Review: “British Bulldog” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2015 novel “British Bulldog”. I originally ended up buying a second-hand copy of this book shortly after getting a box set of the first three novels in Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” series for Christmas in 2016. At the time, I’d planned to read all three of them and wanted to have a copy of the fourth ready for when I finished.

But, although I read the first two books (but only reviewed the first one), I wasn’t reading much at the time and it was only after I later read the third and fifth books in the series that I remembered the fourth one. And, yes, this is one of those series where each novel is fairly self-contained (although it’s worth reading the previous three books first in order to get to know the characters a bit better).

So, let’s take a look at “British Bulldog”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid revealing too much.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “British Bulldog” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in February 1954. Ex-SOE agent turned debt collector Mirabelle Bevan is walking back to the office one evening when she notices a man following her. When he approaches her, he points out that he’s a solicitor who has been trying to find her because she has been mentioned in a will.

An acquaintance from the war, Major Matthew “Bulldog” Bradley, has died and bequeathed Mirabelle one thousand guineas on the condition that she finds information about a man called Philip Caine who Bradley escaped from a POW camp with but became separated from during the escape. Although Mirabelle is initially wary about the case, especially when Bradley’s widow doesn’t want her to investigate it, she soon finds herself tangled in a web of secrecy, intrigue and drama that will take her all the way to Paris….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really compelling. Not only is the Paris setting a really refreshing change but, in addition to the detective elements that you’d expect, this novel also includes some faster-paced elements from the spy thriller, adventure thriller and suspense thriller genres that really help to add focus and momentum to the story too. Seriously, if you want a good historical thriller novel, then this one is worth reading.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re reasonably good – with the novel’s central mystery being intriguing enough to keep the story compelling. Given the pre-internet setting and the “cold case” that Mirabelle finds herself investigating, this also means that the novel can include a few scenes involving trawling through libraries and archives for information. Although this might sound boring, it not only allows for the novel to seamlessly add atmospheric background details/information, but the “needle in a haystack” nature of these scenes also helps to add a bit more more suspense to the story too.

But, surprisingly, this is actually slightly more of a thriller novel than a detective novel 🙂 Although the thriller elements only really become prominent during the middle to later parts of the novel, there’s a really great mixture of chases/evasions, spy stuff, suspenseful sneaking around and even a few fast-paced set pieces. In a lot of ways, this novel is a bit like an old-school spy/adventure thriller and, as such, it is probably the most gripping novel I’ve read so far in this series 🙂 Plus, unlike many other novels in the series, there isn’t really a second case for Mirabelle to solve (and the sub-plot is a character-based one instead) – so the story also feels a bit more focused and streamlined too.

All of these thriller elements are also helped by an absolutely wonderful atmosphere too. Not only is this story set during a cold, gloomy time of year but the fact that a good portion of it is set in Paris is a very welcome change too 🙂 Not only does 1950s Paris add a lot of extra atmosphere to the story, but it also allows for a lot of extra characterisation, character-based drama and WW2-related backstory stuff too. This includes stuff about the French Resistance, how everyone wants to forget the war, the fate of wartime collaborators etc… Not only does this stuff add a realistic historical background to the story, but it also helps to add a lot of extra weight and complexity to the novel’s drama elements too.

This novel is also something of a character-based drama too. Not only are Mirabelle’s conflicted feelings about her wartime affair with a since-deceased SOE agent (and friend of Major Bradley) called Jack Duggan a major part of the story, but one of the novel’s other characters is also heavily affected by the events of the war too. Needless to say, this novel’s characterisation is really good too – although it mostly focuses on Mirabelle, all of the novel’s other main characters have fairly realistic motivations, flaws, emotions etc… too.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact”, but slightly formal and descriptive/atmospheric, way that really fits in well with the novel’s 1950s settings whilst also being more readable than an actual 1950s novel would be. If you’ve read other books in the series, then the writing is up to the same standard that you’d expect but – to my delight – this novel also contains more fast-paced moments that, surprisingly, work really well with this writing style 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 At an efficient 274 pages in length, there are very few wasted pages here. Plus, the novel’s pacing is really superb too. Not only does this novel slowly increase the scale, pace and intensity of the drama (gradually going from being a detective novel to a thriller novel), but even the slightly more moderately-paced earlier parts of the story are still mysterious and suspenseful enough to keep you gripped. Although this certainly isn’t the first “Mirabelle Bevan” novel to include elements from the thriller genre, they are used in the best possible way here and this whole novel was even more compelling than I’d expected 🙂

All in all, this is probably my favourite “Mirabelle Bevan” novel so far 🙂 It’s a really brilliant and atmospheric historical detective novel that, thanks to some well-handled additions from the thriller genre, is also a really gripping and streamlined story too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Old Fiction Vs Historical Fiction

Well, I ended up thinking about the differences between old fiction (written decades or centuries ago) and historical fiction (written in the present day, but set in the past) after both reading an interesting horror novel from the 1950s and finding this intriguing Youtube channel filled with old film footage from the 19th and early-mid 20th century.

One of the advantages of old fiction is immersion. Simply put, it is quite literally a direct window into the past and this can be quite surprising. For example, the “realistic” settings of a 1980s horror novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Breeding Ground” are a lot more understated and, well, believable than the stylised depictions of the 1980s you might see in a more modern historical novel, film etc…

Because writers in the past didn’t need to create a “historical” setting (because everyone back then already knew what the world looked like), you can get a much more vivid, detailed and unvarnished glimpse into the past when you read old novels. Not only that, you also get to see how people back then really thought about the world and how they saw the world.

Reading fiction from the past allows you to quite literally step back in time and see the past in a totally different way. After all, people back then read these novels for entertainment in the way that we watch TV shows, play computer games etc… these days. So, you are quite literally enjoying yourself in exactly the same way as someone many decades ago did. After all, although older novels might be reprinted, the basic technology behind them (eg: words on paper) hasn’t changed since they were first printed.

On the other hand, whilst the technology hasn’t changed, the English language has. This is one of the main advantages of modern historical fiction. In short, historical fiction is aimed at a mainstream contemporary audience, so it’ll be written in a way that is more accessible to modern readers. Usually the writing style will keep some historical flavour, but the narration will be a bit more streamlined and a bit less formal than older novels.

Yes, old-school formal narration adds atmosphere to a story but, if you’re just looking for a book to relax with, then modern historical fiction tends to be more readable. But, although older novels might sound “highbrow” these days, it’s important to remember that novels are usually written for the average reader at the time they were published. They were designed for ordinary people (who read more back then and were also used to slightly more formal language, slower pacing etc..) to enjoy. So, don’t let a novel’s age put you off. Older novels can sometimes be more readable than you might think.

Plus, modern historical fiction will often be more realistic than older fiction in some ways. Whilst older fiction gives the reader a direct glimpse into the past, it also had to contend with things like censorship (for example, most of the “grittiness” in Dashiell Hammett’s excellent 1929/30 novel “The Maltese Falcon” is implied rather than shown). So, modern historical fiction can often show things that may not have been considered “publishable” in the past.

Modern historical fiction also looks at the past from a more modern perspective too. Whilst this can result in a much more interesting variety of characters, more gripping drama and stuff like that, it can also suffer from the author underestimating the reader’s intelligence. In other words, some modern historical novels can have a tendency to lecture the reader about social ills that the reader already knows are bad. Then again, older novels can sometimes (but not always) include awkward or narrow-minded moments that haven’t aged well and are a bit cringe-worthy to read today. So, both things can be annoying in different ways.

On the other hand, older novels often tend to have more interesting cover art. Since many older novels were published before the internet was popular, having an eye-catching and dramatic cover that would stand out on bookshop shelves was even more important than ever. Likewise, before photo editing became something that people could do easily with computer programs, there was more incentive for publishers to use traditional paintings for their cover art. So, older novels just generally look better. Here are some examples of 1980s sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel cover art to show you what I mean:

Here are some examples of painted cover art from the 1980s. I wish this type of cover art was still standard these days.

Another advantage of older novels is their brevity. Because longer books were more difficult or expensive to publish in the past, older novels often tend to be a bit shorter and to the point. Yes, the formal writing styles used in the past mean that older novels will often take longer to read, but it is so refreshing to see novels that can tell a full, detailed story in just 200-300 pages 🙂 On the downside, this brevity is sometimes achieved by just reducing the size of the print.

On the other hand, one cool thing about modern historical fiction (and TV shows etc..) is that they can give vividness and life to the past in a way that older things might struggle with. After all, when watching the grainy greyscale footage on the Youtube channel I mentioned earlier, my mind instantly started “filling in the gaps” with things that I remembered from modern historical novels, TV shows etc… So, modern historical fiction can make the past seem a lot more vivid and alive.

