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Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Adventures in Bookland: The Leeward Islands Squadron by Chris Durbin

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

Excellent continuation of the naval adventures begun in The Colonial Post-Captain. While it doesn’t have the depth and colour of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, it does have the advantage of a writer who served in the Navy himself and who understands the sea and sailing in a way that no landlubber author can match. Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbrooke are engaging characters, the setting (in this case the Caribbean) is vivid and the story, drawing on the real-life exploits of 18th-century frigate commanders, is as extraordinary as the exploits of those naval commanders. Thoroughly recommended to fans of naval adventures.

Adventures in Bookland: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

This is not something I, a writer, say lightly but, to be honest, I preferred the film. When I say film, I don’t mean the 2002 George Clooney vehicle, but the 1972 version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I was about 16 at the time when I saw it on TV. I switched channel – at that time you still had to press buttons to change channels – and I found myself transfixed. I didn’t have a clue what was going on – Tarkovsky’s style of long, close up shots on silent actors was something I had never seen before – but the film held me as few have before or since. Images from it remained with me for years. But most of all, the image of Solaris itself, the mysterious, sentient ocean, attempting to communicate – possibly – with the men orbiting it on the space station. The final image of the film, as the hero finds himself on an island on the living ocean, stuck in my imagination in a way that few other images and experiences from so long ago have. Having read Lem’s original story, I regret to say that nothing in the novel made anything like the impression that Tarkovsky’s film did. Thinking about it, I suppose it’s obvious. Lem was trying to capture a living sentient ocean in words, Tarkovsky was doing it with pictures. Since living sentient oceans don’t do words but, in this case at least, do make people simulations and ultimately even little islands, then the picture version had an inherent advantage. Add in somebody with Tarkovsky’s vision, and this is a good example of a film outstripping its source material.

Island in the ocean.

Adventures in Bookland: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Friday, November 8th, 2019

I’m not going to hide behind literary snobbery here: I found The Leopard disappointingly disappointing. I would like to say that the clarity of the language, combining the harshness of the Sicilian summer with the luxuriousness of the Sicilian soul, and the accuracy of the portrait of a decaying but still ostensibly noble aristocratic culture, made for a novel of astonishing insight into the human condition. And it does. It really does.

It’s just… a little boring. Just a little. Nothing very much for a book that’s over a century old. Tastes change. Styles alter. I am afraid I have fallen victim to the sensibilities of a markedly non-literary age – something that could not be said for the world portrayed in The Leopard – and I fear this all may be true. But there have been few books I wanted to like more when beginning them, and few that have I spent so much concentration on to so little effect on my reading soul.

The fault, I am sure, is all mine. Sometimes you have to read a book at the right time, with the appropriate frame of mind, in the correct place and under particular circumstances for the book to strike home. I will reserve The Leopard for another try, when next I find myself languishing under a punishing sun, the plants and trees withered and life itself lying prostrate beneath the weight of the heat. Then, I think, The Leopard will prowl into my heart. But, until then, three stars.

Adventures in Bookland: The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

Friday, October 11th, 2019

The metres used by the skalds, the court poets of the Norse chieftains, were among the most complex and difficult metres ever used regularly by poets. As such, the success of a translation of the Elder Edda should maybe be best judged by how well it conveys the complexity of the original. Andy Orchard’s version is vigorous and contemporary, doing a good job of conveying the meaning of the original verse without attempting much in the way of replicating their structure. This may be an inevitable trade-off – I am not able to read the originals – but the ideal of course would be a translation that does both.

Adventures in Bookland: Carcharadons by Robbie MacNiven

Friday, October 11th, 2019

They live in the Void, in the dark beyond the Galaxy’s light, hunting the enemies of the Imperium before they even reach it. There be monsters there, in the dark. But as monstrous as those monsters are the silent hunters, the Space Sharks, the Carcharadon chapter of the Space Marines. For ten thousand years they have cruised the Void, going deep into great silence, on an eternal crusade.

So, yes, they’re pretty weird. Ten thousand years fighting the sort of monsters that inhabit the 40th millennium would make anyone a little bit strange: the Carcharadons are off the scale strange. Perhaps that could have come across a little more strongly in these novels, but Robbie MacNiven does a great job of setting up this chapter of solitary hunters of the abyss in these two novels, the first pitting the Sharks against the Night Lords, the second taking on the Tyrannids.

Adventures in Bookland: Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

Another favourite of mine in the incomparable Flashman series, this volume bowled your attentive reader over by Flashman’s role in codifying the game of cricket – first hat trick ever bowled – and introducing me to some of the great early characters of the game. Then it won me over completely by including extracts from the diary of Elspeth, Flashie’s golden tressed, air head wife, forever puzzling our hero with the question of whether she is as unfaithful to Flashie as he is to her. Throw in South Seas pirates, the extraordinary James Brooks, the White Rajah of Sarawak, whose exploits would beggar credulity if they were not actually true, and mad Queen Ravalona of Madagascar, whose brutality really does beggar belief, and you have all the elements for classic Flashman. It is.

