Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Evening in Amiens: A Mystery

Evening in Amiens: A Mystery


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

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

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

I hope that readers find the book engaging, not simply for unravelling the mystery but also for the portrayal of life in contemporary France and for looking at the different ways in which men cope or do not cope with ageing.  We are currently being told so often what we are assumed to be and how we should behave, it makes it harder than ever to know where we should be going next and if there is actually anything in our lives we can legitimately enjoy.
The book is available on various Amazon websites:
UK @ £2.64:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Evening-Amiens-Mystery-Alexander-Rooksmoor-ebook/dp/B07HTWY4JM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1538400245&sr=1-1
USA @ US$3.46:
https://www.amazon.com/Evening-Amiens-Mystery-Alexander-Rooksmoor-ebook/dp/B07HTWY4JM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1538400344&sr=1-1
Canada @ CAN$3.50
https://www.amazon.ca/Evening-Amiens-Mystery-Alexander-Rooksmoor-ebook/dp/B07HTWY4JM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1538400427&sr=1-1
Australia @ AUS$4.79
https://www.amazon.com.au/Evening-Amiens-Mystery-Alexander-Rooksmoor-ebook/dp/B07HTWY4JM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1538400530&sr=1-1
Germany and I imagine other parts of Europe @ €2.99:
https://www.amazon.de/Evening-Amiens-Mystery-Alexander-Rooksmoor-ebook/dp/B07HTWY4JM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1538400676&sr=1-1

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In September

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

Friday, 31 August 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In July

Fiction
'Knights of the Hawk' by James Aitcheson
This is the third book in a sequence about a Breton knight fighting for the Normans in the period of the Norman Conquest of England and the subsequent suppression of resistance to it.  The first two books were 'Sworn Sword' (2011) and 'The Splintered Kingdom' (2012).  He has written another book called 'The Harrowing' (2016) set at the same time period, but featuring different characters.  I was drawn to this book having read 'Conquest' by Stewart Binns last month as this book shows the defeat of Hereward the Wake from the Norman rather than the English side the way Binns did.  This book is better written than 'Conquest' and that may be because it is Aitcheson's third whereas it was Binns's first.  There is some wandering around, but far less than in 'Conquest' and though the hero, Tancred is worthy, lots about companionship with various warriors, but the book is far less earnest throughout than Binns's story.  This book effectively is split into two - the first section sees the suppression of Hereward's forces at Ely and the second part sees Tancred hunting down his lover who it turns out has been taken by a Danish warlord based in the lawless Inner Hebrides leading to an epic battle to release her.  The book is generally brisk and has good detail without giving the history lectures that Binns has a tendency to provide.  Overall I would say it was reasonably engaging, more satisfied than with 'Conquest' but not sufficiently to make me want to rush out and buy the others of Aitcheson's books.


'The Tiger in the Smoke' by Margery Allingham
This book, published in 1952 and the 14th in the Albert Campion series of books is apparently J.K. Rowling's most favourite thriller.  I was far less impressed.  It is very much of its time, though initially it even felt more like post-First World War than post-Second World War.  A widow, Meg Elginbrodde just about to remarry begins to be sent up-to-date photographs of her husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, who was declared missing presumed dead in the Normandy invasion of 1944.  Her fiancé, Geoffrey Levett, amateur detective Campion and the police begin to investigate this occurrence.  It eventually leads them to a ragtag band of buskers, the core of which had served under Major Elginbrodde when sent to assassinate a leading German during the war, who was using the house on the French coast that the Elginbroddes had inhabited before the war.  Elginbrodde rewarded the men with antiques from the house and there was talk of a far greater treasure hidden there.  With the escape of the sergeant from the mission, murderer Jack Havoc, also known as Hackett and even Johnny Cash, the 'tiger' of the title, steps are taken to gain the clues to the treasure.

The trouble with this book is that it is very fragmented, in part because so many people are involved in the investigation.  Even Canon Hubert Avril, the landlord of Meg who knew Havoc as a boy, gets involved in a very ineffectual way.  Levett gets abducted by the gang and the police are involved in searching the killer of one of their number.  Havoc himself kills more people in seeking the information he wants.  As a result, we have a lot of people speculating on what is going on whether verbally or in their own heads.  Meg is edited out of much of the revelation in a very patronising way by the numerous male protagonists which I think was probably insulting even in 1952 but is galling today.

Campion plays a very minor role to Levett and Avril, and later Meg Elginbrodde herself, which does not help clarify matters.  There are some moments of genuine tension, usually involving Meg, but in between there is a lot of chatter and reflection which adds nothing to the story but rather confuses it more without providing tension.  As a result, towards the end I was just wishing for it to be over.  There is one chilling character, Mrs. Cash, the loan shark who seems largely untouchable despite having 300 clients down the years.

Perhaps the only strength of this book is the setting.  The action takes place largely during one of the thick smogs of early 1950s London.  The streets are often confusing, with left overs of old buildings and locations parcelled up or damaged by bombing.  Food is still on the ration and so the feel of the very austere nature of Britain at the time is made really clear throughout with the fog even penetrating inside buildings.  However, with far too many detectives bumbling around, it is a very irritating book and I fail to see why people like Rowling value it.


'Mortal Engines' by Philip Reeve
This book, published in 2001, is the first of a tetralogy.  Online it says it is a young adult book, but I think it is in fact a children's book, though as the series progresses and, I presume, the young characters age, maybe it evolves into that.  The book borrows from a number of authors' works.  The idea of mobile cities I have seen done by Christopher Priest and Michael Moorcock.  These of different guilds competing to run the city is a common trope. The book is set some centuries into the future (the 34th Century is noted as being historic) when ravaged by some apocalypse, mobile cities move around large parts of the world like creatures.  The story features characters from London which is shown as eating smaller towns.  Some humans opposed the concept of Municipal Darwinism and have settled in static towns; treated as heretics by the mobile city dwellers.  The book has a common set of characters for such books, such as an orphaned boy and the daughter of one the leading adventurers of London, who has been involved in dubious activities, that reminded me somewhat of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' series.

