Review: I Am Lazarus: Stories — Anna Kavan

I Am Lazarus: StoriesI Am Lazarus: Stories by Anna Kavan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read various novellas by Anna Kavan over the years — IceSleep Has His House, and Who Are You? The first two I read a very long time ago, and can remember little about them, although I know they intrigued me enough to continue exploring her work. The last I read only recently, and while it was enjoyable enough, it wasn’t particularly memorable. Still, Kavan continues to interest me, so I thought I’d try this collection of short stories.

The stories reflect in part Kavan’s time in London during World War II, and her work at a psychiatric hospital for soldiers. The stories tend therefore tend to the dark with neurotic. As is often the case with short story collections, some stories are enjoyable, some not so much. In particular, I found this collection slow to start, and it wasn’t until about thirty pages in, with the story “The Blackout”, that I found myself becoming engaged.

Some of the stories are very short, and feel as if they were notes or experiments for her longer works. And certainly, a couple of the stories have thematic similarities — dealing with a shadowy bureaucracy and a delayed and confusing “trial”, reminiscent of The Trial — and I felt these in particular were experiments towards a novel; I was unsurprised therefore to find that her posthumously published Guilty involves “a Kafkaesque bureaucracy”.

These short stories are, then, probably not the best introduction to Kavan; they might instead provide, for those already familiar with her work, insight into the obsessions and interests that inform Ice or Sleep Has His House. Indeed, it is those novels I would suggest to those interested in exploring Kavan.

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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm — Review

Where Late the Sweet Birds SangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This the first Kate Wilhelm  novel I’ve read, and I rather enjoyed it.This is, of course, her acknowledged classic, the winner of awards, and an entry in the Gollancz Masterworks series.

When a family of entrepreneurs and farmers see the apocalypse coming, they make plans — long-term plans — to protect the future of their family, and the future of humanity. The nature of the apocalypse has effected human fertility, so cloning will be required, and luckily, distributed around the inter-connected families, are large areas of farmland, wealth, technical know-how, and expertise in reproductive sciences. After much experimentation, human cloning is finally mastered — but there are limits to the technique. Cloned children look alike and, as with popular notions about twins, they think and feel alike. They become lonely when they are not together, even their sexual relationships revolve around each other. There are, however, especially among the first clones, some who learn or retain individuality. Such people cause problems for the gestalt experience of the clones; yet such individuality is required to explore the post-apocalyptic world. Clones who attempt to explore that world away from their brood siblings ultimately breakdown. The novel becomes, then, an exploration of the individual versus the group.

As so often, a work of science fiction, set in the future, about a future technology (cloning), seems beneath the surface to be a comment about the society and culture in which it is written. The main character of the second-half of the book, Mark, has a well-developed sense of individuality. Mark carves in wood and stone, he paints. He can track people through the woods. He wears moccasins and jackets of leather. He can use a canoe on the river. He loves the woods and being alone. He talks to trees. He is the very model of a rugged frontiersman, the kind of individualist who built America. And while we understand the reasons why the cloning technique was developed, and feel some sympathy for the clones, still the clones are weak in their togetherness, too much the same, and their empathy and sympathy for each other makes them fragile.

One can’t help wondering then, if this is, however indirectly, and however unexpectedly, a comment on a society that looks on its members with too much sympathy and empathy and provides them with too much, and on people who expect the state to provide; a criticism of societal control by elites; and ultimately a paean to the rugged individualist, liberal (in the European sense), anarchic, free-thinking and artistic.

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Dereham Connections – Node 3 – “Crossing the Line”

Having established (see previous posts!) that all the Nodes in the Dereham Connections have some linkage to Dereham, how are they connected?

Well, I can’t tell you too much without giving several games away. While all the books are designed to stand alone, inevitably, things happen in the books that will affect other books.

Still, Node 3 is called Crossing the Line. In Crossing the Line, several lines are crossed. Spies spy on people they really shouldn’t, agencies operate where they’re not allowed and chase information fruitlessly. An agent falls in love with the sister of the woman he was watching. Security services work with terrorists. A bad man becomes much worse. And all because Peta Shepherd might finally have discovered something and told nobody except Archibald Franklin Conn. Everybody is searching for information. Many people are searching for Archie, for various reasons. All Archie is searching for is an easy life.

Set in London, South Wales and Reading, in late 1972 and early 1973, Crossing the Line is the book that has least to do with Dereham. And yet the events in Dereham, described in Sorrow Mystica, are the impetus for the drama in Crossing the Line. And the man who Archie becomes in Crossing the Line reverberates through the connections and has consequences in 1976, in Node 5.

After the vague sci-fi feel of Sorrow Mystica, Crossing the Line crosses into the spy and thriller genres. There are no aliens or spaceships, no skywatchers or paranormal mysteries. But the aliens we meet in Sorrow Mystica, and their channel, Peta Shepherd, provide the McGuffin that propels Crossing the Line.

Crossing the Line should be available early in the new year.

(For more information on the series of Dereham Connections novels, see the Come to Dereham blog and Facebook page.

The Ladies of Butcher’s Row

One of my favourites of my own poems…

The Ladies of Butcher’s Row

There is, you see, this song I worked,
Assured in word, that once unstopped
Had a kind of water rhythm
And sunlight warped into its lines.

I took my words into the street
And sang to decorate the air.
One night I sang in Butcher’s Row,
Performing for the ladies there.

They dropped their knives and changed my song.
I tried to rule and train this change,
But still the choir conspired a way
To cleave and bleed into my air.

Now it had a chopping rhythm,
And blood they warped into the song.
And such unwonted harmonies!
I dropped to the road in awe.

Sorrow Mystica — Why Connections, Why Nodes…

The perspicacious among you might have noticed the subtitle to Sorrow MysticaDereham Connections: Node 2 — and wondered what that was all about…

Well, the novels so far written are all connected in some way. They are a series, a chronicle, or what have you. Informally, they were known for some time as The Dereham Chronicles; but that implied they were all set in the imaginary Dereham — that they were a chronicle of the town. However, the series is not so much about Dereham, as about people whose lives intersect and are in some way influenced by events in the town. (Although, if the books also lead you to want to move to Dereham, I’ll have done my job.)

Still, I wanted to give notice that the novels are connected in some way. I thought an overall title like A Dance to the Music of Time might work. But then I thought something like that might be a bit too… precious… for some scifi-spy-thriller-paranormal-romance-based novels; such a “series” title might make the books appear as, “that is to say, literature”, as Henry Miller once wrote. And the fact that at least one of the books is not set in Dereham bugged me. And then one day I concluded that the books were about the connections between the characters in them; it was the connections that were important. And that’s how Dereham Connections came to be.

And then I saw each novel as a coming together, a meeting point, of the strands and webs of the lives I was weaving, where the connections created a knot, a tangle of wires — a node. And that was how each book came to be called a Node. So why is the first book Node: 2? Because there is no Node 1. Not yet, at any rate. All the Nodes are ordered by when they are set – starting in 1971 for Node 2, and ending in 1984 for Node 6. But they might yet be published in a different order; expect the unexpected.

Anyway, here are the nodes that we — co-author Kevin and I — know for sure will be published over the next year or so:

Node 2         Sorrow Mystica                                                    
Node 3         Crossing the Line
Node 3.5      Genial — Being the Tale of the Courtship of Simon and Julie
Node 4         Raven of Dispersion
Node 5         The Ethical Hitman
Node 6         German Overalls

Only Node 6 remains unwritten — but I know what it’s about. There are notes. And it has to be written. Nodes 2 and 3 are co-written with Kevin. Nodes 3.5 through 6 are written solely by me.

There are other nodes in the pipeline, but they remain a little vague (and depend on my co-author)…

Review — “A Wrinkle in the Skin” — John Christopher

A Wrinkle in the SkinA Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another enjoyable slab of post-apocalyptic cosy catastrophe from John Christopher.

Earlier in the year, I read Christopher’s The Death of Grass. That was lean, taut, and gripping, with a particular grey bleakness. This book follows a similar pattern — ordinary people surviving a catastrophe — but here the catastrophe has a more unlikely cause: worldwide earthquakes that cause severe damage and disruption. Of course, the book was written in the early 1960s, when much less was known about plate tectonics, so colossal earthquakes perhaps had some plausibility.

Ultimately, though, the science is irrelevant, and to place post-apocalyptic novels in the science-fiction genre is perhaps mistaken. Because after the initiating disaster, such books inevitably become about people, about society and human relationships, about what makes state and society.

There is much to fear in the post-apocalytic world — rape, pillage, murder, illness, death. That much is made plain, and Christopher does not shy away from it. And in a lovely Ballardian moment involving a stranded cargo ship, there is madness and defiance too. In some ways, this is a novel that sits between the apocalyptic niche Ballard carved out in books such as The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere and the very British catastrophes of John Wyndham.

The prose is as clean and lean as in The Death of Grass. It has a kind of traditional, British style I associate with Orwell, Greene and Somerset Maugham, a style I find myself favouring at the moment.

This novel is, in in the end, less desolate, less gloomy than The Death of Grass. Its conclusion offers some optimism amid the devastation and wildness. There is, in the end, a kind of hope that, however hard it might be at that moment, in the future a good, just and fair society can be rebuilt.

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A Year (and a bit) of Manic Editing

As I noted in an earlier post, things have been a bit slow on this blog for over a year now. This is because I have been editing books, preparing to send manuscripts to agents, sending them to agents, doing more editing, getting other books ready for self-publishing, and so on. And as I write every day for a living (I’m a technical author by trade), I’ve had no time to add blog-posting to the authorial mix. However, I’m hoping that I might temporarily find more time as I’ve just self-published a novel, so I’m not currently editing or writing … well, not for a couple of days, at least…

I talked about History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing in that earlier post. In addition to that book, I have published two other books over the last eighteen months.

The first of the books published was The Dead John Miscellany. Six years ago now, one of my best friends, and my co-author on In Alien Heat, died. He had made me executor of his estate, and I knew he wrote stories, poems and lyrics. I also knew he was reluctant to share them, as he could never finish editing them, and anyway thought they could never match the standard of his heroes. I also knew that though many of his friends knew he wrote, few had seen the results of that writing. I decided, therefore, to self-publish a book of his writing that I could give to the other beneficiaries, and also sell on Amazon. After all, should it by any chance sell a million, the beneficiaries would be even better off than John expected!

I finally got around to collating and editing the notebooks and scraps I had found in spring and summer last year. I worked out which were the best drafts, or, at least, which pages from various drafts made the best final draft to my eye and ear. My wife and I then typed them up, formatted them and prepared them for self-publishing. One decision I made early on was to not include in the poetry section the lyrics that John had written for a band we were both part of when we were young. A teenager of the 70s, John had long been an admirer of lyricists, starting with Marc Bolan, and then Pete Sinfield, Peter Hammill, Tom Waits, Mike Scott, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and so on. The lyrics were to have, then, their own section.

After about six months of editing, drafting, editing, and drafting again, I finally published the book. The beneficiaries were very happy to finally see his writing, and various of his friends bought a copy of the book. I think John would both hate me, and be secretly pleased, were he not an atheist who is utterly dead.

So what is John’s writing like? Odd and elliptical, full of symbolism and ritual, and making oblique references to the I Ching, religion, sirens and funerary rites. Everything has an air of elusive and illusive mystery. There is one particular obsession I will not reveal, preferring instead to leave the reader to discover.

After The Dead John Miscellany, I worked on the aforementioned History of a Mystery for six months.

Then, having chased a couple of novels around agents, and realising that I wasn’t getting any younger and that preparing and chasing manuscripts around agents was actually preventing me writing another novel, I decided to self-publish the first book in what has become a series of six (or seven) novels.

This first novel, Sorrow Mystica (Dereham Connections: Node 2) had already been drafted many times before being sent to agents. This did not, of course, prevent it being checked and edited twice more; and then, when I went through the process of publishing to CreateSpace, I checked and rechecked the proof about twenty times (and found ugliness on each occasion!). Finally, this week, I decided that I could check no more without going insane, so released it to the world. Sorrow Mystica is a tale of UFOs, human and alien relationships, deceit and obsession.

The imaginary town of Dereham in an imaginary corner of Wiltshire is one of the settings for Sorrow Mystica, and is the location for other books in the Dereham Connections series.

You can get the latest information on Sorrow Mystica and the rest of the Dereham Connections at the Come to Dereham blog.