Thursday, 30 June 2022

Books I Read In June

 Fiction

'Who Was David Weiser?' by Pawel Huelle; translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones

If you do not like unreliable narrators then this is certainly a book to avoid. It is set in the summer of 1957 in northern Poland though goes on erratically into the future, probably the 1970s or 1980s. It is written in the first person and dodges around chronologically as the narrator talks about the investigation by teachers, local officials and the police into the disappearance of David Weiser, a Jewish boy at the narrator's school. The activities of the narrator and his various primary-school friends across the summer are recounted at length. It also keeps coming back to their engagement with Weiser and his girlfriend Elka. Weiser is a kind of Svengali characters who seeks adoration from the narrator and his friends, largely through his semi-detached engagement with them, making use of munitions left over from the Second World War and perhaps pulling off genuine magic such as flying as well as odd but more down-to-Earth activities like dancing to Elka's pipe and playing football in a disinterested but highly skilled way.

The novel is engaging, richly portraying a particular time and place that does not feature in English-language writing. The characters are well drawn and you do have an interest in what happened to David and indeed Elka, though the outcomes for the two are different. The trouble is that the parameters are so constrained that it soon becomes tedious, going back and forth in time between the events that unfolded, the questioning of the boys and then references to later decades. After a while you feel like you have seen it all multiple times and in the end it felt a lot longer than its 220 pages. The idea and attention to detail are good. In a short story they would have been highly engaging, but everything is stretched far too thin and as a result the charm that the book initially has is soon utterly worn away and you lose interest in what finally happened whether for real or as a result of some magic realism.


'Mortal Causes' by Ian Rankin

In December I retrieved the remaining 10 Rebus books that I had in storage. As a result I came back to the series for the first time since May 2019. This is not a bad story, though as before I feel at times Rankin has lots of ideas that he does not really know how to take forward. There are odd things like Rebus sleeping with a lawyer he encounters even though he is living with his girlfriend. It seemed out of character and did very little to advance the story unless she is going to turn up in subsequent books. The story is a mish-mash of involvement of Northern Irish Loyalist paramilitaries receiving funding from the USA and importing arms via Scotland. The book opens with the scene of a torture and execution and Rebus gets entwined with different elements of the paramilitaries and numerous individuals both on that side and in various police units. Intrigue is fine but at times you do begin to wonder what the point is. I must say, though, that final fifth of the book works far better than the preceding sections and you wish that Rankin had kept tighter control over the variety of characters and various developments to raise the entire book to that quality.


'The Salmon of Doubt' by Douglas Adams

I misunderstood what this book was. In the middle of it are a couple of novelettes one featuring Dirk Gently and one Zaphod Beeblebrox, assembled posthumously from various fragments. However, the rest of the book is made up of various articles and transcripts that Adams made down the years, some are very short. They effectively form a kind of biography of the closing years of his life and the topics that interested him notably conservation of species and technology. In terms of technology Adams was very perceptive and accurately predicted things like texting with your thumbs on phones and the search for a universal charger format. Individual articles featured are interesting enough, but really this is a book for serious Adams fans who want to know a little more about the man they admire, but for the general reader there is little here.


Non-Fiction

'The Black Angels' by Rupert Butler

As I noted when I read Butler's 'Gestapo' (1981) - not to be confused with the subsequent illustrated versions: https://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/04/books-i-read-in-april.html  - Butler was very much part of that populist history for sale in branches of Woolworths and newsagents. This book which focuses on the Waffen SS, though at times touches on other branches of the SS, is less sporadic than 'Gestapo' and the book is a pretty comprehensive study of how the Waffen SS developed and where they served. Butler does feature atrocities committed by the units, especially against Allied soldiers. However, he struggles to avoid slipping into hagiography and so praises the courage and speed of the Waffen SS units. He really downplays the strength of the opposition to them, notably in France, and over-estimates the strength and level of machinery that the German side had. He, also, like many populist historians of the war, sees Blitzkrieg as something carefully planned in advance and used in Poland as much as France rather than largely developing from the behaviour of reckless generals, ignoring orders. The hagiography becomes apparent too when he begins to speak of the East European SS units that were created and you feel that he sees them as a slur on he honour of the SS and to blame for atrocities, not seeming to recognise that his derogatory racial stereotyping was akin to the attitudes of the SS themselves. There are interesting elements in the book in terms of where the SS fought and their contribution to various campaigns, notably the so-called Battle of the Bulge. However, you cannot help by being unsettled by the extent to which Butler is an enthusiast for the SS and sees admirable traits in many of their soldiers, even while outlining the atrocities they committed.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Books I Read In May

 Fiction

'The Noble Outlaw' by Bernard Knight

This is the 11th book in the series, though the sequence has only reached December 1195. In truth this novel covers two different crimes that are actually less connected that it appears. One connection is the protagonist's - Sir John De Wolfe, coroner of South Devon - enduring antagonist, Richard de Revelle, former Sheriff of Devon and his brother-in-law. De Revelle is involved in a scheme to follow the new trend of opening schools in Exeter. A desiccated corpse of a man killed by having a nail hammered into the top of his spine is found in the loft of a property being developed for this school. There also seems to be a connection to the 'noble outlaw', the former crusader, Nicholas de Arundell, who had his lands seized in part by De Revelle while away on crusade. An altercation led to a killing and De Arundell fleeing into Dartmoor where he has become a brigand raiding neighbouring farms. The two threads are quite distinct and De Wolfe has to effectively deal with a devious serial killer. The interaction with De Arundell is different. De Revelle and his co-conspirator go after the brigands and there is action as they battle. However, De Wolfe's role is more diplomatic trying to establish a connection to the man, even though under law he should kill him on sight, and seeking to get a pardon. There is further action when De Arundell takes part in a legal battle against the two men who took his land.

In general this is an interesting novel. We see more of De Wolfe's ongoing life and as always learn more about the society, law and politics of 12th Century South-West England. Separately each of the cases is interesting and well explored. However, they do not really mesh together effectively, though I suppose that reflects a detective's typical case book quite accurately. I do think Knight over-uses De Revelle and in the books from 'Figure of Hate' (2005), the 9th book, onwards it feels like he is being levered into the plot, when the development of other antagonists would have perhaps been fresher. However, I accept that the relationships between De Wolfe, his wife, his in-laws, his mistress and his assistants are important to Knight as much as the various mysteries. I have the 12th book on my shelf to read. There were 3 subsequent books in the series, published 2009-12 that I do not have, one of which is a prequel. I would certainly search them out to finish off my reading of the Crowner John series. While perhaps lacking something of the sparkle of the Brother Cadfael novels, this series is a medieval police procedural, which is richly written and draws us very much into the world it is portraying.


'The Poison Garden' by Sarah Singleton

Like most books I acquire these days, this one came from a charity shop. As it was in the adult SF/Fantasy section, rather than with the children's books it was not until later that I realised it is in fact a children's book. Saying that a lot of fantasy no matter the target audience, especially if it is written by women, gets dumped into children's fiction categories. Furthermore, I had read and enjoyed all the Harry Potter books so was not apprehensive about engaging with this one. Singleton has created a rich fantasy in our world, rather like Rowling did. It took me some time to realise that actually it is set in some unspecified late Victorian period rather than in modern day; I have subsequently discovered it is supposed to be the 1850s, whereas I had felt it was 10-40 years later than that.

Thomas is 10 years old at the start of the novel, though most of it takes place when he is 14 and an apprentice to a London pharmacist. On the death of his grandmother, who was very much into plants and herbalism, he becomes aware of a magical garden which appears and disappears. In this garden he meets and old friend of his grandmother's and witnesses a fatal assault on him. He is left a circular magical box and is directed at 14 to become a pharmacist's apprentice. On moving to London he discovers that his grandmother was part of the small Guild of Medical Herbalists (not Magical as some reviews have it). Though some portray them as sorcerers or witches, they see themselves as scientific practitioners. Each of the members has a garden that comes from one of these boxes and allows them to enter it as if shifting to another plane. In these gardens they can cultivate plants lost to the world and breed others for particular beneficial or nefarious uses. Thomas is drawn into investigating who is slowly killing off the few members of the Guild and along with another young heiress to the Guild's secrets, Maud, defeating the unexpected killer.

Some complain that the book is too short at 288 pages, though aimed at children, perhaps making it longer would have been of no benefit. While the latter Harry Potter books became large, the early ones were of this kind of length. The story does move along briskly while doing more than enough to conjure up a kind of magic that is distinct from that of other fantasy stories. Regularly Singleton eschews what might be expected, possibly right down to the end, depending on where you might see it going. Despite the pace of the book, the characters and indeed the Victorian settings, let alone the various gardens, are evocatively drawn. I found it a satisfying, refreshing read and welcomed it tending to avoid tropes. There are only very distant echoes of things like 'Tom's Midnight Garden' (1958) and even a little, 'The Secret Garden' (1910/11) and really you have to be of my generation or older to think of those; certainly not a child in the 21st Century or indeed their parents. While I will not hunt out Singleton's books, if I come across another in a charity shop, then I would certainly be likely to buy it.


Non-Fiction

'Napoleon' by Vincent Cronin

Cronin sets out to write a book very much focused on Napoleon Bonaparte, the man. There are references to battles and the political steps, but only when he was directly involved, rather than the events that happened in the context of his expansion of the French Empire. We also get a lot about his early life and his exiles on Elbe and St. Helena that you would typically see in a book about this period of French history in general. There is also a lot about his family and his wives, much of which I had been unaware of. The book was published in 1971 and at times its tone jars for a modern reader. We do not need to know the size of Napoleon's genitals and certainly the statement that Napoleon's sisters were unfortunate in not finding husbands to 'master them' would be struck through vigorously by any editor of the 21st Century.

Cronin is a fan of Napoleon that is clear and there are sections especially on policy around law and religion that clearly aim to show the benefits that Napoleon brought to France and indeed neighbouring states. Cronin does not present these with blind enthusiasm but there is an attitude that these were good things that tended to be undermined by others. Interestingly Klemens von Metternich, the Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire, in the diplomatic field and Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord in domestic French politics are really shown as men who set out to wreck Napoleon's plans especially in the period 1813-15. Without their vigorous intervention, Cronin makes clear, the outcome for Napoleon and indeed for France as a whole would have been very different.

While dated, you do come away with a greater sense of knowing the man rather than a kind of factor in European politics. You see his weaknesses for example his loyalty to his wives even when they were unfaithful and how much of a family man he was. He also shows loyalty to friends, again even when they plotted or acted against him. A more cynical, less loyal man might have survived better. I have found this book useful in rounding out my understanding of the period, not simply in terms of Napoleon himself but the reflection of other leading individuals in Europe at the time, through their interaction with or steps against him.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Books I Read In April

 Fiction

'Fools and Mortals' by Bernard Cornwell

Having been disappointed by the Grail Quest (2000-03) books I read and finding 'The Fort' (2010) and the Starbuck (1993-96) tetralogy alright but not outstanding, I was eager to see Cornwell getting back to the kind of quality that is seen in his Sharpe series. This book, set in 1595-96 and seen through the eyes of William Shakespeare's brother, Richard, proved to be both engaging and refreshing. For Cornwell to be writing about a group of actors at the time when William Shakespeare was working on 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is a departure from the war stories he typically writes. There is intrigue and some fights, but the rehearsing and running of however, Cornwell puts his attention to historical detail - which can he never neglects - to really good use in this novel. It highlights the challenges of setting up and sustaining a theatre company; the challenges of being censored and negotiating with patrons. Richard is a performer of women's parts, as women were not permitted to act until 1660 but is ageing and is seeking ways to continue his career as he has to shift into male roles. All round, Cornwell balanced all these factors very deftly, while giving a real sense of jeopardy and at the same time richly conjuring up London of the late 16th Century. I think keeping it to quite a narrow focus allowed that richness to come out. I certainly feel that this was the best Bernard Cornwell book I have read in a long time and would certainly recommend it.


'Void Moon' by Michael Connelly

This is the last of the Connelly novels that I have been given. This one features Cassie Black a woman who with her lover, used to rob successful gamblers at Las Vegas casinos. On probation she has got a good job working for a Porsche dealership in Los Angeles. However, news about her daughter she was compelled to give up for adoption drives her to seek the 'one last job' to get funds. This job turns out to be much more complex than it first appears and soon involves two organised criminal bodies competing for the money. Connelly is very adept at representing the Nevada and California areas he clearly knows well. This novel is fast paced, alternating between Cassie's perspective and that of Jack Karch who is put on Cassie's trail by the owner of the casino that she robs from this time. It does manage to avoid slipping into many of the tropes we know around Las Vegas crimes, though there are perhaps one too many crashing through the glass roofs of casinos.

It is a stark, hard boiled environment. The details of Cassie breaking into the target room and overcoming all the security measures, is rightly praised by reviewers. The tone of that 'clinical' approach is repeatedly brought home as Karch tortures and kills without compunction as he hunts down Cassie. However, the US penal system is also an antagonist. Cassie is seen by her probation officer as being ambivalent in her responses, even though she is holding down a good job and this is sufficient for her to get an unannounced; armed visit from the probation officer. Cassie's partner on her last robbery was killed by being thrown from a hotel room window. While Cassie was far away from him at the time, under US law, because they were together on a criminal activity it is her who gets charged with his manslaughter. This sense that the justice system latches on to perpetrators and piles on whatever charges seem in even quite removed vicinity to the criminal and seeks to punish at all stages, rather than rehabilitate comes through very sharply in this novel. That harsh regime does provide motives but will jump out for UK readers as being alien.

Overall a crisp thriller that aside from a few points comes over as credible and engaging. It would make a great movie. While she is probably too old for the role now, but if Jennifer Lopez had played Cassie in line with her performance in 'Out of Sight' (1998), it would have been something worth watching.


'God Save the Queen' by Kate Locke [Kathryn Smith]

This is sort of a steampunk novel. It is set in the 2012 but in a world in which the Black Death mutated turning aristocratic people into vampires or werewolves. Queen Victoria, a vampire, is still on the throne of Britain. There are 'halvies', people born to concubines with traits of a vampire or a werewolf but also of humanity, like a 'daywalker' in the Blade series. There are also 'goblins' who combine werewolf and vampire traits but are confined to cannibalism in the sewers. The bulk of the population are humans who after a failed uprising in 1932, live very Victorian existences in a desultory world in which the aristocracy party. Technology has advanced but is different in style, so mobile phones are 'rotaries'. Clothing is still very Victorian or 1980s Gothic. 

The protagonist, Xandra Vardan is a member of the Royal Guard and her siblings work for the police and a private security firm. Children of a lord, they have a privileged existence, but in detective work and security are faced with the challenges of this society. Xandra is drawn into investigating the apparent murder of her sister, Dee, after being confined to the New Bedlam insane asylum. She is soon mixed up in an entanglement of conspiracies with some seeking to overthrow the regime and others experimenting on halfie children to try to produce better strains. Throughout she is uncertain both on who to trust and who she might betray herself. There are dramatic scenes as she tries to find the truth and hares through London to do it. There is also a nice romance between Xandra and the Scottish lord who is head of the werewolves, which in the hands of another author would have been handled differently, but Locke handles honestly, so providing a nice counterpoint to the entwined conspiracies.

Locke is Canadian and a professed Anglophile. She almost goes too far in levering in London slang and phrases. However, for non-British readers, I imagine this adds to the sense of this alien world. I spotted to elements that jar with this. In the UK 'French doors' are actually known as 'French windows' and no-one over here pours syrup on bacon! Aside from that, I found this novel growing on me as I went through it. At times it seemed a bit too much but steadily it comes together. The world building while drawing perhaps on some over-used tropes, is successful. However, Locke does not need to provide all the details, especially the complex genetic stuff at the end, to justify what she has portrayed. She needed to have more faith that the reader could come along with her without having a lesson. Locke is a prolific author, under a string of names, producing 39 novels, 2001-2022, mixing romance, modern fantasy and steampunk. If I come across any more of her books I would certainly buy them as, if nothing else, an old Goth cannot resist the styles in them!


'Nemesis' by Bill Napier

While Locke gave quite a bit of detail on genetics in an appendix, Napier piles in mathematical formulae in the body of his text. This is a weird mixture, being, if it was a movie, along the lines of  'Armageddon' (1998) meets 'Seven Days in May' (1964) and in part 'The Da Vinci Code' (2006 from 2003 novel) though that was produced after this book was published in 1998. It appears that the Russians, following a military coup in the 1990s, have altered the course of an asteroid so that it crashes into the centre of the USA. A team of Americans, along with a British astronomer Oliver Webb whose point of view we most see through, are brought together to identify the asteroid and work out how to divert it. There is a great deal of tension in the team, which is not handled subtly. 

There is a lot of science and mathematics in the early sections of the book as we are told about asteroids and meteorites; the damage such a collision would provide; what the impact on sea in terms of different levels of tsunami and climate would be and why you cannot simply blast an asteroid apart. There is not simply exposition, but there is also formulae as if we might want to work it all out for ourselves. As the book progresses, the thriller element increases. One of the team is murdered and we see Americans conspiring to use the incident to trigger a nuclear war anyway and then Webb goes to Italy to track down the manuscript of a Renaissance astronomer who may have identified the most likely candidate for the asteroid. He gets mixed up in brutal killings, with prostitutes, a cabaret and everything Napier can throw at it. 

There is perhaps a good idea somewhere in this book, but there is simply far too much going on and Napier does not seem to be entirely in control of it. I could almost imagine this book being written by a team each trying to get their bit in. Yes, we want to see that the disaster portrayed in the book is a credible one and that suggestions we might come up with would not work. However, we do not need mathematics and extensive sections about energy calculations in water and so on. The idea of it being revealed in a historic text works well, but Napier goes off on such an extreme situation that it morphs into yet another kind of book. We are not really sure of his age or his nature. At times he is bookish and geekish at others more of an action hero than Robert Langdon with a librarian throwing herself at him in messages who we do not ever see in person. There is probably enough in here for two or three different books. I have another thriller by Napier on my shelf and I wonder if it is handled any better than this one.


Non-Fiction

'Gestapo' by Rupert Butler

Published in 1981 this is one of those populist history books, often about aspects of the Second World War, that were numerous in the 1970s. While what it says is accurate, the style is far from academic. It is really a series of vignettes about the Gestapo and its activities across the life of the organisation. If it was a television programme then it would be a 'docu-drama' as Butler produces incidents and especially dialogue that we can guess occurred but of which there is no record. As the book progresses, the focus on the Gestapo itself becomes looser and we see things from the side of the Abwehr; the Resistance especially in France and Denmark and the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich as much as we see things from Gestapo perspective. Many of these incidents are well known anyway. Perhaps the most interesting elements are the less commonly aired ones. 

There is interesting material on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 and on the struggle between various German agencies in the running of France; the coverage of the Venlo Incident and Operation Valkyrie are pretty well handled too. It might seem odd to say that a book about such a sinister organisation is easy to 'dip into', but because of this vignette approach, that is the case. This is a useful book if you were thinking of writing a story set during the Nazi regime and wanted to get up to speed about the secret police machinery without going into more detailed, academic sources. I guess books like this which used to be sold as more in Woolworths or newsagents than bookshops effectively have been replaced by Channel 5 and Netflix documentaries these days hence them not being published in the way they were 40 years ago.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

Books I Read In March

 Fiction

'Dangerous Women Part I' edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

This is the first of a trilogy of short story collections. I do not know about the other two volumes, they may improve. This one is largely a disappointment. The largest section is taken up by a 35,000-word story written by Martin set in his world of the Seven Kingdoms, many years before the A Song of Fire and Ice series. 'The Princess and the Queen' is about two women rivalling for the Iron Throne and the war this triggers. The trouble is, Martin approaches the story in the same way as he does with the longer series, i.e. with long lists of titles and locations of individuals. In his huge books there is space for this but in a novella you feel at times you are reading a civil service list. There are some dramatic battles between riders on dragons, but his still really burdens this shorter piece and is there so much any character development is a long way down the list.

Perhaps the best story is 'Raisa Stepanova' by Carrie Vaughn about a Soviet female fighter pilot in the Second World War and not simply the risks to her from aerial combat but from her brother going missing in action as the Soviet regime under Stalin assumed anyone missing had deserted. 'Second Arabesque, Slowly' by Nancy Kress is a not a bad but typical post-apocalyptic story in a New York where when most women have become infertile, tribes have developed scavenging among the ruins and a couple, overseen by the narrator, a nurse, wanting to take up ballet after seeing old footage of it. I read something similar but involving a concert piano, in a short story  'A Song Before Sunset' by David Grigg (1976) which I read back in June: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2021/06/books-i-listened-toread-in-june.html 

'I Know How to Pick 'Em' by Lawrence Black is on in which the woman is a catalyst rather than protagonist. It is contemporary film noir kind of set up about a woman recruiting men to do a murder for her, but is less clever than it feels itself to be. In this collection it also seems wrong to include a woman whose agency is far less than she tries to make it. 'Wrestling Jesus' by Joe R. Lansdale, is similar. It actually features only the story of a woman until the end and it is more about an old wrestler and a young male victim of bullying he is training. To get in this collection is a real contrivance.

'My Heart is Either Broken' by Megan Abbott about an abducted girl and a mother whose story is not believed has that noir feel, but fits better in this book with a female protagonist yet one facing up to the debilitating effects of official disbelief. 'Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell' by Brandon Sanderson is what I had expected from this book. It is a science fiction/fantasy in that it is set in a world colonised by humans but with and old technology, creatures and a whole set of rules as if from a fantasy novel. It works well, both in highlighting the dangers of this world and how the two female protagonists deal with it as well as having that 'otherly' sense.

Overall, then this was rather a disappointment. If Martin had stepped back and simply edited, it would have been better. There are some gems in here, but the criteria for inclusion of stories seems very loose and as such what is in here too often seems wide of the mark.


'Flashman and the Pillar of Light' by George MacDonald Fraser

In the late 1980s, having enjoyed the movie 'Royal Flash' (1975) combining a kind of 'The Prisoner of Zenda' with genuine bits of German history, I read all the Flashman novels which, at the time, had reached 'Flashman and the Dragon' (1985). Subsequently, with this novel in 1990 and three others up to 2005, he added to the canon. MacDonald Fraser had started the series in 1969, expanding the life of a minor character from 'Tom Brown's School Days' (1857) by Thomas Hughes to be a skilled linguist, a cowardly and promiscuous soldier who managed to get involved in many of the great incidents of the 1840s-90s, both in the British Empire and elsewhere in the world. The mix of lots of historical research (there are pages of historical notes), cheeky humour, sex, battles and always a torture scene, made the books winning for over 20 years. I do think though, they are probably not well received now. The books are written in the first person of Harry Flashman who is upper middle class, but pretty crude and certainly imbued with misogynistic and racist attitudes. These fit the character, but I imagine few young people today would wish to read a book which so often features the word 'nigger' and a whole host of derogatory terms towards women and Asian people as this book jams in.

With that caveat, this book fits with the preceding eight. It features Flashman working as a diplomat-cum-agent in the Punjab in the lead up to and during the First Anglo-Sikh War 1845-46 at a time when British India was controlled by the British East India Company. The war in itself was bizarre and MacDonald Fraser, though at times bewildering the reader, does reasonably well in showing how the female regent Jind Kaur for her son Duleep Singh who was to be the last Maharajah of Punjab. Jind Kaur's brother, the preceding Maharajah had been murdered by the Sikh Army which had grown to 80,000 men. Jind Kaur sought to weaken the army in Punjab politics by giving it what it wanted - an invasion of British India, but in a way which would mean its defeat and the clipping of its power. Even this brief summary indicates the complexity of the situation. MacDonald Fraser does well in weaving Flashman into this story, making him the cause of some of the incidents, including ultimately the securing to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the 'mountain of light' to the British crown jewels. The fact that Jind Kaur was a promiscuous drunkard allows him to include a lot of sex too.

The story moves at a reasonable pace, though not aided by the genuine complexity of what was going on in the region at the time. Added to that, not only does he make extensive use of epithets of the time, but Flashman and others use numerous Punjabi and Hindi terms, sometimes distorted by English usage, which requires a running glossary, though further highlighting the extent of the author's research. Overall, it was not a bad novel, but for the reasons given above it lacked some of the pace of the previous ones in the series. MacDonald Fraser is good a shining a light on parts of history that often get overlooked these days. I was fascinated to see how close the British came to being ejected from the Indian subcontinent at a relatively early stage. However, I would suggest to many modern readers, especially those liable to take offence at any use of colonial era language and attitudes to stay well clear of the book.


'The Elixir of Death' by Bernard Knight

This is the tenth book in the Crowner John series which brings the series up to covering 12 months as the first was set in November 1195 and we are now at November 1196. It is a bit of an oddity and as I have commented before might have benefitted from tightening up the narrative without so much riding back and forth across Devon. There are a series of apparently unconnected murders, from sailors on board a ship from France - including the husband of one of Sir John's mistresses - to a mutilation of a local lord whose head ends up being dumped in Exeter Cathedral. There is also a sub-plot around alchemy in an attempt to create gold for Prince John to fund a renewed uprising against his brother, King Richard. Bits of the story feel rather contrived, especially the involvement of Richard de Revelle, John's brother-in-law and disgraced sheriff; John's wife and one of his mistresses. 

The inclusion of Assassins from Syria, does not seem impossible, but all of these factors together seem like Knight taking it a bit too far in terms of coincidence and leaving out some of his usual cast might have benefited the story. As always the portrayal of medieval Exeter and Devon and references to the Second Crusade, do add a richness which I think aided the popularity of the books. At times I feel Knight tries rather too hard. Maybe he was driven on by an agent or publishers to include things that readers would expect, especially in the period following the success of  'The Da Vinci Code' (2003) and other books by Dan Brown that referenced medieval mysteries. I would rather that he had been guided by the approach of Ellis Peters.


'Against A Dark Background' by Iain M. Banks

I much prefer those of Iain M. Banks's novels which do not feature his galaxy spanning all-powerful Culture. Thus, this one featuring the survivors of a mentally-linked combat team, heading off in a single solar system to recover various rare artefacts, felt to be of the right scope. Indeed there was a lot in this book I enjoyed. The main character, Sharrow, is the female leader of the team, but also an aristocrat in the civilization's hierarchical structure. Due to actions by her parents, she is seen as an obstacle to the coming of the messiah of a particular cult who have just received permission to try for a year and a day to assassinate her. In the meantime, Sharrow seeks to bargain the release of her half-sister Breyguhn from the grim fortress prison of another cult. The team of five, reduced from eight in previous wars head across planets trying to get on the trail first of the book of  'Universal Principles' and with this then follow clues within it to the eighth and final Lazy Gun, a super-powerful weapon, perhaps concealed by Sharrow's father.

Banks presents an incredibly rich culture, with exotic cities built of ships or under and within a vast tree; immense fortresses and a wide variety of landscapes. The societies are diverse and richly described. There are odd, seemingly anachronistic elements such as people writing letters or even cheques and a pillbox hat and so on. You wonder if that was intentional among all the very advanced vehicles and weaponry. The main challenge is that there is so much imaginative stuff. There are so many different organisations, authorities, religions and creatures that it is hard to keep track. Yes the plot twists and twists again, which is great, but it becomes tiresome to follow who is tricking whom. Added to that Banks drops in flashbacks with minimal indication. As many of these involve members of her team as they are in the 'now' you can easily be reading something thinking it is about the current timeline when it is from years in the past. It is a little easier in the scenes with Breyguhn and their male cousin Geis, but not always especially when they feature in the 'now' too. 

It is interesting to see why certain things happen and there are important clues in the 'past' to understand actions in the present. However, sometimes you do wonder do we need to see when the group were last at a bar which is now a book shop. I have commented in the past how Banks's science fiction books often seem under-edited and the good qualities of this book would have been really highlighted if the jumping around in time had been handled far better even if with a tag, e.g. 'Above Nachtel's Ghost, five years ago' or something.

Another challenge is the tone. At times the book seems light-hearted, certainly when the team are trying to steal the the 'Universal Principles' which it turns out the King of Pharpech sits on at his coronation. Pharpech is a low tech society with quaint rituals and at times you feel is created for humour. Sharply different in tone are scenes in the Sea House, the grim prison where Breyguhn is held and certainly the long section where the team struggle against increasing odds along the shore of a fjord to reach the location of the Lazy Gun and suffer more and more at the hands of a competing team of mercenaries. The characters we have come to know well through numerous interactions and their thrilling and entertaining scrapes and now in a bleak existential crisis something like journey of Captain Robert Scott at the Antarctic. The reader is warned of the bleakness from the comments on the book, but they sit uneasily alongside the jokey almost spoof-like section in Pharpech. Added to that, not to spoil it too much but Banks bottles out and a machina ex machina means he steps away from what at times would seem the inevitable outcome, not just once but again and again.

This could have been a brilliant book. There is a rich imagination at work in the book which fascinates you. The story and the twists are engaging. The trouble is, as happens too often, Banks rattles through it unfettered; perhaps uncontrolled, thus you are left scrabbling after him across rapids, uncertain of what he is actually showing you as you hurtle past it. As a result, you cannot really appreciate the details or the plot as much as you should be able to do.


Non-Fiction

'Europe of the Dictators' by Elizabeth Wiskemann

This book, published in 1966, was often recommended to me. I have carried around a very battered copy for about 35 years and finally got around to reading it. Yes, it is dated. Writing such a book today I do not think a historian would speak about regions of Europe as being 'backward' or note every politician she mentions who happens to be Jewish. However, as a general survey of European history 1919-45, it remains incredibly astute. A lot of writers could learn how in a book of 287 pages in my edition she manages to actually get in far more detail than many larger survey books of the period. 

Just minor examples, she outlines the three Austrian banks that collapsed in 1931, outlining the connections between them, whereas most accounts only speak of one. She does not forget to describe what happened to both Slovakia and Ruthenia when Bohemia-Moravia was occupied by the Germans in 1939 and so on. That might seem not major issues, but having read numerous books on this period down the years, I learnt elements of value from this one. She does look at Europe, seeking to include what was happening in countries that are typically neglected, such as down to Luxembourg, let alone the Baltic States, the Nordic states, and so as well as the Powers of the era.

The other strength of this book is the style. It is brisk, almost energetic, and yet never loses that clarity. Even complex situations are explained very crisply. This is one of those history books that you can almost read like a novel. Yet, it is not pure narrative; the analysis built on the foundations of those details is there. Thus, I certainly regret not having come to this book sooner and would say, that despite its age, it remains one of the best survey history books on the developments in Europe at this time that I have read.

Monday, 28 February 2022

Books I Read In February

 Fiction

'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

A huge (782-page) hardback copy of this book was given to me by a big fan of the novel. His tastes sum up the nature of the book. While he likes science fiction and fantasy novels and movies, he is also a fan of Anthony Trollope and Vikram Seth. This book is fantasy novel, set 1806-1817 but in a world where magic is real and for a large part of the Middle Ages, England was divided into two kingdoms with the northern one ruled from Newcastle by John Uskglass, the so-called Raven King, a man trained in magic while in Faerie as a child. The style of the novel is that of Austen (more 'Mansfield Park' than 'Pride and Prejudice'), Dickens and indeed Trollope, though without the humour. As the title of the book might suggest, like an early 19th Century novel it focuses on the relationship between the two eponymous men. There is action and some adventure, especially in the closing stages but a lot of the book is about how the two characters revive English Magic - other parts of the world remain devoid of it - and their increasingly different views on how it should be treated.

Neither man is a hero. Gilbert Norrell wants a personal monopoly on magic and works hard to buy up every book from the 'golden' and 'silver' ages of magic of the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods. He tries to clamp down on any practitioners, including his own servants. In contrast Strange wants to acknowledge past contact with Faerie; make use of routes between mirrors; widen access to magic and so seeks to publish books and establish schools of magic. Yet, his ambitions also lead him to be neglectful of his lovely wife who is abducted by a Faerie king who is never named but intervenes throughout the book for his own selfish, indeed wicked aims. Both magicians work for the government and some of the most interesting scenes are when Strange goes abroad (Norrell keeps very much to his house now in London) to work with the army in the Peninsular War and later many of the exceptional genuine incidents of the Battle of Waterloo are explained as being the result of Strange's magic.

Some of the minor characters are particularly interesting. Stephen Black is a black butler of Sir Walter Pole, the politician whose fiancée Norrell brings back to life as a way of becoming established in London society but at a huge cost in terms of the deal he has to make with the unnamed faerie king. Black becomes a protégée of this king who constantly drags him off to dreary festivities in his kingdom but because he cannot understand 19th Century society is convinced Stephen will become King of England. Both Lady Pole and Arabella Strange become ensnared by and suffer at the hands of this faerie king. The theme of women suffering both psychologically and physically due to the ambitions of their husbands is one that runs right through the novel. John Childermass, Norrell's valet who is developing his own magic skills and Vinculus a street magician are also interesting characters. I felt the novel strengthened when Black and Childermass becomes more of protagonists.

The strength of the novel is the world building that Clarke does, both portraying society of the time and the actual politicians with the mixing in of a magic world - reinforced by numerous lengthy footnotes to books and legends from this alternate world. If you are into mainstream fantasy rather than 19th Century society novels, then the pace will feel very slow. In addition, the focus on the tensions between the two magicians might seem unexciting unless you found 'Mansfield Park' engaging. The work that went into it and the deftness with story telling and skilful pastiche writing are to be admired, especially as this was Clarke's first book. I am interested to read 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories' (2006) set in the same universe but with a focus on women.


'The Wild Wood' by Charles de Lint

Given that he has published 28 novels since 1984 in addition to novellas and young adult fiction, I was really surprised that I had never seen a book by De Lint ever before. I can only put this down to him being Canadian and not read by people in the places I have lived. Picking up this book from a charity stand in a supermarket, I thought it was simply a contemporary novel. In part it is. It is set in an area of Canada which I thought was near the Ontario-Quebec border, but seems to be fictional. It is about a painter who has relocated to a remote forested area into a wooden house built by neighbours who she is relatively close to, though they are spread out over quite a geographical area of forest and lake, though within relatively easy drive of some urban centres. What I was unaware of is that De Lint is seen as the originator of urban fantasy and this book soon turns out to be a magic realist novel. There are gritty aspects of Eithnie's youth - notably a miscarriage - and especially that of her cousin, Sharleen, who becomes a support as things turn weird for Eithnie.

If you know that De Lint writes fantastical stories then you quickly understand that the stalker is not a human threat; this is not going to to turn into a horror-thriller with her trying to escape a murderer in remote woodlands. Instead spirits of the polluted forest and lakes are seeking to have humans who will support them going into the future. Eithnie is originally terrified by them but learns to get on with natural spirits on a visit to two artist friends in Arizona. Then the book goes off the deep end and really should carry some warning. As it does not, at least in the edition I have, I will alert you to the fact that eventually Eithnie is impregnated by a wooden man/tree spirit and ends up having its child. I do not know what the plant version of bestiality is, but this is what happens in this book. In line with stories around Faerie, which this explicitly becomes, the child will not remain in our world but go into the spirit world as a bridge.

There are some bits of the book which are pleasant. The portrayal of the Canadian wilderness is evocative. The characters and the interactions between them are believable. This could have been a decent contemporary novel about an artist refinding their inspiration and having a nice relationship with her mysterious but handsome and manly neighbour. However, it takes a turn into something quite different which is intentionally unsettling, even though packaged up (both in terms of the story and the cover) in a rather twee context. Maybe it was a good thing I had not come across De Lint's work before and I will certainly not be seeking it out. The one plus point about this book is that in my edition it is only 205 pages long. I often mourn that science fiction and fantasy books, unlike in the late 1960s/early 1970s are rarely tolerated as being that concise and I wish more were. Maybe De Lint was allowed to get away with it as on the surface this looks like literary fiction rather than fantasy. It maybe because it started out as part of a collection commissioned in 1994 by Brian Foud. This novel as a standalone book does caution me to read up on authors before I buy their books, even if from a charity stand.


