Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Books I Read In January

'Amsterdam' by Ian McEwan
I bought this book at the same time as I bought 'The Daydreamer' (1994) which I reviewed in November 2015: This one, published four years later, won the Booker Prize, though I cannot understand why.  Like 'The Daydreamer' it is another short book (178 pages) set in the bubble world of McEwan's creation.  Though published in the 1990s these two books set their stories in a kind of late 1960s/early 1970s world when McEwan, born in 1948, was a young man.  There are the occasional references to specific items of technology and in 'Amsterdam' to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but these elements hardly alter the perception that the action and, certainly, the attitudes are more suited to twenty years earlier.

It is an almost exclusively white setting despite much of the story unfolding in London.  Though in this book a black child and her family are mentioned, but never actually seen.  Like 'The Daydreamer the culture and locations are primarily in southern England - this book does include brief visits to the Lake District and the Netherlands, but the locals are clearly 'other'.  It features the English Middle Class; in this book specifically the Upper Middle Class - there is a composer, a politician, an investor and a newspaper editor.  Women have bit-parts in the male-focused story; the funeral of the main woman in the book is the starting point.  Most of the action takes place in London.

One criticism I had from someone who read this book in 2000 was that 'very little happens'.  Much of the book is about the thoughts of the various characters, a mix of reminiscences and various meetings.  It is largely whimsical in tone fitting with the magic realist tone that appeared 'The Daydreamer' only toned down.  It is hard to engage with any of the characters and you feel you would despise any of them if you met them in real life.  That may be the point.  The only good aspect of this novel is the description of the composer's work on a symphony and how he envisages it.  McEwan has written a libretto and he does well in communicating the sense of music in the mind of the composer to a non-specialist reader.  I have sworn off McEwan already and this book did nothing to change my mind.  I am just struck by how such slight books with such a detachment from reality can have been so successful.

As an aside, the cover of the book shows two men from the 19th century about to duel.  I can now see the relevance of this because of the conflict between the two friends in the book: Vernon the newspaper editor and Clive the composer.  However, it did mean I was surprised when I found it was actually set in 20th century London rather than 19th century Amsterdam and that the person who told me it featured a balloon flight over the latter city, lied.

'Prague Fatale' by Philip Kerr
I have long enjoyed Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels featuring a German police detective in the 1930s-50s since the original trilogy was published in 1989-91.  With this book, Kerr has set himself a real challenge.  It is one that he, through his narrator/lead character recognises in the text. For much of the book Gunther is investigating a murder as the Bohemian house of Reinhard Heydrich (1904-42) who was head of the RSHA which was an umbrella organisation for police bodies in Nazi Germany throughout the war.  He became Deputy 'Protector' of Bohemia-Moravia in September 1941 though was acting 'Protector' until his assassination in June 1942. In this novel, set in October 1941, he is hosting a range of leading Nazi officials responsible for Bohemia-Moravia.  All have had a part in the atrocities already being committed at that time on the Eastern Front.  Thus there is a house full of murderers and as Gunther asks, is there any point in investigating the killing of one man?

The novel opens with murders in Berlin.  Kerr successfully conjures up the difficulties of living in wartime Berlin with the shortages, the increasing atrocities against Jews and the air raids.  This part of the novel is gritty and engaging.  However, when the action moves to Heydrich's castle in Bohemia, there is an abrupt shift in tone.  Again, Gunther notes this.  He is correct to say that it resembles and Agatha Christie stately-home murder mystery.  It could have worked on this basis.  I have often been drawn to novels in which the detective can solve a case but not bring the guilty party to justice.  This is a feature of crime novels by Leonardo Sciascia and Josef Škvorecký and as you might expect with such powerful Nazis involved it is a likely outcome of this novel.  What is interesting to see is how Gunther resolves it and what his investigations reveal about the evolving nature of the Nazi state at this time.

Towards the end of the book, the tone shifts again.  There is a torture scene, perhaps included to remind the reader not to become too accepting of Heydrich and his kind.  The link between the killing and the activities of the Czech and Slovak resistance which ultimately led to Heydrich's assassination and the massacre that followed, seems rather contrived.  Gunther is portrayed as both very astute but at the same time blinkered and naive, two tendencies which do not sit well together.  Certainly the last part of the novel with the death of two leading members of the Luftwaffe wrapped up in pages, feels very rushed.  This is not helped by the very long list of suspects that are on the table.  Kerr has missed Christie's technique in keeping the suspects to a limited number.  Consequently he has to engineer a speeded up conclusion of the investigation that again does not sit comfortably.  I guess the alternative would have been to give us many more pages of interrogations.

