Book review: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

The Man Who Walked Through Walls
The Man Who Walked Through Walls

Remarkable. Surrealism, the coldest literary form, with heart and soul. Each story turns on the extraordinary, but the extraordinary accepted without question, from the the titular man who walked through walls to the seven-league boots for sale in a junk shop. There is great theological insight too in some of the stories, combined with considerable humour, for example  the old lady, widely believed (particularly by herself) to be a saint who finds that the only way she can get into heaven is to pose as the regimental whore for her reprobate nephew’s army unit.

But it is the insight into humanity, particularly the humiliations of everyday poverty, that give the stories emotional heft and depth, and lift them above the usual exercises in literary form that anaesthetises most exercises in surrealism and magic realism.

I first gave this book four stars, but the way the stories have remained with me suggests that I have undersold it. This is definitely a five-star book.

Book review: The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy

The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy
The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy

A generally well produced journey through the archives of the Guardians of the Galaxy. I grew up in the 70s reading Marvel Comics, with Jim Starlin’s Warlock series a particular favourite, but I seem to have missed the Guardians then. It’s interesting to see how they’ve evolved, through the various sub universes of Marvel space, into the team of today. The earliest work (1960s) has a freshness of line that is lovely to see, and while the storyline seems a little naive a half century later, it’s still refreshing in its imaginative sweep. This imagination is really allowed to let rip in the Rocket Raccoon story set in Halfworld, a planetary lunatic asylum where intelligent animals look after the insane and two toy barons – a mole and a lizard, fight it out with killer clowns and assassin bunnies. The writer had some serious fun with the premise.

Moving more up to date, Dan Abnett’s take features his trademark ability to chop up timelines in such a way that characters are illuminated and sly jokes slipped in, all while maintaining narrative tension. A star comes off for the very sloppy proofreading in the prose character histories at the end of the book, where each Guardian is named and profiled.

Book review: Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith
Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

An enjoyable romp through St Matthew’s version of Christmas – the reviewer on the front cover who compares it to St Luke’s Gospel mashed with A Game of Thrones clearly hasn’t read the infancy narratives recently – which is probably at its best when it sticks closest (relatively speaking, since the wise men are, in this version, clever and ruthless criminals) to the Gospel. Not to say there isn’t considerable fun to be had in the inclusion of zombies, Pontius Pilate and enough blood shed to float a small boat down the Nile, but it does get just a trifle far fetched. Still, it’s nice to see that Grahame-Smith takes the essential point of Christmas, the Incarnation, seriously – this is not just another boring exercise in contemporary debunking. Do steer clear if you find written violence off putting, though, particularly in light of current events, potential readers should note there are a number of graphically described beheadings.

When The Old King Ends His Tour


Edwin’s epic blog tour has finally come to an end, closing as summer draws down to autumn and the nights get longer than the days. I’m going to collect all the reviews here, with links. In the end, I’m delighted to say most of the reviews were very good – and since these are hard-core historical fiction readers, they suggest I must be doing something write.

So, here goes.

How could any author not purr with pleasure when reading A Book Drunkard’s review: What a wonderful debut novel this is.  Edoardo Albert is a stunning new voice in Historical Fiction.  The details in the story make you feel you’re there, living a life in the 7th century and I absolutely applaud the obvious amount of research that must have gone into it.

Layered Pages said: I am absolutely thrilled with this story! Outstanding read beyond any expectations I had for historical fiction. And that says a lot right there for just how good this book is. For a long time I have wanted to read about the rise of Christianity in certain parts of Britain and how it was brought about to the pagan people of its time. And in this story it is really interesting how paganism and Christianity mixed among the people, how the people who are pagan convert and their thought process in doing so.

Words and Peace said: VERDICT: England’s history did not wait for the Tudors to be full of intrigues and conflicts. This book is a wonderful entry to 7th century England, where pagan and Christian values clashed as small kingdoms fought to take prominence. Highly recommended to all lovers of history and historical fiction.

A Bibliotaph’s Reviews gave Edwin 4/5 stars, saying: If it hasn’t become abundantly clear, I have a particular love of Historical Fiction novels that focus on the medieval period and before. Edwin: High King of Britain definitely fits the bill of that love; set in a time around 625 A.D. (or C.E. if you wish to be politically correct) this book follows the story of a long-exiled king.

Mason Canyon (that really is her name!) at Thoughts in Progress interviewed me about writing Edwin and historical fiction in general.

100 Pages a Day… Stephanie’s Book Reviews said: I love reading historical fiction in order to learn about history I would have never otherwise be exposed to.  This first installment of The Northumbrian Thrones did just that.

