genre stuff


Bello Books

Though I’d heard about Bello Books a while back, I’d only recently taken a more serious look. I’ve now got a couple of their ebooks on my iPad now, and plan to give them a read soon. But it also reminded me that this is actually a really good thing that Bello are doing. There’s a blog post on the Digitalist from back in February that summarises a lot of what I’ve been thinking recently:

Without the rise of ebooks in the last few years, it would be much more difficult for authors like Pamela Hansford Johnson, Vita Sackville-West and Andrew Garve – to name just three – to be rediscovered and enjoyed. The same hard work went into publishing these books as did The Great Gatsby, and we’re committed to preserving that legacy for the future – retaining the text as published originally, just changing the format a little to suit the digital age.

Seriously, that’s something important. Most of the discussion surrounding ebooks has been people going on about ebook prices or DRM. But what about creating an archive of great quality publications that will last as long as the publisher remains in business, or even longer.

There’s something quite sad about seeing backlist and out of print books being forgotten about in all the razzmatazz of modern publishing, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Digitalising these lost classics will ensure that copies exist, potentially, for decades, and available in a nicely scanned and proofread format. Of course they charge for it – they’re a business after all – but I love seeing deeply obscure titles become commercially viable once again. It also ensures that, for those who enjoy finding obscure writers, there’s a market out there for them as well as those seeking frontlist stars.


Soho Crime

Isn’t it great when you find a great range of books branded from one imprint? I love these books, even though I’ve only read a few. They’re imports from the US-based imprint Soho Crime. Some are out of print classics of the genre, some are translations, others are more recent English language releases. All have pretty cool cover designs, too. I noticed the local Waterstones in Nottingham had previously stocked a few editions, but I was delighted when I saw this display of them the other week – and I celebrated my delight by buying another three. Anyway, they’re well worth checking out should you come across them.


Recent Reading – More Crime

More crime, more studying the form. One book of note in my attempt to dig ever deeper in the psyche of the genre – The Return of the Dancing Master. I don’t know why, but lately I’ve found crime (and spy thrillers) to really float my boat. The engine of the novel keeps the logic-driven part of my mind entertained, while the rest of me relaxes to enjoy the prose or characterisation. All the time, I’m still picking apart methods, plotting, cause and effect. It’s fascinating because I’m conscious I’m now directly overlaying fantasy and crime in my own writing to see where the genres fall apart, so this sort of study is central to my reading at the moment.

The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell, centres on a man called Lindman. He’s a police officer who goes on sick leave when he’s diagnosed with a form of cancer, and while he’s not actually at work decides to keep on going anyway, elsewhere in the country, where he looks into the death of a strange former colleague Herbert Molin. Actually, death really doesn’t do this murder justice. It’s brutal – more of a horrific, slow torturing and eventual butchering. Bloodied footprints are left – prints that form the tracks of a tango where the killer had danced with the corpse.

Of course, there’s the set-up: there’s the drive that keeps things ticking over. Why would an old man who lives in a remote part of the Swedish countryside be killed in such an unusual manner? I often find that the more curious the start of a crime novel, the more the reader will continue reading: surely the job of any thriller writer. Hence the combination of a retired old man and his horrific ending. Clearly, it’s what he did in his past that led to the death, but already the reader is being prompted to search their mind: what could he have done to warrant this end?

Though not a Wallander novel, this is unmistakably Mankell: an almost distant, cold prose that allows him to get deep into his characters’ heads. Environment is key, feeding the plot and never merely being a thrown-up aesthetic.

One of the most impressive, and rarely covered traits of Mankell’s crime novels, is that he always sets a couple of plots running side by side – the issue of Lindman’s cancer testing and how it is affecting his personal life, juxtaposed alongside the murder investigation itself. Though Mankell puts a rare happy, chuckling character in the novel – Giuseppe Larson – as a local police officer informally working with Lindman, it’s really Lindman who this novel is about every bit as much as the murder victim.

Mankell is perhaps the gold standard at the combination of the personal and the professional narrative strands. Often themes overlap, sometimes they don’t, but the way they play off each other is fascinating. Mankell is very clever at working the book like this. It’s precisely because of this that he easily creates a page-turner without it ever resorting to the cheap tricks that belittle the phrase.


Mourning Wasp & Mind Meld

I’ve written a post on the Tor UK blog about China’s challenge, where he would sketch out some fabulous creature, and I would have to write it into The Broken Isles.

I could of course be flexible in these decisions, as there was no small print – I merely took delivery of the wasp. As it happens, there was a way around this challenge. I knew that a monster was arriving, but I didn’t know what. So I could pretty much structure the novel with a lacuna, a vacancy for whatever was coming. Also, I didn’t just want this to be a one-scene monster, I wanted this to play a pretty inclusive role in the book. That, surely, was more in the spirit of the challenge.

Check out the rest of the post to see how I went about fitting in China’s Mourning Wasp – the final sketch is actually printed in The Broken Isles, which I’m rather chuffed about. Also, I was featured on the latest SF Signal Mind Meld, talking about the genre’s desire for monarchies in fantasy fiction.

Even today, we’re under the illusion we have democracy, but it’s much more wishy-washy than true ancient Athenian democracy, where power was genuinely more equally distributed, and more citizens played a role in the functioning of society. Today our monarchs and empires now are largely trade-based hegemonies, imperial campaigns given the spin of delivering peace through drone bombings. We are now subject to political and financial kings and queens…

Take a look at what else I have to say – there’s quite a line up of authors on this one.


Wallander, Writing Misery

I’ve very much enjoyed the new season of Wallander, on the BBC. I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander over any of the international versions. What’s more, this adaptation is visually beautiful. The unusual shots, the strange colour tone, the wonderful vistas – it’s immensely pleasing to the eye.

I am a big fan of Henning Mankell’s books, on which the series is based, and Branagh seems to fit the character perfectly. He might be a bit too handsome and lean, but in terms of the psychology, he’s there. There was an interesting interview a while ago where he talked about that misery:

And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.’ When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. ‘I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after I’d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer.’

I wonder, though, why Wallander’s misery is so engaging. It goes way beyond feeling sorry for him – I remember reading one of the books years ago and the level of misery thrown at Wallander almost became comical. Maybe with crime series the audience has surrendered itself to expecting a certain level of blood and gore, yet that’s still not really what Wallander’s about. The gore is not dwelt upon, yet the mood remains intense and heavy throughout. When there is violence, it’s used sparingly but powerfully (I reckon there’s another blog to be written on that topic).

Is the appeal of such misery simply rooting for someone to do well in life? Is it the search for where someone’s breaking point can be found? As someone who creates characters, I find it difficult to create genuine Wallander-scale misery. Sure, bad things can happen to your characters – a relationship breakdown, loss of career, and so on – but this is something else entirely. This is relentlessly depressing, remarkably bleak stuff, yet it’s so engaging. It’s not merely misery for the sake of it, either – the misery is compelling, meaningful and conveys a sense of direction for Wallander’s character.

But how can such a depressing character be so successful? There’s no wish-fulfilment here, no happy endings for him. Where’s the appeal in this? I’m not sure I understand myself, but I would say that a lot of it is down to that part of the craft of writing that can’t be explained – both from Henning Mankell and the screenwriters who bring such misery to life (apparently Mankell has worked closely with the screenwriters). I find the new series irresistible, for its cinematography, acting, but most of all knowing that I’m going to be dragged into a dark place for a while. Such drama makes us feel something profound.


On Grimdark Fantasy

Damien Walter has a discussion on the Guardian blog about ‘grimdark’ fantasy, or ultra-violent fantasy, and he talks about the use of rape as a substitute for character development in fantasy narratives.

there’s no doubt that fantasy writers have left her an open goal by filling their books with scenes of rape and torture in a misguided attempt to provide psychological depth that they aren’t skilled enough to create in other ways. And beware the writer who strays into this territory blindly. acrackedmoon is only one of a growing army of #feminazgul, women fantasy fans who take it on themselves to hound writers of Grimdark to their dooms. Such is the rough justice of the internet.

A brief tangent on this subject. I’ve been noticing the rise of grimdark for some time (though I didn’t know it by that name). Maybe I’ve been guilty of committing some of the sins of grimdark myself to some extent – though certainly not the rapey bits – and they’re also not the first of my literary errors.

I suspect the rise of such fantasy novels is in many ways a response to the somewhat Manichean fantasy blueprint of yesteryear, in which there’s nearly always this inherent duality of good and evil in narratives.

No problem with moving on from that, of course, but perhaps this effort to see ‘gritty‘ and spuriously realistic fantasy has led to an over-mining of grey areas, where characters can seem to be be pretty nasty and violent – and yet likeable. Not merely the anti-hero, but the anti-heroMAX, so much so that it’s become par for the course. And that’s where some things can start to go wrong, and grimdark unfurls itself.

I’ve been trying to write the opposite of that for my new series, which is why the subject has been on my mind recently. I think there is room for exploring genuinely good characters, who can be realistic, mature, sophisticated. It makes things more interesting, creatively, when things go against them, that’s for sure. I was reminded of the Hercule Poirot story (or at least, certainly the more recent TV portrayal), of Murder on the Orient Express, in which his faith in the Catholic church – or rather, his goodness – is tested. Goodness and evil can perhaps be questioned in a more interesting way. Perhaps a more mature way, who knows.


Alien Attack

I went home to my parents over the weekend and found Alien Attack, the Micro Computer Game. I think it was first on the market in 1982, but I didn’t get my hands on this until the mid-80s. You can see a video of how it played here, but as you can imagine it was pretty simple. Move forward. Shoot the rising aliens. Avoid bullets. Don’t crash or run out of fuel. I completed it a dozen times at least.