Friday, 31 August 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In August

Fiction
'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer; Translated by Nevill Coghill
The edition I read was the 1971 edition of this 1951 translation.  While Coghill translates the Middle English into Modern English he goes to great efforts to keep the whole text in appropriate rhymes.  This can be quite an exhausting read as you steam through the text buoyed along by the rhymes.  I had covered the Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale when at school and though I knew occasional references to the stories, most of them were new to me as were some of the reciters, e.g. the nun's priest and the canon's yeoman who in fact is not in the Prologue but catches the company when on the road.  As you will no doubt know, the story is about a group of pilgrims heading from London to Canterbury to see the tomb of Thomas à Beckett.  They are accompanied by the Host of the inn they assemble at and are charged each with telling stories on the way to and from Canterbury with the best winning a prize.  Chaucer puts himself among the party but is stopped from delivering the story he wants to give and instead gives a prose essay which is not contained in this volume, only summarised.  The Parson effectively delivers a surname which again is just summarised in this book and not given in detail.  Chaucer never finished the book.  The Cook's Tale is incomplete and the characters do not actually reach Canterbury before the book comes to an end.

Chaucer has brought together people from right across the social classes of the late 14th century, barring the nobility and serfs. He is very clever in using the stories to show us much more about the character of the teller.  For example the Knight is supposed to be telling a story of courtly romance but spends more time on the two knights fighting each other, their forces and the buildings that are constructed, than anything romantic.  He also works up tensions between various characters, notably the Miller and the Reeve.  Many of the stories are taken from ancient sources rather than being original to Chaucer, but that was the tendency of the day and this book was always going to be an anthology.  There are morality tales, such as that of the Pardoner and indeed warnings to readers such as that of the Canon's Yeoman, about the hazards of getting involved with alchemy.  However, the main topic of these stories, offering different perspectives, some humorous, but mainly serious, about relations between men and women especially in marriage and whether one spouse should obey the other.  This topic does not simply appear in the Wife of Bath's story and dialogue, where she shows herself a clear feminist, but in other stories too, for example in the Merchant's and the Squire's tales.  I suppose this was a universal topic which would have appealed to a range of audiences who might have not been keen on the heavily religious stories such as that of the Second Nun, though women do feature notably throughout.

The stories may seem rather simplistic nowadays.  They also seem bigoted no Jew or Muslim has a good word said about them in any of the stories and on occasion they two religions are portrayed as deceptive and malicious, though Chaucer gives a range of Christians, including men of the church, who display such characteristics too.  The stories do show the concerns of people of the era and that I many ways their approach to society, let alone relations between men and women, were similar to those attitudes we could see nowadays.  The hostility to Jews and Muslims, can be found with the same sort of vigour in social media, six centuries on.  I guess this is why Chaucer's work has remained of interest.  While there are references which will be obscure, what is at the heart of the 23 stories are ideas and views that will be familiar to a modern reader as well as informing you about the attitudes of people of the medieval period.

'Hide and Seek' by Ian Rankin
This book was published in 1991, four years after Rankin's first novel.  It is rather galling to read the introduction added in 2005 in which the author outlines how desultory had been his efforts in writing this second book and getting it published.  He also says he had not pinned down the main character of John Rebus and altered him subsequently.  These days I do not think any author could come close to getting any book published with such an ill-focused approach.

Anyway, this is another short detective book focusing on Rebus, promoted to Detective Inspector but as with 'Knots and Crosses' (1987) on a murder case which actually does not look like a case at all.  He investigates drug users living in a squat and the situation is confused by male prostitution, leading businessmen indulging in a range of crimes and tension between Rebus and colleagues.  I like the fact that it is not simply a murder mystery and you feel there are far more directions for the book to go in than would have been the case under another author.  Once more, Rankin paints a very rich portrait of many different corners of Edinburgh.  His detective is dysfunctional but not to the extreme that it becomes hackneyed.  However, given his confession in the introduction I am rather disconcerted that this is not really the 'true' Rebus yet.  However, overall it is a satisfying detective story with credibility and effective atmosphere.

'The Secret History of Vampires' ed. by Darrell Schweitzer
I have produced a number of collections of short stories, but they usually are received poorly as people complain that 'they do not go anywhere'.  I accept that despite enjoying doing them, I might be bad at writing short stories, it is a very different skill to writing novels.  However, I keep finding such collections for sale and feel that the reviews dismissing the legitimacy of them is misplaced.  This collection of 13 short stories by leading authors like Harry Turtledove, Brian Stableford and Tanith Lee, I really think re-emphasises the value of such work.  The premise of this book is that vampires feature in interaction with historical characters or, in fact, more often, the historical characters are revealed to be vampires.  While Lenin, Greta Garbo and Cleopatra appear as vampires, Catherine of Aragon, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Napoleon Bonaparte are shown as vampire hunters.

The stories vary considerably.  I did not like 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Ian Watson, involving astronomer Tycho Brahe in 16th century Prague, the anachronistic Chinese takeaway seemed a very poor joke and undermined the whole story.  'A Princess of Spain' by Carrie Vaughn, featuring Catherine of Aragon battling vampires alongside Prince Henry Tudor; 'Garbo Quits' by Ron Goulart set in early 1940s Hollywood and featuring a vampire gang among the movie business, plus 'Sepulchres of the Undead' by Keith Taylor about a group seeking to purge vampirism from Egypt in 2566 BCE, are really engaging and you want to read more about them.  In contrast, Harry Turtledove's 'Under St. Peter's' does what a short story should do best, it is a bold, stunning glimpse into something greater but well rounded of itself.  Despite the lurid cover, this book turned out to be better than I might have expected and reminded me what good fantasy short story writing can be.

'The Ends of the Earth' by Robert Goddard
This book published in 2015 is the third book in the surprisingly successful 'The Wide World' trilogy.  It is set in 1919 and is basically a Bulldog Drummond book but featuring James 'Max' Maxted, a British fighter pilot whose father was murdered at the Paris Peace Conference.  In this book he assembles a team, including stock characters such as Sam, his mechanic from the war, to go Japan to track down the Japanese count he believes ordered his father's death.  There is also a German spy involved, seeking employment with the Japanese government and he has more stock characters, a suave but ultimately cowardly Frenchman and a ruthless female Russian spy.  You could almost forgive Goddard falling back on such tropes, and there are more that I have not listed including the athletic son at the Swiss school, the bombastic British agent, the practical Japanese detective, the Japanese man now a monk and so on and on and put it down as a pastiche.  However, Goddard's modern day sensibilities mean it is also burdened by a lot of despair.  Constantly all the plans of the 'heroes' are wiped out. The opponents appear preternaturally omniscient and able to defy almost every step taken even before the characters we are following have decided upon it.  As a result, the reverses that come - that have to come otherwise the book would be at an end within fifty pages - are highly random, abrupt and rely greatly on coincidence and good luck rather than any skill.  People like this type of story because they feel that in the modern world they show them a time when individuals had agency and through wits and courage could alter what was happening.  As a result, I found this a highly irritating, and at times, ridiculous book.  I am glad I only came in at the end of the trilogy.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Blue Labyrinth' by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; read by René Auberjonois
This is the eighth standalone book featuring FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast though he features in a number of other books which had been written by Preston and Child since 1995.  It is clear from the start that they were aiming for a modern day American equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.  His brother is even named Diogenes and Mycroft Holmes generally inhabited the Diogenes Club in Conan Doyle's novels.  Pendergast is rather superhuman, being ex-special forces, a crack shot with an old pistol and having studied with various esoteric tutors so is skilled at mimicking people, even envisaging events he has not witnessed as if he saw them and a skilled martial artist.  He is very wealthy and has a coterie of friends who aid him.  Two women: his ward and a scientist who is a friend, carry out sustained action and quite vicious violence across many of the latter chapters of the book.  He also has friends and enemies in the New York police force.  Though he is employed by the FBI he does not actually seem to do any work for them, at least in this book, and due to his wealth they only pay him $1 per year.

Thus, we have a very interesting character but it is very over-the-top and some readers will find, like me, that they are drowning in the immense detail.  Preston and Child go to town on numerous topics from the formation of turquoise, the Salton Sea resort, various chemical reactions, the nature of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, 19th century quack medicine, various North American plants, super acids, a museum, and so on.  Some will enjoy this attention to detail but for others it will appear a slog.  There are lots of twists and turns and it is good to see that the whole of Pendergast's team gets involved rather than it all depending on him.  The research is to be admired and the twists are well done.  The final battles are both gruesome and protracted.  You feel this would have been a better novel for being much tighter.  The Sherlock Holmes stories were nearly all short and you feel at times that the authors are adding in elements simply to show what they can do rather to genuinely add to the story.

René Auberjonois does very well with a challenging job.  Pendergast puts on different accents as part of his investigation.  One character speaks with English, we are told, with an accent both influenced by Brazilian Portuguese and Swiss German!  His women, always a challenge for male readers, come off convincingly sounding appropriate to their ages and not seeming girlish when we know they are very knowledgeable.  I suppose this book at 14 hours on CD is good value and you learn a lot from it, but you will need stamina to get through it no matter what format you access it in.


'A Series of Murders' by Simon Brett; radio play with narration by Bill Nighy
This is the 13th story in Brett's Charles Paris stories and was published in 1989, so four years before 'A Reconstructed Corpse' I listened to and enjoyed a couple of months back.  Bill Nighy both narrates and performs in this story.  It follows a similar formula with Paris having an on-off relationship with his wife.  In this story he has an ongoing job as a police sergeant in a television adaptation of an elderly female authors' series of novels, what these days would be called 'cosy crime' stories.  A number of the cast are killed both in London and then on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset.  Paris works out the situation and prompts the resolution.  Nighy is well cast for the role of Paris both in narration and acting the part.  The stories are brisk but believable and for radio seem to have been brought up to date, e.g. in terms of celebrity culture.  The only thing I would have liked more of with this one was the old pop music which was such as feature of  'A Reconstructed Corpse', but maybe the of the rights to use the songs is increasingly prohibitive.  There a number of these plays out on CD and I will look out for those at a good price.


'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë; read by Harriet Walter
Opening with the story of an orphaned girl being bullied by her relatives, I did worry this was going to be another depressing book along the lines of Dickens or Hardy's work that I have read recently.  Fortunately the horrendous school Jane Eyre is sent to, is quickly improved and the action jumps to her adulthood and her work as a governess.  The mad wife locked in the big house has almost become a trope of gothic horror stories these days, but listening to one of the original ones, it is handled pretty well and with genuine intrigue.  The heartbreak which follows the attempt at bigamy and then Jane facing absolute poverty are done effectively.  Her pitching up by chance with long-lost relatives does seem rather contrived.  The advantage of this story over some of the others I have listened to recently, let alone 'Wuthering Heights' by Charlotte's sister, that I avoided, is that it does not drag on.  The developments are much more effective for not being lost amongst extended text about dreary activities which simply plump out the book.  While I would hardly say I was a fan of this book, I did find it far more tolerable than some of the 'classics' I have listened to recently.

Harriet Walter handles this better than 'Middlemarch'.  Perhaps the briskness and smaller range of characters, with less hysteria helps in this regard.  She does well in bringing the characters to life in a convincing way, even the young girl speaking French.


'Overture to Death' by Ngaio Marsh; read by Anton Lesser
I think Anton Lesser is becoming my favourite audio book reader.  With this book he has rendered the female characters so well that I had to check that there was not a female reader employed as well to provide them.  This is an uber-cosy crime novel, set in the village of Winton St. Giles, close to uplands wonderfully know as Cloudyfold.  Winton is a part of Bournemouth and Clouds Hill near Bovington, where T.E. Lawrence was living four years before the book was published are both in Dorset, though Winton would have been in Hampshire at the time.  It revolves around an amateur dramatics event to raise funds for the local youth group at which a local elderly spinster is shot dead.

This is the eighth book of thirty-two to feature Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, clearly a member of the British gentry; younger brother of a baronet.  This manner allows him to command respect among the mainly middle class suspects.  He often has an austere manner, though warmer than the way Patrick Malahide has tended to portray him in televised episodes.  With a number of scandals that these days seem very old fashioned about people in their twenties marrying against the will of their parents, two spinsters competing for the affections of the rector and a doctor with a disabled wife considering an affair with a patient, provide the background for the killing, which though pretty contrived is just about believable.  The solution effectively comes down to carefully working out who went where and when, so it is explicitly like a puzzle.  The book is fine if you enjoy English village murders, but being the first Marsh novel I have come across, I do not feel she is as adept as Agatha Christie, at least at her best.


'Roseanna' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This is the first of the ten books written by the couple Sjöwall and Warlöö between 1964-1975.  As left-wingers they felt there was much at fault with social democratic Sweden at the time, because despite its welfare state it still suffered crime.  Though, as they show in this book, their view of criminals is not that they are evil but maladjusted.  They have received renewed attention in the light of the Scandi-noir fad in the UK of the 2010s.  I have long wanted to read the books, but then found the BBC had done a series of plays of the books in 2012.  As with the Charles Paris CDs there is acting but also narration.  The difference with these books is Sharp and Gleaves effectively play the two authors who intervene directly throughout the books to explain their perspective.  The other parts are acted by a range of people, though the returning roles are kept by the same actors throughout.

This is a brisk crime story about the eponymous American woman who turns up dead in a canal in 1964 and the protracted investigation to find out who she was and then entrap her killer.  Some of the story is on the different attitudes to sex in Sweden and the USA and the challenge to people of 1964 with a woman who enjoys sex with a series of partners.  It is played against the backdrop of the decay in the marriage of the lead detective, Inspector Martin Beck.  The acting is good and the sound effects evocative of both the places and the times.

While writing an engaging crime novel, even with its period setting now, Sjöwall and Warlöö go overboard in trying to make life in mid-1960s Sweden appear terrible.  They emphasise the wet and cold weather and how dreary everything is after the Christmas period.  To British readers knowing that era, the fact that everyone seems to have a television and no-one seems to return to work until 7th January, already makes it appear a lot better than the UK at the time, so this forced disapproval seems just that, forced.  In contrast to Leonardo Sciscia with post-war Sicily or Josef Škvorecký with Czechoslovakia, there is no subtle revelation of what is 'wrong' with the society being featured.  Yes, it has criminals, but which society does not and the quality of life for many people shown in the novel is better than for many contemporaries in other countries then and today.  I do not get to spend the summer on an island with a small boat or even go as a 'deck passenger' on a river cruise.

Thus, I do feel the authors protest too much.  Still this does not distract from a well thought out, tense crime novel and I enjoyed this far more than 'Overture to Death' (1939).  Thus, I intend to collect the other radio plays which seem readily available still.


'The Man who Went up in Smoke' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This is the second book in Sjöwall and Warlöö's Martin Beck series and takes the action forward to 1966.  Once more Beck has his holiday interrupted, this time to work on behalf of the Swedish Foreign Office in locating a Swedish journalist who has disappeared while in Hungary.  The Foreign Office is effectively being blackmailed by the journalist's magazine into doing something or facing a critical article.  Again, despite Sjöwall and Warlöö's assertions of what they see as serious flaws in Swedish society, the fact that a government department could in effect be held to account this way seems quite surprising to a modern reader.

