Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Books I Listened To/Read In August

 Fiction

'The Grim Reaper' by Bernard Knight

This is the sixth Crowner John book in the series. As with the others, the action picks up soon after the previous book ended. However, Knight does recap a great deal, so even if you have not read any of the other books you can pick up the story very easily. Indeed this might be a good one if you want to read as a stand-alone volume. Knight certainly communicates the nature of society and the law in late 12th Century England very well without it seeming to be a lecture.

This book is focused on Exeter and is actually a serial killer investigation. On those grounds it is probably one of the best of the series. John also gets back with Nesta his Welsh mistress and inn keeper, one of the favourite characters of the books. The suspects are limited by the fact that though the murders are diverse in nature, the corpses are accompanied by written extracts from the Bible.

Given the low level of literacy, even among clergymen, this restricts the likely killer to certain priests in the city. We are shown each of the various men and rather different to the previous books, the reader is effectively encouraged to decide between them. However, the investigation is not straightforward. John's own secretary, Thomas De Peyne is even arrested as a suspect, given his knowledge. As is common there is a lot of friction between John and his brother-in-law the Sheriff of Devon, but there is additional issues with the arrival of the judges of the periodic courts in Exeter. Knight balances the politics of the time very well and this adds an extra dimension to the investigations.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and felt it was one of the strongest so far. However, as you can see from my reviews of the previous ones, you can never tell the quality of the next book in the series. Despite, that I am persisting with working my way through them.

'The Twilight Man' by Michael Moorcock

I bought this book at the same time as 'The Rituals of Infinity' (1971) which I read in July: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2021/05/books-i-listened-toread-in-may.html Like that book it had started life as an episodic story in 'New Worlds' and this combined, revised version was published in 1966. I have read a review which suggests 'The Twilight Man' is atypical of Moorcock's work. However, in contrast I see a lot of seeds of novels and stories which followed. For example a decadent world in which the population had technology to do what they wish and a very 1960s attitude to sex, seems very characteristic of the Dancers at the End of Time novels. The Faustian pact with a flawed, powerful person which has a high cost to the one making the deal, runs right through the Elric books. Even the rotation of Earth having ceased and the Moon or some equivalent welded to the planet, appears again in Moorcock's writing. Thus, I see this novel as laying out many of the themes Moorcock would return over the following two decades and beyond.

As a novel in itself, it is crisp and tight, perhaps unsurprising for something originally produce for a magazine. Moorcock manages to produce a range of different characters quickly but effectively. This enables to see a range of approaches to humanity dealing with the end of the ability to reproduce its species. At times, in this regard, it reminds me a little of  'On the Beach' (1957) by Nevil Shute. However, Moorcock wraps it in his characteristic baroque styling which combines science fiction with fantasy in his unique way. As with the best science fiction, while there is action, the reader is provoked into considering how they would react and behave themselves in this context. Overall if you are looking for a deft, brisk piece of science fiction which delivers a lot for being slender, and, despite the dated sexual politics, asks relevant questions in an age when we have powerful billionaires, our environment is damaged and many societies are facing declining birth rates, then I recommend this book. It is also refreshing to have something that can be read in one sitting, rather than the 800+ page books which are so dominant in science fiction and especially fantasy.

'Altar of Bones' by Philip Carter

Bizarrely 'Philip Carter' (now has added an 'L.' in the middle presumably to avoid confusion with the dietician; cycling and IQ test authors of the same name), it is stated openly, is a pseudonym for an internationally acclaimed author. Who this is in reality I have not been able to find out. A rather ambivalent review quoted on the cover of the edition I read, suggests it might be Harlan Coben and goes on to say, though, that it is better than his other novels, despite their success. I did wonder if it was produced by a female author in the way that J.K. Rowling published books as Robert Galbraith when she moved into producing thrillers; knowing that male readers, especially of action books, too often baulk if they see a female name on the cover. Certainly there are strong female characters in this novel, though ultimately the outcomes for the heroine Zoe Dmitroff ends up with a painfully conventional conclusion; one that I felt was included to please mainstream US readers. At times I do wonder if it was written by the couple, especially given how many characters turn up and the two story threads orbiting the same protagonists.

Whoever wrote this book, published in 2011, it looks as if they were aiming to produce their equivalent of 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003; movie 2006). The sense of a special bloodline passed through women; visits to art galleries and chases around Paris and consulting eccentric specialists certainly parallel incidents in that book. It also had minor parallels with 'Labyrinth' (2005) by Kate Mosse. People are seeking a shrine, the eponymous Altar of Bones, located in Siberia, that while not granting immortality can cure incurable diseases and slow up the ageing process. If that is not enough, there is a spy story about KGB operatives in the USA both assassinating President Kennedy (with a film to prove it) and Marilyn Monroe. The fact that one of the antagonists seeking the film effectively exits the novel shows the extent to which the author had bitten off more than they could chew.

The book is fast moving and if you enjoy Dan Brown's books this will go down well. It is rather bewildering at the start when we are introduced to a string of characters in quite a bit of detail and then they are bumped off; though one reappears alive later. Zoe's mother being a Russian mafia boss does seem to jar with the novel and at least one of the assassins seems like the Terminator and able to cause a string of shootings without provoking any genuine official resistance, no matter which country she is in. The book is not a bad thriller and probably would work for you if seeking an action-mystery book with fewer religious overtones. However, you have to accept stretching of credibility and, conversely, some very conventional outcomes, especially for female characters.

Non-Fiction

'The New Pelican Guide to English Literature 7. From James to Eliot' ed. by Boris Ford

This is the 1988 edition of the 1983 revision of this volume, though some chapters look to have had minimal updating since 1960. I was given it as a gift when I finished a job in the civil service in 1991, largely on the basis that I read a lot of books by Aldous Huxley. While the book covers the period when he was active, he barely gets a mention. After two introductory chapters on Britain at the time and on its literary scene, the book is a series of essays predominantly about one author or a set of authors and on occasion, a theme. The time frame is rather vague but sort of covers the 1890s to the 1950s, though some chapters, especially the one on Irish writing, stretches far beyond that. The writing is at times intense with critiques, especially of poetry, going down to considering individual words used in specific poems.

Despite the use of 23 writers, predominantly literature academics, there is a connecting theme and that is how negatively they view their subjects. D.H. Lawrence is permitted a couple of books deemed worthy but a lot of his stuff is dismissed as too fantastical. Virginia Woolf is entirely condemned as being 'minor'; Bernard Shaw, Graham Greene, C.P. Snow and W.H. Auden are seen as writing, respectively, nothing of quality and/or nothing substantial. I do not know if this was agreed by the various contributors, but in chapter after chapter they seem to be comparing their subject to some unrevealed 'golden' example that all these authors and poets fall short in meeting. Who the authors or the time period that they are thinking of, is not clear.

There is reference to French and Russian writing which generally seems to come off better than anything they read from those writing in English. You can tell the age of many of the essays, presumably brought over from the Pelican Guide version as even complex French text is not translated; it assumed that the reader is highly fluent in the language so can comprehend the very specialised points being made by those quotations.

There are some interesting points made, such as the role of sailors and the sea in Joseph Conrad's work and Ezra Pound effectively contrasting different versions of himself in his work. The chapters on the rural tradition, First World War writing and Irish English-language literature are interesting. I was introduced to the work of Edward Thomas and L.H. Myers with which I was not familiar. However, fitting with the consistent tone of this book, both are presented as, at best, mediocre; hardly encouraging me to read them. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid was also unfamiliar to me but given his extensive use of Scottish dialect which requires a multitude of footnotes to explain, I would hardly count him as being an English-language poet.

Some of the chapters, notably on the 'language of thought', and criticism and the reading public are so wrapped up in themselves and so dismissive that they are a waste of time; in the latter case, it seems the essayist seems to think that since the death of his journal, no effective criticism has been produced. These are irritating expoundings on topics of minimal interest and are more about the essayists wanting to get irritated about something rather than contribute to scholarship.

I can certainly see why this book gets bad reviews online. If you are to be a student on 20th Century English Literature then this book can be guaranteed to quell and interest, let alone passion, you might have in the authors of that time. This book recommends none of them and portrays them instead as failing and rather pathetic inadequate people not in control of their writing and unable to attain, in most cases any baseline standards; the best only achieve it once or twice, no matter how long their careers.

I came away from this book really questioning why it had been produced and continued to be put out in multiple editions. Yes, it might help with being critical of writing of these times, but in most cases a student writing this way, shackled to personal hobbyhorses and dismissing what many would feel were 'major' if not 'great' authors and poets, would be unlikely to score highly for their essay.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Streseland: 1930s Germany with the Nazis Marginalised

 


This is my fourth novel published by Sea Lion Press: www.sealionpress.co.uk and is also available for sale via: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B093QHCXNH/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0 

There have been a lot of alternate history novels and analysis books about the Nazi Regime in Germany being more successful than it proved to be. As early as 1937, Katharine Burdekin published 'Swastika Night' a science fiction novel envisaging a future in which the Nazis dominated the world. Other books followed while the war was on and then alternate history books appeared on this theme once the regime had fallen. What is far less common are books that look at what would have happened if Adolf Hitler had not been appointed Chancellor of Germany on 30th January 1933. While he headed the largest party in the Reichstag, the NSDAP, the Nazis had lost 35 seats at the November 1932 election and there was a sense that they had passed their peak.

We have to bear in mind that while they were elections in Germany, effectively democracy had been suspended in July 1930 with President Hindenburg effectively ruling through emergency decrees. He appointed the Chancellors which made it easy for him to simply put Hitler into the role. Hitler made great use of it, making use of the Reichstag Fire to pass the Enabling Act in March 1933 which began to dismantle the Weimar Republic as a political system. Even then, he required the support of the Z and DNVP parties in the Reichstag to get this legislation through. While he moved quickly to consolidate his position it was not until the death of the President in August 1934 that he could become a true dictator. An uprising let alone resistance by the military could have headed off that step even at this late stage.

As with so much in history, Hitler coming to power was never 'inevitable' in the way that popular accounts of the period often seem to portray it. Yes, Hitler and his party were popular. However, as the period July 1930 - January 1933 had shown, there were other options and in fact the installation of a military dictatorship might have been the more probable outcome.

My novel turns things back a few more steps to see what Germany would have needed not simply for Hitler to be left out of office in January 1933, but to dent support for the Nazi Party at an earlier stage. The party tapped into enduring complaints among the German population, especially around the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, but also the sustained support for anti-Semitism which was present right across Europe to a greater or lesser extent. However, the prime factor which had triggered rising support for the Nazis was mass unemployment. This had come about as a result of the global Depression which had begun as early as 1927 but was heightened by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. By 1930 German unemployment was 2.8-3.2 million with figures being higher in the winter than the summer. It peaked in the winter of 1931/32 at over 6 million and was still at 5.4 million that summer. The figures for 1933 were a little better. Nazi policies such as expelling Jews and left-wingers from posts reduced the official figures for unemployment though it does appear that by 1934 there was also an improvement in the economy, one matched across Europe and elsewhere.

One example of a democratic country combating mass unemployment was the USA. Here President Roosevelt who came to power in March 1933, pursued what was termed the New Deal, a policy of state investment in numerous sectors of the economy in order to stimulate demand and increase employment. The USA had minimal official unemployment in 1929 but this rose to around 15 million by 1931, about 25% of the working age population and does not include those underemployed, e.g. put on short hours. As in Germany it began to decline by 1934, though there was a summer peak once more before continuing to decline to 9.9% by 1941. It is now argued that the New Deal did more to reduce wage inequality. However, it is clear that public works projects did create jobs and it is disingenuous now to argue that Hitler's policies such as building the autobahns reduced unemployment and yet Roosevelt's schemes run by WPA and especially the TVA dam projects somehow provided no benefit. What is clear is that not simply in the dictatorships but in democracies including the USA, UK and France there was an increasing acceptance that greater industrial planning and stimulus put into the economy by governments were an approach which can be used, though often in the face of opposition from bankers and civil servants.

So, what does this have to do with German history. Well, my novel starts from the basis of asking, what if Germany had seen New Deal and/or Keynesian style policies to reduce unemployment before the Nazis came to power? Would reducing German unemployment to 4 million in 1931/32, have taken the sting out of the Nazis' popularity? Of course, the policies would neither have eliminated unemployment, nor the Nazi Party, but it seems feasible using the policies of the style soon to be adopted in the USA, that they could have reduced both. In this situation one can envisage that while Germany would not have suddenly seen democracy reinvigorated, conversely there would not be the fall into the harshest dictatorship seen in the era outside of the USSR ultimately leading to the persecution and extermination of millions of Germans, let alone other nationalities across Europe and North Africa.

To oversee this stimulus policy, there seems to be only one man who could have successfully pulled this off, former Chancellor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Foreign Minister, Gustav Stresemann. Unfortunately for our world he died in October 1929, aged only 51, three weeks to the day before the Wall Street Crash. Why was Stresemann so important? His prime claim to fame was reorganising German banking in 1923/24 to counter the hyperinflation in the wake of the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr which had wrecked the economy. Stresemann pulled the country back from the scenes of worthless money with many transactions being carried out by bartering. He used innovative methods such as the Rentenmark to move to a stable position.

Stresemann was part of all the governments from August 1923 until his death so was well known and trusted in Germany and indeed in Europe and North America. Stresemann importantly was a patriotic, even nationalist liberal, so did pursue policies that were supported by the nationalist DNVP and formed part of the NSDAP's demands and was certainly anti-Communist. However, he formed a 'hard centre' around which democratic parties could coalesce. One can easily envisage that, if he had lived, he would have seen the new economic challenge triggered by the Wall Street Crash that he would have to address to save Germany.

Thus, the point of divergence in my novel is that Gustav Stresemann did not die in 1929 but lived on another 7 years. Following the Wall Street Crash he has been appointed emergency Chancellor as in 1923 and has adopted public works and stimulus schemes, notably the building of the Autostraßen motorways to create jobs and demand. This is not a radical departure as there had already been plans, stimulated by the Italian projects, to build the German motorways which feature in the book. Stresemann's schemes do not 'cure' German unemployment but reduce it notably and this adds to the decline in the Nazis' fortunes anyway. Slowly a greater degree of democracy can be established once more and naturally, on the death of President Paul Hindenburg, Stresemann, the 'saviour' of Germany once more, would be elected.

In this alternative, Stresemann is still not as enduring as the old field marshal he replaced (who had lived until aged 86) and so soon after the book opens, the stroke which killed Stresemann in our world in 1929, hits seven years later. Still, the stability he has provided for Germany and the projects he has initiated have tided the country over into a period when across the World things were improving, yet without Germany fixed on a course to war. As noted above Stresemann was patriotic and disapproved of the Treaty of Versailles and so these trends continue in his Germany, this 'Streseland', but he had learnt in the early 1920s that steady negotiation achieved much more in terms of revision than precipitate threats.

So with Germany having stepped back from the brink and still facing challenges but not falling to dictatorship, what of the Nazis? Hitler and his followers believed they were destined to come to power. Hitler had moved from his 1923 assumption that he could seize control to seeing it coming through the ballot box. In our world while he did not fully achieve this, he did enough to get him simply appointed Chancellor. With Chancellor and then President Stresemann, instead, this step would have been denied to him and indeed the Nazis' popularity may have continued to decline. Still they were a dogged political movement with a strong paramilitary wing, the SA. This enduring threat to the peace of Germany forms the core of my novel.

We follow the adventures of Gotthard Nachtigall an undercover agent employed by the RfV an internal security body, modelled on the British MI5, established by Stresemann in 1930 to combat those seeking those trying to overthrow his government. Nachtigall is sent to infiltrate the Nazis and especially their front organisation which conceals their enduring paramilitaries. While it is increasingly clear that Hitler is planning something big, it remains unclear what it is and what the authorities can do to combat it. In such a risky deception, Nachtigall has to think fast and act ruthlessly to survive in order to remain best placed to see off Hitler's threat.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Books I Read In July

 Fiction

'The Demon Within' by Byron Nadgie

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I often do not enjoy the books I read. However, this must be the worst book I have read in many years. One major problem is that it reads like a first draft of someone who has not written fiction before. Even online reviews note there are 'editing issues' with the book. I have noted how even published books these days seem to let errors through and picked up a number with 'Four Days in June' (2006): http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2020/10/books-i-readlistened-to-in-october.html?m=0  However, this book is riddled with errors that should have been addressed at some stage by the author or the publishing house.

There are numerous, very long sentences sometimes lasting an entire paragraph. They are strung together with commas where in fact there should be a new sentence. Reading the book aloud shows you just how chaotic such writing becomes. There is also the beginners' error of jumping point of view in the narrative very abruptly. From one paragraph to the next you can be switched from seeing through one character's eyes to seeing in an instant through those of the person they are talking to. We see a lot of the characters' thoughts, that is fine. However, Nadgie seems uncertain how to handle these. He puts them in italics but then often mixes long sentences in among the narrative, jumping back and forth between the forms.

Another problem is he often ends a scene outlining what the characters have put in place or triggered for days, sometimes even years into the future. This seems a bit foolish given this is supposed to be the first book in a series. It seems as if Nadgie is so desperate to reveal what he has planned that he cannot hold back. His narrator is not simply omniscient but out of time. Nadgie seems to have missed that this reduces the dynamic of the narrative and may also cause him problems in writing subsequent books in the series.

