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

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: The City by Dean Koontz

The City
The City

On my patented Koontz-o-meter (which rates the world’s hardest-working and most inconsistent writer from his best [say, Odd Thomas] through his run-of-the-mill [his Frankenstein series] to the downright awful [every long-reading Deaniac will have his own favourite to add to this pile, mine being the second Odd Thomas novel, Deeply Odd]) I’d put this in its own, slightly below good but above average category. Average because, to be honest, for most of its 500 plus pages, nothing much happens. A child grows up in 1960s New York, his dad leaves, his mother and grandparents bring him up, he learns the piano; sure, there are intimations of bad things, and the Deanster keeps the pace up, the chapters short and the pages turning, but really, looking back having finished the book, pretty well all the action is squeezed into about 40 pages at the end: a slightly poor pay off for all the build up before.

On the other hand, it almost sneaks into the best category through, for want of a better word, a certain sweetness that permeates the writing; it just about pulls back from the sentimentality that cloys other books (helped by there being only a wag-on part for a dog in this one) while also avoiding most of the preachiness that has slipped into his more recent books. I like a writer trying to write about good people, and their struggle to remain true to that, more than explorations of evil. Evil is easy to understand; it is goodness that is the mystery, and Koontz is spending more and more time trying to understand it. I’m not sure I agree, but I enjoy reading his explorations of the subject.

Book review: Londonopolis by Martin Latham

Londonopolis by Martin Latham
Londonopolis by Martin Latham

This is the sort of book to provoke irritation, annoyance and, finally, someone coming for your throat, teeth bared as they scream, “I can’t take any more!”

What they can’t take any more is the endless stream of curious facts that you (or indeed I) emerge from toilet or bathroom spouting, things like, “Did you know that Peter the Great lived in Deptford and learned shipbuilding there?” or, “Did you know the working day of the East India Company was 9am to 3pm?”, or, “Did you know the cursus at Heathrow is so long and straight people thought it was a Roamn road?” and, finally provoking murderous rage, “Did you know a cursus is a long, straight track with raised banks on either side?” After such a barrage of post latrine and post bath facts, I think any jury would rightly find the accused not guilty, and arraign the author before a court on a charge of overloading the voluble with curious facts, in which case he would surely be found guilty.

So, there you have it: Londonopolis, read it – in bath or toilet or similar dip-into venue – at your peril: you’re sure to emerge to amaze your family and friends with so much London lore that they will, in the end, kill you – thus adding a whole new chapter to the second edition!

Book review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L Sayers

The Mind of the Maker
The Mind of the Maker

A while back, when taking a theology MA, a group of we students were put together in a group and left, by our tutor, with the instruction to talk about the Trinity. Now, this wasn’t one of those assemblages where fear of talking leads to agonised glances around to see if someone else will be brave enough to start things rolling – no, we were a voluble group, with most of us (not least me) quite convinced that what we had to say was quite as valuable as our tutor (so what if he had about four different degrees, various masters and enough doctorates to start a small clinic; we knew what we thought and we were damned if we weren’t going to tell everyone else too. Writing this, a number of years later, I wonder if that might be a clue as to why he shoved us all off into small groups to talk among ourselves.) So, there we were, dispatched to talk on the Trinity and, for the one and only occasion during the MA, I saw the flickering glances, the sidelong looks, the panicked, ‘Oh, God, I’ll have to say something if no one else will,’ glaze in people’s eyes. In the end, if memory serves, I plunged first into the pool of silence: ‘Look, do any of us understand what the Trinity is?’

Yes, that is what the Trinity will do to a group of even reasonably well read and devout Christians. Possibly the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and we are plunged into stuttering silence. It really isn’t good enough and, to judge by the acerbic tone of her introduction, Dorothy L Sayers shares the latter judgement and wrote The Mind of the Maker to challenge the first.  In fact, having finished it, I really wish I’d had the book to hand when we all sat around, tongues tied, trying to define what we’d all, apparently, written off at some level as the undefinable.

Now, of course, in one sense that is right: God is not definable, He can be no more (in fact, rather less) pinned down in words than can, say, the colour red. But, as with colour, we can use language analogically of God; He can be approached through metaphor. And here Sayers makes a crucial point, and one that immediately spoke to me: God is, both in his being and in terms of the language we use of him, far more the God of artists, of composers and painters and writers, than he is the God of philosophers and, dare I say, theologians. Of course, I should have known this all along. After all, God, the God of testaments Old and New, is a storyteller, weaving tales from history and then, in the most daring (and difficult to pull off; just ask Stephen King with respect to his Dark Tower cycle) stroke of all, God put Himself, as character into the story He was telling and, as a player on the stage, we know that God not only loves stories, He tells them: parables, phrases so vivid with meaning they have shook loose from history to enter the every day.

Let me quote Sayers at a little length (the quote from a play she wrote, The Zeal of Thy House, and sums up what she expands upon in The Mind of the Maker):

For every work (or act) of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity.

Now, as a writer, I can understand this. Sayers argues that this creative process, discernible in the Trinity, is also the template by which human creation works, a shadow of our maker, and in this she is supported by Tolkien, who in his great creation myth in The Silmarillion sees Men, and Elves, very much as sub-creators, most like God when we make, as He makes and, ultimately, when the world is refashioned and made right, Tolkien’s vision stretches even to a final great music of Creation, when Men and Elves join their voices to the music of Creation and, hearing what they fashion and hearing that it is good, God gives life to their fashionings, that they be real, as His own makings are.

I’ve gone on about this for a bit, but this really is a book worth reading, pondering on, and then reading again. Although I got it from the library, I will buy it: this is a keeper.

Book review: Unremembered Empire by Dan Abnett

Unremembered Empire by Dan Abnett
Unremembered Empire by Dan Abnett

OK, let me confess at the outset to a bad case of Danlove. I mean, how can I, as a writer, not fall down in abject awe before the Abnett, tapping away ‘I am not worthy, I am not worthy’ on whatever keyboard lies closest to hand: the Magna Abnett, after all, sits behind his computer in the, somewhat unlikely, environs of Maidstone, Kent, producing an extraordinary stream of novels, stories, comic books and scripts each year (I once tweeted Dan asking if anyone, apart from him, had read everything he’d written and his wife tweeted back to say she had. I was tempted to say greater love hath no wife than that she read everything her writer husband writers, only with the DanMachine, that would be no hardship). On another point: would a future literary biographer (and I’m sure someone will write the DanBio some day) actually be able to read all Abnett’s work and still have enough years left in his life to write the biography? I fear he or she would need, in true 40k style, some augmentations to get through everything in a liveable span.

So, yes, this is the basis of my Dandoration. How can one man write so much and still maintain the quality that the Abnett almost always does? Surely there must be a team of Dandroids, closeted in his Maidstone mansion, typing away, hunched over keyboards, server motors overheating as the Danman himself sits back, sucking a lho stick and sipping the finest amasec, directing the operations of his minions. And, come to that, Dan, can I be one of your minions?

As to The Unrembered Empire, congratulations to all the Dandroids that worked on it: superhuman Primarchs slugging it out through the ruins of a megacity is what the Horus Heresy is all about, and the Dandroids deliver.

Book review: Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Five Children and It
Five Children and It

This was something of an unexpected delight. Rather shamefully I’d not read any of E. Nesbit’s stories before. One of the penalties (and freedoms) in growing up the bibliophile son of immigrants is that you don’t receive, along with jam sandwiches and jelly, a long list of children’s books your parents had grown up with; I was left free to wander (and wonder) my way round the old Archway library (not the one that now exists, when I was young there was a branch in Giesbach Road and, showing where my infant priorities lay, I still remember the name of the librarian, Miss Chamberlain, all these years later, whereas I’ve forgotten the names of all my teachers from that time), making my own way through the paths and thickets of children’s literature.

So, left to my own devices, I missed much that would have been considered worthy and read much that has since been forgotten (anyone else remember Hugh Walters’ series of SF books beginning with Blast-Off at Woomera?). E. Nesbit was definitely in the worthy category but, rather like Dickens, as a grown-up I realise she was unfairly placed alongside the heavily moralistic Victorian authors. Five Children and It is completely lacking in the heavy prose and point making that I feared; instead, it is delightfully light – in its own way, near as perfect a souffle as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The interplay between the four children, arguing and bickering their way through the story, and the inveterately grumpy Psammead, is wonderfully done, and the mishaps that befall the children after their daily dose of wish fulfillment, courtesy of the grumpy Psammead, are wonderful variations on the them of being careful what you wish for. So, I suppose, there is an underlying moralism to it, but as it’s so lightly wrapped, I swallowed it all down with a broad smile upon my face.

Book review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch
Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

In some ways, the greatest mystery of these Peter Grant books is why they are so enjoyable. I’m pretty sure the author has only slightly more idea about what is going on than I have – the plot holes are often so glaring you need to wear sunglasses to keep reading – the writing is so right on that there is some legitimate doubt as to whether the PC in PC Peter Grant actually stands for ‘police constable’, and I strongly suspect that Aaronovitch is slowly realising just how difficult it is to wield magic in a story universe that is ostensibly our own without it devolving into something little more than engineering with pretty Latin terminology… and yet, and yet, these stories are just so much fun!

Book review: The Babylon Rite by Tom Knox

The Babylon Rite by Tom Knox
The Babylon Rite by Tom Knox

This may, on reflection, be the most violent thriller I’ve ever read. The body count among the spear carriers is, of course, high, with assorted henchmen, bystanders and unnamed villains coming to bloody ends through sprayed gunfire, explosions and all manner of mayhem. But where Tom Knox really distinguishes himself is in the winnowing fan with which he sifts his major characters: by the end of the book, there’s barely a single named character left standing. So, word of advice if you read the book: don’t get too attached to anyone; they probably won’t make it to the end alive.

Having said that, this is real page-turning stuff, whisking through gruesome murders (only, they turn out not to be murders but something much worse, believe it or not), enough exotic locations to stretch the budget of a major Hollywood studio, and brisk run throughs of the more sanguinary of South American native cultures, in particular the quite horrible Moche.

As an aside, the Conquistadors, having been extolled for centuries as Western Imperialism rolled across the globe, have over the last fifty years been denigrated and reviled for precisely the same reason: as the first wave of imperialists. And, yes, they were, some of them, blood soaked, gold mad and, in some cases, actually mad. But  reading about the native South American civilisations, seethed in the blood of human sacrifice on a truly industrial scale, I begin to wonder if our current excusing of this as charming cultural practices is as patronising as the previous attitude of dismissal; maybe – and I say this with hesitation – maybe not all cultures are equal; maybe some cultures should be destroyed. And, yes, wiping out the Aztecs meant the loss of some fabulous feathered head dresses but should any culture that depends on ripping the heart out of people actually be allowed to exist? At least the Conquistadors suffered no paralysing bouts of moral equivalence; they brought the blood priests down.

Going back to the author, did you know that Tom Knox is the son of DM Thomas, author of The White Hotel and major literary figure of the 1980s and 90s? Literature, like politics and movies, is turning into a family franchise. I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Knox’s blogs in the Telegraph, so thought I’d try his books. While this isn’t likely to win the Booker Prize (although I bet many more people will finish it than have finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North or even Midnight’s Children, the novel that pipped The White Hotel to the Booker Prize), and it still carries a few infelicities that are the mark of a first-time thriller writer (a Guardian journalist as brawling, tough guy hero?), its pace and inventiveness and the truly extraordinary imagination applied to methods of dying means that I am sure I will read some more of his thrillers in future. But, on the whole, I’m rather glad this hasn’t been optioned and turned into a film. There are some things I would rather not see, and this book has quite a few of them!

Book review: The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham & Martin Ryan

The Anglo-Saxon World
The Anglo-Saxon World

Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.

Nick Higham’s writing style has improved immensely since he wrote The Kingdom of Northumbria A.D. 3501100 (my go-to guide when working on Edwin High King of Britain and now Oswald: Return of the King), and he now combines engaging prose with his immense knowledge of the subject. Really, no criticisms; if you want to learn about the history and culture of the Early Medieval Period in Britain, read this book.

Book review: The Valley of the Cobras by Herge

The Valley of the Cobras by Herge
The Valley of the Cobras by Herge

I read all – well, nearly all, I don’t think I tracked down Tintin in the Land of the Soviets – Tintin books when I was young, but I’d never read one of Herge’s other books before, so this was a delight. It has all the Herge virtues of humour, characterisation and keen observation, but something I saw as an adult, which I would have missed as a child, was its comfortable position of European, notably Enlightenment, cultural superiority over Asian, specifically Indian, cultures. Actually, despite being half Asian, I didn’t mind this a bit; it came as a bracing blast of self confidence, although of course the current Western cultural cringe is just as mired in self superiority, it just doesn’t realise it; now, all the world’s problems are the result of Western actions (an attitude memorably exemplified in a Guardian article on Jamaican attitudes titled ‘Their Homophobia is Our Fault’ – can’t non-Westerners do anything on their own, even be prejudiced?). So, thoroughly enjoyable.