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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

Life deals out its cards skew whiff. Some people struggle, burdened with debts personal and afflictions public. Others get given the full house. Witness: Michael Wood. Not only was he blessed with the sorts of looks that historians, historically, were denied – compare him to Eric Hobsbawn for example – but Wood was also gifted the ability to write with a clarity and enthusiasm that matched his on-screen persona. In Search of the Trojan War is a good example: a scholarly account of the archaeological history of the search for Troy good enough, in its grasp of the sources, to stand comparison with the best specialist work, but Wood also writes it in a way that makes the technicalities accessible to the layman. But then of course, good Hector, prince of Troy and all round decent bloke, also realised, as he coughed out his life’s blood on the plains of Ilium with that peacock psychopath Achilles strutting victory above him, that life doesn’t play fair. Take advanatage of that: read this book.

Eric Hobsbawm

Michael Wood

Adventures in Bookland: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019


While it looks like a novel and reads like a novel, I can let prospective readers in on a secret: Fools and Mortals is not really a novel. It’s actually a paean, an encomium, a love lyric written by an old man who has fallen in love. Old men who fall in love are always fools, but sometimes that foolishness washes away the accreted knowledge of a lifetime to reveal a silver seam lying under all that conventional knowledge.

That is what has happened here. Bernard Cornwell, who is 75 now, ten years ago fell in love. He fell in love with the theatre, with that strange, uncertain magic that happens, sometimes, when people get up on a stage and tell a story to a group of strangers, uniting them all into a shared world. According to Cornwell’s afterword, he’s been acting with the Monomoy Theatre in Massachusetts for the last ten years and this book is the fruit of that extended love affair. While ostensibly about the travails of Richard Shakespeare, jobbing actor and younger brother of the slightly more famous William, it is really an encomium to the theatre and, in particular, to that group of actors, entrepeneurs, playwrights, theatre goers and nobility who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries created modern theatre in London. While wrapped up in a story of theft and treachery, Fools and Mortals is really about the extraordinary set of circumstances and people that made this all possible, and it’s a celebration of a sort of miracle in plain sight: the creation of a play that works. Having a wife who works in theatre, as actress and voice teacher, I’ve got some second-hand insight into how remarkable the whole process is and how contingent. If not for a London audience large enough to support the theatre and thirsty for new plays, if not for Shakespeare, Burbage, Marlowe and Johnson and their ilk, there would not have been plays to sate that thirst, and if not for a nobility willing to sponsor and protect the theatres and theatre companies from the censors and puritans of the age, it would never have come together.

Fools and Mortals is a celebration of theatre, of this every day artistic and financial miracle, with a side order of story. The story is fun, but the play’s the thing.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

Monday, March 18th, 2019


Reading the dark tales in Dark Tales, I thought: Shirley Jackson is the Union version of Flannery O’Connor: haunted by an absence of God so complete that he has been forgotten. With O’Connor, in extremis there is always the glimpse, the offer of grace, though often ignored. Here, the carapace around the world has grown so hard that horrors come into the light and dwell among us without any concomitant hint of the truly supernatural. This is the world of time twisting into endless traps with no escape. These are, indeed, dark tales.

Adventures in Bookland: Blood and Thunder by Dan Abnett

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

Surprisingly disappointing Warhammer 40k graphic novel, written by Dan Abnett. The basic premise, that an Imperial Guards officer is taken captive by the Orks when so covered in slime that his captor thinks him to be a little goblin creature and adopts him as a lucky mascot, is brilliantly gonzo and should have given licence for completely over the top gonzoid humour. But given the grimdark of the 40k universe, Abnett seems to hold back from going full lunatic – when this story really required the writer to shoot so far over the top as to disappear into orbit – and while there are elements of humour in it, the story remains too firmly rooted in the familiar 40k grimdark. Speaking of grimdark, my greatest disappointment with the graphic novel was the artwork: much of it was so dark and obscure that I couldn’t tell what was going on. I’m not sure if that was just a problem with the colour reproduction on my copy or if that was intentional: if the latter, take this on board, Black Library: grimdark can still be brightly coloured. Then the reader would be able to see all the horror!

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

From all the 5-star reviews, it seems that everyone else knows what’s going on. Personally, I read a Peter Grant book, thoroughly enjoy the ride, and emerge at the end of it with as little sense of what is actually going on as I had at the start of it. Not sure why. Maybe there are just too many names: possibly a handy character-card list would be in order, supplied free with every book as a book mark. Then I would know who all the various police officers and rivers are. As it is, Peter himself, the charming Nightingale, and Lesley, the turnfaced colleague, are all sufficiently strong characters to keep me reading. I don’t know where the series is heading, I’m not sure I particularly care, but the ride sure is loads of fun.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

Writing on a day in February when the temperature looks set to reach 18 degrees Centigrade and the sky is a bowl of blue unflicked with a single blob of white, winter seems a long way away. In Jasper Fforde’s new book, Early Riser, winter is a brute: a season of such ferocity that humans have evolved the capacity to hibernate to escape its rigours. It’s a fascinating idea, but one that is also the key weakness of the book. Early Riser has all Fforde’s usual comic genius, spinning word play and world play out of this central conceit, but ultimately the book fails because it’s impossible to construct a world sufficiently similar to our own that Fforde can poke fun at contemporary foibles while still having almost everybody asleep for three months during the arctic winter in Wales. It just doesn’t work. The world, trembling on the brink of toppling into Snowball Earth, with humans that hibernate, would be something completely different, not the hybrid that Fforde creates here. That aside, the story is funny, tense and quite affecting. But where Fforde’s Thursday Next novels and Nursery Crime novels convincingly create worlds that are different yet closely related to our own, this one doesn’t.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

Who would have thought that those typical Irish turns of phrase and the rhythms of Irish story telling had such deep roots? But it is clear, from reading these earliest Irish myths and stories, that these phrases and rhythms, now transplanted into English, have their origins in the Gaelic of the earliest stories of the Irish. Indeed, the very nature of Irish storytelling, with its recursiveness, rapid switches between laconic understatement and exuberant and detailed description, and a general disdain for logic when it gets in the way of telling a good story, all have their origins here. These are stories of frenzied heroes who can be turned back by the well-judged insult, of hospitality overwhelming any measure of ordinary good sense, and worlds bleeding into each other. Many of the stories make only minimal sense to a modern reader, but they carry him into a phantasmagorical world. Fascinating.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

There are three essential works for anyone interested in going deeper into Tolkien’s writing and thought: Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tom Shippey’s philological appreciation, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. While Tolkien, famously and justly, abhorred the mining of an author’s life for the coal seam of his literary material, Garth’s study of Tolkien’s war, and that of the other three members of the youthful coterie that had gathered around him, the TCBS, is both an appreciation of the subtle weaving of thought, experience and action, and an examination of that generation, raised at the height of Empire, who bled out in the holocaust of the First World War. If anything, the two members of the TCBS who died in France, GB Smith and Robert Gilson, are portrayed even more vividly than Tolkien himself. It is clear that Tolkien was a writer who particularly required the frank and unvarnished feedback of men whom he admired and who resonated with him: most famously CS Lewis, who cajoled and encouraged the writing of The Lord of the Rings but, Garth’s book shows, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman similarly played midwife to the birthing of Middle-earth through their talks, discussions and shared ideals. For someone who has always been solitary in his creative endeavours, I find this aspect of Tolkien’s work fascinating and inscrutable. I’m also, I think, rather jealous. Would that I might say, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”

 

Adventures in Bookland: Brian Helsing 1 by Gareth K Pengelly

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

What would an English Buffy look like? Pretty much like Brian Helsing. Tall, lanky, generally useless, largely clueless, with a stomach for cheap cider, a taste for cheaper weed, and a thoroughly British way with profane language.

So Brian, the world’s worst second-hand car salesman, having been taken for a ride, literally, by a car-buying vampire babe, finds himself unwittingly recruited as a Helsing – a slayer. To everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he survives (at least until the sequel).

It’s all great fun and as unCalifornian as it’s possible to be.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

So, you’re the writer who has created the single most popular and widely recognised character in literary history and – you’re thoroughly sick of your creation. You’ve killed him off, sending him over Reichenbach Falls, and still he stubbornly refuses to properly die: a Hollywood villain before films had even been invented. So what do you do now? If you’re Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you set out to create another character as memorable, as distinctive and as iconic as Sherlock Holmes.

Professor Challenger. A genius.  Check. Acerbic. Check. Suffers fools badly. Check.

What was that name again?

Yes, it’s true, Conan Doyle’s new Sherlock wasn’t, on the surface, that different from the old Sherlock. But Professor Challenger never won over an audience in the same way as the resident of 221B Baker Street did. In part, that’s because Challenger is simply a boor, an intelligent one but a boor and a bully, whereas Holmes is never boring and only occasionally bullying, and that mostly to Dr Watson. But that, of course, is the second part of the equation. As with Holmes, the story is told from the viewpoint of the sidekick, a young journalist called Malone (Anglo-Irish if I remember correctly).

With Holmes and Watson, Watson is as important as Holmes. With Challenger and Malone, Malone is in many ways the more complete character – Challenger is a caricature of Holmes – but Watson on his own can’t sustain a series, and neither can Malone.

Nonetheless, the story is entertaining; an enjoyable breeze through early-20th century Edwardian life transplanted to South American jungles.