Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Books I Read In August

'A Fool's Alphabet' by Sebastian Faulks
Given that I received this book from the friend of mine who also supplied me with 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' (1985) by Patrick Süskind, 'Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy' (1991) by Jostein Gaarder and 'Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe' (1991) by Bill Bryson, I should have realised that this book was going to be of that kind - pretentious and lacking entertainment.

'A Fool's Alphabet' has twenty-six chapters set in locations across the world beginning with each of the letters of the alphabet; the chapters are recounted in alphabetical rather than chronological order.  They cover incidents in the life of Pietro Russell; a few of his father Raymond Russell and one about his grandfather, between 1914 and 1991 (i.e. in Hobsbawm's 'short 20th century'), though most chapters are set in the 1970s and 1980s.  Sometimes the named location is simply the starting point and most of the chapter is actually about somewhere else entirely or, indeed actually about a different year to the one given in that title.

In theory, some mystery of Pietro Russell, a British man with an Italian mother, is supposed to come together as you read through the book and see short incidents from across his life and that of a couple of his relatives.  The only mystery is how a man is unhappy who has been sent to a crammer so he can get ahead; travels extensively; has wealthy largely pleasant friends; runs his own business; has a sustained relationship with a beautiful woman that even he recognises is out of his league and then marries, has three healthy children with and cheats on a Belgian woman far less patronising and harsh than most Belgian women.

For part of the time he undergoes psychotherapy, simply because he feels unlovable, nothing more serious than that.  Yet, the treatment seems to provide no benefit and he simply cheats on his wife before regretting it.  I do not know if Faulks lives in such a privileged existence to imagine that this is a hard life.  In fact Pietro should be aware that he has done far better not simply than his father and grandfather who fought (though admittedly survived) the two world wars, let alone many of the other people he encounters.  You quickly come to resent this ungrateful man and it is always difficult to enjoy reading incidents through the eyes of a character you come to despise.

The only good thing about this book are the descriptions of the different locations.  You get some well crafted vignettes of different locations with real care to detail so that nothing anachronistic appears despite the jumping through the decades.  It would have been better if different characters appeared in each, perhaps together providing some overarching 'message' about life.  Instead we end up with the fragmented story of a character who is easy to abhor.

'Funeral for Figaro' by Ellis Peters
I can understand why crime authors like the settings of theatre or the opera for their stories.  There are often a lots of jealousy and passion; people coming and going through the crime scene; ample opportunity for disguise and yet there is a fixed circle of characters, something which is often required for a crime story.  They end up as some of the most tedious or irritating novels the author can produce.  Michael Dibdin's, 'Cosi Fan Tutte' (1997) is, in no doubt, his worst book.  This one is seen through the eyes of the owner of the theatre who is also director of the operas, Johnny Truscott.  He is a bit of a mess and poor, as a widower, raising his 19-year old daughter, called Hero (she is known as 'Butch'; Peters saddles her young female characters with unpleasant nicknames, e.g. 'Tossa' from 'The Piper on the Mountain'), who is bent on marrying one of the singers; this gives away the age of the novel.  However, at least Truscott is not as pathetic and unlikeable as Tom Kenyon, the 'narrator' in 'Flight of a Witch' that I read last month.

This Peters story is around a very peculiar repertory opera house run by a man who operated small boats for clandestine Allied missions during the Second World War (the book was published in 1962).  Using an assortment of opera singers; technical staff largely left over from his wartime crew and others who he rescued from Occupied Europe, he runs a regular rotation of operas, bringing in better known performers for leading roles.  One of these is murdered, apparently by a sword used by another character in the 'The Marriage of Figaro'.  Among the small group there are many with reason to kill the man, sometime collaborator in wartime Austria.

The problem with this book, setting aside how unattractive 'luvvie' performers are both in real life and in fiction, is that it is scrappy.  Too much of it is about opera; even the detective involved, this time Inspector Musgrave rather than Felse, is an opera fan and spends a lot of time critiquing the performances rather than trying to solve the crime.  You need to have a reasonable grasp of opera to comprehend what is going on.  However, in general you do not really care about the characters sufficiently and unusually for Peters, except for a surprising car crash, there is no sense of jeopardy.  There are some good twists in the closing couple of chapters and unusually for a British crime novel, the detective goes home blaming the wrong person for the crime.  Overall, however, except for the closing sections this is a rather dull story which especially in the opening sections is difficult to follow unless you are a fan of Mozart operas.

