Adventures in Bookland: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Fellow readers of Moby-Dick, I call upon you to answer truthfully, hand-on-heart, the following question: did you really read Moby-Dick? You’re sure? All of it? Every…single…word? I must admit, I did not. I started off, with some considerable pleasure, enjoying the sonorous turn of phrase, each sentence imbued with the cadences of what I suspect must have been many hours spent by Melville listening to the sermoninising of 19th-century preachers – there is a music to that, which comes across on the page. But, I must admit, the pleasure, after 50 or so pages, turned to dutifulness, although the dutifulness was rewarded when Captain Ahab finally made his belated entrance to the story, hobbling on deck with his whale bone false leg and the stern prophetic utterances of a mad Elijah. The  problem is, however, that there isn’t that much of Captain Ahab, or the tattooed Red Indian harpooneer Queequeg, or the other characters, while there is a huge amount about 19th-century whaling, the whale-oil industry, thoughts on cetacean biology and assorted other topics that drag on for page after page after page after page… By page 200 I was skipping pages. By page 250 I was skipping chapters. By the end, I just wanted it all to end – which it does, in unseemly haste after all the build up.  I can imagine, when it was first published, the ending must have come as a tremendous shock to readers: that Ahab should fail, that the spirit of the untamed deep should destroy the progressive works of 19th-century Man and all the crew, must have been totally unexpected. But it surely takes an awfully long time to get there. However, in Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick (how many people remember that the name should be hyphenated? I certainly did not), Melville created two extraordinary characters, who linger in memory long after the turgid passages of explication have slipped away like receding waves: Ahab remains, granite, stern, wave washed but unbowed, and the Whale looms above him.


Adventures in Bookland: The Colonial Post-Captain by Chris Durbin

In literary terms I have two guilty pleasures: military SF (ie. big guys usually wearing exosuits blasting aliens) and Napoleonic-era naval fiction. Add to that a third: naval fiction set during (and just before) the Seven Years’ War, the global conflict between Britain and its allies, and France and her allies, that saw the British ascend to a place among the global powers. In naval terms, Chris Durbin’s first novel telling the adventures of Captain Carlisle, a colonial American serving in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, and his lieutenant, George Holbrooke, is not very different from the worlds of Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin or Horatio Hornblower (which is probably why I like it so much!) and Durbin does an excellent job of introducing and differentiating his two main characters, while keeping them men of their time. If, as I do, you like Napoleonic-era naval fiction, then think on expanding your reading horizons to the generation before: you won’t be disappointed.


Adventures in Bookland: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

The seventh Peter Grant novel and, probably, the last I will bother reading. The problem for me is that Aaronovitch seems to find most interesting the characters I find least compelling (the various policemen and women who are almost entirely interchangeable, Peter’s riparian love interest Beverley, and, to be honest, Peter himself) while sidelining those whom I find most compelling, in particular Nightingale and Lesley. Also, having finished the book, I found out that some of these amorphous characters had been introduced via a couple of graphic novels that Aaronovitch has produced. It’s all a sure sign of a novel series being expanded into a world franchise: good sense from a business point of view, less so from an artistic one.

Adventures in Bookland: The Naulahka by Rudyard Kipling

As a long-time apologist of Rudyard Kipling’s work and a fan of even longer standing (I was about six when I first read The Jungle Book, although the tales that really inspired me were those of the duel between the mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and the cobras Nag and Nagaina, and The White Seal‘s search for a birthing beach safe from the depredations of sealers), I was about two thirds of the way through The Naulahka and beginning to fear that I would not even be able to enjoy the story, let alone defend it, when the story flipped. What before I had read as the tale of Western disapproval of the East, as confirmation of all those lazy takes on Kipling as the apologist for Empire, I realised was something else entirely: The Naulahka is, in fact, a love letter to America and Americans. Kipling began writing the story in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, the brother of his wife, Carrie Balestier, and its hero is as unabashedly American as Kipling could make him: the very personification of the men busy taming – and making money – from the expanding American frontier. The Naulahka puts such a man in India, not to illumine India, but to highlight America and Americans. Kipling makes no effort to present India or Indians from within – as he does in his other Indian stories – for the the protagonist is an outsider in India, and remains one for the entirety of the story. The Naulahka is Kipling’s version of de Tocqueville’s essay on America, an America exemplified by placing it in contrast to a stereotypical vision of India. Not Kipling’s best, but for this fan and apologist, enjoyable and defensible.


Adventures in Bookland: The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell

Our contemporary world, on its comfortable surface so often mundane, is, under that surface, deeply strange. But its strange in three different strands. There is the weirdness of science, of the quantum and relativistic phenomena of physics that underlie the material world. There is the strangeness of religion, that underlies the spiritual realm, with God taking delight in making mockery of all men’s plans. And then there is the weirdness of a third realm, not really addressed by the thought systems of either religion or science: the strangeness of what we might call the shadow realm, the world, or worlds, that lie between the equations of science and the insights of theology. In ancient Irish thought, this was the Otherworld, accessed through dreams and visions, through boundaries and under hill, that once visited could never be forgotten, a world hinted at in sidelong glimpses and unexpected memories. It’s that world that is explored in this book, a book of glimpses and strangenesses, of, as it says on the cover, unexplained phenomena. While this third world might seem to have receded through the last centuries of rationalism, I suspect that it has simply become stranger and more elusive, taking the chameleon hues,  in its interaction with humans, of our changing expectations. So what were once fairies and elves are now greys and greens.

But perhaps the clearest signs of this wild weird are not the things that might make some sort of sense, such as alien visitors, but rather the things that make no sort of sense at all. Of these, my favourite are the rains of fish, and frogs, and frog spawn, and a whole extraordinary variety of other things, presented here with all the detached curiosity of two dedicated scholars of the field. From this litany of strangeness and coincidence, there appears to me to be a suggestion of a sort of gonzo humour underlying this level of the world, a humour that delights in raining unusual objects on the world right up to pretty well the ultimate in weird: fixing wings on kittens.

So, yes, the world is strange, and its strangeness lies all around, most of the time hiding in plain view, or at the edge of vision. This book is a wonderful – and I use the word precisely – compendium of that strangeness. Highly recommended.


Adventures in Bookland: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric (although possibly his family came from Brittany), wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135 and, almost immediately, it was dismissed by other chroniclers and historians as almost complete nonsense. It tells the story of the Kings of Britain, that is the native kings before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, finding the origins of the Britons in the fall of Troy and another princely Trojan refugee, Brutus in this instance. Virgil, the poet of imperial Rome, had of course mined a similar seam of history in his Aeneid, linking the origins of Rome to Prince Aeneas. So by linking the history of the Britons to that of Troy, Geoffrey was also implicitly making them cousins to Rome. It was a bold stroke for a marginalised people. He then went on to tell the stories of the kings of ancient Britain: in these pages you will find King Lear and his daughters, Old King Cole and, of course, Arthur. Geoffrey expands the few nuggets about Arthur that had appeared in previous works hugely, adding in the key figure of Merlin to the mix.

Despite the book being treated as nothing buy fantasy by historians such as William of Newburgh, it quickly became famous and widely read, introducing these kings into the folklore and folk memory of Britain. Having read the History of the Kings of Britain I can now see why. It is simply such great fun to read. Geoffrey breezes through the centuries, sometimes spending just a sentence on a king, at other times opening up the story to a chapter length or more. It’s a great piece of storytelling, dressed up as history.


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.