Adventures in Bookland: Honour Guard by Dan Abnett

February 22nd, 2017


It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when laid up with illness, nothing cheers the soul more than reading about men with big blasters shooting evil enemies into a bloody pulp. So, there I was, so ill with flu that for three days I couldn’t even read, but lay curled up in a ball that alternately sweated and shivered. When I eventually recovered enough to reach for a book I had no doubt what I wanted: Abnett!

It’s one of life’s great discoveries that a writer for hire – as Abnett is, plying his trade within the invented universes of Warhammer 40k, Tomb Raider, Dr Who and whichever other franchise willing to pay him – can still be a supreme craftsman and, frankly, a far better writer than the vast majority of authors writing the stuff of their dreams. (In fact, on the couple of occasions I’ve read Abnett’s original works, I’ve not found them as good as his work in pre-existing universes.) Honour Guard is no exception and, as I slowly recuperated, I settled once again into the dystopia of the 41st millennium – and thoroughly enjoyed myself. As I mentioned at the start of this review, there really is nothing more cheering than reading about blokes with bolters blasting the forces of vile Chaos into steaming piles of flesh and bone.


Adventures in Bookland: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

February 22nd, 2017


As previously mentioned, when reviewing The Passage, should you by any chance find yourself on a military appropriations committee faced with a proposal to create indestructible supersoldiers and, oh, by the way, we’re going to test this by splicing the genes of a strain of vampire bat to a bunch of death-row murderers, just say no. No ifs, no buts, no. Really, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that something is going to go terribly wrong and it does – but not for Justin Cronin. For the author, it’s all gone terribly right, earning him bestseller status and a very healthy bank balance.

Who’d have thought it? But then, who would have thought a self-published novel about sadomasochistic sex would turn into the publishing phenomenon of the last decade? At least Cronin can write much better than EL James – in fact, he generally manages to hide from the reader the basic ridiculousness of the premise, so that you buy into his post-vampire apocalypse world – I should know, I ploughed through the 800 plus pages of The Passage (with quite a lot of skipping but a genuine desire to find out what happened) and now I’ve gone on to read the sequel.

I’m pleased to say that the twelve of the title – the death-row killers turned vampire super monsters – are dealt with by the end. Whether I’ll go on to read the third and final (I think) volume in the series I’m not sure at the moment. But I probably will. It might be nonsense, but Cronin makes me want to know what happens next – and that is the defininition of story telling.

Adventures in Bookland: Mort by Terry Pratchett

February 22nd, 2017


Strange and sad to think that Terry Pratchett has met HE WHO SPEAKS IN CAPS LOCK. I first read the Discworld novels just after they started coming out – I think I read The Light Fantastic and The Colour of Magic (in the wrong order, naturally) before Equal Rites had been published – and while I enjoyed the first two books enough to read on, it was with the third and, particularly, the fourth book, Mort, that Discworld really came alive (sorry!). In part, that was because I found Rincewind, the hero of books 1 and 2, rather annoying (although the Luggage remains one of my favourite Discworld characters), so his disappearance in book 3 was something of a relief. But, really, I think it’s because in writing Death, Discworld did come fully alive in the imagination of Terry Pratchett. The world opened up and opened out; rereading Mort after so many years, you can almost feel the authorial excitement as he begins to see the connections between what he writes and what he wants to say. In Mort, you can see magic happening before your eyes.


Adventures in Bookland: The Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

February 20th, 2017


Have you ever actually read the Bible? I mean, sat down and read it, as a book, from start to finish. It’s strange – deeply, unsettlingly weird. And it’s at its strangest at the start and at the end: in the books of the Torah, and in particular the book of Genesis, and in the Apocalypse of the world’s ending amid a welter of lambs and dragons and incomprehensible imagery. (Actually, there’s one other area where it is particularly weird, but repetition has dulled its strangeness, and that is in Jesus’ teaching. Hearing the Sermon on the Mount again on Sunday, I was struck again at how, by any human standards, what Jesus preaches is completely mad. I mean, if someone hits you, offer him your other cheek to strike again! It is the madness of a view to the uttermost depths of humanity.)

