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.