Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Foundering

My attempts to writer longer works have finally born fruit.  I have a new novelette, The Foundering, available for kindle.  This is a story of self-discovery, with sci-fi overtones.

When Leighton Anderson accepts the role of caretaker to the Dabney Accelerator – a machine owned by his employer and situated in an isolated part of the world – he expects to spend a year in isolation. Unbeknownst to him, there are others living apart from the world who have their own reasons for seeking solitude. It won’t be long before the two worlds collide and the lives of all involved become irretrievably altered.

The Foundering is a thought-provoking novelette concerning one man’s attempts to make sense of his ordered life, and the temptation he feels to seek an entirely new approach to living.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The End of the Trail by Louis Rakovich


"A barren land of salt and snow; a castle where underground paths twist and turn in endless circles and a reclusive king who has not shown his face in years; a forest where few things are what they seem. An unnamed hero must navigate through these places as he takes on the task of tracking down a supposed witch, in a story that blends dream and reality, rumor and truth, danger and hope."

Louis Rakovich is an extremely promising writer emerging in the horror/dark fantasy field.  I’ve been lucky enough to secure his excellent short story, There Used to be Places, for the Dark Lane Anthology: Volume Two.  This led me to checking out some of his other work.  He’s already had work published in Devilfish Review, Firewords Quarterly, and Goldfish Grimm, amongst others.  He's also recently launched his novelette, The End of the Trail, onto the world which I was eager to read.

I wasn’t disappointed.  The only criticism I have of this story is that I wanted it to be longer.  There are more original ideas and imagery in The End of the Trail than some authors put into a full-length novel, and the author could easily have fleshed it out if he’d wanted to.  Having said that, the story’s brevity gives it a haunting quality that leaves the reader wondering about this world they've been given a glimpse of and the characters who populate it.

The story tells of the unnamed narrator who lives and works in a salt mine, until  being summoned by the queen and told he’s the only man who can save the dying king.  To do this he must track down the witch who the queen believes has put a curse on her husband.  This mission takes him on a strange dreamlike journey. 

The End of the Trail reads like a dark, adult fairytale.  Though short, it’s packed with tiny details which bring the world and its people to vivid life.  The author shows an admirable knack for ‘world-building’ and fills his tale with striking and memorable imagery.  I especially liked this:

“As I fought to stay awake, her eyes were looking at me like the eyes of an animal in the dark.  They were still there when I drifted off.”

 A quick, enjoyable read; and a writer worth keeping an eye on for the future.
Visit the author's website to find out more.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Book Cover: Night Monsters by Fritz Leiber (Panther)

I've never read any Fritz Leiber, but I do love this cover for his short story collection 'Night Monsters'.

Some Thoughts on Birdman

 
There may be spoilers ahead…
 
The meaning of Birdman is open to interpretation, and that’s what I think is so great about it, but also what divides opinion about it.  It doesn’t leave the viewer with any real answers.  Things are not wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end.  Is it a film about mental illness?  Is it about a man who once played a superhero who then discovers he has actual superhero powers?  Is it just about the self-obsession of those involved in the film and theatre world?  Well, yes.  It’s about all these things.  And that’s the problem.

The first time I watched it I thought it was about a man having a mental breakdown, and I was confused by the ending (or, if you prefer, the multiple endings).  On a second viewing I noticed details I hadn’t spotted the first time around and I saw the film in a more positive light.  It seemed to be to be about a man who risks everything to take a great leap into the unknown (as Riggan, Michael Keaton’s ageing Hollywood actor, does both literally and metaphorically throughout the film) only to discover he can fly (again, in a literal and metaphorical sense).  It’s about taking risks in life, staking everything, even if the odds are stacked against you, and coming out a success (if a little damaged).  This interpretation made more sense for me.  Suddenly the ending seemed like a metaphor for the entirety of the film that had preceded it.  I could be wrong, but I’ll settle on that one for now.

The film has a lot of ambition – with great performances from Keaton and the rest of the cast, lots of memorable quotable dialogue, and a seamless flow (only 16 visible cuts) that pulls us into the film as if we’re watching the scenes unfold in real life.  It’s a film that can be watched again and again, with the viewer noticing different things each time.  In time I have no doubt it will be considered a classic.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

How To Remove People You Hate From Your Life: STEP ONE - PHOTOS

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have pictures in your photo album of people you don’t like. Remember that work leaving-do when that guy from accounts snuck into the picture and put his arm around you? You always hated that guy, didn’t you? Yet there he is in your photo album along with all your friends and loved ones.

