Wednesday 25 February 2015

Breakfast At Tiffany's, by Truman Capote - a review

cover scan of my copy - it looks a bit the worse for wear but I love the cover art
With her tousled blonde hair and upturned nose, dark glasses and chic black dresses, Holly Golightly is top notch in style and a sensation wherever she goes.  Her brownstone apartment vibrates with Martini-soaked parties as she plays hostess to millionaires and gangsters alike.  Yet Holly never loses sight of her ultimate goal - to find a real life place like Tiffany's that makes her feel at home.

I realise I'm very late to this party, since the novella was first published in November 1958 - it originally appeared in the magazine Esquire, before being collected with three short stories and published by Random House - but I thought I’d take some time to write about my thoughts on this, especially since a lot of older works are, I feel, under-represented with reviews on the Net.

 I’ve seen the film and enjoyed it and had wanted to read this for a while but we were like ships that passed in the night.  Late last year, though, I picked up a Penguin edition (which is undated - I bought it in a charity shop but it appears it might have been a promotional item) and having just read Stephen Volks’ “Leytonstone”, for a change of pace I decided to dip into it.  I’m so glad I did.

Opening in Autumn 1943, the unnamed narrator becomes friends with Holly Golighty, his downstairs neighbour in the Upper East Side brownstone they live in.  She is a charming woman, a society girl who manipulates the men around her to give her money and gifts, hoping to marry one of them one day.  As the friendship develops over the course of a year between the narrator and Holly - she calls him ‘Fred’ because he reminds her of her beloved brother - he finds himself falling under her spell and who wouldn’t - she fiesty and free-spirited, likes to shock people with revealing details of her personal life and sits out on the fire escape on summer evenings, playing the guitar as her hair dries.  ‘Fred’ is a writer, observing everything around him and although he’s inclined to want to protect Holly, she seems more than capable of doing so herself, until a family tragedy, a blast from the past and a betrayal by a friend turn things on their head.

A brisk read, this is full of life and even though there are dark aspects to the story and characters, they don’t overwhelm at any time (well, apart from perhaps the once).  War-time New York is seen and explored but always at a distance (at one point, ‘Fred’ worries about being drafted), with most of the story taking place either in the brownstone or at Joe Bell’s bar, where both of them are treated as friends.

The writing is deceptively simple, filled with beautifully constructed sentences and little throwaway lines that just build and build as the book goes on (“another night, deep in the summer, the heat of my room sent me out into the streets”).  The characterisation is equally wonderful, from Joe Bell and Mag Wildwood (the stuttering former socialite and model, who muscles in on Holly’s men), Rusty Trawler, O. J. Berman, “Sally Tomato” and Jose Ybarra-Jaeger, the men Holly charms (especially the latter) and poor Doc Golightly but the story, of course, stands on the two leads.  ‘Fred’ narrates and gives everything his personal spin but we never really get a sense of him from anyone else, so he effectively becomes the reader (as a male writer, that worked well for me) but Holly - oh, Holly.

A walking contradiction - an escapee of a terrible childhood but always full of ‘joie de vivre’ - she doesn’t set down roots (her cat has no name because it’s not hers to name - they met at the river) and her flat is barely furnished.  As ‘Fred’ finds out more about her, so her mystery seems to deepen and when bad things do happen (especially with the real Fred), it’s all the more shocking for it and we feel for her.  Naïve but tough, she knows what to say and how to act (Berman calls her a “phony, but a real phony”) and looks great, with her ever present smile, dark glasses (and their prescription lenses) and great clothes, facing a mans world and taking it on in her own way.

As wonderful as I think this is, it’s worth mentioning that there are some jarring elements for the modern reader, from the casual racism to issues with Holly’s age (she ran away from home a fourteen-year-old wife and tells ‘Fred’, on the subject of past lovers, that she’s “not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen…”).  Those niggles aside, this is a terrific book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It has a great pace, a wonderful atmosphere and a timeless feel to it, that draws you along.  Differing from the film (and ending with a sense of melancholy), this is remarkable piece of work.  If you haven’t read it before, then you really should and if you have, why not revisit it?

Very highly recommended.

Oh - and the title?  When Holly gets the "mean reds" (what 'Fred' identifies as angst) she's found that what "does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name."

Truman Capote (Truman Strekfus Persons) was born in 30th September 1924.  An American author, screenwriter, playwright and actor, many of his short stories, novels, plays and non-fiction are regarded as literary classics, especially “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and the true crime novel “In Cold Blood” (1966).  He died on 25th August 1984.  According to Random House, as of 2008, the book continued to sell about 30,000 copies a year.

Friday 20 February 2015

Leytonstone, by Stephen Volk (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

I came to this novella with high hopes.  I’ve long been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock - from the books to which he lent his name, to the masterful films that have thrilled and scared me over the years - and Stephen Volk’s previous novella, “Whitstable” (which I reviewed here), was one of my top reads of the year in 2012, a true five-star classic.

