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Author Archives: EZE

About EZE

Writer of short stories and teacher of history.

Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

Today’s young people (what the government classes as the 18-24 year olds) may have a hard time gaining a proper perspective of the Berlin of the Cold War. A city divided between the British, Americans and French in the West, and the Russians in the East. The west would eventually coalesce into one beacon of democracy deep behind Winston Churchill’s iron curtain in communist Europe. To get from one side of the city to the other, to cross from one country to another, from one way of life to another, you had to go through an artificial border (as most borders are in fact). This was where the Berlin Wall came in. Designed to stop people crossing, to stop East Germans abandoning the soviet for the capitalist. Border guards, from one nuclear super power to another, would rarely act if someone was on the other side, maybe yards away, trying to escape across and being hunted by the other sides guards. It was across a border. It was an internal matter. For the most part, on German sufferance, the West and East were happy to posture in this city for forty-five years. A city and its people the pawns of nuclear rivals.

China Mievilles story of The City and The City, a truncating of the title of a book within the book, takes that very real historical situation to an existential extreme in a hard boiled noir masterpiece.

The ‘eastern’ cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma located somewhere, independently in the Balkans, sit side by side. Not exactly East and West Berlin, but as the writer coins “gross-topically” on top of one another. This street is Besz, this street is Ul Qoman, that street is both and neither. Over centuries two cities, two distinct cultures had overlapped and merged into two nations in one space. Citizens of one, walking the same streets, in the presence of the same skylines of citizens of another have to unsee what they are seeing if it belongs to the other nation. Grey, depressing, lifeless architecture sits right beside more modern, glass fronted high rises. Two cities with their own economies, police, fashion. The noise, the smells, the animals, the traffic… all have to be unseen and negotiated without doing the one thing that unites the two nations in fear;

BREACH.

The Breach is not Besz, it is not Ul Quoman. It belongs to neither, operates in both, and exists between. The Breach polices the distinctions between the two and ‘disappears’ in a haunting echo of a rogues gallery of 20th century dictatorships those who have transgressed the boundaries. Breach are the bogeymen, the KGB, the Stazi, Gestapo, the secret police. But who are Breach accountable to?

When the murder of a Canadian archaeology student takes place in Ul Qoma, and her body turns up in Beszel it is apparent to both nations police that a breach has taken place. And yet… where are Breach? Why haven’t they acted?

China Mieville dials back on his wonderful manipulations of language to present an accessible story set in a fictional city state of our world. His is a study of identity, of surveillance by the state and the extent to which paranoia is a comfort. Better to be paranoid than face reality?

As a historian, used to suspending my modern day views in the act of looking at the past I was well suited to reading this book. The unique nature of the two cities requires a blunt acceptance of it, to question it could lead only to confusion. Accept the premise, and jump right in and you can experience the story as a hard boiled detective case. A murder has been committed, a mystery created, and it must be solved. Mieville does superbly to build what is a small apparently localized crime into the birth pains of a revolution, an international incident. His way of introducing and explaining the rules of the world is gentle and builds beautifully on top of one another. Neil Gaiman on the back cover calls this ‘Fiction of the new century’.

It is indeed fiction of the new century. The lessons of the old century made ever prescient in a mind bending artistic novel. China Mieville constantly takes my breath away.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Fiction

 

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The Girl Who Had Everything

The Girl Who Had Everything

It was my daughters 21st  birthday last weekend. You may call me a sop for admitting this but I still get teary eyed reflecting about the little sperm and egg that done good all those years ago. From a microscopic speck to a five foot seven inch, blonde haired, hazel eyed force of nature. Part me, part The Mother (read: Ex #2), part who knows what else because she’s certainly got something from somewhere else. I love her dearly; have been so proud of all her achievements from her first words and her first steps, to her first recital and first day at college. Yet there is one thing…

Maybe I should explain. I’m a billionaire see: those fancy phones and tablets you’re always waving about, odds are in the continental US that the rare metals that make them tick came from a mine I own overseas. What this means is that my beautiful daughter never wanted for anything when she was growing up.

She was the girl who had everything.

She had a wardrobe of shoes before she could walk.

For her birthday she didn’t go to Disney, Disney came to her en masse. I tell you there were a few weird encounters in the toilets that day.

When her friends were playing with My Little Pony, her Little Pony, was well.. a Little Pony.

When I say friends, I don’t think I ever learnt the name of one. She seemed to always be surrounded by them and always discarding them. I put it down to little girls petty games. No matter what drama erupted in her cliques, she always had countless more ‘friends’ stepping up.

She didn’t just have a private tutor, she had a private school whose principal was on my speed dial and conveniently enough granted entry to our country club shortly before we enrolled her. We certainly had no problem ensuring the best education, results, for her.

Diamonds.

High Fashion.

Movie Premiers.

A ticket into space (I thought it was one way).

When people her age started sleeping around, naturally she did the naughty with the football captain and then decided she didn’t want to be like the others. So she popped to a clinic and emerged a half hour later with her halo back in place. Blame the mother.

Her voice changed over time too. No not by some kind of surgery. That sweet little voice that used to greet me when I came home asking nicely, hesitantly, for this and that, became somewhat shriller, more expectant as she grew up. She was the girl who had everything, and wanted more. Now, if you please.

Blame me for that one.

Ahead of any girls 21st birthday, the pressure builds on the parent. What do we give, what do we provide that shows our pride, our love. Something special and unique. For the girl who had everything, it was especially hard. I spent months leading up to it worrying. Oh I wasn’t short for ideas. She provided them. Daily.

Then the day arrived.  My little girl had turned twenty one. A fully grown woman ready to take on the world. The twinkle of my eye. Sharper than a draw full of knives, more beautiful than Miss Universe, and more demanding… always more demanding… than anything you can imagine. So what did I give her on her twenty first birthday?

A Porsche?

An aeroplane?

A small Caribbean island?

I gave her an envelope.

She didn’t even bat an eye lid, such was her expectation of extravagance and she tore the letter open without ceremony as friends and family watched. I sipped from my champagne, the drink she was now allowed but had supped since she was thirteen despite my efforts to restrict her. The colour drained first from her face. Her breath caught. Her eyes darted speculatively about, searching for me. Then she threw the letter and envelope down and ran off in a fit of tears.

A piece of tumbleweed drifting across the room would not have been out of place. Such was the silence and awkwardness that filled the room in my daughter’s absence. People looked at me, I sipped my champagne. I had done it, I had pulled it off.

What on earth could you get the girl who had everything?

Nothing.

So I cancelled her trust fund.

I got nothing for the girl who has everything.

It was probably the best piece of parenting I’ve ever done.

Image: Vlado / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2012 in Flash Fiction

 

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REVIEW: Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

REVIEW: Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

From the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, made into a heart wrenching and immensely successful film, and The House of Special Purpose about the last Russian Royal Family came my first non science fiction read of 2012 – Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the true historical event.

For those who are not aware of the most famous act of piracy to befall a British navy ship, the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ was an incident in the late 18th century on the eve of the French Revolution, just a few short decades after the death of the quickly mythologised hero Captain James Cook (a local boy from Marton in present day Middlesbrough, England). A frigate, captained by Lieutenant  William Bligh who had served with Captain Cook on his great voyages of discovery, was tasked with the most urgent mission in the Empire: the collection of a foodstuff known as the breadfruit which grew in great quantities on the remote island of Tahiti. No, the King wasn’t starving, nor did the Queen have pregnancy cravings. There had not been a poor harvest in England, and indeed the sole purpose of the entire venture was designed to make it unnecessary for the British Empire to have to supply the slave colonies in the Caribbean. The breadfruit was a hardy food stuff that the Kings Ministers intended to have planted in the Caribbean, thereby making it cheap to keep their fellow man in chains. A little ironic when some of those who sailed on the Bounty were not their by choice themselves (as is the case with the stories narrator). After reaching Tahiti and completing their harvest, the crew on the Bounty rebel against their captain seize his ship and promptly dump him and his few loyalists at sea in a little launch boat with a token gesture of food. The new pirates had absolutely no intention of swapping the heaven of Tahiti, for the hell of life in England’s Navy. Miraculously Lieutenant Bligh led his little band back to England to a hero’s welcome and what mutineers could be found in the forthcoming years were rounded up and tried in London to great public interest, soon superseded by the French Revolution.

That is the bare bones of the historical events, and relaying them to you here in no way undermines Mr Boyne’s novel which is not in fact about events but people, relationships between men – master thief and child prostitute, upper class officers born to their position and men who have risen on their merit, captain and servant boy, mutineer and loyalist. It retells in fascinating human detail the ego, the lusts, the needs of these men. It illustrates the conflicted nature of a ‘sea man’ like Bligh, having to deal with being stuck on Tahiti whilst the breadfruit is collected and almost literally crawling up the walls of his little hut to get back to sea – men like him, his hero Captain Cook and my ancestor Lord Admiral Collingwood were men who preferred to be at sea to being on land. Land was their sea, sea their land. They could not understand other men’s pangs for home port and land. Boyne paints a picture of gradually simmering tensions amongst the crew and still manages to spring the inevitable mutiny as a surprise, we are so immersed in the thoughts of our narrator – John Jacob Turnstile, captains servant – that his shock becomes our shock.

John Jacob (“Turnip”) Turnstile’s narration sees us travel from the streets of Portsmouth at the very bottom of the social ladder to a myriad of adventures. His constant occupation is a desire to escape. I was initially unhappy with how the author consistently brought the characters thoughts back to his days in Portsmouth ‘entertaining’ well-to-do gentlemen. Its a strange block for me, but I just cannot read about child abuse in any form and I find those people who buy novels solely about it quite bizarre. Yet here, eventually I realised that Boyle wasn’t using it as some cheap narrative gimmick but very appropriately as a foundation stone in the personality of our Turnip. It informs his interactions with everybody – fellow boys and men, authority figures, women. As a result I think the author has successfully managed a blending of social history – exposing the reader to life as it was for many in 19th century England – and riveting human drama.

We are, after all, made of the best and the worst of our experiences.

If you saw The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or read it, I highly recommend you get Mutiny on the Bounty, which is available on Kindle. I am certainly considering getting more John Boyne novels after the next couple of books I read. He seems to take a scattergun approach to his writing – sampling all sorts of different topics and genres and I look forward to seeing what other stories I can read from him.

If the real events described in the book and this review interest you then I strongly encourage you to do a little searching online for there is a wealth of diaries, logs, and memoirs from crew and officers that survive to this day. You may also want to learn about those mutineers who were never caught by His Majesty’s Navy and the controversial descendant’s at Pitcairn Island.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Fiction

 

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World Book Day: What makes a review?

World Book Day: What makes a review?

Happy World Book Day to one and all. I have fond memories of book-themed occasions having received annual book vouchers at school and prize book gift vouchers when I achieved in my subjects. Yes I was that geeky student waltzing off to his nearest WHSmith to cash in for previously un-bought Hardy Boys, Sharpe, or Robert Ludlum story depending on my age. Reading is wonderful, a medium that interacts with its consumer in a way movies cannot. The writer can spell out every little detail he likes, but what those mean to the reader is completely individual. Therefore every person has a slightly different encounter with a book. With the movies, an extra few layers of our imaginative powers is removed. Forsaken for million dollar special effects budgets. That’s good too. But it doesn’t beat your imagination…

So while I hope everybody is enjoying the various events that have been ongoing across the web and in libraries and community centres I have a reading themed question to ask.

You may already know that my short story The Lazarus Experiment was available for free last weekend as part of an anniversary celebration – one year since I submitted the former #tuesdayserial weekly tale to my publishers Books to Go Now. It’s now back on sale in the Kindle stores at its regular price (77p in the UK.. 99c or $1.22 in the US.. the website seems to keep showing me different prices, but I’m not American anyway…) which, lets face it, is the price of a chocolate bar and cheaper than a cup of tea in most places. One of the bonuses for me as a writer, and my publishers, this week has been the sudden appearance of reviews at last!

