I’m not angry; I’m disappointed. We all remember this as the worst condemnation childhood had to offer, and it was my initial reaction on hearing that none other than RJ Ellory had dipped his hands into the filth of anonymous fake reviewing.
Lest you missed it in the myriad other places the story has broken on the web, Ellory was exposed writing gushing reviews of his own books, and – far worse in my opinion – writing one-star reviews denigrating those of his peers, including Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride. This was brought to light by fellow novelist Jeremy Duns, who when not penning spy thrillers, works tirelessly to expose unethical practices such as plagiarism and sock-puppetry.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for heroes. Guilty or not, Lance Armstrong’s refusal to go on fighting doping charges has disappointed millions, and Ellory’s behaviour is as baffling as it is saddening. You see, Ellory really is a phenomenally good writer. In fact, all the praise he heaped on himself in his ill-advised Amazon postings would have been well-deserved had it come from elsewhere. I’ve said it before, and I’ll willingly say it again – Ellory is a genius.
Make no mistake though, this isn’t a prelude to some mealy-mouthed, exculpatory nonsense about a genius wrestling with his demons. While we’re all human and prone to moral lapses (Ellory’s work, ironically, plays heavily upon this very theme) RJ Ellory is old and wise enough to know that “moronic” is about the most flattering way you could describe what he did. As an aspiring writer, I find it disquieting to think that even the very best can still take it upon themselves to knock their peers in a tawdry quest to make a few quid. Moreover, as an amateur reviewer, it’s depressing to contemplate that my own credibility might be damaged as a result of this. My own reviews of his work are as gushing as anything he wrote; can I now expect readers to see them without wondering if I’m a fake? Sadly I have neither the time nor the money to trek around the nation’s literary events, proving there’s a human being behind the Twitter handle and Goodreads account.
None of this is to say that his exposure isn’t a good thing. Duns is to be applauded for his hard work; he devotes endless hours to exposing fraud for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do. But why, exactly, has it fallen to one man (albeit ably assisted by a small core of other authors) to promote ethical standards in the industry? While Ellory’s actions are bizarre in light of his (now significantly damaged) stature, sock-puppetry has been seen by some more avaricious writers as a cornerstone of their business model. Surely we’ve reached a point where it shouldn’t be just one man’s bugbear that drives an ethical clean-up operation?
As an interested amateur, I have long been naïve enough to think that the arts world is populated by affable darlings who prize creative expression above all else. It seems I was desperately Quixotic in my outlook. While the product may be more noble than your average consumable, art is still business, and where there is serious business, there need to be serious standards. In comments sections across the web, some of the more pragmatic responses to this story have left me dumbfounded. Some argue we should take the prevalence of the practice for granted, and exercise caution when trusting content online. In what other sphere of life would we willingly accept a third of all communications to be lies? Would we tolerate every third TV advert making thoroughly bogus claims? Fat chance.
Others have argued that to dwell on the misdeeds of a few red-handed writers is to participate in an unedifying witch-hunt. I too am generally of the mind that righteous indignation is never far from hypocrisy, but I also think it’s important that writers, reviewers, bloggers and their ilk keep each other in check. Pointing out that willful deception is a bad thing doesn’t make anyone Joe McCarthy.
In terms of enforcement, I’m no technological expert. Talk of restricting reviews to verified buyers abounds, and I can grasp the pros and cons of such a move – assuming that lumbering bookselling behemoth Amazon was ever taken by the urge to clean up its profitable house. I’ll leave the suggestions as to how to legislate the principles of basic integrity to more educated minds than my own.
All I want from the world of publishing are a few simple things; to skim a review section without getting the feeling I’ve been cheated; to admire an author’s work without feeling like a dupe, and above all, to sign into Twitter and have the stories be the story.
So I like the Fifty Shades trilogy, bite me…
I’ve enjoyed reading the Fifty Shades books and it took me almost 200 pages into the second book to freely admit that. That realisation made me stop and think. Why was/am I so reluctant to ‘confess’ how much I like these books. Read more
In the last twelve months, I’ve smelled spilled blood in the High Arctic, witnessed the sectarian thaw in Northern Ireland, ridden with outdoorsmen through rural Wyoming, and read Mickey Spillane’s books from beyond the grave. Though my hernia-addled postman may disagree, it’s been quite a year. At time of writing, I’ve read just shy of 100 crime books, as such, feel moderately qualified to take a view on the greatest crime fiction hits of 2011. At risk of provoking vehement disagreements in our comments section, my personal top ten appear here strictly in the order I read them…
Our journey begins in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with The Drop by Ferryhill’s Howard Linskey. Gangland has always provided a rich thematic seam for British authors to mine, but few have done so with more panache than Linskey showed in this dazzling debut. The Drop is a sordid and violent tale, told with great vigour by the most promising debutant I’ve read this year.
Leaving Northumberland and heading to Denmark, the finest Scandi offering of another year’s plethora was Jussi Adler-Olsen’s sublime Mercy. Its parts are the stuff of well-worn cliché; a downtrodden detective working cold cases, a broken marriage and a pervasive Nordic miserablism. But, through exceptional prose and the introduction of one of the most engaging and complex sidekick characters, Mercy towers above the ordinary. Morck and assistant Assad will return in English in mid 2012; the wait has been killing me since January this year.
The award for most poignant book of the year must go to Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist, deserved winner of the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. With a mute protagonist who never says a single word, Hamilton tells a tale of love, exploitation and alienation, managing to weave such noble and evocative themes around a full-blooded thriller.
Staying with our cousins in the USA, Ryan David Jahn’s The Dispatcher offered an all-too plausible account of a protracted abduction. Jahn’s writing has strong overtones of Stephen King, capturing the crushing hopelessness and insularity of small towns in the American south, rounding off with a bullet-riddled finale.
From dusty American settlements to Gothic English country piles, in July my mind was blown by the effortless excellence of Erin Kelly’s The Sick Rose. A brooding and brilliant character study in two parts (and two eras), it introduced us to Paul and Louisa, two people haunted by their own dark pasts. Kelly’s eye for emotion is staggering; the scenes where she describes the youth of an awkward adolescent are more vivid than my memories of actually being one.
The opening segment of Tom Rob Smith’s Demidov trilogy struck a blow for crime fiction by finding itself long listed for the Booker Prize. As the trilogy drew to a close in Agent 6, Smith examined the death throes of Communism through the prism of a very private tragedy. Smith tells a ripping revenge yarn spanning three decades and half the world, and does so while taking a sledgehammer to the established orthodoxy surrounding the politics of the Cold War.
I suspected at the time that Simon Spurrier’s A Serpent Uncoiled would be the most original book of the year, and am unsurprised by the lack of serious competition for the title. Twisting the hardboiled genre into a delusional distortion of itself, A Serpent Uncoiled is part crime, part magic realism, and wholly superb. The story is labyrinthine, with a deliciously deranged cast of characters, but the strength of the book is Spurrier’s endlessly creative prose. Barely three lines in, as the pigeons “choked in moronic bedragglement,” I was hooked.
For a statement on the geopolitical state of affairs, eschew the papers or the TV, and buy a copy of Alan Glynn’s Bloodland. It flits across borders and social castes, casting a gimlet eye over a vacuous celebrity culture, democracy as oligarchy, and the systematic looting of Africa. This is no mere essay though; Bloodland is a pulsating drama from start to finish. I was fortunate enough to meet Glynn earlier this year; the proudest possession on my shelves is a copy of Bloodland, inscribed for my daughter, that in the future she might better understand the year of her birth.
RJ Ellory was, bafflingly, subject to endless rejections from publishers, writing 22 books before getting his foot in the door of the literary world. Publishers told him there was no market for an English writer writing about America. As I closed the final page of Saints of New York, I was caught between marvelling at Ellory’s brilliance and laughing at the publishing industry’s Decca-esque failure to identify genius. Saints of New York is a tale of one NYPD detective’s redemption, fusing history, Mafia folklore, and philosophy, and driving the combination home with irresistible emotional force.
And finally, for me, 2011 has been the year of CJ Box. His consistently high level of quality makes it hard to pick just one of his books for the top 10, but the sixth in the Pickett series, In Plain Sight, is a deserving representative. A tale of a blood feud that tears apart the town of Saddlestring, In Plain Sight is the darkest of Box’s books, and represents the very best of his output; excellent characterisation, thematic complexity and an abundant love of his native Wyoming.
Overall, 2011 has been a fantastic year to be a Bookgeek… roll on 2012!
We’re delighted to be able to offer Bookgeeks readers a sneak preview of Simon Scarrow’s latest Macro and Cato adventure, Praetorian:
The city of Rome in AD 50 is a dangerous place. Treachery lurks on every corner, and a shadowy Republican movement, ‘the Liberators’, has spread its tentacles wide. It is feared that the heart of the latest plot lies in the ranks of the Praetorian Guard. Uncertain of whom he can trust, the Imperial Secretary Narcissus summons to Rome two courageous men guaranteed to be loyal to the grave: army veterans Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro.
Tasked with infiltrating the Guard, Cato and Macro face a daunting test to win the trust of their fellow soldiers. No sooner have they begun to unearth the details of the Liberators’ devious plan than disaster strikes: an old enemy who could identify them, with deadly consequences, makes an unexpected appearance. Now they face a race against time to save their own lives before they can unmask the mastermind behind the Liberators…
Praetorian is published on the 10th November. Look out for a review here on Bookgeeks soon.
The Taklimakan is one of the world’s most feared deserts. The name, translated from the local Uighur, means ‘go in and you won’t come out.’ In the morning the rising sun turns the raked cliffs of the Flaming Mountains to violet; later in the day, under the furnace heat of the sun, they will burn oven-red.
On his epic journey Josseran Sarrazini would have watched these same mountains day after day. It is strange – not certifiable, I hope, but maybe – that someone who never existed should be so real to me. But I rode with him through every step long before I came here, saw it all through his eyes; from the Imperial post houses of Cathay to the caravanserais of Persia. It is perhaps not surprising that I see his ghost everywhere.
And ghosts and ruins are mostly what remain now. Like Xanadu, made famous by Coleridge’s unfinished poem; this fantastical city was not an opium-inspired rapture, it was once a real city, Khubilai Khan’s summer capital, Shang-tu. Now it’s just a few stones behind a grassy mound.
