Last Book Read...



  • 00730073 COPPosts: 1,010MI6 Agent

    Agreed; I've gone through all of the OG Reacher books, but found the "Brother series" lacking compared. I always had the feeling that OG Reacher hurts people when it's a necessity. He maybe violent, but he isn't brutal just for the sake of it.

    "I mean, she almost kills bond...with her ass."
    -Mr Arlington Beech
  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 3,929MI6 Agent

    @chrisno1 said : Fitts, stanzas, double alliterative, hop-and-wheel rhyme and rhythm


    I gotta ask, cuz I'm a lowbrow: I think I know what a stanza is, but could you define these other terms?

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,216Chief of Staff

    A fitt's the same as a canto, I think. Hope that helps! 😁

  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 3,929MI6 Agent

    'fraid not. all I know is speech balloons, thought balloons, sound effects, and narrative captions

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,216Chief of Staff

    I don't want to step on chrisno1's toes any more than I've already done, so I'll leave it to him.

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,671MI6 Agent

    Even as a partial graduate of English Literature (it was my Minor subject to my History Major) I'm not sure what most of those literary terms mean myself. But then I've never been a great one for terms like this. I'm of the belief that you can still write well without knowing all the correct terms for the words you put down on a page. As long as you know how to put the words in the correct order in a sentence to keep it from sounding awkward you're half the way there already.

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,238MI6 Agent
    edited March 21

    Okay, here goes:

    When it comes down to poetry, there are many and numerous different terminology. Most of them have become redundant in modern poetry, where a roaming ‘free structure’ has become the norm. That isn’t to say the basic tenets of rhyme and rhythm are forgotten, they are simply reinterpreted. To be honest, when I write poetry, I am mostly concerned with internal rhyme and half-rhyme. But I sense if I start gabbling on about that, you’ll really lose the plot.

    To address the question:

    STANZA – what we would typically call a verse. In a uniform poem with a recognisable structure, these would be the same number of lines long, with the same number of stresses per line, or beats if you like. Sir Gawain nominally has twelve beats per line, but isn't held to this number. Being a modern poet, Simon Armitage doesn’t concern himself with retaining a strict structure either and several lines are much longer or shorter. 

    Stanzas are typically separated by what is called ‘white space’ i.e. a line or two lines between each section. This allows the reader to identify a new phase in the poem and also insists that the reader pauses before progressing. If read aloud, this would deliberately evoke a dramatic pause.

    FITT – is an Olde English word for poem. A fitt is divided into several stanzas of unequal length. Each line should have an approximate number of 12 stresses. Traditionally they would follow a two line end-of-line rhyme scheme [e.g. A A, B B, etc.]. However, the Gawain poet used what is known as ALLITERATIVE VERSE or ALLITERATIVE FORM which is less concerned with a thorough repetitive model – hint: there isn’t one – and more interested in the shape and sound of words within each line. In his translation Armitage therefore is also less concerned with a formal structure; so individual lines are often longer and shorter and any rhyme scheme is half-hearted at best. This creates poetic energy, through the rhythm of alternate stressed and unstressed beats.

    Sir Gawain is composed of four fitts, or poems, or if you like chapters, which each occupy a section of the epic story.

    FITT FIRST takes place at Camelot, sets the scene and the challenge and introduces the characters.

    FITT SECOND sees Sir Gawain’s attempt to find the Green Knight.

    FITT THIRD sees Gawain morally tempted by the beautiful wife of his host.

    FITT FOURTH features the climatic duel with the Green Knight, the resolution and a short epilogue which summarises the moral compass of the author’s piece.

    ALLITERATION – is the occurrence of the same sound [usually] at the beginning of closely connected words – as in closely connected, which has three ‘kuh’ sounds for each ‘C’. Poets use alliteration to create rhythm through sound recurrence.

    DOUBLE ALLITERATION – features more than one recurring sound on a line, although Armitage doesn’t always utilise this, sometimes preferring a single rhyme. An example of double alliteration would be:

    Leo loves to make Linda muffins on Mondays.

    Some lines may not read alliteratively and must be spoken to achieve the proper rhythmic effect. This harks back to the Middle Ages when poems would have been spoken or sung as a form of performance entertainment.

