Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, May 12th, 2017

Son number 1 is doing his GCSEs and, for their set text, they are reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Lucky boy – it could have been Bleak House! Much though I love Bleak House, trying to plough through 800 pages of Dickens, searching for ten or fifteen suitable quotes, is really not something you want to be doing in the midst of revising for ten other exams. Instead, they’ve got 65 pages of Stevenson and, to help him, I reread the book myself. It’s been years since I read it and the first thing that surprised me is just how short the story is. It looms much larger in memory than its 65 pages warrant. In part, that is probably because of the place the story has taken in our culture, with the title becoming an adjective for a double-sided individual (so long as one of those sides is dark). But it’s also because the story is so good. On a purely technical level, the way Stevenson switches viewpoints and voices to pull the reader into the story is extraordinary.

Reading the story, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to read it before Jekyll and Hyde had entered everyday vocabularly. In this imagined ignorance, the story’s impact is quite overwhelming – particularly since Stevenson sows the story with so many hints that Hyde is the product not of scientific experiments gone wrong but sexual escapades gone even wronger. For the Victorian, until the final denouement, the story must have seemed to be driving towards Hyde’s unveiling as Jekyll’s illegitimate son, blackmailing his father into accepting him as his heir. Only at the end is all made clear, and the full extent of the darkness in Hyde’s soul made clear.

Having reread the story, I came to the conclusion that it more than deserves its place in the dark places of our dreams and imaginings.


Adventures in Bookland: The Teardrop Island by Cherry Briggs

Friday, May 5th, 2017

The great task for a travel writer is to transcend the what-I-did-on-my-holidays subtext of the genre. The Teardrop Island escapes this, somewhat, by being more accurately subtitled ‘What I did on the Weekends During My Work Placement’. Having taken a post teaching English in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, Briggs, to her credit, wanted to find something to keep her from the ex-pat round of escaping the city to the beaches or hills, there to moan about the country that had given them home. She found it in the writing of James Emerson Tennent, one of those extraordinarily industrious Victorians who combined a public life – in Tennent’s case he was colonial secretary of Ceylon from 1845 to 1850 – with artistic and literary endeavour. Tennent combined both in his two-volume Ceylon. An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Production and Briggs, having been given the books, decided to follow in his footsteps around modern-day Sri Lanka.

Although The Teardrop Island is entertaining enough, it does not really escape the usual tropes of light travel writing: long accounts of uncomfortable bus journeys, meetings with eccentric locals, a little light history. In comparison, the extracts from Tennent that Briggs rather unwisely includes are enough to suggest that the Victorian was a better writer, a more perceptive traveller and, most surprisingly of all, less patronising about the natives than a modern-day, painfully right-on Western traveller.

Right, I might be being oversensitive here, but let’s lay the cards out straight. My father is Sri Lankan (half Sinhala and half Tamil to be precise). So the country and the people are in my blood. And, frankly, I found this book deeply patronising to the people and the cultures of Sri Lanka.  Of course, I’m sure Briggs had no intention of being patronising, and she is clearly completely unaware of doing this, but the deep-rooted condescension becomes clear whenever she attempts to deal with any aspect of religious belief, and shades over into her frankly inadequate attempts to give the history of the long civil conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Briggs had the advantage of travelling the island not long after the final defeat of the Tigers, gaining access to many places that few westerners, apart from agents of NGOs, had seen for a decade or more. Without, apparently, realising it, she also shows quite clearly the cafeteria compassion and cultural imperialism of modern NGO workers – from talking with my Sri Lankan relatives, it’s clear that the big international aid organisations are seen there as being mainly in the business of providing a comfortable, conscience-satisfying living to people who like to justify a tax-free salary (UN and WHO employees pay no tax) and jet-setting lifestyle on the backs of people’s poverty and misfortune. (Apparently, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lankans took to calling the Toyota Landcruisers that were the preferred mode of transport of NGO workers, vulture wagons.)

There is, though, some entertaining writing to be found here, and it’s a light, quickly read introduction to Sri Lanka, in a field with few other competitors bar the usual travel guides. If you’re not actually deeply rooted in the culture and people of the place, you’ll almost certainly find the book completely fine. For myself, I’m grateful to have been introduced to James Tennent’s writing and it has whetted our anticipation for our trip to Sri Lanka in the summer, so it was a worthwhile read.



Adventures in Bookland: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Among writers of historical fiction, Eagle in the Snow has achieved semi-legendary status. It was first published in 1970 and, largely through recommendation, has remained in print ever since (no small feat in itself when the author, Wallace Breem, died in 1990).

It’s the subtlety and mood of the book that gives it its power and creates its status. It’s the story of the dying of things: empires, men, armies, a civilisation. It’s the story of a man born out of time, fighting against the dying of the light. It’s a story of the end of Rome suffused with the nostalgia for fallen things that is a legacy of the northern tribes that defeated the Empire and replaced it on this island. That’s the unspoken, because never acknowledged, paradox at the heart of this book. While there were elements of nostalgia for a lost golden age in Roman civilisation, the twilight mood of Eagle in the Snow is a product of a people and a writer whose civilisation rests upon three supports: the Classical tradition of Rome and Greece, the Judeo-Christian and the foreshadowing of ultimate loss that results from the Ragnarok of the Anglo-Saxons. So this is a book of the defeat of a civilisation that is made into the work of art that it is by the worldview of the civilisations that defeated and supplanted it.

Adventures in Bookland: Fire In Babylon by Simon Lister

Monday, April 17th, 2017

It was the August of 1976. The sun burned down from a sky that had turned bronze in the heat. Grass, everywhere, was brown and parched. There had been no rain for two months, and for the last six weeks the temperature had barely dropped below 90F. It was the most memorable summer of my young life and, 13, I was going with my father to see the cricket.

But not just any cricket. Although my father is Sri Lankan, we were not going to see Sri Lanka play England (for the very good reason that Sri Lanka was not yet a Test-rated country). We were going to see England play the West Indies – and we were going to see them at the Oval, for the final Test match of the summer. England were already 2-0 down, and playing for pride and self-preservation. And when I say self-preservation, it really was. The West Indies deployed a truly fearsome array of fast bowlers in that match: Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel; and this was in the days before batsmen wore helmets, or indeed much in the way of protection beyond pads, gloves and box. It really was a matter of self-preservation. The pitch was a dustbowl, burned the colour of African mud.

We arrived at the Oval to find it ringing, vibrant with West Indian fans playing instruments, singing and dancing. But I was a serious, studious boy – something of the archetype of the Asian school swot. We settled down at mid-wicket, with our drinks and our sandwiches, and waited for the day to begin.

And what I remember even today, 41 years later, is watching Michael Holding gliding over the ground as he ran in to bowl, moving as smoothly as liquid mercury, and then the leap into the bowling stride, a single puff of dust as the bowl struck the pitch, and an image of the batsman, contorted into some position of avoidance or defence. Even with my young, sharp eyes, I never once saw the ball moving through the air, but only the effects it had on wicket and man.

There has never been a team like that West Indies team, that came into itself on that tour of England in 1976 and then proceeded to dominate international cricket for nearly the next 20 years. This marvellous book tells the story of how they reached that position of dominance and, much more difficult, how they kept it for so long. It’s a tale of resistance, revolt, and hours and hours and hours of sheer bloody hard work made to seem completely effortless in the smoothness of Michael Holding’s run up or Viv Richard’s lifting the ball to the boundary for 6. It’s a tale of all the once-colonial peoples, such as my father’s Sri Lankans, realising that they really could match and beat the English who had given them these games. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come from the everyday racism of the 1970s. And it manages to do all this through the medium of grown men throwing and hitting a ball around for interminable periods of time. Cricket is one-on-one combat in a team context; it’s gladiatorial and, despite all the talk of the spirit of cricket, inherently confrontational, veiling its violence behind its pristine whites. It’s the most perfect game and also the most ridiculous. And this is one of the best books I’ve read about it.


Adventures in Bookland: The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

This is a book about civil war and reaching across the bloodlines of that war; it’s a book about making a desperate journey through jungle; it’s a book about birds and animals and plants; it’s a book about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, the teardrop shed by the Indian subcontinent, is a land that was drenched in tears for the 25 years of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Estimates suggest that over 150,000 people, military and civilian, were killed during the war. The war was essentially fought over the Tigers’ demand for a separate Tamil state – Eelam – within Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lanka government’s refusal to countenance such an idea.

My father is Sri Lankan. Unusually, his mother was Sinhala (the majority and predominantly Buddhist part of the population) and his father was Tamil (the minority Hindu section of the country, who mainly live in the north and east of the country). Even back when my grandparents were married (and this was a long time ago, around 1916), such marriages were rare and faced much hostility. My grandmother’s parents, who were high-caste Sinhala, largely cut-off contact with their daughter after her marriage: my father only met his grandparents once.

Under British colonial rule, these tensions were subsumed but when Ceylon gained independence on 4 February 1948, the Sinhala majority moved towards asserting their political control of the country, most notably by making Sinhala the state language. Since Tamil is not just a different language but uses a different script, this effectively threw many Tamils out of work.

Tamil separatist organisations began to spring up, of which the most important was the one organized by Velupillai Prabhakaran that became the LTTE. As attacks mounted, from both sides, the political tension worsened until full-scale civil war broke out in 1983. The war continued for 25 years, with the Tigers for much of that time controlling huge tracts of Sri Lanka in a parallel administration. A ruthlessly efficient organisation, the Tigers were the first group to develop the use of suicide bombers, and using them assassinated two heads of state: Rajiv Gandhi of India and Ranasinghe Premadasa, president of Sri Lanka.

This book was written in 2000, when it seemed the war would never end. The author, Nihal de Silva, examines the justifications and reasons for the war through his two main characters: a captain in the Sri Lankan army and a female cadre of the Tigers. The captain, Wasantha, is detailed with the job of conveying Kamala, a Tiger cadre turned informer, to Colombo so she can pass on vital information. But when the Tigers attack, the mis-matched pair are forced to go to ground, and then attempt to make their way south on foot, marching through the no-man’s land of Wilpattu National Park.

The depiction of the arid scrub of the north, a land pockmarked by the reservoirs dug by the ancient kings of Sri Lanka to irrigate the land, is excellent and the author’s knowledge of the flora and fauna shines through. The description of rural Sri Lanka, as the couple make their way through dirt-poor villages and abandoned tracks, is among the best I’ve read. And while Wasantha and Kamala head south, hunted by predators both human and animal, the author skillfully presents both sides of the conflict through their interaction.

The ending, when it comes, is tense, and shocking. It’s the ending appropriate to a land still at war without apparent end. But, in the end, there was an end. The Sri Lankan army, reorganised and rejuvenated, drove the Tigers into smaller and smaller pockets of territory and eventually destroyed the leadership, but at the price of many civilian lives.

Nihal de Silva did not live to see the war’s ending. He was killed by a landmine while visiting his beloved Wilpattu National Park, the scene of so much of this work. The Road From Elephant Pass is his memorial, and it’s an eloquent one.


Adventures in Bookland: The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

The blood came from his nose and would not be staunched. He had gone through all the handkerchiefs in his drawer, using them first as plugs and then as clamps, but still he could feel, and taste, the iron warmth. He sat at the window of his apartment, the handkerchief clutched to his face slowly staining red, and looked out at the setting sun staining the cloud in its passing.

It was always so, when the sun set in splendour. The night would bring darkness and cease. His nose would stop bleeding and he could finish his work, the tedious reports that were the cross of his career as a reasonably important servant of civil society. The newspaper lay on the desk in front of the table. The weather report, with its promise of heavy cloud, was circled. He would write to the editor tomorrow, pointing out the inaccuracy of the report. Perhaps the television stations had carried a more up-to-date report, but he did not take television: a radio was the limit of his engagement with modern media.

That, and a telephone. He had had to telephone her to put her off. He had indicated that she might visit after he had finished his report; the Berliner Philharmoniker was playing Mahler 6 and he would want company after hearing that. But the nose bleed made an evening listening to music, even music as enveloping as Mahler, impossible. He would be waiting, feeling for the warm trickle in his nose and upper lip. But if he opened his window, he should be able to hear some of the performance; that which the city pulled away he could fill in, for he knew the music in his head.

The entryphone buzzed.

“Robert, are you in?”

She had come, despite his message that she should not.

“Robert, I’m sure you’re there. Will you let me in?”

He watched the small screen until, in the end, she went away. It was as well that no one else had tried to come in to the flats while she was waiting at the main door; then she would have been knocking on his door.

Opening the window, he felt the wash of city air. But it carried the strains of Mahler 6, soaring above traffic and radios and scurrying movement. He listened, for the moment forgetting the blood, and the sun setting, but becoming only a creature of hearing and imagination and memory, for often he had to fill in lacunae with the music of his mind. The Philharmoniker played the Scherzo before the Andante, as he preferred. The Finale drained into the darkness that spread over the city. He listened to the silence and did not move, even when the blood began to flow once more.

(A review in the style of one of Aickman’s stories.)


Adventures in Bookland: Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Although they share titles, this is not the book of Steven Spielberg’s film despite the fact that they both deal with the same incident: the first spy exchange of the Cold War. On 10 February 1962, Rudolf Abel (as he gave his name) was exchanged for Francis Gary Powers, the two men walking past each other across the Glienicke Bridge on the outskirts of West Berlin as men on either side of the River Havel watched the silent passage through telescopic sights.

Spielberg’s film concentrates very much on the relationship between Rudolf Abel and the lawyer, James Donovan, who defended him when he was brought to trial on espionage charges – and then the unlikely turn that saw the same James Donovan charged with negotiating the exchange of Abel for Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down on 1 May 1960 (plus another American, Frederic Pryor, a student who unwittingly got caught up on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall and who became a pawn in international power politics).

Whittell’s book is much more wide ranging, spending as much time on Gary Powers as Rudolf Abel, while devoting only a couple of pages to Donovan and the trial. More than fifty years later, it’s salutary to remember just how dangerous the world was then, with two superpowers in ideological confrontation, each armed with nuclear weapons. It’s tempting to see our own times of Islamist terrorism as uniquely bad but really there’s no comparison. During the Cold War, a misstep or a misunderstanding could have unleashed nuclear hell upon us all. Today’s terrorists are reduced to driving a car at pedestrians. So this book is an excellent corrective and a fine and exciting piece of historical writing, bringing together spying, spy planes and high-tension international politics. If you’ve seen Spielberg’s film, it’s well worth reading for a broader and deeper understanding of what went on and why.

Adventures in Bookland: Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

I was a little concerned, picking up this book, to see that it is co-written by Matt Baglio. I’ve read one of Baglio’s books, The Rite, in which he achieved what I’d thought impossible: he made exorcism boring. So I was worried he’d manage the impossible yet again, and make the exfiltration of diplomats in hiding from revolutionary Iran in the guise of Hollywood filmmakers into something tedious as well. Luckily, he doesn’t. Thankfully, much of the book is actually written by Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who planned and carried out the operation to fly six Americans in hiding out of Iran in 1980, when the revolutionary regime was holding the staff of the American embassy hostage. In fact, Mendez has recycled much of the paper he wrote about the exfiltration for the CIA house journal, Studies in Intelligence, into the book, often simply pasting it into the relevant chapter. However, he does add some very interesting autobiographical and background material to the early chapters. I for one find it fascinating that a talented artist, as Mendez is, ended up working for the CIA, first in creating and forging documents but then as a high-level agent himself.

In fact, the main problem with the book is how good an agent he was. The simple fact is that the exfilration of the six Americans who got away from the embassy and then had remained in hiding in houses belonging to Canadian diplomats went almost exactly according to plan, with the Iranian regime not getting even a hint of what was going on (in contrast to the disastrous attempt to rescue the rest of the hostages). The film changed things to up the tension levels, from having the six go out into Teheran to pretend to search for film locations (Mendez had concocted a cover story that they’d flown in to search for locations for an upcoming Hollywood sci-fi film called Argo) to Iranian officials racing to intercept them as they got on the plane. In reality, it was as smooth an operation as anyone could have wished. What makes it so interesting are the details. One in particular made me laugh. When they landed in Zurich, Mendez gave his coat to one of the six, who were then all promptly hustled away to be returned to America. Mendez himself was scolded on his return by the finance department for losing his government issued coat!

Although the film does take liberties, it’s well worth watching for its recreation of revolutionary Iran. Mendez himself appreciated the film, as indeed would I, if I’d been in his place. Let’s take a look at the man who played Mendez, Ben Affleck.

And then let’s look at Tony Mendez.

Good deal!

Adventures in Bookland: The Locomotive of War by Peter Clarke

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

It’s not about trains. Let’s get that clear from the start. But having worked through the book’s 358 pages, this reviewer is not entirely sure he can tell the prospective reader what the book is about. Usually, a book’s subtitle is there to explain to the browser what he or she will find on its pages but in this case, ‘Money, Empire, Power and Guilt’ is so wide ranging as to include almost everything.

So, in his quest to uncover the book’s true meaning, your reviewer referred back to the prologue, where the author tells us what the book is about. It doesn’t help a great deal, although it does tell us where the title comes from: it’s a quote from Trotsky, but modified. He originally said, “War, Comrades, is a great locomotive of history.” So, is this a book about war as the driver of history?

No, not really. Yes, it deals with World War I, but the conflict itself remains largely off the page. The chapter titles are a better clue as to the book’s nature: ‘The Disciple as Prophet: Thomas Woodrow Wilson’; ‘Goodbye to the Garden of Eden: John Maynard Keynes’.

Yes, this is a book about people. But very specific people: some of the key political figures of the First World War in Britain and America – all of whom knew each other. This is a book about how the political beliefs and personal characteristics of a small number of people successively involved Britain and America in war. For what Clarke makes clear is how it was the particular response of leaders such as Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George to events such as the German invasion of neutral Belgium, a response shaped by their formation in the liberal tradition of William Gladstone, that produced the moral outrage that led Britain into war, and later drew America into the conflict.

As such, it’s a forensic examination of the causes of war within a very narrow focus. This narrow focus requires of the reader a reasonably broad knowledge of the political personalities of early-20th century Britain and America to avoid frequent Wikipedia stops. It does, however, allow the author some cutting asides. Clarke’s note on how Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary remembered for “the lamps are going out” quote – under the strain of impending war ascended to his only two days of eloquence in an allotted span of near three score years and ten, is wonderful and one of a number of quotes worthy a place in future collections.

The curious effect of Clarke’s close examination of such a limited number of individuals is that the book, surely without meaning to, almost becomes a modern restatement of Carlyle’s great man theory of history (where history is the result of the actions and decisions of great men, rather than being the consequence of a vast range of events and individuals). Clarke does take care to place the ‘great men’ here portrayed within the context of the liberal tradition of thinking as espoused by Gladstone, so it’s a modified ‘great man’ exposition, but the reader will be hard pressed to conclude, after reading this book, anything other than that history’s locomotive is driven by a very few men (and they are all men).

This is unlikely to have been the author’s intention.


Adventures in Bookland: Honour Guard by Dan Abnett

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017


It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when laid up with illness, nothing cheers the soul more than reading about men with big blasters shooting evil enemies into a bloody pulp. So, there I was, so ill with flu that for three days I couldn’t even read, but lay curled up in a ball that alternately sweated and shivered. When I eventually recovered enough to reach for a book I had no doubt what I wanted: Abnett!

It’s one of life’s great discoveries that a writer for hire – as Abnett is, plying his trade within the invented universes of Warhammer 40k, Tomb Raider, Dr Who and whichever other franchise willing to pay him – can still be a supreme craftsman and, frankly, a far better writer than the vast majority of authors writing the stuff of their dreams. (In fact, on the couple of occasions I’ve read Abnett’s original works, I’ve not found them as good as his work in pre-existing universes.) Honour Guard is no exception and, as I slowly recuperated, I settled once again into the dystopia of the 41st millennium – and thoroughly enjoyed myself. As I mentioned at the start of this review, there really is nothing more cheering than reading about blokes with bolters blasting the forces of vile Chaos into steaming piles of flesh and bone.