27 April 2011

Book Review: In Pursuit..., by Joanna FitzPatrick

In Pursuit..., by Joanna FitzPatrick, is published by La Drôme Press and available from the author's website, and from Amazon as a Kindle ebook and paperback.

Joanna FitzPatrick sent me "In Pursuit..." for review after she had read my interview with Kathleen Jones, the author of the recent, and very well-received biography Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller. "In Pursuit..." is a biographical novel rather than a biography, but it shares more in common with Kathleen Jones' biography than its subject. One of the notable features of "The Storyteller" is its non-linear time sequence, and "In Pursuit..." uses the same technique, although the time sequence becomes linear as the novel goes on.

I ended up enjoying "In Pursuit..." a lot, but I got off to a slightly rocky start with it. Part of that was circumstantial: having read "The Storyteller" so recently, I had a hard time resisting the urge to rush off to it every few pages to check whether the two books matched. Once I told myself firmly that this was a novel and that I should read it as such, those worries disappeared.

The novel is set in England and Europe apart from the appropriately-named Prelude, which is set in New Zealand in 1908, when Katherine was 19. This was the part of the novel I had the most trouble with, because, as someone who lives in Wellington, aspects of these scenes didn't quite ring true for me. I don't believe Katherine Mansfield would have said, or thought, "I'll go visit Julia" - that's still regarded as an American construction here over 100 years later. And I don't think - although I may be wrong - that KM would have been able to see from her house a ship leaving Wellington Harbour dwindling to a dot on the horizon.

(In saying this, I acknowledge that it is very difficult indeed for an author to get all the details right of a country she does not live in or regularly visit - though I didn't notice any problems of this sort in "The Storyteller". Also, I doubt these quibbles will mean anything to a reader who doesn't live in New Zealand.)

The good news is that, as soon as the story moved overseas and forward in time, I started to enjoy it. Joanna FitzPatrick acknowledges the editors of Katherine Mansfield's letters and diaries in her "Note on Sources", and it's clear that she has drawn on the letters in particular to flesh out a convincing portrait of Katherine and her circle.

I finished "The Storyteller" feeling considerable sympathy for both Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, but "In Pursuit..." is very much Katherine Mansfield's story. More than anything else, she struck me as a woman who was born before her time: someone whose talents might have flourished for much longer in an era when antibiotics could have dealt to her ailments and her desire for independence might have been better appreciated.

So, especially if you are interested in literary history in general or Katherine Mansfield in particular, I recommend that you get hold of a copy of "In Pursuit...".

P.S.: If you are interested in Katherine Mansfield, I also recommend that you check out the Katherine Mansfield Society, whose journal is currently calling for submissions for its forthcoming issue on "Katherine Mansfield and the Fantastic".

25 April 2011

Tuesday Poem: Cynara, by Ernest Christopher Dowson

Non sum qualis eram bonæ sub Regno Cynaræ

['The days when Cynara was queen will not return for me.' - CATULLUS]

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! Thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone, gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Credit note: First published in 1896.

Tim says: Ernest Dowson is a minor and largely forgotten poet, yet he gave the English language the phrases "gone with the wind" (third stanza above), "days of wine and roses" (from "Vitae Summa Brevis"), and, on a more prosaic level, is the first recorded user of the word "soccer".

Dowson's poetry is an example of the doomed, late-Victorian romanticism and decadence most closely associated with the more famous Algernon Swinburne. The excellent Horizon Review has recently published an article by Katy Evans-Bush about Dowson and his place in the transition from Victorian sentimentalism to modernism.

But away, dull care! Begone, literary history! I like this poem for its over-the-topness, for its self-pity, and for that silly, and yet marvellously musical, line:

Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng...

21 April 2011

"And My Axe!": The Further Adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli join the Fellowship of the Ring.

Aragorn: You have my sword.

Legolas: And you have my bow.

Gimli: And my axe.

Legolas: And my blade [He brandishes a dagger]

Gimli: And my adze.

Legolas: And my blunderbuss.

Gimli: And my arbalest.

Legolas: Arbalests haven't been invented yet.

Gimli: Neither has the blunderbuss, fool.

Aragorn: Boys —

Legolas: And my velocipede.

Gimli: And my velociraptor.

Aragorn: I'm not going to ride to Mordor on a fucking bicycle.

Gimli: Galadriel would.

Aragorn: And as for velociraptors ... what's a velociraptor?

Gimli: The velociraptor is a genus of dromaeosaurid theropod dinosaur that existed approximately 75 to 71 million years ago during the later part of the Cretaceous Period.

Legolas: Wikipedia hasn't been invented yet either.

Aragorn: These velociraptors - good in a fight?

Gimli: Dwarven armies used to ride them into battle.

Legolas: Ooh, they did not!

Gimli: Did too.

