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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Commando by James and John Evans

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Yes, it’s marines in space. Royal Marines. Royal Marines of the Second British Empire. Either that will make you put down the review and dial up the Amazon page immediately or the book’s not for you. If you’re already dialling up the Amazon page, then you’ll soon find out that the Marines in question are downloaded into waiting clone bodies when there’s a bit of a barney brewing, and that they’re proper British Marines – which means understatement in the face of overwhelming odds while still getting the job done with astonishing efficiency and bravery – rather than their gung ho, overgunned namesakes across the Atlantic. The aliens they’re fighting might not, it turns out, be all that alien but you’ll need to read the next volume in the series to find out more, as well as more about the galactic extent of the Second British Empire. For lovers of military science fiction written with true Brit.

Adventures in Bookland: Chronicles of Chaos by John C Wright

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018

Five children who are all its – non-human titans – are raised as humans in a boarding school in England (well, Wales, actually. John Wright is American and labours under the usual confusion as to the relations between Britain, England and Wales) by teachers who are no more human than they are: classical gods and supernatural beings. But the children slowly realise that they are not human, as their powers, all very different, awaken, and their teachers/captors become increasingly wary of their charges. It’s a sort of grown-up Harry Potter/Percy Jackson, but one that takes seriously the nature and powers of the gods. Unlike with the YA stuff of Percy Jackson, the gods are the amoral, ruthless, highly sexual creatures of classical mythology. Wright takes his classcial mythology seriously, and works through its consequences with impressive thoroughness. This seems to have upset a sub-section of readers, judging by the reviews. Reading through them, I note how censorious and proscriptive a culture we have become. For myself, I enjoy the exuberance of Wright’s invention and the humour, both sly and slapstick, that peppers the books.

Adventures in Bookland: The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

A friendship is an elusive beast, being made of the affections and interests and shared histories, so how much more difficult is it to write a biography of a group of friends than it is to write a biography of a particular person. In The Oxford Inklings, Duriez attempts to tell the story of a most singular group of friends, the miscellaneous bunch of academics, plus an assortment of solicitors, soldiers and doctors, that made up the Inklings, the most significant literary group of the 20th century. While the Bloomsbury Set garnered more column inches during their existence, as did the Algonquin Round Table, in terms of sales and influence, the Inklings leave all other literary coteries in the dust of deleted books. For people knew to the study of Tolkien, Lewis and their circle, Duriez does a good job of relating the parts the less attested Inklings played in the life of the group, particularly Owen Barfield. Lewis wrote, with both philosophical passion and writerly detachment, on the nature of friendship and it is clear that his analysis stems from the central role that friendship, particularly male friendship, as much based on debate and disagreement and mutual, good humoured derision as it is on beer and companionship, played in his own life and work. Without the Inklings, neither Tolkien and Lewis would have achieved half of what they did achieve. So thank Eru and Aslan for the Inklings – the literary circle whose conversations I would most wish to have been invited to hear.

Adventures in Bookland: Athelstan by Tom Holland

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

No king in England’s history has been more unjustly forgotten than Æthelstan. This forgetting is all the more poignant in that Æthelstan can reasonably claim to be the first king of England. Not many other nations would flush their founder down the memory hole: Washington adorns dollar bills, every Roman could tell you the story of Romulus and Remus, and Napoleon, the founder of modern France, has had more books written about him than any other human being in history apart from Jesus Christ. But on Æthelstan, almost nothing.

Hopefully, Tom Holland’s marvellous little biography will go some way towards rescuing Æthelstan from his obscurity. With all the excitement that the story deserves, Holland whisks the reader back to 10th century Britain, when the Northmen did not merely launch picturesque, TV mini-series worthy raids, but embarked on expeditions of conquest; this was a country that had suffered two generations of depredations, when anyone living near sea or navigable river went to sleep with the fear that they might wake to find their homes being ransacked and fired, and their children being carried off into slavery. For amid the revision of Vikings as romantic heroes, little attention has been paid to the fact that their most valuable booty was human: men, women and children hauled off to be sold in the slave markets at Dublin, the Viking town that stood at the nexus of the slave routes that delivered captured people to miserable new lives from which they would never return.

Æthelstan, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Alfred, and his father, Edward the Elder, was a man committed to defending and instilling civilisation in the face of the barbarians. For, make no mistake, for all their accomplishments as explorers and traders, the Vikings were barbarians. Three generations of the most remarkable family in English royal history had made it their lives’ work to first defend and then to reconquer England, and Æthelstan stood at the summit and consummation of this extraordinary familial endeavour. Then, when all seemed accomplished, all was thrown into doubt when the kings of the Vikings, of the Scots and of Strathclyde united against him. The ensuing battle, Brunanburgh, was ‘the battle’ for a hundred years, the battle that ensured that England would be England, and not dismembered. Read Holland’s book and marvel at the scale of Æthelstan’s accomplishments and how much we have to be grateful  to him for.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

It’s a big book, 981 pages in my edition, and, to be honest, the first 300 pages could have been cut by half and no one would have noticed – I was skim reading my way through it. But then, with a howl of innocent pleasure, Wolf arrives in the story. Wolf, as you might guess, isn’t exactly a wolf but he’s not entirely human either, but what he is, is one of the most memorable characters ever created by either King or Straub (who have a fair all cupboard of memorable characters). What’s more, he’s memorable as an unuterrably good person, when it is so much easier to write memorable evil characters, which has the effect of making him even more memorable. With Wolf as the companion and helper of our hero – 12-year-old Jack, on an odyssey across two parallel versions of America to save his mother – the story hits its stride. Where before I was skimming, now I began reading, marvelling on the seamless mesh between the two writers’ styles – I could not tell who wrote which bit – and zipping along until er, bit of a spoiler here, Wolf leaves the story. By this time, I was invested enough in the story and Jack to continue, and it remains good, but a spark leaves when Wolf makes his exit.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

To anyone with an imagination, this is a deeply frightening book. For its purpose is to portray the process of damnation, the dazzling path that leads to hell. Yes, the book has other purposes, not least of which is to showcase Wilde’s wit (which does become a little tedious after the 52nd bon mot), and it may have a darker edge in what seems to be a veiled self-portrayal of Wilde himself, in the person of the sophisticated and louche Lord Henry Wotton, as the seducer and tempter, the man who leads Dorian Gray into the bright darkness of his philosophy and, it’s hinted at, darker pleasures. But not just Wotton, Wilde is also Dorian Gray and, as an artist struggling to perfect his craft, he is also Basil Hallward, the man who paints the portrait of Dorian Gray. Thus it’s a triple-sided self-portrait of a man sliding towards the abyss, an abyss that would claim Wilde a few laters when he was dispatched to the purgatory of Reading Gaol. For Wilde, this brought a certain redemption, but for Dorian Gray, there is none.

As I said, under the word glitter that Wilde’s skill scatters over the book, this is a deeply frightening story.

Adventures in Bookland: A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

Bracing. Vigorous. Scathing. All words that come to mind having finished Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Although Johnson is a Catholic, there is certainly no special pleading in his sweeping overview of the world’s most transformative religion: this is Christianity, warts and all, and more warts than beauty spots. Johnson, being a believer, takes the claims of the religion’s founder seriously, and his teachings, and as a result his sweeping, beautifully written history generally finds that Christians have often signally failed to live up to their founder. Perhaps this is not so surprising – “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) is not exactly a low bar to set – but Johnson does set out, in painful detail, just how often we have fallen short. Still, this is a far better approach than covering these matters up – if Christianity is about anything, it is about the truth, and pursuing it,whithersoever it leads, whether that be to a Cross on Calvary or coming face to face with the evils and omissions of our co-religionists.

The book only runs up to 1975, however. Although Paul Johnson is now quite old, I would love to read his assessment of the last half century, where so much has changed. Overall, highly recommended.

Adventures in Elfland: Moth and Cobweb 1-3 by John C. Wright

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Although published as three separate novels, Swan Knight’s Son, Feast of the Elfs and Swan Knight’s Son are one story divided into three books, so I will review them all together.

Do you look around and think, is that all there is? What happened to all the wonder of the world, its romance, its mystery? Well, the answer lies in these books. The Elfs stole them. They pinched the world’s wonders and all the best bits of the geography and hid them behind a mist of unknowing. Now this is an idea I have a great deal of sympathy with. Somebody certainly pinched it, and the Elfs are as good a bet as anyone else (although I suspect we mislaid it ourselves). These Elfs, while magical, supernatural creatures, are fay, Fallen creatures, the glamourous face of those damned forever to the Earth – which is probably why the Elfs are so keen on keeping all the best bits for themselves. (I could never get used to Wright using ‘Elfs’ as the plural form rather than ‘Elves’ but it’s probably done deliberately to distinguish Wright’s Elfs from Tolkien’s Elves.)

Into this world is pitched young Gilberic Parzival Moth, a human (well, mostly) teenager, with all the inflexibility of a typical teenager, and a mother who turns out to be, well, something not so human (given her irritating habit of answering every question with a riddle, she’s probably related to the Sphinx somewhere down the line). Gilberic becomes a squire, then a knight, mashing modern-day pop culture references with deep forays into mythology and folklore. If you like the idea of a more knowledgeable version of Percy Jackson, with fewer jokes but a more wide-ranging mythology, then these books might be for you.

There is some evidence of the books having been written in a hurry and edited loosely – too many typos and, at one point, Gilberic’s mermaid love interest warns him to keep her secret from his canine companion (who can speak, naturally) only for the warning to be forgotten 50 pages later – but the sheer wealth of invention I find hugely enjoyable. The story itself has the same dream-logic of medieval romances such as Orlando Furioso, where the heor passes into the great forest of story where anything can happen and usually does,  with not much regard for likelihood or logic, but then, we’re dealing with Elfs here: everyday reality is optional for them.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable 21st-century take on the medieval romance.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Monday, November 5th, 2018


Not often a reader of murder mysteries, I put this on my Kindle because it was free (out of copyright) and came up first in a list when I was in a hurry to catch a train and suffering from abibliophobia, not having a print book to hand and worried I might not have time to buy one. Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the most profound books on the connection between creativity and the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker, so I was curious to read her more work-a-day work. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective, was Sayer’s most lucrative creation and the one she remains best known for. This is his third appearance and, in it, Sayers seems minded to show some of his limitations, from a plan to smoke out the killer that goes tragically wrong, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time so that one of his assistants is all but murdered.

As a detective story, the killer is clear early on. What’s at play is the how and the why. It’s a mark of how good a writer Sayers is that this is enough to keep the reader interested to the end of the book: as is its portrayal of 1920s England, a place that now seems almost impossibly far away although when I was young, in the 1970s, it seemed still in the recent past. I suppose that is the difference that half a century makes, particularly a half century that has seen such change. Recommended for readers of detective fiction or anyone interested in a dispassionate portrayal of the mores and social hierarchies of a now long past England.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Journey Through Wales by Gerald of Wales

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

 


It’s not often you can peer back eight hundred years and see the world as a man living then saw it in all its wonder, difficulties and humour. But that is what you get reading Gerald’s account of his trip through Wales, accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury as he preached Crusade to the locals. Gerald himself was three quarters Norman and one quarter Welsh, through his extraordinary grandmother, Nest, who went through husbands and lovers faster than a Norman went through Saxon landholders. Gerald’s account of his travels is full of travellers’ tales, of varying degrees of likelihood but of unvaryingly great interest, and the minutiae of 12th century travel, from the dangers of quicksand to the wit of monks bemoaning unfit lodgings. It’s a wonderful insight into a world and a man long past, but made present, through the extraordinary magic of the written word, to every generation anew. As fresh and invigorating as the morning breeze on the Pembrokeshire coast.