Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Books I Read in 2007

This is a feature that I cannot claim any credit for as it appears on numerous blogs.  I was a little concerned that it was a touch arrogant to outline the books I have read.  However, given that things I have read often prompt blog postings and people might be interested in reading these books, combined with me being able to recommend things or, possibly more importantly, warn people away from wasting their time on poor books, I think it is a valid element of my blog.  Of course, I only started this blog in May 2007.  However, I have been keeping a diary since 1978 and so have a lot of paper-based records to draw upon.  Of course, some time has passed since I have read some of these books and so my reviews will not be as accurate as if done at the time.  I find I forget plots very quickly, but hopefully have sufficient memory of the overall gist of the books to be able to make worthwhile comments on them. 

I read to a very fixed pattern: 1 detective/murder mystery novel, 1 science fiction or fantasy novel; 1 novel not fitting those previous categories; 1 non-fiction book then back around that four-book cycle.  I started this some years ago to ensure that I do not simply stick to reading one sort of book.  I think I was in part prompted to do this by an acquaintance who was re-reading 'Gorky Park' by Martin Cruz Smith for the third time because he had no idea what to read next.  It is a good novel (the plotting of the movie is even better, certainly with a more feasible final act) but he had no idea what to turn to next.  In my youth I would go through a string of crime novels or fantasy novels.  While I still like to read the entirety of a series written by a particular novelist, I think it is better to mix this in with a wider range of genres so that I do not become weary of the particular writing or characters.

I rarely by books new, so my choices tend to be driven by what is available in charity shops.  When I was a teenager every charity shop I went in had a copy of 'Jaws' (1974) by Peter Benchley and later things like 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' (1993) by Louis de Bernières and most recently 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003) by Dan Brown.  In any given set of charity shops (and I have now lived in two towns with 7-8 charity shops grouped within a five-minute walk of each other) you will find each holding a copy of that book.  Of course, other more random stuff turns up and the low prices mean I am willing to take a gamble on it than if I was buying it new.  It does mean that I sometimes make terrible mistakes and end up reading books that are terrible.  However, at least I have not wasted £8.99 on them.  After me the books go to my father who consumes books in vast quantities and then back to another charity shop, presumably cycling round until they wear out.

Anyway, rather than list the books in strict chronological order in which I read them, I have grouped them into fiction and non-fiction and furthermore have clustered books featuring the same characters or by the same author or focusing on the same topic to allow me to make general comments about them.

'Reigning Cats and Dogs' by Tanith Lee.
A strange, almost steampunk novel set in a Victorian London in which there is a lot of debauchery and secret societies releasing ancient forces, notably connected to the Egyptian god Anubis.  It seems an interesting idea but somehow lacked punch, perhaps it was trying too hard.

'The 47 Rōnin Story' by John Allyn.
This story, of course, is not actually by John Allyn as it is drawn from real events in the 18th century Japan in which 47 samurai left masterless, i.e. rōnin, took revenge on their master's persecutors.  It is a renowned story in Japanese culture and is reasonably well known in the West.  I enjoyed this rendering of it which combined the cunning of the 47 trying to mislead those anticipating an attack by them and the action.  If you have any interest in a good action story with a range of interesting characters then I recommend this.

'Roman Blood'; 'Arms of Nemesis'; 'A Murder on the Appian Way'; 'A Mist of Prophecies' all by Steven Saylor
These are the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 10th books in Steven Saylor's series featuring Roman investigator Gordianus.  The random nature of the ones I read stemmed from what I turned up in charity shops. The 12 novels in the series cover the period 80 BCE - 46 BCE; the first was published in 1991 and the latest in 2008.  They are very engaging stories which because they stretch over such a long period are able to mesh with numerous major events in the period when the Roman Republic came to an end and the empire began.  Though there is a political background, the stories are basically police procedural novels, featuring well drawn fictional and historical characters.  Saylor certainly has an ability to conjure up the city of Rome and other locations across the Roman world without drowning you in historical detail.

'Blade Runner": The Edge of Human' by K.W. Jeter.
This is a sequel to the original 'Blade Runner' (1982) movie rather than the novel it was based on, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968) by Philip K. Dick or the director's cut version of the movie which came out in 1992 nor the 'final cut' version of 2007.  I found the book weak.  It really had nowhere to go.  Without the imperative of hunting down replicants a lot of the edge was missing, you did not really feel any genuine threat to Rick Deckard nor really any advance in the question about whether he too was a replicant.  This was a disappointment to me.

'The Last English King'; 'Knights of Albion' and 'A Very English Agent' all by Julian Rathbone.
The first features the adventures of one of King Harold II's (the king who was killed at the Battle of Hastings thus deemed the last 'English' king) housecarls wandering Europe and the Near East bemoaning his failure to die for his king.  The settings from southern England as far as Byzantine Anatolia and details of this early medieval period are well portrayed, but the story rather runs out of steam.  The hero eventually gives up, not reaching Jerusalem and simply returns to Norman-occupied England.

This tapering off is a similar complaint you can lay at the door of 'Knights of Albion'.  This is set in the fifteenth century and features travellers from the advanced Indian state of Vijayanagara, a real place, travelling to France and England in search of ambassadors sent to enlist help from the Europeans for Vijayanagara's own difficulties.  They find Europe uncivilised.  There is some humour in seeing medieval Europe through the eyes of outsiders but this is rather laboured and again, the story lacks strong direction and tapers off at the end rather than having a clear conclusion.  Perhaps I am missing the point of Rathbone's stories.  I love the portrayal of the periods he is writing about but yearn for more narrative drive.

In this respect 'A Very English Agent' is better.  It features the adventures of  Charles Bosham an agent provocateur for the repressive British governments of the post-Napoleonic Wars era as they faced social unrest such as Peterloo and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  People have likened Bosham to Flashman in the novels of George MacDonald Fraser.  Bosham seems to be at every major event in the political history of the 1810s and 1820s, though he is a highly unreliable narrator.  Rathbone handles the humour better and because the story is necessarily episodic there is less trouble with him not being able to come to a strong conclusion.  A sequel, 'Birth of a Nation' (2005) featured Bosham in the Americas in the 1840s.  Readers often dislike the intentional anachronistic references in Rathbone's historical novels.  However, I am just seeking a bit more clarity in where they are going.

'Dinotopia Lost' by Alan Dean Foster.
I had read the original picture book 'Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time' (1992) by James Gurney when it came out.  It is set in the 1860s about a fictional island where humans and dinosaurs live in harmony.  It has spawned numerous books for children and a mini-series on television.  Part of the delight of the original was the Orientalist style paintings that fitted the era portrayed, but instead of showing Turkey or Egypt, featuring dinosaurs and humans on the island.  This un-illustrated full length novel had classic themes of pirates washed up in Dinotopia seeking to exploit it.  I was probably too old for this book, it was alright but nothing special.

'Queen Victoria's Bomb' by Ronald Clark
I have mentioned this before as being a steampunk classic.  It owes a lot to the concerns of the time when it was published (1967) regarding the risk of nuclear war, but it is also fascinating in moving the atomic bomb back a century and finding out the potential impact.  It is a bit episodic in that the story builds up to climaxes each time the bomb is to be used.  However, it manages to make you entirely accept that a bomb of that kind was possible and then present early Victorians rather than mid-20th century people with the moral dilemmas.  It also contains a chilling warning of the hazards of nuclear weapons testing.  By showing Imperial Britons to be callous to the concerns of those they ruled over especially in India, it challenges the contemporary reader to see if they are any more caring.  This is a classic book, well executed and should be on the reading list of anyone interested in steampunk and/or 'what if?' stories and I know you are out there.

'The Shores of Death' by Michael Moorcock.
This novel is also known as 'The Twilight Man'.  I read it in a single day.  It was very much a story in the style of 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus' (1604) by Christopher Marlowe in that people seeking escape from death have their wishes fulfilled but in unpleasant ways by a powerful being whose malevolence stems from people's ignorance of what they are truly wishing for.  It is set on an alien world.  I did not like it.  I guess it made me uneasy in the way 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' (1962; movie 1983 with screenplay by Bradbury) by Ray Bradbury.  I think people have a hard enough time dealing with life, death and loss without them being punished through tricks just for wishing for something better.

'The Junkers' by Piers Paul Read
This was a pretty decent book, perhaps showing its age a little (it was published in 1968) but weaving an interesting story jumping between Nazi Germany and 1960s West Germany to look at the dynamics of a prosperous German family working to cover up their secrets while continuing to prosper through changes of regime.  The characters are engaging and probably in the late 1960s it would have seemed more distinctive than today, but reading it was certainly not a wasted experience.  Whilst it could have fallen into the same trap as Rathbone's novels discussed above, it had a satisfying conclusion rather than tapering off.

'The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria'; 'The Dragon King's Palace'; 'The Perfumed Sleeve' all by Laura Joh Rowland
These are the 7th, 8th and 9th books in Rowland's Sano Ichiro series of detective novels set in Japan of the 17th century.  Sano Ichiro is a civil servant working for the 4th Tokugawa Shōgun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.  The first book in the series came out in 1991 and the 12th, last year.  Part of the problem with many police series is that when the detective is successful and rises he becomes distanced from the operational aspects of investigations and to some degree as the Ichiro books have progressed, while the hero does investigate crimes, the political aspects of the Shōgun's court take on as much importance.  In this the rivalry of other powerful officials is as important as the criminals Ichiro encounters.  I enjoy these stories, they show a lot about life in Japan of the time, again without you feeling drowned in the detail.  The key problem is that beside the devious officials and criminals that Ichiro encounters, he seems rather bland.  He is hung up around his duties to the code of Bushido when they conflict with investigations but his traits seem a little pale and you end up becoming more involved with his opponents who display an interesting if unappealing set of characteristics.  The 'Dragon King' a bandit leader is a classic example.

'The War Book' by James Sallis.
This is an anthology of science fiction stories from the late 1960s.  However, none of them have stuck out in my mind and I have forgotten this book incredibly quickly.  James Sallis is rated as a writer, much in Michael Moorcock's generation; the two have collaborated.  I should have made notes about this book before I despatched it to my father.

'A Rough Shoot' by Geoffrey Household.
This was one of the 'Classic Thrillers' reprints of action and adventure stories from the early and mid-20th century.  This one was a 1950s about a reasonably well off middle class man hiring some land in Dorset to do some shooting to supplement his family's groceries with meat.  He stumbles across a plot to bring neo-Fascists into Britain.  He works to thwart this and towards the end is aided by the authorities.  The story has the feel of something written in the 1920s or 1930s and it is nice to see a thriller from this era not focused on the Soviet 'threat'.  It is a fast moving, enjoyable adventure.  What marks it out is the sense of place in southern England and the characters are credible and well drawn, better than in many stories of this ilk.  This book is less well known than similar stories by John Buchan and Eric Ambler, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys that kind of story.

'John McNab' by John Buchan.
This is a lighter story than 'A Rough Shoot' or the bulk of Buchan's stories.  There is no dastardly political threat afoot, rather three bored, well-off gentlemen aim to trespass on their neighbours' lands, having forewarned them, and yet seek to carry off game or fish from each.  It is rather about an upper class game, set in the Scottish scenery that Buchan loved.  It sums up a time and a class, though Buchan does not stick entirely to the expectations and the women are pretty feisty.  This is a relaxing novel without much challenge, but pretty well crafted for its kind.

'The Devil's Horsemen' by James Chambers.
This is a concise (190 pages) but chilling account of the Mongol invasions of Europe in the 13th century.  It moves along briskly and manages to detail the successful tactics and the utterly terrifying methods of the invaders.  You can really understand the fear of those facing these attacks.  The accounts are so unpleasant that I dislike recalling them.  Finishing the book I had a complete loathing for the people that inflicted these atrocities and had to rein in my distaste for contemporary Mongolia's lauding of its murderous ancestors.  This is a quick and effective way of learning about the Mongol invasions and whilst dispassionate in itself, may, as in me, stir up strong feelings.

'The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century' by Will Hutton.
This is really two books and I think Hutton would have done better to separate them out.  The coverage of contemporary China and how it has got to where it is today in terms of politics, economics and society is well handled.  However, the second half of the book is really a repeat of Hutton's earlier works in advocating the kind of society and economy he feels the West needs.  This is him repeating his old song, just using the 'threat' of China to try to drive it on.  Read the first half.

'The Chinese' by Jasper Becker.
This book is an excellent antidote to all of those books out there lauding how successful the Chinese economy is and what wonders the country is doing.  Becker is a clear critic of Communist China but he shows up its totalitarian state and what it has done in an effective and dispassionate way.  He has excellent attention to detail and yet is able to make the stories of those millions of people who have been part of different aspects of China's turbulent history come to you in a personal way.  I certainly recommend this as a book to show you the reality of China beneath the glitz and warn you of the dangers of dealing with such a dictatorship.

