blog tour · Guest Post · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

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About Alfie’s Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. 

A good funny book is gold. A great one is invaluable. Last year, I especially enjoyed The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet where Alfie’s determination to buy his Mum a birthday present saw him embark on an adventure across the universe alongside his new friend the Professor. Its humour was woven so cleverly into the story that it was impossible to join in the adventure without laughter. Now Alfie is back, and this time he and the Professor are offering holidays to the most wonderful planets in the universe. 

As they embark on one final tour, putting everything in order before they open for buisness, Alfie and the Professor run into trouble. For starters, some of the beings on other planets are reluctant to accept that humans aren’t … well … aliens. Then there is the motely pack of cartographers, the UCC, that they meet on Planet Bewarye, led by the terrible Sir Willikin Nanbiter, that sets about trying to destroy the Unusual Travel Agency. 

A quest ensues to discover the long-lost other members of the UCC, who have the power to outvote Sir Nanbiter before his damage destroys Alfie’s dreams. 

As with the first book, the new worlds that Martin Howard and Chris Mould have created are super-imaginative. I am delighted to welcome Martin Howard (AKA Mart) back to my blog with a wonderful piece about creating new worlds. 

Thanks to Mart for your time and efforts. 

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Creating Worlds for Alfie Fleet – a guest post by author Martin Howard. 

Hullo, hullo, hullo and a big thank you to Louise for another invitation. Book Murmuration is starting to feel like a second home. For this visit, she asked me to jot down some thoughts on building magical worlds, a fascinating subject and no one’s ever asked me about it before, so hurrah and here we go …

I’ve said before that I’m wary about dishing out writing advice, because every writer finds their own way of working, so I can only describe my own methods. For me, creating a world is a key part of the process. Settings play a big part in the plot, create atmosphere and can be as fun and funny as the characters. In fact, the worlds writers create are very much characters in their own right. And sometimes, like any other character, they just materialise in that strange, mystical idea process – an integral part of the tale and the obvious background for the story and the characters. It’s great when that happens because you can dive straight in, perhaps making a few tweaks as the book develops. Other times – such as for the new Alfie Fleet – magical worlds are born in the fiery crucible of a brainstorm. My notebooks are full of half-formed worlds that never made it and I even have a few finished chapters that took place on worlds that never made it into the book. (If anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to share one or two in a future visit.)

Inspiration can come from anywhere: half-remembered movies and books from my childhood or artwork I’ve spotted online, for example, or straight from the depths of my own imagination. Then, I’ll mix and match trying to build something original. Obviously, with some worlds – Outlandish from The Cosmic Atlas in particular – it’s fun to play with magical features and themes that are clichés of the sci-fi or fantasy genres. That’s something Terry Pratchett was famous for and it’s essential to come up with a new twist rather than just repeat the same ideas. I imagine that’s just as true for serious writers as for funny authors.

For worlds where the whole story takes place, it’s wonderful to have the luxury of introducing detail: history, cultures, languages all create textures that help hook the reader in, but the new book – Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe – simplicity was key. In this book Alfie, Derek and the Professor putter through many worlds on Betsy the moped. As they spent so much time on Outlandish in their last adventure I wanted to expand their universe and give a sense of the multitude of wonders that could be found by popping through a stone circle at the Unusual Travel Agency. That meant each world had to have amazing features but couldn’t be too complicated. There was no space to properly explore cultures, societies, etc, so each planet had to be painted in broad brush strokes and bright, popping colours. They also needed to be very different from each other and – for the most part – be somewhere readers would enjoy visiting. After all, Alfie and the Professor are running a travel agency. That cut down the options. There was no point having our heroes explore icy wastelands (unless good skiing was available), or radioactive fog planets where ravenous maggot-things roam, or anywhere too bizarre because the Unusual Travel Agency wouldn’t want to run tours there. Alfie has actually worked out a scale for this. He calls it the Fleet Unusuality Scale. Worlds so unusual they score more than five are too bonkers and tend to give people a headache. Less than three and they’re so dull people might as well stay on Earth.

Getting back to my point. What was my point? Oh yes, broad brushstrokes. The planet of Nomefolch, for example, has one memorable feature: everything grows massive there, except for the people (who are rather stubby). It’s possible to climb trees all the way into space. Winspan, on the other hand, is a broken world – a hollow, half-tennis ball of a planet. This means it doesn’t have much gravity and people can fly there by strapping wings to their arms. Solstice, meanwhile, is a planet of ten-thousand islands, so it has a nautical theme. With the plot and characters also needing breathing room and a limited number of words I tried to bring a few of these worlds to vivid life while giving fly-bys of a few others. I hope this helps create the impression of a vast universe without describing each planet in minute detail. That was the plan, anyway!  

