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.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Oaties

Belmont Oaties

While not a Hobnob, these do very well.  They have that oaty flavour but without tasting something like ryebread.  They do not disintegrate on being bitten and you do not have to pick pieces from your teeth, though you get the oaty texture in them.  There is the hint of sweetness which is right to indicate that this is not a biscuit for cheese.  The packet is a little small, but the thickness of the biscuits is more than reasonable.  Overall good value oaty biscuit if that is what you want.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 11 June 2017

What If Proportional Representation Been Used in the June 2017 UK General Election?

This is something I have now been doing for a few years, most recently for the May 2015 election: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/what-if-proportional-representation.html  In part it is driven by my interest in counter-factual analysis and how different Britain might have been if back in 1918 when given the chance, the coalition government had introduced proportional representation, or indeed, if the Labour Party had stuck to its stated policy and introduced it when in power in 1997-2010.

I use a simple system for my analysis, allocating the number of seats in Parliament on the basis of the share of the vote received.  Of course, any proportional representation system cannot replicate purely the percentage figures but they tend to come close.  Some systems, e.g. that of Germany, will not allow any party polling less than 5% of the total vote, to have a seat in parliament.  However, I assume such a bar is not in place.

This election has seen a rise in support for both the Conservatives, who received more votes than they have done at any election since 1983, and for Labour, who saw a 10% rise in the number of people voting for them.  The thing is, especially for the Conservatives, many of these votes are simply 'stacking up' in seats that they already hold safely, they are not winning additional seats, simply raising the majorities of individual MPs.  Thus, whilst they are the party most opposed to proportional representation the Conservatives might actually benefit from it as they are, in many cases, firming up their hold on some constituencies especially with the departure of UKIP. Perhaps the party with the greatest stacking this time, however, are the Greens, with a single MP, but now with over a 14,000 majority.  Many Green votes are not translating into seats.

While noting the stacking up, this election has also seen some very narrow majorities, the most extreme being in North-East Fife where the SNP won by just 2 votes.  Such narrow margins are difficult to translate into proportional representation as simply 1 person voting differently could have changed the situation. In Kensington, Perth & North Perthshire, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Southampton Itchen, Richmond, Crewe & Nantwich, the majorities were fewer than 50 votes.  In another three seats, including two in Glasgow, the winning candidate has a majority of fewer than 100 votes. 

In the 2015 election there was a lot of talk about the 'shy Tory' people willing to vote for the Conservatives but unwilling to say so to people asking their opinion.  This time there is talk of the 'shy Labour supporter'.  In fact they are largely shy because they were under-reported by the predominantly Conservative media.  Labour was having big rallies and the increase of turnout by 3% to 69% seems largely to have been young people who have not voted before, whether too young in the past or were not sufficiently engaged.  There had been an assumption that UKIP supporters would simply become Conservative supporters, but it appears, especially in northern England that instead they have turned to Labour, which highlights the fact that judging the political scene in the post-referendum era and especially in the time of populist politics, on old assumptions is flawed.

Of course, if proportional representation had been before this election then the political scene would have been very different anyway which may have meant that an election would not have been called at this time.  Analysis in 2015 showed the following profile for the House of Commons if proportional representation had been in place.  The actual returns are in square brackets:


2015: 650 seats [Conservative Government]

  • Conservatives: (36.9%); 240 seats  [331]
  • Labour (30.4%); 198 seats  [232]
  • UKIP (12.6%); 82 seats [1]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.8%); 51 seats [8]
  • SNP (4.7%); 31 seats [56]
  • Green (3.8%); 25 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 6 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [4]
  • UUP (0.4%); 4 seats [2]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [1]
Labour would have been stronger and it is likely that the Conservatives would have been in coalition with UKIP so there would still have been a referendum on leaving the EU and it is likely that the UK would have left.  However, the political scene would have been pretty different to what we saw in 2015 with the Liberal Democrats still a significant force and the Greens stronger by far than even the Liberals were back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the ascendancy in the 2000s.  Thus, it is likely that they would have received more back as a 'credible' party, it is impossible to tell.  With such a system other parties may have appeared too.  Again in the figures below, the numbers in square brackets are what the parties actually got.

2017: 650 Seats [Conservative with DUP Confidence & Supply Support]
  • Conservatives (42.45%): 279 seats [318]
  • Labour (39.99%); 263 seats [262]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.37%); 49 seats [12]
  • SNP (3.04%); 21 seats [35]
  • UKIP (1.84%); 13 seats [0]
  • Green (1.63%); 12 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.51%); 3 seats [4]
  • Others (0.52%); 3 seats [0]
Northern Irish Parties
  • DUP (0.91%); 6 seats [10]
  • Sinn Fein (0.74%); 5 seats [7]
  • Independent Unionist (0.45%); 3 seats [1]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
  • UUP (0.26%); 2 seats [0]
I always caution on Northern Ireland figures as some constituencies are highly partisan, and a form of proportional representation is in place, so the figures might turn out pretty much as they do in reality. 

