Book review: Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

This is an enlightening, enriching and superbly written account of the shifting waters and treacherous sands that join the River Thames to the North Sea. Lichtenstein works broadly downstream, starting from London and moving eastwards, telling the extraordinarily varied stories of the lives that intersected and intersect with the river. The river was what made London, bringing the world to the city, but what is fascinating is how much life went on in and around the river, from dredgers and fishermen, to a self-declared autonomous republic on an old sea fort in the estuary.

The sea fort, calling itself the Principality of Sealand, has been fought over, invaded and defended in its time. The river itself flows with tales, from drowned boats laden with unexploded munitions to the hard lives of the fishermen, and Lichtenstein does a superb job of telling them.

She also has a great deal of time for the various artists who seek to incorporate the river into their work – sometimes with near fatal results. Taking a photographer with her to record the sailing of an old yacht, the photographer faffs around for so long trying to set up his camera that the boat crashes. In the crash, Lichtenstein is quite badly injured. Her commitment to river side artists shows a notable lessening thereafter!

For anyone interested in the river and how the people living alongside it have used, abused, loved and hated it, this is a wonderful book.

Book review: Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh

“Bunty, you see in the paper, that chap Waugh has a new book out?”

“What’s it called, darling?”

“The Complete Short Stories.”

“What a dull title. Must be a dreary writer.”

“Nonsense, Bunty. He’s the chap you met in a bar in Abyssinia.”

“You mean the fellow who stole all my stories?”

“That’s the one. You’re in this new one too.”

“I hope he gets me right this time, darling. He made me out to be a frightful cad in the last one.”

“But you are a frightful cad, Bunty.”

“Would you want me any other way, darling?”

“Of course not, Bunty. Just that…”

“Just what?”

“It would be nice if you could remember my name.”

“Of course I remember your name, darling.”

“What is it, Bunty?”

“Why, it’s darling. Would you have me call you anything else?”

“No, of course not, Bunty.”

“That’s better, darling. Now, pass me the paper. I must check the racing results.”

Book review: Christmas by Nick Page

Christmas by Nick Page

You know all those stories and memes about Christmas actually being a pagan feast that the early Church appropriated? Christmas trees, yule and yule logs, even the actual day of the celebration? Turns out that the myth of the Christian origin of Christmas is as much a myth as its detractors claim the feast is itself.

Nick Page does an excellent job of chasing the historical roots of Christmas down to their often obscure origins. In particular, he digs down into the origin of the feast in the Christian calendar and the roughly contemporary start of the pagan feast that the Church was supposed to have muscled in upon.

Coming closer in time, it’s fascinating to learn how many apparently ancient Christmas customs are actually relatively recent, with most of them starting in the 18th and, particularly, 19th centuries. The book’s subtitle – Tradition, Truth and Total Baubles – shows Page’s love of jokes and puns. For this reader, there were slightly too many but that’s down to taste. All in all, the book is an excellent and readable account of how we have come to have the Christmas that we celebrate today.

Book review: The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward, who died on 3 April 2022, was one of Britain’s most accomplished popular historians, his many books displaying a mixture of vigorous storytelling and close attention to primary and secondary sources. Seward’s final book, published posthumously, shows that he suffered no decline in his gifts in his final years. The Greatest Viking takes the life of King Olav Haraldsson and brings the man and his times to life. In this, Seward was helped by Olav’s life being, like that of so many of the great Vikings, a tale of outrageous adventure, of reversals and victories, daring escapes and unlikely returns. Indeed, it’s the sort of life that if Seward had been writing a novel, he would have had to tone it down to make it more believable.

Olav, in life and even more in his death, became a symbol of Norwegian national identity, so much so that we was given – and still holds – the title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, the eternal king of Norway. Olav, a descendant of Harald Fairhair, the first man to unite Norway, saw it as his destiny to bring the country under his rule. Following his conversion to Christianity, he widened his mission to include banishing the old Norse gods. Seward is particularly insightful in explaining the savagery with which Olav went about suppressing the old pagan religion, neither excusing Olav’s fierceness nor downplaying the depravity attached to worshipping the old gods. Although we have lost an excellent historian, The Greatest Viking is an excellent valediction of a lifetime’s work bringing the past to life for new generations.

Book review: Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Peter Fehervari is the unlikely Evelyn Waugh of 40k authors. Writing about Tyrannid genestealer cults is not an obvious opportunity to showcase a prose style that combines the economy of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall with the jewel crusted baroquetries of his Brideshead Revisited, but Fehervari, rather extraordinarily, manages to do so. One of the very, very few 40k books to read for its literary qualities.

Book review: Relentless by Dean Koontz

Relentless by Dean Koontz

I am, in principle, in favour of stories where the hero is an unassuming but nevertheless quietly heroic writer – I can’t imagine why. I also thoroughly approve of stories where the villain is a horribly unfair literary critic, of vituperative opinions and little discernment. Having been on the receiving end of a few reviews of the writer-is-an-idiot-and-his-work-is-worse variety I can aver that there are few retributions not fully deserved by such reviewers.

Despite all these points in its favour, I must nevertheless admit that ‘Relentless’ is boiler plate Koontz: standard late period fare without the original ideas of ‘Innocence’ or ‘The City’. One for Koontz completists only.

Book review: Tales From the Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkien

Tales from the Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkien

The mark of a great story is returning to it at different stages of one’s life and finding it fresh each time, as if seeing a fresh vista on the same image with each reading. That is true for the stories contained in Tales From the Perilous Realm and, in particular, Leaf by Niggle. Anyone working to fashion meaning and story out of the raw material of words, or paint, or sound, could find enough in here to ponder over a lifetime – and I have! If you are a sub-creator, labouring in the fields of Arda, read it and know that your efforts are not in vain, so long as you labour truly for the work itself and not the glory or honour or wealth or renown it might bring you.

Book review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I have a theory that the genres writers write in has nothing to do with their particular skills but everything to do with the name they were given by their parents. Jane Austen was always going to be the well spring of domestic, detailed fiction with women in the key roles: Austen has both the necessary toughness (austenite is a form of iron) while Jane introduces the plain spoken femininity. H. P. Lovecraft – what else but grandiloquent horror. Edgar Allan Poe: grand guignol fiction.

By my theory, there was no possibility of a boy baptised James Butcher growing up to write sensitive literary fiction set in small-town America and, sure enough, the adult Jim Butcher writes tought supernatural fiction featuring a trouble-worn warlock operating out of Chicago – basically Philip Marlow with a magic staff.

Is Harry Dresden as good as Philip Marlow? No, but then hardly anyone else is. The story is nevertheless a solid opener to what has become a highly successful series. I enjoyed it but not sufficiently to rush out and read the second. On the other hand, should I find the next volume lying on a shelf when I am taking a railway journey and have forgotten to bring something to read, I would pick it up as a gift from generous providence.

Book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Sometimes, there was a tree.

Near where two footpaths met in the park, an unassuming tree, more than a sapling but not yet mature. The sort of tree you would not remark when you walked past it. The sort of tree you would not remark when you did not walk past it.

The world is a strange place. Under the cover of everyday mundanity, things shift and change. For Piranesi, in the House, things change too: the tide rolls in through its endless rooms, he waits upon visits of the Other, the only other living man he knows, and the seagulls nest. It is the only world he knows.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

It is quiet too, with the quiet of another liminal place: the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew. Like that Wood, it is a junction between different worlds while being itself a place of forgetting.

Piranesi is the story of one who gets lost, for a while in the Wood Between the Worlds, in one of those liminal places where worlds meet. It is a marvellous story and, like all the best stories, it carries the stamp of Truth.

Sometimes, there was a tree.

Book review: Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

What sets Dean Koontz apart from other bestselling authors is his ability to generate an extraordinary number of fascinating ‘What if?’ premises for his stories. His writing can be uneven, particularly when developing a character over a series of books – the Odd Thomas series is a great example – but his one-off books based upon a singular idea are almost always worth reading.

That’s true of Cold Fire. Another brilliant what if. What if you were a reporter on a small-town paper and you discovered a story about a man who appeared from nowhere, saved people from certain death, and then disappeared again – a sort of anonymous Superman. That’s the premise here, although we follow both the reporter and the anonymous Superman, as they first meet and then try to work out the source of his strange precognitory paper.

The twist as to the nature of Jim Ironheart’s power is interesting and adds some unexpected nuance to the story without necessarily being the sort of blockbuster reveal that leaves the reader going, “Wow!” Nevertheless, an excellent thriller.