Adventures in Bookland: Iron Man: The Gauntlet by Eoin Colfer

October 16th, 2017

Disappointing. Sad to reduce a 60,000 word book to a one-word review, but ‘disappointing’ sums it up. Not that The Gauntlet is bad. Eoin Colfer is too practised a writer for it to be bad. He maintains, the pace, the wisecracks and the plot twists as only someone who’s managed to wring eight novels and a movie adaptation out of the premise of the bad boy genius could. But that’s about it: in the end, it feels like a thoroughbred writer, going through his paces and showing off his tricks, and nothing much more. Yes, I know Tony Stark is the grown-up version of Artemis Fowl but with an added iron suit, but the villains – the Mandarin and assorted henchmen – are by the numbers bad guys and Tony Stark is the Marvel-rote version of the good guy, all wisecracks, pseudo character growth and, er, more wisecracks. Still, on the positive side, Colfer is a good enough writer for me to whizz through the book in a couple of days.

Iron Man: The Gauntlet by Eoin Colfer.


Adventures in Bookland: How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca

October 16th, 2017

This is a book that’s full of clues and cues to enable the reader to understand armour. As to the book itself, the great clue as to reading it is found by seeing that it is published by the Met – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – as the latest in a series of ‘How to Read’ books. Previous volumes include ‘How to read Chinese Paintings’ and ‘How to read Greek Vases’. This is very much a book for the cultured connoisseur of European armour. Indeed, the author, Donald La Rocca, is the curator of the Met’s collection of armour. With its exquisitely reproduced photographs of notable pieces of armour, it’s a book that will reside very well on the most tasteful of coffee tables, but it’s more than just a book with beautiful pictures. The text reveals La Rocca’s deep scholarly appreciation of his field, particularly within the context of arms as art. This is a book for the collector rather than the re-enactor.

Its great virtue is to highlight to the reader the dual function of armour. We all know that armour protected the knight but La Rocca and the illustrations place vividly in front of the reader how the ‘knight in shining armour’ of legend was also a man displaying power and prestige, and no where more so than in the armour of the great and powerful. As befits the Met’s superb collection of armour from the 15th to the 17th centuries, the book focuses on the supreme examples of the armourer’s craft, as revealed in such pieces as the gauntlets of Philip II of Spain or the shield of Henry II of France. In these, the armourer marries form and function to an extraordinary degree, providing both superb protection for the royal personage while also signalling his status to the men around him on the battlefield – for this was still a time when kings were expected to take to the field.

In keeping with the expertise of its writer, the book also reveals to the reader the subtle clues that enable someone like the curator of the Met’s armour collection to tell whether what he is looking at is a genuine example of 16th century armour, a cobbled together collection of disparate pieces of armour hung on to a mannequin, or an actual forgery, most likely made in the latter part of the 19th century when the rebirth of interest in the medieval created a market for fake and forged armour. Although La Rocca reveals what he looks for when assessing armour, this reviewer suspects it would take many years of careful study to arrive at the disciplined aesthetic vision that allows this level of discrimination. This sort of appreciation does not come cheap – it requires years of study. But La Rocca is generous with his dearly bought knowledge and by the end of the book the reader will have a far deeper understanding of the form and function of later European armour.

How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca.


Adventures in Bookland: Treason’s Tide by Robert Wilton

October 16th, 2017

This ought to have been great. The book’s conceit, that the author has discovered the archives of a shadowy British spy organisation and is publishing part of the collected archives, is brilliantly carried off. In particular, the extracts from letters, newspapers, journals and the varied and various epistolary exchanges of the early 19th century are completely convincing – so much so that for much of the book I thought the Comptrollerate General really existed! Now, that really is well done, and my congratulations to Robert Wilton for his ability to write convincingly in so many voices and genres. So all the foundations for a great novel of historical fiction were in place. What stops it achieving greatness is, in the end, the story. A story about the smoke and mirrors, the lies and deceptions of espionage during the Napoleonic Wars in the end dissolves itself, the plot blowing away like a column of smoke when a wind rises. In the end, it’s hard not to think that it was all sutff and nonsense about nothing much in particular – a story of panic and confusion dissipated when, finally, all the plots are revealed as empty and the threat unreal. Still, with the talent Wilton shows in this, his first book, I am sure that he is capable of writing a truly great novel of historical fiction in future.

Treason’s Tide by Robert Wilton.


Adventures in Bookland: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall

October 16th, 2017

Warriors and Kings is subtitled ‘The 1500-year Battle for Celtic Britain’ but in this it is not strictly accurate.  While the book is certainly about warriors and kings, rather than Celtic Britain Wall concentrates almost exclusively on the long struggle between the English and the Welsh. Although the first chapters delve into the pre-history of the wider Celtic peoples, once the Angles and the Saxons enter the story the book tracks the long and fraught relations between the Welsh and the English, with only passing nods towards the other Celtic areas, such as Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. By thus concentrating on the encounters between English and Welsh, Wall misses the chance to elucidate one of the key aspects of Celtic culture: the way that the sea allowed a people that were, geographically, widely spread, to maintain a culture held together by song and saga, history and trade.