The portrayal of Labour as so extreme and its leader Jeremy Corbyn as some revolutionary in much of the media, has overshadowed what was actually going on.  The Conservatives did very well, not having polled as well as this since 1983.  Labour did badly, only really as well as when Gordon Brown lost power in 2010.  However, because of the incessant portrayal of Labour under Corbyn as useless, the right-wing media have made the party's modest gains appear far more significant than was in fact the case.  Theresa May's arrogance in assuming she could do better than her predecessor compounded by an aloof attitude which was even greater than the snobbishness of Cameron, did her party no favours among floating voters.  However, it went down very well with people who were already Conservative supporters as seen with increased majorities in safe Conservative seats.  May largely talking to Conservatives rather than floating voters probably gave her a distorted view of what was happening.  The assumption that almost all former UKIP voters would automatically turn to the Conservatives was also flawed.

What is apparent is that 2017 saw a polarisation back to the 2-party system characteristic of the 1940s-90s.  However, there are geographical shifts with Labour picking up seats in a number of unexpected places such as Canterbury, perhaps finally benefiting from the mobilisation of university student votes, much vaunted but little seen in 2015.  With so many universities in the UK and more towns having two, they may create pockets of Labour and even, in time, Green support among Conservative 'seas' of rural Britain.  The Conservative return to Scotland, strongly in the South and East, in part compensated them for Labour's random gains and without which they might have even struggled to form a coalition. 

Of course, Labour's chance of ever having a majority government ever again are quickly fading as boundary changes will lose them over 30 seats as parliament shrinks to 600 members.  They are likely to find that they again receive fewer seats than their share of the vote as their support will stack up in small urban constituencies to a greater extent than has been the case recently.

In this alternative, there still would have been polarisation, but to a different pattern. The Liberal Democrats under proportional representation would have fallen rather than risen in the number of seats yet would have been returned to being the third party with the eclipse of UKIP.  Now, if UKIP had been in a coalition with the Conservatives since 2015 they may not have been swept away; indeed there probably would have been no need for an election for Theresa May to continue with the Brexit process. 

Other small parties have seen a decline, notably the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  However, if the Greens had had 25 MPs in 2015 rather than 1, then people might feel a vote for them was not 'wasted' and so the fall in support might have been less in 2017 than has been the case in our system.

Labour really no longer has any need for proportional representation as its number of seats is proportionate now to the amount of the electorate supporting it. The same can be said for Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives still receive more than their 'fair' proportion of seats, getting 48.4% of the available seats.  The same applies to the SNP, who got 5.4% of the seats compared to 3.04% of the votes this time even though this is a fall from 8.6% of sets in 2015 from just 4.7% of the vote.  Thus, parties that win or when they are winning, large rural seats, tended to be over-represented.

Analysis that I have done on elections down the years if there had been proportional representation is that a Labour-Liberal coalition would have been the predominant form of government.   In fact the more common coalitions of the 21st century under the first-past-the-post have been Conservative dominated ones as in the early to mid-20th century.

With proportional representation another Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition  with probably the SNP and Greens adhering too, is likely to have appeared in 2017 with the departure of the Conservative-UKIP coalition.  However, in that scenario I imagine the 'Brexit Coalition' would have continued under Theresa May and having no election until 2020. 

What is interesting is that for Labour is that its vote is increasingly in line with the number of seats it receives, in contrast to the situation in the 1990s.  The Liberal Democrats and the Greens, previously to a far greater extent UKIP too, are heavily under-represented for the amount of support they gain.  The big winners from the first-past-the-post system are the Conservatives and SNP who effectively need a smaller number of votes to win a seat than the other parties do.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

These are not bad as Rich Tea biscuits go; certainly not as small as some are now becoming.  They have a rather dry starting taste but some richness in the aftertaste and they are reasonably moreish.  They have a good snap and as you would hope for Rich Teas do not crumble easily.  Overall, for the standard range of a discount supermarket they do the job intended for them.  A little less dryness in them would raise them that bit higher.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Books I Read In May

Fiction
'The Mask of Dimitrios' by Eric Ambler
Ambler, publishing first before the Second World War, is seen as the precursor of post-war spy thriller novelists notably Len Deighton and John Le Carré.  Having read a lot of Le Carré this year, I feel he needs to go back to his Ambler to get an idea of pacing and excitement.  This book features a novelist, Charles Latimer, in late 1930s Turkey who becomes friends with Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and is shown a body apparently of Dimitrios Makropoulous, a renowned criminal.  He travels Eastern and Central Europe unearthing the career of the man before ending up in Paris to find out the final truth.

The book moves briskly.  It shows an ordinary man being sucked into extraordinary situations, but ones which appear highly feasible.  There are nasty, but believable people.  It is a thriller, but one you can believe in.  Though published in 1939, now that the Cold War is over and drug and people traffickers are back working the same kind of routes, it has a more contemporary appeal that, say back in the 1970s. 

Much of the story is related by other characters, but it is Ambler's skill that this is engaging. Unusually for a British novel, almost every character is not Anglo-Saxon and the protagonist actually speaks fluent Greek and reasonable French; he has to enlist help with other languages, which he does in a credible way. The novel also highlights many historical developments in Eastern Europe of the 1920s which these days are often overlooked; the violence of the Greece-Turkey War 1919-22 is an notable example, but also unrest in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia feature.

In many ways the book is grim, but it is a good read and is a useful lesson for anyone wanting to write thrillers today about how to keep them taut and the reader engaged in a story which is intriguing but rooted in reality in a way some contemporary authors fail to achieve.  Probably the best book I have read this year.

