29 Sep 2013

Shortie subscriptions: get your weekly dose of literature!

On another note, Galley Beggar Press have announced in their newsletter that they're contemplating a Singles Club subscription, which I think is a great idea - not at least because I've been talking about something similar for months now and my secretly hot air balloon-sized ego still likes its own ideas best. However, such a subscription scheme might simply prove great for all agents involved: writers see their shorter texts, including poems, reach an audience they otherwise would probably struggle to attract outside of - let's face it - rather niche specialized magazines; readers get the opportunity to discover new voices they like without having to comb the net; and publishers are able to establish a closer relationship with their customers and at the same time can cut the distribution chain in the case of digital subscriptions - and communicate with people's email inboxes or mobile devices right away.

And, perhaps, physical book lovers like me could book a nice little extra of getting the most popular stories/poems of a year in a lovely little anthology? Just a thought.... Anyway: I'm in.

Single Review: Best Friend, by Samuel Wright

I've got another book single from the short end of the short story/novella spectrum of Galley Beggar's Singles Club on my list today (doesn't 'Singles Club' sound a bit like a dating thing? But then again, how better to meet someone than over a book or story? There might be something in this...): Best Friend peeks into the psychological cosmos of children and their acute sense for loyalty.

The story of Bobby and Jay explores the rather paradoxical tos and fros of one of the most important questions for kids - "who's your best friend?". Bobby is sure that he and Jay are best friends; after all, they explore Hackney Marshes together and dream of living in the wild in a shed made of sticks - and that's clearly something only best friends could pull off together. However, when Jay doesn't come to school for quite some time, Bobby finds himself strangely reluctant to go and see what has become of his best friend. Since it's actually a bit tricky to sum up without major spoilers what happens when Jay eventually comes back, let's just say that although they continue to hang out with each other, something's gone missing from their friendship.

What's great about this story is that we as readers are so close to Bobby's confusion as he tries to grasp what has happened and grapples with accepting his own role in the events. The limited perspective of the child makes us share Bobby's insecurity and horror, and leaves all the 'adult' work of judging his behaviour to the reader. Nice one!

Book Single information:
Best Friend, by Samuel Wright. Published by Galley Beggar Press, 2013. 7pp. GBP 1.

20 Sep 2013

The Frankfurt Bookfair and me

I've decided to go to the Frankfurt Bookfair again this year. Yes, it's madness; yes, my feet will fall off; yes, I will collect way too many catalogues that I'm never going to look at in any detail. Yes, the food will be too expensive for its crappiness and don't get me started on accomodation... But still. It's hall after hall full of books. And of book people. Seriously, how could one resist?

And then my former visits to the bookfair have always triggered some project or another. I've met the most generous people who were fabulous for contacts, others helped me with finding the right titles for a project (yeah, you keep trying to get an overview of what is currently being published in connection to one topic in fiction if there's nothing like a database with proper tags available...!). And some were just incredibly nice.

This time I want to focus on small publishers who put their energy into coming up with new ideas instead of whinging about how bloody awful the world's become since the arrival of amazon. I want to see where publishing on the fringe is going, and what this has to offer for us readers. I hope I'll be able to find them.

So, that's it then. I'll pack my bag, get myself on the bus on Oct 12 really early in the morning, make sure I've got an audiobook with me to keep me entertained on the motorway, and hello again, Frankfurt! Anybody else coming?

P.S.: By the way, I'm still looking for a sofa to rest my weary head on that night. I'm small and I don't snore. :-)

14 Sep 2013

First Single Review: My Beauty, by Rowana Macdonald

My Beauty, written by Rowana Macdonald is a short story of the very short kind, totalling three and a half pages. But then, as is the case with most decent short stories, there's no need for more. It focusses on a couple of hours in the life of Danuta, a Lithuanian beauty who works on a Danish fur farm to finance her studies. Or rather, who used to work at the farm until she became the owner's favourite and moved in with him. Danuta has learned a lot about fur during her shifts at the farm, but above all she's learned the value of flawless beauty - and she is determined to use her own marble features to make her way in the world. Danuta's biggest rival for Sven's admiration turns out to be Princess, the only mink with a name on the farm, flawless too with her white fur, and tame in Sven's hands.

Macdonald eerily connects the two beauties' fates with each other, whose existence stands and falls with Sven's mercy, thereby playing with the commercialisation of beauty and the possessiveness and cruelty of those who "appreciate" it. In instances like "His favourite mink is asleep in her cage, reclining with a seductive twist on her back. Her nipples are tender pink berries and her mouth is curled in a secretive smile as if she's having sweet dreams", the parallel exploitation of minx and mink becomes almost too obvious. However, although fur and skin are the pervading motifs, the story exudes such a coldness through the characters that any notion of emotional kitsch is kept at bay. Everybody in this story - even the animal - seems to be constantly calculating their profits, and every kind of relationship is solely based on these. Three and a half pages is all it takes Macdonald to conjure up a story that alludes to the exploitation of immigrants, prostitution, and violence and that leaves you with a feeling of chilly unease.

As to the technical side of things - I suppose this is the digital equivalent of that part of the review where you usually comment on the quality of the editing and the academic apparatus, at least in academic reviewing, so I think this is somewhat important for my purposes here - the ebook is designed probably pretty much in the same way as Galley Beggar's physical books are. Nothing wrong with that, but the format doesn't adapt too well to the screen size of my 7'' tablet: the pages are too wide and the type size appears tiny, so that a lot of time passes with enlargening, scrolling and swishing over my screen to follow the sentences. I have to add thought that I got the PDF version; perhaps the other digital formats are easier to navigate in this respect. I promise to try out alternatives.

Book Single information:
My Beauty, by Rowana Macdonald. Published by Galley Beggar Press, 2013. 4pp. GBP 1.

9 Sep 2013

New Project: Ebook Singles

Last Thursday the Guardian's Julian Gough predicted that Amazon's Kindle Singles are going to be the future. Thank dog he also included other publishers' digital copies of fiction and non-fiction texts that allow authors to get work published which doesn't fit any of the traditional formats, i.e. which is too long to count as a short story, too short to be a novel, too long as an essay and too short for a monograph. He proposes to call these texts 'bookeens', little books. I'm not sure that this term will eventually make it, but I leave that for definers of genre to ponder over.

I myself am intrigued by this new format and the texts themselves: are we really going to witness the evolution of new genres, somewhere between the short and the long form for both fiction and non-fiction? Will they be new in any structural sense? Is there really something like a text "at [its] natural length" (Gough) or do Singles simply mean that the sometimes necessary cuts and focussing got lost? To find out, I'll have to read some, I suppose. And that's what I'm planning to do: review Book Singles.

This is a bit of a new departure for me because I've always been (and am going to stay!) a proper paper book lover, who enjoys nothing more than leaving train tickets and receipts in books, placing finished volumes on my shelves, and scribbling in the margins. The Singles are digital only in their nature, so I suppose I will have to get used to that first.

I asked for indie publishers on twitter yesterday that also offer these short texts, but apart from the Galley Beggar Press with their Singles Club I didn't get any further recommendations other than Amazon (by the way, thanks, Thom!). So, I'd be really glad to get any more suggestions, preferably from smaller presses, since the whole Amazon malarkey simply bores the sh*t out of me when it comes to publishing.

Thanks in advance for all your suggestions and comments, I hope some of you would like to join me in reading and discussing!

Stuttgarter Ballett (im Park): Krabat

I accidentally deleted this post while working on the site, so this is a re-loaded version. The original one dates 14 Jul 2013.

I've been enthusing about this on twitter for so long that I thought I might as well write a proper blog entry about the ballet I saw last weekend. I'm not usually a ballet person since for some reason words tend to do more for me than sounds or pictures. But Krabat is based on a much-loved children's book by one of my childhood heroes, Otfried Preußler, who gave us so many unforgettable characters like Räuber Hotzenplotz, Die kleine Hexe, Der kleine Wassermann, and Krabat, which is closer to YA than children's literature, so I thought, why not give it a try?
Based on a Sorbian fairy tale and set in 16th-century Saxony, Krabat is an orphan who travels the area with a group of other beggar boys, when he finds himself mysteriously drawn to a mill in a valley, where he begins an apprenticeship. He soon notices that milling isn't the only craft he is going to learn at this particular mill and he joins the other journeymen and apprentices at night, practising Black Magic under the miller's guidance. The twelve turn themselves into ravens for these sessions. 
Krabat finds a friend and surrogate brother in Tonda, the senior journeyman, who shows him the ropes in the mill. On New Year's Eve of Krabat's first year as an apprentice, however, Tonda dies in an accident, but the other journeymen stay astonishingly calm about this. The same happens on New Year's Eve the following year, when another senior apprentice dies. Krabat realizes that the Master either has to sacrifice one of his apprentices at the end of the year or his pact with the devil ends and he has to die himself. The Master usually picks the best of his pupils, before they become strong enough to challenge him.
Planning revenge for his friends' deaths, Krabat wants to become the best pupil of them all. Juri, the apparent idiot cook in the mill, warns Krabat and reveals to him that he will only manage to stay alive by acting dumb like he himself does. The two of them secretly train together to challenge the Master at the end of the year, and Juri discovers that Krabat's love for a girl from the village, Kantorka (meaning "little chorister" in Sorbian), increases his resistance to magic.
Kantorka agrees to ask for Krabat's release on New Year's Eve, in the full knowledge that if she fails the Master's test they both are going to die. Before they can execute this plan, however, the Master offers Krabat the inheritance of the mill and of the pact with the devil. Yet Krabat turns down this offer, as he doesn't want to be responsible for other people's deaths in order to keep his magical powers.
When Kantorka - whose real name we never get to know - appears on the night of the challenge, the Master turns all the boys once again into ravens, blindfolds Kantorka and challenges her to identify her lover among the birds. Since the apprentices are all fearing for their own life, while Krabat is the only one fearing for the life of his love, she is able to tell him apart, the journeymen are all free to leave - albeit without their magical powers - , and the Master is left to die in his burning mill.
The fairytale elements of the story already evoke fairly strong visuals, as any 10-year old who's read the book will tell you. What turns this production into a complete success is the combination of the strong design of set and costumes by Katharina Schlipf with Demis Volpi's choreography that really manages to communicate character and emotion. 
The mill consists entirely of high walls of flour sacks and catches the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Master's realm. They seriously limit the dancers' space and particularly in the big scenes with all apprentices present there is hardly enough room for them all to move, let alone jump, which sometimes feels a shame. What fascinated me most, though, were the raven costumes. Elongating the dancers' arms to twice their normal length and fitted with five different kinds of real feathers as well as synthetic ones, the wings worked incredibly well in the choreography. 

A second lucky idea was the Master's long, black coat. (Yes, Sherlock fans will see what I mean.) Apart from being absolutely awesome, this coat was also used to signify the Master's power and position in the mill. When he offers Krabat to succeed him as miller, he hands over his coat, and Krabat literally picks up the mantle, tries it on and - in a long solo dance scene - fights the coat that attempts to take possession of him. 
It is exactly the economy behind decisions like these that makes the production so powerful. There are no special effects necessary to evoke the dark magical world of the mill; music, light, costumes, and choreography lead the audience through the story of the Sorbian orphan turned wizard.
One thing I should add is that I was able to see Krabat for free and open air - the performance was broadcast live from the Opernhaus to the park in front of it, where the audience could follow the music and action on a massive LED screen, while tending to their picknicks and sipping chilled wine. The close-ups of the dancers added considerably to the experience - one which you can never have up in the gods. So, thank you, Stuttgarter Ballett im Park - more like this, anytime!
P.S.: There's one point of critique - the depiction of the choir girls... well, that could have been less stereotypical. If the Master is eventually defeated by strong women (there's a lengthy magical battle between him and another Master, who's a proper kick-ass young woman; plus the devil is female), why stage the choir girls all the time en point and going through Ballet routines whereas the rest of the cast is allowed to have a bit of fun?
More info: