Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Norriss’

Adventures in Bookland: Mike by Andrew Norriss

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

Long-time readers will know that I am a bit of a fan of Andrew Norriss: you can read my reviews of his previous books here. So I was delighted to receive his new book – or I would have been, if my wife hadn’t grabbed it off me and declared her intention to read it first. Luckily, one feature of his writing is its narrative zip: you pick up the story, intending to read the first chapter, and two hours later you realise you’re past half way and you really rather wouldn’t stop now so, sometime around 3am, you finish the book and promise yourself that you really won’t do that the next time. Only you do. My wife did it first, which at least meant that I didn’t have to wait too long to get my hands on Mike, and then, despite my every resolution, I did it too. So, it’s your fault, Andrew, that I had a sleep-sore head for the next two days!

Andrew Norriss is unusual, possibly unique, among writers in writing dramas of the good. In his books, there are almost always no bad people, just decent folk trying to do what is right. So where’s the story in that? Stories require conflict, right? Well, yes, but conflict can come from conflicting ideas, between good and honourable people, of what actually is the right course, and this is the dramatic seam that Norriss has been mining in his recent books. In Mike, a deceptively simple book, he goes even further in his exploration as to what constitutes the good. The story is straightforward. Floyd, a teenage tennis prodigy, realises that he simply doesn’t want to play tennis any longer. His parents, tennis professionals, want him to succeed at the sport to which he’s devoted most of his young life – but they are not the coaching monsters of news headlines, but decent parents wanting to do what’s best for their son. Floyd, for his part, is desperate not to let down his parents. That is the seed of the story, but from that sprouts surprisingly deep roots, for in his desperation to find a solution to his situation, Floyd meets a friend, Mike. But no one else can see Mike. And Mike isn’t going to let Floyd play tennis any longer, taking increasingly direct action to stop Floyd when he gets on the tennis court. To try to get to the bottom of this, Floyd sees a psychologist (the one character in the book I didn’t like, since he bore far too close a resemblance to the most irritating character in history, Counsellor Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, to whose face of simpering empathy the natural human response is a swift slap).

At this point, I must admit, I was getting a little worried. Mike was beginning to seem like a personification of the sort of ‘be-kind-to-yourself’ self sentimentalisation that bedevils us today: a reification of the self and its desires into a good in and of itself. That advertising slogan, ‘Because you’re worth it,’ sums up the attitude: no, you’re not – and neither am I. Was Mike going to slip into a platitudinous hymn to finding yourself in some nebulous satisfaction of selfish desires?

I should have known better.

Norriss knows his Aristotle far too well to fall into this modern-day trap. Mike is, in fact, an examination of what is good as lived in daily life. As Aristotle said, and Thomas Aquinas amplified, all men act for the good – the evil supervillain announcing his evil masterplan to destroy the world is a fantasy of simplication. Even history’s most notorious monsters acted towards ends they considered good – the evil lay in the ends they had convinced themselves were good. To that end, the good life consists in that which makes each of us most completely what we are: for we are born as sketches, and painted through time to our completion. But in our lives, we can either complete the picture, or deface it. Mike is about the making of the human picture, and the right discernment of that which makes our pictures complete.

All this in a story about tennis and fish.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.4 in a short series

Sunday, October 16th, 2016
Andrew Norriss

Andrew Norriss

Some unusual acquaintances are made online. In my case, few have been more unexpected but more welcome than my getting to know Andrew and Jane Norriss online. The name might not immediately mean anything but anyone watching TV in the 1990s will know Andrew from The Brittas Empire. Andrew wrote the first five series.

brittasempire001bBut then, with one of the more unexpected career swerves, he decided to throw in TV writing in exchange for the considerably less lucrative vocation of writing books for children. Mind, he still couldn’t completely escape the octopus clasp of television, for the producers took one read of his book Aquila and immediately saw what anyone reading it must see: that this is one of the most perfectly crafted stories ever written. And they promptly slapped it on television.


I must admit that the Aquila TV series was really rather wonderful. But, of course, past performance is not an indicator of future returns and, given the unlikely collision of talents that go into making a good TV programme, it’s unlikely that the lightning of success would strike again. Besides, working with TV people is like supping with the devil: something best done with a very long spoon.

