The Independent Paperback Gift Shop

The Independent Paperback Gift Shop
The writer of this blog is currently on sabbatical

Thursday, 21 March 2013

James Herbert RIP

James Herbert died yesterday, aged 69. 

The news made me stop and consider. Though I no longer read horror (What is left to say? What is left to prove?), when I was a kid, Herbert was one of the greats.

Some say he was just one part of that great era of seventies and early eighties horror. Others say he led it, being one of the most influential authors of that time, possibly ever.

When James Herbert was young, he was an advertising executive in London. One day, in a meeting, a long boring meeting, he sat there and wondered, idly, what would happen if his boss suddenly walked to the window, opened it, and jumped out. 

In that moment he became a horror writer (see footnote)  and that idea formed the basis of one of his later books – The Dark.

Herbert went home that night. He had been cogitating on a newspaper story about plague pits[1] being discovered in Central London and also, an increase in the domestic brown rat population and, inspired, he began to write. 

That story became his most famous book – the smash hit debut novel The Rats - the book which made him a household name in the UK.

The Fog followed; then one of his best works, Survivor. 

Horror was big business at that time. Guy N Smith wrote about crabs. Shaun Hutson majored on slugs. Richard Piers Rayner published Homonculus, one of the greatest weekend potboilers of all time. 

Dennis Wheatley novels flew off the shelves (The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil, A Daughter). The brilliant Ramsey Campbell (The Doll Who Ate Its Mother, surely the finest title of a horror book ever) stalked the bookshop, and Herbert Van Thal was still editing those macabre New English Library anthologies[2]

Graham Masterton (who used to edit Penthouse), wrote Manitou, and The Heirloom, one of the finest horror novels ever written. 

Of course, Stephen King was at his very peak, publishing The Shining, universally acclaimed as the best horror paperback ever written, along with Salems Lot, Pet Semetary and The Dead Zone.

Shadowland, Ghost Story and Floating Dragon introduced the world to Peter Straub. Nick Sharman wrote the now forgotten Judgement Day, and Thomas Tryon sold millions with the creepy, devastatingly climatic, Harvest Home.

It was a grand time, a brilliant time to be young and in love with horror novels.  

And James Herbert was consistently up there with the best.

Excoriated by the critics for his bloodthirsty scenes, his bad taste gore, his limited prose (James was unapologetically from the story-focused “so, there was this big rat” school of writing so beloved of most Indie writers), and in their venom, most British critics in particular, missed the black humour inherent in his work.

In Danse Macabre, King quotes the wonderful scene in The Dark on Bournemouth beach where a heartbroken lesbian walks into the sea at night with the intention of committing suicide following the breakup of her relationship. 

Then, as it is very cold and very dark, she changes her mind and decides to make a go of her life, only to discover the entire population of Bournemouth walking into the sea, toward her, possessed, mindless; the sheer weight of numbers drag her to an ironic, watery death.  

His books are full of that, as well as any number of eviscerations, decapitations, disembowellings, and enough cannibalism and bloody deaths to keep any young gorehound happy for a month. 

His books were cheap, cheerful, fun and – again, as King describes - firmly in the Pulp tradition of the fifties magazines, a son of Robert E Howard, writer of Conan The Barbarian

My two favourite Herbert books are favoured for two different reasons. 

Survivor is the only book where I have been scared to turn the page.  

I was thirteen, in a caravan on a cliff just outside Padstow in Cornwall, at night, with the wind howling, the van swaying and full moon. I could hear the sea outside crash against cliffs. 

And I was reading Survivor by torchlight – the scene where the hero returns to the crashed plane to search for something. To use a gaudy phrase, I shat myself, and in the unlikely event of James Herbert reading this in heaven, I can see him smiling - for that is the goal, isn’t it, of a horror author. 

To make your readers shit themselves with fright.

Secondly, The Spear. That book has everything. 

