Monday, 30 April 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In April

Fiction
'A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust' by George R.R. Martin
This was the book that I really felt showed that Martin had lost his way.  This is the first half of the book published in 2011, six years after the previous book 'A Feast for Crows' had been published.  This book overlaps chronologically with that one but features other characters - various members of the Martell family in Dorne including Quentin who has been sent to Essos so his story is separate as he tries to reach Daenerys Targaryen; Reek, formerly Theon Greyjoy who is used by members of the Bolton family who control northern Westeros, John Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall being absorbed into a tree, Lord Davos Seaworth seeking support for King Stannis along the eastern coast of Westeros, Tyrion Lannister making slow progress on the continent of Essos and Daenerys Targaryen simply sitting in Mereen on the same continent while other cities are ravaged and her opponents attack her from inside and without.

The trouble is, no-one does very much or achieves very much.  Despite the book, in my edition, being 690 pages long, most of it is taken up with people just worrying about things.  There are no major battles that we witness first-hand and for much of the time many of the characters achieve very little  Lord Seaworth spends a lot of time trying to win the support of one city.  Tyrion travels on various boats, being sick and fearing he has caught a disease and so on.  Daenerys goes nowhere and while she faces various threats, in fact the real tension for her is over who she is going to have marry and whether that is the same man as she is having sex with.

Martin is clearly in love with the world he has created and thinks we will all delight in it as much as he does.  However, all the epic drive of some of the earlier books, despite the range of situations he had set up is missing.  The slipping chronology does not help.  In this book, we see John Snow thinking about then sending off Sam Tarly, Gilly and Maester Aemon, but we know from the previous book what happens to them all.  It seems apparent that while impressive at first, Martin has lost control of the multiple characters and so they are left simply shifting around.  I am reminded of how quickly Frank Herbert's 'Dune' series similarly went to seed almost drowning beneath the weight of its epicness.  I would much more prefer to read the book of the television series; the narrative of which is much more engaging and surprising than the bloated, inert thing the books have become.

'Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen: Illustrated Modern Prose Adaptation' by Douglas Hill
There are quite a few books that put Spenser's allegorical stories into modern English.  This is a large format version published in the USA in 1980 and I was given it as a present some five years later.  The closest book to this that most readers will be familiar with is 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan.  This book features six 'books' set in a faux Middle Ages, some generations before each was produced, 1590-98, each focused on a worthy knight such as Sir Calidore representing Courtesy or Sir Guyon representing Justice.  They adventure around various locations encountering monsters or evil people such as Despair or Jealousy and places like the Lake of Idleness and Gulf of Greediness.  Some have different names, for example, Pride is represented by a woman called Lucifera.  Even these paragons are not perfect and have to take refuge at times or are aided by the one supreme knight, Prince Arthur, before he is King.  There is much reference to Faerie Land which is ruled over by Gloriana, a representation of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch at the time Spenser was writing.  The imagery is rich if a little simplistic and the stories are quite similar with deceptive characters leading the heroes astray and women to be rescued.

The book is a kind of manual for men aspiring to be knightly.  However, some of the lessons are applicable today.  I particularly felt this with the second book of the story of Sir Guyon a representation of Temperance.  As Hill notes, temperance at the time did not mean abstinence, but a balance between that and over indulgence.  Interestingly, he shows young knights being easily offended by minor sleights and getting into dangerous battles notably with Furor aided by his mother Occasion.  I kept on being reminded of young men in town centres on Saturday nights these days.  Hill also points out that Chastity represented by the female knight Britomartis, another representation of Queen Elizabeth, is not about abstinence but having sex in a good marriage rather than promiscuously or selfishly.  Young people of today would see a book like this as stupid, but its warnings about risks of intemperate behaviour are still accurate today.

It is clear that authors down the centuries have been influenced by this book.  I kept seeing things that echoed characters and scenes in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series by George R.R. Martin, not least Britomart herself who is very reminiscent of Brienne of Tarth, a tall, female knight throughout the series.  Knights associated with flowers remind me of Ser Loras Tyrell.  In the cowardly, comic character of Braggadochio and his squire Trompart of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, especially in his jousting.

The illustrations are pretty random, but I appreciate that Hill is trying to show the characters and settings in the way people of the time might have envisaged them and that is interesting.  For the modern reader this comes across as a very odd book.  However, it has some points, if laboured at times that seem to show Elizabethan society had similarities to our own.  It is also interesting as it helps correct some misapprehensions you might have about attitudes of the time especially around 'proper' behaviour.  It has clearly influenced subsequent authors and there may be references back to it in books nowadays that I am unaware of.

'Sherlock Holmes' by W.S. [William] Baring-Gould
This is a reprint of Baring-Gould's 1962 book, 'Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World's First Consulting Detective' and is effectively a biography of the character.  It draws extensively on the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but also numerous pastiches and articles on the stories which appeared in the mid-20th century.  It is fascinating to see the cases outlined in chronological order rather than the way Dr Watson erratically covered them.  Baring-Gould covers any errors on Conan Doyle's part by making them Watson's or saying that details, especially dates, had been adjusted to protect the sensibilities of people, especially Watson's second wife (of three) and various members of European royalty that Holmes helped.

Holmes, we learn, contrary to every portrayal I have seen of him, was a Yorkshireman and spent a lot of his childhood in France.  He studied at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and in Montpellier.  Baring-Gould adds in elements of his own.  Unlike the impression I imagine most readers have, Irene Adler's marriage turns out to have been bitter and she has a son by Holmes.  He, quite convincingly is shown to be a developing Buddhist especially following his return after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls. Less convincing Baring-Gould has Holmes meeting everyone from Lewis Carroll to George Bernard Shaw and even Jack the Ripper.

Baring-Gould includes text usually from the start or the end of many of Holmes's cases.  If you have not read them then these will be 'spoilers'.  I do not really know why he felt it necessary to include these and can only think it is to add some gravitas to his own pastiche text.  There is enough of interest in the story of his life and those associated with him, notably Mycroft Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Much effort has gone into it, with Baring-Gould benefiting from extensive analysis and speculation by fans down the years.  Overall, I found it a brisk and engaging digest, aided by the fact that I had read all the original stories.  I liked the reference to the cases mentioned in those stories in passing to other cases now extensively written up by June Thomson.

Non-Fiction
'Modern Spain, 1875-1980' by Raymond Carr
As Carr outlines in the introduction he focuses more on the pre-1930 period than the fifty years after that, in large part because of the number of books in English on the Spanish Civil War.  Saying that, there do not seem to be a great deal on Franco's Spain and I found that section, if a little rushed, very interesting.  Despite the title, the book actually goes back to 1868 and it is strongest in giving a picture of the very complex situation of Spanish politics of the 19th century which is a very good basis for explaining the background for the civil war.  Carr takes time to go through the social and economic developments too and really brings out the variety of experiences across Spain; how diverse its agricultural and industrial patterns were.  He maintains this level into the period of the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, 1923-30. 

Carr then accelerates and gives much thinner attention to his study, which leaves the book rather imbalanced.  He does draw out very interesting points on how close the civil war came to ending almost immediately and the importance of how the army divided in allowing the Republic to fight on.  His focus is largely Spanish so the intervention of other countries gets minimal mention.  I found the elements on Franco's rule 1939-75 very interesting especially in how he shows the shifting sands of the regime, its altering economic focus and how different groups rose and fell.  I think he could have said more about this.  I guess having published this in 1980, just five years after Franco's death, he might have believed readers would be familiar with the regime as current affairs.  Now, however, decades later, it is not familiar to us and this phase of the book would benefit from filling out.  The return to democracy is handled very quickly, but I guess, as most of the book is about how democracy failed because of a range of factors, it is right to draw to a close once it has been established.

This is an engaging book; well written even when explaining convoluted political developments.  It is good at challenging assumptions about Spain.  I think, despite Carr's sense at the time of writing, it would have been a stronger book if the post-1930, and especially the post-1939, sections were strengthened.  However, if you want detail on the period leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, this is a crisp and engaging book.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Casino Royale' by Ian Fleming; read by Dan Stevens
After how surprisingly therapeutic I found listening to 'Dr. No' last month I was able to get an unopened, second hand set of another four James Bond novels in the series, read by a range of actors.  This is the first James Bond book published in 1953.  It is very simple.  James Bond is sent to France to beat Soviet agent Le Chiffre at cards at the casino in the fictional Royale les Eaux on the Normandy coast; modelled on Deauville and Le Touquet.  Le Chiffre has lost a lot of money in a chain of brothels in northern France after they had been banned and has taken money from the funds of a Communist trade union based in Strasbourg. By bankrupting Le Chiffre it is expected that he will be killed by the Soviet assassination bureau Smersh so disrupting his activities in France and weakening Soviet influence there.

As Stevens notes in the interview at the end of the discs, the book is in three parts.  The first is the build up to the card game in which Bond works with the French agent, Mathis; British operative from S division, the anti-Soviet branch, Vesper Lynd and the CIA agent, Felix Leiter.  The climax of the book is the card game, baccarat followed by the second section, Bond's torture at the hands of Le Chiffre and his henchmen and then a holiday with Vesper along the French coast from Royale les Eaux.  The 2006 movie keeps very close to the book as far as it can given the great changes that have happened in the intervening 53 years.

The book is very much in the shadow of the Second World War which had ended only 8 years before it was published, even while being sharply engaged with the Cold War which followed.  Lynd's Polish boyfriend, Le Chiffre as a displaced person and Bond's connections from the war are some examples. Some of the luxuries seem mundane now - Bond has an avocado pear as dessert in an expensive hotel restaurant; Mathis's cover is as a radio salesmen bringing new radios to important customers.  Certainly to British readers the towns of the Normandy coast are now no more exotic than going to Brighton or perhaps even Bognor Regis.  However, for readers of the time it must have seemed very exciting.

There is less of a battle for Bond in this book compared to the later 'Dr. No', but each of the sections has its own trials - the tensions at the card table especially when Bond is losing, the sustained torture scene and then the fluctuating relationship with Lynd; at one stage Bond considers marrying her.  As with 'Dr. No', Bond's uncertainty about what he is doing, the morality of it, whether he can continue, is a large part of the book; not apparent in the movies before 'Goldeneye' (1995).  He is a flawed hero at best and comes out of the book emotionally as well as physically scarred: he gets the Cyrillic letter 'Щ' carved into the back of his hand. The leitmotif of Jamaica, where Fleming lived, appears even in this book set in Britain and France: at the casino Bond is supposed to be a millionaire from Jamaica.  Overall it is a straight forward book but with a lot going on in terms of the characters rather than the plot.

Dan Stevens's reading seemed pretty flat after that of Hugh Quashie, though his voicing of the women was far less unsettling, he adopts a light tone rather than a more explicitly feminine one.  He does not communicate the chases and the violence as well as Quashie did and overall lacks his rich tones.  His Le Chiffre voice is a good attempt but rather sounds like a cartoon villain.  I have three more of the Bond audio books to go, each with a different reader, so it will be useful to compare.

'Live and Let Die' by Ian Fleming; read by Rory Kinnear
This is the second James Bond book and follows a couple of weeks after 'Casino Royale'.  Bond is sent to New York to investigate the sale of old English gold coins by the black gangster 'Mr Big' who is based in Harlem but seems to be smuggling in coins from an island off Jamaica, which when the novel was published in 1954, was part of the British Empire and was where Fleming lived.  Fleming had written this book before 'Casino Royale' had been published.

Bond is again partnered with CIA operative Felix Leiter who appears in 'Casino Royale'.  However, Bond and Leiter really bumble around in this book each allowing himself to be captured twice by Mr. Big or his agents.  This leads to Leiter being mutilated by a shark in the way it is shown in the movie  'Licence to Kill' (1989) and Bond to be dragged almost to his death in a similar way to the portrayal in the movie 'For Your Eyes Only' (1981).  Big makes good use of the fact that blacks predominated in service-sector jobs in the USA, notably in transport. For much of the book, Big has the upper hand and this led me to realise that Fleming portrays Bond as quite bigoted, only to reveal how this weakens him.  In 'Casino Royale', Bond is highly dismissive of any role that a female agent like Vesper Lynd can play and is proven to be completely wrong.  In this novel, he sees black men as only recently coming to a position in which they could be a criminal mastermind.  The fate of Leiter and how difficult Bond finds bringing Big down, again proves how poor a judgement this is.  It is only by the luck of timing that Big is killed and Bond reprieved; it could have easily gone the other way around.  While Fleming was certainly a man of his time, he does challenge his hero's assumptions.

Fleming is very much of his time in being obsessed by physical appearance and as in the two previous Bond books I have heard read, his antagonist is physically distinct.  Big is very large, as bald as Dr. No and his skin is grey due to a heart condition.  Like Dr. No and Le Chiffre he is very intelligent and Fleming comments on the skill of his plans.  Fleming does not like the USA, seeing it as tawdry, often seedy, with poor quality clothing and cars and especially bad food.  However, he describes it in great detail and as with the other books, you can enjoy these as a window on to a country at a particular time in its history.  His attitude switches abruptly when Bond moves to Jamaica, a location that Fleming clearly loved and felt he had to extol. As in the other books we get a lesson on a subject or two, in this case about voodoo, used by Mr. Big to terrify his agents, and about barracuda.  Strangways and Quarrel, plus the house of Beaudesert, which all feature in 'Dr. No' feature for the first time in this book.

Sometime in the 1980s I read a criticism of a computer game which featured Bond accessing a stash of Benzedrine in order to replenish his energy to explore an island.  The reviewer was very critical saying he had never seen Bond take drugs in any of the movies.  However, it is clear that the game designers had gone back to the original novel because Bond is shown as deliberately taking Benzedrine in order to pull of the more-than-human exploits he does, in this book swimming to an island battling against and octopus and barracuda.  The more I hear the books the further I realise they are from the movies.  Bond has far more self-doubt.  Even a storm while he is flying to Jamaica puts him into a terror that he has to think himself out of with great effort.  He also has far less sex than in the movies.  Often that is postponed until very late in the book, or as in this case, after the book has finished.  Bond and Solitaire, the seer held captive by Mr. Big, but both is still too injured by the end of the book to do it.

Overall the book is simpler than the movie, as seems to be the case throughout with the adaptations.  It goes into immense detail rather than having great quantities of action.  Bond is very reflective but not always right and Fleming seems to feel obliged to have his character shown where his assumptions are wrong.  In this book he is out-classed by his antagonist and really only wins out through last-minute luck.

Rory Kinnear starts over very excitedly with his narration, but settles down as the book progresses.  He has a wide range of Americans to voice which he pulls off well; his voices for the black characters do not become caricatures nor are so strongly accented as to be difficult for a white British listener to understand.  His women are light, like Stevens's rather than attempting to go too far in being effeminate, though in this book Solitaire says a lot less than Honeychile Rider did.

'Moonraker' by Ian Fleming; read by Bill Nighy
When I started listening to the box set of four James Bond novels, far more familiar with the movie order, I had thought they were picked at random whereas in fact they are the first four.  There are brief references back to the previous story.  This one is very domestic and covers only a few days of activity.  We learn a lot about Bond's day-to-day work when not on a mission, largely reading reports about various espionage and criminal developments.  Even the mission is unusual.  It starts with Bond being used on personal business by M and then being used by Special Branch at a rocket development site in Kent.  Between London and the coast of Kent is as far as Bond goes in this book rather than to any exotic locales abroad.  It reminded me of novels like the movie 'The Small Back Room' (novel 1943; movie 1949) and 'Enigma' (novel 1995; movie 2001) set on such developmental bases, though in wartime.  This book, published in 1955, is very much shaped by the experience of the Second World War which had ended just ten years before its publication.

The book focuses on Sir Hugo Drax, a self-made millionaire who is developing an atomic missile for Britain.  However, Bond is drawn into investigating him first by M, his boss, who has been advised that Drax is cheating at cards at the gambling club 'Blades' of which M is a member.  Much of the early part of the book is taken up with Bond battling against Drax, playing Bridge.  However, Bond is then sent to Drax's development centre in Kent following a murder-suicide of the security officer and very slowly uncovers that neither Drax nor his plans are what they seem.  Again Fleming shows Bond as flawed.  His opinions of Drax keep on being shaped by the populist view of the 'Daily Express' newspaper and he tends to overlook worrying signs because he believes that Drax is a patriot and while eccentric and a cheat at cards, intends the best for Britain.

Bond under-estimates both the abilities of Drax and of Gala(tea) Brand, the Special Branch officer who is working undercover as Drax's aide.  Bond comes up with a fatal and foolhardy plan to prevent the outcome when Brand produces a much less hazardous and simple solution.  Bond expects to go off on holiday with Gala at the end of the book, because they have been pressed close in tunnels and under landslides at various occasions.  However, she points out that she is going to marry a fellow police officer; she had been wearing an engagement ring right throughout.  Brand deserves a series of her own.  She is very level-headed, highly intelligent and brave; bilingual in English and German.  Interestingly, her adept handling of the figures for controlling the rocket echoes the recent highlighting of the role of female mathematicians on the US space programme in the movie 'Hidden Figures' (2016) and in an episode of 'Timeless' (broadcast 2016/17).

Once again, Fleming shows Bond as physically courageous and generally cool, even devious, when under pressure.  However, his judgements as in the previous two books are often highly flawed and this leads him and others into danger.  This is another Bond book in which the hero has no sex.

Bill Nighy does the voices very well.  At times you think another actor has taken over.  He has less challenge than some of the other readers with only German accents to put on beside a range of British ones of different classes and only a couple of women who do not speak a great deal, despite, especially in Gala Brand's case, being central to the book.

'Diamonds Are Forever' by Ian Fleming; read by Damian Lewis
Published in 1956 this was the fourth book in the series which shows the rate that Fleming was turning them out.  Like 'Casino Royale' and 'Live and Let Die' it is on a small scale, with James Bond really working like an undercover detective, rather than facing down a megalomaniac bent on widespread destruction as was seen with the plot to launch a nuclear missile on London in 'Moonraker'.  The British Empire appears again as Sierra Leone is the source of diamonds being smuggled into the USA via London, at the time the location of 90% of the world's trade in diamonds.  Bond takes over the role of one of the smugglers in an effort to trace the course of the smuggling routes.  It is quickly revealed that it is carried out by The Spangled Mob, a Mafia family overseen by the two Spang brothers.  Again, as is a common theme in these books, Bond underestimates his opponents, dismissing all US gangs, despite his experience with Mr. Big some months earlier, as ostentatious and rather stupid.  Of course, he is proven to be mistaken leading to risks to his life and his kicking by men in football boots.

As I noted in 'Live and Let Die', Fleming had no love for the USA.  In this book he disparages New York once again and takes on both Saratoga and Las Vegas as tawdry, seedy places.  Felix Leiter, left missing an arm and a leg reappears working as a Pinkerton agent involved with corruption in horse racing and is important in rescuing Bond; seeming to work far more effectively than he did in 'Live and Let Die'.  Bond ends up killing a number of the criminals involved with the smuggling though almost inadvertently when responding to their attempts to kill him and Tiffany Case.  Case, an American, starts off as a smuggler's guard while Bond is acting in this role taking diamonds from Britain to the USA. She is also a croupier on crooked card games at the Spang's casino.  She ends up helping Bond.  However, despite their professions of affection we never see them actually having sex.  Fleming outlines that this was because she had been gang-raped when aged 16 and has challenges with intimacy.  Honeychile Rider had experienced a rape and Solitaire had kept herself apart from men because of her clairvoyance; Gala Brand because she was engaged.  Bond's appeal erodes some of Case's reticence, though ironically he is attracted to her toughness born from her involvement with crime from a young age.  However, contrary to what I had expected, it is not common to end up having sex with the primary female character.

With the references to empire - the book ends on the border of Sierra Leone and French Guinea and Bond travelling back to Europe on the 'Queen Elizabeth' ocean liner rather than by aeroplane, we are reminded that it is set in the 1950s.  It features a gay couple who are cruel hitmen, though Fleming does not draw any specific connection between their sexuality and their cruelty.  He does like to populate his books with people who stand out, often physically but also in other ways, as with Mr. Big's accidie, a intense boredom.  As Bond notes in 'Moonraker', homosexuality was still a crime in itself in Britain at the time, so by their very relationship Kyd and Wynt are 'criminal'.  Overall then, this is really a straight forward crime adventure.  Bond does face risks to his life and we learn a lot from Fleming about everything from diamond trade, the Saratoga races, Las Vegas and its casinos, even steam trains of the West of the USA.  Bond tends to be a little less self-reflective than in the preceding books and it is really only in the close that we see the world weariness that stood out in these other books.

Damian Lewis often portrays American characters and so is well equipped for the bulk of those in this story.  He also does a German pilot and an Afrikaaner dentist.  His tone, however, when covering the exposition bits, alternates between sounding like comedian and presenter Griff Rhys Jones and natural history presenter Sir David Attenborough and so can be a little too relaxing and soporific.  I guess it does make the tense passages stand out that much more.

'The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories' [includes 'The Hound', 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'Dagon'] by H.P. Lovecraft; read by William Roberts
As with the James Bond novels, the Cthulhu stories are something many of us have heard of and have some dim idea about but have never read, or had read to us.  This was why I bought this set.  Lovecraft had a rich imagination.  These stories largely focus on the 'Old Ones' alien creatures from a distant galaxy able to travel in dimensions that we are not familiar with and who established vast cities on Earth long before the appearance of man.  However, for millennia they have been dormant, perhaps even dead, but able to infect the dreams of humans and lead some to be their worshippers, building towards the day when their dominion will be restored over Earth and probably most of humanity and current life on Earth will be destroyed.  The creatures Lovecraft describes are very alien, but usually have multiple tentacles and are misshapen, wallow in slime and certainly stink.  In 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'Dagon' tremors under the sea force some of the structures to the surface leading to madness and hysteria in people and among cultists across the world.  In 'The Dunwich Horror' two hybrids of different sizes are born to a woman in Massachusetts and terrorise a very dreary part of the state.  'The Hound' is a more standard horror story about two men who set up a grotesque museum in their house until an amulet they grave rob attracts a supernatural force to terrorise them.

Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s and his language is of that era.  However, in his attempt to terrorise the reader and to emphasise the horror it is very contorted and certainly bombastic.  At times it becomes repetitive in its descriptions of the various slimy, tentacled, stinking beings and it actually has the effect or wearying you rather than adding to your fear.  One problem is probably that his various tropes such as arcane tomes, while themselves drawing on the Gothic but giving them a new approach, have since publication become so well embedded in subsequent popular culture that they seem unexceptional compared to when they were written.  Roberts, an American, certainly matches the tone of the books, really adding to the bombastic nature of them.  However, it is excessive and even though the stories are not lengthy, him repeatedly telling you how horrifying what he is describing is, with such vigour, actually has the opposite effect.  The landscapes he describes, all dank and rotting, also become tiresome as described so often.

There has been criticism of Lovecraft being racist.  He reflects an American of his time, and indeed more widely in Western society.  His attitude to race stems from racialism, i.e. the view that there are strong differences between different races of humans.  In addition, that the 'quality' of races can become 'decadent' what we might term degenerate.  Even among white families he mentions he makes distinctions, especially in the 'The Dunwich Horror' between branches of families that are decadent and those that are not.  The racism is clearest in 'The Call of Cthulhu' in which he speaks of 'mongrel' people, putting various mixed-race people in Louisiana into this category and seeing them as prone to being influenced by evil forces and behaving in a barbaric way.  The reference to 'diablist Eskimos' seems odd nowadays but is no less offensive.  Lovecraft, thus, has another layer of 'horror' for white American readers in the 1920s, i.e. the fear that their race was at threat not simply from unknown forces, but from other races and from falling into degeneracy itself.

Overall, I felt exhausted by listening to the stories constantly emphasising to me how frightened I should be and the details of the various dingy locations.  It was of interest to hear what Lovecraft wrote but unsettling that despite an interesting early engagement with galaxy-crossing aliens presented in an interesting way, it is wrapped up in attitudes to race that have long been unacceptable.

'Maigret Collected Cases' ['Maigret Goes Home'; 'Maigret in Montmatre'; 'Maigret Has Scruples'; 'Maigret in Society' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap'] starring Maurice Denham and Michael Gough
I do not usually review recordings of radio plays that I listen to, but am making an exception for this collection.  First it was a series of plays adapted from five of the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, rather than being a play outright.  Second, this collection, though originally broadcast in 1976 has been released in 2017 as a box set of CDs and is widely available on eBay.  Each story lasts 45 minutes and so they are in some cases, notably in 'Maigret in Montmatre' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap' both recently dramatised featuring Rowan Atkinson in the eponymous role, there is compression.  However, the adaptation has been done very well and so you do not lose the essence of these stories.

The absence of narration is overcome, in part by the strange device of having Maigret discussing the cases with the author of the books, Georges Simenon.  Maigret books appeared 1931-72 and Simenon lived 1903-89, so they could be contemporaries, though Denham's voice seems no different when dealing with a case and when speaking to Simenon about it as Maigret, presumably meant to be in the 1970s.  In fact as is the case with the Maigret novels, there is a difficulty in pinning down the time when they are set, it is some vague, mid-20th century period. The selection does favour those stories in which Maigret crosses paths with the faded nobility of French society rather than the everyday people. 

The accents are very much English Received Pronunciation though pronunciation of the various places and names is in decent French.  It is very much in what might call the Radio 4 'house style' with lots of sound effects and different actors appearing on different speakers or more distant from the microphone to give a sense of space, but sometimes a challenge when sitting in a car listening (and a very different experience if in a left-hand drive car as in France!).  Overall I found these stories engaging, though I would have preferred them read rather than acted as I feel the narration would have allowed me to sink more deeply into them than was the case with this approach.  The fact that I felt that I they were too short and I wanted more, might be a sign that I felt they were decent.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In March

Fiction
'Sweetsmoke' by David Fuller
This is probably the best book I have read in a long time.  It is a crime novel set in 1862 and features a slave carpenter, Cassius as the detective.  He works on a tobacco plantation in Virginia and the woman who treated him when flogged and taught him to read, something very rare for slaves of the time, has been murdered. Fuller is skilful in exploring the relationships between different types of slaves, freedpeople and the whites.  He is attuned to the subtle interplay of rising and falling status among slaves and the variety of motives for their behaviour.  Naturally his protagonist's actions are more inhibited than those of most detectives and unlike Wallace Nicholls's Sollius, a Roman slave, he does not have a high status backer who can open doors.

Fuller is adept at quickly creating notable characters well, whether slaves or whites and this is a real strength of the novel.  It seems unfortunate that given the setting he feels compelled to have Cassius as a frontline witness to the Battle of Antietam; it would have been more realistic to have him further behind the lines.  However, this seems to be a pressure on any US author writing a story set within the timeframe of the American Civil War and if you read the old 'New York Times' review of the book, they bang on about how little he talks about the war as if this has to be compulsory.  This is not even a true judgement, Fuller shows the impact on the home front of the Confederacy and personally I have only seen that focus in 'Cold Mountain' (1997 book; 2003 movie).  There are satisfying twists in the novel which has a good pace and effective points of tension.  However, the real strength of this book is the interaction between people in very particular circumstances; Fuller handles this very well.  This is the first book that I have read in ages that I would recommend.  It certainly fits no classic model of any murder mystery story but it is possibly all the better for that.  It is very well written.