So, thankfully, Andrew’s been able to escape the dead grasp of television, and he’s been busy writing further books for children – most of which I’ve read and reviewed, here (The Unluckiest Boy in the World) and here (The Portal)  and here (The Touchstone). His latest, Jessica’s Ghost, I fear lays him open to the further blandishments of TV land so get in there and read it before some producer ruins it.

Given my untrammeled enthusiasm and admiration for Andrew’s work, imagine how pleased I was to find out that he liked my work too. He’s actually read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King. This time, though, putting my marketing cap on, I thought I’d get him to read a pre-publication copy of Oswiu: King of Kings in the hope that his recommendation might open up the 8-12 junior reader market to me. Well, not really. Oswiu is not really suitable for 8 year olds (although I don’t think there’s anything in it that would be unsuitable for a 12 year old moving on to trying adult books for the first time). But, really,  I just wanted Andrew to read it. And he did, and here’s what he had to say about it.

Edoardo Albert conjures up an extraordinarily vivid and authentic picture of life in 7th Century Britain that is hugely enjoyable. This is fabulous story-telling, with the themes of greed, ambition, nobility and the power of religion woven together with consummate skill. This is the real Game of Thrones – a fabulous story, beautifully told, that turns out to be based on fact!

You can imagine just how pleased I am with this. Andrew is probably the most talented writer I know and to have such an endorsement is praise indeed. You hear that low pitched hum in the background? That’s the sound of a writer, purring.

Adventures in Bookland: The Touchstone by Andrew Norriss

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016


Go on ask me a question. Any question. You know you want to.

It can be anything, anything at all, and I’ll tell you the answer. Which stocks to buy, who will win the league, how to build a destructor death ray shooting pink plasm. All you have to do is ask, and I’ll tell you the answer.

I reckon I’d like to be able to do that – but then, I’m the sort of person who likes quizzes. My dream job would be as the Chaser on The Chase (which, if you don’t know it, is a daytime quiz programme where a team of four attempt to escape the Chaser, a professional quizzer, as the Chaser hunts them down: each time the contestants get a question wrong and the Chaser gets it right, he draws closer).

Sadly, I don’t even know enough to be the Chaser, let alone the Touchstone. Because the Touchstone really can answer any question you ask it. Any question at all. Including the one about how to make a destructor death ray shooting pink plasma.

Ah. So, perhaps not the sort of thing you want to give to just anyone. Quite right. But, the question is, who should you give it to? The Guardians? (They are, in fact, the Guardians of the Galaxy, only this version does not feature talking raccoons and ambulant trees but rather a somewhat ruffled civil servant.) Now, this is the first of Andrew Norriss’s books where I don’t think I agree with the answer. I’m not sure any institution could guard such knowledge since the knowledge would, in the end, corrupt the institution, leading the, in this case, Guardians, to see themselves as more important than that which they’re guarding, ie. everything else. It’s what happens to institutional bureaucracies over time. I’d much rather have Douglas, our 12-year-old hero, in charge of the Touchstone than the Guardians. I sort of think I’d even prefer the gung ho adventuress who gives him the Touchstone to have it. But then, there is one question that will answer with surety what your attitude to the Touchstone would be, and it’s the same question that was posed to Achilles: to have a long and happy life, or a short and glorious one.

When I was fourteen, I posed that question to my classmates and, to my surprise, received a unanimous reply: long and happy. I was the only one, at the time, who wanted glory and fame. I suspect that was because, to that point, I’d never really been unhappy, and, when you’re 14, the prospect of dying at 28 seems just as dim and distant as dying at 78.

The Touchstone is for those who want a long and happy life and, as I’ve got older, I have come to appreciate that much, much more. But, in our increasingly safety conscious world, I fear we lose something by giving no avenue for the young glory hunter: in previous ages he could sail off to strange lands, now there’s no such opportunity.

Another thought: with the internet increasingly omnipresent and omniscient, have we, in effect, given a Touchstone to everyone? If so, it’s chief effect seems to be a proliferation of cute cat videos and the further loss of personal memory; if everything can be called up, why bother to recall it? But, I suspect, memory is an underappreciated aspect of intelligence. We are currently applying a worldwide test to see if we can do without it. I suspect the answer will be no – and I don’t think I need the Touchstone to tell me that.

