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.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Books I Listened To/Read In February

'Siege of Heaven' by Tom Harper
This book covers the same phase of history, the 1st Crusade from after the fall of Antioch to the fall of Jerusalem that was covered by 'Prince of Legend' (2013) by Jack Ludlow, also the third book a trilogy: However, in terms of quality Harper's book is in a completely higher league. Ludlow featured no real characters whereas Harper's story is from the perspective of Demetrios Askiates, a representative of the Byzantine Emperor travelling with the crusade, his friends and ultimately members of his family. Thus, while we see the same sieges and the same arguments among the crusaders we can engage with them far better than in Ludlow's book, which read as if a history text book had been simply transposed. Askiates has adventures, even travelling to Egypt and coming into scrapes with the leaders both military and religious, of the crusade. These come at a personal cost, so as with the best historical dramas, we see both the big and the small, sparking off each other. Harper has very good descriptions of, for example, pushing a siege tower and the streets of Antioch and Jerusalem, you feel much more that you are there rather than flying over it all. I am tempted to go back and find the previous two books and certainly if I see any other books by Harper, I will pick them up. The book might not be outstanding, but it is entertaining, and importantly for a historical novel, engaging on a personal level rather than like reading a decent textbook.

'The Death of Faith' by Donna Leon
This novel, the sixth in the Brunetti series is not as strong as the previous one, 'Acqua Alta' (1996) which I read in December:  However, this is not on the basis on which it has been attacked by some readers who are resentful of its portrayal of Catholic institutions and by the way forgetting that this book, published in 1997, predated 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003). It also predates all the public revelations about paedophilia in the Catholic Church which actually make aspects of this book even more believable than back when it was published.

I feel that the characters, while possibly uncomfortable for co-religionists are realistic. The problem is that the book lacks the dynamic of its predecessor. The first half of the book is really just a sequence of interviews by Guido Brunetti that vary very little in nature. Added to that, the crime is not really a crime, but ironically triggers criminal activity. Having read the work of Leonardo Sciscia and Michael Dibdin, I know a time comes when any crime novelist setting stories in Italy has to face the power of the church in that society. However, while some critics feel Leon has gone too far and relied on stereotypes, for me she baulks at the last and lays the blame firmly on an individual rather than on the institution that permits the behaviours she highlights in the novel. In some ways I admire Leon from not feeling compelled to adhere to a standard resolution of the crime, something I always liked in Sciscia's work. However, I feel she held her hand rather than pressing right in, perhaps for fear of a more stronger antipathy to her books from Catholic supporters than has proven the case anyway.

'Guardians of Time' by Poul Anderson
This is in fact four short stories that Anderson published in 1955-60 featuring an American veteran from the 1950s, Manse Everard, who is recruited by very powerful people from the distant future to work in fighting back against those trying to alter our known history. This gives Anderson a chance not simply to highlight lesser known parts of world history but also ask moral questions about the right to tinker with the universe and who makes the decision over what is 'right'. In the first story he investigates radioactive material that has turned up in the 6th Century in part of England controlled by the Jutes in an attempt to prevent the start of what in the 1950s were called the Dark Ages. He also gets drawn into trying to stop a fellow guardian seeking to spare the life of his wife during the Second World War.

In the second story one of the guardians has accidentally ended up becoming Cyrus II of Persia in the 6th Century BCE. Everard not only has to rescue him but also find a suitable replacement. In the third story he works to prevent Mongol and Chinese explorers effectively taking over 13th Century North America before the Europeans arrive in large numbers. This leads him to question whether the USA he knows was the correct path for the continent. The final story has Everard going into battle to prevent people from the future overseeing a victory by Hannibal in the Second Punic War which leads to a Europe and North America dominated by Celtic peoples and a slower development in technology so there are still steam cars in the mid-20th Century.

While it has the earnestness of 1950s science fiction and very easy to use devices for both time travel and moving around in the past, the stories are not simplistic. It is also interesting that Anderson highlights alternatives that even now tend not to be explored very much in all the writing focused on the American Civil War and Second World War. For anyone interested in alternate history, I suggest this book. My edition only had 160 pages, so it is a quick read too, but packs a lot of ideas in.