What I recommend doing to resolve this unfortunate issue is this.  Cut out the heads of celebrities from magazines and paste them onto your photographs over the heads of the people you’d rather forget you once knew. Then when you’re looking at your photos, instead of remembering Dave from accounts and how much you hated him, instead you’ll go: Oh look, it’s me and all my friends. Oh and Jennifer Anniston.

NB: WHAT TO DO IF THE ONLY CELEBRITY HEAD AVAILABLE IS KERRY KATONA

If the only celebrity head you have available is Kerry Katona, don’t worry, all is not lost.  What I suggest doing in this eventuality is pasting Kerry Katona’s head over YOUR OWN head. Then when you look at your photos, you’ll go: Oh look, there’s Dave from accounts. And he’s got his arm around Kerry Katona! I always knew he was a moron, and here’s the proof!

Simple.  Easy.  Foolproof.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Book Cover: The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris


Book Cover: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (Corgi Books)

A nice version of the Ray Bradbury classic.

Book Cover: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Avon Bard)

H

Here we have another example of sex being used to sell a decidedly unsexy literary classic (unless I missed something.  It's a long time since I read this book).  A beautiful illustration nevertheless.

Book Cover: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

I'm an avid collector of old, illustrated book covers and this is one of my favourites.  I love this illustration where we see Lady Groan's white cats swarming over a statue in the foreground, then in the distance - recognisable by the various physical attributes Peake attributed to them - we glimpse Fuschia, Flay, Nannie Slagg and baby Titus himself (in Nannie Slagg's arms). 

Sadly since I no longer have the book this cover was attached to I don't know the publication date or the name of the cover artist.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Completed Drawings

Here are a couple of pen and ink drawings which I recently finished.  I may use them as a cover or inner illustration for one of my books at some point in the future.

Visions of the Underworld by Patrick Duff

I’ve been a fan of Patrick Duff since his days as lead singer of indie band Strangelove. I can  remember buying the CD single version of ‘Is There A Place?’ for 20p in my local record shop simply because I was intrigued by its vaguely disturbing cover featuring shrink-wrapped shop manikins. This single was to have an impact on me that belied its knock-down bargain-bin price. When I listened to the a-side’s ten-minute onslaught of feedback-drenched guitars, screams and howls of displacement; plus the acoustic b-side ‘The King of Somewhere Else’, I knew I’d found a band who were speaking directly to me.

Patrick Duff and his music would be a fixture in my life from then on.  Some of the best gigs I witnessed during my University years at the end of the 90s – and I witnessed a lot – where by Strangelove at Leeds Duchess. Some years later, the upheaval of my move to Bristol in 2003 was sweetened by the discovery that the lost frontman was doing gigs locally. These included some memorable concerts in the chapel in Arnos Vale Cemetery, when I got shivers when Patrick launched into ‘Dead Man Singing’ and I could have sworn there were more people in the chapel that could actually be seen.

Around the time of my relocation, the rather patchy debut solo album ‘Luxury Problems’ was released by Harvest Records. It showed that Patrick was still angry, still full of self-hate and bile. Things changed with 2010’s brilliant self-released follow up ‘The Mad Straight Road’ which the singer described as “a synthesis of some of the music that has shaped my life – stuff like Disney soundtracks, The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and Johnny Cash – it all went right into the heart of me and came back sounding like this”. Patrick now sounded more at ease with himself. More forgiving. Happier even. He seemed to have wrestled some of his demons down.

In 2013 ‘Visions of the Underworld’ arrived. The shrieks and howls of Patrick’s Strangelove days were now long gone, replaced by a contained unease and a quiet sense of wonder at the world. Recorded completely live in a cottage in deepest Dartmoor so that the sounds of the surrounding wilderness can be heard on some of the tracks, this is an album Duff has described as a collection of ghost songs. Spooky second song ‘Julie of the Rose’ would certainly fit that bill. With its opening couplet “Your touch is on my skin so cold/Your kiss is on my lips like winter snow” this could be a love song to a ghost, or even to death itself. Death, it seems, is never far from Patrick’s mind, and is especially prevalent on this album. Although it might seem oddly placed so near the start of the album, ‘Julie of the Rose’ sets the spooked tone for the rest of the album perfectly. The album actually opens with rooster crows and a calm air of warm acoustic guitar for ‘Danny Freeman’. The song is about a former drunkard and womaniser who’s been written-off but is now returning, having learnt from all his previous misdeeds and now speaking of a ‘treasure that can’t be sold’. Could this be Duff’s alter-ego? ‘Henry James’ seems to concern a similar figure who takes a stand against greed and land-ownership (I could be wrong) and features some beautiful guitar playing and singing from Patrick, with birds tweeting in the background. ‘Jesus’ is another gorgeous song musically, but the lyrics – a more straight-faced version of Morrissey’s ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ – threaten to tilt the song into self-parody. It’s this lack of humour, or arch seriousness, which is this album’s occasional undoing.

