Saturday, 31 August 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In August

'Cyberabad Days' by Ian McDonald
This book consists of 8 short stories set in the same context as his 'River of Gods' (2004), what was India but around the year 2047. That book, I felt: jammed in far too many Cyberpunk ideas to work effectively. This book, by including just some of the ideas in each story is better. However, having read about the nutes, the battles over fragmented India's control of water and the genetically modified Brahmins already, these seemed spent. McDonald reworked the ideas and even simply showed incidents from the previous book from a different perspective. Interestingly, a number of the stories are from the view of children. There are interesting concepts such as a woman marrying an AI creation from a soap opera (another idea extensively used by McDonald) and the battles between water-controlling families which looks like 'Romeo and Juliet' only to go down an unexpected route.

The introduction of a character from Nepal, a temporary goddess, provides a fresh angle. However, by the end you really feel McDonald has gone at all of these things so intently, that they are now exhausted. This is not a bad book and McDonald has done well in giving new life to Cyberpunk tropes in an atypical setting for English-language readers. I would suggest that you ignore the publication dates and read this book first then, if you enjoy it, 'River of Gods' next. That way you will have some knowledge of the setting and had glimpses of particular incidents, before diving into a thorough story of them. If I had read this book alone I think I would have praised it more. I certainly think it contests the view too often expressed these days that 'short stories go nowhere' and McDonald shows himself capable with them as with epic science fiction. I am glad since this book, he has gone off in new directions, though perhaps as with his 'Luna' series he is in the territory of classic science fiction rather than the other sub-genres, though Cyberpunk always had its space corporations even if they were not a popular focus of the novels back at the sub-genre's height.

'Where Eagles Dare' by Alistair MacLean
I have seen the movie (1968) of this novel (1967) multiple times so when I saw this for 10p, I thought it would be interesting to see how it differed. The movie sticks quite closely to the novel, except there a long passages about a mad pilot flying the team to southern Germany in the book and the team have to do mountaineering not featured in the movie. In the movie, they have a lot more explosives. However, the story is much the same, a team of largely British operatives is flown to the German Alps in 1943 supposedly to free a US general held in a Gestapo headquarters located on a mountain top. In fact it is a mission to root out traitors at senior levels in British intelligence. Some of the names are changed and Clint Eastwood's character Lieutenant Schaffer does not have any romance in the movie in contrast to the novel. The killing of the three traitors is clustered together in the book rather than one separated off as in the movie.  In disguise the British agents visit many more pubs in the town before ending up at the sole one they visit in the movie.

At times I felt Maclean had been anachronistic. However, I found that the Miss. Europe competition begun in 1929 and the commercial production of asbestos dated back to the 19th Century.  The helicopter featured in the book is larger and more sophisticated than those used by the Germans during the Second World War and the term 'chopper' for a helicopter only appeared during the Korean War, 1950-53, at least 7 years after the book is set. Similarly at the time of the story there was no Heathrow Airport. It did not open until 1946 and was known as London Airport until some years later. I guess it shows how hard it was for an author to get details right in the years before the internet.

Overall, especially if you do not know the story, this is an interesting action novel. Unlike modern equivalents it is very tight and gets on with the job. If you do not know the twists, that is an advantage too. Eastwood felt there were too many, but I think that for a modern reader, this is what lifts it above many war action books.

'Ring of Steel': Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918' by Alexander Watson
This is a hefty book (788 pages in my edition) but is an excellent read; one of the best history books I have read in a while.  Watson's scholarship is supreme and he brings to English-speakers a range of resources especially in Eastern European languages, that are not normally accessible. He also draw on books published throughout the 20th Century that have fallen into obscurity. Watson also makes good use of correspondence and diaries as illustrations of the human reality of the statistics and the strategies. It is his ability to connect the strategic and political to the everyday experience that makes the book so strong. The book details the different ways in which the two empires engaged their people and the mistakes they made. Challenges that the regions would face in terms of deprivation, massacres, nationality tensions and anti-Semitism are brought out. Watson is careful not to push a direct causal link especially from the Eastern Front to the activities of Nazi German forces in the Second World War, but does highlight parallels and the simple amount of murder going on in many of the same areas some twenty-five years earlier.

While the human aspect is a strength, Watson also proves excellent at analysing the economic challenges and shows how poorly prepared Germany and especially Austria-Hungary were for a sustained war. The astounding achievement is that their commanders, bumbling along at times, managed to keep the two countries fighting for so long. He also highlights Allied errors which did not exploit the weaknesses of the Central Powers, but the mobilisation of the public including schemes such as the 'nail' figures are fascinating. Overall, a thoroughly engaging book which at times is grim, but like all the best history books, leaves you feeling a greater comprehension of what happened and why it happened than before you read it.

Audio Book - Fiction
'The Girl Who Played With Fire' by Stieg Larsson; read by Martin Wenner
This is the second in the Millennium Trilogy published after Larsson's death. It follows the next steps for Lisbeth Salander, the violent hacker and Mikael Blomqvist the philandering journalist from the first book that I listened to back in May: This book is very messy. The first quarter of it is really a chunk of the previous book in which Salander continues the break in her contact with Blomqvist and goes to the Caribbean where she murders a man during a hurricane, something unconnected with the rest of the novel. She also has her breasts augmented. This highlights a worrying aspect of this novel. The augmentation runs utterly contrary to the character of Salander as we have come to know her. In this novel you really feel the male gaze. The repeated focus on Salander's bisexuality is another aspect of this and one can imagine Larsson as rather creepily poring over these elements, very much like some of the unreconstituted misogynist police officers he features. At times it is almost as if Salander is not developing properly as a character but being forced down certain paths to satiate the author and that jars.

There is an overly complex plot involving the abusive care system into which Salander was forced as a child, a biker gang and a Russian defector turned people trafficker. I like twists, but trying to bring all of these elements together, largely so that there can be more interaction between Blomqvist and Salander, feels really forced and it makes the book heavy going. The situation is not helped, especially in an audio book, with so many characters having similar names. In the end the mass of journalists, security officers, police, care workers, bikers, etc become impenetrable especially as we see through so many points of view and certain sub-plots fizzle out, perhaps only to be revived in the third book. As common with this trilogy there is a lot of violence but this is handled pretty well and you can see/feel the difficulties of an ordinary person facing a thug. Still, there is another aspect of the male gaze, carried over from the previous book, in that there are detailed naming of every piece of equipment whether a computer, a car, motorbike or gun, which does not help with the book flowing smoothly.  Perhaps being Larsson's legacy it was under-edited. Overall, this is even less impressive than the first book.

Wenner does reasonably well, though, unlike most of the Swedish sounding voices, Salander ends up sounding like she came from South London. Wenner is good as the voices when the character is injured or disabled in bringing that aspect to what they say.