Secrets and gangs

20 Years Later
by E J Newman

The synopsis of this book greatly appealed to me – a story for young adults about people trying to survive in London 20 years after a mysterious event has destroyed humanity as we know it – so I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy. I may also have been attracted by the fact that one of the rival gangs in the story is called the Gardners. Sadly they turned out to be nasty nasty people. Darn.

Newman does a good job of eking out the details, both of what happened in the past and of what is happening now. The central characters are all 15 years old (or thereabouts, they don’t really know; they don’t bother with such things in this version of the year 2032) and therefore never knew the world before “It” happened, though there are older people around who occasionally drop a fact or two.

The story starts with Zane, a boy living with his mother Miri in an uneasy truce with two of the neighbouring gangs – the Bloomsbury Boys and the Red Lady’s Gang. They are unusual for not being part of a gang themselves and are often caught in the middle of vicious animosities. Zane’s longing to belong makes gang membership seem attractive but he is aware that he is not like other boys – he has an instinctual hatred for violence.

When Titus and his sister Lyssa stray unknowingly into Bloomsbury Boys territory a chain of events begins that leads Zane to the truth behind everything – including the fact that he is different from other people in more than just his attitude to violence.

I am reluctant to reveal much more than that, though the publisher’s blurb on the back cover gives away almost everything. I hate that. But it didn’t stop me enjoying the story. Actually, I raced through it, eager to know what happened next. A lot is packed into just over 300 pages and there are sequels in the works, so there were questions left unanswered and story threads left hanging.

One thing that stood out was that these 15 year olds are very different from the teenagers I have ever known, but this is a clear authorial decision. These characters are fighting for their lives, literally. They have no formal education, no early years of being carefree children; their intellect is dedicated to self-preservation, mastering weapons and early-warning systems. Most of the boys have never met a girl (aside from Miri) and so have never faced that side of being a teenager. Which makes them oddly childish; in fact one adult character in the book remarks on how young Zane is, compared with when he was a teenager, back before It happened. It makes the characters an odd combination of capable and self-reliant beyond almost anyone I know, and shockingly but sweetly naïve.

If you’re thinking that the author’s name seems familiar, why yes this is the same “E Newman” of the Split Worlds project. You see, a couple of months ago, I saw a Tweet from a local author about something called BristolCon, which sounded fun (and indeed was) and also that she would have copies of her new book there for reviewers. So I went along and I picked up a copy and then it was NaNoWriMo so I didn’t do a whole lot of reading for a month but I did interact with @EmApocalyptic and read a bunch of her short stories (and indeed featured one on this website). I am glad that I finally had time for her novel and look forward to the sequels.

Published 2011 by Dystopia Press.

The price of art

The Split Worlds
Today we have something a little bit different. I am handing you over to talented local author Emma Newman, who will explain all.

This is the fourth in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in the Split Worlds. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.

The price of art

 

“Not one?”

 

“No.”

 

Clive sat heavily on the crate, feeling the cold air of his workshop for the first time that morning.

 

“I did warn you,” the sneer leaked into her voice. “There’s just no demand for big installations by unknown artists. It’s the recession.”

 

“Yeah,” Clive croaked. “The recession.”

 

“So you’ll have them picked up by the end of today?”

 

“Yeah,” Clive tried to sound convincing. He didn’t have the money to hire the specialist removal firm to get the pieces back to the workshop. He’d banked on at least one being sold to cover some of his costs. “See you later.”

 

He chucked the mobile onto the table, its landing cushioned by piles of unpaid bills. He’d pulled in every favour to make the exhibition happen, put every last pound into getting people through the door and it had come to less than nothing.

 

He tried to remind himself that he still had his health, and that he hadn’t been caught for stealing the lead off the local park’s bandstand roof when he couldn’t afford to buy new materials. A lack of illness and a non-existent criminal record were poor comfort faced with losing his workshop and tools. Was it time to get a boring job in a boring office with boring people?

 

A loud knock echoed through the workshop. He froze, wondering if it was the first bailiff. At the second knock, he stood slowly, keeping silent.

 

“Mr Pascoe?” It was a man. “Are you in there? I need to discuss your work.”

 

A ruse to make him come to the door?

 

“I saw the exhibition, I want to buy your installations.”

 

Clive tripped over a pizza box as he hurried to unlock the door. “Sorry,” he said, tucking his shirt in. “I was out the back. Come in, come in.”

 

The man was in his fifties, wearing a pinstripe suit and the air of authority. His eyes were the same colour of the copper sulphate crystals Clive had used in his first installation, his hair a greying blonde.

 

“Mr Pascoe?” At Clive’s nod he extended a hand. “I’m Mr Neugent.”

 

“Would you like a drink?”

 

The brilliant blue eyes scanned the lone crate, the instant coffee jar and pile of cups in the grimy sink. “No thank you, I don’t have a great deal of time. You’re a very talented artist Mr Pascoe.”

 

“Call me Clive, please. You went to the exhibition?”

 

“Yes. Twice. I wanted to be sure.”

 

“The gallery owner said there wasn’t any interest.”

 

Neugent smiled. “I have no interest in dealing with middle men. I know that gallery takes a steep commission. I would rather all of the money go to you. Do you have a problem with that?”

 

“Not at all,” Clive grinned. The snooty cow had only agreed to exhibit with a hefty commission rate after a lot of hassle. “Which one are you interested in?”

 

“All of them,” Neugent replied. “Here’s a cheque, I can have them picked up from the gallery, discreetly, if that’s convenient?”

 

Clive nodded, feeling the flush burning in his cheeks.

 

“I also have a proposition,” Neugent opened the briefcase. “I work for a company with offices and public buildings all over the world. Your work is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I want to commission you for ten more pieces, with a view to a long term contract should my employer like your work as much as I do. I took the liberty of preparing a contract.”

 

Clive took the stapled pages with a shaking hand. “Can I read this over?”

 

“Of course, take your time. Perhaps you’d prefer to have your solicitor look over it.”

 

“Thanks,” Clive reined in the urge to dance a jig.

 

“It’s a standard contract and we’ll provide access to any raw materials you require. One of our subsidiary companies deals in metal, we can get you whatever you need at a fraction of the cost you’ve been used to.”

 

“Great,” Clive tried not to grin too much.

 

“Here’s my card,” Neugent handed it over. “I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

 

Clive waited a few moments after he left, then whooped so loud it echoed around the workshop. When there was another knock on the door he thought it was Neugent again and opened it straight away. A woman smiled, dressed in an emerald green coat and looking like she’d stepped off a film set.

 

“Mr Pascoe?”

 

He took in the same green of her eyes, the rich brown of her hair and the perfection of her skin. She was almost too beautiful.

 

“My name is Amelia Rose. I wanted to talk to you about your art, may I come in?” He nodded dumbly again.

 

“Did you go to the exhibition?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Did you like my work?”

 

“Can I be frank?”

 

“Of course,” he said, with the cockiness of a man who’d already sold it.

 

“You’re extraordinarily gifted,” she began, glancing around the workshop as she pulled off her gloves. “But you’re working with the wrong materials. Metal just isn’t right for you.”

 

His cheek twitched. “Someone’s just bought all of those pieces, and commissioned me for more.”

 

She glanced at the card and contract still held in his hands. “Oh, Mr Neugent has been here already I see. Promised you a long term contract and lucrative deal I suppose?” At his nod she smiled sadly. “He always makes an offer one can’t refuse. I hoped I’d be able to speak to you before he got his claws in, but I suppose it’s too late.”

 

She headed back towards the door, he stopped her. “What do you mean?”

 

“He’s only interested in money, not art. He has a gift for finding hungry artists and sucking them dry. By all means, take the money Mr Pascoe. In a few years you may be comfortably well off but you’ll be burned out and unable to create anything original ever again.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I’ve seen it happen before,” she said sadly. “But I know you need the money. Good luck.”

 

“Wait,” he stopped her with a gentle touch on her shoulder. “Which materials do you think I should work with?”

 

She looked up at him, straight into his eyes. “Wood, Mr Pascoe. Oak, willow, ash, your hands would craft them into something magnificent.”

 

“I don’t know anything about working with wood.”

 

“I had a teacher lined up for you, and a patronage agreement all worked out,” Amelia sighed, stroking the palm of her hand with the gloves. “But I should imagine that cheque is worth more to you. Unless…” she reached towards his face, touching his cheek lightly. Anyone else and he would have flinched away, but he found himself just staring back at her. “Unless, I can convince you to value your art more.”

