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.

Book review: Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer

Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer

I am not an anxious person but, like most writers, I do suffer from procrastination. The empty page and the blank screen can too often be a cue to do that long-delayed DIY task rather being a signal that it’s time to actually write the story that’s been buzzing around at the back of my mind.

So I’m pleased to say that there was a lot in this book about overcoming procrastination, which is a facet of anxiety, as well as much on actual anxiety. And, when I want it to be, it’s actually quite effective – it’s all to do with stopping the feedback loops that allow you to focus on immediate relief of mild anxiety rather than the far greater, but somewhat delayed, relief that comes from what you actually need to do.

Brewer is also rather good on the evolutionary origins of these anxiety feedback loops and how they have deep roots in our basic brain biology. So, overall, an interesting and helpful book.

Book review: The Dagger and the Flame by Malcolm Saville

The Dagger and the Flame by Malcolm Saville

I loved Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series when I was growing up. For the child of immigrants growing up in London, it opened up vistas on an England that I would never have known otherwise: Romney Marsh, the Yorkshire Moors and, most especially, the vast ridge of the Long Mynd and the sharp teeth of the Stiperstones in Shropshire. These became the landscapes of my imagination, grounding me in this country which wasn’t, quite, mine, but making it so.

So it was with some excitement that I learned Saville had written another series, intended for somewhat older readers, featuring British secret agent, Marston Baines. My wife kindly bought me The Dagger and the Flame, now reprinted by Girls Gone By, and I settled down to read it. Unlike the Lone Pine books, it’s set in Italy and, since I’m half Italian, this was actually a point in its favour.

Sadly, the story itself is a disappointment. Although I probably share most of Saville’s views, his dismay at the 1960s counterculture spills over into preaching – never good even when I agree with the views being preached – and Marston Baines barely even appears himself, the spy work being done by his nephew, Simon. There’s the bones of a good story there, but Saville was writing to make a point rather than tell a story, and the story suffers. Not one I will revisit.

Book review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I first read Ringworld many years ago, not long after it was published. Returning to it now, I was curious as to how well it would hold up and how much of it I would remember.

First, the remembering. The answer was, a surprising amount. The Ringworld itself, obviously. For those who don’t know, the Ringworld is a slice of a Dyson Sphere, a ring around a star with miles high mountains on each rim to hold the atmosphere in place. It’s an extraordinary idea, expanding on scale in an exponential fashion: the Ringworld is big, really, really big.

However, I do remember being disappointed that we never find out anything about the Ringworld’s creators, nor what happened to them, and in that too my memory held up. I’ve not read the sequel but in many ways the book is a stand alone story and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Then, the Puppeteers. They are one of Niven’s most enjoyable creations. A race of congenitally cowardly aliens who manipulate the other races of the galaxy to ensure their own survival.

Speaking of manipulated races, the Kzin, the warrior felines who send a representative along on the expedition to the Ringworld are great too. But it’s not just the Kzin: the Puppeteers have manipulated mankind too, breeding people for luck.

Which brings us to Teela Brown, the luckiest woman in the world. The product of generations of lucky winners in the lottery of life, she’s an interesting creation: so lucky that she’s untouched by pain and can follow her whims wherever they please. But Niven, wittingly or not, posits a higher purpose to Teela Brown’s luck than just fortune: it becomes a force that wants what is good for her, not in the utilitarian sense of the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain, but a good that points towards a Platonic idea of the best Teela Brown. A person who is properly human, the Platonic Form of Teela Brown. So her luck brings her to a place where she can become who she is supposed to be. I’m not sure if this was the point Niven was making but it is the consequence of the story’s logic.

Then, there are the sunflowers. Oh, boy, I remembered those. Unending fields of reflective sunflowers that focus the sun’s energy on any threats, burning it to a crisp, like holding the point focus of a magnifying glass over an ant. I think it was the sunflowers that I remember best.

As to how the story held up: surprisingly well. Of course, the attitudes are different, but it would be strange if they were not: fifty years have passed. Some reviewers would seem to prefer that nothing had changed – or that they are incapable of appreciating another time in its own timeframe.

Book review: Catholicism: A Very Short Introduction by Gerald O’Collins

Catholicism: A Very Short Introduction by Gerald O’Collins

It’s what it says: a very short introduction to the world’s oldest institution. The first two chapters cover two thousand years of history well considering the constraints of space and then it’s off into an exploration of the sacraments. While personally interesting, someone with no prior knowledge of the Faith might struggle a bit, and it is all written from the viewpoint of an ageing enthusiast for the Second Vatican Council. That generation is dying off, while finding it has little to say to young Catholics around the world, so I doubt it will remain relevant into the future.

Book review: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

To hell and back. That’s exactly what the hero of Sandman Slim, James Stark, has done. He spent eleven years in hell, the literal realm of the prince of darkness, and then returned to earth. Unfortunately, the main thing Stark seems to have learned from his time in hell is, when in doubt, hit someone.

To say Sandman Slim is fast paced is to undersell it: barely half a chapter goes past without a gun, a demon, or some other device intruding into the story to put our hero in peril. And if that doesn’t work, then our hero will go and do something stupidly dangerous because that’s just the sort of thing someone who has spent eleven years in hell would do. Particularly someone whose first response to a problem is to punch something.