In the seventies, books about the German experience in the war – think Sven Hassel, Leo Kassler – were extremely popular and by the early eighties, there were many books about the occult aspects of the Third Reich, particularly the SS. 

Not too proud to jump on a bandwagon, Herbert penned a tale about the hunt for the Spear of Destiny (which was borrowed by the producers of the Keanu Reaves Constantine vehicle), which never fails to engage the reader. 

It rock and rolls. It has everything. Women in leather (think Castle Wolfenstein), big castles, big trucks, evil Nazis, Satanic rituals, gun battles, horror demons from Hell and the ever present stink of the most evil man who ever lived, Adolf Hitler himself. 

And against them, on single Englishman, the brave (but unreliable) protagonist to whom the world will owe a debt if he manages to stop the resurrection of a certain bespectacled chicken farmer from Munich

Not particularly scary, it’s still riveting and as thrillers go, it’s his best. I still have it on my shelf and I cannot say that for many horror novels from that era.

Like King, as the world changed, Herbert went into lighter stuff, fantasy-focused and female-friendly novels such as The Ghosts of Sleith and The Magic Cottage and that’s fair play: As I said at the beginning of the retrospective, what was there left to say about horror? When you've sliced off a head a hundred times, does the law of diminishing returns apply for the hundred and first decapitation? 

Herbert (and King, and the rest) seemed to think so.

Despite that, I consider myself lucky to be there for his peak and that peak was high indeed.

Thank you for those great teenage memories, Mr James Herbert. RIP.

[1] I found it ironic that he died the same week as the  most recent discovery of a plague pit in London
[2] One I still remember now – it haunts me – about a centenarian woman blackmailing her lodger into one last night of sex
[3] Stephen King writes a wonderful synopsis of Herbert’s early career in Danse Macabre.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Briton and the Dane: Concordia by Mary Ann Bernal

The Sunday Review

Three years ago, Indie stalwart Mary Ann Bernal, an ex-Pat New Yorker living in Nebraska, sat down in her garret and began to write The Briton and the Dane. 

This is a trilogy of historical fiction books focusing on the reign of King Alfred the Great in Ninth Century England, known as the "Dark Ages". Not because it was darker then than now, but because it is an era about which we know so little. 

What little we do know, Mary Ann corraled, span, tinkered, added a cornucopia of characters and turned it all into a well respected historical yarn.

The fourth book, The Briton and the Dane: Concordia, was released at the turn of the year. 

This, by common consent is considered to be the apogee of her progression from humble first timer, chiselling, digging and sculpting each word as if it would be her last, to smooth and accomplished historical fictionist.

Whereas the first of her books could be rusty and clunky, the second less so, and the third, even less, Concordia is noticeable for how smooth it is.  That's the first thing you notice. It is seamless and honed, like stainless steel worked on a lathe. A writer can do nothing but progress and Mary Ann sails ahead at a rate of knots.

In olden times, they used to call stories like this a romp. It is a ripping yarn which covers some serious ground in its sixty thousand words. 

England, the High Seas, Muslim Hispania, the action never seems to end.

At the centre is Concordia; the type of young girl who could cause a fight in an empty room. 

Beautiful and intelligent, men are generally smitten by her within seconds. Naturally, she knows this, is fully aware of her power over the men around her and is determined not to sell her future cheaply. She has plans. 

While betrothed to her guardian and protector, the much older knight, Brantson, a brave and lauded warrior, she has wanderlust in her heart and her eyes firmly fixed on someone far more dangerous, Thayer, the sultry and exotic ambassador of Muslim Hispania sent to Court on peaceful terms. 

Naturally, were this union to be consummated, a bloody war would soon follow - something the wily Thayer attests when Concordia virtually throws herself at him one night after a court and social. 

Brantson, every inch the noble Knight, the hardy soul, the chaste and wondrous fool, knows this, can see it in her eyes, and after Thayer rejects his foolish young suitor, steps in and offers Concordia marriage and respectability. 

