Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that should run and run.

I haven’t done a Top Ten Tuesday (as ever hosted by the wonderful Broke and the Bookish) as, to be honest, I’ve been absolutely hopeless at getting more than a very occasional post done in recent months. I suspect it’s a combination of work, a busy family life and, if I’m totally honest, a loss of blogging mojo that has led to this sad (at least for me) state of affairs.  I’m not even too sure how to break out of the slump but I’m going to try an oft-cited trick for getting rid of writer’s block – just write.  Write anything.  Don’t worry about what it is you’re writing, just do it.  The theory is that the simple act of writing will get you back in the rhythm.  We shall see.  So, apologies in advance, just in case what follows is no more than a big, steaming pile of pachyderm ordure.

This week’s challenge is to list ten books written in the past decade (approximately, in my case!) which I hope will still be read in thirty years time.  The flip answer would be, “most of them” as, being a reasonably generous soul, I would only ever really wish literary death on the occasional dreadfully-written effort or anything that espouses extreme and unpleasant political or social views.  But, in the spirit of Top Tennery, here are ten books that fit the criteria of having their survival wished for:

1.                  The Harry Potter series.  I know they weren’t all written in the last decade but it’s easier this way than picking them out individually.  I’ve listed them here not because I am a massive fan……..I enjoyed them, yes, but no more than I’ve enjoyed many other novels, but because they inspired a generation of kids to leave their DVDs and Playstations for a while and pick up a book instead.  And, although not all of those kids will have progressed to being keen general readers, sufficient will have done to give me the confidence to say that if these are still being read in 30 years time, there will still be hope for the written word in a digital universe.

2.                  Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.  The author spent two years living and working “undercover” in low paid jobs to see how America’s “working poor” managed to live.  In many cases, her answer was that they didn’t, in any meaningful sense of the word.  It’s a kind of modern, American updating of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and, being a tale of our times, even more shocking.  I hope that we are reading it in 30 years time as a historical artefact and with incredulity at the selfishness and lack of care of 21st Century Western society.

3.                  The Plot against America by Philip Roth.  I simply loved Roth’s alternative history of a 1940s America, in which Lindbergh became President and led America down a very different historical path than it actually took.  This is one that I just hope people are still reading 30 years from now because it’s a damn fine book.

4.                  Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century by Jonathan Glover.  Breathtaking in scope, restrained and humane in execution and deeply depressing in its subject matter, I hope this is read and re-read until we finally learn its lessons.

5.                  The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  Although when I reviewed it, I had some reservations, this is a fantastic retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus that gives the events of the Iliad fresh life.  Definitely deserves to be read in 30 years.

6.                  The Metatemporal Detective by Michael Moorcock.  A collection of Moorcock’s short fiction, featuring a Holmesian detective, Sir Seaton Begg, and set in Moorcock’s fictional “multiverse”, these are playful parodies of traditional detective fiction, with elements of the fantastic and steampunk.  Moorcock is a wonderful writer whom I believe to be underrated as he is most closely associated with genre fiction.  I really do hope he is still widely read in 30 years.

7.                  Berlin by Anthony Beevor.  I love the way Beevor can weave a detailed narrative out of significant events in history, using contemporary accounts and witnesses.  Berlin, like Stalingrad, is military history as it should be written and deserves to be read long into the future as a classic of its kind.

8.                  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke.  It’s a little bit, dare I say it, strange but it’s also a little bit wonderful.  A dream-like alternate 19th Century England where magic is treated as a serious topic for study, this surely deserves to keep a readership a long way into the future.

9.                  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.  Nominally a murder mystery set in 16th Century Istanbul, it’s a dazzling piece of writing and a wonderful introduction to the work of the Nobel Prize winning Pamuk.  I’d also heartily recommend his paean to his home city, Istanbul.

And, at number ten……..

10.       The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  Now don’t click away from here in disgust and no, I haven’t had a funny turn and come to believe that this is great literature but it grabbed the imagination of millions of people around the world, kept non-readers turning the pages and, frankly, I hope it’s still read in 30 years, if only to stick two fingers up at the po-faced critics who expended so much venom in denigrating it and, by extension, its readers.  So there.

Monday, May 21, 2012

2,492: Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse

When I was a younger man and used to drink in a very suburban members’ club, one of the other members – a blue-rinsed widow of the pearls and twinset variety – once offered to give me her late husband’s complete set of P.G. Wodehouse novels as she had no use for them.  Now obviously, I accepted with alacrity but shortly afterwards she had a change of heart and kept them after all, which I completely understood.

Nevertheless, I’ve always hankered after a complete set and have often thought of the near complete set in the library of my old school, where I first became enchanted by the glories of Wodehouse’s writings.  So I recently took the plunge and decided to start collecting the Everyman edition of Wodehouse.  Everyman has, for some years now, been publishing a number of Wodehouse novels each year in a distinctive and attractive hardback format, with the intention of creating a complete set and I am purchasing them at the rate of about three a month in order to try and build my collection in a reasonable amount of time (given that Wodehouse published over 90 novels and short story collections).

One of the first to arrive was Psmith in the City, one of the earlier novels and one that features two of Wodehouse’s first recurring characters, Psmith (the ‘P’ is silent) and Mike Jackson (of the cricketing Jacksons).  Although Mike had first appeared in Mike at Wrykyn, a classic Wodehouse public school story, the two meet in Mike and Psmith, which, in my opinion, can be seen either as the last of Wodehouse’s old-fashioned school stories or as the first of his adult novels, despite its school setting.  Becoming firm friends, they then travel together through the City of London in Psmith in the City, New York in Psmith, Journalist before exiting stage right at the conclusion of Leave it to Psmith, which has the distinction of being both the last Psmith book and the first in the Blandings Castle saga.

The Psmith books show, in neat microcosm, Wodehouse’s developmental arc as a writer as they move from school story to amusing adventure to the romantic comedy of Leave it to Psmith which more closely resembles the mature Wodehouse.  The character of Psmith is also interesting from this perspective as he foreshadows elements of Jeeves, Uncle Fred and even Gally Threepwood.  It is difficult to write sensibly about any Wodehouse novel without including spoilers so if you have a problem with them (and I can’t see why you would with Wodehouse – after all, they aren’t exactly cliff-hangers or full of clever twists!), look away now.

As Psmith in the City opens, we find that Mike will not be going up to Cambridge like his brothers as his father has lost a considerable amount of money.  Instead, Mike’s father has called in a favour and obtained a position for Mike in the New Asiatic Bank in the City of London.  Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to him, Psmith also begins to work at the bank on a whim of his father and the two move in to Psmith’s comfortable flat and begin to enjoy London life.

The two of them soon fall foul of the tyrannical manager, Mr Bickersdyke and it is only through the efforts of Psmith to forge friendly relations with his immediate superiors that trouble is averted, culminating in him saving the job of Mr Waller, Head of the Cash Department, after a dodgy cheque is chased, through the simple expedient of blackmail.

As summer arrives, the call of the cricket square becomes too much for Mike and when, one day, his brother Joe calls from Lords’ as their county is a man down for the match against Middlesex, it all becomes too much and he absconds from his desk.  Mr Bickersdyke, seizing his chance, dismisses Mike but, as is only to be expected, Psmith comes to the rescue and, at the end of the book, both are off to Cambridge after all.

Although, over the course of the Psmith novels, Psmith himself rapidly edges Mike out of the limelight – to the point where he doesn’t even make an appearance in Leave it to Psmith, I actually find Mike, the stolid cricketer, the more intriguing character.

In many ways, I see Mike as a semi-autobiographical character and Psmith in the City as the closest Wodehouse gets to revealing his own past in his fiction.  Like Mike, Wodehouse was a good schoolboy cricketer, playing for the Dulwich College 1st XI, although Mike is depicted as being of an even higher standard than this – a piece of wish fulfilment maybe.  Again, like Mike, Wodehouse was prevented from following an elder brother to university (Oxford in Wodehouse’s case) due to family money problems (a fall in the rupee reduced the value of Wodehouse senior’s colonial pension) and, just like Mike, Wodehouse is sent to work in a bank – in his case the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (a thinly disguised New Asiatic Bank) – which he detested and quit as soon as his writing would permit.

In this light, as well as being an amusing story, there is a certain amount of light shed upon the workings of banks in the twilight years of Britain’s banking supremacy.  Mini-Falaise is currently a big fan of Mary Poppins and I see some similarity between the new Asiatic Bank and the Dawes Tomes Mouseley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank at which Mr Banks toils.  Incidentally, in these days of economic uncertainty and stagnation, there is a certain amount of nostalgia in Mr banks’ self-satisfaction at eh strength of the pound and the glory of British banking and finance.

Returning to Wodehouse to finish, however, Psmith in the City is a typically entertaining read – not nearly as great as his later works but worth a read, especially if you are interested in Wodehouse as well as his world.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

2,493: Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End by Leif G.W. Persson

So far, in what was originally intended to be a week of posts on international crime fiction books but has turned into more like three weeks, the books I have reviewed have all been from Mediterranean lands and from the “lighter” end of the crime fiction spectrum.  So, for a complete change, I’ve hopped over to Sweden and to the other end of the spectrum with Leif G.W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (or BSL as I’ll call it for convenience).

Having been a winter visitor to the part of Sweden that sits north of the Arctic Circle, I can appreciate why long term residents might develop a certain gloominess about the onset of winter but, apart from that and the high price of alcohol, I sometimes struggle with the dark nature of much Scandinavian crime fiction.  As the lead in to a Guardian piece by John Crace in 2009 put it, The plotlines are bleak, the locations are forbidding and the main characters are usually angst-ridden alcoholics.”  It is for this reason that I have, up to now, largely avoided Scandinavian crime.

Nevertheless, it would take a crime fiction reader with the eyesight of a bat and the hearing of a post to remain unaware that crime writers from this region are the current rock stars of the crime fiction world and so, when Black Swan, part of the Transworld, kindly sent me a copy of BSL, I gave a firm nolle prosequi to the unread Zouroudis, Leons and Nadelmans on my Kindle and plunged headlong into a very different Stockholm than the one we came across whilst staying in the Grand Hotel a few Christmases ago.

BSL is the first volume of a trilogy, subtitled with an ultra-British sense of self-deprecation “The story of a crime”, centred on the unsolved murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986.  At first, I couldn’t really see where the connection was.  BSL opens, conventionally enough, with a suspicious death – in this case, an American student falling from a window in his accommodation block.  The local Stockholm police unit is on the scene immediately to investigate and, despite two of the cops being both unappealing and incompetent, it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide until Superintendent Lars Martin Johansson, the hero (at least to the extent there is one), becomes involved.

At this point, I was enjoying it as a well-crafted police and fairly complex police procedural with more than a sly touch of humour and, truth be told, had it stayed like that, I would have happily read it and added Persson to my list of authors to follow.

But, in truth, Persson had carried out a neat little piece of misdirection as BSL turned into a very different kind of book.  Although the investigation of the student’s death formed the backbone to the novel, it gradually revealed itself to be a complex political thriller dealing with the operations of Sweden’s secret police (the “closed operation”) before finally positing a theory as to how and why Palme’s assignation might have really happened.

Even that doesn’t really encapsulate the true scope of BSL as it takes the form of the crime novel and uses it to expose the nature of Swedish society and it’s not the social democratic paradise of popular belief.

One of the most striking things about BSL is the level of political extremism and misogyny that Persson would have us believe exists (or existed at the time) in the Swedish police force and presumably, by extension, parts of Swedish society.  It is difficult to find a male character in the book who does not exhibit some sexist tendencies, from the “old-fashioned” to the downright disgusting.  Persson also hints at a fairly substantial far right-wing element within the force.

I was also very much taken with the almost ensemble-like feel of the novel.  Although certain characters take a more central role in the plot, it is, on the whole, difficult to point at a small number of “main” characters, something which adds to the sweeping nature of Persson’s vision.  Many of the characters feature in other novels by Persson (as I know from having read some articles about his work) and, had I read any of these, I am sure this would have given the impression of an organic, and somehow more “real” fictional world.

Structurally, too, BSL, goes way beyond the norm for police procedurals and thrillers.  The storyline cuts between the two investigations into the initial death, using different timelines and then coming together until a very neat device has members of the two investigating teams coming face to face at the crime scene immediately after the time of death.

BSL is rich, complex and, at over 600 pages in the paperback edition, a chunky read.  I’d call it satisfying but, as the plot unfolded, it was significantly more than that and I’d say that it was one of the best crime novels I’ve read in recent years.  I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of the hardback edition of the sequel, Another Time, Another Life by Doubleday and it took a fair amount of resolve not to dive into it immediately, as I didn’t want to gorge on Persson and then have a long wait until the publication of Falling Freely, As If In A Dream, the last in the trilogy.  And, as I haven’t been able to find English translations of any of Persson’s other novels, I can’t even get my fix that way – so come on Transworld, what are you waiting for?  More Persson, please!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

2,494: The Taint of Midas by Anne Zouroudi

Et in Arcadia ego may have reflected Charles Ryder’s joy at escaping from his dull, middle-class background into the aristocratic Elysium of Sebastian Flyte’s Oxford but, in Anne Zouroudi’s second Greek Detective novel, Arcadia is, at best, a faded paradise.

Hermes Diaktoros, the afore-mentioned Greek Detective, is en route to his vineyard when he stumbles across a corpse, which is identifies as his old friend, Gabrilis, by means of an old Post Office cap that bears as it insignia the winged Hermes.  It soon becomes clear that Gabrilis, a beekeeper, has been conned into signing away his land adjoining the ancient temple of Apollo, to an unscrupulous local property developer and restaurant owner.

Despite being the initial prime suspect of the local police sergeant, the incorruptible Gazis, Hermes turns the investigation around and, prodding away at the hypocrisy and greed of the locals, gradually reveals Gabrilis’ murderer as well as bringing happiness to the wronged and serving up just desserts to various wrongdoers.

It is likely that a love of traditional detective fiction might find The Taint of Midas a bit disappointing, or, even, weak.  If I’m being perfectly honest, there is little actual detection going on here.  The vague supernatural tones of The Messenger of Athens reappear even more strongly here.  Diaktoros appears to be almost omniscient and there is little suspense to be found in contemplating whether or not he will identify the culprit.

But that’s, frankly, missing the point.  Although Hermes is named for the winged messenger of Greek mythology (and, inappropriately for his character, the patron god of thieves), there is more than a whiff of Nemesis, the Greek spirit of revenge (especially against the arrogant), about Hermes.  And, I think that’s where the joy of Zouroudi’s novels lies.  They aren’t true detective stories, they are morality tales in which, regardless of the laws of the land, the bad guys get punished and the suffering often get a piece of good fortune.  Hermes’ actions pander not to our brains but to our hearts because no matter what we say (and, as a lawyer, I am especially prone to pontificating about the sanctity of the law), deep down we want to see justice conform to our own notions of morality.  This is exactly what Hermes gives us.

Of course, this leaves open the chance that the resultant book will be sententious and a bit clunky but, fortunately, Ms Zouroudi has a wonderful touch when it comes to depicting the dark underbelly of the Greek summer holiday spot.  The Taint of Midas positively drips with atmosphere and a sense of place. In addition, Hermes is an engaging kind of chap and the story moves along at a gentle pace that makes it a peaceful, relaxing read.  On the downside, Hermes' habitual whitening of his tennis shoes is thoroughly irritating and I did have a nagging thought that, for someone who owns a vineyard in the immediate vicinity of the scene of the crime, he did seem to be surprisingly ignorant of the place and its inhabitants.

Still, these are minor criticisms and, overall, I’m a fan of the Greek Detective novels.  They appeal to me when I am in the mood for something relaxing, comforting and undemanding.  When I read one, I can feel the Mediterranean sun on my face, I can smell the wild herbs of the Greek countryside and the ozone tang of the sea and, as I sit on the sardine-packed Northern line on the way to work, Anne Zouroudi and Hermes Diaktoros take me away to a different world.  And that’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2,495: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

For today’s post, we’re moving northwards around the Eastern Mediterranean and fast-forwarding more than 3,000 years to Istanbul in the 1830s.  Not only that but our hero has shifted from a family man who develops a drug addiction to Yashim, a eunuch who, although a Muslim, is happy to take the occasional alcoholic drink with his friend, Stanislaw Palewski, Polish ambassador to the Sublime Porte.

The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin’s first Ottoman Detective novel, introduces us to a Turkey in the early throes of reform, straddling the exoticism of the Ottomans and the modernities of Western Europe.  Underlying the main plot is a constant theme of the tension between the maintenance of tradition and the acceptance of progress.  Indeed, at the heart of the action is the clash between the remnants of the Janissaries, the former military elite of the Empire, and the New Guard, a Western-style unit that had massacred the Janissaries in the “Auspicious Event” of the 1820s, at the behest of the Sultan.

As the novel opens, four offices of the New Guard have gone missing, shortly before an important review.  When one of them turns up dead in an over-sized soup cauldron, the commander of the New Guard (the Seraskier) calls on Yashim, who appears to be connected with the Sultan and his household in some unspecified way, to investigate. At the same time, the  Validé Sultan, the Sultan’s mother, who is a friend of Yashim, asks him to carry out an investigation into another murder, that of one of the harem girls, who was about to have her first assignation with the Sultan (who would much prefer an uninterrupted night’s sleep).  From here, the parallel investigations uncover the resurgence of an ancient Sufi mystic sect and both revolution and counter-revolution in the febrile streets of Istanbul, as well as several rococo and very grisly deaths (including a human kebab – yum).

Goodwin had written a couple of non-fiction before this first foray into fiction – one a travelogue of his walking journey through South-Eastern Europe into Istanbul with his wife and the other a history of the Ottoman empire.  He clearly has a vast knowledge of Turkish history and this period in particular, which shows both in the use of historical events as plot triggers and in the authenticity of his descriptions of life in 19th Century Istanbul.  If you enjoy crime novels with a clear sense of place and time, The Janissary Tree should certainly appeal to you.

Having said that, background knowledge alone will not suffice if the writing style is weak.  That combination tends to lead to lots of flat explication and little atmosphere.  Fortunately, Goodwin can write.  The smells, sounds and sights of Istanbul fairly leap off the page and, without wishing to get into individual examples, his descriptions of Yashim’s cooking are mouth-watering (even the vegetarian recipes!).

Onto his well-drawn stage, Goodwin drops a number of rounded and sympathetic characters from Yashim himself to the Validé Sultan (based on the real life Sultan’s mother) and including George, Yashim’s Greek vegetable supplier, the Albanian master of the soup makers’ guild and Preen, a cross-dressing köçek dancer.

With this cast, he then weaves an entertaining plot.  I should say now that The Janissary Tree is not a deeply-meaningful psychological thriller or full of the gritty details of real-life detective work.  It is light in tone and clearly meant to entertain rather than shock or enlighten.  There’s something of a cinematic feel to the storyline and Goodwin likes to liven things up with a surprise now and again – an armed man crashing into Yashim’s apartment or a naked Russian countess sitting on a bed.

Yashim is an engaging central character and I have to admit that he has rapidly become one of my current favourites.  After reading The Janissary Tree, I devoured the remaining books in the series (a further three at the date hereof).

My only issue: Yashim is a eunuch, permitted to enter the harem because of his lack of sexual threat.  So how did he manage to “satisfy” the afore-mentioned naked Russian countess?  Any eunuch experts out there able to enlighten me?