Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or socialability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

Review — The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber & Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber & Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this collection of short stories hadn’t been so short I might well have given up reading it. A sense of duty made me return to it each night. This was, after all, Angela Carter. And yet… Once upon a time — yikes, 35 years ago, as it turns out — I’d read another collection of her stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, and remembered little about it, such was the effect it had on me. And yet… I had once also found a second-hand copy of Love, her fifth novel, and read it with enjoyment. It was thus in the hope that I would find again what I had enjoyed about Love, while fearing that I would rediscover what I’d found in Fireworks, that I picked up The Bloody Chamber.

It was, unfortunately, another Fireworks I’d found. I wasn’t in the presence of stories, or characters, or, indeed interest. I was in the presence of a writer. I was in the middle of an explosion of beautifully-crafted, writerly sentences. I was eating a pudding laced with chocolate and brandy, smothered in double and whipped cream and custard. The taste was too heavy. The writing was so thick that it distanced me. In fact, I managed to read two pages of the final story, ‘Wolf Alice’ without really reading them — as if I’d been driving a car at night, listening to the radio, and found myself twelve miles up the road with no memory of driving them — because they felt simply like another wardrobe of extravagant finery. Two pages had gone into my eyes and whirled around my synapses, yet I had no idea what had happened in those pages — and I had no care to go back and find out. The story likely made as much sense without the two pages as it did with them. Wolves were involved.

I might try another Carter at some time, simply on the strength of Love. But if I do, I won’t be dipping into short stories again, and I suspect I will start with the earlier novels in the hope that the sauce isn’t quite as rich.

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Review — The Good Soldier –Ford Maddox Ford

The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. I had never previously read any Ford Maddox Ford, so didn’t know what to expect. I had no preconceived notions of topic, theme  or style. I thought there might be soldiers.

Written from first person perspective, the narrator might be speaking truth, might be lying, self-serving or just confused. And because of this, my feelings about the others characters, the characters the story is about, wavered and see-sawed. By the end, you might simply think everybody was bad in their own way. Or you might think them just the same as people everywhere. My feelings about them remain in the grey, unresolved middle.

Not knowing where the book was going, nor really what it was about, this Edwardian tale of a fine pair of married couples — one British, one American — soon subverted my expectations by becoming dark and twisty. I think I knew I was going to enjoy it, though, when the narrator, the husband of the American couple, goes on a train journey with the others and completely ignores his wife. Instead, he finds amusement in a cow that is knocked over in a stream by another cow. He laughs intermittently for the rest of the journey, still ignoring everybody else, and not telling them why he is laughing. This shows that there is something… distant and cold, perhaps, in our narrator, something a little cruel.

The novel is well-written. I enjoyed its style, even if it is deliberately rambling and non-sequential. Impressionistic and multi-threaded, it hops about and skates around in time. If you aren’t confused about something by the end of the novel, if you haven’t dropped a thread somewhere, I’ll be surprised. That is part of its charm.

The sheer size of another of Ford’s books, Parade’s End, had been intimidating me. No longer!

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So, Where Are We

A comment by one of my readers  about whether the Panylraeans – the aliens of the first book, Sorrow Mystica – return in later novels got me thinking about how I have arrived at a position where I know there will be at least seven novels (Nodes 0 and 2-6), and possibly eight if Node 1 (Operation Flashlight) ever gets finished. And possibly more. And that the Panylraeans may not (but then again, they might) return.

So – to begin at the beginning. The first of the Dereham Nodes to be written is the one recently published, Raven of Dispersion. As it was my first novel, there were things I wasn’t happy with, so several million rewrites occurred. Okay, so several million is an exaggeration. About twenty drafts.

During these travails I helped Kevin Goodman write his UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact. After we finished that, Kevin suggested we write something else. Knowing of his interest in science fiction and UFOs, I suggested fiction with a sci fi bent. Of course, Kevin wanted aliens in there somewhere. I wanted to subvert such notions. So we kind of compromised on a Ruth Rendell-style sci fi involving aliens, contactees, relationships and… well… read it, and you’ll see how it all came together. But, because Raven already involved the paranormal and young people looking for flying saucers, I thought it might be fun if we set at least part of Sorrow in Dereham, the ufological hotspot I had already invented for Raven. The seeds for a series were thus sown.