'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by J.K. Rowling
This is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and as I have noted in reading the previous ones, as they progress they diverge more and more from the movies.  In part this is because they increase in length and to cover all the incidents, sub-plots and characters which feature in the book would need a mini-series.  My edition of this book was 766 pages long.  The other trend I have noted before, continues and expands in this book.  Rowling is more concerned with Harry Potter as a schoolboy than she is with him as an adventurer.  The concluding battle is far more complex than it is shown in the movie, but the majority of the book is about summer holidays and school days, especially revising for and taking the OWLS exams, the magic equivalent of GCSEs.  This aspect is less interesting to me than the adventure, but as I have noted before, that is probably because I am a man rather than a boy. 

Rowling handles the schoolboy aspects well, especially Potter's on-off intimate relationship with Cho Chang, his feelings for and his disappointment about his late parents and his godfather, plus all his doubts about his study.  However, covering all these pretty mundane elements at such length saps the book of dynamism which remained apparent especially in the first three books.  In part this reflects Rowling's success as publishers are happier to let an author write what they want without editing it down, once they are a sure-fire success as Rowling had become by this stage.  This could have been a punchier book if it had been trimmed down; it could have easily have been 200 pages shorter and still have been engaging, perhaps more so.  Rowling's writing certainly has improved since the first book and some will find this a rich book to really sink into.  However, I think with length much of the excitement, more apparent in earlier books, has been dissipated.

'Bonaparte's Sons' by Richard Howard
This book published in 1997 was the first in a series of six books running to 2002, about Alain Lausard, a fictional soldier in the 5th Dragoon Regiment of Napoleon's Army.  I am very surprised that he got this book let alone another five published.  I suppose publishers are always looking for new historical series and they guessed that this one would appeal to those who had read Bernard Cornwell's series, published 1981-2007, about Richard Sharpe, a British rifleman in the late 18th century and early 19th century, largely during the Napoleonic Wars.  Howard starts with an often neglected part of the period, Napoleon's campaign in northern Italy.  His historical detail is fine it is just that the writing is painfully clunky.  I suppose these days the art of editing is unaffordable to companies and more relies on the author getting it right.  When he wrote this book, it seems Howard lacked such skill.  In one description of a battle he says the cannon 'opened up' four times.

Unlike Cornell, for example, Howard is unable to get descriptions of weapons of the time into the story without sounding like a technical manual, e.g.:

'Canister shot consisted of a tin case which ruptured on leaving the barrel, transforming the cannon into a massive shotgun as it released up to eighty one-ounce balls which had been packed tightly within.  Heavy case was also used, a more lethal version which could send up to forty three-ounce metal balls to its target in excess of 450 feet per second.'

With the weather, conversely, he becomes very poetic, e.g.:

'The sun itself was a massive burnished orb slipping slowly below the horizon, its dying light the colour of bloodstained bronze.  Birds returning to their nests were black arrowheads against the crimson backdrop.'

The story works on a familiar premise about a group of prisoners pressed into service in the army, in this case to defend revolutionary France in 1797.  The start is very much like the Second World War movie, 'The Dirty Dozen' (1967), though it uses stereotypes and the poor religious character simply mouths almost identical statements throughout the entire book; the womanizer does little better.  Though Lausard is the prime focus this does not stop Howard jumping between the perspectives of different characters sometimes in consecutive sentences; towards the book we get to see the views of newcomers to the unit and even hear conversations held in German, a language spoken by only one of the French soldiers.  I have written stories featuring small units of soldiers and it can be difficult to cover battles from just one view and to have sufficient distinction between each of the soldiers in the unit.  However, Howard is inefficient in his writing, seeming to thinking that repeating the same statements will provide character to each one rather than just emphasising how shallowly developed they all are.

The battle scenes are fine and dramatic and there is a sense of jeopardy as you are not certain who will be injured or killed.  There are extensive descriptions of the wounds various men suffer.  The scene in the hospital comes over like a catalogue.  I guess Howard wanted it to sound gritty and realistic, but again, repetition does not add anything, indeed it blunts the emotion trying to be communicated.  The first book is always tricky as you have to establish the characters and have them trained, etc.  Howard seems to feel that he needs an adventure, but because he is wasteful, this seems tacked on, far too briefly at the end; its conclusion is incredibly rushed.  He might have done better to start with this and then have Lausard reflecting on what had happened to bring them to this situation and the men showing their various traits by how they act during the escapade - this is something that is done pretty well in 'The Dirty Dozen' especially the rapist portrayed by Telly Savalas whose obsession upsets the whole mission.  These days, however, I know that many readers insist on a linear narrative and feel unhappy if you jump around in chronology.

Clearly someone appreciated Howard's work sufficiently to publish six of his novels.  Perhaps they improve as they progress.  I think Howard certainly needed to become very familiar with the Sharpe novels and see how you can effectively work a story in such a context and from such a perspective.

'Fascism' by Noël O' Sullivan
Rather than being a history book this is a political philosophical analysis of Fascism.  O'Sullivan does focus on Nazism and Italian Fascism, rather dismissing any other strands, notably monarchical fascism and clerico-fascism as pale imitations of these with nothing original within them. O'Sullivan pays particular attention to the constitution, the Charter, of the short-lived republic of Fiume, the Regency of Carnaro Gabriele D'Annunzio, (1863–1938) established 1919-20.  He sees this as the best articulation of a Fascist perspective.

Across the latter three-quarters of the book, he makes a very convincing case that Fascism arose from philosophical and political changes really starting around the time of the French Revolution then strengthening through the 19th century to provide fertile ground for Fascism in the 20th century.  He looks at factors such as the redefinition of freedom as something within an individual rather than exterior, the rise of the concept that a better society could only be achieved by the efforts of people, rather than, as for example previous, devotion to God and, the sense that struggle and sacrifice, typically through warfare, were 'good' of themselves as well as paving the way for the desired society.  There was also the aspect promoted particularly by Napoleon Bonaparte, that the leader was always right and should be able simply to command utter loyalty in the 'struggle' even if his directions turned out to be contradictory. This provides an engaging case.  His attempt to portray Fascism as 'directed activist' in contrast to 'passive activist' let alone 'limited' forms of government works less effectively and given what he says earlier on about the similarities between Fascism and Communism, it then seems artificial as he does later to try to portray them as very different in terms of this degree of activism.

The central problem with this book is in its first part.  O'Sullivan is utterly scathing of any previous interpretation of Fascism provided by historians and politicians up to that date (the book was published in 1983).  He dismisses them as naive and foolish, seeking to through aside all of the attempts to analyse and synthesise on the political movement.  This makes very difficult reading and undermines the faith you have in O'Sullivan.  There is a sense that he damages his academic credibility in making sustained attacks on others in the field, with no concession.  It also rouses suspicions that he is less confident in his own line than one might expect and so feels he must blow away every last alternative before turning to his thesis.  I advise you to avoid Chapter 1 entirely.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Omelette Exploration 5: The 'Lyon Housewife' Method

I am no fan of Michael Portillo (born 1953) either as a politician or a television presenter.  However, this approach to omelettes came as a result of me channel surfing and ending up watching the final episode of Series 3 of 'Great Continental Railway Journeys'.  It was first broadcast in late 2014, but has been repeated since.  Portillo, the presenter, was in the French city of Lyon, somewhere I would like to visit, talking about the traditional, homely 'housewife' style of cooking which is apparently favoured in the city, even among chefs.  This is in contrast to much of the restaurant cooking in France these days.  Even in small places in backwaters the cooking is heavily influenced by nouvelle cuisine approaches which is clearly the prime method taught by chefs and catering schools these days.  The Lyon chef Portillo was speaking to used the example of omelette making to outline the Lyon approach and, this being an interest of mine, I took on board what was said and tried it out myself.

Apparently the Lyon approach is to put coarse sea salt into the egg liquid before cooking.  Once the liquid is in the pan rather than moving it so that the liquid is spread evenly, instead you cover the pan and then draw the cooking egg incessantly into the centre, with the gaps left behind filling with remaining uncooked egg liquid until the omelette is cooked right through.  Of course you use butter for the cooking.  As it is, French butter tends to be very salty.  Typically you come across two types of butter - doux meaning 'sweet' which is unsalted; and demi-sel meaning 'half salt' which has 3% salt content, but tastes as if it has much more.  I would only ever use a doux butter if I had to use French butter.

I do not really see the benefits of this approach.  You end up with very much a 'gathered in' omelette almost looking like a rosette.  Without the flat surfaces you do not get the golden brown coating that I personally favour.  There is also a risk as when you over fill an omelette, that it will break up and you get something resembling scrambled egg rather than an omelette, not bad in itself, but not what you are seeking in this case.  There is a challenge with fillings if they are put in at the cooking stage because they have a different consistency than the egg liquid and can get 'left behind' in the gathering in so leading to a maldistribution of filling in the finished omelette.

I know it is a question of taste, but the sea salt was overbearing, despite me only grinding a pinch of it into the egg liquid, giving the omelette a dry, thirst instilling taste.  I suppose that counters the moistness of omelettes.  However, if using the Lyon approach be aware of the impact that it will have on your fillings; the flavour of a mild cheese or ham will disappear, you would have to use a blue cheese and a strong-flavoured ham to appear beyond the salt, ending up with an 'arid' omelette with a forceful flavour which might make an interesting change but probably too much for the ordinary British consumer.

Perhaps I need to practice more with this approach.  However, for me it produced an omelette very different from one with the attributes I aim for.  I would be interested to hear from others who have given this method a shot or use it habitually to hear more about the benefits of it.  Maybe it simply stems from a dislike of strongly salted dishes in contrast to some people I know.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Three New Otto Braucher German Detective Stories

'Braucher and the Ransom'; 'Braucher and the Victim' and 'Braucher and the Trap'

Just to announce that I have just self-published on Amazon, the 15th, 16th and 17th books in the Otto Braucher detective series: 'Braucher and the Ransom'; 'Braucher and the Victim' and 'Braucher and the Trap'. They follow on chronologically from each other and come after 'Braucher and the League' published last June. I can only apologise for the gap, though in October, I did get out 'Munich White' featuring Braucher but set before this series,

The latest trio of books are set between June 1923 and October 1923. They feature Kommissar Otto Braucher and his team of detectives with Obersekretär Alfred Zeiler now well-established as his sergeant. 'Braucher and the Ransom' is set among the rich families of the Grünwald on the southern outskirts of Munich and into the Deisenhofener Forest, where someone is abducting the grown children of those able and willing to pay.

In 'Braucher and the Victim' the focus moves to Johanneskirchen lying beyond the Munich city limits to the North-East where a man's body stabbed through the eye with a pen is found in a deserted house. As Braucher investigates he finds he has to determine not only who was the killer but whether the dead man was truly a victim or a perpetrator himself.

The death of two bankers as the result of an accident on a road in the Berchtesgaden district of southern Bavaria takes Otto Braucher back to his beloved Alps for 'Braucher and the Trap'. Working with Austrian police from across a border that surrounds him on three sides; with an unusual victim and in an area where repossessions are turning farmers out of their homes, Braucher has to see through the range of possible suspects to find the one who has the skills to bring about the deaths whether intentionally or not.

I trust that fans of the Braucher books will welcome these additions to the series which combines the interesting elements of Germany under pressure in the early 1920s, well-realised settings and authentic characters with which to engage.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Nice Biscuits

Tesco Nice Biscuits

This is a type of biscuit that is available from many companies, that I have not yet explored but will look out for from a range of shops in coming months.  Note that while many biscuits may be 'nice' these are 'Nice', apparently, possibly, named after the city on the French Mediterranean coast.  The fact that the Dutch equivalent are called 'Nizza' biscuits adds to that view, as the Dutch word for 'nice' is 'mooi'.

As with many biscuits available in Britain there is a shape and a patterning which you will almost always find with this biscuit.  There are no 'tractor tyre' edges as on a shortcake biscuit though there is no reason why there could not be.  There is something about how the biscuit appears, no matter what company produces it, that is important to signal to consumers what they are receiving.  Though, as I am increasingly noting on this blog, actually the tastes are more and more varying from what you might expect from that type of biscuit.

Put simply a Nice biscuit is always rectangular, pale in colour and with the word 'NICE' impressed on the top side and little indentations right around edge.  It can have a covering of sugar on the top side.  It is quite a sweet biscuit and you should find strands of coconut as you bite through it.  Some can have a soft bite to them, a lack of snap, but really they should not crumble.  These from Tesco largely have these element, they have a reasonable snap and you can sense, rather than taste the coconut in them.  The striking thing about them was that they felt very 'dry' on the tongue almost as if I was eating a cracker biscuit.  This was not expected from a Nice biscuit.  Overall aside from coconut shreds, these were almost painfully plain biscuits.  They seemed better as they matured a little in biscuit jar, but I was not getting the experience I was expecting from these biscuits.  They are not appalling but I think Tesco needs to work at the recipe.  They look perfect but something is missing, some sweetness and certainly some moistness from the coconut to make these good Nice biscuits.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Oaties

Tower Gate Oaties

Seeing that I am reviewing another biscuit from Lidl, I guess it is time to head across town to the one branch of Aldi I know there and buy some of theirs to see how they compare with their rival discount supermarket.  With oatie biscuits (I guess 'oaty' would sound too much like porridge) the comparator is always the McVitie's Hob Nob biscuit (particularly loved by Germans).  These from Lidl lack the sweetness of the Hob Nob, they are plainer.  The texture is mixed.  There are the oat chunks that you would expect but the biscuit around them lacks substance and certainly the greater chewiness of the Hob Nob.  The packet is much smaller than many from Tower Gate, notably their ginger nuts.  This is not a bad biscuit and in fact would work better as a biscuit-for-cheese rather than as a sweet biscuit.