There are three songs on this album which, in my opinion, match anything by Patrick’s heroes Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen and which create the backbone of the record. These are ‘The Thought Birds’ (released as a single in 2014), ‘Hail Holy Mother’, and ‘Midnight Garden’. It’s on these songs that Patrick’s poetry and lovely lilting guitar playing comes into sharp focus. ‘The Thought Birds’ is mesmerising with its hushed tone of disquiet. Played live, this song would usually end with a barrage of ear-splitting feedback, but here it needs so such adornment to unsettle the listener. ‘Hail Holy Mother’ picks up a familiar theme in Duff’s work: the enslavement of romantic love and his hatred and fear of the capitalist rat race. ‘Hail Holy Mother,” he sings, “as I rise to work each day. All of your loving is the price I have to pay.” ‘Midnight Garden’ is perhaps the album’s standout track, a haunting and sad tale of unrequited love.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘The Man Downstairs’ and ‘The Luckiest Man I Know’ are a little throwaway and continue the themes found in earlier songs. The album ends on a high note, though, with the same warm sounds and air of calm on which it was ushered in. ‘Flowers On My Grave’ is a kind of inverted version of Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons in the Sun’. Instead of ‘Goodbye, Papa, it’s hard to die’ the narrator instead gives thanks for all the people and things that have contributed to his life. “Thank you for the love that’s lighted up my way. That’s something that I always meant to say.” When a close family member of mine passed away in 2013, it was to this song that I turned for solace, wherein Duff manages to make death sound joyful by forcing the listener to look back in gratitude rather than at the fact that, as he sings towards the end, we are ‘out of time, out of time, out of time’.

Overall this is a truly majestic songset which demonstrates how Patrick Duff is just beginning to harness his considerable talents and insights. If it reminds me of anything, it is Paul Simon’s 60s solo album ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’; and with his own songbook this rich Duff is beginning to eclipse his early stab at fame with Strangelove and prove himself to be amongst the greatest singer songwriters out there. When I shook his hand after a very intimate gig a few years ago, I was as starstruck as I would have been had I been meeting someone like Morrissey or Nick Cave, such is the hold Patrick Duff’s music has had over me since I first shelled out that measly 20p for a three track single by a band I’d never heard of.

Cafe De Flor

Jean-Marc Vallee's ‘Café De Flore’ is one of my favourite speculative films of recent years.  Written and directed by Vallee, who also directed the critically acclaimed Dallas Buyer’s Club, the film is a masterpiece of sustained tension and intrigue, with fragmentary elements that fit together like a Chinese puzzle to create a beautiful, moving cinematic experience. 

The speculative elements in the film are subtle and don’t really come into force until the end; although there are very brief and occasional ‘horror’ moments, included perhaps as red herrings as the film never veers down that particular path.  In fact, you could even argue that the film is not speculative at all.  On first watch, it is a baffling film for most of its length; having two story threads set forty years apart which appear to have no obvious connection to each other. 

 In one thread, Kevin Parent is Antoine, a successful modern-day DJ who has recently separated from his wife, Carole (played by Helene Florent), and now living with new flame, Rose (Evelyn Brochu) who he believes is his soul mate.  The people close to Antoine, including his two daughters and his parents, are struggling to adjust to the breakup of this twenty-year relationship that began when Antoine and Carole were teenagers.  Least able to cope is ex-wife Carole, who is sleepwalking and suffering nightmares of a ‘little monster’ glimpsed in the back seat of her car. 

 The second thread concerns Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradise), a young mother in 1960’s Paris whose husband leaves her after the birth of their Down’s Syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier).  Jacqueline is besotted with Laurent and committed to finding ways to extend his life beyond the expected twenty-five years.  Her story turns darker after Laurent bonds with a girl at his school who also has Down’s and who he quickly becomes inseparable from.

 Café De Flore is a film that shouldn’t work.  The timeline is all over the place.  Besides the two threads, we also have flashbacks to Antoine and Carole falling in love as teenagers.  These three elements constantly shift, merge, overlap, and mirror each other, as if all three are happening at once.  Also, the film’s slightly corny theme of soul mates, destiny, and love ‘written in the stars’ could easily have derailed it.  Yet this never happens.  On first watch, I genuinely had no idea where it was going and the denouncement, when it came, left me stunned.  The film only begins to reveal itself towards the end when Carole visits a medium in order to make sense of her nightmares.  Watching it a second time, I could see how all the pointers were laid bare – almost to a glaring degree – and I wondered how the film could ever have kept me guessing.  Of course, I now had the benefit of hindsight, and it’s worth mentioning that because of the film’s twist ending it didn’t really stand up to a second viewing, unless you want to unpick the tiny embedded details and clues.  The only mis-step for me was the unnecessary Amelie-esque voiceover at the beginning, which a number of French films have used in recent times perhaps in an attempt to align themselves with that particular film’s huge international success.