Legolas: Whatever. They're extinct.

Gimli: There are many things beneath the sun and the moon, friend Legolas, that you do not know. Mayhap in some dark glade or on some lonely mountaintop, beasts long forgotten by the world live on, waiting to play their part in the big battle at the end of the book.

Legolas: You looked ahead. That's cheating.

Aragorn: Screw this. Let's form a band instead - a power trio. I already have some drums.

Legolas: And you have my bass.

Gimli: And my axe!

18 April 2011

Tuesday Poem: The Aliquot Brothers

Boys in men's shirts, the Aliquot Brothers
have come to town. They are

backing us into corners, mopping up
the fragments we leave behind.

They are the perfect combination.
The redhead paints his toes. The honey blond

streaks highlights through his hair.
They go café to café, dividing

to rule, smearing tablecloths
with froth and melted cheese. (The rest of us

confined to quarters, mumbling
over cold porridge and twice-strained tea.)

No use complaining: they'll leave
when they're good and ready,

with no remainder, nothing
but the hiss of their departure,

the closing door that splits
this world from its neighbour.

Credit note: "The Aliquot Brothers" was first published in Issue 14 of Interlitq, "A New Zealand Literary Showcase". This issue has stories and poems by a wide range of New Zealand writers - it is well worth checking out. It will also appear in my forthcoming poetry collection Men Briefly Explained, published by Interactive Press of Brisbane.

Tim says: An aliquot is a number that divides another number evenly and leaves no remainder. That'll be an NCEA Level 1 numeracy credit, please.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week's other poems are linked from the right-hand column. I'm very pleased to be this week's Tuesday Poem editor on the main blog.

14 April 2011

Short Story: Gwen's Dilemma, by M. L. Poncelet

Gwen stood outside the sidewalk looking at the address. The building had a closed sign, the windows looked grimy and the awning was missing. She smiled. This was going to be the future home of her new business, Gwen’s Flower Shop. She was going to be her own boss from now on. No more having to wake up and drive one hour to her government job.

As she peered through the glass she imagined all the new renovations she would do - new tile for the floors, a fresh coat of paint for the walls, and a good scrub on the outside wouldn't hurt either. It was hard to believe this used to be a flower shop, but there in the corner was the refrigeration unit with its glass doors.

Her inheritance from her late uncle Bob was a huge help when it came to getting the loan. She walked around a couple of times as she waited for the loan manager to show up and give her the key. She couldn't wait to get started.

"Hey lady, are you lost?"

Gwen turned around, somewhat taken aback by this toothless man.

"This is going to be the future home of Gwen's Flower Shop." She said, forcing a smile.

"Good luck to them," he said as he approached closer. "How much did they pay for it? They probably got ripped off whatever it was. I'm Dan by the way, I work out the back at the radiator shop."

Gwen took a step backward, and looked at him, unbelieving. Just then she spied the loan manager's car come bolting around the corner in a blur of shiny metal.

Dan wandered off just as Jeff came careening into the parking lot, slamming the car door behind him.

"Gwen! You beat me to it!" He ran up and shook her hand, congratulating her. Jeff's smile was infectious and soon her old enthusiasm was back. She shared her ideas of renovating and he nodded and smiled as he rattled the key back and forth in the lock. Finally it opened. "You might want to get a locksmith around, this lock is a bit rusty."

Inside the place was a complete mess; dirt and cobwebs were everywhere, clinging to the edge of the countertop and hanging down from the ceiling. Even the normally chatty Jeff was at a loss for words. He brushed his jacket. "I should get going, Gwen. Good luck!"

Gwen watched him go and waved through the grimy windows but he was too busy swinging his neck around looking for a break in the traffic. Afterward, Gwen put on her apron and started to clean, first one spot and then another. It was hard to stay focused on just one area when the whole place was in such dire need of help. Even the ceiling was yellow. Someone must've smoked quite heavily in here. She left the door open for some fresh air but soon realized after she started coughing that she needed a mask.

The locksmith came around noon.

"Whatcha doin'?" He said.

"Cleaning! This is going to be the future home of Gwen's Flower Shop," she said between gritted teeth. "Who are you?"

"I'm here to change your locks," he said as he rattled the door and the door frame. "This door is junk lady, it's not worth the lock. You see how it doesn't sit right in the frame?"

Gwen coughed as she came outside to see what he was talking about. He unscrewed the door handle.

"Ideally what you want to do is take out the bolt but this frame is so flimsy," he poked at the frame with his screwdriver. "If I take this one out you're going to have major problems. Looks like you need to call someone about these ants, they've found the rotten wood already." The locksmith pointed his shoe at the small mound of earth next to the corner of the door.

Gwen took off her rubber gloves and bent over to have a look. There were ants all right, dozens of them. One more person to call.

"I need the lock changed, whatever hardware you have, could you change it?" She was getting exasperated.

"Sure, sure. You just continue on what you're doing and I'll do my thing."

Gwen went back inside and resumed her scrubbing.

The locksmith opened the door, "I'm going to have to get another part, in the meantime, just keep this propped open, might be good for some fresh air."

Gwen kept cleaning for the next hour and then the wind picked up, seeming to blow more dust into the shop. Gwen pulled the door shut in annoyance.

By the end of the afternoon, the locksmith still hadn't returned. "Where is he?" Reaching into her pocket, she realized she had left her mobile phone in the car. Gwen strode to the door and hooked her fingers through the hole where the door knob used to be, but she couldn't open it. Perplexed, she bent down until she was eye level with the round hole and saw that the lousy bolt bit was holding the door in the frame. She rattled the door a few times but the door wouldn't budge.

"This is crazy," she muttered to herself. She needed something to turn the black piece of metal, a nail file? She always kept a couple of glass nail files in her purse which was - in the trunk of her car.

How was she going to get out? Gwen knew she shouldn't panic but she was tired and thirsty and hungry. She went around to all the windows but none of them would open. There was a small one out the back but it was stuck with grime and the lever was broken.

How was she going to get help? The phone company wasn't supposed to come until the end of the week. Gwen put her ear to the hole in the door but all she could hear was the faint rumble of the machines from the radiator shop. She yelled for help, but it was useless.

She was trapped! Panicking, she alternated between yelling and kicking at the door. How did those people do it in those movies? Throwing doors open with their shoulder? Gwen hit her shoulder against the door but it just hurt. Near tears, she threw anything and everything at the door including a stool. Finally, it started to splinter in the middle. Encouraged, she kept ramming the stool at it until the hole was large enough for the stool. Out of breath, Gwen tossed it aside and started to squeeze herself through the hole; she felt the sharp splinters scratching her and causing a rip in her shirt.

She was half way through, her arms flailing in front of her as she tried to wiggle through when she saw the locksmith's truck come around the corner.

"Whatcha doin'?" he called out.

Bio: M.L. Poncelet resides on the west coast of Canada in a place full of interesting characters and inspiration for her stories. You can read more of her short stories at http://www.oceanbluepress.com.

11 April 2011

Tuesday Poem: The Translator

Shutting out the torment and the fear
deep into the night's cold morning hours
I work on my translation.

Improbable, that in another tongue
such lines as these were born,
set down, are vivid on his page

and will not come across to mine.
Two ways to go: the forced rhyme
the flaccid filling phrase

or terse, unrhymed,
trying to capture the meaning
as if that could ever be known.

But something does translate —
a voice from bleak immensities
perfect for nights like these:

the wind's forgotten murmur,
the war that beggars language
speaking the creole of slaughter.

Credit note: First published in New Zealand Books (December 2004), included in Best New Zealand Poems 2004, and then collected in All Blacks Kitchen Gardens.

Tim says: I have had something of a translation theme going with the Tuesday Poems on my blog recently, one way or another, and furthermore Best New Zealand Poems 2010 has just been launched - congratulations to all those who've had work selected! - so I though I would post my poem "The Translator", which appeared in BNZP 2004. At that time, I also supplied an exuberant set of notes on the poem.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week's other poems are linked from the right-hand column.

10 April 2011

Book Review: The Spectrum Collection, edited by John Prescott - and some thoughts on how horror fiction works


Dark Continents Publishing
is a new publisher of Dark Speculative Fiction, which they define as "Dark Fantasy, Horror (supernatural, Urban, and whatever other twist you can think to put on the genre) Science Fiction with a dark side. Basically, if it makes people squirm, it may well be for us."

They are not open to unsolicited submissions until 1 May 2011, but they already have several books available, and one of them is a sampler of their current authors' work, The Spectrum Collection.

Here is what the introduction has to say about The Spectrum Collection:

Welcome to the Spectrum Collection. People have asked us what “Dark Speculative Fiction” is. With this collection of stories from the authors of Dark Continents Publishing, we offer our definitions of that little phrase. Basically, we all write horror. Over the years however, we’ve all developed our own take on horror. You’ll find all our contributions here. From Sylvia Shults’ post-apocalyptic vampire story, to Simon Kurt Unsworth’s story of a cursed home, to the zombie stories contributed by myself and Adrian Chamberlin, you’ll find all the nooks and crannies of the horror world that make up our brand of literature. Our Dark Speculative Fiction. You’ll even find some bloody good poetry by Tracie McBride, Maureen (Mo) Irvine, and John Irvine. Carson Buckingham, Serenity J. Banks, and John Prescott round out the chills with their stories guaranteed to pump up your adrenaline.

So how does The Spectrum Collection live up to these claims? I found that my adrenalin was pumped up quite often, and there were definitely chills, but also that quite a few of the stories didn't offer that adrenalin and outlet or those chills anywhere to go. In more prosaic language, while almost all the stories were well written, created a nicely scary/spooky atmosphere, and set up a premise that promised excitement and/or fear, a number of them didn't resolve in a satisfying way.

I'm not a big reader of horror, but I've read enough to know that there are two kinds of horror story that work for me: the Stephen King kind, in which the author creates one or a small group of characters the reader cares about, and then puts them in grave jeopardy; and the H. P. Lovecraft kind, in which the characters are much less important and the horror comes from the revelation that vast and inimical cosmic forces wish us all the deepest harm.

(Of course, there are crossovers: Stephen King wrote several Lovecraft pastiches, including "Rats in the Walls", and "Crouch End", which memorably melds Lovecraftian horror with the unease of an American adrift in London. For that matter, the great Jorge Luis Borges, whose work often has an element of cosmic horror, acknowledged the influence of Lovecraft on his work and wrote a story dedicated to Lovecraft, "There Are More Things", published in The Book Of Sand (1975).)

The Lovecraft style is well suited to short stories, because it's hard to keep up an air of cosmic menace for a whole novel without it tipping over into bathos or silliness. The Stephen King signature style, on the other hand, is better suited to long narratives - of at least novella length - to give time to build up the characters before putting them, and the reader, through the wringer.

Another significant difference between the two styles is that the Stephen King approach usually ends with the survival of one or a few of the characters we care about, while the characteristic Lovecraftian ending has the narrator frantically scribbling the final words of the story as the three-lobed burning eye/giant space octopus/shambling gelatinous horror oozes across the threshold to end story and narrator alike.

Most of the stories in The Spectrum Collection are closer to the Stephen King approach than the H.P. Lovecraft approach, and as none of them are very long, that means that each author has taken on a very challenging task. I felt that a number of the stories did a good job of setting up the characters and the situation, and then fizzled out, either not advancing the story to a satisfying conclusion or coming up with an ending that I'd seen too many times before.

The two stories that made the most satisfying whole for me were "The End" by Serenity J. Banks, and "The Bodymen" by Adrian Chamberlin. "The End" is what Cormac McCarthy's The Road might be like if retold from the cannibals' point of view - but it's not as obvious as that little synopsis makes it sound, and within a general atmosphere of doom and dread, the story still goes to places I didn't expect.

"The Bodymen" has a tremendous setting for a horror story, a crematorium for dead animals. I once worked for a few weeks at a freezing works coolstore, and I can tell you that they are not great place to be alone at night if you have a vivid imagination. (I still haven't written my own story based on that experience...). Adrian Chamberlin does a great job of taking his already spooky setting and piling up the horror on top of it. I found the plot a bit confusing in a couple of places, but I was still creeped out by the overall effect.

Other stories I enjoyed included "Wild Goat Curry" by John Irvine, which is short but nasty, and "The Elms, Morecambe," by Simon Kurt Unsworth; while I think the author could have done more with the premise of this ghost story, the atmosphere of pain and regret is well described.

In the poetry, Tracie McBride's "Tooth Fairy" isn't one you want anywhere near your child's pillow, and "My Sister Doesn't Live There Anymore," by John Irvine, is a strong narrative poem.

So, in summary: there are some very strong pieces here, plus some that are underdeveloped, but nevertheless plenty to suggest that the authors represented here, and Dark Continents Publishing, are worth watching out for.

05 April 2011

Tuesday Poem: Notes From The Futurist Project

You float like a cloud in trousers
I stand with my cow in the rain

Your poems electrified Russia
Your dams were a hymn to the rain

Your empire crumbled around us
As here and as gone as the rain

The birch tree lies by the roadside
Its branches are wept by the rain

The smoke of my village drifts upwards
Its ashes retreat from the rain

Your red square has entered the market
Its cobbles are slick with the rain

The future lies inside the present
As close as a cloud and its rain.

Credit note:First published in Lynx XXI:1, Feb 2006.

Tim says: This is my one and only published attempt at a ghazal. I don't think it's as fleet-footed as the ghazal by Mary Cresswell I posted last week, and in fact, I'd almost forgotten I'd written it - but then poet and photographer Madeleine Slavick kindly sent me an article by John Berger about the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, which touched on Mayakovsky's 'frenemy' relationship with his contemporary, the Russian peasant poet Sergei Esenin (sometimes rendered as Yesenin).

To simplify greatly, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky tried to build the urban future in his poetry, while Esenin tried to preserve the rural past. Neither succeeded in life, though both did in art. Both died young and by their own hand.

In this poem, Esenin is the narrator, and Mayakovsky is the "cloud in trousers", as he once referred to himself.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week's other poems are linked from the right-hand column.