Don Juan in Soho – the death of the shocking?

Cadell Blackstock, author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’itself an adaptation of the Don Juan story, reflects on Patrick Marber’s latest production of his own play, starring David Tennant as the eponymous DJ.

DJinSohoEven Patrick Marber would admit that reviews of the new production of Don Juan in Soho, his contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s Dom Juan currently running in London’s West End, have been mixed. Reading them before I went to a performance last night, I was surprised by just how divided critics have been. It’s an energetic, well-staged production and Tennant is – to my mind – rakish in disposition as well as character, inhabiting the small stage with flawless poise and a beautiful control of his own physical space. But I left the theatre wondering if the critical reception had more to do with the problem that a contemporary adaptation of this particular morality tale creates, than any flaws in the production.

Marber has updated the play since its first performances in 2006, infusing some clever references to the current US President as well as more diverse cultural benchmarks. But what really stood out for me was DJ’s gorgeous late soliloquy where he lambasts and belittles the contemporary obsession with parading our lives in public for all to see. ‘Whatever happened to privacy?’ he demands before excoriating our desire to share every last fragment of all that should be kept to ourselves. It’s a theme I explore in Crash (though it was written before social media really exploded) through Crash’s sudden ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around him. As a celebrity, Crash has lost his own privacy, but he is the same willing conspirator in that as we are in our own loss of privacy now. He did it to himself and he has to pay the price for that. As beer brand Bud Light puts it in its current poster campaign, ‘The internet never forgets’.

But watching the play last night, I wondered whether Marber’s problem now is one that didn’t exist 11 years ago: that the world has become so chaotic and we have been exposed to so much awfulness, transgression and disdain for decency and truth, that our ability to be shocked has diminished exponentially, almost to nothing. Marber has written comically, to be sure, to save this from being a miserably dark tale of self-destruction, but when you really get down to it, absolutely nothing DJ does is remotely shocking. He does not transgress. We accept his behaviour in the context of what is common now: everyone’s right to do as they please. So what saves a modern adaptation of Don Juan from being nothing more than fluent comedy?

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverI asked myself that same question when I wrote Crash. Though I borrowed more from Mozart’s Don Giovanni than Moliere, I chose to tell the story of his decline indirectly by considering whether he has any relationship whatsoever with his own conscience.  There is a point at the end of Don Giovanni as he faces up to the statue of the Commendatore where you sense a filament of doubt in Giovanni’s mind: has it all been worth it? It would depend on the ‘it’, of course. What sort of ‘it’ might genuinely cause him to wonder? And what sort of ‘it’ would still be shocking enough to our contemporary state of mind?

Conscience is a difficult thing to explore, especially through the eyes of someone who doesn’t apparently have one. In the opera, the moment of uncertainty is so fleeting you might not notice it were the music not so deeply unsettling in itself. And it wouldn’t be a retelling of Don Juan if he had regrets from the outset. His flagrant disregard is part of what makes him so compelling, so charming. So I decided to explore where the tipping point is of understanding the terminal impact of his own actions. And one of the best ways to do that in the context of the original story was to approach it from the other side of the moment when it would matter: his death.

When Crash wakes up at the start of the novel from an almost fatal incident, he has physically passed the tipping point, but he can’t remember what it is. Suspended virtually at the point of his own death, and hostage to those who have kept him alive, he must retrace his steps through his filthy disregard for others to find out what he did, and why someone has tried to kill him over it.

Marber’s DJ ultimately doesn’t care. He is living the life he most wants to lead. ‘At least my lies are honest,’ he claims at the start of that soliloquy. He cannot shock himself. But for me – and perhaps for the critics of Marber’s current production – the absence of genuinely shocking behaviour for anyone, particularly Elvira’s brother Aloysius, creates a narrative dilemma. DJ is simply being as self-indulgent as the rest of us when we tweet our every thought. He is not shocking us, not any more, because in 11 years since this play was last produced, life has become so appallingly predictable in all its awfulness.

