Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Strange Books of Our Times

If ever a book qualified for the description "niche market", it's one which I got hold of last week: Les Compagnons de Villehardouin, by Jean Longnon.  Longnon has trawled, I suspect over many decades, through the primary sources of the Fourth Crusade.  His goal: to identify and provide capsule descriptions of all the Frankish crusaders who accompanied Geoffrey de Villehardouin on the crusade to Constantinople.  The historical record is scanty, and most can be summed in a paragraph, invariably ending in their death at the battle of Adrianople in 1205.  Longnon also throws in a few non-Frankish crusaders, including our old friend Boniface of Montferrat; he avoids death at the battle of Adrianople by the sensible expedient of being elsewhere at the time, but the reaper catches up with him two years later when he's killed in an ambush.

Les Compagnons de Villehardouin is described somewhere on the internet (the book is almost impossible to source) as "for serious students of the Fourth Crusade only".  That must mean me, then.  It has no narrative as such, but as a source of minor characters for a novel it's invaluable (and also a good way of summarising what happened to the major ones).  It's also in French, which is less than ideal for someone's who's only had a glancing acquaintance with the language since my O-Levels.  But with a bit of perseverance, it's surprisingly easy to extract the main information.

My researches, then, continue.  Next time, we'll look at women in the Middle Ages, where information is not always easy to mine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Historical Novelist's Choices

My research into the Fourth Crusade has been going very well (and so it should be - I've been reading nothing else since mid-September).  Knowing a lot of facts about the Crusade doesn't get you very far as a writer, though.  It's like buying a pet sheep and expecting to get a jumper out of it.  You have the raw material but you need a lot of skill and labour to turn it into the end-product.

After the critical "when and where?" question has been addressed, the writer of historical fiction has at least two other critical decisions to make.  These are the proportion of genuine historical characters in your story (the peerless HBO series Rome adroitly mixed the giants of the late Roman republic with fictional characters), and the balance between character and action (which we can also think of as the extent to which the drama is internal or external).  I've plotted a few historical novelists on the graph below to suggest where their work falls against both of those criteria:

A writer at the top left, like Bernard Cornwell, writes mainly action-centred stories built around fictional characters.  Depth of characterisation will be sacrificed for pace and excitement, and appearances from characters from history will be rare.  At the other extreme, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is a largely interior drama imaginatively recreating the psyche of a genuine historical character.  Closer to the middle we have writers like Dorothy Dunnett or CJ Sansom, who in their different ways interweave historical and fictional characters while balancing character and action.

There isn't one right way to do this, and the reader's enjoyment will be conditioned by the author's execution and personal taste.  I myself found Memoirs of Hadrian one of the most boring novels I've ever read, but I love the work of Allan Massie, which sits very close to it on my quadrant.

These are choices I still need to make for Sons of the Devil.  My thinking at the moment is somewhere round about Robert Graves or Sharon Penman on the graph.  Once that's sorted, I'll need to consider some more plot-specific questions: the identity of my protagonist(s), starting point of the story, narrative tone.  But for now, those things can wait.  Instead, I must continue my journey through Charles M. Brand's compelling Byzantium Confronts the West, which explains in convincing detail just why Constantinople was ready to fall to a group of quarelling opportunists in 1204...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's In A Name?

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
John 8:44
Last time we looked at some of the material available on the Fourth Crusade (there is plenty more - this is a subject historians made whole careers from).  Today I'm starting to explore how that might express itself in fiction.

The Crusades, however their original intentions became perverted, sprung from a religious impulse.  Any attempt to write about them in our largely secular age is doomed to failure unless it recognises that people had a fundamentally different world-view at the time of the Crusades; sober and reliable chroniclers can mix accurate eyewitness accounts with tales of miracles and spiritual apparitions.

With this in mind, I thought a title drawn, directly or indirectly, from the Bible would be a good place to start.  I ended up with the passage quoted at the head of the piece (taken from the never-bettered King James version - the progressive enfeeblement of subsequent contemporary versions can only be deplored).  The quotation above readily fits the Fourth Crusade, whose participants may have felt they were inspired by God, but whose achievements were rather less elevated.  The working title for the first instalment paraphrases the verse to become: Sons of the Devil.

Future volumes--if this is not looking too far ahead--have titles that similarly take their inspiration from the same source.  The second volume, covering the sack of Constantinople, is The Land Desolate.  Again the King James version gives us the crispest prose.
Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
Isaiah 13:9 

The final volume treats the early days of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, and resolves the stories of those characters who survived the first two volumes.  In this case I set aside my fidelity to the King James version; the New American Standard version has greater force.

For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 3:19

This gives us the title for the last part of the story as The Fate of Beasts.

All that remains now is the little matter of finishing research and writing the book(s).  Next time, we'll look at some of the narrative choices I'll have to make before I can start.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Fourth Crusade - a Selective Bibliography

My recent research into the Fourth Crusade has been making good progress.  I have learned--and unlearned-- a lot more than I did a month ago, although inevitably there is always more...  

The Siege of Constantinople

The mutual incomprehension and different motives between the Pope, the Franks, the Venetians and the Byzantines led to a tragedy of accelerating inevitability.  There were no Christian winners of the Fourth Crusade: Constantinople, immeasurably the greatest city in the world, was all but gutted and its empire emasculated; few of the Crusade's leaders survived to return home.  Those Crusaders who pressed on to the Holy Lands achieved next to nothing, and Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands.  The Crusade mounted three successful assaults on cities: Constantinople twice, and Zara once; all were Christian.

Those who are interested in the topic may find my reading list helpful.  There is no shortage of well-written and researched material on the subject, although it has surprisingly rarely featured in fiction.

Primary Sources

The Conquest of Constantinople, Robert of Clari

This account of the conquest, by a humble knight, neatly counterbalances Villehardouin's "official" version.  Not to be relied on facts, but his awe on arriving at Constantinople is palpable.
The Conquest of Constantinople, Geoffrey of Villehardouin

One of the Crusade leaders, Villehardouin is not always to be taken at face value.  His negotiations with the Venetians at the outset set in train many of the horrific consequences of the Crusade, and he understandably keen to push responsibility elsewhere.

Histories of the Crusade

The Fourth Crusade, David Nicolle

This Osprey illustrated history, only 100 or so pages, is an excellent primer.  The battlefield diagrams, as one would expect from Osprey, are invaluable.

The Fourth Crusade - the Conquest of Constantinope, Donald Queller and Thomas Madden

Perhaps the definitive history of the Crusade.  Queller and Madden judiciously assess the sources, clearly outline the sequence of events and delineate the key players.  Indispensable for students of the period.

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, Jonathan Phillips

Covers much the same ground as Queller and Madden, in equally engaging fashion.  In line with most modern scholarship, Phillips acquits the Venetians of the charge of wilfully aiming the Crusade at Constantinople.

Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, Thomas Madden

Working on his own this time, Madden gives a fascinating insight of Venetian society throughout the 12th century and shows how the Venetian doge Dandolo was shaped and constrained by his environment.  Impressive scholarship and a stimulating tale.

The Fourth Crusade, Michael Angold

Angold approaches the Crusade thematically rather than chronologically, so this is not the place to start your crusade researches; but once you understand the events and the sources, this study offers some telling insights.

Histories of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, Morris Bishop

A high-level study of a lengthy period by its nature offers little detail, but this is a good overview for the beginner.  Bishop, an American career historian, bizarrely dismisses the Emperor Frederick 'Stupor Mundi' (perhaps the first 'Renaissance prince') as "not really a very nice man", which is perhaps not entirely to the point.

Daily Life in the Middle Ages, Paul B Newman

This one does exactly what it says on the tin.  Food, drink, underwear, armour, medicine: all human life is here.  Well worth a read for anyone interested in any aspect of the Middle Ages.

Although the Fourth Crusade is fascinating, the book titles display a dismal lack of variety.  The logic of calling your book "The Fourth Crusade" is undeniable, but in fiction we can allow ourselves a little more latitude.  Tune in next time to see my working title...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?"

This is notoriously the question that irritates writers the most.  I'm never sure why  (Personally I'd rather hear that than some clown on my doorstep asking "Can you spare £2 a month?" or "When did you last speak to God?").  I think perhaps it's because the question so fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the creative process.  A novel is a synthesis of influences and stimuli and there's very rarely a "ping" when the essence of the thing springs into existence.  For various reasons, I doubt that Melville was slumped in front of  the Discovery Channel eating pretzels one evening watching a documentary about whales and was thus inspired to write Moby Dick.

That said, sometimes there is an identifiable moment when a notion pregnant with possibilities leaps forth.  This is rarely in a very usable format but, with suitable polishing, the rough diamond may eventually turn into a jewel for all to admire.
Such a moment occurred for me a month or so ago.  At last year's Chichester Writing Festival, one of the panellists was Jonathan Phillips, Professor of the History of the Crusades at Royal Holloway University of London.  He was there to plug his latest book, Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades.

Professor Phillips was an engaging speaker and his book also seemed interesting, and made its way onto my Christmas list, from where it languished unread for many months.  The Crusades are of interest to all students of the Middle Ages, and in the past I've read Runciman's three-volume account more than once, and Norwich's popular histories of Byzantium and Venice have also treated the topic.  But it was not until I read Phillips' brief examination of the Fourth Crusade that I realised how magnificently it would lend itself to fiction.

The Fourth Crusade, preached by the choleric and dynamic Pope Innocent III, set out to recover Jerusalem from the Saracens, who had taken possession under Saladin some years previously.  Things did not go according to plan.  The predominantly French crusaders contracted with the Republic of Venice to transport them by sea to the Holy Lands; unfortunately they had somewhat overestimated the number of crusaders, and the wily Venetians (led by the scarcely credible blind nonagerian Enrico Dandolo) had negotiated a fixed price contract.  With no way to pay, they instead agreed to stop off and besiege Zara, a city coveted by the Venetians, but inconveniently a Christian one.  Having circumvented the further obstacle of excommunication by a furious Pope, they then found themselves inveigled into another side-project, this time the restoration of the claimant to the (once again Christian) Imperial throne of Byzantium.  This involved another siege and assault, this time of the impregnable walls of Constantinople.  The Crusaders' valour was unquestioned, but their political skills were more dubious, and they had failed adequately to assess the credentials of their candidate, the worthless Alexius Angelos.  And that  takes us merely to the end of the first volume of our tale...

Professor Phillips clearly shares my fascination for the Fourth Crusade, since I found he had written a volume devoted solely to that topic.
This book only cemented my enthusiasm.  The crusade contained all kinds of heroism,bizarre reversals of fortune, tragedy and triumph.  There are also some surprisingly readable primary sources, including Geoffrey of Villehardouin, essentially the crusade's chief of staff.  Even after eight centuries, his character shines through: brave, pious, but also dogmatic and humourless - and no match for the subtle Venetians.

The Fourth Crusade readily lends itself to a trilogy, for the story naturally falls into three self-contained blocks, and many of the central characters are already drawn from history with vivid strokes.  All I need is once more to tackle my ambivalent relationship as a writer with historical fiction.  Watch this space...

Monday, September 12, 2011

News on The Last Free City

Readers who previously cavilled at paying £5.99 for the ebook of The Last Free City need bridle no longer.  You can now buy it on the Kindle for £0.86, $0.75 or €0.99, depending on your country of residence.  This is surely a bargain no-one can resist!
If you need any further incentive, this encomium from Chris Turner's thoughtful blog ::Fantastic Realms should clinch the deal:

In Tim Stretton’s entertaining The Last Free City we have hierarchical and intricate organization. A tightly-knit society where etiquette and tradition rule, and tradition seal the acts of most of the characters—most, except the rebel protagonist Todarko who goes up against the grain; his emotional convictions won’t let him sit back and stay complaisant, nor the disgruntled second-in-line descendant, Malvazan, who is constantly seeking recognition. Stretton is attempting to bring life to a world which defies change. Its petty politics and machinations of the ruling class clamp individuals down, heroes and villains alike. I admire Stretton for the purity of his attack. He is not relying on magical tropes or talismans to ‘jazz up’ his world, or serve as convenient means to get his characters out of jams. No, they must fend for themselves and use their own wits. This is somewhat artful and to be admired in today’s world of ever-growing adventure and pseudo-magical tales. The strength of  The Last Free City lies in its vivid depiction of reality of its participants. They are linked together in complex ways, and are intelligently-wrought humorous characters who meld perfectly with their renaissance world.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Things We Like

Although I haven't made the progress I would have liked on any of my projects over the summer, I have enjoyed several books and TV experiences which I can recommend to my readership.

