Wednesday, November 20, 2013

2,335: The 500 by Matthew Quirk

Mike Ford, the hero of The 500, journalist Mathew Quirk's debut novel, has a troubled family history - his father’s in jail for burglary and his mother’s dead.  But Mike has drive, ambition and brains so he’s managed to work his way through Harvard Law School and he’s landed an extraordinary job in a strategic consulting firm in Washington DC.  It pays well, his every need is catered for and all he has to do is to keep churning out the 90 hour weeks.

There’s only a couple of slight snags - his two bosses, immediate supervisor William Marcus and founder of the firm, Henry Davies, are a little mysterious, a bit cloak and dagger and some of the things the firm gets up to seem just a little close to the edge.  And as Mike begins to stick his nose into things he has been expressly warned off, it soon begins clear that the Davies Group is not just sailing close to the wind, it is involved in some very nasty and very illegal activities.

Now, at this point, I would be amazed if any thriller readers over the age of about 30 amongst you are not screaming “It’s just like The Firm”.  And, indeed you’d be correct.  For much of The 500, the plotting similarities between this and John Grisham’s genre classic are so apparent that they come very close to spoiling the book - especially as one of the blurbs (by James Patterson, no less) on the front cover expressly refers to Grisham’s book.

Personally, I think this is a slightly risky strategy, given the success, both critical and financial, of The Firm.  It invites comparison and sets a tough benchmark for The 500, which it doesn’t quite meet.

It’s a gripping read, nicely paced and with plenty of action.  I whipped through it in pretty short order and it held my attention until the last page.  Mike comes from a criminal background and is, himself, a reformed thief.  Quirk uses this background well, giving convincing descriptions of the craft and skills of the burglar and con-man.  There’s also an authentic feel to the scenes in which Davies Group staff use their leverage to influence politicians and other influential Washingtonians and, although I’ve only visited DC once, The 500 has a strong sense of place.

On the downside, Quirk ends up relying too much on Mike’s history and criminal skills to get him out of trouble, which becomes slightly repetitive at times; it’s almost as if he’s got all this knowledge and really wants to share it which is all well and good, but, sometimes, less is more.

There is also a little too much coincidence and convenience in the plotting - at one point, Mike breaks into a storage unit he had previously broken into years earlier and finds that the owner is still using it to store the same burglary tools.  The revelation of key pieces of information is also a little heavy-handedly planned out, with characters knowing just the right kind and amount of information for that point in the narrative.

These flaws don’t make The 500 a bad book - it’s a well-written, enjoyable thriller and much better than the average genre novel.  What they do result in, however, is a thriller that doesn’t quite match up to The Firm, a classic of its type.  Which isn't a bad result at all.

I'd like to thank Headline for sending me a review copy of The 500........and apologise for the inordinate amount of time it's taken for me to get round to reading and reviewing it!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

2,337-2,336: Two Books on Psychiatry and War Crimes Trials

Two things first opened my mind as a teenager to the possibility of becoming a lawyer: the incomparable Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer’s Falstaffian defender of freedom, lost causes and the Timson clan and the Nuremberg war trials, which formed the subject of my History O-level project.

The Nuremberg trials, as well as being fascinating from a legal point of view, given the novelty of both the idea of such a trial and some of the charges with which the defendants were charged, were a crystallising moment in history, a period where the crimes of Hitler’s Germany were first brought to the attention of the world and were documented in forensic detail.  To those of us now accustomed to seeing archive footage of the concentration camps and other atrocities, it may be difficult to grasp the shock and impact of this but the showing of film of the camps at the trial formed one of its most dramatic events – a moment where some of the chief architects of Nazi Germany were confronted with their most obscene ‘achievements’.

Douglas Kelley was a US Army psychiatrist assigned the task of maintaining the mental health of the defendants before and during the trial.  A driven achiever with a complex family background, he also assigned himself the task of analysing the defendants to try and determine whether the leading Nazis were mentally abnormal, implying that the Nazi regime was a unique historical phenomenon, or whether they were, in fact, normal, raising the chilling conclusion that, given the correct conditions, regimes similar to Nazi Germany could arise almost anywhere.

Jack El-Hai’s The Nazi and the Psychiatrist deals admirably with this argument, whilst also containing a biography of Kelley who, in an eerie echo, was to commit suicide by cyanide, the same method as his chief patient at Nuremberg, Hermann Goering, had used to cheat the gallows.
Given that Kelley’s personal background and life was so full and complex, and that his tenure at Nuremberg and interactions with the Nazis could itself have filled a book, it should come as no surprise that The Nazi and the Psychiatrist is, whilst an excellent read, slightly unsatisfying, falling somewhere between a number of stools, being part-biography, part reportage and part analysis.

Everyone who reads The Nazi and the Psychiatrist will find something of interest, whether in Kelley’s life, his relationships with Goering and Hess or the conclusions he draws.  I was less interested in Kelley’s personal life than in an objective account of his work at Nuremberg.  In particular, having read both his account of his time there and the account written by his colleague and rival, Gustave Gilbert, I was most interested in the account of their rivalry and the different conclusions they reached about the defendants.  Gilbert viewed the chief Nazis as psychotic and abnormal, giving a comforting message to America that Nazi Germany was unique.  Kelley concluded the opposite and spent much time lecturing and speaking on how similar things could happen in America and elsewhere.  El-Hai’s synopsis of the controversy and its development over the years is excellent.

By contrast, A Curious Madness, sticks more closely to the personal.  Its author, Eric Jaffe, is the grandson of US Army neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Jaffe.  After having served in Germany during the final months of WWII, Jaffe was posted to Tokyo, where he was asked to determine whether Okawa Shumei, a leading Japanese nationalist thinker, was mentally fit to stand trial at the Tokyo war crimes trial, the ‘other Nuremberg’ about which we in the UK at any rate, know far less.  Although initially indicted, Shumei’s behaviour in custody had been erratic and, when, during the first days of the trial, he slapped former Prime Minister Tojo on the head, the President of the Court ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

Jaffe determined that Okawa was unfit to stand trial and he was transferred to hospital, where he completed a Japanese translation of the Koran and made a seemingly miraculous recovery.  Re-examined by two psychiatrists who came to different views on his mental state, there has always been a school of thought that believes Okawa was feigning madness and fooled Jaffe.

The starting point of the book is Jaffe’s attempt both to find out more about his grandfather and finally to answer the question of whether his grandfather’s assessment had been correct.  A Curious Madness develops into the interwoven biographies of both Daniel Jaffe and Okawa Shumei and touches on many broader and fascinating subjects such as the early days of psychiatric engagement by the US military and its theories on the treatment of combat fatigue and the development of Japanese conservative nationalist thought in the period up to WWII.  Jaffe’s focus is clearly on his grandfather which enables him to maintain the balance of A Curious Madness towards the biographical.

If I’m perfectly honest, I preferred The Nazi and Psychiatrist to A Curious Madness (although both are well worth reading).  In part this is because I am so much more familiar with the Nuremberg trials and the personalities of the former – I may have enjoyed the latter more had I read more on the Tokyo war crimes trial first.  I was also less interested in the personal biographies of the psychiatrists and more interested in their work and conclusions – readers with more of a biographical bent may have a different view.  Consequently, although I believe Eric Jaffe does a better job of focusing his story, I found El-Hai’s book more to my taste.

For those interested in World War Two or the development of criminal psychiatry, these books are well worth reading and thoroughly recommended.  For the more general reader, they may be a little specialised and off-beat, although they are still good reads and should also appeal to the general lover of biographies.

I would like to thank Scribner and Perseus Book Group for allowing me to read A Curious Madness and The Nazi and the Psychiatrist respectively via NetGalley.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

2,338: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is the result of the commissioning of Sebastian Faulks by P.G. Wodehouse’s literary estate to write a new official Jeeves and Wooster novel.  To be fair to Mr Faulks, a fine author when using his own voice, it’s a pretty tall order to try and follow one of the greatest stylists of English literature.  Does he carry it off?  Well, in this Wodehouse fan’s opinion, not quite.  Does this make it a bad book?  Not at all.  It’s just that it’s not Wodehouse.

It opens with Bertie carrying out (or rather trying to carry out) a most unusual task – making a cup of tea, a turn of events that becomes even stranger when it transpires that he is taking said cuppa to Jeeves, who is in bed of all places.  We gradually find out that Bertie and Jeeves are at Melbury Hall, the country pile belonging to Sir Henry Hackwood, an impoverished baronet hoping to save himself by marrying his ward, Georgiana, off to a wealthy (but dull) man.

But things aren’t as they should be.  For Jeeves is pretending to be Lord Etringham and Bertie is masquerading as Wilberforce Berkeley, his Lordship’s valet in an attempt to save another set of impending nuptials – those of Amelia Hackwood, Sir Henry’s daughter, and Beeching P., a childhood friend of Bertie’s.

As can be guessed even from the brief lead-in I’ve given, plenty of Wodehousean hi-jinks ensue.  We get impersonations, break-ins, a village cricket match and fete, romantic mix-ups and the ghastly presence of two of Aunt Agatha’s old school-friends.

There is plenty to enjoy in Jeeves and the Wedding Bells both in terms of plotting, set pieces and language.  Mr Faulks adopts many of Wodehouse’s stylistic tricks with some success and, all in all, it’s a pleasant and easy read.

On the other hand, the pacing isn’t quite right.  The first part of the book was sluggish in comparison to Wodehouse but warms up in the second part, which has a much lighter and sparkly feel to it and it is more a reflection on the genius of Wodehouse than anything else to say that Mr Faulk’s imitation of Wodehouse’s style seems slightly laboured by comparison.

One of the interesting features of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is that the main characters are imbued with more psychological depth than in the original novels.  We see far more of both Jeeves and Wooster’s inner lives than we ever did in Wodehouse’s stories and, indeed, there is almost a slightly sombre feel to parts of the book, with both Bertie and Georgiana referring to the deaths of their parents on occasion and Jeeves telling the story of his (real life) namesake, a cricketer who dies in the First World War.  This is not the only reference to the war, as Georgiana’s parents turn out to have died on the Lusitania, sunk by a U-boat.  It’s a different approach to Wodehouse’s world – not necessarily a criticism but certainly a real point of difference.

The most jarring moment for me, and I accept that, in matters Wodehouse, I am a near-fundamentalist, comes at the end of the book.  As usual, I am trying to avoid spoilers and so can’t expand on this cryptic comment save to say that Mr Faulks goes where Wodehouse would never have trodden with Bertie and Jeeves.

Mr Faulks is a self-confessed Wodehouse aficionado and bills Jeeves and the Wedding Bells as an homage to Wodehouse.  He makes the good point that he wanted to avoid parodying the master or just writing a pale imitation and he has achieved that.  His differentiation may not always work for me but I can appreciate what he is doing.  I also want to reiterate – this is a good book; I enjoyed it greatly but probably had invested too much hope in it for it ever to satisfy me fully.

Interestingly, Mr Faulks says that the Wodehouse estate want the book to attract a new generation of Wodehouse fans.  Hopefully, the publicity surrounding the new book will achieve this.  I can’t help feeling though that new readers would do far better to grab a copy of, say, The Mating Season or The Code of the Woosters.  I actually believe it is the old lags who will find Jeeves and the Wedding Bells most interesting.

Consequently, having thanked Random House for allowing me to read this via Netgalley, I’d like to end by recommending it as an interesting read to those familiar with the original, whilst strongly encouraging the curious neophyte to go straight to the fons et origo of Jeeves and Wooster before returning to Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

2,339: Dedicated to.... by W.B. Gooderham

If you are looking for a quirky, attractive holiday gift for the bibliophile in your life, then Bantam Press (who very kindly sent me a review copy) have just the thing for you in W.B. Gooderham’s gorgeous, Dedicated to…, a collection of inscriptions found inside some of the second-hand books in his collection.

Mr Gooderham starts from the premise (with which I wholeheartedly concur) that books can be the most personal and effective of gifts.  He writes:

“The right book given to the right person at the right time can work wonders.  Spirits can be raised and horizons broadened; broken hearts can be mended, old flames rekindled, friendships reaffirmed.  A book can say Sorry, and Thank You.  A book can say I miss you, I love you, I forgive you; I never want to see you again.”

Personal inscriptions only add to the personal nature of books as gifts and, as Mr Gooderham points out display a deep sense of human connection, running the full gamut of human emotions and provoking curiosity about the situations that lie beneath these messages.

Physically, Dedicated to… is simply lovely.  As well as having a textured and beautifully decorated cover, the pages are photographs of the books from which the inscriptions are taken and the messages themselves, accompanied by transcripts where the handwriting is difficult, all printed on high quality paper stock.  If nothing else, the book looks stunning.

As for the contents?  Well, put simply, the whole kaleidoscope of life is written here, in message form.  Love, lust, hatred, family relationships, humour, pathos, hope and fear all manifest themselves as do relationships of all shapes and sizes - parental and filial love, new romances straight and gay, marriages and deep, longstanding loves.

There are puzzling choices, such as the individual who presented his love with a copy of 1984 and the message:

“This book was published in 1949, it was about the future 1984.  I have given it to you with love in 1994, the start of our future.”

One wonders what future he was anticipating with this gift.

And there is Hetty, who clearly had mother -daughter issues, presenting her mother with birthday gifts of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a tale of a Soviet prison camp, and Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (with a  cover quote, “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it…”).

There are men whose messages of love leave me in awe of their eloquence and precision, such as Tom, who inscribed a copy of The Arabian Nights thus:

To my dearest Sonia.  We’ve had our own 1,000 and 1 nights of marriage - more or less.  Three years already!  I still discover things about you I love each day, or rediscover: your constancy, your generosity, your sense of justice.  I count myself a happy man to have found you, and I hope it lasts as many years as we can count.  I love you, Tom.”

I could go on and on, sharing the many gems from this volume but that would be unfair to the author and to you so, I will leave things with a strong recommendation that you buy this book and one of last example from it - a father inscribing in a copy of a song book, entitled Bawdy Ballads and containing gems such as The Sexual Life of the Camel:

“Mum says it is disgusting: I say it may encourage you to learn the piano.  Mum & Dad, Xmas 1989”

Simply splendid.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

2,440: Chimera by David Wellington

A group of fugitives has escaped from a top secret New York State military facility.  Possessed of superhuman strength and speed and with hair-trigger tempers, the escapees have spread out across the USA, each targeting an apparently random and innocent individual for death.  Both the Department of Defence and the CIA are keen to see the escapees stopped.  So, who do they pick to sort out the mess?

Well, a one-armed man of course.

Jim Chapel lost his arm in Afghanistan where he was a special forces officer.  Now tied to a desk job but in possession of a state of the art electronic prosthesis, he is tasked with stopping the escapees and preventing the murders.   Up against the clock, Chapel begins his cross-country mission aided only by a reclusive computer whiz, known only as Angel, and a beautiful vetinarian whom he rescues from one of the fugitives.

Of course, what with this being a thriller and all that, things aren’t as they first appear and Chapel begins to uncover an extraordinary conspiracy in which no one can be trusted and which reaches to the highest levels.