It’s fast, action packed and entirely implausible, with a hero I found too bone headed to want to follow in further adventures.

Book review: C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

I read Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis a few months ago but did not get around to writing a review at the time. Knuckling down to it now, I must confess I remember almost nothing about the book – except this: McGrath spends a great deal of time and effort on proving that Lewis got the dates of his conversion to Christianity wrong in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. He makes a good case but spends an inordinate amount of words and pages on it. Within the context of wider scholarship about Lewis, it is no doubt of some importance; set into a one-volume biography of the man, it distorts everything else, pulling it all towards a central point that is of vital importance to the writer but zero relevance to Lewis himself.

Not wishing to leave the reader of my reviews short-changed, however, I’ve had a look at other reviews to refresh my memory and now I do recall that McGrath also sets out a case that Joy Davidman basically set out to entrap Lewis into marriage, tempting him the bait of her correspondence and then hooking him with the feminine double whammy of wit and wiles. As many others have remarked, Lewis was indeed surprised by Joy. McGrath is also good on Lewis’s enduring influence.

In summary, a book best suited for those with a deep and scholarly interest in Lewis, rather than the general reader.

Book review: Rome: Strategy of Empire by James Lacey

Rome by James Lacey

In 1976, Edward Luttwak published The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire in which he argued that the Romans did indeed have a grand strategy. The book caused a sensation, not least for the fact that Luttwak was not a historian but rather an American military strategist and, for a time, a consultant to Ronald Reagan’s administration. While admitting its historical sweep, professional historians rushed to debunk the book and, in general, they seem to have succeeded. The consensus among Roman historians today is that Rome worked on an ad hoc basis, with individual emperors responding to crises as they arose. The view is that the Empire lacked the ongoing central command necessary for a grand strategy, as well as not having a clear view of frontiers nor any way to map them in order to conduct an overall strategy.

James Lacey, another working military strategist, enters the debate with Rome: Strategy of Empire and makes a robust case for Luttwak’s overall thesis: the Romans did indeed have a grand strategy and they were more than able to adapt their policies accordingly. Lacey answers the critics, who point out that there is a dearth of Roman historical sources detailing strategic thinking, by looking at the facts on the ground: in particular, the Empire’s unparalleled ability to field, feed and focus huge armies throughout the breadth of the Empire. Lacey also argues that for the emperor, maps were unimportant because what he needed to know was where a crisis was, which was the nearest legion and how long it would take the legion to get there. Roman itineraries, which allowed generals to estimate accurately how long it would take them to get to crisis points, would, Lacey says, have furnished the required information better than any map. What was more, the Mediterranean and the key frontier rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, allowed the Romans to deploy armies far more quickly than their enemies through their use of maritime or riverine resupply.

Rome: Strategy of Empire begins with the reign of Augustus and ends with the fall of the Western Empire, providing an overview of the interplay between the Roman economy and Roman strategy. However, it suffers, as does Luttwak’s original, from not considering in any detail the strategy of the Roman Republic, which actually conquered most of the territory that the later Empire sought to protect and consolidate.

Lacey had the experience of decades in the military before becoming an academic military strategist and this allows him to apply practical knowledge to all aspects of military operations but in particular the crucial importance of logistics. When we compare the huge armies – in the tens of thousands – regularly fielded by the Romans to the armies of the early Medieval period which, in Britain, could number as few as 35 men, we can clearly see the strength of Roman logistical efforts.

In Rome: Strategy of Empire Lacey seeks to overturn the established academic consensus. With battle rejoined, it will be fascinating to read their response. But one thing is sure: once this book is published the strategy of the Roman Empire will once again be a hot topic among historians.

Book review: The House of Godwin by Michael John Key

The House of Godwin by Michael John Key

It was so nearly so different. Having risen from relative obscurity, Earl Godwin had married his eldest daughter to Edward, the king of England, and raised his sons to the most important earldoms in the country. When Godwin died, his surviving sons, Harold and Tostig, slipped smoothly into the positions of command and influence that Godwin had earned during his life, becoming the effective rulers of the kingdom as Edward slowly released the reins of power.

With Edward childless, the question of the succession increasingly dominated the last years of his reign. Tostig, who Key argues might have been Edward’s favourite among the four Godwinson earls, was banished in 1065 following a revolt by the northern nobility, with Harold’s connivance. A furious Tostig, nursing his sense of betrayal, went looking for foreign backers to help him reclaim his inheritance and found a backer in Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway and the most famous warrior of the age.

Harold, who by this time had been crowned king following Edward’s death, was concentrating on the threat from Normandy: Duke William claimed that Edward had promised the crown to him. Hearing of his brother’s invasion, Harold rushed north, killed Tostig and Harald at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only to hear that William had landed in Sussex…

In this fascinating book, Michael John Key recounts the extraordinary rise and the even more dramatic fall of the House of Godwin and successfully argues that, if Harold had prevailed at Hastings (and it was a very close-run thing) he would have gone on to be regarded as one of the great kings of English history, and Earl Godwin as the founder of one of the great royal dynasties. But Harold’s exhausted men, having fought one battle 19 days earlier, were unable to hold out to nightfall in the second. William won, and history took one of its sharpest turns.