2015 in review

Here’s a summary of 2015. Not as productive as I’d hoped on the writing front, but there’s a time for filling the well, isn’t there?


BOOKS READ IN 2015

Stonemouth by Iain Banks – disappointingly similar to The Crow Road and Espedair Street, with a dash of Wasp Factory.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – twenty pages into this, I knew I wanted to read it again. The clockwork gadgets and charming characters drew me into a sense of place so genteel and stifling, yet plagued by violence; and there’s snow (always happy to read stories with snow).

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky – like reading through a subject on Wikipedia as if it were a travelogue. Not very deep but enjoyable while it lasted. Is it true, perhaps, that many of the non-federal roads between small towns in the USA originally followed animal trails between salt licks?

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore – interesting historical research written engagingly, but TBH I thought both characters in the marriage sounded pretty ghastly and felt sorry for their various kids.

Concrete Island by J G Ballard – strange to imagine how anyone could write this story now, thirty years or so later, with the rise of CCTV and near-ubiquitous smartphone ownership. Can’t you hear the SatNav berating the lead character for taking a wrong turn?

Lanark by Alasdair Gray – tortuous and bitty and self-indulgent. Can’t see why it was worth waiting for. Filed with 2666 and Moby Dick under “hours of my life I’ll never get back”, but at least I finished it.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell – seminal work that claims to have laid the foundation arguments for the nationalisations of the 1945-50 Labour government. Left me with a sickly notion that the lead characters might find our current world of zero-hours contracts and crushing urban rents somewhat familiar.

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There by Sinclair Mackay – an easy read which nonetheless makes the intricate and crucial work at Bletchley sound as dull and repetitive as office work everywhere. There’s a possibility I might cite this as research for a future Cuckoo Club story, as one of my characters in Dogger, Forties, German Bight has a hinted Bletchley past.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – having heard the author talk about this series at CrimeFest 2014 I was keen to read the novels, of which this is the first. Now, not so likely to go out of  my way. Well constructed story skilfully written but didn’t hold my interest enough (too contemporary, not enough clever gadgets or magic weirdness).

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – worth reading if you are interested in the historical groundswell that also gave us Brave New World, Metropolis and 1984. Has hints of Logan’s Run in places too. A slender tome.


I’m hoping that next year will prove a little more expansive on the reading front. Limiting my time online will help. Don’t expect much.

 

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on 2015 in review  
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Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)

 

– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.

The Road To The Herzwesten Brewery

Come back through time with me, to Vienna in 1529.

We’ll take a table at the Zimmerman Inn and wait for Brian Duffy to turn up, sword in hand, looking for a wizard with a burning snake in his mouth and the promise of the best beer in the Western world.

But first, we’ll stop off just a few years back.

My partner loaned me his copy of The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers. I’d finished The Anubis Gates and we were waiting for The Stress Of Her Regard to come out in paperback in the UK, but I had to have more.

The Drawing of The Dark, by Tim Powers (Grafton Edition, 1987)Enter Brian Duffy, the lead character of the novel, being mugged in a side street somewhere in Venice.

Middle-aged, bruised, already on the wrong end of the story, he takes a job protecting the Herzwesten beer until the time comes to tap the barrel.

Lovely touches amongst the story add to the warmth I always feel when I pick up the book. It’s one of my favourite Tim Powers novels, and I re-read it every couple of years.

It starts in Venice.

“All night the hot wind had swept up the Adriatic, and from the crowded docks down by the arsenale to the… western mouth of the Grand Canal, the old city creaked on its pilings like a vast, weary ship” – Chapter One, The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers

Only a few years before I read the book I’d visited Venice with my fellow archaeologists on our day off from a dig in the foothills of the Alps. We stuck to the back streets and watched tourists jostle along the crowded bridges one street over, following the route on the map from the tourist office at the railway station, cheap souvenirs poking out of their backpacks.

When Brian Duffy wobbles along the darkened alleys, I can picture the houses above him, mellow plaster in sandy tones and green water lapping at the walls. Since there’s little vehicular traffic amongst the canals, you can hear voices from high windows, arguments in staccato or snatches of song, people bustling on foot amongst the cloisters and over the little bridges.

Then comes the brewery.

The head brewer, Gambrinus, shares his name with one of the most popular beers in the Czech Republic. (It would be another few years before I’d get round to visiting Prague, but the pilsner travels well.)

The story quickly blossoms into a ripping yarn peopled with Vikings and swordplay, strange beasts in the Alpine sunlight, magic, wizards, imposters and lost loves, thundering along with nary a halt for a refreshing snifter.

And what a snifter that might be.

The Beaker People brewed it.

A Bronze Age culture of Western Europe, which I’d studied at the same university that took me to Venice:

“they spread the art of brewing with a missionary zeal – you can find their decorated beakers in graves from Sicily to the northern tip of Scotland” (Tim Powers, ibid.)

We have their pots and their grain and once on a summer’s day by the shores of a Swiss lake I tasted a modern replication of the beer they might have brewed, yeasty and spicy and just what you need as you rest your tired limbs by the waterside.

Pots survive because they’re durable. Very few wooden items survive, even beer vats, unless they’re waterlogged (or kept in continuous use).

In the cellar of the Zimmerman Inn is a vat half as high again as Brian Duffy, green with moss, with three spigots. The source of the Herzwesten Dark. Bronze Age beer, and then some.

And recently I came across another story which suggested the Zimmerman Inn wasn’t the only old brewery around in 1529 (and I don’t mean the Weihenstephan).

In the Spring 2015 issue of BEER, the quarterly magazine of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), is an article on Britain’s oldest (official) brewery:

Shepherd Neame, based in Kent.

The traditional starting age of Shep’s is celebrated as 1698. Almost two centuries after the fictional brew is supped by Brian Duffy in Vienna.

But the article in BEER (by Mark Dredge of pencilandspoon) goes on to explore the brewery’s early history, investigated by its very own historian, which reveals a brewer on the site in Faversham back in 1596.

We’re now only a few decades after the siege of Vienna which forms the backdrop to the story of The Drawing of The Dark.

Further back in time, then, the story goes.

Shepherd Neame’s historian can prove there was a brewery on the site in 1573. There’s a link to the abbey of Faversham, the abbot’s brother importing beer in 1525 and his son running the abbey brewhouse by 1550.

Beer and monasteries.

Just like the Zimmerman Inn, previously known as the St Joseph Monastery before Aurelianus took over and hired Brian Duffy to guard it.

So with a small huge stretch of the imagination you can see how the road to the Herzwesten Brewery leads not to Vienna, after all, but to the garden of England. And, not surprisingly, Shepherd Neame brew a dark beer.

The Drawing of The Dark isn’t a complicated story. It’s a good old-fashioned romp of an adventure with some typical Tim Powers touches – the effortless references to real places and events, the evocative depth in his descriptions of the weather and the surroundings, and his lively characters.

And it’s flawed.

I particularly like the story because it’s flawed – there’s a point where I always expect the plot to sway on a particular hinge (a missing spell book) and… it veers off on an entirely different direction, breathtaking in its simplicity.

Once you’ve read a number of Tim Powers novels you can see how this links into the others with the underlying Arthurian theme, especially Last Call, and the system of magic/iron/blood he explores in greater detail in The Stress Of Her Regard.

But sometimes all I want to read is a ripping yarn. Especially one so steeped in beer.

Pilsen Cellars

Published in: on April 8, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on The Road To The Herzwesten Brewery  
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How I met Lord Brandoch Daha

I picked up The Worm Ouroboros in a second-hand bookshop more than ten years ago. The title intrigued me, with its hints of esoteric mysticism and its old-fashioned use of the word Worm. The Worm, or wyrm, is an Old English word for dragon, but the ouroboros is Greek, alchemical, and is signified by a serpent biting its own tail – it’s the equivalent of a Möbius strip, the never-ending and ever-repeating flow of energy that is harnessed by Enochian magic.

Fascinating, indeed.How I met Lord Brandoch Daha, and Goldry Bluszco, and Queen Sophonisba

When I turned over the cover I was even more intrigued by the book. The art on my copy was the 1960s paperback, a childish style that mimics the woodblock style that Tolkien favoured for his own art and also references Lowry and Bruegel. The artist is unlisted, and according to the ISFDB there is no record elsewhere, which is disappointing.

My childhood, in the 1970s, was littered with books under these type of covers, and the jumble sales I frequented in the 1980s also steamed with this sort of artwork on book covers, mainly for children. There’s a touch of Noggin The Nog about it.

Anyhow, the appearance of The Worm Ouroboros in my local Oxfam bookshop coincided with my reading of the Histories of The Lord Of The Rings. The cover copy emphasised that Eddison  had been the writer used as comparison when Tolkien first appeared. I’d read the C S Lewis Cosmic Trilogy by then, and the full five volumes of T H White’s Once And Future King (which I adore – more on that elsewhere).

I was eager for more of the same.

So far, without even opening the book, I was intrigued. I had to be careful, though – it was a paperback which had obviously been well-loved, and was wrapped in sticky-backed plastic, and the glue along the spine that kept the pages in place was growing brittle with age. With gentle care I parted the covers to see if the words inside were what I was looking for.

It was.

Eddison’s language, when I flipped through the pages, was a challenge.

He challenged me to read him.

His prose is old skool even for those of us who love old skool. He’s been compared to Elizabethan English, to Shakespeare, and his use of language in The Worm Ouroboros certainly has that cadence and complexity of form.

He challenged me.

I rose.

I’ve read books where the story is sometimes tangled up in the writer showing off their mastery of something more than writing. Umberto Eco’s Name Of The Rose is one example – I came to the book after falling in love with the film, watching it more than a dozen times, and also with the words of my English-teacher father ringing in my ears that “Eco shows off” in his writing.

When I got round to reading the book of Name Of The Rose, I found myself skipping parts of the page when he got too tied up in monkish politics or descriptions of church procedures. Nice, but a bit like the raisins in a rum’n’raisin ice-cream – adds texture, doesn’t change the flavour. (At least I didn’t do what I did with Moby Dick [short of hurling it at the wall] and skip whole pages.)

Anyhow.

Eddison isn’t one of those writers. His prose is elaborate where needed, and adds juice to his fruit. The characters are mega-characters, straight out of the heroic epics, as if the Norse Gods had grown up in Ancient Greece or Turkey, and they act with such mature grace it makes us all feel like awkward adolescents.

The textures he evokes, the journey, is purposeful, and makes you want to follow wherever he goes.

The Worm Ouroboros itself is a trope, a meme, a theme throughout the book that lends an edge to the story but isn’t part of it. There’s no dragon hunt, no actual worm, no rescue of maidens.

There are enormous characters who live their lives with the strength of mythic beasts.

I wish Eddison was more accessible, because he deserves it. The Lord Brandoch Daha and Queen Sophonisba deserve it, the epic journeys they undertake across the landscape of his world. Game Of Thrones has nothing on this.

But I also like Eddison’s obscurity. It’s like a secret handshake. A key to a hidden land, perhaps, and only on Goodreads have I found fellow travellers.

If you’re up for a challenging read, an epic of heroes and villains and opulence and mythic elegance, for characters that glow with life and landscapes that maim the mind’s eye with their beauty, come join us.

Again, and again, and again.

6 books about books (and libraries)

Books about books (and libraries) have a special place in literature. Here’s six of my favourites.

The Name Of The Rose – William of Baskerville and his novice travel to a monastery in Northern Italy. As they arrive, the monastery is disturbed by a suicide. As the story unfolds, several other monks die under mysterious circumstances. William is tasked by the Abbot of the monastery to investigate the deaths. The protagonists explore a labyrinthine medieval library, discuss the subversive power of laughter, and come face to face with the Inquisition.

The Shadow Of The Wind – Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, everyone initiated to this secret place is allowed to take one book from it, and must protect it for life.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – the librarian is an orangutan, and some of the books are so dangerous they have to be chained shut.

Jasper Fforde‘s books – Thursday Next is a detective who works for Jurisfiction, the policing agency that works inside fiction. They are a series of books based upon the notion that what we read in books is just a small part of a larger BookWorld that exists behind the page.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Norrell has a library of all the magic books in England and hoards them in his house in remote Yorkshire.

and the anti-book:

Zardoz – In the distant future Earth is divided into two camps, the barely civilized group Sean Connery in an orange loincloth in Zardozand the overly civilized one with mental powers. Zed, one of the barbarians, who worships the stone head Zardoz, comes upon an old library where a mysterious stranger teaches him how to read. When he finds a copy of a well known book, he sets out to learn the secret of the god he worships in an orange loincloth…

Published in: on March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on 6 books about books (and libraries)  
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