Here be ravens: The Ravenmaster review

The Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace. Photo: 4th Estate

Christoper Skaife lifts the lid on an impenetrable fortress and its guests

Could the raven surpass dog as man’s best friend? It’s unlikely despite the bird’s usefulness, intelligence and uncanny ability to remember humans for life. But it’s perhaps what self-described Raven Master, Christopher Skaife wants to pose to us, the uninitiated.

As hidden as the secret life of its ravens, The Tower of London is as mysterious a jewel as the treasure (stolen?) it houses. The lives of those held captive there are told in other stories; Hess, Raleigh, Casement, Krays. What sets Skaife apart from other writers though is the delicacy with which he lifts the veil to this primordial ‘black site’ of Tudor-era renditions. Skaife preserves the mystery while answering every question we could ever have about literature’s feathered doom harbinger.

In The Raven Master, Skaife shares what almost ten years of chief raven husbandry has taught him about these misrepresented animals and the site its fabled will crumble to dust should the ravens ever depart. Skaife’s goal is to keep the Tower from crumbling by keeping the ravens satisfied. He calls it the ‘oddest job in Britain,’

The Ravenmaster Photo: 4th Estate

The Ravenmaster Photo: 4th Estate

This book starts as many good books do: at 5.30am, when the Ravenmaster’s duties begin. Climbing the Flint Tower with the urgency of the commuters he can hear entering the city, wishing they’d used the toilet before they got on the train, Skaife hopes today will not be the day the ravens left. He breathes easy when he sees all seven ravens present and accounted.

Starting with this apocalyptic prophecy unfulfilled Skaife propels the reader through ages as he describes the weight of his position – Yeoman Warder –  a title dating back to Henry VII. A position the young soldier couldn’t possibly have plotted a course towards when he joined the Army so he could go fire guns in the Falklands. It would lead to quarter century in the Forces, uneducated until the ravens zeroed in on their newest pupil.

When we are introduced to those who rule the roost, they’re presented as if they were part of a crack team of chaotically good mercenaries: “Rocky. Male. Entered Tower Service July 2011.” Skaife separates his charges with the single-mindedness of the Birdman of Alcatraz even if he is the jailor of this prison and some novelists could learn from the deftness with which Skaife characterises a non-speaking rogue’s gallery with only a few tactical ‘Ghars’.

With one eye on his flock, there’s a sense Skaife worries whether the position he’s lovingly fostered can weather the transforming fog rolling in from the Thames. A spiritual epilogue to this book might involve Skaife in dialogue with the Tower’s first yeoman explaining how he can reach more people with a tweet than ever conceived. Skaife chronicles all the post-war ravenmasters in an appendix which testifies to the author’s humility. The Tower (and its ravens) will succumb to the sieging modernisers. At the time of writing, beefeaters remain in dispute with their employers over a controversial pension change. Skaife’s sketch of a unglamourous royal palace will record this moment on the precipice so that if the ravens do in fact depart, something will remain in tact.

***
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife, published by Fourth Estate, is available at all good bookshops. 

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Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

Dinosaur erotica: what the reviews say

We’ve delved deep into the frankly bonkers world of dinosaur erotica as part of our ‘sex in fiction’ series. Now, not only can you find out all you need to know about this literary phenomenon through our in-depth introductory guide, but you can also get an insightful glimpse into this monster erotica sub-genre of literary erotica through our helpful collection of excerpts from some of the most famous dino-erotica book titles (with pictures, of course).

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But while dinosaur erotica can make millions of dollars for its authors, what do the people actually buying the books think of them? To find out – and to help you if you’re considering purchasing a couple of these books yourself – we’ve compiled some of our favourite reviews from the readers of dino-erotica themselves. Check them out below!

“Dinosaurian magic” – Richard W Girdwood 

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“After reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park I was left feeling scientifically fulfilled but emotionally distraught. Now I know why.

I have to recommend this most heartily. I was transfixed by the subtle arrangement of words into a tale of lust, so much so I struggled to read for more than say, 2-3 minutes at a time, often having to take short breaks between reads to recompose, arrange short expeditions to find edible berries, spear neighbour’s dogs and clean up the Kindle.

Needless to say those 2-3 minutes were spent deep in the mindset of a caveperson, wondering what dinosaurian magic might come next. After reading this literary wet dream I wouldn’t mind a Velociraptor opening my door handle at night!

I would love to see her branch into other forms of prehistoric erotica, such as ammonites and giant sloths, or fantasy creatures. Cthulhu with his many tentacles comes to mind. Bravo!”

Something about the description of this mid-sized dromaesaurid was getting me hot and bothered” – VelociFAPtor

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“I was at a stagnant place in my love life when I purchased this book. I hadn’t been able to get aroused by the usual erotic novels that women like me take a common liking towards, so I was just taking a shot in the dark with this book. I’ve always been a fan of Dinosaurs but never knew how much I truly loved them until I got to page 3 of this masterpiece. I began to feel wet immediately, something about the description of this mid-sized dromaeosaurid was getting me hot and bothered again. I was hooked as if they claws of the reptilians in this book had reached out and touched me with arousal themselves. Trust me ladies, weather you’re a hardcore dinosaur fan or just mildly amused by the film “Jurassic Park”, this is not a book you want to pass up. “In the Velociraptor’s Nest” will give you that pleasant sensation you’ve been looking for and you’ll find yourself relished for the rasp of a raptors tongue. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.”

“Shouldn’t have been hot but it was” – Author K Webster

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“Wow! This story shouldn’t have been hot but it was! Marie was such a naughty girl with the dinosaur! Will they have mutant babies???? Jim is a perv but I liked his character and wish he got his chance with her too. I will read more by this author.”

“Tale of aerodynamic arousal will warm your heart, and groin” – John H 

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From start to finish, this piece is reminiscent of a controversial episode of animated classic, “The Flintstones”, in which a similar thing happens involving Wilma and the garbage disposal. While they resolved to replace the disposal (prompting the comment “I guess I’m getting disposed now!” and a humorous wap-wahhh sound), in this book they go a different direction: a very arousing one.

Easily the highest point of this book (no spoilers) is when they’re up in the air, though while the shepherd is on the ground is by far the low point. It has its up and downs, but this tale of aerodynamic arousal will warm your heart, and groin.

I will admit, though: you’ll never look at your local museum the same again. I walked by the dinosaur exhibit, and whispered “Pterodactyl? More like tear-me-dactyl…” and licked my lips while walking away. The lip-licking was due to being out of chapstick, but you get my point.

“A lot of unanswered questions” – LCisMe

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“This story was short and lacked character development. WHY was Dianne taken by the pterodactyl? Why did the pterodactyl keep her? And how will she survive in his nest? This story left me with a lot of questions, and I don’t think the author is planning a sequel.”

“The Wuthering Heights of Billionaire Gay Dinosaur Fiction” – Liam Pierce 

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“I strongly recommend replacing the word “his” with “his billionaire dinosaur” at every opportunity. It puts you that much more in the moment.”

“Having sex with a dinosaur would be a lot of fun” – Daniel Michael Cowan

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“Not only does Dr. Tingle paint a vivid picture of the future colonization of faraway moons and planets, he also really drives home the message that having sex with a dinosaur would be a lot of fun.”

“Makes a great retirement gift” – 

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“I thought this was going to be just like every other book of gay dinosaur erotica, but I was so wrong! If you ever read 50 Shades of Grey thinknig, “If only the mysterious billionaire was a homosexual dinosaur…” this is the book for you. You’ll bite your nails as you wonder whether the two characters will get together, you’ll cry as they talk about past pains, and you’ll shiver with delight as author Chuck Tingle turns up the heat.

Now that Kindle allows you to give books as gifts, this becomes the perfect gift for your favorite new graduate, your best friend’s birthday, or a pair of newlyweds who could use some steamy reading in their honeymoon suite. It even makes a great retirement gift, saying, “Yes, you’re old now – but dinosaurs are ancient and they’re still getting it on.””

The best new indie books of 2016

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In a year that began with a spate of celebrity deaths including David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and ended with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency after taking us via both Brexit and the news that the planet has now passed through the ‘carbon threshold’, there have been precious few things for liberally minded, creative and generally right-thinking people to hold onto. However, when it comes to independent works of writing by new and contemporary writers, 2016 has at least given us cause for celebration.

As such, we’ve hand-picked our favourite indie books of the year.

The Inevitable Gift Shop

We’re big fans of indie publishers CB Editions, and so it’s not surprising that one of their many fabulous titles makes its way onto our 2016 list. The Inevitable Gift Shop, by Will Eaves, is one of those increasingly rare literary finds: a book that is thoroughly unique, yet also pleasingly familiar as it breaks new ground. Described as ‘a memoir by other means’, it’s not at all plot driven. Rather, this work of collage brings together bits and pieces of memoir, fictional prose, poetry, essay and non-fiction. Interactive, funny, insightful and thought provoking in equal turns, it’s a perfect book to revisit time and time again. Read our review of the book here.

What A Way To Go

Atlantic Books published What A Way To Go, the latest work of novelist Julia Forster. Set against a backdrop of high hairdos and higher interest rates, pop music and puberty, divorce and death, this coming-of-age tale is effervescently 80s, following the tale of 12-year old Harper Richardson as she navigates the various trials and tribulations of young adulthood. Read our review of the book here.

The Waves Burn Bright

There should be a critical term for a book that you can’t stop reading; but also makes you stop and think. Published by Freight Books, The Waves Burn Bright is the latest novel from Scottish author Iain Maloney, and focuses on the 1988 Piper Alpha oil disaster, and the impact it has on the novels central protagonists, Carrie and Marcus, as well as the wider Aberdeen community. It is a book rooted very much in both the past (and the night of the disaster itself), as well as the present; and in its universally recognisable motifs of trauma, loss, and love, carries important messages that will resonate with anyone. Read our review of the book here.

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Published by Granta and Portobello, The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam is an uncompromising narrative of a single day during the war in Sri Lanka. Arudpragasam is an assured and confident writer – and it belies belief that this is the work of a debut novelist. The opening sequence of the novel, in which a six-year-old child with a shrapnel-shredded arm is brought to an open-air operating theatre, feels horribly timely, and the poetic nature of the prose and eerily beautiful writing style makes the detail described in the novel’s pages all the more painful and devastating.

Shadow State

Published by Oneworld, Shadow State by Alan White is a biting critique of the £80 billion the UK government spends on outsourcing some of the country’s most important public services, from prisons to hospital resources and even child protection. Remember the scandal of G4S’s bungled Olympic security contract? Frightened about the threat Richard Branson’s Virgin Care poses to our healthcare and National Health Service infrastructure? Then this really is a must-read book for you. There are plenty of reasons to despise modern capitalism, and this book pertinently showcases several. We’ll see you on the barricades, comrades.