Adventures in Bookland: New Worlds, Lost Worlds: the Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603 by Susan Brigden

New Worlds, Lost Worlds
New Worlds, Lost Worlds

At school, my children have studied the Tudors in Year 1, Year 3, Year 6 and Year 9 and, looking ahead, they will probably turn up in years 11, 12 and 13 too – and that’s not to mention Shakespeare in English, The Tudors on TV, Wolf Hall on stage and screen, and hundreds of other books, plays, films, series and shows. In an age of historical ignorance, we are left with 1066, Elizabeth, bluff King Hal and his wives and, er, that’s about it. But the problem with all of this is its bittiness – we get parts, rather than the whole. Susan Brigden’s book is a wonderful corrective to this, providing an overview of the whole period, from the grey penury of Henry VII through to the dog days of Elizabeth’s reign. In fact, I’d say this is the best one volume history of the Tudors that I’ve read. Brigden is particularly good on the religious upheavals that made the Tudor era the definitive break between medieval and modern eras, and the revolution in world views that brought about and was caused by these changes.

Adventures in Bookland: Tolkien by Raymond Edwards

Tolkien
Tolkien

Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 biography of Tolkien remains deservedly the definitive biography of the Good Professor, in part because, alone of the writers mining Middle-earth, he was given access to Tolkien’s private papers, yet in the half century since then a huge amount of material has come to light, particularly relating to JRRT’s professional life. Raymond Edwards’ new biography pays particular attention to this and, since Edwards’ own background is Oxford philology, he makes the struggles, intrigues and battles of academic departments quite fascinating. There is also an engaging strain of waspishness to his judgements – always enjoyable in a biography which, let’s be honest, is really gossip writ literary style – so I’d recommend this to anyone who has read Carpenter and wants some more detail about Tolkien’s life.

The Drama of the Good

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.

Adventures in Bookland: Hornblower and the Hotspur by CS Forester

Hornblower and the Hotspur
Hornblower and the Hotspur

Hornblower and the Hotspur is the third book in the series by character age, but the last novel for Forester himself. It was published in 1962 and the author would only live four more years – long enough to start another Hornblower but not to finish it. So, his creation has outlived him by nearly 50 years and looks set to continue on for a while yet.

This is no necessary outcome – a visit to any second-hand bookshop or a trawl through old best-seller lists will reveal shelves of books, famous in their day, and now as forgotten as the mouldering men and women who wrote them. So, why has Hornblower endured? One reason, sad to say, is fortune itself – as the screenwriter William Goldman says about the film industry but which could be as well applied to publishing, ‘Nobody  knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’ So, for the public, Hornblower worked – and continues to work. In large part that must be because of Hornblower himself: a character of sufficient quirks to make him interesting, but with enough heroism to make him an admirable hero through a series of novels. But another reason must surely be Forester’s command of tension and release. Throughout Hornblower and the Hotspur, situations personal and naval are brought to crisis point and resolved, within the overall arc of Hornblower’s ascent from Commander to Captain to, at the book’s closing, Post Captain, and the security of assured command. Maybe it was Forester’s work in the film industry that tutored him in writing in subsidiary climaxes through the course of his work, maybe it evolved naturally in his writing, but it is quite masterly in its execution. I shall be following Hornblower as he ascends the ranks to admiral!

 

Adventures in Bookland: Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr Mercedes
Mr Mercedes

Question: when to stop reading a book. I have no problem starting a book – and there’s a teetering pile next to my bed waiting for attention – but when should I stop reading a book once I’ve started it? All right, there’s some easy answers to this: if the book in question is so incompetently written as to become annoying; if, even after giving it a fair chance, the prospect of picking it up and carrying on seems more chore than pleasure – although there is an exception to this in the case of recognised classics: I’ll keep ploughing through these, even if they seem tedious, in the expectation that they would not have achieved classic status for no reason (and I’m just enough of a literary snob to want to tick another off the classics’ list even if I do find the reading tedious).

But as for Mr Mercedes – confession time here; although I am reviewing it, I did not read the whole book – I stopped reading despite the fact that it was a good, indeed riveting book. I stopped precisely because it was a riveting book, with all the page-turning compulsion that’s made Stephen King what he is and made me read a good fraction (although by no means all) of his books. I stopped because it was too good – or, rather, one of the characters, Brady Horsefield, the mass-murdering Mr Mercedes, was too good – in the sense of too vividly depicted – and, since nearly as much time is spent with him as the narrative point of view, I decided I really just did not want to have him inside my head any longer. So, having read to the end of part I, I skipped to the end, read his comeuppance, found out which characters had been sacrificed along the way in the service of the narrative, was dearly relieved to find out that the dog seemed to have survived, and then put the book down, satisfied and relieved. You know, much though I hate to say this, sometimes the best thing you can do is not finish a book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

The Eye of Zoltar
The Eye of Zoltar

The Fforde Invention Meter, having crept towards the red line in the first two books in the series, goes into the red, inspiration, zone. As ever, the joy is in the details, from reality grades I to IV, to the wild beasts of Wales, rather than the characterisation (Jennifer Strange is about as close to perfection as anyone outside the hero of a Dean Koontz novel can come). It’s just as well, really, that characterisation isn’t Fforde’s strong point, as this means I didn’t get too upset when some characters met unexpectedly terminal ends (the sort of ends which suggests they really really really won’t be coming back in the fourth and final book).

