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I’d rather neglected/forgotten/given up my plan for using this blog for occasional reviews, but was tempted back . . .

Shakespeare in Trouble: a case for Richard Palmer, Investigator

By Chris Crowcroft (AESOP Modern, 2015) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shakespeare-Trouble-Chris-Crowcroft/dp/1910301280/

Digression for a quick history lesson . . . In 1601, in an act of rebellion which was shambolic even by Elizabethan standards, the Earl of Essex attempted to stir up the city of London against Queen Elizabeth, whom he’d offended by failing to crush the rebellion in Ireland and who was clearly coming to the end of her reign with no named successor. (The alleged Catholic sympathies of the wife of the most likely – and eventual – claimant, James IV of Scotland, put fears of a deal with the Old Enemy, Spain, and loss of power in those who had done well out of the Protestant establishment.) One of Essex’s co-conspirators was the Earl of Southampton, an early patron of William Shakespeare, and it was a play by Shakespeare – the politically dodgy Richard II, with its shocking deposition of a monarch – which was funded by some of the conspirators shortly before Essex led his men out on to the streets.

Clearly an awkward moment for the Bard of Avon.

And so . . .The Queen is Not Happy. Richard Palmer, a seedy informer (he prefers the word “investigator”) who was once a gentleman is caught up in the crowd on the day of the abortive coup. He is called up by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister and the hub of her network of spies, and a former university companion, and set to work on unravelling the nature of the relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare and the conspiracy. Shakespeare has fled to Stratford, and Palmer follows his tracks, first investigating the playwright’s writings – including a series of suspicious sonnets (which were, of course, largely unpublished at the time) which seem to shed interesting light on the relationship between patron and poet. On the way back with Shakespeare, Palmer is ambushed and shot at, and there is clearly more to be considered. In Stratford itself, we have met other members of the Shakespeare family (including his daughter Susanna and her to-be husband the physician John Hall), but another character, a dark-haired woman, seems to be a link between many of the characters including Palmer himself.

Palmer’s viewpoint, in fact, holds everything together. We learn that his father’s stubborn adherence to the Old Faith has wrecked the family fortunes. Palmer is university-educated (even if as “a charity case obliged to serve his betters”) and has the typical university man’s disdain for the upstart crows typified by the glove-maker’s son from Stratford. Some of the best asides in the novel are Palmer’s disgust for the amateur doggerel of his quarry and the low-life players he writes for, but, jokes aside (and anyone with a love for the literature of the time will find much to smile at here: there’s a reference to Christopher Marlowe which, probably wisely, I am not going to unpick, but says quite a lot about Palmer), Crowcroft’s picture of Palmer’s time and place is vivid without going too far overboard into the sordid and squalid. The sheer filth of the time is not overlooked, but what comes across is straightforward everyday differences like the time it actually takes to travel from London to Stratford. As for Shakespeare himself, he remains enigmatic, but is also given some good lines in defence of his art. While Palmer develops a growing respect for him, there is also a sense that he is a flawed man, as much out of line in the world of politics and religious dogma as Palmer himself.

Shakespeare in Trouble is in part (indeed, is mostly) a conspiracy thriller/detective investigation with an appealingly convincing private eye who combines the hard-boiled soft centre of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe with the downwardly-mobile disgust of the malcontents found in a somewhat later playwright: John Webster (think that scene in Shakespeare in Love where Our Will comes across a ragged fanboy with pet rat who tells  Shakespeare how much he loves the gory bits in his plays). But while Crowcroft holds his deep knowledge of matters Shakespearian lightly (and in the interest of full disclosure I will admit that we were taught English and History by the same slightly deranged teachers who by god certainly made the whole thing a baroque experience[*]), the novel also dramatises extremely readably the background to the Essex rebellion, the “Dark Lady” question of the sonnets, and other literary-historical questions that have been part of the Shakespeare mystery. However, its delight is that you don’t actually have to know much of this to enjoy the novel. Everything is explained clearly and contextually. What remains a mystery is supposed to remain a mystery. It’s an entertaining and amusing read, and a definitely strong addition to the canon of historical crime-thrillers.

The novel ends with an epilogue a couple of years later with James VI of Scotland now on his way south to become also James I of England and with Shakespeare’s company now renamed the King’s Men. Palmer is now back on the skids, with his only client an Alderman whose kink is reading about what his errant wife is up to. But there’s going to be quite a bit of history to cover, and some interesting relationships between Shakespeare and the new regime to explore. In theatrical and literary terms (and you might need to trust me on this), things start to get really interesting.

May we see Palmer on another case? I hope so.

[*]Those who get what I mean will also welcome the in-joke on page 126.