Of course, the most interesting type of history-based fiction is historical fiction that was written in the past. This is often an interesting middle-ground between the two things and not only does it give us a glimpse of how people used to think about the past but, due to it’s historical setting, it bizarrely tends to age better than older fiction set in the “present day” of when it was written.

So yes, older and historical fiction both have their fair share of advantages and disadvantages. In short, if you want something readable, gripping and vivid, then read modern historical fiction. But, if you want something a bit more complex that also gives you a direct window into the past, then take a look at older fiction.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Review: “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks” By Steve Cole (Novel)

Well, since I was still going through a phase of reading spin-off novels, I thought that I’d check out a “Doctor Who” novel from 2018 called “Combat Magicks” by Steve Cole.

This was a hardback novel that I splashed out on last December (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance) shortly after series eleven of “Doctor Who” had finished.

Although I didn’t have time to review more than the first episode of this series, it was probably one of the best series of the show that I’ve seen and, well, I wanted more of it (especially since the 2018 “Christmas episode” was postponed to New Year’s Day 2019 and the show apparently won’t return until 2020). Hence getting this book.

I should probably also point out that, although “Combat Magicks” tells a stand-alone “Doctor Who” story and can be read without watching the “Doctor Who” TV show, it’s probably worth watching at least a couple of series eleven episodes before reading this novel in order to get to know the main characters.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks” that I read.

The novel begins with the TARDIS, a time-travelling spaceship shaped like an old police call box, being knocked off-course by a mysterious energy field. Inside the TARDIS, The Doctor and her earthly companions Ryan, Yaz and Graham try to work out what has happened.

When the TARDIS lands, they find themselves in Gaul in 451 AD. The sky is glowing. Something is interfering with Earth’s history and it is up to the Doctor to find out what it is and put everything right.

But, there is just one little problem. In the area around the TARDIS, the forces of Attila The Hun are about to do battle with the Romans who control the area. Being a fixed historical event that is a crucial part of Earth’s timeline, The Doctor can do nothing to stop the war. Still, it doesn’t take her too long to find out that mysterious witch-like creatures called the Tenctrama are involved in this whole mess…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s like an extra episode of “Doctor Who”, but with a slightly more complex storyline, slightly more horror and a much larger special effects budget 🙂

In other words, it’s a brilliant mixture of quirky science fiction, subtle comedy, gruesome horror and thrilling drama 🙂 Yes, it takes a little while for the novel’s story to really become gripping, but it is worth sticking with this novel 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Every futuristic thing here has a logical explanation and follows a consistent set of rules (which the characters have to try to understand). The nefarious Tenctrama who are threatening Earth also have realistic motivations for their actions and all of the story’s futuristic technology also feels like technology rather than magic.

Of course, thanks to the historical setting, many of the Roman and Hun characters consider alien technology to be magic. This allows the story to include some really cool dark fantasy-style elements, in addition to allowing the story to occasionally explore the difference between knowledge and superstition. Seriously, as sci-fi stories go, this one is well within the “Doctor Who” tradition.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really cool 🙂 In addition to some brilliant scenes of paranormal horror, scientific horror, death-based horror, zombie/monster horror and suspenseful horror, the novel also includes a surprising amount of gruesome horror too 🙂

Yes, this gruesome horror is relatively tame when compared to “proper” horror novels (with the story’s grislier moments being described in a slightly quicker and/or less detailed way), but it still adds a bit of extra atmosphere, grittiness and horror to the story in a way that the TV series probably wouldn’t be allowed to do.

Not only that, the story also includes zombies too 🙂 Yes, they are a little different from typical horror movie zombies, but it’s always really cool to see zombies in “Doctor Who” (like in the series eleven episode “The Witchfinders”).

In a lot of ways, the horror elements of the story reminded me a little of modern historical dark fantasy/horror/zombie novels like Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“, which is never a bad thing 🙂

Of course, all of these horror elements are also balanced out with the series’ trademark sense of humour, consisting of things like pop culture references, amusingly eccentric comments from the Doctor and a few amusing narrative moments. So, this is more of a “feel good” novel than you might initially think.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good too 🙂 Although the story takes a while to lay out all of it’s plot threads and become really gripping, this is worthwhile. There’s a really good mixture of suspenseful moments, a couple of plot twists, dramatic action sequences, clever plans and large-scale drama.

One of the cool things about the Thirteenth Doctor having three companions (rather than the usual one) is that this allows for more complex stories when they become separated, and this novel takes full advantage of this fact.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only are the main characters reasonably close to their TV show counterparts, but this story also allows them to be a bit more badass – whilst still staying within the show’s traditional pacifist themes.

Likewise, the fact that this is a novel means that there’s even more room for personality and humour too. In addition to all of this, the novel’s historical background characters are reasonably well-written – with the highlights being Attila The Hun and a Roman version of “Torchwood” called “The Legion Of Smoke” – although they don’t get quite as much characterisation as the four main characters do.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the novel’s villains (the Tenctrama) also come across as characters with defined motivations who do evil things for a practical reason rather than just for the sake of being evil. Because of this, they are even more chillingly effective villains. Not to mention that their backstory and motivations also help to feed into the novel’s anti-war theme too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good. The story’s third-person narration has a little bit more of a distinctive “style” than I expected and it’s this brilliant mixture of more informal observations and mildly formal descriptions. It fits in surprisingly well with the tone of the TV show and, although there are a few mildly confusing moments (eg: a third-person segment written from the perspective of one of the Huns early in the story), it means that the story is a very readable and relaxing way to spend a few hours.

As for length and pacing, this novel is also really good. At an efficient 264 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. The pacing is mostly really good too, although the second half of the story is probably somewhat more gripping than the first half is. Although this is probably because the earlier parts of the story have to spend time setting everything up for the spectacular drama in the later parts of the story.

All in all, this is a really good “Doctor Who” novel 🙂 Yes, it takes a little while to really become compelling, but it’s a brilliant blend of the sci-fi, horror and thriller genres 🙂 So, if you enjoyed series 11 and wonder what it would look like with a higher budget, a bit more horror and more time to tell a story, then this novel is worth reading.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Universal Harvester” By John Darnielle (Novel)

Several weeks earlier, I saw a mention of John Darnielle’s 2017 novel “Universal Harvester” on an online list of recommended horror novels.

The premise of the story intrigued me and it seemed like my kind of thing. So, naturally, I… forgot about it for several weeks before eventually remembering it and tracking down a second-hand copy.

So, let’s take a look at “Universal Harvester”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Scribe (UK) paperback edition of “Universal Harvester” that I read.

The novel begins in the late 1990s in a small town in Iowa called Nevada. Jeremy Heldt works in Video Hut, an independent video rental shop that is gradually losing out to the larger video shop nearby. It is a fairly ordinary winter afternoon and Jeremy passes the time talking to the regular customers. But, when a regular called Stephanie returns a video, she mentions that something has been spliced into the tape.

Curious, Jeremy takes the video home to check it out. Sure enough, there are a few seconds of bizarre gloomy footage in the middle of the film. Not only that, one of the other tapes contains bizarre camcorder footage of a hooded woman in a barn. Although Jeremy is a bit freaked out by this, he gets on with his life and only mentions it to his boss, Sarah Jane, a while later.

Sarah Jane begins to look into the mysterious tapes and becomes more and more curious. So much so that she tracks down the barn from the film. After talking to its current owner, Lisa, Sarah Jane starts spending more and more time there…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is what would emerge if David Lynch, Jack O’Connell and Alice Hoffman sat down and decided to write a novel together 🙂 In other words, it is an atmospheric and strange story that only just about makes sense, but is so unique, interesting and well-written that you won’t really care. Seriously, if you like weird novels and TV shows from the 1990s, then you’ll love this novel 🙂

Surprisingly though, this wasn’t as much of a horror novel as I’d expected. Yes, there are some ominous, mysterious and chilling moments. Plus, there is a creepily mysterious backstory involving a cult and a theme of death and loss running through the story too. But, it isn’t really a horror story. In a lot of ways, it is like the TV show “Twin Peaks” – in that it contains elements of horror, but isn’t really a horror story.

And, yes, I should probably talk about this novel’s 1990s elements, since they are brilliant 🙂 Not only does this novel almost read like an “alternative” novel from the 1990s (eg: the sort of thing that would have been reprinted by Vintage in the 2000s), but it perfectly captures the warm and wintery rural atmosphere of various American films/TV shows from the decade too.

