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Dr. Sn Cottam (Preston, England)

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Batavia's Graveyard
Batavia's Graveyard
by Mike Dash
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars history as enthralling and readable as a novel, 5 May 2002
This review is from: Batavia's Graveyard (Hardcover)
A superb and fast-moving telling of the tragic story of the Dutch East Indiaman "Batavia" that ran aground on a archipelago of tiny islands off the coast of Australia in the early seventeenth century. The captain sails off in a small boat over a vast expanse of barely known sea to get help (shades of Captain Bligh and the "Bounty"). Ironically (and tragically) a mutiny among the merchants and crew is evolving at the time of the shipwreck, and from this murder and mayhem erupt among the survivors left to fend for themselves on the islands. Incredibly, there are enough survivors to eventually tell the world the whole story, and from their accounts and the archeological evidence Mike Dash weaves his story.
Dash tells the story at a fine pace in clear and readable prose. This, admittedly fascinating, slice of history is as enthralling as a novel. Interspersed in the narrative is everything you would want to know (and much you might not) about the Dutch East India Company, life in seventeenth century Holland (rapidly becoming the richest society in the world), religious dissent in early modern Europe, the spice trade, the early European explorations of Australia and the East Indies, and (what lingers in the mind longest) the truly appalling conditions of life at sea at the time. One ends up wondering why anyone ever went to sea during this period of human history, even if desperate, after reading about the putrid water, limited salty food, non-existent hygeine, infestations of lice and cockroaches, barbaric punishments and terrible risks.
The mounting horror of the murders and anarchy among those stranded on the island and the eventual rescue and response of the authorities is superbly evoked, together with the "follow up" of the survivors, as far as is known. History comes alive in the all too human stories of ordinary people desperately trying to survive under unimaginable conditions.
Only a couple of quibbles - Anabaptists were generally not violent (despite the exception at Munster where there was peculiarly individual circumstances, including a charismatic leader), many were pacifists (as are Memmonites today). To blame Cornelieuz' behavior on his religion is almost certainly misplaced, although combined with his personal disasters, it may have increased his sense of being an outsider. Secondly, diagnosing Cornelieuz as a psychopath (a twentieth century psychiatric term) is enormously difficult at this reach of time, there may have been other social, psychological or medical reasons for his (admittedly appalling) behavior, and simply calling him a psychopath is uncharacteristically glib and frankly unhelpful. These don't detract, however, from the well told story.
Highly recommended - read it.

by Sandor Marai
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars a beautiful, sad, haunting Hungarian masterpiece, 17 Mar. 2002
This review is from: Embers (Hardcover)
This haunting short novel, first published in Budapest in 1942 (then quietly forgotten by all until it was brought out again last year and promptly became an international best-seller) tells in simple and spare but polished prose, as clear as a Carpathian mountain stream, the interaction of two very different old men, once boyhood close friends, who meet after 41 years separation at a castle in the foothills of the Carpathians. Their night long discussion centers around the cause of their rift and 41 year separation in an event at the very brink of the new century (? how significant is this date). Perhaps inevitably, a woman is involved but the embers of the title refer to far more than the ashes of an old love story. At basis this night's talk encompasses love (of several different types), friendship, memory, duty, pride, betrayal, character, melancholy, loneliness, honor, obsession, purpose - all that give our lives meaning and structure.
There is even more to this wonderful and multilayed novel. Marai sweeps us up with his superb evocations in a few sentences of a world gone forever - his descriptions conjure up whole worlds of place and time and sense experience - whether an imperial ball, a hunt, a cafe in Vienna, a military academy, a tropical rain forest, a journey across the Hungarian plain, a small sad town in Galicia, a hunting lodge in the Carpathians, the devastation and change wrought by the first war...Breathtakingly skilled and evocative, deceptively simple, its a polished gem of a novel. On finishing it, I immediately started to re-read it. The only sadness is to learn that Sandor Marai committed suicide in San Diego in 1989, unaware of both the imminent fall of the communist tyranny that had enveloped his homeland, and of the success that his novel would enjoy.
Just one problem in this novel - how does Konrad travel from his home "near London" to the Carpathians in August 1940? Hungary, of course, was still neutral at the time, but he says he has passed through Vienna, part of the German Reich, and very much involved in the second world war (which, like all contemporary events, is never mentioned in the novel). Perhaps Marai is deliberately focussing on the past of the two men to the exclusion of all else, and anyway it somehow just does'nt seem to matter.
This incredible novel may mystify, tease and haunt you but it won't disappoint you. Highly recommended.

The Beckoning Silence
The Beckoning Silence
by Joe Simpson
Edition: Hardcover

71 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars another mountaineeing classic from Joe Simpson, 17 Feb. 2002
This review is from: The Beckoning Silence (Hardcover)
Joe Simpson, author of four thoughtful and highly praised mountaineering books returns to print, older and mindful of the effects mountaineering has had on himself and his friends. At the beginning of the book he is soberly considering giving up the sport given the personal cost (multiple serious injuries) and the cost to others (losing an average of one friend per year killed on the mountains). As Simpson himself points out it you keep putting your head in the lion's mouth, however good or skilled or lucky you believe yourself to be, sooner or later he will shut it. Simpson's tales from past climbs (including the tragedy of a friend who gave up mountaineering only to be killed after taking up paragliding) his agonising over the rising death toll, the camaradie and resourcefulness of mountaineers and the personal considerations of what he will do next, form the first half of the book.
The second half tells the tale of an attempt on the North Face of the Eiger, a nearly 2 mile height of sheer rock and ice, doing this classic alpine route is to be Simpson's valedectory to climbing. In this he tells superbly the story of the mountain and the many (often tragic) stories of previous attempts followed by his own attempt. The sheer terror of the storm that breaks during the ascent and the tragedy that ensues when two (possibly three) other climbers are killed is evoked in moving but clear and gripping prose.
Simpson writes wonderfully about mountains and those who seek to conquer them. Even if (like me) you have never climbed a mountain in your life and don't intend to, read Joe Simpson for his marvellous descriptions, his superb prose and his evocation of life at the literal edge - physically and psychologically.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 17, 2014 8:18 PM GMT

Black And Blue (A Rebus Novel)
Black And Blue (A Rebus Novel)
by Ian Rankin
Edition: Paperback

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars complex, gripping, satisfying Scottish crime novel, 24 Jan. 2002
Inspector John Rebus returns in a multi-stranded novel, ostensibly starting with the murder of a North Sea oil worker in Edinburgh, with ramifications including an old and new serial killer, an investigative TV program claiming a miscarriage of justice and vicious gangland drug operations. Ian Rankin is bang up to date with his background and brings these diverse strands brilliantly together to a satisfying and realistic conclusion.
Perhaps the strongest feature of Rankin's writing is his evocation of the social, political and of course criminal landscape of modern Scotland, and this novel is no exception as Rebus travels between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen and then on to Shetland and the North Sea itself to follow his leads and make his cases. Rankin's narrative sweeps along as strong as ever and the occasional implausibilities and jarring cliches just do not seem to matter.
All in all, Rankin continues on form in another richly satisfying and gripping read. If you like crime fiction, you'll love Ian Rankin's books.

Sea Change
Sea Change
by Robert Goddard
Edition: Paperback

16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars sadly disappointing, not up to his usual high standards, 20 Jan. 2002
This review is from: Sea Change (Paperback)
Robert Goddard goes further back into history for the setting of Sea Change, a tale of a rather credulous and oppressed young man in the grip of powerful political and financial forces at the time of the 18th century South Sea bubble scandal.
Its OK as far as it goes but that is not as far as this talented writer of rather eerie suspense can do. The plot is plodding, the characters never really come alive, the twists and turns are entirely predictable and the end comes as no real suprise. The settings and descriptions are nicely worked, as ever with Goddard, but some details seem implausible and forced.
For some writers this would be an enjoyable 18th Century romp, nothing too demanding but a nice light read. For Robert Goddard, who has produced some of the most tense and page-turning thriller fiction in the last decade or so, it is a disappointment. If this put you off Goddard, don't let it - try Caught In The Light, Painting The Darkness, In Pale Battalions, or frankly any of his previous work to see what this master of suspense really can do.

Night's Lies
Night's Lies
by Gesualdo Bufalino
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars evocative, haunting, twisting Voltairean tale, 28 Dec. 2001
This review is from: Night's Lies (Paperback)
In an island fortress in mid 19th century Italy four prisoners convicted of an act of political terrorism spend their last night before being guillotined. Behind them is the shadowy figure of their movement's leader, whom the authorities are desperate to trace and for whose name the whole group can buy its reprieve and freedom. Locked in a prison chapel with a mysterious bandit-monk also condemned to die in the morning, the four take turns to tell their stories.
Spare, precise, clear prose tells the intersecting story of the four, ending in the prison cell. But who, if any, is telling the truth? What is the truth anyway? Will one crack as dawn approaches, and betray his leader by saving himself and his comrades? Gesualdo Bufalino, a Sicilian master who should be better known and whose superb imagination was tragically ended by an autostrada accident, tells a story worthy of one of Voltaire's philosophical fables.
Beautifully written, deeply thought out, highly recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 22, 2011 11:57 AM BST

Storyteller: The Many Lives of Laurens Van Der Post
Storyteller: The Many Lives of Laurens Van Der Post
by J. D. F. Jones
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant, revealing, unanswerable biography, 26 Dec. 2001
J D F Jones a British journalist with great experience of South Africa (essential for the untangling and exploring needed) presents a measured and respectful, but utterly honest and revealing, biography of Sir Laurens Van der Post. Jones is quick to acknowledge van der Post's gifts and abilities but from the ambiguous title to the last footnote (the book is meticulously researched with details closely referenced, it was written with the co-operation of the van der Post family) a picture is drawn of a lifelong fantasist, whose beguiling stories concealed a rather different truth...From van der Post's military rank in the British Army to his experiences as a POW of the Japanese in Java to his later explorations and books to his associations with the great and the good to his supposed political influence, a rather different, darker, deceitful, frequently shabby story emerges.
Some of van der Post's reported activities were despicable, especially his seduction of a 15 year old girl, daughter of family friends whom he had undertaken to look after while she studied in London, others merely shabby such as his rather mean attitude to money, his treatment of his first wife. Behind all of these towers the edifice that the van der Post image, so carefully presented to the world, was deliberately and calculatingly made up, with enormous exaggeration, embellishment, fantasy, and just plain lies.
Does all this matter? van der Post's books are superbly written and evocative of both Africa and a deeply felt search for meaning, and he was undoubtably correct to say that the sense of meaninglessness and lack of belonging are basic to the spiritual poverty of so many individuals and societies in the 20th century West. No doubt van der Post was attempting to show his readers some meaning and purpose they could adopt to their own lives. Jones is also quick to acknowledge that van der Post attracted a wide circle of loyal and close friends, chiefly because of his charismatic, charming personality and his fluent and articulate talk and writing. It is also well known that much travel writing, as a genre, is heavily embellished and embroidered.
But...at the end of the day van der Post represented himself as a teacher of the highest moral and spiritual values, unlike other writers. That we simply cannot trust him to tell the truth, to say nothing of his domestic and sexual adventurings, seems to disqualify him from the guru like status some have bestowed upon him. There is also no telling what the consequences of his advise to Baroness Thatcher and Prince Charles has been, it would be interesting to know their reactions of these revealations.
Jones has written a compelling and superby readable biography of a fascinating albeit flawed human being. It is a model biography, and deserves comparison to other great works of biographical detective work such as Holroyd's Lytton Strachey and Symond's Quest for Corvo. Highly recommended.

The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead
The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead
by Heather Pringle
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but somewhat superficial, 2 Dec. 2001
Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats for a geographic, psychological and cultural tour of preserved dead humans, in the ebullient company of science writer Heather Pringle...
Ms Pringle delves into fascinating areas of human body preservation, both deliberate (in the case of Egyptian and Chilean and Soviet mummies) or accidental (as in the bog bodies of northern Europe and frozen sacrificed children in the high Andes). The tour proceeds around the world at breathless pace and although an entertaining read we are frequently left wanting to know more. Ms Pringle introduces other areas, not normally considered as mummies, such as the preserved bodies of Soviet leaders and saints of the Roman Catholic Church, these are interesting but perhaps spreads the book's remit too widely and the result to this reader seems somewhat superficial. (Although the book is not quite as snappy as the advertising slogan used by Liverpool Museum in the 1980s - "Bring your Mummy to see ours").
However the book is filled with colorful incidents and characters and reads very well, the subject matter can hardly fail to interest and enthrall (as Ms Pringle makes clear one of the most interesting aspects of mummy studies is the enduring fascination that the preserved dead evokes in so many people). Apart from one or two errors (Silkeborg is not in Norway) it seems medically and historically accurate. And there is an excellent bibliography for those whose appetite is whetted by this readable and interesting book to dig further.

by Michael Dibdin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars disappointing offering from a writer who can do so well, 26 Oct. 2001
This review is from: Thanksgiving (Paperback)
Michael Dibdin strikes off in a new direction in this tale of a British man in the United States tracing the history of his recently deceased American wife, finding himself embroiled in an act of violence on the way. Although promising to start with, the novel really goes nowhere and the four sections seem dissociated and irrelevant. Despite the style (Dibdin does dialog superbly and the remembered repartee between the narrator and his wife on a transatlantic flight is excellent) the whole novel seems flat and ultimately pointless.
This is all disappointing stuff from Michael Dibdin who brought us the superb Aurelio Zen series and the haunting and imaginative "Last Sherlock Holmes Story".
Do us all a favor, Michael, resurrect Aurelio Zen and soon.

Last Seen in Massilia (Roma Sub Rosa)
Last Seen in Massilia (Roma Sub Rosa)
by Steven Saylor
Edition: Paperback

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars enthralling and imaginative ancient mystery novel, 26 Oct. 2001
Steven Saylor's latest outing with Gordianus The Finder takes Ancient Rome's Philip Marlowe to the besieged city of Massilia (present day Marseilles). This time however Gordianus' mission is personal - to find his son Meto who has been acting as a spy for Julius Caesar (whose forces are besieging the doomed city). Once inside the city Gordianus and his son in law are drawn into the claustrophobic intrigues of a dying city. Although the pace is initially leisurely, Saylor easily draws us into his superbly evoked ancient world and gradually an enthralling mystery tale unwinds.
The characterisation is excellent and at times poignant, the period detail and color is vivid and accurate, the story well plotted - with one or two suprises and twists in the tail!
Saylor is head and shoulders above other writers of historical mystery fiction and his novels just get better and better.
Read and enjoy!

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