Archive for tim lebbon

Top Reads 2010 (part the second)

Posted in Books, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Finally, here we are, the second part of my top reads this year… and we have some real goodies.

First, what is probably one of my favourite novellas of the past couple of years, Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Tim also featured in the first part of this little literary rundown, with his Last Exit for the Lost collection. His tale of loss and regret, of relationships irretrievably broken down, is powerful in its simplicity, needling its way into the emotional centres of the reader with the ease and accuracy of a laser beam. Beautifully written and observed, this is a fine example of Tim’s keenly crafted handling of words to maximum effect.

It’s quite hard to remain detached from something for which one has read nothing but raise, as is the case with the next book on my list – The Silent Land by Graham Joyce (Gollancz). However, the universality of recommendations from friends about the book is also an indication of just how good this book is. A tale of a couple on a skiing holiday being overtaken by an avalanche and then finding themselves in a eerie half-life after managing to dig themselves out, it’s a storyof finding the strength and determination to work out what’s going on.. Elements of quiet horror, suspense, sadness and small triumphs, closely observed and recounted, combine to make an incredible story of memory and its place in our lives, regrets for the past and inklings of future possibilities. This is one of the best and most moving novels I’ve read this year.

Next up is a delightful book that took me by surprise when I first read it – Anna Richardson’s Little Gods (Picador). The story of a much maligned girl, who just happens to be something of a statuesque giant, towering as she does above everyone she knows, this novel is a startling and inventive look at how, through the very teeth of adversity and misfortune, even those considered outside the norm (and shunned because of their difference) can grab a slice of life with both hands and live it to its fullest. It’s very different from the usual genre fare, the language is both poetic and acrobatic (which sometimes gets in the way), but underneath it’s a heartwarming story that many will identify with.

My final selections are all from the same publisher – Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press. I wanted to give them a special mention simply because they’re the direct inspiration for my own publishing imprint, Spectral Press. So far, they’ve produced six titles – What Happens When you Wake Up in the Night by Michael Marshall Smith, The Safe Children by Tom Fletcher, When the Door Closed, it was Dark by Alison Moore, The Black Country by Joel Lane, A Revelation of Cormorants by Mark Valentine and (probably my favourite so far of the ones I’ve read) The Beautiful Room by RB Russell. They’re all fine examples of compact storytelling, distillations of quiet, unsettling fear, that only emphasise why I like the short form so much. Great value for money, they’re only £3 each (except the first two, which have sold out), and for me point the way forward in one particular niche of the publishing market.

Well, that’s it for this year – so looking forward to what 2011 will bring in terms of bookish delights. If this year was anything to go by, then I think we’re all in for a treat!

The Write Stuff…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , on December 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday was the first time in goodness knows how long that I actually read a book for pleasure, that book being Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Apart from the actual pleasure derived from just the simple act of reading and not having to review it, it also did what all good stories should do: resonated with me on some deep level. I am not a father (although I do have a twenty-year-old stepson) and yet the story spoke to me eloquently about the strength of a parent’s love, and the relationship between their child(ren) and them. It also described perfectly the depth of grief that the death of a child can bring, and how it can affect the equilibrium of even the most level-headed of people. But it also carried a warning: that sometimes that grief can become a destroyer, and that it can usurp reason if we allow it to. I won’t say anything beyond that about the book, as I have yet to write the second part of my Top Reads 2010 post, and this is definitely going in there – now I am just waiting on Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land to arrive so I can read that (as I have been recommended to by numerous people) to see whether that’ll make it into my list.

But Tim’s novella did more than just get me onto thinking about the stuff of primal human emotion and instincts – it also made me wonder about what actually makes a good story, or rather what elevates a story or writer above the ordinary. As many of you know, I have aspirations of becoming a writer myself, and when reading other people’s work, especially those that connect with me in some manner, I try to look a little beyond the surface to determine what it is about that particular story that works. Not all stories and authors possess the same ability, and consequently I am deeply fascinated by how and why some writers are better than others. Simply put, I am trying to figure out, through reading the stories of others, what I can do to create magical, timeless and enduring tales of my own.

