Tag Archives: Book Review

Review: ‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris

Harris’s fast-paced novel of life, and mass death, in Pompeii during the final days of its existence in AD 79, manages to create an evocative picture of first-century Roman society, in all of its opulence, corruption and squalor. His protagonist – Marcus Attilius Primus – has been sent to the nearby city of Misenum to act as the replacement for his missing predecessor, Exomnius, who was responsible for maintaining the Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct which supplies the region with its water. The solving of the mystery of Exomnius’s disappearance is played out against the lead-up to, and climax of, the Vesuvian eruption, with the latter being described in vivid, and convincing, detail.

It is within the interplay between Attilius and his nemesis, Ampliatus, a sadistic, nouveau-riche, former slave turned regional plutocrat, that the primary drama of the book inheres, and it is in the portrayal of the pursuit, and abuse, of power and wealth that Harris exceeds. Ampliatus proves to be a compellingly repulsive character, an embodiment of the worst in Roman society, whereas Attilius serves as his principled foil. The reality of city politics is portrayed in a manner that is at once, depressingly, recognisable. Harris also provides us with a glimpse of the character of Pliny the Elder, who perished in the tragedy, courtesy of the notes regarding the eruption compiled by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. It is to the latter, of course, to whom we owe our knowledge of what unfolded in Pompeii during that fateful August, with his gift to posterity being honoured by the use of the adjective ‘Plinian’ in categorising the type of eruption observed at Vesuvius.

Harris’s research shows in the convincing detail that he deploys, which is woven into the warp and weft of the tale without being ostentatiously, and incongruously, displayed for the sake of ‘showing off’. The alien world of ancient Rome is thereby rendered almost familiar, despite the attitudinal, and philosophical, differences that framed the worldview of Roman citizens in this distant age. An enjoyable read which I finished surprisingly quickly.

Book Review: ‘The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories’, Wilkie Collins.

Although the named novella takes up almost half the length of this volume, a further eight tales can be found between its covers, a number of which I found more satisfying than The Haunted Hotel itself. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the latter, for I did, but it struck me as being less polished than some of the shorter works.

Whereas Collins is best known for his mystery novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone, with the second title being widely hailed as the first detective novel written in English, he was also rated highly as a writer of ghost stories, and The Haunted Hotel is, unsurprisingly, just such a story. However, the reader has to wait a long time before any form of ghostly manifestation materialises, with much of the novella reading more as a conventional mystery. Although I may be mistaken in taking this view, it struck me that Collins had, perhaps, originally intended his novella to be a full-length novel, but had grown tired of it, and thus decided to abridge it. Thus, the author appears to have employed the device of allowing one of his leading characters to divulge the hidden course of events by passing off his own unrealised notes in the form of notes for an as yet unwritten play. It left me feeling that it could have become something greater than it was.

It was, therefore, the short stories that I found most to my taste in this collection, particularly The Dream Woman, A Terribly Strange Bed, Nine O’ Clock!, and The Devil’s Spectacles. Only the first of these four can be described as a true ghost story, although Nine O’Clock! does feature a doppelganger and deathly prophecy.

The Dream Woman centres upon a premonitory haunting, in which the tale of an unfortunate ostler is recounted by his current employer – the landlord of an inn – to the narrator. It is an atmospheric classic, in which Collins builds an eerie tension that is sure to hook the attention of any lover of a good ghostly yarn. The concluding story in this collection – The Devil’s Spectacles – is a supernatural oddity, and all the better for it. In this, the protagonist is gifted a pair of spectacles by the most unsavoury of characters, and the powers that they bestow upon the wearer prove to be of a suitably Mephistophelian nature; they are not what could be termed ‘rose tinted’. Still, this engaging morality tale possesses a somewhat mythic quality, as well as a devilish dose of humour, and is my joint favourite in this collection.

Overall, although I found some of the tales a little overly melodramatic for my taste, I’d recommend this volume to the thrifty reader who is interested in classic mysteries with a dash of the supernatural.

Book Review: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic,’ Keith Thomas, 1971.

Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my forthcoming tale ‘The Cleft Owl.’ 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.

Review: ‘Dissolution’, C.J. Sansom

With prose pedestrian and dialogue stilted, is it any wonder that my attention wilted?  

By the time that I had read thirty or so pages of this book, I had a hunch that getting through it was going to be something of a slog. For the first 220 pages or so, it read like a second draft rather than a polished final product, but to be fair, Sansom thereafter made some effort at fleshing out the rather two-dimensional characters thus far encountered. As this was his first novel, I will be charitable and own that he must have been learning his craft as he went, but there were a number of features of this novel that jarred, including the manner in which the author crowbarred his twenty-first-century preoccupations and outlook into the world of Reformation England. 

Yes, the protagonist Matthew Shardlake may not have been ‘shaped for sportive tricks’, but just how many times did the author need to hammer home the fact that he shared his defining trait with old Crookback himself? It was monotonous. Moreover, beyond the dominating presence of the hump, Shardlake appeared to possess little to distinguish himself from the other underdeveloped characters who populated this work, other than a seeming compulsion to explain the obvious to his younger sidekick. The presence of the latter appears to have been engineered as a clumsy device for explaining aspects of everyday life in Tudor England to the historically unaware reader. Why otherwise, for example, would Shardlake have found it necessary to explain to Mark Poer the significance of All Hallows Eve? Given that church attendance was compulsory during this period and Poer was part of this society and no suckling babe, he would have fully understood what it meant, as well as have been conversant with the customs and rituals observed on this day.  

As for the idealisation of Brother Guy, the blameless, persecuted Moor, and the soon-to-be ‘mud-coloured ex-monk’ befriended by Shardlake, there could be no clearer illustration of anachronistic attitudes being shoehorned into Henrician England. Anachronism also occasionally slipped into the dialogue, with the use of the term ‘pressure point’ making me wince; clumsy evidence of this being an unpolished draft, rather than a finished product. Although I have been reassured that further books in this series are better written, I am not sure that I will read anything else by Sansom, for his style did not grab me, po-faced and humourless as it was. If, however, you are looking for a novel in which a Tudor hunchbacked lawyer endowed with twenty-first-sensibilities finds himself hanging on to a clanging bell in a monastery bell tower, then this is the book for you.