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Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Paragraph Test

Last Summer I discovered a bookshop with a healthy haul of '60s paperbacks, many of them in great condition for their age and fairly priced at three quid a pop. So of course I kept going back.

I put my focus on popular fiction writers that are now forgotten, or had passed me by, or that I'd been aware of but never read. It was a chance to see if my affection for the literate 70,000 word thriller had altered or diminished over time. Also to appreciate the all-but-forgotten art of the British commercial illustrator, for whom the Photoshopped stock image has proved an inexpensive substitute.

(They say you can't judge a book by its cover. But don't people do that all the time? Given that it's the cover's purpose?)

Any book that caught my eye would be subjected to the usual test, which is to open a page at random and read any paragraph. You know within a few lines if the writer can write, just as you know after a few notes whether a person can sing. Maybe it's a tribute to old-style editing, but back then fewer published authors seemed to get away with just plonking it down.

I'm still working my way through the reading pile, and will be for some time... I don't read as much as I once did. I blame this partly on The Job, because I pay too much attention to technique and can't lose myself in story as easily as before, and on bad TV, because there's always something on.

What am I finding? A couple of things stand out. Readers are more educated in procedure now, and won't stand for investigations driven by intuition or an investigator's whim. And though there were notable female thriller writers active at the time - Helen MacInnes and Josephine Tey spring immediately to mind - the female characters in this male-dominated field are largely undercooked stereotypes. They fall into the rough categories of fantasy wife, virgin to be rescued, or bitch to be tamed.

As well as discoveries - Donald MacKenzie deserves to be better-remembered than he is - the paragraph test spawned a few surprises as well. The quality of some writing was so at odds with the author's lack of reputation that I was driven to Google to find out more. What I'd often find was a famous writer knocking out decent thrillers for money. E V Cunningham turned out to be a pseudonym for Freedom Road and Spartacus author Howard Fast. The witty and elegant Edgar Box proved to be none other than Gore Vidal.

There's a line in "Box's" Death Before Bedtime that maybe hasn't travelled as well as some. Camilla Pomeroy, wife of the prime suspect in a Senatorial murder case, has wangled her way into the narrator's bed. We skip tastefully over the gymnastics, and in the aftermath:
She sat up on one elbow and pushed her hair back out of her eyes. She was obviously proud of her body; she arranged it to look like the Duchess of Alba. "What on earth would my husband say."
The Duchess of Alba? I didn't get the reference, so I had to look it up. The educated reader of the time should have been thinking of the pose in this painting:


Those with Safe Search off can find the complete image here. Spain put it on a stamp, so it's hardly scurrilous. Its actual title is La Maja Desnuda and art historians argue over whether it represents the Duchess at all; but the face is recognisable from Goya's formal portraits of his subject, with whom he was said to be obsessed.

Anyway...

Having no idea of what Vidal was shooting for with the image, I searched for The Duchess of Alba.

Here's what came up...


Yes, that's the Duchess of Alba.

All I can say is, the culture's moved along.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Imitation of Life

In some of the awards-season discussions of The Imitation Game I've noticed a subtext in which anything other than support for the film is read as an act of disloyalty toward Alan Turing himself. Much as, once upon a time, thinking The Green Berets an awful movie branded you as anti-American, or finding 12 Years a Slave a grim duty-watch made you an apologist for its horrors.

Personally, I thought The Imitation Game a passable time-filler. But then I'm not a big fan of re-staged histories, which seem to me the least ambitious use of the drama toolkit. I must be in a minority because they come out in starry droves every awards season, an opulent parade of beards and wigs and rubber noses.

Like it or don't like it but don't conflate the film with the man who, more than a posthumous pardon or a memorial, deserves a time machine and an unqualified apology.

I was set thinking about Sebastian (1968). You probably won't know it. It's very much a 'Swinging 60s' movie in which Dirk Bogarde plays a charismatic Oxford academic overseeing a squad of female codebreakers. Given what was and wasn't public knowledge at the time, both about the Bletchley Park scene and Bogarde's sexuality, it now feels like one component in a dizzying meta-cocktail of movies and material.

For years Sebastian was just a remembered viewing from my teenaged years, but now someone's put it onto YouTube in its low-res entirety. It's a rarity with an impressive pedigree - Michael Powell producing, the Cinematographer was Gerry Fisher, score by Jerry Goldsmith. Based on a story by former wartime cryptographer (And Peeping Tom screenwriter) Leo Marks, which explains a lot.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Brian Clemens 1931-2015

They say you should never meet your heroes. I'm here to tell you that it isn't necessarily true. I've written elsewhere of my personal debt to The Avengers and little imagined, as a kid growing up with 60s TV, that I'd someday get to play in the telefantasy sandpit.

