Friday, 31 March 2017

The Books I Read In March

'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' by Malcolm Mackay
This is the first book in a crime trilogy that I was given.  It is set in Glasgow, though you could not really tell that from the details in the novel.  Fortunately it does not use dialect, but apart from the very Scottish names held by many characters, you could easily imagine it taking place in a town in the Midlands or southern England.

As a writer you are often told to 'show, not tell', i.e. to keep the narrator back a bit, not explaining everything to the reader, but allowing the reader to gather information from how the characters act.  Mackay has gone to the opposite extreme and much of the book reads like a handbook on how to be a gangster.  It is interesting, but tends to drain a lot of life and certainly tension from the book.  This problem is further exacerbated by how almost every single character is unpleasant, including the police.  None of them is anybody you would want to associate with let alone empathise with.  This consequently puts up a further level between the reader and the action.

There are occasional points of tension, the scene towards the end of the book when a gunman  is  fighting for his life when attacked by a man with a knife.  Yet, even then Mackay pulls away and we only see the outcome some time later.  I recognise Mackay was seeking a new type of voice for a crime novel.  It is interesting but because of this distance and the matter-of-fact handbook style, it is certainly not engaging.  I do not know if this will improve further on in the trilogy as we will be familiar with the characters.  I am rather surprised that the book received the acclaim it did and I guess it was simply because it adopted a new approach, but one I do not feel succeeds.

'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' by Malcolm Mackay
I do not really understand how this novel, the second in the trilogy, won an award.  It is less written in 'how to' style of the first book.  However, it remains very claustrophobic, in part because there are only vague references to Glasgow and for much of the book characters are simply in rooms or driving between them.  This book features fewer characters still than 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' did.  Little happens in the book, despite it being longer than the previous one; I guess because Mackay does not have to introduce the characters and the crime system they are part of.  There is one scene which could have had tension, at the start of the novel, but this means that for the rest of the book, it is all pretty down hill, with no real sense of jeopardy.  The ending with the weary gunman, is a real anti-climax.  It is almost as if Mackay feels he has to recount a story he witnessed rather than write what you would feel is a genuine novel.  Only one of the policemen introduced in the first book has anything to do and so as a result the book simply drifts.  It makes me nostalgic for Peter James's Roy Grace novels, which though not outstanding, had a far greater sense of direction than Mackay's trilogy.  Overall, this comes over as a very bland, directionless book that could easily be in any town in Scotland, it even lacks that local colour.

'Time and Time Again' by Ben Elton
*While I am going to recommend that you do not buy this book, if you do intend to read it, please note that this review is full of spoilers.

I cannot remember when a book has angered me as much as this one.  On the surface you would imagine it would appeal to me.  It is about a man, Captain Hugh Stanton, who is sent back in time from 2025 to 1914 to avert the start of the First World War by both preventing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and by assassinating Kaiser Wilhelm II.  He succeeds in both tasks and so alters history. 

There are some good characteristics of this novel.  First is the way in which time travel works.  Sir Isaac Newton is shown in the 1720s as having worked out that time is relative; that it moves in a helix; is affected by gravity and, at specific points along the helix, two dates touch at a particular location.  In this book it is 2025 and 1914 in a cellar beneath a hospital in Istanbul.  Being in that point allows a traveller to go back to 1914.  Elton works on the 'alternate universe' version so that an action which significantly alters the timeline erases the previous universe and replaces it with a new one.  This means that the time traveller and whatever they brought with them from the future, even war poetry, is unaffected by the changes they bring about.

I did worry that Elton was trying to coin a trope initiated by Douglas Adams that time travel is a secret of the University of Cambridge shown in 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' (1987) and the associated incomplete episode of 'Doctor Who' (1979).  Adams went to St. John's College rather than Trinity which features in this novel.  I guess it does allow Elton to bring in Newton and this archaic form of time travel.

The other strength of this novel are the descriptions of Constantinople, Sarajevo and Berlin in 1914.  Elton does these well and captures the sense of appreciation that a time traveller would have.  It also plays lightly with changed manners and language.

Now to the rest.  Hugh Stanton is a former S.A.S. soldier so is violent throughout, casually killing people all over with the most minimal of guilt.  I guess this is to appeal to men who generally would not read a Ben Elton book.  A major problem are the female characters.  They are all treacherous; even Stanton's murdered wife, Cassie, is portrayed as making unreasonable demands on the 'hero'.  Stanton kills his former tutor, Professor McCluskey who sneaks herself on to the time-travel mission when it becomes apparent she had his wife and children murdered.  McCluskey is a caricature of a bullish female academic who is disposed of abruptly.  There is an unconvincing, anachronistic love interest in an Irish suffragette, Bernadette Burdette who, of course, betrays Stanton.  When the third woman 'Katie' from her serial number, turns up, a hardened criminal from the grim future that Stanton's actions create, you realise women are only in the book as devices to enable certain actions to occur.  They are not developed and are removed sharply with no further concern.

Overall, however, the main sense of the book is one of despair.  Early in the book, Stanton's professor complains about the Marxist students in her history classes in the 2000s, because they argue that the path of history is inevitable.  At first this seemed odd: to find a Marxist on campus in the 1980s when I studied, was rare, let alone in the 21st century.  It is only later that you realise that Stanton is not from 'our' history but one in which there was no Second World War.  At the end of the book you find that there have been multiple attempts to use this time hole, constantly altering history.  Elton does not answer, however, why the multiple time travellers have not run into each other before Stanton meets Katie. 

The end of the book shows that every attempt to improve the 20th century it simply makes things worse. Elton does not allow any change to bring an improvement from genocidal totalitarian dictatorships, though ironically, the 20th century that Stanton turns out to have lived through was better than ours because the Second World War was avoided.  Britain is shown as being in a mess in the 2020s, but that is caused by broader trends in society and it looks little different from ours.  There is a misplaced lionising of the pre-1914 situation which does not help.

Yet, Elton will not permit even his own demonstrations that actions could make a difference stand.  Consequently I was reminded of the very bleak movie, 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) which works on the same basis. Stanton, however, probably deserves the prize for causing the greatest deterioration in one step.  Thus, Elton's message is a highly Marxist one: i.e. that nothing an individual does will alter what is going to happen.  It is a message of despair and suggests that no-one should bother opposing Donald Trump, because, even with time travel, we could only make it worse rather than any better.

I know Elton used to be left-wing, though I did not think he was an ardent Marxist.  I also thought that once he did believe in people getting active to oppose bad government.  Clearly success and age have shifted his view.  In writing a very violent, male-focused, populist book, he is trying to peddle his message that we just have to sit back and accept what we have inflicted on us and that to think we can do anything different is illusion.  A very bleak, unpleasant book, that I advise people to avoid.

'Blast from the Past' by Ben Elton
Though published in 1998 this is a better book than 'Time and Time Again' (2014).  However, it left me irritated and this suggests that I was foolish to think that I would enjoy Ben Elton's books.  He has written 15 in total and I will avoid the others.  This book feels very much like a play.  The action takes place in a flat in Stoke Newington over a couple of hours early one morning.  From this there are flashbacks.  The story centres on Jack Kent, who, as an US Army captain in the 1980s based at the Greenham Common nuclear base, had a heated sexual relationship with a 17-year old peace protestor, Polly Slade.  He abandoned her because of the risk the relationship presented to his career.  In this book he has turned up at her flat sixteen years later to ensure she is not a risk to the final step in his career.

Polly is far better developed than the women featuring in  'Time and Time Again' and a lot of the dialogue is around the conflicts in civil society in both the UK and especially in the USA of the slow advance of women's rights.  Both Jack and Polly believed they had all the answers in the 1980s and while they are still pretty confident that they are each on the right side, doubt has crept in and compromises have been made.  However, while Polly severely messed up her life after Jack's departure, despite some regrets, he has progressed very well.  Thus, in many ways it is also commentary on the differences between the UK and USA and this becomes particularly noticeable in terms of guns and violence.  A stalker, Peter, also becomes involved in the story and one noticeable difference between the late 1990s and nowadays is the legislation that can be brought to bear on such criminals.

I think Elton is better with this book as 1980s protests are very much in his area of expertise.  I am sure he drew on people he knew for real and perhaps others he encountered on the other side.  Kent is a soldier, but you can see the complexity in his character and appreciate sacrifices in what he has done, driven by ambition.  Similarly, though a lot of what Polly has campaigned for, at times you can be frustrated with her for freezing her life at a particular stage.  Saying that, she is constantly misused by men.

The book (363 pages in my edition) is too long and could have been more effective if trimmed down by 50-60 pages.  The length means that our faith that the couple's attraction to each other, which remains strong, could ever had overcome all the obstacles in the way, begins to wear thin.  However, the way Elton writes the swings in emotion is handled well, even if the outcome seems unconvincing.  Picking up this book I had thought it was based, as some others of Elton's books appear to be, on an incident reported in the media.  In this case, the relationship between Petra Kelly (1947-92), sometime head of the German Green Party and Major General Gert Bastian (1923-92), her partner who murdered her before committing suicide.  As the book progressed, I felt that the parallels were minimised but looking back over it, you can certainly see that Elton was keen to explore this kind of relationship without writing a story featuring real people.  Overall, not bad, but the persistence earnestness from the two leading characters and the ending (let alone the happier ending tacked on) have confirmed that I will not be returning to Elton's novels.

'The Age of Lloyd George' by Kenneth O. Morgan
This book consists of two parts, one a standard history of British politics in the period 1890-1929 when David Lloyd George was prominent and then a collection of documents from that era, most not from Lloyd George himself, but providing an interesting context.  The story of the decline of the Liberal Party and its replacement as the main opposition to the Conservatives by the Labour Party is one that has often been covered.  However, Morgan is good at showing that the decline was not as inevitable as some have come to see it and in fact that in the period 1905-14, the Liberal Party reached a new peak and was able to introduce a great deal of legislation.  The fact that it did not achieve more was largely due to the ability of the House of Lords to obstruct any legislation, even budgets and the still insoluble situation in Ireland.

A couple of things stand out from this book.  One is how authoritarian Lloyd George was.  He may have arisen through the Liberal Party, but he was happier as someone almost 'above politics' and even after leading the coalition 1916-22, sought to maintain a combination of Liberals and Conservatives but under him.  Morgan highlights that he was not a team player and really was seeking a kind of centrist Lloyd-Georgeite party.  The more I read about Lloyd George, the more I was reminded of Tony Blair's politics as he always seemed to be more a Christian Democrat than a Labourite and New Labour was very much his personal political party.  Lloyd George went further, of course, and once he had fallen from power he began to embrace dictators notably Hitler.  This reminded me of Blair's support for Colonel Gaddafi, dictator of Libya.

The other parallel which comes from reviewing British politics a century ago, are concerns about the wide divisions in society.  A lot of the industrial unrest in the 1910s stemmed from real incomes falling for ordinary people, just like the 2010s, while there was increasing conspicuous consumption amongst the wealthy who were controlling an increasing share of the nation's income.  It is thus, unsurprising that the period saw the rise of the Labour Party, just as we have recently seen Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader best connected to those historic values in the party, coming to the fore and equally causing as much upset in British politics.

This is a brisk book which even though old now (published 1971), provides perspectives that still seem neglected in books that rehash a rather simple portrayal of the political shifts of the early 20th century.  I know that the documents were included as a learning tool, but they provide an interesting context from the perspective of a range of commentators of the time, that enriches the book as a whole.

'Eastern Europe 1740-1985: Feudalism to Communism' by Robin Okey
This is another author that I have met.  I saw him lecture in the late 1980s and then met him at the National Archives in the mid-1990s and finally ran into him a couple of years ago in a café in Coventry.  He is a lecturer who really inspires his audiences with his immense energy.  I do not think I have seen one who charges around the stage as much as Okey does.  He is very skilled in languages and one advantage of this book is that he speaks all of those of the countries he covers, from Poland down to Serbia and Bulgaria, the countries that have lain between Germany, Austria and Italy on one side and Russia on the other.

Okey's ability with languages marks the book out from 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) which I read in December 2015, as he manages to move beyond simply the political and economic aspects to look at the cultural inputs into these facets, especially in terms of how the languages and identity of the various nations began to appear through the time period he covers.  He is very adept at showing the similarities between the different nations and their experiences but then also teasing out all of the exceptions.  Much of his story is about the growth of nationalism in the region and then how this was filtered through the dictatorships of the inter-war and Second World War period, then the Communist regimes that followed.

While Okey hints at the appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev, this book, published in 1987 (it is the 2nd edition, the 1st edition published in 1982 ran to 1980, i.e. the death of Tito), stops before his era begins to impact on the region this book focuses on.  He is appreciative of the possible difficulties that nationalism will cause, but obviously did not foresee how vicious this was going to prove as seen in the Yugoslav War 1991-2001.  However, in some ways stopping before the latest round of upheaval in Eastern Europe proves to be a strength of the book.  It is not over-awed by the end of the Communist regimes so is able to properly analyse how they developed from the 1950s-80s and look at them without the assumption that they would collapse.  This is useful for people interested in the region over those decades; there are many other books which address the fall of the Communist control.

Overall, this is a brisk, lively book which manages to balance very deftly, between making overarching points and drawing out the particularities of specific nations and countries.  It also provides a useful cultural backdrop to the political and economic developments which more frequently feature in books about the region in this time period.

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