It will remain to be seen whether my choice of shocking behaviour for Crash will last the test of time or not. But there’s so much more to Don Juan than how finely he treads the line between right and wrong, or how that line moves. It’s how his voice – and that of the statue – echoes in us.

****

You can find out more about Crash here on the allonymbooks blog, you can read about the similarities between Don Giovanni and How I Met Your Mother here, or you can download the book at Amazon.

EJ Knight’s Monthly Crime Reviews: October 2015

This month, EJ Knight kicks off a series of crime novel reviews with a diverse selection of serial characters.

When do you finish writing a popular series? Sue Grafton appears to have made her decision from the first novel as she gently winds our way with Kinsey Millhone and the alphabet series to ‘Z’; Janet Evanovich seems destined to go on forever and may be, even now, pondering what adjective or adverb to go with infinity; while Lindsey Davies took the clever step of a spin-off from the Falco novels. I found myself pondering ‘the end’ while I was reading The Survivor by Kyle Mills. Mills has been brought in to continue the Mitch Rapp series after Vince Flynn’s death. And, he almost pulls it off. The Survivor picks up immediately from where The Last Man finished and the race to find top secret material before it is posted on the internet. The action, as one would expect from the series, is unrelenting and the story, although predictable, is exactly what one reads this type of book for. But, for me, the characters were just not quite right – too introspective whilst, at the same time, being too flat. I’d completed the book before realising that Flynn had died and Mills was taking on the series and, as I read the last page, I wondered if it had been a book too far in the series. There is only one Mitch Rapp; and there was only one Vince Flynn to give him the right voice.

So as one series hits the ‘do not buy again’ list, I’ve discovered two new series this month which I would definitely read again, one which I’ll consider, and one which I may have caught as it finishes. Cover Shot by LynDee Walker is the fifth in the series featuring Nichelle Clarke, a journalist in a local newspaper who, in the pursuit of the full story, finds herself investigating murder, hostage-taking, and fighting for her own life. It’s the usual plot of an amateur detective but that would be to undersell what is a really well-written, well-paced and compelling story. I liked Nichelle and I wanted her to find out who had killed the doctor and why. I really did. And so what if I thought it was a little derivative of Evanovich? It was still a great read and I’ll read the earlier ones in the series now. The same is true for Rose Strickland in Diner Knock Out by Terri L. Austin. This time the main character is learning how to be a private investigator and, out of pique with her employer, takes on a case without telling him. Surprise, surprise – it turns out to be more complicated than she realised and she needs his help to solve the murder(s). As in Cover Shot, there is a criminal boyfriend whose heart is in the right place and there are side-kicks who are also colourful friends. But, again, it really works and I found myself rooting for Rose, wanting her to sort out her love life and solve the murder. And survive the threats to her life so that there would be more books in the series.

By coincidence, the fourth book in this review is also set in the US. Brother can you spare a dime by Jack Martin is set in the Depression. The main character, Henry Bierce, is an enigmatic member of the FBI, with a twist which is strongly alluded to but never quite stated clearly. I’m not going to say more because Martin introduces the hints with great subtlety and a very deliberate pace and, it would give away much of the suspense to know the twist before reading the book. In trying to identify the conspirators behind an attempt on FDR’s life, Bierce has run-ins with Bonnie and Clyde and other gangsters of the period – all of which give an interesting twist to the known stories of the time. This is the first in the series and it doesn’t quite work in places – I found some of the pacing uneven and there was sometimes too much setting up of series story-lines at the expense of successful novel resolution – but I am certainly looking forward to the next in the series and getting to know more about Henry.