The Silk Road itself was not just a single road, like the M-26; it was a complex spider web of routes that linked Europe with Asia, twisting through China and over India, Persia, Egypt, Somalia, and Arabia until it reached Southern Europe.
It created a ‘global marketplace’ for the first time in human history; it was also a super highway for the transmission of cultures, ideas and religious belief, Man’s first tentative steps towards going online.
Eight hundred years ago, to travel the Silk Road was to undertake one of the most extraordinary journeys imaginable. It was like you or I being sent, without any training, to Mars. For a westerner of the time, restricted in thought and beliefs by superstition and the Inquisition, it must have been quite literally a life-changing journey. Even those that made it back would have been changed irrevocably, exposed to philosophies and knowledge beyond anything they could have conceived.
The world was a really big place back then. Now we have jets instead of camels, and Imperial post riders have been replaced by mobile phones and Twitter.
One night we stay in a guest house in Turpan, officially the hottest place on earth. The owner does not offer me the use of his wife and daughters for the night, as was the custom eight centuries ago. Even if he had, I don’t think my wife would have appreciated it much. There is only so much you can do and call it research.
Later we take the bus to Xi’an, which is an unnerving experience, even today. China’s roads have the highest death toll anywhere in the world, the bus drivers here all play chicken with each other at night with their headlights on high beam. Our dodgem bus drive to hell pauses at dawn for a rest stop at an oasis town. I use the word ‘oasis’ loosely. It’s a truck stop with a barbecue pit selling parboiled goat.
But it was much rougher back in the thirteenth century. Instead of oncoming trucks the dangers were bandits and civil wars and black hurricanes; and Josseran had the same choice between eating semi-raw gristle or starving, same as I do, only not nearly as often.
A dust devil hisses along the side of the road; I see him smile through the swirling grit. “What’s wrong with you, brother?” he shouts. “I did this for eight months, and still had to return. There’s a Hilton waiting for you in Xi’an. What have you to complain about?”
Silk Road by Colin Falconer is out 1st October published by Corvus
My book heaven is a single book, though it’s one that’s big and all-encompassing enough to get lost in – to live in, it almost feels like. I’m talking about Little, Big, by John Crowley: my favourite book that no one has ever heard of; actually my favourite book of all time. It got a bit lost here in the UK, partly I think because it was landed with a trad-fantasy cover, when really the book is so much more than that (Harold Bloom named it as one of the hundred greatest books of the 20th century.) If you do want to check it out, by the way, I recommend importing the beautiful Perennial edition from Amazon.com.
How to describe Little, Big? On the surface, it’s a book about a man who goes to a strange old house in upstate New York to marry a girl named Alice Drinkwater. But if I say that the house has several sides, and one of those sides faces on to Faery, you get a bit more of a sense of the feel of it. However, what isn’t easily imagined is the sheer power to envelop that the book possesses. A bit like House of Leaves, but without the post-modern trickery, this is a ‘house novel’ in which the house folds out, origami-like, seemingly beyond the wall of the story, to encircle the reader. It’s also a novel about many of the things that fascinate me: the ur-stories that crop up in different mythologies around the world (there is a strand concerning the German ‘king who will rise again’, Barbarossa, a motif that we know better from the tale of Arthur); the notion of the Palace of Memory; the hermetic idea, suggested by the title too, of ‘as above so below’. It’s about how we can construct vast structures and edifices – stories, or imaginary palaces in which we can store our memories – that are utterly without physical manifestation yet are utterly real. I think what it is saying, on one level, is that fairies are as real as love, as real as memory. I love that idea.
More than anything, though, it’s an attempt, in a vast and sprawling novel filled with characters more real than almost any I have encountered, to encapsulate an entire philosophy of life. Not one I could possibly put into words – that isn’t really the point, anyway – but a true one nevertheless. You close Little, Big, after its incandescent and impossibly moving ending, and you feel that you understand something about the cosmos, about the true nature of fairies, about mythology, memory, love, punishment, the right relation of objects and thoughts, and what it is to be human.
And then you blink and it’s gone. But it’s all right. Because you can always read Little, Big again.
My book hell is easy. My book hell is sci-fi. Of any kind. I just can’t bear it.*
* Except, you know, The Stars My Destination.**
** And The Demolished Man.***
*** OK, let’s just say ‘sci-fi apart from Alfred Bester’.
Nick Lake is an editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. He received his degree in English from Oxford University.
His first novel, Blood Ninja, was inspired by his interest in the Far East, and by the fact that he is secretly a vampire ninja himself. His second novel, Lord Oda’s Revenge, has just been published by Corvus. Nick lives with his wife in Oxfordshire.
Bookgeeks is pleased to announce that more people than ever will soon be reading our reviews – courtesy of the new digital magazine STUDIO. Set to launch this summer is STUDIO, Britain’s first film magazine aimed at a female audience. Packed with witty editorial and Hollywood news, this monthly digital title is aimed at women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, and aspires towards fulfilling the needs of women who are enthusiastic about Hollywood film and entertainment who are overlooked and dissatisfied by current titles.