One jarring problem is simply the number of grammar errors and sound-alike mix ups. There are repeated areas of "impenetrable fog" that characters actually walk through and one character actually is said to have "silently thought" presumably as opposed to the usual loud form of thinking. I did wonder if  Nadgie had dictated the book to someone and had not checked the actual spelling their transcriber used. I know it is common in life these days to see an apostrophe used for a plain plural and yet no apostrophe used where it should be for a possessive. However, Nadgie does this repeatedly (though not even consistently) throughout the books. We get "uncle's", "ninja's", "magician's", "brother's", "pagoda's", "katana's" and "captains'" as plurals, yet also get "wolfs", "skins surface", "the lands life", "the Kings ear", "cities", "ambassadors" and "families" masquerading as possessives. Is it the case that our language has mutated so far in this contrary direction that these things are now not actually considered to be mistakes but the the correct versions?

In terms of sound-alike errors we see "tenants" when "tenets" is meant; many characters have "spurned" on their horses rather than "spurred". There is the mix-up of accept/except, bought/brought, hyperthermia/hypothermia - so actually reversing what is intended; never/nether: insure/ensure; patients/patience captor/captive - again the wrong word used reverses the meaning; stagnate/stagnant; blazoned/blazed; corp/corps; puss/pus; anti-chambers/antechambers and tare/tear. Often he makes the wrong choice between two legitimate words: sessions/seasons; exerts/excerpts; sort/sought; gunnels/gunwales - gunnels are a fish, not a part of a boat; aligned/lined; lopped/loped; fair/fare; preying/prying; choose/chose; chaff/chafe, poised/posed; gleam/glean and "ultraviolent" rather than "ultraviolet" and so on. There is a mix-up of dammed/damned leading to even a Legion of the Dammed. This all suggests a real lack of care; not even running a grammar checker over the text, let alone having it edited. These are just some of the examples, I could spend a lot longer listing all such mistakes.

This is a fantasy novel with the typical kind of medieval technology even if much of it is Japanese rather than Western European. It is not a post-apocalyptic model, yet Nadgie seems unable to sift out terms that none of the characters could even conceive. They speak of "intel", they "fire" arrows from "firing positions". "Picket fences" are set up rather than pickets or piquets, giving a comic impression of lots of American white-painted garden fences everywhere. There is reference to "corrugated iron", a "minefield", an "atomic cloud", a "net of lasers", something being "bomb proof" and something else "at critical mass". These are not only anachronistic aspects, in a world without such technology how can a character even have a concept of what an atomic cloud would be let alone a net of lasers? 

There are typical GCSE English level errors like a character who "might of" done something rather than "might have" and there are simply passages that have not been read over so characters put a candle in "a carved niche that the shepherds had carved" and "find somewhere to find food"; others "had set false positions, fires had been set". As for "excite their will" I could not work out what was intended, perhaps "exercise". Do not let anyone tell you that published books are better quality than self-published ones, certainly by 2017 when this book was published (costing £10.99 new), it was not the case.

Right, as to the story, in some ways it is a real shame that the book is weighed down with so many teenaged grammar and creative writing errors. The concept of a fantasy world in which magic is a 'river' which individuals can tap into but has immense mental and physical side effects is fresh. The character of Mauread who is one of the main ones in the book, having to flee when her magician father is caught up with, and trying to save her son who may, like her be tainted with magic, is dramatic and engaging. There are epic scenes of battling both the elements and an assortment of demons as well as the magic itself.

The other thread of intrigues in a very Japanese culture, is confused and far less engaging. We see too much of all sides of the different conspiracies and too many of the characters spend ages giving us 'info dumps' in their thoughts. One thing that fantasy writers (and indeed those creating role-playing game scenarios) are advised from the start is never to say 'oh, that's Japanese/Indian/Russian/English culture' in a fantasy setting. In another world it cannot be those things as they are unique to Earth. You can have cultures which have similar traits but to shift things wholesale into what is supposed to be a different world just looks weak. While Nadgie names different people and places, he makes use of ninjas, called "ninjas"; he does admittedly have more than one Shogun but they are all termed "Shoguns";  the samurai are called "samurai" and they wield "katanas" and "wakizashis" (in fact "katana's" and "wakizashi's"), there are ninja throwing shuriken ("ninja's" throwing "shuriken's"), just as they would in our medieval Japan. There is even the Shinto religion in this world. I could accept if somehow there was a portal to Earth and people had brought across these things to this other world, but there is no sign of that. The author seems to have wanted to write a samurai drama and rather than write that novel too, simply plonked it into this one.

Nadgie's strength is in describing places and conditions. There are good scenes in a flooded mountain river and when soldiers go through cursed graveyards. However, these stand out among text which you often feel the author is not in control of. I know some advisors on writing fantasy tell beginning authors to read as much fantasy fiction as they can. I do think that is unnecessary, but in Nadgie's case it does seem as if he needs to read some; or in fact just read decent books written in English and think about how they are written, how things are spelt, grammar, etc. What is galling is that I know a lot of excellent fantasy authors producing top quality books and yet they struggle to get agents, let alone publishers and yet this book which a GCSE teacher marking it would not pass, somehow is published and on sale at £10.99. I do see that the publishers are one that offer a partnership deal which means that some authors cover costs themselves. However, it does say they employ proofreaders and editors, so it is rather surprising that they let this book through without serious amendment. There is a decent novel in here but it is lost among all the writing flaws and a firm editor could have really brought it out.

'XPD' by Len Deighton

This was the first fiction book by Len Deighton, aside from 'SS-GB' (1978), that I have read. It was published in 1981 and is set in 1979 with the Thatcher government coming to power. I know Deighton is renowned for his lean, taut spy thrillers but I am not surprised that this one is not included among his best. Far too much is going on. Deighton seemed keen to have a story involving Hollywood so has film makers producing a movie about an incident in the closing days of the Second World War about various valuables sent to a Thuringian salt mine. These were looted by US servicemen who used the funds to set up a bank. Among the documents in the haul is one detailing a meeting in May 1940 between Churchill and Hitler in which the former tried to bribe the German leader not to continue his advance into France.

It is a typical set-up of action novels of the period. Not only is there Nazi gold, but there is a group trying to establish the Fourth Reich. Deighton's 'hero' is a British agent concerned to get the documents about the Churchill-Hitler meeting. However, there are also Soviet agents involved too. There is simply so much deception and various groups involved that you get very bored. There are quick jaunts between the USA and Switzerland even when one of the characters has been harmed in a serious car crash. The whole book is very laboured. It feels that Deighton felt compelled/was compelled to write a trendy thriller for the era. Saying that the clothing which many of the characters wear is incredibly ostentatious and seems more suited to what characters in a 'blaxploitation' movie of the early 1970s would wear. I can understand why this is not a well known one of Deighton's book. It is over-egged with far too many aspects and ultimately comes over as not taut, but laboured.

Non-Fiction

'Harold Wilson' by Ben Pimlott

I met Pimlott in the late 1990s a few years after this book was published in 1992. It is immensely detailed, covering 811 pages including endnotes and references. At times you feel he digs too deep into not only Wilson himself but associated people. We read all about his ancestors and those of his wife Gladys/Mary. As Mary she became a successful poet, but really this is not a biography of her, so I do not know why her poems are featured. At times, Pimlott gives a blow-by-blow account of rows within the Labour Party, making sure to include as many different viewpoints as possible. This does highlight the benefit of writing a biography when not only is the person themselves alive, Wilson did not die until 1995, but a lot of those they interacted with are and in a fit state to be interviewed. A lot of them have also produced memoirs, autobiographies or have biographies too. However, such detail does not really add much to our understanding of Wilson the man.

I think Pimlott could have reduced the toing and froing of these incidents and dug more into why Wilson was seen in such contradictory ways depending on the people viewing him. Throughout the book you get these conflicting views of him as a loner and distant but a man with a lot of friends and amiable too. He is portrayed as being highly efficient and diplomatic but also as incompetent and divisive. He is shown as loyal but also as opportunistic; as idealistic but also highly pragmatic. It is clear that Wilson suffered from people imprinting on him rather than them often actually seeing the real man. Consistently because he was 'ordinary', though very capable and well educated, people seem to have insisted that there could not be the complexity to him that was actually the case.

Perhaps Wilson's greatest achievement was in keeping the Labour Party together despite the vicious internecine conflicts down the decades. In part you do come away wondering what the party could have achieved, especially when in government if he spent some less energy on fighting with itself, let alone with the unions. Wilson is shown as being very stubborn in not removing those who were doing harm. This could be of great detriment. Why George Brown was allowed to remain in significant posts for as long as he was, with all the harm he caused, is a mystery unless seen in the light of Wilson's dogmatic 'loyalty' to colleagues and the fact that his prime concern too often was balancing the various elements of the Labour Party rather than necessarily doing what was right for it or the country.

Still, Pimlott makes clear that even a united Labour government at any stage, could have achieved very little. Wilson had matured as a politician in the wartime and immediate post-war period when for a short time governments could actually get things done. However, by 1964, let alone by 1966 and 1974, they were largely powerless in the face especially of big business, increasingly in the form of multi-nationals and big finance. Very little of the Wilson governments' objectives were ever achieved, much to the detriment of the British economy. Pimlott shows that only areas in which big business was largely disinterested, such as personal behaviour, e.g. divorce and homosexuality and the expansion of higher education, including the Open University, were Wilson and his ministers able to make any headway.

Internationally, Wilson was like all the post-war prime ministers, perhaps even into the 1980s, in not really truly accepting the lessons of 1947, let alone 1956. Thus, while Wilson sought an international role and, as with most other things, did so assiduously, Pimlott shows how little power Britain actually had. One prime example over Rhodesia, a situation in which despite all his efforts, Wilson was able to achieve nothing. Similarly though he worked hard to develop channels of communication with the USSR and with Israel he was unable to alter the Cold War or Middle East situations and in fact such contacts aroused suspicions of him among the UK and US security services. Despite the highly restricted environment in which he was operating, both domestically and internationally, Pimlott never seems to criticise strongly Wilson's attempts to achieve something. Perhaps only in 1975/76 did he realise how he could make no headway that ran contrary to the wishes of the general right-wing context in which British governments are compelled to work.

Pimlott does a very good, sober analysis of all the conspiracies around Wilson, evidence for which has only grown as the years have passed. While dampening down outrageous claims, he shows that Wilson, despite his personal interest in the 'secret world' and his use of MI5 briefings was the victim of at least a faction within that body which sought to undermine him or even bring him down. The repeated burglaries of his and colleagues' homes and offices alone should be convincing. Wilson did not help matters by remaining loyal to 'dodgy' friends though their dubious standing was usually of a financial rather than traitorous nature. The fact that Wilson was able to endure and achieve something, despite not only the almost constant fighting in his own party but also efforts by some British and American intelligence officers to discredit him, re-emphasises the strength of the man. You certainly come away from this book feeling that while he did make mistakes and certainly over-estimated the ability of any non-right-wing UK government to achieve anything, that he was a 'battler' and that Britain would have been in far more grave situations than even it faced during his period if he had not been.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Books I Listened To/Read In June

 Fiction

'Wastelands. Stories of the Apocalypse' edited by John Joseph Adams

This is an anthology of short stories written by US science fiction authors, 1973-2008 covering post-apocalyptic settings, it seems just set in the current borders of the USA. The quality varies considerably. 'Salvage' by Orson Scott Card is a dull piece of Mormon propaganda. Better ones include 'The End of the Whole Mess' by Stephen King, one of a number of stories which looks at ways to reduce violence by humans but that go wrong triggering an apocalypse. In contrast, 'Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers' by John Langan is better than the title suggests and is far more action-filled than King's story. Others with that kind of drive include  'How We Got into Town and Out Again' by Jonathan Lethem which is a well realised post-apocalyptic setting of the standard kind but with a nice cyberpunk element added. Neal Barrett Jr.'s 'Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus' has a similar vibe, but works well and shows how when so many characters are focused on the big themes of apocalypse, personal revenge remains. Among stories which seek to have that effect, 'The Last of the O Forms' by James Van Pelt is actually chilling, because the apocalypse is biological rather than say, a nuclear war. It also hooks back into traditional US behaviour in seeing a freak show of mutants travelling around the country and unlike a number of the short stories in this collection, rather than peter out, it has a sensible conclusion.

'Artie's Angels' by Catherine Wells, has a dieselpunk feel to it, though emphasises the use of bicycles. It works well as a story of how people could work post-apocalypse without entirely descending into a neo-feudal society. 'A Song Before Sunset' by David Grigg is a traditional one of someone seeking to sustain or revive culture when society has crumbled. It does not really say anything new, but back in 1976 when it was published it was probably fresh enough.

'Killers' by Carol Emshwiller could almost be contemporary rather than post-apocalyptic. It sees US fighting in the Middle East having an impact in terms of terrorism, but also returning veterans, and could have been about a man returning from Vietnam as much as from any future war. For all that, though, it works reasonably well. 'Inertia' by Nancy Kress is less disrupted society, focused on a ghetto for people with a particular disfiguring disease, though it is the violent society outside which seems to face the greater challenge. This is well handled. Similar is 'Speech Sounds' by Octavia E. Butler, about the loss of various human abilities such as speech, as a result of some biological catastrophe and people picking their way through while concealing the abilities they have retained as these are no longer the norm. It reminds me of a short story, I think by Ursula Le Guin in which most people are deaf and they see a boy who can hear as having unnatural abilities that need to be ceased. 

'Also-rans' include 'Never Despair' by Jack McDevitt which goes nowhere and seems to expect us to be excited by the appearance of a hologram of Winston Churchill. Maybe that excites US readers more than British ones. 'When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth' by Cory Doctorow is as thrilling as the title suggests. Americans seem to love stories of clerical staff somehow battling tirelessly to prop up the capitalist status quo and this one reminded me very much of accounts of those men dealing with the Wall Street Crash with about the same level of success. 'Mute' by Gene Wolfe and 'Bread and Bombs' by M. Rickert, are almost like fables and have a mid-20th Century feel that could be associated with the Second World War rather than the future.

I was disappointed that in 'The People of Sand and Slag', Paolo Bacigalupi did not range further in his location, but at least he got off mainland USA; his is a more standard science fiction story. 'Dark, Dark were the Tunnels' by George R.R. Martin now better known for fantasy is also in this kind of category and reminded me of  'When the New Zealander Comes' (2011). Another more straight science fiction story, though with typical American obsession with the spiritual is 'Judgment [sic] Passed' by Jerry Oliton in which people returning from a space mission find everyone else on Earth has been taken off to the afterlife. Fortunately it deals more with how these remainers cope in the deserted world.

'And the Deep Blue Sea' by Elizabeth Bear starts off as a decent story of a courier in a post-apocalyptic California/Nevada, but is spoilt when it introduces the Devil who can teleport the protagonist to a range of times and places. I get the idea that there have been a lot of local apocalypses, but it wrecks the dynamic of the story about dealing with a specific one and whether the heroine can actually win through. 'The End of the World as We Know It' is a rather weak satire on the whole post-apocalyptic genre. It is interesting enough but would have been better as an essay than attempting to be a story.

Overall I came away from this book feeling rather riled given the inability of some many of the authors to look beyond very narrow assumptions. Some I expected better from. I know to steer clear of Card's work. However, a number of the authors who produced good stuff, despite its restrictions, are ones I would now pick up if I see them, which I would not have done if I had not read this collection. I do think Americans would find this collection far more palatable than English-language readers from other countries.

'Let the Old Dreams Die' by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I often see people asking on social media whether anyone buys short stories these days. Then ironically I find that in a single month I am reading two short story collections simply edited/written by men named 'John', so I do think that short stories have a place and are doing pretty well in these times. While I had seen the Swedish version of 'Låt den rätte komma in' (2008; from the 2004 novel of the same name) ['Let the Right One In'] though not the 2010 English language remake, I had not realised Lindqvist was primarily about horror, so had come to this collection as I might to one by Julian Barnes, expecting a range of quirky, contemporary-set stories. 

There is some Swedish normality in the stories, such a urban blocks of flats and summer holiday homes by the water, and they are magic realism rather than full-on 'horror'.  Various creatures turn up, that are not really traditional ones. The type of vampires seen in  'Låt den rätte komma in' reappear, but there is tentacled monster penetrating the sewers; another that lures people to their death by showing them what they desire; an irate zombie; otherworldly people who sort of fill in the gaps in our world; the embodiment of death by drowning and the creatures of the movie 'Gräns' (2018) ['Border'] which features in the short story of the same name in this collection. The longest story, 'The Final Processing' about a young couple dealing with people who have been re-lifed could easily be a movie.

What is interesting though is the responses of the characters to their unnatural threats is down-to-Earth, almost mundane rather than high-powered action. There is a quietness in them that I guess helps the reader feel a greater affinity with them than they might with action heroes. In addition, the approach works well in making you think what you or people you know would do in such a situation. Even if you do not live in a Swedish context, there is sufficient overlap with other examples of Western society to allow such consideration without difficulty. Not all of the characters are able to cope and some end up with horrendous fates, so this affinity means those outcomes hit home harder. While this was certainly not the book I had expected when I bought it, I would not say I enjoyed it, but I certainly felt interested by it and engaged with it.

'The Last Coyote' by Michael Connelly

This is the fourth book in the Harry Bosch sequence and for the entirety of it, Bosch is suspended from the police for assaulting his boss. He decides to investigate the murder of his mother, a prostitute, in 1961, some 34 years before the novel is set. The novel reminded me very much of the movie 'Slam Dance' (1987) not simply for the Hollywood setting but because of the bisection between 'call girls' and influential people, and though I did not realise it to the end, genuine affection creeping into sexual transactions. Bosch's hard boiled manner at times can get tiring, but genuinely this flows along pretty well, with the protagonist compelled to scam his way into getting the information he needs and struggling to oppose men who while old remain powerful. There is a lot of introspection not simply because of Bosch's personal connection to the case and his reassessment of his mother's life and motives but because of the counselling he is receiving for his violence towards his superior. However, when Bosch's actions result in the death of people, I did not feel convinced by his guilt over his actions. Perhaps his world weariness sustained across the novels, makes that hard to now sell to the readers. Overall, this works well as a standalone novel. The gathering together of the various elements of evidence not just in Los Angeles but also Florida and Nevada works well. The twist at the end might now seem almost a hackneyed one but works in the context and probably when this was written 26 years ago seemed fresher. However, the abrupt departure of Bosch's girlfriend of the previous two books before this one begins and the appearance so quickly of a replacement, though she is very important to the plot, do feel like that, i.e. plot devices, rather than genuine developments.

Non-Fiction

'Chronicles of Dissent' by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian

This is a collection of interviews of US linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky conducted by David Barsamian, 1984-91. He speaks a lot about US politics and especially foreign policy. His commentary on control of the media and how atrocities committed by the USA's friends are passed over while nationalist behaviour by those deemed as 'other' are portrayed as horrific. He shows how attitudes, e.g. to the Hussein regime in Iraq and the Noriega regime in Panama can change in a matter of days and countries that were receiving military aid are abruptly attacked. Much of his commentary on these things feels as if it could have been written during the Trump administration, especially in terms of US use of Israel and the portrayal of existential threats, rather than 30 years earlier, which highlights how little things have changed in the USA. While Chomsky nails these aspects he keeps on saying the same things again and again. Presented this way with the transcripts of interviews, you soon get tired. Yes, he highlights important things such as how the USA effectively primarily attacked the people of South Vietnam in US-Vietnam War and the lack of attention that has been paid to massacres in East Timor by Indonesia. However, when you read these things for the third or fourth time, you begin to get riled.

Chomsky is very US focused. He says nothing about China and little about Russia. His views of Europe are scant, Britain and France only get touched on at the time of the First Gulf War. He also seems to subscribe to the view that all terrorism is state-directed. He gives good examples of this, but he is dismissive of 'retail' terrorism which the USA had not experienced at the time, so neglects the terrorism of the IRA, ETA, RAF, Red Brigades, etc. as if it never existed. It does seem common even among US commentators who are that bit more alert to developments in the world to think terrorism was not really 'discovered' until the September 2001 attacks in the USA and unfortunately Chomsky falls into this trap.

Overall Chomsky says interesting things about US behaviour in the world and the problems it causes. His views remain relevant today as the methods he outlines have been applied again and again and reached a height during the Trump years. However, the nature of this book makes it really repetitive and once you have read the first few interviews, you have largely got his message and those that follow just say it again and again.

Audio Books - Fiction

'Dissolution' by C.J. Sansom; radio play

I was so annoyed by Sansom's novel, Dominion (2012): http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-books-i-read-in-september.html that I had stayed away from all of his books until I came across both audio books and radio plays on CD of his Shardlake books, detective stories set in the reign of King Henry VIII. These are much better than his alternate history. This is the first in the series, though the character Matthew Shardlake, a commissioner for Thomas Cromwell and his assistant come fully formed with back stories which are revealed as the tale continues. Most of the story takes place at the fictional Scarnsea Abbey on the southern coast of England which is on the verge of being dissolved along with all monasteries across the country, when a King's commissioner is murdered there. Shardlake is sent to investigate. There are more than a few parallels to 'The Name of the Rose' (1980) not least with the range of eccentric monks and their various moral failings. However, it is well handled and provides good details on the developments in the country at the time without providing a series of history lectures. He really communicates how Henrician rule at this time was like being under a one-party state of the 20th Century.  Some readers complain about the absence of female characters, but it is a monastery and Sansom actually works to bring more women in to the story than some might have done. There are some unexpected twists most notably with the fate of Shardlake's assistant.

With the very busy Jason Watkins as Shardlake in the lead and a string of familiar voices, this production is of the high quality you would expect from a BBC radio drama with all the various sound effects to give a real feel to the time and place. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have another lined up to listen to.

'Octopussy and The Living Daylights (and Other Stories)' by Ian Fleming; read by Tom Hiddleston and Lucy Fleming

This is the final James Bond book by Ian Fleming, well, in fact an anthology of various short stories. In many ways as seen with 'For Your Eyes Only' (1960), Fleming is better at short stories than sometimes the longer novels. This collection holds four. 'Octopussy' is seen from the perspective of a retired British army major who looted Nazi gold bars at the end of the Second World War and is now living in Jamaica. It allows Fleming to indulge in his knowledge of Jamaica, sea life and central Europe during and just after the Second World War. Bond only appears as the man sent to arrest the protagonist and carry out personal revenge. 'The Living Daylights' is also well handled. It is set at a very precise time and place, i.e. Berlin in 1960 before the Berlin Wall went up the following year. A British agent has to get from the Soviet Zone of the city into the British Zone and Bond is sent to take out the assassin who has been assigned to kill the escaping man. Again, though a very different setting, Fleming is great at the context not just of this frontier area but West Berlin at the time and the people in it. 'Property of a Lady' is a simple short story about using auctioning of a Faberge egg to trace a KGB operative, but it is interesting to see the workings of an auction house in the early 1960s. The final story, read by Lucy Fleming, Ian Fleming's niece, '007 in New York' only references the actual story at the end. Instead it is a usual list of complaints about all the failings in the USA at the time, a country Fleming clearly disapproved of in so many ways.

Hiddleston and Fleming both do the voices pretty well for the various characters and communicate the intensity which can be found in what are generally straight forward stories. Aside from '007 in New York' they show Ian Fleming's writing at its best. Given the cultural impact of the James Bond stories, even today, I am glad I have now listened to them all, and aside perhaps from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' (1963) which the movie kept very close to, to see how much more jaded and at times bitter the writing is. Bond is often far from being a superhero and his decay across the novels makes them somehow more human and closer to the spy novels of Len Deighton than is popularly recognised. It is also clear that the movies thoroughly reduced the roles of important female characters from the novels, probably most, Gala Brand from 'Moonraker' (1955) to accessories for so long. Bond might be a man of his time in terms of misogyny but Fleming seems to diverge from that character in how he portrays the women.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Books I Listened To/Read in May

 Fiction

'The Rituals of Infinity' by Michael Moorcock

This was a Moorcock novel that I had not encountered before. It was first serialised in the 'New Worlds' magazine, 1965-6 before being released as a novel in 1971. I do miss the days of the slim science fiction novels. My edition of this book is only 192 pages long. There is something crisp and to the point of this kind of novel which seems absent these days. The central concept of the novel is that the hero Professor Faustaff is part of a team travelling between a number of alternative Earths that have been created and discovered but are being rather erratically destroyed. Yet another Earth appears and people from other versions are drawn there to re-enact various scenes from Earth's history, the rituals of the title. Fighting back against the demolitions mutates the planets further. For a short novel it covers the idea quickly and yet manages to get in ambivalent characters and complex twists before the true antagonists are revealed. Faustaff is a robust character, unlike many of those Moorcock subsequently wrote. The 1960s background is apparent in that sex is never far from anyone's minds and a young woman simply drops into having sex with Faustaff and waits around while he adventures so they can have more. Though very much of its time, it does show the inventiveness of Moorcock at a time before some of his writing became so esoteric as to easily lose readers.

'Rome. The Emperor's Spy' by M.C. [Manda] Scott

Manda Scott is a very accessible author and she wrote a nice email in response to one I sent her via her website. I was particularly interested in the short story which is included at the end of this novel, 'The Roman in Britain' which is a 'what if?' story about Boudica being victorious and driving the Romans out of Britain, a topic which featured in my chapter, 'From these Shores' in my 'what if?' anthology 'Route Diverted: What If? Stories of the British' (2015). It was great to see someone who has written a lot on the Roman period tackle this topic.

This is the first book in the second tetralogy from Scott, bringing over characters from her successful Boudica tetralogy, 2003-2006. She has also written spy fiction and this book combines the two genres. It is around a team of chariot racers and their support staff in the reign of Emperor Nero leading up to the Great Fire of Rome in 64. This provides the context for seeking out a prophesy which says that if Rome and Jerusalem are burnt then there will be the Second Coming. A heavily scarred and crippled spy, Sebastos Pantera accompanies the team from their starting point near what is modern-day Cherbourg in northern France to a training camp in Alexandria, Egypt and on to Rome itself. This is a novel which is unafraid to feature a number of LGB characters, in line with the cultures of the time.