It’s not just about the way an author writes, although that is necessarily a great part of it – Tim writes in a very lean unfussy style that manages to capture emotion, feeling, character and place precisely. It’s a very direct type of storytelling, one that drives straight into the heart and mind of the reader – it certainly doesn’t hang around, but it is simultaneously neither prosaic nor unpoetic. It’s also not just about the subject matter, either – for instance, tales dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a child, told through the perspective of a grieving parent, have been written before, and will be again. Of course, there’s strength to Tim’s narrative as he is himself a parent, and one can only imagine what must have been going through his own mind as he wrote this, even if it was only the briefest of passing thoughts.

No, there’s something ‘other’ going on here, something which is above and beyond attempting to tell a good story. There’s ‘truth’ here, a species of truth that speaks to everyone, regardless of whether they’re a parent or not. The emotions delineated here are the most primal that any human can experience, and in many ways form the bedrock of what it is to be human. Even beyond that, however, is the manner of storytelling. Yes, The Thief of Broken Toys has its fantastical elements, but they enhance the story, not detract from it, and they’re integrated so seamlessly into the narrative that its hardly noticeable. The fantastical elements don’t obscure the essential truth of the tale – even in the midst of wonders we accept them as real, never even bothering to question.

This is what makes great storytelling, in whatever guise it clothes itself. It speaks directly and without having to ask us to suspend disbelief – we just do the latter instinctively and without thinking. Sometimes yes, I do want to read something less cerebral and more in your face or superficial, but when I want something more I expect something that happens naturally and that I don’t have to work at in order to discern meaning or intent. The matter of the story seeps into the skin in a process of literary osmosis and does so in an unobtrusive manner – you don’t even realise it’s happened until you close the book and put it down. And then it hits you.

More than that, however, writing like this is inspirational. It would be easy to say to myself “I’m never going to be able to write anything like that” but can I actually be sure I won’t? It’s easy to forget that these writers have been at their craft for years and someone like me has only got into it relatively recently. So no, I can never be sure that one day I won’t sit down and write something that will not only astound others but me as well. Furthermore, I’ll never find out whether I have the ability or not if I don’t sit down and write. Even if I don’t achieve similar results, I can have fun trying to get there (an essential prerequisite.

And that, to me, is what makes a good story and a good writer.

Top Reads 2010 (part the first)

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I’ve had a very busy year reviewing-wise (and with many other things, too!) and I have to say that I have read some absolutely brilliant books and collections over the course of the last 12 months. So I thought I’d write a little blog on the literature highlights of my 2010 – it’s been a nightmare choice, just because there have been some great books sent my way. This is just a personal choice, and in no way way reflects the quality of any of the books that I’ve missed out… anyway, here we go.

Light Boxes by Shane Jones (Hamish Hamilton) is a delightfully quirky little modern fairytale, a small book which contains more invention in its 167 pages than many a book ten times that length. It’s also been optioned by film director Spike Jonez (Where the Wild Things Are), so that could indeed be an absolutely amazing cinematic treat, if they ever get around to producing it.

A logical follow-on would be the equally quirky and just as delightful Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things collection by Cate Gardner, published by Strange Publications, appropriately enough. This features 24 bizzare, surreal and wonderfully child-like takes on the world, and all with a warm and fuzzy heart at their centre. An absolutely essential read, best read whilst sitting in front of a blazing log fire in your favourite wing-back armchair, with either hot chocolate or mulled wine for accompaniment.

As for horror, I like it several shades of dark and relentlessly oppressive, and verging on the apocalyptic. For that, I go straight to Gary McMahon, and his very first mass-market paperback, Pretty Little Dead Things (Angry Robot), hit the nail squarely on the head. His landcapes, characters and the events that often overwhelm the people involved are the bleakest of the bleak, and for sheer unadulterated shivers and hellishness, then this is the book for you. I predict great things for this man and you should go out FORTHWITH and purchase a copy.

In a similar vein, I also enjoyed Tim Lebbon’s massive collection Last Exit for the Lost (Cemetery Dance). And when I say massive, I mean massive – 150,000 words and a veritable breezeblock of a book in hardback, and all wrapped in a gorgeously atmospheric Les Edwards cover. Tim writes in a very lean, stripped-back style; no verbose extraneity, just the exact words needed to convey whole worlds, emotions and horror. A marvellous exposition of a skill that is actually quite hard to master – a very talented writer.

Finally, at least for this go round, are the two collection from Australia’s Angela Slatter – Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press – pictured above) and The Girl with no Hands (Ticonderoga Publications – below). Angela specialises in reinventing and realigning the traditional tropes of the fairytale, the kind of thing we all know from our childhoods – the ones that were collected and ‘rearranged’ (to suit a particular agenda) by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Angela brings them right up-to-date, with vibrant reinterpretations that are more in line with current sensibilities. Additionally, both collections have been lushly produced by the respective presses, with perhaps the cover of The Girl with no Hands just winning out on the most beautiful cover award.

Hope you like my choices so far – another instalment soon!! =)

The reading blues…

Posted in Books, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

A couple of times recently, I’ve noticed people (principally reviewers, I should note) saying that they’re suffering from the reading blues. Well, I’ve been going through exactly the same thing for the last month or two – apart from the books I’ve been asked to review I haven’t, until very recently, actually picked up a book just to read solely for pleasure. I’m still ploughing through a book of short stories by one of my favourite authors, HP Lovecraft – and I started reading it in mid-summer. This is very unlike me – I used to go through books at a frightening rate, reading a couple a week.

I’ve been wondering why I felt a slight ennui when it comes to reading for pleasure recently. Perhaps it’s simply because, on some days at least, I have trouble keeping my eyes open after working a 12-hour day and I just can’t bear the prospect of doing anyting other than going to sleep. Or it crossed my mind that, being a reviewer, you sometimes suffer from ‘book-fatigue’, that having read something all day and making notes about it, the idea that you want to read even more just to wind down is somehow just too unappealing. A third possibility was that it was just me.

So, to read that others have the same problem is heartening, in a way. My dad bequeathed to me a love of books and the written-word that I have carried with me ever since I was able to read (over forty years now and counting), and the thought that I have somehow become tired of them is quite appalling in my book. There are far too few people who read books these days, or so we are led to believe – and I certainly don’t want to join their ranks.

I guess, to an extent, it’s something about the fact that when I review a book I am not only looking at it from the point of view of whether it’s a good story or not, but also from a ‘meta’ aspect as well, ie. analysing the deeper constituents of what the author’s trying to do. Use of language and words, rhythms, the believability of characters and plot, and how it all flows together come into play here. It’s only one step removed from what I did in school when I studied English Literature A-level all those years ago; the only difference, I feel, is that at least I (mostly) get to choose the books I review and they’re all in genres I enjoy reading. I find that sometimes, even when reading ro relax, I default to my literary critic persona almost automatically.

A similar thing happened after my university course – it included a film-studies module. In it, we were taught how to ‘deconstruct’ films, looking at context, subtext, use of imagery, how the camera (angles, movement) was used to help tell the story, use of lighting to accentuate things, etc., etc. I enjoyed it immensely as it allowed me to look at favourite films with new eyes. After a while, however, I found that, whenever I saw a film, either on TV or in the cinema, I just instantly switched into ‘celluloid deconstructionist’ mode – and often it would spoil my enjoyment of the film. There were times indeed when I simply wished that I could either completely forget what I’d learnt or at the very least be able to switch it all off.

I do the same with a book, any book, although I am consciously aware that I am doing it and then I actively try to remember that I am now reading for the hell of it, not reviewing. I just want to read it, not decode the damn thing. So, in some measure, I’ve been avoiding reading books  that I don’t need to review for that reason, even if subconsciously. I have it deeply ingrained into my psyche that books are for enjoyment, and if anything that is likely to spoil that quality looms I make sure that I swerve away from it. Hence the recent bout of ‘reading blues’….