'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' ed. by Mike Ashley
There is now a whole plethora of these 'Mammoth Books' but this one dates from 1993 and, like those others I have read has a very wide assortment of stories under the umbrella of a genre, one which was blossoming at the time but has expanded immensely since.  This book, stimulated by the writing of Ellis Peters who provides the foreword and one story, is a collection of 23 detective stories set historically to when the author was alive and runs from 2000 BCE up to 1910 in chronological order.  One of the authors, Herodotus, is a well-known historical figure in his own right but even he wrote a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, a thousand years before he lived.  I must say that there are far too many locked room (or even sealed tomb) mysteries that by the end you tire of this conceit.

As with collections of 'rivals' to Sherlock Holmes I have read, one thing is such collections tend to show you why the novelists you know best in the genre, in this case both the story by Peters featuring Brother Cadfael and one by Robert Van Gulik featuring Judge Dee, both of whose work I have read before, though not these stories, stand out from the others in terms of the crispness of the story and the language.  Though there are some half-decent Roman detectives and the stories John Maddox Roberts and Wallace Nichols show how Rome changed in going from Republican to Imperial rule, few stories were sufficiently engaging for me to want to find other work by these authors, saying that having a slave as detective as Nichols does, creates a fascinating dynamic.

There were some that I found interesting for the setting.  One was a Sister Fidelma story by Peter Tremayne set in 7th Century CE Ireland and it is fascinating in terms of the potential for a nun to play a part in the legal process of that time and what a High King needed to attain the throne.  Paul Harding's story has some of this in featuring a 14th Century coroner in London.  Another is 'Captain Nash and the Wroth Inheritance' a full length novel by Raymond Butler, set in 1771 in London and the English countryside though a little burdened by the sexual mores of the mid-1970s when it was published.  It is adventurous and intriguing and well conjures up the contrast between the squalor and decadence of the era.

Overall this is an interesting collection and may expose readers to some forgotten historical detective authors, especially from the mid-20th century who may now be pretty much neglected.  You feel a number of the characters have not been taken far enough and it would be nice to see them revived today in full-length novels, just as long as none of them feature a locked room murder or robbery!

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 480BC - 1757' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This book was published in three volumes entitled 'The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History' from 1954-56.  In 1970 John Terraine was asked to edit them down to a two-volume set.  This book was from the 1981 edition of that set.  Abridging is always a challenge, but I think it was handled particularly poorly in this case.  As well as the particular battles, Fuller wrote connecting text taking the reader through the centuries between each set of conflicts, explaining developments in Europe and noting innovations in warfare.  What Terraine has done is cut this down to much briefer sections, clearly written in his own voice and at times referring to Fuller in the third person and even quoting him in what is supposed to be Fuller's book.  Thus, we end up with three types of chapters.  The chapters about the actual battles are the best, followed by the linking chapters by Fuller which precede them.  The worst are the forward linking chapters by Terraine which are a mess and cause confusion, plus a horrible jarring in voice.

Being a book of the 1950s, it assumes all readers can speak French and Latin as well as English and Terraine did nothing to alter this even in the 1980s.  So you may need to translate certain passages.  Especially in the early chapters about the Classical World, there is a tendency to rely on florid quotations from Victorian historians and some of these are overblown.  There are a reasonable number of line-drawn maps, my favourite and they do act to clarity.  Sometimes Fuller goes off on grandiloquent commentary, somehow seeing the conquest of Granada as unleashing global exploration but when focused on specific battles, he is very perceptive and many of his portrayals of the battles are more incisive than those by modern readers.  His commentary on the Battle of Hastings 1066 and the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 are excellent. He is also very good at showing how Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough and Frederick the Great were revolutionary in how they carried out war.  Prejudices do creep in at times: he is incredibly hostile to Calvinists and Lutherans, seeing them as nastily political rather than religious movements.

I turned to this book as I was interested in potential counter-factual analysis and stories.  Though Fuller does not go into this in depth, he does show why he thinks the battles were decisive. Despite the title, he actually starts in 1479BCE. In some places it is surprising which battles he does not include, such as the Battle of Poltava 1709, but he does note these.  His writing on complex conflicts like the Thirty Years' War and Seven Years' War are sound, but can be breathless at times meaning you need to read back over to find out which general went where.  Though a densely written book (with small print in my edition - hence taking me 19 days to read), it sweeps along briskly and is thought provoking.  I have the second volume, which runs 1792-1944, to read later in the year.

You may be interested to know which battles Fuller feels were decisive in this context:

Battle of Megiddo - 1479BCE; Battle of Marathon - 491BCE; Defence of Thermopylae - 480BCE; Battle of Salamis - 480BCE; Battle of Plataea - 479BCE; Battle of Arbela - 331BCE; Battle of the Metaurus - 207BCE; Battle of Zama - 202 BCE; The Teutoburger Wald Campaign 9CE; Hunnish invasion of France 451; Muslim invasion of France 735; Battle of Hastings - 1066; Battle of Crecy 1346; Siege of Orleans 1428-9; Siege of Constantinople 1453; Conquest of Granada 1491-2; The Armada Campaign 1588; Battle of Breitenfeld 1631; Battle of Lützen 1632; Battle of Blenheim 1704; Battle of Rossbach 1757 and Battle of Leuthen 1757.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

