Saturday, 6 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Everyday Value Ginger Nuts

Tesco Everyday Value Ginger Nuts

As this biscuit blog builds up, I will be comparing the same type of biscuits from different UK stores.  I do not know whether I can bring myself to compared digestives between the different shops, I may leave that to my mother.  However, ginger 'nuts' as they are termed are certainly on the cards as will be rich tea and malted milk biscuits.  Though the sampling will naturally be spread out over weeks, even months, you can link through to all the relevant postings as I am carefully tagging each of them at the bottom.  This allows you to compare what I say about the nature of the same type of biscuit sold in different stores.

This week I have strayed beyond Lidl to Tesco where the woman in my house primarily shops.  These are the large packets of Everyday Value Ginger Nuts.  It says on the side that they have '30 servings' by which I assume they mean 30 biscuits, though I rarely eat single biscuits, usually I count two biscuits as a 'serving'.

I do like the mid-1960s styling of Tesco products introduced 2-3 years ago.  Marks & Spencer did something similar.  For someone of my generation these are very nostalgic as in the early 1970s this seemed a 'classic' styling, so I guess it is ideal for targeting people in their 40s and 50s.  These biscuits are alright especially for a value brand.  They are small in diameter and do not have a satisfying gingery flavour or an after taste which you would expect from a ginger biscuit whether of the nut or stem ginger variety.  They also lack a really good snap when bitten, but avoid being powdery like some of the worst ginger nuts,  They could be a 2½-star biscuit, but lack the tang you can even find in some cheap versions.  They do their job which I suppose is all you can ask for from a value version biscuit.

Rating:
*****

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Classic Shortbread Rounds

Tower Gate Classic Shortbread Rounds

After the disappointment of the pink wafers last month I did consider abandoning Lidl for another store.  Once I have exhausted Lidl's range of biscuits, I will move on, have no fear.  However, it does mean changing where I go on my way home from work.  Roadworks in my neighbourhood meaning reaching Asda is far harder than usual.  Anyway, after sampling this posting's biscuit, I realised that some good could still be found in Lidl's biscuit aisle.

I have noticed recently that there has been an abandonment of putting loads of white sugar on shortbread biscuits.  Too often you cannot really savour a shortbread biscuit because all it is proving to be is a vehicle for delivering loads of plain sugar into your mouth.  The move away from this approach is something I approve of and was pleased to find when I tried these shortbread rounds.  I imagine the word 'rounds' has been added because a lot of shortbread is either segments of a circle, so triangular in nature or these days is in the form of bars of shortbread.  As with the Deluxe Stem Ginger biscuits of January: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/biscuit-blog-deluxe-stem-ginger-butter.html there still seems to be the Scottish connection - the same saltire is found on  the box of these rounds.

All of this is fine, you might say, but what do they taste like?  I must say I was very pleased.  They managed to have that buttery flavour that I had been seeking in the Deluxe Stem Ginger but without crumbling or melting away as the old fashioned shortbreads tended to do or go into chunks like some modern ones do.  Thus, they have a very nice shortbread flavour but are still a proper biscuit. It is ironic that these are deemed 'classic' when in fact they fortunately have moved away from the overly crumbly shortbread that once dominated.  I feel Tower Gate has done very well with these.  That is one of the issue of an umbrella brand name used by a discounted store, that underneath it the quality can vary quite considerably.  I only mark them down to four for a little bitter after taste.  In general, however, these are good quality biscuits.  It is a shame there are only nine per pack as otherwise they would be an excellent general biscuit to have in your larder.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Books I Read In January

Fiction
'Amsterdam' by Ian McEwan
I bought this book at the same time as I bought 'The Daydreamer' (1994) which I reviewed in November 2015:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/the-books-i-read-in-november.html This one, published four years later, won the Booker Prize, though I cannot understand why.  Like 'The Daydreamer' it is another short book (178 pages) set in the bubble world of McEwan's creation.  Though published in the 1990s these two books set their stories in a kind of late 1960s/early 1970s world when McEwan, born in 1948, was a young man.  There are the occasional references to specific items of technology and in 'Amsterdam' to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but these elements hardly alter the perception that the action and, certainly, the attitudes are more suited to twenty years earlier.

It is an almost exclusively white setting despite much of the story unfolding in London.  Though in this book a black child and her family are mentioned, but never actually seen.  Like 'The Daydreamer the culture and locations are primarily in southern England - this book does include brief visits to the Lake District and the Netherlands, but the locals are clearly 'other'.  It features the English Middle Class; in this book specifically the Upper Middle Class - there is a composer, a politician, an investor and a newspaper editor.  Women have bit-parts in the male-focused story; the funeral of the main woman in the book is the starting point.  Most of the action takes place in London.

One criticism I had from someone who read this book in 2000 was that 'very little happens'.  Much of the book is about the thoughts of the various characters, a mix of reminiscences and various meetings.  It is largely whimsical in tone fitting with the magic realist tone that appeared 'The Daydreamer' only toned down.  It is hard to engage with any of the characters and you feel you would despise any of them if you met them in real life.  That may be the point.  The only good aspect of this novel is the description of the composer's work on a symphony and how he envisages it.  McEwan has written a libretto and he does well in communicating the sense of music in the mind of the composer to a non-specialist reader.  I have sworn off McEwan already and this book did nothing to change my mind.  I am just struck by how such slight books with such a detachment from reality can have been so successful.

As an aside, the cover of the book shows two men from the 19th century about to duel.  I can now see the relevance of this because of the conflict between the two friends in the book: Vernon the newspaper editor and Clive the composer.  However, it did mean I was surprised when I found it was actually set in 20th century London rather than 19th century Amsterdam and that the person who told me it featured a balloon flight over the latter city, lied.

'Prague Fatale' by Philip Kerr
I have long enjoyed Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels featuring a German police detective in the 1930s-50s since the original trilogy was published in 1989-91.  With this book, Kerr has set himself a real challenge.  It is one that he, through his narrator/lead character recognises in the text. For much of the book Gunther is investigating a murder as the Bohemian house of Reinhard Heydrich (1904-42) who was head of the RSHA which was an umbrella organisation for police bodies in Nazi Germany throughout the war.  He became Deputy 'Protector' of Bohemia-Moravia in September 1941 though was acting 'Protector' until his assassination in June 1942. In this novel, set in October 1941, he is hosting a range of leading Nazi officials responsible for Bohemia-Moravia.  All have had a part in the atrocities already being committed at that time on the Eastern Front.  Thus there is a house full of murderers and as Gunther asks, is there any point in investigating the killing of one man?

The novel opens with murders in Berlin.  Kerr successfully conjures up the difficulties of living in wartime Berlin with the shortages, the increasing atrocities against Jews and the air raids.  This part of the novel is gritty and engaging.  However, when the action moves to Heydrich's castle in Bohemia, there is an abrupt shift in tone.  Again, Gunther notes this.  He is correct to say that it resembles and Agatha Christie stately-home murder mystery.  It could have worked on this basis.  I have often been drawn to novels in which the detective can solve a case but not bring the guilty party to justice.  This is a feature of crime novels by Leonardo Sciascia and Josef Škvorecký and as you might expect with such powerful Nazis involved it is a likely outcome of this novel.  What is interesting to see is how Gunther resolves it and what his investigations reveal about the evolving nature of the Nazi state at this time.

Towards the end of the book, the tone shifts again.  There is a torture scene, perhaps included to remind the reader not to become too accepting of Heydrich and his kind.  The link between the killing and the activities of the Czech and Slovak resistance which ultimately led to Heydrich's assassination and the massacre that followed, seems rather contrived.  Gunther is portrayed as both very astute but at the same time blinkered and naive, two tendencies which do not sit well together.  Certainly the last part of the novel with the death of two leading members of the Luftwaffe wrapped up in pages, feels very rushed.  This is not helped by the very long list of suspects that are on the table.  Kerr has missed Christie's technique in keeping the suspects to a limited number.  Consequently he has to engineer a speeded up conclusion of the investigation that again does not sit comfortably.  I guess the alternative would have been to give us many more pages of interrogations.

Overall, this book feels as if it consists of parts of two different books welded together.  Kerr can do this, even jumping between different times and continents as in 'If The Dead Rise Not' (2009) and it is something he has done again in 'The Lady From Zagreb' (2015) though I have not read that one.  However, here it is far less successful. By featuring real people and having already produced novels featuring Gunther in the later 1940s and 1950s, some jeopardy is missing as we know what happened to the major characters.  At times Gunther even shows that he is reminiscing from sometime much later as he outlines what happened to a couple of the suspects at the end of the war.

I think Kerr wanted to write a stately home mystery but felt guilty about doing that with such sinister, real-life people.  Thus, other elements had to be included in attempt to puncture the 'cosy' nature of the investigation in the castle.  This highlights the fact that such murder stories are really divorced from real murder and investigation and trying to put an example together with the far more realistic and gritty approach featuring in most Gunther novels by Kerr does not work for that reason.

It is not a bad book and it rattles along very briskly.  I do always worry when the lead character begins to work for someone very senior.  It may open up the opportunity for engaging with different sorts of crimes and to introduce politics.  However, it detaches the detective from the realism of dealing with what is happening on the street.  Most crime is sordid not effete.  This has long been a challenge with Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichirō novels from when he went to work for the Shogun.

As I noted with 'If The Dead Rise Not' which I read in December 2012: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-books-i-read-in-december.html  whoever does the covers for the books does not actually seem to read them.  This novel is set in 1941 with some references to the death of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  On the cover, however, it says the murder which features in the bulk of the book is committed in 1942, which is wrong.  The image on the front cover is wrong as well as the man featured seems to be wearing clothes from the 1960s/70s as he walks across the Charles Bridge in Prague rather than clothing of the 1940s.  These are not major issues, but may mislead some potential readers.