In fact, the sheer number of worlds in Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe caused a fair amount of heartbreak as there are one or two – especially Winspan and Nomefolch – where I’d have liked Alfie and the Professor to have stayed longer. Creating fun, distinctive worlds and then leaving them behind after a few paragraphs was a real wrench. On the plus side, I hope the fact that I didn’t want to leave some of the world’s behind means readers will feel the same. The one bit of writing advice I will share, and which I think applies to all writers of magical, fantastic tales is that your readers should always feel homesick for your world when the story ends.

 

Catch the other posts along the blog tour: 

 

alfie fleet tour

 

Thanks to Martin Howard for your wonderful blog post and to Martin and Emma Howard for arranging this blog tour. Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing me with a copy of Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. Opinions my own.

blog tour · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Blog Tour: The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet by Martain Howard.

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Blog Tour: The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet by Martain Howard.

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About The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet by Martin Howard and Chris Mould. 

Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? 

Alfie Fleet is fed up of being poor. He wants some money to buy his Mum a foot spa for her birthday, and he wants it fast. His determination to make some cash brings him into the path of Professor Pewsley Bowell-Mouvemont, who wants to update his Cosmic Atlas. Think Bradshaws for the entire universe. 

Alfie and The Professor set off in Betsy (one special moped) for the adventure of a lifetime. They pass through Brains In Jars world, Outlandish and a run in with a dragon on their way through the universe. 

Is the humour too bonkers? Not in the slightest. It is wacky and wonderful, but it is so perfectly balanced with the story that we are invested in the plot and rooting for Alfie all the way. It must take real skill to inject this kind of humour and not overdo it. Funny books deserve more admiration and this one is top of my list to shout about. 

As I reviewed a proof copy, I have not seen all of Chris Mould’s illustrations, but my experience of his work tells me readers are in for a treat. He brings scenes to life as if he was a casual observer, and his people are full of character. 

I was delighted to be offered the chance to put some questions to author Martin Howard and to share them here on my blog. Thank you Martin for your time. 

 

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Q&A with author Martin Howard. 

 

Alfie and the Professor travel to all kinds of other places. What inspired the different worlds? Do you have any favourite fictional worlds?

Big question! HUUUUGE question. My favourite worlds have always been fantasy worlds – places like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and many, many more. I am a massive fantasy geek. When I started writing The Cosmic Atlas I made a very conscious decision to mix and match sci-fi with fantasy. Because it involves travelling through space it’s really a sci-fi book, but I wanted to break with the idea that sci-fi worlds should be hi-tech worlds. As Alfie and the Professor use stone circles – a very old technology – to travel there’s no need for space ships (which are a very slow and dull way to get around) or robots or computers so my worlds could be much more rustic and magical. They’re inspired by all sorts of things: worlds I enjoyed as a child, artwork (I love Olivia Kemp’s drawings), places that exist in the real world or in history, space articles I’ve read and stuff plucked from my imagination. Obviously, they have to be funny but I hope they’re full of wonder, too – places readers would like to visit.

 

 The Professor says technology has killed general interest in cartography. How do you think technology has changed our relationship with maps?

I spent ages as a cub earning my map-reading badge by poring over Ordnance Survey maps. It really felt like I was exploring the landscape and there were always interesting landmarks to discover that you’d miss with a GPS tracker. Obviously, hi-tech gizmos are very handy but there’s something beautiful about real maps, and I especially love ancient charts where navigators would include mythical lands and creatures. Some great artists – like Leonardo da Vinci – produced maps and many are superb works of art in their own right. I love that that tradition lives on in books though. Most fantasy books include maps of their worlds, and – as with old maps of the real world – they are often drawn by truly great artists. I’m very lucky to have Chris Mould bringing my imaginary worlds to life.

 

Do you have any advice about writing humour in middle-grade fiction?

Oh wow, that’s a tricksy question. There are so many different kinds of humour in MG books at the moment, it’s like we’re in the middle of a Golden Age. There are amazing authors out there using comedy in different ways and I can only tell you what works for me:  having confidence in my own instincts and writing what I find funny. The Cosmic Atlas is a Middle-Grade book, but even though I’m a saggy old man of 49 I made myself laugh all the time while writing it. After reading it hundreds of times it still makes me giggle. Beyond that there are some things that will always make kids laugh – bums and fart gags – but you don’t have to use them. If you do, you can’t rely on them to carry a book, unless you’re writing the Big Book of Bums and Fart Gags. There has to be more than that and, personally, I try not to miss an opportunity to add more humour, whatever way I can – through odd characters, box texts, surprise visits from the narrator, unexpected twists or quirky use of language. There are moments when the humour has to take a back seat to developing the plot but even then there are opportunities to keep the comedy going. PG Wodehouse was amazing at that, even when he’s not being funny he’s being funny. I think not trying too hard is important too. Humour should flow and feel natural, not forced. I say all this as someone who is constantly striving to improve. It all comes down to developing your own voice and style of humour and that’s a never-ending journey. I have huge amounts of respect for anyone who can make readers laugh out loud though and I find it ma-hooosively annoying when people dismiss funny books as “unimportant”.

