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On Being an Imitator

The Mapp and Lucia novels by E.F.Benson have been a part of my life since college days when I discovered them as rather camp amusing little tales, but without a full understanding of the protagonists, or the inter-war middle-class world in which they lived. Much of the subtlety and wit went over my head, but as I read and re-read them I discovered new depths in the characters and their doings.

In fact, these books became so much a part of my life that I could feel I was coming home to well-loved friends whenever I dipped into them, and they became my specialist subject for the first round of the BBC quiz series Mastermind in the 2019/20 series. Nor was my confidence misplaced. Lucia and Georgie, together with the other inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling, after a ridiculously incorrect first answer, carried me through to the next round.

SmallMapp-at-Fifty-Kindle copyWhat more natural, then, when I came into contact with the Mapp and Lucia group on Facebook, that I should try to expand the canonical reach of these characters? The result was Mapp at Fifty – a novella (20,000 words) which attempts to reproduce and possibly expand, but always within the limits of the originals, Benson’s wonderful characters. I was slightly worried about whether I could manage Benson’s rather idiosyncratic (and definitely dated) style, with its little barbs and sarcasms, but I did find the characters’ speeches easy to manage, and that in turn led me to what I felt was an authentic style to describe their actions.

And my intuition was proved correct. A few relatively minor (and justified) criticisms on matters of detail from other Luciaphils, but overall, it can be counted as a success. I am pretty certain a sequel will follow. Many thanks to all who read, criticised, and suggested.

Benson’s books are not so much plotted novels, as slices of the characters’ lives, in which events occur which are linked, not so much by plot, as by the effect they have on their characters’ lives. To take one example in the Benson originals, Lucia invests successfully in the stock market, and Mapp follows her lead, but fails to read the small print. As a result, Lucia manages to unload her position at a profit, but Mapp is stuck with a set of underperforming shares which don’t even pay dividends typing up her capital. This leads to Mapp having to sell her house (which Lucia has been coveting for some time).

In the same way, even in 20,000 words, I managed to incorporate Mapp’s plans for her party, her desire for a particular gift to be presented by her husband, and a previously unknown character with a spectacular past arriving in Tilling. But there is no “plot” in the traditional sense, though I think the episodes hang together nicely.

Sidenote: At the time of writing (8 April 2020), Amazon seem to have rather messed things up – I wanted the print and ebook editions to be made available for pre-order from 9 April, but deliveries to start on 1 May.

UPDATE (13:30 April 8): Kindle now due on 11 April!! Paperback may well appear days before??

Being an Imitator

My first books were originals – the two alternative history titles featuring Brian Finch-Malloy, and my Tokyo-based thriller At the Sharpe End. So was the book that landed me a publishing contract with Inknbeans Press (RIP), Tales of Old Japanese .

But then I got started on writing Sherlock Holmes stories – I’d previously written semi-pastiches for advertisements in English-language Tokyo-based publications, and I’d always loved the style and phrasing of the prose – somewhat archaic, and sometimes with the power to surprise and even uplift at times.

At first, I was rather offended by the term “pastiche” – but it seems there is little pejorative about the term as used by fans of the original Sherlock Holmes. For whatever it’s worth, Wikipedia writes:

In literature usage, the term denotes a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another’s style; although jocular, it is usually respectful. The word implies a lack of originality or coherence, an imitative jumble, but with the advent of postmodernism pastiche has become positively constructed as deliberate, witty homage or playful imitation. For example, many stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, originally penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, have been written as pastiches since the author’s time.

There can, of course, be bad pastiches – ones which fail to capture the spirit or the character of the originals, but for better or worse, I discovered that I was writing pastiches.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It seems I succeeded – the Sherlockian community approved of my efforts, and some claimed that I had nailed it – “it” being the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Maybe… anyway, it’s a style that I like, and I am very happy to write in. Sometimes I write a few lines which seem to me to be more than mere pastiche. For example, in my current Sherlockian work in progress:

“Watson, I wish your honest opinion,” he said to me when I had likewise ensconced myself beside the fire.

