Friday, 17 May 2019

Books I Listened To/Read in May

'Don't Mention the War: The British and the Germans since 1890' by John Ramsden
I have noticed that historians who become 'grandees' with a career of academic books under their belts, are often exempted from being edited.  This can make their later books (Ramsden retired in 2008, three years after this book was published and died in 2009) rather bloated and often meandering.  This book is an example of that problem.  It is interesting and despite the title, actually goes back much further than 1890, looking at relations between the British and Germans in the early modern period and the full length of the 19th century.  The problem is that Ramsden keeps wandering off the thread.  He confesses at the start to being a fan of opera, so music and indeed the broader arts, whether high-brow or highly populist, are probably over-represented when talking about relations.  The book really gets going when it reaches 1914 and Ramsden is best on the animosity between Britain and (West) Germany in the post-1945 period.  However, he spends a lot of time considering specific war films and goes on at length about Noel Coward and Bert Trautmann.  Their role is important but the space Ramsden gives them is out of scale with their importance to the story and means he neglects broader issues and wider examples.  East Germany is largely forgotten.

This book has interesting points, but it very much feels to be not a thorough history book, but more a transcript of what you would have heard if you had sat down with Ramsden over tea and talked about Britain and Germany over a number of afternoons.  That may have been the intention, that it would be a book that straddled the popular and academic spheres.  However, if that was the case, it is too bulky for the popular audience and too meandering for the academic.  Aside from this character, Ramsden, a historian of the Conservative Party, misses no opportunity to make petty, almost childish jibes against not on the Labour Party, but even the liberal media, being very dismissive of  'The Guardian'.  Again, with proper editing these barbs, which are entirely unnecessary for the story being told, would have been eliminated. Left in they add to the sense that this was a late draft of the book rather than a version which could be deemed a finished book.  However, perhaps that is no surprise in the 21st century when editing is left to authors and people they may employ rather than being done by the publishers themselves.

'Witch Hunt by Jack Harvey [Ian Rankin]
This book is from 1993, early in Rankin's career but not at the start.  As is typical for successful authors it seems his agent or publishers encouraged him to try other series aside from his long-running Rebus books.  This is a sort of a spy novel.  It attempts to be a John le Carré novel and a little like the Villanelle e-novels/novel that Luke Jennings produced 2014-18 with much greater success.  A major problem is that Rankin is uncertain who he wants to focus upon and whether the tone will be the downbeat, almost desultory one of Le Carré's work or something a bit more action filled and glamorous.  As a result it feels very much like a book of bits.  He lacks the ability to make the downbeat elements as intriguing or tricky as Le Carré so they just come across as tedious.  He even has a retired operative, Dominic Elder, a specialist on the assassin being hunted, brought in just as George Smiley is to deal with Karla.

There is far too much about different levels of the British security system that adds nothing of interest and slackens off any tension Rankin has built up with the killings.  The relationship between Michael Barclay from Special Branch and his French equivalent in the DST (now the DGSI) Dominique Herault is so predictable as to be painful to read; only Herault's mother adds an interesting element.  The novel is about the hunt for a female assassin, codenamed 'Witch' who has returned to the UK at the time of an international summit and the rather ineffectual attempts to prevent her.  There are some interesting twists, but overall, because of his uncertainty the book really lacks life.  You feel he could have taken all the same elements and written a much better book.  It does show that someone who specialises in police procedural can struggle when attempting a spy novel.

'Brasyl' by Ian McDonald
This book is marginally better than 'River of Gods' (2004) which I read in March:  While McDonald continues to completely overload the reader with too many characters, haring around, he at least restricts himself to three settings this time, different parts of Brazil in 1733, 2006 and 2032.  A lot of McDonald's, and indeed Cyberpunk's, themes come out again in this book.  Especially the 2032 features all the trappings of the cyberpunk tropes and indeed the mono-molecular blades so favoured in classic Cyberpunk, appear in all three time periods.  As with 'River of Gods' McDonald is interested in the quantum and the use of alternate universes, in this novel to provide computing power rather than energy.  The book ends up being pretty much like 'The Matrix' movies (1999-2003), in revealing that the universe is almost dead and we are in fact living in a computer simulation of previous versions of the universe.  The antagonists, The Order, are reminiscent of Mr. Smith from 'The Matrix' movies.  However, the overarching context strays into Michael Moorcock's principles from 'The Dancers at the End of Time' books (1972-81) too.  This multi-layered context shows the central problem of the book.  Added to this, at least two of the characters have doppelgangers from other realities.  The 1733 strand is laden with heavy parallels to 'Apocalypse Now (1979) itself drawing on 'Heart of Darkness'  (1899) by Joseph Conrad and 'The Mission' (1986) especially with its very robust, sword-fighting priests; the floating cathedral reminded me much of  'Oscar and Lucinda' (novel 1988; movie 1997) as well.

There is another problem with the book, which despite all the action scenes whether involving capoeira or mono-molecular blades or rapiers, is a very heavy-going read.  I complimented McDonald on how well he brought to life a future India in 'River of Gods' and here he seeks to do it with Brazil.  The trouble is, that he digs so deeply into the culture of the music, religions, martial arts, soap operas, slums and so on, that some sections are almost not written in English but in Portuguese and dialect.  When you have a 6-page glossary of terms, you have to know that the average reader of the book in the language it is supposed to be written in, is going to struggle.  I have encountered authors before who are more concerned by showing off than telling a good story and it is becoming clear that McDonald was one of these.  Read this book for the bright lights (some of which have been reconditioned from 30 years ago) but do not expect it to make any sense or to be coherent for much of the time, it is pushing around far too much bulk and trying to make it go fast for that to work, especially if you do not speak Brazilian Portuguese slang.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Troll Fell' by Katherine Langrish; read by Alex Jennings
As I often buy mixed boxes of audio books, I sometimes have no idea about the nature of the books I am purchasing.  Though this one is read by (the male) Alex Jennings who I tend to hear reading heavy-weight classics, this is actually a children's book.  It is quite enjoyable all the same.  It is set in a fictional Nordic setting though one which seems to have some connection to the real world as the father of one of the characters sails beyond Iceland and Greenland to land in North America.  However, it is also a fantasy as Nordic creatures including a house 'elf', a were-eel (!) and lots of trolls feature.  The story follow orphaned Peer Ulfsson who is 12, when he is sent to live with his cruel uncles at a watermill near Troll Fell. Dealing with their cruelty and then the deals they make with the trolls who live under Troll Fell, to sell Peer and his new friend Hilde provides the basis of the adventure.  Peer gets aid from some other fantastical creatures.

Like the best children's fiction the book does not baulk from unpleasant elements in the harshness of life, notably the loss of parents and the need to protect siblings. At one stage Peer believes he is going to remain a slave for life or indeed hideously transformed.  Thus, I found this novel easier to engage with than perhaps I would have done with other children's books.  I liked the Norse feel to it as well.  Jennings is a capable reader of audio books, but felt he was out of place with this one, making me feel that it should be a 19th century novel or a dry contemporary commentary.  Still he is not bad with the various realistic and fantastical voices, it is just this is not really his kind of book to narrate.  The book is the first of a trilogy but this story wraps up quite neatly and I am not going to seek out any others intentionally but would not chuck them out if they turn up in a box of audio books I buy.

