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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (nativitatis)

Eee by gum, trouble at t’mill!

Tim Power’s new book, My Brother’s Keeper, is another of his secret history novels. This one concerns the involvement of the Brontë family in a battle with a lycanthropic cult.

The  Brontë children, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell, live with their father who is the vicar of the small Yorkshire village of Haworth. Once there had been another, older sister in the family. Her name was Maria, but she died when the children were all very young. In their grief at her death, and inspired by a dream of Branwell’s, the children make a blood offering in the so-called fairy cave at Ponden Kirk, a gritstone crag jutting out of the moorland which the children believe is an ancient pagan shrine. They hope that the ritual will reunite them with Maria, but of course it doesn’t. However, unknown to the children, there are dark forces inspiring Branwell’s dream, and the ritual has established a connection with Branwell that will have dire consequences for him later in his life.

Some years pass and one day Emily Brontë, out walking  on the moors, comes across a severely wounded man near Ponden Kirk. Emily goes to fetch help from a nearby farm, but the man has disappeared when she returns. However it isn’t long before she meets him again, seemingly recovered from his wound. She learns that his name is Alcuin Curzon, and he is part of a sect working to eradicate a resurgent plague of lycanthropy in Europe and northern England. Emily discusses this with her father and learns that many years ago, in his youth, her father had been unwittingly responsible for bringing a demonic werewolf god with him from Ireland to Yorkshire. And now, as a result of the blood offering in the fairy cave, this god is slowly taking possession of Branwell and causing him to fall into an increasingly dissolute lifestyle. Emily’s loyalties are torn between her familial feelings for Branwell and her duty to the cause that Alcuin Curzon is fighting for. Though they are, to an extent, at odds with each other they nevertheless find themselves thrown together in battles against werewolves, and confrontations with ancient pagan gods.

I grew up in the heart of  Brontë country and the family has always loomed large in my life. Haworth was only a hop, skip and a jump from Southowram, the village where I lived. Every day as I walked to school, I would pass a gloomy gothic pile called Law Hill House. In the mid nineteenth century Law Hill House was a private school, and Emily Brontë taught there for a year. By all accounts, she had quite a miserable time of it  – she didn’t get on with the school’s principal. But all is grist to a writer’s mill. Law Hill House was, architecturally at least, the direct inspiration for Wuthering Heights.

I visited Haworth many times in my teens. The vicarage where the  Brontë family lived is now a museum. There are display cases in which stand mannequins dressed in the sisters’ actual clothes. I was always astonished at how tiny the sisters were. Across the road from the vicarage is a bookshop (specialising in  Brontë novels of course). I always enjoyed the notice in the window that said: This shop used to be a pharmacy. This is where Branwell  Brontë bought his opium. It’s more than half a century since I last went to Haworth, but I doubt if anything has changed very much. We don’t approve of change in Yorkshire...

I have no idea if Tim Powers has actually visited Haworth or whether his descriptions of the time and place are purely the result of research. But whichever it is, I have to say that he has done a truly magnificent job of capturing both the bleak desolation of the Yorkshire moors and the isolated lives and times of the Brontë themselves. There is an obvious temptation to think of My Brother’s Keeper as being Wuthering Heights with Werewolves (Powers’ book is crammed with direct references to Emily’s magnificent novel) but thinking about it so trivially does the book a great disservice. The lycanthropes are far more than just a silly gimmick. They are central to the plot and as a result the novel is packed full of mysticism, mystery and murky motives. And always there is the paranoid feeling that is so typical of a Tim Powers novel, the feeling that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than the reader is privy to. It is an intellectually itchy certainty that somewhere, just out of reach, eldritch monsters are pulling the strings of their earthly puppets. Tim Powers is the master of this kind of paranoid fantasy and My Brother’s Keeper is one of the very best manifestations of it.

It was the Mark Twain resonances in the title that drew me to  A Contemporary Asshat At The Court Of Henry VIII by MaryJanice Davidson. I could easily imagine Twain chortling his head off as he read it. So when I read it, I found myself chortling in very good company indeed.