'Masaryk Station' by David Downing
This is the final book in Downing's 'Station' series and takes events forward to 1948. I was given these books but there is a reasonable chance I would have bought them anyway. However, I would have done this on the basis of being misinformed. There are some small elements of thriller and spy story in these books, but primarily they are just 'slice of life' novels about people living in Berlin through 1939-48. Almost as soon as an adventurous element arises, Downing snuffs it out. We have a little bit in this book with the hero John Russell looking at how former Nazi collaborators are being smuggled out of Yugoslavia and getting a blackmail film from Czechoslovakia. However, repeatedly, Downing backs up from real jeopardy. He also dodges around important historical events. The coup in Czechoslovakia is over before this book starts and the Berlin Blockade occurs after the book finishes. Downing's obsession throughout has really been to provide a sporadic travelogue of Berlin and some other Central European cities in the mid-20th Century. The novels are very fragmented and real points of tension simply dodged. I had expected a very different book to this, something much more like the work of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst who Downing is wrongly likened to. I admire his research for these books, but they are really just vignettes bundled together lacking in clear direction and certainly in adventure even when there seems to be ample opportunity in the context he uses, for it. If you are looking for details of Berlin around the Second World War then this is fine. If you are looking for a follow-on to Kerr's and Furst's work, look elsewhere.

'How to Write Alternate History' by Grey Wolf
This book published in 2013, should not be confused with the 2019 book of the same name edited by Andy Cooke, though their approach is very similar. Wolf's book is a series of blog postings that have been made into chapters. This means that the book is brisk, but I did miss connecting narrative between the chapters and an overarching conclusion. The approach also leads to some repetition as Grey highlights the same aspect more than once in the context of different chapters. Rather than giving a structured masterclass in writing alternate fiction, Wolf, provides a series of prompts and encourages the author to think about things that are often neglected in alternate history fiction such as architecture and music as well as things such as common names and whether the technology available has also been disrupted by the divergence from our history, e.g. a political divergence might alter railway building. Grey is good on the importance of characters in alternate history, which surprisingly, is something that recently I have found have been absent not just from alternate history but even straight historical fiction I have read. Overall, I do not think this book will enable you to write alternate history fiction if you have not already been thinking through it, but for authors of the genre I think it provides a useful checklist of reminders of things not to overlook.

'The Edwardian Crisis, Britain 1901-1914' by David Powell
This is a brisk book that clinically highlights all the different elements of crisis that the UK faced in the 20th Century before the outbreak of the First World War including the cost of living, constitutional, female suffrage, labour unrest and conflict over Irish independence. He tones down the more excited portrayals as these occurrences and while he does consider how much worse things could have turned out, he certainly keeps to sober analysis. It does take some of the 'wind' out of the sense of crisis, but on the other hand it challenges the surprisingly resilient popular view that these years were some kind of golden twilight before the very modern horrors of the First World War. At times you feel he could give more details, but this is largely an analytical book rather than an account, so he steps in with detail when it adds weight to the points he is addressing rather than to bulk out the book. The book is also very good at looking inside political parties and the various movements, especially connected to female suffrage and the Irish question, highlighting that there was never a single viewpoint. Over all this is a very useful book if you want to look at what was actually happening in the UK at this time and also how much worse it could have been.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Bloodline' by Mark Billingham; read by Robert Glenister
Having finally waded my way out of listening to 'Death of a Charming Man' I have been able to get into more audio books this month. I had been hesitant to return to Mark Billingham's work following listened to 'Death Message' (2007) which because the detective uses a serial killer to murder someone he feels has escaped justice, I found morally unsound. However, I had already bought this audio book so turned to listen to it. Though it features a serial killer, son of a serial killer, it is less morally dubious. It has the grittiness that Billingham does well though some of the regular characters, especially pierced, gay pathologist are almost turning into caricatures. Billingham balances the tension in seeking down the killer who is active across Britain with the 'hero' Tom Thorne dealing with his girlfriend's miscarriage. The book, published in 2009, feels modern and appropriate. Glenister voices not just Thorne excellently but also provides a good range of voices for both the female and male characters. This book has a very good twist and I certainly think the book was an improvement on 'Death Message'. However, given my concerns about Billingham's moral compass in his writing I will not be buying any more of his books.

Audio Books - Non-Fiction
'Dear Me' by Peter Ustinov; read by the Author
I got know Ustinov from movies such as 'One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing' (1975) - which unsurprisingly given that (von) Ustinov of German-Russian extraction plays a Chinese in it now has 'racist' appended to its search terms and 'Death on the Nile' (1978) in which he plays a Belgian, does not. He was a regular on chat shows which is where he probably came most into his own as a raconteur. This autobiography was published in 1977 and tails off about 1972, so covers his life before I was really aware of him. I have seen 'Topkapi' (1964) and 'Spartacus' (1960) - though was not conscious he was in it - from that period. However, a lot of the movies, let alone the stage productions he was in or had written were unknown to me.

