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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

In Book With Bradbury

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

How cool is this – I’m in a book with Ray Bradbury! The book is Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore, and my contribution is called ‘The Last Librarian: Or A Short Account of the End of the World. Ray – we’re on first-name terms now we’ve shared a book – Ray’s contribution is called ‘Exchange’ and there, he’s already shown why he’s a better writer than me: economy. A one-word title as opposed to 12 words. If you want to read the stories, the book is available on Amazon and through all good book sellers.

Adventures in Bookland: A Treasury of Ghazali by Mustafa Abu Sway

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

The problem with the thought of Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (to give him his full name) is that it is too deep and too broad for our shallow times. In the age of Twitter, the work of the greatest thinker in Islamic history is almost unknown outside the small band of scholars devoted to him: many Muslims have never even heard of him. But Al-Ghazali lived at a time when the Muslim world faced challenges which bear comparison with the problems the Muslim world face today: it was a fractured world, the early Muslim unity having shattered into a small number of competing power centres, and Islamic culture was struggling to respond to and assimilate the products of Greek learning that its military expansion had brought into its orbit. It was Ghazali, through his life and thought, who formulated the Muslim response to Greek learning, and helped to establish the social solidarity in the face of rulers of varying degrees of worthiness that went on to characterise Muslim populations throughout the world. And yet, ask an ordinary Muslim about him, and most will respond with blank faces.

So Kube’s new book is a welcome attempt to redress this situation. Accepting that Ghazali’s vast corpus of work is too much for most people to engage with, they have published a lovingly presented, slim volume of Ghazali’s thought, taking short extracts from his work ranging from raising children in a faith to the encounter with God, with explanatory commentary by Professor Abu Sway of Al-Quds University. The real meat, though, are in these limpid extracts from Ghazali: there is more in a sentence by him than in most books published today about Islam. So, it is to be hoped that this little book will help provoke a revival in the knowledge and study of Al-Ghazali among today’s Muslims, for his wisdom is required today more than ever.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Rome Alone by Phil McCarthy

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

One of the unremarked perils of the writer’s life is getting emails from readers, telling you they have written a book and asking if would you like to read it. If the reader has had the courtesy to read one of my books, I generally feel honour bound to return the favour, which was how I learned about Phil McCarthy’s book of his pilgrimage to Rome along the old pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena. But I’m pleased to report that reading the book proved to be a real pleasure and not at all the dull trudge that a number of other, duty-read books have been.

Strange though it might seem, given that we live in such apparently secular times, but pilgrimage is undergoing a major revival at the moment, with record numbers of people walking, cycling and generally making their way across Europe to places such as Santiago de Compostela. But Phil McCarthy, doctor and walker, had already done the Camino de Santiago and wanted something more challenging. He found it in the old Via Francigena, the pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome that thousands of people from these isles trod in the millennium between the arrival of St Augustine in 597 and the suppression of pilgrimages by the forces of the Reformation – just one of the ways in which the sticklers for puritanism stifled medieval joys. McCarthy was following in the tracks of Hilaire Belloc, who similarly made a pilgrimage to Rome on foot at the start of the 20th century, detailing his journey in The Path to Rome. In Rome Alone, McCarthy recounts what it’s like to make a similar journey early in the 21st century. Having read both, the main differences appear to be the risk of death from passing cars – confirming every stereotype, the risk only increases the closer McCarthy got to Rome – the instantaneity of communication nowadays, and the impossibility of sleeping in barns or expecting accommodation and food from rural peasants. However, in compensation, the pilgrim hostels along the way serve as marvellous way stations and insights into how the Church is faring in what is supposed to an increasingly secular Europe. The good news is, at least from my reading of McCarthy’s book, that it is faring better than the doomsayers would suggest, with many lively parish communities making McCarthy welcome as he makes his way south. The walking doctor is particularly enjoyable on the inadequacies of European walking maps, the danger from dogs and the sheer slog of such a long walk. I’ll long remember his horrified realisation that the lyrics running through his mind as he struggled up an interminable hill, ‘Come on, come on/Come on, come on/Come on, come on/I say!’, were from Gary Glitter’s 1970s hit, I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am) – given Glitter’s subsequent conviction, the subsequent lyric, ‘I’m the man who put the bang in gang’ becomes even more dubious!

