4 Book Series

This week I’d like to take a look at four popular book series. Many authors create a particular character or set of characters and write about their different adventures in a new edition. Sherlock Holmes is one example. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Holmes book A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and various books and short stories followed detailing the various adventures and investigations Holmes was engaged upon. Here are four more.

The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Chronicles consist of seven novels published in the 1950’s. They were written by author CS Lewis. The first in the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is set during the second world war and was inspired by a group of children who were evacuated to Lewis’ home just outside of Oxford. Lewis was also inspired by a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. The image stayed in Lewis’ head from when he was aged 16 to when he was in his 40’s and he felt it was time to write a story about the picture.

I must have been at junior school when I first encountered the original book in the series. In my first year at junior school our teacher, Miss Ollier, would read us pages from the book as we all sat around her towards the end of our school day. I remember being completely mesmerised by the story especially the moment when one of the children goes through the wardrobe and pushes past the coats hanging there to finally stumble out into the cold of Narnia.

In the book, a group of children are evacuated from London in World War II to a country house. During a game of hide and seek, one of the children, Lucy, hides in a wardrobe. The wardrobe seems to be never ending and as the child pushes towards the back of the wardrobe, she ends up in the magical world of Narnia. Later, the other children follow and they all meet Mr Tumnus the faun, the White Queen and Aslan the lion amongst others. They help Aslan overthrow the Witch and release Narnia from the perpetual winter which the White Witch has imposed on the kingdom. Six more books followed finishing with The Last Battle published in 1956.

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming.

I started reading the Bond books when I was a schoolboy and unfortunately the very first one I read was the only one they had in our local library: ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, one of writer Ian Fleming’s worst Bond books. Fleming used to write his initial drafts of the novels and then write a second one, adding in all the details which make the Bond books so interesting. Details of Bond’s clothes, his food, his cars, his cigarettes (the special handmade ones with the triple gold band) and all that sort of stuff. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was published after Fleming had died and sadly he had not revised his original draft. I persevered though, did some research, found the proper order of the books and began to read ‘Casino Royale’, the first in the series. I have loved the books and the films ever since.

Casino Royale is quite an original story. It concerns a man known as Le Chiffre who is a kind of paymaster for Soviet agents in Europe. He however has been a very bad fellow indeed, he has been using some of the funds for his own personal pleasure and decides to recoup the funds by gambling at the Casino at Royale Les Eaux. The secret service however think it might be a good idea to have their best card player beat him at cards and so sentence him to death at the hands of his very own paymasters, the Russians.

Fleming drew heavily on his military background where he was a personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the head of Naval Intelligence in World War II. Godfrey served as a model for M, the head of the secret service in the Bond books. Many people have claimed to be the model for Bond himself and although Fleming admitted the character was based on various agents he knew during the war, the character of Bond is really an alter ego of Fleming himself.

Fleming was a Commander in Naval Intelligence during the war, just like 007, and it was Fleming who drank the vodka martinis that James Bond liked so much. It was Fleming who wore the Sea Island cotton shirts that appear in the novels and it was Fleming who favoured scrambled eggs for breakfast, just like his creation, James Bond.

When Fleming was trying to think of a name for his new character he came across a book called ‘Birds Of The West Indies’ by ornithologist James Bond. In 1964 Fleming gave Bond a first edition copy of ‘You Only Live Twice’ inscribed by Fleming ‘to the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.’ When the book was auctioned in 2008 it fetched £56,000.

There are fourteen books in the 007 series although the last one, Octopussy and the Living Daylights was a collection of short stories. Goldfinger was one of my favourites which I picked up and read again not long ago. Now I’m probably going to have to start at Casino Royale and read them all again.

The Hamish Macbeth series by MC Beaton

I seem to have written about Hamish Macbeth quite a few times recently but here we go again. I have always been a fan of the TV series but recently picked up one of MC Beaton’s books so I thought I’d give them a try. The TV series is slightly different to the books although the style is fundamentally the same. Hamish is the village bobby in the Highland village of Lochdubh. Macbeth is a laid-back relaxed character. He is not averse to poaching the odd salmon and he likes to apply the rule of law in his own way. He avoids promotion as all he wants is to remain in his beloved village. Most of the characters in the series are the invention of the TV writers and not M.C. Beaton who wrote the books. I’m not sure how happy I would be if someone made a TV show out my book and then proceeded to change all the characters, still I did enjoy Hamish Macbeth as a TV show. It was an oddball quirky little drama which ran for only three seasons.

In the books Hamish is pretty much the same character as he appears on TV. He is happy living in the village but is anxious not to do too well as he wants to avoid promotion and live happily in Lochdubh. Despite solving many a murder, he therefore contrives to let Inspector Blair take the credit so he can be left in peace. His love interest in many of the books is Priscilla, daughter of Colonel Harbuton-Smythe who has dismissed Hamish as a lazy malingerer, unworthy of his daughter and the on/off relationship continues throughout the books.

My current read is Death of a Perfect Wife. As usual it’s another murder mystery. It’s not a classic of literature but it’s a hugely pleasant and entertaining book, perfect for a quiet summer afternoon read in the garden. There are 36 books in the series. I’m currently on number 4.

The Kay Scarpetta Series by Patricia Cornwell

This is another crime series but not nearly so light hearted as the one above. Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia in the USA. Author Patricia Cornwell first introduced Scarpetta in the book Postmortem originally published in 1990. The character is an American of Italian descent. She is a perfectionist and workaholic and lives in a custom built home where she cooks many Italian meals while she ponders her cases. She also, and perhaps this is me looking at the character from a UK perspective, seems to be overly obsessed with guns although on one occasion, having a gun under her pillow in the bedroom saves her life. In the first book Scarpetta has to deal with a series of murders and works with Benton Wesley from the FBI to create a profile of the murderer. The book also introduces DNA testing as a new technique and later Scarpetta hatches a plot to flush out the murderer. The murderer however, targets Scarpetta herself but is shot dead by policeman Pete Marino.

The books are fascinating reads and have been said to have influenced TV shows like CSI and other shows that use modern scientific techniques of detection and forensics. The first few editions are excellent reads but the later ones tend to stray into a bit of a fantasy area. Scarpetta has an affair with Benton Wesley who is murdered. In a later book he reappears, it seems he was not killed after all but was placed in a witness protection scheme for some reason. That seemed to me to be a little out of the ordinary but later things get really odd. Scarpetta’s niece Lucy appears in the first book as a ten year old but in later editions when she grows up she becomes a computer wizard, and then joins the FBI where she has difficulties because she is gay. Later she develops an internet search engine and becomes a millionaire and creates her own super secret investigation company called the Last Precinct. It’s all a little bit fantastic.

The first books were written in the first person then the later ones shift to the third person and then beginning with Port Mortuary, the last Scarpetta book that I have read, they shift back to the first person. For years I’ve heard in the media about the books being made into films but for whatever reason, that has not yet happened. I reviewed Port Mortuary a few years back and apart from being a little complicated, it was a pretty good read.


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Summer Book Bag 2021

There is nothing nicer than pottering around the garden on a summer’s day, gardening, barbecuing and of course, reading. The pandemic and some sick leave have given me plenty of time to read this summer although most of the books I have bought recently have been not from my usual charity and second hand shops but from the internet.

A Right Royal Bastard

Serves Me Right

Bolt From the Blue (Three volumes of autobiography by Sarah Miles)

A long time ago I picked up A Right Royal Bastard somewhere in a charity shop. I have a feeling it was whilst walking round Skipton a few months ago but anyway, I didn’t know much about Sarah Miles except that she was a film actress and had appeared in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and also Ryan’s Daughter, that latter film being one of director David Lean’s less appealing films. Apparently, as Sarah reveals in Serves Me Right, Lean was so upset by the bad reviews he didn’t make another film until A Passage to India, many years later.

The first part of Volume I was rather dull I thought, only really becoming interesting when the author leaves home and becomes an actress. It is a very forthright and frank book and Sarah explains how she once lived with a girl who was a prostitute and wanting to know more about sex, hid in the girl’s closet while she serviced a customer. An abortion was another shocking revelation.

In volume II, Serves Me Right, Sarah goes on to talk about her dog Addo, who she was devoted to, so much so that she would not accept film roles abroad as she couldn’t bear to leave him behind. She talks about the swinging 60’s and her film debut as a ‘husky wide eyed nymphet’ in Term of Trial in 1962. She met Laurence Olivier in that film and went on to have a long affair with him.

She owned a house in London and one day an old friend from RADA turned up and quickly moved herself in. The friend, Nona, had mental health issues and paid no rent and caused Sarah a great deal of distress. Eventually she asked Nona to leave but sadly she committed suicide in the house. It wasn’t the only death she would have come into her life. She had a brief liaison with a man called David Whiting. He was a pushy individual who inveigled himself into her life first as a journalist working for Life magazine and then when he was fired as a PR man on a film her husband, screenwriter Robert Bolt was producing. Whiting was later found dead in her hotel room causing a great scandal. After the incident had died down and her infidelity was revealed, she and Bolt parted.

I’ve only just finished Bolt from the Blue, her third volume of memoirs and it was written in the same frank and forthright style as the preceding volumes. An interesting part for me was about Robert Bolt and the great time and effort he put into crafting his plays and screenplays, spending long hours in his office writing. Towards the end of his life he wrote a screenplay for the film Nixon, one that he was really proud of but Oliver Stone decided not to use it and wrote his own. Bolt also wrote a final screenplay for David Lean, Nostromo. The film was ready to shoot when Lean’s illness meant that the project would go unfinished. Alas the rest of this volume was not quite as interesting as the first two and hearing about Sarah’s homes, dogs and the problems of her spoilt and undisciplined son and his drug problem was not my cup of tea.

The last two volumes I ordered from the internet but annoyingly, Bolt from the Blue arrived as a big hardback book when I really wanted the paperback. I don’t know about you but I like my books to be compact and easy to fit into pockets and bags. I really should pay more attention to internet small print.

Death of a Gossip

Death of a Cad

Death of an Outsider (Hamish Macbeth novels by M C Beaton)

I wrote in an earlier post about being a fan of the Hamish Macbeth TV series and finding a copy of one of the books in a charity shop. The book, Death of a Dreamer was enjoyable and quirky and quite different from the TV series. After reading that book, I wanted to read some more and no point in carrying on with the next one I thought, I might as well start from the beginning and read the novels in order. Liz obviously picked up on that and she found the first three novels for me. The first two were compiled together in one volume, Death of a Gossip and Death of a Cad. I was expecting the first one to be something special and looked forward to the introduction of Hamish himself. All the main characters in the series were there, Inspector Blair who looks down on Hamish as a simple village bobby even though he has a knack of solving the local murders and Prunella, daughter of Colonel Harbuton-Smythe, who thinks his daughter is far too good for Hamish even though Hamish clearly likes his daughter. Both the deaths of the gossip and the cad have kept me amused on my garden sun lounger for a while but both were a little contrived. The third instalment in the series though, Death of an Outsider was much better. The characters were better, the plot and the storyline all had me hooked. The setting too was interesting, not the village of Lochdubh that I was beginning to get used to but another village where Hamish was filling in, as their local constable was on holiday. I do love a good murder mystery and already I’m looking forward to number 4 in the series.

Manhunt.

I always find it interesting just how I seem to hook up with a particular book. In this case I had an email from the ITV Hub telling me about a great new series of Manhunt and how I could watch the previous one on the ITV hub.  Now what criteria ITV uses to send me an email like that I don’t know because not only had I never watched Manhunt, I’d never even heard of it. Looking at the ITV website I found that Manhunt was a three part thriller based on the real life case of killer Levi Bellfield. Having nothing more interesting lined up to watch that evening, Liz and I settled down to watch and actually got pretty interested, so much so that I immediately went to Abebooks and ordered a copy of the book that the series had been based on. It had been written, in fact written quite well by former Chief Inspector Colin Sutton who was in charge of the real life investigation of a young French student murdered in Twickenham, London.

Sutton tells the story of how the student living in London was found critically injured on Twickenham Green in 2003. She was taken quickly to hospital but died from her injuries having been hit on the back of the head, possibly with a hammer.

Sutton explains how the Metropolitan Police deal with situations like this and how an ‘on call’ team quickly attend and then hand over to a full murder investigation team led on this occasion by Sutton himself. The first things to do were to secure the crime scene and set up a mobile police station asking for anyone with information to come forward. Various people mentioned a man resembling Maradona, the famous footballer, smoking and standing by the cricket screens. The area was thoroughly searched and the cricket screens fingerprinted. The next step was to check CCTV footage from the area and the cameras soon found the victim alighting from a bus. She had spent the evening at a French bistro with friends and had left to catch her bus home. She had missed her stop and then had to walk across the Green to get home where sadly she was murdered. A small white van was noticed on various CCTV cameras and later when her mobile phone signal was last registered by the river, an underwater search by divers located her house keys and other personal items.

There was no special key to solving this case, no moment like in TV fiction when the detective spots a clue pointing to the killer, just dogged routine footwork and research. Later something approaching that TV moment did occur. At the onsite mobile police station erected on Twickenham Green, an informant had mentioned that her previous partner, Levi Bellfield could be a suspect. He was a violent man, owned a small Ford van and was familiar with the area. The investigation team were about to start on the leads generated by the public when a local PC who had taken the information asked about it. Bellfield looked like a possible murderer straight away and after a surveillance operation the police were to finally arrest him. Keeping him in custody and proving he was a murderer and finding he was linked to other murders and attempted murders was another thing altogether and the author takes us through the investigation step by step.

This was an excellent read and having time off work I was able to lie in the garden, glued to the book until I got to the end.


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Some Thoughts on Books and Reading

I really do love books and reading. My idea of heaven is lying by a pool in somewhere like Lanzarote with the sun shining and a book in my hand. What is important for a good read is time. It’s alright to read a book on your lunch break or on the bus travelling home after work but to really get into a book, some uninterrupted time is important. So, what is really so good about reading? You, the reader must like reading otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this but for me reading is about connecting with worlds I will never see and connecting with my own world too; finding that I’m not as unique or as different as I had thought and that other people have had similar experiences to me.

Looking through a box of my old books I found a book I had read many years ago. It’s called the Wooden Horse and it’s a classic wartime escape book. The author conveys vividly the boredom of incarceration during WWII as a prisoner of war and the feelings that time was just slipping away and also the petty arguments that arose when confined with other people. Escape was on the minds of many but digging an escape tunnel was difficult as there was such a long way to tunnel. The huts were deliberately placed well away from the camp perimeter. One day, one of the men had an idea, what if they could start the tunnel nearer the wire? They hit on the idea of making a vaulting horse, putting a couple of men inside and then digging while their fellow prisoners exercised above.

The Wooden Horse was written by one of the actual escapees, Eric Williams. He was an RAF pilot shot down over Germany and imprisoned in 1942 and in 1950 the book was made into a classic WWII film.