Overall, this book feels as if it consists of parts of two different books welded together.  Kerr can do this, even jumping between different times and continents as in 'If The Dead Rise Not' (2009) and it is something he has done again in 'The Lady From Zagreb' (2015) though I have not read that one.  However, here it is far less successful. By featuring real people and having already produced novels featuring Gunther in the later 1940s and 1950s, some jeopardy is missing as we know what happened to the major characters.  At times Gunther even shows that he is reminiscing from sometime much later as he outlines what happened to a couple of the suspects at the end of the war.

I think Kerr wanted to write a stately home mystery but felt guilty about doing that with such sinister, real-life people.  Thus, other elements had to be included in attempt to puncture the 'cosy' nature of the investigation in the castle.  This highlights the fact that such murder stories are really divorced from real murder and investigation and trying to put an example together with the far more realistic and gritty approach featuring in most Gunther novels by Kerr does not work for that reason.

It is not a bad book and it rattles along very briskly.  I do always worry when the lead character begins to work for someone very senior.  It may open up the opportunity for engaging with different sorts of crimes and to introduce politics.  However, it detaches the detective from the realism of dealing with what is happening on the street.  Most crime is sordid not effete.  This has long been a challenge with Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichirō novels from when he went to work for the Shogun.

As I noted with 'If The Dead Rise Not' which I read in December 2012:  whoever does the covers for the books does not actually seem to read them.  This novel is set in 1941 with some references to the death of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  On the cover, however, it says the murder which features in the bulk of the book is committed in 1942, which is wrong.  The image on the front cover is wrong as well as the man featured seems to be wearing clothes from the 1960s/70s as he walks across the Charles Bridge in Prague rather than clothing of the 1940s.  These are not major issues, but may mislead some potential readers.

I have a number of other Bernie Gunther books to read this year and hope that in these Kerr has not attempted to lump together two crime genres and keeps Gunther doing what he does best.

'The State We're In' by Will Hutton
This was a hugely successful book in the mid-1990s spending months in the top-selling book charts.  The edition I read this month was the 1995 revised edition with a couple of extra chapters.  The book sits in a tradition of those written about the malaise of Britain that appeared during the 20th century, but notably from the 1960s onwards.  Hutton puts himself clearly in that context, especially in noting the lack of long-term investment in Britain and the institutions to support that, plus the failings in technical education in Britain which were being bemoaned in the late 19th century when Britain began to slip behind the USA and especially Germany.

Hutton also writes about the so-called Establishment, an interlocked framework of the elites that have always run Britain.  This topic remains a popular one for mainstream non-fiction as 'The Establishment: And how they get away with it' by Owen Jones published in March 2015 shows.  Hutton, at times also takes a moral tone, which sounds as if he was a Non-Conformist from a century below and might seem out-of-step with liberal and left-wing opinion as articulated in the late 1990s.  He feels that the break-up of the family and utter despair among young people is a problem that needs to be addressed though he feels the economic structures in place, notably the constant urging that labour become more 'flexible' and accept the lowest wages feasible, contributes to that situation.  Some of his solutions sound 'Victorian'.  He envisages different tiers of education, pensions and health care, but because he feels this is the only way to get Middle Class (by which he really means Upper Middle Class) engagement in state provision.

There is a good section on how support for the Conservatives has successfully been made to appear apolitical.  I have encountered people who have said, 'I'm not into politics but I know the right party to vote for' when referring to the Conservatives.  In part it is a result of the Conservative Party being so meshed with the Establishment, so supporting the Party is seen as a part with saying you are Anglican or believe Britain should have an Army.  Consequently anyone holding any other views are condemned as being 'political', no matter how moderate the views are.  I have encountered this in the work place.  Managers are happy to bring in people from Human Resources, arguing they are neutral, when in fact they openly support the managers and see nothing wrong in that.  The moment you have a union representative on your side, they ask 'why did you have to make it political?' as if them having support and you standing against them on their own, is somehow fair.

