Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Errors of Dr Browne by Mark Winkler

This was a difficult one for me to fully quantify, and I hazard to say that The Errors of Dr Browne by Mark Winkler is one of those books that may well repay one well for a reread in a few years' time. I went into this knowing very little about the story – other than the barest of blurbs – and I had no idea that it was indeed based on real people and happenings. I don't have much to compare it to, but I did read The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley a good number of years ago, so I'd say that this would comfortably fall under the same banner.

We meet Dr Browne in the seventeenth century when he gets called to act as an inquisitor in a witch trial. Although he is deeply religious, Dr Browne also considers himself a man of science and reason, which leads to him experiencing bucket loads of cognitive dissonance when he embarks on his investigation. From the outset, we are faced with the inexplicable behaviour of the possessed girls, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there is no way in hell that the two accused could have had any strange, magical powers to affect the girls. Yet you can't exactly point that out to your average, deeply superstitious and religious citizen of that time and place.

But Dr Browne, although he's aware that the villagers are persecuting the women for the sake of simply having an answer for their problems (and just because they simply don't like them) he also cannot explain the strange events that result in all manner of peculiar phenomena. He does come to the conclusion that the 'evidence' being offered against the two unfortunates really isn't ironclad. Nor do the authorities even seem to care that anyone gets to the truth behind all the strange goings on. 

We get to see humanity, warts and all, gleefully ganging up on those who are unable to defend themselves, and we realise that even though centuries have passed since Dr Browne was called to deliver testimony, at heart, people really haven't changed much over the years.

The Errors of Dr Browne is both quirky and darkly humorous, but also a disquieting dive into the less savoury aspects of human interaction, where bigotry and lack of empathy rule the day, and good people are often carried along helplessly in the wake of awful situations. Winkler captures the essence of this time with all its dirt and drudgery, and while this is not an easy book to read, it's nonetheless one that will leave its fingerprints all over your brain afterwards.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Wicked Magic (The Vampires of Oxford #1) by Margot de Klerk

I've lost count of the number of requests I receive from authors of slayer-vampire type stories, but from the get go, Wicked Magic by Margot de Klerk won me over. Perhaps it is because I've got a soft spot for Oxford or the fact that she has the same surname as my grandmother, but yeah, sometimes I say yay to reviews based purely on a whim. This was one that I do not regret.

Look, this is stock-standard urban fantasy, so if you're a fan of Supernatural, Buffy, et al, you'll be on familiar turf with our dear Nathan Delacroix, a generational vampire hunter. Just shy of his 18th birthday, he has so many expectations to live up to, and balancing his school work with his nascent career as a hereditary vampire hunter is anything but easy.

Added to this is the wee complication that he's friends with the very creatures he's being trained to hunt – namely his uncle, who was turned into a vampire during a botched hunt. Not only that, but Nathan is having second thoughts about this whole vampire hunter thing, and with both his parents so heavily involved in the family business, it's tricky for Nathan to communicate his complicated feelings surrounding the matter.

While he navigates the typical issues young men his age face, he also finds himself embroiled in a bigger problem that threatens the fragile equilibrium of the supernatural community. In a society where extremists lurk in the shadows, Nathan must navigate a difficult middle path, often facing dangers that would make ordinary folks run for the hills.

If you're looking for a YA urban fantasy read that will effortlessly take you on a trip to an atmospheric UK university town, then I recommend Wicked Magic. The plot is well thought out, the characters are engaging, and the often snarky dialogue between characters a delight. I'll happily read more of De Klerk's writing. This one gets five black bats from me.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Alexander the Great – Journey to the End of the Earth by Norman F. Cantor

Perhaps if you're new to the topic, this book will be a good starting point. Norman F Cantor has a fairly chatty style in Alexander the Great – Journey to the End of the Earth, but I found him annoying at times in his poking, ahem, at the nature of Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion and Alexander's (and the men at the time's) sexuality in general. Who cares? They weren't haunted by the ghosts of Victorian prudery back then.

This isn't an expansive volume, so if you're looking for a read/listen with more meat on its bones, then rather go elsewhere. I had this as part of my Audible subscription and wasn't too wild about the overall (lack of) production value. Things got a bit patchy, which is kinda sad considering this is such a short read.