(Actually, that's a lie. I fantasized about it a lot.)

I first met Brian Clemens at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films, where I got to interview him onstage. I have to admit that I reverted to a fanboy mode that I've never really broken out of. In the '90s we were co-consultants on Carnival Films' action-adventure series Bugs. He subsequently wrote the intro for my first collection of short stories. Publisher Pete Crowther approached him for me; I was embarrassed to ask. But holy shit, did I glow when he said yes. And a couple of years ago we switched roles when I contributed the intro to Brian's own collection, titled Rabbit Pie & Other Tales of Intrigue. It was at a Brighton Fantasycon signing session that we last met up, starting in the bar and ending the evening in a Chinese restaurant while a bastard of a rainstorm raged outside. Brian seemed frail, but he was sharp. We last spoke a week before Christmas, when he phoned me out of the blue. He was bright, upbeat, just the same as ever. He invited us down to visit in the New Year.

I was out of the country when Brian guested at the 2009 Fantasycon, but I got to write the appreciation in the programme book. Here it is again.
It was one o'clock in the morning and I had stuff on my mind. I turned on the TV for distraction. In a '60s Geneva created from library footage and a crisply-photographed studio backlot, an international security agent who'd been missing for two days walked into his headquarters building and calmly shot one of his superiors. For the next hour, the stuff on my mind ceased to trouble me and the world was young again.

(Except, of course, when my world was young, there was no TV or much of anything else going on at one in the morning)

I hardly needed to look at the credits to know who'd written the episode. Brian Clemens was always the master of the arresting story hook, a Sensei among warriors in the screenwriting ranks. There's hardly a piece of classic British 'cult' TV that doesn't either have his fingerprints on it, or his DNA somewhere in it. Even The Prisoner, a show in which he had no actual hand, can be traced back to the Clemens-scripted Danger Man pilot in which both Patrick McGoohan's secret agent persona and the Portmeirion location made their first TV appearances.

For many people Brian Clemens will be, forever and above all else, the Avengers guy. But The Avengers is really just the most prominent peak in a career characterised by prodigious energy and inventiveness, coupled with an impeccable professionalism. In a field that can so easily be colonised by journeyman work, his writing always has a voice, an angle, an attitude.

Born in 1931, Clemens grew up in Croydon. After service in the army and work in advertising, he sold a single play to BBC Television which led to a stint as house screenwriter for the Danziger Brothers. Depending on your prejudice or your point of view, the Danzigers were low-rent exploitation producers or resourceful low-budget entertainment providers in the Roger Corman style. They supplied second features for British cinema bills and half-hour filmed series for UK and US television. While in their employ, Clemens developed a proficiency in writing to deadline around available resources, as the brothers seized opportunities to get some extra use out of sets, props and sometimes even paid-up performers from other, more expensive productions.

Those skills were widely used by Clemens in such series as Mark Saber and Richard the Lionheart for the Danzigers, while also moonlighting scripts for Sir Francis Drake, Ivanhoe and HG Wells' The Invisible Man. He once said, "At one time, all of British episodic television was written by about ten writers, and I was one of them." He credits the Danger Man pilot as his big break; renamed Secret Agent, the show was picked up for network screening in the US by CBS and blazed a trail for all of UK international production throughout the '60s.

Although Sidney Newman is often credited as the creative force behind The Avengers and other classic TV including Armchair Theatre and Doctor Who, his role was more accurately that of a godfather. Newman came up with the Avengers title, and the idea of doing something new with Ian Hendry's Police Surgeon character from an underperforming series. Clemens was again brought in at the pilot stage, and three seasons later took over full creative control of the series as it moved from electronic production to film. The mix that had been brewed up in the creaky and low-res live-action studio now exploded with the application of top-drawer production values. The result was unique and confident. It didn't so much mirror the swinging sixties, as play a major part in defining them.

Season four was the 1965 black-and-white season, with such classic episodes as The House that Jack Built, The Town of No Return, and the glorious and notorious A Touch of Brimstone. Season five went to colour and hit the same level of triumph with knobs on. But it's those episodes in 'sparkling black and white', as the American trailers described them, with their stark op-art world and King's Road sensibility, that made the first and deepest cut for me. There is a place forever in my heart where the door to Emma Peel's flat has a big eyeball on it.

