Mike's Reviews

I'm a refugee from the doomed Shelfari who didn't like the look of Goodreads. I now use Leafmarks to keep track of all my reading data, and BookLikes to host my reviews.

 

It may take a while for me to upload all my reviews.

 

Leafmarks profile at: http://www.leafmarks.com/MikeF

Last.fm music profile at: http://www.last.fm/user/UberWeiner

'A Storm of Swords: Part Two' by George R. R. Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords, Part 2: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3) by Martin, George R. R. (2011) Paperback - George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, Part Two: Blood and Gold: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire (London: Harper Voyager, 2011), 607pp

 

Whilst the Song of Ice and Fire books of course have their own pre-existing following, I imagine that many people now deciding to read this book will do so due to the success of the television series Game of Thrones, as I did. Therefore, I will not provide an ordinary review but try to give my impressions of the book as someone who had already been exposed to the television adaptation. Consequently, there may be spoilers for those who haven't seen the show.

Part Two of A Storm of Swords is a new and strange experience for me: the first of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books that I have read before its contents have been adapted onto screen. The fourth season of the HBO series Game of Thrones kicks off next year, and so for the first time I have read one of the books without prior knowledge of how it would develop. Thankfully, I adored the book; the plot twists and changes were new and shocking to me, and I can't wait to see how they pan out on screen. The Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow storylines are particularly exciting (I just know Peter Dinklage is going to nail it), with Daenerys not far behind, and the new character of Oberyn Martell will no doubt prove to be memorable. Oberyn's character arc demonstrates that if Martin insists on killing off a lot of good characters (A Storm of Swords, Part Two certainly has the highest number of major-character deaths so far), he is at least replacing them with other good ones. Coldhands, if he is indeed depicted in the show, will also be an intriguing and enigmatic addition, whilst the book's epilogue, along with the final scenes with Tyrion and Arya, open up a lot of possibilities. Some plot points are resolved satisfyingly (who provided the knife that was used in the attempt on Bran's life, for example) while others are teasingly dangled before us (who Jon Snow's mother was).

One thing I was disappointed about was the Theon Greyjoy plotline - or rather, the lack of it. There are no Theon chapters and the Second Greyjoy Rebellion is covered only in other characters' second-hand remarks (despite there being a few important developments on Pyke). There is also less going on with both Bran and Arya, though they both have their moments. But by and large the story remains as thrilling as ever. My review for this book has been shorter than the previous ones, as I don't want to inadvertently give away any spoilers, and a lot of the best things about the book cannot be adequately discussed without doing so. Even if they could, there's so many fascinating things going on in these pages that I'd have to write a lengthy tome just to address even half of them. The series remains easy to read and a real page-turner, and I just know that by the time I finish A Feast for Crows and the two volumes of A Dance with Dragons, I will be jonesing for more and more. These books really are something special. Oh, and Littlefinger is one magnificent bastard.

'My Name Was Judas' by C. K. Stead (2006)

My Name Was Judas - C.K. Stead

C. K. Stead, My Name Was Judas (London: Vintage Books, 2007), 244pp

 

If you're an avid reader, you'll no doubt nod your head in agreement when I say that every once in a while you come across a book that is such a surprise, that exceeds your expectations by so much, that you devour each and every word. My Name Was Judas is such a book. It sat unread on my shelf for many months and yesterday, after I put it down after devouring it in two short sittings, I lamented why I had left it so long.

It is a truly exceptional book; its genius lies in the familiar. The story of Jesus is one we are all familiar with, but C. K. Stead finds a new and subtly subversive angle on it. He tells the story of Judas of Keraiyot (Iscariot) and his boyhood friend Jesus, and charts their childhood in Nazareth and their growing differences in adulthood as the gifted Jesus becomes a well-known orator and prophet. Told from the perspective of an elderly Judas, it paints a picture of a flawed and charismatic, though very much human, Jesus who is come to be seen by many (and perhaps by himself) as the Messiah, the Christ spoken of in prophecy.

This is where the subtle, subversive genius is evident, as Judas recounts their lives at this time, as the cult of Jesus the Christ grows. Judas struggles throughout the book with his scepticism and his thoughtful agnosticism, causing conflict with the other disciples and their blind faith. In an eloquent passage by the author on pages three through six, Judas finally resolves, in his old age, that he will trust in his reason and rationality. You see, Judas' "betrayal" was not the thirty pieces of silver as the gospel writers had it, but that, he alone of all the disciples, did not believe his friend was actually the Messiah, and argued with those other disciples who proclaimed his divinity. Key events in the life of Jesus (the loaves and fishes, Lazarus' resurrection, etc.) are ingeniously shown by Stead to have had rational explanations, or were metaphors that over time came to be seen as literal truth. By presenting an entirely-believable interpretation of the life of Jesus which does not require any magic, any divinity, he plants a subversive seed in the reader's mind. As Judas explains as early as page four, he found "that the less we believed in these [divine] forces, the less they gave us reason to." Once the stories are given rational explanations, the need for magical or superstitious explanations crumbles away, just as a scary shadow on a child's bedroom wall ceases to cause fear once it has been revealed as a trick of the light, or a branch swaying in the wind outside. As someone who has read and thought about atheism and religion quite extensively, I have never encountered such a simple and yet gently potent advocacy of rationalism over superstition as My Name Was Judas.

