Thursday, November 29, 2012

2,474: Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse

Stanley Featherstone (pronounced “Fanshawe”) Ukridge is not the first Wodehouse character who would spring to the mind of a casual reader but he is one of the minor Wodehousian protagonists, like Uncle Fred, whom I count as a secret pleasure.  Other than Love Among the Chickens, Ukridge is a denizen of Wodehouse’s short stories, appearing in nineteen of them over the years, of which ten constitute Ukridge.

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Ukridge is a large, untidy kind of fellow who is forever scheming to make his fortune in a variety of improbable manners, without having to go to the inconvenience of actually doing any real work.  Whilst waiting for his plans to come to fruition, he survives by sponging off his redoubtable Aunt Julia, a novelist, and various long-suffering friends, notably Jimmy Corcoran, the narrator of the stories in Ukridge, and George Tupper, a well-meaning, if too earnest, member of the Foreign Office.

Ukridge seems both to annoy and charm his social circle in equal measures and, despite his friends knowing full well that he is both impecunious and a bit of a blagger, he never fails to persuade at least one of them to pay for supper or to invest in his latest scheme.  He floats through life with sunny optimism, interspersed with disappointment as his best laid plans for wealth fail dismally.

There is much amusement and enjoyment to be had in reading an Ukridge short story and watching how the implausible plan at first seems, against all logic, to be proceeding nicely, before the inevitable happens and he loses everything.  There’s no serious message here or exploration of emotional themes, just pure fun.

To give you a flavour of Ukridge’s world, his schemes involve running a dog training college, in which he intends to train dogs to appear in music hall productions and to live off rentals from the music hall owners.  This scheme turns to dust when his aunt discovers he has purloined the dogs from her.

Other doomed plots involve him acting as manager to an immensely talented but soft-hearted boxer and a conspiracy to take advantage of an accident insurance policy by having the beneficiary, an acquaintance of Ukridge and Jimmy, deliberately get injured.  The plot backfires spectacularly when the chap in question gets run over but, on waking can’t remember the existence of the conspiracy and keeps the payout himself.

Despite Ukridge’s moral failings, one can’t help rooting for him and I would recommend these short stories to anyone who’d like an undemanding but amusing read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2,475: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

I downloaded The Fear Index some time ago as part of an Amazon special offer and I am so glad I did as had I paid full price for it, I would have been quite resentful rather than just mildly disappointed.

Robert Harris is, you see, one of my favourite authors.  Other than The Ghost, which is sitting on my shelves waiting to be read (due to a general irritation with Tony Blair, the PM on whom the main character is loosely based), I have read every single one of his novels with pleasure.  From Fatherland via Archangel to his Ancient Roman novels, I have found them intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining.  You can almost feel the quality and depth of research and the fully-formed ideas that underpin the plots.

And then there is The Fear Index.  Set in Geneva, the main human protagonist of the story is Alex Hoffmann, a cookie-cutter nerd-turned-quant, who has made “a billion, billion-two” from the hedge fund he set up with his partner, another stereotype, this time of a hedge fund manager.

The plot is based around Alex’s new invention, VIXAL-4, a "machine-learning algorithm".  To the likes of you and me, that boils down to a computer that trades without instruction and which learns from analysing real time data, not only on markets and trades but on world news unfolding events.  The extra twist is that the basis of the algorithm is fear; Alex’s theory is that fear is the strongest human emotion and that trading patterns are driven largely by fear.  By analysing the overall level of fear in the markets, VIXAL-4 should be able to predict market movements and, therefore, enable Alex’s firm to make even more pots of cash.

So far, so good.  But then, strange things start happening.  An unordered antique book arrives for Alex, apparently paid for by him.  The entire first exhibition of art by Alex’s wife, Gaby, is bought by a single buyer, humiliating her.  The mysterious buyer appears to be Alex, although he claims not to know anything about it.  There is a break in at Alex’s luxurious Lake Geneva house.  And, more frighteningly, VIXAL-4 appears to be doing things no machine could.  Like predicting plane crashes and trading outside the limits that have been set for it.

Alex’s life rapidly goes from bad to worse, losing his marriage and becoming involved with a sexually perverse murder.  In the space of a day, he is driven from successful hedgie to a near-madman.  It’s actually nice and fast-paced and quite an enjoyable read……..right until the big reveal, which turns out to be massively disappointing and hastily wrapped up.  I actually want to tell you all about it as it is one of the main reasons the book disappointed me so much, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, should you choose to read it.

To be fair, nothing Harris writes could be all bad.  As I mention above, it is nice and fast-paced and it’s an easy read.  He makes a pretty good fist of explaining hedge funds and he manages to create a decent sense of fear and tension.  It’s just that there’s so much more he could have done with his premise.  It feels as if he hasn’t really thought it all out or that he couldn’t be bothered to explore it in any great depth and then lost interest and tried to wrap it up too quickly.  The characterisation too is all a bit glib and cardboard and nothing like his previous books.

It’s frustrating.  There is an excellent thriller in here somewhere; it’s just a shame that Harris couldn’t bring it out.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s back on form next time.

Monday, November 19, 2012

2,476: Another Time, Another Life by Leif GW Persson

For those of you who have read my post on Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (BSLWE), the first in Leif GW Persson’s “A Story of a Crime” trilogy will, no doubt, be unsurprised to find that this post on its sequel is equally positive.

Having based BSLWE on the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, Persson again blends a real life crime, in this case a siege of the West German embassy in Stockholm in 1975, with his fictional crime, in this case, the murder of a Swedish civil servant in 1989, to create a launch pad for another densely plotted, well-written and slyly humorous novel.

Although Another Time, Another Life also has a complex interweaving of storylines, I believe that it is actually more accessible than its prequel which featured a telescoping of the investigation of a single crime by two separate groups of police.  In Another Time, Another Life, the interweaving is between the two different crimes and it is much easier to see how the strands come together.  It is much more tightly plotted and is a more conventional read.

One of the features of Persson’s writing that I am coming to love is his cross-pollination of characters from his other work.  Although Lars Martin Johansson is the nominal hero of both these books, other characters from Persson’s oeuvre such as the hilariously unpleasant and incompetent Backstrom, who is the anti-hero of his own series of books by Persson.  Other characters from BSLWE also make more or less welcome reappearances.

Another Time, Another Life is, at first glance a police procedural style novel, focussing on the nuts and bolts of the police investigation into the civil servant’s murder and featuring beat cop Backstrom, whose ham-fisted and bigoted attempt to turn it into a “gay-slaying” case completely confuses the issue.  However, Persson is not “merely” a crime writer and uses the format to explore other issues relating to Swedish society and, in particular, the self-justifying and perpetuating nature of Sepo, Sweden’s “closed” or secret police whose leadership has, fortuitously for the reader, been assumed by Johansson.

What this means is that the plot moves more into political thriller territory by adding an additional layer to Johansson’s investigations: not only is he trying to find the killer of the civil servant but he must also work out who within the Swedish establishment wants the victim’s possible link to the embassy siege to be found or, indeed, covered up.

As this is Persson, we are also given a wry look into the nature of Swedish society and the culture of its law enforcement agencies.  Persson doesn’t shy away from exposing the sexist, racist and right-wing tendencies that can flourish in what, from the outside, can look suspiciously like a model society.  If it weren’t for Persson’s sense of humour, this could, no doubt, be quite dispiriting.  I especially enjoyed the bitter irony of the ending where the appalling Backstrom manages to have his “solution” to the 1989 murder accepted and the murder ascribed to a gay serial killer.

I’m no expert when it comes to Scandinavian crime fiction which is all the rage at the moment but I am a bit surprised that Persson’s novels aren’t better known.  They are deeply satisfying and thoroughly absorbing and I’d recommend them highly to anyone.

Many thanks to the publishers, Transworld, for sending me a copy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

2,477: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son is a wonderfully written novel with a complex and, at times, confusing narrative structure that may not make it everyone’s cup of tea.  Nevertheless, and without needing to resort to the flip comment that it is, undoubtedly, the best novel set in North Korea this year, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys an intelligent novel that requires the reader to commit to it.

We first meet Jun Do, the principal actor in the book, in a remote orphanage in North Korea.  He believes that he is the son of the master of the orphanage and a beautiful woman who has been transferred by the regime to Pyongyang, the capital.  The narrative does, however, leave open the possibility that this is a fantasy created by Jun Do to help him create a sense of identity and, indeed, the nature of identity in a totalitarian state runs as an undercurrent throughout the novel, emerging as a major theme in the second half.

Upon reaching manhood, Jun Do is conscripted into the North Korean armed forces, the fourth largest in the world believe it or not.  Orphans, or those like Jun Do who end up being treated as orphans, are given the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the military and Jun Do becomes a tunnel fighter, trained to fight hand to hand in the total darkness of the tunnel system dug by the North Koreans under the Demilitarised Zone.

His toughness and prowess in this most demanding of roles is Jun Do’s first step in a varied career that leads him from tunnel fighting to kidnapping Japanese on behalf of the state and from monitoring English language radio broadcasts on board a trawler to taking part in a bizarre trade mission to Texas.

This first half of the novel is somewhat picaresque and is a collection of episodic stories, a kind of Orphan’s Progress.  Jun Do is, largely, carried along by events, conforming to the state’s demands of him and not really questioning things.  His identity is given to him by the government and his only real complaint is that people insist on identifying him as an orphan despite his adamant belief that he is not.

At this point, there is a major shift in the structure and plotting of the novel which is quite confusing at first and, I suspect, could alienate many readers.  The chapters of the second half of the novel are divided between chapters telling the continuation of Jun Do’s story and chapters written from the viewpoint of the public address systems that continually blast out propaganda to the people of Pyongyang and which tell Jun’s story from an entirely different perspective, highlighting the warped alternative narrative that the totalitarian system imposes on the lives of its citizens.  The shift in structure is magnified by the author’s decision to begin the second half midway through its timeline and to fill in the gaps gradually through the remainder of the story
We are introduced to Commander Ga, a military hero married to Sun Moon, North Korea’s most important actress.  However, it soon becomes apparent that Commander Ga is, in fact, our old friend Jun Do.  And, most bizarrely, no one other than Sun Moon and her children seems to be aware of this.  Although we are slowly told how this peculiar situation has come to pass, it was quire disconcerting and, once we know that Jun Do has killed Commander Ga in prison and assumed his identity, it is a shocking reminder of how a totalitarian regime can alter history and force its citizens to accept lies and deceit.

From here, although the narrative is complex, the basic plot becomes a relatively straightforward one  in which Jun Do plots to help Sun Moon and her children escape the madness and oppression of Pyongyang and defect to the USA.  The growing assertion by Jun Do of his own ability to choose his identity and fate turns the novel into an existentialist text for me as Jun Do ceases to be a passive acceptor of his life but takes positive action to determine his ending.

In reading the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son, Sartre’s Les Mains Sales came to mind, in which Hugo, the protagonist, having been pretty supine for much of the play exerts his will and lays claim to his existence by rejecting the chance to save his life when targeted by assassins in order to show that a murder he had committed had been carried out for political reasons rather than personal jealousy.  Given the option to save himself by accepting the latter, he cries “non recupérable!” (not salvageable) and seals his own fate.  In enabling Sun Moon’s escape, Jun Do also shows himself able to claim his own will rather than permanently bending to the will of the state.

Although the soft part of me was desperately hoping for a happy ending for Jun Do afgter all of his hardships, the lack of one did not prevent The Orphan Master’s Son from being highly readable and enjoyable.  Although the author had only visited North Korea once, the respected author Barbara Demick, an expert on North Korea, has praised the book for its portrayal of North Korean life.  It also says a lot about the barbarity and surrealism of everyday life in the Hermit Kingdom that it is difficult to tell which of the appalling details are factual or the author’s artistic licence.

The Orphan Master’s Son is, by necessity, a dystopian novel, redolent with echoes of 1984.  It is also, as well as a novel of ideas, a spy story and a love story.  It isn’t perfect - oddly enough, I found the episode set in Texas to be far less believable that the rest of the novel, despite the fact that the author is American - but I believe it is an excellent novel and certainly one of my favourite reads of 2012.

Many thanks to the publisher, Random House, for allowing me to read a review copy from Netgalley.

Monday, November 5, 2012

2,478: The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

The Victory Lab, a copy of which was kindly sent to me by Crown Publishing, tells the story of how academics and computer experts have gradually come to play a major role in the way political campaigns in the USA are run.  It features a cast list of political scientists, campaign managers and statisticians who, between them, have come up with a cornucopia of analytical techniques and tools to determine whether you vote, how you vote and, more importantly, how to get you off your sofa, into the polling booth and putting your mark against their candidate’s name.

On the whole, it is a fascinating read, taking a historical view of vote analysis and showing how tools and techniques have been introduced and refined over the years.  As is to be expected, there is an emphasis on recent campaigns, particularly those of Bush Senior, Clinton, Bush Junior and Obama and it is the last of those in particular that are of special interest, given that, as this is posted, America will be about to go to the polls to choose between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although one of the criticisms of The Victory Lab is the way it jumps from topic to topic without a great deal of connection, one of the key underlying themes is the shift from precinct based analysis, in which all voters within a single political unit are, essentially, treated the same, to the concept of micro-targeting, in which analysts can identify individual voters in otherwise unpromising locations who are worth spending time on.  Micro-targeting also allows for very specific messages to be crafted for small sub-groups of voters for whom not all of a candidate’s views may be well received.

Underpinning this shift is, of course, the rise of the computer and of processing power, which allow the analysts to process huge quantities of data through their algorithms, enabling them to measure human behaviour and identify exactly which voters they need to get out on the day, as well as how to do this.  The first Obama campaign appears to have been the apotheosis of this approach, using the available analysis to create a kind of mass-participation campaign hitherto unfamiliar to US presidential campaigns.  Some of the details of this campaign are truly amazing, including the mind-boggling view of a senior Obama aide that the computer models had become so sophisticated that, for undecided voters, the computer could determine which way the voter would jump even before the voter knew.

What is also notable from the text is how little the candidates themselves appear to be involved.  Although they, and their manifestos, set the framework, it seems that the voting models and persuasion techniques operate almost independently, although this impression may be distorted by the focus of the book.
There is also very much of a flavour of an arms race between Democrats and Republicans, with each side eagerly adopting innovations made by the other side and ramping up the money and resources given to this new breed of political operative.

The Victory Lab is a truly fascinating book that I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in the machinery and process of politics.  In a way, it is a shame that I am currently disenchanted with pretty much every British political party as I would very much have liked to deliver a copy of this book to my preferred party.  As I suspect the UK is behind the US in this kind of thing, it would be interesting to see how the tools could be adapted to a British general election and what kind of effect they would have on what is likely to be another close fought campaign.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Literary Blog Giveaway Hop - The Winners

As ever, it has been a pleasure to participate in the Literary Blog Giveaway Hop, organised wonderfully by Judith at Leeswammes' Blog.  As you will recall, I offered two chances to win a copy of one of the books in my list of novels by Oxonians.

The winners are......................

Flip and Lisa May!!

Flip chose Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

And Lisa May chose Stamboul Train by Graham Greene.

I have emailed the two lucky winners to get mailing details so that I can have their prizes sent to them.