Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Books I Listened To/Read In June

'Prince of Legend' by Jack Ludlow
This is the final book in Ludlow's Crusades trilogy and features events during the 1st Crusade from soon after the capture of Antioch to the fall of Jerusalem.  I have long been interested in the Crusader States set up from what is now southern Turkey through modern Syria and Lebanon to Palestine/Israel, so was interested to read this book.  Ludlow is a successful historical fiction author with a number of trilogies set in Ancient Rome and medieval Europe.  This novel showed me why I have had complaints about my own (alternate) history books if Ludlow's approach is what is expected.  Aspiring authors are repeatedly told 'show, don't tell'.  In other words events should be seen through the eyes of the characters rather than simply narrated by the author.  Ludlow totally throws aside that expectation.  Much of the book is not a novel, it is a popular-level history book.  At times it was as if I was re-reading 'The First Crusade' (1980) by Steven Runciman that I read in December:

The 'action' features the leaders of the Crusade and every time one is introduced there is extensive background on him, his relatives and their rivalries back in Europe.  Dialogue is minimal and was described to me as being like television documentaries in which they have some actors going through the motions to give a feel for a particular meeting.  There are no female characters and we hear from no-one outside the inner circle of leaders.  There is tension and rivalry between them, but it is handled in a clinical way.  If the minimal dialogue was stripped out, then this could simply be presented as a history book.

There were some interesting details especially about the nature of Antioch and the villages and castles around it that I was not familiar with and then about the progress of the crusaders from Antioch to Jerusalem and briefly how they interacted with the emirates they went through on the way.  However, it was not a work of fiction and there is no real story.  If this is what people who buy my books think a novel is, then they are misinformed and they would be better off seeking out popular history books, which might lack the exciting covers and bombastic rhetoric on the front, but provide the technical detail these readers are looking for.  For myself, while well informed, this did not at all feel like a novel. I found it interesting, but lacking any character development and full of historical facts rather than story, I was not engaged with it as I would have been with a work of fiction.

'Death in a Strange Country' by Donna Leon
This is the second book in the Commissario Brunetti series by Leon, featuring a police detective from Venice.  I am still waiting to read one of her books which would explain the acclaim that there is for her series.  At times Leon does not seem certain whether she is writing a 'cosy' crime novel set amongst the beauty and decay of Venice or wants to produce something more gritty. While I accept the series may improve, so far she has not approached Michael Dibdin in terms of writing crime novels set in contemporary Italy. This novel is patchy in terms of pace. When an American serviceman is found floating dead in a canal in Venice, Brunetti has to travel to Vicenza which at the time of the novel (1993) had a large US Army base.  He has to navigate between the American authorities and powerful Italian businessmen but is aided by a member of the local carabinerie.  The first two-thirds of the book are pretty slow, with Brunetti trekking back and forth between Venice and Vicenza. The pace is not aided by the fact that Leon goes into immense detail about how people have their coffees and other details which are clearly aimed to add atmosphere but really slow up the book. In contrast there are two 'info dumps' when Brunetti simply has a meeting with a person and they provide a great deal of the information he needs with no difficulty. The pace picks up towards the end of the book when corruption and environmental damage is uncovered. A side story about the theft of expensive paintings is connected in too, but again it has been a laboured affair with Brunetti taking ages to track down the supposed thief even though he knows him and he is in the constraints of Venice.  There are some interesting elements in this novel, but the execution is erratic.

'A Brief Survey of Austrian History' by Richard Rickett
I have no idea where I got this book from. First published in 1966 (I have the 1972 edition) by a Viennese publishers, it was aimed at giving English-speaking tourists to Austria a history of the country. The flow of the book is very erratic and seems largely to alight on particular topics or individuals which interest Rickett rather than giving an even picture of the country. There is quite a lot of stuff on the medieval expansion of Austria and then on various rulers, notably Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph and the failed attempts at reform. Metternich gets particular attention, but so does a lot of cultural aspects especially in the 18th Century.  The fight for Tyrol during the Napoleonic Wars was something I knew nothing about but despite being brief is covered in detail.  The period up to the assimilation by Germany, through the 1920s and 1930s also gets much attention, but almost everything after that is covered briefly. I particularly wished for more about Austria in the 1950s and 1960s which gets scant coverage.  Overall it is a odd, but perhaps charming little book, rather let down by the fact it flits from topic to topic on the basis of the author's interest rather than giving a thorough coverage no matter how brief.

Audio Books
'Death Message' by Mark Billingham; read by Robert Glenister
Having listened to 'Lifeless' (2005) and found it refreshing, I was looking forward to this book that while two books later in the same series, featured the detective Tom Thorne.  I know that Billingham has striven for grittiness and realism in his portrayal of policing in London.  However, with this book it went too far and Thorne ends up as much a criminal as many of those he arrests.  He is drawn into a series of killings as the murderer sends him mobile phone messages, a mix of text, photos and video, of the victims.  While trying not to give away too much of what happens, Thorne begins to use the serial killer, not turning him into the police and eventually using him to exact revenge.  There are some qualms on his part, but it seems towards the end as if Billingham has lost control of the plot.