But the book is doubly special as it is also a good read. Beyond the admirable and eloquent message, it is also very well-written. The prose is clean and the poetry unobstructive, making it accessible to a potentially great number of people. There is a fair amount of anachronistic language but, with the exception of one of Zebedee's utterances at the bottom of page 147, this never takes you out of the story. If anything, it only emphasises the timelessness of the story - that of two friends growing apart. The characters are also very well-drawn. Judas' recollections never seem self-pitying or biased, Jesus walks a perfectly-balanced line between gifted, thoughtful philosopher and a damaged, insecure man starting to believe his own hype, and the various other characters, from the eleven other disciples to Mary and Joseph and also Mary Magdalene, seem like real human beings rather than pawns in a divinely-ordained game, strongly reinforcing C. K. Stead's secular interpretation of events in Nazareth. The narrative is also surprisingly engaging, breathing new life into the tired old Greatest Story Ever Told. The crucifixion is especially emotional, as Judas' warnings are not heeded and his friend dies slowly and agonisingly (and pointlessly, perhaps counter-productively) on the cross. As Judas reflects in his old age, that was when he realised once and for all that there was no God, for "if there had been one, and He had ordained this end for His faithful son and servant, He would at that moment surely have died of shame." (pg. 231). As mentioned above, the rational explanations for many of the Bible events are ingenious and more believable than their religious interpretations, particularly the ways in which Stead explains the actions of Pontius Pilate and the reason Jesus' body was not present when his tomb was unsealed. I also liked the part where a young and confused Judas, in love with a local girl, looks for the love stories of Hebrew literature for guidance and finds nothing. In contrast to the Greek society which is "full of stories of the love of man and woman, man and muse, human and demigod", the only comparable stories in his own society were ones about the love between man and God (pg. 76). This short, subtle paragraph is a damning indictment of the paucity of genuine expressions of love and compassion in Abrahamic cultures, going a long way in explaining the stunted social growth of mankind and the endless religious conflicts which have plagued the world for millennia, and continue to do so today.

I have often wondered how one might 'convert', for want of a better phrase, someone to atheism. Atheist polemics can be enjoyable to read, but often seem like they are preaching to the choir (again, please excuse the inappropriateness of the phrase). I have concluded that there is no sure-fire way to do so, but one can create doubt, and doubt is not a bad thing. C. K. Stead has managed to create a novel that is subversive and yet also respectful, so that anyone with a truly open mind will be able to engage with it. They will be able to see how religions are created, how the story of one charismatic man can, by a mix of ignorance, hubris and deceit, mutate into a story about the same man being a 'man-god', the Messiah, the son of God. You will begin to wonder how you could ever have believed it in the first place (that is, of course, if you ever did), now that Stead has presented such a believable, rational alternative interpretation of events. My Name Was Judas should be at the top of the reading list for every man or woman who holds themselves to certain standards of conscientiousness, thoughtfulness and intelligence.

'Indiana Jones and the Philosopher's Stone' by Max McCoy (1995)

Indiana Jones and the Philosopher's Stone - Max McCoy

Max McCoy, Indiana Jones and the Philosopher's Stone (New York: Bantam Books, 2008), 293pp

 

An enjoyable piece of pulp. It's not on the same level as the films but it is still entertaining, and more importantly, it feels like Indiana Jones. There is some good dialogue from Indy and it contains moments of humour. The action is also well-presented and the MacGuffin interesting, although the Crystal Skull curse turned out to be a bit of a red herring. There are a number of plot contrivances, but I think perhaps I only noticed these because they were laid out on the page; certainly, one can find (and forgive) a number of similar plot holes and contrived plot points in the films, as great as they are.

One disappointment I felt in the book is that Indy doesn't really contribute meaningfully to solving any of the mysteries until the final act (where he pinpoints the tomb's location, and navigates through the various traps). Prior to this, his main contribution is grunt work - fights, daring escapes, and suchlike - and he is relying on others to solve the next clue in the mystery for him. Most inexplicably, the main bad guy, Sarducci, repeatedly throws Indy a bone in telling him where to go or what to look for next, for no real reason. Even in the pantheon of pop-culture baddies continually dropping the ball and letting the hero succeed, Sarducci has no rival in his incompetence. This is not helped by the fact that Mussolini's fascists are much less intimidating as villains than Hitler's Nazis, who provided the villainy for the two best Indy films.

It was nice to encounter Sallah in the book, though he serves little purpose; his function could easily have been done by the Farqhuar character, or even by replacing the Farqhuar character with Sallah entirely. It may seem here like I'm writing a negative review, but I did enjoy it. It's far from perfect but it has heart and one can certainly enjoy it if one feels nostalgia and affection for the old Indy films.

'The Making of the British Army' by Allan Mallinson (2009)

The Making Of The British Army - Allan Mallinson

Allan Mallinson, The Making of the British Army: From the English Civil War to the War on Terror (London: Bantam Books, 2011), updated edition, 736pp

 

In The Making of the British Army, Allan Mallinson has provided a comprehensive and readable narrative that charts the army's development from the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell's time to the Strategic Defence and Security Review released by David Cameron's coalition government in 2010. Mallinson's view of the army's development is one of restless evolution throughout the centuries - "An army long in the making, which yet remains very much a work in progress." (pg. 626), at times seeming even like "a work in regress" (pg. 633).

