Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Books I Read In November

'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.

'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': 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.