A review of Iain Maitland’s “Dear Michael, Love Dad.”

This is a series of letters Iain Maitland wrote to his son Michael, over the period 2007-2013.  It covers a series of family adventures and misadventures Iain relates to his son, and running through them is a growing awareness that Michael is desperately ill, with Anorexia and depression.  Until the moment when Michael hits bottom and has to be hospitalised, in the last section of the book, Iain and his family’s stock reaction is one of angry denial that Michael needs to do no more than pull his socks up, and not be so dependent on his girlfriend Niamh, who increasingly speaks for Michael and cares for him.
Through Iain’s letters we get to know the family well; Iain the hard pressed, long suffering writer, fighting a losing battle against the internet (he wrties information bulletins amongst other things), ‘your dear Mother’ Tracy, a classroom assistant who is clearly the emotional heart of the family, and Michael’s volatile sister Sophie, ambitious, intelligent, and with a tendency to go ‘nuclear’ if angered or disappointed.  There is also a string of Sophie’s boyfriends, each with their own foibles, but all ‘good sorts’ who do not survive as Mr Right, but become part of the family nevertheless   And Michael, at University, with Niamh, studying an art degree and increasingly frightened and unwell.
Iain’s letters are interspersed by a commentary which outlines key events, why the family reacted the way it did , their growing understanding (which comes late) of mental health issues, and through it all a raw, unflinching honesty.
The book is also very funny, Iain knows how to be laugh out loud amusing in his writing.  We come to know and love this family.  They are clearly warm, loving, accepting, generous and hospitable, with an open door policy to their family and family friends.  Iain is frustrated and angered by his son and honest about what he did not know and what he chose to ignore.  He relates his own childhood  which was shockingly painful, not by way of excuse, but important context.
It’s a book whose main truth is that their no such thing as a perfect parent, that there is no manual of perfect parenting.  We are complex, our children are complex, we live in a complex of world.  We have our bedrock of values and moral code, and that has to inform an infinite variety of relational combinations of issues and possibilities.  But love here shines through it all, as it must for all of us if we are to stay afloat, and keep our loved ones afloat, through all life’s storms.
The book serves to inform on the important issues of mental health and young people, and is an important corrective to the common misconception that anorexics are all fashion mag obsessed teenage girls.  The mental health of young men is often overlooked, although there has been a lot of corrective awareness raising recently, and it’s good to have this book as part of that.  The book is also full of important social history of our recent past, in our rapidly changing world.
But best of all, it’s honest, funny and loving.  I feel richer for having read it.

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 Chuck Palahinuk and Cameron Stewart’s graphic novel: ‘Fight Club 2.’

I have always been a fan of Palahinuk’s original ‘Fight Club,’ and Fincher’s brilliant adaptation, a film I have watched repeatedly.  It’s a fantastic concept, the manic alter ego capable of doing all the stuff you wish you had the balls to do, and the savage satire of consumerism (“the things you own end up owning you”) resonates ever more strongly as our embrace with shiny gadgets and latest must-haves gets ever tighter.  The stories also have a lot to say about the crisis of modern masculinity and the difficulty of carving a meaningful male identity in a world of soggy and treacherous material values.
I picked up this with high hopes, and the blurb led me to expect truly great things.  It involves Palahinuk himself as writer after all, as well as some brilliant talents in the comic industry today.  How disappointing then to finish feel frustrated, empty and disappointed.
First, the pluses.  Cameron Stewart’s art is mesmerising, and captures well some of the signature visual elements of Fight Club.  His characters visually reinterpret Sebastian, Marla and Tyler but carry forward all the elements we love.  Sebastian’s perpetual bowed head of subjection, Marla’s a tightly coiled, highly sexual spring, Tyler is a lean, muscular panther of a man, bold and kinetic.  And yet they are not just copies of Edward Norton, Helen Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt, and that is good.
It’s fun to see Brian Paulson, the House on Paper Street and the support groups, the Space Monkeys and more also return and given fresh spins and perspectives.  It’s also a neat concept to have Sebastian having kept Durden at bay (he thinks) through medication.  Sebastian and Marla’s son ups the ante and gives a fresh dimension and urgency to things.
What frustrates is that the narrative falls flat.  It’s way too ambitious, too knowing, constantly turning to wink at you  instead of keeping its eyes on the narrative road.  This is especially true in the last quarter of the book, where Chuck Palahinuk and his team of writers take center stage as characters, dealing with reader dissatisfaction of the story’s ending.  It’s fourth wall busting that does not work.  And it breaks a narrative that is already strained from over-ambition.  It posits that Tyler has now developed a global military mercenary force, has a castle in Europe and is able to bring about a nuclear holocaust.  The other central conceit is that Marla enlists the help of a support group of sufferers from Progeria (aging disease), children that look like small elderly people.  They become a parachuting crack military force.  It’s too absurd, it doesn’t work.
Where this is flabby and over-extended, the first ‘Fight Club’ was stripped back and mean, it had ambitious scope and pushed imaginative limits.  This feels like a film sequel where the production team feel that a mega-budget and massive scale will solve everything.

A review of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2017, “Dethroning Mammon,” is a rich (no pun intended) and thought provoking read on spiritually opposed value bases on wealth.  On the one hand we have Mammon, “the love of money” which the Bible tells us is at the root of evil (not just “money” as some suppose).  That is when, in our hearts, we believe that everything is a resource for our own enrichment (we may build in an ethical get out clause on “trickle down” economics), then we will see, value, and interpret everything in that light.  Christ will be a threat, as he was in his day, to those holding that value.  Chapter 1 of the Archbishop’s book explores this, with reference to Matthew 13 (the Pearl of Great Price) and John 11 (the death of Lazarus), on the different ways we can value what we see.
Moving on from this, there’s a danger that we will see everything as a finite resource to be assessed and measured accordingly, driven by ethics of scarcity, i.e. we have to acquire and pile up wealth as otherwise someone else will.  And we will aggressively defend and acquire accordingly.  We are put into an adversarial position with the rest of creation.  The opposite to this are the economics of Grace.  We have a generous God who gives abundantly and outrageously.  No one deserves or earns Grace.  With Grace at the centre  the Archbishop begins to draw out how else we might understand wealth, in the light of having no fear, and faith in an infinitely abundant and generous God.  It posits a very different approach to the world around us, and how we find and use our resources.  The key texts here is John 12, with Mary anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, apparently wasteful but in fact an act of Grace and love that is not motivated by the scarcity of the resource or the need to frantically hold onto it.
Chapter 4 expands on this, looking at the relationship between money and power, and how Jesus’s servant-leadership subverts this, especially in the key act of the washing of the disciples feet (John 13).
Chapter 5 further looks at how apparent motiveless and wasteful generosity can in fact be Grace in action.  Something as apparently of no benefit to people or the world as acquiring and anointing for burial the body of Jesus (John 19), are in fact Kingdom actions, actions that show that real wealth as decisions to give money and time based on no hope of reward, but as service to God, actions that can ultimately transform the world, as they move away from fear, to faith, to generous and transformative action.
Chapter 6 moves to Revelations, the end of all things, with the ultimate dethroning of Mammon (Babylon) by the eternal and redeemed creation of the City of God.  This moves into an action plan as to how we can start to live this message now, through listening, repentance and action.This book is intelligent, wise, and written with a clear integrity.  There are points of reflection throughout the book, questions to help individuals and groups preparing for Lent share and understand the material.
Much recommended then as a Lent book, or to be read at any time.  You’ll find it’s messages live on in your mind and heart after reading.

A review of Brian Lumley’s “The Burrowers Beneath”

A continuation of the H P Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu” cycle of the stories set in 1990’s Britain, the eponymous Occult scientist Titus Crowe and his Watsonian sidekick Henri Laurent de Marigny face off against eldritch horrors burrowing beneath the Earth.
It has the tone of Victorian gothic melodrama, being told in an epistalatory  fashion, with heroes who have a curiously old fashioned vibe of daring do about them.  And although its set in the 90’s, there are very little by way of cultural signifiers that would place the story there, apart from the odd mention of oil rigs, phones and cars.  Taken together with the above mentioned style, for the first quarter of the narrative I genuinely thought I was in pre-war Britain.
And for the most part it works, adding to the feeling of fog shrouded streets and tentatcled, timeless horrors in the shadows.  It gets off to a good start, with a series of letters about the discovery of mysterious spheres in inexplicably carved tunnels underground.  We soon learn of other underground scientific expeditions that have ended in horror, madness and disaster, and of a race of terrifying burrowing tentacled monsters and their place in a pantheon of alien horrors that have existed before our world began.  They are not interested in a planet share…
There are some great set pieces; the destruction of an oil rig; battles between telepathic fighters, explosive harpoons and giant creatures; a renevant creature with a body of slime holding a human brain, and more.
The narrative as a whole, though, is a little too reliant on massive info dumps and chunks of exposition, as our heroes consult and reference various occult sources to explain the nature and history of this threat.  There are also a lot of passages that are there purely to set up future stories in the Titus Crowe series.  And it has a very open, cliff hanger of a conclusion.  As a result this reads more of an account of a skirmish in a bigger war, rather than a stand alone story.
That said it does not require any previous reading or knowledge of Lovecraft’s works, and could be a good jumping on point for a very rich tradition in horror fiction.  I listened to the audio book of this novel, and it’s read by Simon Vance, whose cool, civilised tones suit the tale perfectly.  And kudos to him for his seemingly effortless pronunciation of the tongue twisting, syllable crashing Cthulian chants and alien names.

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 Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.