    HOP AND WHEEL – is another Olde and Middle English poetic feature. It is important to remember that poems would have been spoken, sung and ‘performed; by a minstrel, harpist or player. To signify to the audience that a stanza has been completed and that short period of action or dialogue has finished, minstrels and poets used the hop-and-wheel structure.

    This is a series of five lines [indented when printed] that will always submit to the following pattern of syllable stresses and endo-of-line rhyme:

    2 syllables – rhyme A

    6 syllables – rhyme B

    6 syllables – A

    6 syllables – B

    6 syllables – A


    An example is:

                                And then?

                 Well, with the green man gone

                 they laughed and grinned again.

                 And yet such goings on

    were magic to those men.


    Note the alliteration on the second line of W, then G, and also the N sound at the end on the last three words, which is triple alliteration. Here the N sound carries through the whole of the wheel, but this is just in the example I chose as it highlights how Armitage uses strong continuous sounds to propel the phrasing.

    I hope it helps.

    Note: for some reason the final line of my example isn't indented, I can't seem to correct it. The line should start equal to the three above it. If I can correct it I will, but I am away to work right now. Have a great evening everybody.


  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 3,929MI6 Agent
    edited March 21

    most excellent!

    I knew what alliteration was, but not double alliteration. like when sometimes Captain Haddock gets really mad he says "Billions of blue blistering barnacles and ten thousand thundering typhoons". actually maybe thats a triple since "t" and "th" are two different sounds

    you know now that @Barbel has rewritten all the Bond films in the style of Shakespeare, maybe some knowledgeable volunteer wants to rewrite them all over again in the style of Middle English verse?

  • Silhouette ManSilhouette Man The last refuge of a scoundrelPosts: 8,671MI6 Agent

    If it means having to read Chaucer again count me out! 😉

    "The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette." - Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955).
  • TonyDPTonyDP Inside the MonolithPosts: 4,280MI6 Agent

    It by Stephen King

    In 1958 a group of outcast children collectively known as the Losers Club confront an ancient, shape-shifting evil that calls itself Pennywise. It awakens every 27 years or so to prey on the town's children, feeds and then goes back to sleep until the cycle repeats itself. Bill Denbrough (who's little brother was murdered by Pennywise) and his friends Richie, Ben, Mike, Eddie, Beverly and Stanley share a special bond and decide to confront the monster to end it's murderous spree. Through flashbacks we see how our heroes meet, how they grow close and form their bond and how they are able to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of defeating It in its own lair. Alas, things are not so easy when they are forced to return to try to finish the job as adults in 1985. The minds of grownups tend to become closed and inflexible and they can forget the magic they can tap into as children. They will need to remember what happened during their first encounter and how they prevailed if they hope to survive and vanquish the monster once and for all.

    At over 1100 pages It is an expansive and daunting novel with lots of characters and events to keep track of. In addition to intricately exploring each of our main characters (both as children and adults), the fictional town of Derry, Maine and its inhabitants are just as integral to the plot as they are inextricably linked to Pennywise and King explores both in great detail. The novel also spawned a bit of controversy due to one of the flashbacks near the end of the story. After their first encounter with Pennywise, Bill and his friends are lost in the sewers beneath Derry. They're exhausted, their fellowship is fraying and the situation is desperate. Beverly comes up with a novel and ultimately very controversial way of bringing them all back together. It's a passage of the book that has never been filmed for either adaptation and if you ever read it you'll understand why. Many have said it was weird at best, tasteless at worst and ultimately unnecessary. I found it more than a little uncomfortable to read and thought King could have easily come up with a different solution to get them out of that predicament but at the end of the day it's his book and he calls the shots.

    I really had to take my time with this one, reading one chapter and then stopping and digesting what I'd read before moving forward. That said, It is a great read, filled with wonderful characters, scary encounters and lots of emotional moments.

  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 6,153MI6 Agent

    IT was my favourite King novel until 11.22.63 was published. The Beverly Marsh underage consensual group sex scene was never going to be filmed but it is an important part of the novel and leads to the reader understanding her problems later in life where she is an abused wife.

    I still prefer the old TV version. Part One of the new movie is excellent but Part Two is a complete mess.

    The book is still compelling, I re-read it a couple of years ago and it is still a haunting, powerful novel.

