Book review: Mr Midshipman Hornblower by CS Forester

Mr Midshipman Hornblower
Mr Midshipman Hornblower

There are some eras that just work – in historical fiction books – in a way that others don’t. So, we have endless stories of the Roman legions, but  few of the English Civil War (although my theory for that is that very few writers today can find their way into the headspace of the Parliamentarian/Puritans). But of all the eras, none has proved itself better suited to books than the Napoleonic Wars: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books and, of course, but, in my case, shamefully unread, CS Forester’s Hornblower series.

Well, now I’ve started reading Hornblower, and I’m hitting myself over the head with a copy of A History of London (and if you’ve seen or, worse, tried to pick this up, you’ll know how serious a self castigation this is!) for taking so long about it. This is marvellous, completely page-turning stuff. The useful introduction in this edition, by Bernard Cornwell, told me that Forester had been writing Hornblower novels for a while before he produced this one, returning to the youth of his hero to fill in background, and it does not always work to read a series in chronological rather than publication order (Narnia, for instance, should certainly be read with the same sense of discovery as Lewis himself found in writing it, rather than from its Genesis to its Apocalypse), yet with Hornblower this looks to be the right approach. I’m thoroughly enjoying making the acquaintance of this geeky (before they’d invented the word) youth, as he makes his uncertain way into the senior service, complete with acute seasickness.

As to why Napoleonic-era novels work so well, I suspect it has to do with the time itself: the conflict that brought into being the modern era also bears many of the characteristics of the ancien regime it displaced: so prisoners might give their word on parole, and it be accepted, that they would not escape; there was the wonder of a world still being discovered; and yet, the first indications of the unique savagery of modern, industrial warfare in the massed cannonades and vicious guerilla warfare of the Peninsular conflict. The Napoleonic Wars closed one era and began another: no wonder they work so well in books.

Book review: Saint Odd by Dean Koontz

Saint Odd
Saint Odd

There are seven days in the week, seven deadly sins, seven sacraments and seven wonders; and now there is the seventh, and final, book in the series following the adventures, among the living, the dead and the uncertain, of Odd Thomas, fry cook, social commentator and soldier against the end of the world. It’s been an uneven journey, and I sometimes wonder if there were seven books because, well, seven is just the sort of number you want to get to if you make it past three (and seeing how Dean Koontz can seemingly churn out a three hundred page novel every three months, the challenge of the seven must have been near enough irresistible). But despite the rocky road (almost as much for the reader as for Odd himself – while I’ve not had the love of my life shot down, nor had first Elvis and then Sinatra mooning silently around me, Odd didn’t have to read Forever Odd – Koontz is a wildly variable writer, sometimes in the same book, just as often between books), I’ve kept on with Odd and I’m glad I did, even if the last book in the series does not really tie together the strings left hanging by the previous volumes. But then, how could it? With the hints that Koontz was laying on – of apocalypses, a virgin, forever pregnant mother and demonic cults – the only way to fuse everything together was to write, full-on and out there, the novel of the Second Coming. Not surprisingly, and rather wisely, Koontz in the end backed away from that. In the end, Odd returns to his home town and saves it and that, well, is that. Farewell Odd. I’ve enjoyed your company.


Book review: A History of London by Stephen Inwood

A History of London
A History of London

Now this is an interesting addition to reading categories: book as offensive weapon. Honestly, I’m not joking – I weighed my edition (and I have the paperback!) and it came in at over 3 lbs (or 1.4kg for the metrically minded) – so chucking this at an assailant, a critic or a Brummie would certainly cause severe bruising, probably concussion and, hitting the right spot, possibly even death. Even reading it was a workout for the wrists: mine are now like the steel hawsers that they used to use on the London Docks, before containerisation killed them (a death upon which Inwood performs an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, inquest).

Yes, this is is history written big, in a big, big book, of a big, big, big city. It’s were I was born, making me a Londoner in a way that few of the other people I meet here are (almost everyone seems to have come here from somewhere else) so it’s interesting to find out that London has always drawn people in, although for most of the city’s history they were from other parts of Britain. And if not for these historical infusions, London would have withered away, for the city consumed its citizens, killing far more than it gave birth to, so if it was not for the hopeful and the desperate running or fleeing to the city, it would have died to. Although the great Victorian sanitary engineers – Joseph Bazalgette and Co did more for the city than anyone else in its history – stemmed and then reversed the tide of death, yet it still seems a city that consumes itself, eyes directed inwards, darkly. London is a dark city, London is a light city; more stories end here than begin, shuffling without notice into forgetfulness as the city, in its ceaseless churn, buries itself and starts again. No museum piece – no Venice of aspic beauty – it’s ugly and destructive but, undeniably, also alive.

In the battle of big London books, A History of London is longer, heavier and bigger than Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the city and Inwood is certainly the better, more careful historian, but Ackroyd is the better writer. Read Inwood for depth and breadth, read Ackroyd for fizz and zap.

Book review: Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Jessica's Ghost by Andrew Norriss
Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

So, let’s start a review of Andrew Norriss’s new book by talking about Alan Garner. Yes, that Alan Garner – Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Moon of Gomrath, Elidor – one of the finest children’s writers – no, one of the finest writers – of the last fifty years. But I bring Alan up because there are clear parallels – and just as clear divergences – between him and Andrew, and they serve to throw light upon both writers.

Style first suggested affinity: both write the tautest prose around, with not a single spare word. (Although I don’t know this, I suspect that both write in similar ways, boiling the word stew down until only the strongest broth remains.) Indeed, in Alan Garner’s case, the paring away cuts so deep that even the bones are weakened (Red Shift for example) and the story suffers. However, where it works, it works wonderfully, inviting and inducing the reader to fill in the gaps and the silences, as in a Guo Xi painting.

Autumn in the River Valley by Guo Xi
Autumn in the River Valley by Guo Xi

But style is nothing without substance, and both Alan and Andrew deal with wonder: the eruption or eliding into the everyday of things and people extraordinary and unusual – although Andrew puts in jokes, and Alan definitely does not do humour. But more fundamental is the importance in their written worlds of the fantastic: it drives everything, whether it be Aquila, an intelligent, alien space car, or the Weirdstone itself: different worlds intersect and in their crossing lies story.

But this is where things get interesting, for in the different moods of each writer we can detect something of their hopes and fears of the supernatural. With Garner, the supernatural, while more encompassing and more powerful (the Wild Hunt in The Moon of Gomrath), yet there is a sense, a desperate sense, that it may all be in the mind, nothing more than mental phantoms; if a child should ask the key question, ‘Is it true, is it real?’ the book answers that it desperately wants it to be real, but fears, with a dread full, reality draining fear, that it is not. It is, just, words, and even these are slowly draining of meaning. This is what gives Garner’s books their fragile, desperate beauty, like a spun metal sculpture, trembling and under tension.

With Andrew Norriss, on the other hand, behind the jokes and the carefully constructed comedy there is a lightness, a surety that can only come from the written conviction that, yes, this is real, this is true: the world is not only more wonderful than we imagine, it is more wonderful than we can imagine. So, while there is not the tension that fills Garner’s novels, there is a peace that issues in the joy (and laughter) that pervades them.

Jessica’s Ghost is something of a departure for Andrew Norriss – its protagonists are older, its themes more serious, its issues more immediately applicable to the troubled life so many young people live. It will be read at many different levels; it may pull some back from the abyss, while others it may allow to grow into themselves. Andrew Norriss is not so tense as Alan Garner, but he is more complete. Jessica’s Ghost is a fine, fine story; please, do read it. (Try to ignore the front cover, which seems calculated to put people off buying the book.)

