What have I been reading?

Like many people, I suppose, I have a pile of books by my bedside, one or two of which I am currently reading, some of which I have read, some I have part-read, and some I have the intention of reading some day.

This morning, I decided that I would take a look at the pile and make a list (in no particular order) of these books. Here we go (title capitalisation as on the spine where it is mixed or lower case):

From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow (Vol 1) Arthur Marder
Redback Howard Jacobson
Blood on the Tracks Various (anthology)
Towards the End of the Morning Michael Frayn
Jonah and Co. Dornford Yates
The Smartest Guys in the Room Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind
Thomas Cromwell Tracy Borman
In cold blood Truman Capote
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke
what if? Randall Munroe
Cover Her Face P.D.James
The Rainmaker John Grisham
The Decameron (Vol I, Folio Society edition) Boccaccio
Henry VIII : King and Court Alison Weir
The Philosopher’s Pupil Iris Murdoch
Brit Wit Various
Picture Palace Paul Theroux
Clinging to the Wreckage John Mortimer
Eats, Shoots & Leaves Lynne Truss
Strong Poison Dorothy L. Sayers
Play All (library loan) Clive James
Augustus Allan Massie
The Dunwich Horror and other stories H.P.Lovecraft
Little, Big John Crowley (this was a present – unreadable for me)
Oswald Mosley Robert Skidelsky
The Tailor of Panama John le Carré

And what have I been reading recently on my Kobo (my current read-in-progress)? American Caesar by William Manchester (a biography of Douglas MacArthur).

So make of all these what you will.

Why don’t I watch films (or TV series)?

It’s true, I don’t really watch films very often. Name a film that “everybody” has seen, and the odds will be that I haven’t seen it, and I have no wish to see it. Same with TV series – I have never seen any episodes of many series that “everyone” has seen – Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, etc.

I was asked why this was, when I read books (and write them as well!). I didn’t have an obvious answer at the time, but I think I have some answers now.

On-screen dialogue is often weaker than written

This often refers to the “film of the book”. A book can use more dialogue with a more complex structure than a film. Written dialogue in a novel is often more complex and less true to the way in which people actually talk than film or TV dialogue. This (a) provides a much deeper understanding of the character, and (b) the reader is able to revisit the conversation later on in the story to determine exactly what was meant by a character’s words.

I can put a book down and come back to it

I can’t do the same with films. Once a film has started, I become emotionally invested in it, and stopping or pausing breaks the flow. There aren’t many occasions when I have a couple of uninterrupted hours to lose myself in a film – but occasionally my wife and I will agree on something that we both want to watch all the way through. Not many of them, though.

I lose interest in films or series

With a few exceptions, series don’t hold my attention past four or five episodes. This may just be me, of course. Recently there have been a few exceptions – mostly catch-up on series I missed while I was out of the UK (I’ve subscribed to Britbox to pick up some references, though): the first series of Line of Duty; all of The Thick of It that I could find; and a lot of the first three series of Hustle. I loved the characters and the plotting of Hustle, Line of Duty because of great acting and plotting (though I’ve felt no wish to see any further series), and The Thick of It because I sort of identify with Malcolm Tucker, and I love this sort of politics. The US House of Cards and Veep didn’t do it for me, though and Borgen lost me after about two series.

There are a few others that I saw all the way through, but they tended to be based on real life situations: Inventing Anna, and Queen’s Gambit come to mind. Some time I will get round to the UK House of Cards, but I don’t really feel an urgent need to do so. And this brings me to another reason why I don’t watch films.

Films now are crap

I have zero or less than zero interest in Marvel or DC franchise films. I’ve seen two on plane journeys. That’s two too many (and one was Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange). This seems to be half of the recent Hollywood releases. The other half are remakes of older films or “movies of the book” (see below). There are exceptions to this, of course, but they’re not subjects that appeal to me from their description, though I might actually enjoy them if I was dragged in to watch them.