I have a number of other Bernie Gunther books to read this year and hope that in these Kerr has not attempted to lump together two crime genres and keeps Gunther doing what he does best.

Non-Fiction
'The State We're In' by Will Hutton
This was a hugely successful book in the mid-1990s spending months in the top-selling book charts.  The edition I read this month was the 1995 revised edition with a couple of extra chapters.  The book sits in a tradition of those written about the malaise of Britain that appeared during the 20th century, but notably from the 1960s onwards.  Hutton puts himself clearly in that context, especially in noting the lack of long-term investment in Britain and the institutions to support that, plus the failings in technical education in Britain which were being bemoaned in the late 19th century when Britain began to slip behind the USA and especially Germany.

Hutton also writes about the so-called Establishment, an interlocked framework of the elites that have always run Britain.  This topic remains a popular one for mainstream non-fiction as 'The Establishment: And how they get away with it' by Owen Jones published in March 2015 shows.  Hutton, at times also takes a moral tone, which sounds as if he was a Non-Conformist from a century below and might seem out-of-step with liberal and left-wing opinion as articulated in the late 1990s.  He feels that the break-up of the family and utter despair among young people is a problem that needs to be addressed though he feels the economic structures in place, notably the constant urging that labour become more 'flexible' and accept the lowest wages feasible, contributes to that situation.  Some of his solutions sound 'Victorian'.  He envisages different tiers of education, pensions and health care, but because he feels this is the only way to get Middle Class (by which he really means Upper Middle Class) engagement in state provision.

There is a good section on how support for the Conservatives has successfully been made to appear apolitical.  I have encountered people who have said, 'I'm not into politics but I know the right party to vote for' when referring to the Conservatives.  In part it is a result of the Conservative Party being so meshed with the Establishment, so supporting the Party is seen as a part with saying you are Anglican or believe Britain should have an Army.  Consequently anyone holding any other views are condemned as being 'political', no matter how moderate the views are.  I have encountered this in the work place.  Managers are happy to bring in people from Human Resources, arguing they are neutral, when in fact they openly support the managers and see nothing wrong in that.  The moment you have a union representative on your side, they ask 'why did you have to make it political?' as if them having support and you standing against them on their own, is somehow fair.

Hutton also looks at the differences between the situation in the UK and those in Germany (and its neighbouring states), Japan and the USA.  It is notable that China barely gets a mention in the way it would these days.  Again this is something that has been common in British decline literature even since the 1940s in the case of the USA and the 1960s for (West) Germany.and Japan.  By this stage you might ask, then, what is it that Hutton added to make the book more than simply a collage of previous writings on this topic?

Hutton is very good at articulating economic theory for the general reader.  He shows the lazy assumptions of New Right thinking which began to take hold in the UK in 1976 and have been dominant from 1979 until the present day.  He also explains clearly how Keynesianism which was in use 1941/48 until 1976 differs.  He also expounds on New Keynesianism which, despite his optimism has made no impact on the UK.  Hutton shows how the very centralised UK body politic has given such power to those who wanted to implement New Right ideas, notably reducing state involvement in the economy and society to the minimum in the belief that the market will provide the best outcome for everyone.  Hutton is particularly strong in how the New Right ideas fitted perfectly with the short-term high-return culture of finance in Britain focused on invisible earnings and asset-stripping rather than industrial development.  This had put Britain at a disadvantage in facing challenges in industries such as precision engineering, electrical goods, optics, chemicals, etc. at the end of the 19th century and has left if floundering with its companies being taken over by foreigners in the lat 20th and early 21st centuries.  He also shows how this approach has wrecked people's chances of getting a decent pension and suppresses the economy because lack of investment and the urge for quick profits breeds a strong sense of insecurity across society.

Given that this book was 20 years old, I approached it more as a history book of the mid-1990s than of present day.  Some things have changed since 1995, notably the disappearance of high interest rates and the decline in unemployment.  The Bank of England has become independent which Hutton warned against.  Many of his warnings have come true in all respects, notably the collapse of more financial institutions, obscene pay for executives, the ability of companies to continue with short-term risk behaviour, asset-stripping that destroyed established companies, utility companies providing a worsening service yet with increased pay-outs for their owners, the further weakening of local authorities and greater restriction on their spending, further suppression of union rights, further decay of towns and cities, more cash-for-questions scandals in parliament and so on.  Many things he has warned about have come true, notably the financial crash of 2008 resulting from the dangerous banking behaviour and risky lending in the over-heated housing market he condemns throughout the book, though the USA was to prove to be in as bad a situation as the UK.

