Archive for September, 2010

Why I prefer physical books….

Posted in Books, General Musings on September 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I know I have touched upon this before in a previous post, but one of the things that I came away with from FantasyCon (apart from a mini-library that is) is an even deeper appreciation of the humble print book. During the weekend I came across two independent presses in particular (Raymond Russell’s Tartarus Press and Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press) that confirmed my abiding love of the physical object that is the printed volume, a reciprocated appreciation that something like a Kindle can’t give you. These two presses are at the extreme ends of the format spectrum – Nightjar specialise in limited-edition chapbooks, whilst Tartarus go for the sewn and lithographically-printed hardback, complete with dustjacket and silk ribbon marker. However, there is one thing that they both share in common: high quality.

Tartarus Press’ books just reek of quality. You only need to pick one up and handle it to find that out. The dustjackets are plain, with title, author and a small graphic on the front. Remove that wrapper, however, and you’ll find decorated boards, high-quality binding and beautifully-printed interiors – not showy, but understated and restrained. Looking through their catalogue, it’s full of books by both new writers (like Angela Slatter and Simon Strantzas) and classic authors, like Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, Walter de la Mare, Washington Irving and Lafcadio Hearn. If nothing else, these writers deserve, and get, such fine treatment.

To some, the Nightjar chapbooks may seem flimsy, containing as they do just the single story, printed in less than twenty pages, but look beyond that superficial impression and it’s immediately obvious that, no less so than the Tartarus books, quality veritably oozes out of them in buckets (to use a vulgar expression). It’s an attribute that’s plainly obvious in the stories themselves, more than that it’s also evident in the design work of John Oakey, with their simple (but highly effective) covers and clear layout. Additionally, the printing is clean and crisp, a fine advertisement for Reeds Printers of Cumbria. Plus they’re infrequently issued, coming out every six months or so, which means that Mr. Royle is extremely picky about what gets put out there. Furthermore, you get the assurance that a lot of care and attention to detail has gone into each and every release.

What I am getting at here is that I can handle the books, turn them over in my hands, smell them and touch them. I can’t do that with a Kindle, for instance – to me, it’s just a plastic box with a screen with thousands of digitised books stored within. No tactility, no smell and no texture. Just dead plastic. I know that the ebook market is currently assuming greater importance within the publishing industry, especially as it’s very advantageous to the writer – I would be a fool if I thought otherwise, being a writer myself. They’re also cheaper, even taking the cost of the e-reader into account, certainly over the long term. Add in to the equation the fact that they are also a wonderful way of transporting all your favourite books without the hassle of having to carry them. Definitely good for people on the go.

But e-readers are not for me – I guess I am just an old romantic at heart. I love the whole ritual of reading a book – getting it down from the shelf, opening it, getting a waft of the aroma of paper and then sitting down to delve into the worlds of the author’s imagination. I guess I interact with a physical book in a deeper way than I would do with an electronic device, even if it was the same book. It’s the total package, as far as I am concerned, that gets me excited – from the cover design to the story and the actual object itself. A set of bits and bytes, no matter how convenient, just doesn’t do the same for me. I will admit, putting my reviewer’s hat on for a moment, that PDFs are sometimes a convenient way of reading a book quickly for a write-up, but even then I prefer the actually thing itself – that’s much more to my liking.

I wonder if it’s a generational thing? My dad loved books, and passed that on to me. Maybe, just maybe, the new electronic devices are going some way in encouraging more youngsters to read for pleasure. And in years to come maybe THEY’LL be saying exactly the same thing about Kindles (compared to whatever device will be available then) as I am saying about books. Who knows?

For my part, I am nailing my colours firmly to the mast and sticking with old-fashioned books.

BfS Awards 2010: the winners

Posted in Events on September 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Photograph © 2010 to, and used with kind permission of, Conrad Williams.

