Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

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.

Adventures in Bookland: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

The best writer of English prose of the 20th century is getting into his stride here, in his second novel – which makes it better written than 99.9% of other books. Waugh pretty well invented the ‘bright young things’, the post-War gadabouts who went about pointedly not talking about the war, rather in the way I remember, growing up myself in the ’60s and ’70s, no one then wanted to talk about the Second World War. In fact, any attempt at reminiscence was met with groans and requests to talk about something else. Very different from nowadays, when we are fascinated by the Second World War above everything else in history. (Question: what annoys modern historians most? Answer: the fact, apparent by interest as measured by every metric available, that nothing else happened in history apart from World War II and the Roman Empire.)

Waugh’s novels is as bright, brittle and facile (in its secondary meaning of apparent effortlenssness) as the people he satirizes. With Vile Bodies, the satire remains relatively good humoured; there is nothing so merciless as his depiction of the moral vacuum of the English upper classes as portrayed in A Handful of Dust. Not absolutely top-drawer Waugh, but still better than virtually anyone else.

Adventures in Bookland: The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-c.700 by Marilyn Dunn

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Since Henry Mayr-Harting’s The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, which was first published in 1972 with revised editions in 1977 and 1991, there’s been little published academically, at least in book form, about the single most momentous, and unexpected, change that took place among the newly arrived Anglo-Saxons. After all, why should the pagan Anglo-Saxons decide to adopt the religion of the people they had defeated and driven from the land? For the Britons, the original inhabitants of Britain, were largely Christian, and saw themselves as Christian Romans holding off the barbarian, pagan invaders.

Marilyn Dunn’s book looks at these events through the lens of the academic fashion of the day, cognitive anthropology, which does provide some fresh insights. There is, however, as always with academic books on religious change a tendency to view conversions as evidence for other things: power shifts, diplomacy, cultural appropriation. All of these play a part, but it would be good to see an account that made more use of the considerable number of studies that have been made on the psychology of conversion. Even better one that combined the psychology of conversion with the theology of it too. You won’t find that in this book, but it does provide an excellent overview of the current academic thinking within its purview and Dunn is a clear and concise writer. Recommended for those people (not, I suspect, many) with a specific interest in the area.


Adventures in Bookland: Scott-King’s Modern Europe by Evelyn Waugh

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

Light, bright, witty Waugh – which of course means it’s still better than 99.9% of other books published. Actually, calling it a book is stretching the point – it’s a novella, written shortly after the end of World War II as Europe was settling into the long stasis of Cold War and Iron Curtain, with Waugh parellelling his pre-war jibes at post-colonial African states with a post-war whittling of a European dictator state, fictitious but bearing close resemblances to Franco’s Spain. An English academic is invited to a conference on his obscure speciality, an equally obscure poet, and finds himself part of the general ineptness of a police state. It’s incompetently evil – Waugh was evidently a believer in the maxim that most evil men are banal bureaucrats rather than Machiavellian geniuses, and here he enjoys himself hugely at their expense. A joy to read, as always with Waugh.


Adventures in Bookland: 1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

The title asks a question: what fates impose? Having read the book, the answer has to be that they impose a ruthless, Machiavellian Norman king on England. G.K. Holloway’s excellent retelling of the many events that all came to a fateful conclusion on a muddy field outside Hastings is a brilliant exercise in imaginative history: he takes what we know and, through the writer’s craft, brings the people who lived the events to life – and death, sadly. For this is the one drawback to the book, although it is also a testament to Holloway’s ability as a writer: he makes of Harold such an engaging and sympathetic character that, as events drew on and I passed the mid point in the book, I found myself reading slower and slower, just one chapter rather than two or three (the chapters are generally short, so that often meant just reading two or three pages each night). The problem, of course, is that we all know what will happen in the end. This is the great strength of historical fiction but also the burden it places upon the reader: you can’t say, oh, it’s just a story. Holloway makes the characters, in particular that of Harold, come to life in such a way that the bloody battle of 14 October 1066 almost becomes a personal tragedy where people we know and care about are cut down. This is testament to good writing but makes for fraught reading by the end of the book, as Harold’s wife and mother search for his body on the battlefield. Highly recommended (if you can bear it).


Adventures in Bookland: Tank Men by Robert Kershaw

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

From the perspective of the PBI (‘the poor bloody infantry’) the tank men in their apparently invulnerable behemoths must seem like they have it made. All right, not as good as the fly boys, who spend a couple of hours swanning around in the air and then get to go home for a decent meal and good night’s sleep, but at least the tankers don’t have to worry about being mown down by machine gun fire or losing a foot to an anti-personnel mine.

But what Robert Kershaw does in this wonderful introduction to tank warfare is exactly what it says on the cover: the human story of tanks at war. He intersperses this with the engineering and military developments of tank warfare, telling how the new weapon was developed in response to the stalemate of the World War I trenches and was then unleashed in blitzkrieg in the Second World War, but the heart of the story is the human experience of the tank men in all its discomfort, noise and sheer exhaustion. All right, the poor bloody infantry might have to march all day, but come nightfall they could sleep. Driving a tank, particularly the Soviet tanks of World War II that, in typical Russian fashion, gave no thought to human comfort and little to survivability, was almost as exhausting as marching all day, but come nightfall, the crew had to dismount and, like the cavalrymen of previous wars, see to the comfort and maintenance of their precious, not to say temperamental, mount before getting any rest and food themselves. For the driver and loader, this might mean no sleep until 2am, followed by another pre-dawn reveille.

Then there was the fear of what British tankers called ‘a brew-up’: being trapped in a tank on fire. At least submariners just drowned. The crew of a brewed-up thank sometimes had to be extracted afterwards with a spoon.

Tanks are more survivable and certainly more comfortable now. Kershaw largely ends the story at the end of World War II, with a small nod towards the Gulf War in which he served as a correspondent, but the story he tells is compelling and fascinating. Highly recommended.


Adventures in Bookland: The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

There’s one obvious way that Boris Johnson resembles the man who is obviously his political hero, Winston Churchill: they are both instantly recognisable from their Christian names. Boris. Winston. How many other politicians can say that? Whether Boris will prove to be any match to Winston remains to be seen: the current events of Brexit and his response will determine his place in our history. On the face of it, this might seem ridiculous, but Winston was seen, by a large sector of his own party before the events that would make his name, in much the same light as many people in the Conservative Party see Boris: a vain, impulsive chancer, only interested in his own glory. That Johnson wrote this appreciation of Churchill is a sketch towards the making of his political future, should chance, tactics and providence play out in line with his prognostications. Sometimes, a politician, at least one interested in something other than the mundane details of petty policy, must stake out a vision of the future that will, or will not, be vindicated by future events. The only other politician instantly known by his first name in the last half century was Enoch Powell: he staked his future on a vision that, thankfully, has not been vindicated and as a result is now but a footnote in history, a man of extraordinary brilliance who played the wrong Cassandra. The future awaits Boris: events will see apotheosis or irrelevance, as it did for Churchill.


Adventures in the Land: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

It was 1979, I was 16 and lost in Middle-earth. I’d been lost there for a year. I never wanted to escape but this was in a time when all that there was of Middle-earth was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – not even The Silmarillion had been published yet, let alone the twelve volumes of the History of Middle-earth. I had copied out, by hand, the map of Middle-earth and hung it on my bedroom wall. I had traced the Shire map and put it on my desk. Each night, I prayed that I might wake up in Middle-earth and leave this mundane world of O-levels and drear behind. I never wanted to leave Middle-earth, but there wasn’t that much of it out there yet.

So it’s no surprise that, when I saw a book commended with the tag line, ‘Comparable to Tolkien at his best’, I picked it up. If memory serves, it was The Sunday Times that had made the comparison. I read the back cover and I was sold.

Thus began my travels in the Land. At 16, I drove through the hundreds and hundreds of pages of the first and second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, six volumes in all that must have come in at something close to twice the length of The Lord of the Rings, with the time-rich dedication that is only possible when you’re a teenager. I loved it, the richness of the Land, the invention of the Bloodguard, warriors so oathbound that even death waits in thrall to their sworn word, the Giants, creatures of mirth and story rather than the dim-witted foils of Jack, and most of all the Land itself. I loved it until…in common with almost everyone else who has ever read the books, I ended up so irritated, frustrated and fed up with Thomas Covenant that I just wanted to wring his neck. Just stop the self-pity and do something man.

For Thomas Covenant is the wearer of a white-gold ring, the wielder of wild magic, a leper granted health in a world of wonders and the bloody idiot wants nothing to do with it. Come on! I went to bed each night praying to wake up in Middle-earth: he gets the Land which, while not Middle-earth, is still pretty good, and all he wants to do is go back. I mean, why? He’s a leper, he’s lost, lonely, bitter and isolated. Why would he want to go back?

So my initial joy at finding a world as involving as Middle-earth slowly frizzled away, gnawed away by overwhelming character irritation.

But when I got married, the ring I chose was a plain band of white gold.

Adventures in Bookland: Cadia Stands by Justin Hill

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

Regular readers will know of my admiration for Justin Hill. I’d rate him the best of contemporary writers of historical fiction, so I picked up this Warhammer 40k novel with a huge amount of interest: had the 40k universe found a writer as good as Dan Abnett? Yes. Hill is as good as Abnett. This story bears comparison with Abnett’s second Gaunt’s Ghosts novel, Ghostmaker, where he explores the characters and settings of the Ghosts. Cadia Stands even though it doesn’t. The planet falls to Chaos and Hill follows its fall through the stories of many different companies, many of them fighting doomed rearguard actions that demonstrate that the title is true: Cadia does still stand. It’s a kaleidoscopic literary technique, showcasing Hill’s talent as a writer, and one that mirrors, in the book’s structure, the fall of one of the Imperium’s most important bastions. I look forward very much to Hill’s next foray into the 40k universe.