If it wasn’t for just over two and a half minutes, no one outside his immediate circle of family and colleagues would ever have heard of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and he would certainly not have written – with some help from Jeffrey Zaslow – an autobiography. In some ways, Sullenberger’s life is an exemplar of the ordinary, a man who does his job, raises his family and, in the normal course of events, is barely noticed outside of the circles he moves in. So it was interesting to see if an ordinary life could also be extraordinary enough to sustain a 350-page book. It was. I’m both pleased and relieved to be able to say that, since most of us lead lives that are no more – but also no less – remarkable than Sullenberger’s. There is a beauty, an accomplishment, in a normal life lived well that comes across strongly in this book: a man doing his job and raising his family. Of course, a sizeable chunk of the book looks at the events and aftermath of Flight 1549 but reading the book you realise that what Sullenberger says is true: he was able to deal with this unimaginable emergency because of all the building blocks of experience and decision that had gone into his life up to that point. An ordinary life? The sort of ordinary life that saves worlds.
A good, fairly short introduction to Polynesia: its discovery by Europeans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the mythologies of the Polynesian peoples. It would have been good to have more on how the Polynesians managed to navigate their way around the world’s largest ocean though.
These are the astonishingly laconic memoirs of Bill Close, who fought in the 3rd Tank Regiment from the fall of France in 1940 to the end of the Nazi regime in 1945, with stints in Greece, Crete, North Africa, Normandy, France and through Germany. I lost count of the number of times Close had his tank shot out from under him, with men in his crew either injured or killed, yet every time he got back into another tank and continued fighting. In our therapeutic times, he would have been invalided out of the army for stress but Close just kept on going, only stopping when he was physically incapacitated through injury. But once he recovered, he got back in his tank. There’s also an appreciation of another astonishing tank commander, Bob Crisp, Test cricketer and, according to his Wisden obituary, the most extraordinary man to ever play Test cricket. Read Crisp’s obituary and you will agree, but Bill Close was not far behind.
The fourth in Black Library’s novella series and my favourite thus far, in particular for its gonzo take on the Necrons. Who would have thought you could successfully transplant Jeeves and Wooster onto a bunch of sentient robots? But with his class clash twosome of aristocratic but barking mad Zahndrekh and devoted but doubting servant Obyron, Nate Crowley does exactly that – well, insofar as is possible in a galaxy of constant warfare and thoroughly unpleasant monsters. And as is the way with the best comedy, the end becomes surprisingly moving. Highly recommended for the quality of the writing, conception and characters, and a thoroughly individual take on the 40k universe.
Some great Warhammer and Age of Sigmar short stories in here, with a particular highlight for me being Denny Flowers’ The Hand of Harrow, which manages to inject a little humour into a universe not notably blessed with laughter. The volume also has a particularly good story, ‘Green and Grey’, about a tank loader trapped in a wrecked Leman Russ who starts to hear the approaching roar of a raiding, and looting, party of Orcs. It’s by some chap called Edoardo Albert.
Having read Lionheart and Lackland, Frank McLynn’s enthralling twin biography of Richard the Lionheart and his younger brother John, I was looking forward to his life of the world’s greatest ever conqueror, Genghis Khan. But while McLynn brought Richard and John and a cast of other characters (particularly the psychotic troubadour Bertran de Born) vividly to life in Lionheart and Lackland, he never achieves the same synthesis of historical scholarship and storytelling verve in this book. Genghis Khan and his band of generals remain obstinately stuck on the page rather than entering the reader’s imagination: ciphers with an astonishing propensity to slaughter vast numbers of people. Maybe the problem is the one Hannah Arendt identified: evil tends to banality, and after slaughtering the inhabitants of yet another city for having the temerity to resist the Mongol onslaught, it all becomes, for the reader, a little tedious. Also, given the vast areas conquered and the part that rapid rides across difficult geographies played in the Mongol conquest, the book’s allergy to maps is really rather puzzling. Many a page describing how the horde rode here, there and on could have been rendered superfluous and more understandable with a map. Still, the book is a solid overview of the conquests of the Khan and his immediate descendants.
This is my first re-read of Master and Commander (I read it first about 15 years ago) and, if anything, it’s even better second time around. What sets O’Brian apart from the run of historical novelists, and that sub-set that write about the Napoleonic wars, is his use of the language of the era in a way that remains true to the early 19th century while being appropriate for modern readers. Couple this with, in Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin, two of the most vivid characters ever written and you have the start of what is the best series of historical fiction novels ever written. All that’s left to say is, time to start rereading Post Captain!
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.
As a fifty-something man of little standing in the world, I heartily applaud the central premise of this entertaining book: that a fifty-something man of little standing in the world can be the hero of an adventure that includes saving the world, outsmarting a billionaire bad guy and getting the, much younger, girl along the way (I should add, as a happily married man, that the latter simply applies to my middle-aged fantasy self and in no way comprises my real wishes!). So let’s hear it for Don Challenor, down-on-his-luck estate agent (he’s just been let go by his previous employer), who is employed by his ex-wife to value the Cornish hideaway of a mysterious and reclusive billionaire. (Add in to the mix the middle-aged male wish fulfilment fantasy of Don rescuing his ex-wife, she having to admit that he was a better man all along than her new husband, and him still getting the much younger new girl – in fact, there’s so much middle-aged male wish fulfilment in this book I begin to wonder if Robert Goddard might be having a little bit of a mid-life crisis!)
On the minus side, I had realised the twist of what was concealed in the panic room within the first hundred pages. This, though, did mean I could indulge myself in the greatest of all guilty pleasures for the reader: skipping ahead, skimming pages of text, for the simple pleasure of finding out if I was right. And I was! So wish fulfilment all round. What more could the middle-aged male reader ask? Well, a story that was not quite so obvious, perhaps, but there is a pleasure in knowing the outcome and then watching as skilled a writer as Robert Goddard orchestrate the moves towards that outcome.
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.