Adventures in Books: The Cursed Fortress by Chris Durbin

Sometimes, as a reader, you want to know exactly what you are going to get when you invest the time – a good four to eight hours of your life – into a book. Chris Durbin’s Holbrooke and Carlisle naval adventures, set during the Seven Years’ War, do exactly that: they provide solid, clear, well-crafted stories of derring-do backed up by the author’s own extensive nautical knowledge (he served in the Navy himself for many years). Now into his fifth novel, Durbin’s writing has achieved a wonderful clarity, like clear water, while creating characters that are almost as clear and wholesome as his writing. For some, this might seem like an indictment but for me, and I suspect many other readers, it is a welcome relief. Thank you, Mr Durbin. May Holbrooke and Carlisle sail on to further horizons.

Adventures in Bookland: Caves of Ice by Sandy Mitchell

Caiaphas Cain, reluctant hero of the Imperium, is back and this time he’s got a planet full of Orks and Necrons to deal with – and he’s not happy about it. One of the joys of this series are the footnotes provided to Cain’s unreliable and unpublished (within its 40k milieu) memoirs by Inquisitor Amberley Vail, a frequent associate and sparring partner for Cain and one of the stronger female characters within 40k. It’s a trope borrowed from the Flashman books, where Macdonald Fraser posed as the editor of the long-lost papers of Harry Flashman, but Mitchell takes the idea further by having Vail be a protagonist within some of the stories as well as a sardonic commentator, via a series of footnotes, to Cain’s adventures as well. It’s a great ploy that plays with all sorts of ideas of metafiction and helps put the Caiaphas Cain books into a different category from almost all other 40k fiction.

Adventures in Bookland: For the Emperor by Sandy Mitchell

In a galaxy where those creatures that don’t want to eat you desire to tear your soul from your body, there usually isn’t anything much to laugh about. Indeed, humour is notably absent from almost all the books set in the 40k universe – the setting is called ‘grimdark’ for a reason!

So it was with great joy and a certain amount of relief that I started reading Sandy Mitchell’s first book about Imperial Commissar Caiaphas Cain for the realisation comes quickly: this is 40k but with a twist via Flashman and Blackadder. Indeed, in a universe as mad as 40k, the only sane response is to laugh in the face of the thirsting gods – while doing one’s best to secure a safe billet in an out-of-the-way logistics camp a very, very, very long way from any front lines. In the tradition of Flashman and, in particular, the First World War edition of Edmund Blackadder, Caiaphas Cain, newly appointed enforcer for the Imperium, tries to do exactly that. But, also following firmly in Flashman’s footsteps, Cain gains himself a reputation for heroism that sees him being dispatched to all the most dangerous hotspots in the Galaxy where he attempts to survive by a mixture of cunning and cowardice. Of course, in the face of enemies, and if there’s no where to run, Cain actually proves quite a capable fighter and an even better motivator of others to do the fighting for him. What’s particularly entertaining is his sardonic attitude to everything in the Imperium, from the Imperial Creed to his fellow Commissars. My only complaint is that Mitchell got to do this first: I would have loved to have had the chance to try writing such a character within 40k.

Adventures in Bookland: Bob Marley by Chris Salewicz

This biography of Bob Marley is subtitled the untold story but, upon reading it, I discovered that the ‘untold’ bit appears to be an aspect of Marley’s life that Salewicz appears to have deliberately decided to suppress. Bob Marley was famous for his religion, as the most famous and visible proponent of Rastafarianism, and Salewicz covers that in some detail although little depth. However, Marley became very interested in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Now this is one of the two oldest Orthodox churches in the world (it contends with the Armenian Orthodox Church for the title of oldest) and it certainly dates to the fourth century and it possibly goes right back to apostolic times. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church famously claims to be the custodian of the Ark of the Covenant. Whatever the truth of this, the Church is a fiercely orthodox church that remained independent for centuries; being surrounded by Muslim kingdoms following the rise of Islam, it developed largely in isolation from European Christianity as an authentically Christian and African church. For Marley, searching for his spiritual homeland in Ethiopia, the discovery of the national church of that country as a church that remained defiant of Babylon throughout its history came as a major development. The problem, of course, was that for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church there was only one Son of God and His name was not Haile Selassie.

