Sunday, 28 November 2010

DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups, Vol. 1

These stories date from perhaps the dimmest period of DC's history – long after the glories of the Silver Age, but before the 1986 reboots kicked in. Neither classic, nor in continuity, stories from this period don't seem to get referenced or reprinted as much as those before or after. These were the stories being published when I was a child, but they didn't make their way to our local newsagents so most were new to me. Two came with fond memories: I bought a German edition of issue 14 – Superman vs. Superboy! – during a school skiing trip to Austria when I was about ten years old, and issue 26 was reprinted in one of the hardback Superman Annuals: I think it was probably my first Green Lantern story. Reading those stories in the context of the series didn't affect my enjoyment of them for good or ill, but there are nice links here from one story to the next, especially in the first half of the book.

The team-ups feel organic, a natural part of Superman's everyday life, rather than contrived. But this is a very angry, emotional Superman... He's hardly recognisable as the same character. Whether it's his jealousy of teenage girls paying attention to Mister Miracle in Steve Englehart's "Winner Take Metropolis", or leaving Pete Ross's son on an alien world for the slimmest of reasons in Paul Levitz's "To Live in Peace Nevermore", this wasn't my Superman – interesting as he was! In "Plight of the Giant Atom" by Cary Bates, he's all sunshine and light again, calling Ray Palmer "old buddy", and then he's off on a bunch of lightweight, standalone adventures that make for easy reading. Some interesting things happen: Firestorm is invited into the JLA, Superman discovers that magic is simply a form of radiation, and I discovered that Batgirl is merely a brown belt.

Considering the random assortment of writers and artists involved, and the variable tone, this is a surprisingly good book; perhaps that variety is exactly what makes it so readable. No classics here, but lots of entertainment, and the artwork looks fantastic in black and white: I developed a real fondness for the work of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Dillin over the course of this book. I hope we'll see lots more DC comics from the late seventies and early eighties reprinted like this.

DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups, Vol. 1, Martin Pasko, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and many, many others. DC Comics/Titan Books, tpb, 512pp.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim

I don't read much poetry nowadays, and I am probably one of many readers who lament this fact, and wish that they had the time to read poetry, only to find, when they do sit down in front of a poem, that what they lack is not time but patience. Generally I am a slow reader, but not slow enough to absorb anything other than the most superficial verse. So having spent the last few months chewing through large chunks of short stories and novellas submitted to Theaker's Quarterly, faced with Kristine Ong Muslim's first full-length poetry collection, I struggled to find the right pace to avoid literary indigestion.

A Roomful of Machines is a fairly lengthy book as poetry collections go, but given that the author has been published in over 400 journals, one can imagine that her hypothetical Collected Poems would be an intimidating prospect indeed. Glancing through her publishing history, a lot of Kristine Ong Muslim's poems have appeared in genre publications: horror and science fiction zines, and she has sometimes been described as a "science-fiction poet". On the evidence of the poems assembled here, I didn't see that as a useful label. None of these poems have a speculative or futuristic, or scientific bent, but many could be described as "object oriented" to borrow a term. She organises her poetic investigations of the world in discrete, often domestic, objects: carpets, doorknobs, cups, sinks, socks. These are not riddle poems: the subjects are usually flatly named in the titles. Instead, the author invests these household items with desires and plans of their own, often either sinister or quietly despairing: the carpet eagerly awaits its fate as the breaker of glass ornaments, the ice cube doesn't want to be parted from its fellows in the tray, the bed gets us ready for death by summoning us to horizontality, books wait anxiously to be found or mended.

There's an obsessive, microscopic quality about these "object" poems, and I quickly formed a mental image of the poems' speaker as an agoraphobic, a shut-in surrounded by possessions that have taken on lives and ideas of their own in the absence of human interaction. Even when the dissecting eye takes in a group of teenagers playing basketball, they are at a distance, watched, one feels, through window blinds. There's only one line of dialogue in the sixty-odd poems in this collection, and precious few other people, either in the present or past. Only when we get to a series of poems set in hospitals and institutions, in the section entitled "Dark Clocks", do we see anything resembling a dialogue, and these prove to be some of the most interesting, certainly accessible, pieces in the collection. There are some evocative lines here exploring the inertia and timelessness of institutional life:

"She saw the afternoon as just another
morning seen from the other end of the day."

And a few pages on:

"Pain is measured in years, I think.
Most of the time, I try to run, but it always catches up
on me. Now, I just lie down, do as the doctor says."

It's the colloquial tone of these poems that makes them successful.

Elsewhere, I found the poems habitually reaching for cherished "poetic" words. "Vestigial" appears three times, there are a great deal of "ghosts", and a recourse to academic and bureaucratic verbiage that reminded me of my post-graduate struggles with Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari: "death's mnemonics", "an inventory of things left behind", "the folded catalog of night", "this is the negativity of form", "annotated sacrament", "this almanac of breathing methods", "epistemology and diction", "a discourse on continuity". There are statements that read like parodies of philosophy's abstract precision. "It must then speak of what is imaginary, what is yours". "we decide by means of tactile stimuli".

I appreciate that poetry needs to be able to speak in different registers, but these tactics, whisking everything off to the cold realms of the terse and abstract, distance the reader. In between the microscopic investigation of domestic objects, and the macro level of abstract philosophical assertions, there seemed to gape a hole left by the absence of anything at the level of human relationships and emotions.

There are, as I say, exceptions: "The Fan" is one of the very few poems that deals with two people in the same room together, but the real focus of the poem is the television set that separates them and prevents communication. Elsewhere, many of the poems express an ambivalence about humanity: "A man is only a prop, a lesser evil in an / abandoned room." "The man on the bench is a glove fashioned out of winter's skin. Spent and hardened. Like an unfinished interview." "The agile bodies move: so many branches, so many leaves, so many years left to break them all." These are powerful lines, but their apparent attempt to reduce people to the same status as the dissected objects doesn't wash. There's a current of unease about other people, about the emotional turmoil they entail, that runs underneath most of the poems in this book. It's not openly expressed, but a line like "loneliness and the iterations thereof" seems to want to speak about emotional pain, only to attempt an immediate retraction of the confession in the by now familiar verbiage of "the iterations thereof".

The Self gets almost as rough a ride as the Other, and I was surprised on a second reading to notice how many of the poems ended with a line that was, while not despairing, aimed at a sort of poised negativity, a stoical gritted-teeth, and expressed the idea of the Self being reduced, squeezed, limited, stilled, denied: "Voice is a city that pilfers pain / quiets us with its tiny lights."
"Then we will all be shrunken to the size of a box of salt, a mouthful of dead fish."
"Teach us to slurp silently, slowly. Teach us restraint."

There's plenty of wit in A Roomful of Machines, but little irony. For the most part the poems take themselves and their pronouncements rather seriously. Infrequently one glimpses a voice undermining its own gloomy gravitas with humour: "Summer is a snapped twig / glued back in place / But it will dangle again. / You'll see." As before with the hospital poems, the informality of "You'll see" saves this poem ("Balancing Act") from pomposity.

On a technical note, these poems are all, as far as I can see, unrhymed and mostly unmetered. Stanzas are of equal lines, but most seem to me to have been snipped to make patterns of lengths on the page, rather than syllables in the mouth. The clue that alerted me to this possibility was the frequency of little connecting phrases like "it is": metered poems don’t always have the luxury of speaking in such regular grammatical sentences. There were a few places too where I felt that compression would have been a good thing. In "The Fan", we have:

"The overdue bills are unfurling
where the whirling electric fan
hits them."

I would have edited that to:

"The whirling electric fan
Unfurls overdue bills."