Hutton also looks at the differences between the situation in the UK and those in Germany (and its neighbouring states), Japan and the USA.  It is notable that China barely gets a mention in the way it would these days.  Again this is something that has been common in British decline literature even since the 1940s in the case of the USA and the 1960s for (West) Germany.and Japan.  By this stage you might ask, then, what is it that Hutton added to make the book more than simply a collage of previous writings on this topic?

Hutton is very good at articulating economic theory for the general reader.  He shows the lazy assumptions of New Right thinking which began to take hold in the UK in 1976 and have been dominant from 1979 until the present day.  He also explains clearly how Keynesianism which was in use 1941/48 until 1976 differs.  He also expounds on New Keynesianism which, despite his optimism has made no impact on the UK.  Hutton shows how the very centralised UK body politic has given such power to those who wanted to implement New Right ideas, notably reducing state involvement in the economy and society to the minimum in the belief that the market will provide the best outcome for everyone.  Hutton is particularly strong in how the New Right ideas fitted perfectly with the short-term high-return culture of finance in Britain focused on invisible earnings and asset-stripping rather than industrial development.  This had put Britain at a disadvantage in facing challenges in industries such as precision engineering, electrical goods, optics, chemicals, etc. at the end of the 19th century and has left if floundering with its companies being taken over by foreigners in the lat 20th and early 21st centuries.  He also shows how this approach has wrecked people's chances of getting a decent pension and suppresses the economy because lack of investment and the urge for quick profits breeds a strong sense of insecurity across society.

Given that this book was 20 years old, I approached it more as a history book of the mid-1990s than of present day.  Some things have changed since 1995, notably the disappearance of high interest rates and the decline in unemployment.  The Bank of England has become independent which Hutton warned against.  Many of his warnings have come true in all respects, notably the collapse of more financial institutions, obscene pay for executives, the ability of companies to continue with short-term risk behaviour, asset-stripping that destroyed established companies, utility companies providing a worsening service yet with increased pay-outs for their owners, the further weakening of local authorities and greater restriction on their spending, further suppression of union rights, further decay of towns and cities, more cash-for-questions scandals in parliament and so on.  Many things he has warned about have come true, notably the financial crash of 2008 resulting from the dangerous banking behaviour and risky lending in the over-heated housing market he condemns throughout the book, though the USA was to prove to be in as bad a situation as the UK.

There have been sporadic, isolated attempts to introduce some of the ideas that Hutton mentions. There has been a growth in apprenticeships to lower the percentage of people without any training, though recently it has been revealed that many of these are as sub-standard as 1980s training schemes.  There is now a minimum wage and it has not brought down the economy as so many insisted that it would.  Some cities now have elected mayors and London actually has an elected body, something absent in the 1990s.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do have more autonomy, but English regions are unchanged. There have been tiers of education created, but in a way which has often benefited friends of the government and has certainly contributed to even greater centralisation.

After a slight shift in higher education to allow more people in, in the 1990s and 2000s they are now being priced out of taking up such opportunities and once again there is a drive for more private providers with an assumption that they will do everything better.  Despite David Cameron's brief flirtation with 'Big Society' there has been no development in our civil society and Britain is divided more than ever.  Attempts at constitutional reform have been dropped.  Blair did nothing significant to the House of Lords and ironically only Cameron has considered it again because the Lords will not bend to his will not because in terms of equity or democracy it needs reform.  The Conservatives love the absolute sovereignty of Crown-in-Parliament and many seek even greater power through leaving the EU.  Clinging to the New Right religion that only the state and its regulations are what are hampering a boom in Britain, the drive goes on to break down any 'restraint' on capitalism, without even recognising that further steps are providing minimal benefit to British business people, but increasingly to foreigners.  This is the irony of the New Right in Britain, despite being patriotic on the surface they are yielding sovereignty to other countries, notably China.

Hutton was foolish to be optimistic.  He was right to expect a Labour victory in 1997.  Labour under Blair, at times, packaged itself in Huttonite rhetoric.  However, in fact it further entrenched the establishment systems Hutton railed against.  Blair made friends with the Conservative media even more assiduously than even Thatcher had done.  He wooed business people and gave them the greater freedoms they desire.  The Blair regime continued the New Right agenda without a break.  This means that there has been no interlude from when Major stepped down until when Cameron came in.  Brown had too little time and was too shackled to the deals Blair had made to disrupt this.  Hutton could have written this book in 2015 and with the exception of minor things such as interest rates, he could say exactly the same thing as back in 1995.  The socio-politico-economic framework in which the reckless British economy operates remains untouched.  Short term, high return approaches are only tempered because so many British companies are owned by people from different systems that have to make consideration of different attitudes.  Thus, while the book is now over 20 years old, in large part it could be written today and that is a tragedy for the UK.

'Write' ed. by Claire Armitstead
This is a book about fiction rather than being fiction, so I have put it in the Non-Fiction category.  Following severe criticism of my writing, I thought it might be a good idea to read a book on how to write better.  This book consists of numerous short chapters with tips from established authors.  Unlike some authors I do not have the difficulty of starting.  I believed that I had found my voice, indeed a number of voices for different genres.  I am alert to words I over-use.  I like rich description but know that is not in favour in current writing.  I do not feel I learned a great deal from this book.  There was a good tip from DBC Pierre about including speaking quirks to identify characters in extended dialogue.  I have been conscious of too much 'he said, she said' when having more than two characters in a conversation, but have also sought clarity for the reader.  The outcome for me is that then my writing is deemed 'clumsy'.  The most irritating chapter is from Mark Billingham.  His chapter is supposed to be about building suspense, something I am eager to sharpen up on for my crime novels.  However, in fact he gives no tips except to say that you need characters that readers engage with so that they then feel suspense in witnessing what they are going through.  This is rather a cop-out and just bounces you back to Andrew Miller's chapter on characters.

I did like Kate Mosse's chapter on the importance of plot.  Often critics dismiss plot as unnecessary whereas for much of the general reading public, this is the top priority.  With my short stories, I have been attacked for not having enough plot.  I think some people misunderstand how a short story works and that it is not simply a miniature novel.   I enjoyed Mosse's 'Labyrinth' (2005), she is good in getting the reader into a particular time and space as she does with Carcassonne in southern France during the period of the Cathars in that book.

The middle section of the book is simply lists of 'do's' and 'don'ts' from a range of authors.  Many of these begin to overlap.  There is a lot about editing.  There is a reference to the use of friends as critics.  However, I know from other authors that in the real world this does not work.  These days people have minimal interest in reading a book which is not on sale.  If they are friends they seem inhibited in pointing out anything wrong or go to the other extreme and say you should abandon writing entirely as you are not a 'proper' author.

I do not know why anyone quotes any guidance from Martin Amis.  His work is terrible.  He cannot even peer beyond his own ego to connect with the rest of the population.  My opinion of Will Self, also featured in this section, has been in severe decline since I met him in 2012.  Some of the tips from leading authors show how far they are from the average person who would read 'Write', notably Hilary Mantel who starts her list advising you to get an accountant.  This is like Brenna Aubrey on the Amazon Kindle January 2016 newsletter who said: 'assemble your team of pros to help you publish (cover artists, editors, proofreaders, etc.)'.  This makes it clear that unless you are already wealthy and can afford to pay all these people, really you stand no chance as an author.  I did find out Mantel lives in Woking (or did so when this book, published in 2012, was written).  She does advise reading 'Becoming A Writer' by Dorothea Brande (1934).  One problem of this book is the age of the authors.  There is some reference to people writing laptops, but far too much on using pencils and paper.  Writing with a computer does impact.

Geoff Dyer's tip number 7 about always having more than one project on the go at once, is one I would support.  I wish Esther Freud, who I have commented on before, could get readers to accept that they do not need every last thing explained.  Readers of 2016 will not accept that view and get upset very quickly if every last issue is not resolved and every minor character given an ending, all within a single novel,  I like Michael Moorcock's point number 9 about carrot and stick for characters.

There is a section in which successful authors outline how one of their most famous books came about.  This is reasonably interesting but simply highlighted that it is a very random process and success in writing has no connection to ability or effort.  The final section has some oddities.  However, the one by Blake Morrison was a salutary warning.  Listening to ballards by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, things like 'Daytripper', 'Drive My Car', 'Norwegian Wood', 'Under My Thumb', 'Sympathy For the Devil' and 'The Man Who Sold the World' there seemed to be a good basis for some short stories about what is narrated in these songs.  Morrison points out the cost of even quoting a handful of song lyrics in your books.  He had to pay £500 to use one line of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' by The Rolling Stones, £735 for one line of 'When I'm Sixty-Four' by The Beatles and £1000 for two lines of 'I Shot the Sheriff' by Bob Marley.  He spent more than the average advance clearing lyrics.  My book would have been very expensive to write and this chapter re-emphasised that being an author these days is really only feasible for the very wealthy, I suppose like any opportunity in sport, art or even most professions.

Maybe I did expect a 'self-help' book when this was nothing of the kind.  It offers little of support for a writer and much it does offer is contradicted some pages later, such as being satisfied/dissatisfied with what you write and paying attention to the views of others.  This book is really just a coffee table book for you to dip into to pass some small chunks of time.  It is really a collection of anecdotes from various successful authors, some of which simply emphasise how disconnected those people are from other people, including amateur authors.  If you are a writer, I suggest not reading this book as it will simply encourage to abandon all hope and go off and at best take up some random hobby; at worst simply slump in front of the television, but certainly not to continue trying to be an author.  Very depressing all round and a purchase I now gravely regret making even second hand.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Biscuit Blog: Walkers Stem Ginger

Walkers Stem Ginger

I have been rather naughty in this posting by stepping outside the biscuits which you can buy easily from supermarkets.  These biscuits are only available through caterers and I imagine most people will have only come across them in their workplace.  The reason why I have included them is as a counter-balance to my disappointment over the Deluxe Stem Ginger biscuits that I reviewed earlier this month:

The Walkers version does not aim to be a butter biscuit and lacks the creaminess even of the Lidl Deluxe version.  However, there is a good snap to biting these, they are not powdery nor do they break away.  There is not a rich flavour to the biscuit itself, hence the 4-star rating, but flavour is left to the stem ginger in the biscuit.  These pieces have a nice chewiness to them without tasting overly crystalised.  Lidl could easily produce a biscuit as good as these, especially for the Deluxe range.  That is why I have included this one here to show what is feasible with stem ginger.


Friday, 22 January 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Pink Wafers

Tower Gate Pink Wafers

Perhaps this type of biscuit which has attracted most attention by name on television.  It features significantly in the first episode of the first series of  'Life on Mars' (2006) set in 1973.  A witness is being questioned and it is suggested that she might like some pink wafers.  A police officer is sent off to buy her some.  Pink wafers with their gaudy colouring and their very sweet flavour could almost seem to sum up the early 1970s. These biscuits have often featured in selection boxes but have always stood out among the various shades of brown that characterise most biscuits.

As you can imagine, having spotted these on another biscuit hunt in Lidl I was eager to give them ago.  These are under Lidl's own brand for biscuits and some other products, Tower Gate.  They were incredibly disappointing.  On the plus side they were as crunchy as promised without dissolving into powder as sometimes can be the case with pink wafers.  However, as you can see from the picture they were more a shade of orange rather than pink, that was despite the colour of the packet and even featuring a pink feline, presumably in reference to the pink panther cartoons.  The main problem was the flavour.  The biscuits were so lacking in the uber-sweetness you especially expect from a pink wafer that they could almost be deemed a savoury biscuit.  Indeed they tasted like a number of plain ice cream wafers sandwiched together.  The 'cream' was almost soggy in nature.  Certainly there was nothing of the pink wafer experience that I had anticipated.  However, I passed the packet to the teenager who lives in my house and he finished them off.

Perhaps I expected too much, but I was certainly let down by this product.


P.P. In the interests of balance, I must say that I have passed these biscuits on to a teenaged boy and he said that he really liked them and wondered if I had any more.  This suggests that at least one member of the younger generation has a taste for something that is not uncomfortably sweet and I guess this is why Lidl continues to sell them.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Biscuit Blog: Deluxe Stem Ginger butter biscuits

Deluxe Stem Ginger

These were another Lidl purchase.  You can tell the Deluxe biscuits as they come in vertical boxes.  These for some reason hint at being Scottish with the saltire flag on the cover.  On the positive side they do have decent chunks of ginger in them not too crystalised in nature, though the flavour is not as clear in these than in some even cheap stem ginger biscuits I have tried.  There is a buttery flavour but it is not as rich as I would have liked.  The biscuits break up in the mouth in an unsatisfactory way, neither melting in the mouth as you might expect with a butter biscuit and yet not being crunchy either, it is almost as if they break into chunks; perhaps this is because of the disruption to the structure of the biscuit caused by the insertion of the ginger.

These make a nice change from ginger 'nuts' but I feel that they need work.  I would give them a 3-star rating except for the fact that they are portrayed as 'de luxe' in nature and to really qualify for such a status they would need to be much better.