2014 - A Year in Pictures (and old blog posts)


2014 has been a busy year. It began with rain and floods here on Dartmoor. I published the third of my Goblins books, and my second book with Sarah McIntyre, Cakes in Space. I visited Dubai Amsterdam and the Isle of Man. I did loads of events with McIntyre and made a belated and possibly ill-advised move into Glam Rock (we've really enjoyed working with the team at Oxford University Press on this book and our future projects). Meanwhile, my Sarah had a Significant Birthday, and played lots of banjo, mandolin and electric guitar. Sam went Scooter Crazy. Manchester was invaded by sea monkeys. I returned to illustration with Kjartan Poskitt's Borgon the Axeboy. I attended the excellent ArmadaCon, and was invited to help judge the new YA Book Prize. And I finished a new novel, Railhead.

It's been a busy year, and quite a good one for me, but it's been a bit rough for a lot of people I know. Here's hoping 2015 is a marked improvement. Happy New Year!

Sarah McIntyre's Christmas Message to the Nation


Season's Greetings

Right; presents wrapped, halls decked with boughs of holly, and we're just setting off down the N.A. Freeway to  collect our Christmas visitors from the station. So it only remains to wish you all a thoroughly


I'll leave you with a sneak peek at some of Sarah McIntyre's snowy work-in-progress for 'Reeve & McIntyre book 3' (Title to be announced in the New Year.)

I hope your festivities don't degenerate into a shouty snowball fight, which is what has happened to these yetis...

Christmas Cakes & Seasonal Seawigs

It's been nice to see Cakes in Space turning up in some of the festive Best Children's Books round-ups. I won't link to them all because that would be Showing Off, but Sarah McIntyre and I both liked this review from 5-year-old Alan on Space on the Bookshelf. And I love the accompanying pictures, which prove - should you be hunting for last minute presents - that Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs do fit neatly into a Christmas stocking...

                                                                                                                                            Space on the Bookshelf

Space on the Bookshelf also has lots of other good children's book reviews and recommendations, including this piece on comics and graphic novels by Simon Russell.

Mortal Engines at Blackawton

A few weeks ago I visited Blackawton Primary School in South Devon, where Class 5 have been doing a lot of project work themed around Mortal Engines. In fact, they've even built their own Traction City, in an alcove outside the classroom. It comes complete with circling airships and working turd-tanks...


A tour of the Turd Tanks
Those Turd Tanks in full...


And here's me, having a quiet nap beside a life-size model of Mr Shrike.

The class had also been asked to come up with brochures that would persuade Londoners to move to Batmunkh Gompa. This one is by Charlie Benns.

It was a great example of how a book can be used to inspire work across the whole curriculum. Huge thanks to all the children for such hard work, and to Mr Pether, Mrs Rodwell-Lynn and all the rest of the staff at Blackawton for inviting me along to see it.

Buckfastleigh Primary School's New Library


Every school needs a library, and it's always depressing when I hear about schools getting rid of them, or new schools being built without one. Here in rural Devon,of course, a lot of the schools are very small, and don't have much space for a library. So I was very pleased when Richard Arundell, the head teacher at Buckfastleigh Primary, invited me along last Tuesday to open his school's new, improved library.

I did an assembly with the school, too, but I didn't write a speech because I couldn't be bothered I thought it would be more EDUCATIONAL if we all wrote something together - so I asked for story suggestions from the children, and together we came up with the compelling tale of a puppy named Pongo who, on his very first day in the police force, foils an evil horse in its bid to steal the crown jewels.

Then off to the library, where I got to cut AN ACTUAL RIBBON (though I didn't get a photo of that bit...)

It's a lovely space, and full of good books; I think the school's many eager readers will be spending a lot of time in there.

Thanks for having me, Buckfastleigh Primary! And enjoy the new library!


I've spent the last few weeks finishing Railhead, which will be published by Oxford University Press next October.  Here's what it looks like at the moment...

It's not really finished, of course, because it now has to be handed to a copy editor who will find lots of errors and inconsistencies which will need correcting or explaining away. But I've been reading it (via Skype) to Sarah McIntyre (who has been sworn to secrecy, of course) and it finally feels like a complete story.

Illustration: Sarah McIntyre

In some ways Railhead is a return to the style of Mortal Engines - it's set in a sprawling, far-future civilization, and it has evolved from many different drafts, written over many years. But it's turned out to be less jokey than Mortal Engines, and somehow less English, I think - nobody could ever claim this one is 'steampunk'.  And it's a much bigger world than Mortal Engines, so, although Railhead is going to be one of my longer books, there's still a lot which I haven't had a chance to explore yet. Once Christmas is out of the way I shall be looking into the possibilities of a sequel.

That's all I'm going to say about Railhead until nearer to the publication date, and I may not say very much then. I think one of the dangers of the internet is that we writers talk too much about our books, happily explaining where all the ideas came from, what the influences were. Part of the pleasure of reading a book is working those things out for yourself!

The YA Book Prize


The shortlist was announced today for The Bookseller's new YA Book Prize, a new award for young adult fiction from Britain and Ireland. The winner will will be announced in a ceremony at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, on the 19th March 2015.

There are ten books on the list, all of which I'm going to be reading in the coming weeks, since I've been asked to be one of the judges. I think it's going to be quite a tough job choosing the winner - there are some fantastic authors here, and I've heard good things about so many of these books!

Full details of the shortlist, and of how you can get involved, are to be found on the YA Book Prize website.

Stocking Fillers


Dartmoor gets ready for Christmas...

I try not to spam readers of this blog too much - I assume that if you're reading, you probably already know about my books. But I guess part of its purpose is as a shop window, and it's that time of year when I should spray fake snow all over it and fill it with my latest wares - which will, of course, make PERFECT presents for your nearest and dearest. If they like this sort of thing.

GOBLIN QUEST is my latest novel, and completes the Goblins trilogy (there may be more one day, but for the moment the goblins of Clovenstone are taking a well-earned rest). I hope these books will appeal to children of about 8 and upwards, and anyone who likes fantasy, or poo. (If you're in the USA, only the first Goblins book is available - I presume the others will follow at some point). They make a colourful set, as you can see - like a selection pack of capsicum peppers. Cover illustrations by the great Dave Semple.

CAKES IN SPACE, my new book with Sarah McIntyre, is aimed a slightly younger audience - it's shorter than Goblins and has way more pictures.

It's the story of Astra, and her one-girl struggle against the mutant cakes which threaten to take over her ship during a long space voyage. It was a lot of fun to cook up, and the end result is a thing of beauty - Sarah and our designers at OUP have worked wonders with it. It's full of cakes and silliness, and, oddly, it's the closest thing to real Science Fiction I've ever written.  If you're in London in the next few weeks you could keep an eye out for these great Cakes in Space posters on the underground...

Photo: Sally-Anne Hickman

The previous Reeve and McIntyre book, OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS, is now out in paperback in the UK, though if you want to spend a few extra £s the hardback is still around, and has two-colour illustrations (in the paperback the blue has been replaced with grey, which works just fine - the pictures were always designed to work in monotone too - but I'm fond of the hardback).

If you're after a bookish present for an even younger child, don't forget JAMPIRES, a lovely new picture book by Sarah McIntyre and David O'Connell, more details here...

All of these titles are available from your local bookshops or via the usual online places. Happy shopping!

ArmadaCon 26


Just back from ArmadaCon, Plymouth's annual Science Fiction & fantasy convention. This was its 26th year, and it's easy to see why it's been running for so long - it was an excellent weekend, in a nice hotel full of friendly, funny and fascinating folk. I didn't bother taking many photos (my 'phone can't cope with hotel lighting) but I did do some drawings. I've never been much good at capturing likenesses, but the costumes were fun to draw.

There was a nice line in the play by David Wake which opened proceedings on Friday night, when some time travellers arrive at a 2014 convention and say, 'Are you sure this is 2014? Everyone seems to be dressed in Victorian clothes...' A lot of the ArmadaCon regulars also attend the Discworld convention in Wincanton and/or take part in historical re-enactments, so there were some impressive mediaeval, Civil War and Napoleonic outfits on parade as well as at least two Doctors Who - but the default setting for SF fans now seems to be Victoriana, which is a bit bizarre. Still, the 'Tea Duelling' was fun, as pairs of frock-coated or be-crinollined competitors tried to out-genteel each other over tea and biscuits, under the watchful eye of organiser Dave Trace, with cello accompaniment by the amazing Miss Von Trapp. The lady in the trilby and the leg-of-mutton sleeves is meant to be the brilliant Frances Hardinge, who was guest of honour at ArmadaCon 25 and enjoyed it so much that she came back for more this year.

Meanwhile, much strangeness was going on in the lobby, where the very elaborate looking ArmadaCon fan film was being shot (it should be ready in time for ArmadaCon 27).  Actual science was provided by Gary Loveridge and Dr Bob (AKA Amanda Kear), who gave entertaining talks on (respectively) the Rosetta mission and strange reproductive techniques in fact and science fiction.

Andrew Cartmel (not pictured here) arrived on Saturday to talk about his books and his time as script of editor of Dr Who (back in the Sylvester McCoy years, which I mostly missed, but the episode he showed stood up very well).  And the charity auction on Sunday raised over £1500 for St Luke's Hospice, a very good cause indeed.

I had to dash off straight after the auction, so apologies to all the people I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to - I really enjoyed your company, and I'm sure I'll be back next year for more. Thank you so much for inviting me along!

Here's a link to the Plymouth Herald's ArmadaCon report.

And here's the ArmadaCon Facebook page, where you'll soon be able to find news about ArmadaCon 27 (which you should definitely attend).

Eiko Ishioka

Sometimes, when you start to look into the origins of an image, you discover all sorts of unexpected connections.

A while back, I came across this great Japanese poster for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, one of the iconic movies of my teenage years.

I thought I'd post it on my Pinterest page (which is here, if you're interested, though I don't often use it)  so I went searching for information about the artist. It turns out to be the work of the designer Eiko Ishioka, who went on to collaborate with Coppola as costume designer on another of his films, Dracula

More interestingly for me, she also designed the costumes for Tarsem Singh's extraordinarily strange and beautiful movie 'The Fall', which I reviewed a few years ago. It's one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen, thanks in part to the costumes. Look at this! 

And these!

Image found on Cinebeats, where it accompanies this very good review of The Fall.

Not only that, she also designed costumes for the 'Hurricane' tour by the singer Grace Jones in 2009. I don't know a lot about Grace Jones, but I do remember being struck by the brilliant first single from Hurricane, Let Me Go. Listen to the lyrics; it's like a compressed autobiographical novel, with the singer playing both herself and her mother, and making us sympathise with both. 

Here she is performing Let Me Go live while dressed like a mad zebra goddess.

Eiko Ishioka died in 2012. There are more pictures of her creations on this Pinterest board.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe, from eikoishioka.com
(which seems to consist only of this photo).

Patrick O'Brian


Looking back at my last few posts, I find that I seem to have embarked on a series about Random Stuff I Like. And for ArmadaCon next weekend I'm putting together a talk on some of the writers who have influenced me over the years. Both of which seem like good excuses to dust off and re-post this piece on the novels of Patrick O'Brian. 


"Why are you both reading Patrick O'Brian?" asked my son the other day, spotting that his mother is reading Master and Commander for about the third time while I'm on The Ionian Mission for what might be the fifth.  It's a reasonable question, and one which might be echoed by anyone who hasn't encountered O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, for to a casual observer they must appear to be cut from the same militaristic cloth as CS Forester's Hornblower yarns or Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels.  Hopefully the fact that we've both read and re-read the Aubrey/Maturin novels is proof that they offer something more than just tales of derring-do in the Napoleonic Wars.  (If I had to find a comparison I would say that they are more like Jane Austen, except that Patrick O'Brian excelled at writing battles, tempests, and shipwrecks, which were never really Jane Austen's strong point.)

The series began back in 1970, gradually grew in popularity through the eighties, and achieved huge acclaim in the '90s from the sort of critics who would usually sniff at books like these, followed by more widespread fame in the noughties with the release of the film Master and Commander, a pretty good screen version, although (or perhaps because) it doesn't follow any one book but mixes elements from many of them*.

Master and Commander is also the title of the first book.  It begins in 1802, when a young naval commander, Jack Aubrey, meets penniless physician Stephen Maturin at a concert in Port Mahon, Gibraltar.  Despite their shared love of music they are very different characters - almost exact opposites, indeed, for Jack Aubrey is big, straightforward, friendly, good-looking, a pretty conventional English Tory, an excellent seaman but a little naive ashore, while Stephen Maturin is small, rather ugly, reserved, physically clumsy, deeply intelligent, a keen naturalist, and a political radical of Irish/Catalan descent who took part in the failed rising against British rule by Wolf Tone's United Irishmen in 1798.  

But somehow they hit it off; Stephen sails as surgeon aboard Jack's brig the Sophie as she cruises the Mediterranean in search of French and Spanish ships, and so begins the enduring friendship which will be the subject of a further twenty novels.  War is always the excuse for the stories - Jack is ordered off to frustrate French or American plans in just about all of the world's oceans, and Stephen, finding that his hatred for Buonaparte exceeds his distaste for the British Empire, becomes an intelligence agent - but they are not simply war stories.  They are not really about plot at all, although the plots are good, and often nail-bitingly tense.  The real heart of the books is the characters; those two great central characters and all the lesser ones - hundreds and hundreds over the course of the whole series - who orbit about them.

O'Brian's approach to character is subtle; often he doesn't tell us what people are feeling; he just shows us what they do, and leaves it to us to work out why they do it.  They don't read like characters whose attributes have been thought out and noted down on index cards before the author set to work; they are inconsistent and perverse; they grow, and age, and make mistakes; the heroes sometimes behave in ways which make us think less of them, although they never lose our sympathy; apparent villains sometimes reveal a kinder side, or at least some reason for their villainy. And they all speak and think in a wonderful, rich, utterly convincing Georgian prose.  It isn't necessary for a historical novel to feel as if it were written in the era it's describing, but it's impressive when you find one that does.  (It's also rather infectious: I'm always warning Sam to put a coat on to preserve himself against the falling damps.  

The series is also surprisingly funny; when I started reading them I hoped to be entertained, and I expected to be informed, but I didn't expect to laugh out loud so often.  Some of the comedy is quite broad -  a reliable source of fun are the zoological specimens which Stephen brings aboard - wombats on deck; a beehive in the main cabin; a three-toed sloth which acquires a taste for rum ("Jack!  You have debauched my sloth!") - but most of it springs from the foibles and failings of the characters, and it grows funnier as we come to know them; Jack's tendency to mangle proverbs and quotations, and his infectious delight in his own bad jokes; the endless grumbling of his servant Killick, Dr Maturin's continuing inability to grasp the basics of seamanship and the nautical jargon which his shipmates spout, and the sly pride with which he uses the few scraps of naval terminology he does possess to baffle fellow travellers even less nautical than himself.

To a newcomer this naval lingo may be one of the most noticeable things about the books, and perhaps off-putting.  All this talk of double preventer backstays, futtock shrouds, bowlines, topgallants, studdingsails and flying jibs can seem a bit bewildering, and even the helpful diagrams which appear at the front of the more recent editions can't pack in a hundredth of the details.  Luckily for non-nautical readers we have Dr Maturin on our side; he is as bewildered as we by these reams of grommets, knees and catheads; even more so, perhaps (I don't think he is ever really sure of the difference between port and starboard) and the things we actually need to understand - the importance of gaining the weather gage in battle, for instance - are patiently explained to him by his shipmates in terms which even we can grasp.

Personally I find this cascade of odd, archaic, highly specialised words one of the many delights of the series, but I'm sure that some readers are equally happy to treat it as background detail; you no more need to understand sails and rigging to enjoy O'Brian than you need grasp the hand-wavey physics of Warp Drive to watch Star Trek.  And anyway, it is not all ships and sea: the books spend much time on shore as well; with Jack Aubrey's wife and children and his deliciously vile mother-in-law, with Stephen's contacts in the worlds of intelligence and natural philosophy, and with a vast array of characters met in foreign ports, some recurring, some mere passing sketches; admirals and ship's boys, noblemen and paupers, Frenchmen, Americans, Turks, Parsees, Chinese, Africans, even a pahi-full of Polynesian lesbian separatists, all vividly brought to life with a few words, making the series not just a portrait of the British navy but of the entire early nineteenth century world.

