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.

Book review: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

The Silver Sword
The Silver Sword

When I was young, the book I nearly read most often was ‘The Silver Sword’. It was on the shelves of every library I visited (and I visited a lot of libraries when I was young) and, because its author’s surname began with ‘S’ like Malcolm Saville, a favourite of mine, I’d always see it there, pull it out, read the blurb again and, always, decide, ‘No, I don’t think I will read this.’ I think what threw me was the disconnect between the title, which suggested magical realms and dragons and all sorts of things I loved reading about, and the blurb, which said it was about a group of children making their way through war-ravaged Europe. I was quite interested in the history of World War II, but I had no interest then in how it affected children. So, I never read the book. But now, seeing it in the library still in print after all these years, I thought I would try it.

Would I have enjoyed the story as a child? Probably, but it wouldn’t have become a favourite, one of those books I read again and again. Did I enjoy the book as an adult? Yes…

In some ways, the writing is clumsy; there’s quite a lot of telling rather than showing. But the story transcends the limitations of the writer and now, as a father, the thought of the plight of separated children affects me much more deeply than it would have done as a child. So, despite its limitations, I found the eventual reunion of the family after all their hardships very moving.

Book review: Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

A lovely, but slightly strange book. Higgins writes of her journies around Britain, in a rather asthmatic VW camper van, in search of the traces of Roman Britain. She writes of the places she visits with a journalist’s gift for telling detail and a botanist’s delight in plants, and sprinkles the text with fascinating anecdotes about the antiquaries of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who first went looking for Roman remains in Britain, as well as the archaeologists who followed them in the 20th century. But, at the end of the book, Higgins remains as elusive as, well, Roman Britain itself. I’ve got very little idea about her, of what she’s like – this may be intentional of course – and the four centuries of Roman rule also seem to dissolve away under close inspection. They’re obviously not so inaccessible as the centuries that precede or follow them, but where the rest of Empire is illuminated by contemporary writings, Britain seems oddly silent, as if still existing in the mists of Oceanus. The letters discovered at Vindolanda go some way to rectifying that, but they are fragments, frustrating; imagine trying to recreate 21st-century society from a random collection of tweets for a flavour. A fine book, nevertheless, that suggests its subject as well as exploring it.

Book review: The Blood of Gods by Conn Iggulden

The Blood of Gods
The Blood of Gods

Hugely enjoyable fictional recreation of the turbulent, traumatic period after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Iggulden is particularly good at showing how all the main protagonists believed, honestly, that they were acting honourably and for the good of Rome. A peculiarity of my reading is the extraordinarily long memory shadow cast by watching I, Claudius on TV in the seventies – it’s all but impossible for me to read about Augustus (Octavian in his youth) without seeing Brian Blessed.

In the excellent short story included at the end of the book, with Augustus at the end of his life fretting over who should rule the Empire after him, Livia was, inevitably, Sian Philips and Tiberius was George Baker. Still, they are fine shadows to have cast over a story!

Book review: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

 

The Vicar of Wakefield
The Vicar of Wakefield

Fascinating. Quite fascinating. I’m not sure what Oliver Goldsmith would have made of Mr Spock, but the eponymous Vicar of Wakefield could almost be an 18th-century take on the Vulcan’s position, aboard the Enterprise, of observer and actor in human dramas, but with sturdy Anglican morality (a tautology in the 18th century but not now) taking the place of an alien devotion to logic. Generations of readers and critics have been unable to decide if Goldsmith means the vicar to be example or exemplar; both, I think. He shares something of Captain Mainwaring’s (from Dad’s Army) pomposity, yet also his essential goodness – at the end, when all comes right for the vicar and his tribulations are resolved amid a torrent of coincidences the reader is right there beside him, rejoicing in his deliverance. So, above all else, the vicar is a human being: composed of contrasting traits, some good, some bad, others annoying or endearing, and that is the secret of the novel’s enduring success.

Book review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Something Wicked This Way Comes

It’s a strange facet of its own success, but ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ has almost become a cliche; a travelling carnival calls into a sleepy plains town and, of course, the ringmaster will be a sinister, threatening figure, promising gifts to the unwary that come at the cost of something much greater; there will be freaks, unfortunate, tortured individuals offered up to the ridicule of the rubes; and there will be two town boys, living on the cusp of puberty, running semi-wild and drawn to the carnival as irresistibly as, well, as boys to a travelling show.

Bradbury’s original is still wonderful, although the writer’s word painting grows a little tedious sometimes; I presume he is a fan of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he imports many of Hopkins’ techniques into his prose, but where alliterative word runs work beautifully in the concentrated explosion of the Windhover, they become repetitive through 250 pages of prose. A writer can become too intoxicated by words. But the strength of the story and the imagery carried me through, with a little skimming here and there, to the end.