Tuesday, 28 February 2023

The Books I Read In February


'A Symphony of Echoes' by Jodi Taylor

This is the second book in The Chronicles of St. Mary's set in an autonomous department of a fictional university in Yorkshire that deals in time travel. As I noted with the first book: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/12/the-books-i-read-in-december.html it is a strange mixture. I theory it is set in the future, but a lot of the technology (cheques!) referenced seems to be from the mid-20th century. Max, the heroine, while holding a doctorate and having a mature(-ish) sexual relationship with a colleague often comes over more like a teenager. At times you feel that it is rather weighed down by very British tropes about special centres that owe a lot of the 1940s and 1950s even than the 2010s. However, in this quirky way it is quite charming if you are not tired of such tropes and in the way the Harry Potter books embedded in traditional British private school novels appealed to a modern audience I can see the same with this series.

A lot happens in this novel. Max goes into the future and becomes head of the unit to get it back into shape and then uncovers a conspiracy by the prime antagonist trying to change the course of the life of Mary Queen of Scots. With the various missions through time, it can be a little episodic, but the mission to 16th Century Scotland is really well handled in terms of practicalities. The unit is prone to disaster and this can get rather wearying in time, but I felt Taylor was really getting into her stride with the final third of this book. I was disappointed that (spoiler) she kills of the disabled character in a way I think many readers will disapprove of. However, having become reconciled to the rather quirky context laden with tropes, and with the flow improving, if I see any more of these books, and there are now 28 in total this series - Taylor writes at a real pace; this is not her only series - I would pick them up.

'Melmoth' by Sarah Perry

This novel has nothing to do with the town of the same name in South Africa but some connection to 'Melmoth the Wanderer' (1820) a Gothic novel by Charles Maturin and according to 'The Guardian' to 'Melmoth Reconciled' (1835) by Honore de Balzac. Melmoth is a kind of Wandering Jew character, someone condemned to wander the world for centuries or eternity. In this novel, which has a Gothic feel though set in the 20th and 21st Centuries, sees Melmoth as a female spirit who both bears witness to horrors but also seeks to lead away those in utter loneliness to accompany her.

We see through the eyes of Helen Franklin a British woman who lives in Prague and has a small selection of eccentric acquaintances. One of these through being passed the research of a man who had been looking into reports of instances of the appearance of Melmoth from the 17th Century down to the present day. Helen works through these documents and we see them the way she reads them. One is set during the German takeover and control of Prague 1939-45; one earlier in 1930s Egypt and Franklin's own encounter in the Philippines that led to the loneliness of her own life. Franklin and those she knows are uncertain if Melmoth is real and whether they are seeing her.

The uncovering of the information and the stories of those who have encountered Melmoth or her stories before; their moral decisions in particular, add to the richness of the novel. Perry keeps these tight so you do not feel overloaded and indeed despite all that it has to grapple with, the novel is brisk and that makes it very effective. Her conjuring up of different locations, notably Prague in two time periods is also done well. There are some unexpected turns too. Thus, while I cannot say I enjoyed this novel, I felt impressed by the competence in rendering it and may pick up others by Perry, especially her renowned 'The Essex Serpent' (2016).

'A Case of Two Cities' by Qiu Xiaolong

Maybe because Xiaolong (that is their surname, they render it in the Western order) is based in the USA I have never come across the Inspector Chen novels, of which this is the fourth (he is Chen Cao with Chen his surname). Though published in 2006, this is set in Shanghai in the 1990s. Chen is charged by a high level committee of the Communist Party in Beijing with pursuing what is left of a chain of corruption after a leading corrupt businessman has fled to the USA seeking asylum. Later Chen, who had some small fame as a poet, is sent to the USA as head of a cultural delegation and is able to pursue his investigations in Los Angeles and especially St. Louis, hence the title of the novel.

Having taught modern Chinese history, I think Xiaolong's portrayal of China in the era shown is very well done. He has been criticised, but as is often the case with crime novels, his characters are drawn from the wealthiest and the poorest in China of the time, a divide which was especially apparent in Shanghai. He does show parallels to similar divides in the USA too.

A prime challenge is that Xiaolong has to communicate so much to the average reader. Especially in the early part of the novel he has to provide a dense potted history of how much China and especially Shanghai changed in the 1990s as well as outlining how the Communist state was run at this time. On top of this, Xiaolong as a student of literature cannot resist putting in loads of classic Chinese poems throughout. This does really overload the book. Dealing with the recent history would be a great deal for most English-language readers; grappling with the numerous quotations let alone the other literary references he has to explain made it heavy to wade through at times, though it picks up towards the end.

Some commentators have complained about the lack of deduction and unresolved situations. However, I think this is because they set Xioalong in the wrong context. I would view him in the company of  Josef Škvorecký, Leonardo Sciascia, Philip Kerr and Michael Dibdin in setting crime novels in authoritarian and/or corrupt states where the interest is as much in the interplay between different forces and vested interests in those societies as in solving the crime. Typically the interests are able to outweigh the desire for justice in a way that is less familiar to readers of crime novels set in seemingly democratic societies.

While I am in no rush to buy more of the Chen series, I was not put off by this one and if by some rare chance another one of them turns up where I am shopping for books, I would buy it.


'The Age of Empire 1875-1914' by Eric Hobsbawm

When published in 1987, 26 years after the first volume 'The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848' had been published, it was intended to be the final one, so combined, covering the so-called 'long 19th Century'. Hobsbawm did though go on to produce 'The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991' (1994) which I will read later this year. As with the other volumes in 'The Age of Empire' comes at the period in terms of themes rather than in chronological sequence. Thus each chapter is almost an independent essay though he does refer back to other chapters and books in the series. Some of the chapters are strong. The one on women; the tensions in science; the 'second world' - Persia, China, the Ottoman Empire, Latin America and the one of the lead up to the First World War stand out.

The main challenge as I have noted when reviewing the previous two volumes is that as a Marxist, Hobsbawn is too often on the hunt for the glimmer of revolution and this distorts his writing especially when looking at social class and economics. It is apparent here as he comes ever close to the second and third Russian revolutions. To a degree his attitude is tempered by the passing of time on his own timeline and there are some references to the rise of New Right attitudes in the 1980s which temper what otherwise might have been glee at the growth and advance of socialist parties and ideas in the period covered by this book. However, he cannot shake off his hunt and this does weaken to a degree otherwise good analysis on the rapidly changing patterns of life for the bulk of people who by 1914 were industrial workers.

The prime weakness of this volume I feel is ironically the title's prime focus, i.e. empire. Hobsbawm clings so tightly to the Marxist perception that imperialism was primarily motivated by economic factors that despite the fact that he cannot help but details a whole range of other factors that are not economic, he feels he has to keep asserting the overwhelming authority of the economic perspective almost at the same moment as disproving this status for it. A big absence notable from comparison with 'The Age of Capital: 1848–1875' (1975) is that there is nothing on the victims of imperialism. With the earlier phase importantly he looked at that side of imperialism, by discussing those who had it imposed on them, a perspective that has even greater attention now than when Hobsbawm wrote this book. His ability to look at that side of the experience was what marked out his earlier work, even nowadays so I feel in this third volume he missed a real opportunity to develop that element. Despite the declared theme this is probably the most Eurocentric of the three books.

Overall as with the preceding two volumes, there is a mix of strong and weaker material. Hobsbawm does still stand out through freeing himself from chronology in a way which does still seem to hamper modern historical writing, especially on this semi-popular basis. However, his perception of the world shaped so strongly by his politics means that whenever he focuses on the economy and the working classes, his analysis is far weaker than when he brings it to other areas of less concern to Marxism such as intellectual and cultural trends.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Books I Read In January


'Azincourt' by Bernard Cornwell

As the title suggests this novel is set around the events of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. While the French village nearby is called Azincourt, it has gone down in British history as Agincourt and that provided the US title of this book. Published in 2008, it owes a lot to Cornwell's novel 'Harlequin' (2000), the first of The Grail Quest series which I read in July 2020: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2020/07/books-i-read-in-july.html  That featured the 1346 Battle of Crécy. As in that book it features an English archer, this time Nicholas Hook rather than Thomas of Hookton, who after a bloody rivalry in his village and trying to stop the rape and execution of some Lollards is sent to be part of the invasion of France that went so badly, especially due to the prolonged siege of Harfleur. There are many parallels with that earlier book, such as the hero fixing up with a woman in distress though this one survives longer than ones in that previous series.

Even for Cornwell, the book is very bloody and he does not hold back on the brutality of war at the time. The novel starts with the massacre at Soissons which gives Nicholas additional motives for his fight. It is better for being free of the mysticism seen in the holy grail books, though at times Nicholas does hear the voices of saints that guide him at vital moments. I guess, though given the beliefs of people at the time this can be seen as realistic. As usual, Cornwell provides a great deal of historical detail about battles but everyday aspects. However, this does not bog down the book, in part because the tensions between the characters are probably just the right side of overblown. While I did not enjoy this book as much as 'Fools and Mortals' (2017) which I read last year: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/04/books-i-read-in-april.html it is a decent novel and certainly better than the second and third books in The Grail Quest sequence.

'The Hanging Garden' by Ian Rankin

This is the ninth Inspector Rebus novel and in contrast to the preceding one, 'Black and Blue' (1997) which I read in November: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/11/the-books-i-read-in-november.html is much tauter. There is some confusion with it going back in time after the outset. However, the plot which involves Rebus going both after a new crime lord, Tommy Telford and investigating a potential Nazi war criminal living in Edinburgh is better focused without him gallivanting all over the place, rather it is more character focused. His daughter being harmed in a hit-and-run is another element, but in this novel Rankin balances them well and teases the reader with what is involved with the others. 

That element of wanting the novel to have a Hollywood feel, as he aimed to with 'Let It Bleed' (1995), http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/08/books-i-read-in-august.html is apparent here when there is a raid on a medical narcotics factory. The introduction of the Yakuza might be a step too far, but proves to be a necessary device to provide leverage when dealing with gangsters starting a gang war across Edinburgh and neighbouring locations. There is reference to the war in Bosnia and a trafficked refugee from it. Despite Rebus's connection to the woman, the engagement with her is rather unresolved and I did wonder if she turns up in subsequent books. Overall this was one of the more satisfying books in the Rebus series.


'Nazism 1919-1945. 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination', ed. by J. [Jeremy] Noakes and G. [Geoffrey] Pridham

The title makes the focus of this book very clear. Like the preceding two volumes it draws heavily on a range of sources to provide translated primary material and connects this with historical analysis. That approach, hearing such a diverse range of voices is vital in this book because there are still included all the horrendous statistics of the German terror and extermination programmes. It is easy when reading of tens of thousands and then millions of victims to become numbed to what you are reading about. This is grounded in the human input.

This book is effectively a survey rather than focused explicitly on the Holocaust. It does however as with the previous volumes raise points that tend to get forgotten in a lot of general books on the Nazi regime which mean that though published in 1988 it remains of great value to students of the period. As with Volume 2, it continues to highlight how chaotic the regime was and is very adept at showing up the competing forces. This is an important counter to the portrayals of the regime as an efficient totalitarian machine. Looking at the foreign policy, the war and the racial policy, it shows the absence of clear plans beyond sweeping statements and the importance of local initiatives in moving forward activity, usually by men seeking Hitler's attention. The tensions that arose between wanting to exploit Jews, Poles and Russians for the war economy and wanting to slaughter them, comes out clearly. 

Karl Schleunes wrote of the 'twisted road to Auschwitz' and this book shows you that there were also many side turnings from that road. Though focused the book covers the 'euthanasia' programme, known later as T4, for killing disabled people and how, much stronger than I realised, it fed directly into the extermination camps. It looks at ghettoisation and Operation Reinhard and how the challenges of mass extermination combined with the wish to clear regions of Jews, drove the campaign on, but even then how much was chaotic and ad hoc. Overall, this book while chilling, successfully balances detail with the human perspective and I commend it now as a source even more than a third of a century on from its publication.

Saturday, 31 December 2022

The Books I Read In December


'Cause for Alarm' by Eric Ambler

I only came to Ambler as a result of being given a couple of his books. This one was a green Penguin edition from when the book originally came out in 1938. Though writing adventure stories, Ambler was very good at making them realistic. This novel features unemployed British engineer Norman Marlow who desperate for work takes a job representing a British company which manufactures artillery shell casings in Italy. He is soon wrapped up in various conspiracies, typical of Ambler novels, pressed into providing information to a Yugoslav general who may be a German agent; an operative of the OVRA, the Italian secret police and an American who may be a Soviet agent, at a time when though there were concerns about Communists infiltrating the West, things such as the Cambridge Spies had not come to light. 

While it is fiction, it is well rooted in the realities of the time and interestingly plays on the tensions between Germany and Italy, who though allies retained a suspicion of each other. The second half of the book is an escape with Marlow aided by Andreas Zaleshoff as they make their way quite violently to Yugoslavia with the Italian authorities after them, in a way which is reminiscent of Buchan novels. Ambler does represent that bridge between Buchan and Deighton and gives an interesting and entertaining insight into what was going on in that period of the 20th Century. Some readers might find the 1930s manners unengaging but it is nice compared to some 'middle aged hero' books of today to find that the protagonist is flawed, uncertain and not superhuman.

'Trace' by Patricia Cornwell

This is the 13th of the 26 Dr. Kay Scarpetta novels that have been published since 1990. By this novel Scarpetta is the former Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia, now working as a private forensic specialist. In this novel she is called back to Richmond, Virginia to help into the investigation of the killing of a girl that initially looked like death from flu. Scarpetta's history in Richmond, including people she worked with and the building she worked in, all become mixed up in the story which turns out to be about a serial killer whose eyes we see through from early in the novel. Matters are confused by two parallel stories, about Scarpetta's niece Lucy Farinelli, a former FBI agent who runs a detective agency and training school in Florida and is investigating an assault against a trainee who was staying with her that she fancies. Lucy packs this woman off to stay with Wesley Benton, Scarpetta's current partner for psychological support. 

Jumping between the three strands, sometimes in chapters just two pages long does not add the pace that was presumably intended, but adds to a real sense of fragmentation. The connection between the three strands seems rather tenuous. It is difficult to invest in Lucy and Wesley but I guess that is because I was given this book alone without having seen those characters' histories develop across a series of books. This book is very much a procedural book and I guess it draws fans who are interested in all those details of process. I realised reading these books that I only engage with those when they supplement a mystery. I have spoken before about how I am not keen in seeing through the eyes of the killer which seems so popular these days. However, stripped of mystery, this seems to emphasise the plodding nature of the story working towards what feels like an inevitable conclusion.

I can understand why the Scarpetta books have proven to be popular, but this single one that I was given, has shown me that this is not the sort of writing that engages me in the slightest.

'Just One Damned Thing After Another' by Jodi Taylor

This is the first in what is now a 14 book series, with some extra sub-books listed, though I do not know what format they come in. It is set in St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research. Knowing both St. Mary's University and the Institute of Historical Research, maybe that was what drew me to the series. The novel is set in some undisclosed near future. The Institute is an offshoot of the fictional University of Thirsk on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors. Holographic presentations are relatively easy to use, but cheques still seem to be around. The institute carries out its research using time machines though no details of how these function is given.

The novel is rather erratic. Taylor seems to have felt compelled to draw on a range of tropes. With a specialist unit working in relatively secrecy in a rural English setting I was reminded of the true stories of Bletchley Park, and of 'Enigma' (1995) by Robert Harris and 'The Small Back Room' (1943) by Nigel Balchin. Some reviewers have noted the almost old fashioned British behaviour, including lots of tea drinking. However, despite some modern swearing a lot of the relationships could be from a wartime novel. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a real feel of a UK version of 'Timeless' (2016-18) though as that was shown three years after this novel was published, perhaps it informed that, rather than the other way around. The sub-plot of a devious antagonist who stole a time travelling pod, certainly seemed to ring bells. Similarly with the different units such as technicians, security, catering, etc. it also reminded me of 'Battlestar Galactica' (2004-09) especially with a love interest called 'Chief' for much of the time, I could not help envisage him as portrayed by Aaron Douglas who has a very similar role in that TV series.

The internal politics of the place seemed characteristic of the numerous 'school' novels that are common in Young Adult literature. In fact by effectively stripping Dr. Madeleine 'Max' Maxwell of her doctorate and rendering her 'Miss. Maxwell' and people using lots of surnames does give that 'boarding school' feel and makes Madeleine feel much younger than she is. Maybe this is because it is written in the first person so foregrounds her personal feelings a great deal, which do seem rather youthful. The novel covers five years and she must be in her late 20s or early 30s by the end and yet she feels more like Enola Holmes.

The story is adventurous with all the induction and training that is necessary in the first novel of someone coming to an institution. It gets through characters at an alarming rate. Many of those we are introduced to are either kicked out, leave or are killed. The title fits very well with the course of the book, but to a degree as one of the nastier characters argues, it almost becomes ridiculous. I know Taylor probably wanted there to be a genuine sense of jeopardy and thus to eliminate characters who we had invested in, but she does it a bit too much, reducing our investment in other characters. Keeping track of all the names, especially with the switches between title, surname and first name, does not help.

The book does, fortunately, take a feminist outlook. The handling of everyday misogyny is handled reasonably well; overcoming a miscarriage gets rather lost in the flashes and bangs. One twist revealing harassing behaviour is well done. There is a challenge because Taylor has a set-up which looks like 1943 but set in perhaps 2043. The 'cast' is not diverse, it is very much like an English boarding school. Maxwell, as she is usually called, does press back against some of the unacceptable attitudes, but in some ways because she is rather juvenilised, there is still a default to her 'elders'.

As you can probably tell I was ambivalent about this book. I felt it was almost weighed down by all that had gone before. At times Taylor shakes off that: both the fictional and the real life British (historical) culture. Her protagonist is in a difficult position as a mature, knowledgeable woman, yet who has to deal with incessant danger and it seems that the only acceptable mode for that is to face it as a kind of sparky teenager. There is enough in here to interest me and there were good twists I had not foreseen. I am interested to see how the story goes once the 'induction' period is done with and the characters settle down, assuming Taylor does not continue to burn through them at a rate. I do admire her willingness amongst all the tropeage to turn in different directions. While I feel Dr. Maxwell is reducing herself to fit in, she is an interesting character to follow.


'The Age of Capital. 1848-1875' by Eric Hobsbawm

As Hobsbawm identifies himself, in contrast to the previous volume in this series 'The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848' (1962): http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/09/books-i-read-in-september.html  there is not the energy given to this survey that the concept of the Dual Revolution gave that book. The main theme is the success of liberalism in terms of pushing the capitalist economy not simply on in Europe but increasingly in other parts of the world. Like a 1st Year undergraduate, at times Hobsbawm gets rather dazzled by all the figures of coal and steel production or the length of railways laid. 

What leavens this is that he does try at times to see both sides of these developments. While not unique in 1975 when this book was published, especially with the rise of so-called 'subaltern history' (Hobsbawm uses the term 'subaltern' quite a bit), it was relatively rare of people especially in general histories to look at the downsides of the onward march of capitalism and industrialisation. However, Hobsbawm includes a chapter on the Losers of the process, including people outside Europe exploited by the advance of industry as well as those Europeans whose livelihoods were disrupted or destroyed and had to comply with the increasing authoritarianism in the workplace. He is particularly interesting in terms of patterns of migration both within and to outside Europe.

The prime flaw is one that we saw in The Age of Revolution'. As a Marxist, Hobsbawm seems compelled to sniff out even the tiniest sign of revolutionary potential. He is rather patronising towards those rebellions such as in Hungary or bringing about the unification of Italy, which lack that social revolutionary aspect. Given that this is a time when Karl Marx (1818-83) was particularly active, he feels obliged too, to reference any input that Marx had and to judge other thinkers as lesser than his hero. While Marx was important, this distortion in viewing the other inputs, which as the meagre evidence of revolution in this period he brings forward shows, had a far greater impact on the thinking and behaviour of people in this period, weakens his case.

Without the great dramatic events of the previous book, the thematic approach, making sure to investigate culture and science as well as industry and politics, works even better in this volume. Hobsbawm is good at countering the default assumption of too many that somehow all the 19th Century was pretty much the same and brings out effectively the differences between life at the start of this period and life 27 years later. In itself that does bring home that while one may not be able to speak of a revolution per se in this period, millions of people in many parts of the world saw radical change in their lives within a single generation. While Hobsbawm touches on this on occasion, I feel that actually the message you take away from this book, has that, rather than any seedlings of revolution, as its prime point and indeed a strength of what at times can be rather erratic analysis.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

The Books I Read In November

'Black and Blue' by Ian Rankin
It is interesting that the editions of Rankin's books I am reading have an introductory essay from the author about where he was in his career when he wrote the particular book. While this is the eighth book in his Rebus series, he still felt he was only just coming to the end of his kind of apprenticeship period. I guess a kind of scrappiness is something that is characteristic of Rankin's writing but though maybe he felt it took him time to get into producing these books, the rough edges do not seem to have put off readers. Perhaps this is because the tone seems to be appropriate for his character and the cases he deals with.

This one has quite a lot of running back and forth and is almost too inter-twined for its own good. A number of disparate cases including a man committing suicide while being tortured prove to be connected and link the drugs trade in Glasgow with that in Aberdeen especially supplying oil rig workers - the book was published in 1997 when the industry still seemed to have a glorious future. There is too much jammed into this book. There are environmental protestors one of whom is missing, maybe murdered. There is a separate element about Rebus being grilled about his involvement with the framing of another killer in the past which leads him having to be accompanied everywhere and leads to him giving up alcohol. There are also corrupt police involved and a parallel story which was not really necessary of a serial killer called Johnny Bible seeking to copy the genuine killer of the late 1960s Bible John. While the latter has never been found, Rankin features him as a character through whose eyes we see.

While there are some interesting elements including seeing a portrayal of 1990s Aberdeen and Shetland as well as Edinburgh, it is very much as if Rankin is trying too hard to get all these themes in when there was sufficient in the parallel plots to provide two, perhaps three novels. It does get rather tedious with all the travelling back and forth even when it shows you different settings. The distinctiveness of each of these is reduced by him putting in so much. Overall, while it has some good elements, it is too ragged, too full to be really engaging.

'Devices and Desires' by K.J. Parker [Tom Holt]
Not to be confused with the books of the same title by P.D. James [Phyllis James/White] or Kate Hubbard. This is another book in which less could have been more. It is a straight forward fantasy in a kind of non-magical late medieval style setting. While there are some nomadic tribes and an exotic 'old country' which provides mercenaries, the story is mainly focused around the city state of the Republic of Mezentine, a kind of Venice-like place which has a monopoly on the most advanced engineering, but is choking itself by barring innovations which go against the established specifications and the internecine fighting of guilds and bureaucracy. The two other states featured are mountain neighbours, with a low level of technological development, the Duchy of Eremia and the Duchy of Valdis which is wealthier due to silver deposits. The chief military engineer from Mezentine, Ziani Vaatzes escapes execution for creating a toy which is not compliant with specifications and finds refuge in Eremia which he equips with some of the Mezentine technology allowing the duchy to hold off invasion.

I have two problems with the novel. One is that we flit among the points of view of a number of different characters often very abruptly, taking us back and forth between Mezentine and the duchies and then within them, so bringing in sub-plots about a sense of duty and correspondence between the Duke of Eremia and Duchess of Vadania. This makes the book which is 706 pages in my edition a slow read as you have to keep reorientating yourself to whose view you are now seeing and then mercenary generals are also thrown into the mix.

The other thing is that it feels that Parker is trying to pull off a satirical, almost whimsical attitude in the vein of Jonathan Swift. He seeks to satirise perhaps fantasy writing or the real world elements that lay behind it. We see him take on bureaucracy, the attitudes of nobility, merchants, the military and engineers - especially tinkerers in their garages. This is done in a kind of affectionate way and yet it jars. It is not deft enough to be Swift or funny enough to be Terry Pratchett. It leaves a bitter taste when Parker describes torture, wounding and death. It would have been a lot better if either more light hearted, or particularly, if Parker had played it straight and put in a real sense of jeopardy and grimness rather than pulling his punches in an attempt to be satirical.

'Nazism 1919-1945. 2: State, Economy and Society, 1933-1939', ed. by J. [Jeremy] Noakes and G. [Geoffrey] Pridham
As with volume 1, this book is very useful in reminding you about aspects of the Nazi regime which these days too often get overlooked in general coverage. In its different sections, again drawing on speeches, articles, accounts and reports, it shows you the machinery of the regime and its contradictions. It considers a range of themes such as agriculture, the Nazi party and the state; women and young people. It is particularly strong on the economic aspects showing the growing militarised situation and how this was organised, pretty chaotically. There are also useful sections on public opinion and on anti-Semitism, important contexts ahead of Volume 3.

For me I think the most interesting aspect was simply how much conflict there was within the Nazi regime, aided by Hitler favouring a Social Darwinist approach to the development of the society and so at different times in different locales one of the sides would come out on top but elsewhere at other times another party or state agency would win through. We do see how the 'little Hitlers' were empowered and fought for supremacy often at a small, local level or in one sector. There was conflict within the Nazi party itself as well as outside it. In many ways you end up wondering how it managed to last so long without imploding, in part perhaps due to the efficiency of the civil service caste in Germany that while asserting its authority, did nothing to undermine the Nazi machine as a whole.

I feel this is a useful book for those interested in understanding how a dictatorship might work and showing how the Nazi regime was far from being a monolith, instead a seething mass of individual jealousies and attempts to grab power by men in various sectors and locations in the country and increasingly beyond too.

