Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

This was my first rereading of The Lord of the Rings since the films came out at the beginning of the century. I did wonder how much the film’s version of Middle-earth would intrude into my reading of the story and I was more than a little worried that it would shoulder aside every other imaginative engagement with Tolkien’s story. I’m pleased to say that, in most areas, it did not. Middle-earth remained, in my mind at least, largely uncontaminated by Peter Jackson’s vision. The one exception was were the films themselves succeeded best: in their design. The film designers’ imagining of Gondor and Rohan, of Moria and Rivendell, was, to be honest, better than anything I’d ever imagined, and I’m glad to accept it. The only areas were it failed for me were those were Jackson’s inveterate tendency to over-egg the pudding affected the design. So, for me, Barad-dûr, as pictured above, is simply too tall, more Burj Khalifa than a proper fortress, and the same criticism applies to Orthanc. But, apart from that, I generally loved how the designers made Middle-earth come alive.

As far as the actors are concerned, only Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey has fused with my own idea of Gandalf, so that now when I think of Gandalf I see him, standing on the bridge of Khazad-dûm. But, to my surprise, I’ve learned that another dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings has left a far deeper and more long-lasting impression: the BBC radio dramatisation that came out in 1981 and which I have listened to (as technology has changed) on radio, cassette, CD and digitally. Reading The Lord of the Rings, I heard parts of the dialogue exactly as those radio actors said the lines, with their voices speaking. When Faramir, in the radio play, finds he has Frodo and Sam, and the Ring, at his mercy, the actor playing him, Andrew Seear, does the most extraordinary job of conveying the life-defining struggle that Faramir endures for the space of a few seconds, as he has ‘a chance to show his quality’. Similarly, when Ian Holm, as Frodo, on the Cracks of Doom, chooses not to consign the ring to the fire but to claim it. Robert Stephens, as Aragorn, conveys Tolkien’s description of Strider as a man of doubtful appearance but true heart brilliantly, and Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum is simply extraordinary.

I am sure Tolkien would be pleased at this: sound and words endure longer and go deeper in memory than images and pictures. For a philologist, this would be only right and proper.

Adventures in Bookland: The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

No, I’m not a Legolas fan boy. The reason I read this edition of The Lord of the Rings was because they had it at my local library.

‘What, you don’t have a copy yourself?’ I hear you ask in horror.

Of course I do. But – it is precious to me. This was the copy I read when I was back in secondary school, that I saved up my money to buy: the hardback edition with the fold out map at the back. I spent hours copying that map out, by hand, and the copy was no bad effort either: good enough to be stuck to my wall.

‘Why didn’t you just stick up the map in the book?’

What? And deface my copy of The Book? You jest – or are in the service of Mordor, where books are not appreciated. I would no more rip out the map at the back of The Two Towers (or The Fellowship of the Ring) than I would deface Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. You might think a book is not the same as a picture, one being a vehicle for conveying a story, the other being, in itself, the colours and shapes on the wall. But books, as objects, are precious to me, things of reverence. They should be treated with the same respect that one treats a great painting – and this is particularly so for the books of life, those books that have changed your life. So, coming to re-read The Lord of the Rings, and needing to fit in the reading during tube journeys and in waiting rooms, meant that I would have to carry the books around with me, running the risk of damaging them. Hence, the trip to the local library, and why I ended up reading the edition of The Two Towers with Orlando Bloom on the front. Luckily, reading it meant that I did not have to look at the cover.

As to what was within the covers, well, you know, don’t you. Simply the second part of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Adventures in Bookland: Anglo-Saxon England by F.M. Stenton

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

For decades if you asked a serious historian a question about Anglo-Saxon England the answer would be, “I’ll look in my Stenton.” Even today, more than half a century after the book was first published, people still look to Frank Stenton’s work for an overview of England between the Romans leaving and the Normans arriving (and it’s pretty good on the Conquest too). So, the question is, what makes a book definitive? There have been any number of books published on Anglo-Saxon England since this one came out (and it sometimes feels like I’ve read most of them), so what makes this one stand out?

Well, for one thing, Anglo-Saxon England might have been the book for which that over-used review adjective, ‘magisterial’, was coined. Every sentence, phrase, thought breathes the considered thought of a lifetime’s engagement with the past. Combine that with the fluid, clear prose in which Stenton writes, and you have two of the elements that make a book definitive in its subject area. Professionally, Frank Stenton was also acknowledged by his peers as one of the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxonists of his era, alongside Dorothy Whitelock, and thus his book became required reading on every undergraduate course in Anglo-Saxon. These three legs make up the tripod of the definitive text. Even with all the findings of half a century of archaeology, Stenton’s book remains on the reading list of every undergraduate course and deservedly so. Nowadays, I would combine it with reading The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan, but Stenton remains the gold standard of Anglo-Saxon scholarship.

Adventures in Bookland: Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe by Robert Woosnam-Savage

Monday, December 11th, 2017

There’s a lot of myths about the medieval world, from flat earthers to primae noctis, so not least among this slim volume’s many accomplishments is the way Woosnam-Savage definitively lays to rest that old canard that a knight had to be winched up on to his horse. Not only does he prove it’s not true but the author even tracks down where it was first mooted as well as who inserted the idea into the popular imagination. First, the proof. A little thought is enough to suggest how risible the idea is, for if it were true, an unhorsed knight on the battlefield would be as helpless as an upturned tortoise and just as easy to dispatch. But Woosnam-Savage then goes on to point out how well the weight of full armour, evenly spread over the body, compares to the kit that modern-day soldiers have to lug around, mostly on their backs. Indeed, a recent demonstration pitted two men, one dressed in armour, the other carrying battle kit, against each other over an assault course, which the modern-day knight won easily. Another of the book’s strengths is the author’s familiarity with the source material. So as further proof of the mobility of armour, he quotes from the chronicle of Jean Boucicaut, Marshall of France, who would vault on to his horse, somersault and dance, all while wearing full armour. To close his case, Woosnam-Savage cites a 15th-century chronicle that recorded a fully armoured man at arms who fell into the River Moselle yet still managed to reach the bank without drowning.

The emphasis of the book is on the practical aspects of medieval arms and armour. In that, it would make an excellent companion volume to another recent book I reviewed recently. How to Read European Armor, which focused on armour as an expression of power and the art of the armourer. Woosnam-Savage is much more concerned with arms and armour as they were used practically, in war, tournies and even hunting. As such, he follows the evolution of weapons and defence through the 14th and 15th centuries, as the knight reached his shining apotheosis, only to be rendered obsolete by the improvement in gunpowder weapons.

The study of medieval military technology, like all such specialised fields of inquiry, can be overpoweringly detailed and technical, as well as riven by scholarly disputes over what might seem trivial issues. Woosnam-Savage, writing for the newcomer to the field, has produced a clear, concise and, as near as possible in 96 pages, complete account of how medieval warriors, from knights through to bowmen, armed and protected themselves upon the battlefield, with just enough telling detail to bring the subject to vivid life. One knight, during the siege of Pontevedra (1397) fought on, though a crossbow had pierced his nostrils, and in the press of men it was hit with a shield and driven further into his head. Yet Don Pero Niño survived. Medieval knights were tough on the inside as well as the outside.

Oh, and it was Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film, Henry V, that popularised the idea of knights being winched onto their horses.


Adventures in Bookland: The Far Shore by Nick Brown

Monday, December 4th, 2017

This is number four in Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series and it shows a continuing improvement and deepening in the author’s work. The key to the series is the complicated relationship between its three main protagonists: Cassius Corbulo, a young Roman patrician and agent of Imperial Security; Indavara, an ex-gladiator who has lost his memory of life before the arena but who is now his bodyguard; and Simo, Cassius’s slave. Their unfolding relationship, and the ramifications of the very unequal levels of power each man has, is played out against an exciting plot – but the plot is only exciting because the reader had become deeply invested in these three men, and wants to know how things turn out for them. Excellent.

Adventures in Bookland: City of Fortune by Roger Crowley

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Most of the places where we live are obstinately, resolutely earth bound: think of maundering suburbs, the plate-glass high rises of financial centres, the re-gentrified areas of inner cities. None of these suggest anything other than themselves: places where people live, sealed off from heaven above and oblivious of hell below. But there are a few places where the places of this world are suggestive of and open to the worlds above and below. Most of these are natural places, thin places where the boundaries are ill defined, but there are a few that are man made, and none more so than the city that is the subject of this wonderful history: Venice.

Even now, living off its beauty, with most Venetians reduced to living on the mainland in Venezia Mestre, Venice is not like anywhere else on earth. It has always been so, as Crowley ably tells in this book. People, outsiders, have always looked at Venice and wondered, how could it exist? A city without land, without anything in the way of natural resources, and yet for centuries it was the node of the Mediterranean, the eye at the centre of a virtual empire that tied together with the invisible thread of trade and money a state that stretched over the shifting miles of sea and penetrated deep into the trade routes that linked Christendom, the Islamic world and beyond. Venice, built on water, lived on money and sold itself as a dream.

Today, the dream lingers, and the wanderer, turning a corner into a quiet piazza or a still canal, can never entirely escape the feeling that the next turn might take him over an invisible boundary and into another Venice, one that still draws to itself all the trades of the unseen worlds, and sends them out again into all the different realms. Ghosts walk quietly alongside the water, heard in the slap of wavelet on quay and the drift of wind over the lagoon. Walk here and you walk among multitudes unseen.