Just the other night, however, I picked up a book, just to read for pleasure, for the first time in months – Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys. I’m still fighting against that urge to read it as if I were doing a review, an urge which is incredibly annoying. I am NOT going to review the book (and that isn’t meant as a slight to Tim, btw) – I just want to enjoy it for what it is, a beautifully-told story. You have my permission to slap me if you ever see an in-depth review of it by me posted anywhere. Hopefully, I’ll start to come out of feeling those blues very soon as a consequence – no reader likes to feel this way. =D

Spectral update and other stuff…

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Just a short little note to let people know that the PDF proof of the very first Spectral Press chapbook is in my possession, and has also been passed on to Gary McMahon for final approval. Many thanks to the sterling Neil Williams for putting it all together so rapidly and so well – there will be a few very minor cosmetic changes made in terms of layout, incidental text (NOT THE STORY, BTW – that’s bloody perfect) and stuff but in all honesty it’s all there, more or less. And I have to say it’s looking mighty good. If all goes according to plan it’ll be sent to the printer’s a week Friday and I should get everything done by the end of the month.

(Please note: anybody wanting a copy for review will receive a PDF file, rather than a physical hard-copy. I am attempting to keep the costs down as much as possible for at least the first year – if you want a hard-copy for your collection, then you’ll have to buy one, I’m afraid.)

Anyway, for all those out there who are, quite understandably, dithering about taking out a subscription, unsure whether they should send £10 of their hard-earned cash to an unknown quantity for a year’s worth of Spectral Press volumes, then let me assure you this is really happening. Come January, What They Hear in the Dark, the very first one, will be available to buy and those who have taken out subs already will have copies in their hands to lovingly gaze upon. You can do that too by taking out a sub and not only will you get three issues in the first year but your name will also be entered into a prize-draw, where you stand the chance of winning a great prize. (Details below)

Spectral subcriptions

Do you want your name listed as a founder subscriber in the first Spectral chapbook? If so, then act fast, before Monday 6th December 2010! A yearly subscription will cost £10UK/£12EU /$20US/ $25US RoW (all prices inclusive of postage and packing). Individual chapbooks will be available for £3.50UK/£4EU/$8US/$12RoW (again all prices inclusive of p+p). You can either pay via Paypal or cheque: Paypal is spectralpress[at]gmail[dot]com and for details of how to pay by cheque, please send an email to the same address and I’ll get back to you forthwith.

Spectral Prize-draw

As an added incentive, if you do choose to subscribe before the end of this year (31st December 2010 closing date), your name will be entered into the prize-draw, where you’ll stand the chance of winning a specially signed and framed edition of  Gary McMahon’s chapbook. Alongside it will be a copy of the annotated manuscript, ie  Gary has scrawled all over it in his best red biro – he’s even signed it and ‘illuminated’ it with a little doodle of a smiley horned devil on it as well. The winner will even get a free subscription extension for another year on top of that… now that’s what I call a bargain! (Winner will be notified by mid-January)

Books received

Yesterday saw the postman deliver two lovely book, courtesy of Solaris Books:

The Age of Odin, by James Lovegrove

Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

I am also reading, for pleasure this time, Tim Lebbon’s novella The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Apart from the fact that I like Tim’s work, I also thought the title so poetic and enigmatic that it was actually a no-brainer purchase. In just the first half of the opening chapter, the feeling of deep loss and estrangement is acutely described and felt, Tim using his trademark lean writing style with few words but every single one of them counting. Might give this one a write-up here very soon….

BOOK REVIEW: Last Exit for the Lost, by Tim Lebbon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on October 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tim Lebbon is that rare writer, an author possessing a deceptively spare way with words yet painting images, themes and atmospheres of infinite detail, colour and nuance, stories that dig themselves beneath the skin and burrow into the bones. These are deeply-felt and envisioned stories, drawn out from the deepest of the pits of human experience. The horrors he assails us with are viscerally raw, the pain and fears screamingly primal, the regrets and losses his characters feel are empathised with completely, and the burden of sins perpetrated weigh heavily on our shoulders in concert.

Before anything else, however, mention should be made of the solidity and size of this volume – it’s a reassuringly massive tome indeed, 557 pages and 150,000 words, and wrapped in a gorgeously atmospheric cover by Les Edwards. That solidity, that substantiality, however, merely reflects the quality and depth of the sixteen stories and two novellas contained herein. Beyond that is the physical quality of the book itself, an aspect that is rarely noted in reviews – kudos to the folks at Cemetery Dance for the care they’ve taken over this, and especial mention should be made here of the attention to details, like the paper quality, the clean clear printing of the text and the general layout.