In addition to this, it is also a novel that includes stuff like video rental shops, lots of VHS tapes, old computers etc… Seriously, if you remember any of this stuff from the late 1990s/early 2000s then the book is wonderfully nostalgic 🙂

Interestingly though, this novel isn’t entirely set in the 1990s. There are a few random time jumps to both the 1950s-1970s and the present day which, although they are a bit unexpected, really help to add a lot of extra depth and atmosphere to the story. Seriously, I cannot praise the atmosphere of this novel highly enough.

One other cool thing about this novel is it’s focus on alternate timelines and parallel universes. Although this is mostly just a stylistic thing where the narrator will talk about what could happen, it really adds a lot to the novel. Not only that, there is at least one scene (where Sarah Jane describes what she saw in the farmhouse) which contradicts the descriptions in previous chapter – implying either an unreliable narrator, a multi-verse or an unreliable character. This really helps to add a lot of atmosphere and mystery to the novel.

In terms of the characters, this novel is really good. We get enough characterisation and detail to really care about the characters, but enough is left unexplained or unsaid to make some of the characters seem intriguingly mysterious. Interestingly, although Jeremy is set up as the main character at the beginning of the novel, the story is more about several of the other characters than him. This reminded me of a very vaguely similar technique used in M.John Harrison’s “Nova Swing” and it really helps to add depth and realism to the story.

Needless to say, all of this makes the novel really compelling. The best way to describe the characters in this book is that they are like a very slightly more understated, mysterious, realistic and/or hardboiled version of the characters you’d see in an Alice Hoffman novel or an episode of “Twin Peaks”.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really brilliant. For starters, the novel is technically narrated from a first person perspective, but it often reads more like a third-person novel until the narrator suddenly drops a dramatic fourth-wall breaking description or intriguing plot spoiler. Likewise, you’ll also spend quite a bit of the novel trying to work out who the narrator actually is until their identity is (sort of) revealed in the final few pages of the story.

The writing style in this novel is really brilliant too. It’s “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving, but also beautifully descriptive and unique at the same time. It’s a little bit like a mixture between the high-brow hardboiled prose of Jack O’Connell and the vivid, poetic prose of Alice Hoffman.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a gloriously efficient 214 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, although this isn’t a fast-paced novel, it isn’t a slow-paced novel either. Although the story’s time jumps can take a while to get used to, there is enough atmosphere and mystery to keep the story really compelling 🙂

All in all, whilst this novel probably isn’t for everyone, I really loved it 🙂 It’s this gloriously weird mixture of 1990s nostalgia, ominous mystery, meta-fiction/experimental fiction and atmosphere. If you want a story which explains everything and has a linear plot, read something else. If you want a unique, intriguing and well-written novel, read this one.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Three Benefits Of Setting Your Story In The 1980s And/Or 1990s

Well, since I’m reading a horror/comedy novel set in the early 1990s (“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero) and because I was also experimenting with a writing project set in the 1980s, I thought that I’d talk about a few of the benefits of setting your story in the 1980s-90s.

1) Phones and the internet: This is a fairly obvious one, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. Although basic mobile phones were starting to become more common during the mid-late 1990s, one of the defining features of these two decades is the fact that the world didn’t revolve around mobile phones, social media etc… This has all sorts of benefits when it comes to storytelling.

The fact that your characters can’t just phone anyone anywhere means that suspenseful scenes become more suspenseful. After all, if your characters are in danger, then they either have to find a phone (of the landline or payphone variety) or come up with some kind of plan. Likewise, it also makes mysteries more mysterious too, since your characters can’t just whip out a smartphone and look online for information. In other words, they actually have to do proper old-fashioned research and investigation.

Plus, although the web was a thing during the 1990s, it was a lot less common and/or developed (it was also a lot slower too, and made this noise when you connected to it). As such, there wasn’t really the kind of mainstream online/social media culture that there is these days.

I could go on for quite a while, but the lack of things like social media, smartphones etc… means that stories set in the 1980s/90s can often have a lot more suspense, personality, nuance etc… than stories set in the modern world.

2) It isn’t that difficult to write: Although you’ll probably have the annoying experience of thinking of an awesome 80s/90s pop culture reference to add to your historical story, only to look online and realise that it refers to something that existed a year or two after when the story takes place, it is easier to write historical stories set in these decades than in other decades.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, even if you don’t actually have any memories of the year that your story is set in, there’s a very good chance that you’ve encountered a lot of things from this time period without even realising it. After all, if you grew up in the 1990s or the 2000s, then films/books/TV shows/music etc… from the 1980s/90s were still fairly recent back then. So, you probably already know more about these decades than you think.

Secondly, these decades are recent enough to still be vaguely similar to our current world. So, if you write a fairly “timeless” story with a few subtle nostalgic details and a little bit of historical awareness (eg: about things like mobile phones, historical events etc..), then it will probably seem reasonably convincing. After all, most novels that are actually from the 1980s and 1990s usually keep their “80s/90s” elements relatively understated, since these things were just ordinary life back then.

Thirdly, there’s no shortage of research material out there. Nostalgia about these decades is fairly popular at the moment, so there’s loads of information about them on the internet. Likewise, things like films from these decades can usually be found fairly easily on DVD too.

3) Comments: Simply put, one of the best ways to comment about the benefits and flaws of the modern world is to tell a story set in the past. Since your readers will be reading it in the present day (and know that you were writing it in the present day), then they are going to compare the historical “world” of your story to the world around them.

And, you can use this to comment about the modern world. For example, showing some of the problems of the 1980s/90s that are less of an issue these days can be a way of making the reader feel better about the modern world. On the other hand, showing some of the awesome parts of the 1980s/90s that we’re in danger of losing these days can be a way of criticising the modern world. Likewise, showing things that haven’t changed at all can also be a way of commenting about the present day too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Thoughts About Writing Fiction Set In The Mid-2000s

Well, I ended up thinking about the subject of mid-2000s style fiction after I began re-reading a horror novel from 2005 called “Final Destination: Dead Reckoning” by Natasha Rhodes (although, due to a heatwave at the time of writing, it might take me longer to read/review this novel than usual). It could be because of the fact that I first read this novel in 2005/6, but it seemed so wonderfully mid-2000s in a lot of ways.

This then made me think of a horror novel from 2006 that I re-read a while ago called “Dying Words” by Shaun Hutson, which seems to be the perfect distillation of mid-2000s Britain. And, since the mid-2000s is just slightly too recent to really be a part of popular nostalgia at the moment, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write stories set in the mid-2000s. And for the purposes of this article, I’ll define the mid-2000s as 2004-6 or so.

1) Culture and context: Culturally, the mid-2000s was a different age. Despite all of the lingering post-9/11 fear and angst, culture was a bit more optimistic and interesting than the present day. In part, this was probably because the 2008 financial crash hadn’t happened yet. So, here are a few of the cultural differences between the mid-2000s and the present day.

As for films, horror movies were a lot more popular 🙂 At the time, the psychological horror/jump scare trend of the early-mid 2000s was still going strong (with, for example, a Hollywood remake of “The Grudge” in 2004) but, with the release of the first “Saw” film in 2004, the early beginnings of the grittier and more brutal horror movie trends of the mid-late 2000s were also emerging too. Superhero movies also existed at the time, but were thankfully more of an occasional infrequent novelty rather than a major genre 🙂

Pop and rock music (especially indie rock) were popular genres of music too. Heavy metal music from the time usually tended to be a bit more shoutier and/or angst-filled than it was in previous decades though. There were also some lingering remnants of the awesome pop-punk trend of the mid-1990s/early-mid 2000s in the charts too 🙂 The Emo subculture was also a popular thing too. In terms of fashions, boho chic was one of the most popular trends.

Videogames were a popular thing, but were also still something of a niche hobby too. First-person shooter games were still primarily single-player games (and were all the better for it!) and genres like the 3D platformer genre and the survival horror genre were still reasonably popular too 🙂 Whilst online multiplayer obviously existed back then, there tended to be more of a focus on good, honest local multiplayer for console games. However, the modern renaissance in indie games hadn’t happened yet, so most games were popular “AAA” games made by larger studios.

Politically, this was the age of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Both were mercilessly satirised at the time and for good reason. Still, even though the mid-2000s was a relative utopia compared to the present day, we didn’t know any worse back then. As such, pessimism, angst and gloom about politics were a major thing back then. Whether it was angst about the erosion of civil liberties, worries about terrorism, worries about Blair acting in an authoritarian fashion, worries about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars etc… It was a fairly angst-filled time.

But it was, in Britain at least, a much more hedonistic age too 🙂 For example, this was an age when there were still tabloid moral panics about “binge drinking” (because people still actually went out drinking/clubbing at the weekend 🙂 ).

2) The technology: The thing to remember about the mid-2000s is that, in technological terms, it was mostly a more sensible version of the present day. In other words, whilst things like mobile phones, some types of social media etc.. still existed, they were a little bit more sensible.

In other words, smartphones didn’t really exist. Mobile phones existed (and were very popular), but they were actual phones with numerical keypads. They were primarily used for phone calls and simple text messages. Some phones had low-resolution cameras, limited internet connectivity and colour screens, but that was about it (and adding anything more usually tended to result in commercial failure, see the Nokia N-Gage for an example). They had much longer battery life than modern phones and they couldn’t really access social media in the way they do today 🙂

Social media, of course, being something you accessed via a desktop computer (running Windows 98 or XP 🙂 ). Even then, it was at least slightly different to what it is today. Back then, social media tended to focus slightly more on things like public forums (where people would discuss a topic, instead of themselves), instant messenger programs and – of course- traditional blogs, where people could write at length in an articulate fashion 🙂

Yet, unfortunately, the beginnings of modern-style social media were also starting to emerge too. Myspace was, of course, around at the time. An obscure video-sharing site called Youtube appeared in 2005. In 2006, Twitter began (as a service that allowed you to send SMS text messages to the internet with your phone) and Facebook opened itself to the public too. Yet, in 2004-6, social media was still something of an obscure hobby that had not grown to the ridiculous level of prominence that it has today.

As for portable date storage, re-writable CDs were a popular way of backing up large amounts of data. Whilst USB memory sticks existed during the mid-2000s, they were much smaller (eg: tens or hundreds of megabytes) and people still used floppy disks occasionally. Computers still often had floppy drives installed as standard too 🙂

Likewise, whilst some mobile phones had low-resolution cameras, most people used good, honest stand-alone digital cameras to take photos. However, cheap disposable film-based cameras were still reasonably popular for things like holidays etc…

Plus, the mid-2000s was one of the last time periods where physical media was king 🙂 In other words, when you bought a film, you bought it on DVD (or maybe VHS, if you could find it). Traditional paperback and hardback books were the only way to read fiction 🙂 Music was still primarily sold on CDs too 🙂

Likewise, although things like Steam did exist back then, if you bought a computer or video game, you almost certainly bought a physical disc from a physical shop (as such, things like DLC, loot boxes etc.. weren’t common and most games were actually released in a finished state too 🙂 )

3) The stories aren’t that different: You’ll have probably noticed that I’ve spent most of this article talking about background and contextual stuff, rather than about writing. There’s a good reason for this. The mid-2000s weren’t that long ago.

In other words, stories that would work in the modern day can often also work reasonably well when set during the mid-2000s. Most of what makes a story set during this time period different from a more modern story are the background details and the atmosphere (eg: angst-filled/pessimistic, yet also more innocent and optimistic) more than anything else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Nefertiti” By Michelle Moran (Novel)

A few days before writing this review, I happened to see two documentaries about ancient Egypt. And, since I was in a bit of an “ancient Egypt” kind of mood afterwards, I remembered that I had a second-hand copy of Michelle Moran’s 2007 novel “Nefertiti” that a relative had given me several years ago.

So, let’s take a look at “Nefertiti”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Quercus (UK) paperback edition of “Nefertiti” that I read.

“Nefertiti” is a historical novel about the reign of Nefertiti, queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. The story begins with a brief third-person description of how one of the elder pharaoh’s sons, Tuthmosis, dies in suspicious circumstances. Then, the novel is narrated by Nefertiti’s younger sister Mutnodjemet, beginning in Thebes when the sisters are teenagers and their influential father, Vizier Ay, manages to arrange a marriage between Nefertiti and the elder pharaoh’s only surviving son Amunhotep.

When Amunhotep is granted control of lower Egypt, he begins to order sweeping religious changes in addition to ordering the construction of a new city in the desert. Of course, Vizier Ay hopes that Nefertiti can influence the pharaoh to keep Egypt’s ancient religious traditions. However, the lure of power is strong and Nefertiti is eager to grab it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly epic, dramatic and atmospheric historical saga – although it is rather slow to start.

In essence, if you can get through the first hundred pages or so, then you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping story that reminded me of both HBO’s excellent “Rome” TV series (in terms of atmosphere, grandeur and style) and “Game Of Thrones” (in terms of ruthless political intrigue, drama, tyrannical rulers etc..). This novel is just as good, if not better, than these TV shows – but only once you’ve got past about the first hundred pages or so. So, stick with this book.

