Review — “Sway” — Zachary Lazar

SwaySway by Zachary Lazar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intriguing diversion that attempts to connect the occult, death, and the later hippie culture. The novel centres around the Rolling Stones, the film maker and occultist Kenneth Anger, and Charles Manson disciple Bobby Beausoleil, and attempts to meld together the early anger of the Stones, the dissolution of 60s youth like Beausoleil, and the death of the hippie dream, using Anger as a device that connects those worlds.

The power of the novel lies in the descriptions of the mess that appeared to be the early, young, Rolling Stones, and, to an extent in the description of the development of Kenneth Anger.
Where it is weakest is in connecting all this somehow with Manson, and with death. Thanatomania (obsession with one’s own death) might be a theme that Anger is working through, and Mick and Keith might have written a song called “Sympathy for the Devil”, yet the connections remain flimsy. I don’t feel that the convergence and conjunction of these elements, these people, is drawing me towards the inevitable murders by The Family, nor towards tragedy at Altamont.

For all its subject matter of murder and death, the book lacks tension. For somebody of my generation (70s freak rather than 60s hippie), the stories of Brian Jones, the Family and Altamont are well-known; there is thus no element of surprise to the novel. What it provides instead is atmosphere, a kind of overarching view of a particular 60s weltanschauung.

It is, however, well-written, and well-researched. When it talks about the Stones, or about Anger, there is a feeling of verisimilitude. There are also nice turns of phrase that arrested my attention. It’s not essential, however, and it doesn’t really tell me anything new about the era, or explain why the peace and love movement ended in death. Yet, for those interested in such things, it is worth a read.

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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.

Review — “The Fifth Voice” — Paul Connolly

The Fifth VoiceThe Fifth Voice by Paul Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second self-published novel I’ve read, and proves — if proof were needed — that there are many more story-tellers out there than the gatekeepers of traditional publishing allow through those gates. Although, at the same time, I understand that the gatekeepers only have towns of limited sizes, and can only nourish a certain population they hope will be productive (and I think I’ve strained that gatekeeper metaphor quite enough…).

Anyway, this is the simple tale of a barbershop quartet — yes, I said barbershop quartet — and of the lives and loves of the members of that quartet. The fifth voice of the title is a kind of supernumerary voice created by the perfect unison of the quartet members, but in the book becomes a metaphor for.. well.. many things. The plot and subplots are straightforward enough, with few twists and turns. It is a kind of lighthearted romcom/bromance about singing people. You aren’t going to be surprised where the plot goes, nor where the subplots end up.

But then, not every narrative needs, I feel, to include intricate webs of tangled threads and unusual weltbilds. If this is an ordinary tale about ordinary folk you or I might know, pursuing artistic fulfillment or self-actualisation through ordinary, if slightly unusual, hobbies, it is nonetheless interesting for that. As is often the case, a novel can be introduction to worlds unknown — in this case barbershop and a capella singing, and Lundy Island — and thus enrich a world.

Ultimately, this was an easy read, about people I might know, with problems I might understand, told in an entertaining an engaging way.

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Review — “Adrift in Soho” — Colin Wilson

Adrift in SohoAdrift in Soho by Colin Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always had a soft spot for Colin Wilson’s fiction. Not all of it is good, and the science fiction/fantasy of
The Mind Parasites 
or The Philosopher’s Stone can be laboured and preachy, filled with characters constantly declaiming meaningfully about sensitive souls, and the meaningfulness of life, or action, or non-action, and so on. I am drawn more towards his crime novels, which — while also having a distressing tendency to contain characters who suddenly talk like extracts from philosophical popularisations — do have plots, and absorb these “intellectual” characters more ably into those plots. (It should also be noted that Wilson was extraordinarily prolific, and there are many more novels available than I have dared reading!).

Adrift in Soho is Wilson’s second novel (originally published in 1961 by Gollancz and republished in 2011 by New London Editions). The novel is set in the mid-1950s and feels like a roman à clef of sorts. The novel is written from the first person perspective of Harry Preston, who leaves the Midlands (as Wilson did) and moves to London (as Wilson did) in pursuit of a more “meaningful” existence (as Wilson did).

Once in London, Preston falls in with a bohemian crowd of artists and intellectuals as he attempts to live on the scant resources he has brought with him. The novel follows Preston’s adventures as he meets various bohemian and beatnik characters, largely centered around Soho; painters and philosophers and autodidacts and out-of-work actors. These characters are largely likable, although there is a large troupe of them, and we never get a chance to know all of them well. Several of them are, of course, simply mouthpieces for points of view that Wilson, or Harry Preston, can agree with or refute. The main characters of the book are, though, well-drawn, and stand out well enough in the zoo of minor characters to not become swamped by them.

Anybody who has read more than one of Wilson’s fiction or non-fiction books will recognise tropes, obsessions and concerns — will, freedom, the coming man, the sensitive man, artists of various types, the raising of consciousness, and Preston’s (Wilson’s) wavering between disgust and acceptance of the “ordinary man” and the “ordinary” life. And yet I find this all much easier to take dressed up in one of Wilson’s novels than in a more serious nonfiction work such as The Occult or The Outsider.

In the end, Harry Preston admits that though the people in this bohemian set interest him, he could never be a bohemian himself, as he is too bourgeois — which again reflects the reality of Wilson’s life. For although Wilson continued to think about “meaning” in life, and how humans would evolve towards some kind of “other” state, how their consciousness could be raised somewhere beyond the current mode of human existence, still he remained earthbound in Cornwall with a rambling house and a large library.

One attribute Wilson has always had — for me, at least — is an engaging, easy-flowing, writing style. It’s a little old-fashioned, perhaps, influenced by Somerset Maugham and Priestley, one feels; but I’m kind of old-fashioned in that way too. Adrift in Soho is, then, an entertaining, easy read that contains interesting characters and paints a picture of particular kinds of people in a particular location at a particular era — adrift between the end of the war and the dream-world to come in the 1960s.

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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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