Adventures in Bookland: Candide by Voltaire

There aren’t many books that are still funny, as the saying goes, laugh-out-loud funny, in translation almost three hundred years after they were written. Candide is one of that extremely select group. The sheer fact that the Church somehow survived the, often deserved, ridicule heaped on her by Voltaire, and the the subsequent attentions of the revolutionaries, does tend to support her view of herself as a divinely instituted and protected institution – just as well, really, since if she was a wholly human institution the incompetence and cupidity of her ministers would have seen her consigned to history not long after the Enlightenment assault upon her. There is no better instrument in dealing with the particular weaknesses of the religious psychology than ridicule, and Voltaire’s application of that to the church is salutary and, probably, necessary.

Adventures in Bookland: Isha’s Lament by Thomas Parrott

Number 3 in the second Black Library Novella series and the standard hasn’t dropped at all – if anything, it’s improving. Brakus Andradus, the ex-Imperial Guard sniper with a mordant tongue and a death wish, makes for a suitably driven 40k hero, but Parrott skillfully blends him with a varied cast of Aeldar, Dark Aeldar and the other ne’er do wells that skulk around the Blackstone Fortress, hoping to make their fortunes or find their souls. It’s a great setting, and Parrott does it justice, with something of the deep weirdness of the Fortress itself coming across in the denouement. A fine novella and hopefully notice of a major new 40k writer. Get it here.

Adventures in Bookland: Wreck and Ruin by Danie Ware

Nuns with guns in the 40th millennium! Really big guns. Plus a female Inquisitor, all on the trail of a Chaos witch (who is actually a man). With these bolter-toting women gunning for him, the Chaos witch doesn’t really have a chance, but Danie Ware does a brilliant job of keeping the suspense ratcheted to the max while riffing on the tension between the sisters and the inquisitor. A thrilling, enjoyable read. Indeed, so well do nuns go with guns that someone should really suggest the concept to Pope Francis. I think the Bridgettines would be an ideal order to begin weapons training with – as you can see below! Get Nuns at the Run – I mean Wreck and Ruinhere!

The Bridgettines – ideal candidates for nuns with guns.

Adventures in Bookland: Iron Resolve by Steve Lyons

This is the first in the new Black Library novella series and Iron Resolve gets the set off to a storming start with its transplanting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift from Natal, South Africa, to the jungle planet of Kallash in the 41st millennium. What’s more, it’s the field hospital in Kallash that suddenly finds itself under attack from an army of feral Orcs. They don’t seem to do Victoria Crosses for the servants of the Emperor, but a fair few of them would have deserved the honour by the end of the novella. A diverting and entertaining read. Get Iron Resolve here.

Adventures in Bookland: The Leeward Islands Squadron by Chris Durbin

Excellent continuation of the naval adventures begun in The Colonial Post-Captain. While it doesn’t have the depth and colour of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, it does have the advantage of a writer who served in the Navy himself and who understands the sea and sailing in a way that no landlubber author can match. Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbrooke are engaging characters, the setting (in this case the Caribbean) is vivid and the story, drawing on the real-life exploits of 18th-century frigate commanders, is as extraordinary as the exploits of those naval commanders. Thoroughly recommended to fans of naval adventures.

Adventures in Bookland: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

This is not something I, a writer, say lightly but, to be honest, I preferred the film. When I say film, I don’t mean the 2002 George Clooney vehicle, but the 1972 version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I was about 16 at the time when I saw it on TV. I switched channel – at that time you still had to press buttons to change channels – and I found myself transfixed. I didn’t have a clue what was going on – Tarkovsky’s style of long, close up shots on silent actors was something I had never seen before – but the film held me as few have before or since. Images from it remained with me for years. But most of all, the image of Solaris itself, the mysterious, sentient ocean, attempting to communicate – possibly – with the men orbiting it on the space station. The final image of the film, as the hero finds himself on an island on the living ocean, stuck in my imagination in a way that few other images and experiences from so long ago have. Having read Lem’s original story, I regret to say that nothing in the novel made anything like the impression that Tarkovsky’s film did. Thinking about it, I suppose it’s obvious. Lem was trying to capture a living sentient ocean in words, Tarkovsky was doing it with pictures. Since living sentient oceans don’t do words but, in this case at least, do make people simulations and ultimately even little islands, then the picture version had an inherent advantage. Add in somebody with Tarkovsky’s vision, and this is a good example of a film outstripping its source material.

Island in the ocean.

Adventures in Bookland: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I’m not going to hide behind literary snobbery here: I found The Leopard disappointingly disappointing. I would like to say that the clarity of the language, combining the harshness of the Sicilian summer with the luxuriousness of the Sicilian soul, and the accuracy of the portrait of a decaying but still ostensibly noble aristocratic culture, made for a novel of astonishing insight into the human condition. And it does. It really does.

It’s just… a little boring. Just a little. Nothing very much for a book that’s over a century old. Tastes change. Styles alter. I am afraid I have fallen victim to the sensibilities of a markedly non-literary age – something that could not be said for the world portrayed in The Leopard – and I fear this all may be true. But there have been few books I wanted to like more when beginning them, and few that have I spent so much concentration on to so little effect on my reading soul.

The fault, I am sure, is all mine. Sometimes you have to read a book at the right time, with the appropriate frame of mind, in the correct place and under particular circumstances for the book to strike home. I will reserve The Leopard for another try, when next I find myself languishing under a punishing sun, the plants and trees withered and life itself lying prostrate beneath the weight of the heat. Then, I think, The Leopard will prowl into my heart. But, until then, three stars.

Adventures in Bookland: The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

The metres used by the skalds, the court poets of the Norse chieftains, were among the most complex and difficult metres ever used regularly by poets. As such, the success of a translation of the Elder Edda should maybe be best judged by how well it conveys the complexity of the original. Andy Orchard’s version is vigorous and contemporary, doing a good job of conveying the meaning of the original verse without attempting much in the way of replicating their structure. This may be an inevitable trade-off – I am not able to read the originals – but the ideal of course would be a translation that does both.

Adventures in Bookland: Carcharadons by Robbie MacNiven

They live in the Void, in the dark beyond the Galaxy’s light, hunting the enemies of the Imperium before they even reach it. There be monsters there, in the dark. But as monstrous as those monsters are the silent hunters, the Space Sharks, the Carcharadon chapter of the Space Marines. For ten thousand years they have cruised the Void, going deep into great silence, on an eternal crusade.

So, yes, they’re pretty weird. Ten thousand years fighting the sort of monsters that inhabit the 40th millennium would make anyone a little bit strange: the Carcharadons are off the scale strange. Perhaps that could have come across a little more strongly in these novels, but Robbie MacNiven does a great job of setting up this chapter of solitary hunters of the abyss in these two novels, the first pitting the Sharks against the Night Lords, the second taking on the Tyrannids.

Adventures in Bookland: Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser

Another favourite of mine in the incomparable Flashman series, this volume bowled your attentive reader over by Flashman’s role in codifying the game of cricket – first hat trick ever bowled – and introducing me to some of the great early characters of the game. Then it won me over completely by including extracts from the diary of Elspeth, Flashie’s golden tressed, air head wife, forever puzzling our hero with the question of whether she is as unfaithful to Flashie as he is to her. Throw in South Seas pirates, the extraordinary James Brooks, the White Rajah of Sarawak, whose exploits would beggar credulity if they were not actually true, and mad Queen Ravalona of Madagascar, whose brutality really does beggar belief, and you have all the elements for classic Flashman. It is.