Thursday, 31 December 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In December


'The Poisoned Chalice' by Bernard Knight

This is the second book by Knight featuring Sir John De Wolfe, coroner for Devon in the 1190s. You feel he has got into his stride with this book, Wolfe, his aides, his wife and mistress, plus the sheriff (also his brother-in-law) who he rubs up against due to the fact that new and old legal methods had not been reconciled. Though the book sees De Wolfe and his team travel down the coast to investigate the murder of survivors of a wreck and the theft of cargo washed ashore - a particular role for the coroner - Knight avoids showing them riding incessantly from place to place as he tended to do in the first novel, 'The Sanctuary Seeker' (1998). This book is a police procedural, but fortunately Knight has tightened it up. We see two other, inter-twined cases, involving a rape and the death of the woman from trying to bring about an abortion. In part due to the influence of the women's families these cases are not dismissed in the way they would tend to be some 800+ years later. Knight is very good on the different social standings and how these rather than guilt or innocence are often the decider of who is to be convicted. As in the first book, torture is readily on hand to get to the 'truth'. Overall, this is a competent, engaging book, with well developing characters and a great portrayal of a very different time and culture. I was heartened to see him tightening up the writing for this one and I look forward to reading the others I have been given.

'City of Bones' by Cassandra Clare

I picked up four books by Clare recommended to me by an assistant in my local charity shop. I read one from her other, though similar Clockwork series, a year ago, and found it reasonable. This is the first in the Shadowhunters/Mortal Instruments pentalogy, set in contemporary New York. I had seen the movie and have now started watching the series on Netflix. Though the elements in each are same - a girl/young woman finds that her mother was part of a group of part angel/part human people, the Shadowhunters, who fight against demons, vampires, etc. in a world in which all the fantastical creatures are real. Her mother's best friend is revealed as a werewolf. The shadowhunters draw various runes on their bodies to give them magical powers. 

The story sees the teenage heroine Clary Fray discover not only the past of her parents but also go on a quest to recover the Mortal Cup which is sought by renegade shadowhunter, Valentine, who wants to use its powers to become all-powerful. Unlike the movie and series, in the novel, Clary is 15 rather than 18, so it is much more a children's book, though as in all children's adventures, Clary has more autonomy to run around New York than she would do in real life. There are various battles with vampires and rogue shadowhunters, in particular rescuing Clary's old friend, Simon - there is a lot of uncertain, wistful teenage possible romance involving Clary, Simon and shadowhunter, Jace, in a triangle - and seeking where her mother is held. There is some very fantastical elements such as flying vampire motorbikes and overall, a lot of the plot developments and encounters feel like a combination of the Harry Potter books and the 'Star Wars' movies. The climatic scene facing Valentine feels particularly derivative in this regard with the man himself some combination of Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader.

The novel is brisk and while for an older reader many of the tropes will be overly familiar, the pace and the various characters mean it is not a burdensome read. I have the next two books in the series and I am interested to see how the story develops, especially as the heroine becomes a normal part of the shadowhunter world. For a contemporary, urban fantasy it is not bad and maybe the tropes are reassuring or easier for younger readers to engage with. I accept that it was not written for people of my age.

'The Little Breton Bistro' by Nina George

I really have no idea why I bought this book. I guess I was looking for contemporary fiction different to what I generally read. I had been aware of the phenomenon of 'up lit', contemporary stories with a positive message, being popular over the last 5+ years and I guess this was my introduction to the genre. I had not realised that rather than being written in English or French, this had actually first come out in 2010 in German and only translated into English in 2017. It features a 60-year old woman, Marianne, who tiring of her uncaring husband of 41 years, decides to commit suicide while on holiday in Paris. Recovering from her failed attempt in hospital, she finds a painted tile of the resort in southern Brittany, Kerdruc and decides to go there. Kerdruc is a genuine place but in George's hands it becomes a Breton equivalent of Brigadoon. Fortune shines on Marianne all the way and not only does she get there with minimal difficulty, she gets a job at the 'Ar Mor' bistro, despite lacking cooking skills and any mastery of French, let alone Breton.

Not everything is perfect in Kerdruc and Marianne keeps trying to kill herself with less and less success. She makes friends with a white witch who has dementia and her husband who has Parkinson's. A local sculptress is dying of cancer. Various younger people have unrequited love or a partner who has left them or they were unable to marry and so on. However, so much is resolved without difficulty and with no reference to the government or other authorities, that you have to deem the book at best magic realism and possibly even fantasy. Towards the end, with Marianne meeting ghosts of her relatives, it steps over that line. As it is, Marianne finds a perfect sexual partner, becomes an adept sous-chef in a matter of weeks and a skilful player of the accordion; she drives around on a moped with no training or licence and similarly an old car. Though there is some reference to the year being 2009, much of what happens is divorced from time seeming to be in some vague sort of mid-1970s, perhaps earlier (especially with comments referencing French hatred of Germans stemming from the world wars) which seems so popular with such whimsical novels, especially when foreigners portray France. Of course, folk customs are still very strong and there is no reference to French or even Breton culture as it is in reality these days. The only convincing part for me was when Marianne's husband, Lothar comes to retrieve her from Kerdruc but that contact back to a more convincing portrayal is short lived.

Everything in the novel is handled in such a pat way, it is impossible to suspend your disbelief. Even the deaths are 'beautiful' rather than slow and agonising as they would be in reality. Too many relationships are sparked up or resolved in a way which does not happen in the 21st Century, even if it ever did. I accept that the book is written as a diversion, as a way to avoid it becoming like an equivalent of 'EastEnders' in southern Brittany. However, it is far too dependent on fortunate happenstance and things simply working out to be credible. This might be tolerable in a short story, but with a novel it becomes tiresome. Overall, it is rather like having to smile for a photo while on holiday but then keeping that smile fixed for weeks.


'A Short History of Africa' by Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage

This is another of the old history books I have had lying around for years. It was published in 1962 and occasionally, terms such as 'Sudan' referring to the entirety of of the savanna lands running east-west, south of the Sahara can cause confusion nowadays. Though the process of independence for African states was under way when the book was published, it was far from complete. However, with very little on post-independence, the book is able to focus much more on the pre-colonial era and this was the elements of the book I found most interesting. From the outset Oliver and Fage seek to overturn the all too common view that somehow Africa, at least in historic times, was somehow insulated from the rest of the world and sealed from it until the European powers began to start exploiting it and even then not fully until the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s. In fact, throughout they show that there was constant flow in and out of the continent and within it. 

They go into good detail about the rise and fall of various kingdoms down the ages and how these interacted, not simply down the Nile and across the Sahara but also that various foodstuffs we see as typically African actually originated in the Americas and Asia. I was also interested by seeing Africa not simply portrayed in regional groupings, like West Africa, but also the east-west physical geography bandings especially in the northern half of the continent. This is certainly a good book to introduce you to the various civilisations that are so easily dismissed or forgotten in general histories especially written from a Western perspective and the complex interaction between black Africans and the Arabs and Bedouin, plus the importance of Islam. It also shows how varied and complex the story of slavery was, both before and during the period of European intervention.

The attention to these earlier developments reminds you how brief the European colonial period was. As they highlight though there had been 'factories', settlements and strips of land around the coasts, it was only in the period 1883-1885 that there was the rush to take over almost every part of the continent. They are good on the fact that even though we all see that map of 1914 with so much of Africa in one colour or another, in fact penetration away from the coast was minimal before the 1920s and 1930s. For many countries in 80 years of being conquered they were being given independence. The economic facets are handled well and show that most 'colonies' were a drain on the metropolitan countries and only in exceptional areas where cash crops prospered on a large scale or there were gold or diamonds would any money be made. The one area where I feel they could have included more was on the various colonial wars that the European powers fought often over many years. Some of these are mentioned in passing and while, for example, the treatment of the population of the Congo, especially when ruled directly by the Belgian King is highlighted, there is nothing on the German attempts at genocide especially in South-West Africa [Namibia].