As a child I remember reading books at night in bed before going to sleep and arguing with my brother who wanted the light turned out. Sometimes I’d read under the covers with a torch.

There was a small library a short ten-minute walk from my old house and I used to spend many an early evening there with my mother and brother. I remember a particular series of books I used to read when I was very young about someone called Mr Grimpwinkle.

A quick search on Google showed my memory had not failed me and there was such a series of books. They were written by a lady called Joan Drake. One example was Mr Grimpwinkle’s Marrow published in 1959. The going price on Abebooks was £148.95, quite a considerable sum for a book. The author, Joan Drake, seems to have published quite a few children’s books but I couldn’t find out anything more about her. I did actually fancy buying a copy of Mr Grimpwinkle’s Marrow just for nostalgic reasons but £149 is a lot to pay for nostalgia.

Another book I particularly remember was one I got for Christmas one year. It was two stories in one book. I forget the title and the author but one part was the story of Robin Hood and the other was about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The end of both stories has always struck me. In Robin Hood, Robin lies on his death bed and fires a last arrow asking to be buried wherever the arrow lands. That could have been tricky for Robin’s merry men but as far as we know everything went to plan and Robin was laid to rest somewhere, I assume, in Sherwood forest. When Arthur lies dying, he entrusts one of his lieutenants with the sword Excalibur and tasks him to throw the sword into a lake. The knight, who I believe was Sir Bedivere, wasn’t happy with throwing away such an excellent sword so he hid it. When Arthur asked what had happened and Sir Bedivere replied ‘nothing’, Arthur knew he was lying. Eventually the knight was persuaded to follow Arthur’s instructions and saw that Excalibur was caught by the lady of the lake, brandished three times then disappeared into the waters.

Now that is a book I would like to read again and ever since that first read many years ago I have always been interested in Robin and King Arthur.

The story of Robin Hood has been made into many films. A recent one from 2010 was Robin Hood which starred Russell Crowe as Robin and was directed by Ridley Scott. I’ve only seen it once but it was a pretty good film. Another version from 1991 starred Kevin Costner. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was a highly enjoyable film if you can overlook Costner’s American accent. Alan Rickman plays a slightly over the top Sheriff of Nottingham and the film is well worth watching.

Douglas Fairbanks made the original version of Robin Hood in 1922. It was the very first film to have a Hollywood premiere which was held at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18th 1922. I’ve always thought that this was the film in which Fairbanks slides down a huge curtain by slashing it with his sword but after a quick internet check it looks like that was The Black Pirate from 1926.

Alan Hale played Little John in Fairbank’s version and interestingly, he played the same role in the later Errol Flynn version The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938.

Flynn’s version is probably the definitive film of Robin Hood. It was shot in Technicolor and starred Flynn alongside Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian and Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne. Claude Rains played Prince John who plots to steal the throne from King Richard who is away at the Crusades. Michael Curtiz directed.

King Arthur and the legend of the Knights of the Round Table has also inspired quite a few films. King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword from 2017 was probably the latest. It was directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Charlie Hunnam (never heard of him myself) and Jude Law.

There was a version called First Knight from 1995 starring the highly over rated Richard Gere and a 2004 version simply called King Arthur with Clive Owen as Arthur. ‘A gritty attempt to update Arthurian legend’ said the one review I found on Google.

There was a cartoon version, the Sword in the Stone released in 1963 and a musical, Camelot from 1967 but my favourite film adaptation is Excalibur directed by John Boorman. Nicol Williamson plays an impressive Merlin and the film is an absorbing mix of sorcery, legend and fantasy all remaining fairly true to Le Morte d’Arthur, the book published by Thomas Mallory in 1485.

Under normal circumstances I might go on to talk further about my favourite books but I have done that already. I think I did my top ten favourite books in two parts a few weeks back. At various points in my blogging life I’ve written about David Copperfield, The Great Gatsby and Lost Horizon, my three all time favourite books. I’ve also written a few posts about James Bond, the UK’s top secret agent but I’d like to focus on one of the Bond books, Goldfinger.

Back in the early 1960’s Harry Saltzman bought the film rights for the Bond books. He formed a partnership with fellow producer Albert Broccoli and they cast Sean Connery as Bond and in 1962 produced the first Bond movie, Doctor No. I was a schoolboy back then and had never seen the films but there was a great deal of hype about them on television. So much so that I went down to the library to read one of the books. There was only one in stock at the time and it was The Man with the Golden Gun, one of the worst books in the series. The author, Ian Fleming, had passed away before finishing the final draft of the book which accounts for the poor quality. Luckily, my uncle brought round a box of paperbacks for my dad to read and one was a cheap paperback version of Goldfinger. I read it, thought it was wonderful and embarked on a mission to buy all the other Bond books.

At school in English class our teacher had asked us to bring in a book with a vivid description of someone and my choice was Goldfinger. The book is about a man called Auric Goldfinger, a rich businessman who is suspected of smuggling gold. Bond is tasked to find out more and Fleming gives the reader a particularly compelling description of Goldfinger.  Fleming describes him as having a body seemingly put together with parts of other people’s bodies. I always thought that was pretty good. Fleming used to write his first drafts of a book and then add in all sorts of details afterwards like the vodka martinis that James Bond liked so much and the Sea Island cotton shirts that Bond favours in the novels. It was actually Fleming who wore those particular shirts and who drank vodka martinis and also preferred scrambled eggs for breakfast. Many people have speculated who Bond was based on and my feeling has always been that in fact it was Ian Fleming himself.

My current read is a book I mentioned last week, Charlie Chaplin and his Times by Kenneth S Lynn. Chaplin was a music hall entertainer working for the great impresario Fred Karno. Karno regularly sent teams of entertainers to the USA and while there Chaplin was invited to make a film for Mack Sennett, the famous producer of comedy films. Chaplin’s films proved to be enormously popular and so Chaplin moved on to different studios, all for better and better money until he established his own studio. I’ve always found the early days of Hollywood to be fascinating and this book is no exception.

Which books are you reading?


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My Top Ten Books of All Time Part 2

I do love books and like everyone I have my favourites. Last week I wrote about reading a blog post asking the reader for their top 5 books of all time. I decided to go one better and work out my top ten. I gave you the first five of my top ten books of all time and this week it’s time for the other five, all in no particular order.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

This book is a cold war thriller from the famous spy writer John Le Carré. Leamas runs the Berlin station and his opposite number over in East Germany is bearing down hard on his agents. Back in London Control, the head of the Secret Service has an idea to deal with this man. Leamas becomes a little fed up with himself. He gets a new job in a library, he drinks too much. He gets involved with a young librarian who turns out to be a communist party member. He assaults a small shop owner and ends up in prison. When he emerges, he is approached by various persons all wanting background information for a foreign news service. Leamas becomes a defector and only then do we realise what his mission is all about. Le Carré isn’t actually one of my favourite writers but in this book his slow burning style is perfect as the plot evolves slowly and methodically. A great read.

2001 A Space Odyssey

I first saw the film version of 2001 in the summer of 1968. I was only 11 at the time and I remember my Mum being surprised I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future. I was so confused that I had to buy the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

The book is a wonderfully well written, plausible space adventure. It is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in Neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Saturn. Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extra-terrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew. All the technology that Clarke wrote about had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction.

