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

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.

Win Conrad Monk!

August 21st, 2018

Adventures in Bookland: The Quest for God by Paul Johnson

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

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

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.

Adventures in Bookland: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

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

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.

Don’t Give Up

August 16th, 2018


What’s the difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer?

The professional didn’t give up.

To emphasise the point here’s my publication history by decade:
1980s – one short story published
1990s – one short story published
2000s – two stories published (and a few articles in magazines)
2010s – about 40 short stories published, 11 books and I’ve lost count of the number of magazine features
So don’t give up and keep getting better.


Adventures in Bookland: The Stolen White Elephant by Mark Twain

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

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.