Book review time

#blogjune has been spotty, but I have at least gotten some ideas that I want to write about. So, as long as I actually write them, it’s not been a waste.

I have tried to review every book that I’ve read this year, even if it’s only a line or two. Not that I’ve managed that, either.

Treachery at Lancaster Gate (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt, #31)Treachery at Lancaster Gate by Anne Perry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An interesting story – five police officers are given a tip-off about a possible opium deal. Rushing to the house, a bomb explodes, killing two and grievously wounding the other three. The bomber seems to be an addict revenging himself on behalf of a friend he believed falsely accused and hanged for the shooting of a bystander in an arrest gone wrong.

A fundamentally interesting story about possible police corruption (with strong modern resonances) is marred by Pitt’s long internal monologues. The dialogue, replete with an excess of exclamation marks and a tendency for characters to have ‘exclaimed’ rather than rely on the old ‘he said/she said), tended to come across as a preachy tirade. Consequently, the story felt poorly paced.

This was especially evident at the denouement – which look place in the courtroom – at which point the story ended. There was no sense of how the characters might react to how the events unfolded, nothing to tie the story up.

Fans of the series may also be disappointed that some of the characters that were more central in previous stories are reduced to cameo performances. This is the bare bones of an interesting story that felt rushed to meet deadlines.

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Audio books and reading #blogjune

So, apart from semantics, is listening to an audiobook the same as reading? The question is only important to me because I set myself a Goodreads target each year, and some of those are audiobooks. Given that I do about 15-16 hours of commuting per week, at also means a lot less time to kick back and read with my eyes.

As you might expect reading with the eyes affects the brain slightly differently to reading with one’s ears. According to Eric Jaffe, we are more easily distracted when we listen. Indeed, it seems that if you’re eye-reading, you concentrate better when you read out aloud. I don’t especially like ear-reading while doing other things so that I don’t get distracted. This includes driving in traffic – I’d much rather listen to the radio.  Most of my driving is on country roads with little traffic, so really it’s a case of watching out for the odd kangaroo.

I had a cassette recorder as a kid and can remember borrowing things like Kipling’s Just So Stories, plugging in an ear jack, and listening away after it was time to turn out the lights. So I find something quite comforting in being read to. And, while eye-reading lets you imagine speech, intonation, and so on, a masterful reader can spice things up wonderfully.

And our stories once were told orally. These guys have a short podcast on what the differences between ear-reading and eye-reading, and why the former isn’t a short-cut.

 

Tonight I start first-time ear-reading of an old favourite.

 

 

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In January 1830, Agnes Magnúsdóttir became the last person executed in Iceland. She was accused, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir, of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson (the former her employer) in March 1828. Of the three, only Agnes and Fridrik were executed. Sigrídur’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Copenhagen. It was presumed that her youthfulness made her suggestible and thus influenced by the others.This story is of her final months with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson.

Kent’s prose is sparse, befitting the setting. The District Commissioner and one of his servants are distinguished simply by their coats; ‘bright red’ for the former, and ‘worn’ for the latter. One can readily imagine the fierce winds whipping across the skins used to cover windows.

Written alternately in the third and first persons, some readers might feel some disorientation moving between modes. But it is well handled in Kent’s deft prose. Reading Burial Rites gives you the sense of a writer in command of their craft. This impression is confirmed by the research that the author has undertaken. While the work is obviously an imagining of Agnes’ thoughts (and of what really happened), it is clear that much research has informed the writer’s views. What I also found particularly impressive was that, though there was a lot of knowledge behind the writing, the writing never became a display tableau for it.

In general, the characters are well drawn. The District Commissioner is not simply keen for the executions to serve as a deterrent to the district’s peasants (though he is certainly that). He expresses a desire for the islanders to share the modernisation enjoyed in Denmark, for example by having glass windows. The Assistant Priest’s attraction to his charge is deftly drawn. If I were to level one criticism, it would simply be that we don’t feel the antagonism towards Agnes felt by most of the Jónsson family (in particular). While we slowly see the relationships between them thaw, we don’t feel the revelation that they did. Instead, we feel that she cannot be guilty of murder, and simply await the truth to be revealed.

