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The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of their warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honor.

‘cough’, ok time for Emmet to do some name-dropping.

This one time, Seamus Heaney nicked my glass of wine. That is the end of the anecdote. You may applaud.

In 1999 Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was published. I remember at the time I thought it an excellent reintroduction to the text, as well as a neat commentary on the epic poem’s privileged status in English literature, courtesy of the author’s stylistic choices. John Gardner’s Grendel is another excellent parody and commentary on the text, one which I would happily recommend to anyone.

I never realized Michael Crichton had had a go as well.

Eaters of the Dead concerns the adventures of a scholar from Baghdad, named Ahmad ibn Fadlan in Northern Europe. Actually his full name is given as: “Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ibnal-Abbas, ibn-Rasid, ibn-Hammad.” Courtesy of a dalliance with a merchant’s wife (Crichton makes it clear that Fadlan is all man), the Caliph sends him on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars to instruct the people there in the Muslim religion, at the request of their king.

Crichton’s authorial voice appears throughout the book commenting on Fadlan’s ‘historical’, account of what happened next.

After passing through 10th century Turkey, Fadlan and his party encounter a group of vikings, led by the warrior Buliwyf. Through a combination of superstition and the sheer martial superiority of the Northern ‘barbarians’, Fadlan becomes an unwilling member of a mission to liberate a King Rothgar from so-called ‘mist-monsters’.

The majority of the narrative is concerned with the cultural differences between Fadlan and the twelve warriors who have press-ganged him. Unfortunately this tends to boil down to various vikings calling him a ‘stupid Arab’, or his admiration for their sexual prowess.

In fact there is not a single female character in this story. King Rothgar’s queen is mentioned and a proxy ‘Grendel’s mother’, is unveiled, but for the most part the women in this story are simply there to be sexually available to Buliwyf and his men. Fadlan is at first ashamed at public displays of sexuality and retreats making obeisance to Allah, but eventually he joins in.

Oh and the Grendel of old Saxon legend is revealed to be a tribe of ‘wendols’, or as Crichton makes clear in the afterward, neanderthals. I have a number of problems with this demystified take, not least of which the 10th century setting, as well as the descriptions of these neanderthals riding horseback. I was under the impression that not only would this bipedal species have long been extinct by the period of Crichton’s choosing, they would also be too large to be carried by horses.

Secondly the wendols are revealed to be a matriarchal society that worships a stone carving of a pregnant woman. The vikings react with disgust at sightings of her icons and when combined with the unusual emphasis on male virility throughout the book, a disturbing subtext begins to emerge.

This is a very peculiar book. As a fantasy it is a failure, a pale imitation of Beowulf. Vikings are a source of fascination for modern readers still and I wonder if it is because the simplistic take on their civilization – war-mongering sea-raiders, much given to slaughter and rapine – is not as morally conflicted as the European culture that followed. In that sense Crichton’s work is yet another indulgence in vicariously enjoying a life unfettered by contemporary mores.

Once again though my main objection to this author’s work is his insistence on pretending to pseudo-science. With Eaters of the Dead Crichton is attempting a revisionist work, challenging our perception of viking culture, while at the same time introducing contemporary prejudices into the narrative. This is a trend that would eventually led to his becoming held up as a authoritative global warming sceptic – following the publication of his book State of Fear, which was a work of fiction, but once again attempted to sit on two stools, occasioning much criticism.

Crichton writes at one point: “But Ibn Fadlan was a writer, and his principal aim was not entertainment […] his tone is that of a tax auditor, not a bard; an anthropologist, not a dramatist.” Stangely fitting that.

And so I came to Buckkeep, sole child and bastard of a man I’d never know. Prince Verity became King-in-Waiting and Prince Regal moved up a notch in the line of succession. If all I had ever done was to be born and discovered, I would have left a mark across all the land for all time. I grew up fatherless and motherless in a court where all recognized me as a catalyst. And a catalyst I became.

Earlier in the week I mentioned I had attended a filming of ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. The topic of discussion was fantasy and Lev Grossman made the argument that the genre’s defining characteristic was big emotions. See this is something I have always had a problem with – fantasy writing does indeed feature expansive emotions (after all, the entire world is generally under threat from some dark lord or another), but the characters often do not reflect emotional depth.

Oh and another member of the panel, Jennifer Rowe recommended today’s book by Robin Hobb as an interesting entry point for readers looking for fantasy novels with genuine character development.

You know what? She was not wrong.

If this story was a fairy tale, it would start as follows. There once was a king so clever, his people knew him by the name of Shrewd. He had three sons. Chivalry, Verity and Regal – but only the two eldest sons had the same mother. By the time the third child was born of the new Queen, Desire was her name, the prophetic naming of the king’s children no longer worked. Regal was a cruel and over-ambitious princeling, envious of his siblings and eager to ascend to the throne. Then the day came when he discovered that the king-in-waiting Chivalry was not as chivalrous as his name after all and had fathered an illegitimate son on a commoner. Quickly his plot fell into place.

This is how the fable would be told. Hobb is far more interested in describing a world of real characters, real experiences, despite the fantastical setting.

Instead of the three princes vying for the kingship, the story is concerned primarily with Chivalry’s unlooked for heir. Dumped at the gates of a military post, he is brought to the capital of the Six Duchies, Buckkeep, shaming his father and forcing his abdication. The second son of King Shrewd, Verity, becomes the next in line to the throne and has a stable-hand raise the child. Known as ‘boy’, for as long as he can remember, Burrich as former man of Chivalry’s gives him the name of Fitz, another word for ‘bastard’. In his own plain-speaking manner he raises the boy to become useful at court, perhaps enough that people will forget that he in turn could one day succeed to the throne.

Fitz begins to develop an unusual affinity with animals, in particular dogs. He even comes to learn how to communicate with them, something which sends Burrich into a rage. Some at court would recognize such a talent as ‘the Wit’, which is said to transform men into beasts. He insists that Fitz hide his unusual nature, in order to protect himself from the duplicitous Royal.

All this court intrigue threatens to distract the leaders of the Six Duchies just when the cruel invaders from the Outislands, known as the Red-Ship Raiders, whose victims are left bestial and violent shadows of their former selves. The entire kingdom is on the brink of collapse and all the while young Fitz finds himself at the centre of a deadly race to the throne.

Jennifer Rowe was dead on the money. This book draws you in with incisive character detail, allows the reader to get the learn the world Fitz finds himself in along with him and even opens each chapter with a short historical note that adds to the worldbuilding. I also love how unobtrusive Hobb’s use of magic is. It is a subtly handled and left largely undefined until the latter half of the novel.

This is not your typical swords and sorcery fantasy tale. It is almost like a hybrid of Dune and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, more concerned with political intrigue. For that I love it and eagerly look forward to the rest of the series.

Strong characters, an involving plot and an innovative use of fantasy tropes.

I showed Laurence the absurd dome of the parliament building, nailed shut and disused. I showed him the library, which had never been stocked with books. The school, which had never taught a lesson. The blocks of flats, government housing for all the workers who were going to come and run the offices and services that had been planned – and some workers did come for a while. But there was no work. And then the trouble started, and in the end they trickled away again, to the cities or back where they’d come from, except the few who could still be spotted here and there, lost in their own uniforms and all this useless space.

When Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, it became a massive media event, much like the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which I watched one Sunday morning glued to the television screen at ten years of age. At any rate the liberal West could comfort itself with the knowledge that the widespread criticism of de Klerk’s latterday Apartheid regime had succeeded and now indigenous South Africans would enjoy a long-denied egalitarian society.

Of course that was nonsense. The widespread inequality of before continued. In fact many of South Africa’s economic were tied up in offshore holdings, allowing the same corporations who had profited from Apartheid to continue to do so. Naomi Klein dedicated a chapter in The Shock Doctrine discussing what happened during the ‘handover’.

The Good Doctor brought much of this to mind for me, as Galgut’s writing identifies how much of the divide between the different South African communities remains, how ideology fails in the face of aging enmities and hopelessness.

Frank was posted to a rural hospital literally in the middle of nowhere – a non-place in the South African countryside, created by bureaucratic fiat – seven years ago. He was promised the role of hospital administrator, a new beginning following a bitter divorce and the collapse of his medical practice. Instead the incumbent Dr. Ngema never achieved her own transfer and remained in her office, forcing Frank into a submissive position within the hospital. Understaffed and isolated, he finds an unusual source of comfort in his life in this border territory. Nothing changes there and he, in turn, is not forced to change.

Then Laurence Water arrives. Young and full of enthusiastic ideas about helping countryside communities be educated in health issues, he is given a berth in Frank’s room. Forced to spend his days and nights in the younger man’s presence, Frank quickly develops an intense resentment of him – yet at the same time feels envious of his desire to help. After all, much of his despondency is tied up with how Dr. Ngema herself often talks about change and innovation, but refuses to leave; and how the hospital’s staff are only marking time before the government finally shuts them down.

In addition, Frank is carrying a number of secrets, that in his innocence Laurence manages to stir up. His past with the military for example, which still haunts him, as well as a long-running affair with a local woman who tells him her name is Maria. Through his arrival and the increasing animosity between the two men, Frank is forced to confront his past and whether he, like old South Africa, is capable of change.

Damon Galgut‘s writing is so richly descriptive – the hospital’s state of disarray is so shocking to Laurence upon his arrival that he is left speechless – that the metaphorical content of the book is at first obscured. Still this is a profoundly moving account of how the divisions within South African society remain.

Frank’s inability to change is well captured. His disaffected view of the hospital is as much a product of his frustration with Dr. Ngema’s regime as it is a product of his own refusal to step into the breach to change things. Laurence presence is an insult to his own carefully cultivated impotence. What’s more Frank is closely identified with the ‘old South Africa’. Laurence is the future, threatening to change everything. His desire to educate the local people in HIV prevention, and the apathy of the other doctors, reflects the West’s widespread lack of interest in the epidemic throughout Africa.

Strongly developed and closely observed, this is a fantastic novel.

“Most men have no purpose but to exist, Abraham; to pass quietly through history as minor characters upon a stage they cannot even see. To be the playthings of tyrants. But you…you were born to fight tyranny. It is your purpose, Abraham. To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”

When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009 it was an instant hit. I remember picking it up on my way to work, leaving it on my desk while I went to get a coffee and returning to find my boss reading it. After eventually wresting it from his hands, I got to check out this literary ‘mash-up‘, for myself. I was surprised to discover that Jane Austen meets zombies turned out not to be just an off-hand gimick. In fact I thought Grahame-Smith did a great job of reinforcing the themes of the original novel. Throwing in some zombies and ninjas helped, but I detected an incisive intelligence beneath the blood and grue.

This book is Grahame-Smith’s second in the sub-genre of horror mash-ups, although instead of throwing supernatural elements into a classic text he has taken the life of Abraham Lincoln as his ‘source text’.

Born in the wild frontierlands of Kentucky, Lincoln grew up with little formal education, but a burning desire to learn. In contrast to his lackadaisical father, his is physically active and eager to earn his own keep. In fact it is due to his father’s debts that the two most pivotal events in Lincoln’s early life occur. Firstly, at the age of ten, he loses his beloved mother to a mysterious illness. Secondly, he learns of the existence of vampires.

Believing his father responsible for the death of his mother, a consequence of the devilish fiend who murdered her seeking an alternate form of payment, he becomes consumed by anger at both his surviving parent and the entire species of vampires. Faster and stronger than humans, when revealed in their true state their eyes are black as coals and they possess prominent fangs. They hide in cities and roam the countryside looking for their prey. As the teenage Lincoln despairs “How could I worhsip a God who would permit [vampires] to exist? He sets about learning all he can about the vampire, after swearing to kill every last one of them in America.

Of course he is no match for the preternatural creatures. It is only through his unusual friendship with Henry Sturges, a sympathetic vampire and the sole survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, that he acquires the necessary training and knowledge to fight the undead. Over the years Lincoln becomes a more proficient hunter, even recruiting other men to join him on his quest. The vampire is a hidden creature, but in certain circles its presence in America is well-known. Slave-owners and corrupt businessmen who have profited by associating with the monsters aid and abet them in their murders. Lincoln eventually decides to enter politics so that he can effect real change throughout the nation and defeat a second enslavement of humanity.

Initially my hackles were raised by the prospect of American slavery being portrayed here as entirely the invention of vampires. “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” This seemed to me one fictionalisation of history too many. Thankfully Grahame-Smith anticipates this in the plot.

There is real fun to be had here with its mixture of history and fantasy. Some of the author’s inventions are quite amusing. I especially loved the introduction of Edgar Allan Poe into the narrative, who expresses a ghoulish fascination with vampires, quite unlike Lincoln’s determined drive to eliminate their race. The book also has a canny sense of its own ridiculousness. Chapters have a tendency to end with a clever quip and there is some great banter between Lincoln and his vampire hunting colleagues. Of course, seeing as this is a horror novel, there are scenes of graphic violence, cleverly married to the excesses of war. The American Civil War is not only the backdrop to the climax of the novel, but a staging ground for a final battle between humans and vampires.

