Monday, 26 September 2011

The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets by Sophie Hannah, Sort Of Books

While Sophie Hannah’s voice is consistent throughout this ten-tale collection, the book is, in terms of genre, very much of two halves.
  Five of the tales conform to what may be called ‘uncanny.’  The narrator voice, increasingly neurotic as domestic paranoia sets in, gradually making us doubt our first assumption.  ‘The Octopus Nest’ cleverly switches the stalker with the stalked, justifying that doubt in the most satisfying and unexpected way.
  ‘Friendly Amid the Haters’ concerns a harboured bid for revenge against a personal, physical attack, and we wonder, right up until the end, whether her extreme choice will be finally acted upon.
  The title story concerns a woman who lives by the delusion of a double life and how she thinks others perceive it.  Once she reveals she has been sacked by more than one previous employer, it doesn’t take us long to understand why.
  ‘The Nursery Bear’’ has the Aickman influence in a series of odd events that may or may not be linked, but form a dreadful coherence in the narrator’s mind.  With ‘The Octopus Nest’ the highlight, this is the second best tale here flawed only by a late scene involving a mirror-image front room in the neighbour’s house which, somehow, doesn’t work as an enticement to additional fear.  A gilding of the lily this excellent tale doesn’t need.
  In ‘The Tub,’ a woman left licking her wounds from a possibly unrequited love is left to confide in one who desires only her body.  The man lacks any real character beyond his carnal intent, while the woman’s hopeless bid to salvage words of comfort from him becomes increasingly psychotic.
  The remaining five tales dispense with the uncanny element entirely, being little more than blackly humorous episodes of imaginary sitcom.  But Hannah remains strong on her fellow woman and the stifled subjective opinions that stem from saving face.
  ‘We All Say What We Want’ is a wish-fulfilling tryout by a husband and wife who break out of their boring lifestyle by joining a pair of pleasure-seekers.  (Read it and admit to whose side you wish you were on).
  In ‘Twelve Noon,’ a woman’s thin-skinned sense of guilt extends to the time she has left with her limited parking space and its advice, ‘maximum stay two hours – no return within two hours,’ taken as a dire warning.
  ‘Herod’s Valentines’ involves an insecure single who becomes willingly deferential to another, richer, more egocentric, and more sexually profligate than herself.  Agreeing to help her with her sexual half-life for a large amount of money, the second woman only causes problems for herself.  A night-time fantasy involving Christopher and Peter Hitchens is a comic highlight in a clever but slightly too long tale of passive domination.
  ‘You Are a Gongedip’ appears to concern the pathological envy of a publisher’s employee who stalks the writer she had wanted to be, and the (unjustified) psychological revenge she exacts.  Again, Hannah is less convincing with the male voice.  More than once, I was certain Hannah herself was narrator when in truth her gender floundered, uncertainly, as the male author.
  ‘The Most Enlightened Person I’ve Ever Met’ reads as a wish-fulfilment fantasy of Hannah’s very own, where a woman, disappointed by the ending of her relationship, draws her ex-lover into a confession of his failings and a shock final entrapment.
  The quality of Hannah’s writing is high and consistent, although I found the sitcom-type stories held much less interest than those told as ambiguous mysteries.  In these, she displays the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Edgelander & Other Uncanny Tales, Kindle Direct Publishing

My latest book is now available from Amazon.  A mere taster for bigger and better tales in the future...

I'm always interested in hearing from other writers about their experiences in independent or self-publishing.
The good, the bad, the indifferent.  What, so far, has been yours?  My only goal is to improve my craft at each attempt, until other publishers finally realise what they've been missing.  It is all any of us can do.

What are the downsides of publishing without an agent?  Of getting your work to the public without the formative quality control of an editor?  What are the advantages?

When it comes to layout and technical presentation of a text, to what extent is the human element still necessary in its production?  Should the writer have to be responsible for this at all?  Then there is the question of quality control over democratic access.  Let me know your views.  Mark

Monday, 5 September 2011

Boy In Darkness & Other Stories (Centenary Edition) by Mervyn Peake, Edited by Sebastian Peake, Peter Owen Publishers

One of a dozen reissues this summer to celebrate Peake’s birth centenary has been this modestly slim collection of the half-dozen short stories he’d found time to squeeze out on Sark between the illustrations, paintings, sculpture, plays and poetry.
  Effectively, the title story is a discarded chapter from the second half of ‘Gormenghast,’ set during one of 12-year-old Titus’s initial attempts at escape from the castle and his heredity.
  Lost in an outer forest, the Boy encounters the seemingly demonic Goat and his even more satanic bully of a master, Hyena.  These characters are nightmarish enough, except each are in thrall to a creature even worse; the hollow Lamb and its insatiable hunger for other’s souls.
  Imagine if the ‘Alice’ books had been penned by Clive Barker, drawn by Goya, and you have a fair idea of the tale’s horrific nature.  Always confounding category, this story most clearly highlights Peake’s belief in fantasy as a genre as much for adults as for children.  (In fact, he often felt frustrated by publishers who only perceived it for the young and marketed it as such).  It is a brilliant nightmare, but, ultimately, too graphically so for the trilogy.
  ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ is an autobiographical account of an exotic impulse buy during the Peakes’ time on Sark.  The writing is spare and wry, somehow defying the time in which it was written.
  As is ‘The Connoisseurs,’ which asks of us, what price beauty when a maker’s mark on a piece of art is deemed more important than either its appearance or its positive effect upon the onlooker?
  ‘The Weird Journey’ is a typically Peake-esque flash of madcap wit couched in paradoxical Edwardian SF.  A lot like his nonsense verse.
  ‘Danse Macabre’ exists in the historical Y-fork between the traditional pre-War ghost story and the proto-comedic fantasies of Richard Matheson to come.  A lovely waking dream.
  ‘Same Time, Same Place’ ends the collection and is, perhaps, the most interesting tale behind ‘Boy.’  A young man, desperate to leave the daily monotony of living with his parents, finds release in his growing desire for a woman customer at a Lyon’s Corner House.  He is pleasingly surprised by her own swift, reciprocal willingness, finding her always at her table on his arrival while insistent on remaining as he leaves.  She instantly agrees to marriage after he proposes, and, on the big day, as his approaching bus passes the window of the room in which they are about to register – he receives a frightening revelation.  He decides that, by comparison, his old life wasn’t quite so bad after all.
  This story, wittingly or otherwise, appears to harbour a moral, being a warning against prejudice and the power of immature desire.  As a truly vagabond artist it is difficult to believe Peake sided with the young man, having several outsider-type friends of his own such as Augustus John and the young Quentin Crisp.  At the end, you suddenly feel sorry for the lady he has betrayed and are, surely, meant to.
  This is more a title for fans of Peake, so I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction.  What it offers instead are intriguing glimpses of the creator outside Gormenghast’s dominant realm.