There seems to be a loose consensus that poetry is a very "personal" thing, whatever that means, which sometimes precludes reviewers from saying whether they think a poet's work is really any good or not, on the basis that somebody somewhere might get something out of it, particularly if the poetry is rather dense, concentrated and open to wide interpretation, as Kristine Ong Muslim's collection certainly is. On balance I doubt whether I would recommend this collection to others. It didn't speak to me in the way Alan Bennett describes the best reading experiences: when you see that others have thought and felt in ways you had thought were yours alone, and which are like a hand reaching out to yours. I'm certainly very glad I've read it, and forced myself to take the time, to marinate my mind in the words on the page, rather than just ploughing on through them. It also gave me to opportunity to think again about the purpose of poetry, what sort of things poetry should talk about, and if there are even things that poetry ought to leave well alone. The poems here seem to leave a lot unsaid, or shut off, but that realisation was in itself an interesting reading experience. For her part, Kristine Ong Muslim writes, "real poetry must be indistinguishable from regurgitated hunger pangs". Typically, this raises more questions than it answers (for one thing, can a hunger pang be regurgitated?), but it does seem an apposite description of her technique: writing out a lack, bringing back up the meal that was denied in the first place. And perhaps recognising new types of questions is one of the pleasures of poetry that I am still discovering.

A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim. Published by Searle Publishing, 2010. Paperback, 103pp.

What have you sent for me lately?

It's been a tough couple of weeks for my postman / email provider! Here are some of the lovely items that have entered the blue box of late.

The Gospel of Bucky Dennis, by J.R. Parks (Ding Fleet Press, 212pp). A collection of southern gothic tales, including one that I'm proud to say originally appeared in TQF.

The Gospel of Bucky Dennis: A Southern Gothic Horror Hymn (Volume 1)

Doctor Who: A Shard of Ice, Paul Magrs (BBC Audio, 1xCD, 1hr30). The latest Baker/Magrs extravaganza. I'm a bit behind on reviewing these, but I've been enjoying them: will have to do a big catch-up.

Doctor Who: Demon Quest: A Shard of Ice: A Multi-Voice Audio Original Starring Tom Baker #3

Catastrophia, ed. Allen Ashley (PS Publishing, 284pp). An anthology of short stories concerning the apocalypse. I interviewed Allen about this project for my last issue of Dark Horizons.


The Bone Sword, Walter Rhein (Rhemalda Publishing, 230pp). Not the most impressive cover, but it's short so there's always a chance of us reading and reviewing it.

Bone Sword

The Dracula Papers, Reggie Oliver (Chomu Press, 474pp). Very happy to have started receiving books for review from Chomu Press, who have a very admirable approach: providing collectible content at affordable prices. (It was the announcement of an upcoming Brendan Connell book, among others, that prompted me to get in touch with them.) Not entirely sure what this chunky book is – a novel, short stories, or PJF-style fictional non-fiction? – but I look forward to finding out. Will have to read Dracula first, though.

The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale

Roman Hell, Mark Mellon (Amber Quill Press, 242pp). I think this is a supernatural novel set in Roman times, but it's possible the blurb was metaphorical!

Roman Hell

Engineman, Eric Brown (Solaris, 512pp). We haven't contacted many of the larger publishers regarding books for review; it's easy to get buried under books you're not really all that interested in. But I did love the look of these Solaris books, and I loved Eric Brown's book for PS Publishing, Gilbert and Edgar on Mars.


The Age of Ra, James Lovegrove (Solaris, 448pp). For years I thought James Lovegrove was a pseudonym of Michael Moorcock. No idea why. This looks like fun.

Age of Ra

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Justin Isis (Chomu Press, 336pp). Sadly the cover of my paperback ARC isn't as saucy as this one. A collection of short stories, due out mid-January.

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like

DC Comics: the 75th Anniversary Poster Book (Quirk Books, large format paperback, 208pp). This is a nice chunk of book. One to add to your wishlists in time for Christmas. The only problem with receiving it for review is that to review it properly I'm going to have to rip one of the posters out, to test the perforations. Poor old me!

DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book

The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer: Protean Dimensions, ed. Michael Croteau (Meteor House, pb, 264pp). I started reading bits of this the moment it arrived! Bits and pieces from PJF's filing cabinet – interviews, speeches, etc – together with new fiction by the likes of Rhys Hughes.

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness (Headline, 594pp). As I mentioned on Twitter when this arrived: the trade paperback ARC of this weighs 838g, while the Kindle weighs 222g. I'm grateful to have received a copy of the book, but I'd much rather read it on the Kindle.

