Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: Essays in the Art of Writing by Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

This slim little volume of 150 odd pages tells me a number of things. Firstly, that I will probably never be as good a writer as Robert Louis Stevenson. Secondly, that much of the craft he practised on his writing sails far above my head, so I still have a great deal to learn before I’m even able to sit on his footstool. And, thirdly, that it’s pretty difficult to write a really entertaining book about writing. Stephen King managed it, quite brilliantly, in On Writing, but did so by virtue of melding autobiography with style manual. This collection of essays, written for disparate markets and different reasons, doesn’t manage the unity that King achieved in his book, but it is very interesting for telling us Stevenson’s views on various contemporary writers.

Adventures in Bookland: Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

In the 10th century, an Arab traveller named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan went, as part of an embassy, from Baghdad into the far north, to visit the newly Muslim king of the Bulghars who lived on the Volga River where it flows into the Caspian Sea. On his return, he wrote an account of his journey that is remarkable for its precision, dispassion and curiosity. Ibn Fadlan was genuinely interested in the peoples and customs he encountered along the way, and went out of his way to find out more about them. The most obvious example of this is how he set out to learn more about the burial customs of the pagan Rus (Vikings originally from Sweden), going to visit one of their settlements when he learned that one of the leaders there had died recently. His account of the burial is both remarkable and deeply troubling – and should give modern-day pagan fantasists pause. There is a tendency nowadays to ascribe a purer, simpler, more noble or more spiritual culture to pre-Christian pagan societies, such as Neil Young’s idealisation of Moctezuma, king of the Aztecs, in Cortez the Killer. Ibn Fadlan’s chilling description of the ritual sacrifice of one of the dead man’s slave girls should be enough to make anyone rethink idealising pagan cultures.

Going on, the book also contains extracts from other Arab travellers. While none are as interesting as Ibn Fadlan, their varied testimonies add to a patchwork quilt of impressions of which, for me, the chief was the realisation of just how large a part the slave trade played in linking the economies of Asia, and in particular the links between the Caliphate and the pagan cultures of the steppes. Much of war was, in fact, slave taking expeditions, with a huge market waiting for the captured slaves in the Islamic world and among the shot lived kingdoms of the steppes. But what is particularly eye opening for the modern reader is how women and girls were such a significant part of this trade. Slaving expeditions would raid neighbouring tribes, capturing young women and girls, and these would be sold on as concubines to rich and powerful men in the Islamic world. One of the other writers in the book, Abu Hamid, notes in passing how he buys two slave girls, ages 8 and 15, and gives them various jobs before saying that one of them had a child but it died.

To put it bluntly, in this world, women were currency: they were bought and sold and became the trophies that accompanied the worldly success of rich and powerful men. Modern-day feminists have little use for Christianity, but that religion’s refusal to countenance concubinage contributed more to the decline of the trafficking of women than any of other factor.

Adventures in Bookland: Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

I had read this little story by JRR Tolkien many years ago and remember being strangely moved by it, but not much more. So when I heard that a theatre production of the story by the Puppet State Theatre Company was touring with it, we all went along to see it. As Richard Medrington, the performer and narrator of the performance, tells us at the beginning, the production company’s name is a bit of a misnomer for this production: there’s no puppets and it’s not really a theatre show, there being only one performer, Mr Medrington himself. But after a preamble, delving into his own family history for reasons that aren’t immediately clear but become so later, Medrington begins telling the story of the painter, Niggle, and his attempts to paint a painting of a landscape he glimpses in his imagination, but can’t quite grasp. And in the telling, something extraordinary, something almost miraculous happens: worlds unfold, hearts open, eyes are made clear, for a while at least, of the dirt of daily life and we see, we see… Well, what do we see? In the end, we see a glimpse of what Niggle saw: the world he strove to capture but never quite did, the worlds that Tolkien wrote about but never completely grasped, the worlds we hope and dream and think on. It was the most moving theatrical evening of my life. Richard Medrington and his team at Puppet State have done wonders with Tolkien’s little tale, and brought out the vast world that is necessary to make even one, little, leaf. If you ever get the chance to see the production, don’t miss it. Here’s the trailer for the show.

Oh, and that preamble about Richard Medrington’s family? Through the course of the performance, we all come to realise that artistic creation is not vain, even if it never finds an audience, for through it we are doing what we, as humans and, in Tolkien’s phrase, co-creators are put on this Middle-earth to do.


Adventures in Bookland: The Emperor’s Silver by Nick Brown

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

With a new cover design that is much more in keeping with the tone of Nick Brown’s excellent Agent of Rome series, the fifth book about the adventures of Imperial agent Cassius Corbulo may be the best so far. In keeping with the genre-bending that Brown has done throughout the series, this one is mainly a detective story, but one embedded in the provincial politics of the third century. The plot is intriguing and the way Brown uses it to examine different aspects of life in the third century is fascinating. However, what sets it apart is the growing conflict, and to a degree resolution, between Cassius, the patrician pagan, and Simo, his Christian slave, and Indavara, his bodyguard, who worships Lady Fortune. Brown does a brilliant job of depicting the different assumptions each bring to these unequal relationships, while keeping them true to third century mores (there are no disguised 21st century characters in these books). It’s a fascinating portrayal of ‘friendship’ between master and slave, where both see the relationship as friendship, but both are equally aware where all the power lies: Cassius can, at any time if he so wishes, sell Simo and there is nothing Simo could do about it. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: The Black Stone by Nick Brown

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

The first four books in this marvellous series are not well served by their covers, and I think this, the fourth and final volume with a cover in this style, is the worst. Looking at it, you’d be justified in thinking the book it covers told the adventures of some muscle-bound Roman lunk whose only recourse when faced with a problem is to get out his sword. In fact, while tense and exciting, it’s a long way from the hack ‘n’ slash of the wish-fulfilment school of historical fiction written for male readers. Cassius Corbulo, the hero, is cerebral rather than brawny, the series itself plays with different genres, mashing up detective fiction, thrillers and espionage, with very little in the way of the military hist-fic that the cover promises. But what makes the stories stand out is the developing, and deepening, relationship between patrician and pagan when it suits him Cassius, his Christian slave, Simo, and his bodyguard, Indavara, who worships Lady Fortune. The dynamics and power imbalances implicit in such relationships are brought out skillfully by Nick Brown, and these are what make me want to read more (alongside a cracking plot with all sorts of unexpected turns of fortune). The books are also developing an interesting realist take on the outcomes of these sorts of contests: often, the bad guys do get away. All in all, another excellent installment in the Agent of Rome series.

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.