In terms of the historical elements of this novel – I am very glad that I watched a couple of documentaries before I read it. Whilst the story can of course be enjoyed as a simple drama/political thriller/romance/ historical saga without any prior knowledge, having a little bit of general background knowledge will help you to spot some of the novel’s moments of dramatic irony and/or historical accuracy (eg: there’s a throwaway line about Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus late in the book that is accurate to the archaeological findings in one of the documentaries I saw).

But, even if you know enough about the history to know how the story’s main events will turn out, most of the novel is still intriguingly gripping because of all of the various sub-plots and moments of drama. Because the novel is written from the perspective of Nefertiti’s sister, she is able to be involved in events, plots and romances that aren’t part of the well-known historical narrative. Likewise, some of the novel’s political schemes, plots and power plays are also rather unpredictable too. As such, the story can still be nail-bitingly suspenseful even if you know some of the history.

Plus, looking on Wikipedia, there does seem to be some deliberate artistic licence (eg: with regard to Horemheb and Mutnodjemet, with regard to how Nefertiti dies etc…). Although this isn’t historically accurate, it helps to add some unpredictability and drama to the story. However, when doing a little bit of background reading whilst writing this review, I suddenly noticed that two of the novel’s background characters (Ay and Horemheb) later became pharaohs, which is kind of cool.

In addition to this, the story is a grimly compelling drama about the nature of evil and the corrupting influence of power. Since, through Mutnodjemet’s eyes, we get to watch how Nefertiti goes from being a loving sister into a cold-hearted, selfish and imperious ruler.

In addition to this, the Pharaoh Amunhotep/Akhenaten is also a brilliantly chilling character too – he’s a religious fanatic, who is drunk with power and scarily incompetent too (eg: he orders the army to build him a new city, whilst some of Egypt’s outer territories are being invaded by Hittites etc..). So, this novel is a fascinatingly chilling glimpse into the nature of evil and tyranny too.

Yet, the novel’s emotional tone is surprisingly balanced. Unlike, say, “Game of Thrones”, this isn’t an unrelentingly bleak story. Yes, there are certainly grim, shocking, poignant, chilling, bleak and suspenseful moments but these are also balanced out with more joyous, heartwarming and peaceful moments. This novel is a wonderfully powerful emotional rollercoaster. So, if you want something that is a little bit like “Game Of Thrones”, but with a little bit less of a bleak tone to it, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂

The religious politics of ancient Egypt are also a really interesting element of this novel too. Basically, the novel covers the relatively brief period of history where Amunhotep/Akhenaten changed the state religion from the religion of Amun (eg: the traditional deities like Horus, Osiris, Anubis, Amun-Ra etc...) to the worship of a single sun god called Aten.

In addition to showing some of the reasons why the Pharaoh did this – eg: a mixture of religious fanaticism and a way to take power away from the influential priests of Amun – Moran also adds a bit of extra drama and suspense to the story by showing many of the characters still secretly worshipping the old gods in a similar way to how Americans drank in speakeasies etc… during prohibition.

The characters in this book are absolutely brilliant and the decision to narrate the story from the perspective of Nefertiti’s younger sister – who just wants to tend a garden and start a family, rather than get involved in politics – is a surprisingly good one. Not only is she a really likeable character, but her humanity is also brilliantly contrasted with many of the more sociopathic and power-hungry characters that she encounters. Seriously, I really loved the characters and characterisation in this novel 🙂

In terms of the writing and first-person narration, it’s fairly good too. The novel is written in a fairly readable style which is descriptive enough to evoke the grandeur and traditions of ancient Egypt whilst still being modern and matter-of-fact enough to be able to be read at a reasonable pace. The novel also uses a few Egyptian words to add flavour to the story, but the meaning is always obvious from the context – so, it never gets confusing.

In terms of the length and pacing, it’s reasonably ok. Although, as I mentioned, the novel is a bit slow to start, the final three-quarters of the book move at a reasonably decent pace. Whilst this isn’t exactly an ultra-fast paced thriller, the narration moves at a good pace and there are enough moments of drama to keep you gripped throughout most of the book. And, at about 420 pages or so, this novel is a little bit on the long side – but still just about compact enough not to feel bloated.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant historical novel. Yes, the first hundred pages or so are a bit of a slog but, once you get past those, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping tale of power, intrigue, family and politics. I absolutely loved the atmosphere and characters in this novel too. As I mentioned earlier, if you like TV shows like “Rome” and “Game Of Thrones”, then you’ll probably enjoy this book 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.