Category Archives: Book Review

Review of ‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris.

Harris breathes life into the world of late-republican Rome in a taut tale narrated through Tiro, scribe to the greatest orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero. In an effort of the imagination, the author brings us Tiro’s lost biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman, with this being the first volume of a trilogy which charts his rise to power as consul. The names of many of the leading characters in this book – Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey – will be familiar to those with an interest in this period of history, and it is through his vivid portrayal of their rivalries, scheming, and politicking, that we are permitted to play the role of disinterested spectators, although no reader could surely feel anything but antipathy towards such monstrous specimens of humanity as Verres and Catalina.  

Key to Cicero’s rise are his eloquence, sharp wit, and sheer political nous, and Harris ensures that certain enduring features of electoral politics – corruption, compromise, and emotional demagoguery, amongst many others – are also given centre stage, with parallels being alluded to with respect to the politics of the early 21st-century. Harris, being a former prominent supporter of the Labour Party, would appear to be drawing certain parallels between Cicero and another then ambitious young lawyer who had become Prime Minister in 1997 – Tony Blair. 

Pompey’s war on the pirates is also made something of a metaphor for the ‘War on Terror’, although in many ways it is but a poor comparison, for pirates possess no motivating ideology other than that of predatory self-serving greed. Islamism, on the other hand, is a coherent, albeit irrational, ideology, as well as a protean and existential threat, springing up hydra-like with the backing of vast reservoirs of funding from certain wealthy Arab regimes that are allegedly our ‘friends’. If anything, this latter fact serves to demonstrate the eternal perverting influence of vast sums of money on the political process, bringing to mind an image of the figure of the current incumbent of the White House swaying, sword in hand, in unison with the flowing-robed moneyed interests of his Arabian companions, whilst denouncing the very ideology that they propagate. In many respects, Trump resembles Crassus, albeit a far less intelligent version of the latter: a cynical plutocrat, willing to purchase the votes of the plebs to satisfy his own vanity. O tempora! O mores! Everything changes, and yet it remains the same. I look forward to reading the next two volumes in this trilogy.

Review of ‘Thursbitch’ by Alan Garner

Garner’s novel is a curious affair, and all the better for it. Compact, and spare in its prose, it manages to pack much into the generously-spaced text of its 158 pages. Interweaving two periods and two sets of characters united by a single space – the eponymous Pennine valley of the title – he creates a tale in which the landscape becomes a place of enchantment, possessed of an atmosphere dense enough to hold the imprint of memories of lives and events long since passed.  

It opens with a packman and his train of horses amidst a snowstorm on an open hillside track in 1755, and it was thanks to a short and enigmatic inscription in memory of this John Turner, that Garner’s imagination set to work in crafting this piece of prose. Turner died in that storm, and but for that bare fact and mention of the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow by his side, nothing more concrete is known. Garner’s creative imagining provides the reader with a plausible character and tale behind the name, embedded within a local community linked by his wanderings to the outside world, but resolutely insular, and minded to observe its own customs and ways. Pagan echoes resound about the valley of Thursbitch, its eighteenth-century inhabitants thinking nothing of their mushroom-induced hallucinogenic rites, which with its sacrificial climax brings to mind the imagery of Mithras slaying the bull. They speak in dialect, faithfully rendered and richly textured, that some readers may not find to their taste. To my mind, however, it lends the tale an authenticity that it would otherwise lack.  

The lives of these characters somehow intersect with those of an academic with a penchant for geology, and her friend, a Catholic priest, who live on the cusp of the twenty-first century. They too are enamoured with Thursbitch, but they are transitory visitors, rather than residents, who tread its paths for leisure rather than trade. A vessel fashioned from Blue John, that tumbles from above and through time, brings their worlds into contact, and fleeting glimpses suggest that the span of the years has been bridged on more than one occasion.  

It is a tale of love and death, and the nature of time, place, and enchantment. The lives of both ‘couples’ is ultimately marred by loss, but Thursbitch, and their attachment to it, remains, seemingly, outside of time itself. An enchanting read.

Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories’

Book titles are sometimes misleading, perhaps no more so than in this instance, for the stories contained in this volume were not penned by Dahl, but selected by him as being exemplary pieces within the genre. That said, I was aware of this fact when I received this as a welcome Christmas present, so was not disappointed with its content. Dahl’s only contribution is in the form of an introductory essay, which outlines how he came to be tasked with selecting a number of ghost stories for adaptation for a US television series many years ago; this also outlines his thoughts on what makes a good ghost story.  

As with any selection of tales, the reader’s enjoyment will, to at least a certain extent, be conditioned by the coincidence, or otherwise, of his or her taste with that of the editor. In this instance, Dahl lets us know that he’s a very picky reader by stating that he managed to find only two dozen genuinely good stories amongst the 749 that he read for this project, fourteen of which are published between these covers. Luckily for me, there seems to have been a considerable overlap between my taste and that of the editor in this instance, for of the fourteen, I found eleven of them quite gripping.  

Strangely, not all of these tales are ghost stories, but they are nonetheless all possessed of a heavy dose of the uncanny. Two of the best are the introductory and closing tales, the first of which – W.S. by L.P. Hartley – features not a ghost, but an author’s creation come to life to seek an audience with his maker. It is a humorous piece, but unsettling all the same, and got me thinking as to which of my own characters I would not much relish meeting. Authors beware!  

The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford, manages to elicit a frisson of nautical terror accompanied by the salty stench and decay of something that has momentarily escaped the depths of Davy Jones’s Locker. Other spirits that stalk the pages of this book are possessed of a most malign intent, such as the eponymous character in A.M. Burrage’s The Sweeper, and the felt-hatted visitor in Edith Wharton’s Afterward, but others – such as the shade in Cynthia Asquith’s The Corner Shop, – are of a more benign disposition. 

Overall, this book makes for a satisfying and rewarding read for those whose tastes incline more towards the traditional ghost story, but would probably not satisfy anyone who favours gore and breathless action-driven narrative. I would have given this volume five stars, but for the inclusion of Elias and Draug by Jonas Lie, which was not a ghost story, and by Dahl’s own admission, not a very good translation from the Norwegian. 

In the mood for some fresh shivers? Here are a couple of new ghostly works that you may find to your taste.

Review: ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James

Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.   

Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.  

So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.   

As for my own offerings within this genre, well, they naturally pale in comparison, but his understated approach is something that I have sought to adhere to in the likes of At Fall of Night, The Ghost of Scarside Beck, and Old Crotchet.

Review of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions

Detail from Wilhelm List’s ‘Transfiguration of St Elizabeth’

This is the most famous and highly rated of Onions’s stories, as well the first one that I have read in a weighty 657-page anthology of his ghostly tales. When any story, book, or film is spoken of so highly, I harbour a fear that I will be disappointed in what I find when I come to encounter that work, but in this instance, my apprehension proved to be misplaced. Then again, I must own that my misgivings of this type are generally attached to contemporary works, where marketing budgets are apt to skew the judgement of critics and public alike. As The Beckoning Fair One was first introduced to a general readership before the First World War, and continues to be recognised as a classic of its genre, it can be fairly assumed that it possesses merit, and that the passing of time has winnowed out those productions of lesser talents that have proved unworthy of a lengthy posterity. 

Although this may be a tale of a haunted house, it is of a subtle and understated kind, in which the building itself takes on as much of a personality as any of the human characters written into the story. The reader knows from the outset that it has remained long uninhabited before its protagonist – the author Paul Oleron – takes up residence there, and is thus curious, as is Oleron, as to why this should have been so. At first, he finds it a perfectly charming abode, although it has an immediate stultifying impact upon his creativity. He finds himself doubting the worth of the novel that he is working upon, particularly the merits of its central character, Romilly, who happens to be based upon a close female friend of his. Alas, it is not long before these doubts extend to his regard for the character of this friend – Elsie Bengough – whom he eventually comes to shun, despite her love for him. It would seem that it is the house, or something within it, that drives the two apart, causing him to despise her, and from the first moment that she sets foot in it, she voices the opinion that he will find it impossible to work whilst he lives there. This concern he dismisses out of hand, but that there is a latent antipathy within its structure towards his friend soon becomes apparent, owing to a couple of freakish accidents that she experiences during her visit.  

For anyone who has ever written a novel, or attempted to, Oleron’s doubts concerning the worth of his literary creation, as well as his resultant creative paralysis, will strike many a chord. Hopefully, however, that is where any element of self-recognition and identification with the character and his situation should end, as it is one that proves to be deeply disturbing, and unsettling. The novella builds slowly to a nausea-inducing denouement, in which the protagonist descends into squalor and disintegration, but as to whether the horror that is encountered in these pages derives from some presence within the building, or within the psyche of Oleron himself, is left for the reader to adjudge.

Review: ‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’ by M.R. James

Rocky Valley Labyrinth, Cornwall

This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.  

Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:  

‘The rich man in his castle,

the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

and ordered their estate’ 

I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader. 

This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.

‘The Essex Serpent’: a Case of ‘Colonitis’

This book is beautifully packaged. Its cover is adorned with sumptuous bucolic imagery through which wends the form of a green serpent, which together with its intriguing title proves sufficient to lure many a reader into making a purchase. Time and time again it has been said that both a book’s title and its cover are pivotal to its success, and given the enviable sales that the author has enjoyed with ‘The Essex Serpent’, these observations would appear, in this case, to have been borne out. But what of the book itself? What of its content? Does this prove to be equally beguiling? 

It cannot be denied that Sarah Perry has a talent for description: much of it, especially where she is describing the landscape, possessing a beautiful and evocative quality that makes Nature itself a character. It also cannot be denied that she has a passion for colons bordering upon an obsession, which lends much of her prose a distinctly idiosyncratic quality. Now, before proceeding I must make it clear that I do not number amongst those who would relegate the colon, or its much maligned sibling the semi-colon, to the dustbin; but I am of the opinion that the author should know when, and where, they should be used. Ms Perry, irrespective of her doctorate ‘in creative writing from Royal Holloway’, appears not to know how to judiciously employ these helpful pieces of punctuation, and ought to, to borrow one of her own favoured words, use them more ‘parsimoniously’ in her prose. Moreover, both her proofreader and publisher should receive a severe dressing down for the nonsensical sentence that appears at the end of the penultimate paragraph on page 49.  

Mud, cakes, macaroons and dresses are all described in minute and loving detail –repeatedly – so much so that ‘Mud, Cakes and Macaroons’ might make an equally apposite title for this volume, for they feature far more frequently in this meandering tale than the eponymous serpent that is notable throughout for its absence. Its presence slithers unseen through the undergrowth of dense prose, as elusive as any semblance of plot.  

Her protagonist – Cora Seaborne – proved unsympathetic, as well as possessed of a certain self-important petulance that rankled. From the book’s description, I had been anticipating an intriguing novel of ideas, in which Seaborne’s scientific worldview parried with that of the Aldwinter vicar William Ransome, as well as a tale in which folklore featured rather more prominently than it did. Instead, it struck me as being a sluggish piece of chick lit crafted for a more educated readership than is usually the case with this genre, that whilst often beautifully written, possessed an underdeveloped plot that seemed to peter out. If its length had been trimmed by a third, its sense of drift might have been supplanted by some semblance of momentum.   

The opening passages of this novel promised much, but upon finishing the book I felt as if I had been struggling through the oft-described mud only to find that the ill-defined form that I had pursued throughout had faded into the mist; vanished into nothingness. In place of a sense of satisfaction, its ending brought a feeling of a certain emptiness, and no desire to read anything further that this author may publish. A pity.     

Book Review: ‘Heresy’ by S.J. Parris.

Parris’s novels – Tudor murder mysteries – have often been bracketed with those of C.J. Sansom, but although the work of both authors may be united by genre and setting, there the similarities – at least for me – end. I find Parris to be the more engaging writer by far, for her prose is brisker than Sansom’s, and her protagonist more sympathetic.    

Set during the reign of Elizabeth I, this novel introduces us to Parris’s fictionalised Giordano Bruno, a figure who deserves greater remembrance as an early freethinker who fell foul of the Inquisition, being burned at the stake in 1600. A champion of the Copernican system, he was also one of the first individuals to speculate as to the existence of other inhabited worlds orbiting distant stars, and was a proponent of the idea that the Universe was infinite and possessed no centre. Although born in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548, he resided in England from 1583 to 1585, and it is during this period that he lectured at Oxford, although he was unsuccessful at securing a teaching position there. It is this period of his stay at Oxford in 1583 that Parris chooses to set her mystery. 

The novel is a tale of academic rivalry, murder, paranoia, and religious fanaticism. A series of gruesome murders unfolds at the college playing host to Bruno, who happens to have been entrusted with a mission by Sir Francis Walsingham to seek out papist sympathisers and plotters amidst the world of Oxford fellows and dons. They are executed in a strangely theatrical fashion, taking inspiration, it would seem, from John Foxe’s ‘Actes and Monuments’, more popularly known as ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. Bruno, meanwhile, possesses a motivation of his own for his visit: to seek out a missing volume of the occult work of Hermes Trismegistus. 

Parris’s Oxford appears to be in perpetual half-light, its streets soaked with rain, its academics content with regurgitating intellectually obsolete orthodoxies approved by Elizabeth’s regime, whilst proving unreceptive to Bruno’s challenging new ideas. Fear of papist sympathies and Jesuitical plots stalk the imagination, and Bruno, being an Italian and former Dominican friar, does not escape suspicion.  

The book succeeds in producing a vivid feel for the period, whilst not seeking to mimic the speech of the time, although the occasional anachronistic turn of phrase creeps in. Such jarring moments, however, prove to be few. Although this book, for me, doesn’t reach the heady heights of Iain Pears’s ‘An Instance of the Finger Post’, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and will, most likely, read further instalments in this series.

Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.

Review: ‘Poldark: Ross Poldark’, by Winston Graham.

Like many readers of this book and subsequent volumes, I first encountered Poldark on the small screen, initially as a child in the 1970s, and more recently during the BBC’s latest adaptation of the Poldark novels. I therefore came to the book with certain expectations, and found, to my delight, that they were not disappointed. In fact, as is often the case with works which are adapted for either television or the cinema, the book proved to be better still. This is not to say that the recent television series lack anything, for they do not, but out of necessity the full richness of a 450-page novel cannot be condensed into a handful of television episodes without omitting something. 

This first book, originally published in 1945, proves to be a gripping read. Although the covers of the Poldark novels have been aimed squarely at a female readership over the years, this one being no exception, what with Aidan Turner broodily peering from the front cover, this is by no means women’s fiction insofar as there is plenty within to engage readers of both sexes. There is certainly a romantic core to this book, but as to whether it should most appropriately be placed in the category of historical novel, or historical romance, I shall leave that to the reader to decide.  

The novel is well paced and comprised of many intertwining strands, with an engaging cast of characters, a sense of drama, and a liberal dose of humour, with the latter often being focused upon Ross’s idle servants Jud and Prudie Painter. Although Ross is confronted with a succession of challenges and setbacks, he somehow manages to weather the storm, and, at the end of this volume, obtain a certain solace in his marriage to Demelza. The theme of hardship, both material and emotional, runs through the book, and it is plain that the author – Winston Graham – by making Ross a champion of the poor and the powerless of Cornwall, possessed a significant social conscience. It did, perhaps, chime with the times in which it was published, emerging as the war came to an end, with rationing and austerity looming large, enabling his readers to identify readily with the plight of the common folk in this tale. Within this volume, you will find the social tensions and snobbery of late-eighteenth-century Cornwall brought vividly, and arrestingly, to life. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Watch this blog for news of the author’s forthcoming historical novel set in 17th-century Cornwall – Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return – a tale of superstition, greed, slavery, and religious fanaticism.