And will I ever get the chance to know more about Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May without going back to the previous 11 in the series? The Burning Man is number 12 and, given the way it ends, it has a sense of finality to suggest that Fowler has decided to call it quits. Or has he? Because the Kindle edition suggested that there may be more to come. If there are, I shall be reading them. Bryant and May may not need much introduction since they were introduced in 2003 in Full Dark House. The two members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit live and work in London and, in this novel, rush to find an arsonist and murderer before anarchy spills over from the City to the rest of London. I read this with that feeling of being the newbie to the meeting – the person who has to learn who is who and ‘why things are done this way’ but it didn’t detract too much from the clever and contemporary plot.

*****

All the books reviewed here were free from NetGalley in exchange for impartial reviews.

EJ Knight will be publishing a monthly review of crime fiction. If you would like your book to be considered, please email at allonymbooks@gmail.com. EJ Knight’s novel Broadway Murder of 1928 is available from all Amazon websites.

Indie Book Reviews (14)

This week, allonymbooks magical realist author Evie Woolmore reviews a light paranormal yarn, Restless Spirits by Kathy Bryson

Marilee Harper, jobless and locked in a complex relationship with her mother, is introduced to the somewhat mysterious and disconcertingly attractive John Smith, who is renovating an old hospital into a new bed and breakfast. Their unease around each other seems to infuse the atmosphere, which is increasingly unsettled by strange goings on, but Marilee and her mother move in and set about helping John with his project. But nothing is straightforward, for amid the romance is a sprinkling of mystery and the sparkling presence of Fair Folk, and what starts out as a journey of self-discovery becomes much more than that for Marilee.

I had the good fortune some years ago to spend a few months living in a small New England town, and anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere will instantly recognise the strong sense of community that pervades this book. Ms Bryson has peopled her novel with a large cast of well-defined characters whose interdependence and individuality form the nucleus of both a successful community and a fictional world. What sets this novel apart from other small-town romances is the paranormal twist, and with due reverence to Shakespeare, Ms Bryson has embraced the possibilities of fairies and the Otherworld. Indeed, it is just as well that Marilee has ‘a high threshold for the bizarre’ – although she revises that statement immediately to a low threshold, she has a curiosity for what motivates, ensnares and defines those around her, which I’m sure reflects the author’s own interests as a writer. This is a study of people, and there are many to keep us intrigued.

Marilee’s growth as a character is certainly key to our desire to keep reading. With my editorial hat on, I felt it could have done with a ruthless edit in the first half of the book: the pace is slowed by Marilee’s detailed self-reflection and self-analysis, and the sort of small town minutiae that are essential to local narratives don’t always translate as effectively to the fictional narrative where we need merely enough to delineate the boundaries of the story. In her gloom, Marilee also has a tendency to go round in circles at times, and though this is a good reflection of how her circumstances have trapped her, and how depressed I think she genuinely feels, it can at times have the effect of alienating the reader who relies on Marilee to drive the first person story-telling.

Nonetheless, this is a vividly drawn novel which will immediately enchant anyone who recognises themselves, their community or the twinkle in the eye of someone who is not quite what they seem!

*****

Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels have a strong infusion of the paranormal, perfect for the Hallowe’en season! Find out more at her Amazon page or here on the allonymbooks blog.

 

Indie Book Reviews (13): British Indie Authors (4)

This week, Evie Woolmore reviews a vampire YA novel by a young British indie author.

Runaway Girl by Elaine White (at Amazon sites including Amazon UK)

I’d be the first person to admit that I don’t read much vampire or gothic fiction; my last dip into the genre was Ann Radcliffe’s classic late eighteenth century gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho almost twenty years ago, and I haven’t even seen the box set of Buffy. Nonetheless, maybe being new to this kind of fiction allows me to see it with fresh eyes, and appreciate this book as a novel in its own right, a proper story rather than seeking originality in the genre.

There’s certainly a lot of freshness about Ms White’s book, and it has a fast-paced opening with plenty of characters making an early appearance. Certainly it takes a certain flair and energy to keep several inter-connected storylines moving along, and the opening premise of a search for a figure of great significance is always going to get things off to a swift start. The reader is quickly drawn in, not merely by the compelling experiences of the characters we meet but by the comfortably engaging worlds that Ms White paints for us.

