Harry August, born in northern England in 1919 dies an old man only to be born again, in the precisely same time and place and circumstances, the fullHarry August, born in northern England in 1919 dies an old man only to be born again, in the precisely same time and place and circumstances, the full memories of his former life returning as his infant brain develops. And this happens again, and again, and again. But the events of his life are not set; he can use the knowledge and education and skills he has accumulated to advance himself and move on more quickly from the same humble beginnings, and he discovers that he is not alone. While rare, there are other individuals who in the same circular way - “ouroborans” - who often store knowledge and look to help those recently returned to youth. As his lives progress Harry becomes aware that something in the future is amiss, something that will lead to the end of the world and is getting closer with each incarnation.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been gripped so much by a book. It took hold of me from the start, a fine mix of a wit, humour, tense plotting, great characterisation, excellent writing and a superb central idea explored fully.
As do all very good books, this works on several levels. As the literary thriller with a twist it is on its face, as a philosophical discussion of the enduring momentum of events compared to mayfly flicker of individual lives, perhaps as an exploration of the stages each of us goes through in our normal span of life.
Of course, I have to address this book’s similar concept to Kate AtkinsonKate Atkinson’s Life After LifeLife After Life - both published very close together in early 2014. Yes, Claire North’s prose is not as good as Atkinson’s (hardly a criticism as the multi-award winning Atkinson has been in the game for a lot longer and is one hell of a writer). What is truly worth pointing out is how, from such a similar central idea (even happening to be set across a fairly similar historical stage) each writer has woven such an utterly distinct tapestry. Both books are literary, by turns funny and sobering, gripping and thoughtful and deep, but quite, quite different.
Sure, Harry August is not without flaws - there is the occasional clumsiness to the writing (massively overwhelmed by some very good writing and truly breathtaking plotting) and a the odd time where I had to actively suspend disbelief to do with the accelerating pace of technological advancement - but the sheer joy and wit and humanity and unashamed cleverness of this novel means anything less than five stars would be churlish....more
Helen MacDonald’s book is several things, all of them successful. It is a memoir of her training of a goshawk, which follows her father’s sudden deathHelen MacDonald’s book is several things, all of them successful. It is a memoir of her training of a goshawk, which follows her father’s sudden death and is also, therefore, about her relationship with her father and her coming to terms with this loss. It is concerns another relationship, one across time with T.H. White, best know as the author of the magnificent The Once and Future King. White was himself obsessed with hawking and wrote a book simply called Goshawk about his own experiences training this most difficult of birds.
This is a complex, deeply personal and often somber book. MacDonald is brutal at exposing her own pain and uncertainty and failings, often mirroring them against White’s. In the course of doing so she shows, of course, some of the history of falconry and ends by linking her exploration of her psychology for her attachment with a wider aspect of our relationship with the wild, and with the landscape. ...more
A lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrongA lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrong term, considering) as the wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. An Oxford don and his visitor discuss a pair of works of art that always seem to end up together and may be connected to some deaths.
Atmospheric, and somewhat bringing to mind a Tales of the Unexpected vibe....more
A superb story in Charlie Stross' Laundry series. Genuinely horrific - both gorily and existentially - with more references than you can shake a stickA superb story in Charlie Stross' Laundry series. Genuinely horrific - both gorily and existentially - with more references than you can shake a stick at and some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments....more
Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes4.5 stars
Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes characters that are undoubtedly mythical and, as he admits in his afterword, continues to put together characters from different mythical or semi-historical heritages (such as Arthur and Merlin, only put together by Mallory but now indivisible), I would still class this work as a historical fiction, even a realistic historical fiction.
The author paints an incredibly vivid picture of Britain in the 6th century. A hundred years and more after the Romans have left, the island is awash with battle and intrigue as the ancient tribes seek to defend and expand their territory. The Eastern part of the land is under the control of the invading Saxons, the Irish raid from across the sea, and the efforts to reinstate worship of the Celtic gods clash with those religions brought by the Romans, especially the increasingly prominent and powerful Christianity.
These conflicts form the backbone of the novel. We see the names familiar from our centuries-long love affair with the Arthurian tales - Arthur himself, Guinevere and Merlin, Lancelot, Galahad, Nimue, Mordred, Morgan, and mad king Pellinore - each recognisable from their mythic image and yet quite different. Partly it is the gritty, realistic brutality of the Dark Ages Britain they inhabit, a million miles away from the shining armour and courtly manners of so many classic representations. By the standards of the medieval romances, and the Roman world which they envy as a golden age at the same time as they despise it, the lives of these people are barbarous. And some of them know it, doing their best to live in the crumbling Roman ruins they no longer have the expertise to maintain. But Cornwell also plays with our expectations of the characters. Arthur, as in the original stories before Chretien de Troyes, is neither a king nor a Christian but a Briton warlord, a noble, charismatic leader with the mission of uniting the native tribes against the invading Saxons. Lancelot is a spoilt, foppish, arrogant coward who employs poets to write about his non-existent feats of valour, which soon outlive the reality.
In these events - narrated by Derfel, a Saxon-born captain of Arthur who is recounting events years later after he has converted and become a monk - we see a possible germ of the Arthurian mythology in the warring and politics of this time. As Derfel writes the tale for Queen Igraine (who is too young to have known the people and events first hand) she tries to push him to embellish the facts away from grime and reality toward chivalry and magic, giving an idea of how legends grow in the telling.
The myths we know are medieval tales, and have become heavy with the imagery of Christianity, although Merlin and Nimue of the Lake and the Green Knight usually remain as a connection with the pagan past. I have read version which over-emphasise the Christian aspects or try to reclaim the tales for their pagan origins. In Cornwell's version belief and superstition permeates every page as belief in the 'native' gods of the Celtic Britons vies for dominance with more recent arrivals brought by the Saxons and, especially, the Romans; the cults of Isis, Mithras and of course Christ. This world is uncertain and brutal and so much is dark and unknowable. It is all but impossible to imagine not sharing the faith in supernatural beings having a direct and often malicious effect on every day life in such a condition. Omens and curses threaten to bring down the wrath of the gods, and to deny their existence is unthinkable. Cornwell does not gloss over the brutality of the slavery, human sacrifices and rapes that are prevalent amongst many holding pagan beliefs at the time, but neither does he avoid the hypocrisy and dishonesty in some of those of the early Christian church. Galahad, a Christian, is perhaps the most honest and noble character in the book, yet the self-sainted Bishop Sansum is utterly without merit. The pagan Arthur is heroic, though flawed, yet some of the other pagans are vicious in the extreme. Derfel often writes such things as "I know there is no greater joy than to serve Christ, but sometimes when I think of the times shoulder to shoulder before a battle, I miss my shield brothers", suggesting both an old man's regret at his passed youth and also a religious conversion that is perhaps more judicious than heartfelt.
The Winter King is brutal, noble, thrilling and thoughtful. The vividness of the scene setting is superb and the characters fully fleshed. I would highly recommend this to anyone with the slightest interest in Arthur, or the Dark Ages, or good books in general....more