East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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Cover reveal: The Devourer Below

I am pleased to share the gorgeous cover, designed by John Coulthart, for the forthcoming Arkham Horror Anthology, The Devourer Below, edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells and published by Aconyte/Fantasy Flight. The book will be published in July, but the cover was revealed only today.

The volume includes a story of mine, set in Arkham during the Jazz Age, and called All my friends are monsters. I am very proud of being part of this project, and I am extremely pleased with my story.
But then, I’d have to be, right?

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The burgers always taste the same

I was talking with my friend Lucy, a few moments ago. We were discussing the first pages of a book we’ve both picked up and, alas, dropped real fast. The first pages are critical, and here, in two pages, we got such a distillation of elements done to death in the last thirty years, that we were both unable to go on. And we talked about this, comparing our reactions.

Now, I am not a big fan of gore-drenched slasher-fests, and so my distaste for the self-congratulatory tone with which the violence was portrayed in the text was somewhat natural. Lucy is more into this sort of books, and what she objected to was the cliché feel of the whole thing.

“We’ve seen it done better, a thousand times, since the ’90s”

she said.
And she is perfectly right.
And yet the book is selling like hotcakes, and it’s got a brace of rave reviews.
What the hell happened?

My take on the thing is, the book caters for the lowest common denominator, and that’s what the majority of the target audience is expecting. What they actually demand.

So a good strategy is to feed the audience a checklist of expected cliches, in the expected order, and with a language as commonplace and plain as possible.
Anything new, different and original might scare the target audience away.

And this, really, is the only thing that might convince me to go on reading this book – to see if the author is smart enough to hook his target audience in the first stilted throwaway pages, and then, once the readers have been hooked, reel them in and hit them with a few original twists.
It would be great.
But I doubt this is how it goes.

Talking with Lucy, we remembered the song Styx used to sing…

I like fast food
The burgers always
taste the same

Entertainment should be entertaining and, in this instance at least, it is not entertaining to me, or to Lucy.
We have been there already, now we want something more, something better.
I’d go as far as to say we’d be happy with a less-than-perfect story, as long as it goes someplace we’ve never been before, or throws a different light on ideas we are familiar with.
But we have to accept that to the majority of the readers, the lowest common denominator, the burger-like story that always tastes the same, is perfectly fine.

It’s a very unpleasant situation – both from a writer’s and a reader’s point of view.

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Post-colonial fantasy

I am quite enjoying C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken, a fantasy novel with an interesting colonial setting, somewhat reminiscent of North Africa under French rule. I was at first very intrigued by the cover, that you see below, and so I took advantage of the preorder Amazon service, and basically I forgot about the book until it popped up in my reader.
Nice and smooth.

I am pleased to report that the book, a tale of rediscovery of one’s roots and of revolution, is as good as the cover, and as it is the first in a series, I will for once contradict my previous posts, and go on with a trilogy.
Mind you, I still love novellas and stand-alones, but there are exceptions, and The Unbroken is certainly one of those.

It is always a pleasure to have my conviction confirmed, that we are living in a time of high-quality publishing when it comes to imaginative fiction.
To lower the bar somehow, I will have to write more stories…


And then you buy books

Because let’s admit it: you are working on a full-time ghostwriting gig, you’re getting ideas for stories you don’t have the time to write, you keep spotting interesting open calls from high-profile magazines, all of this makes you supremely unhappy, you’re tired as hell… why not go and buy a stack of books you’ll never find the time to read?

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Having consigned to the slow cooker an experiment of bacon, onions and chicken breasts, with occasional reed hot chili pepper, I am now idling and massaging my pained wrist on this windy day.
The wrist was badly damaged about twenty years ago, when I took my brand new bicycle for a ride around the perimeter of the Mirafiori FIAT plants. It was a nice summer evening and there was no traffic. An iseal situation, except for a small three-wheeled ApeCar that decided to take a very tight curve without signalling it, and pushed me on a storm drain grate and against the curb. End result: a bent wheel, and a fall on the sidewalk, that I managed to break with my right hand. And the wrist got messed up.
To this day, I have periodic pains, especially when the weather is windy and I have spent a long time writing. An elastic bandage does help.
The guy in the ApeCar did not stop or anything.

Having done my culinary duty to provide for a – hopefully – solid dinner, I spent some time reading the delightfully baffling Vampires with fairy wings, by Victoria Plumjob, a collection of Plumjob’s verse and meditations recently edited by the always excellent Rhys Hughes.

This is a welcome diversion, as I am somewhat clogged, at the moment, writing-wise, and also reading-wise.

I have a huge – and somewhat boring, in the early phases – ghostwriting job, and I will spend some time this afternoon going on with it. AS it usually happens, this important ( = paid) job is taking up all of my energies, and when I sit down to read, or to watch a movie, I start feeling pangs of guilt because, hey, why are you reading a poetry book instead of doing some more work?
And this also freezes all my other writing – because why am I wasting time with this on spec first draft, when I could spend two hours on that paying job?

But here is something that I found: if you don’t take a break sometimes, your brain will sooner or later ooze out of your ears, and you’ll find yourself posting right wing propaganda on Facebook and run over cyclists with your three-wheeled ApeCar.

I am better than that.
So I am forcing myself to take some time and forget about the all-important, urgent, pretty boring and already half-paid-for ghostwriting job. Getting away from it will allow me to do it better, faster and maybe even with some fun when I get back to it.
My wrist too will not be so much in pain by then, hopefully.
So, have a nice Sunday, and take a break.


Down the Ulamba river

I am reading C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, the classic 1935 adventure story that in 1951 was turned into a movie by John Huston, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. I must have seen the film a thousand times, and it remains one of the all-time great romantic adventure films, but I had never read the original novel – nor was I particularly familiar with C.S. Forester’s other books. Sure, I saw a number of adaptations of his Hornblower stories, but I had never read any.

And I must say I am impressed by Forester’s narrative economy and skill in creating characters and bringing them alive on the page. The prose is lean and direct, the images vivid, and the psychology of the characters masterfully presented. The lot, with an almost total lack of artifice. This is entertainment, without any conceit or affectation, and yet it manages to be literature.
Really, I am surprised they don’t study this book in schools – and it really is a concise, fun master class in how to write an adventure story.

And the good news is, while I spent some of my hard-earned money for a copy of the novel, you can actually download an ebook edition for free, from this page.
I really recommend the novel – if you are a fan of the Bogart/Hepburn movie, doubly so.
And if you read it – or if you knew it already – tell me what you think of it in the comments.