Anyway, the temptation with the story of these patriarchs is to see them as all too modern. But they weren’t. The world of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was almost incomprehensibly different from our own. From the brilliance of the stars in a sky of crushing darkness, through to the caprice of kings unbound by any sorts of laws and the walking of a world thick with gods and demons, it was a time utterly unlike our own, rule bound, desacralised era. The physical and the spiritual were bound so tightly together that an oath before God might be made by cupping one’s testicles, the seed of the future – or having someone else hold them as pledge and troth! It was a world so strange as to be all but incomprehensible.

But people are people, whatever the gulfs of culture. What Buechner does here is hold in creative tension the chasm and the closeness, making these strange people, the fathers and mothers of nations, understandable without ever minimising the huge gulf in understanding that separates them from us.

The Son of Laughter of the title is Jacob, son of Isaac, for Isaac means Laughter. Jacob means Heels but he is renamed, in the course of the book and the Bible, Israel, which means he who wrestles with God. No more apt description of the Jewish people has ever been written: for they are the people who wrestle with God. The struggle continues.

Most Biblically-inspired literature is full of pious platitudes. Son of Laughter is full of the fierce strangeness of the book that inspired and informs it. So, if you can’t bring yourself to sit down and read the Bible, read Son of Laughter for an insight into the fractured, fracturing meeting point of the human and the divine.

In the book, Jacob’s name for God is the Fear. That is the beginning of wisdom.

Adventures in Bookland: Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

February 20th, 2017


It’s not often given to a historian to write a history that features, as a major player, a relative, but that’s the responsibility presented to Simon Sebag Montefiore in this book – along with the task of telling the story of the most contested city in history. That he succeeds in bringing to vivid, but not airbrushed, life his great great uncle Moses Montefiore – one of the key figures in the Jewish reclamation of Jerusalem after centuries of exile – and in relating fairly the bloody tales of Jerusalem the Golden is testament to what a fine work of history this is. Jerusalem: The Biography is popular history – that is, history written for the people, not the specialist – at its best and I recommend it completely. Mind, it would take a writer of talent to render boring the story of Jerusalem, and the madmen, tyrants, saints and sinners that lived in, fought over and beseiged the city, and Montefiore’s talent does not lie in boring his readers. Quite the opposite: this is history as page turner, a thrill ride through the past.


Adventures in Bookland: The Tribute Bride by Theresa Tomlinson

February 20th, 2017


One of the unanticipated pleasures of finishing The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy is the freedom that has brought in its wake to read other books set in 7th-century Northumbria. While writing Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, I read one other novel set in that time and place, Jill Dalladay’s The Abbess of Whitby, and while I enjoyed the story, reading ‘my’ characters filtered through another writer’s perception of them produced a strange disorientation: it was like looking at a scene where everything is doubled. What was worse, that disorientation carried over for a while to my own writing. So I had to resolve to leave aside reading any other books set in 7th-century Northumbria until I had finished writing my own.

Now they’re done, I’ve been released. I’ve read, with great enjoyment, two of Matthew Harffy’s Beobrand novels (and am looking forward to reading the third as soon as time allows), with his own takes on the characters of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, and now I’ve finished Theresa Tomlinson’s The Tribute Bride. The heroine of the book, Acha, figures large in Oswald and Oswiu, as mother to kings, but in The Tribute Bride we see her as a girl and young woman, entering into her fateful marriage with Aethelfrith. So the vast majority of the events of the book occur before the start of Edwin, and I thoroughly enjoyed Tomlinson’s ingenious solution to the historical question of how Acha came to marry Aethelfrith and why her husband killed her father and sent her brother into exile. Because of the paucity of our sources, we can never know for sure exactly what happened in this bloody family saga, Tomlinson’s version rings with the verity of dramatic truth – if it didn’t happen like this, it should have!