Chimera, David Wellington’s first foray into thriller territory (he is the author of the Monster Island horror/sci-fi trilogy), contains elements of techno-thriller, political thriller and conspiracy thriller.  In summary, if you like a lot of action in your thrillers, you’ll probably enjoy it.  There’s plenty of pace, the violence is suitably graphic without being excessive and it’s liberally salted with cliffhangers and plot twists.  It’s a good, honest action thriller that does exactly what it says on the tin.  So, if this is your kind of thing, then you can hand over your hard-earned readies with confidence – there is a faint whiff of the formulaic but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing if the plot and action are interesting enough.

The central plot device (which, although heavily hinted at in the title, I will refrain from revealing) is slightly sci-fi but not so much as to stretch credibility and, if true, would be truly horrifying, which all adds to the plot tension.  Wellington has also created a nicely bizarre and creepy minor villain for Chapel to deal with, on top of the surface plot and the slowly revealed conspiracy.

Wellington says in an afterword to the book that he wrote Chimera in part to highlight the sacrifices American troops have made in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I wonder whether this laudable thought might have affected some of the characterisation as several of the leading characters, including Chapel himself, seem a little too much like tropes of thriller heroes and not quite human or fallible enough.  Whilst I wanted him to succeed in his mission, I can’t say I was particularly bothered about Chapel as an individual.

If I were being pernickety, I’d also say that the underlying reason for the conspiracy doesn’t really withstand too much thought – there are some fairly obvious internal contradictions between the problem that the conspiracy is supposed to address and the attempted solution.

Fortunately, Chimera is pacy enough and sufficiently gripping to overcome any weaknesses – subtitled “A Jim Chapel Mission” in a clear hint of more to come, I am sure that Wellington is going to win many more fans.  It probably won’t convert non-thriller lovers but it’s a sure-fire winner for fans of the genre.

I’d like to thank William Morrow, the HarperCollins imprint responsible for publishing Chimera, for kindly sending me a review copy, for which I am very grateful.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

2,441: Solo by William Boyd

William Boyd is the latest in a long line of writers to have accepted the challenge of writing a James Bond novel.  It’s a pretty tough challenge to take on, even though Ian Fleming wasn’t actually the greatest of novelists.  Jeffrey Deaver essentially rebooted 007 by bringing him into today’s world, Sebastian Faulks produced an oddly flat pastiche of Fleming’s writing and both John Gardner and Raymond Benson settled for a string of workman-like thrillers that kept Bond fans more or less happy but were never going to be publishing events.

Boyd is, like Deaver, a self-confessed Fleming aficionado but, I believe, has hit on the best way to add to the Fleming canon.  He has eschewed the opportunity to differentiate his Bond by moving him out of time or place and instead places him in 1969, just five years after the last Fleming novel.  However, by refusing to copy Fleming’s stylistic quirks, he has avoided the pitfalls of homage or pastiche and has, unsurprisingly given his talent, produced an excellent addition to the series.  It’s more a William Boyd James Bond novel than a James Bond novel written by William Boyd as Ian Fleming.

As the book opens, Bond is sitting down to dinner at the Dorchester, a solo celebration of his 45th birthday, during which he consumes a bottle of Taitinger Rosé and a bottle of Château Batailley 1959 and flirts with an attractive divorcée named Bryce Fitzjohn (Boyd is good on Flemingesque names).  The next day he takes a Jenson Interceptor sports car for a spin and engages in a spot of mild voyeurism.  So far, so Bond, although there is a subtly melancholic tone to the scene that persists through the book – Boyd’s Bond is more reflective than Fleming’s 007.

The action soon starts to pick up as M sends him off to Zanzarim, a fictional African country, rich in oil reserves and the scene of a vicious civil war – there are echoes of the Biafran War here.  Bond’s instructions are simple; he must prevent the rebels (supported by France) from succeeding (Britain and the US are backing the incumbent government).  Having liaised in every sense of the word with MI6’s woman on the ground, the splendidly named Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, he starts out for the rebel capital, armed only with a pack of toiletries, made for him by Q branch.  And from there, the plot only gets thicker, filled with action, betrayals, a healthy martini count and a classic Fleming villain, the facially disfigured mercenary, Kobus Breed.

Boyd was born in Africa and has set several of his books there, which shows in the vivid description and atmosphere of Zanzarim.  He also stays faithful to the factual background of the Bond mythos and, pleasingly, adopts the relatively gadget-free world of the novels rather than that of the films.

Where Boyd differs from Fleming is in the character of Bond.  The Bond of Solo is a decent man, a veteran of D-Day who is troubled by dreams from his past and has a distinctly introspective air.  Although there is still something of the womaniser in him, he lacks the misogyny and cruelty of Fleming’s Bond and even seems interested in the redecoration of his flat.

Fleming was prone to enter into lengthy descriptions of Bond’s food and drink consumption and Boyd is happy to follow suit, playing a little fast and loose with the iconic Bond martini and giving his Bond a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for scrambled eggs as well as a serious cigarette habit.

Towards the end of Solo, there is maybe a little too much reliance on exposition to tie up the loose ends of a fairly convoluted plot and Felix Leiter’s appearance feels somewhat forced and unnecessary but these are minor quibbles when set against the overall quality of the book.  A few critics have challenged whether Bond would ever really go rogue on a personal revenge mission but there is some precedent for this in the canon (the generally poor Licence to Kill) and it doesn’t feel out of character here.

Boyd has taken on 007 and come out pretty much on top.  It is, without doubt, one of the best post-Fleming offerings and an excellent addition to the canon.  I don’t suppose it will convert non-Bond fans but it certainly kept this fan-boy happy.

2,442: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

One doesn’t have to be Mystic Meg to make a decent fist of creating a publisher’s calendar for history books over the next few years.  Heading into next year, we will begin marking the centenaries of the events that shaped the 20th Century and that are amongst the most fascinating of modern history.  As well as the First World War, there will be major anniversaries of the Bolshevik Revolution, universal suffrage, the founding of many European countries, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, before we move into commemorating the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The main focus of the next four years, however, will inevitably be the First World War and, with almost a year remaining until August 1914, there is already a veritable slew of important and high quality books hitting the shelves.  As well as Sean McMeekin’s excellent July 1914, Christopher Clarke has produced The Sleepwalkers, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe is in the best-seller lists and Kate Adie and Richard Evans are amongst a number of writers who have authored books focusing on aspects of the War.

It’s hardly surprising really.  The First World War was, arguably, the most significant event of the 20th Century, causing a fundamental shift in the balance of power between Europe and the United States, helping bring Lenin to Power in Russia, destroying four empires (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans) and setting the scene for the rise of Fascism and Nazism.  Although it is an oversimplification to paint pre-1914 Europe as a kind of pre-lapsarian paradise, it is true to say that nothing would ever be the same again.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Great War is the fact that the great European powers appear to have walked almost blithely into war, without any real moral compulsion.  By comparison the causes of the Second World War are both clearer and more easily acceptable – it was much more obviously a Manichean struggle of good versus evil, whereas it is plausible to argue that none of the combatants in the First World War had a compelling moral ground for war.

Generally speaking, since the 1960s and the emergence of Fritz Fischer and the group of other German historians who argued that the War had indeed been planned by an aggressive Germany, the debate has been framed as a blame game.  It is a sign of the complexity of the issue that almost every major combatant has been accused of responsibility – McMeekin blames Russia (with a side-swipe at France), Clarke points the finger at Serbia, Max Hastings sides with Fischer in putting Germany in the frame whilst Niall Ferguson thinks that Britain was the guilty party.

Rather than picking a horse in this unedifying race, the excellent Margaret MacMillan comes at the issue from a different angle and poses the question – why did Europe choose war rather than peace in those fateful days in July 1914?

