Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Books I Read In August

'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'.

'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.