Lebbon ranges widely here, dipping into and mixing genres with practised ease. The title story, Last Exit for the Lost (and yes, before you ask, Tim IS a big fan of Fields of the Nephilim), is a story which reminds us that not all ghosts are those of the dead. A mysterious set of related of paintings, ultimately creating a triptych, arrives at the door of a man who has let both himself and his family go. The ghosts of relationships, regrets and of what might have been, all conspire to provide the catalyst for transformation. Another ghost of the living, emerging from out of the past, also features in the next tale, The Cutting, when a young boy’s grandfather, a war veteran, is visited by someone from decades before to whom he made a promise and he’s here to collect. Even the passage of time is incapable of denuding honour and dignity.

There is also fantasy here, too, in the form of Forever, the tale of Nox, a Krote warrior, part of an island army that is always preparing for war (a war that never actually comes), who is seeking a means of escape from his perpetually frozen home. Steampunk of a kind makes itself known here in Old Light: a mysterious old man bequeathes an ancient torch to an ascendant of a character from a Jules Verne novel. The item holds the power to show people how they are going to die if the beam is played upon them. Then there’s a wonderfulhomage to the creation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle in the form of The Horror of the Many Faces (originally published in 2003’s Shadows over Baker Street), wherein Holmes’ intrepid assistant Watson is faced with the ultimate dilemma: is the great detective a murderer, or is there something deeper going on here? Lebbon artfully combines the classic detective story with elements of horror, to very satisfying ends.

However, it is the unalloyed horror story where Lebbon excels. From the Lovecraftian The Stuff of the Stars, Leaking, where a widower finds the rotting corpse of an unknown deep-sea creature on the beach near his home, the discovery of which is bound up with disturbing dreams of his drowning wife: to Black, the tale of a murderous soldier, whose encounter with a woman obsessed with witnessing a murder perpetrated during enigmatic blackouts leads her right to him. From Skins, where sometimes it is better that the deep, secret horrors of the world, lying just beneath its thin crust, remain where they are, out of the purview of mankind and the light; to the novella In Perpetuity, a powerful meditation on the strength of familial bonds and the lengths we will go to just to secure the safety and future of our offspring. Any parent will empathise with the father in this tale, the despair, the frustration and the desperation he experiences as he tries to find a way to save his son.

The best, and most powerful, tale in the book by far, in my estimation, is the last one, the novella Nothing Heavenly. It’s a deceptively complex story, on one level simply about a woman being kidnapped by an unseen agent and on another being confronted by truths about both herself and the greater forces that weave about the world, forces that have been forgotten by the human species. Her journey of self-discovery is set against the End of Times, and the great battles that ensue. Who or, more accurately, what is she? It’s a treatise, told in fiction, on the nature of belief and fate, and one woman’s struggle to rediscover herself, her legacy and ultimately, her role in shaping outcomes of the many. It’s a harrowing and emotional story, expertly told. The excruciating pain and cruelty, the atrocities and bloodshed, linger in the mind long after the last word has been read and the cover closed. Nothing Heavenly possesses an extraordinary cinematic quality, the imagery readily springing, fully formed, to the imagination and pitching us in the midst of unearthly battle.

As was pointed out in the opening paragraph, Lebbon writes in a very lean, spare style. For all that, however, along with the sparse description, the reader still comes away with vividly-realised tableaux playing in technicolour on the screen of the mind. There’s also an ease with which Lebbon’s writing worms its way into our emotional centres, pulling and teasing them at will. Above all, his stories manage to convey the essential bleakness of existence, that the hopes that we carry with us in life are, in the end, hollow, and that even when a resolution has been brought about there is still a trace of malignancy besmirching it. There are very few writers out there, I feel, who can achieve the same with such facility and power. For that reason, I very much look forward to reading more of this man’s work.

This review originally appeared at Bookgeeks.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Cemetery Dance

Publication date: May 2010

ISBN: 978-1-58767-170-8