Mallinson's main aim appears to be to extol the virtues of the regimental system in this evolution, creating a resilience and a regenerative quality that marks the British army out as one somewhat unique. He identifies the common British ritual of waging war, wherein the hardiness and heroism of the troops and the "self-healing regimental system [avert] total catastrophe before a capable pair of hands got a grip, took the fight back to the enemy and beat him." (pg. 354). One can see this pattern in just about every war Britain has fought, from the English Civil War through the Napoleonic Wars to the Boer War and the two World Wars, and Mallinson runs with it in his narrative. Whilst this view is not new - and Mallinson is certainly a conservative historian - it has never been so ably charted and articulated as it is here.

He argues persuasively that when good generalship (and good soldiering) "is a tradition, it becomes sustaining" (pg. 14). He suggests that the British military man's awareness of his "operational heritage" (pg. 617), his history, convinces him that he is "a part of something special... [making him] fight just a little harder because he knows that others wearing the same badge have managed to fight hard in the past." (pg. 189). This isn't misty-eyed romanticism; Mallinson provides numerous examples of soldiers who testify that their fighting spirit was bolstered by the collective memory of Arnhem, say, or Waterloo, or Rorke's Drift. These soldiers, with the weight of history behind them, know that they cannot, for example, "quit a position in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds when Chard and Bromhead [the two lieutenants in charge at Rorke's Drift] had not done so - not, at least, without inviting critical comparison." (pp308-9). This theme running throughout the book makes it a very stirring read for the British patriot, yet it never threatens to lurch into jingoism - it maintains a balance by providing a hard-nosed audit of the army's numerous historical failings.

All in all, The Making of the British Army is an extremely enjoyable military history, finding that often-elusive page-turning blend between a wider narrative and a slew of refreshing historical anecdotes. I didn't learn much new in the way of factual information, beyond the origins of certain regiment names such as the Coldstream Guards, Black Watch and the Green Howards, but it didn't matter. The story has rarely been told so well. In historical appraisals, the British Army as an entity is often overlooked in favour of the glamour and importance of naval (and, more recently, air) power. Indeed, as Mallinson's analogy puts it, "as a national insurance policy the army has always been more 'third party' than 'fully comprehensive'." (pg. 618). But as he argues here, it deserves a lion's share of the glory.

'A Storm of Swords: Part One' by George R. R. Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords: Part 1 Steel and Snow (Reissue) (A Song of Ice and Fire. Book 3) by Martin. George R. R. ( 2011 ) Paperback - Martin. George R. R.

George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, Part One: Steel and Snow: Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire (London: Harper Voyager, 2011), 623pp

 

Whilst the Song of Ice and Fire books of course have their own pre-existing following, I imagine that many people now deciding to read this book will do so due to the success of the television series Game of Thrones, as I did. Therefore, I will not provide an ordinary review but try to give my impressions of the book as someone who had already been exposed to the television adaptation. Consequently, there may be spoilers for those who haven't seen the show.

My impressions of Part One of A Storm of Swords are very similar to those I had regarding A Clash of Kings. It is apparent that the television series has made a number of narrative tweaks, changing character arcs and eliminating/consolidating minor characters to streamline the story. Both the Red Wedding and the Second Sons, for example, are delayed until Part Two of this book, whereas in the TV series they were brought forward to the end of Season 3. There are also no Theon Greyjoy plotlines in Part One here; presumably I will find the ones already adapted for the screen when I get onto Part Two. But fans of Daenerys and her dragons will be happy to know that her visit to Astapor is here in Part One.

I freely admit to preferring the changes made for the screen adaptation, and I must say that I don't think this is entirely due to the fact that I experienced the show first. For example, in the book Tyrion Lannister actually desires his wife Sansa Stark, and their wedding night goes a bit further in the bedroom than it did in the screen version. This, to my mind, makes the book's version of Tyrion less sympathetic than Peter Dinklage's version, particularly as he seems to forget about Shae. In the book, there is also a clumsy lesbian sex scene involving Daenerys which just seems gratuitous. Robb Stark's wife - so important to how the war develops - is also a minor character in the book, much less fleshed out than her screen counterpart. She is also a shy girl from a minor House called Jeyne, rather than the foreign noblewoman Talisa from Volantis that we meet on screen. There are a number of other minor changes (Jaime is bald!) but these are the ones that stood out for me.

As with the previous two books, the main advantage held over the TV series is that it allows for more depth than can be presented on screen. Jaime's backstory, concerning the wildfire in King's Landing, plays out much the same as on screen, but goes into a bit more depth. Chapters are also told from the perspective of Jaime which is refreshing, as his character changes from the smug, sister-shagging, Bran-crippling rich boy to someone who might have some good in him deep (deep) down. We also get a bit more of Mance Rayder's backstory and the morally-gray nature of his character; yes, he is good in that he wants to see his people safely south away from the White Walkers, but in doing so he means to bring down the Wall and consequently open the rest of Westeros to the White Walker threat. With this in mind, the Horn of Winter (also known as the Horn of Joramun) is also given a couple of teasing references; perhaps it has something to do with the broken horn Sam found amongst the dragonglass at the Fist?

As in the first two books, battles are more fleshed out than on screen, though to my recollection the only real battle in Part One of A Storm of Swords (Astapor doesn't count) is the one between the Night's Watch and the White Walkers at the Fist of the First Men - in the show this wasn't even depicted. It is also hinted at that what Stannis saw in the flames with the Red Woman (which was shown on screen) was part of this battle, though I might have misinterpreted this.

Overall, whilst there are a lot of opportunities here for fans to compare and contrast the differences between the book and the TV series, the two mediums do still sing in harmony. The stories in both the book series and the TV series are shaping up nicely, with the 'Song of Ice and Fire' of the series' title becoming ever more intriguing. It seems clear that in this cataclysmic clash, the 'Ice' will be the White Walkers, but the 'Fire' is harder to pin down. Will it be Daenerys' dragonfire (as she dreams on page 375) or the hosts of the Lord of Light (as Stannis and the Red Woman profess on pages 348-9 and 500)? Or something else, which George R. R. Martin has yet to divulge? Whatever it is, I finish each volume of Martin's books with ever-increasing desire to pick up the next one. The books are quick and easy to read, which is remarkable when you consider their length and the amount of detail they go into. The confusion regarding all the names of the characters is becoming more pronounced, but this is a minor quibble. These books have taken fantasy to another level.

'Give Death a Chance' by Alan Goldsher (2012)

Give Death a Chance: The British Zombie Invasion 2 - Alan Goldsher

Alan Goldsher, Give Death a Chance: The British Zombie Invasion 2 (BooGoo Press, 2012), 83pp [electronic copy]

 

Even though I didn't like Paul is Undead, Alan Goldsher's clumsy first attempt to mash the Beatles' story with a zombie theme, I still thought I should give Give Death a Chance a chance. It seemed appealingly short, and I thought maybe Goldsher might have rectified some of his mistakes from the first book. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case. All the negatives about Paul is Undead (and there are so, so many) also apply to this sequel and, despite its short length, it dragged interminably, lacking any originality, spark or wit. The story is even less interesting a second time round, here focusing on a modern-day zombified Beatles trying to work their way back to the top. This drags it even further away from the real Beatles story, so you don't even get many of the half-hearted laughs provided by Beatles trivia in-jokes that you did in the first book.

The insipid use of 'fook' continues from the first book, and Goldsher appears to have picked up a new favourite word, 'plonker'. Someone should tell him what it means, as I've never heard it used with the meaning he attaches to it. I'm beginning to doubt the writer has ever even met an Englishman (he even thinks we drive on the right - as in 'not left' - side of the road), and just came across the word randomly, thought it sounded funny and couldn't be bothered to find out what it meant. I only smiled once or twice reading this (and never once laughed): at the 'fook your sheepdog, Macca' bit from Lennon and the bit where the Gallagher brothers from Oasis ape the zombie Beatles by drawing decaying flesh on themselves with marker pens. Goldsher also takes the opportunity to comment on the state of the modern music business, noting how it is all about marketing nowadays rather than talent. He's right, but it's hard to support his argument when his own offering shows a pathetic lack of talent too.

In the end, I'm glad I read Give Death a Chance because people who didn't like Paul is Undead usually wouldn't bother to read this sequel. This would mean reviews for the second book are likely to be unduly positive, coming only from those who (inexplicably) liked the first one. So I hope I've redressed the balance here somewhat. This is terrible. Goldsher even ends it with a half-baked ambiguous ending. As if we actually care. I find it unfathomable that people actually like this, or the first book, and I say that as someone who is willing to give just about anything a fair shake. It reads like the fan fiction of a twelve-year-old boy who likes zombies and ninjas (I was surprised there were no dinosaurs here too), posted into obscurity on some website. Yet Goldsher is a successful writer. It is baffling. This is truly, truly awful.

'Mortality' by Christopher Hitchens (2012)

Mortality - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (London: Atlantic Books, 2013), 106pp

 

A good read (no surprise, it is Hitchens after all) but it lacks real meat. It is very short and I am wary of being too critical of it considering Hitchens was writing right up until his final days. But it doesn't really address the concept of 'mortality' and of coming to terms with death; there is no running theme or argument that Hitch is building. Rather, the book is more like a series of dispatches from the frontline of a battle with cancer. This is fine, as he does have some things worth saying, but it is not quite as essential, as clear-sighted, as classic Hitchens. In Mortality, he continues to write engagingly and occasionally poignantly, with unflinching resolve and - somewhat surprisingly - humour, but it lacks the force and focus of his better works.

