I've been toying with the idea of reviewing books for a while now. What's held me back? Well... a) writing a good, insightful review takes up valuable writing time, b) reviewing the works of fellow authors is a delicate ground to tread (if you're going to give your honest opinion). However, I've reached a point where I want to capture my thoughts on the books I read - purely as a means of fully and clearly expressing the nebulous ideas and impressions that gather as I enjoy each tale. If it helps others to choose a book then that's a bonus :-)
I'll review books on here as and when I feel the need, and while I won't give every book 5 stars, I will only publish a review of any book if I enjoy it in at least some aspects. I will only review books that I have chosen to read, so please don't send me review requests (sounds harsh, but I might as well be up front about it!).
Steve Coogan and his comic creations have seen me through my adolescence, my uni days, and my working life so far. Alan Partridge is - as for many Coogan fans - my ultimate comfort comedy; the one I can recite backwards. I can still laugh at his frantic and futile attempts to placate enraged farmers despite a thousand previous viewings.
Perhaps part of the challenge in appreciating Easily Distracted is in remembering that this is the autobiography of Steve Coogan and not one of his creations. Indeed, after I read it and put it on my bookshelf, my wife asked me to fetch it so she could have a read and - unconsciously - I picked up I, Partridge, instead. I could imagine Steve shaking a mock-angry fist at me for doing so, and at those who claim there is too much similarity between him and his comic characters (and between some of those creations). But this only strengthens a point Coogan tries to get across in telling his story - that there is a bit of Alan Partridge, Paul Calf, Gareth Cheeseman, Duncan Thickett and co in Steven Coogan and vice versa. It's not a secret, it's a fact - one he is happy to acknowledge and embrace. In Easily Distracted, Coogan does not try to paint a whiter-than-white image of himself; rather, he accepts himself for what he is, vices and virtues. He talks of his youthful, idealistic visions of his future self - unflappable, engaging and witty - but acknowledges the man he has become: a man who at times can exhibit all of these qualities and at other times none of them. It's quite a rational and balanced stance and one that is not hard to empathise with; it certainly helped me as a reader to understand a little bit more about the man behind the comic mask.
The book - slightly unconventionally for an autobiography - starts with the here and now, the recent times of the Coogan we think we know: the darkness of the Leveson inquiry, the exhausting realities behind the Partridge movie and his pride at the BAFTA-winning Philomena (an excellent demonstration of his abilities as a straight actor). It then settles into a more typical chronological account of his life, delivered in an enjoyably raconteurial rhetoric: from his sepia-tinted memories of boyhood holidays in Ireland (I challenge any child of the 50s, 60s or 70s to read this without drifting off to memories of their own holidays of this ilk) and life in his somewhat eccentric family home, to his struggles to break into comedy and acting, then on to the stellar rise that followed... and the well-documented baggage that came with it. It's an engaging and fulfilling journey, though I suspect - and respect - that Steve hasn't given us absolutely everything (who would?)
Being such a fan of his comedy, there was a big part of me looking for in-gags in each paragraph, but that's not what this book is about. It does have gags and it did have me chuckling away, But he makes it clear that straight comedy doesn't quite cut it for him any more. That said, there are a few Easter eggs in there, such as page 201 when he refers to that excellent James Bond movie 'To Russia With Love' (To Russia? Stop getting Bond wrong!).
Easily Distracted works well in doing what I think it set out to achieve: presenting Steve Coogan, as he is, without apology. An entertaining, at times gritty and at times warm, and consistently thought-provoking read.
Two rather amusing Coogan pics. Left: 'Stop getting Bond wrong!' Right: Steve trying out a new, presumably female character, back in the early days of his career.
"It is 530 BC and Cyrus the Great has carved out the largest Empire the world had ever seen, making Persia the undisputed superpower of the ancient world. But there is treachery afoot, and Cyrus's life is in danger.
In a fast paced tale of love, war, betrayal and revenge, Blood of Kings sweeps the reader up on an epic journey from the mud brick cities of Ancient Persia to the burning heart of Pharaoh's Egypt. Packed full of dramatic and authentic battle scenes, it recreates the sweat, blood and fear of ancient warfare, as Persia smashes Egypt's army and brings the reign of the Pharaohs to a violent end.
But it is also a book that will delight Herodotus fans, bringing the ancient Greek historian's characters to life like never before, as it follows the doomed 'lost army of Cambyses' into the Libyan Desert, marching towards a fate that would baffle archaeologists for millennia to come."
Blood of Kings was an impulse buy and a holiday read for me. I picked this volume from the many in the Kindle store because it promised everything I fancied at that moment in time: a desert tale of ancient empires and grand-scale war. It was the same impulse that drove me to write Legionary: Land of the Sacred Fire - I wanted to travel into the deep, unforgiving sands and imagine that I was trekking through the fiery wastes, short of water, armour grating on my skin, knowing a hidden enemy might sweep over the dunes at any moment. James' novel delivers just such atmosphere in buckets: in the Egyptian desert and the leafy, cool relief of the oases, and in the icy, rocky mountains of northern Persia too - he put me right there.
The premise - following King Darius' rise to power and charting his part in the campaign which saw an army of tens of thousands of Persians vanish mid-desert - has not been tackled in historical fiction before (at least, not that I am aware of), and this only lends more kudos to James for crafting such a detailed, vivid and immersive account of this virgin territory.
The historical detail is well observed and subtly conveyed in the narrative in a way that informs but does not distract. The Persian kings, armies, people and their customs and everyday life are richly characterised, with tiny observations like the Persian Shahanshah (King of Kings) being given "a magnificent war bow, its belly chased with electrum, elaborately carved griffins at each end, eyes and beaks picked out in gold", causing me to arch an envious eyebrow more than once.
In terms of setting, the author's attention to detail has been honed by virtue of living in the desert for a number of years, walking the paths he writes about. The maps included in the book are a testament to his intimate knowledge of the land. As stated before, the descriptives are generally first class, but there were a few that I found overused - or that made themselves conspicuous by their frequency - such as Darius' observation of the date palms and the ripeness or otherwise of the fruits on them. Not a massive issue, but it was a little 'bump' in the read (and made me crave syrupy dates!).
I chuckled when I read a review of this novel on Amazon which complained about 'too much gore'. Those who are familiar with my books will know that I'm not squeamish and neither is Andrew James - if his torture scenes are anything to go by. Wonderfully done: I won't give anything away but I was wincing/peering through one eye as I read some of the horrific ends and near-ends a few of the characters come to. In terms of battle scenes, I have a healthy appetite for clashing swords, and I found James' fight scenes fell into one of two camps: some, like the clash at the Spring of Shade, were succinct, powerful and memorable; others, such as the ambush at the icy pass near the beginning, were rendered somewhat punchless due to a degree of overdescription (in my opinion anyway). Without giving too much away, one character is tossed from his horse as enemies shoot arrows at him from up on the pass sides, but the descriptive of him being thrown is 2 pages long, and I found that this sucked the pace and peril out of what could have been a thrilling moment.
The tale takes us from Persia to Egypt and back again, and there are a fair few bends along the way. I say bends rather than twists, as I feel they could have been more devious. For example, a lingering doubt resides in Darius' mind throughout most of the book regarding the seeming reappearance of a character he thought was dead. Now the author resolves this in a reasonably satisfying way, but I reckon he could have gone a few steps further to make it more of a jaw-dropper. Easy for me to say, but I just had that nagging feeling that the potential wasn't fully realised with that otherwise impressive plot strand.
Blood of Kings is a lengthy saga, and I did wonder if the author had missed a trick in not breaking it into two or maybe even three volumes. Certainly, the scope of the tale would have allowed for it and if I recall correctly I only paid a few pounds for this book (in late 2015) - great value but probably not quite the reward the author deserves.
Overall, Blood of Kings enthralled, engrossed and delivered my desert adventure fix with aplomb. Recommended.
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