“Always,” I replied.

“Is it your opinion that I should return to France tomorrow?”

I was dumbfounded, and it took me a little time before I replied. “As your friend, I would advise against it. You will place yourself in danger. As a doctor, I would strongly protest against your doing so. Your health would not support such an action. And as an Englishman, I see that you have little choice but to do so, given the peril before the nation. That is, on one condition.”

Holmes raised his eyebrows. “That condition being?”

“That I accompany you.”

The problem with my Holmes stories now (I haven’t published a new one for some time) is not that I am bored with Holmes and Watson, but that I am running out of interesting crimes. My current Sherlockian project is, to my dismay, turning more into a RDJ-type “Sherlock Holmes” – but I am still attempting to maintain the true characters of the protagonists, even if the plot is somewhat non-Canonical.

However, I have been inspired to try other styles in addition to ACD and Benson.

G.K.Chesterton

For example, I wrote a Father Brown pastiche, The Persian Dagger, with plotting assistance from my then editor, the late Jo Lowe. This was tricky – Chesterton’s style is somewhat baroque and full of little paradoxes and word tricks. I tried to get this style, and some of the spirituality that runs through Father Brown, into this little story:

“He is not a Catholic, then?”

She sighed. “He is nothing,” she said. “That is to say, he claims that he cannot prove that God exists, or that He does not. Therefore, he mocks both those with faith, and those who deny faith. Though he is a most efficient and useful addition to the household, and of great assistance in Uncle Archie’s work, I – we – feared that my uncle would give him his notice if he were to continue in this fashion. It upset my uncle considerably.”

“And yet you tell me that you love him?” asked Father Brown kindly.

“I do. I have faith – faith that I can bring him to belief and into the bosom of the Church. I pray every night for him to believe.”

This interesting conversation (interesting, that is, to the young lady at least, since Father Brown had heard that story, or one very similar to it, many times in his role as a priest) was interrupted by the entry of the young man in question.

William Hope Hodgson

And then there’s William Hope Hodgson, creator of many wonderful weird stories and also of Carnacki, the ghost-finder. And if you don’t know Thomas Carnacki, it’s time you did. I managed to put together a pastiche of Carnacki, described by one person as “pitch perfect” and which appears in Unknown Quantities.

Carnacki stories have their own mythos and world-picture, and I reproduced that, I think, fairly faithfully:

“After the initial chalk circle and pentacle, strengthened with garlic, the Electric Pentacle was obviously the first line of my defences to be established, and I welcomed the glow from its wards once I had assembled it. I performed the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual at each vertex, though if matters were as I suspected, and that the beings reportedly described in the lost Heptatrych of Laskaria were involved, the Ritual would have little or no effect. My faith lay in the Pentacle, along with the linen-wrapped bread placed in the ‘Points’ and the water placed in the ‘Vales’, and I determined to spend the night inside that, provided, that is, that there was no clear natural cause for any untoward event.

But Carnacki is also human, and there is more to producing a convincing Carnacki pastiche than simply reproducing these words, just as in another universe, simply repeating a stock list of names and phrases (Cthulhu, The Old Ones, Necronomicon, and The Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred) is not enough to create a true Lovecraftian pastiche (something I have yet to attempt, by the way). So Carnacki tells his listeners:

“I cannot say that I feel any regret over the arrest of Kirkwind, who behaved as no man should and will, if there is any justice, hang. Nor can I shed tears over James Offley. But I failed miserably and wretchedly when it came to the protection of Sir William Offley, and the memory of my failure will remain with me to my death.”

He ceased to speak, and there was silence for a few minutes, broken only by the rattle of coals in the grate, and a faint shuffle as one of us moved in a chair.

At length the silence was broken by Carnacki himself.

“Out you go!” he commanded us, invoking the usual formula.

I attempted to get into Carnacki’s mind – and here I was lucky, because I once knew a man who, had he lived some 100 years earlier, might well have served as a model for Carnacki.

And next…?

I don’t know. The important thing is for me, that I can identify with at least one of the characters in the story to such an extent that the story almost writes itself. But I enjoyed my visit to Tilling and especially my time with Georgie and Irene, and I think that’s where my next pastiche will come from.

 

A new book! (well, not that new, really)

As my regular readers (both of you!) will know, I am working with Steve Emecz of MX publishing, and Steve White to produce audiobook versions of some of my stories.

I’ve taken one of my favourites – The Hand of Glory – and turned it into a radio/audio script, which has now been narrated by Steve White. Before it can go onto Amazon, though, apparently the text must be made available on Amazon as a book or an ebook (I don’t pretend to understand the details, or the reasoning behind them).

So, here is the script of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Hand of Glory as a Kindle title, priced as low as possible.

Mary Devereux tells Sherlock Holmes that her stepfather has obtained the corpses of two executed criminals, and is storing them in an outbuilding of the family seat in Warwickshire. Unknown men visit the house on Friday nights, and depart mysteriously in the family carriage, driven by her stepfather, who also appears to be making significant inroads into the family fortune.
She implores Holmes to investigate, and as he and Watson explore the sleepy market town of Luckworth, they encounter dark and macabre secrets that shock them to their core. Along the way, Holmes loses his left canine tooth in the waiting-room at Charing-cross station, as mentioned in “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

For a very short taster of what is in store in the audiobook, try this:

By the way, you can look up the Hand of Glory on Wikipedia, but it might spoil the story somewhat if you don’t know it already. If you have read the story, and you want to know more, then by all means look it up – it is definitely a macabre and dark subject.

Panic lending

Staffordshire Libraries will be closed from the end of today (Saturday 21 March). They are allowing people to take out a lot of books, with no overdue fines or limits until this whole social distancing thing blows over.

I went along yesterday to take back the books that I had already borrowed, and chose a few more which will see me through the next week also.

A somewhat eclectic selection

Every little helps… special sale – 60% off

Lots of people around the world are now stuck in their houses, feeling trapped and bored. What can they do?

  1. Learn a new language
  2. Learn to play a musical instrument
  3. Take up juggling
  4. Make their way through the contents of their drinks cupboard
  5. Read some new books

Of these, the last may well end up being the most attractiveand productive  option to many. Reading a book takes you out of yourself, and helps you forget the world outside, bleak and depressing though it may be.

With that in mind, I have participated in Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale. All my books (EPUB format) are now offered at 60% off their usual price. Some are now free. This sale lasts from 20 March to 20 April, and the reduced pricing should be echoed throughout Kobo, iBooks, etc. and the other places where Smashwords titles are sold.

Have a look at my page, and pick up some ebooks to while away the time. As well as my books, I recommend Jim McGrath’s police stories set in 1960s Birmingham and the Black Country (warning – contain adult themes, descriptions of violence and strong language).

Click here for more about all these titles.

What about my Kindle?

Good question. Since Amazon have a proprietary lockdown attitude towards their hardware, something needs to be done here.

  • Long-term solution: Let Amazon know that the title you want is on sale cheaper elsewhere – send them the link. It will take some time for the results to show up – like any large river, Amazon tends to be rather sluggish.
  • Short-term solution: Try one of the services and programs that convert EPUB to MOBI, allowing you to sideload onto your Kindle.
  • Longer-term solution: Wait for me to recompile all my Smashwords books as Kindle-compatible (warning: this may not happen, depending on circumstances over which I have little or no control)

But wait, there’s more…

Sherlock-Ferret-and-the-Phantom-Nook… bonus time – the audiobook reading of Sherlock Ferret and the Phantom Photographer is now down to £1.50 from £8. An hour’s worth of entertainment for the younger members of your family.

 

A new story – FREE download

This has been kicking around in my head for some time and to a large extent it wrote itself. I am not sure whether I’ve got it right, or whether it is depressing or uplifting – it might be seen as either.

It’s 500 words – just under – and it’s a story for these times which are currently wrenched out of joint.

In any case, it’s not going up as a page on this site, but if you want a free copy (Word DOCX format), click here. I would simply ask you to leave your thoughts and reactions as a comment here if the piece makes any impression on you.

I’ve entitled it “The Other Side of the Mirror” – which was the title of a song I once wrote and recorded with a couple of friends. It seems that the world(s) on the other side of the mirror, as in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Through the Looking-Glass, and a story by Borges, has a continued fascination for me. The cobbled-together Photoshop illustration comes close to my mental image of the story.

Bonus point (no Googling!): Where does the last sentence come from?

“Dimensions Unknown 2020: Warriors of Olympia” – John Paul Catton – Interview

John Paul Catton is a recognised force to be reckoned with in the field of Japan-based urban fantasy. I first came into contact with him some years back as a fellow-member of SWET, the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators in Japan, and I helped produce an early edition of his alternative history, Moonlight, Murder & Machinery.

Since then, he and his imprint, Excalibur Books, have gone from strength to strength, with the next major planned release being a collection of Olympics-themed stories by a number of authors. The series was originally entitled Tales from the Unknown (as in the earlier version of a cover from the series here), but has been retitled as Dimensions Unknown.

The idea of an Olympics-themed anthology, to be published in a year when Tokyo is preparing to host the world’s athletes (though at the time of writing, this remains in some doubt) is an intriguing one, so I decided to ask a few questions about it:

Q: What’s the working title for your new Olympics anthology? How many stories and how many authors do you expect it will end up being?

A: The official title is Dimensions Unknown 2020: Warriors of Olympia. This is Volume 3 of the Dimensions Unknown series, and it will have twenty stories from eighteen talented authors, both veteran and new.

Q: How Japan-centric do you expect the collection to be?

A: About half and half. There are some stories focusing on Japan the host country, and its society and culture. Settings include both the samurai and swordplay of the Edo period, and the bizarre technology of the nation’s near future. The other stories are Alternative History stories set in previous Olympic years, such as Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984, Sydney 2000, and of course the first Tokyo Games in 1964.

Q: Do you expect the stories to have any links with each other than Olympics (characters in common, or from your other books)?

A: This is a kind of Excalibur Books Crossover event, so there will be links to other stories and characters in the “Dimensions Unknown” series and the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy. Simon Grey from Charles Kowalski’s novel “Simon Grey and the March of a Hundred Ghosts” and Hina Takamachi from Cody L Martin’s “Zero Sum Game” will be reappearing. I must stress, however, that this is designed as a stand-alone volume of short stories and novelettes that can be enjoyed without having read any other releases from Excalibur Books.

Q: Since Japan has been in Olympic hysteria mode for about six years now, there’s no need to ask about the inspiration for an Olympic anthology. But what about some “alternative Olympics”? Will there be a Yōkai Olympics, for example?

A: Not an Olympics exclusively for Yōkai, but Japan’s supernatural critters do make an appearance in Reiko Furukawa Bergman’s story. The “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy features a huge number of Yōkai as both protagonists and antagonists.

Q: Japan’s had bad luck with Olympics – the 1940 games which never were, and now there are serious doubts about the 2020 games. Almost a story in itself?

A: I wouldn’t say Japan has had bad luck, because the Tokyo 1964 Olympics was a tremendous success. It announced Japan’s return to the world as a modern, high-tech nation with an invigorated pop culture. In a wider sense, it encapsulated the “Golden Age of Modernist Science Fact and Fiction” optimism that, a few years later, was to transform into a Post-Modern pessimistic dread of approaching Apocalypse. That’s not a reflection on the Tokyo Games; it was a result of the inevitable gravitational pull of global technology and culture.

Q: And how do people submit their stories? Or are they all picked already? If any have been picked, would you like to say something about them, and a teaser about their story?

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A: We promoted the anthology guidelines for two years on social media, and the deadline closed at the end of 2019. The content is now finalized, and includes Alternative History versions of the previous Olympics mentioned. For example, there’s a Steampunk story where the modern Olympics started not in Athens 1896, but London 1860; there’s a Low-Gravity Olympics set on the Moon, in 1966; and we have a story set in 1964 Japan, which is a blend of two of the nation’s greatest film franchises – a kind of “Tora-san meets Godzilla”. Last and not least, there’s a non-fiction account of the original 1964 games, in an excerpt of J-Boys, by Shogo Oketani.

Excalibur Books has set up a Patreon to attract interest and to help pay for formatting and book cover costs. There are stories, both excerpts and full, going up on the Patreon on a weekly basis along with all kinds of bonus content, so if anyone likes the sound of this anthology then I ask them to join us on the Patreon. Let’s be positive! Whatever happens to the real-time Olympic games, we promise that this collection will be an awesome souvenir of 2020! Who wants to be part of it?

 

The Aeronauts – REVIEW

This is a novelty for me – I tend not to watch many films, let alone review them, but this popped up on my radar, and I decided to watch it. I spend a lot of time in the 19th century with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and I’m fascinated by lighter-than-air flight (once went up in the Goodyear airship, and wrote a book about a fictional Zeppelin), so a story about both sounded interesting.

And so it proved to be. The special effects were very well done – there were some genuinely suspenseful moments, and some moments of sheer beauty and wonder. I know a little about these things, though, so there was something that I considered to be an inaccuracy – that the balloon didn’t inflate as it climbed and the external pressure decreased. The film said the balloon was constructed of a non-elastic material – silk – so perhaps that had something to do with it, but it didn’t seem right to me that it maintained the same shape as it climbed upwards.

project-loon-israel-internet
These high altitude balloons expand at high altitude with lower ambient air pressure.

As other reviews have stated, the scenes in the balloon kept getting interrupted by flashbacks – would a linear storyline have worked better? Quite possibly, actually.

Was the acting good? Yes, it was. I don’t follow actors, but these (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) worked well together. But the casting! Yes, I appreciate diversity in casting, but… Were there ever any Indian members of the Royal Society in the mid-19th century? I think not. Black faces in the crowd, OK? Eminent Indian scientist (and yes, I know of Ramanujam), not.

But the script!!! Ouch. As I mentioned earlier, I spend a lot of time in the 19th century – I am somewhat familiar with the way in which people, especially the middle classes, behaved towards each other. Even in moments of extreme peril, would the two characters have addressed each other by their Christian names? What would be a Victorian man’s reaction be to being asked to unlace a lady’s corset? And there was a lot of (forced unintentional) physical intimacy, which would have caused considerable embarrassment on both sides, even to someone as unconventional as Ms Jones’s character.

Basically, the lack of realistic characterisation spoiled the film for me. While I enjoyed the premise and the cinematography, the dialogue and characterisation spoiled it for me. Maybe I’m just fussy, but this worked for me on the same level as the RDJ films which use the name of “Sherlock Holmes” – an entertaining romp set in a fictional past, while pretending to be historical.

Four stars (out of five) for entertainment, one for period feel.

Audiobook available now!

My story of the Holloway Ghosts – a Sherlock Holmes adventure, brought to life by Steevin White​ – who voices all the parts. I originally wrote this as a story, but adapted it as a radio play with no narration – simply voices and sound effects. Steve and I had great fun casting the characters – and I hope you will enjoy the results. I’m delighted!

There was a lot of fun creating this from the original story, stripping out descriptive passages, and replacing them with dialogue and/or sound effects. We had to make sure that the characters had sufficiently different ways of expressing themselves for them not to be confused in listeners’ minds, and I think on the whole, we ended up doing a good job.

I have to confess that I don’t know Bookmate, but there are far more five-star than one-star reviews of the app and the service on the App Store, despite the fact that the three featured reviews seem to be one-star. Sounds worth a go, anyway.

AppStore GooglePlus

 

Fracture – REVIEW


Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938
by Philipp Blom

A slightly sideways look at history between 1918 and 1939 – taking in some of the principal social and political events of that time. Blom seems to be one of those historians who sees this period as a time of relative calm in the Second European Thirty Years’ War (1914-1945), given the conflicts in most Continental European countries.

