Reflections on short stories

Recently I have been reading short stories, partly to break up the concentration needed to focus on Les Miserables, and it made me think about how I read. I love an inches-thick tome, or a sprawling, epic series, as much as the next person, but they don’t always scratch that itch: a short, sharp relief in the limited time you have available.

Limited. Time.

Like an episode of your favourite television series, or a 90-minute feature, having a self-contained narrative you can enjoy in a single sitting is an attractive proposition. Even if it is connected to a larger series, you don’t feel like you’re missing a key piece of the story, or that you’ve forgotten who someone is because it’s been a while since you read the last chapter, because it’s all there.

There are many out there worth taking a look at, such as those by Ben Kane, and I have found them as involving and as enjoyable as their larger sibling.

I’ll close with this thought, the destination this reflection has brought me to. How many times have you had to rush out to catch a train, and forgotten to pick up your book to read on the journey? Or how about your phone battery proving itself less than stellar? I’ve experienced both, and have found myself buying a newspaper or magazine. If there was a kiosk at the station, selling novellas in a similar price range, I know which I’d pick.

I’m sure I’m not the first to have given voice to such thoughts, and I’m equally sure I won’t be the last. It’s something worth thinking about though, isn’t it?


EDIT: On another note, I’ve discovered that tonight sees David Farr’s Troy: Fall of a City premiere on BBC One. As a child, I would say the majority of what I read can be summarised as the adventures King Arthur or Robin Hood, the escapades of d’Artagnan and the Musketeers or the wondrous array of Greek myths and legends. (Who am I kidding, it still can!) I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about watching this . . . anyone else?

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New Year, old books

A belated Happy New Year to you all, and I hope you had an enoyable festive period.

What’s new?

Although I treated myself to a Tolkien and Angus Donald’s latest in the autumn, and a couple of others I found in sales, my reading has slowed down a little. These have joined numerous others in the pile simply because I’ve been engrossed in a couple of non-fiction titles, and they’ve required more of my attention.

First up, The Templars by Dan Jones has been a joy, although the appendices remain to be read. Jones is a storyteller, and charting the rise and fall of the Order his writing proves as entertaining as it is informative. With a great narrative, sometimes you can forget you’re reading a work of non-fiction: the stories that emerge about these highly-trained warrior-monks are fantastic. Meanwhile, Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts is impressive, if heavy going at times. But, as I still have some way to go, I’ll reserve my thoughts for a later date.

That’s not to say I haven’t been able to curl up with something lighter. Far from it. Over the festive period I started reading The Holcroft Covenant and when I turned the final page the entire day had gone by. The central character, American architect Noel Holcroft, is something of a knight-errant embarking on what he believes to be a worthy quest. His father was one of three high-ranking Nazis who together embezzled $780m from party funds before committing suicide: reparation was their goal, and Holcroft must find the children of his father’s compatriots and together redistribute the wealth to those who suffered. However, dark forces are at work in the shadows, hoping to seize the money and build a Fourth Reich. I cannot remember the last time I read a thriller where the author delivered so much misdirection with such skill, but remembering who everyone is requires as much concentration as the plot.

From one knight to another, I also returned to Westeros, with George R. R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. A collection of the three Hedge Knight novellas, it tells of the adventures of unlikely heroes Dunk and Egg, who as fans of the series will know go on to become Ser Duncan the Tall and Aegon V Targaryen respectively. Where it wasn’t as rich or complex as ASOIAF, it’s focus instead being on a feudal level (KNIGHTS! LOTS OF KNIGHTS!), I found it more understated and, in truth, gently pleasing. Each story was short enough to read in a couple of hours, a film in book form if you will, which makes them perfect commute material.

What’s next?

Although the sensible plan is to work through the pile, given I still have books I earmarked for last year in it, we all know what can happen when a shiny new book is released. And looking at the various publishers’ catalogues for January through to June, there could be a lot of these . . .

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Review: The Four Legendary Kingdoms

So, I finally got my hands on this one. At first glance, this is a leaner book than we’re used to from Matthew Reilly, much like Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves back in 2011. Turns out its pages are even faster, more relentless. I imagine MR was thinking ‘My heroes don’t have time to breath, hell, why should my readers?’*

And … moving on.

Nearly a decade has passed since the events of The Five Greatest Warriors, and Jack West Jr, once of the Australian SAS and latterly an Indiana Jones-type archaeologist, has retired. Followers of the series will know that this is something that would never last, and West finds himself kidnapped and forced to participate in the Hydra Games, a series of labours that suspiciously mirror those undertaken by Hercules. Sixteen champions have been chosen to participate, and to come last in any of these increasingly dangerous challenges means certain death. Worse, each champion’s support team, (or, in West’s case, his kidnapped daughter, Lily, and her friend, Alby,) will also perish. Facing the unthinkable, West must survive long enough to piece together what’s going on and save his family … and the world.

It helps not to overthink it.

One of the strengths of Matthew Reilly’s thrillers is their blend of history and legend, fact, conspiracy theory and technologies that defy logic, evoking those balls-to-the-wall action films of decades past. And yet, the staccato style, though suited to this, can come across script-like and will not be to everyone’s taste; I admit, when I first started these it grated somewhat, but relaxing into them (‘Yeah, like an MR thriller will let you relax!’) turned these into something of a pleasure. This is pure entertainment of brutal and epic proportions, nothing more and nothing less, and like a certain George R. R. Martin, MR has no qualms about parting ways with characters. Many don’t survive long enough to become fully fleshed out, which given the theme of family that runs through this series, and the questions that arise from it, can be frustrating.

Speaking of characters, and given how long this has been out now I really shouldn’t have to [SPOILER ALERT] this, but in a supporting role as a fellow champion is none other than the Scarecrow himself, with Mother Newman on his six. Like many fans of both, I too have wondered what would happen when their worlds collided. Now we know, and not without blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to previous adventures. However, I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed that some characters seemed to be on holiday. Despite Sky Monster finally coming to the fore, and Pooh Bear and Stretch’s continuing bromance, the new introductions (Mae: wonderful) and return of certain others did not make up for Zoe’s absence. If you’re reading this, Mr. Reilly, please remedy this in the next one!

In short, The Four Legendary Kingdoms is a movie in a novel, and if you’ve got nothing to do an evening can fly by without even getting up to put the kettle on.



*Okay, I’ve made this up, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hope it’s true.

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Review: The Sword of Moses, & more

To quote from the publisher’s blurb for Dominic Selwood’s first Ava Curzon thriller, The Sword of Moses: “Dr Ava Curzon is Lara Croft meets Evelyn Salt – the first real challenger to Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon.” A hell of a hook, but more importantly one that is not an exaggeration.

An African militia seemingly possesses the Ark of the Covenant, and Curzon, an MI6 officer turned achaeologist working for the British Museum, is tasked with tracking it down and verifying it. Accompanied by Ferguson, a former British soldier, she follows an ancient trail of clues across the globe and becomes embroiled in an age-old battle between good and evil. Crossing swords and minds with Templars and neo-Nazis along the way, the plot twists and turns towards a dark and unsettling ritual.

As you’d expect, a novel such as this contains a fair amount of history and background, but crucially the narrative is not compromised. Nicely woven in, it is intricate and clever yet never overwhelming, and kept me reading far later into the night than I thought. Selwood delivers the goods in this trilogy opener, a proper page-turner that promises more. Happily, the second installment, The Apocalypse Fire, this time featuring the Turin Shroud and Hospitallers, is just as gripping (and quite possibly better). Bring on book #3, I say!

Also see: The History of Things to Come by Duncan Simpson. A stolen art investigator, a notebook belonging to Isaac Newton, gangsters rampaging across London and a catastrophe of biblical proportions.





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An apology, of sorts …

I once read, somewhere, that some people are natural bloggers and others are not. I think it was Dan Abnett. The bottom line is despite my intentions with this blog it’s petered out somewhat. I could blame part of it on the fact that when I got a new phone nine months ago I deliberately didn’t install all of the apps I’d had on the last. Fewer distractions, right? Well, yes and no.

Yes, having no Facebook or Twitter just a click away meant I would spend more time reading (and working, less inclination to scroll through feeds endlessly). The catch, not being able to proclaim my appreciation of whatever title I’d just finished reading, or film I’d seen. And that is a problem, because it’s nice being able to let someone know you’ve enjoyed their work.

Take this Christmas period, for example. I read Toby Venables’ two Guy of Gisburne novels, which completely flip the Robin Hood legend on its head. David Gilman’s The Last Horseman, set during the Boer War. And of course Uhtred of Bebbanburg, in Bernard Cornwell’s The Flame Bearer. I recommend these all, heartily, by the way.

old up! I hear you type. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that the “What I’m reading pages” have discreetly been added to over the year. How does that work?  Simple.  The truth is that with everything going on time catches up with you, and while I’ve tried to keep a record of all the new titles I’ve read in the odd five minutes it doesn’t include all the books I’ve read, or what I’ve made of them. Those I’ve borrowed, for example, or those old favourites we have, tomes for when we what to retreat somewhere familiar.

But enough excuses. Let’s just see if I can do better this year.




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Review: The Death of Robin Hood

Since Alan Dale burst into the fray with sword and poignard in Outlaw (2009), Angus Donald has been reworking the Robin Hood legend anew with serious cojones. More Godfather than Man in Tights, by latching it on to real history any sense of “Yeah, as if!” is dismissed and replaced by a believability. Obviously the key elements remain, from Marie-Anne and the Merry Men to conniving Princes and henchmen that can only be described as absolute bastards, but even so the legends have been given a new lease of life and woven into a coherent narrative.

The aptly-named The Death of Robin Hood picks up more or less immediately after the events of The King’s Assassin. The Magna Carta might have been signed, but the First Barons’ War has begun and we are thrust immediately into the siege of Rochester Castle. England is in turmoil, and when Prince Louis of France invades (it did happen, and historians argue whether or not he should be counted in the roll of English monarchs) the rebellious barons are forced to decide where their loyalties really lie, and Robin and Alan find themselves alone against the invasion forces.

The action is as thrilling as ever, indeed more so, but it is the skullduggery and the relationships between the characters that keep you turning the pages well into the night. It’s a family piece, and as age has been allowed to take hold of members throughout there has been an increasing poignancy to it. You never know which way any of them are going to jump, least of all Robin himself, and even after seven volumes it still catches you by surprise. I’ve banged on about this series to people since the beginning, and doubtless will continue to do so.

What really made me smile, however, was the appearance of William of Cassingham. Also known as Willikin of the Weald, he was a Kentish squire who waged a guerrilla war against the French invaders. Many a county likes to lay claim to being home of the real Robin Hood, and for those of us from Kent Willikin is our claim.

As with the previous entries, The Death of Robin Hood, while serious enough, still manages to have fun. It is a Robin Hood for our time, and although some will lament the series’ end, going out like this, still as strong and gut-wrenching as Outlaw was seven years ago, is incredibly satisfying. As it says on the cover, “Heroes fall. Legends live forever.”

How very true.




Postscript. The film Ironclad (Jonathan English, 2011), a medieval Magnificent Seven set against the siege of Rochester Castle, is seriously underrated and well worth a watch. The cast includes James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Kate Mara, Paul Giamatti, Mackenzie Crook, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance … what’s not to like?!

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Review: Trigger Mortis

After an unexpected hiatus, and with SPECTRE, the 24th instalment in Eon’s cinematic franchise due in cinemas in mere days, it seems fitting that this post is about the recent Bond continuation novel by Anthony Horowitz, Trigger Mortis.

Continuation novels can be funny things. At the bottom of the argument is that sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Actually, you could argue the point of whether or not a continuation novel is necessary or worthwhile. But when they work, they work. And Trigger Mortis works.

I discovered the Bond continuations in 2008, when Sebastian Faulks wrote Devil May Care, published to coincide with the centenary of Bond creator Ian Fleming’s birth. At the time I was studying Birdsong (Faulks), but more importantly I’d just finished acquiring/reading the last of Fleming’s original series. Call it serendipity. Of course, I rushed out and bought it. But why mention Faulks’ novel? Simple. It was like I was reading something Fleming had written. The style was there. The brutality was there. The technical details. The escapism. It was the Bond I knew from the pages of Fleming, and Horowitz has achieved the same in Trigger Mortis.

In a brilliant stroke, the novel opens two weeks after the events of Goldfinger, in 1957. In another, Pussy Galore returns with deliciously wicked wit. Big news though it was, her inclusion is not such a controversial move. In previous novels, Fleming references or implies that relationships lasted longer (see Tiffany Case; quite). Undertaking a mission and domesticity do not mix for Bond (surprise, surprise) as he prepares to protect a British racing driver from SMERSH, on the Nürburgring, taking lessons from the (unknown to him) daughter of a late driver, Logan Fairfax. The set piece comes from a Fleming television treatment, and with the detail and intensity it is a wonderfully breath-taking passage to read, even as non-petrolhead. In the aftermath, the ‘real’ mission takes hold, heading to the States to combat Sin, a Korean villain who comes across as more reckless than some of his predecessors in the canon, bordering daftly so at times. He wants to sabotage an American rocket that would give the US the edge in the Space Race, and Bond is assisted/hindered by the suitably named Jeopardy Lane.

As I said earlier, this novel works. The spirit of Bond is captured almost to a tee, although some of his edges have been sanded down, and the individual components slot together well. It seems bizarre, but the literary 007 seems at his best in his original timeline, so much of it being ingrained in his habits and attitudes, as well as a useful insight into the world as seen through his maker’s eyes.

Overall, though the first part is stronger, Trigger Mortis is a joy to read, and a worthy addition to the Bond canon. A part of me wished Pussy Galore was in it for longer, but I guess there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. With this return to form cemented after Boyd’s Solo put the character back in the right direction, it’ll be interesting to see where the Ian Fleming Estate chooses to allow Bond to go next.




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Confession of a Napoleonic Nut

Waterloo has been featuring a lot in my tweets of late, and with the bicentenary fast approaching I feel I ought to explain a thing or two as to why.

My name is Peter Smith, and I’m a Napoleonic Nut.

There, I’ve said it.

This love affair began almost twenty years ago, in 1996. I was five, and had come downstairs and caught the end of a programme my parents were watching. I can remember it distinctly now: there was a moustachioed and bloodied soldier, sat in a river, garbed in a scarlet jacket waving his sword around, singing “We’re fighting for our flag. Hurrah, my boys, hurrah.” Recognise it? Lieutenant-Colonel Girdwood, played by Mark Lambert, in the adaptation of Sharpe’s Regiment. I’ve never forgotten it.

Wind forward a couple of years. A jumble sale at my primary school. In one of the rooms was a table stacked high with boxes of 1:72 scale Italeri figures. I knew my Dad had some old WWI figures, and of course, I wanted my own, to emulate him. The box I happened to pick up was of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons at Waterloo… the famed Scots Greys. At the time I thought little of it, but something about the painting reminded me of Sharpe’s Regiment, and that was that. It wasn’t long after that I watched Sergei Bondarchuk’s mind-blowingly beautiful film Waterloo with my Dad… I was hooked. I think I still have that box of soldiers somewhere, too. And a Scots Greys mug from that time I went to their regimental museum.

Always a voracious reader, by the time I went into secondary school I was reading the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell. How I devoured them! And then the TV films. Over and over again. It was an obsession. Through the historical notes I started to collect memoirs of Riflemen in the 95th, Osprey books… I wanted to know more about it. Looking back, I think there was just something that captured me like no other era: the end of the swashbuckling age, the pomp and colour, the background… for me, there’s been nothing else like it.

This filtered into my studies. At university, in the Contemporary Strategy module in my second year Napoleon cropped up. A lot. In the exam there was a question on him, and I wrote the longest answer I have ever done in an exam. Didn’t do too shabbily in it, but it was at the detriment of the other two questions I had to answer. Then, in my final year, my dissertation. Ten thousand words on a topic of my choice within my subject: “What factors contributed to the effectiveness of the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsular War of 1808-14?” Almost a year reading the accounts left behind by British and French soldiers, as well as those of the guerrilleros themselves and Spanish general officers – there are still stories that haven’t been told. My obsession with Sharpe, Boney, Nosey, the whole lot paid off – I aced that dissertation, and my final 2:1 was in no small part due to this prolonged… ah… obsession.

I’m using the word “obsession” a lot, aren’t I?

Oh well.

If I see a new book on the Napoleonic era, I usually end up acquiring a copy. An article, I’ll save a copy. Fiction, no contest – give me a military/adventure/spy novel set between 1789 and 1815 and I’m yours. I have entire shelves dedicated to the era, and some of my scribblings – my very slowly progressing scribblings – are inspired by my obsession.

And all cemented by a box of toy soldiers at Waterloo and the eponymous film. So if I seem to be overly excitable at the prospect of the bicentenary celebrations this coming Thursday, at least you know why. It’s been a lifelong obsession (that f***ing word again!), but I won’t apologise for it. Nor will it change.