'Outbreak' by Chris Ryan; read by Rupert Degas
This was another from a box that I mistook.  Given that Ryan is ex-SAS, I had expected something along the lines of an Andy McNab novel.  It is an action adventure, set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but focused on a 13-year old boy (despite his youth he can drive cars and even a lorry) where Ben Tracey's father, a mining expert is investigating a source of an important mineral, only to stumble across a reservoir of a disease that is worse than ebola.  The story is an adventure set around a small village as Ben tries to survive against the opposition of the mining company and warn the world about the risk of the disease.  It fits different tropes.  It is almost a colonial adventure from the 19th century though, fitting with much children's fiction of today, Ben partners up with a local girl Halima, whose knowledge helps them survive facing not just the baddies but the various ferocious creatures of the region.  It is a frantic adventure, though it feels reasonably realistic.

I was a little apprehensive that it would be a neo-colonial story especially when Halima's beliefs are introduced, and Ryan walks a fine line.  Individual readers will have to judge whether he manages to remain appropriate in his approach.  Similarly I was rather concerned at Degas putting on accents of Congolese people.  He seems to have gone to a great deal of effort and at times, I had assumed that the company had brought in someone else to do those voices.  In reality most of the dialogue would be in French, but Degas, just about pulls off sounding authentic without being a caricature.  Again some readers might be offended by the fact he even tries.  Whereas I might listen to some McNab books, I am unlikely given the areas Ryan strays into, to come back to anything by him in the future, even if aimed at full adults rather than young adults.

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' by Stieg Larsson; read by Martin Wenver
This book published in 2005 (though not in English until 2008) revived the English-speaking interest in Scandinavian crime novels (as opposed to television series) that had perked up in 1995 with 'Sidetracked' by Henning Mankell having lain largely dormant since the last Sjöwall and Wahlöö book had been published in 1975.  I have seen the Swedish movie, but not the English one.  Coming to the book showed me that really this was a classic detective story with a contemporary, edgy element bolted on top.  Without the appearance of Lisbet Salander a young female hacker under the care of the state, this book could have appeared in 1976, though some of this made have been due to the toning down of the book for English-language audiences in translation.  The Swedish title of the book is nowadays well known to be 'Men Who Hate Women'.  Larsson was dead when the book was published so had lost control over it.

Still, the bulk of the book is about a journalist Mikael Blomkvist, following a libel conviction, retreating to a remote Swedish island to investigate the disappearance of a girl of a wealthy industrial family in 1966.  Much of his work to uncover what occurred, handling all the unpleasant family members could have come from a book by Maria Lang [Dagmar Lange] who published crime novels between 1949-90.  The fact that Blomkvist reads novels by Elizabeth George and disparages one by Val McDermid for being too gory in 'The Mermaids Singing' (1995) which I listened to last year: indicates really where Larsson's writing lies.

Salander has her own revenge to wreak which she does with the latest technology of the time and helps Blomkvist in the latter stages of his investigation, though old photographs are the real source of the clues.  Blomkvist has a girlfriend his own age, sleeps with one of the old women of the family and has a sexual relationship with Salander too.  These developments are highly unconvincing and I do wonder if it is to be expected in Swedish novels.  Aside from 'Sidetracked' which I read 17 years ago, I have not read Swedish novels and to be honest this one hardly won me over.  It is not a bad book, but really it is a very old-fashioned murder mystery with more contemporary elements put on top to give it some 'edge' but they are not well integrated into the book and so it seems like two separate novels and the connection between them really forced and unconvincing.

Wenver sounds convincing as the various characters, though far better with the men than the women and his Salander is a real stereotypical Londoner accented young woman, which jars with the rest of the voices.  I have the other two books in the series to listen to, but I am not expecting much from them.

'The Spy Who Loved Me' by Ian Fleming; read by Rosamund Pike
The James Bond movies have done Fleming a great misservice.  While he never would have been notable in the feminist movement, the more you read of the James Bond novels, the more you see a nuanced approach to women and a recognition of the inequalities of the time.  This book is unique among the series as Bond appears only towards the end and it is narrated from the view of a French Canadian woman, Vivienne Michelle.  Much of the book covers her personal experiences being mistreated by men in Britain.  Her shame at having sex in a public place might be absent these days, but this book could come out with modifications in the MeToo era, showing up how men manipulate women for sex and insisting on their own rules.  Michelle is compelled by her second lover to have an abortion when these were illegal in the UK, but given the changes in US law at present such a path is liable to become common once more for American women, bringing the references back into currency.

There is action in this book as Michelle, travelling down the eastern side of the USA on a scooter, is set-up to be the one to blame for an insurance-fraud fire at a motel where she is temporarily working in New York state.  The two gangsters sent to carry out the fire are eager to rape her but want to keep her alive so she can be seen as the cause of the fire when burnt to death.  Though the language is dated, the way the men abuse her and insist she behaves in certain ways could be written today.  Bond turns up as a deus ex machina, recounting at length an action against SPECTRE that he had carried out in Canada.  He does get things wrong even when dealing with just two gangsters and Michelle has to keep active even when he is charge.  Perhaps all of her being joyful at finding a decent man and being lectured by a policeman about not falling in love with men like Bond would be absent from a novel today.  However, ultimately Michelle rides off on her journey to Florida, very independently, simply with a view that some few men can treat her well especially sexually.  In many ways, this book should stand outside the Bond series and is better judged as something distinct which it comes out pretty well for being.

Despite the distinctiveness of this novel among his work Fleming features many of his usual tropes.  At length he condemns the USA as tawdry with few redeeming characteristics and highlights particularly the Italian-American gangster culture.  He shows men manipulating women to their own ends as a signal of their genuine evil.  There is lots of attention to detail in terms of products, vehicles and clothing both in the UK and especially in the USA.   I guess I would not have come to this book if it was in the Bond series, but am reasonably glad I did because it is engaging even for its age (published 1962) which it shows very clearly in its references to President John Kennedy (1917-November 1963).

Pike does the narration excellently.  Much of it is in the first person as a woman, but she does not sound like a British actress, but a Canadian.  Her voicing of Bond is handled pretty well, though the gravity she gives it makes her sound like Honeysuckle Weeks acting in the 'Foyle's War' series.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The Books I Listened To/Read In April

I must apologise, but despite repeated efforts to rectify this, Blogger keeps spacing out the paragraphs in an odd way.

'Steampunk!' ed. by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant
As the title suggests this is an anthology of Steampunk stories.  Link and Grant say that they have sought out locations rather than Victorian London, though I think one slips through the net.  Despite the inclusion of two cartoon stories, the collection is far better than the 'Steampunk' one edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer that I read 7 years ago.  That included one horrendous story and some very unpleasant ones.  In my view that gave Steampunk collections a bad name:
As a result I have stayed away from Steampunk anthologies and am no longer abreast of the different authors that write in the genre.  The decline of Steampunk writing as opposed to cosplay, crafting and music has been noted.  I picked up this collection and another I plan to read later in the year, unread at a carboot sale.

This collection, while predominantly featuring US authors with the odd Australian and New Zealander thrown in, does not have that sense that Steampunk somehow is American. It is good to see a balance of genders both in terms of authors and the leading characters; in fact female protagonists predominate. There are no golems feature in the collection, but there is more time travel than I have seen before in Steampunk stories.  Setting aside the two cartoons by Shawn Cheng and Kathleen Jennings which have their place, but not in a book like this, I enjoyed the stories and found them refreshing.