I learned a lot, for example, about the political violence in Austria post-1918, and about this history of Italy, particularly the influence of d’Annunzio’s style and tactics had on Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. The social structure of Prohibition, and the pernicious racism in the USA which ironically coexisted with the rise of African-American culture in the form of jazz also play a part in the story, as does the decadence of the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles.

However, the conclusion may seem particularly shocking to many, especially those right-wing libertarians who worship the god of Mammon. Blom pours scorn on what he sees as the myth of the neoliberal free market, which he blames for many of today’s ills and insecurity, and which he dismisses, saying “the gospel of the free market is just as ideological as fascism or communism. The belief in the seemingly unideological power of the market has helped only a small minority, creating for the rest a world in which hundreds of millions of people live less well and more precariously than their parents.”

He builds a convincing case for this view in the previous chapters, and to me, there is much to be said for it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the book is worth reading, whether or not it agrees with your views, if only for the stories it tells.

View all my reviews

The woman who fooled the world – REVIEW

The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness IndustryThe Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry by Beau Donelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very frightening expose of how easy it is to fool many people by telling them what they want to believe. This book deals with the “wellness” business, but the same principles can be applied to financial and political scammers as well.

“Woo” and political “woo” (Brexit, Trumpism, etc.) have many things in common – an audience who are desperate for some good news, believing the existing system has failed them, and welcome any kind of relief from what is troubling them, however ludicrous and outrageous the claims and methods may seem to be.
View all my reviews

Lend me your ears…

There’s a very interesting development coming up soon. One of my Sherlock Holmes stories for the MX Collections, “The Holloway Ghosts” was written not in my usual first-person Watson narrative style, but as an audio play.

Steve Emecz, the publisher behind MX, had been quietly asking for some time for me to make my works available as audiobooks, a field in which MX Publishing has quietly been making significant progress.

Accordingly, the Holloway Ghosts made their way over to MX, where they have been recorded and produced by another Steve (White), and Steve W and I worked out some of the production issues (including some of my stupid errors in the script) by email until we were both happy with it.

Audio is more than just the words

As we processed the script, I discovered that there is much more to making a successful audio drama than merely the right words. It helps to have a little atmosphere in there – a ticking clock and a crackling fire summon up the atmosphere of the rooms in 221B Baker Street. The clip-clop of horses’ hoofs brings us outside into a Victorian street, and a little reverberation added to the effects and dialogue places us with Holmes and Watson in a deserted empty room.

And then there’s the voice in which the accents are spoken. Steve, without going into a ludicrous falsetto, can portray the female characters in my story. However, I had envisaged one of my characters as being much more strident, and probably not a Londoner, than Steve made her. So we changed her to be a Midlander with an attitude, and I think we’re much happier with her now.

Steve surprised me with his Lestrade, who seemed to be from Norfolk. However, once I had got over the surprise, it worked, and made a great foil to the stolid Cockney PCs who play a role in the story.

And we also had fun with Otto Sussbinder – a German character who is not all that he appears.

And next…

This is one of the problems I encountered with regard to a voice play – transitions. I could have taken the easy way out, and had Watson do a voice-over.

We left Baker Street and made our way to Holloway by cab. During the journey, Holmes informed Lestrade of his conclusions regarding the recent theft from Westmereland House.

But I felt that was cheating. Accordingly, I wrote these scenes either as dialogue, or as a spoken cue by one of the characters:

Come, let us take a cab to Holloway, and we may usefully pass the time by my informing you, Lestrade, of the conclusions I have reached regarding the Westmereland rubies.

I also found, in scenes where more than one character is present, that I needed to throw in names in order to indicate who is being addressed:

Lestrade, if you would be good enough to call one of your constables, and Watson, follow me to the rear of the house.

All very technical, but necessary to the ultimate success of the production.

So… Keep a lookout for the Holloway Ghosts – appearing soon in a little over 30 minutes of glorious  audio. And at least two more of my longer stories are on the stocks, being adapted in the same way – no descriptions – simply dialogue. It’s an exciting venture.

I’ll be writing more later, when these hit the “shelves”.