    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,216Chief of Staff

    Never my favourite, and given the length I'm unlikely to give it a second chance.

    At present I'm taking a break from my months long attempt to read all the Solar Pons stories (as mentioned earlier) which is why I haven't posted here for a while, and re-reading some Chandler.

  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 10,270MI6 Agent
    edited March 22

    I finished the 500-page first Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, and in a mere three days. That tells you what a page turner it is (and also that I have time on my hands, I suppose.) You can't knock it for that reason, the ultimate plot reveal of the criminal objective is well done, well researched, you come away knowing a bit a about stuff, and some of the local political machinations ring true, the tactics they use. Like hiring someone they think is thick, because they won't poke their nose into local corruption.

    The book came out in 1997 so it precedes Jason Bourne - the films, at least - and in some ways seems naive when the lead character is not meant to be. Mobile phones are used, not WhatsApp, and there's never any suspicion the powers that be can hack them, though this was going on back then with the News of the World, Mirror Group and police in the UK, and indeed anyone could do it if the victim had not altered the factory settings on their security codes. We are all more familiar with skulduggery now, we are kind of in that world, so some of Reacher's decisions seem a bit rash or green when the character absolutely isn't - I mean, of course the villains are going to go after him or such-and-such and try to kill them - but perhaps this is just how I feel having lived in Surrey with its murderous adult social care policy, I mean even the feted sub postmaster Alan Bates told in the Radio Times how they were checking under their cars each morning for bombs, and he doesn't present as a hysteric. (Deletes short rant about our Ryanair Govt, which runs everything on the cheap and trolls anyone who falls foul of it)

    One of the problems of being in that world is that these kind of thrillers don't offer much escapism!

    The prose style is macho, minimalistic and police procedural as befits a first person narrative by a man from that world. It convinces but don't expect any lovely uplifting prose passages because it doesn't do that, it's not meant to. It also means that when the story gets increasingly implausible - Reacher says he hasn't talked to anyone for more than two sentences in months, but becomes very engaging and chatty from the off here, everyone he talks to is happy to confide with a useful bit of info that is directly helpful to the plot, save one character who clams up because the plot is served by Reacher not knowing much early on... the writer can not employ much in the way of authorial tricks to pull some of it off. The gruff, minimalistic style doesn't allow for that kind of confidence trick.

    It's almost how I feel about the Craig Bond films - okay, you wanna make it realistic, I can go with that - so why are you now giving us some implausible nonsense?

    One trick used is the extreme sadistic violence which is usually off screen, so to speak, we find the villains have done it to someone later. It's unnecessary but then again it isn't, because it adds to the sense of real threat and without it, the thing might resemble a Famous Five book (I don't know if they got the Famous Five in the US, it's a 1950s series of children's books about a group of young teenage (or was it younger?) sleuths, achingly middle class, its only nod to diversity being that one girl is a tomboy and has. mongrel dog.) The US equivalent might be the Scooby gang, as Reacher has a trio in authority he can trust in.

    Is one of those tricks that the reader should feel he's ahead of the lead character at some point? (And not necessarily be proved wrong about it.) Or was that a flaw in the writing?

    But latterly, as it's clear the plot feeds back to the top brass in Washington, one wonders why Reacher simply doesn't phone it in, given he's pretty much sussed what is going on. It's like the trio keep what they've found to themselves - this adds to the tension tbf because if they die, the secret goes with them. At one point a high-ranking official arrives by plane with top-secret useful information only, well, this is spoiler territory but by this point one is turning the page to get to the end, party because it's exciting but also because you just think, okay, let's be done with this, and there is no consequence to this incident. Folk are also thought to be dead and then re-emerge alive, it's that kind of book.

    Brilliantly done, I mean I finished it, didn't I? It didn't ultimately conclude quite how I predicted, so kudos to Child, but I'm not sure I'd quite rush into the next one. There is the slight sense of being both impressed and a little bit taken for a ride. It's an airport novel.

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
  • TonyDPTonyDP Inside the MonolithPosts: 4,280MI6 Agent

    @CoolHandBond, I still haven't seen the new adaptation of It; how did they handle the more cosmic sections (or did they skip them entirely)? I don't remember much of the 1994 version but when reading the book, I did hear Richard Thomas and Annette O'Toole's voices whenever there was a passage with adult Bill or Beverly so it must have made an impact on some level.