Few books could stand alongside Belloc’s classic travelogue, so it’s much to McCarthy’s credit that I enjoyed his latter-day account of pilgrimage near as much as The Path to Rome.

Adventures in Bookland: Deathwatch by Steve Parker

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017


This is, basically, the male equivalent of chick lit: big blokes with blasters blasting bad guys. The Warhammer 40k universe misses one trick though. Being dedicated to war – it exists, after all, to facilitate a war game – the spin-off books ignore one aspect of the 40k universe that might not be obvious to anyone unfortunate enough to actually live in it, but that is obvious to at least this visitor: it is a world of wonders. Magic, elves, orcs, space ships, demons – it’s as if all the fantasy creatures of earth’s deep past were waiting for us all along, among the stars. Admittedly, in this version of the future, they are all busily trying to exterminate us, as we are attempting to destroy them, but there you go – you can’t make an Imperium without cracking a few alien skulls. And in the cracking of alien skulls, none are better than the Space Marines. Unfortunately, in the world of 40k books, none are so boring as the Space Marines. Being engineered killing machines who know no fear, sexual desire, curiosity or anything much else apart from glory, honour and loyalty, they make poor protagonists for a 40k novel. Far better when the hero is a normal human being, such as the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, or an abnormal one, such as the Eisenhorn novels. Even better if you can get Dan Abnett to write the books too. But even Abnett failed to make the Space Marines interesting when he essayed a Space Marines novel. In that respect, Steve Parker does a better job, but I wish he’d stayed longer with the characters from the Inquisition that he introduces alongside the eponymous Deathwatch Space Marines.

Albert’s rule number 1 for 40k novels: Space Marines are cool as background characters, riding in on Storm Ravens and killing aliens and Chaos spawn, but they’re not to be used as central characters. Might as well make a tree the hero, it would be less wooden.

Adventures in Bookland: Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers by Paul Moorcroft

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

When writing about the many small wars that have characterised conflict, particularly since the end of the Cold War, pundits are fond of trotting out the standard line: there can be no military solution, only a political one. This is generally accepted as an a priori truth; so much so that no one argues with it. But thinking about Sri Lanka’s long civil war, I begin to wonder if it is necessarily so, and the human cost of prolonging conflicts in search of those elusive political solutions.

For if we accept the premise that there must always be a political solution, then the pattern that emerges is one of low-level warfare, interspersed with periods of truce while international intermediaries seek that solution and international aid agencies feed the people displaced by the conflict, only for the conflict to flare up once more. By leading the search for solutions, and by taking responsibility for the people the combatants are generally fighting to rule, the international community runs the risk of bleeding the conflict out – allowing the combatants time to regroup and rearm and then fight again. It’s at least possible that, left to themselves, the conflict would end more quickly, although the resolution would surely be bloody. But would more blood be shed in a short war fought to an end rather than the apparently endless rounds of conflict punctuated by periods of exhausted truce, before the whole thing starts up again? That is the question the thirty years of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers poses. Paul Moorcroft doesn’t try to answer the question in this book: instead, he looks at how the Sri Lankan military were able to create a military solution to a war that lasted a generation, as well as the political conditions that the Rajapaksa government put into place to allow that military solution.

Yes, there can be no doubt that many civilians were killed in the final desperate months of the war, when the cornered Tigers fought like, well, tigers, for the LTTE had no compunction about using their own population as human shields. The calculation was clearly made, among the LTTE leadership, that if they could get enough pictures of dead children on the TV screens of the world, then the resulting international outcry would be sufficient to force the Sri Lankan goverment to call a halt to military action, giving them time to regroup and escape. Thus, civilian Tamil casualties were a clear strategy for the Tigers in their final struggle. Just as clearly, the Sri Lankan government and military sought to stop such images getting out: they prevented journalists getting anywhere near the battleground, with pointed references to being unable to guarantee their safety which served as veiled threats, while working behind the scenes to keep India, the one regional power that could stop everything in its tracks, on board. Moorcraft is excellent in showing how the Rajapaksa brothers maintained contacts with the Indian government, giving it daily briefings to ensure that the northern behemoth stayed on the other side of the Palk Strait. The book is also good on the overall military reorganisation that allowed the government forces to finally defeat an enemy that had defeated them for so long, although I would have liked more detail about the tactical shifts that allowed the Sri Lankan army to gain the upper hand over the LTTE cadres.