The book, at times, has Ustinov speaking to himself as a dialogue between different facets of himself which comes out very well in an audio book. The story of his life which was international throughout and involved lots of eccentric people is witty and interesting, showing up the petty madnesses of school, the military and performance. I had not been aware that he had been married three times and his first two marriages, the first when he was 19, seem to have been unpleasant. Those aspects offer a bitter element which sets off the rather rollicking nature of some of the other parts. Overall, while I might have found this book interesting to read, it certainly works best as an audio book as it is like sitting down and listening to a rather peculiar old uncle speaking of his life. I do not know if there is an equivalent for the latter part of his life - he lived until 2004 - but if there is I would buy it as an audio book too.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In January

'Lehrter Station' by David Downing
This is the fourth book in the 'Station' series and is set at the end of 1945 and early 1946. The heroes, John Russell and Effi Koenen are living in London with John's son, Effi's sister and nephew and an adopted Jewish girl. Russell is persuaded to return to Berlin to work as a double agent for the Soviets; Effi accompanies him as she is given a new role in a movie being made in the city. I have come to realise that action does not realise interest Downing. There are brief moments of excitement as Russell deals with his US and Soviet handlers and he and Effi uncover black market dealers in medicines. Russell follows a route getting Jews from Germany to Palestine but only as far as northern Italy and doing so uncovers an SS officer. He has to help snatch a scientist from the Soviets. However, the moments of action are largely that, moments and generally end after a couple of pages so Downing can return to his main focus of interest. Downing loves to simply show Berlin and other locations and to note in great detail the impact of the war on them. Many have made effective use post-war Germany/Austria as the setting for adventures, but this author prefers to have a historical travelogue. I do not know if that is what genuinely interests him or he simply cannot stop himself showing off all the research he has done. As a historian I find some of this interesting, however, if you are looking for a spy or adventure story set in this period read something by Philip Kerr or rewatch 'The Third Man' (1949).

'Seventy-Seven Clocks' by Christopher Fowler
Though this novel, the third in the Bryant & May series is set in 1973, Fowler fails really to communicate a sense of that period. Maybe he would argue that the upper class family portrayed would not behave in such a snobbish way now, but I feel you could put them into 2013 and they would act in exactly the same way. Fowler and his characters clearly love London and in the two preceding novels in this series we get lots of material of quirky details about the city; the mystery at the heart of this story involves and obscure guild and its buildings. When I started this series I had expected much more magic realism and actually when Fowler first wrote this particular novel it had a supernatural element that he later removed. Thus we get nothing more than quirky and given the oddities that many mainstream detectives have to deal with - they always get at least one story with a cult or an ancient mystery - Bryant & May do not stand out as much as I think Fowler would like them to.

I found this story moved more briskly than the previous two, perhaps because as a counterbalance to the grumblings of the two lead detectives. I found the perspective of the hangovers from colonialism which work better in 1973 than now, an interesting angle. Though at times the book has longueurs, I felt it was tighter than the two before it and I am hopeful that I will see an improvement overall as I got further through the series.

'Matter' by Iain M. Banks
This book ironically suffers from some of the same problems as 'Lehrter Station' even though it is set on alien planets and spaceships. I have enjoyed a couple of Banks's science fiction books, 'The Player of Games' (1988) and more recently, 'The Algebraist' (2004). However, this novel does not come close in quality to either of those. Perhaps it is because it is part of Banks's 'Culture' series of super-powerful utopian civilisation. The story features three siblings of a humanoid royal family that live on the eighth layer of an artificial hollow planet. The murder of their father by his chief minister sets the three eventually coming together to resolve the situation. It is a lengthy story (593 pages in my edition) with two of the characters travelling via numerous intelligent spaceships and worlds and getting mixed up with very diverse alien species. There are lots of interesting ideas here, but that is the problem, Banks seems determined to detail every single one of them. There are swathes of the book which are 'info dumps', emphasised by the fact that he has a long glossary of all the different names, even the types of spaceships, towards the end of the book. 'The Algebraist' communicated a complex, alien set-up well, without choking the action off with stopping to inform you how great Banks's imagination was. Another thing is that he baulks away from showing the death of leading characters, that all happens 'off stage'. There is also a jump from the climax to the happy ending of the story which makes it feel weak as we do not see how the apocalypse was averted. Banks had a wonderful imagination and created immense environments. However, with this novel, that overwhelms the story which as a result is diminished. I wanted the book to move on rather than hear more about how a particular spaceship configures with another.

'War Underground' by Alexander Barrie
This book covers an often neglected aspect of the First World War - the tunnels dug and the mines laid under trenches on the Western Front. It is very much from the British perspective, though Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders get a look in, the French and the far more efficient German efforts are only mentioned in passing. The story is one which will be familiar to anyone who has read British military history. The units, initially drawn from 'clay kickers' who excavated sewers, were cobbled together by the MP John Norton Griffiths, though largely in response to the work of the highly skilled German pioneer units digging under British trenches and then blowing them apart with explosives. There were mix-ups with pay and the chains of command.

The tunneller units were alternately sought by established units as defence against German tunnelling and dismissed as slackers taking good men away from the front. By the end of the way, combined they were the strength of a division though spread along the frontline in companies. The typical British chaos at war is shown, the low point being the delivery of three diving bells to the frontline.  This is a brisk book which manages to balance focus on the individuals involved and the dangers they faced - not just being buried alive or blown apart, but in the skirmishes with revolvers and hand grenades that took place when German tunnellers were encountered underground. There is also technical detail of the mines and the tunnels that housed them. It is an interesting story and one that is often forgotten. However, it does make you wonder again how Britain ever manages to win a war, given the tendency for snobbery and simply poor organisation, to get in the way. I would certainly be interested to read a book telling of this kind of warfare from the German side.

Audio Book - Fiction
'Death of a Charming Man' by M.C. Beaton [Marion Gibbons]; read by David Monteath
Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that in recent months I have not been posting reviews of audio books. That is because I have been struggling to get through this one. I had heard of Hamish Macbeth as a result of the television series which ran for three seasons, 1995-97, though I had never watched any. Starting in 1985, so far 34 novels have been written in this series and this is the 10th in the series, published in 1994. Details in the story make it feel as if it is set much earlier and I had imagined it dated from the 1960s or 1970s. I have been aware of the concept of 'cosy crime' novels, but this takes the cosiness far too far and in fact murder only features very late in the book.

This is more a soap opera about a police sergeant rambling around parts of the North-East Highlands doing very little; he moans about things, he gets a woman to challenge her abusive husband, he looks at houses to buy and verges on having a relationship with a woman who is not his fiancee. His fiancee, an Englishwoman who works in the family hotel has attitudes that would have looked dated in 1964, let alone 1994 and that gives the whole feeling of this being pretty unreal, Beaton (1936-2019) would have been better off making this a historical crime novel set in an earlier decade. There are lots of old fashioned characters who dully spark off each other, but for large stretches the story does not move forward and you are actually glad when Macbeth dumps his fiancee from another time. This would have been dull at 3 hours as many crime audio books, but at over 6 hours it was very hard to get through. I certainly will not be going anywhere near Hamish Macbeth books again. If I wanted this kind of story I would watch 'Coronation Street'. Monteath does pretty well with Scottish and non-Scottish accents especially as he has to do a wide range of sour women.

Monday, 6 January 2020

What If Proportional Representation Had Been Used In the 2019 UK General Election?

This is something I have long done with UK elections, most recently in 2017: It is a counter-factual exercise which looks at what would have happened if proportional representation had been introduced to UK elections either in 1918 or under the Labour governments 1997-2010 which had it as a policy which was never enacted.

I use a simple system for my analysis, allocating the number of seats in Parliament on the basis of the share of the vote received. Of course, any proportional representation system cannot replicate purely the percentage figures but they tend to come close. Some systems, e.g. that of Germany, will not allow any party polling less than 5% of the total vote, to have a seat in parliament. However, I assume such a bar is not in place. Furthermore, if there was proportional representation, the choices of voters might be very different and smaller UK parties, notably the Greens, might receive more votes as they would be seen as more 'viable'.

Given the large majority that the Conservatives secured in 2019, perhaps aided by the election unusually being held in the December, unlike the 2010 and 2017 elections, I would expect that there would not be vast differences if it had been through proportional representation, but the above analysis suggests the story is more complex and I thought it was important to verify or contest easy assumptions. 

It is interesting to note that in 2017, the Conservatives got 42.45% of the vote but did not secure a majority but in 2019 got 42.4% of the vote but now have a majority of 80 seats. Interestingly, Boris Johnson did not secure a large percentage of the votes than Theresa May did but they were spread much more widely across the country. This highlights one challenge of the British system but is little compensation to May to know that overall she was no less popular with voters than Johnson just that her support was heavily concentrated. 

In fact the turnout in 2019 was 67.3% compared to 68.8% in 2017 meaning Johnson not only secured a smaller percentage but actually a smaller actual number of votes. If they had remained as concentrated in certain areas as they had done for May, then he would have had an even smaller number of seats in parliament that she had. The big win for Johnson was to get a few voters in traditionally Labour seats to back him, rather than being as popular as May had been in traditionally Conservative seats. This, however, is not how the media portrayed it and May will go down in history as an unpopular Prime Minister, though ironically from her own party she could secure more votes.

Interestingly support for Labour in 2019 as a percentage is almost identical to that in 2017. However, they have suffered from a maldistribution of support in the way that May did. Johnson won not by securing more support, but from converting Labour supporters to his line. In many ways this is what Margaret Thatcher did in 1979 and 1983 which might suggest that unless Johnson blows it badly, he could be in office for many years. However, given what his friend David Cameron did, staying in office for a decade now seems out of fashion and it is likely Johnson will leave in 2027 for a profitable retirement.

Note that despite long promised reduction in the number of seats and in the boundaries between constituencies, this has still not come into force. If it had done then Labour were expected to have around 35 fewer seats anyway.  There was an electoral pact between the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru in certain seats so that they would not contest against each other. However, this does not seem to have had any impact on the results. Depending on the form of proportional representation used it might have done in this context.

In the details below, the text and numbers in square brackets are what the parties actually got.

2019: 650 Seats [Conservative Government]
  • Conservatives (42.4%): 276 seats [317]
  • Labour (40.0%): 259 [202]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.4%): 47 [11]
  • SNP (3.0%): 20 [48]
  • Green (2.7%): 16 [1]
  • Brexit Party (2.0%): 11 [0]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.5%): 4 [4]
Northern Irish Parties
  • DUP (0.8%): 5 [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%): 5 [4]
  • Alliance Party (0.4%): 3 [1]
  • SDLP (0.4%): 2 [1]
  • UUP (0.3%): 2 [0]
With Northern Ireland, I have assumed that the 'left over' votes have gone to the two largest parties in terms of seats. The Alliance Party secured more votes than the SDLP though they were very close so the 'extra' seat might have gone either way. Constituencies in Northern Ireland can be very partisan. It is clear however, that the DUP was in part 'punished' for supporting Theresa May's government 2017-19, as while they secured extra funding for the Province, the Brexit deal that began to emerge ran counter to what their supporters had been seeking.

Looking at the election overall, after a period in the 2000s and 2010s in which proportional representation would not have provided much benefit to Labour or the Liberal Democrats, to a pattern similar to that in the 1980s. The media portrayed the election as a great win for Johnson and highlighting how he swept into constituencies that have long been held by Labour. Conversely, Corbyn has been portrayed as a bad liability for Labour, wrecking their chances of coming to power. Yet, in terms of votes the picture is not so clear. With proportional representation, even the AV system considered in 2011, Johnson would not have secured a majority. 

This does not mean necessarily that a Labour-Liberal Democrat with or without the Greens and SNP, would have come to power. Before the election there had been tensions as the Liberal Democrats and Greens had wanted to reverse Brexit whereas Labour had been more ambivalent on the issue. The SNP was demanding a further referendum on Scottish independence within one year of a coalition involving themselves coming to power. The outcome is likely to have been either Labour would have to tack to being anti-Brexit which might have split the party or would have struggled on with support on certain issues. Ironically, to get a soft Brexit through they would have had to rely on Conservative support in the face of Liberal Democrat/Green/Plaid Cymru and probably SNP opposition. The trumpeted 'national unity' grand coalition may have come about though perhaps with Keir Starmer rather than Corbyn at the helm under a soft Brexit Conservative possibly Philip Hammond. A further general election in better weather would be a high probability perhaps making the fourth election in six years.

With Brexit Party MPs in parliament, the Conservatives would be harangued to keep to a hard (perhaps even harder) line on Brexit and their failure again to secure a majority is likely to have been blamed on not doing this. It seems that not securing a majority again, Corbyn would still have had to leave. However, it would be on better terms than has proven to be the case. Added to that it seems likely that Labour left-wingers would be in a stronger position than in our situation rather than Labour feeling compelled to find someone more like Johnson, or at least like Tony Blair, as leader.

The 2019 election is a case which would give heart to those commentators who argue that proportional representation leads to unstable government. However, in part it simply highlights how diverse opinion is in the UK. The 2019 election as it was run with the first-past-the-post system does mark a return to the pattern of the 1980s, at the time called the 'elective dictatorship'. If Johnson wants to he could still be in power in 2031 in the equivalent to Thatcher. However, to him politics just seems to be a bit of a jape and just a component in his diverse career. It does mean that we will probably see history repeating itself. Unrest due to Conservative social policies; Labour adopting a glamorous leader effectively offering simply a watered down version of Conservative policies, which are already biting hard on natural Labour supporters though as in 1983, they are falling back on xenophobia to sustain them through tough times.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Books I Read In December