Randalls Round, Eleanor Scott (Oleander Press, 176pp). A book of supernatural tales republished by a press specialising in books about climbing the buildings of Cambridge at night.

A Roomful of Machines, Kristine Ong Muslim (Searle Publishing, 124pp). Kristine's one of the most prolific and widely-published poets in science fiction.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #48 (132pp). The latest issue of this highly ambitious magazine. They're going quarterly from the next issue.

Thanks to all the publishers and writers who have been so generous as to send us material for review. Apologies in advance for anything we don't get around to reading!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin Anderson and Sam Stall

Zombies wouldn't really be that big a threat in the Star Trek universe – they're basically disorganised, disconnected, weaponless Borg who wouldn't even be able to pilot a starship! Dr Crusher or the emergency medical hologram would take minutes to whip up a retrovirus to sort them out. Perhaps that's why the living dead in this book aren't zombies in the ordinary sense. What they are exactly is revealed in the course of the book; what they do is infest a Star Trek convention, as well as the surrounding city, leaving security chief and former soldier Jim Pike (get it?) with very few options in his efforts to save his little sister.

This is straightforward silly entertainment, with few ambitions beyond raising a chuckle, giving the odd thrill, and diverting the reader for a few hours. It's not a laugh riot – the tone is primarily serious – but there are lots of in-jokes. Like the hero's name they aren't particularly clever ones: a hotel named Botany Bay doesn't make much sense when it isn't in Botany Bay. The chapters take their names from Star Trek episode titles. Most of the best lines are lifts from Star Trek or Star Wars dropped into appropriate situations, but others caught my eye too. "He'd only just met this guy, but he'd already disliked him for years," says Pike of sleazebag Matt.

It's not all that frightening – apart from one brilliant scene where zombies in nearby buildings notice the survivors through the hotel windows - but the action moves quickly and efficiently. Klingon merchant Martock is at the convention to sell replica weaponry, and the survivors put the bat'leth and lirpa to good use. Pike is a resourceful and compassionate hero, with only one blind spot: for some reason, though he discovers early on that taser shocks have an explosive effect on the infections, he doesn't think of applying this method to fresh bites to prevent people turning.

There is a very good sense of place, with the hotel's layout being used cleverly. For example, using the stairwells to get around is a good plan, since the zombies struggle with doors – but what if the fire door on one floor was left open and zombies spilled out from that floor? Another sequence where the survivors move through a series of interconnected rooms is strategically intriguing, each room presenting a new challenge, the heroes learning from their early mistakes.

This isn't an official tie-in, and "any personnel claiming otherwise will be sentenced to one year of hard labour in the penal colony of Rura Penthe", but I doubt that will prevent it from finding appreciative readers among Trek fans. Once you've seen the cover and chuckled at the concept, actually reading the book doesn't add a great deal, but for what it is, it is done well, and if you like the idea enough to consider buying the book you're unlikely to be disappointed.

Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin Anderson and Sam Stall, Quirk Books, pb, 254pp. Reviewed from a paperback ARC.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

What Will Come After, Scott Edelman

What Will Come After is a collection of very literary zombie stories – and one excellent play – from Scott Edelman. The stories aren't interconnected, but they are more or less consistent in their approach to zombification. It isn't a plague passed on by bites – in most of the stories everyone who has recently died returns to life; undeath, rather than death, becomes the complementary state to life. (Understanding this helps to make sense of the first story, in which otherwise it's not clear how the narrator knows he is about to change.) Each zombie is extremely strong, able to rip humans and animals apart, and in most of the stories they display a shark-life sense for discovering their prey. In most the world goes on living, more or less, people coping (or not) with this new disaster just as they coped (or didn't) with all the others.

The collection begins with "What Will Come After", a stunning, poetic tale told in the future tense, where a writer describes what will happen after he turns. In "Live People Don't Understand" a young wife wakes to find herself beneath the ground, and decides upon revenge. "The Man He Had Been Before" concerns domestic violence. People find it hard enough to leave abusive partners in our world; how much harder to do it after the apocalypse? "Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man" finds a writer holed up in a library, in which he writes story after story, trying to find some kind of sense to it all. In a way it's the most traditional zombie story in the collection, with a protagonist ensconced in an impromptu fortress, having to make decisions about when and how to venture outside, but it's also the most expansive and playful of the stories.

