Monday, 31 December 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In December

'Waiting for Sunrise' by William Boyd
It was only after I finished reading this book that I realised I had read two earlier ones by Boyd: 'An Ice Cream War' (1982) which I had expected a lot more of and 'Armadillo' (1998) which I was given and did not see the point of.  I acknowledge that I have not read his books that have been award winning notably, 'The Blue Afternoon' (1993), 'Any Human Heart' (2002) or 'Restless' (2006) but I have to say that I am not really impressed with his work.  The three novels I have read seem to consist on disconnected slices of life which pass rather than building a satisfactory whole.  'Waiting for Sunrise' very much fits that pattern and is almost like a number of books.  It features British actor Lysander Rief who visits Vienna in the months before the First World War to receive psychiatric treatment for his inability to orgasm.  Much of the book has far too much unnecessary sex in it which seems really at odds with the time period it is portraying and so undermines the credibility of the book.  Rief's tolerance of his uncle's homosexual relations with Africans is highly anachronistic at a time when being gay was a criminal offence.

The book then morphs into being a spy novel.  There are far too many coincidences and utterly ridiculous errors.  Rief is sent on a mission very like one of those in 'Ashenden: Or the British Agent'  (1928) by Somerset Maugham and it is unsurprising that Boyd was trying to produce a pastiche of a Maugham novel, though levering in 21st century attitudes to sex along the way.  The wartime spy adventure bit is reasonable with Rief uncovering who is leaking detailed information to the Germans and then travelling to Switzerland to carry out an assassination.  The rather cack-handed espionage of the time, which is responsible for Rief almost being assassinated by his own side, is pretty well shown and the problems with class discrimination and an unwillingness to believe who might be a traitor which plagued Britain through much of the 20th century.  Overall, there are some decent bits of this book, but there are too many free-floating chunks and it seems that Boyd felt compelled to drape a spy story over his primary focus on just recounting someone's life and introspection at a particular time with anachronistic sex piled on top.  I will be more careful in future not to slip into buying another Boyd book by accident.

'Strip Jack' by Ian Rankin
While I continue to be riled by Rankin's accounts of his highly diffident approach to novel writing, which he outlines at the start of each of these novels in this mid-2000s edition, I do admire his approach to the crime novel.  He does not open with a murder, but other incidents and the focus at first in this book are steps being taken to discredit a popular independent Scottish MP, Gregor Jack.  It is only later that the murder is revealed and this means it takes time to establish the possible story.  However, we already know all the suspects.  To some degree I liked the two groups of friends orbiting around Jack and his wife Elizabeth.  However, as the book proceeds and the murder is revealed, they become too similar in nature and to intertwined that by the end it is difficult to tell who was connected to whom and what motives they might have.  I feel that Rankin started with a decent basis but it ran away with him and he should have pared down the two circles of suspects more sharply before he reached the end as weariness creeps in for the reader.

Rankin does say, that with this book he felt he had 'grown up' in his writing by the time of this novel, the fourth in the Rebus series, and the last of three published in 1992.  He moves his characters away from fictional locations to real ones.  If you live in Edinburgh, perhaps that has an impact.  However, to someone who has only visited the city on a few occasions it made absolutely no difference.  I felt it undermined what Rankin had done in the first three books as if they were somehow illegitimate which is rather a betrayal of the reader who buys into the settings an author writes whether they are real or fictional.

Though there were many elements of this book I enjoyed especially in the first two-thirds of it, one jarred.  This was the sudden appearance of Patience Aitkin.  The book opens with Rebus having an established relationship with this woman and spending a lot of time at her flat; even considering moving in with her.  Yet, we have heard nothing of this woman before.  At the end of the previous book 'Tooth and Nail' (1992) it appeared that he was about to embark on a long-distance relationship with research psychology student Lisa Frazer.  In this book she has utterly disappeared and Rebus has been having a relationship running over some months.  It is as if there is a book missing that would have preceded this one.  I accept that Rankin felt he had to draw a line under the first three books, but this abrupt jump, in my mind, really weakens the credibility of this fourth book; it could have been handled so much better with just a little effort.

'Fated' by Benedict Jacka
Shopping for fantasy novels, even first hand, let alone second hand, it can be difficult to find the first book in a series.  Consequently I felt fortunate to find this one, the first in the Alex Verus series; Jacka published the first three of them all in 2012 and six others have followed.  While the characters are in their twenties with Verus running a magic shop in Camden, you feel Jacka's roots in young adult writing.  I do not know if the 'feel' of the characters improves in later books.  The story is quite a common one these days, i.e. that parallel to the cities we know are groups of people with exceptional powers.  In Jacka's book they are divided into Dark and Light, and though these are defined in a particular way in this series this is a very common trope for urban fantasy; there is also a giant spider.  I must say though, that the Dark mages are genuinely manipulative and nasty; they keep slaves and torture them for any failure.  The abuse of novice mages is well handled.

One challenge for this book is that Jacka felt the need to do a data dump on the reader.  Thus while there are some well thought out and portrayed scenes, making use of iconic London locations, the flow is often disrupted as Jacka tells us about the world he has created, with Verus speaking to us in the first person.  The magic involves a range of psychic and elemental powers.  Verus is a seer which makes a change from magic users with strong physical powers and there are true elementals with different natures, again the way one kills has a good sharp edge to it.  Aside from the jolts to stop for an info break, and the characters seeming younger than their true ages, I found myself enjoying the end especially the extended climax in which different groups are jostling for supremacy in the space contained within a statue held at the British Museum.  While I would not rush out to buy the next book 'Cursed' (2012), if I saw it second hand I would buy it, in the hope that with all the background established Jacka could give free rein to his story-telling which, aside from the YA caution, is not bad.

'Empire of Sand' by Robert Ryan
This book, published in 2008, should not be confused with 'Empire of Sand' (2018) by Tasha Suri.  While drawing on what is known of the life of T.E. Lawrence, this is a fictional adventure which speculates on his activities in Persia (now Iran) in 1915 before he became involved in the Arab Revolt, though it does include interludes focused on that later period.  Having listened to 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' (1926) earlier this year, I know Lawrence tended to skim over his actions that were less than successful.  This book is better balanced than his own descriptions of what he did.  It shows his sexual ambiguity, that in many ways he was asexual but liked the companionship of Arab boys which naturally has led to questions about him.  It is certain that he 'enjoyed' physical hardship which the desert was able to provide in great quantities and that he thoroughly admired the Arabs as a chivalric people.

The adventure is pretty straight forward with Lawrence working in intelligence in Cairo seeking to stop the shipment of Arabs and Farsis opposed to British rule in the region, masterminded by a German agent, Wilhelm Wassmass.  When a British officer is captured and offered in exchange for the agent's luggage, Lawrence keen for adventure in the desert sets off with an assorted band, including one British charged with assassinating Wassmass.  The venture does not go as planned, but Lawrence's ability to live like a local, endure all that the desert throws at him and to improvise gives the small band a chance.  Aside from not shying away from referencing Lawrence's atypical way of thinking and having an active role for female agents, this could have been a book from the 1930s.  Despite that, it moves along briskly and the outcomes, bar the survival of Lawrence are not known.  The portrayal of the locations in Egypt and Persia are handled very well and you really get a feel for the places the characters are travelling through.

'The First Crusade' by Steven Runciman
This is effectively the first of the three-volume 'A History of the Crusades' by Steven Runciman published in 1951 with the other two volumes following up to 1954.  This is an illustrated version produced in 1980.  However, aside from some useful photographs of the locations mentioned to show the landscape, many of the illustrations are just generic medieval images of warfare and the one of supposed trebuchets is entirely spurious.  It feels as if the editor in 1980 simply chucked in anything that fitted and looked vaguely appropriate.

Runciman has been criticised for simply narrating what happened in the crusades without analysing what happened.  I feel this judgement is unfair.  He drew on a wide range of sources in different languages.  Especially for a book written in the early 1950s it shows surprising awareness of the divisions among those that the crusaders faced and how the Islamic forces were weakened by local rivalry. The book also articulates well, the difficulty the Byzantines had in wanting crusaders to fight for them but not wishing to have their towns wrecked as the caravan of soldiers and camp followers, often ill-disciplined, past through their territory.  He also captures in an accessible way the tensions between the different European lords, many bent more on creating a state for themselves than on 'liberating' Jerusalem.  Runciman is not simply interested in the military but looks at why civilians travelled often at great harm to themselves.

The book is mainly a history but it does try to show a rounded picture of the First Crusade in all its complexity, accessibly.  It probably sounds old fashioned now, despite its references to women and non-Christians, but is no painfully so.  The aspect most wasted was the images included and a lot more useful information could have been included with a better selection rather than having them as a decoration.

'End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80' by Gary Thorn
This is another historian I met back at the end of the 20th century when this book was just coming out.  Like 'The Spanish Civil War' by Andrew Forrest, also published in 2000, which I read back in October 2016: this book by Thorn is aimed at assisting students, in this case taking A Levels in addressing questions about the theme.  For all of that and the structure it imposes, it is still a good read for someone wanting to look at an important part of what was going on in the world, especially post-1945.  In particular, Thorn does not simply look at the British and French empires, but does very good comparative analysis of the demise of the Belgian, Dutch and Portuguese empires, which are often overlooked, at least in English-language texts.  The book has a very brisk, at times chatty style, which can contrast with the violence it highlights.  At times it feels rather breathless, but I guess this is to keep the interest of students.  I do not know if I received an early version but in the copy I had there were some errors: misplaced footnote numbers and a typo on a map, showing an 'Austrian mandate' in the Pacific rather than the correct, 'Australian mandate' which makes a huge difference.  Overall, I found it very informative and in a good analytical structure, which for some may seem plastered on, but you can forgive that for the target audience.  Despite its brisk manner it references a good range of sources and points to interesting cultural perspectives, which I would have liked to have seen more of.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Crooked House' by Agatha Christie; Radio Play
I do not list all the radio plays I listen to on CD, but some seem worthwhile mentioning especially if based on novels.  This is one of Christie's books that I have never read or seen dramatised.  In part I guess it is because it features neither Poirot or Marple and it is a rather claustrophobic being set primarily in one house soon after the Second World War.  The nature of the murderer is also unlike in any other of Christie's books and for that reason I think dramatisers have tended to shy away from it.  However, I have just found out a version came out in Italy in 2017 and was shown on UK television last year; it passed me by entirely.  Anyway, it is set in the house of a wealthy British businessman of Greek extraction, Aristide Leonides.  The nephew, Charles Hayward, of the main detective, Chief Inspector Taverner, is engaged to one of the dead man's grandchildren, Sophia, and is sent in undercover to find out what is happening.  The family in which all members are nasty and/or suspicious is quite a common setting for Christie, but in this one there seems to be no-one who is pleasant; even Sophia is a highly credible suspect.  In particular they seek to put the blame on Leonides second wife and the tutor employed by the family.  It is harder in tone than many of Christie's other books, perhaps reflecting the nature of the time when it was written, being published in 1949.  I found this story pretty gripping as it was one with which I was unfamiliar with so could appreciate the skill in it and certainly did not foresee the final outcome.

'Star Trek: Generations' by J.M. Dillard; read by John de Lance
This was very similar in nature to 'First Contact' also by Dillard that I listened to back in October:  Despite all the voice manipulation and the sound effects, I found it pretty tedious all round.  It links the 'Star Trek' stories of the Captain Kirk era with that of the Captain Picard era by having Kirk sucked into the Nexus after he has retired, a kind of timeless heaven.  Picard is drawn in through trying to stop a scientist blowing up a star so that he can be swept into the Nexus in order to be reunited with his late wife.  There are some renegade female Klingons who are the most interesting characters but are soon despatched.  Picard gets to use the Nexus to travel back in time and correct his error; the paradox he creates are completely ignored.  Despite all the bells and whistles, the story lacks tension.  In part this stems from the worthiness of the 'Star Trek' approach, but I think it is worsened with the Next Generation crew as they often seem highly childish.  An early scene in which they are on the holodeck enacting a scene from 18th Century sailing, seems both juvenile and patronising to the non-humans.  Overall I was rather exasperated by this book.

Non-Fiction - Audio Book
'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson: read by the author
I have sometimes been exasperated by Bryson's work, though I do feel he has improved as the years have passed.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and with him reading it himself, he has really caught the spirit of what he wrote.  It is a popular science book looking at the creation of the universe and the earth, then life on it, especially humans, with lots of detours into various sciences.  At times too many of the examples are drawn from the USA and much of the developments across the world, outside the West are neglected.  However, it is told in a brisk, engaging way and puts a lot of the wonders of our planet and the universe it sits in across clearly.  I was surprised to enjoy this book but I certainly did and can recommend it if you want a crash course in these issues or are just curious about our world.  There are loads to fascinating facts from it to quote at family and friends.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In November

'Head of State' by Andrew Marr
This is a peculiar book.  It seems to stem from Marr's wish to provide a range of caricatures of people he has met in British politics.  I recognised one of the academics in it from my days in London and probably if you are in the know, there are other such portrayals throughout the book.  However, this is the problem.  It is like attending a drama or even being in a conversation that involves so many inside jokes that appear hilarious to the people in the relevant circle, but mean nothing to you.  As a result it is pretty tiresome.  A further fact is that in seeking to avoid offending real people, rather than being an exposé of the genuine UK political system Marr effectively creates an alternate reality.  I obviously love these, but it is not sold as that.  In the book, Queen Elizabeth II has died in the 2010s and Charles III has come to the throne.  After David Cameron, Boris Johnson has briefly been Prime Minister and one of the leading conservative newspapers is the fictional 'Daily Courier'.  Thus, it comes over very much as a fantasy.  Marr could have learnt a lot from reading 'A Very British Coup' (1982) British Chris Mullin.  Unlike Marr, Mullin is able to produce fictional characters, but still somehow be relevant in critiquing the British political system of his time, something Marr fails to do.  Perhaps a problem is that his love of caricature means he clings to a rather light-hearted tone when trying to produce a gripping thriller.  Mullin takes his set-up seriously throughout.  Thus, Marr falls between two stools not being something truly humorous as Malcolm Bradbury would have produced nor a real thriller.

All these drawbacks aside.  The story surrounds the referendum on the UK leaving the EU, which is held later than was actually the case.  The fictional pro-Remain Prime Minister, perhaps modelled on William Hague, dies during the campaign with days to go.  Members of the government and various fixers conceal the fact but it comes to light and the Leave campaign wins as a result.  However, as noted above, it falls down on many aspects and comes over as pretty lifeless, neither funny nor gripping.  It even fails to adopt the approach of 'Primary Colors' (1996) by Joe Klein, which given Marr's background (he even references his own real politics TV show twice in the book), he might have pulled off with greater success.

'Ostland' by David Thomas
Despite being sold as fiction, this is really a true crime book, not a genre I enjoy.  It is wrapped up in fiction.  It concerns a real German officer, Obersturmführer Georg Heuser who served in Minsk during the Second World War and was personally involved in shooting hundreds of Russians and Jews from Germany and Austria to death and ordering the execution of thousands more.  He was arrested in 1959 for war crimes.  He was sentenced to prison in 1961 and was released in 1969.  He died of natural causes in 1989.  In the early years of the war, before being sent to the Eastern Front, Heuser had been a young detective in Berlin and helped capture a serial killer who was first sexually assaulting women then murdering women on trains.  The book has two elements.  It follows Heuser's career in the first person and jumps back and forth to the two investigators and (highly unnecessarily) their sexual relations.  The problem with this book is that in adopting the first person view of a war criminal it cannot escape from making apologies for him.  His qualms about being introduced to the 'actions', i.e. mass murders, and taking part are very weak.  He excuses a lot of what went on as men having to obey orders and having to dull their senses by being drunk.  He tries to show his human side by saving three Viennese Jews who 'do not look Jewish' but even then rapes the eldest daughter.  I know we now have novels in which we see the perspective of the serial killer.  However, their murders are fictional, these were real and as Heuser recognises himself, far beyond the scale that even the worst serial killers had murdered on.  It is horrendous that Thomas put so much work into this to produce such a sordid book which can only help Holocaust deniers and those on the extreme right-wing no matter how far the author pleads the opposite in the essay apologising for his apologist book at the end.  I hate the fact that I bought this book; I feel utterly dirtied by it.

'The Shepherd's Crown' by Terry Pratchett
This is the fifth book in the Tiffany Aching novel and the last Discworld novel that Pratchett ever published.  It is not particularly funny and like many of Pratchett's later books, the message is more important than the humour.  In the books Tiffany grows into her role of being a witch fully and brings together a wide range of witches and brings on young aspirants as well, so it is really about her coming to maturity.  She takes over from Granny Weatherwax who dies near the start of this book and overall it has a bittersweet feel.  However, in this series Pratchett never shied away from addressing the challenges of every day life, even when dealing with magic and a fantasy world.  The fact that Tiffany and Preston find a long-distance relationship a challenge and their jobs get in the way of any married life they might have seems very true to life.  Battling against an incursion of elves into Discworld is the hook on which the story hangs.  Yet, overall, it is a pleasant story which is engaging rather than laugh-out-loud in the way one might expect from Pratchett, but worthwhile all the same.

'1815: The Armies at Waterloo' by Ugo Pericoli and Michael Glover
This book is highly illustrated and largely focuses on the ornate uniforms of all the different units that fought at the Battle of Waterloo.  Thus, it is pretty much a 'trainspotter's book' for people interested in the minutiae, for example for making dioramas or painting models of various soldiers.  Glover provides a decent summary of the campaign and explains the background to the different units, why they were there and what they did.  I plan to write a novel with the campaign as the background, so will retain this as a reference book.  However, if you want more details beyond the uniforms, this is not really the book for you.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Toys' by James Patterson and Neil McMahon; read by Matthew Bomer
As regular readers will know I often buy batches of audio books without really knowing what is in them.  This turned out not to be a contemporary thriller, but a cyberpunk novel, set in 2061 (though some elderly hippies from the 1960s are still alive) when parts of the world, notably North America are ruled by the 'élites', genetically engineered and cybernetically enhanced people who look down on 'humans' who do the mundane jobs.  The hero of the book Hays Baker is a anti-terrorist police officer who moves in high circles and works to eliminate humans aiming at disrupting this dystopian society until an accident reveals that he has not been born an élite in an artificial womb only made to appear one through surgery.  The book then develops into a classic style US thriller with flying cars and high tech as Hays goes on the run and connects with the human resistance which is still in control in Europe.  It has that breathless, constant active voice of US books and 109 chapters, some breaking mid-way through a scene which seems pretty weird, but as far as I understand is no a norm in the USA.  There are qualms on the part of Hays especially about losing contact with his daughters and learning of his wife's true age and complicity with the coup which brought the élites to power.  The way they intend to cull the humans is telegraphed well in advance and what the humans do to the élites seems to suggest they are no better, but that is not really questioned.  It was interesting to real a science fiction thriller, but at times the action tends to drown out the points made by the society that Patterson and McMahon are showing.  Bomer is well suited for the style of the novel and the hero.  He is not bad with the European accents, though they tend to be from the Hollywood playbook.

'Redemption Falls' by Joseph O'Connor; read by Kerry Shale
I found this book difficult to engage with and it is certainly not idea for listening to rather than reading. It is set in the Mountain Territory in 1866.  I cannot find this as a historical term, but seems to cover Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  It certainly borders on Canada and Salt Lake City now in Utah is mentioned. The story largely focuses on the eponymous town to which the characters come.  Many of them stem from the Irish migration into the USA notably the Acting Governor Brigadier General James O'Keeffe, an Irish nationalist agitator who escaped imprisonment in Tasmania and is drinking himself to death, Eliza Mooney and her brother.  It is Eliza's trek from Louisiana into the territory which begins the book.  Both she and her brother become mixed up with bandits in the territory and with O'Keeffe and his New York Latina wife.  O'Connor loses sight of the narrative as the book continues and increasingly we have events reported by a wide range of documents from posters to songs to court records.  This probably works better in book form than when they all have to be voiced.  It means that we are largely detached from the real action of the book and tend to see a lot of the dreary stuff especially about lost opportunities and anger, much more than more engaging sections.

Shale is brilliant at the range of voices, even including an educated Latina woman, a black female servants and a disgruntled 12-year old boy, plus the 'voices' of the official documents.  Overall, however, so much of what goes on is dreary and/or painful and the reader is distanced from the moments of actual tension, that overall, I found the story very tedious.  The use of the different sources is interesting, but it chops up the book even further leading to an assembly of bits and bobs, and not the best of them, which results in a highly depressing book which is less than the sum of its parts.

'A Place of Hiding' by Elizabeth George; read by Simon Jones
Though set in the 1990s and published in 2004, this novel has an old fashioned feel to it.  It is listed as being one of George's Inspector Lindley mysteries, but in fact that character only makes a small cameo appearance.  In fact the main detectives as disabled forensic scientist, Simon St. James and his wife Deborah, who is an friend of the US woman, China River, who has been arrested for the murder of a wealthy philanthropist, Guy Brouard on Guernsey.  Most of the action takes place on the island as the St. James go to find out who actually carried out the peculiar murder, involving drugging and then choking with a stone.  The story draws on events during the German occupation of the island during the Second World War, when Brouard and his sister Ruth who shares his large house, fled there.  It is not a bad story, though there are some rather tired stereotypes.  The motives and behaviour of the murderer stand out and seem more modern than much of the story.  The perspectives of locals with an insular focus is well distinguished from the more sophisticated visitors.  I feel it would have benefited from leaving Lindley out entirely and pushing this back to the 1970s.  While at times desultory, the twist is well handled.  Jones is very good at doing the range of British and Guernsey characters, but has much more trouble with the Americans, especially China and her brother Cherokee.

'For Your Eyes Only' by Ian Fleming; read by Samuel West
This is in fact a collection of short stories featuring James Bond:  'From a View to a Kill', 'For Your Eyes Only', 'Quantum of Solace', 'Risico' and 'The Hildebrand Rarity'.  Elements from 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Risico' appeared in the movie 'For Your Eyes Only' (1981).  The stories in general are not bad. They are set around 1960, the year the book was published and so we find SHAPE, NATO's command for Europe still located outside Paris rather than having relocated to Belgium as happened in 1967.  Fleming does seem to be moving with the times as he references jeans in a couple of places, even once on a woman.

These days it can be a real challenge to 'sell' short stories to readers.  Though they are welcomed for their ease of reading on e-readers, the demand that every single loose end is tied off even in novels means that these days people can be unhappy feeling that the 'story is going nowhere' which stands in direct contrast to what Fleming was seeking to do with a good short story in seeking to leave the reader wanting more.  I am happy with short stories like that but accept that nowadays, this would lead to disgruntlement from many readers.

'From a View to a Kill' involves Bond investigating the murder of a SHAPE despatch rider in this region and stumbling across a Soviet base.  Though brief it is well done and quiet adventurous.  Bond is saved by the intervention of a young female British agent who proves to be a crack shot with a .22 pistol when he encounters the Soviets.  The atmosphere of the woodland around Paris is well done.  Fleming is at his best when describing the natural world.  It also highlights the tensions between MI6 operating in France and the NATO machinery.

'For Your Eyes Only' sees Bond on an assassination on the US-Canadian border in Vermont sent to on a personal revenge mission by M to kill officers from Cuba who have murdered to British friends of M's in Jamaica.  The story was published just a year after Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba, but is set before his victory was achieved.  Ironically the British intelligence services are shown as being more in contact with Castro forces than the cruel Batista government they were seeking to overthrow.  Perhaps like many, Fleming perceived Castro as a nationalist as it was only later once in power he really revealed his Communist tendencies.  The slow advance on his targets and the intervention of the woman orphaned by the killers with a bow (rather than a crossbow as in the movie) complicates matters.  Bond has to yield to the woman who proves more successful in her shot than him.  The jacking up of tension as Bond closes on his targets is handled well.

'Risico' sees Bond sent to Italy to eliminate a particular route for the smuggling of heroin into Britain and as in the movie, he becomes mixed up between two smugglers whose antagonism goes back to the war which finished only 15 years earlier.  This is a clever twist and is atypical for the Bond novels that contacts Bond is sent to, turn out differently to expectations.  It ends with a dramatic gunfight among rolls of newsprint full of opium resin, as is seen in the movie.  Again it is a nice, crisp story with good tension.  However, Fleming does feel obliged as with many of his stories to add unnecessarily at the end that though run by Italians this particular smuggling route is funded by the Soviets in order to undermine Britain, just as he did with stories like 'Live and Let Die' (1954) as if smugglers somehow need to have superpower backing to carry out the crimes that they do.

'The Hildebrand Rarity' is a murder mystery.  Bond is employed by a millionaire who is defrauding the US Treasury and abuses his fifth wife, to hunt for the eponymous rare fish in an island away from the Seychelles.  As with 'A View to a Kill', it provides Fleming an opportunity to write a very rich description of the locations and especially the fish life.  Sections of the story have Bond simply observing this before his employer is murdered using the fish.  Bond tries to discover among the few people on board who committed the murder.  While he narrows down what happened he does not find the answer to the final question and as a short story, it is all the more satisfying for that.

The real disappointment in the book is 'Quantum of Solace' which has no connection to the movie.  Fleming deliberately modelled in on short stories by Somerset Maugham and it is certainly not a spy story; not even one of those from Fleming in which Bond acts as a kind of global policeman. It feels like something from 'Tales of the Unexpected' (1979) by Roald Dahl than anything by Fleming. All it involves is a governor of the Bahamas telling a story about a couple and how they behaved as their marriage broke down.  In contrast to the more positive or brave and/or skilled women in the other stories, in this one a woman's affair is punished severely.  It really brings out the double standards towards women's and men's sexual affairs which are often more attributed to the Bond novels than tends to actually be the case.  A man can have relations with multiple women, but in this story a woman has one affair and it is seen as correct that she is gaslighted and brought to utter penury by her bitter husband's tricks.  I wonder if Fleming included this story to counteract criticism that he was going 'soft' on the 'girls' and letting them have strengths when it should just be the man who could win the day.  I found this story very troubling and the collection is really brought down by including it.  I suggest you skip over it as it comes in the middle and read the other four stories if you are seeking something like a real Bond tale.

Samuel West is pretty good at the voices.  He has a measured tone which particularly fits the tension building that features in a number of the stories better than some of the more ebullient readers in this series.  He is at his strongest when doing the various colonial officials, but all round is good value.
'The Fire Engine that Disappeared' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
One thing that I like about the Sjöwall and Warlöö novels is that they sought to avoid having the same formula in each book.  In this one, a regular detective featured in the stories, Gustavson, is actually at the scene of the crime, an arson attack on a block of flats which naturally proves to be more complex than at first appears.  They manage to mix mundane crime incidents with international high-flying ones.  That is a factor in both this story, which involves an assassin as well as low-level car thieves in Sweden and in 'Murder at the Savoy' which follows.  I think this is one of the factors that explains why people were making dramas of these books in 2012, in this case 42 years after the book was published, and there is such an interest in them still.  It is nice to have a returning cast too as you associate the voices with the particular characters.  Martin Beck's marriage is crumbling in this story.  As before this is a crisp, well thought out story which is very engaging.

'Murder at the Savoy' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This story also involves an assassination, but the solution almost seems to be about turning the outcome of the previous story on its head.  Given the political nature of much of the business the wealthy man shot at the Savoy is involved with we are reminded of the context of 1970, with reference to Rhodesia, South Africa and Biafra, and the fact that Mozambique and Angola were still colonies at the time.  To some degree, the panic around the political implications by the senior staff are overplayed and the solution almost seems a bit random.  However, refreshingly it takes us away from the line we had expected and lots of dubious characters are shown to be just that, not actual murderers.  In this story there is notable reference to businessmen getting rich off jerry-built flats.  In this story we see the contrast shown up sharply between the rich and the poor in a society which is supposed to be more equal than some others, though I did wonder how poor people afforded the expensive weaponry.  With Beck having left his wife, he has romance with a colleague and I also found the kissing sound effects unnecessary.

'The Locked Room' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This book represents a bit of a jump.  One reason is personal because it is very difficult to get hold of a copy of the dramatisation of the seventh book in the series 'The Abominable Man' so this is the eighth and another that it features Martin Beck returning to work in 1972 having been absent from work for the past 15 months having suffered a gunshot wound to the chest.  As the title suggests it features a locked room mystery in which an old man is found shot dead in a locked flat with no gun around.  There is a parallel investigation into an bank robbery which also led to the death of a customer and these come together, though, as sometimes happens in the Beck books, not through the person you expect. 

The point about Swedes living in poor accommodation which has featured in 'Murder at the Savoy'
and to a lesser extent in 'The Fire Engine that Disappeared', reappears in this story, reminding the reader of the much vaunted Marxist critique of Swedish society which are supposed to be at the heart of what Sjöwall and Warlöö wrote.  The twists in this story are very well handled.  Only two things chafed with me.  One is that Beck is now divorced and women seem to be throwing themselves at him, leading to a couple of scenes which are really cringe-worthy.  The other is the detective nicknamed 'Bulldozer' who sticks out gravely among the under-stated, well portrayed characterisations of others in the drama.  The actor took the nickname far too much to heart.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In October

'Tooth and Nail' by Ian Rankin
Before I review the book, I have to say how frustrating it is in the editions of these books I am reading, published in the 2000s to have Rankin's foreword outlining how he went about writing the books.  In contrast to all the strict 'rules' that authors are told they must to adhere to by agents, publishers or general commentators, he seems to have bumbled through writing his books and not making any particular effort to make them successful.  I guess if he had started publishing books today rather than thirty years ago he would be the recipient of tens of comments about how he was doing it all wrong. It is rather galling and makes me wish that I had tried harder to get my books out when it was clearly a lot easier and you were not being harangued by people at every turn telling you how wrong your writing was.

Unlike the other Inspector Rebus stories, this one sees him going to London to investigate a serial killer and it is clearly based on Rankin's own experiences of people struggling comprehending his accent in the capital, though the Edinburgh accent, in contrast to some other Scottish ones, is not too much of a challenge for people in southern England.  He makes much play of the friction between Rebus and the Metropolitan Police officers that he is working alongside who feel patronised by him being brought into assist.  However, the developing relationships with these officers and the psychologist who becomes associated with the case, are well handled.  We see from the perspective of the criminal as well as Rebus, something which seems common these days as with the Val McDermid story I listened to recently, but it makes the criminal credible, though as a reader you do feel rather misled at the end and I found the closing revelations rather bewildering as they seemed to jar with what had been uncovered up until then.  Aside from that sense of a jump near the end, I thought it was pretty well handled with a couple of reasonable twists and Rankin does well characterising the grottiness of London which will be familiar to anyone who has lived there.

'Transition' by Iain Banks
Having enjoyed 'The Algebraist' (2004) by Banks, under his science fiction tag, Iain M. Banks, I was drawn to this book.  While not designated as science fiction, with its story of alternate versions of Earth, to me, it seemed to fit into that kind of category.  It is a well worked theme.  Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter produced the 'Long' series based on the premise, so I was interested to see what Banks would do with it.  I must say that I was disappointed.  He has multiple characters, some of whom may be the same person simply at different times.  However, rather than develop them fully, he flits between them.  I like the concept of an organisation, the Concern, trying to police people jumping between alternatives; individuals having a range of powers associated with the different worlds and an internal battle between people with such powers.  Yet it is all fragmented into small pieces which often do not advance the story; one character spends almost all their time doing very little in a hospital.

Some of the longer sections, such as the assassination of one character's companion in Venice, are suitable as short stories in themselves, but the rest is too insubstantial.  The book reminded me of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series with repeated characters flitting between various alternatives and with a lot of unnecessary sex.  Aside from 'The Final Programme' (1968), I found these tiresome, but they had the advantage of being short, usually around 150 pages.  Banks, in contrast in my edition goes on for 469 pages.  At times I wondered if he was trying an extended pastiche of one of Moorcock's books.  In summing up, there were some good ideas here and the basis of a good novel; there are some well executed scenes.  However, the books is very much less than the sum of its parts and all of these good attributes are wasted in what turns out to be a real mess.

'Medieval People' by Eileen Power
I was recommended this book over thirty years ago and finally got around to it.  I found it far better than most books I am recommended to read.  It was first published in 1924 and I was reading a 1939 edition.  Power was effectively making the case for the study of social history at a time when it attracted minimal attention in the UK.  She did this by focusing on a number of medieval people as the title suggests and showing to the readers how a range of sources can be used to explore the lives of such people.  In particular she looked at government and church records of the time, which were often neglected, especially outside local history research.  By focusing on a mix of well known people, Marco Polo in one chapter, the Prioress from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', Madam Eglentyne with the far lesser known such as Bodo, a French peasant; a Parisian house wife and two merchants in the wool and cloth trade, she highlights what can be revealed.  Of course, especially since the 1960s and 1970s, social history has become a legitimate focus of study, but this book is a key marker of the start of the discipline.

At times the book shows its age, Power speaks of the 'crafty Jew' and refers to the Mongols as 'Tartars'.  She is also unquestioning of whether Marco Polo actually reached China or just picked up stories from other travellers there, despite highlighting the glaring gaps in his account.  However, despite these flaws, she provides wonderfully crisp vignettes of the individuals which give a good insight into the time periods and what was going on, especially in terms of wool and cloth trade, part of the largest industry of the time.  She counteracts the patronising attitude of people towards the past in outlining how complex relationships of all kinds were and what motivated people.  There are interesting sections on the functioning of inspections of convents, the economics of marriage and the complexities of trading internationally with all the issues around currency exchange and quality control, which are faced today.  Overall, an engaging book, despite its age.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Dead Man's Footsteps' by Peter James; read by Neil Pearson
This is the fourth book in James's Roy Grace series; I read the previous three back in 2016.  Unlike many authors who seek to make it unclear when and where their novels are set, James goes right the other way, with specific settings in the 2000s and in very specific places in and around Brighton in southern England.  This story jumps between two time periods, events around the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and 2007 Brighton where a woman is being threatened and a skeleton had turned up.  Grace is struggling against a colleague being favoured by his boss who seems keen to dig up anything on Grace's missing wife.

I am never keen on stories featuring the 11th September attacks as I feel the incidents have been used very inappropriately and as a justification for attitude and actions that were not right.  Also being someone who grew up in a country plagued by terrorism throughout my life, the sense of many that terrorism somehow only appeared in the Western world in the 21st century.  However, I can see why James made use of it as it provided a great opportunity for people wanting to cover their tracks and much of this novel is about people not being who they seem to be and others exploiting that situation.  James typically had strands which seem unrelated but slowly come together.  In this novel, that seemed to take far too long compared to some of the others.  The theme of high-value stamps feels rather levered into the novel but I can understand why it interested James as they are a way of moving a lot of money around easily.   There are some good dramatic scenes and given that James is not afraid to kill or injure his principal characters, you have a real sense of jeopardy.

I found it rather unsettling to have Pearson reading the book as I have recently been listening to the Martin Beck series of plays in which he appears as recurring detective.  He is not too bad as the voice of this novel, but is too well known for you to detach from envisaging him rather than him acting all the characters as an audio book narrator needs to do effectively.  Overall, this book was not bad, but in some ways I did not feel it was the best of the series.

'Dead Tomorrow' by Peter James; read by William Gaminara
This is the fifth book in the series and follows on some months after the one reviewed above.  Fortunately the two most annoying characters in that book have moved on.  As is common with the series, James has apparently disconnected threads, including street children in Romania, a Brighton teenager needing a liver transplant and bodies found off the coast of Sussex.  Though at times pretty gruesome, I felt this story, which revolves around the trafficking of people for organ harvesting was much tighter than 'Dead Man's Footsteps'.  The story felt credible and less convoluted.  Again you feel, though, that the jeopardy is genuine and I am glad James does not let off characters who we might sympathise with, especially not in bending the law on compassionate grounds.  We find out more about Roy Grace's missing wife who popped up incongruously at the end of the previous book.  However, Grace not stumbling across evidence he needs at a crucial time in regard to her seemed terribly contorted.

Overall, this is a gritty novel with no easy answers to the moral dilemmas.  If you dislike sustained scenes of surgery then it is best avoided.  I much prefer Gaminara in reading these books to Pearson, maybe because I am not as familiar with his voice.  He does tend to make some of the younger police officers sound older than we know they are.

'Dead Like You' by Peter James; read by William Gaminara
This is the sixth in the series and again is set not long, though not immediately after the previous book.  Again it jumps between the present, i.e. 2009 and the past, 1997.  James's last three books have seemed to have a theme: stamps and organs, in this book it is shoe fetishes.  However, despite initially feeling this was a kind of 'McGuffin' especially as the stamps had been, in fact, James uses it much better.  As is common in his books we see through the eyes of the killer, but in this one there are three candidates, all shoe fetishists, and it is intriguing when seeing through their eyes to work out which is truly the killer, who is the rapist and who is trying to go straight but on the edge of the other two men's crimes.  This is a very gritty novel in the series, in part because we get the sordid nature of the men and their disgust at women coming from three sources rather than one.  The victims themselves do not simply lie down in the face of their attackers and the climactic battle between the final woman and the murderer is well handled.  As usual, James ties his stories to very specific times and places, you could walk around many of the locations for real.  I like the fact that he does not try to make them slightly timeless as authors are often encouraged to do.  It does make it possible for him to reflect on current developments and he seems hooked on connecting them to others over the decades too.

Gaminara is in his stride reading this book.  He does well in voicing sordid characters, but also being convincing as the women under threat.  In the moments of fear, he is good at communicating this, the energy and the reactions from both sides, so does very well as a reader of James's take on the police procedural.

'The Novice' by Trudi Canavan; read by Samantha Bond
This is another book with a different reader to the previous one in the series.  This is the sequel to 'The Magicians' Guild' which I heard last month, but read by Kellie Bright.  Bond is far better known not simply in the UK but globally.  She does very well in voicing the spectrum of characters and is in large part close to Bright's interpretation, though they do pronounce some of the names differently.  This book follows Sonea now that she is a student in the Guild and all the bullying she faces as a result of being brought up in the slums.  She also faces danger from what she knows of the High Lord the head of the Guild and the practices he undertakes.

I guess all books about magic colleges/universities end up sounding like British boarding school novels of the 1930s because of the set up and the old fashioned nature of magic users.  I also worry that the High Lord is becoming rather like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, though Canavan was writing these before he was fully revealed in published books.  What is different in these books is what is happening elsewhere in Canavan's world a character from the previous book, Lord Dannyl travels the world trying to uncover the background to the High Lord's powers and comes to understand his own homosexuality.  Canavan does go out of her way to try to subvert a lot of fantasy tropes.  At times it can feel that these, as with suppression of the lower classes in the first book, are rather plastered on, but I concede that might be because we do not see them often in fantasy books and I read far fewer these days than in my youth.  The arena scene at the end of the book is very well done and leads to a great climax.  I do hope that Sonea does not spend too long in the guild university and gets out into the wider world once again.

I must say I do like how Trudi Canavan handles magic in these stories.  It is a force that is a kind of mix of mental and physical power, with the magicians envisaging what they want to achieve in their minds, but it still draining them physically.  Little is said of the alchemy studies, but this is generally a magic system without magic potions or ingredients, not even magic words and somehow this makes it seem 'credible' even though it is something fantastical.

'The High Lord' by Trudi Canavan; read by Samantha Bond
Coming to the third book in the trilogy I was beginning to feel that each of the three had been written by a different author.  The character of Sonea seems to alter so much.  There is a complete flip around in this book and I know Canavan is trying to spring surprises on the reader, but these are so severe that it reduces confidence in the characters.  In this book we find that Sonea is now 20, even though it has been only three years since 'The Magicians' Guild' was set when she seemed to be a younger girl, probably no more than 15, if not younger.  The two readers have voiced her that way, so it is rather startling when she is suddenly naïve, despite growing up in the slums, but sexually active in this book. I am not convinced by her change in loyalties.  To draw a Rowling parallel this would be like Hermione Granger running off with Professor Snape, if not Lord Voldemort himself. The book has some good scenes.  In this series Canavan has always been strongest in writing about people charging through the city, so the battle to defend it, is as good as the first two-thirds of 'The Magicians' Guild' when Sonea is hiding in the city.  Her wandering around the wastelands is far less interesting.  In fact too many people wander around too many wastelands and the magicians in general turn out to be pretty pathetic.  The action scenes are good but not the bits in between.  The three love interests are not really resolved.  In many ways I admire what Canavan has done with the series, but it has been far too erratic in nature for me to enjoy.

Samantha Bond does the voices well, they are now established.  However, I feel she, like the reader has been caught out by Sonea suddenly leaping to being 3-5 years older than envisaged and so she still sound 14 even when she declares she is 20.

'First Contact' by J.M. Dillard; read by Gates McFadden
I saw the movie this novel was based on some years ago but had forgotten enough of the plot for this to be alright to listen to without me knowing what was going to happen next.  It is a 'Star Trek' story featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard fighting against the Borg, a cyborg race that travel back in time in an attempt to stop the first test flight of a faster-than-light drive by humans which attracts the attention of the Vulcans and then the humans' integration into the Federation.  What is rather surprising is the development is made in the mid-21st century after the world has suffered a nuclear war, so there is an element of a survivalist story in here, probably the most unlikely context for the development of such technology especially given that the lead scientist is an alcoholic living in a tent in Montana.  There are parallel developments involving different members of the crew of the Enterprise, working on Earth and battling through the space ship in an attempt to dislodge the Borg from it.

I guess one extra element that you get from the book are the thoughts of Picard and other characters.  These are very important in the captain's case because as a former prisoner of the Borg he gets more than an inkling of what they are going to do and this helps him fight back.  Overall, it was rather a workerlike story rather than one with great moments of tension because those who are lost and assimilated by the Borg are not characters that have been developed beyond their names.  To enhance the drama the producers of the audio book have added in a lot of sound effects.  McFadden's voice is often moderated, beyond her acting the voices of the different characters.  There is music which is sometimes too loud to hear the text, laser blasts, explosions, engine sounds and worst of all squelchy sounds of surgery.  Overall, I feel these detract rather than add to the book.  McFadden, otherwise, does pretty well in capturing the full spectrum of characters.  I had not realised that she was the actress who played the character, Chief Medical Officer Commander Beverly Crusher in the Next Generation stories of  'Star Trek'.

'The Bourne Deception' by Eric Van Lustbader; read by Jeremy Davidson
I have seen the first three movies of the Jason Bourne series, but have read none of the original books by Robert Ludlum nor these successor ones by Eric Van Lustbader though I did read a martial arts adventure by him twenty years ago which I thought a friend of mine was giving me as a recommendation to read, but it turns out he disliked it and thought I was better placed to dispose of it!  Reading this book, I realised why the source of some gripes from readers of my own novels.  The majority of the readers who contact me are right-wing men from the USA.  It is clear now that they expect their books all to be written this way, especially if dealing with warfare.

The language is incessantly bombastic, but with the most contorted similes you could imagine.  Furthermore, it keeps stopping to give a highly technical read out of the weaponry being used.  When a man is seeking to shoot Bourne we get a whole slew of data about the gun and the telescopic sight he is using.  Later there is a description of the three calibres of the different ammunition on board a helicopter.  Thus, you have a breathless style which is interrupted by likening things at length to other things, often utterly unrelated and a manual on whatever machinery a character is using.  I could not write this way even if I wanted to and think it is a rather mind-numbing and certainly unsubtle approach, which actually reduces any genuine sense of jeopardy.

The sense of jeopardy is further reduced by the fact that Jason Bourne himself seems invincible, to the extent that this is even commented upon by characters.  In contrast others, especially the women, seem disposable.  I accept there has been some attempt to include women as agents and controllers, but at times they seem particularly vulnerable and too many carry sexy sounding guns in thigh holsters for it to seem feasible.  A further weakness is how twisted the plot is.  The attack on Iran seems contemporary as does featuring 'security' consultancies working for the US government but to their own agenda.  However, there are too many threads and especially too many people in prosthetic disguises to really get your head around.  It also distances Bourne from the action for much of the book and instead we see things largely through disposable characters.  I guess, however, this is how people expect action novels to be written these days and they are intolerant of anyone who tries anything marginally different.

Davidson does a good job with the voices of the different character of both genders.  He manages Russian and Egyptian accents pretty convincingly, but struggles with the Australian and New Zealand ones.  I have no idea why Van Lustbader has such an aversion to Munich; his description of the city is terribly misplaced and erroneous, he could have picked scores of other German cities that would have fitted better.

'Attention All Shipping' by Charlie Connelly; read by Alex Jennings
Though written by a Briton, this is very much in the Bill Bryson area of writing.  Feeling nostalgic for the daily radio shipping forecast, Connelly decided to travel to all of the zones mentioned in the broadcast, along the way visiting the locations of some interesting people and recounting to readers about how the structure of the forecast came about and developed.  The trouble is that many of the zones are simply chunks of sea and Connelly made no effort to even visit one oil or gas rig, though he did get to Sealand.  Many of the other zones cover bleak islands or soggy coastal regions, so a lot of what he articulates is about being depressed in a rundown place.  It is quite stunning how ill-prepared Connelly is for many of his journeys especially to the more remote places, so a lot of the time he comes across as a really pathetic character, a little xenophobic when he finds things are different to back home, both in the way Bryson did in some of his earlier books.  There are highlights, primarily when he is outlining his family history, the achievements of a particular individual from the town or about the story of some light houses.  Overall, there was insufficient of interest to make this journey worthwhile and so recounting it is naturally lacking in substance.

I now know Alex Jennings well as a reader of audio books.  This is one of those where the reader seems so close to the author, that you feel he is almost that man.  That helps a little, though it just emphasises how desultory the whole project was and largely how ill-prepared Connelly was for it.  Thus, there is little to admire, bar what he read up on about local heroes.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Evening in Amiens: A Mystery

Evening in Amiens: A Mystery

This book was in part a new departure for me, as it is a crime novel, but set in 2018.  I have visited Amiens on a couple of occasions and while there I began thinking about the contrast between how different people see life.  Thus, was born the concept of a novel in which you have an apparently unhappy man and one, despite the pressures he faces, finds life worthwhile and fulfilling.  In my crime novels, this is the nineteenth of those, I like to look at aspects of the characters that go beyond the crime itself, to provide rounded individuals which you can believe in as genuine, even if they are fictional.

Amiens is a pleasant city in northern France which possesses one unique aspect - the hortillonages.  These are floating gardens that were developed in the Middle Ages and are very much in use today.  A market selling produce from the gardens has had a revival in recent years.  You can walk alongside these or even pay to have a boat tour through them.  I thought this tranquil setting would be an interesting place for a body to turn up.  A few other things came into play.  One of these was finding out that French policemen retire at 52; until recently it was 50, so they are comparatively young when they stop work.

I was keen to include places I have visited in Amiens and indeed in Arras and Dunkirk which feature in part in the book.  If I had written this 5 years ago, perhaps only 3, it seems many more of them would still be open; there has been a spate of closures in recent years.  However, given the wonders of the internet I was able to replace them with real places still open (as well as a few fictional ones) and even find out what would be on the menu if you decided to visit one of them.

I hope that readers find the book engaging, not simply for unravelling the mystery but also for the portrayal of life in contemporary France and for looking at the different ways in which men cope or do not cope with ageing.  We are currently being told so often what we are assumed to be and how we should behave, it makes it harder than ever to know where we should be going next and if there is actually anything in our lives we can legitimately enjoy.
The book is available on various Amazon websites:
UK @ £2.64:
USA @ US$3.46:
Canada @ CAN$3.50
Australia @ AUS$4.79
Germany and I imagine other parts of Europe @ €2.99:

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In September

'The Redbreast' by Jo Nesbø
I was given this book by people who read a lot of crime fiction, I think because it is one of those novels which parallels events in the Second World War with contemporary events.  The book is set in Norway in the 2000s, notably around the rise of neo-Nazis, but also looks at the lives of Norwegian volunteers in the SS who fought for the Germans on the Eastern Front.  I know Nesbø is incredibly successful, but I found this book incredibly hard going.  I can accept narratives jumping around in time and confused characters, but this book goes too far.  Some chapters are only a couple of pages long and as a result the whole book, despite its length (618 pages in my edition) is incredibly fragmented.  Towards the end we are told of people taking on other identities and the format makes this very difficult to follow.  There is some tension towards the end of the book, but generally most of it felt like a pile of numerous disjointed bits that did not hang together and so I did not engage with it, just worked my way through some lumps of text at each setting.  The attention to detail and the core characters are well done, but I felt distanced from them as with this format they were just like icing on a pile of cake crumbs which it was hard to envisage as a cake.  I will not try any of Nesbø's other books even if they turn up in a charity shop.

'I Shall Wear Midnight' by Terry Pratchett
This is the fourth of the five Tiffany Aching books which I think are the best among Pratchett's 21st Century work.  They retain the humour of his earlier books but get the messages about tolerance which were clearly increasingly important to Pratchett in a way which is far less cumbersome and overwhelming as was the case in the mainstream Discworld novels of this time.  Tiffany is now established as the witch of the Chalk, a downland sheep-raising region.  Her role is largely as district nurse and social worker, her main magic abilities being able to fly a broom, disappear into shadows and take pain from people.  The main challenge of this book is facing rising bigotry against witches, stimulated by an ancient force called the Cunning Man.  Pratchett deftly balances the humorous and the sinister.  You genuinely feel his characters are vulnerable.  In this book he does not avoid the challenging, aside from the Cunning Man and the evil that he encourages people to do, Tiffany has to deal with a tough case.  A thirteen year old girl has been made pregnant by her thirteen-year old boyfriend and then has been beaten so hard by her father as to miscarry.  The father attempts suicide.  Pratchett shows Tiffany dealing with the social pressures and the need for compassion in a way better than many authors for adult audiences.  Overall, this was an enjoyable book with some challenging elements.  If you enjoyed classic Pratchett then I think you will like this, with a dose of Pratchett-with-a-message from his later books but not stifling good story telling and humour.

'Guernica' by Dave Boling
This is not a bad novel.  You have to appreciate Boling's research into Guernica and its surrounding area in the late 19th and early 20th century, running up to 1940.  In immense detail he writes about two inter-linked families and their neighbours.  Little happens and this is very much a 'slice of life' novel with the author jumping between the various fictional characters in Guernica and real people such as Pablo Picasso and Oberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen.  It reminded me of the 'Larkrise to Candleford' series (2008-11) based on a trilogy of semi-autobiographical books by Flora Thompson, published 1939-43.  The characters are interesting enough, but as it goes on, it is all rather 'twee'.  Furthermore, like a story set aboard the 'Titanic', you cannot escape knowing that it is building up to the bombing and strafing of Guernica on 26th April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War by German bomber and fighter aircraft.  The novel continues three years after then and abruptly introduces two British characters.  In a rather contrived way, these people end up connecting back to the surviving Basque characters.  The book passes by without really engaging you.  The only jarring section is when Boling speaks about the two Britons, considering 'going back to school' and utterly inappropriate phrase for British adults, when in fact he means returning to university.  Overall, I admired the book but got very little from it and by the end found it tiresome and increasingly contrived.  There is no over-arching story and like with 'Larkrise to Candleford' you have snippets of story with the novel being less than a sum of its parts.

'From Crossbow to H-Bomb' by Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie
This book takes military technology from ancient times up to the early 1970s.  It is almost like two books, one before the detonation of atomic bombs in 1945 and then one afterwards.  It is clear that the Brodies are really primarily interested in the developments in nuclear weapons.  These are pretty technical at times but are useful especially in these days when fear of nuclear war has subsided to indicate their nature.  Their points about the ongoing need for conventional weapons and their increasing sophistication remain as relevant now in the 21st century as at the time they were writing.

Going back from this second chunk of the book, the rest is pretty interesting.  What comes across is not how fast weaponry developed but how slowly.  Medieval warriors were using equipment that the Greek hoplites would have understood and then even with gunpowder, the weapons at Waterloo were simply augmentation of the firearms seen in the latter years of the Hundred Years' War.  Throughout they show how innovation was turned away from and that governments tended to order more of what they already had rather than seek anything new.  At times, though, they fall victim to stories that were probably around at the time they were writing but now are certainly known to have been wrong.  For the First World War they believe that with a little more consistency the German U-boat campaign could have starved Britain, utterly neglecting how successful the Allied blockade of Germany was leading to the so-called Turnip Winter as early as the end of 1916, which saw German civilians malnourished.

Similarly they over-estimate the German tanks in 1940 saying they were larger, faster and better armoured than the French equivalents.  This is wrong on all counts.  The Panzer I had never even been intended to go to war and many German tanks involved in Blitzkrieg only had machine guns, weaker than the French tanks facing them.  The Brodies do not see the point they make in passing, about the disposition of French tanks and the recklessness of the German tank commanders, which meant a victory largely through bluff rather than technical superiority.

Thus, while this book has some very interesting nuggets and makes good points on the reasons behind failing to innovate, it is patchy and this represents a sometimes distorted view of history and the Brodies' overarching fascination with nuclear weapons above all else.

Audio Books - Fiction
'More Than You Can Say' by Paul Torbay; read by Jonathan Keeble
There are not many audio books that I have to stop listening to.  While I finished this one, there were occasions in the process when I had to switch it off because it annoyed me so much.  Keeble is good at sounding like the hero of the story and voicing the other characters he encounters, even the women.  It was more the nature of the story which riled me.  Basically it is a John Buchan story brought forward a century, but retaining many of the elements of the early 20th century, i.e. the hero Richard Gaunt is a member of a gambling club in London where he is bet that he can walk to Oxford by lunchtime the next day, in his dinner suit.  Later when escaping the baddies he runs into a friend out on a partridge shoot in the Oxfordshire countryside and later still he finds refuge in a stately home owned by a friend.  You could find some of these elements in 'The Thirty Nine Steps' (1978) movie version of Buchan's novel.

Contrary to this very old fashioned approach to an adventure, there are sections that are basically lectures on the British involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century.  Yes, we know they were a mess and there was torture and the people who fought there came back were screwed up, but these sections are like pausing the novel to patronise us about those things.  Despite his ignorance, perhaps because of his upper class attitude, Gaunt is terrible at listening to what women are saying to him and so the listener/reader ends up many steps ahead of him as he is married to a woman from Afghanistan, Adina, and is drawn into a terrorist plot.  One saving grace is that Torbay gives some recognition to the 'other' side in these conflicts.  There are some points of tension, but steadily you become exasperated by how useless the hero is and how mired he is in such old fashioned attitudes.  I can imagine the kind of reader this book would appeal to and he is certainly different to me.

'The Man on the Balcony' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This is the third story of the ten in the Martin Beck series and by this stage the BBC were well polished in their presentation.  One gets a real feel for Sweden of the late 1960s, though in this book the authors seem far less negative towards every aspect of it than they did previously, they even seem tolerant of the Christmas period.  This story revolves around finding a child killer and this is done by locating a habitual mugger. It really feels like a work of detection and it is enjoyable seeing the detectives piece it together.  In fact, on the arrest of the murderer the book comes to an end, I guess because Sjöwall and Warlöö's usual line that criminals are simply malfunctioning in the supposedly perfect but flawed Swedish society would be hard to swallow even for their fans with such a murderer.  Certainly, though, it made me want to continue with the series.

'The Laughing Policeman' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
The fourth story in the Beck series is different in seeing what initially appears to be a terrorist attack on a bus killing all the occupants.  The detectives have to work out who was the intended target and why.  What is interesting is that the focus is on another officer working undercover in his own time, so rather than seeing the crime from the leading characters of the series, we witness them reassembling what a colleague was getting up to.  It is an interesting interweaving of a 'cold case' with a terrorist act and reminds us that such things were going on long before the 21st century, despite what many people think today.

'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Seebold; read by Alyssa Bresnahan
This book is seen through the eyes of a 14-year old girl, Susie Salmon, murdered by a serial killer in Pennsylvania in 1973.  She watches from her view of Heaven over her killer, her family and her neighbours.  I worried at times that it would be too American; that all the emotions would thus be taken to the extreme.  I also imagined that it would be mawkish.  It does go that way at times and it goes on too long; I think it would have been better to cut off five years after Susie's killing rather than going on into the 1980s.  I guess the author felt she had to show some of the healing and the 'redemption' of Susie's mother who escapes to California for some of the book.  Overall, it is alright.  The narration has many touches of humour, despite the dark subject, and there are moments of tension especially when Susie's father and sister seek to expose the man they rightly suspect of being Susie's killer.  The book follows lots of narratives not simply about Susie's family members, she also has a younger brother, Buckley, but also people she knew at school and some of their parents.  It is very good at summing up this corner of the USA at the time, though the detailing tends of fade as the book leaves behind the early 1970s.

There is no mention of Vietnam or the US political developments of the times, the focus is really on quite ordinary people, much of the time messing up.  In the latter phases of the book the ghost of Susie has greater intervention and at one stage she possesses a friend to complete something she started when alive and so the book shifts into being more supernatural even at a stage when Susie had appeared to not engage as much as before and her family appeared to be getting over her.  I think this is where the American perspective comes in, everything must be resolved in a way a European writer might resist or even baulk against.  I was also unhappy with the underage sex in the middle of the book, which seemed unnecessary and inappropriate.  I do not understand why authors, whether they are Seebold or Pratchett feel they are at liberty to include such portrayals.

Bresnahan is particularly good in manifesting Susie and the narration, plus is not too bad at the other characters, male or female.  Overall, there were some interesting and gripping parts to this novel.  However, there is too much of it and it is far too sentimental for me to enjoy, but that may be because I have British rather than American sensibilities and prefer a story with out every last loose end tied off leading to contortions for the novel.

'The Mermaids Singing' by Val McDermid; read by Alan Cummings
Though I have been aware of McDermid for many years this is in fact the first of her books I have engaged with.  It is a brisk story of a serial killer in the fictional town of Bradfield, though some of its locations seem to owe a lot of Manchester.  We see events from the perspective of a female police detective, a profiler with sexual dysfunction that she works with and the serial killer themselves.  Cummings does a very good job of inhabiting these different perspectives and bringing out the ambivalences and misunderstandings which are essential for this particular story.  The story is credible, though at times some of the stubborn old police officers seem rather hackneyed, more turn up in the next review.  The fact that errors are made and even trumped by other errors make the story engaging even within the police procedural genre.  The only tough bit for me was the descriptions of the torture methods that the killer uses, they are very graphic.  Overall, however, now I have sampled McDermid's work I would not be averse to returning to it.

'The Complaints' by Ian Rankin; read by James MacPherson
Though this is by Rankin and set in Edinburgh, it does not feature John Rebus.  Instead it focuses on the post-alcoholic Malcolm Fox who works for Lothian and Borders Complaints and Conduct unit, an internal affairs unit which has appeared in the Rebus stories.  Fox is assigned to investigate a Detective Sergeant Jamie Breck from a neighbouring force suspected of accessing child pornography.   However, in turn Breck is set to investigate the murder of the abusive partner of Fox's sister.  This begins a complex story with inter-locking cases and lots of corruption involving the police, local criminals and property developers.  Rankin provides an involved story, though the full extent is only unravelled towards the end.  I think he just stays the right side of it becoming too involved and at the end I felt both Fox and Breck had been luckier than they had deserved; it all ends rather too neatly.  In some ways it was good that Rankin provided something different to Rebus, but despite some trips to other cities, you are still largely being taken around Edinburgh.  However, I have not yet tired of Rankin's work whether in print or on audio.

MacPherson's voice is very familiar for someone who watched 'Taggart' for many years and at times, you have to remind yourself that this is a different set-up, not a story from that series.  It will be easier if you are less familiar with the actor.  However, he does the range of Scottish voices very well, even when Rankin also features gruff, stolid old police officers, bellowing, the way McDermid did to some degree.  I guess they must reflect reality to such an extent as to be compulsory for police procedurals.

'The Magicians' Guild' by Trudi Canavan; read by Kellie Bright
I had not realised that this was a young adult series, though having got through the Harry Potter books, that is not really a problem for me.  It is a while since I have read a real fantasy novel.  It is important to remember that this book was published in 2001, when only four of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books were out and the darkest phase had not been reached, thus while you might think there are similarities, they were written in parallel rather than Canavan copying Rowling.  The story is set in the fantasy city of Imardin.  A girl, Sonea, gets involved in a protest against 'The Purge' a periodic clearing of the city's slums, in part carried out by the magicians.  During the protest her own magic skills are revealed and she is hunted down by the magicians for the first three-fifths of the book.  At first I was worried that it would be full of tired tropes.  The magicians dress in colour robes and have guild buildings that sound like bits of Oxford University.  However, fortunately, Canavan is more interested in the functioning of her city and, in particular, its social class relations.  Much of the book is the pursuit through the city with Sonia having to rely on slum-dweller friends and The Thieves.

When Sonia is caught, you feel that a lot of the book has been wasted.  One of my central problems with the novel is that it went in directions which irritated me.  I was also less than happy with the patronising attitude of the magician characters.  However, I guess the social hierarchy and the claustrophobia of the city and then the guild buildings does distinguish this from other fantasy novels and gives it a degree of 'realism'.  I guess being fearful and making poor decisions should be expected from a teenage character.  The number of people that she is uncertain whether she can trust or not, keeps the plot bobbing along and lifts it up on occasion from being mired in the tropes you would expect from a magicians' guild.

Kellie Bright turned out to have an English accent which works reasonably well in articulating the levels of Imardin society in a way an American may have struggled with.  The only thing to note is that she tends to make the slum dwellers sound like the cast of 'Oliver!' (1968) especially Sonea's best friend, Serry who sounds like the brother of the Artful Dodger.  I have the other two books in the trilogy, but given my irritations with this one, I am uncertain whether I will listen to them.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In August

'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer; Translated by Nevill Coghill
The edition I read was the 1971 edition of this 1951 translation.  While Coghill translates the Middle English into Modern English he goes to great efforts to keep the whole text in appropriate rhymes.  This can be quite an exhausting read as you steam through the text buoyed along by the rhymes.  I had covered the Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale when at school and though I knew occasional references to the stories, most of them were new to me as were some of the reciters, e.g. the nun's priest and the canon's yeoman who in fact is not in the Prologue but catches the company when on the road.  As you will no doubt know, the story is about a group of pilgrims heading from London to Canterbury to see the tomb of Thomas à Beckett.  They are accompanied by the Host of the inn they assemble at and are charged each with telling stories on the way to and from Canterbury with the best winning a prize.  Chaucer puts himself among the party but is stopped from delivering the story he wants to give and instead gives a prose essay which is not contained in this volume, only summarised.  The Parson effectively delivers a surname which again is just summarised in this book and not given in detail.  Chaucer never finished the book.  The Cook's Tale is incomplete and the characters do not actually reach Canterbury before the book comes to an end.

Chaucer has brought together people from right across the social classes of the late 14th century, barring the nobility and serfs. He is very clever in using the stories to show us much more about the character of the teller.  For example the Knight is supposed to be telling a story of courtly romance but spends more time on the two knights fighting each other, their forces and the buildings that are constructed, than anything romantic.  He also works up tensions between various characters, notably the Miller and the Reeve.  Many of the stories are taken from ancient sources rather than being original to Chaucer, but that was the tendency of the day and this book was always going to be an anthology.  There are morality tales, such as that of the Pardoner and indeed warnings to readers such as that of the Canon's Yeoman, about the hazards of getting involved with alchemy.  However, the main topic of these stories, offering different perspectives, some humorous, but mainly serious, about relations between men and women especially in marriage and whether one spouse should obey the other.  This topic does not simply appear in the Wife of Bath's story and dialogue, where she shows herself a clear feminist, but in other stories too, for example in the Merchant's and the Squire's tales.  I suppose this was a universal topic which would have appealed to a range of audiences who might have not been keen on the heavily religious stories such as that of the Second Nun, though women do feature notably throughout.

The stories may seem rather simplistic nowadays.  They also seem bigoted no Jew or Muslim has a good word said about them in any of the stories and on occasion they two religions are portrayed as deceptive and malicious, though Chaucer gives a range of Christians, including men of the church, who display such characteristics too.  The stories do show the concerns of people of the era and that I many ways their approach to society, let alone relations between men and women, were similar to those attitudes we could see nowadays.  The hostility to Jews and Muslims, can be found with the same sort of vigour in social media, six centuries on.  I guess this is why Chaucer's work has remained of interest.  While there are references which will be obscure, what is at the heart of the 23 stories are ideas and views that will be familiar to a modern reader as well as informing you about the attitudes of people of the medieval period.

'Hide and Seek' by Ian Rankin
This book was published in 1991, four years after Rankin's first novel.  It is rather galling to read the introduction added in 2005 in which the author outlines how desultory had been his efforts in writing this second book and getting it published.  He also says he had not pinned down the main character of John Rebus and altered him subsequently.  These days I do not think any author could come close to getting any book published with such an ill-focused approach.

Anyway, this is another short detective book focusing on Rebus, promoted to Detective Inspector but as with 'Knots and Crosses' (1987) on a murder case which actually does not look like a case at all.  He investigates drug users living in a squat and the situation is confused by male prostitution, leading businessmen indulging in a range of crimes and tension between Rebus and colleagues.  I like the fact that it is not simply a murder mystery and you feel there are far more directions for the book to go in than would have been the case under another author.  Once more, Rankin paints a very rich portrait of many different corners of Edinburgh.  His detective is dysfunctional but not to the extreme that it becomes hackneyed.  However, given his confession in the introduction I am rather disconcerted that this is not really the 'true' Rebus yet.  However, overall it is a satisfying detective story with credibility and effective atmosphere.

'The Secret History of Vampires' ed. by Darrell Schweitzer
I have produced a number of collections of short stories, but they usually are received poorly as people complain that 'they do not go anywhere'.  I accept that despite enjoying doing them, I might be bad at writing short stories, it is a very different skill to writing novels.  However, I keep finding such collections for sale and feel that the reviews dismissing the legitimacy of them is misplaced.  This collection of 13 short stories by leading authors like Harry Turtledove, Brian Stableford and Tanith Lee, I really think re-emphasises the value of such work.  The premise of this book is that vampires feature in interaction with historical characters or, in fact, more often, the historical characters are revealed to be vampires.  While Lenin, Greta Garbo and Cleopatra appear as vampires, Catherine of Aragon, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Napoleon Bonaparte are shown as vampire hunters.

The stories vary considerably.  I did not like 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Ian Watson, involving astronomer Tycho Brahe in 16th century Prague, the anachronistic Chinese takeaway seemed a very poor joke and undermined the whole story.  'A Princess of Spain' by Carrie Vaughn, featuring Catherine of Aragon battling vampires alongside Prince Henry Tudor; 'Garbo Quits' by Ron Goulart set in early 1940s Hollywood and featuring a vampire gang among the movie business, plus 'Sepulchres of the Undead' by Keith Taylor about a group seeking to purge vampirism from Egypt in 2566 BCE, are really engaging and you want to read more about them.  In contrast, Harry Turtledove's 'Under St. Peter's' does what a short story should do best, it is a bold, stunning glimpse into something greater but well rounded of itself.  Despite the lurid cover, this book turned out to be better than I might have expected and reminded me what good fantasy short story writing can be.

'The Ends of the Earth' by Robert Goddard
This book published in 2015 is the third book in the surprisingly successful 'The Wide World' trilogy.  It is set in 1919 and is basically a Bulldog Drummond book but featuring James 'Max' Maxted, a British fighter pilot whose father was murdered at the Paris Peace Conference.  In this book he assembles a team, including stock characters such as Sam, his mechanic from the war, to go Japan to track down the Japanese count he believes ordered his father's death.  There is also a German spy involved, seeking employment with the Japanese government and he has more stock characters, a suave but ultimately cowardly Frenchman and a ruthless female Russian spy.  You could almost forgive Goddard falling back on such tropes, and there are more that I have not listed including the athletic son at the Swiss school, the bombastic British agent, the practical Japanese detective, the Japanese man now a monk and so on and on and put it down as a pastiche.  However, Goddard's modern day sensibilities mean it is also burdened by a lot of despair.  Constantly all the plans of the 'heroes' are wiped out. The opponents appear preternaturally omniscient and able to defy almost every step taken even before the characters we are following have decided upon it.  As a result, the reverses that come - that have to come otherwise the book would be at an end within fifty pages - are highly random, abrupt and rely greatly on coincidence and good luck rather than any skill.  People like this type of story because they feel that in the modern world they show them a time when individuals had agency and through wits and courage could alter what was happening.  As a result, I found this a highly irritating, and at times, ridiculous book.  I am glad I only came in at the end of the trilogy.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Blue Labyrinth' by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; read by René Auberjonois
This is the eighth standalone book featuring FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast though he features in a number of other books which had been written by Preston and Child since 1995.  It is clear from the start that they were aiming for a modern day American equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.  His brother is even named Diogenes and Mycroft Holmes generally inhabited the Diogenes Club in Conan Doyle's novels.  Pendergast is rather superhuman, being ex-special forces, a crack shot with an old pistol and having studied with various esoteric tutors so is skilled at mimicking people, even envisaging events he has not witnessed as if he saw them and a skilled martial artist.  He is very wealthy and has a coterie of friends who aid him.  Two women: his ward and a scientist who is a friend, carry out sustained action and quite vicious violence across many of the latter chapters of the book.  He also has friends and enemies in the New York police force.  Though he is employed by the FBI he does not actually seem to do any work for them, at least in this book, and due to his wealth they only pay him $1 per year.

Thus, we have a very interesting character but it is very over-the-top and some readers will find, like me, that they are drowning in the immense detail.  Preston and Child go to town on numerous topics from the formation of turquoise, the Salton Sea resort, various chemical reactions, the nature of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, 19th century quack medicine, various North American plants, super acids, a museum, and so on.  Some will enjoy this attention to detail but for others it will appear a slog.  There are lots of twists and turns and it is good to see that the whole of Pendergast's team gets involved rather than it all depending on him.  The research is to be admired and the twists are well done.  The final battles are both gruesome and protracted.  You feel this would have been a better novel for being much tighter.  The Sherlock Holmes stories were nearly all short and you feel at times that the authors are adding in elements simply to show what they can do rather to genuinely add to the story.

René Auberjonois does very well with a challenging job.  Pendergast puts on different accents as part of his investigation.  One character speaks with English, we are told, with an accent both influenced by Brazilian Portuguese and Swiss German!  His women, always a challenge for male readers, come off convincingly sounding appropriate to their ages and not seeming girlish when we know they are very knowledgeable.  I suppose this book at 14 hours on CD is good value and you learn a lot from it, but you will need stamina to get through it no matter what format you access it in.

'A Series of Murders' by Simon Brett; radio play with narration by Bill Nighy
This is the 13th story in Brett's Charles Paris stories and was published in 1989, so four years before 'A Reconstructed Corpse' I listened to and enjoyed a couple of months back.  Bill Nighy both narrates and performs in this story.  It follows a similar formula with Paris having an on-off relationship with his wife.  In this story he has an ongoing job as a police sergeant in a television adaptation of an elderly female authors' series of novels, what these days would be called 'cosy crime' stories.  A number of the cast are killed both in London and then on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset.  Paris works out the situation and prompts the resolution.  Nighy is well cast for the role of Paris both in narration and acting the part.  The stories are brisk but believable and for radio seem to have been brought up to date, e.g. in terms of celebrity culture.  The only thing I would have liked more of with this one was the old pop music which was such as feature of  'A Reconstructed Corpse', but maybe the of the rights to use the songs is increasingly prohibitive.  There a number of these plays out on CD and I will look out for those at a good price.

'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë; read by Harriet Walter
Opening with the story of an orphaned girl being bullied by her relatives, I did worry this was going to be another depressing book along the lines of Dickens or Hardy's work that I have read recently.  Fortunately the horrendous school Jane Eyre is sent to, is quickly improved and the action jumps to her adulthood and her work as a governess.  The mad wife locked in the big house has almost become a trope of gothic horror stories these days, but listening to one of the original ones, it is handled pretty well and with genuine intrigue.  The heartbreak which follows the attempt at bigamy and then Jane facing absolute poverty are done effectively.  Her pitching up by chance with long-lost relatives does seem rather contrived.  The advantage of this story over some of the others I have listened to recently, let alone 'Wuthering Heights' by Charlotte's sister, that I avoided, is that it does not drag on.  The developments are much more effective for not being lost amongst extended text about dreary activities which simply plump out the book.  While I would hardly say I was a fan of this book, I did find it far more tolerable than some of the 'classics' I have listened to recently.

Harriet Walter handles this better than 'Middlemarch'.  Perhaps the briskness and smaller range of characters, with less hysteria helps in this regard.  She does well in bringing the characters to life in a convincing way, even the young girl speaking French.

'Overture to Death' by Ngaio Marsh; read by Anton Lesser
I think Anton Lesser is becoming my favourite audio book reader.  With this book he has rendered the female characters so well that I had to check that there was not a female reader employed as well to provide them.  This is an uber-cosy crime novel, set in the village of Winton St. Giles, close to uplands wonderfully know as Cloudyfold.  Winton is a part of Bournemouth and Clouds Hill near Bovington, where T.E. Lawrence was living four years before the book was published are both in Dorset, though Winton would have been in Hampshire at the time.  It revolves around an amateur dramatics event to raise funds for the local youth group at which a local elderly spinster is shot dead.

This is the eighth book of thirty-two to feature Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, clearly a member of the British gentry; younger brother of a baronet.  This manner allows him to command respect among the mainly middle class suspects.  He often has an austere manner, though warmer than the way Patrick Malahide has tended to portray him in televised episodes.  With a number of scandals that these days seem very old fashioned about people in their twenties marrying against the will of their parents, two spinsters competing for the affections of the rector and a doctor with a disabled wife considering an affair with a patient, provide the background for the killing, which though pretty contrived is just about believable.  The solution effectively comes down to carefully working out who went where and when, so it is explicitly like a puzzle.  The book is fine if you enjoy English village murders, but being the first Marsh novel I have come across, I do not feel she is as adept as Agatha Christie, at least at her best.

'Roseanna' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This is the first of the ten books written by the couple Sjöwall and Warlöö between 1964-1975.  As left-wingers they felt there was much at fault with social democratic Sweden at the time, because despite its welfare state it still suffered crime.  Though, as they show in this book, their view of criminals is not that they are evil but maladjusted.  They have received renewed attention in the light of the Scandi-noir fad in the UK of the 2010s.  I have long wanted to read the books, but then found the BBC had done a series of plays of the books in 2012.  As with the Charles Paris CDs there is acting but also narration.  The difference with these books is Sharp and Gleaves effectively play the two authors who intervene directly throughout the books to explain their perspective.  The other parts are acted by a range of people, though the returning roles are kept by the same actors throughout.

This is a brisk crime story about the eponymous American woman who turns up dead in a canal in 1964 and the protracted investigation to find out who she was and then entrap her killer.  Some of the story is on the different attitudes to sex in Sweden and the USA and the challenge to people of 1964 with a woman who enjoys sex with a series of partners.  It is played against the backdrop of the decay in the marriage of the lead detective, Inspector Martin Beck.  The acting is good and the sound effects evocative of both the places and the times.

While writing an engaging crime novel, even with its period setting now, Sjöwall and Warlöö go overboard in trying to make life in mid-1960s Sweden appear terrible.  They emphasise the wet and cold weather and how dreary everything is after the Christmas period.  To British readers knowing that era, the fact that everyone seems to have a television and no-one seems to return to work until 7th January, already makes it appear a lot better than the UK at the time, so this forced disapproval seems just that, forced.  In contrast to Leonardo Sciscia with post-war Sicily or Josef Škvorecký with Czechoslovakia, there is no subtle revelation of what is 'wrong' with the society being featured.  Yes, it has criminals, but which society does not and the quality of life for many people shown in the novel is better than for many contemporaries in other countries then and today.  I do not get to spend the summer on an island with a small boat or even go as a 'deck passenger' on a river cruise.

Thus, I do feel the authors protest too much.  Still this does not distract from a well thought out, tense crime novel and I enjoyed this far more than 'Overture to Death' (1939).  Thus, I intend to collect the other radio plays which seem readily available still.

'The Man who Went up in Smoke' by Maj Sjöwall and Per Warlöö; radio play with narration by Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves
This is the second book in Sjöwall and Warlöö's Martin Beck series and takes the action forward to 1966.  Once more Beck has his holiday interrupted, this time to work on behalf of the Swedish Foreign Office in locating a Swedish journalist who has disappeared while in Hungary.  The Foreign Office is effectively being blackmailed by the journalist's magazine into doing something or facing a critical article.  Again, despite Sjöwall and Warlöö's assertions of what they see as serious flaws in Swedish society, the fact that a government department could in effect be held to account this way seems quite surprising to a modern reader.

Beck travels to Budapest, in what was Communist Hungary at the time and only ten years after the Hungarian Uprising had been suppressed by Soviet troops.  To some degree the authors play on this as when Beck is followed, we simply assume it is by the secret police, though by that time Hungary was rare in not having a formal force beyond the Ministry of the Interior; though Soviet operatives worked in the country.  Sjöwall and Warlöö seem to have affection for Hungary and describe it in very positive terms in contrast to Sweden.  The food is good, the views wonderful and trips on the river, delightful.  Beck gains aid from the Hungarian authorities and the case takes him back to Sweden.  It is well written with good twists, though we may have foreseen some of the smuggling aspects.  Unfortunately the title of the book, a direct translation of the Swedish one, undermines the closing phase of the book, some other title like 'The Missing Journalist' would have maintained the final mystery longer.  Overall, despite the authors' assertions about places, I found this an engaging thriller and am looking forward to the rest.

The acting is handled very well, especially as a lot of scenes involve actors speaking with their mouths full of food.  However, I do find it difficult to accept Neil Pearson playing Lennart Kollberg, Beck's deputy because of his role in 'Between the Lines' (1992-94) as Superintendent Tony Clark.  I would have cast him as Beck and the man who actually plays him, Steven Mackintosh, as Kollberg. That, however, is simply how I see the nature of the two actors.  They both do their roles well.

'A Question of Blood' by Ian Rankin; read by Tom Cotcher
This book was published in 2003, so 12 years after 'Hide and Seek' discussed above.  While Inspector John Rebus is the hero of the book, things have moved on a great deal around him.  Inspector Gill Templer of the earlier book is now a Chief Superintendent, three ranks higher.  This book gives almost equal time to Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke who acts as his aide a lot of time, especially after he has scalded his hands.  As with many of the Rebus stories, a murder is not clear in the usual sense, even when in this one a gunman has gone on the rampage in a private school.  As in the other books, there are parallel stories, notably about a petty criminal who has threatened DS Clarke and after sharing a drink with Rebus is found burnt alive.  Rankin keeps the different threads going well and brings in a range of aspects, including an Army investigation and Edinburgh's enduring Gothic community.  Though these aspects are as sharp as ever, and especially given that we do not know if Clarke is going to survive, there are good points of tension.  However, I found it, unlike the earlier Rebus stories I have read, not to be as tight.  There is too much driving backwards and forwards between parts of Edinburgh and the environs, out to Jura and other locations.  It has some good twists and the usual elements of Rebus who is suspended for much of the novel.  However, I felt it could have been handled with a greater terseness to keep the mystery and the tension taut throughout.

Cotcher is great with a range of Scottish accents and like the best readers you feel that you are listening to the main character.  He does struggle much more with the non-Scottish accents, especially the Liverpudlian army investigator and an Australian police officer.

'Discovering Castles' by Walter Earnshaw
This is another of those rather twee non-fiction books from the mid-1960s that I picked up during my life and feel me with a great sense of nostalgia, though some of their views would now seem unacceptable.  In this one, aside from the mention of one envisaged girl, the book seems primarily aimed at boys, indeed largely as boys' schools.  It is a brisk survey of  English castles and castles built by the English in Wales from the Norman Conquest to the 16th century.  Drawing on lots of examples from across England and Wales, it outlines how castles evolved and why, showing the clear phases.  It also outlines the ways in which they were attacked, again drawing on historical examples.  There are an array of drawings of castles and plans of them.  Two things jarred.  One was the extended urgings for boys to do activities associated with castles (the girl could apparently look at the clothing of people who lived in them) and the incongruous appendix about torture devices.  Some of these I had never heard of, but found the descriptions chilling even as an adult.  It certainly punctured my nostalgia and so I would not see this book in the way I have other similar ones I have read over the last couple of years.  I came away from it seeing Earnshaw as a rather unsettling obsessive for all of the pleasant wrappings.