Dead Men by Richard Pierce

Dead Men by Richard Pierce.


If you cast your mind back a few months, I hosted Richard’s post about Captain Scott’s fateful last expedition and about his novel Dead Men. I’ve been intending to write a review for it for ages, but life keeps intervening and I’ve only now go a chance to do it.

I admit I bought the book because of the fictionalised account of Scott’s last days, and I also confess that when Richard said on Twitter that the story is a love story, I was put off, simply because of a knee jerk response to the idea of romance. Silly me. There’s a world of difference between a love story and romance, and this book is not just one love story but numerous ones.

There’s a love story set in the modern day, between the distant relative of one of Scott’s men trying to find out how her relative really died, and the hesitant, gentle Adam who rescues her when she faints on the train.

There’s the very British love story between Scott and his beloved wife, all duty and stiff-upper lips and such solid passionate love beneath the propriety.

There’s the equally British love story of the devotion Scott’s men had for him and vice versa. First person to whisper “bromance” will get a snowball in the face, one with a chunk of ice in it. This is a love from another, more innocent era, an old fashioned relationship that we seldom see these days without someone pouring dirt on it.

And then there’s the love affair Richard himself has with the snowy wastes of Antarctica and the whole ill-fated but noble expedition.

The love-affair between Adam and the spiky, unreadable Birdie Bowers (named after her distant relative) is far from romantic to me. It has levels of real pain and discomfort between the two characters; Adam falls heavily and almost instantly in love with the volatile and difficult Birdie, but it’s far from easy for them. Her obsessions come in the way, and Adam’s reticence and reluctance to be hurt again come between them again and again. It’s not comfortable to read, if you like Happy Ever After type love stories.

Nor is it comfortable to read the fictionalised narrative about Scott’s last days and the aftermath of family, colleagues and other explorers. You feel for their distress and grief, deeply.

While neither strand of narrative is comfortable, they’re so deeply compelling that you read on, oblivious of the passing of time. I read my copy on the train back from attending a book signing Richard was holding in Suffolk. Meticulously researched, the background is woven in seamlessly to such an extent that you don’t even notice you’re being subtly educated about all things Polar. There’s even a companion volume available, containing a lot of Richard’s notes and sources.

My only complaint is it is too short. I read most of it in a few hours on a train. Richard has made every word count, painting vivid pictures using spare, Impressionist brush strokes that have depth and richness.

If you are looking for a truly “cool”summer read, this will transport you back a hundred years and take you into the icy places where heroism still lives, while keeping you with one foot in the busy modern world, and the love-affairs that tie the two eras together.

“Away with the Fairies” review

I don’t usually post on a Sunday unless I have something to share that is special and this is VERY special. Away with the Fairies has been out a little while now and reviews have been popping up on Amazon, making me dance round like a lunatic, but today, this lovely review appeared on a blog. I’m chuffed to bits with this, so a big thank you to the blogger, Gordon Bonnet.

Go and have a read.

Take Me Out by Martyn Clayton ~ a novel of warmth and humanity

Take Me Out by Martyn Clayton ~ a novel of warmth and humanity

I was immediately snagged by the blurb that comes with this novel. There’s something comforting about having a main character who appears initially to have little that is instantly heroic about them but who seems both familiar and likeable more or less on first acquaintance. Lauren Seymour is cruising through life with little to either challenge or excite her and she’s probably set fair to do so for some years yet until an idle promise made while half drunk comes back to haunt her. I’ll show you what I mean:

Lauren Seymour enjoys a well-ordered existence. Passing her time in York she likes nothing better than the occasional crisp sandwich, reality TV, listening to her CD collection and ignoring the advice of her big gay house-mate. An early morning phone-call suddenly shakes her out of her comfortable groove.
How do you react when the odd guy you once tried to avoid befriending whilst at university claims that you are now the only person on the planet who could possibly help him? When that man has been pulled half alive out of the icy-cold waters of the River Ouse after attempting to kill himself you might feel obliged to at least see what you could do.
What she discovers in the 32 year old Robert P. Gorman is a man who has kept the ashes of his dead granny under his bed for ten years, and who hasn’t bought an item of clothing for a similar length of time. Yet he doesn’t seem completely beyond redemption. Could Lauren be the one to rescue Robert?”

At first I was concerned that this would be some variation on the Ugly Duckling story, but I soon discovered that the author lives in my world and not a Disney world, and the characters are so real, I swear I already know some of them. Robert, the would-be suicide, is vulnerable and very annoying; he seems to push away those whom he has asked for help, and yet retains a certain little-boy-lost appeal, and the promise Lauren made to be there for him carries more weight than she ever intended.