Despite its juvenile focus, some derivative elements, this is a fast moving and enjoyable book.  It throws up loads of stuff about society and how it functions.  There is quite a bit about emotions and falling for people you would not expect to, which I guess is compulsory for children's books these days.  It has great descriptions of the various mobile and fixed towns, their levels and their people.  While I would not rush out to buy the rest of this series, I have owned this book more than seven years now, if I came across others from the series in a charity shop I would buy them for something quick, pretty well written and with genuine points of drama, to read.


Fiction - Audio Books
'Shelter' by Harlan Coben; read by Kerry Shale
As I buy the cheapest audio books I can buy, I often end up with quite a random selection.  I had never read a book by Coben, but understand he is a successful US thriller writer.  I did not realise that this was a young adult novel either.  It is the first featuring Mickey Bolitar, a 15-year old, 6'4" tall student at a high school in New Jersey.  Bolitar has already had an exceptional life having grown up all around the world while his parents worked for a charity rescuing children from exploitation and he is drawn into this organisation.  Bolitar can already drive, having learnt in South Africa and is a skilled martial artist, having been trained by various masters, particularly one in the Amazonian rain forest, so he is not your usual child.  His uncle was a professional basketball player and his mother a very competent tennis player until both had their sporting careers brought to an abrupt end.  Following the killing of his father, Bolitar's mother has become a drug addict. 

The story is very much a traditional young adult adventure set in the USA.  Steadily Bolitar builds up a team of friends, including a smart-talking Goth girl, a nerd and a cheerleader and they investigate both the disappearance of a high-school pupil and the strange organisation that Mickey's parents worked for.  There is all the usual tensions with parents, guardians, teachers and school mates, many of which are painfully stereotypical.  The bad guys are effectively nasty.  Shale does very well voicing this spectrum of people.  At times there is exposition but generally the book is reasonably credible and has decent points of tension and frustration.  I think a younger person would find it fresher than I did, as I kept on being reminded of a hundred things I have seen from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' to 'My So Called Life', I suppose because US high school adventures are so common in so much produced in English.  I would be interested to read one of Coben's novels aimed at adults.


'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; read by Alex Jennings
This is one of these books that you have some idea about, but in fact it turns out to be quite a bit different to what you had expected; for me 'Great Expectations' proved to be that way.  This book is incredibly gloomy.  It was published as a 12-part magazine story throughout 1866 and then as a novel.  It is set in a few poor streets in St. Petersburg, at the time capital of the Russian Empire.  It focuses on a former law student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov now facing absolute poverty.  It seems he might be insane even before the book begins and certainly his mental faculties fall apart in many ways through the book.  He murders a female pawn broker who he has borrowed money from and kills her sister when she stumbles over his actions.  Yet he does not effectively rob the woman and ultimately casts away the stuff he does steal from her, despite his desperate need for money.

There is a strong sense that Raskolnikov does the murder more for an intellectual exercise than for anything else.  This is heightened by the fact that, despite lucky breaks in escaping from the scene of the crime, the detective assigned to investigate the murders, Porfiry Petrovich, determines very quickly that Raskolnikov was to blame and how he went about it.  Much of the book is taken up with Raskolnikov prevaricating about what to do; breaking up his sister's engagement to a wealthy civil servant and striking up a highly improbable relationship with a prostitute, Sonya, daughter of a neighbour who dies during the course of the book.  Eventually as we expect throughout, Raskolnikov confesses to the detective who has known he would throughout, and gets a surprisingly light sentence in Siberia for the two murders.

The book is very irritating, especially that everything seems so sewn up from the start and we are left to witness the leading character simply twisting and turning.  The detective is infuriating in being so perfectly perceptive and smug with it.  The relationship with Sonya is unconvincing and Raskolnikov behaves in a foolish way towards his family; his sister has far more sense than him and would have been a better focus for the story.  The one strength of the book is its portrayal of people often falling from higher social classes, on the edge of absolute poverty in mid-19th century Russia, the kinds of places they live in and how they appeared.  Aside from that it is a book about a weak, mad man, going about his business behaving in an irrational manner at best shocking people around him; at worst killing with only twisted compunction.

Alex Jennings is a good reader for the various Russian voices.  There is a lot of dialogue and interior monologue from the character.  He makes sense of this madness and the charging back and forward.  However, he cannot save what is a highly annoying book.


'Goldfinger' by Ian Fleming; read by Hugh Bonneville
This was the seventh James Bond book, published in 1959 and you can see that by this stage Fleming is beginning to recycle some earlier elements.  Like Sir Hugo Drax in 'Moonraker' (1956), Auric Goldfinger is a naturalised millionaire, in this case a Baltic German rather than from the main part of Germany.  Like Drax, Goldfinger is revealed to be suspicious through cheating at cards; he also cheats at golf.  Also like Drax, Goldfinger lives in Kent, though the latter has places in Switzerland and interests in the USA too.  While Drax was employed by the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, Goldfinger is yet another employee of Smersh which has featured to a greater or lesser extent in all the preceding novels.

The book starts with Bond having broken a drugs smuggling ring from Mexico to Britain and you do wonder why Fleming did not turn that story into a novel in its own right given how much attention he pays to it.  Perhaps it seemed a little too like the diamond smuggling of 'Diamonds Are Forever'  (1955).  Certainly with Goldfinger avoiding restrictions on taking gold out of Britain, in place at the time and smuggling it on to India where it secured a higher price, we are back to Bond being an international detective rather than what might be seen as a genuine spy.  We get all the attributes of a Bond novel, the extensive physical descriptions of people and the details of the games he witnesses or takes part in, notably the canasta game that Goldfinger cheats at in Miami and the golf game he also cheats at in Sandwich. 

