No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

#102: The Barbary Pirates -- Stanley Rogers

Utterly out of print; this copy came to me courtesy of a friend. An 1939 Boys' Own Adventure retelling of various encounters with the Barbary pirates. Full of derring-do and extreme political incorrectness. The corsairs ("swarthy-skinned, turbanned devils, striking down with their curved scimitars any who dared to oppose them") were lazy, cowardly and not very good at sailing: also, prone to broken English, acts of random violence and devious thinking. (The Spanish weren't much better: Rogers entitles one chapter "A Brave Spaniard", clearly feeling that de Vargas' defence of Algiers is a headline-worthy highlight in an otherwise benighted national history.) The English, of course, were good and brave and noble, and only ever killed their opponents when it was necessary, or if they felt like it.

All that said, Rogers does provide an interesting set of vignettes, and is not incapable of portraying some of the 'Turks' (a term that includes Moors, Arabs and Muslims in general) in a more flattering light -- though he feels the need to stress that those captains who acted honourably, those slave-owners who were kind to their slaves, were the exception rather than the rule. Some of the tales here come from Hakluyt: others were less familiar. (I hadn't known that Murad Reis sacked Reykjavik, for example.) I did get the feeling that the author's biases were even stronger than those of his original sources. But it was a fascinating read.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#101: The Libertine -- Stephen Jeffreys

Play script, reread in anticipation of the film, which sticks fairly closely to mood and content of the original in dealing with the decline of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and his death of syphilis (or boredom). I saw the stage play at the Battersea Arts Centre back in 1998 (I think), and was very impressed: but I'd forgotten what a grim picture Jeffreys paints. Rochester is out to shock, desperately trying to enjoy life as he once did, but he's jaded and weary -- and, worse, those around him are accustomed to his, ah, eccentricities. Some stunning dialogue and excellent interweaving of Rochester's poems. Also contains the original musical setting of 'Signior Dildoe', which led me to the piano, which turns out to be out of tune.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#100: Three Turk Plays -- Daniel Vitkus (ed)

Actually only read two of these -- Massinger's "The Renegado" and Daborne's "A Christian Turned Turk" -- as "Selimus", the tale of an especially unpleasant Sultan, wasn't really relevant to my quest for information on the experience of European renegades in Barbary.

"The Renegado" tells the tale of two Europeans -- the renegade Grimaldi (who, after being betrayed by his perfidious master, redeems himself by switching sides again) and Vitelli, a Venetian gentleman who pretends to be a shopkeeper and falls in love with the niece of the Ottoman Emperor. There are some eunuch jokes.

"A Christian Turned Turk" is much more fun. It's a dramatised history of Captain Ward, an oyster-boy turned pirate who (in 1606) converted to Islam for love of a woman. The play tells the tale of his entanglements with a French merchant and his fiancee, his friendship and falling-out with fellow pirate Dansiker, and his eventual disgrace and death. There is something in this play to offend everyone: Jews, Muslims, women, merchants and pirates.

I don't think I'd recommend either of these plays for sound plot, stageability or deathless verse: but they're an interesting insight into how European renegades did business with, and within, the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries: they gave me an idea of how these renegades might've regarded themselves, and been regarded by others, and of how the issue of apostasy was approached. Vitkus' edition is valuable for its extensive footnotes and excellent introduction, which discusses Othello and The Jew of Malta, amongst other plays of the period that dealt with the English experience abroad.

There is also an excellent tip on how to fake a public circumcision.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Sunday, November 06, 2005

#99: Die for Love -- Elizabeth Peters

I've heard good things about Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books. This isn't part of that sequence: the protagonist is Jacqueline Kirby, a librarian with some experience of solving crimes. Looking for a tax-deductible holiday, she attends a convention of romance writers. Someone is killed. She works out the identity of the murderer. The end.

Sounds brusque, and omits all the things I enjoyed -- the convention scenes, the idiosyncracies of writers and agents, Jacqueline's healthy disdain for most of the books. (Though by the end of the convention she's convinced that she can write a best-selling historical romance.) It was an enjoyable read, but I did feel from time to time that it was writing-by-numbers: introduce victim, introduce characters A-K, provide Motive for each character, describe Murder, then loop through random-order list of potential murderers, clearing the name of each. I know that's how crime novels work, but in this one the mechanics seemed too close to the surface. Or maybe I'm just cynical.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

#98: Fire, Bed and Bone -- Henrietta Branford

A children's book, telling the story of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt from the point of view of an old dog whose master becomes a revolutionary. (That's a word that seems quite out of place, here, yet is wholly accurate: revolutionary, one who revolts.)

The dog-ness of the narrator (I don't recall her having a name -- the humans refer to her as 'old dog') is never overplayed, but it's a very canine perspective. She lives wild for a time, but is always drawn back to humans and especially to Rufus, her master, and his much younger wife Comfort. There's an especially evocative bit about how she can't not come when he whistles for her, and how it's hard to resist the orders of a crueller master, because she's a working dog and when he hunts, she must hunt too.

The dog understands human language -- otherwise this book would have little plot, save for puppies and rabbit-hunting and the natural landscape -- but other than that, she's not humanised. The events that play out around her, some of which are pretty grim, are described because of their effect on her.

Very well-written, and paints a convincing picture of medieval rural life in England. Recommended for, hmm, older children -- 10 and above, at a guess.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

Thursday, November 03, 2005

#97: The Year of Our War -- Steph Swainston

For a book that could, cruelly, be retitled Invasion of the Giant Ants, this is a wonderful read. Now I come to think of it, many of the ingredients of a superhero comic -- X-Men, Fantastic Four -- are there: but rendered in marvellously rich, poetic (occasionally over-poetic) language. This is a world that had a god, whose god is temporarily absent, and that metaphysical Problem adds a great deal of weight to the narrative.

Jant Shira, the first-person narrator, is not a nice person: but he's a very engaging character. The War of the title is interwoven with more personal conflicts, and nearly all of the other major characters are deftly drawn, with enough detail to make them rounded individuals -- though all seen through Jant's biased and embittered viewpoint. Jant has a particular gift: he's the Circle's Messenger, the only man alive who can fly. There are many sentient flying beings in the genre, but I don't think I've ever encountered one whose physical experience of flying is so very evocatively (and brutally) described.

I especially admire the way that the author introduces the myriad facts that make up her world: for example, it's only about half-way through the book that the significance of the title is revealed. I don't think there's a single info-dump in this novel: the downside of which is that it can be difficult to keep track of who's who, and of the geography of the Fourlands. (What, no map?)

Swainston writes with horrible accuracy about addiction: I think that's one of the most powerful aspects of the novel. She's not above playing games, either: for example, though this is a world quite separate from our own, there was a Great Exhibition in 1851, and decadence in the 1920s, and so on. Sometimes -- especially in the scenes set in the Shift, which is either a drug-induced hallucination or an alternate world -- the games feel a little self-indulgent: problemmings, fibre-toothed tigers. But hey, that's drugs for you.

The ending felt sudden -- not exactly rushed, but as though the book simply stops. Hoping she has more to say about this world, these characters. [checks Amazon. Yep, No Present Like Time is the second of the trilogy.]

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place