Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Book I Read In January

‘The Killing Spirit. An Anthology of Assassins’ ed. by Jay Hopler
Clearly I need to stop buying thematic short story collections. This one was produced by Canongate Books which appears to have been a Scottish publishing house particularly interested in urban and black writing. Under their Payback Press imprint they sought to publish US black authors neglected in the UK. I have no idea if Jay Hopler was black but certainly many of the stories in this collection have an urban setting and are very American. This book was first published in the USA and reprinted by Canongate for the UK where I bought it.

Like a lot of collection editors, Hopler had very strict criteria for what can be included. He argues there are only two types of assassin stories, those about professional assassins and those about amateurs pressured or bribed into being assassins. Bar in one case, all the assassins are male and most are amateur and operating in an urban setting largely in the USA. The argot of the characters soon becomes tiresome as a result.

The nature of what is included here is a real mish-mash. The poetry like ‘Screen Image: (Royal Emerald Hotel, Nassau)’ by Mark Rudman and ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ by Robert Lowell are the poorest and even for poetry are incoherent. ‘The Hit Man’ by T. Coraghessan Boyle is a series of fragments that are again irritating and do not do much. There are book extracts, from ‘This Gun For Hire’ by Graham Greene and ‘Ripley’s Game’ by Patricia Highsmith. These are distinctive, the first being set in Britain; the latter in France and Germany. There is also an extract from ‘The Butcher’s Boy’ by Thomas Perry which looks as if it is going to shape up to be a kind of a CSI story, but is curtailed too quickly. The story is engaging as far as it goes, probably one of the best written in the whole collection. These extracts are unsatisfactory because they are incomplete. You know the story is going to run out and so you are irritated rather than engaged with the characters and not necessarily at the most interesting parts of these books.

‘Gentlemen, the King!’ is a silly comic piece by Damon Runyon about mafia assassins going to a fantastical state in Europe to kill a king. I have seen people reading Runyon’s work before, but this story difficult to follow through the mafia argot has certainly dissuaded me from mimicking them. The same goes for ‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway. The back-chat dialogue in both these stories seems to be considered more important than the story or the characters themselves. It is as if Runyon and Hemingway are saying ‘look at how clever I am, I can write dialogue like mafia men use’. Perhaps given all the mafia movies this is no longer any kind of revelation to us. The same problem applies to ‘Hit Man’ by Charles Bukowski, though its greater difficulty is that it is far too brief to be of any point.

‘The Death of Mrs Sheer’ by Joyce Carol Oates, is almost the opposite of an urban novel, featuring a pair of incompetent backwoods gunmen as they go about failing to kill their targets. ‘When This Man Dies’ by Lawrence Block is not bad. It is more like a story from the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ collection by Roald Dahl, as much a morality tale as one about assassins. ‘Shelter. An Original Screenplay’ by David Kost, is also not bad. It is a script again featuring a mafia assassin in this case seeking refuge from a hit that has gone wrong, at the house of an old girlfriend during family dinner. It works in this short format and I do not know if it could stand expansion. Written as a short story it could have been one of the best in this collection, though again hampered by this obsession with mafia argot.

The better pieces include ‘Loose Ends’ by Bharati Mukherjee which like too many of the stories features the assassin wandering around cheap motels in the USA, though in this case featuring US Asians. It has some very irritating, very trashy characters. ‘The Same Only Different’ by Jiri Kajanё is translated and is as much about Balkans politics as assassination. It features a female assassin, though we do not see through her eyes. The generic names for things makes it feel rather abstract as if it is a fable. However, this may derive from the translation. It is still better than a great deal of the stories included. Perhaps the best is ‘In the Beginning: A Novel in Progress’ by Ian McEwan. I have heard McKewan’s short novels criticised for very little happening in them. However, this is the best crafted story in the book and works as a short story very well. I do not know what it subsequently grew into.

