Category Archives: Reviews and Criticism

SPQR

I’m sorry for starting this post with an appalling pun, but there’s no place like Rome.  At least that’s the impression I got from reading Mary Beard’s lively and engaging book, SPQR.

SPQR covers the first thousand years of Rome’s history: from the legend of its founding, through the hundreds of years of the Republic, to the first two hundred and fifty years of the Empire. It is a clever mix of political and social history. Although the rich, powerful and famous left more evidence behind, Mary Beard  paints a picture of what Roman life was like for everyone, from slave to emperor and from all corners of the empire.

Although the book deals with Rome’s history broadly in chronological order, Beard has deliberately not written a blow by blow narrative account. She focuses on some key themes to show how, although the Roman state changed, there was also a fair amount of continuity. For example, Beard argues that the role of Emperor changed very little between the start of the reign of Augustus in 27 BCE to the end of Septimius Severus’s reign in 211 CE. Given the wide variety and ability of people who became emperor, this continuity is amazing, and a testimony to how resilient the Roman state was.  Another key theme of the book is its focus on the city of Rome and the surrounding area. It would be impossible, in the space of 600 or so pages, to write a history of the whole Roman Empire, so Beard has wisely chosen to show how the city and its institutions formed and controlled  the wider republic and empire.

Alongside Mary Beard’s perceptive analysis of how Rome developed and changed, there are some marvellous pictures of individuals.  My favourite is  Cicero, the politician and prolific writer. He was a senator of  Rome during the fascinating last years of the republic, witness to the death of Julius Caesar, and of the early years of the Empire. Mary Beard portrays him as a formidable but fallible figure, and does so with a great deal of humour.  Also fascinating are the stories of the large cast of soldiers, merchants and freed slaves who’s lives we can glimpse through the scanty traces they left behind.

This leads me to one of the most interesting aspects of SPQR: how patchy much of the evidence is for our understanding of Rome. My assumption was that the history of ancient Rome was  well documented, so I was surprised by how little hard evidence exists for most of the thousand years covered by the book, and how much has to be deduced from partial sources. Whist Mary Beard is able to rely on a some written records, much of Roman history can only be glimpsed through monuments, gravestones and inscriptions, many of which are defaced. This is part of what makes SPQR such a good example of the historian at work. Mary Beard points out that it is the result of a lifetime’s study of the evidence. It is not just an interpretation of established facts, it is also a fascinating piece of detective work, painstakingly put together over many years.

This might make SPQR sound like a very dry book, but it isn’t. Mary Beard has a rare talent for making painstaking academic research entertaining. She doesn’t dumb anything down, or sensationalise it: instead she  makes it interesting, exciting and relevant.  In fact, Beard goes out of her way not to sensationalise Roman history, and plays down many popular views. SPQR isn’t filled with mad emperors such as Caligula, Nero and Commodus (of Gladiator fame), or widespread bloodshed in the Coliseum. She points out that many accounts of ‘mad’ emperors were written  by people wishing to justify those who overthrew them. Similarly, gladiatorial combat, as an entertainment, had only a limited lifespan, and with 500,000 inhabitants of Rome the Coliseum was never the popular entertainment venue it has been made out to be.

If any of you are fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian,  you’ll be familiar with the line ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’.  This is an interesting question, that Mary Beard kind of discusses at the end of SPQR.  Her conclusion is that our society faces many of the same problems as the ancient Romans and, whilst we can’t directly apply their solutions to them, their approach still underlies some of our assumptions. So, maybe the Romans didn’t bring us roads and peace, but they certainly contributed to the way we think of society.

I’d really recommend SPQR if you want to immerse yourself in the other world that was Ancient Rome. It’s definitely one of the best history books I’ve read in years. It’s entertaining, informative and makes you think about our world too. It’s a shame there aren’t more historians around like Mary Beard.

SPQR is published by Profile Books and is available from the usual outlets.

Review: The Stone Book Quartet

The Stone Book Quartet are four separate but linked short stories, written by Alan Garner. The stories are a fictionalised account of four generations of the author’s family, including Garner himself.  They are set in North East Cheshire, particularly the area round Alderley Edge, where Garner and his family originate from.

Each of the stories is told from the viewpoint of a child character in the story and features a key moment in their lives. These are often set against wider changes in society: two of the stories are set during the world wars.

Although the stories are based on single episodes in the characters lives, there are two main themes that run through the collection: continuity and change.

The changes are fairly  fundamental one’s. They include the rise of industrialisation and the end of cottage industries, the encroachment of new building on the rural landscape, the death of old crafts and the need for new ones. And all these changes are overshadowed by the effect of war. The effects of the Boer War and both world wars can be felt on individual characters and society as a whole.

Continuity is largely provided by the rural setting and the generations of Garner’s characters who are rooted in that setting. Some of the same characters appear across more than one story, sometimes at the centre of the story, sometimes at the edges. As well as the overall landscape and characters providing some continuity,  there are also  buildings and specific objects that link the generations, often in a startling way.

So, despite all the change and upheaval, there’s a sense that change only happens slowly. It’s almost as f there is something timeless that the changes can’t touch.

As in many of Garner’s stories, there is almost mystical and timeless element about them: time and the countryside are characters as much as the people. This feeling is added to by Garner’s prose, which is spare and precise: there’s not a word wasted.  Garner uses the local Cheshire dialect  widely in these stories, adding to the vivid sense of the setting. Using dialect in this way works well for this type of story, and  doesn’t make them difficult to understand. I’ve read plenty of stories where the use of dialect seems wooden, but Garner judges it perfectly.

Each of the stories is written from the viewpoint of the main child character. This limits the reader’s knowledge of events to what the character sees and what they understand of events.  This means the reader has some work to do piecing together events and working out their wider meaning. I enjoy books like this because they make me think: meaning isn’t handed to you on a plate. It also mirrors well how children see the world. I bet we can all remember overhearing grown-up conversations when we were younger and only partly understanding their meaning.

This isn’t just a children’s book though. It’s one of those rare books that adults and children alike can read and enjoy, each understanding it on a different level.

I love this book. For me it’s an excellent example of an imaginative way to write family history. Although the basic facts are there, it enhances them and makes the characters come alive in a way that old documents and photographs can’t.

If you’ve read The Stone Book Quartet,  let me know what you think. If you haven’t read, I hope this inspires you to give it a go.

Fangs for the Memory

I know it’s not to everybody’s taste, but I’m really fond of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. Nowadays a lot of the writing from this period seems old-fashioned and stilted, but the best writers created strong stories, with vivid prose. If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, why not try reading this collection of short stories as a taster.

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, is a collection of short stories, published by Oxford World’s Classics. The headline story, The Vampyre, was written by John Polidori and first published in 1819. Polidori was a doctor, and travelling companion of the poet, Lord Bryon. The Vampyre was written during a stay at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. During Byron’s stay there the weather was so bad that his party couldn’t leave the villa.  To amuse themselves they held a ghost story writing competition. The most famous story to come out of this competition was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Polidori’s tale started a craze for vampire stories that still continues today, in print and on film. Polidori’s vampire is still recognisable in the one played by Christopher Lee in the Hammer horror films. Although the vampire has remained a popular cultural figure, Polidori’s fate was tragic. He was never successful as a writer and committed suicide at the age of 26. The Vampyre, though, still has the ability to excite and chill.  With it’s mysterious central character, gothic setting and naive narrator, The Vampyre has all the ingredients of a classic horror story.

As well as The Vampyre the Oxford World’s Classics book contains thirteen other stories, ranging from ghost stories, to tales of murder and gothic style mysteries. I’ll not review them all here, but the three below will give you an idea of what to expect.

For something ghostly, turn to Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream, by Horace Smith. This very short story neatly moves from normality to terror. It’s obvious that there’s something wrong from the start, but you’re kept guessing exactly what until the end.

For a more human drama, read William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman. This is a dramatic retelling of true events in Ireland, and a precursor of the ‘troubles’ of the twentieth century.  Although there’s no supernatural element to this story, the setting and descriptions of the main characters make chilling reading.

Finally if you want a gothic tale of death, mystery and horror, read Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I found this story to be the most complete and satisfying in the book, with convincing characters and a pacey story.

What all the stories in this collection share is a sense of ‘otherness’. Maybe they feel different to us  because of their age, but I think there’s more to it than that. All the authors in this book have set out to create situations that, while they seem fairly normal at the outset, change into something strange and horrific by the end.  What’s also interesting to me is that all of these stories were originally published in magazines. They were meant to be widely read and weren’t considered as high art in their time. It’s often very easy to consider eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction as highbrow, but the stories in this collection are the popular fiction of their time.

If you fancy something different try reading The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. You can pick a copy of this book up online fairly cheaply, so there’s not much lost if this isn’t your style of writing. On the other hand if you enjoy this collection, try reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, by far the best horror story I’ve ever read.

Paws for Thought

Noble Beast

Sally the dog looking noble.

This week’s book review is slightly different, because it’s about a book I’m still reading. In Defence of Dogs is by John Bradshaw, a biologist who specialises in dog behaviour. The book, published by Penguin Books in 2012, sets out to dispel many of the myths we have about dogs. Based on his own work and other scientific research, Bradshaw argues that we should change how we think about, and relate to, dogs. Dogs are not, he argues, wolves in dogs clothing, constantly trying to assert dominance over the humans in their pack. Nor do they have an almost human understanding of the world.

 

In this book Bradshaw sets out to explain how a better understanding of dogs ‘intelligence and emotional life’ will change our perception, and treatment of them. From the little I’ve read so far, it’s going to be an interesting read.

Anyway, that’s the book review bit over. This weeks post is actually a thinly veiled excuse to write about rescue dogs and the charity I volunteer for, Ryedale Dog Rescue. The picture at the top of this post is Sally, our rescue dog. She’s about nine years old, and is (we think), a cross between a Staffordshire bull terrier and a boxer. Sally’s been with us for six years now, and is a real character. She’s obsessed about food, stubborn, hates mornings, and farts and snores. For a medium sized dog, she’s powerfully built,  looks a bit imposing and was very boisterous when she was younger.

You might think she’s not much of a prospect as a pet then, but you’d be wrong. The reality is that Sally is a friendly, loyal dog, a real character and great fun.

Sally and Brindle

Sally and Brindle caught in a tender moment.

She’s a real softie:  as you can see in this picture, she spends most of her time on the settee with the cat, and loves being somewhere comfortable with people. It’s a privilege to have her around.

Sally was neglected and malnourished when she was handed into the local authority dog warden. It wasn’t a great start in life, but gradually her luck changed. The first stroke of fortune was that she was taken in by our local dog rescue charity, Ryedale Dog Rescue (RDR). Sadly, because Sally looked quite ‘fierce’, nobody wanted to rehome her and she stayed with RDR for two years. But RDR didn’t give up looking for a home for her, and finally their persistence paid off when she came to live with us. I still wonder how this happened: at the time Sally was the last type of dog we were looking for. Sometimes though, you’ve got to take a leap of faith and look below surface appearances. It’s a decision we’ve never regretted.

Unfortunately the story of Sally’s early life is a common one, and many don’t end up happily. Tens of thousands of dogs are abandoned each year. According to the charity Dogs Trust, in 2014-2015 local authorities picked up over 102,000 strays, 47,000 of which were never reclaimed by their owners. Some of those would have have been rehomed, but  over 5000  ended up being put down. That’s a lot of Sally’s who never got the chance to be a loved and loving pet.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Local and national charities like Dogs Trust and RDR, work hard to give rescue dogs a second chance. I’ve been doing voluntary work RDR for twelve months: it’s addictive and very satisfying. Over the next few weeks we’ll be running a pop-up shop and holding a sponsored fun walk to help raise funds for the charity. But fundraising and the work of rescuing, caring for and rehoming dogs goes on all year round.

There are thousands of dogs out there who need your help. If you’re thinking of getting a dog, I’d heartily recommend getting a rescue. But if you’re not in position to own a dog, why not do some voluntary work for a local or national charity, or hand over some of your hard earned cash? There’ll be someone near you happy to extract a few coins from you (actually, we’d prefer notes, big fat cheques or a massive bank transfer, but every little helps.)

So that’s it for this week, I’m off to set up shop. If you happen to be in the Ryedale area over the next two weeks, why not pop into the pop-up, or go to www.ryedaledogrescue.com for more information.