Monday, 31 October 2022

The Books I Read In October


'The Book of Unholy Mischief' by Elle Newmark 

This book possibly should win an award for the most misleading title. I believed it was a fantasy novel. About the closest it comes is, if there had been historical sections of 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003) by Dan Brown or if the book featured in 'Labyrinth' (2005) by Kate Mosse had not had genuine powers. This book is set in late 15th Century Venice and is about a boy, Luciano, who is an street thief taken on as an apprentice by the chef to the Doge. There is a belief across the Italian states that a book which perhaps will allow lead to be turned to gold or to extend life is hidden somewhere. Luciano and at least one of his former street thief friends believes his master might be connected to it. We see how the chef manipulates politics through the use of drugs in his cooking and discover that, while he is part of a secret order, they are only protecting gnostic gospels, which, however, deemed heretical by the Papacy, carry a risk of execution. It turns out very much a YA novel, with Luciano having various frustrated aspirations including running off with a novice nun to America.

The portrayal of Venice at the time and especially the kitchen in which the meals are prepared are well shown. Rather unbelievably, Luciano invents cheesecake. One of the outcomes is particularly unfair and nasty and ultimately Luciano is shown to be selfish. If you take this as a 'coming of age' historical novel set in the Renaissance, then you will be less disappointed than if you think from the title and cover that it is a fantasy novel.

'Witch Light' by Susan Fletcher

This novel is set in the late 17th Century and features Corrag, a young English herbalist who when her mother is executed as a witch, flees to Scotland and settles in Glencoe shortly before the Glencoe Massacre of 1692. Both Corrag and Charles Leslie an Irish Jacobite who comes to visit her when she is herself imprisoned, awaiting execution for witchcraft, are based on real people. The story is told through the accounts Corrag gives in prison to Leslie, supplemented by Leslie's letters to his wife. As in real life, he is interested in finding details of the massacre, seeking evidence of King William III's complicity in it as a way to boost support for King James II, that William replaced, but whom the Jacobites wished to restore.

The story is well told with wonderful detail of the landscapes that Corrag sees, especially when she sets up home in Glencoe. Her ambivalent position of women like her in society of the time, is interestingly explored as is her growing relationship with the MacDonald Clan of Glencoe and the local 'witches'. The premise of the novel might feel bleak but the briskness of the story-telling and the beauty of the pictures Fletcher paints with her words really carry you along. I would not say I enjoyed reading this book, but I am glad that I did read it.

Friday, 30 September 2022

Books I Read In September


'Look to Windward' by Iain M. Banks

I am not a big fan of Banks's Culture-set science fiction stories. The concept of an super-powerful civilisation creating vast structure and seeking to moderate the galaxies always comes across as rather worthy and quite unexciting. Having grown up reading Moorcock and Priest, then the Cyberpunk authors, I am more interested in a closer focus and a lot more grittiness. Having put in that caveat, I must say I enjoyed this book, I think because it is largely around one (admittedly vast) space station and focuses on two Chelgrians, two feline-like humanoids. Mahrai Ziller is a composer who has gone into self-imposed exile on a Culture Orbital (effectively an artificial planet), Masaq' in protest at the Chelgrian caste system. Embittered army officer Major Quilan IV with the personality of a dead senior officer in his head too. The Chelgrians have suffered a civil war, which it has been revealed that, while not started by the Culture was expanded by their intervention. Quilan is ostensibly meeting with Ziller to try to persuade him to return to Chel. In fact Quilan has an ulterior mission which intentionally he only recalls as he progresses on Masaq'. There is a sub-plot about another character discovering the objectives of Quilan's mission. However, typically for Banks that element is not resolved until after the main action has occurred.

There are a couple of Banksian traits that can rile. He loves describing vast structures though with Ziller and Quilan touring Masaq' this is less of an info dump than it can be in later Culture novels. As I noted with 'Matter' (2008): https://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2020/01/books-i-readlistened-to-in-january.html he tends to baulk from actually writing the climax of the novel. Instead it fades to black and then we pick up things some while later to see the consequences and that happens in this novel too. However, overall, by keeping focused on two characters (and a supplementary one for part of the time) Banks seems more in control of this novel. He can show his ideas and attitudes without you feeling you are attending a lecture. The characters of Ziller and Quilan to me - and I accept I may not be common among SF readers - are more engaging than descriptions of yet another intelligent spaceship or vast artificial structure.

'Transcription' by Kate Atkinson

The first thing I must say is this is the first book I have read by Atkinson but I would be tempted to try others. She is very deft in her writing and I was really swept along by the prose even when she is describing grim scenes, e.g. a woman strangled and dumped in a coal hole; the problems of killing a woman who has surprised you, using a small calibre pistol. The novel is based on a true operation by MI5 during the Second World War to monitor British Nazi sympathisers who might pass intelligence to the Germans or indeed in the case of an invasion, collaborate with the German forces.

Juliet Armstrong is recruited to transcribe the conversations between the Nazis and an MI5 agent provocateur at a bugged flat in London. However, she is soon drawn into becoming and agent herself, in particular trying to get hold of the 'red book' which has a list of these people. The novel goes between 1940 when she is 18 and 1950 when she is back in London working for the BBC producing Schools radio programmes. She is still temporarily in the employ of MI5 and begins to encounter people from her war years and face threats connected with them. The stories run in parallel so that we discover what is impacting her in 1950 as she recalls and details more from 1940.

The assortment of characters is well drawn. There is a real feel for London in the two time periods. Juliet is a reliable but naïve narrator. The balance between her eagerness for sex and her naïvety are handled well. The only disappointing element I felt with the novel was the twist at the end. It was entirely unnecessary and was really rushed. It did not really add to our understanding of Juliet and seemed to be something that an agent or publisher had pressed for, whereas the book up until that stage had had a real deftness, a good combination of thriller and slice of life, very much embedded in its times and bringing out the differences and similarities between 1940 and 1950 in London better than many authors would have done.

'Freaky Deaky' by Elmore Leonard

I was unsurprised that this 1988 novel had been turned into a movie in 2012, not that I have seen it. However, Leonard's tautness of writing is often commended. Reading this book, you certainly feel that with its restricted number of characters it could be a stage play. Set in Detroit in the late 1980s, it draws on the counter-culture terrorism of the late 1960s, through Robin (a woman) and Skip (a man) who were involved in setting off bombs during that period. It also features Donnell, a former Black Panther who is now a factotum to Woody Ricks a very wealthy man who is losing a grip on reality due to alcohol abuse. Also featuring are Chris Mankowski, a suspended bomb disposal cop and Greta Wyatt, a sometime actress raped by Woody Ricks. Mark Ricks, Woody's brother also turns up. Robin and Skip are looking for revenge on the Ricks brothers who they believe betrayed them to the authorities leading to imprisonment. Donnell is looking for as much money as he can get out of Woody; he knows Robin and Skip from the past. Ultimately all the characters are looking to see what money they can get from Woody as their paths cross and re-cross and there is a lot of double dealing and betrayal.

As you would expect from Leonard, it is gritty and seedy. The characters are believable and the scenes and locations well portrayed. Perhaps he goes a little too far with how intertwined the five main characters are (he effectively lifts Woody out of this by having him clueless) and it begins to grow tiresome as to who is working with or betraying whom, but overall not bad. The movie is portrayed as a kind of comedy. Things do go wrong, especially with the bombs set, but this book is straight without any comedic elements.


'The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848' by Eric Hobsbawm

I actually met Hobsbawm on two occasions but embarrassingly was really at a loss as to what questions to ask him. This book was published in 1961 though has been reprinted may times since. Hobsbawm was a Marxist historian and so brings a perspective on to what he describes which is working at the high level, focused on the big trends in society rather than detailed accounts of what happened next. This perspective is now rare even in general survey history books that can, as Hobsbawm eschews, effectively end up as a list of a sequence of events. Even if you do not subscribe to Marxist viewpoints, the approach Hobsbawm adopts in this book is a very useful one that I feel current students can benefit from to balance against the history survey books which in many ways go into too much detail. Maybe historians aside from people like Ferguson, Fukuyama and Hutton do not feel they have the 'right' to draw such sweeping points from the history.

Hobsbawm's premise in this book is of the dual revolution, i.e. the Industrial Revolution initiated in Britain and the French Revolution. These two, he feels, combined shaped the development of societies. He does make some efforts not to neglect the world outside Europe and North America and indeed shows how these revolutions impacted, e.g. the destruction of Indian textile manufacturing by British factories and how Egypt tried to make the industrial leap only to be stymied. Thus, while focusing on the broad sweeps of history, he never goes full Marxist in portraying anything as 'inevitable' and indeed highlights when actions by leaders and business people divert or prevent what otherwise might have 'naturally' happened. 

The book is organised thematically with the trends that happened, not just from the two revolutions but also as a result of peace, nationalism, etc. Then looks at the impact. He is good on belief, whether religious, philosophical or political. He highlights trends in land usage and in the ability to 'get on' in society before looking at the arts and scientific developments. Many of these aspects, particularly on a thematic basis rather than as a sequence of events, are neglected too often. This is why I feel, despite its age, this book is a useful addition for people looking at this period alongside more recent books.

My one gripe is that as a Marxist writing in the period of the Cold War, Hobsbawm is desperate to find any seed of revolution that he can amongst what he is describing. In contrast, a reader living since the Cold War ended and with so much authoritarianism rolling back what any revolution achieved, even in democratic countries, is liable to find such scouring for these 'seeds' as rather pathetic. The groups mentioned are typically tiny and achieved nothing. Going in so tight seeking these things jars with the broad sweeps adopted elsewhere in the book which are its strengths. Almost without recognising it, Hobsbawm shows that for all the revolutionary energy, the different plans of the various stages of the French Revolution were betrayed and monarchy restored. The Industrial Revolution brought gain to very few and suffering for millions more.

It is a shame that more general surveys are not written with Hobsbawn's approach these days and thus, this relatively rare perspective means the book remains of value even more than sixty years later.

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Books I Read In August


'Oh, Play That Thing!' by Roddy Doyle

I have read a number of Roddy Doyle books down the years (and watched dramatisations) so am familiar with Doyle's punctuation style, '-' to indicate dialogue and '(-' to indicate dialogue remembered from the past. I had not read 'A Star Called Henry' (1999) which precedes this book. However, as this novel sees the eponymous main character, Henry Smart, relocate from being a terrorist in Ireland to being a man willing to try anything for work in the USA, I thought that would not be a big problem. As it is, Doyle refers back so much to what happened in the previous novel that you can easily pick up the thread. Smart has emigrated in 1924 in large part to stay ahead of those wishing to kill him as a result of his actions during Ireland's battle for independence and the subsequent civil war. 

Smart ends up in New York and gets work as a sandwich board man and seller of illicit alcohol, the Prohibition being on. He hooks up with various women but they are sketchily drawn, often known by sobriquets like the 'the half sister' I imagine to show the shallowness of Smart connection to them. Too many violent men want to prevent Smart developing a business and he is repeatedly forced to flee further West as a kind of con man and odd-job man until he ends up in Chicago as jazz legend Louis Armstrong's minder. Then by a massive coincidence Smart runs into his own wife and daughter. The book, very episodic from the outset steadily unravels from then on, especially after Armstrong lets him go. Smart and his family (they have a son too now) become hoboes during the 1930s but become separated and by the end of the book Smart is somehow in the late 1940s randomly running into movie stars. The last sections of the book become as incoherent as a Hal Duncan or Michael Moorcock novel. It is as if Doyle has no idea how to end it.

The best bits of this book are the settings. Doyle does very well at conjuring up New York, Chicago and some smaller US towns in the 1920s and 1930s very evocatively. There are also great scenes around the performances, not just in jazz clubs and with Armstrong, but also when one of Smart's girlfriends becomes an evangelical demagogue, making use of Smart's connections to Armstrong to make records of her speeches. Doyle is great on performance as we know from 'The Commitments' (1987). There are some great ideas in here, but they are not woven together in a way that really carries the reader onward and instead the book becomes a real slog. Something more narrowly focused, perhaps just around working with Armstrong would have made the strong parts shine rather than be subdued in narrative that really loses the plot.

'Let It Bleed' by Ian Rankin

I guess I have at times accused Rankin of becoming a little directionless in some of his novels too, though never to the scale which Doyle does in 'Oh, Play That Thing! (2004). Perhaps because as in the essay in the front of my edition of this novel, Rankin explains how it was going to be a movie, it is tighter than some of the Rebus stories. It is connected into what has proceeded, though with a bit of an ellipsis as you tend to find, so that Rebus has reconnected with his daughter but has moved out from living with his lover Patience. In this novel, in fact, he gets no sex, but continues with his alcoholism back in his old flat. He is aided by two loyal colleagues, notably DC Siobhan Clarke who plays a growing role in the novels and is almost like the flip-side daughter for Rebus.

Starting with a messed-up kidnapping which ends in dramatic death, this story does connect into a lot of issues facing Edinburgh and indeed Scotland, when it was published, i.e.1995, still under a Conservative government with the dregs of Thatcherite attitudes and with steps towards the resurrection of the Scottish Parliament four years later in the New Labour era. With its scenes of local government corruption, people making use of police and criminal contacts, this novel does feel very much in step with dramas of the 1980s/90s like 'Edge of Darkness' (1985), 'Centrepoint' (1990) 'Natural Lies' (1992) and though more light-hearted, in the same area, 'The Beiderbecke Affair' (1985) and its sequels. 

The sense in the 1980s that anything that created jobs was sacrosanct no matter what compromises had to be made still rings through this novel. There is also that aspect coming out of the 1960s that the wealthy and well-connected would often make use of the criminal class is also here. Rankin handles these well trodden ideas pretty well. He manages to balance the sense that people in power are untouchable no matter how corrupt with Rebus actually making some progress, which is a relief for the reader. There is both gritty violence white collar crime. As always Rankin makes good use of Edinburgh and the surrounding areas; the rich and the poor. Overall this is one of the best Rebus novels I have read and indeed could be read standalone without having to be familiar with the preceding six novels in the series.


'Nazism 1919-1945. 1: The Rise to Power, 1919-1934' ed. by J. [Jeremy] Noakes and G. [Geoffrey] Pridham

This is the first of four volumes of document readers on Nazism that began to be published in the mid-1970s but were revised and restructured in the 1980s with the new fourth volume appearing in 1998. What they are is a collection of translated documents illustrating what the Nazis were saying at different stages and what people were saying about them. They are connected by some narrative of events by Noakes and Pridham. Thus, the books differ from a standard history of the Nazi Party or indeed Germany at the time. This approach means that aspects which can sometimes be overlooked in some histories stand out. In this volume, for example, we learn much more about the factionalism and rivalries in the party and about the issues around the SA's part in it especially after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933. Also interesting are the views of members of the public from diaries about how they viewed the rise of the Nazis and the dilemmas that, for example, the Catholic Centre Party faced in terms of opposing or condoning the Nazis' actions. As is typical by the time the scale of the danger was apparent to many it was too late to stop. Some readers might find issues around tensions in what was an ill-balanced federal state too bureaucratic, but I think it is interesting to see how small states and Bavaria ploughing its own legal furrow were a doorway in for the Nazis. They also remind us that even before Hitler had become Chancellor there had been a coup d'état against the centre-left government of Prussia, the state which covered 3/5ths of Germany.

Despite the age of this book, it remains perceptive and an interesting angle on the rise of the Nazis. It is very accessible to the general reader as well as history students and academics. It is liable to give you insights into what happened and how, even if you feel you know the story pretty well already. I will read the other three volumes in the coming months.