Once into the turbulent history of Anglo/Welsh relations, Wall does a good job of leading the reader through the tangled and deeply depressing history of Welsh internecine warfare, where brothers and cousins routinely turned upon each other in suicidally sanguinary warfare. What Wall brings out clearly is that, if there was one factor that ensured ultimate English political dominance over Wales, it was the Celtic practice of partible inheritance as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon and Norman custom of primogeniture. For the Celts, inheritance was divided equally between all of a man’s sons, even including those born illegitimately, whereas the Anglo-Saxon and Norman lords passed their estates on to the eldest born, allowing these lords to increase the family holdings through the generations. Indeed, the repeating pattern of Welsh resistance to English domination was for a great leader such as Llywelyn the Great, through much toil and conflict, to unite the warring Welsh kingdoms, fight the English to terms, only for everything to fall apart on his death when his sons and heirs fell to fighting it out over the inheritance.

While Wall brings this aspect of Welsh history vividly to life, his treatment of the religious divide between the Welsh and the English is less convincing. It’s undoubtedly true that the church in Wales, which followed Irish practices for dating Easter that diverged from that of the wider church, was seen as heretical and schismatic by churchmen such as Wilfrid. However, Wall comes close to arguing that the English saw fighting the Welsh as an early version of the Albigensian Crusade, despite the fact that the Welsh church had abandoned its heterodox practices by the middle of the 8th century. In presenting the conflict as rigid orthodoxy against free-spirited heresy, Wall reads the past through the prism of post-Reformation conflicts. He also ignores how the insular Celtic church influenced wider Christianity, suggesting a process in which both sides accommodated and adopted as much as they pronounced anathemas and excommunicated. For example, he fails to mention how the wider Christian church adopted the characteristic Celtic pentitentials and its practice of personal confession, nor the impact that monks on pilgrimage for Christ had in converting the Germanic peoples of north-western Europe.

Although an interesting book within the parameters it adopts for itself, there are better accounts of the long struggle and longer influence of the Celtic peoples of Britain.

Adventures in Bookland: Lightning by Dean Koontz

October 8th, 2017

This is one of the books that made Koontz’s reputation as a writer of thrillers with a science fiction/horror twist. In this case, it’s that old SF standby, time travel but Koontz wrings every last plot twist out of the trope, working through the ramifications of the idea with a thoroughness and an elan that kept me reading until the early hours of the morning. Not so sure about the reworking of present-day history at the end; that just smacked of authorial wishful thinking. Still, if a writer can’t indulge in some wishful thinking after 350 plus pages of misdirection, narrative switchbacks and plain old adrenaline-fuelled pacy writing, when can he do so? Therefore, on the Koontz-o-meter (which measures the wildly variable writing of Dean Koontz from the excellent [Odd Thomas] to the execrable [Forever Odd]) Lightning ranks high, nearly alongside Odd Thomas.

Adventures in Bookland: The Earthly Gods by Nick Brown

October 2nd, 2017

I’ve fallen hideously behind in my adventures in bookland – indeed, it might have looked like I had abandoned bookland entirely – but never fear, it remains my favourite place in which to travel, and Nick Brown’s series of the adventures of Imperial agent Cassius looks like it will be a very good place to travel. This is the sixth (and currently last) book in the series, but its story of kidnap, adventure, quest and survival is excellent, and the characters memorable and well rounded. An excellent example of historical fiction and highly recommended.

Big Announcement Number 2

September 29th, 2017

Second, sustained drum roll….

Here it is, big announcement number 2: my next non-fiction book will be called Warrior: the Biography of a Man with No Name, and it will be published by Granta.

Now this really is pretty big: Granta is about the most prestigious publisher in Britain and having them publish my next book will ensure it gets noticed in all sorts of places that have previously ignored my work, including the national press (although that also opens the possibility of scathing reviews from reviewers working on the principle that a good kicking is always more fun to write and read in review than any amount of glowing praise).

As to the book itself, it is the story of one of the people excavated at the Bowl Hole Cemetery near Bamburgh Castle. While human remains provide all sort of useful archaeological evidence, their great drawback is that skeletons are mute: they tell no story. But for a variety of reasons, we can say much more about one particular man, buried within sight of castle and sea, than is normally the case, and it is his story that we will tell in this book. When I say we, it really will be a book written in the first person plural, as I will be collaborating on it with Paul Gething, one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project and the man who excavated the body of this Dark-Age warrior.

Warrior will be published in 2019.

Big Announcement Number 1

September 28th, 2017

Finally, a new book!

Drum roll…

I’ve finished writing my next novel. And here are the very first lines.

“Bloody Danes.”

I looked away from my horrified regard of what was happening to the man beside me.

“Bloody, bloody Danes,” Brother Odo muttered again, staring fixedly through the slats of the sty.

“Yes, they are,” I hissed. “And it’ll be our blood they’ll be covered with if you don’t shut up.”

Brother Odo turned terror struck eyes towards me. “Where did they come from?”

“The Danes? Where do you think?” I squinted back out through the slats. “Idiot.”

