Book review: The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

In honour of our new puppy, I’ve been reading Isaac, at bedtime, Dodie Smith’s ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’. The story had been one of my childhood favourites, as shown by my reading to Isaac from my copy printed in 1970, but I had not re-read the book in many years.

And you know what? It is an absolute delight. Beautifully written, perfectly paced, with a brave and intelligent hero (speaking as a father, it’s a blessed relief to finally read a fictional father portrayed as capable and honourable rather than the bumbling idiots we are written as today, even if the dad is a dog), all set against one of the greatest villains ever put upon the page, Cruella de Vil. In fact, Cruella is so completely wicked and without redeeming features, she may be the only evil villain sure to avoid a modern reworking casting her as a misunderstood symbol of female empowerment. No, she is simply Cruella de Vil – and all the better for that too!

So if you want a great bedtime read for you children, I suggest ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’ (and it’s better than the films too).

Book review: Trial by Battle by David Piper

Trial by Battle by David Piper

The Imperial War Museum has republished a number of novels written after the Second World War by men and women who took part in the conflict. Long out of print, if this is anything to go by, then the Museum has performed a great service in bringing them back before the reading public.

Trial by Battle starts with almost Waughesque farce as newly commissioned officer Alan Mart, fresh from Cambridge, arrives to take command of his Indian troops. He meets, and becomes an occaionsal friend and a more frequent sparring partner to Sam Moll, a wonderfully deep caricature of a career officer in the army. The first half of the book conveys the confusion and ad hoc response to the initial phases of the war, when soldiers were desperately deployed around the world, with the Indian brigade, trained in desert warfare, dispatched to Malaya to counter the Japanese offensive.

The second half of the book brilliantly conveys the confusion, fear and ignorance of war on the ground, where no one knows what is going on any further away than their own line of sight. It’s a novel born from Piper’s own wartime experience and profoundly downbeat.

It’s also a novel of the end of empire. For it’s clear that, by the 1940s, the British Empire was doomed for the men, like Alan Mart, who were educated to run it had become simply too embarrassed about what they were being asked to do to carry on doing it.

I’m looking forward to reading more in this series of reissues.

Book review: Sharpe’s Assassin by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe’s Assassin by Bernard Cornwell

This is an example of a book which is held aloft by the previous 20 novels in the series. In all honesty, it’s not a great story. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, the story is ostensibly about Sharpe’s mission to save the victorious Duke of Wellington from being assassinated in Paris by a group of fanatical Bonapartists. The story hits the usual beats of a Sharpe story: dastardly villain, beautiful love interest, class struggles, battles and fights. But the villain is leavened by Sharpe’s admiration for a fellow rascal (Cornwell has evidently realised that no villain will ever match Obadiah Hakeswill), the love interest is Sharpe’s wife, the class struggle, in a nice touch, is with the officer who ordered Sharpe whipped in India when he was still an ordinary soldier, and the fights are small-scale skirmishes in Paris.

The story premise tries to set high stakes but fails because the idea of a group of die-hard Bonapartists plotting to assassinate the Peer comes across as faintly ludicrous. But the story works because we get to spend more time with Sharpe and Harper and, having read 20 previous novels about them, I and many other readers simply enjoy their company. So that is why the novel works: because we get to meet old friends again, friends we feared we would never meet again. Thank you, Mr Cornwell, and I hope you might allow us a further look into their lives after the end of war.

Book review: The Frontiers of Paradise by Peter Levi

The Frontiers of Paradise by Peter Levi

This book was the literary equivalent of finding yourself, at a family gathering, sat next to a bibulous but exquisitely well read and educated great uncle who proceeds to regale you with all the stories about the family that no one ever told you before, along with his own opinions about everyone, including yourself.

If you substitue monks for the family, and an ex-Jesuit turned poet and academic for the great uncle (although being bibulous, exquisitely well read and educated is almost a synonym for a Jesuit), then you have The Frontiers of Paradise in a monk’s cowl. It’s a mixture of gossip, history, poetry and anthropology, all twisted together into a unique brew by a man who appears unsure quite what he really thinks about this God business and whether he can really quite free himself of it all and make a new god of poetry (answer: he can’t). If that makes it sound unique, it is.