What we have here is a wonderfully told story of a woman whose own was ignored. Though I have only given it 4 stars, it deserves 4.9 out of 5. It is a story that you should hear.

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Review – Murder by Absolution

Absolution by Murder (Sister Fidelma, #1)Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sister Fidelma, an Irish nun, travels with a party of coreligionists to Whitby Abbey. There, a Synod is to be held presided over by Oswy, Saxon King of Northumbria. At stake is which set of rites, Celtic or Roman, the kingdom will follow. At issue is the form of clerical tonsure and the dating of Easter. When the Abbess Étaín, the leading speaker for the Celtic faction, is murdered Fidelma must investigate the crime.

An advocate in the Irish Brehon Court, she is well suited for her task. But Oswy, known to favour the Celts, must be impartial. She must work with Brother Eadulf, a Saxon from the Roman faction. As their investigations proceed and as the Synod continues, more murders threaten to plunge Northumbria into civil war.

There is much to like about this first work in the series. The clash of Irish and Saxon cultures maintain a dynamic tension through the work and while Fidelma is a more rounded character Eadulf is certainly not two dimensional.

Peter Tremayne (the pen name of Peter Beresford Ellis) is a Celtic scholar, and it shows in the detail that he brings to the work. Unfortunately, at times, it reads like an anti-Roman polemic. But, though it’s in the third person, the novel is clearly told from Fidelma’s point of view. Also, as her working relationship with Eadulf strengthens, Fidelma comes to appreciate (though still not necessarily agree with) the perspective that he brings.

I found the clues a little telegraphed, having guessed the guilty party less than half way through the book. However, the political intrigues stop it from being too predictable. If you like this period of history then this should be a series worthy of your consideration.

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Goodreads Challenge 5/65 – Barbarians

Another Goodreads review – this time Terry Jones and Alan Ereira’s Barbarians. I’m planning a novel set in the late Roman Empire, so this year’s challenge will have a lot of Roman stuff. Apologies for those of you uninterested in things Roman. Blame Goscinny and Uderzo. It’s all their fault. Also, while I seem to be crawling along with my reading, it’s the reviewing that’s taking the time. I will try to speed up, or at least not go on so much.

Enjoy your reading, folks!

Terry Jones' BarbariansTerry Jones’ Barbarians by Terry Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barbarians is a revisionist retelling of Rome’s relationship with the peoples it came into contact with, that the Romans called ‘barbarians’. It seeks to show that these peoples were not ‘barbaric’ in the way that we understand the term today.

Jones and Ereira have not so much written a history as a sustained polemic. It begins by listing the things that we associate with Roman greatness: roads, laws, the Julian calendar. Also listed is the chariot. Unfortunately, I never got to study Latin at school, but no-one that I know with an interest in the period would consider the chariot as something peculiarly Roman. They going on to (correctly) talk about Caesar’s encounter with chariots during his two invasions of Britain. He noted that they were sturdy and aggressively driven. But here they are almost elevated to the status of a wonder weapon. This is ironic because the Romans were unfamiliar with the chariot as a weapon of war because they went out of use as a weapon of war elsewhere hundreds of years earlier. They were good for moving men swiftly to battle, but an effective weapon of war they were not.

This is doubly ironic because the information about their use comes to us from Caesar. Yet Caesar is derided as an unreliable chronicler of the Gauls because he described the elk as a creature that slept standing because their legs have no joints (a story he got from the Germans). It’s true that Caesar is not someone to take at his word. Why do so here?

