Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In July

'Knights of the Hawk' by James Aitcheson
This is the third book in a sequence about a Breton knight fighting for the Normans in the period of the Norman Conquest of England and the subsequent suppression of resistance to it.  The first two books were 'Sworn Sword' (2011) and 'The Splintered Kingdom' (2012).  He has written another book called 'The Harrowing' (2016) set at the same time period, but featuring different characters.  I was drawn to this book having read 'Conquest' by Stewart Binns last month as this book shows the defeat of Hereward the Wake from the Norman rather than the English side the way Binns did.  This book is better written than 'Conquest' and that may be because it is Aitcheson's third whereas it was Binns's first.  There is some wandering around, but far less than in 'Conquest' and though the hero, Tancred is worthy, lots about companionship with various warriors, but the book is far less earnest throughout than Binns's story.  This book effectively is split into two - the first section sees the suppression of Hereward's forces at Ely and the second part sees Tancred hunting down his lover who it turns out has been taken by a Danish warlord based in the lawless Inner Hebrides leading to an epic battle to release her.  The book is generally brisk and has good detail without giving the history lectures that Binns has a tendency to provide.  Overall I would say it was reasonably engaging, more satisfied than with 'Conquest' but not sufficiently to make me want to rush out and buy the others of Aitcheson's books.

'The Tiger in the Smoke' by Margery Allingham
This book, published in 1952 and the 14th in the Albert Campion series of books is apparently J.K. Rowling's most favourite thriller.  I was far less impressed.  It is very much of its time, though initially it even felt more like post-First World War than post-Second World War.  A widow, Meg Elginbrodde just about to remarry begins to be sent up-to-date photographs of her husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, who was declared missing presumed dead in the Normandy invasion of 1944.  Her fiancé, Geoffrey Levett, amateur detective Campion and the police begin to investigate this occurrence.  It eventually leads them to a ragtag band of buskers, the core of which had served under Major Elginbrodde when sent to assassinate a leading German during the war, who was using the house on the French coast that the Elginbroddes had inhabited before the war.  Elginbrodde rewarded the men with antiques from the house and there was talk of a far greater treasure hidden there.  With the escape of the sergeant from the mission, murderer Jack Havoc, also known as Hackett and even Johnny Cash, the 'tiger' of the title, steps are taken to gain the clues to the treasure.

The trouble with this book is that it is very fragmented, in part because so many people are involved in the investigation.  Even Canon Hubert Avril, the landlord of Meg who knew Havoc as a boy, gets involved in a very ineffectual way.  Levett gets abducted by the gang and the police are involved in searching the killer of one of their number.  Havoc himself kills more people in seeking the information he wants.  As a result, we have a lot of people speculating on what is going on whether verbally or in their own heads.  Meg is edited out of much of the revelation in a very patronising way by the numerous male protagonists which I think was probably insulting even in 1952 but is galling today.

Campion plays a very minor role to Levett and Avril, and later Meg Elginbrodde herself, which does not help clarify matters.  There are some moments of genuine tension, usually involving Meg, but in between there is a lot of chatter and reflection which adds nothing to the story but rather confuses it more without providing tension.  As a result, towards the end I was just wishing for it to be over.  There is one chilling character, Mrs. Cash, the loan shark who seems largely untouchable despite having 300 clients down the years.

Perhaps the only strength of this book is the setting.  The action takes place largely during one of the thick smogs of early 1950s London.  The streets are often confusing, with left overs of old buildings and locations parcelled up or damaged by bombing.  Food is still on the ration and so the feel of the very austere nature of Britain at the time is made really clear throughout with the fog even penetrating inside buildings.  However, with far too many detectives bumbling around, it is a very irritating book and I fail to see why people like Rowling value it.

'Mortal Engines' by Philip Reeve
This book, published in 2001, is the first of a tetralogy.  Online it says it is a young adult book, but I think it is in fact a children's book, though as the series progresses and, I presume, the young characters age, maybe it evolves into that.  The book borrows from a number of authors' works.  The idea of mobile cities I have seen done by Christopher Priest and Michael Moorcock.  These of different guilds competing to run the city is a common trope. The book is set some centuries into the future (the 34th Century is noted as being historic) when ravaged by some apocalypse, mobile cities move around large parts of the world like creatures.  The story features characters from London which is shown as eating smaller towns.  Some humans opposed the concept of Municipal Darwinism and have settled in static towns; treated as heretics by the mobile city dwellers.  The book has a common set of characters for such books, such as an orphaned boy and the daughter of one the leading adventurers of London, who has been involved in dubious activities, that reminded me somewhat of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' series.

Despite its juvenile focus, some derivative elements, this is a fast moving and enjoyable book.  It throws up loads of stuff about society and how it functions.  There is quite a bit about emotions and falling for people you would not expect to, which I guess is compulsory for children's books these days.  It has great descriptions of the various mobile and fixed towns, their levels and their people.  While I would not rush out to buy the rest of this series, I have owned this book more than seven years now, if I came across others from the series in a charity shop I would buy them for something quick, pretty well written and with genuine points of drama, to read.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Shelter' by Harlan Coben; read by Kerry Shale
As I buy the cheapest audio books I can buy, I often end up with quite a random selection.  I had never read a book by Coben, but understand he is a successful US thriller writer.  I did not realise that this was a young adult novel either.  It is the first featuring Mickey Bolitar, a 15-year old, 6'4" tall student at a high school in New Jersey.  Bolitar has already had an exceptional life having grown up all around the world while his parents worked for a charity rescuing children from exploitation and he is drawn into this organisation.  Bolitar can already drive, having learnt in South Africa and is a skilled martial artist, having been trained by various masters, particularly one in the Amazonian rain forest, so he is not your usual child.  His uncle was a professional basketball player and his mother a very competent tennis player until both had their sporting careers brought to an abrupt end.  Following the killing of his father, Bolitar's mother has become a drug addict. 

The story is very much a traditional young adult adventure set in the USA.  Steadily Bolitar builds up a team of friends, including a smart-talking Goth girl, a nerd and a cheerleader and they investigate both the disappearance of a high-school pupil and the strange organisation that Mickey's parents worked for.  There is all the usual tensions with parents, guardians, teachers and school mates, many of which are painfully stereotypical.  The bad guys are effectively nasty.  Shale does very well voicing this spectrum of people.  At times there is exposition but generally the book is reasonably credible and has decent points of tension and frustration.  I think a younger person would find it fresher than I did, as I kept on being reminded of a hundred things I have seen from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' to 'My So Called Life', I suppose because US high school adventures are so common in so much produced in English.  I would be interested to read one of Coben's novels aimed at adults.

'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; read by Alex Jennings
This is one of these books that you have some idea about, but in fact it turns out to be quite a bit different to what you had expected; for me 'Great Expectations' proved to be that way.  This book is incredibly gloomy.  It was published as a 12-part magazine story throughout 1866 and then as a novel.  It is set in a few poor streets in St. Petersburg, at the time capital of the Russian Empire.  It focuses on a former law student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov now facing absolute poverty.  It seems he might be insane even before the book begins and certainly his mental faculties fall apart in many ways through the book.  He murders a female pawn broker who he has borrowed money from and kills her sister when she stumbles over his actions.  Yet he does not effectively rob the woman and ultimately casts away the stuff he does steal from her, despite his desperate need for money.

There is a strong sense that Raskolnikov does the murder more for an intellectual exercise than for anything else.  This is heightened by the fact that, despite lucky breaks in escaping from the scene of the crime, the detective assigned to investigate the murders, Porfiry Petrovich, determines very quickly that Raskolnikov was to blame and how he went about it.  Much of the book is taken up with Raskolnikov prevaricating about what to do; breaking up his sister's engagement to a wealthy civil servant and striking up a highly improbable relationship with a prostitute, Sonya, daughter of a neighbour who dies during the course of the book.  Eventually as we expect throughout, Raskolnikov confesses to the detective who has known he would throughout, and gets a surprisingly light sentence in Siberia for the two murders.

The book is very irritating, especially that everything seems so sewn up from the start and we are left to witness the leading character simply twisting and turning.  The detective is infuriating in being so perfectly perceptive and smug with it.  The relationship with Sonya is unconvincing and Raskolnikov behaves in a foolish way towards his family; his sister has far more sense than him and would have been a better focus for the story.  The one strength of the book is its portrayal of people often falling from higher social classes, on the edge of absolute poverty in mid-19th century Russia, the kinds of places they live in and how they appeared.  Aside from that it is a book about a weak, mad man, going about his business behaving in an irrational manner at best shocking people around him; at worst killing with only twisted compunction.

Alex Jennings is a good reader for the various Russian voices.  There is a lot of dialogue and interior monologue from the character.  He makes sense of this madness and the charging back and forward.  However, he cannot save what is a highly annoying book.

'Goldfinger' by Ian Fleming; read by Hugh Bonneville
This was the seventh James Bond book, published in 1959 and you can see that by this stage Fleming is beginning to recycle some earlier elements.  Like Sir Hugo Drax in 'Moonraker' (1956), Auric Goldfinger is a naturalised millionaire, in this case a Baltic German rather than from the main part of Germany.  Like Drax, Goldfinger is revealed to be suspicious through cheating at cards; he also cheats at golf.  Also like Drax, Goldfinger lives in Kent, though the latter has places in Switzerland and interests in the USA too.  While Drax was employed by the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, Goldfinger is yet another employee of Smersh which has featured to a greater or lesser extent in all the preceding novels.

The book starts with Bond having broken a drugs smuggling ring from Mexico to Britain and you do wonder why Fleming did not turn that story into a novel in its own right given how much attention he pays to it.  Perhaps it seemed a little too like the diamond smuggling of 'Diamonds Are Forever'  (1955).  Certainly with Goldfinger avoiding restrictions on taking gold out of Britain, in place at the time and smuggling it on to India where it secured a higher price, we are back to Bond being an international detective rather than what might be seen as a genuine spy.  We get all the attributes of a Bond novel, the extensive physical descriptions of people and the details of the games he witnesses or takes part in, notably the canasta game that Goldfinger cheats at in Miami and the golf game he also cheats at in Sandwich. 

There is a great description of Bond pursuing Goldfinger across France and into Switzerland and we see more gadgets appearing.  His shoes contain daggers; he puts a tracking device in Goldfinger's car which he can monitor from his own; his car has adjustable lamps, reinforced bumpers and secret hiding places.  The movies did not make up the love of gadgets, just took them further.  Similarly in the Korean Karate specialist, Oddjob, we see the super-powerful henchman of the main baddie, which becomes such a staple in the movies.  It is interesting that Goldfinger has to explain Karate to readers, wrongly portraying it as a branch of Judo.  We forget how unfamiliar such arts were in Britain at the time.  Racism creeps in this regard too.  Bond keeps on referring to the Koreans as 'apes'.  Earlier the wealthy Mr. Dupont, who employs Bond in Miami explains how Goldfinger would have been barred from his hotel if he has proven to be a Jew, as if this behaviour was something normal.

As I have noted before, Bond's relationship with women in the novels is far more complex than in the movies.  In the first book, Vesper Lynd is working for the Soviets; Solitaire and Honeychile Rider only engage with him at the end; Gala Brand is more effective than Bond and only has eyes for her fiancé; Tiffany Case is similar and though she has a relationship with Bond, she soon leaves him for an American officer.  This novel shows Bond not only getting it wrong with women but his contact leading to the death of two sisters.  Jill Masterton, an employee of Goldfinger's pays the price for going off with him and is painted gold to death.  Her sister, Tilly, a lesbian, seeks to assassinate Goldfinger.  Bond prevents this and then leads the woman into great danger and her own killing.  She only has eyes for Pussy Galore, head of a US lesbian gangster gang, inelegantly called The Cement Mixers.

Bond professes to understand 'true' gay men and lesbians, but is very dismissive of people we would probably call bi-curious these days, seeing Tilly Masterton as being in this category even though she falls heavily for Galore from their first meeting.  Bond seems to feel that such attitudes have been provoked by developments undermining the authority of men such as giving the women the vote!  This reveals he is very Victorian in his attitudes and out-of-date even with even 1959 Britain. Galore herself is revealed to only be a lesbian due to an incestuous rape by her uncle at the age of 12.  This reinforces Fleming's dislike of the USA and the sense of how women can be taken off 'the proper path' as he sees it, of sexuality.  Aside from Galore, Bond's assumptions end up in the death of two women.

There are some reasonably strong parts in the novel, but it is rather fragmented.  The final attack on Fort Knox is well worked out and interesting, though the story passed around, i.e. aircraft poisoning the town is used in the movie rather than poisoning the water here.  Galore is won over by Bond only late in the day when the other gangster leaders have all been killed by Goldfinger.  The trouble, though, is the suspension of disbelief breaks down at the end of the second part of the novel.  Bond and Tilly Masterton have been captured easily by Goldfinger and Bond is in line to be cut apart by a rotary saw rather than a laser as in the movie.  However, then he wakes to find himself in Goldfinger's employment and spends much of the rest of the book, along with Tilly, acting as secretarial staff for Goldfinger.  Given the man has numerous Korean and German employees it is not clear why he uses two people he has been highly suspicious all along, at the heart of his operation.  Fleming could have handled this two ways.  First he could have had Bond worm his way into Goldfinger's employment as he tries at the start and has done successfully in 'Diamonds Are Forever' in a similar set-up, especially given that Fleming was clearly not averse to reusing plot devices.  Alternatively Bond could have escaped in Switzerland and then we would have had a race for him to get everyone to listen to what he had to say about the Fort Knox plot, in time.  Fleming's approach I the weakest.

Though there are some highlights, this is not a strong book in the series and needed quite a bit of rewriting to make sense even within the rules of the genre.  Hugh Bonneville is very good in voicing all of the characters, despite the range of accents.  At first you think he has got Pussy Galore's accent wrong until you hear about where she came from and so he is spot on.  His pacing is good and he does not get over-excited and yet is successful in enhancing the tension at crucial moments.

'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy; read by Anton Lesser
I had imagined that I had been missing out on reading classic novels such as this.  However, like 'Middlemarch' (1871) which I listened to in May, it effectively turned out to be like a Victorian soap opera.  Added to that it has the heavy hand of destiny running through it as it charts the downfall of Michael Henchard after selling his wife and daughter to a sailor.  In later years he rises to become the Mayor of the fictional town of Casterbridge and running a successful corn and hay merchant business.  However, the return of his wife begins his decline, so that he dies in poverty having lost all the women he had loved and his entire business.  Thus, it is a very depressing book and Henchard's attempts to save himself from his inevitable fate simply prolong the agony.  There is a lot of deception and misapprehension along the way as seems typical for this kind of novel.

The only positives about this book are well drawn characters and the portrayal of small town society in mid-Victorian southern England.  It informs about the way people lived, what trades were practiced, processes and customs of the time.  Casterbridge is well drawn though rather unrealistically packed with Iron Age and Roman ruins of the highest quality as if Hardy packed together sites from across Dorset, Devon, Hampshire and Sussex into this corner of his fictional Wessex.  I do not think a modern writer (this was published in 1886) would have such unremitting decay of a character (unless, of course, they were Charles Palliser who gets off on such misery!) and it is hard for someone now to go along with such a predestined story with very few relieving aspects.

Anton Lesser is very good for this book.  He manages an appropriate range of male and female character voices, especially for Henchard and his Scottish friend and then rival, Donald Farfrae who ends up marrying Henchard's lover and then his step-daughter.  He has a well-rounded voice for the narration and is able to flick between the appropriate voices very adeptly.  This book, however, certainly showed me that my prejudices against Hardy's work were actually a highly accurate assessment of its nature and I will not be accessing any more of his novels.

