Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review: The Burning Land, by Bernard Cornwell

Oh, another Cornwell, you say? Yep. He's that good - and so is The Burning Land. The auteur author of military Historical Fiction continues his Saxon Chronicles series (Burning Land is the fifth so far) as Uhtred makes his well-worn transition from unmanageable Lord to manipulable outlaw of King Alfred the Great.

Perhaps the greatest commentary on The Burning Land is how much Cornwell ignores background characters and the novel is overshadowed by the one-book character Skade. While Aethelflaed continues to be one of Cornwell's obvious historical heroines, it seems the author has decided consciously to emphasise the "Behind the Scenes" role played by women in the lives of men and highlight how much influence they are able to wield.

Perhaps now, five books in with a remarkable cast of characters, the major ones - Uhtred, Alfred and now Aethelflaed - are given pages of exposition at the expense of minor players: people we've grown accustomed to, such as Finan and Father Pyrlig. This probably reflects their historical and narrative importance as many of those overshadowed are good men but merely - to use a horribly overstated metaphor - pawns, whereas Uhtred is without doubt Alfred's (and Aethelflaed's) destructive queen. This isn't so much a criticism, but merely comment as this chapter of the Saxon tales becomes less to do with the Uhtred/Alfred dynamic and more to do with the big-picture decisions Uhtred faces as he begins to see for once his own final position in Saxon attempts to expel the Danish invasion.

Named for a Norwegian hunting goddess, Skade becomes the enemy that Cornwell's modus operandi demands must be vanquished in the book's final battle. Indeed, not only is a final climactic battle expected of a Cornwellian novel, but also a final arcade-game type "Boss" that Uhtred must confront himself. (With each "Boss", it seems Uhtred gets closer to reclaiming his family's ancestral home, Bebbanburg. It's telling that at least two of his great nemeses remain - his former "man" Haesten and his usurping uncle Aelfric - so expect at least two more books in the Saxon Chronicles). In The Burning Land, that's this maddened "sorceress" and perhaps, of all Cornwell's creations for this great series, the only character who could be described as totally evil. Where others may be selfish, mad or simply cold-blooded, each is portrayed as Uhtred sees them - with increasingly understanding or sympathetic judgement as he ages - but Skade sees him almost intimidated at his inability to identify with her.

As an older man now - probably in his mid-thirties, the Dark Age equivalent of our sixtyish - the hero finds himself identifying more often with opposing forces than in the previous four volumes, often thinking "Had I been Bishop Asser..." or "Had I been in his position...". Meaning that while he's always narrated these books in his dotage as a retrospective of his life as a warrior, for now Uhtred is faced more with his own mortality. In a series - and an era - in which death is common, in this work it hovers over Uhtred's shoulder like a blackbird, always feeling like a nasty twist is looming.

The Burning Land is also notable as the first time Uhtred is catalogued as having made a dire tactical mistake on the battlefield. While he's acknowledged luck before, this is the first time on the battlefield where he's either been out-thought or made a rash error of judgement.
Perspective seems to be the hero's watchword for this fifth volume. Uhtred ages and finally (or so it seems) is forced to choose whether he is a Northman or a Saxon once and for all. This results in his bidding farewell to another aspect of his heritage and once again, it is strong women on each side able to inspire him into the decision. The choice is coloured as one small decision's ability to turn the course of a larger scenario, serving to further highlight Uhtred's maturation from a brash, but resourceful fighter into an imposing Warlord; able to inspire fear not only because of his physical stature but also through his reputation and guile.

Coupled with his increasing ability to politic and interactions with two Christian priests who enter the narrative at the novel's climax, Uhtred becomes less definite and able to see not just in absolutes. He in fact becomes more well-sketched as a human, following in the succession of Cornwellian flawed heroes -like Thomas of Hookton and Derfel Cadarn - who matured from character to human.

The Saxon Chronicles: The Burning Land, by Bernard Cornwell receives footballs.
Cover image courtesy: en.wikipedia.org

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass, as a movie, bombed. As a book, it was much more well-received adnn the appeal is obvious. The question really is - as with many movie adaptations - why it was indeed made into a movie at all: as a scene setter to the His Dark Materials trilogy, it serves its purpose as just that: a table-setter. As a self-contained novel, however, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Perhaps this is a direct function of it's status as a children's novel (Classic? It's now 15 years old). Along with Harry Potter, it's regarded as one of the great teen novels of the past twenty years.