"Live People Don't Understand" is built upon the plot and characters of "Our Town", a play by Thornton Wilder, and two of the very best pieces here also play with earlier texts. "Tell Me Like You Done Before" is a superb sequel to Of Mice and Men, which sees poor George pursued by undead mice and men across the dustbowls. Recommended to anyone who thought Steinbeck's ending too cheery. "A Plague on Both Your Houses" is a play in five short acts, a Romeo and Juliet of the living and the undead which I would love to see performed. (My own impromptu performance went down badly with the family.) Recommended to anyone who thought Shakespeare's ending too sad.

The remaining stories suffer only in comparison to the high standards of this collection; in most other books they would have been outstanding. In "Goobers" a projectionist working in a cinema showing nothing but zombie films finds an unusually appreciative audience, but the abrupt ending didn't satisfy. "The Human Race" concerns a woman who lost her family in the London 7/7 bombings, and learns to live again when surrounded by the dead. "The Last Supper" is eaten by the zombie who hunts down the last living human, in a story that reflects, I think, our own overwhelming greed with regard to the resources of our planet.

Stories like "Tell Me Like You Done Before" and John Kessel's "Pride and Prometheus" demonstrate that what's come to be known dismissively as the mash-up isn't the sole domain of quick cash-in artists; in the right hands it can produce works of art that have value beyond a catchy title and a chucklesome cover. This book shows, if it needed to be shown, that while we can in complete fairness be dismissive of particular books, and even dismayed by particular trends in publishing, it's always, always a mistake to dismiss an entire category of fiction. What Will Come After stands as an outstanding example of the literary potential of genre fiction.

What Will Come After, Scott Edelman, PS Publishing, hb, 194pp. Reviewed from a pdf ARC. Available in the PS Publishing store.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Isabelle, Andre Gide – and reading in French on the Kindle

Reading and reviewing The Translation of Father Torturo, with its themes of Catholicism and amorality, left me fancying a little Gide, and so here I am. A review of an established classic such as this seems rather redundant, and indeed part of my reason for reading it was to read something I wouldn't have to review, giving me a chance to catch up on all those reviews that are currently unfinished. But reading this book was a revelation to me, for reasons noted at the end of this post, and I was determined to share my discovery. Before that, I will say a few words about it; to do otherwise about such a marvellous book would almost be criminal.

This was a excellent short novel, though Gide himself I think would have described it as a recit (please excuse the lack of accents throughout this post). It concerns Gerard Lacase, who upon visiting an abandoned house with friends tells them how he first came there as a young man. His professed purpose in visiting le chateau de la Quartfourche was for research, towards a degree, but other things were on his mind from the very beginning. "Je sais de reste ce qui l'attend sur le sentier de la vertu; mais l'autre route?... l'autre route..."

The less virtuous path is that of the novelist: "des qu'on se croit ne romancier on s'accorde aussitot toux les droits". From the house and its occupants he wishes to extract every possible morsel of material for his fiction. Upon discovering the image of an absent mother, Isabelle de Saint-Aureol, he becomes determined to meet her, and to win her confidence. He pursues her as if in love, and the reader may wonder as to the lack of effect that the revelations of her poor character has upon his ardour.

This is a woman, for example, who has abandoned her disabled son to the care of her parents; a son disabled, it is implied, because she strapped down her stomach to keep her unplanned pregnancy a secret. ("On attribue l'infirmite de Casimir aux soins que sa mere avait pris pour dissimuler sa grossesse ...") Gerard watches her steal jewellery from her family, and yet his attraction to her is undiminished.

The answer is that his interest in her isn't truly that of the lover, it's that of the novelist, romancier rather than romancer. "Cette nuit que vous l'attendiez, prete a fuir avec lui, que pensiez-vous?" he asks with a particular lack of sensitivity about the night her lover died. An alternative reading is perhaps possible – he does after all say to himself disappointedly, realising the impossibility of eliciting love from cruel, selfish Isabelle,"est-ce la comme elle savait aimer?"

