Life will always be hard for the biographer. There really is nobody famous who has not already been biographied to death, and the lives of interesting people without fame are never going to appeal to publishers. The biographer’s task, then, has been reduced to that of essayist, and his lot is to find some aspect of a celebrated life that can be challenged, psychoanalysed, enhanced, or otherwise marketed to compete with another dozen definitive biographies on the (probably long-deceased and unlikely to grow litigious) subject.
It is tempting therefore to recommend this book chiefly on the merits of Leach’s startling and provoking conclusions: her fearless heresies that threaten to tear down the temple of Carrollian orthodoxy and instantly demolish a hundred years of scholarship. In short, something truly original; the sole selling point and crucial lie of almost every biography in print.
It cannot be ignored that there is something rare and precious in a ubiquitous boast that happens once to be unashamedly true, and part of the charm in Leach’s book is that she does not rely only upon new interpretations or weighing certain evidence differently, but on new facts and new documents that have simply been ignored by her peers. That she comes out with new conclusions is therefore wholly unsurprising, and makes this book indispensable reading for scholars of Carroll, and indisputably the first stop for any casual reader looking to discover more about his or her favourite author.
This aspect of the book–the new reading of Charles Dodgson and his life–no matter how heterodox and bold it might be, is only one part of this biography’s success. After all, it has already been remarked that this book’s bold success is, of course, only what every modern biography claims to contain. Biographies in general ought to find a particular balance that they hold in common with well-written histories. Whether the story of a particular man or the story of a particular war; whether the life of a woman or the life of an empire, the genres are remarkably similar.
A biography must be written with a definite glimpse of the author. It should not merely be the sifted recrudescence of the subject’s acts and papers, but should be like a comfortable fireside talk with a fellow who has known the subject intimately, and with a few drinks will begin to reminisce warmly and vividly. Interpretation and conclusion are welcome as peripheries and abhorrent as a driving force. When a biographer begins to say things like “he must have…” or even worse, “he thought…” then he begins to enter dangerous waters.
Here is where Leach performs magnificently. She includes only enough analysis of Carroll’s works and writings as are immediately germane, instead reconstructing an elaborate storyline of the man’s life. Like any intimate friend might have, she has certain very strong opinions of what Carroll was and what Carroll did, but she impresses these thoughts on the reader by a careful tailoring of her narrative, not by a tedious pseudo-intellectual essay.
At the end of any biography, the reader is going to have to come to a decision, whether he will agree with what has been nothing more nor less than a carefully structured essay to persuade him to see a person (or event) in a certain light. It is plain that regardless of her evident skills as an essayist and her dilligence as a researcher, Leach will not persuade all of her readers. But it is extremely unlikely that anybody who takes the time to join her on a winding path through the life of one of the nineteenth century’s most singular writers will at all regret the journey.
Frightful. This hyperactive and blindly fumbling mess begins by dragging its feet before proving there are other, and more painful, things to drag. A hallowed master of the crime genre demonstrates with fitful incompetence everything that is wrong with the modern political thriller. If it were not painfully obvious how out of his depth Puzo is, and how desperately he is trying to cobble a story together out of a heap of misshapen jetsam, it might be plausible to regard this utter wreck as misplaced satire: a cracked and absurd lampoon of airport adventure novels. The simple fact is, The Fourth K is worse than any pulp novel one might snatch up at random from a supermarket shelf.
The question that must be asked is not ‘what is so bad about this book’, but ‘which straw is that fatal addition that breaks the camel’s back?’ Sadly (for nobody should glory in the public failure of a gifted man) the answer is that an autopsy would find this camel to have multiple greivous fractures, all throughout its shattered body. The man who once offered us Vito Corleone seems to have forgotten how to write a character. The titular President Kennedy is a hollow and inconsistent wreck, and it becomes plain only a short way into the book that the author himself is trying with increasing urgency to find a way into his character, glancing quickly at him through an array of different perspectives and supporting characters as if to find some point of view that makes him interesting, original, or even believable.
Two other grotesques leer above the slipshod writing, the hackneyed metaphors and the tersely uninspired dialogue to smear their foul taste across this book’s hideous carapace. The first is Puzo’s maddening habit of introducing a character marked clearly for death, and simpering on for a few pages about this nonentity’s history, or hopes and dreams, or particular foibles–before killing him or her, as any but a dullard must know he would. This is insulting to the reader. It’s a waste of time, and it’s openly manipulative. It’s a padding technique used by the very worst novice writers to inject sterile empathy into the last dying embers of a failing book. For shame, Mario. You’re better than this.
The second is the entirely gratuitous pen which Puzo uses to dribble sordid and graphic accounts of entirely insignificant characters’ intimate exploits over soiled pages. The flimsy argument that these scenes might be important for the development of certain characters does not even hold the usual trickle of water here, as these recurring scenes are never relevant to either the twisted, ugly plot; or to the pace of the book; or to the understanding of the characters themselves. They are paltry attempts at titillation, and they succeed only in darkening and souring the tone of the book, and in derailing further the mad, mad aberrance that might by some charitable stretch of the imagination be called a storyline. This is a dreadful, sad excuse for a book.
Pierre Bayard needs three things to make this book a success: a compelling argument to back up his audacious title, a solid grounding in mystery literature in general and Arthur Conan Doyle in particular, and at least twenty five thousand words of really good stuff. Unfortunately for Bayard and for his readers, he has only the first two.
This book can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, he explains why Holmes’ conclusions in The Hound of the Baskervilles are completely wrong. In the second, he offers an introduction to literary criticism and psychoanalysis, and explains why the prospect can even be considered. In the third, he suggests an alternate explanation.
The first problem has its germ in this particular layout. Nowhere does the cover of this book suggest that it will be an academic text discussing the freudian reflexes of Doyle, or the ideas of characters and readers immigrating and emmigrating to and from the text. Bayard can be excused–grudgingly, of course–on the grounds that this second section is not interminably long, and that it is really quite interesting, and presented succinctly and with a certain style.
So much, then, for the first problem. The second problem lies in the fact that once this middle section is excluded, there remains only an essay of middling length to explain Holmes’ faults and the author’s theories. It might even be considered to Bayard’s credit that these theories so instantly hold water, and that it does not take pages of haranguing to prove the fictional detective’s mistakes. It does, however, mean that this book is really not very satisfying as a whole. It is a quick cover-to-cover read, and it is of course worth the small effort. Bayard might have done better to write a wider critique of Holmes as a character and a man: then the literary criticism would have formed a natural introduction, and the Baskerville episode could have formed one thrilling case study among several others.
The problem with that, of course, is that nobody would have read it. This book’s snappy title and salacious promises certainly do not leave one empty; but neither are they especially filling.
The writer of this review site has commented several times on his repeated disappointment, regret, and guilty pleasure that follows almost any alternate history novels with gloomy inevitability. It is always with a heavy heart that a new one is begun, and always with a heavier heart that it is later set down. Romanitas provides–not so much an exception–as a chink of light that suggests all is not so dreary in this field as might be supposed.
It is not for her writing that Sophia McDougall stands out from the morass of alternate fiction writers. Her writing is competent and engaging, though overprone to slackness and a passive habit that suggests at times her creation is at risk of escaping her abilities. Neither is it for her concept. Her concept is certainly fresh and initially exciting, and while at times the grey old world of the real shows through, this allows her to build a world that is believable and visceral, as well as being a novelty.
One of her greatest successes, though, is her refusal to grandstand or monologue on behalf of her own cleverness. It is her staunch refusal to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing how the world of Romanitas is different and worth the read. There are occasional explanations of ancient history, and how her timeline diverged from what the reader will know as real life. Sensibly, some of this is even handled in a brief appendix. At no point is the reader given cause to wonder what happened to the story, and why he’s being lectured on political events utterly irrelevant to the current predicament of the main characters.
With these modest successes and impressively-avoided pitfalls, Romanitas progresses pleasantly but not thunderously. As with any fugitive plot, there are moments when the willing suspension of disbelief wears a little thin, or where the necessity of a limited viewpoint will annoy even a patient reader. There are chapters that seem nothing but a litany of rushed poetry on grey mountains and windswept highways. There are at least one or two deus ex machinae littered around, which make the plot seem more ragged than it really is. In spite of at least two sequels, Romanitas reads admirably on its own, without the phantom shadow of an unborn sibling hanging over the ending. The verdict can only be that this is an imperfect work, and a book that will require patience at times, but for anybody in earnest search of good alternate histories to read, this would be a fine place to start.
It was a little surprising (and honestly, disconcerting) to find that not only did Holmes’ eternal companion Watson provide the voice for this mystery, but also most of the legwork. The conceit of a narrative through a letter can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. In The Hound of the Baskervilles it certainly feels like laziness.
A second and deeper problem with this mystery is the straightforwardness of it all. The method and the killer are made plain halfway through, with the rest of the book merely a sweeping-up exercise: the setting of a trap, and the successful conclusion of all ventured by the intrepid detective. Characters are brought in as literary devices and plot shortcuts rather than as meaningful components of a whole, and once their part in the play is concluded they are swept away, never to be heard from again.
Doyle’s writing is excellent, but readers might well be forgiven for imagining that writing in the persona of a rather self-satisfied and coddled English gentleman making reports and penning florid missives would not come with too great a difficulty to this author. This is a fun story to read, but is neither intellectually nor creatively stimulating. There are better mysteries out there, and there are better mysteries to be investigated by Sherlock Holmes. It is telling that the best part of this book, the most interesting part and by far the cleverest–is confined to banter between Sherlock and Watson as they try to guess the identity of a caller at the very beginning of the story. For all the iconic weight that the spectre of this hound has cast upon the body of English literature, once its tracks have been thoroughly traced by the reader its form cannot but come as a disappointment.
The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.
It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.
Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.
Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.
Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.
This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.
It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.
Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.
This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.
The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.
Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!
“What the Founders said and why it still matters” is the proclamation emblazoned on the front of this ponderous new diatribe. Would that this boast were true! It can be difficult for non-Americans to understand (viscerally if not intellectually) why the United States stands so fiercely and so doggedly to its historical codifications, and a passionately-written explanation of why this might be the case is an interesting and compelling prospect.
Alas! For Adam Freedman does not address his book to the earnest seeker, but rather to the confirmed disciple. Like a new convert turning to a book of theology only to be driven thence by sludgy discussions on the Greek translation of parousia, readers of The Naked Constitution will be confronted almost immediately by a schoolyard bicker about whether conservatives or liberals are true “originalists”. There is not really an honest attempt to explain how the determination of “original intent” is uncovered, nor even to explain why original intent is even important.
In examining the general mindset of men over two centuries dead, it might be expected that the politics of the olden days would take precedence, but instead this book is firmly entrenched in scouring through court decisions and bills passed in the last two decades–particularly under Clinton and under Obama. And that is the real meat and bones of this tract. It is a fiercely partisan denunciation of liberalism in the early twenty-first century, and little else. It makes some very good points and some poorer ones; it descends to pettiness as often as it makes honest and thought-provoking points. But it emphatically does not answer the thorny issue so proudly displayed on its cover. If anything, it proves only that the United States Constitution is irrelevant as a basis for government, as it can be (and is) dissected and patched back together by liberals and conservatives alike, to serve their own particular interests. In one or two shameless slip-ups, Freedman does exactly this, mentioning in passing that such-and-such constitutional idea cannot really apply in today’s world, and ought to rather mean so-and-so.
Besides this, there are the same old tired political talking points that obsess modern commentators so: the anachronistic gun-worship, the quibbling and complaining about nineteenth-century federalism, bickering about the division between church and state, and where the lines are drawn, and how thickly, and by whom. There is a great deal to value in this book, but it is either irritatingly dishonest, or else an abysmal failure in its central point and intention. Ultimately, that makes it just another run-of-the-mill polemic, and while interesting on its own merits, it has nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other books of the same shade.
Bernard Cornwell is a tricky fellow to define, and his books are not the easiest to anticipate. He is certainly a very able writer; there is no argument to be made on that count. One of the biggest fluctuations in his writing quality tends to be his restraint, where he allows himself to become so carried away in depicting a ruthless and gritty realism that it turns into an unreadable slush of perverted sex and graphic violence. Another of his faults is linked even closer to his commitment to realism: there are a lot of people in real life who are cruel, selfish monsters that some of his books become populated exclusively with characters who are unappealing in every regard.
Now, obviously if he fell victim to these two failings in every one of his books, he could hardly be called an able writer. The truth is that when he makes his mark, he shines. It would not be a stretch to name him the best writer of historical fiction working today. It would even to be fair to name him as being among the best writers of historical fiction of all time. Picking up one of his books might rightly be a venture carried with great trepidation, but it will never be a worthless effort.
This particular entry in the trilogy that became a loosely-bound series drifting through the Hundred Years War shows writing that is more mature than anything in his Richard Sharpe series, and even than some of the writing in his excellent Arthurian trilogy. This is not to say his writing is faultless. There are momentary lapses, overly-dramatic blunders, and storytelling cul-de-sacs; but the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, and he produces an epic and thoroughly gripping adventure story that no reader could justly describe as boring.
The central quest that runs through the story is a rather disappointing MacGuffin, and this is really an excuse to place characters Cornwell has established elsewhere onto the stage in the midst of a deeply intriguing historical battle, and allow them to thrive. This is not necessarily a bad choice, as a plot that might easily have felt like the barrel-scrapings of that infamous incompetent Dan Brown, is instead turned into a peripheral curiosity that does a fine job of pacing beside the book without ever overpowering the human dynamics of the plot.
This, then, is where Cornwell shines, and what turns 1356 from just another battle told from the perspective of a footsoldier into something of note. His ensemble cast of characters are cleverly crafted, and there is a sense of real human depth to them. Their motivations and their conflicting passions are threaded gently into the plot without any ham-fisted exposition, and an impressive amount of time is spent developing even extraneous characters. Thomas of Hookton is a fellow explored pretty thoroughly in others of Cornwell’s books, but as with Sharpe the books are written so as generally to be legible–and even enticing and fulfilling–even when read out of chronology. In 1356 there are strong echoes of Cornwell’s Arthur, though decidedly less tragic in flavour, which can be nothing if not a strength.
This is not the best of Cornwell’s work, but the excellence with which it is written ought to stand then as a proof in its own right of this author’s abilities and attention to detail. There are many writers who rest easily on the laurels of past successes, and it is a genuine relief to find that Bernard Cornwell has not fallen prey to laziness in his later books. This is a book easy to recommend, and if it serves as a gateway to the author’s stronger work, so much the better. But it is a fine piece of work on its own merits.
Another of Dick’s non-science fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty is more notable for its carefully constructed style than for its story. It might not have mattered what Dick wrote about here; as much as how he wrote it. Indeed, there is the distinct feeling that the book might have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, or six hundred pages longer, and with much the same set of results and level of enjoyment as in its actual form.
At times Dick appears to be emulating the voice of a latter-day Steinbeck, peeling back the shiny bakelite exterior of the postwar boom to point his spotlight at ordinary and irrational people making bad decisions and doing foolish things. Less sympathetic than the Joads, certainly; but easier to identify with, even if the reader recoils in awkward realisation at the identification.
Written before the majority of his science fiction work, it is truly interesting to see the similarities between Humpty Dumpty‘s Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and later characters like Joe Chip or Rick Deckard, and even to speculate towards some of the stylistic choices that buoyed up Dick’s fantastic imagination and contributed so much to his success. Decades before a greasy and industrial aesthetic became a defining trait in the science fiction genre, Dick was already fascinated with the working class, the uneducated, the addicted and the vast multicoloured array of virtues and vices that they shared.
It is difficult to decide whether this book ought to be recommended to regular readers of Philip K. Dick and other speculative fiction, or for readers of Arthur Miller and shabby grey realism. It is remarkably far from the beaten track for the former, and doesn’t really compare all that favourably for the latter. Difficult, then, to decide for whom it ought to be recommended; but not difficult to recommend.