Adventures in Bookland: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

A Faust for the private dick. Falling Angel, a novel set in New York, was filmed by Ridley Scott as Angel Heart and translocated to New Orleans for the humidity and the implied dark magic, but in the book New York works just as well. If you’ve seen neither book nor film, beware, this review contains spoilers. The hero, a private detective named Harry Angel, is hired by a mysterious client to trace a missing person, a singer who went missing despite him owing the client something rather important. The book slowly, but quite chillingly, reveals that the missing person is Angel himself, a man so wicked in his previous life that he had sold his soul to the devil – and now the devil wants payment. But the conceit is that Angel, to hide from his deal, hid the memory of his own past from himself so that the devil could not find him.

I had read the book before, maybe 20 years ago, so I remembered little of the plot other than this key point. Rereading it, I was impressed at how Hjortsberg subtly suggests that Angel, despite having bought a new life and, almost, a new soul, actually remains as horrible a person in his new persona as he was in his last. There’s nothing particularly obvious, just an accumulation of little details, but they become clear on rereading. All in all, a brilliantly constructed, thoroughly chilling book.

Watching the Presses

It’s quite something to see the book that you’ve worked on for so long rolling off the presses – but that is what I did last Thursday. I went with Granta’s publishing director, Bella Lacey, to CPI Books in Kent to visit their plant and to watch the printing of all the 5,000 hardbacks that were to be printed for the first print run of Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Having heard for so many years about the death of manufacturing industry in Britain, it was great to see a factory, employing 150 people, that has gone from strength to strength. Indeed, talking to Mark, the sales director, who took us round the plant, we learned that they have had to employ more people to cope with the demand. Because of their ability to print anywhere from one to a million books, the very quick turnaround they provide from receiving the files to printing the books, and the much lower transportation costs, CPI has turned back the tide of jobs flowing to China. The presses are rolling 24 hours a day, six days a week, with the company producing between two and three million books a week!

We were taken through the whole print cycle, from the production of the print type for 32 pages of the book (which is why books are produced in multiples and factors of 32), through to printing, folding, cutting, binding and covering the books. For the last stage, we got to see Warrior itself go from a shrink wrapped pile of bound pages to the fully jacketed finished product, ready to go off to the booksellers. It was a fascinating and enlightening day: my thanks to Granta and CPI Books for making it possible. Here are some photos of the process.

Bella inspecting the photo typeset
The typeset from which the book is printed.
Pages being printed.
Printed pages running through the production line.
Pages being made ready for cutting.
Pages now cut into 32 page sections ready for binding.
All the printed sections of a book, ready for binding.
One of the huge rolls of paper used to print books.
Warrior, with its cover on, ready for it to be bound tightly.
The next pallet of Warriors, waiting to be bound.
An author with his books (the gentleman behind has seen it all before!).
Printed Warriors, ready for the final stages of binding.
Finished copy of Warrior. Now all it needs is its jacket.
Putting on the jackets.
Jacketed and bound copies of Warrior rolling off to be stacked, ready for shipping.
Notice how the hardback cover gradually settles under its own weight.
Author and the final product: a printed, bound and covered book.
8 copies of Warrior, ready to be stacked on the pallet for shipping.
All set to go!

Adventures in Bookland: Innocence by Dean Koontz

This story sticks in the mind in a way that few others do. In fact, it stuck in mine so much that I did something I rarely do: I reread it. Yes, there are technical issues with it, in that it muddles genres, switches pace abruptly, and doesn’t really foreshadow a major part of the climax so that that climax comes almost completely out of left field. But maybe in part because Koontz messes with reader expectations, these work fairly well. However, what really sticks in the mind is the book’s central premise: there is something about the hero, Addison Goodheart, that causes people, on first seeing him, to try to kill him. At birth, the midwife tried to kill him. His mother, after eight years bringing him up in solitude, sends him away and kills herself. It’s the answer to this conundrum around which the whole story revolves and that is what keeps it lingering in the memory long after other stories have vanished.

House Parties Today

Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

As a teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s I remember attending quite a few house parties, with varying amounts of parental supervision. But, so far as I can see, teenagers today don’t hold house parties. Is it because their parents, having attended house parties themselves when they were younger, are saying, “Absolutely not!” Knowing what went on at some of those parties (and the state of the house afterwards), that’s certainly what I would say if any of my sons intimated they wanted to have a house party. So, are house parties a thing of the past or are they still going on?

Black Library: Lords of the Storm

For all you Warhammer 40k fans out there, I’m delighted to announce my first novella set in the grim dark of the far future (it’s actually moved on to the 41st millennium now). Lords of the Storm tells of a Reiver squad of the Fulminators Space Marines given the mission to retrieve the relics of an Imperial saint from a penitential shrine world overrun by the forces of Chaos following the Great Rift. I’m very pleased with how the story has turned out and I hope you will be too. The novella should be available for pre-order in the summer. There’s a bit more about Lords of the Storm, and lots more about other forthcoming titles from the Black Library, here.

Adventures in Bookland: The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark

How did a frightened rabble of Jews in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire produce a religion that endured Imperial persecution while slowly transforming the Empire from within before going on to produce the world’s largest – and still fastest growing – religion? In this fascinating book, Rodney Stark eschews the normal theological and historical answers to this question and sets out to answer the question through sociological analysis. For instance, the vastly higher status afforded Christian women meant that they both embraced the religion and, since the religion set its face sternly against the infanticide or abortion that affected infant girls far more than boys, ensured that more girls were actually born to Christian families, who then went on to have children themselves. Christian care of the sick ensured that those cared for by Christian families and communities survived illnesses at significantly higher rates than pagans.

The book is perhaps at its strongest in this initial analysis, but the rest of its sociological tour through two milliennia of Christian history is always interesting and frequently eye-opening, from Stark’s robust defence of the Crusades to the weakness inherent in the Church-state partnerships so prevalent in Europe, which Stark points to as the main cause for the relative weakness of present-day Christianity there as opposed to the rest of the world, where robust religious competition ensures freshness of ideas and congregations.

Always stimulating and highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert

Ever gone into a second-hand bookshop? Have you glanced over the shelves of books, dusty and overlooked, their authors fading into forgetting? Writing a book is a tilt against futility, a challenge to eternity and entropy – but the shelves of second-hand bookshops tell us that almost all such challenges end in failure. Run your finger along the spines, reading off the names of the authors. Have you heard of any of them?

Unless it’s the inevitable row of Dickens, then probably not. They are being forgotten, consigned to oblivion as the graves in a cemetery slowly disappear under ivy as the rain wears the names from the headstones.

Christopher Hibbert, the author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, was one of the best-known writers of popular history in the 1970s and ’80s (he died in 2008). But, having taken this book off a shelf where it was slowly gathering dust, and having read it, I hope that the veil of oblivion will draw back from Hibbert’s work for a while, for this is an excellent book, with all the virtues of the best popular history – verve, narrative drive, vivid characters – and very few of the drawbacks. It deserves to be read, rather than forgotten. So if you’re at all interested in the history of the Renaissance, and the plots, intrigues and assassinations that drove it on, then this is a book for you. Fight back against entropy and decay: take the book off the shelf.


Adventures in Bookland: The Cambridge Companion to Bede edited by Scott DeGregorio

Probably the definitive single volume looking at Bede, his life, work and influence. An array of scholars examine what we know of his, generally uneventful considering the turbulence of the times, life and place Bede in the context of those times, when the first heroic generation of missionaries to the pagan Anglo-Saxons had died and the church was decided what it was and what it would be. How could an institution founded by a man whose refusal to take up the sword in his own defence find resonance and a home among a people so devoted, at least in their upper echelons, to violence, as passion, past time and purpose. There is an interesting contrast with the Romans and Romanised peoples in southern Europe. The Empire had fielded a professional army (it continued to field a professional army in defence of its eastern iteration in Constantinople), allowing for a separation in the state and the people between the civilian and the military. Indeed, this contrast endured in Italy, so that the city states there, during their interminable wars, generally preferred to employ mercenaries, condottieri, rather than calling on the citizenry or the nobility to fight. But in the north, among the descendants of the tribesmen who had settled in France and Britain, the elite fought. Indeed, the nobleman, the knight, was defined as a man who fought, a warrior. How to find purchase in a society like that?

One way was for a heroic religion, one marked by feats of spiritual daring that matched the feats of physical heroism and endurance that called forth songs from the scops. Such had been the approach from many of the Irish monks, men more than a little mad with God, who would as soon cast themselves upon the waves for providence to take them where it would as they would stand to their necks in the Irish Sea, singing psalms and prayers. Such endurance called forth the admiration of warriors. But another way was the way of prayer and study and learning, the new magic of writing that allowed a man and his words to be present where he was not. This was the way of Bede, and doing it, he became the greatest scholar of his age: a remarkably acute and subtle mind. This book is a worthy companion to his study.