From merely annoying to utter tosh

After a long break, I express my annoyance at more books that should have been better. Part of the irregular Duds series (all links at the end).

David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea

Yes, it won the Wolfson History Prize. Yes, the author is a professional academic, a professor at the University of Cambridge, and a master of his subject. Yes, this book has massive scope, the history of world human civilisation as it was impacted by and developed on the oceans and the seas, excluding the Mediterranean, about which Abulafia wrote a book called The Great Sea. A Human History of the Mediterranean. The latter feels a touch more manageable than The Boundless Sea, which is bloody enormous. It is 5cm thick, about three times the thickness of an averagely long paperback. It is 1050 pages long, of which just over 900 pages are actual book (the rest is notes and index). The typeface is tiny, producing pages of 41 lines (about a third again as much as a more averagely sized book. It will clog up your reading life for weeks. I interrupted my reading of this behemoth three times for library books with a more time-sensitive claim, but each time I returned, grimly, to Abulafia, I didn’t need to backtrack to catch up. It is so well-written and so intelligently organised, you can dip in and out. If only Penguin had sold it in a two- or three-volume edition. I would have paid more for those volumes than the really extraordinarily cheap £16.99 for a book of this length, and I would have read it with greater ease, less eye-strain, less thumb strain from supporting the damn thing to get it close enough to the light, and it would have made a much more natural reading experience.

Kat Howard, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone

There are some outstanding short stories in this collection (Howard’s first, I think), and the standout one is ‘Once, Future’, her retelling of the Arthurian myth on a US university campus. One or two others are also very good indeed. But, the remainder of the collection is lazy fantasy fluff, which uses fashionable key words and Gothic-nouveau set dressing to send its readers into a swoon of post-Twilight rapture. Bones, blood, blades, shards of glass in a universe of sisters taking revenge on men, or cutting something or someone: it sounds terrific on the outside, and Howard is an accomplished writer. But too many of these stories are skimmed fragments. When she creates the world that the fragments are sticking out of, bloodily, then these are stories worth reading. When she doesn’t bother with the world-building, or presents the skimmings as stories when they are simply dead froth, that’s annoying.

C L Moore, Doomsday Morning

A reprint from the Gollancz Science Fiction Masters (?) list, and a fine CL Moore novel. She’s one of the great 1950s SFF writers, and I was delighted to find this, brought back into print in 2019. Trouble is, I don’t actually like 1950s pulp science fiction. This one is less galactic surburbia than most, because the author is a woman and so the women have three-dimensional characters and only one of them spends her time nurturing and cooking. But, for all the very good plot points in a novel about a version of the USA controlled by the communications network established by the president-for-life who is dying, this is a Western, and the plot clamps from that sub-genre don’t sit well with the really excellent SFF elements. A former leading actor-manager is extracted from menial agricultural labour where he has gone to ground and to alcoholism because he can’t get over the death of his wife and leading actress. COMUS (the network) has a plan for him, and he goes along with it like an automaton. And then he starts to think and to come alive as the life of the theatre reawakens his talent. If only he could find out why his new travelling theatre group can’t change a word of the play COMUS has ordered them to perform, in all the leading rebel centres in breakaway California. It’s really pretty good until you start to see the bits where the genres don’t meld properly.

Sylvia Topp, Eileen. The Making of George Orwell

On the face of it this was very exciting: the only serious attempt to write the life of George Orwell’s first wife, but I was taken aback when the book thudded onto the mat. It’s immense, and the poor woman only lived until she was forty. How could so few years create so much book? Because her biographer started with the life story of Eileen’s paternal grandfather, and then moved onto the next relation, and the next. She raked in every possible corroborating reference to build a picture of Eileen’s life. Every scrap of research has been set out, in case the Orwell industry might want to know about it. This is excessive, but not a fault. Better editing would have helped slim the book down a bit. But what really got me was the narrative position. You could swop Orwell’s name for ‘God’, and the effect would be the same: a life written as if Eileen’s only possible destiny was to become Orwell’s helpmeet and supportive wife. The book begins assuming that the reader is fully au fait with all details of Orwell’s life and oeuvre, and no opportunity is missed to suggest that X in Eileen’s life and history might have influenced Y in Orwell’s writing. It’s desperate, because it seems so pointless. I could not bear to check whether the suggestions turned into assertions and then assumptions, but the book had all those indications. It’s also totally unclear why the author wrote the book in the first place. She’s clearly an assiduous and hard-working researcher, and has extracted the raw material for this biography from a vast range of archival sources – definitely something to applaud – but I couldn’t detect any other connection with Orwell. Perhaps she just wanted to find out about Eileen? Crowdfunded by (one assumes) Orwell fans and published by the estimable Unbound.

Martin Walls, A Magical History of Britain

Utter, utter tosh. The cover is beautifully designed, but the print and margins inside are tiny, suggesting that the publisher had to compress the text to get the book printed within budget (ie it was over-written and the author refused to edit it). We can’t even blame an inflated references section: there are barely any. The arguments are constructed from assertions that become certainties and then evolve into fact later on. I don’t mean actual magic being presented as fact; I mean historical events and connections between people. The fantasising in the narration is quite breath-taking. Even as a history of events and things that people interested in magic might want collected together in one volume, this is just dreadful. The thefts from archaeology alone should have made me stop reading but I ploughed on, horrified and fascinated, hoping for something he might say about Scotland, but no. Magical belief clearly only happened in Wales and the West of England, in this hopeless ‘history’. It went straight onto the compost heap (shredded) where it will do more good.

See also: I Vent my Spleen on Duds, A Run of Bad Reading LuckThree Small DudsSeven Duds for Seven DustbinsSorrow and Anger: Books I Couldn’t Finish Or Wished I Hadn’t StartedDo Not Read These At HomeIt’s Not You, It’s Me: More Reading Disappointments, and Three Disappointments for the Dud Pile.


3 thoughts on “From merely annoying to utter tosh

  1. ” If only Penguin had sold it in a two- or three-volume edition.”

    Publishers just don’t do that any more for some reason. Penguin have also brought out an enormous one-volume Anatomy of Melancholy, where the old Everyman was in three volumes – why not three volumes this time, with a fourth for index and notes? Even when they do publish multi-volume books they make each volume as big as possible – the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was another example – three volumes that split quickly.


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