Here, as promised in yesterday’s blog, is a list of the winners of this year’s British Fantasy Society Awards, which were given out at FantasyCon 2010 on Saturday, 18th September 2010:

Best Novel: the August Derleth Fantasy Award

ONE, Conrad Williams (Virgin Horror)

Best Novella

THE LANGUAGE OF DYING, Sarah Pinborough (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU WAKE UP IN THE NIGHT, Michael Marshall Smith (Nightjar)

Best Anthology

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 20, edited by Stephen Jones (Constable and Robinson)

Best Collection

LOVE SONGS FOR THE SHY AND CYNICAL, Robert Shearman (Big Finish)

The PS Publishing Best Small Press Award


Best Comic/Graphic Novel

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE CAPED CRUSADER?, Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert (DC Comics/Titan Books)

Best Artist

VINCENT CHONG, for work including covers for The Witnesses Are Gone (PS Publishing) and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20 (Constable & Robinson)

Best Non-Fiction

ANSIBLE, David Langford

Best Magazine/Periodical

MURKY DEPTHS, edited and published by Terry Martin

Best Television

DOCTOR WHO, head writer: Russell T Davies (BBC Wales)

Best Film

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, directed by Tomas Alfredson (EFTI)

Best Newcomer – the Sydney J. Bounds Award


The British Fantasy Society Special Award: the Karl Edward Wagner Award

ROBERT HOLDSTOCK (creator/author of Mythago Wood)

One of the other awards given out on the night was for the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition 2010. The winner was Robin Tompkins with his Omar the Teller of Tales. Travis Heermann came second with The Song, and in third place was Dan Malach with a story entitled Beating Heart.


I’d like to extend my heartiest congratulations to all the winners, but especially to the late Robert Holdstock, who was a thoroughly deserving winner, a point very much underscored by the heartfelt applause after Ramsey Campbell’s little speech announcing the bestowing of the award.

On top of that, however, it emphasises the idea that hard work and persistence does pay off. More to the point, that each and every one of the winners has genuine talent, and hasn’t achieved all they have through injudicious shortcuts akin to something along the lines of the cultural desert that is X-Factor. For that fact alone, each of the winners (and let’s not forget the nominees) are to be warmly congratulated!!

Roll on FantasyCon 2011 in Brighton!!

Books received and bought (FCon 2010)

Posted in Book Reviews, Books on September 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Okay, as promised, here is the list of books I hauled away from FCon 2010. First, those I received as review copies:

Never Again, edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane (Gray Friar Press)

Wine and Rank Poison, by Allyson Bird (Dark Regions Press)

Sourdough and Other Stories, by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

The Beautiful Room, by RB Russell (Nightjar Press chapbook)

A Revelation of Cormorants, by Mark Valentine (Nightjar Press chapbook)

Feral Companions, by Simon Maginn and Gary Fry (Pendragon Press)

The Gabble and Other Stories, by Neal Asher (Tor)

Orbus (A Spatterjay novel), by Neal Asher (Tor)

The Poison Throne, by Celine Kiernan (Orbit)

Three Alternative Poetry Books, by Michelle Brenton (Endaxi Press)

Robin of the Wood: LEGEND, by Adam Greenwood (Saint Clair)

Quite a catch there – many thanks to all the writers/publishers who gave me review copies. I may be some time in getting around to them all, but I will!!

And now, the ones I actually bought:

The Dark Country, by Dennis Etchison (Berkely Books, 1982, signed)

Secret Agent of Terra, by John Brunner/The Rim of Space, by A. Bertram Chandler (Ace Double F-133, 1962)

Endless Shadow, by John Brunner/The Arsenal of Miracles, by Gardner F. Fox, (Ace Double F-299, 1964)

Danger from Vega, by John Rackham/Clash of Star-Kings, by Avram Davidson, (Ace Double G-576, 1966)

The Altar on Asconel, by John Brunner/ Android Avenger, by Ted White, (Ace Double M-123, 1965)

The fact that I picked three John Brunner novels was quite by accident…. honest. These last four will join the others in my Ace paperbacks collection. And there will always be room for more…. =)

FCon 2010 – the Aftermath….

Posted in Events on September 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I have a new measure of how successful and how enjoyable a con is going to be – how long it takes me to get to bar at the very start. When I arrived at the Nottingham Britannia on the Friday evening, it took me about ten minutes to reach it. And not because of the press of people there, waiting to get served – but simply because of the number of people greeting me and saying hello. Simply put, I was made to feel more welcome there than at any other event I’ve ever been to.

