Review of The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell

The Archer’s Tale

Bernard Cornwell

London: Harper Collins, 2005

ISBN: 10-0-06-093576-6

374 pp

In this enjoyable romp through the Hundred Years’ War, we follow the adventures of the sponymous Thomas of Hookton, who travels through France with the English army aiming to make a fortune at the expense of the unfortunate local people. Thomas has the additional goal of seeking revenge against the unknown French raiders who destroyed his home village and, also, there are some unfinished issues relating to his heritage – his father was a priest of unknown provenance and, as readers, we expect there will be gradually revealed through the course of his novel and, since the front cover presents this as the first book of the Grail Quest series, over the course of other books as well (I am going to guess it will be three altogether).

Along the way, Thomas has various adventures and the strumpet fate pushes him down and pulls him back up again. Cornwell is a veteran of the historical genre and readers may be familiar with others of his works (e.g. the Sharpe series and The Last Kingdom) which have found their way into being adapted for the screen. The characters are vivid and deployed deftly so that the villains appear when needed and the heroes have to suffer enough for us to bond with them. The language and style do not really compromise with the needs for contemporary readers to be able to understand the text without thinking much about it and there is nothing to suggest the depth of consciousness that the medieval mind might enjoy and which has been portrayed so brilliantly by Dorothy Dunnett, among others. However, as the concluding historical note observes, nearly all of the principal incidents described did in fact happen in pretty much the way that was described. These were, indeed, grim events and although the nitty-gritty of the rape and pillage is kept off the page, it is certainly there in the background.

The main theme of the book is the role of the archer, specifically the English archer – there are some Welsh archers (Pat, for example) but they have the grace to wait in the background. It seems to have been true that archers were a particularly dangerous force on the battlefield but, assuming we are not guilty of exaggerating their importance, why did other countries not seek to replicate them? Cornwell himself has no answer other than that it must have been a very difficult skill to acquire and to require very time-consuming practice and people from other countries were not up for it. There have been archery specialists in Southern Britain since Neolithic times and perhaps the yew wood was particularly helpful. Other places specialised in other forms of warfare and there are various geographic, cultural and social issues that interact with each other to produce specific forms of military practice. For example, in this book we have the well-known Genoese crossbowmen, while the French are of course busy with the flower of their chivalry. Meanwhile, I remember going to school every day past St. Mary’s Butts in Reading, at which men came to practice archery under the orders of King Edmund IV (who is featured in this book, although for some reason his vital Reading links are overlooked). It is one of the few things for which Reading is known, together with Queen Victoria’s enmity, the statue of the lion which would fall over in real life and Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment (now that the biscuit factory has closed down).

As mentioned previously, this is an enjoyable romp through history – we end up at the Battle of Crecy (spoiler alert, we English won) and there is plenty more of the story to come. There is also the Holy Grail to be found and, one suspects, some heresy and persecution to come. Fun.

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Review of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

London: Collins Classic, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-00-736860-0

XIV + 258 pp.

At the risk of suffering from the curse of Morris Zapp, I did not read Jane Austen while pursuing my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature – it is necessary to choose which courses to take on the basis that one person cannot read everything and I preferred Old English, Medieval literature and so forth. I have tried to catch up with some of the things I missed over the years since but there are so many other books and, besides, I have to spend a fair amount of time reading things for work. Anyway, the point of this preamble is that Northanger Abbey was new to me and, one afternoon having popped I to Sanmin (sanmin.com.tw) I thought it was about time to change that situation and I am glad that I did.

The plot follows Catherine Morland, a young woman from a family at the lowest possible level of ‘quality’ and her adventures in exotic Bath and beyond. Her life appears to be a crushingly boring round of household chores and she has aimed to avoid the worst effects by allowing her mind to become filled with various notions. Her understanding of the world and the people who live in it is challenged after she gratefully accepts an invitation from the neighbouring Allen family to spend a fortnight in Bath, where people go to take the air or the cure or somesuch thing on an annual basis. She must then navigate the issues of what to wear, what to talk about with other people and, over and above all, how to get an introduction to someone else, almost anyone else. Without such an introduction, one must be passed over in silence even in the height of one of Bath’s notorious balls, so full of a violent press of people it seems like it might literally be dangerous.

Fortunately, such introductions are eventually secured and Catherine faces new challenges, including how to evaluate the intentions and impressions formed upon certain young men around whom she now orbits and is orbited. She finds on the one hand that opinions can differ (even in the case of profound issues such as preferences for novels and novelists) but that it is the nature of polite society that such differences might be managed without the need for unpleasantness. She is subsequently invited to spend time at the Tilney Estate, which is the eponymous Abbey and there, too, certain other of her notions are disabused, albeit that the essential and sturdy carapace of the emerging bourgeois social system must not be seriously threatened. Sinister events are shown to have perfectly respectable motivations and the need for heroic individual acts are, like Adam at the end of Paradise Lost, no longer required.

We have been living in the age of the veneration of Auntie Jane for some time now and her cultural footprint may now be found not just on the screen and the stage but also in the contemporary video game and the mash-up horror parody, among other places. In addition to the pleasure of reading her work, therefore, it is appropriate to note that she really was a very good writer. The critical eye most commonly focuses, of course, on the nature of the relationship within small households which may be considered in isolation, as if the rest of the world did not exist. However, although the proletariat does not raise its head, it does seem to be present, around the edges and the margins, keeping the whole thing going by virtue of slow accumulation and endless sacrifice. Her work needs no recommendation from me, of course but she may have one anyway.

Review of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Revenger

Alastair Reynolds

New York, NY: Orbit, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-55556-2

425 pp.

The evidence of alien life and successful human attempts to transcend planetary geography are all around the people in this swashbuckling new novel by leading science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds but, alas, our ability to take advantage of these resources has been drastically diminished by the impact of entropic ageing. Like our understanding of the people of Dark Ages Britain, who looked upon the works of the departed Romans as the products of the Age of Giants, so too does humanity consider alien artifacts with a wild surmise. Those brave pirates who are able to penetrate the artifacts (which act according to predictable although gnomic rhythms) and can bring back swag from the inside without meeting catastrophic failures might be able to live very well on the proceedings for years to come. Yet the proceeds will quickly be watered down if the crew size is too large and so the pirate captains have an incentive to minimise crew numbers by ensuring that those who are enlisted re appropriately skilled for their main function and, also, preferably with other strings to their bows. Some skills may be obtained through hard work and aptitude but others are arcane and difficult to find. Principal among these skills is bone reading. For some reason, aliens have left behind a series of extra-solar system skulls from which, given the right equipment and conditions, may be coaxed communications from across space. A good bone reader would be capable, therefore, of providing a significant competitive advantage for their captains and that leads to benefits all round.

Enter, then, our two heroines, Adrana and Fura Ness, who hail from a solid bourgeois background which they are obliged to leave and seek their fortunes among the stars. As natural bone readers, they are able to obtain employment and lodging with Captain Rockamore and his crew, where prospects seem initially bright. Alas, not all who dwell in space are well-intentioned and the Monetta’s Mourn becomes victim of a space-jacking and forced to suffer the none-too-tender ministrations of notorious pirate Bosa Sennen. This sets the course for the rest of the book and we await the eponymous ship to arrive on the scene and set things aright.

I have to admit that when I first heard of this book, my heart sank slightly. I am a fan of Reynolds and I have seen what can happen when otherwise sensible writers (e.g. China Mieville and Steven Erikson) dip into parody and would-be satire. However, Revenger does not suffer from these kinds of problems. The universe created is detailed and vivacious and the characters must take the consequences of their actions seriously. There is a pirate-like energy and roister to the action but this does not lead to childishness or superficiality. The characters provoke an emotional response and clearly change and mature as the result of their experiences. The conclusion of the novel suggests that a sequel (and perhaps more) would be possible and, if that is the case, I would be happy to read that too.

Review of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

The Old Capital

Yasunari Kawabata

Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1988

ISBN: 978-4-8053-0972-8

VI + 164 pp.

