It’s coming together

On the Other Side of the Sky is coming together nicely. Currently going through it with the assistance of a friend, weeding out all the typos, and also minor details of plot and character which don’t seem to hang together very well.

A friend from the USA has suggested a glossary, to provide a little background information on people and topics that may be unfamiliar to some readers, so I’ve been busy with that.

I now have a design for the interior of the book, and several graphical elements, all of which are meant to evoke something of an 18th-century feel to the book, and which I should be able toinclude in the ebook as well. It’s going to be a very pretty piece of work indeed (in my opinion).

The photo is a mockup of the cover (printout of the design, and wrapped around a book of roughly the same thickness (just under 2.5cm, with 380 pages). In fact, I’ve slightly changed the spine from the photo above, so that it stands out a bit better:

The other books are there just to provide a comparison of size and of other designs. The back blurb is basically there – I don’t see it changing very much:

And the print and ebook editions will be available on the same day – December 1, 2021.

Price for the ebook will be £4.99 and Amazon US has it at $6.82 for pre-order. The US Amazon has some more information about the book and its writing than the UK site. The paperback will be available for pre-order soon.

There’s also a very new Facebook page about this book, where I will be writing bits and pieces about the content.

A rich source of new material

I’m coming to the end of The Other Side of the Sky (at least the first draft), and it’s proving to be a voyage of discovery for me. I’m 90,000 words into the story and there are probably another 10,000 to go.

There’s a lot of mysticism in parts of this book – of the 18th century kind. I have been reading a lot of alchemical texts, and have been surprised by what I have discovered. I had, like many of us, I suppose, always considered alchemy to be concerned with turning base metals into gold, and perhaps discovering the Philosopher’s Stone (the picture is by Joseph Wright of Derby, who appears as a character in my book, and is a detail of his painting of an alchemist, sometimes known as The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus or The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone), which would grant eternal life or something to its possessor. Instead, I’ve discovered a mass of rich analogies, many of them confusing, if not outright contradictory, and all of them obscure, referring to a path towards spiritual perfection.

It’s impossible to separate these aims, and much of the imagery, from the Rosicrucians, who likewise expressed their secret doctrines in striking and colourful imagery. and from there, I suppose I could carry forward to the best-known 18th-century secret society, the Freemasons. However, I’ve decided not to go there.

Instead, I’ve chosen to go backwards, to an even earlier source of mystical spiritual growth, Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Now, Kabbalah is far from being a simple subject. It speaks in analogies, and has many forms, but the underlying concepts are those of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, as far as I can make out. So I’m not speaking as an expert but as an outsider looking into a new world.

One view of the Sefirot

The Sefirot

This is a part of Kabbalah which has really attracted my attention, the Sefirot (there are many alternative transliterations), the ten energies (actually, there’s an eleventh “shadow” energy at the intersection of Keter, Binah and Chokhmah).

By moving from the source at Keter to Malkhut, one attains a realisation. It’s also possible to travel upwards, it seems, through to a union with the divine.

The links between these energies are typically associated with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and even with cards of the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack (this is a retroactive association, and was never made by Kabbalists, it appears).

But it also seems possible to link the Sefirot in other ways – paths which are in some way considered diabolical by many.

Here’s another view of the Sefirot which includes the letters associated with the links between the energies, and also includes Da’at, the intersection of Bina and Chockmah.

This diagram is sometimes referred to as the “Tree of Life” and is the subject of a lot of commentary and discussion. Even though there is a fair amount of low-hanging fruit that can be gathered from this tree by the non-adept, it would be possible, I am sure, to spend years studying it, with all the associations that have been made (many of them probably spurious or irrelevant). I’ve just come across a wonderfully paranoid conspiracy theory version which includes the Templars (of course), Akenahten, Freemansons, Jesuits, and puts the USA in the place of Malkhut!

As well as all of this, there is a rich corpus of Jewish legends, many of which have a bearing on this aspect of Kabbalah. One I have just been reading tells of the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet all clamouring to God that they be allowed to be first in the alphabet. The one which ends up being the first (Aleph) is the one which did not shout for a place. Maybe Jesus was aware of this story when he said “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.

Bringing this up to date

There are many more modern interpretations that can be made here. I mentioned that conspiracy theory just now, but there are other ways of viewing these subjects, and it’s also possible to trace the gradation from alchemy to chemistry.

It’s also possible (and it has been done several times) to place a psychoanalytic interpretation on both alchemy and Kabbalah. Carl Jung, in particular, was particularly fascinated by both as windows into archetypes and into the collective unconscious. Whether or not you believe in the more mystical elements of Jungian thought, there is much to consider.

All in all, I’ve gone on an interesting journey with this research. While I cannot accept all the elements of the alchemists of Kabbalists, I have discovered more than just plot elements – and the existence and details of aspects of Jewish mysticism have been a real eye-opener to me.

Now to finish the book…

Food in Tilling and Riseholme

“The Gambits of Conversation Derived from Food”

In the Mapp and Lucia group on Facebook, the members quite often discuss the different foods and drink that make appearances in the stories about Tilling and Riseholme. Without these being “foodie” books, it is interesting to note how many times food gets mentioned very specifically, often to make a plot point, or to highlight some aspect of a character.

Not only do we have the famous Lobster à la Riseholme, the secrets of which are never fully revealed, but we also learn about dear Diva’s sardine tartlets and her pastry-fingers, and Susan Leg’s cream-wafers. And then there are those little chocolate cakes, of so cloying and substantial a nature, Diva’s passion for nougat, and then eggs and chestnut ice, both à la Capri. Captain Puffin sadly drowns in his soup – but not just any soup. “Lungs full of ox-tail”. Even quaint Irene is spotted with a lobster in her marketing-basket.

Of course, there’s always that “wretched supper, consisting largely of tomato-salad” – rather out of character for Lucia to treat her guests so meanly.

And who can forget Elizabeth’s store-cupboard, storing food against the possibility of a coal-strike (remember that a coal-strike would have paralysed the railways at that time, and therefore food distribution would have ground to a halt).

And then we have Elizabeth and Benjy-boy entertaining Rudolph da Vinci to dinner. Described witheringly by Diva as:

Tomato soup, middle-cut of Salmon sent over from Hornbridge [note: is this because Elizabeth no longer buys from Hopkins, or what?], a brace of grouse from Rice’s, Melba peaches, but only bottled with custard instead of cream, and tinned caviar.

I could continue with the foods produced and eaten in Tilling, but let’s stop there.

In Riseholme, not only does the Guru produce some delicious little curries for Daisy and Robert, but we get a good idea of how Lucia entertains from the provisions she orders for her smart London guests when she hosts a house-party.

…several pounds of salmon, dozens (“Literally dozens,” said Mrs Boucher, “for I saw the basket”) of eggs, two chickens, a leg of lamb, as well as countless other provisions unidentified…

Then there is Mrs Weston who feeds Colonel Boucher a dinner consisting of brill (a fish we don’t see much these days] “for they hadn’t got an ounce of turbot”, a partridge, a bit of cold ham and a savoury.

Lucia often eats “macaroni” (but it seems from the description that some other kind of pasta is meant here, probably spaghetti) in tribute to her Italian leanings.

Again, these are only a few of the times in which food makes its appearance in these stories.

Some middle-cut salmon

So..?

Can we draw anything from all of these? I think that the frequent mention of food helps us realise several important points about the inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling:

  • The principal characters are quite clearly well-off by most standards. The presence of game and salmon on the menus, as well as the quantity of courses, indicate this. Of course, all practice economy on the quiet, but in public, a little showiness is called for.
  • Remember, these people didn’t prepare their own food (unless it was Lucia playing at being a cook in the final preparation of her (in)famous lobster dish. Servants did all the hard work of preparation – and washing up afterwards (the picture comes from Downton Abbey, but you can imagine similar scenes in the kitchens of Mallards and Grebe)!
  • They enjoyed their food. Even Robert Quantock, who throws his food about a bit when he doesn’t like it. With very few exceptions, none of them have jobs. Gossip and food are among their principal joys in life. And as many of us trapped in lockdown here in the UK are aware, meals and food take on a new importance at such times (to the detriment of some waistlines!).
  • We should remember that when these books, especially the early ones, Britain had just escaped by the skin of its teeth from starvation caused by the U-boat blockade. Benson was writing escapism, and the escapism includes food, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers provided Lord Peter Wimsey with a fast car and luxurious meals when she was commuting on crowded buses and living off poached eggs on toast.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on food in the Mapp and Lucia books. I’m fascinated to know what others’ favourite foods are in these stories. Please leave comments below.

Open for business…

I’ve been writing Mapp and Lucia pastiches as part of my lockdown busy-ness. Both have been turned into ebooks and paperbacks.

The first, Mapp at Fifty, is available from Amazon, and other purveyors of fine literature, and the second, Mapp’s Return, will be available publicly from July 1.

However, both are available (in ebook and signed paperback formats) NOW, from here. And there is an audiobook version of Mapp at Fifty – and all prices are less than the Amazon prices.

Signed copies now available

I now have a few paperback copies of Mapp at Fifty.  If anyone would like a signed copy, this can be arranged easily. Simply click the button here, and fill in the form, including the “Dedication”. In other words, how do you want me to sign the book?

The price of a signed copy from here is £5.99, as opposed to the recommended price of £7.49. Pay with PayPal or credit card.

But wait, there’s more…

If you would also like a copy of my collection of slightly weird tales, Unknown Quantities (more details on the Amazon page), I have a few copies here. They are going for £3.99 (Amazon £5.99).

Postage is calculated as a Large Letter (non-trackable) and may (depending on where you live) end up being as much as the book(s). Sorry. I have no control over postage rates. With the current Covid-19 pandemic, shipping times will be longer than usual. I would estimate (and this is only an estimate) that UK delivery will be about a week from posting, and European and North American about two weeks. Australia and NZ, perhaps a little longer. So please have patience. I will try to get the package in the mail the same day that I receive an order.

The postage for your order is automatically calculated for the following countries:

  • Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, UK, USA

However, if you live in a country which is not on this list, don’t order just yet. Check on the map here or use this link to check your zone. If you are in World Zone 2, then there is a default “worldwide” setting. Otherwise, please let me know through the contact form before you order, I’ll add your country to the automated pricing system and then let you know.

Screenshot_2020-04-20 Country sending guides Royal Mail

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.

 

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

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

If Only They Didn’t Speak English (Jon Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

Continue reading “If Only They Didn’t Speak English (Jon Sopel) – REVIEW”

Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

Another day, another genre…

I’ve written books in a variety of genres, but one I’ve shied away from, for no good reason, is the horror/weird genre.

However, in the Lichfield Writers, I found that quite a few of my pieces actually were at least moving in the direction of that genre, and could be put together to make a small collection. I was encouraged in this by John Linwood Grant, who has much more experience in this field, and am going ahead with the project.

UnknownbackI’ve picked out ten stories, and the 96-page book will be on sale soon. I’ve produced it as the same pocket size (4″ x 6″ or 101mm x 152mm) as the Untime paperback. It’s cute and it’s rather friendly.

The cover is still a little provisional, but I’m pretty certain that Unknown Quantities will end up looking a little like this.

The price it will go for on Amazon is £5.99 (US $6.99). I should be able to do it for much less (including p&p). If you are interested in a signed copy, please let me know, and I’ll be able to order copies for resale.