There is a great description of Bond pursuing Goldfinger across France and into Switzerland and we see more gadgets appearing.  His shoes contain daggers; he puts a tracking device in Goldfinger's car which he can monitor from his own; his car has adjustable lamps, reinforced bumpers and secret hiding places.  The movies did not make up the love of gadgets, just took them further.  Similarly in the Korean Karate specialist, Oddjob, we see the super-powerful henchman of the main baddie, which becomes such a staple in the movies.  It is interesting that Goldfinger has to explain Karate to readers, wrongly portraying it as a branch of Judo.  We forget how unfamiliar such arts were in Britain at the time.  Racism creeps in this regard too.  Bond keeps on referring to the Koreans as 'apes'.  Earlier the wealthy Mr. Dupont, who employs Bond in Miami explains how Goldfinger would have been barred from his hotel if he has proven to be a Jew, as if this behaviour was something normal.

As I have noted before, Bond's relationship with women in the novels is far more complex than in the movies.  In the first book, Vesper Lynd is working for the Soviets; Solitaire and Honeychile Rider only engage with him at the end; Gala Brand is more effective than Bond and only has eyes for her fiancé; Tiffany Case is similar and though she has a relationship with Bond, she soon leaves him for an American officer.  This novel shows Bond not only getting it wrong with women but his contact leading to the death of two sisters.  Jill Masterton, an employee of Goldfinger's pays the price for going off with him and is painted gold to death.  Her sister, Tilly, a lesbian, seeks to assassinate Goldfinger.  Bond prevents this and then leads the woman into great danger and her own killing.  She only has eyes for Pussy Galore, head of a US lesbian gangster gang, inelegantly called The Cement Mixers.

Bond professes to understand 'true' gay men and lesbians, but is very dismissive of people we would probably call bi-curious these days, seeing Tilly Masterton as being in this category even though she falls heavily for Galore from their first meeting.  Bond seems to feel that such attitudes have been provoked by developments undermining the authority of men such as giving the women the vote!  This reveals he is very Victorian in his attitudes and out-of-date even with even 1959 Britain. Galore herself is revealed to only be a lesbian due to an incestuous rape by her uncle at the age of 12.  This reinforces Fleming's dislike of the USA and the sense of how women can be taken off 'the proper path' as he sees it, of sexuality.  Aside from Galore, Bond's assumptions end up in the death of two women.

There are some reasonably strong parts in the novel, but it is rather fragmented.  The final attack on Fort Knox is well worked out and interesting, though the story passed around, i.e. aircraft poisoning the town is used in the movie rather than poisoning the water here.  Galore is won over by Bond only late in the day when the other gangster leaders have all been killed by Goldfinger.  The trouble, though, is the suspension of disbelief breaks down at the end of the second part of the novel.  Bond and Tilly Masterton have been captured easily by Goldfinger and Bond is in line to be cut apart by a rotary saw rather than a laser as in the movie.  However, then he wakes to find himself in Goldfinger's employment and spends much of the rest of the book, along with Tilly, acting as secretarial staff for Goldfinger.  Given the man has numerous Korean and German employees it is not clear why he uses two people he has been highly suspicious all along, at the heart of his operation.  Fleming could have handled this two ways.  First he could have had Bond worm his way into Goldfinger's employment as he tries at the start and has done successfully in 'Diamonds Are Forever' in a similar set-up, especially given that Fleming was clearly not averse to reusing plot devices.  Alternatively Bond could have escaped in Switzerland and then we would have had a race for him to get everyone to listen to what he had to say about the Fort Knox plot, in time.  Fleming's approach I the weakest.

Though there are some highlights, this is not a strong book in the series and needed quite a bit of rewriting to make sense even within the rules of the genre.  Hugh Bonneville is very good in voicing all of the characters, despite the range of accents.  At first you think he has got Pussy Galore's accent wrong until you hear about where she came from and so he is spot on.  His pacing is good and he does not get over-excited and yet is successful in enhancing the tension at crucial moments.


'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy; read by Anton Lesser
I had imagined that I had been missing out on reading classic novels such as this.  However, like 'Middlemarch' (1871) which I listened to in May, it effectively turned out to be like a Victorian soap opera.  Added to that it has the heavy hand of destiny running through it as it charts the downfall of Michael Henchard after selling his wife and daughter to a sailor.  In later years he rises to become the Mayor of the fictional town of Casterbridge and running a successful corn and hay merchant business.  However, the return of his wife begins his decline, so that he dies in poverty having lost all the women he had loved and his entire business.  Thus, it is a very depressing book and Henchard's attempts to save himself from his inevitable fate simply prolong the agony.  There is a lot of deception and misapprehension along the way as seems typical for this kind of novel.

The only positives about this book are well drawn characters and the portrayal of small town society in mid-Victorian southern England.  It informs about the way people lived, what trades were practiced, processes and customs of the time.  Casterbridge is well drawn though rather unrealistically packed with Iron Age and Roman ruins of the highest quality as if Hardy packed together sites from across Dorset, Devon, Hampshire and Sussex into this corner of his fictional Wessex.  I do not think a modern writer (this was published in 1886) would have such unremitting decay of a character (unless, of course, they were Charles Palliser who gets off on such misery!) and it is hard for someone now to go along with such a predestined story with very few relieving aspects.