Translated by J. Martin Holman

The title of this book refers to Kyoto, which is indeed a former capital of Japan and the site for the action of this quite (characteristically Japanese) slim novel. I am not sure whether, in the original language, this title could be taken to have a Bourdieuesque element in that it focuses so much on the cultural capital of Japanese society. Culture includes not just women’s clothes and food, although it is often thought to do so and these are both much in evidence here but, also, the social relations embedded in work and in the practices of production and the class structure and its dialectical relationship with language and forms of behaviour. These elements underlie a superficially simple story of a young woman who discovers she was a foundling and has a twin sister whom she is able to befriend. Yet it is the simplicity of the story and the language with which it is described that reveals why Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

The narrative is centred on dutiful Chieko, the daughter of a man with a modest business dealing in women’s clothes. Change is coming to Kyoto and her father is wrestling with ways to incorporate the bold new visions of Paul Klee into the traditional methods of making the obi and matching it to the kimono. Nevertheless, the pace of traditional life continues and is marked by the orderly arrival of the various celebrations and rituals of public life. However, the harmony and unity on which many such rituals are based seem to be breaking down:

“Large benches were lined up along a path in the cherry grove, and there was a great commotion of people drinking and singing in a boisterous crowd. Some old country women were dancing gaily, while the drunken men lay asleep, snoring. Some of the men even rolled off the benches (p.46).”

It is not necessary to say that it is the spread of transportation infrastructure that links agricultural places of production and urban centres of consumption to the benefit of both, that has brought about this sordid scene in which decent forms of behaviour have become imperilled. All the representations of the old capital remain in place but they are occasional punctured by some reminder that the world has been moving on and disruptions are emerging.

Chieko was given to believe that her parents had, in effect, kidnapped her from her natural parents but later it was revealed that she was left outside the shop one night. Further, it appears that she has a twin sister but this was problematic for everyone. I did not know what the issue is with twins but a brief article on the Time website (content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,770452,10.html) which includes the following: “… Japanese mothers believe that to bear more than one child at a time is a bestial act, frequently try to hide multiple births by separate registry of offspring, even by infanticide.” So, ashamed at having borne twins, Chieko’s parents abandoned her and kept with them Naeko, to live in the countryside in what it subsequently appears is rather difficult rural poverty. Of course, the action then goes on to focus on Chieko’s desire to meet and establish a relationship with her sister and the latter’s reluctance to cross the social and class barriers that have grown up between them. This is all managed with a simplicity of language that is characteristic of Japanese literature. The translator, J. Martin Holman, has done a good job in keeping out of the way of the text and not making it sound too American. He notes, in a brief foreword, that at least some of the text written in a Kyoto dialect that has not made it into this version of the text. To have done so would have required, presumably, footnotes or other interruptions which some readers dislike. Alas, therefore, some nuances of the original language may have been lost.

This is an engrossing work that repays careful attention to the small, ephemeral details of daily life and the ways in which they have an impact on people in different stations of life. The author himself is famous or infamous for his mysterious death – he was found in a gas-filled room in such a way as to suggest suicide or, less likely, having become the victim of an unusual accident. An ambiguous act conducted in silence is a very typical way of considering Japanese society as described by its best literature.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek

The Big Midweek: Life inside The Fall

Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski

Pontefract: Route, 201?

ISBN: 978-1901927-65-8

448 pp.

I have been listening to The Fall, off and on, for more than 40 years and I own dozens of their LPs. From the very beginning (Dragnet was the first LP I bought and it remains probably my favourite, perhaps in part for that reason), a Fall record meant two principal things, the occasionally manic mysterious ranting from frontperson Mark E. Smith and the bass playing of Steve Hanley. Around these two central characters, a variety of others floated around, making more or less of a contribution on the way – the group has always had a constantly rotating membership, owing in no small measure to the abusive and exploitative Smith, as it has now emerged. Hanley left the group during one of the periods when I was not listening much to music and, as I have picked things up again, I have been acquiring albums not necessarily in chronological order. Although some of the new ones are OK, they really cannot compete with earlier work – I know that is always dispiriting to read and it may be influenced by nostalgia and hatred and fear of all change (I don’t like the new pound coin) but I think it may be because, as I have learned from this remarkable account of life as a member of the band, the rapid decline of MES. Where once his lyrics were dense, difficult to understand and often challenging, over time they have tended to become abusive and intolerant and his penchant, on stage, of turning off the amplifiers of band members who have been irritating him indicates a measure of contempt not just for the audience but for the music itself. As I write this, news came through earlier today that a series of shows in America has been rescheduled as Smith has been hospitalised and cannot possibly travel anywhere. Given the nature of his lifestyle over an extended period of time, it would not be surprising if he fails to make old bones.

In this memoir, Hanley and co-author Olivia Piekarski describe the bass-player’s life with The Fall in all of its plethora of emotions, ranging from the exhilaration of actually playing on stage to the boredom of travelling on tour and taking in, along the way, celebrations of friendship and creativity to the bitterness of being betrayed. Here he is on life while gigging:

“We’ll pack up after a gig, drive all night and most of the day, get to the next venue, unpack, set up, play and repeat the whole process, snatching the odd hour or so of sleep on the way to the next place. I’ll nod off looking at the back of [drummer] Karl’s head and get jolted awake by a pothole minutes or hours later, still looking at the back of Karl’s head (p.108).”

However, “These are the places you learn your craft. How to make one riff sound good for a quarter of an hour.”

For extended perods, the band is poor and Hanley is obliged to make ends meet by doing shifts in his dad’s pie shop and having to put up with abuse about how he was going to be a legendary rock star from various family members who, being Irish, are very familiar with the profanely sarcastic mode of discourse. When brushes with good fortune do occasionally arrive (often with the assistance and support of the late, great John Peel), they are quickly shunned, frequently through Smith’s wilful refusal to make the music as good as it could be – it is evident throughout the book that he has little interest in the music itself. After all, he once infamously declared that ‘if it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s The Fall.’

Further, when good times beckon, the spoils are not equitably distributed. Under the influence of a good woman (his quondam wife Brix), Smith splashes out after a tour of the USA and subsequent interest from a record company:

“The deal goes through and it’s good enough for Mark to buy a BMW, only Brix has to drive it because he doesn’t like driving. He is never sober enough for a start, plus he’s not into the idea of authorities like the DVLA knowing who he is and where he lives (p.196).”

This introduces another of the themes constantly running through the book: the drinking. Smith is drunk at the beginning of the book and remains so for the next 440 pages. There are some drugs but it is the drink that really matters as it both keeps people going through difficult conditions and, also, inspires the acts of lunacy and destructiveness which keeps the band from achieving what it might have done. Hanley himself admits to a problem with it but this, it seems, is bound up with the experience of creating and performing music. For people who have not ever seen The Fall play live, there is not much of a performative element to any particular gig, unless it is Smith and his increasing desire to destroy the sound balance or provoke a fight with a disaffected band member. Instead, it is all about the rhythm and the experience.

Fair-minded and likeable throughout, Handley is a friendly and credible narrator and it comes as quite a shock finally to reach the inevitable ending: “… one thing’s certain, I’m never going to play bass with The Fall again (p.440).”

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

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The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick

London: Penguin, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-241-96809-3

249 pp.

It is fifteen years after the conclusion of World War II and the world has been conquered by the Axis powers. Since the USA decided to adopt an isolationist policy, the Soviet Union and Western Europe were conquered by the Nazis, who thereby developed the technology that enabled them to defeat the Americans, together with their Japanese allies. While the Germans occupy the eastern half of the USA, the Japanese have taken over the western portion. The Nazis are not satisfied with this victory, since they have also drained the Mediterranean Sea in order to have additional agricultural land, launched the genocide of the continent of Africa and started sending rocket ships to Mars. Further endeavours are also taking place and those who remain in defeated countries quite reasonably fear for the future.

In Japan-occupied USA, the situation is somewhat different. The Japanese take all the leading positions in society, of course but they need the Americans to keep things running, carrying the sedan chairs, cooking the noodles, working the shops and massage parlours and so forth. The new overlords have become fascinated with articles of Americana and seek to view with each other to find the most authentic pieces possible. They portray an obvious Occidentalist (i.e. anti-orientalist) approach to the Americans that is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. Within this society, the Americans must find ways of making a living without causing trouble and hope that the Germans do not come – their murderous ethnic psychoses threaten just about everybody. People’s responses are, of course, diverse and there is some hint of dissent. Most notably, this comes in the form of the book The Grasshopper, which has been written by the eponymous Man in the High Castle. Can life continue or will the Nazis extinguish what is left of any spark of freedom (luckily, it could not possibly happen here, could it)?

This novel has recently been recreated as a television series, although I have not seen it. When I heard about the recreation, it inspired me to think that this would turn out to be a rather different kind of book than it has turned out to be. There is a bit of action along the way and gunplay takes place before the conclusion but this is not the main focus of the book. Instead, it is a fascinating consideration of how people react to adversity. The characterisation is vivid and most of the dialogue does its job in terms of helping to promote the willing suspension of disbelief.

Books which are claimed to be alternative histories can be problematic in that they adopt a rightist perspective that sees one person or one event making a decisive difference which then causes effects that spiral outwards and change everything that they encounter. That there is a wish fulfilment element to this can also be unfortunate. Dick avoids these issues through deeper investigation of history than can usually be expected from popular fiction but, then, he has demonstrated this in a number of other works, some of which have also found their way on to the screen. Here again he has proven himself to have been one of the most interesting voices of his generation – of course, even he did not have the imagination to suggest that one day the American people would elect a president who would have welcomed the Nazis.

Review of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets

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Open Secrets

Alice Munro

New York, NY: Vintage International, 1994

ISBN: 978-0-679-75562-3

294 pp.

Alice Munro is one of several winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature with whose work I had been unfamiliar. It is impossible to read everything, especially when I have to spend a lot of time reading stuff for work. So, on a visit to the San Min bookshop, the local Taipei bookshop, I decided the time had come to find out something about her work – there were several collections available and, not really knowing which was which, I chose this one slightly at random.

Open Secrets consists of eight quite lengthy short stories which range across space and time but which are, nevertheless, interlinked through the interactions between various recurrent characters. The most startling aspect of her work here is the way in which a story will begin, typically as the description of how a particular life or relationship develops but then the point of view abruptly shifts to a different but related character to take the story to the next stage. This enables Munro to provide multiple perspectives on the world she is describing and this is very effective.

The style itself is not overly reliant on fireworks. The first story begins this way:

“In the dining room of the Commercial Hotel, Louisa opened the letter that had arrived that day from overseas. She ate steak and potatoes, her usual meal, and drank a glass of wine. There were a few travellers in the room, and the dentist who ate there every night because he was a widower. He had shown an interest in her in the beginning but had told her he had never before seen a woman touch wine or spirits (p.3).”

This is a world of bourgeois manners in which escape or transformation is tantalisingly close but cannot ever be fully achieved. Perhaps that is a little harsh because some characters do achieve a measure of happiness (or at least the avoidance of unhappiness) and are able to move from place to place. The final story, for example, Vandals, includes a reasonably satisfactory relationship between an Englishman who left for the USA after the war and then established a successful career as a taxidermist and a woman who had previously drifted about the world somewhat like a ghost. Along the way, there are some minor satisfactions to be had. Overall, though, these are escapes from the boredom of everyday life. These are fended off with the creation of routines and schedules of actions to navigate everyday life. For example, in The Albanian Virgin:

“I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt that as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true skin. Sitting at the desk, I made a cup of coffee or of thin red soup last an hour, clasping my hands around the cup while there was still any warmth to be got from it. I read, but without purpose or involvement (p.106).”

Finding the significance in a moment of apparent mundanity is one of the points of short fiction and Munro proves herself to be both proficient and unexpected in her art. Her stories are long enough that characters find their actions have not only consequences but second order effects that resonate long into the future. These are stories and characters that linger in the memory and have the stamp of authenticity. I will be looking forward to discovering more of her work.