'Some Fortunate Future Day' by Cassandra Clare is a well formed short story which hints at more than it covers, rather than feeling like a chunk of a broader project.  It has a well realised though insular setting in a Steampunk context and a kind of  'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) feel, though you hope for a better outcome than that movie.  Despite the title, as the editors promised, 'Clockwork Fagin' by Cory Doctorow is not set in London but the USA.  It does well in looking at the impact of a Steampunk world in the cost of mutilated child machine operators.  It is an upbeat story as these children increasingly take control of their lives through their engineering skills.  It thus well combines the grittier aspects of the genre but in a way which is part of the story rather than preaching.  While a long short story it is worked through in its extent.

'The Last Ride of the Glory Girls' by Libba Bray feels like the pilot for a longer novel.  It also features a time manipulation device combined with a group of female bandits in a Steampunk American West.  It is crisp and well realised with engaging characters and is one of the stories I would like to see more of.  Another one which seems like the start of something larger is 'Hand in Glove' by Ysabeau S. Wilce which covers a female detective in a Steampunk city and the challenges she faces in solving a murder, the perpetrator of which is highly unexpected.  The story has some standard elements but is good in portraying places and has some interesting twists.  One could envisage novels featuring the protagonist, Constable Aurelia Etreyo.

'Ghost of Cwmlech Manor' by Delia Sherman is set in Victorian Wales and has the feeling of a classic Victorian horror story though the Steampunk elements, here seen in a rural rather than an urban setting.  It did however remind me of the 'The Unquiet Dead' episode of 'Doctor Who' set in Cardiff in 1869 which was broadcast in 2005.  Despite these elements it is an upbeat story with both the local and incoming characters interesting and just about avoiding being a set of tropes.  'Gethsemane' by Elizabeth Knox is another which feels to be as much a different Victorian genre as a Steampunk novel.  It shows Steampunk technology being used on a tropical island to gain energy from a volcano, but the focus of the story is more on the island's inhabitants, a form of zombie and sailors who come to the island with the Steampunk facet in the background of what happens rather than the foreground.  'Oracle Engine' by M.T. Anderson is very sandalpunk, being set in an alternate Roman Empire where a computer is constructed.  It is really a morality tale looking to take the style of accounts by Roman historians, so while not bad, has something irritating in the tone, rather self-righteous.

'The Summer People' is not really a Steampunk story at all and feels more like a folklore story set in just a slightly different North America from the one we know.  It focuses very much on a kind of magical creatures, the eponymous people.  It has interesting ideas and has that nice edge of such stories but you do wonder if it would have been included if Kelly Link was not one of the editors. 'Steam Girl' by Dylan Horrocks is another oddity for this collection.  In it Steampunk is not real, we just see contemporary USA, so it is a meta-story as the Steampunk elements including the 'golden age' science fiction aspects of travelling to see civilisations on Mars and Venus, are just in the mind of a schoolgirl.  I do wonder if contemporary American teenagers actually have interest in stories of that kind; perhaps it would have been more realistic to have a Japanese teenager featured.

'Everything Available and Obliging' by Holly Black also owes more to a different science fiction genre than Steampunk and is really a steampunked version of  'I, Robot' (1950) though with more awkward questions about affection for humanoid machines.  'Nowhere Fast' by Christopher Rowe is a post-apocalyptic story set in one of the states which has formed in the eastern USA.  It is reasonable largely interesting for seeing how the insular American communities you find in these post-apocalyptic stories react when technology, even of the Steampunk kind, is the thing to hate.

'Zoo Station' by David Dowling
It took some time for me to realise that this was the same David Dowling (it is a surprisingly common name combination as an online search quickly shows) who had written 'The Moscow Option' (1979) a successful alternate history novel of the Second World War, though all I remember from it was the sex scene and the assassination of Adolf Eichmann in Palestine, it was about 35 years ago that I read it.  Anyway, since then I had been unaware of Dowling writing anything until this series was given to me by a family member.  This is the first book concerning a British journalist working in Berlin early in 1939.  He has a son by his German ex-wife and has a long-standing German girlfriend, both he is loath to leave despite the sense that war is approaching.

Dowling has done an immense amount of research regarding Berlin at the time and that is part of the problems.  Russell traipses all over the city with great detail about where he is going, what public transport he is using, where he stops for his meals and what he eats and drinks.  It begins to expand out from Berlin with him paying visits to Hamburg and the Baltic coast; to Poland and Czechoslovakia.  The detail is great but it reduces rather than adds to the tension.  Russell, a former Communist is recruited by Soviet intelligence and then British intelligence to carry out various tasks; he is also monitored by the German SD counter-intelligence body.  He helps a Jewish family get away from Germany and sort of investigates the murder of a US journalist who had stumbled across the T4 Programme of killing disabled German children.

I know the book is establishing the characters and the situation, but nothing is really resolved.  It is very much a 'slice of life' novel that just peters out.  This might be alright if it was a literary novel, but it is supposed to be a spy novel and really lacks the tension necessary.  I have the rest of the books in the series and hope that now everything is established the tension will be built up.  I assume it is a successful series given how many books are in it.

Audio Books
'Aggressor' by Andy McNab [Steven Billy Mitchell]; read by Steven Pacey
Having been presently surprised by listening to 'Zero Hour' (2010):  I thought I would give another McNab story featuring Nick Stone a go when I came across it cheaply.  It is pretty similar to the previous book, though it is a friend of Stone's who is suffering a terminal illness and the adventure takes place in the country of Georgia rather than Moldova.  The story is fast moving and you get what you expect, though the course of events does not run smoothly for the hero.  McNab shows awareness of the political situation in the places he sets his stories and is sympathetic to local conditions, showing how big money manipulates the situations and groups are played with so this is not a colonial adventure.  As with 'Zero Hour' the role for men, especially ex-servicemen, in peacetime society and male ageing feature as themes.  While a pretty straight forward book, it is better than it might otherwise have been and if this is a genre you like, McNab seems to be one of the best writers in it.  Steven Pacey is another reader who sounds very much like the character and was pretty good at doing not just British but Australian, German and Georgian accents, women as well as men.

'Pulse' by Julian Barnes; read by David Rintoul
I mistakenly thought I had read some of Barnes's books before.  This is a collection of short stories, a genre I usually enjoy, but having heard this book, I know I will now steer clear of Barnes's work.  Most of the stories are set in Britain of the 2000s (the book was published in 2011).  They are painfully middle class and in many cases painfully male.  Many of the protagonists are white Englishmen unable to have successful relationships with women.  There are a few exceptions to these dreary stories, but the round dinner table discussions, while showing off Rintoul's ability with accents and jumping between characters are very like the dinner party sketches in featuring John Bird, John Fortune, Pauline McLynn and Frances Barber on 'Bremner, Bird and Fortune' (broadcast 1999-2010).  One of these would have been fine but they become repetitive.  The only really decent story is about a painter in the USA in the 18th Century.  Otherwise I found the collection dreary and repetitive, very narrowly focused on what I imagine is Barnes's life experiences at the time.  Rintoul, a well-established audio book narrator, does well, though for many of the stories there is little to stretch him, but when called upon he does demonstrate why he is among the leading narrators at present for accents and portraying female as well as male characters.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In March

'River of Gods' by Ian McDonald
Though published in 2004, this book is very much a Cyberpunk novel of the old style from the 1980s.  Set in 2047 the action largely takes place in an India which has fragmented independent states, sometimes at war with each other.  Artificial intelligence has advanced to a level at which it can exceed human thought and its application is policed.  In the classic Cyberpunk approach, McDonald weaves together a range of apparently disparate characters whose various stories come together towards the climax.  He handles this in a less clunky way than some of the 'heroes' of Cyberpunk, notably William Gibson.  Though a westerner, he has done well, in my view anyway, in envisaging a future India, though some traits such as a love of cricket and soap operas, perhaps have been assumed to continue unchallenged.

The level of technology with drone attack devices and surgery that has led to the rise of 'nutes', literally surgically created neuter people, seems appropriate for the coming decades.  It even features a sentient soap opera which I liked as a concept. There is some standard science fiction with a device close to Earth which is of ancient alien design and the development by a company which derives power from parallel universes, but they are merged in with the more down-to-Earth Cyberpunk technology without much of a jar.  In addition there is a small scale war and climate change that has led to extended droughts.  However, to some degree including all of these elements is pretty overwhelming for the reader.

The characters are diverse and believable, with their different motives, some pretty mundane such as escaping a cloying marriage, others exotic such as connecting to another universe.  He has done reasonably well in looking at how a different world would shape attitudes, but crucially old world attitudes repeatedly shape the action and the fate of a number of the characters especially those that end tragically.  Overall, this is an interesting book and if I had not read as much Cyberpunk as I have I think I would have been excited by it.  The prime problem is the length (584 pages in my edition) and so you reach the closing stages of the book feeling worn out and wanting it to be over because you have had so many concepts, so many twists and turns, that by the end, you simply want the climax to be finished.  The book is good, but ultimately drowns in all of the ideas, characters and activities that McDonald piles in.

'Pattern Recognition' by William Gibson
It was ironic that the next book I read was by William Gibson who had been one of the leading lights of the Cyberpunk era.  However, I have been unaware that he has continued writing, indeed I was not even aware he was still alive.  He seems, if 'Pattern Recognition' is characteristic of his post-Cyberpunk writing to have moved on to contemporary novels.  This one is set in 2002, only a year before the book was published.  Much activity happens in London, especially around Camden an area I visited a lot at that time.  The first thing I noticed is how much Gibson has improved as a writer since I read his books in the 1980s.  As noted in the review above, I always found the working out of his stories very clunky and you could see where they were heading from very early in the book.  Added to that his writing has become far more lucid and there were passages in this book that I really admired for their skill.  I cannot remember seeing an author develop so far as Gibson seems to have done and I guess it suggests there is hope for all authors, or maybe he just employed a better editor than before.  Perhaps writing contemporary fiction, publishers do not simply bow down before his apparently stunning concepts as they might have once done.

The book focuses on American Cayce Pollard who has an allergy to brand logos and so is used by companies to test out whether their new logo will have impact.  She is also alert to global trends and highlights 'the next big thing'.  Rather erratically she becomes involved with artists and film makers, but as it progresses the book narrows down to her pursuing the maker of snippets of a film which have been released sporadically over the internet with no contextualisation.  A community has grown up trying to read meaning into the snippets.  The quest means her interacting with cool people from London to Tokyo to Moscow as ultimately she is successful in locating the source and keeping the information out of the hands of wealthy obsessives and corporations.  At times the book is satirical about corporate culture and especially marketing and branding and takes a wry look at life in the capitals of the UK, Japan and Russia.  The improvement in Gibson's writing really helps these elements be effective.  His characters are interesting, not all of them are likeable and some verge on caricatures, but he creates a rich complex environment both real and virtual which does not go too far the way McDonald does to drown you in all that he has conjured up.  While I will not rush out and buy all of Gibson's 21st Century output, if I come across others from this phase of his writing, I would not pick them up.

'Death at La Fenice' by Donna Leon
I have been given a lot of the books in Leon's Comissario Brunetti series, this book, published in 1992 was the first.  I think this is because I enjoyed Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series also set in contemporary Italy.  I have been annoyed by comments made by Leon in an interview to 'The Guardian' newspaper in which she said while no male author can successfully write female characters, female authors, because they live in a male-dominated world, are well capable of writing male characters.  I found that a very arrogant attitude but given that she is an American I suppose such sweeping claims are to be expected.

This book is certainly a feminist crime novel.  Though her police detective is a man, much of the story features women who have suffered at the hands of men.  All the men beside Brunetti are at best bitchy or short-sighted in their arrogance and at worst repeated paedophile offenders.  The story is around a famous German conductor who is found poisoned mid-way through a performance at La Fenice opera house in Venice.  The story is pretty straight forward, like many detective stories set around theatres or concert halls.  Leon is less concerned about the mystery and in fact the reader may be able to work out the solution from very early on.  Her concern is showing how nasty the dead man was in his treatment of women, children, gay men and lesbians.  These factors are more important to the story than the conductor's collaboration with the Nazi regime.

Perhaps it is Leon's upbringing, but in many ways I felt this novel was far older than 1992, especially in terms of its attitude to how women and lesbians are perceived.  The view that the entire population is interested in opera and familiar with its participants also jarred. Hanging over much of the book is a very old fashioned social attitude.  I think Leon, who lived in Italy for man years is chiding the country for not being up-to-date.  In passing she notes it corruption, something which often featured in Dibdin's books.  However, she does not successfully disengage from the dated social attitudes in her own portrayals which makes her seem complicit in them even while she might be aiming to counter them.  Then again, she might not, but given what I have heard from her, I do not believed she sees these things this way herself or maybe she has a range of attitudes that it is difficult to entangle.  Thus, overall, the women are largely victims of circumstances and maliciousness and the men are at least incompetent if not nasty in a range of ways.  The only exception is her hero.

I do not really understand why the book received so much acclaim, perhaps because of its feminist agenda, maybe because of its detailed portrayal of Venice.  It is a standard murder mystery that exposes the author's views on subjects very clearly to some degree removing much of the intrigue and at times compelling characters to be pretty exaggerated.  I have a string of these books to get through and hope that Leon's writing improved especially in terms of subtlety.

'Rethinking British Decline' ed. by Richard English and Michael Kenny
There is so much going on in this book that it is difficult to review.  It was published in 2000, but it is fascinating reading it now because of so many of the antecedents of the current Brexit crisis can be seen in it, even going back to 1962 and the leader of the Labour Party of the time, Hugh Gaitskell, warning about the dangers of European federalism.  The first part of the book is a series of interviews with many of the great economic historians of the last two-fifths of the 20th Century, Sidney Pollard, Samuel Brittan, David Marquand and other commentators from that late period such as Corelli Barnett and Will Hutton.  Much of their time is spent dismissing the views of the others and in some cases, notably Jonathan Clark, arguing that Britain actually did not decline in the 20th Century, in part due to the more widely held view that its economy has always been more about finance and insurance than manufacturing and emphasis on standards of living and opportunities; Britain still being in the G7.

The second part of the book is a more standard collection of chapters looking at the same aspects often mentioned in the first half of the book, such as problems with British culture and institutions, plus relationship with the European Community and the former Empire.  There are no firm conclusions, except perhaps that declinism as a political tool has been greater than actual evidence of decline itself.  Interestingly, it is all handled at a very high level of society and politics and aside from comments on the rise of unemployment under the Thatcher governments, there is no reference to rising poverty, debt, homelessness, ill-health and declining education and opportunities across the UK.  I do not think an update today would have such a neutral sense, but then it was produced in the days of 'things can only get better' early in the Blair governments.  I think this is a good summary of the different angles on British decline and especially on declinism as a ideology usable across the political spectrum.  In some ways it also marks a changing of the guard, and despite the persistence of some of those interviewed into old age, it seems unlikely that economic historians will ever have such an impact on politics as they did in the 1960s-90s and that in itself is interesting to see as that breed of academic/commentator was coming to their sunset in terms of influence.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Sepulchre' by Kate Mosse; read by Lorelei King
I felt I had read Mosse's best seller 'Labyrinth' (2006) longer ago than it had been published.  I have seen some of her later books, including this one published in 2007, regularly in charity shops, but had been put off by the length of them, so it was ideal to have as an audio book.  As with 'Labyrinth' in 'Sepulchre', Mosse uses the approach of parallel stories between two women's lives, one in the present and one in the past, in this case 1891 rather than the 13th Century.  Meredith Martin travels to France to research the life of Claude Debussy for a book she is writing and as a side mission to find out a little about her birth family, which it proves, originated in southern France.  Martin ends up going to Rennes-les-Baines and staying at a hotel in the Domaine de la Cade.  In 1891, with her brother mixed up with a jealous wealthy man's revenge and fleeing creditors, the teenager Léonie Vernier travels to the same house owned by her widowed aunt.  A further connection is a sepulchre in the grounds of the house, apparently connected to the Cathars persecuted in the region in the 13th Century and the source of both music and art work, notably tarot card designs, that both Vernier and Martin come into contact.

At first I thought that the book was going to be at a very populist level.  King's opening narration, very breathless in the US audio book style, added to this sense.  However, I was glad that I persisted.  Both King and the book settled down and while you might feel the connections are rather contrived, as the story progressed you had the sense that the motives and behaviour in both times were legitimate.  While the genuinely nasty antagonist closes in on the Vernier siblings, Martin becomes involved in investigating the death of her new lover's father.  This was the section which jarred most.  Martin, in her late twenties, seems willing to hop into bed with a stranger and to become his partner very quickly, involving herself in a dangerous situation with aplomb.  I do not know if that is the self-confidence of American women, but given that the author is asking us to accept tarot readings and phantoms and does so pretty well, this aspect really jarred and I felt she had been ordered to include it for some sex rather than to genuinely advance the story.  Interestingly, this was a book that I enjoyed as it progressed.  However, I do think she did not need to go into the latter years of Léonie Vernier's life and it would have been crisper to end it all in 1891.  Thus, at times I had mixed feelings about the book, but was ultimately satisfied by it.  I largely believed the characters and what they go up to.  The Gothic elements were handled well without becoming overblown or too deeply trope coining.  The research and attention to detail was excellent.

While I often have difficulty with US narrators over-exaggerating their readings and really worried that King was going to persist with this, as I have found with other such readers, if you give them a few chapters at the start, they settle down and given a more level tone.  She does the range of voices both male and female, in both time periods well.  While I feel a reader of a different nationality would have made the story sound more sinister, King's performance was not as much out of step as I initially feared.

'Fever of the Bone' by Val McDermid; read by Michael Mahoney
I listened to the first of McDermid's stories featuring psychologist Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan, 'The Mermaids Singing' (1995) last year.  This book published in 2009, is the sixth in the series which this year reached 11 books.  Hill and Jordan now live in the same building though not together.  In large part this is blamed on Hill's impotence which has continued through the novels.Furthermore Jordan, heading a specialist murder investigation team, is encouraged not to call on Hill's services when teenagers begin to go missing and then turn up dead with their genitals removed and instead use a cheaper police psychologist.  Hill goes from the fictional Bradfield to work for the police of Worcester which develops the sub-plot of the death of his father who disappeared before he was born and his own poor relationship with his nasty mother.  Hill is brought into a case which soon connects to the killings in Bradfield and aided by the arrogant incompetence of the police psychologist is brought into the broader case.  While the book is about a serial killer, the motive differs from those which usually turn up and the twist to keep the killer's identity secret is well handled.  Overall, the book is competent and engaging with very believable characters.  I have another of McDermid's novels on my stack to listen to.  Mahoney handles the story telling well and does convincing women, not simply Jordan but also a range of bereaved mothers and female friends of the victims, to the extent that you forget he is there, a sign of a good reader.

'The Secret Adversary' by Agatha Christie; read by Samantha Bond
Most people tend to think of Agatha Christie having written murder mysteries set in English country houses.  However, this, like 'The Seven Dials Mystery' (1929) which I read last month, is one of her adventure stories, of the Bulldog Drummond ilk, though with women taking a leading role.  This is the first of five books featuring Thomas 'Tommy' Beresford and Prudence 'Tuppence' Cowley who subsequently marry.  Though published in 1922, it is actually set just ten months after the end of the First World War, so around September 1919, though is not dramatized as such when seen on television.  Seeking work, Tommy and Tuppence set themselves up as private detectives and are drawn into a conspiracy by Bolshevik agents to trigger a general strike, influencing trade union leaders by revealing a secret deal that was to be brokered with the Americans in 1915 but which was thought lost when the RMS 'Lusitania'.  At the time it is set the Russian Civil War was still raging and the Russo-Polish War was about to break out.  There was a concern about Russian revolutionaries trying to spread unrest across exhausted Europe, so it has a political currency akin to featuring ISIS agents planning unrest in Britain today.

As with 'The Seven Dials Mystery' the tone of the book is almost like an Enid Blyton story with lots of haring around Britain and being confined and escaping.  At the heart of the mystery is identifying the prime Russian agent, Mr. Brown and recovering the proposed treaty, which is interesting to speculate on what it might contain.  Fortunately the antagonists are not idiots and pull off tricks on the heroes and there are two well handled deceptions by other characters.  Again, common with 'The Seven Dials Mystery' it is impossible to trust many of the characters and rather than the bulk being suspects, the majority are trusted until the real malefactor is revealed.  This adventure story probably lacks the stately unravelling of a Christie mystery; instead it has frantic action and demonstrative dialogue and is very much of its time.  I enjoyed it as a romp but little more.  Samantha Bond is now one of my favourite readers and handles a whole spectrum of European accented English as well as catching the energy of the two leads appropriately.