 There have been sporadic, isolated attempts to introduce some of the ideas that Hutton mentions.  There has been a growth in apprenticeships to lower the percentage of people without any training, though recently it has been revealed that many of these are as sub-standard as 1980s training schemes.  There is now a minimum wage and it has not brought down the economy as so many insisted that it would.  Some cities now have elected mayors and London actually has an elected body, something absent in the 1990s.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do have more autonomy, but English regions are unchanged. There have been tiers of education created, but in a way which has often benefited friends of the government and has certainly contributed to even greater centralisation.

After a slight shift in higher education to allow more people in, in the 1990s and 2000s they are now being priced out of taking up such opportunities and once again there is a drive for more private providers with an assumption that they will do everything better.  Despite David Cameron's brief flirtation with 'Big Society' there has been no development in our civil society and Britain is divided more than ever.  Attempts at constitutional reform have been dropped.  Blair did nothing significant to the House of Lords and ironically only Cameron has considered it again because the Lords will not bend to his will not because in terms of equity or democracy it needs reform.  The Conservatives love the absolute sovereignty of Crown-in-Parliament and many seek even greater power through leaving the EU.  Clinging to the New Right religion that only the state and its regulations are what are hampering a boom in Britain, the drive goes on to break down any 'restraint' on capitalism, without even recognising that further steps are providing minimal benefit to British business people, but increasingly to foreigners.  This is the irony of the New Right in Britain, despite being patriotic on the surface they are yielding sovereignty to other countries, notably China.

Hutton was foolish to be optimistic.  He was right to expect a Labour victory in 1997.  Labour under Blair, at times, packaged itself in Huttonite rhetoric.  However, in fact it further entrenched the establishment systems Hutton railed against.  Blair made friends with the Conservative media even more assiduously than even Thatcher had done.  He wooed business people and gave them the greater freedoms they desire.  The Blair regime continued the New Right agenda without a break.  This means that there has been no interlude from when Major stepped down until when Cameron came in.  Brown had too little time and was too shackled to the deals Blair had made to disrupt this.  Hutton could have written this book in 2015 and with the exception of minor things such as interest rates, he could say exactly the same thing as back in 1995.  The socio-politico-economic framework in which the reckless British economy operates remains untouched.  Short term, high return approaches are only tempered because so many British companies are owned by people from different systems that have to make consideration of different attitudes.  Thus, while the book is now over 20 years old, in large part it could be written today and that is a tragedy for the UK.

'Write' ed. by Claire Armitstead
This is a book about fiction rather than being fiction, so I have put it in the Non-Fiction category.  Following severe criticism of my writing, I thought it might be a good idea to read a book on how to write better.  This book consists of numerous short chapters with tips from established authors.  Unlike some authors I do not have the difficulty of starting.  I believed that I had found my voice, indeed a number of voices for different genres.  I am alert to words I over-use.  I like rich description but know that is not in favour in current writing.  I do not feel I learned a great deal from this book.  There was a good tip from DBC Pierre about including speaking quirks to identify characters in extended dialogue.  I have been conscious of too much 'he said, she said' when having more than two characters in a conversation, but have also sought clarity for the reader.  The outcome for me is that then my writing is deemed 'clumsy'.  The most irritating chapter is from Mark Billingham.  His chapter is supposed to be about building suspense, something I am eager to sharpen up on for my crime novels.  However, in fact he gives no tips except to say that you need characters that readers engage with so that they then feel suspense in witnessing what they are going through.  This is rather a cop-out and just bounces you back to Andrew Miller's chapter on characters.

I did like Kate Mosse's chapter on the importance of plot.  Often critics dismiss plot as unnecessary whereas for much of the general reading public, this is the top priority.  With my short stories, I have been attacked for not having enough plot.  I think some people misunderstand how a short story works and that it is not simply a miniature novel.   I enjoyed Mosse's 'Labyrinth' (2005), she is good in getting the reader into a particular time and space as she does with Carcassonne in southern France during the period of the Cathars in that book.

The middle section of the book is simply lists of 'do's' and 'don'ts' from a range of authors.  Many of these begin to overlap.  There is a lot about editing.  There is a reference to the use of friends as critics.  However, I know from other authors that in the real world this does not work.  These days people have minimal interest in reading a book which is not on sale.  If they are friends they seem inhibited in pointing out anything wrong or go to the other extreme and say you should abandon writing entirely as you are not a 'proper' author.

I do not know why anyone quotes any guidance from Martin Amis.  His work is terrible.  He cannot even peer beyond his own ego to connect with the rest of the population.  My opinion of Will Self, also featured in this section, has been in severe decline since I met him in 2012.  Some of the tips from leading authors show how far they are from the average person who would read 'Write', notably Hilary Mantel who starts her list advising you to get an accountant.  This is like Brenna Aubrey on the Amazon Kindle January 2016 newsletter who said: 'assemble your team of pros to help you publish (cover artists, editors, proofreaders, etc.)'.  This makes it clear that unless you are already wealthy and can afford to pay all these people, really you stand no chance as an author.  I did find out Mantel lives in Woking (or did so when this book, published in 2012, was written).  She does advise reading 'Becoming A Writer' by Dorothea Brande (1934).  One problem of this book is the age of the authors.  There is some reference to people writing laptops, but far too much on using pencils and paper.  Writing with a computer does impact.

Geoff Dyer's tip number 7 about always having more than one project on the go at once, is one I would support.  I wish Esther Freud, who I have commented on before, could get readers to accept that they do not need every last thing explained.  Readers of 2016 will not accept that view and get upset very quickly if every last issue is not resolved and every minor character given an ending, all within a single novel,  I like Michael Moorcock's point number 9 about carrot and stick for characters.

There is a section in which successful authors outline how one of their most famous books came about.  This is reasonably interesting but simply highlighted that it is a very random process and success in writing has no connection to ability or effort.  The final section has some oddities.  However, the one by Blake Morrison was a salutary warning.  Listening to ballards by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, things like 'Daytripper', 'Drive My Car', 'Norwegian Wood', 'Under My Thumb', 'Sympathy For the Devil' and 'The Man Who Sold the World' there seemed to be a good basis for some short stories about what is narrated in these songs.  Morrison points out the cost of even quoting a handful of song lyrics in your books.  He had to pay £500 to use one line of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' by The Rolling Stones, £735 for one line of 'When I'm Sixty-Four' by The Beatles and £1000 for two lines of 'I Shot the Sheriff' by Bob Marley.  He spent more than the average advance clearing lyrics.  My book would have been very expensive to write and this chapter re-emphasised that being an author these days is really only feasible for the very wealthy, I suppose like any opportunity in sport, art or even most professions.

Maybe I did expect a 'self-help' book when this was nothing of the kind.  It offers little of support for a writer and much it does offer is contradicted some pages later, such as being satisfied/dissatisfied with what you write and paying attention to the views of others.  This book is really just a coffee table book for you to dip into to pass some small chunks of time.  It is really a collection of anecdotes from various successful authors, some of which simply emphasise how disconnected those people are from other people, including amateur authors.  If you are a writer, I suggest not reading this book as it will simply encourage to abandon all hope and go off and at best take up some random hobby; at worst simply slump in front of the television, but certainly not to continue trying to be an author.  Very depressing all round and a purchase I now gravely regret making even second hand.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Biscuit Blog: Walkers Stem Ginger

Walkers Stem Ginger

I have been rather naughty in this posting by stepping outside the biscuits which you can buy easily from supermarkets.  These biscuits are only available through caterers and I imagine most people will have only come across them in their workplace.  The reason why I have included them is as a counter-balance to my disappointment over the Deluxe Stem Ginger biscuits that I reviewed earlier this month: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/biscuit-blog-deluxe-stem-ginger-butter.html

The Walkers version does not aim to be a butter biscuit and lacks the creaminess even of the Lidl Deluxe version.  However, there is a good snap to biting these, they are not powdery nor do they break away.  There is not a rich flavour to the biscuit itself, hence the 4-star rating, but flavour is left to the stem ginger in the biscuit.  These pieces have a nice chewiness to them without tasting overly crystalised.  Lidl could easily produce a biscuit as good as these, especially for the Deluxe range.  That is why I have included this one here to show what is feasible with stem ginger.

Rating:
*****

Friday, 22 January 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Pink Wafers

Tower Gate Pink Wafers

Perhaps this type of biscuit which has attracted most attention by name on television.  It features significantly in the first episode of the first series of  'Life on Mars' (2006) set in 1973.  A witness is being questioned and it is suggested that she might like some pink wafers.  A police officer is sent off to buy her some.  Pink wafers with their gaudy colouring and their very sweet flavour could almost seem to sum up the early 1970s. These biscuits have often featured in selection boxes but have always stood out among the various shades of brown that characterise most biscuits.

As you can imagine, having spotted these on another biscuit hunt in Lidl I was eager to give them ago.  These are under Lidl's own brand for biscuits and some other products, Tower Gate.  They were incredibly disappointing.  On the plus side they were as crunchy as promised without dissolving into powder as sometimes can be the case with pink wafers.  However, as you can see from the picture they were more a shade of orange rather than pink, that was despite the colour of the packet and even featuring a pink feline, presumably in reference to the pink panther cartoons.  The main problem was the flavour.  The biscuits were so lacking in the uber-sweetness you especially expect from a pink wafer that they could almost be deemed a savoury biscuit.  Indeed they tasted like a number of plain ice cream wafers sandwiched together.  The 'cream' was almost soggy in nature.  Certainly there was nothing of the pink wafer experience that I had anticipated.  However, I passed the packet to the teenager who lives in my house and he finished them off.

Perhaps I expected too much, but I was certainly let down by this product.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Biscuit Blog: Deluxe Stem Ginger butter biscuits

Deluxe Stem Ginger



These were another Lidl purchase.  You can tell the Deluxe biscuits as they come in vertical boxes.  These for some reason hint at being Scottish with the saltire flag on the cover.  On the positive side they do have decent chunks of ginger in them not too crystalised in nature, though the flavour is not as clear in these than in some even cheap stem ginger biscuits I have tried.  There is a buttery flavour but it is not as rich as I would have liked.  The biscuits break up in the mouth in an unsatisfactory way, neither melting in the mouth as you might expect with a butter biscuit and yet not being crunchy either, it is almost as if they break into chunks; perhaps this is because of the disruption to the structure of the biscuit caused by the insertion of the ginger.

These make a nice change from ginger 'nuts' but I feel that they need work.  I would give them a 3-star rating except for the fact that they are portrayed as 'de luxe' in nature and to really qualify for such a status they would need to be much better.

Rating:
*****

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Books I Read In December

Non-Fiction
'The Origins of the Second World War' by A.J.P. Taylor
Initially reading this book I was pleasantly surprised by its strengths.  Though the version I read was published in 1964, it is still of value for anyone studying the history of this period today.  In some ways Taylor treats the reader maturely.  He does not include loads of dates and figures, assuming that you can pick these up from other places.  Instead he digs into explaining what happened and why.  I like the fact that he overturns many myths about the lead up to the Second World War which in most cases seem as prevalent today as they were in the 1960s.  He also shows how historians have come to certain conclusions.  Again, because these have proven persistent, his insights remain valid also.  Taylor highlights individuals such as MacDonald, Halifax, Benes and Bonnet who often get left out or wrongly interpreted even nowadays and it is good that he shines a light on them.  He also shows effectively the extent to which British policy and, in part, French policy was driven by a sense of 'morality' and doing what was 'right' rather than any strategic perspective.  Thus, even once Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, British politicians and officials believed that they could hold an international conference to resolve the issues.  The British did not value the rights of different countries equally and saw the demands of Germany as of a far higher status than those of Czechoslovakia or Poland.  This does help explain the strange policies the British governments adopted, applying one principle until it was trumped by the other, but consequently divorcing them from any Realpolitik.

Taylor is, at times, refreshingly self-critical too.  In 1963 he added a new opening chapter to his 1961 book in which he analyses his own failings of analysis.  Few historians seem capable of doing this even now.  Before moving on to my difficulties with the book, I would note that it is far better than 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) by Taylor that I read in April.  That book careered through the history in a frenetic way and if he had applied that approach to the events covered in this book then it would have been almost impossible to read.

Now, the problems.  Taylor criticises historians who have sought out the 'guilty men' of the lead-up to the Second World War, though smugly he says he believed Hitler should have been contested right from January 1933.  However, throughout this book he is imbued with perfect hindsight.  Whilst he might not portray those involved in the events as guilty he certainly repeatedly points to them as naive, foolish and vacillating as if the way events would turn out were visible to them and they simply ignored them.  This smugness becomes very difficult to swallow as the book goes on.

At the time of publication, Taylor was condemned as writing a book which was pro-Hitler.  Now, there are two reasons for this.  One is that Taylor does seem to give (perhaps grudging) admiration for Hitler for having one approach and sticking to it throughout.  He shows that repeatedly Hitler would not take the initiative if he could get another country to do it for him, hence the dangers of appeasement.  Taylor is right to show appeasement as advancing the Nazi agenda more effectively than Hitler himself.  Taylor cannot stand vacillation and as a consequence every other leading politician is shown in a poor light.  It is not that Taylor lauds Hitler it is because of the principle of one man seeming to step forward from a line because all the others have taken a step back.

The other complaint people had at the time but seems irrelevant now was that in showing that it took the bulk of Germany to bring about the Second World War, he somehow let off Hitler from responsibility.  This is a false impression.  Taylor simply aims to counter the view that Hitler was to blame for absolutely everything that was nasty about the Nazi regime, whereas in fact it required many thousands of men and women, not all of the German, for it to be effective in that respect.

There are some minor quirks that distort Taylor's book, some of which you see in others he has written.  One is that he does not believe that there was any German resistance to Hitler.  He cannot comprehend any of the attempts to halt or remove Hitler at any stage and is sneering about any reference to these.  He utterly dismisses the French and Italian armed forces as irrelevant.  The French military was utterly wasted in 1940 because as he identifies elsewhere defeatism had already debilitated the French state.  However, if used effectively it is clear now that the French military could have blunted severely if not indeed halted the German offensives against Poland, Belgium and France in 1939-40.  In Taylor's view that was impossible.  The Italian forces might have been weak but their advances in Greece and North Africa caused delays and casualties for the British and drew Germany into regions it might have otherwise avoided.

Another thing is that Taylor is so much a 'child' of the era of Keynesianism that he finds it impossible to consider any other approach to the economy as legitimate, ridiculing the deflationary policies pursued in Britain in the 1930s.  I am sure he would be startled if he returned today to find that for the past thirty years such economic policies have been the economic orthodoxy and Keynesianism is utterly forgotten even by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats.

This book still has value for people studying the lead-up to the Second World War.  However, Taylor grandstanding with a very dismissive, arrogant attitude to almost all those involved in the events is very tiresome and detracts greatly from what he is trying to communicate.  This book is most useful for challenging many of the myths that still appear in popular histories of the period, notably the Hossbach Memorandum.

Fiction
'Tart Noir' ed. by Stella Duffy & Lauren Henderson
This collection of twenty stories proved to be a real disappointment.  I was enthused by the concept, i.e. female authors writing crime fiction with female protagonists.  The emphasis is on strong, sexually liberated women in control.  However, the stories contained really failed to live up to my expectations.  Perhaps I was wrong to have imagined that there would be more female detective stories contained in the book.  I do not think I was wrong to not expect fantasy stories to be contained within it.  In any collection written by multiple authors there will be stories that you find better than others.  However, for me the overall standard was too low.

Perhaps the stand-out story is unsurprisingly 'Metamorphosis' by Val McDermid which quickly conjures a sexual obsession and then the overwhelming need to get the person out of your life.  This was the kind of story that I expected throughout, but was sorely disappointed.

I do think they should have warned the reader that one story, 'Stormy, Mon Amour' features scenes of sex between a woman and a dolphin.  I guess I should have remembered the movie 'Max, Mon Amour' (1986) about a woman's sexual relationship with a chimpanzee which caused uproar at the time and is clearly being referenced by this story.  The resulting birth of a mermaid is simply fantasy but of a very dreary kind.  I almost abandoned the book at this point, but pressed on because I thought it might improve. 'Labia Lobelia' by Lisa Jewell is another fantastical story.  The protagonist calls up the ghosts of Judy Garland and Joan Collins.  If it had not been for the book's rules, I would have assumed she was a transvestite.  However, she turns out to be a woman with magic powers.  She turns her neighbours' flat into vast (and smelly) labia and a vagina. 'Talk Show' by Lauren Henderson has a talk show, unsurprisingly, but featuring Medea and Phaedra from Greek myths and Lady Macbeth.  It is better than a secondary school balloon debate or an Oxbridge skit.  Bestiality features once more but at a distance.  Overall, though, it is more an intellectual entertainment than a 'noir' story; it reminded me of 'The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul' (novel 1988; radio serial 2008) which features Norse gods in contemporary London.  I would almost put 'The Wrong Train' by Jenny Colgan into the fantasy category.  It is about an administrator at MI6 who gets on a train full of immigrants with TB being ejected from the country.  It turns out to be a government conspiracy story, but for much of it reads as if it is an offshoot of 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman (TV Series 1996; novel & audio book 1996; graphic novel 2005; stage play 2010; radio play 2013).  It could have been scarier and better.

A number of the stories are about revenge.  The two most memorable are 'The Best Revenge is Revenge' by Chris Niles.  A touch light in tone at times, it seems credible in featuring a TV presenter getting revenge on the executive that sacked her.  In a short story, the relationship with male characters is handled well, a kind of push-and-pull between them.  The snobbery of the narrator is maintained well.  'Martha Grace' by Stella Duffy herself shows very skilled characterisation of the eponymous protagonist.  Like the best of these stories, it shows the unusual but without becoming unbelievable.  You want to see Martha in other stories. 'Africa' by Jenny Siler, does feel like an episode of 'Spooks' (2002-11; movie 2015).  However, it quickly builds up a complex story and portrays Morocco very effectively.  This is one story you would have liked to have seen developed further.

Some of the revenge stories feel as if they could have fitted into 'Tales of the Unexpected' (book 1979; TV series 1979-88) especially the televised versions which tended to be edgier than the stories in the book and the two that succeeded it. 'Enough was Enough' by Martina Cole fits that category.  It is a very capable portrayal of a wife drawn into her husband's sexual fetishes and then baulking against them. 'What He Needed' by Laura Lippman is of a similar quality and nature.  Not as good, but not too bad is 'The Man' by Katy Munger.  It is a straightforward revenge story with all the bodily fluids featured.  You could argue whether being a gigolo is worthy of revenge, but in this book it clearly is. Munger's description of the gigolo is very well done. Not about revenge, but with the twist beloved of the 'Tales of the Unexpected' is 'The Diary of Sue Peaner Marooned! Contestant' again has the bitch narrator.  The outcome is not unexpected and in many ways given how extreme these survival programmes are her behaviour does not seem too extreme.  This story does include cannibalism but it is passed over so lightly as not to really impact.  Like some of the other stories, the lightness naturally undermines the 'noir'.

Two of the stories are what I would term 'shotgun shack' stories.  They are noir in a different way.  In large part the woman is disempowered by the structures that the men in their lives create, leading to tragic outcomes especially for children, that seem unavoidable.  These two could appear in books simply about the lives of many women in modern USA and UK.  'Alice Opens the Box' by Denise Mina is the UK one and 'Necessary Women' set on the border of Alabama and Georgia.  In these stories murder is the only power the women have to survive; though you do wonder about their sanity.  These are bleak stories rather than true 'noir', primarily because the protagonists are so disempowered.

Some of the stories do have the detection element that I anticipated.  'The Convenience Boy' by Sujata Massey stands out because it is set in Japan with Japanese cultural perspectives whereas most of the other stories are set either in the UK or USA and all of them have the cultural norms of those countries as their basis.  This story is almost sweet rather than noir.  It is a nice peek into a different setting especially if you have not read crime fiction set in Japan either by Japanese or Western authors, though there is a lot more easily available in English these days.  'I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside' by Jessica Adams has a lightness about it.  It features a seaside clairvoyant able to detect crimes very easily.  It features many Brighton [UK version] tropes including a range of gay characters,  It was entertaining but not really 'noir' and Madame Romodo is not really a protagonist, more a spectator.  'Pussy Galore' by Liz Evans is set in London and rather erratically, but ultimately, effectively, switches between being cosy and sinister.  I found the old woman character credible, despite her great claims to a past in spying because in a part of London close to where the story is set I attended a discussion with former members of SOE, who like the character in this story retained some of the 'old skills'.

Some stories you feel 'so what?'.  'No Parachutes' by Karen Moline is in this category really simply detailing how the protagonist gets turned on by violence on an aeroplane, just as the author confesses she does at the end of the book.  'Take, for Example, Meatpie' by Jen Banbury is very much in this category about a woman who seduces a 16-year old schoolboy and introduces him to poetry and music before casting him loose again.  Yes, she might be in control, but there seems to be no real outcome so you are left dissatisfied.  'Queen of Mean' by Liza Cody is better, but is really simply a 'slice of life' story about a woman who with a mentor changes her life.  It lacks the necessary 'noir' but is interesting as a straightforward short story.

'Timequake' by Kurt Vonnegut
In theory, this book is a novel.  However, it is in fact more fitted to Vonnegut's short story and autobiographical books, 'Fates Worse Than Death' (1991), and 'A Man Without a Country' (2005).  This is a real mess of a book, really an assembly of fragments.  Some of them come from the first book he started writing called 'Timequake' which envisaged that in 2001 the universe reset by about ten years and everyone on Earth was compelled to live the preceding ten years again with no ability to change anything until the reached the starting point in 2001 once more.

Much of the book is a stream of consciousness about the author's career, members of Vonnegut's family and a number of fictional characters, notably Kilgore Trout who is a kind of older alter ego of Vonnegut's.  Little happens and the whole tone is like an old man (Vonnegut lived 1922-2007; the book was published in 1997) rambling on about things as he recalls them.  It encompasses themes that Vonnegut liked exploring.  He thought television was killing writing, reading and imagination though many of his statements could be used unchanged today for commentary on use of the internet and social media.  At times the book is juvenile in tone, especially when referring to sex and death, but maybe, despite his aversion to a lot in US society, Vonnegut is simply tied down by all the euphemisms that many Americans seem compelled to use, especially if they were born in the 1920s.  This may be in part to be humorous but it quickly becomes tiresome.

The decent part of the book is Vonnegut's discussion on the challenges of writing short stories, something he was able to live off for parts of his life.  By the 1990s he saw it as a dead art because of the dominance of television, not foreseeing its revival through self-published e-books and indeed free to view story websites.  You cannot make a lot of money off short stories but there are certainly numerous outlets across a massive spectrum of genres.  Vonnegut discusses the difficulties of ending a short story without killing everyone, a challenge I have encountered with my own short story collections especially when writing about war.  There is an implication that the short story must end with a 'big bang' even if it is simply a surprising revelation.  Amateur reviewers seem to insist on this, even arguing that a 'slice of life' story is not really a story at all.  One of Vonnegut's editors told him something along the lines of have the hero get on his horse and ride off into the sunset or an appropriate equivalent dependent on the context.  I do not know if that would satisfy many amateur reviewers who seem not to know what they want from a short story but certainly know what they do not want; some even see the approach as entirely illegitimate.  This is ironic given how much a boost short stories and episodic stories have received from e-book readers.  I would have liked more on this topic in 'Timequake'.

Overall this a very unsatisfactory book.  It would have been better if he had simply written a straightforward autobiography.  He could have discussed the same topics and even the same fictional characters as feature in this book, but it would not be the shambles that 'Timequake' is.  I can only imagine his age and standing in US science fiction were what meant a publisher would permit this book to come out.  It is really nothing more than a shabby scrapbook and the ramblings of a man whose talents had clearly dimmed.