    @Barbel, have you ever heard that old adage "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." That's kind of how I approached It. I'd owned the novel for 30 years and never read it because the length was so daunting. After finishing 11/22/63 I figured this would be the perfect time to take it on since there are passages in the newer book that reference It and 11/22/63 was still fresh in my memory. That said, it took me about a month to finish It. I'd read a bit, stop, digest and consider and repeat. It was the only way I could get thru something that long. I'm sure I'll revisit certain sections down the road but I doubt I'll ever read it from cover to cover again.

    The Dead Zone is next. I found an almost mint Book Club first edition and I'm looking forward to getting into that one. At only 475 pages it's practically a short story. 😁

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,238MI6 Agent

    GIRL MEETS BOY – Ali Smith (2007)

    When reading Ali Smith’s novella Girl Meets Boy, I was reminded of the famous quote from Mark Twain: ‘There is no such thing as a new idea… We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.’

    Smith doesn’t offer a retelling of Ovid’s Tale of Iphsis and Ianthe, but instead provides a significant reimagining. This realist tale takes a kaleidoscopic turn towards a completely different, contemporary mythology, one of gender fluidity among the realms of corporate and social brutality. It is an uneasy work, resolved not by the Gods but through physical passions and intellectual insight, the two seeming to go hand-in-hand with the Gunn sisters’ burgeoning adulthood. Hence, Girl Meets Boy is an intensely modern novel that recognises its source yet is also compelled to narrate anew via up-to-the-moment idioms and trendy typography which betray the book’s early twenty-first century origins.

    It is hard not be drawn towards Ovid’s original text, but comparing the two, I feel, misses the point of Smith’s writing. While the author openly acknowledges the inspiration – most obviously through an epigraph that opens the book and on the extensive sleeve notes – there is no direct association between the two stories until Robin Goodman relates the mythological tale. Even then, Smith rebuke’s Ovid’s myth by refusing an otherworldly romantic ending for her characters. Her conclusion is much more solid, based on the fundamental realities of life. It is the social and political aspects of the novel that resonate hardest: how people interact with each other, how the structures of power are abused and how protest and change takes first form in the lowest and oppressed strata’s of society.

    The opening to Girl Meets Boy is particularly fascinating as the author contrives a series of images conjuring unbelievable life experiences for Grandfather, culminating in a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. His wife’s reaction to the tales confirms to us his unreliability as a storyteller, but not to young Anthea Gunn, whose mind is preoccupied with these fantastic tales, none more so than that of the ghostly, beautiful Burning Lily. Smith subtly makes the connection here between fantasy and reality, for Grandfather has impersonated a girl in his stories for his granddaughters’ benefit, yet the undertones of Scottish gothic – snuggling unseen into an old dark house, an Eden-like bite from an apple, reflections in mirrors – suggest things may not be entirely how we interpret them. Yet it is the fluidity of the interpretation which allows us to appreciate how identity can be both phantasmagoric and genuine. So, when Imogen later confronts Robin Goodman regarding a lesbian lifestyle, her frightened confusion of questions, some valid, most not, climaxes in a single query: ‘What’s the correct word for it, I mean, for you?’ Robin, and by extension Ali Smith, undercut our natural expectations and reinforce the idea of fluid identity and gender with a single word explanation: ‘Me’

    It is Smith’s skill with such easy imagery and symbolism that allows us as an audience to inhabit her characters’ world and understand their sometimes solid, sometimes fluid identities. It is this fluidity and free spirit of gender which constantly draws us as readers into the story. For instance, the scene where Anthea first meets Robin neatly recalls her Grandfather’s fleeting glimpse of Burning Lily from the opening pages: ‘It wasn’t a boy at all. It was a beautiful girl.’ These transformative moments are the modern update of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. While transformation, real or imaginary, is important to Smith, it is antiauthoritarian life-changing acts of defiance which confirm the identity of Robin and Anthea as the Message Boys / Girls and Imogen as their sponsor. Smith returns to the image of a tightrope walker during the novel’s closing paragraphs: ‘They made us natural acrobats.’

