Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’


Montmorillon, Musée Robert Tatin, and the blindness of the Anglophone internet

Recently in France I visited two highly recommended tourist sites (I have no issue describing myself by the word “tourist”).

One, Montmorillon, is described by English language wikipedia (more of which anon) as “a commune in the Vienne department, in the Poitou-Charentes region, in western France.” Indeed it is. The English language wikipedia page does have a few more details. It was where Montmorillonite was discovered (in passing, I wonder how geologists pronounce this mineral with a straight face) It is famous for its macarons and for various educational posters.

Via Wikipedia (the English language one) a bit of Montmorillonite

It omits, however, Montmorillon’s self description as Citie d’écrit et Les Métiers Du Livre and its wide range of specialist bookshops and shops devoted to, well, les métiers du livre. Of course, this is not all that rare now, with Hay-On-Wye being the most prominent example in these islands of book-focused tourism. Montmorillon was a particularly charming example of the genre, with its steep streets and striking architecture. I didn’t pick up that much; a a French language edition of Ballard short stories with some interesting comments from the man himself) from Les Chants du Maldoror, and a Korean personal organiser sporting the name “Buffoon Schedule” from Utopiarts. My children picked up lovely items from Fantine’s Creations and origami/calligraphy shop Au Coeur Du Papier.



We had limited time to explore unfortunately but I must mention the kindness of the man in motorsport/aviation/all-things-internal-combustion themed bookshop  Numero 10 who gave some obviously somewhat heated (in every sense) children free sudukos.





Anyway, the point it also that this extremely charming destination is unheralded on the English language internet, pretty much – we had discovered it via a leaflet in another site. The point was reinforced a few days later driving from Craon towards Cossé-le-Vivien. On the map I spied the Musée Robert Tatin. The reader can of course follow the link to the museum site and also the link to the blog post that immediately follows: but I would advise that if you are anywhere near the area just visit as much of the impact comes from the sheer unexpectedness of the site (for the same reason I am resisting posting photos)  The inevitable Google search I performed on seeing the museum on the  map revealed nothing much in English except this interesting post on a site devoted to “outsider art environments”

The impact of Musée Robert Tatin partly comes from its unexpectedness.It is something like a sort of Angkor Wat in the Mayenne countryside, in terms of visual impact. It is also a wonderful place to bring children (though the staff did politely warn us to ensure they didn’t touch the fragile artworks) as it has, amongst other things, a playground, a hedge maze, a fountain, a pond, and lots of space to run around in. Part of me wonders how the art work would fare taken out of its context (though that what site-specific means, obviously), and much of Tatin’s painting seemed to be rather Kandinsky-lite to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating and refreshing detour.
Anyhow the point of all this touristic blather on my part is that neither site was one which those depending on English-language web resources or searches would have encountered (though I guess they may have visited Montmorillon for macarons) In an age when boosterism often tries to persuade us that all the information in the world is easily accessible, and that English is the global language, it is salutary to be reminded that you can still stumble across things (of course, in both these examples I found internet resources – but afterwards, and not [primarily] in English)

The Berenstain Bears and the Moral Minefield – The Dabbler, Jan 2015

The Berenstain Bears and the Moral Minefield – The Dabbler, Jan 2015

This piece arose from reading about two very heated responses to the Berenstain Bears series of children’s books and cartoons.  The posthumous “Good riddance” to Mrs Berenstain in particular struck me as wildly disproportionate. I can understand parents disliking the Berenstain bears. Yet, as I outline below, this says more about the parents (and “cultural commentators”) than it does about the children. Of course, my own ventures into this area could be accused of the same thing. All this now strikes me forcefully as yet another example of the endless moral one-upmanship which seems, at times, to be the main function of social media.

berenstain cover

The Berenstain Bears and the Moral Minefield

Usually the death of a prominent person is greeted with respectful appraisal. After a while it fades, but initially “don’t speak ill of the dead” is the obituarist’s watchword. Exceptions are made for mass killers, Mrs Thatcher, and Stan and Jan Berenstain, husband-and-wife authors of The Berenstain’s Baby Book, How To Teach Your Children About Sex Without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself, and, most crucially for their legacy, the Berenstain Bear series of children’s books.

The Berenstain Bears, for those readers unfamiliar with them, are an anthropomorphic bear family, comprising the paterfamilias Papa Q Bear, Mother Bear, Brother Bear, and Sister Bear. With their fairly overt moralising, the Bears do not even attempt the kind of nods to adult sensibilities that many grown-ups now rather selfishly expect from children’s entertainment. Brother and Sister are inevitably taught worthwhile lessons about responsibility and so on. They live in a rather bucolic setting on the fringe of the kind of small town America we all know primarily from fictional portrayals.

berenstain one

Naturally the Berenstains reflected the various mores of their times, and their Bears had an explicitly didactic, helpful aim. They seemed to have lived fairly typical mid- to late Twentieth Century lives. Stan Berenstain died first, aged 82, in 2005, and inspired the journalist Paul Fahri to this obituary:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced?

