Thursday, 30 August 2012

Strange Epiphanies by Peter Bell / Old Albert - An Epilogue by Brian J. Showers, The Swan River Press

There is a very familiar landscape evoked through its variants
in this seven story collection.  Uncanny, rural settings, long
ago delineated by the hand of Blackwood or Buchan (the latter
actually namechecked during one tale, 'M.E.F.'), are found
resurrected here, larded with appropriately modern references.
('Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy' for one - described at the
back as 'substantially revised' since first published in 2007  -
takes a pleasing, if unexpected, dig at the bankers).
  Such settings demand an unreliable narrator; usually a lone
explorer with issues; and perceptions, perhaps, skewed by a
dependancy or obsession.  The whole gamut is so represented
although alcohol encroaches with its less-than-benign influence
through most, and 'An American Writer's Cottage' in particular.
  While the depictions and situations feel very familiar, they
are often approached from an unexpected angle.
The clearest example here is 'A Midsummer Ramble in the
Carpathians.'  You read the last word of this title and assume
you'll know what you'll get.  But Bell's historical knowledge
lends an outsider's credence to the researcher-protaganist and
her ultimate fate.
  This is what avoids the usual shameless poncing-off of other
authors work, so prevalent in current transatlantic fantasy;
the authenticity of the voice.  Clearly, Bell knows his subject
through personal exploration, as much as, say, M.R. James
knew his.  The back flyleaf confirms his Northern Briton bard
status:  'He is a historian, a native of Liverpool, an inhabitant
of York, and likes to wander the hidden places of Scotland...'
  You leave his Afterword - a historical note on one of the
earlier tales - feeling there may be more psychologically
autobiographical than is stated, almost making Bell one of his
own characters.  You also leave recalling what enticed you to
such tales in the first place.

                                            *    *    *

Back in the Pan Review (dated 5th July 2012) I briefly reviewed
John Shire's 'An Antique Land.'  This slender little paperback
was put together to represent an incomplete tale patched
throughout by serendipitous little deviations to contemporary
quotes and illustrations.  This purposefully gave that modest
piece an air of mystery, exoticism and scope it might otherwise
have lacked if penned as complete.
  Such is the case with Brian J. Shower's latest, also just out by
Swan River.  Like Shire's title, it sells itself as the spawn of an
accummulation of arcane research from a secondhand source,
where the lines of fact and apochrophal hearsay are wilfully
blurred in the service of presenting an intriguing tale. 
(What might be deemed a stranger, less mainstream version of
Kate Summerscale's semi-fictional biographies).
  A stuffed skylark, sent by a friend, its curious provenance from
a seemingly cursed house named Larkhill, Rathmines, in the old
sector of Dublin, and its original amateur taxidermical owner,
(the hermetic, bird-like figure of Ellis Grimwood), all trigger the
initial investigation.
  Parallel to this journey is 'Old Albert' "himself," the name
derived from an obscure Dublin nursery rhyme that seems
strangely to evoke a sense of deja-vu in the exploratory life of its
narrator.  What opens as exposition almost too dry, soon flowers
into a beautiful mystery of hidden motive and intimating curse as
Larkhill's unconnected, but oddly like-minded, new owners take
over the property and pay their own price. 
  Realising how this sounds, still we are most definitely not in
Stephen King territory - thank God.  The prose is excellently
concise and the mood appropriately ominous, with no
irrelevant domestic intrusions to disturb the narrative flow.
At under sixty pages its economy is also admirable, being
closer to a long short story than novella. 
  An afterword by Adam Golaski stretches the antique,
ectoplasmic finger of 'Old Albert' to the present day with an
equally intriguing, if less economic, 'anecdote.'
Both these Swan River titles come recommended.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Slippery Souls (First Book in the Sunray Bay Series) by Rachael H. Dixon, Amazon Kindle