    It is interesting to note that when approaching male identity Smith often reverts to oppressive stereotypes such as the drunken, verbally abusive work colleagues or the scene where Imogen’s boss becomes inappropriately aroused during a one-to-one interview. Men essentially acting like ghouls holds no interest for the author other than to highlight their complete digression from emotion towards reward, often at cost to others. Under Keith’s leadership, the trajectory of the bottled water firm Pure becomes a testosterone fuelled, slogan orientated, dishonest power grab, the author’s moment of satire at the expense of soundbites and financial monopolies in a 21st Century industrial climate: ‘They say: our dam blocks their access to fresh water… We say: they’re ethnic troublemakers… Use the word terrorism if necessary.’

    However, by the novel’s conclusion, Smith has returned to Ovid’s two female lovers, pressing in abstract styles only, associating changes in individual’s attitudes and society’s conventions with Iphsis’ metamorphosis. The link does feel tenuous and forced, perhaps a sign the novel was commissioned. The message of self-fulfilment against the natural or civilised order is better explained by the single repeated word ‘kittle’, which means unpredictable or difficult to deal with, and its absolution by the thrust of a stone into still water.

    There is an underlying consciousness of political and intellectual growth, reflected neatly by the more incisive graffiti protests of ‘the message girls / boys’ as Smith’s two lovers discover a commonality to fight against: the injustice of inequality against women. Women’s slow recognition for rights in the workplace and society draws discreet parallels with the unseen predicament of many unconsidered members of a supposed civilised society.

    I do not suggest this was Smith’s intent, but the voice of protest is marked throughout the text. Indirectly the characters constantly ask: ‘Why?’ Perhaps there is a latent desire to bring forward the happy ending provided by Ovid in his heartening original, this certainly seems to loom diligently over Girl Meets Boy.   

  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,238MI6 Agent

    WEST – Carys Davies (2018)

    A debut novel from a few year’s back, West charts the parallel stories of Cy Bellman, an American settler who sets off from the family home for the swamps of the Mississippi Delta in search of giant creatures, and his daughter, Bess, left in the dubious care of her aunt. Bellman is a dreamer. A scrap of a newspaper article about the discovery of dinosaur bones sends his mind into a hopeless whirl of confusion, hope and bloodymindedness. We all know his quest is pointless. We can see the end coming as clear as day. Even his young Indian tracker, who goes by the unfortunate name of Old Woman From A Distance, senses the man’s mission is doomed to failure. The Indian has no language skills to communicate Bellman’s folly, so he accepts gifts and offers aid without question or quibble. A bond forms between them, albeit one of master and servant, and their silent, forlorn days are spent seeking, hunting, eating and sleeping among the vast weather strapped prairies of the west.

    Bess meanwhile has to endure ridicule among the local township and the unwanted attentions of restless hot blooded older men. Here too, we can sense the forthcoming tragedy. Bess’ world is constrained physically, but intellectually looks outward at the world she is missing, the one her father inhabits. Practical and diligent, she spends her spare time at the local library studying the history of Lewis and Clarke’s President’s Expedition, hoping to garner information about her father’s route. His letters fail to arrive. The librarian takes pity on her. The world beyond the library and the homestead is only enlightened by a child’s book of fairy stories. Like those heroines, she finds herself in wolfish peril but her saviour is nowhere at hand.

    As the novel switches back and forth between locations as well as between characters both major and incidental, author Carys Davies evolves a strong taut narrative of haunting, stark prose that catches the eye and mind. She is spare and concise with her descriptions of people and places, noting the tiniest details that have enormous meaning. The novel isn’t strong on symbolism – lost worlds or opportunities, perhaps – but is high on incidental minute dramas, each chapter a microcosm of a character’s personal world, thought and space. The prose is deftly orchestrated; we feel for these people even when we recognise their obvious faults. West is a realist western of much excellence, gloomy ominous atmospheres and some gut churning incident. A treat for this reader’s eyes and mind.            

    Very good indeed.

  • BarbelBarbel ScotlandPosts: 36,216Chief of Staff

    @TonyDP, I will get around to IT someday.

    THE LADY IN THE LAKE Raymond Chandler

    Chandler’s fourth Philip Marlowe novel. Not his best or worst, and it’s not too difficult to work out who’s behind all the murders and how the plot works. Marlowe spends a lot of time around the titular lake in the mountains, not in his usual big city environment, but he’s his usual  witty self and Chandler’s writing is as entertaining as always. It wouldn’t be my choice for someone to start reading this series with, though.

