'Wolves Eat Dogs' by Martin Cruz Smith
Famous primarily for his 1981 novel 'Gorky Park' I have read most of Cruz Smith's novels. This one is a real disappointment. It is an utter shambles. He clearly had a desire to set a novel in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. However, he faced the problem that his chief protagonist, Arkady Renko, is a Russian police detective and Chernobyl lies in Ukraine. I think he should have abandoned Renko, who even when this book was published in 2004 must have been becoming elderly, given he was a middle-ranking officer 33 years earlier. I see three other books featuring the character have followed it. Cruz Smith tries to reflect on how Russia and Ukraine have changed since the Soviet era so the story revolves over the deaths of two wealthy businessmen, one in Moscow and one in the Chernobyl zone. However, everything seems incredibly laboured. There is a lack of the tautness of his earlier Renko novels and a lot of haring around abandoned villages on a motorbike achieving very little. Renko's relationship with a mute orphan also seems to have nowhere to fit properly. It is as if Cruz Smith felt he had to get in certain principles, another is people being poisoned with cesium [caesium in British English], but these seem to be more important than an actual coherent story. The romance also seems levered in. The story is a real mess and the only highlight is Cruz Smith's ability to draw an astute portrait of the area around Chernobyl decades after the disaster and the people that live within it. In general, however, the book is flabby, over-long and a disappointment.
'A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold' by George R.R. Martin
This book is far better than 'A Storm of Swords 1'. You still feel that you are reading a single very long novel, sliced almost randomly. This does mean that climaxes fall erratically in the different books. This one fortunately has a lot less simply tramping across the countryside and much more activity. There is a massacre and great battle scenes. The characters face a range of challenges about what they are to do and where to go next. You notice more divergences from the television series, not just simply the killing of the Stark family but also in the death of Tywin Lannister; who is deemed to be responsible for the death of Joffrey Baratheon and the disguised identity that Sansa Stark adopts. There are scenes such a boat ride through a flooded town and passage through the bottom of a well which did not get shown in the series but are striking. There is also more lesbian sex than features in the series. Us seeing the motives of characters gives a complexity when compared to just seeing them acting as happens on television. The books moves along far more briskly than its predecessor and though a lot of things remain unresolved it is the most satisfying of the series since I read 'A Game of Thrones', the first book in the series, earlier this year. As noted before, everyone is uglier and the young people much younger than shown in the series. Joffrey marries at 13 but is fortunately assassinated before consummating the marriage with his poor 16-year old wife, already a widow when she marries him.
'Ulverton' by Adam Thorpe
I am often told that having multiple character perspectives and not including detailed historical context is unacceptable for a novel. Perhaps it was very different back in 1992 when this book was published by the poet Adam Thorpe and it received a string of very positive reviews, 'a masterpiece' being one of them. It was reprinted in 2010, so perhaps for some reason his rather quirky approach is accepted when it is rejected for the rest of us. The novel is in fact a series of short stories set in the fictional Berkshire village of Ulverton at various erratic dates from 1650 until 1988. The stories take a variety of forms, two are as letters, one is as descriptions of photographs, one is a diary, one is a television documentary shooting script and one is a conversation in a pub. The story unfolds erratically too and we often only find out facts about characters in previous stories when we have moved on to another one in its future. You have to keep up with the different families and events, this is not a book if you are a lazy reader the way many seem to be nowadays. I respect Thorpe's use of dialect to give a feel for the setting, but on a couple of occasions he goes far too far. 'Dissection 1775' is in a form of letters, all but the last is written by a semi-literate man so is in almost phonetic spelling. Even worse is 'Stitches 1887' which is 18 pages of complete dialect with no punctuation and even working hard it is very difficult to make any sense of it.
Thus, the book in turn both infuriated me and inspired me. I wanted to rush off a write a novel about a village which dealt with lots of alternate histories. I suppose they say that copying is the sincerest form of flattery but it is a criticism too as it suggests you want to 'get it right' as you feel the author has failed. These days readers simply rant that you have not written the book the way they insist, typically spoon feeding and with every last item explained in tiresome detail. I would not want that from this book, I am happy to let my own mental processes work. What ultimately turned me against this book are two things. One is the incomprehensible sections which seem to be a waste of time. Thorpe could have got in the flavour while still retaining understanding as he does in many of the chapters. The second is how desultory the whole thing is. Despite all too regular references to sex, the whole picture is dreary and the outcomes for so many characters disappointing if not horrid. I admire Thorpe's courage in writing this as his first novel but I cannot enjoy it. Furthermore I doubt this would have got off an agent's desk let alone accepted by a publisher if he wrote it nowadays; audiences are far too unaccepting even of the mildly challenging.
'The Medieval Economy and Society' by M.M. Postan
Despite the title, this book is only about the economy and society of England. I was recommended this book thirty years ago, my copy is a 1984 edition. I wish I had got to it sooner. There is a real directness about Postan's writing. He certainly challenges other historians and shows where they have been lazy in their assumptions. He makes very sensible use of the evidence available from the times and by applying modern geographical approaches is able to paint a broader picture of England in these times. Importantly he shows how diverse the economy was and that rather than a uniformity in the three-field arable approach, England had lots of forms of agriculture. He draws out the differences between areas with different soils and areas which had been exploited by the Romans as opposed to those farmed later. He is very good at showing that the medieval period was not somehow sealed off from what had preceded in the way it tends to be portrayed even today in many books. Rather he shows how much agriculture and settlement ran through from the Roman era, in some cases even before that, then into the Anglo-Saxon period and what are now deemed the Early Middle Ages. He is astute to the regular fluctuations in the economy and how this impacted on the way in which it was run. Overall, this is a refreshing book that uses social science tools that are often reserved for the present, to shine light on the medieval period. The writing is brisk even when detailed and is driven by a real passion on Postan's path, touched with exasperation at some of the writing which had preceded his. I would still recommend this book today.