Book review: The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell


OK, it’s time to come clean: military SF is my chick lit, my mummy porn, my go-to reading when I want rest, relaxation and vast numbers of aliens and/or spaceships blasted into green goo or expanding clouds of plasma. This is my first venture into Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series: it might best be summed as ships of the line, blasting merry hell out of each other but in 3d and with relativistic time effects thrown in for good measure, and fewer interactions with the natives. In fact, and in distinction to the Warhammer 40k universe which has been my main source of military SF so far, there are no aliens at all, just humans blasting away at each other in vast battle fleets. This is just as pleasing, though: Warhammer 40k has big guys with bigger guns, the Lost Fleet has ordinary sized men with huge fleets of spaceships: it’s Space Marines versus Navy, grunts with guns against hard admiral action and I just love it all to bits. So, if you love destruction visited upon tens of thousands, but in a noble and virtuous manner, then this is the book for you! And, what’s more, it’s the first in a series of six! I am there!

Book review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida


My eldest son has Asperger’s syndrome and, while not locked into wordlessness in the same way the author was when he was little, he shares some of the behaviours described in this book, most notably the one on the cover: he jumps. He also intersperses that with bouncing up and down on a large gym ball, and running up and down corridors. And, you know what, I’d never asked him why he did these things. He just did them. Naoki Higashida, though, gives reasons for why he jumps, and flaps his hand in front of his face, and many other things, and while my son probably wouldn’t give exactly the same answers (I’m going to ask him though!), the fact that there are answers, intriguing, beguiling, authentic answers, is akin to revelatory. Repeated actions, day in, day out, week after week, year after year, with the accompanying soundtrack of hisses and squeaks, can become – to me at least – teeth gratingly irritating. What Naoki makes clear, and what I should have known but had lost sight of, is that it is so much harder for my son. Patience, prudence, fortitude.

Old-fashioned words and old-fashioned virtues, but this book makes it clear that these are the key attributes needed by those caring for children with ASC (autism spectrum conditions). Naoki’s voice, individual and inquiring, comes through as a far more genuine reflection of ASC children than books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – it should be! Indeed the intense self-reflection displayed in this book brought to mind some comments of my own son, when he remarked, in intense frustration, “That’s another theory down the drain.” It turned out that, like an experimental scientist, he formed hypotheses about people’s behaviour and emotions, and then tested them out against observation, and he did this again and again and again. The strain of such constant testing needs hardly be stated.

In short, as a short, impressionistic account of what the ASC mind is like in childhood, this book is the best I have read. If you have an ASC child, or know one, you should read it. Your child’s answers will not be the same, his questions might well be different, but, ah, to know there are answers…

Book review: Deeply Odd by Dean Koontz


** spoiler alert ** Of all the best-selling authors I’ve read, Koontz is the most uneven. Sometimes – for instance in the first volume of this series, Odd Thomas – he can be quite brilliant, taking your breath away with the audacity of his switchbacks and reveals. At other times – say, the second volume, Forever Odd – he can be by-the-numbers ordinary. But even at his worst, Koontz retains a priceless gift, and one that many ‘better’ writers do not match: the ability to make you want to read on, to find out what happens next, to turn the page. Now, as the series has gone on, it has shifted from being about one young man, Odd Thomas, with paranormal abilities to seemingly preparing for the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ! Ambitious, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, a corollary of that is that Odd (it’s written in the first person) spends more time telling the reader about the moral and spiritual decline of contemporary society. Even though I largely agree with this view, it gets tiresome after a while. Besides, it would be better shown than said.

However, once the story kicks in – children abducted by a satanic cult – Koontz’s turbocharger revs up as well, and I flew through the last third of the book. On the positive side, while Koontz’s religiosity can seem a little treacly for my tastes, he sometimes comes up with startlingly vivid insights into the moral and spiritual life, ones which I have tried to take on board. Also on the positive side, it is a book undoubtedly written for the good – and that is no small thing in itself. It’s as if Charles Williams, Inkling, was reborn as a Californian, with less theology but more jokes! So, no classic, but a further step towards – I think – the New Jerusalem!

Book review: Shieldwall by Justin Hill

Shieldwall is, I think, the best evocation of late Anglo-Saxon England that I’ve read. It’s the turn of the second millennium and England is cursed with probably the worst king it has ever suffered – Ethelred – and also, strangely but equally, the country is cursed with a people that are too faithful to their unworthy king. Despite Ethelred’s cowardice, duplicity and treachery, they stick with him through everything. Hill does a fine job of showing the reader how intertwined the House of Cerdic, the kings of Wessex, had become with the very idea of England, so that, despite Ethelred’s manifest incapacity as king, no one attempted to depose him. The author shows us an England that is still strong in its bones, in the deep layers of its society, but with its sinews wasting away before the depredations of the Danes and the treachery of some of the English nobility. Although at times a difficult read, there is perhaps no more apt Anglo-Saxon era to write of, for their poetry is suffused with regret, with the passing of things and the transience of life, and this is the history of the eventide of a culture and civilisation.

