My Life That Books Built by Niall Leonard
I come from a big family where everyone was a voracious reader. My mother used to buy us books by the ton from second-hand shops and every book was re-read until it fell to pieces. After way too much of Enid Blyton and her prim, perfect English world, it was No Boats On Bannermere by Geoffrey Trease that really grabbed me. His tale of a brother and sister in England’s Lake District, caught up in a hunt for medieval treasure hidden from Viking raiders, made me feel for the first time I was reading about real kids my own age in a real place. When I wrote Crusher I was hoping to capture some of that sense of familiarity, to portray events that could be taking place in the here and now. While writing this blog post I was amazed to discover there are several more books in the Bannermere series – now I mean to catch up on them all.
Back when I was a teenager there were nothing like as many fantasy and supernatural stories as today. Instead we were encouraged to read historical adventures, maybe because adults thought that tales about Norsemen raiding, murdering and pillaging would somehow be educational. That’s how I first encountered the Viking trilogy of Henry Treece – Viking Dawn, The Road To Miklagard and Viking Sunset – vivid gripping yarns that gave me a taste for historical adventures I never lost. I went on to enjoy the bawdy, dark humour of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, and the adventures of CS Forrester’s Hornblower, but when I discovered the Aubrey-Maturin saga by Patrick O’Brian I never looked back.
A sailor, scholar and sometime spy himself, O’Brian wrote twenty volumes set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, from Master and Commander to Blue at the Mizzen. Every book is rich, complex, funny and gripping, and amazingly, every story is based on real people and actual events. The saga spans two decades and features two heroes – Jack Aubrey, at sea a brave and brilliant naval commander but on land a fool, and Stephen Maturin, the grumpy, introverted doctor and secret agent working against Napoleon. Staunch friends, Aubrey and Maturin’s adventures range from encounters with South Sea cannibals to running battles with French spies in nineteenth-century Boston. Laced with humour and action and studded with impenetrable naval terms, I’ve read every book in the series four or five times and every time O’Brian still somehow keeps me on the edge of my seat.
I never thought I would find an epic to equal them until my brother recently introduced me to the Bernard Cornwell’s Alfred The Great series, every bit as vivid and engrossing and historically detailed. Cornwell’s hero, Uthred, is an Saxon noble kidnapped as a child and raised by Vikings, returning home to become King Alfred’s most valuable warrior, yet at the same time despised and mistrusted by him. Cheated of his family inheritance, Uthred is determined to win it back – and the last book I read in the series, he still hadn’t succeeded…
If the books of Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell had been around when I was a teenager I’d probably never have read anything else, and sometimes I think I’ve never have written any novels or screenplays either – their work is so hard to equal. It’s not just the depth of their learning and research, it’s their knack of building stories on historical fact and bringing them to life with living, breathing, struggling and flawed characters. Then I think, to hell with that. Maybe I’ll never match up to those literary giants, but at least I can have fun trying, and if I do, hopefully the readers will have fun as well!
Huge thanks to Niall for taking the time to write this for The Book Zone. Please come back tomorrow when I will be launching a competition where you could win a hardback copy of Crusher. In the meantime, here's the book trailer: