Sunday, 28 February 2021

Books I Listened To/Read In February

'Life of Pi' by Yann Martell
I do not really know why I bought this book. I realised, however, that I had been misled by the images associated with it and the movie based on it, showing a boy and a tiger in a small, otherwise empty lifeboat. In fact they are aboard a lifeboat with room to hold 32 people and with sufficient supplies to feed them for months and equipment to, for example, purify sea water and catch fish. While the book does play around with what is fact and what is fiction, in reality, the set-up that dominates the book is less fantastical than the images make it appear. Much of the narrative is about practical steps that the protagonist takes not only to survive months at sea but also to control the tiger on the large boat with him.

The book focuses on Piscine Molitor 'Pi' Patel born in the early 1960s to a zoo owner and his wife in Pondicherry in India. The first part of the book seems very detached from the bulk of the novel and details Pi's childhood and how he ended up following Christianity, Islam and Hinduism simultaneously. Though the book tells the reader it is about God, aside from some mention of prayers, this element is forgotten as the book moves into its main part. More important are the lessons in animal psychology that Pi gains from his father.

The main part of the story begins when Pi is 16 and is emigrating with his family from Pondicherry to Canada, in response to the regime of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Pi's father owned a zoo in Pondicherry and with them are many of the animals which have been sold to zoos in North America. The ship sinks and Pi is the only human survivor ending up in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the tiger which eats them all. The main part of the book is how Pi stays alive and it is very much a 'Robinson Crusoe' style narrative with him learning by trial and error how to get water and food, while working out how to deal with the tiger. His body suffers and he becomes blind at one stage, meeting another castaway. He arrives on an island built of algae. These latter phases the book becomes less credible, in contrast to the more gripping and sharply practical elements earlier. However, they add to the sense that Pi's ordeal has scrambled his thoughts or has led to hallucinations.

I can accept the slippage of chronology, but I think after the battle for survival the more fantastical elements towards the end made me feel a little betrayed. I guess Martell was aiming to sow doubt in our minds and undermine what was a reasonably credible story. Even then the Japanese officials who interview Pi disbelieve the whole thing and he makes up a completely different account for them. Thus, we see that Martell's intention was not really a survival story at all, but rather seeing how far he could push something with us still feeling it might be true. Though I guess I would have welcomed a more straightforward survival story and this toying with the reader is irritating, fortunately, I accepted the book more than if it had been the highly philosophical, metaphysical text I had expected from all the images.

'The Black Ice' by Michael Connelly
This is the second book in Connelly's Harry Bosch series. It is set some months after the first one, 'The Black Echo' (1992): so some of the same characters in the police force feature. It is a bit more deft than the previous book and Bosch does not seem obliged to sleep with every professional woman he comes across. Mexican women seem out of bounds to him, but that is not really a surprise in the context of this book. Much of the action happens in or on the border with Mexico. The country is portrayed incredibly negatively with almost everyone in the police corrupt, the towns shabby and stinking and the people, at best, disingenuous if not outright hostile. At times it feels very much like a stereotype portrayal which might have been tolerable in 1993, but will rile readers these days.

The story starts with an apparent suicide of a narcotics officer who has left a case for Bosch, though as before he struggles to get assigned not just to that but to any case. Another officer involved seeks quickly to leave the police and there seems to be a connection to a dead Mexican labourer who it appears has been brought from the border. The black ice of the title is a McGuffin, a mix of heroin, cocaine and PCP and initially, especially with references to Hawaii, is a bit of a distraction. The plot is complex enough with the mixing up of drug smugglers, a company producing sterile mayflies and a number of police officers who may be corrupt or just scared.

The action is handled reasonably well. As before, it is clear that Connelly was aiming for a modern version of the hard-boiled detective novels of the mid-20th Century, there is even an explicit reference to 'The Long Goodbye' (1953) by Raymond Chandler. There are various set-piece scenes, though at times Connelly goes too far. The involvement of bull fighting at various stages, seems part of his stereotype of Mexico and then seems levered in, especially when the champion bull attacks the helicopter Bosch is in. I guess Connelly felt he knew his immediate market, but at times it seems he is trying to be Chandler and Ernest Hemingway all wrapped into one, rather than Michael Connelly. As a result he ends up with what is now cliched when he does show that he can do better when subtler. There are interesting ideas with questions of identity and the fact that US Caucasians see Hispanics as a different race, even if they are US citizens, let alone of they come from Latin America, but Connelly while engaging with these a little, does not seem willing to press these issues.

Overall it is a reasonable thriller with some nice twists. However, you get a sense that somewhere in there is a better author who is being weighed down by feeling obliged to pay tribute to his heroes and to comply very much with US readers' expectations of how Mexico and Mexicans should, in their eyes, be portrayed. Added to these, especially in the early stages there are too many dead ends, which burden the book without adding genuine mystery. At times a better Connelly flashes out from beneath all this accretion and I can only hope that this version of him wins out in the subsequent books of his that I have been given.

'Bodyguard of Lies' by Anthony Cave Brown
This book at 947 pages long is the reason why I have read few other books this month. The book is supposed to be about the various deception techniques used by the British and Americans to aid them in fighting in Europe and North Africa. There are good sections on these issues, whether decoy activities such as Operation Mincemeat or tricks played with wireless signals or physical ones such as inflatable tanks and parachutist dolls to mislead enemy reconnaissance. There is good analysis of the 'weather war' aiming to keep the Germans ignorant of developing conditions and Operation Starkey the 1943 deception plan to keep the Germans thinking an invasion was imminent but which costs many lives among the French Resistance.

These elements are lost, however, in large swathes of text which is at best tangential to the story and often is irrelevant and covered better in other books with a different focus. Yes, the breaking of Enigma was important for showing the governments whether their deception schemes were working, but he gives far too much general information on the decrypting. The same goes for the German resistance to Hitler. He sees a single thread of groups among the German commanders and especially Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr. However, again, though the information they fed to the Allies confirmed whether the deceptions had worked, there was no need for the immense detail on these groups or their plots to arrest or kill Hitler, all covered better in other books. The same goes for the information about Field Marshal Rommel throughout and then the Normandy landings. Yes, deception played a big role in misleading Rommel and in aiding the landings, but we do not need to then read immense detail about Rommel's life, the landings and the advance into Normandy. By shovelling in all this general information on the war, Brown very much weakens the points he is trying to make.

I was rather cautious about it having read 'Unreliable Witnesses' by Nigel West back in December 2019: which critiqued some of the claims that Brown makes in this book. In the end though, given how much Brown covers, those flaws were minor. Brown does write in a very populist style with sweeping, almost tabloid text at times. He also does nothing to hide his prejudices. He is very anti-French and says little good about any French leader and very few of the French resistance. He sees as 'crazed', Georg Elser the man who only failed to assassinate Adolf Hitler in November 1939 because due to bad weather, the dictator left the building a matter of minutes early; the explosion killed 3 'old fighters' of the Nazi Party. No-one else came this close to killing Hitler until July 1944 and Elser was only caught on the Swiss border.

The book is written very much for an American audience, so in contrast American commanders get a sympathetic hearing. There is sloppiness at points. Paul von Hindenburg did not become President of Germany until 1925 and never governed from Weimar. Part of his problem is that he started the book in 1965 and published in 1976. As he details in a chapter at the end, when he begun the book almost everything about his topic was still secret. It was not until 1974 that anything was said publicly about the breaking of Enigma or Bletchley Park, let alone many of the deception schemes, in part because there was worry that this would weaken the position in regards to the USSR during the Cold War. It seems that Brown already had one very generalised book ready and then in the mid-1970s when some details on his actual topic came to light, he rushed that into the book.

Given the timing of the publication, gaps in Brown's knowledge remain. He is oblivious to the difficulties Bletchley Park had in breaking the Shark variant of Enigma in 1943 and in fact portrays the Battle of the Atlantic in that phase contrary to what happened. He seems oblivious to Alan Turing's conviction for indecency in 1952, due to a homosexual relationship, at the time something illegal. Consequently he does not know about the medication Turing was compelled to then take which began shifting the traits of his gender. As a result, Turing's suicide by poisoning is a mystery to Brown which he simply puts down to the wartime stress the man faced.

For all these flaws, this could have been a good book if it had been reduced to 400 pages or so and Brown had focused on his supposed actual topic. There are aspects in here which are interesting and still do not turn up elsewhere. His questioning of how far Allied agents and resistance fighters were sacrificed to give credence to the deception plans is good. How the manipulation of wireless traffic and the use of double agents are also strong points. He does show how deception, especially Fortitude South which long convinced the Germans, even after D-Day, that there would be an Allied landing in the Pas-de-Calais reduced the German response to the Normandy invasion and so spared Allied lives. However, these are points you have to sift through all the general stuff, which while interesting, simply detracts from what should have been much more clearly the focus of this book.

Audio Books - Fiction
'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' by Stieg Larsson; read by Martin Wenner
This is the final book in Larsson's immensely popular Millennium trilogy which it has taken me over a year to get through, largely because the books provide diminishing returns. See: and for my reviews of the audio books of the previous two. While 'The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo' (2005) was an old fashioned murder mystery with sexual violence layered on top and 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' (2006) a clearer action-adventure, this third book is really a legal story. I would not say 'thriller' because though there is some conspiracy - a sub-section of the Swedish secret police trying to keep secrets around a Soviet defector - and some violence, most of the book is stodgy legal wrangling. Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist spends much of the novel in a hospital bed just two doors from her abusive father who had her sectioned and she tried to kill in the previous book. The proximity of the two seems ridiculous.

Apparently Larsson planned ten books in the series, before his death. However, it is apparent he had used everything up before this book. What we get is long stretches of people being very smug, whether the aged secret police, detectives who oppose or support Salander and the journalists who are working to have her sectioning reversed. That latter element perhaps now has some greater currency in the light of the Britney Spears wrangling, but it hardly makes an exciting or even engaging story. Larsson also comes across as rather pathetic in two regards. One is him constantly saying what piece of technology or software everyone is using, many of which must have been out-of-date even before the books were published. His attempts to give it some edgy currency become very irritating. The second is the character of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkvist is clearly an avatar of Larsson, a journalist aged 60 at the time of his death in 2004. Blomkvist is a philanderer, who despite not really attractive traits is able to get a whole string of women, some twenty years his junior to sleep with him and not to get fussed when he moves on to another. This is somehow seen as an asset rather than a flaw in the character and is rather galling as Larsson seems to miss the fact that Blomkvist is on the same spectrum as the men who abuse Salander. Instead, even independent, courageous Salander somehow cannot resist him.

This book lumbers on even in audio form, to the extent that by the time you reach the epilogue which wraps up one character, you have actually forgotten entirely about him. While the first book could be criticised as being over-rated, this third book certainly can have that charge levelled against it. The whole thing is really simply an over-stretched epilogue to 'The Girl Who Played with Fire'. How tedious the subsequent novels would have been one can only speculate. I imagine if Larsson had lived, the publishers may have even looked at this third book with askance and have sought heavy revisions.

Wenner does reasonably well in trying to bring life to this novel. There are so many characters of both genders and various ages, that he has to engage a whole range of voices. Consequently, while some are given a Swedish accent, many end up sounding like they come from regions of the UK. As before, Salander sounds very much like a woman from a London housing estate.

'Past Secrets' by Cathy Kelly: read by Niamh Cusack
When buying bundles of audio books in the way I used to, sometimes you get unexpected books in the mix. This was one of those which I guess a few years ago would have been termed 'chick lit'. It is focused on three female neighbours and one of their daughters, living or coming to live on a street in the Republic of Ireland. As the title suggests they each have a secret from their past, an illegitimate child, an affair and self-harm. Challenging circumstances lead them to reassess them keeping these things secret. Kelly attracts very opposite opinions, with some loving her work, it does sell well, and others condemning it for being too twee and unrealistic. The fact that Amber, the daughter of Faye, one of the three gets her art work bought up by a wealthy American and that Maggie, cheated on by her lecturer partner, finds a lovely local mechanic who she almost immediately has sexual relations with are seen as unrealistic. In addition, there is scepticism that people would hold to such secrets for so long and that, for example, the husband of the third woman, Christie gets so angry about an affair she had with a Polish artist 25 years earlier that he leave her.

I guess there is a challenge with these books. Kelly presumably wanted challenges for her characters but also did not want this to be a story of misery. She could have had it go that way with failures for all of the 4 protagonists, but I guess not many people would buy that. One point that does seem to anger many readers is that she has four stories running in parallel with minimal connection between them. As I know from my own writing there is a real hostility these days, no matter the genre, to authors having parallel stories rather than sticking to one, with, at most, sub-plots. I am not really sure why there is so much hostility to the parallel story approach, but it is certainly fuelled by online commentary which is very indignant if authors, even those as well established as Kelly, 'break the rules' which readers insist upon.

For what it is, the book is fine. It may not be a genre I would normally turn to, but I was not offended by it. I found it believable based on people and their behaviour I have seen in real life. The pacing was fine. There are happy endings, but that stopped the book being a tale of misery and to some degree any book with romance in has to stretch credibility as it is incredibly rare that any relationship starts or persists the way they are shown in novels. I am always interested to see what tropes go with different genres and one thing that was striking about this one is the level of detail of description. Paintings are clearly important to Kelly and you could paint her characters from the way she describes them and indeed all the houses in the street. I think some readers would find this unnecessary or even overwhelming, but it seems to fit reasonably well with the book.

Niamh Cusack is ideally cast to read this book, with accents that sound southern Irish but not sufficiently that they are impenetrable to listeners from other parts of the English-speaking world. Her American ones are reasonable too. She is good at getting the emotions across when this is called for.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Books I Read In January


 'The Dark Echo' by Michael Connelly

This was Connelly's first crime novel. He remains popular after almost three decades of publishing and I was given a number of his books. Published in 1992 it features Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch a police detective in Los Angeles, working in the Hollywood Division after having killed a suspected serial killer. From the outset, it is clear Connelly is seeking to reproduce the 'hard boiled' detective novels of the 1930s and 1940s with lots of tough talking and jargon. Though he lives in a fancy house in the hills there is a lot of time in seedy motels. We know Connelly was a big fan of Raymond Chandler. However, unlike Chandler and Hammett, Connelly also has a slightly different trope that he can tap into. At times this book felt like one of those glossy thriller movies of the late 1980s/early 1990s, like 'Jagged Edge' (1985) and 'Fatal Attraction' (1989) it was published the same year, 'Basic Instinct' came out. The sex between Bosch and Eleanor Wish, the FBI agent he is partnered up with certainly seems to stem from that kind of approach rather than being necessary to the story. The third trope which shapes the book is the Vietnam War experience one. The timing of the book is important as in 1992, American men who had fought in Vietnam in their late teens/early twenties were now in their early forties. Though it might not have been intentional, the book certainly reminds us how much harm the involvement in the war did to so many in the USA, let alone Vietnam.

The driver for the plot stems from the war, with Bosch being drawn into investigating the murder of an old comrade of his from when they both fought as specialists in clearing out the tunnels used by the Vietcong to move between villages; the 'black echo' referring to the sense of being in these tunnels facing an unseen enemy. The dead man's skills link into a complicated raid on safe deposit box depositories though aimed at two cruel South Vietnamese police officers who were brought to live lives of luxury in the USA. At times, as a result you feel there is a little too much going on, and I have not even included the twists and betrayals which also feature before the end. 

I guess that Connelly needs to be commended for keeping all the 'balls in the air' while generally not allowing the book to sink into a complex mess. It feels that there were certain things Connelly felt he had to include. He was slightly too young to have served in Vietnam, turning 19 only in 1975, but I imagine there would have been men of his generation around who would have experienced it. I tend not to judge an author by the first book in their series, because often they have to 'get over' aspects that may have been hanging around for a long time and subsequent books are better reads. In many ways, though he drew on so much that had been seen elsewhere, the combination just about works. At times elements seem pretty contrived: Bosch getting assigned to the case, the Internal Affairs handling of him, the very fast relationship with Wish and the stuff in the tunnels. However, maybe that rather than subtlety was what readers of the 1990s were seeking and no-one can deny his books are popular. I am certainly not going to throw away the rest and trust they will improve as I work through the Bosch sequence.

'The Jade Man's Eyes' by Michael Moorcock

It has been a long time since I read work by Moorcock, an author whose books I used to eat up as a young man. This is a little oddity, a 75-page novella published by a small obscure press, into marijuana, in 1973. It is set in the world of the Young Kingdoms and Elric of Melniboné, Moorcock's fantasy, infirm albino anti-hero who lives in a fatalistic world that the author intended as a counterbalance to the muscle-bound fantasy heroes like Conan the Barbarian of the time; the first Elric book appeared in 1961 and Moorcock was returning to producing Elric stories as late as 2010. This story was later revised and formed the third part of 'The Sailor on the Seas of Fate' (1976). It sees Elric and his companion Moonglum enlisted to sail up a river in a jungle covered region of the south-west of the world to visit the abandoned city of R'len K'ren A'a where Elric's own people originated before leaving it for the large island of Melniboné. Unsurprisingly the novella has a kind of 'Heart of Darkness' (1899) feel to it, with numerous members of the crew being killed by the part-reptile/part-flamingo locals. Elric comes back into contact with his demonic patron Arioch who ultimately is persuaded to lift curses from the city. As is typical with the Elric stories, there is a fatalistic sense throughout added to the decay he sees. It really needs to be read in that context rather than alone. However, it does remind me that the 21st Century has seen Elric books published that I have not read yet.

'The Blood of Rome' by Simon Scarrow

Though over the last couple of decades I have been aware of the range of action novels set in Roman times, it was only when, finding this in my local charity shop and seeing it was the 17th book in Scarrow's Eagles of Empire series (the 20th book came out last year) did I realise the scale of some of these and presumably how many copies they sell. Scarrow has written a lot set in Britain, but I think I was drawn to this one featuring two officers he has followed throughout when they are despatched to help restore a Roman puppet king from Iberia (a region of the Caucasus not in southern Europe) to the throne of Armenia in eastern Anatolia as a buffer between the Roman and Parthian empires. While there is obviously a lot of back story, it was not too difficult to pick up the threads. 

It is no surprise that Bernard Cornwell feels Scarrow as a rival (or at least he says so in a quote on the cover) as he taps into that approach which worked so well for Cornwell with the Sharpe series, though Scarrow does use modern swearing which at times seems rather odd. The challenge of ordinary soldiers, often, especially in this novel, frustrated by politics and trying to keep some kind of decency in times of very brutal war, is a solid basis. I was rather frustrated by the wrangling with the puppet, Radamistus, a cruel and brutal commander, but this seems to be based on historical fact and his behaviour meant, as shown in the novel, after being put on the throne by the Romans, he was soon deposed. Otherwise the battles, with good, but not excessive, detail of how the Roman Army functioned are solid. It sweeps along briskly. While I was not left with an urge to read more, I certainly would not look away if any more books from the series came across my path in the charity shop.

'Crowner's Quest' by Bernard Knight

This is the third book in the Crowner John series and by the end, as this goes from December 1194 to January 1195, they have covered four months. Following tight after each other in this police procedural series does at times make it feel like a medieval equivalent of 'The Bill' (broadcast 1983-2010). Sir John De Wolfe the sole coroner for Devon, has just two assistants so he does feel a bit like (Chief) Inspector Morse who always seemed to be lacking staff for the tasks he needed to do. Knight is good on the historical detail and especially the legal complexities of the newly created role of coroner in relation to the existing sheriffs. The philandering nature of De Wolfe, though it brings in other characters, seems rather forced. In this story, though it is used against him when he is framed for a rape. 

There are some good elements, the finding of the hanged body of a canon reminded me of 'The Name of the Rose' (1980). However, certainly in contrast to the preceding book, 'The Poisoned Chalice' (1998), which had a tautness to it, this novel by Knight becomes rather overblown. De Wolfe becomes involved in a renewed plot to replace King Richard I with his brother Prince John and there is a rather madcap hunt for treasure buried by a Saxon lord. The book climaxes with a joust to the death. Though there have been incidents of combat in the novels, De Wolfe and his large henchman, Gwyn, being old crusaders, this rather epic tone sits rather uncomfortably with the series. I wondered if an agent or publisher had encouraged Knight to 'take it up a gear' in terms of drama. In contrast, I imagine many readers who might have come to this after Ellis Peters's Cadfael series would be looking for something more cerebral and slow-burning. However, I am conscious that Knight was writing at a time when there was a flurry of medieval detective novels, which I have not read, and so their nature may have impacted on his work. In addition, as with the philandering - two of De Wolfe's lovers feature in this book - I do feel at times as if it is the author, as an ageing man (he was 67 when the book was published) living out his fantasies through his character who is around 40, so old for the times.

It is not a bad book, but after a promising start, it went off in directions that stretched my credibility and that undermined my enjoyment of the attention to detail and the generally rich portrayal of 12th Century life, making use of real places and often actual people, of the time. I do have a number more of these books to read and hope they get back on track.

'City of Ashes' by Cassandra Clare

This second book in the Mortal Instruments pentalogy follows much the same pattern as the first, City of Bones' (2007). The heroine, Clary, while very much part of the Shadowhunter world, is still a beginner. In this book, her father, the evil Valentine, moves to seize the second of the Mortal Instruments, the Soul Sword which can compel Shadowhunters to tell the truth and can also summon and control demons. Valentine aims to carry out a ceremony to reverse the sword's alignment enabling him to create a demon army. For this he needs the blood of a werewolf, a vampire, a fae and a shadowhunter. Many of the characters from the first novel reappear, though Clary's mother is in a coma throughout the book and we are introduced to Maia a teenaged werewolf. Clary's special ability to create magic runes unavailable to most shadowhunters is also revealed. There is a lot of chasing around New York trying to recapture those Valentine has taken to sacrifice for his ritual. There is the usual bickering between the five main teenaged characters, the shadowhunters, siblings Alec and Isabelle their kind of adopted brother, Jace who is actually Clary's real brother; plus Simon her best friend and now boyfriend, who is turned into a vampire. Alec and Isabelle's mother turns up as does an Inquisitor who suspects Jace but actually muddies the water in the teenagers trying to reach Valentine.

The book moves along at a brisk pace, but you do feel it is a little formulaic. There is another climactic battle, this time in Valentine's boat on the river, full of a demon army. The most interesting character is camp warlock, Magnus Bane, who is now dating Alec. It all rather feels to have come out of the same 'factory' as the Harry Potter stories, with the young adult elements mixed in. There are unsettling references to underaged sex - Clary is only 14, much younger than show in the TV series - and there is clear signs of incest as she is deeply attracted to her newly discovered brother, Jace and is compelled to reveal these feelings by a faerie queen living under a pond in a New York park. There was enough to be going on with, with Clary being fancied by her best friend who is now a vampire and I am not sure why Clare felt compelled to add in these uncomfortable elements, though I gather from online commentary that they are kind of de rigueur these days for 'young adult' fiction, to distinguish it from children's books. The first book felt quite fresh, though it used familiar tropes. This book suggests Clare had already ran out of ideas. I have the third book and will see if she managed to pull it back or simply do yet another replica.


'African Profiles' by Ronald Segal

This book was published at the same time as 'A Short History of Africa' (1962) which I read last month; they were both part of a Penguin series of books. This one features 400 pen portraits of African male politicians which had been significant in the preceding 30-40 years. It starts with South Africa and is a good reminder of the roots of apartheid and then moves up the continent to finish with Egypt. Really only the Spanish colonies are neglected. Some countries are dealt with alone, others grouped with those ruled by the same colonial power or in other groupings. What is fascinating is, despite the diversity of countries, how many stories are so similar. So many of these men rose up through religious schools, a mix of Protestant, Catholic or Islamic. They often studied abroad and many became teachers or worked in civil service roles such as with the railways or post office and journalism was often a route for them to come to prominence.

While very dated, the book is a good reminder of elements of African history which have often been forgotten. I had not been aware of the extent of 'compelled labour' a modern form of slavery, in the Portuguese colonies or the fact that at various times South Africa had considered annexing many of its neighbouring states. The obsession with the federation of states, seen as a way to overcome the arbitrary borders imposed by colonisation, keeps coming out. Segal certainly seems to feel it is the only way for economic success, despite the failure of the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria, let alone the federation, failing at the time of North and South Rhodesia [Zambia and Zimbabwe] and Nyasaland [Malawi]. There are even fantastical schemes mentioned such as the Rhodesias combining with Kenya, Uganda, Tanganiyka [part of Tanzania] and even Somalia. There is even belief of an entire continental federation. Yet, Segal highlights cannot fail to discuss the issues around tribalism and regionalism and is good on the break away of Katanga from the Congo and of course the Biafran crisis still lay ahead, though he highlights the challenges of regionalism in Nigeria.

Segal admits at the start of the book that he is partisan and his analysis of different leaders is very erratic as a result. He is certainly opposed to monarchs as in Ethiopia, Tunisia and Morocco. He seems unable to see, despite the evidence, how easily many nations were moving towards being one-party states with their leader of the time or a subsequent one, becoming leader for life, often over decades. Similarly he seems to even see potential in Nasser's military coup in Egypt without suspecting the military would end up running many countries across Africa for decades to come. He anticipates that apartheid would be short-lived and end in a violent uprising in South Africa.

Obviously we have hindsight and it is easy to see the author as naïve, yet his book itself provides clear evidence of the roots of these trends repeated in various manifestations right across Africa. He does seem unnecessarily apologist for some leaders, especially Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, perhaps because despite their rather ambivalent attachment to democracy they seemed to subscribe to his visions for Africa. The book is useful in reminding us of African leaders often now forgotten, at least in English, such as Holden Roberto, Ntsu Mokhehle, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, Habib Bourguiba, Léopold Sédar Senghour, Sékou Touré and William Tubman. The book is an interesting reminder of Africa's development in the 1930s-50s and the people important in that process, though I imagine a book on this subject written today would not entirely leave out women as Segal does.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In December


'The Poisoned Chalice' by Bernard Knight

This is the second book by Knight featuring Sir John De Wolfe, coroner for Devon in the 1190s. You feel he has got into his stride with this book, Wolfe, his aides, his wife and mistress, plus the sheriff (also his brother-in-law) who he rubs up against due to the fact that new and old legal methods had not been reconciled. Though the book sees De Wolfe and his team travel down the coast to investigate the murder of survivors of a wreck and the theft of cargo washed ashore - a particular role for the coroner - Knight avoids showing them riding incessantly from place to place as he tended to do in the first novel, 'The Sanctuary Seeker' (1998). This book is a police procedural, but fortunately Knight has tightened it up. We see two other, inter-twined cases, involving a rape and the death of the woman from trying to bring about an abortion. In part due to the influence of the women's families these cases are not dismissed in the way they would tend to be some 800+ years later. Knight is very good on the different social standings and how these rather than guilt or innocence are often the decider of who is to be convicted. As in the first book, torture is readily on hand to get to the 'truth'. Overall, this is a competent, engaging book, with well developing characters and a great portrayal of a very different time and culture. I was heartened to see him tightening up the writing for this one and I look forward to reading the others I have been given.

'City of Bones' by Cassandra Clare

I picked up four books by Clare recommended to me by an assistant in my local charity shop. I read one from her other, though similar Clockwork series, a year ago, and found it reasonable. This is the first in the Shadowhunters/Mortal Instruments pentalogy, set in contemporary New York. I had seen the movie and have now started watching the series on Netflix. Though the elements in each are same - a girl/young woman finds that her mother was part of a group of part angel/part human people, the Shadowhunters, who fight against demons, vampires, etc. in a world in which all the fantastical creatures are real. Her mother's best friend is revealed as a werewolf. The shadowhunters draw various runes on their bodies to give them magical powers. 

The story sees the teenage heroine Clary Fray discover not only the past of her parents but also go on a quest to recover the Mortal Cup which is sought by renegade shadowhunter, Valentine, who wants to use its powers to become all-powerful. Unlike the movie and series, in the novel, Clary is 15 rather than 18, so it is much more a children's book, though as in all children's adventures, Clary has more autonomy to run around New York than she would do in real life. There are various battles with vampires and rogue shadowhunters, in particular rescuing Clary's old friend, Simon - there is a lot of uncertain, wistful teenage possible romance involving Clary, Simon and shadowhunter, Jace, in a triangle - and seeking where her mother is held. There is some very fantastical elements such as flying vampire motorbikes and overall, a lot of the plot developments and encounters feel like a combination of the Harry Potter books and the 'Star Wars' movies. The climatic scene facing Valentine feels particularly derivative in this regard with the man himself some combination of Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader.

The novel is brisk and while for an older reader many of the tropes will be overly familiar, the pace and the various characters mean it is not a burdensome read. I have the next two books in the series and I am interested to see how the story develops, especially as the heroine becomes a normal part of the shadowhunter world. For a contemporary, urban fantasy it is not bad and maybe the tropes are reassuring or easier for younger readers to engage with. I accept that it was not written for people of my age.

