Book review: Rocks and Shoals by Chris Durbin

Rocks and Shoals by Chris Durbin

With Lieutenant Holbrooke’s promotion, the two lead characters, Carlisle and Holbrooke, have been separated, their adventures occupying alternating books: for Rocks and Shoals, the focus is Captain Carlisle, American captain of a ship of the Royal Navy, navigating the treacherous waters of the St Lawrence River as part of the expeditionary force of General Wolfe against the French in Canada. So the novel exchanges the broad expanses of the ocean for the narrow passages of inland waterways, and ships acting as floating gun batteries alongside infantry assaults: it’s a fascinating insight into an earlier version of combined arms warfare, with the engaging Captain Carlisle as our guide. As enjoyable as the earlier novels in the series.

Book review: Perilous Shore by Chris Durbin

Perilous Shore by Chris Durbin

If you’re read the previous five books in this series about Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbrooke, officers in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War, then you’ll know what to expect in the sixth instalment: convincing naval action (the author was naval officer), just enough interpersonal intrigue to keep matters interesting without anything getting too out of hand, and a cast of characters that are, generally, thoroughly good eggs, although with sufficent personal quirks to render them individuals. It’s not challenging historical fiction but it is extremely good historical fiction: perhaps one step down from the top rate but story shape and read worthy.

Book review: The Reverie by Peter Fehervari

The Reverie by Peter Fehervari

You don’t normally read 40k for dense, allusive prose that carry echoes of some of the great prose stylists of the 20th century, but with Peter Fehervari’s 40k work this is exactly what you get. The Reverie is a fascinating take on the grim dark of the far future, one that repays lingering over the words as well as paying attention to the plot (in fact, I lingered so long over the words that I got a little lost in what was actually happening). It’s as close to a philosophical 40k novel as has been written, a novel-length investigation into the corruption that turns to canker all the best intentions of even the best characters within this universe. So if your preference in 40k skews towards creeping dread and the long, slow dissolution of the few citadels of hope in that universe rather than bolter porn, then this is the story for you.

Book review: The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick

The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick

The fact that the author, Josephine Leslie, chose R.A. Dick as her pseudonym does illustrate rather well that, despite six years of war, 1945 was a more innocent time than now (I know slang changes but it meant the same thing when I was a child and that was much closer to 1945 than it is to today).

The story itself is charming: a young widow moves with her children to a seaside cottage to get away from her overbearing in-laws, only to find the house already inhabited, by the ghost of Captain Gregg. The Captain saves her from various potential disasters along the way, including a nearly disastrous liaison with a poet and writer (that was always going to end badly), and it all ends happily ever after. A slight story but perfectly told.

Book review: Travels in England 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz

Travels in England 1782 by Karl Philipp Moritz

It’s not often that an essay on what I did in my holidays makes a good book, but Moritz’s account of his travels in England is truly charming. In part, it’s because Moritz comes across as such a wonderful traveller: he accepts almost everything in good spirit and with a cheerful optimism. In part, it’s because Moritz visits England because of his Anglophilia and proceeds to confirm, to himself at least, his love affair with a country that, until then, he had only read about.

For the present-day reader, the writer’s companionship is enlivened by his descriptions of England in 1782. Because Moritz preferred to walk, innkeepers thought he was a tramp and treated him abominably, but he remains good humoured throughout. He visited the House of Commons and saw Pitt and Fox debating, as well as a Member asleep on a bench in the House (some things don’t change), writes of rowdy theatre goers chucking orange peel at the stage and the propensity of English schoolboys to get into fights. A fascinating contemporary account.

Book review: Our Lady of the Artilects by Andrew Gillsmith

Our Lady of the Artilects by Andrew Gillsmith

While wrapped up in a dressing of modern-day notions of AI (transplanted a couple of hundred years into the future) this debut novel is in fact something of a throw back to such Golden Age SF stories as James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Walter Miller’s Canticle of Leibowitz and Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin, being a novel of ideas about faith, reason, science and consciousness. While the ideas are fascinating, the writing does not really reach the levels of its prototypes (although as these are among the greatest SF stories ever written, that’s not so surprising). It’s been a while since I read the book and, to be honest, not that much has stuck in memory but I do remember being disappointed that the single most interesting character in the novel, the android Thierry, spends almost all the novel off page. However, the world building, proposing a future world centred more upon Africa and Asia, was an enjoyable corrective to the usual American/European bias.

While not wholly successful as a novel, what is impressive is Gillsmith’s willingness to take up these grand themes. I think he might well become a notable writer of ideas – something the distinctly lacklustre field of SF needs at the moment.

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.