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!