Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Books I Read In December

'The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories' ed. by Ian Watson and Ian Whates
This is a collection of 25 alternate history short stories from the last thirty years or so.  A few I have read and reviewed before - 'Catch That Zeppelin' by Fritz Leiber, 'The Lucky Strike' by Kim Stanley Robinson and 'The Sleeping Serpent' by Pamela Sargent all appeared in 'The Way It Wasn't: Great Science Fiction Stories of Alternate History' ed. by Martin Greenberg which I read back in 2011:

I have also read 'Tales from the Venia Woods' by Robert Silverberg but do not seem to have reviewed it here.  It is one of three stories in this collection about the Roman Empire continuing beyond the 5th Century CE and conquering the world.  It features two children living in what in our world is Austria, finding an old man in a house in the woods who is the last member of the final imperial family of Rome now that the Republic has been restored.  It is a wistful story but shows how by focusing on a tiny corner of an alternate world you can show the changes very effectively.  It is certainly better than 'Manassas Again' by Gregory Benford, which more straight forward science fiction than specifically counter-factual.  It envisages a world where the Romans persisted and consequently robot technology has developed to the extent that there is now a war between robots and humans.  It is more like a spin-off from the 'Terminator' or 'Transformers' universes than a developed counter-factual.  'Waiting for the Olympians' by Frederik Pohl is similar, though as it features an author of 'science-romance' stories, does consider how alternatives to a world where the Roman Empire dominates the world and has gone into space earlier, could be written about.  In large part, however it is straight forward science fiction about waiting for aliens to arrive.

Another story which has a science fiction edge is 'Sidewinders' by Ken Macleod which focuses on people able to slip between different versions of Scotland whether to conserve or alter them.  A woman is brought from a version when evolution has never been developed as a theory and society is Victorian to one in which there is an authoritarian Communist style regime.  Some similar themes are touched on in 'The Darwin Anathema' by Stephen Baxter in which the French Revolution never occurred and Britain was invaded by the Royalist commander, Napoleon in 1807.  The Catholic Church has grown powerful and proscribed many scientific developments using the Inquisition.  Scotland is under Presbyterians and rather more enlightened.  A descendant of Charles Darwin, whose skeleton is on trial for heresy, is put at risk.  This is a nicely developed setting and it would be interesting to see more of it, though I find Baxter's work sometimes patchy.

Another sub-set is stories about a different outcome for America; 'The Sleeping Serpent' envisaging Mongol control of North America is one of these.  'Ink from the New Moon' by A.A. Attanasio instead envisages Chinese Buddhists settling the Americas to be followed by Imperial Chinese control, so that explorers from Europe arrive in an autonomous outpost of the Chinese Empire.  It is told in a series of letters from an official to his late wife.  I wrote a story like this the other way around, with Conquistadors encountering a Chinese society running the Aztec regions.  This is not a bad story, but is rather languid.  I have also written a story in which Moors ejected from southern Spain in 1492 find a refuge in America; there was also 'A Ship Full of Jews' by Barry N. Malzberg in  'In the Stone House' and other collections in which Jews are deported from Spain to America by Columbus.  In this book in 'Such a Deal' Esther Friesner envisages a Jewish businessman from southern Spain paying for Columbus's voyage and another captain bringing back Aztec warriors who hope repel the Spanish attempt to overrun the final Moorish state in southern Spain in 1492.  This was interesting though a little fantastical that such a force would turn up and at just the right time. 

Some counter-factual stories find it hard to shake off what they insist is the 'right' history, most famously this happens in 'The Man in the High Castle'  (1963) by Philip K. Dick.  This is very much the case with 'His Powder'd Wig, His Crown of Thornes' by Marc Laidlaw which sees Benedict Arnold having betrayed West Point and then George Washington being captured in 1780 and tortured, though in reality the British did not do that to opponents in the American War of Independence.  Laidlaw shows British-run North America as a depressed rundown place with indigenous tribes so regretful of their aid to the British that they now worship Washington as a martyr.  These assertions that a British America would have been an utter failure; that British forces were only one step away from being brutal and that the Amerindians would worship anyone of European stock, let alone a slave-owner like Washington, seems to be a kind of Trump-truth that many American authors and readers now insist on from the 'what if?' stories available.  Very disappointing.

Better in looking at alternatives for the USA include the unsettling 'Hush My Mouth' by Suzette Haden Elgin.  This envisages a longer American Civil War in which blacks were barred from fighting on either side and as a result when an epidemic sweeps through the USA, a black country is established in the South from which whites are ejected.  The new government cannot agree on which African language to use and will not use English, so some kind of holy men/women take a vow of silence until a decision is made; something some of them find incredibly hard. 'Dispatches from the Revolution' by Pat Cadigan, is that, a collection of letter and diaries about a decay in US society following harsh repression of anti-Vietnam War protests especially by California Governor Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson standing for re-election and Robert Kennedy not being assassinated.  It leads to a bomb at the 1968 Democrat Convention and years of repressive government to follow.  This is a credible, quite gritty story. 

Even more unsettling than these two is 'Weinachtsabend' by Keith Roberts.  The date is not given but it seems to be set around 1972 when it was published or slightly earlier; television is shown as in use.  The Führer is now a man called Ziegler, but his deputy is still Rudolf Hess.  Britain is now part of the 'Two Empires' with Nazi Germany and German is habitually used in Britain.  The lead character, an aide to a British official spends Christmas at a large house in the country where he starts a sexual relationship with his secretary who then disappears.  Very effectively, Roberts shows how that even in the apparently most British of settings, the assumptions of the Nazis have permeated, making an environment which appears evil to us.  This is very well done.

Two stories focus very much on individuals.  'The Imitation Game' by Rudy Rucker provides an alternative explanation for the death of Alan Turing, which is interesting but leads to no change for the wider world, whereas 'Lenin in Odessa' sees Lenin shot by Sydney Reilly and a counter-revolution triggered in Russia in 1918, leading to an earlier rise of Stalin, though we do not see whether he is successful overall.  Both are brisk thriller-like stories which show how you can have an adventure set against the backdrop of an alternate history without it having to lay it all out blow-by-blow.  This kind of counter-factual differs from those that work through the differences of the world envisaged.  However, it can irritate readers who like to see the mechanics of the differences rather than simply see them reflected in the lives of characters whether real people or fictional.

There are a number of stories in the book which feature Christianity not catching on across the world.  One is 'The Wandering Christian' by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman who I admire; I had brief correspondence with Byrne about counter-factuals.  The first part seems to be a typical Christian story and you might give up on it before reaching the counter-factual in which Charlemagne marries a Jew and converts.  He effectively restores the Roman Empire as a Jewish state and recaptures Jerusalem bringing him into conflict with Persia.  Christianity withers to being a tiny, fragmented religion; the narrator is a Christian fated to constant rebirth until Jesus returns.  It is alright after the rather dull beginning.  'Roncesvalles' by Judith Tarr sees Charlemagne convert to Islam after the death of Roland, following the Emperor's intervention in northern Spain, but as we are at the point of the divergence we do not see the consequences.  The niggling between Charlemagne's knights is irritating rather than engaging. A similar story is 'Letter from the Pope' by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey in which King Alfred of Wessex breaks with the Roman Catholic Church and permits the continuation of Paganism.  This is an alright story, but as with Tarr's it seems to lack credibility that a few incidents could overturn a ruler's perspective to such an extent.

'Islands in the Sea' by Harry Turtledove envisages Constantinople falling to Muslim forces in the 8th Century CE rather than the 15th Century.  Western Europe is still Christian.  The story featuring the Bulgar leader deciding between Islam and Christianity resembles the decision of Vladimir the Great, Grand Price of Kiev who in 987 decided between Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, opting for the last of these, still the religion of Russia.  Christianity is not as contracted as in the other stories, but is seen as dominant in Eastern Europe, though not too different from when the Ottoman Empire was at its fullest extent in the Balkans anyway.

Perhaps the most imaginative story is 'The English Mutiny' by Ian R. MacLeod which turns the British rule of India on its head and imagines the Mughal Empire conquering the British Isles and some years later British troops mutinying in a reflection of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  The portrayal of Indianised London is interesting.  On the other end of the scale is 'A Very British History' by Paul J.  McAuley in which the British use captured German technology to get ahead in the space race and push out into the solar system even further than the Americans or Soviets did.  It is not bad and feels a little like a 'Dan Dare' story, though does remind readers that in the 1930s and 1940s Britain was a leader in technology with systems such as Radar and jet engines, plus input into developing the atomic bomb.  'The Raft of the Titanic' by James Morrow starts well, but becomes fantastical.  It envisages a large proportion of the passengers of the 'Titanic' escaping to safety on a huge raft they build.  However, their voyage goes on for years and they end up in the Pacific having developed a floating society very much organised along British social class lines but encompassing cannibalism.  There is little reflection on how such an escape would have affected the world which believes all the people dead anyway.  It seems a wasted opportunity with counter-factual traded for whimsy.

'Absolute Friends' by John Le Carré
I found this a dreary book and a real slog to get through.  It was published in 2004, and even more than 'Our Game' (1995) which I read in October, Le Carré seems to be uncertain where to go with the story.  In both books he conjures up very detailed characters of men of his generation and seems to feel that their interaction is sufficient to fill a novel.  This one features Edward Mundy, an orphan born at the end of the empire in India who becomes drawn into radical politics in 1960s Britain and West Germany.  In particular he makes friends with Sasha, the disabled son of an East German pastor who escaped to the West but may have also worked for the Stasi.  Much of the book simply outlines Mundy's life at various stages and nothing much happens.  Then abruptly, Sasha draws him into being a double agent working for MI6 while supposedly working for the Stasi.  Later there is another abrupt shift.  With the Cold War over, Le Carré seems uncertain what to do with these two strong characters so gets them mixed up with a foundation run by a kind of left-wing libertarian though it may simply be a set-up by big business to provide the threat which will justify the 'war on terror' and the vast expenditure on it at the time.

As a result, this book of these three sections, the book if fragmented and is not certain what it is trying to be.  The early parts about Mundy are really just an author's background on a character and do not constitute a story; so much is unresolved from this section that it is almost as if Mundy is drifting from scenario to scenario which Le Carré finds interesting.  He is never unemployed and appears to find jobs that please him wherever he looks which in the era covered by the book sounds fantastical.  The spy bit in the middle is too rushed and lacking in detail, despite us hearing Mundy has gone on fifty missions and then like the Cold War it simply tapers out.  The closing third where these apparent new threats are appearing again seems very rushed and flows too smoothly against Mundy just as everything once flowed too smoothly for him.  Overall you are left with a book of lumps of stuff, often lacking a plot and far too disconnected and too 'pat' far too often to provide a satisfying read.  This is the third of the four Le Carré books I was given to read and I am not optimistic about the final one which I will probably reach in February.

'Not Dead Enough' by Peter James
This is the third in the Roy Grace series of police stories set in Sussex and the last one of the series that I possess.  It follows on closely from 'Looking Good Dead' though not as tightly as that one did from the first in the series.  Many of the characteristics of this series are present, i.e. a very specific reference to technology, behaviour and even television programmes of the mid-2000s.  This means that even now just a decade on, you are conscious of reading something set in a particular time.  The BlackBerry and in this story, MySpace pages, stand out in that regard.  As I have noted before, these novels feel to be chunks of a much larger work.  It is as if you are watching a television series like 'The Bill' (1984-2010).  There are reappearing characters and James is good at developing not simply Grace but a whole host of other police officers and technicians and it is nice to follow the team.

One trouble is, but this third book, much has been seen before.  Once again the murder involves people successful in business in Sussex and again people from the lower levels of society.  I suppose the noveau riche provide more opportunity in terms of greed and having new technology, but I did feel that the three books have been working their way through a particular echelon of largely Brighton society.  Another thing is the way Grace can tell if someone is lying by the way they look when answering questions.  The responses add to the confusion in this case, but you begin to wonder if Grace has anything else.  At least in this story he did not consult a medium which he did in quick succession in the previous two.

The story is satisfyingly twisting but the reader can work out what is going on ahead of the detectives.  James showing us through the eyes of the killer and other suspects adds to this somewhat.  However, he generally keeps all the balls in the air.  If the novel had been 50-75 pages shorter (my edition was 610 pages long) then he could have pulled off a good twist. The climax of a fight with the killer and his pursuit, is very well done.  Also Grace's ambivalence about trying to seek his missing wife in Munich now that he has a new relationship going can be seen as a distraction but turns out to develop his character and his new partner well as people.  The strength of the books, even when they reuse elements, is the briskness of the writing which really carries you along and makes these easy books to read.  I may return to the series in the future because reading three almost back-to-back does emphasise the episodic nature of the books.

'The Truth' by Terry Pratchett
Given that this Pratchett book was published in 2000, I am surprised I missed it first time round.  It is another set in Ankh-Morpork and features numerous characters from the other stories set there, such as the Watch, Mr. King and the Patrician.  It is about a newspaper being started in the city by William De Worde and the problems in his battle to tell quality news in the face of tabloid journalism, especially at a time when there is an attempted coup d'etat against the Patrician and the only witness is a dog.  The story seemed quite appropriate for the times we are living in now when the 'truth' is generally what people can shout loudest rather than being based on any objective judgement and actually what is happening can be dismissed as unfeasible.

The story is rather fragmented with us seeing through the eyes of two assassins trying to tidy up the mess they have made as well as seeing William trying to get and sustain the business.  There is a romance denied, that Pratchett seems to be building towards throughout the book and yet turns away from.  Again the book was too long (444 pages in my edition).  It had too much going on but not a strong enough narrative to keep it going forward.  In the middle it drifts for too long.  In some ways, I felt this was almost a dry run for 'Going Postal' (2004) with a less likable character at the core trying to pull off something new in the city and with a realised romance even if a rocky one.

The best part of the book is in the conclusion.  The confrontation between William and his father in which he takes apart the Establishment belief that they believe in is the truth and everyone needs to comply with their wishes is well done, as is the scene in which William and Sacharissa find themselves unable to report an interesting incident are well done.  It is a shame that, as far as I know, they never reappear in Pratchett's books, though I think Otto Chriek, the vampire photographer does turn up elsewhere.  The book marks the transition phase in Pratchett's work when he moved from quick, very funny novels to those over-burdened with make the points on the issues that concerned him.  Those books like 'Monstrous Regiment' (2003) and 'Thud!' (2005) are worthy and interesting but the worthiness weighs down the humour.  I guess I have to count myself a fan primarily of Pratchett's 20th century work rather than of the 21st century.

'The Other Britain' ed. by Paul Barker
This is another of these books that I have no idea where I got it from.  It is a collection of essays/articles written 1973-81 drawn from 'New Society' (1968-88) magazine and written by staff journalists on the magazine or freelancers.  They look at less reported facets of British society at the time.  Many are incredibly bleak, reflecting the high inflation and then high unemployment of the time and the lack of opportunity for millions of people.  Interestingly many of the problems, such as immigrant communities (Paul Barker; Paul Harrison), low pay (David White; Jeremy Seabrook), erratic benefits (Paul Harrison), a struggling NHS (David Selbourne), prostitution to supplement women's incomes (Paul Harrison; Sheila Yeger), the decline of village life (Jeremy Seabrook; Angela Carter) and logical local policies being over-ruled by greedy planners (Norman Dennis) could be written today in exactly the same way.  Perhaps the most chilling articles are by Ian Walker and Eileen Fairweather about Northern Ireland.  It reminds you that despite the desire of tabloid newspapers to exempt anyone in the British armed forces for charges for war crime offences, there are also a lot of prison officers who should be investigated for brutality during the Troubles too.  There is a chapter on coal miners (Tom Forrester) that seems very much from the past and one on night-shift workers at a 'Dunkin Donuts' (Helen Chappell) that could be written today.

Aside from these social issues there is also an exploration of sub-cultures including football hooligans (Ian Walker; Paul Harrison), skinheads (Ian Walker) punk (Peter Marsh), genuine anarchists (Ian Walker), bikers not wearing crash helmets (Paul Willis) and joyriders (Howard Parker) that appear very much of the time, late 1970s and early 1980s than now.  Mods get quite a lot of references too, though without their own chapter.  It is fun to read about UB40, The Damned, The Clash, Madness (Suggs, the lead singer, is wrongly named as 'Doug'; his real names is Graham) and The Jam (portrayed as a punk band) that were seen on the level with many other bands long forgotten but who went on to much greater things.  Indeed the perception of the lyrics of The Clash are even picked up at this stage.  Other sub-cultures featured have endured such as stock car racers (Peter Woods), bingo (Paul Harrison), self-righteous vegetarians (Angela Carter) and women attending male stripper shows (Stuart Weir).  Finally there are 'walks' especially by Lincoln Allison but also Jeremy Seabrook through places like Bradford, Aberdeen and South Wales valleys, as much about the terrain as about the people.

This is an interesting if unsettling book.  The authors liken themselves to the Mass Observation writers of the 1930s and this is a parallel I agree with; the walk chapters date back even further to the writings of William Cobbett.  The writers are generally University educated, often have been academics, many attended Oxford or Cambridge, so in their attempts to probe the less reported aspects of Britain they can seem pretty patronising and make judgements at times without evidence just based on supposition.  However, it shines a light on parts of Britain at the time.  What unsettles you is how many of the problems it highlights are still plaguing people in Britain more than thirty years later, with no sense that anything can be done.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Biscuit Blog: Asda Garibaldi biscuits

Asda Garibaldi biscuits

I shot these particular biscuits on a board for playing the Japanese game Go.  It rather gets abused in my house, often used as the base for bathroom scales in rooms where the floor is uneven.  However, given the wide diversity of length of biscuit packets and the size of biscuits even of the same type, I am wondering if I will used it more often so that you can see from the number of squares covered the scale of what I am showing.

I had not been to Asda for a while so when in there for a reason I have now forgotten, I thought it a good idea to pick up some of their standard biscuits in order to provide more comparators for the basic biscuit types common in the UK.  I started with Asda's Garibaldis.  One positive thing about these is that they are scored well.  Unlike most biscuits, Garibaldis are sold in strips which require the eater or the person filling the biscuit tin, to break them off.  It is unfortunately too common for Garibaldis to be scored poorly or for the biscuit to be too crumbly, so that breaking them off you end up with erratically sized biscuits and often too many wasted crumbs.  As you can see from above, these break very neatly.

I do expect a glaze on the top of my Garibaldis and that was missing from these.  In fact they are rather lacking in sweetness all round.  The raisins used are not particularly sweet.  The biscuit itself has a very dry flavour.  It has an appropriate snap when you bite into it, not crumbling away too much as can be a problem with Garibaldis.  There is some degree of moreishness but it is not that strong, I think because the actual biscuit is somehow plainer than the best Rich Teas and the sweetness is really lacking.

I would be tempted to add half-a-star if I could to the rating below, because Asda has got the scoring of these Garibaldis done very well, but overall it is not an appealing biscuit.


Friday, 9 December 2016

Biscuit Blog: Crawford's Ginger Nuts

Crawford's Ginger Nuts

I must say that these do come in a very long packet and while they may cost more than supermarket own brands they are decent value for what you get.  Interesting the first flavour you get when you bite into them is almost orangey,  It is not unpleasant.  The snap is of a medium strength, not as strong as you often find with Ginger Nuts but certainly well away from crumbling to powder as happened on some poor quality ones.  One problem is that the ginger flavour is slow to develop and I had to eat four before I got that on my tongue.  I did find these biscuits moreish, but I think that is in part due to the time needed to build up the flavour on my tongue.  I wonder if that is intentional on the part of the makers.  They could be improved with more gingeriness going on right from the start.


Looking back over the biscuits I have reviewed since this time last year, it is interesting to see those which have attracted the most and least attention.  The clear stand-out biscuit for viewing by readers is the Sondey Butter Rings, despite me scoring them only 2 stars back in March: 

The ones which have attracted least attention from readers are the Lotus Speculoos biscuits, I reviewed a year ago, despite me giving them 5 stars.  This maybe because they were on the end of my first biscuit blog entry and there is stuff about vloggers getting book contracts to start with.

It will be interesting to see what attracts most interest next year and indeed whether any new kinds of biscuits are on the market.  Saying that I still have work to do getting through Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Aldi and if I can find one somewhere, Morrisons.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Books I Read In November

'Dead Simple' by Peter James
This is the first book in the Roy Grace series of detective novels.  I have been given the first three; there are currently twelve books in the series.  James has been publishing since 1981 and has a slew of awards.  The edition of the book I had said on it that the book had sold 14 million copies, but personally I have not encountered the man in the media.  The books is fast paced with some very short chapters.  It features a young Superintendent Roy Grace who works in Sussex.  Authors are often advised by publishers not to include details that date quickly, but James utterly flouts that rule referring to a whole host of things such as the BlackBerry palmtop and television programmes such as 'Foyle's War' which have gone from the consciousness of many readers even in the 11 years since it was published.  I am sure these will soon become like period novels with the frisson of references to a particular era the way that 'Life on Mars' provided for the 1970s.

The novel is also very tightly located to real places in Sussex and in a car chase near the end there is so much detail about which particular roads the characters are driving down you could easily recreate the novel.  I suppose the area of Sussex around Brighton and Newhaven is reasonably well known to many Britons.  However, it also adds to what perhaps made this novel a success - that it is clearly trying to replicate the approach of many US authors to writing detective novels, very much referencing a time and a specific place.  There are references to US culture, both Grace and another character are influenced by US television series; one even adopts the accents and jargon of some of them.

One aspect I do not like is the fact that the reader knows much more than any of the characters, even the police.  There are some twists in this book which actually turn out to be less incredible than you first believe, yet before you have that knowledge the book does appear to make an unfeasible turn on occasions.  Grace has a wife who has been missing for nine years and begins a relationship with a pathologist, something which seems to be de rigueur these days.  You forget, in part because his name seems so old fashioned, that he is only 39 when this novel is set so the age gap to the woman he courts is not as severe as the equivalent in the Inspector Morse stories as televised.  As a superintendent he seems free to involve himself in any case that interests him, so he may have a different group of detectives around him for successive novels, I do not know.

One stand out thing for Grace is his belief in the occult.  He uses mediums and a dowser right throughout the books and this helps him get to the bottom of the situation which is messy even for the perpetrators.  I suppose it is the ultimate deus ex machina for a crime novel.  It is handled in a mundane way so the novel does not have a supernatural feel.  However, it seems that all of these practitioners are very successful and it adds a strange extra element to the forensic skills on offer and to some degree relieves Grace of the burden of having to deduct anything.  This element could really undermine the novels.  However, in this one it accelerates the ending without overly weakening it.

The book was mildly interesting and very easy to get through with a good pace.  It is certainly not discouraging enough to put me off reading the others in this series that I have been given.

'Looking Good Dead' by Peter James
Perhaps I read this book too soon after the previous one in the series, 'Dead Simple'.  Despite being published a year later, this book's narrative continues the day after the incidents shown in the previous book.  This does make it all a bit frantic and even one of the characters, a medium, notes he just saw Superintendent Roy Grace the week before.  There are various recaps on incidents in Grace's life, including the two ghosts of the old women and characters around him which seem tiresome if, like me, you just read these some weeks earlier.

The style is consistent.  The writing flows very well.  It is very much in its time and place, there is so much detail about where the detectives and the criminals go that you could trace it almost step-by-step around the Sussex towns and villages.  It is utterly unembarrassed about referencing culture and technology of the time, something very important in this novel which features snuff movies disseminated over the internet.  There are some other continuations.  Grace makes lots of mistakes which leads to harm.  The American style approach is a bit toned down from the previous book; though there are some very gruesome scenes in this book; it is not a cosy, southern England detective story.  Again things come to a climax in a dingy cellar in which Grace has to reach in time to save the victims and there is an epic, this time explosive conclusion.

The stories are credible and fast-moving indeed to the point of being frantic.  It is good to see a police character who, though with issues from the past, is moving on and in this book he gets a girlfriend and has some very good sex, given in quite a bit of detail.  James does seem interested in up and coming prosperous people of southern Sussex, having their worlds dissolve around them as a result of their arrogance, coming up against criminals who are furious and vicious at even minor disruption to their plans.  I wonder if the next book, the last of the ones in this series that I have at present, will have a similar slant.  The book is refreshing as a detective drama, but is too similar to its predecessor and I am little apprehensive that Grace will become a one-trick pony.

'Going Postal' by Terry Pratchett
As I tend to buy many books second hand and Pratchett books are heavily under-represented in charity shops because fans hold on to them and re-read them, in the past 34 years that I have been reading his work, I have missed out on some.  This is probably the most notable one, coming from the later-mid period of Pratchett's work and the first in what is one of his sub-sets of Discworld novels, this one featuring Moist von Lipwig.  This one was published in 2004; 'Making Money' (2007) which I read a couple of years ago and 'Raising Steam' (2013) which is on my shelf.

The book does tackle some issues as Pratchett tended to do in his 21st century novels.  There is satire and observation on corporations and how they run rings around attempts to control them as well as being careless with their employees lives.  However, in this book this focus is not as heavy as in some of the books he wrote around this time, notably 'Thud!' (2005) and ones that came later.  The book moves at a good pace with von Lipwig, a conman, being assigned to run the defunct post office of Ankh-Morpork and rival the unscrupulous clacks company.  Clacks is a form of semaphore to communicating quickly, but is run simply to turn a profit leading to a decaying service and the death of many operators - clearly paralleling utility companies of our world.

The small man living by his wits and seeking to win the heart of a woman he fancies is handled well.  Von Lipwig is an interesting character and at times behaves in a way that is unexpected.  There is not much laugh-out-loud humour as in the early Pratchett books, but this is an engaging story which does not permit the issues to get in the way of a romping story.  What is interesting is that the complexity of the clacks is really only covered in passing and it would be fascinating to learn more about how it was established.  Parallels to emails in our world are natural.  I also wondered if it had been influenced by the semaphore messaging which appears in the alternate history novel 'Pavane' (1968) by Keith Roberts.

The one element which unsettled me in this novel was the opening scene in which von Lipwig is condemned to death and taken to be hanged.  There was no humour in it and it rather set an unpleasant tone which took time to shake off.  Not something that you really want in a humorous book.  Overall I enjoyed this book more than I have done a number of Pratchett novels I have read recently which in contrast have been weighed down by their self-importance and ensuring that they thoroughly tackled the issues in focus.

'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre Dumas
Like many people who come to this book I have seen multiple television and movie adaptations from the three light-hearted Richard Lester adaptations (1973, 1974, 1989) to the recent BBC series (2014-16) and the steampunk version, 'The Three Musketeers' (2011).  I must say that the first two Lester movies, despite their light tone feature elements of the original book, including breakfast in the bastion at La Rochelle, the seduction of the Puritan jailer and the execution on the island.  The BBC series which extends the lives of a number of the characters, does, however, capture the characterisations from the book very well and across different episodes features various small incidents such as the seduction of wealthy women by Porthos.  The book is long (629 pages in my edition despite having very small type) and being published in 1844 has a very different narrative dynamic to an adventure book produced today.

The first half of the musketeers meeting D'Artagnan and the mission to retrieve the Queen's jewels from England will be familiar, but then it goes off in all sorts of directions.  D'Artagnan had to reassemble his comrades from assorted locations where they have been engaging either in being lazy, discussing theology or occupying a cellar.  I guess this is to develop the characters but it really slows down the book.  Later we see a great deal of events simply from the perspective of Lady Anne De Winter (why she is often referred to as 'Milady' in reviews, I have no idea.  She is addressed as 'My lady' as she is the widow of the brother of Baron De Winter, but she has a first name which is mentioned), the main nemesis of the musketeers in this novel.  However, being focused on her escape from England and her plots against the Musketeers it is almost as if she becomes the heroine, even though she is shown as utterly ruthless, manipulative and happy to murder.  Thus, the book is almost like a number of books bundled together.

There are aspects which you have to forgive in an early Victorian novel.  Dumas over-narrates.  He gives immense detail and we find out that not simply Planchet is a servant to the musketeers, but that the other three have their own valets who often get involved in the action including battles - Bazin, Grimaud and Mosqueton who follow their masters into various professions in the epilogue.  They get left out of the adaptations.  Some dialogues on things such as religious theses or the history of a character go on too long.  However, we are reminded that this is a novel from another time, because Dumas has to keep addressing the audience of the 1840s to explain behaviour of the 1620s when having mistresses, taking gifts from patrons or people seeking patronage and abrupt fights to the death between people were commonplace in sharp contrast to the era of the readers.  In fact the Musketeers alternate between being penniless and having immense wealth.  At times the difference between francs, crowns, louis, livres and pistoles - all different denominations of coinage, need to be explained.

For a modern reader this is a heavy going book.  We are more accepting of the Musketeers' behaviour than Victorian reader, but will find the detours away from the momentum of the story, unnecessary.  There are interesting characterisations and portrayals of different locations.  There are sections of great suspense and action, but you have patience to get from one to the other in the narrative archipelago.

'Medieval English Warfare' by R.R. Selman
This is another of these books that I seem to have picked up from a library selling off some of its stock.  This one has stamps from two different school libraries in Surrey in it.  It is one of those history books with line drawn illustrations and maps that I find highly charming.  It has quite a narrow focus looking at just conflicts that English forces were involved in, from the late 13th to the late 15th centuries.  It is, however, very readable and direct.  It analyses changes in armour, weapons, tactics and the nature of warfare over this period.  It provides interesting analysis of the battles of Crecy and Agincourt, other battles of the Hundred Years' War and Edward I's campaigns in Wales and Scotland; showing the peculiarity of the English approach in comparison to those of France and Scotland.  It is a good introductory book.  It was published first in 1960 and my edition was from 1967.

It has a great feel to it and the illustrations and maps have old world charm, but some of the attitudes would grate to a modern readership.  Two of the most notable are that, after outlining throughout the book how many conflicts the English were involved with, it says that the English are not a military nation, despite that even now, fifty years later, as in the Middle Ages, our monarchy has intimate links with the military and the armed forces are lionised throughout UK society.  The second one is that the Middle Ages somehow magically terminated in 1485 and that modern society began.  Even constraining ourselves to warfare, there is greater similarity between an English army on the battlefield in 1645 and 1485 than between even the 17th century and modern day.  It shows that in the 1960s even when a book had a fresh approach, it felt obliged to mouth the apparent aphorisms that a contemporary author would challenge from the outset.

'Warrior to soldier, 449 to 1660. A brief introduction to the history of English warfare' by A.V.B. [Alexander Vesey Bethune] Norman and Don Pottinger
This is very similar to the Selman book, being from 1966 and bought by me from a school library sale.  In addition it has wonderful line drawings to illustrate weaponry and armour as it developed over the time period; many draw from tomb effigies or brasses.  It generally avoids things that we would challenge nowadays, though it does adhere to the traditional perspective of Chaucer's Knight.  It complains that Shakespeare gets it wrong when one of his characters says a sword from Innsbruck would be a Spanish weapon, given that both Austria and Spain were ruled by the same man at the time. 

These minor things, however, are outweighed by a perceptiveness which distinguishes this book from those of contemporaries writing for a popular audience.  Norman and Pottinger alert the reader to how a shield wall would really work; they note that while Harold II at the Battle of Hastings could draw on Sussex levies, it was the skilled, permanent parts of his army worn out by the march from Stamford Bridge and in particular, they note how much of a fantasy chivalry soon became.  Thus, though this is aimed at the general public, it will open your eyes to some facts about warfare in the period which might even surprise a reader today.

The writing is brisk but engages with a range of terminology very capably so that you never feel as if you are lost by the vocabulary especially as it changes through the periods.  Sections on different aspects, such as organisation of forces, castles or armour are indicated by symbols which actually makes this an easy to use reference book too, as you can go to the chapter on a period and quickly identify the text on the aspect you are particularly interested in.  One complaint is that the book ends abruptly and I would have welcomed a summing up of what has been considered.  There is an appendix about the making of armour which is interesting but seems orphaned from the book and would have come better in a chapter on one of the periods when metal armour was at its height.

Overall, despite its age, I found this an engaging and informative book and see that it is still available on Amazon, for certainly far more than the pennies I paid for my copy, probably something like 35 years or more ago.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Biscuit Blog: McVities Rich Tea Classic biscuits

McVities Rich Tea Classic biscuits

These are a little small in diameter but the main surprise with them is the sweetness that you get on the first bite.  The have a decent snap as you want on Rich Tea biscuits but they rather lack the creamy aftertaste which is the sign of a really good one.  They have a reasonable level of moreishness.  However, they are really too sweet for the kind of neutral, creamy flavour that you want with a Rich Tea and especially if you do not take sugar in your tea, you may find these jarring with your appreciation of the cup of tea itself.


Saturday, 12 November 2016

Biscuit Blog: Fox's Party Rings

Fox's Party Rings

As I noted last month, biscuits from Fox's tend to be smaller than average and these are no exception.  You do get a long packet of them, though, as the picture shows.  I was attracted to these by their very 1970s appearance.  The rings come in a number of colours, though in my packet pink predominated.  The different colours are not different flavours.  The coating is a very hard sugar layer, which surprisingly does not taste that sweat.  The biscuit below has quite a strong snap and a flavour like a milder version of a Shortcake biscuit, though much thinner than those tend to be.

Overall, then they have a very mild flavour which means you could treat them like colourful Rich Tea biscuits, they will not disrupt the flavour of a cup of tea in the way you might expect from such gaudy, 1970s-style biscuit.  Their notable element, like the best of Rich Tea biscuits is that they are moreish, raising their rating a little.  Given how small they are, they hardly fill you up.  Perhaps on that basis they are designed for modern children's parties at which you do not want the children to get a sugar rush but feel they are getting something better than standard Rich Tea biscuits.


Monday, 31 October 2016

The Books I Read In October

'The Body on the Beach' by Simon Brett
This is another author that I have met.  He came to speak to the writers' group I was a member of, at the time of the publication of the fourth novel in this Fethering series, 'The Murder at the Museum' (2003).  Brett is a prolific author, having been published since 1975; there are now seventeen books in the Fethering series alone.  'The Body on the Beach' (2000) is the first in that series set in the fictional Sussex town of Fethering, twenty minutes by train from Brighton.  Brett loves the charming, almost whimsical detective stories of the inter-war period and though some of his stories are set in the modern day (others are set in the 1920s and the Victorian era), they owe a great deal to the so-called 'golden age' perhaps embodied by Agatha Christie's early work and the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. 

I was rather irritated at the start by the clearly fictional nature of the setting.  The village of Fethering is supposedly near Tarring (as in 'tarring and feathering'), perhaps inspired by the real Worthing and Goring-on-Sea (which has a suburb called Ferring) but primarily to be his version of St. Mary Mead.  In addition it seems to inhabit that contexts used in novel, a kind of mid-1970s which persists for decades afterwards, as I have noted in Ian McEwan's novels.  There is one mobile phone featured, a passing reference to the national lottery and a young woman with a nose stud, but otherwise it could have been set decades earlier.  There is a common fictional trope for one of the leading characters Jude (her surname is not revealed until later books) who is a classic middle-aged version of the 'mad pixie dream girl', a kind of hippy who shows others how to live a more relaxed life.  Overall I was reminded of the television series about two middle-aged landscape gardeners who investigate crimes, 'Rosemary and Thyme' (broadcast 2003-2007), which might be unsurprising given Brett's other career as a radio producer.  These are what are now termed 'cosy/cozy' crime stories, though in this novel there is quite a bit of detail about heroin addiction, a decaying corpse, the eponymous 'body' and youth despair.

As the book progressed I realised that Brett's intention was not so much to write a crime novel but to give him a chance to explore the interactions between various characters in a particular setting.  He manages to stay on the right side of the line of stereotyping and even Jude and her uptight neighbour Carole Seddon prove to have greater depths than might be expected.  There is a whole host of largely middle aged characters which Brett develops deftly throughout the book.  They are not likeable and they may seem over-exaggerated, but in British society it is easy to find real examples; having lived in a small village in Warwickshire for a year, I could draw very tight parallels to people I met there.  This, I felt as I read on, was the purpose.  Brett obviously knows his audience and effectively holds a mirror up to themselves.

I did not enjoy the novel and while I have the fourth book on my shelf, I will not be in a rush to read it.  That is not because I felt the book was poorly written; in fact I welcome Brett's skill with the characters and in how amateurs feasibly could be drawn into investigating a crime.  It is just that this is too close to home; I meet too many people like the characters in it on a regular basis, even among my neighbours.  I am seeking entertainment rather to have the flaws of the society in which I live thrust so capably back at me.

'Stars and Stripes Triumphant' by Harry Harrison
As someone who has written counter-factual historical analysis as well as 'what if?' stories I am often asked to indicate how feasible a particular scenario might have been.  This can be difficult as individuals can vary widely in their judgement of what is feasible and in history, sometimes what happened was the least feasible option, e.g. the Continental forces surviving the winter of 1777/78 intact in the American War of Independence or the Bolshevik forces winning the Russian Civil War 1918-21 against so much armed opposition.  In terms of novels, the two most popular scenarios: Nazi Germany winning the Second World War and the Confederacy winning the American Civil War were both highly unlikely on economic and military grounds.  However, with the trilogy by Harry Harrison which is concluded by this book, it goes utterly into the realms of fantasy.  Harrison does not simply diverge from what happened in history but completely twists it around.  Consequently you end up effectively with a steampunk novel with some unlikely alternate history.

Let us remember that, already in this series, the Confederacy turned its back on substantial British support and ended the civil war in a single day.  Canada forgot all its ties to Britain and, despite many of residents having come from the USA to escape its culture, now willingly accepted everything they imposed.  In the space of two years, the southern states of the USA have been miraculously industrialised, something that President Andrew Johnson, who took over when Lincoln was assassinated and was more supportive of the former Confederate states, was unable to achieve.  In passing, the racial tensions of the southern states have been resolved a century before that happened in our world, even if has been resolved.  The Americans then launched a perfect invasion of Ireland across the Atlantic, eighty years before they struggled to carry out one across the English Channel in our history. Again they have miraculously resolved the divisions in Ireland in a matter of weeks, problems that have dogged politicians in our world for decades.  They have also managed to industrialise Ireland 140 years earlier than achieved during a period of greater peace in our history.

What Harrison forgets in this novel, as with the two that precede it, is that yes, it is great to read about history going down a different path, but there is minimal interest if everything is a foregone conclusion.  In this novel the British military is largely passive.  Despite two wars against the USA, it does not develop any spy network in the USA nor takes care to monitor US shipping.  In contrast, the Russians have a highly developed spy network in Britain that they share with the Americans for some reason.  The Americans, despite coming late to building a navy, construct sophisticated steamships with armour so strong nothing the British fire at them from land or sea can even penetrate it, yet US warships can completely destroy a British ironclad ship or modern fort in thirty minutes.  Along the way, the Americans invent a new version of the 'bomb ketch', a ship carrying mortars, which the British were using against fortifications in the 1800s but seem to have completely forgotten about by the 1860s.  They also develop the internal combustion engine, whereas, in fact, it had been developed in France in 1859 and there were not real cars for another fifteen years.  They create simple tanks, fifty years ahead of this happening in our history and they are hundreds of times more reliable than any which went to war in our First World War, hence me seeing this as a steampunk novel.

Aside from how idiotic and incapable of engineering the British are shown, the Americans have complete luck throughout.  No-one gets a successful shot in against one of their warships, there are minimal breakdowns and no problems with the weather despite sailing an armada across the Atlantic via Iceland.  Even when Britain is invaded, any attempts at warnings are cut off or fail but, in contrast the Americans are able to get accurate information and details from casual observations and amateurs.  Throughout, their casualties are minimal, whereas skilled British units are slaughtered to a man.  Harrison also forgets that the British were keen purchasers of the Gatling gun, particular versions were made for that market and if threatened with them, they would not have sat idly by and not created or bought in something similar.  The Americans have long supply lines even back to their friends in Ireland, let alone to the USA and yet, in the face of this, all the British armies, let alone the militia and yeomanry, evaporate rather than defend their homes.

The other galling thing is that every character speaks so earnestly; none of the Americans is flawed.  This adds to the whole sense that this book is a propaganda book for American nationalists.  The assumption is that everyone from Canada to Ireland to Britain was stupid and, with a US invasion, would suddenly have woken up to how wonderful the American way was and would have embraced a replica of the US Constitution which had only just abolished slavery, decades after Britain.  Ironically the Americans collaborate with Russia which was an autocracy at the time, suggesting that Harrison simply loathes Britons, not undemocratic countries.

The American invaders in the novel are harsher than even the US armies which penetrated Nazi Germany in 1945.  Following both world wars it was down to the Germans themselves to decide on the form of government they would have.  Yet, in this novel the Americans depose the Queen and abolish the House of Lords.  This seems to be largely accepted, provoking no anger from other monarchs across Europe, many of whom were related to Queen Victoria.  It is also horribly anachronistic. I would like both of those things to occur, but even now, 150 years later, the monarchy is incredibly popular and no-one, despite election promises, has done more than tweak the House of Lords.  As for Scottish independence, given that in 2014, after decades of the Scottish National Party, only 45% of the Scottish population voted for it, you can imagine how much more unpopular it would have been in 1865.  Yet, this is of no matter to Harrison, he waves his wand and everyone 'wakes up' to the fact they had been fools before.

This book is poor as it is so imbalanced.  It is also frustrating as Harrison has wasted three books that could have been so much better.  Looking at what would have happened if Britain had recognised and militarily supported the Confederacy is an excellent starting point for a 'what if?' novel; one that has not been explored much.  He could have had the Confederates turn against the British; slavery was always going to be a point of tension and come back to the Union, but to do it in a single day is ridiculous.  From there an invasion of Canada could have formed the next book, but with a recognition that many Canadians were Canadians because they did not want to be Americans and that 'democracy' was a derogatory word for most of the 19th century, not simply in Britain but including among Canadian and Irish elites.

Harrison could have had industrialisation of the southern states, even improvement in race relations, but this would take decades, not just a couple of years.  Furthermore, there is no tension if there is no jeopardy.  An American invasion of Ireland and Britain could have been epic rather than the 'walk in the park' he presents it as.  There would have been triumphs and setbacks, casualties too, on both sides especially given how advanced British military might and technology was at the time.  Instead, you get a tedious clinical victory that seems to have originated in a wet dream of an American nationalist.  I really regret buying this trilogy and understand why Harrison has not returned to 'what if?' history; these books are an embarrassment for him.

'White Eagles Over Serbia' by Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell (1912-90) these days is less well known than his  naturalist brother Gerald (1925-95) but published 1933-90.  My edition of this book, published in 1957, is labelled as 'An Adventure Story for the Young' which just shows how Young Adult fiction has come in the past 60 years.  Even at the time, I would have deemed it 'for the Old' as this spy adventure really has a feel of the inter-war and even turn of the century adventures.  It is set in Communist Yugoslavia, but easily the enemies featured could have been some secret police and army of an earlier era.  The hero, late middle aged Colonel Methuen, with his gentlemen's club, pipe and his obsession with fly fishing, would have not been out of place in something by Erskine Childers, hence being dated, even for the young of the 1950s.

The story is simple.  Methuen is asked by his boss to travel to the border of Serbia and Bosnia, at the time both part of Yugoslavia, where it appears that a number of monarchists are gathering and where another British agent had already been killed while investigating the situation.  He is to find out what is attracting this group, named White Eagles after the monarchist insignia, are up to.  He is taken to the area and sets up a base, eventually discovering the monarchists and their activity in taking treasure hidden at the start of the Second World War to the coast.  They fail and Methuen escapes.  He gets back to the British Embassy having achieved very little except witnessing an attempt to smuggle out gold.  He has had some close scrapes and in between times some wonderful trout fishing.

The book has some moments of tension.  However, it seems largely to be an excuse for Durrell to describe in depth a beautiful and dramatic part of the Balkans and indulge in fantasies of fishing in that environment.  In that respect it reminded me a little of 'John McNab' (1925) by John Buchan, though that book is more entertaining though lacking the Cold War trappings and the life-or-death danger.  I guess that being able to draw a parallel with a book over a quarter of a century older than 'White Eagles Over Serbia' shows how, despite an attempt to make it current, it was based in an older tradition.  It is a quick romp but certainly not a children's or young adult's book.  Rather it would appeal more to middle-aged anglers or would-be adventurers, especially those enamoured of the wild beauty of the Balkans.

'The Necropolis Railway' by Andrew Martin
This is the first of nine (so far) stories set in the early 20th century featuring Yorkshireman Jim Stringer a railwayman and from the third book, a steam (railway) detective.  The story is set on the real Necropolis Railway which ran between Waterloo Station and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey to transport coffins and mourners. Having been to the cemetery and heard of the railway station is what attracted me to the book.  At the age of 19, Stringer is brought down to London to work as an engine cleaner seeing this as the track to becoming a fireman and then a locomotive driver.  However, he is expected to spy on his fellow workers to uncover mysterious deaths not simply of railwaymen but also leading members of the company.

Having written quite a lot of historical crime novels I know that there is always a tension between including detail to give it authenticity and yet overdoing this to make it inaccessible to the average reader.  I remember when I started including the colours of the various tram lines in 1922 Munich.  Martin is an author of non-fiction books on railways and the trouble with this book is that he assumes we are as well.  This problem is multiplied by the fact that he uses 1903 slang and that everything is in the first person so there are not even useful asides from the narrator to tell you what on Earth is being referred to.  As a result I really struggled to comprehend much of the story.  In addition I have no interest of the particular wheel configuration of the locomotive the characters are travelling on, but Martin gives it almost every time.

Almost every character is obnoxious or vicious though some later turn out to be more moderate than they were pretending at the start and others even more treacherous.  The settings are incredibly bleak.  I accept that this is authentic for the time and place but added to the difficulty of the language turns the reader off even more.  The book is unremitting.  Then Stringer works out the murderer who has quite thin motives, and the book is transformed, it abruptly lightens up on the language and just at the point it is coming to an end you find it easier to understand what is happening.  I accept that Martin's technique might have improved across the successive books, but on the basis of this book I have no desire to read them.  I would only recommend them if you are a lover of Edwardian steam trains.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by J.K. Rowling
You would have imagined that, given I have preferred the adventure aspects to the day-to-day details of school life in the Harry Potter novels, I would have relished this one the most.  The action only moves to Hogwarts School at the end of the book and then for a huge battle.  However, in fact I regret reading this book.  Though it is shorter than the previous two (607 pages in my edition; apparently 759 pages in the US edition), unlike them it was broken into two movies.  This, I found reflects the longueurs of the novel.  Much of the book has Harry, Hermione and Ron (on occasion), traipsing around the British countryside to pretty dreary places and failing.  For much of the book, Harry is uncertain if he should be pursuing the horcruxes which hold parts of Lord Voldemort's soul or the three components of the Deathly Hallows which might be able to defeat him.  Furthermore the trio generally have no idea where they should be going to find these things.  I accept that this may represent how people who are 17-18 feel about life, but it does not make for exciting reading.

In fact it is even worse in the book than in the movie, because it is noted at each stage by Rowling that weeks and weeks drag by.  They seem to pass two Christmases and while Harry is almost 17 at the start of the novel, I estimate he must be 19 or thereabouts by the end, suggesting that two school years have gone past though this seems not to impact the same on the pupils of Hogwarts.  Furthermore, while there are fascinating revelations about Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape, towards the end of the book, you do feel that Harry has simply been a pawn for these men and that is incredibly disheartening, though Rowling does seem to track back a bit and try to beef up Harry's part in what has happened.  Yet, it appears that from his birth he has been a tool of others, again something teenagers must feel, but it is hard to swallow when a hero you have followed over thousands of pages is revealed to be a cipher.  The final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, though long expected, is very untidy and confused.  Michael Moorcock has featured such complex stand-offs with seemingly invincible opponents and Rowling is not as good as him at extricating her characters or herself from this situation.

I do commend her portrayal of the developing Fascist state and Voldemort does become far more part of the Establishment than he is shown in the movies.  I welcome the fact that she allows a number of Harry's friends and supporters to die.  Not doing so would weaken the link to real-life anti-Fascist movements, especially among young people in Nazi Germany, that I feel she is seeking to echo or even highlight in this novel.  It is fine to have jeopardy, something too often lacking in contemporary popular novels.  However, it adds to the weight bearing down on the reader and means it needs some counter-balance from having more spark from the heroes in the story.

Ultimately, despite the epic nature of some of the scenes in the book, I felt this was a damp squib ending to the series that disappointed me, only lifted a little by the projection 19 years into the future, which by my estimation would be 2026, to see that the heroes have largely settled down to comfy middle class wizard life and racial tension among magic-users is a thing of the past.  Neville Longbottom does not seem to get Luna Lovegood as his wife the way he does in the movies, but does end up a professor.

While I accept that Rowling wanted uncertainty and a sense that Harry's victory was not a foregone conclusion, nor that he alone can be a hero without the aid of a wide spectrum of other people, she has gone too far and the books seems to drift far too much.  The set pieces which also feature in the movie are exciting, but too much of this book feels directionless.  She could have instilled Harry's character with doubt yet not infect the actual novel with that weakness.

'Our Game' by John Le Carré
This is a messy book which turned into a slog.  It was published in 1995 when Le Carré appears to have been considering where his books would go next now that the Cold War was at an end.  The 'hero' of the book, Tim Cramner is a British spy who previously controlled a loose cannon double agent, Larry Pettifer.  By the early 1990s, both men have been retired, though Cramner is only in his mid-forties and Pettifer is younger still, though from the writing you constantly feel they are much older, in their sixties.  Cramner has taken over his family's vineyard in Somerset and Pettifer has become a lecturer at the nearby University of Bath, a place it is clear that Le Carré dislikes; he condemns it repeatedly.  It is a 1960s university, but it is well-equipped and popular with its students.  I guess Le Carré does not see any university outside Oxford or Cambridge as legitimate.  I was pleased that this was not set around another Oxford college, but Le Carré still makes the two lead male characters old boys of both Oxbridge and Winchester public school; the title of the book comes from school slang for a peculiar 'wall ball' game played there.

Pettifer continues to be reckless and it turns out has been embezzling funds both from the British and Russians.  He goes round seducing women and being a boor.  Cramner feels continuing sympathy for the man even though this attachment drags him into deeper and deeper problems with the police and then MI6 certain that he is Pettifer's accomplice.  The reader catches on far faster than Cramner why Pettifer took the money and how Cramner's lover, Emma, somewhere in her twenties but a nationally recognised composer, is involved.  For all his 'tradecraft' - spy skills in Le Carré-speak, Cramner is fooled throughout the book and suffers incessantly.  This is a central problem as no character in the book appeals to you, they all seem to be screwing up the lives of someone else and yet presenting a hypocritical face to the world.  Cramner is forced on to the run, something he does pretty poorly despite his training and the book becomes very tedious as he moves from one desultory location to another in dreary vehicles and with dreary assumed identities.  There is minimal action; the fights are always over by the time Cramner reaches them even when he heads to the Caucasus to take part in the ethnic fighting there.  As with 'Our Kind of Traitor' the book trails off and despite/because of all of Cramner's ineffectual efforts, too little is resolved.

Le Carré needs to go back and read his John Buchan.  'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915) shows how the plot of a wrongly-accused man, wrapped up in foreign intrigue as a result of unwanted associations and on the run can be handled dynamically.  I suppose Le Carré was writing in the age of  'doorstop' novels rather than slimmer tones.  However, the length (416 pages in my edition) detracts from the book.  With Cramner traipsing around, bemoaning his life, any dynamism is lost, hence me seeing it as a slog.

'Germany and the Approach of War in 1914' by V.R. [Volker] Berghahn
This is another book by someone I have met.  I attended a lecture by Berghahn (born 1938) almost thirty years ago now.  I cannot remember the subject but I know he explained why he was diverting from the given title and it had something to do with a strike which was on at the time.  He came over as a warm, engaging lecturer and I had expected something similar from this book.  It was published in 1975 and is rather over-influenced by his earlier book, 'Der Tirpitz-Plan' (1971).  Around half of this book focuses on the impact of Admiral von Tirpitz's naval expansion plans of 1897-1912, in far too much detail.  Every twist and turn of his progress or halt towards achieving his plan is detailed and it imbalances the book and, in fact, is pretty tedious.  Once Berghahn moves off this specific topic and takes a broader perspective, the book improves.

Berghahn comes from the generation of historians of Germany influenced by the work of Fritz Fischer than began to appear in 1961 which reassessed German willingness to go to war in 1914.  While adopting that as a basis, Berghahn is less bombastic in his assertions and consequently makes a very convincing argument.  Like the Fischerites, especially people like Hans-Ulrich Wehler, he shows how the conservative forces in German society, notably the Kaiser and big landowners were willing to try anything to maintain their supremacy in the face of Germany becoming an modern industrialised state and the consequent rise of Social Democrats and to a lesser extent Christian Democrats.  The naval building plan was one element of this as colonialism had been in the 1880s and a focus on strengthening the Army and establishing a Central European economic bloc were to be in the last couple of years before war broke out.  Berghahn capably shows that such tactics could not dampen the growth of the main left-wing party in Germany, the SPD and yet at the same time stretched the German economy, compelling reforms of taxation that the conservative forces felt inimical to their position.

Germany was less than it thought itself to be.  It lacked the funds to sustain such armament growth, and because of the unwillingness to recruit working class people, even the men to fill the expanded Army and Navy.  It lacked the shipyards to rival the rate of British construction and the colonies to provide the troops that France could call upon.  It lacked the capital needed to economically dominate the Balkans and left with no friends, it was tied to the crumbling Austria-Hungary.  The book, though short (214 pages of text; 46 more of timelines and references) moves painfully slowly but you can see how the German elites around the Kaiser, who despite the trappings of democracy, effectively still ran the state, saw war as the only possible solution for both their domestic political and social worries and their external diplomatic ones.  The book makes a very solid case in a convincing way.  However, the thrust of the arguments put forward are lost in the day-by-day minutiae that Berghahn feels compelled to include.  Berghahn has continued publishing in German and English into the 2000s so I hope that in his later books he has found a style which allows him to deliver his arguments in a more engaging way.

'The Spanish Civil War' by Andrew Forrest
Andrew Forrest is another author that I have met,  Some time in the late 1990s I was at a pub in Surrey to watch a jazz band.  He was a history tutor at a local college and was there with two students; all three had escaped from the college's 'prom'.  They seemed uncomfortable with the growing tradition taken from US high schools of excessive clothing and stretch cars as a way for young people to behave irrationally.  Forrest was a musician himself and a fan of jazz.

This book is not a conventional history of the Spanish Civil War, rather it provides the narrative in a very concentrated form, followed by very perceptive analysis and then model answers of how students can use such text to provide good exam or essay answers.  Though it is aimed at students, it is an excelled condensed coverage of the war.  It demonstrates comprehensive knowledge of all the books that have gone before on the subject (it was published in 2000) and draws on a range of original sources to illustrate what it is saying.  The style with the different sections to each chapter can be a challenge if you are simply reading it as a history.

Though I have read numerous books on the subject and taught on it for four years, there was material here and acute analysis, that I had not encountered before.  The book is particularly strong in showing that the Spanish Civil War was not a bubble in Spanish history but a link in a chain, connecting back to the De Rivera dictatorship of the 1920s and that the fighting did not cease in 1939 as Franco continued in his goal to kill all 'Reds'.  The ongoing covert war that followed in the 1940s has only recently received popular attention through movies.  It is also very good on the factions both within the Nationalist and Republican camps.

I recommend this book if you quickly want to engage with the Spanish Civil War or if you believe all the major insights into the war had been written about by the 1970s.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Omelette Exploration 7: Home-made Microwave Omelette

This marks the last of my postings about omelettes, that is, until someone writes in with a method to try or I come across one in a newspaper.  You may think that a microwaved omelette goes against much of what I have been saying in these postings.  However, like all of the entries, it does provide an opportunity to do something a little different.  I emphasise the 'home-made' because this is no bought ready meal, it still needs work from you throughout.  Of course, many of the basic rules apply - butter and good, free-range eggs are essential.  There is a risk that the omelette will stick to the bowl, so some pre-buttering of the sides is a good idea to avoid that.

There are some challenges with microwaving an omelette.  One is that it cooks in a ring as the omelette spins, this tends to happen even if you use a square dish or bowl.  Thus, you are likely to move the egg liquid to the side, but be careful not to end up turning it into scrambled egg.  You may actually want to put a smaller, upturned dish in the centre so that the liquid moves to the outside.  Obviously this will create a ring omelette which might be a nice surprise for people.  Perhaps put some coleslaw (I recommend mixing some savoy cabbage in with the white or red cabbage to give a fresh, slightly peppery taste) or something like mixed beans, in the centre.

The microwaved omelette will end up very light in colour.  You do not get the nice browning on the outside that you get with a pan-made omelette,  However, it is very light in texture too and that can also be a pleasant change for eaters.  If I am going to include fillings like ham, then I keep to a shallow bowl, otherwise you can end up with the filling sinking entirely to the bottom.  Cheese will remain in the liquid so is probably the best filling for such an omelette; light herbs will also work.  With cheese, I like to put in a few crumbs of mild blue cheese, like St. Agur,  Stilton can be used sparingly, but if it is true Stilton rather than a mild or smooth version, it can make the whole omelette far too bitter.

The one advantage of the microwave omelette is the convenience, there is less cleaning up to do as you can cook it in the bowl you stirred it in.  Like the 'bliny' omelette, it can also be useful in terms of providing a number of small omelettes for people to help themselves, or with the ring, as I have noted, give a different way of putting the omelette on the plate with other food, rather than the classic, semi-circle envelope.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Biscuit Blog: Fox's Crunch Creams - Ginger

Fox's Crunch Creams - Ginger

I should have put a size indicator next to these biscuits as, in common with other biscuits I have seen from Fox's these are small.  The packet is short and the diameter of the biscuits is probably about two-thirds of the size of the average ginger nut I have reviewed here.  I did not include a picture of these biscuits on edge, but in fact, as you can see from the packet, these are sandwich biscuits, i.e. like a Custard Cream or a Bourbon, they consist of two biscuits joined by a smooth filling.

Aside from the size another challenge is the lack of ginger flavour in the biscuits.  They have the appearance, texture and snap of a usual Ginger Nut, but lack the flavour.  They are very plain biscuits.  As a result, it is the filling which gives these biscuits most of their flavour.  Perhaps surprisingly the filling is lemon.  It is not too sharp, and would counter-point a good ginger flavour but that is absent, so the biscuit flavour overall ends up imbalanced.  These are not terrible biscuits, but they do not really offer what they promise.  If you want this flavour then you would be better off with a standard Custard Cream, or, perhaps better, get two typical Ginger Nuts and spread lemon curd between them.


Saturday, 15 October 2016

Provision - What If? Novel of the Second World War

Provision - A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Starvation of Britain During the Second World War

Just to announce that today I have published, on Amazon, a new 'what if?' novel called 'Provision'.  The diversion from our history occurs in April 1941 when the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park is bombed, setting back efforts to decipher messages sent by Enigma used by the Germans.  In our world, the inability of the Allies to read the Shark version of Enigma, used by U-boats, for much of 1942 led to a trebling of the amount of Allied shipping the Germans sank.  This story envisages that problem persisting.  Food supplies to Britain become shorter even than in our world and fewer US troops can reach Britain to ready for D-Day.  In our history, the USSR received thousands of vehicles and tons of resources from the USA and Britain which in this alternative cannot get through.  Thus, the war runs differently on many fronts.

I decided to view the impact through the eyes of a family.  I could have come at it from an ordinary family struggling to feed themselves in a city.  However, I thought I could give an insight into a broader range of the impacts by having a prosperous family in a rural setting.  Thus, I developed the Seymour family living in Somerset.  Tom Seymour is an infantry captain based in Ulster; his brother Don flies patrols against U-boat wolfpacks in the Atlantic and his sister, Patricia is a member of the Women's Land Army dealing with rumbustious farmers.  Their parents are Reginald Seymour who works for the county agricultural committee regulating farming and Cecilia who  is a volunteer for the Women's Voluntary Service, looking after evacuees and running various resource-saving schemes.  Her brother-in-law Wilfred is employed by the Ministry of Food.  Covering the period 1943-44 the various threads show how life deteriorates and the challenges facing Britain and its allies as well as the peoples of the Allied countries.  By following a family through these troubled years, I trust readers can engage with what a different war would have meant far beyond the strategic level.

While based on an alternative history, extensive research has gone into the mid-1940s setting and actually what happened in the war on the land, in the air, at sea, in towns and villages and on farms.  Thus, the divergences are feasible ones, but also show much of an impact a minor change in history would have had and how different the war and Britain itself could have gone.

P.P. 15/11/2016
This book was selling well until I got a review which killed it:

By Loving Patriarch on November 13, 2016
Very boring if you are an alternative history fan. There is so much dialogue that has next to nothing related to the premise of the book-which had high promise. I find myself skipped 10's of pages to get to actual historical content. This guy is obsessed with Ireland and country settings. If you like military action don't buy it.

Unfortunately I had forgotten what I have noted on previous occasions on this blog that for some people, unless the book has incessant fighting, it apparently does not count as an alternate history book,  As this reviewer indicates when he says he 'skipped 10's of pages to get to actual historical content'.  The entire book is set in 1943-44, thus everything going on it is (alternate) historical.  There are battle scenes both on land and in the air.  However, a book which was simply one battle after another would be tedious.  It would also be populated by one-dimensional characters.

The dialogue the reviewer so despises, explores what is happening to these people, how they cope with increasing shortages of food; why Britain ends up fighting in Ireland; why new warships, submarines, aircraft and tactics are developed; how the Black Market prospers;  how the British state becomes more authoritarian and Canada is put at threat all because of the 'what if?' the book discusses.  Thus, the entire book is about the premise in all its manifestations.  It is clear that in future I should just write a list of battles and units that have fought in them and that will be considered a 'true' alternate history book.

What Amazon does not tell you is that there are all these hidden rules about what a particular genre can cover,  My alternate history analysis books were condemned as not being alternate history as they suggested a range of outcomes rather than just one.  I imagine that authors in other genres get this kind of hassle, those who write detective novels get told off if the detective does not catch the killer or of romance novels are chastised because the heroine does not marry the hero,  There is nothing you can do about these rules, when a single 1-star review not only ends sales of that book but of any others you have up at the time.  You have to learn the rules by trial and error and not do what I did, and that was to forget them and write a 139,000-word novel which did not feature battle after battle and yet put it into the alternate history category.

I should have remembered from before:

but the ideas that come to me and my enthusiasm to write fiction, leads me to foolishly steam ahead and produce books that really offend people by stepping beyond the very narrow definitions that the reviewers have long agreed upon.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Biscuit Blog: Co-operative All Butter Shortbread Fingers

Co-operative All Butter Shortbread Fingers

These were a pleasant surprise,  They are in Co-op's 'Loved' range but they tasted much better than I had expected.  The packet, as is common with shortbread, is short, but the biscuits themselves are very creamy in flavour.  They have a firm snap without being too brittle; you expect shortbread to have some crumble but not to disintegrate, so these strike just the right balance.  There is no sugar covering on these as you find on some shortbread, but actually, in this case, it allows the core flavour of the biscuit to come out clearly.  Very moreish.  As you can gather, I was very pleased with these.


Friday, 30 September 2016

The Books I Read In September

'Twelve Women Detective Stories' edited by Laura Marcus
Over the past couple of years I have been working through the various compendiums of crime and spy novels that I must have been in the habit of buying sometime in the past.  I have a couple of large ones to go, but this slimmer volume was rather overlooked.  It does what it says in the title.  It is a collection of twelve short stories featuring women detectives, that were published between 1861-1950.  It shows that female detectives while a minority, were not as unknown as they are often assumed to have been especially in the Victorian period.  These stories have been written by a mixture of men and women, but interestingly very few of them led to lengthy series and often just a single collection of each character is available.

One of the detectives, Loveday Brooke, the creation of Catherine Louisa Pirkis, I have come across before, but not this particular story.  Many of the Victorian tales will appear rather restrained to modern day readers, at times a little naive.  This is one reason why Conan Doyle's work has endured because it stands above all his contemporaries whether featuring male or female investigators.  This date feel does not mean the stories in this book baulk from violence or a sudden poisoning.  Many take advantage of the different ways in which women lived and the heroines are typically skilled at disguise, entering houses of suspects as maids or interior designers.  This does not mean they avoid physical action and there are pursuits in sewers, riding over moors, hurrying across countries and around cities, making use of weapons, though in most cases it is the heroine's intelligence and astuteness that allow her to win through.  Some of the authors were feminists. notably Charles Allen who had controversially published a book about a woman living with her partner and their child but eschewing marriage.

Many of the stories are around disguise, the theft of jewellery, attempts at deception related to marriage or wills, but these were common tropes of much crime fiction in these periods, especially the Victorian times.  Many of the detectives are well off women or middle class women who have fallen on hard times, so have turned to detection as a source of income.  However, they have no difficulty mixing in different social circles and have the knowledge of the well-educated.  I suppose they are the mothers of female detectives of the first two-thirds of the 20th century before the harder-edged characteristics which are seen in some of these stories came more to the fore.

Of the different stories, my favourite character and one I think could easily be translated into the 21st century is Hagar Stanley, a Roma woman who had been forced from her extended family by the violence of a male relative and has ended up working for a pawnbroker who has died but his heir has not come forward to claim the business. The crime is based on an item she receives at the pawn shop and through her life knowledge she is able to trace what has been happening and to aid her client who she has fallen for anyway.  Given the high profile of the Roma and their challenges and the increased use of pawnshops, these stories or a modern version of Hagar would seem an interesting path for a TV series.

Overall while to many readers of contemporary crime fiction these stories will seem dated and even a little naive, they are engaging, highlight the social mores of the times in which they sat and the parameters in which women were compelled to work, but could seek to exceed in such exceptional circumstances as portrayed here.

'Stars and Stripes in Peril' by Harry Harrison
As I noted in July, this is a very jingoistic trilogy, part of a trend in US writing towards trying to show much better and stronger the USA could have been if it had been more nationalistic.  Conversely, I have been challenged that what I write is similarly jingoistic for Britain simply because I set stories there and as any regular reader of this blog knows I am very critical of the UK and what it has done.  Yet, to even to put it to the fore in a story is deemed inappropriate jingoism and it is nothing on the kind of ardent US nationalism shown in an increasing number of American books.  I suppose that is because the concept of the 'manifest destiny' appears as strong today as two centuries ago and things that once would have seemed simply 'what if?' like a vast wall along the US-Mexican border are now actual policy.

I suppose that why I am so frustrated with Harrison is because he had a chance to write a really interesting 'what if?' series.  There was a real chance that Britain and France would enter the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy and that would have been something to explore.  He could have had the Confederates chaffing against this support even though it was the best chance they had of winning or even simply securing a stalemate.  Instead, in a single day, he has the CSA tossing aside support from the largest empire in the world and calling off the civil war so that all Americans can fight together.  Harrison forgets that the issue of slavery really only arose as the war went on and the main reason for the split was around how much control the USA had over its constituent parts, hence the Northern forces were often termed by the Southerners as 'Federals' and the Confederacy took the name it did to emphasise this difference.  That topic is overlooked in Harrison's books.

There is some reference to the abrupt ending of slavery in 1863 and resistance in the South to the Reconstruction.  However, when compared not just to the resistance to the Union plans for the South after the civil war in our world, but to the often violent resistance to civil rights legislation ninety to a hundred years later, it seems incredibly mild.  I suppose this is necessary for Harrison to allow the combined forces (though madly still wearing Union and Confederate uniforms while serving) to attack the British Empire.  Another political problem for Harrison and I guess it is on this aspect that he is weakest, is his assumption that entire populations will be grateful for suddenly have the US system imposed on them.  He forgets that Britain and the USA were semi-democracies in different ways in the 1860s and both were taking steps to expand the franchise.  Yet for some reason Canadians are seen as having the scales fall from their eyes when the USA invades and imposes 'democracy' on them.  This forgets that many of those Americans who opposed independence had migrated to Canada at the end of the American War of Independence and that even today, 150 years on from when the novel is set, many Canadians feel a close affinity to the UK.  If they wanted to live in the USA, especially in 1863, it would have been very easy for them to move there.

In this book, the same thing happens with Ireland.  Somehow the Americans manage to make a whole series of technological leaps in one go and ensure that they work almost perfectly.  The British Empire despite continuing the war against the USA seems to have single spy.  The Americans build warships faster than even during the American Civil War.  They are then able to launch a cross-Atlantic invasion of Ireland without difficulty despite facing the largest navy of the day.  Harrison argues that this invasion is a form of 'Blitzkrieg' but in fact is more similar to what happened in the First World War.  Of course, all of the Irish welcome the American invaders warmly and are happy to adopt their democracy.  Magically this resolves the sectarian tensions in Ireland.  Given how difficult it proved for the British in Ireland and the fact that sectarian violence continued for over thirty years, this seems highly unfeasible.  However, in Harrison's world, all problems are solved by joyous receipt of American processes that no-one else, apparently, was able to work out for themselves.

The British are weak because they have been busy building a road across Mexico to allow soldiers from India to build up for an invasion of US states around the Gulf of Mexico, but the Americans get a march on them and trick them.  The British seem not consider simply invading California, which had become a US state in 1850, with Indian forces nor indeed the colonies of British Columbia or Vancouver where the British had bases but was not to become a combined province of Canada until 1871.  This mad scheme across Mexico seems simply to be an excuse to show how foolish the British were and how easily they could be tricked.

Overall Harrison was given a great opportunity which he used to produce US propaganda.  He wasted an opportunity to look at a realistic 'what if?'.  He could have come to very similar conclusions without indulging in the fantasy and infinite luck for the USA fighting a dim, delusional Britain and with the rest of the world simply waiting to be invaded by US forces so that they could receive the systems that they would immediately welcome without question.

'Assassination! July 14' by Ben Abro [Robert Silman and Ian Young]
This book published in 1963 envisages an assassination attempt against French President Charles De Gaulle.  He held that office 1959-69.  During his life there were 31 assassination attempts against him, the most prominent in 1961 and 1962.  He was opposed by organisations called OAS and CNR which were opposed to the granting of independence for Algeria in 1962 and felt that De Gaulle was running a form of dictatorship through his creation of the Fifth Republic in 1959 with far greater power for the President than under the previous French republics and his use of secret police to arrest his opponents, sometimes even from other countries.

This novel focuses on Max Palk, a British agent working for the French authorities who is charged with hunting down those planning to assassinate De Gaulle at a ceremony in Paris on Bastille Day (14th July) a national holiday in France.  The book gained notoriety as it featured the killing of a serving head of state and showed a real man, Jacques Soustelle, a French member of parliament in the 1940s, 1950s and 1970s, who served as Governor-General of Algeria, 1955-56.  He had been a close ally of De Gaulle's but turned against him.  He was a member of the CNR and was associated with OAS, a terrorist organisation.  Soustelle tried to sue the authors of this novel in a British court on the grounds of defamation.  The publishers withdrew it from sale, but the authors fought the case which ran out of steam when Soustelle was granted an amnesty in 1968 and his Israeli backers stopped funding him.

Other real men appear in the book with their names slightly modified.  One is Boudin who represents Georges Bidault, Prime Minister of France, 1946; 1949-50 who became a leading figure in those opposing independence for Algeria and seeking the overthrow of De Gaulle.  Though he claimed never to be a member of OAS, he was covered by the 1968 amnesty.  The other is Morris, the Prefect of the Paris police who is shown as leading the way in thwarting the assassination attempt.  He is based on Maurice Papon whose reputation declined sharply as more and more evidence came out about his involvement with the deportation of Jews during the Second World War; the torture of Algerian insurgents while he was Prefect in part of Algeria; the massacre by police of Algerians in Paris in 1961 and of Communists in 1962.  Though he served as a member of parliament at various times 1968-81 and served as a minister, ultimately he was charged with crimes against humanity and imprisoned 1998-2002.  So it seems that in reality this 'Morris' was more likely to have supported the assassination than opposed it.  It must be remembered as Soustelle failed to do, that this book was fiction.

The most famous book about an assassination attempt against De Gaulle is 'The Day of the Jackal'  (1971; movie 1973) by Frederick Forsyth, so it is natural to compare the two books.  Though given that by 1971 De Gaulle had died of old age and his opponents politically rehabilitated Forsyth faced less risk.  It must be remembered that when Silman and Young wrote the novel, they were undergraduate students who had attended elite private schools in Britain and were studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.  Thus, while they had a good grasp of France, they were not experienced authors.  As a result, perhaps it is not surprising that their book rather than looking forward to the political thrillers of the later 1960s and the 1970s, instead it looks back to the thrillers of the inter-war period, such as those featuring Bulldog Drummond and Richard Chandos.  These featured amateurs charging around Europe getting involved with political scandals and sinister criminals.

There are some good elements to the book.  One is when we find out who Palk really is after wondering what his role in the story is.  Another is him trying to get into the base of the paratroopers readying to seize power in Paris, barracked in a disused Metro station and then finally when Palk is involved protecting De Gaulle from the actual attempt to kill him at the 14th July ceremony.  The role of those sympathetic to the OAS while holding positions in the civil service, police and government is put to good effect and their is a good revelation when we realise who has betrayed Palk.

The weaker parts are when the book begins to seem like a Bulldog Drummond book.  In part this seems to stem from their desire to create a secret agent who was utterly unlike James Bond, who was becoming even more into the public eye globally with the movies that followed the successful books, starting in 1964.  However, rather than creating a Harry Palmer type character of the kind Len Deighton used in novels 1962-76 (though he was only named in the movies, 1962-66), they end up with some ridiculous scenes in the middle of the book.

The first is when Palk has gone to Switzerland to chase the traitorous member of the government and is held by Soustelle.  The way that Soustelle and his comrades decide whether to kill Palk immediately or not is to have him identify the source of a number of quotations; they even offer him clues.  He manages just to pull this off and is spared.  He later debates with his jailer, a young paratrooper (paratroopers featured frequently in the OAS) and persuades him that he is not really a supporter of the OAS and then reveals that he has caught the paratrooper masturbating.  Thus Palk so shames him that the man gives up his pistol and lets Palk shoot him through the back of the skull.  These scenes utterly undermine the book and seem pathetic alongside the more feasible assassination plot.  I can only imagine that if the publishers had not been in such a rush to get it out, they would have had these altered to something much more realistic.

My edition of the book contains an essay by James D. Le Sueur which gives background details on the authors, who went on to be prominent academics and in far too much detail, information about the course of the libel case.  It is interesting but is too long.  Overall I was disappointed by this book, but I guess I should not have expected more from the first novel written by two undergraduates brought up on stories of British heroes and 'daring do' produced in the inter-war and early post-war eras.

'Canto for a Gypsy' by Martin Cruz Smith
Smith is best known for his 1981 novel, 'Gorky Park' (movie 1983), a murder mystery set in the USSR, but this book was published in 1975 and features Romano Gry (a.k.a. Roman Grey), a Roma antiques dealer in New York who speaks Magyar and is asked to oversee the display of the Crown of St Stephen, the Holy Crown of Hungary which was passed to US soldiers at the end of the Second World War.  In the novel it is on display before being returned to Hungary.  This was prescient of Smith because this is what actually happened in 1978.  In the story the crown is stolen and may have been substituted.  There is also speculation whether the crown in US possession was genuine or a previous copy.  The story is short (160 pages) and ends up pretty frantic set around what has happened to the crown centred on St Patrick's Cathedral in New York w here it has been on display.

Smith shows his knowledge of Romany language and culture and indeed of contemporary Hungary pretty well in this book and Gry is an interesting hero with attitudes and values which would typically differ from the average American, for example in finding a horse for a young man living on the edge of the city.  However, it becomes far too confusing with all the uncertainty over the various characters and especially their motives.  This is not helped by the claustrophobic feeling of the novel, largely focused on a single location.  It is clear that Smith improved in his writing and that 'Gorky Park' was properly acclaimed for providing a taut thriller using settings, people and attitudes not familiar to an Anglo-American audience.  You can see signs of that skill in this book, but they needed refinement to prevent it coming over as too chaotic to follow in a pleasant way.

'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' by J.K. Rowling
As I have commented before, I came to the books only having watched the movies a number of times each.  As the series progresses the books and the movies diverge to a greater extent.  As a result only a couple of central scenes in this book are replicated in the movie; others are very different.  Thus, coming to the book it was as if, while featuring a number of characters I know well, that it was a new story for me.  I recognise that I have been working up to a realisation that I should have noticed long ago.  Rowling is far less concerned with the adventures, which feature prominently in the movies.  Instead she is primarily interested in Harry Potter as a boy growing up.

Yes, he lives in very exceptional circumstances, but she spends a great deal of time, especially as the series progresses with focus on his day-to-day life.  He is now in what would be Year 12 in the current British system and beginning his N.E.W.T.s, equivalent of 'A' Levels, so much of the time is spent going on about lessons and future careers for Potter and other pupils.  Now that he is 16 there is also a lot more about girlfriends and the tensions this can raise.

So it is very much a school book with magic and the threat of a superpowered wizard seeking to be dictator on the side.  I did wonder one thing about Hogwarts School and that that was, because they do not have normal lessons just ones about magic, whether their skills in mathematics, English language, let alone computing and science, are neglected.  This neglect becomes more apparent in this book as Ron Weasley struggles to correctly spell certain English words.

The book in my edition is 160 pages shorter than 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' which I read last month.  The length allows Rowling to feature a whole host of people who do not turn up in the movies or only in passing, but it is not as cumbersome as the previous volume.  This gives it a greater tautness and this allows the drama of the story, the element I like best compared to mundane school-day stuff to be more dynamic.  As a result I found this as very satisfying read even though I had a rough idea of what was going to happen.

'Our Kind of Traitor' by John Le Carré
I was recently given four Le Carré books and as this one had recently been released as a movie I decided to start with it.  While I have watched the television series and movie based on his Smiley books and his 'The Night Manager', the only other one I had read was 'A Murder of Quality' (1962) which was only his second novel.  This one was published in 2010 but refers to the 2008 financial crash and the latter days of the New Labour government in Britain.  It features a couple, a male lecturer at University of Oxford, Perry and a female barrister, Gail who come into some money and holiday in Antigua where they meet a Russian gangster involved in money laundering and his extended family.  The novel is about these two aiding a small sub-section of MI6 in aiding the Russian to defect to Britain bringing details of his business before he is disposed of by the gangsters who no longer need him.

The first half of the book is shown in retrospective as the two leads recount what they saw and heard on Antigua. Le Carré should be commended for trying out a different form and having a disjointed narrative that is not linear and in which a number of players show us their perspective and what they know.  This extends to two of the British agents and to a lesser extent a couple of their colleagues.  Sometimes people complain that Le Carré has dialogue reminiscent of the 1970s, but I think in this book he manages to break that.  Indeed in some ways he goes a little too far with members of MI6 seeming to buy into the fluctuating New Labour ideology which has a nod to ethical foreign policy but is happy to collaborate with international dubious people.  Possibly more accurately, there is a railing against misogyny especially in how Perry treats Gail when things become difficult.  Saying that Gail's career trajectory seems much more credible than Perry's.  Both of them do seem 'young fogies' and in this seem to refer back to inter-war thrillers, especially their love of tennis and Perry's mountaineering skills.  However, I used to meet some people of that kind of upper middle class ilk and they do tend to become old before their years.  Likewise, when I met the head of MI5 and chairman of the D Notice Committee, they spoke in the way the agents do here, but that was twenty years ago now.

Just over halfway the book moves on to a linear narrative though with regular switching between the points of view of Perry, Gail and Luke, one of the agents.  I guess Le Carré could not have continued looking back without revealing who survived, so reducing the sense of jeopardy, but it also seems to slacken the pace of the novel as the scenes move to Paris and then Switzerland.  Le Carré is pretty good at showing 'innocents' being caught up in such business, which is often a challenge to make credible.  He draws parallels between money launderers, high financiers and the governments who have an ambivalent attitude to both without this being plastered on as a theme and appearing very relevant to the time when it was set.  The ending is abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but I suppose that is fair for a thriller.  Some of the jeopardy seems rather let go when it could have contributed to the tension, so you feel a little at the end as if he had tired of the project.  Overall, not a bad book.  Le Carré makes good use of thorough research and this cannot be accused of being a book left over from the Cold War.  I welcome his use of an alternative structural approach and it is a shame it could have not been sustained right through the book as it added energy.

'Beyond 9 to 5: Your Life in Time' by Sarah Norgate
As has been the case with a number of books I have read this year, this one is written by an author I have met.  Before it was published I used to meet her cycling along a cycle path near my house and in a pub near where a friend of mine lived.  Very naively and foolishly, I thought she was attracted to, or at least interested in, me.  However, it turned out she much preferred younger, taller men with shaven heads.  I finally recognised that she simply took pity on me.  Given what you find out about Norgate in this book, that was no surprise as she is shown as an important academic in studies of the mind, taking part in a number of experiments; she has clearly travelled extensively and was an athlete.  It is no surprise that she saw a man who did not even own a car at the time, as rather pathetic though worthy of compassion.  Perhaps the latter aspect came from her work in psychology.

The book is a work of popular science, though it is backed by thorough references, particularly to numerous experiments regarding human perception and its engagement with time.  It is one of a series of 11 books in the 'Maps of the Mind' series published by the Open University in 2006.  It is written in an easy style with personal anecdotes and speculations mixed in with the scientific evidence.  It works through different facets of mental and physical engagement with time, for example, issues of longevity and their impact on how we see time; how light is important in how we appreciate time; the impact of what we experience in the womb; cultural perceptions of time, notably differing between countries focused on rushing around and those with a more relaxed situation and the experiences of particular groups of people such as life sentence prisoners, autistic people, blind people and people with terminal diseases and dementia.

The book is interesting and easy to get through.  The main problem is that so much information is communicated in 152 pages of text (plus 29 pages of references) that your head is left spinning and you tend to forget what you have just covered, so ironically, it is probably best to read this book slowly, far slower than the day-and-a-half that it took me.  I am rather concerned by the sweeping portrayals of particular countries as have a single approach to time and despite promising to do so, Norgate does not reconcile how Japan is rated as one of the most frenetic countries and yet has excellent longevity.  However, on the other side, she does well in predicting the future and the impact of mobile devices and how we interact that has only increased in the decade since the book was published.

Overall, I felt this was an alright book.  Its main challenge for me was that reading it felt so frenetic with so much information being thrown at me in quick succession, leaving me feeling uncomfortable with it and only taking away a few lessons from reading it.

'Target: De Gaulle' by Christian Plume and Pierre Démaret
This seemed to be the logical book to read after 'Assassination! July 14'. However, I had already been reminded of it by watching the penultimate episode of Series 2 of 'Bulman'.  It was entitled 'W.C. Fields was Right' and was broadcast in 1987 - the title refers to the statement by Fields: 'never work with children or animals' as both a boy and a dog feature.  In the story the book is referred to by name and has the same dust cover as my copy, though it seems to have been wrapped around a fatter book, perhaps so it is more visible on screen.  The episode sees a one-armed gangster played by Tony Doyle (1942-2000) using explosives fixed to a dog in an attempt to assassinate one of his rivals.  This approach to assassination is mentioned in passing as one of many considered to be tried on De Gaulle and is envisaged being carried out, using three dogs, at the start of 'Assassination! July 14'.

Anyway, back to the book itself.  It was published in French in 1973 and in English the following year.  As a result the authors were able to interview many of those who were involved in the 31 known assassination attempts against Charles De Gaulle between 1944-64.  They write in a brisk style which carries you through the technicalities and the continuous bad luck that the would-be assassins faced.  They are pretty good at articulating the complexity of the OAS and the connected CNR, the main groups bent on assassinating De Gaulle once he became President in 1958 and certainly as he moved Algeria to independence 1960-62.  The various factions and groupings are complex and you need to follow carefully, but they do not make it as inaccessible as some do.  They also highlight groups such as the Old General Staff, which remain shady even today.  They are certainly good at highlighting how the assassins constantly benefited from a fifth column of sympathetic soldiers, police, civil servants and politicians who gave them refuge and particularly advice and how this counter-balanced police penetration of the OAS and the willingness of De Gaulle to have suspects abducted and promptly executed.  Another strength of the book is the authors' analysis of how assassins were tracked down by the police, whether by accident or through detective work.  Thus, they can convincingly fill the gaps in what remains a patchy official record.

This book is embedded in a particular period of modern history and some of this will be unfamiliar to people of today.  However, as a non-fiction book it manages to straddle being detailed and informative, balancing both the assassins and those who would catch them and yet being written in an engaging rather than 'train spotter' style to the issues.  Overall it is a very interesting book especially if, like the writers of 'Bulman' you are looking for a good idea for a plot.