Reviews

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 :-)

Review Policy
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!).



The Lost City of Z

posted Jun 3, 2017, 4:12 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 4, 2017, 3:17 AM ]

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B002RI9GRQ
“Have you ever heard the sound of the jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always... talking.”

 ...a quote that made me shiver and smile and put me right in the heart of the unexplored Amazon Rainforests - the setting for David Grann's 'The Lost City of Z': the story of the lost explorer, Percy Harrison Fawcett. 


As a boy, I was fascinated by the legends and myths of South America: dense jungles, strange tribes and hidden mysteries lost in the depths of that uncharted land. Admittedly, my interest wasn't hugely academic - Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World', Indiana Jones (the epic sequence at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark), The Mysterious cities of Gold (yes, a cartoon) and Rick Dangerous (Uh-huh, a computer game) being my level of 'fix'. Nevertheless, I was quite enchanted by the promise of the unexplored, the sense of adventure to be had. In 'The Lost City of Z', the author quotes Kipling's "The Explorer" and catches this buzzing boyish wanderlust in a jar:


“Something hidden. Go and find it.

Go and look behind the Ranges.

Something lost behind the Ranges.

Lost and waiting for you. Go!

 

In describing Fawcett's world, the author does an excellent job of bringing to life the era as a whole. The early twentieth century signalled the end of the era of exploration - days when maps contained the tantalising word 'uncharted', days when men would step into jungles, deserts or wintry tundras utterly at the mercy of fate and mother nature. No radios, few aeroplanes, just mules, rudimentary medicines, guile and luck. 

But this is no fantasy story of heroes, quests and happy endings. Instead, what unfolds is a dark tale of obsession, describing a man's descent into near-madness as he searches for a fabled ruin that might cement his place in history and enlighten mankind. Relentlessly, he would raise funds, source a team, gather supplies and a form a plan, before plunging into the jungle in search of a lost, monumental city he referred to simply as 'Z' - talked of in tribal legend but seemingly forgotten, cursed or hidden.


The Amazon Jungle in Fawcett's time sprawled across most of Brazil and parts of Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and several other countries, covering an area significantly larger than Europe. The woods were packed with tribes - some friendly, some warlike and some cannibalistic, and many of which had only fleeting interaction or none at all with westerners. There were preying jaguars and merciless piranhas, vicious insects, boa constrictors and more. Fawcett clearly  thrived on the edge of danger and hardship. Indeed, in his diaries, he - competitive and protective of his theories and findings like most adventurers of the time - paid respect to the endeavours of the likes of the polar explorers, but felt that the jungle presented the greatest challenge a man could face. In his words:

 

"A polar explorer has to endure temperatures of nearly a hundred degrees below zero, and the same terrors over and over: frostbite, crevices in the ice, and scurvy. He looks out and sees snow and ice, snow and ice—an unrelenting bleakness. The psychological horror is in knowing that this landscape will never change, and the challenge is to endure, like a prisoner in solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. In contrast, an Amazon explorer, immersed in a cauldron of heat, has his senses constantly assaulted. In place of ice there is rain, and everywhere an explorer steps some new danger lurks: a malarial mosquito, a spear, a snake, a spider, a piranha. The mind has to deal with the terror of constant siege."

 

Yet he was determined to solve the puzzle of 'The Green Hell' (as the Amazon had been known since the times of Cortes, Pizarro and the Spanish Conquistadors during their fruitless search for El Dorado) and find proof that deep within the forest, the great wonder of 'Z' lay undiscovered.


The author recounts Fawcett's early expeditions into the Amazon brilliantly. Using epistles and passed-down accounts from departed eye-witnesses, he conjures a vivid image of 'The Green Hell'. Reading it while lying on a scorching beach in the Greek islands, I quickly became rather suspicious about every trickling sweat droplet or blown grain of sand that landed on my skin as I read tales of men driven to madness by clouds of mosquitos that swarmed around them like thick smoke, day and night, depriving them of even a moment of sleep; descriptions of espundia, a wasting disease transmitted by sand flies which causes the sufferers flesh to waste away into mush in leprous fashion; accounts of team members waking to find maggots writhing under the skins of their kneecaps; tiny 'sweat bees' latching onto their eyeballs and beetles burrowing fervently into their ear canals - one fellow driven so mad by this that he thrust a hunting knife into his ear to kill the creature before it dug too deep. Shudder, indeed. Worse were tales of men straying a short way from their camp to forage, only to return and find their comrades dead, riddled with poisonous tribal arrows (tipped with lethal frog toxins).


  
Left: The Ricardo Franco Hills, a plateau in Bolivia thought to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World'
Middle: The Cabellos Largos, an Amazonian tribe yet to have been contacted by the outside world - fortunately a reservation system has been established to protect such peoples and their habitat
Right: The depths of the rainforest

 

Fawcett's adventures are inspirational - each foray into the jungle peeling away another layer of mystery about the location and nature of 'Z' and throwing up a bunch of new intriguing puzzles. Along the way he loses trusted comrades to the maladies described above, but still he returns, every few years or so. Only WWI breaks up his efforts, seeing him enlist and command a unit with distinction. When the war came to an end, he was ready to pick up where he left off and tackle 'The Green Hell' once more. But from 1920 onwards, we see the start of a slow and sad decline in his endeavours. First, he loses the patronage of the Royal Geographical Society and the funding they provided as the intelligentsia of the day began to lose faith in his less than academic hypothesis over 'Z'. Instead, university-educated anthropologists and geographers were employed and stipended on the back of white-paper rationale. Fawcett began to lash out at the scientific establishment, which he felt had turned its back on him:

 

“Archeological and ethnological science is founded upon the sands of speculation, and we know what may happen to houses so constructed.” He denounced his enemies at the RGS and detected “treachery” everywhere. He complained about “the money wasted on these useless Antarctic expeditions,” about the “men of science” who had “in their day pooh-poohed the existence of the Americas—and, later, the idea of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Troy…”

 

However, the ageing Fawcett did manage to scrape together more funds for one more 'bare bones' expedition, but with his most trusted team members now dead or retired, he was forced to bring his young son, Jack, and Jack's friend, Raleigh, on board. It would prove to be his final sortie into the Amazon rainforest. In 1925, the trio kissed their loved ones goodbye, stepped into the jungle… and were never seen again. What happened? Were they killed by tribesmen? Were they being held captive? Did they succumb to illness? Did they find Z! The legend began that day, and ever since, rescue missions and hunts for the team's bodies have been launched, year after year - resulting in many casualties, many conspiracy theories, but no concrete answers.


The Lost Expedition. Form top left, clockwise: Percy Fawcett, Jack Fawcett, Raleigh Rimell.

 

Bravely, David Grann himself sets off on such a foray, interspersing chapters of narrative on Fawcett with his own preparation and  journey into the jungle. I would say though that this 'side' of the book does feel rather light in comparison to the accounts of Fawcett's travels, but perhaps that is the correct balance, given that Fawcett is the book's real star. Using Fawcett's diaries and carefully-mined artifacts to track his suspected path, Grann gives presents an interesting juxtaposition of the modern-day Amazonian landscape against that which Fawcett would have encountered. Rather poignantly, where the latter wrote in his diaries of miles upon miles of untamed jungle, the author instead finds bare, flat prairie, deforested and bleak. The author does unearth some startling facts as he goes: cave paintings have been found in the Amazon region that have been dated as over ten thousand years old - throwing the Bering Strait migration theory into chaos; and pottery shards of a similar quality to the Greek and Roman kind is to be found scattered all across the Amazon Jungle in huge quantities - not what one might expect from the so-called stone-age hand-to-mouth tribes of the forests. And he does find something rather incredible towards the end of his journey - something that ties the whole legend of 'Z' together nicely (no spoilers!). 

 

So, the age of exploration may be over, but the legends of those days live on. This is a cracking read. If you grew up dreaming of adventure in strange lands, you will love this. Highly recommended.


Buy 'The Lost City of Z' on Amazon


Easily Distracted - Steve Coogan

posted Jun 5, 2016, 5:24 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 16, 2016, 12:30 AM ]

Everybody has a comedic touchstone - a stand-up or a sitcom they can go back to time and again and know just how easily it will tickle them and engage fond memories. 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.










Blood of Kings - Andrew James

posted Mar 23, 2016, 7:09 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Mar 23, 2016, 7:34 AM ]

About

"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."


Review

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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