26 October, 2010

A few years ago i bought a book called Cursory Rhymes by an early twentieth century writer called Humbert Wolfe. It is lovely, simple, and briefly inspired me.

Humbert Wolfe

It does not do,
it is not well,
To now compare
this Wolfe to El-

iot: Good Tom
who wrote The Waste
Land in such an
amazing haste

He did not find
good translations,
But left the quotes
of other nations’

Pithy sayings
in their own tongue,
And makes me feel
like so much dung ~

My simple lack
of savoir faire
And basic nous
when i am there.

But Wolfe, he’s not
like that at all:
His easy rhymes
don’t cause a fall.

He wrote for child-
ren, i would guess:
His gentle rhymes ~
a Mum’s caress.

And just because
they’re light and fun,
Doesn’t mean that
on the tongue

They have no
value, use, or
Worth; no less
is he a bore.

This good Wolfe,
unlike Big Bad,
Has nice rhymes,
and makes me glad

I read him ~
not like old Tom
Whose poetry
is like a bomb

Shell hitting
in my brain,
To end it all
once again.

07 October, 2010

A Birthday Gift

Thank you, Chenowyth.

The Story of the First Queen Elizabeth
L. du Garde Peach

A Ladybird book! Of all things! An old one, of the style dating back to my very young days, with a brown cardboard cover and a simple blue illustration on it. I’m certain i never owned this one, though i suspect i may have read it before (or had it read to me!), as some of the pages and pictures are familiar. Whether i owned it previously or not (and re-owning books isn’t as childish as it seems, is it?), am i delighted to have been given it for this recent birthday.

The story is, obviously, extremely simple, quick, and well known; it covers, though, all the major points of the Virgin Queen’s story (not including the reason for that nickname!) which are important for young English, or maybe British, children to know. There is a strong focus on the Armada, which covers about four of the fortysix pages of text; this is natural, as is the emphasis on Spenser and Shakespeare, among the greatest luminaries of the Golden Age. The only thing which is missing in any real detail, any explanation of the religious problems, is barely touched upon in passing, as the reason Elizabeth feared Mary, and Mary feared what Elizabeth would do after her death. I don’t think that one could write such a book today ~ this, and the other Ladybirds, is truly an artefact of its time ~ even with the same target audience in mind, and not give more explanation of the issues of religion, especially as they also impinge upon the Armada story.

The joy of this book, though, other than the simple joy for me of seeing something from my childhood, is the emphasis on story: The only way to interest children in history, in my opinion, is to make it memorable, to tell stories, to make the people interesting because of the stories they are part of; only then will they want to learn about the motivations and reasons and historical movements and interpretations. Too much taught history today, and yes, i’m looking at
BBC History magazine, which i love receiving and reading, as well as schoolbooks and teachers, too much, i say, forgets the story in favour of sources, interpretation, explanation, and “understanding”. These latter parts of the subject are important, but they aren’t ~ shouldn’t be, cannot be ~ basic to a child’s grasp of and delight in history. Hoorah for Ladybird and their stories, i say!

30 September, 2010

"Early" Review


Once again i am clearly not a member of the target audience of a book i received from the Early Reviewer programme of Librarything ~ which makes it interesting that i have a couple of times been given books aimed at juveniles (what i think the trade calls Young Adults); i suppose that it must be linked to the large number of books of that kind which we, as book loving parents of several children who have been or are young adults, own. At least one previous book of this genre (Sugarcoated) i seem to recall having quite enjoyed, at least, without going back and rereading my review; i wish that i could say the same of this one, but i have to be honest, and say i really struggled reading Shadowland.

There are just about two hundred pages here, and i was clearly halfway through (literally, in the actual meaning of that much misused word, page 100) before i fully grasped what was happening, let alone beginning to care about the characters. Of course, it must be admitted that a good portion of the problem i was having was related to the second way in which i am not a member of Lassiter’s target audience: This is the third book in a (projected) quintology, and i have not read either of the first two, thus i had no idea, going in, what was happening, who was involved, whom i should be cheering for. That disconnect is particularly strong in this book, perhaps in the series, much more than many series (Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles spring to mind immediately) where each book is sufficiently self-contained to stand alone.