An innovative and new monthly digital publication, STUDIO will be available for readers to buy, search inside, read, and save its digital content worldwide; and can be accessed on a variety of devices, including both PC and Mac desktop computers, iPads, iPhones and other Android tablets.
STUDIO will be launching on 12 August 2011 featuring an exclusive interview with its very first covergirl – Anne Hathaway. Initially aimed at the UK market, developments are planned to make it appealing to English speaking countries worldwide; and will be hosted and distributed by Zinio – the world’s largest digital newsstand.
STUDIO regular sections comprise:
- Hollywood Happenings – a light-hearted look at what is happening in Hollywood.
- First Look – a sneak peek into what films will be hitting our screens.
- Style Spy – front row on the red carpet at the latest premiere and award ceremony.
- Steal That Style – exclusive interviews with Hollywood’s top make-up artists to the stars.
- Plus exclusive interviews, reviews and articles on topical events within the film and entertainment industry.
Bookgeeks’ contingent of women reviewers will be providing the contents of the book review pages, focusing on books that have been or will be making it to the silver screen.
In 1990 Nelson Mandela emerged, like a genie from a bottle, from Victor Verster prison. He went on to work his political magic, fashioning a rainbow nation that arcs, at times, above the murk of South Africa’s history. Seventeen years after Mandela’s release, years that I had spent trying to fathom the criminal violence that blights our democracy, I returned to that same prison. I was one of a group of writers invited by the Franschhoek literary festival to attend a prize-giving ceremony for poetry written by inmates and to spend an hour with them. At the end of the event, a shy young murderer asked me if I would come back. I said I would. It was quickly organised and I did, returning every Friday to teach creative writing to a group of 15 maximum-security prisoners.
The first time I drive out to the prison I am afraid. Afraid of what it will mean to work so intimately with the men who fill our newspapers with broken bodies and turn our dreams into nightmares. The guard waves me through the prison gates and I drive past the lawns, the beds of roses; the public face of the prison.
It is only when I turn past a stand of blue gums that I see the prison itself. It is made of mesh, a giant aviary, three storeys suspended between metal poles. There is bedding hanging from the steel bars. Thin brown hands extend through the bars rattling spoons against the mesh.
A gate opens and a group of men in orange surge towards me through a tunnel of razor wire.
“Your guys from maximum,” says the education officer who has made this mad scheme possible. They are tattooed and hard-bodied, bigger and tougher than the denim-clad juveniles coming towards me from the opposite direction.
I follow them into the gym. There are weights at one end, basketball hoops at the other. I have been allocated a corner and the 15 men I will be working with cluster desks around me. Other men – 50 or more, all in orange – file in after me. They pick up weights, watch me, ask the men with me what we are doing; only drifting off when the wardens insist.
Where to start unravelling the threads that twinned these men with me?
Childhood seems like the time in their lives that we can manage together. Glimpses of the boys they once were emerge in anecdotes of casual deprivation. A beating with a belt; a fishing trip on a boat with a father briefly sober; angry mothers with blackened eyes and too many children; school attempted and failed. For one man, though, there was a blue-and-yellow bike for his ninth birthday.
It is hard not to touch an arm here, a hand. Touch is a language that comes easily to me, but how does one speak it in a men’s prison? A headache pulses, twisting and lumping the muscles on my scalp, knotting my shoulders. I do not have a way to integrate the humanity of these men, what we share, with what they did that brought them to this place.
We take a break halfway through the three hours. I need the loo but there are no facilities for women. An armed warder leads me to a bathroom. He searches it. There is nobody hiding, but the door does not lock so he stands guard outside. In that moment, silence falls in the gym.
The workshops settle into a rhythm. I go out every Friday, we talk, we work, we write. We read poetry together. “My Papa’s Waltz”, a clean-lined beauty by Theodore Roethke, is about fatherhood and fear and yearning. For these men, there is an umbilical connection of form and subject matter. For the first time most of the men read their poems about absent, or feared, or longed-for fathers.
Then a tattooed gangster stands up and reads aloud for the first time. I suggest that he sends his poem home. Some weeks later, he tells me, his ex-girlfriend brought his six-year-old son to visit.
“I held him,” he points to his chest. “I can feel him in my heart.”
I think of that little boy who has a poem from his father telling him how he wanted to be a father to him, even if he failed; telling him that he loved him even if he did not know how. It is more than many boys have. It was more than the 15 men I worked with had.
One dropped stitch caught, perhaps, in an unravelling social fabric.
At the end of the year I had piles of handwritten stories and poetry on my desk. The paper carries with it the unique smell of the prison: a dusty grey hopelessness of lives turned to ash. It turns the stomach, but working with these men has helped me understand why South Africa is so violent. It also taught me to find a connection between those we discard through fear, through revulsion at what they have done, the families they have shattered, the violence they perpetrate.
The only path open to many township boys is so hard, so brutal that it annihilates the young and vulnerable self, the “bud” self, if I can call it that, that desires community, family and love.
Rashied Wewers, the oldest man in the class, wrote this for me as a farewell note:
A book with a damaged cover, but what is
Written between the lines could save a country
From a disaster.
Margie Orford is an award-winning journalist, photographer, film director, author and Fulbright scholar. Born in London, she grew up in southern Africa. She was detained as a student activist during the State of Emergency in 1985 and wrote her finals in prison. She lives in Cape Town with her husband and three daughters. Her novel Daddy’s Girl will be published this month.
I’ve played music all my life, but I’m no musician. After my initial childhood music lessons I parted ways with the playing of classical music. I’ve been a guitarist and bassist in various rock bands in New York and elsewhere. Less sexily, I played glockenspiel in my high school band.
Still, I knew that if Mozart’s Last Aria, my new historical thriller, was to succeed, I’d have to write convincingly about the great composer’s music. About its structure. Its performance. And the intellect behind it.
In other words, I’d need to imagine myself into the world of true musicians and into the head of the genius who wrote the most stunning music anyone has ever created.
The premise of my novel Anno Dracula is that Count Dracula defeated Van Helsing and his circle of followers and conquered Britain in 1885, marrying Queen Victoria and becoming Prince Consort. This encourages the world’s vampire population to live openly among regular humans (‘the warm’) and fosters the spread of Dracula’s own bloodline of vampirism among all sections of 19th Century British society, from the palaces to the slums. In addition to historical characters like Oscar Wilde, Jack the Ripper and the Elephant Man, the book includes familiar figures from Victorian fiction, like Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau, Professor Moriarty and Mycroft Holmes … along with all the other vampires of literature and film, including Lord Ruthven (from Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’), Varney the Vampyre and (in one of the subsequent books in the series) the Count from Sesame Street.
Many readers have enjoyed the large casts of the books, and some have made lists of the borrowed characters, tracking them down to their original authors or spots in history. I enjoy the game aspect of the books, too – though I tend to cast around for someone who’ll fit rather than stop the plot to allow for a guest star appearance. When I needed a particularly loathesome vampire for the job of Governor of the Tower of London in the Dracula administration, I had a choice of many pre-existing monsters and went with the Graf von Orlok, from the 1922 movie Nosferatu, as the sort of rat-faced human stick insect even Dracula might not be comfortable sharing a room with (the more so in that von Orlok is literally a shadow Dracula, created to stand in for the Count in an unauthorised adaptation of the novel). When I wanted a prostitute/Jack the Ripper victim to reminisce about a stuffy, hypocritical client, Henry Wilcox – from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End – fit the bill, and in fact the backstory Forster gives him dovetailed perfectly with the requirements of my own plot. I did feel the need to do a few simple jokes, like the one with Anne Rice’s posy vampire complaining that his shirt got ruined in a riot … but even that is worked into a strand about a new breed of fashionable vampire who’ve only been undead for five minutes but already own six velvet cloaks and a silk-lined coffin and generally act the goth part (which, in the Anno Dracula world, inspires Gilbert and Sullivan to make fun of the trend the way they satirise Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes in Patience). It all feeds back into the story, and the exploration of the imagined, alternate, satirical mirror-world.
Which means I’ve a bunch of off-cuts that didn’t get into the book because there was no place for them (some might yet worm their way into the forthcoming Johnny Alucard – but some will get left out again). So, here are elements of the Anno Dracula world you can take as canonical but, for one reason or another, haven’t made it into the books (yet).
- The Hound of the Baskervilles. In Anno Dracula, I establish that Sherlock Holmes is viewed as a dissident and has been clapped up in a concentration camp (Devil’s Dyke) in Sussex. What I didn’t have room to explain is that this means he and Dr Watson weren’t available to investigate the persecution of Sir Henry Baskerville on Dartmoor. Unimpeded, the dastardly missing black sheep of the family Rodger Baskerville (posing as Stapleton the butterfly collector) pulled off the trick with his luminous dyed dog and drove Sir Henry to his death on the moors, then came forth to claim Baskerville Hall, inherited the fortune and lived to a ripe old age surrounded by his family. However, his own heirs inherited his disposition, so at least he was finally poisoned in 1953 by great-grandchildren who injected puff adder venom into his breakfast egg.
- The Producers. In 1967, the New York production company of Bialystock and Bloom set out to mount a surefire loss-making Broadway disaster and stage The Count and I, a musical about Dracula’s marriage to Queen Victoria starring Jim Morrison and Dom DeLuise. It runs for twenty-eight years, two years longer than the sentence B&B receive when their accountancy practices come to light. The hit songs are ‘The Pain in Vein’, ‘Coffin With the Fringe on Top’ and ‘Spring-Time for Dracula’. A 1970 big-screen adaptation, directed by Michael Winner, with Anthony Newley and Barbra Streisand is an epochal loss-maker for Hollywood.
- In the 1940s, when actual vampires are comparatively rare in California, a new style of vampire movie catches on in Hollywood, often created by European filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock who have real experience with the undead in their homelands, showcasing living actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich, who compete to seem paler and more pointy-teethed in a line of vampire-style evening gowns with flared collars, shoulder-pads and slit skirts. In movies like I Wake Up Bleeding, Double Interment, The Big Bite and Dead Women Are Dangerous, living private eyes are ensnared by predatory females and wind up bled dry in the gutter. The first movie star to turn vampire was Greta Garbo, who emerged from retirement to star in The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1947 and won her sixth Oscar as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate in 1967 before settling in to a long run as the matriarch on Dynasty.
- It is rumoured that the Beatles only progressed as a band after John and Paul drove a stake through Stuart Sutcliffe, their lone vampire member, to prevent him leeching off them forever. Their first hit record was a vampire-themed novelty track ‘I Want to Bite Your Hand’. The band broke up when John married Lady Misraki, the vampire from Anne Billson’s novel Suckers. Before that, they went on a spiritual pilgramage to the Temple of the 7 Golden Vampires in China and were rumoured to have drunk vampire blood during the recording of the Red Album. In 1974, Ringo produced Count Downe, a satirical vampire movie starring Harry Nilsson as the Son of Dracula, but it was suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain as a libel against a member of the British Royal Family and he was stripped of his O.B.E.
- In 2008, Will Smith stars in I Am Legend, the horrific story of seemingly the last vampire in a world overrun by living humans … persecuted every night by his former neighbouts and searching for his own kind amid the ruins left when civilisation has to rely on regular people to get by. All the reviews say the film isn’t as good as the Richard Matheson novel it’s based on, and note that none of the previewed endings are satisfactory.
Where was Nelson? Robert Wilton on the relationship between fact and fiction in an historical thriller
August 1805: Tom Roscarrock, apparently working for British Government’s Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey but with his loyalties increasingly suspect, was operating in northern France. Napoleon’s Army of the Ocean Coasts was poised at the Channel, ready to invade and destroy Britain as soon as the conditions were right. The fate of the British Empire was increasingly bound up in the question of Roscarrock’s motives and his affiliations, and how they overlapped and interacted with the movements of the French fleet of Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, sailing northward to escort the invasion fleet. This is the history being re-told in The Emperor’s Gold, out now from Corvus Books. It’s an amazing story of intrigue and deception – but for the researcher/author it presents a challenge. For The Emperor’s Gold is based on the archives of the Comptrollerate-General, discovered in the basement of the Ministry of Defence in London, and I can’t change history simply because it would make my writing easier.
Some of the challenge is just inert factual accuracy: when did Napoleon’s Army of the Ocean Coasts become the Grande Armee? When did the word ‘saboteur’ enter the language? Some of the challenge is what you might call historical logistics: I need Tom Roscarrock and Richard Jessel of the Comptrollerate-General to fit in three meetings with agents between the 23rd and the 25th of July; plenty of time, but how far can a man travel in a day’s riding from London, without over-tiring his horse? That means one of the meetings is going to have to happen somewhere like Aylesbury, but was Aylesbury big enough to have an inn in 1805, and if so what was the inn called? Oh, and the nice bit of evening atmosphere I’ve just written is going to have to become a bit of dawn atmosphere instead.
As part of his current blog tour, Giles Kristian, author of the Raven Trilogy, shares his influences and inspirations in an exclusive article for Bookgeeks.
I have always been drawn to the past. Everywhere I go and in everything I do I am confronted with the past and with an almost overwhelming sense of history. I catch glimpses of it in a thatched roof. I smell it in the smoke of a wood fire. I hear it in the languid sigh of waves on the shore and I touch it when I lay a flat hand on a rock at the fjord’s edge. I get enormously frustrated that I cannot go deeper, that I will never experience the past as it truly was and can only interpret it from a great distance. This is why I love historical fiction. A good historical fiction novel is a time machine, or the closest thing to one.
The other thing I’ve always been drawn to is conflict. To make war is all wrapped up in what it is to be human and will always be. I’m fascinated by it, horrified by it, and utterly compelled by it. In historical terms, I’m intrigued by warriors and great leaders, men who inspired thousands to fight and die for their cause; men like Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson, even Hitler to an extent. These men must have had such force of personality. I imagine you would have felt the charisma coming off them. These characters also make great subjects for historical fiction authors. Velerio Massimo Manfredi’s trilogy on Alexander the Great is superb. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read him since he changed his translator, which just shows how important that person is to your international success.
I loved David Anthony Durham’s Hannibal: Pride of Carthage. It’s a beast of a book but drew me in completely and I’ve always admired Hannibal Barca. Anyone who could unite disparate peoples and give Rome a good hiding must have been something special. Watch out for the fabulous Ben Kane’s Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, which will be out in June. Stephen Pressfield is another author who writes conflict brilliantly. He knows how warriors think. He has the knack of showing how, although the way in which wars are fought has changed beyond recognition, the mind of the fighting man has not. Perhaps somewhat predictably though, my favourite author is Bernard Cornwell (and not just because he was kind enough to read my first and say good things about it) because in my opinion he is a craftsman who has mastered his art. His stories flow effortlessly and he weaves in rich historical detail with the lightest of touches. His latest, The Fort, is not what you might call a typical Cornwell novel, but it is brilliant nonetheless. He makes the principal characters so human (in fact, most of them really lived) that you recognize them instantly. They are brave, selfish, impetuous, ambitious, stubborn, crafty – in other words they are flawed like all of us and as a reader you identify with them. There are no obvious ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys, just real people caught up in conflict. Plus, I admire Cornwell for having the bottle to ‘re-visit’ the American hero Paul Revere the way he does in this book. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.
