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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

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.

 

Adventures in Bookland: D-Day: the Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor

Sunday, September 2nd, 2018

It could have gone wrong. Looking back, with the inevitability of hindsight, it seems pre-ordained that the D-Day landings should succeed. But one of the great strengths of Beevor’s book is that it makes it horrifyingly clear how it could have all gone wrong. In particular, the weather might have turned, scattering the invasion fleet, stopping the overflying air cover, and allowing the Germans the window for counter-attack before the beacheads could be established. So much also depended on Hitler’s intransigence, and certainty of his own reading of events. It really all could have gone wrong. If it had, it’s hard to tell when a new invasion would have been attempted. The focus might then have turned to the long, mountainous slog up Italy, while the Red Army advanced from the east. The war would have been even longer and even bloodier than it already was.

Thankfully, it didn’t go wrong. Beevor does an excellent job of balancing the telling of the overall strategic situation with vignettes of battle and the long, bloody grind through the Normandy bocage. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: The Quest for God by Paul Johnson

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

Paul Johnson is one of the outstanding historians of our time. His History of Christianity is both illuminating and, for the Christian, excruciatingly honest. There is no whitewashing of the sins of church or Christians in his history, quite the opposite. So it’s fascinating to learn that he wrote his history even while being, and remaining, a Catholic. In the introduction to his history, he excoriates those who would whitewash the past, or suppress it, are doing mortal damage to Christianity while thinking to protect it. The religion depends, fundamentally, on the truth. It makes claims, historical claims, upon which it rests. Jesus was a man, who lived and died in a particular place and time. Johnson subjects them to the most rigorous historical investigation, for as a believing Christian he can do nothing else, for if Christians are not committed to the truth, wherever it leads, then they are not Christians. In his meditation on the existence of God, Johnson does something similar. This book is more personal and, as such, is not likely to change anyone’s mind. But it’s a beautiful insight into the working of grace in the life a scholar and it finishes with its most valuable section: some of the prayers Johnson has composed during the course of his life. These are quite lovely, and deserve to be more widely known (and, dare I say, prayed).

Adventures in Bookland: The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok translated by Ben Waggoner

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

A lively and readable translation of the various sagas and fragments that tell the tale of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons. Ragnar straddles the boundary between the legendary and the historical. His sons – if they were his sons and not simply men who traced their lineage back to the clan founder – were the leaders of the Great Heathen Army that visited death and destruction upon 10th-century England, bringing down three of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until only Wessex, precariously, remained. But Ragnar is connected, via his wife, to the legendary Germanic hero, Siegfried, the saga simply ignoring the centuries between them. So how much is true is impossible to tell. The story, though, is excellent, told in the typical, laconic fashion of northern epic, which Waggoner’s translation faithfully recreates. Highly recommended.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Life of St Columba by Admonan of Iona

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

This book of marvels is itself a marvel. Marvellous firstly because we have so few voices from the seventh century; there’s basically Bede and Adomnan. Marvellous secondly for the miracles attached to Columba’s life. In these prosaic times, it’s salutary to read of a time of miracles. Marvellous thirdly for the extraordinary scholarship that went into this book. The translator and editor, Richard Sharpe, is exemplary in both functions. The introduction is one of the best introductions to northern Britain and Ireland in the early Medieval period I have ever read. Then the notes that accompany the text illuminate almost every aspect of seventh-century life. In this, the modern-day scholar exemplifies the dedication to scholarship of these early Irish monks – St Columba would have been proud.