Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: War at the Edge of the World by Ian James Ross

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Oh, goodie, I thought: a historical novel set in the twilight of empire, just at the cusp of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, and the series starts on the Wall and heads north. If you’re reading this review, you probably already know that I have a particular interest in this part of the world, having written novels and non-fiction about Northumbria. This is set three centuries earlier, but it’s a landscape and place I love. What’s more, it’s the first in a series, following a Roman centurion, Aurelius Castus, as he makes his way in this changing world, caught up in the wake of Constantine, who will be emperor but at this point is the up-and-coming son of Constantius Chlorus, Augustus of the Western Empire in the tetrarchic system set up by Diocletian. Just up my street.

Not really, I’m afraid. The book is well written, the story takes many turns, most unexpected, but the thought of ploughing through any more books in the dour company of Aurelius Castus is just too much to bear. I know there’s a tendency in male historical fiction for protagonists to be dark and brooding, but it does get a bit wearing on the reader. I could, maybe, have put up with more of Aurelius’ stoic indifference to pretty well everything if he hadn’t actually been so rubbish at what he’s supposed to do (spoilers ahead): when I read what is basically male wish-fulfillment fantasy (big bloke with sword who does the right thing, gets the woman, gets injured but stoically shoulders on through), and given that this is wish-fulfillment fantasy, I require at base a hero who actually achieves the quest by the end of the book. OK, there will be setbacks, a sidekick or two might be killed along the way, maybe even his lady love murdered despite his best efforts (this providing an efficient character engine for the rest of the book and series), but the hero has got to be basically competent. Aurelius Castus, though, loses his command, in its entirety, fails to save the man he’d sworn to save and basically makes a pig’s ear of things for most of the book. Now, I grant that this sets the book apart from the usual run of ridiculous historical fiction, where the hero mows down legions with just a few decorative injuries along the way, but Aurelius is, for me, just too damn dull to persevere with. A pity, as the writing is good, and the period interesting. If you’re thinking of reading it, I would say give it a go: this is a particularly subjective review. Some characters I simply don’t engage with, through no fault of the author, and Aurelius is one of them.

Adventures in Bookland: The Guns of Tanith by Dan Abnett

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Number five in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of Warhammer 40k military sci-fi – and they start dying. Darn it, Dan. Why do you have to be such a good writer that when you start killing off the characters we’ve followed for the previous four books, it really hurts? I suppose it wouldn’t really count as military sci-fi if people didn’t get killed, and I reluctantly admit that the people killed will sometimes include main characters but I’ll be gosh darned if I agree to Abnett killing off the ones I like.

Right, it’s time for some reader empowerment. Are you with me? I say that writers of military sci-fi, at least the really good ones like Dan Abnett, agree to subscribe to the new code of conduct to safeguard their readers: they are only allowed to kill off main characters after putting the death to a plurality of their readers. Death is only allowed when the readers okay it.

There, that solves it. Over to you now, Dan. Will you sign up?


Adventures in Bookland: How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

There’s many a detail I would quibble with in this book, but Cahill gets it spot on for his two big ideas: the vital role played by Irish monks in saving and renewing the culture of Europe after the fall of Rome, and the extraordinary personality of Patrick. First, the monks. While it’s true that preference of modern scholarship is to emphasise the continuity between the late Empire and the early Barbarian states, yet this was a continuity that was mainly political – the successor kings appropriated as much of the machinery of the Roman state, in particular its tax gathering abilities, as they could manage. But the cultural continuity was limited, and the barbarians, apparently self conscious about their own cultural limitations, brought little to the part.

The Irish, on the other hand, were never part of the Empire. Once they adopted Christianity, and it gave them written voice and language, they kept what was best of their own tradition, while teaching and transmitting, with all the vigour and enthusiasm of those who had never felt the Roman lash, all the best of Classical and, naturally, Christian thought. But moving on to Patrick, none of this would have happened without him. Although other missionaries may have been conflated with Patrick, it’s clear that he still had both the courage and, even more importantly, the open mindedness to be the first in the West to go beyond the bounds of Empire, to go beyond the ends of the world. Patrick went where his vision, his dream, told him to go. But others may have received such a commission, only to recoil before its unthinkableness. Patrick went. And he changed the world.


Adventures in Bookland: Mike by Andrew Norriss

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

Long-time readers will know that I am a bit of a fan of Andrew Norriss: you can read my reviews of his previous books here. So I was delighted to receive his new book – or I would have been, if my wife hadn’t grabbed it off me and declared her intention to read it first. Luckily, one feature of his writing is its narrative zip: you pick up the story, intending to read the first chapter, and two hours later you realise you’re past half way and you really rather wouldn’t stop now so, sometime around 3am, you finish the book and promise yourself that you really won’t do that the next time. Only you do. My wife did it first, which at least meant that I didn’t have to wait too long to get my hands on Mike, and then, despite my every resolution, I did it too. So, it’s your fault, Andrew, that I had a sleep-sore head for the next two days!