The History of Mr Polly

This is not a science fiction story despite being penned by H G Wells. Our hero, Mr Polly finds himself in a very dull job with a very dull wife and resolves to commit suicide. Anyway, events unfold and instead of committing suicide, Polly accidentally starts a fire which threatens the whole street and he then mounts a brave rescue of an old lady. Instead of dying, Mr Polly becomes a hero and when the insurance money comes in, he leaves his wife, nicely settled with the insurance money, takes a little for himself and departs for pastures new. He sends some money to a post office in another village and gradually meanders in that direction, sleeping in fields and hedges, getting himself a tan. He works occasionally when he wants and sleeps when the mood takes him at other times.

He comes across the Potwell Inn and asks for work and right away finds himself at home. He potters about happily at the Potwell Inn, cleaning, serving and doing various odd jobs. One day the landlady’s nephew appears. He is a violent bully having been in and out of prison for years. He doesn’t like Mr Polly getting in the way so he decides to scare him off. What should Polly do, stay and help or just leave?

I first read this book many years ago and I’ve always liked its simple philosophy. If you don’t like your situation, change it says the author.

The History of Mr Polly is a lovely gentle read by a classic author.

My well thumbed copy of David Copperfield

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

I couldn’t tell you what my number one favourite book of all time is, but a strong contender must be ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.

It’s a book written by a wonderful wordsmith and is rich in powerful and subtle images.

A lot of Dickens’ characters display their personal characters and traits through their names. Uriah Heep and Mr Murdstone for instance. Even when we are yet to be introduced to these fictional people we can understand a lot about them from the sound of their names. This is how Dickens works, giving us numerous hints and pointers to who these people are and what they are like.

James Steerforth though is something of an exception. He is my favourite character from within Dickens’ pages and he is neither a Heep nor a Murdstone; neither a Pickwick nor a Bumble. Apart from David Copperfield himself, he is the most human of Dickens’ creations. He is kind but can be unpleasant, caring and yet selfish, thoughtful but also unfeeling. In short, as Mr Micawber might say, he is full of human contradictions.

The best part in the book probably, for me at any rate, is the storm when David returns to Yarmouth. Dickens builds the storm slowly and each word and phrase adds a new layer to the sense of danger and foreboding and when Copperfield is finally reunited with his old friend Steerforth at the height of the storm’s ferocity, death comes between them and Steerforth is sadly drowned. Dickens reveals this in a unique way for he does not tell the reader Steerforth is dead. He leaves the reader to realise this themselves and in the process, makes the reader almost at one with the narrative.

Throughout the book, Dickens mentions in passing Steerforth’s habit of sleeping with his head on his arm. It’s referred to many times in the narrative almost as matter of non-interest. Something unimportant that the reader doesn’t really need to know, but when David Copperfield spies someone aboard a stricken ship trapped in the fierce storm who evokes some faint remembrance for him, a tiny warning bell is set off.

Finally, when the body of a drowned man is brought ashore and lies mutely on the sand, his head upon his arm, we know just from that simple bit of information, without the author telling us anything more, that Steerforth is dead. The prompts and clues that Dickens has hinted at have paid off for the reader in the most satisfying of ways.

I’ve returned to this wonderful book time and time again, to enjoy that unique almost religious feeling, that communion with the thoughts of a man who died in 1870, over a hundred and forty years ago, yet whose frozen thoughts live on in the pages of his books.

As long as people read books, Charles Dickens and his characters will live on.

The Da Vinci Code

I thought I’d finish with this book, the Da Vinci code as it’s the most recent book in my selection. It was Dan Brown’s second book and it was a publishing sensation. It was the book everyone was reading and the book that you just had to read. It was also involved in some controversy as the writers of a nonfiction book the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, claimed that Brown had pinched their ideas. The dispute ended up in court with Brown winning his case.

The book opens with the murder of a man named Saunière in the Louvre museum in Paris. Robert Langdon is called in to help with a cryptic clue left behind by the deceased. That and other clues lead Langdon on a chase to find the murderer, a monk named Silas. Silas works for someone known only as the Teacher and together they are on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Sir Leigh Teabing explains that the grail is not a cup but a tomb containing the bones of Mary Magdalene.  Later Langdon discovers that Teabing is in fact the Teacher and he wishes to destroy the Catholic church by proving Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

For me this book was just an amazing read and one that I just couldn’t put down. I had also read the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail many years ago and Brown tips a nod to that book in many ways. One was naming his murder victim as Jacques Saunière who was a real individual in the Holy Blood, a man who took over a small church in the French region of Rennes-le-Château and one day became very rich. He had found something hidden in the church, perhaps it was gold, perhaps it was something to do with the mysterious Priory of Sion and their claim that Jesus and Mary produced a child who later became related to the Meringovian Dynasty of France.

Is it all true? I don’t know but Dan Brown has picked up these historical threads and woven it expertly into an unputdownable novel.


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My Top 10 Books of All Time

The other day I was looking through one of those writer’s pages I subscribe to. One particular page is for writers to talk about stuff, you know, publishing, agents, even actual writing but writers being a self-indulgent selfish lot, they usually just post links to their new books. Being similarly selfish I tend to add links to my new blog posts but on this occasion, I noticed something different, someone had asked a question. What are your 5 favourite books of all time?

Straight away I jotted down four, I struggled for a fifth and then remembered I had already started a post about my top 100 books of all time. It was waiting there quietly in my drafts folder and I’m sorry to say I was well short of a 100. I had got as far as 21 books and so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve whittled it down to 10. I’ll give you five this week and five the next so here we go, in no particular order . .

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

What can I say about this modern classic that hasn’t be said before? I’ve tried reading other books by Fitzgerald, but they haven’t really hooked me. This one though is nothing short of wonderful. It’s a sad haunting book and the text is so lovely, so lyrical it could almost be a poem, especially the very last page.

Gatsby is an enigma. A millionaire rumoured to have made his money during prohibition who holds lavish parties in the New York neighbourhood of West Egg. The bright and beautiful of New York are drawn to these parties like moths to a flame and one day, or so Gatsby hopes, Daisy, his lost love, will come too.

Things don’t work out as Gatsby has planned because Daisy has a husband and children. A hot summer in New York adds to the tension and Fitzgerald presents the jazz age to the reader with warmth and nostalgia. Read this book and revel in the author’s lyrical elegance.

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

I’ve always loved this book. It’s a very northern book, written by Keith Waterhouse and it’s about a young lad who fantasises a lot. So much so that he has a whole fantasy world up there in his head. It’s called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia the army traditionally salute with the left hand, a tribute to survivors of the revolution who all lost their right arms in battle. Billy fantasises about writing a great novel, the one like mine that he is always going to start tomorrow. He has two girlfriends on the go, both of whom he has proposed to and has given them both the same ring. He wants to be a TV scriptwriter and has gone as far as sending his scripts to a TV comedian. He dreams of going to London to work. The book was a successful film and someone once told me they saw the stage version which used a revolving stage for Billy to enter into Ambrosia.

Lost Horizon

James Hilton is one of my personal writing heroes and yet his name may be unfamiliar to many of you reading this blog. He was a journalist and an author and made the trip from his home in Leigh, Lancashire, (now Greater Manchester) in the UK to the Hollywood Hills in the United States to become a screen writer. He is probably more well known for his book ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ which was made into a film with Robert Donat (actually another northerner from Didsbury in Manchester) but my favourite of his books and quite possibly my all-time favourite book is ‘Lost Horizon’.

Lost Horizon is a book I found in a second-hand shop many years ago. A battered 1940s paperback, I paid twenty-five pence for and yet that small investment has paid me back many times over for sheer reading pleasure as Lost Horizon is a book I re read every year or so and I often pull it down from my bookshelf when a current read fails to entertain me.

Lost Horizon is a completely original idea and is about British consul Robert Conway in the dark days before World War II. Conway is helping his fellow British citizens escape from civil war in China and he and his small party escape in the last plane, only to be kidnapped and taken to a distant Tibetan monastery. Conway meets the High Lama and after a time it is revealed that the Tibetans want to preserve the best of world culture and art and make it safe from the coming war.

Hilton is one of those few people who have invented a word or coined a phrase that has become part of the English language. In this case it was the name of the Tibetan monastery, Shangri-la which has since become a byword for a peaceful paradise, a distant haven. Camp David, the US President’s retreat was originally called Shangri-la until renamed by Eisenhower for his son, David.

Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

You might possibly be wondering about this book and how it got into my top ten. OK, it isn’t one of the classics and it isn’t exactly by a world-renowned author but what the heck, I’ve always liked it and it’s one of my favourite books. Books come in all shapes and sizes and while some books focus on strong and emotive subjects like love, life, tragedy and the universe, some books lift you up in other ways. I’ve always had a dream of living in France in a big old country house and in this book the author and his wife move to a village in Provence. In a quietly amusing way the author documents his new life which involves things like dining out, sorting out a new boiler and engaging French workmen to remodel his house. They once made it into a rather badly received TV series but the book is a gentle, relaxing summer read.

A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow

Whenever I plug my own short novel, Floating in Space, I usually try to link it to classic kitchen sink novels of the past like this one. The sixties were a great time for working class novels and many of them were made into films.

The story is a very simple one; Vic Brown is a draughtsman in a Yorkshire factory and he gets involved with a secretary called Ingrid. When Vic learns Ingrid is pregnant, he does the ‘proper’ thing for the 1960’s and offers to marry her. Sounds simple but this is a complex and fascinating book and looks at the subtleties of relationships and how the characters make their way through a series of difficult choices. For a northerner like me, it’s also nice to read about things and places I can directly relate to. The first part of the book where Vic, who narrates the book, talks about a family wedding brings back so many memories of similar weddings when I was a child. Barstow was a Yorkshire writer and A Kind of Loving was the first part of a trilogy. My well thumbed copy has all three parts in one volume.


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Book Bag Edition 12 2020

I would normally have called this my Holiday Book bag but despite being away from work for many weeks, it has hardly been a holiday. Still, I’ve managed to spend some time in the sun reading and here are the books from my book bag. As usual, me being a confirmed tightwad, they were all sourced from charity shops and second hand book stores.

The Murder of Rudolf Hess by W. Hugh Thomas

I really do love a good modern mystery. The JFK assassination, Watergate, the disappearance of the Romanov royal family and the many mysteries of World War Two. Chief among that latter subject was the mystery of Rudolf Hess.

Hess was once the Deputy Führer, number 2 to Adolf Hitler. He joined the Nazi party in 1920 and henceforth he was always at Hitler’s side. He was with Hitler at the failed beer hall putch of 1923 when Hitler attempted to seize power. The attempt failed and Hitler was imprisoned at Landsberg prison. There Hitler dictated his memoirs and political ideals to Hess which became ‘Mein Kampf’, -My Struggle- which later became the bible of the Nazi party.

So what was the big mystery then? Well in 1941 when the UK and Nazi Germany were at war Rudolf Hess decided to fly directly to the UK on what seemed like a mad mission to secure a peace with Britain. Hess knew that peace was not an option for Churchill who had recognised that Hitler was an evil tyrant and wanted to smash his regime. Hess apparently thought that there was a faction within Britain that could both arrange peace terms and remove Churchill.

Hess had already sent letters through an intermediary to the Duke of Hamilton in the belief that he was communicating with the leader of an anti-war party. The King, so Hess seemed to think, was opposed to Churchill and would remove him from office if given the chance.

Despite not receiving a reply from Hamilton, Hess decided to fly direct to Scotland to begin talks with Hamilton. He baled out from his Messerschmitt over Scotland and landed safely by parachute and demanded to see Hamilton. When he eventually did get to see Hamilton, his ideas for ending the conflict seemed rather woolly and disjointed. Hess was imprisoned for the rest of the war and then in 1945 sent to Nuremburg for the war crimes trials of the captured Nazi leaders. They all presumably thought Hess to be the real Hess although Göring taunted him asking him to reveal his ‘secret’.

Göring was sentenced to death at Nuremburg and Hess to life imprisonment.

So still wondering what was the great mystery? Why did Hess fly to Scotland? Who was the man who claimed to be Hess? Was it the real Hess or as some have claimed, a substitute, a fake?

The author of this book was once a medical officer in Spandau, the Berlin prison where Hess and others served their sentences. He had examined Hess as part of his routine duties and found that he had no wounds in the chest area despite records detailing chest wounds sustained in the 1914-18 conflict. The entire premise of the book is based on this one meeting between author and prisoner. It all sounds good and the author has done extensive research not only on Hess’ medical records but also on Hess’ flight from Germany. The thing is, if the real Hess started off in Germany and a fake Hess landed in the UK, who made the substitution? Britain or Germany? Why?

The book was an interesting read but I’m not sure if I’m completely convinced. Hess committed suicide in 1987, although some have claimed that British secret agents murdered him. Interestingly when the allied leaders met in the past to discuss Hess, the Soviet Union always vetoed Hess’ release. When Gorbachev took over as leader of the USSR he agreed to release Hess. That was when the UK decided to use their veto and so Hess lingered on in Spandau until his eventual death.

As Spandau prison had then become empty, its prisoners either dead or released, the allies destroyed the building. Over on Google I found an article in the New Scientist which claimed DNA evidence proved Hess was really Hess after all so that’s another conspiracy theory out of the window. Click here to read moreI

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.

Dan Brown is a major best selling author and if you haven’t heard of this book you must have read, or seen the film, or at least heard of the Da Vinci Code, Dan’s most famous work. The Da Vinci Code was a cracking read and one I really just couldn’t put down. The flip side of the book’s success is that in one of the local charity shops in St Annes there is a whole shelf full of copies of this book in the window and a notice saying’ We’ve got enough Da Vinci Codes. We don’t want any more!’

The Lost Symbol continues the adventures of Dan’s character Robert Langdon this time in the US capital Washington. You wouldn’t think there were any ancient mysteries in a modern state like the USA would you? Think again as Langdon uncovers a trail of secret codes, secret societies and a mysterious pyramid all a stone’s throw from the White House.

The secrets of the ancient Masons, well some of them anyway are deciphered by symbologist Robert Langdon in a race to find the secrets of a pyramid hidden by the fathers of the American nation. Apart from a crazy guy intent on murder it’s all pretty interesting and the story is told from various angles so just as we encounter something incredible, Dan Brown sweeps the rug from under our feet and returns to another angle.

Fairly well written but not quite with the intensity of the Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown steers us through various puzzles and secrets to a somewhat understated finale. The last part of the book is sort of preachy where Dan seems to be telling us the Masons’, or perhaps his, understanding of God; God as the human mind. Interesting stuff . . .

Here’s an interview with Dan I found on YouTube talking about this very book . .

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

This is a book about the American Indian and is very much in the style of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It’s a story about the Parker family and about the Commanche tribe. As the new white settlers advanced westwards they encountered the Commanche tribe. They were Plains Indians who were horsemen, in fact the book mentions that many viewed them as the greatest horsemen ever seen in the Americas. They hunted buffalo and used its meat in their cooking and its hides they tanned and preserved for clothing and for warmth.

For a while, particularly during the civil war, they were successful not only in halting the westward advance of the settlers but in fact pushed the settlers back more than two hundred miles. They were great fighters with the gun and with the bow but it was the new repeating rifle that finally beat them.

The Commanche fought other Indian tribes too and in defeat, they murdered and raped, they scalped their victims but the young children that were left they took with them and were assimilated into the tribe. One young woman captive was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was absorbed into the  tribe and even bore children to a Commanche warrior. During a raid by the US Cavalry she was freed and taken back home but by then she was a Commanche and wanted only to go back to her people. She left behind a son, Quannah Parker who grew up to be a chief of the tribe. Not only that but in later years he tried to accept life on the reservation and even charged the cattle men to run their herds through his land. His story is quite an incredible one and the author recreates the frontier life of Indian villages, buffalo hunters and war dances with great style. This book was nominated for the Pulitzer prize for non fiction and it is not hard to see why.

As usual there is a video version of this post however, for reasons I won’t go into here (although the phrase complete cock up does come to mind) a slightly different selection of books is used.


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My Lockdown Book Bag 2020

Things don’t always go as planned, especially when an unexpected pandemic hits the country so instead of presenting what might have been another holiday book bag, here’s the pandemic version instead:  A review of the books I’ve been reading lately, all sourced as usual from second hand book shops or the internet.

A Right Royal Bastard by Sarah Miles.

Sarah Miles is a famous actress from the 60s and 70s. She appeared in films like Ryan’s Daughter and The Servant. A Right Royal Bastard is the first volume in her autobiography and is mostly about her childhood. I suppose normally you might expect a film star to devote a chapter or two to his or her childhood but here Sarah gives us pretty much a complete volume devoted to hers.

After the opening chapter I expected the book to move on but no, Sarah Miles tells us everything she can think of about her childhood and her schooling as well as her background and her family. I have to say I was getting a little bored but after a few chapters the book finally began to get interesting.

It’s a very frank book indeed and I wonder if it was a confessional experience for the author. Sarah tells us about her first period and then later about her first sexual experience. The story about when she was almost raped was shocking but then she proceeds to tell us about the time she shared a flat with a prostitute. One memory from that time was when she agreed to hide in a wardrobe during one her flatmate’s encounters with a male client. Sarah and that particular lady later have a bath together and Sarah soon begins to suspect that perhaps someone has got the hots for her.

Later she falls in love with James Fox. He is in the army at the time and when he goes off to join his regiment Sarah finds she is pregnant and suffers a dreadful back street abortion.

Sarah emerges from these pages as utterly different from what I had imagined, she always looks so prim and proper in her films. The book finishes with her first big part in a film and I have to say, I did find myself wishing I had the second volume. I’ll have to look out for it.

Alan Turing: The Enigma.

I’ve been reading this book for a long time and the lockdown was the perfect opportunity to finish it off and finally put it aside. This book is well researched which must have been difficult as Turing was not well known or even famous during his lifetime and his greatest achievements were made in the greatest of secrecy during wartime. The first part of the book I found slow but tedious and it finally livened up when Alan Turing joins the staff at Bletchley Park and sets about decoding the secret messages from Nazi Germany; then it gets interesting.

Turing joined the Government Code and Cypher School in 1938 which was the UK’s code breaking organisation. In 1939 the British cypher experts were given details of code breaking by their Polish colleagues including details of the Nazi Enigma code machine and their methods of decoding the Enigma messages.

Turing recognised the importance of a machine the Poles used to help break the codes and he designed and made his own improved version known as the Bombe. In 1941 Turing and his colleagues appealed directly to Winston Churchill for more resources to help their work and Churchill, recognising the importance of what they were doing responded immediately. As a result, more than 200 bombe machines were in operation by the end of the war.

German naval Enigma messages were even more difficult to break and Turing worked hard on these codes, finally breaking them with a statistical technique that was later known as sequential analysis. It was later estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war by 2 years and saved countless lives.

Turing worked at Manchester university after the war. In 1952 he became involved with a young unemployed man named Arnold Murray who was later involved in a robbery at Turing’s home in Wilmslow. During the inquiries Turing acknowledged a homosexual relationship with Murray and was prosecuted, homosexuality being illegal at the time. He was found dead two years later in 1954 and it is thought he took his own life using cyanide although it may have been that his death was accidental.

Apart from the wartime work decoding Enigma messages I actually found this book rather heavy going. Towards the end when Alan is working in Manchester I found myself skipping through long passages about mathematical theory but I was glad to have finally reached the end. One interesting thing was that Alan lived in Wilmslow during this latter part of his life. I once lived in Wilmslow too and travelled into Manchester every day on the bus, a journey of about an hour. Alan did the same journey by bicycle so he must have been pretty fit.

Over on Goodreads readers seemed to be all in favour of the book but sadly it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Khrushchev Remembers.

This book has a remarkable history. Khrushchev was ousted from the Soviet leadership in 1964 in favour of Brezhnev and he was retired to a small dacha with a pension. There Khrushchev fell into a deep depression but his son suggested he record his memoirs on audio tape which he did. The KGB kept an eye on Khrushchev and demanded he turn the tapes over to them which he also did. His son however had copies secretly smuggled into the west and they were published in the form of this book. My copy is quite an old one and has a commentary by Edward Crankshaw putting Khrushchev’s memories into perspective.

The book is a fascinating read and the author takes us through his early life and we see him move ever closer to the centre of power which in Khrushchev’s early years meant closer to Stalin. Khrushchev in some ways thinks of Stalin as a good comrade and communist but in others as what he really was, a ruthless dictator. Khrushchev survives the years of Stalin’s purges when many disappeared after a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Khrushchev defends the Nazi-Soviet pact saying the Soviets knew it would never last but that it gave them time to build up defences against Hitler. Hitler finally attacked Russia with Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and for a time Stalin disappeared from view. He was finally urged into action by his generals and I have read elsewhere that when they first approached him he asked ‘have you come to arrest me?’

It would have probably been better for the Soviets if they had but they rallied around their leader and went on to defeat Hitler, and Stalin consolidated even more power. Stalin died in 1953 and he was left lying on the floor for a day as his staff were too scared to approach him. Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police initially grabbed power but Khrushchev was able to overcome him and have him arrested by the military.

In 1964 it was time for Brezhnev to snatch power himself. Khrushchev did not resist. His contribution he said, was the smooth change of power without murders or arrests.

‘Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.’

Brezhnev reversed many of Khrushchev’s reforms and the world and the Soviets had to wait for Gorbachev for more enlightened leadership. To sum up, this was a great read and very interesting but one in which I was glad of the commentary to put the author’s views in perspective.

That was my lockdown book bag. What books do you have in yours?


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10 Reasons to Read Books!

Every blog post on this site will end with a familiar call to buy my book, Floating in Space. Floating, in case you are a first time visitor to this site, is a short novel about the life of a young working class lad in urban Manchester in 1977. A number of reviewers have heaped praise on the book, others did not find it so praiseworthy. Why should you then consider it as an addition to your library? Why should you read it? Why should you even read books in the first place? Let me give you a few reasons . . .

Knowledge

One of the biggest reasons why we read books is to increase our knowledge. Books are a rich source of information. Reading books on varied subjects imparts information and increases your range and depth of knowledge. Whenever you read a book, you learn new information that otherwise you would not have known.

Improving your brain.

Studies have shown that reading has strong positive effects on the brain. By staying mentally stimulated, you can prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping your brain active is important because the brain is a muscle and like other muscles in the body, exercise keeps it strong and healthy. Similar to solving puzzles, reading books is a great way to exercise your brain and keep it healthy.

Stress Reduction.

Reading a book can relieve stress better than taking a walk or listening to music. According to studies, people who read more tend to have lower stress levels.

Building vocabulary

Reading improves your vocabulary and command of the language. As you read, you come across new words, new phrases and writing styles. A bigger and better vocabulary helps in conversation, with job interviews and in your own writing.

Improves writing skills

Reading a well-written book helps you to become a better writer. Many successful authors gained their expertise by reading the works of others. A great book will inspire you and urge you to write as good if not better than works you have read. If you want to become a better writer, start by learning from previous masters.

Improves communication skills

Improving your vocabulary and writing skills  go hand in hand with developing your communication skills. The more you read and write, the better you communicate. Increasing your ability to communicate, improves your relationships and even makes you better at your job or at your studies.

Portable entertainment

Books are portable and light in weight. They are not like bulky computers and games that take too much space. With a book, you can pack it in your handbag or pocket and easily carry it anywhere. You can read in a plane as you travel, in your bed before you sleep, or even relaxing on the beach during your holiday.

Helps you sleep better

Poor sleep leads to low productivity. This is why so many experts recommend that you establish regular de-stressing routine before you sleep to help calm your mind and therefore sleep better. Reading a book is one of the best ways to calm yourself before you go to bed. Instead of watching television or spending too much time on your smart phone, take some time to read. The bright lights from the electronic devices will only affect your sleep. On the other hand, a book will help you sleep better.

No side effects of the digital world

Spending too much time watching television or playing video games can affect your eye health in the long run. On the other hand, books are safe and easy. No one has ever gone blind from reading too many books. There are no known side effects or dangers of reading great books. There are only benefits.

Enjoyment.

There is much to enjoy in this world: Nature, the joys of swimming in the sea or relaxing on a beautiful beach. Listening to music or visiting the cinema can both be magical experiences but finding a really wonderful book and taking in the thoughts and ideas of another person, sometimes even the thoughts of someone who has passed away years earlier is for me a truly wonderful feeling. I think the first time I read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens was when I realised how wonderful a book could be. Floating in Space can hardly compare to a towering work like that but, well I kind of like it!


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

10 Books Rejected by Publishers!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been written in Edinburgh cafes while author JK Rowling and her daughter lived on benefits. The book was rejected 12 times and was only published when one publisher’s daughter read the first chapter and then begged her father to produce the book so she could read the rest. The series may now have finished, but the Harry Potter franchise continues. Eight films, one theme park, and countless video games, board games and products later, Harry Potter is one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. Rowling is no longer living on state benefits and is reputedly worth 700 million pounds. I have to admit I have never read the Harry Potter books but I salute an author that has given the gift of reading to a new generation of young readers.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

A number of searches on the internet brought up the magic rejection number of 38 for this novel. Rejected 38 times? Well I also found an interesting post by author Brenda Coulter in which she claimed the novel was never rejected. Margaret Mitchell apparently felt the novel would have little interest outside the South but happened to meet with someone from the MacMillan publishing group who immediately bought the publishing rights, much to the author’s surprise. The writer of the blog post went on to say this about publishing:  It just isn’t true that every talented writer will eventually be published if she works hard enough and waits long enough and believes. Novels don’t get published because their authors have faithfully paid their dues and waited their turn. Publication isn’t a bus that anyone can catch as long as they have the correct fare and show up at the right stop at the scheduled time. A novel is accepted only when some publishing house believes it can make money on the book. Period. So the difference between a published author and an unpublished one does not always boil down to talent and experience. Sometimes the difference is, quite simply, marketability.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Lolita was rejected 5 times. One publisher wrote that the book was “…overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” I read the book a few years back after reading a blog post about classic books I must read. I felt a little like a sort of voyeur reading the novel which is about one man’s passion, lust even, for a young girl. It was an interesting read and the excellence of the writing seemed to jar a little with the subject matter. ‘A neurotic daydream’ is probably a good description of the book.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Again, this is not a book I have read but I have seen the film starring Gregory Peck. Moby Dick was initially rejected by publishers Bentley and Son who wrote back to Melville asking: “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale? While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?” Melville decided to keep the whale although the young voluptuous maiden idea surely has it merits. .

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum.

It’s hard to say how many times this book was rejected but the author did keep a journal he called ‘a record of failure’ detailing all his rejections. The book was first published in 1900 and by 1938 had sold over a million copies. The book was illustrated by W W Denslow and both he and Baum claimed credit for the book’s success. The publisher only agreed to publish the book when the manager of the Chicago Grand Opera House, Fred R Hamlin, committed to making The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a musical stage play to publicize the novel. The book was famously made into a film in 1939 starring Judy Garland.

Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

The novel was turned down by the first four publishers the author approached. Eventually Harold Harris of Hutchinson decided to take a chance on a modest print run of 8,000 copies. The Jackal became a sensation and only two years later Fred Zinneman was directing the movie version. Forsyth was a journalist in Paris in his mid-twenties and was aware of the controversy over the granting of independence to Algeria. He had befriended some of President De Gaulle’s bodyguards and had even reported from the scene of a real life failed assassination attempt, in fact an account of this real incident opens the novel. What would happen, thought Forsyth, if the terrorist group the OAS decided to employ a hitman to murder the President? The resulting novel has a gritty documentary style of realism that would influence a new wave of thriller writers.

Carrie by Stephen King.

Stephen King apparently received 30 rejections for his book before dejectedly tossing it into the trash. His wife Tabitha fished it out and urged him to try again. The book was published and became a classic of the horror genre. At the time back in 1973, King and his wife were living in a trailer, he taught English at a private school and his wife worked in ‘Dunkin Donuts’ as well as them both moonlighting in various part time jobs. Sales of the book were boosted by the film version and the paperback sold over a million copies in its first year.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This book was rejected by 25 agents but was finally published in 2003 after the author sent the manuscript to a small San Francisco based publisher where the work found its way into the hands of a sympathetic editor. I have to say that this was an odd novel and took me quite a while to get into the book and understand the fractured timeline of the time traveller. However, it was an interesting and enjoyable read although a somewhat quirky addition to the sci-fi genre. Having said that, some reviewers regard the book as more of a romance than a work of sci-fi.

Roots by Alex Haley.

Alex Haley spent eight years writing the book and received 200 consecutive rejections or at least that is what some internet sites say. Others say Haley may have had 200 rejections but that includes his other work as well. His novel Roots finally became a publishing sensation, selling 1.5 million copies in its first seven months of release and going on to sell 8 million. Such was the success of the book that The Pulitzer Prize awarded the novel a Special Citation in 1977. Again, this is another book I have yet to read but I do remember the TV series from 1977.

Floating in Space by Steve Higgins. I sent my book off to 3 traditional publishers who all declined to publish it. To be fair, my manuscript was not in great shape but I have beavered away and every now and then updated the book so now I like to think the manuscript is pretty reasonable. After those three knockbacks, paltry compared to some of the rejections mentioned above, I chose to self-publish at Amazon. Should I perhaps have tried harder, spent more time on my covering letter, sent out the manuscript to more publishers? Still, just like Brenda Coulter says: Publication isn’t a bus that anyone can catch as long as they have the correct fare and show up at the right stop at the scheduled time. It’s about marketability!

Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Dear Diary

Reading a published diary is not like reading a normal book, A diary isn’t an autobiography, it’s something slightly different, the thoughts of the writer at the time and not his or her later retrospective thoughts.

I am a diarist, though very much an irregular one. Many of my diaries have gaping pages of emptiness in them and catch up pages where I quickly skim through things that have happened to me. Other pages are just lists of my shift times and I have to say there is not much of any great literary value in any of my diaries, although they are interesting to look back on, well at least to me. My oldest diary dates back to 1971 and a great deal of it concerns the television programmes I had watched. No wonder my old Dad used to call me ‘square eyes’!

Just taking in a random page from 1971 I see the Belgian Grand Prix was cancelled that year. I think there were safety concerns regarding the very fast Spa Fancorchamps circuit. I was a big fan of the Saint with Roger Moore and Strange Report was a TV show from the time with Anthony Quayle. I see that the Le Mans 24 hour race that year was won by Helmet Marko who these days is one of the big bosses at the Red Bull formula one team.

Exciting stuff from 1971!

I recently read the diary of Kenneth Williams which was interesting but in some ways difficult to keep track of. I did think at the time it was the only diary I have read but now I think of it I have also read Albert Speer’s Spandau: The Secret Diaries, a series of thoughts and essays he had smuggled out of Spandau prison where he served his 20 year sentence. Also, in a Southport charity shop, always a great place for second-hand books, I picked up Monty Python member Michael Palin’s diaries. Anyway, firstly I’ll start with Kenneth Williams’ diary. I reviewed the book for this year’s Holiday Book bag post and it went something like this:

The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies.

I’ve always rather liked Kenneth Williams, the slightly over the top star of many a Carry On film as well as many radio comedy shows. However, it did feel rather odd reading his private thoughts through his diary. This is not an autobiography where the author tells us the story of his life and keeps things in some sort of order, it’s a diary, a record of the author’s day to day thoughts and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what is happening. In a lot of the diary entries Kenneth refers to people by their initials rather than their name. The habit of using initials can be rather annoying as the editor will mention in one of the many footnotes that SB for instance refers to his friend and fellow performer Stanley Baxter. Later on SB will turn up again and I find myself flipping back through the footnotes because I have forgotten who SB was.

In the diaries, Williams talks about his private life mostly in a sort of code. He does talk about his many trips to Morocco where he went in search of young men, something he was willing to indulge in the secret world of gay men abroad.  A lot of this activity gave him little pleasure and it seems to me he was unhappy with his sexuality and perhaps he envied his friend the playwright Joe Orton, who accepted himself in a way Williams never could.

The diaries are actually pretty famous because they reveal Kenneth Williams as being so very different to the persona he revealed to the world. All of Williams’ moods are revealed in the book, his anger, his sadness and his disappointments as well as his happier times. It’s interesting to read about world events in the entries, for instance the Moon landing in 1969 causes Williams to moan about the TV being all about the moon! I was 13 at the time, very interested in the Apollo programme and couldn’t get enough of moon landing TV.

The three-day week is mentioned in 1973 along with various entries about power cuts and industrial action, a time I remember well, sitting in my Mum’s kitchen lit by a candle and my dad trying in vain to read the newspaper.

I did expect to read a lot about Barbara Windsor, his great friend from the Carry On films but there is little about her although actress Maggie Smith is talked about constantly, his admiration for her very evident.

I did wonder whether Kenneth Williams wrote the diaries expecting them to be published when he died but that same issue he dealt with in a 1972 entry where he claims that the writing of a diary is only something to jog the memory. He goes on to say; ‘One puts down what one wants, not what others want. That is what is so delightful about a diary, it is what the self wants to say.’

The strange thing is that the diary reminds me a lot of my diary which I write in these days only infrequently. I started it as something just to get me writing and I still write in it on those occasions when ideas for a story or a blog fail to materialise. A diary can just be a record of your daily life but it also is a confidante, something you can turn to when something has annoyed or upset you or just when your thoughts are so overwhelming you have to get them out onto paper or your computer screen. I ended up feeling an affinity for Williams, a similarity whereas before reading this book I thought we had nothing in common at all.

Kenneth Williams seemed to have many sad moments where he wished he had a confidante, perhaps that is another reason he wrote in his diary. Many entries detail his dissatisfaction with his life and his sadness. ‘What’s the point?’ is how he ends many entries, including his very last one on the 14th April, 1988.

I did not know about Williams’ theatre career, or even that he had one and it was interesting to read about what an actor and performer’s life is like; it seems to be mostly waiting for things to turn up, waiting for one’s agent to ring or for calls from film or TV producers. When the phone does not ring it can be a worrying time, as it seemed to be for Kenneth Williams, thinking about his tax bill or other bills that need paying.

A fascinating read and not quite what I expected.

Spandau: The Secret Diaries by Albert Speer.

Albert Speer was Hitler’s armaments minister and favoured architect and this book is made up of diary entries he had secretly smuggled out of Spandau prison where he was incarcerated for 20 years after the Second World War. Speer admits he was one of those people seduced by the power of Hitler’s personality. Looking back at Hitler today in grainy old black and white films it is hard to understand how this strange and dour man who ranted and raved while speech making could seduce anyone. However, many have testified to the startling power of his personality. I remember watching that interesting BBC documentary ‘The Nazis: A warning from History’. In one segment various people were interviewed who declared their youthful love for Hitler; a young girl who looked into his eyes and saw goodness. An old man who testified he had once seen the great side of Hitler. Sadly Hitler let them down and many more like them. Speer maintained that he knew nothing of concentration camps and the final solution but author Gitta Sereny claimed in her book Speer: His battle with Truth that Speer knew more than he let on.

Getting back to the Secret Diaries. Speer talks about his imprisonment, his relationships with his fellow prisoners and his walks. Speer paced round and round the prison garden and as he counted down the miles he walked, he traced his steps across other parts of the world and imagined walking from Berlin and on to Heidelberg and from there on to Siberia. It is quite a few years since I read this book but the time is right for a re-read I think.

Michael Palin: Diaries 1969-1979 The Python Years.

I get the idea from some of Michael Palin’s comments in the book that he plans to publish more of his diaries. I’ve not finished it yet but so far its been pretty interesting, especially being a fan of the TV show Monty Python. Anyway, Palin started his diaries soon after packing in smoking. Perhaps it was a way of helping get over his tobacco addiction, perhaps not. The diaries also begin just as Monty Python, the comedy TV show was starting and Palin mentions this in his introduction, his aim not to record the start of the ground breaking comedy but more to record things about his new family, his wife having recently given birth to their first child.

A number of similarities between myself and Palin struck me early on, firstly, he gives us a quote from one of his schoolboy diaries which is amazingly similar to the one from my 1971 diary shown above. Another was his interest in the moon landings of 1969. Kenneth Williams may have been annoyed about the continued TV coverage of Apollo 11 but Palin and myself were more than happy to see it all.  Palin stayed up till 5am to watch the TV pictures from the Sea of Tranquility and I remember vividly being got up for school by my mother and being both amazed and excited about the TV broadcast presented to me while I ate my cornflakes. School mornings were never the same again.

My Diaries.

My diaries are definitely not for publishing. Looking back at them I notice that whenever something interesting has happened to me I have never written about it at the time, it has always been some time later when I have set down my feelings about the incident, whatever it may have been.The diary may be a confessional for some people but for me, I started writing a diary as a way of making myself write when I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. In the early 2000’s I started writing a diary on my laptop only to lose all my recollections from 2005 to 2006 when the file somehow became corrupted and refused to open. I was quite excited when the latest version of Microsoft Word came out because it gives you the option to repair a damaged file. Alas, that option would not work on my diary file. Then of course there are my big boxes of pre-2000 diaries. What shall I do with this lot I wonder? Will they add something to social history or grace the rubbish tip when I’m gone?

The latter, probably. . .


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.