Book review: When It Is Darkest by Rory O’Connor

When It Is Darkest by Rory O’Connor

A priest friend once told me that of all the funerals he has to preside at, the hardest are those for people who have committed suicide. Long gone are the days when they were denied a funeral, consigned to unconsecrated ground, but still the grief and the guilt among the living is keenest for those who wonder, without hope of answer, if they could have done something else, something more, to stop what happened.

A strength of this book is the realisation that, no, the living are not guilty and, just as importantly, neither are the dead. For it’s not that those who commit suicide want to die but rather that they can no longer bear the pain of living.

O’Connor’s book usefully surveys the research on reasons for suicide, ways to prevent suicide among those at risk, and how the living can cope with how the dead departed. It does not make for light reading but, should it be be necessary and please God it shall not be, then this is a good place to start to try to understand something that remains, at its dark heart, without understanding.

Book review: A History of Warfare by John Keegan

A History of Warfare by John Keegan

If you only ever read one book on military history, make it this one. For where most other books of military history deal with the how, where and what of men at arms, Keegan’s magnificent book examines the ‘why’. Why is warfare perhaps mankind’s oldest occupation? In tackling this question, Keegan goes deeper even than Clausewitz, who memorably set out to demonstrate that warfare is politics by other means, for war is older than politics.

War, Keegan demonstrates, is one of the ineluctable facets of human culture and, as such, is shaped by that culture as well as shaping it. So what we might call ‘styles’ of warfare differ considerably among different cultures. When cultures were widely separated by the difficulties of travel, these different war styles operated independently within a wider cultural grouping. Thus, the Indians of the American plains counted coup – touching an enemy – rather than necessarily killing them (although this existed alongside a martial culture’s contempt for physical pain, which meant that captives could be mercilessly tortured and, crucially, the captive accepted the torture as a chance to demonstrate his own courage).

What’s changed about warfare is that it is becoming homogenised. Three millennia ago, when the tiny Greek city states fought savagely among themselves, their citizen armies could not long stay from their fields. So there grew up among them a new way of warfare: the set-piece battle, where one side was annihilated and the victors took the spoils. Among most other cultures, battles were either more formalised or less decisive: better to retreat with few losses than risk everything.

But the success of Alexander and his armies, who brought this all-or-nothing attitude to battle to Persia and, with it, destroyed the Persian Empire, brought about the gradual spread of the Greek way of war so that now it is played through most of the world, with the only other model the asymetric warfare of insurgency.

Read Keegan’s book to understand how war and culture are inextricably intertwined, each affecting the other in their lethal dance through the centuries.

Book review: Wilderness by Dean Koontz

Wilderness by Dean Koontz

Fan though I am of Koontz’s novel, Innocence, to which this is a short story prequel, I have to admit that it’s a slight tale of Addison Goodheart’s childhood that does not add anything to what was said in the source novel. One for Koontz completists only (of which there must be some but, given the man’s extraordinary work ethic, I suspect few people successfully keep up with him).

Book review: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Going straight in at the top of the they’d-never-publish-this-today list is A High Wind in Jamaica. It manages to break almost every modern publishing tabu, from racism through sexism to having pirates that aren’t women but what really makes it verboten to modern tastes is that nobody, absolutely nobody, gets their just desserts. Children’s writing has slowly set in place an inflexible rule: that the characters’ outcomes must reflect their adherence to what publishers now consider the good. You can be a villain but as long as you’re a ‘good’ villain, then you will come out of the story all right (in fact, held up as an example). The hero or heroine will prevail not so much by their actions but by the purity of their modern morals.

It’s the exact opposite in A High Wind in Jamaica. The protagonists, a family of children, are completely amoral, abandon their dead, including a sibling, with barely a backward glance and certainly no tears shed, and set up their saviours, a bunch of good-hearted pirates, to swing from gallows so that they don’t get the blame for all the stuff that had happened. This is the opposite of childhood trauma forming the adult: this is childhood as a state of natural psychopathy, gradually ameliorated by the constraints of civilised adulthood.

So, if you want to read something completely and utterly different from the stock motifs of today’s children’s books, this is the story for you.

Book review: Blast Off at Woomera by Hugh Walters

Blast Off at Woomera by Hugh Walters

In the 1950s and 1960s, at the dawn of the Rocket Age, we didn’t really know what we would find when we went to another planet. The Moon was clearly airless, but the telescope images of Mars were still indistinct enough to leave open the hope that the canals were real, and Venus was a cloud-covered mystery. Writing boldly into this mystery went Hugh Walters, writing a series of space adventure books where a quartet of young men started off by going into space and then, by virtue of the fact of being the most experienced spacemen, continued on and outwards to the other planets.

I fondly remembered Walters’ books from my childhood, where they were stocked by the local library, but it’s been many years since they featured on any library shelves and, looking idly on Abebooks, I found that second-hand editions were selling for hundreds of pounds, rapidly quashing my idle interest in rereading these books.

Which is where electronic editions of books come in. It’s now possible to republish books at very little cost by making them available on Kindle and similar platforms. As such, it’s worthwhile publishers doing so, as the investment is low and the returns, particularly with books like this that people are searching for, will be steady and long lasting.

I look forward to rereading the adventures of Chris Godfrey (in this universe, an Englishman is, quite properly, the first man in space) and his comrades, and reliving my childhood, when the stars were closer and I might dream of being an astronaut myself.

Book review: The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien

The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien

A few years back I was talking to an eminent theologian when he remarked that, while the Church had good theologies of salvation, redemption and suffering, its theology of creation was thin.

He should have read The Silmarillion. Tolkien is the theologian of creation par-excellence because he was himself a creator (or a sub-creator as he put it): through his entire adult life he struggled with the contradictory demands of fashioning a coherent world that also satisfied his understanding of human and divine nature. The creation myth that begins The Silmarillion is perhaps, The Ainulindalë, the most coherent expression of a true theology of creation yet written and it raises for those of us who also profess to create the responsibility and privilege that Tolkien presents to us: that when the Music of Eru is played aright at the end, then He will take our own creations and give to them the Secret Fire, and they will live.

Book review: Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser

It might be an exaggeration to say that the Great Game brings out Flashman’s kinder, gentler side but he does actually fall in love with the Rani of Jhansi, a heroine of Indian independence, a villain of the Victorian view of the Indian Mutiny. What’s more, Flashman is reasonably even-handed in his treatment of the Mutiny itself, noting and sympathising with some of the reasons for the Mutiny as well as highlighting the savagery that it unleashed as well as the brutality of the British response. As such, it’s one of the best, and certainly the most entertaining, accounts of the Mutiny (or the First War for Indian Indendence) out there.

Book review: Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser

Just when you start to think that Sir Harry Paget Flashman might be veering towards the ‘lovable’ part of lovable rogue, along comes a book where he does something so despicable that he returns, firmly, to the category of cad and bounder where he patently belongs. So, it’s perversely something of a relief when Flashie, having flirted with heroism earlier in the story, does precisely that, literally selling into slavery one of his squeezes so that he can escape one of the tight spots into which fate and his tireless pursuit of women and wealth has squeezed him. Few characters cast such a clear light on the past – nor on our age, with its own platitudinous morality.

Book review: Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonal Fraser

One of the best Flashman novels, where our hero, to his horror, finds himself riding in the Charge of the Light Brigade (while simultaneously coping with explosive wind), dumps a naked nubile woman from a sled to slow down pursuers and foils fiendish Russian plots to take British India. Given the events in Ukraine, Fraser’s depiction of the Imperial Russian mindset appears all too accurate.

Book review: Tarchon by Nick Brown

Tarchon by Nick Brown

Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series is one of my favourite historical fiction series, but it has never really received the recognition, or sales, that it deserves. I had thought that the series was finished, so it was a real delight to see a new novel from Nick. However, while it inhabits the same world as the previous novels in the series – the world of the grain men, the secret agents of Imperial Rome – the protagonist this time is different: Tarchon, a street youth from the western capital of Empire, Byzantium.

The book exhibits all Brown’s strengths as an author: the characters are well drawn, the setting inked in with just the right amount of detail, the plot motors along at a great pace. But it also shows perhaps why the books have not been more widely popular – and this is to the credit of the author. The truth is that most historical fiction that features anyone wielding a sword is basically the male equivalent of chick lit, allowing the 21st century reader to imagine himself playing the role of a dashing hero while getting the girl and a few fetching but not disfiguring scars along the way. There’s no real engagement with the alieness of the past, which truly is a different country: this is history used as set dressing.

Brown’s work, on the other hand, features heroes that are not just flawed, they are in many ways positively ordinary. Cassius Corbulo, in the previous novels, and Tarchon in this one, are young men who lose as many fights as they win, who rely on wits more than weapons but even so still have plans come awry, and who are plausibly figures of their time rather than ours. As such, it makes for novels that are, objectively, much better than the run-of-the-mill historical fiction, but because they don’t tick the boxes for many readers they haven’t received the readership they deserve.

Hopefully, his small but devoted band of readers will be sufficient to persuade Nick to continue writing Agent of Rome novels. And if you know anyone who wants a more intelligent and authentic take on historical fiction, direct him or her to this series.