Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Saxon Tales Series Books 1 - 6 Collection Set by Bernard Cornwell

So, I jumped on the Uhtred fan-wagon when I watched The Last Kingdom on Netflix, and being a sucker for the source material of anything on screen, I toddled off to pick up the boxed set for my reading pleasure. The Saxon Tales series contains books 1-6, The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land and Death of Kings, which admittedly took me quite a while to work my way through, considering how little time I really have for reading.

First off, it's quite interesting seeing where the series veers off from the books. There's a whole part where Uhtred and his merry band of misfits go a-viking, which was not adapted. If you're looking for all the bonus Uhtred content, however, you can't go wrong with the books. I do feel that to a large degree the screen adaption managed to capture the essence of Uhtred's character, if not the depth. Because we do rather see a lot more of his inner landscape in the books. 

The problem also of reading books back to back in a boxed set is you eventually lose track of who did what to whom and when, and which events take place in which order. So, I'll admit, it all became a bit of a blur for me, which was further compounded by the fact that I was watching new seasons of the series on telly. But on the whole, the writing holds up well, and I was entertained – which counts for something. 

I will admit that my inner editor got a bit stabby with Cornwell's love for modifiers on his dialogue tags, she said sarcastically. But hey, every author has their quirks. This one jumped out and grabbed my eyeballs, but I could overlook it on most occasions. And eye-rolled with a snarky giggle otherwise.

There is a Thing, that Uhtred does in one of the books that I felt was a wee bit unnecessary, and it involves animal cruelty. Okay, so I know Cornwell is writing as close as he can to be authentic with the culture of the time, and yes, I know this sort of thing happened often, and was considered a norm among heathens honouring their gods, but ... it was so randomly one occasion in the entire story when Uhtred doesn't do The Thing. Which kinda gutted me but hey... I've read worse. There were one or two moments also, specifically related to a deception Uhtred instigates using Sihtric, which worked on screen but didn't work in the novel primarily because it involved Uhtred withholding the information from the readers – it felt forced in the book. And I would have taken Cornwell to task for that, even if Uhtred is a somewhat unreliable narrator at times.

As far as historical novels go, I've got to give it to Cornwell for being so prolific, and for writing such engaging characters. I've gone out and purchased book 7 immediately. The Saxon Tales are action-packed, adventure-filled stories that do the job of bringing a turbulent period of the British Isles' history to life, and has most certainly awakened a hunger in me to do more research.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Silent Miaow: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats by Paul Gallico, Suzanne Szasz

In the spirit of revisiting golden oldies, I tracked down a copy of The Silent Miaow by Paul Gallico and Suzanne Szasz from a library, and oh, what a treat it was. I appreciated the book a lot more now as an adult than when I was a kid, and I think this book says more about us humans than it does about the cats. 

First published in 1964, The Silent Miaow features a whole bunch of photographic studies of one cat, in particular, and her shenanigans with her humans. It's told in a 'mockumentary' style, as the subtitle suggests: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats, and it details all the ways a cat can wriggle her way into humans' homes and hearts, and how careful management of their, ahem, human resources, can lead to a long, fulfilling life.

A Silent Miaow is most certainly a book for ailurophiles, and if you don't read it with a knowing smile tugging at the corners of your lips, then you're not the kind of person I'm going to allow to step inside my house ;-)

A word on the author: Paul Gallico is also known for such classics as Thomasina, Jennie, and The Snow Goose, and his writing often features heroic animals. His books numbered among the first I read when I was little, and my mum encouraged me to get into literature. It's with equal parts nostalgia and love that I look back on his writing, and I'm hoping to revisit my old favourites.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Art of War: Anthology for Charity, edited by Petros Triantafyllou

Every once in a while an anthology crops up that is an instabuy for me, and this is one of them, as I often feel that short fiction anthologies don't get enough love. And having edited a fair few myself, I know exactly how hard it is to get copies to fly off the shelf. Art of War: Anthology for Charity edited by Petros Triantafyllou offers fans of GrimDark fiction a veritable treasure trove of names, including such luminaries as John Gwynne, Mark Lawrence, Rob J. Hayes, RJ Barker, Ulff Lehmann, and a whole bunch of others in a selection of war-torn tales that vary between the darkly humorous to plain old dark, with plenty of ultraviolence and more. Nope, if you're squeamish, maybe this is not for you.

Like all anthologies, it's going to be a bit of a mixed bag, and I went into it knowing that not all the stories would be my jam. That being said, I am happy to report that on the whole, the stories hit the mark with me, and there were only a few that left me a bit meh. Even better, the anthology was put together for a good cause, with all proceeds going to MSF (Doctors Without Borders). So if ever there is even more motivation to egg you on to pick up a copy, there we have it.

War is ugly. War has also been overly romanticised in our media. When we read historical accounts of battles, we are often faced primarily with the dry opinions of historians who weren't there, or who focus on the doings of a few high-and-mighty general who didn't get blood on their hands ... or who took all the glory. Or even exaggerated the roles they played when it came to gaining victories. What I loved about the stories in this anthology, was that many of them focused on the human element, on those literally in the trenches. I did feel, however, that a more attentive proofreader might have caught the grammar goblins and gremlins, but the occasional dropped word or typo weren't deal-breakers for me, because on the whole, the quality of the writing more than made up for the occasional slip. But I feel I must mention the slips, for I saw a fair few of them.

I'm happy to recommend this collection of devious tales – and I'm not going to single out any of them because I prefer you to make up your own mind about what you like – to anyone who's looking for flights of dark fantasy that are, well, suitably grim, and occasionally with a slight glimmer of hope.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Beneath the Sands of Egypt by Donald P Ryan

In the case of Beneath the Sands of Egypt by Donald P Ryan, the subtitle of Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist is pretty much spot on. This fascinating book serves Ryan's memoir, as he recounts the winding path that brought him to Egypt and the many adventures he had there, not only digging in the sands but also participating in the filming of documentaries. As an added bonus, he also shares how he came to cross paths with the legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl and ended up helping this legend with his own research. That's quite a career, and Ryan himself shows that not only does he possess a lively curiosity, but he delivers the account of exploits in an engaging fashion with somewhat wryly humorous observations.

In listening to this audiobook, beautifully narrated by Paul Boehmer, I also inadvertently also learnt a lot more about the importance of fibre technology in ancient Egypt than I expected I would (!!!) – and I love it when books deliver such seemingly inconsequential factoids. Yes, there is an Egypt Papyrus Museum, and yes, I want to go there one day. 

Ryan offers a perfect blend of archaeological research and amusing anecdotes, so there is never a dull moment in this book. I was quite sad when I reached the end, and I'm happy to report that I've since picked up two copies of his other publications. Perhaps one of the highlights for the read was Ryan describing how they staged the scenes where he and a television presenter encountered bats in old tombs. Ryan also reminds me why although I love all things Egypt, I'm rather glad that I'm able to indulge in my passion without trying to monetise it. While many people may have a desire to embark on careers in Egyptology, the opportunities to make a career of it are far and few between. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Heroes by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry has got one of those honey-gold voices I just want to distill and pour directly into my brain. If ever there is one human being on this planet who is so overwhelmingly talented and absolutely fabulous, and who deserves every honour accorded to him, it's this man. And the audiobook for Heroes further underpins my opinion about Stephen Fry.

Anyone who's worth their salt in terms of languages and literature should have at least a passing familiarity with the Greek myths. I had a module at university that focused primarily on the mythology, so I was treading familiar territory when I gave Heroes a whirl. And while a bewildering array of gods and goddesses, nymphs and monsters feature prominently in this hefty tome, it's the heroes who are, ahem, well, the heroes of this book. Well, duh.

From Jason and Perseus, to Atalanta and Hercules, we follow a bunch of ancient Greek luminaries on their quests for golden fleeces, the slaying of terrible monsters, and a quest for power and glory. Fry delivers the tales of derring-do, wonder, and tragedy all with his singular wit and fantastic sense for the dramatic. If you've ever encountered anyone who's complained that reading the primary sources is dull, the rather put them onto Fry. You'll thank me later, and if anything, this might yet inspire folks to dip into the original texts.

The old Greek myths have it all – epic quests, tragedies, dramatic love affairs, adventures, horror. In fact, I'd hazard to say, that modern fantasy fiction owes a vast debt to these great classics. And it's been a special treat to have them brought to life by the author himself. I could probably carry on heaping praise on this book until the cows come home to roost, and I'm most certainly going to pick up the rest of the titles in this series that Fry has been working on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Tutankhamen by Christine El Mahdy

I'm a huge fan of trawling second-hand bookstores, and it's not exactly an open secret that I'm currently researching old King Tut because Reasons. What I absolutely love is when I reach out for a book, see the gilt lettering on the spine, open it, and realise that this volume, despite the lack of dust cover, will be absolutely *perfect*. Such was the case with Tutankhamen by Christine El Mahdy.

I'm also an adept at Google-fu, so I was rather saddened to learn that El Mahdy passed away a good few years ago, and doesn't have much of a footprint. Which is a pity, because she makes some compelling arguments in her book that differ from the generally accepted conventions related to the Amarna Period and its direct aftermath.

Primarily, she posits that the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten was perhaps not so hellbent on destroying Egypt's pantheist religions in a vicious pogrom, and just that he was very much concerned with 'doing his own thing' so to speak, and the focus on Akhetaten weakened the grip of the other temples. It's an interesting thought. She also touches on the work of Howard Carter, his errors and triumphs, and also takes a stab at untangling the hot mess of lineages in the royal house.

Of course, and this is the case to this day, much of what the archaeologists suggest are theories – we simply don't have enough facts – and it's all but impossible to deal with overwhelming certainties when it comes to establishing what really happened to Tut – did he die of natural causes or did an ambitious Aye have him popped. 

Whatever the truth of the matter, El Mahdy offers us a well-considered, fascinating deep dive into this period, and I'm most certainly going to keep my eye open for the handful of other books she brought out. What a pity that she died so young.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1) by Elizabeth Peters

I bless the person who told me about the Amelia Peabody mysteries written by Elizabeth Peters, the pen name of Barbara Mertz, whose delightful non-fiction accounts of ancient Egypt have so enthralled me. So it was with this knowledge that I went into Crocodile on a Sandbank (the first in the series). I was not disappointed. 

Amelia is a woman who knows her own mind. Her father, somewhat of a scholar, indulged her when she grew up – hence as a spinster, she's not at all interested in the traditional roles expected for a woman of her standing during the late nineteenth century. Not only does she know her own mind, but she also is a woman of independent means, and she decides to see the world after her father's passing leaves her well off.

After she crosses paths with the unfortunate, disgraced Evelyn, and after saving her from certain death, has Evelyn accompany her to Egypt. Here they bump into two Egyptologist brothers – Radcliffe and Walter – who are busy excavating in Tell el-Amarna. 

Look, I'm not going to spoil a story where obviously many hijinks ensue. Mertz writes with great wit and humour, and her love and understanding of ancient Egypt and the early days of Egyptology shine through. There are 20 novels in this series, so I'm confident that I have many wonderful hours ahead of me. This edition was narrated by Barbara Rosenblat, who delivers the narrative with much vivacity – so much so that it feels as if the characters leapt off the pages and took up residence in my imagination rent free.

In fact, it's a sin that we don't have a TV series based on Mertz's writing yet. There is so much fodder here for an excellent adaption. But then again, perhaps it is better that the stories don't make it to the screen. Crocodile on a Sandbank captures the essence of an era, with a ring of authenticity that does rather illustrate the casual jingoism of the time. (Which may annoy some.)

Amelia Peabody, however, is a delight, in an era where women traditionally did not have agency. Her gleeful disregard of societal norms had me giggling throughout, and what rudimentary knowledge I possess of Egyptology meant that I had a solid understanding of the setting and some of the societal dynamics. I'm looking forward to the titles that follow.