Although Clemens freelanced scripts for just about every high-profile action show from Adam Adamant to The Persuaders, after The Avengers he was also a force as a producer. When he was making The New Avengers a TV Times profile made reference to "his sixth Ferrari" and "the exclusive privacy of his four acres in Bedfordshire". With the suspense anthology series Thriller he became that rare thing for a screenwriter, a marquee draw with his name linked to the title. The Professionals made as much of a mark on the '70s as The Avengers in the decade before it, and the sitcom My Wife Next Door brought him a BAFTA award.

When Brian Eastman's Carnival Films wanted a high-concept, pacy action show for BBC1 on Saturday evenings, they turned to Clemens for Bugs. The show ran for four series and gave me the opportunity to write the kind of TV I'd grown up on, and later to share the role of series consultant with one of my biggest professional heroes. Imagine that! Though we'd met at festivals by then, we never actually met on the show. I'm told that half the time our feedback was 100% in agreement, while the other half of the time our comments were in complete opposition. Which I suppose sounds kind of healthy.

But back to that late hour, a few nights ago. My one o'clock diversion did exactly as its author intended. It gave an hour's pleasure, and a valued respite from the ordinary. It was an episode of The Champions, the Heroes of its day. I understand that it was written during the brief period when Clemens was out of The Avengers (after Diana Rigg's last season, and before Linda Thorson's first) and before he had to go back in and sort out the mess they got into without him.

The Champions episode was typical of Clemens' contribution to other people's shows. It's as if he examined the underlying concept and set out to nail it just a little bit better than anyone else, in this case taking the main characters and setting them, Marvel-style, to use their powers against each other.

There's much I've missed out. I've said nothing about his sales to American TV and I've been skipping over feature work that includes See No Evil with Mia Farrow, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for Ray Harryhausen, an excursion into writer/director territory with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter for Hammer, The Watcher in the Woods for Disney. But check out his Internet Movie Database page; it lists over a hundred entries, many of them for multiple series writing credits, and it's still growing. The films are as eclectic a selection as the TV work, but all have the same stamp on them; Hitchcockian technique, with an irreverent light touch.

And if you were thinking of asking: no, he had nothing to do with that Avengers movie.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

You know Christmas is Coming When...

Hey, I don't want to brag, but I got my card from the Blairs.


Monday, 27 October 2014

No Ann Radcliffe at the BBC

http://www.bl.uk/includes/image/gothic-carousel_853x325.jpg


After Saturday's mass signing at Forbidden Planet, and catching up with old friends at the enjoyable British Fantasy Society open event afterwards, a less pressured Sunday included a visit to The British Library's exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination before the drive home.

The exhibition follows a path from Otranto to the present day that will be familiar to the dedicated reader of horror and the fantastic, and which provides a crash course in the essentials to anyone new to the field. Where the BL excels is in its access to original materials - first editions, letters, manuscripts... if you don't get a kick from a note written in Poe's own hand, or original Frankenstein pages in Mary Shelley's handwriting with Percy's additions crowded into the margins, then this kind of thing is probably not for you.

It's atmospherically presented, driven by literature (obviously) but with further coverage of the films, art and architecture that extended the Gothic sensibility into wider culture. I doubt that many of us read Frankenstein and then were moved to seek out the movies; it tends to work the other way around.

A few years ago I proposed an adaptation of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho to the BBC. Not an easy book to 'find the movie in', as anyone who's ever picked it up will know. Got nowhere with it then and, with the way that drama commissioning has moved since, I don't expect to, ever.

So, inspired by Terror and Wonder, I'm putting it online. This was my pitch document - making the case, breaking down the story, outlining a production approach. Should you happen to be interested.

Monday, 13 October 2014

I'm Here 'til Tuesday...

 

It's called a Kindle Countdown Deal; the price of an e-book gets slashed to the bone for a couple of days and then rises in increments over a week or so until it's back to full price again. Grab 'em, do; they're going for about 99p/99c but the clock is ticking.

The Spirit Box and Nightmare, with Angel are on offer from Amazon UK, while White Bizango and Red, Red Robin are on promotion from Amazon.com.

In other news, this new edition of The Bedlam Detective. "Only bad thing about his books is that they eventually end. Brilliant." (Jonny Lee Miller)

See the previous post for an update on the next Becker book.


