Thursday, 2 February 2012

Empire: What Ruling The World Did To The British - Jeremy Paxman (2011)

Paxman's Empire is an extremely well researched and a highly readable account of the history of the British Empire. Whilst it may not appeal to the higher levels of academia (over 400 hundred years of history are condensed into less than 300 hundred pages) it is an excellent volume for those wanting to either refresh their knowledge on or know a little more about the birth, growth and decline of Britain's Empire.

Paxman is sensitively aware of the grave issues surrounding this topic: the subject of Britain's empire is either a taboo, a controversy, a disgrace, an embarrassment or, at worse, just simply ignored. Whilst his work is not a jingoistic, patriotic celebration of the British Empire, the Mother Country and the Land of Hope of Glory, he does punctuate it with stories which celebrate the unique British character when it finds itself overseas, in adversity and coping with the heat (usually anything over 19 degrees Celsius).

Paxman artfully steers the reader through the development of the empire. The reader is taken on a journey from when Britain set up outposts for trade and financial gain, to the onset of further inland gains, the establishment of an administration (eventually run by the Colonial Office) and its inevitable break up. Within this time frame, he reminds the reader of the people that helped to build and dismantle the Empire with superb character vignettes.

He does on occasion allow twenty first century opinions to interject into historical mindsets, but it does not detract from his readable narrative. This is most apparent when he describes the darkest aspect of British history with its involvement in the slave trade (although I'm in no way defending this dispicable era of history). Christian missionaries in Africa are given a similar treatment. Within their own social context they thought they were doing the right thing as the British knew best, but with today's precepts their efforts seem ignorant and intolerant of other people.

Whatever your opinion of the British Empire, Paxman argues that it has left an indelible mark on the world, for both good and bad. Its Empire cannot simply be consigned to the past to be conveniently forgotten or glossed over. Whether the British like it or not, the British must in the very least be aware of their empirical past as it continues to shape and influence contemporary British society and foreign policy. Paxman's volume tries to correct the current lack of interest in this subject. Subject wise, it is not always a comfortable read (indeed, a volume on empire should not be) but it is an essential read for anyone trying to appreciate and understand Britain's place in the world today.

Publisher's link & jacket image: http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670919574,00.html

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Topsham Bookshop

I have not visited this secondhand bookshop for nearly a decade but my happy memories of it are as strong today as they were in my hazy university days at Exeter.

After a quick search online, I am pleased to report that this bookshop is still standing, trading as The Topsham Bookshop http://www.topshambookshop.co.uk/. Back in the day, when a litre of petrol was less than 79p, it was known as 'Joel Segal Books'. The shop's online presence rolled back the years and drowned me in a flood of nostalgia, making me long for the times when I visited this gem of a bookshop. The only thing that was missing was the comforting, familiar smell of secondhand books.

As the content of the website is excellent, I will simply direct you to the floor page of the site to give an idea of their stock www.topshambookshop.co.uk/p/floors.html. I would recommend a browse of their paperbacks on the top floor front room. Visiting this shop used to make a great change from visiting the functional Blackwells on campus and saved quite a few pennies, even factoring the price of the petrol getting there. If you're in the area, this shop is worth a visit even for the browsing experience. An intended 30 minute visit can easily transform into hours. If you live further away or are planning at visit, at least try and have an online browse of this superb independent shop.

The Topsham Bookshop
27 Fore Street
Topsham
Exeter
Devon
EX3 0HD
Tel: 01392 877895

http://www.topshambookshop.co.uk/

Secondhand & out-of-print bookshop: paperback, hardback, modern, antiquarian.

Open 10.30am-5.00pm,Monday-Saturday(closed for lunch 1-2pm).

Image from: http://www.topshambookshop.co.uk/p/floors.html

Thursday, 10 February 2011

River God - Wilbur Smith, 1993

Wilbur Smith is an author whose milieu divides critics. As a white South African who grew up in the colonial days of Africa, his opinions on slavery can be hard to swallow.

However, in River God these problems can be mostly set aside as the book is set 4000 years before the birth of Christ. An epic's epic, it follows a huge cast of characters over more than 30 years in one of the most tumultuous periods in the nation's history.

The story is a first-person account of the life of Taita, a slave in the empire of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt, a land riven by civil war, beset by raiders and wallowing in its own stagnation. It weaves skillfully a powerful love story and a war story, as the book's star-crossed lovers struggle to unite the kingdom in the face of an invasion by the Hyksos, who bring a terrible new kind of warfare to ancient Egypt on the back of a war chariot.

Charting searing highs and crushing lows, and replete with historical detail, this is a great book for anyone interested in the era.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Skull - Shaun Hutson, 1982

Normally you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case it tells you all you need to know about it. The blurb on the back waffles on about a skull found on a building site coming back to life. The front cover has a hideously badly-realised version of this idea on it. This low quality extends to pretty much everything inside the book.

It's a thick book, but written in REALLY BIG FONTS so that in truth it is closer to a novella in size. The author has an irritating Dan Brownian habit of ending every chapter on a cliffhanger.

Hutson made a name for himself in the mid to late 80's as the godfather of British splatterpunk horror fiction. He earned that name by breaking the boundaries of what could be considered acceptable in horror fiction. This is an early work however, and boy does it show.

Set in a fictional British small town cut off from the outside world by flooding due to near-biblical amounts of rain, the novel focuses on a builder, Nick Regan and his scientist wife Chrissie. When the eponymous skull is unearthed on a building site for a new sports complex, Nick takes it to Chrissie for her to examine in the town library where she works. When the small group of scientists accidentally spill blood on it, the skull starts to regenerate its flesh.

Now, instead of, say, contacting the Nobel Institute, the scientists decide to keep an eye on this specimen and see how much of it regenerates. When the skull infects one of them and they turn into a ravening monster, they still decide to keep the skull quiet.

Eventually, after an interminable buildup the skull grows a whole body and the creature goes on the rampage. Nick and Chrissie go to the police, who immediately believe them, but refuse to contact any other police stations as the town is cut off. Presumably they have not heard of boats or helicopters. Anyway, the police go to the local gun shop and commandeer the kind of weaponry last seen in The Terminator (I'm not kidding, and just lying on the racks in a rural gunshop).

I could go on, but you get the idea. You cannot suspend your disbelief when reading this book, there are too many "Wait, what?" moments for that. Add to that sloppy plotting, farcical sex scenes and a completely ridiculous and bathetic ending and you get a true blue prime stinker of a book.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Warm Bodies - Isaac Marion, 2010

It can often be incredibly enlightening to read an author's first novel. Often the style is raw, as the author struggles to make a name for themselves. But the author also pushes more boundaries, as they have no expectations set upon them yet by publishers and fans.

Warm Bodies is the first novel by Isaac Marion, and what a first novel it is.

A romance from beyond the grave, it tells the story of R, a zombie and Julie, his living love interest. R is a smarter than normal zombie, capable of stringing together small sentences and collecting rare vinyls of Sinatra, Bobby Darin et al.

R goes out hunting in a pack with some of the smarter zombies (they bring some of the meat back for the others), but rescues Julie from his fellows. A tender relationship strikes up between them, forbidden by the elders on both sides.

It doesn't take a world-class intellect to work out that this is a postmodern pastiche of Romeo and Juliet, with even the names only slightly changed. But don't let this make you think the book is just a romance, as there is plenty of gore for any zombie fan and a completely new addition to zombie lore, the chilling Boneys - zombie elders, not much more than scraps of flesh on bone with teeth filed to razor points.

Ultimately it suffers from some of the problems that commonly afflict first novels. The tone is uneven, lurching between horror, comedy and some really affecting scenes. Some of the scenes fall a bit flat in the middle of the book, but it quickly recovers and the ending is truly excellent.

Overall, a tremendous first novel. As with any first novel it has its rough edges, but I expect big things from this author in the future.

Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell, 2008

What is Azincourt, you may ask?

According to Bernard Cornwell, there had been too many books about the battle of Agincourt, England's most unlikely military victory, named Agincourt for him to follow the trend. Instead the somewhat obscure title is the French name for the infamous region.

Clearly a labour of love for the author, it tells the story of one Nicholas Hook, from lowly peasant to leader of men as King Henry V's seemingly doomed campaign to assert his claim to the French crown steers his life inexorably towards disaster.

Anyone who has picked up a Bernard Cornwell novel before will recognise a very familiar structure - low-born man overcomes enemies both foreign and amongst his own ranks as he rises in rank, ultimately culminating in a climactic battle. But with Cornwell the formulaic plotting can be forgiven because the book is rich in historical detail and he has a keen eye for the daily lives of the men in the trenches.

The book fairly whips along, and the finale is both cathartic and also somewhat gruelling. With an English army of only 6000 overwhelmed by a French host of 30000 the battle is epic both in scope and in length, with the final third of the novel devoted to this climactic confrontation. Cornwell also doesn't flinch from the grue either, so readers of more delicate dispositions would be advised to look elsewhere.

There is also a nice "Special Features" section in the back of the book, with the standard Bernard Cornwell "Historical Note" section, where he admits where he has taken liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. It is a testament to his skills as an author that these are usually fairly few. There is also an interview with the author and some interesting information on the history of the Longbow, without which the English would never have survived Agincourt.

Overall, this is an excellent historical novel. Cornwell has created a tightly-plotted account of England's most precarious military victory and I highly recommend it as long as you can put up with the slightly formulaic plot-structure and bucket-loads of medieval hardware killing people in inventive ways.