Snodgrass and Other Illusions by Ian R. MacLeod – Reviewed by Gordon O’Sullivan

Snodgrass and Other IllusionsSnodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R. MacLeod by Ian R. MacLeod

Review by Gordon O’Sullivan

Kindle Format
Print Length:
330 pages
Publisher: Open Road Media (2013)
ASIN: B00C652Z32

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“What the hell was it, Gus wondered, that made the living so reluctant to give up the dead, and the dead to give up the living?” In Snodgrass and Other Illusions, Ian R. MacLeod asks a lot of such questions but eschews any definitive answers. An award winning writer of speculative and fantastic fiction, MacLeod wrote these eleven collected stories between 1993 and 2011 using a wide variety of settings, most of which are, for the most part, shorn of fantastical elements. As the author comments in his introduction, “there are very few starships and even fewer aliens in my stories but plenty of things that really happened in history, or almost did, or might do soon.”

Running like life lines through every story is love, in all the normal forms with some abnormal ones thrown in for good measure. In ‘Isabel of the Fall’, a more traditional science fiction story, the idea of love leading to loss is explored in this touching tale where the innocent and unexpected flowering of friendship between two women is destined to end in thorns. That sense of fellowship being badly repaid is a recurring element throughout, there is a darkness apparent in all the stories. It’s certainly strong in ‘Tirkiluk’ where a World War Two British officer arriving at an Arctic weather station seeks answers, “I seem to have come a long way, just to make some sense of my life.” When a pregnant Eskimo, Tirkiluk, draws him in, seeking his help, his life changes and in the most radical way. There is however plenty of humour mixed in with the darkness. The purest alternative history story and certainly the funniest, is ‘Snodgrass’, “So you’re John Lennon, from Liverpool … You were the guy who left the Beatles.” John Lennon hasn’t been shot, is completely down on his luck and is bitter but still brutally funny, “George still looks like his Mum and Macca is Cliff on steroids”.

In ‘Nevermore’ a creepily affecting love story, MacLeod explores the idea of keeping our loved ones alive after death. In this collision between the theory of technology and the reality of emotion, when technology permits the dead to exist in a new form, how does a man feels when his dead wife calls him on the telephone? This temptation to interfere with human existence for love’s sake, no matter the consequences, is also explored in ‘Past Magic’ with its melancholic view of cloning. The question here is can the replacement version of a dead child ever be the same as the original? MacLeod asks are we justified in attempting to stretch and extend our natural lives in these artificial ways.

A seeming resemblance to the historical record often makes these stories stranger and more intriguing, these tales arguably wouldn’t have the same impact set in more fantastical universes. ‘The Master Miller’s Tale’, for example, looks at the conflict between tradition and modernity but through the prism of a Victorian-like courtship. An industrial revolution is occurring but one based on magic rather than coal, “all the old spells, you know, the stupid traditions, the mumbling and the superstitions and the charms and the antique ways of working, all of that’s on the way out. Modern spells aren’t about traditional craftsmen—not when you can mine the magic right out of the ground.”  Love can also be lethal if you’ve dallied with “The Chop Girl”. A young woman on a World War Two RAF base is quickly seen as a jinx when the pilots she’s dallied with never return from their missions, all of them ‘chopped’.  “… the idea of my being bad luck seemed to settle around me, clinging like the smoke of the cookhouse”. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot and someone who loves her for what she truly is can break that jinx but at what cost to himself? Love exacts a cost for everyone in this collection.

Snodgrass and Other Illusions is a fragrant stew of themes and authorial concerns, a challenging collection of stories running from science fiction through fantasy to horror, all with love at their centre. Some are set in a recognisable past, some in a reimagined here and now, while others reside in the unknowable future. MacLeod is a stylist, using a dense descriptive style and keeping dialogue to a minimum. Most of the stories start off with a recognisable background but then something radically different emerges. While some of the narratives stretch the idea of a ‘short’ story in their length, MacLeod get away with it through the innate strength of his ideas and characterisation. Overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking collection.

Book Review: Coming Home by Roy E. Stolworthy

Coming HomeComing Home by Roy E. Stolworthy

Reviewed by Christopher Yates

  • Paperback, 368 Pages
  • ISBN: 9781781590713
  • Published: NOV 2012
  • Claymore Press

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As we move through the centenary anniversary year of the Great War, one would expect the market to become saturated with the memories, untold stories and fiction novels chronicling the exploits of the heroes of both sides. How will one story stand up against the others? Will they approach the subject matter from a similar angle or will somebody step up and offer something different? I’m pleased to say that Coming Home’ by Roy E. Stolworthy offers the latter.

The novel opens in Westminster Abbey, at the grave of an unnamed soldier. A man, Joshua Pendleton, enters the abbey and kneels at the grave. He removes a watch and, whilst placing it on the tomb, he recites the last part of a tribute chiselled into the marble ‘They Buried Him Among The Kings Because He Had Done Good Toward God And Towards His House.’ Then, after looking left and right to make sure he’s alone, he whispers to the unnamed warrior ‘Hello Thomas. How are you this morning? It’s raining outside, as usual. Although I hear the forecast is better for tomorrow’… It’s a beautiful opening. The iconic image, and one reminiscent of the unmarked graves that litter many a battlefield across the European theatre, created by the simple description of an ‘unnamed soldier’ sets you up for the atrocities ahead, the emotional rollercoaster you are about to embark on, and one that raises the questions for later; Who is Thomas? And why is he known only to one man?

The focus then switches back to 1916 and the story starts proper. The plot is a new, clever take on standard war fiction and can be broken down into three acts. Act one: introduces us to our protagonist, Thomas Elkin. Blaming himself for the accidental death of his brother, Thomas enlists in the army, under his brother’s name, with the sole intention of dying a heroic death in combat. Act two: Boot camp. We witness the deconstruction of the boy Thomas Elkin and the re-construction of the man, Archie Elkin. Act three: The war and Thomas’s attempts to immortalise his brother’s name, whist also coming to terms with the changes within himself and his environment.

As a reader, what we are faced with is a harrowing eye witness account of the horrors of the Great War. We learn as Thomas learns and grow as he grows. What starts out as an exciting adventure quickly turns into the nightmare it really was.  Through Roy Stolworthy’s use of beautiful prose, we are invited to share the sheer desperation those poor men on the frontline felt and the hopelessness of the task they had undertaken. Through allowing us to know Archie’s secret, we are asked to judge his character and the selfish urges that force him to undertake the most dangerous of missions. He not only puts his own life in danger, but also the lives of his comrades who have come to trust and rely on his leadership.

The character of Thomas/Archie is the back bone of the story. I’ve read too much war fiction (mostly glorified American acts of heroism) where the central character is always cut from the ‘Rambo’ mould, willing and wanting to win the war singlehandedly, and I’m glad to say that with ‘Coming Home’ this is not the case. In Thomas/Archie, Roy Stolworthy has created a character that could be anybody. A character that is an Average Joe off the street, thrust into an environment, who is reacting to that environment and the choices that he subsequently makes. Apart from his desperation for death, he has no qualities that are out of the ordinary and this is what makes him so endearing to the reader. In truth, and trying in vain not to be too patriotic, he embodies the real heroes who stood up to be counted when the time came. As such, you can’t hide form the emotional impact of the ordeals he experiences.

However, this is not to say the story is not without its faults. Parts of the narrative don’t sit well and are a bit out of place; for instance the feeding of the brother to the pigs is totally out of character with how Thomas is portrayed and the death of Corporal Wollard at the end of chapter 4 reads like a bit of a cop out. However, ironically, the problem with the story is the main plot point; Thomas’s attempts at death and his subsequent escapes. What starts out as a heroic deed, quickly descents into an annoyance with comedic overtones. Time after time he faces ever increasing odds and time after time he walks away unscathed. As the novel moves on, the reader quickly realises that only a nuclear warhead is able to end this poor boy’s life, whilst everybody around him drops like flies. Maybe I’m being a bit too flippant in my description, but somebody once said to me that reading a good story is like dreaming a dream. Every time there is a mistake or something doesn’t fit, the illusion is broken and you wake up. Unfortunately, these interludes of Thomas/Archie’s depression is where the illusion breaks. It gets old very quickly and at times I found myself skim reading these passages.

Having said that, ‘Coming Home’ is still a brilliant read and one that I would whole heartedly endorse. It deals with the subject matter in a frank, serious, and realistic way and contains an ending that will leave the reader thinking for many a restless night to come.

Historical Fiction Book Review: Hitler Stopped by Franco by Burt Boyar

Review by Scott Skipper

Hitler Stopped by Franco by Burt BoyarHitler Stopped by Franco by Burt Boyar

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (19 Dec 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1480264393
  • ISBN-13: 978-1480264397

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Nothing Less Than Superb

Burt Boyar and his late wife had extraordinary access to intimate details of an obscure piece of World War II history.  Most Americans’ view of Generalísimo Franco is of an implacable Fascist dictator who ran Spain with an iron hand for nearly forty years.  That may be true enough, but Hitler Stopped by Franco shows us that he had another facet.  Imagine being the supreme leader of civil war torn, impoverished and helpless Spain with divisions of Wehrmacht amour parked on your border and Hitler continually whining, cajoling and demanding access to Gibraltar through your sovereign territory.  With Spain totally defenseless, Franco had to play the ultimate cat and mouse game.  He had to convince Hitler of his friendship, and that he would join the Axis ‘any day now’ while he kept relief coming from the Allies with assurances of maintaining strict neutrality.  For three years he managed to walk this tightrope. The Boyars were able to interview actual players in this tableau who were present at high-stakes meetings with the world’s most dangerous men.  The depth of the research behind this story is uncanny.  Written in the form of historical fiction, this fascinating history reads like a suspense novel.  The characterization of Franco will give the reader a new perspective of the man who saved Spain twice.  I cannot give this book enough praise.

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New Alternate History Book Review: Red Sky Blue Moon by Bruce Golden

Red Sky Blue Moon by Bruce GoldenBook Review by Darlene Santori

  • Paperback: 386 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1st Edition edition (April 16, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1484133226
  • ISBN-13: 978-1484133224

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While the plot may seem well-worn, the setting and the circumstances surrounding Bruce Golden’s new book aren’t.  Red Sky, Blue Moon features an unusual bit of alternate history, wherein thousands of Earth’s inhabitants from various cultures are actually transported to another world.

Aliens who may have seeded the first life on Earth return eons later, collect humans in massive groups from various societies (along with animals from their environs), and transplant them on another world as a sort of science experiment.  More than a millennium later, these transplanted cultures have evolved differently than their forbearers who were left behind.

One of these cultures grew from the barbaric roots of Scandinavian Vikings, circa 10th Century Earth.  They have developed into a cutthroat corporate society in an early industrial stage.  The political machinations and corporate maneuvering combine to create an intriguing socio-cultural dynamic.  In addition, they’re racial purists to whom even the slightest birth defect or genetic disease is a social stigma.  Despite this, they are plagued by a cancer-like disease they call the “blight,” though few publicly acknowledge it when they find they’re stricken, because it’s a social blight as well.

When one corporation’s chief discovers the savages living on another continent have to trace of the disease, and also seem to have longer life spans, he plots to learn their secret–a secret which could bring him both wealth and power.

These “savages” as the “corporatocracy” thinks of them, were culled from various Native American Sioux tribes sometime in the early 18th Century.  They’ve only been on this world a few hundred years, and haven’t changed that much from the people of the plains most readers are familiar with.  It’s the juxtaposition of these two societies, and the conflict between them which forms the heart of this book (though the corporate Aesir are also in conflict with their lower-class Vanir workers).

As for the aliens who brought the humans to this world, their story is more of a footnote, told in journal-like excerpts in the prologue and at the beginning of some of the chapters.  Their eventual fate is a bit of a surprise.

The storyline of this book is somewhat predictable, but it’s the journey more than the destination that will enthrall readers.  Like his novel Evergreen,  this book is so rich in characters and detail that you won’t want to let it sit idle for too long, or you’ll forget who’s who and what’s what.  But it’s the attention to detail, and the marvelous world building, that make Red Sky, Blue Moon a completely enjoyable read.  That, and the fact that, like Golden’s other works, this book is fast-paced, moving through relatively short chapters, and keeping the reader hooked.  If you enjoy pages and pages of prosaic description, this book probably isn’t for you.  Golden is known more for his dialogue and authentic, memorable characters.  He doesn’t get bogged down with purple prose.  His scenes have more of a cinematic feel.

However, if you love world-building, this is the book for you.  Golden has taken the history, traditions, and cultures of the Sioux and the Vikings and woven them into a completely new world, much the way Frank Herbert used Islamic culture in Dune (not to say this book ranks with Dune).  And, a surprise at the end reveals they’re not the only Earth cultures kidnapped by an alien intelligence.

Red Sky, Blue Moon is an epic science fiction tale that should draw you in and hold your interest until the very end.  It’s the kind of book you want to read again a year later to see what intricate tidbits you might have missed the first time

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Book Review: A Case of Doubtful Death by Linda Stratmann

A Case of a Doubtful DeathA Case of Doubtful Death: A Frances Doughty Mystery by Linda Stratmann

Review by Gordon O’Sullivan
Paperback: 283 pages
Publisher: The Mystery Press (2013)
Language: English
ISBN 978-0-7524-7018-4  £8.99
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In this, her third case, the reputation of Frances Doughty, Victorian female private detective has grown substantially. Now known as a discrete London investigator she has become an expert at solving small mysteries like lost pets, unusual ones like the alligator who is reputed to bask daily in the Serpentine and gruesome ones like murder.  Her reputation has in fact grown to such an extent that she now has a fictional counterpart, Miss Dauntless, the lady detective of Bayswater, heroine of a series of romance novels.

In A Case of Doubtful Death, Miss Doughty investigates the fascinatingly bizarre world of the Life House. This is a mortuary where the corpses of clients are left to decompose after deathwhilst mortuary staff check that there is no mistaken diagnosis and ensure the client does not suffer the fate of being buried alive.  Frances is engaged to find Henry Palmer, a young mortuary assistant and one of the Life House’s most reliable employees, who went missing the same night that one of the founders of the Life House, Dr Mackenzie, was found dead. As Frances keeps digging to uncover the truth surrounding Palmer’s disappearance and Mackenzie’s death, her investigations, despite the obstructive male medical establishment, lead to the uncovering of fraud, blackmail, and finally murder.

Frances Doughty is a great character, a strong young woman determined not to accept the strictures of Victorian society when it comes to her career. Consulting detective is an unusual career for a woman in Victorian times but Frances is an unusual woman. She talks composedly of distressing medical matters with doctors reluctant to accord her the same respect as they would a man, she has bodies dug up and even dresses as a man; escaping the confines of social convention to further her cases. She has a keen wit, “he smelled of gutta-percha and the burnt rubber scent of dead sap was the liveliest thing about him”, but she is not a revolutionary, Frances keeps her thoughts to herself when they do not serve her clients or her cases.

It is a pity then that there are too many minor characters clogging up the story, and consequently not allowing the character of Frances to take centre stage; there seems little opportunity for the reader to get to know her better. The narrative is similarly hampered with the main plot interspersed with too many sub plots which slow the action down at critical junctures. While these stories are cleverly plotted so Frances can eventually unravel them, Miss Doughty is involved in too many cases in this latest episode for the main narrative to compel.

The novel’s setting is perhaps its strongest suit.  The intriguing and strange place that is the Life House is expertly described with a level of detail that would satisfy the curiosity of the most exacting reader and here the author’s non-fiction writing is a huge asset. Throughout the novel there is an obvious and intimate knowledge of Victorian life, from the polite side to the wild side that both absorbs and reassures the reader.

A Case of Doubtful Death will surely not be the last report we have of Frances, the doughty lady detective of Bayswater.

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Book Review: Inceptio by Alison Morton

Inceptio by Alison MortonInceptio, by Alison Morton

Review by Ian Shone

  • Paperback: 316 pages (eBook edition also available)
  • Publisher: SilverWood Books Ltd (1 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1781320624
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781320624

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Visit Alison Morton’s website for ordering details

With almost any example of alternate history, the reader is expected to take a leap of faith. The parallel world extrapolated from the divergence point can often be a bit of a stretch, and we are usually happy to suspend disbelief and turn a blind eye to logical and factual errors. After all, why should we let a sketchy premise get in the way of a good story?

Occasionally, however, the premise just asks too much from the reader. Any discussion of Inceptio would necessitate some attempt to explain the background to the story, so I will attempt to do so. When the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire (by this time well into its decline and within spitting distance of its fall), a group of senatorial families made their way north into Pannonia (in the novel) and founded an enclave dedicated to preserving paganism and ‘the old ways’. Where modern day Slovenia ought to be, there is now ‘Nova Roma’ instead, where people speak Classical Latin and worship the pantheon of old gods.

While the Empire and even the barbarians that destroyed it swiftly became overwhelmingly Christian, this pagan enclave survived while the Pelagians, Cathars and Bogomils were persecuted and snuffed out. The Goths and Huns left it well alone, and even being located directly in the path of almost all of the Crusades does not seem to have posed an existential threat. Fine—but on top of all this, Nova Roma has been a matriarchy almost since its inception, ruled by women for reasons that are never really satisfactorily explained. There is still more. This tiny, isolationist state has also become a kind of economic and technological superpower rather like Switzerland—where, incidentally, women didn’t get the vote until 1971.

Bluntly put, the world-building behind the story just doesn’t make any sense. For some writers, a nonsensical conceit is no obstacle (Brian Aldiss springs to mind) and a good story can still be told under these conditions. Unfortunately, Inceptio does not meet the considerable challenge it has set for itself. In its favour, the pace of the story is brisk and dynamic (if formulaic), and the first person narration camouflages some of the clumsier prose. However, it often reads more like ‘young adult’ or romantic fiction than the adventure story it essentially is. The characters are thin, and their arcs (particularly that of the protagonist Karen) are often difficult to take seriously.

The time-capsule approach to preserving elements of old Rome in Nova Roma is painfully superficial in parts, drawing attention to details like the use of solidi and gladii, and the use of the praenomen-nomen-cognomen naming system. Classical Latin also seems to have survived in its original form, where it has evolved into the Romance languages everywhere else. The whole thing feels quite slapdash. That said, this is the first novel of a trilogy, and as such must bear the weight of both its own plot and the unwieldy mythos which it must introduce. It thus suffers from having to keep too many plates spinning. The second and third instalments may well build on this and surpass this shaky beginning with a more coherent story, and Inceptio may itself benefit from added context.

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Review of The Ruin by John Sawney

The Ruin by John SawneyThe Ruin by John Sawney

Reviewed by Séamus Sweeney

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Fireship Press (25 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1611792576
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611792577

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The exact date of transition between Roman Britain and post-Roman Britain has proven controversial, as different levels of disengagement occurred at different times in different places, and the documentary evidence that exists is open to interpretation. This uncertainty is reflected in the post-Roman period, replete with characters who inhabit the shadowlands between legend or history; Vortigern, Amborisius Aurelianus, Hengist and Horsa, these are typical figures of the time. Even the spellings of their names vary wildly, symbolising their uncertain status and the different cultures that praised or damned them. This morass for the academic historian has always been fertile ground for the mythmaker and the novelist; this is the time of the Arthurian mythos, and it is also one which allows the historical novelist a certain leeway.

John Sawney’s The Ruin is an exciting, accessible tale of fifth century Britannia. He has chosen as his protagonist Eiteol, newly installed magistrate of Glevon,  a gigantic illiterate whose sole qualification for the post is that his father held the position. Eiteol is supposed to be a mere adornment, a figurehead for the real power held by his bishop brother. Eiteol’s cluelessness and lack of knowledge about high politics are clever devices for Sawney to engage the reader in this world.

One of Eiteol’s new duties – in fact the only one even a little more than ceremonial, and that not much – is to attend the Consilium in Lundenium, presided over by the dictator Vertigern, who adopts the Consilium as a threadbare cloak of Romanish legitimacy. At this he, along with the reader, learns a little more about the political background, and we are also introduced to the bloody violence of the time, with a Jutish thane and the bodyguards who had accompanied him butchered over a misunderstanding. This sets the tone of a work in which a gritty, visceral violence is never far away.

Eiteol – and some other consiliars – accompany Vertigern to a secret meeting with the Jutes, led by Vertigern’s father-in-law Hengest. Nearly all the consiliars are massacred, except for Eiteol and Vertigern himself. The illiterate, self-deprecating, consistently mocked and underestimated Eiteol rescues the dictator, and they embark on a desperate journey of survival through a land racked by violent upheaval and religious factionalism.

At its best, John Sawney’s novel reminded me of the work of Alfred Duggan, particularly Winter Quarters. This is not history-from-below, but history from a few steps below the top. The befuddled main character allows both a subtle vehicle for explication (and a convincing one, for at any time in history how many of the population have been intimately fascinated with high politics?) and a distancing from the strangeness and savagery of the action. We can see ourselves like  Eiteol, simultaneously unaware of the tides of power politics and savagely at their mercy.

Sawney’s book  wears its research lightly, but the depiction of post Roman Britannia is all the more convincing. Of course, in such an undocumented period, with some main characters who may or may not have actually existed, there is a lot of leeway. However the focus is rightfully on plot and characterisation. Towards the end, there is a sudden outburst of explication which seems out of place (perhaps better left to an Afterword)

Characterisation is almost always impressive. Eiteol is a likeable, imperfect character that allows the reader some empathy at least with a time twenty-first century readers of liberal sympathies may not find all that empathetic. One of the recurrent themes is Vertigern’s strange charisma; Eiteol knows full well that Vertigern is a monstrous, murderous figure, and occasionally considers abandoning him, but keeps on. Vertigern reminded me at times of Giles Smith’s portrait of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland – undoubtedly vicious, but at the start at least with enough strange charm to keep the protagonist engaged despite their better judgement.

While no character is unambiguously good,  Bishop Germanus, who represents the authority of the Roman Church, is an outright psychopath, nakedly using his religious authority for political ends. While for some readers this may chime exactly with what they think of religion, this felt to me a somewhat anachronistic approach with our contemporary views projected onto the past. Occasionally this motif grated slightly, and there was the aforementioned explosion of exposition later in the book, but overall  The Ruin is a highly enjoyable story which engages the reader from beginning to end.

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Book Review: Following Tommy by Bob Hartley

Following Tommy by Bob HartleyFollowing Tommy a novel by Bob Hartley

Review by Gordon O’Sullivan

  • Paperback: 104 pages
  • Publisher: Cervena Bara Press (2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN 978-0-9831041-8-6 

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Following Tommy is a vibrant fictional portrait of the summer of ’62 by a teenager in Chicago. In a strong opening, the narrator, Jacky O’Day, establishes his family as a poor Irish American family living in a downtrodden part of the city.

Seventeen year old Jacky looks after the family, cooking and cleaning for his father Junior and his brother Tommy. His mother is dead and all that remains of her are the books she left behind.

His father is a shameless drunk, not dissimilar to the character Frank Gallagher from the TV series Shameless albeit without his humour. But it is from his older brother Tommy that Jacky takes his lead. Tommy is a violent, dominant and domineering figure who has a grudge against the world at large. And for Jacky, despite his nagging conscience, where Tommy leads Jacky feels compelled to follow.

