Thursday, 28 February 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In February

'The Black Book' by Ian Rankin
This is the fifth book in the Rebus series in another edition in which Rankin starts by outlining how lucky he was in his career.  Having moved to live in France, his wife has a baby and then he gets a writing fellowship in the USA.  You realise that there is no point comparing yourself to Rankin, because he is not an outstanding writer, but he has been a very lucky writer.

One thing I have liked about Rankin's Rebus books is that they do not follow the clear linear narrative that you find in so many crime novels.  At times you are not even certain of the mystery he is seeking to uncover.  This comes across as a realistic reflection of police work.  However, at times it goes rather too far.  While in this book Rankin has revived characters from previous books, including Rebus's brother, Michael, you feel that a lot is missing from the back story.  Both with this one and the previous, 'Strip Jack' (1992) you feel as if you have missed out on a book in between.  Having decided to live with Dr. Patience Atkin in the previous book, he has now been kicked out by her after coming back late from the pub.  She is just a shadowy figure in this novel as if Rankin was uncertain whether to bother continuing with her.  DC Siobhan Clarke does turn up for the first time in this book and will prove to be an enduring character in the series.

The story, when it finally decides what to focus on is about a murder and a fire at a disreputable hotel 5 years previously.  It seems to have been triggered as an insurance scam, but the body found it the fire had been shot dead.  On his own initiative Rebus treks around the gangsters and others who might have been at the hotel and as often happens in the Rebus books it overlaps with other cases he is working on.  Ultimately though he has to set-up the main suspect and you feel in this book that he is on the fringes of the law.  The black book of the title seems to fall away as having minimal purpose in the story.  It is not a bad novel and certainly avoids the linear path of so much crime fiction.  However, while it is part of a long-running series you feel you are missing so much 'between' the books so it is rather than disruptive as you are trying to work out what has happened, especially in Rebus's personal life, which confuses your following of the crime plots.

'The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, 1985-1991' by David Pryce-Jones
This is a very disappointing book.  Pryce-Jones put a lot of work into it especially in interviewing people at all levels of society across the former Soviet bloc.  However, he kept forgetting that he was writing a history book and his editor seems not to have put in any effort to keep him to his title.  Thus, between sporadic accounts from people who experienced the period and knew the bloc before and during its fall plus interesting statistics and some analysis of how the system 'worked' and failed, you get pages of polemic from Pryce-Jones.  He seems stunned that more violence was not used and keeps asking why that was not the case.  The polemic which is just him wittering on, often with no reference to time, place or people, so it simply is sounding off.  This weakens the strong parts of the book by losing them among personal opinion.

As you read on you realise that Pryce-Jones actually thinks that nuclear weapons are a good thing and he is disappointed in President Ronald Reagan, otherwise his hero, when he began to take steps to nuclear disarmament.  Pryce-Jones believes the 'Star Wars' SDI weaponry was feasible; a real thing which impacted on East-West relations. He is highly dismissive of President George H.W. Bush and sees the reason for him not securing re-election in 1991 as down to him being too weak towards the USSR and insufficiently supportive of the nationalists wanting to break away.  Of course, given Pryce-Jones's politics, Bush's defeat could have nothing to do with the US public tiring of New Right economic policies and the impact on their lives.

While he is disparaging of Republicans for being insufficiently hardline, Pryce-Jones's prime problem is that he has an all-consuming hatred of liberal and left-wing opinion in the West.  Thus he articulates its horrors and its failings as a weapon then to go on and hammer anyone who did not subscribe to Reaganite values.  Such people are deemed to have been a collaborator with the Soviet regime.  Activities such as welfare states, a desire for nuclear disarmament, an attempt to prevent proxy wars in the Third World are not seen as having any intrinsic value for anyone living in the West, they are purely driven by Soviet covert activity and funding.  He portrays large portions of Western societies and government as willing puppets of the Soviet machine without indicating how it was apparently so successful when it was useless at so much else.

What might have been a decent book, with very useful accounts and some good insights, simply drowns in him slipping off regularly to have another go at anyone to the left of the far-right of the US Republican Party, before he remembers the title of the book and slips in a bit of history before he loses control of his anger once again.  An editor should have reined him in and got him to stick to writing history.  Few people alive at the time will be able to read this book without being offended by the author's attitude towards them.

Fiction - Audio Books
'The Seven Dials Mystery' by Agatha Christie; read by Jenny Funnell
I remember enjoying the 1981 dramatisation of this novel so when I saw it for sale cheaply, I decided to come back to it.  I realised quickly why I had enjoyed it as a teenager.  It is more like an adventure story for young adults, though many of the characters are in their twenties.  It features 'jolly' young people - notably Lady Eileen Brent known as 'Bundle' (who also featured in 'The Secret of Chimneys' (1925) along with other characters in this book) with lots of rushing around in cars between London and the countryside, and the secret society, The Seven Dials.  There are two murders, but as critics at the time it was published in 1929 noted, it is not a murder mystery of the kind that Christie usually writes.  There were times when she did do conspiracy stories such as 'The Big Four' (1927) and 'Passenger to Frankfurt' (1970) but you can understand why critics were rather exasperated by this one, seeking a return to her more classic crime stories.

For all the caveats about this seeming more like Dornford Yates novel, I enjoyed it, because though it is light, it proves very good about wrong-footing you about which of the characters can and cannot be trusted.  This is something which distinguishes it from many of Christie's books.  The fact that two of them turn out to be untrustworthy and others prove to be reliable despite first impressions, is refreshing for a book of the period.  Critics complained that Christie did not follow the rules in providing the reader with all the information they needed to be able to work this out for themselves.  I disagree with this.  Looking back you can clearly see indications to both of the guilty parties throughout.  It might not be the best Christie novel, but it has charm and it additionally appealing for stepping away from the usual pattern in this playing with who you can trust.

Jenny Funnell sounded very like Samantha Bond to me, who also voices audio books.  Funnell is ideal for the bubbly young characters in the book, both the men and women.  The only one who rather riled with me was Superintendent Battle, who while described often as 'wooden,' comes over as too ponderous when Funnell voices him.

'I, Alex Cross' by James Patterson; read by Tim Cain and Michael Cerveris
I was not certain why there were two readers for this book. I wondered if it was because Alex Cross is a black Washington DC detective (this was the first of 6 books featuring him) and people might feel that a white man voicing him was cultural appropriation.  However, I searched out all the Tim Cains and Michael Cerverises and while I might not have found the correct pair, all those I can find are white.  I guess then that this approach was to distinguish the first person and third person narrative, though the latter declines a great deal as the book proceeds.

Having got that out of the way, and ready for very breathless narration from a US crime novel, this book was not too bad.  Cross finds out that an estranged niece has been working for a high class brothel in Virginia but has been shot and then minced.  It draws him into the disappearance of other young women and then to the place itself where the wealthy and influential go.  One of them who names himself Zeus, has to kill whenever he has sex there and the book is about identifying him.  Obviously given the powerful men involved, Cross runs up against lots of obstacles.

The second element is Cross's attempt to maintain his family life, especially with his elderly mother having a heart attack and being hospitalised for much of the book.  Despite his efforts to spend more time with his family (and why are US women called 'Bree'? This one is 'Bri' short for 'Brianna'; I keep thinking on audio that it is 'Brie' as in the French cheese) he utterly fails and actually puts them at risk.  At the end of the novel his wife gives up on ever changing anything.

The book is not too bad.  There is a lot of running back and forth which at times seems excessive.  However, the frustrations of dealing with different branches of law enforcement come across as realistic, though Cross is lucky that he has so many friends.  The setting is an alternate history because there is a female President in the White House, Margaret Vance, whether any relation to Cyrus Vance, the US Secretary of State in the late 1970s is not made clear.  The conspiracy and the killer are believable.  The family elements are rather cloying but I guess that is usual for a US novel.  I do not know which of the men voices who, but one of them does a reasonable British accent for brothel-owner, Tony Nicholson, though making him sound pretty much like Russell Brand.

'Zero Hour' by Andy McNab [Steven Billy Mitchell]; read by Rupert Degas
I was surprised by this book.  Down the years I have come across various novels by former soldier Andy McNab, but have avoided them fearing they would be macho books glorifying war.  I got this in a mixed box of audio books and decided to listen to it.  It is an action story but it comes over as both gripping and gritty.  Unlike the US versions there is not a bombastic approach.  McNab is low key, and while he will put in the technical details of guns and vehicles which appear essential for this genre, there is a credibility about him and it does not come across as a 'trainspotter's book'.  The novel features Nick Stone, a former SAS soldier.  This was the 13th book in the series that McNab began publishing in 1998.  In 2017 the 19th book came out, rather undermining some of the premise of this book.

Stone is suffering headaches and a diagnosis shows he has an advanced brain tumour.  Having been happy with his life and his Russian journalist girlfriend, but now thinking he has only months to live, he decides to do one last mission.  British intelligence asks him to track down the kidnapped daughter of a Moldovan arms manufacturer who has been abducted by people traffickers.  The mission takes Stone to Moldova, Denmark and the Netherlands.  He shows the impact of his illness and the thought that he must 'do the right thing' beyond completing the mission.  It is also increasingly clear that he is being manipulated and cannot trust anyone much. As you can imagine from the sequels, the illness does not prove to be as terminal as Stone believes for much of the novel.  The book is fast moving and feels realistic in terms of locations and action.  Degas is excellent in portraying Stone's very deadpan manner but is also surprisingly good at doing a range of young Moldovan women.  While I will not rush out to buy more by McNab, I would certainly not ignore another of his books if it turns up in a mixed box of audio books in the future.

Non-Fiction Audio Book
'Toast' by Nigel Slater; read by the Author
I do not read or listen to many autobiographies, but I had imagined that most do not seek to turn the reader off from the person featured.  Nigel Slater has been one of the most popular food writers in our house.  We have some of his recipe books and watched his television programmes, liking the mix of gardening and cooking and his quiet but enthusiastic tone.  However, this book has really turned me and my wife away from him.  The book covers his life from his childhood (he was born in 1958) to when he was 18 and went to work for the Savoy Grill.  He has focused sections on different foods, going through many popular recipes and brands from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  I think he intended the book to be rather like a version of the Adrian Mole books.  The trouble is, it is clear that Slater was a very nasty boy; snobbish and spoilt.  He cannot keep those traits out of his writing.

Slater's father owned an engineering factory and they were clearly a lot richer than he tries to make out.  Not only did his father drive a Rover, but employed both a gardener and a housekeeper.  He attend social events.  Slater got pocket money daily and had so many toy cars that he could lay them out in a line right across the large house.  Slater  is highly dismissive of his mother primarily on the basis of what a poor cook she was, though she seems to have put a lot of effort in.  For any recipe she cooked he cannot hold back from saying (with knowledge he only gained much later) how it should be done.

Slater only seems to come to love his birth mother even a little, after her death from asthma when he was approaching his 9th birthday.  He is very snobby especially to his step-mother who had formerly been their housekeeper.  Though she is a far better cook than his birth mother, he is scathing about her throughout on the basis of lots of social mores and no understanding of what challenge it must have been for her, especially in an age when divorce was rarer.  Unsurprisingly his step-sisters who he is equally unpleasant about have contested his view.  His father died when he was 16 and he is pretty nasty about him too, especially in marrying the housekeeper and moving them to the Worcestershire countryside.  The book was published in 2004 when Slater was 56 but he clearly has done nothing to shake off his spiteful manner from forty to fifty years earlier.  Overall, the book is a very long whinge, lacking in humour and given you a dim impression of the author.  I suppose this is the privilege of celebrity that you can portray everything the way you see it with no real challenge.

Slater was sexually abused by his uncle and one of the gardeners.  He was also sexually assaulted by a neighbour's dog.  It is fine that he includes these incidents in an autobiography, but they certainly jar with the light, even whimsical tone, Slater seemed to be affecting at the beginning. The book literally left a bitter taste in my mouth and I certainly will not be reading, listening to or watching anything by him again.