Hopler has a lengthy introduction in which he gives rather weak analysis of the elements going into assassin stories and then is very prescriptive of what they must include. He ends the book with a series of reviews of assassin movies 1942-94 with a paragraph for each; the book was published in 1996. This is done reasonably well. I might have also included ‘The Green Man’ (1956) starring Alastair Sim and even ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955) with Alec Guinness mimicking Sim. There is also ‘My Learned Friend’ (1943) featuring Will Hay.  'The Assassination Bureau' (1969) is a 19th century set story about a company of assassins. However, all of these may have felt to be too light to be included. All three versions of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ (1935, 1959, 1978) feature an amateur seeking to thwart professional assassins.

The more series gaps are two French movies, ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967) which alongside ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is the archetypal study of a professional assassin, yet much more explores many of the themes of loneliness and morality touched on in some of the stories featured in this book. The other is ‘La Femme Nikita’ (1990), which Hopler only mentions in the introduction in reference to Luc Besson’s later ‘Léon’ (1994), known in the USA as ‘The Professional’. ‘La Femme Nikita’ has spawned two US television series. It crosses Hopler’s two types of assassin story featuring an amateur bullied into becoming a professional assassin. Hopler does not even feature ‘The Assassin’ (1993), the very reasonable US remake of ‘La Femme Nikita’ which actually resolves some of the confusions of the original.

‘Assassins’ (1995), though not a good movie, probably was released too late to feature in this book. Similarly ‘Nick of Time’ (1995) the real-time movie featuring Johnny Depp seems to fit perfectly Hopler’s category of an ordinary man compelled to be an assassin but was probably too late for inclusion.

Hopler argues that he was spoilt for choice in terms of stories he could have included in this collection which is why he had to adopt such strict criteria. However, if this was the best he could find, I can hardly believe that statement. This book is a mess, featuring often meaningless chunks of stuff. It also wallows in a restricted perspective, primarily highlighting mafia hit man stories. This is another book I regret having bought.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

My Delusions Of Being An Author

With 2013 the bad reviews of my e-books have turned from a trickle, if not to a flood, then a regular river.  I never would have expected that I would have been so savaged for my views on Finland.  I am taken to task for portraying it as an ally rather than simply a co-belligerent of Nazi Germany.  Furthermore apparently my counter-factual analysis is poorly researched and superficial.  I am naive in that I focus on single elements of change and apparently fail to grasp every logistical and political element of the implications, only mentioning some of them.  I never start with foregone conclusions, but rather through testing the ideas come to conclusion of whether the alternative was feasible and the extent of implications from it.  This is clearly an unacceptable approach.

Ironically I worried that my ideas were too sweeping.  However, clearly the style of Peter Tsouras whose writing encompasses every movement of every military unit on a day is what people want to read. I set out to write essay collections that stimulated debate.  I did not aim in 2-5,000 words to cover absolutely every aspect of a 'what if?' and so I am attacked as being incompetent and superficial.  Others feel that I put in too much actual history and looked at too many potential outcomes.  Overall there is no acceptance for the type of book that I have been producing and selling for the past year.  There is no point in setting myself up to be dismissed as foolish and sloppy.  Clearly there are loads of other writers out there who are far better than me and so I am poor in comparison.

Yes, I have made mistakes.  I have portrayed Finland in the 1940s in a way which is apparently unacceptable.  My defence of my view of its government is apparently too weak to be acceptable.  I mistyped 'John' when I meant to write 'James' Buchanan, the US president.  I also managed to mix up Rhode Island which is the size of London with Michigan which is comparable in size with the size of the UK.  My spellchecker changed 'regent' to 'region' and I failed to stop it.  Of course, in this world of the single reader as all-powerful, these errors, corrected in a matter of seconds, mark my books out as unacceptable forever more.  I cannot afford and editor.  I know no-one with sufficient knowledge to edit the books that I write covering so many countries and time periods.  Errors slip through even with leading authors, I have noted errors in books by Philip Kerr, Henning Mankel and for Jonathan Franzen the entirely wrong version of his book 'Freedom' was published.  These days, make a slip-up and that is your book condemned without chance of redemption.  I have been told that there are so many errors in my books that people have not got time to list them all.  This shows that I clearly know so little about history despite researching it and teaching it for the past twenty years, that I can never hope to write an 'accurate' book.