I can watch a series of documentaries on the SAS, but the recent fictionalisation on BBC is basically military porn. Forget it, and the majority of formulaic crime series. And I really can’t be bothered to get into 30 years of missed backstory of Doctor Who, excellent though it may be.

The BBC SHERLOCK? Loved the first series, liked the second a lot, thought the third was crap and never bothered with the fourth.

The film of the book

“If you can sit and read a book, how is that different from watching a film of the book?” There’s no comparison. Part of the joy of reading a book for me is imagining the scenes and the characters. Even if they are minutely described in the book, they never match the film versions exactly. Description is part of a book’s appeal. There is no description in a film – the scene is handed to you on a plate, and there’s no room for imagination. Dialogue (see above) is often dumbed down, and the witty lines made in passing are highlighted so that you won’t miss them.

Two exceptions to screen versions of books: The McEwan/Scales/Hawthorne Mapp and Lucia. It’s not accurate in plotting, but the characterisation is lovely, and; the Granada/Brett Sherlock Holmes, which again fools with the plots, but the characterisation is wonderful. So perhaps it’s the lack of characterisation or the lack of fidelity to the written characters on screen versions that turns me off.

Interesting exception – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – the TV series took a few liberties with the plot (how could it not?) but at the same time, actually expanded the character of Mr Norrell, and made Jonathan Strange a more rounded figure in many ways. However, the Gentleman failed to impress, and of course, the whole business of the Raven King and the massive footnotes that make the book such a joy for me were necessarily lost. Also Good Omens (see my review here).

So… I’m not stretched enough by screen adaptations, with very few exceptions. Reading a book for me is an active experience – films and TV are passive. Is this Marshall McLuhan’s “hot” and “cool” media? I think so.

Summing up

A lot of (most?) people will disagree with me on most or even all of what I am saying. However, when I say I haven’t seen such-and-such a film or TV show, there are reasons that I believe to be valid why I haven’t done so. It’s not a value judgement on the production, or even on the medium, but a personal choice.

Comments welcome.

Where does your detective work?

photo of vintage furnitures

I’ve been recently encouraged to write a story featuring G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Though both are British detectives, and can be seen as occupying almost the same space and time (England, especially London, in the early 20th century), there is a marked difference in their surroundings.

Sherlock Holmes’s London is one of mean streets, when it is not one of high society. We can imagine ourselves alongside Holmes as he treads through the dark stinking alleys of the East End, or examines the fibres of a bell-pull in a drawing-room.

G.K.Chesterton’s London (and indeed his England) has more of a fantastical quality to it. These are to passages which have stuck in my memory since I first read them. First, London.

The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate.

The Invisible Man

And here we are in the Norfolk Broads of Father Brown:

They pushed slowly up the brightening river; the glowing violet of the sky and the pale gold of the moon grew fainter and fainter, and faded into that vast colourless cosmos that precedes the colours of the dawn. When the first faint stripes of red and gold and grey split the horizon from end to end they were broken by the black bulk of a town or village which sat on the river just ahead of them. It was already an easy twilight, in which all things were visible, when they came under the hanging roofs and bridges of this riverside hamlet. The houses, with their long, low, stooping roofs, seemed to come down to drink at the river, like huge grey and red cattle. The broadening and whitening dawn had already turned to working daylight before they saw any living creature on the wharves and bridges of that silent town.

The Sins of Prince Saradine

I have chosen to attempt to place my story immediately following the Great War. We may assume that Holmes, though considerably older than the man who wrestled with Professor Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls, is still active as a detective, and that his faithful Watson, greying, if not grey, is still with him. The London I have chosen is closer to G.K.Chesterton’s, because I am writing my story in a Chestertonian style. Even though Father Brown is indeed a parish priest, close to his East London flock and their very human privations, his surroundings are never coloured in with the gritty realism that permeates Holmes’s London.

