The Thirty Nine Steps, by John Buchan

September 27, 2011 at 12:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery, Thriller) (, , , )


The Thirty Nine Steps is a strange mixture of a story that seems never to quite live up to the promises it makes.  After the heartbreakingly numb first page, a thrilling adventure opens up, with some truly excellent exposition that is ambitious in scope, has a promising ring of realism to it, and is boldly fantastical.  The whole evasion part of the story, the first (and most of the second) act, is as quick and self assured as any modern spy or adventure story, and although the adrenaline of action tapers off fairly swiftly, it leaves a constant thrumming edge of danger and suspense rarely seen in even the best thrillers.

“‘Pardon,’ he said. ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’
I sat down in an armchair and lit my pipe.
‘What does it feel like?'”

-The Thirty Nine Steps

The adventure in the Germans’ house is well-written, but it proves to be a high water mark that is retreated from suddenly and jarringly.  After the initial horror of the man with the hawk’s eyes, the protagonist’s every challenge is quickly and easily solved, and the anticlimax does a lot to mask the competent and touching skill of the author, and his description of the gentler aspects of highland life.  In terms of plot, from the unlikely coincidence of the hero stumbling accidentally into the villains’ chief lair, he then suffers unlikely accident after unlikely accident, meeting in thirty pages or so by utter coincidence everyone he needs to regain the trust of the law and to solve the whole plot.  Needless to say the denouement occurs in just such a haphazard and fortuitous way, and the story ends abruptly, almost as if the author had suddenly tired on a whim of the bloodiness of his tale, and sought for the nearest exit.  Read this book for the first half of it, and imagine what it might have been.

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Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellman

September 19, 2011 at 03:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Literature, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

Ellman’s style is prim and polished and very aloof. He writes with great attention to detail, but like a barrister rather than the poet he describes. There are honestly vast sections of this book that seem as cheerful as obituaries, and as vivid as tax codes. Considering the sometimes languid and often obtuse subject of the biography, this style is peculiar to say the least. Bafflingly, equal attention is given to minutiae as to life-changing encounters and pivotal events in Oscar Wilde’s life; and while it would have been impossible to offer exposition on unknowns and irresponsible to speculate or even editorialise much, it is left to the reader to wonder how many of the six hundred pages are at all relevant in building a complete picture of Wilde, and just how much of the account is a mess of flotsam and jetsam, pieced together with deference to chronology and indifference to anything resembling a narrative.

“For Wilde, aestheticism was not a creed but a problem.”

-“Oscar Wilde” (R. Ellman)

Wilde is quoted copiously throughout, and Ellman religiously copies down the original texts of any amount of letters and recollected snatches of conversation, in English, French and Latin at least. He scores points for veracity, but seems again to be writing a scholar’s book for scholars’ palates, rather than a portrait of a man. His friends and acquaintances are selectively arranged, with Ross and Douglas having the lion’s share of their work reproduced, and others mentioned regularly but without depth.

As noted, Ellman does not often offer an editor’s opinion; but then, neither does he frequently offer a scholar’s analysis, either upon Wilde as a man or upon Wilde’s works as literature. Occasionally he goes so far as to admit that one piece of poetry is not as advanced as later works, or is flawed, or is a masterpiece; but he seldom goes much further to explain his judgements. Some of Wilde’s works are not mentioned at all, and only a few are given even this briefest of treatments. For a critical view of the poet and his poetry, or for a sociological query of his life and legacy, this book is not satisfactory at all. As a flawless piece of research with interesting resources and a detailed chronology, this book is a complete (although rather pedestrian and unfortunately cumbersome) biography.

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain

September 12, 2011 at 14:12 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature) (, , , , )


Is it important for a book to be interesting and entertaining without being likeable or true? Mark Twain’s irresistible humour and jaunty style is positively infectious, and he certainly knows how to tell an appealing story. It is on this merit, and almost this merit alone, that this book receives its recommendation. His note in the preface about Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution turning him from a mild Girondin into a bloodthirsty Marat seems at least to be catching, and his laid-back style sets the unsuspecting reader up for a surprise when he launches jarringly into one searing indictment after another, essaying without pretense to convert others as he himself was converted. His simplistic comment that Carlyle is a neutral man and that therefore the facts spoke their gospel to him is a very telling hint at his beliefs that he trumpets through Yankee Hank’s mouth; namely that conservatism and monarchy are the wickedest evil to be perpetrated upon humanity.

“You see, I had my handkerchief in my helmet; and some other things; but it was that kind of a helmet you can’t take off by yourself.”

-A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

At first it might seem natural that the bold colours he paints in are plainspeaking and obvious facts, and that his gospel ought to run swiftly and be glorified in all the unenlightened nations of his 1889 world. Looking beyond that, however, he presents to his readers only a rather shabby straw man; a sad patchwork creation dredged from every era and nation of history, from the deep south of the slave states to the court of the Sun King to Ancient Rome to the utterly fictitious world of Thomas Malory (in which all things are supposed to find their consummation – and there’s a pretty irony there, if you care to look!). As an indictment of the human race and condition, Twain’s opus might be a fine thing. As a piece of political pamphleteering, it is rather trite. Quite besides the childish reasoning and the immature philosophies that Twain’s Yankee spouts forth at the slightest provocation, and quite besides the book’s uselessness as a historical novel, it is flawless. It is a fairytale, and a story for nineteenth century proto-socialists to pat themselves on the back with, but it comes down a hundred years rather poorly. An excellent novel, then, if the reader can sniff at the posturing.

As a side note, the magnificent illustrations by D. C. Beard are quite as beautiful and poignant as the text itself, and add significantly to the story, enriching and enhancing wheresoever they are found, and often giving the punch line more convincingly than Twain’s prose. Reading an edition with these original illustrations restored is not optional.

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