Olives in a dirty martini are often pregnant with meaning.
Olives in a dirty martini are often pregnant with meaning.
Altered Europa, the alternative history anthology from Martinus Press, is now available for perusal on Kindle. Those sufficiently familiar with modern technology to actually employ one of these devices (among whose number this alte kokker is sadly not included) can now avail themselves and learn the answers to such riddles as: What if Rome never fell? What if the USSR sent a man to Mars? Most importantly, what if Napoleon had a steam powered ram to attack the Royal Navy? You can only learn the answers to these burning, urgent questions by reading Altered Europa.
I looked forward to reading this novel quite a bit due to its subject and the warm critical reviews it received. Although I’m the world’s cruddiest sailor (stir up the water in a bathtub and I’ll get seasick), sagas of grueling sea voyages during the age of sail have always fascinated me. The Hornblower series delighted me as a child and I also got a big kick out of Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny On The Bounty. I also read Moby Dick when I was about fifteen and even went through the long, nonfiction section of the novel where Melville described the 19th-Century whaling industry in fascinating detail (to me anyway). More recently, I enjoyed reading Nigel Cliff’s account of Vasco Da Gama’s historic circumnavigation of the African continent.
So with all that nautical lit background, I read McGuire’s North Water with much anticipation. While I think that the work is a solid piece of literature, I do have a few criticisms. Let’s deal with the positive aspects first. McGuire has a deep understanding and knowledge of the historical period about which he writes, mid-19th Century Great Britain. At the same time, he never falls prey to one of the worst temptations a historical novelist must deal with, the proclivity to include entirely too much information about a particular era to the detriment of the novel’s plot. His prose is also solid and he’s a proficient enough writer to show character rather than tell, that is, he lets the characters’ actions bring out their true natures. McGuire also has a gift for generating suspense. He effectively involves the reader in the desperate, repeated dangers faced by ordinary seamen aboard a whaling ship and does a vivid job of portraying the terrifying, body and soul destroying rigors involved in survival in an Arctic environment. McGuire is also plainly aware of the literary traditions that he works within, paying indirect tribute to the previously cited Moby Dick.
At the same time, I must say I thought the author’s treatment of his subject was rather cursory. The novel is pretty short, not much more than two hundred and fifty pages. While that leaves plenty of room to write a taut, effective narrative, it still seems rather puzzling (and dissatisfying) to have an author take on traditional, old fashioned themes (men at sea, the clash between good and evil, the essential nature of human character) and not deal with it at the magisterial, comprehensive, Olympian level of literature employed by such 19th Century masters as Hugo and Dickens. For example, while I think that the author does a good job of tracing the protagonist’s evolution from a defeated, ineffectual sad sack to a tough, determined man of the world, it seems to me that this could have been done more believably and interestingly if McGuire had allowed himself more scope.
A last point of criticism: the dichotomy between the novel’s hero, Patrick Sumner, and its villain, the harpoonist Henry Drax, often seems overly stark. While Sumner is portrayed as weak, fallible, and full of doubt, Drax is shown as always certain, in fact apparently superhuman, much like the line from the Yeats poem: “And the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.” The author does seem to intimate at several times during the course of the novel that Drax is somehow close to immortal, not subject to the regular rules of reality that usually trip up and destroy human beings. Without trying to give anything away to anyone who hasn’t read the novel, the sudden reversal of this tension at the end of the novel was rather jarring to me and detracted from the book’s persuasiveness as a work of fiction.
Despite these criticisms, I still think that The North Water is a well written, literary adventure novel that merits reading. I recommend it to anyone interested in sea literature.
Principia Ponderosa, the Weird Western/slipstream anthology from Third Flatiron, is now available on Kindle through Amazon for the very low price of $3.99. The anthology features seventeen stories that combine elements of the Western with other literary genres, including steampunk, fantasy, occult, and horror (my story definitely belongs in the steampunk category). That story is The Great Man’s Iron Horse in which the spirit of the Magnificent Curmudgeon, W.C. Fields, once again fulminates for your amusement. Everyone should purchase the antho for their reading pleasure. You will definitely enjoy it. As for my immediately preceding puffery, let me close with an appropriate Fieldsian quote:
“You can fool some of the people some of the time — and that’s enough to make a decent living.”