I like this period of the early 1920s, because I feel it is a time of great change, socially, and indeed morally. The chaos that resulted from the double whammy of the Great War and the flu pandemic is a very fruitful ground for a psychological drama. Here’s how I have begun the story:

It was in that period immediately following the Great War that the events related here took place – that time of moral doubt and uncertainty that followed the great bloodletting of the nations, itself succeeded by a virulent plague that rivalled those experienced by Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Men’s souls and consciences were sorely tried, and ancient beliefs and practices that had remained dormant stirred once again, and rose to the surface to challenge the beliefs that had been held for so long.

from my forthcoming Father Brown Confronts the Devil

Alchemy and Rosicrucians

Here’s another for my reading list – Cabala, Spiegel Der Kunst Und Natur, In Alchymia (that is, if I can find a copy anywhere and then make my way through old German). It incorporates some of my favourite subjects: mirrors, Kabbala, alchemy, and general Rosicrucian mysticism.

Note that the links here are to both nature, as you would expect from a science, but also to art. Alchemy was much more than simply attempting to turn metals into gold, or even seeking the philosopher’s stone. It’s a way of reconciling the heavens and the earth (all the astrological and alchemical equivalences).

But much more than this, there is a link with spirituality. The quest is a spiritual perfection, or gold, to be created through the transformation of vulgar matter – the human condition, or lead. To see this (astrology) as merely “what are the stars telling us?” or (alchemy) as a get-rich scheme (though there were certainly frauds and hucksters who played on this) is to miss the point.

Links between the two proto-sciences

I call these (alchemy and astrology) “proto-sciences” because in many ways they operated in the same way as modern scientific methods. There was meticulous measurement, an insistence on replication, and a theoretical underpinning (mistaken, but complex) guiding the processes.

The links can be clearly seen in the diagram here. We have the different alchemical processes linked not only to the signs of the zodiac, but also to the “planets“ and the “elements”. As you can see from the chart below, though, there is not always a consistency in the symbols used (the same discrepancies sometimes exist in modern science).

However, note the importance of the four Paracelsian “elements” in both charts: fire, water, earth, and air, which of course are represented by the Elementals: Salamanders, Undines, Gnomes, and Sylphs. All of these, of course, come into On the Other Side of the Sky as key plot ingredients as well as adding to the general ambience of the story..

Of course, both of these disciplines, alchemy and astrology, were starting from mistaken premises regarding the fundamental nature of things, but the idea of influence at a distance, which formed part of the astrological foundation, and also found expression in the idea of the Powder of Sympathy, and “weapon salve” was in some way responsible for Newton (a passionate alchemist) developing his appreciation of gravity and the laws governing it.

Mirrors – always a subject of fascination to me. Susanna Clarke uses mirrors most effectively in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as gateways to Faerie. I also use a bowl of water, acting as a magical “mirror” orscrying glass – and I am constantly fascinated by what lies on the other side of mirrors (as was Lewis Carroll, of course).

It’s clear that this worldview (the synthesis of astrology and alchemy) is holistic – taking into account the physical and the spiritual aspects of this world, and also the heavens. It’s not a “simple” or primitive model of the universe, even if it doesn’t correspond to what we now know, but it all comes together to create a system which is far from being nonsense, and it continues to hold my interest as a psychological view of the world (an interest also shared by Jung, of course).

Parents

a pastor standing beside a coffin conducting a funeral service

Our writing group (Lichfield Writers) gave us a prompt as follows:

The happy couple living next door have died in a horrific accident. When their parents show up for the funeral, you find out why the couple always changed the subject when you asked them about their families.

“Who was that?” Marianne asked Peter as he slumped into a chair and carefully put the phone on the kitchen table in front of him.

“The police. It’s about next door. Colin and Caroline.”

“Oh dear. Has their house been broken into? I didn’t hear anything. You went in yesterday to feed the cat and pick up their post while they’re on holiday. There wasn’t anything the matter then, was there?”

He sighed. “Sit down. It’s rather shocking, really. I mean, these things happen, but not to people you know. They’re both dead.”

Marianne turned pale. “Oh, the poor dears. What happened?”

“Accident on the M5. The one which was on the news last night.”

“Oh my God. Dead?”