But I do need The Touchstone for another take on how to write a book without a single excess word or spurious phrase (like that one!).  Read it, tell others about it, answer questions on it. Make it your touchstone, if not your cornerstone.

The Drama of the Good

Monday, May 25th, 2015
The Portal

The Portal

I’ve now read six of Andrew Norriss’s books and I think I know what his work is about: every story I’ve read has been a drama of the good. But if drama requires conflict, how can there be drama where all the characters are good? That is the question Andrew Norriss seems to me to be setting out to explore in his books, and his writing, and its success or otherwise, represents an answer to that question.

‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Thus begins Anna Karenina, with one of the most famous quotations in literature. And of course, if happy families are all alike, they must be inherently less interesting than unhappy ones. But thought and experience both tell me Tolstoy was wrong. Happiness ramifies, producing unique results; misery contracts, collapsing everything down to a cold, solid core. In this, Dante was right over Milton: the devil in the Inferno is encased in the ice of his own evil, immobile, but seeking to draw everything and everyone down into his own eternal stasis, whereas the Satan of Paradise Lost is active and engaged, more of a character than anyone else.

Here, Milton and other writers and film makers have fallen foul of one of the great shortcuts of dramatic art: it’s much, much easier to write an interesting evil character than a fascinating good one. Why should this be? One answer is that evil, at least in its everyday modes, is encoded into our substance. You don’t have to be an Augustinian to note the evidence of something very like original sin in our substance: simply think of the ease, the positive relief, with which good habits are shucked off when compared to the struggle against bad and destructive habits. We are creatures bent out of true, and thus it is much easier for a writer to understand what is so readily to mind in his or her own nature.

But goodness, true goodness, now, that is something else. Rarely encountered, even more rarely written about, it is almost impossible to capture in words or images precisely because it escapes the categories of thought: the normal binary operations of our mind (black/white, right/left) fail when we encounter true goodness and real evil. Evil is not the opposite of good, it is its absence, the hunger of the abyss for a being it is determined to expunge.

We are empty creatures, seeking fulfillment, and goodness is that fulfillment, in all its various, simple, ordinary forms. Each happy family is unique; it is the unhappy families that are alike, tending towards the dark attractor that is the cause and gourmet of human misery.

Andrew Norriss, is his deceptively slight books, provides a glimpse of escape from that core of despair. In his stories, good people are, genuinely, good, and work towards good ends, yet the threads of circumstance and the workings of providence (which is not without its own humour) conspire to provide the narrative tension that, on the artistic level, pulls the reader along, a smile of unknowing recognition on his face, towards the denouement. For, somewhere in our hearts, buried under the hurts of lives, we know that, really, this is what the world should be like – and will, one day, be.

Book review: Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Friday, March 6th, 2015
Jessica's Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

So, let’s start a review of Andrew Norriss’s new book by talking about Alan Garner. Yes, that Alan Garner – Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Moon of Gomrath, Elidor – one of the finest children’s writers – no, one of the finest writers – of the last fifty years. But I bring Alan up because there are clear parallels – and just as clear divergences – between him and Andrew, and they serve to throw light upon both writers.

Style first suggested affinity: both write the tautest prose around, with not a single spare word. (Although I don’t know this, I suspect that both write in similar ways, boiling the word stew down until only the strongest broth remains.) Indeed, in Alan Garner’s case, the paring away cuts so deep that even the bones are weakened (Red Shift for example) and the story suffers. However, where it works, it works wonderfully, inviting and inducing the reader to fill in the gaps and the silences, as in a Guo Xi painting.

Autumn in the River Valley by Guo Xi

Autumn in the River Valley by Guo Xi

But style is nothing without substance, and both Alan and Andrew deal with wonder: the eruption or eliding into the everyday of things and people extraordinary and unusual – although Andrew puts in jokes, and Alan definitely does not do humour. But more fundamental is the importance in their written worlds of the fantastic: it drives everything, whether it be Aquila, an intelligent, alien space car, or the Weirdstone itself: different worlds intersect and in their crossing lies story.