So, for an engaging and engrossing journey into the deep roots of the struggle for mastery in 7th-century Northumbria, I commend this book to anyone who has enjoyed Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.

Adventures in Bookland: First Light by Geoffrey Wellum

January 27th, 2017


This won’t be so much a review as an injunction: read this book. That’s right, stop reading this review right now and go and get hold of First Light however you can: buy it, borrow it, steal it if necessary (any writer in his deepest heart wants readers more than anything else, so if you can’t afford to buy his work, he’ll forgive someone who steals to read).

Right, got it? What, you mean you haven’t bought it yet? Well, let me tell you why you should. Firstly, this book has moved, in a single reading, into my top five favourite books of all time. The achievement is all the greater in that the other occupiers of that list were books I read when I was much younger, unmarked, and could receive deeper and more lasting impressions from the books I read. But First Light has broken through the dull accretions, and the dullening, of age. So, if you would be young again, read First Light.

How has it managed to do this? Because it combines two things in a quite extraordinary manner. Firstly, it is the memoir of a boy growing into manhood while flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. As such, it is thrilling, humbling and intense in a way that very little else could be. (As an aside, the great Australian cricketer, Keith Miller, also flew fighter planes during the Second World War. When interviewed many years later by Michael Parkinson, Parkinson asked him about how the pressure of playing top-level cricket, to which Miller gave the immortal, and precise, answer: ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’)

As a straight memoir, First Light would be a good book for the almost impressionist way it brings to life the stress and tension of being a front line fighter pilot during the Second World War. But there are many other memoirs of the air war. Where First Light becomes something quite exceptional is that, unlike most of the other memoirs, it was written many years after the events it describes, when Wellum, so young during the Battle of Britain that he was nicknamed ‘Boy’ by the other members of his squadron, had become an old man. What’s more, he was an old man whose marriage had broken down and who had withdrawn from his old life.

First Light is the record of an old man looking back on his life and asking the question of whether that life was worthwhile. It is the record of humanity staring into the great unknown that awaits and asking, ‘Did I live in vain?’ There is thus, behind the tale of the young man growing up, the almost unbearable poignancy of an old man assessing his years and weighing them in the scales. This is what makes First Light so exceptional: youth recalled in age, and the great question of whether, when Geoffrey Wellum meets his maker, he will have anything to place in the scales to weigh his life as having been well lived.

Although there is an aching sense that Wellum himself is unsure of the answer, to the reader there is no doubt: that we live to read what you have written is testament to your life and its worth.

Thank you, Mr Wellum, for your life and for your book.

My Year in Books

January 16th, 2017

A pretty poor effort for 2016. Only 43 books for the year. Must do better in 2017!


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Adventures in Bookland: Scavenger Zoid by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

January 16th, 2017


There’s nothing better than a bit of robot bashing for some good old blaster fun, and Stewart and Riddell deliver this in pacy, bite-sized chunks in this book. Reading it, I’m reminded of the stories of the generation ships, spending centuries travelling at sub-light speeds to new suns, that were a popular sub genre of science fiction when I was a teenager (a rather longer time ago than I like to think).  Showing that you can’t keep a good sub genre down, it’s obviously time for the generation ships to take off once more, what with the new Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence film, Passengers, and this book kicking off a new series. If I remember right, the first iteration of the sub genre eventually disappeared up its own premises with the slow realisation that this was actually nothing more than Peyton Place in space – space opera became soap opera. Let’s see what happens this time round!


Adventures in Bookland: English Fairy Tales and Legends by Rosalind Kerven

January 16th, 2017


Stories are the thread on which the world is woven, although nowadays, with the meaning being drained from words all the time, the thread is fraying. But these tales come from a time when words still glittered with all the danger of faerie, which is to say the danger of their truth, and in Rosalind Kerven the stories have found a fine teller. In turns haunting, sharp, unsettling and admonitory, these are the best kind of stories and the illustrations are a superb complement to the tales. Highly recommended.