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is a novel by American author Dashiel Hammett, originally published in 1929. It’s one of the school of detective novels called ‘hard boiled’ and features Sam Spade. Spade is a tough, uncompromising private detective based in San Francisco.

The plot is based around the search for a mythical bejewelled golden statue of a falcon, and features just about everything you could want from a detective story. If you enjoy a a tale of  murder, theft, love, loyalty and betrayal, then you’ll like Hammett’s novel. The characters are great too.  Spade, is surprisingly honourable considering the murky world he moves in.  The other characters include an assorted cast of sinister villains, murderous sidekicks and bull-headed police detectives. It also has probably the best femme fatale in literature.

I won’t give the game away, but The Maltese Falcon is a fantastic page-turner, with plenty of plot twists. It will keep you hooked, and guessing, right up to the last page. It’s well written too. Hammett was a novelist, short-story writer and screen writer, who had worked as a detective for Pinkerton’s. He knew San Francisco well and his descriptions of characters and the city are well observed. Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third person, and relied entirely on external description and dialogue to tell the story. This means that he doesn’t dive into the characters thoughts and feelings:  you only get to know them through their words and actions.

Writing in the third person is a technical challenge for authors, but works well for detective stories, because it keeps the reader guessing about whodunnit. As with most ‘hard boiled’ fiction, Hammett’s writing style is sparse and economical. He can tell you all you need to know about a character in two brief sentences, and his dialogue is sharp, sparkling and witty. The very pared down writing style is perfect for describing the shady criminal world of the novel.

The third person narrative and writing style also gives the book a very visual, cinematic feel. It’s not surprising that The Maltese Falcon has been filmed on several occasions,  the most famous and best version starred Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Unlike most novels, that have to be heavily adapted for the screen, The Maltese Falcon needed very few changes to make it a classic film. Normally I’m disappointed with film adaptations of books, but both the film and the book are pretty near perfect examples of their type.

Dashiell Hammett was a groundbreaking writer of this style of fiction. Many authors, such as Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, continued the tradition of tough uncompromising novels of the criminal underworld

I love this kind of writing and Sam Spade is amongst my favourite literary detectives. A lot happens in this fairly short novel, but it never loses it’s realism and you’re kept guessing until the very end.

I hope you read and enjoy The Maltese Falcon. There are plenty of cheap paperback editions around, but I read the Kindle edition.

Book Review: Viking Fire

Every Christmas my wife and I give each other books as presents. Mostly they’re one’s we’ve chosen for ourselves, but there’s always a surprise too. This year my wife gave me a novel: Viking Blood, by Justin Hill.

Viking Blood  is the story of the great Norse warrior and king, Harold Hardrada. Harold lived in the eleventh century and was known as the greatest warrior of his age. His story is a fascinating and epic one. Forced to flee Norway after the death of his brother, King Olaf, at the battle of Stiklestad, Harold is exiled for almost twenty years. His adventures take him through Sweden and Russia, and finally to the great city of Constantinople.  Here he ends up in the famed Varangian Guard, at the service of the Byzantine Empire.

Eventually Harold gathers about him a band of warriors and enough treasure to return to Norway and make a successful bid for the kingship. After many years as King of Norway, Harold takes one last gamble and, invades England. Although initially successful, Harold is finally killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York, in 1066. The story is fascinating in itself, but also adds an extra dimension to the story of events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England.

I was hooked by this novel from the outset and read all 380 pages in just over a day. So what makes it such a good book? For a start, it’s historically accurate. I find it a real turn off when an historical author gets the facts wrong or distorts them for effect, but Justin Hill isn’t guilty of this. It’s easy in a way, because Harold’s story is such an amazing one, that Hill doesn’t need to change the facts. But he also gets the detail right, which is what gives this book its feeling of realism.

Not only is the story accurate, but it’s also an epic one. Rather than focus on a narrow timeframe and location, Viking Fire takes in a great sweep of history. It  spans fifty years in many different locations. We tend to think that globalisation is a recent development, but this novel shows that early medieval society, although more limited than ours, still had an international dimension.

History tends to portray Harold as violent and barbaric: the stereotypical Viking. But by telling the story in Harold’s own words, Hill makes him a much more sympathetic character. He’s loyal to friends and family, pious, just, and compassionate. It’s true that Harold is still capable of violence, but it reflects the world he lives in. He’s neither unduly vindictive or gratuitous. Justin Hill does a very good job of portraying him as a decent man in a violent world.