'The Winter of the World' by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions (2007)

The Winter Of The World: Poems Of The Great War - Dominic Hibberd

Dominic Hibberd and John Onions (eds.), The Winter of the World: Poems of the Great War (London: Constable & Robinson, 2008), 346pp

 

An exceptionally well-balanced collection of poetry from the First World War. Taking its title from a Wilfred Owen poem, The Winter of the World does of course present us with the more well-known poets, such as Owen (killed only one week before the end of the war) and Siegfried Sassoon. But it also has a lot of lesser-known poets, both soldiers and civilians, who certainly deserve to stand alongside their more famous peers. Organised more-or-less chronologically, the anthology does an excellent job of demonstrating how attitudes changed as the war progressed, both individual poets' attitudes and also the general mood of the times. The Winter of the World also engages in a bit of myth-busting, presenting the works which inform our contemporary dominant impression of the war (the solemn, 'never forget' mood embodied by such works as John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields') but balancing them out with other poems - some jingoistic (particularly in the early part of the war), some satirical, some resentful, some nihilistic or despairing, some hopeful of a better world arising out of the bloodshed and destruction. I do respect our society's dominant view of World War One - the solemn remembrance, the poppy-wearing, the lost youth - especially as I read this book on Armistice Day, but I was grateful that this book showed that this was just one interpretation of the war. By highlighting the diversity in experience, outlook and, indeed, talent of the war poets, rather than spouting solemn, well-meaning clichés and relying on the works of Owen and Sassoon to propel their book, the editors of The Winter of the World have provided perhaps the most comprehensive and educational anthology of war poetry out there today.

'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick (1962)

The Man in the High Castle - George Guidall, Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 249pp

 

The Man in the High Castle is an intriguing but occasionally confusing book. It uses a science-fiction alternate history, in which the Axis powers won World War Two, to pose a number of questions about the nature of reality. The overall concept, insofar as I could grasp, is the idea of certain realities/parallel worlds being 'false'. More specifically, it is about the perceptions of people within those 'false' worlds and whether they realise, or accept the possibility that, their world is a false one, a fictional one. Beyond this, it posits that the words 'fake' and 'true' have no solid meaning; it all depends on whether we perceive its falsity, whether we believe it to be truthful. For Philip K. Dick, truth is not an absolute. There is also an interesting, persistent theme wherein the 'fake' may be better, more useful, than the 'authentic' counterpart. From what I know about Dick, this is a persistent theme in his work; the most well-known example is, of course, the replicants from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the film Blade Runner). In The Man in the High Castle, this is shown in, amongst other examples, the Colt revolver that Tagomi owns and the various physical deceptions that some of the characters make about their identities.

This interpretation that I gleaned from reading the book is perhaps erroneous; this is the sort of book where you could have a wildly different interpretation from someone else, and you both would be able to cite examples from the text to support your view. I like these sort of books that exercise your mind long after you've finished the last page, but this one in particular requires a lot of mental effort. Dick aids the reader in this in some respects. He writes well, with occasional humour to provide a respite from the heavy philosophical concepts and also from the oppressive totalitarianism present in his alternate world. He also provides good characterisation, even if the majority of said characters are unlikeable. However, he hinders the reader's understanding in other ways. There is no plot really to speak of. Some of the philosophising is rambling and impenetrable, with certain passages requiring repeated re-readings (at least for me). The fervent advocacy of the I Ching by many characters (and, therefore, by the author) also gave me an aversion to engaging with High Castle - it felt at times like Dick was trying to convert me. But as alternate histories go, this is one of the more intelligent ones; certainly it is one of the few that transcend the strictures of the 'alternate history' niche to become a genuinely thoughtful piece of literature.

'Asterix and the Picts' by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad (2013)

Asterix and the Picts - Jean-Yves Ferri, Didier Conrad

Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, Asterix and the Picts (London: Orion Children's Books, 2013), 48pp. Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

Asterix and the Picts is an encouraging, if somewhat uneven, contribution to the long-running Asterix comic book series. I grew up with this stuff, so I will always appreciate any new offering that appeals to my sense of nostalgia, and Picts has certainly encouraged me to dig out some of my old Asterix albums from my childhood and flick through them again. But looking at it dispassionately, this isn't a classic Asterix adventure. It certainly isn't a return to the highs of the Goscinny years, but it is on the same level as the later Uderzo-written albums and it doesn't feel like an imposter or a pretender, or a cash-in to continue the franchise. The Asterix books still have their heart and still have our affection, but they don't really have the laughs or the thrills that they used to. The plotting of Picts is uneven (there is an elixir MacGuffin which turns out to be a red herring) and the new characters largely unmemorable (MacAroon lacks presence and the Roman centurion and the treacherous chieftain both lack malevolence and guile). A lot of the jokes also seem to fall flat, and the plot at times seems like a pale hybrid imitation of Asterix in Britain and Asterix and the Great Divide. But as a nostalgia trip, it is worth a look. And, of course, the older fans like myself are not really the target audience any more. But I think if I had a kid and I gave him Asterix and the Picts to read, he wouldn't fall in love with the Gaul's adventures to anything like the same extent that I did reading Asterix and the Cauldron, Asterix in Britain and Asterix the Gladiator when I was younger.

'Fifteen Poems' by Leonard Cohen (2012)

Fifteen Poems - Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Fifteen Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 48pp [electronic copy]

 

A short and sweet collection of Leonard Cohen's poetry. The poems selected were good choices, though they are not among his absolute best. (Note: these are not new poems, but are taken from his previous collections, going right back to 1956's Let Us Compare Mythologies). Nevertheless, they do reflect the man's style of poetry well and consequently, if you are new to Cohen and unsure whether you will like his poetry, this is an ideal taster. It is very short, it is available for pennies on Amazon and can be fired directly to your computer or Kindle in seconds.

'And the Ass Saw the Angel' by Nick Cave (1989)

And the Ass Saw the Angel - Nick Cave

Nick Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel (London: Penguin Books, 2009), revised edition, 280pp

 

When I read Nick Cave's second book, The Death of Bunny Munro, about a year ago I had a mixed reaction, recognising sparks of quality but also a lot of missteps or muddled ideas. At the time, I said that Cave was an excellent songwriter and musician, but that I would reserve my judgement on whether he is a good writer of fiction until I had read And the Ass Saw the Angel.

Now, after finally getting around to reading it, I can indeed say that he is a good writer. And the Ass Saw the Angel is exceptional in parts, merely very good in others, especially when you consider that it is a debut novel. In a number of ways it is similar to The Death of Bunny Munro: broadly speaking, both chart the descent into madness of their protagonists, relying on stream-of-consciousness techniques and explicit and obscene acts to chart the characters' mental deterioration (in Bunny, these depravities were sexual acts, in Ass they are mostly violent ones). But where Bunny was muddled, Ass is focused. This is peculiar, considering that Bunny was written about twenty years later, when you would assume an author would become more assured in his writing. Perhaps this is because Ass is told (mostly) from the first-person perspective of Euchrid, and consequently we are more intimate with his decline into madness.

Though I have said that And the Ass Saw the Angel is more focused, it is not necessarily an easy read. However, before reading I assumed that this would be because of the dense, lyrical prose but, surprisingly, this was not as problematic as I feared. I never felt bogged down in a chapter (perhaps helped by the fact that, for the first part of the book at least, the chapters are very short) and got through the book in just a couple of days. Cave seems to have an intuitive understanding of the rhythm of good prose (which is perhaps not surprising when you consider he sets words to music for a living), so for a book so dark and oppressive it flows remarkably well. Rather, it is a difficult read because of the violent acts which pepper the book. Some other reviewers have said that these acts seemed unnecessary, which was why they felt they could not get into the book, but Ass is an insight into the mind of its demented protagonist Euchrid Eucrow, and the violence serves to oppress the reader's mind to mirror how Euchrid's is oppressed by his own darker thoughts. To borrow a phrase from page 180, Cave pollutes our skulls with sickly poetry.

And to be sure, some of the things described do haunt the reader. The whole thing with Cosey Mo, from the arrival of the townsfolk on Hooper's Hill through the fingers and the wheelchair to her late encounter with Euchrid's father, is hard to read. The Hooper's Hill incident in particular was a chilling depiction of the violent fervour of evangelical religiosity and the ease with which religion can ally itself with a lynch-mob mentality. But even the whole Cosey arc is nothing compared to that of Beth. The paedophilic undertones are incredibly creepy, and there are hints throughout the text about how far the obsession with this innocent child goes (see the Epilogue, for example), both from Euchrid and the townsfolk. Indeed, the townsfolk's obsession with Beth and its effect on her illustrates the intrinsically paedophilic nature of indoctrinating children into a faith. Her letters to 'God' are heartbreaking, even before we consider who they are really addressed to. Brought up from birth to believe she is a saviour, when God does not come to her this little girl asks confusedly if she has "done a wrong thing? Please tell me so I can stop." (pg. 211). Beth declares her love for God and gives herself 'without question' to Him (pg. 244), though she believes God to be the shadow outside her window whose heavy breathing she can hear.

This is an incredibly disturbing, yet rewarding book. Like the Biblical scripture from which it draws its inspiration, it can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I must refrain from offering my own rambling and semi-coherent interpretation. Therefore, I will only say that it is hard to determine whether you will like this book until you actually read it. As most people will no doubt be coming to And the Ass Saw the Angel as a fan of Nick Cave's music, I will make a poor attempt to summarise that, thematically, it is in line with the early Bad Seeds albums, but it reads like an extended Murder Ballad.

'The Little Book of Calm' by Paul Wilson (1996)

The Little Book of Calm - Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson, The Little Book of Calm (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 160pp

 

Like many others, I'm sure, I only read The Little Book of Calm due to its appearance in the first episode of the comedy Black Books (oh, if only Tempocalypse was real!). Reading the book from this perspective, and with Bill Bailey's narration in my head, it brought a smile. Some of the lines used in the show were made up by the sitcom writers, but others ("pretend you see it, then laugh", "have you ever noticed a calm person with a loud voice?") do indeed come from this book.

Some of Paul Wilson's suggestions are deserving of light-hearted mockery (turn your arms like a windmill, he advises, "and you will wave yourself calm"; to store away your worries, you might consider "whisper[ing] them into an envelope") but he does provide some good, if often rather obvious, advice. Despite this moderate level of usefulness, I still see this primarily as something to laugh at, something not to take too seriously. And I don't think it's cruel to laugh at The Little Book of Calm, as its intent was to spread calmness and good cheer, joy and love. Like the love I found in a little bookshop off Russell Square. Yes, love. You know, not, well, not love so much more... more... freedom! You know, fre... well, not really freedom, more a largeness of heart. Well, not really a largeness of heart... or freedom... or love. But I was never contractually obliged to sleep with foreign businessmen, alright? And that is not nothing, that is something.