There you go. Does it make you want to read more? As you can tell, this story is again set in Anglo-Saxon England, but two centuries later than the Northumbrian Thrones, during the invasion of the Great Heathen Army. But if that is par for my normal writing course, the ‘hero’ isn’t, for he is a liar, a cheat and a coward; a man whose only virtue is the fact that he knows he is completely without any redeeming virtue. The story begins with the Great Army laying waste the kingdom of East Anglia and reaches a climax at the Battle of Ashdown, taking in martyrdoms, mysteries and a very unusual place to find a bishop’s ring along the way.

The book will be published by Endeavour Ink, the paper imprint of Endeavour Press, probably in the spring of 2018. (I can’t give you a title yet, as we haven’t decided on one.)

I’m Back!

September 28th, 2017

A long time since I posted anything on my blog, but we were away for the summer in Sri Lanka, visiting the land of my father. Here’s a photo of me and my boys, trying to work out where we were going to go next!

‘I’m sure this isn’t on the map.’

More about the trip later, but for now, some big news and announcements that I’ll make in the next couple of posts.

Adventures in Bookland: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

July 10th, 2017

The cover photo gives, as much as is possible, some idea of what is inside this most extraordinary of books. Look at it carefully. Rising from surrounding water a ziggurat of stone rendered into yearning patterns of ascent points to the overarching sky. It is a medieval rocket to heaven, a union of all the different worlds, a place that, seeing it, grabs the breath and awes the eye. The French refer to part of it as ‘La Merveille’ but it is all a marvel, almost impossible to comprehend. That the men of the eleventh century were able to make such a place seems scarcely credible, and yet they did, raising a work greater than any of the wonders of antiquity. Although the medievals revered the classical past, in truth they outdid it in what they built, in stone and thought and culture.

This book, faced with such marvels, answers with its own, for it is, without doubt, one of the three or four most extraordinary books I have ever read. The author, Henry Adams, was the great grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was US ambassador to Britain during the American Civil War. So, not much to live up to there then!

What must it be like to grow up in such a milieu? Henry Adams went on to become a historian and journalist, but in terms of obvious accomplishment, he did not match his forbears. Yet he wrote two books, The Education of Henry Adams and this volume, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, that rank as classics, although each are strange members of that class of literature. The Education is an autobiography, of sorts, while Mont Saint Michel is ostensibly a travel guide. But when I was working as a travel writer for publishers such as Time Out, I’d have had my copy spiked if I’d submitted anything like Mont Saint Michel (oh, if only I could write so well!). Perhaps the best comparison, in terms of style, is John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, although that would not be obvious from the playful preface, where Adams dedicates this book to ‘nieces in wish’, willing to read the musings of an uncle on the strange and distant land of France and the stranger and more distant lands of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Adams, with a mix of erudition and wit (he assumes his reader is fluent in French, Latin and reasonably conversant in Greek), leads his niece in wish upwards through Mont St Michel, ascending it in thought and learning, placing it within the compass of the society and times that created it and, in doing so, he does something that I would have thought impossible: despite being something of an Anglo-Saxonist, he makes me appreciate the Normans. Then, by way of the birth of Gothic, Adams takes the visitor to the pinnacle of Gothic architecture, Chartres Cathedral, and sings the hymn of its inspiration and, in truth, its maker, the Virgin herself. No where else have I read such an intense and lived encounter with the medieval mind, such an appreciation of its peculiar and particular genius.

Yet, it was an appreciation born in a nihilism that, occasionally, shatters the stained glass and leaves the reader face to face with the dark cold at the heart of Adams’ world.

It was very childlike, very foolish, very beautiful, and very true,- -as art, at least:—so true that everything else shades off into vulgarity… For seven hundred years Chartres has seen pilgrims, coming and going more or less like us, and will perhaps see them for another seven hundred years; but we shall see it no more, and can safely leave the Virgin in her majesty, with her three great prophets on either hand, as calm and confident in their own strength and in God’s providence as they were when Saint Louis was born, but looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.

Few saints have seen as clearly into the mystery of Chartres and Mont St Michel as Adams, yet he sees it all as shadow play, and a play of shadows, the footlings of earnest and talented children before they shuffle into the dark.

It is a bleak vision.

But it only breaks through briefly and, for most of the book, Adams is content to walk in the vivid colours of the medieval, letting its bright, primary colours light his prose.

There are other points where the book comes to a juddering, jarring halt, however, and this is wherever Adams mentions Jews. He was, to put it simply, an anti-semite, and on paper at least a vicious one. Reading him, as complete a product of civilised 19th-century culture as one could wish to find, it becomes a little clearer how the 20th century could produce the Holocaust.

For some, these sudden eruptions of nihilism and hatred into this most civilised and civilising of texts might serve to render it beyond reading, and I would have no objections to that. But they are part of what makes this book extraordinary, for they serve to help to define how precious and rare a man of truly civilised culture is, and how even the best of these may be distorted by the culture they embody. This book is a 19th-century understanding of the High Middle Ages and it enlightens the modern reader about both in a way no other book I’ve ever read does. Do read it.