Almost as soon as I got into the venue (arriving with Raven Dane, who very kindly gave me a lift from Newport Pagnell Services to Nottingham), Joseph D’Lacey came up to me and said hello, then I met Mick and Debbie Curtis, Gary Cole-Wilkins and Soozy Marjoram, Sharon Ring and Ian Graham, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Mark West, Adam Greenwood, Gary and Emily McMahon, Peter Bell, the delightful Thana Niveau & John Probert and Adele ‘Unbound’ Harrison. Later on I met up with Sarah Pinborough, Stephen Volk, Tim Lebbon, Adam Nevill, Mark Morris, Allyson Bird, Daniele Serra, Paul Kane, Dai Price, Adrian Chamberlin, Simon Bestwick, David Rix, Lisa Tuttle and even later still, Mathew Riley, an old friend from the Fractured music ‘zine days.  Also met the absolutely adorable Allison Littlewood and her partner – she had the biggest ever grin on her face (I am assuming that was because FCon 2010 was her first book-launch/signing) – and the appropriately named (and equally adorable) Pixie Pants (still don’t know your real name, though, Pixie!).

After going for a fabulous Italian meal with the Curtises, GCW and Soozy, I went to my first discussion panel, Get Real, devoted to the role of realism in genre fiction. The members of the panel were Stephen Volk, Simon Bestwick, Allen Ashley, Simon Unsworth, Lisa Tuttle and Joel Lane. A great discussion and very much confirmed a few things I’ve had bouncing around in the black hole that is my head recently. The session was spoilt somewhat by the guy who asked the first question in the Q&A session afterwards, touching on something that I thought was totally irrelevant to the discussion. But I guess this is the nature of such discussions.

Also went to more than a few readings, including ones by John Probert (whose immersion in his own story was great to see and I made some mental notes for any potential reading I may do in the future), Andrew Hook (reading from his latest novel Ponthe Oldenguine, and accompanied by a rubber penguin mask) and Gary McMahon (reading from his latest, as yet unpublished, novel, Pretty Little Dead Things as well as a short story he’d written the night before). It’s always great to hear stories being told in the voices of the authors.

Saturday consisted mostly of socialising and meeting people (including Shaun Hamilton, Lou Morgan, Peter Coleborn & Jan Edwards, Rob Shearman, Rio Youers and a completely irrepressible Johnny Mains), and having more than a few books thrust into my hands for review purposes. On that score alone, it was an unqualified success. I bought six books (a signed Dennis Etchison short story collection called The Dark Country, Feral Companions by Gary Fry and Simon Maginn, and four 1960s ACE double feature paperbacks, to add to my collection) but came away with another fifteen review copies, including, as I mentioned in last night’s late blog, Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, published in  magnificent hadback form by RB Russell’s Tartarus Press (and he also kindly signed my copy of  his The Beautiful Room chapbook, published by Nightjar Press, which was thrust into my hot little hand by Nicholas Royle [along with Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants]). A list of what you can expect to emerge review-wise over the next millennia will go up here later today.

There were a couple of book launches that day, too – Never Again, edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane (Gray Friar Press), Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21 (edited by Stephen Jones – see accompanying photo)) and Zombie Apocalypse (created by Stephen Jones), the Cinema Futura launch, and then, at midnight, the first ever Pan Book of Horror Stories relaunch, courtesy of the indefatigable Johnny Mains. Unfortunately, due to having to catch the last tram back to Eastwood at 12:05am (where I was staying with Adam Greenwood), I missed the launch itself – BUT was thrilled to hear from Johnny himself that the book had sold out. Needless to say Johnny is a larger-than-life character and missing that launch also meant that I didn’t get to see just how drunk he was afterwards. (One of the abiding memories of the con – Johnny casually saying “I’ll see you guys in a minute – I am off to throw up in the toilet” on Sunday morning).