Although in all seriousness, it is one of the most important dates in history: it’s consequences were felt for many a year. Just saying.






Postscript: who else saw the first part of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon on the Beeb this week…?

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Review: Napoleon: The Escape

Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena has been a source of debate since 1815, as have theories as to the cause of his death six years later. Equally heated is the question of whether he could have escaped, and if he had, where would he have gone?

His brother Joseph had money enough in North America, the ill-gotten gains from his tenure as King of Spain; veterans of his Grande Armée were gathering there too. There was even the plan to build a new Napoleonic Empire in South America, with Lord Cochrane freeing the Emperor and attacking Spain’s colonial domains, as well as smuggler Thomas Johnstone and the submarine plot (yes, submarine! Fulton’s second Nautilus for those curious).

Though such plans were effectively put to a stop by Napoleon’s death in 1821, it is a fertile ground for writers to weave ‘what if?’ tapestries. Shannon Selin has done so already, with her wonderful novel Napoleon in America, which imagines he escaped and joined his brother. Now Jan Needle has written this thrilling novella, which combines elements from the latter, British-based plots.

At the heart of it we have Samson Armstrong, a down-on-his-luck ship’s captain who had served on East Indiamen during the Napoleonic Wars, and now his ships are rotting at anchor. A chance encounter, overhearing a French spy recruiting newly discharged British Army veterans to the scheme, and the persuasion of Lord Cochrane leads him to aiding the endeavour. Johnstone and his submarines in tow, what follows is the effort to slip past the blockading Royal Navy ships and steal Napoleon away.

Napoleon: The Escape is a thrilling piece of historical fiction. Tightly plotted, laced with fact, skulduggery and high seas adventure alongside a brilliantly conceived cast of characters, Jan Needle’s narrative is well-written and sweeps you along at a rate of knots. Though short, it is immensely satisfying and the final (cruel?) twist at the end is brilliantly executed, offering his take on one of the mysteries of Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena.

If you hadn’t guessed, I thoroughly enjoyed it…





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Review: Bugles at Dawn

So, lots of things have happened since I last blogged.  I undertook an internship at Legend Press, have now got another lined up for the summer with Endeavour Press and more applications pending left, right and centre. Unfortunately writing’s taken a back seat of late, but more importantly I have read some terrific books. One such is Bugles at Dawn by Charles Whiting, and I thought I’d write a bit about it.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and, rather pleasingly, the cover used is one of my favourite paintings: Lady Butler’s ‘Scotland Forever!’. But this is not simply another novel set against the backdrop of the conflict. While Whiting’s narrative does start at the close of the battle, events swiftly conspire, with a little assistance from Wellington, to send our hero, John Bold, to India, and this is where the meat of the yarn unfolds.

Bold goes from being a subaltern in the 52nd Regiment of Foot to the armies of the East India Company, at the head of his own irregular cavalry troop (Bold’s Horse) in a dangerous struggle against a beautiful and deadly Princess who wants to see the British out of her country. One should bear in mind that in the age of purchasing commissions, it was not unheard of for officers to have served in infantry and cavalry regiments.  This is a clever touch, because it allows us to see how the cavalry were trained as Bold adapts, and we learn about India under Company rule as he does, through his social and military escapades.

The battles are well crafted affairs, and the small details inserted really give you a taste of the age.  Whiting has a flair for the military adventure story, and his descriptions bring the words to life in your mind. You get a sense of the dusty plains, the dense jungle, the vibrant sights and the crash and speed of the onslaught.

There were moments I thought of Flashman, and others of Sharpe: John Bold sits well beside them.

While it is a tightly plotted romp, and Whiting keeps the adrenalin up for the most part, the ending feels abrupt and lacking. Threads are left hanging, and for those with an interest in the history of India will wonder whether Bold is destined for the Gurkha War or Burma. Edit: I should say that a little research shows that Whiting did indeed write a sequel, entitled Sabres in the Sun, set in Burma. The educated guess in this case is bang on! Now, where to find a copy…?

You can read Bugles at Dawn on Kindle, and given there’s the mobile app it’s pretty difficult to use the ‘I don’t have a Kindle’ excuse. This is definitely one for the fans of Bernard Cornwell and George Macdonald Fraser, and brightened up a dreary train journey.





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