Adventures in Bookland: Word on the Street

Word on the Street
Word on the Street

What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard people say on the street, in a tube, on the bus, anywhere in London? As I’ve usually got my nose buried in a book on the tube, I usually miss what people are talking about, but luckily for me plenty of others are busy taking notes and then tapping the questions, phrases, sayings and bon mots into Twitter on their iPhones to send to Time Out, which publishes them every week in the ‘Word on the Street’ section. This little book is a collection of some of the best – and when I say best, I mean most bizarre, ranging from ‘White bread is like the ninja of the food world. It’s a silent killer’ to ‘Clearly, there’s a reason nostrils are the same size as fingers’.

They’re surreal, rude and, sometimes, probably certifiable, but definitely compelling, which is what makes the ‘Word on the Street’ section of the magazine the turn-to page it is. This little book is probably ideal toilet or bathroom reading (and also very useful if, like me, you’re running behind on the Goodreads Reading Challenge) but at £6.99 it is really over priced. £5 would be more like it, and £2.99 would be ideal: there are, after all not that many pages (rather craftily, the pages aren’t numbered so without sitting down and counting you won’t know how many) but in terms of pence per word, only something like Where the Wild Things Are is worse value (although the Wild Things has the better pictures!). So, I’d advise sticking to the magazine – now a freebie – rather than paying for the book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the Quarkbeast
The Song of the Quarkbeast

What is the song of an imaginary creature? Admittedly, the creature in question is a (metaphorical) mixture of velociraptor, knife block (with the knives all sticking blade up) and labrador, so not the most obvious candidate for song, but the question stands. Well, it turns out, rather than the sparking clash of metal, or the grind of tooth on bone, the song of the Quarkbeast is enchanting: yearning, lonely, and ever reaching towards a barely glimpsed and often receding, yet certainly there, consummation. Unfortunately, in a curious nod towards MAD (mutually assured destruction/desire) the Quarkbeast sings only when its twin approaches, and union with said anti-twin will bring absolute destruction, as when an electron and positron meet.

This is unfortunate for the Quarkbeast. It’s also unfortunate for anyone else within a mile or two. But it’s good for the reader. Jasper Fforde’s invention drive, which was revving nicely in the first volume of the series without getting much second gear, begins to pick up speed in this second book of The Chronicles of Kazam. And, after all, this is what we read Fforde for: invention, imagination, wordplay and dreadful puns (not so much character development). As with Thursday Next, where the Fforde invention drive (or FID for short) took until the second or third volume in the series to really kick into overdrive, so with The Chronicles of Kazam: after a few jerks and shudders in the first book, the story is really beginning to rev up nicely here and I anticipate the third and fourth will explode into the inventosphere. Three and a half stars for this one and anticipating four for the next.

Adventures in Bookland: Fiefdom by Dan Abnett and Nik Vincent

Fiefdom
Fiefdom

OK, if dogs could talk, what would they say? It’s easy with cats: they, of course, can talk, but they’re obviously not going to have conversations with the servile class. But dogs, what would they say?

At first thought, I’d have said, ‘Bone!’ or ‘Walks!’, with great enthusiasm. But that is to do down dogs – and besides, that’s pretty much what they always say when they can talk (or, in the wonderful film Up!, ‘Squirrel!’). You know, that’s too easy. Sure, some would go for the monosyllabic whuff of enthusiasm, but others would be more considered, more thoughtful, more mellow: they’d drop their head to one side, loll their tongues and say, ‘Bones, walks, sleep, huh, huh, master, love.’

Yes, I set off this review trying to make a case for literary dogs and I don’t seem to have made it to my destination. Neither does the Dan man (the world’s hardest working author): the protagonists of Fiefdom are dog soldiers, genetically modified to protect mankind and then, finding themselves the only survivors of an Ice Age, living on in the U-Bahn tunnels under Berlin. But, being dogs, once, their vocabulary proves rather limited, and though the book has all the Dandroid’s usual narrative drive, there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a dog soldier saying, ‘Tougher and tough’ before it begins to pall a little. Still, for a blood-soaked light tube train read (particularly appropriate given its U-Bahn setting), it rattles along as quickly as the new rolling stock on the Metropolitan line.

The First Review of Oswald: Return of the King

Liz Robinson at Lovereading has written the first review of Oswald: Return of the King: it’s lovely and, as writers rank only slightly below actors in our thirst for praise without wanting to show it, obviously thoroughly deserved!

Let’s give it the Isaac ‘Yaay!’

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Here’s the start of the review:

A triumphant continuation of the ‘Northumbrian Thrones’ trilogy; these tales are bringing to life a forgotten time, when being a King was a dangerously unpredictable job to hold. The story now races ahead to Oswald who witnessed the death of his father in the first book Edwin: High King of Britain’. This story feels even more complete than Edwin’s, knowing Oswald’s background helps to give flesh and emotion to this man and an appreciation of the difficulties battering his very existence.

To read the rest, go here.