Book review: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

It’s not easy to write a great adventure story. It’s not like writing a good adventure story. That’s not so difficult – I’ve written a couple myself. But a great adventure story, that’s a different matter. It’s different because that which separates a great story from a good story has nothing to do with the formal elements of storytelling: character, plot, three-act structures, all the things they teach you in writing classes. Do these, and you’ll write a good adventure story – or any other type of story.

No, what separates the great from the good is something that stands outside the formal norms of storywriting. It’s lightning in the words. It’s the letter shock and the story explosion. It’s the way that, sometimes, everything clicks, rising to a level above the good. There’s no way of climbing to that level from simple effort because, in essence, it’s a gift: a gift from the words themselves and, yes, the muse.

Sometimes the muse chooses to place her mark upon writers who deserve it, men and women who have honed their words until they can wield them like a surgeon, such as Robert Louis Stevenson (she flung her .iightning at him at least thrice). But sometimes she strikes the literary jobber, writers who churn out words for a living and somehow find themselves typing lightning. Bram Stoker was one, with Dracula, and Anthony Hope was another with The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s a typical lightning book: bold, bright, vivid as the thunder storm. Read it, and ride the lightning.

Book review: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Some science fiction ages, overtaken by advances in science and changes in society. Some doesn’t, and among the writers who stand up best to the grind of time is Alfred Bester. He only wrote three novels in the 1950s, the golden age of SF, but all three are classics of the genre. I read them first thirty or forty years ago, only a few decades after they were first written, and they then represented a dazzling vision of possible futures. Reading The Demolished Man again forty years after I first read, it’s still a dazzling vision of a possible future: a baroque, extravagant, Nietzchean future where the police can probe minds psychically to solve all crimes.

So in a world where the police can read your mind by trained psychics, how can anyone, even the world’s richest and most powerful man, commit murder and get away with it? That’s the crux of the novel, and Bester riffs through the ways of doing it with the skill of a master, but what is particularly striking is how he conveys direct mind to mind contact on the printed page, playing with text layout and syntax. It’s a brilliantly imaginative way of suggesting something none of us have ever experienced (or at least I haven’t!).

This is what science fiction was once capable of: a pyrotechnical mash up of ideas and writing styles. Read it and wonder why writers don’t do this any longer.

Book review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Along with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula suffers, as a story, from having become proverbial. Everyone has heard of Dracula. Everyone knows that he’s a vampire, just as everyone reading Stevenson’s book knows Dr Jekyll’s secret all along. It’s impossible for us to unknow these aspects of the story but, when rereading both books over the last year, I tried to at least imagine what it would have been like for the first readers who didn’t know what was going to happen. Doing that helped me to realise what incredible feats of storytelling both books were. Admittedly, Robert Louis Stevenson is a better writer than Bram Stoker, but Stoker’s use of letters, diaries, even early audio recordings, is quite brilliant, pulling the reader into the various points of view and locking us there for the duration of each chapter.

While the book suffers a little from the usual Victorian tendency to verbosity (a failing Stevenson does not share), the narrative drive is unrelenting and the story drills down into all sorts of nightmares and archetypes: sometimes, a writer can be a vehicle for a story. Sometimes, it can assume a life and purpose of its own, pushing the writer beyond anything he would normally be capable of. That was the case with Dracula.

Although the entry of Dracula into popular culture means that we can never be surprised by the book in the same its first readers were, nevertheless his embrace by the wider culture is an unmistakeable sign of the power of the story that Stoker found himself writing.

Book review: Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

The subtitle states that this is a history of the First World War month by month and that’s exactly what Mallinson does. The book derives from a monthly series of features Mallinson wrote for The Spectator magazine, starting on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that followed the war through each month of the following four years.

This strictly calendrical approach is mainly a strength, almost allowing one to follow how the war would have unfolded to people at the time but with better access to what was going on, but on the odd occasion it forces him to squeeze a huge amount of events into a single chapter. Overall, though, it’s a structure that works very well. In particular, it allows Mallinson to show how this was truly a World War, and not one limited to the trench warfare of the Western front. Using this focus, he expands the view to take in the Eastern Front, the carnage of the mountain war between Italy and Austria/Hungary, the war in the Middle East and the Dardanelles – everywhere.