I must apologise for the photo in this posting, the light level was lower than I realised even though I have always lived in unfortunately gloomy houses.  As seems typical with Belmont, the ordinary biscuit brand from Aldi, they have gone for a lengthy title.  These went into a head-to-head with the Lidl equivalent for a taste test by two members of my house and came off slightly worse.  They crumble easily, a trait common for shortbread, but the full biscuit lacks 'bulk' when bitten, it seems too dry.  There is no visible sugar, but the butteriness that you would hope for given the title also seems absent so it comes off as very plain biscuit with only a little of creamy after taste.  The Lidl version just wins out for having better structural integrity and some more of that creamy flavour that you look for in shortbread.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

I bought these Hill biscuits from Aldi.  The first thing is that you get a very long packet, though the biscuits themselves are small.  Perhaps they have too much of a snap for a shortcake.  This is the start of the problem for the biscuit.  It takes more like a Digestive without the oaty pieces in it; the creaminess of a good shortcake biscuit is missing.  The fruit is lacking in sweetness, so effectively you end up with a kind of small - and they are small - Digestive biscuit with bits in it, not a pleasant experience.  If you were looking for a better value biscuit like this, then simply buy a Digestive, they are available from Aldi too.

P.P.  Just a warning: I found that these biscuits have a laxative effect which I put down to the hard currants and the wheaty texture of the biscuit.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Books I Read In April

Fiction
'A Hat Full of Sky' by Terry Pratchett
This is the second book in the Tiffany Aching series of books by Terry Pratchett.  They are aimed at children, but as with many of Pratchett's books there is an ambivalence and they speak to readers of different ages on various topics.  Though published in 2004, I feel this series captures the essence of what was so good in Pratchett's writing in the early days.  In contrast his other novels published in the 21st century, seem weighted down with too many issues and have lost the spry nature of his earlier books.  However, despite the humour, the book is very perceptive on our own society and makes very acute remarks about it; another great characteristic of Pratchett's writing even when dealing with the fantasy setting of Discworld.

This book moves on two years from the previous one, 'The Wee Free Men'.  It sees Tiffany, at the age of eleven, leave her home on the downlands and become an apprentice to a witch in the mountains.  The Nac Mac Feegles, the rough fairies with a Glasgow accent, do feature but to a lesser extent than in the previous book.  Tiffany is pursued by an ancient force, a Hiver, which seeks to take over the bodies and minds of the powerful.  Aside from battling with this force and what it makes her do, Tiffany becomes developed as a district witch, very much like a district nurse or someone from social services in our world.  Thus, there is an adventure, but also commentary on how societies function and the role that carers in the community, especially women, play.  There is also a challenge to the Wiccan approach of using amulets and fancy costumes as if this aids magic, a bit of a swipe at New Age attitudes as opposed to practical action.

Overall, this is a brisk book with some decent laughs and a real feel of the old Pratchett that many of us read decades ago.  Though it has a girl at the centre, at no stage did this feel like a children's book and indeed some of the comments from the Nac Mac Feegles would probably go over the head of an 11-year old.

'Copperhead' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the second book in Cornwell's tetralogy about the American Civil War.  It is better than the first book, 'Rebel' because while featuring many of the same characters, he has toned down what seemed to be a universal nastiness of them.  Even the hero, Nathaniel Starbuck was unlikeable in that novel so it was hard for the reader to empathise or even care about his fate.  This book covers the period in late 1861 when the Union forces were trying to advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond and despite amassing a huge force fumbled the invasion and the advance and so lost the chance to end the war much earlier.

Many people comment that Cornwell is best when handling battles and that proves the case.  This book opens with the Battle of Ball's Bluff and covers many engagements in the campaign of General  George McClellan to try to reach Richmond.  There are scenes in Richmond, including a harrowing one in which Starbuck is tortured as he is suspected of being a spy for the Union.  He finds out who the real spy is and as in the first book, though to a lesser scale, there is a lot of him contemplating the morals of his situation as he has gone from being a trainee clergyman to being a Confederate Officer, the lover of a prostitute often led into risky situations by his lust.

The main problem I have with this book is that at times the spy aspect feels very laboured,  Starbuck crosses back and forth across the frontlines blithely lying to his family and his comrades.  Another character goes the other way across the frontline.  Despite the carnage around them, they do this largely unscathed and so there is a sense of invincibility.  Towards the end of the book it seems quite contorted and you wish Cornwell would have kept to a more straightforward story, less stretching of credibility.  Yes, having some devious and useless characters is fine, but the sharp contrast between this series and the Sharpe books is that the twists are excessive and so undermine Cornwell's strength in portraying the American countryside and the reality of the soldiers and people living and fighting there.

'The Sudden Arrival of Violence' by Malcolm Mackay
I am glad to have reached the end of this trilogy.  The fact that the books have received such acclaim continues to astound me.  It is called the 'Glasgow Trilogy' and finally in this book we actually get mention (twice) of one district of Glasgow.  For the rest of the time the action takes place in a vacuum with people moving between houses and businesses that could be in any city.  You have no sense of geography except once they go into some generic countryside to bury two bodies.  This adds to the claustrophobic sense of the individuals.  Having produced his 'how to be a gangster' lecture in the first book, Mackay is left with just the worrying of the various characters.  If in 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' he stuck two fingers up to the 'show not tell' precept of writing, he continues to violate the 'rule' about sticking one point of view at a time.  He jumps between perspectives sometimes within a single paragraph.  This does not help clarity and at times is even ridiculous when we are treated to a combined memory of brothers William and Callum MacLean.  This weakens what Mackay is saying about the characters.

