Adventures with Words: H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian

It’s just so funny! Yes, O’Brian writes like a dream, appears to have a direct line into the minds and hearts of early 19th century men and women, and recreates the language of the time with extraordinary accuracy while writing a story full of adventure, tension, romance and intrigue but what really stood out for me on this re-reading was how funny it was. The scene where Steven Maturin realises that Jack has been giving rum to the sloth that he has brought on board the ship is wonderful! ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’

Adventures with Words: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

It’s not obvious from my name, but half of my ancestry is from the Indian subcontinent. My father is Sri Lankan – Tamil on his father’s side and Sinhala on his mother’s – and while Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then, is not India, there is a wide thread of common culture and attitudes uniting everyone from the subcontinent whatever their religion – and there are a lot of religions there. You might ask how I ended up with a surname like ‘Albert’ with such ancestry? The answer lies, in part, in the pages of this book: British imperialism and its impact upon the other peoples of the subcontinent, the lack of an answer derives from the prejudices of the people too. For the short answer is that my father does not really know. He was born in 1923 – and is still walking miles at 98! – but all he can tell me is that at some point before he was born, possibly his grandfather, took a British name, either from his employer or in honour of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. The reason my father can’t tell me any more is that his parents’ marriage was a love match, made in the teeth of parental disapproval, since his father was Tamil (and Catholic) and his mother was Sinhala and quite a high-caste Buddhist (yes, I know that strictly speaking there should be no caste system among Sinhalese Buddhists but there is). His own grandparents disowned their children and the products of that marriage so that he only ever met his grandparents – on either side – once. That also meant he was cut off from much family history, and even more when his mother died when he was still quite young. There’s nothing equivalent to parish records in Sri Lanka, so on that side my family history cuts off with my father.

But I was brought up partly in and partly observing the culture of the subcontinent, and I recognise it. Which was why, when as a child I first started reading Rudyard Kipling’s stories, I recognised much that I knew. For this white, British imperialist was a better observer of, and more sympathetic to, the culture of the subcontinent than any other writer I knew at the time. Returning to his stories now, as a grown up, if anything I think he understood it, and portrayed it, even better than I thought when I first read them. Kim is a journey, on and around the Great Trunk Road, where the journey is really the point of the story, the journey and the people, all the chattering, laughing, thinking, talking people that make up the true richness of India. Kim is the story of a continent and the mark it left upon a young imperialist: India created Kipling and he was an honest enough writer to understand that. Kim is his thank you letter to India. It remains, to this day, possible the best novel about India ever written.

Adventures with Words: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I’m old enough to remember how, back in the 1980s, it seemed like the horror genre was going to take over the world. Stephen King, of course, had started it: Carrie came out in 1974, Salem’s Lot in ’75, The Shining in ’77 and The Stand in ’78. Jumping on the bandwagon, a whole host of writers and publishers began churning out horror books through the following decade – and I was a big fan of them, picking lurid covers off the shelves at bookshops.

And then, it died. Not for Stephen King, of course, but for the rest. The blood-stained tracks became too trampled, the public lost interest, the publishers stopped publishing. The 1990s saw lots of articles written, asking variations on the question, who killed off the horror genre.

Now, having read The Turn of the Screw, I can answer the question. We did. We writers, we killed it off. Drove a stake through its heart, chopped its head off, pulled out its entrails and painted its drained blood upon the walls.

And that’s how we did it too: by piling up bodies, horror on horror, and forgetting that, for horror to work, there has to be something worse than death and the pain of dying; something much worse.

This is what makes The Turn of the Screw, and the other Victorian ghost stories, so effective: because these writers believed – or at least belonged to a culture that believed – that there are things worse than death. That a soul can be lost and, in its loss, something infinitely more precious than the mere pumping of blood and inflating of lungs is lost too.

After all, the problem with death, when that’s all there is, is that death ends everything. It’s the black curtain, the exit, the end, the close to suffering and the final release. Writing in a culture where death is the great, the sole, evil, robs horror of, well, its horror. Take away dread, the unspoken, wordless, formless dread of things and fates beyond and above and below death, and horror is reduced to variations on torture porn: how much can we make the protagonist suffer before his end? There is no horror in this, only the workings out of a monkey curiosity, drained of empathy.

So, for horror to work, then there must, indeed, be fates worse than death. It is the knowledge that this is true that makes The Turn of the Screw – despite Henry James’s rather curious prose style, so much more laboured and laborious than his brother, William James’s – into such a haunting book. And, reading it, tells us how flattened we have allowed our imaginative world to become.

Adventures with Words: Cloud Castles by Michael Scott Rohan

The final story in Michael Scott Rohan’s Spiral trilogy. The Spiral is the presence of the past – and the future – and the imagination in the present, touching the world at places of passage such as ports where, sometimes, it’s possible to turn down a road or enter through a door and walk into not a different world but the extensions of our world that have existed, that will exist or that might have existed and that did in the imaginings of someone. Cloud Castles avoids some of the problems of The Gates of Noon and marks a return to Rohan’s previous high standard. Steven Fisher, the hero of the two previous books, is finally beginning to change – it was getting difficult to imagine a man might have had the adventures in the Spiral that Steven did in the first two books without changing a jot – and the slightly forced far Eastern location of the previous book is abandoned for much more believable European locations. All in all a satisfying ending to the story.

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!