Specifically, the figure of Papa aroused Fahri’s scorn:

There is, however, always something off in the Bear family, and his name was Papa. More than just a comic figure, he is the Negative Example by which his family learns its lesson. Stan Berenstain has said that he modeled Papa after himself, but Papa is really a stock character, a Dagwood Bumstead or Ralph Kramden for the pre-kindergarten set. That has always been the smaller of the criticisms about Stan and Jan Berenstain’s stories: That by depicting dads as doofuses, they undercut the very parental authority and wisdom they seek to embrace. Can young children accept the Berenstains’ teachings without noticing a parallel message — that dads are dummies who are better off ignored?

All this was written with Stan recently dead. While the Berenstains were still alive, the psychiatrist turned neoconservative commentator Charles Krautenhammer had in 1989 penned a rather alarming screedrevealing the Berenstains aroused as much of his scorn as wimpish liberals did.  He also into the Berenstains as subversive of masculine authority: “the post-feminist Papa Bear, the Alan Alda of grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman.”

The Berenstain Bears' Trouble With Money


“Good riddance” are possibly the most toxic words possible to use about the recently departed, but the Berenstains managed to provoke one commentator into exactly that. Jan died of a stroke in 2012, and her death inspired Slate’s Hanna Rosin (whose blog is subtitled “What Women Really Think”) to write: “As any right-thinking mother would say, good riddance.” For Rosin, however, Mama Bear is the problem:

There, in the big treehouse down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country is Mama Bear, known only ever as Mama Bear, wearing the same blue polka-dotted muumuu and housecap in every single book, inside the house and on the very rare occasions when she leaves it. (What’s her problem? Is there no Target in Bear Country? Is she too busy to change? Is she clinically depressed?) Mama Bear’s only pleasures in life seem to come from being the Tracy Flick of domesticity, making up charts for good behavior and politeness, encouraging her children to use pretentious British affectations such as “terribly sorry” and “lovely, my dear.”

Rosin did later apologise, for “not really thinking of her as a person with actual feelings and a family, just an abstraction who happened to write these books”, but the riddance-wishing and headline remain online until the end of time when the Internet will fall into the sea.

There seems to be a whole lot of projecting going on in all this. For Fahri and Krauthammer, Papa Bear is an emasculated dolt; for Rosin, Mama Bear is some kind of Stepford Wife-esque figure.

The Berenstain Bears cartoons were solemnly devoured by my daughter when she was five (although now she is six she has moved on to programmes about talking dinosaurs on time-travelling trains). Looking over her shoulder, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. The cartoons were not very interesting for an adult, but they aren’t meant to be. I failed to find either the emasculated father or neurotic mother. Fahri becomes particularly exercised that the Berenstain’s world excluded the possibility of negative emotion and evoked “a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved” which all sounds very worthy on his part, until you remember that children generally dislike being scared and would rather like to solve their problems.

berenstain three

Fahri and Rosin are united by more than simple Berenstain-loathing; they both exemplify a more recent trend in adult approaches to children’s culture. While traditional moralists wished for children to read improving tales which exemplified their own worldviews, more recent moralists wish for children’s culture to be free, whimsical, unhindered by ostensibly moralist impulses. Adults also increasingly demands little hat-tips to their own adult cleverness. Children’s entertainment becomes adult entertainment.

Children, of course, do love whimsy and fantasy and so forth. They also seem to have a great appetite for simple stories with clear morals of which the Berenstain Bears seem to be a perfect example of. Fahri in particular seems to demand some kind of sophisticated, sixth-stage-Kohlbergian morality , and Rosin seems to particularly object to Mama Bear’s outfit, but perhaps a children’s story is not where they are likely to find what they are looking for.

The Berenstain’s neat trick in outraging two sets of quite different contemporary moralists reminds one of a universal truth of children’s literature, children’s cinema – what could be called children’s culture generally. It tends to defy and escape adult control and adult aspiration, even though it is in so many respects entirely purchased with adult economic resources and within an adult cultural framework. Children’s stories will always be contested, an arena for moralists, especially the supposed anti-moralists, to try and shape the minds of the next generation. Of course, minds are not such easy things to mould after all.

LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout

LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout



justiceleague. I was somewhat surprised and confused in late 2013 to discover that a “Lego Movie” was imminent. This was because there were, already, more than a few Lego Movies already – at first I thought this was perhaps a belated big screen release of Clutch Powers

Cue nostalgia-wallow: when I was young, Lego was sturdily educational. For parents of a certain age, Lego retains both a nostalgic patina but also an air of worthy educational value.  It is now a matter of academic record that Lego has become more violent since then, but a subtler change is the enmeshment of Lego with pop culture from The Big Bang Theory to Frozen. It is a rather sad commentary on the reality of the promise of liberation from the hegemony of corporate mass culture, often made in the early years of the mass popularity of the internet, that Lego Ideas (Lego’s platform for user-generated ideas) is dominated by proposed sets based on the self same mass culture.

Lego’s status as an educational toy is perhaps somewhat overstated ( it is sometimes claimed  it cannot compare to Meccano for teaching proto-engineering skills) and, while it gets some bad press, not nearly as much as you would expect for a company of its size and reach. For instance, Lego became  the world’s largest tyre manufacturer a few years back.

I laughed like a drain at the cinema watching the Lego Movie. I laughed more than my children. I didn’t laugh quite so much the next few times, though oddly enough it seemed to grow on my children fairly considerably. It is clear that much contemporary children’s entertainment is slanted subtly to parents as much as children. This is a fine line which Toy Story, for instance, treads very well. Whereas the likes of Madagascar and Ice Age are, to my taste, a little too slanted towards adult-friendly winks. Of course, as with so many things with children’s culture, this says more about me than about them

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the imminent Lego Batman Movie, with Will Arnett voicing Batman and a fairly starry cast (Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galafinakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson) . I feel rather sorry for the voice actors displaced, such as the wonderful Troy Baker, the voice of the straight-to-video Lego Batman. Baker, and the rest of the Lego movie voice cast, do a wonderful job in bringing the various personalities to life.

Anyway, onto LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout, the rather cumbersomely titled latest installment of Lego movies set in the world of DC Superheroes. Lego’s superhero movies have, so far, been a satisfying blend of action and wit, and a particular strength is the characterisation of the heroes. Batman is a serious, grim obsessive, entertainingly contrasted with the rather childlike antics of the other superheroes.Of course, Lego Batman in his own way is a rather childlike figure; the serious, intense child with a sense of mission.

batmanparty Over the course of the movies, the characters have developed, with Cyborg evolving from a rather anonymous superhero to a rather star-struck figure anxious to impress the legendary superheroes around him (especially Batman) Superman is a perpetually naive alien who is baffled by high-fives.

Gotham City Breakout starts with a surprise party for Batman (which he naturally is not surprised by) marking his Bat-anniversary. Robin, Batgirl and Nightwing insist on his taking a vacation, a word which Batman has trouble even pronouncing. Batman’s reluctance to leave Gotham – “crime doesn’t take a holiday” – is finally broken down by Superman’s staying on as a kind of locum, with Robin left behind to advise. Superman entirely underrates Gotham’s “non-powered” criminals and sees Robin as purely a child to be babysat rather than a source of advice. When the Joker, with the help of a spoon, breaks out of Arkham Asylum, Superman’s hubris has near-disastrous results.  Meanwhile, Batman (along with Batgirl and Nightwing) find what was meant to be a nostalgic trip to a former mentor become a subterranean adventure.

Gotham City Breakout is an enjoyable film that had held my children’s attention repeatedly.I found it ever so slightly too knowing – although “knowingness” and self-reflexivity about the superhero universe has been a feature of the Lego superhero movies from the start, in this installment these features are played up a little too strongly for my liking. But just a little. In a way, this feels like a recapitulation of previous tropes and themes. In the Lego superhero movies so far, we have seen the usually solitary Batman embrace team work and indeed team leadership. Here we have the same theme replayed, except with Superman shown as learning to regret his hubris. There is also a nice theme in the subterranean plot about bravery and courage.

Overall Gotham City Breakout is a solid film in the Lego superhero series, which is certainly entertaining – but has a slight sense of treading water, perhaps until the big screen version comes along.


Review of “The Terrible Two”, Mac Barnett and Jory John, Childrens Books Ireland December 2015

This review was to a large degree dictated by my seven year old daughter. I have always thought that grown up reviewers (especially film reviewers who evidently would be preferred to be watching some worthy drama or other) covering works for children is a little absurd. I disliked this but my daughter still sometimes asks for it (and appreciated the tablet/tablets wordplay, it seems)  I myself am far from immune from the tendency of adults to project their own desires and values onto what they want their children to read, watch and listen to.



Miles has had to move from the school by the sea he loved and where he was the acknowledged master prankster, to Yawnee Valley (most famous for cows) and a new school where he knows no one. In this new school he soon realises that an anonymous, brilliant prank mastermind already occupies his former position. But who is it? Bullied by the principal’s son, and forced into a stilted principal-assigned friendship with the quiet, officious Niles, Miles tries to conceive of a perfect prank to seize the school prankster title, but it is foiled and then an unexpected revelation leads to the creation of the Terrible Two.

Initially rivals engaged in a prank war between themselves, when they join forces the Terrible Two pledge  to ‘to disrupt, but not destroy; to embarrass the dour and amuse the merry.’ Together, they extend their pranking career to new heights.

Full of witty details such as inordinate amount of facts about cows, the five generations of Principal Barkinses, the ‘Prank Lab’, and the elaborately hilarious pranks themselves, the book will appeal to fans of the Wimpy Kid series but with an added helping of antic silliness. The illustrations by Kevin Cornell are perfectly in tune with the text and add an extra layer of fun.

The pranks are humorous and wildly over-the-top rather than cruel, and while never moralistic, lessons can indeed be drawn about friendship and teamwork. However, this is mainly a hugely entertaining opening to what promises to be a highly popular series.

– See more at: http://www.childrensbooksireland.ie/reviews/terrible-two#sthash.67XL9pWz.dpuf