Monday, 31 December 2012

The Books I Read In December

‘If The Dead Rise Not’ by Philip Kerr
It has been a while since I read a book by Philip Kerr. I was a fan of his original ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy featuring the Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther, ‘March Violets’ (1989), ‘The Pale Criminal’ (1990) and ‘A German Requiem’ (1991) which despite being in this series, is actually set in post-war Vienna and has an embarrassing conceit in the Drittemann (i.e. Third Man) movie company featured. Since then Kerr has written a whole series of other novels for adults and for children before returning to Gunther with ‘The One From The Other’ (2006).

Before turning to the story itself, there are some problems that stem from the publishers, Quercus. For a start the cover of the book shows Gunther standing in front of the stadium in Berlin used for the 1936 Olympics. The tagline is ‘Berlin 1936. Sport, corruption, and violent death’. Whilst the book is set in Berlin and features all of those elements, it is actually set in 1934, rather than 1936. I had been surprised by the cover because ‘March Violets’ had been set at the time of the 1936 Olympics. It appears that the publishers have not actually read ‘If The Dead Rise Not’. It features corruption connected to Berlin winning the bid to host the Olympics and early construction of the stadium and other infrastructure but ends long before the event takes place; the first part of the novel finishes in 1934.

There are also editorial issues inside the book. I have noted before on this blog how editing even leading novelists has fallen away dramatically as publishing has faced such challenges. In this book there is a switch from ‘Labour’, the UK spelling, to ‘Labor’, the US spelling, when talking about the German Labour Front. I do not mind which is used, I just like consistency. The phrase ‘all right’ is used repeatedly when ‘alright’ is in fact meant. A common error in every book I have read mentioning the German police is that Kripo, i.e. the contraction of the word for the detective division, is written as ‘KRIPO’ and Schupo, i.e. the Prussian uniformed police as ‘SCHUPO’ as if these were acronyms, rather than portmanteau words. Portmanteau words are very popular in German and are created from putting some syllables together from a longer word or series of words. For example, Kripo actually comes from Kriminalpolizei; just as Nazi comes from National Sozialismus; the acronym is NS. However, I have never seen this aspect correct in English-language novels, bar my own, even though it is incredibly easy to find out online or in a history book.

The novel is in two parts, the first, as noted above, set in 1934, with Gunther serving as a hotel detective having left the Berlin Kripo on the Nazis purging the police force in 1933. The second part is set in Cuba in 1952; three of the characters appear in both elements. In the latter, we learn more about Gunther’s war record. The settings are very different and at first I resented the departure from Germany. However, ultimately it works. The book does appear rather fragmented at times and the thread does not feel as if it develops smoothly. The Raymond Chandleresque narration and dialogue is more apparent than in the original trilogy and is applied much more to the section in Germany than that in Cuba. Again this may reflect a lack of editing. Overall, as Kerr has always done with his historical detective stories, he paints a rich picture of the time and its places, especially contrasting rich and poor. He puts his hero into jeopardy and has him survive in a convincing way. There are interesting characters and he avoids making them into caricatures, subverting at times what we might expect for people from the times and places he shows.

Obviously I am biased in favour of stories set in Germany of the past, but this one is good enough to have rearoused my interest in Kerr’s work and to hunt it out. It is a better than fair novel, which if it had been published 10-15 years ago would have received the polish that would have made it a very good novel. I imagine Kerr despaired when he saw the covers and I hope it has been altered for subsequent editions.

‘Alternate Generals III’ ed. by Harry Turtledove & Roland J. Green
This is the best one of this series of alternate history collections. There are some duff stories notably, ‘First Catch Your Elephant’ by Esther Friesner which is a terribly laboured attempt to make comedy regarding Hannibal’s invasion of the Italian peninsula and is incredibly weak and frustrating. I was rather irritated by ‘Murdering Uncle Ho’ by Chris Bunch but that is simply because Bunch accurately writes his story in the style of US Vietnam War memoirs and fiction with emphasis on the military hardware and hard men. Consequently there is a lot of detail regarding the equipment and preparation of the attempt to assassinate Ho Chi Minh. However, behind this aspect there are interesting counter-factuals. President Kennedy was shot at but not killed in 1963 and won the 1964 election. This led to a far quicker escalation of US involvement in Vietnam leading to an invasion of the North in 1965 and occupation of its cities; civil rights legislation in the USA was neglected as a result. At the 1968 election, Republican Nelson Rockefeller was elected President rather than Richard Nixon, who in the story sees himself as a prospective candidate for 1972. In this respect it is a good US counter-factual which fits with my own views of Kennedy.

There are two stories around General MacArthur, ‘Not Fade Away’ is a low key story by William Sanders which sees MacArthur captured by the Japanese when they invade the Philippines. ‘I Shall Return’ by John Mina conversely sees a successful defence of the Philippines largely through sacrificing US air units to sink the Japanese invasion fleet. In this case, MacArthur’s success leads to him being transferred to Europe and Eisenhower remaining in the Philippines. ‘It Isn’t Every Day of the Week’ by Roland J. Green features a number of changes in the War of 1812 which lead to greater British success in the war, aided in part by Napoleon being restricted but not imprisoned at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Though the British are expelled from Louisiana they have greater success in the North and across the Great Lakes. The story is told in a series of letters from two brothers and also sums up attitudes of the time. ‘East of Appomattox’ by Lee Allred has some good ideas but could have been worked on to be more effective. It features General Robert E. Lee as a plenipotentiary of the Confederate States of America, in London seeking official British recognition for his country. This could have been handled better if Allred avoided the conceits, those little attempts at being too witty that undermine good stories. There is a whole rigmarole around Lee and a young civil servant and then Mycroft Holmes appears, though given the date, he would be a very young man at this time and certainly not the leading government official shown here. Lee is taken on a tour of London to see British opposition to slavery, the factor which is making the British unwilling to recognise the CSA. He is introduced to Abraham Lincoln, in refuge in Britain following his defeat in the American Civil War and then informed that Louisiana is seeking abolish slavery so it can trade with Britain, so putting the CSA to the test regarding the rights of individual states that itself challenged the USA with. This had good ideas but could have been done much better.

There are a couple of unusual stories. One is ‘Measureless to Man’ which envisages Genghis Khan having converted to Judaism and having to fight against Jews from the Diaspora seeking to assert their authority over what has now become the de facto centre of Judaism in Chengdu in China. Conversely, ‘A Good Bag’ is on a much smaller scale, though touching on alternatives that would have a global impact. It revolves around a s√©ance hosted by Francis Younghusband, who in our world effectively enabled Britain to take control of Tibet. In this alternative he was the successful commander in the Tibetan-Chinese War of 1904. His influence and involvement with European racial supremacists is leading to an Anglo-German alliance in 1910 which threatens to unleash a racial war against Jews and other peoples. Moving into the fantasy genre, this was foreseen by the people of Atlantis who seek to warn Younghusband and get history back on to the path our history followed, still experiencing horrendous world wars, but avoiding the greater tragedies of this alternate path. The story has the feel of a Michael Moorcock story rather than standard ‘what if?’ stories. I could see it extended as a graphic novel.

‘The Burning Spear at Twilight’ by Mike Resnick is welcome as one of the rare counter-factual stories in English which features a different outcome for Africa. In this case Jomo Kenyatta is able to pursue a different policy in expelling the British from Kenya in the 1950s. Through manipulation of public relations he is able to get the British to leave sooner and though without bloodshed, with less than was the case in our world. Given that most people will not be familiar with this history and yet it is an issue in British courts at the moment, this is an interesting story. ‘Shock and Awe’ by Harry Turtledove, as the title suggests is another story with contemporary issues despite being set in the past. It envisages Jesus as the proclaimed King of the Jews, using Biblical quotations and leading a guerrilla war against the Roman occupiers who behave like contemporary US forces in Afghanistan. It is an interesting twist on the historical Jesus.

I have left my favourite stories to last. ‘A Key to the Illuminated Heretic’ by A.M. Dellamonica opens the collection. It sees Joan of Arc, rather than having been burnt at the stake, instead coming out of prison after 13 years to lead a heretical Christian army to expel Papal influence from France. Each section is initiated by description of a painting of Joan’s exploits by a young female follower. In this short story we get an interesting slice of factional disputes, Joan’s uncertainty about her mission, her ambivalent view towards the French monarchy and her role as a feminist icon even at the time. This story really impressed me. The remaining two are not as outstanding but are still strong. ‘The Road to Endless Sleep’ by Jim Fiscus, sees Mark Antony having been victorious with Cleopatra at Actium, ruling Rome with her as his empress. The story is told from the perspective of one of his bodyguards as civil unrest bubbles up against the emperor. ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ turns history on its head and sees Flora MacDonald help the Duke of Cumberland escape from Scotland following his defeat. In this world Charles Stuart took the guidance of his advisors and fought at a better location than Culloden, so was able to restore the Stuart dynasty to Scotland with his father becoming King James VIII. Not only is this grounded in an interesting counter-factual, but also is strong in giving a feel for western Scotland and the people there at the time.