Anton Lesser is very good for this book.  He manages an appropriate range of male and female character voices, especially for Henchard and his Scottish friend and then rival, Donald Farfrae who ends up marrying Henchard's lover and then his step-daughter.  He has a well-rounded voice for the narration and is able to flick between the appropriate voices very adeptly.  This book, however, certainly showed me that my prejudices against Hardy's work were actually a highly accurate assessment of its nature and I will not be accessing any more of his novels.


'The Life and Achievements of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha' by Miguel Cervantes; read by Edward de Souza
There were two volumes to the story published in 1605 and 1615.  This is an abridged version of what in print is often 900 pages long and so I am not really sure what aspects of the two volumes it includes; indeed it seems to have a different title to the one you usually see listed online, i.e. 'The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha'.  The only story from the book I knew was the attack on the windmills which is included, but as to which other incidents are missing, I have no idea.  This edition does take the story right to the end of the life of Alonso Quixano, the man who for much of the book acts as Don Quixote de la Mancha.  It is said that this is the first European novel.  It is also the first European novel about mental health and, as a result, has a particular interest at this time when that aspect is receiving widespread attention.

 Quixano is a well-off man in his fifties who owns a number of houses and estates in the La Mancha region to the South and East of central Spain.  He gets into the habit of reading books about knights errant of earlier centuries and through not sleeping, he becomes convinced that he is such a knight and goes off seeking adventures.  He seems prone to hallucination, seeing windmills as giants and inns as castles.  He also seems to indulge in wishful thinking, for example, believing that a local woman is in love with him.  The people around him generally treat him kindly, though some exploit his delusions.  Friends and his servants, through various means try to wean him off this behaviour which they eventually succeed in doing through becoming part of the delusional world he has created.  They only win through after he has sustained a number of accidents and has been beaten up by a range of men he has offended or challenged to a duel.  Mostly he is simply bruised, though often severely, but he also loses part of one ear to a sword cut.

There is some humour in Don Quixote's bombastic manner and in aping the stories which would have been familiar to people of the time when it was published.  Like some of them, Quixano is able to equip himself with old armour and weapons from the time when these were in use in his grandfather's day probably in the early 16th century or perhaps even the late 15th along with the supposed behaviour of those times.  However, in many ways it is a sad story that an obsession provoked by hallucination leads a man to rush off to behave in such a reckless way.  One sympathises for his friend, and the local peasant, Sancho Panza that he presses into acting as his squire but, often at risk to himself, as when faced with the lions, he points out what Quixano is actually seeing and tries to persuade him to do something less dangerous.  At the end Quixano finally realises what has been plaguing him and it is a gentle and wistful ending.  We learn some interesting things about habits of the time, for example, two monks wearing tinted glass lenses, something like goggles, as they travel on the road, at the start of the 17th century.

There are lots of lessons in here about adventure stories, habits of the past, the myths of chivalry, men ageing and the support of friends in dealing with life's challenges when facing mental health issues.  These factors tend to get forgotten beneath what may be seen to be intended to be humour at the situations Quixano and as Don Quixote, gets himself in for.  De Souza does a good job of voicing Quixano and Panza in particular.  The recording makes him sound distant.  This being a Naxos recording there is some nice appropriate music, sounding like late medieval.


Non-Fiction
'1918: The Unexpected Victory' by J.H. Johnson
The title of this book is rather misleading.  There are some very small sections which outline that the Entente countries though that the First World War would run until July 1919, perhaps even into 1920, but there is no real discussion of why they thought that or what they did to plan for the continuation of the war or really to accelerate its end.  Instead, the vast majority of the book is simply taken up with detailed description of the fighting of 1918 on the Western Front, usually at corps and division level, though additionally at army level and occasionally at battalion level.  It does make some mention of the French and the Americans, even the Belgians, plus what the German forces were doing especially in the Spring 1918 offensive, but most of the focus is on the British Army.  There is little comment on the Italy, Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamian fronts even though these brought Germany's allies out of the war earlier.  There is some comment on the internal politics of Germany during 1918 and efforts towards peace, but not a great deal.  Thus, this is really no different to many histories of the closing year of the First World War providing in great deal simply movements of British Empire units through various French and Belgian villages and across railways and canals.

The only real points of particular interest was the fact that if the British had been able to increase the reliability of their tanks, they could have ended the war sooner.  Even in 1918 when tanks were no longer a novelty, their appearance very often tipped the balance in an offensive, in particular, being able to get through barbed wire and removing the need for heavy bombardment before infantry could advance.  However, often a high percentage broke down even before they reached the frontline.  The other factor is that, while I knew the Americans were not allies but associates of the Entente, I had not realised how controlled their involvement in the conflict was.  General Pershing controlling the American forces was loath to let them mix with British or French units and on the rare occasions when they did, he insisted that they were returned to him as quickly as possible.  Furthermore, I had not realised how poorly trained and ill-equipped the US forces in France were even later in 1918, well over a year after the USA joined the war in April 1917.  Though they achieved a notable outcome in stopping the German advance on Paris in 1918, their casualties were high at every stage and their abilities to advance, highly limited even against a hungry and tired German Army, even with 2 million men in France by the end of the war.  This rather gives the lie to all of those who have told me the Americans could have easily repelled any Mexican attempt at crossing the US border in 1917/18 with National Guard troops and armed civilians.

Overall, this book does not deliver what it promises, instead it gives a blow-by-blow history of the British on the Western Front in 1918 and little else.



