Thursday, 31 January 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In January

'The Ghosts of Altona' by Craig Russell
Though I have always been interested in crime stories set in Germany, for some reason I had not come across Russell's series though the first came out in 2005.  This book published in 2015 is the seventh, and so far, last book in the series featuring Jan Fabel.  In this book he has risen to the rank of Erster Kriminalhauptkommissar which Russell clumsily renders as 'Principal Chief Commissar' and is even offered the chance to become head of all of Hamburg's detectives.  It is always a challenge with a successful police detective character that they tend to get promoted and so moved away from the heart of crimes.  Ian Rankin has resolved this by trapping John Rebus at Inspector rank for many years.  The rendering of Hamburg police ranks, though not other German titles into English is one thing I do not like about the book. It leaves the reader in confusion about what standing the various police have.

Overall, I felt this book was much like one written by Colin Dexter, added to by the fact that it features a club from a university.  Though at times Morse's investigations on screen felt ponderous (the books are far brisker) this book stretched for far too long (535 pages in my edition).  Though there are some reasonable twists, a bright reader, let alone one who reads crime novels regularly, will have solved the crime well before Fabel does, so it is rather frustrating to find that the detective who is supposedly nationally famous for his skills, is slower than amateurs like us.  It would have been a far better book with 200 fewer pages.  The details about Hamburg and its surrounding districts, plus Fabel's background, his colleagues and family, are fine, but at times feel like padding when we want greater speed.  The murders are well portrayed and the meshing of different cases is reasonably done, though the 'lesson' from one for another seems heavy handed and again suggests that Fabel lacks imagination, even deductive powers.  Fabel could be an interesting character, and maybe he is in the earlier books.  If Russell has decided not to continue with this series, it is probably slightly overdue.  I might check out one of the earlier books if it crosses my path, but while this book was not bad, it was far from brilliant.

'Ruled Britannia' by Harry Turtledove
This was another book that could have benefited from tightening up.  My edition came in at 458 pages but with smaller than standard text size, so probably as wordy as 'The Ghosts of Altona'.  Turtledove is the undisputed king of alternate history fiction and it is disheartening to read quoted on the cover '[n]obody plays the what-if game of alternate history better' in one stroke being complimentary to the author but utterly dismissing his genre as a 'game'.  I notice his latest book will be historical fiction rather than alternate history.

While with my alternate history books, I often get people complaining that the focus is on everyday life in the changed world and that the focus should always be the point of departure, typically a violent one, I am glad that Turtledove takes a different line.  This novel is set in London in 1597, nine years of the victory of the Spanish Armada.  Queen Isabella and Archduke Albert are on the throne of England, with Isabella's father, the ailing King Philip II, still in charge of Spain.  The book focuses primarily on William Shakespeare and the Spanish playwright, Senior Lieutenant Lope de Vega, who is serving with the occupying army.  Other real people appear including the imprisoned Elizabeth I and some of her ministers, Christopher Marlowe, killed 6 years later than in our world, and a range of people connected with the theatre that Shakespeare knew or worked with.  The plot is around Shakespeare being pressured to both write a play celebrating the life of Philip II on behalf of the occupiers and one around the story of Boudicca in an attempt to rouse English resistance to the occupation.

The setting is excellently portrayed.  Turtledove shows acute knowledge of the context and paints it richly in this novel.  He makes use of plays from the time to provide 'what if?' lines and plays for Shakespeare - he has not produced any of his historical plays, but his comedies and tragedies are well liked; he is still active as an actor too.  It takes some time to become comfortable with the Tudor language and terms.  At times you feel Turtledove does not know where to go next and though the book builds to a climax, you feel it wonders and could have been tightened a great deal.  The role of a witch with the ability to hypnotise really riled me and she seemed just to be a very irritating plot device.  There is also far too much sex in the book.  Shakespeare is at it a lot of the time and De Vega has a string of mistresses, some simultaneously.  At times it gives the author a chance to show different facets of the alternate London he has created, notably the bear-baiting, but given the longeurs anyway this just adds more padding.  Thus, while there were points which irritated me, even riled me, I felt this was a very strong alternate history book, well researched and very interesting.  I hope people will remember it when insisting that all alternate history novels must focus on the immediate point of departure and subsequently only on warfare.

'Redcoat' by Bernard Cornwell
This books suffers from a problem that I have noticed in other of Cornwell's books set in North America and many which do not feature Richard Sharpe.  The problem is, that while he creates rich characters with a good attention to attitudes and behaviour of the time, far too few of them elicit any sympathy from the reader.  As a result you wade through nasty people being nasty to other nasty people.  While is it great to have some strong antagonists, if unpleasant people are in the vast majority, it is difficult to be more than a spectator sitting well back from the conflict.  In the Sharpe books, while you had nasty people, you could always fall back on Sharpe and his comrades, who while flawed, were people you could feel sympathy for, even affinity with.  Cornwell seems to have particular problems with sergeants and women.  All the women in this book are self-serving even when professing zealous patriotism, deceptive and really people you would not want to go anywhere near.  There are the fragments of a love story, but even then the woman featured is so hard, she seems to have very little romance in her and is much more concerned about victory for the American side than anything or anyone else.

The book is set in Philadelphia in 1777 during the American War of Independence.  It was the largest city in the Thirteen Colonies at the time and at the start of the book is occupied by British forces.  However, many still loyal to the American side remain in the city and most of the book is really about spying and passing on information, focusing on the British soldiers and American civilians who get mixed up in this which ultimately leads to the British occupation being troubled and costly, ultimately after the book has finished, to end.  I like the fact that Cornwell has focused on a specific location and set of characters rather than ranging all over the place.  He does well in portraying the city in grim weather (to the extent that I would never want to visit it) added to the growing shortages it faces.  As always, Cornwell has good battle scenes, but in this novel they are pretty limited.  For the rest you are effectively watching a dance of unpleasant and/or deluded people in a very grey setting.  Thus, it was quite interesting, but far from engaging.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Lifeless' by Mark Billingham; read by Robert Glenister
This appears to be the fifth of what so far are fifteen books featuring police detective, Tom Thorne, published since 2001.  Again it reminded me of how many books are coming out in genres that interest me, that simply pass me by, for many years at a time, until I stumble over them.  This one sees Thorne go undercover as a rough sleeper on the streets of Central London.  I used to spend a lot of my time in the 1990s and early 2000s in that area and so could really envisage the places Billingham writes about and the kind of people encountered there.  The case involves the murders of rough sleepers.  Billingham cleverly dodges a standard serial killer approach and is very good about sowing distrust about those in authority that Thorne meets.  The case is soon connected to the military - in part because so many rough sleepers are ex-armed forces - and to atrocities committed in Iraq.  I thought Billingham handled the novel very well, especially in terms of the setting and the homeless people that Thorne encounters and develops friendships with.  The plot is reasonably twisted and again, like the setting, very credible.  This might not be the best crime novel I have ever come across, but I was engaged by it and have already bought a couple more audio books of Billingham's novels.  Glenister sounds how you would imagine Thorne to be and that works very well for the story, but he does a pretty decent job with the other characters, including the few women that appear.

'Thunderball' by Ian Fleming; read by Jason Isaacs
This novel has formed the basis for two movies 'Thunderball' (1965) and 'Never Say Never Again' (1983) which stick surprisingly close to features of the book.  It starts with Bond, smoking 60 cigarettes a day and drinking the equivalent of half-a-bottle of whisky a day, being sent to a health retreat where he ends up in a fight with another guest which actually postpones the schemes of SPECTRE - the first time the criminal organisation appears, rather than having Smersh of the USSR involved somewhere even if far in the background.  The story is pretty straight forward, with MI6 and the CIA scrambling to find where one of their atomic bomber aircraft has ended up, Bond is sent to the Bahamas and is fortunate enough, with the aid of his old friend Felix Leiter to find out that Emilio Largo (the deputy head of SPECTRE but in this book number No. 1) has retrieved the bombs and is planning to use them to destroy a US missile testing base in the Caribbean and threaten Miami.  A ransom of £100 million in gold (worth about £5 billion now) is demanded to prevent the attacks.

The book is reasonable.  Fleming returns to some of his favourite themes - the Caribbean and treasure hunting.  Domino Pettachi, the sister of the man who stole the bomber and is kept by Largo, comes over as a flawed character who as in quite a few of these books, is the woman who saves Bond's life when he makes mistakes.  As Isaacs points out in the interview at the end, though Bond and Leiter have clandestine Geiger counters, they are in fact poorly equipped compared to SPECTRE and Bond's intervention to prevent the planting of the first Bond leaves 6 US sailors aiding him, dead.  Bond is certainly not the superhero of the movies, and in fact is very unhealthy.  The book is engaging rather than gripping but also is a slice of history, showing the concerns; the continued hang over from events of the Second World War and even the brands of 1961 and that while they were misogynistic times, Fleming, as in previous books, is content to let a woman win through when Bond proves slow-witted.  Isaacs does the voices very well, including Domino, though as he points out, trying to work out what half-Greek, half-Polish Blofeld, based in Paris, sounded like, was a real challenge.