I did gain an idea of the brutality of the lives of the Macedonians of this age, however. There was a whole lot of drinking, boinking, and killing, and the picture that Cantor paints is of a emperor who, as his conquests mount up, and he gets further and further away from home in both physical and metaphorical sense, grows more and more paranoid and delusional. I'm reminded of that little quip from Highlander where the Kurgan tells Connor, "It's better to burn out than to fade away" – which in this case most certainly applies to Alexander.

Other reviewers with a little more historical smarts than me have also pointed out that Cantor makes a bunch of errors that were not caught by any editor, but considering that I have the attention span of a goldfish, I didn't pick up these incorrect historical details. So my caution is to keep this in mind, should you pick up a copy. And if in doubt, cross reference.

Did I enjoy this book? Yeah, it was pretty good. I'm currently indulging in a pile of research about ancient times for my own work, so it's good to immerse. This was a fair to middling read/listen, but I've been reliably told that there are better works out there that go into far more detail.

JRR Tolkien – A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

As a lifelong fan of JRR Tolkien, an author to whom I owe an immense debt for inspiration, it's kinda scandalous that I've not delved into his history up until quite recently. The 2019 biopic can, in my opinion, only loosely nod at Tolkien's earlier years and does not in the least do any justice to the man and his immense literary output. When I encountered JRR Tolkien – A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter on Audible, I popped it onto my wishlist and eventually got around to giving it a listen.

Narrator Roger May does a sterling job bringing the words to life, and I was surprised by how quickly I ate my way through the book. It of course helps that I find the subject matter absolutely fascinating, but the production quality is excellent, which most certainly adds value to the overall experience.

Put simply, Tolkien had an incredibly intense, focused intellect – words really were his jam, if we excuse my dreadful abuse of idiom. He was also very much a product of his time, something that we who live in a more liberal society should keep in mind. Tolkien's milieu was mostly divided along strict gender roles – and he was very much a man's man in terms of where he sought his friendships. Yet by equal measure, he adored his wife Edith – in a way I feel that saw her placed upon a pedestal. Humphrey does touch upon the tensions that occasionally arose between Tolkien and Edith – the man really did inhabit two worlds.

It's my opinion this gender-based segregation was a product of the then educational institutions in a largely patriarchal society, which was further reinforced by Tolkien's experiences fighting in the trenches during WW1. This life-and-death camaraderie between men is echoed quite clearly in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is what it is – cultural artefact of an era.

What Humphrey further unpacks is Tolkien's fascination with languages, which infuses everything from his academic work all the way to his ambitious fiction writing. Whether it's digging into the old Germanic languages upon which English has its foundations laid to the creation of imaginary languages in Middle-Earth, it's clear that this was a topic that engaged his imagination – and mine, too! I've often heard complaints that Tolkien's writing is too slow, too detailed, too boring, but for those with the patience and the love of the sound of words, each paragraph is a carefully crafted work of literary art. And this is a hill I'm prepared to die on.

In short, if you're looking for an introduction into the Prof's life and writing, and are curious about how works like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings went from hand-written manuscript to final product, that went on to spawn a popular multi-media fandom, then this is a good place to start. We even get to see the kindling and cooling of his friendship with another literary luminary – CS Lewis.

I can't help but wonder how things would have been different for the fantasy genre if Tolkien had more time (or the wherewithal) to expand on the other stories that exist as mere synopses in The Silmarillion. Although he is not the first to write fantasy, he most certainly ushered the genre into popularity, and many authors who followed in his wake were most certainly heavily inspired by his Middle-Earth.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Ancient Greece by Thomas R Martin

I've always been deeply fascinated by history, so I was full of high hopes when I downloaded Ancient Greece by Thomas R Martin as an audiobook as part of my Audible subscription. I'd say that this is most certainly more geared towards an academic overview of the different Grecian eras, from the prehistoric all the way through to Alexander's conquests, and gives a solid overview of Greece's political structures, the civilisation's social organisation, as well as arts and culture.


There was going to be a but.

I am no great fan of the narrator, and the audio quality leaves much to be desired. Firstly, John Lescault's reading is dull and lifeless, and renders what might be quite fascinating text into a dull, monotonous drone. Not only that, but it's obvious where content has been spliced in – there are clear shifts in clarity/volume that jolted me out of the listening experience. I mean, it was not a complete deal breaker, but considering that I listen to many audiobooks, I've gained an ear for this sort of thing enough so that it annoys me. Not a fan of this narrator, and I'll probably think twice before picking up anything else he reads.

But onto what makes this work good – if you're looking for a refresher or introduction into Greek history, then this will give you a great bird's eye view, especially in terms of getting a handle on the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures that played such a large part in the establishment of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. One thing that I do carry away from this is how Greek culture as a whole played such an important part in shaping even modern Western civilisation in how its philosophy, art, architecture, and literature had such a influence handed down through the years.

Overall, this is a solid read and it's definitely kindled more curiosity on my part to try to find works that are more specialised and perhaps somewhat more detailed.

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Ancient Ones by Cassandra L Thompson

At face value, The Ancient Ones by Cassandra L Thompson blends all the elements that I love about the vampire genre – broad-sweeping historical ages, interesting characters, and intrigue, seasoned with a heavy dose of mythology. But alas, while the writing is generally engaging, this one failed to quite get off the ground for me.

We meet David, or Davius, depending on which era we see him in, who starts his life as the son of a Celtic druid who ends up sold into slavery by Roman conquerors. There, he loses both his life and his love, but also discovers his innate connection to the gods, which gift him with unimaginable powers. The story jumps between past and Victorian-era London, with a little detour to Romania, as David recounts his life to a lady of dubious repute he takes home with him, and who avidly listens to what he has to tell.

Thompson has certainly bitten off quite a lot with this book, and it's impossible to read it without drawing parallels with Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles – and perhaps Thompson's threading together of so many different myths is the story's downfall. There's just too much going on so that the story ends up disjointed and somewhat all over the place.

My main feeling was that the writing is often too fast, too shallow in places, with David not being grounded within any of the contexts of the eras in which he lives. A tale of this scope would be better served if the narrative was slower, measured, and with focus on characterisation, slowly unfolding intrigue, and a higher degree of historical accuracy, not to mention the moments where I struggled to suspend disbelief (yeah, yeah, I know, I can deal with suspending disbelief to have a story with blood-drinking immortals). There were, however, moments where I had to grit my teeth a little.

Thompson writes well, and does so from the heart, and her writing often delivers some beautifully descriptive lines, but I do feel that more attention could have been given to editing this novel at the developmental stage – especially where the writing is too fast to the point where it's slippery trying to unpick what's going on. It's not a bad little book, if historical fantasy featuring vampires, gods, and assorted supernatural entities is your jam, just that this could have been executed with a bit more finesse.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Red Land, Black Land – Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz

Ever since I first encountered Barbara Mertz's writing, I've fallen in love with her voice and style, and her Red Land, Black Land – Daily Life in Ancient Egypt really hit the mark for me considering that I'm currently doing an absolute ton of research for a novel I'm working on. But first a word on the narrator, Lorna Raver, who really captures the author's somewhat cheeky, often humorous tone. She most certainly adds a whole extra dimension to the listening experience.

As the book's title suggests, this is an overview of daily life in Egypt, from the royal pinnacle of ancient Egyptian civilisation, the pharaoh and his pyramids, all the way down to the Black Land's peasants. In it, we gain an almost tactile idea of what life during the ancient times must have been like – what people wore, how they built their homes, what pets they kept, what they ate. For a subject that can, excuse my choice of words, be as dry as dust, Barbara injects wit and verve into the text in a way that makes for an engaging journey of discovery.

Some of you might have encountered Barbara Mertz's Amelia Peabody mysteries (which I recently started reading, and let me tell you the writing is a treasure), so to have this book filled with such a comprehensive overview of what life during the ancient times was possibly like is marvellous. It's difficult to parse that the book first came out more than fifty years ago! The prose still feels fresh, and while I'm sure there are plenty more discoveries we can discuss, if you're new to ancient Egypt (or like me, even if you're not) Red Land, Black Land will still take you on a vastly entertaining and informative journey of discovery.

I could probably be an endless Barbara Mertz fangrrrl so I'm going to leave off here by saying that if you're looking for an introduction into ancient Egypt, then you cannot go wrong with the two non-fiction books she wrote on the topic. I've finally tracked down a hard copy of Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, and I'll continue trawling second-hand bookshops until I find Red Land, Black Land.