The novel’s framing device is that Grahame-Smith himself has been approached by a vampire with a collection of aged diaries belonging to Lincoln, revealing the existence of the undead. It is an entertaining conceit, one that allows for extensive artistic licence.

Well executed and very amusing.

This was not the war I had been training for all my life. I suddenly felt hurt, betrayed by my own body. It was going to take another two weeks before I did cry, and in an airplane toilet thousands of feet above the ground my reality finally crashed. But at least I was alone and no-one saw it happen.

When I was sixteen I had a medical scare, one that has left me worried about my health ever since. Men’s health, particularly when it comes to testicular cancer, is something of a public taboo. Many of the issues go undiscussed, often due to attendant fears of a failure of machismo.

As a result I jumped at the opportunity to read this book.

A serving officer in the Australian army, Carr presents as the epitome of the traditional Ocker. As a young man he loved his beer, meeting girls and playing rugby. Having been a somewhat tubby child, Carr grew to become determined to shape his body into a stronger and fitter form. Then at the age of twenty-five, it turned against him. Diagnosed with testicular cancer, Carr’s shock caused him to turn to what he knew: the discipline and training he had gained through the army.

Taking sick leave from the army, Carr underwent a number of different operations to battle the cancer, which had aggressively spread to the rest of his body. Steeling himself mentally, the soldier envisioned the tumorous masses as invading enemy forces. With the doctors as his generals, he agreed to their plan of action and trusted to a positive attitude to get him through the debilitating chemotherapy bombardment of his rebelling body.

In fact, Carr’s humour is a welcome aspect to this book, droll and self-deprecating throughout. To spare the embarassment of some of those he crossed paths with, especially the attending physicians, nicknames are dispensed liberally throughout, such as Dr. Honey, Dr. Chocolate-Love, Dr. Non-Caucasian. That last one represents the start of Carr reassessing a number of assumptions he has made in his life. He even comes to explore alternate methods of treatment following extensive surgery, including meditation, organic foods, Taoism and Qigong exercises.

It is the army that remains Carr’s home, a constant source of discipline and, perhaps most importantly, excellent medical and financial support during the years of his cancer treatment. When he is deployed to military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Carr witnesses a frightening externalisation of the chaos that his body has been fighting against for seven years.

I was concerned that the military jargon and analogies would be overwrought in this book, but in fact Carr’s method of relating his experiences is excellent, interpreting the battle against his cancer in terms he is not only familiar with, but able to use to give genuine insight. One telling moment in the book is when he is given a gift of Lance Armstrong‘s biography of his own fight against cancer. Carr is suddenly forced to face the enormity of what he is up against and is devastated. I have not read Armstrong’s book, but I found the positivity, humour and humanity of this ordinary soldier’s tale inspiring.

This is a gripping and honest book, that is full of hope. An excellent read.

Is there – and this is the question, the real question – is there one girl, just one, whether she be called Bea or Eva or Djemia, who has not experienced the war? Just one who has not made war with her body, with her gentle face and moist eyes, with her mouth and teeth, with her hair? Just one who has been neither prey for the hunter, nor hunter herself? On all sides are watchful gazes, darts bristling from loop-holes. On all sides, breastplates, shields, scabbards, arrows, machine-gun barrels.

Stephanie gave me this book as a gift. “Here’s a nice short one”, she said, an easy read that would not take up too much of our time during the weekend. Oh how wrong she was.

I have gobbled down some fat books well under a day. As I tell people, this is usually because I have an interest in the material. If I am having a good time reading, my speed increases. If I am having a hard time, my reading speed crawls to a halt. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying today’s book was poorly written – I do not have the courage to go up against the judges of The Nobel Prize for Literature – but it certainly belied its slim size.

This book is something very special.

For a start, from the book’s beginning the tone is quite similar to a long-form prose poem. War is described as an onrushing event, an already present eschaton, indeed the inevitable death of humanity itself that is prophesied by modernity. Bea B and her lover Monsieur X are the nominal protagonists of this book, witness to the dehumanising influence of ‘war’. The ruining of a face is revealed to be symbolic for the destruction of a cityscape. Bea B imagines herself becoming electricity and infusing a simple light-bulb with energy. War is the chaos of clashing forces, the impossible to predict outcome of humanity’s desire to destroy itself.

Le Clezio extrapolates this same desire from every innocuous element in life. Each chapter opens with a seemingly random quote from science, literature and science fiction. A particular favourite was a long quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, describing a world entirely covered in artificial, man-made structures. Le Clezio shines a new light on this most anachronistic of science fiction authors, identifying a Ballardian aspect to his writing that has perhaps gone unnoticed. Ballard is largely credited as a prophet of urban nihilism and War certainly evokes a similar style. This is a comparison that, thankfully, others have noticed.

I also found his vision of the apocalypse, an absurdist eruption of meaninglessness, reminiscent of Antonin Artaud, where the apocalypse is simply a breakown in our sense of what is real, what is normal. Le Clezio mines a similar theme, such as when Bea B. finds herself involved in a ‘man hunt’, or Monsieur X’s description of events in Vietnam. That he can describe such war crimes in such a matter of fact manner once again underlines the omnispresence of horror and destruction in today’s world. So who is to say that the ‘war’, has not already begun?

I found this to be a very difficult read, but a nonetheless incredible piece of writing. Sublimated poetry, with a philosophical tone, a literary revelation.


When Rip and I first fell in love, I sometimes used to imagine us as romantic characters in a great tempestuous love story set against the turbulent background of the miners’ strike, transgressing boundaries of wealth and claims to be together. I was his door into an exotic world where noble savages discussed socialism while soaping each other’s backs in t’ pit baths. He was my door into Pemberley Hall and Mansfield Park. We were so full of illusions about each other, maybe it was bound to end in a splattering.

I’m home alone this evening, which is why this review is being posted so late. See I’m someone who lacks any real self-discipline. This is why I am very lucky to be married, because if I ever slack off my wife kicks my arse. Stephanie is in Canberra today, so I have been pottering around the house, trying to convince our old dog to eat its medication, googling funny pictures with cats and generally not reviewing the book I chose this morning!

Finally I wrenched myself back to the business and found myself laughing out loud for most of this afternoon.

Georgie (aka Georgina aka Georgia aka Georgine) has been living a quiet life of writing freelance articles for a specialist magazine (“Adhesives!”), and managing to raise her two children while her husband synergises the world from his blackberry. One day something snaps. She kicks her husband out of the house, orders a skip and dumps all his belongings into it.

Which is how she comes to meet Mrs. Shapiro. An elderly Jewish lady followed by a pride of house-cats, Naomi Shapiro stops in front of Georgie’s house to retrieve Rip’s collection of classical records. The two begin a slow intimate friendship, with Georgie’s own attempts at a poisonous novel based on her own marriage dropped in favour of her new friend’s past, filled with tragic love, young lives ground up by the second world war and escape from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Then Mrs. Shapiro has a bad fall and winds up in hospital. Georgie unwittingly has become her carer and it falls to her to have her home, stinking of cat-piss and damp, in order so that the hospital doesn’t have social services dump her friend in an institution. What began as an innocent friendship is soon swallowed up by bureaucratic fencing with hospital officials and wolfish estate agents. As Georgie slowly begins to piece together the history of Mrs Shapiro, the house itself becomes a disputed zone between several parties, all laying claim to the property. Meanwhile her own son has developed an obsession with religious prophecies about the end of the world. It is all too much for Georgie, her head swimming in eschatological trivia, disputed geography, inventive uses of velcro and, of course, the erotic uses of adhesives.

This story is warm, inventive and far cleverer than it has any right to be. The creation of the Israeli state, the Holocaust and apocalyptic prophecy, are all neatly bound up with one lonely middle-aged woman desire for a meaningful life. Throughout the novel seemingly innocent oppositions are teased out to reveal more fundamental conflict. Georgie break from Rip seems initially trivial, but the more we learn about their relationship, there appears an essential imbalance present from the very start. Her son’s pursuit of fundamentalist Christian concerns is a neat irony, showing how her hard-won parental liberalism is quick to collapse in the face of something so monolithic.

But it is Mrs Shapiro who proves to be the secret treasure of this book. Marina Lewycka‘s dialogue is quite funny and far more convincing than the tortured English of Alexander Perchov. With her random combinations of Yiddish and English slang I found her to be a far less self-conscious creation. Think Everything is Illuminated meets Sue Townsend, if you’ll pardon the high concept.

Witty, very clever and studied, a fine novel from Marina Lewycka. Strongly recommended.

Ah, the old doggie has gone to bed for the evening. That’s a relief.

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