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monkeyboy2

monkeyboy2
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Member since: 20.07.2009

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      16.04.2010 17:25
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      Worth a read if you like this sort of thing

      This book wants to be a rip-roaring, swashbuckling tale of English heroism so much that its sub-title is: 'How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History'. Well, it aint. It's actually a rough history of the attempts of the English East India Company to get into the lucrative spice trade of the early 17th Century and failing miserably.

      In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese and Dutch, followed by the English and, to a lesser degree, other Western European countries began to invest in long range trade in luxuries from the 'Far East'. This book follows those dangerous and often bloody early ventures, focusing on the English. Well, this is an English book, even if the Dutch had all the success and best stories. And this is, essentially, a collection of stories. There's no overriding point to it, or any analysis of cause and effect or in fact any depth whatsoever. It's just a bunch of stories taken from diaries and reports, loosely and often poorly strung together. But that's okay as there are some really good stories in here.

      The book starts with some context for us. In the middle ages, precious spices had come to these Atlantic countries through various trade routes, changing hands perhaps dozens of times on their way from the Spice Islands of the cultivators through the Javan and Sumatran trading empires and on through the Indian Ocean with Muslim seafarers and desert caravans into the Mediterranean. All those middle men meant enormous prices for Western Europeans, where spices like nutmeg and mace and pepper were in high demand for their purported miraculous curative properties. But when at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries sailing technology improved to the point where long range voyages were feasible, first the Spanish and Portuguese and then the Dutch decided to cut out the middle men and sail all the way there and back themselves, saving a packet in the process.

      It's amazing to think that the great seafarers of the time who are renowned now as hero-explorers, such as the Venetian Giovanni Caboto - famous in his adopted England as plain old John Cabot - and Ferdinand Magellan were essentially merchants just trying to make a quick buck. As Milton notes, 'one small sack of nutmeg was enough to set a man up for life'. In trying to go and buy some nutmeg direct from the islands, Cabot sailed West and landed in North America which he 'confidently declared to be an uninhabited part of China'. He then attempted to follow the coast of 'China' until he reached Japan 'where all the spices of the world originate.' The guy was a dismal failure but he inspired Magellan to head West himself and though nearly everyone starved and Magellan got himself killed in a local squabble, one of his fleet of ships made it back to Spain to a heroes' welcome. And so the first circumnavigation of the globe was thus completed for the sake of profit.

      It was a hell of a long way. Hugging the coast down and around Africa, Arabia and India to the Spice Islands and back the way you'd come would take maybe three years, two if you were very lucky. Some voyages, plagued by disaster, took longer. Many never made it at all. The English got a late start in the trade and by the time they got their act together, pretty much the whole market of the East Indies had been divvied up between the masters of long-range trade, the Portuguese and Dutch.

      The meat of the story of the spice trade starts about half a century later, toward the end of the 16th century and last for about a hundred years. This is where the competition hots up. The Portuguese loose ground to the Dutch and then the English try to muscle in.

      The competition is based between the Dutch and English East India Companies. These were private enterprises with investors of rich tradesman who, with the backing of their respective states, ended up being something like states themselves, with private armies and fleets, answerable only to the Boardroom.

      The English are laughably rubbish, at least at first. Every voyage is ludicrously ill-equipped, or lead by posh nobs who have never been to sea before or where stupid decisions lead to imprisonment by local kings and worse. When the English do begin to make it they are outgunned and outnumbered and always slink away rather than fight for the right to trade. Milton tries to make these stories play as tales of plucky English bulldogs. Nonsense. They were dismal failures.

      If only we could cheer for the enemies of the English, the Dutch. But we can't because the only stories we hear about them paint them as evil bastards; massacring locals and viciously, ruthlessly eliminating all rivals. It's tempting to think this is selective story-telling but he does cite many Dutch sources and it seems like they really were extremely nasty. It's a matter of fact that they burnt many Malaysian and Sumatran cities to the ground. The Dutch had an unassailable lead and the English completely lost the competition in the Indies (they got a foothold in India though and that's another story).

      So there's no-one really to cheer for, except on the very rare occasions when the islanders stand up to the foreigners. This is a serious failing in the book because it often gets pretty depressing reading about exploitation and pillage and torture, page after page.

      But they are damn good stories. And if you're like me and absolutely love reading the language used in this sort of period then you'll have a great time. Check it:

      'Having consumed all their biskits and other victuals, they fell into such necessitie that they were enforced to eate the powder that remained thereof, being now full of wormes and stinking like pisse by reason of the salt water... [it goes on, when the dust ran out they were forced] to eate pieces of leather which were folded about certain grate ropes of the shippes but these skinnes being very hard, by reason of the sunne, raine and winde, they hung them by a cord in the sea for the space of four or five days to mollifie them.'

      I love that and to Milton's credit the book is chock full of direct quotes, which he sprinkles liberally in the middle of almost all of his sentences and paragraphs.

      The title is Nathaniel's Nutmeg, and it pretends to be about a man called Nathaniel Courthope, an employee of the English East India Company who commanded a tiny contingent of troops on the smallest Spice Island, which was called Run. Milton builds this tale up and up throughout the book but when it comes to it, is just another short tale of English mediocrity. After only a few pages Courthope dies an ignominious death and can't hold on to the island. The only reason the tale is of any significance is that he stubbornly held on to it long enough for the English to claim it as sovereign territory. A few years later, the Island of Run is effectively 'swapped' for the island of Manhattan. For the Dutch, it looked like a good deal at the time.

      The author Giles Milton is not a historian, and as I say, it shows. But he has collected a lot of very interesting stories from this little corner of history and if you forgive the fact that it's a big mess and that the book isn't at all what he says it's about, then you might enjoy this.

      He's also written a history of the earliest English colonists of North America called 'Big Chief Elizabeth' which is an even bigger mess of a book than this one. I suspect that in getting these two books published he's relied on family connections and his undoubted knack for catchy titles. But ho-hum, they're not a bad read.

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        28.01.2010 12:39
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        probably the best historical trilogy published

        The third and final part of the Alexander Trilogy sees the great Macedonian king conquer the whole of the Persian Empire, from Syria, through Mesopotamia and Babylonia, Persis itself and all the way to India - up into the Himalayas and down to the mouth of the Indus.

        This review is further to my reviews of the previous two novels and so I will refrain from repeating myself regarding things like style and characterisation which are consistent throughout.

        The story covers a period of about nine years, and these are years so eventful that, as one of Alexander's companions notes, "every month feels like a year." This book is therefore the longest of the three, with my paperback edition 570 pages. (The first and second instalments are 430 and 480 respectively. This makes for a grand total of 1480 pages! No mean feat, I'm sure you'll agree.)

        Manfredi uses a number of techniques to deal with this volume of action, most obviously selecting a few key moments in the story of Alexander and expanding on those while filling the times between with a few workmanlike lines of summary. Absolutely necessary, clearly. He also refrains from detailing any of the hundreds of sieges that took place during this period, and he can do this because he dedicated a very large proportion of the second book to the siege of Tyre and so we the reader have no need of more descriptions of similar though lesser events. And to read it would be tedious in the extreme.

        Similarly, there were dozens or even hundreds of small battles or skirmishes fought along the way and these are simply referred to in passing other than three battles that we witness directly, namely the crucial Battle of Gaugamela, the huge scuffle at the Persian Gates, and a brief but bloody fight with the Scythians north of the Jaxartes River (the northern limit of both the Persian and ultimately Alexander's Empire).

        Surprisingly, what we don't see first hand is the brutal and extremely bloody Battle of the Hydaspes which was fought against the Indian King Porus up in the Punjab. Instead, the details of this battle and almost all of the entire Indian expedition is related by a letter from Alexander's companion and general, Ptolemy (later ruler of Egypt and founder of the dynasty that was to end with Cleopatra nearly 300 years later) to the great Aristotle. It's a lovely piece of writing and a neat trick; surmising years of hardships in just a few pages and is one of the best sections of the whole trilogy and moves us on to the very final section.

        Incidentally, the character of Aristotle made his first appearance at the start of the first book tutoring Alexander and his presence has continued throughout the rest of the trilogy in short passages as he investigates the truth behind the assassination of King Phillip II, travelling here and there in Greece when he can, talking to witnesses and using his legendary powers of reason to come up with the answer to this now two-thousand-year-old mystery. Disappointingly, and after all that build-up, the historian Manfredi refuses to come down from the fence and ends up concluding something like, 'Possibly this but dunno'.

        I think most people know the story of the conquests of Alexander the Great but perhaps not the conclusion of his adventure so I'll refrain from detailing it here and spoiling the ending. Suffice to say that Alexander does begin to find that there are limits to what he can achieve through personal force of will alone.

        There's no doubt that Alexander the Great was one of the biggest murderers in history. Much like Genghis Khan over a thousand years later, his armies swept away kingdoms almost without pause, killing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, women and children in a despicable quest for glory and riches. Having said that, he was obviously a product of his times and to judge him by our standards is to miss the point that his actions, however we judge them, changed the course of world history. A lot of Western historians write that he brought Hellenistic culture to the East, (and the implication is that this is some sort of justification for the slaughter, as though Greek trumps Persian or Indian, and of course that's a natural bias but still not accurate) and there is no doubt that this led to huge advances in communication and trade between East and West, as well as fundamentally altering the social structures and genetics of hugely diverse peoples across Central Asia.

        More than this, his Companions, who became the Diadochi, or Successors, continued the legacy of Greek culture across Central Asia and Egypt and indeed, continued fighting desperate wars, this time against each other, for generations to come. It never ceases to astound me that these men, who had been close friends and companions almost from birth - educated together, living and fighting together, some even living in exile together - ended up as bitter enemies. It makes you wonder what stress and madness was experienced after so many endless years of brutal campaigning. It's a story I'd love to read, and is perhaps one even more fascinating than that of Alexander himself. Well, maybe.

        He must have been a truly extraordinary man to have achieved the things he did. The story of his life is like something out of legend, and indeed, is so mixed up with his own archetype that it is no longer possible to fully separate fact from fiction. Whatever the truth of it is, he is beyond doubt one of the most fascinating and complex individuals to have ever lived (that we know about) and this trilogy makes a heroic attempt to explore the brilliant, terrifying, maniacal mind of a man who really was Great.

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          27.01.2010 13:24
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          generally really quite good

          This is the second book in Manfredi's internationally bestselling Alexander Trilogy and it follows Alexander the Great in his invasion of Asia for the three or so years he spent taking cities along the Mediterranean coast and fighting the battles of the Granicus and Issus. The novel ends with Alexander's visit to the Oracle of Zeus Ammon at the Oasis of Siwa in Egypt. The Alexander Trilogy is Manfredi's best work and this instalment is perhaps the best of the three, equalled or followed closely by the final part.

          As in the first instalment, the general writing style isn't great but it isn't that terrible either and there are in fact some quite beautiful descriptive passages. The dialogue tends in large part to be cheesy and obvious but sometimes can be almost lovely. Again, I'm not sure how much is down to the translator Iain Halliday but his translation from the Italian is a massive improvement on the usual English translator of Manfredi's work, Christine Manfredi.

          Tone-wise, it tends to be quite intense throughout, as you would expect, and there is a lot of sadness, too. But there are plenty of lighter moments; jokes between friends and lots of tender scenes between lovers. And as for those jokes, well, they are so old fashioned as to be barely comprehensible and I wonder if it isn't a deliberate attempt to approach the style of humour found in Aristophanes, which isn't funny now either. Still, whether it makes you laugh or not, at least it's there and the book isn't chin-strokingly serious throughout. Manfredi generally knows how to construct a novel, with most scenes playing out at the best length, with character arcs and consistent pacing but there are times when I wish he would have dedicated more time to building up to the crucial events. He can't do tension for toffee.

          Once again, all the aspects from the accepted history of Alexander are present in the story and Manfredi does a wonderful job meshing the ancient histories with his version of the narrative. Of course, there is argument among historians as to what 'actually' happened as many of the few remaining ancient sources disagree on minor and major points, so Manfredi has to pick which version he is going to portray. As a historian himself, one gets the sense that he relishes playing with the history like this, putting his theory across not in dry essay but in exciting prose. For example, the long and important section where general Parmenion's son Philotas becomes involved in a conspiracy that has horrible consequences. What is a mere few dry lines in the ancient sources is fleshed out to such an extent that the characters themselves seem to driving the events forward rather than it reading like the literary construction it actually is.

          One of the main strengths of this book is the characterisation. Alexander's main enemy in the first half is the Greek mercenary Memnon (who fought for the Persians and led thousands of Greek mercenaries and the man Alexander thought most dangerous in the empire). Many of the short chapters that make up this book are devoted to Memnon and he is shown to be a brave, admirable and cunning man. Of course, it's a literary device as old as Homer where a great enemy means a greater hero and, also, showing so much of Memnon allows us to see what's going on with the Persian army but that's not all there is to it. We see Memnon at home with his loving Persian wife Barsine and his two half Greek, half Persian sons and it fleshes out his character when we see him worrying over whether they will choose to be Greek or Persian men, what will become of his wife if he dies and so on. Real human concerns on a shadowy historical figure. Barsine, too, has her own story, starting out as the wife of a professional soldier and getting even more complicated. There is so much of Alexander's story to tell and it would have been easy to ignore this aspect of it.

          The action scenes are pretty good, although I would have liked a little more detail. Not much I can do about it now, but I would have liked it.

          ---------------------------------------------------
          Dear Mr Valerio Massimo Manfredi,

          In your Alexander trilogy, please put in more blood and entrails and tactical manoeuvres. I understand that you don't want it to all be about battles and that and you have a finite amount of room between the covers but Bernard Cornwell does historical battle scenes much better than you and he doesn't spend many pages on them either. Please rewrite later editions accordingly.

          Many thanks,

          Daniel Q. Monkeyboy
          ----------------------------------------------------


          Most of all, though, this story is again about Alexander and the author spends most of his time getting inside the head of this incredibly complicated man. A lot of the exploration of that complex character is through his historical actions - the clemency he displays to captured prisoners (royal ones, admittedly) contrasts with the fury he unleashed upon the city of Tyre after it had dared to successfully repulse his attacks for many months. And during these passages we again we see how Alexander repeatedly overcame seemingly impossible problems; here having his men build a causeway out to the city of Tyre so that his siege engines could reach the walls, and building floating catapults and towers.

          In fact, Manfredi mainly dedicates this book to Alexander's gradual moral decline as his already enormous ego begins slowly to grow to monstrous, Elton John levels. The murder of the citizens of Tyre makes a cold, logical, military sense as it shows to other cities what will happen if they resist the armies of Macedon, however, Manfredi's Alexander also acts like a child throwing a wobbler and taking out his childish frustration on the brave inhabitants like a toddler throwing his 99 on the floor just to spite mummy.

          This dichotomy of logic and rage is the essence of Manfredi's Alexander, as he sets out to conquer the known world merely to satisfy his own massive ego. Just like Russell Brand. As victory follows victory, Alexander loses more of the teachings of his old master Aristotle and begins to embrace the Egyptian view of him as some sort of god. Once again, Alexander argues to his outraged friends that it makes sense; the Egyptians are used to worshipping their kings as gods, he is simply carrying on that tradition. But a large part of the man loves the idea of being the son of Zeus and indeed marches part of his army dangerously deep into the Sahara so he can be recognised as such at the famous Oracle of Siwa. This all sets up and leads into the third and final part, where Alexander's megalomania becomes dangerous to even his closest friends...

          Can you imagine how difficult it would be to write something like this? Okay, it's probably a little easier if you're both a published novelist and professor of history like the author but, still, this trilogy is a massive undertaking - not just in length but in complexity - and it largely succeeds. Whatever faults there are with it can be forgiven as, mainly, this is a hugely entertaining, exciting book and one with a surprising amount of depth to it. Start with part one though.

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            30.12.2009 12:59
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            The least good of the best historical trilogy going

            "Alexander stood at the bow wearing armour covered with silver laminate and on his head was a shining helmet of the same metal, but in the shape of a lion's head with its jaws wide open. His greaves bore an embossed pattern and he carried a sword with an ivory hilt which had belonged to his father. In his right hand he gripped a spear with an ash-wood shaft and a head of gold; it flashed light at his every movement, like Zeus's thunderbolt."

            The first part of Manfredi's Alexander Trilogy, Child of a Dream follows the story of Alexander the Great from his birth up to the death of his father King Phillip II of Macedon and the very beginning of Alexander's invasion of Persia.

            As well as being a popular novelist, Valerio Massimo Manfredi (believe it or not he is an Italian gentleman) is also a working historian and archaeologist, though, I understand, not a very prominent one. It's a wonder he has time to tie his shoe laces as he has published nearly twenty novels since the early 80s, most of which have been translated into English. Almost all are historical fiction written for popular consumption with a smattering of - usually unsuccessful - pretension toward higher literature. His mediocre 2002 novel The Last Legion was made into an even worse movie of the same name starring the famous action hero Colin Firth.

            The most successful of his works, both financially and in my opinion critically, is his Alexander Trilogy. Part One gets off to a shaky start, however, with a hokey opening depicting four magi of Persia receiving a terrible portent about the future of the kingdom. Manfredi is clearly creating an atmosphere and immediately setting out one of themes - that Alexander was a force of nature as much as a man - but it's still groan-out-loud corny. Things soon settle down as Alexander is born and we see him growing up against a background of his father Phillip II expanding and consolidating his hegemony over the Greeks, Thracians and barbarians of the north.

            Alexander's personality begins to be sketched out as he plays with his friends - the children of Macedonian nobility who will become his lifelong companions and eventual successors. He is raised to be aware that he is heir to the throne, that he is being groomed for greatness and that his responsibilities will also be greater than that of his friends, that he will ultimately be responsible for all of them. This, of course, affects his character as he grows up. Manfredi is surprisingly brilliant with Alexander's psychology and the development through his youth feels authentic as the author gets deep into the mind of this man - something that can't be said for almost all other historical fiction (for example Conn Iggulden's Caesar series) and in fact is done better here than in any other I have read and, alongside the story itself, is surely a reason for its astonishing success.

            Alexander is tutored by the great Aristotle for years and we see his intellectual development, alongside his complex emotional growth. Here, continuing his focus on his protagonist's internal self, Manfredi introduces a theme than runs through the entire trilogy - Alexander's contradictions. He was clearly capable of great clemency (to Darius' family) as well as terrible retribution (the razing of Tyre). He thought highly of Athenian democracy even though he was himself a king, he approached great enterprises with a calm logic though was often overtaken by uncontrollable anger and so on. Great characters are great because of their flaws and Manfredi's Alexander has bags of them. He proper likes a drink too.

            The book rounds off with a few of the other famous parts of the legend - Alexander falling out with his dad, Phillip's assassination, and Alexander's grief and preparations for his invasion. It's quite faithful to legends/history as far as I know it - there's the Battle of Chaeronaea, and the subsequent clemency granted the Athenians and the destruction of Thebes, nicely foreshadowing Alexander's later behaviour. It's all quite exciting and even though there are a few duller moments the pace is rapid enough to keep you turning the page late into the night as well as being detailed enough to get to know all the characters.

            The writing is better in this series than any other Manfredi I have read, quite possibly because this one is a translation from the Italian by a geezer called Iain Halliday, whereas the others were by Manfredi's wife Christine. It's still not great, though, and much of the description feels forced and doesn't flow at all well. More than this, the dialogue is often awful and about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Check out this scintillating piece from a romance between minor characters, "I am most grateful. I am also especially pleased that you chose to accompany me. I have heard that you are very brave." Still, despite all of this there is still something about the quality of the writing that shines through. It has a certain confidence to it, verve and vitality, a sense of assurance that makes it an enjoyable experience to read.

            As a whole, it's full of sex and violence (generally not at the same time) and charts the coming of age of one of history's greatest (and most horrendous, murderous etc) men and while for obvious reasons it's not as exciting as parts two and three, you have to read this in order to get there, and it's well worth doing so. When you read the final pages of this one you'll certainly be reaching for part two - the Sands of Ammon - without a pause.

            Oh and there are four maps at the start of the book showing the Greek and Persian worlds detailed in the books, which are incredibly helpful to the reader's understanding of the events and should be a feature in every historical fiction, I say.

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              19.11.2009 12:11
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              Worth reading

              "Hamburg is a guilty city. Consciously, unconsciously. Maybe Hamburg even pulled those hijackers. Did they pick us? Or did we pick them? What signals does Hamburg send out to your average Islamist anti-Zionist terrorist bent on fucking up the Western world? Centuries of anti-Semitism? Hamburg has them. Concentration camps just up the road? Hamburg had them. Too many Arabs love Germans for the wrong reasons. Maybe our hijackers did. We never asked them. And now we never shall."

              John le Carre is the best-selling author most famous for his cold war spy novels 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'. This is his 2008 story about the War on Terror.

              Big Melik is a Turkish heavyweight boxer living in Hamburg with his mother Leyla. Both of them are decent people living a quiet life and want most of all for their application for German citizenship to be finally accepted.

              On the other side of town, Mr Tommy Brue is the owner of Brue Freres plc, a small bank now based in the city, and fast approaching his retirement with both dread and relief. Brue is the very picture of success and yet he feels empty and is deeply bored with his routine working life and the stilted marriage with his possibly adulterous wife.

              Annabel Richter is a young lawyer. Turning her back on family wealth, she is now legal counsel at Sanctuary North, a Christian Foundation that works for the protection of stateless and displaced persons in the region of North Germany.

              And Gunther Bachmann is a veteran spy, demoted from his high-status work in Beirut, Mogadishu and Aden and now working in domestic intelligence in Hamburg, of all places, instead of Berlin. Bachmann has a brilliant practical mind and years of experience in the field, yet he is new to the much murkier world of inter-agency politics.

              What brings them all together is the arrival in Hamburg of young Issa Karpov, a malnourished Chechen with a Russian surname. Issa has been seriously tortured and still carries the physical and mental scars inside his oversized coat as he trudges the streets of Hamburg, searching for a banker named Tommy Brue...

              I won't give any more away as this is one of those books that is impossible to confidently predict. Will everything work out or will it all go tits up? The author keeps you guessing as the plot elements unfold to reveal who did what to whom and whose side everyone is on.

              Stylistically, this is a classic case of an aging author writing with such confidence that it comes across as somewhat lazy. Veteran authors have a tendency to use fewer words to tell the story and to be more impressionistic with description. And that's fine, they've put the work in, give em a break, I say. But still, at times in this book it's as if le Carre is turning to you with a wink and saying "look, its not real life and you know this is a novel, I know it's a novel, can we just move on now?". It doesn't ruin it but a little more effort would have been a huge improvement. Much of the plot is moved on through dialogue, which is a faster way to write but can be a little tedious to read. It moves along at a fairly brisk pace, changing character view points to keep things interesting, there's a whiff of love and a sprinkling of humour. Le Carre is an old pro for sure.

              Subject-wise, this is marketed as a book about the War on Terror. I even said as much above. But it isn't really. It's only about a small part of it - though some would argue the most important part. What this novel does do is fully illustrate the effect that the anti-terrorism hysteria of 'the state' has upon individuals that find themselves targeted and abused purely on the basis of their faith or ethnic origins.

              Le Carre worked in for MI6 in Hamburg in the early sixties and he clearly knows the city very well, despite the massive changes to it that time. However, and more importantly, he clearly doesn't know anything about how the German intelligence system actually works in the 21st Century. I'm not saying I do, I haven't got a clue, it's just that it's obvious from the glaring lack of detail that the guy's totally winging it. That fact doesn't detract overly much from the novel but it means it doesn't have the air of authenticity that le Carre's earlier spy novels do.

              However, one thing that has a crystal-clear ping of authenticity is the unapologetic ruthlessness of people in the Intelligence business. What we learn about that subject from this novel is: most Intelligence people are utter bastards, and the American ones are the biggest bastards of them all. Nothing new there, then, sure, but creating believable, sympathetic characters and dropping them into that harsh world really tugs at the old heart strings. These Intelligence people really do not care one jot that they will inevitably abduct, torture and detain innocent men while trying to catch 'proper terrorists'. In fact, the strategy is actually to monitor and if possible round up anyone with views that are labelled by the state as 'extremist' - real life Thought Police in action. And that strategy is certainly self-defeating as increasing numbers get fed up with this persecution and sympathise more with those 'extremist' views. In this book, the only ruthless terrorists are those that work in Intelligence. It's surprising to me that this old establishment figure and cold war veteran holds that opinion but I respect him all the more for it.

              It's a good book and well worth a read. It doesn't get a higher rating only because it's a little bit lacklustre here and there.

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              • The Man From Earth (DVD) / DVD / 116 Readings / 112 Ratings
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                21.09.2009 18:25
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                The little film that could

                Film only review

                "I had the chance to sail with Columbus only I'm not the adventurous type..."

                What would it be like being 14,000 years old? Exciting? Lonely? Bit weird, probably. Anyway, that is the theme explored by this tiny-budget 2007 film.

                It opens with 30-something Professor John Oldman having left his job and about to move house, after ducking out of his farewell party at the University. His friends turn up his cabin to give him a send off as he packs his few belongings into his pickup. They cannot understand why he is suddenly moving on, and he won't tell them where he's going or what he's going to do.

                Then he reveals to them that he is, in fact, 14,000 years old. He was born in the Stone Age and has not aged a day since reaching adulthood. As soon as the people around him begin to notice that he does not age, he explains, he moves on so as to not arouse suspicion.

                His friends react with a combination of amusement, confusion and anger. Why is he saying these things? Is it a joke? Is he mad? Does he take them for idiots? The rest of the plot sees them sitting in John's living room as night slowly falls, trying to pick holes in their friend's assertion that he is actually thousands of years old.

                That's right, the film is set in a living room and takes place in almost real time. There's no action. At all. It is all dialogue. And it's got a terribly low budget, so the cameras are relatively poor and the sound quality isn't great and the actors are for the most part barely adequate. But the film as a whole is actually excellent.

                This film is all about the script. It was written by Jerome Bixby, a TV writer who among other things wrote a number of Star Trek episodes, including the classic 'Mirror, Mirror' (the one set in a parallel universe where Kirk is evil and Spock has a beard). This film was, in fact, Bixby's last work before his death, even dictating it to his son while on his deathbed, though he first conceived the idea while working on Star Trek in the 60s (Bixby also wrote the episode 'Requiem for Methuselah' which has a similar basic premise).

                And it is a very, very good script. The dialogue ebbs and flows over the course of the evening as the characters react to John's statements with, at first outrage and confusion through to sympathy and amazement, and back again, over and over with the narrative twisting and turning as both the characters and the audience wonders what is actually going on. The characters interact properly with each other, for example you get the sense that these people have actually worked together for ten years when they get exasperated at each others' foibles at the drop of a hat. They discuss the nature of time, the span of history, ancient man, science and nature, religion and, of course, death. It is all dealt with swiftly, though, and the film is never bogged down by the subject matter. In fact, despite the high concept and stagey presentation, it feels as if the characters are driving the dialogue, and that's down to the quality of the script rather than the acting.

                The acting. Hmmm. It isn't bad. The main character is John, who is a man trying to convince his friends he's a Cro-Magnon older than history. John is played by David Lee Smith, an actor who was born to play hunky but boring characters in cheap American TV shows, but he does pretty well here. He brings a quiet dignity to John and manages to keep it plausible, delivering his lines convincingly but without any flair. I liked him, anyway, and I wish for his sake that he got more work.

                Backing him up as the colleagues are a collection of other TV actors. John Billingsley plays an annoying Biology Professor who makes constant terrible jokes in an incredibly irritating voice. For the first half of the film every word out his great flapping mouth makes you cringe and bite your knuckles with suppressed rage but, by the end, he has somehow become quite likeable. He actually has some of the best lines and provides the comic relief. Incidentally, Billingsley played the annoying Dr. Phlox on the annoying and last Star Trek TV series 'Enterprise'. The Professor of Archaeology is like an aging rocker (played by William Katt who I'm sure I know really well from something else but can't find what) who turns up at the cabin on his motorbike with an attractive student on his back and tiny blonde postage stamp for a beard. He's the angry character who takes it all quite personally. Then there's the uptight Christian literalist who is offended by what John has to say of Christianity who is also very irritating (I've known a few people like her. They often seem to be teacher types). Rounding out the group is the token love interest played by an actress called Annika Peterson who is absolutely gorgeous but unfortunately hasn't really been in much. She barely has any lines and doesn't take part in the discussions at all, just sits and listens. It's obvious that she doesn't care whether John is a thousand years old, mad or what - she just loves him anyway. Then there's the Psychologist or Psychiatrist character, played by Richard Reihle, who is one of those actors who has been in hundreds of films but you can never place him. Finally, the best character is the Anthropologist played by the best actor in the bunch (and I can't believe I'm typing these words) Tony Todd. Yep, I don't know if the others are all so wooden that even Tony Todd shines by comparison or if it is a genuinely good performance, but I suspect it's the latter. He brings such warmth and wisdom to his character that the first time I saw the film I didn't know it was him. Although he does have the bizarre affectation of playing with a yo-yo which in my opinion, Tone, was misjudged. (Todd was also in Star Trek. He played Worf's brother.)

                This film could easily be a one-set play (or a no-set play) but the camera and lighting and editing is utilised to good effect to create atmosphere and even to tease more from the script.

                The music is surprisingly good, though obviously cheap, with a playfully ominous score setting the scene over the first shots of the area around John's cabin (red-rocked and pine-treed California). Throughout the film there is a near-constant hum of cheap keyboards and widdly bits that never intrudes but does add to, or even creates, the atmosphere of uncertainty and tension. The score of course helps ramp up the exciting moments with softly running tribal drums pounding out a rhythm when John reveals something. Later we get to hear a bit of Beethoven's 7th symphony along with the characters while a particularly tense scene plays out.