Then, late in 1980, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. At the hospital he was told that cancer had spread throughout his body. The doctors gave him only weeks to live.

This is the part that Salewicz completely ignores in his book, as if embarrassed to admit it. Indeed, he shuffles Marley off this mortal coil in a matter of pages between finding out his diagnosis and his death. But it is clear, from other sources and my own research, that something extraordinary happened during those months. For in fact, Marley lived until until May the following year. On 4 November of 1980, Bob Marley, the prophet of Rastafarianism, was baptised into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, taking the baptismal name Berhane Selassie, by Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq. Lest that be thought an aberration, Marley’s funeral, on 21 May 1981, was conducted by Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq. Marley, it is clear, died as a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, not as a Rastafarian.

You would not know that from this book. I would imagine that Salewicz knows this perfectly well: his decision to exclude must therefore be a deliberate omission. With such an omission, one wonders what else he has chosen to omit. While the rest of the book seems to be sound enough, it must therefore have this question mark as to its veracity hanging over it – and as the point of a biography is to tell the truth about a person, that is a very large question mark indeed.

Adventures in Bookland: Shell by Paula Rawsthorne

To review this book I first have to tell you about another book I read many years before. I grew up reading a series of books that I later discovered are known as Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles. Books such as Space Family Stone, Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones. There was nothing juvenile about them though, other than the protagonist being young: the stories set the template for the language of modern science fiction as well as being taut, tense, thrilling tales with not a word out of place. I still have these books, and reread them with pleasure. I owe Heinlein a huge debt, both for demonstrating the art of storytelling in its pure form and for the life lessons he subtly imparted in these stories, the foremost one being his dictum TANSTAAFL (‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’).

So, as I advanced into my second decade, I was delighted to find some new books by one of my favourite authors in the adult section of the library. I was not a socially gifted child and the awkwardness had not improved as I got older – I probably knew the librarians at the library better than any of my peers. The highlight of my week remained getting home from the library with my new pile of books and deciding in what order I would read them. But that week there wasn’t any difficulty in choosing. Sitting on top of my pile was the thickest Robert Heinlein book I had ever seen. Previously, the longest book of his I had read came in at about 250 pages: this one was over 500! SF heaven waited and I plunged in.

A couple of days later I emerged about as confused as a 14-year-old boy could be. The story was a bit… different. An ageing billionaire has the world’s first brain transplant, but ends up in the body of his young and sexy secretary who was conveniently murdered just as the doctors were looking for a convenient donor (and no, there’s no interesting plot point here involving the billionaire’s minions murdering someone close at hand, just authorial arm waving). What’s more, the secretary turns out to still be mentally alive in the billionaire’s new body; the two of them end up cohabiting the body and talking at length – and I do really mean at length – inside the body’s shared mind. So, what would do if you suddenly found yourself in a young body of the opposite sex having been slowly sliding into decripitude? Well, in this case, billionaire and secretary end up shagging everything that moves, having a baby from the billionaire’s frozen sperm and, what was possibly most surprising for a 14-year-old boy with absolutely no experience of such things, having nipples that went ‘sprunnnggg’ at every available opportunity and sometimes completely at random. Suffering the embarrassing effects of spontaneous teenage tumescence, which also seemed to happen entirely on its own, often for no apparent reason whatsoever, it did not seem unlikely that women’s nipples might behave that way too. After all, I obviously had absolutely no knowledge of such things. It was an image that engraved itself deeply into my teenage mind: testosterone and imagination can engrave each other very deeply.

It was a truly dreadful book, one that it is hard to believe a writer as good as Heinlein might actually write (and then I read some of his other late fiction and sadly realised that he had gone from being a storyteller to a didacticist). Thankfully, Paula Rawsthorne avoids absolutely all of this apart from the basic brain transplant premise in her book. In Shell, Rawsthorne examines devouring mother love, the sort of love that destroys rather than lets go, and takes it to its logical conclusion: a mother who won’t let her daughter die but brings her back in a new body. This body, unlike the one in I Will Fear No Evil, does not carry the ghost of its previous soul, and is all the better for it. The protagonist, Lucy, has only to contend with the exterior, of finding herself in a body that is actually better than her old one, and the price that was paid in obtaining this new body for her. The story examines these issues in the context of the story rather than preaching them through the interminable inner dialogues of I Will Fear No Evil (normally only punctuated by ‘her’ nipples going ‘sppprunnnggg’) as well as presenting one of the best devouring mothers I have read. I’m pretty sure the author is British but she carries off the American setting with aplomb. A fine story for intelligent readers and one that will, I hope, enable me to finally leave the enduringly bad taste of Heinlein’s book behind. For Rawsthorne finally, I hope, disinfecting my imagination of nipples going ‘spprunnggg’ I am profoundly grateful. Some books change your life, others cleanse your soul. Shell has done the latter for me.