'The Poet' by Michael Connelly

I had not realised that Connelly had published this book in 1996 while still producing the Harry Bosch series. There are references to the series of murders featured in this novel in other Connelly books. The main character is Jack McEvoy a crime feature journalist for a newspaper in Denver. When his twin brother, a murder detective, is found apparently having committed suicide, close to where their sister drowned, McEvoy begins to investigate. Soon her uncovers a whole series of apparent suicides by murder detectives leading on various cases featuring murders of children or people associated with the care of children. The book alternates between McEvoy traipsing across the USA, for the most part in the company of FBI agents and a paedophile and murderer named William Gladden who may be connected to the murders McEvoy is looking into but in what way, even when he becomes the prime suspect, we do not know. It is never pleasant reading from the perspective of a criminal in detective stories, but especially this one who is open about his abuse of children and remains with the corpse of an adult victim over a period of days. 

I can see why Connelly introduced the Gladden aspect as in general this is not a particularly exciting book. Yes we expect some police procedure but here we get police, FBI and journalistic procedure. There is a lot of McEvoy sitting around in hotel rooms connecting his computer's modem them disconnecting it so he can make lots of phonecalls. The faked suicide though intriguing seems very contrived. There are some moments of tension and action towards the end and a good twist. However, you have had to wade through a lot of stuff to get to these parts. The relationship between the protagonist and a ballsy female FBI agent feels very stereotypical; almost Connelly's default setting. The expanse of the case really weakens the gritty immediacy of Connelly's best stories; too much in this is down the end of a phoneline.


Non-Fiction

'The Nation State and National Self-Determination' by Alfred Cobban

In theory the edition I bought of this book was the 1969 revised edition of Cobban's 1945 book. However, aside from some scanty sections on self-determination in Asia and Africa in the 1940s-60s, throughout it was difficult to tell where at all it had been updated. Though the section on nations within the USSR was sound, Soviet suppression of nationalities in Eastern Europe was not developed. The strongest parts of the book are around the development of nationalism in the late 19th Century and especially in terms of the contradictory imposition of it through the Peace Treaties of 1919-20; 1923 and the Nazi abuse of the concept. The population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s and the ejection of Germans from Eastern European states in 1945, are not featured or insufficiently.

The book keeps coming back to the philosophical and intellectual roots of self-determination. As Cobban admits many of his arguments are circular yet he tends to go through them again and again, such as how pragmatic in terms of economy and borders peacemakers should be; seeing whether self-determination requires or drives on democracy; asking how 'far' self-determination can go, for example, in terms of nations such as the Welsh, Bretons and Catalans - though in the latter case utterly neglecting Franco's suppression of regionalism. In a very colonialist attitude, even in the largely post-colonial age by 1969, he portrays much African nationalism as tribal. He recognises that colonialism has lumped together various tribes and divided others but in contrast to his portrayal of Europe, sees this as something the new African countries have to deal with pragmatically not through self-determination. He makes no mention of the confederations attempted in Africa and the Middle East. He gets very confused by the Israel/Palestine situation and seems overly optimistic of a multi-nation solution. 

On US foreign/imperial policy Cobban presents a false picture of it having abandoned its interventionism of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, whereas in the name of the Cold War direct and indirect intervention across the Caribbean, Central and Southern America became even more active than before and indeed a kind of Monroe Doctrine was extended to the oil regions of the Middle East under the Eisenhower Doctrine.

I can understand why there was a need to update this book. However, the revisions were highly limited and even before getting on to post-1945 there are odd ellipses which simply multiply when Cobban is addressing the Cold War era as if while he could disentangle the complexities of the inter-war era he was at a loss in the post-1945 contexts. The philosophical element which could have endured through the decades is circular and consequently weak anyway. The value in this book is primarily around the different pressures on and from self-determination at the time of the post-First World War peace treaties.

Monday, 31 January 2022

Books I Read In January

 Fiction

'Blood Work' by Michael Connelly

This was the first non-Harry Bosch book I had read by Connelly. It has many of the same traits, being set in California and having a grittiness about it, that is reminiscent of 'hard boiled' crime novels of the mid-20th Century. However, he has tried to adopt a slightly different approach in having a former FBI investigator being asked by the sister of the dead woman who provided his heart transplant to investigate her murder. While the character Terry McCaleb lives on a boat, like Sonny Crockett in 'Miami Vice' (1984-90) though this one is rather a worn down one which belonged to his father, he has no legal standing and has to rely on favours especially from an old friend in the sheriff's office. As might be expected the killing during a hold-up proves to be more than it first appears and connected to a number of other killings.

The motivation for the killing does seem rather contorted and the signposts, retrospectively seem very blatant. However, the difficulty of trying to investigate without even the powers a US private investigator has and a man who is far from healthy, is an interesting approach; for much of the book he has to be driven around by his neighbour who keeps pushing his nose into the investigation. There are some interesting scenes when he is trying to get information illicitly and is running up against opposition from the police and those connected to the victims. It is pretty good on the impact of an apparently random killing on the people left behind. Overall, not a bad attempt. As I say, some of it seems rather far-fetched after the link between the crimes is revealed, but the story telling is otherwise reasonable.

I had not realised it was made into a movie in 2002, starring Clint Eastwood; I have never come across it.


'Dragonflight' by Anne McCaffrey

This is the first in a series of fantasy books that were very popular when I was a teenager. The edition I have, published in 1992 was the 19th reprint of the book first published in 1969. However, like 'The Lord of the Rings' (1954-55) trilogy and 'The Mists of Avalon' (1983), I felt it was too too much of a rather naff, overused fantasy trope. They say do not judge books by their covers, but with this one, from those covers I assumed the whole series was rather a wishy-washy fairy story sequence about princesses and dragons. I went off and read Michael Moorcock books instead. However, finding a slim copy in a charity shop - and you can tell the age because it is a fantasy novel coming in at 255 pages, rather than 855 - I thought I would give it a go. In fact it turned out as being far closer to anything by Moorcock than Tolkien or Zimmer Bradley.

For a start, it is effectively, science fiction as it is set on Pern, a world settled by humans, somewhere in the galaxy some millennia earlier. However, distant from Earth technology has reverted to being medieval. The dragons are very much those we know from Western mythology though they have to eat a rocky fuel in order to breathe flame. They have been trained to fly with human riders to intercept 'threads' which fall from another planet which is on an elliptical path and passes close to Pern every 200 years or so. The dragons can teleport and it subsequently proves, travel through time, too. However, seen the last passing, the dragon riders even the hatching of dragons, has declined and they are contested as being necessary for Pern's safety by the various local rulers.

Some of the elements of the novel follow classic fantasy tropes, so Lessa is a young noblewoman whose family were usurped from ruling a Hold, and she has to disguise herself and work in the kitchens until identified as a possible dragon rider and not only does she become one, but she is partnered with the current queen gold dragon. Much of the novel covers how the dragon riders, latterly led by F'lar the rider of the leading male bronze dragon, and Lessa work to restore the standing of the dragon riders in Pern society and ready for the imminent approach of the other planet. They face opposition to various steps from among the dragonriders and wider society, especially among leaders.

What is interesting about the book, is that on the surface this looks like a hundred other fantasy novels. However, undercut with a very strong feminist perspective McCaffrey dodges away from what you might expect. Lessa and F'lar have sex but they are not really lovers. They often have completely different opinions. The piecing together of the history of what happened, how the various Weyrs - strongholds of the dragon riders, have now fallen to just one, is interestingly done. Added to that it soon proves that some of the schemes go badly wrong. The use of apostrophed names probably did fit the trope and some are too alike to make it easy occasionally to decide who is being spoken about.

Overall though, I found the approach refreshing and meant I was uncertain what might happen next rather than going through the motions of a very similar story. I think this rather highlights what has been lost from fantasy writing which was apparent in the late 1960s/early 1970s when people were willing to experiment much more than they are these days. While there is greater representation in fantasy now, an author coming clearly along a feminist line seems less common.

I can see why these books were so popular, though knowing some of the people I know who read them, I do wonder how they got on with the more challenging aspects given the other books they read. Maybe they missed the feminism and simply looked to the dragons in action. Anyway, I do wonder who else like me, in contrast, was put off by the covers, so turned away from books that would have been of interest at the time.


'Eaters of the Dead' by Michael Crichton

This book probably deserves an award for the most misleading title. This book is not a zombie novel but the source of the movie 'The Thirteenth Warrior' (1999). It features a real man, Arab ambassador, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (879-960 CE) who was sent in 922 CE from Baghdad to travel to Bulgaria but never got there and went off on other unrecorded adventures. The first three chapters are a translation of his actual account of travelling through the Middle East to southern Europe and are terribly simplistic and repetitive. Then Crichton brings in the fiction and has Ibn Fadlan travel through Russia to various parts of Scandinavia with a small band of Nordic warriors charged with ridding a particular region of the eponymous eaters of the dead. Most of the rest of the book is about the action against these people, who we are led to believe are Neanderthal survivors living on in remote parts of northern Europe. Crichton wrote the book in 1976 but the edition I have had was came out in 1992 and had a supplementary essay at the end about how his portrayal of different species of humans living on alongside Cro Magnon people has been reinforced. Of course, with the discovery of  Denisovans and Homo luzonensis, now among 20 species of humans identified, subsequently have strengthened his idea even further.

This is not a bad book, but while moderately diverting, it is not engaging. I think at the time Crichton expected us to be more excited by a story about Vikings and Neanderthals, but both are very well known in fiction now. He had no need to include the historical sections of the book and adopting the approaches seen in the movie would have worked much better. In general I would say, do not bother with the book, simply watch the movie, it is a much more satisfying experience especially for audiences today.


'Figure of Hate' by Bernard Knight

This is the ninth book in the novels about Sir John De Wolfe, coroner of southern Devon and as with the previous ones it follows on closely from the one before. The series has now reached October 1195 and there has been a bit of a re-set. The Bush tavern in which De Wolfe has an interest and is run by his mistress has been rebuilt and his brother-in-law has been removed from being Sheriff of Devon on grounds of corruption. Though compelled to retire to his estates he still makes trouble for De Wolfe in this novel. De Wolfe's clerk, Thomas de Peyne has been cleared of the charges against him and can re-enter the church and acquires an apprentice in his work for the coroner.

The novel opens with a fair imminent in Exeter. Perhaps because I have quite often worked as a market trader, I do enjoy stories set against the background of a medieval fair, such as 'Saint Peter's Fair' (1981) by Ellis Peters in the Cadfael series. However, this book does encompass a number of what appear to be distinct crimes, from the murder of a silversmith to the killing of a manor lord fifteen miles outside Exeter. Another element is the inclusion of jousts which were already developing as a kind of professional sporting circuit. The manor lord, Hugh Peverel and his his brother are leading lights in this field, though falling on harder times.

The novel is interesting for these aspects of medieval life. As noted before Knight liked to include different ones and their associated laws in each book. The bringing together of the different crimes is handled quite well, though there is a bit too much riding back and forth to the manor of Barton Peverell. Furthermore arrogant members of the gentry telling De Wolfe repeatedly that he has no jurisdiction and is wasting time is overdone and become very tedious. The level of poverty of serfs especially on a poorly run manor is, however, deftly highlighted. This then, is a solid entry in the series that could have been tauter with some editing of repeated encounters.


Non-Fiction

'American Scoundrel' by Thomas Keneally

Keneally is best known for 'Schindler's Ark' (1982). This book is less a novel than that book, but Keneally seems unable to keep it purely as a work of non-fiction. It focuses on US Congressman and diplomat Major General Daniel Sickles (1819-1914). He was a politician from New York city in the mid-19th Century. He was very involved in corrupt practices right from the start. He was highly disreputable, having a string of mistresses and taking a brothel madam as his companion to meet Queen Victoria when serving in the US diplomatic service in London. He made friends relatively easy and also created hangers-on via the corrupt allocation of posts at city and national level. He got to such a level that he was friendly with President James Buchanan, who when ambassador to Britain he served under and the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Though supportive of the slave states' rights, he did a volte face at the outbreak of the civil war, infuriated by the secessionists' attacks on federal property. Raising army units in New York, he eventually rose to be a Major General in command of the Union's Third Corps and was at the Battle of Gettysburg where he lost a leg.

Though Keneally gives immense detail, at times very tedious about, Sickles, his main focus is on his acquittal for murdering Philip Key, the District Attorney for Washington D.C., close to the White House. He shot the man repeatedly with two pistols and there was no doubt he had murdered him. Key had been having an ill-concealed relationship with Sickles's wife, Teresa, eighteen years his junior. Sickles was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity provoked by the flagrant affair that Key had had with his wife. This was the first time temporary insanity had been used as a defence in the USA. Teresa and his daughter were compelled to retire from public life in shame and were neglected by Sickles for the rest of his life; his daughter Laura died in poverty aged 38. Sickles repeated the same behaviour with his second wife, the Spaniard Carmina Creagh who he met while US ambassador to Spain and with whom he had two children.

One might comprehend that this book highlights the double standards of the day and indeed that have persist into modern times. A man can be corrupt, have a string of lovers and cheat on his wife repeatedly, but one affair by her is condemned so severely that it is seen as permissible for her to have her lover murdered with impunity and for her to be shunned by society as the guilty party. Keneally largely neglects this perspective. His attitude towards Sickles is highly ambivalent and you keep feeling that he cannot help himself admire the man. At times, especially when Teresa was almost a recluse in New York, he throws in these weird speculations about how there could have been a reconciliation to her by her husband and how she could have played roles like other politicians' and generals' wives. These bits are odd in a book which in theory is a history book, because they have no basis beyond Keneally's imagination. They also neglect Sickles's supreme arrogance that despite his sustained promiscuous behaviour and even after having murdered her lover, it seems with malice aforethought if not cold blood, he was so offended as never to forgive her.

There are interesting background elements about US society in the mid- to late 19th Century. It is no surprise to see that corruption and violent crime even by 'respectable' members of US society were as rife then as they are now. The carrying of guns in Washington and their use seems very contemporary to us. The prime problem is that Keneally cannot shake off his admiration for Daniel Sickles and so throughout you feel that he is complicit with the corruption, the double standards and the arrogance. As a reader of today, that is a slant that is very hard to swallow. There are further problems at least with the version of the book I was given, published by Vintage in 2002. The type is tiny and to make it worse the opening lines of each chapter are in pale grey rather than black.

Overall unless you are a really arrogant misogynist who wants to look for some kind of role model, I would completely avoid this book. For a modern audience, even more than 20 years ago, the author's ambivalence to inappropriate behaviour really sticks in your throat.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Books I Read In December

Just to say that while I slowed up towards the end of the year, actually having a bedroom of my own rather than having to sleep in the living room has boosted my reading and despite having some very poorly written, heavy going and long books, I have managed to get through 48 this year, 21 of which have been over 400 pages long and 2 have been more than 900 pages. Driving very little during the Covid period has meant audio books falling away for me.

Fiction

'Gridlinked' by Neal Asher

I was not surprised to find that this book had been published in 2000 (though Wikipedia says 2001). Where it had been sitting unread before it was taken to my local charity shop, I do not know. What betrayed its age was that from the outset it has a real 1980s/90s cyberpunk feel to it. It features a 'hero', Ian Cormac, so emotionless that he is mistaken for an android at the start of the novel. He is a government counter-terrorist officer. Ironically, having been gridlinked, i.e. connected to the Polity, the controlling computer system of the regime controlling multiple solar systems for thirty years, he soon disconnects and has to find his way using more traditional approaches. In theory his antagonist is Arian Pelter a terrorist whose sister Cormac kills brutally early in the book. Pelter keeps loading himself up with more cyberpunk augmentations and makes use of a heavy duty android. So far, so cyberpunk as Cormac pursues Pelter rather half-heartedly, guided by a perhaps immortal Oriental guru. However, Asher is not satisfied with simply a cyberpunk revenge plot filled with so much violence that at times it is difficult to see the characters as much more than psychopaths both on a rampage across the galaxy.

There is a second strand to this book which feels like a different novel has been levered into the first one. It is more classically science fiction and might have been written by Iain M. Banks and is around Cormac's relationship with a super-powerful being known as Dragon and its own attempts to explore mysterious artefacts on a planet that belong to an ultra-powerful being, Maker. Either of these storylines would have been sufficient in itself. There is sufficient drama in either the hunt/revenge or the handling the super-beings to fill a novel. By having both in the same book draws tension out of each.

A further challenge is that having two main characters who are both very cold and ruthless means that the reader feels very much like they are looking in, perhaps watching two predators killing other creatures until they come face-to-face to inflict violence on the other and his small army. Asher seems to realise this and towards the end the fixer Stanton and the pilot/smuggler Jarvellis are raised from being minor characters to being much more of a secondary storyline and their interactions 'softened' to give the reader something they might feel affinity with.

Though this book is very flawed, it clearly did nothing to harm Asher's career and he has gone on to have 18 more books published, including 4 more featuring Cormac. I do not know if he improved or if he was better advised/edited. I was a fan of cyberpunk, especially the work of Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams and George Alec Effinger. However, Asher's book lacks something. It is almost as if he had a list of tropes not simply from cyberpunk but many from classic science fiction too, and felt he had not succeeded until he had squeezed every one of them in. I think even he realised that having too many characters lacking humanity makes it hard to human readers to engage with them. I know many people like action, I do myself, but it can become numbing when it is incessant and especially when scenes seemed to be set up just to allow Pelter and his current team to slaughter them as happens when they find they are being followed on Huma. As you can imagine I am not in a rush to seek out Asher's other novels and feel I could find much of the same, executed more skilfully, by others.


'Empire of Dragons' by Valerio Massimo Manfredi; translated by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi

Though he has written 24 novels, some of which are available in English, Manfredi was an archaeology academic. Much of what he researched about the ancient world has formed a basis for his fiction. Perhaps in the UK his fictional work is best known as the basis of the 2007 movie, 'The Last Legion'. Like that movie and the novel it was based on, Manfredi is willing to mix in the fantastical with the historical. This novel features a group of 11 Roman legionaries, led by Legate Marcus Metellus Aquila of the II Legion are captured by Persian troops while trying to defend the Emperor Valerian during the siege of Edessa (in what is now Syria) in 260 CE. Sent to a mine, they manage to escape and in league with a Chinese prince and a merchant end up travelling to China at the time of the Three Kingdoms. Ironically, as Manfredi outlines at the end of the book not only such contact was possible, some was actually likely.

Despite Manfredi's background this is very similar in style to the epic Roman military style to many books out there, I would just pick on Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane and J. Clifton Slater as three among very many. There is a load of machismo throughout with the required quantity of brotherly bonding between the soldiers and tragic deaths. Manfredi also has room for some romance along the way and unlike some authors of historical military fiction does feature the occasional woman.

I think I have probably now read too many books of this kind and so my palate was jaded for any more. The other thing, is despite all the grounding in historical fact, Manfredi cannot let go of the fantastical. Thus, the Chinese the Romans meet often have very mystical powers enabling them to achieve phenomenal acrobatic feats and sustain themselves with minimal sustenance. This portrayal of Chinese monks and their philosophy as providing magical abilities is very tired and probably was even when this book was published in 2006.

Manfredi had published 14 books by the time this one came out. However, the text in the early parts of the novel is very lifeless despite the dramatic scenes being portrayed. It improves in the latter half of the book. I am not sure, not reading Italian, if this reflects the original text or was a result of the translation. However, it adds to that sense that this is all rather a tired premise that has been done so many times before and since. Perhaps if Manfredi is the first author of Roman military epics you come to, this would seem fine. For me, though, despite the author's credentials and an interesting premise, the book is weighed down by too many tropes to really sparkle for me.


Non-Fiction

'Europe in the Eighteenth Century 1713/1783' by M.S. [Matthew Smith] Anderson

This another of those general survey history books of the A General History of Europe series overseen by Professor Denis Hay in the 1960s-80s, that at some time, probably in the late 1980s, I bought quite a lot of second hand and they have sat in storage ever since. Sometimes such books can be laboured. Sometimes, as in the similar series I read in September: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2021/09/books-i-read-in-september.html you find an author like J.R. Hale who really makes the text lively and engaging. Anderson proves to be somewhere in the middle. The period is a complex one, and explaining the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, let alone the Seven Years' War, the first global conflict and colonial rivalries of the various powers is not an easy task in a survey history book. Where Anderson does best is in looking at specific countries and their development in this period.

Probably aware that France in the lead-up to the revolution which broke out six years after this book ends, gets a lot of coverage, he focuses a good deal on Russia, Poland, Prussia and the Habsburg lands. I found his explanation of the development of these countries and how they impacted on the rest of the continent well handled. He also includes Sweden, the Ottoman Empire and Spain, which again can get lost on the periphery, even when looking at a period such as this when they were important in the balance of power in Europe.

While I have launched into the geo-political aspects, it is right to note that in fact these come after he h as explored the societies of Europe and shown how this period was one of developing but incomplete steps forward in terms of administering societies and beginning to shape them in a way which we would see as modern. He also does not neglect the cultural aspects and draws out distinctions in what we might see very broadly as culture of the time especially in terms of architecture and music. Indeed, much of this book whether political, administrative or cultural, emphasises just how complexly diverse Europe was at the time. To do that while largely not drowning the reader in masses of detail is quite an achievement. This might not be an impressive book, but for the large part, it is an effective book and I came away from it with a far greater sense of being an era of substantial transition these seventy years were.