Monday, September 15, 2008

The Empress and the Acolyte - Jane Fletcher

The third volume in the Lyremouth series takes the story into new territory, beyond the original Lorimal's Chalice. The sequel fits right in with what's gone before and the handling of the interactions between Tevi the warrior and Jemeryl the sorcerer is ever more developed. The depiction of Jemeryl's feelings after hearing that Tevi is dead is painfully true to life and overall the writing is more assured than ever in this book. The plot and character motivations convince and it's a delight to spend yet more time in the company of the two leads. I hope there's still more to come!


Monday, September 1, 2008

Swallows & Amazons - Arthur Ransome

The first of Ransome's twelve classic books introduces us to the four Walker children (the Swallows) the two Blackett girls (the Amazons) and their eponymous boats. The lake, Uncle Jim and much else that will become familiar background in many of the remaining books is also introduced. It's hardly surprising that these stories have remained in print for some seventy-plus years: the writing is clear and unfussy while entering fully into the children's world and portraying events honestly and earnestly from their point of view. There's no layer of irony to attract a sophisticated reader: one has to engage with the adventure from the perspective of the protagonists; Ransome makes this not only possible but also a joy, even for the twenty-first century reader.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

The first "Great" Wessex novel is surprisingly hard to get into at first but eventually the going gets a bit easier and the flow of events starts to grip the attention. Bathsheba's near-disastrous marriage pre-echoes Hardy's later, more tragic, treatments of that institution. But in this book good still triumphs at the end and the long arc of struggle eventually yields a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Inklings - Humphrey Carpenter

Ostensibly a "group biography", the focus here is very much on C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Of course, the same author has covered Tolkien's life pretty thoroughly elsewhere. The picture that emerges here is that it was very much Lewis that "made things happen" while the rather older Williams was an underachieving genius. The vivid depiction of Oxford life is wonderfully evocative and throws the outlandish worlds beloved of, and created by, the trio into sharp relief. The academic and creative life is portrayed in its realistic messiness and the three central figures are shown as fairly ordinary human beings with a "taste for" higher and more epic things without themselves living epic lives or being "higher" creatures. No Hemmingways here! While hardly indispensable, it's an engaging read that satisfies the desire of many readers of these authors to know more about the men behind the beloved stories.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seven White Gates - Malcolm Saville

The second book in the Lone Pine series of children's stories stays in Shropshire but moves the setting from the Long Mynd of Witchend to the wilder slopes of the Stiperstones. Local girl Jenny Harmon is introduced as the sixth member of the group and the twins charm Peter's fearsome Uncle before getting into trouble on the mountain. No "baddies" in this book but a series of difficulties are faced with bravery and hence overcome.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents - Terry Pratchett

Pratchett brings his work for younger readers and his fabulously successful Discworld series for adults together in this first book for youngsters to share the latter's setting. Maurice the cat, along with two human children and a horde of preternaturally intelligent rats, faces great danger and moral challenges to return normality to a town in the grip of an obscure tyranny. A fun read for a grown up Pratchett fan.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Lucia in London - E.F. Benson

After our introduction to Miss Mapp, the third of the series returns to Lucia and her runaway success as a social climber in London. In a single season she takes society by storm in a succession of outrageous manoeuvres and then, at the peak of her powers, retires to Risholme. Risholme, of course, has struggled to maintain its momentum in Lucia's absence while fiercely asserting its independence of its absent queen. Benson's lightness of touch and assurance in his characters carries us through a whirl of events and, while irony abounds, everyone and everything is depicted with affection. Utterly delightful.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Children of Hurin - J.R.R. Tolkien

The fullest available account of the tale of Turin Turambar is here extracted by Christopher Tolkein from the mass of his father's papers and published as a stand-alone book. The story of the doomed Turin's failure to escape his fate is downbeat in an almost Jude the Obscure-like way so this is far from a fun read. It is, however, a great treat to have the story put forward in this form: largely freed from the entanglements of the surrounding events and the vagaries of composition that crowd in on the various versions presented in the History of Middle Earth. Tolkien enthusiasts will, of course, have bought this book regardless but for those hooked by the Lord of the Rings it might actually be the best available taster for the stories of the elder days and draw in an additional readership for the legends that were central to Tolkien's great creation.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Traitor and the Chalice - Jane Fletcher

The second half of Lorimal's Chalice now appears as the second of three volumes of "Lyremouth Chronicles". The story continues from the end of The Exile and the Sorcerer and gains in strength and structural coherence from its new stand-alone presentation. Jemeryl, the sorcerer, and Tevi, the exile, combine forces to overcome danger and treachery to recover the lost chalice and return it to Lyremouth. The two lead characters are depicted with equal affection but the gritty realism of Tevi's mundane world is perhaps more strongly characterised than the rarified, politicised, atmosphere of the sorcerers' mellieu. Absorbing and rewarding reading; now that I'm caught up with the story I'm keen to know where we head in the third volume.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain - John O'Farrell

Although sub-titled "2000 Years of Upper-class Idiots in Charge" this book is mercifully free of polemics. Although amusing and ironic in its tone at times and certainly no scholarly tome this is a hugely informative book for those whose knowledge of the basic events of British history is sketchy to say the least. The impartiality claimed in the title is, or course, completely ironic in that there is a thoroughly partial early twenty-first century, liberal "take" on events here. Entertaining, comprehensive and informative.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Othello - William Shakespeare

Normally I enjoy reading Shakespeare a great deal, if not as much as seeing a well-acted live performance. For once, though, I found the process unrewarding. Tedious even. I've enjoyed the play on the stage but on the page it lacked the spark of inventiveness and association that's such a hallmark of Shakespeare's writing. I'm as surprised as disappointed because this has never been the case in the many plays I've read before.


Monday, February 4, 2008

The Road to Middle Earth - Tom Shippey

Like his other major book about Tolkien, Author of the Century, this book benefits tremendously from the affinity for his subject that being a fellow philologist gives Shippey. The picture that's built up of what Tolkien achieved with his major works, what he was trying to do and how he went about it is detailed and convincing. There's a tinge of sadness too that Tolkien was unable to do more than he did. This is the third edition and takes into account not only the 12-volume presentation of the "History of Middle Earth" brought to us by Christopher Tolkien but also the masterful three part film adaptation by Peter Jackson. What Tolkein did and the way that he went about it is unique and Shippey gives us a series of fascinating insights into the great depths of what was going on that complements perfectly the view of the breadth of the corpus provided by the "History" sequence.