Lassiter makes it clear, as i understand it, that the books are not really intended to be read apart from each other; in an Author Note [sic] at the end of the book she says, “These are not the kind of events that can be neatly wrapped up at the end of a book” (an overly broad statement, in some ways, as almost any conceivable book has some loose ends), making it clear that she understands the way her characters and plots are flowing from volume to volume of the series. It isn’t clear, however, that she understands how very difficult her particular method makes it for the casual reader to find his way into the individual volumes; i hadn’t, as mentioned above, any notion of the books, and it was horribly difficult to learn. A further difficulty, i found, was that there were several (even now i’m not certain) different groups of characters, linked in some way, though not clear in the narrative, with separate (but linked) plots, and Lassiter jumps between them very frequently, perhaps too frequently, before the reader has time to grasp and start to follow the current group.

All this ought not be taken to mean that i am ungrateful for the book ~ i haven’t yet been ungrateful for an Early Reviewer book (even Rooms, which was so appalling i couldn’t finish it!) ~ simply that i believe Lassiter was not well served by her publishers; though the final two volumes of the quintology appear not to have been written yet (or, at least, are unpublished), she might have been better advised to hold them all back until the whole was finished, to be published as one book. Certainly, if the others are of a size with this, at a thousand pages (of quite large print, going by this one) it would not be beyond possibility. The advantage of keeping her readers would probably outweigh (at least for an author) the financial benefits of publishing five books over one.

20 September, 2010

Old Poetry can be Fun

A Preface to Eighteenth Century Poetry

James Sutherland

One of the most enjoyable books i’ve read in a long time, which is not what one would expect at all from the title. I think we got this book in Hay-on-Wye several years ago; as i recall it was one i bought simply because it was an Oxford University Press book, it had a bit of water damage, and i was sad seeing it outside, left to deteriorate further. Perhaps also the fact that i had to study Pope for A level English may have played into it, though certainly not any enjoyment of him, because i found his poetry very difficult to enjoy ~ indeed, i remember complaining about it to DCLS after we’d written the relevant exam, as presumably i figured it couldn’t matter any more what a teacher thought about what i thought! Reading Sutherland now, though, was a real pleasure, makes me want to get hold of some Pope, Dryden, Johnson, and others.

The primary message Sutherland is offering is one i certainly don’t remember from Loretto, though possibly it was and i failed to pick it up; he says that the poetry of each age is different, and current expectations are not necessarily met by a previous age’s literature. In particular, the Eighteenth Century was very different, and today we will struggle to read its writings if we do not take into account the differences in their expectations and demands, especially as our reading of literature is still affected by the Romantic movement, which is heavily to be understood as reaction to the Eighteenth Century: A double whammy. So, then, what are these differences, these demands? Boils down to an expectation of formalism, of appropriate style and content, of taking poetry seriously both in the writing and the reading which we seem to no longer have in the Twentyfirst Century. The writers of the Augustan Age generally wrote for classically educated men who could recognise and appreciate allusions and style and serious thoughts. This makes it all sound rather unappealing, yet as i mentioned above, Sutherland has made me want to read some again; he is clearly a skilful and challenging writer who loves his subject and is able to carry that love over to his readers. Enjoyable.

29 July, 2010

History by Novel

The Death of the Red King

A novel, or an historical study disguised as a novel, certainly a piece of imaginative research and interpretation into one of Mediæval Western Europe’s mysteries, the accidental death of William II of England in the New Forest. Every schoolboy (and girl, but i have to go with the phrase) knows about the death of William Rufus, that he was killed while hunting, perhaps by one of his retainers, that his brother Henry raced to Winchester to secure the treasury and, hence, the crown (you know, sadly, as i write this i’m starting to wonder, do today’s children know this? are they taught this in school? i have a strong suspicion that JAG might well not know about Rufus, about either of the Conqueror’s sons, at all. Oh dear) before anyone else could usurp it. Doherty has written his novel as told by Eadmer, Anselm’s biographer and follower, during the last few days of Anselm’s life, as he conducts a brief investigation into the death of the late, unlamented king.

Unlamented, except, for Doherty, by Anselm, who claims that they were members of the same tithing and, therefore, he was responsible for Rufus, even though in dispute with him for much of the time. Clearly Dohety takes his history very seriously, as he gives a list of sources at the end of each chapter(!), often with little comments onthem, perhaps identifying their usefulness or reliability. His conclusion, while not completely new, is different from the usual received wisdom, and therefore pleasing. The denouement is clever, as Anselm has drawn todether all his suspects and he plays with them in a nice echo of someone such as Poirot, several hundred years early.

18 June, 2010

Shelley, Shelley, is that you?