Book review: Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi

Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi
Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi

For the first thousand years after the armies of Islam burst, like a tsunami, upon the unsuspecting empires of late antiquity, destroying the Sassanids and crippling Byzantium, it must have seemed inevitable that the heirs to the Desert Prophet would eventually win, and the crescent flag fly from the cities of Europe, as they flew over the towns that had created and cradled Christianity: places like Corinth, Hippo, Antioch and Jerusalem itself. They all fell under Muslim rule. A grim foreboding seized Christendom, a sense of the inevitable failure of the struggle, a sense made more implacable by the loss of the Crusader Kingdoms and the dribbling away of the crusading impulse under the weight of its contradictions and the rivalries of the kingdoms of Europe.

It was like trying to fight the rising tide. Waves flowed up the beach, and back again, sometimes seeming to recede, but always returning and gradually washing higher, sweeping away, like sand castles, defences that had once seemed firm.

Looking back, with the historical ignorance that now informs most Western debate about Islam, we seem to have forgotten how desperate the struggle was and how doomed it must have seemed. And each time one Islamic dynasty failed, it was replaced by another, more dynamic and more expansionist than the last. So as the Abbasids declined, they were replaced by the Mamluks, and then, finally but no one knew that, the Ottomans. Under the Sublime Porte, Rome – in its eastern Byzantine form – finally fell and the Ottomans advanced into south eastern Europe, conquering Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, turning the Black Sea into an Ottoman lake and twice beseiging Vienna.

The flow was all one way: Muslim advance, Christian retreat. The only exception was the centuries long Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain, once the brightest, most brilliant civilisation of the Islamic world.

The key to this centuries long strategic difference was Christian disunity compared to Muslim unity. The Islamic world saw a succession of strong, centrally organised empires, exercising a long-term unity of purpose directed towards military expansion. The Christian world featured innumerable competing, squabbling, fighting kingdoms, mainly concerned with protecting themselves against the ambitions of their immediate neighbours than the doings of the Sultan. What’s more, as kingdoms coalesced in the late Middle Ages to become the ancestors of modern nations, the Sublime Porte became a most useful ally in the diplomatic/military dance against Holy Roman Emperor/France/Venice/Papal States (delete adversary as applicable). Then, when Europe fractured in the great break up of the Reformation, the skilled diplomatic service of the Ottomans found it had even more fissures to exploit.

For the Venetians, consummate players of the game and thus not trusted by anyone, matters came to a head in the second half of the 16th century as their trading interests and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean were gobbled up by the Ottomans. With Cyprus beseiged, they decided to act, and with the pope, Pius V, an enthusiastic advocate, set about forming an alliance to act against the dominant Ottoman navy – which had not lost a battle for centuries. The problem was, the Spanish, the other main members of the Holy League, were perpetually beset by money worries and the last thing King Philip II wanted to risk was his very expensive ships. The Mediterranean, with its calm waters and long calms, was ideally suited to galleys – but feeding, supplying and paying the men needed to man a galley was wildly expensive. So Philip, for form, joined the Holy League but left his commanders in no doubt that he wanted to avoid battle if at all possible.

But as fortune, and family, would have it, Philip had trusted the command of the Holy League to his half brother, Don Juan of Austria, telling him to avoid women as well as battle. Don Juan had no intention of doing either and, after many months, brought the bickering, quarrelling fleets of the Holy League to face the Ottoman navy at Lepanto.

Capponi points out how battle became inevitable in part because both sides were convinced that they were the stronger. In the end, the Holy League won, and Capponi gives a detailed and convincing account of the battle, a confusion of gunsmoke, burning ships and drowning men.

For the first time in centuries the Ottoman advance was halted. It might have seemed like just another sandcastle, standing before a retreating wave only to be overwhelmed when the sea rose again, but it turned out to be the start of the turning of the tide. Capponi is a master of the historical sources, particularly on the Christian side, and this is a fine account of one of the most definitive battles in history. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, fought at Lepanto, dragging himself from his fever bed to do so and losing the use of his left hand as a result of the wounds he suffered during the battle. Yet even so, he could say:

What I cannot help taking amiss is that he charges me with being old and one-handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see.

