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Archive for the tag “book reviews”

The Tudors

The Tudors (British Monarchy)The Tudors by Geoffrey Christopher Morris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is a chapter on each of the Tudor monarchs of England, a dynasty that lasted from 1485-1603. Each chapter deals with the character and relationships of the particular ruler, derived from contemporary sources.

One of the most interesting of these sources was Edward VI’s diary. He came to the throne at the age of 9, and died before he was 16, and was one of the earliest English diarists.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it assumed the knowledge one expects to gain from such a book. It is not really a history, or even a series of biographies, but a series of character sketches of the reigning monarchs. It is therefore best to be familiar with the history before reading this book.

For example, it says that Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, came to the throne not so much because of a hereditary claim, because his claim was weaker than that of some other candidates, but because he won the Battle of Bosworth. It does not, however, explain what his hereditary claim was, not even in the genealogical tables at the end of the book, or who the other claimants were. Nor does it explain the Battle of Bosworth, who the combatants were, or what they were fighting for, other than the throne of England.

I knew some parts of the history, having studied Church History at an English university, though that was 50 years ago. The period was that of the English Reformation, and the character sketches of the monarchs throw some light upon that, but this book is best read after reading a more general history of the period. Or else be prepared to interrupt your reading by Googling such things as the Battle of Bosworth.

The Background section of the Wikipedia article is the kind of introduction that should have been included in this book, but wasn’t. The lack is all the more remarkable since, when the book was first published, neither Wikipedia, nor Google, nor the Internet itself would have been available.

And since Wikipedia is now available, I suggest reading the Wikipedia article on The House of Tudor before reading this book.

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A copy of this post may be found at my old blog here.

I originally intended to post it here, but could not find the functional WordPress editor, which had been hidden again, and only the new enhanced dysfunctional one was available. Eventually I did find the working editor, so was able to post it here too.

Adam Bede

Adam BedeAdam Bede by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a love story.

It’s set in the fictional English county of Loamshire at the end of the 18th century, which is some kind of rustic paradise until things start going wrong about halfway through the book. Unlike Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, whose romance novels are peopled with the landed gentry and their urban equivalents, this one is set among the yeoman class.

The book has been on our shelves forever, and I’ve been meaning to read it some day but kept putting it off, partly because of things I’d read about George Eliot, and partly because of plot summaries I’d read. Reading plot summaries can be a bad idea. It made it sound too simple, and a 600-page novel with such a simple plot must be boring, mustn’t it, with all that padding?

But Eliot’s descriptions of country life, though perhaps too idyllic, are part of the interest of the book, and she makes the characters sound interesting. I don’t know how accurate her description of early Methodists is, but she probably knew several of them personally and perhaps some of her description is based on their recollections.

It’s when the action starts that the plot holes appear. The reader is kept ignorant of some things, which is a common device in fiction, but when the characters themselves appear to be ignorant, the suspension of disbelief gets a little strained. At one point there is a rather improbable Deus ex Machina, but it’s still a good read.

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Queen Sheba’s ring

Queen Sheba's RingQueen Sheba’s Ring by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

H. Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure novels, often set in imaginary locations, and has been credited with creating the “lost world” genre of literature. Like many of his books, this one is set in Africa, in the imaginary kingdom, or perhaps one should say queendom of Mur, ruled by Maqueda, a descendant King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Richard Adams, a British medical doctor, who had wandered the world practising his trade, met and married an Egyprian woman in Cairo, and also met an Egyptologist, Professor Ptolemy Higgs, whom he cured of typhoid, thus earning his gratitude. Adams’s wife dies, and their only son is kidnapped, and many years later Adams has news of his son who is a slave of the Fung tribe in North Central Africa. Maqueda’s people, the Abati, are traditional enemies of the Fung, and avoid being conquered by the Fung because they live in an inaccessible valley surrounded by mountains. Maqueda tells Adams of a prophecy that the Fung will leave if their sphinx-like idol is destroyed, and if Adams does that, the Abati will help him release his son.

