Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Books I Read In April

'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.


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.