Wilfred Books is a publishing company created in 2013 to publish the biography of Wilfred Risdon, and thereafter, to publish books or other material considered to be educative, entertaining, or useful.
If I’d had to guess, I would have said that this author would be British, with a name like his, however he was in fact born in Chicago, USA, but I’ll forgive him for that. The book’s name, which I actually think is quite clever, refers to the transition period of the 1880s in America, primarily in the metropolitan north east, but then gradually spreading out to encompass the whole country, when electric lighting began to take over from the previous standard of gas; although this wasn’t ubiquitous: oil/kerosene lamps were also cosynchronously very common. There have, in fact, been a few books on this subject, plus a 2017 film, The Current War, which seems to have had a somewhat underwhelming reception, disappointingly [for me, anyway, given the subject matter; although it was caught up in the repercussions of the Weinstein scandal, which delayed its release, facilitating, presumably fortuitously, a ‘director’s cut’ final edit]; the screenplay of which was written by Michael Mitnick, according to the Wikipedia entry for the film, but no mention is made of, or reference to other sources for the story; although, to be fair, it can almost be considered as folk history in America; especially, given Thomas Edison’s persistent reputation.
As with other fictional narratives based closely on readily available historical fact [An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, is another example], authors have to be careful not to deviate too far from established truths, unless they are prepared to categorise their output as an ‘alternative’ history; confining themselves to embellishing known facts with scenarios which are appropriate to their narratives is quite common. This is what Moore has done here, as he freely admits, in his Note from the Author, at the end of the book: “This is a Gordian knot of verifiable truth, educated supposition, dramatic rendering, and total guesswork.” Overall, I would say he has done very well, despite the timeline having been significantly tinkered with to make his narrative plausible. It is essentially the story of the struggle for dominance in the electrical supply market, between Edison & DC [direct current] on one side, and George Westinghouse & AC [alternating current] on the other; into this conflict is also thrown the saturnine character of Nikola Tesla, who has latterly become something of a folk hero globally, but in the USA specifically, notwithstanding what I rather feel is the traducing of his name by a current [no pun intended] billionaire, with his upmarket and very expensive [and therefore not affordable by the masses] products, and the irony of this compared to Tesla’s sad demise.
The story actually begins with litigation between the two main characters, with Edison as the antagonist, suing the protagonist, Westinghouse, for infringement of his patents for the electric light bulb, claiming [speciously, but that is the core of the suit] that he had ‘invented’ it. The latter takes the ostensibly risky step of engaging a relative newcomer to the legal field, Paul Cravath, who knows that this is something of a poisoned chalice, but he nevertheless relishes the challenge as an opportunity to make a name for himself: but only if he wins, of course. Along the way, he meets a seemingly unattainable woman, Agnes Huntington, to whom he is inexorably drawn, when she also engages him to fight a suit for her; at first, he makes a conscious decision not to let himself become dependent upon her, but as the narrative develops, despite evidently being somewhat submissive to her domineering mother, it becomes apparent that there is more to her than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, it seems inevitable that they will become romantically attached, until Tesla inadvertently causes a schism.
The story is nicely paced, and the characters, although admittedly somewhat enhanced, are plausible, so I found this a very enjoyable read, which retained my attention throughout, and the conclusion was reasonably satisfying. The paperback version I read was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., in 2017, ISBN 978-1-4711-5668-7.
The Hollow Ones, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
When I saw the name of “the visionary director of The Shape of Water” [with which I was already familiar, but I suppose not every potential reader is] on the cover, in a prominent position at the top, my attention was drawn to it immediately; I wasn’t aware hitherto that he was also an author, although it is not uncommon for film directors to have authorial input to their films, but his bio at the back only mentions his very successful films*. However, I was prepared to take a risk with this book; I am guessing that Chuck Hogan [whose name suggests he should be a wrestler or stuntman] is the primary writer, given that he is [the usual publishing hyperbole notwithstanding] “a New York Times bestselling novelist”, with GdT supplying the fantasy element of this story. I am normally somewhat selective with my fantasy fiction, but the cover promises, courtesy of The Guardian, that this story is “Like a Jack Reacher crime thriller [of which I have read enough to know what to expect] … with a Van Helsing-style demon hunter”, so to reiterate, I thought it would be worth a risk.
Indeed it was, in my humble estimation anyway. It starts off, to set the scene, with a prelude, describing a mysterious cast iron Edwardian mailbox, situated in the financial district of Manhattan, New York; “a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.” Some history is given, and the prelude ends by saying that “Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:
Hugo Blackwood, Esq.”
This name is “a tribute to one of our most admired authors and the originator of the “occult detective” subgenre, Algernon Blackwood”, and the tribute ends with a macabre observation “that grave robbing in New Jersey, for occult purposes, is not at all fiction or a thing of the past. It’s happening. Right now.” So far, so portentous.
The story then gets going in more conventional thriller mode, introducing two FBI agents, the female of whom is a relative newcomer, Odessa Hardwicke, whilst the other is the more experienced Walt Leppo. It was a normal working night, but very quickly, it morphed into X-Files territory, when the first of a series of ‘rampage’ killings occurred, which proves fatal for one of the agents. Two other time periods are included in parallel: 1962, when a black FBI agent named Earl Solomon is sent to the Mississippi Delta to investigate the lynching of a white man, for obviously political reasons; and England in 1582, when the young barrister, Hugo Blackwood, encounters “Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, spymaster, and scientist”, John Dee, and Edward Talbot, aka Edward Kelley, one of “various mystics who claimed to be in contact with higher realms”, in Mortlake [but not “Greater London”, as the book states, which is a ceremonial county not established until April 1, 1965!], a village that then was part of the county of Surrey. Both Solomon & Blackwood figure in the present-day action, but of the two, Blackwood is the more helpful, albeit initially grudgingly [and almost psychopathically dispassionately], because Solomon is recovering from a recent age-related stroke; Odessa is not immediately aware of Blackwood’s unusual condition, and understandably, it takes her a while to accommodate it.
Overall, this is a quite well structured narrative, and there is a conclusion of sorts when the culprit of the killings is neutralised, but an element of doubt must remain, because the subtitle at the beginning of the book is “The Blackwood Tapes, vol. 1”, which refers to the audio tapes Solomon made during the course of his career, and would suggest that a sequel is to be expected: this paperback version, ISBN 978-1-529100-96-9, was published in 2021 by Del Rey, London. A search using the ISBN doesn’t show any reference to a sequel, so I can only presume that it is either still in preparation, or the idea has been abandoned, pro tem.
*According to the list at the very front of the book, GdT has in fact written ten books on his own account, both fiction & non-fiction; he has also collaborated with Hogan on three other books; Hogan has written five, all fiction presumably; so they are a web-established and productive team.
I have to confess, with [I feel quite justified in saying] only a small degree of shame, that I have never in my 67 years [to the best of my knowledge, anyway] previously read a Jeeves & Wooster book by the original, universally revered author, Pelham Grenville [P.G.] Wodehouse, so I’m not able to make a comparison with this “Homage” from author Ben Schott [although I draw a very firm line at “An Homage” for specific grammatical reasons: if it had been described as “An Hommage”, from the original French, I would not have quibbled; whereas the H in the English version, Homage, should be pronounced, requiring A as an indefinite article rather than An; but that’s just my pedantry – don’t get me started on “An historical …”]. Having sounded that note of discord, I do want to praise, in advance of the story itself, albeit somewhat arsa versa [to borrow from the following], the copious chapter notes at the end of the book which, despite being unusual for a fictional narrative, do provide very useful explanatory background, as well as a layer of legitimacy which I can only guess at, given my initial observation.
From the obviously German origin of the name of the author, about whom I know nothing, it is no great surprise to learn that, among his other non-Wodehousian publications is “Schottenfreude — a vital compendium of new German words for the human condition.” Apparently, this is “his second novel, following the triumphantly received publication of Jeeves and the King of Clubs in 2018.” This story is [publishing hyperbole notwithstanding!] the “eagerly anticipated sequel” to the aforementioned, but the two stories are sufficiently independent for me to have enjoyed the latter without recourse to reference to the former. I was already aware, from my research for the biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, that Wodehouse had lampooned Oswald Mosley in several of his books written between 1938 & 1971, casting him in the character of Sir Roderick Spode, aka Lord Sidcup, self-styled Leader of The Saviours of Britain party, more commonly known as the Black Shorts, from the black “footer bags” the adherents were wont to sport as an essential element of their uniform: this was a masterstroke of deflating ridicule by “Plum” Wodehouse. In the text, reference is made to Sidcup’s forthcoming debate at the Cambridge Union, a direct parallel of Mosley’s 21 February 1933 debate against Clement Attlee, “That this House prefers Fascism to Socialism”: Attlee won the debate by 335 votes to 218.
The story itself is, no doubt [given my ignorance], suitably inconsequential, within the context of rich, over-privileged roués of the 1930s, although Wodehouse’s skill is evident, assuming Schott’s style is authentic, in his gentle contrast of the upper classes, with all their foibles, with Jeeves’s all-encompassing & ever-present mastery of any given situation; although, whether Jeeves could be described as working class is debatable; however, Bertie’s involvement with the British security services and, simultaneously, a very eligible and evidently reciprocally amorously interested young lady who is a member of that organisation, does seem to somewhat run counter to the customary perception [unless I am mistaken] of the character of Bertie Wooster, not least because he seems to avoid responsibility in most forms but, especially, matrimony with almost monotonous regularity: according to the notes, he has had “twenty-two near-Mrs”, which are helpfully catalogued by the author, according to year & publication, although “The precise number of Bertie’s engagements is hotly debated by Wodehouse scholars, and opinions differ.”
