Sunday, 31 March 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In March

'River of Gods' by Ian McDonald
Though published in 2004, this book is very much a Cyberpunk novel of the old style from the 1980s.  Set in 2047 the action largely takes place in an India which has fragmented independent states, sometimes at war with each other.  Artificial intelligence has advanced to a level at which it can exceed human thought and its application is policed.  In the classic Cyberpunk approach, McDonald weaves together a range of apparently disparate characters whose various stories come together towards the climax.  He handles this in a less clunky way than some of the 'heroes' of Cyberpunk, notably William Gibson.  Though a westerner, he has done well, in my view anyway, in envisaging a future India, though some traits such as a love of cricket and soap operas, perhaps have been assumed to continue unchallenged.

The level of technology with drone attack devices and surgery that has led to the rise of 'nutes', literally surgically created neuter people, seems appropriate for the coming decades.  It even features a sentient soap opera which I liked as a concept. There is some standard science fiction with a device close to Earth which is of ancient alien design and the development by a company which derives power from parallel universes, but they are merged in with the more down-to-Earth Cyberpunk technology without much of a jar.  In addition there is a small scale war and climate change that has led to extended droughts.  However, to some degree including all of these elements is pretty overwhelming for the reader.

The characters are diverse and believable, with their different motives, some pretty mundane such as escaping a cloying marriage, others exotic such as connecting to another universe.  He has done reasonably well in looking at how a different world would shape attitudes, but crucially old world attitudes repeatedly shape the action and the fate of a number of the characters especially those that end tragically.  Overall, this is an interesting book and if I had not read as much Cyberpunk as I have I think I would have been excited by it.  The prime problem is the length (584 pages in my edition) and so you reach the closing stages of the book feeling worn out and wanting it to be over because you have had so many concepts, so many twists and turns, that by the end, you simply want the climax to be finished.  The book is good, but ultimately drowns in all of the ideas, characters and activities that McDonald piles in.

'Pattern Recognition' by William Gibson
It was ironic that the next book I read was by William Gibson who had been one of the leading lights of the Cyberpunk era.  However, I have been unaware that he has continued writing, indeed I was not even aware he was still alive.  He seems, if 'Pattern Recognition' is characteristic of his post-Cyberpunk writing to have moved on to contemporary novels.  This one is set in 2002, only a year before the book was published.  Much activity happens in London, especially around Camden an area I visited a lot at that time.  The first thing I noticed is how much Gibson has improved as a writer since I read his books in the 1980s.  As noted in the review above, I always found the working out of his stories very clunky and you could see where they were heading from very early in the book.  Added to that his writing has become far more lucid and there were passages in this book that I really admired for their skill.  I cannot remember seeing an author develop so far as Gibson seems to have done and I guess it suggests there is hope for all authors, or maybe he just employed a better editor than before.  Perhaps writing contemporary fiction, publishers do not simply bow down before his apparently stunning concepts as they might have once done.

The book focuses on American Cayce Pollard who has an allergy to brand logos and so is used by companies to test out whether their new logo will have impact.  She is also alert to global trends and highlights 'the next big thing'.  Rather erratically she becomes involved with artists and film makers, but as it progresses the book narrows down to her pursuing the maker of snippets of a film which have been released sporadically over the internet with no contextualisation.  A community has grown up trying to read meaning into the snippets.  The quest means her interacting with cool people from London to Tokyo to Moscow as ultimately she is successful in locating the source and keeping the information out of the hands of wealthy obsessives and corporations.  At times the book is satirical about corporate culture and especially marketing and branding and takes a wry look at life in the capitals of the UK, Japan and Russia.  The improvement in Gibson's writing really helps these elements be effective.  His characters are interesting, not all of them are likeable and some verge on caricatures, but he creates a rich complex environment both real and virtual which does not go too far the way McDonald does to drown you in all that he has conjured up.  While I will not rush out and buy all of Gibson's 21st Century output, if I come across others from this phase of his writing, I would not pick them up.

