Monday, 24 November 2014

Shoes, Ships and Cadavers (or, "an ebook is a perfect gift!")

Do you have a speculative fiction fanatic in your family?

Are you friends with someone who loves reading science-fiction, fantasy or horror?

With Christmas just around the corner, are they looking for something new to read?

May we suggest...

Shoes, Ships and Cadavers
Tales from North Londonshire
The Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group
Introduction by Alan Moore

A town that sits at the heart of England. A town that has played host to kings, saints, parliament, public hangings, and hot air balloons. A place steeped in history, laden with mystery, and bursting with wonders just waiting to be realised.

Let us be your guides...

“The writers represented in Shoes, Ships & Cadavers: Tales from North Londonshire have crafted visions of the town that are distinct and separate, covering a generous and sweeping arc of this tiny and yet deceptively expansive area of spacetime… I read this in a single sitting, something that I can’t remember managing with an anthology for a considerable while. I don’t expect to read a book this year that is more personally satisfying or a greater cause for optimism. Passionately recommended.” – Alan Moore, from his introduction.

Twelve tales of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy and HorrorEstablished in 2002, the NSFWG exists to enable local writers of genre fiction to learn their trade and hone their skills. The group includes both established novelists and exciting new talents. This volume features twelve original stories set in Northampton and acts as a showcase for their work.

12 stories, 256 pages, 80,000 words of intrigue, humour, magic, terror and conjecture.

Originally available as a limited edition (of just 50) dust-jacketed hardbacks and an A5 sized paperback, both of these have sold out from the publisher though Amazon have a few copies of the paperback.

However, NewCon Press has just released an ebook edition for £3.99 - available from NewCon Press here

Full contents:

1. Introduction – Alan Moore
2. A Walk of Solace with my Dead Baby – Ian Watson
3. Lifeline – Susan Sinclair
4. These Boots weren’t Made for Walking – Ian Whates
5. Mano Mart – Andy West
6. What we Sometimes do without Thinking – Mark West
7. Arthur the Witch – Donna Scott
8. Goethe’s Wig – Steve Longworth
9. The Old Man of Northampton and the Sea – Sarah Pinborough
10. The Last Economy – Paul Melhuish
11. Hanging Around – Neil K Bond
12. I Won the Earth Evacuation Lottery – Tim Taylor
13. The Tower – Nigel Edwards
14. About the Authors

Monday, 17 November 2014

Characters Must Eat, by Ian Watson

Group Chairman Ian Watson on all things culinary...

Photo credit: Enrique Corominas
Science Fiction and Fantasy cookcooks are an established tradition.

One of the inspirations of my 2-volume science fantasy saga The Books of Mana (Lucky's Harvest and The Fallen Moon) was Finnish cookbooks because now my characters would have something to feast upon.  More recently myself and my beloved Cristina (cookery author as well as Spanish translator of George Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire) co-wrote a cookbook about 50 meals named after famous people for the 50th anniversary of the leading Spanish book club Círculo de Lectores (Readers' Circle).  After a while meals began to cross-reference as though a secret history of the world was emerging gastronomically.  Here are the histories of a couple of "named" dishes, in English for the very first time.

Oysters Rockefeller
In 1840 Italian immigrant Antoine Aliciatore founded America´s oldest family-run restaurant in culturally French New Orleans after lack of success in New York.  In 1899 a shortage of imported French snails caused his son Jules to turn to the local oysters, resulting in a dish which he named after John D. Rockefeller (1839 - 1937), America´s first billionaire, because Jules´sauce was very rich too.
The sauce was also green, a purée of green vegetables famously scorning any use of spinach, though its exact ingredients were kept a family secret.  Since Antoine´s has sold 3.5 million Oysters Rockefeller between then and now, many chefs attempted copies, often courtesy of spinach.  In 1986 apparently a laboratory analysis showed the presence of parsley, puréed celery, chives, and capers as well as olive oil—one must imagine a diner suddenly running out of Antoine´s with an Oyster Rockefeller clutched in his hand and escaping in a waiting car to that laboratory.
Rockefeller grew rich by revolutionising the petroleum industry, and he was a pioneering philanthropist, endowing much medical research and two universities.  He was also a teetotaller, whereas Jules´ sauce was said to benefit by a dash of "the Green Fairy", absinthe, the preferred tipple of many French artists of the time.  So Rockefeller may never have tasted his namesake dish, or at least not in its full original glory...