 
Non-Fiction - Audio Books
'The Recollections of Rifleman Harris' by Benjamin Harris; read by Graham Keeling
This is a memoir produced in 1848 by a rifleman in the early part of the Peninsular War, a section of the Napoleonic Wars fought in Portugal and Spain.  Benjamin Harris was a Dorset man who transferred into the 95th Rifles while stationed in southern Ireland.  At the time, most British soldiers carried smooth barrelled muskets and only elite skirmisher troops carried the slower-loading, but more accurate, rifled barrelled guns.  They have been particularly made famous by Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' series which follows a rifleman through his career from private to lieutenant colonel.  One of Richard Sharpe's comrades is named Harris.  The real Harris was involved in the first advance into Portugal and Spain which then led to the ignominious retreat to Coruña in northern Spain in 1808/09.  Harris himself was evacuated through Vigo.  Despite the British soon returning to Portugal and Spain, Harris was sent on the Walcheren Expedition to the Netherlands in July 1809 and there, like most British troops caught the so-called 'Walcheren fever', a mixture of typhus and malaria and was unable to resume active duty before the end of the war in 1815.  He went on to be a successful cobbler in central London.

As Harris outlines, he makes no effort to put the action he saw in any broader context.  What this book is good for is outlining the day-to-day activities of British soldiers at the time, how they were treated and how they died.  Flogging appears regularly with men being whipped up to 800 times.  They were poorly equipped marched to exhaustion, with many dying by the roadside.  They had no tents at this stage of the war so had to find refuge wherever they could, often simply sleeping in the open.  As well as being a shepherd before being called up, Harris had skill in shoe making and was expected to carry his equipment for that on top of the heavy backpack each soldier bore.  His sleep was often disturbed being demanded to repair boots.  By the time of the retreat to Coruña and Vigo, most of the soldiers were moving bare foot.

The fact that they did not rebel despite such treatment and lack of supplies, is shown by the reverence in which officers are held.  There is no respect for a man who has risen through the ranks, but the gentry and noble officers are treated like demi-gods.  Harris raves on about the skills of  Major General Robert Craufurd [sic] despite his cruelty and neglect of the needs of the men.  Small instances of looking to men and making comments seem to have been sufficient to over come the desperate state of so many individuals.  Harris goes on to detail life as a military invalid and then the book ends abruptly.  It does make you wonder how much more effective the British Army could have been if properly supplied and treated sensibly rather than constantly marching men to their death.  I came away from this book feeling I had learned a great deal, but seeing how inimical class divisions and the very hatred the upper classes have for the ordinary man have been to British success in war.

Graham Keeling is apparently a dentist, a volunteer to provide LibriVox recordings.  At times his pronunciation is very odd.  Keeling is British but pronounces 'lieutenant' the American way, 'scarce' and 'scarcely' as if they start with 'scar' rather than sounding like 'scare' and pronounces 'corps' as 'corpse' rather than sounding like 'core'.  As this is a LibriVox recording - you are told that fact in full at the start of every chapter - it means that you do not have to buy it the way I did, but can access it and download freely online; I do not have an MP3 player in my car, it is 15 years old.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In June

Fiction
'A Dance with Dragons 2: After the Feast' by George R.R. Martin
This is the second part of the fifth, and, so far, final book in Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series.  It was published in 2011 and, while Martin has promised a sixth book, he has gone off to other projects instead.  This part is slightly better than the first part, but as with that and the previous book, the series has entirely lost momentum.  It is easy to understand why the writers of the television series based on the books, 'A Game of Thrones' have increasingly diverged from the novels, leaving out entire characters, but also introducing a great deal more action.  I would really love to read a novelisation of the series rather than these books.

Opportunities for excitement are avoided.  In the series Stannis Baratheon marches against Winterfell and has to sacrifice his daughter in the hope he will win.  He is defeated in a major battle and is ultimately killed by Brienne of Tarth who has been hunting him to exact vengeance for his magical murder of his brother.  In the book, his siege train simply gets stuck in the snow and dies very slowly without even reaching Winterfell.  Similarly Daenerys Targaryen sits in Mereen for a long time thinking, gets married, and flies off on her dragon.  There is lots of worrying but very little action.  Tyrion Lannister spends his time as an entertainment slave and has very little role in developments. We hear no more of Sansa Stark, in contrast to the series; we hear no more of Brandon Stark or Sam Tarly or happenings in Dorne and so on. 

The writers of the series drive the story on whereas, very frustratingly, Martin just wallows in the vast structure he has created, with no clear sense of where it is going.  You have to admire the world he has crafted but instead of enjoying this book, I laboured through it and am looking to prequels and other output which remembers that an epic story is no story if nothing much happens.

'Conquest' by Stewart Binns
This was a disappointing book.  It focuses on the life of Hereward of Bourne, popularly known as Hereward the Wake, who led a guerrilla war against the Norman occupation of England following the Battle of Hastings in October 1066.  The book follows him from his youth, through the Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings - he is at both - to his exile from England following subsequent defeat by King William I at Ely.  The King is portrayed very much as a brutal dictator in this novel.  This was Binns's first novel and there is an air of naivety about it.  Aside from a couple of sex scenes, it feels very much like a book Henry Treece (1911-66) would have written for children in the 1950s.  Everything is very earnest and the good and the bad are painted in stark colours.  There are few moments of real tension, which can be achieved even in historical novels when we know the outcome as seen in 'Munich' by Robert Harris which I listened to last month. 

The book owes a lot to 'The Last English King' (1997) by Julian Rathbone with Hereward even ending up in Byzantine Greece.  However, even more than that book it is a labour and because of the lack of tension, it becomes a depressing book as Hereward steadily moves towards defeat and loses his 'family' the friends he has acquired through the book which have become rather like one of these superhero ensemble movies currently so possible.  Binns also has not learned how to get historical detail into a book without breaking off to give us a mini-lecture on who the person is and who their ancestors are.  We hear about the War of the Three Sanchos (1065-67) in the Iberian Peninsula without this having any real relevance to the story.  Binns was very fortunate to get a publishing contract for this book and certainly needs to work at his craft as a novel writer if he is going to produce satisfying books.