He nodded. “For what it’s worth, the police say that death must have been instantaneous. They wouldn’t have suffered.” He thought about what an instantaneous death in a car crash would mean, and all he could think of was gory impalings or decapitations, or… He swallowed, fighting his nausea.

“I suppose I shouldn’t say it, or maybe I should, but it’s a mercy there are no children, isn’t it?” She made a face. “Oh, the poor dears,” she repeated. “Poor things. So young and so alive, and so devoted to each other.” She pulled out a handkerchief and started to cry. “Why did the police call you, anyway?”

“They had our name and phone number written on a card I gave them in case they ever needed to call us. The police wanted to know if we were next of kin.”

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Well, we’re not, are we? Who are, I wonder?”

Peter scratched his head. “I suppose his parents, or hers. The police asked me, and I said I didn’t know. I suppose they have their ways of finding out.”

“They never talk about their family or their parents, do they?”

“No, they never do– did, did they? Always seemed to want to talk about something else if the subject ever came up. Never went away at Christmas to see them. Or had them to visit.” It was going to be strange, thinking of them in the past tense. As Marianne had said, they had seemed so alive. They’d been good neighbours, helping out when Marianne had had to go into hospital, always ready with an invitation to share their barbecues, or New Year’s parties, and excellent company whenever they came round for a meal or just for a cup of coffee and a friendly chat. In a way, Peter and Marianne felt they’d become their neighbours’ parents. He’d worked it out once; Colin and Caroline were literally young enough to be his children. Or was it that he was old enough to be their father? Anyway…

“Perhaps they don’t have parents,” Marianne suggested.

“That’s silly, everyone has parents.”

“Not if their parents have died,” she pointed out. “Or maybe they were fostered, and they never knew their parents.”

“I suppose so.”

He poured himself a cup of coffee, added milk and sugar, and sipped. “I suppose we’re going to the funeral?”

“How will we know? Who’s going to tell us?”

“Maybe it will be in the local paper.”


A few days later, there was a short paragraph in the weekly Chronicle describing the crash, with the last paragraph informing the reader that there would be a committal and cremation at the municipal crematorium on the following Friday.

Peter dug out his black suit, which he hadn’t worn since… He couldn’t remember. “Have I even got a white shirt that still fits me?” he called downstairs from the bedroom.

“Are you going to wear black and white?” Marianne called back. “That’s so old-fashioned. People wear all sorts of colours to funerals now. They put what they expect you to wear in the notice.”

“Well, maybe I am old-fashioned, then. And there’s nothing in the paper asking me to wear a psychedelic tie-dye T-shirt.”


The crematorium chapel was empty when Peter and Marianne arrived about ten minutes before the funeral was due to start. The two coffins were sitting at the front. There were no flowers. The chapel was cold, and the winter sunlight barely pierced the gloom. Almost as soon as they took their places near the back, a dozen or so people entered the chapel – mainly in couples – with nameless faces Peter and Marianne recognised from Colin and Caroline’s barbecues. Peter seemed to be the only one wearing a black tie. The front rows remained unoccupied.

“We’re the oldest ones here,” Peter nudged Marianne and whispered. “By a generation.”

“No parents?” Marianne whispered back.

“No relations at all, by the look of it.”

As he spoke, two men about Peter’s age entered, hand in hand, and made their way to the front row where they sat, almost ostentatious in their black suits.

“Who are they?” Marianne whispered. “What are they doing? Are they hers or his or what?”
Peter shrugged as the minister entered.

The service, if you could call it that, was a flat affair, devoid of all emotion, sentiment, or religious feeling.

“And that’s that,” Peter said as the second coffin slid out of sight and the curtains closed. “No pale ale and pork pies afterwards. Not that anyone’s said anything about, anyway.”

The two men who had been sitting at the front left their seats first, walking up the aisle between the rows of mourners, hands linked. Both held handkerchiefs with their free hands with which they dabbed at their tear-streaked faces.

Peter looked around, but it seemed that no one seemed to recognise the pair, or be recognised by them. The chapel emptied, with Peter and Marianne being the last to leave.

The two older men were still standing outside, alone, weeping openly. One of them looked Peter in the eye in a way that it was impossible to ignore, and held out a hand.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I take it you are Peter and Marianne?”

Peter, surprised, shook the offered hand. “Yes, we are.”

“So glad to have met you at last. Colin and Caroline told Paul and me about you when we spoke on the phone with them. How good you were to them when they first moved into the house, and how you continued to make them feel welcome.”

The other man, presumably Paul, offered his hand in turn, and Peter and Marianne offered suitable vague words of sympathy.

“Excuse me asking,” Peter said, unable to contain his curiosity much longer, “but who…?”

“Who are we?” the other answered. “I’m Neil and this is Paul.” There was a silent pause of a few seconds. “Colin and Caroline never mentioned us to you?”

Peter shook his head.

“Oh, I see, I know that they did feel a bit embarrassed about us. You see, we are Colin’s and Caroline’s fathers.”

“You are Colin’s father?”

“Not really. I’m his stepfather.”

“And Paul is his father? I don’t think I really get what’s going on here.”

“Of course.” He smiled. “Let me help you understand. I was married, and my wife and I had a baby girl, Caroline. Sadly, my wife died as a result of complications in her second pregnancy a few years later. The baby also did not survive. So I was left with Caroline.”

“As for me,” broke in Paul, “my wife ran off with another man a year or so after she’d presented me with Colin. Left me with a baby boy to look after.” He shrugged. “I got a divorce, of course.”

“And we met each other,” Neil taking up the story, “at a group for single dads. There are quite a few of us. You might be surprised. Anyway, Paul and I hit it off together, and we both discovered that we, not to put too fine a point on it, fancied each other. Hadn’t really crossed my mind before then that I might go in that direction, but there you go. Love’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”

“Same with me,” said Paul. “I just knew somehow that Neil was the person I wanted to share the rest of my life with. So we moved in together, and just like we had, my Colin and his Caroline got on really well with each other. All the way through primary school, secondary school, and then college. Never really had eyes for anyone else, did they, Neil?”

Neil shook his head sadly. “Match made in heaven, it was.”

“And they got married?” Peter asked. “Is that legal?”

“Why shouldn’t it be?” Paul answered. “Neil and I are married now. We weren’t when the two Cs – that’s what we called them – got married. But why shouldn’t they get married? They knew each other much better than most couples do when they tie the knot, and they were very happy about the idea.

“And so were we.”

“But they never mentioned you,” Marianne said. “You never visited them. And as far as we know, they never visited you.”

“Oh, they loved their fathers all right. But it was a case of what would the neighbours say – no offence to you as neighbours. It seems that you understand us. Colin was working with some quite sensitive stuff at the Home Office, and despite all the recent changes that have taken place in society, their rather unusual setup might have raised a few eyebrows in Whitehall. And Caroline, of course, was an infant teacher. Again, if it had come out that her husband was her stepbrother, and that her parents were two men…”

“I see,” said Peter. He looked at Marianne. “You will come back with us and have at least a cup of tea, won’t you? Spend the night at our house if it’s too far to get back tonight?”

“Actually,” said Paul, looking at Neil, “we were planning to spend the night next door to you, in Colin and Caroline’s house. We might even move in there some time in the near future, since we inherit the place as next of kin. This town is a much nicer place to live than Lambeth, believe me. We’re both retired, and it seems like a good opportunity to make a break in our lives. But we accept your invitation to a cup of tea with pleasure.”

“Make that supper,” said Peter. “And we look forward to having you as our neighbours in the near future.”

Should I have written this book?

After reading accounts of what the subprime crisis had meant to ordinary people, I was tempted, or perhaps even inspired to write a story about it.

I imagined someone who’d been abroad on military service, with little knowledge of what was actually happening in his home country (the USA), coming home and discovering what had happened to his family and friends, and taking revenge. Since the subprime crisis largely affected people of colour, I decided that the protagonist should be African-American and the family should come from suburban Ohio. [note: although the book is written using US spellings such as ‘color‘, this article uses UK spellings; ‘colour‘.]

For an opposite number, out to stop the revenge killings, I chose a financial journalist working in New York City. And they would be female and gay.

Now, I had saddled myself with a lot of what is often terms “cultural appropriation” there:

  • I am not American – I have never even lived in America for more than a couple of weeks at a time
  • I am not a person of colour
  • I have never served in the USMC, or any branch of any military, other than as an RAF cadet at school
  • I’ve never been to Ohio
  • I’ve only been in NYC for an afternoon
  • I am not female
  • I am not gay
  • And though I do have experience of working with large news organisations, I’ve never been employed by one

But even so, I wanted to write this book. I do have friends, both in the USA and also from the USA living in Japan, whose brains I could pick, and use to check dialogue and general flavour (and American spellings). One of those who provided the most assistance was Bev Thomas, a Facebook friend, who also wrote a short guide to assist those who are in danger of losing their homes, which I included in the book as an appendix.

STOP PRESS!

I’ve just dropped the price of the ebook to $0.99 or local equivalent worldwide. Get it from Amazon, or other booksellers.

Balance of Powers features an African-American Afghan vet, Major Henry Powers, USMC, who comes home to find his sister’s house repossessed by the bank which sold her the mortgage, and his sister and her children out on the streets – somewhere. While searching for them, he meets Jeanine and her children, who have likewise been made homeless. What he finds sends him into a killing rage, and bodies pile up in his wake as he discovers the corruption and sleaze that surrounds the whole business, from mortgage salesmen up to traders in international financial houses.

Meanwhile in New York, Kendra Hampton, financial journalist, finds out more about the Wall Street murders that have spooked the trading floors. She finds herself on a collision course with Powers, which ends dramatically in New York City.

Now all of this is quite a feat of imagination, when you’re writing from Japan. I was somewhat nervous when I first put it out with an American publisher, but judging from the reviews, no one seems to have noticed my British accent.

The book also includes some relatively explicit sex scenes and sexual references, a lot of four-letter words, and quite a lot of violence – way out of my usual comfort zone. Against which, I think I produced at least three well-rounded characters:

  • Major Henry Gillette Powers: ex-USMC Afghan vet. An intelligent compassionate man moved to acts of extreme violence by what he sees around him.
  • Jeanine (other name unknown): mother of three children, now single, and made homeless through the repossession of her house.
  • Kendra Hampton: financial journalist living and working in NYC. Partner with Liz.

And some dialogue that I enjoyed writing:

“Hey! Where are you going? Downtown’s the other way.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking.”
“Uh-oh. Every time a man says that, it means he’s thinking of dumping you.”
“Not exactly, but…”
“And that’s another one that means the same thing. Been nice knowing you, Henry. Stop the car now, so’s I can get out? Pop the trunk, let me get my things? Okay?”
“It’s not that.”

Balance of Powers: Ch 11

And also some writing of interactions that I feel pleased with:

He was more than a little intimidating – a tall, well-built black man in a beautifully-cut suit and a military air about him. He introduced himself only as “Henry”, without a last name. She noticed a Marine Corps ring on one hand, but refrained from asking any questions about it.
“Did you know Mr. Reichman?” she asked him.
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Very cool and correct, not giving away more than he had to.
There was something vaguely familiar about his face. “Have we met?”
“I’m sure I would remember you, ma’am.” A smile which ickered briey and then vanished as if it had never been.
“Strange,” she mused. “Pardon my curiosity, but may I ask how you met Mr. Reichman?”
“We met at a social event.” This guy wasn’t going to give anything away. Something told her that uttering her eyelashes at him and using her feminine charms was going to have as much effect on him as it would do on the coffee machine in the corner.

Balance of Powers Ch 22

So all in all, it’s a book I’m pleased with. It has good characters, a decent plot, a message that doesn’t beat you over the head, and a style that perhaps disguises the origin of its author.

How big should a book be?

I don’t mean “how many pages?”, but “how tall and wide should a book be?”. One problem that I’ve seen with a lot of books recently, especially self-published books, is that they’re too big to fit comfortably into a pocket or a bag.

Sometimes, this seems to be done in order to reduce the number of pages in a book, and therefore bring down the cost (the people who do this are probably the ones who use as small a typeface as possible in order to save space, and who also take the print right to the edge of the paper).

The printers I use for my books, Ingram Spark, happily have a wide range of trim sizes (the technical term for the page size of a book. Not every kind of paper is available in every size (there’s a choice between white, creme, and now something called “groundwood” which I’ve used for my latest, which has come out really nicely, and most of these sizes are paperback only, a few with hard covers and dust jackets. KDP, Amazon’s self-publishing service, offers a subset of these trim sizes.

Now, the cost to me of a hard cover is twice that of a paperback, even before I’ve paid the setup costs, and by the time I’ve factored in the very hefty discount that retailers demand, there’s really no incentive other than vanity for producing a hardcover for adult titles (but see below with regard to children’s books).

However, since I can choose the trim size, I’ve avoided the almost ubiquitous 6″ x 9″ and 5″ x 8″ options (sorry, since Ingram is an American company, they work in antique units for the most part) format which seems to be common to many books. I also, for the most part, tend to avoid the DIN A series of paper formats (1:1.41 ratio) which are OK for paper sheets, but don’t, IMHO, work for books.

When I started to produce On the Other Side of the Sky (at the top of this page) I decided to make it as close as possible to a “standard” or “classic” paperback size, whatever that might be. So I carefully measured up a Penguin, and designed around that. One thing about Ingram Spark is that they ask for a margin of 36pt (3p or 0.5″) on each side of the text block, so if you make your trim size small, remember to knock 72pt (6p or 1″) off each dimension for the text block.

Even so there are two of my titles where I felt that it was a good idea to make a minibook: Unknown Quantities, and my two Untime stories bound together in one volume:

And the reaction has been really positive. The people who have seen and handled the two above seem to love the small size – “a book you can take with you”. And for On the Other Side of the Sky, those who have seen advance copies have said about the paperback that it is a “real book, isn’t it? I can read it in bed”. Perhaps slightly insulting to an author who took many months to produce it, but flattering to the designer who took the words and set them in print. Very gratifying to have these decisions endorsed by readers.

But sometimes it’s a good idea to go slightly odd. For the hardcover of the anthology of our Sherlock Ferret series (hardcover comes into its own for children’s titles (the purchaser the reader is not always the reader and children’s books get a lot of wear and tear), I decided that a square page format would be eye-catching and practical, given Andy’s wonderful illustrations which need to be shown off to their best advantage, rather than being tucked away in a corner.

Done (but not dusted)!

I’ve now finished the first draft of my next book. Provisional title: On the Other Side of the Sky.

Current length: 103,000 words. That’s a lot of words.

Date started: 20 August 2020 (I have written and published a couple of shorter books in the meantime)

Setting: 18th century Europe

Protagonist: A girl with a strange parentage

Antagonist: Her father – who is from the other side of the sky

Other characters: Some members of the Lunar Society including England’s greatest doctor, Erasmus Darwin, assorted alchemists, mesmerists, mountebanks, rabbis, and German Landgraves. A sprinkling of the English aristocracy and some revolutionary sans-culottes.

Supporting cast: Some beings from the other side of the sky, and some Rosicrucian-type Elementals (Sylphs, Gnomes, Undines and Salamanders).

Genre: Historical paranormal. Similar in its way to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Method of writing: Seat of the pants. Watch and listen to the characters and write down what they do and say.

Research and sources: 17th and 18th century books on alchemy, Jewish legends, serious scholarly work on Kabbala, biographies of some of the Lunar Men and of that period.

It’s been a wild ride through lots of Jungian landscapes. It’s either a complete load of self-indulgent crap, or it’s a very good book indeed. I’m not sure I can tell the difference at this stage.

Now comes the hard part – editing.

If anyone reading this is or knows an agent or publisher who might be interested, please let me know.

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.

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.

 

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”.

 

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.