'The Power' by Frank M. Robinson
This 159-page book from 1956 (and 1968 movie based on it) should not be confused with 'The Power' (2016) by Naomi Alderman.  It is, however, also a science fiction book and interestingly, a very Nietzschean one at that.  It features scientist Jim Tanner who is working on a project funded by the US Navy to explore the extremes to which the human body can be put, for example in terms of cold or pain.  Though set in peacetime USA, this parallels experiments conducted by the Nazis at concentration camps on inmates, the results of which, controversially were used by some democratic countries after the end of the war.  As a result of these experiments, Tanner finds out that one of his colleagues on the project is a 'superman' with both telekinesis and the ability to alter people's perceptions of people and those around him.  For the time, interestingly, the team includes two female scientists, though they are later revealed to be catspaws.

Tanner is soon on the run from the 'superman' whose real name is Adam Hart and engineers Tanner's erasing from his career, his bank account, etc.  Hart even tries to make Tanner and his colleagues kill themselves.  Tanner's investigations take him across the USA to discover the origins of Hart and what he has done to the people of his home town.  However, much of the action takes place in Chicago.  One thing which is interesting is how many 24-hour outlets a city like that would have in the 1950s which enable Tanner to keep going especially when he seeks protection among crowds, in a way which is only recently becoming common in UK cities; he would have had a harder time dodging Hart in a city centre of closed up shops.

Some reviewers have criticised that Robinson gives no detail of how this next stage in human evolution represented by Hart comes about.  In some ways his book is a precursor of the X-Men arc, but Robinson's focus is more on the challenges of fighting back against such an individual rather than exploring how they come about or whether they are widespread.  As people note, Robinson is skilled in writing that unsettling approach about powerlessness.  The way different members of the team have been manipulated and often longer than realised, is well handled.  In this regard it reminded me of paranoid science fiction novels of the era like 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951; various television adaptations) and 'The Body Snatchers' (1954; became the movies 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers').  Though it references the Korean War, the shadow of the Nazis and their views on eugenics hangs right over the book; ideas which would be very familiar to readers of the time.  Despite the period setting, even now, this is a successfully taut and unsettling book.

'Excalibur' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the final book in the Warlord Chronicles trilogy following a story of Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Galahad, Lancelot and other characters from Arthurian legend but as if they had been real people in 5th and early 6th century Britain.  The books are well written, but given the nastiness of so many of the characters moving around a decaying post-Roman Britain often in appalling weather and simple grubbiness, it is hard to enjoy the books.  The book has a couple of set-piece large-scale Pagan events which are impressive and then there is the full-scale battle against the Saxons close to Bath which is well handled; Cornwell is always very good with battle scenes.  However, then the book goes on and the final two-fifths of it sits uncomfortably with the rest. 

I know Cornwell has aimed to eschew the legendary approach to Arthur but it does go down into even greater bleakness.  Furthermore, though there have been various curses and 'magic' rituals from Druids and others throughout the book, none of them have worked.  The cynicism about both the Pagan and Christian gods is common throughout but then abruptly, at this late stage, magic suddenly starts working causing agony for Ceinwyn, the narrator Lord Derfel's partner, at a distance.  It is almost as if Cornwell has forgotten the rules he has set himself.  As a result it is a pretty unsatisfactory ending and it would have been better to end with the bittersweet conclusion following the battle at Bath rather than carry on for another couple of hundred pages in  this peculiar coda.

Overall, I can say I have been impressed by the trilogy.  The action is engaging; the level of detail of the times and places is excellent and the characters are well drawn and believable with all their motives and baggage.  However, I cannot say I enjoyed these books and I will be more cautious about picking up another series by Cornwell.  I have been given a number of books in his Saxon Stories sequence, but reading the details they seem pretty similar to this trilogy, though now stretched out over 10 books already.  I do not think the premise is likely to be an enjoyable one and I certainly could not have continued with the Warlord Chronicles if they had run for ten books rather than three.

'The Big Gold Dream' by Chester Himes
This one was published in 1960 and like 'The Crazy Kill' (1959) which I read last month, features the black local Harlem detectives, 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson.  It is marginally better than 'The Crazy Kill', perhaps as Himes does not feel as obliged to take us on a guided tour of the food, clothing and culture of Harlem at the time.  His information on the local lotteries in the area is of interest and important to the story.  The problem is, however, as with 'The Crazy Kill', so much of the short book (160 pages in my edition) is spent with people going back and forth speculating about what is going on rather than anything much happening and despite the length, it becomes pretty tedious, pretty quickly.  Jones and Johnson, the latter much more antagonistic than portrayed in the book from the year before, only wander into the book about a quarter of the way in and feature sporadically before bringing the book to a close at the end.

The plot circles around a woman's winnings on three lottery games in the same day and some Confederate money.  The hunt for the winnings leads to a string of murders and people hunting around and threatening others to try to find out where it has gone.  There is the same kind of range of criminal characters and a peculiar clergyman, that seem compulsory in Himes's books.  However, it is almost as if, like one of the characters, you have sat in the window in an apartment in Harlem and watched people toing and froing without doing much in particular.  It is a curiosity these days; in part a record of a time and a place, but it utterly lacks tension and mystery.  By the end you are no longer interested in who did what to whom, just glad that the book has ended.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Dr. No' by Ian Fleming; read by Hugh Quashie
I drive for at least 10 hours every week.  As a result I have been listening to more radio than I watch television or DVDs and little less than I read.  Having had an irritating trip to try to find a new car, at two dealerships whose websites show vehicles that have long been sold or not as how shown or indeed the site itself had no staff visible, despite being open, I stopped at a service station.  With a constant barrage of the same news and often many of the same songs being repeated on the radio, I ended up picking up this audio book and in minutes had been converted to audio books.  I do not know why I had not thought of this before.  I have a good friend who has been into audio books since the days when you could borrow them on cassette from the library in those large thick boxes.  Indeed, I have clearly missed another era of them.  Most of the audio books now on sale, even if on CD, are as MP3 files which means you can download them to an MP3 device but cannot actually play them in a traditional CD player.  As a result, I am now a regular on eBay trying to buy up old CD versions.  With them having a duration of something like 6-7 hours for a typical unabridged novel, my capacity to consume them rapidly in an ordinary week, is clearly high.

There was a small selection of these audio books in the service station and I lit on this one as my introduction.  It was part of a 'Bond Reloaded' series in 2012 in which renowned movie and television actors each narrated a different one of Ian Fleming's books.  This was the first serious Bond movie made, though it was not the first of the books, so I guess it was from having seen the movie that I was influenced to turn to this one first.  As I am sure many people have said, the books are pretty different to the movies in many aspects.  Quashie, in a brief interview at the end of this one, outlines this himself.  Bond has much more self-doubt than in the movies, about his own abilities and what he has to do.  However, he is much more innovative and, rather than relying on gadgets, in the books he improvises.  A lot of the closing stages of this book revolves around what he can do with a sharpened steak knife, a table lighter and thick wire ripped from a ventilation shaft cover.

Though there are periods of high tension, the book is slow moving.  In part this is because of the amount of detail Fleming puts into what he is describing, whether it is an individual, a landscape or some food.  Furthermore, he gives a great deal of background information.  We learn a lot about Jamaica under British colonial rule and even about the guano industry.  You are reminded that the books began to come out before even package holidays were common and British people's knowledge even of the rest of Europe, let alone the Caribbean, came from books and occasional things they saw in movies.  However, as Quashie notes, nowadays this gives a window into a previous era.  The book was published in 1958, so Jamaica has not gained its independence and Cuba is not yet a Communist state.

Added to this, though there is reference to tampering with US rocket trials, the book, as Quashie points out, feels more like an adventure story from the Victorian period, more related to work by Rider Haggard than Robert Ludlum let alone Mick Herron.  For example, there are extended sections about paddling the canoe to Crab Key where Dr. No's base is and dealing with the surviving on the island.  Bond is assailed by quite an exotic array of creatures, but being menaced by a large centipede and a giant squid do sound as if they belong in an earlier age; I imagine the books that Fleming grew up reading. 

There is also the reference to race.  The racial characteristics of almost every character, certainly all the non-whites, are described.  Dr. No himself of mixed Chinese and German heritage and having used plastic surgery, is described in detail.  However, possibly uncharacteristically for the time, and maybe in contrast to other Fleming novels, he does not make judgements about people's character based on their race.  Bond has a genuine companionship with Quarrel, a Cayman islander and mourns his killing.  Bond is a long way from being a feminist and Fleming refers to most women as 'girls'.  Still Honeychile Rider, a white orphaned young woman, though she adds the sex interest to the novel (though Bond holds back from having sex with her until the end), towards the end of the book she actually frees herself from the trap Dr. No puts her in, using her knowledge of the local fauna to better effect than either No or Bond and is on her way to kill No with a screwdriver when Bond finds her again.

This book established many of the tropes seen in spy and adventure novels and movies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century - a disabled mastermind in a secret island base who monologues his plans to the hero and then rather than simply shooting him, puts him into a complexly perilous situation which with strength and ingenuity the hero can escape.  I guess we have seen this so much and the focus of satire so often that it seems a little ridiculous.  Quashie does well to freshen it up and restore some of the sinister nature to these encounters.

Unlike with a standard book, there is an additional aspect to review and that is the skill of the reader.  Quashie has a wonderfully rich voice that really adds to the extended descriptions and well conveys the urgency when Bond is battling for his life.  In the interview he explains he wanted to do all of the voices, both male and female and he produces a whole spectrum of them as would be done in the Roman 'pantomimes' for which one actor played every role.  He does not read the dialogue out, he acts it.  At times the accent of the Jamaicans and Quarrel are hard to follow especially when listening on a car's speakers.  I felt incredibly unsettled by him doing Honeychile Rider, though he does well at giving her a slight Jamaican twang, but it does sound rather odd, even unsettling.

Overall, then, the book was pretty different from what I expected.  It is a very old fashioned adventure even for 1958.  However, the rich description and the inner dialogue of Bond make it engaging.  The scenes where he is in mortal danger are well done and gripping.  As a result, I have got four more Bond books to listen to now.

Non-Fiction
'The Industrialisation of Russia 1700-1914' by M.E. Falkus
This is a short classic text beloved of numerous modern History courses in universities.  Having been published in 1972, as with 'Explaining Munich' by Lammers last month, it reminded me of how strong Marxist history once was and meant authors had to address its particular distorted view of historic developments.  Fortunately Falkus approaches the issues highlighted from the statistical data rather than trying to impose any particular political perspective on what he is considering.  While not coming to a firm conclusion about what stage of industrialisation Russia had reached by the outbreak of the First World War, he does show that the issues of distance and terrain had not really been overcome.  There were pockets of industrialisation in a vast agrarian country, that in output could rival, even exceed those of other Powers, but the impact of which was reduced by the context.  There were foundations laid for future industrialisation but there remained to be a long way to go.  Of course, we know that many of the comparators were not as industrialised as is often assumed, notably France and Italy, let alone the Netherlands.  Their industrialisation would not come for two to three decades later either.

What I found most interesting in this book when compared with general surveys of Russia in this period, was how well Falkus showed that Russian industry was in fact not really capitalist, but even after the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs, was a kind of feudal industry.  Even the large scale of some industries, notably in the Ural Mountains actually betrayed an early level of development rather than a modern form of growth.  He shows well how different types of serf were put into industry before 1861 and that the cost of compensating former owners, shackled many of the post-1861 workers as much as if they had remained serfs.  This largely blocked the rural-urban migration that one would have anticipated and kept down the availability of industrial labour as a whole.  Furthermore, the locking in of poverty prevented the rise of a large internal mass market, another important driver for industrialisation.  In turn, this kept down returns and the accumulation of domestic capital, leading to the need for vast foreign investment, foreign advisors and workers, etc.  Though the role of the state in industrialisation fluctuated, declining through the latter 19th century, it was always there.  Given this context of state involvement and really, at best, a bastardised, capitalist economy, perhaps in fact Russia was fertile ground for the totalitarian industrialisation that Stalin introduced in the 1930s rather than a steady progress towards capitalist industrialisation seen elsewhere in Europe, anyway.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Books I Read in February

Fiction
'A Feast for Crows' by George R.R. Martin
This book is where the television series begins to diverge significantly from what the books tell.  I can see why as this book is very much a 'filler', with very little happening.  Many of the multiple characters' stories are not advanced at all.  Characters that we saw a lot of in the previous book, 'A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold' (2001) do not feature at all.  We see nothing of Brandon Stark, his brother and companions now they are North of the Wall; we see nothing of his half-brother Jon Snow despite him being in command of the Wall; we see nothing of Stannis Baratheon, claimant to the throne who went to the Wall to defend it and we are told that Ser Davos Seaworth has been executed; we certainly see nothing of Tyrwin Lannister despite him having killed his father and fled from Westeros along with Varys the spymaster; we see nothing of the advance of Daenerys Stormborn and dragons liberating cities in Esteros.  Theon Greyjoy who suffers lengthy torture in the series does not appear at all, despite coverage of his sister and uncles.

It is as if all the epic elements of the story have been left out.  Martin seems to have been compelled to write an apology at the end of the book explaining that he has not forgotten these characters.  He says that running parallel stories he decided to concentrate in this book on events associated with King's Landing.  We certainly spend too much time in the head of Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon.  She is a sociopath, she either sees people as a threat or as failures.  Her behaviour, uncomfortably resembles behaviour in too many UK workplaces.  However, it becomes tiresome to see her being paranoid and smug about everyone.  She becomes a dead weight and it is uncomfortable to keep returning to her with the story advanced minimally.  I do not know if Martin is trying to garner some sympathy for us by explaining how her sexual encounters with her husband were unsatisfactory.  We are told she has a range of lovers but clearly gets little pleasure from them as when she gives another woman an orgasm, she does not know what is happening.

At times I have said that Martin is really more interested in the world he created than in the actual narrative.  This particularly appears to be the case with this book.  As a result Brienne of Tarth is condemned to wander around the dreary, war weary landscape with little outcome.  Jaime Lannister gets a similar development as the book progresses, both end up going past places they have visited before with very little outcome.  Sam Tarly has a long sea voyage with a few interesting developments but mainly him vomiting repeatedly.  The child with him is different from the one in the series and we see him having sex.  It is all very jumpy and handled much better in the series.  We see Arya Stark apprenticed to the House of White and Black though her progress there is not half as exciting as shown in the series.  The election of a new king in the Iron Islands is interesting and the raids that they undertake.

Overall, this is a dull book that despite covering more than 800 pages does very little to advance the bulk of the stories.  It is often the case that when dramatised a book can be improved through resolving the anomalies in it.  This is certainly the case with this book.  I suggest you skip it and watch the programme instead.  A real disappointment after the previous book.

'Enemy of God' by Bernard Cornwell
This book is better than its predecessor, 'The Winter King' (1995).  We continue to explore the memoirs of Derfel Cadarn, sometime commander under warlord Arthur as he tries to bring peace to the kingdoms of Britain and adhere to his oaths.  The incompetence of young King Mordred and the duplicitousness of King Lancelot take up most of this book.  There is a lot of tramping around the British countryside, though ironically when Derfel accompanies the druid, Merlin to find the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, rather than being an epic quest it is found in a handful of days but soon stolen again.  Despite the treachery, especially from Guinevere with Lancelot, there is some happiness for Derfel.  Arthur comes to see that he is going to have to take the lead in running Britain if not the crown.  Throughout the attention to historical detail is excellent.  However, it is an incredibly dreary landscape in which they operate, despite the climate of the time warming.  They move through a landscape in which everything is a pale shadow of the supposed Roman glory.  The characters are well drawn, with appropriate motives for people of the time, but not with the problem often encountered with historical novels with them made to appear less sophisticated in their thinking and behaviour than ourselves.  I would not say that I liked this book, but I found it rather more engaging than the previous one and I admire the effort which has gone into it.

'The Crazy Kill' by Chester Himes
I mentioned Chester Himes last year when he turned up as a character in 'Black Hornet' (1994) by James Sallis rather than 'The Black Hornet' (2017) by Rob Sinclair.  Himes (1909-84) was highly appreciated in France where he settled in the 1950s.  Though being published 1945-98, he was most renowned for the books set in Harlem featuring 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson, published 1957-69. The books were unusual at the time for having two black police officers as the lead characters.  This novel was published in 1959.  Himes had left a USA still plagued by segregation and race plays a large part in his stories.

The Harlem setting would have been unfamiliar to many readers beyond portrayals of night clubs and speakeasies of the 1920s.  Himes puts immense detail into portraying the context with a lot of information about what people are wearing, eating and drinking; he makes use of the jive language employed by the people living there.  For a modern reader this might seem unnecessary as we are more familiar with the setting not least from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s so of which were based on Himes novels.

The book is short (144 pages in my edition) but feels laboured.  It features the stabbing of a gambler at a wake for another gambler.  The suspects are the men and women at the wake, who are largely gamblers and their wives/girlfriends, so better off than many of their contemporaries in Harlem.  While it might be set in a city, the book is like a country house mystery.  Some bits jar, notably the pastor being pushed from the window into a bread basket on the street and then returning to the wake unharmed.  After the murder not much else happens.  The various characters spend a lot of time in discussion with each other, laying down accusations and trying to find out secrets behind that may be behind the killing.

These stretches of the book are pretty repetitive and tedious, so that by the end you do not really care who killed the victim.  It is a shame as from the reviews I had expected a gritty crime novel.  However, I think that for Himes, as was suggested in 'Black Hornet', crime was really simply a hook for Himes to exploit black lives in the USA at the time.  Thus, read now it is more a historical curiosity; a social commentary on particular people in a specific time and place rather than an engaging murder mystery.  I have two more books from Himes's Harlem series to read, one of which I have seen as a movie already.

'Dream Story' by Arthur Schnitzler
I got this book from a friend's brother who is into pretentious novels.  This is billed as an 'erotic' book and I was concerned that it would be pornographic.  In fact aside from some naked women dancing at a strange club, it is simply pathetic.  It features a doctor in Vienna at some time in the late 19th century, the reference to the project to build a railway in Anatolia, suggests early 1870s.  He meets various women he is attracted to an inveigles his way into this secret club, the members of whom threaten his life and compel the suicide of a woman there who supports him.  Not having any sexual encounters with any of the women he connects with, not even a prostitute, he flips from despising his wife to feeling he should be more candid with her.  That is it.  The descriptions are reasonable, but it comes over very much as a vanity project, the author trying to get some frisson from what might have happened to him if he had been an adult in those days.  It is not clear if the whole book is not a dream.  The introduction to my edition is terrible.  It rattles on about things unrelated to the courses of the book and neglects information or even opinion about the book itself.  Overall, very dull.  Do not be misled that this is either 'erotic' or a book of quality; it is highly over-rated.

Non-Fiction
'The Failure of Political Extremism in Inter-War Britain' ed. by Andrew Thorpe
This book consists of four sections.  The ones by Thorpe and by Bruce Coleman look respectively at how the Labour Party and the Conservative Party effectively neutralised the extremes of the left and right.  In the other two sections, Harry Harmer looks at the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM) and Richard Thurlow at the British Union of Fascists.  The NUWM was the most successful front organisation of the British Communist Party, but failed to politicise even the unemployed, with it largely dealing with benefit appeals cases; furthermore it put the Communists into a ghetto of the fluctuating unemployed rather than, ironically, building its strength among workers.  For the BUF it is shown how fragmented and often corrupt it was and that its profile largely came from brief newspaper support and rumour rather than the construction of a solid political party let alone one which could take power.

While at the start Thorpe cautions readers against the view that there was something inherent in British society which dampened support for extremist views even compared with democratic France, let alone further afield in Europe, we end up being shown a number of particularities about the British system which had this effect.  The relatively light impact of the Depression with some regions barely touched by it; the electoral system which predicated against burgeoning parties, indeed as the period progressed, against an third party, and the breadth of the umbrella of the Labour and Conservative parties that were able to accommodate some of the more radical views while at the same time, explicitly and actively in the case of Labour; in a more nuanced way with the Conservatives, kept radicals from challenging the mainstream direction of the party and also denying sympathisers to extremists beyond the party bounds.

I also think that Britain having a kind of semi one-party state, with the National Government, cross-party coalition in force from 1931 into the war, pursuing a policy of appeasing dictators up to 1939, effectively undermined the position of those who sought the suspension of democracy to resolve the economic and international situations.  Again it mopped up those who might not have been ardent advocates of a right-wing dictatorship but might have given backing to such a development if it had been allowed to seed.  Instead anything of that nature was thoroughly marginalised as to be of no real effect on British politics, bar perhaps, strengthening support for appeasement.

'Explaining Munich: The Search for Motive in British Policy' by Donald N. Lammers
I was advised to put a picture of the front cover in this review as it was felt to be the best thing about this book.  In some ways I am grateful for this book, published in 1966, for reminding how deeply Marxist perceptions of history, even among US historians, penetrated in the 1960s and 1970s.  Lammers confesses to being a Socialist at the start of this book.  However, his politics blinkers his historical analysis to a painful extent.  The book is less a 'search' for a motive of why British politicians behaved the way they did in the lead-up to the Munich Conference of September 1938 and more a man with some answers trying to force them on what he finds.

Lammers's dogmatism is embarrassing as he keeps on insisting that the prime motives for the British dealing with Hitler over Czechoslovakia were their anti-Soviet stance and their defence of middle class if not upper class values in Britain.  In fact he keeps finding evidence to oppose both of these viewpoints, especially in looking at the statements and behaviour of the politicians.  Still he hammers on, certain that somewhere, if he digs deep enough, he will find evidence for his approach, even though, ironically, he is critical of Eastern bloc views of the events.  Attitudes towards the Czechoslovaks themselves, let alone the whole Versailles process, are sorely neglected.  Lammers patronises the Czechoslovaks as much as the appeasers did themselves.

Lammers does make some interesting points about the attitude of other parts of the British Empire, especially Canada, to Britain being involved in a war in Europe.  However, his skewed perception of the whole event, heavily shaped by the Cold War persisting when he wrote this book, means he does not provide anything fresh or indeed insightful to the whole affair.  I am sure there are Marxist historians still publishing today but I imagine no publisher, especially an academic one, would allow any of them these days to get away with such a distorted analysis of any historical events.

I see that second hand it retails for US$9.90, so maybe I should sell my copy.

The cover:



Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wars to End: What If? Stories of the First World War

Wars to End: What If? Stories of the First World War
 
 
 
This is the latest in my what if? short story collections.  It seemed apt, with the centenary of the end of the First World War coming this November to focus on alternatives for that conflict.  This is the first collection I have organised on a chronological basis with stories in the book stretching from June 1914 with no assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to April 1940 approaching the anniversary of the success of the Gorlice-Tarlow Offensive in a world with no Second World War raging.  As is the case with my what if? collections, there is no attempt to provide an overarching history.  Instead, each of 22 stories starts from a different alternative.  Some stories see no First World War or a more restricted version breaking out; others see an even more devastating or longer version.  In this book, in contrast to other collections I have produce, the story is typically set just a short time away form the divergence from our history rather than decades or centuries later.

The changes vary in scope.  At the simplest level is a single assassin missing.  Then there are local changes, such as British mutinies spreading further and to a greater extent; an earlier German assault on the Verdun fortresses at a time when the French garrisons had been thinned greatly or the German plan to draw out British cruisers working better leading to a more conclusive Battle of Jutland.  There are changes at a strategic level, for example adherence to an earlier version of the German invasion plans which involved marching through the southern Netherlands rather than leaving it neutral and pulling back on the Lorraine Front to draw French forces further from Paris or in 1918 launching a more co-ordinated Kaiserschlacht so forcing the British back.  These were decisions that could have been made by the generals or their commanders.  Some others stem from geopolitical alterations, such as Italy remaining loyal to the Triple Alliance and invading French territory; the Japanese being an ally of the Germans rather than the British or Romania entering the war earlier and participating in the Brusilov Offensive or the Ottoman forces going into Egypt sooner than in our world.  Others have a technological alteration, such as the British developing tanks two years earlier; the appearance of biological weapons and the kinds of gas and tanks that were planned by the Entente to continue the war in 1919.

I hope that this book shakes off the attitude that tends to be so common especially in Britain, that 'it had to be that way'.  Some alternatives, such as Kaiser Friedrich III living into the 20th century are just from a twist of nature, but many could have arisen from influential people making different decisions at the time based on the information they had then so could have easily occurred.  Even if you disagree with the outcomes that I suggest in these stories, I hope this book will interest you and provoke thought and debate about how different the First World War might have been and, indeed, that it easily may not have occurred at all.
 

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Books I Read In January

Non-Fiction
'Storm of Steel' by Ernst Jünger
This is a memoir of a German infantry officer who fought on the Western Front during the First World War. He later became a novelist and lived to be 102. Before I get into the book itself I must talk about the intrusive translator, Michael Hofmann. This English translation was produced in 2003. The preceding English translation had been done by Basil Creighton in 1929. Now, in this very smug introduction, Hofmann goes on at length about how much better his translation of Jünger's work is than Creighton. Hofmann has extensive experience of translation from German into English. However, his knowledge of the First World War seems minimal. He does not seem to have read any of the books from the bibliography he provides at the introduction. As a result, throughout, he makes errors which really jump out at anyone at all familiar with the war. Given how merciless Hofmann is with Creighton, I think it is only fair to show up the range of errors that Hofmann makes.

For a start, he calls roundels on aircraft 'rosettes' giving a carnival-like impression of them. He talks about the RAF flying aeroplanes in 1916, two years before it was even created. He confuses 'saps' with communication trenches early on in the book, causing confusion for the reader; though he seems to resolve that error later on. Perhaps Hofmann's arrogance dissuaded the editor from pulling up such inconsistencies. He seems to be confused about Jünger's rank when he becomes an officer. He calls him an Ensign, an officer rank, but then says he is only an NCO, presumably because Fähnrich was an NCO rank. It should have been translated into English as something different than 'Ensign'. He may also be mixing it up with Feldwebelleutnant [Lieutenant-Sergeant] which until 1917 was the most junior 2nd Lieutenant, but an uncommissioned officer who ate in the NCOs' mess rather than the officer's mess. Hofmann's lack of care and absence of explanation of military aspects, makes it confusing where Jünger stands at that stage of the story, given that he started the war as a Private but was later commissioned, became commanded a Company and ended the war as a Captain.

Hofmann also seems confused on how to translate what is usually deemed to be for English-reading audiences, 2nd Lieutenant, in German it is Leutnant and (1st) Lieutenant - Oberleutnant. Given his difficulty with the German ranks it might have been better to leave them in German. I do not know really what he means when he gives a soldier the rank 'Territorial'. In other parts he uses 'Fusilier' for Private which does fit with the German designations for Privates in rifle units. By 'Territorial' I can think he means that the man had been a Reservist before the war so equating it a little to the British Territorial Army; maybe he means the man was from a Landwehr unit. However, again his translation adds confusion rather than clarity. As I say, simply going through some of the history books he lists could have avoided these basic mistakes.

Hofmann uses the term 'knife rest' translated directly from the German, but does not really make clear that it is a type of obstacle put up in trenches. In English he might have been better off using cheval de friese or 'Spanish rider' or better still putting in one of his footnotes which he reserves for literary references which he feels he is a master of. He also speaks of Jünger later putting one his helmets that had been shot right through as a 'pendant' to the helmet he had got from an Indian lieutenant colonel. This is simply bad translation. The original German was presumably Anhängsel, perhaps Anhänger, both of which Hofmann should know can be translated as 'pendant' but in this case more appropriately also as 'an addition' which makes much more sense than a full-sized helmet trying to act as a pendant to another.

Right, putting aside the intrusions of the translator, I can say that this book deserves the acclaim it has received. It is very straight forward. Jünger just talks about what he did in the war from being a Private in December 1914 to being invalided out in around July 1918 as a Captain. He says very, very little about periods outside that stretch, aside from noting people who wrote to him after the war. He speaks a little about his brother but he was in the same regiment anyway and their paths crossed. It is like a journal, but it moves at pace and to a great degree helps you get through the incessant casualties. Jünger himself ended up with twenty scars from a range of wounds, received the Iron Cross, 1st Class and other decorations. However, as he makes clear throughout, survival was largely about luck. He is very adept at drawing quick portraits of the men he encountered and their fates.

For English-speaking readers this book gives a different account to the usual ones we encounter of muddy trenches in Flanders. Jünger was constantly being moved around the Western Front and while he generally fought against the British he also faced French forces. He was often in chalky or clay terrain such as in the Champagne region. He is very good not just on the complexities of the trench systems in which people were often getting lost, but the villages and towns behind the front. We see a different side with houses wrecked by shelling but fruit trees continuing to grow. The book certainly makes clear how all pervasive artillery fire was and what damage it caused. It also shows repeatedly that steel helmets did little to guard against bullets through the head, which is a fatal wound he keeps speaking about.

The book shows how the war developed in technology. By the end, aeroplanes and tanks are far more common. The Germans are increasingly fighting troops from across the British Empire. Throughout, though it shows how much better equipped and supplied the Entente forces were compared to the Germans. Even in the early years, the British and French have far more munitions and can keep up barrages and assaults for longer. With the move to the stormtrooper approach in 1918 which Jünger was involved with, the Germans often end up using British hand grenades and when they break into British dugouts they are amazed at the quantity and quality of food and clothing supplies compared to what they had been reduced to back on their side. Overall this is a very crisp, engaging account of the war on the Western Front from the German perspective and I look forward to the next translation, the one in which the translator actually reads some war history first so can avoid silly errors throughout.

Fiction
'A Small Death in Lisbon' by Robert Wilson
This book first published in 1999 is largely set in Portugal in the 1990s. However, despite the author's stated aversion (on his website) to dual storylines this is exactly he does, featuring the lives of some men from 1941 up to the 1990s. Wilson says he wanted: 'to create the essential enigma in the readers' [sic] mind to which they had to have the answer: What the hell does the murder of fifteen year old girl in modern day Lisbon have to do with the wolfram wars of World War Two?' He does this far too far and throughout you feel as if he has spliced together two completely different books, one a war novel and one a crime novel. The fact that the crime novel is written in the first person of Zé Coelho adds the jump between the two facets. Furthermore Wilson does not move between the two timelines neatly, sometimes spending far longer on one than the other.

A further problem is that the 'hero' of the war novel, Klaus Felsen is a member of the SS sent to wartime Portugal to secure supplies of wolfram (tungsten) for armour-piercing shells. Despite showing Felsen having a girlfriend who is manipulated by the SS then sent to die in a concentration camp, he is a very unsympathetic character, torturing British agents, betraying and shooting his collaborators and raping the wife of a Portuguese man he is working with. Then he disappears for a large chunk of the book as he is in prison and his descendant takes over the story until the end. It is difficult to engage with such a character and it jars when we go back to Coelho, who though he sleeps with a potential witness, is more clearly a 'good' man. It would have been far better to have dropped the historic timeline and instead have Coelho uncover the past through his investigations.

Wilson tries to jam far too much into this book. He has Nazis running around between wartime Germany, Switzerland and Portugal and then running a bank in the post-war period, as well as murders in a contemporary setting. Yet, this is still not enough, he has to get in Portugal's 1974 revolution as well. It feels as if he believed at the time that he had only one chance to write about modern Portugal so had to get absolutely every aspect in.

Another problem with the book is that there is far too much sex. Felsen is a sex addict working his way through prostitutes and almost any other woman who crosses his path. Even the widower Coehlo has to have sex with a witness, on more than one occasion, despite the damage to his case. The novel paints a very grim picture of Portuguese girls as nymphomaniacs and part-time prostitutes. Sex is a factor for the murder, but in many ways Wilson undermines its impact by having so much of it in the book, that when involved with the crime its impact is severely reduced.

This novel was Wilson's fifth but seems plagued with the kind of worries that a debut author would fall prey too. Perhaps by this time he was not reined in by an editor to the extent he would have done before. A crime novel, referencing the past, but not jumping back to it and forward from it, would have been far better. He is good at characters, even when they are unsympathetic and he is good at being gritty but everything is undermined by his sex obsession and the thrusting together of two almost unrelated novels in a single volume.

P.P. Wilson's novel also features what appears to be a fictional pistol, the Walther P48. The numbers for pistols have tended to reflect the year in which they were adopted, so someone carrying a '48 gun in 1941 would be odd. I think he meant the Walther P38 which was a genuine pistol used by wartime German forces and in use by West Germany until 1963. Wilson is not the only one to make this mistake; the fictional Walther P48 apparently appears in 'The Domination' (1998) by S.M. Stirling, 'Die Orangen der Konstantina Konstantinos' (2009) by Roland Hoja and 'Hollywood Buzz' (2011) by Margit Liesche. I am not sure where these authors got the idea for a P48 from, maybe readers of this post can tell me if I have missed something, as I can find no trace of it being a real pistol. Despite the amount of effort Wilson went into with background research, I wonder if it was a typographical error by Stirling which has subsequently accreted credibility.

'Raising Steam' by Terry Pratchett
This is the last of the 'mainstream' Discworld novels that Pratchett wrote, i.e. not featuring Tiffany Aching. I read one reviewer who felt that it signalled the end of Discworld as she had known it anyway as magic was being superseded by technology, even more than had been the case with the clacks communication system of 'Going Postal' (2004). To me it seems to mark another Discworld book which is more worthy than humorous and especially focused on racial tolerance. That phase began at least with 'Thud!' (2005), if not 'Going Postal' in relation to golems, and saw the growing acceptance of different species into mainstream Discworld society, notably the goblins. In 'Raising Steam' there are hints he would have explored the integration of gnomes who appear near the end. This is a worthwhile focus for an author especially one who wrote largely for children, but it did mean that the later books really lacked humour, certainly the laugh-out-loud humour of the late 20th century ones.

As might be surmised, the book is about the introduction of steam trains (and at the end, bicycles - I do wonder if among the 10 books on his hard drive destroyed after his death Pratchett had a story of the Tour de Quirm bicycle race) to Discworld. It relies heavily on stereotypes both of the French (Quirm) and of northern English engineers. It does communicate the thrill of engaging with steam engines that Pratchett seems to have shared himself. However, it keeps running up against the lessons around tolerance of people and the loss of the ability to derive genuine humour from situations. You have to know the stereotypes to recognise many of the 'jokes' being made but if you do, then they seem laboured. Another problem is that there is a lot of death in the book as it features an uprising by a dwarfish faction bent on overthrowing the Dwarf Low King and stopping modernisation. I lost count of how many people of all species are killed in this book. It also means there are awkward references to torture and execution that Pratchett seems uncomfortable with and ultimately unable to reconcile with the generally light tone of his books. This may be why 'Unseen Academicals' (2009) focused on football and celebrity is better than this book or 'Snuff' (2011) which tried to deal with slavery and people trafficking.

The highlight of the book is bringing the Low King back to Uberwald by train without being assassinated. This is a rollicking adventure which shows many of the characters in their best light. However, before this we have had a very lengthy development of the trains and rail system to allow this chase to take place and those sections are at time sparse and a little tedious. Perhaps a different structure with Moist von Lipwig reflecting on how they had got there in flashbacks, would have been better. Overall, the book is thoroughly written with worthy points. However, it was a distraction rather than a real entertainment the way earlier Pratchett books were.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Scavenged Days: A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Impact of the Assassination of President De Gaulle

Scavenged Days: A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Impact of the Assassination of President De Gaulle


Certainly since first seeing the movie 'Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud' (1958; novel 1956) and 'Le Samouraï' (1967) I have long wanted to write a book set in France in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  In part it is because of the style of those days with suave men and sophisticated women in fashionable clothes, eating well and driving around in sleek cars.  The period was also one of great upheaval for the country, with an attempt by disaffected military officers to overthrow the government, a sustained colonial war in Algeria and terrorism both from nationalists and the state there and in France itself.  I had long toyed with writing a detective novel set in that context.  However, I settled on a 'what if?' novel, possibly the genre that I have best become known for.

There are lots of potential points of divergence in French history of the time.  One reason for this is the assassination attempts that the President of France, General Charles De Gaulle faced.  Two attempts came very close to killing him.  The attempt at Petit Clamart in August 1962 when hundreds of bullets were fired at De Gaulle's car features in the opening minutes of the movie of 'The Day of the Jackal' (1973; from novel 1971).  However, I used the September 1961 attempt close to Pont-sur-Seine in which De Gaulle's car was blasted across the road by explosives and napalm.  If it had not been for the age of the explosives and the failure of the assassins to follow up with gunfire, De Gaulle could easily have been killed.

Those targeting De Gaulle were the OAS - the Secret Army Organisation made up of disgruntled officers and their supporters.  It carried out a string of terrorist attacks with the intention of bringing down the French government and so retaining, they believed, French control of Algeria, its colony since 1830.  Initially they believed that De Gaulle would achieve this for hem, but they rapidly turned against him when it became clear he was going to grant the country independence.

This novel focuses on the days following the successful assassination of President De Gaulle in September 1961, when the OAS - its symbol was the Celtic cross featured on the book's cover - in its triumph, aims to seize power in France.  With 'what if?' novels it is often a challenge to show different sides of the story. I am alert to criticisms of my books, that, despite extensive historical notes, I do not give sufficient context for the differences from our own history in the text. You sometimes end up with the leading characters in alternate history fiction taking a convoluted journey in order to witness different events.  Often there is lengthy expository dialogue to fill the readers in which can really deaden a novel especially if it is a thriller.  Having different characters witness different development, can also lead to a charge I have received that it makes the book 'fragmentary'.

In 'Scavenged Days' I have gone for a hybrid approach.  At the heart of the story is young magazine photo-journalist Laure Favager.  I am conscious that many alternate history books are often male dominated.  I have always included female characters and think it is essential to show the impacts on different kinds of people. Thus, police, civilians, old people, civil servants, all appear.  Laure is a modern sophisticated woman, drawing in her lover, businessman Roland Trémaux and her boyfriend, journalist Gilles Vasseur into the danger that France in this situation is facing.  However, in line with my sense of the importance of the vulnerability of lead characters, she is highly flawed and her involvement with the conspiracy to seize power challenges her.  As always, while the 'what if?' is the focus, I feel it is a weak book that does not reflect it through people and simply ends up something like a wargaming scenario.

As is the case with all my work, I have done immense research on the historical details of the setting, not simply the politics, but also the fashion, the food and the cars, to give it that finesse that I envisaged when first thinking about a book set in this era.  I am sure that there will be people queuing up to condemn the book as pure fantasy and that it could not have gone that way or to moan about the fact that there is not enough shooting.  They will complain about some pistol one of the characters is shown using, or more worryingly that too many women feature in the book, which, in their eyes should all be about men.  However, no author can choose their audience.  I hope you find this both an exciting and interesting book, taking a look at a slice of modern history which, certainly in the English-speaking world, is sorely overlooked.



https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scavenged-Days-Impact-Assassination-President-ebook/dp/B079J2FBV1/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Books I Read In December

Fiction
'Wolves Eat Dogs' by Martin Cruz Smith
Famous primarily for his 1981 novel 'Gorky Park' I have read most of Cruz Smith's novels.  This one is a real disappointment.  It is an utter shambles.  He clearly had a desire to set a novel in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.  However, he faced the problem that his chief protagonist, Arkady Renko, is a Russian police detective and Chernobyl lies in  Ukraine.  I think he should have abandoned Renko, who even when this book was published in 2004 must have been becoming elderly, given he was a middle-ranking officer 33 years earlier.  I see three other books featuring the character have followed it.  Cruz Smith tries to reflect on how Russia and Ukraine have changed since the Soviet era so the story revolves over the deaths of two wealthy businessmen, one in Moscow and one in the Chernobyl zone.  However, everything seems incredibly laboured.  There is a lack of the tautness of his earlier Renko novels and a lot of haring around abandoned villages on a motorbike achieving very little.  Renko's relationship with a mute orphan also seems to have nowhere to fit properly.  It is as if Cruz Smith felt he had to get in certain principles, another is people being poisoned with cesium [caesium in British English], but these seem to be more important than an actual coherent story.  The romance also seems levered in.  The story is a real mess and the only highlight is Cruz Smith's ability to draw an astute portrait of the area around Chernobyl decades after the disaster and the people that live within it.  In general, however, the book is flabby, over-long and a disappointment.

'A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold' by George R.R. Martin
This book is far better than 'A Storm of Swords 1'.  You still feel that you are reading a single very long novel, sliced almost randomly.  This does mean that climaxes fall erratically in the different books.  This one fortunately has a lot less simply tramping across the countryside and much more activity.  There is a massacre and great battle scenes.  The characters face a range of challenges about what they are to do and where to go next.  You notice more divergences from the television series, not just simply the killing of the Stark family but also in the death of Tywin Lannister; who is deemed to be responsible for the death of Joffrey Baratheon and the disguised identity that Sansa Stark adopts. There are scenes such a boat ride through a flooded town and passage through the bottom of a well which did not get shown in the series but are striking. There is also more lesbian sex than features in the series.  Us seeing the motives of characters gives a complexity when compared to just seeing them acting as happens on television.  The books moves along far more briskly than its predecessor and though a lot of things remain unresolved it is the most satisfying of the series since I read 'A Game of Thrones', the first book in the series, earlier this year.  As noted before, everyone is uglier and the young people much younger than shown in the series.  Joffrey marries at 13 but is fortunately assassinated before consummating the marriage with his poor 16-year old wife, already a widow when she marries him.

'Ulverton' by Adam Thorpe
I am often told that having multiple character perspectives and not including detailed historical context is unacceptable for a novel.  Perhaps it was very different back in 1992 when this book was published by the poet Adam Thorpe and it received a string of very positive reviews, 'a masterpiece' being one of them.  It was reprinted in 2010, so perhaps for some reason his rather quirky approach is accepted when it is rejected for the rest of us.  The novel is in fact a series of short stories set in the fictional Berkshire village of Ulverton at various erratic dates from 1650 until 1988.  The stories take a variety of forms, two are as letters, one is as descriptions of photographs, one is a diary, one is a television documentary shooting script and one is a conversation in a pub.  The story unfolds erratically too and we often only find out facts about characters in previous stories when we have moved on to another one in its future.  You have to keep up with the different families and events, this is not a book if you are a lazy reader the way many seem to be nowadays.  I respect Thorpe's use of dialect to give a feel for the setting, but on a couple of occasions he goes far too far.  'Dissection 1775' is in a form of letters, all but the last is written by a semi-literate man so is in almost phonetic spelling.  Even worse is 'Stitches 1887' which is 18 pages of complete dialect with no punctuation and even working hard it is very difficult to make any sense of it.

Thus, the book in turn both infuriated me and inspired me.  I wanted to rush off a write a novel about a village which dealt with lots of alternate histories.  I suppose they say that copying is the sincerest form of flattery but it is a criticism too as it suggests you want to 'get it right' as you feel the author has failed.  These days readers simply rant that you have not written the book the way they insist, typically spoon feeding and with every last item explained in tiresome detail.  I would not want that from this book, I am happy to let my own mental processes work.  What ultimately turned me against this book are two things.  One is the incomprehensible sections which seem to be a waste of time.  Thorpe could have got in the flavour while still retaining understanding as he does in many of the chapters.  The second is how desultory the whole thing is.  Despite all too regular references to sex, the whole picture is dreary and the outcomes for so many characters disappointing if not horrid.  I admire Thorpe's courage in writing this as his first novel but I cannot enjoy it.  Furthermore I doubt this would have got off an agent's desk let alone accepted by a publisher if he wrote it nowadays; audiences are far too unaccepting even of the mildly challenging.

Non-Fiction
'The Medieval Economy and Society' by M.M. Postan
Despite the title, this book is only about the economy and society of England.  I was recommended this book thirty years ago, my copy is a 1984 edition.  I wish I had got to it sooner.  There is a real directness about Postan's writing.  He certainly challenges other historians and shows where they have been lazy in their assumptions.  He makes very sensible use of the evidence available from the times and by applying modern geographical approaches is able to paint a broader picture of England in these times.  Importantly he shows how diverse the economy was and that rather than a uniformity in the three-field arable approach, England had lots of forms of agriculture.  He draws out the differences between areas with different soils and areas which had been exploited by the Romans as opposed to those farmed later.  He is very good at showing that the medieval period was not somehow sealed off from what had preceded in the way it tends to be portrayed even today in many books.  Rather he shows how much agriculture and settlement ran through from the Roman era, in some cases even before that, then into the Anglo-Saxon period and what are now deemed the Early Middle Ages.  He is astute to the regular fluctuations in the economy and how this impacted on the way in which it was run.  Overall, this is a refreshing book that uses social science tools that are often reserved for the present, to shine light on the medieval period.  The writing is brisk even when detailed and is driven by a real passion on Postan's path, touched with exasperation at some of the writing which had preceded his.  I would still recommend this book today.