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Monday, 20 November 2017

Book review - Mariette in Ecstasy



Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) is an unusual book in both format and content, which may explain why it took four years or so before it was published in UK (my paperback, 1995).

I bought the book as I thought it might help in my research endeavours for The Bread of Tears (see below), but as it happens I’d amassed enough material to progress my Sister Rose novel so this book stayed on my shelf unread for many years. Finally, I got round to reading it.


Hansen writes in the present tense, and the point of view is omniscient, which seems apt considering the subject matter is the religious life in a convent. It begins as though it was a poem:

Upstate New York.
August 1906.
Half-moon and a wrack of grey clouds…
Wallowing beetles in green pond water.
Toads.
Cattails sway and unsway.
Grape leaves rattle and settle again…
Wooden reaper. Walking plough. Hayrick.
Mother Celine gracefully walking, head down.
Crickets.
Mooncreep and spire.
Ears are flattened to the head of a stone panther water-spout…
… and so on…

Each separated by a scene-change space. Fortunately, these spaces do not contain the usual three asterisks; if they did, the pages would be peppered with them to distraction. Some scene shifts are only three lines of text, others one line. The shifts may be necessary as the point of view moves from one character to another: there are thirty-five nuns listed, their ages from 17 (Mariette) to 75.

Mariette is a postulant nun, the younger sister of the Reverend Mother Céline, 37; their father is the local doctor. Mariette’s beautiful and seems perfect in every way, a good hard-working pupil. And then she begins to bleed from hands, feet and side: genuine stigmata or a hoax? The various inhabitants of the convent are divided, some believing devoutly, others distrustful.

Hansen’s prose is in many ways like a screenplay, especially in the chosen tense, the visual descriptions and the scene shifts. A few critics point to the writing being ‘precious’; though I didn’t find it so: poetic in places, certainly. He masterfully captures the period, the daily life of a convent and its claustrophobic atmosphere. His powers of description put the reader there. Take, for example, two glimpses:

She sees cracked, parched lips and a trace of sour yellow; a forehead as hot, perhaps , as candle wax; frail eyelids that are redly lettered with tiny capillaries; green veins that tree and knot under the skin of her hands. (p91)

Mariette is giving her father the attention she would give a magician. She has imagined him through childhood as the king of a foreign country, but he has changed into a too-heavy man with a glossy moustache and unhealthy white nails and grey cinders of skin blemishes on his winter-reddened face…. (p96)

While not an easy read, with an inconclusive ending, it is a compulsive story. Across the Pond the book has garnered much praise and many favourable reviews over the years.

Ron Hansen is also the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (1985), the film being released in 2007. Mariette in Ecstasy was filmed (1996) but was not given a wide release.

***

The Bread of Tears


When she was a cop, she made their life hell.
Now she’s a nun, God help them!

Before taking her vows, Sister Rose was Maggie Weaver, a Newcastle policewoman. While uncovering a serial killer, she suffered severe trauma, and after being nursed back to health she becomes a nun. In her new calling she is sent to London to run a hostel for the homeless. Here, she does good works, and also combats prejudice and crime.

As she attempts to save a homeless woman from a local gang boss, events crystallise, taking her back to Newcastle, the scene of her nightmares, to play out the final confrontation against drug traffickers, murderers and old enemies in the police.

She finds her spiritual self and a new identity. She is healed through faith and forgiveness. It’s also about her surviving trauma and grief – a triumph of the human spirit, of good over evil.

This is a gritty and at times downright gruesome thriller. Written in the first person, Morton has achieved a true sense of feminine appeal in Maggie, the narrator, and despite her religious calling, she comes over as quite a sexy woman… I found myself totally empathising with this full-blooded, gutsy woman... All the characters and horrific events in this crime thriller are extremely visual and well-drawn, making this a riveting read. It would make a brilliant TV series! – Jan Warburton, author of The Secret, A Face to Die For

The Bread of Tears is available as a paperback and an e-book here.


'A fully realized literary universe'

My sixth collected short stories volume is Leon Cazador, P.I. (previously published as Spanish Eye but now with a bonus extra story).

It has just received a favourable review on Amazon, a snippet of which is here:

'... The Leon Cazador, P.I. stories are several cuts above the usual genre pulp adventure and invite readers into a fully realized literary universe where the stakes are often high, the characters complex, and the resolutions satisfying.'