While many of the themes are serious and even a bit disturbing, they are written is such a stunningly light-hearted way that there were plenty of moments where I roared with laughter. There’s one part that involves a scenic view of the Yorkshire countryside, a Quality street tin full of human ashes and the core characters trying to do the right thing, that had me holding my sides from laughing. It would really be brilliant as a film. The dialogue is often funny, but largely because of the sheer understated humour inherent in the speech and attitudes of people from Yorkshire rather than deliberate jokes or puns. But anyone who has ever spent time in this part of England will also know, the humour of the people springs from great kindness and a closer connection to our shared humanity than you find in many parts of the world.

It’s a very BRITISH book, but I think it would appeal to Anglo-philes all over the world. The story is set in the city of York and is rooted in both the city and the county as well as English culture. It’s also very kind book, and one that recognises the value and the limitations of kindness. The characters are ones you can very much relate to, in their different ways, and I’ve wondered what would happen in their lives after the story finishes.

I guess that is the mark of a good book, when the actors within it make you care enough to speculate about their futures.

Quintessence by Andrew Meek ~ a review of one of the most original books I’ve read in years.

Quintessence by Andrew Meek ~ a review of one of the most original books I’ve read in years.

I’ve been slower than I like in my quest to find literature that bucks the trends and hacks out new paths; not so much the finding of them but the finding of time to read and then review them. I’ve also found that amid the vast array of new, often independently published
literature, there are extraordinary works of genius that shine out
like gems on a pebbled beach. But like any beach of pebbles, the
shoreline constantly shifts and the gems become covered and lost to

Quintessence is such a book. The rate at which new books appear means that the modest launch went more or less unnoticed and authors more willing to shout about their work got heard and this extra-special book has been left to be buried beneath the scores of pebbles. I am hoping that I can encourage my readers to give this one a try and discover something that defies both genre and description. But beware: if you’re looking for a beach read or something to simply entertain you for a few hours, this is not for you. This is for folks who think, who ask questions and who are open to discovery.

Ostensibly the book is the story of a man, Alexander Staalman, recovering from mental breakdown and the fear that he is losing his wife to his best friend. It is not. That said, this heart breaking narrative will draw you in, and hook you totally, but this is not the real story. Alexander has conversations with people who are dead, with Seneca and with Einstein and others; he knows full well they are not real and yet, the conversations are so enthralling that you begin to wonder quite what IS real and what is Alexander’s damaged mind filling in the blanks. Alex is a physicist and his deep love of this subject comes through with the enthusiasm with which he explains his theories and his work. This too is not the real story.

Like an onion, you peel this novel back, layer by layer until you reach the very core of it and it will rock you to YOUR core when you get there. I read it while on a camping holiday, during the short time in the evenings before we went to the pub for dinner. The fading light was my enemy, and I read until the light was gone, desperate to uncover some more. It made me feel not so much like a physicist but like an archaeologist scraping away layers of years before getting
back to the very earliest and deepest part of the story. I can tell
you that when I finally got to this shocking centre, my jaw did drop,
and yet, all the clues were there, patiently pointing the way.

It’s a very unsettling novel, in some ways, but in others, deeply
comforting and inspiring. The author has produced something that is
so far beyond the run-of-the-mill novel that I think it may take more
than run-of-the-mill readers to truly grasp the full scope and vision
of the tale. The only work I can even remotely compare it too is
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even
here, the comparisons are tenuous. Yet the scope of the vision is
there, and the character who has had a brilliant mind and a total
breakdown is there. But Meek takes it further, to a truly staggering
conclusion and there, I must step back and simply say, Go read it.
You’ll either get it or you won’t; what you get from the novel is
unique to you, and that is one of the most incredible aspects of it.
It speaks to the individual and your level of experience and depth of
understanding will govern quite how deep you are able to engage with the issues. At a most basic level, it’s a mystery, a story that draws you into it and out the other side; at a different level, it’s an
exploration of what being human and mortal actually means.

Quintessence is available via Amazon UK and Amazon USA but not yet as a paperback, though if we all nag enough, perhaps Andrew might consider this option. What more can I say? Go and read it!

Brave New World- a novel that can still shake the soul


Brave New World- by Aldous Huxley

There are books that have a long lasting and distinctly subversive effect on the psyche and it’s still a mystery to me why this book, Brave New World ended up on the ‘O’ level curriculum back in the 1980s. I read it first aged 14, and reading it again thirty years later, things I didn’t understand then have become much clearer. It’s in some ways a far bleaker book than Orwell’s 1984, which it often compared to for its futuristic slant and in other ways a much more hopeful depiction of the future of mankind.