'Death at La Fenice' by Donna Leon
I have been given a lot of the books in Leon's Comissario Brunetti series, this book, published in 1992 was the first.  I think this is because I enjoyed Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series also set in contemporary Italy.  I have been annoyed by comments made by Leon in an interview to 'The Guardian' newspaper in which she said while no male author can successfully write female characters, female authors, because they live in a male-dominated world, are well capable of writing male characters.  I found that a very arrogant attitude but given that she is an American I suppose such sweeping claims are to be expected.

This book is certainly a feminist crime novel.  Though her police detective is a man, much of the story features women who have suffered at the hands of men.  All the men beside Brunetti are at best bitchy or short-sighted in their arrogance and at worst repeated paedophile offenders.  The story is around a famous German conductor who is found poisoned mid-way through a performance at La Fenice opera house in Venice.  The story is pretty straight forward, like many detective stories set around theatres or concert halls.  Leon is less concerned about the mystery and in fact the reader may be able to work out the solution from very early on.  Her concern is showing how nasty the dead man was in his treatment of women, children, gay men and lesbians.  These factors are more important to the story than the conductor's collaboration with the Nazi regime.

Perhaps it is Leon's upbringing, but in many ways I felt this novel was far older than 1992, especially in terms of its attitude to how women and lesbians are perceived.  The view that the entire population is interested in opera and familiar with its participants also jarred. Hanging over much of the book is a very old fashioned social attitude.  I think Leon, who lived in Italy for man years is chiding the country for not being up-to-date.  In passing she notes it corruption, something which often featured in Dibdin's books.  However, she does not successfully disengage from the dated social attitudes in her own portrayals which makes her seem complicit in them even while she might be aiming to counter them.  Then again, she might not, but given what I have heard from her, I do not believed she sees these things this way herself or maybe she has a range of attitudes that it is difficult to entangle.  Thus, overall, the women are largely victims of circumstances and maliciousness and the men are at least incompetent if not nasty in a range of ways.  The only exception is her hero.

I do not really understand why the book received so much acclaim, perhaps because of its feminist agenda, maybe because of its detailed portrayal of Venice.  It is a standard murder mystery that exposes the author's views on subjects very clearly to some degree removing much of the intrigue and at times compelling characters to be pretty exaggerated.  I have a string of these books to get through and hope that Leon's writing improved especially in terms of subtlety.

'Rethinking British Decline' ed. by Richard English and Michael Kenny
There is so much going on in this book that it is difficult to review.  It was published in 2000, but it is fascinating reading it now because of so many of the antecedents of the current Brexit crisis can be seen in it, even going back to 1962 and the leader of the Labour Party of the time, Hugh Gaitskell, warning about the dangers of European federalism.  The first part of the book is a series of interviews with many of the great economic historians of the last two-fifths of the 20th Century, Sidney Pollard, Samuel Brittan, David Marquand and other commentators from that late period such as Corelli Barnett and Will Hutton.  Much of their time is spent dismissing the views of the others and in some cases, notably Jonathan Clark, arguing that Britain actually did not decline in the 20th Century, in part due to the more widely held view that its economy has always been more about finance and insurance than manufacturing and emphasis on standards of living and opportunities; Britain still being in the G7.

The second part of the book is a more standard collection of chapters looking at the same aspects often mentioned in the first half of the book, such as problems with British culture and institutions, plus relationship with the European Community and the former Empire.  There are no firm conclusions, except perhaps that declinism as a political tool has been greater than actual evidence of decline itself.  Interestingly, it is all handled at a very high level of society and politics and aside from comments on the rise of unemployment under the Thatcher governments, there is no reference to rising poverty, debt, homelessness, ill-health and declining education and opportunities across the UK.  I do not think an update today would have such a neutral sense, but then it was produced in the days of 'things can only get better' early in the Blair governments.  I think this is a good summary of the different angles on British decline and especially on declinism as a ideology usable across the political spectrum.  In some ways it also marks a changing of the guard, and despite the persistence of some of those interviewed into old age, it seems unlikely that economic historians will ever have such an impact on politics as they did in the 1960s-90s and that in itself is interesting to see as that breed of academic/commentator was coming to their sunset in terms of influence.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Sepulchre' by Kate Mosse; read by Lorelei King
I felt I had read Mosse's best seller 'Labyrinth' (2006) longer ago than it had been published.  I have seen some of her later books, including this one published in 2007, regularly in charity shops, but had been put off by the length of them, so it was ideal to have as an audio book.  As with 'Labyrinth' in 'Sepulchre', Mosse uses the approach of parallel stories between two women's lives, one in the present and one in the past, in this case 1891 rather than the 13th Century.  Meredith Martin travels to France to research the life of Claude Debussy for a book she is writing and as a side mission to find out a little about her birth family, which it proves, originated in southern France.  Martin ends up going to Rennes-les-Baines and staying at a hotel in the Domaine de la Cade.  In 1891, with her brother mixed up with a jealous wealthy man's revenge and fleeing creditors, the teenager Léonie Vernier travels to the same house owned by her widowed aunt.  A further connection is a sepulchre in the grounds of the house, apparently connected to the Cathars persecuted in the region in the 13th Century and the source of both music and art work, notably tarot card designs, that both Vernier and Martin come into contact.

At first I thought that the book was going to be at a very populist level.  King's opening narration, very breathless in the US audio book style, added to this sense.  However, I was glad that I persisted.  Both King and the book settled down and while you might feel the connections are rather contrived, as the story progressed you had the sense that the motives and behaviour in both times were legitimate.  While the genuinely nasty antagonist closes in on the Vernier siblings, Martin becomes involved in investigating the death of her new lover's father.  This was the section which jarred most.  Martin, in her late twenties, seems willing to hop into bed with a stranger and to become his partner very quickly, involving herself in a dangerous situation with aplomb.  I do not know if that is the self-confidence of American women, but given that the author is asking us to accept tarot readings and phantoms and does so pretty well, this aspect really jarred and I felt she had been ordered to include it for some sex rather than to genuinely advance the story.  Interestingly, this was a book that I enjoyed as it progressed.  However, I do think she did not need to go into the latter years of Léonie Vernier's life and it would have been crisper to end it all in 1891.  Thus, at times I had mixed feelings about the book, but was ultimately satisfied by it.  I largely believed the characters and what they go up to.  The Gothic elements were handled well without becoming overblown or too deeply trope coining.  The research and attention to detail was excellent.

While I often have difficulty with US narrators over-exaggerating their readings and really worried that King was going to persist with this, as I have found with other such readers, if you give them a few chapters at the start, they settle down and given a more level tone.  She does the range of voices both male and female, in both time periods well.  While I feel a reader of a different nationality would have made the story sound more sinister, King's performance was not as much out of step as I initially feared.

'Fever of the Bone' by Val McDermid; read by Michael Mahoney
I listened to the first of McDermid's stories featuring psychologist Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan, 'The Mermaids Singing' (1995) last year.  This book published in 2009, is the sixth in the series which this year reached 11 books.  Hill and Jordan now live in the same building though not together.  In large part this is blamed on Hill's impotence which has continued through the novels.Furthermore Jordan, heading a specialist murder investigation team, is encouraged not to call on Hill's services when teenagers begin to go missing and then turn up dead with their genitals removed and instead use a cheaper police psychologist.  Hill goes from the fictional Bradfield to work for the police of Worcester which develops the sub-plot of the death of his father who disappeared before he was born and his own poor relationship with his nasty mother.  Hill is brought into a case which soon connects to the killings in Bradfield and aided by the arrogant incompetence of the police psychologist is brought into the broader case.  While the book is about a serial killer, the motive differs from those which usually turn up and the twist to keep the killer's identity secret is well handled.  Overall, the book is competent and engaging with very believable characters.  I have another of McDermid's novels on my stack to listen to.  Mahoney handles the story telling well and does convincing women, not simply Jordan but also a range of bereaved mothers and female friends of the victims, to the extent that you forget he is there, a sign of a good reader.

'The Secret Adversary' by Agatha Christie; read by Samantha Bond
Most people tend to think of Agatha Christie having written murder mysteries set in English country houses.  However, this, like 'The Seven Dials Mystery' (1929) which I read last month, is one of her adventure stories, of the Bulldog Drummond ilk, though with women taking a leading role.  This is the first of five books featuring Thomas 'Tommy' Beresford and Prudence 'Tuppence' Cowley who subsequently marry.  Though published in 1922, it is actually set just ten months after the end of the First World War, so around September 1919, though is not dramatized as such when seen on television.  Seeking work, Tommy and Tuppence set themselves up as private detectives and are drawn into a conspiracy by Bolshevik agents to trigger a general strike, influencing trade union leaders by revealing a secret deal that was to be brokered with the Americans in 1915 but which was thought lost when the RMS 'Lusitania'.  At the time it is set the Russian Civil War was still raging and the Russo-Polish War was about to break out.  There was a concern about Russian revolutionaries trying to spread unrest across exhausted Europe, so it has a political currency akin to featuring ISIS agents planning unrest in Britain today.

As with 'The Seven Dials Mystery' the tone of the book is almost like an Enid Blyton story with lots of haring around Britain and being confined and escaping.  At the heart of the mystery is identifying the prime Russian agent, Mr. Brown and recovering the proposed treaty, which is interesting to speculate on what it might contain.  Fortunately the antagonists are not idiots and pull off tricks on the heroes and there are two well handled deceptions by other characters.  Again, common with 'The Seven Dials Mystery' it is impossible to trust many of the characters and rather than the bulk being suspects, the majority are trusted until the real malefactor is revealed.  This adventure story probably lacks the stately unravelling of a Christie mystery; instead it has frantic action and demonstrative dialogue and is very much of its time.  I enjoyed it as a romp but little more.  Samantha Bond is now one of my favourite readers and handles a whole spectrum of European accented English as well as catching the energy of the two leads appropriately.

'Poirot's Early Cases' by Agatha Christie; read by David Suchet and Hugh Fraser
This book was published in 1974 but was made up of 18 short stories that had appeared in magazines between 1923-35.  You can see Poirot's progress through the stories.  At the start he and Captain Hastings are sharing rooms and stories are told from Hastings's perspective, very much like John Watson recounting Sherlock Holmes's cases.  By the end of the collection, Poirot is widely renowned, Hastings has moved out and Miss. Lemon has been appointed as his secretary, though she is less enthusiastic than portrayed in television dramatizations.  Having seen dramatizations of all of the stories, it is interesting to note how they are fleshed out, I will not say 'padded out' because I do not feel there is anything extraneous in the television versions, but coming back to the original stories, you see their epigrammatic nature and demonstrate that Christie was adept at short story writing, something which requires different skills to writing novels, especially in terms of crime fiction.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, appeared right throughout the TV series 'Poirot' (broadcast 1989-2013) so it is fun to hear them when putting on the voices they acted with, when presenting these stories.  They read alone on different stories.  Suchet is far more adept at not only doing his Poirot voice, but a wide range of characters that feature in the short stories.  Fraser, puts on the voices far less but I know some listeners appreciated the story being narrated rather than the norm of performing it.  Both bring a richness to the stories and conjure up the time in which they are set.  The crispness of these stories, interesting characters, the clever ploys used by the criminals and the detective, plus some interesting twists even in a short story, make these very enjoyable without having to become involved in lengthy detail.  They do very well at showing up a particular side of Christie's writing.  The two actors associated so much with the stories in the public consciousness being the reader just rounds off the success of this audio book.