'The Little Breton Bistro' by Nina George

I really have no idea why I bought this book. I guess I was looking for contemporary fiction different to what I generally read. I had been aware of the phenomenon of 'up lit', contemporary stories with a positive message, being popular over the last 5+ years and I guess this was my introduction to the genre. I had not realised that rather than being written in English or French, this had actually first come out in 2010 in German and only translated into English in 2017. It features a 60-year old woman, Marianne, who tiring of her uncaring husband of 41 years, decides to commit suicide while on holiday in Paris. Recovering from her failed attempt in hospital, she finds a painted tile of the resort in southern Brittany, Kerdruc and decides to go there. Kerdruc is a genuine place but in George's hands it becomes a Breton equivalent of Brigadoon. Fortune shines on Marianne all the way and not only does she get there with minimal difficulty, she gets a job at the 'Ar Mor' bistro, despite lacking cooking skills and any mastery of French, let alone Breton.

Not everything is perfect in Kerdruc and Marianne keeps trying to kill herself with less and less success. She makes friends with a white witch who has dementia and her husband who has Parkinson's. A local sculptress is dying of cancer. Various younger people have unrequited love or a partner who has left them or they were unable to marry and so on. However, so much is resolved without difficulty and with no reference to the government or other authorities, that you have to deem the book at best magic realism and possibly even fantasy. Towards the end, with Marianne meeting ghosts of her relatives, it steps over that line. As it is, Marianne finds a perfect sexual partner, becomes an adept sous-chef in a matter of weeks and a skilful player of the accordion; she drives around on a moped with no training or licence and similarly an old car. Though there is some reference to the year being 2009, much of what happens is divorced from time seeming to be in some vague sort of mid-1970s, perhaps earlier (especially with comments referencing French hatred of Germans stemming from the world wars) which seems so popular with such whimsical novels, especially when foreigners portray France. Of course, folk customs are still very strong and there is no reference to French or even Breton culture as it is in reality these days. The only convincing part for me was when Marianne's husband, Lothar comes to retrieve her from Kerdruc but that contact back to a more convincing portrayal is short lived.

Everything in the novel is handled in such a pat way, it is impossible to suspend your disbelief. Even the deaths are 'beautiful' rather than slow and agonising as they would be in reality. Too many relationships are sparked up or resolved in a way which does not happen in the 21st Century, even if it ever did. I accept that the book is written as a diversion, as a way to avoid it becoming like an equivalent of 'EastEnders' in southern Brittany. However, it is far too dependent on fortunate happenstance and things simply working out to be credible. This might be tolerable in a short story, but with a novel it becomes tiresome. Overall, it is rather like having to smile for a photo while on holiday but then keeping that smile fixed for weeks.


'A Short History of Africa' by Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage

This is another of the old history books I have had lying around for years. It was published in 1962 and occasionally, terms such as 'Sudan' referring to the entirety of of the savanna lands running east-west, south of the Sahara can cause confusion nowadays. Though the process of independence for African states was under way when the book was published, it was far from complete. However, with very little on post-independence, the book is able to focus much more on the pre-colonial era and this was the elements of the book I found most interesting. From the outset Oliver and Fage seek to overturn the all too common view that somehow Africa, at least in historic times, was somehow insulated from the rest of the world and sealed from it until the European powers began to start exploiting it and even then not fully until the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s. In fact, throughout they show that there was constant flow in and out of the continent and within it. 

They go into good detail about the rise and fall of various kingdoms down the ages and how these interacted, not simply down the Nile and across the Sahara but also that various foodstuffs we see as typically African actually originated in the Americas and Asia. I was also interested by seeing Africa not simply portrayed in regional groupings, like West Africa, but also the east-west physical geography bandings especially in the northern half of the continent. This is certainly a good book to introduce you to the various civilisations that are so easily dismissed or forgotten in general histories especially written from a Western perspective and the complex interaction between black Africans and the Arabs and Bedouin, plus the importance of Islam. It also shows how varied and complex the story of slavery was, both before and during the period of European intervention.

The attention to these earlier developments reminds you how brief the European colonial period was. As they highlight though there had been 'factories', settlements and strips of land around the coasts, it was only in the period 1883-1885 that there was the rush to take over almost every part of the continent. They are good on the fact that even though we all see that map of 1914 with so much of Africa in one colour or another, in fact penetration away from the coast was minimal before the 1920s and 1930s. For many countries in 80 years of being conquered they were being given independence. The economic facets are handled well and show that most 'colonies' were a drain on the metropolitan countries and only in exceptional areas where cash crops prospered on a large scale or there were gold or diamonds would any money be made. The one area where I feel they could have included more was on the various colonial wars that the European powers fought often over many years. Some of these are mentioned in passing and while, for example, the treatment of the population of the Congo, especially when ruled directly by the Belgian King is highlighted, there is nothing on the German attempts at genocide especially in South-West Africa [Namibia].

Overall, though an old book, this has a number of good reminders to general readers about facets of African history that seem swept over in easy assumptions these days. It certainly works hard to try to stop us seeing Africa as somehow sealed in a capsule until this was pierced by the rushed European moves to take control of the continent, simply for prestige rather than profit.

Fiction - Audio

'The Man with the Golden Gun' by Ian Fleming'; read by Kenneth Branagh

Published in 1965, this was the last of the full-length James Bond novels; released after Fleming's death in August 1964. Bond has sort of recovered his memory, following the amnesia suffered as a result of battling Blofeld at the end of  'You Only Live Twice' (1964) and him continuing to live believing he was a Japanese fisherman. He has been retrieved by the KGB and brainwashed into assassinating his boss in London, M. This all seems rather rushed. There is interesting detail on how MI6 filters out people contacting it. However, the avoidance of the assassination, let alone Bond being put back into service all seems rather pat. Bond is finally sent back to the Caribbean to track down Paco Scaramanga, the eponymous man with the golden gun, though in the novel it is a revolver firing silver, snake-poisoned covered rounds.

We see lots of elements from the previous Bond novels, not simply the return to Jamaica, Fleming's home, as in 'Live and Let Die' (1954), 'Diamonds are Forever' (1956) and 'Dr. No' (1958), but the reappearance of Mary Goodnight and Felix Leiter. Bond is employed, as he was by Auric Goldfinger, so giving him an easy access to the villain's base, in this case a half-built hotel on Jamaica. There is even a private railway as seen in 'Diamonds are Forever'. There are not only a KGB agent on Jamaica but gangsters, including from the Spangled Mob who turned up both in 'Diamonds are Forever' and 'Goldfinger' (1959), so again referencing popular themes in the Bond novels. Bond's job is to assassinate Scaramanga, but the world weariness bites hard and even when faced with him in a weak position, Bond baulks from this. The novel ends with Bond eschewing a knighthood and in contrast to the endings of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (1963) and 'You Only Live Twice' he is very opposed to 'settling down', in this case with Mary. It is almost as if aware of his own end, Fleming did not want to end Bond as a freewheeling individual, though we are conscious that, both mentally and physically, he is not up to it any more.

As is common with Fleming he certainly sets the novel in its time. There is a lot of discussion of the various crimes in the Caribbean, Jamaica's independence, the development of bauxite mining, sugar prices, permitted gambling and the issue of Cuba. However, Fleming shows poor foresight in expecting Castro to be out of power within the next few years or indeed the USSR to give up on the country. He has a peculiar attitude to Rastafarians who he sees as anti-white individuals deeply involved in the drugs trade and happy to make terrorist attacks on sugar plantations. It is a reasonable book, not the best of the series, in part because Bond running out of steam himself and ultimately deluding himself about his future means the book lacks life, certainly verve. We do not feel Scaramanga, despite all the plots he is involved with, represents a genuine threat and we do wonder why Bond struggles to kill him. Branagh voicing him as an American makes him seem too laid back and not as threatening as he should be. He is supposed to be a Catalan who had worked in the USA but then in Cuba. Christopher Lee would have done it so much better.

Aside from Scaramanga, Branagh is reasonably good with the voices. I did wonder if he had talked to Hugh Quarshie who read 'Dr. No' for help with the Jamaican accents which he does without them seeming like caricature. He is reasonable with the women's voices too. Overall, though he is hampered by the fact that the life had gone out of the Bond sequence by this stage and despite the listing of all that Scaramanga intends, we are rather disengaged the way that Bond himself is at this end.

'The Chemistry of Death' by Simon Beckett; read by Greg Wise

This book kind of marries the classic British crime novel - it is set in a small village in Norfolk - with the very gritty crime novels of the past three decades or so. It was published in 2006. The protagonist, David Hunter is a widowed doctor who takes up a post as a GP after the death of his wife in an accident. He has a previous life as a forensic scientist - in fact an anthropologist but with all the necessary skills. Beckett sets up the kind of traditional English village without indulging too deeply into stereotypes, though things like the authoress who has retreated to the village to write, the harsh vicar and the various 'yokels' do come close to this. The jogging and barbecues at leas feel he has brought it into the late, rather than mid-20th Century. 

The thing that really marks out the book as of our time is the extreme detail about the decaying bodies that are uncovered revealing a serial killer in the village one who (mainly) targets women and mutilates their corpses by inserting animals or animal parts into them. Hunter has a real skill in detecting what is going on from the insects infesting the bodies and the impact on the surrounding plant life. You need a strong stomach for some parts, possibly all the more jarring because this is a bucolic rather than gritty urban setting. Hunter is drawn deeper into the investigation, however reluctantly, with a crotchety police detective making use of what resources he can muster in such a remote locale. However, he keeps setting parameters that Hunter runs up against and has to start ignoring to actually get to the heart of the case.

There are a couple of twists, though the first is better handled than the second, by which time it all seems a bit contrived with Beckett not really playing fair with the reader into the three phases of epilogue. Some of the tensest scenes and we see these from the victims' views as well as Hunter's are overlong. I also found the pace of the relationships Hunter sparks up, especially with women, unconvincing given the setting is 2000s Britain and so many residents from outside the village have moved there to escape the interaction of cities, especially London.

Wise is pretty good with the voices, most of which are a range of indignant white men. He is not too bad on the women though they all sound very breathless. Unfortunately, while aware that the Norfolk accent is typically used on a social class basis, he has defaulted to 'generic rural local' accent rather than bringing in anything specific to that county.

It is a clever book, brisk for most of the time and handling its twists very well. However, I would be cautious buying a Beckett book again as I feel I have learnt as much as I need about the processions of maggots and blood staining of grass.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In November


'A Study in Murder' by Robert Ryan

This is the third book in Ryan's Dr. Watson (and indeed Sherlock Holmes) series, following on from  'Dead Man's Land' (2012/13) and 'The Dead Can Wait' (2014) which I read earlier this year. At the end of 'The Dead Can Wait', Dr. Watson, serving as a major, was hauled from the wreck of a British tank and ended up in a German prisoner-of-war camp. This story continues through the latter part of 1916 and into early 1917. It features a number of characters from the previous books including Ernst Bloch, the leading German sniper from the first book and ruthless assassin Ilse Brandt, from the second and Georgina Gregson from both of them. Von Bork, a German agent from Conan Doyle's own story, 'His Last Bow' (1917) also makes an appearance. However, this is not the last book in the series, there is 'The Sign of Fear' (2016) though I have not been given a copy of that one.

On the instigation of Von Bork, not only is Watson refused leave to be exchanged into neutral Netherlands, despite his age, but he is sent to a far harsher camp, rather than close to the Dutch border, up in the Harz Mountains. It is called Harzgrund and is somewhat based on the real camp of Holzminden run to make a profit out of the prisoners. As with the previous two books, different threads run in parallel. In the camp Watson tries to find out why three prisoners killed themselves at a séance and then what is going on with supposedly escaped prisoners. Meanwhile back in Britain there are two schemes to exchange him, one involving for Sherlock Holmes and one for Ilse Brandt. There are some improvements on the previous two books. Sudden jumps in the character the story is being seen through, are generally avoided. There is one revelation that someone is not who they are pretend to be, but handled far better than in the previous book in particular in which three characters are revealed to be different people even though we have seen their thoughts.

As with the previous books, this is more a spy thriller than a detective novel, though Watson does unravel what is happening to "escaped" prisoners from Harzgrund. The story suggests that he comes to believe contact with the spirit world is possible, something Conan Doyle believed in very strongly. The main problem with the book is the build up to a preposterous climax at the fictional Knok bridge. This involves two sets of Britons, one bringing a German agent (freed using not only a hot air balloon, but a screen suspended in the air on to which a projection of an escaping woman is made and from the balloon a corpse of another is dropped!), one a German sniper and Sherlock Holmes, on one side and Watson, Von Bork and an UFA film crew on the other. The exchange at the bridge is far more suited to a Cold War spy novel than a First World War one. To add to the ridiculous nature of this stage of the novel, a British submarine - one designed but never built - emerges from the river.

I have no idea why Ryan felt obliged to pile on so many unbelievable elements. The book is not intended as a spoof as the brutal killings throughout make clear. Yes, authors do play around with time, but Ryan seems to do it far more than is necessary. He could have easily used a different Dutch bridge. There was no need for such extravagant, probably impossible, escapes in London and Venlo. He seems to be scrabbling around for details and is compelled to alter the naming of the Connaught Hotel to fit his story rather than finding some equivalent detail at that time.

I have a sense that Ryan is a better writer than he has shown in these three books. The short story Watson writes while in the prison camp, 'The Girl and the Gold Watches' and that maybe because he has distorted 'The Man with the Watches' (1922) and sent it back in time a bit. Ryan seems to get some pleasure in what he calls 'remixing' Conan Doyle stories, but unfortunately seems to learn little from that author's work, in terms of quality of story-telling as opposed to atmosphere. I wonder if he is blinded by his fandom. I certainly had far less difficulty with his 'Empire of Sand' (2008) which I read in December 2018:  It looks like, as is increasingly common these days, that Ryan's success has bought him exemption from his work being properly edited as I am sure that any developmental editor would have questioned a number of Ryan's decisions. Perhaps one or two in isolation would have been fine, but in this book they accrete to make it seem silly really undermining what could have been a gripping book if only he had made more feasible choices in how it would run. Overall, a missed opportunity.

'The Long Cosmos' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This is the final book in the 'Long Earth' pentalogy. Baxter finished it off alone after Pratchett died in March 2015. I do not know whether that explains why there is a bit more control over this book than the preceding ones. The death of a few major characters at the end of the fourth book, 'The Long Utopia' (2015) probably also helped. There is a little less jumping abruptly between perspectives. We mainly follow one strand developing a continental-wide computer 'The Thinker' and a sabbatical by Joshua Valienté, a character now 68, who we have followed since being a boy in the first book. There is a sub-plot of Nelson Azikiwe tracking down his grandson. However, all these threads come together, ironically given the chaos of so much of the series, in a very pat way.

The series has always struggled with plot. The main focus of the two authors has been the immense amount of ideas they had for their infinite variants on Earth, Mars and indeed the wider universes. Even in this book, you feel the disappearance of a couple of characters including Dan-Rod, Joshua's son are largely to take the characters to some interesting places, indeed in this novel, to see giant trees running on hydrogen. The exploration to the 'north' of the chain of Earths takes characters nearer to the core of the Milky Way galaxy. However, it is very under-developed. There is no great revelation of who has been contacting humans and other species along the long Earth to join them. They go and come back again. As with the previous books, it seems as if Pratchett and Baxter have dodged writing the climax that they have spent so long building up to.

Some of the most annoying characters were fortunately killed off in 'The Long Utopia' but there are still too many who spend a lot of patronising other people. I know it is a tendency of books in the 2010s to fill their pages with smug characters, lecturing others about how naive they are. I guess this reflects our society as you daily find such behaviour especially in social media but also in the news. It seems these days you cannot feel right in something unless you are telling someone else very vigorously how wrong they are - or often simply how wrong you assume they are. Yes, one or two characters like this is fine, but especially with science fiction in which the danger of simply slipping into a lecture is high, this becomes tedious. These are not only characters you feel no affinity for, but they are characters you do not want to be around. The reference of the elderly 'troll' Sancho, being a librarian and resembling an orang-utang is a nice reference to the librarian in Pratchett's Discworld novels, is a rare example of a character you feel you can engage with, even though he has limited dialogue.

While I was surprisingly underwhelmed by David Downing's 'Station' series, I have never felt so disappointed by a series of books as with the 'Long Earth' pentalogy. I know Pratchett's solo books got 'flabby' in the 21st Century, but teaming up with Baxter, who often overwrites anyway, made this tendency far worse. There were enough ideas in these books for the authors to have produced twenty or thirty well developed novels. However, they clearly felt obliged to pack in every last idea they had, not simply in terms of numerous versions of Earth, but species and political developments. As a result, rather than a coherent, engaging series of books, you end up with a scrapbook containing a morass of material which while interesting of itself, does not make successful novels. I certainly regret buying these books new, something I rarely do. I have stopped reading work by Pratchett and certainly will steer clear of anything by Baxter. This was really an expensive disappointment.

'The Witch of Portobello' by Paulo Coelho

Coelho is one of those authors like Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel García Márquez who you will have on the edge of your consciousness without really knowing what they have written. I bought this book, published in 2007 unread at a car boot sale last year, in part curious what kind of book it was. There are a lot of 'extras' at the back of this book as if it was a DVD, so you can find out quite a lot about Coelho, his career and beliefs. I had no problem with the first half of the book and in fact found it quite engaging. It is about a Roma woman who was put up for adoption in Romania the 1970s and was adopted by a Lebanese couple and given the name Sherine. The couple were later refugees to Britain where Sherine grew to adulthood and used the name 'Athena'. She had a short marriage resulting in a son, but there was divorced. She worked in a bank and then as an estate agent in the Middle East. Rather than a straight narrative, the book is written as a series of interviews with people who knew Sherine, including her adopted and birth mothers, neighbours and teachers. This bit is fine and engaging. Sherine returns to Romania and finds her birth mother.

Where I lost patience with the novel is when Sherine increasingly develops an engagement with New Age practices. Initially this is through dancing and calligraphy taught to her by amateurs. Then, however, she meets a Scottish woman, Deidre, who pretends to be some kind of spiritual guru. In fact she shows Sherine how she can take up a similar role as a charlatan through teaching things she actually has no idea about and wrapping them up in various jargon about the feminine side of God. Sherine ends up training actors and they form the hub of a growing cult around her until she faces opposition from church leaders and is murdered. I was bored by all the droning on about the spiritual aspects when we know Deidre and Sherine are in fact engaged in a confidence trick, largely for their own sense of self-worth. What I found worse at the end is that Coelho actually believes in much of the stuff he shows Sherine proselytising with a lack of any genuine knowledge and increasingly deluded. You really lose faith in the story. What is perhaps worse is the epilogue, suddenly a character mentioned in passing and constantly dismissed turns out to be a prime mover of the story, kept from the reader throughout.

Having worked through this book, I can understand why people stay away from literary fiction. The author does not play fair with the reader. Though he has skill in terms of characterisation and the structure of the plot is refreshing, half the book is basically a New Age sermon through the voices of two characters even though we have been shown they are charlatans. Reading more about the author it is clear these pseudo-religious texts are at the heart of his writing and I can understand why the original buyer/receiver of the book sold it on unread. Somewhere in this there is some skilled writing, but certainly the second half of the book is as exciting as listening to a sermon by a deluded fanatic. I will not be looking out any more books by Coelho and struggle to find what attracts readers to him. Ironically he seems to have become very much like the charlatan guru characters he portrays in this book.

Audio Book - Fiction

'Dying Light' by Stuart MacBride; read by John Sessions

It was ironic that I chose to listen to this book when I did, just before John Sessions's death. He was born in Scotland but was moved to England when only 3. However, he proves very capable in his narration of providing a range of Aberdeen and some Edinburgh voices, both male and female and really making them distinctive from each other.

This book is only the second of those written by MacBride featuring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae. That surprised me as there is a lot of back story. McRae has a pathologist as an ex, is dating a fellow police officer who has had her arm broken in a previous case, is under investigation as a result of the death of another officer during a raid he led and so on. It felt as if the character had been running for a number of books already. I guess that sums up MacBride's style. This book packs in four cases in parallel with McRae working to two inspectors as well as dealing with all the issues raised above. There is a murder of prostitutes, turf battles over drugs dealing, a missing husband, mutilated dog's bodies and corruption over a housing development. Some of these do begin to interlock, but you do really need to pay close attentions as McRae and his colleagues flit between the different cases. There is also a lot of jealousy and claiming the credit, especially in the media, is a big motivator for many of the various detectives' actions.

The book is very gritty with brutal murders, dismemberment and a range of torture. MacBride was clearly seeking to bring a 'hard-boiled' approach to Scottish crime writing and goes at it to an extent far harder than, say, Ian Rankin or Val McDermid - though her stories are often set in England. Overall it is not a bad story and while scenes will make you wince and feel frustrated, you have to admire the author for balancing a whole host of strands reasonably well. However, I think it is probably best to read rather than listen to this book, unless you can listen to the 6 hours in one stretch as there are occasions when you want to flick back to see who was doing what to whom, when a strand is picked up again. With that caveat I might be tempted to pick up more in this series if I see them in my local charity shop, preferring book form over more audio.


'The Nazi Dictatorship. Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation' by Ian Kershaw

There are probably few eras/events in history which have been so written about at an academic level as the Nazi regime, perhaps the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, could come in for the kind of scrutiny that Kershaw gives the Third Reich. As he makes clear at the start this is neither a history book, though he does mention some occurrences in the Nazi period, and though it references some hundreds of books and articles on the regime, it is not a historiographical book either, it is somewhere between the two. As the title suggests, Kershaw looks at how historians, some social scientists and political commentators, have interpreted what is known about all that occurred under Nazism. I read the second edition of the book which came out in 1990, five years after the book was published. However, from 1986 onwards there had been the so-called Historikerstreit - a row between various West German historians on how far the regime could be 'historicised', i.e. seen as part of ongoing, 'normal' history and how far those 12 years had to always remain treated as something almost outside history, disconnected from what went before and what followed after. This edition was expanded to encompass that row, which unlike most historical disputes, spilled out from academia into the media.

Throughout the book, drawing on extensive resources, Kershaw looks at the big questions around the Nazi regime, such as whether it was a form of fascism or something unique; whether the term 'totalitarian' is applicable to it; whether it was a centrally-driven regime or more a cluster of competing power blocs in Germany; how far Hitler drove or simply permitted radicalisation notably in persecution of the Jews; whether Nazi foreign policy fitted a plan perhaps developed a decade earlier or was primarily opportunistic; whether political or economic concerns drove the actions of the regime; whether the Nazis were a reactionary or a revolutionary force, holding up or advancing modernisation tendencies in Germany and whether the Holocaust must always been seen as something somehow apart from history or can be connected into trends beforehand and afterwards. Kershaw thoroughly analyses these lines and shows his own view on them, though also notes that the gaps between different 'sides' are not as extreme as the different viewpoints made out, even before 1986. He provides a refreshing hybrid approach, for example, arguing that while Hitler did not give direct orders for the extermination of the Jews, his rhetoric of racial hatred, his willingness to tolerate and even foster activities by the various blocs in his regime, created an environment where a steady progress to the death camps could occur, even if this had not been planned at the outset, and certainly not before 1941.

The book, now 30 years old, could seem rather dated. At the end, Kershaw notes the appearance of the ultra-nationalist Front National in France, but he did not foresee the populist leaders willing to bend democracy that have become such a feature of the world of the 2010s. Though these regimes today are not fascist, reading the book today, throughout you spot many small elements that seem to be echoed in contemporary political life such as creating and demonising the 'other' and bombastic claims for creating something so superior to what has ever come before. While still relevant in these times, the book has become a useful historical resource in itself. Kershaw was writing at a time when there were still two Germanies and he takes care to include the East German perspective and the views of marxist (he uses lower case for leninist too) of the time, which have largely now been lost from view in current discussions of the Nazi regime. Germany has moved on since then, not simply in terms of reunification, but in terms of the long shadow cast by the Nazis and almost characterising the Germanies simply as not-Nazi, rather than having intrinsic worth of their own. Thus, though dated, this remains a thorough, stimulating book asking questions that anyone, especially English-speakers studying the regime, can get a lot from.

As an aside, I met Ian Kershaw only once (he still lives, but is long retired) and that was in 1988. Funnily enough I cannot remember anything of what he said, instead all I can remember was that he wore a knitted tie, something I was unfamiliar with; it also ended in a straight line rather than a pointed one as is always the case in the UK and from the end hung a small metal button on a chain. To me he looked to be the archetypal West German scholar of the time, rather than British. My mind was obviously wandering if I paid so much attention to minute details and I imagine I missed out on stimulating input given he was updating this book at the time.

'A History of the Vikings' by Gwyn Jones

This book was published in 1968, though I have a 1973 edition. It approaches the history of the Vikings, effectively the peoples of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, 780-1070 though he connects into the history of Europe and indeed North America, before and after that period. What characterises a book of the time, is that whilst there is a lot of academic detail from sources in a wide range of languages, often listed in footnotes dominating the page, it is presented very much as a story. The text flows along briskly, sometimes, especially in the confusing wars of the 11th Century in Scandinavia and Britain, too fast. The narrative style, especially at the beginning with long lists, perhaps makes this book, despite its academic weight, more accessible to the general reader. Perhaps he makes more character judgements on the leading individuals than would be the case even with a popular historian writing nowadays let alone a semi-academic one. It is illustrated with those line drawn illustrations and maps, plus black-and-white photos, throughout and they often give flavour as much as information.

While broken up into three largely chronological blocks, sensibly Jones separates the social and artistic history from sections focused on developments in particular regions. This is sensible as especially the progress of the Scandinavians in Russia and the Middle East is far removed from developments in Iceland, Greenland and North America. At the time, the authenticity of the Vinland Map, found in 1965, was still under discussion. However, as Jones makes clear, it did not really matter as the archaeological record shows without doubt that Vikings visited and stayed some time in North America. One of the strengths is this linkage between what archaeology has shown and the history of these people and Jones keeps make useful connections between them, notably in terms of coins but also burials, uncovered towns and houses and especially carved stones.

Overall, though dated, this is a good introductory text to the full scope of Viking history and is particularly useful if you are interested in the history of Britain before the Norman Invasion. Though at times frenetic it helps sort out that period between King Alfred the Great's rule and 1066. Importantly the social history sections, including an additional one on the Danelaw region of England, not only goes beyond cosmetic portrayals of Nordic life, but shows how it was different in various regions and altered over time rather than being stuck in one model. The ebbing and flowing of Christianity impacts on this but also enters into the political history sections, reminding us not to fall into the trap of seeing Vikings as monolithic or unchanging, but in fact, in part due to how much of the western world they interacted with, a gauge of developments across many societies beyond Scandinavia itself.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Byzantium Express: The Byzantine Empire Persisting until the First World War


This book, my third published by Sea Lion Press: is also available for sale via Amazon:

As is often the case when I cannot sleep and need to distract myself, late in 2019, I began thinking about different scenarios of the First World War. I have published both two books of analysis on some scenarios and an anthology of short fiction. However, I had considered shorter-term changes rather than introducing a country which had been gone for about 450 years by the time the war broke out. Of course, the persistence of Byzantium has often been discussed, you can find numerous articles about it on the Sea Lion website. Alternate history author, Harry Turtledove, did not go this far, but as a Byzantine scholar he did use the empire as the basis for his Videssos fantasy stories. Another prompt for me was one of my 'what if?' book art covers from 2007: itself inspired a chapter in 'On Other Fields' (2012/14) about medieval alternatives.

To get to Byzantium surviving into the 20th Century, you need a lot of points of divergence. Not only do you need to prevent the steady Ottoman conquest of its territories in the 11th-15th centuries leading to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but you need to see the empire far less damaged by the Crusades. For example, the leaders of the 1st Crusade, 1096-99, had sworn to the the Byzantine emperor to restore the cities recently lost to the Fatimids and Seljuks in Syria and Palestine. Instead they set up their own principalities, the Crusader States that shrunk over time until snuffed out in the late 13th Century. Even worse for Byzantium was the 4th Crusade of 1202-04 which smashed up the empire and replaced it with a series of Latin states which persisted until the 1260s. While this did not condemn the empire to Ottoman overthrow it severely weakened it. Removing crusader leaders, notably Bohemond of Taranto who established the Principality of Antioch in what had been Byzantine lands, is easy. The siege of Antioch was lengthy and the crusaders were almost defeated both by disease and their Muslim opponents.

A stronger Byzantium would only have endured when faced by weaker Seljuk opposition. Again, this is far from impossible. As it was the expansion and unity of the Seljuks was wrecked by the incursions of the Mongols in the 13th Century. It was out of these ashes that the Osman tribe of Seljuks rose to become the Ottomans and establish a vast empire stretching right across the Balkans and North Africa, into Arabia and Mesopotamia as well as over Anatolia and the Levant regions. In turn it was sliced up by European countries, but on the eve of the Great War, was still deemed a Power and one that Germany sought out as an ally. I have envisaged that Britain and France have seen Byzantium as a bulwark against Russian expansion in the 19th Century and so have provided funds and fought in a version of the Crimean War in the 1850s to check this.

For the Sejuks and Arabs I have envisaged that a number of smaller states would appear across eastern Syria, Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Arabia. They are quite diverse, with divisions between Sunni, Shi'ite and Wahhabi Muslims, even an Orthodox Christian state as well as between different dynasties. There is a chance that some of these would be taken over by European powers, especially via the Persian Gulf. I have envisaged that as in our world, by 1914, Britain would have taken Egypt, Italy taken Libya and France taken Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. However, it is likely that they would have been taken from Arab or Bedouin rulers rather than Turkish ones.

I have envisaged that the enduring Byzantine Empire, by 1914, would be rather like the Chinese Empire. It would be able to hold off full-scale colonisation by European powers, but there would be economic and political penetration. I envisage a British 'treaty port', at Limassol on Cyprus and the Italians holding Rhodes on a 99-year lease. In our world, Britain effectively controlled all of Cyprus from 1878 and annexed it in 1914. Italy took Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese Islands in 1912. Maybe this is too few and more realistic would have been a number of treaty ports along Byzantium's various coasts, more akin to what happened in China 1840s-90s. However, my sense was that being more compact, Byzantium has been that bit stronger and largely able to resist most such demands. In addition, the independence of Bulgaria from the Byzantine Empire has been slowed up a little compared to its break from the Ottoman Empire, but again this helps the story I planned, too.

I know some fans of alternate history baulk against 'parallelism', but even with the changed situation, it seemed to make sense that as happened with the Ottoman Empire in our world, the German businesses and government would seek to penetrate the Byzantine Empire in the early 20th Century. It also provided a motive for the heroine, half-British, half-Greek to be there and provide the context for a spy story which seemed perfect for the time setting I had chosen. Too often, women are left out as main characters from alternate history novels, unless there prime focus is romance, so I always seek suitable ways to mix the genders in my novels into the action and a woman spy in 1914 seemed to fit trends of the time. Given how advanced Germany was in electricity and electrical engineering, it seemed to make sense that they would have sold such technology to Byzantium. The absence of coal in the region led me to envisage an earlier exploitation of oil from the fields in  northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia. This is not too much of a leap given the US and British navies were moving to oil power for warships at this time.

The political and economic elements of an alternate historical country are always interesting to work on. However, with this story there was another challenge that I actually found more fulfilling than I might have expected. I had to come up with a culture for Byzantium across the more than four centuries that it existed in my world compared to reality. I wanted it to be modern, especially as much of the action is in the capital, but also to show connections to the heritage that Byzantines would naturally have been proud of. I looked at a lot of Greek and Russian clothing and styles, e.g. with housing, from the late 19th/early 20th centuries and then sought to give them a distinctive twist. Thus men wear suits as they might in London, but cut higher to the neck; their bowler hats have a lower crown. Women wear kohl and more ornate jewellery day-to-day, conical rather that brimmed hats and the apomalli, a fictional counterpart of the pashmina, is an essential part of a Byzantine lady's wardrobe. With an enduring Greek culture in Anatolia, more Greek artists who in our world went to Athens or Paris have remained there. Constantinople was always a crossroads and in this novel we see foods that are typically Greek but others in our world we associate with Turkey. As a Christian rather than Muslim empire, alcohol is more widespread. The same goes for buildings in Constantinople. Much of the geography of the city would have developed on the same lines, but for example, we find the St. Eirene Chambers, gallery and theatre, where in our world the Topkapi Palace was built.

Some things did not need alteration. As it was Greece and Russia, plus other countries of the region, still used the Julian calendar in 1914, meaning I had to keep a close check on dates, especially when referring to battles that happened in our First World War and occurred just the same in this alternate world. The Metropolitan of Constantinople, the leading churchman, is portrayed unchanged from our history. I did have to extend the ruling dynasty and work out feasible names and numbers for the emperors after 1453 and their families. For other things, such as government positions and the currency, I updated what we know about the Byzantine era. Byzantium had a very complex military and civic society, perhaps highlighted by the term 'byzantine', but again it helps to give the reader a feel for what would be a distinct society and an ancient one dealing with the modern world. Given this effort, I hope that readers feel that they are stepping into an engaging alternative but also one that is feasible given centuries of divergence.

This is also the first spy story I have written. I hope that this works well for readers, how Eugeneia Cranston [reasons for the spelling are explained in the book] works as an agent and deals with sometimes very frustrating controllers in that work. I hope I have made it both seem realistic but show the characters in genuine jeopardy. I am certainly tempted to produce another alternate history spy story, given that I can find an appropriate context for one. This period when so much was still up for grabs in the early days of the war, seemed ideal and there may not be other settings that work so well. I always welcome feedback from readers and look forward to hearing your views.

Fictional Alternate History Map of the Byzantine Empire in 1914

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Books I Read/Listened To In October


'Four Days in June' by Iain Gale

While Gale makes it clear that this book, covering the Battle of Waterloo, is a work of fiction, all the leading people, and many of the minor characters, he features, were real. In addition where possible he puts words into their mouths that they were known to have said or written. The book goes round five individuals: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte; Marshal Michel Ney, Prince of Moskowa, one of the primary French generals; Colonel Sir William De Lancey, the British Quartermaster General; Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonell of the Coldstream Guards charged with defending the chateau of Hougoumont and Generalleutnant Hans von Ziet(h)en who commanded the Prussian I Corps, the first Prussian unit to reach the battlefield. 

Overall, it is not a bad book, though rather disjointed. Gale says his intention was to focus on the thoughts of these five men and so we rather see the action in a series of vignettes spread rather erratically across the four days. There is a big jump from the abandonment of Quatre Bras to the British and French being at the battlefield in front of Mont St. Jean. Perhaps the book is best when focused on smaller areas such as the battle for Hougoumont and Ney's repeated cavalry charges at the centre of the Allied line. He is certainly good at portraying how messy the battle was and the horror of the assorted injuries and deaths that many tens of thousands suffered. He also picks up on a couple of occasions when uniforms, especially the blue worn by Dutch troops (some of which he refers to anachronistically as Belgian) and troops from the Duchy of Nassau and the Nassau principalities.

As seems to be common these days with published books there are a number of small but annoying errors. Lieutenant Colonel John Fremantle another of Wellington's aides-de-camp is rendered as 'Freemantle'. A Prussian officer is given the rank of 'Oberstlieutenant' mixing in the English rank with the German rank of Oberstleutnant; the Landwehr are referred to as 'Landwher' and on one of the maps, Hanoverian troops are described as 'Hanovarian'. It is as if the book, at times, has been typed up from a dictation by someone unfamiliar with the actual names. Despite saying he has read 300 sources, Gale also misses the fact that one of the reasons why the Guards at Hougoumont suffered from a shortage of ammunition was that they used a different calibre of shot from other British units, something which had been identified as a problem as early as May 1815.

Not a bad book, but trying to cover so much from so many viewpoints means it loses some of its strength and it may have been better for Gale to have a tighter focus as Bernard Cornwell shows works well in books covering this time period and indeed this battle, even if Gale used a real soldier to have this viewpoint.

'The Sanctuary Seeker' by Bernard Knight

This is the first in the Crowner John series of murder mysteries. Knight, apparently his real name, was a professor of pathology and been publishing various crime novels since 1963. This novel opens in 1194 and is set in rural Devon and Exeter where the protagonist of the stories, Sir John de Wolfe, 'Crowner John' has been appointed coroner for the region as part of the legal reforms introduced by King Richard I. He is assisted by Gwyn a bulky Cornishman as his enforcer and Thomas de Peyne, a crippled former priest who works as his clerk. He is married to the sister of the Sheriff of Exeter, often an antagonist and has a mistress who runs a local tavern. In many ways I wondered if Knight was intentionally making his hero as different from the Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael featuring in novels set some 50 years earlier, though like John, Cadfael had been a crusader.

This story is around the uncovering of a corpse of a returned crusader and later that of his retainer. The deaths have triggered a number of different crimes, but John persists to get to the heart of the matter behind the two murders, in the face of favouritism and out of hand condemnations of people without evidence.

Despite the setting, the book is effectively a police procedural novel rather than a murder mystery. We see a lot of the formal working of coroner and the other legal officers he rubs up against, e.g. recording executions and setting fines on various villages. Being the first book, I can accept some 'info dumping' both on the main characters and the legal context in which they are working, such as the calling of juries, inquests, sanctuary and abjuring. Though some it seems quite modern, we also see superstition still holding sway, as with trials by ordeal to 'demonstrate' guilt or innocence of a suspect. As is typical with so many crime novels, John runs up against official favouritism or prejudice against various individuals based on who they know rather than any level of guilt. There is some action which John, despite being middle aged in our times, and almost old in those, gets involved with.

There is a bit too much tramping around the countryside and it reminded me of criticisms I have heard of police dramas in which you see people driving around too much rather than actually active at the scenes of crimes or in questioning people. I was unaware of the fact that Knight had been writing novels for 35 years when this book came out in 1998 otherwise I might have been less forgiving when it needs tightening up and does too much telling rather than showing. I have eleven more of the books in this series that were given to me and while I hope their writing is that bit tighter, I am not simply donating them to a charity shop until I have read at least a few more.

'A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms' by George R.R. Martin; illustrated by Gary Gianni

This is an odd book. It is set a century before the events featured in Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series which I read in 2017-18. However, unlike those books which are very 'adult' in nature, featuring brutality and lots of sexual content, this is effectively a children's book. The three stories included are around Ser Duncan the Tall, a squire to a jobbing 'hedge knight' who rides from region to region in the fictional continent of Westeros, seeking short-term mercenary employment and occasionally riding in jousting contests. The book opens with him dying and Duncan trying to make his way as a jouster and hedge knight aided by a 10-year old boy named Egg, who is in fact a royal prince, Aegon. The first story stars very much like the movie, 'A Knight's Tale' (2001), but then develops into a big more complexity at a tournament where typical for Martin's writing there are self-righteous, petulant privileged people who believe in the severest penalties for anything they see as a slight. Smug characters are apparently in at the moment, but it does get tedious reading so many.

The other two stories see Duncan employed by a poor lord in the southern central region of Westeros during a drought, trying to resolve arguments over water supply. The ending though is far too pat and lets down the realistic tensions over old disputes seen throughout the story. The third story sees Duncan further north, taking part in a tournament to celebrate a wedding though it proves to be the background for a conspiracy against the king. We also have two examples of old men marrying much younger women, another unsettling theme in Martin's writing which turns up far too often.

This book will seem very childish to adult and even young adult readers. Basically it is largely pitched at readers of 8-12, who will appreciate the straight forward brisk story-telling. The book is heavily, but well, illustrated by Gary Gianni with line and shading drawings which were so common in historical novels for children of the 1950s-70s that were fed to me. I said this book is largely suitable for children. However, I would include three caveats. One, the type is very small, possibly so that with all the drawings it did not become a very long book. Two, the word 'cunt' features twice and the word 'buggered' once, fitting more with the strong language of Martin's long series.

Third, as is typical of Martin he goes overboard in describing all the various noble houses and their various members. He makes it very hard as so many siblings have names that are only one or more letters different, a Daeron and a Daemon are just one example. As authors we are advised not to have too many characters whose names start with the same letter; Martin goes far further than that and has very, very similar names that can easily sow confusion in the reader's mind. A noble rebellion 16 years before the time when these stories are set and features throughout the background of these stories, especially the third one. Martin seems to have forgotten that while it is fine to spin out various plots and rebellions over many hundreds of pages, packing them into a much shorter story, overwhelms it.

I have the sense that what often happens with very successful authors is that publishers are reluctant to have an editor do a thorough job on their subsequent books. Consequently, it is no surprise that we have ended up with this oddity, a book which is basically written for children, but which includes many of Martin's typical elements that make it hard for even adult readers let alone for younger readers and occasionally including language and behaviour you would want to spare children from until they are old enough to handle it.

'Heretic' by Bernard Cornwell

Though I detected a fall in quality between the first book of Cornwell's 'Holy Grail' trilogy: 'Harlequin' (2000) and the second one, 'Vagabond' (2002):  this final book in the series is far worse by far. I know sometimes, as with his Starbuck tetralogy and in sharp contrast to his Sharpe series, Cornwell loses his way with the story. However, this one is probably the worst of his books I have read and by the end you do wonder why you bothered. In this one, English archer, Thomas of Hookton comes late to the English siege of Calais in August 1347 and sees some of the action there. However, he is then sent to southern France, once a truce is signed, by his lord, the Earl of Northampton to continue his rather erratic search for the Holy Grail. Throughout the series you feel that not on Thomas but Cornwell himself is ambivalent about this MacGuffin and so it is a rather feeble motivator for his character. He travels to the County of Astarac in south-western France which had been part of the Duchy of Aquitaine which had been ruled by the English but was steadily conquered by the French. For some reason he invents the fictional County of Berat whose ruler controls Astarac.

The rest of the novel, bar a short stretch at the end has Thomas and a shifting group of allies and enemies trekking back and forth between Astarac and a fictional castle town Castillon d'Arbizon either trying to control these or seek out the Holy Grail there. Guy Vexille the fictional Count of Astarac (the real one at the time was Centule II) and Thomas's cousin; Robbie Douglas his noble Scottish prisoner and Sir Guillaume d'Evecque, who was part of the raiding party on Hookton and father of one of Thomas's many ill-fated lovers all turn up. The book is then a series of skirmishes and running between the two locations, dealing with Thomas's latest lover, Genevieve a woman accused of being a Beghard, one of the various heretical lay communities in western Europe at the time. Ironically Vexille is in fact a Cathar, another more extensive heresy which had been purged in southern France in the 13th and early 14th centuries, but in a refreshing change from so much fiction set in medieval southern France, they do not take up much of the story.

The fact that Cornwell had to include so many more fictional elements than is usual for his stories, highlights the root of the problems with this book. There seems to be no point to it. There is no epic battle. There is no outright victory for anyone. The grail might still be fiction itself and men fight over simply the box that might have contained it. Almost all the leading characters are killed in skirmishes having switched sides once or twice. Genevieve escapes the fate of Thomas's other women and survives. However, the rapid change in women Thomas is with in the books means each is sketched out poorly and what could have been strong, interesting female characters (which can be a challenge with historical war stories) are not completed and are snuffed out too quickly. The ultimate futility of the book is shown by one incident that I will not reveal as it is a spoiler but even more so by the fact that many of those who survive the monotonous raiding and skirmishes die of the Black Death anyway.

Overall, I am not certain why Cornwell bothered with this book. It appears that having promised a trilogy he felt obliged to provide one rather than it being planned out properly. As a result, he fumbles around for some point to this third book and it would have been better if he had closed the story at the end of 'Vagabond' with some conclusion that seemed to have been worth reading hundreds of pages to reach. This book was very disappointing and I certainly will not bother with the coda volume, '1356' (2012) which is set 8 years after 'Heretic'.


'The Pleasures of Peace' by Bryan Appleyard

Despite some flaws, I found this quite an impressive book. It looks at developments in various facets of art in Britain from 1945 up until when it was published in 1990. He does look into the pre-war period and even the 19th Century for ideas and trends that continued after 1945, but as the book progresses, it is the contemporary developments which are dominant. Though Benjamin Britten gets a brief mention, it explicitly does not cover music and in theory does not cover popular culture, though reference to movies and science fiction books are, at time included. The prime focus is on literature, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture and architecture, breaking the years down into four periods.

Various themes reappear throughout the book such as the tension between a modern world and traditional/nostalgic perspectives and associated with this between the urban and rural. There is discussion of the interplay between art and science, especially the concern that science would overwhelm art or whether art could assimilate scientific aspects. The issue of representation in art whether figuratively or and whether it needs to be seen in order to be art also comes up. There is analysis of language, especially in literature, poetry and plays not just in terms of what is seen as appropriate language and the meanings it communicates, but also in terms of post-modernism of how culture impacts on language and its comprehension. Society and its changes are constantly used as a context for these discussions.

As can be seen just from this brief summary the book powers through a great deal. Comprehension is aided by Appleyard breaking the text into short thematic sections but also making a connection between one and the other, sometimes surprisingly such as going from poetry to architecture and drawing parallels in developments of the 1980s. Appleyard also keeps grounding what he is saying by using examples from the artists he is discussing, typically focusing in particular on one or two pieces of work to illustrate his point. This stops the book being painfully abstract and makes it more accessible to a non-academic reader. 

One challenge is, because he focuses largely on those artists who attracted the most attention in their time, there is a parade of white Englishmen. We do get Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer, Seamus Heaney, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and a few others. There is reference to American and French artists and thinkers, but the prime focus is on Englishmen. By the end I did feel that there was almost a parallel book somewhere to this one in which other contributors to the artistic culture of Britain was included. However, if you want to know who were seen as the 'important' artists and movements of the mid-late 20th Century this is an energetic, detailed book which works well not just to introduce them but to explore why it is felt they produced the art they did.

Audio Book

'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis; read by Lynn Redgrave

As I have not been commuting to and from work, I have been listening to far fewer audio books and indeed, though this one only runs to 4 hours, I started it in March and only finished it this month.

This was a children's book that I got in a mixed bag of audio books. I had 'The Magician's Nephew' (1955) read to me when I was a boy and in I saw the movie of  'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (novel 1950; movie 2005). However, as to the other stories in the Narnia series - though a fictional world, named after a Roman region of Italy - I have just been vaguely aware of them. This story happens in Narnia some centuries after the events of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', and animals have generally ceased to be able to speak and the humans have been overtaken by a nation called the Telmarines, who ultimately turn out to be descendants of pirates from Earth. The story centres around Prince Caspian, in line to the throne, but is usurped by his uncle and flees to try to find help to recover his position as king. He both encounters talking animals who aid him in the war against his uncle and summon the four Pevensie children from England of the 1950s where they had returned after ruling as monarchs in Narnia for many years centuries earlier.

As you would expect from English upper middle class fiction of the mid-20th Century it is very 'jolly hockeysticks' with lots of worthy behaviour and exclamations. The Christian overtones, represented by the giant lion, Aslan who also reappears in Narnia and those having doubt or faith in him, run alongside Classical references, notably to Bacchus who turns up with Maenads and leads a drunken orgy and other folklore like a river god. There are arguments between the various animals which make up the armies, but generally a reawakening of nature, especially tree spirits, as the four children aid Caspian to victory. How the lands have changed in the centuries since the children have been away is interesting. More unsettling are the colonial overtones, indicating that only the wise English brought in from outside can resolve tyrants and other difficulties in 'less developed' lands; indeed through bringing faith in Christianity too.

Despite all these themes which may be off putting in various ways, the story is one of sweeping old fashioned heroics tempered occasionally with the weaknesses of children. Ironically it all ends with the Pevensies being sent back to where they left our world at the railway station and the two eldest, Peter and Susan are advised that they are too old ever to return to Narnia, so somehow representing the loss of innocence for children even while pre-adolescent. That may reflect recognition of how the war and the following austerity still hung over England at the time the novel was written. Lynn Redgrave does a wonderful job of voicing all the characters in that very energetic, very English style which fits the novel and she is called upon to voice a whole host of different animals, which she does with great variety, so bringing those characters to life in all their variety.