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.

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.