Andrew Norriss is unusual, possibly unique, among writers in writing dramas of the good. In his books, there are almost always no bad people, just decent folk trying to do what is right. So where’s the story in that? Stories require conflict, right? Well, yes, but conflict can come from conflicting ideas, between good and honourable people, of what actually is the right course, and this is the dramatic seam that Norriss has been mining in his recent books. In Mike, a deceptively simple book, he goes even further in his exploration as to what constitutes the good. The story is straightforward. Floyd, a teenage tennis prodigy, realises that he simply doesn’t want to play tennis any longer. His parents, tennis professionals, want him to succeed at the sport to which he’s devoted most of his young life – but they are not the coaching monsters of news headlines, but decent parents wanting to do what’s best for their son. Floyd, for his part, is desperate not to let down his parents. That is the seed of the story, but from that sprouts surprisingly deep roots, for in his desperation to find a solution to his situation, Floyd meets a friend, Mike. But no one else can see Mike. And Mike isn’t going to let Floyd play tennis any longer, taking increasingly direct action to stop Floyd when he gets on the tennis court. To try to get to the bottom of this, Floyd sees a psychologist (the one character in the book I didn’t like, since he bore far too close a resemblance to the most irritating character in history, Counsellor Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, to whose face of simpering empathy the natural human response is a swift slap).

At this point, I must admit, I was getting a little worried. Mike was beginning to seem like a personification of the sort of ‘be-kind-to-yourself’ self sentimentalisation that bedevils us today: a reification of the self and its desires into a good in and of itself. That advertising slogan, ‘Because you’re worth it,’ sums up the attitude: no, you’re not – and neither am I. Was Mike going to slip into a platitudinous hymn to finding yourself in some nebulous satisfaction of selfish desires?

I should have known better.

Norriss knows his Aristotle far too well to fall into this modern-day trap. Mike is, in fact, an examination of what is good as lived in daily life. As Aristotle said, and Thomas Aquinas amplified, all men act for the good – the evil supervillain announcing his evil masterplan to destroy the world is a fantasy of simplication. Even history’s most notorious monsters acted towards ends they considered good – the evil lay in the ends they had convinced themselves were good. To that end, the good life consists in that which makes each of us most completely what we are: for we are born as sketches, and painted through time to our completion. But in our lives, we can either complete the picture, or deface it. Mike is about the making of the human picture, and the right discernment of that which makes our pictures complete.

All this in a story about tennis and fish.

Adventures in Bookland: The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

The book is subtitled ‘A Farrago’ and, it is. The OED defines ‘farrago’ as a ‘confused mixture’ and that’s as accurate a one-word description of this book as I could come up with. No wonder then that Belloc, a better writer than I’ll ever be, came up with the description himself. But I still don’t understand what he was trying to do with this book: part hymn to home (in Belloc’s case, the county of Sussex), part debate in four voices, part knockabout philosophy and theological knockabout, part travelogue; trying to shoehorn all these elements, and more, between the covers of a single book has, pretty well inevitably, produced the advertised farrago. Belloc’s facility with words and the sheer energy he infuses into them dragged me through to the end – and I particularly enjoyed the delightful line drawings that enriched my edition (I couldn’t tell if they were by Belloc himself) – but I can’t say I’d recommend The Four Men to anyone other than a real Belloc completist.

Adventures in Bookland: Night Terrors by EF Benson

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

This book might well qualify as the perfect bedtime read: the stories are all around 10 to 15 pages, so ideal for a twenty-minute read, then lights out, lie down and suddenly jerk awake as the house creaks and some presence enters the room… So, maybe not ideal bedtime reading, if you’re prone to nightmares. I, though, am not, so I really did take this as my nightly read for a couple of months, working my way through these morbidly satisfying stories. EF Benson is a rare beast: a writer whose work survives him in two wholly different genres: these tales of the supernatural but also with his stories of Mapp and Lucia, comedies of middle-class snobbery. Reading up on the author, it turns out that Benson was a member of an extraordinary family: his father, Edward White Benson, was the Archbishop of Canterbury who devised the festival of Nine Carols and Readings now said throughout the world before Christmas, and his siblings included Arthur Benson, master of Magdalen College and author of the words to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and Robert Benson, Catholic convert and priest who wrote the early dystopian novel Lord of the World.

None of Edward Benson’s children married and, indeed, the typical protagonist of these tales is an unmarried male in his middle-age, comfortably off in the peculiarly comfortable manner that seems to have been possible for the English upper middle classes in the early 20th century, where it appears to have been normal practice to take a three-month break in the summer at some rural getaway (having dispatched one’s servants there the day before to make everything shipshape). Having fetched up at some idyllic country retreat – Benson’s descriptions of the English rural idyll are a delight and underwrite the deep vein of nature mysticism that threads through English patriotism – some incongruous detail begins to hint that behind the perfect appearance something strange and sinister might be lurking. By the end of the story, the strange has crept forward into the twilight, and the idyll has been lost, although usually our bachelor hero escapes relatively unscathed. So, yes, you could say the stories tend towards the fomulaic, but Benson spins enough variations to keep the reader interested, as well as every so often changing the formula entirely, for particularly effective results.

So, highly recommended for readers of supernatural fiction and, unusually, fans of English country fiction.


Adventures in Bookland: The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

Thoroughly enjoyable counterblast to the Peter Brown school of studies of late antiquity: Ward-Perkins argues forcefully that, in the Western Roman Empire, civilization, at least as represented by decent pottery, good food and tiled roofs that kept out the rain, really did end. As such, it provides a welcome corrective to the Brown school of civilizational continuity and transition. In the end, it seems clear that both views are correct: late antiquity was a time of both continuity and collapse, in part dependent on where in the Empire you lived, but this reminds us that, for the people living through this, things really had changed.

Speaking as a reader of history, I must also note how fortunate we are to have this dispute argued out between two such wonderfully fluent historians. Reading Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Brown is one of the great literary pleasures available today: long may they dispute!

Adventures in Bookland: In the Land of Giants by Max Adams

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

There’s a new genre of writing that is currently struggling towards birth – and a proper name. It’s a combination of memoir, history and travel writing – let’s call it the autogeschicte – and, as I know only too well, it’s not easy to do well. I tried to write something along these lines in my London: A Spiritual History, and discovered how difficult it is to hold these disparate elements, that are all too often pulling in different directions, together. Max Adams tries to get under the surface of the Dark Ages by walking the landscapes of its history, mixing memoir with the daily discomforts and joys of walking in our wet climate, all leavened with bits of history along the way. I loved his The King in the North, so I had high hopes for this book, but it proved slightly disappointing. The travel elements were reasonable, but one wet walk ends up resembling another; the memoir was all very well but not sufficiently remarkable to engage much interest; and the history seemed superfluous. In the end, this seemed like a book that helped justify some walks Adams had long wanted to make (together with boat and motorcycle trips) rather than a work that existed in its own right.

Adventures in Bookland: Bilbo’s Last Song by JRR Tolkien

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Death stalked JRR Tolkien through his childhood and his youth. Nowadays, we are most of us blessed with parents who live on to our own middle age, and friends who grow up alongside us. In Tolkien’s case, his father died when he was four and his mother when he was 12; enlisting in the army as a young man, as he remarks in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, by 1918 when he was 26, all but one of his closest friends were dead, killed in the First World War. So, yes, Tolkien knew death, personally and all too intimately.

This is a poem about death as indeed much of The Lord of the Rings is too. But where does that ship take us?

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

That’s how Philip Larkin describes it. But Tolkien, it seems, keeps faith with his characters, when faced with that final, definitive choice: “let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!”

Is death catastrophe or Eucatastrophe? Believing, hoping, despite all the evidence of his life, the latter, Tolkien produced The Lord of the Rings and all the wide realms of Middle-earth. Pascal’s Wager and Puddleglum’s vow hold true: better to live as a Narnian, even if there is no Narnia, for the black-sailed ship has no waters in its wake.


Adventures in Bookland: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

The single most remarkable thing about this book is its date of publication: 1984. Think back to the world then. In Britain, we had only recently seen a fourth television channel – Channel 4, natch – computers still kept their memory on floppy discs and the most electronic thing in the average household would have been the radio, tuned to FM stations.

In this, almost pre-modern world, William Gibson’s Neuromancer appeared like an avatar of an incredible future. But as the years have rolled past, the connected, datarich world that Gibson posited has come closer and closer: if the measure of a science fiction novel is how clearly it looks into the future, then Neuromancer is an extraordinary success.

But prognostication alone does not a great book make: for that you need language. And it is here that Gibson’s book exceeds its prophetic function, for in Neuromancer Gibson invented the language of a future that did not yet exist and, by doing so, made it credible and possible. For without a language, without names, the pregnant future cannot come to birth. By inventing the language of the future, Gibson made it credible – then all it required was the scientists to engineer it. And they did, and here we are, in the future that Gibson named.

So Neuromancer may be the most important novel of the last fifty years. Next to that, the actual story hardly matters, which is probably just as well, as the plot is standard noir, where everyone and everything double-crosses each other, but without the moral core that Philip Marlowe provides in the Raymond Chandler novels that are, stylistically, the progenitors of Gibson’s work. Case, the hero, is as much a cipher as the virtual reality which is the only place where he actually comes alive, and the other characters are so alienated as to be, for all intents and purposes, actual aliens in human skins. The AIs don’t rise to the status of characters either. But this all beside the point: Gibson imagined our future and, for byter or worse, we seem set on bringing it about.