What is obvious, even to the relative vampire novice that I am, is that the fracturing of Amelia’s soul is a clever idea both in story terms and in reaching out beyond the vampire genre to readers with an interest in magical realism and spirituality. Magic aside, it’s an interesting way to explore the tensions in all our personalities and there are certainly enough tensions in this book to keep the reader thoroughly engaged.

It says as much about my reading background as it does this novel that at times I felt there was just a bit too much going on, but that is the style of fantasy fiction born of imaginative and complex worlds and if it didn’t suit me as a reader then that is, as I say, as much a comment on me. Probably if I’d had more experience of this fiction, I would have got everything straight in my head, because I would have gone into reading it with more refined expectations of what I wanted to read in this sort of novel.

Certainly, Elaine White is an imaginative writer who has crafted a very readable book, and it’s clear that without limit to that imagination, she has much more to offer her readers.

****

You can find out more about Elaine and her writing at her website. You can find out more about Evie Woolmore and her magical realist novels here.

 

Evie Woolmore joins Ascribe

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore     Cover Design for Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore

allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore has joined Ascribe, the review site for indie published books where every book has to carry a recommendation from a publishing professional. If you are looking for quality fiction with believable ratings, then Ascribe is a great place to start. Founder Mark Farrell will be blogging here soon about why he set up the website, but in the meantime, go and find out why other writers recommend Evie’s novels, and what other great indie novels are worth reading.

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Magical Realist Book Review: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore, herself a writer of magical realist historical fiction, reviews The Firebird. 

I’m a relative latecomer to Susanna Kearsley’s work, as the first of what I would describe as her magical realist novels, Mariana, was published in 1994. Kearsley’s books could be defined broadly as historical fiction, where the past offers a portal for the present day heroine to witness history first hand and understand the truth of her own situation in some respect. It could be more simply described as time travel fiction, but what drew me to reading The Firebird (2013) was the focus on a more specifically psychic skill, psychometry or psychoscopy. This is the ability to ‘read’ something of an object’s past by touching it, explained by the psychometrist picking up traces of the energy of past owners or inhabitants. The word psychometry was coined in the nineteenth century, and literally means ‘reading the soul’, which in itself is an apt metaphor for this particular novel.

The Firebird‘s heroine, Nicola Marter is an expert in Russian art, and when she comes into contact with a small carved wooden bird, she instantly senses something powerful and significant in the object’s past, that it once belonged to the Russian Empress Catherine. Compelled by the tragic circumstances of the bird’s owner, she seeks the help of an old friend whom she hasn’t faced for many years. Rob McMorran possesses a psychic gift of a strength matched only by his purity of spirit, and in revisiting her past decision to deny her own ability – and her feelings for Rob – Nicola becomes able to revisit the past. The novel then becomes two stories in one, the events which lead to Nicola’s acceptance of her own ability and the events which lead us to the bird’s original owner.

Kearsley’s approach to historical fiction – and to the historical story in the novel – is as thorough as any fan of traditional historical fiction would expect. Indeed, The Firebird is the second in the Slains series, novels which draw on the rich and dramatic history of Scotland’s Slains Castle. Kearsley is detailed, accurate, and readily gifted at reimagining the past for her reader, although at times I think the historical authenticity slightly weighs down the pacing. There are also an enormous number of characters in the historical story, and in the last third of the novel, as the plot became more complex, it became occasionally difficult to keep track of everyone, especially after a break in reading. This is though a mark of Kearsley’s determination to tell a historical story properly, and not to oversimplify what were key historical and cultural events in Scotland’s past.

My key reason for reading this book, of course, was the paranormal aspect, and the reason why I would broadly call her novels magical realist. Not having read any of her other books, I was struck immediately by two things: the direct way in which Kearlsey introduces the psychic ability into the story, and Nicola’s implied sense of shame at her ability. It becomes apparent as the book goes on that Nicola’s attitude to her ability is complex: having volunteered years before for scientific tests of her ability, she did not complete the process and her emotional entanglement with and abandonment of Rob has left her with unresolved feelings about everything. Indeed, the direct acceptance of the psychometry as valid, right from the outset of the novel (we are left in no doubt that Nicola believes what she has ‘seen’, even if it has left her unsettled), is somewhat at odds with Nicola’s doubts and uncertainties about her own psychometric ability: she is afraid of what Rob can do, and of what she might be capable of doing, but is never in any doubt about the validity of the ability.

This comes to a head when Nicola must decide whether to admit to the owner of a painting she has been sent to buy that she knows it is a fake because she has seen its true and far more contemporary artist painting it when she touches the picture. Rob confronts her reluctance to admit publicly who she truly is and thus who he is too, and although Nicola ultimately accepts her ability, I was left with the sensation that this was ‘a cross to bear’, so to speak, for all involved. The potential for being a social outcast in any community which did not readily accept their psychic gift, and the unending requirement for proof of ability, is a common theme in any novel which tries to resolve or explain the paranormal, and in many respects The Firebird is framed as Nicola’s search for her own authenticity. I was left wondering though what I was meant to believe about psychometry, which was a curiosity because the novel is constructed around that original assumption that it is valid. We can’t access the careful historical truth Kearsley has written for us, if we don’t believe that what Rob and Nicola can do is actually possible. And yet they are arguing about how publicly acknowledging that ability is part of what makes it genuine.  I felt slightly as if I was being given something at the same time as it was being taken away from me. And I think this is the core conundrum of what makes novels which try to reconcile the ability so problematic. And in this case, paradoxically, we need an explanation for the journey from fiction (where anything is possible) to fact (the historical aspects of the story).

Would I recommend it? For fans of historical fiction, yes, without question. For fans of magical realism, probably not, because Kearsley doesn’t really say anything new about psychic ability, or craft any originality with it as a story element. But I will read other books of hers, if only to satisfy my curiosity about how she uses this time travel device in other contexts.

To find out more about Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels The Salt Factory, Equilibrium, and Rising Up, visit the pages on this website or go to Amazon to download samples.

Another great review of Evie Woolmore’s Equilibrium

And hot on the tail of the lovely review of The Salt Factory, a review by Emmy of the Flaming Colours blog of one of Evie’s other novels, Equilibrium.

Equilibrium is a haunting tale of guilt and longing. Set against the backdrop of London and the Boer War, it shows Britain in a state of change. And as with all change, it is not welcomed by everyone. Between reactionary forces and those of change, the characters in the book struggle to find their own balance.

The atmosphere of London is captured beautifully in the book. The strict class divisions were still very prevalent in social Britain around the turn of the twentieth century. And it plays a huge role in the story. It illustrates poignantly the position of women at the time and the dire consequences for those who try to reach beyond its confines. Add to these the ingredients of the paranormal and a skeptical scientist and you get an idea of the historical depth and detail of the book. I found it absolutely captivating.

We learn much of what drives the characters because we spent a lot of time in their minds. But instead of it bringing me closer to the characters, I mostly felt it slowed down the story. The real engagement came when the pace of the story picked up. At that point, the dialogue and action brought them to life much better than the musings in their mind did. This is illustrated by the characters with whom you don’t get to spend time in their heads; Rafe (who at the start of the story conjured up echoes of Mr. Rochester for me. You’ll have to read the book to see how that works out!) is an excellent example.

The paranormal aspects in the book are well handled. There was a surge of interest for mediums and the paranormal during the time the book is set so it blends in seamlessly. Epiphany, ethereal as she may seem, is the real driving force behind the events of the story and the magical realistic elements are the author’s well used tools to portray what is in essence a very realistic tale of human losses and how to deal with them.