Anyone interested in reading the antho may click on the link below:
Humphrey Bogart is my favorite actor and has been since childhood. While I couldn’t really have explained his appeal when I was young, the actor’s persona still spoke to me, the sardonic voice, the open contempt for authority, and most of all his roles as a lone wolf against the system, someone with the intellect to see the rot and the guts to fight against it even though defeat was likely if not certain. This all adds up to a fairly good summary of one type of noir hero or antihero, a man thrown onto his own resources either by chance or due to his own nature, opposed by a treacherous, all powerful, all controlling system with the woman he loves as the one most likely to betray him.
It was an easy transition from my youthful Bogart admiration to a fascination with noir films, one of my favorite genres (Westerns, of course, taking first prize). I therefore read this book with no little interest. The author is an academic, novelist, and poet with a number of publishing credits. Somewhere is his workmanlike analysis of the noir aesthetic in films. Christopher does a good job of tracing the genre’s roots and antecedents from the hard boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett to the influence of German Expressionist movies. He also makes interesting points about the survival of noir beyond its golden age of the ’40’s and ’50’s with discussion of more recent films such as The Usual Suspects where he notes that, although filmed in color and set in the contemporary world, they still deal with noir themes like treachery and individual helplessness in an urban environment.
In undertaking such analysis, like many academics, Christopher succumbs to the temptation of trying to derive universally applicable insights from his topic. While I think he’s correct in saying that noir represents more than a film genre, that it’s also a way of perceiving, I’m also wary of grand generalizations that are derived from the study of pop culture, which films admittedly are to a very large extent. Christopher also makes a few pop culture errors along the way that nitpickers like myself find somewhat annoying, e.g., he states that Lenny Bruce died of an overdose of speed when it was heroin, but this is a minor cavil. When Christopher sticks to the main topic, noir films, his analyses are incisive and authoritative. He starts with one of the best, most archetypal noir films, Out Of The Past, and also does an excellent job discussing other classics such as Night And The City, The Killers, and Kiss Me Deadly, possibly one of the most deeply cynical films ever made. My only reservation about this facet of the book is the fact that there were so many more films and actors he could have discussed. I think that any book about noir films should at least mention The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, a morally ambiguous film that remains somewhat disturbing to the present day. While Bogart figures fairly prominently in the book, he still doesn’t get enough attention. The same goes for Kirk Douglas. In fairness though, I must admit that any book that dealt with all that in addition to the ground covered by Christopher would be more like 600 pages than about 250, the length of this book.
I recommend this book to anyone generally interested in films of pop culture and to those specifically interested in noir.
I originally had high hopes for this novel. The author, Ben Pastor, writes historical novels with a focus on WWII and the Roman Empire, two eras that greatly interest me. I enjoy and admire fictional works that bring a past era vividly to life. One author who has consistently done a terrific job in this respect has been Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series about a detective in Nazi Germany before and during the war. When I learned that Italian-American author Ben Pastor has written several highly praised novels, also set during WWII about the crime solving efforts of a Wehrmacht officer, the aristocratic Martin Bora, I was definitely intrigued and set about hunting for her books until I eventually found a used copy of Lumen.
Like all historical novelists worth their salt, Pastor has done extensive research. She ably evokes the Polish city of Cracow in the early days of the Nazi occupation after the invasion of September 1939 with awful weather, human misery, the persecution of Jews, and the increasing tightening of Nazi control over the Polish people. The author has no little skill at characterization as well. Martin Bora, the protagonist, is a well rounded, fully fleshed character, understandable and empathetic. The same applies to other figures in the book like Bora’s sort-of ally, the American priest Father Malecki, and even to such odious Nazis as Colonel Schenck. They act and speak like believable human beings.
Where Pastor fails, especially in comparison to Philip Kerr, is in her ability to generate suspense and tension. The premise for the novel would seem to provide a sufficient basis for these purposes. A revered abbess, a nun renowned for sanctity and visions, is found shot dead in a convent. Anxious to solve the crime before political tensions erupt in heavily Catholic Poland, the Werhmacht assigns Martin Bora to investigate. Despite this initially promising set up, Pastor doesn’t seem able to create much in the way of drama. I never felt particularly involved in Captain Bora’s quest to solve the murder. A subplot involving Bora’s boorish roommate (see my wordplay?) also didn’t do much to ratchet up tension for me. This is in marked contrast to Kerr’s work. I’ve read every Bernie Gunther novel and have always been consistently pleased and gratified to find that each one was a riveting read. This is a particularly neat trick on Kerr’s part, since an experienced devotee of the series knows beforehand that Bernie Gunther will always survive at the end. It’s what Gunther must do to survive and what happens along the way to him and others that engages the reader’s interest. This is in marked contrast to Lumen.
The other Martin Bora novels may be more interesting, but I don’t feel much motivation to seek them out after reading this one. In other words, I don’t recommend this book. Readers interested in effective, good historical fiction about WWII would do much better to read Philip Kerr. As always though, I leave it to the reader to make her or his own decision.
I started the Fandorin series with the second novel, The Turkish Gambit, and followed with this one, the first, The Winter Queen. There are currently thirteen published Fandorin novels with three more planned by the author. Akunin is actually a nom de plume; the author’s real name is Gregory Chkhartishvili and he is Georgian, not Russian. This minor point aside, Akunin is well steeped in Russian literary traditions, holding novelists like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in deep reverence. Like his predecessors, he has a deep interest in human character, in what ultimately makes people tick. This interest in fundamentals underpins and buttresses his detective fiction.
While I don’t want to disclose any spoilers, I don’t think it would ruin the novel for anyone to say that the story begins with an apparently pointless suicide of a fashionable, wealthy young college student by means of spinning the chamber of a revolver with only one bullet in it. This is, of course, the melodramatic cliche known in America as Russian roulette, which Akunin ironically refers to as American roulette. In the face of this senseless tragedy, it’s left to young Erast Fandorin to find out what lays behind the death, a bottom rung civil servant/detective with little to offer beyond a good education and charming manners. Despite this unpromising start, there’s more to Fandorin than meets the eye and the protagonist earns the reader’s admiration and liking with his dogged persistence, cool courage, and keen, observing intelligence. Mystery and intrigue abound as Fandorin tracks down and identifies members of a radical secret society with a dangerous journey to London that almost results in his death. The first novel comes to a dramatically satisfying conclusion on a tragic, typically Russian note that reminded me very strongly of a James Bond novel (I won’t reveal which one because, again, I don’t want to spoil things for any potential readers).
The Fandorin novels are immensely popular in Russia, having sold millions of copies and with several films made from them. This is understandable since they are intensely romantic, filled with larger than life characters while still being well grounded in historic fact. Cavalry officers are bold, ready to risk all on a turn of the cards or a duel at dawn. Like Tolstoy’s Natasha, women are proud, gracious Slavic beauties, so full of charm and kindness as to turn a man’s head upon first sight. The 19th century Russia of the Tsars, a subject of continuous, intense interest to Russians even during the Soviet era, comes to life in Akunin’s capable hands, an ancient, rigid, highly stratified culture with startling juxtapositions of progress and backwardness.
I recommend this book and the other Fandorin novels, most of which I still haven’t read. These novels should prove enjoyable reading to anyone interested in Russian history or literature or for those who simply enjoy a good, well thought out mystery.
