David Mitchell: Unruly Just so you know, this is not the same David Mitchell who wrote those modern fantasy classics Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks (this last reviewed here) and others. It is a different David Mitchell. This David Mitchell is the broadcaster and thinking-person’s comedian who happens to be married to Victoria Coren (another broadcaster and thinking-person’s comedian) and co-writer with Robert Webb of a number of amusing shows and sketches. My favourite is the one about the laboratoire, which should appeal to readers of Occam’s Typewriter. There are probably other David Mitchells. You might be one of them. If you are, please don’t write in. But I digress. Here the author – a history graduate – looks at the kings and queens of England from mythical times (Arthur) to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 — and the advent of Shakespeare, who, in the mouths of the kings in his history plays, accorded his characters a degree of self-knowledge that they probably never possessed in real life. After Elizabeth, the monarchs of England were monarchs of Scotland as well, so that would be a different book. Although Mitchell has many criticisms of monarchy, he feels that it’s nonetheless a cornerstone of the constitution, that unwritten compendium of more than a millennium of precedent, habit, tradition, kludge, fudge and bodge that explains and perhaps obscures the character of this
Septic Sceptred Isle. At first, monarchs were the biggest thugs, who could marshal the most under-thugs. When Christianity came into the mix, the thuggery was papered over: monarchy was seen as something sacred, the monarch holding his (mostly his) office by God-given right. The rot set in when Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II and got away with it, becoming Henry IV, leading (eventually) to the Wars of the Roses. If God-given kings could be deposed, wherefore the God part? Before that, people had to put up with the monarchs they got, and sought to restrict their often dreadful government with institutions such as Magna Carta and what came, eventually, to be Parliament. The rich people did, anyway. The poor ones just had to suffer in silence. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated with brio by the author, with characteristic rantings and ravings. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which he is one of the aforesaid thinking-person’s comedians, I learned a lot. This is perhaps not for those who cannot tolerate Anglo-Saxon Epithets (perhaps those who still think in Norman French, as English kings did for several centuries) for the good reason that two of the kings were a right couple of Cnuts.
A. M. Homes: This Book Will Save Your Life A few months ago I reviewed a collection of short stories by this author. I loved it, so was keen to try her work at novel length. It concerns the static life of Richard Novak, a wealthy freelance stock-exchange speculator who lives alone in his beautiful home in Los Angeles, seeing no-one but his housekeeper, nutritionist and personal trainer. Until the day when he is gripped with an inexplicable all-over pain, and his life slowly unravels into a series of seemingly random events. Richard runs into a variety of characters from the scriptwriter next door; the movie star who lives up the hill; the man who runs a donut shop downtown; and the horse that mysteriously materialises in the sinkhole that appears in his yard and into which his house threatens to disappear. Like her short stories, Homes’ novel has the same absurdist whimsy you’d associate with James Thurber (whose work, while dated in many ways, I like very much), but at novel length it threatens to degenerate into a case of one damned thing after another, and as such has echoes of Catch-22 (which I confess I liked very much less). This Book Will Save Your Life does seem to have a purpose, though. As much as he seems to be a ball-bearing batted around on some cruel pin table, Richard does find that life can be forced to have meaning, if only one can surmount the hazards.
Ben Elton: Time and Time Again You might recall that a while back I reviewed Making History by the national treasure that is Stephen Fry, a comic SFnal romp in which an academic historian and a quantum physicist work together to see if they can change history. It was a book very much in the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ Alt.Hist. micro-genre. Quite by chance I came across another work in what now might be a nano- or even femto-genre, that is, a book in the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ mode of Alt.Hist. by celebrated British comedians and writers not normal associated with SF, and that’s Ben Elton. Very far from his 1980s stand-up heyday of ‘knob jokes’ and poking fun at Margaret Thatcher, and even his glory days as writer of Blackadder, Elton has proved himself many times over as a novelist of some skill, tackling ever more serious subjects that have fewer and fewer laughs. One of his best was The First Casualty, about a pacifist police detective sent to investigate a murder on the Western Front, a place where killing is just normal. This was deeply dark, and full of memorable and ghastly imagery. The one that stuck most in my mind was of the over-laden soldier who stepped off the duckboards laid over the sodden ground and disappeared into the mud without trace. There’s more imagery of this kind in Time & Time Again. Compared with Making History, it’s darker, slicker, and much more cleverly plotted. It starts with a well-known episode in the life of Isaac Newton. After the Principia and other light classics, Newton entered a phase of deep depression. He eventually emerged, but did little serious physics again. Instead he dabbled in alchemy, Biblical numerology and became head of the Royal Mint. In Elton’s novel, Newton became depressed after discovering that gravity affected the passage of time, thus anticipating Einstein. Rather than being linear, time could twist and turn in serpentine ways, and even swallow itself. For example, Newton discovered that were you to stand in a space the size of a closet in the basement of a building in Istanbul at a certain time in 2025, you’d be transported back to 1914. He leaves his calculations to posterity, and time travel is the fate of former soldier and celebrity adventurer Hugh Stanton, who goes back to 1914 to prevent Archduke Franz Ferdinand from being assassinated in Sarajevo — thus preventing the Great War — but then going to Berlin to bump off the militaristic Kaiser Wilhelm II. Without giving too much away, Elton has borrowed this scene from Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day Of The Jackal but made it much better — even for that acme of thrillers. However, Stanton finds that just his very existence in the time stream into which he has so rudely dropped changes the course of events unexpectedly. And he is not the only person who’s had the idea of rebooting history. But hey, I’m telling you the plot. Savage, dark and disturbing, this is one of the best thrillers I have read — and one of the best alt.hist SF novels too, right up there with Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration (and that’s saying something).
Dara Horn: People Love Dead Jews There is a day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the dead of the Holocaust. It’s called Yom Ha’Shoah. Given that this exists, why should there be a different Holocaust Memorial Day? I have always wondered why I felt a bit uneasy about the latter, and this book articulates it perfectly. Holocaust Memorial Day is a convenient way in which people other than Jews can join in an orgy of virtue-signalling about how sorry they are about it all, piously observing that they’ll never let the slaughter of Jews happen again. As all Jews know, this is poppycock. For the same reasons I have never watched Holocaust porn such as Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Pianist. (I did once watch The Piano, which is ghastly. But I digress). Time and time again, the world lets Jews be slaughtered, only later on to commemorate the deserted synagogues and say how sorry they are about it (if they can be bothered). People charged with Diversity and Inclusion always forget to mention Jews, because, in David Baddiel’s words, Jews don’t count. They are dispensible. In a disturbing, depressing (but endlessly interesting) book that takes in Jewish history from Renaissance Europe to 1920s China, Dara Horn shows that the world is only interested in Jews when they are dead. This is illustrated perfectly by the story of a real, live Jewish member of staff at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam being told not to wear his kippah in public… for fear of giving offence. I write this in a state of barely repressed anger, when after the brutal murder and mutilation of around 1,400 Jews — the most lethal pogrom since the Holocaust — followed by apocalyptic death unleashed on Gaza — some 100,000 people march in London calling (in effect) for the destruction of even more Jews, with even the drivers of tube trains joining in, and the police just standing by and doing nothing about it. Plus ca change.