Friday, 10 October 2014

The Accidental Blogger

I know I haven't updated the blog for some time, and if you've been checking, I'm sorry. It's partly laziness - so much easier to fire off a quick snarky mindbite on Twitter than to actually organise a thought or two into something worthwhile - and partly personal, but mostly it's business.

The personal - this summer I forced myself to take weekends off, and decided I rather liked it. If I don't consciously remove myself from the proximity of the study I can find myself drawn back to the keyboard. I'm not even aware of it happening, but I get pulled in by its gravity like one of those rolling coins spiralling down into a charity collection tub. And then, because I've sat myself down without a plan, I don't actually achieve anything when I get there - I just check my emails and fart around on Twitter.

I still check my emails and fart around on Twitter. But at weekends I do it on my phone, somewhere nicer.

The business part - well, last year was weird, including a bunch of projects you'll never hear of because they didn't happen. None of them was my own. In each case I was brought on board to develop a property which never made it to launch. For a while that suited me, again for personal reasons, but it quickly grew frustrating. I've developed stuff I didn't create before now, Crusoe being a case in point. But it's not what I'm in the game for.

So I blocked out some time and wrote a spec TV pilot, which no one in the UK wanted but which a producer friend took to MIPCOM where it was picked up by one of the US networks. More about that in due course.

Now that I had something to plan around, I could wind up the third-party commitments and schedule-in something of great importance to me, and that's the third Sebastian Becker novel. It's been on the stocks for a while, devised and researched and planned down to pretty much the last detail.

But here's the point I always have to make about novel writing and screenwriting; their working rhythms are totally different, and they can't coexist. They can't for me, anyway. A screenwriting career is a constant juggling of drafts, pitches and projects. For a novel I need to be able to dedicate big blocks of dedicated weeks.

The Becker books are complicated beasts to conceive and plot. If you've read either The Kingdom of Bones or The Bedlam Detective you'll appreciate that each is an ambitious one-off, not the kind of series where you can turn a handle and crank them out.

And their history is a complicated one too - of film rights bought and sold, of auctions and ousted editors and wound-up imprints and orphaned acquisitions... and for these reasons among many others the Becker books have a special importance to me, like the puppy that survived the hurricane. So much of this summer was set aside for the completion of The Authentic William James, and I'm happy to say that the pieces fit together.

None of which is what I set out to tell you.

The actual aim of this post was to shill for a Kindle promotion for the novels next week. It's to mark my birthday (don't ask). On Monday October 13th the price of four of my ebooks (two on Amazon UK, two in the US) will be slashed to... well, buttons at first. But only at first. The prices will rise by increments over the following week until they're back at the regular level. Apparently this enthuses people to jump in and buy early. Well, Amazon seem to think so. And they seem to be rather better at this than I.

These are the titles:


The Spirit Box and Nightmare, with Angel will be on offer at Amazon.co.uk. White Bizango and Red, Red Robin at Amazon.com.

I'll post a reminder and links on Monday.

Happy weekend.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Grandma, What Big Eyes You Have

The large-print edition.

My favourite KoB cover to date, I think.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Postman Only Rang Once

And here's what he brought.



Monday, 7 July 2014

Take It From There

Jimmy Edwards – yes, Jimmy Edwards – sat on a chair in the corner of the room, and we all sat around him like cubs at a campfire waiting to hear a story. I remember him being smaller than I'd expected; small feet, and delicate hands. He was well-groomed and dapper, with the look of a man who'd spent part of the morning with his tailor and the rest of it in a barber's chair. His un-named companion fussed a little too much, worrying about protecting him from some non-existent draught, until Edwards told him to stop. He was a familiar figure from my childhood; the blustering, cane-swishing headmaster of television's Whack-O!, the faux-disorganised, trombone-playing comedy turn of Variety shows. But here, in the rehearsal room of Hull University's Gulbenkian Centre, he dropped the persona and talked about craft.

He spoke of his early days as a stand-up act, filling in between nude tableaux at the Windmill Theatre. Of walking offstage when a cocky co-star's practical joke made an audience feel uncertain and excluded ("You're the one who lost 'em. You get 'em back.") Of the fan who buttonholed him and demanded to know what Kenneth Williams was like ("He must have thought that we all live together in a big house.")