While other emperors and generals in antiquity were styled as “Great” or Magnus in their time (Caesar’s rival Pompey being the best example), it’s usually only Constantine who’s remembered in modern history as having this title. Indeed, it’s rare to see his name used without the accompanying honorific. This can largely be attributed to Constantine’s role as the first Christian emperor, a man who played a key, if not crucial, role in the advancement and eventual triumph of this faith as the sole recognized religion in Europe and other parts of the world for centuries to come. Largely due to this achievement, the life of Constantine has been obscured by hagiography, tendentious, outright propaganda that see the guiding hand of the Lord behind every action or statement Constantine ever made. All of this raises questions. Can we ever really know what sort of person Constantine was, given the huge temporal gap between when he lived and the present day and the obvious unreliability of many contemporary historical sources? Can we ever confidently conclude that Constantine was indeed a “great” person?
The author, Michael Grant, is a former Cambridge don and has written a number of well received books on various subjects pertaining to antiquity. Like the reputable scholar he is, Grant takes a careful, measured approach to his subject, always striving for objectivity. He begins his biography with a sober evaluation of the contemporary sources on Constantine’s life, both pagan and Christian. Grant notes the ideological bias that motivates many of the latter sources, discussing the flaws and strengths of such writers as Eusebius of Caesarea, but also recognizes the inherent prejudices of Constantine’s pagan critics (who were many).
This just the facts, ma’am, approach allows the author to reach several well supported conclusions. Grant does a good job of describing Constantine’s strengths: his military prowess (although Grant notes that the majority of his victories were won in civil wars against other Romans); his enormous capacity to plan and implement ambitious, empire wide schemes; his gift for dissembling and conspiracy, absolutely essential qualities in an atmosphere of palace intrigue and backstabbing; and his subtlety in advancing his pro-Christian agenda in the face of a still overwhelmingly pagan elite. Grant also effectively rebuts conjectures that Constantine may have been simply seeking tactical advantage in employing Christianity as a unifying principle and that he may also have had lingering pagan sympathies if not outright beliefs. He documents the emperor’s sincere, unswerving Christian faith.
At the same time, Grant is also careful to examine and evaluate Constantine’s flaws as a ruler and a human being. He notes how Constantine’s basic, soldierly approach to Christianity left him completely unsuited to understanding the torturous, complicated arguments over the nature of Christ’s divinity that resulted in violent, irremediable conflict between schisms, Arianism being one of the most well known. Even more importantly, Grant points out how Constantine’s looking to Christianity as a unifying principle for the empire contained a fatal flaw, his complete failure to consider the fissiparous, quarrelsome nature of the early Christians, their failure to achieve any unity of their own that continues to this day. Grant also describes Constantine’s personal failings, the worst of which undoubtedly has to be the murder of his first born son, Crispus, followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of his wife Fausta. As the author reasonably concludes, these are horrible, unforgivable crimes and simply cannot be excused even during a period as brutal and turbulent as late antiquity. Grant also notes Constantine’s geopolitical failures, the most egregious of these being his decision to provoke a war with the Sassanian Empire (located in what is now Iran) in the face of increasingly serious threats from barbarians in the Danube and along the Rhine.
I recommend this book both to scholars of antiquity and also to laymen who are interested in learning more about this historical period. Those who seek to have their prejudices reinforced, however, would do better to go to the original source and read Eusebius.
Some readers may recall that I had an alternative history novel published a few years back, Napoleon Concerto, in which a money mad Robert Fulton actually carries through on his original, historical plan to build a steam powered navy for Napoleon, thus enabling the Corsican to finally fulfill his dream of invading Great Britain. The book’s out of print now, but an excerpt was published in 2012 by Knightwatch Press as part of an military SF anthology entitled Battlespace. Note that proceeds from the sale of this anthology go to Warrior Cry, a group of volunteers who provide wounded soldiers with musical instruments and then teach them to play.
A Rare Chance is now going to appear in a new anthology, Altered Europa, from Martinus Publishing. The antho will feature various stories dealing with some aspect of alternative history in a European setting and is expected to come out in April. This is the list of stories that will appear:
1: The Public Execution of Winston Churchill —by William Rade
Just the titles alone look interesting. My sincere thanks to Martin Ingham, Senior Editor at Martinus Publishing, for providing me and the other writers with this opportunity to get our work out to the reading public. I’ll be sure to have another post when the anthology actually does come out. Anyone interested in learning more about the antho can click on the link below:
Although the goombah from Genoa’s reputation has taken a fearsome shellacking in recent times, few Americans are unaware of Christopher Columbus and his voyage across the Atlantic to discover the New World. For better or worse, Columbus still looms large in the collective memory.