Overall, though an old book, this has a number of good reminders to general readers about facets of African history that seem swept over in easy assumptions these days. It certainly works hard to try to stop us seeing Africa as somehow sealed in a capsule until this was pierced by the rushed European moves to take control of the continent, simply for prestige rather than profit.

Fiction - Audio

'The Man with the Golden Gun' by Ian Fleming'; read by Kenneth Branagh

Published in 1965, this was the last of the full-length James Bond novels; released after Fleming's death in August 1964. Bond has sort of recovered his memory, following the amnesia suffered as a result of battling Blofeld at the end of  'You Only Live Twice' (1964) and him continuing to live believing he was a Japanese fisherman. He has been retrieved by the KGB and brainwashed into assassinating his boss in London, M. This all seems rather rushed. There is interesting detail on how MI6 filters out people contacting it. However, the avoidance of the assassination, let alone Bond being put back into service all seems rather pat. Bond is finally sent back to the Caribbean to track down Paco Scaramanga, the eponymous man with the golden gun, though in the novel it is a revolver firing silver, snake-poisoned covered rounds.

We see lots of elements from the previous Bond novels, not simply the return to Jamaica, Fleming's home, as in 'Live and Let Die' (1954), 'Diamonds are Forever' (1956) and 'Dr. No' (1958), but the reappearance of Mary Goodnight and Felix Leiter. Bond is employed, as he was by Auric Goldfinger, so giving him an easy access to the villain's base, in this case a half-built hotel on Jamaica. There is even a private railway as seen in 'Diamonds are Forever'. There are not only a KGB agent on Jamaica but gangsters, including from the Spangled Mob who turned up both in 'Diamonds are Forever' and 'Goldfinger' (1959), so again referencing popular themes in the Bond novels. Bond's job is to assassinate Scaramanga, but the world weariness bites hard and even when faced with him in a weak position, Bond baulks from this. The novel ends with Bond eschewing a knighthood and in contrast to the endings of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (1963) and 'You Only Live Twice' he is very opposed to 'settling down', in this case with Mary. It is almost as if aware of his own end, Fleming did not want to end Bond as a freewheeling individual, though we are conscious that, both mentally and physically, he is not up to it any more.

As is common with Fleming he certainly sets the novel in its time. There is a lot of discussion of the various crimes in the Caribbean, Jamaica's independence, the development of bauxite mining, sugar prices, permitted gambling and the issue of Cuba. However, Fleming shows poor foresight in expecting Castro to be out of power within the next few years or indeed the USSR to give up on the country. He has a peculiar attitude to Rastafarians who he sees as anti-white individuals deeply involved in the drugs trade and happy to make terrorist attacks on sugar plantations. It is a reasonable book, not the best of the series, in part because Bond running out of steam himself and ultimately deluding himself about his future means the book lacks life, certainly verve. We do not feel Scaramanga, despite all the plots he is involved with, represents a genuine threat and we do wonder why Bond struggles to kill him. Branagh voicing him as an American makes him seem too laid back and not as threatening as he should be. He is supposed to be a Catalan who had worked in the USA but then in Cuba. Christopher Lee would have done it so much better.

Aside from Scaramanga, Branagh is reasonably good with the voices. I did wonder if he had talked to Hugh Quarshie who read 'Dr. No' for help with the Jamaican accents which he does without them seeming like caricature. He is reasonable with the women's voices too. Overall, though he is hampered by the fact that the life had gone out of the Bond sequence by this stage and despite the listing of all that Scaramanga intends, we are rather disengaged the way that Bond himself is at this end.

'The Chemistry of Death' by Simon Beckett; read by Greg Wise

This book kind of marries the classic British crime novel - it is set in a small village in Norfolk - with the very gritty crime novels of the past three decades or so. It was published in 2006. The protagonist, David Hunter is a widowed doctor who takes up a post as a GP after the death of his wife in an accident. He has a previous life as a forensic scientist - in fact an anthropologist but with all the necessary skills. Beckett sets up the kind of traditional English village without indulging too deeply into stereotypes, though things like the authoress who has retreated to the village to write, the harsh vicar and the various 'yokels' do come close to this. The jogging and barbecues at leas feel he has brought it into the late, rather than mid-20th Century. 

The thing that really marks out the book as of our time is the extreme detail about the decaying bodies that are uncovered revealing a serial killer in the village one who (mainly) targets women and mutilates their corpses by inserting animals or animal parts into them. Hunter has a real skill in detecting what is going on from the insects infesting the bodies and the impact on the surrounding plant life. You need a strong stomach for some parts, possibly all the more jarring because this is a bucolic rather than gritty urban setting. Hunter is drawn deeper into the investigation, however reluctantly, with a crotchety police detective making use of what resources he can muster in such a remote locale. However, he keeps setting parameters that Hunter runs up against and has to start ignoring to actually get to the heart of the case.

There are a couple of twists, though the first is better handled than the second, by which time it all seems a bit contrived with Beckett not really playing fair with the reader into the three phases of epilogue. Some of the tensest scenes and we see these from the victims' views as well as Hunter's are overlong. I also found the pace of the relationships Hunter sparks up, especially with women, unconvincing given the setting is 2000s Britain and so many residents from outside the village have moved there to escape the interaction of cities, especially London.

Wise is pretty good with the voices, most of which are a range of indignant white men. He is not too bad on the women though they all sound very breathless. Unfortunately, while aware that the Norfolk accent is typically used on a social class basis, he has defaulted to 'generic rural local' accent rather than bringing in anything specific to that county.

It is a clever book, brisk for most of the time and handling its twists very well. However, I would be cautious buying a Beckett book again as I feel I have learnt as much as I need about the processions of maggots and blood staining of grass.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In November


'A Study in Murder' by Robert Ryan

This is the third book in Ryan's Dr. Watson (and indeed Sherlock Holmes) series, following on from  'Dead Man's Land' (2012/13) and 'The Dead Can Wait' (2014) which I read earlier this year. At the end of 'The Dead Can Wait', Dr. Watson, serving as a major, was hauled from the wreck of a British tank and ended up in a German prisoner-of-war camp. This story continues through the latter part of 1916 and into early 1917. It features a number of characters from the previous books including Ernst Bloch, the leading German sniper from the first book and ruthless assassin Ilse Brandt, from the second and Georgina Gregson from both of them. Von Bork, a German agent from Conan Doyle's own story, 'His Last Bow' (1917) also makes an appearance. However, this is not the last book in the series, there is 'The Sign of Fear' (2016) though I have not been given a copy of that one.

On the instigation of Von Bork, not only is Watson refused leave to be exchanged into neutral Netherlands, despite his age, but he is sent to a far harsher camp, rather than close to the Dutch border, up in the Harz Mountains. It is called Harzgrund and is somewhat based on the real camp of Holzminden run to make a profit out of the prisoners. As with the previous two books, different threads run in parallel. In the camp Watson tries to find out why three prisoners killed themselves at a séance and then what is going on with supposedly escaped prisoners. Meanwhile back in Britain there are two schemes to exchange him, one involving for Sherlock Holmes and one for Ilse Brandt. There are some improvements on the previous two books. Sudden jumps in the character the story is being seen through, are generally avoided. There is one revelation that someone is not who they are pretend to be, but handled far better than in the previous book in particular in which three characters are revealed to be different people even though we have seen their thoughts.

As with the previous books, this is more a spy thriller than a detective novel, though Watson does unravel what is happening to "escaped" prisoners from Harzgrund. The story suggests that he comes to believe contact with the spirit world is possible, something Conan Doyle believed in very strongly. The main problem with the book is the build up to a preposterous climax at the fictional Knok bridge. This involves two sets of Britons, one bringing a German agent (freed using not only a hot air balloon, but a screen suspended in the air on to which a projection of an escaping woman is made and from the balloon a corpse of another is dropped!), one a German sniper and Sherlock Holmes, on one side and Watson, Von Bork and an UFA film crew on the other. The exchange at the bridge is far more suited to a Cold War spy novel than a First World War one. To add to the ridiculous nature of this stage of the novel, a British submarine - one designed but never built - emerges from the river.