First among these was Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo Rising, the first in a series of eight novels of Renaissance intrigue.  Why did no-one tell me about these before?  The series kicks off with Claes as a humble dyer's apprentice in Bruges, but through determination, cunning and good fortune he rapidly shakes off his humble origins.  The machinations are at once complex and understated; Dunnett's calm prose and unshowy research top off a historical novel from the upper echelons of the genre.  My only dissatisfaction was the occasionally implausible character of the eponymous Claes/Niccolo, to whose magnificent cunning was added a scarcely credible degree of sexual magnetism.  At one point he seduces a bourgeois virgin, largely out of pity, and later reproaches himself for giving her such a magnificent sexual initiation that she can only be disappointed with her future husband.  Nonetheless, I anticipate much future enjoyment from Dunnett's novels.

High praise also for the latest instalment of L.C. Tyler's latest Ethelred and Elsie novel, Herring on the Nile.  Fans will be pleased to hear that the transfer to an exotic locale (the clue's in the title) will be reassured to learn that the trademark wry humour and clever parody are never far away.

On a less exalted level, the Channel 4 TV take on the Arthurian myth, Camelot, never failed to entertain, despite some questionable casting choices, including a lightweight Jamie Campbell Bower as the legendary monarch.  On the plus side, Joseph Fiennes found the interpretation of an utterly bonkers Merlin well within his range, and Eva Green relished the opportunity to raise overacting to an art-form as Morgan Le Fay.  Sadly the series was not recommissioned and, while it was no Game of Thrones, I'll miss it.

Next on my guilty pleasures list will be The Borgias, which appears to have all the ingredients we came to know and love in The Tudors.  

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Don't You Know That It's Different for Girls?

There are only two aspects of my novels which routinely attract favourable comment: world-building and my handling of female characters.  In real life, I find, I am regularly surprised by female psychology and the fact that, while they look broadly similar to us chaps, fundamental misunderstandings occur almost daily.  I don't claim this as a profound insight, but it puzzles me that I can have so little real understanding while being able to write female characters that readers respond to.

The obvious solution is that I don't in fact write female characters well, and readers are simply "blowing smoke up my ass", in the vivid transatlantic idiom.  Readers of this view should probably stop reading at this point.  The most negative review The Dog of the North received, from Helen McCarthy (a female woman, no less) in Deathray, paused to commend the "rounded, convincing, engaging" women, so I must be doing something right.

Another explanation is perhaps the generally cardboard of female characters in the fantasy genre.  There are exceptions, of course, but the source text of much subsequent fantasy fiction, The Lord of the Rings, does not draw us in on the basis of Eowyn and Arwen.  Too many women in fantasy are either enfeebled victims awaiting rescue, or implausibly rugged warrior types.  Women are plenty interesting enough in real life that the writer can adopt other models without alienating the reader.

The main reason I've been relatively successful with female characters is not, I think, because I understand the feminine psyche: it's because I don't.  My favourite female creations, Laura Glyde, Catzendralle and Larien, Isola and Eilla, are bewitching and mercurial.  The male protagonists of those novels don't understand them: Lamarck, Mirko, Beauceron and Todarko are all at home when they can move in a straight line, but confronted with subtle indirection and an absence of testosterone, they are rather less accomplished.  My own occasional bemusement at feminine behaviour is reflected in my protagonists'.

The interesting and engaging character, male or female,  for the reader, does not act predictably or within narrow boundaries.  The only living creature whose motivations and actions I feel I fully understand is my cat (and even here I may be deluding myself); and I would not argue that Britney would make a gripping fictional protagonist.  A character who surprises and baffles me will, I hope, interest the reader.

Britney... demanding but predictable

If there is an insight to be gained here, it's that to be able to write convincing characters, it's more important to be able to observe behaviour than understand it.  Creating a credible series of character interactions (often misleadingly oversimplified as "conflict" in how-to-write guides) is more about processing all the thousands of real-life interactions you've watched than understanding their motivations.  Do you understand why Iago felt impelled to destroy Othello?  Neither do I.  Do you think Shakespeare did?  Probably not.  But did it make for utterly compelling drama?  You bet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gimme Some of that Good Stuff

After finishing my re-read of A Game of Thrones, I thought a change of pace was in order.  My short, sharp chaser was Ryan David Jahn's latest, The Dispatcher.  Fans of Jahn's earlier novels will recognise the terse, muscular prose, the unsentimental depiction of both violence and everyday life, and the lack of moral certainty pervading his world.  The ending of Jahn's debut Acts of Violence was deliberately telegraphed in its beginning, while Low Life's accurate blurb description "gripping existential thriller" necessarily limited its core audience; The Dispatcher, by contrast, follows a much more commercial thriller structure.  