There is lots of distinctly wobbly interpretations. They describe the quite sophisticated laws of the Celts, and note that Roman and Celtic law served different societies. No argument there. But Roman law was not based around paterfamilias, though it was an important component of it. It was largely to regulate property relations, though, like the Celts, there were also many laws that regulated socio-political functions. It’s doubtful that Archimedes’s mirror that could burn ships was actually deployed. The issue is not so much that the mirror couldn’t be built, but that it would likely be ineffective against a target that moves.

It’s also unlikely that Rome set back civilisation hundreds and hundreds of years because of the inventions that it effectively quashed. It’s true that the Romans did not make use of the many inventions that came out of the Greek world in the second and first centuries BC (and they list some of these). But the rulers of Rome, like the rulers of societies around then, made their wealth from exploiting slave labour. At the height of its power, some historians estimate that for every Athenian citizen there were three slaves (of course this doesn’t count women and foreigners). The inventions that they laud might have taken off at some point, but it’s likely that there would need to have been social upheaval within those societies for those devices to replace slave labour, rather than being a supplement.

It might seem from the above that this book isn’t worth reading, but this isn’t the case. I would say that the faults that they ascribe to the Romans are true. But they weren’t exclusive to the Romans. The Romans succeeded, and the others did not. Because there is much that they get right that often isn’t told. The dynamism of the middle-late Republic and early Empire was based on its success. Economic growth in the ancient world tended to be extrinsic rather than intrinsic. That is, your economy grew fastest by nick stuff from someone else. For Rome, military triumphs brought treasure and slaves into the economy. Once the Empire stopped expanding, inflation took hold. By the fifth century the city stopped being the administrative and economic focus for the elites, which doomed the state as the burden of tax shifted downwards.

This is not so much a history as a sustained polemic. Rome is cudgelled for killing cultural diversity, yet the end of the West is surely at least in part the result of different socio-cultural milieus going their own way? This book may annoy, but it remains thought provoking, and that surely was its purpose. In one sense, it’s a survey of all the peoples of the Mediterranean and Near East. No, the Romans were not universally good guys. But other peoples were not either. Some of Rome’s heritage is surely worthwhile. I am still in awe when I visit Bath or the Pantheon.

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2014 Reading Challenge 2/65 – My Life in France (Julia Child)

The first two books for the year are both re-reads. Both well worth multiple reads, as it happens. I first read this twelve months ago and was captivated. We bought a second copy while on holidays (I must check when we get home to see whether we indeed already own a copy). No matter. It was worth the read. We got this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, a place that you must visit if you like second-hand books. It’s on the left bank, close to good food and the Notre Dame cathedral. They are also very hospitable and helpful.

Below is the original Goodreads review with a second reading postscript.

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having seen Julie and Julia, this was bound to end up on the reading pile sooner or later. Happily, it was sooner, for this cleverly crafted biography was worth every minute that was spent reading it.

Though really focusing on one slice of Paul and Julia Child’s life, it is soon apparent that the slice devoted to France was considerable indeed. From her first sole meunière at Rouen in 1948, Paul child and France remained her lifelong loves.

Though this book will appeal to the culinary set, it is a wide-ranging snap-shot of post-war France. The parade of characters include chefs such as Bugnard, and gourmands such as the eccentric Curnonsky. The Prince des Gastronomes adopted his pseudonym having covered a feast for the Russian royal family in Paris in the mid-1890s. Though a brilliant article, the author was unknown. His solution was the Russian-sounding pen-name. His reputation remained undimmed until his death in Paris in 1956.

Child is refreshingly forthright in her opinions, and doesn’t shrink from self-praise. Her indignation at failing at her first attempt to gain her certificate from Le Cordon Bleu almost makes the book shake in one’s hands as she lists her accomplishments. But it is deserving. Her optimism despite the stumbling blocks thrown across her husband’s career and the difficulties in publishing what would become Mastering the art of French cooking are simply so many obstacles to overcome.