Chicken Marengo
On 14 June 1800, having taken his army over the Alps into northern Italy like a latterday Hannibal, Napoleon brilliantly triumphed over the Austrians at Marengo, after which in a nearby farmhouse his cook Dunant improvised from the few items available a meal of chicken—diced by a sabre! and fried in olive oil—plus a tomato-based sauce topped with crayfish and fried eggs, a dish which became immortal, and a symbol of France.
Except for some awkward facts such as that... Dunant only began to work for Napoleon 2 years later, Napoleon didn´t eat in any farmhouse or old inn but went back to his headquarters, olive oil hardly existed locally, and Napoleon was extremely lucky to win, with huge casualties on both sides.
A master of spin, Napoleon had official maps of the battle destroyed and redrawn to conform with his vision, and was still revising the facts years later in exile.  A recent book in English, Napoleon´s Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor´s Favourite Dish (2011) by Napoleonic expert Andrew Uffindell reveals fascinatingly how the name Marengo was spun for political reasons, as well as the meal itself till "Marengo" was simply a title covering a huge range of variations in the competing newfangled restaurants of Paris in the 1820s where a clever owner could make a fortune within 5 years. In 1988 the first French astronaut took tinned veal Marengo, adjusted for zero gravity, to the Mir space station, carrying this mythic meal beyond the Earth.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Member in the wild

Last week was a busy one for NSFWG member Mark West.

Ellen Datlow, leading horror anthologist, published her annual list of 'honorable mentions' (stories that don't appear in her "Best Of" but which she feels are worthy of pointing out to readers) and included West on it, with his story "The Bureau Of Lost Children".  This originally appeared in the anthology "ill at ease 2" and was workshopped at the group.

He was also part of a quartet of Writers at a reading event held at Leicester Central Library on Thursday evening.  He read from his novelette "The Mill" (which was used as his audition piece to get into the group) and took part in a lively Q&A session.

from left - James Bennett, Hardeep Sangha, West, K. T. Davies
The icing on the cake was a glowing review of his novella "Drive" (also partially workshopped in the group) from Peter Tennant in Black Static magazine.  Tennant writes; "[Drive] is a crowd pleaser, a horror story set in the urban landscape and tapping into our fears of what could so easily go wrong in this setting, a finely tuned tale that delivers all the thrills it says on the tin. I loved it, and I also think it would make a splendid little film."

More details can be found at his blog.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The House Next Door, a review by Mark West

NSFWG member Mark West reviews Anne Rivers Siddons, first published in 1978

It was an architectural masterpiece - every young couple’s dream house.  Suddenly, within it and everywhere around it, families began to suffer, to go mad…to die.

And then, with mounting terror, the family next door was struck with the paralysing fear that they were next…that the pure horror of the house could not let them live…

that their salvation lay in fire and murder…and that to survive, they must enter and destroy - 
The House Next Door

(from the back cover of my 1982 Ballantine Books edition)

Their love would never be the same.
Colquitt and Walter Kennedy enjoyed a life of lazy weekends, gathering with the neighbours on their quiet, manicured street and sipping drinks on their patios. But when construction of a beautiful new home begins in the empty lot next door, their easy friendship and relaxed get-togethers are marred by strange accidents and inexplicable happenings.

Though Colquitt's rational mind balks at the idea of a "haunted" house, she cannot ignore the tragedies associated with it. It is as if the house preys on its inhabitants' weaknesses and slowly destroys the goodness in them -- ultimately driving them to disgrace, madness and even death.

Anne Rivers Siddons transports you deep into the heart of a neighborhood torn apart by a mysterious force that threatens their friendship, their happiness and, for some, their very existence.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time - ever since, in fact, I read Stephen King’s analysis of it in “Danse Macabre” - and although it took me a long time to get hold of a copy (I finally found mine, the 1982 Ballantine edition from Canada, in a charity shop), it’s definitely been worth the wait.  Written as a contemporary novel and published in 1978, this still works perfectly with only a few hints betraying the fact that (as I write this review) it’s 36 years old.  

Col narrates the novel (apart from a brief epilogue) and she and her husband Walter are normal people, as the prologue spells out.  Thirtysomething and deeply in love, they’re not rich but not poor, they have good friends, they have a nice house in a nice area (plus a summer cottage on ‘the island’) and life in Atlanta treats them well, with Walter a partner in an ad agency and Col a freelance PR person.  When Col hears that the McIntyre lot next door to them is due to be developed, she hates the idea since it means that a lot of trees and wild life will have to go, along with their privacy.  Then she meets Kim Dougherty, the architect, who is very proud of his creation and once the house is up, Col falls for its beauty.

"[The house] commanded you, somehow, yet soothed you.  It grew out of the pencilled earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless depths of time, waiting to be released…The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots.  It looked - inevitable."

The first occupants - part one of the book - are Buddy and Pie Harralson, expecting their first child and from moneyed Southern families.  Buddy is a lawyer, Pie is a perky kid who has a complex about her “daddy” and it’s clear the two men don’t get on.  Very soon, small animals - birds, chipmunks, the Harralson puppy - are killed, “smeared out of life”, though after the police are called, the murders stop.  “It was as though the murderer, having made some small point to the Harralsons, had moved on.”  The Harralsons host a house-warming party and everything goes wrong - a display of homosexuality leading to a heart attack - in a way that not only destroys lives, but the trappings of it, the reputations and standing.  It also takes its toll on Dougherty - he’s very proud of his creation but it blocks his creative drive and at the party, he realises “there’s something wrong with this house.”

Part two picks up the story as Buck & Anita Sheehan move in.  She’s been ill and he seems over-protective, though as the days and weeks pass, it comes to light that they lost their only son in Vietnam (in a tragedy similar to the one in which Anita lost her father and brother).  Anita receives phone calls with no caller and she sees her sons death in a TV movie that no station was carrying.  As she retreats into depression another neighbour, the well-respected Virginia Guthrie, helps out but can’t prevent the ultimate betrayal.  Although I won’t say what that is, Col witnesses the incident and she’s unable to tell anyone else, which ties her into the dark secrets of the house.  The house affects Kim further, leading him to try it on with an uncomplaining Col and their almost-tryst is witnessed by Walter, who is driven into a rage that they only just manage to avoid.  From this point on, as our heroes become keenly aware that something is askew, the tension begins to crank up.

Part three has the Greene’s move in.  On the surface, Norman is an overbearing, ex-army college lecturer and his wife Susan is quiet, tolerant and moneyed.  Their daughter, Melissa, is 8 and during a party she has an accident that - again - causes distress but also highlights that Norman is a monster.  At this point, the house comes between Col and her close friend Claire Swanson, another neighbour who has always been supportive and this section is beautifully written and full of pain.  When the end comes for the Greene’s, that resolution - a tragedy of the mundane - is heartbreaking as it plays out.  At this point, Col and Walter decide enough is enough and finally make a stand but the reaction is one they expect - ridicule, ostracisation and pity - and we see this once lively couple driven to extremes that couldn’t have been contemplated at the start of the book.  As everything collapses around her and Col mourns her previous life, with friends and laughter and good futures to look forward to, there’s a real sense of loss.

Then we get the final, shocking twist of the knife.

This is a wonderful book, that had me enthralled from the start to the gut-punch finish.  Wonderful written (and simply told), the whole thing is perfectly constructed and the language is often beautiful (when the Swansons move out, Col observes - “About a waiting house [there is] a sort of mournful abandonment, a wistful air of ‘Why are you leaving me?  What went wrong?'").  For the most part, Col has a lovely narrative voice and the home she shares with Walter, their sanctuary, is the exact opposite of Dougherty’s modern marvel and Siddons uses it to create a warm, homely base.

The Atlanta location is well used, from the seasons (Siddons writes the heat of summer and the coolness of the evenings so you feel as if you’re sitting on the Kennedy patio) to the mixture of old and new money (and old and new values) and the dialogue has a lilt that is pleasant to read.  The characters are well-drawn and believable within the situation (even if, as with Col sometimes, they are occasionally too stuck-up about things to be sympathetic) and the book has a nice pace to it, taking its time to set things up but with a mounting sense of tension behind it all.  The three stories (each new neighbour has its own part) give it a feel of interlinked novellas, but that works too, with Col acting as the bridge between them.

However, the novels masterstroke is the house itself.  Whilst a lot of bad things happen in it, most of them - as characters point out - could be ascribed to terrible bad luck and it’s only as a sum of the whole that gives Col’s fear of it being haunted any credence.  But is it, or is it just the fact that we have an unreliable narrator who is slowly unravelling over 278 pages?  Personally - especially regarding the ending - I think it’s the house because it doesn’t only wreak havoc on its occupants but destroys the people around it, fragmenting the neighbourhood, wrecking long-standing friendships and creating terrible secrets that help to grind down daily life.  As the blurb says, “It is as if the house preys on its inhabitants' weaknesses and slowly destroys the goodness in them -- ultimately driving them to disgrace, madness and even death” and that’s perfect.  

“The House Next Door” is a great read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

This review originally appeared on Mark's blog here