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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not the most inviting of titles, 3 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: Dead Men (Paperback)
First - the non-fictional context of the book, for those unfamiliar with it. 2014 has witnessed a first in Antarctica. Ben Saunders and his colleague Tarka L'Herpiniere have completed an 1800 mile walk from Ross Island in Antarctica to the South Pole and back - the very same route which Scott just failed to complete a century ago. And because of modern technology many of us were privileged to be able to follow their daily blogs. I was one, as was Richard Pierce, the author of 'Dead Men'. And that is how I became aware of him - since he took every opportunity via his blog responses, to invite us to download the Kindle version of this his first novel!

'Dead Men' is the story of Adam who by chance meets a wacky young woman called Henrietta 'Birdie' Bowers who has inherited her passion for all things Scott and the Antarctic from her father (hence the soubriquet 'Birdie' - Henry 'Birdie' Bowers was a companion of Scott). Her obsession is to one day find the preserved bodies of Scott and his four companions - a mission one might regard as a pipe dream, (since they died a hundred years ago on a sea borne ice sheet which is slowly moving northwards to progressively calve into the open sea). But Adam falls in love with Birdie, and hence decides to throw in his lot with her, hook line and sinker. And so the story procedes.

The format of the novel is quite clever. It is written in the first person - by Adam. I don't know Richard Pierce but I suspect there is very much of him in Adam. Interspersed with Adam's narrative, are vignettes of the Scott story, from a number of perspectives - Scott himself - his wife Kathleen - and Apsley Cherry-Garrard (who was in Scott's support party and wrote the wonderful book 'The Worst Journey in the World'). These interspersions give Pierce the opportunity to show how much he knows of the Scott story - and, to give him due credit, it is clear he has thoroughly researched and immersed himself in the primary material. But he is not the first to play with these characters. ( You may wish to compare his efforts with Beryl Bainbridge's 'The Birthday Boys').

So why do I only award the novel 'two stars'? I am clearly in a minority, since I note that other Amazon reviewers shower the book with what sometimes seem to approach orchestrated plaudits.

Firstly, I was totally unconvinced by the emerging relationship between Adam and Birdie. For me, both characters were poorly drawn, and though I know that love can be blind, their reactions to one another were often incredible.

Secondly, I thought the language of the novel was lacking. It was at its best when describing the aura of Antarctica - an aura which Pierce has direct experience of. It was least successful when conveying the emotions of the two principal characters, lacking subtlety.

My next problem was with the plot which I felt was totally preposterous and unconvincing. Even if it were technically possible, why would anyone want to search for the polar party's bodies ? Morbid curiosity? Birdie's reasons smacked more of madness than anything else. And though I am aware of other successful bids to uncover bodies preserved in the Arctic, I found this aspect of the novel's plot somewhat distasteful, especially as it is known that surviving members of the expedition (including Cherry-Garrard) who discovered those bodies in late 1912, took measures to ensure they were not disturbed again. Without wishing to reveal a spoiler, I should also add that the end of the novel was ... perhaps 'ludicrous' is too strong a word ... certainly unedifying.

Other aspects of the novel's plot also jarred. When Adam and Birdie finally get to New Zealand and the Antarctic they are given virtually unfettered access to artefacts in the museum and again to Scott's hut. I have not been to the Antarctic. I know Richard Pierce has. Is he suggesting that the New Zealand authorities allow such behaviour? Not from what I know of their herculean efforts to preserve the heritage which remains.

A further problem for me was the nature of the episodic interspersions of the original Scott story. I confess that these may well have been enlightening for readers who know little of that saga. And it is hoped they may provide a source of encouragement for some to read the superb original writings of Scott, Cherry-Garrard. Kathleen Scott etc. But for me, they added nothing to the plot. And though based on accurate observations, I was somewhat unhappy with Pierce's speculative embroidery of their thoughts, motives and emotions.

I also got a little annoyed with some of the author's apparently throwaway 'prejudices'. I give two examples. Speaking of Cherry-Garrard - "Then came the first of two world wars, a needless war. He served in ...." Why include this contentious assertion? Many may think the 1WW was 'needless'. Others would totally disagree. Then again - Adam speaking - "I like this place.... not Spartan and puritan like our cold English churches where we go to be punished rather than forgiven." Why such a monstrous generalisation?

I hope I have not been too negative about this debut novel. I admire Richard Pierce for his passion for Antarctica. I applaud his attempt to create a novel based on his undoubted knowledge and interest. But for me (though I admit not for others), the novel did not come off. And that was a great pity, because I have to admit, despite everything, I enjoyed reading it!
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Mar 2014, 18:15:24 GMT
Dear John,

Thanks ever so much for this useful review. I'm glad you actually enjoyed reading the book, although you had concerns about its content. That's the beauty of writing; it's very subjective for both reader and writer.