    The 1947 film version is told in the first person, ie through Marlowe’s eyes, and is an interesting experiment. Robert Montgomery stars and directs. The story is much altered from the novel- for one thing we never see the lake or Marlowe finding a lady in it, though he does mention it. A curiosity.

  • TonyDPTonyDP Inside the MonolithPosts: 4,280MI6 Agent

    @Barbel, I'm sure you will but if it didn't resonate with you no need to rush back to it I think.

    As for me, I just finished The Dead Zone by (who else) Stephen King

    English teacher Johnny Smith is involved is a horrific traffic accident which leaves him in a coma for four and a half years. When he finally wakes up, his world has changed and he has lost just about everything. His girl has gotten married, his mother has become a religious zealot and his body has become ravaged by his injuries and the years spent motionless in a hospital bed. Worst of all, Johnny has suffered a form of brain trauma which has damaged one part of his brain (the titular Dead Zone) but also opened up another part that allows him to experience physic visions of people he touches, a power that he loathes as it makes him perceived as a freak every time he is forced to use it. As Johnny continues to try to put the pieces of his life back together as best he can, he has a fateful encounter with Greg Stillson a budding politician who feels he is destined for greatness. What Johnny sees when he shakes hands with Stillson terrifies him to the bottom of his soul and sets him on a fateful collision course with Stillson with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

    Johnny is a likable character and you really feel for his plight and the crummy hand fate has dealt him. King's constant readers have long drawn parallels between Stillson and a certain orange haired politician and the resemblances are uncanny: shady real estate deals, political aspirations, unsavory associates and even a grift involving bibles. Truly bizarre. The rest of the characters are serviceable and help move the story along though they don't stand out in any particular way other than maybe Sam Weizak, one of Johnny's doctors and few true friends.

    The story is well paced, there aren't a lot of characters to keep track of and the situations Johnny gets into are interesting. Whereas it took me the better part of a month to finish IT, I breezed thru The Dead Zone in just a few days. While the book is more of a paranormal thriller, it does take some turns into grounded horror during a passage where Johnny helps a Castle Rock sheriff track down a serial killer. A movie starring Christopher Walken and directed by David Cronenberg was released in the early 1980s and it is pretty faithful to the story, touching on all the major beats and featuring a couple of great performances by Walken as Johnny and the great Herbert Lom as Dr. Weizak. The Dead Zone is one of King's earlier works and having now gone thru about 3/4 of his bibliography, it has also become one of my favorites. The ending is both sad and moving but also quite powerful; it stayed with me after I finished the book. I'm sure I'll be circling back around to this one down the road.

  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 10,270MI6 Agent
    edited April 1

    Flashman and the Dragon by George Macdonald Fraser. Published in 1985, it seems to be his first since helping to pen Octopussy, in fact one of Flashman's conquests owes something to May Day in that year's A View to a Kill, in her tendency to take control in the bedroom and ability to literally throw men around.

    It's good, it's a Flashman novel - this time set in China and Hong Kong where our 'hero' gets embroiled in the Taiping Rebellion. Compared to its predessor, Flashman and the Redskins, it is more straightforward and streamlined - Redskins really was an epic, spanning several decades and one, maybe two continents (I think it kicks off in Africa, but is mainly a Western, spanning from East to West Coasts). That said, as with a later Tom Mankiewicz Bond film, there's a feeling of familiarity about it, a sense we've seen it before, only the characters' names and locations have changed.

    The author struggles a little with the idea that his hero is really a coward and cad who falls on his feet yet, over a series of adventures, cannot really be so. Not a keen troubleshooter, excuses have to be made for putting him in the centre of the action - here Macdonald Fraser does well usually - for the protagonist is oft undone by his lechery or ability to annoy others - but for all that, well, he still has to exhibit courage under fire, and if he is scared and doesn't want to be there, well, the same could be said of many of those conscripted into Britain's war effort - it still counts as courage, doesn't it. The author does struggle with this, at the end of Flashman and the Great Game, I think, he turned really quite heroic and at its finale it was supposedly undone by the publication of Tom Brown's Schooldays, supposedly outing his true nature - but I'm not sure this cliffhanger actually comes to anything.

    So the author at any rate tries to have Flashman do something truly despicable - his misdeed in Redskins is so awful that it put me off the book and the character, and in this one he is witness to a dreadful bit of wrongdoing on the river that he in some ways helped encourage or diid nothing to deter, later he conspires to send a fellow soldier who was about to blackmail him to his death. For all that, we still see him to his fair share of derring-do, for all that, as the adventures pile up it is hard not to feel his exploits are not quite fabricated or ill deserving of acclaim.

    Reality - or this reader's reality - intrudes into the escapism with the character's take on the totalitarian regime - 'I made a mental salute to the Taiping Rebellion - like all revolutionary movements (and for that matter all governments) it was plainly designed to ensure the rulers an abundance of fleshpot, while convincing the ruled that austerity was good for the soul.' Then again, this was written in 1985, when Thatcher's austerity policies were holding sway, so plus ca change.

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 10,270MI6 Agent
    edited April 7

    As an antidote to Flashman, I picked up a copy of Bernard Cromwell's Sharpe's Company, an early instalment in the long-running saga. I think I read the first two over a decade ago.

    It's fascinating to compare the two heroes. Of course, Sharpe is set in the Napoleonic Wars, so 1812 or thereabouts, while Flashman begins his soldiering career around 1840. Sharpe is set at the most glorious peak of the Empire - though there are references to their losing the American colonies - while Flashman's era seems to concentrate on the more shameful, almost decadent stage of British imperialism, where they can't even say they're trying to contain my namesake's ambitions. Sharpe is based in Europe, Flashman in Afghanistan, East Africa, India, the United States, China, Madagascar, everywhere really.

    George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman would be the bad guy in the Sharpe novels, the well-to-do type of exalted status who is in fact a coward, one feels ashamed reading the Sharpe book for enjoying such a scoundrel, the antitheses to Sharpe. Then again, is he? Flashy has certain skills, he is handy with a sabre and can pick up the language in any terrain, like Sharpe he has a way with the ladies. Neither have a low tolerance of incompetence in command, and both are ready to speak truth to power if the occasion demands, and the consequences not harsh. The two might be James Bond v Alec Trevelyn - ironic when you think that Bean played Sharpe in the TV drama series, of course - but Cornwell's character is very much in the Fleming James Bond mould, with a scar on his face, black hair, he avoids mentioning his 'piratannical looks' or whatever it is, but you know he wants to.

    Cornwell doesn't shy away from the bloody horror of war and the fatalities - amputations and so on, which don't seem to feature so much in the Flashman books, which instead focus on morally dubious or just plain awful sadism instead, it's a different emphasis. Possibly because the grim battle details might put Flashy's cowardice in a more unsavoury light, I don't know, possibly because the books are meant to be generally comic. One becomes aware that there isn't really much soldiering going on in many of the Flashman novels, rather he winds up getting involved in adventures, just as James Bond doesn't really do much espionage.

    Sharpe's Company sees the hero being denied a captaincy advocated by Wellington himself by some Whitehall bureaucrat, so he is bumped back down the ranks through no fault of his own. The plot concerns the garrison in Spain, taking on Napoleon's soldiers who have seized two major strongholds. These two plots are not that entertaining in themselves so Cornwell has a couple of sub plots aside from Sharpe's captaincy, a nasty character called Hakeskill who joins the company and really is a horrible piece of work with a backstory that would put Fleming's Red Grant to shame, then there is a romantic sub plot too.

    Despite the helpful maps provided, some of the battle descriptions I found a mite hard to follow, which is my fault I think. The book is an eye opener into soldiering back then, and a page turner. The writing is not up to Flashman standards, and is a bit generic. Characters 'frowned' or 'laughed' or 'grinned' - it's not quite Lee Child territory, but it's as if mankind has a limited set of stock emotional responses. In a review of one of CJ Samson's Shardlake books, one said how a character 'shrugged' - complaining that in real life, people don't actually shrug, do they.

    Morally the whole thing is not quite so different to Flashman, in fact the reader feels queasy to think he might have more in common with the cowardly anti-hero than he'd like. The climax of this Sharpe novel sees the British soldiers storm the Spanish town hidden behind citadel walls after weeks of attempts to breach the walls and many thousands of deaths, then looting and indiscriminately raping the women, including the nuns. I suppose it's to Cornwell's credit that he doesn't omit this but you don't quite feel he totally deplores it either, and were it not for the Sharpe romantic subplot there's little to suppose our 'hero' wouldn't get swept up in the orgiastic frenzy either. It makes Flashman's deplorable antics in a flattering light, by contrast - for the most part his sex is consensual though it pains me to type that at times I think he does rape a woman and somehow it is not presented as a dealbreaker, as if context is everything. Perhaps that's the reason for having a character like Hakeskill, to make everyone else seem not so bad, but it leaves a bad taste. Because until then, most of the soldiers - certainly those under Sharpe - are portrayed as rugged, thorough solid types, from the wrong side of the tracks for sure, and usually with a criminal background, but not actual rapists and scum.

    Then again, there's a fine line near the end of Flashman and the Dragon in which the British forces under order from Elgin sack the splendid Summer Palace in premeditated retaliation for the sadistic massacre of their men, which perhaps sums it up: 'That's the great thing about policy, and why the world is such an infernal place: the man who makes the poilcy don't have to carry it out and the man who carries it out ain't responsible for the policy. Which is why our folk were tortured to death and the Summer Palace was burned. Mind you, if that wasn't the case, precious little would ever get done.'

    The author's epilogue on the Sharpe character is interesting but has a good few spoilers if one is in the early stages of the books. One tidbit is that the actor meant to be playing Sharpe in the TV drama suffered a bad leg injury playing with the Ukrainian extras on set, so they had to recast - enter Sean Bean, at short notice. Must have been galling for the actor who missed out. [Edit: Not too galling, a Google search reveals the luckless actor was Paul 'Withnail & I' McCann who had and has a very nice acting career.]

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 3,238MI6 Agent

    STARDUST (1998/99) by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

    I finished this glossy illustrated manuscript of a fairy story today, in one day, in about three hours. It's awful.

  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 10,270MI6 Agent

    Sharpe's Sword by Bernard Cornwall.

    Enjoying taking a break from rainy Surrey to head over to Spain where the the Napoleonic Wars are raging in the summer of 1812. This follows on directly from Sharpe's Company and I saw it in the library so thought I'd snap it up while on a roll. It's another one I finished in a week - it's good stuff, albeit generic writing. The set-up doesn't quite match the payoff. In this, Sharpe is compelled by orders and against his better judgement to allow a French spy parole, which he promptly breaks, making for enemy lines. Later Sharpe is informed that the spy has secret information about an informant on Wellington's side, and is about to get that information to Napoleon. I'm not sure if the story makes a whole lot of sense as it progresses, especially with some unexpected plot developments, and one is kind of aware of this in the back of one's mind - I don't want to give any spoilers.

    One snag with the writing is that the characters don't seem to have different voices, they don't quite come alive. The way they speak, with the exception of Wellington who has cameos from time to time, they all merge. When we hear of a later betrayal of Sharpe, though we'd been involved with the character a fair bit, it didn't resonate because he was another cut-out. And Sharpe's showdown with the villain doesn't quite have an effect because they never much engaged conversationally hitherto. Similarly I also find it hard to envisage the battles - I concede that may be down to my shortcomings. I do wonder if I wouldn't like to see some of the Sean Bean dramas - in some ways, they might improve upon the books.

    Some of Sharpe's behaviour seems a little inconsistent or out of character in this. I suppose he's not given to much reflection, being a soldier, so there's not too much character development. Of course, if there were, he wouldn't be Sharpe any more. One horrible scene - the author may be coy about the sex but not about the battlefield carnage - explains how British wives and kids of the soldiers would loot the dead and wounded, even wounded soldiers on their own side, who if they resisted would be killed. It's sentences like this that make me wonder if Sharpe books are the best company really, and that I wouldn't be better off staying in Surrey!

    It does occur to me that nobody seems to write witty books any more. The nearest you get are these chick lit books - amiable fluff, not bad but almost like magazine articles. Male writers don't seem to skewer it the way they used to - the nearest was Ben Schott's excellent Jeeves and the King of Clubs, though the follow-up was a relative disappointment.

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
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