The protagonist, Ian Hunt, is a washed-up cop whose daughter Maggie was abducted and presumed murdered seven years before.  It's not too much of a spoiler to note that this turns out not to have been the case.  The plot unfolds with a grim chase across an unforgiving Texan landscape, and Hunt will stop literally at nothing in his attempts to be reunited with Maggie.  Maggie's abductor has almost no redeeming features, but there is grotesquely warped nobility in his original motivations.

The Dispatcher is a grim, bleak novel shot through with moments of pathos and echoes of normal life.  It's certainly Jahn's most commercial novel and I think it's also his best.  I look forward to the next one.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ascending the Throne

There is a theory that, the better the book, the harder it is to adapt for film or TV.  The HBO producers of Game of Thrones, which has just finished its first season, must therefore have approached their task with some trepidation; their source material,GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, is one of high watermarks of fantasy literature.  With its sprawling narrative arcs, multiple viewpoints and uncompromising bleakness, Martin's epic is not natural television.

Sean Bean leads a highly accomplished cast

Lovers of the books--among whom I count myself--need not have been worried.  Game of Thrones was as close to flawless as any fantasy drama brought to the screen can be.  The first season (which covered the first book in the series) was faithful to the source without being over-reverent; new scenes were added judiciously; and the series worked on its own merits while not alienating those familiar with the story.  The casting was impeccable--not just the big ticket actors like Sean Bean and Charles Dance, but also the considerable array of child actors.  Peter Dinklage, given the most promising material as the cynical dwarf Tyrion Lannister, delivered the most eye-catching of performances.

The series over, I have returned to reading the books with renewed pleasure (happy to be able cart such monstrously thick volumes around on my Kindle).  I had forgotten until I watched the series how strong an influence on The Dog of the North the series had been, with its political intrigues and moral ambiguities.  Now if anyone out there fancies making a big-budget ten-part adaption of The Dog, please do let me know...

Game of Thrones returns for a second season next year.  I can't wait!

Monday, June 20, 2011

At Long Last!

After many frustrations and delays, The Last Free City is available to buy

Although I am a lover of my Kindle, I don't view a book as having been published for real until you can hold a physical copy in your hands.  By that definition, The Last Free City is published today--more than two years after I finished it.

The book is only available through online retailers - £12.32 from (where Amazon tempts the wavering buyer with a 3p discount off RRP) or $19.99 from (US readers are less fickle and need no discount to persude them to buy).

The Kindle edition is still available for those who have no more space in their house (or who balk at paying the prices quoted for a paperback) although these readers miss out on the splendid Bellotto artwork cannibalised for my cover.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Taking a Stand

At long last I steeled myself to tackle the 1,400 page doorstop that is Stephen King's The Stand.  Almost all books this length are too long, and this was no exception, but that aside, The Stand is a powerful and impressive novel.  It wears its desire to be the American The Lord of the Rings on its sleeve (Tolkien is referenced explicitly several times, and the final quest across the mountains to destroy a dark lord with his all-seeing eye will be familiar to most); but all 20th century fantasy writers owe a debt to Tolkien, and The Stand succeeds on its own terms.

Indeed, so adeptly does it build its apocalyptic narrative on the late Cold War American zeitgeist, that a case could be made that it is The Great American Novel, defined by Wikipedia as "presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen".  Actual real live Americans may send me screaming for the hills for a) forming a judgement on this most American of questions and b) suggesting that fantasy/horror novel should be admitted to the company of The Catcher in the Rye & co.  I merely offer it as a suggestion...

King's virtues as a writer are unarguable: he sharply and economically delineates character; he understands pace and structure (to pull off a 1,400 page novel, you have to); and he can terrible significance in the most everyday details.  His core gifts of character and plotting are seen as almost too humdrum to be worth celebrating, except perhaps by anyone who has settled to the business of writing their own novel.

The Stand is not without its imperfections, but whole is immersive and accomplished.  I highly recommend it - but make sure you have a lot of spare time once you pick it up...

Monday, May 09, 2011

TV Review

More Cops 'n' Robbers

The Saturday night slot on BBC4 once filled by the Danish noir The Killing has in recent weeks been given over to another foreign language cop show - this time the French Spiral.  In its stark exploration of the French judicial system, and its cops who'll do anything to get a confession, it's certainly as dark as The Killing.  It was less immediately compelling than the Danish show, but more consistent in its footing (it didn't leave a slew of loose endings or mar the conclusion).  The acting was impeccable, especially Catherine Proust as unwashed obsessive Inspector Berthaud and  Thierry Godard as the incorruptible prosecutor Roban.  There was very little in the way of happy endings, but this was powerful and compelling drama that, once again, made me wish British TV could offer something similar.

The opening episode of the much-touted The Shadow Line, starring Chiwitel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston, did not immediately camp out in the same territory.  The cast is top-notch, but the brooding and portentous tone of the first hour, underpinned by stilted dialogue and almost palpable desire for noir cool, was not a sure-footed debut.  It was like Luther, but without the overacting which, perversely, saved the Idris Elba  vehicle.  I'll stick with it, but with expectations suitably muted.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Story and Genre

Last week I reviewed Patrick Bishop's Bomber Boys, part of the research I've been doing for my fantasy novel Shadow Puppet.  One strand of the protagonists in Shadow Puppet is a bomber pilot and so I've been doing a lot of reading around World War II--to the level, in fact, where I could begin a novel, exploring the same themes using much the same story, about bomber pilots set in that period if I wanted.  So why don't I?  It would almost certainly have more commercial potential than the "mechanised fantasy" I have in mind.

World War II Wellington bombers (2 of 2)
Why can't fantasy fiction have bombers?
There are several reasons.  First, the novel I would want to write about bomber pilots and WWII has already been written: Len Deighton's Bomber.  This novel is so perfect in concept and execution that any attempt to tread the same ground could only be callow in comparison.

Second, there are a couple of plot dynamics which would seem either anachronistic or ludicrous in a QWWII novel.  Curtailing these elements would weaken the structure I have in mind.

Third, in a WWII novel you already know the ending.  Your protagonist might or might not survive the war, but you know from their nationality whether they're on the winning side.  This allows a fine dramatic irony but inevitably leaches much of the tension from the narrative.

The final, and most important, reason is the moral ambiguity I can introduce in a created world.  An English language novel about WWII almost forces you into a "white hats versus black hats" scenario, good against evil - a setup that doesn't interest me as a reader or a writer.  There aren't going to be many readers rooting for the Nazis against the Allies - but Lauchenland against Beruzil?  Who are the good guys in that one?   Not knowing whose side you're supposed to be on--or inverting your sympathies during the course of the novel--are much more interesting for everyone.

Now, all I need to do is get on with the minor details of writing the damned book...

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Should I Read...?

Patrick Bishop, 1997

I recently read this remarkable book--a history of Bomber Command's activities in World War II--as research for my latest fantasy novel.  Bomber Boys is far more than a research source, though: it's a meticulously researched and morally balanced survey which also packs considerable emotional power.

The story of Bomber Command is more complex than any other branch of the British military.  The astonishing bravery of the aircrew, and the appalling risks they encountered, is beyond dispute.  Figures vary, but most sources agree that around 75,000 airmen flew active missions during the war; 50,000--two-thirds--were killed.  A tour of duty was 30 operations, and at the height of the casualties, 1943, only one crew in six survived to complete a tour; only one in forty made it through a second.  The crews knew the odds, and still they carried on volunteering.

But the bomber crews are not remembered today in the same way that other branches of the armed services are.  There is no national memorial, and no campaign medal.  The reason is easy to find: the nature of the missions they flew.  The technology of the age was not adequate to bomb small targets precisely, and the strategy, under Sir Arther 'Bomber' Harris, was to bomb German cities into oblivion.  Over 40,000 civilians were killed in one raid on Hamburg, nearly as many in the more notorious Dresden attack when the war was nearly over.  After the war, the Allied leadership felt it necessary to distance itself from these tactics.

Bishop is to be commended for even-handed treatment of the issues.  His account has eyewitness testimony from German survivors of the raids, and he never seeks to minimise their impact.  He does not allow his undoubted admiration for the aircrew to blur the difficult moral question of whether the strategy was justified.  He presents the evidence, and lets the reader decide.

Bomber Boys is a moving, troubling account of a grotesque period of human history.  Recommended for anyone with an interest in the period or the morality of warfare.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reading and Viewing

One reason--beyond natural indolence--for some downtime on the blog is that I'm doing what might loosely be called research for Shadow Puppet, and generally catching up on some reading and the Sky+ box.

Having finished Stalingrad, which was most definitely research, I continued with two contrasting Spitfire pilot memoirs: First Light, by Geoffrey Wellum, and The Last Enemy, by Richard Hillary.  Both were vivid and moving accounts of pilots' experiences, and humbling to read how these seemingly ordinary young men were able to endure the most horrific conditions--taking their planes into combat two or three times a day, with their colleagues killed around them.  Both understandably take on a certain detachment under a devil-may-care exterior.  Wellum survived the war, understanding even at the time that nothing in his life would match the intensity or significance of these early experiences; Hillary, terribly burned after being shot down, was then killed in a training crash.  Sobering stuff.

Less emotionally engaging was the final series of The Tudors.  This, by almost any standards, was a stinker: historical accuracy, competence of script, acting merit--all were wholly cast aside.  Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) lapsed deeper and deeper into Irish as the series progressed, and the dream sequence in which he was visited by Death on a horse defined risibility.  And yet--The Tudors was great fun. Taken on its own terms, it had pace, dynamism and an unpretentious--if wholly unwarranted--self-confidence.  A guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

It certainly compared favourably with Ridley Scott's bloated ragbag of cliche and stereotype, Robin Hood.  This, from the man who directed Alien, Bladerunner and Gladiator, was a sad and sorry comedown.  Scott apparently rejected more interesting earlier versions of the script (including Russell Crowe playing both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the Sheriff as "a CSI-style forensic investigator) to make a stolid retelling of an old tale.  No worse, perhaps, than The Tudors, but with the unforgivable sin of being just plain boring.
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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...Cover via Amazon
Holiday Reading

I'm back, refreshed from a week in Tenerife.  It's the first time I've ever been on holiday and not taken a book.  Instead, luggage pared down, it was my Kindle, loaded up with my intended reading.

The experience only reinforced my existing Kindle mania.  Light, easy on the eye and infinitely practical.

First on my reading list was Justin Cronin's weighty modern-day vampire novel, The Passage.  This didn't justify the hype, and would have benefited from being 200 pages shorter, but it was still an absorbing read.  More rewarding was Joe Abercrombie's long-awaited The Heroes.  In publishing terms, Abercrombie is a well-established brand: ultra-violent, blackly comic deconstructions of the fantasy genre, told through mulitple viewpoints and clearly differentiated viewpoints.  Nobody does this niche better but, after five novels, I'm interested to see where he goes next.

My final reading, which I'm still working through, is Antony Beevor's immense history of Hitler's Russian campaign, Stalingrad.  It's a grim and chilling account of an almost unimaginably hellish time.
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Monday, March 21, 2011

Revenge of the Killer Nerds

How baseball was revolutionised by mucking about with spreadsheets

My interest in Americana does not extend to its sports.  Of the Big Three, football (sic), basketball and baseball, it is baseball which comes nearest to capturing my interest.  In Britain, we have a girls' game called rounders which it in many ways resembles [ducks from outraged US readers].  Last week I came across an extraordinary book on baseball, Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.

Moneyball explains the process by which the impoverished Oakland Athletics outperformed teams with much more money over an extended period.  Baseball, like cricket, is a game which generates an inordinate raft of statistics.  The A's general manager, Billy Beane, recruited Harvard-educated statisticians to work out which statistics were the best predictors of performance (these tended not to be the headline ones), and which were undervalued.

At the risk of falling into crass error about a sport I don't pretend to understand, the blue riband statistic is batting average--essentially the proportion of times the batter manages to hit the ball.  Beane came to believe that a more important stat was on-base percentage--the frequency with which the batter made it to first base (which a canny player can achieve without the inconvenience of trying to hit the ball).  Batters with a high batting average were overvalued by the market, those with a high on-base percentage undervalued--so given limited resources, it made sense to invest in players who scored highly on the latter. 

If this sounds dry, Lewis writes with a lively tone, and draws the characters behind the stats with engaging economy.  To enjoy the book, you probably need an interest in statistics or baseball, but not necessarily both.  Given my day-job, I did respond to the idea that sensible use of objective data was able to trump the prejudices of the gum-chewing ex-players.  It didn't do any harm either than Oakland is the home of Jack Vance, the hero of this blog.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Long Live the King

In thirty-plus years as a reader of books for adults, including a strong interest in science-fiction and fantasy, by some quirk I've managed never to read a novel by Stephen King.  I'm not sure quite why that is.  I don't particularly care for horror, and I've always seen King as at the horror end of the spectrum.

