Category Archives: Book Review

Review of ‘Monk’s Hood’ by Ellis Peters

The edition of the book that I read, dating from 1990 (ten years after its initial publication), is riddled with typos, with the first one being displayed on the cover: Monks Hood rather than Monk’s Hood.  Still, despite these minor niggles, the story told by Peters is engaging enough, with Brother Cadfael emerging as a sympathetic and highly unconventional sleuth, for I must own to not knowing of any other twelfth-century Benedictine herbalist protagonist fulfilling such a role. The period detail was very well done, but I found the prose a little lumpy in places. It was well plotted with plenty of potential suspects to divert the attention of the reader, but following the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ rule I sensed that the appearance of a certain character very early in the story, and his subsequent absence until the latter stages of the book, pointed to him being the culprit. Was he? Well, if you want to find out for sure, you should read it yourself.  

All in all Peters needed a better editor for this book, but for all I know the issues that I have enumerated may well have been addressed in later editions.

Review of ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

An atmospheric classic that manages to capture some of the wild lawless spirit of early nineteenth-century Cornwall. Du Maurier seems to have been clearly influenced by Wuthering Heights both in her choice of a bleak moorland setting and the character of the overbearing and violent Joss Merlyn, who makes Heathcliff seem like a civilised gentleman in comparison. The cast of characters who frequent the inn itself are an ensemble of disagreeable lowlife, and as such, make for good entertainment, not that I would go so far as to recommend wrecking, smuggling and murder as suitable pastimes. Still, this made me wish to bodily shake the heroine Mary Yellan for her bizarre insistence upon staying at her uncle’s inn rather than simply decamping elsewhere, but if she had done so, it wouldn’t have made for a very good story. 

The novel ends with a suitable twist, amidst the evocation of the obscure pagan past of Bodmin Moor. If I have any gripe with the book, it relates to Du Maurier’s slip in portraying what it is like to be out alone in the darkness of Bodmin Moor in the depths of night with a storm raging. Anyone who has stood upon the West Country moors at such a time at a far remove from modern street lighting knows that you can’t so much as see your hand in front of your face. Mary Yellan, it seems, was part cat.

Review of ‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham

First published in 1955, this post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham whilst being very much a creature of its time, remains pertinent today. Although he does not state it in words, it is clear from his text that the society which both fears, and in a sense reveres, ‘the Tribulation’, is one that has been rebuilt from the wreckage of a portion of humanity that has lived through a globally devastating nuclear war. Wyndham shows the reader a society that has regressed technologically, sociologically, and intellectually to the level of that encountered in the first half of the seventeenth century, in which scriptural literalism and dogma dictate every facet of community life. It thus taps into the fears of its time: nuclear confrontation between the superpowers; the perverse pursuit of genetic purity by recently defeated Nazism; humanity’s tendency to cleave to dogma, whether in the form of religious obscurantism – as in this novel – or political ideology.

The novel’s protagonist – David Strorm – is a child when the story opens, and it is through his eyes, and his encounter with Sophie Wender, that the reader comes to understand the depths of revulsion which the people of Labrador hold for ‘deviations’ from ‘the true image’, i.e. for any form of mutation in the external human form. However, what David and a small group of externally normal individuals manage to conceal from this tightly controlled and policed community is their own mutation: telepathy. At least for a time. Their fate, should they be discovered, could be expected to be no better than forced sterilisation and banishment to the Fringes, a lawless zone in which mutation has run riot, forming a transitional area between that deemed habitable and the blackened glassy wastes created by the nuclear conflagration.  

Wyndham’s novel is an engaging coming-of-age tale in which the human impulse to seek out and destroy that which it finds different to itself, and thus unpalatable, is depicted in bleak detail. Although very different in its setting to The Midwich Cuckoos, which unfolds in rural postwar England, both books focus upon a group of characters possessed of telepathic abilities, which was evidently a theme that appealed to Wyndham. In The Chrysalids, however, it is the group of telepaths who find themselves the persecuted rather than the persecutors, until . . .  

Overall, I found this to be a rewarding read, although I would probably state a preference for The Midwich Cuckoos owing to its occasional humour, which is very much absent from this volume. Its ending also seemed to arrive with an unexpected abruptness.

Review of ‘The House of Doctor Dee’ by Peter Ackroyd

All fades into obscurity. 

It has been many years since I first read this novel, and upon rereading it recently what struck me the most was not the book’s supernatural element, but the coldness of the contemporary protagonist – Matthew Palmer – for whom I was unable to conjure up the least smidgen of sympathy. In fact, there is a chilliness that pervades the whole of the book that left me, for all of its merits, to a degree cold. ‘Behold the world without love,’ enjoins the shade of Dee’s late wife at a critical juncture of the story, and the same may be said to the reader of the tale as a whole, but this feeling of emotional sterility was doubtless intentional on Ackroyd’s part, for he is too good a writer for it not to have been. The protagonist, his mother, and father are each deeply estranged from each other, with their set of alienated relationships being echoed in the dysfunctional relationships between Dee, his wife, and his dying father, but beyond this it is the physical fabric of the house – or what remains of Dee’s dwelling – that unites them all. 

In terms of its structure, this tale, like a number of others penned by Ackroyd, involves the interweaving and interpenetration of two distinct periods, in this instance the Tudor London of Elizabethan magus Dr Dee, and the capital that you may have known some quarter of a century or so ago. Neither London, of course, is with us today, for it has in many respects been rendered as unrecognisable as its sixteenth-century incarnation. It is, however, in his conveying of the ambience of the latter that Ackroyd excels, along with his measured updating of Elizabethan speech for a modern readership; in this respect, he is a conjuror of spirits, and raises Dr Dee, or a version thereof, from his slumber of centuries. His ghost is made to speak. 

Alas, however, as a story it has its flaws. Whereas I rather enjoyed that part of it that was set during the sixteenth century, I did not care for the chapters set some four hundred years later, which it would have been better to have dispensed with. As for the book’s concluding chapter, it was a confused and muddled mess that seemed jumbled up with the author’s reflections on the writing of history and fiction. This second reading will therefore, I think, be my last.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s latest novel – Upon Barden Moor – an occult mystery centring upon a single summer’s day in Edwardian England, is now available on Kindle and in paperback.    

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Review of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Many books receive plaudits and yet fail to live up to them, but Mythago Wood falls into that rare category of books that for all of its awards, exceeds the expectations of the reader, or, at any rate, this particular reader writing this review. Its concept is both original and deftly executed, breathing life into Jungian archetypes and the lost lore of Britain in the wildest of wildwoods that you could possibly enter.   

Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the novel opens with a homecoming, but as with all such returns, the protagonist – Stephen Huxley – finds that all is not as it was. With his father now deceased, and his brother Christian behaving in a decidedly eccentric manner, we are gradually introduced to the enchanting, and sinister, world of Ryhope Wood. From the fragmentary notes of his father’s diary, the disclosures of his brother, and the sightings of shadowy forms that flit about his field of vision on the perimeter of the wood, we are gradually lured, along with Stephen, into the enigmatic and enchanting realm of the mythagos.

 The innocuous appearance of the wood, set amidst the tranquillity of the Herefordshire countryside, conceals a primal and ferocious domain, in which time and space are stretched beyond what the imagination could conceive from its external bounds. It is a place that exerts a teasing fascination that at once both attracts, and yet physically repels, those who attempt to penetrate its shaded depths; it is where men find their deepest desires, and fears, realised in a profound physicality, where the psychological, the psychic, and the mythic merge into an eternal and yet malleable ‘reality’. Wild and bloody rites, magic, lust, vengeance and the quest for personal wholeness through union with a significant, Pygmalionesque, other, constitute the meat of this engaging fantasy, in which the reader encounters plausibly imagined Neolithic tribespeople, Celts, Saxons, and many others who have called the English landscape their home through the passage of the ages. All coexist within the wood in an eternal present.

Ryhope Wood is a profoundly pagan place, so it strikes me as no mistake that Holdstock chose to bestow the name of Christian upon Stephen’s brother, and it is Christian’s presence that proves to be most destructive to the world that he enters. However, the destructiveness of the elder Huxley brother is in no way linked to any proselytising on his part, but merely to the vicious impulses that lie deeply embedded within the structure of his own personality.

This book came to be the first of a series, but can be quite happily read as a standalone novel. Whether its successors lived up to this initial promise, I cannot say, as I have not yet read any of them. Still, this is a book that I heartily enjoyed, even though fantasy is not a genre that I normally read. Highly recommended.

 It was interesting to see that Holdstock allowed a cameo appearance for the Celtic goddess Epona, who lies at the centre of my Victorian gothic ghost story of the same name. In the latter tale, however, it is the downland of Wiltshire rather than a pocket of ancient woodland that provides the backdrop against which the drama unfolds.

Aleister Crowley’s Corpulent Alter Ego

Maugham’s occult novel The Magician opens in the Paris of La Belle Époque, a place of light and gaiety where, none the less, it would seem, shadows still lurked, with the shadow in this particular instance being cast by the increasingly corpulent bulk of Oliver Haddo. With speech as ponderous and weighty as his physical form, Haddo, the eponymous magician of this tale, with his tall stories and florid speech, comes across as a more sinister cousin of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty. It is, without doubt, the villain who gets the best lines in this book.

Maugham based Haddo upon the person of none other than the self-styled ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley, whom he met during a sojourn in Paris in 1904. The former did not take to the latter, and writing some years later he noted that Crowley had published a review of The Magician in Vanity Fair, signing off as ‘Oliver Haddo’. In a later foreword to the book, Maugham wrote, ‘I did not read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.’ So much for the background, but what of the story itself?

The first two chapters of the novel are rather sluggish and unremarkable, for Haddo’s presence is as yet unseen. They introduce us to the other four main characters: Arthur Burdon, an eminent London surgeon who is in Paris to visit his young ward and fiancée Susie Boyd; the aforementioned Miss Boyd; Margaret Dauncey, Miss Boyd’s older and plainer companion, and Dr Porhoët, a Breton doctor with an interest in matters relating to antiquarianism and the occult that has led him to become something of a specialist in this esoteric field.

It is only once we encounter Haddo in the Chien Noir along with the four other major characters, that the novel picks up pace and begins to hook the reader. Despite his being a narcissistic, snobbish, socially and physically repulsive braggart, Haddo manages to exert a certain allure, and somehow insinuates his way into the lives of this quartet. That there is something preternatural about this soon becomes apparent, and the mutual antipathy of Burdon and Haddo is what propels this story to its destructive denouement via the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, to its climax in the fictitious Haddo familial seat of Skene in Staffordshire.

There is something, it would seem, to the powers claimed by this practitioner of the dark arts, and he has a goal in mind dear to the hearts of the adepts of Paracelsian alchemy: the creation of the homunculus. Quite why either Haddo, or Paracelsus, would wish to go to such great lengths in an attempt to create such a monstrous parody of the human form, rather than adopting the rather simpler expedient of a little, and rather more pleasurable, conjugal rutting, is quite beyond me. Still, this novel makes for an enjoyable read, even if it should be at times a little overwrought and melodramatic, as well as somewhat purple in its prose.

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Bram Stoker’s Ventriloquist

Such could be the honorific title that deserves to be bestowed upon William Meikle in the penning of this short, restrained, and engaging story, in which the author takes upon Stoker’s persona in its writing. The conceit of this tale, and others in the collection from which it is taken, is that it is but a rediscovered piece by one of the leading lights of the late-Victorian literary firmament, all of whom gather to tell each other tales of the uncanny, and the supernatural, in a gentleman’s club: the Ghost Club. Who should preside over this fictitious entity, but none other than Henry James himself. 

This was the era in which supernatural fiction, particularly the ghost story, flourished, and reached its apogee, and Meikle’s decision to produce a compendium of tales employing the voices of some of its foremost exponents, is an appealing one. With respect to In the House of the Dead itself, the author’s prose strikes the right tone for its period, and the story is related with a commendable restraint. Its central theme of loss and yearning is an eternal one, as is the understandable, and yet delusional, desire to bridge the divide that separates the living from the dead. It is, in a sense, a dilemma that is here resolved, but be warned: death dominates this tale; it stalks every page.

To purchase a copy of In the House of the Dead, please click on the image above.  

Review of ‘Corsair’ by Tim Severin

Tim Severin is an explorer, historian, and author of historical fiction: a man of many accomplishments. His knowledge of seafaring is both extensive and first-hand, with him having undertaken a number of remarkable voyages in reconstructions of historical craft. These include replicating the alleged voyage of sixth-century Irish Saint Brendan across the Atlantic in a wood and leather currach; travelling from Oman to India and China in a replica of a ninth-century Arab dhow, and undertaking two voyages in a replica Greek Bronze Age galley in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That he should thus turn his attention to matters maritime in his fiction should come as no surprise.  

In Corsair, Severin focuses upon a different period again: the seventeenth century, with his theme being Barbary piracy. As you would expect, this proves to be a thoroughly well researched book, a fact that shines through in its wealth of historical detail and convincing descriptions of life aboard ship. If the reader should be inquisitive to learn about the conditions in the bagnios (the slave pens of contemporary Algiers), different gradations and uses of gunpowder, or the routines aboard one of Louis XIV’s war galleys, then their curiosity should be satisfied. If, on the other hand, the reader hopes to find engaging characters with whom they can in some way identify, or feel any sympathy for, then I am afraid that they are likely to be grievously disappointed, for it is in his characterisation and passages of stilted dialogue that Severin is at his weakest. Moreover, it does not help that his protagonist – Hector Lynch – an Irish teenager with limited life experience who is taken into slavery from an insignificant Irish village, seems to effortlessly insinuate his way into the charmed circle of each influential personage with whom he comes into contact.  

There is a certain lack of emotional charge to the language employed by the characters which renders the dialogue flat. It also results in the characters themselves – with the exception of the tongueless, noseless, and earless Karp – being poorly differentiated. Hector Lynch speaks in a fashion not overly dissimilar to that of the Maybot, just ‘getting on with the job’ of moving the reader from one expository scene to the next, where you can learn how to row, blast rock with different grades of power, or slaughter and disembowel a camel before drying its flesh for consumption on your journey across the desert. What you will not learn about are the inner psychological workings of the individuals named on the page, for there does not appear to be a great deal going on inside their heads. Perhaps I am being a little harsh in saying this, but I get the feeling that this is so because it appears that the book is aimed at a young adult market, and thus does not require a great deal of psychological or emotional sophistication. That it is such a book is purely a guess on my part, but if it’s piratical derring-do on the high seas that the reader is looking for, I’d recommend Sabatini’s Captain Blood over this any day, for it is a work that possesses both wit and verve, both of which Corsair, sadly, lacks.  Although I’ve not read any of Severin’s other works, I suspect that his history books are far more engaging than his works of fiction, because I did find the historical detail in this novel fascinating at times, it was just the story that let it down.

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.