Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Books I Read In January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Biscuit Blog: Asda Cocoa Creams

Asda Cocoa Creams

These are a sandwich biscuit.  Historically BN, the French biscuit company, produced the gold standard for these, certainly in the years before they insisted on impressing smiley faces into all of their biscuits.  Sandwich biscuits are larger than many standard biscuits and typically have a chocolate cream filling.  The biscuit discs themselves really need to be creamy to counterpoint the chocolate in the middle.  BN always did theirs in a square shape; British versions of the 21st century seem to be round.  Perhaps the easiest to access version of the sandwich biscuit in the UK at present is the Lidl Princess biscuit which I need to get around to reviewing here.  This is a comparator for it but comes out as less successful.

The biscuit is large.  The discs have an appropriate snap and then a little crumble.  However, they really lack the creaminess which is vital in a sandwich biscuit.  I do not know how some of these supermarkets - Asda is not alone in this, Tesco is also guilty - manage to get so little flavour into some of their biscuits.  The chocolate cream inside is of the correct consistency.  It should be of a milk flavoured chocolate, but I recognise that dark chocolate is the leading flavour now.  I like dark chocolate so enjoyed this cream and funnily another person eating these who insists on milk chocolate and hates dark felt it was sufficiently milky for their taste.  The problem is, with so little flavour in the biscuit disc, all you get is the cream flavour, you might as well spread chocolate paste on a slice of bread.  Unsurprisingly, as a result, they lack moreishness.  These are another of those frustrating biscuits in which the company falls short on one element and so the biscuit fails to achieve what it should be doing.  Not terrible, but could so easily be better.


Friday, 13 January 2017

Biscuit Blog: Asda Coconut Rings

Asda Coconut Rings

While I was looking at the standard biscuits Asda sells under is own brand, I also saw a few which are not provided by other supermarkets.  These coconut rings are one of those.  I have to give Asda some credit for effort as they have tried to make these distinctive.  However, hey do not crumble in the way as shown on the packet, though as you can see from the damaged biscuit on the left in the picture they are pretty fragile.  They are thin and quite small; they fortunately do not crumble as suggested and have a fair snap.

My main problem with these biscuits is the lack of 'coconutness' if there is such a word - but I imagine you get what I mean.  I would expect more sweetness coming from the coconut and those small shreds of coconut that you would find in a decent Nice biscuit.  There is some hint of coconut flavour and a rare shred, but once more we effectively seem to have a Rich Tea with a different texture and supposed flavour, but insufficiently different really to warrant you buying these as an alternative to a plain biscuit.