I hope readers will accept when I say that I can’t give an opinion on this book as an example of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but as a story using Wodehouse’s characters & fictitious world, I would recommend it, because I enjoyed reading it, without feeling in any way patronised; I’m no better equipped to tackle The Times crossword, a fictitious example of which is given in the notes [and others are referred to in the narrative], however, than I was previously, despite Jeeves’s masterly explanations of the clues: they always seem so obvious, once explained. This hardback version that I read was published in 2020, by Hutchinson, London, ISBN 978-1-786-33193-9; it is also available in paperback, ISBN 978-1-786-33194-6.
This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.
Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.
The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:
Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.
Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986
We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.
Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense
I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.
In Stevie Turner’s latest novel, Examining Kitchen Cupboards (2019), Jill Hayes takes on a new job In a college exam administration office. She had hoped it would lead to a career but quickly discovered it was much too technical for her skillset. As she struggles to learn the complicated tasks that would allow her to succeed, she stumbles upon illicit activities that she feels honor-bound to report. No one will listen–not the newspapers, the college, or even the agency responsible for the exams–until finally someone does. Things don’t work out as Jill had…
This book was first published in 2020, but an updated version, with an epilogue written in December of that year, was published in 2021 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-1237-1. The epilogue included the author’s response to the pandemic, to the time of writing of course, but also events which had happened between finishing the first publication in 2020 and the end of that year and were relevant to the theme of this book. The title, in conjunction with the cover image of the blue & white striped tape used by police to close off crime scenes, might lead one to suppose that this is an account of instances of when police officers have ‘crossed the line’, or transgressed against their calling, but in fact, the subtitle immediately removes any doubt: Lessons from a Life on Duty. John Sutherland was a Metropolitan Police officer until his retirement after twenty-five years of service, and he is very well aware of the low regard with which officers of all ranks are nowadays regarded, from across the whole spectrum of British society [meaning England & Wales; Scotland & Northern Ireland having their own police services].
It isn’t until well into the book that the author reveals that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 2013, although he was able to return to work after a period of recovery, but that revelation does give some perspective to his observations, because as well as being obviously articulate, he makes it clear that he is not an officious disciplinarian, seeing no need to question the status quo. He is obviously distressed about societal disintegration which he sees as the catalyst for the majority of crime, but he also analyses why this should be, and how it can be rectified. He is unequivocal that the majority of police officers are conscientious, joining the service from a genuine desire to help people, and he separates the areas of crime affecting British society today into ten different ‘challenges’, as he refers to them (although there is inevitably some overlap), and the subject areas are clarified in my brackets:
I: Drunk and Incapable; [alcohol]
II: Possession with Intent; [‘drugs’]
III: Just a Domestic; [domestic violence]
IV: On a knife Edge; [knife crime]
V: Places of Safety; [mental health]
VI: Learning to Listen; [community relations]
VII: Keeping the Peace; [public disorder]
VIII: The Rise of Extremism; [extremism]
IX: A Question of Belief; [sexual offences]
X: On the Register. [child abuse]
Item VII is an area where opinions are generally distinctly polarised: the right to freedom of expression; in this case, the right of the British National Party to operate a bookshop. Although Sutherland, who was still in his probation and hadn’t completed his riot training, missed the violence by the time he arrived on the scene of an earlier riot in October 1993, he takes what he considers to be an impartial view: “Though I may despise the BNP and all they stand for, I am still bound by duty and law to protect what’s theirs.” This has a bearing on the research I did for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and the right to express contentious views is just as controversial now as it was in the 1930s.
I can’t share his implicit support for the “respectable folk from rural communities” who participated in “a large demonstration [arranged by the Countryside Alliance] to protest against government proposals to ban fox hunting”, which descended into a standoff between officers & demonstrators near Parliament Square. He says that “At the time, I didn’t hold any particularly strong personal views about fox hunting, but I was very clear what I thought about people trying to break into Parliament.” In my view, “respectable folk from rural communities” can become violent very quickly when their ‘right’ to slaughter innocent non-food animals is called into question. After the incident, “The then Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, admitted that the disorder had taken the Met by surprise. He also confirmed that the force would identify lessons to be learned from the events of the day and that they would examine the actions of individual officers to see whether any had overreacted in their treatment of protestors. And that is exactly as it should be, because the police don’t always get it right. On occasions, whether individually or collectively, they get it terribly wrong. The death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests of 2009 represents a particularly grim reminder of just how badly things can end.”
So, a commendably even-handed exposition, and he can now comment as an ex-police officer: “I will defend with my last breath your right to protest: about human rights, about foreign wars, about basic poverty, about government policy, about state visits by the leaders of totalitarian regimes, about austerity, about any of the myriad things that matter to you. Now that I am retired, I might even line up alongside you. And I will defend your right to challenge the police to be better at what they do, to act with restraint and to say sorry when they get things wrong. Indeed, I will join you in making that challenge. But I will never defend violence or criminality of any kind. Those are the things that render a just cause lifeless.” Room for subjective judgements there, of course. He does try to end on a positive note, but unfortunately, it only serves to signal that there is plenty of room for improvement: “… hope is not a passive thing: it demands action. We know what needs to be done; we just have to get on and do it. We need to understand that, while the cause could not be more urgent, nothing of lasting worth is going to be accomplished overnight…it is going to take time to mend all that has been broken. It might actually take our lifetimes. In the meantime, we need to recognise just how much it is costing to get things wrong and to start spending our money in a completely different way: independent of political agendas, guaranteed for the long-term and focused relentlessly on the first things that must always come first.”
Whatever your place in British society, this is a book worth reading, to go beyond the stereotype presented by the media and those with axes to grind; police officers are human beings too, and improvements to the system under which they work might have been made, but in June 2021, there are obviously still problems with the Metropolitan Police, perceived or otherwise: Guardian article from the 24th of June here. The Daniel Morgan inquiry, recently concluded, has also not helped inspire public confidence: article from The Canary here.
There isn’t actually a great deal I can tell you about how this narrative plays out, without spoiling the plot, but I was curious to read it, because I recognised the family name of the author: she is, in fact, the daughter of Deborah Moggach, but I have to confess that I haven’t read any of this lady’s work before, and this book by her daughter, her third, is the first of hers I have read. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Corsair, London, ISBN 978-1-4721-5538-2. The two main characters are Rob, a young man who is nearing the end of a prison sentence he is serving for a crime which isn’t revealed at the beginning, but he is currently detained in an ‘open’ unit situated at the top of the eponymous Brixton Hill, and allowed out daily on weekdays for work in a charity shop at the bottom of the hill.
The other main character is Steph, a slightly older woman who happens to encounter Rob one morning, when he is on his way to work, but before very long, it seems pretty obvious that this meeting was not completely accidental, and the way that her backstory is revealed means that it takes a while to infer that Rob has been targeted; the question is: why? Rob seems like a restrained and thoughtful man, but that doesn’t entirely explain why he has been serving quite a long sentence; also, Steph seems to be leading a double life, and she is very selective with the information she gives Rob, although the same must be said for Rob, who can’t believe his luck at first, given his enforced monastic existence. Unfortunately, when a situation seems too good to be true, invariably that is because it is.
The reason for Rob being targeted was not the one I thought it might be, which was quite gratifying, because the actual reason allowed for an acceptable resolution for Steph, despite Rob having to adjust his expectations. Reading this story was quite timely, coming off the back of the recent Jimmy McGovern television series, starring Sean Bean, called Time, which purports to be a very realistic depiction of the condition in British prisons in 2021, so it is to be hoped that it might encourage discussion around a more humanitarian attitude toward prison reform, notwithstanding the reactionary viewpoints at large in the current administration; coincidentally, but possibly synchronistically, I am currently reading a non-fiction book by a recently retired Metropolitan Police officer, which also expresses encouragingly humanitarian views on crime & punishment, so I think that one will also be worth reviewing. Brixton Hill isn’t a demanding read, but it is a workmanlike effort.
A few days ago, Written World Media (WWM) published the results of a survey on what readers really want. The company has five reader-facing brands such as Freebooksy, Bargain Booksy, and Red Feather Romance, that allow authors and publishers to reach the right readers, with each of these brands catering to a different reader profile and demographic.
With over 20,000 authors, most self-published, and over one million readers, WWM’s survey offers great insight into what kinds of books readers prefer. Do they like series or standalone? Why do readers stop reading a book mid-way? Are reviews really that important?
Here are some key takeaways.
Do Readers Prefer Books in a Series or Standalone Books?
Authors like writing in series. Marketers like marketing series. But how do readers feel?
The overwhelming majority of readers are indifferent with 60% of respondents saying that they have no preference between…
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Devastating, creepy, and deeply affecting, Stevie Turner’s A House Without Windows is many things: among them are several different, disturbing love stories, a tale of abduction, imprisonment, and menace, a narrative of a woman clinging to hope in the face of utter…