Monday, February 26, 2007


The two novels which are reviewed here today are markedly, dramatically, different; but each, in its own way, is well done.

One novel is written by a man, about a man; the other is written by a woman, and has a female lead character. The male author is well connected in the book world, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he is published by a leading trade publisher (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); the female author knows no one with any clout (I would wager), and has published the book herself.

Neil Belton: A Game with Sharpened Knives

First published in 2005, A Game with Sharpened Knives is a novel about several years in the life of Erwin Schrodinger, the 1933 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

We begin in Graz, Austria, in 1938. Schrodinger is in trouble, because of his known dislike of Nazism, and now the Nazis are running things. The book is worth reading if only for the scene in which Schrodinger (the Nobel prize winner, don't forget) is politely and quietly ordered, by the head of his university, to write a letter apologising for his past mistakes, and asserting, in effect, that the Nazis now have his full support. This Schrodinger felt obliged to do, and the result was printed in all the newspapers.

This scene is interesting, because it forces the reader to ask himself a question. Can you imagine, say, the current New-Labour-supporting head of some former polytechnic in England, doing broadly the same thing to a present member of staff? Well yes, unfortunately, one can. Only too easily.

And can you imagine the neocon head of some mid-western state university in the US today doing the same thing to a member of his staff? And yes, unfortunately, one can. Only too easily.

Neil Belton, the author, follows Schrodinger as he moves from Graz to Dublin. Along the way we hear a great deal about his interest in women; and the book ends in 1941, with Schrodinger settled, after a fashion, into his new surroundings.

Top-class physicists are not, of course, quite like the rest of us. I once knew such a man (not a Nobel winner but close) whose senior academic position required him to attend many social functions, such as concerts, which I knew were of no interest to him whatever. And yet he gave every appearance of enjoying himself. After I while I learnt why: he wasn't paying any attention to the music; he was doing equations in his head.

Neil Belton, the first-time author of this novel, is evidently a serious kind of writer; and he has chosen a very serious subject. But serious intents and subjects seldom translate into fun for the reader, and I would have to say that, in places, this novel was (for me) very hard going indeed.

The serious literary press praised the book highly, of course, and not without some reason. But the number and enthusiasm of the reviews may, just conceivably, have been influenced by the fact that Neil Belton is an Editorial Director at Faber, and the reviewers will doubtless bump into him socially from time to time.

I read the paperback edition: the print is far too small, and the prose sits in heavy, seldom-broken slabs on the page.

Angela Ashley: Blazing Embers

Angela Ashley tells, in the first person, the story of Alice -- a person who is best described by the title of the first chapter: a granny in search of an orgasm.

Alice has been happily married for several decades, and her husband is alive and well; well enough, in fact, to be sexually active, if a trifle traditional in his approach to sexual matters. But Alice has been watching late-night television, and has come to the conclusion that she has been missing out on some of the full experience of sex; and it is not too late, she feels, to put matters right. Not, please note, that she is willing to commit adultery; but she is determined, if possible, to persuade her husband to do things differently.

The tone of this novel is just as serious as that of Neil Belton's, but mercifully the touch is much lighter and the prose is much easier to read: Angela Ashley is a very skilful writer. Without ever resorting to crudity or four-letter words, the author makes the nature of Alice's problems brutally plain. And she describes in detail how Alice goes about solving them.

I did find myself wondering, as I read this book, where its natural readership lies. Young people, as we all know, find it impossible to believe that their parents have a sex life, let alone their grandparents. Middle-aged people probably don't want to be looking ahead to the health and sexual problems of old age. And as for pensioners, senior citizens or whatever you call them, not all of them are going to read this book with enjoyment.

For a start, anyone who is seventyish now will have been brought up (at least in England) is a thoroughly puritanical atmosphere, the like of which is barely credible when compared with the publicity that is given to sex these days. And old habits die hard (as Alice's husband's reaction proves). And then again, many elderly men are all too aware that bits of their body no longer work as they did when they were nineteen. So most pensioners are, I suspect, going to feel somewhat uncomfortable about the very plain speaking which is to be found in Blazing Embers. So before you buy it as a present, make sure you know your granny well.

All in all, this book is every bit as well thought out and well structured as the Neil Belton opus, but it has not, naturally, been reviewed anywhere important. I am particularly impressed by the author's courage in choosing such a difficult subject; and I can't imagine anyone dealing with this subject matter any better than it is done here.

If you want a sample, the first 40-odd pages are available online.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Monday meanderings

I never said I was going away altogether, did I? So here are a few things left over from last week.

Emma Urquhart blogs

Long-term readers will remember Emma (Maree) Urquhart, the 13-year-old author of Dragon Tamers, a book which was published by Aultbea. I have written about Aultbea many a time here -- so much so that the firm's spokesperson told the Scotsman that I have a 'thing' about the company. Well, thing or not, I don't think I want, or need, to say any more about the firm today.

What I am going to say is that Emma Urquhart is growing up fast and now has a blog. She is not the world's most frequent poster (there was nothing in December 06 or January 07, apparently because of a lack of money), but she appears from time to time.

On 9 February she put up three posts. The first explains the publishing history of Dragon Tamers and her current view of Aultbea. It's worth reading if you've been following the subject, and if you have any views, as I have, about young writers being made into stars.

Not Born Yesterday

On 2 February I mentioned a satirical newsletter, Not Born Yesterday, which is regularly sent out (via email) by John Ward. I recommended it to UK readers. Actually it is not without interest to readers elsewhere, but the political and current affairs references are chiefly set in a UK context.

Well, shortly after I wrote that piece, John had computer problems. These were not solved by a repairman who was, shall we say, less than 100% reliable. Result: some of John's database went missing.