'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman
I saw that they were televising a series of this book so I thought it might be an idea to read it. Despite being a long book not much happens. The story involves Shadow, an ex-convict who is employed by Odin to aid him in rallying other gods brought to the USA by settlers down the millennia. For much of the time Shadow lives in a small village by a lake when not being employed by Odin and encounters a range of interesting people as well as being bothered by his late wife who he inadvertently raised from the dead and who kills people who threaten him. There is an interesting concept that places and activities are imbued with belief and Gaiman features local attractions which become filled with power because people come to them. The basic concept overlaps with 'The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul' (1988) by Douglas Adams which was published 13 years earlier but relocating to dreary backwater towns in the USA gives Gaiman a chance to add the new twist of old gods against new gods of technology and other facets of contemporary society. While the plot drifts for far too long, there is a decent twist and above all, Gaiman writes interesting characters and portrays unexciting US settings well. Thus, despite the fantastical element there is a real lack of urgency about this book and it is, ironically, best read as a 'slice of life' novel. I cannot imagine this would make exciting watching unless you are a fan of Mike Leigh movies, but I see they are on to the third season of the TV series so I can only imagine they have long ago diverged from the novel.

'Now is the Time' by Melvyn Bragg
I once read an interview with Bragg in which he wished his novels were just a little more successful. He seems to get long listed for awards but very rarely wins. Having read this novel I can understand why. The novel is around the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Bragg shows it from various perspectives on both sides of the conflict and certainly you can learn a lot about what went on and who was involved. I particularly found the descriptions of London at the time very interesting. However, it is all written in an unsophisticated way with lots of telling rather than showing and somehow detached from the characters. Even when Wat Tyler's daughter is raped by London criminals released during the revolt, you do not feel the way you should about this. In many ways the book reminded me of novels by Henry Treece (1911-66) who wrote numerous historical novels for children. Thus, though there are points of interest, there is a lack of genuine drama in the novel and at the end you feel like you have read a lesson rather than a novel. Bragg should look to the work of Bernard Cornwell in how to add that dramatic element to scrupulously researched fiction.

'Aqua Alta' by Donna Leon
In this fifth book in the Guido Brunetti series, Leon returns to two characters from the first novel, 'Death at La Fenice' (1992), opera singer Flavia Petrelli and her female partner, archaeologist Brett Lynch. When Lynch is beaten up, Brunetti involves himself in the case which soon turns into one involving murder and faked archaeological artefacts. It is set against the backdrop of both the 'aqua alta', the flooding of Venice caused by high tides and heavy rain and the sense that those in privileged positions continue to get away with their crimes. This applies to Lynch as much as the antique collector. As noted with the previous novel, Leon appears to have got into her stride with these novels and they rise far about the first couple. The book is brisk, provides interesting details about both Venice and archaeology in China as well as setting the story in the amoral context of contemporary Italy that appears so attractive for crime novelists even those writing in English. I have five more of these novels to read. Leon continues churning them out and the 29th comes out in 2020.

'Counting Up, Counting Down' by Harry Turtledove
Around the time this book came out in 2002, I had been thinking of writing a short story about a man who travels back in time to try to improve his own life. Then I heard of the two stories at the start and end of this book, which in fact are the same story seen from the older and younger versions of the same man, Justin Kloster travelling from 2018 to 1999. The ending of these stories turns out was far more positive than the one I planned which would have ended up rather like 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) movie. It brought home to me that especially if writing in a particular genre it is easy for authors to come up with similar stories of their own accord. The two stories are reasonable if a little frustrating. One interesting things are what Turtledove (originally writing this as a magazine story in the 1990s) got wrong about 2018, i.e. The Rolling Stones are still touring, 'South Park' is still very well known even by teenagers and the fad for body piercing has not waned in the slightest, in fact it has increased.

The rest of the stories in this collection are quite a mixed bag.  Despite what I have been told about my alternate history short story anthologies, there is demand for such collections. Not all of the stories are alternate history, there is some science fiction and fantasy too. There is far more sex than I had expected from reading other books by Turtledove and with religion this is a key theme through the collection. 'Vermin' about a Christian community struggling as settlers on an alien planet is well done and highlights the grave consequences of seeking comfort just for yourself or your community. Other science fiction ones are oddities, 'The Deconstruction Gang' about philosophers discussing breaking up a road, 'The Green Buffalo' about cowboys slipping through a rift in time to kill a triceratops for food and 'The Maltese Elephant', a pastiche of 'The Maltese Falcon' (novel 1930; movie 1941) are alright but not hugely engaging.

'Ils Ne Passeront Pas' conjures up the Verdun front in 1916 very well, but then, for no clear reason, throws creatures from the Biblical apocalypse at French and German soldiers, ultimately without much changing. This like 'In This Season' a magical realist story about a small number of Jews escaping Poland following the German occupation in 1939 with the aid of a golem, again has religious elements that I probably miss out on. 'After the Last Elf is Dead' is more fantastical, but equally grim, seeing a world where the evil Dark Brother has been victorious and showing the challenges even for his loyal staff which reminded me of Stalin's regime and has a very unsettling conclusion which, though, does show the likely outcome if evil does win in a fantasy setting.

Seemingly more light-hearted than those grim stories is 'Honeymouth', a fantasy story about a disreputable rider of a unicorn and while sex features in the other stories it is right at the front in this fantasy one as the title might suggest. 'Miss Manner's Guide to Greek Missology #1: Andromeda and Perseus' is interesting in reversing the roles in the stories, but I always find attempts at humour in these situations is laboured and dates poorly. 'Goddess for a Day' despite sounding like a story title set to primary school children is the best of the fantasy stories, showing the challenges of a woman employed to act as Athena, in an actual event which occurred in the 6th Century CE.

Two reasonable stories focused on religion are set in Turtledove's Videssos fantasy setting, similar to the Byzantine Empire on which he was a scholar. The first, 'The Decoy Duck' about a missionary to a nordic style land will remind readers of a very similar sub-plot in the TV series, 'Vikings' (2013-20) and given it was written long before that may have been an inspiration for it. The second, 'The Seventh Chapter' is unexciting, largely a procedural that primarily tells us more about the world Turtledove has created and religion within it.

Of the alternate histories, 'Must and Shall' set in 1942 but one in which the Union was far harsher on the Confederate States following the shooting of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, is well done as detectives seek the German weapons being sent to southern states to trigger an uprising. 'Ready for the Fatherland' is set in 1979 in Croatia in a world where Field Marshal Manstein assassinated Hitler in 1943, held back the Soviet counter-attacks and crushed the Anglo-American landing in France so a stalemate developed across Europe with the Germans and their puppet states persisting. There is a nice reference to a scene from 'The Guns of Navarone' (1961) movie and a passing one to 'Force 10 from Navarone' (1978). 'The Phantom Tolbutkin' features another similar scenario but with Ukrainian resistance fighters in the occupied USSR and turns a good twist.

'Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of the Second World War' by Nigel West [Rupert Allason]
This book is probably unnecessary now, but when it came out in 1984 it proved a good corrective to the numerous books that had been appearing in the 1970s and early 1980s about spying during the Second World War. It showed me that 'Bodyguard of Lies' (1975) which I have on my shelf is riddled with errors. It also shows how without care historians can perpetuate mistakes through successive books. West looks at a number of claims in books of the time, among others, that a German spy in Orkney Islands allowed the sinking of HMS 'Royal Oak' when berthed there, that Admiral Canaris, head of German military intelligence provided material to the Allies but had also met Mata Hari, who was behind the Soviet spy ring in Switzerland during the war and whether Churchill had foreknowledge of the bombing of Coventry in November 1940. Most of the cases prove to be less dramatic than historians have made out and often came down to a combination of human, signals and codebreaking intelligence. As time had passed since the war, more identities of spies came out, also allowing corrections of misapprehensions. 

This is another book which would have been better for me to have read when I bought it 30+ years ago. M.R.D. Foot, the historian of S.O.E. (who I met once) was rather sniffy about this book, in part I think because West highlights some mistakes Foot made. Thus, you rather feel this book is a bit of revenge by West against authors who have too easily accepted certain stories without doing the necessary cross-checking. Allason himself is now 68 and Foot died in 2012 at the age of 92, so that element is largely irrelevant now. What I would suggest is that this short book (166 pages) should be given to people starting History degrees to alert them to how easily it is not simply to make errors, especially when based on assumptions, but to perpetuate them. If like me you are working your way through old books on the Second World War, it is also useful to have this as an accompanying corrective especially to the more exciting claims made in those books.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

The Books I Read In November

'Clockwork Angel' by Cassandra Clare
Having read this book and given how little satisfaction I have received from much I have read this year, I have begun thinking I should simply read Young Adult steampunk/fantasy books. I had not connected this book with the Mortal Instruments series also by Clare, of which I have seen the movie, 'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones' (2013) and this has many similar tropes, but set in 1878 London rather than contemporary USA. There is a secret organisation fighting the manifestation of demons in our world and having an ambivalent relationship with various vampires, werewolves and other supernaturals. There are eldritch and steampunk weapons and some combine both elements. It focuses on Tessa Gray, an orphan from the USA with the ability to slip into the form of another person, a skill highly valued by many of working in this demi-monde of London.

Though there are standard elements of kidnap, treachery, the poverty and dark streets of Victorian London and some very large battles, Clare handles it very well and you are really swept along by the narrative. While there is a plethora of tropes present, I also think her character building is pretty good and this really helps. As a mature reader, the honesty of Tessa's feelings, particularly towards potential love interests, plus her struggling to determine her identity, does come over in a very teenage way. However, this is largely counter-balanced by the politics of the underworld and the twists in the plot which lift it above other books in this kind of category. I am not certain if I would rush out and buy the two other books in this Infernal Devices series, but would be tempted to pick them up if they appeared in a charity shop.

'Potsdam Station' by David Downing
This is the fourth book in the Station series and jumps from 1941 in the predecessor, 'Stettin Station' (2009) to the closing days of the Second World War in 1945. One of my complaints bout the previous books in the series is that the main character John Russell, a British-born American journalist based in Berlin, spends a lot of time simply travelling around. This shows off Downing's knowledge of Berlin and some other cities at the time, but really deadens the action rather than heighten it. This book takes that to the extreme. The point of view jumps between Russell, brought back to Berlin by Soviet authorities to find German atomic secrets, his girlfriend Effi Koenen who he left behind in 1941 and has become involved in smuggling Jews out of Germany and his teenaged German son, Paul, who has been conscripted into an artillery unit on the Eastern Front but is steadily driven back to Berlin. At times, the jump between the different points of view is abrupt and it can take some sentences to realise which character is being focused upon especially when they are all in different parts of Berlin.

Very little happens. The spy element is killed off very quickly and so you are left simply watching these three people wandering around ruined Berlin largely trying to stay alive. Russell tries to find the other two as well as people he knew four years earlier. There are points of tension especially when Effi is arrested as a Jew, but as in the previous novels, Downing is poor at communicating real jeopardy and I see this is something other reviewers have criticised him for. Ultimately this is really just an erratic guided tour of Berlin in the last days of the war. If you find that detail interesting then you might engage with this book, but otherwise it lacks the necessary elements even of a family wartime story let alone the (spy) thriller aspects which I once believed this series was supposed to be about.

'The Water Room' by Christopher Fowler
Despite what it says on the cover of my copy of this novel, it is in fact the second book in the Bryant and May series and the plot follows on from elements featured in the first, 'Full Dark House' (2004) which I read last month:  The fact they were published in the same year may have led to some confusion. Initially I felt happier with this novel than its predecessor. It is set in the 2000s in a part of North London in a typically odd street left over from the chopping and changing down the decades. As you expect from Fowler there is a peculiar murder, an elderly Asian woman has been drowned in river water in her own home. It is followed by a number of murders which increasingly seem to be linked to the four ancient elements and to the various rivers of London which have been covered over down the centuries but still exist. The truncated close gives a set number of suspects and Fowler is good at developing these characters well.

We get more on Bryant and May, the octogenarian detectives, their assorted colleagues and eccentric helpers. The motive for the murder and a range of secrets is played out well, being both exotic but also credible. The prime problem is, especially after about the halfway point is that the book becomes slack. As with Downing, there is simply far too much going from place to place. Adding in the viewpoints of the two detectives' colleagues adds bulk without increasing tension. As a result by the resolution, which is interested, you are simply glad it is over. I have commented how these days with editing even by publishing houses, being less common some authors are allowed to simply drone on in quite a repetitive way and I feel Fowler has been allowed to do this. This novel could have shed 100 pages (it had 429 pages in the edition I read) and have been better for it. I have hope for the series because of Fowler's character development and detail on London. Do I ask too much in expecting my thrillers whether crime or spy to have tension and pace in them? Perhaps in the 21st Century where size for the sake of size in a novel seems more important that such elements, I am.

'The Old Country' by Jack Hargreaves
This book followed the success of 'Out of Town' (1987) which I read last month: and was similarly Jack Hargreaves outlining lost crafts and behaviours from rural England with quite a lot of reference to his own life. A lot of this book is about fish and angling techniques and even some of the ones he mentions as being contemporary in the late 1980s, have become obsolete due to new materials. He also speaks about wild birds, which of course have become rarer still with the loss of so many in the UK and odd things such as appreciation of time, accents and various travelling traders such as wool packers. It is a light easy read with some jarring moments when the conservatism of an old man breaks through with politically incorrect statements on race, though he is more sympathetic to Roma than many of his generation would be and in turn very dismissive of New Age Travellers. This is a good resource book if you want to set stories in rural England in the 19th and 20th centuries and draws your attention to facts that you might have overlooked or never realised. It is very much an old man telling you stories by the fire and as such I can understand why it is still in print, though sold at garden centres rather than in bookshops.