Adams returns to Britain, taking the Queen of Sheba’s ring to prove his bona fides, and enlists Professor Higgs (who is drawn by Adams’s stories of ancient artifacts) and a soldier, Captain Oliver Orme, with his sidekick Sergeant Samuel Quick, and they return to Mur with the explosives needed to blow up the idol, with the two soldiers having the necessary expertise in their use.

Unlike some of Haggard’s earlier books, this one seems rather contrived and unconvincing. Queen Sheba’s Ring was first published in 1910, by which time most of Africa had been colonised by European powers, and very few parts remained unknown to Europeans. Perhaps Mur was in the south of Libya, which had not yet been colonised by Italy. Soon after this book was written, modern communications ensured that most educated people in most parts of the world were at least aware of the existence of places and peoples living in continents other than their own, though I am sometimes surprised by the degree of geographical ignorance displayed by contestants in quiz shows. So Rider Haggard was pushing the “lost world” trope a bit hard, though the success of Tarzan stories, and later Indiana Jones, showed that there was still a little juice that could be squeezed out of it. But most writers looking for imaginary settings moved their stories to other planets, which gave them more scope for developing exotic civilizations.

In reading this book, however, I was constantly being reminded of the time in which it was written, because if strongly reflects the arms race that preceded the First World War.

In Britain, the Liberal Party, especially, reacted against the aggressive imperialism and violence that had led to the Second Anglo-Boer War. In Queen Sheba’s Ring Haggard shows himself as a convinced militarist, stressing the need for arms production and military training and conscription. At times I wondered if he had been asked, or even paid by the “hawks” in the Conservative Party to write a book that would do this.

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Nostromo

NostromoNostromo by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our local library has a table with unwanted books, probably donated from deceased estates, and I saw a copy of Nostromo, which I hadn’t read, and paid R2.00 for it, which is probably three times the price it would have cost new when it was printed in 1955, but seems like a bargain today.

I tried not to read it with any preconceptions about the content, and it struck me as strange. It started with a description of the town of Sulaco in the fictional South American republic of Costaguano (does that mean what I think it means?) where a citizen of English descent inherits a concession to a long defunct silver mine. He is possessed by the entrepreneurial spirit, reopens the mine, begins to work it and makes it pay, His wife, who is compassionate, cares for the families of the miners, and worries about what it is doing to her husband. The mine provides employment for many, and profits for its overseas backers.

Then there is a revolution, and the upper classes of Sulaco together with the European expatriates, think that it will be better if the Occidental province becomes independent. Nostromo, an Italian sailor and supervisor of the local stevedores, is entrusted with the task of taking the silver output of the mine out to sea to keep it out of the hands of the revolutionaries and to buy arms for the separatists.

Up to this point the story seemed a bit slow, and it wasn’t clear where it was going. Then the pace picked up, though it still wasn’t clear where it was going. Was it the story of a workaholic businessman who opened a silver mine? Was it the story of a revolution? Was it a story about a bold war-time heist of silver? In the end it was none of these things and all of these things. And it ended up as a love story, which one would never have expected from the beginning, or even the middle.

The point of view of the story shifts from one character to another, and each of them sees the events in a different way. And having reached the end of it, I think I might start again at the beginning to see where it went and how it got there.

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The Anatomy of Crime

Looking at arts, culture and entertainment in Gauteng

I don’t read much crime fiction so the work of Val McDermid was not known to me.  I started reading, Forensics, The Anatomy of Crime, as an exercise in Criminology.  From the outset I was stunned at how readable the work was.  It was only then that I realised that Val McDermid is a practised and experienced genius in the field of writing entertainingly about crime.

Forensics

So, here we o find her engaged in explaining the work of forensic scientists to lay people. Along the way she explains the history of each forensic field from the first recorded autopsy (that of the body of Julius Caesar) to the Great Fire of London and modern advances which allow crimes to be solved years after the case has officially been closed.

She works through twelve chapters, all equally interesting.  Theintegrity of the crime scene, fire investigation, entomology (probably best not to…

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The Blind Man of Seville (Javier Falcon, #1)The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A crime novel set in Spain.

Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, but appears to have been written in English from the start, though it has quite a lot of Spanish words and phrases in it. The author has an English name, but his bio says nothing about where he was born or where he lives, or whether he lives or has lived in Spain.

The story grows more interesting and compelling as one gets into it. Robert Wilson uses a technique used successfully by Robert Goddard, where the solution to a current mystery is to be found in the past, and that sort of thing always appeals to the historian in me.

About halfway through I began to wonder if this was going to be a book that went beyond the average whodunit, and might say something significant about the human condition, perhaps a 21st century version of Crime and punishment. They quote from Albert Camus‘s novel The outsider.

One of the historical characters writes in his diary, in 1952

It is an irony not lost on me that here we are in Tangier, captives of the International Zone of Morocco, in the cockpit of Africa, where a new kind of society is being created. A society in which there are no codes. The ruling committee of naturally suspicious European countries has created a permissible chaos in which a new grade of humanity is emerging. One that does not adhere to the usual laws of community but seeks only to satisfy the demands of self. The untaxed unruled business affairs of the International Zone are played out in its society’s shunning of any form of morality. We are a microcosm of the future of the modern world, a culture in a Petri dish in the laboratory of human growth. Nobody will say, ‘Oh, Tangier, those were the days,’ because we will all be in our own Tangier. That is what we have been fighting like dogs for, all over the world, for the last four decades.

The corruption in business and government is what we see every day, and the newspapers are full of it. It is life as we know it, and the art in the writing is to reveal it to us.

Unfortunately he goes and spoils it all on the very next page by using the word “parameters” in a way in which no one would have used it in 1952. Well, perhaps they might have used it in Spanish, though not in English. It is too late even to think about that. The cord suspending disbelief is broken and it comes crashing to the ground.

No, Dostoevsky it isn’t, but it’s still an above-average whodunit.

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The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel of a dystopian future

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.

Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.

HandmaidPerhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid’s Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.

In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.

The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.

One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid’s Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).

Women's March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

Women’s March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women’s Day, the 9th of August. They didn’t actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.

In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.

There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 — Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I’m not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for.

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Inklings (book review)

InklingsInklings by Melanie M. Jeschke
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book up in the library because I was attracted by the title. I’m a fan of the Inklings, so I was curious about the book. The blurb said it was set in C.S. Lewis’s and Tolkien’s Oxford. But it turns out to be a trashy romance, and reads like fan fiction, a fan of the Inklings trying to write a romantic novel like Jane Austen, only without the humour.

I very nearly stopped reading after the prologue.

The stilted dialogue, the preachiness, put me off. It was so twee. A student with a crush on her tutor in 1960s Oxford. Even if it did refer to the Inklings, and was set in places familiar to them, it was badly written, at times even embarrassingly so. But I read on, and discovered that though it may be inauthentic and phony, it is as inauthentic and phony as real life.

It is set in Oxford in 1964, a year after the death of C.S. Lewis. If he had read it, perhaps he would have cringed as much as I did. But then I thought back, because at that time I was a student, and recalled the kinds of conversations that we had, the kinds of concerns that we had, and realised that it was true to life. We had crushes and unrequited love like the characters in the book. Our minds wandered in lectures and tutorials with thoughts of “She loves me/she loves me not”. And we did it all without the wit of Jane Austen or the depth of thought of the Inklings, much as we admired them.

Well, in 1964 I had not heard of the Inklings, nor of J.R.R. Tolkien, but I had read, and liked, the novels of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, though, unlike the characters in this story, our English lecturers despised them, and would rather we turned our attention to writers like D.H. Lawrence and H.W.D. Manson.

But even when cringing at the stilted conversation in the prologue, I had to recall that I admired their project for a latter-day Inklings, and indeed even tried to form such a thing myself, if only on the Internet. So for many of the objectiosn to the book, I could find an excuse. There was a sense in which it was realistic and true to life. Real life conversations and situations are often as banal and stilted and silly as this.

