Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Books I Read in 2009

This is the third year I have looked back at the books I have read in the previous year.  You can see my previous reviews at:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2009/01/books-i-read-in-2008.html and http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/01/books-i-read-in-2007.html

As in 2008, in 2009, I seem to have fallen below my normal quantity of reading.  Partly it was because I was unemployed from June to October and I never read or write much when I am out of work.  I did try in the dying days of my job before I was made redundant not to work through my lunch breaks and to read instead, but I do not seem to have been that successful, still only getting through 16 books compared to 15 in 2008 and 31 in 2007.  This contrasts to when I lived in London in the 1990s and sometimes would read 1-2 books every week.  I suppose driving places rather than going by train plays quite a part in this drop off.

Given the complaints of the woman who lives in my house about the number of books I own, I have been trying to get through as many as I can as quickly as possible.  I am loath to throw away books that I have not read.  I have deliberately concentrating on the heaviest books so that if I am compelled to move house again, the boxes will be lighter.  On the last two occasions I have moved house the removal company has refused to touch any of my books.  So, weight has now become a factor in which books I pick to read.  As before, the bulk of what I read still comes from charity shops, so there is another factor shaping the kind of things I have to hand.  I still read three fiction books, from different genres for every non-fiction book I read.  As before my review here separates the fiction and non-fiction books and whilst it is roughly chronological I group together books I have read by the same author so that I can comment on the author's work in general.  I do like gathering as many books by a single author as I can and working through them over a year.

Anyway, this is the review of what I read in 2009.

'More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' and 'Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' ed. by Hugh Greene.
These are two more anthologies from the 1970s collecting detective stories from the mid-19th century to early 20th century.  As before they tend to show up why Sherlock Holmes has survived while these other stories have fallen into general obscurity.  However, the most interesting ones are those from outside the UK notably Denmark and Canada and there are detectives which are different to the kind you have seen before with stories which are pretty engaging compared to some of the rather sterile, mechanical ones from Britain itself.  Interestingly, you can see in the Danish detective elements that seem to be precursor to the Wallander mysteries and other Scandinavian writiers so popular today.

'Timeline' by Michael Crichton
I have said quite a bit about this novel in an earlier posting: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2009/02/time-travellers-and-middle-ages.html  It is a pretty interesting story about a group of archaeologists time travelling through bubbles in the expanding universe back to medieval France.  There are some flaws in that method in that really they are going to an alternate universe though changed events there impact on our history.  In addition, Crichton seems to present a critique of modern men, especially academics, as being feeble and unworldly compared to their medieval counterparts and he lauds masculine physical activities.  These things aside the story is adventurous and with all of Crichton's work, well researched and detailed without drowning the reader in that detail.  Overall, I enjoyed this book.

'The Winter Queen'; 'Murder on the Leviathan', 'Turkish Gambit' all by Boris Akunin.
Russian author, Akunin's hero featured in these novels, Erast Fandorin, has been likened to a secret agent as much as a detective.  Akunin (real name Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) has been publishing through the 2000s not only Fandorin novels, but ones featuring other characters too.  These three novels have already been made into Russian movies.  The Fandorin do combine elements of murder mystery (especially 'Murder on the Leviathan' set about an ocean liner), police procedural and spy stories (notably in 'The Winter Queen'); 'Turkish Gambit' also has elements of war fiction too.  The stories are set in the 1870s and feature Fandorin, a member of the Third Section of the Russian state security machine.  He is an amenable young man (he is only 20 at the start of 'The Winter Queen') with common Victorian manners and habits (such as exercise programmes and a particular diet).  He is touched by tragedy at the end of the first book and this importantly gives some of the depth that I cry out for when encountering yet another amenable detective.  I guess this pedantic nature concerned with food and the tragedy are what allow some readers to see parallels with James Bond as seen in Ian Fleming's novels.  These novels have done deservedly well.  Akunin has a real attention to period detail and the imperatives that different times and places have on the actions of characters.  I am more than happy that he is willing to straddle different genres to bring an engaging adventure story.  I look forward to reading many more of these books.  I hope someone produces a movie in English of one of them at least, or we can have a subtitled version of the Russian movies to rent.

'Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas' by Michael Bishop
I have said quite a lot about this book already when looking at counter-factuals featuring US President Richard Nixon: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2009/03/nixonian-counter-factuals.html  It is an interesting exercise about a USA with a dictatorship and an approach to the Cold War which has made it very much like the Communist regimes it sought to oppose or at least contain.  In Philip K. Dick's own counter-factual, 'The Man in the High Castle', I disliked his sense that there is a more 'real' reality than the one the characters were experiencing and so people struggled to shift their world to that version.  Bishop subverts this well, not only exploring the counter-factual but also showing the characters shifting it through mental force to a different version.  I do not know enough Dick novels to spot other references.  However, though a little irritated when the story shifts to the Moon, I generally enjoyed the story and thought it effectively written.

'Death at the President's Lodging' and 'Hamlet, Revenge!' by Michael Innes.
I have no idea why these 1930s detective stories are rated.  The first is set in an imaginary university, modelled on Oxford and Cambridge universities but located at Bletchley mid-way between the two.  This is ironic given that Bletchley Park was the centre of code-breaking by the British during the Second World War, in which many academics were involved and for the past forty years the campus of the Open University has been a short way from Bletchley.  Neither of these stories is terrible, but they have far too many characters and far too many twists in to make comfortable reading.  After a while you lose interest in the motives of all the different people and the minutiae of who was where at each phase.  Unlike some novels from the period these two really show up how manners and attitudes were different then to today.  I would not say I wasted my time reading these books, but I felt it could have been spent better if I had the choice again.

'Roma Eterna' by Robert Silverberg.
This is an episodic novel featuring short stories across the centuries set in a Roman empire which endures at least until our 19th century.  There is quite a lot of coups featured and Romans with a little advanced technology.  However, Silverberg does this with a light touch and aside from showing a Roman invasion of North America he does not draw out huge differences from our world.  Even the assassination of Mohammed so preventing the development of Islam, seems to have a muted impact only allowing the Romans to hold on more easily to their Middle Eastern territories.  It is not a bad book, just it feels a little bland at times and for a counter-factual fan like myself, I think I missed greater evidence of the divergence from our world, but maybe that was the point.  However, it rather takes the edge of the novel.

'The Empire of Fear' by Brian Stableford.
This is an interesting story set in the early 17th century but in a world where the monarchs and nobility are vampires.  The hero aims to overthrow them and bring about dominion of the humans who at best hold a second class status to the vampires.  The book is rather fragmented and you feel that Stableford could have produced a triology from it.  A lot of the book is taken up by a quest to a crater in West Africa where vampirism was brought to Earth by a meteorite.  This section of the book is far too long, very bleak on the journey and then unpleasantly visceral as the hero uncovers how local witch doctors are made into vampires through mutilating their genitalia and being buggered by vampires.  With this knowledge he returns to Europe leading to a continent wide battle between the established vampire forces and their opponents, though by now many of these are humans turned into vampires. 

The idea is a great one and could have been explored in more depth.  The problem is, that the bits which really interest the reader, the hero's father being a former lover of a vampire, plots at the English court and a pirate bent on killing vampires at the start of the book, then the attempt to overthrow the various vampire kingdoms (far larger than states in 17th century Europe in our world and ruled over by people like King Richard I, Charlemagne and Attila the Hun, many centuries old by this time) are all only briefly touched on or rushed through.  The bulk of the novel is really 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad (1899/1902) only with vampires at the end of the adventure.  That is not the kind of novel I was looking for.  I like how Stableford subverted the vampire stories and recast them in a fascinating way to create an alternate world, but was very irritated that he gave us so little of the plotting and combat elements that I was looking for and instead gave a travelogue of West Africa which I could have read in many other places better done.  This novel is a real wasted opportunity.  I am glad I read it but recommend people read only the first and last tenths of this novel and leave the rest out.