I have no idea why Ryan felt obliged to pile on so many unbelievable elements. The book is not intended as a spoof as the brutal killings throughout make clear. Yes, authors do play around with time, but Ryan seems to do it far more than is necessary. He could have easily used a different Dutch bridge. There was no need for such extravagant, probably impossible, escapes in London and Venlo. He seems to be scrabbling around for details and is compelled to alter the naming of the Connaught Hotel to fit his story rather than finding some equivalent detail at that time.

I have a sense that Ryan is a better writer than he has shown in these three books. The short story Watson writes while in the prison camp, 'The Girl and the Gold Watches' and that maybe because he has distorted 'The Man with the Watches' (1922) and sent it back in time a bit. Ryan seems to get some pleasure in what he calls 'remixing' Conan Doyle stories, but unfortunately seems to learn little from that author's work, in terms of quality of story-telling as opposed to atmosphere. I wonder if he is blinded by his fandom. I certainly had far less difficulty with his 'Empire of Sand' (2008) which I read in December 2018:  It looks like, as is increasingly common these days, that Ryan's success has bought him exemption from his work being properly edited as I am sure that any developmental editor would have questioned a number of Ryan's decisions. Perhaps one or two in isolation would have been fine, but in this book they accrete to make it seem silly really undermining what could have been a gripping book if only he had made more feasible choices in how it would run. Overall, a missed opportunity.

'The Long Cosmos' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This is the final book in the 'Long Earth' pentalogy. Baxter finished it off alone after Pratchett died in March 2015. I do not know whether that explains why there is a bit more control over this book than the preceding ones. The death of a few major characters at the end of the fourth book, 'The Long Utopia' (2015) probably also helped. There is a little less jumping abruptly between perspectives. We mainly follow one strand developing a continental-wide computer 'The Thinker' and a sabbatical by Joshua Valienté, a character now 68, who we have followed since being a boy in the first book. There is a sub-plot of Nelson Azikiwe tracking down his grandson. However, all these threads come together, ironically given the chaos of so much of the series, in a very pat way.

The series has always struggled with plot. The main focus of the two authors has been the immense amount of ideas they had for their infinite variants on Earth, Mars and indeed the wider universes. Even in this book, you feel the disappearance of a couple of characters including Dan-Rod, Joshua's son are largely to take the characters to some interesting places, indeed in this novel, to see giant trees running on hydrogen. The exploration to the 'north' of the chain of Earths takes characters nearer to the core of the Milky Way galaxy. However, it is very under-developed. There is no great revelation of who has been contacting humans and other species along the long Earth to join them. They go and come back again. As with the previous books, it seems as if Pratchett and Baxter have dodged writing the climax that they have spent so long building up to.

Some of the most annoying characters were fortunately killed off in 'The Long Utopia' but there are still too many who spend a lot of patronising other people. I know it is a tendency of books in the 2010s to fill their pages with smug characters, lecturing others about how naive they are. I guess this reflects our society as you daily find such behaviour especially in social media but also in the news. It seems these days you cannot feel right in something unless you are telling someone else very vigorously how wrong they are - or often simply how wrong you assume they are. Yes, one or two characters like this is fine, but especially with science fiction in which the danger of simply slipping into a lecture is high, this becomes tedious. These are not only characters you feel no affinity for, but they are characters you do not want to be around. The reference of the elderly 'troll' Sancho, being a librarian and resembling an orang-utang is a nice reference to the librarian in Pratchett's Discworld novels, is a rare example of a character you feel you can engage with, even though he has limited dialogue.

While I was surprisingly underwhelmed by David Downing's 'Station' series, I have never felt so disappointed by a series of books as with the 'Long Earth' pentalogy. I know Pratchett's solo books got 'flabby' in the 21st Century, but teaming up with Baxter, who often overwrites anyway, made this tendency far worse. There were enough ideas in these books for the authors to have produced twenty or thirty well developed novels. However, they clearly felt obliged to pack in every last idea they had, not simply in terms of numerous versions of Earth, but species and political developments. As a result, rather than a coherent, engaging series of books, you end up with a scrapbook containing a morass of material which while interesting of itself, does not make successful novels. I certainly regret buying these books new, something I rarely do. I have stopped reading work by Pratchett and certainly will steer clear of anything by Baxter. This was really an expensive disappointment.

'The Witch of Portobello' by Paulo Coelho

Coelho is one of those authors like Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel García Márquez who you will have on the edge of your consciousness without really knowing what they have written. I bought this book, published in 2007 unread at a car boot sale last year, in part curious what kind of book it was. There are a lot of 'extras' at the back of this book as if it was a DVD, so you can find out quite a lot about Coelho, his career and beliefs. I had no problem with the first half of the book and in fact found it quite engaging. It is about a Roma woman who was put up for adoption in Romania the 1970s and was adopted by a Lebanese couple and given the name Sherine. The couple were later refugees to Britain where Sherine grew to adulthood and used the name 'Athena'. She had a short marriage resulting in a son, but there was divorced. She worked in a bank and then as an estate agent in the Middle East. Rather than a straight narrative, the book is written as a series of interviews with people who knew Sherine, including her adopted and birth mothers, neighbours and teachers. This bit is fine and engaging. Sherine returns to Romania and finds her birth mother.

Where I lost patience with the novel is when Sherine increasingly develops an engagement with New Age practices. Initially this is through dancing and calligraphy taught to her by amateurs. Then, however, she meets a Scottish woman, Deidre, who pretends to be some kind of spiritual guru. In fact she shows Sherine how she can take up a similar role as a charlatan through teaching things she actually has no idea about and wrapping them up in various jargon about the feminine side of God. Sherine ends up training actors and they form the hub of a growing cult around her until she faces opposition from church leaders and is murdered. I was bored by all the droning on about the spiritual aspects when we know Deidre and Sherine are in fact engaged in a confidence trick, largely for their own sense of self-worth. What I found worse at the end is that Coelho actually believes in much of the stuff he shows Sherine proselytising with a lack of any genuine knowledge and increasingly deluded. You really lose faith in the story. What is perhaps worse is the epilogue, suddenly a character mentioned in passing and constantly dismissed turns out to be a prime mover of the story, kept from the reader throughout.

Having worked through this book, I can understand why people stay away from literary fiction. The author does not play fair with the reader. Though he has skill in terms of characterisation and the structure of the plot is refreshing, half the book is basically a New Age sermon through the voices of two characters even though we have been shown they are charlatans. Reading more about the author it is clear these pseudo-religious texts are at the heart of his writing and I can understand why the original buyer/receiver of the book sold it on unread. Somewhere in this there is some skilled writing, but certainly the second half of the book is as exciting as listening to a sermon by a deluded fanatic. I will not be looking out any more books by Coelho and struggle to find what attracts readers to him. Ironically he seems to have become very much like the charlatan guru characters he portrays in this book.

Audio Book - Fiction

'Dying Light' by Stuart MacBride; read by John Sessions

It was ironic that I chose to listen to this book when I did, just before John Sessions's death. He was born in Scotland but was moved to England when only 3. However, he proves very capable in his narration of providing a range of Aberdeen and some Edinburgh voices, both male and female and really making them distinctive from each other.

This book is only the second of those written by MacBride featuring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae. That surprised me as there is a lot of back story. McRae has a pathologist as an ex, is dating a fellow police officer who has had her arm broken in a previous case, is under investigation as a result of the death of another officer during a raid he led and so on. It felt as if the character had been running for a number of books already. I guess that sums up MacBride's style. This book packs in four cases in parallel with McRae working to two inspectors as well as dealing with all the issues raised above. There is a murder of prostitutes, turf battles over drugs dealing, a missing husband, mutilated dog's bodies and corruption over a housing development. Some of these do begin to interlock, but you do really need to pay close attentions as McRae and his colleagues flit between the different cases. There is also a lot of jealousy and claiming the credit, especially in the media, is a big motivator for many of the various detectives' actions.

The book is very gritty with brutal murders, dismemberment and a range of torture. MacBride was clearly seeking to bring a 'hard-boiled' approach to Scottish crime writing and goes at it to an extent far harder than, say, Ian Rankin or Val McDermid - though her stories are often set in England. Overall it is not a bad story and while scenes will make you wince and feel frustrated, you have to admire the author for balancing a whole host of strands reasonably well. However, I think it is probably best to read rather than listen to this book, unless you can listen to the 6 hours in one stretch as there are occasions when you want to flick back to see who was doing what to whom, when a strand is picked up again. With that caveat I might be tempted to pick up more in this series if I see them in my local charity shop, preferring book form over more audio.


'The Nazi Dictatorship. Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation' by Ian Kershaw

There are probably few eras/events in history which have been so written about at an academic level as the Nazi regime, perhaps the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, could come in for the kind of scrutiny that Kershaw gives the Third Reich. As he makes clear at the start this is neither a history book, though he does mention some occurrences in the Nazi period, and though it references some hundreds of books and articles on the regime, it is not a historiographical book either, it is somewhere between the two. As the title suggests, Kershaw looks at how historians, some social scientists and political commentators, have interpreted what is known about all that occurred under Nazism. I read the second edition of the book which came out in 1990, five years after the book was published. However, from 1986 onwards there had been the so-called Historikerstreit - a row between various West German historians on how far the regime could be 'historicised', i.e. seen as part of ongoing, 'normal' history and how far those 12 years had to always remain treated as something almost outside history, disconnected from what went before and what followed after. This edition was expanded to encompass that row, which unlike most historical disputes, spilled out from academia into the media.

Throughout the book, drawing on extensive resources, Kershaw looks at the big questions around the Nazi regime, such as whether it was a form of fascism or something unique; whether the term 'totalitarian' is applicable to it; whether it was a centrally-driven regime or more a cluster of competing power blocs in Germany; how far Hitler drove or simply permitted radicalisation notably in persecution of the Jews; whether Nazi foreign policy fitted a plan perhaps developed a decade earlier or was primarily opportunistic; whether political or economic concerns drove the actions of the regime; whether the Nazis were a reactionary or a revolutionary force, holding up or advancing modernisation tendencies in Germany and whether the Holocaust must always been seen as something somehow apart from history or can be connected into trends beforehand and afterwards. Kershaw thoroughly analyses these lines and shows his own view on them, though also notes that the gaps between different 'sides' are not as extreme as the different viewpoints made out, even before 1986. He provides a refreshing hybrid approach, for example, arguing that while Hitler did not give direct orders for the extermination of the Jews, his rhetoric of racial hatred, his willingness to tolerate and even foster activities by the various blocs in his regime, created an environment where a steady progress to the death camps could occur, even if this had not been planned at the outset, and certainly not before 1941.

The book, now 30 years old, could seem rather dated. At the end, Kershaw notes the appearance of the ultra-nationalist Front National in France, but he did not foresee the populist leaders willing to bend democracy that have become such a feature of the world of the 2010s. Though these regimes today are not fascist, reading the book today, throughout you spot many small elements that seem to be echoed in contemporary political life such as creating and demonising the 'other' and bombastic claims for creating something so superior to what has ever come before. While still relevant in these times, the book has become a useful historical resource in itself. Kershaw was writing at a time when there were still two Germanies and he takes care to include the East German perspective and the views of marxist (he uses lower case for leninist too) of the time, which have largely now been lost from view in current discussions of the Nazi regime. Germany has moved on since then, not simply in terms of reunification, but in terms of the long shadow cast by the Nazis and almost characterising the Germanies simply as not-Nazi, rather than having intrinsic worth of their own. Thus, though dated, this remains a thorough, stimulating book asking questions that anyone, especially English-speakers studying the regime, can get a lot from.

As an aside, I met Ian Kershaw only once (he still lives, but is long retired) and that was in 1988. Funnily enough I cannot remember anything of what he said, instead all I can remember was that he wore a knitted tie, something I was unfamiliar with; it also ended in a straight line rather than a pointed one as is always the case in the UK and from the end hung a small metal button on a chain. To me he looked to be the archetypal West German scholar of the time, rather than British. My mind was obviously wandering if I paid so much attention to minute details and I imagine I missed out on stimulating input given he was updating this book at the time.

'A History of the Vikings' by Gwyn Jones

This book was published in 1968, though I have a 1973 edition. It approaches the history of the Vikings, effectively the peoples of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, 780-1070 though he connects into the history of Europe and indeed North America, before and after that period. What characterises a book of the time, is that whilst there is a lot of academic detail from sources in a wide range of languages, often listed in footnotes dominating the page, it is presented very much as a story. The text flows along briskly, sometimes, especially in the confusing wars of the 11th Century in Scandinavia and Britain, too fast. The narrative style, especially at the beginning with long lists, perhaps makes this book, despite its academic weight, more accessible to the general reader. Perhaps he makes more character judgements on the leading individuals than would be the case even with a popular historian writing nowadays let alone a semi-academic one. It is illustrated with those line drawn illustrations and maps, plus black-and-white photos, throughout and they often give flavour as much as information.

While broken up into three largely chronological blocks, sensibly Jones separates the social and artistic history from sections focused on developments in particular regions. This is sensible as especially the progress of the Scandinavians in Russia and the Middle East is far removed from developments in Iceland, Greenland and North America. At the time, the authenticity of the Vinland Map, found in 1965, was still under discussion. However, as Jones makes clear, it did not really matter as the archaeological record shows without doubt that Vikings visited and stayed some time in North America. One of the strengths is this linkage between what archaeology has shown and the history of these people and Jones keeps make useful connections between them, notably in terms of coins but also burials, uncovered towns and houses and especially carved stones.

Overall, though dated, this is a good introductory text to the full scope of Viking history and is particularly useful if you are interested in the history of Britain before the Norman Invasion. Though at times frenetic it helps sort out that period between King Alfred the Great's rule and 1066. Importantly the social history sections, including an additional one on the Danelaw region of England, not only goes beyond cosmetic portrayals of Nordic life, but shows how it was different in various regions and altered over time rather than being stuck in one model. The ebbing and flowing of Christianity impacts on this but also enters into the political history sections, reminding us not to fall into the trap of seeing Vikings as monolithic or unchanging, but in fact, in part due to how much of the western world they interacted with, a gauge of developments across many societies beyond Scandinavia itself.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Byzantium Express: The Byzantine Empire Persisting until the First World War


This book, my third published by Sea Lion Press: is also available for sale via Amazon:

As is often the case when I cannot sleep and need to distract myself, late in 2019, I began thinking about different scenarios of the First World War. I have published both two books of analysis on some scenarios and an anthology of short fiction. However, I had considered shorter-term changes rather than introducing a country which had been gone for about 450 years by the time the war broke out. Of course, the persistence of Byzantium has often been discussed, you can find numerous articles about it on the Sea Lion website. Alternate history author, Harry Turtledove, did not go this far, but as a Byzantine scholar he did use the empire as the basis for his Videssos fantasy stories. Another prompt for me was one of my 'what if?' book art covers from 2007: itself inspired a chapter in 'On Other Fields' (2012/14) about medieval alternatives.

To get to Byzantium surviving into the 20th Century, you need a lot of points of divergence. Not only do you need to prevent the steady Ottoman conquest of its territories in the 11th-15th centuries leading to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but you need to see the empire far less damaged by the Crusades. For example, the leaders of the 1st Crusade, 1096-99, had sworn to the the Byzantine emperor to restore the cities recently lost to the Fatimids and Seljuks in Syria and Palestine. Instead they set up their own principalities, the Crusader States that shrunk over time until snuffed out in the late 13th Century. Even worse for Byzantium was the 4th Crusade of 1202-04 which smashed up the empire and replaced it with a series of Latin states which persisted until the 1260s. While this did not condemn the empire to Ottoman overthrow it severely weakened it. Removing crusader leaders, notably Bohemond of Taranto who established the Principality of Antioch in what had been Byzantine lands, is easy. The siege of Antioch was lengthy and the crusaders were almost defeated both by disease and their Muslim opponents.

A stronger Byzantium would only have endured when faced by weaker Seljuk opposition. Again, this is far from impossible. As it was the expansion and unity of the Seljuks was wrecked by the incursions of the Mongols in the 13th Century. It was out of these ashes that the Osman tribe of Seljuks rose to become the Ottomans and establish a vast empire stretching right across the Balkans and North Africa, into Arabia and Mesopotamia as well as over Anatolia and the Levant regions. In turn it was sliced up by European countries, but on the eve of the Great War, was still deemed a Power and one that Germany sought out as an ally. I have envisaged that Britain and France have seen Byzantium as a bulwark against Russian expansion in the 19th Century and so have provided funds and fought in a version of the Crimean War in the 1850s to check this.

For the Sejuks and Arabs I have envisaged that a number of smaller states would appear across eastern Syria, Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Arabia. They are quite diverse, with divisions between Sunni, Shi'ite and Wahhabi Muslims, even an Orthodox Christian state as well as between different dynasties. There is a chance that some of these would be taken over by European powers, especially via the Persian Gulf. I have envisaged that as in our world, by 1914, Britain would have taken Egypt, Italy taken Libya and France taken Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. However, it is likely that they would have been taken from Arab or Bedouin rulers rather than Turkish ones.

I have envisaged that the enduring Byzantine Empire, by 1914, would be rather like the Chinese Empire. It would be able to hold off full-scale colonisation by European powers, but there would be economic and political penetration. I envisage a British 'treaty port', at Limassol on Cyprus and the Italians holding Rhodes on a 99-year lease. In our world, Britain effectively controlled all of Cyprus from 1878 and annexed it in 1914. Italy took Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese Islands in 1912. Maybe this is too few and more realistic would have been a number of treaty ports along Byzantium's various coasts, more akin to what happened in China 1840s-90s. However, my sense was that being more compact, Byzantium has been that bit stronger and largely able to resist most such demands. In addition, the independence of Bulgaria from the Byzantine Empire has been slowed up a little compared to its break from the Ottoman Empire, but again this helps the story I planned, too.

I know some fans of alternate history baulk against 'parallelism', but even with the changed situation, it seemed to make sense that as happened with the Ottoman Empire in our world, the German businesses and government would seek to penetrate the Byzantine Empire in the early 20th Century. It also provided a motive for the heroine, half-British, half-Greek to be there and provide the context for a spy story which seemed perfect for the time setting I had chosen. Too often, women are left out as main characters from alternate history novels, unless there prime focus is romance, so I always seek suitable ways to mix the genders in my novels into the action and a woman spy in 1914 seemed to fit trends of the time. Given how advanced Germany was in electricity and electrical engineering, it seemed to make sense that they would have sold such technology to Byzantium. The absence of coal in the region led me to envisage an earlier exploitation of oil from the fields in  northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia. This is not too much of a leap given the US and British navies were moving to oil power for warships at this time.

The political and economic elements of an alternate historical country are always interesting to work on. However, with this story there was another challenge that I actually found more fulfilling than I might have expected. I had to come up with a culture for Byzantium across the more than four centuries that it existed in my world compared to reality. I wanted it to be modern, especially as much of the action is in the capital, but also to show connections to the heritage that Byzantines would naturally have been proud of. I looked at a lot of Greek and Russian clothing and styles, e.g. with housing, from the late 19th/early 20th centuries and then sought to give them a distinctive twist. Thus men wear suits as they might in London, but cut higher to the neck; their bowler hats have a lower crown. Women wear kohl and more ornate jewellery day-to-day, conical rather that brimmed hats and the apomalli, a fictional counterpart of the pashmina, is an essential part of a Byzantine lady's wardrobe. With an enduring Greek culture in Anatolia, more Greek artists who in our world went to Athens or Paris have remained there. Constantinople was always a crossroads and in this novel we see foods that are typically Greek but others in our world we associate with Turkey. As a Christian rather than Muslim empire, alcohol is more widespread. The same goes for buildings in Constantinople. Much of the geography of the city would have developed on the same lines, but for example, we find the St. Eirene Chambers, gallery and theatre, where in our world the Topkapi Palace was built.

Some things did not need alteration. As it was Greece and Russia, plus other countries of the region, still used the Julian calendar in 1914, meaning I had to keep a close check on dates, especially when referring to battles that happened in our First World War and occurred just the same in this alternate world. The Metropolitan of Constantinople, the leading churchman, is portrayed unchanged from our history. I did have to extend the ruling dynasty and work out feasible names and numbers for the emperors after 1453 and their families. For other things, such as government positions and the currency, I updated what we know about the Byzantine era. Byzantium had a very complex military and civic society, perhaps highlighted by the term 'byzantine', but again it helps to give the reader a feel for what would be a distinct society and an ancient one dealing with the modern world. Given this effort, I hope that readers feel that they are stepping into an engaging alternative but also one that is feasible given centuries of divergence.

This is also the first spy story I have written. I hope that this works well for readers, how Eugeneia Cranston [reasons for the spelling are explained in the book] works as an agent and deals with sometimes very frustrating controllers in that work. I hope I have made it both seem realistic but show the characters in genuine jeopardy. I am certainly tempted to produce another alternate history spy story, given that I can find an appropriate context for one. This period when so much was still up for grabs in the early days of the war, seemed ideal and there may not be other settings that work so well. I always welcome feedback from readers and look forward to hearing your views.

Fictional Alternate History Map of the Byzantine Empire in 1914

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In October


'Four Days in June' by Iain Gale

While Gale makes it clear that this book, covering the Battle of Waterloo, is a work of fiction, all the leading people, and many of the minor characters, he features, were real. In addition where possible he puts words into their mouths that they were known to have said or written. The book goes round five individuals: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte; Marshal Michel Ney, Prince of Moskowa, one of the primary French generals; Colonel Sir William De Lancey, the British Quartermaster General; Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonell of the Coldstream Guards charged with defending the chateau of Hougoumont and Generalleutnant Hans von Ziet(h)en who commanded the Prussian I Corps, the first Prussian unit to reach the battlefield. 

Overall, it is not a bad book, though rather disjointed. Gale says his intention was to focus on the thoughts of these five men and so we rather see the action in a series of vignettes spread rather erratically across the four days. There is a big jump from the abandonment of Quatre Bras to the British and French being at the battlefield in front of Mont St. Jean. Perhaps the book is best when focused on smaller areas such as the battle for Hougoumont and Ney's repeated cavalry charges at the centre of the Allied line. He is certainly good at portraying how messy the battle was and the horror of the assorted injuries and deaths that many tens of thousands suffered. He also picks up on a couple of occasions when uniforms, especially the blue worn by Dutch troops (some of which he refers to anachronistically as Belgian) and troops from the Duchy of Nassau and the Nassau principalities.

As seems to be common these days with published books there are a number of small but annoying errors. Lieutenant Colonel John Fremantle another of Wellington's aides-de-camp is rendered as 'Freemantle'. A Prussian officer is given the rank of 'Oberstlieutenant' mixing in the English rank with the German rank of Oberstleutnant; the Landwehr are referred to as 'Landwher' and on one of the maps, Hanoverian troops are described as 'Hanovarian'. It is as if the book, at times, has been typed up from a dictation by someone unfamiliar with the actual names. Despite saying he has read 300 sources, Gale also misses the fact that one of the reasons why the Guards at Hougoumont suffered from a shortage of ammunition was that they used a different calibre of shot from other British units, something which had been identified as a problem as early as May 1815.

Not a bad book, but trying to cover so much from so many viewpoints means it loses some of its strength and it may have been better for Gale to have a tighter focus as Bernard Cornwell shows works well in books covering this time period and indeed this battle, even if Gale used a real soldier to have this viewpoint.

'The Sanctuary Seeker' by Bernard Knight

This is the first in the Crowner John series of murder mysteries. Knight, apparently his real name, was a professor of pathology and been publishing various crime novels since 1963. This novel opens in 1194 and is set in rural Devon and Exeter where the protagonist of the stories, Sir John de Wolfe, 'Crowner John' has been appointed coroner for the region as part of the legal reforms introduced by King Richard I. He is assisted by Gwyn a bulky Cornishman as his enforcer and Thomas de Peyne, a crippled former priest who works as his clerk. He is married to the sister of the Sheriff of Exeter, often an antagonist and has a mistress who runs a local tavern. In many ways I wondered if Knight was intentionally making his hero as different from the Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael featuring in novels set some 50 years earlier, though like John, Cadfael had been a crusader.

This story is around the uncovering of a corpse of a returned crusader and later that of his retainer. The deaths have triggered a number of different crimes, but John persists to get to the heart of the matter behind the two murders, in the face of favouritism and out of hand condemnations of people without evidence.

Despite the setting, the book is effectively a police procedural novel rather than a murder mystery. We see a lot of the formal working of coroner and the other legal officers he rubs up against, e.g. recording executions and setting fines on various villages. Being the first book, I can accept some 'info dumping' both on the main characters and the legal context in which they are working, such as the calling of juries, inquests, sanctuary and abjuring. Though some it seems quite modern, we also see superstition still holding sway, as with trials by ordeal to 'demonstrate' guilt or innocence of a suspect. As is typical with so many crime novels, John runs up against official favouritism or prejudice against various individuals based on who they know rather than any level of guilt. There is some action which John, despite being middle aged in our times, and almost old in those, gets involved with.

There is a bit too much tramping around the countryside and it reminded me of criticisms I have heard of police dramas in which you see people driving around too much rather than actually active at the scenes of crimes or in questioning people. I was unaware of the fact that Knight had been writing novels for 35 years when this book came out in 1998 otherwise I might have been less forgiving when it needs tightening up and does too much telling rather than showing. I have eleven more of the books in this series that were given to me and while I hope their writing is that bit tighter, I am not simply donating them to a charity shop until I have read at least a few more.

'A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms' by George R.R. Martin; illustrated by Gary Gianni

This is an odd book. It is set a century before the events featured in Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series which I read in 2017-18. However, unlike those books which are very 'adult' in nature, featuring brutality and lots of sexual content, this is effectively a children's book. The three stories included are around Ser Duncan the Tall, a squire to a jobbing 'hedge knight' who rides from region to region in the fictional continent of Westeros, seeking short-term mercenary employment and occasionally riding in jousting contests. The book opens with him dying and Duncan trying to make his way as a jouster and hedge knight aided by a 10-year old boy named Egg, who is in fact a royal prince, Aegon. The first story stars very much like the movie, 'A Knight's Tale' (2001), but then develops into a big more complexity at a tournament where typical for Martin's writing there are self-righteous, petulant privileged people who believe in the severest penalties for anything they see as a slight. Smug characters are apparently in at the moment, but it does get tedious reading so many.

The other two stories see Duncan employed by a poor lord in the southern central region of Westeros during a drought, trying to resolve arguments over water supply. The ending though is far too pat and lets down the realistic tensions over old disputes seen throughout the story. The third story sees Duncan further north, taking part in a tournament to celebrate a wedding though it proves to be the background for a conspiracy against the king. We also have two examples of old men marrying much younger women, another unsettling theme in Martin's writing which turns up far too often.

This book will seem very childish to adult and even young adult readers. Basically it is largely pitched at readers of 8-12, who will appreciate the straight forward brisk story-telling. The book is heavily, but well, illustrated by Gary Gianni with line and shading drawings which were so common in historical novels for children of the 1950s-70s that were fed to me. I said this book is largely suitable for children. However, I would include three caveats. One, the type is very small, possibly so that with all the drawings it did not become a very long book. Two, the word 'cunt' features twice and the word 'buggered' once, fitting more with the strong language of Martin's long series.

Third, as is typical of Martin he goes overboard in describing all the various noble houses and their various members. He makes it very hard as so many siblings have names that are only one or more letters different, a Daeron and a Daemon are just one example. As authors we are advised not to have too many characters whose names start with the same letter; Martin goes far further than that and has very, very similar names that can easily sow confusion in the reader's mind. A noble rebellion 16 years before the time when these stories are set and features throughout the background of these stories, especially the third one. Martin seems to have forgotten that while it is fine to spin out various plots and rebellions over many hundreds of pages, packing them into a much shorter story, overwhelms it.

I have the sense that what often happens with very successful authors is that publishers are reluctant to have an editor do a thorough job on their subsequent books. Consequently, it is no surprise that we have ended up with this oddity, a book which is basically written for children, but which includes many of Martin's typical elements that make it hard for even adult readers let alone for younger readers and occasionally including language and behaviour you would want to spare children from until they are old enough to handle it.

'Heretic' by Bernard Cornwell

Though I detected a fall in quality between the first book of Cornwell's 'Holy Grail' trilogy: 'Harlequin' (2000) and the second one, 'Vagabond' (2002):  this final book in the series is far worse by far. I know sometimes, as with his Starbuck tetralogy and in sharp contrast to his Sharpe series, Cornwell loses his way with the story. However, this one is probably the worst of his books I have read and by the end you do wonder why you bothered. In this one, English archer, Thomas of Hookton comes late to the English siege of Calais in August 1347 and sees some of the action there. However, he is then sent to southern France, once a truce is signed, by his lord, the Earl of Northampton to continue his rather erratic search for the Holy Grail. Throughout the series you feel that not on Thomas but Cornwell himself is ambivalent about this MacGuffin and so it is a rather feeble motivator for his character. He travels to the County of Astarac in south-western France which had been part of the Duchy of Aquitaine which had been ruled by the English but was steadily conquered by the French. For some reason he invents the fictional County of Berat whose ruler controls Astarac.

The rest of the novel, bar a short stretch at the end has Thomas and a shifting group of allies and enemies trekking back and forth between Astarac and a fictional castle town Castillon d'Arbizon either trying to control these or seek out the Holy Grail there. Guy Vexille the fictional Count of Astarac (the real one at the time was Centule II) and Thomas's cousin; Robbie Douglas his noble Scottish prisoner and Sir Guillaume d'Evecque, who was part of the raiding party on Hookton and father of one of Thomas's many ill-fated lovers all turn up. The book is then a series of skirmishes and running between the two locations, dealing with Thomas's latest lover, Genevieve a woman accused of being a Beghard, one of the various heretical lay communities in western Europe at the time. Ironically Vexille is in fact a Cathar, another more extensive heresy which had been purged in southern France in the 13th and early 14th centuries, but in a refreshing change from so much fiction set in medieval southern France, they do not take up much of the story.

The fact that Cornwell had to include so many more fictional elements than is usual for his stories, highlights the root of the problems with this book. There seems to be no point to it. There is no epic battle. There is no outright victory for anyone. The grail might still be fiction itself and men fight over simply the box that might have contained it. Almost all the leading characters are killed in skirmishes having switched sides once or twice. Genevieve escapes the fate of Thomas's other women and survives. However, the rapid change in women Thomas is with in the books means each is sketched out poorly and what could have been strong, interesting female characters (which can be a challenge with historical war stories) are not completed and are snuffed out too quickly. The ultimate futility of the book is shown by one incident that I will not reveal as it is a spoiler but even more so by the fact that many of those who survive the monotonous raiding and skirmishes die of the Black Death anyway.