The full review can be seen here:short



Leon Cazador, P.I. is available as a paperback and an e-book here
 
 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Zimbabwe coup 'predicted' ten years ago. Time with a Gift of Tears

Latest news about the 'coup' in Zimbabwe has echoes from my unpublished but previously printed science fiction novel's predictions... I even got the year right! (And of course thankfully got some events and dates wrong!)

Ten years ago, I took advantage of an offer to get one of my unsold manuscripts (Time With a Gift of Tears) printed in paperback form – for the princely sum of £60 for ten copies.  I’d tried the science fiction time travel novel MS with a number of publishers and agents, without success. I’d just had my first book published, a western, but that publisher didn’t publish SF or fantasy. As the story was time-linked and it featured a unique time-travel gimmick, I wanted to get it ‘out there’ to establish some kind of provenance.

The story took place in the UK in 2020, at the beginning of a race revolt; the time traveller goes there from 2033.

All these years later, it needs rewriting, not least because 2020 is too close now; also, since I hadn’t predicted the massive surge in smart phone usage, the ubiquitous and pernicious social media, and the switch from laptop to tablets, and of course Brexit.  Some predictions in the book for pre-2007 were: an Iraqi exodus, a Sellafield Accident, Zimbabwe escapees, legalising of cannabis in UK, Britain expelled from the Commonwealth (never saw Brexit coming!), and a terrorist attack on Sellafield… Here’s the timeline for subsequent years:

2014                                African exodus; Racial uprisings in UK; all British police armed

2015                                Solent Islamic Fundamentalist nuclear blast; legalising heroin; Lawless August

2016                                Limited War

2017                Politically Correct legislation; Typhoid epidemic; 13th Terror Scare; 
PC Legislation revoked; Zimbabwe settlement

2019                    Puritan ethics begin to sweep through UK; Asian Flu computer virus; Sexual Rebound to Puritan ethics

2020                                Race Revolt

2022                Race Revolt ended

2023                Common Sense return to norm after Sexual Rebound

2025                Compromise Peace; Race Revolt ended

It's been a long time coming, but it looks like Mugabe is going to be ousted; too late to save the country he has destroyed.

Needless to say, it’s fiction and not likely to happen – any of it. Still, a nice little coincidence!




Monday, 13 November 2017

Book review - Answer Death


Prolific prize-winning US author Richard Prosch has embarked on a new series of books. He introduces his new hero in a short story and then features him in a novel. Here are my reviews of both.


SPALDING’S GROOVE

Here we have two unconnected short stories. The first, ‘Spalding’s Groove’ is a third-person narrative that introduces us to Dan Spalding who has inherited a downtown record shop from his late brother, Mark. You’d think there wasn’t much drama for a record shop. But you’d be wrong. 

A has-been TV celebrity pops in to dump a few boxes of old LPs for a small handout. They are not what they seem, however… A neat little intro to a new crime series in an unfamiliar milieu.

The second tale, ‘Cinderella Makes Good’ concerns Mark, whose brother Dave had recently died in a car crash. It would be unfair to reveal too much, save to say that there’s a nice twist at the end in this story which is about revenge – and justice.  If I have one issue, it’s the use of the same character name, Mark, when there are so many others to choose from! An amusing reference to his car being nicknamed 'Cinderella' too!

Both tales manage to convey character and emotion, despite their short length. Give them a try – and then follow up with the Dan Spalding novel, Answer Death

ANSWER DEATH

Richard Prosch’s follow up to his short story ‘Spalding’s Groove’ finds his hero, retired cop Dan Spalding still in his record shop in downtown Ozark City, trying to make ends meet. Sure, vinyl never went away, and now it’s big again, but the day-to-day business is a struggle. He’s helped by easy-going technicolour Roxy.

Being an ex-investigator from the State Highway Patrol, Dan has good instincts. A couple of youths entered the store and stole a local celebrity LP. He gives chase but is stymied. But a vital clue is left behind…

Prosch’s first-person narrative captures the voice of Dan perfectly, a man knowledgeable about popular music over several decades, and a tough no-nonsense upholder of the law as well. Most popular crime novels stand or fall on their characterisation; Answer Death stands tall in this respect.