Adventures in Bookland: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s the first Sherlock Holmes story. It’s the first appearance of a pair of characters, Holmes and Watson, who are still having films and books made about them a century and a half after they first were lines on a page. But by the mysterious magic of reading, they have lived all that time, and show every sign of continuing to do so for the forseeable future. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it. Stories, among other things, are the perfect time-travel machine: portable, convenient, and enduring. Far better than sitting in Wells’ contraption!

As an aside, the story is not limited to London but includes a lengthy section in Utah, among the Mormons, taking on the character almost of a Western. I had not expected to find that in the first Holmes story!

Adventures in Bookland: To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

Read my name. ‘Edoardo Albert.’ If, from that, you guess that I am part Italian you would be right. But what’s not nearly so obvious is that ‘Albert’ comes from my Sri Lankan father. And he is properly Sri Lankan: Tamil on his father’s side and Sinhala on his mother’s side (which is a whole other story). Anyone familiar with Sri Lankan names will know that ‘Albert’ is missing at least three syllables to make a proper Sri Lankan name (and that applies to both Sinhala and Tamil). So I share something with the author of To Sir, With Love. Because you would not think that Mr E.R. Braithwaite orginally hailed from Guyana and was even blacker than my own grandparents. But Braithwaite shared with C.L.R. James, and my own ancestors, something that is seldom given much credence nowadays: they were children of the British Empire who believed in its values. At least, those values that espoused concepts such as fairness, gentlemanly behaviour, self-restraint and a thoroughgoing appreciation for education and the highest and noblest elements of British culture (the more down market parts were not at that time exported to the colonies). C.L.R. James, the great Caribbean writer, grew up with a lifelong love of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and a better understanding and appreciation of English literary culture than almost anyone. Braithwaite’s parents both went to Oxford University, as he did too, but only after serving in the RAF during World War II. Braithwaite was a war hero, an Oxford graduate with a doctorate in physics: he was as exemplary a man as one might find.

So it was with growing horror that Braithwaite realised, in the 1950s, that all his accomplishments and endeavours stood for nothing in Britain when stood next to his black skin. This realisation was made all the worse in that he had not encountered any prejudice while serving in the RAF during the war. But having come down from Oxford, he would attend job interviews, only to be told by the interviewing panel that it was none of their doing but that the men he would be in charge of might not take kindly to being managed by a black man.

The anger this slowly stoked in Braithwaite was exacerbated by the deep sense that the prejudice he was encountering was a betrayal of the British values that he had imbibed and espoused: the British were not playing by their own rules. There’s few things less British than that (except, possibly, queue jumping). It was wrong. It was deeply, woundingly, horribly wrong. Such unfairness was thoroughly, there’s no other word for it, unBritish.

As an aside, the end of Empire was, I think, as much bound up with the realisation among the peoples of the colonies that the ideals that they had bought into, that had seen my own ancestors take a British name, were not honoured among the British themselves. For too many, skin colour trumped culture: even men as thoroughly British as Braithwaite and James were not accepted as equals in the mother country. That sense of unfairness drove much of the initial push towards independence in many of the former countries of the Empire.

Braithwaite himself finally found a job teaching in a tough East End secondary school and To Sir, With Love is his account of his time there, the students, the teaching, the teachers. Given Braithwaite’s previous accomplishments, it’s no surprise that he does well, but the writing is elegant and cultured in the fullest sense of the term: how many contemporary teachers working in the East End would take the bus to their first day looking forward to walking the streets of Chaucer and Erasmus, to looking up the old abbey of the Sorores Minores (I had to look it up myself: they were Franciscan sisters living at the Abbey of the Minoresses of St Clare without Aldgate). It also serves as a view into a time that is not far off historically – less than 70 years – but that seems much further away culturally. It’s a view into the thoughts and feelings of the sort of man whom the British had been educating during the first half of the 20th century and an illustration of how well that education had succeeded and, therefore, why it failed.