But this is where things get interesting, for in the different moods of each writer we can detect something of their hopes and fears of the supernatural. With Garner, the supernatural, while more encompassing and more powerful (the Wild Hunt in The Moon of Gomrath), yet there is a sense, a desperate sense, that it may all be in the mind, nothing more than mental phantoms; if a child should ask the key question, ‘Is it true, is it real?’ the book answers that it desperately wants it to be real, but fears, with a dread full, reality draining fear, that it is not. It is, just, words, and even these are slowly draining of meaning. This is what gives Garner’s books their fragile, desperate beauty, like a spun metal sculpture, trembling and under tension.

With Andrew Norriss, on the other hand, behind the jokes and the carefully constructed comedy there is a lightness, a surety that can only come from the written conviction that, yes, this is real, this is true: the world is not only more wonderful than we imagine, it is more wonderful than we can imagine. So, while there is not the tension that fills Garner’s novels, there is a peace that issues in the joy (and laughter) that pervades them.

Jessica’s Ghost is something of a departure for Andrew Norriss – its protagonists are older, its themes more serious, its issues more immediately applicable to the troubled life so many young people live. It will be read at many different levels; it may pull some back from the abyss, while others it may allow to grow into themselves. Andrew Norriss is not so tense as Alan Garner, but he is more complete. Jessica’s Ghost is a fine, fine story; please, do read it. (Try to ignore the front cover, which seems calculated to put people off buying the book.)

Book review: The Unluckiest Boy in the World by Andrew Norriss

Friday, February 6th, 2015
The Unluckiest Boy in the World

The Unluckiest Boy in the World

Andrew Norriss is, in fact, The Unluckiest Author in the World. In any sane society a writer who consistently produces such unfailingly delightful books for children would be lauded and applauded, hailed as a national treasure and put before Parliament and Queen as an example of what children’s writing should be like. Instead, we get Michael Morpurgo (I don’t know if you agree, but my children always, always groan when yet another Michael Morpurgo book is dragged out of the cupboard and plopped on their desks at school). It should be Andrew Norris.

What is particularly strange is that not even television, that usual sprinkler of authorial fame and sales, seems to have been able to destroy the curse of forgetting that hangs over Andrew Norriss. ‘Aquila? Wasn’t that on the telly a while back?’ Yes, it was, and normally that should mean huge sales and, at the very least, a publisher eager to publish a whole series of Aquila books. But – and I have this from the author’s wife – Puffin simply aren’t interested! Can you believe that? Despite there being huge mileage in the book (my son and I are desperate to learn more about the Denebians who made Aquila and the Yrrillians with whom they are locked in conflict), a successful TV tie-in, the first book having won the Whitbread Award, and yet Puffin still aren’t interested in publishing Aquila 3. You’re beginning to agree, aren’t you? Andrew Norriss really is the unluckiest writer in the world.

But stop. There’s more. The Brittas Empire. Remember that? Ran in the 1990s with Chris Barrie as he manager of the Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre. Andrew Norris co-wrote the first five series (when it was good). Yet, still, despite all these TV accomplishments, his publisher isn’t interested in publishing Aquila 3.

Andrew, I’m beginning to wonder if you unwittingly urinated on to the grave of a mouldering publishing executive, thus incurring his everlasting curse (as happens to the unfortunate hero of The Unluckiest Boy in the World, except in his case it’s not a publishing executive but a dead wizard who curses him). There’s no other explanation why publishers are not queuing up for such graceful, deft and funny stories.

Surely there must be some way of banishing the curse. For Andrew Norriss, while maybe the unluckiest writer in the world, is also, undoubtedly, one of the very best. Read this book, read Aquila, then tell your friends, tell Puffin: we have a treasure amongst us, let us celebrate (and publish!) him!

Book review: Aquila by Andrew Norriss

Sunday, October 19th, 2014
Aquila by Andrew Norriss

Aquila by Andrew Norriss

Wonderful story. Two boys – united by friendship and a determination to pass through school entirely unnoticed – discover a strange machine, hidden in a cave, and take it home. Given that the cave also contains the skeleton of a Roman centurion, the machine must be old. But did the Romans build machines?  Trying to figure out what it can do (pretty well everything turns out to be the answer in the end) causes them to blow their school anonymity as they start asking questions (shock, horror) and they even start to study independently. Norriss writes with a delightfully light touch and the two heroes, and the suspicious deputy headmistress, are wonderful creations.

And, on further thought, I’m going to give this book the ultimate 5-star accolade: it really is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read.