'Knots and Crosses' by Ian Rankin
I have been given a lot of books from Ian Rankin's Rebus detective stories.  This one, set in Edinburgh in 1985 is the first.  In an introduction which was added to this edition, Rankin outlines how this was his first novel and that he knew nothing about police procedure, though he was able to get up to speed liaising with staff from a Leith police station.  At times the book feels like a first novel and I imagine a more experienced author would not have relied so much on coincidence or have a lead character with such an incredible background and then ironically one who is pretty ineffectual.  At first it appears that the 'hero' Detective Sergeant John Rebus is only going to be on the edges of the investigation of a serial killer of children.  However, ultimately it turns out that he is right at the centre and as much a victim as an investigator.  However, Rebus, though seeming rather downbeat and hardly sharp, is not simply a former paratrooper, but also a trained member of an elite sub-unit of the S.A.S. specifically trained to fight in the civil war which had been expected in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s/early 1980s; the legacy of his training comes back to haunt him in all senses of the word.

There are some pretty well drawn characters, though, as Rankin notes himself it does feel all very historical now, especially the bars and the journalists in an age when the mobile phone is uncommon and computers in police stations are handled by a small band of specialists, though Rankin reveals good insight in what was to come.  Rebus's brother, a drug-dealing stage hypnotists appears interesting at the start but soon seems to just be a plot device.  Rebus's ex-wife taking his boss's son as her lover, seems particularly contorted.  The book is quirky enough to keep one's interest and it moves along briskly, describing Edinburgh and people in it well.  It was not as outstanding as I had expected from the acclaim that has been heaped upon it, but it was not sufficiently disappointing that I will throw out the others in the series that I have been given.

'Cartomancy' by Mary Gentle
This is a selection of short stories.  I had been slightly misled by it as 'cartomancy' actually means telling the future using playing cards, but though Gentle does feature some tarot dice in one story in fact she uses it more to mean telling things by using maps.  I read 'Rats and Gargoyles' (1990) many years ago, but this book does not really make much sense and you have read a lot of her other books, notably, 'Ash: A Secret History' (2000), 'Grunts!' (1992) and the Orthe trilogy, 1984-2002.  This is because many of the stories are prequels or offcuts from these series.  Most do not stand well as simply short stories without knowing those contexts, which Gentle only tells us about in numerous 'afterwords'.  There are some interesting counter-factuals, such as a Visigoth kingdom in Tunisia and Burgundy being a dominant country in Europe in the late 20th century.  It is interesting to see the female warriors she includes.

There are some which are decent as short stories, 'Kitsune' and how the eponymous character wrecks lives, 'The Harvest of Wolves' set in a 20th century Britain where austerity has become authoritarian, 'The Pits Beneath the World' about a human uncovering lifecycles on an alien planet and 'Cast a Long Shadow' which is a good piece of magic realism set in 20th century Britain. 'Orc's Drift' is really silly. The rest are clearly disconnected parts of novels or prequels and while some have some good ideas, though not satisfactorily developed and because we do not know who these characters become, they lack the import that Gentle tries to instil in the afterwords.  'A Shadow under the Sea' about battling a Kraken is probably the best of these.  'Human Waste' is utterly horrendous.  I know authors have licence and nanobots being able to repair a child in seconds seems to make the impact lesser, but I certainly do not welcome a story of sustained cruelty and physical abuse repeated over the space of some minutes.  I get the point, but regret ever coming near that story.

Overall, then, this is really only a book for dedicated fans of Mary Gentle.  Even then I would advise against reading 'Human Waste'.

Fiction - Audio Books
'From Russia with Love' by Ian Fleming; read by Toby Stephens
The movie (1963) of this novel (1957) is my favourite of the James Bond dramatisations and is one that feels most like a spy movie than a kind of international crime drama.  In the novel, there are continuities with other books.  Bond's relationship with Tiffany Case from 'Diamonds Are Forever' (1956) has just come to an end with her returning to the USA with an American major.  The snagging of Bond's .25 Beretta (the 6.35mm Beretta 418 pistol which was still in production in the 1950s) in this novel leads to him being issued with the Walther PPK in 'Dr. No' (1958).  In the movie, Bond is facing the international crime syndicate SPECTRE whereas in the book he simply continues to battle Smersh, the unit of the Soviet intelligence organisation which carries out torture and executions.  He has crossed them in 'Casino Royale' (1953) and effectively battled their agents of in 'Live and Let Die' (1954); Sir Hugo Drax in 'Moonraker' (1955), in contrast, has been backed by GRU, the Soviet military intelligence body.  However, overall, the books are more clearly Cold War novels in a way that, by the time the movies were made and there was some brief thawing, it was not felt appropriate.

There is much from the book, including specific lines of dialogue which made it into the movie.  The significant characters are the same.  Fleming loves extended descriptions of people, especially the opposition.  We encounter the first female opponent of the novels in Colonel Rosa Klebb, a Smersh torturer with poisoned knitting needles rather than a shoe spike as in the movie, until the very end.  She is rather overwritten, but does come across as a genuinely sinister person especially in the descriptions of her torturing people.  She is what he calls 'neuter', what we would call bisexual now rather than asexual, which is used to add to her sinister nature.  There is Donovan 'Red' Grant, an Irishman in the book, a psychopath who loves killing and Kerim Bey, Bond's larger-than-life contact in Istanbul.  Even as an ebullient ally he is portrayed as having a dark side, having kept a woman chained naked in his house when a young man.  Interestingly, the entire first section of the book does not feature Bond except being discussed in the third person; we see Grant's and Tatiana Romanova's lives inside the USSR and the behaviour of the men controlling them.  At the time I guess this would be something unfamiliar to readers, but it re-emphasised to readers then why the Soviet system needed to be opposed by Bond.