The magic of the Kindle is that I can download sample chapters of books I'm not really sure about, and wouldn't spend actual cash on.  (There used to be an artefact known as a "library" which performed a similar function, but these seem to have fallen into disuse).  Thus buttressed, I downloaded the openings of The Stand, seemingly King's most popular novel, and The Green Mile, which I knew from the excellent Tom Hanks film.

It is a possible to have a long career as a bestseller without being much cop as a writer, but there's no doubt King can write.  I devoured the opening of The Stand--a killer plague is on the loose: disaster beckons--in about an hour.  This was cracking stuff!  King does all the basics with unobtrusive excellence: inject pace, differentiate interesting characters, nail place and period.  The Stand is unputdownable, so imagine my dismay when I logged on to Amazon only to find the Kindle edition has been withdrawn!  I really don't want another 1,400 page paperback in my house, but the opening is so compelling there's no other option.  £4.99: click here for One-Click Ordering.  Job done.

To keep me going until the postman arrives, I downloaded the whole of The Green Mile, which is similarly impressive.  I know the story from the film--which appears to follow the source closely--but it's still compelling.  King has an uncanny command of voice, and critics who dismiss his work as populist pap have probably never realised how difficult it is to write something engaging and accessible.

I've got a holiday coming up and a long book in the post. What could be better?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cast Out

The BBC's latest foray into science-fiction is predictably dismaying nonsense

I must be in a particularly irritable mood.  Having administered a sly elbow to the kidneys of Midsomer Murders (apparently David Cameron's favourite TV prog), today I can't rest until I've vented my spleen about the BBC's execrable sci-fi drama Outcasts.

Grim faces greet the delivery of the latest script

The premise is promising, if unoriginal.  Human settlers struggle to survive on an alien planet, battling not only malevolent--if shadowy--indigenes, but their own rivalries and prejudices.  The vision is realised triumphantly, marred only by failure in the peripheral areas of plot,  dialogue, characterisation and acting.  Cliches which were barely tolerable in the 1960s incarnation of Star Trek spew forth with a straight face.  In one cringeworthy moment of the final episode, President Tate (Liam Cunningham, playing the role like a geography teacher striving for street cred with his students) rebuts the arguments of a hostile alien with "at least we know how to love!".  Come on!

Cunningham's task is not helped by an inconsistent and underwritten character, a problem which also afflicts Hermione Norris, phoning in a reprise of her role in Spooks.  Langley Kirkwood, as the leader of the persecuted ACs (if you don't already know what the ACs are, you don't need to now), spends eight episodes looking moody in a parka with the sun behind him.  These performances are Bafta-worthy when set against the plywood majesty of Ashley Walters as the one-dimensional soldier Jack, and Daniel Mays as Cass, who delivers a masterclass in bellowing and lumbering.

Luckily the show has a machiavellian villain, Julius Berger (played with actual competence by Eric Mabius).  Sadly for the viewer--and Mabius--the writers don't realise that your genuine machiavellian type doesn't go around announcing his plans as they unfold, so Berger rarely rises above the risible.

Fear not: there is good news.  Dire ratings saw the show shunted to the arse end of beyond in the schedules and, unlike The Killing, it was unable to recover.  The day after the final episode was broadcast, the BBC announced that the show was cancelled.  This was not, however, accompanied by an apology for wasting my licence fee on such trash.

Next time, happy pills at the ready, we'll look at something I like!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

English Idyll

Normally over here at ::Acquired Taste we steer clear of contemporary politics (political discourse got pretty dull once poisoning your rivals went out of fashion) but when my bete noir Midsomer Murders hits the headlines, it's time to take stock.

Today the producer of Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May, has been suspended for the observation:
"We just don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. Suddenly we might be in Slough ... We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way."
 As a Guardianista I can only find such sentiments distasteful--although the trend for suspending or sacking people for expressing unpopular views is equally unfortunate--but True-May's views encapsulate all the reasons why Midsomer Murders is such piss-poor drama.

In for a penny, in for a pound, and the beleaguered True-May continues to blaze away with both barrels from his Middle England fortress: 
If it's incest, blackmail, lesbianism, homosexuality ... terrific, put it in.
Two out of those four are not criminal offences in this country.  Can you guess which?

Best, perhaps, to leave True-May to his thoughts, bellowing in a dark and soundproofed room.  If you listen very hard, maybe you can hear him.  Or maybe not.