The book gives you exactly what it says on the tin. Joan Howe, a twenty-first century asshat, travels back in time to the court of the Tudor King, Henry VIII and has adventures. Mirth ensues. What could possibly go wrong?

Joan is an American ex-pat living in England. She suffers from migraines and so she is very grateful when her neurologist friend Lisa enrols her in an experimental drug trial to try and cure (or at least control) her debilitating attacks.  A side effect of the medication allows Joan to perceive a time portal that has been constructed (or, more accurately, stumbled upon) by a group of research scientists. Falling through the portal, she finds herself a spectator at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, that fateful meeting between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France designed to define the nature of the future political relationship between France and England. Thanks to her mother’s obsession with all things Tudor, Joan herself knows quite a lot about that period of history and despite all the pomp, the circumstance and the wrestling match indulged in by the two Kings she knows that it won’t be long before the two countries will be at war with each other. Committing a bit of a faux pas, she mentions this future circumstance to a lot of people and then guiltily wonders if by doing so she will actually have caused the war to happen…

She eventually finds her way back through the time portal, much to the astonishment of the scientists who built it. It soon becomes clear that they have very little understanding of what they have achieved and they have almost no control over it. But one thing that they are very well aware of is that several other twenty-first century people have been accidentally swept up by the time portal. Joan, however, is the only one who has succeeded in returning from the past. So they offer her a job – can she please go back in time again and rescue the losties before they wreak havoc and potentially alter the course of history? It’s a well paid job and Joan is desperately in need of money. So she agrees to do it.

But all is not quite what it seems. Joan soon realises that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. While rescuing losties is indeed a genuine and important job, she starts to suspect that the scientists controlling the project might have an ulterior motive. Over the course of several exciting adventures in Tudor England Joan starts to get some inkling as to what might really be going on. And it isn’t pretty…

This is a clever, funny and beautifully plotted novel. There are several twists in its many tails (tales?), which makes for a a very satisfying read. The dialogue is sparkling and witty, Joan’s food and forearm fetishes are thought provokingly odd, and there isn’t a wasted word in the whole delightful story. I absolutely loved it.

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher won the 2023 Hugo Award for best novel. By a strange coincidence, I was reading the book when the list of winners was published. The announcement took me completely by surprise because I hadn’t even realised that the book had been nominated! Nevertheless I was very pleased to find that it had won because I was so thoroughly enjoying reading it. How can you not enjoy a book which has magic, a goblin market, a dust-wife, a dog (sort of) and a fiercely ferocious chicken in it?

Marra is the youngest of three princesses from the very small Harbour Kingdom. To the North and the South are other, larger kingdoms each of which would like to take over the resources of the Harbour Kingdom but neither of which can do so for fear of reprisals from the other. Marra’s eldest sister Damia marries Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom. This is a purely political marriage – the enforced alliance between the Harbour Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom keeps the Southern Kingdom very effectively at bay. Unfortunately Damia dies several months into her marriage and so Kania, the middle sister, continues the political alliance by marrying Vorling in her turn. Marra can clearly see the political writing on the wall, and she isn’t all that happy about it. Fortunately it isn’t long before Kania’s pregnancy is announced to the world, thus firmly cementing the relationship. Marra herself clearly no longer has any part to play in these political machinations, so she is sent to a convent.

Kania's child dies. At the funeral, Marra learns that Vorling is brutally abusing Kania and that Damia almost certainly died from similar physical abuse. Marra feels strongly that something needs to be done about this and so she decides to leave the convent and return to the world in an attempt to save her sister. But she can’t do anything about Kania’s situation by herself. She will need allies.  Therefore she seeks help from a dust-wife. Unfortunately the dust-wife is somewhat reluctant to get involved. As a distraction (and presumably so that she can use Marra’s failure as an excuse not to help her) she gives Marra three impossible tasks to perform: she must weave a cloak from nettles, make a dog from bones, and catch moonlight in a jar. Somewhat to the surprise of both of them, Marra completes her tasks, after a fashion. And so now, the game is afoot!

The story successfully manages the very difficult feat of being both light-hearted and serious at one and the same time. It is full of T. Kingfisher’s trademark acerbic wit and imaginative, scene-stealing bits of business. But as well as being laugh out loud funny it is also at heart a serious condemnation of bullying and abuse together with some very astute (and often quite cynical) observations on the pragmatic nature of realpolitik. It’s a page turner that makes you think. It thoroughly deserves its Hugo Award.

Denzil Meyrick is perhaps best known for a series of Scottish Noir detective novels set in the town of Kinloch and starring DCI Jim Daley. But Terms of Restitution is a stand alone novel, unrelated to his Kinloch stories. It’s a very dark and violent tale redeemed to a large extent by the humour that bubbles along just beneath the surface.

Zander Finn is a successful Scottish gangster but when his son Danny is brutally murdered in a Paisley pub Zander goes completely to pieces. He leaves Scotland and his gangland life behind by moving to London and taking a job as an ambulance driver. A couple of years later he is tracked down by his friend (and second in command of his gangland empire) Malky Maloney. His old organisation is falling apart under the threat of a takeover by Albanian gangsters. Malky needs Zander’s organisational and planning skills to fight off this menace. Somewhat reluctantly, Zander agrees to return.

Meyrick is particularly good at creating memorable characters. Nobody in this novel is a cardboard cut out. Even the minor players are fully fleshed out three dimensional people with their own complex lives and emotions. So, on the one hand, Zander Finn is a violent thug,  but on the other he is also a loving father and a good friend to whom you can go for help in difficult times. This contrast is the theme that drives the whole plot of this complex and immensely satisfying novel.

One of the major strengths of the story is Meyrick’s willingness to sacrifice his characters. Nobody is safe – don’t get too attached to your favourite people, the chances are are good that just as you are starting to enjoy their company they will be brutally slaughtered.

Meyrick has said that with Terms of Restitution he set out to write the Scottish equivalent of The Sopranos. He has succeeded brilliantly in that ambition.

Philip Norman has carved out a very successful niche for himself as the biographer of many of the rock and pop icons of the 1960s. I’ve just read his biographies of George Harrison and of Mick Jagger. Each book is, somewhat unimaginatively, titled after the man whose life it discusses, though the George Harrison book is subtitled The Reluctant Beatle which I think is a very telling comment in and of itself.

I was pleased to find both of these very thorough and detailed biographies because I knew almost nothing about the lives of these two men apart from the famous and well publicised events that propelled them into the headlines of course. Both men are (were) very private people, hugely reluctant to let the world into their lives. Mick Jagger in particular has always been notoriously shy about revealing anything at all of himself. Indeed, Norman gleefully tells us that a publisher once signed a contract with Mick Jagger for his autobiography and paid him a million pounds in advance for the book. However the slim manuscript that was eventually delivered was, in the publisher’s own words, excruciatingly dull and lacking in detail. Publication plans were cancelled and Mick had to refund the million pound advance. These days he insists that he can’t remember anything at all about any of the significant events of his life. Norman tells us that Mick even claims that he can’t remember which prison he was incarcerated in when he was arrested on (as it later turned out) trumped up charges of drug possession. Neither Norman nor I believe that for a minute – surely the trauma of imprisonment would sear every detail into the man’s mind? But apparently not. Norman’s biography of Mick is stuffed full of sarcastic references to the man’s "sieve-like" memory…

George Harrison always seemed to be the background Beatle. His wit was at least as clever and as cutting as John Lennon’s but it was Lennon who got all the sound bites. His musical and song writing abilities were world class but were always overshadowed by the formidable talents of Lennon and McCartney. He was modest and self-effacing, an unworldly man, not much given to material possessions but who nevertheless wrote a song that bitterly complained about the amount of income tax he had to pay. It is the exploration of these contradictions that lies at the heart of Philip Norman’s biography.

The first part of the book tells of George's birth, his recruitment into The Beatles and their subsequent rise to fame. Much of this material is already well known to everyone from other Beatle biographies (most notably Philip Norman’s own Shout! which is definitive) and so, for me at least, this part of the book was rather slow, uninformative and over-familiar.

However the second part of the book concerns itself with George’s post-Beatle life and here it really comes into its own. The information that Philip Norman has tracked down is absolutely fascinating. We learn a lot about the driving forces behind George’s solo musical career, the details of his second marriage and of his very many extra-marital affairs. Much is revealed about his involvement with the making of movies that began with his financing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian but which went on to produce very many more extremely successful films. He developed an obsession with playing the ukulele and always made a point of travelling with large numbers of them in his luggage just in case anyone else wanted to play along with him. But his major life-long interests were always in his spiritual journey through Indian religion and philosophy, and his deep and abiding love for the gardens that surrounded his stately home.

The book ends, of course, with the invasion of his home by a deranged fan who attempted to murder him, stabbing him more that forty times. He survived that, though only just, it really was touch and go as to whether he would pull through. But of course it was his two bouts of cancer that ultimately killed him. The discussion of his medical travails and his eventual acceptance of his own impending death was poignant, emotional and heartbreaking. I’m not ashamed to admit that it moved me to tears.

The Rolling Stones in general and Mick Jagger in particular were always presented to the world as the anti-Beatles. They were scruffy and inarticulate, much given to orgies and anti-establishment escapades. They peed on a garage forecourt (actually, they didn’t) and they refused to do the traditional show-biz farewell wave from the revolving stage on the TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium (that one is actually true – it utterly horrified the whole country. How DARE they do that? Oh, my dear, the scandal!)

The public image of the Beatles, on the other hand, was of four clean cut mop tops dressed in elegant collarless suits who were very much pro-establishment figures. Neither image was true of course. Behind the scenes, the Beatles actually were as dissipated as the Stones pretended to be, and the Stones themselves, and Mick in particular, were astonishingly strait-laced.

I always found Mick Jagger to be a puzzlingly contradictory man. In interviews about his music and his (public) life he generally spoke with a mockney accent as befits the working class hero he was presenting himself as being (de rigueur at the time, particularly given the indisputable working class origins of the Beatles). This presentation often made him seem rather inarticulate and dim. And yet every once in a while the mockney would disappear and fruitier received pronunciation tones would break through making him sound much more like the well educated, middle class member of the establishment that he actually was. Philip Norman's book resolves this paradox – Mick (well, Michael actually) was born of solidly middle class parents. His father was a teacher! However Michael himself was a clever mimic who could, chameleon-like, always blend in to any company. Hence the mockney face he showed the world.

Despite their public personae as rebels, orgiasts and outlaws, behind the scenes the Stones (well, most of them anyway – the drug-adled and violent Brian Jones was always the exception to the rule) were polite, articulate and caring people. Mick in particular was very fastidious, never over indulging in any of his vices except possibly with the women who never ceased to throw themselves at him. From his earliest schoolboy years he had always been a chick magnet, and fame and fortune just added to his irresistible charisma. But even here he has always shown honour and full awareness of his responsibilities. He has fathered numerous children with many different women and there has never been even a whiff of scandal about any of them – actually that’s not quite true, there was some controversy over Karis, his child with Marsha Hunt, but this was later resolved amicably and Mick has had a large part to play in Karis’ life. So the statement is close enough to the truth to be mostly accurate. The fact remains that his children all know each other, regard each other as full siblings and one and all they worship their father. You really have to admire him for that.

Philip Norman has done an incredible job of tracking down the many, many intimate details of the fog-filled, life that the amnesiac Mick can no longer recall. Jagger’s jail time was actually served in Brixton prison. That’s a matter of public record, so really Mick has no excuse for forgetting it. Perhaps he needs to carry a copy of Philip Norman’s gigantic and fascinating book with him wherever he goes so that when people ask him questions about the minutiae of his life he can quickly look up the correct answer in this hugely detailed, very informative and marvellously entertaining tome.

Tim Powers My Brother's Keeper Baen
MaryJanice Davidson A Contemporary Asshat At The Court Of Henry VIII Audible
T. Kingfisher Nettle and Bone Tor
Denzil Meyrick Terms Of Restitution Polygon
Philip Norman George Harrison Scribner
Philip Norman Mick Jagger Ecco
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