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.

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.