“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Elizabethan England” by Ian Mortimer (2012)

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And on your right, the Globe Theatre...

And on your right, the Globe Theatre…

“It is a normal morning in London, on Friday 16 July 1591.”

Why limit your travels to space when you can travel in time? That’s what I always think and it’s an attitude shard by many others, although they tend to be fictional. In 2013, I read and reviewed Ian Mortimer’s travel book, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England, which as you can infer from the title, is a travel guide for anyone who finds themselves in the 1300s. This time, he’s applying the same idea to the latter half of the 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled the country, theatre was booming and the British were beginning their quest to conquer the globe.

As before, this book mostly ignores lists of facts and figures (although there are some included) to focus instead on the actual day-to-day life of those living in the sixteenth century. Mortimer explains that this is the best way to bring history to life, and he’s absolutely right. The premise is that you have found yourself in Elizabethan England and this is your guidebook on what to wear, what to eat, what diseases you might catch, how to greet people and how not to get conned by the local criminals.

The book is split into different sections that focus on different aspects of society, such as the landscape, the diet, travel, entertainment and religion. Like all good history books, it isn’t afraid to show you the negative side of things. This indeed may have been a Golden Age in the fields of architecture, drama and exploration, but nonetheless there is still much poverty, social inequality, racism and religious hatred. It emphasises that things are not easy and it isn’t all Shakespeare plays and jaunts down the Thames, but rather that many people are starving because their crops have failed, the death sentence is still very much a real thing, and that the Catholics and Protestants remain at each others throats for much of the reign, leading to trouble for anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the fence.

It also dispels many of the myths of the time, such as the belief that no one minded the smells of latrines in the towns, or that bathing wasn’t actually unacceptable or strange, merely difficult to do and time-consuming. The Elizabethans believed that disease could be spread by smell, so did their best to keep themselves clean, and while they did sometimes have to shit in a fireplace, they weren’t necessarily happy about it.

All aspects of the time are included, from what sort of accomodation you could expect from an inn (and at what price), how much the general population knew about the wider world, and what life was like on board ship. We even get to meet some of the greats of the time, such as William Cecil, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, William Shakespeare himself. Refreshingly, there isn’t a huge amount about him and absolutely no speculation about whether he was the real author of his plays or not. He is presented as himself and the focus is on his plays and sonnets, noting that even in his lifetime, he was accepted as highly talented and very famous.

The chapter on religion is somewhat tedious, but that’s merely because it’s not something that interests me very much, but if you were to find yourself in this era, you’d absolutely need to know about it. These are dangerous times and you can now even be fined for not attending church. Nonetheless, the book is full of incredible facts, including something that has never been mentioned to me in any previous history lesson: a white slave trade was formed during this time that ran for centuries.

If you’re planning a trip to Elizabethan England any time soon, this book is definitely worth taking along with you. And if you aren’t, it’s still a great read. It’s important to remember that the people being discussed herein are not aliens, but your family. For you to be here now, they have to have been there then. That knowledge really brings this book to life, and might make you realise how good we now have it. England under Elizabeth changed everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to the whys and hows that led to us here today.

“The Adventure Of The Christmas Pudding” by Agatha Christie (1960)

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“I regret exceedingly -” said M. Hercule Poirot.

This book has sat on my shelf since last Christmas, awaiting reading at a suitable time of year. Fortunately, it was worth the wait. Herein reside six of Agatha Christie’s short stories – five with Poirot, and one with Marple. Only the first one is festive, but they’re all rather good.

In “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”, Poirot finds himself experiencing a typical British Christmas under the instruction of a European prince who has lost a very expensive ruby. He has reason to believe that it’s somewhere in the house, but who has it and why? And what exactly are the children of the house plotting to give Poirot as a surprise? In the second story, “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest” a body is found curled up in a trunk, stabbed in the neck. It’s particularly strange as the man in question should’ve been in Scotland, and his friends (including his wife) were in the same room as the chest all night, and yet none of them claim to have known he was there.