Concordia accepts for very clever reasons*. 

Manipulative as ever, she extracts bargain after bargain from Brantson (a couple of which I found hard to believe) and the two are married  and subsequently set off on a symbolic honeymoon; a pilgrimage to Rome.

Then, the romp begins. Their ship is attacked by Saracen pirates. Everyone bar Concordia butchered, or presumed dead. Our heroine is captured and taken by Chad, the handsome, dashing Saracen pirate captain, to Muslim Hispania as tribute. 

There, she is once again reunited with Thayer...this time facing a very different fate

It is comfortably the author's best book so far. Concordia is shorter, sharper and better written than the other three and is an ideal entry point for readers. Without the academic speculations and expositions which slowed down the first three books, readers can enter Mary Ann's dark age world of avaricious Kings, scheming Queens, lusty Vikings, impish Britons, shadow-cowled monks, cunning Saracens, marbled Courts, byzantine intrigue, unbridled passion and - always - death by blood-dipped sword.

The characters are lovingly drawn, the plot rattles along like a runaway train, with little time to think, there is very little exposition in the text (despite this being the book which turns a trilogy into a quartet) and there is a complete absence of waste in the text. Mary Ann takes a very skeletal approach to her writing, almost YA, a Weightwatchers regime creating something as slim as the abs on a celebrity. 

There is dramatic tension on every page too and some strong dialogue, cleverly updated to a modern idiom - Mary Ann clearly learning from the critical lessons of her first book.

What I enjoyed was the way that Concordia's antics can be seen in 2013 in a suburban Mall near you. 

There is a modernity in her thinking, which draws close to the quayside of allegory; the dilemmas facing Concordia, Brantson and the Court of Kings are identical to the issues faced by modern families and new millennial couples. 

The author delves into Concordia's psychology and finds a teenage girl unwilling to be tied down despite culture and protocol; a Thoroughly Modern Milly, a girl blindsided by an older man, seduced by someone exotic, to whom her rather staid and normal boyfriend can be nothing but unfavourably compared. 

Court life in England and Spain are well described, the environment is sometimes lovingly drawn and the mores of the times are accurately recounted. At times, you can almost taste the fruit from the orange groves of Corunna. 

There is intrigue at every turn and you really root for Concordia when she finds herself trapped between the vicious egos of two Saracen brothers vying for her virginal affections.

Surprises galore explode across the page toward the end of the book and there is an unexpected ending which has caused some controversy. Me? I quite liked it, but it took me a couple of weeks to get over (it is very powerful and strongly written), and I half wonder whether Mary Ann , had she read the critical reaction, might have had a rethink. 

Still, a controversial ending is better than an ending which resembles a saucer of warm milk.

Oye! Oye! Oh hear this! This book is fiction at its most robust and thrilling. As I said at the beginning, I would rather read a manual on fixing toasters than historical fiction and I read this out of courtesy with a half smile on my face.

I didn't put it down. Couldn't put it down. 

This is a page turner. 

I'd buy this book if I were you and I cannot wait to have the paperback on my shelf.

Mark Barry

* You can hear Mary Ann read the chapter containing Brantson's proposal of marriage by clicking this link to Phil Naessen's Writers Showcase radio show.


US Readers can buy The Briton and the Dane: Concordia HERE!!

UK Readers can buy The Briton and the Dane: Concordia HERE

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Obscura Burning by Suzanne Van Rooyen

The Sunday Review

Science fiction has never been my thing and I'm far too long in the tooth to be reading Young Adult novels, but there is something about Suzanne Van Rooyen.

The review system at Amazon is so flawed that if you're searching for good writing, to find some, you have to be lucky and by interviewing Suzanne back in June last year on The Wizard's Cauldron, I felt as if I had landed the forecast in the Derby.

An MA in Music, a member of YAtopia, a thinker, an innovator and a prodigious, two books-a-week reader, Suzanne knows a thing or too about literature.

She's also the type of writer who thinks about her work - sometimes overthinks - I've known her erase three weeks worth of writing as if it never existed at all because of a plot flaw.

A pedigree like this creates quality books. 
A book like Obscura Burning.

Now, I'm no expert on YA, as I have said - and this is very, very YA. 

All the main characters are teenage. All the adults are enemies to avoid or shun. There is a focus on looks. Emotions swing like a pendulum under conditions of uncertainty. Testosterone and Oestrogen weep from every pore. There is violence, bitchiness, nastiness and confused sexuality on every page. There is no contemplative silence. It's a narcissistic, self-absorbed world where nothing exists outside the chrysalis of youth. There is a core of amorality which runs through the book like a seam of coal and I remember that vividly from my teenage years - nothing is ever quite what it seems and even that seldom lasts for more than a month.

The plot is this: Obscura, a huge planet, appears on Earth's horizon one hot day in June. Kyle, a sexually confused New Mexico boy, scarred and burned in a fiery accident, struggles to come to terms with his new identity and his turbulent life. He is in love with his friend, wheelchair - bound Danny and also Shira, boyish, sculpted Best Friend Forever.  It's a cavernous, shifting love triangle. Complex enough you may think.  Now, add a parallel universe which occurs when Kyle sleeps, where everything is subtly different, where the reality is skewed and Kyle is nowhere near in control.  The shifting reality may - or may not - be due to the appearance of the strange planet and together with an alluring Latino babe and a mad professor, they go in search of the truth as the world waits in the shadow of Obscura, the harbinger of the coming apocalypse.

There is a lady on Twitter who will supply an in-depth critique of a writer's first ten pages for the princely sum of $35.  She should pay Suzanne: This first chapter is so elegantly written that subsequent events in the book tremble in its wake. 

It is Suzanne's best work (that I have read). The prose is flawless and absorbing, edifying and manna for the eyes.  The description of Kyle's situation and his environment is a sumptuous feast. I have read that magnificently crafted first chapter countless times. It is art and music, words structured in perfect harmony. Ornate. Cistine.

Feast on these two paragraphs:

"Dream catchers dangle feathers from her ceiling, the only evidence of her Native American heritage. “Dream catchers aren’t even Navajo,” she told me once. “They’re Sioux, but the tourists love them.” Dead roses and glittery strings of beads cling to the frame of her mirror, and stuck to a corner is the photograph of three smiling faces. The three of us at prom: Danny in his silver suit, me in blue, and Shira in black. Danny asked me to dance that night and I said no. Guess we’ll never have that dance, not in this reality or any other. 
Outside, the evening brings some respite from the heat of the day. Even Shira’s cacti are struggling in the drought. Some slouch like old men with hollow bellies while others have lost their limbs to thirst, their broken arms lying withered and forlorn in the dust. It’s June. There should be roiling thunderstorms every day, but instead there’s just dust and sizzling heat."

Spend time in proximity to Suzanne's writing and you'll bump into clean, luxurious and polished paragraphs like this at every turn.  With the prevailing fashion in YA for dialogue, minimalism and white space, there isn't as many as there could be: I wish there were more of them. She writes descriptive prose like a dream, naturally, with charisma, with ease, and with a remarkable lack of self consciousness. 

Chapter One may just be the best introductory paragraph I've read in ages, as rich a pure reading experience as I can remember, but  that is not to say the rest of the book is a let down. It's a question of benchmarks and relativity: It isn't. It's an excellent work of fiction, an absorbing and intricate hybrid of sci-fi and character study  which will stay with you. It's a very relationship based portrait of four young people and the flawed adults who surround them. 

Expect hard sci-fi and you'll be disappointed. However, we're definitely in another world here - a New Mexico firmly entrenched in another reality (Counter-Earth, Earth Two, Infinite Earths, Parallel Earth) - a different kind of place where the sand is more jagged, grittier and a degree further away from its normal position in the colour spectrum

Almost everything works. 

The love triangle is well drawn and absorbing. The supporting characters - the gorgeous Latino Mya in particular - are three dimensional, engaging and rounded. New Mexico is described, at times, as plush as as Cormac Mcarthy describes the badlands of Texas. Kyle's bisexuality is skilfully handled and unobtrusive. The science - for example, syzygy, the alignment of celestial bodies and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - is accessible to the lay reader when it occurs.  Native American culture is alluded to with due reverence and as the story progresses, the plot gathers pace, particularly from the point where Kyle tells his harrowing story to Professor Cruz. 

Best of all, the creeping shadow of Obscura, the heavenly invader, the amethyst sphere which blots out the sky, humanity's uninvited interloper laminates each sentence with a sense of foreboding. 

Its an innovative book, carefully constructed, neatly plotted, and, toward the middle and end, well paced (a trifle slow to build). 

As with any multiple reality story, you can get lost and the realities shift in frenetic, fragmented fashion. The time you spend back tracking is worth it and reveals more than you expect.

As a story of shifting identities of youth, and the shifting loyalties and friendships, Suzanne is careful to make sure the story construction itself mirrors the turbulence. That's how much she thinks about her writing. 

Most of all, though, the book is a thing of beauty, an ornate piece of writing, something I would imagine is a masterclass in the YA genre.

Buy this book. You won't regret it.

See Also:

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Imbrued by Emma Edwards

Two weeks ago, I reviewed "Sanguinary" by Emma Edwards. You can find the review here on my headquarters author interview blog.

I don't give star ratings in my book reviews.

Star ratings are entirely typical of the modern education culture of targets, evidential assessment, big folders full of meaningless reflection and an obsession with statistical quantification.

None of it matters to me.

For a writer, there is just one dimension worth caring about: did you, dear reader, finish my book? 

If you finish one of my books, I love you, even if you detested every sentence.

If you think about it, what does a 5* rating mean, exactly? It's the qualitative assessment that's important. Never mind the quantity - feel the joy!

Why not a 6* rating?  Why don't reviews go up to 7*? Heller's 22*?  Douglas Adams' 42*? King's 247*? Just make a number up and go for it...

Spinal Tap
The amps that go up to 11

I loved reading Sanguinary. 

And I have to say I loved reading the sequel, Imbrued.

Slain by wooden stake, one of the Erebis band is found speared outside a nightclub. Angel, the unhinged, alcoholic, feisty, sex-crazed, Ash-besotted heroine of the first book, now off the booze and on the case, realises that there is a slayer on the loose, a zealous Van Helsing, whose psychotic, obsessed mission is to torture and destroy blood drinkers whereever they are. 

Cue Cat's house; For so long a sanctuary, the haven becomes a prison. Lead singer Ash - vain, pathologically angry, jealous, self-obsessed, boorish, stalks the corridors, raising the temperature inside the house to boiling point. 

The questions hover like last night's cigarette smoke. 

Who is the slayer? Who is next on his infernal list? And how come he always seems to be one step ahead? Can Angel solve the clues? Can she find the slayer before its too late? And can she stop the blood drinkers from turning on themselves?


All the characters are there from the first book. Angel, a twenty-something cocktail of narcissism, aggression, wit, balls-pounding rebellion and anything goes sexual liberation, makes me glad I'm not twenty five again, yet there;s something softer about her this time. After her struggles with drink in the first book, she manages to stay away from the demon whisky and she's a more rounded character for it, acting as conscience, guide and mother hen for the confused, sometimes vulnerable vampires she finds herself living with.

Except Ash of course, the muscular, lithe, sex-God cock-substitute lead singer of Erebis with whom Angel has a love-obsession-hate relationship. 

No one guides Ash. 

Ash is his own man and won't listen to anyone and in many ways, his narcissism is much worse than the first book. 