Perhaps as a result of this -or a change in Panatlantic vocabularies - The Golden Compass is known in the United States as "The Golden Compass", rather than it's English title "The Northern Lights". It's a strange decision, really, considering the only compass-like object referred to is the heroine's mysterious alethiometer.

Set in a parallel world, the similarities the Potterverse are obvious: there is a child hero (Lyra) whose destiny is important for the future of the entire world. Adults are aware of this while the child remains unaware, meaning the only adults that are trustworthy are antiestablishment figures: gypsies, witches and daemons, the ever-present animal companions of humans. This obvious lack of tustworthiness means for dark undertones beneath a children's fantasy.

The greatest difference between Pullman and Rowling is how easy the plot is to decipher. In the first chapter, certain words are use which can mean - perhaps to the inquiring mind, perhaps not - only one thing. How that affects the characters is also easy to read. Whereas Harry Potter is aware of his special nature and the readers are left to discover at the same time as the main protagonists how that plays out, Lyra is an unencumbered (relatively) free spirit, not weighed down with the responsibilities of the world, but acutely aware of right and wrong: we also pick up enough early to realise just what the mysterious Mrs. Coulter is up to.

Although easy to plough through, there are few characters with whom you can empathise, a reality faced when adults read fiction involving child heroes - but Pullman doesn`t rely on teen angst like Rowling (how many fights did Harry have with Ron? I hope it irritated you as much as me? Hmm. How do I add another layer and 50 pages to "The Deathly Hallows". I know, I'll make Ron and Harry get aggro at each other. Again! 15 billion pounds can't be wrong, can it?" Completely failing to realise that we didn't really care how good HP: TDH was, just that we wanted to see what happened at the end. Side-tirade on JK Rowling is now finished. Probably.) but is obviously enamoured with making Lyra as resilient as kids generally are under stress. Where adults fail to deal with things emotionally, kids are often able but mostly at terrible cost to their futures.

The only characters fully coloured are Lyra and the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala, the rest two-dimensional which makes empathy even tougher. The best stories allow you to relate to the characters or at least identify with their motives. By choosing to make his heroine prepubescent, Pullman - I hope consciously - withdraws an element of identification and simply concentrates on his story, which is bound by fundamental creationism, a Neal Stephenson-type Royal Society science and the relationship between Lyra and her two best friends, her daemon Pantalaimon and the Armoured Bear, Iorek Byrnison. As we said earlier - fantasy books in a series work best when they are able to be read in a self-contained way, and take or leave the series. The Potterverse was wonderful in this way over the first four tomes, where Pullman seems to be drawing readers in simply to be able to expand his story later.

And let's not forget perhaps the most fundamental plot flaw I've seen since watching episodes of Eureka - the alethiometer should make Lyra omniscient. Surely omniscience should allow the heroine to plan things and know the outcome of those plans before even putting them into practice? Following that reasoning, the work should end after Lyra learns to interpret the symbol reader well - after about 150 pages.

I can't recommend it, but it wasn't bad either. Tennis balls. Just.
Cover image courtesy: avclub.com. We recommend their blog "Book vs. Film".

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories, by Slick Watts and Frank Hughes

A re-post from our bro site Balanced Sports.

Having just moved to Seattle, being somewhat of an NBA history-phile and having just joined the public library, I was intrigued to come across Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories. The work is a collection of anecdotes by Slick Watts, who during the seventies was the most popular athlete in the state of Washington. They even made him Grand Marshal of of the Sea King. Twice. Not sure what that means, but he's pretty chuffed about it. It's a short, ninety-minute long read about Bad Old Times of the NBA - the 1970s - where public perception of the league was that it was populated by overpaid, oversexed and overcoked players.

Perhaps the best thing about Watts' story is that it isn't overdone in any way, an admirable trait considering sporting autobiographies are invariably either overplay the grittiness or are too self-congratulatory. In this work - one of a series of Player X's Team Y Stories - he includes several references to his on-court play, yet just as much to team dynamics, his relationship with his coaches and how he became so iconic.

The first player ever to rock the baldie and headband, the writing style matches the way Watts' played - a series of short anecdotes, herky-jerky and with really only the bare facts laid out on paper. He doesn't delve too deep into any one particular issue or relive too many moments on court, just seems to shell out featherweight anecdotes like he's finding shooters in the corners; like Slick's play it's inconsistent and has several holes and lacks depth of context. This is an autobiography, so tunnel vision is forgiveable, but not when it leaves the reader asking if there's a bigger picture that we're not seeing.

