Saturday, 25 June 2016

Book review #2: Troy have read quite a few books on Troy already - my favourite being Colleen McCullough's Song of Troy - so I had pretty high hopes when a friend recommended David Gemmell's Troy trilogy. Initially, however, I found the first half of Lord of the Silver Bow a struggle as we seemed to spend the entire time flitting between multiple character perspectives heavy on both description and back story, whilst very little seemed to happen in the present. The Great Green (Mediterranean Sea) seemed to be the main setting for the story and Troy itself was barely mentioned, let alone under siege.

However, once I settled into Gemmell's writing style and the story started moving along, I started to believe that the author is actually some kind of genius. The depth he gives to multiple characters across the trilogy, while at first seemed a waste of text, actually means the reader engages far more with each character by understanding their motivation and often tragic pasts. Gemmell made his mark by writing 'heroic fantasy' but I think his true genius is in making these characters flawed. All his 'heroes' do evil things, while many of those on the Mykene side against Troy are perhaps more noble than their 'victims' in the Golden City. I find this reminiscent of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones where characters routinely fall into that grey area between good and evil, which I believe is a more modern and believable approach to human nature, unlike traditional tales like Tolkein's work, where heroes are always honourable and villains dark to the core.
From the second half of the first book through Shield of Thunder and Fall of Kings, the pace picks up considerably and characters we recognise from the original myth become more prevalent, although the narrative still often focuses on Gemmell's own creations. The beauty here is that, in these novels, everything has been twisted a little from previous adaptations. Odysseus sides with Agammemnon out of necessity not choice, Achilles does not dishonour Hektor but falls with him, and the Trojan Horse ploy refers to a trick with the Trojan cavalry rather than a giant wooden horse. And Helen is barely mentioned, described as 'plain and plump', her last heroic act in life instead giving rise to her legend of beauty.
The third string to Gemmell's (Silver) bow, which I was perhaps most impressed by, is his action sequences of which I have not seen the like before. Both the micro (following one character) and the macro (whole army stratagem) are so detailed yet fast-paced it feels more like you are watching a film as you can visualize every sword swing and cavalry charge in real-time. He also makes sure, even with ongoing themes of honour and glory, that battle and violence are not glorified, describing war as grim and gruesome, whilst contrasting that with dialogue of the soldiers and kings who are so battle-worn they do not see the horror. This helps to root the narrative in the reality of an ancient time that was far bloodier than our own, where the hypocrisy of honour and casual murder ran side by side to create a violent yet proud society.
Overall verdict: From a well-worn myth, Gemmell creates something entirely new with a skill of pen that should itself become legendary.

All Blacks at last!

Starting off the new experiences with the most recent. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New Zealand? For me, its kiwi birds and sheep, but for most people its rugby. Over here in NZ if you utter the words "I'm not really into sport" you are treated to a shocked, semi-disgusted look before being ignored in favour of talking to 'normal' people. I really moved to the wrong country. Maybe I should have gone to somewhere like France where the national love is cheese and wine...
Instead I am in a country where sports stars are the biggest celebrities and the most commonly viewed channel in my house is Sky Sports. It's not that I hate sport - I think it's a good thing - I just don't find it particularly interesting nor do I feel the need to align myself so completely with a particular team that I feel their wins and losses personally. I pay attention to the Olympics because of the variety and its infrequency. Once every four years is enough to get enthusiastic, I cannot maintain that all year every year. I kept under the radar for so long it was over two years before my Kiwi family realised I hadn't witnessed the pinnacle of national pride - an All Black's rugby match. Swiftly, tickets were booked and before you could say Richie McCaw I was sat in a pub surrounded by Welsh and Kiwi supporters stocking up on beer and burgers before the big game at Eden Park stadium. Nursing my hot toddy (yes it is winter here), I surveyed the press of fans all laughing and joking and killing time mostly wearing the official black jersey of the ABs while I'd opted for my thick red coat due to the weather, thinking I was smart. Another look round told me the Welsh supporters were wearing red. Ah, I had arrived in the colour of the enemy. Good start.
Thankfully all thoughts of being ousted as the opposition faded into the atmosphere of the stadium itself. First major sports game in my first proper stadium definitely counted as a new experience, and was especially important because I was cynical and thought I'd get bored after two minutes. How wrong I was. The stadium resounded with both national anthems followed by that spine-tingling haka (the iconic Maori war dance) then it was kick off. Here's where I thought I'd switch off and start eyeing the lady selling donuts. Then both teams scored early tries, causing the crowd to go nuts and the flame throwing things to, well, throw flame on the sideline in celebration. The first half was fast paced with both teams scoring well so it didn't really matter that I didn't understand penalties and scrums etc. Teams switched ends for the second half and we were suddenly thrown right into the action with New Zealand scoring again and again right in front of us. We were so close to the goal posts, even the guy next to us caught a penalty shot. Also worth a mention was the highly impressive Mexican wave which made it all the way round the stadium nearly five times before being lost in a tense crowd on its feet as brutal tackles were made almost on top of the try line. Needless to say the predominantly Kiwi crowd, and indeed the flame throwers, went nuts when the All Blacks bought home an overwhelming victory over the Welsh who did put up a good fight.
I'm still not a sports fan and will still run away from Sky Sport, but the tension, high scores and enthusiastic genial crowd of that first test match means I will definitely be booking tickets when Australia comes to town. New experience:1, Cynicism: 0.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Book review #1: The Dalai Lama's Cat

Consider your brain a sponge, and words the water you absorb in order to expand. We all read for different reasons, whether to learn or escape or simply to pass the time. But whatever the reason, books have the potential to affect us, even change us, by influencing our knowledge base, inspiring new ideas and persuading us to different opinions.This is why I have chosen to include book reviews as part of this blog as a new book is in itself a new experience with the potential to surprise. As an experiment I asked friends and family to make me a list of 50+ of their favourite books. In came all sorts of genres from fantasy to spiritual, humour to political. All are welcome as a challenge because I only read action thrillers with the occasional chick lit thrown in for good measure. And by thrillers I mean one author. Who only brings out one or two books a year. So for about 50 weeks a year I have nothing to read. This particular author of mine writes books so fast-paced I have tended to find anything else slow and boring in comparison. Or perhaps I haven't tried hard enough. So on with my own personal experiment. Can I broaden my horizons, open my eyes to different writing styles and maybe even learn to like something I never thought to seek out let alone enjoy? if the first book's anything to go by, then next 49 will be a treat! First up was The Dalai Lama's Cat series by David Michie and I completely fell in love with it. Think Buddhism through the eyes of everyone's favourite moggy. (I can see your raising your eyebrows, stick with me here). You may not think you have much in common with a cat, yet the one who narrates this novel is personable and flawed just like the rest of us. The cat in question shares her home with His Holiness and as such is most often in contact with Buddhist monks whose spirituality seems almost unattainable, but as well with the local people of the town who have their own - more ordinary - struggles for peace and happiness.
The first book is mostly a series of overheard conversations or incidents, each of which leads our narrator to learn a Buddhist principle or see how that idea may be put into practice in normal life. There was the unhappy millionaire to show us how we think about our circumstances influences our mood far more than the circumstances themselves, and the furballs (remember this is a cat) to show us how we can sometimes focus on ourselves so much it can make us sick.
The following two novels - The Power of Meow and The Art of Purring - continue the tales of the goings on in the temple complex and local cafe, with the residents and our feline narrator discovering the importance of living in the present and the benefits of mediation, and how to find true happiness through focusing less on ourselves and more on the happiness of others.
These books are in no way seeking to convert anyone to Buddhism as that is not the nature of the religion or the author, but instead offer us a very accessible, almost conversational and often humourous approach to introducing ideas and practices anyone could try out that might just make us more mindful both of those around us and of own own behavioural and thought patterns. There are no promises, no rules, but if a cat can give it a go, surely we can too?