 

When writing about the strange and wonderful things in Outlandish, how did you ensure the story remained believable?

You ask hard questions! Can I have one about biscuits instead? No? Okaaaay then. In any sci-fi or fantasy book that’s stretching the imagination and creating weird worlds it’s important that readers don’t feel lost. That means characters they can identify with who have goals they can believe in. In The Cosmic Atlas, Alfie and Derek – the younger characters – are both much less bonkers than the adult characters (though they both have a sense of humour) and Alfie in particular has a very believable primary goal: to get home to his mum. So long as the reader can understand their main protagonist’s motivation I think writers are pretty free to be as creative as they like with everything else. Pheww, I totally deserve a biscuit-based question now.

 

What should be included in a good travel guide? If you were setting off on an adventure to another world, what would you want to know?

I am very fond of a good travel guide. I have a collection of DK Eyewitness guides on my bookshelf and they’re brilliant, endlessly enjoyable books. Flicking through them and deciding what to see is like having a mini holiday in your head. I also love reading travel books – Bill Bryson’s spring to mind – and watching travel TV shows. A good guide gives you a real feel for a place: it’s history, culture, people and – of course – the best places to have a good time. That’s something I’ve tried to bring to The Cosmic Atlas. I love good food so my perfect guide to other worlds would probably be heavily restaurant-based, but as I also enjoy lazing around on sun-loungers, reading (preferably while getting a massage) that’s the sort of information I’d be looking for, too. There’s a world called Blyssss in The Cosmic Atlas which is my perfect holiday destination. Sun, beaches, spa treatments, fresh baskets of puppies and kittens delivered to your room daily, and a butler who will win the lottery for you while you have a pedicure …

 

And I’ve run out of questions. Since Louise failed to ask, I would like to add that I am very fond of a custard cream and also thank her hugely for having me. This is my first blog tour and I am hugely grateful for the support. I hope it turns into a long and happy friendship.

Mart

 

Huge thanks again for your wonderful answers, and for giving us a great insight into your work. 

Louise 

 

The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet is available in paperback (Oxford University Press, £6.99).

Find out more at Oxford University Press.

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig And Chris Mould

Review: The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig And Chris Mould

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Review: The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig And Chris Mould

Once upon a time, a little pixie was cursed to always tell the truth. Always – even when it might be insulting. Every single social situation goes wrong and Truth Pixie is about to give up when she is confronted with Aada – an unhappy child who wants to know if things get better. Truth Pixie is terrified because all she can tell is the truth …

A rhyme which will speak to anyone who has ever been afraid or had a difficult time.

Matt Haig is an author who has written and spoken about his experiences with mental health. He is an advocate for changing attitudes towards mental health, particularly towards eradicating the stigma and giving mental and physical health equal priority.

Aada is the character in the story who appears to need a comforting fib. Her Dad is out of money, they will be forced to move from their house and Gran is terribly ill. Aada is going to lose friends as a result of her situation. Most people would tell Aada it’s all OK – but the difficult truth is, it isn’t. Lying won’t change Aada’s situation and it won’t make her feel better in the long-run. I related to this. I can’t bear it when someone dies and the news is drawn out into a string of false hope and comfort. The only way to deal with something so huge is to hear it. It will be terrible. It will be dire. Telling people otherwise will never, ever change this. 

Truth Pixie has the right words because, just as Aada is about to face a dark time, better times will come again. There will be times when life feels impossibly wonderful and times when it feels unbearable. This is the unfortunate truth of the human experience … and knowing it can make the dark times bearable.

The Truth Pixie is a character from the Christmas stories by Matt Haig and Chris Mold. Hearing this message from a familiar character will add an extra-dimension because it associates positive approaches to mental health with existing works. If characters from these stories have bad mental health moments, it reassures the reader that these experiences are normal and manageable.

The Truth Pixie is an open, honest rhyme which will help anyone facing a difficult time. It will also make people who are a bit too honest for their own good feel better, and give them confidence that just as the truth can be difficult, sometimes it can be the best policy.

 

Thanks to Canongate Books for my copy of The Truth Pixie. Opinions my own.