When I began writing I would keep in mind my favourite novels and what I liked about them. I’m a sucker for the battles and the fights, so I fill my books with them. I enjoy writing fight scenes that make the reader wince. I want you to feel the blood slap your face. I want you smell it and taste it and feel the fear writhing like a serpent in your gut.
I read the The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell sixteen years ago. Along with the other two in the Arthur series it has lingered in my mind ever since. I hope one day that someone says the same about one of my books.
We are very excited to be able to bring Bookgeeks readers the first chapter of Simon Scarrow’s forthcoming Macro and Cato adventure, The Legion. Published on the 11th of November, The Legion is the tenth of Scarrow’s Roman novels:
Trouble is brewing in Egypt. Rebel gladiator Ajax and his men have been posing as Roman soldiers and attacking naval bases, merchant vessels and villages. Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro have been charged with the task of tracking down the renegade warrior before the problem gets out of control. Joining forces with Legion III, they hope to destroy their enemy on the battlefield. But the cunning gladiator has other ideas…
We hope you enjoy the extract – we will have a review of the book soon, and a Q&A with Simon too.
We’re very excited to be able to bring you ‘The Captain and Courtesans’, by Seth Hunter – starring Hunter’s naval hero Captain Nathan Peake, it tells of the Captain’s experiences in transporting a very unusual group of passengers. We’re bringing it to you to celebrate the publication of the third Nathan Peake novel, The Price of Glory (Headline) – we hope you enjoy it!
You can also read Jon’s review of the second book in the series, The Tide of War.
The It’s Good To Have You Back Guys Award
Thomas Pynchon and James Ellroy both did stirling work in shaking off the cobwebs with Inherent Vice and Blood’s A Rover respectively, but the award must go to Iain Pears for Stone’s Fall. Ten years after his fantastic An Instance Of The Fingerpost (probably the book I have given as a present more than any other) Pears revisited his favourite time-shifting, viewpoint changing structure to tell an epic story of the life and death of a turn of the century industrial baron. It builds brilliantly to a devastating climax.
The Mummy I’m Scared, Do I Have To? Award
I bow to few in my love of The Baroque Cycle, a 1,200 page epic about codebreaking, piracy and the rise of money across 17th century Europe. I was therefore excited about Neal Stephenson’s new one. That it turned out to be a seemingly longer book about a future society controlled by secular monks means I am now the proud owner of £25 door stop. My fault for being a wimp for sure, but life really is too short for 928 – that’s nine hundred and twenty eight – pages worth of secular monks isn’t it? Isn’t it?
The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowing In The Mind Award
Well of course this could have been Richard Dawkins’ latest meisterwerk The Greatest Show On Earth, but is instead a much smaller book – at least in size. Lewis Wolpert’s Why We Live And How We Die is an incredible journey through the structure of cells and is a story that is at once hugely complex and beautifully simple. Slip one in the stocking of someone who still thinks there is such a thing as chi.
The Actually It Was Like This Award
Mark Thompson’s The White War was the incredible story of a long forgotten front in the First World War. Voodoo Histories nailed the idiocy of widely held conspiracy theories that perpetually plague and corrode current political debate. But the award goes to Peter Preston’s We Saw Spain Die, an account of the lives and experiences of reporters and novelists during The Spanish Civil War.
2009 was the 70th anniversary of the fall of the Republic and still its story resonates in our murky blurred world as a story of easily identifiable political good vs evil. Certainly liberals of many stripes still fantasise over whether they would have had the moral cojones to join the International Brigade or file copy from a bombed out hotel in Madrid. This is an incredible story of the people who really did.
The Who Would’ve Thunk It Award
Who could’ve predicted that young adult horror fans would have titles as good as The Forest Of Hands And Teeth and The Enemy to get their zombified teeth into? But my biggest surprise was Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes, a scabrous account of a never quite made it pop groop doing battle during the Brit Pop Wars of the early 1990s. Haines is a clever, self-absorbed bloke but is also very aware of the chips he carries on both shoulders and how despite himself, he is in love with the thing he most despises. The results will be chastening for anyone wanting a career as a minor pop star but hilarious for everyone else.
The Old Reliables Award
Alan Furst’s The Spies Of Warsaw was another beautiful variation of the same faberge egg he has been polishing for twenty years. The same yet different to all his others, it is a wonderfully atmospheric pre War story of wrestling conscience. Robert Wilson wrapped up his terrific series about Sevillano detective Javier Falcon in dramatic fashion in The Ignorance of Blood and Jo Nesbo cruised to the top of the Scandi Crime League with The Redeemer.
But once more it is Boris Akunin who takes the biscuit. Not this time with either of his two excellent Erast Fandorin books, The Coronation or She Lover of Death, but with the last part of his frankly weird Sister Pelagia trilogy. This is because Pelagia and the Red Rooster is marvellously strange and quite the oddest and most unsettling crime book I have read all year. Akunin really is quite unlike any other author at work today.
Book Of The Year: The Day Of The Locust by Nathanael West
Yes I know the year in question is 1940 but West’s tragi satire, set among a motley crew of lost souls just about clinging on to their own Hollywood dream, gets right to the essence of our times more than any contemporary book I can think of. It nails our morbid obsession with empty celebrity as driven by boredom, self-loathing and a desparate need for sensation in a way that is equal parts horrific and hilarious. If that’s not enough, The Day Of The Locust gave the world a lead character called Homer Simpson. Much as I love The Simpsons I’ll take this one as saying something profoundly funny about 2009.
We hope you won’t mind normal service being interrupted for a day so that we can give ourselves a little plug.
As you may know if you’ve read our biographies, Simon A and Mathew have day jobs working in the new media industry. We work with several publishers and we’re proud to announce we’ve just completed the new Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook website for A & C Black.
We’re also very, very proud to be contributors in the real-life, non-virtual lovely paper book version of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2010. We’ve written an article for authors all about making some noise and promoting yourself online. And it’s introduced by Richard and Judy, (the book, not our article). And it has articles by the likes of J.K. Rowling, Julie Myerson, Mark Billingham, Joanna Trollope, Neil Gaiman, Simon Winchester and many other authors, agents, journalists.
So if you’re in a bookshop, please check it out. Or at least visit the new website which has tons of useful information for aspiring writers, illustrators, journalists and all other wordsmiths, as well as a burgeoning community.
* To the tune of Pigs in Space…
The Bookgeeks Virtual Reading Group got together (virtually, of course), to talk about Chris Killen’s bijou debut The Bird Room; here are some of the best bits of the discussion, including what we talked about when Chris dropped in to answer some questions…
SA: So, let’s get the discussion kicked off with some talking points:
Do you think the author’s focus on trivial and mundane aspects of his characters’ lives is significant?
Is the life that William ends up with solely a consequence of his own choices? Do others (Alice, Will) have some responsibility?
Do you think The Bird Room is a book about mental illness?
At what point did you work out that the man paying Helen was William (the narrator), rather than Will (the artist)?
Does William inadvertently redeem Helen by offering to pay her for sex?
By telling William that she was once in an amateur porno, does Anna sow the seeds of his subsequent obsession?
How much of what’s in the book actually happened, and how much is in William and Helen’s minds?
Did you get confused between William and Will? Do you think the confusion over the names was necessary to make the story work?
Would you recommend this book to people and what would you say to recommend it?
Here’s my selection of the books I have enjoyed most in 2008 (not necessarily books published in 2008).
The Pavarotti-Bot Award for Best Space Opera
Loads of candidates for this cherished award – the first new Culture novel of Iain M Banks for seven years, Matter, was pretty fine, and Peter F. Hamilton’s The Dreaming Void reminded me just how much I enjoy his forest-busting tomes. But for sheer enjoyment, I would have to pick Alastair Reynolds, both for the breadth of vision of House of Suns and the taut plotting of The Prefect. I can’t wait for his next offering.
Best Use of a Shrew in a Humorous Context
This coveted prize can only go to Nick Harkaway’s sublime The Gone-Away World, which offers a futuristic romp that I described as ‘Mad Max meets Catch-22 meets Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘ (actually, I didn’t, but I should have). I don’t think any other book has made me laugh as much this year, and the author continues to amuse me in his blogging and his other writing (look out for our interview with him in the New Year). The fact that Harkaway is John Le Carre’s son is genuinely incidental – his is a very different talent.
It’s time for a bit of self indulgent nonsense and my nominations for Books of the Year 2008 – or at least those books that for one reason or another have struck a chord over the last twelve months.
Surprise of the Year
Things To Teach Your Grandchildren by Mark Oliver Everett
A moving and amusingly wry coming of age account featuring suicide, death, cancer, teenage awkwardness, more death, pop stardom and quantum physics. I don’t love books about makers of music but this not only had me reaching for the CD shelves but actually had me look at life in a different light for a week or two. I will be giving a few copies of this as presents this Christmas.
The Timing Is Everything-Uncanny Prescience of the Year
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – by Nassem Nicholas Taleb
In which the myriad false premises beloved of otherwise super clever people in the field of economics are laid bare as the pseudo science they are. Or how the cleverest people in our society are also the most dangerously stupid. In any other year this would be a very funny book.
Simon A explains his involvement in the creation of some obscure Discworld art, and showcases the resulting drawings for your delectation and delight.
In 1993, after finishing my GCSEs, I spent part of the summer working for my stepfather Robin Drury’s graphic design firm, and I was lucky enough to be involved in the creation and commissioning of official illustrations of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld which have probably not been seen by anyone (outside my house, where a set of prints graces the walls) for many many years. I thought it would be interesting to shine a light on the drawings and the work that went in to them.
One of my stepfather’s clients was Clarecraft, responsible for producing official Discworld figurines. Bernard Pearson, who has gone on to enjoy a long association with Pratchett under the sobriquet of The Cunning Artificer, was the creative force behind these models, and he worked closely with Pratchett to get them right. Our main job was to create a catalogue of the models, and Robin decided we should commission an artist called Dan Pearce to create a set of illustrations in support of the main product photography. My job was to work out which scenes or settings matched up with the main groups of characters, and then to brief Dan on what to show in the drawings. Mainly, this meant I was being paid to read Discworld books all day and write bits down for Dan! I was in Discworld heaven…