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S Spencer Baker, Slabscape: Reset (Blip Books, 2010)

Slabscape: Reset spends the first three very short chapters (the first is two sentences; the second is blank) describing somebody falling. The astute reader will remember The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s plummeting whale and bowl of petunias, and be tempted to consider Baker as an imitator of Douglas Adams – and indeed a joke about half-way through about “banging the rocks together” might simply justify that. It’s probably best, in fact, that Blip, who seem to be a very small Liverpool publisher, haven’t flagged this novel with an “in the great tradition of . . .” banner. That said, though, there’s a lot to like here. Our protagonist turns out to be a “reset”, a regenerated and somewhat rebuilt body of the original Louis Drago, whose downloaded hologram is also present on the Slab, a kind of space habitat established to seek out and make contact with the alien consciousness which aeons ago had infected human minds and instilled in us all our existential doubts and anxieties. Dielle, our protagonist, comes, naively and Dent-like, to understand his place in the network controlled by Slabwide Integrated System, or Sis (a vast AI/Internet), and the economy of slab (which can broadly be summed up by the fact that Kiki, the beautiful “nurse” who has brought him to consciousness, is also his manager, and that all his experiences are distributed throughout Slab for the entertainment of its inhabitants. The fact that some of these experiences can be highly embarrassing is somewhat mitigated that he does get a share of the royalties. The other fact that the very attractive women who are angling to have sex with him are doing so because of the royalties they’ll get in the subsequent “sumecasts” feeds back into the “highly embarrassing” category.

The plot involves what seems to be a war with aliens and the discovery of what looks like an identical copy of Slab some way ahead of the Slab Dielle has found himself on. As Dielle is getting used to this new environment, so is Louis, who has the advantage of keeping his memories as an unscrupulous late-21st century wheeler-dealer billionaire. While by the time we are half-way through the novel, the shift of point-of-view between Dielle and Louis begins to look a bit clumsy, the contrast between innocence and experience adds fun, and by the end of the book it’s clear that some of the other characters we meet (such as Slab’s President) and the Slab economy itself have roles to play in a scenario which is not (for there is at least one book to follow) altogether clear.

While some fans of Douglas Adams and Red Dwarf might feel that they have read it all before, and some of the humour (particular where sex is involved) is a bit giggly, Baker has done a good job in building an imaginary creation of his own and the result is a readable and amusing novel which all too quickly and horribly wraps you up in the realisation that the murky anarcho-capitalist amorality in what we are reading is not too unlike our Own Dear Interweb. Book two is due out shortly. I’ll be keeping an eye out.

Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Del Rey, 2014)

It’s the layering of the romantic squalor of biopunk (or theopunk?) in Kameron’s Hurley’s God’s War which makes it so much fun. The world Umayma has been terraformed and settled for 3,000 years by several races, most of whom share a common “religion of the book” but two of which, Nasheen and Cheja, have been at almost constant war for centuries. Occasionally, refugees from other theological conflicts, or even just lost and inquisitive aliens (all, it seems, of common human stock) drop by. Technology, in this far future, is indistinguishable from magic – indeed, scientists are called “magicians” and their powers over bioengineering are based upon hazily-if-at-all-explained control over indigenous insect life. Much of their efforts are devoted to repair of the horrendous injuries suffered by combatants in the war. (There is an entire sub-economy built around trading body-parts.) One such repaired soldier is Nyx, a former “bel dame” (member of a sisterhood devoted to tracking down deserters or infiltrators) who has made one too many deals verging on the dodgy and is now a bounty-hunter leading the obligatory team of outcasts.

Nyx’s team includes Khos, a Mhorian “shifter” (read: werewolf) and Rhys, a Chenjaan refugee whose talents as a magician are sufficient to gain him refugee status but not enough for him to get an independent job. Naturally, a mission is involved – a search for an alien who just might have secret tech which will put an end to the war for anyone who possesses it. Commissioned by the Queen, Nyx nevertheless has her bel dame sisters, who are not averse to some rather nasty torture, to contend with.

God’s War is a slick and inventive adventure novel which seems at time to escape into fantasyland when we get curious about the way the science and technology actually works. Similarly, the role of religion in this far future loses focus when we look at it. The dominant religion (or religions, or sects) is clearly based upon Islam – to the extent that items of clothing from the Islamic world, and many terms associated with it, are used. But the Nasheenians, in particular, have reversed the gender power-relations within Islam as we know it. Little, apart from the term “people of the book”, and a coy reference to “the Prophet”, is spelled out, and it is unclear whether Hurley knows, or is willing or able to tell, just how this religion evolves from present-day Islam, or whether (as did Frank Herbert in Dune) she is using convenient building-blocks from Islam to build her own future. But it’s a well-done future, refreshingly different from many of the stereotypes we’re used to in far-future sf, and most readers in search of a dirty-gritty romp simply won’t care.

