Book Reviews April 2015

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses’ by Kevin Birmingham

Published by Head of Zeus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses is one of the most famous, and in it’s time, controversial, books of the 20th century, and indeed many books have been written about it. But ‘The Most Dangerous Book’ deals with the genesis of ‘Ulysses’ and the difficulties entailed in getting it published. It was rejected by many publishers and printers. It finally ended up being printed in Paris (and typeset by typesetters who didn’t speak English).

It was nonetheless deemed obscene, and Birmingham relates some amusing tales of how it was smuggled into America. The laws of the time were used to suppress ideas, and in those pre-internet days such laws had great power and influence.

In America ‘Ulysses’ actually went on trial! It sounds almost Pythonesque but it’s true.

Kevin Birmingham’s research is staggering yet he manages to disseminate it in a most readable fashion, always a sign of a good writer. We learn much about James Joyce too, truly a fascinating character.

‘Ulysses’ was published at a time of great change and the book was a catalyst of that change and also got caught up in the resistance by the powers that be to those changes.

Indeed, it has to be noted that the style of writing Joyce used in writing ‘Ulysses’ was as groundbreaking as Picasso’s approach to painting.

So, in conclusion ‘The Most Dangerous Book’ stands as a testimony to the power of the written word, and is a great literary achievement in its own right.

The Wisdom of Trees’ by Max Adams

Published by Head of Zeus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

For all those of us who love nature, the tree is an awe-inspiring thing of beauty, and, managed with care, a fantastic resource, cleaning the air, providing building materials, food, and more. Nature has produced something far beyond what man with all his technology is capable of doing.

In this fine book Max Adams writes of the biology and lore of a variety of trees easily encountered by those interested enough to care. Moreover, he writes about mankind’s interactions, he doesn’t see them biological ornaments, but living things with a function.

The presentation, format, and binding of this book are unusually beautiful. The fine and appropriate illustrations come from a book by John Evelyn called ‘Sylva’ that was published in 1664, proving the sheer timelessness of max’s subject.

As dames says, and he puts it better than I ever could: “’The Wisdom of Trees is a very personal look at our relationships with trees and woodlands- it is called ‘the Wisdom of trees’ not because I think they are wise but because we would be wise to learn from them. It’s the kind of book that I like to find in my stocking at Christmas: full of slightly geeky facts about the miracles of tree biology; how and why do oak trees communicate with each other, how to measure the height of a tree, what woodsmen get up to in the winter; and my favourite trees. It’s not sentimental, but it does end with a call to bring woodlands back into our communal lives so that we can exploit and cherish them the way our ancestors did.”

No download could ever be as superb as the physical copy of this book is. I can see copies of it still being read and cherished decades from now (and the only power source they’ll need is a reader who appreciates them).

A fantastic partnership between knowledge and prose and it is all the better for it.

The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter’ by Benjamin Woolley

Published by Pan

Reviewed by Steve Earles

They say the light that burns brightest, burns fastest, and this, sadly, was very much the case with Ada Lovelace.

The daughter of Lord Byron from his short lived marriage to Annabella Milbanke, Ada entered in the world at a time of great change. She was to make the acquaintance of some of the most influential people of her time, such as Michael Farraday, and three Charles: Darwin, Dickens, and Babbage. It was her work with Babbage that made her immortal. In short, she is credited with the invention of computer programming and her name is used today for the programming used to control the United States military machine.

Ada was born into a time that could be personified as romance versus reason, Ada had much in common with the new reason but there was romance too, as you would expect with her lineage.

Woolley’s fine book is wisely being reissued by Pan to coincide with the bicentenary of her birth. She left this world aged only 36 after the Great Expedition of 1851.

I wrote an article about Ada that was published in ‘Ireland’s Own’ a few years ago, and I still think one of her many tragedies was that she was born at the wrong time. We should all appreciate the unheralded opportunities we have available to us today.

This is a very accessible book and one written by an author who clearly has great empathy with the heroine of his tale. It would make a superb documentary.

Highly recommended on human, historical and scientific levels

Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works’ by Mathew R. Bradley

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

We live in a sad time where a film’s script is given the least priority by the film’s producers. This is utter and complete madness…akin to building a house without a foundation and expecting it to stand up. This is why we have ‘films’ like ‘The Transformers’ series, and not quality work like the Matheson scripted ‘The Devil Rides Out’. But this was not always the case and one of the finest screenwriters of the 20th Century was Richard Matheson.

When you factor in the films based on Matheson’s work, but adapted by other people, you truly see how influential the great man was. Perhaps one day someone will pay him the respect he deserves and adapt ‘I Am Legend’ properly. (The fine cover of this book shows the lead actors from the three ‘I Am Legend’ adaptations).

As a writer I have to say that Richard Matheson is a masterclass- there are no ponderous Stephen King dictionary size tomes from him, with Richard Matheson every word counts.

I’ll pick some highlights from both the book and Matheson’s career, though make no mistake, you need to read both this book and Matheson’s work to truly appreciate his immense talent.

McFarland have done a fine job with this book and it is well illustrated. Matheson himself contributes a forward, so he must have been happy with Bradley’s book. I am personally glad to see Matheson saw this worthy appraisal of his work while he was alive.

Two of Matheson’s sons have become writers, so we should still be seeing the Matheson name on screen and in print.

It’s interesting to note that the Twilight Zone story ‘Steel’ was recently remade as ‘Real Steel’ and starring Hugh Jackman. Speaking of the Twilight Zone, of the all the many fine contributions Matheson made to the series, the chilling ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ seems to be the best remembered, receiving the ultimate accolade of being spoofed on The Simpsons!

Matheson had a productive relationship with Roger Corman (who said after Matheson had died that he was best screenwriter he had ever worked with, and always shot Matheson’s first draft). One of their best collaborations was ‘House of Usher’, starring Vincent Price. They also worked on such films as ‘Master of the World’ (again starring Price, and based on a work by Jules Verne, this time rather than Poe), ‘Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘Tales of Terror’, and the classic ‘The Comedy of Terrors’ (to which Matheson wrote a sequel to, that was sadly never made).

On of my favourite Matheson scripts features in the splendid 1962 British occult thriller ‘Night of the Eagle’ starring Peter Wyngarde (it’s easily of the same quality as Night of the Demon, or Hammer’s ‘The Witches).

Speaking of Hammer, Val Guest was to direct a version of ‘I Am Legend’ for Hammer in the 1950s, based on a script by Matheson and entitled ‘Night Creatures’. Sadly, in those days, scripts were actually sent to the censor before filming, and they wouldn’t allow ‘Night Creatures’ to go ahead! It was eventually filmed in Italy as ‘The Last Man On Earth’, in the 60s, starring Vincent Price. Matheson had his name changed to Logan Swanson on the film credits as he was not happy with changes made to his script. However, I must say, that for all its faults, it’s a decent film, and the best adaptation of ‘I Am Legend’ so far. Moreover, it is immediately noticeable on viewing ‘The Last Man On Earth’ that it was a major influence on a certain George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, and look how influential that was in it’s turn!

If I was to pick just one of Matheson’s screen adaptations it would be Hammer’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’. Based on the Dennis Wheatley book of the same name and directed by the incomparable Terence Fisher (a great influence on Guillermo Del Toro for instance), and featuring superb performances from Christopher Lee as the Duc De Richlieu and Charles Grey as Morcata (It is interesting to note that Morcata is based on British occultist Aleister Crowley of whom Wheatley knew personally, it is even said they may have worked together in World War 2). Fisher’s direction is superb and this is a terrific film in any genre and still much loved today. The script is perfect, Matheson’s translation of Wheatley’s story to screen is spot on (who can forget Morcata’s charmingly chilling line: ‘I shan’t be back…but something will!’). It is a shame Matheson and Fisher did not adapt any more of Wheatley’s work for Hammer, as Christopher Lee has often said Wheatley was very happy with the results.

Moving forward in time, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Duel’ put the director on the map and lead to a long Hollywood career that continues to this day.

The TV movies ‘The Night Stalker’ and ‘The Night Strangler’ would have a profound influence on X-Files creator Chris Carter.

Other seminal Matheson works include ‘The Legend of Hell House’, ‘Somewhere In Time’ and ‘Stir of Echoes’

There is a wealth of un-filmed Matheson work. I hope some filmmaker will read Bradley’s superb book and put some more of Matheson’s marvellous imagination on screen.

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography’ by Tom Johnson

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This book certainly lives up to its title. Its very good value; there are so many films covered. I knew Hammer Films had made non-horror films such as ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1978) but I had no idea there were this many; for instance, ‘The Public Life of Henry the Ninth’

Don’t worry, all the great Hammer horrors like ‘The Plague of the Zombies’ and ‘Twins of Evil’ are covered, but there was so much more to Hammer.

The critical commentary for every film is incisive- just the right length, and the information on the films (plot synopsis, behind the scenes information, anecdotes ect) is all very good.

There is a lot of love for Hammer Films here, and a lot of good research, which is as it should be, and while there are many books on Hammer- few have such a fine eye for detail. Thus, this is a valuable reference work, and a good read in its own right.

Moriarty’ by Anthony Horowitz

Published by Orion

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Anthony Horowitz proved he knew the world of Arthur Conan Doyle inside out with his fine Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The House of Silk’, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and being a reader of Conan Doyle’s work, I would have noticed if it wasn’t up to scratch but it more than exceeded my expectations.

Horowitz further proves it with ‘Moriarty’, another book in the world of Sherlock Holmes, the events of which take place mere days after Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty have fallen to their deaths after their struggle at the Reichenbach Falls.

Moriarty’s death has created a void in the underworld, swiftly filled by a new criminal mastermind. Pitted against this hitherto unknown villain are Pinkerton Agent Frederick Chase and Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard (a detective who follows Sherlock Holmes groundbreaking methods of deduction and detection).

As with ‘The House of Silk’, Anthony Horowitz proves that he not only understands Conan Doyle’s world perfectly but, as if we needed any further proof (look at something as fine as ‘Foyle’s War’ for instance), he shows he is a great storyteller in his own right. It also must be said (again, something we see in ‘Foyle’s War’), the period details are spot on. I do hope someone fills both ‘Moriarty’ and ‘The House of Silk’

I think also, with the popularity of such TV shoes as ‘Ripper Street, ‘Peaky Blinders’, and ‘Murdoch Mysteries’, this superb book will find a huge audience. More please, Mr Horowitz!

Blue Labyrinth’ by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Published by Head of Zeus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This is the fourteenth book in Preston and Child’s series of stories about FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.

It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve reached the fourteenth book in the series. Both Preston and Child are excellent writers separately, and make a great team writing together. Plus, Agent Pendergast is a superb literary creation, very much a 21st century Sherlock Holmes by way of Southern Gothic.

Previous books in the series such as ‘The Reliquary’ and ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’, I’ve enjoyed immensely, but with this book Preston and Child have upped the intensity and urgency, surpassing the previous books in this area. It also humanises Pendergast, making him more vulnerable, and delving deeper into his family’s dark and fascinating history.

Without spoiling the story Pendergast finds himself investigating the murder of his own estranged son, part of a plot to make Pendergast pay for his family’s past sins. No more can I say for fear of ruining it for the readers!

Lots of favourite characters play a part in the story; Constance Green, Margot Green, and the inevitable Vincent D’Agosta (well, it wouldn’t be the same without him, the ‘Ying’ to Pendergast’s ‘Yang’!)

And finally, I have to say, this would make a great film or TV series! I look forward to reviewing the next Pendergast story.

Numericon: A Journey Through The Hidden Lives Of Numbers’ by Marianne Freiberger & Rachel Thomas

Published by Quercus

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Mathematics was always something I remember being taught in a very dull way at school, but if Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas’s fine ‘Numericon’ had been on the curriculum, the story would have been very different.

The authors’ ability to engage the reader in the fascination of numbers is first class; I really had no idea the subject could be so interesting, it has certainly made me look at numbers in a new light.

Each chapter tells a story about a number and this format makes it particularly accessible to the readers.

Finally, kudos to Quercus for the fabulous binding and presentation of ‘Numericon’: a thing of beauty and joy forever.

Easy Street (The Hard Way) by Ron Perlman

Published by Da Capo Press

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Ron Perlman is an actor, who, to quote a character in a John Carpenter film [Napoleon Wilson in the great ‘Assault on Precinct 13’], was ‘born out of time, but in the best possible way. For ‘The Perl’ belongs to a time when actors had character as well as playing characters. The likes of Humphrey Bogart and Lee Marvin are good examples of what I’m talking about. They weren’t the bland identikit ‘Stepford’ style actors that blight to much film and TV in the 21st century, and neither is Ron Perlman, no higher compliment can I pay him. The kind of actor he is brings his life experience to the role with him and his performance is so much the better for it.

It comes as no surprise that there is an excellent forward to this book from Perlman’s constant collaborator Guillermo Del Toro (who once memorably described himself as Perlman’s ‘agent in this harsh world’). What is a surprise is what a fantastic storyteller Perlman is.

Perlman is an actor who had self-image issues in his youth and yet has turned his individual appearance into an asset.

He has a very impressive body of work. ‘Quest For Fire’, ‘The Name of the Rose’, the Golden Globe winning ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Sons of Anarchy’, ‘Cronos’, ‘Hellboy’, ‘Season of the Witch’, ‘Pacific Rim’, ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’, ‘Blade II’, and of course, ‘Cronos’. (Del Toro notes the great loyalty Ron showed him and Cronos and returned the compliment when it came to casting Hellboy. This is as it should be: loyalty is crucial when deserved thusly and should be reciprocated).

Perlman’s face is often covered with prosthetics, yet his acting ability always shines though, he always manages to convey the character he’s playing even it all he has visible are his eyes and gestures (to me, he brings to mind Christopher Lee’s superb performances as The Mummy and Frankensteins’ Creation in the Hammer Film productions).

Perlman’s background growing up in New York is really fascinating (his dad was a Swing Era drummer until the harsh realities of supporting a family caused him to abandon his dreams).

Perlman has had plenty of hard times in his acting career and his perseverance is admirable: success was not handed on a plate to this man.

So, in conclusion, a fine read, a book for anyone who’s ever been tempted to give up…don’t! Stick with your dreams, read ‘Easy Street (The Hard Way) and plough on!

The Train Book: The Definitive Visual History’(DK)

Published by Dorling Kindersley

Reviewed by Steve Earles

The word ‘definitive’ is overused and so often inappropriate, but most certainly not here. ‘The Train Book’ is incredible. I doubt if any single book on the subject could equal it. It covers the history and role of trains from the first steam engines through to diesel, and thence to the high speed trains of today. The history of all the significant models of train is also well covered.

As you’d expect from DK, the illustrations are superb and perfectly complimented by a knowledgeable and very readable text.

The Complete Roman Legions’ by Nigel Pollard and Joanne Berry

Published by Thames & Hudson

Reviewed by Steve Earles

This fine book covers all 45 imperial legions in detail, focusing on their various military engagements as they enlarged and defended Rome’s empire.

This a beautifully illustrated and written book, as you’d expect from Thames and Hudson.

The authors not only know their subjects inside out, but have a worthy ability to impart this knowledge to general readers: a great achievement.

The Origins of the Irish’ by J.P. Mallory

Published by Thames & Hudson

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Being Irish I can every much bemoan the fact that I wasn’t taught my own people’s origins to this standard at school: a sad loss to us all.

Mallory’s work is very comprehensive. He has a superb ability to collate information from a variety of sources (geology, archaeology, history, genetics, and mythology) and craft it into a most cohesive and understandable whole. Indeed, his style of writing makes this book a very accessible, at times funny, and enjoyable read. I imagine a lecture from this man would be fascinating.

The illustrations are very good.

His opinions on the mythological origins of the Irish could upset a few people, but the sign of a good book is its ability to incite opinions and thoughts in others.

Mallory’s summaries at the end of every chapter are particularly useful.

We are our history, and history is not only the foundation the present is built upon, but the sum total of who we are and what we have experienced:Layer upon layer, like an archaeological dig.

In conclusion: a superb book, not only for the Irish reader, but anyone wanting to learn more about the Irish.