Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Books I Listened To/Read In July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 30 June 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In May

'The Ultimate Threshold. A Collection of the Finest in Soviet Science Fiction' translated and edited by Mirra Ginsburg
I was interested when I ran across this book, published in 1970 by Penguin to think that it was a collection of science fiction from a country that no longer existed.  The stories were published, 1963-68 through the more liberal Nikita Khrushchev years and into the harder time of Leonid Brezhnev.  Having seen imagery online of Soviet intentions for developments in space, I wondered what they thought would be the future in fiction.    As Ginsburg outlines at the start, it is a surprise.  It is clear, as she says, that authors in this genre had far greater freedom in others and they use this to express views that ran counter to the proclaimed Soviet attitude.  There is as much individualism in these stories as you would have found from a US science fiction collection of the time. Indeed 'One Less' by Igor Rosokhovatsky about the impact of the death of one man chimes with some anti-abortion arguments used in the USA presently.

The best story is probably 'The Useless Planet' by Olga Larionova which features aliens exploring Ancient Greece and determining how useless the planet is.  One explorer, like them all, able to take on a variety of forms and remains behind in the form of a statue which can come to life, so inspiring various legends.  There are overtones in this of how a large bureaucracy may define things that are essentially human as 'useless'.  A little in this line is the eponymous story by Herman Maximov about a device which allows people to commit suicide and 'When You Return' by Igor Rosokhovatsky about a dead husband/father being replaced by an android version of him with his memories but far stronger; able to fly which reminded me a little of 'Robocop' (1987/2014) but far gentler. 'We Played Under Your Window' by the same author shows alien technology bringing a man back to life, effectively the kind of clone seen in the 'Dune' series and work by Walter Jon Williams, though bittersweetly they do it too late for him to be reunited with those he loved.

Some of the stories have a kind of tone of a fable or morality tale, such as 'Icarus and Daedalus' by Henrik Altov about two pilots racing through a star.  'Erem' by Cleb Anfilov can almost be seen as a critique of how the Soviet system used its people through showing a sentient robot willing to work to save its base but with no reward bar 'death'.  Another is 'The Horn of Plenty' by Vladimir Grigoriev about a device to convert rubbish into useful products, turned by the Soviet system to producing rubbish from useful items.  Another like this is 'Preliminary Research' by Ilya Varshavsky in which scientists are brought to work for a sinister organisation and their ideas are distorted to benefit criminal and terroristic activities; those who resist are disappeared.  'He Who Leaves No Trace' by Mikhail Yemtsev and Yeremy Parnov is a kind of 'magician's apprentice' story of a man whose clones get out of control.

One interesting thing is that many of the authors were actual scientists, so you seen some interesting predictions.  One I was struck by in 'Icarus and Daedalus' by Anatoly Dneprov is that when light does not function to indicate their way, they use monitors of gravitational waves to find their path, a force only recently confirmed as existing.  'Formula of Immortality' from 1963 reminded me of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968) in its focus on people constructed using DNA but with a very fixed life duration built in.

'When Questions Are Asked' by Anatoly Dneprov is really a cautionary tale about being cautious with contamination of testing as is light hearted.  It stands out from the others for that fact.  Overall, if I had not known the authors were Soviet I would have felt this was a typical science fiction book of that golden age of the late 1960s/early 1970s.  It is clear that the genre bucked so many trends in Soviet society and like the best science fiction in any society held a mirror to the context from which it arose as much as speculating on the future.  The stories are generally crisp and cover ideas equal to anything coming out of the USA at the time.  I do wonder what happened to these authors and whether they are still read in Russia today, let alone being more widely available in the West than this obscure sampler of them.

'The Siege of Krishnapur' by J.G. Farrell
As regular readers of this blog will know, I rarely do well with books that have been recommended to me and this is a case in point.  I had read how this book, which won the Booker Prize in 1973, which is about a fictional village under siege during the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58, was based on diaries, memoirs and letters to make it very accurate.  That seemed like a good basis for a novel.  However, it is very disappointing.  The characters that are featured do give a good impression of the people involved in running India when it was under the control of the East India Company rather than the British Government.  While some have an efficiency or even self-assumed altruistic approach, the profit motive is at the heart of it all; the senior officer during the siege is the Collector.  We read some details of the opium trade.  The E.I.C. grew opium in India to sell to the Chinese population, contrary to the wishes of their government, in order to earn Chinese silver and to buy tea, porcelain, silk and rhubarb, in high demand in Britain.

Too many of the characters are quirky and Farrell's writing means that we never sympathise with any of them even when they are facing starvation and disease.  It is quite incredible that we care so little for these people in such circumstances.  By the end of the book you are just glad it is all over.  I think that the petty obsessions of each of the major characters makes it all seem rather frivolous and undermines any genuine concern we have for them.  There is also a surprising lack of tension in the book, even during the battles.  I guess that arises from us caring so little for the people being written about.  I do not know whether it was Farrell's intention to make the British colonisers to appear so useless; so wrapped up with all their hobbyhorses, to be dim when it came to their circumstances and waste time on the unimportant.  Either it is an incredibly subtle but acute critique of British society or it is just the failing of him being able to conjure up any character we engage with.  As a result of these flaws, I simply found this book tedious and was simply glad when it was over.  I regret reading the recommendation for this book which I saw on 'The Guardian' website.  I should have gone with my caution over recommendations.  A little hypocritically, I hope that my review is of use, but in warning you away from this tiresome novel, which despite the supposed background research, comes across very much as an artifice.

