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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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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Adjusting to Paris: a Goodreads review

A Family in Paris: Stories of Food, Life and AdventureA Family in Paris: Stories of Food, Life and Adventure by Jane Paech
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For many, the thought of living overseas is the dream of a lifetime. Make that location Paris and heads fill with thoughts of food, romance and fine living. Jane Paech did that for six years with her family, and their experiences were chronicled A Family in Paris: stories of food, life and adventure.

Chronicled is perhaps not the right word, for the book is thematic rather than strictly sequential. The chapter titles reflect the author’s feelings for this magical city. After the first heady impressions of ‘we’re living’ in Paris’, disillusion sets in as Paris reveals herself, warts and all. The warts are often a spectacularly unhelpful bureaucracy. Added to that is the pain of trying to adjust to a very different set of assumptions. Finding an apartment takes on a whole new meaning when you have provide your own bench tops, doors and ovens. Waiting for weeks for your husband’s employer to approve you buying these things, and a comical (to the reader, but certainly not to the protagonists) back-and-forth battle with the local IKEA to get them fitted would make most of us want to pack our bags and head homewards.

Perhaps the hardest part of any relocation is adjusting to the locals. I may never get used to South Australians meeting newcomers invariably asking which school one attended. In Paris, it’s important to learn that when going to dinner, to be a little late, but not too much. More formal occasions demand that guests don’t begin drinking until everyone’s arrived. In Australia, you’d never find that people respond to ‘we must have you around for dinner sometime’ with ‘thanks, but we have too many friends already’. But Paech’s book reminds us that living overseas broadens our horizons. Australian vague offers of dinner can be a politeness not followed through with because those offering most likely already have more friends than they can fit into their busy schedules. I know several newcomers to these shores that have taken such vague offerings at face value and have been disappointed when the proffered (and, at the time sincerely meant) get-togethers didn’t materialise. Perhaps Australians place a high priority on making new acquaintances feel at ease, and Parisians letting them know how things stand. Which social practice is better?

The discussion of French education also revealed fascinating divergences in practice. Elder daughter Annabelle found the adjustment from Australian to French education extremely difficult. Teachers often ridiculed students in a way that would be considered bullying here. But French students quite often finish school with a superb knowledge of their own language and culture that makes learning other languages easier. At the end of the book, Paech quotes her daughters’ views on the differences. In short, Australia praises kids and tells them that anything is possible; in France, they recognise this isn’t possible and try to make students resilient.

This work is not a critique of Parisian society. It is a finely textured personal examination of cultural adjustment. It like a series of love letters revealing the highs and lows of a complex but rewarding relationship. We feel Jane’s emotional jolt when finally the time comes to leave. The finale resembles a poignant visit to an old lover. Everything remains largely the same, but is veiled by the past. Add to this the lovely photography that not merely illustrates but adds to the depth of the text and you have a lovely book worth lingering over.

If you are after a travel book, this may not suit you, though there is a lot of useful travel information within. If you prefer sequential narratives, you might find this work a little off-putting. If you are interested in the problems and delights of cultural immersion, you simply must read it. I found Paech’s book exquisitely delightful. But then, I am biased for, of course, I love Paris as well.

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