He devotes an entire chapter to his first NBA coach, Bill Russell. He's honest about the Celtic great, suggesting him a poor coach with an alpha-dog mentality. This attitude meant he was unable to cope with popular players, often benching them simply for being popular enough to overshadow the great Russell. His words "I had a love/hate relationship with Russ. Most players had a hate/hate relationship with him" are particularly telling and fits in with what I've read previously about Russ:confirming once and for all his place as sport's greatest ever a***hole (and that's against some pretty stiff competition - I've met Dean Jones).

Describing his time in Seattle and with Russell - who coached Watts for four seasons - takes up a fair amount of his meagre word count. During his tenure with the organisation, he played with ABA expats Jim McDaniels, John Brisker and Spencer Haywood as well as some Seattle greats like "Downtown" Freddie Brown and Jack Sikma. Unfortunately you get very little detail about any of these guys, few character pieces and are left only with the feeling that some probably should have had to work in order to stick as Watts did rather than being guaranteed their money.

What's more interesting is his description of how and why he became such a marketing boon to the organisation Simply, Slick Watts is a friendly, outgoing guy who reflects well on first, second and forty-fifth meetings. He doesn't come out and say so in the book, but it's easy to infer that he just likes people and enjoys being around others. The average NBA player in the 1970s had to make three personal appearances per year. In 1977, Slick Watts made over three hundred and was simply unable to say no to anyone who asked him for help - it was an attitude like that which earned him Two Sea King Grand Marshal gongs.

After Russell was replaced by Bob Hopkins and then Lenny Wilkens, the book takes a sharp turn as Wilkens decided that Watts didn't fit his mould, subsequently trading him to New Orleans. Watts details Wilkens saying "There isn't room in town for the both of us", supporting his argument that Wilkens has never been a good coach of "stars". Unfortunately here's where poetic licence comes in - Watts was a good player, but never even approached great with major fundamental flaws like defense and shooting - and while it's true Wilkens got the best out of rosters without superduperstar talent and history says that after the trade in 1977-78, the Sonics went to the NBA Finals and won the Championship the following year.

You can tell even though he's honest, happy and forthright, he still hasn't fully come to terms with being traded to basketball purgatory from a city he practically owned. Bitter isn't the right word at all - he's still the happy, go-lucky Slick - but the reader's left thinking that perhaps it just was the right mix of player, team, city and personality which would be impossible to recreate anywhere else. Given Watts has moved back to Seattle and teaches physical education to primary school kids, the affinity he has for the city is obvious and pleasing to read. After his Seattle departure the book falls away as quickly as Slick's NBA career did. He was King of Seattle in 1977; out of the league by 1980.

Entertaining, especially for basketball history buffs, but ultimately Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories is a lightweight piece suited for an easy Sunday afternoon's reading. As usual, the best tales are about ABA expats (in this case Jim McDaniels and John Brisker). The final, definitive lesson to take from Slick's first entry into authordom: Bill Russell was, and probably always will be, a tool of the first water. Tennis Balls.

Images courtesy yahoo.com and betterworldbooks.com

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis

This volume of work, by one of the 20th century's most noted authors, certainly sits among the modern fathers of Christian apologetic literature. As purely an apologetic piece it certainly has been superseded, and to continue rely solely upon it for justifications of faith would be erroneous in the least, however it does remain valuable. Nigh on 70 years post the development of its content and original broadcast, and 60 since its original publication, I believe that the value of this work extends beyond the boundaries of apologetics. It is useful for discussions on topics ranging from history, sociology, morality and ethics, and probably has always been so.

C.S. Lewis is most famed for his fictional yet powerful Narnia series. Influencing Mere Christianity (a work of non-fiction) is Lewis' background of a Northern Irish immigrant to England, a serviceman during the Great War, and his scholarly career as an English professor with a specialisation in Medieval and Renaissance English. Probably the most telling fact of Lewis' life that would lead him to produce a work of Christian apologetics was that he was from his own admission an atheist until age 29, and not accepting of Christian faith until 32. The famous group of writers and scholars that Lewis belonged to was the 'Inklings'. Included in this group was Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, who is credited as playing a significant part of Lewis' return to faith.

