'The Poisoned Chalice' by Bernard Knight
This is the second book by Knight featuring Sir John De Wolfe, coroner for Devon in the 1190s. You feel he has got into his stride with this book, Wolfe, his aides, his wife and mistress, plus the sheriff (also his brother-in-law) who he rubs up against due to the fact that new and old legal methods had not been reconciled. Though the book sees De Wolfe and his team travel down the coast to investigate the murder of survivors of a wreck and the theft of cargo washed ashore - a particular role for the coroner - Knight avoids showing them riding incessantly from place to place as he tended to do in the first novel, 'The Sanctuary Seeker' (1998). This book is a police procedural, but fortunately Knight has tightened it up. We see two other, inter-twined cases, involving a rape and the death of the woman from trying to bring about an abortion. In part due to the influence of the women's families these cases are not dismissed in the way they would tend to be some 800+ years later. Knight is very good on the different social standings and how these rather than guilt or innocence are often the decider of who is to be convicted. As in the first book, torture is readily on hand to get to the 'truth'. Overall, this is a competent, engaging book, with well developing characters and a great portrayal of a very different time and culture. I was heartened to see him tightening up the writing for this one and I look forward to reading the others I have been given.
'City of Bones' by Cassandra Clare
I picked up four books by Clare recommended to me by an assistant in my local charity shop. I read one from her other, though similar Clockwork series, a year ago, http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2019/11/the-books-i-read-in-november.html?m=0 and found it reasonable. This is the first in the Shadowhunters/Mortal Instruments pentalogy, set in contemporary New York. I had seen the movie and have now started watching the series on Netflix. Though the elements in each are same - a girl/young woman finds that her mother was part of a group of part angel/part human people, the Shadowhunters, who fight against demons, vampires, etc. in a world in which all the fantastical creatures are real. Her mother's best friend is revealed as a werewolf. The shadowhunters draw various runes on their bodies to give them magical powers.
The story sees the teenage heroine Clary Fray discover not only the past of her parents but also go on a quest to recover the Mortal Cup which is sought by renegade shadowhunter, Valentine, who wants to use its powers to become all-powerful. Unlike the movie and series, in the novel, Clary is 15 rather than 18, so it is much more a children's book, though as in all children's adventures, Clary has more autonomy to run around New York than she would do in real life. There are various battles with vampires and rogue shadowhunters, in particular rescuing Clary's old friend, Simon - there is a lot of uncertain, wistful teenage possible romance involving Clary, Simon and shadowhunter, Jace, in a triangle - and seeking where her mother is held. There is some very fantastical elements such as flying vampire motorbikes and overall, a lot of the plot developments and encounters feel like a combination of the Harry Potter books and the 'Star Wars' movies. The climatic scene facing Valentine feels particularly derivative in this regard with the man himself some combination of Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader.
The novel is brisk and while for an older reader many of the tropes will be overly familiar, the pace and the various characters mean it is not a burdensome read. I have the next two books in the series and I am interested to see how the story develops, especially as the heroine becomes a normal part of the shadowhunter world. For a contemporary, urban fantasy it is not bad and maybe the tropes are reassuring or easier for younger readers to engage with. I accept that it was not written for people of my age.
'The Little Breton Bistro' by Nina George
I really have no idea why I bought this book. I guess I was looking for contemporary fiction different to what I generally read. I had been aware of the phenomenon of 'up lit', contemporary stories with a positive message, being popular over the last 5+ years and I guess this was my introduction to the genre. I had not realised that rather than being written in English or French, this had actually first come out in 2010 in German and only translated into English in 2017. It features a 60-year old woman, Marianne, who tiring of her uncaring husband of 41 years, decides to commit suicide while on holiday in Paris. Recovering from her failed attempt in hospital, she finds a painted tile of the resort in southern Brittany, Kerdruc and decides to go there. Kerdruc is a genuine place but in George's hands it becomes a Breton equivalent of Brigadoon. Fortune shines on Marianne all the way and not only does she get there with minimal difficulty, she gets a job at the 'Ar Mor' bistro, despite lacking cooking skills and any mastery of French, let alone Breton.
Not everything is perfect in Kerdruc and Marianne keeps trying to kill herself with less and less success. She makes friends with a white witch who has dementia and her husband who has Parkinson's. A local sculptress is dying of cancer. Various younger people have unrequited love or a partner who has left them or they were unable to marry and so on. However, so much is resolved without difficulty and with no reference to the government or other authorities, that you have to deem the book at best magic realism and possibly even fantasy. Towards the end, with Marianne meeting ghosts of her relatives, it steps over that line. As it is, Marianne finds a perfect sexual partner, becomes an adept sous-chef in a matter of weeks and a skilful player of the accordion; she drives around on a moped with no training or licence and similarly an old car. Though there is some reference to the year being 2009, much of what happens is divorced from time seeming to be in some vague sort of mid-1970s, perhaps earlier (especially with comments referencing French hatred of Germans stemming from the world wars) which seems so popular with such whimsical novels, especially when foreigners portray France. Of course, folk customs are still very strong and there is no reference to French or even Breton culture as it is in reality these days. The only convincing part for me was when Marianne's husband, Lothar comes to retrieve her from Kerdruc but that contact back to a more convincing portrayal is short lived.
Everything in the novel is handled in such a pat way, it is impossible to suspend your disbelief. Even the deaths are 'beautiful' rather than slow and agonising as they would be in reality. Too many relationships are sparked up or resolved in a way which does not happen in the 21st Century, even if it ever did. I accept that the book is written as a diversion, as a way to avoid it becoming like an equivalent of 'EastEnders' in southern Brittany. However, it is far too dependent on fortunate happenstance and things simply working out to be credible. This might be tolerable in a short story, but with a novel it becomes tiresome. Overall, it is rather like having to smile for a photo while on holiday but then keeping that smile fixed for weeks.
'A Short History of Africa' by Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage
This is another of the old history books I have had lying around for years. It was published in 1962 and occasionally, terms such as 'Sudan' referring to the entirety of of the savanna lands running east-west, south of the Sahara can cause confusion nowadays. Though the process of independence for African states was under way when the book was published, it was far from complete. However, with very little on post-independence, the book is able to focus much more on the pre-colonial era and this was the elements of the book I found most interesting. From the outset Oliver and Fage seek to overturn the all too common view that somehow Africa, at least in historic times, was somehow insulated from the rest of the world and sealed from it until the European powers began to start exploiting it and even then not fully until the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s. In fact, throughout they show that there was constant flow in and out of the continent and within it.
They go into good detail about the rise and fall of various kingdoms down the ages and how these interacted, not simply down the Nile and across the Sahara but also that various foodstuffs we see as typically African actually originated in the Americas and Asia. I was also interested by seeing Africa not simply portrayed in regional groupings, like West Africa, but also the east-west physical geography bandings especially in the northern half of the continent. This is certainly a good book to introduce you to the various civilisations that are so easily dismissed or forgotten in general histories especially written from a Western perspective and the complex interaction between black Africans and the Arabs and Bedouin, plus the importance of Islam. It also shows how varied and complex the story of slavery was, both before and during the period of European intervention.
The attention to these earlier developments reminds you how brief the European colonial period was. As they highlight though there had been 'factories', settlements and strips of land around the coasts, it was only in the period 1883-1885 that there was the rush to take over almost every part of the continent. They are good on the fact that even though we all see that map of 1914 with so much of Africa in one colour or another, in fact penetration away from the coast was minimal before the 1920s and 1930s. For many countries in 80 years of being conquered they were being given independence. The economic facets are handled well and show that most 'colonies' were a drain on the metropolitan countries and only in exceptional areas where cash crops prospered on a large scale or there were gold or diamonds would any money be made. The one area where I feel they could have included more was on the various colonial wars that the European powers fought often over many years. Some of these are mentioned in passing and while, for example, the treatment of the population of the Congo, especially when ruled directly by the Belgian King is highlighted, there is nothing on the German attempts at genocide especially in South-West Africa [Namibia].
Overall, though an old book, this has a number of good reminders to general readers about facets of African history that seem swept over in easy assumptions these days. It certainly works hard to try to stop us seeing Africa as somehow sealed in a capsule until this was pierced by the rushed European moves to take control of the continent, simply for prestige rather than profit.
Fiction - Audio
'The Man with the Golden Gun' by Ian Fleming'; read by Kenneth Branagh
Published in 1965, this was the last of the full-length James Bond novels; released after Fleming's death in August 1964. Bond has sort of recovered his memory, following the amnesia suffered as a result of battling Blofeld at the end of 'You Only Live Twice' (1964) and him continuing to live believing he was a Japanese fisherman. He has been retrieved by the KGB and brainwashed into assassinating his boss in London, M. This all seems rather rushed. There is interesting detail on how MI6 filters out people contacting it. However, the avoidance of the assassination, let alone Bond being put back into service all seems rather pat. Bond is finally sent back to the Caribbean to track down Paco Scaramanga, the eponymous man with the golden gun, though in the novel it is a revolver firing silver, snake-poisoned covered rounds.
We see lots of elements from the previous Bond novels, not simply the return to Jamaica, Fleming's home, as in 'Live and Let Die' (1954), 'Diamonds are Forever' (1956) and 'Dr. No' (1958), but the reappearance of Mary Goodnight and Felix Leiter. Bond is employed, as he was by Auric Goldfinger, so giving him an easy access to the villain's base, in this case a half-built hotel on Jamaica. There is even a private railway as seen in 'Diamonds are Forever'. There are not only a KGB agent on Jamaica but gangsters, including from the Spangled Mob who turned up both in 'Diamonds are Forever' and 'Goldfinger' (1959), so again referencing popular themes in the Bond novels. Bond's job is to assassinate Scaramanga, but the world weariness bites hard and even when faced with him in a weak position, Bond baulks from this. The novel ends with Bond eschewing a knighthood and in contrast to the endings of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (1963) and 'You Only Live Twice' he is very opposed to 'settling down', in this case with Mary. It is almost as if aware of his own end, Fleming did not want to end Bond as a freewheeling individual, though we are conscious that, both mentally and physically, he is not up to it any more.
As is common with Fleming he certainly sets the novel in its time. There is a lot of discussion of the various crimes in the Caribbean, Jamaica's independence, the development of bauxite mining, sugar prices, permitted gambling and the issue of Cuba. However, Fleming shows poor foresight in expecting Castro to be out of power within the next few years or indeed the USSR to give up on the country. He has a peculiar attitude to Rastafarians who he sees as anti-white individuals deeply involved in the drugs trade and happy to make terrorist attacks on sugar plantations. It is a reasonable book, not the best of the series, in part because Bond running out of steam himself and ultimately deluding himself about his future means the book lacks life, certainly verve. We do not feel Scaramanga, despite all the plots he is involved with, represents a genuine threat and we do wonder why Bond struggles to kill him. Branagh voicing him as an American makes him seem too laid back and not as threatening as he should be. He is supposed to be a Catalan who had worked in the USA but then in Cuba. Christopher Lee would have done it so much better.
Aside from Scaramanga, Branagh is reasonably good with the voices. I did wonder if he had talked to Hugh Quarshie who read 'Dr. No' for help with the Jamaican accents which he does without them seeming like caricature. He is reasonable with the women's voices too. Overall, though he is hampered by the fact that the life had gone out of the Bond sequence by this stage and despite the listing of all that Scaramanga intends, we are rather disengaged the way that Bond himself is at this end.
'The Chemistry of Death' by Simon Beckett; read by Greg Wise
This book kind of marries the classic British crime novel - it is set in a small village in Norfolk - with the very gritty crime novels of the past three decades or so. It was published in 2006. The protagonist, David Hunter is a widowed doctor who takes up a post as a GP after the death of his wife in an accident. He has a previous life as a forensic scientist - in fact an anthropologist but with all the necessary skills. Beckett sets up the kind of traditional English village without indulging too deeply into stereotypes, though things like the authoress who has retreated to the village to write, the harsh vicar and the various 'yokels' do come close to this. The jogging and barbecues at leas feel he has brought it into the late, rather than mid-20th Century.
The thing that really marks out the book as of our time is the extreme detail about the decaying bodies that are uncovered revealing a serial killer in the village one who (mainly) targets women and mutilates their corpses by inserting animals or animal parts into them. Hunter has a real skill in detecting what is going on from the insects infesting the bodies and the impact on the surrounding plant life. You need a strong stomach for some parts, possibly all the more jarring because this is a bucolic rather than gritty urban setting. Hunter is drawn deeper into the investigation, however reluctantly, with a crotchety police detective making use of what resources he can muster in such a remote locale. However, he keeps setting parameters that Hunter runs up against and has to start ignoring to actually get to the heart of the case.
There are a couple of twists, though the first is better handled than the second, by which time it all seems a bit contrived with Beckett not really playing fair with the reader into the three phases of epilogue. Some of the tensest scenes and we see these from the victims' views as well as Hunter's are overlong. I also found the pace of the relationships Hunter sparks up, especially with women, unconvincing given the setting is 2000s Britain and so many residents from outside the village have moved there to escape the interaction of cities, especially London.
Wise is pretty good with the voices, most of which are a range of indignant white men. He is not too bad on the women though they all sound very breathless. Unfortunately, while aware that the Norfolk accent is typically used on a social class basis, he has defaulted to 'generic rural local' accent rather than bringing in anything specific to that county.
It is a clever book, brisk for most of the time and handling its twists very well. However, I would be cautious buying a Beckett book again as I feel I have learnt as much as I need about the processions of maggots and blood staining of grass.