Daniel Hahn

Another Early Reviewers book, this one from, i think, December. The fact that it has taken me six months to read its hundred and fifty pages would appear not to speak well for my reading speed; in fact, i completely lost the thing for about three months and had to start again when i found it magically back in a place i had previously looked the other day. Enough with the whining, what about the book?

Well, though i hate to, i’m afraid i’m going to have to whine a little here, too. I am a little confused about Hahn’s aims with this book (or the publisher’s aims, if he is writing to fit a series), as it could be viewed from a couple of perspectives, but without really resolving. At some points it seems as though Hahn is writing to about the Wikipedia level ~ general text, designed to be easily understood and in-depth solid information, at others, however, there appears to be a curious skimming over points, where the reader feels something is missing or lost; there are large quotations of Shelley’s poetry, which is very useful, but again a bit odd because any poetry readers who use the book will probably already have access to most or all of Shelley (since one would do the poetry before looking for the poet behind it), and any who come looking purely for biography of an important figure (i.e., non-poetry readers) will be stumped by the masses of poetry with no explanation or criticism.

Then there are his own individual quirks, those which form an author’s style; in Hahn’s case, one that i found especially annoying was his use of an ellipsis at various points, seeming to imply that there was much more he could say, but he was being stopped, or stopping himself, for some reason (this, on page 55, for example, speaking of Shelley and Mary and others in Geneva, “They took rooms at the Hotel de l’Angleterre as Sécheron, and before long Byron turned up at that very same hotel...” ~ the very next character is the first of a completely new paragraph; what inference is the reader supposed to draw from that?), which is never disclosed, but implies that information of some kind is being hidden from us.

In the end, this is not a bad book, don’t let my whining leave that impression; it isn’t, however, as good as it could have been, with a little judicious pruning and editing, and perhaps a firmer view of the goal.

18 May, 2010

Greater Joy

The Whole Wide Beauty

Emily Woof

Apparently, so the blurb tells me, Emily Woof is a British actress; i looked her up on Wikipedia, out of interest, when i first began this Early Reviewer book, and discovered that her father was director of the Wordsworth Trust, based in the Lake District, and a well known scholar; it is surely of interest that the (female) protagonist’s father is director of a poetry based foundation, is lives in or near the Lake District, and is well known for constantly raising funds. I am moved to wonder just how much else of the book is based on reality. Katherine, the protagonist, became a dancer against the wishes of her father; Woof became an actress, and i wonder how Robert Woof felt about that. Katherine has an affair with one of the protégés of her father. One just has to wonder how much is imagination and how much confession.

Enough speculation, and on to the book itself. Did i enjoy it? Well, yes, i rather think that i did. There is a lot in it, some of wisdom, plenty of observation, and sufficient of reality in character-building to make it worth the read. In turn: Wisdom, Katherine has found it necessary to find her own way in life, in that she has been untouched by poetry, her father’s muse, to the extent that when she hears it, it really has no meaning for her, so her own creativity has been focussed on something entirely different, physical creativity, rather than intellectual, but this is not portrayed as simply an act of rebellion, more of the necessity of finding one’s own way in the world. Observation, both of a character (especially Katherine and David) and their motives, and of the world, is all through the book; i wonder if the fact that Woof is an actress impacts on that, as she has had to observe in order to reproduce in her work. Reality, especially, as i say, in building the characters, is rife: I found all the actions and reactions of the characters rang true, and i was able to understand why they did the things they did, even without explanations, because they were real people; that is a huge point for me, in a book, because all too frequently characters do not behave as you might expect ~ not because people don’t, but because they are poorly drawn and motivated ~ not an issue here.

And yet, overall, the book surprised me with its plot developments and character interactions In the end, i have to say that this is a lovely experience, for me, of the Early Reviewers programme ~ unlike my previous!

16 May, 2010

Oh. My. Gosh.



James L. Rubart

I have eaten tripe. When i was taking a course on Early Sixteenth Century Poetry while at university we had a banquet, of sorts, and tripe was one of the dishes served. I seem to remember that it was chewy, tasteless, rather a struggle to eat, and not really worth it. I was not defeated, however, and ate it.

This tripe has defeated me. It thus enters very limited company: Over the past ten years i have read well over a thousand books and, in that time, i can think of four that i have not finished ~ it’s almost a point of pride with me to finish a book i start.  Princess Casamassima defeated me so far, though i think i’ll probably go back to it again one day; Crichton’s Disclosure and Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man both dragged me down; and a book from Asimov’s Foundation series written by someone other than him just wasn’t worth it. And now this.

I’m some five chapters into Rooms and i don’t care if the protagonist lives or dies. Really. He has absolutely no interest for me. Oh, he’s an immensely successful software tycoon. So? Oh, someone’s given him a house. So? It’s perfect for him. So what: I don’t care. I don’t even know that it is perfect for him, because i don’t know anything about him. The author, James L. Rubart, i believe this is his first published work, has given me nothing to make me want to go on learning about Micah Taylor: He’s not an attractive character, he has some mystery in his past but what it is isn’t clear, he doesn’t know why he’s been given this house, doesn’t really seem to care, but is willing to put everything on hold while he explores it. Well, i’m not.

I have read ~ and finished! ~ books before where i have not cared for the protagonist, but in those cases the level of writing is enough to draw me it while i learn to care. Not here. This is written at just a hair above the “Dick and Jane” level of elementary school primer. The reader is told everything, shown nothing, which is precisely the reverse of the way it is taught in the most basic of writing classes.

I could go on, but why? I read The Shack, to which this is unwisely compared on the front cover, several times; it’s simple, unrealistic, but compelling. I’ve also read The Screwtape Letters, to which it is also compared, a number of times; it is funny, truthful (if not true), and immensly clever. Rooms is not.

27 April, 2010

Early Reviewer Book

Once in a Blue Moon


Leanna Ellis

     The latest in the series of books i have been able to get from publishers through the Librarything Early Reviewers. I’m not quite the target audience for this book, as i wasn’t for the first Early Review one i read; i think it’s rather more aimed at the young, female, Christian type, much as the books by Lori Wick and Robin Jones Gunn that Abigail likes so much. This is all right, as it happens, as Abby picked up the book while it was on the dining room table, and is now reading it; it will be interesting to see how she feels about it ~ if i can, i’ll get her to review it, too.

     So, preliminaries out of the way, how did i feel about the book? Actually, despite my being well outside the target audience, i really quite enjoyed it, overall. There are points i can pick on, and will, but by and large, they are outweighed by the pleasure of the character development, and the quirkiness of some of those characters. There are some caveats, to be sure, such as the very title itself, which links to that annoying and recent definition of a “blue moon” as two full moons in a single calendar month, and says how very rare that is when, clearly, it isn’t. Also, the actual ending of the book is a little annoying as it tries to imply coyly that perhaps there is something to all the conspiracy theories, after all.

     Mention of the conspiracy theories leads me to a point that i really liked about the book, and that is the lovely link it draws between the beliefs of the two main male characters: Howard used to work for NASA, and now lives convinced that a huge conspiracy of undetermined (or undefined, at any rate) form is the reason that they haven’t continued to go to the moon; his son, Sam, was (or is? it’s never quite resolved) a preacher, albeit a flawed one. This belief of the younger Walters is the key to the book, the reason why Ellis has written it, as it is the reason Wick, Gunn and others write: To promote their world-view as normal, whole, possible and, indeed, desirable.

     It is in this purpose of promoting Christianity’s view, i have to say, i found Ellis quite good and pleasing. She does not by any means beat her readers about the head; Sam is clearly flawed ~ he’s divorced, after all ~ but he is capable of resisting temptation; Bryn Seymour, the protagonist, is self-aware, but not necessarily capable of stopping herself from doing silly or destructive things; the religion is, in fact, done with a very nice light touch. Bryn doesn’t even, for example, have to say the Sinner’s Prayer before Sam baptises her (in a hotel fountain, no less!); this lack, alone, is enough to give me pleasure, as i have had a great many qualms about that process/structure of Sinner’s Prayer ~ faith confession ~ baptism, over the years. All in all, i would have to say that Ellis probably succeeds in her goal of writing an enjoyable Christian romance for young ladies.

13 March, 2010


Unnatural Causes

PD James

     Curious that, with such an arresting opening as this book has (a handless corpse floating off the Suffolk coast), i should find it so difficult to get involved with. I think, more than anything, i found it a little tough to tell some of the characters apart at first. Once past that point, however, this became, like just about every other James, the best one she’s written. One grows to enjoy the little community she has created, the petty spites and jealousies, the sniping back and forth between these largely unsuccessful (at least in terms of importance) writers, at the death of one of them. Even Dalgliesh, in Suffolk on holiday, so the death is not his case, has trouble in his relationship with the local Inspector in charge of the case, they are overtly polite, but there is tension between them; he cannot hold himself back from doing some investigation on his own, however, and is able to show that murder has been committed, though not prevent another. The actual revelation of method and motive are interesting and unusual, in that James makes use of the murderer’s confession to show how it was done. Another classic James and Dalgliesh.

25 February, 2010

Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Prodigal Son

by Dean Koontz & Kevin Anderson

I think that this is the first time i've read anything by Dean Koontz ~ though it's not altogether clear how much he was involved and how much this Kevin Anderson wrote. Be that as it may, i really enjoyed this; Koontz is known as a storyteller, i believe, and that is a truthful reputation. The plot is pretty simple: Frankenstein and his Monster have both lived to the present day; they hate each other, and are working for each other's downfall; some New Orleans cops are learning who and what they are. Of course, since this is the first book in a series, it stops at a terrible point; i daresay at some future moment i shall have to find the sequel and find out what happens next. I’m certainly engaged with the characters and the plot.

13 February, 2010


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

JK Rowling

I read this again because i had forgotten some of the details, and that was annoying me as i thought about the book in the wake of the release of the fourth film. So, having reread it, i have a better grip on the details of the plot and some characters. The process has reinforced my belief that Snape cannot actually be still in the Dark Lord's camp; he is really too close to being a hero to be a villain. And Harry himself is becoming a less attractive character, or that is being revealed to me more than i understood in the previous books. Snape calls him a liar and a cheat, both of which are absolutely true accusations, and make Harry's actions questionable; does the end result justify unethical means? An old question which has been given different answers by different people; Harry would obviously answer that it does:  His actions have proven many times that he has that Machiavellian slippery grasp of ethical logic; i wonder how Rowling would answer.

This was, obviously, some time ago, well before the final book in the series was published.  Interesting to reread this now, knowing what we do about Snape and others.

27 January, 2010

Next Up...

The Life of Greece


Will Durant

The problem is, i feel completely inadequate to write anything about this work; it has so much history to it (sorry about the pun), so much approval for the series, so much scholarship, that i cannot truly make a judgement of its value. On the other hand, in each of these reviews i try merely to give my own response to the books i read; that i am competent to do.

So, my response is...? I like the book (there’s a tentative quality to my voice, can you catch it?), for the most part. I’m not even sure i can put my finger on anything specifically that i question; perhaps it is simply the history of the book ~ i ought to like it, so much, so many times have i read about it, seen it held up as a classic. Maybe i just don’t like having something pushed down my throat ~ in which case the question arises: Why did i bother to read it? A more interesting question is, Will i, now or later, find another of Durant’s series and read that? I think so, yes; later. So, from that perspective, i must have enjoyed Greece. Some things I might have enjoyed a little more (better reproductions of more artworks), but overall, yes, i did enjoy it.

I am fascinated ~ have been for years ~ with the origins of peoples, especially those of the eastern Mediterranean; Durant has some excellent information there ~ of course, it is seventy years old; i wonder what scholarship has changed since then? At the very least, i know, Linear B has been deciphered, so that’s a new line of information to follow. Perhaps i shall find another, more recent, book i can pursue it in; another measure of success for Greece! In the end, then, the tentative tone must leave my voice as i reiterate, i enjoyed reading Durant.

24 January, 2010

Next Review

How Now Shall We Live?

Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey

Fascinating explanation of how the Christian world has closed in on itself, partially to protect itself, and left definitions and understandings of religion, world-views, origins, beliefs to the "scientific" (that brought to full flourishing by the Enlightenment) world. Colson (he of Nixon's White House) has written to proclaim the necessity for Christians to reclaim a part of the defining of life. One of his biggest issues, as with so many conservative Christians, is a concern with the evolution/creation debate (a debate which is scarcely given the dignity of that name by the rationalist side) and the consequences (all negative) for Christians of ceding the terms to the rationalists. Colson and Pearcey's solution is to fully engage the world, refusing the allow it to set the agenda and bases of the world-view; instead they insist that Christians must understand that Christianity is not an overlay but an entire way of looking at the world, at culture, at life. Only in this way can we be complete Christians, rather than rationalists who have an extra belief.

19 January, 2010

The Last Enchantment

Mary Stewart

Concludes Stewart’s trilogy of the story of Merlin. Well written, with characters you care about and a plot which can surprise you, though you know the story ever so well. Reinterprets parts of the story, to try and show how the legends could have arisen around a real person’s actions.

17 January, 2010

The Alchemist

The Alchemist


Paolo Coelho

Yes. Well. The thing is, i don't like books like this, books with a message that is the sole purpose of the book, books that are supposed to inspire the reader to action, books that say that it's better to take a leap into the unknown than to be stable and secure, books that aim to change the reader's behaviour and don't bother to disguise that fact. And yet, to a degree, i did enjoy this. It is written very simply, in the style of Saint Exubery's Little Prince; maybe that is some of the appeal. The story is simple: It is a retelling of the search for treasure which ends up back at home where the true treasure is. In my background the locations are East Anglia, London Bridge, and East Anglia again. Here, the protagonist starts in Spain, goes to the pyramids, and returns to his home church where a treasure awaits him. The scoop here is that he picks up much wisdom ~ and the reader is supposed to along with him ~ in the journeying. All right, but it is heavy-handed, as these books almost can't help being. Why not be blatant about it and admit you're writing a self-help book? Because those have a different market; and because these things sell ~ God knows why, but they do. This is supposed to be one of the most successful books of the last decade or two. It's OK. Perhaps i needed to hear its message at the time i read it. It is not, however, ever going to be one of my favourite books, or styles.

14 January, 2010

Latest Review

A Warrior's Life; A Biography of Paulo Coelho

by Fernando Morais

I should confess, in the interests of honesty, at the outset, i was prepared not to like this book. I have read only one of Coelho’s works, and i did not especially enjoy it (though i’ve not yet reread my review of it, to see exactly how i felt). I was not impressed, then, when on page four an egregious error such as calling Hungary a “part of the former Soviet Union” was made; i expected to be frustrated by reading a book which needed copy-editing properly. So, to continue with the honesty, i was pleased as i continued; there were not a lot more ridiculous errors, nor typos, nor other nonsenses the reader can do without. To be sure, there are points about the book i don’t like (more later on that), but the microlevel structure, to put it that way, was not one of them. What did i like?

Actually, i liked Morais’s writing style; he is very easy to read and, once i was able to devote a bit of time to it, i moved very quickly through the book. I found, as i have found previously, that the introduction of names is an awkward thing in biographies, as the choice seems to be either to overwhelm the reader with footnotes or reminders or to confuse him by hoping he remembers with no context a name introduced fifty pages previously; neither is a good choice, yet some biographers manage to make the process work. Not, i am afraid, Morais; i did not struggle as badly as i have in the past, but i was confused a couple of times as a name was mentioned without a reminder of who it represented ~ one time, especially, as the person was described as Coelho’s best friend on the flimsiest of evidence yet given. This complaint, however, is minor, when compared with the fine work that Morais has done on his authorised biography. There is much good here, evidence of a great deal of research : Eighty-plus people listed as interviewees, forty-odd years Coelho’s personal diary gone through in detail, over four hundred and fifty pages of text. All leading to quite a detailed biography.

The questions raised for me, though, are several variations on Why? Why is Coelho so successful? Why will the book be read? And why, oh why did Coelho allow this book to be written? To take them in order. Success as a writer was not overly quick in coming to Coelho, as told here. He was successful fairly early on in life as a lyricist for an outstandingly popular Brazilian singer, and wrote enough lyrics to keep himself and his partner of the day in sufficient luxury not to have to worry about the morrow. The immense success that he now enjoys, however, that he longed for from childhood, was much longer in arriving. While it has, it is purely a popular success; the critics almost universally despise Coelho and his writing, for a number of different reasons, from its quality to its content (and, one suspects, its very popularity). So why this popularity? The biography doesn’t enter into any real critique of Coelho’s writings, those since his popularity began in the late eighties, anyway, so it is perhaps outside the remit of this review; the closest Morais comes to giving a reason for the success is to report straight-faced that not long before that success began Coelho made a promise to a particular image of Jesus in Prague that, in return for huge popularity, he would give Jesus a new cape.

The premise of the first question answers the second: Why will the biography be read? Because the huge numbers of Coelho’s readers (over 100 million books sold throughout the world) will want to know more about their author, what makes him tick, how he writes what he does. Curiously, i think that many of them will be less than thrilled, because much more of Morais’ attention is given to Coelho’s presuccess than to any exploration of his writing technique or practice; indeed, when talking about the next book, at one point, Morais effectively just says, “He thought about it for a time, then sat down for a fortnight and wrote it all out”, which gives very little insight to the compulsive fan about methods. Perhaps this was done, as it is an authorised biography, with Coelho’s agreement, in order to maintain that air of mystery and mysticism which appears to be so important to him. Again, surprisingly little information is given about what must be the crux of the book, Coelho’s meeting with and training by a mysterious figure known as (but surely not called) Jean, Coelho’s spiritual master in Regnus Agnus Mundi, apparently an organisation within the Church of Rome (to which Coelho once again belongs) devoted to the individual’s journey towards truth. He is now, it seems, completely obedient to Jean, who at times makes varying demands upon him, demands requiring strict compliance, with the results we have seen.