It’s also useful as a partial corrective to the old saw of lions led by donkeys. The generals of the First World War were not as clueless as portrayed in Blackadder although, in a telling insight, Mallinson gets to the crux of their key failure in understanding the war on the Western Front: it was siege warfare, with the walls of the castle stretching from the mountains to the sea. Some of the commanders realised this but it took a long time for their understanding to penetrate through to the higher ranks. But, once said, it becomes so obvious!

Highly recommended.

Book review: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Dear Reader, I was about to begin my own review of The Dying Earth when I thought I would just have a quick look at its Good Reads page to refresh my memory of the story. Normally, I don’t look at other reviews until I have written my own, but I glanced at the top one, started reading, and continued, enthralled and amazed. Having read Bill Kerwin’s take on the book, I’ve decided I’ve got nothing to add to it and, indeed, it’s far better than anything I would have written. So my review will be a link to his review, with the note that what makes that review so exceptional is that he made me see the book in a completely different light and, as a result, want to reread it illuminated by that light.

So, without further ado, an extract of Bill Kerwin’s magnificent review of The Dying Earth:

So I read The Dying Earth again, as if it were a Punch and Judy show mounted with magnificent sets. Puppet wizards and puppet women now moved through a muted landscape, in a world of distilled evil dominated by a decadent sun. Sometimes they seem like mischievous children, sometimes like degenerate dwarfs, but at other times they seem like creatures of some new myth, a promise of stories to come beyond this dying world.

You can read the rest of the review here and I highly recommend that you do.

Book review: The Anvil of Ice by Michael Scott Rohan

The Anvil of Ice by Michael Scott Rohan

Hm. Let this be a lesson in book reviewing to you, E. Write your review before you forget what happened in the book.

Dear Reader, I must confess that this will not rank as one of my best reviews as, for the life of me, I cannot remember anything much about this story. About all I do remember is that I enjoyed it when reading it and had it down as a four-star book (I have very much enjoyed other books by Michael Scott Rohan). Does this mean that, in order to remember a book, I have to review it within the time span in which its memory lives on? Or does it mean that the book simply was insufficiently memorable to impress itself upon my memory? Might it be a function of aging, where once stories made indelible impressions upon a youtful and malleable mind, now they have to chisel their way in among half a lifetime of memories?

I don’t know. However, given my previous regard for Rohan’s work, I suspect the fault lies more with me than with him. It’s the first of three and, if I can, I will try the second in the trilogy to see if it sparks some memories – and update my review accordingly.

Book review: Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Brrrrrrr… I’m still shivering, two days after finishing the story.

For those of us lucky enough to live in a country where the coldest it normally gets is a day or two of snow before everything turns wet again, there is, I think, a fascination for places where it gets really cold, where winter is king. This story more than feeds that fascination: it positively avalanches it.

The basic storyline is straightforward: a father and daughter, on a skiing trip through Arctic Norway (why would anyone go on a skiing trip through Arctic Norway?) witness a double murder and are pursued by the killers. The father, Erik, succeeds in killing some of the pursuers but one of the hunters proves impossible to kill, relentlessly chasing them into the Arctic night.

It’s the cold that fills the story: the unbelievable, finger-numbing, heart clutching cold, leeching life and feeling and movement out of everything until all that remains are the tiny figures of Erik and Sofia skiing across, and through, a world of white.

The relentless killer, pursuing them through the white world, is something of a thriller trope but within this context he becomes something else: a metaphor and an embodiment of the killing cold, of winter as implacable death. Amid our concerns for global warming it’s worth remembering that the cold kills many many many more people than warmth: we came out of Africa and survive in the realms of frost only by employing all the ingenuity and toughness of which we are capable.

At one level a simple chase thriller, at another it’s an examination of human endurance in the face of implacable danger (I particularly enjoyed the unexpected appearance of a figure from Norse mythology because such endurance demands support from somewhere beyond the human).

A book that will leave you trembling, from tension and cold.

Book review: The Longest Week by Nick Page

The Longest Week by Nick Page

Nick Page’s great skill as a writer is taking a vast library of scholarly material and synthesising it into a readable, coherent and fast-paced narrative, normally leavened with a topping of bad jokes and worse puns. In The Longest Week, his account of the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Page does the former extremely well but mostly leaves out the jokes and puns – it’s not that easy to joke about a man being put to death in possibly the most excruciating fashion devised by the human imagination.

The book is particularly good on bringing out the wider Roman and Jewish context, integrating much of the recent archaeological information about what life was like in first-century Palestine. Page paints vivid pictures of the main political players, Pilate, Temple grandees Annas and Caiaphas, and Herod Antipater, showing how each was shaped by the forces around them but how, interestingly, they could all have played their hands differently had they been less insouciant about sacrificing an insignificant life to their own political interests.

While the book is excellent on the political and historical context, Page’s take on the intersection of the historical and theological contexts in the person of Jesus is quite strongly coloured by a Protestant reading of the history and theology: nothing wrong in itself but alternative readings are given short shrift.

Overall, an enjoyable and generally enlightening primer on the week upon which human history hinges.

Book review: Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat

Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat

I found this slim novel in a second-hand bookshop (it’s long out of print) and picked it up because I have read Monsarrat’s superb novel of naval warfare during World War II, The Cruel Sea, and was curious to see what the rest of his work was like.

Well, it’s not nearly as good as The Cruel Sea – but then few books are. It’s interesting how some authors have one great book within them, but no more than that. In Monsarrat’s case, it was because in The Cruel Sea he took his wartime experiences and distilled them with his writing craft, making of them a book that endures. But absent such source material, in a book like Castle Garac, and we are left with authorical craft and pure storytelling, but storytelling of its time. It’s interesting how much the simple craft of telling a story is affected by its time and culture, from the rhythm and pace of the prose, through the choice of words, to the subject matter. As such, popular fiction from long ago (this was first published in 1955) is a rather good way of appreciating cultural changes, for good and ill. Far too many people simply go through books like this and pick out things that offend their modern sensibilities without thinking how the sensibilities of the past would be offended in turn.

The story itself is not whodunnit but rather a what-are-they-planning: mysterious rich couple enlist penniless writer for a scheme that’s clearly crooked but the payoff is in learning just how it is crooked. It’s a swift and easy read. If you should see the book, lying neglected in a second-hand book shop, pick it up and read it. You will make an old book very happy.

Book review: The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen

The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”… to have been much, much more lenient on people acccused of witchcraft than the secular courts of northern Europe. But one of the things Henry Kamen does, in this seminal work, is show that if you were a woman accused by your neighbours of trafficking with the devil, you would have been much safer to have that accusation levelled at you in Spain than in Germany or England. This is not to say that the Spanish Inquisition was a kind institution but it was much more concerned with the law and the rules of evidence than witch courts elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, as the Inquisition had decided, on theological grounds, that the claims advanced for the powers of witches were spurious, it therefore found that people advancing those claims against their neighbours were, of necessity, either mistaken or slanderers. Almost everyone accused of witchcraft and brought before the Inquisition was found not guilty and released.

One of Kamen’s great achievements in this book, though, is to show how the interweaving of the paranoia of various levels of Spanish society at having their historical rights taken away interweaved with suspicion of the families of converted Jews and Moors to produce the conditions in which the Inquisition flourished as an agent of royal power. It was very much an instrument of the Spanish monarchy, but one whose focus was on the conversos rather than witches and devils.

It’s also clear from Kamen’s book that the larger part of the Inquisition’s sinister reputation is down to the propaganda wars between Protestant and Catholic Europe, with the Protestant kingdoms latching onto the Inquisition as a symbol of all that they detested about Catholic Europe (even while conducting worse witch hunts themselves).

A highlight of the book is the account of the visitation of Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias to a city where fifty plus people had been accused of witchcraft, with some already executed. Appalled by the lack of care shown for the laws of evidence, Alonso had all the reports and evidence brought before him, considered it all, freed all the surviving accused and put the chief prosecutor on trial himself. Not what one would expect from an Inquisitor!

For anyone interested in the Inquisition and Spain, this is a key book. Highly recommended.