Book Nerd gave Edwin 4 stars: Edwin, High King of Britain was a fantastic read! The first line is a perfect indication of what’s to come ” The king is going to kill you.”

Svetlana’s Reads & Views didn’t like Edwin very much, giving him 3/5 stars. Ah well, can’t please everyone: Okay, good news and bad news when it comes to this book: the good news is that the writing is enjoyable and for me it feels very accessible. Also, before accepting this book for the tour, I recall reading a review on Goodreads where the person complains that too much time is spent on Christianity. Much to my relief, while time is spent with Christianity, it’s not the whole book.

A Book Geek said: The historical period covered in Edwin: High King of Britain isn’t written about very much, or at least, I haven’t encountered it much in my reading so far. I have to wonder why, since I was captivated with the period as described by Albert in Edwin.

The Mad Reviewer is not mad at all: she gave Edwin 5/5 stars, and my favourite two review sentences: Edwin is not your typical hero in modern tales.  He’s dark and broody and occasionally prone to wartime atrocities.

 Book Lovers’ Paradise said: Edwin and his family are characters a reader can enjoy. The characters are interesting without being over the top. You want battles? This book has battles. You want gore? Well, there’s a little of that, too. This book has everything a historical fiction lover could want.

Dab of Darkness also did an interview with me, asking a fascinating – and thought provoking – series of questions. My answers are here.

Dab of Darkness said: What I Liked: Plenty of history with accuracy; conflict due to culture clashes; very interesting characters. What I Disliked: Could use more women.

Unshelfish gave Edwin 4/5 stars: Albert’s writing style and thrilling narrative consume the reader. I found myself lost in this book from the beginning. I am looking forward to this series, if this is a prelude of what’s to come, I will be ecstatic. Great snapshot into history and the brutal times of the 7th century.

Just One More Chapter said: This is Edoardo Albert’s debut and the start of a new series, The Northumbrian Thrones.  From the very first chapter, when the secret messenger makes his appearance and has his say, I was captivated.

2 Book Lovers Reviews gave Edwin 3.5 stars, saying: Edwin is a good debut novel for author Edoardo Albert. I enjoyed this in depth look into a less well known part of English history; and even though I fully realize more history has been made in kings’ courts and through councils than in bloody battles, it is still the battles that I want to read about.

Book review: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale
Cakes and Ale

I came away from reading this with quite a mixed impression. The introduction – quite useful for a book that was written near three quarters of a century back – gives some interesting background information as to the objects of Maugham’s satire: the literary lions of early 20th century England, and in particular Thomas Hardy and Horace Walpole, although near everyone who was everyone in letters at the time comes in for some flack. But the question arises: is satire relevant when everyone who is being satirised is long dead, as are almost all the attitudes addressed? It can be – think of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust – but in Waugh’s case that is as much for the cold deadliness of his dismantling of an entire class of people as for the satire itself.

Cakes and Ale is also praised for its portrayal of Rosie Driffield, the unsuitable first wife of the grand literary figure in the story. It’s supposed to be one of Maugham’s most rounded portrayals of a woman, and indeed Maugham himself said he based it on a real person, an actress of notable warmth and freedom – particularly sexually. So we have in Rosie a woman who gives herself, freely and unselfconsciously, to many lovers, sharing her body as easily as other women might share cake. I can’t get past the suspicion that she is a male fantasy of a woman (and I know that Maugham was mainly gay), a woman who has no sexual hang ups, who regards sex as casually and easily as some men like to think they do, a woman who can do sex without emotional entanglement. Was Maugham’s model for Rosie Driffield really like that? I wonder.

Edwin On Tour

Edwin on tour
Edwin on tour

Edwin is going on tour! From 25 August to 19 September, Edwin: High King of Britain is touring some of the best book blogs around, being reviewed, interviewed and given away. So join him (and me) on the tour.

Here’s the complete schedule:

Edwin: High King of Britain Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 25
Review at Princess of Eboli
Review at 2 Book Lovers Reviews

Tuesday, August 26
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish

Wednesday, August 27
Review at Dab of Darkness

Thursday, August 28
Interview & Giveaway at Dab of Darkness

Monday, September 1
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Review at Queen of All She Reads

Tuesday, September 2
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Wednesday, September 3
Review at The Writing Desk
Review at The Mad Reviewer

Monday, September 8
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Tuesday, September 9
Review at Book Nerd

Wednesday, September 10
Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day – Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Interview & Giveaway at Thoughts in Progress

Friday, September 12
Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews

Monday, September 15
Review & Giveaway at Words and Peace

Tuesday, September 16
Review at Layered Pages

Thursday, September 18
Review & Giveaway at Beth’s Book Reviews

Friday, September 19
Review at Book Drunkard

Book review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

There was something slightly unsatisfying about David & Goliath and I’m trying to work out what that was. I’ve read Gladwell’s other books and thoroughly enjoyed them; in this one, there is no falling off in his writing, which remains as engaging as ever, and his trademark mix of personal stories illuminating theories is still an excellent way of bringing research to life. I think, in the end, the big idea in this book, the U-curve of diminishing returns returns reached after a certain point is just not as interesting as the ideas explored in his previous books; in some ways, it appears to be a great deal of research to illustrate a principle of folk wisdom encapsulated rather precisely in the phrase ‘diminishing returns’. So, only three stars, but still well worth a read.

And thinking about this further, it’s encapsulated in the use Gladwell makes of the U-curve when examining the reactions of people to appalling events which fails. For example, two sets of parents are confronted with the murder of a child. One man embarks upon a crusade to enforce harsher punishments (the ‘three-strikes rule’). The other couple – devout Christians – manage, somehow, to forgive the man who sexually assaulted and then killed their daughter. The former sought revenge, the latter gave forgiveness. Such a radical response to injury requires more than being shoehorned into popular psychology, and indeed Gladwell made that response himself. Interviews suggest that, when confronted with such extraordinary forgiveness, Gladwell himself returned to the Christian faith of his upbringing. And really this is the only way to deal with suffering and grief – the Laffer curve is simply inadequate in the face of such a mystery.

Book review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Of course, it’s all but impossible to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz today without seeing Judy Garland and co. (although I wonder whether that will be true for my children? The fragmentation of TV means there is no longer any communal sense to TV watching, so the old mass gathering around the box at Christmas, when we could be fairly certain that everyone would see the same things, has passed. So it is possible to grow up and not see films like this, or The Great Escape and The Sound of Music).

Reading the book also serves to show what a wonderful job the set designers did when transferring the story to the screen. What lifts L. Frank Baum’s tale above other Victorian children’s stories is the exuberance of its imagination, from Dorothy’s travelling companions, through Munchkins and Quadlings, to Winged Monkeys and people made out of bone china. And it’s what continues to make the book eminently readable. I do wonder what it was like to read the book when the great twist – that the great wizard is, in fact, a humbug – came as a surprise rather than part of one’s cultural baggage. I suspect that this or the next generation might be able to tell us.

Book review: The King in the North by Max Adams

The King in the North
The King in the North

Not surprisingly, Max Adams’ book finds an appreciative reader in me: it’s all about Northumbria! Although ostensibly a biography of Oswald, in fact it tells the story of the great age of the kingdom, starting with its emergence into history under the ‘Twister’ Aethelfrith, through my favourite, Edwin, to Oswald, Oswiu and Ecgfrith, with an afterword about the golden cultural age of the eighth century. Adams is never less than fascinating, he brings to light all sorts of nuggets of information and parallels – I particularly liked the comparison between Oswald and Thomas Cochrane, the premier frigate commander of the Napoleonic Wars and a man of such daring his exploits would appear ridiculous in a film – and his book brims with a life-long love of the subject. In fact, the only other book on Northumbria I’d recommend as highly is my own, and Adams beats me into a cocked hat with the absolutely superb double page map on the inside front cover, which shows Northumbria and the other kingdoms of northern Britain in the style of the map in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, all hand-drawn hills and sketched forests. Superb, and on its own responsible for an extra, fifth star! Well done, Mr Cartographer.

Book review: The Sea Kingdoms by Alistair Moffat

The Sea Kingdoms

This is the third book by Alistair Moffat that I’ve read and, as you’d guess given the fact that I’ve kept reading him, I’ve enjoyed them all. The Sea Kingdoms is an attempt at a history of Celtic Britain and Ireland but, by the nature of the subject and the sources, it’s more a series of impressions and snapshots: places, events, people, all serving to illuminate some aspect of the other history of these islands, the history that has never been written but has been sung, recited, felt.

It’s as much a geography as a history, or a story of how the two interweave in the language and culture of a people acutely aware of the beauty and awe of their land. But, being united by the sea, the sea has also washed much away, leaving traces in the sand but only impressions where there was once much more. It’s unlikely that even the best efforts of archaeologists will retrieve too much else, and the history of the Celts, like the people, is bathed in the westering sun setting in the circle sea.