                The cinematography may at first seem to be all-but non-existent however, though hampered by budget and set, in places it is actually cleverly effective. As the evening progresses and darkness begins to fall, and the characters one by one begin to fall under John's spell, the camera subtly closes in, and the characters begin to sit closer and closer together, huddled upon the floor around the fire until the background all but disappears and we're left with the flickering firelight on their enraptured faces.

                It's a shame that Bixby didn't live long enough to see his final creation come to fruition but it's good at least that this film got made, apparently, according to his wishes; small cast, low budget, etc. It's hard to see how it would work otherwise. I suppose if you had a few million bucks you'd work in a few 'flashbacks' and show John in the places he tells them he's been to and that would be quite fun, I guess, but it would also spoil the simplicity that makes this film so wonderful. I like this film a hell of a lot and, while it's not perfect, I highly recommend it.

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                  14.09.2009 13:29
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                  A science fiction masterpiece

                  This is a 1966 sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein about an attempted revolution by the colonists of Earth's moon around the year 2075. There's a brilliant plot, some great characters and humorous dialogue but it is mainly a platform for communicating Heinlein's libertarian ideals and is very talky. My copy is 288 pages.

                  Luna is nominally a penal colony, set up by the nations of Earth and run by the Luna Authority. Undesirables have been sent to Luna to carry out their sentences since the late 20th Century, but due to the effect of the Moon's low gravity, no matter how short their sentence may have been, it is always a one-way trip. The human body is permanently altered by the low gravity and so after a year or so on Lunar is unable to cope with the relative high gravity of Earth for long periods - their cardiovascular system will no longer be sufficiently strong. This means that the Moon is filled with people who have completed their sentence and so are completely free - but free to live on the Moon and nowhere else. More than this, these colonists have been having children for years and so there are hundreds of thousands who have never been prisoners and have never been to Earth. However, the Authority still treats all of these people as little more than prisoners, with no rights. Because of this, there is trouble brewing on Luna.

                  The book is narrated by Mannie, a computer technician with one arm who is best friends with Mike. Mike is a computer. Not just any computer, Mike is "a fair dinkum thinkum, the sharpest computer you'll ever meet." When Mike was first installed on Lunar, he computed ballistics for pilotless freighters and controlled the space catapult but this kept him busy less than one per cent of the time so they kept plugging more stuff into him, and more and more sub-computers to control and so increased his number of connections far and above the capacity of a human brain, until eventually (and in the great tradition of sci-fi), Mike woke up.

                  Mannie has no interest in politics, but Mike the computer is curious and so asks Mannie to attend a protest meeting. The meeting is attacked by guards and so Mannie finds himself on the run. Luckily, though, he's on the run with Wyoming Knott, a staggeringly beautiful woman. Hiding out in a hotel room, they are joined by Professor de la Paz, an ancient political prisoner who describes himself as a Rational Anarchist (more on that later).

                  In that hotel room, these three people, with the help of Mike the computer, justify and then plan a revolution. The hotel scene takes up a huge 60 pages and is absolutely brilliant, even though it is merely one long discussion. Then we see them actively recruiting and planning the rebellion for most of the rest of the book, right up to the short action finale where we find out whether it is successful or not.

                  Mannie, our narrator, is a great character, the ultimate pragmatist who finds himself a leader in a revolution through simply going with the flow and taking it all in with good natured bemusement. His narration is in the style of the Luna colonists' (Loonies) patois, most notably a dropping of the article, so "toward the end" becomes "toward end" etc. This deceptively simple stylistic decision brilliantly creates a sense of distance in time and place to us now and as a reader you pick it up instantly (actually, it probably also makes the novel about 10% shorter than it otherwise would be!). This also being a colony made up of all the peoples of Earth, the slang used is Russian, Australian, Chinese, etc in origins and is littered liberally throughout, especially the Russian stuff. I would think that Heinlein nicked this sort of thing off A Clockwork Orange, and although it doesn't have the consistent genius of that novel, it still works extremely well.

                  The Professor is brilliant too, though I suspect he is merely a conduit for Heinlein to convey his views on libertarianism. The book is often heavy with dialogue of the following nature, so if you like this passage, you'll like the book, if not, not.

                  "A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as 'state' and 'society' and 'government' have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame... as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world... aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure... My point is that one person is responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist - and they do - some man controls them. In terms of morals there is no such thing as a 'state'. Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts."

                  The star of the show, though, is Mike, the genius computer. How Heinlein manages to get so much personality into a computer is beyond me, but he does it brilliantly. Mike is one of my all-time favourite characters. At the start, he's a genius with the mind of a child, playing practical jokes on people, such as (being responsible for payroll) issuing a cleaner a paycheque for $10,000,000,000,000,185.15, just for a laugh (the last five digits being the real amount). Mannie, "my best and only friend", has to be the father in the relationship, teaching Mike about humour and what is and isn't funny (the paycheque joke is a "funny once" sort of joke). Later, Mike grows into very much more and the roles are almost reversed. In places it is quite touching. Mike is quite understandably lonely and desperate for more friends. It's astonishingly good writing by Heinlein to make a featureless computer lovable.

                  There are dozens of minor characters, all serving plot purposes or so that Heinlein can introduce more of his brilliant ideas, such as how a court system could work in an anarchic society, attitudes to women and the various forms of polygamy practiced by Loonies, most interestingly the 'line marriage', which is too complicated to get into here. In fact, there's loads that is explored in the book I haven't yet mentioned, stuff like computing and gravity and ballistics and revolutionary tactics but that's just scratching the surface of what lies within, so you'll just have to read it to see it all.

                  If you like sci-fi and/or radical politics or philosophy then clearly you'll love this. If not, I'm somewhat hesitant to recommend it. I can see how the endless discussions and lack of action would get on some people's wick no end. But this is still a funny and entertaining novel and it's chock full of brilliance. A true classic. Actually, my woman isn't into sci-fi at all and she loves this book. So go on, check it out.

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                    14.09.2009 01:05
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                    An excellent adventure story for kids and big kids like me

                    Written in 1949 by science fiction master Robert Heinlein, Red Planet is a novel for teenage boys, concerning events during the early years of a Mars colony. The protagonist, Jim Marlowe is about fourteen years old when he is packed off to a Mars boarding school and into a conflict with the tyrannical headmaster that swiftly escalates into nothing less than a full-scale rebellion by the Colonists against the ruling Company.

                    Structure-wise, it starts off introducing the characters and their world for the first couple of chapters before the boys set off to school, where they get one hell of a bastard for a headmaster. Then it becomes an escape story, with a detour to make friends with the Martians, before a violent finale where the whole Colony is trying to break the siege of the school by the Company troops.

                    Sometimes 1949 seems as far away as another planet. The dialogue and some of the descriptions have dated, often laughably so, but I actually find it hugely endearing. Mainly the idea that in the far future, on the planet Mars, kids will be speaking like a 1950s toothpaste commercial.

                    It's fast paced but still packs a lot into its 172 pages. It is meant for kids, though, and as an adult I do generally want more detail. But the language is as sophisticated as any adult book from a similar period and it is a joy to read.

                    The planet Mars in this book is one that was perhaps still just about possible in 1949 but seems incredibly naïve to us now. The infamous Martian Canals are a central plot feature, with the colonists using them for transportation while they are frozen in Martian winter, with vehicles skating along them at the then-mind-boggling speed of 250mph (admittedly, that is still well fast, even if the TGVs do it daily). Not only are the canals there, so are the Martian race that built them - tripedal, twelve-feet tall, and psychic -their surface cities now ruins while the native society exists deep underground. There are other flora and fauna, most notably the fifty-foot wide desert cabbages, the deadly monsters known as water-seekers, and, most importantly, the basketball-like wonder that is a Bouncer.

                    Jim Marlowe has a Bouncer that he calls Willis. Willis is a ball covered with thick, close cropped fur, and three protuberances for waddling about on and three eye-stalks on top. In between the eye-stalks is an opening that Willis speaks out of and Willis has the ability to record the human speech he hears and to then play it back perfectly. A skill that - wouldn't you just know it - has a crucial influence on the plot.

                    Now, we know there aint anything like that on Mars, don't we but, look, it's a 1940's sci-fi for American boys so we'll just have to ignore it and move on.

                    Not too quickly though. The Martian society is mysterious to the humans of the novel, and, this being a short book, the reader doesn't get too much more of an insight, and yet Heinlein has created a very credible alien world here. He is at pains to highlight the otherness of the Martians, the incredible difficulty that two alien species would have in communicating and the potentially disastrous consequences that might have. He also creates a sense of faded glory with the ruins of the surface cities, of space flight learned and given up and a drastic population decline, that make this feel like a fully realised world.

                    I have to also report that the Martian society he describes in this novel was to have a reappearance, of sorts, in Heinlein's famous 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where the central character was a human raised entirely by Martians. And they are absolutely the Martians of Red Planet. We never see Mars itself in Stranger in a Strange Land so it is very interesting to get more information about the society that taught Mike about peace and love and all those handy skills like disappearing annoying people.

                    Thematically, though, Red Planet has more in common with yet another Heinlein masterpiece, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which also concerns an uprising of colonists against the absentee landlords of Earth. This book actually reads to me like a precursor to that 1966 story. It even has a proto-Professor de la Paz in Doctor McRae, an advocate of anarchism and unapologetic verbal abuse toward idiots. Like the later novel, the bad guys in this book are those in authority. Not the authority of parents or wise pals like Doc McRae, but the uncaring authority of, well, the Authorities. The Company that rules the planet sees the Colonists as nothing more than an annoyance and the headmaster of the school has the audacity to impose harsh rules on his students. In Heinlein's world, these people must be stopped, by violence if necessary, so that personal freedom can rule.

                    I'm surprised, actually, by how adult this book is. For all its 1940's "gee, whiz, pa!" dialogue, the boys carry guns (having properly earned their firearms licence for protection in a hostile world) and it's Heinlein's view that if someone has the ability to bear arms responsibly then he is to all intents a functioning adult and should be treated as such. The boys don't do as they're told by adults, they make reasoned decisions and become outlaws, all the while knowing they are in the right. There is also a bit of violence and I love how Heinlein has the gossips and toadies get themselves killed when they foolishly try to surrender to government forces. This is a morality tale where personal freedom from repression is first and foremost. Just like in Enid Blyton, only there's no golliwogs.

                    Heinlein wrote twelve novels for juveniles between 1947 and 1958. Frustrated by being known as a children's writer, he just knocked out Starship Troopers and never looked back. But Red Planet is also typically brilliant and should not be overlooked by Heinlein fans, even though, hampered by his target audience, it's nowhere near the genius of his later stuff. I would think that many kids nowadays will find the style far too old fashioned, although in my opinion they should still be forced to read it.

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                    • Hatchet - Gary Paulsen / Junior Book / 64 Readings / 62 Ratings
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                      08.09.2009 14:14
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                      Buy this book for youngsters

                      American author Gary Paulsen makes his living writing wilderness stories for teenagers. Hatchet was written in 1987 and first published in the UK in 1989.

                      Brian is thirteen years old and his mother and father have recently divorced. The courts have decided that in the summer Brian is to live with his father in the north Canadian oil fields and so he is off to see him for the first time. Moments before he climbs into the tiny two-seater Cessna in New York State, his mother gives him a gift. A hatchet. "The man in the shop said you could use it. You know. In the woods with your father." His mom makes him attach it to his belt loop, and although Brian thinks it's "naff" to have hatchet on his belt, he doesn't say so because he knows his mom will cry again. And in the rush of boarding the tiny plane, he forgets to take it off.

                      They've been flying over the endless forest of Canada for hours when the pilot has a heart attack. Brian manages to crash the plane in a lake and swim to safety, battered but not broken. But he's alone in the woods and he has no idea what to do or how to survive. He doesn't know anything about camping. The only thing he has going for him is his hatchet, still attached to his belt.

                      The rest of the book is Brian's attempt to survive. He learns through trial and error, and half-remembered stuff he's seen on TV. Along the way he gets sick eating berries, learns to hunt and fish and gets sprayed by a skunk. Much of the book reads like a fictionalised survival manual. But for all his new-found knowledge and skills, winter is fast approaching and he doesn't know how he is going to get out.

                      As you may gather from the plot, this is a book primarily for young teenage boys but, as well as the content, the style also reflects this target audience. Paulsen's style is unusual, to say the least. It's most noticeable in the short, choppy sentence structure he uses, especially in the action sequences or when Brian is in a heightened state of awareness. He usually combines this with a repetitive use of the same word or synonyms within the paragraph, to convey the workings of the boy's mind. "Destroyed. The word came. I would have been destroyed and torn and smashed. Driven into the rocks and destroyed."

                      I say the style reflects the target audience as, first of all, you couldn't get away with that in adult literature and secondly that children like this sort of writing - repetitive and unsophisticated - and Paulsen absolutely succeeds in emphasising Brian's moods and thought patterns and is only occasionally annoying to an adult reader. It's also, I have to say, a fairly masculine style of writing, quite punchy and tough.

                      That's not to say that this book is macho bullshit, it's not. Brian is a normal kid who is terrified of the outdoors. He's a sensitive boy, deeply hurt by his parents' divorce and twisted with the anguish of knowing that his mother was having an affair. It's on his mind even as he struggles for survival; should he have told his father? Confronted his mother? Is it fair to hate her?

                      Having said that, Brian does learn to fend for himself, in the great tradition of Robinson Crusoe stories and there is a sense that Gary Paulsen loves all that man overcoming nature stuff, perhaps a bit too much (he does seem to write about nothing else). The city is noisy and bad, the woods are alive and clean. Brian eventually becomes pretty hard. He's lean and tanned and has a thousand yard stare. Rather than this being a tragic loss of innocence, Paulsen probably reckons this is how all kids should be. And I can't say I radically disagree with that sentiment.

                      I read this when I was about nine or so and I absolutely loved it. I loved it so much that when the teacher asked for books the whole class could read together I took it into school. She took it home and read it herself and then called me over for a quiet word while the rest of the class was busy. She explained that, although she thought it was a wonderful book, it was a bit too mature for the rest of the class to be reading. I think I fell in love with her a bit right at that moment (it's okay, she was in her twenties. Fifteen years isn't too much of an age gap, is it?).

                      She was probably right not to read it in class, it's about 150 pages of normal-sized type (60,000 words?) and there are some harsh scenes. At the very start, Brian is trapped in a tiny plane next to a stranger having a heart attack, and we see it in graphic detail (the pilot keeps farting, spasming, frothing at the mouth, until finally his eyes roll back in his head). Throughout the book, the horrific, imagined picture of the pilot's body, trapped in the plane under the lake keeps popping into Brian's mind before he's able to block it out. Late in the book, Brian dives down to the plane and actually sees the pilots head, eaten down mostly to the skull by fish and wobbling slightly in the current. I mentioned the divorce and the affair. Some parents might want to shield their young kids from this sort of thing until they reach the target age of around thirteen. Personally, I think they're going to be aware of stuff like this anyway, might as well let them get on with it. Certainly didn't do me any harm.

                      In fact, I'd say this is one of those few books that has had a huge influence in my life, probably because I read it when I was so young. It's hard to say whether I like camping and survivalist stuff because of this book, or that I loved this book because I was already predisposed to that kind of thing. Whatever, these days I have a (to my girlfriend) worrying passion for Ray Mears and cherish my very own hatchet. That little hatchet is my all time favourite tool and I can't use it without thinking of this book.

                      Apparently, there are four more books in this series. I haven't read them yet and I hesitate to do so. They follow Brian on more adventures in the wilderness but how can they possibly live up to this brilliant book? The whole point, for me, and what sets this book apart, is the transformation we go through, from city boy to outdoorsman. Anything that comes after is surely just another adventure story.

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                        07.09.2009 14:50
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                        A good naval wartime mystery

                        "I was eating a jam sandwich when the first ship in our group went down."

                        So begins the personal log of Chief Officer Jonathan Kent of the M.V. Cyclops in 1941. Obviously, the British merchant fleet suffered terrible losses in the Second World War yet what follows is less a naval war story and more a mystery or thriller set on a WWII merchant ship.

                        A small convey of three, very fast merchant ships are racing from Britain through the South Atlantic, heading for Australia. They are protected by a Royal Navy corvette, fitted with depth charges for anti-submarine warfare. After one of the ships is sunk, the Captain of the M.V. Cyclops reveals to our protagonist John Kent that they are carrying a set of documents in their hold that is of utmost importance to the war effort.

                        It becomes apparent that, despite their best precautions, they are being hunted by U-boats and perhaps even surface ships. Do they know what the Cyclops has in her hold? If so, how can they escape? And perhaps there are even men on board who cannot be trusted. There is something very suspicious about the new Third Mate...

                        A Flock of Ships is Brian Callison's first novel and was published in 1970. It is a very assured piece of work for a first novel. In fact, it was a bestseller and Callison went on to write plenty of other novels, most of them to do with the sea (sticking unrepentantly with the formula of his debut title he has also written; 'A Plague of Sailors' 'A Web of Salvage' and 'A Thunder of Crude')

                        Callison was a merchant seaman for many years - though after WWII - and the language and descriptions are therefore completely authentic. I imagine he served with some veterans who had some stories to tell (30,000 men killed, nearly 3,000 ships sunk, almost all by torpedo). But, despite the superficial similarities, he's no Joseph Conrad. He is, however, a very solid thriller writer, who often displays more skill than more famous novelists.

                        The characters are relatively well drawn, mostly of course our protagonist, as the story is told in the first person. We see his suspicions and fears and experience the horror of the violence through him. John Kent is not a hero. He's not especially brave, or even very bright. He's not that pleasant, nor nasty. So he's not a great character but it is very easy to relate to him because he is so realistic in his attitude. The other characters are all clichés. The nervous kid on his first voyage, the gruff but wise captain, the decent best friend, the tight Scottish engineer. Still, that's to be expected in this sort of thing and it doesn't spoil the book at all and they all seem to fit in with the bygone age of shipping we're reading about (One thing I wasn't sure about was whether the casual racism of the characters was supposed to be authentic 1940's or was incidental 1970).

                        Style-wise, there's not much literary pretension here. In fact, much like the practical, matter-of-fact characters themselves, Callison takes a no-nonsense approach to his writing. It is stripped down and efficient, so my 1980 edition is only 255 pages long, and that with a pretty large type. I am a fan of that kind of writing and I enjoy the way it whizzes along. At the same time, when there is a big event, Callison takes the time to describe it in great detail, as well as the characters' reactions to it, and these moments stand out very vividly.

                        "Nervous reflex made me bite another half moon out of the sandwich as I watched the spray reach its zenith and hang, suspended momentarily like a slow motion shot from some old film. It was a silent film, too, for a few eternal seconds. Nothing seemed to mar the noiseless passage of the four ships through the whispering sea, yet I knew that great mushroom of atomised water just shouldn't be there."

                        Callison builds up an atmosphere of dread and impending disaster, but there is humour to break the tension, often in the form of old sea-stories that I suspect Callison heard in real life. For example, talking about seamen being in tune with their ship, he says "several years ago aboard one of our old coal burners, the venerable 'Lamps', a hoary old seadog of a lamptrimmer, had actually appeared on deck during the middle watch and climbed the foremast just in time to replace the masthead light bulb as it went out." That's good stuff, and Callison has an ear for comedy as well as horror.

                        I have a profound respect for people who make a living upon the sea, largely because I don't think I ever could. Having said that, I'm not at all into naval stories generally and I don't like mystery novels either, as they are so terribly contrived. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this because it's a cracking good story and it's very well told. I've read it three times over the past ten years and I'll probably read it again. I'd recommend it for anyone after an exciting, quick read (4-5 hours worth?). Obviously, any dads or granddads that are into sea and/or WWII stories will probably like this and so would make a good present, although if they're that into WWII naval stories then they may well be a Callison fan already.

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                          24.08.2009 17:43
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                          It totally and completely healed my back pain for ever

                          When I was seven I saw The Karate Kid and I made my parents take me to karate lessons. From then, I was hooked. I spent my entire childhood doing it, to the exclusion of anything else, it took up all my free time - I even ended up teaching karate to my own class. Because of the formative effect it had on me, the Karate Kid is the most important film in my life. Well, Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, is the most important book in my life, and I'll tell you why.