Adventures in Bookland: Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

All the Flashman books are good but this might possibly be the very best of a remarkable bunch (although Flashman at the Charge and Flashman’s Lady run it close by my reading). But with Otto von Bismarck as the villain and the extraordinary Lola Montez as the lust interest, and with a plot that plays homage and tribute to The Prisoner of Zenda, this is as good as historical fiction gets.

Adventures in Bookland: Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

A political chancer cast out into the outer dark through one too many gambles that had fallen through. An egomaniacal gloryhound. A man in love with language and the sound of his own rhetoric. Winston Spencer Churchill was the last, extraordinary, flourishing of the Victorians who, through the 1930s, looked like a man born out of his time, a man born too late to seize the glory that he most earnestly desire. And then history came to his rescue, and he came to the rescue of history. Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history is very much out of fashion – modern historians prefer the minutiae of economic theory and feminist grievance mining – but the 20th century stands in bloody rebuke to this. If ever a century – and in particular the paroxysm of the Second World War – was a story of history-bending individuals it was the 20th century. Imagine a century in which young Adolf Hitler had succeeded as an artist and the young Josef Stalin had stayed in the seminary. Would the 20th century have become the bloodbath it became without them? I think not.

But then imagine a century in which the young Winston had blocked one of the bullets that flew past his head during the Boer War. That is what this book forces one to imagine: and in the fractious comfort of our 21st century it really brings to life the dark abyss that we – the whole world – stared down into and that we so narrowly escaped. Indeed, for those parts of the world that fell under Soviet sway, the escape postdated the end of the war by half a century.

Winston Churchill almost single-handedly held the line against what seemed inevitable defeat. He had the belief, the drive and, in a national context, most importantly the words to define and solidify the national response to onrushing disaster: unremitting defiance.

As such, this book is excellent. It reminds the reader just how close we came and what a debt we owe to Churchill and those others who stood firm beside him. Unfortunately, the writing itself never rises to the heights that Churchill himself regularly scaled, both on the page and in speeches. It’s workmanlike: honest stuff but nothing more.

Adventures in Bookland: The Exiled by David Barbaree

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

What responsibility does the writer of historical fiction have to the historical record? This tautly written, rather bleak thriller of Imperial Roman politics raises that question for the reader. In his author’s note, David Barbaree inform the reader that The Exiled is a work of fiction and that he has taken liberties that a novelist is allowed. But since many readers of historical fiction read the genre to be informed as well as to be entertained, it behoves the writer to inform his reader where he has taken these liberties. Unfortunately, Barbaree does not. So the unsuspecting reader might believe that Domitilla, the sister of the Emperor Titus, was alive and a key player in the events of his reign, including the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, when in fact so far as we know she died a decade before all the events of this story took place. Barbaree’s entertaining fancy as to the true fate of the Emperor Nero, which was the focus of his first novel, The Deposed, continues in The Exiled, and its inclusion is more understandable given the world he has constructed. Perhaps the book is best taken as an imaginative working out of the ‘What if?’ scenario that Nero did not die, but lived on, working behind the scenes of Imperial politics. As such, the book might perhaps be best thought of as historical fantasy, sans dragons and gods and nymphs, but with similar scant regard for what probably happened. Readers allergic to the use of the present tense and modern-day vocabulary in historical fiction might also want to be wary.

Adventures in Bookland: Superluminary by John C. Wright

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

Although marketed – and sold as – three separate books, this is really one rougly 500 page story split into three. A bit cheeky that – you end up paying, even for the Kindle edition, significantly more than you would if it was sold as what it really is, a single novel.

Still, I’ll forgive the marketing – it’s not as if writers are coining it (average wage £10,000 per annum), so if this gets John Wright a bit more in royalties, I can’t cavil – as the story itself is such a magnificently over the top piece of space opera. For you older SF fans out there: if you thought nothing could top EE Doc Smith’s Lensman stories, think again. To give an idea of the scales involved, Superluminary has War Dysons as one of its minor conceits! Arthur Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic: so it is here. Quantum physics, Aristotelian teleology, and every possible variant on the space-time continuum are employed to give an exhilirating veneer of plausibility to a ride that takes the reader to the galaxy’s core (engineered by Space Vampires as the ultimate weapon) all the way through to galactic ramming. This is SF on a scale so massive that it inspires smiles of awe at Wright’s sheer chutzpah. Can he possibly top this, you ask at the end of Book 1? The answer is, yes.

Now, after the praise, the criticism. Given that the book is quite expensive, the editing on it is far too sloppy. There are far too many typos, incorrect words and word order and sundry other editing errors. It does not look like it has been checked much beyond a spell check. That is sloppy, and takes the reader out of the story quite unnecessarily.

But it’s worth it for the ride.