Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Books I Read in February

'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.

'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:

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Books I Read In January

'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.

'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.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Books I Read In December

'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.

'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.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Books I Read In November

'Stick' by Elmore Leonard
This proved to be much better than 'Cuba Libre' which I read last month. It focuses on ex-convict Ernest Stickley who quickly becomes wrapped up with successful drugs dealers in Florida and seeks revenge through a confidence trick.  It moves along very briskly dealing with a small set of characters who are well presented.  It really captures the atmosphere of early 1980s Florida having been published a few years later.  Many of the characters are ambivalent but they are credible.  The only bit I did not accept was when 'Stick' as he is nicknamed, has sex with three women in the course of a single evening.  I imagine that the strength of this novel is that it stuck to what Leonard knows best, though again it seems to violate his own rules about being very terse and includes description that allows you to really get a feel for the times and the setting.

'Snuff' by Terry Pratchett
I have been reading the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett since coming across a hardback version of the The Colour of Magic' back in 1983.  This is the worst in the series that I have read.  People said that because it was towards the end of his life, being published in 2011, just four years before his death, he was both running out of inventiveness and was a man in a hurry so, perhaps, conflating a number of stories into one book.  Having enjoyed 'Unseen Academicals' (2009) I was particularly disappointed.  The book begins with Commander Sam Vimes, head of Ankh-Morpork's police holidaying at his country retreat.  He has been made a duke, but the house and lands were his wife's inheritance.  The first third of the book, as one of the reviewers quoted on the back highlights, is reminiscent of a book by P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh.  It is a very laboured attempt to make humour out of what is effectively an English village of the Victorian era.  It is full of stereotypes and stately home whimsy which was probably not humorous even in the 1920s.  There are some minor references to Jane Austen books which make a reasonable point about expectations for young women and provide the only funny line in the book, unfortunately the last sentence.

Then the book returns to one of the themes which Pratchett focused on in his later novels, especially 'Thud!' (2005), which is race relations and treating all humanoids well.  It looks at treatment of goblins who are largely defined in Discworld as vermin and so open to slavery and slaughter.  One can easily see analogies to the black population of the USA and to Jews in 1930s Europe.  The trouble is, that such important issues offer no humour, so the book is very grim.  There is a gruesome description of dismemberment of a pregnant female goblin.  The book has a very nasty tone throughout.  Pratchett unfortunately seems to have no problem with the consumption of tobacco, which features far too much for a book which will be read by children.  There are more expletives in this book than previous ones too.  However, it is the repeated reference to the death penalty as being something appropriate, whether judicial or even extra-judicial, which saps any chance of humour from the book.  There is a frantic race after slavers which is chaotic to read and then there is an over-extended wrapping up of every single loose thread and more examples of people being deemed suitable to be murdered for what they have done.  Bizarrely this runs contrary to what is often said in the book about the police needing to not become as bad as the criminals.  Pratchett does not seem to have made his mind up really on which side he stands in that argument.

Overall, too much goes on in this book and the reader is jarred as they move between different sections in it.  The central problem is that it lacks humour and instead peddles bleak situations and very, very tired supposed satire of the British countryside.  Overall, very unsatisfactory.  I only have one further book from the mainstream Discworld series to read and am not particularly relishing it.

'The Winter King' by Bernard Cornwell
This book, published in 1995, is the first in a trilogy by Cornwell seeking to 'historicise' stories of 'King' Arthur.  He has used what traces there were of the man in ancient chronicles and then puts him into a realistic context of Britain in 480CE trying to cope with the end of the Roman Empire and invasions both from northern Germany and from Ireland, plus internecine conflicts between the various kingdoms of post-Roman Britain.  It is written from the perspective of a monk recalling all the events, many of which he participated in directly, from decades later.  I am ambivalent about the book, but will start by saying it was a great deal better than the Starbuck tetralogy by Cornwell (published 1993-96), set during the American Civil War, that I read earlier in the year.

In this book, Cornwell not only handles battles in the Early Middle Ages very well, but also everything else that is going on.  The characters move through a very well described landscape with the remains of Roman settlement littering the place.  I enjoyed seeing Weymouth portrayed as the Isle of the Dead and what is now Mont St. Michel in Brittany, where many Britons had fled, as a kind of Camelot. 

Christianity and Pagan beliefs - not just British ones but some left by the Romans such as Isis and Mithras - exist side-by-side each jostling for predominance among nobles and rulers.  A friend of mine says that Cornwell is anti-Christian, an aspect he dislikes.  I do not think it is the case.  I feel that Cornwell is contrasting the Arthur story to later portrayals in which he and his knights are bastions of Christianity which would not be likely in the setting of the 5th Century CE.  He treats all the religions equally, so each has vain and greedy practitioners.  I guess for Christians who feel they are right, this would be hard to swallow, but does feel appropriate for the times portrayed.    There is 'magic' in the form of rituals and especially superstitions. This is not a fantasy novel, but it shows cleverly how people of the time believed what they were seeing was magic even if we would not.
There are all the familiar characters - Arthur, Galahad, Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin.  However, they are more 'realistic' than in many Arthurian tales and each is flawed.  Throughout, everything is very gritty and often decaying.  You really feel that these characters, even the various kings, live a hard life.  The deceptions and the politics are handled well too.  Given all these positive qualities I do not know why I do not love this book.  Perhaps it is because it is too realistic and none of the characters, even Arthur himself, let alone Lancelot, is a 'hero'.  However, I am interested to read the two following books, pleased that Cornwell proved able to recapture his skill after the disappointment of the Starbuck books.

'Tyranny: A Study in the Abuse of Power' by Maurice Latey
My edition was the one published in 1972 of the book first released in 1969.  It looks very thoroughly at tyrannies and seeks to establish models and then give examples of how different regimes have fitted them, taking on aspects such as coming to power, relationship with intellectuals and religion and the fall from power.  Latey draws primarily on the dictatorships of mid-20th century Europe, Napoleon's regime, that of Mao Zedong and then of Ancient Greece and Rome.  There are some mentions of dictators in Latin America, but unfortunately there are some gaps.  In particular he references what he sees 'Oriental despotism', in fact meaning regimes in ancient West Asia, without giving details of these.  He also fails to show how in both Russia and China, histories of strict, authoritarian regimes through the centuries laid very solid foundations for their totalitarian states in the 20th century.

Despite these gaps in what otherwise is very good use of historical examples, Latey does succeed in making a model with which readers can judge tyrannous regimes.  Even reading it 45 years later, I think this analysis is applicable today when you look at what is happening in China, Turkey, Zimbabwe and even the Islamic State - he has a section on millennial religious movements which works very well in that case.  An updated version of this book would be very useful.  I do not know if 'On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century' (2017) by Timothy D. Snyder works as well; I am unlikely to reach reading it before I die.  However, people who have read it may be interested in finding out a copy of Latey's book as a comparison.  I certainly feel it has useful intellectual tools for helping in decode what is happening in many countries around the world today.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Stop Line: A ‘What If?’ Novel of Resisting the 1940 Nazi Invasion of Britain

Stop Line: A ‘What If?’ Novel of Resisting the 1940 Nazi Invasion of Britain

Like many authors, especially those involved in writing 'what if?' fiction, I have thought about different outcomes for the Second World War. I know books on these ideas are popular. Last year I published 'Provision': That looked at what would have happened if the Allies had faced greater difficulty with the Battle of the Atlantic. For 'Stop Line' I have started with a very popular counter-factual: 'what if the Germans had invaded Britain?' Typically these books are the start of a story about the German occupation of Britain. However, as many people will tell you, a German victory was the least likely outcome of such an invasion. This was reinforced in 1974 by the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst which showed that while the Germans would have been able to land up to 90,000 troops in Britain they ultimately would have been defeated.

While it might seem pointless to write a novel for which the outcome is known, my interest was in exploring what impact a German invasion in September 1940 would have had on the British population and on German soldiers. The fighting would have been very different to what had happened in 1939-40 especially in Belgium and France. I was particularly interested in seeing how Britain which had not been invaded successful since 1066 would have responded; whether the island mentality would have helped with the resistance to the invaders or developed into something more sinister. I also wanted to show, that despite British emphasis on how exceptional a people they are, in fact they would most likely have behaved in just the same ways as their counterparts in occupied countries across the Channel.

Central Southern England in 1940

I picked southern Hampshire as the prime focus for the novel. With the vital ports of Portsmouth and Southampton it would have been invaded early and would have quickly been on the frontline the battle for Britain. Added to that, you have a particular situation where the large city of Southampton is in sight of the New Forest a very rural area where it seemed feasible that resistance activity could be carried out. Having these locations allowed me to contrast between the impact on urban areas and countryside to a greater extent than had been the case with 'Provision' which had food supply as its prime focus. Before you email in, bear in mind that the map above shows the county borders as they were in 1940, not what they became in 1974 and how they appear on maps today. The western border of Hampshire is farther East these days.

The novel sees events unfold through the eyes of officers on both sides of the invasion; the mother of the British officer; a Hampshire vicar and his wife; a resistance fighter who is one of the Auxiliary Patrols that were established as 'stay behind' units, his wife; an engineer from Southampton and his wife too. Thus, the reader can see the varied impacts on a range of people living in the region; how they deal with the invaders and what they suffer as a result of the occupation. Thus, this is not a book taking in huge sweeps with long passages about strategy. There are battle scenes but these are seen very much from a human level.

Though the novel is a 'what if?', like all of my work, it is based on very thorough research. It features hundreds of real details including people, army units and weapons of the time as well as companies, places and foods. Hopefully such detail will enable you to get the sense of Britain in 1940 but also how it might have been changed for real if the Germans had managed to invade. I know the fact that this is not simply an account of units moving and fighting will anger some people and I will get a tirade of complaints. However, as an author, I want much, much more than such technical details. I write novels rather than manuals for wargames. I hope there will be people out there, like me are interested in reading what could have happened, but also seeing it through the eyes of convincing, well-developed characters.

As usual, this book is now available for sale as an e-book on Amazon.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Books I Read In October

'Random' by Craig Robertson
This is a crime novel written from the perspective of a serial killer.  It is set in Glasgow, but unlike the Malcolm Mackay trilogy I read earlier this year, you really get a feel for different parts of the city and the people living in them.  Obviously it is difficult to elicit sympathy for a serial killer.  Robertson manages to pull it off, in part through revealing as the book continues what motivates the apparent random killings and by having many of the victims being people that many would see as needing punishment anyway.  I would not say I enjoyed the book and some of the deaths, let alone the torture that a local crime boss carries out to try to find the killer, are hard.  However, I guess I admired the book more than I expected.  There are certainly well written moments of tension both for the killer in escaping justice and for different individuals that come within his purview as he uses various devices to ensure they are selected at random.  It is certainly a lot better written than the Mackay series which surprisingly received so much acclaim.

'A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow' by George R.R, Martin
This is the third book in the series and is broken into two.  This means this particular volume comes in at over 600 pages, but is a third shorter than the preceding one.  As I have already noted with the Song of Ice and Fire series, it is as if it is a single very long story or in fact parallel stories.  Thus, after the first book, each volume is a slice from the very long narrative.  It is not bad, but it does mean that there is no resolution.  Many of these characters in this book are still on journeys they started in the previous book and in other ways this is the aftermath of the battles seen about two-thirds through 'A Clash of Kings' though Martin makes it clear at the start of this third book that readers should understand that the different parallel stories are not in chronological sequence, so in fact there is some overlap in narrative with the previous book.  Many of the narrative lines are largely independent of the others, even when you have the narratives for Tyrion Lannister and Ser (later Lord) Davos Seaworth who fought on opposing sides in the Battle of Blackwater in the previous book.

Though there is hardship for all of the characters some of the misery quotient has been dialled back in this book which makes it easier to swallow.  This is one aspect in which the book differs from the television series made of it, 'A Game of Thrones'.  In contrast, however, characters end up more mutilated than in the series; many began much uglier in the first place.  To his different coloured eyes and misshapen head, Tyrion now has lost much of his nose.  Davos has had parts of his fingers cut off before the story begins.  Jamie Lannister has his right hand cut off as in the television series, but being able to see inside the characters' heads, a strength of the book, we know how much longer the pain goes on for him and how the loss of his sword hand makes him feel emasculated in a way which is not conveyed on television.

One significant difference in the book compared to the series is the marginalisation in the novel of Caitlin Stark, the matriarch of the Stark family; a widow from the end of the first book believing that two or three of her children have been killed and supporting the bid of her eldest son, Robb for the throne.  On television Caitlin travels with her son's army and offers him council.  In the book she spends her time at the castle of her dying father only hearing about events at a distance.  The one big decision she makes, to try to trade Jamie Lannister for her eldest daughter, Sansa Stark, held by the Lannisters at court, is heavily criticised.  On television, Caitlin is heavily involved in the difficulties caused by Robb's love for Jeyne.  Their marriage leads to a crisis with the Frey clan which controls the strategic crossing from the North to the South of the continent of Westeros.  In the book, there is no such discussion.  Robb simply turns up back at his grandfather's house, a married man.  There are none of the qualms and discussions seen in the programme and this weakens the story and especially the point of having Caitlin in it.

A further point which I touched on when reviewing the first book is how young many of the leading characters are when they have sex.  Robb Stark is 16 when he marries as is his wife.  His sister, Sansa Stark is 13 when she is married to Tyrion Lannister.  Daenerys Tagaryen was 14 when she was married and had a miscarriage; she is not much older in this book when she reveals herself as bisexual.  Only Sansa does not have sex and that is in part as some kind of way to show that Tyrion is amoral rather than purely immoral.  Saying that, he still makes regular use of prostitutes.  I have long defended George R.R. Martin from criticism which, ironically, is often strongest from his most loyal fans.  However, the more I read his stand-out series the more I am coming to see that he is largely a dirty old man, filling his books with inappropriate fantasies.  Yes, compared to many fantasy authors, he writes well.  Yes, he wants to reflect behaviour which is of the kind seen in our Middle Ages.  However, there is too much of it and too much detail to make for comfortable reading.  The television series does minor adjustment to apparent ages and works better for it.  I guess I am going to continue with the books, but I do think they should have some 'trigger warnings' to indicate that the stories will be distasteful for some and that teenagers should not take them as any suggestion of what they should be attempting to do.

'Cuba Libre' by Elmore Leonard
I know Leonard's reputation and have come to resent, even oppose, his precepts for writing.  He favours a style which is incredibly pared down and which, in my view, does not aid clarity.  I looked for it in reading this book, but found he breaks many of his own rules.  The book is set in Cuba in the months leading up to and during the Spanish-American War of 1898, though the concluding part of that war is gone over very briskly.  It is focused on a handful of Americans, including the mistress of an American sugar plantation owner, a horse dealer, a journalist and a marine who survived the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana's harbour.  The first part of the book is very messy as we are introduced to these various characters and the Cubans on both sides of the conflict trying to liberate Cuba from Spanish control.  There are a lot of nasty people in the book, both from the revolutionary and the authorities' side.  Too often they behave in a way which seems irrational for the people of the time and place even with the prevalent level of violence.

The book improves in the last third around various parties trying to secure ransom for the release of the plantation owner's mistress, against the backdrop of US intervention on the island.  There are some excellent points of tension and I guess this is because Leonard, despite the exotic setting, is back on his home ground, dealing with double-dealing.  Even then, there are some jarring sections like two Americans simply sending a semaphore message with roughly constructed flags which leads to them being picked up off a beach by the US Navy despite it being in the middle of shelling Cuban installations.

Though the book improves towards the end, you have to have the patience to get through the very scrappy, disjointed earlier sections to reach it.  Yes, the setting is interesting and the landscape and what went on it is well portrayed.  However, Leonard has all these different parts that he seems unable to reconcile.  The political background sits very uncomfortably with the main story and either needed to be more distant or brought fully into the narrative.  I guess it was good that Leonard tried a different context for this novel, but it really only works when it comes closest to his more typical setting of crime in 20th century US cities.