Monday, 31 August 2020

Books I Read In August


'The Long Firm' by Jake Arnott

Arnott is one of those authors who burst into the public eye only to rather fade out. He is still around, but none of his subsequent books has attracted the attention that this one did. I was given a copy when it came out in 1999. However, I was really put off reading it by the dramatisation broadcast in 2004. I have similarly been put off reading 'The Last Kingdom' books by Bernard Cornwell that I had been given as a result of the BBC's four series of them. I think when you find the characters uninspiring or irritating on screen you cannot face wading through the books. If my copy of  'The Long Firm' had not been a birthday present, I think I would have given it to charity as I have now done with the Cornwell ones. The passing 21 years has done it no favours. It looked pretty clichéd back in 1999 and looks even more so now that we have had multiple movies and dramas about 1960s gangsters and the people around them.

The book covers 1961-79 and traces parts of the career of gangster Harry Starks. However, each chapter is written from the perspective of someone who comes into his orbit: a 'kept' rent boy, a life peer, a mildly successful movie actress, a low-level drugs dealer and a criminology lecturer. They are all very stereotypical of the people around the Kray Twins, who are some of the few real people featured in the book. One of the narrators is called Jack the Hat, no doubt influenced by or meant to be Jack 'the Hat' McVitie who was murdered by the Krays in 1967. It consists of accounts of typical crimes of the period, from selling electrical goods on credit, to intimidation, drug dealing and running night clubs and pornography shops. Starks mixes with boxers and even Judy Garland. In prison in the 1970s, he studies a university course and involves an academic who could easily have been a replica of Howard Kirk from Malcolm Bradbury's 'The History Man' (1975). It is as if someone sat down with a checklist of the necessary 'ingredients' of a gangster novel set in the era. All the characters of those around the Krays are there, but so are all the activities, even down to dodgy investments in Nigeria, the corrupt vice squad detective, prisoners studying degrees and 1970s feminists becoming lesbians.

 Using the technique of seeing the main character through other's eyes works well and for some of the time, Arnott can keep up a distinct voice for them. However, to me, there were no surprises it has absolutely everything you would expect. Given that we are now another 20 years on, I imagine there will be more readers for whom the era is unfamiliar and so they can approach it much more as a historical novel. Having read it, what surprised me ultimately was not that Arnott is now in relative obscurity that somehow he attracted so much attention at the time. I can only put this down to him having a blatantly homosexual anti-hero as the spine of the book and some people feeling, even as late as 1999, that that was somehow radical.

'A Sea of Troubles' by Donna Leon

This is the tenth in Leon's Brunetti series and the last of those that I was given. Unlike some of the others in the series, this one is tightly written without her wandering off into elements that seem unrelated to the story or have a spasmodic focus on the main mystery. This one takes place on the southern portion of the spit which encloses the lagoon of Venice. This allows Leon to focus on a small, tightly knit community in an almost unique location. When two fisherman are founded to have been murdered on their clam boat before it was set on fire, Brunetti has to find out what rivalries in the village and factors from outside may have triggered this event. Unable to penetrate the village he sends in two of his officers undercover.

The scenery and the nature of the village are well portrayed as is the investigation in such a community. There is a sense of jeopardy, as it is not Brunetti but other officers who are in amongst the situation. I feel the only weakness is the boats going out into the horrendous storm at the end. I accept that Leon wanted an epic finish but the fact that a local takes their boat out in conditions which they would be familiar with and their neighbours were expecting stretched credibility. For Brunetti to follow especially when an officer was in danger, is a different thing. Overall, this is one of the better of Leon's novels, though I have heard from people who have read later ones (there are now 24 books in the series, the latest came out in March 2020), that they remain a mixed bag.

'Snakewood' by Adrian Selby

Alongside 'Imperium' (2006) which I read back in June: this is probably the best book I have read this year. While I had heard of the fantasy sub-genre, 'grimdark', I was unfamiliar with books that fell into that category. Apparently it is fantasy which features amoral characters and does not hold back from portraying bloody scenes or the lead characters facing bitter or dire consequences of their actions. This book is set in a fantasy world portrayed in a lovely line drawn map at the front, though some of the most vital locations in the story are missed off it. It is in the form of a portfolio of evidence gathered by the son of one of the protagonists from various letters, journals and personal testimony of those involved. While this overcomes the challenge that books straddling continents can face of how to have witnesses in different locations, it can be a little confusing at times, especially as to chronology. However, conversely, it does permit a richness to the story and allows the author to talk about many places he is clearly excited to have imagined.

The story is almost like a Western. It is set 15 years after a renowned group of military advisors/warriors, Kailen's Twenty, have broken up. Someone is now murdering each in turn and there is a race to alert the remaining members and to take a stand against the avenger(s). The society portrayed is a typical fantasy late medieval/Renaissance setting, with familiar tropes such as a group of city states and wildlands from which barbarian hordes ride out from. However, rather than magic it is herbalism and chemistry which provides the edge. In battles, warriors are fired up on 'brews' which heighten their strength and senses. Poisons and bags of spores or that burst into flames are habitually used in battles. These take a high price from the users. That is a different approach and leads to situations that would not occur in other fantasy contexts. Fitting the grimdark line, there is a weariness about many of the characters and vicious behaviour, people focused just on their personal advantage and one vengeance triggers another.

At times, especially near the start, the combination of battle terminology with speech rendered in dialect can make it hard for the reader to really comprehend what is going on. However, as you become more familiar with the terms, it gets easier. The flash-back at the end to the Twenty's glory days really jars. The story is finished and throwing this in then disrupts the closing of the book. However, I found the book engaging if very full of detail and while there are familiar tropes, Selby brings in sufficient freshness to raise this book over many other fantasy novels. This was a successful debut in 2016 and I will look out for subsequent books by him.


'A History of Modern France. Volume 3: 1871-1962' by Alfred Cobban

This volume proved to be far better than the preceding two, especially Volume 2. I wonder if an editor took tighter control over Cobban's writing or if because this volume was expanded from the final part of what had been Volume 2, it allowed him to approach it in a more effective way. Despite the opportunities provided by Pétain and De Gaulle, even Clemenceau, Blum and Laval, in this volume, Cobban steps right away from the 'great man' approach of the previous two books. Instead he shows effectively how despite people outside France seeing it as a country of revolution, sustained social conservatism and had a constant pull on politics, repeatedly taking governments away from the necessary social and particularly economic reforms.  Despite the turbulence of the politics of the Third and Fourth Republics, indeed of the wartime regimes too, he does not get bogged down in the details, instead picking out the important themes. 

Paying attention to the enduring contest between conservative pro-clerical forces on ones side and the anti-clerical, more liberal republican people facing them he is able to contextualise well developments such as the Boulanger situation, the Dreyfus Affair and how in 1940 France was defeated primarily by those French who wanted an end the republic as it was by the German tanks that French forces could have out-matched. As before, Cobban does well in providing details of the cultural background and developments, especially when these bisect with the political. While it is the period of French history I know most about and despite the age of the book, I came away feeling that I had learnt new details and in particular had seen people, policies and events connected up in a way which was enlightening.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Books I Read In July

'Friends in High Places' by Donna Leon
Perhaps it is because she is an American that Leon has an interest in issues around social class. Her protagonist, Guido Brunetti is the son-in-law of a Venetian count. Social standing and protecting it is an element of a number of her books, but becomes very apparent here. By this stage in the series, this is the ninth book, Leon had become very adept at starting with disparate threads, in this case informing us of the rules around construction in the restricted space of Venice and the associated corruption. However, with a bit of a jolt we then find how Brunetti's problems with his own apartment connect into murder. It comes together well and it is a little refreshing to have a different kind of motive which while it appears initially to be more Italian corruption, is one we can believe motivates people even more now twenty years after this book was published. I have the tenth book to read and then some other random ones from the series I have picked up from charity shops. However, I must say, despite sometimes the narrative seeming to jump a little or spend too long on unimportant aspects, these are easy to read crime dramas which come up with often refreshing solutions.

'Kaleidoscope' by Harry Turtledove
This is another collection of Turtledove's short stories, published in 1990 with stories dating back to 1984, it is older than 'Counting Up, Counting Down' which I read in December:  'And So to Bed' features an alternate world where earlier versions of humans co-exist with homo sapiens and have found refuge on North America which, as the story is set in 1661, is being opened up by Europeans. The story is told from the perspective of Samuel Pepys and shows how the existence of these other versions of humans allow him to propose evolution some three hundred years earlier. 'Bluff' is an interesting science fiction story set on a planet where humans arrive to find a humanoid species which sees their inner thoughts as being the voice of their gods. This is a fascinating premise and is handled well. It is a good reminder to those writing science fiction that alienness is not simply physical. 'A Difficult Undertaking' is a straightforward story of a siege in Turtledove's Videssos setting, a kind of Byzantine Empire and is pretty entertaining. '

The Weather's Fine' takes an interesting premise that time is like weather and so different parts of North America on different days can be in different 20th Century decades. The protagonist had a good relationship with his girlfriend in the 1960s but not in the 1970s so it is about how they work around this. Time conditioning can keep a building at a certain decade. I think more could have been done with this story and it was a bit depressing that the couple could not work through their issues or separate properly but were condemned to live in fixed behaviours dependent on the decade they were in. 'Crybaby' is a horrible story, a typical demonic child one which really would fit better in a 'Tales of the Unexpected' setting than here. Apparently, Turtledove's wife will not read this story and I can understand why.

'Hindsight' set in the 1950s about a science fiction author who is writing stories before the authors have managed to complete them and is revealed to be a time traveller who is trying to steer the USA down better paths than it followed in our 1960s and 1970s. The story is well handled, not just in terms of the technology, but the different behaviour of someone from the 1980s to those from thirty years' earlier. The blurred line between science fiction and science writing is well done too. A nice story all round. 'Gentlemen of the Shade' is another good one. Turtledove is always sharp when he brings a new spin on vampires as can be seen in his 'Under St. Peters' which is available to read free online now. In this story a club of vampires in late Victorian London hunt down Jack the Ripper who is one of their kind. It is well handled in terms of practicalities and in terms of the atmosphere of the time and place.

'The Boring Beast' is a silly spoof fantasy story which annoyed me. 'The Road Not Taken' is an interesting exercise in looking at how a species might acquire some technology that we see as hyper-advanced but lack technologies that we see as mundane. The encounter with alien invaders equipped for war as if it was the 17th Century is interesting and again reminds writers not to go down easy or lazy paths when portraying alien civilisations. 'The Castle of the Sparrowhawk' is a kind of fairy tale/parable about a challenge in a Middle Eastern land, which did not appeal to me; 'The Summer Garden' is very similar with the protagonist paying a bitter price for their 'victory'. There is a lot less sex in this book than in 'Counting Up, Counting Down' but 'The Girl Who Took Lessons' - it is actually a woman not a girl - is sordid and feels more like a 'joke' a man would tell in a bar. It is a pity it was included in this collection.

'The Last Article' is the other main alternate history story, featuring the German invasion of India in the 1940s, having defeated the British, and coming up against the passive resistance of Gandhi and Nehru. It might be controversial these days to paint British colonial rule as any better than Nazi hegemony, but Turtledove cleverly does highlight the differences and why that would enable the Nazis to defeat Gandhi when the British authorities failed to do so.

Overall an interesting collection with some great highlights. Importantly I would recommend it to science fiction writers to remind them where you can go when portraying aliens similar but different to us.

'Harlequin' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the first in a trilogy set during the early phases of the Hundred Years' War in the 14th Century. It follows an English archer, Thomas of Hookton from fighting a raid by the French on his home village on the south coast of England through battles in Brittany and Normandy coming to a climax at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. As you would expect with Cornwell the portrayal of life at the time and the battles are rendered very well. Unlike some historical authors who cover wars, Cornwell is also good at including a range of interesting female characters with distinct motives. I am concerned though that one who becomes Thomas's 'wife' towards the end of the book is clearly stated to be 15. He might argue it was seen as appropriate at the time but it is uncomfortable to see as a modern reader.

There is a lot of intrigue with lots of people out to kill Thomas, though he also makes friends among the opposite side. This is a strength of Cornwell's writing in that while combat plays an important part he does not skimp on characterisations which make his books that much richer. The sub-plot about seeking the Lance of St. George, let alone the Holy Grail, seems unnecessary and I can only think he included this either as a McGuffin or because publishers asked for it. I have the other two books in the trilogy and am looking forward to seeing what the characters do next.

'Dead Man's Land' by Robert Ryan
This novel features Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson solving a series of murders on and behind the frontline of British forces in Belgium during the First World War. Ryan has done meticulous research but unfortunately at times, especially in the early parts of the book, he tends to 'info dump', given immense detail about the hierarchy of treatment of the wounded rather than revealing it to us. The date when the novel is set is difficult to pin down. The book starts with Watson being commissioned as a major in October 1914, but as the book progresses, with reference to the Gallipoli Campaign (February 1915 - January 1916) and Winston Churchill serving as a lieutenant colonel on the Western Front (November 1915 - May 1916) as well as references to particular gases and aircraft, it is not clear when the action is happening. Given the involvement of Churchill and particular weaponry, notably poison gas, this is important and this uncertainty was an irritant as I was reading.

At times the book feels fragmented, in part because of the serial killing in different parts of the front. Added to that Sherlock Holmes makes odd appearances back in England and these elements are not integrated well into the story. They make him appear even more of a deus ex machina that would be the case anyway. The same can be said for the German sniper. We read about his attempts to assassinate Churchill and his various roles. However, he is not really a full part of the story and his role in the denouement could easily have been filled by an unknown character. The sections covering these two characters feel bolted on. Overall, however, the book improves as it goes on and Ryan provides a good motive for the killings fitting with the time. It could have been a much stronger book if the structure was streamlined and in other places what was happening, when, was made more explicit. The detail of the medical provision, especially the conveyor belt for the wounded, was fascinating especially at times when Ryan shows these things rather than lectures us on them.

'The Long Mars' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
There is a comment on the cover of this book from a reviewer at 'SFX' magazine saying '"Pratchett and Baxter ... skipping along their quantum string like giddy schoolboys ...'" That sums up the problem with not just this book but its predecessors and  Pratchett and Baxter seem to have a thousand ideas for alternate versions of worlds and as more of the characters travel into many tens of millions of variants away from our Earth, they get to look at many of them. However, in large part it is like flicking through a catalogue and we only see them briefly. The action when it happens is like a number of vignettes which are only distantly connected to each other. In fact with three characters exploring alternate versions of Mars, even less exciting as most versions are desolate deserts, there is a real detachment between the returning characters. 

As in The Long War when we seem to be building to an important climax, the authors turn away. We just hear reports of them not finding the team they left on an Earth which is a moon of a larger planet; we see nothing of them deciding to bring The Next - a group of arrogant super-humans back to our Earth and minimal detail of how imprisoned Next are got out and get away to some unknown version of Earth. It is as if the most gripping elements of the story have been cut out so as not to distract from the beauty of all the geological, even astronomical variants, the authors could think up. I think they would have done better to have anthologies of short stories in different contexts rather than piling them all into what is supposed to be a single novel.

The other problem that continues from the previous books is how unsympathetic so many of the characters are. In this book smug Russians are added to smug Americans and smug Chinese. Then the Next come along and they are very smug humans who feel it is their right to enslave the 'dim-bulb' population which encompasses the rest of humanity. While it is good to have irritants and antagonists, when even the supposed 'heroes' are not people you could tolerate spending five minutes with because they would constantly patronise you, it is difficult for the reader to get a handle on the story. Again it is like flicking through the brochure or, even, someone else simply flicking through in your sight, expecting you to be invested in something that does nothing really to engage with you.

'A History of Modern France. Volume 2: 1799-1871' by Alfred Cobban
As I noted when reviewing Volume 1, for Cobban it seems that Louis XIV was the perfect leader of France and anyone else will struggle to come close to him in ability. I suppose that it is no surprise that a history written in the mid-20th Century focuses has a 'great man' history perspective. However, as Cobban judges so many of the country's leaders harshly, even ridiculing them at times, it really distorts what he is trying to cover. He views Napoleon Bonaparte as a Corsican bandit who could do nothing good for France. He sees Louis XVIII and Louis-Philippe as ineffectual, muddle-headed rulers. He gives a little to Napoleon III but then sees him as ineffective from quite an early period in his reign and as in fact utterly marginalised in the closing years of his rule. Cobban outlines all the political manoeuvring but seems impatient with it as if frustrated that no-one in France could appoint an effective king. 

This level of subjectivity and the repeated derogatory comments on the various rulers and politicians not only makes reading the book irritating, it weakens his accounts of the complex situations of what was happening in this period. The best parts of the book are when he (occasionally) steps away from the peak of the political system and looks at societal and economic aspects. With these he does reasonably well in showing the exceptionalism of France, why it did not modernise the way some neighbouring states did and its population stagnated through the 19th Century when others were growing sharply. Completing the book, I felt I had learnt little especially on the post-1815 period which tends to be neglected in general histories of Europe. Allowing Cobban to judge so much on the basis of his particular animosity to certain men, really undermined this book.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

In the Absence of Powder: The Napoleonic Wars without Gunpowder


This book is available for sale via Amazon: 

This is my second book published through Sea Lion Press: I do not even recall where I heard the quote which is attributed to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, implying that he said he would have been better off having a corps of archers at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, rather than more men armed with muskets. I do not even know if he actually said it. However, it was a sufficient seed for an idea about writing a story where this could have happened. The novel covers not only the fighting named after Waterloo, though occurring quite a bit further south, but also at Quatre Bras and to a lesser extent at Ligny, in the preceding days.

I also watched the Alternate History Hub podcast on the issue of a world in which gunpowder was not invented: Interestingly that made me see that even with such an apparently large change to history many events would still have run as they did in our world, for example, the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This led me to see that writing a parallelist novel, i.e. one in which there was a big difference to our world, but in which people got to (roughly) the same position as in ours and followed similar if not identical policies was feasible. This parallelist approach has been challenged with people arguing that my novel is not a 'proper' alternate history story, but rather simply a 'thought experiment'. This is because it is assumed that the moment you introduce such a change there are numerous 'ripple' effects, meaning that no-one would end up doing the same thing as in our world, and indeed, many of the characters we know would not have been born. This tends to overlook the attitudes and behaviours of people in the past, and for example, in early 19th Century Britain there was a limited number of families who had opportunities to rise to power or to gain high positions in the military, something the absence of gunpowder would not have altered.

In 'Thinking of Writing Alternate History?' (2020): I make what I feel is a legitimate case for parallelist alternate history. By only altering one aspect but maintaining the others as they were in our history, you can really test whether that change would have made a small difference, a major one or effectively no difference at all. If you begin to substitute other men for Wellington and Napoleon, let alone all their generals, you cannot be certain whether the outcome portrayed would have been the case due to there being no gunpowder or some flaw or skill in the generals and overall commanders and so on. Thus, I kept all the people who were at the battle in the situation, though the different weaponry did mean the battle ran differently and in some cases people were injured rather than killed. The battle did see a large number of deaths among high-ranking officers on both sides.

Researching both the use of what was effectively medieval weaponry and the forces and individuals at the battle, did throw up some difficulties. There is certainly no agreement, for example, on how far a medieval crossbow could throw a bolt or quarrel and the differences between effective and maximum range. People are often bemused by why onagers, which had a shorter range, replaced ballistae, neglecting that it was far easier to manufacture and repair an onager than a ballista. 

Even with individuals there is dispute over their stories. The gravestone, the portrait and other sources, imply that Lieutenant Colonel John Fremantle one of Wellington's aides-de-camp was born in 1780 or 1790 or 1792 and died in 1845 or 1847 or even 1854. If he had died in 1847 at the age of 55 as quoted, he would have joined the Coldstream Guards in 1805 at the age of 13, supposedly, according to some, having already attended both the Royal Military College and Lüneburg University already. I can accept he might have been 23 and a lieutenant colonel at the Battle of Waterloo, given ranks could be bought and a Guards captain would serve as a lieutenant colonel when seconded to other units. So far I can find no-one able to reconcile the different information. I assume he died in 1847 aged 65, rather than 55 as his gravestone (destroyed in 1944 by bombing) apparently said. His rank at death is also disputed with some saying he was a Major General and others, a rank higher, a Lieutenant General - this confusion though may be explained by the fact that he was a Guard and they generally held two ranks, a lower one among the Guards and a higher one when serving with other units. Anyway, this is a classic example of when people say you must write the 'actual' or 'true' history that it is not always easy to do!

One thing that I did enjoy was looking at the different units in the battle and seeing what the equivalent armour and weapons would be if gunpowder was not available. The Guards, as an elite unit, end up with longbows, as they need dedication over many years and distort the body. The Rifles, have arbalests, like rifles, having a long range and penetrating power, but like them too, slow to load. Napoleon's skirmishers, the voltigeurs, given Napoleon's use of Roman iconography, have become javelin-throwing velites. In our world those French cavalry wearing metal breastplates, were called cuirassiers. However, this comes from 'cuir' meaning leather after the boiled leather breastplates of the Classical world and in my alternative a lot of people are wearing them, so those in real metal breastplates have been given 'ferassiers' from the French word 'fer' for iron. One thing that has always attracted wargamers to the Napoleonic period is the wealth of different uniforms and weapons used and I hope readers will find interest in what I have substituted these with in this alternative, only a few of which I have mentioned here. I used this very useful diagram for naming different types of helmets various used.

One challenge with any war story or alternate history is being able to show different aspects of the context to the reader. Initially I thought to do something like Iain Gale's novel of the Battle of Waterloo, 'Four Days in June' (2006). He has five characters he follows. However, I was conscious of criticisms of 'Scavenged Days' (2018) which to show a range of changes that France experienced in that alternative, I used a multiplicity of characters whose eyes we see through at various stages of the novel. In contrast, readers largely want just one main character and expect that you will also write all the details of the minor characters' stories right to the end. 
This was, in the end, why rather than select a soldier in the line, the story is seen through the eyes of a 'galloper' one of Wellington's battlefield messengers, in this case Cornet Ruper Aske. This allowed me the opportunity for him to be sent to various parts of the battlefields and to witness what the Duke of Wellington and other commanders were doing as well as seeing how the ordinary soldiers were faring. I hope having this perspective gives readers a feel for what was going on and, for this alternative, how the absence of gunpowder weapons altered the battles. This novel is fast paced and I am optimistic that I have made an adventurous story while at the same time exploring how much of a difference changing one aspect of warfare would have made, meaning that the book is far more than simply a 'thought experiment'.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Books I Read In June

'The Victoria Vanishes' by Christopher Fowler
This was originally, when published in 2008, the final book in the hexalogy of Bryant and May novels, though ultimately he has gone on to write another 11 novels and 2 anthologies. I have no idea why these books are popular. They have curiosity value, but really lack life. The fact that in four of the original six, this one included, the protagonists, heading a peculiar division of the Home Office but in their 80s, means a lot of time is spent with them discussing old age rather than advancing the story. Why he did not write more set in decades when they were younger, I have no idea.

The bones of this plot, that a serial killer is injecting a poison into middle-aged women in various London pubs, but a conspiracy involving chemical warfare behind it, sounds like a decent television thriller of the 1980s. Fowler clearly loves London and fills the books with immense details about its history, in this case eccentric pubs. Of those he lists I have actually visited about a quarter so I know their appeal. However, such nostalgia does not make for a gripping crime story. It is probably best to treat these novels rather as a kind of slice-of-life book around the lives of some odd police officers. Fowler has won awards for the humour of his novels. However, I have struggled to find it. They are whimsical rather than funny. Though this one has a decently interesting crime at the heart of it, as with the previous books in the sequence, I found this novel stodgy and a little dull; certainly lacking energy.

'The Long War' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
This is the second book in the pentalogy and as with the  first: there are wonderful ideas in the book, but neither of the authors seem to know what to do with them. We do see the perspective of some Chinese explorers which tempers a little the US-centricism of the first book, though not much. Too often you feel you are reading a survivalist novel with a string of characters being smug about how much better they are at existing in the multiplicity of alternate Earths than every one else they meet. There are some bursts of real cruelty especially when humans interact with canine humanoids that are particularly nasty.

As with the first book, there is a lot of simply tramping about across all these versions. The 'war' of the title is more a sit-down protest which gets skipped over in an unsatisfying, pat way. The problem of the 'trolls', gentle hivemind humanoids who are fleeing from human-occupied versions is again not really resolved and a overly simple solution is delivered. Overall this book is like sight-seeing with a party of insufferably smug individuals. There are brief moments of tension, but for most of the time, it is people lecturing each other in a very self-righteous way and passing through a string of variants with very little actually going on.

'Imperium' by Robert Harris
I have read 'Fatherland' (1992) and 'Enigma' (1995) - both of which have more effective endings in the movie versions than in the books; 'Archangel' (1998) and I have listened to the audio book of 'Munich' (2017), without being overly impressed by Harris novels. The dramatisations tend to have a better narrative especially at the end. This novel, published in 2006, the first in a trilogy, is the best book I have read this year. It focuses on the career of Roman lawyer and politician Marcus Cicero (106-43 BCE) in two periods of his rise to power, seen from the perspective of his slave secretary, Tiro (perhaps 103-4 BCE). You might imagine a novel about Roman court cases and political manoeuvres would be very dry. However, Harris succeeds in bringing the range of characters vividly to life and he has a knack of explaining the complexities of the Roman Republic's legal and political systems almost without you noticing. Added to that, he has mastered the necessary skill of historical authors of making you feel real jeopardy when in fact you know the outcome. The fact that, unlike some reviewers, I never had to translate the speeches of Cicero at school may have made it fresher for me than those who were forced to dig deep into Classics. Overall, it was a really engaging book with far more life than the other novels I read this month and indeed throughout 2020. I will certainly look out for the second and third books in the series.

'The Penguin History of Medieval Europe' by Maurice Keen
Keen points out at the start of the book that he cannot encompass all of Europe. In fact his focus is narrower than that. Scandinavia, Russia and Ireland never get a mention. England really only features due to the Hundred Years' War. There are brief mentions of Spain and Portugal and of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire only in connection to Ottoman advances. The prime focus of this book is on France, the Holy Roman Empire and parts of Italy, mainly the Papacy and its territory. In large part that is due to the narrative thread binding the book, which runs from the start of the 9th Century to the mid-15th Century. This thread is how Europeans went from viewing their region as a super-state, Christendom to having a far greater national identity and how the various secular rulers effectively won out over Papal hegemony. Within these constraints, the book works effectively. It features all the political events but contextualises them well with views of the economic, social and intellectual background to what was going on. Given its focus on over 600 years, it is good at showing the long-term developments as a counterpoint to the rapid conflicts and religious disputes. Despite its age - published in 1968 - it remains a reasonable introduction to the period at the heart, if not the periphery, of Europe.

'A History of Modern France, Volume 1: 1715-1799' by Alfred Cobban
This is the first in the version of Cobban's book when he had expanded it to three volumes. Having been reprinted in 1965, even when I bought it as a student in the mid-1980s it was old. Since then many of the gaps in the history of the period have been filled. However, as I continue clearing out the numerous history books that I bought in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt obliged to read it.

It is not a bad book, though it is overshadowed by Cobban's love for King Louis XIV and his reign. That king's death opens the book, but throughout you can clearly see that he was disappointed that none of his successors either as monarchs or running the republic, could come close to that glory. He does not even rate Napoleon Bonaparte highly though the book closes with him coming to power as First Consul. The most effective parts of the book are in outlining the demographic, economic and philosophical developments that preceded the Revolution. He shines a light on those areas, such as the last few years of the 1780s before the outbreak of revolution, which still seem to get neglected. He is good at showing how foreign adventures and internal corruption weakened the regime of Louis XVI so much as to make some serious changes inevitable.

The book is weaker on the Revolution. Though Cobban does well at puncturing the myths about Robespierre, as he does earlier with those around Madame de Pompadour, like too many general history authors he careers through the chopping and changing of the revolution far too frantically. He provides sufficient detail but as a long lump, rather than breaking it down effectively into the multiple phases he runs through. Segmenting the account of the Revolution would have made it have greater impact. Instead as is too often the case the reader simply has a picture of chaos with constantly changing faction and politicians' names. Ultimately, Cobban finds the Revolution as not as revolutionary as might be expected and while nothing for him can match the golden era of Louis XIV, he notes that what follows the Revolution is highly conservative with many of the attitudes it threw up, fading very quickly.

There are good elements to the book, especially in the pre-1789 period. However, overall the hand of the author is far too apparent throughout and you are left with the sense that the book is largely bemoaning the fact France could not get back to the state it had under Louis XIV and that is not the way a good history book should be written.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Books I Read In May

'The Long Earth' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
This is the first book in the 'Long' pentalogy by Pratchett and Baxter. It works on the common science fiction basis that there are an infinite parallel universes and people can travel between them. However, in contrast to many books on this them, not least 'Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen' which I review before, the different versions of Earth are devoid of humans. Many of the differences are biological - the main one being that humans are on just one version of Earth. Some of the differences are geological/geographical, but even these are not particularly noticeable in 'near' versions of Earth, i.e. people can still mine gold in exactly the same place as on Datum Earth, our Earth. As the book goes on some other humanoid species, usually with the ability to 'step' between the different versions are encountered and finally after lots of quite tedious travelling the threat to them is encountered.

The trouble with the book is that it is like a bag of ideas that have not really been worked up into a successful story. At a distance we see how the ability to step can aid criminals and terrorists, how so many people leaving our Earth impacts on the economy and the backlash to the whole ability to step - about one fifth of people cannot do it. We get a scrap about a First World War soldier thrown into a different Earth and a bit about a girl growing up in a new settlement in one of the alternate Earths, but very little is done with them. The main story is about a natural stepper and an airship run by an artificial intelligence, Lobsang, which has gained human status basically touring through Earth after Earth, seeing a few things and trying to work out various jeopardies. It is interesting to see these but it is not really a gripping story.

Another challenge for non-American readers is the American focus of the book. I know Pratchett and Baxter came up with the idea while at a convention in Wisconsin and used the locale as the basis for some of the characters' experiences. However, it means that the book gets rather filled up with the kind of American frontier myths that populate survivalist fiction. You can only stomach so many people being smug about how much more they know about living in the wilderness than others, let alone the self-righteousness in building a 'better' society, in fact simply replicating white domination of North America once more in a hundred different locations.

Despite the fact that stepping is open to four-fifths of the world's population, we only see one Briton using it inadvertently and no people from other nations doing so. Though the lead character Joshua Valienté spends much time hovering over parts of Central Asia and Europe, we do not see how people from those nations are using it, let alone from highly populated Asian states or those with dictatorships rather than democracy. Even when focused on North America, there is not even coverage of how black people, Hispanics and indigenous Americans might have used the ability to make a different America in one or more of these alternatives. The white Pilgrim Fathers/Frontier mentality/narrative is almost painful in being so dominant in this story.

There are some good ideas in this book. However, in too much of the text little happens. Certainly though some of the questions of this effect are discussed, many are overlooked and instead the book lazily falls back on simply assuming that the frontier mentality would reign supreme once again, trapping you in a book which is like being stuck next to an American on a plane lecturing you on how little you know about how to survive. Overall, despite the good premise, this was disappointing.

'The Fort' by Bernard Cornwell
In contrast to some of Cornwell's other books, this one has a very tight focus on the so-called Penobscot Expedition during the American War of Independence and covers only a few weeks. The book is informed throughout with letters and accounts of the battles. The campaign was around the British attempt in 1779 to establish a port as the basis of a new British colony of New Ireland in what is now eastern Maine, but was at the time part of Massachusetts. The fort of the title is Fort George, established on Majabigwaduce Peninsula by a small British force and despite being initially outnumbered by the 44-ship armada sent against them was able to hold on until a British fleet arrived trapping the American ships and destroying many of them.

Cornwell shuttles back and forth between the American and British perspectives, showing how in campaigns egos and cunning can have such an impact and can counterbalance numbers. The Americans were hampered by incessant arguing between the army and navy commanders and as a result of the ego of Paul Revere, who, despite his subsequent reputation was lazy and arrogant, and unwilling to yield to superiors. As with all Cornwell's books we get a range of perspectives of men serving at different ranks and in this case of some of the locals, whether loyal to the British or the American side. There are good skirmish scenes and, if you do not know the specific history, tension over which side will be reinforced first. Overall, it is an interesting microcosm which shows how the attitudes of commanders and their soldiers can have such an impact. My only complaint is that once the final naval battle is engaged it all ends abruptly and there is a long discourse by the author, some of which add nothing to this story.

'Fatal Remedies' by Donna Leon
Sometimes with Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti novels - this one, published in 1999 was the 8th in the series - it is uncertain what she wants the focus to be. Sometimes she manages to pull disparate elements to make a stronger whole. However, at other times, this process is a little less successful. This novel is an example of the latter. For much of the first third of it the focus is on Brunetti's wife, Paola who, in a protest against a local travel agency that is providing sex tours to the Far East to allow paedophiles to exploit children there, twice vandalises the agency's window. Guido himself is put in a difficult position and there is some pressure for him to resign. However, then, quite abruptly, this point of tension seems to evaporate and the rest of the novel focuses on a more straight forward Leon plot around the illegal selling of expired and placebo medicines to African and Asian states and murder to cover this up.

The two parts are not really well integrated. The element of Paola and her belief in calling out corrupt business is interesting, but is not really resolved. The jeopardy for Guido's career and the tension between the couple is not followed up. I accept it might be laying the ground work for developments in subsequent novels - at present there are 21 more in the series - but if that was the case it should have appeared as a sub-plot rather than a kind of different plot with only very loose connection to the other plot in the novel which becomes its main focus for the latter two-thirds of the novel. This is not a bad novel, but it could have been far better with some restructuring to blend the two streams rather than having them effectively abut against each other.

'Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen' by H. Beam Piper
Published in 1964 (in my edition, but apparently not actually out until the following year), this short (192 pages in my edition) novel starts from the same basis as 'The Long Earth' (2012) reviewed above, i.e. that there are parallel versions of Earth that people can inadvertently or intentionally travel between. In this case, however, the bulk of these versions are filled with humans, though at very varied stages of development and with diverse distribution across Earth. I do not know if Pratchett and Baxter felt this approach had been looked at in so many books that they should leave humans out of theirs. Anyway, in this book, the different Earths are policed by the Paratime organisation in part to prevent the planet being used up fully as happened in their own stream. However, passing between the different strands in vehicles, means that sometimes people are caught up and dumped in a different version.

In this story, Corporal Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police, a veteran of the Korean War is accidentally dumped in a version of Pennsylvania with sort of 16th Century technology. In this world, Aryans left south Asia and migrated eastwards into North America rather than westwards to Europe, so a series of petty kingdoms are now founded along the Atlantic seaboard. In this version of Earth a religion controls access to gunpowder and uses this to hold power over the various princes. With his more technological knowledge, Morrison manages to break this monopoly and through a serious of wars rises up to be king of the region. For some reason the paratime authorities, rather than preventing him from altering the history of the region actually help him, contrary to their precepts.

Piper clearly had an agenda with this novel, which started as a short story and was a context later taken up by other authors. The main one is that he wants to show that the 'great man' view of history is not wrong. At one stage one of the paratime officials even feels Morrison's achievements disprove the emphasis on steady societal changes. This mirrors arguments in Piper's own time, especially against Marxist historical interpretations. Piper clearly believes one man can alter history and emphasises the role that warfare plays. Indeed much of the book is taken up with complicated battles. It is very hard to follow these without a map. For most readers, references back to the local geography of Pennsylvania does not help. Piper also clearly wanted to portray his state's police in a positive light too, with one character saying they are among the best ten forces on Earth.

As a fantasy battle romp, the book is not bad. However, you do feel that the character has it his own way for too much of the time as if Piper was keen not to admit any weakness in his thesis. Maybe that was acceptable in the early 1960s but I imagine would jar with many readers of contemporary fantasy. I suppose the book is useful as an artefact in the development of parallel worlds, which as the 'Long' series discussed above shows, remains a popular one for writers even fifty years later.

'The Good Earth' by Pearl S. Buck
I only became aware of this book when it was re-released in 2004 and did not realise until reading it that it had been published in 1931. It was a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was followed by two sequels. Buck was an American missionary who spent much of her life as a child and young woman in eastern China. The book focuses on the family of an initially poor farmer, Wang Lung as it grows and he faces many travails but eventually becomes wealthier to the extent that he and extended family replace the local gentry encountered at the start of the book. The most effective bits of the book are when Buck is describing when the crops fail whether due to drought or flood.

The book is set in Anhwei [Anhui] province. During a famine, Wang Lung and his family flee 'south' by steam train to a town named Kiangsu [Jiangsu], but that is a province to the East of Anhui, so it seems likely she meant Soochow [Suzhou] or perhaps Nanking [Nanjing] itself. While there, it appears that they witness some of the incidents of the 1911 Revolution. This seems to occur when Wang Lung is in his early 20s. However, the time frame is awkward as towards the end of the book when Wang Lung is explicitly a man in his 70s there is talk of another revolution. Things which might count as this: the uprisings, the appearance of the Chinese Communist Party and then the Great Northern Expedition of the Nationalists, falling in the 1920s would occur while Wang Lung was still young or middle aged. If it were not for the railways which were not constructed in the region until 1908-09, one might assume the first 'revolution' was the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64 which included Anhui. Thus, Buck is either projecting into the future beyond her own time, correctly expecting China to have another revolution, which it did, or effectively much of the story is 'out of time'.

While the book uses vocabulary which we understand, a lot of it is more complex than we would use commonly nowadays. The tone of the book seems very influenced by what Buck would have read and often sounds like a parable. There is no explicit judgement of the mistakes Wang Lung makes, his treatment of different people, for example, how he buys slaves and a concubine; neglects his hard working wife and effectively tries to kill his uncle and aunt through plying them with opium. It is left to the reader to make decisions. I guess this should be welcomed rather than Buck imposing  judgements on a different culture, even one which sees girls in particular sold into slavery or killed at birth.

Wang Lung's mentally disabled daughter is neglected except by her parents. No-one, bar perhaps O-lan, his wife, is a hero. Wang Lung behaves in an appalling manner at different stages of the book and many of the people around him are deeply unpleasant. However, I guess this willingness to show people with all their flaws is one attraction of the book. Above all, it highlights life in a rural region of central China, which despite references to steam trains and bayoneted rifles, was the way it had been for millennia and presumably opened the American audience's eyes to the country they knew little about, though with the Japanese invasion of North-East China in 1931, effectively starting the 14-year long Pacific War, it was to be in the news for the next two decades. Buck is far from being a work of propaganda and as result, as you will see noted in commentary, despite its success did nothing to improve the American perception of China. Ironically missionaries and Christianity do not feature in the book at all.

Overall it is an intriguing book which to some degree shows realities of life in rural China in the early 20th Century and if you are willing to accept the distorted chronology and the tone of the book you might find it engaging. It is very much of its time and no-one like Buck could write such a book now without being accused of cultural appropriation and being patronising to the people it features. Consequently despite the flare up in popularity in the mid-2000s it is more likely that readers nowadays would be happier reading 'Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China' (1991) by Jung Chang, instead.

'Europe 1780-1830' by Franklin L. Ford
This is another of those books from my collection that I should have come to far sooner. I bought it in 1987, four years after it was reissued and it has largely remained in storage since. That is a shame because it is a brisk but comprehensive study of Europe over fifty years, that deftly explains a very complex period without losing the reader. Ford achieves this by taking a thematic approach, not simply, for example, looking at society or population, but when he turns to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. This enables him to disentangle the complexity of these times, for example, keeping apart Napoleon's reforms in France from narrative of the conquests. I think his description of the phases of the French Revolution are some of the clearest I have read in a general history of the period. I also like that he contextualises the events within longer-term economic, demographic and intellectual shifts. He is also willing to take time out to look at how things may have gone differently, so pushing against the sense that anything of what happened was 'inevitable'. These acute, perceptive approaches to the mess of the period effectively allows him to show how while this was a period of great change it also had strong strands of continuity. Overall, this is an engaging read and a refreshing perspective on a period that is detailed but because of its approach never allows the detail to choke up the progress of the book.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Books I Read in April

At present with the virus crisis, I am not commuting so am not listening to audio books. In addition, though many people are reading more than usual, my reading patterns are pretty much the same as always, so this month's post is not going to be very different from one back in 2017 before I got into listening to audio books in my car.

'Time's Echo' by Pamela Hartshorne
This is a largely well-written book with lots of attention to detail, but I found it very heavy-going. It features Grace Trewe a woman who travels the world, occasionally teaching English and who survived the 2004 tsunami. On the death of her godmother from drowning in a river in York, Grace comes to the city to sort out her affairs. She is quickly haunted by a girl called Hawise who lived in the city in the late 1570s until she was drowned by vigilantes for being a witch. Grace's godmother was an unskilled witch herself and opened up a connection that proves difficult to close. It is not really a horror story, but it is hard reading. On one side we see what Hawise experiences especially at the hands of her brother-in-law who tries to rape her and then sets her up to be convicted as a witch only to lose patience and by her sister who seeks to poison her. In many ways this is a very feminist text because it shows how even a clever, prosperous woman of the Elizabethan period could have agency taken from her by jealous and simply malicious people, particularly men. Then we have Grace increasingly losing control of herself as she mentally slips into the past at random occasions but her body continues in today. She is also trying to prevent a neighbour's daughter being sucked in by a dangerous cult.

I felt the pace was ill-balanced. Much of the book is heavy going as I noted, but the closing sections are frenetic and you almost feel Hartshorne had tired of the book and now wanted to get it finished. It is all wrapped up too quickly and too neatly. I think she could have accelerated the pace a little, from say, three-quarters of the way in rather than jumping it up in the final tenth of the book. I have not read any of her books before, but from what she writes it appears she has primarily written romance. I do not disparage that genre the way some do, but I would question why she felt it necessary to have a romance in the modern time. Grace ends up in a relationship with her next door neighbour, Drew, a man who is old enough to be her father, perhaps even older still and has a daughter closer to Grace's age than he is. He gets Grace pregnant and she throws up her world-travelling life. You feel almost at the end, that no matter what the age, men are still portrayed as being able to swipe away a woman's agency when Grace seemed for much of the novel to offer a more positive path for women in the 21st Century than was the case in the past. It is as if Hartshorne flirts with a feminist perspective only to abandon it in favour of a tradwife one at the end.

Hartshorne does need to be commended, despite her 'copping out' at the end, for the attention to detail. She really brings 16th Century York to life, mixing in some people who are known to have existed for real, let alone the churches, streets and orchards that are so richly portrayed. She undermines this with her final note in which she says that the plague portrayed in the novel, never occurred during the period shown, even though it is an important element of the story. You do wonder why she did not then pick another era, for example just thirty years later or used a different form of illness to kill off characters given there were a lot to choose from.

'Child of Vengeance' by David Kirk
Though it is not apparent from the start, this is in fact another origins story for the famous Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. We see him in his adolescence, as Shinmen Bennosuke, Bennosuke being his personal name and Shinmen being the clan name his estranged father has adopted. Bennosuke's father, Munisai and then himself embarrass a petulant member of the Nakata clan, allies of the Shinmen which then brings everything crashing down on the two of them. Munisai is no hero and we find murdered his wife and burnt to death Bennosuke's genuine, peasant father. Much of the book is very claustrophobic, set among a handful of characters in the village overseen by Munisai. Then, when compelled to become a monk, Bennosuke flees and becomes a thief. This allows Kirk to show the horrific nature of punishment in Japanese society of the time. In his attempts to get revenge, Bennosuke is drawn into the army of the Ukita, the overlords of the Shinmen clan and he ends up at the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600. The battle is usually taken as the starting point of the Musashi story, for example in the telling by Eiji Yoshikawa.

This is a reasonable book and tries to provide a balanced picture of the challenges and choices that Bennosuke faces. No-one is a hero in this book and that seems to be part of Kirk's objective, to stop readers unquestioningly accepting the standard portrayal of samurai society, which in fact has a bleak view of the world and fetishises death while dismissing sacrifices by ordinary people. You almost feel that times Kirk is going to stomp off and say 'no, in fact this was wrong, it was a sick way to live'. He does not, but this is certainly an antidote to those novels which portray samurai behaviour without ever questioning how far it had lost sight of humanity and simply was about a very contorted view of glory. Kirk is good at portraying the time and the settings. Apart from with the Nakatas, he avoids stereotypes and instead has characters that the reader questions. There is apparently one follow-on book, perhaps more. However, basically I do not think I could stomach any more, though that is perhaps a reflection of how Kirk's scenarios get to you.

'White Corridor' by Christopher Fowler
With other books in this Bryant and May series, especially the preceding one, 'Ten-Second Staircase' (2005) I have complained how Fowler drowns the books in details making the text very stodgy. He also has a lot of toing and froing by the characters, which again makes them feel laboured. This book is set up in a different way with the two lead detectives stranded for most of the novel, well away from their home ground of London, on the edge of Dartmoor in a snowstorm. After quite a while they find there is a murderer operating among the stranded cars which then connects this stream of the story to another one which seemed unrelated, that of an abused young British mother, who seeking refuge in southern France starts a relationship with a petty thief and killer. The third element features Bryant and May's colleagues back in Mornington Crescent in London and circles around the discovery of a dead drug addict and the murder of their soon to retire pathologist.

Either of the two main strands would have been sufficient for a crime novel, but though he has toned down on all the fact jamming, Fowler clearly cannot hold back from pushing in as much as possible, so reducing the impact of each. As it is, these novels fall into a strange position. He tries for lightness rather than real humour and yet even this comes over as very forced. Featuring two detectives in their 80s might have led to a 'cosy crime' novel, but there is too much reality and gore for it to belong in that category. This is not as hard going as some of the previous novels and there are a couple of good twists in it. However, overall this book is too much of too many things and too little of others to be really satisfying. Showing the ability to get sustained mobile phone reception from the edge of Dartmoor in a blizzard certainly is unconvincing.

'Last Talons of the Eagle' by Gary Hyland and Anton Gill
This is a fascinating book about all the innovative aircraft designs that were envisaged or even produced during the Nazi Regime in Germany. It does not recap those jet-powered craft or the V1 or V2 weapons with which most people are familiar, but rather looks are less common designs. These include gyrocopters and helicopters, rocket, jet, asymmetrical, space-scraping, forward projecting and delta wing aircraft. It is well-illustrated and though at times it has to go into technical details, it handles this well for the non-specialist reader. The book does make an excellent point about how much imaginative thinking there was in Germany aero-engineering at the time, even when raw materials and fuel were difficult to get hold of. Yet, very few of the ideas were ever adopted and all the aircraft around in the late 1990s, when the book was published, both commercially and used by the military would not have seemed incredible to German engineers of fifty years earlier. As they highlight, perhaps the US stealth bomber unveiled in 1987, making use of the delta wing design the Germans experimented may explain why so many ideas taken out of Germany in 1945 'disappeared'. A very interesting book with lots of good ideas if you want to feature distinctive aircraft in an alternate history or dieselpunk novel.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Books I Listened To/Read In March

'Ten-Second Staircase' by Christopher Fowler
This another book in Fowler's Bryant & May series (in fact only the fourth, but it has felt to me, to be much more already) about elderly police detectives in a unit investigating peculiar crimes. Though their careers stretch across sixty years from the early period of the Second World War, so far only in two of the books in this series that I have read does Fowler set them in some other time than when they were written in the 21st Century. This one is no different, though another crime from the 1970s is also resolved retrospectively. It sees the murder of a series of controversial minor celebrities and if you know developments of the time (2005) will see parallels between the fictional characters and actual celebrities experiencing scandals. The murders are all extreme such as drowning an artist in their own tank of formaldehyde, electrocuting someone through gym equipment, dropping someone through four floors of a building by installing a fake floor. As the story develops, however, it seems that Fowler is more interested in how the media creates and feeds modern mythology of criminals and how this is a process which has effectively gone on for centuries.

The book has all the elements you would expect from the series. The leading pair grumble about life and deal with modern situations in different ways. There is an odd range of supporting characters and there is a lot of reference to the history of London and folk culture. It is not bad and the premise is quite clever though at times Fowler portrays estate life in London rather as you would see it on a children's television programme and similarly the private school he features seems largely to be from 1950s portrayals. There are some clever elements, but as seems to be required these days it is rather 'over-written'. There are simply too many details, too many elements included that they choke the progress of the story. I accept that I may becoming intolerant as I age and that I am guilty of doing this in my own writing. However, I am certainly far from being as successful as Fowler and feel that he or someone else, should look at editing his books more so they do not become so stodgy.

'Game of Death' by David Hosp
This book is set in the near future when virtual reality has become so sophisticated that people can feel that they have been transported to another place or time, they can even create their own scenarios to experience things they would not have otherwise lived. However, it turns out that in Boston, home of the company which has developed the system, NextLife someone is beginning to act out sexual murder scenarios that they have created in the system and killing models who were used for early avatars in it. Though there is some reference to the monitoring and Nick Caldwell, responsible for online monitoring at the company becomes infatuated by a woman he saw in one of the scenarios, the book actually quickly turns into a standard murder mystery with Caldwell and his perhaps love interest and colleague Yvette Jones getting mixed up with the police investigation and uncovering dubious activities of NextLife and its nefarious staff. It is not bad but it is not really exciting and soon becomes very standard for this kind of novel, though with Boston with its different neighbourhoods a setting that I have not read about before. There are decent twists and turns if handled somewhat mechanically. My main disappointment is that the book did not live up to the cover blurb:

'NextLife is an exciting young company on the brink of going public which promises its subscribers the chance to experience anything they want. Climb Everest. Dive off the Barrier Reef. Go to a 1970s Rolling Stones concert. Walk the Great Wall of China.'

We see none of this, just some of the sex-murder scenarios. As a result, I felt the virtual reality element was just a McGuffin into a standard murder mystery. Some of the chasing around Boston could have been reduced in exchange for more insight into the possibilities of NextLife especially in the opening chapters and more exploration of what impact, beyond the possibility of it triggering an infatuation in the real world, it might have on users. The murderer was a disturbed abusive man even before he accessed the system so we do not see what the system itself might do to screw with people's minds.

'Conspiracy' by S.J. Parris [Stephanie Merritt]
As I have noted before I largely buy my books from a local charity shop and then from a carboot sale. As a result I often end up with a book from somewhere along in a series. This is the case with this book. It is the fifth in the series featuring Giordano Bruno who was an actual person alive at the end of the 16th Century. He was a former friar, writer and thinker who was tried over seven years from 1593 for heresy and was executed in 1600. In this book, set in 1585, he has returned from London to Paris and, as a former aide to King Henri III and a tutor in memory, something Bruno was renowned for, he is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a priest who was a friend of his. So far, so good. The details of the setting of Paris at the time with its inns and various quality of houses plus the different factions notably the Duke of Guise and the Catholic League opposed to the King, the King's own faction and that of his mother Catherine De Medici are very good. A ball is the setting for one of the following murders and Parris brings it out excellently. The problem is then, that while this is a political conspiracy novel, she takes it far too far. Effectively Bruno ends up working for all of the factions and also being threatened by them. A range of beautiful women, one who has betrayed him in England, try to seduce him or hand him over to one of those groups he is working for/threatened by.

There are moments of action and tension. However, overall, the whole story becomes so inter-twined that in the last quarter of the book, you just want it to be over with. The sharpness of the early parts of the book are drowned by all the twisting and turning; the huge range of potential explanations and an ever-expanding cast. I imagine Parris was seeking to create something engaging, but she is in the end tripped up by having a need to include simply anyone of note in Paris at the time and thus in all the name-checking the plot is lost. The book was published in 2016 and at the end it hints that Bruno will move to Prague, though in reality he went to Marburg and Frankfurt before going to Venice where he was arrested, imprisoned and tried over years. One can praise Parris for her research and attention to detail, but as is often the case with historical novels, the sense that they have to communicate as much as a history book works against good story telling. It is becoming apparent to me that my age is now making it harder to engage with books which feel they have to be so heavily loaded with characters and plot twists. Even then, I would caution that this book is weighed-down by them whoever you might be.

'A Noble Radiance' by Donna Leon
I am glad that I have persisted in reading Leon's Brunetti series as after some early wobbling the quality has largely grown. Though 'The Death of Faith' (1997) had some flaws: it took an interesting route which many crime authors would not have followed; 'Aqua Alta' (1996) was better still:

I like that willingness by some crime novelists to go in different directions. 'A Noble Radiance' is not radical but it is adept. It starts with the recovery of the body of a young wealthy man from a noble Venetian family - they are something Leon seems fixated with - who had been kidnapped two years earlier. How this differs is we are not really sure what has happened and whether it was simply a kidnapping or if murder was intended from the start or indeed it was a practical joke that went entirely wrong. The twist in this regard is very good and though clues have been laid, Leon has also proven very good at drawing your attention on to other things, other explanations, so by misdirection pulls off a clever story. Though the 'boundaries' are open, in that events take place in the northern Italian countryside, rather than a confined space, she cleverly limits those involved. You may not welcome Leon's mourning of the fate of Venetian nobility, but this context does provide motives and opportunities which would be absent with other families. Overall, Leon creates a feasible, engaging story and I hope that the standard continues in the remaining three novels of hers that I have in line to read.

'The German Opposition to Hitler' by Hans Rothfels
One reason why I was drawn to this book, first published in 1961, though I have the 1970 edition was because when I was studying history in the 1970s we used books published in the previous 20-25 years. Despite acknowledgement of the 20th July 1944 attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, the books even including ones by leading 20th Century historians such as A.J.P. Taylor recounted the Nazi regime as if there had been no resistance to it from within Germany. Even Taylor dismissed the 20th July plotters as deluded and seeking only to maintain Prussian militarism and hierarchy at a time when it was clear Germany was to be defeated. I never really understood why this attitude was adopted. Rothfels's book outlines why unconditional surrender and a wish to make the German public responsible for the crimes directed by their leaders meant that the extensive opposition groups he shows in this book had to be utterly dismissed, even at the price of prolonging the war and ultimately handing much of Europe from the Nazi dictatorship to the Soviet one.

While Rothfels outlines the groups that were formed and the attempts to stop Hitler even before war had begun, he is strongest in looking at what these various groups believed and the immense efforts they put into planning a post-war democratic Germany and indeed Europe. He shows how diverse the people were who were drawn to resist and that how as the years passed, links were made between military conspirators, assorted religious groups, former politicians and trade unionists. Facing such a horrendous regime, it is clear, broke down many of the frictions that had previously existed. While he does not go on into the post-war period, from his evidence one can make a convincing case that the foundations of West Germany's prosperity were being laid by the opposition groups even while the war persisted. Naturally it is exasperating how unresponsive the British and Americans were to repeated contact from opposition groups before and during the war, especially given the risks these Germans took. Most galling is the US attitude that effectively saw the 20th July plotters as no better than Hitler. Perhaps this attitude helps explain how feeble so much of the de-Nazification was during the occupation period (see my review of 'Blind Eye to Murder' (1981): ) as it had been well established that Germans were simply all as guilty as each other and had no genuine belief in liberty or democracy whether due to militarist or Soviet perspectives.

This is a useful book to have alongside histories that have followed which provide greater detail of the activities of opposition groups because it provides the intellectual context in which such people were operating and highlights what drove them on and inhibited their engagement with such risky enterprises. This remains important when, even in the 21st Century we have commentators spilling over from Baigent and Leigh's approach, still going on about some sinister dark intentions of those simply seeking to end such a horrendous regime being in control of Germany. This book is crisp, attentive and well worth a read despite its age.

Audio Book - Fiction
'Stone Cold' by David Baldacci; read by Michael Brandon
Not having read any of Baldacci's books featuring former secret service assassin, Oliver Stone, I was rather bewildered that we begin the book following Harry Flinn a man with a similar background in homeland security but who is assassinating a number of former operatives responsible for the death of his father. This book is apparently the third in the 'Camel Club' pentalogy because it they feature a group of eccentric but talented men who aid Stone with what he is doing. Not having this background meant I was very lost for a lot of the early part of the story. There are effectively three threads - Flinn's vengeance, Stone's own vengeance against his former employers that overlaps with Flinn's and Stone aiding confidence trickster Annabelle Conroy in getting back at crooked casino owner Jerry Bagger who killed her mother. In many ways the book tries too hard, but I guess that is what fans of Baldacci's work are looking for.

Everyone talks tough, even when brought out of retirement, Flinn's elderly mother who turns out to have been a top double agent working on assassinating Soviet leaders. Thus, the book seems overblown, added to the fact that no-one has a normal conversation, it is all scowling or wise cracks. Brandon does this kind of dialogue very well, whether from women or men, though he makes one sound very much like Richard Nixon. There are some interesting set pieces as everyone tries to get to the people they feel they must kill and those people feel they have to get to them, but there is so much of this, that it soon becomes tiring. I have 'The Collectors' (2006) which turns out to be the previous book in this series, but do not know if I have the energy for it. If you like gung-ho action mixed in with a lot of political conspiracy and double-crossing then this book might suit, but even then I would recommend Andy McNab's work as he manages to have such elements without overwhelming the reader.