Friday, 15 January 2016

Lords of the Horizons - Jason Goodwin

Turning, unusually, to a little non-fiction for the sake of educating myself a little on the middle east. Today's talk of 'caliphates' plus the reading of Louis De Berneire's Birds Without Wings (2004) led me to want to know more about the forgotten 'great empire' - the Ottoman.

To most history scholars, such as myself, the curriculum seems to almost literally skirt around The Ottoman Empire. I did the usual Plantagenet's,Tudors, Stuarts etc. Modern European up to the end of WW1. The Ottoman Empire was a part of all that history, and yet was barely mentioned.

So this book is fantastic at filling in some of the gaps. Did you wonder why there were Muslims in Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war? - here's the answer. What exactly is a caliphate, and why doesn't it exist any more? What was the whole schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims about? Why did we lose the crusades? Why are Turks called Turks when the Turkmen (and Turkmenistan) are somewhere else? What happened to the Mongol hoards and the Huns are their ravaging? Why did Byzantium become Constantinople and then Istanbul? Its all here, and, as such I feel a great gap in my education has been filled. I also know the difference between a sultan, bey, vizier, pasha and a khan - and I can feel smug in this at least until my rubbish memory decides to throw this knowledge away.

So, all that is good. But this book isn't perfect. Firstly there are 2 mistakes that are entirely down to the publisher:

1) The map at the front is a disaster. It just doesn't work. The shading is awful. It's way too ambitious.

2) The timeline and the glossary are at the back. Well, I'm sorry guys but I read this book in the old fashioned "start to finish" method. I almost spilled my latte when I finished, turned the page and found all this great information that would have REALLY helped my understanding.

OK, that's kicked the publisher. Should I kick the author? On balance, no. Some reviewers do pick up on the inconsistencies in dates and the fact that this history does not follow a fixed timeline, but for me these are trifles. The author obviously has a huge amount of knowledge and could fill 10 more books - this is the skimming primer of absolutely everything. No go read the detail.

Is this a good read? It's tough sometimes, but I found it really rewarding. Better to know a little about what others' histories than nothing at all.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

More ambitious than any of her excursions since Days in the Museum, there were maybe too many coils in the serpent, and they failed to divert the readers' attention from the Grandfather Paradox - which, of course trips so many up (see Doctor Who almost every Saturday night).

All that said, and this book has had a load of criticism, the characters are as good as any she has written and you do genuinely start caring for their wellbeing ( or "wellbeings" - there are several for everyone as Atkinson plays with time). And I am very glad that her next offering will pick up where this one has left off - the lady's on a path and is not, it seems for turning.

Angela Carter - The Bloody Chamber

My second Angela Carter book is this delightful set of short stories, loosely based on fairy stories, but given a very adult upgrade.

Somewhere in the centre of the book I got a little bogged down with a few similar werewolf / Red Riding Hood stories, but don't let that put you off. The first story - The Bloody Chamber of the title -  will live (somewhat disturbingly) with you for a long time. Well worth the cost by itself. Other gems include the Tiger's Bride (an twist in the literal tail), and an evil Puss in Boots.

I am not entirely sure what this tells us about 'feminist writer' Carter, except that playfulness, love of the earthy and ability to write beautifully all shine through again. There seems little or not attempt to place a feminist undertone into the proceedings, and, indeed, the female victims are never saved the final coup de grace from the evil misogynist villains.

Also, several of the stories have a sensual, even erotic, theme, which does not look to supplant the usual male / female roles and imagery with anything revolutionary. And if you think it is coming in "The Lady of the House of Love" , in which a vampires lures a virgin soldier to her room, well.. no, I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Do these new fairy tales reinterpret the roles of women? No. But this is far from a traditional telling.