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Rick Darby
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thousand delicate tints, 12 Oct 2003
If all you know about Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the notorious opening sentence of another of his novels, "It was a dark and stormy night ...," and that this is supposed to imply that he wrote overblown purple prose -- I urge you to try The Last Days of Pompeii (first published in 1834). You may be surprised to find yourself in the hands of an expert storyteller and, yes, an often splendid stylist.
Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most popular fiction writers in the 19th century (and his reputation has really only waned in the last 60 years or so). Our ancestors weren't naive dupes; they rightly recognized that there was something exceptional about Last Days. If the book is now out of fashion, it nevertheless remains a fascinating read.
Briefly, the story concerns four people in Pompeii in the period leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city in ash in AD 79. They are Glaucus, a Greek-born, rich young man who is a bit of a rake (he gambles on the gladiatorial games) but fundamentally decent; Ione, his lover (in the author's words, "The wealth of her graces was inexhaustible -- she beautified the commonest action; a word, a look from her, seemed magic. Love her, and you entered into a new world, you passed from this trite and common-place earth"); Nydia, a blind slave girl passionately and uselessly in love with Glaucus; and Arbaces, a brilliantly malevolent high priest of the cult of Isis.
The reader, too, passes out of "this trite and common-place earth" in the book's pages. The style is of another time, to be sure, one that is unashamedly colorful and romantic. To some poor cynical souls I suppose it will seem corny; to those who still look at the stars and sunsets with awe, the language will resonate with a thousand delicate tints.
Last Days is not only an evocative re-imagination of a historical time and place, and a craftily plotted story; it also touches on deep philosophical matters. Bulwer-Lytton was interested in the Mystery cults of the Roman empire, including that of Isis. Although, probably to avoid offending the conventions of his time, he had Glaucus and Ione eventually convert to Christianity, it's hard to doubt that he was sympathetic to earlier pagan religions. Although Arbaces is the villain, his literary portrait is drawn with keen psychological insight and his religious rites are thoughtfully and strikingly portrayed. (The scene in which Arbaces tries to initiate Ione's brother into the secret -- highly sensuous and erotically tinged -- rituals of the cult is electrifying!) Mystical undertones are not far from the jewelled surface of this novel.
So read this as a period piece, but not in a condescending way; let yourself be drawn into the sun-glazed temples and forums, the loves, the cruelty and the jealousies of ancient Pompeii. See them through a dreamy, extravagant early-Victorian literary sensibility. Give yourself up to Bulwer-Lytton's magic, as so many did in generations before you.


The Wood Beyond (Dalziel & Pascoe Novel)
The Wood Beyond (Dalziel & Pascoe Novel)
by Reginald Hill
Edition: Paperback

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prime Dalziel and Pascoe, 12 Oct 2003
If you are already familiar with Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series, recommending this one is not going to be a hard sell. If not, check this out and discover one of the contemporary masters of the crime novel.
This is an ambitious work; Hill clearly intends to transcend the police procedural genre, and includes a parallel story set in the ghastly killing fields of Passchendaele in the Great War that dovetails with the present-day police investigation that is the nominal subject of the book. It must be said that the interwoven story of Pascoe's ancestor (who shares his name) strains credulity; it's a literary construct that doesn't really come off.
But who cares? Hill as a writer is otherwise at the top of his game. It's full of witty dialogue (if only people in life -- myself included -- could set off such a string of verbal firecrackers, how much more entertaining our daily round would be!). Dalziel's Yorkshire dialect is a constant source of delight: I hope expressions like "nowt," "tha's," "lass," et al. aren't dying out. And as usual, the characters, especially the detectives and Pascoe's wife Ellie, are drawn in psychological depth.
The novel can be enjoyed as pure entertainment. But, notwithstanding the parallel story's unlikelihood, it offers a window into the ungodly horrors of life in the trenches in 1917 and the savagery of military "justice" in the British army of the time.


The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ
The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ
by Lynn Picknett
Edition: Paperback

32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tour of the Occult Underground Through the Ages, 12 Oct 2003
The Priory of Sion, Rennes-le-Chateau, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Cathars, Isis, Black Madonnas, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Hermes Trismegistus ... and much more are examined in The Templar Revelation.
If it sounds like the book is unfocused, that is likely to be your impression while reading it, at least for quite a few pages. There is a thread linking all these topics: Picknett and Prince are trying to trace the predecessors and descendants of the Knights Templar, who were cruelly suppressed early in the 14th century. They also probe the nature of the secret knowledge said to have been possessed by the Templars and their various offspring.
The connections aren't always easy to follow, and for awhile at least you're likely to find yourself at sea as the authors switch from one subject to another in kaleidoscopic fashion. In fairness, the evidence does seem by its nature to be complex and often ambiguous. Prepare to bring patience when you open the book; eventually, a sort of mosaic picture does emerge.
Picknett and Prince have certainly gone the whole nine yards in researching the material, quoting from hundreds of written sources and describing their conversations with people who might shed some light on the subjects, and they describe their own travels to relevant sites in the south of France.
Organization is not their strong point, but otherwise they are good writers who don't share the weakness of many occult researchers for trafficking in the obscurity and mystification endemic in the material they study. Further to the authors' credit, they appear to weigh the value of the evidence, and are not averse to rendering the odd skepical judgment on some of it. The numerous references are impressive, although a doubter could argue that quoting from multiple crackpot writings doesn't count for anything.
Whatever you make of all this -- and I confess I'm far from sure what conclusions to draw -- The Templar Revelation suggets convincingly that there has been throughout Western history an "underground" of individuals and organizations dedicated to preserving secret and often heretical beliefs challenging orthodox Christianity. And even if, in the end, you give this study a Scottish verdict of "not proven," you will respect the authors' sincerity and find this historical tour of occultism stimulating.
As one who (often) judges a book by its cover, I must highly commend the designer of the Corgi Books paperback. The main image is an embossed Templar seal overlaid with a version of the ankh; the title in gold foil raised lettering; and the entire cover laminated for an ultra-smooth, almost silky feel. The sensuous surface is a brilliant invitation to the mysteries with which the text deals.


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