Women love Ash, apparently, yet I have to confess I'd quite happily go toe to toe with him on the steps of the Domain. 

Both Ash lovers and detesters will enjoy his antics in Imbrued. He's well over the top.

The gang's all here. Jay moons over Angel; a Caliban, upstaged and sexually usurped by the arrogant Ash every minute of his life. Cat hates Angel with a passion - nothing new there! Mike broods, either because brooding is what he does, or he has nothing to say, and the gorgeous, vulnerable Celeste glows with quiet dignity, absorbing the problems of the world, the moonchild rising. 

You really do become involved with Emma;'s characters because they are so richly drawn. If you're expecting non-stop action, you will be disappointed. This is a baroque piece, an old fashioned relationship tome, where the characters are paramount and it seems that action occurs in real time. 

This is quite a trick to pull off - Peter Carey, the Australian genius behind Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda expends entire novels purely on character - and you suspect this is Emma's interest. 

They grow, develop lives of their own at their own pace and their personalities are sumptuously drawn and written.  This is everyday British life. You sometimes have to pinch yourself, reminding yourself that Emma is writing about possibly insane people, who live in the dark, and who need to drink blood to survive.

There isn't as much sex in Imbrued, though it happens off-camera - notorious rabbit impersonators Angel and Ash being in dire need of a dose of bromide and a healing tube of petroleum jelly, natch -  Emma deciding to go inside heads rather than panties in the sequel, which adds to the complexity of the piece.

But the highlight of the book, for me, is the Slayer. 

He is worth the eight quid or so it will cost you to buy this book all alone. From his first appearance, he steals the show. 

Emma has managed to pull another bunny out of a hat in a vampire-obsessed marketplace - a completely original villain! I rolled with laughter when I discovered who he was: Emma had definitely tickled me under the chin here. 

Picture the magnificent Peter Cushing in Hammer's Dracula
Picture the vampire slaying bishop warming his rump against the fire in Prince of Darkness. 
Picture Hugh Jackman in silly CGI overkill flick Van Helsing. 

You're not even close.

Not everyone will like the book. It is very character based. Fans of bangs-per-buck might be frustrated as the plot is a definite second best to the observations of normality, and the deep character sketches Emma does so well.  

Yet its funnier in parts too, at times laugh out loud funny. It's noticeable that Emma (wisely) decides to focus on the blood drinkers instead of the annoying norm bit parts (Angel's irritating sister, Coral, for example, who wants the door shutting in her face permanently), while introducing some excellent new characters who add to the context. 

There is a brilliantly observed subplot involving Angel and her best friend Minnie which shows that Emma really does know what she is talking about, has clearly been there, and can write about it acerbically and with poignant pause. I winced. Twice.

I'm a big fan of Emma as a writer. Beware though - this is an old fashioned book and I can see all the ivory-tower based MA fiction theorists tutting in parts at the density of the writing. However, for me, that's a strength: somehow, Emma has managed to merge an urban tale of real people in Cardiff with the vampire genre and miraculously ensured that the reader suspends quite natural disbelief. 

That's no mean feat. 

There's a third part on the way and I am queuing overnight for the launch ticket. Buy this book. It's worth every penny.

Contact (including Amazon Links, reviews etc)

Emma discusses Imbrued

Top reviewer for the Cross Plains Examiner, K-Trina Meador, reviews Imbrued


Monday, 22 October 2012

Download PDF Here

Download the PDF of the Independent Paperback Gift Shop Catalogue here:

Let me know if there are any problems.

If you want to attach the PDF to YOUR blog, website etc, then download the catalogue and follow these clever fellows from youtube and this amazing new website.

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Circulate the PDF as far and wide as possible. Let's get readers on board!! :-)

Love, Wizxx


Some of you have had problems accessing the catalogue on your telephones. Sorry. However, my friend Emma Edwards has worked out that you can go direct to SCRIBD and view the catalogue on the telephone! Here's the link!