Saturday evening was spent in great company at Chutney, a local Indian restaurant, which was arranged by the ever-lovely Soozy Marjoram and Gary Cole-Wilkin (for which privilege, many thanks). Among the guests was Terry Grimwood, whose novella The Places Between I recently had the pleasure of reviewing – and he is a thoroughly lovely chap into the bargain. Then onto the BfS awards (the winners of which I will post in the next day or two) followed by a trek to the bar.  Where, I have to say, most of us seemed to spend our time. =D

Also planned, along with Mark West and Adrian Chamberlin, the book we hope to launch at FCon 2011 with Mark Deniz…. more on that later… stay tuned!

Sunday was a slow day – and my concept of time was completely shafted. I managed to miss a reading by Mark Morris, an excerpt from his and Tim Lebbon’s new collaboration – and I was so looking forward to hearing it too. (Apparently, Tim hadn’t heard what Mark had written so far either…). A few more books were thrust into the hands, including some poetry books by Michelle Brenton (and the aforementioned Angela Slatter tome) and met RB Russell and also Sam Stone.

Then it was time to leave, to get back to reality. The only reason I even consented to leave was because I hadn’t seen my wife in three days and I desperately wanted to. Next year however, Liz will be coming with me – I want to introduce her to all the good friends I’ve made over the last nine months or so. Despite that, arriving back in Milton Keynes seemed a bit mundane after the fab weekend I’d had – but seeing Liz more than made up for it…. =)

An absolutely worthwhile event – both in itself and on a personal level. Being recognised by people that I didn’t know was something of a total surprise to me, and will take some getting used to I think. Being greeted by people I DID know was just the best. Inevitably, this means that I will be headed to Brighton next year, where FCon 2011 is due to take place. Like I mentioned above, I will be bringing my lovely wife Liz with me – I spent the entire weekend wishing she’d been able to come, especially when several people asked me where she was. I have a feeling that she will love the people I now mix with – and I, for my part, couldn’t be happier with all the new friends I have made.

(Necessarily, this has all been cobbled  together from a rather hazy memory – so please forgive me if I have inadvertently left anyone out here!! Message me and I will amend the oversight immediately!! Thanks!)

I’m home… and relaaaaaaaaxxx!!

Posted in Other on September 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Returned just over an hour ago from FantasyCon 2010 – and what a weekend it was indeed. I will be writing up a blog tomorrow, giving the lowdown on all the event’s happenings. In the meantime, I would like to thank all the lovely people I met, friends old and new, and especially those who took the time to talk to me. I particularly like to thank those VERY lovely peeps who bought me drinks – and when Liz and I are a bit more solvent then the drinks will be returned with much gratitude. The hospitality shown me, a relative stranger, was truly touching. =)

Right now, however, I would especially like to thank Gary Cole-Wilkins and Soozy Marjoram, and Mick and Debbie Curtis for inviting me to the various meals going on over the weekend.

Thanks are also due to Raven Dane for giving me a lift to and back from Nottingham. Very special thanks to Adam Greenwood for letting me sleep in the spare bedroom – at least I seem to have got some sleep, unlike some of the con’s delegates, judging by the looks of some.

So, once I have recovered from the shenanigans, I will get down to a) write a recap of the event and b) review the books I was given to do a write-up about – including a wonderful hardback copy of Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, published by RB Russell’s wonderful Tartarus Press. Absolutely stunning -looking book – definitely looking forward to reading that one.

Watch this space!!

Just afore I go….

Posted in General Musings on September 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

… I thought I’d let you have my thoughts on the book that I am currently reading for review – Steve Duffy’s Tragic Life Stories, published by the good people at Ash-Tree Press. A preview, if you like. Admittedly I have only read the title tale, the first one in the book, but in all honesty, if this is representative of the other eight stories in this collection then I am definitely in for a treat.

The story revolves around a simple conceit; the eidetic image, or the creation thereof. It posits the idea that this is where some writers derive their strongest imagery; that they can, in effect, imagine things so completely in their minds that, to all intents and purposes, they feel like they’re actually ‘there’. Dan, our hapless protagonist, has this ability, and this is central to the story. He’s lost his wife, he’s lost that all important seven-book deal that’s been keeping him going (and on the bookshelves in shops) and now he’s slowly losing hope. Until, that is, he meets Molly, a misery-lit loving divorcee who seems very intent on him, in every way. Maybe, just maybe, he can put that eidetic ability to good use here…..

One of the great things about Duffy’s writing is that it brings you in to the world of the main characters – you can empathise with everything that they’re thinking and feeling. You get caught up in Dan’s misery as the bad luck piles up around him, but simultaneously we feel that rush of hopeful excitement when he realises that things could be getting better now that the prospect of Molly is on the horizon. But this is a Duffy tale. Nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as that…..

Steve’s writing enables us to get into the inner workings of the character, to see just how fragile the mind really is. That the mind can, indeed, turn on a sixpence – going from despair to hope and back again in the space of a single sentence. Creating empathy in the reader is one of the most important skills a writer can have, and, judging from just this one example of Steve’s work, he has it in copious amounts. There’s a quiet intensity about the way Dan gets caught up in everything, an intensity that leaps off the page and grabs on tightly to us. When Dan is gripped by happiness, so are we; and when he feels dread and horror, we follow suit. Sterling stuff, indeed, and a great portent of what is to come.

Look out for the full review at the Bookgeeks website ( very soon.


This’ll be one of the last blogs I post for a few days (until late Sunday or Monday), as I will be in Nottingham living it large at FantasyCon 2010 with those writery-and some bloggery-types. Looking forward to good friends, good conversation, good food (mostly curries it seems) and good drink. All of which adds up to good times.

Sadly, the one thing I was looking forward to, meeting up with Steve Duffy himself, won’t be happening, as he is unable to attend FCon for various reasons. So, in effect, this tiny review is by way of recompense.

But then, I guess it means that there’ll be more beer for us….  =)

The cathartic experience…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on September 16, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

You often hear writers, artists and musicians talking about the act of catharsis, expressed through their art. The nailing down, and exorcism, of some particularly bad experience, one that, for whatever reason, has shaken them to their cores. We’ve all had them: the death of a loved one or a close friend (especially when they’ve gone ‘before their time’), the end of a relationship, an accident or being betrayed by someone you trusted. An experience that becomes deeply embedded in the psyche, or perhaps makes us unwillingly reassess things or see them in a decidedly darker light, or changes our opinions of certain people. Experiences that have the power to change US, and not always in good ways.

Some people simply bear the pain and anguish, internalising it. Some people go to see therapists, to unburden themselves. Yet others find some spiritual path, seeking to find answers to the basic imponderables. But there are others, like those involved in the creative arts, who find more immediate means by which to mitigate the effects of the shock. Writing, painting and thrashing out a song or two are all methods used by such individuals, to help them understand what is happening to them and also to assuage the tempest raging inside them.

Why have I brought up this subject? Over the last week, I have been writing a story, The Ghost of Me, based on a memory that, whilst not immediately injurious to my mental health, nevertheless forms an important part of who I am and has affected my present. I mentioned that I was going to be writing the story in a previous blog, posted some days ago: the first draft has now been written and in the hands of some of my pre-readers, just to get some feedback on what I have come up with. Great comments on it so far, which is a good sign; what’s more important however, is what the writing of it has done for me.

I am still loath to divulge details of the tale just yet, because I still need to write a second (and, no doubt, a third and fourth) draft, and I desperately want to keep inside me, undiluted, the power inherent in the very nature of the story. I want people to feel that power, that raw emotion that drives it along. Even though the incident it’s based around happened just over twenty years ago, it doesn’t mean that its effects have necessarily been weakened by time. If anything, whenever I remember anything about it, it still dredges up strong negative thoughts and feelings.

Writing about it, putting it into a fictional context, has helped me come to terms with it and its ultimate meaning. I still don’t understand the motivations behind what my grandfather did, but I have let go of the anger and irritation that it left behind. Besides which, all the main players in the story, apart from my brother and I, are now dead: so explanations will never be forthcoming in this life. No use expending vauable energy on something so unproductive. Better, I think, to let it go and get on with something more worthwhile.