Everything changes and the stakes are raised considerably for the O’Days when a black family, the first black family, move into the neighbourhood. Before this Jacky and Tommy were just a couple of teenage petty crooks but Tommy is determined to make a name for himself by driving the new arrivals out no matter the cost to himself of his brother.

Jacky has a clear but tortuous choice: he can continue to follow Tommy down an increasingly dangerous path or he can remove himself completely from Tommy’s orbit.

This debut novel attempts to cover a number of subjects; racism, class and Chicago politics but is at its most successful when Mr Hartley focuses his considerable linguistic fire on the political, social and emotional awakening of the teenage Jacky.

While this gritty narrative covers well-trodden territory with strong echoes for example of James T. Farrell, Hartley’s writing has great integrity and no easy or lazy resolutions are permitted.

While at times Jacky seems enlightened beyond his years, he is still convincing as an intelligent boy who recognises the danger of his situation but is reluctant to do what he knows innately to be right.

The characterisation generally is excellent, with seeming authenticity running through all the characters, especially the minor police characters who are delightfully flawed, pursuing lawbreakers without paying particular attention to the law they’re meant to uphold.

The language is precise, period sensitive and appropriately salty with dialogue that shines in often witty interaction between characters, in particular between the O’Day brothers and their cousin Hippo.

Following Tommy also has an authentic sense of time and place in its vibrant descriptions of the streets and markets of Chicago’s West Side and is a challenging, atmospheric and passionate novel of a teenager growing up while living the reality of the American Dream.

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Book Reviews: Dragonslayers & Jason and the Argonauts – from Osprey Adventures

Ian Shone’s latest book reviews are two titles in a new series from Osprey called Osprey Adventures

DragonslayersDragonslayers, by Joseph A. McCullough

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Jason and the Argonauts, by Neil Smith

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Here we take a brief detour from historical fiction into the neighbouring territory of myth and legend with these

Jason and the Argonauts

two slim children’s volumes from Osprey Adventures. That is not to say that the appeal is strictly limited to children, however, since anyone with an eye for good design should appreciate just how well these books are put together.

Both books follow a similar format as far as presentation goes. Both are lavishly illustrated with photographs of ancient artworks depicting their mythological subjects, from sculptures to woodcuts to stained glass windows. The photographs are supplemented throughout by original art, and in the case of Jason and the Argonauts the standard is especially high. These ethereally beautiful paintings by José Daniel Cabrera Peña cleverly employ light and perspective to achieve some startling effects, and this volume would be worth buying for that alone.

As far as content goes, the two books necessarily differ in approach. Here Dragonslayers has the upper hand, as it gives a broad overview of dragonslayer myths from all over the world, from Siegfried to St George to the Song of Hiawatha. Some of the stories are unfamiliar to all but the serious student of folklore, and it is great to see figures like Dobrynya Nikitich given equal footing with Beowulf and John Lambton. The standard of the original artwork comes nowhere near to that of the other book (it looks just a little bit ‘Games Workshop’ in comparison), but this scarcely detracts from the whole. The little snapshots of various legends make it a great book to dip in and out of. Jason and the Argonauts is, on the other hand, a straightforward retelling of the familiar legend, and thus lends itself more to a single sitting.

While these books are certainly aimed at children, they would be an attractive prospect on any bookshelf, and I can see them appealing particularly to comic book fans. They are also pleasingly inexpensive for what they are, and would make a great birthday present or stocking filler for your nieces and nephews. Strongly recommended.

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Sword and Scimitar by Simon Scarrow reviewed by Ian Shone

Sword and Scimitar Simon ScarrowGreat new review by Ian Shone. Simon Scarrow’s book Sword and Scimitar takes on the little known, but historically important, Siege of Malta in 1565. Take a look at Ian’s review to see if he does a good job of it.

Not a lot of activity recently on the blog for Alt Hist, but we will rectify that soon with some more book reviews and other news. Behind the scenes we have been working hard on the next issue of Alt Hist – more news to follow soon I hope.

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