Friday, 30 November 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In November

Fiction
'Head of State' by Andrew Marr
This is a peculiar book.  It seems to stem from Marr's wish to provide a range of caricatures of people he has met in British politics.  I recognised one of the academics in it from my days in London and probably if you are in the know, there are other such portrayals throughout the book.  However, this is the problem.  It is like attending a drama or even being in a conversation that involves so many inside jokes that appear hilarious to the people in the relevant circle, but mean nothing to you.  As a result it is pretty tiresome.  A further fact is that in seeking to avoid offending real people, rather than being an exposé of the genuine UK political system Marr effectively creates an alternate reality.  I obviously love these, but it is not sold as that.  In the book, Queen Elizabeth II has died in the 2010s and Charles III has come to the throne.  After David Cameron, Boris Johnson has briefly been Prime Minister and one of the leading conservative newspapers is the fictional 'Daily Courier'.  Thus, it comes over very much as a fantasy.  Marr could have learnt a lot from reading 'A Very British Coup' (1982) British Chris Mullin.  Unlike Marr, Mullin is able to produce fictional characters, but still somehow be relevant in critiquing the British political system of his time, something Marr fails to do.  Perhaps a problem is that his love of caricature means he clings to a rather light-hearted tone when trying to produce a gripping thriller.  Mullin takes his set-up seriously throughout.  Thus, Marr falls between two stools not being something truly humorous as Malcolm Bradbury would have produced nor a real thriller.

All these drawbacks aside.  The story surrounds the referendum on the UK leaving the EU, which is held later than was actually the case.  The fictional pro-Remain Prime Minister, perhaps modelled on William Hague, dies during the campaign with days to go.  Members of the government and various fixers conceal the fact but it comes to light and the Leave campaign wins as a result.  However, as noted above, it falls down on many aspects and comes over as pretty lifeless, neither funny nor gripping.  It even fails to adopt the approach of 'Primary Colors' (1996) by Joe Klein, which given Marr's background (he even references his own real politics TV show twice in the book), he might have pulled off with greater success.


'Ostland' by David Thomas
Despite being sold as fiction, this is really a true crime book, not a genre I enjoy.  It is wrapped up in fiction.  It concerns a real German officer, Obersturmführer Georg Heuser who served in Minsk during the Second World War and was personally involved in shooting hundreds of Russians and Jews from Germany and Austria to death and ordering the execution of thousands more.  He was arrested in 1959 for war crimes.  He was sentenced to prison in 1961 and was released in 1969.  He died of natural causes in 1989.  In the early years of the war, before being sent to the Eastern Front, Heuser had been a young detective in Berlin and helped capture a serial killer who was first sexually assaulting women then murdering women on trains.  The book has two elements.  It follows Heuser's career in the first person and jumps back and forth to the two investigators and (highly unnecessarily) their sexual relations.  The problem with this book is that in adopting the first person view of a war criminal it cannot escape from making apologies for him.  His qualms about being introduced to the 'actions', i.e. mass murders, and taking part are very weak.  He excuses a lot of what went on as men having to obey orders and having to dull their senses by being drunk.  He tries to show his human side by saving three Viennese Jews who 'do not look Jewish' but even then rapes the eldest daughter.  I know we now have novels in which we see the perspective of the serial killer.  However, their murders are fictional, these were real and as Heuser recognises himself, far beyond the scale that even the worst serial killers had murdered on.  It is horrendous that Thomas put so much work into this to produce such a sordid book which can only help Holocaust deniers and those on the extreme right-wing no matter how far the author pleads the opposite in the essay apologising for his apologist book at the end.  I hate the fact that I bought this book; I feel utterly dirtied by it.


'The Shepherd's Crown' by Terry Pratchett
This is the fifth book in the Tiffany Aching novel and the last Discworld novel that Pratchett ever published.  It is not particularly funny and like many of Pratchett's later books, the message is more important than the humour.  In the books Tiffany grows into her role of being a witch fully and brings together a wide range of witches and brings on young aspirants as well, so it is really about her coming to maturity.  She takes over from Granny Weatherwax who dies near the start of this book and overall it has a bittersweet feel.  However, in this series Pratchett never shied away from addressing the challenges of every day life, even when dealing with magic and a fantasy world.  The fact that Tiffany and Preston find a long-distance relationship a challenge and their jobs get in the way of any married life they might have seems very true to life.  Battling against an incursion of elves into Discworld is the hook on which the story hangs.  Yet, overall, it is a pleasant story which is engaging rather than laugh-out-loud in the way one might expect from Pratchett, but worthwhile all the same.

Non-Fiction
'1815: The Armies at Waterloo' by Ugo Pericoli and Michael Glover
This book is highly illustrated and largely focuses on the ornate uniforms of all the different units that fought at the Battle of Waterloo.  Thus, it is pretty much a 'trainspotter's book' for people interested in the minutiae, for example for making dioramas or painting models of various soldiers.  Glover provides a decent summary of the campaign and explains the background to the different units, why they were there and what they did.  I plan to write a novel with the campaign as the background, so will retain this as a reference book.  However, if you want more details beyond the uniforms, this is not really the book for you.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Toys' by James Patterson and Neil McMahon; read by Matthew Bomer
As regular readers will know I often buy batches of audio books without really knowing what is in them.  This turned out not to be a contemporary thriller, but a cyberpunk novel, set in 2061 (though some elderly hippies from the 1960s are still alive) when parts of the world, notably North America are ruled by the 'élites', genetically engineered and cybernetically enhanced people who look down on 'humans' who do the mundane jobs.  The hero of the book Hays Baker is a anti-terrorist police officer who moves in high circles and works to eliminate humans aiming at disrupting this dystopian society until an accident reveals that he has not been born an élite in an artificial womb only made to appear one through surgery.  The book then develops into a classic style US thriller with flying cars and high tech as Hays goes on the run and connects with the human resistance which is still in control in Europe.  It has that breathless, constant active voice of US books and 109 chapters, some breaking mid-way through a scene which seems pretty weird, but as far as I understand is no a norm in the USA.  There are qualms on the part of Hays especially about losing contact with his daughters and learning of his wife's true age and complicity with the coup which brought the élites to power.  The way they intend to cull the humans is telegraphed well in advance and what the humans do to the élites seems to suggest they are no better, but that is not really questioned.  It was interesting to real a science fiction thriller, but at times the action tends to drown out the points made by the society that Patterson and McMahon are showing.  Bomer is well suited for the style of the novel and the hero.  He is not bad with the European accents, though they tend to be from the Hollywood playbook.

'Redemption Falls' by Joseph O'Connor; read by Kerry Shale
I found this book difficult to engage with and it is certainly not idea for listening to rather than reading. It is set in the Mountain Territory in 1866.  I cannot find this as a historical term, but seems to cover Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  It certainly borders on Canada and Salt Lake City now in Utah is mentioned. The story largely focuses on the eponymous town to which the characters come.  Many of them stem from the Irish migration into the USA notably the Acting Governor Brigadier General James O'Keeffe, an Irish nationalist agitator who escaped imprisonment in Tasmania and is drinking himself to death, Eliza Mooney and her brother.  It is Eliza's trek from Louisiana into the territory which begins the book.  Both she and her brother become mixed up with bandits in the territory and with O'Keeffe and his New York Latina wife.  O'Connor loses sight of the narrative as the book continues and increasingly we have events reported by a wide range of documents from posters to songs to court records.  This probably works better in book form than when they all have to be voiced.  It means that we are largely detached from the real action of the book and tend to see a lot of the dreary stuff especially about lost opportunities and anger, much more than more engaging sections.

Shale is brilliant at the range of voices, even including an educated Latina woman, a black female servants and a disgruntled 12-year old boy, plus the 'voices' of the official documents.  Overall, however, so much of what goes on is dreary and/or painful and the reader is distanced from the moments of actual tension, that overall, I found the story very tedious.  The use of the different sources is interesting, but it chops up the book even further leading to an assembly of bits and bobs, and not the best of them, which results in a highly depressing book which is less than the sum of its parts.

'A Place of Hiding' by Elizabeth George; read by Simon Jones
Though set in the 1990s and published in 2004, this novel has an old fashioned feel to it.  It is listed as being one of George's Inspector Lindley mysteries, but in fact that character only makes a small cameo appearance.  In fact the main detectives as disabled forensic scientist, Simon St. James and his wife Deborah, who is an friend of the US woman, China River, who has been arrested for the murder of a wealthy philanthropist, Guy Brouard on Guernsey.  Most of the action takes place on the island as the St. James go to find out who actually carried out the peculiar murder, involving drugging and then choking with a stone.  The story draws on events during the German occupation of the island during the Second World War, when Brouard and his sister Ruth who shares his large house, fled there.  It is not a bad story, though there are some rather tired stereotypes.  The motives and behaviour of the murderer stand out and seem more modern than much of the story.  The perspectives of locals with an insular focus is well distinguished from the more sophisticated visitors.  I feel it would have benefited from leaving Lindley out entirely and pushing this back to the 1970s.  While at times desultory, the twist is well handled.  Jones is very good at doing the range of British and Guernsey characters, but has much more trouble with the Americans, especially China and her brother Cherokee.

'For Your Eyes Only' by Ian Fleming; read by Samuel West
This is in fact a collection of short stories featuring James Bond:  'From a View to a Kill', 'For Your Eyes Only', 'Quantum of Solace', 'Risico' and 'The Hildebrand Rarity'.  Elements from 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Risico' appeared in the movie 'For Your Eyes Only' (1981).  The stories in general are not bad. They are set around 1960, the year the book was published and so we find SHAPE, NATO's command for Europe still located outside Paris rather than having relocated to Belgium as happened in 1967.  Fleming does seem to be moving with the times as he references jeans in a couple of places, even once on a woman.

These days it can be a real challenge to 'sell' short stories to readers.  Though they are welcomed for their ease of reading on e-readers, the demand that every single loose end is tied off even in novels means that these days people can be unhappy feeling that the 'story is going nowhere' which stands in direct contrast to what Fleming was seeking to do with a good short story in seeking to leave the reader wanting more.  I am happy with short stories like that but accept that nowadays, this would lead to disgruntlement from many readers.

'From a View to a Kill' involves Bond investigating the murder of a SHAPE despatch rider in this region and stumbling across a Soviet base.  Though brief it is well done and quiet adventurous.  Bond is saved by the intervention of a young female British agent who proves to be a crack shot with a .22 pistol when he encounters the Soviets.  The atmosphere of the woodland around Paris is well done.  Fleming is at his best when describing the natural world.  It also highlights the tensions between MI6 operating in France and the NATO machinery.

'For Your Eyes Only' sees Bond on an assassination on the US-Canadian border in Vermont sent to on a personal revenge mission by M to kill officers from Cuba who have murdered to British friends of M's in Jamaica.  The story was published just a year after Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba, but is set before his victory was achieved.  Ironically the British intelligence services are shown as being more in contact with Castro forces than the cruel Batista government they were seeking to overthrow.  Perhaps like many, Fleming perceived Castro as a nationalist as it was only later once in power he really revealed his Communist tendencies.  The slow advance on his targets and the intervention of the woman orphaned by the killers with a bow (rather than a crossbow as in the movie) complicates matters.  Bond has to yield to the woman who proves more successful in her shot than him.  The jacking up of tension as Bond closes on his targets is handled well.

'Risico' sees Bond sent to Italy to eliminate a particular route for the smuggling of heroin into Britain and as in the movie, he becomes mixed up between two smugglers whose antagonism goes back to the war which finished only 15 years earlier.  This is a clever twist and is atypical for the Bond novels that contacts Bond is sent to, turn out differently to expectations.  It ends with a dramatic gunfight among rolls of newsprint full of opium resin, as is seen in the movie.  Again it is a nice, crisp story with good tension.  However, Fleming does feel obliged as with many of his stories to add unnecessarily at the end that though run by Italians this particular smuggling route is funded by the Soviets in order to undermine Britain, just as he did with stories like 'Live and Let Die' (1954) as if smugglers somehow need to have superpower backing to carry out the crimes that they do.

'The Hildebrand Rarity' is a murder mystery.  Bond is employed by a millionaire who is defrauding the US Treasury and abuses his fifth wife, to hunt for the eponymous rare fish in an island away from the Seychelles.  As with 'A View to a Kill', it provides Fleming an opportunity to write a very rich description of the locations and especially the fish life.  Sections of the story have Bond simply observing this before his employer is murdered using the fish.  Bond tries to discover among the few people on board who committed the murder.  While he narrows down what happened he does not find the answer to the final question and as a short story, it is all the more satisfying for that.

The real disappointment in the book is 'Quantum of Solace' which has no connection to the movie.  Fleming deliberately modelled in on short stories by Somerset Maugham and it is certainly not a spy story; not even one of those from Fleming in which Bond acts as a kind of global policeman. It feels like something from 'Tales of the Unexpected' (1979) by Roald Dahl than anything by Fleming. All it involves is a governor of the Bahamas telling a story about a couple and how they behaved as their marriage broke down.  In contrast to the more positive or brave and/or skilled women in the other stories, in this one a woman's affair is punished severely.  It really brings out the double standards towards women's and men's sexual affairs which are often more attributed to the Bond novels than tends to actually be the case.  A man can have relations with multiple women, but in this story a woman has one affair and it is seen as correct that she is gaslighted and brought to utter penury by her bitter husband's tricks.  I wonder if Fleming included this story to counteract criticism that he was going 'soft' on the 'girls' and letting them have strengths when it should just be the man who could win the day.  I found this story very troubling and the collection is really brought down by including it.  I suggest you skip over it as it comes in the middle and read the other four stories if you are seeking something like a real Bond tale.

Samuel West is pretty good at the voices.  He has a measured tone which particularly fits the tension building that features in a number of the stories better than some of the more ebullient readers in this series.  He is at his strongest when doing the various colonial officials, but all round is good value.
'The Fire Engine that Disappeared' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
One thing that I like about the Sjöwall and Warlöö novels is that they sought to avoid having the same formula in each book.  In this one, a regular detective featured in the stories, Gustavson, is actually at the scene of the crime, an arson attack on a block of flats which naturally proves to be more complex than at first appears.  They manage to mix mundane crime incidents with international high-flying ones.  That is a factor in both this story, which involves an assassin as well as low-level car thieves in Sweden and in 'Murder at the Savoy' which follows.  I think this is one of the factors that explains why people were making dramas of these books in 2012, in this case 42 years after the book was published, and there is such an interest in them still.  It is nice to have a returning cast too as you associate the voices with the particular characters.  Martin Beck's marriage is crumbling in this story.  As before this is a crisp, well thought out story which is very engaging.

'Murder at the Savoy' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This story also involves an assassination, but the solution almost seems to be about turning the outcome of the previous story on its head.  Given the political nature of much of the business the wealthy man shot at the Savoy is involved with we are reminded of the context of 1970, with reference to Rhodesia, South Africa and Biafra, and the fact that Mozambique and Angola were still colonies at the time.  To some degree, the panic around the political implications by the senior staff are overplayed and the solution almost seems a bit random.  However, refreshingly it takes us away from the line we had expected and lots of dubious characters are shown to be just that, not actual murderers.  In this story there is notable reference to businessmen getting rich off jerry-built flats.  In this story we see the contrast shown up sharply between the rich and the poor in a society which is supposed to be more equal than some others, though I did wonder how poor people afforded the expensive weaponry.  With Beck having left his wife, he has romance with a colleague and I also found the kissing sound effects unnecessary.

'The Locked Room' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This book represents a bit of a jump.  One reason is personal because it is very difficult to get hold of a copy of the dramatisation of the seventh book in the series 'The Abominable Man' so this is the eighth and another that it features Martin Beck returning to work in 1972 having been absent from work for the past 15 months having suffered a gunshot wound to the chest.  As the title suggests it features a locked room mystery in which an old man is found shot dead in a locked flat with no gun around.  There is a parallel investigation into an bank robbery which also led to the death of a customer and these come together, though, as sometimes happens in the Beck books, not through the person you expect. 

The point about Swedes living in poor accommodation which has featured in 'Murder at the Savoy'
and to a lesser extent in 'The Fire Engine that Disappeared', reappears in this story, reminding the reader of the much vaunted Marxist critique of Swedish society which are supposed to be at the heart of what Sjöwall and Warlöö wrote.  The twists in this story are very well handled.  Only two things chafed with me.  One is that Beck is now divorced and women seem to be throwing themselves at him, leading to a couple of scenes which are really cringe-worthy.  The other is the detective nicknamed 'Bulldozer' who sticks out gravely among the under-stated, well portrayed characterisations of others in the drama.  The actor took the nickname far too much to heart.