Saturday, 18 March 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Biscuits Malted Milk

Belmont Biscuits Malted Milk

Belmont Biscuits appear to b Aldi's equivalent of the Tower Gate brand for Lidl, i.e. their everyday version.  Their version of Malted Milk biscuits is not too bar.  It has a sound snap and they are not crumbly, even 'sandy' as some Malted Milks are unfortunately.  The creaminess I seek in a Malted Milk is largely lacking, but instead there is a 'tart' flavour which while not what you might be looking for is not unpleasant and means they avoid being yet another effectively Rich Tea in another form.  They have a reasonable level of moreishness.  If Aldi worked on these and tweaked them to bring out a creamy flavour, these could be very successful.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Biscuit Blog: Memento French Mixed Berries Butter Biscuits

Memento French Mixed Berries Butter Biscuits

I am finding that Aldi likes very long titles for its biscuits.  These are from its Memento range of upmarket biscuits.  As can be seen from the illustration, the box contains a number of sub-packets each holding four biscuits.  These biscuits are pretty small as you can see from the picture.  They do have dried fruit in them but also, it seems, a rather artificial fruit flavour added on top.  I do not think the latter was necessary.  The biscuits are not buttery in flavour but have a reasonable level of snap for this kind of biscuit and are reasonably moreish.  Thus, they are not bad, but they certainly do not have the flavour whether in fruit or biscuit that you would expect to find in a genuine French equivalent.

Rating:
*****

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Books I Read In February

Fiction
'The Russia House' by John Le Carré
Inadvertently I seem to have been working backwards chronologically through the Le Carré books I was given.  This one was published in 1989, though the edition I have has afterwords written in 2001 and 2010.  I remember seeing the 1990 movie and finding it very boring.  The book is no different.  As I have noted before, it seems that Le Carré feels it is sufficient to create a middle-aged, upper middle class man with an reasonably interesting history and then let him potter around in the spy world.  Somehow, we are supposed to be intrigued by that.  This book features Bartholomew 'Barley' Scott Blair who works for a fictitious publishing house of the kind which was probably extinct even by 1987 when the book is sent.  His company tries to sell to and buy from the USSR.  He comes into contact with a scientist who offers intelligence on failings in Soviet missile systems.  The book largely is about Blair being questioned about the information provided and being established as a pretty ineffectual go-between.  There is a lot of questioning and very little action.  Blair falls in love with a Russian woman who passes on the scientist's message and there is some reference to the loosening of the Soviet system in the light of perestroika.

When Le Carré wrote in the 1960s he kept his books short and tight.  However, certainly since the 1980s, perhaps prompted by publishers, they have become incredibly flabby.  My edition was 453 pages long and even with the lack of action, in 200 pages it could have been tense and engaging rather than a slog.  However, there are some problems with this book even when compared to the other three of his I have read recently.  It has a false start as rather than the information going to Blair when in Moscow it goes to another middle-aged publishing representative Nicholas Landau.  Landau passes it on to British intelligence after a couple of chapters then disappears from the book and it seems to start again with Blair.  I almost fell into the same situation with a novel I am currently writing and now see why it is a bad approach.  The second major flaw is that for some of the book the author narrates then sporadically another character, Horatio dePalfrey [sic], a legal advisor to British intelligence narrates.  Why Le Carré felt the need for this additional layer, a man who rambles on about his mistress irrelevantly, I have no idea.  He fades in and fades out suggesting more uncertainty on the author's part just about what was going on in this book.  It is very poor and an embarrassment in front of what he was writing twenty years earlier.

'Babylon Berlin' by Volker Kutscher
Having now written 17 novellas and a novel featuring a detective in 1920s Germany I was naturally attracted to reading this book.  It was published in German in 2007 but is now available in translation.  It was the first in the Gereon Rath series of detective novels, which have now reached six in number.  This book is known as 'Der Nasse Fisch' ['The Wet Fish'] in German which is police slang for an unsolved case, but this year a series is appearing on German television using the English title.

Kutscher is excellent at the period detail and really conjures up Berlin in 1929, with meticulous detail about various buildings coming and going and the brands in use at the time.  Perhaps as a result of this being the first book in the series, at times you feel he is taking his detective on a tour of the city.  It would really help to have a map of 1929 Berlin to ascertain precisely where everything is in relation to each other.  This factor does not help with the clarity of the novel.  I like a good twist in a detective story, but Kutscher piles twists on thick and fast.  He throws everything into the mix.  There are Communist riots, there are raids on night clubs of the more and less seedy variety, there are conspiracies not simply by the Stahlhelm, the S.A. and elements of the police, but also involving a spectrum of Russians from the Black Hundreds, through the Okhrana to a Leninist anti-Stalin group and perhaps the O.G.P.U., though people still refer to it as the Cheka.  There is even a drugs dealer with a Chinese assistant.  I appreciate Kutscher's effort and I wonder, even though he had published four crime novels before this one, that he worried that he would not get another chance with his Rath character.

A couple of other factors do not help with clarity.  One is that Rath jumps between different senior police officers of various branches, even getting to travel with the Berlin Commissioner of Police at one stage.  The various 'jurisdictions' are not clear.  I know he is supposed to be uncertain who to trust, but with so many 'players' in the game, it leaves you rather bewildered.  Some were real people like the famous cake-eating detective, Ernst Gennat, whereas others are fictional.  I wonder how this is going to be done on screen to ensure the viewers can follow what is happening.  Another issue, more an irritation than anything else is the translation by Niall Sellar.  It is translated partly into British English, i.e. with the police ranks and reference to a 'pub', but partially into American English, i.e. with a 'recess' in a school.  I would also argue that his rendering of the various Meldungen, by which the population of Germany have long been monitored, as 'passports' does not help with clarity.

There are elements of this novel that I enjoyed and I hope that the series gets to the UK.  However, overall I feel that Kutscher has tried too hard and as a result the novel is less than the sum of its parts.  It ends up reading like one of those 1970s airport thrillers about White Russian or Nazi gold rather than a decent detective novel.  Though I complain about Philip Kerr jumping around in time with his Bernie Gunther novels set in Germany in the same era, he has greater control over what is going on in his stories, though he too seems obsessed with shoehorning in real people.  I do not know if any of the subsequent Gereon Rath books will be translated, but if so, I will not rush to read them as getting through this one was a labour rather than a pleasure.

'The Wee Free Men' by Terry Pratchett
This is a children's book that was given to me some years ago by a girlfriend.  The protagonist as a nine-year old girl, Tiffany Aching who lives on a farm in chalk downs somewhere on Pratchett's Discworld; a very English-style setting, the kind of terrain I really love.  Her brother is abducted by a Queen of Fairyland and Tiffany, realising that she might be a putative witch sets off to rescue him.  She is aided by six-inch high Nac Mac Feegles, who are brownie-like creatures, immensely strong and fast, mostly male, heavily tattooed and for some reason, who speak in a kind of Scottish dialect; emphasised by the fact that they call themselves 'pictsies' so referencing pixies but also the Picts who occupied what is now Scotland in Roman times.  He does mine the kind of stereotypical Glaswegian hardman trope extensively, triggering off bizarre thoughts of a Pratchett version of 'Trainspotting'!

I have complained recently that I have found Pratchett books published in the 21st century to be laboured.  They make good points but go on too much, losing the wit and quickness of his 20th century.  They were light rather than seriously humorous.  This book was first published in 2003, but because it was aimed at a younger audience, it is far tighter and does not waste time in the way that was an increasing tendency for the 'standard' Discworld novels.  It was the first Pratchett book that I have laughed out loud to for a good number of years.  It is deftly done and there are jokes that only adults, and in some cases only middle-aged adults ('We willna' be fooled again' referencing a 1971 track) would get.  The book is brisk and rich in imagery.  Like the best fairy tales, it does have shocking scenes.  It both subverts the genre it is founded in, but also takes a shot at our own society, especially how it supports/demonises the elderly and 'others', but does this deftly in a way Pratchett seemed to lose when driven to write lengthier novels.  Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it represented what is best in Pratchett's writing.  It is the first in a series of five books published 2003-15; I have the next two and will not set them aside given how much I enjoyed this one.

'Rebel' by Bernard Cornwell
I have read all of Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series about an English rifleman set during the Napoleonic Wars and aftermath.  Thus, I was pleased when I was given the four books in his Starbuck series, featuring the American Civil War.  The books are centred on Nathaniel Starbuck, the son of an ardent preacher from Massachusetts who seems to constantly fall into troubles pursuing women he is attracted to.  He abandons study in a seminary and follows one woman into Virginia where he happens to be when the American Civil War breaks out in 1861.  Massachusetts was part of the Union side and eastern Virginia was in the Confederacy.  He ends up in a regiment commanded by the father of one of his Virginian friends and entangled in the rivalries between the various officers and men and their families.  The book ends with Starbuck being involved in the 1st Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Cornwell is excellent as always in terms of historical detail such as the climate, what people wear, their weapons, what they eat (though at times the variety of food features seems massive), even their behaviour and language.  I would challenge his portrayal of the obsession with slavery at the start of the war, given that it was not until 1863 that President Lincoln declared slaves to be free (and was ambivalent about that step) and some slave states fought on the Union side.  At the early stage it was more about a federal versus confederal system in the U.S.A.  The major problem with this book is that almost every character is highly unsympathetic.  Violence, one might expect.  However, everyone is self-deluded, self-righteous pompous and arrogant; self-seeking and corrupt.  The women are mean and self-obsessed.  Though quite a lot of characters feature you very often simply want them out of the story to spare you from having to read about them.  When the 'hero' guns down another character on the say-so of a horribly manipulative woman, you are grateful that at least one nasty character has gone.

I wonder how the book was received in the southern U.S.A. as no southern character has any redeeming features.  Many of the northerners are shown to be unpleasant but not as irredeemable as the confederates shown, even the women.  This makes the book very hard going.  At least in the Sharpe books you had Richard Sharpe and the men around him, that you could root for throughout the books, even if they make mistakes.  In this book, Starbuck (and I have a major problem with that name) is self-flagellating for imagined evils which makes him tiresome and yet, then, he feels free to carry out murder to the sake of this nasty woman.  I do not know if Cornwell was seeking to counteract books that lionise the Confederacy but overall he has written a novel, which despite its attention to detail, is very difficult to engage with because so much of the cast are not people you would ever want to spend time with.

Non-Fiction
'The English Village' by Dennis R. Mills
This seems to be another of these 1960s history books I picked up with charming line drawings in it.  The tone is enthusiastic rather than earnest.  It guides readers, especially children, on how to analyse English villages.  There is a real emphasis on 'English'.  The term is used to refer to the Anglo-Saxons and the author seems to feel that there is nothing much of importance that happened in villages before then, though the Romans and the 'British' left some elements that could be encompassed in an 'English' village.  The Scots only get a mention as raiders and even when featuring a Cornish village, the Celts receive no mention at all.  While nowadays someone would use a computer to do the illustrations, much of the analysis and even many of the sources cited, would still be applicable today.  The book's points are well illustrated with real examples and even draws on Mills's family background and field work.  The enthusiasm extends right to the end of the book where Mills seems to forget this is a book about historical analysis and encourages readers to engage with a village and get involved in local politics to improve it.  Both an interesting and relaxing read, which betrays assumptions of the time (especially jobs being created and done by men) but provides a pleasant slice from a time which, even if in turmoil, still could aspire to both tranquility and progress.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Biscuit Blog: Memento Half Covered Fruit And Nut Cookies

 Memento Half Covered Fruit And Nut Cookies

I have finally located a branch of Aldi reasonably near my house so have rushed in an bought a range of their biscuits to try.  These are from their Memento range of slightly posher biscuits.  I was intrigued by the 'half covered' in the title, but I guess they have been very precise and you would not be misled.

I must say, they are very thick and they are tasty with creamy milk chocolate and a mix of currants and chocolate chips.  I could not detect the nuts mentioned in the name, but they were still tasty. They do not have a snap, but do not fall apart the way some 'cookies' do, especially ones with fruit or nut elements within them.

I hope this is a sign of good things to come from Aldi as I work through what they have on offer. 

Rating:
*****

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Three Eagles: A What If? Novel of the U.S.A., Mexico and the First World War

The Three Eagles: A What If? Novel of the U.S.A., Mexico and the First World War
 
 
Today I self-published a new what if? novel on Amazon called 'The Three Eagles'.  I have long wondered why, having won the 1916 election on the slogan 'he kept us out of the war', Woodrow Wilson decided to enter the First World War in April 1917.  It was 23 months after the RMS 'Lusitania' with 128 US citizens on board had been sunk by a German submarine and it is clear that, despite the popular view, it had minimal impact on US foreign policy. 
 
Wilson decided to go to war despite him proposing peace terms to both sides of the conflict.  He seems to have been put out by the fact that both the Allies and the Central Powers, made no genuine proposals and simply put forward their list of objectives.  Two factors, however, meant that the USA entered the war on the side of the Allies, though it largely kept its armed forces separate and did not become a formal ally of Britain or France.  The first was the resumption of German U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, notably US ships.  The Germans had curtailed this on two previous occasions following requests from President Wilson but at the start of 1917 reneged on this.  The second was the Zimmermann Telegram sent to the German ambassador in Mexico to encourage the country to attack the USA.  Wilson was always more concerned with Mexico than Germany and US marines had occupied locations in Mexico in 1914 and he sent the so-called Punitive Expedition in 1916 commanded by Brigadier General Pershing to try to catch Pancho Villa, a revolutionary whose men had been responsible for raids into the USA.  The Expedition achieved little and Pershing was sent to Europe to command US troops dispatched to France, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
 
One important fact to remember is that in 1917, the US Army was very weak; smaller than that of Serbia.  Many troops had equipment and uniforms left over from the American Civil War which had finished in 1865; on reaching France they were largely kitted out by the French Army.  As the AEF received their own portion of the Western Front they were kept apart from the seasoned British, French, Belgian and Portuguese troops, so they had to learn from scratch.  Consequently US casualties were seven times higher than other units fighting on the Western Front.  Involvement in the war even for such a short time, meant the USA paid a heavy price.  However, the presence of US troops and the food and war materiel that accompanied them, gave heart to the Allies, particularly the French.  US troops were particularly important in defending Paris in May 1918 when the German Kaiserschlacht Offensive almost went further than German troops did in 1914 when they almost won as it was.  With no US troops in France in 1917-18, it is likely that the French and probably the British troops too, would have suffered widespread mutinies and the German Army would have reached Paris in May 1918.  They had already beaten Russia into surrender in March 1918.
 
Thus, this book works from the basis that the Germans avoided upsetting Wilson for a third time and he was left to carry out further action in Mexico, where just as on the Western Front in our world, the ill-equipped small US forces struggled against battle-hardened Mexican troops and the various revolutionary armies.  Meanwhile with the Germans having won a last gasp victory in Europe, they have not gained all that the nationalists fantasised about, but have been able to secure the worldwide empire that the Kaiser had dreamt of.
 
This is the counter-factual background, which, as with all my writing, has been carefully researched.  As with my other what if? books and stories, however, it is the impact on characters that interests me rather than labouring through details of battles.  This book is in three sections, the first features a National Guardsmen sent to occupy a Mexican oilfield in 1917; the second sees a US spy investigating a new German submarine base on the Gulf coast of Mexico in 1920 and the third is set in 1923 covering a pilot sent to root out one of the remaining revolutionaries operating in northern Mexico.  If you enjoy a alternate history setting as the background for adventure stories, then I trust this novel will appeal to you.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Biscuit Blog: Asda Rich Tea biscuits

Asda Rich Tea biscuits

These Rich Tea biscuits, not as small as some you find and in the packet you get two sub-packs of biscuits.  They are very dry in taste and lack much of the richness that you would expect.  They almost work like cracker biscuits would in your mouth.  Thus, while good value for money, I would use them as biscuits for cheese rather than as a sweet biscuit.