Book review: Shout! by Philip Norman

Shout! by Philip Norman

This is a book of thirds. The first third, which deals with the early lives of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr and the Liverpool music scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s is excellent. It brought vivid memories of my own childhood back to me: World War II was only a decade and a half ago, its scars were all too visible, and most people in the country were, by today’s standards, living in poverty. Music, the new music coming over from America was an escape from what must have seemed a blighted land and many more than these four young men embraced it. Norman does a great job of setting the excitement of the time against the wider society, and fitting the four young Beatles into it.

The first third is also great at depicting how they met, how they started playing together, their formative stints in Germany playing for hours on end at clubs in Hamburg, and the way in which Lennon, McCartney and Harrison pushed out Pete Best in favour of Ringo Starr. All fascinating, culminating with their rise to fame and the emergence of Beatlemania.

The second third is also good but less interesting as, intrinsically, reading about a group of young men dealing with fame and money, each other and drugs is intrinsically less interesting. The business dealings, the record deals, the mismanagment of Apple: all very well but not so much fun. That’s more the fault of life than Philip Norman.

However, it’s in the final third that the book really falls down. In his introduction, Norman states that everyone is either a Lennon or a McCartney fan and he falls into the former camp. I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the statement – surely it is possible to appreciate the work of both? – but even if it were the case, then Norman’s avowal of his preference for Lennon should have worked to inform him of his own biases. Instead, the final third becomes a rather ludicrous working out of Norman’s desire to laud everything Lennon and downplay everything that McCartney had a hand in. So not only is Lennon’s songwriting better but everything that Lennon did is presented in the best possible light while McCartney is depicted as facile, self-deceiving and hyprocritical. This bias even extends to their wives: Yoko Ono was apparently an artist of serious repute in her own right while Linda McCartney was nothing but a simpering fangirl who stroked her husband’s ego and did nothing of value in her own right.

So, excellent at the start, good to middling in the middle, and a ridiculous exposition of the writer’s biases at the end. Take your pick!

Book review: The Last Duel by Eric Jager

The Last Duel by Eric Jager

It’s the 14th century, northern France, and you’ve just come home to hear your wife tell you that the man you both trusted as a friend has raped her while you were away. This is what happened to Jean de Carrouges. His wife, Marguerite, was accusing his erstwhile friend, Jacques le Gris, of rape. The two men had once been very close but the friendship had soured over the years. But rape…

There were no witnesses. Jacques le Gris had powerful friends, including Count Pierre who was the patron of both Jean and Jacques. There could be no trial at law. The only recourse open to Jean was to take the case to the king and ask for God to settle the truth through trial by combat. But Jacques was the younger man by many years. If God did not take matter into His own hands – and Jean was experienced enough as a soldier to know that the good and the true did not, by any means, always win – then not only would he lose his life but, having been found guilty of perjury through trial by combat, then his wife, Marguerite, would be executed too, burnt to death at the stake.

It made more sense to let the matter lie.

But Jean was a stubborn, prickly man who loved his wife and who had come to hate Jacques le Gris. He would not let the matter lie.

Eric Jager expertly lays out the background, both social and family, that led to the last judicial duel in French history and then leads us up to the denoument: the battle to the death. It’s a fascinating recreation of another world, a world of honour and blood and death. I won’t say who wins the duel: read the book yourself to find out.

Book review: Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

Have you ever started reading a book and then, maybe twenty or thirty pages in, had the delicious realisation that this was the start of a new reading relationship, that here you had found an author and a series that was going to give you weeks of reading pleasure in the months and years ahead? I’m sure you have. It’s happened to me a few times too, with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, the Flashman novels and others: the delicious realisation that this is the first in (checks online) a whole series of stories and you’ve got all the rest to go. There ought to be a German polysyllabic word for this.

Well, that’s what I thought twenty or thirty pages into Full Dark Moon. Two great lead characters in Bryant and May, detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan Police. Crimes that straddled the border between the mundane and the fantastical. A view of London that provided new insights into places I had seen many times before. Oh, yes, this was going to be good.

But then, but then…

As I read further, I slowly and reluctantly decided that this was not a series for me. Not that what I have written above wasn’t true but rather that the crimes upon which the mystery turned were simply too gory: they splattered suffering and pain over the rest of the book. Yes, I know it’s just a story, but for me fantastical crime is that: fanastical. I really don’t need to know the bloody details.

So I finished the book but decided that this was not a series I was going to read further. Oh, the disappointment.

What Board Games Mean to Me

What Board Games Mean to Me

I’m delighted to announce that I have an essay in the forthcoming collection, What Board Games Mean to Me, published by Aconyte, alongside such key figures in modern-day gaming as Sir Ian Livingstone (Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy), Reiner Knizia (too many games to list!) and Leslie Scott (Jenga), as well as fellow wordworker in the dark grimness of the far future, Gav Thorpe. It was an honour to be asked to contribute.

My essay, ‘Learning the Rules’, tells how playing games helped us as a family. It begins:

I was halfway down the road, the crash of the front door slowly dying away behind me, when I realized that, perhaps, it was not just the children who might benefit from learning to play board games. In my – somewhat feeble – defense, I had been on the point of winning Power: The Game (a Diplomacy derivative with added tanks and missiles) when everyone else in the family ganged up on me and destroyed my army. Even so, given that I was one of the adults in the room, my reaction – announcing that I was never going to play with them ever again if they cheated like this and then storming out of the house, slamming the door behind me – was perhaps not likely to make an appearance in any manuals of good parenting.

There’s many more takes on what gaming means, from designers through to players, so if you have ever despaired of finishing Monopoly or come last at Ludo, this is the book for you!

The Hundred and One Dalmatians

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

In honour of our new puppy, I’ve been reading Isaac, at bedtime, Dodie Smith’s ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’. The story had been one of my childhood favourites, as shown by my reading to Isaac from my copy printed in 1970, but I had not re-read the book in many years.

And you know what? It is an absolute delight. Beautifully written, perfectly paced, with a brave and intelligent hero (speaking as a father, it’s a blessed relief to finally read a fictional father portrayed as capable and honourable rather than the bumbling idiots we are written as today, even if the dad is a dog), all set against one of the greatest villains ever put upon the page, Cruella de Vil. In fact, Cruella is so completely wicked and without redeeming features, she may be the only evil villain sure to avoid a modern reworking casting her as a misunderstood symbol of female empowerment. No, she is simply Cruella de Vil – and all the better for that too!

So if you want a great bedtime read for you children, I suggest ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’ (and it’s better than the films too).

Book review: The Sailor by Theodore Brun

The Sailor by Theodore Brun

Historical fiction has been as infected by the grimming of modern tastes as has Hollywood. Where before, in movies, brightly clad heroes strode across a Technicolor landscape, now grey and mud-spattered protagonists creep through kingdoms leached of colour, where people dressed in all colours so long as they were variations of grey and mud. The bizarre fact is, though, that the older Hollywood films and the first historical novels were more accurate: the past was brightly, vividly coloured, and the people who lived in that past lived lives that were as bright and vivid as their houses, churches and clothing.

So it was a great and unexpected joy to read this novella. It’s set in the 19th century in Copenhagen and it is the most joyous and the most wholesome, in the strict sense of the word, story that I have read in years. It’s such a relief to read a book completely untouched by the confected cynicism of this tired and weary age, where everything is permitted and nothing is done. It’s a story of love, human and divine, the love that moves the sun and other stars, the love that brings life and purpose. It’s a story of first love, of boy for girl, and first love, of God for man, for in each that love is always unique and fresh – and not something I expected to see written about in a contemporary novel. So thank you, Theodore Brun, for having the courage to write with such direct and heartfelt simplicity of thought and emotion; so much harder to do than the usual weary tropes of modern writing. Thank you.