Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Books I Read In February

'The Russia House' by John Le Carré
Inadvertently I seem to have been working backwards chronologically through the Le Carré books I was given.  This one was published in 1989, though the edition I have has afterwords written in 2001 and 2010.  I remember seeing the 1990 movie and finding it very boring.  The book is no different.  As I have noted before, it seems that Le Carré feels it is sufficient to create a middle-aged, upper middle class man with an reasonably interesting history and then let him potter around in the spy world.  Somehow, we are supposed to be intrigued by that.  This book features Bartholomew 'Barley' Scott Blair who works for a fictitious publishing house of the kind which was probably extinct even by 1987 when the book is sent.  His company tries to sell to and buy from the USSR.  He comes into contact with a scientist who offers intelligence on failings in Soviet missile systems.  The book largely is about Blair being questioned about the information provided and being established as a pretty ineffectual go-between.  There is a lot of questioning and very little action.  Blair falls in love with a Russian woman who passes on the scientist's message and there is some reference to the loosening of the Soviet system in the light of perestroika.

When Le Carré wrote in the 1960s he kept his books short and tight.  However, certainly since the 1980s, perhaps prompted by publishers, they have become incredibly flabby.  My edition was 453 pages long and even with the lack of action, in 200 pages it could have been tense and engaging rather than a slog.  However, there are some problems with this book even when compared to the other three of his I have read recently.  It has a false start as rather than the information going to Blair when in Moscow it goes to another middle-aged publishing representative Nicholas Landau.  Landau passes it on to British intelligence after a couple of chapters then disappears from the book and it seems to start again with Blair.  I almost fell into the same situation with a novel I am currently writing and now see why it is a bad approach.  The second major flaw is that for some of the book the author narrates then sporadically another character, Horatio dePalfrey [sic], a legal advisor to British intelligence narrates.  Why Le Carré felt the need for this additional layer, a man who rambles on about his mistress irrelevantly, I have no idea.  He fades in and fades out suggesting more uncertainty on the author's part just about what was going on in this book.  It is very poor and an embarrassment in front of what he was writing twenty years earlier.

'Babylon Berlin' by Volker Kutscher
Having now written 17 novellas and a novel featuring a detective in 1920s Germany I was naturally attracted to reading this book.  It was published in German in 2007 but is now available in translation.  It was the first in the Gereon Rath series of detective novels, which have now reached six in number.  This book is known as 'Der Nasse Fisch' ['The Wet Fish'] in German which is police slang for an unsolved case, but this year a series is appearing on German television using the English title.

Kutscher is excellent at the period detail and really conjures up Berlin in 1929, with meticulous detail about various buildings coming and going and the brands in use at the time.  Perhaps as a result of this being the first book in the series, at times you feel he is taking his detective on a tour of the city.  It would really help to have a map of 1929 Berlin to ascertain precisely where everything is in relation to each other.  This factor does not help with the clarity of the novel.  I like a good twist in a detective story, but Kutscher piles twists on thick and fast.  He throws everything into the mix.  There are Communist riots, there are raids on night clubs of the more and less seedy variety, there are conspiracies not simply by the Stahlhelm, the S.A. and elements of the police, but also involving a spectrum of Russians from the Black Hundreds, through the Okhrana to a Leninist anti-Stalin group and perhaps the O.G.P.U., though people still refer to it as the Cheka.  There is even a drugs dealer with a Chinese assistant.  I appreciate Kutscher's effort and I wonder, even though he had published four crime novels before this one, that he worried that he would not get another chance with his Rath character.

A couple of other factors do not help with clarity.  One is that Rath jumps between different senior police officers of various branches, even getting to travel with the Berlin Commissioner of Police at one stage.  The various 'jurisdictions' are not clear.  I know he is supposed to be uncertain who to trust, but with so many 'players' in the game, it leaves you rather bewildered.  Some were real people like the famous cake-eating detective, Ernst Gennat, whereas others are fictional.  I wonder how this is going to be done on screen to ensure the viewers can follow what is happening.  Another issue, more an irritation than anything else is the translation by Niall Sellar.  It is translated partly into British English, i.e. with the police ranks and reference to a 'pub', but partially into American English, i.e. with a 'recess' in a school.  I would also argue that his rendering of the various Meldungen, by which the population of Germany have long been monitored, as 'passports' does not help with clarity.

There are elements of this novel that I enjoyed and I hope that the series gets to the UK.  However, overall I feel that Kutscher has tried too hard and as a result the novel is less than the sum of its parts.  It ends up reading like one of those 1970s airport thrillers about White Russian or Nazi gold rather than a decent detective novel.  Though I complain about Philip Kerr jumping around in time with his Bernie Gunther novels set in Germany in the same era, he has greater control over what is going on in his stories, though he too seems obsessed with shoehorning in real people.  I do not know if any of the subsequent Gereon Rath books will be translated, but if so, I will not rush to read them as getting through this one was a labour rather than a pleasure.

