Monday, 31 December 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In December

'Waiting for Sunrise' by William Boyd
It was only after I finished reading this book that I realised I had read two earlier ones by Boyd: 'An Ice Cream War' (1982) which I had expected a lot more of and 'Armadillo' (1998) which I was given and did not see the point of.  I acknowledge that I have not read his books that have been award winning notably, 'The Blue Afternoon' (1993), 'Any Human Heart' (2002) or 'Restless' (2006) but I have to say that I am not really impressed with his work.  The three novels I have read seem to consist on disconnected slices of life which pass rather than building a satisfactory whole.  'Waiting for Sunrise' very much fits that pattern and is almost like a number of books.  It features British actor Lysander Rief who visits Vienna in the months before the First World War to receive psychiatric treatment for his inability to orgasm.  Much of the book has far too much unnecessary sex in it which seems really at odds with the time period it is portraying and so undermines the credibility of the book.  Rief's tolerance of his uncle's homosexual relations with Africans is highly anachronistic at a time when being gay was a criminal offence.

The book then morphs into being a spy novel.  There are far too many coincidences and utterly ridiculous errors.  Rief is sent on a mission very like one of those in 'Ashenden: Or the British Agent'  (1928) by Somerset Maugham and it is unsurprising that Boyd was trying to produce a pastiche of a Maugham novel, though levering in 21st century attitudes to sex along the way.  The wartime spy adventure bit is reasonable with Rief uncovering who is leaking detailed information to the Germans and then travelling to Switzerland to carry out an assassination.  The rather cack-handed espionage of the time, which is responsible for Rief almost being assassinated by his own side, is pretty well shown and the problems with class discrimination and an unwillingness to believe who might be a traitor which plagued Britain through much of the 20th century.  Overall, there are some decent bits of this book, but there are too many free-floating chunks and it seems that Boyd felt compelled to drape a spy story over his primary focus on just recounting someone's life and introspection at a particular time with anachronistic sex piled on top.  I will be more careful in future not to slip into buying another Boyd book by accident.

'Strip Jack' by Ian Rankin
While I continue to be riled by Rankin's accounts of his highly diffident approach to novel writing, which he outlines at the start of each of these novels in this mid-2000s edition, I do admire his approach to the crime novel.  He does not open with a murder, but other incidents and the focus at first in this book are steps being taken to discredit a popular independent Scottish MP, Gregor Jack.  It is only later that the murder is revealed and this means it takes time to establish the possible story.  However, we already know all the suspects.  To some degree I liked the two groups of friends orbiting around Jack and his wife Elizabeth.  However, as the book proceeds and the murder is revealed, they become too similar in nature and to intertwined that by the end it is difficult to tell who was connected to whom and what motives they might have.  I feel that Rankin started with a decent basis but it ran away with him and he should have pared down the two circles of suspects more sharply before he reached the end as weariness creeps in for the reader.

Rankin does say, that with this book he felt he had 'grown up' in his writing by the time of this novel, the fourth in the Rebus series, and the last of three published in 1992.  He moves his characters away from fictional locations to real ones.  If you live in Edinburgh, perhaps that has an impact.  However, to someone who has only visited the city on a few occasions it made absolutely no difference.  I felt it undermined what Rankin had done in the first three books as if they were somehow illegitimate which is rather a betrayal of the reader who buys into the settings an author writes whether they are real or fictional.

Though there were many elements of this book I enjoyed especially in the first two-thirds of it, one jarred.  This was the sudden appearance of Patience Aitkin.  The book opens with Rebus having an established relationship with this woman and spending a lot of time at her flat; even considering moving in with her.  Yet, we have heard nothing of this woman before.  At the end of the previous book 'Tooth and Nail' (1992) it appeared that he was about to embark on a long-distance relationship with research psychology student Lisa Frazer.  In this book she has utterly disappeared and Rebus has been having a relationship running over some months.  It is as if there is a book missing that would have preceded this one.  I accept that Rankin felt he had to draw a line under the first three books, but this abrupt jump, in my mind, really weakens the credibility of this fourth book; it could have been handled so much better with just a little effort.

'Fated' by Benedict Jacka
Shopping for fantasy novels, even first hand, let alone second hand, it can be difficult to find the first book in a series.  Consequently I felt fortunate to find this one, the first in the Alex Verus series; Jacka published the first three of them all in 2012 and six others have followed.  While the characters are in their twenties with Verus running a magic shop in Camden, you feel Jacka's roots in young adult writing.  I do not know if the 'feel' of the characters improves in later books.  The story is quite a common one these days, i.e. that parallel to the cities we know are groups of people with exceptional powers.  In Jacka's book they are divided into Dark and Light, and though these are defined in a particular way in this series this is a very common trope for urban fantasy; there is also a giant spider.  I must say though, that the Dark mages are genuinely manipulative and nasty; they keep slaves and torture them for any failure.  The abuse of novice mages is well handled.

One challenge for this book is that Jacka felt the need to do a data dump on the reader.  Thus while there are some well thought out and portrayed scenes, making use of iconic London locations, the flow is often disrupted as Jacka tells us about the world he has created, with Verus speaking to us in the first person.  The magic involves a range of psychic and elemental powers.  Verus is a seer which makes a change from magic users with strong physical powers and there are true elementals with different natures, again the way one kills has a good sharp edge to it.  Aside from the jolts to stop for an info break, and the characters seeming younger than their true ages, I found myself enjoying the end especially the extended climax in which different groups are jostling for supremacy in the space contained within a statue held at the British Museum.  While I would not rush out to buy the next book 'Cursed' (2012), if I saw it second hand I would buy it, in the hope that with all the background established Jacka could give free rein to his story-telling which, aside from the YA caution, is not bad.

'Empire of Sand' by Robert Ryan
This book, published in 2008, should not be confused with 'Empire of Sand' (2018) by Tasha Suri.  While drawing on what is known of the life of T.E. Lawrence, this is a fictional adventure which speculates on his activities in Persia (now Iran) in 1915 before he became involved in the Arab Revolt, though it does include interludes focused on that later period.  Having listened to 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' (1926) earlier this year, I know Lawrence tended to skim over his actions that were less than successful.  This book is better balanced than his own descriptions of what he did.  It shows his sexual ambiguity, that in many ways he was asexual but liked the companionship of Arab boys which naturally has led to questions about him.  It is certain that he 'enjoyed' physical hardship which the desert was able to provide in great quantities and that he thoroughly admired the Arabs as a chivalric people.

The adventure is pretty straight forward with Lawrence working in intelligence in Cairo seeking to stop the shipment of Arabs and Farsis opposed to British rule in the region, masterminded by a German agent, Wilhelm Wassmass.  When a British officer is captured and offered in exchange for the agent's luggage, Lawrence keen for adventure in the desert sets off with an assorted band, including one British charged with assassinating Wassmass.  The venture does not go as planned, but Lawrence's ability to live like a local, endure all that the desert throws at him and to improvise gives the small band a chance.  Aside from not shying away from referencing Lawrence's atypical way of thinking and having an active role for female agents, this could have been a book from the 1930s.  Despite that, it moves along briskly and the outcomes, bar the survival of Lawrence are not known.  The portrayal of the locations in Egypt and Persia are handled very well and you really get a feel for the places the characters are travelling through.

'The First Crusade' by Steven Runciman
This is effectively the first of the three-volume 'A History of the Crusades' by Steven Runciman published in 1951 with the other two volumes following up to 1954. This is an illustrated version produced in 1980. However, aside from some useful photographs of the locations mentioned to show the landscape, many of the illustrations are just generic medieval images of warfare and the one of supposed trebuchets is entirely spurious. It feels as if the editor in 1980 simply chucked in anything that fitted and looked vaguely appropriate.

Runciman has been criticised for simply narrating what happened in the crusades without analysing what happened. I feel this judgement is unfair. He drew on a wide range of sources in different languages. Especially for a book written in the early 1950s it shows surprising awareness of the divisions among those that the crusaders faced and how the Islamic forces were weakened by local rivalry. The book also articulates well, the difficulty the Byzantines had in wanting crusaders to fight for them but not wishing to have their towns wrecked as the caravan of soldiers and camp followers, often ill-disciplined, past through their territory. He also captures in an accessible way the tensions between the different European lords, many bent more on creating a state for themselves than on 'liberating' Jerusalem. Runciman is not simply interested in the military but looks at why civilians travelled often at great harm to themselves.

The book is mainly a history but it does try to show a rounded picture of the First Crusade in all its complexity, accessibly. It probably sounds old fashioned now, despite its references to women and non-Christians, but is no painfully so. The aspect most wasted was the images included and a lot more useful information could have been included with a better selection rather than having them as a decoration.

'End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80' by Gary Thorn
This is another historian I met back at the end of the 20th century when this book was just coming out.  Like 'The Spanish Civil War' by Andrew Forrest, also published in 2000, which I read back in October 2016: this book by Thorn is aimed at assisting students, in this case taking A Levels in addressing questions about the theme.  For all of that and the structure it imposes, it is still a good read for someone wanting to look at an important part of what was going on in the world, especially post-1945.  In particular, Thorn does not simply look at the British and French empires, but does very good comparative analysis of the demise of the Belgian, Dutch and Portuguese empires, which are often overlooked, at least in English-language texts.  The book has a very brisk, at times chatty style, which can contrast with the violence it highlights.  At times it feels rather breathless, but I guess this is to keep the interest of students.  I do not know if I received an early version but in the copy I had there were some errors: misplaced footnote numbers and a typo on a map, showing an 'Austrian mandate' in the Pacific rather than the correct, 'Australian mandate' which makes a huge difference.  Overall, I found it very informative and in a good analytical structure, which for some may seem plastered on, but you can forgive that for the target audience.  Despite its brisk manner it references a good range of sources and points to interesting cultural perspectives, which I would have liked to have seen more of.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Crooked House' by Agatha Christie; Radio Play
I do not list all the radio plays I listen to on CD, but some seem worthwhile mentioning especially if based on novels.  This is one of Christie's books that I have never read or seen dramatised.  In part I guess it is because it features neither Poirot or Marple and it is a rather claustrophobic being set primarily in one house soon after the Second World War.  The nature of the murderer is also unlike in any other of Christie's books and for that reason I think dramatisers have tended to shy away from it.  However, I have just found out a version came out in Italy in 2017 and was shown on UK television last year; it passed me by entirely.  Anyway, it is set in the house of a wealthy British businessman of Greek extraction, Aristide Leonides.  The nephew, Charles Hayward, of the main detective, Chief Inspector Taverner, is engaged to one of the dead man's grandchildren, Sophia, and is sent in undercover to find out what is happening.  The family in which all members are nasty and/or suspicious is quite a common setting for Christie, but in this one there seems to be no-one who is pleasant; even Sophia is a highly credible suspect.  In particular they seek to put the blame on Leonides second wife and the tutor employed by the family.  It is harder in tone than many of Christie's other books, perhaps reflecting the nature of the time when it was written, being published in 1949.  I found this story pretty gripping as it was one with which I was unfamiliar with so could appreciate the skill in it and certainly did not foresee the final outcome.

'Star Trek: Generations' by J.M. Dillard; read by John de Lance
This was very similar in nature to 'First Contact' also by Dillard that I listened to back in October:  Despite all the voice manipulation and the sound effects, I found it pretty tedious all round.  It links the 'Star Trek' stories of the Captain Kirk era with that of the Captain Picard era by having Kirk sucked into the Nexus after he has retired, a kind of timeless heaven.  Picard is drawn in through trying to stop a scientist blowing up a star so that he can be swept into the Nexus in order to be reunited with his late wife.  There are some renegade female Klingons who are the most interesting characters but are soon despatched.  Picard gets to use the Nexus to travel back in time and correct his error; the paradox he creates are completely ignored.  Despite all the bells and whistles, the story lacks tension.  In part this stems from the worthiness of the 'Star Trek' approach, but I think it is worsened with the Next Generation crew as they often seem highly childish.  An early scene in which they are on the holodeck enacting a scene from 18th Century sailing, seems both juvenile and patronising to the non-humans.  Overall I was rather exasperated by this book.

Non-Fiction - Audio Book
'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson: read by the author
I have sometimes been exasperated by Bryson's work, though I do feel he has improved as the years have passed.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and with him reading it himself, he has really caught the spirit of what he wrote.  It is a popular science book looking at the creation of the universe and the earth, then life on it, especially humans, with lots of detours into various sciences.  At times too many of the examples are drawn from the USA and much of the developments across the world, outside the West are neglected.  However, it is told in a brisk, engaging way and puts a lot of the wonders of our planet and the universe it sits in across clearly.  I was surprised to enjoy this book but I certainly did and can recommend it if you want a crash course in these issues or are just curious about our world.  There are loads to fascinating facts from it to quote at family and friends.