Fun isn't a word with much cache. It intimates surface pleasure only;
a kind of flip, take-or-leave banality viewed by someone unsure what
true pleasure really is. In literature, it's almost sacreligious.
Consider even the increasingly outdated term, 'good fun.' What is
good fun as opposed to bad? In fact, when it comes to books, isn't bad
fun much more likely to tease an initial interest than good?
  The only exception to this rule is, perhaps, in the field of music;
specifically, its alleged 'fun' side; those dubious novelty records we
grew up with. A bad novelty record enticed us to destroy the radio
and 'hang the DJ.' (This was particularly the case when the notorious
Radio One playlist demanded the latest was played on the hour
alongside every other current single).
  Whereas a 'good' at least held a certain more tolerable charm that
avoided inspiring negative hate. But these always were rare little
beasts. It's pleasing then that Rachael Dixon's first short novel -
described as the first in a series - represents the high end of what good
fun can achieve.
  Libby Hood and her small dog Rufus awake to another normal day
that fatally shifts gear when they inadvertently step into the path of a
speeding car. On 're-awakening' they find themselves on a tourist-
crowded beach called Sunray Bay in high summer. So far, the surface
fun. They also find themselves being followed by a strange donkey-
ride man who will ultimately lead Libby, and us, into a closer set of
relationships she had spent most of this journey of self-discovery
in understandable denial. For the incredulous girl discovers there are
only two kinds of being in this not so benign Purgatory; and both
are monsters. So, she has to be one of them - doesn't she?
  To her credit, Dixon's likely influences are by no means obvious.
The objectification of Libby's soul transposed into her pet might evoke
Pullman's 'His Dark Materials,' while the sadistic, prison-style
governance and its rebel gangleaders roaming the holiday camp
atmosphere harbour a distant echo of Burgess's 'A Clockwork
Orange.' Except 'Slippery Souls' strives to be kinder, more teenage,
and the backstories of the nastier characters play out to reveal they
are more misunderstood than we might, at first, have given them
  There is a playful naivete in the prose style, to the extent I wished
some of the jokey exchanges between Libby and Rufus (who, in
this realm, can now talk) were a little less obviously worded and
rather more cutting. Today's younger readers could almost certainly
take it.
  Yet I admired Dixon's understanding of the need to accumulate pace
alongside the gradually revealed elements of the plot; never an easy
thing to achieve for a first novel. By pulling this off, I was
increasingly gripped right up to the climax.
  'Slippery Souls' is a fantasy not as deep, profound or multi-layered
as most releases reviewed here. But this is not the audience.
Instead, this is a crowd-pleaser for the kind of setting this ebook
represents. It is a cherry-topped, glazed sundae of a late summer read.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Requiems & Nightmares: Selected Short Fiction Of Guido Gozzano, Translated by Brendan and Anna Connell, Hieroglyphic Press

'A direct, unadorned style to express nostalgic memories' is the neat
English-translated line Britannica Online uses to describe Gozzano's
approach and one I wouldn't challenge.
  Born in Turin in 1883, his delicate constitution from birth ensured a too
short life of thirty-two subsequent years.  Perhaps harbouring a sense of
mortality throughout compelled him - paradoxically - to display a
physical amateur prowess across several sports.  At heart, however, he
was a poet, which the bulk of his writings prove.
  He had the advantages for doing so. Born to bourgeois, upper-middle
class parents, he initially studied law but soon found himself tempted
away by the irresistible, burgeoning love of literature and a course run by
tutor Arturo Graf, described in Brendan Connell's Introduction as 'an
exponent of rather dark, fantastic themes.'
  (Oh, to have had such a master...).
  In his sideline short fiction at least, it is this brought to the fore larding
romantic and psychological tales based around his well-healed Turin circle.
Of the eleven chosen here, my favourite is undoubtedly the last;
'A Dream.'  A totally convincing evocation of the kind of nightmare
that numbs out all external sensation during only the deepest of sleeps.
Gozzano adds to the fear - the reader's as well as the main character's -
by manifesting a pernicious controller of one or another's making.
  The prose style elsewhere  is as beautiful as I'd hoped, if, on occasion, a
mite self-conscious.  What avoids the dreaded purple passage
is Govanno's successful adherence to that 'direct, unadorned style'
  There is stylised gossip between characters and fables reinterpreted
for a - then - modern audience.  Intriguingly, while the subject matter
may be deemed very late 19th Century, his interpretation has the
economy of language, alongside present tenses, clearly engaging with
the early 20th.
  Another of the eleven tales and one of the 'Requiems' - 'Pamela Films' -
features an embittered, nay-saying ageing sister of a successful, film
company-owning younger brother from whose fate she inadvertently
benefits.  If not the very first short story about a film company, it is surely
from an Italian Symbolist. Gozzano's young manhood was bestriding the
cusp of changing times.  It is also a comment upon the unbridgable gap
between generations.
  In 1911, Ambrosio Films released a picture directed by his cousin,
Roberto Omegna, entitled, in English, 'The Life Of Butterflies.'
Connell states; ' seems Gozzano collaborated on it in some manner,
though he received no credit.'   For the company five years later, he is
working on a script on the life of St. Francis of Assisi.  He dies of TB,
leaving it unfinished.
  Had he lived, might he have become a great Symbolist director himself? -
anticipating, and being feted by, the young Dali or Bunel?
  It is another of those classic, unanswerable "what if?" scenarios.