One challenge of the book is the multiple viewpoints as Scott has brought in Math, a male prostitute and trainee charioteer, son of a British warrior, 'Ajax' the prime charioteer of the team concealing a past in the Middle East and his sometime lover, healer, Hannah alert not just to the Sibylline Oracles but also the factions forming early Christianity. This can make it complex for the reader and there are some scenes such as a fire at the town in France and later during the torture by the prime antagonist when Scott goes through what is happening a number of times from different perspectives. The fragmentation between the three sites, though adding background interest, also complicates and lengthens the novel, reducing some of its dynamism.

I did find the discussion of just two of the different factions that followed in the wake of Jesus (or indeed Judas as he may have been named) interesting. It seems ironic this was the third book in two months I had read/listened to which looked at how people did not believe Jesus was divine until much later, centuries after his death. The portrayal by modern-day Christians of the Bible being written during or immediately after Jesus's lifetime and that there is a simple path from the early churches to the modern one, is mistaken. In an essay at the end, Scott highlights that there were perhaps 30 factions that might have become the Christian Church and the one led by St. Peter easily might not have won out.

The conspiracy, the spying elements, the races and fighting against the final fire, are the highlights of the book and where Scott shows her ability with the tension and action. She certainly grounds her novel in detailed research but sensibly uses that as rich colouring while saving the historical debate to the essay at the end. Overall this is not a bad book. If the multiple viewpoints on particular incidents is reduced in subsequent books then I would be happy to read more in the series. I certainly welcome that someone has brought the spy novel to a very different era to the Cold War.

'The Tinner's Corpse' by Bernard Knight

I welcomed the fact that this novel eschewed the action-adventure stuff of the previous two. Instead it focuses on one and then a second quite mundane murders among the tin panning industry of Dartmoor. Knight has done a lot of research and shows how the industry at the time outstripped that of Cornwall and was the second most profitable export from England. Consequently, tinners were permitted their own kind of parliament and bar for crimes of physical harm, had their own laws and prison. Knight also moves on with his protagonist, Sir John De Wolfe's life. A second coroner is appointed to North Devon and De Wolfe's relationship with his tavern landlady mistress comes to an end. There is a lot of trekking around Dartmoor but this is handled without it being tedious and giving a real feel for the locales which differ so much from Exeter where De Wolfe is based and its surrounding countryside.

The book lines up a number of suspects and has the classic situation of a contested will with various precepts. However, just as you feel you are building to a satisfying conclusion, the book stops. I have always been supportive of crime stories in which the criminal is not brought to justice and it is to be expected with stories set in the 12th Century when power and status meant much more than actual guilt and torture was habitually used in investigations. However, it seems in this case that Knight reached a certain page (330 in my edition) and was told to stop. There are no arrests, no resolution, not even De Wolfe being certain who the guilty individual(s) was/were. It just crashes to an end. I do not know if Knight finishes off the story in a subsequent novel or we simply have to put up with this. After his need for action to round off the previous two novels, it seems he was at a loss as to how to end this one. However, whatever the cause, whether he had no idea how to end it or publishers told him to cease, this makes it probably the most disappointing of the series. As I have a number of the subsequent books, I can only hope he handled them better or I will have to abandon reading them.

Non-Fiction

'A History of Latin America' by George Pendle

This book was first published in 1963 but was updated to 1976, the year before Pendle's death. It continued to be reprinted and my edition is from 1987. Thus, you should not expect to find any recent history of the countries covered. However, this is a good introduction to the region and Pendle is excellent in showing how long-term factors such as the geography, the various ethnicities, the relationship with Europe, the beliefs and the economic factors have shaped the diverse countries in the region throughout the centuries right into the 20th Century. He manages to summarise events from the civilisations in place before Europeans arrived, the conquistadors, the break away from the colonial countries, the various wars and revolutions then caudillo regimes very well. This is a quick way to get an engaging description of the various countries set in context, perhaps as a basis for reading newer works. I found it easy to read and full of details of which I had been ignorant before, despite having even studied Latin American history for a period in the 1980s when I bought this book.

Audio Books - Fiction

'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes I' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; read by David Timson

This is one of the Naxos audio book versions of the stories. This volume contains 'The Speckled Band', 'The Adventure of the Copper Beeches', 'The Stock-Broker’s Clerk' and 'The Red-Headed League'. These stories effectively break into two pairs with the first two about young women put under pressure by nefarious men and the second two about honest urban workers tricked for the purposes of a crime. Hearing them in this collection really highlighted to me what Conan Doyle did well in detailing late Victorian society. Here we see women mixed up in legal and inheritance situations as the result of deaths and remarriage. The step-family is far from being a late 20th Century invention too many people pretend.

In addition, there is a sense of vulnerability, that many in an age without social welfare were at the mercy of relatives and employers. Conan Doyle does seem to chide, in turn the stock-broker's clerk and the pawn broker, for not being more suspicious of overly well-paid positions they are offered; double pay for a job is a trait in a number of the Holmes stories. However, he also shows that at a time without even labour exchanges, let alone Jobseeker's Allowance, how people had to accept what was offered, no matter how dubious, or face penury. Thus, though I was familiar with the stories, having them this way, I found something more in them. Timson is excellent with the range of voices covered, both male and female, but especially Holmes and really brings to life the details of the text. Particularly memorable was a line from 'The Red-Headed League': 'He is as brave as bulldog and as tenacious as a lobster'!

Friday, 30 April 2021

Books I Listened To/Read In April

Non-Fiction

'The Awful Secret' by Bernard Knight

This is the fourth book in the Crowner John series set a few months after the melodramatic trial by tournament that ended 'Crowner's Quest' (1999). Sir John De Wolfe has largely recovered from the broken leg he received at the tournament and is back investigating. There are two main stories, one about the murder of a man washed up on the northern shore of Devon and then him being pressured to help a former Templar he knew in Palestine, who himself is murdered. One might expect that whenever Templars are mentioned these days there will also be something about the Holy Grail and the descendants of Jesus Christ. 

Though this book was published in 2000, ahead of 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003) it shows people holding the same views on Jesus's bloodline as in that book. However, unlike in most books of this kind, De Wolfe being a good Catholic of the late 12th Century sees the entire idea as blasphemous. This brings in interesting tensions as to how far a man will go to aid old army comrades, ones he did not know particularly well. While he assists the first former templar, even concealing him at his family's home, he feels obliged to aid the second, despite ultimately despising the line that he preaches. In many ways, De Wolfe is tricked and this makes him seem that much more human than all the laboured philandering which fill so much of these books. There is tension as he tries to help the second templar get away from Dorset.

There is an additional sub-plot with an invasion of the island of Lundy held by pirates though promised to the Templars and in subduing another village on the mainland coast indulging in piracy. These provide action scenes that Knight seems to have felt were necessary now in each of these books. Some modern commentators feel the secret is 'dull' though I think that is because some twenty years on these speculations about Jesus are very well known and not as surprising as was the case even back in 2000. I feel, though, that despite some flaws, this is a good book. De Wolfe does blunder and holds to attitudes which are appropriate for his time and background, rather than being a sudden convert to some radical new belief. I still have quite a few of these books to read. I hope Knight kept to the more realistic approach rather than making his protagonist an action hero and also toning down the unnecessarily high number of sexual encounters.

'City of Glass' by Cassandra Clare

While there are further two books after this one in Clare's Mortal Instruments series, this one does feel like the closing of a trilogy. It comes to a big climax with the antagonist, Valentine and a lot seems to resolved. Starting in New York like the previous two books, this one soon moves to the fantastical world of Idris (capital Alicante, but not the Alicante of our world) which has a kind of Victorian bucolic setting as if envisaged by William Morris. All the main characters from the previous books end up there. Given this context it does feel, even more than the previous two books, as a branching-off from the Harry Potter series. The various debates among the shadowhunters of Idris are reminiscent of the conflicting  views around dealing with Lord Voldemort. Again it is teenagers who settle the situation and also work to bring an alliance between the shadowhunters and the 'downworlders', i.e. vampires, werewolves and fairies. There is the same kind of mixture of political debates and teenage relationship crises.

I have commented how unsettling the underage sex (the main character is 14, rather than 18 as shown in the television series) and the incestuous thoughts between a brother and sister, which though, fortunately, is revealed to untrue. I do not know why Clare felt a need to include these elements. The incest in this book is part of a very well done subterfuge by one character, but it was unnecessary and I wonder why the publishers accepted it for a book aimed at the 'young adult' audience. There is some decent writing in this book and aspects which stand above the rather derivative ones. However, it is not a book I can like due to what I feel are inappropriate foci for it. Ironically I feel curious to see where Clare went with the remaining two books since she killed the incest and effectively had the prime antagonist vanquished.

'The Concrete Blonde' by Michael Connelly

This book was published in 1994 and is the third in Connelly's Harry Bosch series. I think it is the best of those that I have read so far which seems to confirm what for me seems to be increasingly true: that you need to give a crime novelist at least 3 books for them to get into their stride with a character. The book with video cassettes, pagers and US Vietnam veterans in early middle age, feels very of its time. What is galling, though, is the highlighting of black suspects being choked to death and unarmed suspects being shot dead by police feels like elements taken from the current US news, even 27 years later. Some things never seem to change in the USA.

Unlike the previous book, 'The Black Ice' (1993), this one is very taut. In part this is because much of the action takes place in the courtroom. Harry Bosch is facing a civil case brought by the widow of an unarmed serial killer known as The Dollmaker that he shot and killed four years earlier when the man was reaching for a toupee rather than a gun. This means Bosch is kept on quite a leash at times having to rush back to court. To confuse matters it comes to light that either he killed the wrong man or there is a copycat killer who has been active at the same time. The jeopardy that Bosch faces in investigating whether he did make a mistake with his suspicions or not adds another layer to the story. There are some decent twists and it is good to see the detective as being as flawed as anyone else. There is also the extra elements of his antagonisms with both the prosecuting attorney and his own rather ineffectual lawyer. We also see the complexities that his position makes in terms of his developing relationship with Sylvia Moore, the widow of a colleague whose murder he investigated in the previous book.

Overall, the novel manages to balance having twists and various layers without losing the reader. It gives what feels like a decent picture of Los Angeles, both the upmarket and seedy sides of it and in showing how dangerous it is for citizens at risk for their lives both from criminals and the police. Unfortunately in almost three decades, that situation has not changed. However, it does mean that Connelly's book has a currency rather than beginning to feel entirely like a historical crime novel.

Non-Fiction

'My Favourite People and Me, 1978-1988' by Alan Davies

I saw the documentary programme, 'Alan Davies' Teenage Rebellion' (2010) in which Davies went back to where he grew up in Essex and met with people he had known in his youth as well as celebrities he had followed, notably Paul Weller. I imagine a lot of that is based on this book published the previous year. It is a kind of free-flowing autobiography in sections concerning a single year in this period, but with chapters using people that Davies was interested in as the hook. Often, though, he does not really come to the individual until the end of the relevant chapter. 

Davies is less than two years older than me. He went to a private school, his mother died when he was young, he was abused by his father (the focus of his most recent biography but there are shadows of that in this book) who remarried a neighbour and they were much richer than my family, e.g. having fly-drive 3-week holidays in the USA; he was bought both a motor scooter and a car as soon as he could have them; I did not have a car until I was in my mid-30s. Davies was far more successful with women than me and far more into sport, especially football, but also tennis and motorbike racing, so those celebrities mean little to me. However, pop stars, the people in the news and what he thought about them, campaigns of the time, such as around nuclear weapons and animal rights, are things I know about. He tells his involvement in these things and what he thought about these people I can understand them. Though we were poorer than his family, we still felt ourselves in the middle class milieu and I knew people like him.

As you would expect from his TV performances, Davies recounts the topics he focuses on with wry humour than made me laugh out loud occasionally.  If you are interested in him as a person this is a good read and is very accessible. It would particularly appeal if you remember the era yourself or if you are interested in how (relatively well off) young people survived in an era before smart phones and social media and what issues concerned many of them, some of which now seem pretty forgotten. It would be nice to see more autobiographies using this approach which I find very refreshing and engaging.

'The Spanish Civil War' by Hugh Thomas

I was advised that as the years progressed from the first publication of this book in 1961, that Thomas revised it to move increasingly towards sympathy to the Nationalist side in the civil war. The edition I read was published in 1965 and though he had corrected some errors from the previous two, it did seem that his sympathies while supportive of the Republican government side are actually pretty balanced. He does not hold back from criticism of the Republicans' multifarious divisions that so weakened them and the vacillating attitude of the Moscow-backing Communists. 

Thomas really benefited from the fact that he was writing when many of those who had been involved in the war from both sides, let alone eye-witnesses, were still alive. He is very good at balancing up the different perspectives, especially when it is difficult to know the truth and giving the reader a fair impression of what happened.

This is a comprehensive book, my edition was 911 pages long. Thomas gives background going back into the 19th Century and making it clear that the violence of the 1930s was part of a long history of such occurrences in Spanish history. He also shows how the fact that Spain had not been involved in the First World War had left many in the country ill-informed of the nature of war. Coming at the end of the 1930s, it was to experience all the horrors of the latest military technology, especially in terms of the aerial bombing of civilians. Before discussing the war itself, Thomas goes through the different political groupings. While the divisions on the Republican side are well known, he shows those among the Nationalists too, given the range of groups which joined what had been primarily a military uprising.

The book is good on the social and economic aspects of the war, yet also provides detailed accounts of the various battles, aided by dome simple but informative line-drawn maps. It makes clear that those who somehow pretend that General Franco, progressed slowly to avoid damaging so much of Spain are mistaken. He stated this but it is clear that even with massive support from Italy and Germany, his soldiers were often struggling to make advances but when they entered towns they carried out massacres which Spain had long become accustomed to. I had not realised how close the Nationalists came to grinding to a halt. Even in 1938 if the supply of German war materiel had dried up then, the war most likely would have come to a stalemate.

Thomas is good on all the various individuals who were involved and highlights things such as Irishmen fighting on both sides and the black American soldiers and commanders who fought in the Republican International Brigades, fighting alongside white comrades when the US Army was still segregated. Someone needs to make a movie about ex-Corporal Oliver Law, the black commander of the Washington Battalion. The age of the book is shown up by how Thomas feels to seem physical details such as how fat someone was or whether they had a lot of sex, are important for ascertaining their character.

The British come out of the story very poorly. I know some wanted the Nationalists to win, on the basis that while democracy was fine for Britain other countries were better under dictators. However, a lot of the British policy, blocking the elected government from buying arms and yet introducing a non-intervention policy so poor that tens of thousands of Italian troops fought for the Nationalists, just seems to be incompetence. It is only in the light of Neville Chamberlain's utter failings as prime minister that his predecessor Stanley Baldwin could seem even mildly competent. In many ways Britain's actions ensured that the Nationalists won, especially in the context of how close the fight was throughout, contrary to what now tends to be the popular view of it.

Overall, despite its age, this is a very good book if you want to really get into seeing what happened in the Spanish Civil War in detail. It remains a good counter-balance to rather lazy assumptions about the war which have slipped into popular history portrayals. It certainly shows that there are many more stories to the story of the war than is commonly recognised. Americans in particular seem to be missing out on the role which their nationals played in the conflict, at a time when, in other historical aspects, the role played by black people is being highlighted.

Audio Books - Fiction

'The Da Vinci Code' by Dan Brown; read by Jeff Harding

It is ironic that I ended up listening to this at some of the same time as I was reading 'The Awful Secret' (2000) as they feature the same theory about Jesus Christ being married and having children. When this novel came out in 2003, I was irritated at the efforts that people went to prove how 'wrong' Brown was, down to minute details about where a particular stone is in a corridor at the Louvre gallery in Paris as this somehow 'proved' he was something - lazy, misguided, trying to trick people - I am not sure. They seemed to forget that he had written a work of fiction and if they had dug into the details in a Jack Reacher novel, let alone a James Bond one, they would have found much the same. Listening to the book - having seen the 2006 movie years ago, in part, I realised why they felt compelled to set up such 'uncovering' of the book.

While there is chasing around Paris, London and parts of Scotland, the book is less an adventure and more a lecture. There are huge sections of exposition by one or more of the main characters to others. Fortunately, at least it is not all mansplaining as Sophie Neveu, police cryptoanalyst, is knowledgeable in her field and about Paris. However, what tends to happen is the characters go to a location, decipher what they find there and then talk at length about how the story of Jesus's wife, Mary Magdalene was suppressed, especially after the Council of Nicea which decided that Jesus had been a son of God and not entirely mortal. Added to that, down the centuries, the Christian churches, in this case primarily the Catholic Church saw benefit in underplaying or even dismissing the role of women in early Christianity so ensuring an entirely male Christian priesthood until recent changes in some Protestant churches.

There are some reasonable set pieces of action, escaping from the authorities. The role of Opus Dei looms large with a monk-assassin, Silas, aided in hunting down the protagonists and an Opus Dei member, Captain Fache, leading the French police investigation and granted great powers in doing it. There are a couple of twists with people not being who they seem which are fine. However, I would not say that the book gripped me. The exposition is interesting enough but in the years since the book was published, it has become common knowledge so it probably a lot less surprising than it might have been back then. I had always thought it a surprise that Jesus, as a 34-year old Jewish workman of the 1st Century CE, had not married. I did wonder if he was a widower, so the fact that he had a wife at some stage or another was never really a surprise to me. The fact that he was supposed to have come from a Jewish royal family as Brown states, seems more surprising as, surely, then he would not have spent his life working as a Nazarene carpenter. Anyway, overall the book is not bad, it is more that it is an adventure story used as a basis for delivering a series of lectures.

Jeff Harding is an American and has that rather breathless narration that seems so common with US audio book readers. His French accents do rather sound as if they are from the comedy series, ''Allo, 'Allo', but maybe that is what a lot of listeners expect. He does the female voices surprisingly well.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Books I Read In March

Fiction

 'Chasing Embers' by James Bennett

Somehow I managed to get a review copy of this book, second hand. Consequently some of the issues like repetition of words may not have turned up in the finally published version of the book. It is not a bad book. It is the first in the Ben Garston series about the only dragon permitted to survive outside of a sleep following a deal between humans and various magical beings in 1215. At times it reminds me of the books by Cassandra Clare, especially the opening scenes in New York and Garston's questions about relations with a human. (Why do authors assume we all have an encyclopaedic knowledge of New York's districts, bridges, etc. in our heads?) Witches, fairies and knightly families turn up. Ben fortunately can morph into a human and or a kind of humanoid dragon, is very strong and armoured and can fly. Being given clothes half-way through the book which adjust to his changes does make him a little like a superhero. There are cliches, not just around New York but a confrontation smashing up the British Museum. The poor place is overused in fantasy stories.

Aside from Garston's hang-ups, the release of another older dragon in Somaliland breaks all the agreements between the different beings. Furthermore in turns out this dragon is being used as a portal to permit an evil priest/would-be god back into the world. The action goes from the USA to Britain to the Alps and on to Egypt. While as others have commentated, Bennett seems to throw absolutely everything from fantasy into the novel, there are reasonable set-piece scenes such as Garston escaping the witches in New York and battling the other dragon in the Alps. The climax at a power station south of Cairo, suffers from the same problems as some of these scenes in fantasy stories, that it drags on far too long. By the end of it, you are not really concerned who is trying to achieve what power or who has been defeated. Trimming down that section would have helped maintain the momentum of what was a fast-paced novel up until then. While Bennett uses mounds of tropes from fantasy, I am glad he tried some things a little different and brought in, carefully, myths from Egypt and Somaliland, to give a slightly different perspective. While I would not rush out to buy the next Garston book, if I saw it in my local charity shop, I would pick it up.

'Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates' by Tom Robbins

This is the prime reason why I have read so few books this month. It was 416 pages long in the edition I had but the print was so small that in a normal print it would probably be 2-300 pages longer; it certainly felt it. While I am often disappointed by what I read, there are few occasions when I really regret buying a book. I think 'Chimera' (1972) by John Barth and 'Ostland' (2013) by Tom Cain have been the two up until now that I would have put in that category. This book by Robbins has become the third. This was his seventh book at the time (2000), but I cannot really understand how he ever got published in the first place, let alone repeatedly. Robbins uses a sentence where a word would do. His writing is incredibly laboured with incessant feeble attempts to make humour. It is actually quite painful to read while he pfaffs around with silly narrative and diversions.

The title comes from a line by the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud and has some tangential relevance to the story. This book is about a CIA agent simply known as Switters who is blackmailed by his hacker grandmother in taking her aged parrot to the Amazon jungle in Peru. While there he is persuaded to meet with a tribal leader whose head has been distorted into a pyramid shape. This man then curses Switters that if he ever sets his feet on the ground again he will die instantly. Switters spends almost all the rest of the book in a wheelchair or on stilts. He is then sent by the CIA (in his wheelchair) to Syria to work with a Kurdish group. Returning from that mission he encounters a small group of nuns in a convent built around an oasis and aids them in seeing off intruders and trying to get their order reinstated. The book sounds ridiculous and lives up to that. It is a massive conceit by Robbins who seems to believe he is witty, even, perhaps funny.

These problems would be bad enough, but there is an unpleasant sexual element in there too. Switters who is in his mid-thirties obsesses over his teenaged step-sister. She is only 12 when he first sees her naked and while 16 by the time of the novel, he keeps wanting to have sex with her and effectively browbeats her into offering her virginity to him. He also lusts after any girl he encounters in South America and the Middle East, making this book really be about a paedophile. Later, in the convent, Switters falls for one of the nuns, ten years his senior. Through a miracle, despite having sex as a young woman, her hymen has regrown and she will only have anal sex with him. The willingness of these women to comply with such a misogynistic, paedophilic man for some unknown reason, stretches credulity to breaking point. Robbins finally tires of the whole project and abruptly ends it. The book looks interesting and has good reviews on the cover (though I should have suspected something was wrong when I saw one was written by Thomas Pynchon). However, I really feel dirtied by buying and reading this book. While I do not believe in censorship, I would certainly encourage you to stay away from anything by Robbins.

Non-Fiction

'Ten Days that Shook the World' by John Reed

I have been very poor in selecting what to read this month. While not as offensive as the Robbins book, I was very frustrated by this one too. Reed was an American Communist who was in Russia at the time of the revolutions of 1917. While he witnessed a great deal of what happened during the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, his ardent support from them makes this a highly unreliable book. I bought it second hand when studying modern history more than thirty years ago and did not read the warnings on the cover about how poor it was. The book is useful in some respects. Reed identifies the multiple parties active in Petrograd [St. Petersburg] during 1917 and includes transcripts of speeches, various regulations that were passed, articles and propaganda from them. He hared around all the various locations of the different groups and later went to Tsarskoye Selo which the revolutionary forces opposed to the Bolshevik coup d'etat were able to briefly hold and to Moscow where the fighting between different factions was fiercer than in the capital, Petrograd.

What is so infuriating about this book is how Reed's zealotry blinds him even to things that he reports. Like the Bolsheviks himself, he lumps all of the other parties, no matter whether they were revolutionary parties like the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) in with the Tsar and his military; landowners and other rich people. This is despite the fact that the Bolsheviks took the land reform policies of the SRs as their own and even saw value in continuing the education body that the coalition Provisional Government had established after the February/March revolution which had seen the removal of the Tsar. Thus, even these Socialist and revolutionary groups are portrayed as being traitors to the ordinary people, whereas in fact they had worked hard to try to sort out the situation in Russia for them.

Reed's view is that anyone apart from the Bolsheviks (and when even that party began to split, just Lenin's faction of it) is complicit with the old regime. He sees conspiracies everywhere to a ridiculous degree. The maddest of these is his insistence that Russia went to war in 1914 so that it could be defeated and the Germans occupy large areas of the country. He believes that there were no genuine shortages despite the dysfunctional nature of Russia's agriculture and the exhaustion of peasants and of the transport system. No, for Reed, any shortages must be because everyone in Russia, aside from the Bolsheviks, was deliberately hoarding and sabotaging the country to starve and freeze the Russian people. Despite apparently supporting self-determination, any national groupings that appeared are condemned as simply tools of the landowners. He will not accept any other view than narrow Bolshevism interpreted by Lenin as legitimate.

Reed keeps on insisting that the Bolsheviks had some miraculous support right across Russia from the 'decent' working people. However, even the documents he includes shows how narrow their support and how unwilling so many even workers and soldiers were to support the Bolsheviks. Quite rightly after the partially successful coup in early November 1917, they accuse the Bolsheviks of stealing the revolution. Yet, for Reed, overnight things magically changed and with the Bolsheviks setting up their own government, things like crime abruptly stopped and people though cold and starving are marching around the city in ecstasy at the change which in fact did nothing to improve their circumstances. Support for the Bolsheviks largely stemmed from a wish to end the war, but as the Bolsheviks' revolutionary opponents highlighted, they continued the war and opened the gates to the Germans to occupy vast areas of the country.

People forget that Russia lost the First World War as was made clear by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Naively the Bolsheviks felt that somehow if they declared peace every other country was cease fighting and their workers would rise up. This delusion meant that rather than end the fighting Russia was plagued by wars, a civil war then a war against Poland, lasting into 1921. Reed had died of typhus in 1920 so missed how accurate many of the predictions of an enduring conflict he includes in his book, actually came true. He ridicules them but is really shown to be the fool.

The book does show how many people tried to prevent a civil war and to have a democratic or Socialist government deal with the country. Important examples are the powerful railway workers trade union which refused to move any soldiers going to fight any other Russians. The peasants too, neglected by the Bolsheviks sought a coalition government and to bring about measured reform. However, as they did throughout the Bolsheviks removed all these more sober representatives. What we see is a criminal clique establishing itself, referring to some fantasy of a workers' and later peasants' movement supporting them and shutting down anyone not whole heartedly supporting their very specific line.

It is galling to read how Reed perpetuated so many myths to the English-speaking world about the Bolshevik seizure of power. It is horrendous that those who genuinely sought to improve Russia and keep it from further years of war were outmanoeuvred through violence and terror, even before the civil war had properly begun. Reed ignoring the evidence he provides himself shows he was no genuine eyewitness, instead he just produced a piece of propaganda which is so pathetic as to invite ridicule. There are some useful details in this book if you are looking at the Bolshevik seizure of power, but the narrative around it, simply illustrates how a man can let himself be so led astray by fanaticism that he misrepresents even the information he might include in a book.