Her love for Paul Child is manifest, and softens the few hard edges that that Julia shows. A talented artist, Paul joined the OSS during the Second World War (he met Julia working in Sri Lanka). Both Democrats, Paul was viewed with suspicion and, during the McCarthy witch-hunts was recalled to Washington and questioned about his political beliefs. His support for her projects was invaluable, and it was he who suggested that she should work in television (a remarkable observation as they hadn’t seen one at the time).

Enthusiasm for life and all that it offers, for good and ill, is the thread that holds this book together. Published posthumously in 2006, this is simply a wonderful piece of biographical writing.

Postscript – we picked up a second copy of this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris. If you get to Paris, visit them. They are very hospitable.

On thing that struck me again is how important a part of culture food is. I love visiting France because eating good food (and making the time to do so) is still seen as important (I love Italy for the same reason). This is not to say that all the food that you buy in France is great. But I suspect (but cannot prove) that it’s generally better that that consumed in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As I write this we are in Bayeux and most businesses are closed from 12:00-14:00. Perfectly civilsed. I have nothing against sandwiches (I love a good sandwich), but I dislike our modern preoccupation with food as something to get through. At work, we often feel that we have no choice (and many don’t). We are the poorer for it.

The other thing that came through the book is that the French, their reputation notwithstanding, are very polite and usually friendly. My wife saw a staff member at the Bayeux tourism office being extremely patient with an elderly Canadian gentlemen. The French also value politeness highly. It’s important to say ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ when you enter a business. Politeness to people who serve us our food or our services is also something of an anachronism in the Anglo-Saxon world, and again we are the poorer for it.

Not that France or the French are perfect. Julia’s description of the drawn out bureaucratic nightmare that constituted their efforts to get a telephone are still a feature of modern French life. If you have to encounter the French bureaucracy, roll with the punches. And be polite. You may be the better for it.

At one point, Julia exclaims that she must be French and no one had previously informed her of this fact. I concur wholeheartedly.

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Five books meme continued…

Keep the meme ideas up, folks. My brain dun emptied at the moment……

1. The book I’m currently reading:

I have two on the go at the moment. The first is Behind the Thistle (David Barnes and Peter Burns) and is a series of interviews wih over 70 former Scots international rugby representatives. This belongs to a friend of mine, and I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve had it for a long time. I’d like to give it back to him before his birthday in July. The other is Soldier of the Mist (Gene Wolfe) – the story of Latro, a Roman mercenary who fought in the army of Xerxes at Plataea. Suffering a blow to the head, he cannot remember his name, or what happened the previous day, so he writes down his experiences on a scroll. In addition, he can see gods, mytical creatures and ghosts. it’s and interesting experience seeing characters regularly re-drawn as Latro is forced to re-construct his world each morning.

2. The last book I finished:

Lion of the Sun (Harry Sidebottom) – third in the Lion of the Sun series. The central character is an Angle who has adopted the name Ballista (and partly based on a historical character) and has taken service in the Roman army. Set during the civil wars that wracked the empire during the 3rd century, Ballista gets caught up in the ensuing political intrigues. He begins this nobook a prisoner of the Persian king Shapur, and becomes (briefly) emperor of east. Lots of gritty military type activity, though there are a number of repetitive formulations that tire when you hear them for the umpteenth time.

3. The next book I want to read:

As I usually have 2-3 on the go at once, I’m going to mention 2. The first is Bringing the Water (Moya Costello and Barry Westburg). This is something that I’ve borrowed from the campus I’m studying at. It’s billed as ‘new writing from South Australia’, and no doubt was in 1993. The other is Jamaica Inn (Daphne du Maurier) – my wife bought a copy of this some time ago, and I’ve been meaning to get around to it but its always managed to slip off the pile.

4. The last book I bought:

The last new book was the previously mentioned Lion of the Sun (Harry Sidebottom). The last second-hand book was Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion.

5. The last book I was given:

It may have been A Corner of a Foreign Field – An Indian History of a British Sport (Ramachandra Guha) or My Reading Life (Bob Carr)