'The Wee Free Men' by Terry Pratchett
This is a children's book that was given to me some years ago by a girlfriend.  The protagonist as a nine-year old girl, Tiffany Aching who lives on a farm in chalk downs somewhere on Pratchett's Discworld; a very English-style setting, the kind of terrain I really love.  Her brother is abducted by a Queen of Fairyland and Tiffany, realising that she might be a putative witch sets off to rescue him.  She is aided by six-inch high Nac Mac Feegles, who are brownie-like creatures, immensely strong and fast, mostly male, heavily tattooed and for some reason, who speak in a kind of Scottish dialect; emphasised by the fact that they call themselves 'pictsies' so referencing pixies but also the Picts who occupied what is now Scotland in Roman times.  He does mine the kind of stereotypical Glaswegian hardman trope extensively, triggering off bizarre thoughts of a Pratchett version of 'Trainspotting'!

I have complained recently that I have found Pratchett books published in the 21st century to be laboured.  They make good points but go on too much, losing the wit and quickness of his 20th century.  They were light rather than seriously humorous.  This book was first published in 2003, but because it was aimed at a younger audience, it is far tighter and does not waste time in the way that was an increasing tendency for the 'standard' Discworld novels.  It was the first Pratchett book that I have laughed out loud to for a good number of years.  It is deftly done and there are jokes that only adults, and in some cases only middle-aged adults ('We willna' be fooled again' referencing a 1971 track) would get.  The book is brisk and rich in imagery.  Like the best fairy tales, it does have shocking scenes.  It both subverts the genre it is founded in, but also takes a shot at our own society, especially how it supports/demonises the elderly and 'others', but does this deftly in a way Pratchett seemed to lose when driven to write lengthier novels.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it represented what is best in Pratchett's writing.  It is the first in a series of five books published 2003-15; I have the next two and will not set them aside given how much I enjoyed this one.

'Rebel' by Bernard Cornwell
I have read all of Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series about an English rifleman set during the Napoleonic Wars and aftermath.  Thus, I was pleased when I was given the four books in his Starbuck series, featuring the American Civil War.  The books are centred on Nathaniel Starbuck, the son of an ardent preacher from Massachusetts who seems to constantly fall into troubles pursuing women he is attracted to.  He abandons study in a seminary and follows one woman into Virginia where he happens to be when the American Civil War breaks out in 1861.  Massachusetts was part of the Union side and eastern Virginia was in the Confederacy.  He ends up in a regiment commanded by the father of one of his Virginian friends and entangled in the rivalries between the various officers and men and their families.  The book ends with Starbuck being involved in the 1st Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Cornwell is excellent as always in terms of historical detail such as the climate, what people wear, their weapons, what they eat (though at times the variety of food features seems massive), even their behaviour and language.  I would challenge his portrayal of the obsession with slavery at the start of the war, given that it was not until 1863 that President Lincoln declared slaves to be free (and was ambivalent about that step) and some slave states fought on the Union side.  At the early stage it was more about a federal versus confederal system in the U.S.A.  The major problem with this book is that almost every character is highly unsympathetic.  Violence, one might expect.  However, everyone is self-deluded, self-righteous pompous and arrogant; self-seeking and corrupt.  The women are mean and self-obsessed.  Though quite a lot of characters feature you very often simply want them out of the story to spare you from having to read about them.  When the 'hero' guns down another character on the say-so of a horribly manipulative woman, you are grateful that at least one nasty character has gone.

I wonder how the book was received in the southern U.S.A. as no southern character has any redeeming features.  Many of the northerners are shown to be unpleasant but not as irredeemable as the confederates shown, even the women.  This makes the book very hard going.  At least in the Sharpe books you had Richard Sharpe and the men around him, that you could root for throughout the books, even if they make mistakes.  In this book, Starbuck (and I have a major problem with that name) is self-flagellating for imagined evils which makes him tiresome and yet, then, he feels free to carry out murder to the sake of this nasty woman.  I do not know if Cornwell was seeking to counteract books that lionise the Confederacy but overall he has written a novel, which despite its attention to detail, is very difficult to engage with because so much of the cast are not people you would ever want to spend time with.

'The English Village' by Dennis R. Mills
This seems to be another of these 1960s history books I picked up with charming line drawings in it.  The tone is enthusiastic rather than earnest.  It guides readers, especially children, on how to analyse English villages.  There is a real emphasis on 'English'.  The term is used to refer to the Anglo-Saxons and the author seems to feel that there is nothing much of importance that happened in villages before then, though the Romans and the 'British' left some elements that could be encompassed in an 'English' village.  The Scots only get a mention as raiders and even when featuring a Cornish village, the Celts receive no mention at all.  While nowadays someone would use a computer to do the illustrations, much of the analysis and even many of the sources cited, would still be applicable today.  The book's points are well illustrated with real examples and even draws on Mills's family background and field work.  The enthusiasm extends right to the end of the book where Mills seems to forget this is a book about historical analysis and encourages readers to engage with a village and get involved in local politics to improve it.  Both an interesting and relaxing read, which betrays assumptions of the time (especially jobs being created and done by men) but provides a pleasant slice from a time which, even if in turmoil, still could aspire to both tranquility and progress.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Biscuit Blog: Memento Half Covered Fruit And Nut Cookies

 Memento Half Covered Fruit And Nut Cookies

I have finally located a branch of Aldi reasonably near my house so have rushed in an bought a range of their biscuits to try.  These are from their Memento range of slightly posher biscuits.  I was intrigued by the 'half covered' in the title, but I guess they have been very precise and you would not be misled.

I must say, they are very thick and they are tasty with creamy milk chocolate and a mix of currants and chocolate chips.  I could not detect the nuts mentioned in the name, but they were still tasty. They do not have a snap, but do not fall apart the way some 'cookies' do, especially ones with fruit or nut elements within them.

I hope this is a sign of good things to come from Aldi as I work through what they have on offer. 


Friday, 10 February 2017

The Three Eagles: A What If? Novel of the U.S.A., Mexico and the First World War

The Three Eagles: A What If? Novel of the U.S.A., Mexico and the First World War
Today I self-published a new what if? novel on Amazon called 'The Three Eagles'.  I have long wondered why, having won the 1916 election on the slogan 'he kept us out of the war', Woodrow Wilson decided to enter the First World War in April 1917.  It was 23 months after the RMS 'Lusitania' with 128 US citizens on board had been sunk by a German submarine and it is clear that, despite the popular view, it had minimal impact on US foreign policy. 
Wilson decided to go to war despite him proposing peace terms to both sides of the conflict.  He seems to have been put out by the fact that both the Allies and the Central Powers, made no genuine proposals and simply put forward their list of objectives.  Two factors, however, meant that the USA entered the war on the side of the Allies, though it largely kept its armed forces separate and did not become a formal ally of Britain or France.  The first was the resumption of German U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, notably US ships.  The Germans had curtailed this on two previous occasions following requests from President Wilson but at the start of 1917 reneged on this.  The second was the Zimmermann Telegram sent to the German ambassador in Mexico to encourage the country to attack the USA.  Wilson was always more concerned with Mexico than Germany and US marines had occupied locations in Mexico in 1914 and he sent the so-called Punitive Expedition in 1916 commanded by Brigadier General Pershing to try to catch Pancho Villa, a revolutionary whose men had been responsible for raids into the USA.  The Expedition achieved little and Pershing was sent to Europe to command US troops dispatched to France, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
One important fact to remember is that in 1917, the US Army was very weak; smaller than that of Serbia.  Many troops had equipment and uniforms left over from the American Civil War which had finished in 1865; on reaching France they were largely kitted out by the French Army.  As the AEF received their own portion of the Western Front they were kept apart from the seasoned British, French, Belgian and Portuguese troops, so they had to learn from scratch.  Consequently US casualties were seven times higher than other units fighting on the Western Front.  Involvement in the war even for such a short time, meant the USA paid a heavy price.  However, the presence of US troops and the food and war materiel that accompanied them, gave heart to the Allies, particularly the French.  US troops were particularly important in defending Paris in May 1918 when the German Kaiserschlacht Offensive almost went further than German troops did in 1914 when they almost won as it was.  With no US troops in France in 1917-18, it is likely that the French and probably the British troops too, would have suffered widespread mutinies and the German Army would have reached Paris in May 1918.  They had already beaten Russia into surrender in March 1918.
Thus, this book works from the basis that the Germans avoided upsetting Wilson for a third time and he was left to carry out further action in Mexico, where just as on the Western Front in our world, the ill-equipped small US forces struggled against battle-hardened Mexican troops and the various revolutionary armies.  Meanwhile with the Germans having won a last gasp victory in Europe, they have not gained all that the nationalists fantasised about, but have been able to secure the worldwide empire that the Kaiser had dreamt of.
This is the counter-factual background, which, as with all my writing, has been carefully researched.  As with my other what if? books and stories, however, it is the impact on characters that interests me rather than labouring through details of battles.  This book is in three sections, the first features a National Guardsmen sent to occupy a Mexican oilfield in 1917; the second sees a US spy investigating a new German submarine base on the Gulf coast of Mexico in 1920 and the third is set in 1923 covering a pilot sent to root out one of the remaining revolutionaries operating in northern Mexico.  If you enjoy a alternate history setting as the background for adventure stories, then I trust this novel will appeal to you.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Biscuit Blog: Asda Rich Tea biscuits

Asda Rich Tea biscuits

These Rich Tea biscuits, not as small as some you find and in the packet you get two sub-packs of biscuits.  They are very dry in taste and lack much of the richness that you would expect.  They almost work like cracker biscuits would in your mouth.  Thus, while good value for money, I would use them as biscuits for cheese rather than as a sweet biscuit.