Finally, i have to ask myself, why has Coelho allowed his biography to be written; more specifically, why is it this biography which, as mentioned above, is authorised? Because it does not present its subject in a flattering light. At all. The Coelho we meet in these pages is egotistical, a monomaniac about being a hugely successful writer, polygamous while apparently expecting monoandry from his women, mystical or spiritual without being careful about the source spirit ~ not a flattering portrait at all. We learn that he was three times put under treatment, including electroshock therapy, in what appears basically to have been an insane asylum, sent there by his parents, whom he was defying ~ to no greater degree than is to be expected from any teenager. We see that, even in the course of his mystical training in the work of RAM, he was faulted and held back by his enormous ego. And we are shown a picture, indeed, just about the first image we are given, of an author whose sole concern is with publicising himself and his books, for whom no amount of success is enough. I find this very odd in a biography written with the subject’s blessing. Maybe he is looking for some spiritual release in the permission for the dark side being shown. I don’t know. In the end, though, the important question is, Is this a book worth reading? And i am ambivalent, i’m afraid. I’m glad i read it, but i’m not sure that i’d pick up another by Morais and, for me, that latter is the single criterion upon which i decide i like a book.

And, finally, i ought to continue my opening honesty, and state that i have gone back and read the review of the one Coelho i have read, and i liked it more at the time than i remembered. Funny, maybe i should read another, and see if he’s better in the actual book than my recollection.

Obviously, this is not one of the series of reviews i am posting; rather it is the latest book i have received and read from the Librarything Early Reviewer programme.  And it is a review i have struggled over (it's taken four different sessions over the five days since i finished it), so i am a bit tentative in offering it up.  But i feel bound to. 

I think i shall also put up the review of the one book of Coelho's that i have read, in the interests of completeness, if nothing else!  Soon to follow...

11 January, 2010

Ann the Word

by Richard Francis

Quite an unusual story. I did not previously know much about Ann Lee, beyond the basics that she had established (not founded) the Shakers, and considered herself somehow equivalent to Jesus Christ. This book carries all the knowledge of her i could need ~ except, perhaps, the cause of her beliefs and knowledge. Ann herself would answer, quite plainly, that God had given them to her; such an answer does not, quite, suffice for Francis.

Born in Manchester, illiterate, fluid of name (her maiden name was actually Lees), a cutter of velvet then an institutional cook, Ann became the most remarkable religious leader in North America between the Great Awakening and Transcendentalism, not excluding Joseph Smith, Junior, who was charismatic, but not original. The account Francis gives here of the remarkable decade she spent in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut is almost unbelievable in that one person could effect so much in so many lives. Equally amazing are both the resistance she and the Shakers encountered, and the acceptance they found. Francis records several occasions in different locations in New England on which Ann was beaten or physically abused, and innumerable occasions on which the Shakers were subjected to mob attacks or threats. Remarkably, these did not slow down the growth of the group; indeed, they, like the blood of the martyrs, seem to have helped it grow by ensuring that everyone knew about the Shakers.

The Epilogue is interesting, if a little sad, as it shows Ann’s group floundering somewhat after her death, and then turning from her patterns of behaviour as they work out a permanent plan of survival. Never, though, did they turn from their understanding of Ann as the female counterpart to Jesus, and a woman who possessed in an abundant measure the power and presence of God. Francis has made that woman alive again for his readers, thus doing a great favour to us. 

09 January, 2010

Sleeping Murder

by Agatha Christie

Rather a well performed production here. It is a bit of a stretch, as so much Christie is, with coincidences here and there to make the plot flow the way she wanted/needed it to. Once you get past the major one of actually going back to the same house, which Christie does explain relatively satisfactorily, the rest fall into place. Miss Marple is, as usual, perceptive where others are blind; the villain is devious and obvious. Again, a classic production, evidently dating from the middle of her career, when she was at the peak of her form, though it is described as Miss Marple's last case; that description is deceptive, because it was marketed in the same way as Curtain, but they are not comparable; after all, Poirot dies in his last case.

07 January, 2010

Number Two

There's Treasure Everywhere


Bill Watterson

I love Calvin and Hobbes. They are so funny, so real. Calvin is the six-year-old little boy; Hobbes the stuffed tiger who is real in Calvin’s mind and, hence, the pictures and their adventures. I especially like that once in a great while Watterson drew Hobbes from the outsiders’ point of view, and we see the stuffed toy, not the living, walking, talking tiger. Too bad Watterson stopped drawing this comic strip.

03 January, 2010

Songs of Distant Earth

by Arthur C. Clarke

Once again, we discover that Clarke can write.

Again, as in others of his works, the heroes are not Earthmen ~ though descended from human genotypes, they are native Thalassians, and have been for generations. The Earthmen, the last in the universe, appear in the spaceship Magellan (no symbolism there, is there?), on their way to another star system, hundreds of years away, and it becomes doubtful ~ briefly ~ whether they will play the part of antagonists or behave themselves and fulfil their mission. The true antagonists, though, that will in generations to come challenge the Thalassians, are a previously unknown true native (not from Earth genotype) of the oceans of Thalassa.

Clarke’s imagination, knowledge, and ability to guess ~ accurately ~ where he does not know, is, as always, phenomenal. The picture of a colony of humans on a planet of water, struggling for survival in what could be a harsh environment, since it is not the original of their genotype, is brilliant. Though they struggle, they also live indolently, like the original South Sea Islanders, obviously the source of much of the picture. Yet there is something wonderful and scary in the idea of their founders ~ the Earth scientists who created their Mother Ship, loaded it, sent it ~ choosing for them the form of their culture, the portions of history, literature, Art, that they would have access to. The Thalassians are truly not Earthmen, for they do not have the history of Earth behind them. What we are shown is what a culture of humans would be like without Earth. Interesting idea.

01 January, 2010

1000 Reviews!

Right, it’s the first of January, and the last book i read (as the previous entry on this blog shows) was the one thousandth since i began the process of writing a review of each book read shortly after finishing it. That surely makes this the perfect moment to offer a small selection of those reviews here. So i’ll post one every two or three days over the next month, till maybe twenty or so are on-line ~ about two percent of the total. Why not?

I’ll be honest about the reviews; i will randomly select them, and i won’t change the selection to choose a better review. In fact, to ensure mine honesty, i have just run a random number generator, so the reviews will be of books numbered: 162, 487, 566, 207, 34, 625, 155, 627, 618, 131, 541, 732, 588, 174, 133, 47, 583, 698, 22, and 42. I haven’t looked yet, so i hope these are good reviews. I’ll post them, either way. The only change i’ll make is in the unlikely event that there isn’t a review at the indicated number (there are a few, probably a couple of dozen, books without reviews, for assorted reasons, mostly to do with software messing up records); if that happens, i’ll take the next in line.

I do reserve the right, however, to edit them before i post them, but that’s nothing new, they are always edited, lightly or otherwise, before being moved to their permanent location in the computer storage.

In the meantime, let’s take a brief look at the statistics (always a fascinating subject), of the books i’ve read and recorded since 1999.

By genre, first, always remembering that these genre choices are purely subjective and somewhat arbitrary (are Jeeves stories humour or short stories, for example):

  1. Autobiography 22

  2. Biography 56
  3. Criticism 26
  4. Drama 5
  5. History 117
  6. Humour 9
  7. Language/Linguistics 11
  8. Reference 3
  9. Religion 26
  10. Children’s fiction 25
  11. Juvenile fiction 74
  12. Historical fiction 27
  13. Humorous fiction 24
  14. Mystery 202
  15. Science fiction 54
  16. Short stories 33
  17. Other fiction 177
  18. Poetry 4
  19. Assorted non-fiction 78

That doesn’t actually total 1000. Oh well; probably to do with my skills, or lack thereof, in manipulating formulae and spreadsheets. Still, it’s a large enough sample to get a picture of what i like to read.

Next, the view by year:

  • 1999 29
  • 2000 113
  • 2001 127
  • 2002 79
  • 2003 85
  • 2004/5 197 (computer error lost about ten months of dates)
  • 2006 136
  • 2007 93
  • 2008 78
  • 2009 63

Again, interesting: Some pretty productive years there, though i wonder if the “big” years tend to have shorter reviews. Last year, 2009, not such a good year for volume, but i read some quite large and detailed books, so that requires more time and devotion. Anyway, there it is.