If this just seems like another way of asking who was to blame, look at it more as a question of why the political and diplomatic systems of Europe failed to address tensions without resorting to war.  For, as MacMillan concludes, war in 1914 ultimately boiled down to a failure of the politicians and diplomats both to resolve these tensions and to control the military men.

MacMillan is an excellent narrative historian (as amply demonstrated in Peacemakers, her book on the Paris Peace Conference, which is one of my favourite history books of all-time).  In The War that Ended Peace, she skilfully tells the story of Europe’s march to war, beginning with Germany’s doomed naval arms race with Great Britain.  Although never actually blaming Germany for the outbreak of war, MacMillan draws out the rare ability of the Kaiser and his successive Chancellors to achieve the precise opposite of their aims with truly incompetent diplomacy and statecraft.  As well as the arms race, this is most impressively shown in MacMillan’s description of the first Moroccan crisis in 1905.  Intended to drive a wedge between Britain and France during the infancy of the Entente Cordiale, Germany managed to draw the two powers more closely together, tacitly expanding the Entente to encompass military cooperation.

Another major causal factor was the failure by the European powers to see that the system of alliances that grew up during the 1900s effectively to replace the old Concert of Europe could be perceived by their opponents as threatening rather than as the purely defensive structures they were intended to be.  Professor MacMillan also highlights the truly astonishing extent to which those in power came to believe and accept that war was both inevitable and, for many of the military leaders, even desirable.

This might have been manageable if it were not for the fact that, having survived a number of crises (notably twice over Morocco and numerous times over the Balkans) without major conflict, civilian leaders assumed that their opponents would back away from the brink of the abyss and, in doing so, allowed militarism and the power of the military leaderships to grow.  When this combined with the inflexible military plans that Germany, amongst others, had adopted and the pressures imposed by mobilisation requirements, all that was needed was a spark to light the tinder.  This was fatefully provided by Gavrilo Princip and fanned by Germany’s blank cheque to Austria, the drive and fatalism of Austria’s von Hotzendorff and the refusal of the German general staff to contemplate mobilising against Russia alone rather than both Russia and France.  The final nail in Europe’s coffin was the decision by Germany to violate Belgium’s neutrality, thereby completing Britain’s hesitant entry into the conflict.

MacMillan repeatedly compares the political leaders in Europe unfavourably with the JFK of the Cuban Missile Crisis, pointing out that, at a similar crisis point, he had made choices that led to peace and not war.  Although there is little to credit the Europeans for, I find the continued comparison a little unfair – Kennedy was dealing with a single opponent in a relatively straightforward scenario.  By contrast, Europe contained five roughly comparable powers, with a range of mid-level players capable of having an impact and all of these had their own internal issues to deal with as well as the international issues (MacMillan also points out the nascent power of public opinion even in the more autocratic nations).  I would submit that the overall state of play was much more complex.

As well as being an excellent, balanced and highly readable account of the years leading up to the outbreak of war, The War that Ended Peace shifts the argument away from the usual blame game.  Although critical of the individual decisions of the nations and individuals concerned, MacMillan refrains from pointing the finger at one single country, saying:

“The most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace.

In the end, those choices led to war and to the death of 16 million people and a further 20 million casualties.  At the end of The War that Ended Peace, MacMillan summarises what happened to many of the key actors during this period.  It is depressing to read just how many of them ended their lives in peaceful retirement or without punishment or suffering.  It is equally chilling to read that Gavrilo Princip, the man whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the catalyst for war, felt and expressed absolutely no regret for what he had done.

I’d like to thank Random House for allowing me to read The War that Ended Peace via Netgalley.

Monday, October 7, 2013

2,443: An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

In 1894, an artillery officer in the French Army, Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, was accused of having passed secret military documents to Germany, court-martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.  His family claimed from the outset that an injustice had been done and that Dreyfus was innocent.

Despite being initially persuaded of Dreyfus’ guilt, Colonel Georges Picquart, a high-flying officer and newly appointed head of the Statistical Section, a secret military intelligence unit, gradually becomes convinced that the evidence against Dreyfus is unsafe.  Having instigated an investigation into a Major Walsin-Esterhazy, a dissolute officer, suspected of also having passed low-level secrets to the Germans, Picquart comes to believe that Walsin-Esterhazy is also guilty of the crime for which Dreyfus was convicted.

On bringing his case to his superiors and to the Minister of War, Picquart is ordered to cover up his findings.  He then enters a Kafkaesque labyrinth in which he is undermined, sidelined, transferred to Tunisia, discredited and, ultimately, framed himself as the Army uses the same combination of forged documents and perjured testimony that had been used to convict Dreyfus.

During this nightmare, Picquart manages to get his evidence and beliefs out to prominent anti-Dreyfusards such as Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, President of the Senate, Georges Clemenceau, a future French Prime Minister, and, most famously, Emile Zola, whose open letter to the French President and its opening line, “J’Accuse….!” has gone down in legend.

The resultant controversy split France in two, with conservatives opposing liberals, Catholics opposing secularists.  It divided families and broke friendships as well as causing anti-Semitic riots in twenty French cities and highlighting the depth and ferocity of anti-Semitism in France at the time.  At times it even appeared that the Third Republic might fall.

As for Dreyfus, after an open investigation, the French Supreme Court annulled his conviction and ordered a second court martial.  Zola was himself found guilty of a criminal libel for his writing at the affair, Walsin-Esterhazy was acquitted at a court martial and finally, and most incomprehensibly, Dreyfus was found guilty at his second court martial, although his sentence was commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.  Offered a presidential pardon, he accepted even though this meant accepting his guilt.  This left Picquart, awaiting his own court martial for forgery, defenceless and so he was dishonourably discharged from the Army.

There is a happy ending of sorts.  In 1906, eight years after being pardoned and Clemenceau having become Prime Minister, Dreyfus was fully exonerated and reinstated in the Army.  He fought in the First World War and retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel.  Picquart was similarly rehabilitated, reinstated and promoted to Brigadier-General, and appointed Minister of War in Clemenceau’s cabinet.

Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy is a fictionalised account of the Dreyfus Affair through the device of a supposedly secret memoir by Picquart and is a simply fantastic read.  Even though I was familiar with the story, I found it absolutely gripping and found myself holding my breath at points of high tension.  In particular, there are some stunning courtroom scenes.  After being disappointed with Harris’ last book, The Fear Index, I was delighted that this is a return to top form.

In his pair of novels centring on Cicero and the power struggles between Pompey and Caesar, Harris drew parallels with the Labour government of Tony Blair and, in An Officer and a Spy, he reprises the trick successfully.  The themes of governmental cover-up, “sexing up” dossiers and intelligence agencies operating their own agendas will all be familiar to any student of politics in the last decade or two and, on a broader note, the power of the press and public opinion – a relatively new phenomenon at the end of the 19th Century, major forces today.  It is also chilling to reflect upon the power of the security forces to destroy individuals and their reputations and the amorality with which they can use this power.

Even accepting that the Dreyfus Affair took place during one of the periods of history in which I am most interested and that I am an unabashed Robert Harris fan, this is one of my favourite reads of the year so far (and we are not that far from year end!) and I unhesitatingly recommend it.  It’s an extraordinary story which, were it pure fiction would be unbelievable, and it is fictionalised brilliantly.

I was allowed to read An Officer and a Spy via Netgalley by Hutchinson and Cornerstone, imprints of Random House, for which I am very grateful.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

2,444: The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster’s Wager, Vincent Lam’s debut novel, is set in Cholon, a small market town outside Saigon with a substantial ethnic Chinese population.  One of the most prominent members of this community is Percival Chen (or Chen Pie Sou), the owner and headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy.  Percival is convinced of the superiority of the Chinese and fixated on the preservation of his heritage and objects strongly when his son, Dai Jai is seen consorting with an Annamese (Vietnamese) girl.

Unfortunately, for all concerned, Dai Jin decides to demonstrate his Chinese patriotism to his father by staging an act of disobedience that comes to the attention of the Vietnamese authorities.  Chen, assisted by his mysterious assistant Mr Mak, decides to get Dai Jai out of the country and back to China in order to keep him alive.  More unfortunately, this results in Percival incurring massive debt (including to his ex-wife, Cecilia, whose maternal instincts do not cloud her materialism).  Most unfortunately, the year is 1966 and Chen ends up sending his son into the maw of the Cultural Revolution, maybe not the best place for the son of a successful businessman.

Lam’s story is epic in nature, telling a family saga that stretches from early 20th Century China, from where Chen’s father, like so many Chinese, emigrates to seek “the Golden Mountain”, to the fall of Saigon in 1975.  It tells Chen’s story by mixing flashbacks to Chen’s early life with the central plotline, combining elements of political thriller and romance.

Chen is, essentially, a survivor, prospering through the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong where he has been sent to school, the French occupation of Indo-China and the Vietnam War, first as a rice merchant and latterly as headmaster.  Cash is his king and he believes that business and political neutrality will help him and his family and employees survive whatever the ruling regime may be.

This belief, aided and abetted by his racism and almost wilful blindness to what is going on around him eventually prove to be one of the two causes of his downfall as the power of money is ultimately trumped by the ideology of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army and he is deprived of Mak, his secretive long-time friend and protector.

His other major problem is his breathtaking hypocrisy.  On the outside, Chen is a figure of propriety, a prominent local businessman and member of the community, wielding influence through a combination of contacts and liberal use of the red envelopes of cash that he uses to grease the wheels of his life (with the help of Mak).  At night, however, he is a compulsive (and impulsive) gambler and whore-monger who is a regular in the fleshpots of Cholon.  Even the wager of the book’s title is an example of his hypocrisy as he wins the “affections” of Jacqueline, a métisse (or mixed-race) prostitute in a game of mah-jong.  This turns into a long-term relationship that challenges his racial superiority complex.

Themes of betrayal and duplicity abound throughout The Headmaster’s Wager with characters turning out not to be who they claim to be (although Mak’s true identity is pretty well telegraphed).  I can’t help seeing the central theme, however, as being the lengths that people will go to to survive and protect their families and dependants in turbulent and violent times.  Compromise and corruption are endemic and the ending suggests that staying neutral in the face of warring forces is not always a viable option.

Lam writes well and creates a compelling and believable portrait of Vietnam; I could almost smell, feel and taste the atmosphere – the mah-jong scene in which Chen wins Jacqueline, the Tet banquet and a particularly nasty torture sequence stand out.  His plotting and structuring are also excellent and the panoramic sweep of his story makes for a meaty, page-turning read.  It’s a very good book indeed.

The one thing that stops me from being even more gushing, though, is Percival Chen himself.  Although blessed with love for his family and real generosity to his employees, Chen’s self-satisfied sense of superiority and awful naiveté lead to a frustrating level of passivity; he is constantly being prodded into action or told what to do by Cecilia, Jacqueline and Mak in particular and only his impulses bring any pro-activity out of him.  Of course, this of itself isn’t necessarily an issue but the lack of change and growth in Chen makes him an increasingly unsympathetic individual and, although as I say, I enjoyed The Headmaster’s Wager a lot, I found myself almost completely indifferent to Percival’s own fate by the end of the novel.

I would like to finish by thanking Crown Publishing, under whose Hogarth imprint, The Headmaster’s Wager, for sending me a review copy.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

2,445: The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi (A Burton & Swinburne Adventure) by Mark Hodder

I need to make two qualifications to this review.  Firstly, I haven’t read any of the previous three Burton & Swinburne novels.  This may have left me at a disadvantage.  Knowing that there had been three previous adventures in the series meant that I was thrown slightly by Burton apparently meeting Swinburne for the first time in what is the fourth in the series.  I also suspect that The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is much better read as a continuation of the series than as a stand-alone novel – in fact, I have a nagging feeling that I may have missed all sorts of points.

Secondly, I’m not much of a steampunk fan.  I love Michael Moorcock and his forays into the genre but, although steampunk should, in theory, appeal to my tastes, in practice I’ve found it difficult to get into.  Again, this may be because I’ve been trying the wrong books or because my expectations of the genre are too great but I came to The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi with an odd mixture of hope and apprehension.

The backdrop to The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is an alternate Victorian England in which, inter alia, Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840, Germany became unified in the 1850s (rather than following the Franco-Prussian war), Richard Burton received the credit he was due for having discovered the source of the Nile (with Speke dying and not beating him back to England) and technological marvels such as airships, rotorchairs and primitive computers and robots are part of life.

The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi opens with Burton returning by airship from Africa suffering from malaria and a kind of breakdown as well as having to deal with the ritualistic murder of one of his companions.  Once back in London, he is knighted, reunited with his fiancée, Isabelle, and appointed king’s agent (with Victoria having been assassinated, George V is the reigning monarch).  A number of prominent scientists and other personages including Charles Babbage and Florence Nightingale have disappeared and Burton’s mission is to find out what has happened to them.  He is also made party to the stunning secret that, since Victoria’s death, the British government has been receiving advice from a spirit, Abdu El-Yezdi, who has masterminded Britain’s renaissance and is working to bring about a rapprochement between Britain and Germany.  Unfortunately, Abdu El-Yezdi has disappeared too, adding another complexity to Burton’s mission.

Revealing any more of the plot would almost certainly risk detracting from one’s enjoyment of the book, save to say that a complicated plot unwinds thereafter culminating in some heavy action and a major twist at the end.

Hodder crams his story full of literary allusions including references to Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein and Dracula.  The latter in particular is almost a sub-text in itself, with a young Bram Stoker appearing as Burton’s valet and the plot itself involving a nosferatu (a type of vampire) in a foreshadowing of the yet to be written Dracula.

Similarly, The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is a grab-bag of 19th Century historical figures, both major and minor.  As many of them are portrayed differently from their real characters, Hodder provides a handy and lengthy dramatis personae section at the end.  I’d advise leaving this to the end rather than dipping into as the book progresses to avoid spoiling the surprises.

As all this may be suggesting, Hodder’s greatest strength lies in his intricate world-building and playful subversion of history.  His Victorian London has a real steampunk vibe and combines more or less accurate historical nuggets with manipulations of other events, both in fact and time.  This is where my lack of familiarity of his previous Burton & Swinburne novels may have limited my enjoyment of The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi as I had a sense that many of the events referenced back to the earlier books – references I clearly didn’t get.

Unfortunately, the book is so heavily driven by the plot (and Hodder’s numerous sub-plots, which were well-organised and didn’t confuse the main storyline) and the world-building that the characterisations and writing style have been neglected.  Although the contrasts in Burton and Swinburne’s personalities made for an interesting relationship, the characters in general were a little flat and, in particular, the few female characters seemed curiously formless.  Likewise, the writing style was a little lifeless and functioned only to move the plot forward.  Fortunately, the plot and Hodder’s world are interesting enough for this not to matter too much.

I found The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi quite difficult to get into, which may be the result of my ambivalent attitude to steampunk, and I almost gave up after the first third.  I’m glad I persevered though as the pace picked up, I got my head round the timeline and it just got a whole lot better.
If you are a fan of Hodder’s other books, I’m sure you’ll love this, as will steampunk fans, Victorian history and literature lovers and aficionados of the esoteric.  I’m not sure others will appreciate it so much and I’d very much recommend having read the first three of the series before this one.

Thank you to the publishers, Ebury, for allowing me to read The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi through Netgalley.

Friday, September 20, 2013

2,446: The Pimp by Giorgio Faletti

“I’m Bravo.  And I don’t have a dick.”

I was pretty much pre-disposed to enjoy Giorgio Faletti’s The Pimp (A Pimp’s Notes in America) as soon as I read the opening line and I’m glad to say that my pre-disposition was borne out by what followed.

Giorgio Faletti is a well-known Italian comedian and actor who has also written seven novels, of which four have been translated into English.  The Pimp, the most recent of these four, is set in Milan in the late 1970s, at the same time as the kidnapping of the former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, the period when Faletti was a regular at the Derby, a leading Milan cabaret.

The titular character, Bravo, is indeed a man who makes his living from procuring women for his clients.  He took up his less than salubrious profession after his own manhood was sliced off with a razor by the minions of a Mafia boss whose girlfriend Bravo had foolishly slept with.  His life is relatively straightforward, if sleazy and soul-deadening, until a party for which he has supplied the female company is targeted by assassins who murder all those present.  From that moment, Bravo finds himself at the centre of a complex plot that results in him being hunted by the Red Brigades, the police and the Mafia.

The story is told from Bravo’s perspective and in a kind of Euro-Chandleresque voice, combining noir with a penchant for world-weary semi-philosophising, all of which works well unless you pause a moment too long to ponder the meaning of some of his sayings.  Fortunately, the plot is engaging, satisfyingly complex and carries the reader forward.

Having said that the plot is complex, it is important to point out that this does not mean convoluted; Faletti creates a spider’s web of seemingly unconnected facts and happenings and manages to weave them together in a way that both maintains the suspense whilst being very clear in its workings.  There isn’t a moment where you feel confused as to what’s happening but, equally, the pay-off of the denouement is worth it.  Faletti’s other real knack is of planting small and seemingly unimportant nuggets in the narrative that end up becoming surprisingly significant, often in unexpected ways, which adds an extra layer to the enjoyability of The Pimp.

The ending of The Pimp has a little too much neat coincidence for my personal taste but there is much to admire in this book, including a surprisingly emotional and reflective undercurrent in Bravo’s character.  Ultimately, The Pimp is a superior thriller, blending a noir feel and a demi-monde setting with Italian politics.

I’d like to thank Constable & Robinson (whose crime list is absolutely first-rate) for sending me a copy of The Pimp for review.

Monday, September 16, 2013

2,447: Stalin's General by Geoffrey Roberts

For the British (and, possibly, American) reader, there’s a section in Armageddon, Max Hastings’ masterful account of the last year or so of WW2 in Europe, where the author contemptuously dismisses the military qualities of almost all of the leading British and American generals of the time.  Indeed, pretty much only Eisenhower, Montgomery and Patton emerge with even faint praise, although even this is tempered with much criticism.  Counterpointed with his comments on the superiority of the German armed forces, it comes as no surprise that Hastings points to the Red Army as the real victors of the land war in Europe.  In summary, he believes that the Soviets supplied the blood, the Americans the equipment and the British contribution was to hold out in 1940.

Given all of this, and that for most of the War, Georgy Zhukov was the Soviet Union’s leading professional soldier, it is arguable that Zhukov was the general most responsible for the ultimate defeat of Germany in 1945.  Present at pretty much all of the most significant battles on the Eastern Front (including the siege of Leningrad and the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk), Zhukov’s forces won the race to Berlin and it was troops under his command who placed the red flag atop the Reichstag building.  Named Deputy Supreme Commander, Stalin permitted Zhukov the honour of taking the victory parade in Red Square, sitting astride a white charger.

And yet, within a year of this zenith, he was in disgrace and banished by Stalin to a military backwater until Stalin’s death and his rehabilitation by Khruschev which culminated in his appointment as Minister for Defence, followed almost inevitably by further disgrace and dismissal.  Suffering the reputational trashing that followed, Zhukov lapsed into obscurity until the replacement of Khruschev by Brezhnev gave him the opportunity to reclaim his reputation and to write a self-serving autobiography before dying in 1974.  Since then, his iconic status has remained untouched and, in 1995, a statue of Zhukov on the famous white stallion was erected in Red Square itself.

In totalitarian regimes such as the old Soviet Union, history becomes a political tool of the regime and it can be difficult to know where truth lies.  This is doubly so in Zhukov’s case with his rises and falls from grace and his sometimes unreliable memoirs.

It is, therefore, welcome that Geoffrey Roberts, given access to previously unpublished Russian archive material, has written a new biography, seeking to readdress Zhukov’s position in Soviet history and to give a more accurate portrayal of the man.

In many ways, Zhukov was a prototypical Soviet success story, the child of a proletarian family who climbed to the very top of Soviet society through a mixture of talent, hard work, luck and political reliability.  A dedicated communist, he was a brilliant offensive general, skilled in the use of deception as a tactic and Stalin’s favourite general, given a latitude not extended to other generals and used almost as a troubleshooter, being sent off to any major situation.

The flip side was that he was arrogant and keen to make certain that he received full credit for his successes - traits that led directly to both his falls from grace and ensured that there was no shortage of rivals and colleagues ready to criticise him and trample on his reputation at the right time.

Zhukov could also be fairly accused of taking a cavalier attitude towards the lives of the men under his command and of only being concerned with body counts to the extent they impacted on the effectiveness of his forces.  He could also be a bully and appeared to take a tolerant view of the campaign of rape that the Red Army waged across Germany in 1945.  Another criticism is that his impact on Soviet military doctrine and theory was limited - a criticism I find slightly unfair.  After all, the mark of a wartime general lies in his victories and, in this, Zhukov was unsurpassed in WW2 and ranks alongside any Russian or Soviet military leader of any period.

Roberts does not shy away from these criticisms and also exposes the lies and exaggerations that Zhukov makes in his memoirs in defence of his reputation.  Yet, despite his stated intention of writing a critical biography, it is clear that Roberts is positively disposed to Zhukov and, where differences of opinion arise, tends to give Zhukov the benefit of the doubt.  One should not forget, however, that Zhukov for all his positive qualities and his relative independence from Stalin was a committed communist and follower of Stalin whose last action as a military leader was to mastermind the uncompromising suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Stalin’s General does an excellent job of retelling Zhukov’s life story and setting it in its true historical context.  Roberts also succeeds in reconciling the competing claims for credit made by leading figures such as Stalin, Khruschev, Konev and Rokossovsky.

What it doesn’t quiet manage to do, however, is to give much insight into the personal life or the mind of Zhukov.  Roberts does make some attempt to do this and we do learn about his somewhat complicated love life - four children, two wives and a long term lover - but at the end, he is still something of a mystery as a human being.  Given the exigencies of Soviet politics and history and the inadvisability of writing down unedited thoughts, it is, of course, possible that Roberts has done as much as will ever be possible along these lines.

Roberts rates Zhukov as top of a kind of military geeky league table of Soviet and Russian generals and, whilst it is probably impossible to make definitive judgements across time, it is certain that, in Zhukov’s sometimes brutal but effective manner, the Soviet Union got the general it needed to win the long drawn out existential battle that was the Eastern Front.

Stalin’s General is an interesting and necessary biography of one of the most significant figures of WW2 and a “must read” to anyone interested in this period or, more generally, in Russian history.  Whether it becomes the definitive biography probably depends upon whether there is any as-yet undiscovered archival material out there that could shed more light on the inner Zhukov.

I’d like to thank Random House for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

2,448: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

It’s been billed as “the only thriller you need to read this year” and, ignoring the issue of where the emphasis should rest in that statement, it’s a pretty big and ballsy claim, especially when backed up with a big publicity campaign and some pretty decent word of mouth.  So, does I Am Pilgrim live up to it.

Well, not quite, although that’s not to say that it isn’t a good read.  It’s just that it’s not so much better than other thrillers I’ve read this year that it quite warrants the hyperbole.

I don’t particularly want to say a huge amount about the plot as, firstly, it’s pretty convoluted and so any synopsis will either not do it justice or will be too confusing to be of any value.  Secondly, I did like the way the author develops the plot from a really skilful opening scene onwards - although certain passages of the book can appear a bit standard thrillerish, the overall story arc is not so predictable.

So, I’ll just restrict myself to saying that the book opens in a down-market New York hotel room where the NYPD have discovered a young woman gruesomely murdered and disposed of in a bath of acid.  All forensic evidence in the room has been removed or destroyed.  It looks like the perfect murder, a fact that disturbs a civilian observer of the scene.  Why?  Because he has, quite literally, written the book on how to commit the perfect murder.

Intrigued?  Well, from this beginning the reader is taken on a breakneck-paced journey which takes in three continents, several more countries, over thirty years of history and at least three sub-plots, all whilst jumping from action scene to puzzle-solving and from the hero’s point of view to the villain’s perspective stuff.  It’s heady, adrenaline-pumping stuff and, given that the book runs to around 700 pages, it’s credit to the author that it never drags or sags.

The author, Terry Hayes, is actually a Hollywood screenwriter (I Am Pilgrim is his debut novel) so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that his command of action is so good or that I Am Pilgrim has an action film flavour to it as his credits include Mad Max 2 and Payback.

Although Hayes occasionally dips into the bag of thriller clichés - there are a few stock thriller character types and some of the main characters are given butch sounding nicknames - on the whole the plotting and the characters are believable and capable of holding the reader’s attention.  I would point out that the ethical systems and decision-making of some of the main characters including, notably, Pilgrim himself, the book’s hero, inhabit the grey areas of life and some readers who prefer a less utilitarian outlook from their action heroes may find Pilgrim unsympathetic.

Personally, after getting used to it, I found Pilgrim’s way of thinking rather refreshing, especially as it came as part of a conflicted and morally troubled character package that made him a more original and interesting protagonist and the ways in which Pilgrim and his antagonist, Saracen, had developed from their troubled childhoods formed a nice contrast and sub-theme.

I’m not sure if there’s a particular message to be gleaned from I Am Pilgrim but there seemed to be a clear undertone that America has a right to deal with its perceived enemies in whatever way it thinks fit which might have been offputting had it not been for the fact that it also seemed to be pointing at Pilgrim and saying,” and this is what can happen to those caught up in our fight against our enemies.”

Look, the bottom line with I Am Pilgrim is that it’s a high octane thriller with an excellent plot, some well-developed characters and enough originality to lift it well above most of its competitors.  It had me sitting up late at night and eating my lunch away from my desk as it was so gripping and that’s got to be a good thing.

The only thriller you need to read this year? No, but it’s definitely a thriller you should read this year.

I'd like to thank Transworld for allowing me to read I Am Pilgrim through Netgalley.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

2,449: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen

There are two ironies in the very title of Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.  The first and more obvious irony is that, for most Soviet citizens during much of the Soviet period, the culinary art that needed to be mastered most was the art of obtaining food.  The second irony, which can only be grasped by anyone who reads this marvellous book, is that cooking is really just a thread onto which she strings a family memoir and a history of the Soviet Union like jewels on a necklace.

The book’s framework is the recreation by von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa (the true hero of the book) of a representative meal from each decade of the Soviet period, commencing with a celebratory end of era Romanov meal.  Onto this skeleton, she then weaves the story of her extraordinary family together with a more general history of the Soviet Union and a more detailed analysis of the food and cooking of each decade.

I will confess that, with both food and Russian history being particular interests of mine, von Bremzen would have struggled to lose my interest but there was never any danger of that occurring given the quality of her storytelling.

It helps that the two branches of her family contain a wonderfully eclectic mix of characters from Larisa, who appears to have been a natural born dissident to her grandfather Naum, a senior Soviet intelligence officer throughout the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as it’s known in Russia) and from her father, Sergei, an unreliable spouse who at one time was responsible for monitoring the colour of Lenin’s embalmed corpse to her great great grandmother Anna Aleevna, a fiery idealist who fought for women’s rights in Turkestan in the early days of the Soviet Union but who ended her life broken and disowned in Siberia, having been sent to the gulag by Stalin.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking reads like a Tolstoyan family epic, sweeping across time and geography and tracing out the lives of the vivid individuals who make and made up the author’s extended family.  Her family story takes us from the Caucasus to the Ukraine to meet some of her Jewish relatives and their heritage and from her various family homes in Moscow to the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.

There’s also something telescopic about the way that Von Bremzen combines this panoramic story with intimate and detailed family stories such as the story of how Larisa lost the ration book during the Second World War – an event that usually spelt starvation and death for the family concerned – and learnt how to deal in the black market or the incredible story of Naum’s narrow escape from arrest during one of Stalin’s purges.

And as for the food, given that this is styled “a memoir of food and longing”?  Well, von Bremzen makes it clear from the beginning that this is no trawl through high gastronomy by pointing out, ““besides sosiski [Soviet hot dog sausages] with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for desert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.”

Instead, the central food-related themes are those of the struggle to obtain food: the rationing, the queuing, the failures of central planning, the Krushchevian obsession with corn, the near starvation of the Yeltsin years and the actual starvation in the Ukraine following collectivisation.  It’s the impact of Soviet totalitarianism on even the basic social structures of eating with the communal apartments and shared kitchens and the public canteens.

I think that the use of food as the central thread by the author is beautifully appropriate, given the importance that obtaining enough to eat assumed for most Soviets.  But von Bremzen goes further, linking individual Soviet leaders to particular foodstuffs and drawing from this parallels with their leadership.  So, we have Stalin’s championing of Soviet “champagne”, an ersatz product that was designed to demonstrate abundance and that Soviet quality of life was high – when the reality was one of fear, shortage and lack of quality.  Khrushchev is, inevitably, associated with corn and his failed attempt to use it as a miracle grain to solve the problem of poor harvests.  Like Khrushchev himself, it was doomed to failure.

In many ways, food embodies some of the key historical themes of the Soviet Union – from the brutal farm collectivisations and requisitioning of Lenin’s times, to the rationing and hunger of the Second World War and from the failures of the Khruschev years to provide the consumer goods to Russians that were becoming ubiquitous in the US to the quixotic and disastrous anti-alcohol policies of Gorbachev that would contribute to his unpopularity in the Soviet Union and its ultimate demise.

Stalin looms large over proceedings in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and I find it interesting that, no matter from what angle one views the Soviet Union, the vozhd becomes the dominant presence, even more so that Lenin himself.  One of my favourite stories in the book is of Stalin sending his faithful sidekick Anastas Mikoyan to the US to investigate what the American s are eating and how he comes back to introduce the hamburger (sans bun) and ice cream to the Soviet people.  It’s an almost picaresque story that I found reminiscent of the episode in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son where a North Korean delegation makes a trip to meet a US senator at this ranch in Texas.  The story itself is good but, as with all the stories in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Von Bremzen tells it well.

Since her move to America, von Bremzen has carved out a successful career as a food writer and has won two James Beard awards for previous books.  She deserves to win further accolades for this one.

I’d like to thank Crown Publishers for sending me a review copy of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

2,450: The Gilded Edge by Danny Miller

The Gilded Edge is Danny Miller’s second novel featuring Metropolitan Police detective Vince Treadwell but the first I’ve read.  In truth, I probably would never have come across it but for its publisher, Constable & Robinson kindly sending me a review copy, for which I’m terribly grateful, both for the fact that I enjoy receiving books for review and for the fact that it’s simply an excellent crime novel.

Set in pre-summer of love (but after the year sex began according to Larkin), events in The Gilded Edge take place in a London that is dark, edgy and bubbling with social revolution.  Two separate murders take place on the same night but in very different circumstances.  Jonny Beresford, aristocrat, investment banker and socialite gambler, has been found shot in the basement of his Belgravia residence, surrounded by empty champagne and hash.  A few miles away, in downmarket Notting Hill, a black nurse is found in the hall of her block of flats with the back of her head bashed in by a frenzied hammer attack and her young daughter hiding under a bed upstairs.

Although the murders initially seem unconnected, Vince’s investigations begin to uncover connections between the two and, defying pressure from his bosses, he starts digging into the affairs of a group of wealthy and connected members of the Montcler Club, a Mayfair gaming club and, in parallel, the affairs of a Jamaican gang and its boss, a wannabe Malcolm X.

As well as being tightly plotted and peopled with vivid yet believable characters, Miller’s strength lies in his descriptive ability - the violence feels real, the brothels seedy and his sense of place and time is immaculate.  I’ve thought for a long time that there are certain authors who can convey a true sense of understanding and feeling for a specific place and, when it comes to London Miller seems to be one of those writers - like Dickens, China Miéville, Christopher Fowler and Peter Ackroyd.  The Gilded Edge simply oozes with London atmosphere.

Miller’s version of ‘60s London is a wonderful swirling kaleidoscope of violence, sleaze, corruption and poverty contrasting with wealth, sophistication, colour and the explosion of creativity and hedonism that marked the birth of the Swinging Sixties.  We meet the aristocrats “roughing it” for fun, the working class looking to move on up, the West Indian immigrants adopting a political consciousness from the USA, the Soho and East London gangsters and the grand clash and cross-fertilisation of British sub-cultures that came about from the breakdown of traditional boundaries.  Miller does brilliant job of capturing all of this, resulting in a densely packed novel.

Vince Treadwell, Miler’s hero, is one of those working class young men on the rise.  He wears sharp suits, mixes happily with the toffs, is a bit “handy” and has a moderately rebellious and independent streak about him.  All of this makes him an appealing and interesting protagonist, especially when the narration is as sardonic and blunt as Miller’s.

Miller clearly has a real knowledge of the period and uses this liberally in the book.  In particular, the Montcler Club and some of the central characters in the book are closely based on the Clermont Club (do you see what he did there?), notorious for having Lord Lucan as one of its leading lights.  Lucky himself is one of the main characters in The Gilded Edge and Miller doesn’t paint a pretty picture of him.  Another of the characters, Jimmy Asper is a clear analogue for John Aspinall, the owner of the Clermont, right down to the interest in wildlife and the private zoo.  The late Lord Goldsmith also has a starring role as financier Simon Goldsachs (spot the double play on words in his surname).  Although spotting the references was fun, the thinness of some of the disguises began to get a little in the way of the plot.  This is a minor gripe, however, and I loved the cameo roles Miller gave to people like Brian Jones and Billy Hill.

Although it’s not perfect (there’s a couple of minor anachronisms), this is a damn fine thriller that deserves to sell by the bucketful (and, frankly, is screaming out to be made into a film by Guy Ritchie!).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Top Fifty Children's Books - The Final Instalment

Well, we’re now at the end of my fifty favourite childhood books and thank you very much if you’ve persevered with me over the course of these five posts.  The Falaise family arrived back from our French sojourn on Friday night and, once mini-Falaise’s birthday and first day of school are done with next week, we’ll be saying farewell to what has been a pretty fine summer and looking forward to the joys of autumn and winter – Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and then Christmas.  All of which should mean I’ll be able to post more frequently and regularly from now on – and maybe even catch up with some of my massive backlog of reviews.

Anyway, back to the task in hand…… are numbers 41-50 in my list.

41.          The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz.  Like a couple of others on this list, this isn’t exactly a children’s book but it does seem to be a book that children enjoy – indeed, when we were looking around a prospective school for mini-Falaise last year, the headmaster was just starting to read it with some of the pupils.  It’s the story of how the author, a Polish army lieutenant, had escaped from a Soviet POW camp in 1941 and escaped to India across the Gobi desert.  I loved this book as a child and I hate to have to break this to anyone else who loved it that, according to Soviet archival material, the story is untrue.

42.          The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams.  Apart from the fact that this story is indubitably true, this book falls into the same category as The Long Walk and tells the story of the Allied escape attempt from Stalag Luft III in WWII, using a tunnel dug under a wooden gym horse.  It’s exciting stuff.

43.          The Dribblesome Teapot and Other Incredible Stories by Norman Hunter.  I’d quite forgotten about this until I did some internet memory-jogging for this list.  It’s basically a collection of ten pretty eccentric tales with kings and queens and countries called things like Kumdown Upwardz and Urgburg under Ug and it’s great fun.

44.          Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden.  This is a classic children’s novel about Carrie, a young girl evacuated to Wales with her brother in WWII and the strange families they end up living with.  It’s really quite dark and mysterious.

45.          The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  One of the great retellings of the story of King Arthur.  I recall that I much preferred the Sword in the Stone, the first of the four books that make up this cycle.

46.          The Adventures of Robin Hood by either Richard Green or Roger Lancelyn Green.  I can’t remember the author of my childhood copy of this and the internet credits both Greens with having written a version so I’ll hedge my bets.  In any event, the Robin Hood story remains a classic and I lapped it up as a child.

47.          Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr.  In writing this list, I’ve been
intrigued that so many of the books I read in the ‘70s and very early ‘80s had actually been written decades previously – and not just the obvious ‘classics’.  This collection of stories was written in the ‘50s and remains fresh today.  I’m looking forward to reading this one with mini-Falaise soon.

48.          Asterix and the Olympic Games by Goscinny and Uderzo.  I was in two minds whether to include this as I’m a huge Asterix (and Tintin) fan and get irrationally annoyed when they are dismissed as children’s comic strips because the humour is so clever.  Anyway, as a child, my parents disapproved of comics and so I wasn’t allowed Asterix.  But, one day, my mother and I were in WH Smith in Stevenage (I led a glamorous life) and I saw this in a black and white paperback novel-sized format.  I showed to Mama Falaise who, failing to inspect the inside of the book, assumed it was a written version of Asterix and allowed me to buy it.  Result!  How I cherished that book.  The coda to this is that, later, my parents relented and finally allowed me to buy Asterix………in French.

49.          Chikdren’s versions of the Odyssey and Iliad.  I don’t know who adapted the Originals but I had abridged and adapted versions of both these and absolutely loved them.  As with Roger Lancelyn Green’s books, they instilled a love for myth and legend that persists today and probably also contributed to my enjoyment of fantasy and even sci-fi.  It also proved a precursor for my education as I ended up reading both in the original Greek as part of my Greek A-level work.

50.          A Book Whose Name I’ve Forgotten.  The plot of this book revolves around a schoolboy who discovers that there is a secret criminal society made up of some of the girls in his school and that only he can save the school from them.  It was a great book that I borrowed from the local library many times.  The thing is that I can’t remember either the title or the author and, try as I might, I can’t track them down on line.  If anyone recognises this, please, please let me know as it is really bugging me.

And there we have it – my 50 favourite childhood books.  I’m sure I’ve left out loads that I’ve forgotten and that I’ll probably remember as soon as I press the publish button but it’s a pretty solid list and I’ve enjoyed the trip down memory lane while writing these posts.