One reviewer over on Amazon scored my tale about Frank Swan with 4 stars, suggesting whilst she had received it free it would have been worth paying for. Jackpot! Cannot ask for more from a reader than satisfaction and endorsement like that…

The other reviewer over on the UK Amazon however scored the World War 2 set science fiction tale with just one star. One. Uno. Jeden. Een. This is the intriguing part however… the review is largely positive – crediting the plot and wanting more. However it is the lack of the more which hurts the review. With this reviewer saying if he had paid for such a short story he would have been very unhappy.

Quite the contrast between the two reviews eh? Ah, the life of the author…

I have politely pointed out that Amazon does indeed show how short the story is, and that it is tagged and promoted as a short story, but have thanked the reviewer anyway for what I feel is a fair review. It is short after all! I only responded to the review because I did not want people to think myself or my publisher to be trying to con people – it is clearly marketed in a similar way to other short stories available on the e-book market and anyone following my twitter or Facebook streams knows I am at endless pains to include the #shortstory hashtag. Short stories are back in vogue like they haven’t been since the pulps of the 30’s and 40’s or Dickens before them. I am happy shouting from the rooftops that I write them.

And yet… it has got me thinking about what goes in to a review?

What makes a story 5 stars, and another one 1 star?

It’s certainly a question with unlimited answers but to go on the second reviewers apparent scale, then War and Peace, the famously long tome by Leo Tolstoy, would be a five-star extravaganza… even if its mode of writing bores the tears out of you (as it does me). Likewise the movie Godfather may struggle to get 1 star because people prefer the 90 minute feature, despite its unquestionable status (go on i dare you…) as one of the finest films of all time.

When I review something I do it from the perspective of how the book, music, movie makes me feel. Did I enjoy it? It’s as simple as that. Obviously i expand on that notion. But if it gave me great pleasure, if I went to bed each night early just so I had more time to read more of the book…then I give a positive review. Even if it’s not technically perfect or dare I suggest it, it’s too short.

So what makes you give one star, three stars or five stars to something?

Do you start in the middle at three stars and add and detract as I do?

Or do you have some arcane method that involves the slaughtering of a turkey and the drawing of a circle in front of your bookcase in its blood? Hey, it takes all sorts…

Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and feel free to tweet me on twitter or drop a message on the Facebook page!

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Reading Initiatives

 

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The Lazarus Experiment: An Anniversary Special

The Lazarus Experiment: An Anniversary Special

It was over a year ago in January 2011 that I began serializing my short story The Lazarus Experiment on a weekly basis. Four parts, each around 1,000 words long was my contribution to the #fridayflash and #tuesdayserial community on Twitter. The response was positive with some readers intrigued to ask where exactly the line between fact and fiction was in the story (its stranger than you may think see my article on the research that went in to the story). It gave a great shot of adrenaline to this websites traffic and when I came to complete the serial at the start of February I was enthused to submit it to a few electronic publishers as a collected 5,000 word short story.

A couple of publishers were interested and I’ve been very happy with the support (including in polishing it up in a pre-release edit) and advice that my chosen seattle based publisher Books To Go Now have given me. You can get The Lazarus Experiment from a wide range of websites including the Kindle platform, Nook shop, and even UK stalwart WHSmith. You can download it from the Android marketplace, where its been most popular with people on the go looking for a quick read, or you could even borrow it in American library. The pricing has even been revised to a figure I’m comfortable with (77p in the UK, about the price of a chocolate bar).

Now, a year on from starting that journey with Books to Go Now they have continued to support it by offering it FREE this weekend only on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. To get it all you need to do is load up your Kindle App (also Free on Phones and computers) type in Christopher Michael Bell or The Lazarus Experiment and download for your reading pleasure.

And should it really be a reading pleasure, please don’t forget to leave a little review on either or both of the Amazon websites… and tell your friends!

The Lazarus Experiment, Free this weekend on KINDLE!

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2012 in Publishing

 

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