'Musashi' by Eji Yoshikawa.
It had been 17 years since I last read this book and it certainly bore re-reading, something I very rarely do.  I had forgotten so much of the story.  It is a rambling tale (970 pages) about a reprobate, Musashi who having fought on the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 sets out to become a leading swordsman of his era; developing a style using two swords at once.  In doing this he makes numerous friends and rivals especially among leading martial arts schools.  In addition, he has an on-off relationship with a woman from his village who carries a torch for him over many years.  He is pursued across Japan by the malicious mother of an old friend of his, because she blames him for the failure of her son to marry a particular woman.  This friend's story is also followed and you see him struggling to make his way and suffering lots of set-backs down the years.  All the characters keep running into each other.  Ultimately it is a story about the development of the lead character and in particular learning about responsibility.  It is also a gentle romance, though by the end you get frustrated that it takes so long for Musashi to come to his true love. 

About three-quarters of the way through there are so many characters in different locations looking for Musashi (he adopts two apprentices in the course of the story and ends up losing both and we follow their stories as well as the old woman's, the love interest, the priest that put Musashi on the right path, Musashi's main rival and so on) that it becomes bewildering and you lose sight of the drive of the story.  However, the climax pulls it back together very well and the last eighth of the book is as good as the early sections.  You can see why this book has been a Japanese classic since it appeared in the 1930s as it has every element you might want from romance to exciting combat scenes.  It tells you a lot about Japan at the time the Tokugawa Shōgunate was just becoming established and still under threat from rivals unhappy with the outcome at Sekigahara.  Even the nasty characters are well drawn, though sometimes you want to get into the book and have a go at them, but I suppose that level of engagement is a good sign for a novel.  I do recommend this book.

'The Strange Death of Socialist Britain' by Patrick Cosgrave.
I have commented at length about this book already, see: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2009/02/alien-to-british-culture-myopic-view-of.html  I feel there is little to add.  Even on its own terms it is a poor book.  I suggest you go and read 'The Strange Death of Liberal Britain' (1935; reprinted 1966) by George Dangerfield instead, it is vastly superior. 

'The Rhineland Crisis. 7 March 1936' by J.T. Emerson.
This is an interesting book which certainly reads like someone's doctoral thesis simply published.  Whilst explaining the inaction by Britain and France to the remilitarisation of the Rhineland by Adolf Hitler in 1936 is a challenge, this book gives you the minutiae of all the back and forth discussions and yet from the mass of information seems incapable of drawing broader analysis and conclusions.  Consequently the reader is lost among the detail, not really able to identify the crucial points in the process.  Stepping back a little from the range of data Emerson had gathered was important.  The book is good if you want a day-by-day account but weaker as a historical analysis.

'Be Your Own Napoleon' by William Seymour.
This is almost a 'game book', in that it presents details of various battles then gives you a series of options to take each with a potentially different outcome.  It then tells you what actually happened and the consequences of having followed one of the other options.  For counter-factual fans this is an interesting exercise, though handled in a rather dry way.  It is a good book for getting inside battles that you might not know well.  I found the ones about battles of the American War of Independence very interesting and found that the book contextualised each very well allowing me a better understanding of that war.  I do not know if that was the intention of the book, but it worked for me in that way.  This is a good book to dip into especially if you are looking for mental distraction as well as an interesting read.

'Students and National Socialism in Germany' by Geoffrey J. Giles.
Like Emerson's book above this felt like another thesis published, again with immense detail but weaker on analysis.  It was interesting, though, by looking at the microcosm of university students and their organisations to be reminded how chaotic and contradictory Nazi thinking was.  The students were supposed to become the Nazi elite, but at the same time were encouraged to be storm troopers and work in manual jobs to connect with ordinary people.  The Nazi regime was one of competing agencies and this comes out in terms of universities and student bodies too.  In that context you see the Nazi organisations come up against the entrenched fraternity system developed in the 19th century, which was ultimately to outlive the Nazi regime and is still around today.  Despite Germans seeing 1945 as Year Zero, the prevalence of bodies that pre-dated Nazism indicates the continuities in German society and this snapshot of one area of that society adds to that view.  Again, as with Emerson you feel that a book another step away from the raw material would be more engaging and provoke real discussion.

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