A review of Robert Harris’s “Conclave.”

Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the Vatican, is summoned one night with dread news; the Pope is dead.  And as Dean he must mange and officiate over the process of electing a new Pope, a Conclave, a meeting of and vote between all the Cardinals to choose one of their number to hold this most Holy of offices.
A handful of ambitious men, representing the various traditions of the Church, Liberal and Catholic, start their manoeuvring and machinations immediately.  And Cardinal Lomelli must ensure due process is observed, and resolve terrible dilemmas and crisis that will come to the fore.  And to complicate matters further, an enigmatic new Cardinal appears at the Vatican, one sworn into office In Pectore (in secret) by the late Pope.  And the world, and its darkest and most violent forces, begin to press against the walls of the Vatican.
This is an utterly compelling page turner, with vivid characters, tight plotting and epic themes of ambition, corporate and personal responsibility, faith and the world, set in that most troubled but fascinating of institutions, the Roman Catholic Church.  Harris writes fascinating detail on the layout and organisation of the Vatican, its traditions and history, without it slowing down what is in essence a political thriller.   The writer also avoids any trite judgements or observations on the individuals or the institution he portrays.  He describes it with real human sympathy, but not with any kind of bias or idealisation.
 I read this in a few days on holiday, and its an ideal choice as a holiday read.  A thoroughly entertaining and gripping novel, its a cliche to say that the pages flew by, but with this, they did.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of Robert Jordan’s “Lord of Chaos: Book 6 of ‘The Wheel of Time’.”

My history with Robert Jordan’s huge 14 book saga started just over 20 years ago when I first cracked open  the “Wheel of Time. ”  Here I was introduced to Lews Therin and the madness through ‘channelling’ the ‘one power’ that would destroy him and kill his wife, and crumble his castle.  I remember key events in the book.  I remember working my way through the series, I think it was Book 5 that accompanied me to my honeymoon.  And it was Book 6, this one, Lord of Chaos, that finally defeated me a quarter of the way through.  Other than a few abortive attempts to pick up where I left off, I laid the series to rest for 20 years.  Then, I decided to download the audio-book and defeat it this way.
Why did I initially leave the series?  This was down to both what some variously describe as the series greatest strength, and also its greatest flaw; the detail, the sheer, remorseless detail, the piling of chapter upon chapter from a  multitude of locations and perspectives.  It’s a flaw because it is at times ill disciplined.  Each book will leave a number of plot strands dangling and I am sure they are picked up in later instalments, but it makes that particular novel more unsatisfying. Then there is the minutiae of the descriptive prose, a lot which a charitable editor would have moved their red pen swiftly through.   The good side of this is that, if you surrender yourself to it, a bit like the characters in the series surrender themselves to the Source or the Power, chances are you’ll be thoroughly immersed in this fantasy world, and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams.
The series describes of a band of young people who are “Taveren” i.e. focal points of destiny, and how they form around a farm-boy called Rand-Al-Thor who has mysterious parentage and is in fact a prophesied Messianic figure who will destroy the Dark Lord of the series called, unsurprisingly, the Dark One.  This is in fact an epic cycle that must link and repeat through the ages, the titular Wheel of Time.
The Dark One has an army of monstrous figures assisting him; the Forsaken, a bickering, competing group of figures who step in and out of history and cause chaos, Half men, like Tolkien’s Wraiths, Trollocs, human-animal hybrids reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ors, and more.  There are figures who surpass evil itself like the monstrous Padan Fain, a former Tinker who has gone beyond life and death.  There are also ‘dark-friends,’ human allies to the evil power.
There is a wizard caste in the series, Aes Sadai, but here it’s wholly female, because the one power, think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, can be channelled safely only by women.The female half is called Saidar.  If a male channels the male half of the power, Saidan, it will drive them mad with spectacularly destructive results.  Hence the Aes Sadai see it as part of their mission to ‘gentle’ ie neuter from the one power any man who can channel.  This causes Rand a few difficulties.
Lord of Chaos, then, takes up the story with Rand consolidating his grip on a number of cities and provinces, whilst laying stratagems against the Forsaken, with the focus of his plans at this point being a dude called Sammael who is at that point marshalling his forces against Rand.   Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai have been fractured into two camps; an aggressive clan (the ‘official’ Aes Sedai) who want to gentle Rand and eliminate any male channelling the One Power (they seized power in a bloody coup in a previous book) and a renegade group, where most of our Aes Sedai heroines  (including heroines we have known from the first book) are, including Elayne (also ‘Daughter heir of Andor), Nynavae and Egwene. This group are more holistic in their approach.  Some of our heroines in this group get involved in hunting down powerful artefacts, ‘Ter’Angreal,’  that they have come across  whilst dream-walking in the Land of Dreams, ‘Tel Ar Anrihod’ (these spellings are from memory so please bear with me) whilst others work out how they may help Rand (not all the good Aes Sedai believe they should).
Meanwhile two of the other Taveren (see above), Matt and Perrin, move with their armies to assist Rand.  Matt is roguish gambler with a talent for luck, and Perrin has wolf like abilities, he can link with wolves to experience the world through them and call to them, and he can see and hear like a Wolf.  He’s your fantasy novel character with the big axe.
So a lot of these main themes are unresolved in the book, its greatest frustration.   The last few chapters pages or so instead deal with a threat to Rand that whilst not wholly unexpected, was not the one we expected to close the book.   I won’t spoil it further, but these last chapters do generate some threat and tension.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of detail in this book that will at time have you shaking your head either in befuddled resignation, or just sighing and going with it.  There are lots of descriptions of clothes.  The politicking of the Aes Sedai and the sheer profusion of characters is head spinning at times.  The bad guys aren’t in it enough, when they are it does get a lot more interesting.  The gender politics of the book (and of Jordan’s works as a whole) is straight off a heavy metal album covers of the 70’s, women hardly dressed in various submissive poses, whilst being towered over by aggressive muscle clad male figures (or monsters). There may be a chain collar on the woman (optional).  Yes there are elements in Jordan’s writings that seem to refute this (the Aes Sedai clan are the most powerful in this world and the dominant power, strong women are as prevalent if not more so than male counterparts) but it all seems a bit disingenuous when you have scenes such as in this book, where a key Aes Sedai ritual involves all women showing their breasts and stating “I am a woman.”
In the final analysis though, the books remain great fun and will keep you company for ages.  And when you look at Jordan’s CV (highly decorated Vietnam Vet, physics  arts and games enthusiast) you can see the life experience and intelligence that informs his writings.  Start from Book One, and if you can, keep going.
The audio-book is a good and clear presentation read by Michael Kramer whose reads with a good measured pace, just the right amount of gravitas and nuanced for the different roles, and Kate Reading, who also does a splendid job coping with wide range of female voices.

A review of Rich Hawkins “The Last Plague”

A group of friends find more to trouble them than a hang-over when they wake from a Stag Party in a remote country cottage in Sussex.   The world has gone mad, infected by a disease that turns people into ravening, mutating, flesh eating monsters.  Who or what is the cause of the outbreak?  Will they survive and find their families and loved ones alive and un-turned?  Is there any hope for humanity?  How far has the plague spread?

What sets this very bleak but effective apocalyptic thriller apart from the groaning weight of it’s undead filled cousins are the monsters themselves, and their mysterious origin.  The origin is very sketchily explained and this is both strength and weakness.  I’ll come to that later.  But the monsters, what you become if you are unlikely enough to contract this plague, are basically every combination possible of the mutations in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and then some.  The body horror also nods to David Cronenberg, but the main respectful nods must be to “The Thing.” Fanged mouths and eyes generate in very odd places indeed, as do slimy tentacles and spider legs and all kinds of weird animal shapes that really do reference that film.  As do the grotesque ways the monsters consume their prey, from just chowing down to absorption.

The horror is merciless and the tone relentlessly bleak, even for a genre not known for casual optimism.  The characters are well drawn and the writer knows how to develop them, their reactions are heartbreaking and believable.  The survivors find a small child, a girl, which ups the ante, as they fight to keep her alive.  The pace of the narrative is fast.  Short chapters will speed by in a blur.  That this is managed whilst maintaining the generations of suspense, mystery, and character development is testament to good writing.

What was more problematic for me was that a bit of ‘slow burn’ in a plague or zombie outbreak’s origins is something I usually enjoy, the gradual exponential dread,  the story of a patient zero and the ripples outwards.  We don’t have that here, there’s something like a spontaneous mass infection.  And what spares our protagonists, and the uninfected they meet?  Why some and not others?  Yes it’s spread by bites and scratches as usual, but the initial mass outbreak was caused by huge, mountainous organic alien ships in the sky (full marks for originality and creepiness).  But how exactly did they kick things off?  I’m hoping these things are unpacked in the next  few books in the trilogy.

It’s bleakness and gore is “Walking Dead” strength (the graphic novels) so be warned.  You may need to lie down and / or watch a Pixar movie on finishing this.  Definitely a strong brew, but a good one.

A review of Stant Litore’s “Lives of Unstoppable Hope.”

This is a beautiful and powerful little book.  The writer has a pre-school daughter, Inara who struggles with a rare form of epilepsy.  Although Inara has made a lot of hopeful progress, her infancy was full of inexplicable and violent rolling seizures that left her parents shaken and frightened.  The father sat long vigils by her hospital bed, which inspired these reflections on the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Stant Litore has a love of and has studied languages, including the Greek of the New Testament.  He brings this learning to bear in this book in a powerful way, really getting to the inner life and power of Jesus’s words that a lot of translations have left obscured.

This, together with his poetic and imaginative understanding of God, humanity, joy and suffering make this a book that has the potential to push you out of your comfort zones and live lives of “unstoppable hope,” making a real difference to the world.