The only real drawback to the story is that it is almost too painful to read, but the author draws the reader along with prose that’s muscular and, often, stamped out with the alliterative metre of Anglo-Saxon verse. It might be an easier read for someone unfamiliar with the history of the period, but for me, knowing what was coming next, meant that there were days when I couldn’t bring myself to pick the book up and read further. As the first part of the Conquest trilogy, I suspect things are not going to get better! However, I will wait for volumes two and three with mingled eagerness and trepidation.

My only real criticism is that the paperback edition I read had a surprising number of proofreading errors. For the next edition it might be worth going over the text again. Otherwise, an enthralling, if painful, read.

Book review: Before Scotland by Alistair Moffat

The problem with prehistory is that there is no history. That is, there are no stories, no names, none of the usual hooks upon which we hang our understanding to enlighten, entertain and help us remember to guide us through the greater part of human existence. All there are, are mute remains and although these can be eloquent in their own way, notably the village excavated at Skara Brae in Orkney, yet they are essentially still silent about the men, women and children who once lived. So, it’s a measure of Moffat’s achievement here that he makes the silent people before Scotland existed come alive, at least as far as is possible, and without entering into speculation and fantasy. He does this through a disciplined use of ethnographic parallels and examples drawn from Scotland’s historic past which, he believes, were continuations of pre-historic practices. The writing is lively and entertaining throughout, the text studded with fascinating little boxes giving insights into other parts of the world apart from Scotland, and the book taught me a great deal about prehistory in general, not just that of Scotland. Recommended.

New Blog Post – Elsewhere

I have, I know, been a little lacking on the blogging front lately, but we have been away, in Northumberland and Scotland. To see the odd photo of our adventures there, see my Facebook page. But I have not been entirely quiet on the writing front, it’s just I’ve done it for the kind, and very tasteful, people at Penumbra magazine. To see my guest blog there, go here!


What’s more, ‘When Animals Spoke’, the story that inspired the blog, is now available in Penumbra’s Revolution issue. Go here to buy it for a piffling $3.99.

Rejection Notes – no.13 in a series

Edoardo Albert,

Thank you again for submitting to […]. We appreciate the
time and effort you put into this piece and are grateful that you trusted us with your work. Unfortunately, after much review, we have decided that “Riding the Line” is not the right fit for this anthology. You made our shortlist from more than 500 submissions and we hope you consider subbing to us in the future.


Acceptance Notes – no.7 in a series

Dear […], and Edoardo,

Congratulations! I have chosen your stories to be the lineup for our August Revolution-themed issue of Penumbra~! I was so very pleased with your stories, and how you managed to avoid the obvious route for stories about revolutions and instead took unexpected routes in your exploration of the theme. This may be one of my favorite Penumbra issues ever–which is saying quite a lot.


And above all, congratulations! I’m looking forward to putting this issue together, and hopefully will see many stories from all of you at Penumbra in the future.


When Was the World Widest?

We live in a narrow, constricted age. The blank spaces on the maps have all been filled in. Where before there were dragons, there are now caravan parks. When I read 19th century novels, it is easy to sense the suffocating constriction of the middle class social mores of the time. It was against this incapacitating blancmange of expectations that Nietzche raged and, from a completely different angle but with a similar analysis, Kierkegaard reimagined Christianity. But at least, there were still mountains to climb, oceans to sail, rivers to trace to their source and the possibility of wonder around the next bend or over the next ridge. But now, we’ve been there and done that.

I wonder, though, when the world was at its widest. In one sense, it must have been when that first band of humans left Africa – everything but home lay before them. However, because it was so completely unknown, the world may have seemed no wider than the next horizon.

During the Neolithic, humanity had spread over most of the world, but most of the world remained empty. But Neolithic remains – cairns, standing stones, barrows and the like – are markers as well as memorials, telling wanderers that this land belongs to us by right of the bones of our ancestors.

At the time of the early civilizations through to Rome, the world grew in one sense wider, although more explored, as strangeness dwelled in new cultures and different ways of life.

In the Early Medieval Period, travelling, raiding and piracy reached their apogee with the Vikings, and the spread of Islam and then the Mongol Empire allowed a greater degree of travel through Asia than had ever been possible before. The world grew broader still.

The world in 1513
The world in 1513

But I nominate the Age of Exploration, when navigators such as Columbus, Da Gama, Magellan and Drake found lands unknown to antiquity as the time when the world was widest, for then its extent was at least roughly known, but the vast majority of it remained terra incognita, and a thus a theatre of possibility.

Rejection Notes – no.12 in a series

This is the sort of rejection note that is almost as good as an acceptance!


Thank you for offering your story to […]. We’re sorry to tell you that we will not be using it; you are free to submit it elsewhere. This story isn’t quite right for […], but holy cow — that feeling of someone at your door at night! I was queasy and breathing shallow the whole time.

Assistant Editor