'The Yellow Birds' by Kevin Powers (2012)

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (London: Sceptre, 2013), 242pp

 

"Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not even being ordinary. Still, I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I'd had a chance to see those hyacinths I would have noticed them." (pg. 14).

[Note:- This review may contain spoilers, of a sort. I'll be referring to a certain character's death, but we are told by the author rather early on in the book (page 14, to be exact) that this character will be killed, so make your own judgement about whether you consider this a spoiler.]

The Yellow Birds is fiction, but it permeates with hard-won truths. Everything about it seems authentic, and even the lyricism of the prose never feels indulgent or mawkish. No doubt, much of this authenticity comes from Kevin Powers the soldier, from Richmond, Virginia (like his protagonist, John Bartle), who fought in Iraq (again, like Bart) and relayed his experiences in this, a sort of memoir posing as fiction. But authenticity also comes from Kevin Powers the writer, who has made his first novel such a mesmeric read.

It is not a perfect book, to be sure, but it misses out on perfection only marginally. The first chapter of The Yellow Birds has instantly become one of my most favourite pieces of prose. I am a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, and it is clear from his writing that Powers is too. Powers speaks in his own voice, but the Hemingway echoes early on are spine-tingling. A somewhat ordinary line on page eight about the sky being heavy with snow was so Hemingway-esque that I had to stop reading and just stare at the words. It never appears that Powers is trying to ape Hemingway, but parts of the book, and this first chapter in particular, are as good as anything Hemingway ever wrote.

I have read some excellent books by first-time authors, but none so assured as Powers. Every literary technique he uses is perfectly measured. The matter-of-fact reportage of various characters' deaths, major or minor, is evocative, allowing us to experience the deaths with the same ordinariness that Bartle felt. As Powers writes, "Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed... We only [paid] attention to rare things, and death was not rare." (pg. 11). When Bartle's first-person narrative tells us on page 14 that his best friend Murph is killed, this somehow makes it even more shocking, both in that moment and later on when the event itself is remembered, than if we had experienced it as a surprise. We are slowly fed little details about the circumstances of Murph's death; I am a big fan of the 'slow reveal' technique and Powers' use of it is assured. Even characters that are one-scene wonders - the girl with the auburn curls in Chapter 1, the crying female medic in Chapter 8 - make a lasting, somewhat haunting, impression.

Aside from its literary strengths, The Yellow Birds also has a lot of important stuff to say on the nature of war. Powers has said that his motivation for writing the book was to answer those who asked him, upon his return from Iraq, "what was it like over there?" As I have not experienced either combat or military life, I cannot attest as to whether he has succeeded, but this book does evoke a lot of emotions from its reader. One service that the book has done for me is to make the Iraq War - and modern warfare in general - more accessible to me. You see, modern warfare, both in popular culture depictions and in my university years studying history and politics, has always seemed rather cold. Distant, technical, clinical. It is played out on news channels and lacks intimacy. It always seemed to be about jargon (e.g. kill ratio, collateral damage), technical specifications and small, non-linear battles. In contrast, depictions of older wars - say, for example, World War Two - tend to evoke the grime and guts of warfare better: the fear of a soldier, a human being; the shred of a bullet; the etch of a tank tread in the mud; the whine of a mortar shell. What Powers does so well is strip modern warfare of its platonic distance and elitism, bringing it into line with those older depictions. As strange as it may sound, at a few points I forgot the book was set in the Iraq War in 2004 and began seeing it as a World War Two story. Powers makes his story human; he reminds us that every war, even modern high-tech ones, needs boots on the ground, and human beings to fill those boots.

As I said earlier, however, The Yellow Birds is not perfect. It starts exceptionally well, and Powers would have been well-advised to build on the strengths evident in the early chapters. In these, we learn about Bartle's psyche and outlook through his interaction with external factors; broadly speaking, the war and the various things it throws at him. Unfortunately, in later chapters Bartle monologues more on his inner feelings rather than the external things that are oppressing him. Consequently, to mirror Bartle's soul-searching, the author's prose becomes more insular. Whilst still enjoyable, it loses somewhat the bracing Hemingway-esque brevity evident early on. In fact, it becomes a bit Terrence Malick-y, a bit Thin Red Line-ish. By the end, the clear, hard-hitting messages of the early chapters had been replaced by a portrait of an abstract and labyrinthine consciousness. As it had started so well, when it started to become denser I could only come to the conclusion that the book was losing its way. This was confirmed to me by the implausible nature of Bartle and Sterling's response to Murph's death, and various other events which were inadequately resolved, such as why Bartle wrote that letter to Murph's mother.

But I choose to focus on the high points of The Yellow Birds, and they are very high indeed. Thematically, there is much one could discuss, but the hyacinth in particular make an impression. The line from the book that I quoted at the start of this review - "I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I'd had a chance to see those hyacinths I would have noticed them." - I initially associated with the character of Malik in Chapter 1, and one can indeed interpret it in this way. But when one reads that Murph's body is found "covered in a patch of lifeless hyacinth" (pp204-5), I began to re-evaluate that earlier passage: maybe it not only Malik's garden story that Bartle was referring to but in fact witnessing Murph among the patch of hyacinth. Looking at Murphy's body, he sees the hyacinths it lies in; he notices them. There is a theme of perception, of truth, of acceptance here that I have not yet resolved in my mind, but it is certainly profound and certainly deliberate on the author's part. The Yellow Birds almost makes a rod for its own back in starting off so excellently, so that the only way is down. It starts off at its peak, and diminishes in gradients towards its uneven ending. However, that initial peak is so high, so stratospheric, that even at the end of its decline it is still at a sufficient height to be regarded as a great book.