Descriptions are deftly sketched. Wit and humanity are balanced against sleaze and death, with plenty of one-liners to keep crime fiction fans happy. Death? Yes, there’s a murder or two and a few tense moments during a car-chase that involves Dan on his Indian motorcycle. The denouement is grim.

If you’re wondering about the title, it is apt. ‘For as long as there had been vocal music, there had been answer songs where a singer or songwriter responded to the work of a previous singer or songwriter…’ Two of the protagonists are vocalists, each attempting to answer the other with their own song. Trouble is, they might not like the answer… But the reader will like the book, for sure.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

'Impressive collection'

On Goodreads you'll find a review of my first short story collection, Gifts from a Dead Race (2017). Each of the 18 sci-fi/horror/fantasy tales prompts commentary. The last of the stories in this collection is 'A Gigantic Leap' (originally published in 2009).



A Gigantic Leap
Nik Morton ends on the best story in the collection. Yes, it’s alien bacteria premise might seem a little derivative, but the Soviet setting makes a refreshing change – particularly as it’s not railing against the system, just two people getting on with their lives. It’s an incredibly tense piece, but one that leans more to hope than tragedy. And hope is always a good way to end a big, impressive collection like this.


...
and on this Remembrance Day it is as well to foster hope for the future that, sadly, so many would never see.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Book review - Confined Spaces



Confined Spaces – Claustrophobic tales of terror

This collection of seven tales of terror is not recommended if you have a nervous disposition, are in any way paranoid or succumb to the modern disease of ‘snowflake-itis’.  If you’ve ever read any of Herbert Van Thal’s classic Tales of Horror, you’ll probably know what to expect, though you will still find each atmospheric offering tantalising and thought-provoking.


‘Adultery’ concerns a man and woman in a seedy hotel room, committing adultery. But then they hear something happening in the adjacent room. Something that tests their commitment and their sanity… A fine tale of tension.

‘The White Room’ finds an unnamed man regain consciousness in a white room. Trapped. He doesn’t know why. Food arrives while he is asleep. Confined, how can he escape? Hope burgeons in his chest. He discovers  a possible way to get out; if he’s careful, he can engineer a break-out. Patience over the days is required and, no easy task, he must keep his actions secret… A good nightmarish tale.

‘The Movie Star in her Ivory Tower’ is not so grim as the preceding stories. Elizabeth, a well-known actress, is confined in her hotel room, hiding from the paparazzi while Richard was out somewhere getting her ‘a surprise’… Trapped in a four-star hotel room. Despair very nearly overcomes her, the balcony beckoning… A sympathetic study of the price of fame, with a devilish twist at the end; Elizabeth would have approved.

‘Stonebridge’ isn’t a place but a person. Trevanion is trapped in a cellar beneath a great house that belongs to Stonebridge. How he got there and why promises there’s a grim and unpleasant fate awaiting Trevanion. This is a particularly gruesome tale, not for the squeamish!

The ‘Walkie-Talkie’ is held by the man buried alive. They can hear him pleading… and enjoy it. But they made a simple mistake…  Unpleasant characters who get their comeuppance. Dark!

‘Isolation’ is about a man who suffers from night tremors, imagining ‘the monster’ is hiding in the dark corners. There had to be a monster. Hadn’t Amanda vanished? The monster had taken her, perhaps… She had thought the flat was haunted. Leave the light on after you’ve read this…

‘Solipsism at the End of the World’ finds our nameless narrator staring out of his front window. After just over four months, he has decided to take a step outside. That was before he noticed that strange cylinder in the sky. And those creatures… Self-imposed isolation might be the safest option – but for how long?

Also included is the opening chapter of F.R Jameson’s haunting horror novel The Wannabes, which I also heartily recommend.




Monday, 6 November 2017

Book review - The Hard Way



Lee Child’s tenth Reacher novel The Hard Way (2006) is a slow burner but nevertheless keeps you turning the pages, despite the faults, repetitions and flaws. It’s the voice, you know, it’s compelling.


Jack Reacher’s having a quiet cup of coffee when he notices a man get into a car. Next day, at the same coffee house he is questioned about what he saw. This leads him to meet the wealthy though probably deranged Lane whose wife and step-daughter have been kidnapped.  Lane can call  upon a good number of ex-Special Forces guys, but they’re making no headway. Maybe Reacher can help.

In his methodical manner, Reacher  investigates. He finds that he has to do it the hard way, ‘start over at square one, re-examine everything, sweat the details, work the clues.’ (p129)

When he finally tracks down the kidnapper (searching New York, including Morton Street [fame at last?]), he realises too late that he has made a monumental mistake, which is kinda rare for this guy. The story moves from New York to old England.

Apart from a would-be thief getting a broken wrist, there’s not much action or violence until page 364 (397 pages in the book). Violence is spoken about, but it’s always second-hand, reported speech. One particular reported action is harrowing enough, so maybe it was as well to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ in this instance. If judged as a thriller, there’s too much talk and not enough action. And yet, and yet… You want to turn the page!

Reacher’s a hard man, but he possesses compassion. He can be passionate too. And violent when the cause demands it. There’s some humour, as well; I liked the phrasing here: ‘Up to the minute décor, a lot of minutes ago.’ (p252)

Editorial observations.

Repetition. This is overdone. Yes, sometimes it’s there to boost the tension, stretch the suspense. At other times, it just seems tedious. Take for example:
A guy: ‘You’re not wearing a watch.’
Reacher: ‘I always know what time it is.’ (p10)

‘You’re not wearing a watch,’ Lane said.
‘I always know what time it is.’ (p31)

This knack of Reacher’s, to always know what time it is, crops up often throughout.

Also, an explanation of ‘the hard way’ (see above) occurs again on p251, a mere 122 pages after the last one…

Annoying. ‘Reacher woke up and found himself all alone in the living room except for Carter Brown.’ (p65)
Now, he was either all alone or he wasn’t. Maybe: ‘Reacher woke. The only other occupant in the room was Carter Brown.’ That works.

Nothing wrong with this next piece, though it’s one of my personal bugbears which I try to avoid: ‘Then he went over it with Jackson. Jackson had a year’s worth of local knowledge which was less than Reacher would have liked, but it was better than nothing.’  (p357) Juxtaposing the name Jackson at the end of one sentence and then at the start of the next; I’d avoid. The second sentence could have worked like this: ‘Though less than Reacher would have liked, Jackson had a year’s worth of local knowledge, and it was better than nothing.’ [Plenty of other variants, I know…]

Unbelievable. Reacher is told that you can send written words by cell phone, and he didn’t know. This is 2006. I know Reacher does not possess a cell phone. But Reacher is an observant guy; so, he hasn’t seen people texting on their phones in the street, in the coffee shops? Don’t buy it.

‘… he was doing something he had never done in his life. He was buying clothes in a department store.’ (p272) I could believe he hadn’t done it for a long time, but find it hard to believe he’d never done it.

Reacher suggests staying in a low-profile London hotel, ‘where they don’t look at your passport and they let you pay cash.’ British hotels don’t require guests to show passports. Obviously they may require some kind of ID, but cash would, as suggested, obviate that.

Driving across flat Norfolk (‘probably the flattest in the British Isles ‘ (p357), Reacher observes a destination but sees far too much from the road, front and back door, etc., as if viewing from a higher vantage point. (p302)

‘…he started to pick up tiny imperceptible sounds…’ (p352). And yet imperceptible means ‘so slight, gradual, or subtle as not to be perceived.’ Barely perceptible would have worked here.






Sunday, 5 November 2017

Tell it in 100 words



Novelist Jeffrey Archer, who has sold about 300 million books worldwide, has set a writing competition to encourage budding writers.

The winner will receive £250 in book tokens and the top ten best entries will be published in The Mail on Sunday.

Flash fiction writers, give it a go!

Make every one of your 100 words count.

100 words excluding title.

Send your entry to shortstory@mailonsunday.co.uk.

Deadline midnight 17 November.

Here’s Lord Archer’s 100-word short story:

‘Unique’

Paris, March 14th, 1921. The collector relit his cigar, picked up the magnifying glass and studied the triangular 1874 Cape of Good Hope.

‘I did warn you there were two,’ said the dealer, ‘so yours is not unique.’

‘How much?’

‘The thousand francs.’

The collector wrote out a cheque, before taking a puff on his cigar, but it was no longer alight. He picked up a match, struck it, and set light to the stamp.

The dealer stared in disbelief as the stamp went up in smoke.

The collector smiled. ‘You were wrong, my friend,’ he said, ‘mine is unique.’

                                                               image - public domain

Good luck!