I used to think that I wrote English well.  I do have a tendency to write over-involved sentences with too many sub-clauses.  To some readers it is difficult to penetrate such writing.  At the same time Britons and Americans see my text as too fragmented.  Despite all my reading and re-reading and editing, apparently I end up with incomplete sentences and too much repetition of words.  I clearly lack the ability to step far enough back from my writing to see this, that is even though I spend far more time editing than I do writing.  I made a mistake in trying a 'chatty' style for my books.  Clearly what customers insist on is a very serious style with short sentences that are complete.  Though I have tried to do this I have clearly failed.  Readers find my style so offensive that they simply have to write about it in detail.  Apparently every page of my books are filled with grammatical errors, no matter how much I run the grammar checker over my text.

I have clearly been deluded from comments on this blog and from sales of my books over the past eight months that I could be an author of counter-factual books.  I thought I had found a style which was appropriate for e-books, engaging people in historical debate without drowning them in details.  However, it is clear that I was wrong in this.  My books clearly frustrate and upset people to such an extent that they have to take them to pieces and portray me as a foolish, sloppy, naive and ignorant man.  The one comment that I cannot forgive is to be told that I lack the skill of Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich is not a historian, he is an extreme right-wing propagandist who supports utterly unacceptable policies.  To have had my work even compared with his is incredibly insulting.

There is no point fighting against the strength of opinion regarding my books.  Clearly their very existence offends people and so I am removing all the counter-factual history books from sale and will eliminate all the references from this blog.  I will keep my novels active until the torrent of abuse comes about them.  In this age of indignation it is a mistake to put yourself in a position where people are able to pour vitriol on what you do.  The personal cost is high.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Disappointment Of The Movie ‘Resistance’ (2012)

Last month I was pleasantly surprised to come across a DVD of the movie ‘Resistance’ (2012) in a charity shop. Given that the movie was only a few months old it was unexpected to see it, not only on sale, but having reached the charity shop stage. Given that it only showed on one screen in London on its release, perhaps I should not have been too surprised. My interest in the movie stemmed from the fact that it is a counter-factual movie, probably the first one involving British actors since ‘Fatherland’ (1994). Like that movie it was based on a successful novel, in this case, ‘Resistance’ (2007) by Owen Sheers. The movie also features Martin Sheen, a strong character actor who has been in the ‘Underworld’ and ‘Twilight’ movie series and in ‘The Damned United’ (2009) and ‘Frost/Nixon’ (2008). He is supportive of theatre and movie making in Wales which is why I imagine he became involved in ‘Resistance’ set in a Welsh valley. It also features Kimberley Nixon best known from the comedy series ‘Fresh Meat’ (2011-12) though she has no lines in the movie.

The premise of the movie is that the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 failed and this allowed the Germans to invade Britain. By October 1944 the Germans are in control of southern England and South Wales. Birmingham and Manchester are under siege, presumably like Leningrad and Stalingrad. Sporadic fighting continues in London even though it is in theory subdued. The action, what there is of it, runs until April 1945. My first problem is that this counter-factual is highly unfeasible. Yes, it was very possible that the Germans could have defeated the Allied invasion. In doing this they may have destroyed so much Allied shipping and aircraft to allow them control of the English Channel. However, in June 1944 the Soviets were advancing into central Poland and into Romania and were at the borders of Hungary. In such a situation they would not have sent troops to Britain, but used the respite in the West to fight against the Soviets. The scenario shown in the movie must be that the Soviets have been pushed back farther East than in our world or perhaps have even sued for peace so freeing up German forces to invade Britain.

Setting aside flaws in the counter-factual, the movie as a whole has major problems. I can understand why someone passed the DVD on to a charity shop so quickly. I am tempted to dispose of it and am only grateful that at least the charity made some money out of my purchase. I have no idea how the book is written but if it is as incoherent as the movie, I am not tempted to read it. The movie sees all the men from the Welsh village leave to join the resistance. The valley is soon invaded by a tiny German unit. All the dialogue between the Germans is in German with subtitles which gives it an authentic feel. It is clear that the captain commanding the unit wants to effectively bow out of the war and seals the valley off from outside contact both for his men and the women and children remaining there. He also has a mission to locate the Mappa Mundi which is hidden in the valley something he does easily though he does not reveal this to his superiors because he does not want the SS to enter the valley to recover it.

