The Best Sort of Review

What I think of this review.
What I think of this review.

The best sort of review is short, to the point and gives the clear impression that the reader’s life has been fulfilled from reading your book. An example: this reaction to Oswald: Return of the King, on Amazon.

 Thank you Anonymous! (And, no, I don’t know him or her).

Adventures in Bookland: Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty

Darkmouth
Darkmouth

‘The next big thing,’ according to Eoin Colfer.

It could be. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t be. Hegarty is a fine writer and the story is engaging, the (reluctant) hero a winning mix of moral courage and physical awkwardness, and my 11-year-old son absolutely loved it and is waiting eagerly for the next instalment, so it has all the necessary ingredients (and a really good cover). But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?), but, for myself, I am getting a little bored with this style of comic fantasy, where monsters turn out to be misunderstood outsiders, a quip is never more than a paragraph away and each chapter is really short. Like the sentences. If you like this sort of writing, then Darkmouth is as good an example as you’ll find; buy it, read it, and help a writer support his family. As for me, I’m beginning to long for discursive sentences, complex sentence structures, replete with sub clauses and diversions, and less than fifteen paragraphs on a page. Time I read some Dickens, I suppose.

Adventures in Bookland: Civil War by Peter Ackroyd

Civil War
Civil War

Which was the worst century in Britain’s history? The absolute worst to have to live through? There are plenty of candidates. The 14th century, when the Black Death arrived on these shores and killed a third of the population, has a pretty strong claim to the title. Then there’s the fifth century, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when everything collapsed and the native Britons were driven, by sword and spear, into the margins of west and north by bands of marauding Anglo-Saxons. Mind you, having done that to the Britons, and become the English, the ninth century has strong title to the worst century, as the Vikings returned the favour and destroyed three quarters of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Or what about after the Norman Conquest? Pretty much the entire local aristocracy either killed or displaced by the Normans and, according to Paul Kingsnorth, the biggest land grab in history, as everything became the property of the king. Then there’s the sixteenth century: Reformation, revolt, Henry executing people left right and centre, and the ever present terror of the Tudor spy network, informing and betraying. A single sentence spoken out of place and heard by the wrong ear could be enough to have you executed.

Then there’s the destruction of the Wars of the Roses, the poverty of 19th-century industrial slums, or not one but two World Wars and a Depression packed into the first half of the 20th century. All good candidates for worst time to be born. But, having read Ackroyd’s Civil War, I will now plump for the 17th century: of all the ills that can befall a country, none exceeds civil war, and, although exact death tolls are hard to come by, the casualty rate likely exceeded that of the Great War. Even when the war was over, political uncertainty persisted, plus this was the century of enclosures, when the poor were forced from the land. So, come on down, 17th century! You have taken the prize: the worst century in British history!

Adventures in Bookland: The Realt by James Brogden

The Realt
The Realt

What’s real? At the end of The Realt, when all expectations (at least mine) have been confounded, that I suppose is the question that remains. What is real? I suspect we all dream of other worlds, although where we place them may differ: among the stars above, in the hope of heaven and the fear of hell, in realms of faerie within hollow hills or beyond the turn of tide. Even when our own world was still without known limits, we dreamed of other worlds; how much more, now, when the bounds have been sent the earth bent back upon itself: travel far enough now and all we shall accomplish is to return to where we started from.

In The Realt, there is another world, a world to which we all have access, although some of us see more of it than others: the dreamworld. This is a real, physical world, split from our own in ages past, and much like ours, although rather picturesquely caught in a quasi-Victorian era. It is not, itself, a world of dreams, but dreams, and dreamers, from our world may enter it, and, bringing their dreams, wreak havoc there – CS Lewis was all too right in making the Island Where Dreams Come True the most fearfull of all the isles the Dawn Treader encountered on its long voyage into the uttermost east.

Keeping the worlds apart is a shadowy but ultimately powerful organisation called the Hegemony, which wields exactly what it says on the security pass. But between the worlds, monsters lurk, Lovecraftian (without all the turgid prose) gods of horror and despite, waiting to be woken from their millennial sleep so that they might rise, and feed.

Brogden’s writing ripples with imaginative energy and taut prose, the horrors leavened with staring-into-the-face-of-hell wit, as he propels his cast of characters towards the, for me, completely unexpected denouement of this second volume of the Tourmaline trilogy. I know, I know the middle instalment is supposed to darken and deepen things – I remember my story making lessons from Joseph Campbell via a deep-frozen Han Solo – but I can safely say I didn’t expect it to get that dark and that deep! Now that James Brogden has thrown every expectation I had as a reader up against a brick wall, leaving them broken and shattered, I can only wait with a mixture of excitement and some little trepidation what he has in store for the final volume of the Tourmaline trilogy.

For readers of dark fantasy with a gritty urban feel – you can’t get much grittier than Birmingham after all – this is quite exceptional work. For myself, I’m only glad that I get to read Brogden’s work rather than live in his world. It’s a tough question: I too dream after other worlds but, if I could, would I want his world to be real? It is a world of wonders, after all, much like, say, the Warhammer 40k universe is, but also a world I’d much rather visit in the imagination than reality. But if the choice was a flat, so-this-is-all-there-is universe and Tourmaline, I’d probably plump for Tourmaline (at least at the beginning of the book: having read the sneak preview of volume three that comes at the end of the book, I’ll have to read it first to see whether I’d still want to visit!). But, leaving that aside, if you enjoy books such as Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence or Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasies, the Tourmaline trilogy should go straight to the top of your reading list. Just remember to thank me when you dream!

(And a final point: this is the second great cover design from Snowbooks – let’s see if they can make it three on the trot with The Amity, the last volume in the trilogy.)

Adventures in Bookland: Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Dr Faustus
Dr Faustus

Dr Faustus first made his pact with the devil on the London stage in 1572. It’s hard reading it not to think that Christopher Marlowe had concluded his own bargain a year or two before – and like the hero of his play, they were both short changed. Reading it now, after Reformation, Enlightenment, wars world and otherwise, Modernity, Post-Modernity and everything else, it still shocks; its impact near five centuries earlier in the middle of the religious upheaval of the Tudor dynasty must have been overwhelming.

Dr Faustus, speaking with the devil’s own despite, pours scorn over all, but most particularly the religion that had formed, then broken apart, the civilisation of which Marlowe was part.

Philosophy is odious and obscure.
Both law and physic are for petty wits.
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vile…

But when men make God the reason for their hatred, is it any wonder that others heap coals upon this image and make pacts with a devil who must seem the lesser of the two calamities. What Marlowe really believed is unknown, buried beneath lies and rumours and slanders, aimed not so much at him but the richer and more powerful men, notably Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom he was associated. Tudor power politics was a blood game but its rules were laid with ink: was Marlowe the heretic, the atheist, the sodomite and blasphemer the Baines note suggested he was, or were these the casual calumnies of the underworld of spies and recusants, traitors and fanatics and rogues where Marlowe swam. That he was enlisted as a spy by the Privy Council seems fairly clear, but beyond that, it’s difficult to know anything for certain in this murky time. In one sense, Dr Faustus is a medieval morality play, updated, yes, but still with a clear sense of evil (although a rather shakier sense of the good), and justice is done, and seen to be done, in Faustus’s condemnation and damnation at the end of the play. But, on the other hand, Faustus’s almost complete lack of sense for the power of redeeming grace suggests powerfully that Marlowe may also have felt that absence in the milieu of the burnings and executions of the Reformation.

Maybe Marlowe fascinates so because he seems at once a thoroughly medieval man and yet, also, the first truly modern one – in fact, almost post-modern in his scepticism of the rules and mores of his society. Dr Faustus looks at the world around him and has the courage to call it all a sham, and there lies the tragedy: for there is a clarity of vision there that is then clouded and blurred into the petty lusts and (really rather funny) ragging of Pope and cardinals. Dr Faustus is, clearly, the work of a young man, with all the rage of the young fresh burning against the mess they have discovered their elders and supposed betters have made of the world. It burns still.

Adventures in Bookland: London and the Reformation by Susan Brigden

London and the Reformation
London and the Reformation

Now this is hard-core history. I can only stand back in awe before the prospect of the hours, days, weeks, months and years Susan Brigden must have spent in archives and libraries, poring over texts – letters, wills, deeds, all the paper trail of a civilisation that was becoming intensely literate – in the making of this book; and the facility with which she combines the wealth of detail from every sector of society with an overall grasp of the extraordinary changes that befell London and England through the reigns of Henry VIII, and his son and elder daughter. The book does not go on to the reign of Elizabeth, but it is one of the finest pieces of historical research you could ever come across on this topic, doing justice to the complexity of the subject, with its intersecting religious, spiritual, political, economic and cultural vertices, while never becoming lost in this complexity. It stands in comparison, good comparison, with Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and, alike, shows how the Reformation in England was, in the end, the product of the zeal of a small group of people, on flame with the Gospel, but, most of all, the relentlessness and fickleness of one man: Henry VIII. Henry made England’s Reformation. Without him, England would most probably have remained a Catholic country.

Adventures in Bookland: Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein

Space Cadet
Space Cadet

So, it’s 1977. We’ve landed on the moon and come home again, twiddled our thumbs, looked around and decided, er, that’s it. I’d watched, in befuddled amazement, as a group of lads not much older than me had appeared on TV with Bill Grundy and swore on live TV (it’s hard to believe, but I’d gone through my entire time at primary school without hearing a single four-letter word, although the first day at my secondary school was sufficient to introduce me to all the common ones). There were only three channels on TV, and most of the day was taken up with the test card:

The test card
The test card

It was a different world. But I was reading about a new world, a world that still seemed brave and new and, through the peculiar and particular genius of Robert Heinlein, quite, quite possible. 1977 seems already a world away, but Heinlein wrote Space Cadet in 1948. In it, the future had arrived, and it had done so so completely that it did not even need to be explained. People had phones that they could carry around and make calls from – anywhere. The Interplanetary Patrol has imposed peace on all the planets of the solar system. And these planets teemed with life; beneath Venus’s clouds were seas and marshes and Venusians; austere Martians co-existed with brash Terran colonists, barely noticing their presence. The future had arrived and it was all a whole lot better than the world of 1977. Although Heinlein was in many things astonishingly prescient, there was one area where he, and all the golden age SF writers, failed utterly. In Space Cadet, Heinlein even dated the first Moon landing to 1975, only six years out. But neither he nor anyone else had anticipated was that, having got to the Moon, we would stop.

My two earliest memories of the wider world outside my family and immediate experience were Neil Armstrong’s, ‘One small step’ and the spreading green ripples through the jungles of Vietnam, as B52s dropped strings of bombs onto the country below. The Interplanetary Patrol, a self-denying, self-sacrificing corps of nuclear-armed police, seemed to my thirteen-year-old self, the perfect solution to the problems of the world: even now I can remember the impact of the hero’s realisation that, yes, the Patrol would drop the bomb on his own home town if required to do so and he would regard them as right in doing so. This is the sort of sacrifice that appeals to a boy struggling towards adulthood, and Heinlein’s juvenile novels are great manuals for a certain sort of boyhood – one that I wished to have. Space Cadet is one of the best, in particular because it is free of one his character tropes, the garrulous father figure. All the characters here are boys, growing into men, and Heinlein does a great job of portraying that within the quasi-naval context of the Patrol.  All in all, Space Cadet contains almost all Heinlein’s virtues as a writer and none of the vices that later infected his work.

Oh, and the price back in 1977? 75p. Here’s the cover of my copy: the paper has yellowed but it’s still in good condition.

1977 NEL edition of Space Cadet
1977 NEL edition of Space Cadet

Adventures in Bookland: Odd Is On Our Side by Dean Koontz

Odd Is On Our Side
Odd Is On Our Side

Ah, the pitfalls of being a franchise author. Now, I thought it was simply a matter of chucking out a few half-formed ideas to your writerly minion and then sitting back and counting the royalties as they flow in, while throwing the odd (get it?) groat to your amanuensis but, it turns out, that is not the case at all. So, here you are, Dean Koontz, bestselling author, owner of the best hair transplant this side of Elton John, dog owner and, now, faithful Catholic after a rather dodgy period in your youth when you embraced some distinctly dodgy form of nihilistic transhumanism (I must be one of the few people to have read Koontz’s 1976 novel A Darkness in My Soul which backs up this contention), and now, after working all your life seven days a week turning out four novels a year you think maybe it’s time to sit back, work the kinks out of your typing fingers and let someone else bring in a few of the bucks.

See, you’ve got this bestselling character that your fans have really warmed to – and he’s a bit of a personal favourite too – and your agent mentioned this manga stuff to you a while back and you still remember the sting: ‘What’s more, you don’t even have to write it, Dean. The characters are so strong, they’ll take the strain even if someone else does the writing.’

And you think, ‘Yeah… They are, aren’t they. It’d be kind of interesting to see how someone else sees them – at least till the movie deal comes through. Why not?’

‘Of course, you get script approval, Dean.’

Turns out, that was just as well. Ozzie Boone black? Well, you could live with that, even if it wasn’t how you saw him, but then you read the plot and, yes, it’s yet another mad-fundy-Christian-poisons-trick-or-treaters potboiler. Look, you know potboilers, you’ve stewed enough plots in your time to feed half the homeless in Pico Mundo, and even you wouldn’t stoop that low, even if you weren’t, actually, you know, a Christian rather than someone like, er, Fred Van Lente, who apparently gets all his knowledge of this obscure sect from the more lurid episodes of cop shows and the anthropological investigations of Salon and the Huffington Post.

You take a deep sigh. You run a red line through that particular plotline. You suggest something else and you resolve that, in future, you’ll write your own books. Leave the author farming to Clive Cussler and James Patterson; you’re an honest workman and you resolve to remain so.

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.