Rating:
*****

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Books I Read In January

Fiction
'Get Wallace!' by Alexander Wilson
I have often be interested in what were called 'Classic Thrillers', there was even a series of reprints with this title, written in the early 20th century and inter-war period.  This is the fourth book in the series of eight published by Wilson 1928-39, featuring the fictional Sir Leonard Wallace as head of MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency.  Wilson was a bigamist and philanderer who created four families.  Drawing on his knowledge of South Asian languages, he worked for MI6 between 1939-42 when he was sacked, it appears as a result of fabricating evidence of spying and lying about a burglary; his last novel was published in 1940 though he lived on until 1963.

One thing about classic thrillers is that they can be very much of their time.  This is not an issue in terms of the threats they address, though they can be informed by racist and sexist attitudes.  The greater problem is that they are often restrained in the threats they present and the dialogue is often very gentlemanly even between enemies.  Those traits certainly feature in this book.  There are some characteristics which stand out from other thrillers of the period but ironically their impact is muted. Wallace has only one arm though this does not hinder his activities.  He is married and has a son who are targeted by assassins in this novel.  His Rolls Royce has a facility to allow him to disappear into its boot.  In many ways, despite references on the cover to him paving the way for James Bond, he is most like George Smiley the character in a number of John Le Carré novels, especially as he is as much a manager as an operative in his own right.

The story is around a spy ring successfully stealing secrets from British, French, German and Soviet military institutions making use of highly convincing impersonations of leading staff (an approach used in 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915) too) and then selling them to the highest bidder.  At the heart of the plot is the traditional father-daughter criminal team, Stanilaus and Thalia Ictinos (similar to the set-up of Fu Manchu and his daughter in the Sax Rohmer novels published 1913-73.), though they are Greek and Thalia is largely excused her crimes at the end of the novel.  They have recruited a number of British criminals on the run to staff the operation.  It is based on the Isle of Sheppey in Essex and most of the action takes place in the Thames Estuary and London. The error which leads Wallace right to the criminals' location is really feeble.

The elements which might be seen as atypical include the simple shooting dead of one of Wallace's men and the fact that Stanilaus Ictinos is really just an operative for a respected big businessman, characteristics which you might expect in a novel today.  However, these in themselves might have startled a reader in 1934, but are so weakly handled in this book as to drain them of tension.  There is a lot of chasing around Essex and in London without any real tension.  There is one reasonable fight aboard a ship in the estuary, but we are never in any doubt that everyone will come out of it successfully, even the quirky, quoting lieutenant of Wallace's, Cousins or the MI6 heavy Shannon.  I guess the lack of genuine tension, the very earnest dialogue and rather tiresome pursuits is why Wilson has been forgotten when, in contrast, people keep remaking 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'.  Overall, interesting but not very engaging.

'The Secret Speech' by Tom Rob Smith
This book is horrendous and I advise you not to buy it.  That is the simple summary of this review.  This is the second book in a trilogy which began with 'Child 44' (2008), detective stories set in the USSR in the mid-20th century.  I had seen the 2015 movie of the book.  I have also read novels by Ivy Litvinov, Martin Cruz Smith and Stuart Kominsky also set in the USSR and Josef Škvorecký set in Communist Czechoslovakia.  I had found the tension between solving a crime and dealing with the state and party's view of the 'truth' enthralling.  'The Secret Speech' is set largely in 1956 following the so-called 'secret speech' by Nikita Khrushchev denouncing the extremes of the regime of Josef Stalin, 1928-53.  These revelations lead people who have been persecuted under Stalin to seek revenge, unsurprisingly.  This puts the 'hero' of the trilogy, Leo Demidov, a former secret police officer, though now a homicide detective, in a difficult position.

The book is very fragmented and the sojourn to take part in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising in Budapest appears unrelated to the rest of the book.  You feel as if Smith had been told to increase the number of pages rather than actually advance the story.  Once characters return from Budapest the story comes to an abrupt halt.