The geography of the valley and neighbouring areas is very confused. The Welsh women are barred from going to the nearby town and it is not clear how they subsist especially as they reject the food offered by the Germans. A boy working for the resistance visits the valley and his controller, a school teacher played by Michael Sheen, escapes from Gestapo imprisonment into the valley. Sheen is only on screen in total for a couple of minutes. He is shot by the German soldiers in the valley. The boy triggers a bizarre conclusion to the movie by accidentally shooting a horse when he intended to kill one of the women who he believed was a collaborator.

Given the isolation of the setting, there is very little exploration of the counter-factual elements. The only scene where we see much at all is when a woman and one of the German soldiers visit a local farmers’ fair where we see a German marquee and blackshirts, presumably British Fascists working with the German occupiers. The relationship between the women and the Germans is fluctuating and ambivalent. The definition of collaboration used in the movie seems to be any form of fraternisation even on a diffident basis. There was no need to set the story in a counter-factual context. The themes touched on could have been done in a historical setting for example in a remote valley in Norway or the French or Italian Alps.

The key flaw of the movie, however, is how fragmented it is. Throughout it feels more like a surreal short film. It jumps arbitrarily weeks or months and shows minor incidents sometimes of just a matter of seconds. This is further confused by flashbacks from one of the women, the captain and the boy. Overall very little happens. The behaviour of the characters is largely irrational and nothing is resolved. The captain believes that one of his men who has deserted will bring other units to the valley who will slaughter all the civilians. The ‘heroine’ simply wanders off into the fog after lying to the captain that she will flee with him. We have no idea if she commits suicide or indeed goes to find her husband who may have been shot near the beginning of the movie.

As well as desultory, dreary and depressing, this movie is incoherent and weak. It is more like a video installation at an art exhibition rather than a movie. It is such a waste given how few counter-factual movies get made and it will set back popular comprehension of such movies by decades. It was really pointless, in fact even damaging to the genre that I support, to have had this movie made. I certainly regret buying it and advise you to avoid it entirely.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

One-By-One My E-Books Are Snuffed Out

Last month I commented how a 3-star review on Amazon for one of my e-books cuts its sales by two-thirds and a 2-star review not only ends all sales for that book but freezes the sales of all my other books for a week or more:  Clearly I have been deluding myself in believing I can write competently. One-by-one my counter-factual history books are being given 3- and 2-star ratings. The basis for the ratings is often due to minor errors. Yes, in ‘Other Americas’ I failed to spot that I, or my spell checker, had named the 15th US President ‘John’ rather ‘James’ Buchanan and that I got the area of the state of Rhode Island wrong. I spend weeks checking and editing my books, but like all authors I am not going to spot everything. If Henning Mankell and Philip Kerr have to do without editors when they are leading authors, how can I be expected to employ one?

Now, with e-books it takes a matter of seconds to correct minor errors when people draw them to your attention and a revised edition can be up online within hours. However, this is never enough. The reviewers my books attract condemn a book on the basis of such errors and despite my efforts there is nothing I can do to counter let alone remove such condemnations. The only choice once I receive a 2-star review is to ‘unpublish’ the book, i.e. remove it from Amazon listings or leave it there hoping that someone might accidentally buy it. Basically, however, the moment a 2-star review goes up, it is dead. I might was well bring all the content back here and make it free access, which increasingly I am tempted to do.

All authors make minor errors and in the past with published books these were eliminated by editors. However, as I have noted before, editing is disappearing from even leading publishers. Yet, tolerance of errors by readers is zero, despite the fact that they now pay far less for an e-book than they would have ever done for a new paperback. There are some other challenging bases on which my books are being criticised and killed that it seems impossible to do anything about.