So, if you were one of the 20 or so readers who signed up to receive NBY after the GOB reference, you may or may not have been sent anything. If nothing has arrived, be so good as to drop a brief line to John again, and all will be well. His contact address:

Romantic shortlist

The shortlist has been announced for the UK Romantic Novelists' Association award for the best romantic novel of the year. The list includes two romantic comedies, two sagas, and two twin-time-period dramas. One of the authors is a man. I am one of the three judges, so you will hear more in due course.

POD Critic

An anonymous editor from a small publishing company in New York has set up shop as an online critic for books published via POD methods. The guidelines on how to submit books for review were given on 30 January. Early posts suggest that this critic is not about to hand out praise lightly. But would you have it otherwise?

Blogger bigtime

Yesterday's Sunday Times carried a remarkably silly story about a woman who has been blogging for six weeks and has just been offered a £70,000 contract by Viking Penguin.

I would like to tell you that this lady was a complete amateur, totally unknown, knew nobody influential, and had never previously written anything longer than a letter to her Auntie Jane. But that wouldn't be true.

It turns out that Judith O'Reilly, 42, is a former education correspondent of the Sunday Times.

How long, do you think, before she gets to sit on Richard and Judy's sofa? Two or three days should do it, surely.

Jacqueline Wilson

A much more sensible ST story is the one about Jacqueline Wilson, the lady who writes books for children and teenagers: books which help them to cope with life as it is lived in the 21st century. Sales so far: 20 million, and as a result she is much loved and admired, and with good reason.

The Bloomsbury housekeeper

I have never been a fan of the Bloomsbury group myself, but there are plenty who are -- no doubt as a result of being force-fed the books as part of their Eng Lit course. If you're among those interested in Vanessa Bell and her friends, you need to read about the diaries of Grace Germany, the lady who served as housekeeper at Charleston, in Sussex. The ST yesterday carried a lengthy and well written article.

The farmhouse at Charleston is open for visitors, and if you're in the area it is certainly worth a visit.

Serene Ambition

Serene Ambition is a site for those who are getting along in years. There's a blog, and lots of links to other sites about 'fearless aging' and the like.

This site is very American. And it reminds me of a story I heard at a talk by Rabbi Julia Neuberger. Julia was once working in an American hospital, and a very old lady was brought in and put into bed. The doctors gathered round and had a long discussion about her. After they had gone, Julia wandered over to the patient's bed and had a look at her charts. The lady was 104 years old, and the diagnosis was 'failure to thrive'.

The greatest living

There are some people who derive a great deal of pleasure from debating 'the greatest'. Would Ali have beaten Marciano? Or Joe? In the all-time England cricket XI, would Len open the batting or Denis?

Those who enjoy this kind of thing (and I am certainly not one of them), can spend a happy hour or two worrying about who is the UK's greatest living writer. The discussion is hosted by the Arts Council.

Well, I really don't like to sound too grumpy, but occasionally I really am. And I have to say here and now that I have long regarded the Arts Council as a complete waste of space and public money, and if you want any further proof, here it is.

Thought for the day

As I waded through the n00 pages of the Sunday press, a thought came to me. As far as I am concerned, the government and the bigtime UK publishers have something in common. I no longer believe a word they say. Yes it has taken me a long time.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Change of policy

I have decided, for a variety of reasons, to make some changes in the way the GOB blog operates.

In short, I have decided not to post material here on a regular, five-day-a-week basis. I am not going to retire from blogging completely, and will appear here from time to time. But posts will be irregular and less frequent than they used to be.

Everything that follows in this post is background to that decision -- background which may be of interest to some, especially anyone who is thinking of running a blog of their own.

I began writing this blog on Monday 22 March 2004, which is three years ago, near as dammit. Since then I have posted something on every weekday, except when I was away from home or unwell. There are, including this one, 1,119 posts on this blog.

I have just done a crude calculation, picking one month from each year, at random, counting the number of words published in those months, and multiplying out the monthly average by the appropriate number of months. The result is just short of a million.

One million words in three years. This is rather a lot. Verbal diarrhoea just about covers it.

During those three years, I have, I think, somewhere or other, conveyed to readers more or less everything that I know about books read (so far), the technique of writing fiction, and the nature and hazards of the world of publishing. I know for a fact that I have repeated myself from time to time.

It has all been extremely interesting and very rewarding. It has put me in touch with quite a few people whom I would never otherwise have had contact with, and I am grateful for that.

Neither has blogging ever been a chore or a burden. Hard work, yes; but tedious, no. However, you don't have to be blogging for long before you have your nose rubbed in one of the eternal verities of the universe: namely, that time cannot be used twice.

Time spent on blogging cannot be used for writing one's own fiction, or for taking photographs, or walking in the Wiltshire countryside; or even, if all else fails, decorating the bedroom. And I am acutely conscious that the time commitment to blogging has meant that other things have been pushed into the background. There are other projects that I want (and need) to work on, and something has to give somewhere.

So, that is the way it is going to be.

I appreciate that some people will be disappointed (particularly those who have just written to me, asking me to mention their book, blog, web site, or whatever; it's not their fault that they chose the wrong moment). However, all those who are disappointed will quickly get over it. Believe me.

It is not, after all, as if there are no alternatives. Three years is not really a long period in a life, but it's a hell of a long time in the blogosphere; and when I first started there weren't all that many blogs about books. But now, you can hardly move for them. Most of them have quite a lot to offer, one way and another, and the problem is, as ever, finding the time to look at them all.

Should you wish to keep in touch with whatever may, or may not, appear here in future, may I suggest that, rather than clicking here once a week or whatever, you use what I believe the techies call an RSS feed. I use Bloglines, but I believe there are other, similar services. You simply sign up (if I can do it, anyone can) and name the blogs you want to keep track of. Then, whenever you go to Bloglines, you get a neat little panel showing you how many posts have appeared on all your listed blogs since you last checked in, together with a summary of them -- or even the whole of them, which should be the case with my posts.

Older readers will know that I am not the only blogger who has said farewell or disappeared for a while. Mad Max and Moby Lives are examples. But in any case this is not a permanent goodbye. It's just that... well, there will be less here than you're used to.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A new model for writing?

Tuesday's thoughts about A New Model for Writing have attracted quite a few comments. There is also one comment in a separate place, from Jack Saunders, which is well worth looking at.

'You have to see the humor of it,' says Jack. And you do indeed. You really, really do.

Fawzy Zablah: Ciao! Miami

I have been unable to find out much about Fawzy Zablah's background. But one version of his blog discloses that he was born in El Salvador and raised in Miami. He has been a contributing writer for D'vox magazine in South Florida, and his short stories can be found at LitVision and Gorilla magazine, among others.

Ciao! Miami is published by Little Havana Press, via Lulu, where it is described succinctly as 'an uncompromising look at lower class Miami in the late 90s.' It carries a warning that it contains 'mature sexual themes, drug use and strong language'. Well, it isn't as shocking as some -- or maybe I'm just case-hardened.

The book consists of nine stories, varying in length but amounting to just under a hundred pages in all. Each story contains pen portraits of characters whom it is difficult to describe without appearing rude or condescending. Certainly they are mostly working class; some might be called low-lifes, and others are junkies, prostitutes, and transsexuals. Some have AIDS; some are in prison.

What we have here, in my view, is a series of thoroughly convincing portraits of people who haven't so far had much luck in life, and don't look like getting any soon. They are doing their best in difficult circumstances; often with little money and intelligence to help them along the way.

I found myself wondering if English is Fawzy Zablah's first language: not because the prose is bad -- far from it -- but there is something about the writing which suggests an outsider looking on with some bemusement.

Whether that is so or not, Fawzy Zablah is certainly a keen observer and he is a capable writer. As far as the book goes, it is good of its kind; but I'm not at all surprised to find that it's published by Lulu. Commercial publishers would doubt whether there is a viable market for it.

Ciao! Miami constitutes, in my view, a pretty good calling-card script, so to speak. It's a showpiece: it says, Here I am, and this is what I can do; and I do it pretty well.

The question which occurred to me, however, several times during the course of this book, is this: Why are young writers so afraid of plot?

Is it considered seriously uncool? Is it because the avoidance of 'contrivance' is what the MFA degrees preach (actually it probably is -- see Rockslinga). Or is it because the writers in question find plotting impossibly difficult?

I ask those questions because Miami is a fertile ground for thriller material. Florida is, after all, the state which has given us Carl Hiaasen (new one just out in the UK) and Michael Gruber. And Fawzy Zablah seems to me to be eminently well equipped to put together a real zinger of a thriller. He has an eye for characters, and he knows how to make them live on the page; all he needs is a good plot.

Here's a hint, Fawzy: steal one. Shakespeare did.

Noah Cicero reviews this book in the 3:AM magazine.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Thursday thomethings

As usual, much seems to be happening in the book world. There are so many people producing things, it's a wonder that anyone has any time to read.

Unimagined -- a different kind of Muslim

Clive Keeble has read -- three times, I gather -- a new book by Imran Ahmad: Unimagined -- a Muslim Boy Meets the West. Published by the Aurum Press.

'Occasionally,' says Clive, 'booksellers come across a title which they believe is a defining moment in their trade.' And, by way of background reading, he recommends Scott Pack's recent blog posting 'Muslim Toast', a post to which, I may say, the comments form an important adjunct.

At this point I was going to link you to the Aurum page which describes Unimagined. But can I find a mention of it on the Aurum site? No, sir and madam, I cannot. You try. (See note below.) Since it is due for publication on 1 March, I would expect Unimagined to be in the forthcoming books section; but it ain't. And in any case, Scott Pack reckons that it's on sale now.

Fortunately, the book has its own web site. From which we find that Sue Townsend likes the book too, which ought to be good enough for anyone.

Unimagined, you will discover, was once a self-published book, with a crappy cover (the author claims he spent a whole hour on it), until Scott Pack found it in his Waterstone's days, passed it on to an agent, and the rest... isn't actually history, because it's contemporary.

All in all, however, this book is a nice illustration of the author's perennial problem, one which I have highlighted here more than once. The author's chief task is to write something that makes readers go Wow! Just like a three-minute music track on YouTube or wherever. Pull off that trick and your book will make its way.

Clive Keeble has it in his shop window; and no one's paid him a penny.

Later note: when I checked the link to Aurum, a piccy of the cover turned up, top right. But I still can't find a description of the book.

Very nearly The Greatest Show on Earth

And here's another self-published book which is making a few people go Wow!, if not yet the entire universe. It's Daniel Scott Buck's The Greatest Show on Earth. Reviewed here on 31 August 2006, in what I hope I managed to make sound like suitably awed tones, this book has achieved recognition in a number of quarters.

First there was 3:AM Magazine, which named it as one of the novels of the year. And now we have the very hard-working and much respected Poddy Mouth (aka Poddy Girl) listing it as one of the top six in her Needle Awards. (The top six were whittled down, by the way, from 1,600 full-length entries.)

And it ain't done yet. The top six from Poddy now go to a panel of distinguished publishing folk -- editors and agents -- who will choose which is the absolute 'best' of these six self-published tomes.

Now the result of that will be really interesting, not least because I did suggest, in my own review, that The Greatest Show on Earth might be a bit too hot for any of the big-time firms to handle.

The new filters

Someone remarked here, in a recent comment, that the problem with most self-published material is that it's crap, and that the professional agent/editor selection process acts as an invaluable filter in sorting out the rubbish from that which might be readable.

Um. Well. Yes. Theoretically.