Overall this book has a good selection of stories. I hope for future collections, authors can learn from the best and the worst of what is included in this volume and avoid some of the pitfalls that so undermine too many counter-factual stories.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Challenges Of Suicide

It is probably unsurprising for anyone who has followed this blog in the past year, that this weekend I again tried to kill myself.  Having been bullied at the work to the extent that my eyesight was damaged, having lost my house, ending up living with my parents at the age of 45 and in a job that is so low paid I am battling even to find a room to rent that I can afford anywhere near the job, you can imagine why I feel down.  Living with my parents is hard.  I am grateful that I am not homeless, but the things that randomly make them angry is a great difficulty.  When I was being savaged for having parked in the dark a few centimetres over from where I was apparently supposed to be and told that keeping the neighbours happy was more important than me getting to work and that anyway I was nothing more than a 'child' and incapable of finding my way through London suburbs, it seemed like I had reached the end.  I have been considering suicide since my teenage years and have failed twice before. 

As a teenager, there was solace in identifying the right tree to use and where I would source the rope.  Unfortunately following the 1987 hurricane, those woods are now blocked and marshy.  I was able to find a substitute tree, with two nails already in it to which to lash the rope, which I carry around in my car.  I managed to create a reasonable noose and get it over a branch.  I imagine that anyone watching would have found it comic.  Unfortunately the tree was on a steep river bank and I could not get the bucket I was going to kick away to stay upright.  I tried to do it from the ground, but either I got the rope too long so there was no drop or too short so that I could not get my head up to it.  I tried swinging away down the bank and while the rope cut into my neck, the drop was not sharp enough and I simply swung back.  A passerby simply walked on rather embarrassed.  Men attempting suicide is clearly such a common sight these days in the UK that it did not rouse his interest.  My mother ridiculed me with 'oh, you've done that before'.  This made me angry and I wanted to rush out and try again, simply to prove to her, that I can at least get something right.

It is incredible just how much criticism people feel is necessary to give you on a daily basis.  My parents have become so emotionally withered that they simply see me as a failure and a burden and keep finding new ways of telling me how useless I am.  They even blame me for their faults.  It was they who actively encouraged me to buy a house when I was about to pull out, yet now they tell me that it was the gravest error that I made.  They forget that without them I never would have taken that step.  I know parents freeze you in time at age 15, and I guess many of us have to cope with that.  They edit history to put themselves in the best light, they forget any of their mistakes but harp on about others years later.  Five years ago my father gave my girlfriend a lift.  She does not travel often in cars and was terrified by how fast he drove.  She asked him to slow down and this is still brought up against her again and again.  I am reminded about how much effort went in to organising the lift and that she should be grateful that she was driven around so dangerously.  Her mistake in expressing her dismay is still held against her and probably will be forever more.

Suicide needs sustained courage.  This is why people often get drunk or take drugs before trying to kill themselves.  Having spent twenty minutes, trying to get a rope to the correct height, I was exhausted and that courage faded from me.  I fell to the ground and simply sobbed for some time.  The one thought that worried me was that my father would simply destroy my will which is among my belongings rather than lodged with a solicitor.  This would have eliminated one consolation, that at least my things would go to my girlfriend and her son.  I had always believed that suicide is easy.  However, there are technical issues that I have overlooked.  Last time I tried to hang myself, the hook from which I strung the rope snapped, dropping me to the floor.  I tried a drugs overdose, but was persuaded out of that by the woman I was living with.  It is clear I need to search for the right sort of tree.  I guess this is why 'gallows' trees were so important, there are in fact very few that you can find that work perfectly, especially if you are doing it yourself.  As I still have a car, it seems the best approach to try next is asphyxiation.  The trouble with that is that it is slow and I worry that I will lack the courage to see it through.  Whilst I despise guns, it would be far easier if there was access to them in the UK as at least then I could be certain that I would not end up in the ridiculous situation of struggling to kill myself.

As I have noted before, the problem of failing to kill yourself is that the problems still have to be dealt with when you get back.  I have been advised that I am a waste of space.  People want me out of their way and out of their lives.  The trouble is, social constraints stop them helping that to become a reality.  I am left humiliated and hopeless.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Importance Of Sock Puppetry

Regular readers will have noticed how I have not been blogging a great deal over the past few months and that various ‘what if?’ postings and stories have disappeared from here to appear in e-books on Amazon. I did this for the simple basis that I was bullied into selling my house at a knock-down price and after months of unemployment I am in a job which pays £8000 per year less than my previous job and £16,000 less than what I was earning in 2010, whilst costs have risen for all of us. I am compelled to live with my parents until I can find a room to rent within a reasonable distance of my work, so that I simply do not spend what I save on rent in travel costs. The only consolation is that I am not being bullied in my current job. However, I am having to put up with the fact that no-one has decided to train me and I have to pick up scraps of how to do things from my colleagues who ration out such knowledge jealously. One told me I had no hope of escaping from this job, which as you can imagine hardly inspired me.

One thing I thought I knew I could do well was write. I certainly write fast and when not depressed or jobless I can turn out 2-3000 words per evening. In a job where despite my colleagues being very busy, I have not been trained in a range of activities and am begging to be given a password to access certain software, I am left trying to appear busy when, in fact, I have very little to do. Thus, me typing away busily at my computer looks reasonable. In addition, as I have commented before: with the KDP system run by Amazon, I found a way to get a number of my novels and collections of essays on sale as e-books. I have sold a variety of these over the past months, the best has had around 400 sales, the worst less than 5. However, they all bring in money, even in small amounts. The system in getting payments from the USA, my main market, is hard. The US government takes 30% at source. Then you get sent a cheque in US$ which costs £6 and takes six weeks to process. However, I have been making around £200 per month, on which I will also have to pay UK tax come April. Obviously my hope was that my sales would increase as I got better known and this monthly amount.

The key challenge for me has proven to be buyer reviews. Back in 2008, I noted how hard it was becoming for sellers when buyers had so much power:  EBay did not collapse but the message boards for sellers show how hard it is for sellers to continue trading, as their account can be suspended after two negative reviews from buyers. Buyers are very aggressive in their comments and get upset about minor issues. Yes, of course, it is right to complain if an item takes weeks to arrive or is damaged. However, some buyers seem to expect things to be teleported across continents to arrive days after they have bought them, with no recognition of the reliability of their postal service. Some US shoppers seem to still believe the UK is part of the USA and are surprised we use a different currency and are on a different continent. One UK seller I know had a customer who bought some greetings cards. Thirty-eight days after they had been sent to her she wrote and complained she had not received them. The seller sent replacements and noted this on the buyer’s feedback. The reason for this is that some buyers are serial ‘non-receivers’ and are simply lying. Just making this statement that a replacement set of cards had been sent, led the buyer not only to leave negative feedback on the seller but also to bombard her with abusive emails.

In the world of online retail the buyer is not just simply ‘always right’ but is also immensely powerful. A single individual can drive a seller out of business on the basis of a petulant attitude. I guess it is of no surprise that I have encountered a similar experience selling e-books on Amazon.

I have to come to the conclusion that I am a very poor writer. Having sold over 500 copies of various books, I have had only three pieces of feedback and all of them are negative. One issue with Kindle sales, as I have been made aware of by those people I know who own them, exclusively middle-aged women, that people will buy stacks of books and never get around to reading many of them. One woman I worked with had 200 books on her Kindle within 3 months of purchasing it. I know that some people buy a set of my books at one time and I can imagine that many are sitting on their Kindles unread. Of course, given my experiences, if they did read them maybe they would be as critical as those people who have provided feedback.

Of the feedback I have received, one reader complained that I had portrayed wartime Finland’s political system wrongly so marked the book down. Another reviewing a different book said that I gave too much detail regarding the alternate outcomes that the ‘what if?’ element was lost. I do not really understand what they meant by that. The worst was on a third book which went into immense detail about how the style of writing was wrong. Being made up of essays from this blog, I had adopted a relaxed, chatty style, which I thought was refreshing and would make the books accessible. However, clearly the opposite was the case and I was condemned for the book being apparently incomprehensible and also with factual errors ‘on every page’.

As I have noted before, on Amazon, a 3-star review will reduce my sales (and I imagine those of other authors too), but two-thirds. The 2-star review I received for the last one mentioned above, not only made the book unsellable but also froze the sales of my other books, just before Christmas when I had hoped sales would be increasing. The number of books sold but then returned, has also jumped up. As a result I have had to withdraw the book for fear of destroying sales of the others. I cannot remove the review. I was told by Amazon I could respond to it, but this turned out not to be true, it kept saying I had to buy my own book in order to respond to a comment on it. Weeks of work has been destroyed by some review someone wrote in their lunch break.

Online reviews are a way of giving value to the facilities websites provide. Every time we buy something we are prompted to comment on the service we have received. In addition, commonly now, for example, with Amazon we are similarly asked to review the quality of the product. It is seen as a necessary part of the online experience. However, we live in a society in which indignation is a cultural norm. We expect anyone supplying us anything whether it is a bed & breakfast guest house, a baker, a bread making machine or a book, to address our own precise personal needs exactly, even without us saying what they are. If anyone falls short of writing a book in the very way we want it at this moment, then we feel it is our right, in fact our duty to get angry and express that anger. This is what makes online reviewing so very hazardous for providers. No-one seems eager to express pleasure at the service or item they have received, such pleasure is taken for granted. No-one bothers with neutral comments. It is simply the feeling of disdain that encourages a purchaser to make the effort to comment.

Yes, it is in the consumers’ interest to show up poorly written books. However, they can be destroyed by someone taking offence to a particular aspect. In one case I saw a book receive a 1-star rating because a new edition had come out with a new cover and the reader had bought this without realising he already owned the book. Rather than accept that he had been careless he put the blame on the author. It is always a challenge when writing counter-factual books as people will often rate them not by the quality of the writing or the analysis but simply whether they agree with the outcomes the book portrays. In theory such feedback should be beneficial in improving quality. Kindle books can easily be taken down, edited and put back up again within 12 hours (if in English). However, there is no point in doing that as the revised book will always carry the black mark of the review of the original version no matter how much you change it. You can ‘unpublish’ and even ‘block’ books on KDP but you can never remove the book from the site. Re-writing the synopsis to say the book is no longer available due to criticism is not accepted either; I have tried.

How does all of this connect to sock puppetry? It comes from comics/satirists who use a sock to make a simple puppet that they then have a kind of ventriloquist’s dialogue with. The most famous one is probably Lamb Chop, a puppet operated by Shari Lewis (1933-98) from 1957 onwards. It is a term which has come to refer to when authors use pseudonyms to write positive reviews of their books online. They can alternatively use friends to do this as well. In September crime author R.J. Ellroy was criticised for using the pseudonyms Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones not only to praise his own work but also criticise that of rivals. In 2010 Orlando Figes was charged in the same way and you can find cases going back to John Lott who 2000-3 used the name Mary Rosh to post positive reviews. Thus, it has been a tendency really since the birth of online reviewing; apparently the term goes back to 1993.

Unfortunately for my career as a writer, Amazon seems to have methods to prevent sock puppetry and despite my efforts I cannot create any kind of identity which can even respond to the negative comments that are being put on my books. Even if I could I am not certain that I could counter-balance comments which are so dismissive. Consequently, one-by-one my books are going to be snuffed out from Amazon as someone decided to turn their disdain on each one and end any sales of it. I suppose I have learnt a lesson, that I am not capable of writing for the global English-reading audience; I just do not have the language that people are happy to read. I have tried an easy-going style, that has not worked; I have tried a more serious style, that has not worked. In addition, writing counter-factual books makes me very vulnerable. It only takes me writing that a particular outcome was more or less likely or characterising a particular regime in a specific way to receive a bad review for the entire book. With that the book will no longer be bought, I guess because people judge by the star rating rather than the actual text of the review. I have no intention to go around damaging other authors, as I know how easily even a successful one might be eliminated by bad reviews. The customer has ultimate power because my books are now trapped on Amazon. It is not down to me if I am an author or not, rather this lies in the hands of some bored individual who decides to take against me.