It has also served another purpose: ending a writing drought. During the last six weeks, I have started more stories than at any other time and yet yesterday’s tale was the first one in that period where I managed to actually complete. Like any author, I was beginning to think my mojo had disappeared, maybe for good. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried. It returned with a vengeance, inspiring me to put down 4016 words of it in one go, and I wrote the remaining 1500 or so yesterday. Okay, so it still needs a fair bit of work and a rewrite, which I will now leave until after FCon this weekend, but the essence of the tale is all there. There are different formats to think about, how best to distil the emotions and feelings, how best to hone in on what I want people to empathise with.

If nothing else, it’s reignited a little of my confidence about the story writing, as well as shown me that I can write well and tell a powerful story. It’s also underlined just how effective  bringing in experiences and memories from real-life can be, enhancing and injecting a certain strength and quality into one’s writing. On top of that, it’s helped in a way that I found both unexpected and very pleasing. Best of all, it means that my Muse was only taking a short holiday, and I am immensely relieved about that. Furthermore, I shall definitely be travelling the rarely-visited country of my past again, and extrapolating ideas and stories from what I see there. Which leaves me wondering where such an exercise will ultimately lead me…. =)

WHY? (Good question, Sherlock…)

Posted in General Musings on September 15, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Apparently, there are murmurings and rumblings afoot in the ‘blogosphere’ (not sure if I like that word) at the moment, especially concerning one particular book blog, one that has been around for quite a while. The host of said blog has decided to hang up his virtual boots, mainly because of sniping and constant criticism. Now, I am only getting this at second-hand, as I don’t normally follow book-bloggers all that closely, principally because I have far too much to do on my own blog, plus I write for two book review websites and I write short stories – and, like everyone else, I only have twenty-four hours in which to do all that (believe me, I’ve tried to squeeze more hours out of a day, but laws of physics and all that are a complete bitch to work with – they’re incredibly jobsworth and stubborn).

All of which has prompted me to stretch back four months and try to remember why I started blogging, and then inspired me to write about it. Mainly because my good friend Mark West suggested that I start a blog, but also because I wanted to have some fun, which is currently still legal in this country as far as I am aware. Plus I wanted free lunches, as I hate making my own sandwiches. There was also a serious side to the blog, which was predicated on the idea that people would be interested in seeing how a new writer’s ‘career’ would pan out over the years. Things have subtly shifted a little in the last two months, from writing stories to mainly writing reviews, but that, too, is a part of the whole ‘charting the progress of’ thing. And there will be more shifts to come, no doubt.

I will admit to a fair bit of scepticism and reluctance initially with the whole blogging thing – I didn’t want to appear to be just another frustrated writer, desperate to make his mark and this is the only way I was able to do that, Plus, what was I going to talk about that would provide me with an endless fund of material to post every day? Would anybody be interested in what I have to say (because, let’s face it, blogging is to a large extent an exercise in ego-masturbation at heart)?

Yes, the giving of guidance to new writers like myself (and all written with more than a pinch of chutzpah, I realise now) would certainly fill up the first couple of weeks quite adequately I thought, but what else did I have? I had the reviews I’d written but, as a slow reviewer, they weren’t going to be anything but an irregular aspect of the blog. Then, of course, I started branching out into things like influences, both literary and cinematic. And finally, and most importantly, I asked for, and got, people already in the business to write guest-blogs for me. Even better, they were people who already had established audiences of their own.

And you know what? That initial reluctance has metamorphosed into a deep satisfaction, simply because I am enjoying the blogging far more than I’d anticipated. Yes, there is always the ‘what the merry hell am I going to write about today?’ thing that keeps rearing its ugly head most mornings, but I guess that all bloggers get that occasionally. It never fails to amaze me that, even after four months, I am still here. And that people (an average of 58 peeps a day, in fact) keep coming back to read what I, or my guest-bloggers, have pontificated on.

It was never about any vague notions of ‘immortality’, or making my mark in some meaningful way. Let’s face it, electronic media are, at best, ephemeral in nature, despite its almost universal ubiquity. It wouldn’t take much to destroy it all (one good Electro-Magnetic Pulse would see to that), composed as they are of intangible bits and bytes on a server somewhere, most often not even in the same country. Print media would be best for that. Strip away any pretentions and what you’re left with is a yearning for enjoyment, and getting it doing an activity that I love: writing and books – and those two things are indeed the cornerstones of this whole enterprise. Any recognition for what I do is ultimately a bonus, albeit a very welcome one (I am, after all, only human). And I am thankful, in a slightly bemused kind of way, that there are people who actually like what I do.

I will also admit to one other motivation, which may or may not have a greater or lesser influence on why I started in the first place. I am driven; in reality, I would say I am haunted. Generally speaking during my childhood (and this is nobody’s fault but my own, before anyone thinks I am looking for sympathy), people who should have known better told me I would never amount to anything; I was, at base, a very lazy kid at school. Some people actively discouraged any ambitions I harboured. A goodly proportion doubted me, at the very least. Deep inside, I have a very human desire to shove it all back down their throats; I am well aware that in reality, I doubt it matters, not to them (even if they remember anything about it) nor to anyone else. To think otherwise would be to delude myself. Despite consciously knowing this, still there is something very real that pushes me forward, impels me to keep on trying to achieve something. Like I say, I am only human.

However, having tasted the satisfaction I get from being here, the good news for you lot is that I am not going away – you’re stuck with me. And that’s also the bad news – you’re definitely stuck with me.  =)

Influences: William Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH

Posted in Books, Nostalgia on September 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This is one of those books that you either love or hate; there is definitely no middle ground with this. It’s a difficult book, to be sure, for reasons I will go into later; suffice to say that when David Cronenberg set about filming his 1991 take on this seminal classic of the Beat generation, he found it to be unfilmable as it was and used it instead as a basis for a film that mixes elements of the book along with parts of Burroughs’ biography.

The book was originally published in 1959 as The Naked Lunch, in Paris, by Olympia Press, but not the US, as it contravened obscenity laws there. It wasn’t until 1962 that it did find a release in Burroughs’ home country. Even then, it was a substantially different version from the one published in France, apparently, as it was based on a manuscript owned by Allen Ginsberg. The definite article was dropped from the title from that edition onward (as William Burroughs never intended it to be there in the first place) and thus has it been known as Naked Lunch ever since.

Summarising a novel as complex, and as groundbreaking in its own way, as Naked Lunch is, is extremely difficult in its own right. A conventionally linear narrative structure is completely non-existent – instead it’s a series of loosely-connected vignettes. According to Wikipedia (not entirely reliable I know), Burroughs himself stated that they could be read in any order. Plus the text itself is written in a stream-of-consciousness cut-up style, meaning that words jumble and collide in unexpected combinations. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place in Tangiers (a favourite haunt of the Beat poets in real-life) and Interzone, a strange otherworldly dimension (which, I think, is meant to represent the dreamlike state when under the influence of drugs – something else which the Beat generation were famous for). It brings together, albeit loosely, his experiences in both this world and the one induced through his well-known drug-addiction (let it be known that he probably ingested or sampled every illicit drug known to man – and he still managed to make it into his eighties).

It’s a deeply hallucinatory book, as life and drug-fuelled fugues mix and entwine quite freely. Additionally, the manner in which it was written does a superb job of transmitting those unfocused, hazy states that Burroughs habitually found himself in. While it’s quite hard to read, simply because of the way familiar words have been randomly juxtaposed with one another, for me it’s exactly those chance couplings and surprise concatenations that provide the rhythms and sheer poetry of the narrative. Images leap off the page and into the mind in a way that conventional prose doesn’t inspire very often. Perhaps it’s the very style and the way it has to be struggled with that makes the imagination work harder, in an attempt to make sense of it all. That, for me, is where the true power of this book lies.

I’d heard of Naked Lunch (and its reputation) way before the film (starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider) came out, but it was the film that prompted me to get the book and read it. In some ways, I am glad that this is how it happened, because I found the book far more fulfilling and certainly more powerful than the film. If I’d read the book first, I think my disappointment with the film would have been greater. I have to admit that when first I saw the film it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting and then, having read the book, I completely understood the impossibility (and illogicality) of shooting it as written. Necessarily, Cronenberg spliced the biographical elements of the writer’s life in there with parts of the vignettes, and ended up producing a meditation on the milieu that Burroughs walked in, plus the constant unreality that the drug-taking brought on. It gives us a privileged peek into the writing process, and also why his stories turned out the way they did – experiencing those fluid realities gave Burroughs the power to give us a new perspective on time and linearity, its solidity and also its plasticity. The unconscious imagery, welling up from the deepest parts of his psyche, opened wide the windows on just what made Burroughs tick.

And that, in essence, is how we all see life and reality: from our own unique perspectives. What Naked Lunch, inspired by the drugs, did for Burroughs was to free him from the constraints of both how he saw his situation and environment, and how he saw the novel and its possibilities. Ever since then, many writers have been playing around with narrative forms and structures, with varying degrees of success. It takes a peculiar species of genius to make what is essentially stream of conciousness nonsense (at least to some anyway) and bring meaning and substance to it. And THAT, I would venture to posit, WAS the genius of Burroughs – that not only did the drugs mould his perceptions but that he was able to translate that malleability of vision to the written page perfectly, so that those of lesser means and also those less adventurous could experience it too.

(And by the way, don’t go thinking from the above that I am advocating the use of drugs to facilitate the literary muse, although it has a fine pedigree (the Romantic poets for instance) – it’s a necessary approach to take when talking about Burroughs’ work, and I am describing it here in a purely academic context. So there.)

A matter of respect?

Posted in Books, Writing and words on September 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I recently read somewhere that there are some reviewers who apparently don’t read the entire book that they’re currently writing about, especially if it’s a collection of stories from a single author. I have to admit that I was quite amazed (and not a little shocked) when I read that. To my mind, you only get to understand a book if you read the whole thing, not just bits of it. It just doesn’t make any sense. Apart from that, if I skipped bits of a book I was in the middle of doing a write-up about I would feel that I was disrespecting the author. Whatever I think about the book, or collection of stories, I will always make the effort of reading it all.

This harks back to a practise I came across when I was working as a CD reviewer. There were some other journalists who listened to the first couple of songs and then wrote the review. To some extent, I can understand this, as a lot of the music I wrote about consisted of 40+ pieces of music, and once you got the idea of what the album was about, you could generally write something very accurate about the rest of it. I always felt, however, that if I didn’t listen all the way through then I was sure to miss something important. There may have been a song that lifted an otherwise mediocre set above the humdrum, or that there may have been a particular passage that exemplified the opus much more clearly than any other part. Like words, music is a language that speaks to people: if you want to understand a speech thoroughly you listen to the whole thing, not just selected parts of it. The same goes for music.

And the same, inevitably, goes for books. It’s one thing to glean the general gist of a piece of music by listening to a goodly chunk of it, but another thing entirely attempting to glean the same thing by reading just the first few chapters and the last one. Character progression and development, important plot points and pivotal events would all be missed. After all, the author has spent a considerable amount of his/her time, and his blood, sweat and tears, getting it from thoughts to page to publication. It would just appear to him/her, that after all that effort, a reviewer were just dismissing his/her toil by just sampling  the book. Plus, in my estimation, the review is in itself incomplete.

So, if only to reassure those who send me books and PDFs for review on either Bookgeeks or Beyond Fiction, let me say here and now that I take the time to read EVERYTHING in a book – the introduction, the book, and the story notes. Hell, I would even read an index if I thought it was important. AND I make notes about everything – characters, themes, developments and overall impressions. I admit, as I have elsewhere, that I am not the world’s fastest reviewer, but I would rather be known to be a slow and good in-depth reviewer than a cursory and shallow one. This, in my book, is what every author deserves at the very least.

In other words, just keep sending those books and e-books in – I’ll get round to reviewing them eventually and I will always give you an honest appraisal. Guaranteed. Plus, if you’re at FCon this weekend, please feel free to talk to me about doing reviews of YOUR book. I am quite approachable. =)