As I have noted with the previous novels, Bond makes mistakes, often serious mistakes.  As Grant notes, throughout this story, the Soviets are able to play on Bond's vanity and curiosity to manoeuvre him almost precisely where they want him.  Only the availability of a 'gadget', the first to appear in the books, a throwing knife concealed in his attaché case, saves Bond from simply being shot and humiliated.  The other elements are there as in the movie, such as watching the Soviet embassy through a periscope; Kerim Bey's sons; shooting a Bulgarian agent as he escapes through a billboard advertising a movie; the fights at the gipsy camp; Bond foolishly allowing himself to be filmed through a two-way mirror in a hotel, even the breakfast he eats.  The climax comes in Paris rather than Venice and Kronsteen, the chess master, has not been killed. In this book, the Lektor of the movie, is called the Spektor and it is booby-trapped.  Bond is shown as complacent to the very end and when the book was published, the cliff-hanger must have been gripping for readers.

Toby Stephens, who appeared in the Bond movie, 'Die Another Day' (2002) is very good at the voices, having to affect a range of Russians.  His Kerim Bey is particularly good and the way he portrays Grant using his own voice and then acting as Nash, is subtly handled.  Overall, this is a quite gripping book especially as we can see how fallible Bond is and how easily he is played.  The Soviets almost manage to pull it off.  There are rich, if highly unpleasant, characters throughout, that stay the right side of being caricatures.  I have already listened to 'Dr. No' so the next one in series for me is 'Goldfinger' (1959).

'A Reconstructed Corpse' by Simon Brett; radio play with narration by Bill Nighy
I met Brett in the 2000s and have read one of his novels in a different series, 'The Body on the Beach' (2000).  This one is the 15th story (of 20 at present), published in 1993, from the Charles Paris series so far published 1975-2018, though with a long break, 1993-2013.  This explains why Paris seems rather anachronistic, regularly referencing 1960s and 1970s pop songs.  This is one of a number of Radio 4 dramatisations of the novels, that are sometimes also available on demand via the BBC I-Player.  It is kind of a hybrid though, because while many scenes are acted, there is a regular first-person narration from the character of Paris, perfectly portrayed by Nighy in his kind of washed up, but positive old actor/rock star approach which he sometimes portrays, e.g. in 'Love Actually' (2003).

It moves along briskly and snatches of pop songs indicate chapters well.  In many ways Paris is an old fashioned character, an (attempted) womaniser and heavy drinker who flits between minor acting roles.  However, Nighy ebullience and contemporary references keep this feeling fresh rather than jaded.  In this book, perhaps unexpectedly, the relationship with Paris's long-suffering wife, Frances, played by Suzanne Burden becomes an interesting reflection on middle-aged relationships and I like how Frances takes the lead in some of the amateur detection, which in this novel focuses on corrupt police and a public information programme called 'Citizen's Arrest'.  These CDs often turn up cheap, and having enjoyed this one, I will look out for others.

'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak; read by Allan Corduner
I had become vaguely aware of this book, first published in 2006 due to publicity about the DVD of the movie, which I am surprised to find first came out in 2013.  Anyway, this is a very dense book.  Most audio books last 3-4 hours, this one is 14 hours.  It primarily covers the life of a German girl, Liesel Meminger living in a suburb of Munich 1939-43.  The narrator is Death, though more human and tangible yet far less fixed than the usual portrayals of personified death.  The book reminds a great deal of 'Cider with Rosie' (1959) by Laurie Lee, in that it goes into immense detail about the life of a girl.  Thus, beside the events of the war, concealing a Jew and the bombing there is a lot about her life.  For some reason at the age of 10 she is still illiterate, despite having Communist parents.  She is taken to be fostered in Molching when her father is arrested and her mother, we assume is soon taken too.  Her brother dies on the journey to Bavaria and is buried.  Her foster parents have grown-up children and are poor.  They treat her rather erratically, the mother in particular, but with affection.  The story then orbits around her school days, her friends and neighbours in Himmel Street, her participation in the BDM branch of the Hitler Youth and occasionally stealing books, fruit and vegetables.

In some ways I was disheartened to be read another book about wartime Germany with many of the standard tropes.  The characters do lighten it, despite all the tragedies that so many of them face; most of the people we meet do not make it to the end of the book, but that is probably no surprise.  The style with Death narrating, jumping back and forth in time and stopping to give little lectures on his/her existence and interaction with humans, is fine for a bit, but quickly becomes tiresome.  This is the main problem with the book, it is very heavy going.  There is so much to get through at such a slow pace that you are quickly exhausted of all the conceits of the approach.  The messages about escape through reading and authoring and the need for basic humanity, as a result, feel piled on and by the end you lose interest in them.  With this heavyweight approach it would have been fine just to feature a single year in Liesel Meminger's life, rather than four.  By going on so much, with so much passion and so many characters, by the end you have lost a lot of sympathy for anyone featured.  I came out of this book feeling exhausted and rather unhappy that I had ever started on it.

Allan Corduner is excellent as Death with rich and in turns flippant and thoughtful tones for this character.  He is not bad at voicing the children, though better with the adults, especially Liesel's foster father, Hans Hubermann.  His German is good too and listening to the book reminded me of numerous phrases that I had long forgotten from my youth when visiting and living in Germany.  Last time I was there was in 2005 but that was more than 15 years since the previous time.

Non-Fiction
'Crowded Hours. An Autobiography' by Eric Roll
This is another author who I have met, back in the 1990s when working for the Warburg Bank.  He is the only person who I have met who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He lived in the Austrian part which is now in Romania, but came to Britain in 1931 and naturalised.  He was an early arrival in the wave of Central European economists who became so important for the British government from the 1940s to the late 1960s.  The book is very brisk, at times listing all the people he encountered in his career; generally viewing them positively.  Roll was involved in numerous international committees including on wartime food supplies, the allocation of Marshall Aid and on Britain's first application to join the EEC in 1961-63.  He was also an academic and worked a lot in the USA before leaving the civil service in the late 1960s to enter finance and private banking.