The main trouble with this book is that Smith forgets he is writing a novel rather than a fictionalised social history of 1950s USSR and especially the Gulag system.  There are really no sympathetic characters in the novel, those that have a crumb of humanity are shown as self-righteous and indeed selfish to the detriment of others.  The bulk of characters, whether officials, criminals or members of the public are shown as utterly corrupted by the system that they are in.  Even Demidov's adopted 14-year old daughter appears despicable.  Thus, we are tossed from one nasty character in unpleasant circumstances to another, to another.  This book can be condemned as suggesting that all Russians of a certain generation did not have a redeemable quality between them.  Furthermore, the scale of cruelty and torture in a whole range of forms, makes this book verge on 'torture pornography'.

Overall it is a very unpleasant read and I will be staying well clear of 'Agent 6' the final book in the trilogy and I can only hope that Smith stays away from writing any more novels in the future or that he restricts them to sale to sado-masochist perverts.

'Son of the Tree' by Jack Vance
This book was published as a magazine story in 1951; the copy I have was produced in 1974 when it was still possible to have a 128-page book (selling for 30p) put out on sale.  I have not read other work by Vance but was reasonably impressed by the book.  It is a simple tale set sometime in the distant future when humanity has colonised many parts of the galaxy and in many cases has evolved into a range of forms.  It features Joe Smith who is following after a man who is the rival for the affections of a woman back on Earth.  By the time the book opens Smith has got so far through space that Earth is believed to be a mythical rather than real place.

The book has charms of old science fiction of the kind I noted when reviewing stories by John Wyndham last year.  Despite the fact that humanity has spaceships able to travel between the stars, they still use slide rules and women take men's surnames when they marry.  Vance is so locked into his own time and culture that he has included these things without thought.  Despite this, he does well in creating interesting societies and a brisk story featuring cultural imperialism.  Smith arrives on Kyril a theocracy where the Druid class are supported by a mass of peasants; the religion focuses on the worship of an immense tree stretching right up into the atmosphere.  The leaders of Kyril are rivalling with those of the oligarchy with two factions, Mangtse, to have influence over Ballenkarch, a planet being united under a leader who turns out to have come from Earth.  The construction of the societies and their factions and the use of individuals, often acting unknowingly on the behalf of others is well handled.  There are twists at the end which seem rather rushed and highly improbable which rather undermine a good story; Smith also seems to be forgotten in the closing sections of the story.  Perhaps this is intentional because throughout you have felt his quest was rather forlorn anyway.

Overall I enjoyed the story despite it feeling dated.  Vance quickly conjures up interesting details and portrayals of societies in a science fiction setting.  If I stumble across any of his books in the future I would certainly take a look at them, which, as you will know, is not something I say often these days.

Non-Fiction
'A Short Economic History of Modern Japan' by G.C. Allen
The first word of caution is about the definition of 'modern'.  This was the third, updated version of the book published in 1970.  However, apart from some additions at the end, really it differs little from the first version published in 1945 which only went from 1867-1937.  If you accept that it really simply focuses on those seventy years, then this book is pretty good.  Allen intentionally avoids a deterministic approach which was too common in writing about Japan in the late 20th century.  He neither sees state intervention nor private enterprise or the zaibatsu which straddled both, as providing the 'answer' to Japan's economic success in this period.  Indeed he skilfully shows how diverse the Japanese economy remained, embracing both tiny, specialist industry alongside conglomerations.  He does well in reminding the reader of the role of agriculture and craft industries alongside the pressing forward of heavy and then consumer industry.

Allen highlights the weakness of the Bakufu economy before the Meiji Restoration, but also the ground work laid for future success, notably in terms of high literacy levels and a compliant workforce feeling as if they belonged to a family with their employers, that were able to benefit Japanese industry in the following decades.  He also highlights the flaws in the Japanese government's approaches to banking and currency.  Another strength is how he shows Japan's growing empire was woven into the economy of the Home Islands and what each could provide the other.  Overall, this is a comprehensive and importantly, nuanced book.  However, the limits of its chronology need to be recognised.  The revisions were not genuine revisions and despite some efforts to add material on the post-war situation, aside from the Occupation period, it is poor.  Furthermore, because so little is included on the Japanese wartime economy there is a unfortunate disconnect between what happened 1937-45 and how that aided or hindered what followed.