Can I just say that I have never orchestrated, nor would I, any reviews or ratings of any of my books. That would be cheating, plain and simple, and I'm not into that.

Just to address a couple of the factual points you make:

There are published academic papers with proposals to locate the bodies of the Polar Party and bring them back to the UK for post mortem.
The tours of the museum and of the huts are actually accounts of tours I made and access I was given. That's one reason some of my royalties are going to the Antarctic Heritage Trust New Zealand. I was very lucky to be given such access - controlled, by the way, by staff in situ the whole time. The RGS incident where Birdie takes her gloves off is entirely invented; I did see the items at RGS, but again supervised.

On the other "prejudices" all I can say is that writers make statements in their writings which may or may not be controversial, but which are things the writers believe in.

Thanks again. For any writer it's important to get views on what's been written, positive or negative, and in your case certainly constructive.

R

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Mar 2014, 21:38:28 GMT
John Brain says:
Thank you Richard, for this measured response, to my review of your book.

I envy the opportunity given to you to tour the museum and huts - they clearly were an unrivalled experience. Last year I made do with the Scott reconstruction at the Natural History Museum and the exhibition of Ponting and Hurley's wonderful photographs at the Queen's gallery. They both filled me with awe.

I accept your point that you took part in no orchestration of reviews.

I am truly surprised to hear of proposals to locate and recover the bodies. Who is pushing for this? Does SPRI concur? Do the families agree? I just cannot see what might be gained.

Finally, despite my rather critical review, I do admire you as a budding novelist. It is a skill which is beyond me. And especially a novelist who clearly got as much as I did from this year's inspiring expedition to the Pole and return.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Mar 2014, 23:12:19 GMT
Dear John,

Thanks ever so much for responding. That's really very kind of you.

I have been very lucky in my Antarctic adventures, no doubt about that, and it's something I'm very grateful for.

Re the bodies; it's mainly academics who posit these ideas, and there was, I believe a proposal by a TV company at some point in the past. I don't think families have been consulted, and I don't think SPRI would ever support such a venture. The thing is that there are no real laws governing that space. What's also interesting, of course, is how Mallory's body was discovered in 1999, and photos of it beamed across the planet without prior consultation of his family. This has always deeply offended me, which is partly why Birdie reaches her conclusions about her own quest to find the bodies at the end of Dead Men.

Re your review - everyone has a right to like or dislike books, or to find fault or not find fault. That's why I'm really appreciative of you calling my response "measured." I tend to reply to reviews when I think there's a factual point to be made. I would never ever feel it right to get on someone's case because they didn't like a book I'd written. It would be like someone getting on my case for not liking to eat potatoes because they upset my stomach.

Ben & Tarka's expedition blog was wonderful, you're right, and I would not have plugged my novel had I not thought it relevant to their venture. I have sent a copy each to Ben and Tarka although I naturally don't expect a response.

Thanks again for entering a stimulating dialogue. As I said in my first note, I love constructive comments.

Take care.

R

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Mar 2014, 11:44:04 GMT
John Brain says:
Richard

Thank you for this. You may be interested to know that when I mentioned successful bids to uncover preserved bodies in the Arctic, I was of course referring to events described in Beattie and Geiger's 'Frozen in Time' - the exhumation of the bodies buried on Beechey Island from Franklin's expedition - an exhumation which revealed important facts about the nature of Franklin's mysterious demise.

I am sure you are too busy to bother, but you may also be interested in some of the other reviews I have written for Amazon on the Scott literature. As a past-it 70 year old, this is how I get my vicarious pleasure!

If you are planning any more ventures, or books, please let me know. And I am interested in any opportunity to contribute to any de-briefing of the Saunders/L'Herpiniere venture. Do you know if any is taking place?

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Mar 2014, 08:20:40 GMT
Unfortunately, it seems to have gone very quiet on the B&T front. Tarka is back in the Alps, back at work, as far as I know, and Ben is travelling round supporting the sponsors of the expedition, and is talking at the TED conference in Vancouver on 20th March when I'm sure he'll give a low-down on the expedition. The only problem with that is that you've got to pay to watch the conference being streamed (http://conferences.ted.com/TED2014/program/).

I have actually checked out some of your other reviews, though until you revealed your age above, I thought you might be only slightly older than this old-feeling 53-year-old).

On the book front, I am shopping a novel about Mallory & Irvine (in which they do summit but find someone else has been there before them - and that all on the first page) to agents and publishers. I'm also working on a book about the Cheapside Hoard, and, no doubt you'll have noticed that I've got an erotic thriller for sale on Amazon (which was an exercise in proving sex could be written about well, and not in the stereotypical 50 Shades vein). People do keep trying to persuade me to write a sequel to Dead Men, and I had toyed with the idea of doing one which involved Franklin's expedition.

Thanks for communicating so freely. If you ever want to take the correspondence to email, I'm rps (at) tettig (dot) com.

R
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