 My only real criticism of the book is that the publishers skimped on the proofreading: there are far too many typos and infelicities of translation. Otherwise, excellent.

Book review: Tourmaline by James Brogden

Tourmaline by James Brogden
Tourmaline by James Brogden

How to review a book about dreams when I don’t dream? For me, sleeping is the great blank, the slip into non-being in between the daylight bouts of consciousness. If death is sleep, my sleep, then it can hold no real terrors for me (although I don’t believe it is like my sleeping). That’s not to say I never dream, just very rarely. Unfortunately, my dreams, when they do occur, are nothing like the wonder and terror-strewn dreams of Tourmaline, but genuinely, undeniably boring: has anybody else ever dreamed on the rates of VAT? All of time and space, every imagining and phantasm, they are all there at the disposal of my dreaming self and it chooses rates of VAT. J’accuse my subconscious of terminal tedium.

By the reading of it, James Brogden’s subconscious isn’t boring at all. Judging by Tourmaline, going to sleep at night for him must be a trembling upon the brink of fear and excitement, a step out upon the high board poised above the roiling waves of unconsciousness personal and collective, looking down and seeing the monsters and wonders below and knowing they are waiting for him. Would I enjoy this sort of sleeping? I’d like to give it a try! But, failing that, I read Tourmaline, and was transported in my waking to worlds of wonder, bordering our own in sleep – a theme of Brogden’s writing in this and his excellent first novel, The Narrows. There, through those Narrows, people went between worlds through thin places made physical, here they pass mainly through dream doors, although some enter by way of paintings and pain.

We live in a world that has somehow been drained of wonder: dreams are, for most people, one of the few remaining channels back to that wonder and Brogden takes dreams seriously, examining them, turning them under words so that they live in everyday, waking light and become flesh, not phantasm. Would I want to live in a world where arakas – psychic parasites living in the dream layers of consciousness – are real? Well, yes, so long as I didn’t get one in my hair! A tamed, stolid world cries out for monsters to crash through its walls and bring it down – we can see that in the way bored young men turn to the terrors and thrills of Isis and head off to Syria and Iraq. Indeed, a history of civilisation could be written as the caduceus of security and boredom, with wars proceeding ultimately from the suffocation of peace and prosperity: Nietzche’s raging against 19th-century complacency eventually issuing into the carnage of the first half of the 20th century.

For those who dream, however, there is escape from boredom, at the expense of the great, the question that arches over everything: is it real? Is it true? Or is it just a dream? In Tourmaline, the dreams are real, and they bite. Read it.

Book review: Religion in Medieval London by Bruno Barber

Religion in Medieval London
Religion in Medieval London

A well-produced and nicely illustrated guide to the archaeology of belief in medieval London. No quarrels with the analysis of the archaeological findings, but whenever the authors attempt to explain the wider historical context, they seem to be floundering. For instance, they appear to think that the key Christian concept of the Eucharist, that the bread and wine offered during Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ, was first promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when in fact the council defined as dogma a pre-existing belief.

Where the authors really fall down, though, is their explanation and potted history of the Crusades, which appears to have got stuck in the first wave of post-Victorian revisionism, which replaced one crude dichotomy (Crusaders good, Saracens, apart from Saladin, bad) with an even cruder one (all Crusaders bad, all Muslims good). As archaeologists and historians they really should know that things have moved past that, with a far more nuanced appreciation and understanding of both sides in the conflict. So, in summary, good on the archaeology, pretty poor on everything else.

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.

Acceptance notes – no.14 in a series

Dear Edoardo,

Thanks for the opportunity to read your story.  I really enjoyed it and would love to include it in the next issue of Circa (Spring 2015).  However, I feel there is a problem with the title.  It is evidently the first in a series but since there is no series to follow immediately, would you consider giving the piece a title that could stand alone?  If you can rename it, please let me know soon and I will add your story to the next issue.