Overall, I am not certain why Cornwell bothered with this book. It appears that having promised a trilogy he felt obliged to provide one rather than it being planned out properly. As a result, he fumbles around for some point to this third book and it would have been better if he had closed the story at the end of 'Vagabond' with some conclusion that seemed to have been worth reading hundreds of pages to reach. This book was very disappointing and I certainly will not bother with the coda volume, '1356' (2012) which is set 8 years after 'Heretic'.


'The Pleasures of Peace' by Bryan Appleyard

Despite some flaws, I found this quite an impressive book. It looks at developments in various facets of art in Britain from 1945 up until when it was published in 1990. He does look into the pre-war period and even the 19th Century for ideas and trends that continued after 1945, but as the book progresses, it is the contemporary developments which are dominant. Though Benjamin Britten gets a brief mention, it explicitly does not cover music and in theory does not cover popular culture, though reference to movies and science fiction books are, at time included. The prime focus is on literature, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture and architecture, breaking the years down into four periods.

Various themes reappear throughout the book such as the tension between a modern world and traditional/nostalgic perspectives and associated with this between the urban and rural. There is discussion of the interplay between art and science, especially the concern that science would overwhelm art or whether art could assimilate scientific aspects. The issue of representation in art whether figuratively or and whether it needs to be seen in order to be art also comes up. There is analysis of language, especially in literature, poetry and plays not just in terms of what is seen as appropriate language and the meanings it communicates, but also in terms of post-modernism of how culture impacts on language and its comprehension. Society and its changes are constantly used as a context for these discussions.

As can be seen just from this brief summary the book powers through a great deal. Comprehension is aided by Appleyard breaking the text into short thematic sections but also making a connection between one and the other, sometimes surprisingly such as going from poetry to architecture and drawing parallels in developments of the 1980s. Appleyard also keeps grounding what he is saying by using examples from the artists he is discussing, typically focusing in particular on one or two pieces of work to illustrate his point. This stops the book being painfully abstract and makes it more accessible to a non-academic reader. 

One challenge is, because he focuses largely on those artists who attracted the most attention in their time, there is a parade of white Englishmen. We do get Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer, Seamus Heaney, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and a few others. There is reference to American and French artists and thinkers, but the prime focus is on Englishmen. By the end I did feel that there was almost a parallel book somewhere to this one in which other contributors to the artistic culture of Britain was included. However, if you want to know who were seen as the 'important' artists and movements of the mid-late 20th Century this is an energetic, detailed book which works well not just to introduce them but to explore why it is felt they produced the art they did.

Audio Book

'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis; read by Lynn Redgrave

As I have not been commuting to and from work, I have been listening to far fewer audio books and indeed, though this one only runs to 4 hours, I started it in March and only finished it this month.

This was a children's book that I got in a mixed bag of audio books. I had 'The Magician's Nephew' (1955) read to me when I was a boy and in I saw the movie of  'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (novel 1950; movie 2005). However, as to the other stories in the Narnia series - though a fictional world, named after a Roman region of Italy - I have just been vaguely aware of them. This story happens in Narnia some centuries after the events of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', and animals have generally ceased to be able to speak and the humans have been overtaken by a nation called the Telmarines, who ultimately turn out to be descendants of pirates from Earth. The story centres around Prince Caspian, in line to the throne, but is usurped by his uncle and flees to try to find help to recover his position as king. He both encounters talking animals who aid him in the war against his uncle and summon the four Pevensie children from England of the 1950s where they had returned after ruling as monarchs in Narnia for many years centuries earlier.

As you would expect from English upper middle class fiction of the mid-20th Century it is very 'jolly hockeysticks' with lots of worthy behaviour and exclamations. The Christian overtones, represented by the giant lion, Aslan who also reappears in Narnia and those having doubt or faith in him, run alongside Classical references, notably to Bacchus who turns up with Maenads and leads a drunken orgy and other folklore like a river god. There are arguments between the various animals which make up the armies, but generally a reawakening of nature, especially tree spirits, as the four children aid Caspian to victory. How the lands have changed in the centuries since the children have been away is interesting. More unsettling are the colonial overtones, indicating that only the wise English brought in from outside can resolve tyrants and other difficulties in 'less developed' lands; indeed through bringing faith in Christianity too.

Despite all these themes which may be off putting in various ways, the story is one of sweeping old fashioned heroics tempered occasionally with the weaknesses of children. Ironically it all ends with the Pevensies being sent back to where they left our world at the railway station and the two eldest, Peter and Susan are advised that they are too old ever to return to Narnia, so somehow representing the loss of innocence for children even while pre-adolescent. That may reflect recognition of how the war and the following austerity still hung over England at the time the novel was written. Lynn Redgrave does a wonderful job of voicing all the characters in that very energetic, very English style which fits the novel and she is called upon to voice a whole host of different animals, which she does with great variety, so bringing those characters to life in all their variety.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Books I Read In September


'Vagabond' by Bernard Cornwell

This is the second book after 'Harlequin' (2000) which I read in July: in the Holy Grail series. That book built up nicely seeing the hero, archer, Thomas of Hookton drawn into English campaigns in France and Brittany in the opening stages of the Hundred Years' War climaxing with the Battle of Crécy in August 1346. This book is much messier. Moved on by the very nebulous quest for the Holy Grail seems to really be simply a tool to get Thomas as part of two battles, many hundreds of miles apart, the Battle of Neville's Cross outside Durham and the defence of La Roche Derrien in Brittany. Unlike in many of Cornwell's stories, the women that Thomas encounters seem pretty disposable. So far he has got two women pregnant who have either been killed or abducted. He has returned to the third, Jeanette Dowager Countess of Amorica, who had previously abandoned him but now is back in La Roche Derrien. Thomas encounters various English and French lords who want to eliminate him or torture him to find out where the Grail is. There is a horrendous torture scene in this book. However, they are so pretty similar in nature that it is often difficult to tell them from their equivalents in the first book.

Cornwell is always good on the battle scenes, no matter the era. He manages to make use of the actual history and weave in his fictional characters among the historical ones. The two battles in the book went the opposite way to what would have been predicted so do make gripping scenes. The trouble with this book, though, is the 'workings' are rather to visible; what motivates Thomas to be in various locations at particular times seems much  more forced than, say, in the Sharpe novels. The women and Thomas's opponents, similarly are more obviously part of the story telling mechanism than they were in the first book and in most of Cornwell's other novels. The Grail quest is thin and while I accept that in the mid-14th Century it did drive people on irrationally, the main characters seem able to take it or leave it as their mood takes them, so it seems more of a device than it otherwise might have been. I do have the third book, 'Heretic' (2003) but not the fourth, '1356' (2012) to read and only hope it at least gets back to the quality of  'Harlequin', if not to the level of Cornwell's best books.

'The Dead Can Wait' by Robert Ryan

This is the second book in Ryan's Dr. Watson series set during the First World War. I read the first, 'Dead Man's Land' (2012) back in July: This one is set in 1916 and sees Watson back in Britain having recovered from the damage he sustained especially in no man's land during the first novel. He is once again employed by Winston Churchill. Georgina Gregson, former suffragette and VAD and finally Sherlock Holmes are also involved. Having promoted blood transfusions in the previous book, Watson is now working on the 'talking cure' what we would now term counselling, to help soldiers recover from shell shock. From May 1916, Churchill was back in Britain after the merging of his unit and was simply a backbench MP. However, his earlier involvement with 'landships', i.e. tanks, when First Lord of the Admiralty means he continues and interest in their development and he sends Watson to dig into deaths at Elveden in Suffolk where they are being hurriedly tested.

The book is far less a murder mystery than spy novel. Ryan is a bit better in control of what he is covering than in the first book. However, he does leap point of view very regularly, sometimes in the middle of a piece of action only to return to it later. A new author would certainly be chastised for doing that. In addition, as a reader we are constantly lied to about the identity of characters, even those whose eyes we are seeing through. Yes, the revelations are a climax, but Ryan uses this technique three times in the book which is over-working it. Added to that there seem to be German spies all over Britain, far more successful than was the case in reality.

Ryan is a little better than in the previous book in jamming in all the history he wants to include, but his frustration, shared by specialists at the time, that tanks were not used more effectively, comes through rather as preaching. I have seen one review that likens this book to a Bulldog Drummond novels by H.C. McNeile ('Sapper') or indeed the Chandos books of Cecil William Mercer ('Dornford Yates'). I know some of the Sherlock Holmes stories were spy orientated, but this one especially the action scenes, despite the age of the protagonists, owes more to those thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s. If that is what you are looking for, then that is fine. However, Ryan needs to refine his art in writing this style of books. Unlike his unwieldy novels, those were tight and brisk. You have to admire his research, but it does tend to weigh down the books when he could leave much more to reader. I know however, that modern readers welcome, even insist on 'info dumps' than those of the past. It is not a bad book, but with serious editing and improved structuring it could have been a lot better.

'The Long Utopia' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Given that this book, published in 2015, fourth in the 'Long' series, suffers from many of the same problems as 'The Dead Can Wait' (2014), I am wondering if unwieldy books, dumping loads of ideas and information without properly digging into them and hurtling around between lots of character points of view is not the style that publishers are looking for. Perhaps I am too old to deal with this approach but to me it seems unfinished as if readers are being given perhaps the second draft and not a book that has been edited to the final point. All the 'Long' books are bursting with ideas, all most too many for even two authors to control.

The reader is bombarded by these, flitting from one view to another and then having the characters jumping across almost infinite worlds. In amongst all of this are some interesting stories, but this novel is like two books put into one with a lot of extras around the outside. We see many of the characters from the previous books like Joshua and Sally, natural 'steppers' between worlds and Lobsang and Agnes, now consciousnesses in robotic bodies. There is reference to the Next, the arrogant super-intelligent people who left our Earth and the nearby ones, in the previous book.

The most interesting part was the stories of the natural steppers in the mid to late 19th Century and while this provides background to the characters we see in the mid-21st Century settings. The other main story is about sinister aliens who have interceded in one of the idyllic forested versions of Earth to essentially rip it apart in order to power their expanding empire which is at war with another species. The problems with this book as with the others, is that Pratchett and Baxter take a lot of time to build up the potential jeopardy only to veer away or report the outcome from a distance. You almost feel that there are actually alternate versions of these books in which the characters deal with the various crises that we miss out on. The constant jolting may be to instil pace but spread over 400+ page books any momentum is lost. At least in this book we see the cataclysmic climax, but the decisions of certain individuals to sacrifice themselves there to save the rest of the Long Earth is really skimped over rather than providing tension.

Added to these issues, there is the ongoing problem that you struggle to find any sympathetic characters. There are a couple like Rocky, the friend of Stan a Next who is effectively setting himself up as a messiah and Nelson Azikiwe, a priest from South Africa who is employed by Lobsang, and these are minor characters. Everyone else is terse, arrogant and patronises everyone else as much as possible. There are still lingering elements of the US frontier self-righteousness of the earlier books and this time we see nothing outside the American perspective, bar references to parts of Europe where the climate has changed by the volcanic winter brought about by the Yellowstone eruption on our version of Earth. Maybe in the age of social media when everyone insists that they are right and all must acknowledge how right they are and commend them for enlightening us, these are the sort of characters young readers want. However, as a mature reader, it is a slog wading through yet another character that treats everyone else as if they are scum that need to be lectured at length about how wrong they are in everything.

I am beginning to think, maybe I need to only read books written before the 2010s when authors were unafraid to write characters we could feel some affinity with and while flawed were willing to acknowledge that rather than blame someone else. Fiction does reflect the society we live in and unfortunately, while looking at lots of alternate Earths, Pratchett and Baxter show very painfully how twisted our society is with unlikeable people to the fore.


'The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain' by Tony Bunyan

This is an edition of the book produced in 1976 and it is another of those I should have got around to reading some decades ago. My untouched new copy had sat in storage for many years. The book does pretty much what it says on the label. It outlines the background and development of all those British agencies that could be considered the political police of Britain, primarily Special Branch and MI5. At times it is tedious in going on about all the structure and the numbers of different departments; it is quite repetitive too. The book also looks at how law across the UK, especially conspiracy law, has developed to counter domestic unrest and to monitor and detain those seen as a threat to the capitalist status quo of the country. For a modern reader, the explicitly Marxist angle that Bunyan brings to what he is writing would probably seem quite unusual. I attended university at a time when some lecturers would identify themselves as Marxists but even then, I find Bunyan's dogmatism distorts what he writes. Of course, it is easy for people now to look back with hindsight, but even in 1976, I feel he could have been challenged in some of his assumptions, even by those on the Left.

Though Bunyan was writing at a time when industrial unrest had come out of a period of great turbulence of the early to mid-1970s, he keeps on insisting that British capitalism has been in crisis for almost the entirety of the post-war period. This is despite the prosperity especially during the 1950s and 1960s, which despite the industrial unrest and the oil price 'shocks' actually continued into the 1970s, with, for example, 1975 marking a new peak in car sales. Ignoring this means that he can only see Conservative governments as a result of them holding on to power through nefarious means, especially through control of the police and military. He makes passing reference to consumerism and to how a few working class people felt benefit from policing, but is unwilling to shake his view that the police are primarily there to protect property and suppress the working class, ethnic minorities and drug users, especially in terms of political activity. However, he makes the crude assumption that all workers have a left-wing class consciousness without seeing that many were instead ardent supporters of consumerism and anything that would be done to protect that.

In Bunyan's world, there are no working class Conservatives at all, when in fact they were to sweep Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 and keep her the Conservatives there for 18 years. He makes lazy assumptions on the numbers who would volunteer to aid the state in the case of a crisis, somehow assuming 300,000 would volunteer simply from the property-owning classes without seeing that there would be ardent working class volunteers too, though in smaller numbers than he expected. Political apathy is absent from Bunyan's thinking too, despite its prevalence in Britain at the time even if simply showing by turn-out at elections, when, say, compared to France, Italy and West Germany. Despite his faith in the strength of the left-wing working class and their uniform consciousness, in fact the trade unions had unleashed their power most against a Labour government in the winter of 1978/79, though I guess Bunyan would have argued that Callaghan who replaced Wilson as prime minister in 1976, was hardly a real Labourite, given his personal closeness to the police and his willingness to move towards monetarist polices.

There are some things on which Bunyan did make accurate predictions. He saw the importance of computerisation which was beginning to develop in the mid-1970s. He also foresaw how the police would monitor and control political protest as they did in the 1980s, especially during the Miners' Strike of 1984-85, for example stopping people suspected of travelling to demonstrations when even hundreds of miles away. However, the cause of these things was less his anticipated crisis in capitalism and more the New Right economics which while begun in 1976 were adopted in full force in the 1979-83 period.

The greatest use for this book now is that it is good if you are setting a drama in the 1960s or 1970s featuring Special Branch or MI5. It is also a reminder of various trials and political campaigns, such as the Stop The 70 Tour and against the visit of Portuguese Prime Minister, Marcello Caetano, which had generally been forgotten from the popular consciousness. The recent focus back on the Mangrove 9 of 1970, shows, though that there is something to learned still from the incidents of that era. This could have been a better book if Bunyan had been able to write it without feeling he had to squeeze everything into his very dogmatic view of British society, which objectively did not fit his story of it. As a result he leaves out things that would have explained situations he was surprised by and would have helped better contextualise the developments he highlights. Instead the reader has to add in that context themselves and see that Bunyan is blind to many trends and indeed types of people, that did not fit his world view.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Books I Read In August


'The Long Firm' by Jake Arnott

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

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

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

'A Sea of Troubles' by Donna Leon

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

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

'Snakewood' by Adrian Selby

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

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

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


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

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

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

Friday, 31 July 2020

Books I Read In July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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