Sunday, 30 September 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In September

'The Redbreast' by Jo Nesbø
I was given this book by people who read a lot of crime fiction, I think because it is one of those novels which parallels events in the Second World War with contemporary events.  The book is set in Norway in the 2000s, notably around the rise of neo-Nazis, but also looks at the lives of Norwegian volunteers in the SS who fought for the Germans on the Eastern Front.  I know Nesbø is incredibly successful, but I found this book incredibly hard going.  I can accept narratives jumping around in time and confused characters, but this book goes too far.  Some chapters are only a couple of pages long and as a result the whole book, despite its length (618 pages in my edition) is incredibly fragmented.  Towards the end we are told of people taking on other identities and the format makes this very difficult to follow.  There is some tension towards the end of the book, but generally most of it felt like a pile of numerous disjointed bits that did not hang together and so I did not engage with it, just worked my way through some lumps of text at each setting.  The attention to detail and the core characters are well done, but I felt distanced from them as with this format they were just like icing on a pile of cake crumbs which it was hard to envisage as a cake.  I will not try any of Nesbø's other books even if they turn up in a charity shop.

'I Shall Wear Midnight' by Terry Pratchett
This is the fourth of the five Tiffany Aching books which I think are the best among Pratchett's 21st Century work.  They retain the humour of his earlier books but get the messages about tolerance which were clearly increasingly important to Pratchett in a way which is far less cumbersome and overwhelming as was the case in the mainstream Discworld novels of this time.  Tiffany is now established as the witch of the Chalk, a downland sheep-raising region.  Her role is largely as district nurse and social worker, her main magic abilities being able to fly a broom, disappear into shadows and take pain from people.  The main challenge of this book is facing rising bigotry against witches, stimulated by an ancient force called the Cunning Man.  Pratchett deftly balances the humorous and the sinister.  You genuinely feel his characters are vulnerable.  In this book he does not avoid the challenging, aside from the Cunning Man and the evil that he encourages people to do, Tiffany has to deal with a tough case.  A thirteen year old girl has been made pregnant by her thirteen-year old boyfriend and then has been beaten so hard by her father as to miscarry.  The father attempts suicide.  Pratchett shows Tiffany dealing with the social pressures and the need for compassion in a way better than many authors for adult audiences.  Overall, this was an enjoyable book with some challenging elements.  If you enjoyed classic Pratchett then I think you will like this, with a dose of Pratchett-with-a-message from his later books but not stifling good story telling and humour.

'Guernica' by Dave Boling
This is not a bad novel.  You have to appreciate Boling's research into Guernica and its surrounding area in the late 19th and early 20th century, running up to 1940.  In immense detail he writes about two inter-linked families and their neighbours.  Little happens and this is very much a 'slice of life' novel with the author jumping between the various fictional characters in Guernica and real people such as Pablo Picasso and Oberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen.  It reminded me of the 'Larkrise to Candleford' series (2008-11) based on a trilogy of semi-autobiographical books by Flora Thompson, published 1939-43.  The characters are interesting enough, but as it goes on, it is all rather 'twee'.  Furthermore, like a story set aboard the 'Titanic', you cannot escape knowing that it is building up to the bombing and strafing of Guernica on 26th April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War by German bomber and fighter aircraft.  The novel continues three years after then and abruptly introduces two British characters.  In a rather contrived way, these people end up connecting back to the surviving Basque characters.  The book passes by without really engaging you.  The only jarring section is when Boling speaks about the two Britons, considering 'going back to school' and utterly inappropriate phrase for British adults, when in fact he means returning to university.  Overall, I admired the book but got very little from it and by the end found it tiresome and increasingly contrived.  There is no over-arching story and like with 'Larkrise to Candleford' you have snippets of story with the novel being less than a sum of its parts.

'From Crossbow to H-Bomb' by Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie
This book takes military technology from ancient times up to the early 1970s.  It is almost like two books, one before the detonation of atomic bombs in 1945 and then one afterwards.  It is clear that the Brodies are really primarily interested in the developments in nuclear weapons.  These are pretty technical at times but are useful especially in these days when fear of nuclear war has subsided to indicate their nature.  Their points about the ongoing need for conventional weapons and their increasing sophistication remain as relevant now in the 21st century as at the time they were writing.

Going back from this second chunk of the book, the rest is pretty interesting.  What comes across is not how fast weaponry developed but how slowly.  Medieval warriors were using equipment that the Greek hoplites would have understood and then even with gunpowder, the weapons at Waterloo were simply augmentation of the firearms seen in the latter years of the Hundred Years' War.  Throughout they show how innovation was turned away from and that governments tended to order more of what they already had rather than seek anything new.  At times, though, they fall victim to stories that were probably around at the time they were writing but now are certainly known to have been wrong.  For the First World War they believe that with a little more consistency the German U-boat campaign could have starved Britain, utterly neglecting how successful the Allied blockade of Germany was leading to the so-called Turnip Winter as early as the end of 1916, which saw German civilians malnourished.

Similarly they over-estimate the German tanks in 1940 saying they were larger, faster and better armoured than the French equivalents.  This is wrong on all counts.  The Panzer I had never even been intended to go to war and many German tanks involved in Blitzkrieg only had machine guns, weaker than the French tanks facing them.  The Brodies do not see the point they make in passing, about the disposition of French tanks and the recklessness of the German tank commanders, which meant a victory largely through bluff rather than technical superiority.

Thus, while this book has some very interesting nuggets and makes good points on the reasons behind failing to innovate, it is patchy and this represents a sometimes distorted view of history and the Brodies' overarching fascination with nuclear weapons above all else.

Audio Books - Fiction
'More Than You Can Say' by Paul Torbay; read by Jonathan Keeble
There are not many audio books that I have to stop listening to.  While I finished this one, there were occasions in the process when I had to switch it off because it annoyed me so much.  Keeble is good at sounding like the hero of the story and voicing the other characters he encounters, even the women.  It was more the nature of the story which riled me.  Basically it is a John Buchan story brought forward a century, but retaining many of the elements of the early 20th century, i.e. the hero Richard Gaunt is a member of a gambling club in London where he is bet that he can walk to Oxford by lunchtime the next day, in his dinner suit.  Later when escaping the baddies he runs into a friend out on a partridge shoot in the Oxfordshire countryside and later still he finds refuge in a stately home owned by a friend.  You could find some of these elements in 'The Thirty Nine Steps' (1978) movie version of Buchan's novel.

Contrary to this very old fashioned approach to an adventure, there are sections that are basically lectures on the British involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century.  Yes, we know they were a mess and there was torture and the people who fought there came back were screwed up, but these sections are like pausing the novel to patronise us about those things.  Despite his ignorance, perhaps because of his upper class attitude, Gaunt is terrible at listening to what women are saying to him and so the listener/reader ends up many steps ahead of him as he is married to a woman from Afghanistan, Adina, and is drawn into a terrorist plot.  One saving grace is that Torbay gives some recognition to the 'other' side in these conflicts.  There are some points of tension, but steadily you become exasperated by how useless the hero is and how mired he is in such old fashioned attitudes.  I can imagine the kind of reader this book would appeal to and he is certainly different to me.

'The Man on the Balcony' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This is the third story of the ten in the Martin Beck series and by this stage the BBC were well polished in their presentation.  One gets a real feel for Sweden of the late 1960s, though in this book the authors seem far less negative towards every aspect of it than they did previously, they even seem tolerant of the Christmas period.  This story revolves around finding a child killer and this is done by locating a habitual mugger. It really feels like a work of detection and it is enjoyable seeing the detectives piece it together.  In fact, on the arrest of the murderer the book comes to an end, I guess because Sjöwall and Warlöö's usual line that criminals are simply malfunctioning in the supposedly perfect but flawed Swedish society would be hard to swallow even for their fans with such a murderer.  Certainly, though, it made me want to continue with the series.

'The Laughing Policeman' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
The fourth story in the Beck series is different in seeing what initially appears to be a terrorist attack on a bus killing all the occupants.  The detectives have to work out who was the intended target and why.  What is interesting is that the focus is on another officer working undercover in his own time, so rather than seeing the crime from the leading characters of the series, we witness them reassembling what a colleague was getting up to.  It is an interesting interweaving of a 'cold case' with a terrorist act and reminds us that such things were going on long before the 21st century, despite what many people think today.

'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Seebold; read by Alyssa Bresnahan
This book is seen through the eyes of a 14-year old girl, Susie Salmon, murdered by a serial killer in Pennsylvania in 1973.  She watches from her view of Heaven over her killer, her family and her neighbours.  I worried at times that it would be too American; that all the emotions would thus be taken to the extreme.  I also imagined that it would be mawkish.  It does go that way at times and it goes on too long; I think it would have been better to cut off five years after Susie's killing rather than going on into the 1980s.  I guess the author felt she had to show some of the healing and the 'redemption' of Susie's mother who escapes to California for some of the book.  Overall, it is alright.  The narration has many touches of humour, despite the dark subject, and there are moments of tension especially when Susie's father and sister seek to expose the man they rightly suspect of being Susie's killer.  The book follows lots of narratives not simply about Susie's family members, she also has a younger brother, Buckley, but also people she knew at school and some of their parents.  It is very good at summing up this corner of the USA at the time, though the detailing tends of fade as the book leaves behind the early 1970s.

There is no mention of Vietnam or the US political developments of the times, the focus is really on quite ordinary people, much of the time messing up.  In the latter phases of the book the ghost of Susie has greater intervention and at one stage she possesses a friend to complete something she started when alive and so the book shifts into being more supernatural even at a stage when Susie had appeared to not engage as much as before and her family appeared to be getting over her.  I think this is where the American perspective comes in, everything must be resolved in a way a European writer might resist or even baulk against.  I was also unhappy with the underage sex in the middle of the book, which seemed unnecessary and inappropriate.  I do not understand why authors, whether they are Seebold or Pratchett feel they are at liberty to include such portrayals.

Bresnahan is particularly good in manifesting Susie and the narration, plus is not too bad at the other characters, male or female.  Overall, there were some interesting and gripping parts to this novel.  However, there is too much of it and it is far too sentimental for me to enjoy, but that may be because I have British rather than American sensibilities and prefer a story with out every last loose end tied off leading to contortions for the novel.

'The Mermaids Singing' by Val McDermid; read by Alan Cummings
Though I have been aware of McDermid for many years this is in fact the first of her books I have engaged with.  It is a brisk story of a serial killer in the fictional town of Bradfield, though some of its locations seem to owe a lot of Manchester.  We see events from the perspective of a female police detective, a profiler with sexual dysfunction that she works with and the serial killer themselves.  Cummings does a very good job of inhabiting these different perspectives and bringing out the ambivalences and misunderstandings which are essential for this particular story.  The story is credible, though at times some of the stubborn old police officers seem rather hackneyed, more turn up in the next review.  The fact that errors are made and even trumped by other errors make the story engaging even within the police procedural genre.  The only tough bit for me was the descriptions of the torture methods that the killer uses, they are very graphic.  Overall, however, now I have sampled McDermid's work I would not be averse to returning to it.

'The Complaints' by Ian Rankin; read by James MacPherson
Though this is by Rankin and set in Edinburgh, it does not feature John Rebus.  Instead it focuses on the post-alcoholic Malcolm Fox who works for Lothian and Borders Complaints and Conduct unit, an internal affairs unit which has appeared in the Rebus stories.  Fox is assigned to investigate a Detective Sergeant Jamie Breck from a neighbouring force suspected of accessing child pornography.   However, in turn Breck is set to investigate the murder of the abusive partner of Fox's sister.  This begins a complex story with inter-locking cases and lots of corruption involving the police, local criminals and property developers.  Rankin provides an involved story, though the full extent is only unravelled towards the end.  I think he just stays the right side of it becoming too involved and at the end I felt both Fox and Breck had been luckier than they had deserved; it all ends rather too neatly.  In some ways it was good that Rankin provided something different to Rebus, but despite some trips to other cities, you are still largely being taken around Edinburgh.  However, I have not yet tired of Rankin's work whether in print or on audio.

MacPherson's voice is very familiar for someone who watched 'Taggart' for many years and at times, you have to remind yourself that this is a different set-up, not a story from that series.  It will be easier if you are less familiar with the actor.  However, he does the range of Scottish voices very well, even when Rankin also features gruff, stolid old police officers, bellowing, the way McDermid did to some degree.  I guess they must reflect reality to such an extent as to be compulsory for police procedurals.

'The Magicians' Guild' by Trudi Canavan; read by Kellie Bright
I had not realised that this was a young adult series, though having got through the Harry Potter books, that is not really a problem for me.  It is a while since I have read a real fantasy novel.  It is important to remember that this book was published in 2001, when only four of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books were out and the darkest phase had not been reached, thus while you might think there are similarities, they were written in parallel rather than Canavan copying Rowling.  The story is set in the fantasy city of Imardin.  A girl, Sonea, gets involved in a protest against 'The Purge' a periodic clearing of the city's slums, in part carried out by the magicians.  During the protest her own magic skills are revealed and she is hunted down by the magicians for the first three-fifths of the book.  At first I was worried that it would be full of tired tropes.  The magicians dress in colour robes and have guild buildings that sound like bits of Oxford University.  However, fortunately, Canavan is more interested in the functioning of her city and, in particular, its social class relations.  Much of the book is the pursuit through the city with Sonia having to rely on slum-dweller friends and The Thieves.

When Sonia is caught, you feel that a lot of the book has been wasted.  One of my central problems with the novel is that it went in directions which irritated me.  I was also less than happy with the patronising attitude of the magician characters.  However, I guess the social hierarchy and the claustrophobia of the city and then the guild buildings does distinguish this from other fantasy novels and gives it a degree of 'realism'.  I guess being fearful and making poor decisions should be expected from a teenage character.  The number of people that she is uncertain whether she can trust or not, keeps the plot bobbing along and lifts it up on occasion from being mired in the tropes you would expect from a magicians' guild.

Kellie Bright turned out to have an English accent which works reasonably well in articulating the levels of Imardin society in a way an American may have struggled with.  The only thing to note is that she tends to make the slum dwellers sound like the cast of 'Oliver!' (1968) especially Sonea's best friend, Serry who sounds like the brother of the Artful Dodger.  I have the other two books in the trilogy, but given my irritations with this one, I am uncertain whether I will listen to them.