It is common these days in novels to see things from both the criminal's and the detective's perspective, even when dealing with serial killers. We also have stories featuring corrupt or vengeful police officers, but you get the sense that this is not really what the author intended for his character (though I may be wrong).  By the end you see Thorne as no better than the people he is supposed to be pursuing.  It really undermines his relationship with his girlfriend, also a police detective of the same rank and his best friend, a police pathologist.  His deceit of them removes any faith we had in Thorne. I do not know if it is the beginning of Thorne's slide into criminality; 7 books follow this one.  However, for me, I was riled feeling that the sympathy built up for Thorne was tossed aside and it was far too easy for him to become the companion and indeed user of a serial killer, with minimal doubts about his actions.

Glenister did well with all the London voices, pretty decently with the female characters.  However, my engagement with his narration was overshadowed by a novel which went right off the rails and made the 'hero' seem like it was him who should be being arrested rather than those he was meant to be going after, almost all of whom end up dead anyway, because of Thorne's negligence, and his use of a killer to carry out his own ends.

'Gallows View' by Peter Robinson; read by Neil Pearson
This book is the first book in the D(C)I Banks series of novels which have been televised in recent years.  It is set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Eastvale where Banks and his family have moved from London.  The book is set in the 1980s.  This is one of the interesting things about crime novels, is that they really show up the technology of the time.  As 'Death Message' (2007) was about mobile phones of the mid-2000s, this book, published in 1987 is about mid-1980s technology including early police computers, film cameras and even slide projectors.  I would put it in the category of 'cosy' crime books, if it was not so sordid.

It has trappings of a cosy story being set in a small town with various characters and a very limited number of suspects.  Many of the points of tension are low key as whether Banks will sleep with an attractive police psychologist and activities are old fashioned like building a dry stone wall and attending the camera club.  One of the prime crimes investigated is a 'peeping tom' which seems to precede the sophisticated stalking of today.  However, the story involves a rape and the rapist is detected through catching gonorrhea.  Given that by the end three residents have been arrested - for manslaughter, rape and voyeurism, you do worry at the crime level of the small town and how quickly Robinson would have got through much of the population.

While I cannot put my finger on why, overall, I was disappointed by the book.  Perhaps it felt too old without being period.  Perhaps it seemed contrived, though I have accepted many crime books set in small places that have been so as well.  I suppose the mix of these elements, simply did not work for me.  Pearson who voices a lot of crime audio books, did well, capturing the Yorkshire accents of a range of people and doing convincing female voices.  I was left feeling that, despite his efforts, Robinson's work is not something I will return to.

'The Winter Ghosts' by Kate Mosse; read by Julian Rhind-Tutt
This book features tropes that Mosse has built her career upon - a stranger coming to southern France and having a time-slip experience. There is also reference to the Occitan language and the Cathars, a persecuted heretical Christian-based religion prominent in the region in the 13th and 14th Centuries, the followers of which were massacred.  It is different in that the protagonist is a man rather than a woman and it is set in 1928 and 1933 rather than in modern day.  It features Freddie Watson, a young man from Sussex who has been unable to recover from the death of his elder brother, George, in June 1916, fighting on the Western Front. He has come out of a psychiatric institution but is still heavily troubled by grief.  In December 1928 on a driving holiday in southern France he crashes his car and ends up in a small village. He is invited to attend a celebration for the feast day of St. Etienne but slips through time to a 14th Century version of the event where he encounters Cathar locals and witnesses their suppression.

Mosse is great at portraying the locales, here more into the Pyrenees than in her previous books; the physicality of moving around them is well represented.  She is also good at the mystery of people from the past impacting on the present.  The challenge with this book is that it was extended from a 2009 novella and at times you felt it has been 'padded'.  In particular Freddie, despite being haunted by his brother, is slow to realise that he is interacting with more ghosts, especially the beautiful Fabrissa who he falls for and this drives on his subsequent actions. While Mosse is good on what happened in the 14th Century, I am surprised that she makes no reference to how popular spiritualism had become following the First World War. Even if Freddie did not previously subscribe to its beliefs, he certainly would have been aware of rational people (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle notable among them) who felt they could be in contact with the dead.  She does present Freddie's sustained grief well and reminds us that people do not 'get over' death easily, especially when it was on such a horrific scale as the First World War with so many very grim ends for people.

Rhind-Tutt, though best known for his comedy work, was an excellent choice to read the book, which is largely told in the first person, though jarringly at the end it switches to third person. It is not simply his voice but all the mannerisms that he puts into the portrayal of Freddie that make it very credible.  Overall, I found this an interesting book though built on a simple premise.  Mosse's descriptions are great and her sense of people is strong. She weakens the jeopardy with the looking back from 1933 so we know that not only Freddie survives the 1928 encounters despite their hazards, but mentally he is sound. I think this could have been handled differently. At times, especially given how long it takes Freddie to work out that Fabrissa is a ghost, there would have been much tighter editing, but Mosse is renowned for writing long books. If this had run for 3 hours rather than 5 hours 22 minutes as it did in my edition, it could have had a real punch. With length some of that is dissipated, but not to the extent that this is a poor book.