Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

The title story is an enjoyable romp through the sexual politics of 19th-century America, when marriages were contracted and, like most business relationships, as liable to fail as to succeed (no different to today, but for different reasons). For some reason, other readers seem determined to impose early 21st-century ideas upon it. It’s worth remembering that, in two hundred year’s time, our own fondest notions will be seen to be as outmoded as Van Winkle’s attitudes are in this story. So, if you can leave the 21st century behind, try this slim volume of tales. If you can’t stick, with what you know.

Adventures in Bookland: The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

Dean Koontz, the hardest working man in publishing, is back on top form with this novel, the first in a new series, featuring Jane Hawk, rogue FBI agent. Dean Koontz is also about the most wildly variable bestselling writer working today, his work ranging from the brilliant to the awful, but this one is right at the top end of his range. It’s back to the techno thrillers of mid-term Koontz, with a solid dose of big government paranoia, and a dialling back of the tendency to preach that marred much of his more recent work. So if you like fast-paced thrillers that wind through the plot points faster than a Golden Retriever gobbles dinner, this one is for you.

Adventures in Bookland: The Stolen White Elephant by Mark Twain

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

It turns out, from reading ‘The Stolen White Elephant’, the first story in this collection, that the detective story had barely been invented before it was being mocked. Reading the omniscient hero of the story unfailingly direct his detectives in all the wrong directions, I immediately assumed that Twain was sending up Sherlock Holmes, only to discover that the story was written five years before Sherlock first appeared in print. So Twain, it seems, had established all the main tropes of satirising detective fiction before detective fiction had even acquired its most iconic character! If that is not the ultimate feat of literary detection, I don’t know what is!

Apart from that, the stories illustrate how tastes change over the years. The last story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Talaveras County, was the story that made Twain’s name but reading it now, while it’s easy to appreciate the facility with which Twain reproduces the dialect of the place, the story itself appears a simply shaggy frog story, scarce deserving its reputation as the quintessential Twain story.

Adventures in Bookland: Seeing Angels by Emma Heathcote-James

Friday, August 10th, 2018

Do angels exist? Before attempting an answer to that, perhaps we need to ask what angels are in the first place. The name itself derives from the Greek word for ‘messenger’. In the Biblical context, an angel was God’s messenger. But for many in the contemporary world, they have taken on a different meaning. I remember talking to one lady who did not believe in God but did believe in angels and in life after death. Emma Heathcote-James makes no attempt to answer either question – indeed, she says explicitly that she’s not interested in answering the question, which I find rather astonishing. Rather she is interested in recording people’s experiences of angels and did so by advertising, in Britain, for people to contact her with their stories (leading to some questionable contacts when some people misunderstood her advert to mean that they might meet an ‘angel’). Britain being, by some measures, a highly secular society, I was interested to see how many responses she received: it turns out, many Britons believe they have met, in some manner or other, an angel.

The great virtue of this book is that it allows people to tell their stories in their own words. The angels they meet come in all sorts of forms, some of which didn’t seem particularly angelic to me, but if that was how the person explained the experience then it was included in the study. The most moving section was the one recounting the experiences of people working with the dying: in particular, one nurse working in a hospice regularly saw the dead coming to meet the dying, and bringing great comfort with them.

The book makes no attempt to convince the sceptical, nor to reinforce the belief of the credulous. It simply recounts what people have experienced and, as such, is invaluable in showing the wide range of those experiences.

Adventures in Bookland: Eternals by Neil Gaiman

Friday, July 20th, 2018

The most disappointing Neil Gaiman book I’ve read. It should be perfect for him: eternal beings, layers of reality, dreams and visions and gods (various varieties thereby). But it all sputters out in a thoroughly unsatisfactory way. Read his Sandman comics instead.

Adventures in Bookland: The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffman

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Superbly creepy while, by modern sensibilities, occasionally hysterically overwrought story. Plus, being only 64 pages long, it’s a brilliant way to catch up on the Goodreads reading challenge if you’re falling behind schedule!


Adventures in Bookland: The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Back in the now dim and distant days of the 1970s, I used to haunt the shelves of the local newsagents, searching for the newest batch of Marvel Comics to be slipped in between copies of the more common British comics such The Beano and The Dandy. It’s probably hard to believe now, in these days of instant availability, but it was really difficult then to find these comics. Among the many local newsagents – there were a lot more them then – only a few ever sold Marvel comics and even with these, it was a hit and miss affair, with copies of my favourite titles appearing some months and then nothing the next: which was particularly agonising if I was teetering on the edge of the usual comic-book cliff hanger. I started with the obvious ones: Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Thor. But then, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a passing moment of brain madness and introduced the Silver Surfer. I was hooked (for on the written page, I was a complete fan of science fiction, so this blending of comics and SF was perfect for me). But while Lee and Kirby launched comics into space, it was Jim Starlin who made them cosmic. I clearly remember this cover:

Starlin reimagined Warlock, making him a cosmic messiah/schizophrenic, and wrote mind-bending stories about the nature of reality. Just up my star chart! So it was great to revisit Adam Warlock, in a set of stories that I had never read, to find him and his creator as brilliantly imaginative as ever. But what I think I particularly appreciated on this reading was the artwork. I’d forgotten how good it was: there’s something particularly appealing about the cosmic characters with which Starlin populates the story. Completely bonkers – in this version, Thanos murders half the Universe because he wants Death (a superbly disdainful beauty) to love him – but great fun.


Adventures in Bookland: Viking Fire by Justin Hill

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

When I read Shieldwall I suspected it. Now, having finished Viking Fire, the second in Justin Hill’s Conquest trilogy, I know it: he’s the best of us. Darn it. In Viking Fire, it’s not just that he reveals a complete mastery of narrative devices (Shieldwall is third person with multiple points of view), for Viking Fire is, mostly, told in the first-person of Harald Hardrada, nor that he tells an extraordinarily rich and involving story (Harald’s life is such that it would require incompetence on the level of genius to make it uninteresting). No, the key facet of Hill’s writing that sets him over and above the usual hack-n-slash merchant of Dark Age historical fiction is his mastery of language. I took four months over the reading of this story not because it was uninvolving and uninteresting, but because I wanted to linger over it.

Shieldwall, set in England during the reign of Aethelred the Unready, is written with the beat of Old English poetry running through its rhythms: the lines lengthening and shortening in keeping with the pace of the story, but all held to together by the alliterative beat and the four-stress pattern of Old English verse. Not only that, but the word choice is careful and precise, eschewing later imported loan words for those words in modern English that can be traced back to Old English. So, unlike most historical fiction, the language Hill used in Shieldwall underscores, underlies and deepens the story, rather than being, albeit unconsciously, at odds with it (as often happens with writers less sensitive to these linguistic echoes).

Now, with Viking Fire, Hill’s hero is a Viking, a Norwegian, whose life takes him from the fjords of the north, through Rus, to the great city, Constantinople, and the warm sea at the world’s heart. In keeping with the protagonist and the time and places in which he lives, the language Hill uses has changed: the rhythm is different, matching that of the prose sagas that have come down to us from the northlands, and with echoes of the hugely complex, percussive rhythms of the skalds, the court poets and PR men of the Viking kingdoms. But when Harald takes employment under the Emperors and sails, with his crew of Northmen, the Mediterranean, then there enters the story hints of the rhythmic phrasing of Homer and even, in the more languorous passages where these northern warriors settle down under the southern sun with wine and good food and women, something of the ease and flow of Ovid. There’s not many writers who can manage this precision of language, and no one else working in this genre today.

Darn it, he really is the best of us.

Adventures in Bookland: Gauntathon!

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

I’ve been writing hard these past couple of months and nothing goes better with nose to the keyboard red eye than a good dose of blood and carnage in the 40th millennium. And no one does this better than Dan the Man. How he manages to spin the variations on death in the way he does I regard as nothing less than miraculous – which is also a theme to Sabbat Martyr in particular. It’s an aspect of the Warhammer 40k universe that I particularly enjoy: who would expect a tabletop battlegame to take seriously mankind’s oldest and deepest impulses in a way that few other explorers of the future do (Star Trek and Dr Who, I’m looking at you). Marvellous. Thank you, Mr Abnett – and would you mind finishing off the Bequin trilogy and completing the Sabbat Worlds crusade? Please don’t go George R.R. Martin on us!

Adventures in Bookland: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

I grew up reading Heinlein’s juveniles and I’m grateful for that as both a reader and, now, a writer. As a reader, and a young reader at that, they were fast, convincing and did not condescend at all: I really thought that, under the right circumstances and with enough application and smarts on my part, I too should be able to:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Of course, the problem with that quote, which is the underlying philosophy of all the characters in his juveniles, is that it comes from his book Time Enough For Love, when, frankly, Heinlein had completely fallen off his typewriter and disappeared up his own verbiage as some sort of free-love guru who liked big guns and springy nipples. The later books, when Heinlein’s fame and an overly permissive editor allowed him to write for as long as he wanted, are, quite simply, embarrassingly bad. Imagine the bloat of the later Harry Potter novels but with bad sex and women who only ever say, ‘Yes.’ But then… there are the early novels, the juveniles such as Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Starman Jones and Space Cadet, not to mention The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I remember just how good he was. If only, if only, if only Stranger in a Strange Land hadn’t been such a success. But with the sex and philosophising pulling in the punters, Heinlein could abandon the discipline of telling a story for a soapbox.

The stories in The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag are certainly not juveniles, but they belong to the most brilliantly productive and imaginative phase of his career, although All You Zombies does foreshadow Heinlein’s later bizarre mother fixation, even if you can argue that he’s here working through the logical possibilities of time travel and, in his marvellous phrase, paradoctoring a paradox. The titular story has remained with me for many many years: the final images of a world apparently real but actually simply fog, and of not knowing whether you are a creature of that fog, lodged themselve so deeply into my teenage brain that, rereading the book now, they still freeze me. Highly recommended.