'China: A New History' by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman.
In fact by the time I got around to reading this book, it was pretty much an old history as it was published at the end of the 1980s and did not cover the latest developments in China.  Goldman updated Fairbank's earlier edition of this book and it is interesting that Goldman has a real belief that China will have to move to democracy.  This is a common flaw among Americans who seem to cling to the Hayekian view that free economies mean democracy and planned economies mean dictatorship.  You only have to compare France and China to see this is not true.  Fairbank had a much more realistic perception of China and I feel his view has been borne out by what we see in China now.  This book is solid if you want a decent coverage of China in the past couple of hundred years, but you would need something newer for the latter decades that we have witnessed.

'The Lion and the Dragon: British Voices from the China Coast' by Christopher Cook.
I think this book was produced in conjunction with a 1980s television series.  It is a highly illustrated (with photograph) oral history of life among those Britons who worked in China in the 1920s-40s.  It would be a great source book for novels in that setting.  Despite the title it does also feature stories from Britons working in the interior.  Notable are accounts of incidents of kidnapping and of the raucous social life that the expatriates lived in the coastal cities, notably Shanghai.  An interesting slice of a lost experience.

'The Templars' by Piers Paul Read.
Given that the Knights Templar turn up in so much fiction these days and are attributed with having been involved with a whole range of fantastical activities, notably guarding the Holy Grail, whatever that might be, it is interesting to read a lucid, sober account of them.  Read's conclusion is that they were a lot less exciting than anyone thinks and were pretty mundane warrior monks who got mixed up in politics and the greed/need of monarchs for their money.  This was a straight forward history.

'A Brief History of the Crusades' by Geoffrey Hindley.
I really rate this book.  Whilst others will give you more blow-by-blow detail of the medieval crusades to the Levant, this really deepens your understanding about what was going on.  I particularly enjoyed the details on society in the Crusader States and aspects such as the different position of women there compared to back in Europe.  This book gives you a real flavour of the life of the crusaders and those who worked with and who opposed them.  A very engaging book that I would read again.

'The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon' by Ivan Morris.
A 'pillow book' is less lascivious than it sounds, it was simply a book a woman in medieval Japan would keep in the drawer in the side of her wooden pillow.  Usually it was something like a diary or scrapbook.  It was written by a courtier Sei Shōnagon at the court of the Empress Consort in the 990s CE up to 1002.  It has small scraps of stories and observations about life at court and so is ideal for dipping into or reading right through.  I have likened it to a modern day blog.  It is certainly a lot less tiresome than reading either 'The Tale of Genji' a novel by another Japanese female courtier, Murasaki Shikibu, written some years after Sei Shōnagon's pillow book or Cao Xueqin's 18th century novel about the Chinese court, 'A Dream of Red Mansions' both of which I read in the late 1980s and have none of the wit of this book.

'What If ...?' Explorations in Social Science Fiction' edited by Nelson W. Polsby.
Strictly this is not non-fiction as it speculates on history that did not happen.  However, it seeks to do this in an academic way.  Unfortunately as with the worst counter-factual writing too many of the authors have been permitted to use their counter-factuals to whine about things they see wrong with their own society (USA of the early 1980s).  The best is probably about a confederal as opposed to federal USA being established, which came very close to happening.  There is a good chapter on Napoleon's global plans too.  Otherwise I was disappointed by this book and I guess all I will take from it is a few ideas for 'what if?'s to analyse myself.

'Invasion. The Alternate History of the German Invasion of England, July 1940' by Kenneth Macksey.
This is obviously another counter-factual book.  It is pretty workerlike in its rendering of a history of a successful German invasion of England, going into immense detail about the various units on both sides and their engagement.  I suppose this would be useful if you wanted to wargame such an invasion, but I felt myself wanting more on the impact on Britain and so after a while found it rather sterile.  I read histories of warfare, but guess that in this case I wanted more speculation beyond simply what occurred on the battelfield.

'Invasion 1940' by Walter Schellenberg.
This is a translation of the documents produced by SS Brigadeführer (Major-General) Walter Schellenberg regarding Britain ahead of the German invasion planned for 1940.  Schellenberg worked in Office VI of the SD, the German counter-intelligence body, with resposibility for such work outside Germany.  He survived the war and was released from prison in 1951, dying the following year at the age of 42.  The book gives background from a Nazi perspective of British society and how it was seen to function.  It also includes lists of those who would have been arrested on the occupation of Britain.  These are interesting aspects, though after a while the long lists get tedious.

No comments: