'Who Was David Weiser?' by Pawel Huelle; translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones
If you do not like unreliable narrators then this is certainly a book to avoid. It is set in the summer of 1957 in northern Poland though goes on erratically into the future, probably the 1970s or 1980s. It is written in the first person and dodges around chronologically as the narrator talks about the investigation by teachers, local officials and the police into the disappearance of David Weiser, a Jewish boy at the narrator's school. The activities of the narrator and his various primary-school friends across the summer are recounted at length. It also keeps coming back to their engagement with Weiser and his girlfriend Elka. Weiser is a kind of Svengali characters who seeks adoration from the narrator and his friends, largely through his semi-detached engagement with them, making use of munitions left over from the Second World War and perhaps pulling off genuine magic such as flying as well as odd but more down-to-Earth activities like dancing to Elka's pipe and playing football in a disinterested but highly skilled way.
The novel is engaging, richly portraying a particular time and place that does not feature in English-language writing. The characters are well drawn and you do have an interest in what happened to David and indeed Elka, though the outcomes for the two are different. The trouble is that the parameters are so constrained that it soon becomes tedious, going back and forth in time between the events that unfolded, the questioning of the boys and then references to later decades. After a while you feel like you have seen it all multiple times and in the end it felt a lot longer than its 220 pages. The idea and attention to detail are good. In a short story they would have been highly engaging, but everything is stretched far too thin and as a result the charm that the book initially has is soon utterly worn away and you lose interest in what finally happened whether for real or as a result of some magic realism.
'Mortal Causes' by Ian Rankin
In December I retrieved the remaining 10 Rebus books that I had in storage. As a result I came back to the series for the first time since May 2019. This is not a bad story, though as before I feel at times Rankin has lots of ideas that he does not really know how to take forward. There are odd things like Rebus sleeping with a lawyer he encounters even though he is living with his girlfriend. It seemed out of character and did very little to advance the story unless she is going to turn up in subsequent books. The story is a mish-mash of involvement of Northern Irish Loyalist paramilitaries receiving funding from the USA and importing arms via Scotland. The book opens with the scene of a torture and execution and Rebus gets entwined with different elements of the paramilitaries and numerous individuals both on that side and in various police units. Intrigue is fine but at times you do begin to wonder what the point is. I must say, though, that final fifth of the book works far better than the preceding sections and you wish that Rankin had kept tighter control over the variety of characters and various developments to raise the entire book to that quality.
'The Salmon of Doubt' by Douglas Adams
I misunderstood what this book was. In the middle of it are a couple of novelettes one featuring Dirk Gently and one Zaphod Beeblebrox, assembled posthumously from various fragments. However, the rest of the book is made up of various articles and transcripts that Adams made down the years, some are very short. They effectively form a kind of biography of the closing years of his life and the topics that interested him notably conservation of species and technology. In terms of technology Adams was very perceptive and accurately predicted things like texting with your thumbs on phones and the search for a universal charger format. Individual articles featured are interesting enough, but really this is a book for serious Adams fans who want to know a little more about the man they admire, but for the general reader there is little here.
'The Black Angels' by Rupert Butler
As I noted when I read Butler's 'Gestapo' (1981) - not to be confused with the subsequent illustrated versions: https://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/04/books-i-read-in-april.html - Butler was very much part of that populist history for sale in branches of Woolworths and newsagents. This book which focuses on the Waffen SS, though at times touches on other branches of the SS, is less sporadic than 'Gestapo' and the book is a pretty comprehensive study of how the Waffen SS developed and where they served. Butler does feature atrocities committed by the units, especially against Allied soldiers. However, he struggles to avoid slipping into hagiography and so praises the courage and speed of the Waffen SS units. He really downplays the strength of the opposition to them, notably in France, and over-estimates the strength and level of machinery that the German side had. He, also, like many populist historians of the war, sees Blitzkrieg as something carefully planned in advance and used in Poland as much as France rather than largely developing from the behaviour of reckless generals, ignoring orders. The hagiography becomes apparent too when he begins to speak of the East European SS units that were created and you feel that he sees them as a slur on he honour of the SS and to blame for atrocities, not seeming to recognise that his derogatory racial stereotyping was akin to the attitudes of the SS themselves. There are interesting elements in the book in terms of where the SS fought and their contribution to various campaigns, notably the so-called Battle of the Bulge. However, you cannot help by being unsettled by the extent to which Butler is an enthusiast for the SS and sees admirable traits in many of their soldiers, even while outlining the atrocities they committed.