'The Life and Achievements of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha' by Miguel Cervantes; read by Edward de Souza
There were two volumes to the story published in 1605 and 1615.  This is an abridged version of what in print is often 900 pages long and so I am not really sure what aspects of the two volumes it includes; indeed it seems to have a different title to the one you usually see listed online, i.e. 'The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha'.  The only story from the book I knew was the attack on the windmills which is included, but as to which other incidents are missing, I have no idea.  This edition does take the story right to the end of the life of Alonso Quixano, the man who for much of the book acts as Don Quixote de la Mancha.  It is said that this is the first European novel.  It is also the first European novel about mental health and, as a result, has a particular interest at this time when that aspect is receiving widespread attention.

 Quixano is a well-off man in his fifties who owns a number of houses and estates in the La Mancha region to the South and East of central Spain.  He gets into the habit of reading books about knights errant of earlier centuries and through not sleeping, he becomes convinced that he is such a knight and goes off seeking adventures.  He seems prone to hallucination, seeing windmills as giants and inns as castles.  He also seems to indulge in wishful thinking, for example, believing that a local woman is in love with him.  The people around him generally treat him kindly, though some exploit his delusions.  Friends and his servants, through various means try to wean him off this behaviour which they eventually succeed in doing through becoming part of the delusional world he has created.  They only win through after he has sustained a number of accidents and has been beaten up by a range of men he has offended or challenged to a duel.  Mostly he is simply bruised, though often severely, but he also loses part of one ear to a sword cut.

There is some humour in Don Quixote's bombastic manner and in aping the stories which would have been familiar to people of the time when it was published.  Like some of them, Quixano is able to equip himself with old armour and weapons from the time when these were in use in his grandfather's day probably in the early 16th century or perhaps even the late 15th along with the supposed behaviour of those times.  However, in many ways it is a sad story that an obsession provoked by hallucination leads a man to rush off to behave in such a reckless way.  One sympathises for his friend, and the local peasant, Sancho Panza that he presses into acting as his squire but, often at risk to himself, as when faced with the lions, he points out what Quixano is actually seeing and tries to persuade him to do something less dangerous.  At the end Quixano finally realises what has been plaguing him and it is a gentle and wistful ending.  We learn some interesting things about habits of the time, for example, two monks wearing tinted glass lenses, something like goggles, as they travel on the road, at the start of the 17th century.

There are lots of lessons in here about adventure stories, habits of the past, the myths of chivalry, men ageing and the support of friends in dealing with life's challenges when facing mental health issues.  These factors tend to get forgotten beneath what may be seen to be intended to be humour at the situations Quixano and as Don Quixote, gets himself in for.  De Souza does a good job of voicing Quixano and Panza in particular.  The recording makes him sound distant.  This being a Naxos recording there is some nice appropriate music, sounding like late medieval.

'1918: The Unexpected Victory' by J.H. Johnson
The title of this book is rather misleading.  There are some very small sections which outline that the Entente countries though that the First World War would run until July 1919, perhaps even into 1920, but there is no real discussion of why they thought that or what they did to plan for the continuation of the war or really to accelerate its end.  Instead, the vast majority of the book is simply taken up with detailed description of the fighting of 1918 on the Western Front, usually at corps and division level, though additionally at army level and occasionally at battalion level.  It does make some mention of the French and the Americans, even the Belgians, plus what the German forces were doing especially in the Spring 1918 offensive, but most of the focus is on the British Army.  There is little comment on the Italy, Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamian fronts even though these brought Germany's allies out of the war earlier.  There is some comment on the internal politics of Germany during 1918 and efforts towards peace, but not a great deal.  Thus, this is really no different to many histories of the closing year of the First World War providing in great deal simply movements of British Empire units through various French and Belgian villages and across railways and canals.

The only real points of particular interest was the fact that if the British had been able to increase the reliability of their tanks, they could have ended the war sooner.  Even in 1918 when tanks were no longer a novelty, their appearance very often tipped the balance in an offensive, in particular, being able to get through barbed wire and removing the need for heavy bombardment before infantry could advance.  However, often a high percentage broke down even before they reached the frontline.  The other factor is that, while I knew the Americans were not allies but associates of the Entente, I had not realised how controlled their involvement in the conflict was.  General Pershing controlling the American forces was loath to let them mix with British or French units and on the rare occasions when they did, he insisted that they were returned to him as quickly as possible.  Furthermore, I had not realised how poorly trained and ill-equipped the US forces in France were even later in 1918, well over a year after the USA joined the war in April 1917.  Though they achieved a notable outcome in stopping the German advance on Paris in 1918, their casualties were high at every stage and their abilities to advance, highly limited even against a hungry and tired German Army, even with 2 million men in France by the end of the war.  This rather gives the lie to all of those who have told me the Americans could have easily repelled any Mexican attempt at crossing the US border in 1917/18 with National Guard troops and armed civilians.

Overall, this book does not deliver what it promises, instead it gives a blow-by-blow history of the British on the Western Front in 1918 and little else.

Non-Fiction - Audio Books
'The Recollections of Rifleman Harris' by Benjamin Harris; read by Graham Keeling
This is a memoir produced in 1848 by a rifleman in the early part of the Peninsular War, a section of the Napoleonic Wars fought in Portugal and Spain.  Benjamin Harris was a Dorset man who transferred into the 95th Rifles while stationed in southern Ireland.  At the time, most British soldiers carried smooth barrelled muskets and only elite skirmisher troops carried the slower-loading, but more accurate, rifled barrelled guns.  They have been particularly made famous by Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' series which follows a rifleman through his career from private to lieutenant colonel.  One of Richard Sharpe's comrades is named Harris.  The real Harris was involved in the first advance into Portugal and Spain which then led to the ignominious retreat to Coruña in northern Spain in 1808/09.  Harris himself was evacuated through Vigo.  Despite the British soon returning to Portugal and Spain, Harris was sent on the Walcheren Expedition to the Netherlands in July 1809 and there, like most British troops caught the so-called 'Walcheren fever', a mixture of typhus and malaria and was unable to resume active duty before the end of the war in 1815.  He went on to be a successful cobbler in central London.

As Harris outlines, he makes no effort to put the action he saw in any broader context.  What this book is good for is outlining the day-to-day activities of British soldiers at the time, how they were treated and how they died.  Flogging appears regularly with men being whipped up to 800 times.  They were poorly equipped marched to exhaustion, with many dying by the roadside.  They had no tents at this stage of the war so had to find refuge wherever they could, often simply sleeping in the open.  As well as being a shepherd before being called up, Harris had skill in shoe making and was expected to carry his equipment for that on top of the heavy backpack each soldier bore.  His sleep was often disturbed being demanded to repair boots.  By the time of the retreat to Coruña and Vigo, most of the soldiers were moving bare foot.

The fact that they did not rebel despite such treatment and lack of supplies, is shown by the reverence in which officers are held.  There is no respect for a man who has risen through the ranks, but the gentry and noble officers are treated like demi-gods.  Harris raves on about the skills of  Major General Robert Craufurd [sic] despite his cruelty and neglect of the needs of the men.  Small instances of looking to men and making comments seem to have been sufficient to over come the desperate state of so many individuals.  Harris goes on to detail life as a military invalid and then the book ends abruptly.  It does make you wonder how much more effective the British Army could have been if properly supplied and treated sensibly rather than constantly marching men to their death.  I came away from this book feeling I had learned a great deal, but seeing how inimical class divisions and the very hatred the upper classes have for the ordinary man have been to British success in war.

Graham Keeling is apparently a dentist, a volunteer to provide LibriVox recordings.  At times his pronunciation is very odd.  Keeling is British but pronounces 'lieutenant' the American way, 'scarce' and 'scarcely' as if they start with 'scar' rather than sounding like 'scare' and pronounces 'corps' as 'corpse' rather than sounding like 'core'.  As this is a LibriVox recording - you are told that fact in full at the start of every chapter - it means that you do not have to buy it the way I did, but can access it and download freely online; I do not have an MP3 player in my car, it is 15 years old.