Friday, 17 November 2017

Stop Line: A ‘What If?’ Novel of Resisting the 1940 Nazi Invasion of Britain

Stop Line: A ‘What If?’ Novel of Resisting the 1940 Nazi Invasion of Britain

Like many authors, especially those involved in writing 'what if?' fiction, I have thought about different outcomes for the Second World War. I know books on these ideas are popular. Last year I published 'Provision': http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/provision-what-if-novel-of-second-world.html That looked at what would have happened if the Allies had faced greater difficulty with the Battle of the Atlantic. For 'Stop Line' I have started with a very popular counter-factual: 'what if the Germans had invaded Britain?' Typically these books are the start of a story about the German occupation of Britain. However, as many people will tell you, a German victory was the least likely outcome of such an invasion. This was reinforced in 1974 by the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst which showed that while the Germans would have been able to land up to 90,000 troops in Britain they ultimately would have been defeated.

While it might seem pointless to write a novel for which the outcome is known, my interest was in exploring what impact a German invasion in September 1940 would have had on the British population and on German soldiers. The fighting would have been very different to what had happened in 1939-40 especially in Belgium and France. I was particularly interested in seeing how Britain which had not been invaded successful since 1066 would have responded; whether the island mentality would have helped with the resistance to the invaders or developed into something more sinister. I also wanted to show, that despite British emphasis on how exceptional a people they are, in fact they would most likely have behaved in just the same ways as their counterparts in occupied countries across the Channel.


Central Southern England in 1940




I picked southern Hampshire as the prime focus for the novel. With the vital ports of Portsmouth and Southampton it would have been invaded early and would have quickly been on the frontline the battle for Britain. Added to that, you have a particular situation where the large city of Southampton is in sight of the New Forest a very rural area where it seemed feasible that resistance activity could be carried out. Having these locations allowed me to contrast between the impact on urban areas and countryside to a greater extent than had been the case with 'Provision' which had food supply as its prime focus. Before you email in, bear in mind that the map above shows the county borders as they were in 1940, not what they became in 1974 and how they appear on maps today. The western border of Hampshire is farther East these days.

The novel sees events unfold through the eyes of officers on both sides of the invasion; the mother of the British officer; a Hampshire vicar and his wife; a resistance fighter who is one of the Auxiliary Patrols that were established as 'stay behind' units, his wife; an engineer from Southampton and his wife too. Thus, the reader can see the varied impacts on a range of people living in the region; how they deal with the invaders and what they suffer as a result of the occupation. Thus, this is not a book taking in huge sweeps with long passages about strategy. There are battle scenes but these are seen very much from a human level.

Though the novel is a 'what if?', like all of my work, it is based on very thorough research. It features hundreds of real details including people, army units and weapons of the time as well as companies, places and foods. Hopefully such detail will enable you to get the sense of Britain in 1940 but also how it might have been changed for real if the Germans had managed to invade. I know the fact that this is not simply an account of units moving and fighting will anger some people and I will get a tirade of complaints. However, as an author, I want much, much more than such technical details. I write novels rather than manuals for wargames. I hope there will be people out there, like me are interested in reading what could have happened, but also seeing it through the eyes of convincing, well-developed characters.

As usual, this book is now available for sale as an e-book on Amazon.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Books I Read In October

Fiction
'Random' by Craig Robertson
This is a crime novel written from the perspective of a serial killer.  It is set in Glasgow, but unlike the Malcolm Mackay trilogy I read earlier this year, you really get a feel for different parts of the city and the people living in them.  Obviously it is difficult to elicit sympathy for a serial killer.  Robertson manages to pull it off, in part through revealing as the book continues what motivates the apparent random killings and by having many of the victims being people that many would see as needing punishment anyway.  I would not say I enjoyed the book and some of the deaths, let alone the torture that a local crime boss carries out to try to find the killer, are hard.  However, I guess I admired the book more than I expected.  There are certainly well written moments of tension both for the killer in escaping justice and for different individuals that come within his purview as he uses various devices to ensure they are selected at random.  It is certainly a lot better written than the Mackay series which surprisingly received so much acclaim.

'A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow' by George R.R, Martin
This is the third book in the series and is broken into two.  This means this particular volume comes in at over 600 pages, but is a third shorter than the preceding one.  As I have already noted with the Song of Ice and Fire series, it is as if it is a single very long story or in fact parallel stories.  Thus, after the first book, each volume is a slice from the very long narrative.  It is not bad, but it does mean that there is no resolution.  Many of these characters in this book are still on journeys they started in the previous book and in other ways this is the aftermath of the battles seen about two-thirds through 'A Clash of Kings' though Martin makes it clear at the start of this third book that readers should understand that the different parallel stories are not in chronological sequence, so in fact there is some overlap in narrative with the previous book.  Many of the narrative lines are largely independent of the others, even when you have the narratives for Tyrion Lannister and Ser (later Lord) Davos Seaworth who fought on opposing sides in the Battle of Blackwater in the previous book.

Though there is hardship for all of the characters some of the misery quotient has been dialled back in this book which makes it easier to swallow.  This is one aspect in which the book differs from the television series made of it, 'A Game of Thrones'.  In contrast, however, characters end up more mutilated than in the series; many began much uglier in the first place.  To his different coloured eyes and misshapen head, Tyrion now has lost much of his nose.  Davos has had parts of his fingers cut off before the story begins.  Jamie Lannister has his right hand cut off as in the television series, but being able to see inside the characters' heads, a strength of the book, we know how much longer the pain goes on for him and how the loss of his sword hand makes him feel emasculated in a way which is not conveyed on television.

One significant difference in the book compared to the series is the marginalisation in the novel of Caitlin Stark, the matriarch of the Stark family; a widow from the end of the first book believing that two or three of her children have been killed and supporting the bid of her eldest son, Robb for the throne.  On television Caitlin travels with her son's army and offers him council.  In the book she spends her time at the castle of her dying father only hearing about events at a distance.  The one big decision she makes, to try to trade Jamie Lannister for her eldest daughter, Sansa Stark, held by the Lannisters at court, is heavily criticised.  On television, Caitlin is heavily involved in the difficulties caused by Robb's love for Jeyne.  Their marriage leads to a crisis with the Frey clan which controls the strategic crossing from the North to the South of the continent of Westeros.  In the book, there is no such discussion.  Robb simply turns up back at his grandfather's house, a married man.  There are none of the qualms and discussions seen in the programme and this weakens the story and especially the point of having Caitlin in it.

A further point which I touched on when reviewing the first book is how young many of the leading characters are when they have sex.  Robb Stark is 16 when he marries as is his wife.  His sister, Sansa Stark is 13 when she is married to Tyrion Lannister.  Daenerys Tagaryen was 14 when she was married and had a miscarriage; she is not much older in this book when she reveals herself as bisexual.  Only Sansa does not have sex and that is in part as some kind of way to show that Tyrion is amoral rather than purely immoral.  Saying that, he still makes regular use of prostitutes.  I have long defended George R.R. Martin from criticism which, ironically, is often strongest from his most loyal fans.  However, the more I read his stand-out series the more I am coming to see that he is largely a dirty old man, filling his books with inappropriate fantasies.  Yes, compared to many fantasy authors, he writes well.  Yes, he wants to reflect behaviour which is of the kind seen in our Middle Ages.  However, there is too much of it and too much detail to make for comfortable reading.  The television series does minor adjustment to apparent ages and works better for it.  I guess I am going to continue with the books, but I do think they should have some 'trigger warnings' to indicate that the stories will be distasteful for some and that teenagers should not take them as any suggestion of what they should be attempting to do.

'Cuba Libre' by Elmore Leonard
I know Leonard's reputation and have come to resent, even oppose, his precepts for writing.  He favours a style which is incredibly pared down and which, in my view, does not aid clarity.  I looked for it in reading this book, but found he breaks many of his own rules.  The book is set in Cuba in the months leading up to and during the Spanish-American War of 1898, though the concluding part of that war is gone over very briskly.  It is focused on a handful of Americans, including the mistress of an American sugar plantation owner, a horse dealer, a journalist and a marine who survived the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana's harbour.  The first part of the book is very messy as we are introduced to these various characters and the Cubans on both sides of the conflict trying to liberate Cuba from Spanish control.  There are a lot of nasty people in the book, both from the revolutionary and the authorities' side.  Too often they behave in a way which seems irrational for the people of the time and place even with the prevalent level of violence.

The book improves in the last third around various parties trying to secure ransom for the release of the plantation owner's mistress, against the backdrop of US intervention on the island.  There are some excellent points of tension and I guess this is because Leonard, despite the exotic setting, is back on his home ground, dealing with double-dealing.  Even then, there are some jarring sections like two Americans simply sending a semaphore message with roughly constructed flags which leads to them being picked up off a beach by the US Navy despite it being in the middle of shelling Cuban installations.

Though the book improves towards the end, you have to have the patience to get through the very scrappy, disjointed earlier sections to reach it.  Yes, the setting is interesting and the landscape and what went on it is well portrayed.  However, Leonard has all these different parts that he seems unable to reconcile.  The political background sits very uncomfortably with the main story and either needed to be more distant or brought fully into the narrative.  I guess it was good that Leonard tried a different context for this novel, but it really only works when it comes closest to his more typical setting of crime in 20th century US cities.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Books I Read In September

Fiction
'Unseen Academicals' by Terry Pratchett
This is probably the most British of Pratchett's books, focusing on the topic of football (or soccer if you are an American).  In Ankh-Morpork the violent medieval style game, i.e. between districts with teams of any size, is transformed into something resembling what we know.  The first new team is run by the Unseen University, hence the name ('academicals' are not only the name of a real team as in Hamilton Academicals, but also what the robes and hats academics wear are called).  There are some university jokes, especially around 'new' universities and their relation to established ones and apparently about strange rituals at All Souls College, Oxford.  There are also tropes around football commentary and the Discworld's equivalent of Latin American footballing.  As is typical with late Pratchett novels, this one also explores themes such as prejudice against a 'goblin' character, inter-racial relationships, fashion, celebrity and being shut off from opportunities by the assumptions you were brought up with.  In this you can see a kind of parody of David and Victoria Beckham, or indeed a range of footballers and their girlfriends.  However, unlike some of the other Pratchett novels from the 2000s, I felt that the messages were not laid on as heavily and this allowed more room for humour.  This was the first Pratchett book I had laughed out loud to for some while.  Overall I enjoyed it and it is a shame there was never a follow-up to this one with the team going on tour and the development of Glenda's relationship.

'The Bloody Ground' by Bernard Cornwell
Despite Cornwell's declaration at the end of the book, published in 1996 this actually proved to be the fourth and final book in the Starbuck series.  I think this is because Cornwell realised that the series was not up to the standard of his others.  As I noted before, the constant switching of characters across the lines between the Union and the Confederacy and the fact that so many characters were unlikeable made the books hard going and they felt under-developed.  They improved as they progressed as Cornwell narrowed the focus, simply leaving out some characters from previous books and killing off others.  This book focuses on the Battles of Harper's Ferry and of Antietam.  The sort-of hero, Nathaniel Starbuck is sent to a punishment battalion which is being used to scam the Confederate government of resources to profit its commander.  He trains the unit up to a reasonable level and most of the book is about these battles.  Recounting conflict is Cornwell's strength.  However, usually, as for example in the Sharpe books, he is able to set it well in action off the battlefield well.  Overall this is not a bad book, but Cornwell could not really dig himself out from the weak situation he got into the first two books of this series.  I have a number of his medieval-set books on my shelf so I will see if he overcame his problems with those in the coming months.

Non-Fiction
'Warfare and the Third Reich' ed. by Christopher Chant
This is a mess of a book.  It is made up of three individual books, the authors of which are not indicated.  The first is a general survey of the development of the German armed forces from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second World War, though there is less on the Luftwaffe.  It is interesting on showing the foundations laid by the men who preceded Hitler's rise to power and particularly on the German navy, the Kriegsmarine. 

The second section is about Hitler's generals.  There are some reasonable over-arching points but also some oddities such a tiny chapter on the generals' uniforms.  The rest of the section looks at leading individual generals, focusing on particular campaigns.  This is interesting on the lesser-known generals, but given that we have already read about the German armed forces in action in the first section and the careers of many of the generals overlapped, it begins to become repetitive.  The author is particularly an enthusiast for Kesselring and in contrast dismisses Rommel as over-rated. 

The third section is on the Luftwaffe, the German airforce.  Again it is good in the pre-war section.  However, we have now read about the course of the war and campaigns within it repeatedly by this stage of the book, so only sections on, for example, the air campaigns against Allied shipping or organisation of air defence of Germany add new incidences.  Furthermore, this author, had numerous strings of acronyms for different units listed at length as parts of larger units.  Increasingly your eyes are having to get to grips with just these codings about units being moved around, with little narrative.  In addition, the tables that are referred to on a number of occasions, have not been included in this version of the book.

There are odd typographical errors throughout the book and as with the John Gardner's book last month you do wonder why companies do not take the opportunity of producing a new edition of a book to correct these.  This book does have some interesting insights and aspects which you may not have seen in books on Nazi Germany.  However, the fragmented and repetitive structure adopted means it is a challenge to pick these out from the text as a whole.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Eve of the Globe's War: A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Coming of the Second World War without an Industrial Revolution

Eve of the Globe's War: A ‘What If?’ Novel of the Coming of the Second World War without an Industrial Revolution

Today I self-published a new 'what if?' novel for sale on Amazon.  Rather than look at a small shift in history of one country and its implications, this one considers what would have happened if the Industrial Revolution had not been permitted to happen.  As the introduction outlines, there have been many regimes and societies throughout history that have resisted innovation; indeed passed laws against it.  The Classical societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome did advance knowledge in certain areas but as slave economies felt no need to go further and indeed many of the skills they had were lost.  In Imperial China and Shogunate Japan there was active resistance to innovation for fear of the damage it would bring to the established regimes.  Thus, looking at absolutist monarchies that were increasingly strong across Europe in the 18th century, often with monopolies over leading industries, it seemed highly feasible that innovation may have been halted; punishable by death.  Discovery of China and Japan seem to simply vindicate that this was the right approach for these restrictions.

Having set up this scenario I aimed to pick a well-known element of our history and show how different it would have been without the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries.  I lit upon the Munich Crisis of 1938 when Germany demanded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.  In addition, paralleling with the German use of the Enigma ciphering system and its provision to Britain and France by Polish intelligence, I thought the idea of agents seeking such a device would form the good basis for a story.  In order to highlight the differences I used well known people from our history: Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Bernard Montgomery, Neville Chamberlain, Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler to show that the lack of industrialisation would have not simply have impacted on the technology available but also the societies of Europe.  In our world there was still limits on chances to advance, but in a democracy even a man from a mercantile background like Chamberlain could become Prime Minister of a large empire and Adolf Hitler, a failed painter, son of a customs official, could rise to be dictator of Germany.  In a world where society remains dominated by the nobility such men could not have progressed.

I have felt that the Stuarts were more liable to become an absolutist monarchy for Britain than the Georgians would have been, given the behaviour of Charles I and James II.  People might challenge that the family, especially Charles II, had an interest in science.  However, given the removal of Charles I, their Stuart descendants - stemming from children of Queen Anne surviving rather than dying in infancy - seemed more like to adopt the kind of absolutist approach favoured in France, that in our world, provoked the French Revolution.  In this alternative rumblings on both sides of the Channel have not gone any further.

The map of Europe looks very different too.  As there has been no French Revolution so no Napoleonic Wars,  the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian kingdoms have been left in place.  The slow speed of communications and relatively low level of urbanisation has meant that though things have developed from the early 18th century, it is of a fraction of the scale of what happened in our world in the same time period in so many aspect.


This is the map I produced to give an idea of what the heart of Europe is envisaged as in this book, in itself providing opportunities and challenges for the heroes and heroine as they travel by horse-drawn carriage, river-carried barge and hot-air balloon from London to Munich and back.

This book is a spy novel set in this alternate context and it has a greater romantic element than my previous novels.  It is interesting as an author when a character appears and then gains a more central role than you had ever anticipated and this is what occurred with Écuyesse Servane Adélaïse Perenelle Bérénice de Grimoard who grew from an incidental to being a counterpoint to the Honourable James Manners, the rather feckless civil servant despatched with the motley crew of notables - Churchill, Eden and Montgomery to barter for the Prussian cipher machine, of course, unlike the Enigma of our world, operated by hand; electricity not being in use in this alternative.

I hope a spy novel set in a very different 1938 to our own will appeal to readers.  It provides a very different story set around the Munich Conference to that seen in Robert Harris's forthcoming novel!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Books I Read In August

Fiction
'A Clash of Kings' by George R.R. Martin
It is often said that the second book in a fantasy series, typically a trilogy, is the hardest.  It often involves the quest triggered by the first book and yet does not have the conclusions or climax provided by the third.  With Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series currently running at seven books, and with two of them broken into two volumes, there is an even greater tendency for that in the books.  A lot happens in 'A Clash of Kings' but much of it is 'off stage'.  We hear of numerous epic battles but only one of them, the sea battle to try to seize the capital, King's Landing, is witnessed at first hand, from the perspective of two characters.

I accept that Martin's focus is on the various individual characters that he has decided that we follow.  However, it is sometimes frustrating to know that the epic events which are going to impinge on them, are happening elsewhere.  Maybe this was intentional to make the book feel more 'adult' and less like many other fantasy series.  At this stage, the television series follows the books closely.  However, one of the joys of the books is the level of detail Martin can go into.  He clearly enjoys elaborating on the variety of foods at feasts and on the diversity of noble houses and their heraldry that are found in his world.  At times it becomes a little bit of a 'trainspotter' book.  Sometimes, though, as with the Bloody Mummers, you wish these details had made their way onto the screen.

Overall, the book is interesting, but more from the fact of watching 'slices of life' of the characters the author follows, rather than being carried along by an epic saga.  They are credible and written well, but this may be a different perspective than is expected by readers of other fantasies coming to these books for the first time.  There is one character, Theon Greyjoy, who you soon wish Martin had never created or certainly had not chosen to focus upon.  He is never successful.  He is ridiculed and despised by his family.  He is flawed but seems to be punished by fate to a far greater extent for his behaviour than any other character.  Having seen the television series, I know that life gets even worse for him.  It is very difficult to follow such a character and you get even more detail of his misery, of his self-reflection about his failings, than you see on screen.  Yes, have a character who has problems, but packaging up such unrelenting misery, when in fact there is quite a lot of suffering across, the board, is a real turn-off for the reader.  No-one likes to think that any character is fated to lose before they even started the game.

'To Run A Little Faster' by John Gardner
I have noted in the past in relation to books by Philip Kerr, how wrong whoever writes the blurb for the cover can be in describing what happens in the book and how this can mislead readers.  This was a bit the case with the edition of  'To Run A Little Faster', that I read.  The cover starts by saying that it is 1938 and Prime Minister Anthony Eden has resigned, suggesting it is an alternative history book.  Eden did resign in 1938 but from being Foreign Secretary, he did not become Prime Minister until 1955.  That aside, this edition of the book in a broader, thinner format than a standard paperback was released in 2008, the year after Gardner's death.  I used to see the original edition, published in 1976, at a friend's house in the 1980s, but never got round to asking to borrow it.

Gardner is probably best known for his James Bond books, 1981-96.  However, this novel feels more like something written by Dornford Yates between the wars, an often frantic middle class adventure rushing around Europe.  However, it is injected with 1970s sensibilities, which sometimes jar, especially the speed of the relationship which develops with Poppy Cooke that upsets the pacing as it is required that they are engaged by the end of the book.  Simon Darrell is a journalist investigating the disappearance of a Conservative MP which then leads him to uncovering a Nazi cell among the British upper classes, bent on influencing the country in Germany's favour.

As other reviewers have noted, the book is patchy.  At times Gardner manages to pull of a genuine sense of jeopardy in part because the authorities behave in as sinister a way as the conspirators.  There are also reasonable elements of mystery, but then at other times the story goes limp, in part because of the time needed to develop the relationship between Simon and Poppy and the success on the part of the authorities in having him removed from pursuing the story.  There seems to be no judgement on how Simon sucks Poppy into danger, but I guess that would be no surprise for someone who wrote Bond novels.  Overall, the book suffers from trying to be a pastiche of 1930s adventure novels and yet trying to maintain the attitudes of adventures of the 1970s and as a result does not really work as either.

There are quite a few typographical errors in the book: mixed-up homophones and random pieces of punctuation popping up.  It is a shame that whoever oversaw re-issuing the book in 2008 did not take the effort to check through the text and resolve these.

Of course, I much would have preferred a counter-factual with Eden as Prime Minister in the late 1930s, which would have led to a very different unfolding of European, perhaps even, world history.  Most likely there would have been a war starting in 1938 rather than the following year and appeasement would be a forgotten political term.  However, that kind of genre was nowhere near the kind that Gardner worked on in his extensive career.

'Black Hornet' by James Sallis
This book features Lew Griffin, a black private detective working in New Orleans in the mid-1960s.  It is excellent at conjuring up the environment of the time especially in terms of the tensions of race relations.  His lead character is cool, almost too much so.  He dresses in a black suit and is good friends with a talented but forgotten blues musician.  He also runs into Chester Himes, a famous black author of crime stories at the time, with no real sense of why that happens except to name check something that is cool while highlighting his political writings.  This is the main problem I have with the book, it links into too many tropes - Griffin's girlfriend is a prostitute though that is not said in as many words; he reads Camus as well as leading science fiction authors of the time; there is uncertainty over people's parents and a whiff of corruption.  If Sallis had dialled it down a bit he could have made it that little bit more authentic, which in large part he achieves.  The investigation is very messy and dangerous for Griffin.  His hospital bills draw off what money he earns.  He is also good at the segregation which persisted even when it was legally waning, the difficulty of a black man and a white man having dinner together, for example.

The dialect can sometimes be difficult to follow, but that might be because I am British rather than American.  It does add to the flavour Sallis builds up, but sometimes I had to re-read sections.  The other thing is that the book is written from the perspective of thirty years later.  As a result we know Griffin is not going to die even when the violence is hard; we even know he is not going to stay with his girlfriend or to get crippled from his job or die in Vietnam or anything like that.  This unfortunately undermines all the work Sallis has put into the environment Griffin works in.  Overall I enjoyed the book.  However, I felt Sallis tried too hard.  If he had been subtler; if he had only looked back a year, rather than thirty, then the book could have had the edge he was so keenly seeking.  I am sure many who would like a 'hard boiled' novel would find much to like in 'Black Hornet'.

Non-Fiction
'The New Cold War: Moscow v. Pekin' by Edward Crankshaw
For a start, I have no idea whey Crankshaw calls Peking [what we now term Beijing] 'Pekin', but he does.  These days it tends to be forgotten that from the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950 until around 1969, the West, notably US policymakers, viewed the USSR and Communist China as being in a single monolithic bloc.  In fact, as this book highlights, certainly from 1956, if not earlier, they were at odds with each other.  This was ultimately to lead to Soviet bombing of Chinese installations and border clashes.  It was only US President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger who embraced the tripolar perspective of the Cold War and tried to use it to resolve the US entanglement in Vietnam.  It seemed to have been forgotten again by the early 1990s with the proclamation of the end of the Cold War, with an assumption that the USA had 'won', though as has become subsequently apparent, of the three superpowers, China has been more victorious.

The book starts off very well and even today, over fifty years since it was published, if you are interested in the differences between Soviet and Chinese Communism, from their revolutions onwards, you could do far worse than start with Crankshaw's analysis.  The challenge is, that when writing this book as a short political text in the Pelican series, Crankshaw's prime role was not simply as a historian but in attempting to convince British audiences of what they were missing as they persisted as seeing China and the USSR as part of a Communist monolith.  The book becomes less interesting as it progresses and towards the end is reduced to simply reporting how each side attacked each other at various congresses.  I guess these days we do not need to be convinced of Crankshaw's thesis in the way that he felt was necessary in the mid-1960s.

Thus, today, while primarily being seen as a historical curiosity, there is good material in this book to help people taking a perspective from our era.  However, it also highlights how much we have moved on from when 'Communist watching' was an art in itself.  I imagine it still has uses in mapping the tides of the Chinese Communist Party, but these days we do not feel obliged to demand 'evidence' from reading the nuances of their public statements, as audiences seemed to do back in the 1960s.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Book I Read In July

Fiction
'The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives' ed. by Mike Ashley
A combination of factors including not being allowed to read in bed again and watching coverage of the Tour De France has reduced the amount of reading I have been doing.  Consequently I have only got through a single book this month though at 532 pages it was not a short one.  It is the sequel to 'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' (1993) which I read back in May.  As with that book, this one, published two years later collects short stories into chronological order, though it stretches further, going back to 35000 BCE and stretching into the 1920s.

Many of the authors who featured in the previous book return in this one.  This does lead to a rather patchy collection and I wish Ashley had selected more on the basis of quality rather than the name of the author.  This is particularly the case with the Ellis Peters chapter, which is not a story at all but an account of a true witch trial involving a duchess in 1441.  It was published first in 1950 and suffers from that contorted, overblown language that some mid-20th century authors fell into using.  It certainly does not show Peters in the best light and should have been excluded.

Among the other stories, there are 29 in total, there were some I liked and others were weak or tedious.  I liked 'Death in the Dawntime' by F. Gwymplaine MacIntyre, set in aboriginal Australia handled very well to get the reader into the culture of the people of the time and their perceptions.  Two authors who featured in the previous book and stand up well in this one are Peter Tremayne with another story set in 7th century Ireland featuring a nun-lawyer, Sister Fidelma and a Judge Dee story by Robert Van Gulik set in the same century but in China.  Of others who appear again, 'The Midwife's Tale' by Margaret Frazer is very good; it features another nun-detective.  S.S. Rafferty's 'The Curse of the Connecticut Clock' featuring Captain Cork is not as good as the story featuring this character in the previous book.  'The Chapman and the Tree of Doom' by Kate Sedley is a medieval one but with a pedlar as the detective and it is bleak but engaging.  'Man's Inherited Death' by Keith Heller featuring a London watchman in 1729 is another with a refreshing perspective.  The story by P.C. Docherty featuring Moll Flanders as investigator in Tudor England certainly has different approaches to solving crime and an unexpected outcome.

There are a number of Roman set investigations, Steven Saylor's featured is not his best but I was pleased to see the return of Wallace Nicholls's Sollius a detective who is also a slave.  The Roman ones from John Maddox Roberts and Mary Reed & Eric Mayer are not bad either.

Some of the stories irritate me.  These tend to come later in the book.  Ashley is a big fan of the work of Melville Davisson Post, the Uncle Abner stories, but to me they are too righteous and constrained.  I prefer the one which precedes the Abner story in this collection, 'Deadly Will and Testament' by Ron Burns which shows how racial legislation weighed against justice in 19th century Virginia.  Perhaps the most pointless story is 'Murdering Mr. Boodle' by Amy Myers set in a 19th century publishing house with a chef-detective who is not a spot on Henry Crabbe.  Edward D. Hoch's 'The Trail of Bells' set in the Arizona Territory in 1887 is well done and has a very different and more violent atmosphere compared to some of these stories.

Overall this is more of a mixed bag than the first book.  The best stories are better but there are a few too many that leave me unimpressed.  I have long read Van Gulik novels but I think I will now seek out those by Peter Tremayne, which as this collection was produced in the 1990s, should be knocking around charity shops and car book sales.

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Books I Read In June

Fiction
'Wintersmith' by Terry Pratchett
This is the third in the Tiffany Aching series of five books by Pratchett, which sees the heroine still training with witches but compelled to move from one to another.  In addition, by accident she attracts the attention of anthropomorphic representation of Winter, the eponymous Wintersmith who wants to make her his Queen while nature seems to want her to become Lady Summer.  There are fewer laugh out loud moments in this book than the previous ones.  However, Pratchett does show that if he had turned to straight rather than humorous fantasy who well he could have done in that genre.  He questions assumptions and gives new twists to established patterns.  He portrays witches as a kind of social services providers in villages which then reflects on how we support elderly people, those facing bereavement, birth and other challenges in our own society when we live in silos.  The Nac Mac Feegles appear but at not really at the heart of the story.  It was a satisfying book to read but more on the basis of the story it told rather than the humour.

'Battle Flag' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the third book in the Starbuck tetralogy.  In it Cornwell plays to his strengths as the action barely leaves the battlefield.  He shows the build-up and the fighting of the Second Battle of Bull Run in western Virginia in August 1862.  It continues with some of the characters of the preceding books, but absent from Richmond and with two of the commanders of the Faulconer Legion sent back there, some of the characters are absent.  While there is less of the crossing of frontlines which happened far too often in the previous book, 'Copperhead' (1994) you do feel at time that there are far too many consequences and mirrored actions.  Confederate Major Nathaniel Starbuck runs into his preacher father who skirts around the Union side throughout even though a civilian and into his friend, Adam Faulconer who similarly deserted his father in going over to the Union side.  These twists undermine the realism of the book which is otherwise good.  The strengths are in the confusion of this particular battle especially for small units among large armies and portrayal of the fighting.  Starbuck's motives have simplified to ambition for progression and simply keeping men he favours alive.  The behaviour of others is often bewildering and feels inauthentic, though Cornwell does reproduce errors that were made for real.  I have found this series rather unsatisfactory almost as if Cornwell has tried too hard and so undermined the strength seen in the much longer Richard Sharpe series.

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 1792-1944' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This is the second volume to the book I read last month covering 480BCE to 1757.  The problems and strengths of that book continue into this one.  The work of Fuller is fragmented by Terraine who does much more than an editor.  That becomes even worse in this book as naively and petulantly he counters Fuller's views of the lead-up to the First World War utterly dismissing the economic factors and the involvement of Britain which we know to have been so important.  You just wish Terraine would back off and go and write his own book rather than critiquing in such a harsh way the one he was supposed to be editing.

I started reading these two books as a basis for finding 'what if?' points for analysis.  Fortunately Fuller does not disappoint in exploring how things could have turned out differently in the cases highlighted by the war.  Looking at Napoleon's career 1812-15, he highlights many occasions when something very different could have been done.  In terms of the First World War he believes that having the USA entering the conflict in April 1917 not only prolonged the war but also wrecked Germany to an extent that some dictatorship like that of the Nazis was almost made inevitable.

Fuller makes fair points that Hitler made a grave error in not more fully enlisting non-Russians when the Germans invaded the USSR; highlights his unwillingness for units to retreat when victory was no longer feasible and his personal interventions which so weakened many battles.  For the Allies, he highlights how the obsession wit unconditional surrender ruined the chance of winning over the whole of Italy in September 1943; undermined those fighting Hitler within Germany and indeed those in Japan who wanted an earlier surrender.  He does forget how ambivalent the British were towards the Italians and, above all, even after the war, how long it took politicians to accept that there had even been opposition to Hitler.

In the first volume, Fuller revealed an abhorrence of Calvinism.  In this book he and Terraine share a common loathing of Communism.  They go on it in hyperbole and at a length which is not appropriate for a history book like this.  I suppose this is not surprising given the book was written in the 1950s and Terraine edited in the 1970s.  It is rather jarring now.  However, it does lead both men to strongly argue for different paths to have been taken that might have prevented Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe.  Fuller feels that the Normandy Invasion was a mistake and that the British should have pressed on with an invasion of the Balkans, though from Italy rather than directly.  To have a Second Front in France, he feels, simply handed over large parts of Europe to the Soviets.  Another striking thing is how Fuller portrays the Soviets as barbarians, constantly emphasising that they had largely Asiatic forces and even leading generals were of that ethnicity.  In frankly racist sections, he argues that, as a consequence, their soldiers had low intelligence and were brutal, leaving no explanation why the apparently higher intelligence German soldiers were equally brutal especially on the Eastern Front.  Terraine simply amplifies these racist tones.

This is an interesting book, but erratic.  It certainly raises interesting counter-factual points that tend to be disregarded in history books these days and I feel put the decisions made at the time to the test.  However, it is unrestrained in airing opinions which seem incredibly dated and prejudiced now, and I feel lead to faulty assumptions about what was feasible and the nature of the soldiers in the various conflicts.  As before the strongest parts are the descriptions and analyses of the actual battles and the editing that should have been done would have been to eliminate the meandering, often misguided linking sections and to have cut back simply to a series of vignettes about the battles.

The battles which feature in this book are:

Battle of Valmy - 1792; Battle of Trafalgar - 1805; Battle of Leipzig - 1813; Battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny and Waterloo - 1815; Battles of Vionville, Gravelotte and Sedan - 1870; Battles of Tannenberg and of the Marne - 1914; Battle of Amiens - 1918; Battle of Warsaw - 1920; Battles of Kiev and of Viasma-Briansk - 1941; Battle of Stalingrad - 1942-43; Invasion of Normandy - 1944.