Monday, 31 October 2016

The Books I Read In October

Fiction
'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 residents have 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 and have again 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 their armour, 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, yet in contrast the Americans are able to get accurate information and details from casual observations and amateurs.  Throughout their casualties are minimal whereas skilled 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 back 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 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 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.

Non-Fiction
'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.

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