                          Wikipedia confidently tells us: "About nine out of ten adults experience back pain at some point in their life, and five out of ten working adults have back pain every year." Blimey. There's a good chance you have had a back problem then. Read on.

                          Firstly a bit of personal history for context. I was fifteen when my back first 'went'. I was at a karate lesson, practicing jumping kicks, when the most terrible pain shot through my lower back. I almost collapsed and sat out the rest of the lesson and remained in twitchy pain for the journey home. Mum gave me a paracetamol, a pat on the head and a cup of tea and I had to lay down for the rest of the day, the pain a dull throb unless I moved at all, when the shooting agony would return. Clearly, everyone agreed, I had pulled a muscle and with rest I would be fine - probably I'd wake up in the morning and that would be that.

                          But the pain didn't go away. For days I couldn't walk more than a few steps at a time. Obviously I couldn't go to school, let alone go back to karate. In fact, just about all I could do was lay flat on the floor with my knees up, as even the small sag of a mattress was too much movement for my back to bear. Eventually, I saw my GP, who dismissively advised I seek physiotherapy - on the NHS it would be weeks until I got an appointment. Luckily my dad had family medical cover so in a mere couple of weeks I began two months of physiotherapy.

                          It was explained to me by the therapist that I had "weak back muscles", possibly due to poor posture or an inherent weakness. To help cure this, I had to lie for an hour on my front while first I had ultrasound waves pulsed through my lower back, before heat pads were applied. Once a week, for two months.

                          Gradually, the pain went away but I spent the next six months going about my business extremely gingerly lest it happen again; excused from PE, missing karate just as I was due to be promoted to black belt, no running. Then, one day, as I reached for my school bag which lay upon the floor, my back 'went' again. Oh, the horror! Once more I was banished to the floor, knees up, tears in my eyes, miserable and as sorry for myself as it's possible to be. It cleared up in a few days but obviously my congenital back problem had not gone away. And in fact, little did I know it but I was to suffer from these attacks from then on for years.

                          Anyone who has suffered from back problems will know full well just how debilitating it is. Leaning forward slightly when brushing your teeth becomes a ludicrous dance of agony. Even worse is the unavoidable enterprise that is twisting and leaning round to wipe your arse, which is both hilarious and awfully painful. Life with back pain is at times a prison, and you're never sure when you're going to be incarcerated. No drugs help, no so-called 'strengthening exercises' either, no medical care seems to permanently banish the affliction. It is something you are resigned to live with, for the rest of your miserable, tragic life. And so I suffered for years, every few months there was a bad one, every few weeks maybe a minor twinge. "Oh, no. My back's gone. Agh." became my catchphrase.

                          That was until I was loaned a copy of 'Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno' by a fellow (ex-)sufferer. I was no more than a few pages in, perhaps ten or twenty minutes reading, when I was cured of my back pain for ever.

                          Yep, six years now and no more back pain and I know I will never suffer from back pain again. And it wasn't some expensive or experimental procedure that did it, merely the written words of my saviour, Dr. John Sarno.

                          So what is this book? Well, in the introduction, Sarno describes how he first developed his theory when noticing that back pain patients attending his clinic had similar experiences, and so began recording their symptoms and treatments for his own study. Conventional medicine often had no lasting curative effect and patients would return time and again with the same or similar complaint. He gradually came to the conclusion that for the majority of sufferers the pain was psychosomatic. He named this common condition, Tension Myositis Syndrome, or TMS.

                          TMS symptoms include not just pain but stiffness, tingling, weakness and numbness and these are by no means limited to the back but can be experienced in the neck and knees particularly. In fact, TMS suffers often report that the pain moves about the body. When the back pain clears up, a pain occurs in the knees, etc.

                          The cause of these symptoms, says Sarno, is in fact repressed emotional pain that is transferred by the mind and body into physical discomfort - that is, the emotional stress is repressed by the mind until it finds a necessary physical outlet somewhere in the body. Not that this pain is located purely in the mind, as Sarno hypothesises a physiological effect, such as decreased blood flow to the muscles which in turn causes the pain felt.

                          His treatment routine is simple. Education. You see, when it is explained that this pain has an emotional rather than physical cause, and the mechanism through which that transfer occurs is described, the majority of patients find that it ceases. Some may require further help to work through their emotional problems, such as a form of counselling.

                          Now, to many people this will smack as the worst kind of quackery; at best useless and at worst dangerous. However, Sarno is very clear that any suffer is to first exhaust conventional medical help - seek x-rays, scans, tests, etc, to determine if there is an actual physical cause for the symptoms. If, as is often the case, they turn up nothing or the prescribed treatment does not work, it could well be TMS.

                          Many sufferers, when informed of the concept of TMS counter with something along the lines of; "well, I don't get stressed." Precisely! You do not experience stress because it has been converted into physical pain. It is your body's natural coping mechanism at work so that your mind does not become overloaded.

                          Understandably, some find the idea that they may be causing their own pain an insulting concept - taking it as an accusation that they are malingering. Well, first of all, just because a thought makes you uncomfortable, does not mean it isn't true. Furthermore, surely the idea that you have a measure of control over your own wellness should be an empowering concept, not an insulting one. But ultimately, this isn't about pointing the finger of accusation at someone in pain, rather it is helping them see the way out of an endless cycle that's ruining their lives is within their reach.

                          Increasingly, many people are coming round to the idea that the human mind has the power to cure disease. And if that is accepted then surely the converse is also true - the mind has the power to cause it too. The placebo effect has been clearly demonstrated. Is it such a stretch that TMS could be the answer to millions of people's problems?

                          Doctors often confidently diagnose back pain suffers with any number of conditions - such as a herniated disk, or (as in my case) muscle problems. However, the treatments that are prescribed rarely work, or if they do, the pain soon returns. Why should this be the case? Sarno argues that, like most illnesses and conditions, TMS will clear up after a period of time all by itself. So treating the symptoms using, for example, mumbo-jumbo like heat pads, will seem to the patient to work as the pain will after a time go away. The effect of this is that it reinforces the idea that there is a genuine physical condition at the root of the problem, and this leads to further attacks. What TMS says is that there is no underlying problem, so if you feel a twinge, do not panic and lay flat, or seek treatment. Simply go about your business as normal and you will find that the pain will go as soon as you forget about it. This happens to me all the time. For example, "Dan, don't forget that party at my parents' tonight." may lead to an instant twinge in the old back. In days gone by I would have panicked and held myself stiffly and an attack would eventually have come on, perhaps days in the future. Whereas now I just laugh at it, and it goes away instantly.

                          In fact, one of the key messages that Sarno attempts to relay is that there is nothing wrong with your back. It is not weak. It is not fragile. You do not have to worry about it going wrong. That doctors repeatedly tell us our backs are terribly fragile all simply increases the likelihood of us suffering from psychosomatic back problems. Speaking from personal experience, I remember very, very clearly as a child watching Dr. Hilary Jones on GMTV holding up an articulated spine model, pointing at the lower spine and saying that we all suffer from back problems because we evolved walking on all fours and now we stand upright. What absolute rot. Bipedalism evolved four million years ago, we are well adapted for it by now. If back pain were of muscular or skeletal origin, we would see the frequency and severity of back pain increase with age. In fact it peaks with early middle age. Why is this? Sarno suggests that this is the time of greatest responsibility, hence greatest repressed stress, and hence back pain. Whatever good Dr. Hilary Jones has done in his career, preaching the fragile-back myth has undone it ten-fold. First do no harm, indeed.

                          I wouldn't suggest a conspiracy of the medical profession keeping Sarno's work repressed, however, it is clearly in the interest of chiropractors, physiotherapists, drugs companies and the like that the conventional interpretation continue as the status quo. The cost of my physiotherapy was £120 an hour. That was over a decade ago. And it was about as useful as if they'd applied leeches. Chronic back pain sufferers will probably have tried all kinds of treatments, and people who would never have put any stock in New Age therapies before are so desperate for any kind of relief that they are willing to try all sorts of nonsense - homeopathy, healing stones, acupuncture, reiki - because conventional medicine has been unable to help. Back pain is worth billions (name your currency), and if Sarno is right then all that money would be spent elsewhere (trampoline lessons, perhaps).

                          Of course, there are real back injuries and problems, just as you can damage a muscle anywhere in the body, not all back, neck, knee pain and headaches will be TMS and no one is suggesting otherwise. But when I hear people talking about their own experiences with back pain, it usually fits the pattern that Dr. Sarno describes.

                          And, yes, people will be sceptical of such a radical (for some) theory, but what sounds more absurd to you - an otherwise super-fit fifteen year-old boy has weak back muscles but only sometimes, OR that his parents are getting divorced, he's quite upset and its coming out in physical pain? To me it was so very, very clear. Like a diamond bullet, right here. And I didn't even need to finish the whole book! To others it will no doubt seem ridiculous, or insulting or even dangerous. But here I am, living proof that it's true, for me at least. And it's not just me; the guy who leant me this book all those years ago had it even worse than I did. He would lay on his floor, praying to a God he didn't believe in to afflict him with anything else, anything, and in return to take the back pain away. Imagine that - he was praying for lung cancer rather than carry on living with the agony of back pain. Then he was passed a copy of Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno by yet another ex-suffer. From then on, he was cured and has had no back pain since, and he works on building sites all day long, lifting bricks with a blatant and happy disregard for proper manual handling technique.

                          And now I pass on the word to you.

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                            20.08.2009 15:53
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                            Probably don't bother but its still alright

                            Before 1989, Ken Follett was a highly successful thriller novelist but in that year he published his magnum opus, The Pillars of the Earth, which was a significant departure from his previous style. Whereas he'd made his name with a series of contemporary thrillers, The Pillars of the Earth was an epic historical novel about the building of a cathedral. His publishers were unsurprisingly very reluctant for one of their successful writers to take such a risk but he held his ground and after a long time writing it was released and ended up being Follett's most successful book by a large margin, making his nervous publishers a hell of a lot of money in the process.

                            So, finally, as fans of the first one have been clamouring for years, Follett has released World Without End - not a sequel, as it takes place many generations after the first novel but a follow-up, as it takes place in the same fictional town of Kingsbridge.

                            Pillars was a book that many people took to their hearts, and it was a word-of-mouth type success. It was popular for many reasons, and as I've reviewed that book on this site I'll refrain from getting into too much detail about that, however, as this book is so bound up with its predecessor it is impossible to review this one without referring to it.

                            The book opens in 1327, with a young girl called Gwenda being forced by her grubby father to steal the purse of a knight while at a service in Kingsbridge Cathedral. This act has profound consequences, as the knight can now no longer pay his debts, so the Church confiscates his lands and his sons have to be apprenticed out. The biggest, most violent son called Ralph is made a squire and the other, a small but clever lad called Merthin, is apprenticed to a carpenter. The thief Gwenda is befriended by a kind-hearted rich girl called Caris.

                            These four characters form the core of the entire 1237-page novel which takes place over their entire lifetimes, following them through their triumphs and failures, loves and tragedies. It was a recipe that worked so well for Pillars of the Earth and it is therefore extremely disappointing to find that this book is nowhere near as good.

                            Having read Pillars, after getting half way through this novel, I realised, firstly, that it was fairly obvious what was going to happen through the rest of it and secondly that I did not really care to find out. It's as if the author traced his previous book and wrote it out again, using the same template but changing the character names and updating it by substituting the Black Death for the Anarchy and so on. The trouble is that it seeks to replicate the form of that book so rigidly that it completely fails to find the heart and soul underneath that made it such a success in the first place. World Without End ticks all the same boxes - epic timeframe, thwarted love, religion, architecture, social constraints, check, check, check - but, not just in spite of but actually because of that copying, comes off as somewhat empty.

                            Not only this but the novel lacks the single central driving force of Pillars of the Earth, and that is the building of the cathedral. Here we have instead a few small projects; a bridge, a chapel, the guildhall and the like. Very interesting to read about, yes, but there's a big hole in the centre of the book that Follett completely fails to fill. Similarly, the characters are very well drawn and their motivations and reactions are authentic - they make critical mistakes that can never be undone - but there is no one of the calibre of Prior Philip or Tom Builder, no one you really get behind and cheer on. Likewise, the baddie in this is - and this spoils nothing - the brutish rapist Ralph, and his motivations are so authentic that you don't exactly hate him, just feel sorry for him. Realistic, yes, good for this sort of novel, not really. Compared to the vile Earl William from Pillars, Ralph is a pussy.

                            In fact, the two characters that get the most time on the page are Caris and Merthin and at the start they are quite sweet and likeable children but by the end they have turned into these perfect, successful people who overcome every challenge with barely a pause. Okay, so once again Follett is using these two to personify the changes in society at large that occurred in the 14th Century but after a while it became incredibly irritating to see them once again rewrite the rules of their upbringing to resolve a problem with such ease. In fact, and you may laugh, I began loathing them. Not since reading the Earth's Children series by Jean Auel, and for similar reasons, have I hated a central character so much (this being Ayla, the paleolithic heroine who was apparently the first person to domesticate the horse, the dog and a sabre tooth lion for Christ's sake).

                            Having had a moan, let me say that this is still a decent novel. Follett's writing is as good as ever and brings the 14th Century to life, putting you down in the muck along with the characters, smelling the stench, seeing the filth and disease, as well marvelling at the relative luxury of the castles and abbeys. He's a skilled writer, and the pace, especially in the first half, is very fast (though later it does drag - sorry, still moaning...)

                            His research seems to me to be spot on, though I'm no expert, and everything down to the smallest detail has a basis in real history. Although, while the technological and social innovations are intrinsic to the story, he often works in the events of the time with a casual disregard for plausibility - he has a couple of nuns go to France just in time to witness the wake of the English army pillaging the country, then just come right home again. This is by no means a history lesson but you will nevertheless learn much about this era.

                            The big set-piece scenes are handled with incredible skill, and the action is highly exciting. There is one bit near the start where the young Gwenda is sold to a bunch of outlaws (swapped for a cow, no less, by her own father, in a very dark, very funny scene) to be used for sex, and she has to escape. I was on the edge of my seat - tapping my fingers, jiggling my feet, all that - for the whole time, and with a novel of this length some of the scenes can be very involved and so can be well played out, keeping you right in the moment for ages.

                            In summary, if you haven't read Pillars of the Earth, read that one first and don't expect too much of this one so that if you do give it a go, you won't have your high expectations shot down like I did.

                            Also, it looks like they are due to bring out a TV mini-series in 2010 based on Pillars of the Earth with a good cast, so you should maybe read it before that comes out? Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Donald Sutherland..? Could be good. I'll be watching.

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                            • Quest For Fire (DVD) / DVD / 53 Readings / 49 Ratings
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                              19.08.2009 16:15
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                              An unusual and wonderful film

                              Film only review

                              "80,000 years ago, man's survival in a vast uncharted land depended on the possession of fire." The scrolling, pre-credit intro continues: "For those early humans, fire was an object of great mystery, since no one had mastered its creation. Fire had to be stolen from nature, it had to be kept alive - sheltered from wind and rain, guarded from rival tribes. Fire was a symbol of power and a means of survival. The tribe who possessed fire, possessed life."

                              The film opens with a wide shot of a desolate gorge in the dusk, the camera panning across its cliff faces until a tiny speck of yellow light is seen flickering half way up. We then cut to the source of that light, a large fire at the mouth of a cave, being tended by a solitary man dressed in furs. Inside the cave we see the rest of his tribe, sleeping all jumbled up together, scratching and snoring. The man guarding the fire outside sees off a pack of overly-curious wolves by throwing flaming logs at them. The tribe sleeps on.

                              In the light of the morning, though, they wake and some realise that something is wrong. They can smell it in the air. Others dismiss it and go about their business; washing, making spears, grooming. Suddenly, they are attacked. Another tribe charges in, killing and wounding many, dragging off others. The tribe's fire is stolen, a triumphant attacker runs off holding a flaming branch aloft. The tribe are all but destroyed and, without the protection of their fire, are forced to shelter for the long, cold night on a muddy island in the middle of a swamp. It is decided that three of their number are to leave the tribe and go on, what else, a quest for fire.

                              And so opens this wonderful, powerful, lovely film. The plot could not be simpler, the title, like all the greatest titles, really does say it all. These three men of the Stone Age have to go and find some fire and bring it back to their tribe. Without it, they will surely all die. The stakes are high and the responsibility is great. I'll not go into too much detail with regards to the plot but they have a series of encounters with other tribes and wild animals during their quest. It's a dangerous world out there, and they don't even have any fire, for goodness' sake.

                              The acting in this film is incredible. The lead role is taken by Everett McGill, who is absolutely sensational in every moment he is on screen. He has a difficult task, being laden with huge false teeth and hair that an '80's cock rock band would think a little too extreme, but he imbues his character such strength and decency that he completely carries it off. Every moment he is not on screen the film seems to deflate. Your heart will go out to him the moment you hear his cries of anguish when he sees his tribe destroyed. Technically inarticulate, his cries say it all. Also, there is a scene in this film where he shows a combination of such wonder, awe and terror at what he is seeing, I cried. I did, I wept. Okay, so I am a baby when it comes to films. I can't seem to cry in real life, but the moment I see hundreds of people kneeling to four hobbits I start blubbing like a two-year-old. But McGill's performance is so genuine, so honest, that I couldn't help but be moved. And it helped that what he was witnessing was a monumental moment in the history of all mankind, sure. This whole scene, in fact, has to be one of my all-time favourites. The music is operatic and the direction, photography and editing all incredible. But McGill makes it. A superb actor.

                              Also starring as one of the three heroes is, appropriately enough Ron Perlman. I say it's appropriate as I can't think of anyone else who looks more like a caveman than this guy. This was in fact Perlman's first film and he is excellent. He's a truly gifted actor - compare, say, his role as the mentalist hunchback in In the Name of the Rose to the opinionated TV personality in The Last Supper - and he's on fine form in this. As he was born looking like a 40-year old caveman and hasn't aged a day since, he really is perfect for this role and the film is his almost as much as McGill's. His gestures and facial expressions are so communicative that you know exactly what he is thinking at all times and get to know who he is in great detail. And he's really funny.

                              The third guy is played by Nameer el-Kadi, who I don't think I know from anything else. He's good too, though not in the same league as the other two. He is in the film largely as comic relief, mostly from his relationship with Perlman. He looks like a little fella but, as both Perlman and McGill are massive, is probably normal height.

                              The other main cast member is the lovely Rae Dawn Chong, who spends the whole film entirely nude but for a layer of grey and black mud done in nice patterns on her skin. If you're thinking that sounds sexy, well, in this film she has the body of a boy, the voice of a little girl and the mind of a simpleton and if you think that sounds sexy then I hope you're reading this from prison. She is absolutely brilliant in this. It's such a shame that a talented actress like Rae Dawn Chong went on to be in the awful (though contender for funniest film of all time and one of my faves) Commando with Arnie, and ended up being in toss like Crying Freeman with Z-list action 'star' Mark Dakascos.

                              Anyway, the film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who hasn't directed many films over the years but did do In the Name of the Rose, which remains popular, and Enemy at the Gates, which everyone agrees could have been a lot better. I've not seen many of his films but compared to what I have seen, this is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. It must have been incredibly difficult to film and he did a great job.

                              The look of it is generally top-notch, with only some of the cinematography looking dated, with a couple of silly zooms here and there. Generally, the landscapes are filmed with genuine skill, making the backgrounds appear as sparsely habited as the world was thousands of years ago, and all of this was filmed on location in places as far apart as Scotland and Tanzania. The editing is generally good, although sometimes the action scenes are difficult to follow and the style of editing has dated a little. The score is really excellent, with the ominous, throbbing title sequence really setting the tone for the film, with the occasional overblown orchestral flurries actually fitting right in with the enormous subject matter and landscapes.

                              One quite dodgy aspect is the decision to make some of the other tribes - presumably supposed to represent Neanderthals - as some sort of ape-men. Yes, there are men dressed in outfits much like the furry chaps at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, jumping up and down like chimps, looking like orang-utans and smashing stuff like gorillas (this film won the Oscar for best make-up, by the way, and it is fairly well done). I suppose it's easy for us (me) to sneer and feel superior to the filmmakers, but I would have thought they'd have had a better idea of what hominids were like when they made the film, it was 1981, not 1881. Although I am looking at it from the current trend of thinking, no doubt in thirty years time the new paradigm will be that Neanderthals acted like chimps. But, really, a few scenes in this film are a back-hair's breadth away from being unintentionally hilarious. Only the skill of the acting and direction, as well as the sheer brutality up there on screen, rescues it.

                              And in other aspects of portraying a lost time they have done a remarkable job. For example, there is no dialogue in the film, as such. Almost all communication is done through body language and simple utterances. Rae Dawn Chong's character does speak, using an invented language, but there are no subtitles. The seemingly-authentic body language was created by Desmond Morris, the British zoologist who wrote the best-selling book The Naked Ape, and the spoken language was invented by novelist and language expert Anthony Burgess. It is a credit to everyone involved that you never feel lost and know exactly what is going on at all times. It of course recalls the silent film era, when actors had to use their whole body to express themselves, only better than that, because films in the 20's were rubbish, no matter what film scholars say.

                              Apologies for the length of this review. I don't enjoy reading long reviews myself but I felt I had to write all of this, so if you made it this far, thanks, well done. And I urge you to see this brilliant film. It's quite cheap on Amazon so you may as well. It won't be to everyone's taste, so if you watch it and don't like it, I'm sorry, let me know and I'll watch High School Musical 3 as penance.

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                                19.08.2009 12:44
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                                Get a book about the 2nd and 3rd Crusades instead

                                Eleanor of Aquitaine is, as you may have guessed, a historical biography of the great medieval queen; wife of Henry II, mother of Richard I, and co-founder of a dynasty that was to last nearly 300 years.

                                Eleanor was born in 1122 as the eldest child to the Duke of Aquitaine and became the heir of her father's domains when Eleanor was eight years old and only after her younger brother died. When she was a mere fifteen years old her father died from drinking contaminated water while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and she inherited one of the richest lands in Europe. As the most eligible woman in the world, she was coveted by all ambitious nobles but was entrusted by her father's will to the care of Louis the Fat King of France, who was to be her protector.

                                However, the crafty King Louis the Fat (who was so incredibly obese that he could not get out of bed and was to soon die of "a flux of the bowels") decided that, instead of looking after Eleanor, he would marry her to his son and so secure for his dynasty the most powerful and richest duchy in what is now France. And so at sixteen, Eleanor was married to the young man who would become King Louis VII. Unfortunately, it was not a match made in heaven.

                                Eleanor proved to be a scandal at the court of her husband, with her fashions and rumours of affairs, and, though she bore him two daughters, they were eventually separated when Eleanor pushed for an annulment of their marriage. She quickly and secretly married a man eleven years her junior, Henry of Anjou, the future Henry II of England. She bore him eight surviving children in almost as many years before falling out with her husband and living far apart.

                                Eventually, three of her sons revolted against their own father and Eleanor supported them, and especially Richard, who was clearly her favourite. Eleanor was captured by the King and was imprisoned for an incredible sixteen years! Released upon the King's death, Eleanor favoured Richard in the ensuing struggle and ended up ruling England for him while he was busy murdering heathens in the Holy Land. Eventually, Eleanor outlived all but two of her children and died during the reign of her youngest, the pantomime baddie King John.


                                Not only was she at the centre of West European events during fascinating times, Eleanor was remarkably long-lived and is therefore a good figure upon which to hang a historical narrative covering the period of the late twelfth century. History books that cover a period rather than a person are increasingly out of favour because they do not sell as well as biography. Take this book for example. If it were called "England and France: 1122 to 1204" it would clearly not sell as well as "Eleanor of Aquitaine (From the author who brought you: The Lady Elizabeth!)" but because the evidence for Eleanor's life and personality is so slim, the book in actual fact reads much more like a general history of the age.

                                And this is no bad thing because despite the fact that Eleanor was a very strong and influential woman for her time and is thus something of a feminist icon, it is ironically through her husbands and sons that her story really takes off. For she was forever hidden behind castle walls, pulling strings in secret, and that may be remarkable but it isn't exciting. Much better are the stories of what Henry II achieved - putting down endless rebellions throughout his empire and crafting the first proper laws in England, and the constant presence of William the Marshall, possibly the greatest and hardest knight to have lived, and of course Richard's psychotic rampages while on the Third Crusade, one of the best stories going. Whenever the book cuts back to what Eleanor was doing at the time, I was deeply bored. The period is so rich and fascinating that it seems a waste of time to dwell on what Eleanor purchased in a particular year and how much she paid for it. Oh, she bought twenty yards of red cloth for £3? Great.

                                Weir's style is perfectly adequate, though it is never written especially well. She often gets bogged down in needless detail while passing over other events with barely a mention. At one point she says in the middle of a sentence that Henry II and Eleanor laid down their crowns at a church and swore to never wear them again. What? Why, what was that about, was it symbolic, is the story even true, where does the evidence come from? But Weir just skips right over it. Sloppy. Despite such lapses, the author does display a keen eye for reliable evidence, often citing her reasons for discounting certain previously accepted stories.

                                Another criticism, though one that can be levelled at most histories, is the lack of interest Weir shows in ordinary people. She acknowledges that peasants were seen by their rulers as the scum of the earth but then makes little attempt to describe the way in which the actions of Eleanor's warmongering family affected the ordinary folk. It is almost as if they did not exist. When a castle is sacked, it is though the only person to suffer is its lord and not the men forced to fight for the petty power games of their lieges, or the women raped and murdered so that one noble does not lose face to another. Although, if you want to read about that in detail, yes, read a social or Marxist history, but to my mind Weir does a poor job of describing anything other than the nobility, as if they were the only people involved.

                                This isn't a bad book but it isn't particularly good either. It serves as a good introduction to the period, though as it focuses on Eleanor it can be quite boring. I would suggest a biography of Henry II or Richard I or a history of the Plantagenet line in general instead of this, and there are plenty of those sorts of books about.

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                                • More +
                                  10.08.2009 21:50
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                                  An original story as old as time

                                  Lavondyss, by fantasy and sci-fi author Robert Holdstock, was first published in 1988 and is the follow-up to Holdstock's 1984 work Mythago Wood. Reading Mythago Wood before reading Lavondyss would greatly enhance the reader's understanding and enjoyment of this book. I have reviewed Mythago Wood on this site.

                                  The plot concerns a girl called Tallis Keeton, born in 1944 in rural England. As she grows up, she has a series of strange encounters with creatures that live in Ryhope Wood and surrounding landscape near to her house that affect her life, and the lives of her parents, forever. Eventually, as a young teenager, she prepares for a journey deep into the wood that she is sure will last only a week...


                                  The book opens with Tallis' grandfather waiting in the snow on a winter night, listening to the cries of baby-Tallis coming from the warmth inside the house. Out of the blizzard approaches a silent form that the old man calls White Mask. He begs this apparition to not take Tallis away yet, for it would break her parents' hearts, and to leave her for a few more years. With this mysterious creature apparently agreeing, the grandfather then follows White Mask out into the snow.

                                  The story then jumps forward to a thirteen-year-old Tallis, conversing with a man in the fields and meadows of a warm summer who we recognise as composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, out "collecting tunes" from the countryside, as he really did. We get an introduction to the enigmatic Tallis, seen from Williams' eyes, as she weaves her stories and explains the magic of the landscape to the old man. These are clearly mere childish games, yet he is fascinated with the girl and her astonishing way with a tale. He also seems to see in the bushes a hooded creature with a white face...

                                  We then jump back again to Tallis' early childhood and see her growing up into an odd, isolated girl who seems to live in a world of her own, quite apart from her parents and almost-entirely friendless.

                                  All this I have described is no more than the first quarter of the book and it introduces the characters and themes before the narrative really takes off.


                                  Unlike the previous novel, Mythago Wood, the form of this one is third-person and told largely but not exclusively from Tallis' perspective, as well as separate myths, told partially or fully in many forms. Generally linear, the story does jump forward and back in time occasionally, as well as switching the perspective a couple of times, most notably to a secondary but vitally important character around the middle section of the book.

                                  I will say that this novel lacks the narrative drive of Mythago Wood and instead of that thrilling structure we have more a dream-like tale that deals with the essence of myth in a more poetic fashion. The title, Lavondyss, refers to the mythic landscape also known as Avalon, Lyonesse and Dis (not the little town in Norfolk) to the people of different times and places, and all of which are taken to be representations of the same archetypal concept. The novel deals with how a particular myth may have been first born, in the impossibly remote never-ending winter of an ice age, and how that myth has grown in sophistication through the ages while retaining its essence.

                                  This entire book is written in a wonderful, literary style, with the most incredible descriptions of woodland I have ever read. Like the previous novel, this is not a romanticised view of British woodland, but a dark, earthy, dangerous and wild landscape and the book is filled from start to finish with images of bones, bark and stone and the smell of blood and decay. The writing in this book is incredibly powerful and, without wanting to sound annoyingly ostentatious, somewhat haunting. Reading it leaves me strangely dazed, especially the entire second half and the very end in particular. Holdstock is an extremely gifted writer and he's at the very top of his game here.

                                  This novel will not be to everyone's taste as it is extremely dark in places, even unpleasant. For this reason, despite there not being anything particularly explicit, some people might not find this suitable for children. Although, personally, I wish I had read this as a child myself because it would have had an even more consciousness-expanding effect upon my plastic mind than it did have when reading it as an adult. It's difficult to explain without divulging a lot of content, so I will refrain, but this is quite an unusual book.

                                  This has been out for twenty years now and so there are a fair few editions with nice artwork on the cover, and plenty of second hand copies out there to be picked up cheap. I would highly recommend this book, though would reiterate my advice to read Mythago Wood first. I don't think very many people would be disappointed with either of these wonderful, magical stories. Thankfully, Holdstock has continued to write more tales of the mythagos and Ryhope Wood, the most recent of which was published this year. So get stuck in.

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