The question remains though: is this an example of a war where the only possible solution was military? For the Tigers, a political solution required the Sri Lankan government to give in completely to their demands – something that was clearly impossible. So the Tigers sought to create their own de facto state. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan governments before the Rajapaksa administration had sought for political solutions, with varying degrees of commitment, only to find that none of the proposed political solutions were possible from their point of view either. In the end, the only solution was blood. Without all the well meaning international intervention over the years, maybe that solution would have come earlier, and many lives might have been spared. Something to think on the next time someone trots out the line that there are no military solutions, only political ones.

Adventures in Bookland: Jesus by Paul Johnson

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Here’s an impious thought for the impious: surely there’s something deeply wonderful that the most important man in human history was a carpenter, a poor man living in the first century equivalent of Walsall, rather than a conqueror or a king. Think of those other candidates for most important man in history, generally surnamed ‘the great’, such as Alexander or Cyrus or Napoleon: they arrived at their greatness by swimming across rivers of blood. What Paul Johnson does in this little book, and does marvellously, is show why that carpenter from Nazareth was:

so extraordinary and protean, passionate yet deliberative, straightforward and subtle, full of authority and even, at times, stern, yet also infinitely kind, understanding, forgiving, and loving, so dazzling in his excellences that those close to him had no hesitation in accepting his divinity.

There is a question that Jesus is related to have asked his disciples. “Who do people say I am?” And they answered, giving the speculations of the people as to who this extraordinary preacher and miracle worker might be. Then Jesus said, “But you, who do you say I am?”

The question is asked of each of us. It may be the most important question ever posed.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Good, the Bad and the Smug by Tom Holt

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Smug was not as funny as I’d hoped and expected it would be. Tom Holt is a prolific author whom I’ve never got round to reading before, but I wanted something light and funny and I have a weakness for inverted fantasy tropes and the like, so I thought I would try him out. But it didn’t quite work for me. Writing humour is, admittedly, the most difficult and subjective of skills: what will have one person laughing uncontrollably may barely raise a chuckle from someone else, so it’s quite possible that other readers will disagree. But personally I think if one of the main characters is a goblin king then he ought to be a little more, well, evil than the one here – especially for a novel that bills itself as being ‘beyond good and evil’. That’s the book’s other failing: its attempt at philosophical profundity via jokes falls as flat as the most of the jokes. Philosophy, being both ridiculous and profound, should raise great belly laughs, not the odd wry smile. So, for me, not enough good jokes and too much cod philosophising.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Elephant Complex by John Gimlette

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Elephant Complex is the best contemporary account of Sri Lanka. There, that’s short and to the point. If you have an interest in the country – and I have, since my father is Sri Lankan – then this book is required reading. It also has a secondary function, that I will concentrate on here, in detailing the sort of preparation, work and temperament that is required to make an exceptional travel writer, and John Gimlette is an exceptional travel writer. What makes him even better in this capacity is that his full-time, day job is that of London solicitor, but every so often he takes off for some far-flung part of the world and brings it back with him in exquisite prose. He even looks like a solicitor!

John Gimlette – solicitor and travel writer

He is the Wallace Stevens of travel writing.

As to the elements of being a travel writer, first there is the preparation. So far as I can tell, Gimlette has read everything that there is to read, at least in English, about Sri Lanka, from Robert Knox’s account of his 20-year captivity in the 17th century, through the accounts of Victorians such as James Emerson Tennent, through to the many competing and conflicting accounts of the long war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. He says in his prologue that he spent two years researching Sri Lanka before visiting the country, and it shows in his writing. But his research was not confined to reading: he made contacts with many of the most significant players in contemporary Sri Lanka, interviewing them either before he went or during his three months in the country. For that is the next remarkable aspect of the book. Gimlette only spent three months there. That might sound like a long time, but having spent six weeks there myself recently, I can only marvel at how much more Gimlette managed to pack in to his schedule. Now that was no doubt helped by travelling there on his own, but what is even clearer is that, to be as accomplished a travel writer as Gimlette, the first requirement is an inexhaustible curiosity coupled with the desire to always open oneself to the country and the people among which you are travelling. Personally, I can manage that for a while, but then I become overloaded and have to withdraw behind the barricades of privilege that being a (comparatively) wealthy in a poor country allows. I simply don’t have the stamina for human interaction that Gimlette has.

So, while the idea of being paid to write about what I did on my holidays might initially appeal, during my own trip to Sri Lanka I realised that I did not have the combination of qualities required of a great travel writer. Gimlette has. Read his book.

Adventures in Bookland: Iron Man: The Gauntlet by Eoin Colfer

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Disappointing. Sad to reduce a 60,000 word book to a one-word review, but ‘disappointing’ sums it up. Not that The Gauntlet is bad. Eoin Colfer is too practised a writer for it to be bad. He maintains, the pace, the wisecracks and the plot twists as only someone who’s managed to wring eight novels and a movie adaptation out of the premise of the bad boy genius could. But that’s about it: in the end, it feels like a thoroughbred writer, going through his paces and showing off his tricks, and nothing much more. Yes, I know Tony Stark is the grown-up version of Artemis Fowl but with an added iron suit, but the villains – the Mandarin and assorted henchmen – are by the numbers bad guys and Tony Stark is the Marvel-rote version of the good guy, all wisecracks, pseudo character growth and, er, more wisecracks. Still, on the positive side, Colfer is a good enough writer for me to whizz through the book in a couple of days.

Iron Man: The Gauntlet by Eoin Colfer.

 

Adventures in Bookland: How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca

Monday, October 16th, 2017

This is a book that’s full of clues and cues to enable the reader to understand armour. As to the book itself, the great clue as to reading it is found by seeing that it is published by the Met – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – as the latest in a series of ‘How to Read’ books. Previous volumes include ‘How to read Chinese Paintings’ and ‘How to read Greek Vases’. This is very much a book for the cultured connoisseur of European armour. Indeed, the author, Donald La Rocca, is the curator of the Met’s collection of armour. With its exquisitely reproduced photographs of notable pieces of armour, it’s a book that will reside very well on the most tasteful of coffee tables, but it’s more than just a book with beautiful pictures. The text reveals La Rocca’s deep scholarly appreciation of his field, particularly within the context of arms as art. This is a book for the collector rather than the re-enactor.

Its great virtue is to highlight to the reader the dual function of armour. We all know that armour protected the knight but La Rocca and the illustrations place vividly in front of the reader how the ‘knight in shining armour’ of legend was also a man displaying power and prestige, and no where more so than in the armour of the great and powerful. As befits the Met’s superb collection of armour from the 15th to the 17th centuries, the book focuses on the supreme examples of the armourer’s craft, as revealed in such pieces as the gauntlets of Philip II of Spain or the shield of Henry II of France. In these, the armourer marries form and function to an extraordinary degree, providing both superb protection for the royal personage while also signalling his status to the men around him on the battlefield – for this was still a time when kings were expected to take to the field.

In keeping with the expertise of its writer, the book also reveals to the reader the subtle clues that enable someone like the curator of the Met’s armour collection to tell whether what he is looking at is a genuine example of 16th century armour, a cobbled together collection of disparate pieces of armour hung on to a mannequin, or an actual forgery, most likely made in the latter part of the 19th century when the rebirth of interest in the medieval created a market for fake and forged armour. Although La Rocca reveals what he looks for when assessing armour, this reviewer suspects it would take many years of careful study to arrive at the disciplined aesthetic vision that allows this level of discrimination. This sort of appreciation does not come cheap – it requires years of study. But La Rocca is generous with his dearly bought knowledge and by the end of the book the reader will have a far deeper understanding of the form and function of later European armour.

How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca.