Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Books I Read In November

Fiction
'Stick' by Elmore Leonard
This proved to be much better than 'Cuba Libre' which I read last month. It focuses on ex-convict Ernest Stickley who quickly becomes wrapped up with successful drugs dealers in Florida and seeks revenge through a confidence trick.  It moves along very briskly dealing with a small set of characters who are well presented.  It really captures the atmosphere of early 1980s Florida having been published a few years later.  Many of the characters are ambivalent but they are credible.  The only bit I did not accept was when 'Stick' as he is nicknamed, has sex with three women in the course of a single evening.  I imagine that the strength of this novel is that it stuck to what Leonard knows best, though again it seems to violate his own rules about being very terse and includes description that allows you to really get a feel for the times and the setting.

'Snuff' by Terry Pratchett
I have been reading the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett since coming across a hardback version of the The Colour of Magic' back in 1983.  This is the worst in the series that I have read.  People said that because it was towards the end of his life, being published in 2011, just four years before his death, he was both running out of inventiveness and was a man in a hurry so, perhaps, conflating a number of stories into one book.  Having enjoyed 'Unseen Academicals' (2009) I was particularly disappointed.  The book begins with Commander Sam Vimes, head of Ankh-Morpork's police holidaying at his country retreat.  He has been made a duke, but the house and lands were his wife's inheritance.  The first third of the book, as one of the reviewers quoted on the back highlights, is reminiscent of a book by P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh.  It is a very laboured attempt to make humour out of what is effectively an English village of the Victorian era.  It is full of stereotypes and stately home whimsy which was probably not humorous even in the 1920s.  There are some minor references to Jane Austen books which make a reasonable point about expectations for young women and provide the only funny line in the book, unfortunately the last sentence.

Then the book returns to one of the themes which Pratchett focused on in his later novels, especially 'Thud!' (2005), which is race relations and treating all humanoids well.  It looks at treatment of goblins who are largely defined in Discworld as vermin and so open to slavery and slaughter.  One can easily see analogies to the black population of the USA and to Jews in 1930s Europe.  The trouble is, that such important issues offer no humour, so the book is very grim.  There is a gruesome description of dismemberment of a pregnant female goblin.  The book has a very nasty tone throughout.  Pratchett unfortunately seems to have no problem with the consumption of tobacco, which features far too much for a book which will be read by children.  There are more expletives in this book than previous ones too.  However, it is the repeated reference to the death penalty as being something appropriate, whether judicial or even extra-judicial, which saps any chance of humour from the book.  There is a frantic race after slavers which is chaotic to read and then there is an over-extended wrapping up of every single loose thread and more examples of people being deemed suitable to be murdered for what they have done.  Bizarrely this runs contrary to what is often said in the book about the police needing to not become as bad as the criminals.  Pratchett does not seem to have made his mind up really on which side he stands in that argument.

Overall, too much goes on in this book and the reader is jarred as they move between different sections in it.  The central problem is that it lacks humour and instead peddles bleak situations and very, very tired supposed satire of the British countryside.  Overall, very unsatisfactory.  I only have one further book from the mainstream Discworld series to read and am not particularly relishing it.

'The Winter King' by Bernard Cornwell
This book, published in 1995, is the first in a trilogy by Cornwell seeking to 'historicise' stories of 'King' Arthur.  He has used what traces there were of the man in ancient chronicles and then puts him into a realistic context of Britain in 480CE trying to cope with the end of the Roman Empire and invasions both from northern Germany and from Ireland, plus internecine conflicts between the various kingdoms of post-Roman Britain.  It is written from the perspective of a monk recalling all the events, many of which he participated in directly, from decades later.  I am ambivalent about the book, but will start by saying it was a great deal better than the Starbuck tetralogy by Cornwell (published 1993-96), set during the American Civil War, that I read earlier in the year.

In this book, Cornwell not only handles battles in the Early Middle Ages very well, but also everything else that is going on.  The characters move through a very well described landscape with the remains of Roman settlement littering the place.  I enjoyed seeing Weymouth portrayed as the Isle of the Dead and what is now Mont St. Michel in Brittany, where many Britons had fled, as a kind of Camelot. 

Christianity and Pagan beliefs - not just British ones but some left by the Romans such as Isis and Mithras - exist side-by-side each jostling for predominance among nobles and rulers.  A friend of mine says that Cornwell is anti-Christian, an aspect he dislikes.  I do not think it is the case.  I feel that Cornwell is contrasting the Arthur story to later portrayals in which he and his knights are bastions of Christianity which would not be likely in the setting of the 5th Century CE.  He treats all the religions equally, so each has vain and greedy practitioners.  I guess for Christians who feel they are right, this would be hard to swallow, but does feel appropriate for the times portrayed.    There is 'magic' in the form of rituals and especially superstitions. This is not a fantasy novel, but it shows cleverly how people of the time believed what they were seeing was magic even if we would not.
 
There are all the familiar characters - Arthur, Galahad, Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin.  However, they are more 'realistic' than in many Arthurian tales and each is flawed.  Throughout, everything is very gritty and often decaying.  You really feel that these characters, even the various kings, live a hard life.  The deceptions and the politics are handled well too.  Given all these positive qualities I do not know why I do not love this book.  Perhaps it is because it is too realistic and none of the characters, even Arthur himself, let alone Lancelot, is a 'hero'.  However, I am interested to read the two following books, pleased that Cornwell proved able to recapture his skill after the disappointment of the Starbuck books.

Non-Fiction
'Tyranny: A Study in the Abuse of Power' by Maurice Latey
My edition was the one published in 1972 of the book first released in 1969.  It looks very thoroughly at tyrannies and seeks to establish models and then give examples of how different regimes have fitted them, taking on aspects such as coming to power, relationship with intellectuals and religion and the fall from power.  Latey draws primarily on the dictatorships of mid-20th century Europe, Napoleon's regime, that of Mao Zedong and then of Ancient Greece and Rome.  There are some mentions of dictators in Latin America, but unfortunately there are some gaps.  In particular he references what he sees 'Oriental despotism', in fact meaning regimes in ancient West Asia, without giving details of these.  He also fails to show how in both Russia and China, histories of strict, authoritarian regimes through the centuries laid very solid foundations for their totalitarian states in the 20th century.

Despite these gaps in what otherwise is very good use of historical examples, Latey does succeed in making a model with which readers can judge tyrannous regimes.  Even reading it 45 years later, I think this analysis is applicable today when you look at what is happening in China, Turkey, Zimbabwe and even the Islamic State - he has a section on millennial religious movements which works very well in that case.  An updated version of this book would be very useful.  I do not know if 'On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century' (2017) by Timothy D. Snyder works as well; I am unlikely to reach reading it before I die.  However, people who have read it may be interested in finding out a copy of Latey's book as a comparison.  I certainly feel it has useful intellectual tools for helping in decode what is happening in many countries around the world today.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Stop Line: A ‘What If?’ Novel of Resisting the 1940 Nazi Invasion of Britain

Stop Line: A ‘What If?’ Novel of Resisting the 1940 Nazi Invasion of Britain

Like many authors, especially those involved in writing 'what if?' fiction, I have thought about different outcomes for the Second World War. I know books on these ideas are popular. Last year I published 'Provision': http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/provision-what-if-novel-of-second-world.html That looked at what would have happened if the Allies had faced greater difficulty with the Battle of the Atlantic. For 'Stop Line' I have started with a very popular counter-factual: 'what if the Germans had invaded Britain?' Typically these books are the start of a story about the German occupation of Britain. However, as many people will tell you, a German victory was the least likely outcome of such an invasion. This was reinforced in 1974 by the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst which showed that while the Germans would have been able to land up to 90,000 troops in Britain they ultimately would have been defeated.

While it might seem pointless to write a novel for which the outcome is known, my interest was in exploring what impact a German invasion in September 1940 would have had on the British population and on German soldiers. The fighting would have been very different to what had happened in 1939-40 especially in Belgium and France. I was particularly interested in seeing how Britain which had not been invaded successful since 1066 would have responded; whether the island mentality would have helped with the resistance to the invaders or developed into something more sinister. I also wanted to show, that despite British emphasis on how exceptional a people they are, in fact they would most likely have behaved in just the same ways as their counterparts in occupied countries across the Channel.


Central Southern England in 1940




I picked southern Hampshire as the prime focus for the novel. With the vital ports of Portsmouth and Southampton it would have been invaded early and would have quickly been on the frontline the battle for Britain. Added to that, you have a particular situation where the large city of Southampton is in sight of the New Forest a very rural area where it seemed feasible that resistance activity could be carried out. Having these locations allowed me to contrast between the impact on urban areas and countryside to a greater extent than had been the case with 'Provision' which had food supply as its prime focus. Before you email in, bear in mind that the map above shows the county borders as they were in 1940, not what they became in 1974 and how they appear on maps today. The western border of Hampshire is farther East these days.

The novel sees events unfold through the eyes of officers on both sides of the invasion; the mother of the British officer; a Hampshire vicar and his wife; a resistance fighter who is one of the Auxiliary Patrols that were established as 'stay behind' units, his wife; an engineer from Southampton and his wife too. Thus, the reader can see the varied impacts on a range of people living in the region; how they deal with the invaders and what they suffer as a result of the occupation. Thus, this is not a book taking in huge sweeps with long passages about strategy. There are battle scenes but these are seen very much from a human level.

Though the novel is a 'what if?', like all of my work, it is based on very thorough research. It features hundreds of real details including people, army units and weapons of the time as well as companies, places and foods. Hopefully such detail will enable you to get the sense of Britain in 1940 but also how it might have been changed for real if the Germans had managed to invade. I know the fact that this is not simply an account of units moving and fighting will anger some people and I will get a tirade of complaints. However, as an author, I want much, much more than such technical details. I write novels rather than manuals for wargames. I hope there will be people out there, like me are interested in reading what could have happened, but also seeing it through the eyes of convincing, well-developed characters.

As usual, this book is now available for sale as an e-book on Amazon.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Books I Read In October

Fiction
'Random' by Craig Robertson
This is a crime novel written from the perspective of a serial killer.  It is set in Glasgow, but unlike the Malcolm Mackay trilogy I read earlier this year, you really get a feel for different parts of the city and the people living in them.  Obviously it is difficult to elicit sympathy for a serial killer.  Robertson manages to pull it off, in part through revealing as the book continues what motivates the apparent random killings and by having many of the victims being people that many would see as needing punishment anyway.  I would not say I enjoyed the book and some of the deaths, let alone the torture that a local crime boss carries out to try to find the killer, are hard.  However, I guess I admired the book more than I expected.  There are certainly well written moments of tension both for the killer in escaping justice and for different individuals that come within his purview as he uses various devices to ensure they are selected at random.  It is certainly a lot better written than the Mackay series which surprisingly received so much acclaim.

'A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow' by George R.R, Martin
This is the third book in the series and is broken into two.  This means this particular volume comes in at over 600 pages, but is a third shorter than the preceding one.  As I have already noted with the Song of Ice and Fire series, it is as if it is a single very long story or in fact parallel stories.  Thus, after the first book, each volume is a slice from the very long narrative.  It is not bad, but it does mean that there is no resolution.  Many of these characters in this book are still on journeys they started in the previous book and in other ways this is the aftermath of the battles seen about two-thirds through 'A Clash of Kings' though Martin makes it clear at the start of this third book that readers should understand that the different parallel stories are not in chronological sequence, so in fact there is some overlap in narrative with the previous book.  Many of the narrative lines are largely independent of the others, even when you have the narratives for Tyrion Lannister and Ser (later Lord) Davos Seaworth who fought on opposing sides in the Battle of Blackwater in the previous book.

Though there is hardship for all of the characters some of the misery quotient has been dialled back in this book which makes it easier to swallow.  This is one aspect in which the book differs from the television series made of it, 'A Game of Thrones'.  In contrast, however, characters end up more mutilated than in the series; many began much uglier in the first place.  To his different coloured eyes and misshapen head, Tyrion now has lost much of his nose.  Davos has had parts of his fingers cut off before the story begins.  Jamie Lannister has his right hand cut off as in the television series, but being able to see inside the characters' heads, a strength of the book, we know how much longer the pain goes on for him and how the loss of his sword hand makes him feel emasculated in a way which is not conveyed on television.

One significant difference in the book compared to the series is the marginalisation in the novel of Caitlin Stark, the matriarch of the Stark family; a widow from the end of the first book believing that two or three of her children have been killed and supporting the bid of her eldest son, Robb for the throne.  On television Caitlin travels with her son's army and offers him council.  In the book she spends her time at the castle of her dying father only hearing about events at a distance.  The one big decision she makes, to try to trade Jamie Lannister for her eldest daughter, Sansa Stark, held by the Lannisters at court, is heavily criticised.  On television, Caitlin is heavily involved in the difficulties caused by Robb's love for Jeyne.  Their marriage leads to a crisis with the Frey clan which controls the strategic crossing from the North to the South of the continent of Westeros.  In the book, there is no such discussion.  Robb simply turns up back at his grandfather's house, a married man.  There are none of the qualms and discussions seen in the programme and this weakens the story and especially the point of having Caitlin in it.

A further point which I touched on when reviewing the first book is how young many of the leading characters are when they have sex.  Robb Stark is 16 when he marries as is his wife.  His sister, Sansa Stark is 13 when she is married to Tyrion Lannister.  Daenerys Tagaryen was 14 when she was married and had a miscarriage; she is not much older in this book when she reveals herself as bisexual.  Only Sansa does not have sex and that is in part as some kind of way to show that Tyrion is amoral rather than purely immoral.  Saying that, he still makes regular use of prostitutes.  I have long defended George R.R. Martin from criticism which, ironically, is often strongest from his most loyal fans.  However, the more I read his stand-out series the more I am coming to see that he is largely a dirty old man, filling his books with inappropriate fantasies.  Yes, compared to many fantasy authors, he writes well.  Yes, he wants to reflect behaviour which is of the kind seen in our Middle Ages.  However, there is too much of it and too much detail to make for comfortable reading.  The television series does minor adjustment to apparent ages and works better for it.  I guess I am going to continue with the books, but I do think they should have some 'trigger warnings' to indicate that the stories will be distasteful for some and that teenagers should not take them as any suggestion of what they should be attempting to do.

'Cuba Libre' by Elmore Leonard
I know Leonard's reputation and have come to resent, even oppose, his precepts for writing.  He favours a style which is incredibly pared down and which, in my view, does not aid clarity.  I looked for it in reading this book, but found he breaks many of his own rules.  The book is set in Cuba in the months leading up to and during the Spanish-American War of 1898, though the concluding part of that war is gone over very briskly.  It is focused on a handful of Americans, including the mistress of an American sugar plantation owner, a horse dealer, a journalist and a marine who survived the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana's harbour.  The first part of the book is very messy as we are introduced to these various characters and the Cubans on both sides of the conflict trying to liberate Cuba from Spanish control.  There are a lot of nasty people in the book, both from the revolutionary and the authorities' side.  Too often they behave in a way which seems irrational for the people of the time and place even with the prevalent level of violence.

The book improves in the last third around various parties trying to secure ransom for the release of the plantation owner's mistress, against the backdrop of US intervention on the island.  There are some excellent points of tension and I guess this is because Leonard, despite the exotic setting, is back on his home ground, dealing with double-dealing.  Even then, there are some jarring sections like two Americans simply sending a semaphore message with roughly constructed flags which leads to them being picked up off a beach by the US Navy despite it being in the middle of shelling Cuban installations.

Though the book improves towards the end, you have to have the patience to get through the very scrappy, disjointed earlier sections to reach it.  Yes, the setting is interesting and the landscape and what went on it is well portrayed.  However, Leonard has all these different parts that he seems unable to reconcile.  The political background sits very uncomfortably with the main story and either needed to be more distant or brought fully into the narrative.  I guess it was good that Leonard tried a different context for this novel, but it really only works when it comes closest to his more typical setting of crime in 20th century US cities.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Books I Read In September

Fiction
'Unseen Academicals' by Terry Pratchett
This is probably the most British of Pratchett's books, focusing on the topic of football (or soccer if you are an American).  In Ankh-Morpork the violent medieval style game, i.e. between districts with teams of any size, is transformed into something resembling what we know.  The first new team is run by the Unseen University, hence the name ('academicals' are not only the name of a real team as in Hamilton Academicals, but also what the robes and hats academics wear are called).  There are some university jokes, especially around 'new' universities and their relation to established ones and apparently about strange rituals at All Souls College, Oxford.  There are also tropes around football commentary and the Discworld's equivalent of Latin American footballing.  As is typical with late Pratchett novels, this one also explores themes such as prejudice against a 'goblin' character, inter-racial relationships, fashion, celebrity and being shut off from opportunities by the assumptions you were brought up with.  In this you can see a kind of parody of David and Victoria Beckham, or indeed a range of footballers and their girlfriends.  However, unlike some of the other Pratchett novels from the 2000s, I felt that the messages were not laid on as heavily and this allowed more room for humour.  This was the first Pratchett book I had laughed out loud to for some while.  Overall I enjoyed it and it is a shame there was never a follow-up to this one with the team going on tour and the development of Glenda's relationship.

'The Bloody Ground' by Bernard Cornwell
Despite Cornwell's declaration at the end of the book, published in 1996 this actually proved to be the fourth and final book in the Starbuck series.  I think this is because Cornwell realised that the series was not up to the standard of his others.  As I noted before, the constant switching of characters across the lines between the Union and the Confederacy and the fact that so many characters were unlikeable made the books hard going and they felt under-developed.  They improved as they progressed as Cornwell narrowed the focus, simply leaving out some characters from previous books and killing off others.  This book focuses on the Battles of Harper's Ferry and of Antietam.  The sort-of hero, Nathaniel Starbuck is sent to a punishment battalion which is being used to scam the Confederate government of resources to profit its commander.  He trains the unit up to a reasonable level and most of the book is about these battles.  Recounting conflict is Cornwell's strength.  However, usually, as for example in the Sharpe books, he is able to set it well in action off the battlefield well.  Overall this is not a bad book, but Cornwell could not really dig himself out from the weak situation he got into the first two books of this series.  I have a number of his medieval-set books on my shelf so I will see if he overcame his problems with those in the coming months.

Non-Fiction
'Warfare and the Third Reich' ed. by Christopher Chant
This is a mess of a book.  It is made up of three individual books, the authors of which are not indicated.  The first is a general survey of the development of the German armed forces from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second World War, though there is less on the Luftwaffe.  It is interesting on showing the foundations laid by the men who preceded Hitler's rise to power and particularly on the German navy, the Kriegsmarine. 

The second section is about Hitler's generals.  There are some reasonable over-arching points but also some oddities such a tiny chapter on the generals' uniforms.  The rest of the section looks at leading individual generals, focusing on particular campaigns.  This is interesting on the lesser-known generals, but given that we have already read about the German armed forces in action in the first section and the careers of many of the generals overlapped, it begins to become repetitive.  The author is particularly an enthusiast for Kesselring and in contrast dismisses Rommel as over-rated. 

The third section is on the Luftwaffe, the German airforce.  Again it is good in the pre-war section.  However, we have now read about the course of the war and campaigns within it repeatedly by this stage of the book, so only sections on, for example, the air campaigns against Allied shipping or organisation of air defence of Germany add new incidences.  Furthermore, this author, had numerous strings of acronyms for different units listed at length as parts of larger units.  Increasingly your eyes are having to get to grips with just these codings about units being moved around, with little narrative.  In addition, the tables that are referred to on a number of occasions, have not been included in this version of the book.

There are odd typographical errors throughout the book and as with the John Gardner's book last month you do wonder why companies do not take the opportunity of producing a new edition of a book to correct these.  This book does have some interesting insights and aspects which you may not have seen in books on Nazi Germany.  However, the fragmented and repetitive structure adopted means it is a challenge to pick these out from the text as a whole.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Eve of the Globe's War: A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Coming of the Second World War without an Industrial Revolution

Eve of the Globe's War: A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Coming of the Second World War without an Industrial Revolution

Today I self-published a new 'what if?' novel for sale on Amazon.  Rather than look at a small shift in history of one country and its implications, this one considers what would have happened if the Industrial Revolution had not been permitted to happen.  As the introduction outlines, there have been many regimes and societies throughout history that have resisted innovation; indeed passed laws against it.  The Classical societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome did advance knowledge in certain areas but as slave economies felt no need to go further and indeed many of the skills they had were lost.  In Imperial China and Shogunate Japan there was active resistance to innovation for fear of the damage it would bring to the established regimes.  Thus, looking at absolutist monarchies that were increasingly strong across Europe in the 18th century, often with monopolies over leading industries, it seemed highly feasible that innovation may have been halted; punishable by death.  Discovery of China and Japan seem to simply vindicate that this was the right approach for these restrictions.

Having set up this scenario I aimed to pick a well-known element of our history and show how different it would have been without the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries.  I lit upon the Munich Crisis of 1938 when Germany demanded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.  In addition, paralleling with the German use of the Enigma ciphering system and its provision to Britain and France by Polish intelligence, I thought the idea of agents seeking such a device would form the good basis for a story.  In order to highlight the differences I used well known people from our history: Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Bernard Montgomery, Neville Chamberlain, Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler to show that the lack of industrialisation would have not simply have impacted on the technology available but also the societies of Europe.  In our world there was still limits on chances to advance, but in a democracy even a man from a mercantile background like Chamberlain could become Prime Minister of a large empire and Adolf Hitler, a failed painter, son of a customs official, could rise to be dictator of Germany.  In a world where society remains dominated by the nobility such men could not have progressed.

I have felt that the Stuarts were more liable to become an absolutist monarchy for Britain than the Georgians would have been, given the behaviour of Charles I and James II.  People might challenge that the family, especially Charles II, had an interest in science.  However, given the removal of Charles I, their Stuart descendants - stemming from children of Queen Anne surviving rather than dying in infancy - seemed more like to adopt the kind of absolutist approach favoured in France, that in our world, provoked the French Revolution.  In this alternative rumblings on both sides of the Channel have not gone any further.

The map of Europe looks very different too.  As there has been no French Revolution so no Napoleonic Wars,  the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian kingdoms have been left in place.  The slow speed of communications and relatively low level of urbanisation has meant that though things have developed from the early 18th century, it is of a fraction of the scale of what happened in our world in the same time period in so many aspect.


This is the map I produced to give an idea of what the heart of Europe is envisaged as in this book, in itself providing opportunities and challenges for the heroes and heroine as they travel by horse-drawn carriage, river-carried barge and hot-air balloon from London to Munich and back.

This book is a spy novel set in this alternate context and it has a greater romantic element than my previous novels.  It is interesting as an author when a character appears and then gains a more central role than you had ever anticipated and this is what occurred with Écuyesse Servane Adélaïse Perenelle Bérénice de Grimoard who grew from an incidental to being a counterpoint to the Honourable James Manners, the rather feckless civil servant despatched with the motley crew of notables - Churchill, Eden and Montgomery to barter for the Prussian cipher machine, of course, unlike the Enigma of our world, operated by hand; electricity not being in use in this alternative.

I hope a spy novel set in a very different 1938 to our own will appeal to readers.  It provides a very different story set around the Munich Conference to that seen in Robert Harris's forthcoming novel!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Books I Read In August

Fiction
'A Clash of Kings' by George R.R. Martin
It is often said that the second book in a fantasy series, typically a trilogy, is the hardest.  It often involves the quest triggered by the first book and yet does not have the conclusions or climax provided by the third.  With Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series currently running at seven books, and with two of them broken into two volumes, there is an even greater tendency for that in the books.  A lot happens in 'A Clash of Kings' but much of it is 'off stage'.  We hear of numerous epic battles but only one of them, the sea battle to try to seize the capital, King's Landing, is witnessed at first hand, from the perspective of two characters.

I accept that Martin's focus is on the various individual characters that he has decided that we follow.  However, it is sometimes frustrating to know that the epic events which are going to impinge on them, are happening elsewhere.  Maybe this was intentional to make the book feel more 'adult' and less like many other fantasy series.  At this stage, the television series follows the books closely.  However, one of the joys of the books is the level of detail Martin can go into.  He clearly enjoys elaborating on the variety of foods at feasts and on the diversity of noble houses and their heraldry that are found in his world.  At times it becomes a little bit of a 'trainspotter' book.  Sometimes, though, as with the Bloody Mummers, you wish these details had made their way onto the screen.

Overall, the book is interesting, but more from the fact of watching 'slices of life' of the characters the author follows, rather than being carried along by an epic saga.  They are credible and written well, but this may be a different perspective than is expected by readers of other fantasies coming to these books for the first time.  There is one character, Theon Greyjoy, who you soon wish Martin had never created or certainly had not chosen to focus upon.  He is never successful.  He is ridiculed and despised by his family.  He is flawed but seems to be punished by fate to a far greater extent for his behaviour than any other character.  Having seen the television series, I know that life gets even worse for him.  It is very difficult to follow such a character and you get even more detail of his misery, of his self-reflection about his failings, than you see on screen.  Yes, have a character who has problems, but packaging up such unrelenting misery, when in fact there is quite a lot of suffering across, the board, is a real turn-off for the reader.  No-one likes to think that any character is fated to lose before they even started the game.

'To Run A Little Faster' by John Gardner
I have noted in the past in relation to books by Philip Kerr, how wrong whoever writes the blurb for the cover can be in describing what happens in the book and how this can mislead readers.  This was a bit the case with the edition of  'To Run A Little Faster', that I read.  The cover starts by saying that it is 1938 and Prime Minister Anthony Eden has resigned, suggesting it is an alternative history book.  Eden did resign in 1938 but from being Foreign Secretary, he did not become Prime Minister until 1955.  That aside, this edition of the book in a broader, thinner format than a standard paperback was released in 2008, the year after Gardner's death.  I used to see the original edition, published in 1976, at a friend's house in the 1980s, but never got round to asking to borrow it.

Gardner is probably best known for his James Bond books, 1981-96.  However, this novel feels more like something written by Dornford Yates between the wars, an often frantic middle class adventure rushing around Europe.  However, it is injected with 1970s sensibilities, which sometimes jar, especially the speed of the relationship which develops with Poppy Cooke that upsets the pacing as it is required that they are engaged by the end of the book.  Simon Darrell is a journalist investigating the disappearance of a Conservative MP which then leads him to uncovering a Nazi cell among the British upper classes, bent on influencing the country in Germany's favour.

As other reviewers have noted, the book is patchy.  At times Gardner manages to pull of a genuine sense of jeopardy in part because the authorities behave in as sinister a way as the conspirators.  There are also reasonable elements of mystery, but then at other times the story goes limp, in part because of the time needed to develop the relationship between Simon and Poppy and the success on the part of the authorities in having him removed from pursuing the story.  There seems to be no judgement on how Simon sucks Poppy into danger, but I guess that would be no surprise for someone who wrote Bond novels.  Overall, the book suffers from trying to be a pastiche of 1930s adventure novels and yet trying to maintain the attitudes of adventures of the 1970s and as a result does not really work as either.

There are quite a few typographical errors in the book: mixed-up homophones and random pieces of punctuation popping up.  It is a shame that whoever oversaw re-issuing the book in 2008 did not take the effort to check through the text and resolve these.

Of course, I much would have preferred a counter-factual with Eden as Prime Minister in the late 1930s, which would have led to a very different unfolding of European, perhaps even, world history.  Most likely there would have been a war starting in 1938 rather than the following year and appeasement would be a forgotten political term.  However, that kind of genre was nowhere near the kind that Gardner worked on in his extensive career.

'Black Hornet' by James Sallis
This book features Lew Griffin, a black private detective working in New Orleans in the mid-1960s.  It is excellent at conjuring up the environment of the time especially in terms of the tensions of race relations.  His lead character is cool, almost too much so.  He dresses in a black suit and is good friends with a talented but forgotten blues musician.  He also runs into Chester Himes, a famous black author of crime stories at the time, with no real sense of why that happens except to name check something that is cool while highlighting his political writings.  This is the main problem I have with the book, it links into too many tropes - Griffin's girlfriend is a prostitute though that is not said in as many words; he reads Camus as well as leading science fiction authors of the time; there is uncertainty over people's parents and a whiff of corruption.  If Sallis had dialled it down a bit he could have made it that little bit more authentic, which in large part he achieves.  The investigation is very messy and dangerous for Griffin.  His hospital bills draw off what money he earns.  He is also good at the segregation which persisted even when it was legally waning, the difficulty of a black man and a white man having dinner together, for example.

The dialect can sometimes be difficult to follow, but that might be because I am British rather than American.  It does add to the flavour Sallis builds up, but sometimes I had to re-read sections.  The other thing is that the book is written from the perspective of thirty years later.  As a result we know Griffin is not going to die even when the violence is hard; we even know he is not going to stay with his girlfriend or to get crippled from his job or die in Vietnam or anything like that.  This unfortunately undermines all the work Sallis has put into the environment Griffin works in.  Overall I enjoyed the book.  However, I felt Sallis tried too hard.  If he had been subtler; if he had only looked back a year, rather than thirty, then the book could have had the edge he was so keenly seeking.  I am sure many who would like a 'hard boiled' novel would find much to like in 'Black Hornet'.

Non-Fiction
'The New Cold War: Moscow v. Pekin' by Edward Crankshaw
For a start, I have no idea whey Crankshaw calls Peking [what we now term Beijing] 'Pekin', but he does.  These days it tends to be forgotten that from the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950 until around 1969, the West, notably US policymakers, viewed the USSR and Communist China as being in a single monolithic bloc.  In fact, as this book highlights, certainly from 1956, if not earlier, they were at odds with each other.  This was ultimately to lead to Soviet bombing of Chinese installations and border clashes.  It was only US President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger who embraced the tripolar perspective of the Cold War and tried to use it to resolve the US entanglement in Vietnam.  It seemed to have been forgotten again by the early 1990s with the proclamation of the end of the Cold War, with an assumption that the USA had 'won', though as has become subsequently apparent, of the three superpowers, China has been more victorious.

The book starts off very well and even today, over fifty years since it was published, if you are interested in the differences between Soviet and Chinese Communism, from their revolutions onwards, you could do far worse than start with Crankshaw's analysis.  The challenge is, that when writing this book as a short political text in the Pelican series, Crankshaw's prime role was not simply as a historian but in attempting to convince British audiences of what they were missing as they persisted as seeing China and the USSR as part of a Communist monolith.  The book becomes less interesting as it progresses and towards the end is reduced to simply reporting how each side attacked each other at various congresses.  I guess these days we do not need to be convinced of Crankshaw's thesis in the way that he felt was necessary in the mid-1960s.

Thus, today, while primarily being seen as a historical curiosity, there is good material in this book to help people taking a perspective from our era.  However, it also highlights how much we have moved on from when 'Communist watching' was an art in itself.  I imagine it still has uses in mapping the tides of the Chinese Communist Party, but these days we do not feel obliged to demand 'evidence' from reading the nuances of their public statements, as audiences seemed to do back in the 1960s.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Book I Read In July

Fiction
'The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives' ed. by Mike Ashley
A combination of factors including not being allowed to read in bed again and watching coverage of the Tour De France has reduced the amount of reading I have been doing.  Consequently I have only got through a single book this month though at 532 pages it was not a short one.  It is the sequel to 'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' (1993) which I read back in May.  As with that book, this one, published two years later collects short stories into chronological order, though it stretches further, going back to 35000 BCE and stretching into the 1920s.

Many of the authors who featured in the previous book return in this one.  This does lead to a rather patchy collection and I wish Ashley had selected more on the basis of quality rather than the name of the author.  This is particularly the case with the Ellis Peters chapter, which is not a story at all but an account of a true witch trial involving a duchess in 1441.  It was published first in 1950 and suffers from that contorted, overblown language that some mid-20th century authors fell into using.  It certainly does not show Peters in the best light and should have been excluded.

Among the other stories, there are 29 in total, there were some I liked and others were weak or tedious.  I liked 'Death in the Dawntime' by F. Gwymplaine MacIntyre, set in aboriginal Australia handled very well to get the reader into the culture of the people of the time and their perceptions.  Two authors who featured in the previous book and stand up well in this one are Peter Tremayne with another story set in 7th century Ireland featuring a nun-lawyer, Sister Fidelma and a Judge Dee story by Robert Van Gulik set in the same century but in China.  Of others who appear again, 'The Midwife's Tale' by Margaret Frazer is very good; it features another nun-detective.  S.S. Rafferty's 'The Curse of the Connecticut Clock' featuring Captain Cork is not as good as the story featuring this character in the previous book.  'The Chapman and the Tree of Doom' by Kate Sedley is a medieval one but with a pedlar as the detective and it is bleak but engaging.  'Man's Inherited Death' by Keith Heller featuring a London watchman in 1729 is another with a refreshing perspective.  The story by P.C. Docherty featuring Moll Flanders as investigator in Tudor England certainly has different approaches to solving crime and an unexpected outcome.

There are a number of Roman set investigations, Steven Saylor's featured is not his best but I was pleased to see the return of Wallace Nicholls's Sollius a detective who is also a slave.  The Roman ones from John Maddox Roberts and Mary Reed & Eric Mayer are not bad either.