One day, I will go back. I’m not sure if I will return.


Adventures in Bookland: The Imperial Banner by Nick Brown

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

As authors, we have a tendency to stand in thrall to those mysterious creatures known as book designers, trotting out in the acknowledgements or emails to the publisher our thanks for the sterling work done by the design team. We do this, (a) because we have no choice, and if we don’t butter up the design department then they really might do something frightful next time round and (b) because if we were any good at coming up with front covers we’d be designers ourselves (and making much better money to boot). Of course, sometimes we are well served by our designers – as, I hasten to add, I have been with my Northumbrian Thrones covers – but sometimes designers do a book or a series no favours at all. In Nick Brown’s case, I think this is true. Look at the above, the cover for book number 2 in his Agent of Rome series. Tell me, seeing it, what it tells you? And then, let me show you the covers of books 1, 3 and 4 in the series:

These covers tell a story to me of some muscle bound centurion whose first recourse to any problem is to whip out his sword and cut people up – the most hackneyed hack and slash version of historical fiction and the male equivalent of the worst sort of chick lit, wish fulfilment in a toga. But the books aren’t like this at all. Cassius Corbulo, the hero, is notably incompetent with a sword, relying on his wits rather than his muscles: Nick Brown also mixes up the genres, stirring in elements of detective fiction, thrillers and chase stories into the mix. None of this you can tell from the above covers. He must have been so relieved when his publisher showed him the cover of book 5 in the series, and then did even better work on the new design with book 6.

These jackets tell far more accurately of the more subtle pleasures to be had beneath their covers. I’m sure Nick Brown was pleased – I certainly would be, with covers like these.

Adventures in Middle-earth: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

There are some books – most books actually – that pass under the eye as swiftly and with as little mark as the colours on a screen. There are other books, a small number in a lifetime, that mark you indelibly. For me, the book that has marked me probably more than any other is The Lord of the Rings. But it had been many years since I had revisited Middle-earth and I opened the oh-so-familiar book with some trepidation, the sort of fear that might attend meeting again the love of your life after long separation – would the enchantment remain unbroken?

It has. I remember, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, going to sleep each night for six months or more with the prayer that I might wake up in Middle-earth. Many years later, I would still wish to step out of this world and into Arda. If the theology of creation that Tolkien was feeling his way towards proves true, mayhap that shall indeed be possible. For if ever a work of heart and hand might be given the Secret Fire by Eru, and live, then surely it is Middle-earth. As for the Good Professor himself, I believe that, like Niggle the painter, he walks today by the willow meads of Tasarinan, looking towards the distant prospect of mountains towards which the road that goes ever on but that always leads home will take him.

On a more prosaic level, re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck by the great part that geography played in the narrative. A modern-day writer would not spend so long telling of walking through landscapes – we have become an even hastier people – but for this reader, the word paintings of Middle-earth were as pure a pleasure as the surface narrative. For this is the tale of a world, in all its complexity, rather than just a telling of heroes.

Sometimes, all that is possible by way of review is gratitude. JRR Tolkien poured heart and soul and mind into Middle-earth. Now, 44 years after his death, we can still visit Middle-earth in heart and soul and mind.

Adventures in Bookland: The Siege by Nick Brown

Friday, November 24th, 2017

Having started with number 6 in the Agent of Rome series I’ve gone back to the beginning and the first posting for a young and callow Cassius Corbulo. Two thirds of the elements that will make this a great series are already there: Cassius himself and his slave Simo, ever punctilious for his master yet careful to conserve the small dignity afforded to him as a slave in Imperial Rome. What’s missing in this first book is the third member of the team, the bodyguard Indavara, who makes his debut in the next novel. However, even without him, this book serves to introduce an unusual, for historical fiction, hero and his even more unusual slave. Cassius is not much good with a sword, relying on his brain rather than muscles, although he does match up with the male wish fulfillment element of historical fiction in that he is unfeasibly handsome and attractive to women. Simo is, potentially, an even more interesting character; I hope Brown will look more deeply into how a slave might attempt dignity when he is, literally, property. The story itself rips along. As soon as I’d finished The Siege I started on The Imperial Banner, the next in the series.

Adventures in Bookland: Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Friday, November 24th, 2017

A husband loses his wife, two boys lose their mother – and they get crow in return. No, really. Crow. With a capital C. Crow moves in with them, the feathered, cawing, butcher-beaked bird of scavenge, the haunter of battlefields and rubbish tips and, in this brief but memorable prose poem, Crow puts them back together again. As the boys say, in the most moving of many moving lines in the book:

We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows.

It’s not that weird.