Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In October

'Tooth and Nail' by Ian Rankin
Before I review the book, I have to say how frustrating it is in the editions of these books I am reading, published in the 2000s to have Rankin's foreword outlining how he went about writing the books.  In contrast to all the strict 'rules' that authors are told they must to adhere to by agents, publishers or general commentators, he seems to have bumbled through writing his books and not making any particular effort to make them successful.  I guess if he had started publishing books today rather than thirty years ago he would be the recipient of tens of comments about how he was doing it all wrong. It is rather galling and makes me wish that I had tried harder to get my books out when it was clearly a lot easier and you were not being harangued by people at every turn telling you how wrong your writing was.

Unlike the other Inspector Rebus stories, this one sees him going to London to investigate a serial killer and it is clearly based on Rankin's own experiences of people struggling comprehending his accent in the capital, though the Edinburgh accent, in contrast to some other Scottish ones, is not too much of a challenge for people in southern England.  He makes much play of the friction between Rebus and the Metropolitan Police officers that he is working alongside who feel patronised by him being brought into assist.  However, the developing relationships with these officers and the psychologist who becomes associated with the case, are well handled.  We see from the perspective of the criminal as well as Rebus, something which seems common these days as with the Val McDermid story I listened to recently, but it makes the criminal credible, though as a reader you do feel rather misled at the end and I found the closing revelations rather bewildering as they seemed to jar with what had been uncovered up until then.  Aside from that sense of a jump near the end, I thought it was pretty well handled with a couple of reasonable twists and Rankin does well characterising the grottiness of London which will be familiar to anyone who has lived there.

'Transition' by Iain Banks
Having enjoyed 'The Algebraist' (2004) by Banks, under his science fiction tag, Iain M. Banks, I was drawn to this book.  While not designated as science fiction, with its story of alternate versions of Earth, to me, it seemed to fit into that kind of category.  It is a well worked theme.  Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter produced the 'Long' series based on the premise, so I was interested to see what Banks would do with it.  I must say that I was disappointed.  He has multiple characters, some of whom may be the same person simply at different times.  However, rather than develop them fully, he flits between them.  I like the concept of an organisation, the Concern, trying to police people jumping between alternatives; individuals having a range of powers associated with the different worlds and an internal battle between people with such powers.  Yet it is all fragmented into small pieces which often do not advance the story; one character spends almost all their time doing very little in a hospital.

Some of the longer sections, such as the assassination of one character's companion in Venice, are suitable as short stories in themselves, but the rest is too insubstantial.  The book reminded me of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series with repeated characters flitting between various alternatives and with a lot of unnecessary sex.  Aside from 'The Final Programme' (1968), I found these tiresome, but they had the advantage of being short, usually around 150 pages.  Banks, in contrast in my edition goes on for 469 pages.  At times I wondered if he was trying an extended pastiche of one of Moorcock's books.  In summing up, there were some good ideas here and the basis of a good novel; there are some well executed scenes.  However, the books is very much less than the sum of its parts and all of these good attributes are wasted in what turns out to be a real mess.

'Medieval People' by Eileen Power
I was recommended this book over thirty years ago and finally got around to it.  I found it far better than most books I am recommended to read.  It was first published in 1924 and I was reading a 1939 edition.  Power was effectively making the case for the study of social history at a time when it attracted minimal attention in the UK.  She did this by focusing on a number of medieval people as the title suggests and showing to the readers how a range of sources can be used to explore the lives of such people.  In particular she looked at government and church records of the time, which were often neglected, especially outside local history research.  By focusing on a mix of well known people, Marco Polo in one chapter, the Prioress from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', Madam Eglentyne with the far lesser known such as Bodo, a French peasant; a Parisian house wife and two merchants in the wool and cloth trade, she highlights what can be revealed.  Of course, especially since the 1960s and 1970s, social history has become a legitimate focus of study, but this book is a key marker of the start of the discipline.

At times the book shows its age, Power speaks of the 'crafty Jew' and refers to the Mongols as 'Tartars'.  She is also unquestioning of whether Marco Polo actually reached China or just picked up stories from other travellers there, despite highlighting the glaring gaps in his account.  However, despite these flaws, she provides wonderfully crisp vignettes of the individuals which give a good insight into the time periods and what was going on, especially in terms of wool and cloth trade, part of the largest industry of the time.  She counteracts the patronising attitude of people towards the past in outlining how complex relationships of all kinds were and what motivated people.  There are interesting sections on the functioning of inspections of convents, the economics of marriage and the complexities of trading internationally with all the issues around currency exchange and quality control, which are faced today.  Overall, an engaging book, despite its age.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Dead Man's Footsteps' by Peter James; read by Neil Pearson
This is the fourth book in James's Roy Grace series; I read the previous three back in 2016.  Unlike many authors who seek to make it unclear when and where their novels are set, James goes right the other way, with specific settings in the 2000s and in very specific places in and around Brighton in southern England.  This story jumps between two time periods, events around the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and 2007 Brighton where a woman is being threatened and a skeleton had turned up.  Grace is struggling against a colleague being favoured by his boss who seems keen to dig up anything on Grace's missing wife.

I am never keen on stories featuring the 11th September attacks as I feel the incidents have been used very inappropriately and as a justification for attitude and actions that were not right.  Also being someone who grew up in a country plagued by terrorism throughout my life, the sense of many that terrorism somehow only appeared in the Western world in the 21st century.  However, I can see why James made use of it as it provided a great opportunity for people wanting to cover their tracks and much of this novel is about people not being who they seem to be and others exploiting that situation.  James typically had strands which seem unrelated but slowly come together.  In this novel, that seemed to take far too long compared to some of the others.  The theme of high-value stamps feels rather levered into the novel but I can understand why it interested James as they are a way of moving a lot of money around easily.   There are some good dramatic scenes and given that James is not afraid to kill or injure his principal characters, you have a real sense of jeopardy.

I found it rather unsettling to have Pearson reading the book as I have recently been listening to the Martin Beck series of plays in which he appears as recurring detective.  He is not too bad as the voice of this novel, but is too well known for you to detach from envisaging him rather than him acting all the characters as an audio book narrator needs to do effectively.  Overall, this book was not bad, but in some ways I did not feel it was the best of the series.

'Dead Tomorrow' by Peter James; read by William Gaminara
This is the fifth book in the series and follows on some months after the one reviewed above.  Fortunately the two most annoying characters in that book have moved on.  As is common with the series, James has apparently disconnected threads, including street children in Romania, a Brighton teenager needing a liver transplant and bodies found off the coast of Sussex.  Though at times pretty gruesome, I felt this story, which revolves around the trafficking of people for organ harvesting was much tighter than 'Dead Man's Footsteps'.  The story felt credible and less convoluted.  Again you feel, though, that the jeopardy is genuine and I am glad James does not let off characters who we might sympathise with, especially not in bending the law on compassionate grounds.  We find out more about Roy Grace's missing wife who popped up incongruously at the end of the previous book.  However, Grace not stumbling across evidence he needs at a crucial time in regard to her seemed terribly contorted.

Overall, this is a gritty novel with no easy answers to the moral dilemmas.  If you dislike sustained scenes of surgery then it is best avoided.  I much prefer Gaminara in reading these books to Pearson, maybe because I am not as familiar with his voice.  He does tend to make some of the younger police officers sound older than we know they are.

'Dead Like You' by Peter James; read by William Gaminara
This is the sixth in the series and again is set not long, though not immediately after the previous book.  Again it jumps between the present, i.e. 2009 and the past, 1997.  James's last three books have seemed to have a theme: stamps and organs, in this book it is shoe fetishes.  However, despite initially feeling this was a kind of 'McGuffin' especially as the stamps had been, in fact, James uses it much better.  As is common in his books we see through the eyes of the killer, but in this one there are three candidates, all shoe fetishists, and it is intriguing when seeing through their eyes to work out which is truly the killer, who is the rapist and who is trying to go straight but on the edge of the other two men's crimes.  This is a very gritty novel in the series, in part because we get the sordid nature of the men and their disgust at women coming from three sources rather than one.  The victims themselves do not simply lie down in the face of their attackers and the climactic battle between the final woman and the murderer is well handled.  As usual, James ties his stories to very specific times and places, you could walk around many of the locations for real.  I like the fact that he does not try to make them slightly timeless as authors are often encouraged to do.  It does make it possible for him to reflect on current developments and he seems hooked on connecting them to others over the decades too.

Gaminara is in his stride reading this book.  He does well in voicing sordid characters, but also being convincing as the women under threat.  In the moments of fear, he is good at communicating this, the energy and the reactions from both sides, so does very well as a reader of James's take on the police procedural.

'The Novice' by Trudi Canavan; read by Samantha Bond
This is another book with a different reader to the previous one in the series.  This is the sequel to 'The Magicians' Guild' which I heard last month, but read by Kellie Bright.  Bond is far better known not simply in the UK but globally.  She does very well in voicing the spectrum of characters and is in large part close to Bright's interpretation, though they do pronounce some of the names differently.  This book follows Sonea now that she is a student in the Guild and all the bullying she faces as a result of being brought up in the slums.  She also faces danger from what she knows of the High Lord the head of the Guild and the practices he undertakes.

I guess all books about magic colleges/universities end up sounding like British boarding school novels of the 1930s because of the set up and the old fashioned nature of magic users.  I also worry that the High Lord is becoming rather like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, though Canavan was writing these before he was fully revealed in published books.  What is different in these books is what is happening elsewhere in Canavan's world a character from the previous book, Lord Dannyl travels the world trying to uncover the background to the High Lord's powers and comes to understand his own homosexuality.  Canavan does go out of her way to try to subvert a lot of fantasy tropes.  At times it can feel that these, as with suppression of the lower classes in the first book, are rather plastered on, but I concede that might be because we do not see them often in fantasy books and I read far fewer these days than in my youth.  The arena scene at the end of the book is very well done and leads to a great climax.  I do hope that Sonea does not spend too long in the guild university and gets out into the wider world once again.

I must say I do like how Trudi Canavan handles magic in these stories.  It is a force that is a kind of mix of mental and physical power, with the magicians envisaging what they want to achieve in their minds, but it still draining them physically.  Little is said of the alchemy studies, but this is generally a magic system without magic potions or ingredients, not even magic words and somehow this makes it seem 'credible' even though it is something fantastical.

'The High Lord' by Trudi Canavan; read by Samantha Bond
Coming to the third book in the trilogy I was beginning to feel that each of the three had been written by a different author.  The character of Sonea seems to alter so much.  There is a complete flip around in this book and I know Canavan is trying to spring surprises on the reader, but these are so severe that it reduces confidence in the characters.  In this book we find that Sonea is now 20, even though it has been only three years since 'The Magicians' Guild' was set when she seemed to be a younger girl, probably no more than 15, if not younger.  The two readers have voiced her that way, so it is rather startling when she is suddenly na├»ve, despite growing up in the slums, but sexually active in this book. I am not convinced by her change in loyalties.  To draw a Rowling parallel this would be like Hermione Granger running off with Professor Snape, if not Lord Voldemort himself. The book has some good scenes.  In this series Canavan has always been strongest in writing about people charging through the city, so the battle to defend it, is as good as the first two-thirds of 'The Magicians' Guild' when Sonea is hiding in the city.  Her wandering around the wastelands is far less interesting.  In fact too many people wander around too many wastelands and the magicians in general turn out to be pretty pathetic.  The action scenes are good but not the bits in between.  The three love interests are not really resolved.  In many ways I admire what Canavan has done with the series, but it has been far too erratic in nature for me to enjoy.

Samantha Bond does the voices well, they are now established.  However, I feel she, like the reader has been caught out by Sonea suddenly leaping to being 3-5 years older than envisaged and so she still sound 14 even when she declares she is 20.

'First Contact' by J.M. Dillard; read by Gates McFadden
I saw the movie this novel was based on some years ago but had forgotten enough of the plot for this to be alright to listen to without me knowing what was going to happen next.  It is a 'Star Trek' story featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard fighting against the Borg, a cyborg race that travel back in time in an attempt to stop the first test flight of a faster-than-light drive by humans which attracts the attention of the Vulcans and then the humans' integration into the Federation.  What is rather surprising is the development is made in the mid-21st century after the world has suffered a nuclear war, so there is an element of a survivalist story in here, probably the most unlikely context for the development of such technology especially given that the lead scientist is an alcoholic living in a tent in Montana.  There are parallel developments involving different members of the crew of the Enterprise, working on Earth and battling through the space ship in an attempt to dislodge the Borg from it.

I guess one extra element that you get from the book are the thoughts of Picard and other characters.  These are very important in the captain's case because as a former prisoner of the Borg he gets more than an inkling of what they are going to do and this helps him fight back.  Overall, it was rather a workerlike story rather than one with great moments of tension because those who are lost and assimilated by the Borg are not characters that have been developed beyond their names.  To enhance the drama the producers of the audio book have added in a lot of sound effects.  McFadden's voice is often moderated, beyond her acting the voices of the different characters.  There is music which is sometimes too loud to hear the text, laser blasts, explosions, engine sounds and worst of all squelchy sounds of surgery.  Overall, I feel these detract rather than add to the book.  McFadden, otherwise, does pretty well in capturing the full spectrum of characters.  I had not realised that she was the actress who played the character, Chief Medical Officer Commander Beverly Crusher in the Next Generation stories of  'Star Trek'.

'The Bourne Deception' by Eric Van Lustbader; read by Jeremy Davidson
I have seen the first three movies of the Jason Bourne series, but have read none of the original books by Robert Ludlum nor these successor ones by Eric Van Lustbader though I did read a martial arts adventure by him twenty years ago which I thought a friend of mine was giving me as a recommendation to read, but it turns out he disliked it and thought I was better placed to dispose of it!  Reading this book, I realised why the source of some gripes from readers of my own novels.  The majority of the readers who contact me are right-wing men from the USA.  It is clear now that they expect their books all to be written this way, especially if dealing with warfare.

The language is incessantly bombastic, but with the most contorted similes you could imagine.  Furthermore, it keeps stopping to give a highly technical read out of the weaponry being used.  When a man is seeking to shoot Bourne we get a whole slew of data about the gun and the telescopic sight he is using.  Later there is a description of the three calibres of the different ammunition on board a helicopter.  Thus, you have a breathless style which is interrupted by likening things at length to other things, often utterly unrelated and a manual on whatever machinery a character is using.  I could not write this way even if I wanted to and think it is a rather mind-numbing and certainly unsubtle approach, which actually reduces any genuine sense of jeopardy.

The sense of jeopardy is further reduced by the fact that Jason Bourne himself seems invincible, to the extent that this is even commented upon by characters.  In contrast others, especially the women, seem disposable.  I accept there has been some attempt to include women as agents and controllers, but at times they seem particularly vulnerable and too many carry sexy sounding guns in thigh holsters for it to seem feasible.  A further weakness is how twisted the plot is.  The attack on Iran seems contemporary as does featuring 'security' consultancies working for the US government but to their own agenda.  However, there are too many threads and especially too many people in prosthetic disguises to really get your head around.  It also distances Bourne from the action for much of the book and instead we see things largely through disposable characters.  I guess, however, this is how people expect action novels to be written these days and they are intolerant of anyone who tries anything marginally different.

Davidson does a good job with the voices of the different character of both genders.  He manages Russian and Egyptian accents pretty convincingly, but struggles with the Australian and New Zealand ones.  I have no idea why Van Lustbader has such an aversion to Munich; his description of the city is terribly misplaced and erroneous, he could have picked scores of other German cities that would have fitted better.

'Attention All Shipping' by Charlie Connelly; read by Alex Jennings
Though written by a Briton, this is very much in the Bill Bryson area of writing.  Feeling nostalgic for the daily radio shipping forecast, Connelly decided to travel to all of the zones mentioned in the broadcast, along the way visiting the locations of some interesting people and recounting to readers about how the structure of the forecast came about and developed.  The trouble is that many of the zones are simply chunks of sea and Connelly made no effort to even visit one oil or gas rig, though he did get to Sealand.  Many of the other zones cover bleak islands or soggy coastal regions, so a lot of what he articulates is about being depressed in a rundown place.  It is quite stunning how ill-prepared Connelly is for many of his journeys especially to the more remote places, so a lot of the time he comes across as a really pathetic character, a little xenophobic when he finds things are different to back home, both in the way Bryson did in some of his earlier books.  There are highlights, primarily when he is outlining his family history, the achievements of a particular individual from the town or about the story of some light houses.  Overall, there was insufficient of interest to make this journey worthwhile and so recounting it is naturally lacking in substance.

I now know Alex Jennings well as a reader of audio books.  This is one of those where the reader seems so close to the author, that you feel he is almost that man.  That helps a little, though it just emphasises how desultory the whole project was and largely how ill-prepared Connelly was for it.  Thus, there is little to admire, bar what he read up on about local heroes.

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