I know the book has been praised for being 'laid back', but unfortunately in a crime novel that comes over as weary.  In this book and indeed the previous one 'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' with is pathetic anti-climax conclusion, this tone just makes everything feel laboured.  Too many of the characters are old and tired something exacerbated by this tone even more than in the first book in which new ideas and branching out was the trend.  Women are very disposable in this novel and none of them seem to be more than simply a plot device.  Mackay has tried too hard to be 'hard boiled' and has simply taken that voice without reflecting it in the substance of the story.  Despite some attempt at the late stage to get us interested in William and Callum, there is too little to empathise with.  Even the police are weary and largely failing for almost the entire book.  Yes, Mackay has tried something different but he does too much of it.  He could have taken 100 pages from each of the three books; cut out large chunks of navel gazing and made them closer to what they are marketed as rather than these slack, tiresome novels.  I will not be coming back to his writing.

'A Game of Thrones' by George R.R. Martin
This book, at 801 pages in my edition, has taken up a lot of my reading this month.  I was able to purchase the 7 books currently in the series unread for just £1, but it does mean I have committed myself to reading a lot by one author this year which will reduce my coverage of a range of books.

I have seen all of the seasons of the television series, also called 'A Game of Thrones' (though the book sequence is called 'A Song of Ice and Fire') which are available on DVD in the UK.  So I know the story pretty well, though I hear book and television series diverge later on.  What is striking is how close portrayals of characters from the book are on the television, much dialogue seems to have been carried across and even the tone preserved.  There are differences because it is easier to have grand detail in a book, but easier to show a landscape in images.  Thus, in the book you find out more about a lot of the minor noble houses, the history, nature, clothing and food of the world Martin has created.  An added advantage is that you see more of the thoughts behind the characters' actions.

I think the success of this series is that at heart it is just another fantasy series.  You can pick up hundreds of series about imaginary worlds with a kind of medieval context and magic thrown in; in which people battle to become ruler.  What distinguishes Martin's series, from what I have read and seen, is that there are no heroes.  His characters are flawed throughout; perhaps the most minor are those who are simply naïve.  The vast majority of the characters are selfish, cruel, violent, petulant, exploitative, etc. and sometimes have a whole host of nasty elements to them.  Thus, it seems almost like a contemporary rather than a historical/fantastical drama; as if corruption in national politics had been moved from our world today into this context.  Many of the characters are ugly, the trait least transferred on to television.

Martin does include magic but very sparingly.  In the book we see one ice zombie and we see three dragons hatch right at the end of the book.  I think this is also useful because it then emphasises the importance of the human element and also keeps magic as exceptional as it appears to the people of the world Martin creates.  In fact what we witness is dismissed as impossible by many characters.  The other thing is that you do not know who will die.  Unlike in many fantasy series, no-one is immune to death and this also increases the credibility of the story, something vital when portraying an alien context.

The book is gritty and grotty.  Despite the length, unlike some (maybe many) fantasy series it moves along briskly.  Most chapters end with a cliffhanger in themselves.  Some readers might find the jumping between different characters across the world confusing, but to me, naming the chapters solely after who they refer to, works well and I was not lost, though it might have helped that I have seen the story with its characters.

Despite my generally positive view of this book, there is one aspect which seriously jars.  If this book had been self-published to Amazon in 2016 rather than published traditionally in 1996, it would have been rejected.  This is because of the featuring of underage sex.  Many of the leading characters are children and at times it feels a little like a children's story.  Some of these characters have been aged for portrayal on television and it is clear there would have been uproar if this had not happened.  Martin makes it explicit, in particular, that Daenerys Tagaryen is only 13 when she is married off to a leader of steppe horsemen.  She becomes pregnant by him aged only 14.  This is not fudged around, it is stated explicitly. Another character, Tyrion Lannister, remembers when he was tricked into having sex with a woman by his father when aged just 13. 

Now, I know Martin is trying to recreate behaviour of the Middle Ages in our world in which marriages of children occurred and even in parts of the USA where the age of consent remained below 16 into the 20th century.  However, Martin's emphasis on this behaviour is highly unsettling, and, as I note, to portray it actually runs against policies of providers such as Amazon.  Perhaps he is trying to add extra 'grit' to his novel, but it simply comes off as sordid and utterly unnecessary given what else he portrays throughout.

Non- Fiction
'Britain and the Korean War' by Callum MacDonald
This is a quick book looking at the political context of the Korean War.  There are brief mentions of what happened militarily but that is not the focus of the book.  It concentrates on Britain's often ambivalent part in the war which stretched over a change of government from Labour to Conservative but throughout was driven by a desire to keep US protection for Britain in Europe.  Many aspects of the organisation of the war are familiar for those who have lived through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the USA feeling obliged to have a multi-national force as long as it did precisely what the American commanders and politicians wanted.  Thus the British were very much dragged along, often unhappy at backing the corrupt and cruel regime of South Korea and especially the bullishness of US commanders, including a desire to use atomic weapons, not simply General MacArthur.

There are some aspects that I had not come across before.  One was the role of India as friendly to Britain but able to talk to the Chinese and the issue of the exchange of Prisoners of War, especially those who had no desire to return to China or North Korea.

The book shows how the war helped formulate US Cold War policy with a temptation to 'roll back' replaced by containment and a willingness to be involved in proxy wars but only to a certain extent.  In addition, it shows a willingness of US administrations, whether Democrat as under President Truman at the start or Republican under President Eisenhower, to work with dictatorships even if they were half-heartedly fighting Communism.

MacDonald also does well in showing how the errors of the 1930s weighed so heavily on any decision.  Furthermore he highlights how few choices the British had given how short of money they were following the Second World War, even when they utterly disagreeing with US policy.   He shows the British seeing the Americans as naïve in dealing with developments in East Asia and provocatively aggressive, risking an all-out conflict with China and/or the USSR.  One particular point of difference is the British awareness that China and the USSR were not really a single bloc, a misapprehension US politicians clung on to right until the 1970s.

This is a brisk book which is very useful in highlighting aspects of the early Cold War that have so often been over-written by erroneous assumptions about what happened and especially about what leaders were seeking to achieve.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Biscuits Coconut Cookies

Belmont Biscuits Coconut Cookies


These were a really pleasant surprise and found approval more widely in the Rooksmoor household than just from your reviewer.  There tend to be some gems among the own brand biscuits of stores and these are the one from Aldi's Belmont Biscuits range.  They are of a decent size and have a good snap.  Unlike some coconut biscuits they do not crumble.  They have a sweet flavour but do not overdo it.  There is a nice coconut taste but only with a few strands of coconut in each biscuit in contrast to some that are full of shreds.  They are very moreish.  I was pleased with these.

Rating:
*****

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Biscuits Cookies 'N' Cream biscuits

Belmont Biscuits Cookies 'N' Cream biscuits

These are Aldi's version of Oreos.  However, both the biscuits and the packet itself are very small.  They come close to the taste of Oreos but the darkness of the chocolate biscuit is so strong that it almost gives a 'burn' to your tongue.  The filling is very creamy and these flavours are so at the extremes from each other to make it a very odd taste overall.  You can compare it unfavourably with other sandwich biscuits such as Bourbons and Custard Creams, in which the filling compliments the flavour of the biscuit.  I accept that Aldi has done reasonably well in creating a biscuit which has strong flavours rather than the blandness of too many biscuits I review, but I think it needs toning down on the two components.  The packet and the biscuits themselves both need to be larger no matter what other company's biscuit they may be aping.

Rating:
*****

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Books I Read In March

Fiction
'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' by Malcolm Mackay
This is the first book in a crime trilogy that I was given.  It is set in Glasgow, though you could not really tell that from the details in the novel.  Fortunately it does not use dialect, but apart from the very Scottish names held by many characters, you could easily imagine it taking place in a town in the Midlands or southern England.

As a writer you are often told to 'show, not tell', i.e. to keep the narrator back a bit, not explaining everything to the reader, but allowing the reader to gather information from how the characters act.  Mackay has gone to the opposite extreme and much of the book reads like a handbook on how to be a gangster.  It is interesting, but tends to drain a lot of life and certainly tension from the book.  This problem is further exacerbated by how almost every single character is unpleasant, including the police.  None of them is anybody you would want to associate with let alone empathise with.  This consequently puts up a further level between the reader and the action.

There are occasional points of tension, the scene towards the end of the book when a gunman  is  fighting for his life when attacked by a man with a knife.  Yet, even then Mackay pulls away and we only see the outcome some time later.  I recognise Mackay was seeking a new type of voice for a crime novel.  It is interesting but because of this distance and the matter-of-fact handbook style, it is certainly not engaging.  I do not know if this will improve further on in the trilogy as we will be familiar with the characters.  I am rather surprised that the book received the acclaim it did and I guess it was simply because it adopted a new approach, but one I do not feel succeeds.

'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' by Malcolm Mackay
I do not really understand how this novel, the second in the trilogy, won an award.  It is less written in 'how to' style of the first book.  However, it remains very claustrophobic, in part because there are only vague references to Glasgow and for much of the book characters are simply in rooms or driving between them.  This book features fewer characters still than 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' did.  Little happens in the book, despite it being longer than the previous one; I guess because Mackay does not have to introduce the characters and the crime system they are part of.  There is one scene which could have had tension, at the start of the novel, but this means that for the rest of the book, it is all pretty down hill, with no real sense of jeopardy.  The ending with the weary gunman, is a real anti-climax.  It is almost as if Mackay feels he has to recount a story he witnessed rather than write what you would feel is a genuine novel.  Only one of the policemen introduced in the first book has anything to do and so as a result the book simply drifts.  It makes me nostalgic for Peter James's Roy Grace novels, which though not outstanding, had a far greater sense of direction than Mackay's trilogy.  Overall, this comes over as a very bland, directionless book that could easily be in any town in Scotland, it even lacks that local colour.

'Time and Time Again' by Ben Elton
*While I am going to recommend that you do not buy this book, if you do intend to read it, please note that this review is full of spoilers.

I cannot remember when a book has angered me as much as this one.  On the surface you would imagine it would appeal to me.  It is about a man, Captain Hugh Stanton, who is sent back in time from 2025 to 1914 to avert the start of the First World War by both preventing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and by assassinating Kaiser Wilhelm II.  He succeeds in both tasks and so alters history. 

There are some good characteristics of this novel.  First is the way in which time travel works.  Sir Isaac Newton is shown in the 1720s as having worked out that time is relative; that it moves in a helix; is affected by gravity and, at specific points along the helix, two dates touch at a particular location.  In this book it is 2025 and 1914 in a cellar beneath a hospital in Istanbul.  Being in that point allows a traveller to go back to 1914.  Elton works on the 'alternate universe' version so that an action which significantly alters the timeline erases the previous universe and replaces it with a new one.  This means that the time traveller and whatever they brought with them from the future, even war poetry, is unaffected by the changes they bring about.

I did worry that Elton was trying to coin a trope initiated by Douglas Adams that time travel is a secret of the University of Cambridge shown in 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' (1987) and the associated incomplete episode of 'Doctor Who' (1979).  Adams went to St. John's College rather than Trinity which features in this novel.  I guess it does allow Elton to bring in Newton and this archaic form of time travel.

The other strength of this novel are the descriptions of Constantinople, Sarajevo and Berlin in 1914.  Elton does these well and captures the sense of appreciation that a time traveller would have.  It also plays lightly with changed manners and language.

Now to the rest.  Hugh Stanton is a former S.A.S. soldier so is violent throughout, casually killing people all over with the most minimal of guilt.  I guess this is to appeal to men who generally would not read a Ben Elton book.  A major problem are the female characters.  They are all treacherous; even Stanton's murdered wife, Cassie, is portrayed as making unreasonable demands on the 'hero'.  Stanton kills his former tutor, Professor McCluskey who sneaks herself on to the time-travel mission when it becomes apparent she had his wife and children murdered.  McCluskey is a caricature of a bullish female academic who is disposed of abruptly.  There is an unconvincing, anachronistic love interest in an Irish suffragette, Bernadette Burdette who, of course, betrays Stanton.  When the third woman 'Katie' from her serial number, turns up, a hardened criminal from the grim future that Stanton's actions create, you realise women are only in the book as devices to enable certain actions to occur.  They are not developed and are removed sharply with no further concern.

Overall, however, the main sense of the book is one of despair.  Early in the book, Stanton's professor complains about the Marxist students in her history classes in the 2000s, because they argue that the path of history is inevitable.  At first this seemed odd: to find a Marxist on campus in the 1980s when I studied, was rare, let alone in the 21st century.  It is only later that you realise that Stanton is not from 'our' history but one in which there was no Second World War.  At the end of the book you find that there have been multiple attempts to use this time hole, constantly altering history.  Elton does not answer, however, why the multiple time travellers have not run into each other before Stanton meets Katie. 

The end of the book shows that every attempt to improve the 20th century it simply makes things worse. Elton does not allow any change to bring an improvement from genocidal totalitarian dictatorships, though ironically, the 20th century that Stanton turns out to have lived through was better than ours because the Second World War was avoided.  Britain is shown as being in a mess in the 2020s, but that is caused by broader trends in society and it looks little different from ours.  There is a misplaced lionising of the pre-1914 situation which does not help.

Yet, Elton will not permit even his own demonstrations that actions could make a difference stand.  Consequently I was reminded of the very bleak movie, 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) which works on the same basis. Stanton, however, probably deserves the prize for causing the greatest deterioration in one step.  Thus, Elton's message is a highly Marxist one: i.e. that nothing an individual does will alter what is going to happen.  It is a message of despair and suggests that no-one should bother opposing Donald Trump, because, even with time travel, we could only make it worse rather than any better.

I know Elton used to be left-wing, though I did not think he was an ardent Marxist.  I also thought that once he did believe in people getting active to oppose bad government.  Clearly success and age have shifted his view.  In writing a very violent, male-focused, populist book, he is trying to peddle his message that we just have to sit back and accept what we have inflicted on us and that to think we can do anything different is illusion.  A very bleak, unpleasant book, that I advise people to avoid.

'Blast from the Past' by Ben Elton
Though published in 1998 this is a better book than 'Time and Time Again' (2014).  However, it left me irritated and this suggests that I was foolish to think that I would enjoy Ben Elton's books.  He has written 15 in total and I will avoid the others.  This book feels very much like a play.  The action takes place in a flat in Stoke Newington over a couple of hours early one morning.  From this there are flashbacks.  The story centres on Jack Kent, who, as an US Army captain in the 1980s based at the Greenham Common nuclear base, had a heated sexual relationship with a 17-year old peace protestor, Polly Slade.  He abandoned her because of the risk the relationship presented to his career.  In this book he has turned up at her flat sixteen years later to ensure she is not a risk to the final step in his career.

Polly is far better developed than the women featuring in  'Time and Time Again' and a lot of the dialogue is around the conflicts in civil society in both the UK and especially in the USA of the slow advance of women's rights.  Both Jack and Polly believed they had all the answers in the 1980s and while they are still pretty confident that they are each on the right side, doubt has crept in and compromises have been made.  However, while Polly severely messed up her life after Jack's departure, despite some regrets, he has progressed very well.  Thus, in many ways it is also commentary on the differences between the UK and USA and this becomes particularly noticeable in terms of guns and violence.  A stalker, Peter, also becomes involved in the story and one noticeable difference between the late 1990s and nowadays is the legislation that can be brought to bear on such criminals.

I think Elton is better with this book as 1980s protests are very much in his area of expertise.  I am sure he drew on people he knew for real and perhaps others he encountered on the other side.  Kent is a soldier, but you can see the complexity in his character and appreciate sacrifices in what he has done, driven by ambition.  Similarly, though a lot of what Polly has campaigned for, at times you can be frustrated with her for freezing her life at a particular stage.  Saying that, she is constantly misused by men.

The book (363 pages in my edition) is too long and could have been more effective if trimmed down by 50-60 pages.  The length means that our faith that the couple's attraction to each other, which remains strong, could ever had overcome all the obstacles in the way, begins to wear thin.  However, the way Elton writes the swings in emotion is handled well, even if the outcome seems unconvincing.  Picking up this book I had thought it was based, as some others of Elton's books appear to be, on an incident reported in the media.  In this case, the relationship between Petra Kelly (1947-92), sometime head of the German Green Party and Major General Gert Bastian (1923-92), her partner who murdered her before committing suicide.  As the book progressed, I felt that the parallels were minimised but looking back over it, you can certainly see that Elton was keen to explore this kind of relationship without writing a story featuring real people.  Overall, not bad, but the persistence earnestness from the two leading characters and the ending (let alone the happier ending tacked on) have confirmed that I will not be returning to Elton's novels.

Non-Fiction
'The Age of Lloyd George' by Kenneth O. Morgan
This book consists of two parts, one a standard history of British politics in the period 1890-1929 when David Lloyd George was prominent and then a collection of documents from that era, most not from Lloyd George himself, but providing an interesting context.  The story of the decline of the Liberal Party and its replacement as the main opposition to the Conservatives by the Labour Party is one that has often been covered.  However, Morgan is good at showing that the decline was not as inevitable as some have come to see it and in fact that in the period 1905-14, the Liberal Party reached a new peak and was able to introduce a great deal of legislation.  The fact that it did not achieve more was largely due to the ability of the House of Lords to obstruct any legislation, even budgets and the still insoluble situation in Ireland.

A couple of things stand out from this book.  One is how authoritarian Lloyd George was.  He may have arisen through the Liberal Party, but he was happier as someone almost 'above politics' and even after leading the coalition 1916-22, sought to maintain a combination of Liberals and Conservatives but under him.  Morgan highlights that he was not a team player and really was seeking a kind of centrist Lloyd-Georgeite party.  The more I read about Lloyd George, the more I was reminded of Tony Blair's politics as he always seemed to be more a Christian Democrat than a Labourite and New Labour was very much his personal political party.  Lloyd George went further, of course, and once he had fallen from power he began to embrace dictators notably Hitler.  This reminded me of Blair's support for Colonel Gaddafi, dictator of Libya.

The other parallel which comes from reviewing British politics a century ago, are concerns about the wide divisions in society.  A lot of the industrial unrest in the 1910s stemmed from real incomes falling for ordinary people, just like the 2010s, while there was increasing conspicuous consumption amongst the wealthy who were controlling an increasing share of the nation's income.  It is thus, unsurprising that the period saw the rise of the Labour Party, just as we have recently seen Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader best connected to those historic values in the party, coming to the fore and equally causing as much upset in British politics.

This is a brisk book which even though old now (published 1971), provides perspectives that still seem neglected in books that rehash a rather simple portrayal of the political shifts of the early 20th century.  I know that the documents were included as a learning tool, but they provide an interesting context from the perspective of a range of commentators of the time, that enriches the book as a whole.

'Eastern Europe 1740-1985: Feudalism to Communism' by Robin Okey
This is another author that I have met.  I saw him lecture in the late 1980s and then met him at the National Archives in the mid-1990s and finally ran into him a couple of years ago in a café in Coventry.  He is a lecturer who really inspires his audiences with his immense energy.  I do not think I have seen one who charges around the stage as much as Okey does.  He is very skilled in languages and one advantage of this book is that he speaks all of those of the countries he covers, from Poland down to Serbia and Bulgaria, the countries that have lain between Germany, Austria and Italy on one side and Russia on the other.

Okey's ability with languages marks the book out from 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) which I read in December 2015, as he manages to move beyond simply the political and economic aspects to look at the cultural inputs into these facets, especially in terms of how the languages and identity of the various nations began to appear through the time period he covers.  He is very adept at showing the similarities between the different nations and their experiences but then also teasing out all of the exceptions.  Much of his story is about the growth of nationalism in the region and then how this was filtered through the dictatorships of the inter-war and Second World War period, then the Communist regimes that followed.

While Okey hints at the appearance of Mikhail Gorbachev, this book, published in 1987 (it is the 2nd edition, the 1st edition published in 1982 ran to 1980, i.e. the death of Tito), stops before his era begins to impact on the region this book focuses on.  He is appreciative of the possible difficulties that nationalism will cause, but obviously did not foresee how vicious this was going to prove as seen in the Yugoslav War 1991-2001.  However, in some ways stopping before the latest round of upheaval in Eastern Europe proves to be a strength of the book.  It is not over-awed by the end of the Communist regimes so is able to properly analyse how they developed from the 1950s-80s and look at them without the assumption that they would collapse.  This is useful for people interested in the region over those decades; there are many other books which address the fall of the Communist control.

Overall, this is a brisk, lively book which manages to balance very deftly, between making overarching points and drawing out the particularities of specific nations and countries.  It also provides a useful cultural backdrop to the political and economic developments which more frequently feature in books about the region in this time period.