The author was from a well known and talented family and with that sort of background, it seems inevitable that he would follow in a similarly gifted way. Published in 1932, when Huxley was 38, Brave New World has a visionary glimpse into things that were only barely becoming realities when I first read the book. Test tube babies, that exciting misnomer of the late 70s, are a reality in Brave New World; viviparous birth is a thing of the past. All babies are conceived and grown artificially; society is divided into a genetic caste system from conception. Not only your heredity determines who you are even before you are “decanted” (born) but in vitro conditioning controls a whole host of factors. Those who are to work in the tropics are conditioned from conception to cope with heat and are inoculated in the bottle against tropical diseases. If you belong to any caste below Beta, you are poisoned both by alcohol being added to your bottle(womb) and by having restricted oxygen. Social control is all about people loving what society wishes them to love, and what the society wants most is for people to be happy in their station in life.

Cloning(something that had been dreamed of when I first read the book) has become the norm for lower castes and twin groups of up to 96 identical individuals swarm around happily fulfilling their preordained roles. Sex is so far beyond the 1960s free love free-for-all; child sex is encouraged (“erotic play”) and monogamy is a dirty word. Contraception is everywhere, and many outwardly female people are actually Freemartins (guaranteed sterile and “apart from the slightest tendency to grow beards,” structurally normal.)

The first part of the book overwhelms with its vivid and plausible New World, where everyone is happy and clean and poverty and sickness are eradicated. I was utterly mesmerised and read it in one sitting, arriving at the shocking conclusion at about 2am, unable to sleep and since this was decades before the internet, with no one with whom I might discuss it. The central characters are introduced within the first few pages: Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne, and their friends and co-workers drew me into their world effortlessly, but the most important character does not appear until almost half way.

Bernard, the non-comforming Alpha plus, takes Lenina, his Beta squeeze of the moment on a week’s holiday to a Savage Reservation, a place in New Mexico where life is back in the stone age pretty much, with Indians living as they lived for thousands of years, maintained as a sort of museum and that is when the world really starts to unravel when they meet John (Savage), son of a “civilised” woman who got left behind some twenty or so years before, pregnant and without means of escape. Linda somehow managed to raise John amid the squalor of her surroundings but John can never fit into the society because he is white and considered the son of a whore. He is enchanted when he meets Bernard and Lenina and is allowed to return to civilisation with his mother. John learned to read from snatches of the Bible and a tattered copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and from these lost and now forbidden volumes learned all he believes about morals and ethics and life.

Returning to modern London proves to be an appalling ordeal, and at first John plays along with Bernard showing him off at parties, becoming more and more disenchanted with the brave new world(his words are Miranda’s from The Tempest) and the people in it. His unhappiness spills over and events unfold with the power and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I sat and shook when I came to the end, disturbed beyond my teenage mind’s capability of articulating, and as a mature woman, I still feel something similar.

One of the central themes is social control. All people are conditioned from conception, and through childhood (with hypnopaedia, sleep teaching) to be happy with who and what they are and their role in life, and yet, even so, with the unlimited food, recreational drugs (soma) sex without taboos or commitment, there is a core of individuals, almost always those from the top caste of Alphas who find themselves feeling alienated from the values and the practises of the society. This is not dissimilar to 1984 but the world of Brave New World is centuries ahead in time and those who fail to fit in are exiled to islands (aside: this was the first time I had heard of the Falkland Islands, and within a short time, the Falklands War had broken out) to govern themselves and explore everything denied them in mainstream society, from pure sciences to philosophy to poetry and forbidden literature. There is no return from an island, because those who are sent to them are deemed disruptive elements. My feeling is that those Alphas sent away probably achieve a greater measure of happiness being square pegs among other square pegs, but also, the fact that a society with rigid social controls allows such people to live gives me hope, even within the confines of a novel, that greater things may await those ill fitting few when removed from the need to pretend that they conform. There is a great release of energy that comes when we are able to say, “Hell, no, that is not me. I will follow my path, not yours!”

This is a totally absorbing novel that is unputdownable even today and is filled with images that will haunt long after you have finished it. I can guarantee that having read it, you will look at our modern world with different eyes, because the seeds that Huxley saw lying dormant in the 20s and 30s and wove into the vision of the novel have begun to sprout at surprising speeds. Science is not the demon at work here, but something much subtler and more sinister.

I shall leave you to find it for yourself.

A new review of Strangers and Pilgrims

I was deeply touched to read the following review by Fibi:

Thank you so very much!

A book review

I just had a lovely review over at :

I am really rather chuffed!