'Poirot's Early Cases' by Agatha Christie; read by David Suchet and Hugh Fraser
This book was published in 1974 but was made up of 18 short stories that had appeared in magazines between 1923-35.  You can see Poirot's progress through the stories.  At the start he and Captain Hastings are sharing rooms and stories are told from Hastings's perspective, very much like John Watson recounting Sherlock Holmes's cases.  By the end of the collection, Poirot is widely renowned, Hastings has moved out and Miss. Lemon has been appointed as his secretary, though she is less enthusiastic than portrayed in television dramatizations.  Having seen dramatizations of all of the stories, it is interesting to note how they are fleshed out, I will not say 'padded out' because I do not feel there is anything extraneous in the television versions, but coming back to the original stories, you see their epigrammatic nature and demonstrate that Christie was adept at short story writing, something which requires different skills to writing novels, especially in terms of crime fiction.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, appeared right throughout the TV series 'Poirot' (broadcast 1989-2013) so it is fun to hear them when putting on the voices they acted with, when presenting these stories.  They read alone on different stories.  Suchet is far more adept at not only doing his Poirot voice, but a wide range of characters that feature in the short stories.  Fraser, puts on the voices far less but I know some listeners appreciated the story being narrated rather than the norm of performing it.  Both bring a richness to the stories and conjure up the time in which they are set.  The crispness of these stories, interesting characters, the clever ploys used by the criminals and the detective, plus some interesting twists even in a short story, make these very enjoyable without having to become involved in lengthy detail.  They do very well at showing up a particular side of Christie's writing.  The two actors associated so much with the stories in the public consciousness being the reader just rounds off the success of this audio book. 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In February

'The Black Book' by Ian Rankin
This is the fifth book in the Rebus series in another edition in which Rankin starts by outlining how lucky he was in his career.  Having moved to live in France, his wife has a baby and then he gets a writing fellowship in the USA.  You realise that there is no point comparing yourself to Rankin, because he is not an outstanding writer, but he has been a very lucky writer.

One thing I have liked about Rankin's Rebus books is that they do not follow the clear linear narrative that you find in so many crime novels.  At times you are not even certain of the mystery he is seeking to uncover.  This comes across as a realistic reflection of police work.  However, at times it goes rather too far.  While in this book Rankin has revived characters from previous books, including Rebus's brother, Michael, you feel that a lot is missing from the back story.  Both with this one and the previous, 'Strip Jack' (1992) you feel as if you have missed out on a book in between.  Having decided to live with Dr. Patience Atkin in the previous book, he has now been kicked out by her after coming back late from the pub.  She is just a shadowy figure in this novel as if Rankin was uncertain whether to bother continuing with her.  DC Siobhan Clarke does turn up for the first time in this book and will prove to be an enduring character in the series.

The story, when it finally decides what to focus on is about a murder and a fire at a disreputable hotel 5 years previously.  It seems to have been triggered as an insurance scam, but the body found it the fire had been shot dead.  On his own initiative Rebus treks around the gangsters and others who might have been at the hotel and as often happens in the Rebus books it overlaps with other cases he is working on.  Ultimately though he has to set-up the main suspect and you feel in this book that he is on the fringes of the law.  The black book of the title seems to fall away as having minimal purpose in the story.  It is not a bad novel and certainly avoids the linear path of so much crime fiction.  However, while it is part of a long-running series you feel you are missing so much 'between' the books so it is rather than disruptive as you are trying to work out what has happened, especially in Rebus's personal life, which confuses your following of the crime plots.

'The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, 1985-1991' by David Pryce-Jones
This is a very disappointing book.  Pryce-Jones put a lot of work into it especially in interviewing people at all levels of society across the former Soviet bloc.  However, he kept forgetting that he was writing a history book and his editor seems not to have put in any effort to keep him to his title.  Thus, between sporadic accounts from people who experienced the period and knew the bloc before and during its fall plus interesting statistics and some analysis of how the system 'worked' and failed, you get pages of polemic from Pryce-Jones.  He seems stunned that more violence was not used and keeps asking why that was not the case.  The polemic which is just him wittering on, often with no reference to time, place or people, so it simply is sounding off.  This weakens the strong parts of the book by losing them among personal opinion.

As you read on you realise that Pryce-Jones actually thinks that nuclear weapons are a good thing and he is disappointed in President Ronald Reagan, otherwise his hero, when he began to take steps to nuclear disarmament.  Pryce-Jones believes the 'Star Wars' SDI weaponry was feasible; a real thing which impacted on East-West relations. He is highly dismissive of President George H.W. Bush and sees the reason for him not securing re-election in 1991 as down to him being too weak towards the USSR and insufficiently supportive of the nationalists wanting to break away.  Of course, given Pryce-Jones's politics, Bush's defeat could have nothing to do with the US public tiring of New Right economic policies and the impact on their lives.

While he is disparaging of Republicans for being insufficiently hardline, Pryce-Jones's prime problem is that he has an all-consuming hatred of liberal and left-wing opinion in the West.  Thus he articulates its horrors and its failings as a weapon then to go on and hammer anyone who did not subscribe to Reaganite values.  Such people are deemed to have been a collaborator with the Soviet regime.  Activities such as welfare states, a desire for nuclear disarmament, an attempt to prevent proxy wars in the Third World are not seen as having any intrinsic value for anyone living in the West, they are purely driven by Soviet covert activity and funding.  He portrays large portions of Western societies and government as willing puppets of the Soviet machine without indicating how it was apparently so successful when it was useless at so much else.

What might have been a decent book, with very useful accounts and some good insights, simply drowns in him slipping off regularly to have another go at anyone to the left of the far-right of the US Republican Party, before he remembers the title of the book and slips in a bit of history before he loses control of his anger once again.  An editor should have reined him in and got him to stick to writing history.  Few people alive at the time will be able to read this book without being offended by the author's attitude towards them.

Fiction - Audio Books
'The Seven Dials Mystery' by Agatha Christie; read by Jenny Funnell
I remember enjoying the 1981 dramatisation of this novel so when I saw it for sale cheaply, I decided to come back to it.  I realised quickly why I had enjoyed it as a teenager.  It is more like an adventure story for young adults, though many of the characters are in their twenties.  It features 'jolly' young people - notably Lady Eileen Brent known as 'Bundle' (who also featured in 'The Secret of Chimneys' (1925) along with other characters in this book) with lots of rushing around in cars between London and the countryside, and the secret society, The Seven Dials.  There are two murders, but as critics at the time it was published in 1929 noted, it is not a murder mystery of the kind that Christie usually writes.  There were times when she did do conspiracy stories such as 'The Big Four' (1927) and 'Passenger to Frankfurt' (1970) but you can understand why critics were rather exasperated by this one, seeking a return to her more classic crime stories.

For all the caveats about this seeming more like Dornford Yates novel, I enjoyed it, because though it is light, it proves very good about wrong-footing you about which of the characters can and cannot be trusted.  This is something which distinguishes it from many of Christie's books.  The fact that two of them turn out to be untrustworthy and others prove to be reliable despite first impressions, is refreshing for a book of the period.  Critics complained that Christie did not follow the rules in providing the reader with all the information they needed to be able to work this out for themselves.  I disagree with this.  Looking back you can clearly see indications to both of the guilty parties throughout.  It might not be the best Christie novel, but it has charm and it additionally appealing for stepping away from the usual pattern in this playing with who you can trust.

Jenny Funnell sounded very like Samantha Bond to me, who also voices audio books.  Funnell is ideal for the bubbly young characters in the book, both the men and women.  The only one who rather riled with me was Superintendent Battle, who while described often as 'wooden,' comes over as too ponderous when Funnell voices him.

'I, Alex Cross' by James Patterson; read by Tim Cain and Michael Cerveris
I was not certain why there were two readers for this book. I wondered if it was because Alex Cross is a black Washington DC detective (this was the first of 6 books featuring him) and people might feel that a white man voicing him was cultural appropriation.  However, I searched out all the Tim Cains and Michael Cerverises and while I might not have found the correct pair, all those I can find are white.  I guess then that this approach was to distinguish the first person and third person narrative, though the latter declines a great deal as the book proceeds.

Having got that out of the way, and ready for very breathless narration from a US crime novel, this book was not too bad.  Cross finds out that an estranged niece has been working for a high class brothel in Virginia but has been shot and then minced.  It draws him into the disappearance of other young women and then to the place itself where the wealthy and influential go.  One of them who names himself Zeus, has to kill whenever he has sex there and the book is about identifying him.  Obviously given the powerful men involved, Cross runs up against lots of obstacles.

The second element is Cross's attempt to maintain his family life, especially with his elderly mother having a heart attack and being hospitalised for much of the book.  Despite his efforts to spend more time with his family (and why are US women called 'Bree'? This one is 'Bri' short for 'Brianna'; I keep thinking on audio that it is 'Brie' as in the French cheese) he utterly fails and actually puts them at risk.  At the end of the novel his wife gives up on ever changing anything.

The book is not too bad.  There is a lot of running back and forth which at times seems excessive.  However, the frustrations of dealing with different branches of law enforcement come across as realistic, though Cross is lucky that he has so many friends.  The setting is an alternate history because there is a female President in the White House, Margaret Vance, whether any relation to Cyrus Vance, the US Secretary of State in the late 1970s is not made clear.  The conspiracy and the killer are believable.  The family elements are rather cloying but I guess that is usual for a US novel.  I do not know which of the men voices who, but one of them does a reasonable British accent for brothel-owner, Tony Nicholson, though making him sound pretty much like Russell Brand.

'Zero Hour' by Andy McNab [Steven Billy Mitchell]; read by Rupert Degas
I was surprised by this book.  Down the years I have come across various novels by former soldier Andy McNab, but have avoided them fearing they would be macho books glorifying war.  I got this in a mixed box of audio books and decided to listen to it.  It is an action story but it comes over as both gripping and gritty.  Unlike the US versions there is not a bombastic approach.  McNab is low key, and while he will put in the technical details of guns and vehicles which appear essential for this genre, there is a credibility about him and it does not come across as a 'trainspotter's book'.  The novel features Nick Stone, a former SAS soldier.  This was the 13th book in the series that McNab began publishing in 1998.  In 2017 the 19th book came out, rather undermining some of the premise of this book.

Stone is suffering headaches and a diagnosis shows he has an advanced brain tumour.  Having been happy with his life and his Russian journalist girlfriend, but now thinking he has only months to live, he decides to do one last mission.  British intelligence asks him to track down the kidnapped daughter of a Moldovan arms manufacturer who has been abducted by people traffickers.  The mission takes Stone to Moldova, Denmark and the Netherlands.  He shows the impact of his illness and the thought that he must 'do the right thing' beyond completing the mission.  It is also increasingly clear that he is being manipulated and cannot trust anyone much. As you can imagine from the sequels, the illness does not prove to be as terminal as Stone believes for much of the novel.  The book is fast moving and feels realistic in terms of locations and action.  Degas is excellent in portraying Stone's very deadpan manner but is also surprisingly good at doing a range of young Moldovan women.  While I will not rush out to buy more by McNab, I would certainly not ignore another of his books if it turns up in a mixed box of audio books in the future.

Non-Fiction Audio Book
'Toast' by Nigel Slater; read by the Author
I do not read or listen to many autobiographies, but I had imagined that most do not seek to turn the reader off from the person featured.  Nigel Slater has been one of the most popular food writers in our house.  We have some of his recipe books and watched his television programmes, liking the mix of gardening and cooking and his quiet but enthusiastic tone.  However, this book has really turned me and my wife away from him.  The book covers his life from his childhood (he was born in 1958) to when he was 18 and went to work for the Savoy Grill.  He has focused sections on different foods, going through many popular recipes and brands from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  I think he intended the book to be rather like a version of the Adrian Mole books.  The trouble is, it is clear that Slater was a very nasty boy; snobbish and spoilt.  He cannot keep those traits out of his writing.

Slater's father owned an engineering factory and they were clearly a lot richer than he tries to make out.  Not only did his father drive a Rover, but employed both a gardener and a housekeeper.  He attend social events.  Slater got pocket money daily and had so many toy cars that he could lay them out in a line right across the large house.  Slater  is highly dismissive of his mother primarily on the basis of what a poor cook she was, though she seems to have put a lot of effort in.  For any recipe she cooked he cannot hold back from saying (with knowledge he only gained much later) how it should be done.

Slater only seems to come to love his birth mother even a little, after her death from asthma when he was approaching his 9th birthday.  He is very snobby especially to his step-mother who had formerly been their housekeeper.  Though she is a far better cook than his birth mother, he is scathing about her throughout on the basis of lots of social mores and no understanding of what challenge it must have been for her, especially in an age when divorce was rarer.  Unsurprisingly his step-sisters who he is equally unpleasant about have contested his view.  His father died when he was 16 and he is pretty nasty about him too, especially in marrying the housekeeper and moving them to the Worcestershire countryside.  The book was published in 2004 when Slater was 56 but he clearly has done nothing to shake off his spiteful manner from forty to fifty years earlier.  Overall, the book is a very long whinge, lacking in humour and given you a dim impression of the author.  I suppose this is the privilege of celebrity that you can portray everything the way you see it with no real challenge.

Slater was sexually abused by his uncle and one of the gardeners.  He was also sexually assaulted by a neighbour's dog.  It is fine that he includes these incidents in an autobiography, but they certainly jar with the light, even whimsical tone, Slater seemed to be affecting at the beginning. The book literally left a bitter taste in my mouth and I certainly will not be reading, listening to or watching anything by him again.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Books I Listened To/Read In January

'The Ghosts of Altona' by Craig Russell
Though I have always been interested in crime stories set in Germany, for some reason I had not come across Russell's series though the first came out in 2005.  This book published in 2015 is the seventh, and so far, last book in the series featuring Jan Fabel.  In this book he has risen to the rank of Erster Kriminalhauptkommissar which Russell clumsily renders as 'Principal Chief Commissar' and is even offered the chance to become head of all of Hamburg's detectives.  It is always a challenge with a successful police detective character that they tend to get promoted and so moved away from the heart of crimes.  Ian Rankin has resolved this by trapping John Rebus at Inspector rank for many years.  The rendering of Hamburg police ranks, though not other German titles into English is one thing I do not like about the book. It leaves the reader in confusion about what standing the various police have.

Overall, I felt this book was much like one written by Colin Dexter, added to by the fact that it features a club from a university.  Though at times Morse's investigations on screen felt ponderous (the books are far brisker) this book stretched for far too long (535 pages in my edition).  Though there are some reasonable twists, a bright reader, let alone one who reads crime novels regularly, will have solved the crime well before Fabel does, so it is rather frustrating to find that the detective who is supposedly nationally famous for his skills, is slower than amateurs like us.  It would have been a far better book with 200 fewer pages.  The details about Hamburg and its surrounding districts, plus Fabel's background, his colleagues and family, are fine, but at times feel like padding when we want greater speed.  The murders are well portrayed and the meshing of different cases is reasonably done, though the 'lesson' from one for another seems heavy handed and again suggests that Fabel lacks imagination, even deductive powers.  Fabel could be an interesting character, and maybe he is in the earlier books.  If Russell has decided not to continue with this series, it is probably slightly overdue.  I might check out one of the earlier books if it crosses my path, but while this book was not bad, it was far from brilliant.

'Ruled Britannia' by Harry Turtledove
This was another book that could have benefited from tightening up.  My edition came in at 458 pages but with smaller than standard text size, so probably as wordy as 'The Ghosts of Altona'.  Turtledove is the undisputed king of alternate history fiction and it is disheartening to read quoted on the cover '[n]obody plays the what-if game of alternate history better' in one stroke being complimentary to the author but utterly dismissing his genre as a 'game'.  I notice his latest book will be historical fiction rather than alternate history.

While with my alternate history books, I often get people complaining that the focus is on everyday life in the changed world and that the focus should always be the point of departure, typically a violent one, I am glad that Turtledove takes a different line.  This novel is set in London in 1597, nine years of the victory of the Spanish Armada.  Queen Isabella and Archduke Albert are on the throne of England, with Isabella's father, the ailing King Philip II, still in charge of Spain.  The book focuses primarily on William Shakespeare and the Spanish playwright, Senior Lieutenant Lope de Vega, who is serving with the occupying army.  Other real people appear including the imprisoned Elizabeth I and some of her ministers, Christopher Marlowe, killed 6 years later than in our world, and a range of people connected with the theatre that Shakespeare knew or worked with.  The plot is around Shakespeare being pressured to both write a play celebrating the life of Philip II on behalf of the occupiers and one around the story of Boudicca in an attempt to rouse English resistance to the occupation.

The setting is excellently portrayed.  Turtledove shows acute knowledge of the context and paints it richly in this novel.  He makes use of plays from the time to provide 'what if?' lines and plays for Shakespeare - he has not produced any of his historical plays, but his comedies and tragedies are well liked; he is still active as an actor too.  It takes some time to become comfortable with the Tudor language and terms.  At times you feel Turtledove does not know where to go next and though the book builds to a climax, you feel it wonders and could have been tightened a great deal.  The role of a witch with the ability to hypnotise really riled me and she seemed just to be a very irritating plot device.  There is also far too much sex in the book.  Shakespeare is at it a lot of the time and De Vega has a string of mistresses, some simultaneously.  At times it gives the author a chance to show different facets of the alternate London he has created, notably the bear-baiting, but given the longeurs anyway this just adds more padding.  Thus, while there were points which irritated me, even riled me, I felt this was a very strong alternate history book, well researched and very interesting.  I hope people will remember it when insisting that all alternate history novels must focus on the immediate point of departure and subsequently only on warfare.

'Redcoat' by Bernard Cornwell
This books suffers from a problem that I have noticed in other of Cornwell's books set in North America and many which do not feature Richard Sharpe.  The problem is, that while he creates rich characters with a good attention to attitudes and behaviour of the time, far too few of them elicit any sympathy from the reader.  As a result you wade through nasty people being nasty to other nasty people.  While is it great to have some strong antagonists, if unpleasant people are in the vast majority, it is difficult to be more than a spectator sitting well back from the conflict.  In the Sharpe books, while you had nasty people, you could always fall back on Sharpe and his comrades, who while flawed, were people you could feel sympathy for, even affinity with.  Cornwell seems to have particular problems with sergeants and women.  All the women in this book are self-serving even when professing zealous patriotism, deceptive and really people you would not want to go anywhere near.  There are the fragments of a love story, but even then the woman featured is so hard, she seems to have very little romance in her and is much more concerned about victory for the American side than anything or anyone else.

The book is set in Philadelphia in 1777 during the American War of Independence.  It was the largest city in the Thirteen Colonies at the time and at the start of the book is occupied by British forces.  However, many still loyal to the American side remain in the city and most of the book is really about spying and passing on information, focusing on the British soldiers and American civilians who get mixed up in this which ultimately leads to the British occupation being troubled and costly, ultimately after the book has finished, to end.  I like the fact that Cornwell has focused on a specific location and set of characters rather than ranging all over the place.  He does well in portraying the city in grim weather (to the extent that I would never want to visit it) added to the growing shortages it faces.  As always, Cornwell has good battle scenes, but in this novel they are pretty limited.  For the rest you are effectively watching a dance of unpleasant and/or deluded people in a very grey setting.  Thus, it was quite interesting, but far from engaging.

Audio Books - Fiction
'Lifeless' by Mark Billingham; read by Robert Glenister
This appears to be the fifth of what so far are fifteen books featuring police detective, Tom Thorne, published since 2001.  Again it reminded me of how many books are coming out in genres that interest me, that simply pass me by, for many years at a time, until I stumble over them.  This one sees Thorne go undercover as a rough sleeper on the streets of Central London.  I used to spend a lot of my time in the 1990s and early 2000s in that area and so could really envisage the places Billingham writes about and the kind of people encountered there.  The case involves the murders of rough sleepers.  Billingham cleverly dodges a standard serial killer approach and is very good about sowing distrust about those in authority that Thorne meets.  The case is soon connected to the military - in part because so many rough sleepers are ex-armed forces - and to atrocities committed in Iraq.  I thought Billingham handled the novel very well, especially in terms of the setting and the homeless people that Thorne encounters and develops friendships with.  The plot is reasonably twisted and again, like the setting, very credible.  This might not be the best crime novel I have ever come across, but I was engaged by it and have already bought a couple more audio books of Billingham's novels.  Glenister sounds how you would imagine Thorne to be and that works very well for the story, but he does a pretty decent job with the other characters, including the few women that appear.

'Thunderball' by Ian Fleming; read by Jason Isaacs
This novel has formed the basis for two movies 'Thunderball' (1965) and 'Never Say Never Again' (1983) which stick surprisingly close to features of the book.  It starts with Bond, smoking 60 cigarettes a day and drinking the equivalent of half-a-bottle of whisky a day, being sent to a health retreat where he ends up in a fight with another guest which actually postpones the schemes of SPECTRE - the first time the criminal organisation appears, rather than having Smersh of the USSR involved somewhere even if far in the background.  The story is pretty straight forward, with MI6 and the CIA scrambling to find where one of their atomic bomber aircraft has ended up, Bond is sent to the Bahamas and is fortunate enough, with the aid of his old friend Felix Leiter to find out that Emilio Largo (the deputy head of SPECTRE but in this book number No. 1) has retrieved the bombs and is planning to use them to destroy a US missile testing base in the Caribbean and threaten Miami.  A ransom of £100 million in gold (worth about £5 billion now) is demanded to prevent the attacks.

The book is reasonable.  Fleming returns to some of his favourite themes - the Caribbean and treasure hunting.  Domino Pettachi, the sister of the man who stole the bomber and is kept by Largo, comes over as a flawed character who as in quite a few of these books, is the woman who saves Bond's life when he makes mistakes.  As Isaacs points out in the interview at the end, though Bond and Leiter have clandestine Geiger counters, they are in fact poorly equipped compared to SPECTRE and Bond's intervention to prevent the planting of the first Bond leaves 6 US sailors aiding him, dead.  Bond is certainly not the superhero of the movies, and in fact is very unhealthy.  The book is engaging rather than gripping but also is a slice of history, showing the concerns; the continued hang over from events of the Second World War and even the brands of 1961 and that while they were misogynistic times, Fleming, as in previous books, is content to let a woman win through when Bond proves slow-witted.  Isaacs does the voices very well, including Domino, though as he points out, trying to work out what half-Greek, half-Polish Blofeld, based in Paris, sounded like, was a real challenge.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 November 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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