The book is apt to read at the moment on two grounds.  The first basis are the challenges of international negotiations.  Some of the commentary could have been written about Brexit negotiations now.  However, what is apparent is that the British have utterly lost the skill of working on international bodies to come to a satisfactory, even if not superb, outcome.  Perhaps we have become too dogmatic; maybe we have lost those internationalists of Roll's generation, adept at a range of languages and able to understand the views of others even while disagreeing with them or seeing them as to Britain's disadvantage.

The other useful aspect of this book is that Roll breaks off from the narrative periodically to bring analysis of economic approaches as found in this other, less personal books.  He is a centrist economically and proposes a kind of social market economy of the kind seen in West Germany in the third quarter of the 20th century - this being the 1994 edition of the book.  He certainly points to the unhealthiness of dogmatism, rather hooded criticisms of Thatcherite obsession with monetarism.  Roll seeks the greatest range of tools and criticises the focus just on interest rates for Keynesianism and on the money supply for the Thatcherism that followed.  He also speaks wisely about the changes coming to the City of London and the need for a sensible degree of control.  Some of his fears in this regard were witnessed in 2008.

Roll was very much a man of his time, but his wealth of experience in academia, the civil service and business and his even-handed approach to negotiations and economic approaches means that even now what he wrote provides quite a refreshing view of how things could be being done better, especially in terms of exiting the EU.

Non-Fiction - Audio Books
'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' by T.E.Lawrence; read by Jim Norton
This seems to be a popular book for putting into audio formats as I see there is a version read by Roy McMillan is also on sale.  This is largely a non-fiction book, but I believe it was in 'The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia' (2010) presented by Rory Stewart that showed he had been a bit liberal with some of the truth, for example shortening journey times he had recorded in his diaries when he produced this book.  The most notable is saying it took him 49 hours to get from Aqaba to the Suez Canal when it took 70 hours as recorded in his diary.

The book covers Lawrence's involvement with the Arab Revolt in 1916-18, up the western coast of what is now Saudi Arabia through present-day Israel to Damascus in Syria, at the time all territories held by the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.  Lawrence's largely self-appointed mission was to bring together the wide diversity of Arabic tribes in the region and carry out a kind of guerrilla war, though securing towns along the Red Sea coast.  Much of his work was in leading raiding parties especially attacking trains, bringing more tribes into the fight and funding and training them.

Lawrence makes an epic story of what he was involved with.  In particular he makes very little mention of his failures beyond acknowledging them.  It would be interesting to know what went wrong on the failed raids as much as we learn about how he helped with the successes.  Sensibly he punctuates the battle scenes with detail of life among Arabs and at various locations on his journey, giving a rich picture of the culture he was moving among and was largely accepted into.  He spends a lot of time describing individual men and their characters (the book features very, very few women) of the tendency of the early-mid 20th Century writing (Fleming does this all the time too) and describes nationalities in a way that many current readers would find patronising if not verging on racist.  This is not confined to the Arabs and Turks as he is highly dismissive of Indian and Australian soldiers.  In contrast he goes overboard in praising General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936), though for a man of the time, the general appreciated the risks of indulging in crusader analogies and the risk of offending the largely Muslim population. 

It is interesting, despite the popularity of the book with politicians and generals of the time, that the assault on the port of Aqaba (now in Jordan) achieved after a lengthy march across the desert that Lawrence recounts in detail, had so little attention paid to it.  His ability to capture the town with a light camel-borne force because the landward side was unprotected in the expectation of any attack coming from the sea, was much paralleled in the fall of British-held Singapore in February 1942 to Japanese troops behaving in a very similar way, because of the lack of landward protection.

Lawrence articulates the guilt he felt throughout his mission, knowing from early on that the British were not going to permit the bulk of the independent Arab states that they were peddling as a way to try to gain support from Arab fighters.  He hoped that an Arab victory would free them from the imperial constraints, but all but Saudi Arabia became part of the British or French Empire following the Paris Peace Treaties.  Thus, while the book comes over as something from the age of high imperialism and with attitudes that would expect from that time, it is, at times, tempered by a different appreciation.

We know that Lawrence was a masochist and was probably homosexual or perhaps bisexual.  Thus, his frankness, especially when he is being anally raped by Turkish soldiers must have been shocking at the time the book was published in 1926.  At times it is unsettling that he seems to revel in physical discomfort and there are graphic descriptions of the hardships of riding for many hours on camels, with the sores and injuries that he sustains.  He seems to relish describing death and decay such as after attacks and in the conditions of the Turkish Hospital in Damascus which he recondition and improved.  It can be argued that he was in harsh conditions and reflected them for a soft audience back home.  However, from the start when talking about slavery in the Arab world, he seems too supportive of these aspects and this trait appears to be borne out by the actions in his life, exposing himself to discomfort and abasing himself.  In that regard, it takes a strong stomach to engage with this book and I was left feeling disturbed by it.  Despite these aspects, the book is brisk if one sided, being focused on his successes.  There are some very dramatic scenes and interesting information on the cultures of the region at the time.

I must say the little booklet which come with the CDs is invaluable for following the progression of the campaign Lawrence was involved with, especially when working beyond more familiar cities like Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Damascus, in places that are obscure but were strategically important.  Jim Norton is perfect for the narration of this book.  As it is an autobiography he is not obliged to do voices for a range of characters.  However, he handles the numerous Arabic names of people, tribes and places very well.  He speaks in a way that you feel as if it is Lawrence himself addressing you.  In some ways, however, this brings home the pain and suffering even more sharply than if he sounded like someone telling a story from decades past.