After I’d finished writing Raven of Dispersion and was editing that and Kev’s book, I had an idea for a novel I thought of as “Band Novel”, that would move the characters of “Raven” to 1984 — older, possibly wiser, possibly madder in some cases, some of whom would be, yes, you guessed it, in a band. So I started making notes.

However, while I was making notes for “Band Novel”, I was looking at some of my old writing notes, and noticed one that involved a hitman. What, I thought, if a bunch of young Wiltshire hippies were confronted with somebody who claimed he was a hitman? Wouldn’t they just think him delusional? And what if they started following him around. What would happen? And so The Ethical Hitman – which will be the next novel published – took shape.

Meanwhile, Kevin had become interested in what had happened to some of the characters from Sorrow Mystica, and what they might get up to after that book finished. So he started sending me rough ideas for a kind of thriller spy-type book. Given that I’d already started working on The Ethical Hitman, and knew “Band Novel” would happen at some point in the future, I could see ways to tie all these together, and make fun interconnections between all the books.

Kevin wanted  what was to become Crossing the Line to be a spy-thriller-guns-explosions type of book. But I wanted to subvert that. So, we compromised on a Ruth Rendell-style spy-thriller-guns-explosions type book. Yes, we were mashing genres. We wrote Crossing really quickly, enjoying ourselves immensely, finishing it and the drafts of Sorrow while I was still on draft 12 of Raven.

Sorrow Mystica and Crossing the Line are set in 1971/1972, while Raven of Dispersion is set in 1976. It made sense then that, when I decided to self-publish, the novels should be released in the same order as their timeline.

So next then will be The Ethical Hitman, Genial (both set in 1976), and then German Overalls (set in 1984).

Kevin and I are also working on Panlyrae: A Message for Mankind and Operation Flashlight, which would be nodes 0 and 1, and will be set in the 40s/50s/60s. These could be released at any point in the series.

And then, there might well be something set on the planet Panlyrae at some indeterminate point in the age of the universe. I have ideas…

There might also be something about a couple of characters from Dereham dithering about whether to take a trip on the Settle and Carlisle railway. This one will be a hoot. I might need Kevin to subvert the rather Ruth Rendell-ish, Anita Brookner-ish nature of it with guns, bombs, aliens and spies.

Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion” Published

Finally! Node 4 of the Dereham Connections has arrived.

Not quite in time for Christmas, unless you’re very quick – but it is finally published this year, at least. The book is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon, and available to order as a paperback from other places, I should imagine.

Raven of Dispersion is set in the imaginary Dereham, somewhere in an imaginary corner of Wiltshire, in a very real long, hot, summer of 1976. The mysteries that swirl about the town are about to entangle the young and the arrogant in ways they can’t imagine.

Six friends. Charlie, James and  Imogen, Stuart and Kate, Paul. They walk the sun-soaked hill tops, searching for answers, looking for UFOs. They talk about the occult. They drink, flirt, smoke and kiss.

Charlie had always fancied Imo. Tall, beautiful Imo. Everybody loved her.

Imo loved James. Except… Except, James was fond of his brandy, and at eighteen had already started down a road that led, Imo feared, to drunkenness and dissolution.

Imo was, however, happy that her best and oldest friend had fallen for Stuart. Handsome Stuart. Flirty Stuart. Lots of girls fancied Stuart, even Imogen once – much to Charlie’s chagrin. What Charlie feared most was that Imogen would one day leave James and take up with Stuart. Why he feared this outcome above all else, Charlie wasn’t sure. So when he fell for Paul’s younger sister Jane, he felt he could at last put all that nonsense about Imo behind him. It wasn’t like he was obsessed or anything. No, he wasn’t like that at all.

And Paul? He had studied the occult masters, and was a neophyte no longer. He knew how to perform the Banishing Ritual and Regardie’s Healing Ritual of the Middle Pillar. He had seen Raphael and Ariel. When he and James whimsically decide to work the paths of the Kabbala one night on Copsehill, what could possibly go wrong?

Everything…

Because when the Raven of Dispersion enters their world, a slow spiral into madness begins.

Raven of Dispersion at Amazon