Like Braithwaite, like James, like my own great-grandfather, we expected the British to play by the rules and were horrified and hurt when we learned that there were actually two sets of rules, according to so accidental a criterion as colour. The British Empire ultimately died from the embarrassment at the divide between its ideals and its realities.

Adventures in Bookland: A Bloody Campaign by Jemahl Evans

A Bloody Campaign by Jemahl Evans

One of the things I write down in my notebook is potential names for characters. A good name is better than a thousand words of description. It can obviate the need for pages of character development. A good name tells you most of what you need to know about a character. A great name becomes a synonym for the very characteristics you are describing. You don’t need to call someone a miser: call them a Scrooge! Ebenezer Scrooge. Harry Flashman. Uriah Heep. Hannibal Lecter. (Dickens was particularly good at character names!) A great character name is more important and harder to devise than the plot of a whole novel. So I was particularly jealous of Jemahl Evans: he’s come up with a name for his character that’s worth a hundred thousand words of background material: Blandford Candy.

Brilliant, isn’t it? You just know that Blandford Candy is going to be an upper-class rogue, rolling bon-mots out of one side of his mouth and sweet talking tavern lasses from the other. But, in a rather brilliant turn, Jemahl Evans (the author doesn’t do too badly on the great name front himself) has Blandford Candy end up taking on the Parliamentarian cause during the Civil War, turning a natural Cavalier into a Roundhead. It’s a fascinating stroke and sits really well with a time in our history that modern-day readers have almost no sympathy with and even less understanding of the causes that drove men to tear the country apart in a truly bloody struggle that saw some 200,000 casulaties.

A Bloody Campaign has five short stories featuring Blandford Candy and other characters and makes a great introduction to the time and the series. With the English Civil Wars being the most disgracefully neglected period in our history, Jemahl Evans’ stories of the reluctant Roundhead make a great introduction to the period for anyone wanting to learn more while reading some thoroughly entertaining stories along the way.

Adventures in Bookland: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

There was a time when flying, rather than resembling being squeezed into a toothpaste tube and passed through the sky in a metal tube, was not even an adventure: it was widely regarded as an impossible dream. Even among those people who thought it possible, its realisation would be based on extravagant funding and a very sizeable private purse. It was a business for the wealthy gentlemen amateurs of the Edwardian era.

So it’s no real surprise that when two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio (otherwise known as Nowheresville, USA) said that they had developed the world’s first powered flying maching, not only did no one believe them, barely anyone even noticed. Now, at least there was the excuse that Kitty Hawk, where these bicycle mechanics did their first flights, was an isolated place, a long sand bar on the east coast of the USA far from most places and difficult to get to. But even when the brothers brought their planes back to Dayton and started flying in a field not far from their home, the world still did not pick up the extraordinary events – and achievements – taking place there. After all, what of interest happened in Ohio?

David McCullough, in the key insight that makes this book so compelling, realises that the story of the Wright Brothers invention and development of the world’s first flying machines was, more than anything else, a story of moral courage and perseverance, of two extraordinary men – and their extraordinary family – pursuing a vision despite disbelief and disinterest until, finally, it became impossible for the world to ignore what these two country hicks had achieved. McCullough covers the story of the extraordinary technical innovations and inventions made by the brothers in enough detail for the reader to realise something of what the accomplished – inventing wind tunnels for testing aerofoils and the crucial insight that control of an aircraft was the key issue to solve rather than just getting it into the air are just two of these – but he never bogs the story down in these details. What drives it are Orville and Wilbur themselves: first, their desire to devise and improve their flying machine until it became a genuinely reliable flying machine, and then their quest to vindicate themselves in the eyes of the world and, being businessmen, get due recompense for all their work.

It’s a great and inspiring work, and a fitting tribute to two extraordinary men. We can’t hold it against them that commercial flying has become what it has.