But he then says of her, "Je ne sentais plus aucun desir de la questionner davantage; subitement incurieux de sa personne et de sa vie, je restais devant elle comme un enfant devant un jouet qu'il a brise pour en decouvrir la mystere ..." Her mystery revealed, her story told, his interest evaporates, he moves on.

She is unchanged, and perhaps unchangeable, but he is not. His experiences have after all led him to the path of virtue: a real affection for young Casimir, for whom he provides a home. The novel suggests there is yet hope for those of us who, seeing someone in distress, has first or second the thought: this would make a good story.

However, my original reason for blogging about this book lies not with its content, but with the way in which I read it. What I realised here was that I could buy a French dictionary for the Kindle, set it temporarily as the default dictionary, and so use it to instantly look up the words I didn't know while reading a French novel. For anyone studying a foreign language, that makes the Kindle an utterly essential purchase.

Of course, little of this will come as a surprise to our American friends, who have had Kindles for years, but it's only been out in the UK for a few months, so we're still catching up.

The dictionary I bought was the Merriam-Webster French-English Translation Dictionary. I would have preferred a French-only dictionary too, because it's better when reading in a foreign language to stay within that language as far as possible – to build a framework of words that stands alone, rather than one requiring the scaffold of your English – but I'm sure one will be available before long.

As well as helping English people to read French books, how phenomenally useful the Kindle and its built-in dictionary must be for people learning English as a foreign language!

If using the Kindle in this way, I recommend upping the font size quite a bit, making it easier to zip around the page to find definitions.

The selection of French books on Amazon is not terrific as yet, the vast majority being texts also available for free via Project Gutenberg, so that's a good place to start. Bookmark on your Kindle for easy access to the mobile version. Here are direct links to Flaubert, Dumas, Stendhal and Jules Verne.

Isabelle, Andre Gide, Project Gutenberg, Kindle edition, 1215ll.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Translation of Father Torturo, Brendan Connell

Father Xaviero Torturo is, like many of the protagonists in Connell's later collection Unpleasant Tales, a man obsessed with change, though the changes he desires extend beyond himself and into the world in which he lives. He is a priest who, tired of being "the begrimed receptacle" for the offences of others, applies the philosophy, dedication and ruthlessness of the family trade – assassination – to his work.

"As a child he had been brutal, a kicker of cats, a resolute swatter of flies..." His parents savagely murdered, this boy is taken in by Uncle Guido, their avenger, a kindly murderer who would see him enter the church. Torturo's education is thus entrusted to cigar-fancier Father Falzon, who encourages the young prodigy to read very widely, and gives him a piece of deathbed advice: "Don't give yourself away. Not until you have them check-mated."

As Torturo's career within the church first falters, and then progresses at pace, he follows that advice to the letter, even withholding his plans from the reader. Though we are able to guess his intended destination – "playing the faithful servant", he hopes to "usurp the master" – his purpose and methods remain obscure. This allows us to appreciate the fruition of his plans all the more.

I almost felt as if I should have read this book in French – it reminded me very much of reading Gide. I can easily imagine it in Gallimard's Collection Folio alongside books like Les caves du Vatican. Perhaps that stems from the shared subject matter – Catholicism and amorality – but I think also there's a similarity of tone and a similar intellectualism.

The book's dedication nods to another gay writer of that period, Baron Corvo, on whose Hadrian VII this is roughly patterned. This novel could perhaps be criticised for its portrayal of homosexuals – Bishop Vivan, an early ally of Father Torturo, is something of a giggly, effete stereotype – though a defence is that the main characters, good and bad, are Catholic priests, not generally an occupation in which you would expect to find healthy, happy gay men.

The Translation of Father Torturo dates back to 2005 but is now available for the first time on Kindle, published I think by the author; a few typos and formatting glitches did no real harm. Some Roman Catholics might be pleased by its assumption or at least implication that the sacred relics of the saints hold actual, magical power; others might choose to find the perverted, corrupt priests that populate the book offensive. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this provocative and grimly amusing book to everyone else.

