Category: Reviews

Review – Confronting the Classics

Posted January 5, 2015 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Confronting the Classics by Mary BeardConfronting the Classics, Mary Beard

I enjoyed Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, and I think I’ve read a couple of others, or at least seen her work cited. She’s always struck me as pretty level headed, unlikely to get carried away with conjectures, so I wasn’t really surprised by the fairly sceptical tone of most of these reviews (though I did begin to wonder if anyone, anywhere, could produce work she’d give the green light). It’s a little odd reading a book of essays that are adapted (I’m not sure how much they’ve been changed) from reviews of particular books: some of them seemed very disconnected from the books they purportedly reviewed, which worked fine in this context, but seemed a bit odd when she did start discussing the books.

It’s not just criticism of other people’s theories, although there’s a lot of it there: there’s a general survey of the literature, some discussion of issues that the study of the classics faces in general, some windows into little bits of history.

Mostly, though… it is a book about other books; a rather disparate collection, however much I might want more. The essays are fine, and I did enjoy reading it, but I didn’t feel like I really learned anything new. Just what not to believe!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Sins of the Fathers

Posted January 4, 2015 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence BlockThe Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block

It’s not that often I delve into the noir-ish side of crime, though it’s not because I have anything particular against it — the whole class of casually drinking, smoking and screwing detectives with cynical attitudes don’t repel me, whether it be Brandstetter, Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Or, in this case, Matt Scudder. It comes down to the individual detective, and in that sense, Scudder probably comes out neck and neck with Brandstetter. He’s involved in a case that seems sordid, yet he avoids making obvious conclusions and follows the facts; he’s straight, but he ends up in gay bars, talking to gay people, etc, and yet Block doesn’t seem to need to overhype Scudder’s masculinity in compensation. And despite the cynicism, Scudder tithes to local churches, keeps an open mind about people, and doesn’t judge. There’s an honesty about him, too: he takes money, but he admits it, he knows when to take it, and there’s times he’d say no.

There are things about the whole treatment of gay people that don’t come off so well, but most of it seems to be a genuine attempt to let people do their own thing and not get stuck on judging what that is. Unless you’ve killed someone, of course.

In terms of the writing, it’s not Raymond Chandler: there’s no gems where Lawrence Block wrote something in a way no one else has. It’s clean and it works, without unnecessary verbiage or prevarication. Most of the clues are given to us, though there’s one point where the thinking process is based on proper detective work in old records and stuff, and that’s less easy to bring across to the reader in a way that’s at all interesting, so that aspect was a little smudged.

Overall, I actually really enjoyed this. There are some noir detectives I don’t want to spend a minute more with — Mike Hammer, for example — but Matt seems basically decent, and never too convinced that that’s the case.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Posted January 3, 2015 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique BaubyThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby

When reviewing a book like this, do you consider the sheer effort that went into this? Every word of this was written by dictation — by Bauby blinking when the right letter came up, one letter at a time. We’re told he could only blink one eye (though that seems odd when elsewhere he mentions that he can move his head a little). Every word of this is from a strange world where the speaker can no longer move, no longer do anything physical voluntarily. All he had were his thoughts: were they worth all this effort? Can you talk about it being worth it?

I was actually recommended this when I did a Coursera course about neurobiology, and the lecturer was quite enthused. Certainly, it’s an interesting window into what it would be like to be locked in: sometimes, Bauby’s descriptions are perfect, both of the world only he can know and of the world that he lost. The feelings, the gamut of expectations, fears, depression…

At other times, the writing does seem stilted, self-pitying, or just plain away with the fairies. That’s not to belittle Bauby’s achievement, or speak ill of the dead, or anything like that. In part, I suspect some of that is because I can’t see how he could possibly have edited the book effectively. That would have to be done by others, or not done at all — where do you risk cutting a word, trimming a sentence? How could you add something he didn’t say?

And then there’s the fact that this was made into a film, and the book I read was the movie tie-in edition. That seems to make light of the whole situation, and makes me wonder things like: who gets the profits? I hope it was the charitable endeavours Bauby himself got involved with.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Wolf Hunt

Posted January 2, 2015 by in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Wolf Hunt by Gillian BradshawThe Wolf Hunt, Gillian Bradshaw
Review from 1st February, 2013

I was initially excited when I saw that this was based on the Breton lai ‘Bisclaveret’. I studied that lai in my first year of university, and I’ve had cause to go back to it fairly often since, and I rather like it. Perhaps especially because of the inevitable LGBT reading of it: it’s homosocial at the least, and then the other details make it very easy to read it as a homosexual love story. Bisclaveret is betrayed by his wife, and ultimately everything is set to rights by the king, who loves him very much — and the story includes a scene where Bisclaveret sleeps in the king’s bed… If you want to read more about that analysis, I suggest William Burgwinkle’s Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature.

Anyway, so I was very disappointed when I looked closer and found that this story de-queers the original lai. It invents a whole new character, Marie, to be Bisclaveret’s ‘real’ love interest. I was much less inclined to let myself enjoy this, at that point.

But Gillian Bradshaw has a way of coaxing me along anyway, and I found myself reading big chunks at once. She really is a good writer, and ultimately I found it just as compelling as the other books I’ve read by her, despite my initial resistance. The lai still limits her, in some ways — Marie Penthièvre would be a wonderful heroine, but often we’re limited to Eline and her paramour Alain, neither of whom exactly fill me with warmth. I felt like there was an attempt to understand Eline, at times, but what she did just made it impossible to like her — and Marie’s understanding of her made Marie seem ridiculously saintly.

But for the most part I loved the characters: Marie, the duke, the duchess, Tiher… Even minor characters. Tiarnán, less so, because he makes a silly mistake of judgement when it comes to women. But he does learn from what happens to him, it seems.

Looking forward to the other Gillian Bradshaw books I’ve got on my to read pile.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Unnatural Death

Posted January 1, 2015 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. SayersUnnatural Death, Dorothy L. Sayers

Starting the New Year with a Sayers review? Yes, please.

So Unnatural Death is maybe not the best in terms of the convoluted plot, the number of characters, etc, because it’s not one of the most personal stories for Lord Peter. On the other hand, you do get to see Peter again treating it a little like a hobby, a curiosity, and then having to face the consequences of his ego. And there’s a lot of Miss Climpson, too; not as much as one of the later books, but enough to show that she’s a really great character — her letters with their underlinings and italicising are hilarious.

The murder method is pretty good for this one, though, really: I wouldn’t guess it if I wasn’t familiar with an NCIS episode where there are a couple of killings done the same way, and yet it’s simple and obvious once you know what it is.

So not my favourite, but it does work and come together beautifully.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Posted December 31, 2014 by in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillipThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillip

Somehow, from the midst of feeling dreadful because of this cold, I realised that what I really wanted to read was something by Patricia McKillip. It’s so strange how I disliked the first book of hers I read; I feel like I appreciate her work more with each book I do read. And this one… it’s fairytale-like, mythic — a review on GR said ‘parable like’, and yes: that too. It’s full of epic fantasy elements but the real struggle is between taking revenge and being true to who you really are and those you love. (The phrase “being true to yourself” sounds annoyingly cliché, but I can’t think of another way to put that without quoting the whole book.)

McKillip’s writing is gorgeous, and works well with the character she’s chosen — a girl who has not been loved, does not know how to love; who hasn’t been among people to be drawn into loves and hatreds. And in the course of the book she does learn, and she struggles with it… There’s a coolness to the book, like a mountain stream; an aloofness that you can get with distance from something, but toward everything. I can understand why some people disliked it for that very thing, but for me it perfectly matched the subject.

I like high fantasy, but since so much of it draws from the same well as Tolkien, there’s something all too real about it sometimes. This book, the character of Sybel, are closer to real magic for me, in the same way that the contemplative parts of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books (the sleeping man with the thistle growing by his hand…) come closer to real magic for me than all the magic rings and restless shades in the world.

And one last thing to love: I adore the way that the relationship between Coren and Sybel works out. That it has to be worked on, from both sides, that it’s not always matched.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Missing Ink

Posted December 30, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Missing Ink by Philip HensherThe Missing Ink, Philip Hensher

I wanted to like this, not least because I bought my mother a hardback copy a while ago because of her interest in all things pen, ink and handwriting. However, after spending most of my time reading it constructing a properly scathing review — if you’re going to complain about someone’s grammar, try not doing so by saying they know “eff-all”; don’t disagree with people just by calling their opinion “crap”; some diversity of vocabulary in general would be nice, you hypocritical snob — I decided I’d just gently put it down. It doesn’t help that I’m very much not the right audience: you can’t get someone to join in a funeral dirge for a lost art of handwriting when they write notes on paper to their grandmother nearly every morning, letters to their mother semi-regularly, keep their accounts in red pen in a book, and own at least a dozen fountain pens.

It doesn’t help that my mother writes and receives several handwritten letters a day, handwrites her diary, and is a moderator at The Fountain Pen Network.

A lot of what he says is true. Typing is taking over; a text may be more convenient than a hand-written note; teachers probably don’t spend a few lessons a week on handwriting. Still, a friend of mine who’s going to be a teacher is carefully trying to improve her handwriting to set a better example; I have two boxes full of letters between me and my partner, me and my parents, me and various friends, etc, etc. I think he’s seeing a confirmation bias: he wants handwriting to be a lost art, so he finds the evidence he’s looking for — and is a snob along the way about grammar and vocabulary, while his is itself pretty woeful.

Plus, if he could’ve avoided snide comments about butch hairstyles and fat girls with “obese handwriting”, I might’ve liked him better.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Mutilation of the Herms

Posted December 29, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of the The Mutilation of the Herms by Debra HamelThe Mutilation of the Herms, Debra Hamel

This is a short ebook which summarises the written evidence about a curious event that happened in Athens in 415 BC. It might be tempting to dismiss the mutilated statues of Hermes as a drunken prank, but the people of Athens took it extremely seriously. It’s important to remember that at that time religion was a big part of life; it isn’t just like a gang going round and defacing images of Christ, which seems in poor taste but not (for most people) much of a threat. More like a nuisance. But people were executed for involvement with the mutilation of the Herms, and a related issue involving the Eleusinian Mysteries.

This is more summary of the evidence than analysis, but it’s accessible and (to someone like me who will dip into all sorts of random areas of knowledge, at least) interesting. It’s a mystery that still exercises the minds of classical scholars: why mutilate the Herms? Was it just a prank? Was it a political statement? To me, given the issues with performances of the Eleusinian Mysteries for the uninitiated that were happening at the time, it seems to be linked to a more religious than political kind of unrest, but of course the two were more deeply linked then…

All in all, I suspect Debra Hamel and other classicists are more likely to solve the mystery than people reading a short ebook on it, so perhaps I should keep my opinions to myself. But it is interesting to read about, and this ebook made it accessible for anyone, with plenty of information on where to follow up for those who want to go to the sources or read other analyses.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-earth

Posted December 28, 2014 by in Reviews / 5 Comments

Maps of Tolkien's Middle-EarthThe Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, John Howe, Brian Sibley

This is a gorgeous bit of work: a slipcase with a hardcover book of information on the making of the maps and what they depict, and a book-cover type folder which contains the four maps, folded up but completely separate (so if you wanted to frame and mount them, that’d be possible). It’s a beautiful collection, and the book itself is gorgeous too. The type-set is the same as most copies of The Hobbit I’ve seen, which I liked, and the layout too. Various illustrations — sketches and full colour — are included, with Brian Sibley describing the events and locations on each of the four maps.

It’s not hugely informative if you’re familiar with the geography and history of Middle-earth, but looking at things laid out like this can be different, and it’s a gorgeous collection, too.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Tolkien: A Dictionary

Posted December 27, 2014 by in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Tolkien: A Dictionary by David DayTolkien: A Dictionary, David Day

I may love Tolkien’s worlds, but my knowledge isn’t encyclopaedic. I didn’t read this cover to cover — I’m sure some people would, but it’s not the kind of thing I enjoy — but it strikes me as a good encyclopaedia for the world (less a dictionary, I think: it’s not just about the etymology and meaning of words, or even mostly) and a good reference, especially for those who find things like genealogies and far off cities difficult. It’s a well presented book, too: faux-leather, with an embossed cover and nice pages, some illustrations included, and the maps on the endpapers.

Just flicking through it, I’d find myself drawn in and reading an entry or two in whole: the one on dragons spans several pages, for example. It covers a lot of the more obscure stuff, from The Silmarillion and beyond; I’m not sure how much it draws on Tolkien’s unpublished papers, given the difficulty of figuring out what is meant to be canonical. I’ll update this if I ever find out definitively.

Rating: 5/5

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