The problem is, of course, that the agent/editor selection process has been demonstrated, time and time again, to be a rather poor sort of filter. In my book The Truth about Writing, followed by my extended essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, I provided page after page of examples of mistakes made in both directions. (Free PDF copies of both books are available, by the way,)

In other words, I listed massively successful books (successful eventually, that is) which were earlier rejected by agents and publishers, plus books which were bought for vast sums of money but which turned out to be works that no reader, in practice, was prepared to pay money for.

I am therefore coming around to the view that, yes, a filter mechanism of some sort definitely is needed (for small press and self-published work), if we are not each to be horribly disappointed, over and over again, by what Scott Pack refers to as the 50-page test. (And 50 pages is, in my view, more than generous.) What is needed is someone, or some group of someones, whose judgement we come to trust, and whose recommendations turn out to be not completely unreliable.

All of which brings me round to Shelfari. This is a web site which I mentioned some time ago -- mentioned politely, but without much real enthusiasm. To me it initially seemed, if I may be frank, rather nerdy and adolescent. But I am beginning to see how it, and other sites like it, might actually perform a rather useful function; at least in principle.

If you take a look at the site you will soon get the idea. Visitors are invited to list the books that they own, or have read, which they particularly enjoyed, and then to put forward suggestions to other readers.

Now this site may not by any means be the complete answer to the filter situation. And Poddy Mouth isn't a complete answer either. But they are gropings towards a new, alternative filter; or series of filters.

Other alternatives have also been mentioned here in recent months, such as The FrontList and These mostly deal (as I understand it) with as yet unpublished books. But again, they are steps in the right direction.

Perhaps the ideal filter might be one for those whose taste in fiction is already well established. Suppose, for instance, that you have decided (as I did at one point in life) that your chief interest in reading is crime fiction. If so, what you ideally need is a site where not just one reviewer gives you her views, but where a group of equally enthusiastic fans for this particular genre can collectively, so to speak, express their views.

Amazon is one such arena, provided, of course, that you get a large enough sample of ratings from genuine readers; and not just one five-star review from Auntie Vera in Huddersfield.

We need others.

Ex Libris Press

Roger Jones, until recent retirement to Jersey, used to run a small independent bookshop in Wiltshire. And, like all small independent bookshop owners, he had to be quick on his feet to keep his children in food and shoes.

Roger's solution was to run, on the side of his desk, a small publishing company, Ex Libris Press; this has now produced more than 120 books. More to the point, perhaps, the Press also offers a book-production service.

Unlike most such services, this one is not print-on-demand, but instead goes for short runs of between 50 and 1,000 copies, together with advice on marketing and similar matters. Roger will not take on every book which is offered to him, and will certainly let you know (tactfully) if he thinks you are likely to be disappointed with the outcome.

Dogfight at the OK corral

In the cutthroat world of big business, a nasty, knock-down and stamp-on-'em row is developing about selling English-language books in mainland Europe. This is of concern only to those published by mainstream houses -- and, frankly, can be left to the professionals even then -- but it represents serious money to some companies. If you want to know the ins and outs, Publishers Weekly has a summary. (Link from

Forecasting change

The Guardian has an amusing piece on the problems of forecasting the future of publishing. My favourite quote: 'It takes a special kind of fool to augur change in the book world anyway.' Ah me. And I do it all the time.

There is also news of a lovely new publisher called Social Disease, the owner of which says that it is based on the premise that 'Zadie Smith is not fucking interesting'.

Oh, dearie, dearie me. How to make enemies and get cut dead in The Ivy, in one easy lesson.

And it seems that, from some points of view at least, MySpace is the place to be.

Oh, the energy! And the ambition! And the youth! One can hardly bear it.

Meanwhile, HarperCollins are losing money.

We live in interesting times.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wednesday wonderland

Help for newbies

I keep having to remind myself that what has long been familiar to me is not necessarily familiar to everyone else. So perhaps it's worth mentioning that Dan Poynter and Danny O. Snow have produced a new version of their book about self-publishing, using new technologies. It's called 4.0.

These guys are of course in business, and charge for their wisdom; which is fair enough. But if you want an example of their work for free (actually it's Danny Snow's work alone) you can find a free download of his book about using Lulu.

Both these books are, by the way, published by Lulu, and both come in several different versions, which is an example of how Lulu lends itself to clever marketing to different niches at absolutely minimal cost. See, for example, this search page from Lulu.

Macmillan New Writing

MNW have now made available ebook versions of some of their publications, Dead Ernest and Homunculus among them. Richard Charkin, boss man of Macmillan, blogged about this development on 1 February, and he reveals a new management tool for improving the efficiency of your (English) staff: threaten them with embarrassment.

Another MNW writer, Jonathan Drapes, was given a warm welcome at Mostly Books, in Abingdon (England). The report gives a useful account of how he finally got the book published, after nine years and 41 agents, give or take a few.

Novel twist

Interviews with authors are common enough, but here's a twist: in this case it is not the science-fiction author Simon Haynes who gets interviewed but his lead character. On 26 January Hal Spacejock talked to The Specusphere; which is pretty clever, considering that Hal lives in the 35th century.

During the course of that interview, Clunk the robot gets in the way sometimes (he's inclined to be jealous, despite what they say about robots and emotions) and so he gets to have his own interview a few days later.

Guaranteed to cause offence

It's tempting to say that it's getting very hard to shock people these days. But of course it's not hard at all. It's just that today we're shocked by things which differ from those which did it in the past.

Fifty years ago, it was unthinkable that a magazine in England could publish a pin-up photograph showing pubic hair, but now you can print whatever you like. Actually it's still difficult to show girls' pubic hair, but that's only because they all seem to have shaved (or so rumour has it; I cannot testify from personal experience, of course).

But if you really want to shock and annoy people, to the point where they will do you physical violence, you only have to make rude noises about Islam and that will do the job nicely. Or make some allegedly 'racist' remarks about the courage of Italians or the sexual morals of South Americans.