The Translation of Father Torturo, Brendan Connell, Kindle, 3417ll.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Fifteen authors who influenced you

Denis, Denis!
It's probably obvious that many of the non-review items on this blog began life as Facebook or forum posts that got a bit out of control… Here's another in that line, a little something to distract me from a backlog of reviews in various stages of composition.

It's the usual kind of thing: fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. An acknowledgment here to Tej Turner, who tagged me with this on Facebook.

I'm not really a writer these days – or at least not a writer of fiction. It's been a few years since I last completed one of my terrible novels, and I've never really been one for writing short stories. But these are the fifteen writers I came up with, fifteen writers who have done a great deal to shape my thinking about writing, and, by extension, reading.

Jean Racine – for his plotting, his approach to the dramatic unities. In my memory his plays are structured like arrowheads, shiny, sharp and ruthless. I've never written anything like that, but I always begin with that intention.

Jack Vance – for the humour, the creativity, the language, the cruelty, the shared universe of his science fiction. There's very little I don't love about Jack Vance's writing.

Michael Moorcock – for writing novels in three days, and for writing even better ones when he took a bit longer. Stormbringer, The Final Programme, A Cure for Cancer, Count Brass, Byzantium Endures – every one of them was a revelation.

Lionel Fanthorpe – for showing how easy it is to write novels; he taught me to think about what could come next, rather than what should come next. (I have yet to learn how to write good novels.)

Diana Wynne Jones – for being so interesting, for never repeating herself, even in sequels.

Denis Diderot – for Jacques le FatalisteIts narrative playfulness astonished me. In English, Tristram Shandy played similar tricks, but I didn't read that until much later.

Gustave Flaubert – for the care he took over his prose, and Bouvard et Pecuchet. He's not a writer I would ever have had the patience to emulate, but he's important to me nevertheless: Flaubert and Fanthorpe stand at either end of a scale which measures the care you take over your writing.

Stendhal – for the novels, of course, but also for his acceptance of the fact that not everyone would like his work: to the happy few. One particular comment about his work impressed me deeply; whether it was one of my tutors at university, or an essay , or an introduction to his work, I'm not sure: that his sentences will often end with a word or phrase that changes the entire sense of what you thought you had been reading.

Jean-Paul Sartre – for plays like Les Mains Sales and Huis Clos. Sartre had an immense effect on my life: an excellent GCSE essay score persuaded me to study French literature at sixth form and degree level. I should really have studied maths, IT or science: I would have been an awesome accountant. My spoken French, however, is so poor that as I left the oral for my degree I heard the examiners begin to laugh.

John Brunner – for his perfect little Ace books. I would love to write short novels exactly like them in every regard.

Grant Morrison – for constant invention, and never writing down to his readers. He's written comics that didn't work, or were a bit confusing, or where his late scripts have caused problems with the art, but I've never read a Grant Morrison comic that felt pointless, average or dull.

Rhys Hughes – for writing the kind of thing I would like to write, saving me the trouble! And for making me feel better about my over-enthusiastic use of exclamation marks!

Terrance Dicks – for the spare emptiness of his prose. I grew up a fan of the Doctor Who novels as much as the television series.

Roland Barthes – for the relationship between the author and the text, and the interpretation of the text – and indeed the interpretation of everything else, from advertising to clothes. I doubt a day goes by without me thinking a thought influenced by Barthes.

Robert Silverberg – for the brilliant short novels of the fifties and sixties. If I have a true ambition left, it's to write a serious and profound short novel in that style.

I realise now that I should probably have included Philip K. Dick (for his reality-bending), Harry Harrison (for his humour and action), Russell T Davies (for his approach to rewriting) and Philip Jose Farmer (for his big ideas), but too late now. I had fifteen minutes to make my list, and these are the names I came up with!

I'm sure in some cases I've got the wrong end of the stick about a writer – are Racine's plays really as well-structured as I remember them? would Terrance Dicks even be readable now I'm an adult? – but it is after all how I remember them, faultily or not, that influences me.