Beck travels to Budapest, in what was Communist Hungary at the time and only ten years after the Hungarian Uprising had been suppressed by Soviet troops.  To some degree the authors play on this as when Beck is followed, we simply assume it is by the secret police, though by that time Hungary was rare in not having a formal force beyond the Ministry of the Interior; though Soviet operatives worked in the country.  Sjöwall and Warlöö seem to have affection for Hungary and describe it in very positive terms in contrast to Sweden.  The food is good, the views wonderful and trips on the river, delightful.  Beck gains aid from the Hungarian authorities and the case takes him back to Sweden.  It is well written with good twists, though we may have foreseen some of the smuggling aspects.  Unfortunately the title of the book, a direct translation of the Swedish one, undermines the closing phase of the book, some other title like 'The Missing Journalist' would have maintained the final mystery longer.  Overall, despite the authors' assertions about places, I found this an engaging thriller and am looking forward to the rest.

The acting is handled very well, especially as a lot of scenes involve actors speaking with their mouths full of food.  However, I do find it difficult to accept Neil Pearson playing Lennart Kollberg, Beck's deputy because of his role in 'Between the Lines' (1992-94) as Superintendent Tony Clark.  I would have cast him as Beck and the man who actually plays him, Steven Mackintosh, as Kollberg. That, however, is simply how I see the nature of the two actors.  They both do their roles well.


'A Question of Blood' by Ian Rankin; read by Tom Cotcher
This book was published in 2003, so 12 years after 'Hide and Seek' discussed above.  While Inspector John Rebus is the hero of the book, things have moved on a great deal around him.  Inspector Gill Templer of the earlier book is now a Chief Superintendent, three ranks higher.  This book gives almost equal time to Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke who acts as his aide a lot of time, especially after he has scalded his hands.  As with many of the Rebus stories, a murder is not clear in the usual sense, even when in this one a gunman has gone on the rampage in a private school.  As in the other books, there are parallel stories, notably about a petty criminal who has threatened DS Clarke and after sharing a drink with Rebus is found burnt alive.  Rankin keeps the different threads going well and brings in a range of aspects, including an Army investigation and Edinburgh's enduring Gothic community.  Though these aspects are as sharp as ever, and especially given that we do not know if Clarke is going to survive, there are good points of tension.  However, I found it, unlike the earlier Rebus stories I have read, not to be as tight.  There is too much driving backwards and forwards between parts of Edinburgh and the environs, out to Jura and other locations.  It has some good twists and the usual elements of Rebus who is suspended for much of the novel.  However, I felt it could have been handled with a greater terseness to keep the mystery and the tension taut throughout.

Cotcher is great with a range of Scottish accents and like the best readers you feel that you are listening to the main character.  He does struggle much more with the non-Scottish accents, especially the Liverpudlian army investigator and an Australian police officer.
 

Non-Fiction
'Discovering Castles' by Walter Earnshaw
This is another of those rather twee non-fiction books from the mid-1960s that I picked up during my life and feel me with a great sense of nostalgia, though some of their views would now seem unacceptable.  In this one, aside from the mention of one envisaged girl, the book seems primarily aimed at boys, indeed largely as boys' schools.  It is a brisk survey of  English castles and castles built by the English in Wales from the Norman Conquest to the 16th century.  Drawing on lots of examples from across England and Wales, it outlines how castles evolved and why, showing the clear phases.  It also outlines the ways in which they were attacked, again drawing on historical examples.  There are an array of drawings of castles and plans of them.  Two things jarred.  One was the extended urgings for boys to do activities associated with castles (the girl could apparently look at the clothing of people who lived in them) and the incongruous appendix about torture devices.  Some of these I had never heard of, but found the descriptions chilling even as an adult.  It certainly punctured my nostalgia and so I would not see this book in the way I have other similar ones I have read over the last couple of years.  I came away from it seeing Earnshaw as a rather unsettling obsessive for all of the pleasant wrappings.