Why is this an hour that I remember so well? It's not as if the rest of my time in the department was incident-free or less interesting. I don't recall the exact circumstance, but I'm guessing that Edwards was in a touring company with dates at Hull's New Theatre and his visit to us was one of those ad hoc, opportunistic things arranged by a member of staff.

I suppose that, like most of us, I came to drama with some amateur acting behind me and only the vaguest sense of the history and infrastructure of the subject I'd signed up to study. In the end, those were the aspects that came to interest me most. A hidden world had been opened up for me, wider and more complicated than any I could ever have imagined. A world, created and populated entirely by social outsiders, that one might conceivably join. Let's be honest, could it get much cooler than that?

I think one of the reasons for the clarity of the memory is that Edwards' unaffected, professional chat was like a point of transition. I've been lucky enough to make a career in the business and there has to be some point where observing begins to turn into belonging, even if you're not aware of it at the time.

Of similar retrospective weight and significance – at least for me – was the visit of actor John Franklyn-Robbins for the same kind of rehearsal room session. I believe he'd been invited by AV Centre head Mike Bowen and he didn't come alone, but was accompanied by an assistant producer from the BBC whose name I'm ashamed to have forgotten, since her contribution was of no less value. They spoke with thrilling honesty of the crapness of BBC bureaucracy, and about the obstacles to creative enterprise in television drama. Then, as now, it wasn't sunny anecdotes that people wanted to hear. Professional horror stories are always the ones that entertain and instruct the most.

Franklyn-Robbins was rarely a headliner, but his career as a rock-solid character player was a formidable one (a long career that would range from Broadway and the RSC to roles in Doctor Who, The Avengers, and Star Trek: TNG). His was an unshowy professionalism that compelled respect, and his stories came from direct experience. When someone asked a final question about the future of television drama, he and his companion both indicated the whole of the room and replied in unison, "It's you."

Roll forward to 2012. I took part in a week-long TV Drama Lab in Berlin, devoted to finding new pathways to international production.On the Thursday afternoon there was a public session in which I sat on a panel with two American writer-producers and we talked about the showrunning experience on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the usual rollercoaster mix of stories of terrible odds, breathtaking setbacks, and executive shortsightedness. The crowd was receptive and the energy in the room was palpable.

In the Q&A I was surprised to hear some obvious British voices putting questions from the back. As the crowd broke up and I moved toward the next event, I took a couple of minutes to seek them out; it was a party of young British actors and they'd driven all the way to Berlin, fifteen hours in a van, just to attend the session. Their spirits were up and their enthusiasm was high. Which was just as well, as they were driving back that same evening.

And as we spoke, I found myself thinking, I know you. Because I've been you. I offered some further encouragement and we swapped cards.

Meanwhile, my Australian cousin is always asking me what Hugh Grant's doing. I've never met Hugh Grant. We're in different parts of the business. She must think that we all live together in a big house.

Thank you, Jimmy. Thank you, John.

Thank you, all.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Guest Post: Adventures at the Intersection

Author, historian, and adventurer at the intersections, Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine.

Brandy grew up in an underground house in abandoned coal mining territory near a cemetery. It does things to you (like convince you to get a PhD). It also encourages a particular brand of fictive output. HIGH STAKES, Book 1 of The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, came out in 2014 with Cooperative Trade Press.

Brandy is managing editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and Research Associate for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She is also editor of the Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose blogs. When she isn’t researching arsenic poisoning for the Museum, writing fiction, taking over the world, or herding cats, she teaches for Case Western Reserve University. Her non-fiction, DEATH’S SUMMER COAT, comes out with Elliott and Thompson in 2015.
_________________________________________________

I write fiction. Sometimes, I even get it published. My young adult series about a 16 year old boy suffering from a blood disorder (that may or may not be vampirism) released in April. Funny thing is, I am a scholar, too. I work in a museum. I publish books on the history of birth and the history of death. I teach classes. I edit a medical anthropology journal. I develop medical humanities curriculum. And I have learned to dread the cocktail party query “So what do you do?”

It seems so innocent—but answering it the right way would take, I don’t know, three years. So I end up picking one thing over another, a process just as fraught with landmines. “I’m a writer” gets you the Oh, so you don’t really work look. And because murder is wrong, I’ve switched, instead, to saying that I am some stripe of academic. That’s only slightly better. Oh, so you really work but don’t actually make money. What can you do? The alternative is to explain exactly how I ended up in this crazy self-created position—and, because Stephen is a patient guy, that’s what I am aiming for today. How did all these incongruous threads lead to fiction?

http://www.themiddleages.net/images/black_death.jpgThere is a term for people like me; we are frequently referred to as alternative academics, or “altac.” It’s much nicer that “weird” which was the appellation of my years in secondary school. You can blame the urchins for unkindness, but I did grow up in an underground house near a cemetery in abandoned coal mining land. I spent a lot of time reading about the Black Death and writing scary stories while eating lunch on someone’s tombstone. Does that sound morbid? Probably. I had a brilliant childhood, great parents, and a brother whom I adore—but we also faced poverty, lost jobs, my father’s heart failure, and my mother’s cancer. I lost aunts and uncles, I lost grandparents, I lost my cousin to a knife-fight on Christmas Eve. People got ill. People were in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the age of eleven, I had learned that nothing is permanent, and for years after I would listen when my parents were sleeping to make sure they were both still breathing. An early interest in history, fate, and the spread of disease only makes sense in a context that, for a young adult, didn’t make much sense.

My parents both recovered. They now live in Kentucky with my brother and his wife and children. My life was far from tragic; it was just starkly real. And those years spent reading bubonic plague and gothic novels did something to my brain—it convinced me to get a PhD. Crazy, I know. And because I am me, I did it a bit upside-down and backwards. I have a PhD in 18th-century British Literature… but I wrote my dissertation about women’s bodies, minds, and health. Literature was part of a medical and historical narrative for me, only I didn’t realize it until after getting my first academic job. Three years on the tenure track, and I felt stifled by niche. In my “spare” time (academics teaching 4/4 do not have spare time), I managed a medical anthropology journal—and I kept publishing about the history of midwifery and birthing tech. And vampires. And syphilis. As one does. And somewhere in the middle of that, I kept writing fiction. I worked on a story that incorporated my strange childhood home (unpublished), and I began writing about a teenage boy struggling to make sense of a mystery illness—which has evolved into The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles.

http://osteoarch.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/death-the-final-boundary-of-things.jpgHow do we make sense of illness? Or death? Or sudden disability? I reflected once again on the power of ritual and hope in the face of these things, but also about the power of humor. Graveyard humor—as my family knows no other kind. Can you laugh in the face of death? I think so. I crafted the series to be light-hearted and adventurous, silly and funny even when dealing with serious issues. Teens have enough angst; I had a childhood full of it, and some pretty serious anxieties, too. But you can’t live that way. We have to take risks and be bold, be different, be willing to step out. And—for better or worse—I took my own advice. I left the tenure track job (on purpose) to pursue something else in a new field. I now work as a research associate and guest curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center. I do public engagement, lectures, exhibit work, etc. But half of my time is now dedicated to freelance writing, too; at present I’m writing a non-fiction work on (big surprise) the history of death ritual. I am finishing up the third book for the Jacob Maresbeth series, too, book three of my fantasy series, and the first book in a set of “cozy” mysteries. Does the history of birth, the history of death, or the history of medicine have anything to do with these fictions? They do. I am a medical humanities scholar—and the point at which all things connect and collide is that same unruly, indecipherable, unconquerable self: the human being.

You can see, I think, why this doesn’t work as a cocktail party answer. But then again, maybe it does. The next time someone asks me—or any of us—what we do, perhaps we should answer with who we are. I am a writer. I am an adventurer at the intersection. I am only me—

And that’s usually enough to be going on with!

HIGH STAKES

“I’m not a vampire,” insists Jacob Maresbeth, teenage journalist for the school paper. But what is a vampire, really? What happens if you have all the right symptoms, but are a living, breathing sixteen-year-old boy?

Diagnosed with a rare disease, Jake can’t help but wonder. After eight years in and out of the Newport News hospital, he’s had it up to here with doctors, diseases and dishonesty. After all, Jake’s father, respected neurologist Franklyn Maresbeth, has been hiding some of his more unusual symptoms for years… particularly that part about drinking blood.

In High Stakes, Jake records his summer vacation in the home of his maiden aunt, the bangled and be-spectacled Professor Sylvia. If that isn’t bad enough (and it is), Jake and his theatre-loving sister Lizzy must keep the “unofficial” details of Jake’s disorder a secret from Aunt Sylvia’s seductively beautiful graduate student, Zsofia. Will Jake survive a whole month pretending to be an invalid? Will Zsofia weaken his resolve with her flirtatiously dangerous Hungarian accent? Will Jake lose his heart–in more ways than one?

Sunday, 22 June 2014