The tone changes subtly about half way through, when the Napoleonic Wars are running out and Jack Aubrey is in danger of being promoted to the rank of admiral, which would make him more concerned with administration than adventuring: time seems to slow down, reasons are found to halt the progress of Jack's career, and Stephen becomes rich enough to buy the lovely frigate Surprise.  Perhaps the later books are more historical romances than historical novels.  But none of that dents a fan's enjoyment in the least.

I suppose that if I were a proper reviewer I would be pointing out faults as well as high points, but to be honest I can barely think of any.  It's true that some of the books end rather suddenly, but that's just a good reason to start the next one.   It's true that The Hundred Days, the penultimate book, written very soon after the death of Mrs O'Brian, comes perilously close to jumping the shark when it abruptly kills off several major characters, hustling them off-stage with barely a goodbye.  It's also probably true that the female characters are less engaging than the men: it seems that you have to be outwardly beautiful to qualify as an O'Brian heroine, which is odd in a writer so attuned to his characters' inner lives.  Stephen's great love, Diana Villiers, can be particularly annoying; forever running off with richer, better looking men, and forever being forgiven.  What does Stephen see in her, I wonder? But I don't mean that as a criticism of Patrick O'Brian;  I'm just infuriated by Maturin, and wish he would settle down with some nice, sensible lady naturalist instead. (Indeed, towards the very end of the series just such a lady is introduced, so he might have done so had the story not been cut short by O'Brian's death.)

And that, I think, is what makes Aubrey/Maturin so readable and so re-readable; the characters come to feel like old friends, and it is always good to be back in their company.  The series may have ended but, like Blandings Castle, 221b Baker Street or Bag End, the stern cabin of HMS Surprise will always be there waiting for us, a small, comfortable space upon a vast ocean, filled with music and laughter and good conversation and the smell of fresh coffee and toasted cheese.

Patrick O'Brian's novels should be available just about everywhere. (Nowadays there are even special editions without ships on the cover - 'For The Ladies', I presume, or people who don't want to be seen reading sea-faring tales.)  He also wrote several unrelated novels, and an excellent biography of Picasso.  

*I thought Russell Crowe made a surprisingly good Jack Aubrey.  Paul Bettany did a creditable job as as Dr Maturin, but he was just too good-looking, and too clean: I imagine Stephen looking more like Hugh Laurie's baleful Dr House, but dressed a in blood-stained frock-coat and a vile wig, under which he's keeping a dead shrew which he plans to dissect later.  One of the striking historical details of the books is that Stephen, for all his scientific brilliance, has no inkling of germ theory - how could he, being a man of his time?  His filthiness is a running joke, and he thinks nothing of eating dinner or opening up a patient with same knife he's just used to dissect a decomposing dolphin.

My First Favourite Book

I'm often asked what my favourite book was when I was a child,and I usually say The Lord of the Rings or The Eagle of the Ninth or something. But the first book I can remember really loving was this:

My mum and dad gave it to me as either a Christmas or a birthday present, when I was about five. It's a bit too advanced for a five year old, but I was mad on dinosaurs at the time, and this was the only dinosaur book they could find. I didn't mind, because they read it to me until I was old enough to read it to myself.

The illustrations of lumbering, earth-coloured dinosaurs are very different from the lively, highly-coloured beasts that fill dinosaur books today and, to be honest, some of them are quite crude, but I wasn't bothered at the time; I remember being amazed at how realistic the pair on the cover were, and also the allosaurus on the title page - I thought they looked like photographs. (Actually the cover may be a photograph of a museum exhibit, it's hard to tell. The interior illustrations are by a U.S. illustrator called Sol Kirby). I spent a lot of time drawing these dinosaurs, and some of the pages still show the scars where I pressed a bit too hard when I was tracing them.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should all rush out and buy this; much of the information in it is long out-of-date. I found a blog which tears it to bits, pointing out all the errors and misconceptions; to a reader in 2014 these dinosaurs are as quaint as the ones at the Crystal Palace. But it did bring their world vividly to life for me as a child. It's written as a jaunty travelogue, with lots of background detail, much of it told in the present tense.