Some of the stories irritate me.  These tend to come later in the book.  Ashley is a big fan of the work of Melville Davisson Post, the Uncle Abner stories, but to me they are too righteous and constrained.  I prefer the one which precedes the Abner story in this collection, 'Deadly Will and Testament' by Ron Burns which shows how racial legislation weighed against justice in 19th century Virginia.  Perhaps the most pointless story is 'Murdering Mr. Boodle' by Amy Myers set in a 19th century publishing house with a chef-detective who is not a spot on Henry Crabbe.  Edward D. Hoch's 'The Trail of Bells' set in the Arizona Territory in 1887 is well done and has a very different and more violent atmosphere compared to some of these stories.

Overall this is more of a mixed bag than the first book.  The best stories are better but there are a few too many that leave me unimpressed.  I have long read Van Gulik novels but I think I will now seek out those by Peter Tremayne, which as this collection was produced in the 1990s, should be knocking around charity shops and car book sales.

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Books I Read In June

Fiction
'Wintersmith' by Terry Pratchett
This is the third in the Tiffany Aching series of five books by Pratchett, which sees the heroine still training with witches but compelled to move from one to another.  In addition, by accident she attracts the attention of anthropomorphic representation of Winter, the eponymous Wintersmith who wants to make her his Queen while nature seems to want her to become Lady Summer.  There are fewer laugh out loud moments in this book than the previous ones.  However, Pratchett does show that if he had turned to straight rather than humorous fantasy who well he could have done in that genre.  He questions assumptions and gives new twists to established patterns.  He portrays witches as a kind of social services providers in villages which then reflects on how we support elderly people, those facing bereavement, birth and other challenges in our own society when we live in silos.  The Nac Mac Feegles appear but at not really at the heart of the story.  It was a satisfying book to read but more on the basis of the story it told rather than the humour.

'Battle Flag' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the third book in the Starbuck tetralogy.  In it Cornwell plays to his strengths as the action barely leaves the battlefield.  He shows the build-up and the fighting of the Second Battle of Bull Run in western Virginia in August 1862.  It continues with some of the characters of the preceding books, but absent from Richmond and with two of the commanders of the Faulconer Legion sent back there, some of the characters are absent.  While there is less of the crossing of frontlines which happened far too often in the previous book, 'Copperhead' (1994) you do feel at time that there are far too many consequences and mirrored actions.  Confederate Major Nathaniel Starbuck runs into his preacher father who skirts around the Union side throughout even though a civilian and into his friend, Adam Faulconer who similarly deserted his father in going over to the Union side.  These twists undermine the realism of the book which is otherwise good.  The strengths are in the confusion of this particular battle especially for small units among large armies and portrayal of the fighting.  Starbuck's motives have simplified to ambition for progression and simply keeping men he favours alive.  The behaviour of others is often bewildering and feels inauthentic, though Cornwell does reproduce errors that were made for real.  I have found this series rather unsatisfactory almost as if Cornwell has tried too hard and so undermined the strength seen in the much longer Richard Sharpe series.

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 1792-1944' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This is the second volume to the book I read last month covering 480BCE to 1757.  The problems and strengths of that book continue into this one.  The work of Fuller is fragmented by Terraine who does much more than an editor.  That becomes even worse in this book as naively and petulantly he counters Fuller's views of the lead-up to the First World War utterly dismissing the economic factors and the involvement of Britain which we know to have been so important.  You just wish Terraine would back off and go and write his own book rather than critiquing in such a harsh way the one he was supposed to be editing.

I started reading these two books as a basis for finding 'what if?' points for analysis.  Fortunately Fuller does not disappoint in exploring how things could have turned out differently in the cases highlighted by the war.  Looking at Napoleon's career 1812-15, he highlights many occasions when something very different could have been done.  In terms of the First World War he believes that having the USA entering the conflict in April 1917 not only prolonged the war but also wrecked Germany to an extent that some dictatorship like that of the Nazis was almost made inevitable.

Fuller makes fair points that Hitler made a grave error in not more fully enlisting non-Russians when the Germans invaded the USSR; highlights his unwillingness for units to retreat when victory was no longer feasible and his personal interventions which so weakened many battles.  For the Allies, he highlights how the obsession wit unconditional surrender ruined the chance of winning over the whole of Italy in September 1943; undermined those fighting Hitler within Germany and indeed those in Japan who wanted an earlier surrender.  He does forget how ambivalent the British were towards the Italians and, above all, even after the war, how long it took politicians to accept that there had even been opposition to Hitler.

In the first volume, Fuller revealed an abhorrence of Calvinism.  In this book he and Terraine share a common loathing of Communism.  They go on it in hyperbole and at a length which is not appropriate for a history book like this.  I suppose this is not surprising given the book was written in the 1950s and Terraine edited in the 1970s.  It is rather jarring now.  However, it does lead both men to strongly argue for different paths to have been taken that might have prevented Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe.  Fuller feels that the Normandy Invasion was a mistake and that the British should have pressed on with an invasion of the Balkans, though from Italy rather than directly.  To have a Second Front in France, he feels, simply handed over large parts of Europe to the Soviets.  Another striking thing is how Fuller portrays the Soviets as barbarians, constantly emphasising that they had largely Asiatic forces and even leading generals were of that ethnicity.  In frankly racist sections, he argues that, as a consequence, their soldiers had low intelligence and were brutal, leaving no explanation why the apparently higher intelligence German soldiers were equally brutal especially on the Eastern Front.  Terraine simply amplifies these racist tones.

This is an interesting book, but erratic.  It certainly raises interesting counter-factual points that tend to be disregarded in history books these days and I feel put the decisions made at the time to the test.  However, it is unrestrained in airing opinions which seem incredibly dated and prejudiced now, and I feel lead to faulty assumptions about what was feasible and the nature of the soldiers in the various conflicts.  As before the strongest parts are the descriptions and analyses of the actual battles and the editing that should have been done would have been to eliminate the meandering, often misguided linking sections and to have cut back simply to a series of vignettes about the battles.

The battles which feature in this book are:

Battle of Valmy - 1792; Battle of Trafalgar - 1805; Battle of Leipzig - 1813; Battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny and Waterloo - 1815; Battles of Vionville, Gravelotte and Sedan - 1870; Battles of Tannenberg and of the Marne - 1914; Battle of Amiens - 1918; Battle of Warsaw - 1920; Battles of Kiev and of Viasma-Briansk - 1941; Battle of Stalingrad - 1942-43; Invasion of Normandy - 1944.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Oaties

Belmont Oaties

While not a Hobnob, these do very well.  They have that oaty flavour but without tasting something like ryebread.  They do not disintegrate on being bitten and you do not have to pick pieces from your teeth, though you get the oaty texture in them.  There is the hint of sweetness which is right to indicate that this is not a biscuit for cheese.  The packet is a little small, but the thickness of the biscuits is more than reasonable.  Overall good value oaty biscuit if that is what you want.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 11 June 2017

What If Proportional Representation Been Used in the June 2017 UK General Election?

This is something I have now been doing for a few years, most recently for the May 2015 election: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/what-if-proportional-representation.html  In part it is driven by my interest in counter-factual analysis and how different Britain might have been if back in 1918 when given the chance, the coalition government had introduced proportional representation, or indeed, if the Labour Party had stuck to its stated policy and introduced it when in power in 1997-2010.

I use a simple system for my analysis, allocating the number of seats in Parliament on the basis of the share of the vote received.  Of course, any proportional representation system cannot replicate purely the percentage figures but they tend to come close.  Some systems, e.g. that of Germany, will not allow any party polling less than 5% of the total vote, to have a seat in parliament.  However, I assume such a bar is not in place.

This election has seen a rise in support for both the Conservatives, who received more votes than they have done at any election since 1983, and for Labour, who saw a 10% rise in the number of people voting for them.  The thing is, especially for the Conservatives, many of these votes are simply 'stacking up' in seats that they already hold safely, they are not winning additional seats, simply raising the majorities of individual MPs.  Thus, whilst they are the party most opposed to proportional representation the Conservatives might actually benefit from it as they are, in many cases, firming up their hold on some constituencies especially with the departure of UKIP. Perhaps the party with the greatest stacking this time, however, are the Greens, with a single MP, but now with over a 14,000 majority.  Many Green votes are not translating into seats.

While noting the stacking up, this election has also seen some very narrow majorities, the most extreme being in North-East Fife where the SNP won by just 2 votes.  Such narrow margins are difficult to translate into proportional representation as simply 1 person voting differently could have changed the situation. In Kensington, Perth & North Perthshire, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Southampton Itchen, Richmond, Crewe & Nantwich, the majorities were fewer than 50 votes.  In another three seats, including two in Glasgow, the winning candidate has a majority of fewer than 100 votes. 

In the 2015 election there was a lot of talk about the 'shy Tory' people willing to vote for the Conservatives but unwilling to say so to people asking their opinion.  This time there is talk of the 'shy Labour supporter'.  In fact they are largely shy because they were under-reported by the predominantly Conservative media.  Labour was having big rallies and the increase of turnout by 3% to 69% seems largely to have been young people who have not voted before, whether too young in the past or were not sufficiently engaged.  There had been an assumption that UKIP supporters would simply become Conservative supporters, but it appears, especially in northern England that instead they have turned to Labour, which highlights the fact that judging the political scene in the post-referendum era and especially in the time of populist politics, on old assumptions is flawed.

Of course, if proportional representation had been before this election then the political scene would have been very different anyway which may have meant that an election would not have been called at this time.  Analysis in 2015 showed the following profile for the House of Commons if proportional representation had been in place.  The actual returns are in square brackets:


2015: 650 seats [Conservative Government]

  • Conservatives: (36.9%); 240 seats  [331]
  • Labour (30.4%); 198 seats  [232]
  • UKIP (12.6%); 82 seats [1]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.8%); 51 seats [8]
  • SNP (4.7%); 31 seats [56]
  • Green (3.8%); 25 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 6 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [4]
  • UUP (0.4%); 4 seats [2]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [1]
Labour would have been stronger and it is likely that the Conservatives would have been in coalition with UKIP so there would still have been a referendum on leaving the EU and it is likely that the UK would have left.  However, the political scene would have been pretty different to what we saw in 2015 with the Liberal Democrats still a significant force and the Greens stronger by far than even the Liberals were back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the ascendancy in the 2000s.  Thus, it is likely that they would have received more back as a 'credible' party, it is impossible to tell.  With such a system other parties may have appeared too.  Again in the figures below, the numbers in square brackets are what the parties actually got.

2017: 650 Seats [Conservative with DUP Confidence & Supply Support]
  • Conservatives (42.45%): 279 seats [318]
  • Labour (39.99%); 263 seats [262]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.37%); 49 seats [12]
  • SNP (3.04%); 21 seats [35]
  • UKIP (1.84%); 13 seats [0]
  • Green (1.63%); 12 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.51%); 3 seats [4]
  • Others (0.52%); 3 seats [0]
Northern Irish Parties
  • DUP (0.91%); 6 seats [10]
  • Sinn Fein (0.74%); 5 seats [7]
  • Independent Unionist (0.45%); 3 seats [1]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
  • UUP (0.26%); 2 seats [0]
I always caution on Northern Ireland figures as some constituencies are highly partisan, and a form of proportional representation is in place, so the figures might turn out pretty much as they do in reality. 

The portrayal of Labour as so extreme and its leader Jeremy Corbyn as some revolutionary in much of the media, has overshadowed what was actually going on.  The Conservatives did very well, not having polled as well as this since 1983.  Labour did badly, only really as well as when Gordon Brown lost power in 2010.  However, because of the incessant portrayal of Labour under Corbyn as useless, the right-wing media have made the party's modest gains appear far more significant than was in fact the case.  Theresa May's arrogance in assuming she could do better than her predecessor compounded by an aloof attitude which was even greater than the snobbishness of Cameron, did her party no favours among floating voters.  However, it went down very well with people who were already Conservative supporters as seen with increased majorities in safe Conservative seats.  May largely talking to Conservatives rather than floating voters probably gave her a distorted view of what was happening.  The assumption that almost all former UKIP voters would automatically turn to the Conservatives was also flawed.

What is apparent is that 2017 saw a polarisation back to the 2-party system characteristic of the 1940s-90s.  However, there are geographical shifts with Labour picking up seats in a number of unexpected places such as Canterbury, perhaps finally benefiting from the mobilisation of university student votes, much vaunted but little seen in 2015.  With so many universities in the UK and more towns having two, they may create pockets of Labour and even, in time, Green support among Conservative 'seas' of rural Britain.  The Conservative return to Scotland, strongly in the South and East, in part compensated them for Labour's random gains and without which they might have even struggled to form a coalition. 

Of course, Labour's chance of ever having a majority government ever again are quickly fading as boundary changes will lose them over 30 seats as parliament shrinks to 600 members.  They are likely to find that they again receive fewer seats than their share of the vote as their support will stack up in small urban constituencies to a greater extent than has been the case recently.

In this alternative, there still would have been polarisation, but to a different pattern. The Liberal Democrats under proportional representation would have fallen rather than risen in the number of seats yet would have been returned to being the third party with the eclipse of UKIP.  Now, if UKIP had been in a coalition with the Conservatives since 2015 they may not have been swept away; indeed there probably would have been no need for an election for Theresa May to continue with the Brexit process. 

Other small parties have seen a decline, notably the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  However, if the Greens had had 25 MPs in 2015 rather than 1, then people might feel a vote for them was not 'wasted' and so the fall in support might have been less in 2017 than has been the case in our system.

Labour really no longer has any need for proportional representation as its number of seats is proportionate now to the amount of the electorate supporting it. The same can be said for Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives still receive more than their 'fair' proportion of seats, getting 48.4% of the available seats.  The same applies to the SNP, who got 5.4% of the seats compared to 3.04% of the votes this time even though this is a fall from 8.6% of sets in 2015 from just 4.7% of the vote.  Thus, parties that win or when they are winning, large rural seats, tended to be over-represented.

Analysis that I have done on elections down the years if there had been proportional representation is that a Labour-Liberal coalition would have been the predominant form of government.   In fact the more common coalitions of the 21st century under the first-past-the-post have been Conservative dominated ones as in the early to mid-20th century.

With proportional representation another Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition  with probably the SNP and Greens adhering too, is likely to have appeared in 2017 with the departure of the Conservative-UKIP coalition.  However, in that scenario I imagine the 'Brexit Coalition' would have continued under Theresa May and having no election until 2020. 

What is interesting is that for Labour is that its vote is increasingly in line with the number of seats it receives, in contrast to the situation in the 1990s.  The Liberal Democrats and the Greens, previously to a far greater extent UKIP too, are heavily under-represented for the amount of support they gain.  The big winners from the first-past-the-post system are the Conservatives and SNP who effectively need a smaller number of votes to win a seat than the other parties do.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

These are not bad as Rich Tea biscuits go; certainly not as small as some are now becoming.  They have a rather dry starting taste but some richness in the aftertaste and they are reasonably moreish.  They have a good snap and as you would hope for Rich Teas do not crumble easily.  Overall, for the standard range of a discount supermarket they do the job intended for them.  A little less dryness in them would raise them that bit higher.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Books I Read In May

Fiction
'The Mask of Dimitrios' by Eric Ambler
Ambler, publishing first before the Second World War, is seen as the precursor of post-war spy thriller novelists notably Len Deighton and John Le Carré.  Having read a lot of Le Carré this year, I feel he needs to go back to his Ambler to get an idea of pacing and excitement.  This book features a novelist, Charles Latimer, in late 1930s Turkey who becomes friends with Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and is shown a body apparently of Dimitrios Makropoulous, a renowned criminal.  He travels Eastern and Central Europe unearthing the career of the man before ending up in Paris to find out the final truth.

The book moves briskly.  It shows an ordinary man being sucked into extraordinary situations, but ones which appear highly feasible.  There are nasty, but believable people.  It is a thriller, but one you can believe in.  Though published in 1939, now that the Cold War is over and drug and people traffickers are back working the same kind of routes, it has a more contemporary appeal that, say back in the 1970s. 

Much of the story is related by other characters, but it is Ambler's skill that this is engaging. Unusually for a British novel, almost every character is not Anglo-Saxon and the protagonist actually speaks fluent Greek and reasonable French; he has to enlist help with other languages, which he does in a credible way. The novel also highlights many historical developments in Eastern Europe of the 1920s which these days are often overlooked; the violence of the Greece-Turkey War 1919-22 is an notable example, but also unrest in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia feature.

In many ways the book is grim, but it is a good read and is a useful lesson for anyone wanting to write thrillers today about how to keep them taut and the reader engaged in a story which is intriguing but rooted in reality in a way some contemporary authors fail to achieve.  Probably the best book I have read this year.

'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' ed. by Mike Ashley
There is now a whole plethora of these 'Mammoth Books' but this one dates from 1993 and, like those others I have read has a very wide assortment of stories under the umbrella of a genre, one which was blossoming at the time but has expanded immensely since.  This book, stimulated by the writing of Ellis Peters who provides the foreword and one story, is a collection of 23 detective stories set historically to when the author was alive and runs from 2000 BCE up to 1910 in chronological order.  One of the authors, Herodotus, is a well-known historical figure in his own right but even he wrote a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, a thousand years before he lived.  I must say that there are far too many locked room (or even sealed tomb) mysteries that by the end you tire of this conceit.

As with collections of 'rivals' to Sherlock Holmes I have read, one thing is such collections tend to show you why the novelists you know best in the genre, in this case both the story by Peters featuring Brother Cadfael and one by Robert Van Gulik featuring Judge Dee, both of whose work I have read before, though not these stories, stand out from the others in terms of the crispness of the story and the language.  Though there are some half-decent Roman detectives and the stories John Maddox Roberts and Wallace Nichols show how Rome changed in going from Republican to Imperial rule, few stories were sufficiently engaging for me to want to find other work by these authors, saying that having a slave as detective as Nichols does, creates a fascinating dynamic.

There were some that I found interesting for the setting.  One was a Sister Fidelma story by Peter Tremayne set in 7th Century CE Ireland and it is fascinating in terms of the potential for a nun to play a part in the legal process of that time and what a High King needed to attain the throne.  Paul Harding's story has some of this in featuring a 14th Century coroner in London.  Another is 'Captain Nash and the Wroth Inheritance' a full length novel by Raymond Butler, set in 1771 in London and the English countryside though a little burdened by the sexual mores of the mid-1970s when it was published.  It is adventurous and intriguing and well conjures up the contrast between the squalor and decadence of the era.

Overall this is an interesting collection and may expose readers to some forgotten historical detective authors, especially from the mid-20th century who may now be pretty much neglected.  You feel a number of the characters have not been taken far enough and it would be nice to see them revived today in full-length novels, just as long as none of them feature a locked room murder or robbery!

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 480BC - 1757' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This book was published in three volumes entitled 'The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History' from 1954-56.  In 1970 John Terraine was asked to edit them down to a two-volume set.  This book was from the 1981 edition of that set.  Abridging is always a challenge, but I think it was handled particularly poorly in this case.  As well as the particular battles, Fuller wrote connecting text taking the reader through the centuries between each set of conflicts, explaining developments in Europe and noting innovations in warfare.  What Terraine has done is cut this down to much briefer sections, clearly written in his own voice and at times referring to Fuller in the third person and even quoting him in what is supposed to be Fuller's book.  Thus, we end up with three types of chapters.  The chapters about the actual battles are the best, followed by the linking chapters by Fuller which precede them.  The worst are the forward linking chapters by Terraine which are a mess and cause confusion, plus a horrible jarring in voice.

Being a book of the 1950s, it assumes all readers can speak French and Latin as well as English and Terraine did nothing to alter this even in the 1980s.  So you may need to translate certain passages.  Especially in the early chapters about the Classical World, there is a tendency to rely on florid quotations from Victorian historians and some of these are overblown.  There are a reasonable number of line-drawn maps, my favourite and they do act to clarity.  Sometimes Fuller goes off on grandiloquent commentary, somehow seeing the conquest of Granada as unleashing global exploration but when focused on specific battles, he is very perceptive and many of his portrayals of the battles are more incisive than those by modern readers.  His commentary on the Battle of Hastings 1066 and the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 are excellent. He is also very good at showing how Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough and Frederick the Great were revolutionary in how they carried out war.  Prejudices do creep in at times: he is incredibly hostile to Calvinists and Lutherans, seeing them as nastily political rather than religious movements.

I turned to this book as I was interested in potential counter-factual analysis and stories.  Though Fuller does not go into this in depth, he does show why he thinks the battles were decisive. Despite the title, he actually starts in 1479BCE. In some places it is surprising which battles he does not include, such as the Battle of Poltava 1709, but he does note these.  His writing on complex conflicts like the Thirty Years' War and Seven Years' War are sound, but can be breathless at times meaning you need to read back over to find out which general went where.  Though a densely written book (with small print in my edition - hence taking me 19 days to read), it sweeps along briskly and is thought provoking.  I have the second volume, which runs 1792-1944, to read later in the year.

You may be interested to know which battles Fuller feels were decisive in this context:

Battle of Megiddo - 1479BCE; Battle of Marathon - 491BCE; Defence of Thermopylae - 480BCE; Battle of Salamis - 480BCE; Battle of Plataea - 479BCE; Battle of Arbela - 331BCE; Battle of the Metaurus - 207BCE; Battle of Zama - 202 BCE; The Teutoburger Wald Campaign 9CE; Hunnish invasion of France 451; Muslim invasion of France 735; Battle of Hastings - 1066; Battle of Crecy 1346; Siege of Orleans 1428-9; Siege of Constantinople 1453; Conquest of Granada 1491-2; The Armada Campaign 1588; Battle of Breitenfeld 1631; Battle of Lützen 1632; Battle of Blenheim 1704; Battle of Rossbach 1757 and Battle of Leuthen 1757.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

I must apologise for the photo in this posting, the light level was lower than I realised even though I have always lived in unfortunately gloomy houses.  As seems typical with Belmont, the ordinary biscuit brand from Aldi, they have gone for a lengthy title.  These went into a head-to-head with the Lidl equivalent for a taste test by two members of my house and came off slightly worse.  They crumble easily, a trait common for shortbread, but the full biscuit lacks 'bulk' when bitten, it seems too dry.  There is no visible sugar, but the butteriness that you would hope for given the title also seems absent so it comes off as very plain biscuit with only a little of creamy after taste.  The Lidl version just wins out for having better structural integrity and some more of that creamy flavour that you look for in shortbread.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

I bought these Hill biscuits from Aldi.  The first thing is that you get a very long packet, though the biscuits themselves are small.  Perhaps they have too much of a snap for a shortcake.  This is the start of the problem for the biscuit.  It takes more like a Digestive without the oaty pieces in it; the creaminess of a good shortcake biscuit is missing.  The fruit is lacking in sweetness, so effectively you end up with a kind of small - and they are small - Digestive biscuit with bits in it, not a pleasant experience.  If you were looking for a better value biscuit like this, then simply buy a Digestive, they are available from Aldi too.

P.P.  Just a warning: I found that these biscuits have a laxative effect which I put down to the hard currants and the wheaty texture of the biscuit.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Books I Read In April

Fiction
'A Hat Full of Sky' by Terry Pratchett
This is the second book in the Tiffany Aching series of books by Terry Pratchett.  They are aimed at children, but as with many of Pratchett's books there is an ambivalence and they speak to readers of different ages on various topics.  Though published in 2004, I feel this series captures the essence of what was so good in Pratchett's writing in the early days.  In contrast his other novels published in the 21st century, seem weighted down with too many issues and have lost the spry nature of his earlier books.  However, despite the humour, the book is very perceptive on our own society and makes very acute remarks about it; another great characteristic of Pratchett's writing even when dealing with the fantasy setting of Discworld.

This book moves on two years from the previous one, 'The Wee Free Men'.  It sees Tiffany, at the age of eleven, leave her home on the downlands and become an apprentice to a witch in the mountains.  The Nac Mac Feegles, the rough fairies with a Glasgow accent, do feature but to a lesser extent than in the previous book.  Tiffany is pursued by an ancient force, a Hiver, which seeks to take over the bodies and minds of the powerful.  Aside from battling with this force and what it makes her do, Tiffany becomes developed as a district witch, very much like a district nurse or someone from social services in our world.  Thus, there is an adventure, but also commentary on how societies function and the role that carers in the community, especially women, play.  There is also a challenge to the Wiccan approach of using amulets and fancy costumes as if this aids magic, a bit of a swipe at New Age attitudes as opposed to practical action.

Overall, this is a brisk book with some decent laughs and a real feel of the old Pratchett that many of us read decades ago.  Though it has a girl at the centre, at no stage did this feel like a children's book and indeed some of the comments from the Nac Mac Feegles would probably go over the head of an 11-year old.

'Copperhead' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the second book in Cornwell's tetralogy about the American Civil War.  It is better than the first book, 'Rebel' because while featuring many of the same characters, he has toned down what seemed to be a universal nastiness of them.  Even the hero, Nathaniel Starbuck was unlikeable in that novel so it was hard for the reader to empathise or even care about his fate.  This book covers the period in late 1861 when the Union forces were trying to advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond and despite amassing a huge force fumbled the invasion and the advance and so lost the chance to end the war much earlier.

Many people comment that Cornwell is best when handling battles and that proves the case.  This book opens with the Battle of Ball's Bluff and covers many engagements in the campaign of General  George McClellan to try to reach Richmond.  There are scenes in Richmond, including a harrowing one in which Starbuck is tortured as he is suspected of being a spy for the Union.  He finds out who the real spy is and as in the first book, though to a lesser scale, there is a lot of him contemplating the morals of his situation as he has gone from being a trainee clergyman to being a Confederate Officer, the lover of a prostitute often led into risky situations by his lust.

The main problem I have with this book is that at times the spy aspect feels very laboured,  Starbuck crosses back and forth across the frontlines blithely lying to his family and his comrades.  Another character goes the other way across the frontline.  Despite the carnage around them, they do this largely unscathed and so there is a sense of invincibility.  Towards the end of the book it seems quite contorted and you wish Cornwell would have kept to a more straightforward story, less stretching of credibility.  Yes, having some devious and useless characters is fine, but the sharp contrast between this series and the Sharpe books is that the twists are excessive and so undermine Cornwell's strength in portraying the American countryside and the reality of the soldiers and people living and fighting there.

'The Sudden Arrival of Violence' by Malcolm Mackay
I am glad to have reached the end of this trilogy.  The fact that the books have received such acclaim continues to astound me.  It is called the 'Glasgow Trilogy' and finally in this book we actually get mention (twice) of one district of Glasgow.  For the rest of the time the action takes place in a vacuum with people moving between houses and businesses that could be in any city.  You have no sense of geography except once they go into some generic countryside to bury two bodies.  This adds to the claustrophobic sense of the individuals.  Having produced his 'how to be a gangster' lecture in the first book, Mackay is left with just the worrying of the various characters.  If in 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' he stuck two fingers up to the 'show not tell' precept of writing, he continues to violate the 'rule' about sticking one point of view at a time.  He jumps between perspectives sometimes within a single paragraph.  This does not help clarity and at times is even ridiculous when we are treated to a combined memory of brothers William and Callum MacLean.  This weakens what Mackay is saying about the characters.

I know the book has been praised for being 'laid back', but unfortunately in a crime novel that comes over as weary.  In this book and indeed the previous one 'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' with is pathetic anti-climax conclusion, this tone just makes everything feel laboured.  Too many of the characters are old and tired something exacerbated by this tone even more than in the first book in which new ideas and branching out was the trend.  Women are very disposable in this novel and none of them seem to be more than simply a plot device.  Mackay has tried too hard to be 'hard boiled' and has simply taken that voice without reflecting it in the substance of the story.  Despite some attempt at the late stage to get us interested in William and Callum, there is too little to empathise with.  Even the police are weary and largely failing for almost the entire book.  Yes, Mackay has tried something different but he does too much of it.  He could have taken 100 pages from each of the three books; cut out large chunks of navel gazing and made them closer to what they are marketed as rather than these slack, tiresome novels.  I will not be coming back to his writing.

'A Game of Thrones' by George R.R. Martin
This book, at 801 pages in my edition, has taken up a lot of my reading this month.  I was able to purchase the 7 books currently in the series unread for just £1, but it does mean I have committed myself to reading a lot by one author this year which will reduce my coverage of a range of books.

I have seen all of the seasons of the television series, also called 'A Game of Thrones' (though the book sequence is called 'A Song of Ice and Fire') which are available on DVD in the UK.  So I know the story pretty well, though I hear book and television series diverge later on.  What is striking is how close portrayals of characters from the book are on the television, much dialogue seems to have been carried across and even the tone preserved.  There are differences because it is easier to have grand detail in a book, but easier to show a landscape in images.  Thus, in the book you find out more about a lot of the minor noble houses, the history, nature, clothing and food of the world Martin has created.  An added advantage is that you see more of the thoughts behind the characters' actions.

I think the success of this series is that at heart it is just another fantasy series.  You can pick up hundreds of series about imaginary worlds with a kind of medieval context and magic thrown in; in which people battle to become ruler.  What distinguishes Martin's series, from what I have read and seen, is that there are no heroes.  His characters are flawed throughout; perhaps the most minor are those who are simply naïve.  The vast majority of the characters are selfish, cruel, violent, petulant, exploitative, etc. and sometimes have a whole host of nasty elements to them.  Thus, it seems almost like a contemporary rather than a historical/fantastical drama; as if corruption in national politics had been moved from our world today into this context.  Many of the characters are ugly, the trait least transferred on to television.

Martin does include magic but very sparingly.  In the book we see one ice zombie and we see three dragons hatch right at the end of the book.  I think this is also useful because it then emphasises the importance of the human element and also keeps magic as exceptional as it appears to the people of the world Martin creates.  In fact what we witness is dismissed as impossible by many characters.  The other thing is that you do not know who will die.  Unlike in many fantasy series, no-one is immune to death and this also increases the credibility of the story, something vital when portraying an alien context.

The book is gritty and grotty.  Despite the length, unlike some (maybe many) fantasy series it moves along briskly.  Most chapters end with a cliffhanger in themselves.  Some readers might find the jumping between different characters across the world confusing, but to me, naming the chapters solely after who they refer to, works well and I was not lost, though it might have helped that I have seen the story with its characters.

Despite my generally positive view of this book, there is one aspect which seriously jars.  If this book had been self-published to Amazon in 2016 rather than published traditionally in 1996, it would have been rejected.  This is because of the featuring of underage sex.  Many of the leading characters are children and at times it feels a little like a children's story.  Some of these characters have been aged for portrayal on television and it is clear there would have been uproar if this had not happened.  Martin makes it explicit, in particular, that Daenerys Tagaryen is only 13 when she is married off to a leader of steppe horsemen.  She becomes pregnant by him aged only 14.  This is not fudged around, it is stated explicitly. Another character, Tyrion Lannister, remembers when he was tricked into having sex with a woman by his father when aged just 13. 

Now, I know Martin is trying to recreate behaviour of the Middle Ages in our world in which marriages of children occurred and even in parts of the USA where the age of consent remained below 16 into the 20th century.  However, Martin's emphasis on this behaviour is highly unsettling, and, as I note, to portray it actually runs against policies of providers such as Amazon.  Perhaps he is trying to add extra 'grit' to his novel, but it simply comes off as sordid and utterly unnecessary given what else he portrays throughout.

Non- Fiction
'Britain and the Korean War' by Callum MacDonald
This is a quick book looking at the political context of the Korean War.  There are brief mentions of what happened militarily but that is not the focus of the book.  It concentrates on Britain's often ambivalent part in the war which stretched over a change of government from Labour to Conservative but throughout was driven by a desire to keep US protection for Britain in Europe.  Many aspects of the organisation of the war are familiar for those who have lived through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the USA feeling obliged to have a multi-national force as long as it did precisely what the American commanders and politicians wanted.  Thus the British were very much dragged along, often unhappy at backing the corrupt and cruel regime of South Korea and especially the bullishness of US commanders, including a desire to use atomic weapons, not simply General MacArthur.

There are some aspects that I had not come across before.  One was the role of India as friendly to Britain but able to talk to the Chinese and the issue of the exchange of Prisoners of War, especially those who had no desire to return to China or North Korea.

The book shows how the war helped formulate US Cold War policy with a temptation to 'roll back' replaced by containment and a willingness to be involved in proxy wars but only to a certain extent.  In addition, it shows a willingness of US administrations, whether Democrat as under President Truman at the start or Republican under President Eisenhower, to work with dictatorships even if they were half-heartedly fighting Communism.

MacDonald also does well in showing how the errors of the 1930s weighed so heavily on any decision.  Furthermore he highlights how few choices the British had given how short of money they were following the Second World War, even when they utterly disagreeing with US policy.   He shows the British seeing the Americans as naïve in dealing with developments in East Asia and provocatively aggressive, risking an all-out conflict with China and/or the USSR.  One particular point of difference is the British awareness that China and the USSR were not really a single bloc, a misapprehension US politicians clung on to right until the 1970s.

This is a brisk book which is very useful in highlighting aspects of the early Cold War that have so often been over-written by erroneous assumptions about what happened and especially about what leaders were seeking to achieve.