in it, but as long as the many young people who she inspired keep writing I know her light will shine on.       

With love and deepest condolences to Lindsey’s family & friends,

George Bastow

A Comic Book Review: ‘Combat Colin #1’ by Lew Stringer

Combat Colin #1 is an independently released comic book written and illustrated by the prolific humour strip artist Lew Stringer. This issue is a compilation of Combat Colin’s earliest adventures which first saw print in the vintage British weekly comic Action Force back in the 1980s. It is prefaced by an introduction from Stringer himself, giving the reader an intriguing insight into the titular character’s initial inception and creative development from a light-hearted Rambo pastiche to the bobble-hatted, camo-jacket-sporting, yampy badass we know today.

As the pages turn, the reader is treated to a rib-tickling progression as the story and character evolve from a modest half-page gag strip to a full-throttle, full-page extravaganza of absurdity. Even in the earliest episodes which were originally published under the name Codename: Combat Colin, the character is fully formed and humorously polished. A well-meaning yet dimwitted protector of the peace who collects military grade weaponry as avidly as I collect funny-books. Whether our haplessly hilarious hero is cleaving through his dad’s greenhouse with a machete or accidentally blowing the roof off the family home with his beloved grenade-launcher, the laughs come thick and fast.

It is also in these high-octane half-pagers where Colin becomes acquainted with his loyal bazooka-toting sidekick Semi-automatic Steve, the pair form the ultimate daft duo and their larger-than-life antics take the fun to an explosive new level that demands a broader margin. As the strip expands to its full-page format, Stringer seizes the opportunity to take the reader on a guided tour through the wonderfully wacky wider world of Combat Colin. The creator lets his extraordinary imagination run free, skillfully crafting a majestically madcap array of serialized stories for our reading pleasure. Throughout these gloriously surreal interlinking tales Colin and Steve face a collection of sublimely eccentric foes, from their arch nemesis Dr. Nasty with his dreams of world-domination and stylish goggles to the ice-cold villain Aunt Arctic of the Antarctic and her army of Kung Fu Penguins.

Combat Colin #1 is a genuinely memorable collection of action-packed stories that hit the reader right in the chuckle muscle. Stringer’s classic art style and distinctive wit is a winning combination that will visually intoxicate any and every British comics fan, his work on this title is a hybrid of the timeless cartoon brilliance of Leo Baxendale and the manic no-holds-barred hilarity of The Young Ones.

From the opening panel to the final caption it is easy to see why Colin has been going strong for 30 yampy years, and if the comic gods are smiling on us he’ll stay with us well into the future.

 

 

A Comic Book Review: ‘The Night After: A 24-Hour Comic’ by Andy Williams

‘The Night After: A 24-Hour Comic’ is a small press title written and illustrated by artist and graphic design wizard Andy Williams. The book is prefaced by an introduction from Williams himself, in which he explains his creative process behind the project as well as outlining exactly what a 24-Hour comic is. A 24-Hour Comic is a storytelling technique first devised by graphic novelist and imaginative maestro Scott McCloud when he challenged a friend and fellow comic creator to write and draw a complete comic book within 24 hours that contained a page for every hour in the day to help them overcome a stubborn bout of artistic block. Williams then goes on to tell the reader why he chose to undertake his own 24-Hour comic 20-something years ago and how he has decided to revisit the story two decades on, giving it an exciting new lease of life and print run to match.

From the first page of ‘The Night After’ the reader can tell that this is a tale crafted from the heart, in the opening panels we are introduced to the protagonist, a grief-stricken young woman who takes us with her on a gradual and painful journey of introspection. The solid black and white colour palette Williams uses throughout is exquisitely evocative and perfectly conveys the main character’s inner darkness. He deftly plays with light and shade, highlighting the visual nuances on each page that give the art its profound depth. He manages to fill every panel with a multitude of delicately drawn details from the filter on the protagonist’s last cigarette to the lifelike texture of her eyelashes in all of the close-up shots. These kinds of illustrative subtleties could easily appear mundane if done by a lesser artist but when rendered with Williams’ level of skill and precision they are incredibly striking.

Williams’ writing is minimalistic yet powerful, the naturally worded monologue of a woman desperately trying to come to terms with a life-changing bereavement. The sentences within each caption are imbued with touchingly realistic heartache that anyone who has lost someone close to them will definitely relate to. Much like the artwork in this book the literary narrative is multi-layered, for beneath the sadness Williams plants a series of intriguingly ambiguous hints concerning a deeper subplot.

When I take into consideration that this entire book has been conceived, written, drawn and lettered by just one artist, there is little I can do as a reviewer but doff my hat.

‘The Night After’ is an extremely well executed comic with raw emotion on every page. A tale of love, loss, despair and most importantly hope that will stay with you for much longer than 24 hours.

 

 

 

A Chat with… Jason Cobley

In this instalment of A Chat with… I talk to award-winning graphic novelist, writer, blogger and teacher Jason Cobley.

 

Hello Jason, thanks for taking the time to have a chat with me today. You’re a writer who has honed your craft across a wide range of mediums, producing an impressive body of work over the years. So where did it all begin for you, when did you start writing?

 

Hi George. Well, that’s very generous. You’re probably giving me too much credit there. It all started when I was a teenager. Back in the 80s, Marvel UK published quite a few weeklies and monthlies and, in one of them, a chap called Rob Kirby was advertising in the classifieds section for contributions to a new magazine he was starting, called ‘Amalgam’. This was long before we’d even really coined the term ‘small press’ – ‘fanzine’ was the word – and I had been drawing in my bedroom like many kids, so I cobbled a strip together and sent it in. Over the next few years, my ‘Bulldog’ strip was a mainstay of the magazine. When I went to university, a friend and I published a magazine called ‘Blackout!’ which optimistically catered for what we thought was a big crossover audience between music and comics. We actually did really well and made good connections. We got to interview people such as Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy, Grant Morrison, Karen Berger (via phone to America!), and bands such as Thunder, Anthrax, Marillion, Heart and I even bumped into Kirk Hammett from Metallica outside Nostalgia & Comics once and gave him a copy. He was buying a carton of Ribena. That was the hell-raising 90s for you. Anyway, after that I developed Bulldog further and it became something of a small press sensation, lasting 28 issues. I’ve sporadically revisited those characters, but it was really on the back of that that I got offered the chance to write for Classical Comics, then The DFC, and now I do a mix of self-published comics and professional work.

 

Who would you say are your biggest creative inspirations?

 

I’ve got the usual list I suppose – the 1970s and 1980s were really my formative years for comics: 2000AD and Warrior in particular. So, Alan Moore of course, but probably John Wagner more than anyone. I never forgot how gracious he was in doing an interview with me for ‘Blackout!’ and I was really happy to tell him so when I met him recently. Although I’m no great shakes as an artist, there are some artists who have inspired me in terms of how to put a comic page together. I won’t list them because quite a few are friends now and I’d hate to accidentally leave someone out! If you write comics, though, I think it’s important to read widely beyond the form too, so Iain Banks, Magnus Mills, Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy are just some novelists that come to mind as creative inspirations. Music also helps generate ideas more than TV or film does, for me, and I’m a sucker for prog rock.

 

Let’s talk about your eagerly anticipated new graphic novel ‘Amnesia Agents,’ illustrated by James Gray. What can you tell the reader about this memory-boggling new project?

 

It’s been a long time coming. It kind of coalesced from some leftover ideas from a couple of projects that never quite happened (I’ve got more things that were nearly produced than actually ever saw the light of day!). Some of it stemmed from a story my Dad told about his earliest memory, of being on a farm in the cold as a child and placing a rake in the driveway to stop the taxi taking his sisters to school. It was something that formed some sense of who he felt he was, and I unashamedly nicked it as a focal point in the story. I was fascinated by the idea that we create our own sense of identity from our memories of who we are and our perceptions of what has happened to us. If somehow that’s taken away from you, who are you? I also wanted to create some sort of adventure grounded in the ‘real’ world, a sort of ‘X Files’ setup, except we’re dealing with memories rather than aliens.

Our premise is that there’s a physical place that memories go to, and there are forces at work that will steal memories. When the memory of a person is taken, the whole world forgets they ever exist. Except, sometimes, that goes wrong – and that’s when the Amnesia Agents step in.

 

‘Amnesia Agents’ was adapted from your prose novel, ‘Amnesia Agents: The Forgotten Child’ which garnered an outstanding reception in its own right. What was the process behind tailoring the book to a new medium and how joyous and/or agonising did you find adapting your own work?  

 

I’ve always found it relatively easy to write comics. I’ve written some short stories that have worked OK too, but I wanted to tell this story as a novel. The result was mixed. My prose, even if I do say so myself, is good, but structuring a novel is hard. It really is! I learned a lot from the process. After a while, I looked at it again and, slightly emboldened by the success of others launching comics on Kickstarter, I thought I’d give it a go. I was really lucky to get such a brilliant artist as James Gray on board to commit to the project.

The process of adaptation was straight forward I suppose. I’d previously adapted the dense prose of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker into comics, so making edits and visualising the thing wasn’t too difficult. I had to strip out a few characters and eliminate a whole sub-plot that overcomplicated things. I may well use that in some form if we do a sequel. Creating the script was a complete joy, as James’ was completely in tune with what I was trying to achieve – every page he delivered was better than the last.

 

Whilst we’re on the subject of comic book adaptions, you have also used your extensive creative skillset and knowledge of the medium to transform numerous classic works of literature and theatre into graphic novels. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ and J.B. Priestley’s  ‘An Inspector Calls’ to name but a few. What inspired you to rework these iconic creations?

 

Ha! Well, I’d say my “creative skillset” is fairly limited rather than extensive! Back in the mid 2000s, the wonderful Karen Wenborn, who was at Classical Comics at the time, liked ‘Bulldog Empire’ and some other scripts that didn’t get published, and invited me to do one of the first of their novel adaptations. I got given ‘Frankenstein’ to do, and I loved doing it. It helped that I knew the book quite well. I was soon offered ‘Dracula’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’. As well as being great graphic novels in their own right, they were being promoted as teaching aids in schools, and as I had form in that area, it was a good fit. After Classical Comics had done most of the Shakespeare plays, they decided to stop commissioning new books, which was a pity, but the books still sell really well I believe. We’d talked in general terms about doing some others – the legendary John Burns was up for doing ‘Treasure Island’ with me and I really wanted to do ‘The Time Machine’ but alas, ‘twas not to be.

‘The Signal Man’ came about as an idea I’d floated to Classical and, once I got David Hitchcock on board as artist, we pitched to a few publishers. They all said no. It’s a classic ghost story and used in schools quite a lot, so I could see it working. We started it, then Dave had other projects and life took precedent and it sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Dave decided to have another go, and we think we produced something really effective. We even got a brilliant review from Steve Ditko! Dave is one of the best artists working in British comics today and it’s criminal really that he’s not doing major work with big publishers. I’m really proud of that book. What inspired me about the story in particular is that it’s centred around a man who is really haunted by his own fears in a way, in some ways a metaphor for depression and anxiety – and some of that has found its way into Amnesia Agents too.

 

One of your best-known creator-owned comic books is ‘The Adventures of Captain Winston Bulldog,’ a delightfully surreal and quintessentially British series that has seen you collaborate with some of the biggest names on the UK comics scene from PJ Holden to Neil Cameron. Can you tell the reader a little more about this title and its creative evolution?    

 

Well, as I said, it started in ‘Amalgam’ in the 80s and eventually became ‘Bulldog Adventure Magazine’ aka ‘BAM!’ throughout the 90s and more or less up to today. The most recent episodes were serialised in Davey Candlish’s ‘Paragon’ and I collected them in ‘Bulldog & Panda 2018’. Winston Bulldog is an airship captain and war hero in an alternative world where you’ve got intelligent animals (mammalians) and intelligent vegetables (arboreans) living alongside humans, and rarely harmoniously. The Vegenation are the bad guys, supposedly, but as well as it being a comedic sci-fi action-adventure, I use it to do a bit of light political satire. Bulldog looks like an icon of the right wing, but he’s a socialist and goes up against his own leaders as much as he does against the evil veggies. I tried to get all kinds of publishers interested in the strip over the years, but none would go for it, hence it basically being a huge part of the small press scene in the UK for many years. Neill Cameron started drawing for BAM! when he was still in the sixth form and dipped in and out over the years, until we did what’s basically the ‘movie’, the 64-page ‘Bulldog: Empire’. That was picked by Constable & Robinson for ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga’ volume 1, sporting Bulldog’s ally Samurai Commander Keiko Panda on the cover. One of these days, I’ll get a Kickstarter going for a Keiko Panda graphic novel. Artists apply here!

 

As anyone who follows you on social media will have noticed, you are a passionate music fan with a diverse and ever-growing record collection. I myself have had a lifelong love of music that spans many genres; so I ask you, as tough as it may be to narrow it down, what are your top three albums of all-time?

 

Now I know you’re stalking me, George! Ha! Yeah, I am quite fond of posting my current listening on Facebook! Top three is very hard but let’s try. One of the top 3 would have to be an album by Marillion, probably ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ but ask me tomorrow and I’ll pick a different one. Their latest album ‘FEAR’ is one of their best. I’m told it’s ‘Dad music’, which is fair enough I suppose. I’m a fairly recent convert to jazz, but I’d pick ‘A Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis as the second one. The third? Today I’d say ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ for the greatest drumming in rock on ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ but ask me tomorrow and I might mention anyone from The Beatles to Public Sector Broadcasting.

 

You’ve recently started writing for ‘Commando,’ one of the last remaining good old-fashioned British weeklies to be published by D.C. Thompson. How did you begin working for this action-packed anthology comic? 

 

The short answer is that they put out an open call for submissions and I pitched an idea. The long answer is that the publishers specifically wanted some stories featuring Australian or New Zealand soldiers. I knew of one particular thing in World War One that fitted the brief because I’d been doing some research in that area, which brings us nicely on to your next question…

 

The first of your strips to be featured in ‘Commando’ was a story set during the Battle of Arras in World War I. I know that you have a strong connection to the Battle of Arras and you are currently writing a novel inspired by your relative’s experiences in said conflict? Can you let the reader know any details about this poignant and heartfelt work in progress?   

 

I can. I found out on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme that I had a relative that died in World War One, in a by-the-way remark from an elderly aunt to my father. We hadn’t known before. His name was Robert Gooding Henson, and the only details I had was that and the date of his death. Long story short, shortly afterwards I ended up with a lot of time on my hands as I was off work recovering from back surgery. My Dad died about the same time, so it set me off researching the family tree. I traced the family back to the 18thcentury. We were illiterate farmers until the middle of the 20thcentury, and Robert’s parents met as servants on a farm. There was a large age gap between them and Robert was their only son. He was in the Somerset Light Infantry and died at the Battle of Arras, wounded on 9thApril 1917 but died on 22nd. He was defending a farm, seemingly separated from his infantry. We don’t know why. In fact, that’s all there is. Records for many soldiers then were lost. I know the movements of the SLI and enough to build a story around it, so that’s what I’ve done. It’s a fictionalised account of the battle and what might have happened to Robert. I hope to finish it this summer, then decide what publishing avenues to pursue.

 

Alongside being a multi-disciplined author you are also a passionate and enthusiastic teacher who has written several graphic novels that can be used as educational supplements. This is something I find incredibly cool because comic books have played a huge part in my academic and everyday life. I was born with Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy and one of the numerous affects of my condition means that I’m a painfully slow reader. Then I discovered graphic novels and realised the spacing between image and text within a comic page-layout allowed me to visually digest them much quicker than hefty prose tomes. Just like that, new literary doors opened and the rest is history.     

You and I evidently appreciate how valuable comics can be academically, but to many others the place of graphic novels in the classroom is still a contentious topic. So with that in mind, do you think comic books will ever get the credit they deserve as an educational tool?   

 

Yes and no. To be honest, their educational use only goes so far. Comics are a wonderful form to get reluctant readers into reading, and to help those for whom the traditional reading experience is a challenge, but in some ways it’s been superseded by other technologies now. I use comic book versions of some texts to help students engage and understand, and the visuals certainly help. But, at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to enable kids to be active readers of all kinds of writing. Comics are only one possible tool in the box. Not all teachers understand the form, and not all know how to use it either, but I think in some areas they are used quite well – the success of Classical Comics is a case in point, as they still sell well.

 

Thanks again for your time Jason, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Before I let you get back to your word-weaving and record-relishing, is there anything else you have coming up that you’d like to tell the reader about?

 

My main focus over the next few months is hawking ‘Amnesia Agents’ around various cons: I’m doing Birmingham ICE in September, Nottingham in October and True Believers next February at the moment. There may be more. My next issue of Commando, called ‘The June Winter’, comes out in December.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Book Review: A Midsummer’s Bottom by Darren Dash

I recently had the pleasure of receiving an advanced copy of Darren Dash’s new novel to review here on Books, Films and Random Lunacy. These are my thoughts on the author’s latest release…

A Midsummer’s Bottom is the fourth novel by Darren Dash, the alliterative nom deplume under which the bestselling YA author Darren Shan pens his tales for adults. His latest offering is a light-hearted comedic book that tells the story of The Midsummer Players, a Limerick-based troupe of am-dram hams who stage their own butchered production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year on Midsummer’s Eve.

Each year without fail they perform their version of the iconic play to a lukewarm response then go back to their daily lives for the intervening 11 months before doing it all over again. ‘But that’s all well and good,’ I hear you cry, ‘Apart from the poor unsuspecting theatregoers of Limerick who have to suffer this tawdry torment.’ But alas all is not that simple. In actuality all of the fairies who feature in the Bard’s original work of whimsy are real. Centuries earlier the fairies of Feyland met with a young William Shakespeare and agreed to imbue the ambitious scribe’s quill with their magic so as he could write a play about them. He did just that and his new mystical pals were so pleased with the end result, they promised to attend every single production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for as long as it endured.

 The book opens with King Oberon and Queen Titania at their wits end, The Midsummer Player’s 20th anniversary performance is just around the corner and the thought of sitting through yet another of their dreadful interpretations has become too much for the royal pair to stomach. Exasperated they summon fairy mischief-maker extraordinaire Puck to enlist the help of a human agent of chaos who can infiltrate the Midsummer Players ranks and tear them apart at the seams.

The perfect human meddler presents himself in the form of Del Chapman a freethinking anarchist who lives a life unencumbered by the constraints of modern society.  We first meet Del just after he’s grown board of the only nine to five he’s ever had and decided to bid it an irreverent adieu. Later that night Del has an unexpected encounter with Puck and after a bit of persuasion and a lot of rhyming couplets Del agrees to help the Fey folk in their mission to disband the tiresome thespians.

Over the next few chapters we are introduced to the Midsummer Players and learn all their unique traits and quirks

The first name on Dash’s bill of eclectic amateurs is the ensemble’s director Terrence Devlin, a conceited middle-aged lothario who thinks he’s Limerick’s answer to Lord Olivier. Then we meet Anna, Terrence’s long-suffering wife, a devoted mother and reluctant actress whose self-confidence and patience with her egotistical husband is wearing thin.

Next is Kate Pummel an ambitious young actress who is longing for the right break and will do anything she can to climb the showbiz ladder.

Then we meet Ingmar and Don a bickering gay couple who’ve performed with the troop for several seasons. Don is a monogamous doting partner who is fiercely jealous of his younger lover who happens to be a flirtatious German DJ who thumbs his nose at conventional relationships.

Followed by Diarmid Garrigan a socially awkward IT bod who first came into contact with the players as an audience member at one of their early outings. He was so impressed by their work that he came back repeatedly until Terrence made him a permanent member of the cast. But after working with the hapless band of lovies for years Diarmid’s enthusiasm is beginning to ebb.

The last two players whose acquaintances we make are Felix and his wife Nuala. Felix is an unassuming individual who is happily henpecked by his Amazonian cougar of a missus Nuala is a writer by trade who has found mild success releasing a long list of romance novels under numerous pseudonyms.

Everything is seemingly on-track for their first rehearsal of the year, but when they all arrive to find a certain Mr Chapman filling in for one of their regulars the whole thing unravels as quickly and amusingly as a ball of yarn in a kitten’s paws.

A Midsummer’s Bottom is a swiftly paced tongue-in-cheek romp packed with bawdy humour and fantastical charm that manages to simultaneously embrace and send-up Shakespearian tropes. Dash’s choice to construct the book’s narrative in acts and scenes as opposed to parts and chapters is fittingly clever and the fact that all the sequences set in Feyland are written as if they were extracts from a play, only enhances it’s theatrical flair. The characters with all their neurotic flamboyance wouldn’t look out of place in a Richard Curtis comedy and the ever-present thread of joyous eccentricity weaved throughout the plot would make Woody Allan proud. Dash has filled this tale with all the belly laughs and bust-ups you would expect from a comical summer read whilst still pulling off the kind of big reveals and surprising plot twists that have made him famous.

This is definitely not the sort of book readers would expect from the author under either of his pen names, and some of Dash/Shan’s diehard fans may be left discombobulated by the shift in tone, but in my personal view it was the unexpected nature of the novel that made it so enjoyable. A good many wordsmiths of Dash’s calibre wouldn’t be brave enough to risk experimenting in different genres and forever remain in the same lucrative literary sphere. But Dash’s refusal to play to the gallery and instead follow his imagination into fairyland proves the true extent of his creative range.                              

    

My Wonderful Aunt Shirl: A Tribute

Greetings dear reader, it is I, your humble hat-sporting blog-keeper, back at long last. Now you’re probably wondering why I’ve not posted anything on these virtual pages in over six months, and I don’t blame you for that. In truth 2018 has been a heartbreaking year for me because it is the year in which I lost my Great Aunt Shirley. My wonderful Aunt Shirl was a constant presence in my life and the fact that she’s no longer on this Earth still rocks me to my very core. She was a remarkable human being whose courage and strength never ceased to inspire me, especially in her long, brave fight against dementia which sadly took her from us. As easy as it would be for me to sit here and type at length about the colossal grief  my family and I feel following Aunt Shirl’s passing, the lady herself had little time for laments and she would much prefer me to focus on the good times and the immensely positive impact she made during her lifetime. So in celebration of my wonderful Aunt Shirl and everything she meant to me, here is the tribute I wrote for her funeral…  

My Great Aunt Shirley was one of a kind, an extraordinary lady who lived an extraordinary life, full of adversity and adventure, tragedy and triumph, love and laughter.

She was highly intelligent, outspoken, free-spirited witty and just a tad eccentric. A rosy-cheeked, bespectacled dynamo who cut a striking figure in her floral blouses, colourful cardies and iconic socks and sandals combo. Aunt Shirl may only have stood at a modest four-feet-ten and a half, but she was truly larger than life.

Aunt Shirl was a gloriously unique individual who made an impression on each and every person she met. I’m sure everyone here today has their own special memories of her… I know I certainly do.

Whenever I think of my wonderful Aunt Shirl a multitude of memories spring to mind, There were all the fun-filled Christmases she spent with the family on this side of the pond; laughing, joking, nattering and often singing as we pulled crackers and opened our pressies. Then there were the Sunday afternoons that we’d spend together. Every week without fail, Aunt Shirl would drive to our house straight from chapel to enjoy one of her beloved niece Julie dear’s famous roast dinners and cause some mischief with her Great Nephew.

Myself and Aunt Shirl were incredibly close and we shared a genuine bond for as long as I can remember. To say she was just my Great Aunt would be doing her an injustice; she was that and so much more.

She was a worldly-wise Auntie who would always be there for me, ready to dish out advice or tell me a story from her years of globetrotting.

She was a grandmother-figure who would play games and build jigsaws with me when she wasn’t cooking us her trademark Rogan Josh curry and other homemade treats.

She was a best mate who I could laugh with and chat to for hours on end.  Aunt Shirl and I both shared a caustic wit and the ability to talk the back legs off a donkey. Whether we were putting the world to rights over a cup of tea or watching our favourite sitcoms, I can guarantee we would be chuckling like drunken hyenas.

She was also a teacher who taught me everything she could about almost everything she knew. From the rich details of her cherished Christian Faith to the best and worst of world history, she filled my head with knowledge.

My wonderful Aunt Shirl passed a vast amount of her wisdom and interests onto me as I grew up, including her love of the written word.

Aunt Shirl was an avid reader and could often be found writing essays and short stories in her spare time, she’d taken a number of creative writing courses and would regularly come round to see me with a huge smile on her face and tell me yet another of her essays had been published in her favourite patriotic periodical ‘This England Magazine.’

I was always thrilled for Aunt Shirl whenever her musings saw print but I had no clue I’d inherited her creativity until I was 12.

It was during one of our long tea-fuelled conversations when I mentioned to Aunt Shirl that I’d had an idea for a story, but I could never write it down because of my then poor fine-motor skills. Aunt Shirl’s eyes lit up and she spoke a sentence that changed my life…

“That doesn’t matter George, dear. I’ll take it down in shorthand for you. I was a legal secretory, you know” She then pulled a notepad and pencil out of her handbag and my first short story was written within a couple of hours.

From that day on, writing became our thing. Aunt Shirl would come and sit with me every Friday afternoon, I would speak an entire story aloud and Aunt Shirl would write every word out in shorthand at lightening quick speed, before going home to type it up on her antique Amstrad word-processor

Over the next few years Aunt Shirl worked with me, week in and week out, teaching me the intricacies of English grammar, the complexities of language and the joy of storytelling, all whilst we had a great laugh.

My wonderful Aunt Shirl helped make me the writer I am today, but more than that she helped make me the man I am today.

Her teachings fuelled my brain; her wit influenced my sense of humour, her bravery bolstered my spirit, her encouragement and support empowered my heart, and her resilience taught me to never give up.

And for all that I will be eternally grateful.

Thank you for everything Aunt Shirley, my angel.

Lots of love,

George.