Thirdly we get “The Under Dog”, where an argument is overheard in a large house by the butler, leading to an unexplained death. They’ve already arrested the prime suspect, but the lady of the house, Lady Astwell, is convinced of his innocence, claiming that her women’s intuition tells her that it was someone else, although she has no concrete proof. A combination of hypnotism and Poirot’s own intuition lead him to the correct solution.

Fourthly, we have “Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds”, in which a man’s eating habits become a key part of the investigation, and the fifth story, “The Dream” tells of an eccentric millionaire who keeps having the same dream every night of his own suicide. Although he seems to have no intention of killing himself at the time Poirot meets him, nonetheless a few days later the man is dead – in exactly the same manner as he dreamt. There’s a red herring there somewhere, but where?

Finally, we get “Greenshaw’s Folly”, a story featuring Miss Marple and her author nephew Raymond West. While visiting a large, ugly country pile, they meet the ownder, Miss Greenshaw, although their acquaintanceship doesn’t last long when she is shot by an arrow and killed in her garden by an unseen assailant. When the police are stumped, Miss Marple suggests a solution that might just be right.

All in all, they’re a good bunch of stories. My favourite is the first, while “The Dream” is probably my least favourite. It’s also unusual to see Poirot and Marple in the same book, although they appear in stories and do not meet. They never meet actually, although it’s established a few times that they inhabit the same universe, so the potential was always there. I often wonder how they would have got on – probably not well. Nonetheless, the book shows Christie’s powers very much undiminished – she was seventy when this collection was published – and each story had me foxed, although I’m definitely getting better at working out part of the solutions. Christie was excellent at short stories, being able to pack a lot of drama and action into just a few pages, and still allowing for a good story with a serviceable solution. She never cheats the reader, and her skill is such that it’s only afterwards you realise that all the clues were there and you had just a good of a chance as Poirot as solving the mystery. A true talent.

All that remains for me to say is have a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

If you feel like treating yourself or a friend this Christmas (or even treating me, since I get money from it!) please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus and, should it ever get famous, you can be smug that you got there first. It’s a win-win-win, isn’t it?

“From Russia With Love” by Ian Fleming (1957)

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frwlbook

“The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.”

My love of Agatha Christie is now well-documented on this blog, but we mustn’t forget that her detectives are not the only ones ever worth mentioning. One of my friends is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, which I still don’t really understand, and another, the librarian, is James Bond’s number one fan. Between us, we cover the three biggest detectives and spies of the last century and have started dabbling in one another’s areas.

Despite her love of Bond, however, this book actually came from my publisher who produced it from his bag as if by magic after a night out. The version I have is something pretty special. It’s from 1963, smells stunning, has a wonderfully outdated price on the front (2′ 6), and on the first page there is mention of how Eon Films are turning this title into the second James Bond film, starring Sean Connery. How times change.

I’ve seen a smattering of the Bond films – I got quite into them when Pierce Brosnan was in the role, my knowledge is otherwise somewhat limited – and always had an interest in the gadgets and gizmos he’s given to play with by Q, but I had never read any of the books, so this was my first foray into the literary world of James Bond. Many of you have probably already seen this film, but for those who haven’t, here is briefly what this story is about.

Somewhere deep within Russia’s Secret Service, SMERSH, in the mid-fifties, a plan is being drawn up. They feel that some of their enemies have become too complacent and they decide that an act of terrorism should shake people into action. They begin to decide which country they will attack, and then pinpoint an individual spy to defame and destroy. There is much discussion, but they soon decide that the British are a worthy enemy. Who will they attack? Well, it turns out there’s this fellow called James Bond…

Bond, meanwhile, is called into M’s office and told that somewhere within the folds of the Russian Secret Service is a young woman who has fallen in love with Bond through the photographs and reports she’s been looking through. If Bond can convince her that he loves her too and grant her safe passage to England, she will in turn bring a cipher machine that will greatly aid in codebreaking.

The suspicions that I’ve long held about Bond through the films and general cultural osmosis were proven to be mostly right within this book – he’s not a particularly nice man. Much is made of his “cruel smile”, and while perhaps he’s not quite as ruthless here as he can be in other stories, I still don’t think I’d want to meet the man. In fact, most of the characters are unpleasant, obviously because most of the focus goes on the antagonists. In fact, Bond doesn’t even turn up for the first third of the book; instead, Fleming deals with the background and the Russians’ plot. He paints vivid pictures of sadistic, torture-loving lesbian Rosa Klebb and psychopathic murderer Red Grant. In fact, Kerim Bey, the head of British Intelligence in Turkey, is just about the only person you’d want to join for dinner, providing you didn’t have to drink the raki. (Bond drinks a hell of a lot of raki in this novel and, take it from me, it’s not a drink that’s easy to stomach.)

It feels oddly dense for such a short book, and lacks the dynamic action feel of the films, but that’s only to be expected, I think. It’s hard not to think of the films when reading the book, and perhaps that is why it feels tainted. However, that sounds negative but I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s smart and has some curiously beautiful sentences and witty one-liners within, and ends on a surprising cliffhanger when all the action begins to accelerate but there aren’t enough pages for everything to happen. Fleming takes his time to describe people and places with intimate detail, allowing for almost complete immersion into the world.

I would return to Bond again, quite happily, but not just yet. Fleming is good, but Christie still wins out, so as a congratulatory present to myself for trying a new author, I’m going back to her for my next book.

If you want to read more of my words, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or iTunes, wherever you are in the world!

“jPod” by Douglas Coupland (2006)

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Microserfs 2.0

Microserfs 2.0

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

This is the book that is responsible for me reviewing all the Coupland books this year. I first read this perhaps six or seven years ago and was instantly taken with Coupland’s style, which is weird because this one seems to suggest some knowledge of his previous books is needed. For a start, Coupland himself, as you can tell from the quote above, is a character within. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s get on with the story.

jPod is usually billed as Microserfs 2.0, an updated version of his earlier novel. Both feature groups of young adults working in the computer industry, first in the 1990s and this time in the 2000s, highlighting just how quickly things have changed in just a decade. The story follows Ethan, Bree, Cowboy, John Doe, Evil Mark and Kaitlin, six employees of a video game making company who have been shoved into the same office simply due to an error in the computer system that has shoved together all the employees with surnames beginning with J. The first five explain to Kaitlin, the newest recruit, that there is no escape from jPod, although she’s not against trying.

The story is told from the point of view of Ethan, a fairly average programmer with very complex and strange parents (his mother grows marijuana and has just killed a man, and his father is obsessed with ballroom dancing) and a strong urge to avoid any actual work. He and his colleagues fill their days writing love letters to Ronald McDonald, auctioning themselves on eBay and torturing one another in a myriad of interesting ways.

Things take a turn for the strange, however, when their boss Steve (notable for turning Toblerone around in just two years) disappears and leaves them to their own devices with a game he’s been trying to ruin, under the impression that kids love turtles in their skateboarding games. Is his disappearance fairly run of the mill, or is Chinese gangster Kam Fong somehow involved?

Comparasions to Microserfs are impossible to avoid, given that there are so many similarities between the two. Both have similar protagonists, (both of whom begin dating a new colleague), contain nonsensical non-sequiters (sixty or so pages are filled with digits of pi and random numbers, another twenty are dedicated to a list of prime numbers), and both novels touch on autism and a character’s belief that most people in the tech industry are somewhat autistic. However, there are differences, certainly. This is for the “Google generation”; for the slice of people in this world to whom technology is not new and exciting, but now completely normal and simply part of our lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a third novel along a similar line in a few years that details the rise of the iPhone and technology in the early 2010s.

It’s fast, slick and while the characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, they’re nonetheless pretty strong and seem like a good, if slightly nutty, bunch. My favourite is probably John Doe, who was born on a hippie commune and raised by his staunchly feminist lesbian mother and so now lives his life to be as average as is possible.

The introduction of Coupland as a character is probably the most interesting thing about the book. Coupland himself claims it’s a reference to how intertwined the world has become thanks to the Internet. His character isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s curious to see his own characters discuss him and the tropes within his novels. By this point, his style is strongly recognisable. Some claim that his self-insertion is vanity of the highest order, but I disagree. I think it’s rather funny and he doesn’t appear to be painting himself in any favourable lights.

It’s full of the things we expect from Coupland – people searching for meaning in a corporate, commercialised world – but there’s something else here that’s completely intangible but makes the book stand out as one of his strongest. Were I to have my time again, I wouldn’t read this one first, but I am pleased that I decided to go back and check out the rest of his oeuvre. His finger is on the pulse of the moment and it’s incredible to see that he hasn’t lost any of his talent for dealing with the here and now that started in Generation X.

“The Teleportation Accident” by Ned Beauman (2012)

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Send it to another place.

Send it to another place.

“When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriend’s lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex.”

It’s been a while, so if you have no other form of entertainment than this blog and have noticed I’ve been missing, you may be wondering where I’ve been. In the real world, I have been pony trekking in Somerset (just don’t ask) but in the literary world, I’ve been in 1930s Berlin and latterly Los Angeles, struggling with a dense novel. So here we go, with Ned Beauman’s second novel.

Boxer, Beetle was Beauman’s debut novel and I confess that it is one that entirely bypassed me, and I don’t know anything about it. Neither, as you’ll soon learn, do I much care to. I’m getting ahead of myself, because I don’t want to insult the book, so let’s cover the premise and then move on to critique.

In Berlin in the early 1930s, Egon Loeser, a set designer in the theatre, is struggling a contraption called a teleportation device that will move actors from one side of the stage to the other in a heartbeat, and also with a complete lack of sex. It hasn’t helped that his ex-girlfriend has just hooked up with someone else and he has just met Adele Hitler (no relation) and immediately fallen in love with her. Unfortunately, so has everyone else. Avoiding all other sexual interaction until he can have Adele, Loeser begins to slowly lose his mind and when he hears that she has left Berlin, he goes after her, following her to Paris and then Los Angeles. In America, however, he discovers that due to the events going on in Germany now under the charismatic new chancellor, almost everyone he knew has also one by one upped sticks and moved half a world away.

In Los Angeles, he continues seeking out Adele but gets mixed up with his favourite author Stent Mutton, and some scientists at CalTech who, among other strange and secret projects, are working on a teleportation device, only this one has grander applications than the theatre, if only Professor Bailey and his assistant can solve the riddle of how to make it work.

When it comes to the actual writing, Beauman is near enough a genius. He is funny, clever and good with words and I can’t take any of that away from him. When he describes a posh house as being somewhere Loeser feels that at all times he is being watched by either a live horse or a dead stag, that conjures up such vivid imagery about the kind of house we can all picture. However, it’s a dense book. It isn’t hugely long, but Beauman is a fan of the long-winded paragraph giving the book a somewhat daunting density that is hard for a reader to maintain for long. The characters, while not exactly wooden, do not appeal particularly in any way. By the time I got to the last second twist (and, objectively, it is quite a good one), I had long stopped caring. It appears to have been recieved favourably, however, having even been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. But it reads exactly like a book longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, almost as if there was a space open on the list and the book was written especially for the role. Take that how you will.

It’s clever, but it knows it. It’s funny, but with a nod and a wink towards the audience. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t like it enough. I just have absolutely no strong feelings about this book either way. It filled up nine days of my life which was about five too many, and I will forever equate it with the burning in my thighs after an afternoon on a horse.

I did look up Boxer, Beetle briefly and found a review on Amazon from user ThugEarwig that said of it, “I strongly suspect it was written in a coffee shop. On a Mac.” This is exactly the feeling that I have about this book too, so thank you for that Mr Earwig. More succintly and intelligently put than I could ever manage.

If you’re interested in reading more of my work, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon, iTunes or any other ebook retailer.