And how stands the position about Christianity, I wonder? Again, fifty years ago, a woman gave a talk on BBC radio in which she suggested that perhaps Christianity might not be 100% correct in all its teachings, and the roof fell in. I remember the uproar.

But today? Take a look, for instance, at Matthew Moses' novel Anti-Christ: A Satirical End of Days. Is this going to generate leaders in the Times, and a stiff note from one of the Archbishops? Or are people just going to shrug their shoulders, yawn, and pass by on the other side of the street. So to speak.

For sight of the first three chapters, info on the author, and more, visit the book's web site.

Speaking of religion...

The 59th Carnival of the Godless has just opened on Aardvarchaeology. The Carnival features, I understand, 'lots of new blog writing from a non-credulous perspective'. The contributors are not expecting any reward in the afterlife, so they earnestly hope to earn a click or two while they're here.

Despite the slightly frivolous tone of the above para, the Carnival does lead to a whole mass of thoughtful essays, reviews, and think pieces on some very important issues. And some of this stuff will, I think, seriously annoy the godly. We have Dr Soderstrom, for instance, who argues that the Christian fundamentalists are the most evil people on the planet. And there's much more, dealing with the compatibility of faith with science, and the problem of ethics.

This is not a place to go if you're looking for something that only takes 35 seconds to absorb.

A likely story

Amazon have drawn my attention to a new book published by Entrepreneur Magazine, and entitled Start Your Own Blogging Business. It seems that no capital is required, no effort, zero time, and masses of money just falls into your lap. My advice: don't believe everything you read. Especially in advertisements for books.

Knows what he's talking about

James Aach's technothriller Rad Decision has been available as an online read for some time, but is now in paperback. The author is an engineer with over twenty years of experience in the US nuclear industry.

Mrs Thatcher's bunker

In the Guardian (thanks to son Jon for the link), Steve Boggan provides a graphic description of the 35-acre underground site where, had the Russians ever launched their bombers or missiles, the British government would have retreated to sit out the nuclear winter.

Boggan says that the existence of this site was secret until two years ago. If so, it was one of the worst-kept secrets of all time. The various entrances to the underground complex are at Corsham, just a few miles down the road from me, and most informed citizens in the locality were well aware of the site.

The associated tunnels and workings were mainly built during world war II, and a few years ago parts of them were open to the public. Various attempts have been made to find a commercial use for the miles and miles of storage areas; but, so far as I know, without success.

For further details, including books on the subject, see Wikipedia.

A.I. Bezzerides

The Guardian yesterday recorded the death of A.I. Bezzerides, the novelist and Hollywood screenwriter who was perhaps most famous for his script of Kiss Me Deadly. Adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me Deadly was filmed in three weeks, in 1955, by Robert Aldrich. It is one of the most famous examples of noir cinema.

The Guardian obit is a long and thorough piece, but then the Guardian has a thing about Kiss Me Deadly, as indeed do I. See, for instance, Alex Cox's piece from 2006. Of course, the intellectuals will have you believe that it's all a parable, or a metaphor, or whatever. But you don't need to worry about all that horseshit; it's just a damn good thriller.

The textbooks sometimes tell you that the film was never released in the UK, but it was; I saw it, c. 1957. And I never forgot it.

As with many films, the British censor hacked it about, and there are various versions of the ending. And it's now rated 12, I see; i.e. anyone over 12 can see it, which means, in practice, anybody. But it's worth seeing, in whatever version. Available on DVD.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tuesday thoughts

A new model for writing

The following thought came to me shortly after reading the latest about the Judith Regan uproar (see below) and after reading the New Directions newsletter, giving information about poetry events in New York.

Suppose, I thought -- just suppose -- that there is someone out there who has taken a look at the modern publishing scene, and has fully acquainted herself with it. In all its hideous glory. And suppose, very sensibly, that that person has quietly decided that, thank you very much, but modern publishing, from Judith Regan to poetry events in New York, is just not for her. Thank you very much, again.

And suppose this person just settles down and gets on with the work. It might be writing novels, or short stories, or poetry; or even plays.

Suppose this person sits back, abjures all contact with, and all reading about, what the rest of the literary (or commercial) world is up to; forgets about, or rather doesn't even trouble to find out, who is flavour of the month this time around; ignores the bestseller list; ignores the small magazines, print or online, which consciously form an armed resistance to the various establishments. And instead of all that, just does the work, according to her own lights.

And suppose, further, that this person makes her work available in any one of the numerous ways which are now just a click away, my own current favourite being Our retiring writer does not even bother to set up a Lulu storefront, let alone write press releases or send out review copies, or pay to get listed on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She just posts it up. And goes on posting it up, as and when she's finished the stuff. Year after year after year. Over a whole working lifetime.

I wonder what would happen?

My guess is that, sooner or later, someone would notice. And they would delve into it. And if the work was any good, in the view of that interested party -- and even if it wasn't any good -- they would write about it. And word would spread.

You know what? I think that would be as good a way of establishing a name for yourself as any I can currently think of -- because, 99 times out of 100, all that drum-banging is in any case just empty noise. But the irony is, I suspect, that this method would only work in the case of those who, genuinely and sincerely, really don't care about getting a name for themselves anyway, one way or the other.

Short reports

In the Guardian, Joel Rickett analyses the market share of the major UK publishers (link from The big four (Hachette, Random, Penguin, HarperCollins) are doing OK: the occasional big fat hit pays for the failures and leaves a profit. At the bottom, some of the smaller firms (e.g. Faber) are clubbing together and 'growing the market'. In the middle, firms such as Pan Macmillan and Bloomsbury are feeling the pinch.

Galleycat comments on a case where a writer ill-advisedly used real names in a fictional context. You'd think people would know by now, wouldn't you? Still, there's always someone learning these things for the first time. And however careful you are, there may still be trouble. Years ago, Tom Sharpe wrote about a fictional character working for the BBC, and he gave him a really bizarre name, thinking that no one could really be called that. But behold. Out of the bowels of the Beeb came a lowly employee, blinking in the daylight; he claimed damages and won. Moral: use common names, especially for sinners and criminals. For further discussion see my post of 1 August 2005.

Further to my note last week about Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) acting as frontwoman for a novel written by Laura van Wormer, Madame Arcati (post of 5 Feb) draws any number of parallels between the life of the Duchess and that of van Wormer.

And while you're there, you might wish to read Madame's interview (3 Feb) with Kevin Spacey's brother, author of Spacey's Brother: Out of the Closet. And, if you're a Brit, you should look at Madame's utterly scandalous piece (2 Feb) about Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret. The story that Madame relates cannot possibly be true, of course, but it just goes to show. Something or other.

Anne Weale, of Bookworm on the Net, is not too impressed by my rule of thumb about short chapters equating to a readable book, and gives chapter and verse as to why not.

Dave Goodman has found a very, very clever piece of video which says a great deal, in a short time, about the digital age. Well worth a click.

A billionaire is claiming that novelist Clive Cussler lied to him about the total sales figures for his (Cussler's) books, thus dooming (allegedly) a movie to failure. This is quite the silliest court case that I've come across in a long time, even by Hollywood standards.

Which reminds me. In the good old days of the 1940s and 50s, there was a UK publisher (I think it was Walter Harrap) who used to decorate the covers of his books with banners saying '184,000 copies sold -- nineteenth reprint', and so forth. These figures were, of course, a total invention. However, in George Greenfield's memoirs he tells us that one author, noting these figures, demanded to be paid royalties accordingly. And Harrap, it is said, paid.

The Literary Saloon provided a link to a profile of Marina Lewycka in The Age. I don't remember seeing such an interview before; I get the impression that Marina is not about to volunteer for Celebrity Big Brother. There is much of interest here, including the welcome news that Marina has a second novel due out soon. Meanwhile, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has been translated into 29 languages.

The Times online has had a makeover, which means that it's hard to find stuff. However, I did manage to trace this longish piece about Tony Visconti, whose Tony Visconti: the Autobiography is just out. A must-read for anyone interested in 1960s pop music.

Also in the Times, a French professor explains how you don't actually need to have read any books to talk convincingly about them. The Prof, it seems, never managed to finish Ulysses.

Alan Bennett: Untold Stories

Alan Bennett is very well known in the UK, and far from unknown in the US. Yet he is not a celebrity: I once saw him on a crowded train, and no one else seemed to recognise him.

This is curious, but not, I suspect, unwelcome to him. He seems a quiet and somewhat retiring person.

Born in 1934, Bennett is known (Wikipedia says) for his work, his boyish appearance, and his sonorous Yorkshire accent. He first came to public attention in the 1960s, when he appeared with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke, and Jonathan Miller in the satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe. This was a substantial success both in the West End and on Broadway, where it seems to have run for a couple of years.

Few performers, however, have ever looked and behaved less like a Broadway star than Alan Bennett; and gradually he gave up acting in favour of writing. He is best known as a playwright, his latest success being The History Boys, which is still, I believe, running in both London and New York.

From time to time, Bennett publishes collections of prose, and the latest is Untold Stories. This is, frankly a bit of a hodge-podge, including, it seems, everything he has written since the last such collection (Writing Home, 1994).

Newspaper reviewers of Untold Stories have greeted it with great enthusiasm. Nigel Slater, in the Observer, described it as 'Not only my book of the year, it is my book of the decade.' Well, yes, it's good; but it's not that good.

Untold Stories is long and thick: 630 pages. And, at least in the paperback format, the print is small: 8 point if it's lucky.

As with much of Bennett's work, both in book form and for the stage, his Yorkshire family provide some of the material. Indeed his mother is quoted at one point as saying, 'You've had some script out of me.'

The first 125 pages or so is pure autobiography, and carries the same title as the book: and the untold stories are various secrets, mainly relating to the suicide of Bennett's maternal grandfather. This was never spoken of in the family; in fact it was lied about, and Bennett himself only became aware of it when his mother suffered from depression and enquiries were made about the previous history of such illness in the family.

I found this first section of the book thoroughly enthralling, for it turns out that Mr Bennett and I have much in common. He is five years or so older than I am, but we both had Yorkshire parents. His remained for ever in Leeds (apart from a brief, and failed, attempt to move south), whereas mine moved south before I was born, and stayed there. But, like Bennett, I had whole regiments of aunties and uncles in Yorkshire, and visited them during almost every school holiday for years and years.

Thus for me there are many familiar faces here. And there are many touching stories of a kind that I too heard as a boy.

Bennett's father was a butcher, and remained one all his life. But he was an excellent musician, and in other circumstances might have made a living with his violin. Bennett's mother, known as Mam, was troubled by periodic bouts of mental illness, and the accounts of her treatment in various psychiatric hospitals make one grateful for having had little to do with them.

And then, of course, there are the aunties. In Yorkshire there are always aunties -- never aunts. Aunts are formidable creatures, as in Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha; but aunties are kinder souls, inclined to spoil their nephews.

From time to time in this book, there are descriptions of scenes and places which are familiar to me. Descriptions of small, back-to-back houses, in northern industrial cities, black with soot from the mill chimneys. Evenings spent providing your own entertainment round the piano. I even know the stretch of canal where Bennett's grandfather drowned himself; an uncle took me fishing there. Mr Bennett and I have both been there and done that, but how interesting these descriptions will be to others it is hard to say.