The work began life as a series of radio lectures broadcast by Lewis to Britain during the depths of the Second World War. He was engaged by the religious arm of the BBC to give hope and education to Britains during a period of such pain and grief. Owing to his own wartime experiences as a young man perhaps Lewis had heightened interest in serving his nation in such a way. Probably because the words began life as orations (later also a series of brief pamphlets) before being edited and compiled into one volume, none are wasted in explanation. I struggled to get more than one or two sentences along before needing to stop, think and extrapolate his thoughts out. This led to the feeling of being immersed in the work at one point, yet I had only completed 40 pages with the best part of 200 to go!

The term 'mere' was not being used by Lewis as a descriptive term for Christianity as a religion, but is part of the name of the topic that he aims to discuss. Lewis is not trying to carry denominational or theological doctrine. What is aimed is to get as close to the core of all Christian beliefs as possible, what Lewis believes all have in common. Neither does Lewis seek to pass judgement on the practices of society. Writing to wartime Britain, Lewis is trying to raise faith among a nation scarred by war and even promote this as a means of reconciliation. He is asking wartime Britain to go beyond the view that the actions of Nazi Germany are bad, and instead identify what the reason behind all Britain agreeing on this view is.

The reason identified for the common attitude is begun by Lewis as some central moral guide. This guide appears common to all – all believe the Nazi actions are wrong – but it cannot be something that comes from humanity and thus begins his exploration of generic faith, followed by the Christian faith. Faith to Lewis, was something in the natural order of life. He calls upon readers natural responses to situations in both thought and action to act as justification for the forgiving God as promulgated by the Christian faith. There is no 'getting of religion' to Lewis, rather you out live out life more honestly and recognise the inherent faith that is there.

From the position of recognising a common morality then that this morality justifies the Christian faith, Lewis moves on to how faith is worked out in life. Chapter by chapter Lewis paints the picture of what the Christian life looks like. These words need not be accepted in full as truth for every reader, but at the very least they are detailed enough to provide adequate base for reflection. Simply brilliant is his chapter on what he believes is “the great sin” of pride. In Lewis' opinion all sin stems from the prideful condition of humanity who seek to rebel against God. Despite his belief that the Christian faith will promote the best of the human condition, Lewis is sure to not place those already of faith as being of higher standing – they are just repentant.

Let me now defend Lewis from criticism he has and continues to receive from theologians on this work as an apologetic. Initially one must first make the distinction between who Lewis was and who such critics are. Lewis by his own admission is not a theologian, he was not an ordained minister, and despite clearly being of high intellect remained as laity in the eyes of the church and theological academia. Furthermore, Lewis is reflecting I believe some of his own path toward faith. While with the benefit of hindsight it may have flaws, one cannot criticise honest reflection. Lewis' justification for Christ's divinity, called the 'Lewis Trilemma', is the most heavily criticised of all his contentions and justifiably so, but I advise using it as a great base for exploring the central contention of the Christian faith.

The language of Lewis and examples used are rooted in the time, and in the experience of his life. Lewis' descriptions include his idea of the Christian battle with sin being a civil war and to read the word of God is somewhat of a battle plan. A life lived throughout the time of great bloodshed no doubt would come through any person's expression and to read such a work permits us a window as to what it must have been like. This in mind, Lewis' reconciliatory request of wartime Britain to worship an omnipotent and loving God is revolutionary given common mindsets rooted in witnessing constant horror.

There are hints of the man Lewis was as well. He seemingly was incredibly pragmatic about faith and how one should behave when accepting of it. Lewis's particular views on marriage, war, capital punishment all come from his own experience. We will certainly have different views but we understand more of the human condition by reading such musings.

His thoughts on marriage I both agree with wholeheartedly in some instances (opinions on divorce) but likewise disagree to the same extent when he describes headship. Despite disagreement, my own understanding is heightened and ultimately I have continued to grow as a person. You need to give grace to Lewis' tone as it is not of this age. He uses the bygone phrase of 'men' when referring to all, and speaks in masculine tones and examples that will be foreign and potentially off-putting. Don't let it be so, trust that he meant well and read through this for the learnings.

Unlike dictators, politicians, even military leaders who write a manifesto there is still an understanding that this work is incomplete and needs more. Lewis draws conclusions but does not draw them as complete, they are his to be expanded upon. This work that began life as an apologetic or promotion of faith, still serves such a purpose, but it can be seen as more across many topics. Let his musings challenge you and drive you toward greater understanding. Do not see this as a work of doctrine, but as a heartfelt musing of a journeying man. Basketballs.

Cover Image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk