'A Symphony of Echoes' by Jodi Taylor
This is the second book in The Chronicles of St. Mary's set in an autonomous department of a fictional university in Yorkshire that deals in time travel. As I noted with the first book: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2022/12/the-books-i-read-in-december.html it is a strange mixture. I theory it is set in the future, but a lot of the technology (cheques!) referenced seems to be from the mid-20th century. Max, the heroine, while holding a doctorate and having a mature(-ish) sexual relationship with a colleague often comes over more like a teenager. At times you feel that it is rather weighed down by very British tropes about special centres that owe a lot of the 1940s and 1950s even than the 2010s. However, in this quirky way it is quite charming if you are not tired of such tropes and in the way the Harry Potter books embedded in traditional British private school novels appealed to a modern audience I can see the same with this series.
A lot happens in this novel. Max goes into the future and becomes head of the unit to get it back into shape and then uncovers a conspiracy by the prime antagonist trying to change the course of the life of Mary Queen of Scots. With the various missions through time, it can be a little episodic, but the mission to 16th Century Scotland is really well handled in terms of practicalities. The unit is prone to disaster and this can get rather wearying in time, but I felt Taylor was really getting into her stride with the final third of this book. I was disappointed that (spoiler) she kills of the disabled character in a way I think many readers will disapprove of. However, having become reconciled to the rather quirky context laden with tropes, and with the flow improving, if I see any more of these books, and there are now 28 in total this series - Taylor writes at a real pace; this is not her only series - I would pick them up.
'Melmoth' by Sarah Perry
This novel has nothing to do with the town of the same name in South Africa but some connection to 'Melmoth the Wanderer' (1820) a Gothic novel by Charles Maturin and according to 'The Guardian' to 'Melmoth Reconciled' (1835) by Honore de Balzac. Melmoth is a kind of Wandering Jew character, someone condemned to wander the world for centuries or eternity. In this novel, which has a Gothic feel though set in the 20th and 21st Centuries, sees Melmoth as a female spirit who both bears witness to horrors but also seeks to lead away those in utter loneliness to accompany her.
We see through the eyes of Helen Franklin a British woman who lives in Prague and has a small selection of eccentric acquaintances. One of these through being passed the research of a man who had been looking into reports of instances of the appearance of Melmoth from the 17th Century down to the present day. Helen works through these documents and we see them the way she reads them. One is set during the German takeover and control of Prague 1939-45; one earlier in 1930s Egypt and Franklin's own encounter in the Philippines that led to the loneliness of her own life. Franklin and those she knows are uncertain if Melmoth is real and whether they are seeing her.
The uncovering of the information and the stories of those who have encountered Melmoth or her stories before; their moral decisions in particular, add to the richness of the novel. Perry keeps these tight so you do not feel overloaded and indeed despite all that it has to grapple with, the novel is brisk and that makes it very effective. Her conjuring up of different locations, notably Prague in two time periods is also done well. There are some unexpected turns too. Thus, while I cannot say I enjoyed this novel, I felt impressed by the competence in rendering it and may pick up others by Perry, especially her renowned 'The Essex Serpent' (2016).
'A Case of Two Cities' by Qiu Xiaolong
Maybe because Xiaolong (that is their surname, they render it in the Western order) is based in the USA I have never come across the Inspector Chen novels, of which this is the fourth (he is Chen Cao with Chen his surname). Though published in 2006, this is set in Shanghai in the 1990s. Chen is charged by a high level committee of the Communist Party in Beijing with pursuing what is left of a chain of corruption after a leading corrupt businessman has fled to the USA seeking asylum. Later Chen, who had some small fame as a poet, is sent to the USA as head of a cultural delegation and is able to pursue his investigations in Los Angeles and especially St. Louis, hence the title of the novel.
Having taught modern Chinese history, I think Xiaolong's portrayal of China in the era shown is very well done. He has been criticised, but as is often the case with crime novels, his characters are drawn from the wealthiest and the poorest in China of the time, a divide which was especially apparent in Shanghai. He does show parallels to similar divides in the USA too.
A prime challenge is that Xiaolong has to communicate so much to the average reader. Especially in the early part of the novel he has to provide a dense potted history of how much China and especially Shanghai changed in the 1990s as well as outlining how the Communist state was run at this time. On top of this, Xiaolong as a student of literature cannot resist putting in loads of classic Chinese poems throughout. This does really overload the book. Dealing with the recent history would be a great deal for most English-language readers; grappling with the numerous quotations let alone the other literary references he has to explain made it heavy to wade through at times, though it picks up towards the end.
Some commentators have complained about the lack of deduction and unresolved situations. However, I think this is because they set Xioalong in the wrong context. I would view him in the company of Josef Škvorecký, Leonardo Sciascia, Philip Kerr and Michael Dibdin in setting crime novels in authoritarian and/or corrupt states where the interest is as much in the interplay between different forces and vested interests in those societies as in solving the crime. Typically the interests are able to outweigh the desire for justice in a way that is less familiar to readers of crime novels set in seemingly democratic societies.
While I am in no rush to buy more of the Chen series, I was not put off by this one and if by some rare chance another one of them turns up where I am shopping for books, I would buy it.
'The Age of Empire 1875-1914' by Eric Hobsbawm
When published in 1987, 26 years after the first volume 'The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848' had been published, it was intended to be the final one, so combined, covering the so-called 'long 19th Century'. Hobsbawm did though go on to produce 'The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991' (1994) which I will read later this year. As with the other volumes in 'The Age of Empire' comes at the period in terms of themes rather than in chronological sequence. Thus each chapter is almost an independent essay though he does refer back to other chapters and books in the series. Some of the chapters are strong. The one on women; the tensions in science; the 'second world' - Persia, China, the Ottoman Empire, Latin America and the one of the lead up to the First World War stand out.
The main challenge as I have noted when reviewing the previous two volumes is that as a Marxist, Hobsbawn is too often on the hunt for the glimmer of revolution and this distorts his writing especially when looking at social class and economics. It is apparent here as he comes ever close to the second and third Russian revolutions. To a degree his attitude is tempered by the passing of time on his own timeline and there are some references to the rise of New Right attitudes in the 1980s which temper what otherwise might have been glee at the growth and advance of socialist parties and ideas in the period covered by this book. However, he cannot shake off his hunt and this does weaken to a degree otherwise good analysis on the rapidly changing patterns of life for the bulk of people who by 1914 were industrial workers.
The prime weakness of this volume I feel is ironically the title's prime focus, i.e. empire. Hobsbawm clings so tightly to the Marxist perception that imperialism was primarily motivated by economic factors that despite the fact that he cannot help but details a whole range of other factors that are not economic, he feels he has to keep asserting the overwhelming authority of the economic perspective almost at the same moment as disproving this status for it. A big absence notable from comparison with 'The Age of Capital: 1848–1875' (1975) is that there is nothing on the victims of imperialism. With the earlier phase importantly he looked at that side of imperialism, by discussing those who had it imposed on them, a perspective that has even greater attention now than when Hobsbawm wrote this book. His ability to look at that side of the experience was what marked out his earlier work, even nowadays so I feel in this third volume he missed a real opportunity to develop that element. Despite the declared theme this is probably the most Eurocentric of the three books.
Overall as with the preceding two volumes, there is a mix of strong and weaker material. Hobsbawm does still stand out through freeing himself from chronology in a way which does still seem to hamper modern historical writing, especially on this semi-popular basis. However, his perception of the world shaped so strongly by his politics means that whenever he focuses on the economy and the working classes, his analysis is far weaker than when he brings it to other areas of less concern to Marxism such as intellectual and cultural trends.