'The Monarchy' by Christopher Hitchens (1990)

The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 42pp [electronic copy]

 

A short, sharp read by the master polemicist Christopher Hitchens. It is not quite as hard-hitting and comprehensive as I would have liked, but Hitch is always refreshing to read. It's a shame he didn't write a full-length book on the topic, but in a sense he did: his problem with monarchy is similar to his problems with religion (tawdry mysticism, illusion/delusion, retards social growth, etc.), which he has discussed at length. His argument revolves largely around the constitutional poverty enabled by the British monarchy, noting its obstruction and retardation of national social maturity. But he also has time to pour his measured scorn on the fetishism (his phrase, and an apt one) of the monarchy by the British people and the media. It is actually rather depressing that the issues Hitchens identified and railed against when writing this in 1990 are still just as relevant in 2013, and perhaps have even intensified. With the royal wedding and the birth of Prince George... the sycophancy is all but unbearable. In fact, on the day that I read this book the front-page story (the front page) in The Sun tabloid was that Kate Middleton - 'Princess Kate' as she is nauseatingly (and erroneously) dubbed - has a flat stomach months after giving birth. That's the entire story. The front page.

'The Oblivion Society' by Marcus Alexander Hart (2007)

The Oblivion Society 2nd (second) edition Text Only - Marcus Alexander Hart

Marcus Alexander Hart, The Oblivion Society (New York: Permuted Press, 2007), 303pp

 

I don't really know whether I like The Oblivion Society. I realised pretty early on that I would never give it more than a three-star rating, but during the course of my reading I flip-flopped repeatedly between two- and three-star assessments. Eventually, I concluded that the bad bits of the novel outweighed the good - and there were indeed some good parts. I reasoned that, whilst I might recommend some of my other three-star-reviewed books to others on certain merits, I would not do so with The Oblivion Society as the good bits were not plentiful enough to mitigate the poor.

The characters are mostly entertaining and one or two are endearing. Vivian, the protagonist, is likeable and capable - the straight man (well, woman) foil to everyone else's comedic fools. However, she is very much a character - an avatar drawn rather than someone that leaps off the page. She is a cute, petite redhead girl with 'sexy librarian' glasses and a geeky, down-to-earth personality. The only way she could be more of a geeky guy's dream girl was if she was dressed in a Princess Leia slave bikini. Consequently, she lacks authenticity.

Of the other major characters, Bobby and Erik are rather ordinary and their geeky banter often falls flat. Sherri is a good character who has most of the best lines, and her constant aggressiveness never annoys. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Trent, a thoroughly obnoxious loudmouth jock who stinks up every scene he is in (and he is in a lot). It's not that he is badly written; it is clear that the author, Marcus Alexander Hart, chose to make him into an unlikeable asshole. The question is: why? As a reader, you don't think, "Ooh, I hope he gets his comeuppance." You just want him to fuck off. He makes reading the book a bit of a chore at times as you trudge through his scenes - it took me much longer than anticipated to finish the book as whenever I put it down I didn't really feel like picking it up again if it meant having to listen to more of "the T-Dawg, yo".

There are a fair few laughs to be had here, but most of the attempts at comedy fall flat. Too often, the author is scraping the bottom of the barrel with frat-boy sexual innuendo and banal schoolboy humour, reaching a nadir on page 181 when a character is referred to as 'Mr. Poo Poo Pants'. That said, it does have one or two peaks as well. Sherri, as I mentioned above, has a number of good lines ('torpedo tits' on page 210 and 'Sgt. Pepper' on page 212 being my favourites), although the best laugh came, surprisingly, from Erik with his 'governor of Texas' line on page 257. There are also one or two moments where Hart shows he has the potential to put together a story. There is some clever foreshadowing just before the bomb goes off ("it's not the end of the world", "nothing bad's going to happen if you just let your hair down", etc.) and the burned shadows in the aftermath of the bomb are rather creepy. There is also some decent camaraderie among the group of survivors towards the end of Chapter 11 when the dialogue all seems to click into place, and it's a real shame that Hart could not show such skill consistently.

All in all, I found The Oblivion Society to be a disappointing, rather than a bad, novel; disappointing as it occasionally shows sparks of what could have been. I was initially drawn to the book by the prospect of the survivors relying on "half-remembered pop culture" to "ride out Armageddon", as the blurb promises us. Whilst there are attempts at this, it is often discarded in favour of cheap frat-boy banter and innuendo. If the author had embraced his inner geek more when creating his dialogue and embraced it less when creating his characters (the noble geek Erik, the dream girl Vivian, etc.) then it might have been more consistently enjoyable. "Any comedy about a nuclear apocalypse is guaranteed to suck," Sherri tell us on page 272, no doubt a knowing wink to the reader from the author. The Oblivion Society doesn't suck, but it doesn't not suck either, if you get what I mean.