I am not new to Stant Litore, I belong to the Paetron crowd-funding scheme that supports his work, having read and greatly enjoyed and appreciated a lot of his stuff.  This includes a series called the “Zombie Bible,” that takes the stories of the Bible and fuses them with …the undead.  Stant’s reading of spiritual hunger with the zombie plagues he describes is an illuminating and enriching one.  I have also enjoyed his “Ansible” series that describe telepathic space travel and demonic creatures of pure mind, real Lovecraftian horrors.

Common to also his writing is a fiercely humanistic Christian faith.  I find it powerfully authentic.  So look up his work, and if you are so moved, support him and his family through Paetron.  I write through powerfully selfish reasons, I simply want to read more of his stuff.

A review of Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.”

This short book (79 pages) by an Italian Theoretical Physicist has been lauded for the skill and poetry with which it communicates very complex ideas of theoretical physics.

It does have that merit.  It is an engaging short read and the compression of big and complicated ideas into seven short chapters is like one of those theoretical compressions of matter that lie at the heart of black holes.  The image of the Universe, space, as a vast rippling sea, I loved that.

So the chapters cover Einstein’s theories of relativity, Quantum mechanics, the structure of the Universe, particle physics, probability, time, heat, black holes, and, most portentously, “ourselves.”

One review I read said the book draws from a wide range of philosophy, arts, and literature.  Not really.  There’s a glancing reference to Shakespeare here, a mention of a symphony there, a few quotes from Lucretius here.  On the whole this is a short work of scientific materialism with the odd poetic turn of phrase.  And like much of modern science, with its panic to exclude anything that does not exist within its worldview, it falls back on  frantic attempts to generate “wonder.”  So isn’t this all ‘ooooh,’ and  ‘aaaahhh,’ and ‘wow.’

For in the end this short book says that many of the theories it expounds are clunky, there is much that is unknown, but don’t worry, there’s enough to be sure that we are the result of reducible processes, nothing more.  It’s arrogant reductionist thinking dressed up with a few oooh’s and ahhh’s. The closing chapter isn’t even original thinking, it repeats much of what Richard Dawkins says in the chapter “The Mother of all Burkas” in “The God Delusion.”

Worth reading as a primer on some interesting scientific theories and ideas, and also on the limits of those same theories, but arrogant and unconvincing in its conclusions

 

A review of Timothy Keller’s “My Rock My Refuge: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms.”

My walk as a Christian is a very faltering one indeed.  Therefore a daily devotional reading, I reason, is helpful in keeping my steps on more or less the right path.  ‘More or less’ the right path.  What a typically British thing to say.  As if to say”keep my feet on the right path” was too definite and impolite.  But no.  As I said, my walk is faltering, and as a flawed human being I know that rather than some angelic Roman road, I’ll be weaving in a zig-zagging, inebriated fashion.

Anyway.

I bought this book as a daily devotional to help me for the above reason, and also because the Psalms are the amongst the most the human and relatable writings in the Bible.  Cries of hatred and rage, deep wails of despair, and dialogues of depression that sound like the speaker is having to tear the words from their throat, sit alongside jubilant songs of praise, wonder and gratitude.

I have read C S Lewis’s excellent “Reflection on the Psalms,” which is a helpful book, packed with wisdom and insight.

In this you get a Psalm, or sections of a longer Psalm (related in their Biblical order) along with a short commentary and prayer.  That’s the format, day in, day out.  The translation used is that of the NIV.

Just a word on the writers.  Tim Keller is an American Pastor, theologian, writer and apologist.  He is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City.  This is a large and influential Church with a congregation drawn from mainly NY young professionals.  So far so US Conservative mega-church?  Not so, according to Tim Keller, who says that the Church defines itself less on an oppositional, hostile take to the Secular world but more that of one of neighbourliness, focusing strongly on the person and mission of Jesus Christ.  Tim’s wife, Kathy, is the book’s other writer.

Nevertheless, the theology in the book has a strongly Conservative taste to it.  I don’t mean that as a criticism.  What is more of a criticism is that there is little in this book that seems to be taking risks, really breaking into the Psalms and making them bleed into our daily lives.   There is little history or grappling with the language or translation issues.  It lacks that kind of kick-start energy that inspires you and has you thinking on the train into work.

The book is peppered with references, although most of them draw on a commentary of the Psalms from someone called Derek Kidner.  Then there’s some references to traditional hymns, a few references to the poetry of George Herbert, and more eclectically, one relating to Superman Returns, the movie, and another to Tolkien’s  The Two Towers.  But on the whole the references are not very varied, and add to the conservative feel of the book.

What is interesting is that, in an Afterword to the book, Kathy Keller states that the early manuscripts of the books were scrapped for being far too dense and complex.  It looks like they went too far the other way.

But look, this book has kept me company all year, it has given me some focus and brought me back to the Psalms, and for that I’m grateful.  It may well work better for others, it’s not a bad book at all.  It has integrity and sincerity of purpose.  But personally I wanted more.