The acting is excellent throughout, and Paradise in particular shines as the dowdy, exhausted single-mother spiralling into jealousy and defeat.  The film also has a great, pivotal soundtrack, including songs from The Cure, Sigur Ros (who provide the film with one of its lighter, funnier moments) and Pink Floyd.

Café de Flore’s final shot, in which the camera zooms into a photograph, is as powerful as the similar device used by Kubrick at the end of The Shining (in fact it may even be a homage, or if you prefer a theft, from that film).  Though the intent is not to scare, it is a shocking moment in which all the film’s connections and symbols and clues suddenly come to the fore.  Of course, as with any twist-ending film, there will inevitably be those people who jump up and say they knew what was going on from the beginning.  To those people I doff my cap, whilst at the same time feeling a bit sorry that they couldn’t enjoy this ride to the end.  Café de Flore, then.  Leave your cynicism at the door.

Book Cover: Fireworks by Angela Carter, Quartet Books (1974)

Browsing in  my local secondhand bookshop this weekend, I discovered this copy of Angela Carter's short story collection, 'Fireworks' from 1974.  Despite the embarrassment at having to take this to the till, I had to have it.  I love the absurdity of it.  This misogynistic sci-fi slave girl cover image would seem to be completely at odds with how we think about Angela Carter today, as a literary rather than a genre writer, and as a feminist.  I can only imagine what the unsuspecting reader thought when
he read the nine 'profane pieces' within after buying the book based on the cover.

Publishers in the 1960s and 70s were more than happy to try and sell any book - from Moorcock to Ballard to Garcia Marquez - not on it's own merits, but simple by shoving a pair of tits on the cover.

Having said that, I do love this cover's design, the colours and the stylised way the jungle surrounding the two figures has been depicted.  I'm not overly keen on the text.

Autobiography by Morrissey

As a long time Smiths/Morrissey fan I was excited to get my hands on this book, and largely it doesn’t disappoint. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the most incredible books I have ever read.

It’s not your typical autobiography, so much so that for the first page or so it completely threw me. The account of his early years and the rise of The Smiths are full of sadness, wit, tenderness and betrayal. His description of his school days, and the vile bullying teachers of St Mary’s, is particularly effecting; almost like something written by Mervyn Peake. He obviously had some scores to settle and you get the impression that years of silence have finally found an outlet. There are some targets you wouldn’t expect, whilst others who have since done him wrong are discussed with tenderness. It does occasionally descend into bitchiness, and there are a few roll your eyes moments as Morrissey storms out of restaurants because someone at his table has had the audacity to order meat. Yet he seems fully aware of his own shortcomings. What really comes through in this book, especially the first third, is his compassion for those around him; and his hurt and bewilderment at the various betrayals (either real or perceived it is difficult to say). There’s a lot of humour too, some of it tongue in cheek, which I think a lot of people will miss. There’s even a mini ghost story which takes place on Saddleworth Moor which is so well described that it could keep you awake at night like it did me.

Unlike other reviewers I actually found the section dedicated to the court case fascinating as Morrissey builds a very strong case for his own persecution at the hands of the establishment. I felt that this was an important point, and I don’t blame Morrissey for dwelling on it. He basically laughs at the idea of free speech existing in England. This is a man who’d previously taken pot shots at royalty and Margaret Thatcher, so it’s easy to believe that they wanted to bring him down. And why did the case focus on Morrissey rather than the Morrissey & Marr partnership?

I got the impression Morrissey wrote this over many years as the front and end sections feel almost as if they were written by different people. For me the end section felt flat, and slightly smug, where Morrissey details his comeback starting with You Are the Quarry. This was where the book started to lose its grip on me. You can see how he wanted to bring the story full circle and show how all his trials paid off in the end. At one point he describes how, on stage in Manchester, he can see the building where he once worked in the basement as an Inland Revenue clerk which rounds off his story quite well. The endless details of shows and cities and hotels, though, felt a little empty as if it were only required to fill up the word count.

Ultimately, though this is the story of Morrissey, it is so packed with wisdom and insight that it is lifted above mere autobiography and becomes something akin to The Bell Jar. Anyone merely looking for revelations will miss what makes this a great book. It is the story of a misfit boy who wanted to sing, went through various trials along the way, fought and fought and fought and fought to follow his dream, did it all his way, and came out a winner in the end.