'Now let us imagine we are in a tropical jungle 219 million years ago. It is the dawn of a new day. We are wandering through the undergrowth and presently we come to a clearing. He we see the small dinosaur, COELOPHYSIS (seel-O-fiss-iss), which was one of the carnivorous saurischians of the Triassic period.' 

I remember it feeling almost as if I were there. It was quite gory, too...

'Dimetrodon slashes and tears at Eryops's exposed neck; the amphibian turns and tries to escape into the water and safety. Dimetrodon bites deeply into her neck. In return, Eryops tries to bite off her assailants's leg,but succeeds only in inflicting a small, superficail wound. Dimetrodon now attacks Eryops's body with his sharp teeth, and kills her. Then he begins his meal.'

So I suppose this was the first book I encountered which built a detailed imaginary world: maybe it was quite influential.

It also expanded my vocabulary. At some point in the early '70s I fell on my sister's dolls' pram and cut my mouth quite badly; on the way to hospital the ambulance man said, 'I think you'll survive', and the word instantly called up an image of page 33 (below)...

'The next dinosaur we meet is an Ornithischian about thirty feet long, called Camptosaurus (CAMP-to-sawr-us) which lived about 140 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, and survived through many upheavals and changes in dinosaur fortunes.' 

...so I knew I'd be OK.

When bookish people talk about how much they love books, they often just mean fiction, but a non-fiction book can be just as inspiring, and just as page-turning, as a good novel. And forty-something years later, I still love dinosaurs.

Picture Palace


Sarah and I spent a few days in Amsterdam last week. I'd been there once before, on an art college field trip, twenty eight years ago. I don't remember much about that first visit. I filled a big A2 sketchbook with drawings, but I haven't kept any of my college work, so what they were drawings of I don't recall.

One of the things I do remember is this cinema, the Theater Tuschinski. I was mooching about looking for stuff to sketch when I suddenly noticed this strange art deco edifice, like an alien temple, squeezed in between a couple of more ordinary buildings on Regulierbreestrat near the Rembrandtplein. I sat down in a doorway on the far side of the street and started making a drawing of it. After a while the owner or manager of Tuschinsky's, who was played by Peter Lorre, came over to see what I was up to, and claimed to be so impressed that he suggested I stay in Amsterdam for a few weeks as a sort of artist-in-residence. I was far too shy to do anything like that, so I said no, which is a shame; it would have been an interesting experience.

Anyway, I wanted to have another look at Tuschinski's, and when we found it, on a damp Dutch night, it was just as spectacular as I'd remembered.

Calling it an Art Deco building doesn't really capture its strangeness, this is some kind of orientalist-Egyptian mutant Amsterdam strain of Deco; it has weird biomechanical ribs and buttresses, lamps like the business ends of giant fireflies, and centipede elephants for decoration. Here are some daytime shots:

When I was first in Amsterdam it never occurred to me to go inside. This time we did, and it's just as extraordinary inside as out. Sarah took lots of photos in the lobby, and in the curving corridors. It's all been recently restored, and looks magnificent.

There are four screens now, three of which are in a new wing at the back, but by luck the film we went to see was showing in the original auditorium, where the decor is as spectacular as anything that happens on the screen...

There's an account of the history of Tuschinski's here, and if you're ever in Amsterdam you should definitely try to see a film there (English language films are shown with Dutch subtitles). The staff were really friendly and helpful, too.

I think it might be my favourite building in the world.

All the photos are by Sarah Reeve, except for the square ones, which I took on my phone.

In other Dutch news, Cakes in Space, my new book with Sarah McIntyre, is now available in the Netherlands under the frankly superior title Astra En De Astrotaartjes. Here's a review by Sandra Hessels.