Another aspect of the book that appeals to me is how Justin Hill portrays Harold as he ages. Harold starts off as an impulsive youth, and we see him as he matures into a fearsome warrior, a great leader of men and a wise king.  Towards the end of the story, a note of wistfulness is introduced as Harold contemplates his life, and the people he has lost. In the end Harold accepts his fate, and the portrayal of old age, (he’s only 53 when he dies, but that was old for the time), is very realistic.

The climax to the story takes place close to where I live now. At the end of the story Harold fights his two last battles, at Fulford, near York, and at Stamford Bridge, a few miles away. I know both places well and have walked over the battlefields, and this adds to my interest of the story.

If you want a realistic, well written, epic story. I’d strongly recommend  Viking Fire to you. It’s a fascinating book about a frequently overlooked character, and the fantastic, but true world he lived in.

Viking Fire is published by Little, Brown. I haven’t read any of Justin Hill’s other books yet, but he’s written another book set in eleventh century England, Shieldwall, and several about medieval china. He’s definitely an author I’ll read in the future.

Book Review: A Christmas Carol

Last Tuesday night I began reading my battered copy of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol,  as I have done every December 20th for the past forty eight years. The date’s carefully chosen so that I can read a chapter of the story every night and finish with the final scenes on Christmas Eve. I try to make finishing A Christmas Carol the last thing I do before I go to sleep.

Now this might seem – no, actually is – obsessive, but Christmas doesn’t start for me until I’ve read Dickens’s magical story.

A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843. It was an immediate success, has never been out of print, and has been recreated on TV, stage, screen and radio dozens of times.  Ebeneezer Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser: unloved and unloving. He’s wasn’t always like that, but the passing years have gradually hardened his heart. One Christmas Eve he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns Scrooge that time is running out for his redemption. He tells Scrooge that, to help him see the error of his ways, he will be visited by three other ghosts: those of Christmases past, present and future. During the ghosts’ visits Scrooge is gradually brought to see the consequences of his actions and warned of the sad and lonely fate that awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways. As a result Scrooge becomes a reformed and benevolent character.

I love the story because it’s great fun to read, despite its underlying seriousness. I think Dickens’s greatest talent in all his books was the way he blended comedy with the serious social issues of his day. The theme and tone of the book is optimistic and perfectly judged, even when dealing with issues like poverty and death. For a short story, Dickens introduces a large cast of memorable characters, which add comedy and pathos to the story.

I think it’s easy to identify with the story for two reasons.  First, the message at its heart is simple: that anyone can be redeemed. Dickens didn’t make his message an overtly Christian one, which has helped make its popularity universal. Second, despite Scrooge’s awfulness at the start of the story, Dickens still manages to make him a sympathetic character and I really want him to win through at the end.

After forty eight years my pleasure in reading A Christmas Carol goes far beyond the story. I don’t think I just read it any more: I live it. Not only can I quote passages by heart, I have a powerful image of each scene and almost feel that I am there in person. I get totally carried away with events and into the heads of the characters.

What’s most important to me now is the way A Christmas Carol has become the thread that unites all my Christmas memories. I’ve read it in good years and bad, and each reading connects me to all the people and places from my past, and provides a link the present, and to what may come in the future. It’s almost as if the ghosts that visit Scrooge visit me too. For me it’s important to have some things in life that are stable, continuous and reliable.  A Christmas Carol is all those things to me, and it’s also a fun, powerful and inspiring story.

Reading A Christmas Carol this year will make me feel happy and contented, as it always has done and always will.

If you’re interested in reading A Christmas Carol  it’s easily and cheaply available on the internet. My personal copy is the same one I’ve always used. It’s from a complete works of Dickens that belonged to my maternal grandparents. The spine cover’s fallen off it now and it’s stitching is loose, but it’s a very loved book: probably the most precious one I own.

If you liked this review, why not share it with a friend? I’d also like to know whether you have a special Christmas book, and what it means to you.

In writing this review I’ve referred to The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens, edited by Paul Schlicke (Oxford University Press, 2011).