And then there is the account of how he studied for, and won, a scholarship to Oxford -- an experience which he used as the basis for The History Boys. Well, I've done that too, except that I went to Cambridge; and I too regret that such scholarships are no longer won in quite the same way, if at all.

During the course of this book we learn that Bennett was successfully treated for bowel cancer in 1995, and perhaps the dice with death has removed any last trace of inhibition: for we learn much more about him, and his family, in this book than we have done before. We also learn that, after a very slow start to his sexual life, he has finally found a partner by the name of Rupert.

All in all then, the autobiographical sections of this book were rewarding for me, but I wonder how they would read in Montana or Melbourne. Perhaps these things are universal.

The rest of the book was, to my mind, less interesting. There are extracts from his diaries, which show that he could be a good blogger; essays about his various plays; short memoirs of actors and directors, such as Thora Hird (excellent) and Lindsay Anderson; plus thoughts on the English honours system. Painless, for the most part, but not outstanding.

Mr Bennett is by no means a complete master of prose. His punctuation is eccentric, and in order to follow the text easily one needs to be able to hear his voice. The sentences are cumbersome at times. But perhaps it is all excused by the dry, self-effacing humour, which makes up for a great deal.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Friday roundup

Once upon a time, when I was a lad, it was very hard to find any information about the book world at all. Today, courtesy of the Web, there is an abundance. Thus it is that, in an ideal world, I would have explored each and every one of the web sites mentioned below in some detail. But time does not permit; and, given the number of potentially useful sources of information, I think the best plan is simply to make you aware of their existence and to allow you to do your own exploring.

Simon Craig, author of Randy Bastard, has been going through some sites where writers can post their stuff for others to assess. He tells me that there is some good work on, and in particular draws attention to Ergo Sum, by my almost namesake Michael Alan. The first chapters are certainly quite impressive.

A similar site, which has been mentioned here before, is The Frontlist. Here Simon Craig fancied Avon Street, by Paul Emmanuelli.

Nadine Laman recommends Jerry Simmons as a source of help and advice on the writing business. He's the author of Inside the Business of Publishing.

Speaking of Nadine, this is really one very talented lady. Go to her web site and watch the 'movie trailer' for her books. This was made with her own photographs and with her 15-year-old son's music. He plays the piano and synthesised the flute. It was all done with Windows Moviemaker, a program which Nadine didn't even know she had on her computer till last Friday. Anyone can do this stuff, says Nadine. No, Nadine, I really don't think so. I think it's pretty damn talented.

And as if that was not enough, John Barlow is at it too. The paperback version of his novel Intoxicated is out now, and you can find another really cool thingy about it on YouTube.

This is all giving me a severe sense of inferiority. I thought all you had to do was write the books.

If you live in the UK, or even if you don't, The Grange, at Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight, is offering some residential courses in creative writing. In March and November, Mitzi Szereto will be there, doing her thing about erotic fiction.

Deborah Gelbard's novel Global Dawn features a character whose 'desire to raise planetary awareness worldwide by exposing people to a universally aligned data resource carries echoes of NASA’s Digital Earth project.... Like The Rule of Four and the Da Vinci Code, Global Dawn features powerful discoveries uncovered by deciphering mystic codes and formulae embedded in classic, artistic finds.' Not so much New Age as Digital Age, perhaps.

The death of Howard Hunt attracted quite a lot of newspaper space recently. A one-time CIA man, he was one of the many involved in Watergate. But he was also, in his time, a damn good espionage writer, and in the 1970s I read many of his novels with a good deal of interest and pleasure. Thanks to Martin Rundkvist for the link.

Here, as promised yesterday, is news of Homunculus. The novel now has its own web site, which opens up, on its very first page, unless I mistake me, with a complete reprint of my review of the book. Crumbs. The review upset a few people at the time (so vulgar) but Mr Paxton seems happy with it. And there is excellent news: Mr Paxton has completed another book! It should be a treat.

Now here's a novelty: a man who doesn't want to be too famous. I jest. He just doesn't want to compete with 60 million bloggers. John Ward sent me an email/newsletter sort of thing entitled Not Born Yesterday. This is subtitled 'Looking at a better past, laughing at a barmy present, trying for a brighter future.' It's a UK based-commentary on the state of the world. It's often very funny, but it's also pretty vitriolic in its criticism of the present government -- which is admittedly very easy to get vitriolic about.

There is no NBY website, and John tells me that it's 'an invite-only email at present, going to just over 500 folks in the media, creative arts, government, senior business, opposition and difficulty. However, the more people who want to receive it the better.'

John Ward's email address is He says that he is 'happy to send NBY to anyone with a desire to stop risk-aversion, media cruelty, bandwagon marketing, substance-free social policy and kill-joys.'

John is prolifically funny, but he also has views, and he is not, generally speaking, friendly towards those in authority. I recommend him to Brits. Read him while you can, because the forces of darkness will probably silence him before long.

Underneath the Bunker has been redecorated, so to speak, making it easier to read. This is, you will doubtless recall, the home of Europe's premier cultural journal. I don't think I'm going to comment on the contents, because any kind of irony always gets me into trouble. But I will give you a hint: not all is as it seems. And the Links page is very subtle indeed.

SF writer Charlie Stross has some interesting if all too familiarly depressing things to say about the writer's life. Thanks to Dave Goodman for the link.

Scott Stein is giving a party to celebrate publication of his new novel, Mean Martin Manning.

Looking for a present (other than a book) for a bookish friend? Kimbooktu probably has the answer.

If you're a Brit, you really will see this as the end of civilisation as we know it. The British Library is going to start charging. Bloody hell. And this is the place where Karl Marx did all his homework. I knew this, but I'd tried to forget it, and then Clive Keeble reminded me.

Publishers Lunch reports that Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York to you) has sold Hartmoor, a historical novel 'written with' novelist Laura Van Wormer, to Sally Richardson and Hope Dellon at St. Martin's, for publication in winter 2008. Agents: Peter Sawyer of the Fifi Oscard Agency and Loretta Barrett (world). And before you start sniggering, let me say that, if I were a smart agent or publisher, this is exactly the sort of book that I would be commissioning too.

Clive Keeble pointed out to me that when Haynes sold Sutton Publishing to 'NPI', it was effectively selling the firm to back to the bloke who started it. And now Publishing News explains all the complicated financial goings-on, and the purchase of several other publishers, and the ambitious plans.

Are you an alien visitor to this planet? Yes, I thought so; most readers of this blog are. Well lucky you: Clary Antome has things for you, including Reading Tips.

Tao Lin has published a book of poetry called You are a little bit happier than I am. And it was reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Now there's fame for you.

Abebooks has opened some new science fiction and fantasy rooms: interviews with authors, articles, events lists, and so forth.

L. Lee Lowe has posted a second podcast of his YA fantasy novel Mortal Ghost. You see? More clever devils using technology to make the rest of us feel bad.

Penguin have launched 'a collaborative creative writing exercise using a wiki.' That's what it says in the official press release. Don't blame me if you don't understand it. Try a simpler explanation on the Penguin blog, where you can also find links to the Million Penguins site and yet another, accompanying, blog. When I just tried the main site, it didn't work, because of overload. Not surprising, since every blog in the known universe has mentioned it.

The Million Penguins idea is to get anyone and everyone writing a single novel. The question posed by Penguin is: can a community write a novel? I think I know the answer to that. It's bad enough when an agent and an editor get involved, but in this case anyone can write bits of it, and anyone can edit it, cos it's a wiki. Get it? Oh, all right then. Put some more carbon paper in your portable.

Finally, Duncan Fallowell has done his own piece about the absence of due attention to W.H. Auden. Duncan is pretty cross and is frightfully rude about those terribly nice people at Faber. All quite uncalled for, as I'm sure you will agree. Oops. Said I was going to eschew irony.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Frances Garrood: Dead Ernest

Dead Ernest is the latest publication (out tomorrow, officially) from Macmillan New Writing (MNW).

MNW opened for business last year. Publishing at the rate of one book a month, the imprint deals only in first novels by previously unpublished authors. MNW will take any genre.

Dead Ernest is, I think, the best of the bunch so far. True, I enjoyed Homunculus very much (and for more about that, please tune in tomorrow), and, in today's market, Homunculus is the more obviously commercial book. However, in its own quiet way Dead Ernest is remarkably well written, well constructed, and with a bit of luck could be a little bit like A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian (a book which, by the way, just goes on selling and selling; over a million now, worldwide).

In a way, it's a pity I had to mention Homunculus at all, because the two books are totally different. But perhaps that very difference is usefully illuminating. Homunculus is a pretty brutal, political, in-your-face piece of scifi/fantasy/satire. Its readers will be blokes, young, good on computers and fond of a pint.

Dead Ernest, on the other hand, is non-sensational, domestic, lower middle class, English, and sensitive; and its readership will be almost entirely female, mature to elderly, married, and fond of a nice cup of tea.

Frances Garrood is, I suspect, somewhat akin to her target audience. Her main career was in nursing, and she has four children and five grandchildren. In her spare time, she published many short stories; although her web site biography doesn't say so, I imagine that these appeared in various women's magazines.

In short, Frances has lived a full life and has served a writing apprenticeship. All of this shows, in abundance, when you start to read Dead Ernest.

I have developed a crude rule of thumb these days. Turn to the back of the book, note the number of the last chapter, and the total number of pages. Do the arithmetic and work out the average length of a chapter. If the answer is 10 pages or below, you're probably going to be OK -- well, I am, anyway. If the answer is 35, one's heart sinks.

Here the average chapter is just under 6 pages long. Indeed the prologue is about two thirds of a single page, and it sets the scene perfectly. Chapter 1 confirms the impression that we are in safe hands, and so it goes on.

I am reluctant to talk too much about the plot; I always think that plot summaries, particularly on the backs of books, are enough to put people off reading for life. But basically what we have here is the story of a very unhappy marriage, told after the death of the husband (Ernest, he dead), and seen from the viewpoint of Annie, the wife.

We also have the local Vicar, a married man who becomes a friend of Annie's after Ernest's departure, and Annie's granddaughter Ophelia. The Vicar and Ophelia fall in love and have to decide what to do about it.

Structurally the book is carefully constructed. In order to tell the tale, a certain number of flashbacks are required. This is often the kiss of death, but Frances Garrood has acquired the narrative skill to pull it off rather well. There are one or two points where the use of viewpoint jarred me a bit (it's a point on which I am unusually sensitive), but otherwise not a foot is put wrong.

Essentially, the material for this novel is dark, sometimes sordid, and potentially tragic. However, Frances Garrood has judged her presentation of it remarkably well. She strikes just the right note: she doesn't beat us over the head with the horror of the nasty bits, and adds just a touch of humour here and there without minimising the characters' pain.

I feel confident that a large number of women readers are going to enjoy this book very much. It is not, perhaps, the kind of thing that gets chosen for reading groups (they tend to be awfully earnest, with an a) but it's the sort of book which might be read aloud on Woman's Hour (if they do that any more; and if, indeed, there is still a Woman's Hour; perhaps Mr Blair has banned it, on grounds of discrimination; perhaps it's The Hour For Anyone Who Happens To Be Listening).

Anyway, if the MNW publicists can find a way to alert the right readership, this will take off. Word of mouth is the thing, and, if nothing else, the ladies who read this kind of book do know how to talk.

I don't know enough about the mainstream Macmillan list to know whether Frances Garrood fits in well with the current ethos there or not. But if Macmillan don't offer her a two or three-book contract, someone else surely will.