One thing I have noticed is that with my books open to a global market my readers views of what constitutes ‘correct’ English is incredibly varied, yet I am hammered for not using the style that a particular reader wants. I have both been criticised for writing too lengthy sentences with too many sub-clauses and at the same time attacked for writing sentences that are deemed to be so short that they are nothing but ‘fragments’. I have Word grammar check all my writing, so all sentences in my books are certainly not deemed by that system as fragments. For my counter-factual books, being based on blog postings, I sought a chatty style which I thought would be appropriate for a book you most likely would read on the move. Yet, the style is clearly not tolerable in India where it is seen as too serious nor in the USA where it is perceived as too light or in fact, just British, and so simply intolerably alien. I would certainly welcome lessons in how to write in a universal English style which is not going to warrant such criticism from two of the largest potential markets.

There is a further challenge that authors of counter-factual books face in a way fiction authors probably do not. This is the fact that your books are rated to a great extent not simply by the quality of what you write but also by your opinions. I have been condemned for apparently being too hostile to Finland and for giving too much detail of the potential alternate outcomes so somehow smothering the ‘what if?’ aspect. The greatest insult I have received in reviews is to be said to simply be summarising the arguments of Newt Gingrich and in a less competent way. This cut right through me. I briefly comment on Gingrich’s work in ‘Other Americas’ but not to simply take his ideas, rather to strongly contest them. In my view Gingrich’s writing is basically extreme right-wing propaganda wrapped up in a covering of counter-factual writing. I feel I have utterly failed if any reader thinks that somehow I am making a poor quality replica of Gingrich’s work. A couple of years ago, I dismissed the statement by one commentator in ‘The Guardian’ that seeing how many good books were being produced he saw no point in bothering to try to write creatively, despite having been doing it for many years. However, recognising that I am completely failing in getting my message across in my work and the fact that a book will be destroyed for even minor slip-ups among 100,000 words, I have come to the same conclusion.

Writing e-books saved my sanity at a time when I was being bullied, having my house repossessed and seeing the break-up of my family. However, I have learnt that instead it has opened me up to a new kind of abuse. In a matter of minutes a grumpy reader can render useless months of work. Furthermore they can insult to me such an extent that I am going to be offended for years to come and I am aware that there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop this. At the time, getting in to producing e-books seemed to be an interesting thing to do and gave me a motive to continue. However, it has proven to be a poisoned chalice and the price I am paying for this foray is not worth the now clearly meagre gains I made for a short while.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

An Atlas Of Imaginary Worlds 16: Rooksmoor's Guide To Easy Creation Of A Fantasy World

Over the Christmas period to try to drive off depression, I have been seeking to lose myself in computer games.  In the first case, playing 'Blood Stone' (2010), a James Bond shooting game it back-fired.  I had been keen to play this as it is not based on any of the movies and as I have commented on before I actually like to see the story unfold.  I picked the game up cheap and starting on the lowest difficulty enjoyed the start.  I got on board a boat and shot the various guards.  It was then followed by a speedboat chase and with that my playing of the game ended.  Despite ten attempts I was unable to keep up with my quarry.  The tendency of the boat to over-steer and the need to have three fingers on the keyboard simultaneously meant that I could not progress, so got about 20 minutes of game play out of it before it was consigned to the charity shop.  I guess I am simply too old to play shooting games.

I turned to 'Game of Thrones' (2012).  Despite being only a few months old, I picked this up at a reduced price.  I can understand why because it is unlike many popular forms of games.  It is the game of the television series of the series of (currently) eight novels by George R.R. Martin, a sequence entitled 'A Song of  Ice and Fire', so far published 1991-2011, with another one currently being written.  The television series in the UK has been running on one of the Sky channels, which I am averse to watching anything on because they are controlled by Rupert Murdoch who I am hoping we will see imprisoned this year for his activities.  Having enjoyed the game, I am now, however, keen to buy the series on DVD and I guess the game has worked as an effective advertising tool in that respect.  The series has been well received and has been given a number of awards.  Though it is a fantasy series, it has 'adult' themes and most of the characters are morally ambivalent.  Many of these aspects are carried over into the game.  You switch back and forth in consecutive chapters between two characters.  There are weapons and combat and magical abilities, but you also have to make moral judgements.  There is a lot of discussion between the characters and your exploits are written out like a book.  The language is adult too, with unrestrained swearing of a modern nature.  Perhaps this is the kind of game for an elderly gamer like myself, with a lot of involvement in the plot and interesting settings without the usual recourse to dwarfs and elves.  Politics and even religion play an important part in the game.  I am at Chapter 9 and whilst I have not got everything 'right', I have not been eliminated and left with a sense of frustration.

Anyway, the game and the series are not the real focus of today's posting.  As the title suggests, rather, it is looking at the fantasy world in which the novels/series/game are set and what they got me thinking about an easy way to create a fantasy world.  Given that everyone these days seems to be writing fiction; e-books are appearing by the truckload daily and there are more creative writing courses running than any in engineering or nursing, this is a skill people might be wanting to develop.

Below is one of the many online maps showing the lands featured in Martin's stories.  The continents are Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos, not incredibly imaginative names.  There does not seem to be an inland sea, though the Jade Sea may be this.  There is a nice selection of archipelagos and some have commented that the central area resembles the region of Greece and Turkey.  The locations on the western continent sound like places in the British Isles and apparently the Wars of the Roses had an influence on Martin.  Those on the eastern continent do have a more Mediterranean feel.

Now, not in a hurry to write a fantasy epic, I did begin thinking about how I would conjure up an interesting world, comparatively easily to act as a setting.  Often I look at parts of maps and think how different they appear to when we can see an entire continent.  This is exacerbated when the map is turned so it is not aligned North-South in the way we tend to be familiar with.  One map I had looked at in this way was the one from 'The Devil's Horsemen' (1979) by James Chambers.  The book is about the Mongol conquests of the 13th century so the map is centred on Central Asia with the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal as apparent inland seas.  The map curves as the world does, so Europe appears distorted in our eyes and is jammed in at one side.  I used the map with some locations renamed, but others retained because they are alien to Britons, as a setting for 'Dungeons and Dragons' scenarios I wrote.

Now, this principle has been used to create the lands shown below.  Particularly to British readers, the coastline might be a give away.  This is a view of the land around the Irish Sea, but with the East to the top of the map.  It gives me almost immediately an enclosed sea and some interesting large islands and reminded me a bit of the Young Kingdoms from the Elric series by Michael Moorcock which I have discussed before:   

The names are the actual names of the places on the map, but each consonant has been advanced by one and each vowel also advanced by one, so, for example 'b' becomes 'c' and 'e' becomes 'i'.  Thus, we quickly get some exotic sounding names, Larne becomes Mespi; Warrenpoint becomes the Greek sounding Xessipquopv and Stranraer in the same way becomes Tvsepseis.  Douglas sounds almost Arabic with Fuahmet and Pembroke as Quincsuli has a nicely Roman ring to it.  Some do not work out so well, Facmop sounds like an Irish insult rather than the capital of Iosi, in our world Eire and its capital Dublin.  Wales and Eire work out best becoming Xemit and Iosi.  As you can guess 'mepf' means 'land'.  However, for a few minutes' work I think I have ended up with not a bad basis for a fantasy world.  One advantage is that the towns are where towns would logically be.  We even have the twin city of Mowisquum-Coslipjief (Liverpool-Birkenhead) both sides of the River Nistiz (Mersey).

For this one, I simply flipped the map around so now it faces West to the top of the page.  I have reversed the names too, so the original town names move back each consonant and each vowel.  This gives the set up a more Middle Eastern flavour.  With lots of 'q's it does not work as well.  I do not know really how you could pronounce Rsqumquaq in Rbiskumc.  However, Nalzqija and Buqcedd (Cardiff) in the land of Vukar as well as Ciofkur (Douglas) on the Erka id Lum (Isle of Man) sound great for some story.

Maybe a mix-and-match approach would work best.  One challenge when creating a fantasy world is to avoid simply transplanting say Arabic or Chinese culture into an alien world and just relabelling it.  You may have attributes from such cultures and as this exercise shows, it can be a challenge when thinking up new places to get away from names that sound like they are from Arabic, Greek, Latin or Chinese.  Anyway, I hope this posting shows how making a reasonable setting for a fantasy story need not be difficult.