 

“But I have debts.”

 

“I’ll pay them off. I’ll give you somewhere better to live and a comfortable salary. Nothing as ostentatious as Neugent offers, but I will ensure you reach your full artistic potential. Which is more important to you Mr Pascoe? Wealth, or art?”

 

He felt calm, blissful. He didn’t take his eyes off her as he tore the cheque and the contract in two.

 

“I’m so glad you made the right decision,” Amelia purred. “I promise you won’t regret it.”

 

 

 

Thanks for hosting Kate! I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x

 

The Split Worlds

Today marks the start of a new project from local author Emma NewmanSplit Worlds. For a year and a day, Em will be posting stories, games and puzzles in the urban fantasy setting of the Split Worlds.

I discovered Em on Twitter and managed to meet her in the real life last month at BristolCon, where we attended a reading of one of her short stories, from her collection From Dark Places. I’ve read two stories from the Split Worlds so far and really like the slightly sinister atmosphere.

Just sign up to receive the first short story and notifications of new content. Go, enjoy!

Where dark and light meet

The Ivory and the Horn
by Charles de Lint

I first discovered de Lint years ago and quickly fell in love with his world where fantasy and real-life middle America meet in stories that are both scarily dark and almost frothily light. It’s an amazing creation that this collection of short stories opens up beautifully.

Short stories are a perfect fit for de Lint. All his tales are set in the “realistic” city of Newford and the magical realm that many of its inhabitants travel to – some at will, others involuntarily or only in their sleep. The short story format allows all these different experiences to be depicted without laborious explanation.

The characters are mostly people who are struggling with life in some way and need an escape, or did when they were children. Many are or have been homeless. There are also a lot of artists and writers, presumably because their creativity and social circles tend to make them open-minded and curious about the world.

Not everyone in these stories goes to the magical world. Some have strange experiences that as a reader you put down to magic. Others are fully immersed, even to the point of drifting through the “real” world while living in the magical one. This is roughly the progression of the book. We see more and more of the magical world in later stories. In early ones, it’s more hints and whispers.

The stories are narrated in the first person, or alternate between first and third person, and de Lint’s writing allows you to quickly get to know each character, so that when they pop up later in someone else’s story it feels familiar and friendly.

The dark element comes from the reasons people have for escaping to another place, or wanting magic on their side. From chronic shyness to psychiatric problems to child abuse and the many reasons why a person might be homeless, the possibilities of magic are anchored heavily down to earth. There’s a strong sense of living inbetween, of the magic being a metaphor for other coping mechanisms.

The stories stand alone if you want to read them that way, which is good as most of them had been previously published in magazines or anthologies. Each has a strong storyline, a journey for its main character, a start, middle and end. They gain further dimensions by being in a collection but they don’t depend on it.

I do love being able to revisit characters from books I read years ago. One of the main linking characters is Jilly Peppercorn, an artist and star of my favourite de Lint novel, The Onion Girl. I didn’t realise when reading that book that she had featured in several previous Newford books. In fact, de Lint said in an interview that she is the “warm beating heart of the city” (can’t find the link right now).

One criticism I have of this book is that it’s occasionally trite. For all of the dark pasts and presents, most characters end their story in a better place and they almost always learn a life lesson. I suppose when dealing with depressing subjects it helps to have a lighter side.

In a similar vein, all of the narrators are such…good people. I know a lot of people struggle to read about a main character who’s bad or unpredictable, and it’s a nice idea that most people are good at heart, but I think there’s room in de Lint’s universe for a few more, if not evil, at least selfish or mischievous characters.

But they’re minor quibbles. I loved these stories. I think my favourites were “Bird bones and wood ash”, about a woman who is imbued with supernatural abilities by animal spirits and uses them to fight evil, literally donning a black bodysuit, gloves and hood, but it drains her and joining forces with a social worker almost ruins everything; and “Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery”, about a dreaming place invented by a child that is falling to rack and ruin because she never visits anymore.

I have been reminded how much I enjoy this blend of myth and reality – de Lint calls on all sorts of mythologies, from Native American to the Brothers Grimm to Shakespeare – and I will definitely have to look out for the Newford titles that are missing from my collection.

Published 2005 by Tom Doherty Associates