It’s good at tensions and undercurrents. Nyx as befits her role as tough foul-mouthed hero, knocks back whisky and is referred to as an atheist by her comrades. Rhys, with whom she shares a sexual chemistry and something approaching love, is devout but occasionally wracked by conscience: and this is another interesting little difference. It’s rare that religious devotion unmixed with hypocrisy is given us in this kind of fiction, and often, when Rhys and occasional other minor characters appear, we get the sense that as well as the slam-bang action scenes, the baroque but bizarre technologies and the rather unconvincing but desolate background of endless war that all go to make this one of the better bits of romantic escapism I’ve had for a while, this is a universe that could actually be lived-in by people who feel. I haven’t read the subsequent novels in the trilogy, but there’s enough here, despite my occasional hesitations as hinted above, to make me want to spend a bit more time knowing about this world.

Just to be awkward . . .  this is nothing to do with sf&f at all . . .

Stuart Maconie, The People’s Songs (Ebury Press, 2013)

Stuart Maconie is always worth reading, even though in his book Pies and Prejudice he’s wrong about Chester and Harrogate . . .and specifically he’s a music presenter in the old fashioned sense. That is to say, he loves the stuff he’s playing; he’s genuine and he has a wide taste in music . In this book he takes 50 (or 49: there’s a reason which is to do with the fact that the listeners to his radio show were to choose the 50th) songs which mean something to the British psyche: not great songs, but songs which reflect something about what it feels to be British. Some of these songs are songs which you hate at the time, or despise because they’re commercial, but after the passage of years they become first a guilty pleasure and finally you actually like them. This is pop music which “which wears its demotic, romantic, exhibitionist heart on its sleeve”.

He begins with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet again” a song of utmost sentimentality that nevertheless captures the anxiety and fragile hope of a nation at war. Then there’s Winifred Atwell, a Caribbean woman singalong piano tunes were mammoth hits and whose 1953 “Coronation Rag” was something of a praise-song to the new Queen Elizabeth and who is probably not even known enough today to be unfashionable.(Like the later Millie of “My Boy Lollipop”, here because the song symbolized the growing fashion for Caribbean styles of music like blue-beat, file under “novelty” and forget. Maconie also lists Cliff Richard’s anemic “Move It”: the first British rock-and-roll hit. It’s not that he’s wrong to note its importance – indeed he’s right; I guess that my quibble is that Cliff’s “brooding, animal presence” (Maconie’s words, not, I hasten to add, mine) is overshadowed by Hank B. Marvin’s guitar. Though Maconie notes that Marvin’s influence “cannot be overstated either”, I think more could have been made of how Cliff’s early hits are carried by Marvin’s guitar – and the Shadows’ instrumentals were wonderful mini-symphonies. Rightly, perhaps, the influence of Joe Meek and the Tornadoes “Telstar” is brought to the fore, as pioneering electronic music and the science fiction influence. Nice to see Delia Derbyshire getting a name-check in this context, too.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” sums up psychedelia, and “Shipbuilding” the ”Falklands” years, though the Who’s “5.15” is maybe not the best song to encapsulate the mod movement (Also from Quadrophenia, “Cut My Hair” is a better song though Maconie’s choice was the single, and he’s talking about singles rather than album tracks) and in fact Maconie says little about the song itself. Any of the Who’s first three singles might have been better here. And there’s Bowie’s “Starman”. The thrill which hit a generation of 14 years-olds when Bowie sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” straight to camera and “smiles flirtatiously, points and twirls a beckoning finger at every mesmerised, outsider kid in the land” is one of those moments in pop history, like buying the Velvet Underground’s first album when it was first released, or being at the Sex Pistols’ first gig, that even people who weren’t there remember vividly. I certainly wasn’t there, and had encountered Bowie much earlier*, but yes, this all makes sense to me.

Many of the later songs I have yet to have opinions about (read: they don’t resonate with my life particularly strongly), and there are always quibbles (see above) about some. Maconie’s point, I’ll re-emphasise, is that these are not always great songs – “Things Can Only Get Better” is probably debased by being picked up as the “New Labour” theme song, though it isn’t a desperately good song in the first place. The point is, though, that is was such a “song for the moment”, as the Specials’ “Ghost Town” (a better song: at least, I can still remember how it goes) encapsulated the discontent of the Thatcher years. But this is a neat social-history-told-in-music of the past fifty or sixty years, and an entertaining read as well as being a good soundtrack.

*all right, if I must be snobbish: through hearing “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” (David Bowie and the Lower Third) on pirate radio in the 60s. Maconie references pirate radio through “Whiter Shade of Pale” and, more lengthily, through Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” describing the liberation given by offshore stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London. My quibble here is that Maconie is describing more fully the phenomenon of “songs about radio” and the sentiment offered by Elvis Costello in “Radio, Radio” (“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me”) It could have been interesting to look at some of those songs which became hits through being played on the pirates, or even those which were played endlessly and never became hits, such as the Bowie track, or David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, or anything by Kaleidoscope or Episode 6 or Eclection.