What is lost to contemporary recall, however, is the fact that for some time after 1492, no great account was made in Europe of Columbus’s achievements. He plainly hadn’t found Asia, only some savages on the edge of the world with little or nothing to offer even as slave fodder. What Europe longed and lusted for was a way to the East Indies, to break the Ottoman’s stranglehold on trade and gain access to spices like cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves.
This was done by Vasco Da Gama, a name unlikely to stir but the dimmest of junior high memories, the intrepid if merciless Portuguese who was the first to circumnavigate the African continent and the subject of Nigel Cliff’s history. Rather than focus on Da Gama’s narrow biographical details, Cliff seeks to give the reader a big picture perspective by prefacing his narrative with a broad brush history of the birth and growth of Islam and its centuries long clash with Christianity, with a particular focus on the Iberian Peninsula and the processes that led to the expulsion of the Moors and the emergence of modern Portugal and Spain. Despite these setbacks, Islam still remained strong in the form of the Ottoman Empire, which took full advantage of its control of the spice trade to gouge the hated Europeans. Cliff describes how the Crusader spirit and a desire to aggrandize their realm led Portugese monarchs to send ships beyond the Pillars of Hercules out into the unknown Atlantic in search of treasure and a way to circumvent the infidels. This all leads naturally and gracefully to Da Gama’s first voyage, a grueling ten month journey into terra incognita.
Cliff intricately describes the journey’s miserable rigors, at sea on uncharted waters on fragile, wooden craft propelled only by the wind, poorly designed and suited for the harsh conditions they endured; at the mercy of terrible storms especially around the ironically named Cape of Good Hope; and the starvation and scurvy crew and officers suffered with men dying like flies. It all adds up to what has to be one of the most awful ordeals at sea ever suffered by men, a trip that makes Columbus’s voyages look like an outing in a rowboat at the pond in the city park on a sunny day. Cliff also gives a good, thorough account of Da Gama’s activities once he reached India. Upon arrival, the Portuguese pitiful trade goods were mocked and they learned that the spices they sought were entirely tied up by Muslim merchants. Da Gama reacted in typical imperialist fashion by bombarding Indian coastal cities and with piratical raids upon Muslim ships with crew and passengers left to die on burning wrecks.
A sidebar here. While I carry no brief on the man’s behalf, I’m often puzzled by the modern proclivity to heap scorn and abuse on Columbus as if he were a particularly extreme example of a horrible person in history. Like any other human being, Columbus was a product of his time and place. Again, it’s not meant as an excuse, but it should be remembered that he was a contemporary of the Borgias and Machiavelli, none of whom have gone down in history as being particularly nice. This holds true of his fellow explorer Da Gama. As far as any Muslim was concerned, even women and children, he was fully prepared to show no mercy. His treatment of Indians was ruthless as well, especially after the Portugese figured out that they weren’t really Christians as they originally supposed, but followers of another religion, Hinduism, about which they know nothing at all. Where Da Gama differed from other Portugese explorers of his age was in his incorruptibility, his integrity (he showed absolute loyalty to his monarch), and his insistence on fidelity to duty from officers and men. For his accomplishments, he was richly rewarded only to die in harness on his last voyage to India.
Cliff does an able job with his subject. His prose is modern, thorough, and easy to follow, although the details of 16th century Indian and European politics can be sometimes complex and confusing to follow. He takes an objective view of his subject, carefully evaluating Da Gama’s strengths and weaknesses, and uses occasional flashes of humor to alleviate what is oftentimes a very grim chronicle indeed. I recommend this book highly to anyone interested in learning more about early modern history, exploration, sea voyages, and Muslim-Christian relations.