'Run Man Run' by Chester Himes
This book was published in 1967.  Though there are references to culture, especially outlets in New York, that date it, you could easily produce a hard-hitting drama based on the novel set in 2018 and still be highly relevant.  This book is far better than the two previous novels by Himes that I have read: 'The Crazy Kill' (1959) and 'The Big Gold Dream' (1960).  You can really see the author's development in his writing.  This novel does not feature the two black detectives, 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson, but is still set in Harlem and surrounding districts and features New York police, though in this case primarily two white detectives.  What makes 'Run Man Run'  current is the focus the killing of two black luncheonette workers and the wounding of a third, all shot by a white police detective, a challenge that remains 51 years later in many parts of the USA.  Without lecturing the reader, Himes works through the assumptions about black men and how they are so easily portrayed as being associated with crime even when in this case all three victims are working men and one is also a student at Columbia University.  The strength of the word of a black and a white man, especially a police officer, is shown here just as we see on the news regularly nowadays.

I have criticised Himes in the previous two novels I read for leading his characters running around Harlem not achieving a great deal and in the end becoming tiresome.  In this novel, however, he really jacks up the tension much more effectively especially when the third man is being pursued by the detective wanting to silence him.  Himes jumps between different perspectives abruptly, which may be criticised but it helps ensure that we have no idea of the outcome and how will survive. We also do not know who will be believed or dismissed.  Even the hero's girlfriend is uncertain of him and many of his complaints are thrown out as being insane.  As before there is excellent detail about the time and the place; the appearance of Malcolm X and a rising black consciousness towards the end of the 1960s is integrated.  It adds to the assumptions made against black men, that they are not just criminals but terrorists too and so there are parallels to views of the Irish in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s and Muslims in the USA in the present day.  This is a brisk (191 pages in my edition) book which is both an effective thriller and also engages with many American issues which are as alive today as in 1967.

'The Russian Revolution' by Sheila Fitzpatrick
I read the 1994 edition of this book which, originally published in 1982, had been updated and expanded following the fall of the USSR three years earlier.  This book is excellent and I can easily understand why it remains in print, with a newly revised edition out in 2017.  My edition was only 199 pages long including references, but Fitzpatrick's analysis is far sharper than many lumbering books I have read on the incidents.  She begins by defining what she sees as the revolution and while focused on Russia rather than other states that broke from its empire, she sees the revolution as running from 1917 to 1937.  The book is particularly strong on the period between the February/March Revolution and the October/November Revolution, a period which tends to get overlooked.  Fitzpatrick certainly does well in countering any assumption of inevitability about the Bolshevik victory, even Lenin's leadership of it.  Other highlights are her analysis of the social impact of Stalin's industrialisation, revealing how the working class had so declined as a result of the Bolshevik seizure of power and the civil war that followed.  She is also good on the Cultural Revolution that Stalin's consolidation brought about and how it established the future leaders of the USSR while killing so many others.  This is a crisp, highly perceptive book that I recommend.

Fiction - Audio Books
'Munich' by Robert Harris; read by David Rintoul
It is interesting that the events of September 1938 at the Munich Conference, despite being seen as the summit of the policy of appeasement are now so poorly known that I saw one commentator to the 'The Guardian' review of this book assume it was an alternate history.  Harris published one very successful alternate history book 'Fatherland' in 1992.  Since then his output has largely been historical novels, yes, fictional but embedded in what really happened.  This book is no different.  Harris, it is revealed in the acknowledgements was fascinated by the Munich Conference following being the presenter of a documentary broadcast in 1988, 'God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain'.  Thus this book is filled with immense detail about what happened in the days around the conference.  He does involve some adventure with his two 'heroes', a German and a British diplomat trying to make Chamberlain aware of the Hossbach Memorandum produced in 1937 that showed Hitler's objective was clearly war despite his rhetoric about peace.  One the German side we see a little of the Oster plot against Hitler, again genuine.

If you do not enjoy details of background discussions then this will not be the book for you.  However, I feel Harris brings to life the men involved, well representing their different characters and opinions around what was happening.  It is far better at 'explaining' Munich from the British side than the Lammers book I read in February.  I do feel that Harris is far too much of an apologist for Chamberlain.  It shows how stubbornly he clung to foolish opinions even when his colleagues in the Cabinet put forward different views that would have been more beneficial to Britain's position and above all to the Czechs.  Harris does show how much contempt Chamberlain had for the Czechs, at best patronising them but generally working from the basis that Czechoslovakia was illegitimate anyway and so it was nothing to give territory from it to Germany.  Running through this is a sense of national superiority on the part of Chamberlain, which far from being as harsh as Hitler's certainly bent that way.  I wish Harris had shown Chamberlain to have been more of the misguided fool that he actually was.  However, he does signal his ill-health which was to kill him a little over two years later.

The success of this book is in how it provides genuine tension even when we know the outcome.  It also succeeds in bringing alive very dull people from the past and giving us some insight into their context, especially how it shaped their behaviour, though falling at the last through being far too sympathetic to Chamberlain.  It is only at the end of the book that you are made truly aware of the futility of everything that was done at Munich and around the conference.  David Rintoul is perfect for reading this book, being able to produce a great range of voices to represent the different politicians and officials on both sides.  If you are more sympathetic to Neville Chamberlain than I am you might enjoy this book thoroughly.  For me it was decent, rather than outstanding; frustrating and ultimately depressing.

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen; read by Joanna David
I realised from the woman who lived in my house watching the DVDs of the BBC 1995 dramatisation of the story that I knew pretty much all of this story.  It is very light, but at least given some humour to make it seem less insubstantial.  There are some rather over-emphasised characters especially in Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but they add some depth to the book.  I feel sorry for the people Austen portrays.  Yes, they are spared the poverty of many of the era, but have an insecurity of situation which especially for the women compels them to obsess over the game of finding a suitable partner to marry.  Aside from that their lives are very tedious, with some singing and piano playing; playing card games, visiting friends and relatives and the occasional ball, the only distractions.  The advantage of the book is that the omniscient narrator is able to show the inner thoughts of Mr Darcy which makes his shifting attitude towards Elizabeth Bennett seem to start earlier and be more logical than having to show this through facial expressions on the screen.  I would hardly say that I enjoyed the book, but it passed the time and it was good to have heard the original material and know how close the dramatisation that I know best, was to it.

Joanna David who appeared in that dramatisation as Mrs Gardiner is perfect for voicing this story.  She does the voices of the men as well as the range of the women and is especially good with Mrs. Bennett and Lady de Bourgh.

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley; read by Richard Pasco
It is interesting how you gain an impression of a book from how it is represented in popular media rather than its actual pattern.  Of course, I knew this book was not the same as the horror movies of the 20th century.  However, I had not realised how much of a philosophical book it was and how many of the themes it explores have relevance now, perhaps more so even than in the intervening 200 years since it was published.  The approach is effectively nested monologues from an explorer of the Arctic relaying the monologue of Victor Frankenstein and in turn Frankenstein relaying what the creature says about his experiences and motives.  To some degree this approach excuses Victor in a way that I feel modern readers will not let him get away with. 

There is an early 19th century assumption that the deformed are inherently evil and should be dismissed anyway, in a way that would be intolerable nowadays.  Though, saying that, the last few years have again raised particular hostility towards the 'other' in terms of assumptions, for example, immigrants.  There also seems a return to the belief that certain behaviours are inherent in particular sorts of people, whereas Shelley shows effectively how mistreatment breeds mistreatment and can turn even the kindest spirit, malicious with repeated inflictions.

Victor Frankenstein does come across as a victim himself and I was not certain if Shelley intended this or expected the reader to see that he had brought about his own downfall and misery through his own reckless behaviour at the start and his unwillingness to recognise his responsibilities.  In that, even 200 years later, this book appears as a critique of the self-centred behaviour of young men, especially in terms of any children they may help conceive.

Richard Pasco's reading reminded me of William Roberts's reading of the Lovecraft stories that I listened to last month, though perhaps a little less bombastic, all for the better.  There are numerous dramatic scenes that he articulates well, without going over the top.  He communicates the earnestness of Shelley's writing and her articulation of assumed horror of the creature even before this is evidenced by his actions.  He draws out suitable voices for the different narrators and gives the book the appropriate period feel.  I would not say I enjoyed this book, but I was engaged with it and found it thought provoking and relevant to concerns today, despite its age.

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens; read by Hugh Laurie
This was another book that I had misapprehensions about based primarily on images from the 1946 movie.  I had anticipated that it would be very gloomy in portrayal and depressing; something akin to 'Wuthering Heights' (1847), a book I was compelled to read at school some thirty years ago and have no wish to return to ever again.  Though there are what might be termed 'Gothic' elements, especially in the jilted bride, Miss Haversham and the decaying house she maintains; the bleak marshland in which she and the 'hero', Pip, live, it is a lighter book than I had anticipated.  There are some quirky characters, notably Joe Gargery the blacksmith, Mr. Wopsle a clerk who takes to the stage and especially John Wemmick, a solicitor's clerk with a wonderful fortress-like home.  I had anticipated that Pip would be utterly wrecked by his involvement with Miss Haversham and her plans to wreak revenge on men through her adopted daughter, Estella.  However, while not everything turns out jolly, it actually unfolds to not be such a tragedy and is more really a story of the various ups and downs of Pip's life from childhood into approaching middle age.  The interest stems from the particular nature of the different characters and the interlocking between them in ways which may have been less expected than these days when such coincidences have become over-used.

Hugh Laurie with his light tone, is appropriate for voicing a character who speaks in the first person throughout and is a boy for much of the book.  He pulls off a range of suitably Victorian voices, at times sounding like the late Jon Pertwee in some of his roles.  His tone also keeps the story from descending into that bleak Victorian gloom which so much of Dickens's work is at risk of sinking into and which puts off so many modern readers from even approaching it.  I would hardly say I thought this was a brilliant book, but I found listening to it far more pleasant than I had feared.

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen; read by Jill Balcon
This is another novel that I had formed a misapprehension of.  I knew that it made fun of the taste in Gothic novels that was common at the start of the 19th century.  However, I thought that they made an impact on the book to a greater extent than is actually the case.  The Gothic tropes impinge just in two ways, first through the narrator talking about heroines and what they 'must' do and then when said heroine, Catherine Moreland goes to the eponymous abbey she assumes that the history of the Tilney family complies with the expectations of the novels, i.e. that the father mistreated the mother and kept her confined leading to her death.  However, at the heart the story is pretty much like 'Pride and Prejudice' (1813), i.e. a young middle-ranking woman trying to find a husband and various misunderstandings and upsets delaying the consummation with her target; in this book not helped by a father who is easily misled and another man, John Thorpe, who wants Catherine for himself.

The portrayal of the society around Bath and the various activities is interesting as is the reference to Gothic novels which were popular at the time.  In many ways the discussion of these between Catherine and Isabella Thorpe, makes the book sound contemporary, the girls (Catherine is 17 for most of the book) chatting about them seems very like social media behaviour of nowadays.  There is some light humour but I had hoped for a more dramatic novel even if it debunked the Gothic tropes.  Jill Balcon handles the voices, especially those of the girls, very well, though at times is a little quiet which can be a challenge for car-borne listeners.  If I had come to this book straight without having listened to 'Pride and Prejudice' so recently might have found it fresher.  However, ultimately it felt like more of the same.

'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens; read by Alex Jennings
Like a lot of people I probably know this story best from the musical movie, 'Oliver!' (1968) and as a consequence was unaware of how long the actual story is or how many characters outside the London gang of Fagin, Bill Sykes, Nancy and the Artful Dodger feature.  It begins as a gloomy book in the way that I had feared 'Great Expectations' (1861) would be.  However, it develops to be more like that book as it progresses with more hope for Oliver Twist; rich benefactors; a complex family rivalry and come-uppance for all the wicked people.  At least it does not revel in its misery as that horrendous book clearly inspired by this one, 'The Quincunx' (1989) does at such painful length and offers up at least some shreds of hope.  Dickens was clearly aiming to alert readers to the fate of workhouse orphans and the activities of criminal gangs in London.  There is detail of pick-pocketing and house-breaking; plus journeys through London.  There are a range of mean-spirited characters and at times Dickens shows the civic notables of Oliver's home town, in all their self-righteousness, to be more evil than the criminals in London.  The sense that the poor to blame for their own fate, gave dialogue that you could hear today applied to people on benefits.  Thus, it retains a relevance to today.  I had not expected it to be wrapped up as neatly as it was, but I guess that reflects the demands of the time when it was written.

Alex Jennings tends to fall to stereotypes when voicing Fagin and Bill Sykes, in the latter case unfortunately reminding me of the The Peppermint Nightmare from the television series of 'The Mighty Boosh' (2003-07).  However, he is otherwise very good at conjuring up a range of Victorian characters, especially the busybodies that direct Oliver's life with no compassion.

'Middlemarch' by George Eliot; read by Harriet Walter
As most people know, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans (1819–80).  You can sense a feminist perspective in this book.  In contrast to Jane Austen's (1775-1817) few of the marriages are a success and it is the wife who suffers from the husband's obsessions.  The only really happy one is when the widowed Dorothea goes off with the artist Will Ladislaw at the end of the book with heavily reduced wealth due to her husband disinheriting her of everything if she married him.  These were radical ideas when the book was published in 1871-72 especially when wrapped up in a book which seems on the service just to be a prolonged version of what Austen would have written.

This book is very highly rated.  However, to me, it was utterly tedious.  It is really a 19th century version of the television soap opera 'Emmerdale' (broadcast under two names since 1972).  We simply hear about various women deciding to marry unsuitable men; people borrowing or going short of money; old family scandals; fuss about the reputation of a doctor and various other people plus various philanthropic ventures such as a new hospital and improved housing for the peasants.  It dances around these characters all being very irritated with each other or ashamed of themselves and their behaviour.  Austen gets away with it for keeping everything quite short.  This book just goes on and on and feels far longer than the 6 hours 50 minutes it is read for in the edition I have.  The book is massively over-rated and quickly becomes tiresome, to such an extent it has driven me away from listening to any more of the 'classic' novels in audio book form from Penguin that I had lined up.

Harriet Walter is fine reading this, doing the female and male characters and trying to put some life and a little drama into what is an incredibly limp story.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In April

'A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust' by George R.R. Martin
This was the book that I really felt showed that Martin had lost his way.  This is the first half of the book published in 2011, six years after the previous book 'A Feast for Crows' had been published.  This book overlaps chronologically with that one but features other characters - various members of the Martell family in Dorne including Quentin who has been sent to Essos so his story is separate as he tries to reach Daenerys Targaryen; Reek, formerly Theon Greyjoy who is used by members of the Bolton family who control northern Westeros, John Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall being absorbed into a tree, Lord Davos Seaworth seeking support for King Stannis along the eastern coast of Westeros, Tyrion Lannister making slow progress on the continent of Essos and Daenerys Targaryen simply sitting in Mereen on the same continent while other cities are ravaged and her opponents attack her from inside and without.

The trouble is, no-one does very much or achieves very much.  Despite the book, in my edition, being 690 pages long, most of it is taken up with people just worrying about things.  There are no major battles that we witness first-hand and for much of the time many of the characters achieve very little  Lord Seaworth spends a lot of time trying to win the support of one city.  Tyrion travels on various boats, being sick and fearing he has caught a disease and so on.  Daenerys goes nowhere and while she faces various threats, in fact the real tension for her is over who she is going to have marry and whether that is the same man as she is having sex with.

Martin is clearly in love with the world he has created and thinks we will all delight in it as much as he does.  However, all the epic drive of some of the earlier books, despite the range of situations he had set up is missing.  The slipping chronology does not help.  In this book, we see John Snow thinking about then sending off Sam Tarly, Gilly and Maester Aemon, but we know from the previous book what happens to them all.  It seems apparent that while impressive at first, Martin has lost control of the multiple characters and so they are left simply shifting around.  I am reminded of how quickly Frank Herbert's 'Dune' series similarly went to seed almost drowning beneath the weight of its epicness.  I would much more prefer to read the book of the television series; the narrative of which is much more engaging and surprising than the bloated, inert thing the books have become.

'Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen: Illustrated Modern Prose Adaptation' by Douglas Hill
There are quite a few books that put Spenser's allegorical stories into modern English.  This is a large format version published in the USA in 1980 and I was given it as a present some five years later.  The closest book to this that most readers will be familiar with is 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan.  This book features six 'books' set in a faux Middle Ages, some generations before each was produced, 1590-98, each focused on a worthy knight such as Sir Calidore representing Courtesy or Sir Guyon representing Justice.  They adventure around various locations encountering monsters or evil people such as Despair or Jealousy and places like the Lake of Idleness and Gulf of Greediness.  Some have different names, for example, Pride is represented by a woman called Lucifera.  Even these paragons are not perfect and have to take refuge at times or are aided by the one supreme knight, Prince Arthur, before he is King.  There is much reference to Faerie Land which is ruled over by Gloriana, a representation of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch at the time Spenser was writing.  The imagery is rich if a little simplistic and the stories are quite similar with deceptive characters leading the heroes astray and women to be rescued.

The book is a kind of manual for men aspiring to be knightly.  However, some of the lessons are applicable today.  I particularly felt this with the second book of the story of Sir Guyon a representation of Temperance.  As Hill notes, temperance at the time did not mean abstinence, but a balance between that and over indulgence.  Interestingly, he shows young knights being easily offended by minor sleights and getting into dangerous battles notably with Furor aided by his mother Occasion.  I kept on being reminded of young men in town centres on Saturday nights these days.  Hill also points out that Chastity represented by the female knight Britomartis, another representation of Queen Elizabeth, is not about abstinence but having sex in a good marriage rather than promiscuously or selfishly.  Young people of today would see a book like this as stupid, but its warnings about risks of intemperate behaviour are still accurate today.

It is clear that authors down the centuries have been influenced by this book.  I kept seeing things that echoed characters and scenes in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series by George R.R. Martin, not least Britomart herself who is very reminiscent of Brienne of Tarth, a tall, female knight throughout the series.  Knights associated with flowers remind me of Ser Loras Tyrell.  In the cowardly, comic character of Braggadochio and his squire Trompart of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, especially in his jousting.

The illustrations are pretty random, but I appreciate that Hill is trying to show the characters and settings in the way people of the time might have envisaged them and that is interesting.  For the modern reader this comes across as a very odd book.  However, it has some points, if laboured at times that seem to show Elizabethan society had similarities to our own.  It is also interesting as it helps correct some misapprehensions you might have about attitudes of the time especially around 'proper' behaviour.  It has clearly influenced subsequent authors and there may be references back to it in books nowadays that I am unaware of.

'Sherlock Holmes' by W.S. [William] Baring-Gould
This is a reprint of Baring-Gould's 1962 book, 'Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World's First Consulting Detective' and is effectively a biography of the character.  It draws extensively on the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but also numerous pastiches and articles on the stories which appeared in the mid-20th century.  It is fascinating to see the cases outlined in chronological order rather than the way Dr Watson erratically covered them.  Baring-Gould covers any errors on Conan Doyle's part by making them Watson's or saying that details, especially dates, had been adjusted to protect the sensibilities of people, especially Watson's second wife (of three) and various members of European royalty that Holmes helped.

Holmes, we learn, contrary to every portrayal I have seen of him, was a Yorkshireman and spent a lot of his childhood in France.  He studied at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and in Montpellier.  Baring-Gould adds in elements of his own.  Unlike the impression I imagine most readers have, Irene Adler's marriage turns out to have been bitter and she has a son by Holmes.  He, quite convincingly is shown to be a developing Buddhist especially following his return after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls. Less convincing Baring-Gould has Holmes meeting everyone from Lewis Carroll to George Bernard Shaw and even Jack the Ripper.

Baring-Gould includes text usually from the start or the end of many of Holmes's cases.  If you have not read them then these will be 'spoilers'.  I do not really know why he felt it necessary to include these and can only think it is to add some gravitas to his own pastiche text.  There is enough of interest in the story of his life and those associated with him, notably Mycroft Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Much effort has gone into it, with Baring-Gould benefiting from extensive analysis and speculation by fans down the years.  Overall, I found it a brisk and engaging digest, aided by the fact that I had read all the original stories.  I liked the reference to the cases mentioned in those stories in passing to other cases now extensively written up by June Thomson.

'Modern Spain, 1875-1980' by Raymond Carr
As Carr outlines in the introduction he focuses more on the pre-1930 period than the fifty years after that, in large part because of the number of books in English on the Spanish Civil War.  Saying that, there do not seem to be a great deal on Franco's Spain and I found that section, if a little rushed, very interesting.  Despite the title, the book actually goes back to 1868 and it is strongest in giving a picture of the very complex situation of Spanish politics of the 19th century which is a very good basis for explaining the background for the civil war.  Carr takes time to go through the social and economic developments too and really brings out the variety of experiences across Spain; how diverse its agricultural and industrial patterns were.  He maintains this level into the period of the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, 1923-30. 

Carr then accelerates and gives much thinner attention to his study, which leaves the book rather imbalanced.  He does draw out very interesting points on how close the civil war came to ending almost immediately and the importance of how the army divided in allowing the Republic to fight on.  His focus is largely Spanish so the intervention of other countries gets minimal mention.  I found the elements on Franco's rule 1939-75 very interesting especially in how he shows the shifting sands of the regime, its altering economic focus and how different groups rose and fell.  I think he could have said more about this.  I guess having published this in 1980, just five years after Franco's death, he might have believed readers would be familiar with the regime as current affairs.  Now, however, decades later, it is not familiar to us and this phase of the book would benefit from filling out.  The return to democracy is handled very quickly, but I guess, as most of the book is about how democracy failed because of a range of factors, it is right to draw to a close once it has been established.

This is an engaging book; well written even when explaining convoluted political developments.  It is good at challenging assumptions about Spain.  I think, despite Carr's sense at the time of writing, it would have been a stronger book if the post-1930, and especially the post-1939, sections were strengthened.  However, if you want detail on the period leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, this is a crisp and engaging book.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Casino Royale' by Ian Fleming; read by Dan Stevens
After how surprisingly therapeutic I found listening to 'Dr. No' last month I was able to get an unopened, second hand set of another four James Bond novels in the series, read by a range of actors.  This is the first James Bond book, published in 1953.  It is very simple.  James Bond is sent to France to beat Soviet agent Le Chiffre at cards at the casino in the fictional Royale les Eaux on the Normandy coast; modelled on Deauville and Le Touquet.  Le Chiffre has lost a lot of money in a chain of brothels in northern France after they had been banned and has taken money from the funds of a Communist trade union based in Strasbourg. By bankrupting Le Chiffre it is expected that he will be killed by the Soviet assassination bureau Smersh so disrupting his activities in France and weakening Soviet influence there.

As Stevens notes in the interview at the end of the discs, the book is in three parts.  The first is the build up to the card game in which Bond works with the French agent, Mathis; British operative from S division, the anti-Soviet branch, Vesper Lynd and the CIA agent, Felix Leiter.  The climax of the book is the card game, baccarat followed by the second section, Bond's torture at the hands of Le Chiffre and his henchmen and then a holiday with Vesper along the French coast from Royale les Eaux.  The 2006 movie keeps very close to the book as far as it can given the great changes that have happened in the intervening 53 years.

The book is very much in the shadow of the Second World War which had ended only 8 years before it was published, even while being sharply engaged with the Cold War which followed.  Lynd's Polish boyfriend, Le Chiffre as a displaced person and Bond's connections from the war are some examples. Some of the luxuries seem mundane now - Bond has an avocado pear as dessert in an expensive hotel restaurant; Mathis's cover is as a radio salesmen bringing new radios to important customers.  Certainly to British readers the towns of the Normandy coast are now no more exotic than going to Brighton or perhaps even Bognor Regis.  However, for readers of the time it must have seemed very exciting.

There is less of a battle for Bond in this book compared to the later 'Dr. No', but each of the sections has its own trials - the tensions at the card table especially when Bond is losing, the sustained torture scene and then the fluctuating relationship with Lynd; at one stage Bond considers marrying her.  As with 'Dr. No', Bond's uncertainty about what he is doing, the morality of it, whether he can continue, is a large part of the book; not apparent in the movies before 'Goldeneye' (1995).  He is a flawed hero at best and comes out of the book emotionally as well as physically scarred: he gets the Cyrillic letter 'Щ' carved into the back of his hand. The leitmotif of Jamaica, where Fleming lived, appears even in this book set in Britain and France: at the casino Bond is supposed to be a millionaire from Jamaica.  Overall it is a straight forward book but with a lot going on in terms of the characters rather than the plot.

Dan Stevens's reading seemed pretty flat after that of Hugh Quashie, though his voicing of the women was far less unsettling, he adopts a light tone rather than a more explicitly feminine one.  He does not communicate the chases and the violence as well as Quashie did and overall lacks his rich tones.  His Le Chiffre voice is a good attempt but rather sounds like a cartoon villain.  I have three more of the Bond audio books to go, each with a different reader, so it will be useful to compare.

'Live and Let Die' by Ian Fleming; read by Rory Kinnear
This is the second James Bond book and follows a couple of weeks after 'Casino Royale'.  Bond is sent to New York to investigate the sale of old English gold coins by the black gangster 'Mr Big' who is based in Harlem but seems to be smuggling in coins from an island off Jamaica, which when the novel was published in 1954, was part of the British Empire and was where Fleming lived.  Fleming had written this book before 'Casino Royale' had been published.

Bond is again partnered with CIA operative Felix Leiter who appears in 'Casino Royale'.  However, Bond and Leiter really bumble around in this book each allowing himself to be captured twice by Mr. Big or his agents.  This leads to Leiter being mutilated by a shark in the way it is shown in the movie  'Licence to Kill' (1989) and Bond to be dragged almost to his death in a similar way to the portrayal in the movie 'For Your Eyes Only' (1981).  Big makes good use of the fact that blacks predominated in service-sector jobs in the USA, notably in transport. For much of the book, Big has the upper hand and this led me to realise that Fleming portrays Bond as quite bigoted, only to reveal how this weakens him.  In 'Casino Royale', Bond is highly dismissive of any role that a female agent like Vesper Lynd can play and is proven to be completely wrong.  In this novel, he sees black men as only recently coming to a position in which they could be a criminal mastermind.  The fate of Leiter and how difficult Bond finds bringing Big down, again proves how poor a judgement this is.  It is only by the luck of timing that Big is killed and Bond reprieved; it could have easily gone the other way around.  While Fleming was certainly a man of his time, he does challenge his hero's assumptions.

Fleming is very much of his time in being obsessed by physical appearance and as in the two previous Bond books I have heard read, his antagonist is physically distinct.  Big is very large, as bald as Dr. No and his skin is grey due to a heart condition.  Like Dr. No and Le Chiffre he is very intelligent and Fleming comments on the skill of his plans.  Fleming does not like the USA, seeing it as tawdry, often seedy, with poor quality clothing and cars and especially bad food.  However, he describes it in great detail and as with the other books, you can enjoy these as a window on to a country at a particular time in its history.  His attitude switches abruptly when Bond moves to Jamaica, a location that Fleming clearly loved and felt he had to extol. As in the other books we get a lesson on a subject or two, in this case about voodoo, used by Mr. Big to terrify his agents, and about barracuda.  Strangways and Quarrel, plus the house of Beaudesert, which all feature in 'Dr. No' feature for the first time in this book.

Sometime in the 1980s I read a criticism of a computer game which featured Bond accessing a stash of Benzedrine in order to replenish his energy to explore an island.  The reviewer was very critical saying he had never seen Bond take drugs in any of the movies.  However, it is clear that the game designers had gone back to the original novel because Bond is shown as deliberately taking Benzedrine in order to pull of the more-than-human exploits he does, in this book swimming to an island battling against and octopus and barracuda.  The more I hear the books the further I realise they are from the movies.  Bond has far more self-doubt.  Even a storm while he is flying to Jamaica puts him into a terror that he has to think himself out of with great effort.  He also has far less sex than in the movies.  Often that is postponed until very late in the book, or as in this case, after the book has finished.  Bond and Solitaire, the seer held captive by Mr. Big, but both is still too injured by the end of the book to do it.

Overall the book is simpler than the movie, as seems to be the case throughout with the adaptations.  It goes into immense detail rather than having great quantities of action.  Bond is very reflective but not always right and Fleming seems to feel obliged to have his character shown where his assumptions are wrong.  In this book he is out-classed by his antagonist and really only wins out through last-minute luck.

Rory Kinnear starts very over-excitedly with his narration, but settles down as the book progresses.  He has a wide range of Americans to voice which he pulls off well; his voices for the black characters do not become caricatures nor are so strongly accented as to be difficult for a white British listener to understand.  His women are light, like Stevens's, rather than attempting to go too far in being effeminate, though in this book Solitaire says a lot less than Honeychile Rider did.

'Moonraker' by Ian Fleming; read by Bill Nighy
When I started listening to the box set of four James Bond novels, far more familiar with the movie order, I had thought they were picked at random whereas in fact they are the first four.  There are brief references back to the previous story.  This one is very domestic and covers only a few days of activity.  We learn a lot about Bond's day-to-day work when not on a mission, largely reading reports about various espionage and criminal developments.  Even the mission is unusual.  It starts with Bond being used on personal business by M and then being used by Special Branch at a rocket development site in Kent.  Between London and the coast of Kent is as far as Bond goes in this book rather than to any exotic locales abroad.  It reminded me of novels like the movie 'The Small Back Room' (novel 1943; movie 1949) and 'Enigma' (novel 1995; movie 2001) set on such developmental bases, though in wartime.  This book, published in 1955, is very much shaped by the experience of the Second World War which had ended just ten years before its publication.

The book focuses on Sir Hugo Drax, a self-made millionaire who is developing an atomic missile for Britain.  However, Bond is drawn into investigating him first by M, his boss, who has been advised that Drax is cheating at cards at the gambling club 'Blades' of which M is a member.  Much of the early part of the book is taken up with Bond battling against Drax, playing Bridge.  However, Bond is then sent to Drax's development centre in Kent following a murder-suicide of the security officer and very slowly uncovers that neither Drax nor his plans are what they seem.  Again Fleming shows Bond as flawed.  His opinions of Drax keep on being shaped by the populist view of the 'Daily Express' newspaper and he tends to overlook worrying signs because he believes that Drax is a patriot and while eccentric and a cheat at cards, intends the best for Britain.

Bond under-estimates both the abilities of Drax and of Gala(tea) Brand, the Special Branch officer who is working undercover as Drax's aide.  Bond comes up with a fatal and foolhardy plan to prevent the outcome when Brand produces a much less hazardous and simple solution.  Bond expects to go off on holiday with Gala at the end of the book, because they have been pressed close in tunnels and under landslides at various occasions.  However, she points out that she is going to marry a fellow police officer; she had been wearing an engagement ring right throughout.  Brand deserves a series of her own.  She is very level-headed, highly intelligent and brave; bilingual in English and German.  Interestingly, her adept handling of the figures for controlling the rocket echoes the recent highlighting of the role of female mathematicians on the US space programme in the movie 'Hidden Figures' (2016) and in an episode of 'Timeless' (broadcast 2016/17).

Once again, Fleming shows Bond as physically courageous and generally cool, even devious, when under pressure.  However, his judgements as in the previous two books are often highly flawed and this leads him and others into danger.  This is another Bond book in which the hero has no sex.

Bill Nighy does the voices very well.  At times you think another actor has taken over.  He has less challenge than some of the other readers with only German accents to put on beside a range of British ones of different classes and only a couple of women who do not speak a great deal, despite, especially in Gala Brand's case, being central to the book.

'Diamonds Are Forever' by Ian Fleming; read by Damian Lewis
Published in 1956 this was the fourth book in the series which shows the rate that Fleming was turning them out.  Like 'Casino Royale' and 'Live and Let Die' it is on a small scale, with James Bond really working like an undercover detective, rather than facing down a megalomaniac bent on widespread destruction as was seen with the plot to launch a nuclear missile on London in 'Moonraker'.  The British Empire appears again as Sierra Leone is the source of diamonds being smuggled into the USA via London, at the time the location of 90% of the world's trade in diamonds.  Bond takes over the role of one of the smugglers in an effort to trace the course of the smuggling routes.  It is quickly revealed that it is carried out by The Spangled Mob, a Mafia family overseen by the two Spang brothers.  Again, as is a common theme in these books, Bond underestimates his opponents, dismissing all US gangs, despite his experience with Mr. Big some months earlier, as ostentatious and rather stupid.  Of course, he is proven to be mistaken leading to risks to his life and his kicking by men in football boots.

As I noted in 'Live and Let Die', Fleming had no love for the USA.  In this book he disparages New York once again and takes on both Saratoga and Las Vegas as tawdry, seedy places.  Felix Leiter, left missing an arm and a leg reappears working as a Pinkerton agent involved with corruption in horse racing and is important in rescuing Bond; seeming to work far more effectively than he did in 'Live and Let Die'.  Bond ends up killing a number of the criminals involved with the smuggling though almost inadvertently when responding to their attempts to kill him and Tiffany Case.  Case, an American, starts off as a smuggler's guard while Bond is acting in this role taking diamonds from Britain to the USA. She is also a croupier on crooked card games at the Spang's casino.  She ends up helping Bond.  However, despite their professions of affection we never see them actually having sex.  Fleming outlines that this was because she had been gang-raped when aged 16 and has challenges with intimacy.  Honeychile Rider had experienced a rape and Solitaire had kept herself apart from men because of her clairvoyance; Gala Brand because she was engaged.  Bond's appeal erodes some of Case's reticence, though ironically he is attracted to her toughness born from her involvement with crime from a young age.  However, contrary to what I had expected, it is not common to end up having sex with the primary female character.

With the references to empire - the book ends on the border of Sierra Leone and French Guinea and Bond travelling back to Europe on the 'Queen Elizabeth' ocean liner rather than by aeroplane, we are reminded that it is set in the 1950s.  It features a gay couple who are cruel hitmen, though Fleming does not draw any specific connection between their sexuality and their cruelty.  He does like to populate his books with people who stand out, often physically but also in other ways, as with Mr. Big's accidie, a intense boredom.  As Bond notes in 'Moonraker', homosexuality was still a crime in itself in Britain at the time, so by their very relationship Kyd and Wynt are 'criminal'.  Overall then, this is really a straight forward crime adventure.  Bond does face risks to his life and we learn a lot from Fleming about everything from diamond trade, the Saratoga races, Las Vegas and its casinos, even steam trains of the West of the USA.  Bond tends to be a little less self-reflective than in the preceding books and it is really only in the close that we see the world weariness that stood out in these other books.

Damian Lewis often portrays American characters and so is well equipped for the bulk of those in this story.  He also does a German pilot and an Afrikaaner dentist.  His tone, however, when covering the exposition bits, alternates between sounding like comedian and presenter Griff Rhys Jones and natural history presenter Sir David Attenborough and so can be a little too relaxing and soporific.  I guess it does make the tense passages stand out that much more.

'The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories' [includes 'The Hound', 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'Dagon'] by H.P. Lovecraft; read by William Roberts
As with the James Bond novels, the Cthulhu stories are something many of us have heard of and have some dim idea about but have never read, or had read to us.  This was why I bought this set.  Lovecraft had a rich imagination.  These stories largely focus on the 'Old Ones' alien creatures from a distant galaxy able to travel in dimensions that we are not familiar with and who established vast cities on Earth long before the appearance of man.  However, for millennia they have been dormant, perhaps even dead, but able to infect the dreams of humans and lead some to be their worshippers, building towards the day when their dominion will be restored over Earth and probably most of humanity and current life on Earth will be destroyed.  The creatures Lovecraft describes are very alien, but usually have multiple tentacles and are misshapen, wallow in slime and certainly stink.  In 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'Dagon' tremors under the sea force some of the structures to the surface leading to madness and hysteria in people and among cultists across the world.  In 'The Dunwich Horror' two hybrids of different sizes are born to a woman in Massachusetts and terrorise a very dreary part of the state.  'The Hound' is a more standard horror story about two men who set up a grotesque museum in their house until an amulet they grave rob attracts a supernatural force to terrorise them.

Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s and his language is of that era.  However, in his attempt to terrorise the reader and to emphasise the horror it is very contorted and certainly bombastic.  At times it becomes repetitive in its descriptions of the various slimy, tentacled, stinking beings and it actually has the effect or wearying you rather than adding to your fear.  One problem is probably that his various tropes such as arcane tomes, while themselves drawing on the Gothic but giving them a new approach, have since publication become so well embedded in subsequent popular culture that they seem unexceptional compared to when they were written.  Roberts, an American, certainly matches the tone of the books, really adding to the bombastic nature of them.  However, it is excessive and even though the stories are not lengthy, him repeatedly telling you how horrifying what he is describing is, with such vigour, actually has the opposite effect.  The landscapes he describes, all dank and rotting, also become tiresome as described so often.

There has been criticism of Lovecraft being racist.  He reflects an American of his time, and indeed more widely in Western society.  His attitude to race stems from racialism, i.e. the view that there are strong differences between different races of humans.  In addition, that the 'quality' of races can become 'decadent' what we might term degenerate.  Even among white families he mentions he makes distinctions, especially in the 'The Dunwich Horror' between branches of families that are decadent and those that are not.  The racism is clearest in 'The Call of Cthulhu' in which he speaks of 'mongrel' people, putting various mixed-race people in Louisiana into this category and seeing them as prone to being influenced by evil forces and behaving in a barbaric way.  The reference to 'diablist Eskimos' seems odd nowadays but is no less offensive.  Lovecraft, thus, has another layer of 'horror' for white American readers in the 1920s, i.e. the fear that their race was at threat not simply from unknown forces, but from other races and from falling into degeneracy itself.

Overall, I felt exhausted by listening to the stories constantly emphasising to me how frightened I should be and the details of the various dingy locations.  It was of interest to hear what Lovecraft wrote but unsettling that despite an interesting early engagement with galaxy-crossing aliens presented in an interesting way, it is wrapped up in attitudes to race that have long been unacceptable.

'Maigret Collected Cases' ['Maigret Goes Home'; 'Maigret in Montmatre'; 'Maigret Has Scruples'; 'Maigret in Society' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap'] starring Maurice Denham and Michael Gough
I do not usually review recordings of radio plays that I listen to, but am making an exception for this collection.  First it was a series of plays adapted from five of the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, rather than being a play outright.  Second, this collection, though originally broadcast in 1976 has been released in 2017 as a box set of CDs and is widely available on eBay.  Each story lasts 45 minutes and so they are in some cases, notably in 'Maigret in Montmatre' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap' both recently dramatised featuring Rowan Atkinson in the eponymous role, there is compression.  However, the adaptation has been done very well and so you do not lose the essence of these stories.

The absence of narration is overcome, in part by the strange device of having Maigret discussing the cases with the author of the books, Georges Simenon.  Maigret books appeared 1931-72 and Simenon lived 1903-89, so they could be contemporaries, though Denham's voice seems no different when dealing with a case and when speaking to Simenon about it as Maigret, presumably meant to be in the 1970s.  In fact as is the case with the Maigret novels, there is a difficulty in pinning down the time when they are set, it is some vague, mid-20th century period. The selection does favour those stories in which Maigret crosses paths with the faded nobility of French society rather than the everyday people. 

The accents are very much English Received Pronunciation though pronunciation of the various places and names is in decent French.  It is very much in what might call the Radio 4 'house style' with lots of sound effects and different actors appearing on different speakers or more distant from the microphone to give a sense of space, but sometimes a challenge when sitting in a car listening (and a very different experience if in a left-hand drive car as in France!).  Overall I found these stories engaging, though I would have preferred them read rather than acted as I feel the narration would have allowed me to sink more deeply into them than was the case with this approach.  The fact that I felt that I they were too short and I wanted more, might be a sign that I felt they were decent.