But the excuses could not quite cover the bad writing, and the book did not live up to the title, which was what had attracted me to it in the first place.

It is an American author writing about English universities, and so she provides a glossary of English terms for American readers, But “cheerio” sounds more like 1940s slang than that of the 1960s, and the author does not seem to be aware that an academic gown is a gown and not a “robe”. English people are more likely to say “I’d like you to” do something than “I’d like for you to” do something. In England a “vest” is an undergarment, and so on.

As a romance novel it was not up to the standard of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. It was more in the Barbara Cartland or Mills & Boon class. I could just make it to the end of the first part, which covered the heroine’s first term at Oxford. The next part was much too boring, and I began skipping pages, and then whole chapters and finally reading the first couple of sentences of each chapter to see if there was anything new.

Fan fiction can sometimes be worth reading, I’ve sometimes urged people to write something in the same genre as one or other of the Inklings. But I don’t recall any of them writing in the Mills & Boon genre like this.

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The Good Cemetery Guide

The Good Cemetery GuideThe Good Cemetery Guide by Consuelo Roland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What can you say about a book about an undertaker who moonlights as a guitarist in a bar? That it’s a surprisingly enjoyable read, that’s what.

We picked it up secondhand in Hermanus, when we were beginning to run out of the books we had taken on holiday and then left at most of the places we stayed, releading them into the wild on BookCrossin. The copy we bought was even autographed by the author, and was itself a BooCrossing book of sorts, as it had a list in the back of people who had read it, and what they thought of it — three gave it 1, and could not get into it, not liking reading about coffins. Two found it an enjoyable read, and said it wasn’t all about coffins. They gave it a 3+

It is set in Kalk Bay on the Cape Peninsula, and we had passed through there a couple of times in the week before we bought it, so the setting was fresh in our minds.

But it is also well written, and the characters stand out, even though seen almost entirely through the eyes of the protagonist. It’s also got a little bit of everything, sadness and happiness, joy and sorrow, romance, intrigue, humour. It is difficult to think of other books to compare it with, the onl;y one that comes to mind is [nook:Harold and Maud].

There are a couple of jarring notes, little details that don’t ring true, like referring to the Beatles as coming from Manchester, but generally the plot is believable.

I don’t know how easy it would be to get a copy now — this is the only one I’ve ever seen for sale — but if you do see one, buy it. It’s worth reading.

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Rose, by Martin Cruz Smith (book review)

RoseRose by Martin Cruz Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read several books by Martin Cruz Smith, all whodunits featuring detective Arkady Renko, mostly set in Moscow in the late 20th or early 21st century. This one is different, as it is set in 19th-century England, in Lancashire, in the mining town of Wigan to be precise.

Some of the Renko books felt a bit surreal to me, but no more so than Bulgakov’s The master and Margarita, but this one felt a bit more jarring. I’ve been to Moscow, and I’ve never been to Wigan, but somehow the Wigan setting seemed less authentic than the Moscow ones, not so much the place itself, as the people in it. The story was interesting enough, and made me want to read on to see what happened, but it somehow felt inauthentic, as if it was set in some alternative universe, like Philip Pullman‘s His dark materials.

The descriptions of coal mining were authentic, but it was the events and conversations on the surface that seemed out of place. A coal miner in Lancashire in 1872 likening something to a volcano? How many of them would have seen a volcano, or even a picture of one?

A zealous Evangelical clergyman speaking of Low Mass, or any kind of “Mass” at all? Such a thing would have been anathema to any Church of England Evangelical in that period. It’s a bit like Pullman’s use of terms like “Magisterium”, which clearly means something different in an alternative universe.

One is left wondering whether the surrealism is intended or not. The protagonist too is a bit surreal, an Indiana Jones-like character, but some of the other things in the book give the impression that it is intended to be a historical novel, authentic in time and place. It feels like 20th-century characters transported into a 19th-centry setting.

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