Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Books I Read In December

In my new job I have 16 days more leave than in my previous post, though, of course, being in a more senior position it is often difficult to schedule to take this leave as people cannot do without you.  Anyway, I did get 3 weeks leave for Christmas.  I know Americans will be stunned to read that and in turn each year I am quite surprised just how little holiday they receive no matter what the festival or time of year.  This is particularly given that it is worse than Britain which itself has fewer holidays than most countries in Europe.  Given that the concept of the working poor developed first in the USA it is apparent that they are having a rough time in terms of pay and leave.  Anyway, that is getting off track.  I always read less when I am on leave, hence only two short books this month.

'The Rose Rent' by Ellis Peters
Whilst there had been others who had written historical crime fiction before, notably Van Gulik discussed last month, Ellis Peters's (real name Edith Pargeter; 1913-95) Cadfael series published 1977-94, really brought the genre into the mainstream.  Her stories not only sold in vast quantities but were also turned into a successful television series in broadcast 1994-8; though this ran into difficulties with the broadcasters wanting 'tweaks' in the historical aspects, so after the first series sandals which were historically accurate, were replaced by shoes.  Peters's writing at times can seem dated and almost archaic, but that appears to fit with the era she is portraying so you soon become used to it.  The skill she demonstrates is to create a credible mystery and quickly but thoroughly draw a range of characters.  Some notably the monks and the secular authorities feature in each book, but she also has to create a new set of characters which sit in the foreground.  She does not shy away from historical references as the stories are set during the 'Anarchy' of the 12th century, a period of civil war.  Other characteristics which readers welcome is the use of references to plants; Cadfael is the monastery's herbalist and to medieval Shrewsbury where the stories are set.  What is remarkable is that she packages all of this up into a book usually 180-250 pages long, far shorter than most contemporary crime fiction.  I think if she had lived she would have been perfect for e-books in which there is a desire for crisp, shorter fiction.

This story features a wealthy widow, Judith Perle, who has let a house to the monastery on the basis that it pays her a rent of a single white rose from the garden of the house each year.  Not only does someone attack the rose bush but a monk who tended it is murdered.  Perle is beset by a range of suitors and is subsequently abducted.  At times Peters can come across as a little sentimental, though not all of the women characters come off well in her stories, some have their hopes entirely dashed.  However, she is good at writing women and they are as strong in the story as the monks and other male characters.  She also does not shy away from tragedy and the stories can certainly be more brutal than an Agatha Christie novel, but this reflects that with war and disease let alone accidents all potential ways to die the 12th century was not easy.  The characters do develop and while the situation is resolved it is generally not status quo ante, in a mixture of outcomes for the different characters.  I read the first twelve of the books about ten years ago and having the remainder out of storage I hope to finish the set now.  They are not taxing but are a good model of how well written historical fiction can be done.

'Death's Men' by Denis Winter
This is a book about the experiences of British soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War.  Winter is American and occasional phrases do jar, but this is a very good book.  Published in 1978 he was able to draw not just on memoirs and newspapers but also interviews with veterans of the war and for this reason this is a good counter-balance to some of the bombastic books coming out about the war at present.  He works through the different facets of the experience from recruitment, through training, service at the front, rest and recreation, attitudes to the war, demobilisation and so on.  Each section is peppered with examples from a range of men.  The book is very brisk and draws you in.  Without stinting on the horrors it consequently does not burn you out in the way other books on the conflict can do.  The central message was that for the ordinary soldier there was no single experience of war, it was incredibly diverse even for men serving in the same unit, perhaps surprisingly, some men enjoyed it.  It also shows that for these men the war was very dispersed, men on one part of the front would be oblivious to battles raging even just a few miles away.  The conflict was more about routine and they were usually ignorant of the sweeping plans and actions that are the way the war is generally presented to us as that was how it was seen by the generals.  That distance is important and was as much between a frontline captain and a colonel behind the lines as it was between a private and the generals.  This is a well written book that is a good starting point for those interested in having a balanced and perceptive exploration of the experience of the war.