“Leytonstone” revolves around an anecdote Hitchcock told many times, that when he was seven his father had him locked away in the police cells with the warning “This is what happens to people who do bad things.”  The incident apparently left the great director with a morbid fear of the police and was also cited as the reason for his recurring use of “wrong man” themes in his films.  Volk takes this information and runs with it.

Fred Hitchcock is a chubby seven-year-old, who has friends but prefers time on his own and finds solace in lists - bus and train numbers, timetables - rather than the often unpredictable nature of the people around him.  His mother often seems poorly and he’s made to stand at the foot of her bed when he gets home from school, reciting what he’s learned that day whilst his greengrocer father is strict and distant.  A pupil at the local Catholic school, run with an iron-fist by the various priests and overseen by Father Mullins, Fred is only vaguely aware of girls, especially those in the school next door, apart from the one “with hair the colour of ripe bananas”.

When he is taken to the police station, we are introduced to Sergeant Stanley Sykes, a formidable presence with a Kitchener moustache, whose dark shadow hangs uneasily over the rest of the book.  He locks young Fred up and taunts him and the night spent behind bars is genuinely harrowing and unpleasant.  Released the next morning, the dynamics between Fred and his father (as well as those between his father and Sykes) are different, damaged in ways none of them really understand.  Following this event and the discovery of a peephole at the school, the tone of the book starts to grow darker.  After scaring the schoolgirls, Fred and his friends go to waste ground where there’s an abandoned, dilapidated house and there they try to kill a mouse - he doesn’t want to (he’s glad when it escapes), but he’s caught up in it.  Exploring the house later, he’s scared at first but also “tired of trying to imagine what fear is like all the time” and when he discovers a small cupboard, he realises he can do something about it.

Fred discovers the “girl with yellow hair” is called Olga Butterworth and she lives with her parents next to the railway.  They develop an uneasy acquaintance and when he decides to show her the old house, he sets into motion the last third of the book that will see everyone’s life change.

Set in 1906, an era Volk deftly captures of a changing (now largely gone) London, with the language, the dress, the rituals and customs (especially in the shops and pubs) vividly captured and brought to life.  The social mores, the confusion of young Fred, the overbearing nature of both the police (as typified by Sykes) and the harsher still priests and nuns, create an atmosphere that points to something awful happening.  And when that something happens it's shocking, with the fall-out of Fred’s action causing huge repercussions for everyone (especially his parents) apart from, it seems, himself, though perhaps this is addressed in the moving coda.

The characterisation, always difficult when dealing with real people, is something Volk does especially well (his version of Peter Cushing in “Whitstable” was a culmination of both everything you wanted him to be and everything he came across as in interviews) and here is no exception. Fred is a little boy, at once an innocent and a manipulator, at odds with his contemporaries and his parents and scared of people he sees from his bedroom window, being adults in the night and acting in ways he doesn’t - and shouldn’t - understand.  His parents often seem as confused but as the book gets darker they reveal heretofore hidden depths of love and understanding, which make the emotional impact all that much stronger.  The villain of the piece, the unpleasant, perhaps sadistic, sleazy policeman Sergeant Stanley Sykes is a real monster, at once dedicated to upholding the law whilst at the same time making sure that he picks up his own little perks.

As a Hitchcock fan, I loved finding the allusions to his later career - the poorly Mother, coddling her son; the concept of “the girl with the yellow hair”; the voyeurism of late night windows and Olga with her parents; the body in the bag of potatoes; the stuffed bird in Father Mullins office and I’m sure there were many more - but none of them felt shoehorned it, they had a place in the fabric of the story and they contributed to the weight of the tale.  And it is a weighty tale, sometimes innocent and charming, often darker and grittier, but never once putting a foot wrong.

Superbly written, atmospheric and tense, this is perfectly structured and never less than gripping.  A wonderful read and a worthy successor to the powerful “Whitstable”, I look forward to whichever master of British cinema Mr Volk chooses to write about next.  Very highly recommended.

Friday 13 February 2015

The Zabriskie Grimoire

I'm pleased to announce that the latest anthology edited by Dean M. Drinkel, "The Grimorium Verum", has just been published by Western Legends Press.  Amongst many others, it contains my story "The Zabriskie Grimoire".

Western Legends is excited to reveal the table of contents for our newest publication and third installment in the Tres Librorum Prohibitum series: The Grimorium Verum - a collection of 26 stories, edited by Dean M Drinkel.

Foreword – John Palisano
Introduction – Dean M. Drinkel
A Is For Annis – Tim Dry
B Is For Balefire – Raven Dane
C Is For Creature – Justin Miles
D Is For Drawing Down The Moon – Jan Edwards
E Is For Eihwaz – Adrian Chamberlin
F Is For Fury – Christine Morgan
G Is For Ghede – Emile-Louis Tomas Jouvet
H Is For Herb Law – Phil Sloman
I Is For Iya and Iktomi – Christopher Beck
J Is For Jimson Jane – Lily Childs
K Is For Krieg – Dan Russell
L Is For Legends – Amberle L. Husbands
M Is For Magic, Madness and Mayhem – Andrew Taylor
N Is For Nightmare – Sylvia Shults
O Is For Ordeal – Chris Dougherty
P Is For Poison – Tej Turner
Q Is For Quackery – Tracie McBride
R Is For Radix Omnium Malum – Mike Chinn
S Is For Slinky, Seedy & A Cool, Calming Womb – Martin Roberts
T Is For Transformation – D.T. Griffith
U Is For Umbilical – Anthony Cowin
V Is For Voudon – Lisa Jenkins
W Is For Writer’s Block – Barbie Wilde
X Is For Xaphan – John Gilbert
Y Is For Yearning – Amelia Mangan
Z Is For Zabriskie Grimoire – Mark West

The book is available, in print and digital editions, as follows:

Amazon UK 

Amazon US 

CreateSpace eStore 

My story features Mike Decker, who is hired to find the Zabriskie Grimoire, a “powerful text that allows the user to call up Lucifuge Rofocale, the devil himself.”

Decker, a hard-boiled character I loved writing, is an "acquirer" and this is how he describes himself: “I am an acquirer, a finder of items lost or hidden and although it’s an occasionally dirty job, I am well paid for it.  I take my job very seriously and I expect other people to do the same.  I once had a meeting with a dotcom hipster who compared me to a personal shopper and I’d broken his nose before he’d finished his first guffaw.”  I can imagine revisiting the character too, which is always a nice feeling to have.

It’s a dark, grim tale that takes you somewhere nasty (and then gets worse) and was the first story I wrote following my heart attack in August 2014.  It’s location was based on places I saw (mainly in Ffestiniog) when we were on holiday in Wales and the bookshop (where most of the action takes place) is an amalgamation of some of the wonderful secondhand emporiums I’ve whiled away hours in.

I enjoyed writing this and, as ever, I'm pleased to be involved in such a great project.

Monday 9 February 2015

First sale of the year!

The Three Investigators look into The Goblin Glass - detail from the 1975 Collins hardback First Edition,
artwork by Roger Hall
I've just heard back from Alex Davis, my editor, that the first short story I wrote this year has also become my first sale of the year.

"The Goblin Glass" is a nasty little piece, featuring a man broken by the credit crunch and life in general, breaking into a house to steal the eponymous mirror.  What he finds isn't what he expects, from the filthy environment, the old man who lives there or what happens upstairs.

I really enjoyed writing it and, unusually for me, it came together fairly quickly.  I had the basic plot by the end of my daily commute (the day Alex emailed me), that evening's walk (around Rothwell, listening to Jean Michel Jarre) gave me the structure, storyline and most of the ending.  The next nights walk gave me the opening, motivation and idea of the mirror and the next night gave me the ending.

As the picture above would suggest, I homaged The Goblin Glass from "The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror" by M. V. Carey (which I wrote about here), though the stories bear no other comparison.

I don't think the anthology has been announced yet, so I won't spoil the fun here, but it's a collection of ten stories and I'm chuffed to be involved and will be sure to tell you more as soon as I'm able.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Three Investigators Cover Art database here)

Friday 6 February 2015

Wear It! Beat It! Support Heart Research

Six months ago this past Wednesday, the acid-reflux I thought I’d been suffering from all weekend was getting almost too much to bear and Alison convinced me to go to Keydoc to try and get some prescription ant-acid. The service at Keydoc was, frankly, terrible but the doctor did one good thing, in telling me to go to the hospital for a ‘blood test’. Kettering General A&E had no idea what to do with me but, thankfully, they were helpful, effective and very thorough and by 2am I was in the Coronary Care Unit. I went into theatre the next morning, had an angioplasty to fit a stent and was released later that day.

Six months - where did that time go? I was lucky, in that it wasn’t a massive heart attack and I received excellent medical attention, so I listened to the advice the nurses gave me and made changes in my life. All changes for the better I’m glad to say (the hospital were so pleased with my progress, in fact, they discharged me after three months), making me fitter, happier and a lot lighter than I was.

This, therefore, is obviously very close to my (ahem) heart...

The British Heart foundation was founded in 1961 by a group of medical professionals, who were concerned about the increasing death rate from cardiovascular disease. They wanted to fund extra research into the causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of heart and circulatory disease.

It is a major funder and authority in cardiovascular research, education and care, and relies predominantly on voluntary donations to meet its aims. In order to increase income and maximise the impact of its work, it also works with other organisations to combat premature death and disability from cardiovascular disease.

From my point of view, the BHF and its nurses were brilliant and the gym - run by Iona and her colleagues at Kettering General Hospital - was a great way of getting me back into exercise and giving me the confidence that I could push myself physically and wouldn't drop down dead if I did so.

My condition is called a NSTEMI, which is classified as "a shorthand medical term for non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction" and a stent was fitted to combat a flow limiting coronary artery.