Wednesday, July 31, 2013

2,453: The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth

Way back when I was a lad (and, given my age, we are talking waaaay baaaack here), a new Frederick Forsyth book was a major publishing event.  During the ‘70s and ‘80s, he released a string of thrillers that were genuine blockbusters.  In particular, his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, I would submit, stands up well to almost any other thriller in the quality stakes (and is also a rare example of the film being of equal quality).  Its follow-ups, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil’s Alternative and The Fourth Protocol were also both exciting, convincing and truly well-written.

Now I don’t know whether it was due to my changing tastes, whether the quality of his subsequent books fell off or whether the genre or, indeed, the world moved on but all his books since then have passed my consciousness by.  So when I saw The Kill List on Netgalley (and I’m grateful to Random House UK for allowing me access to it), I got slightly intrigued and thought I’d give it a try to see how I liked his more recent efforts.

And, to tell the truth, I liked it quite a bit.  I can’t say that it was life-changing or even that it will live long in my literary memory but, as light entertainment, it worked for me and I found myself picking it up in every spare moment to find out what happened next which, I suspect, is a fairly good benchmark for a thriller.

The basic premise is quite straightforward.  A spate of random suicide attacks by Muslims in the US and the UK targets prominent local citizens.  The common link between the otherwise unconnected killings is that each of the killers was a follower of a shadowy online preacher of jihad.  The Preacher (for that is the nickname given to him) soon rockets up the Kill List - the top secret list of public enemies in the US - and the order goes out from the top………….find him and kill him.

Forsyth likes using sonorous nicknames for his protagonists and the US Marine turned intelligence chief tasked with the mission is known as the Tracker.  Helped by an unlikely ally, the Tracker scrambles to unmask the terrorist and bring him down.

It’s all good, high-octane stuff and Forsyth dives into it with relish.  One of his main techniques, derived, I suspect from his background as a reporter, is to root his stories in a factual background and to use real-world figures and events to add credibility to the narrative.  Indeed, the skill with which he used this trick in The Day of the Jackal made it easy almost to believe that the events he described actually happened.  He uses the trick to good effect again in The Kill List, although its plot is inherently less plausible.

Another key Forsyth trait is the way he plays the “Brit” card.  Although, in the real world our importance has declined both in absolute terms and in terms of the security relationship with the US, Forsyth likes to play up the “special relationship” and he does so again here, giving a key role to a secret British special forces’ unit.

The film rights to the book have been snapped up and Rupert Sanders (he of Snow White and the Huntsman) has already signed on as director and I can see why - there is a real cinematic feel to the narrative and the character of the Tracker seems almost custom-made for an old school Hollywood action hero.
Look, The Kill List does exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s thrilling and action-packed, has Forsyth’s style stamped right through it and is hard-edged enough without being too gruesome or explicit for the action thriller market.  If that genre is in your wheelhouse, you’ll enjoy it; if not, you probably won’t.

Me?  I did and it has put Forsyth back into my consciousness to the extent that I will over the next few months check out some of his post-Fourth Protocol works for a spot of undemanding entertainment.  It doesn’t match up to his earliest work but, let’s face it, that set a high bar.  It is, however, good value for a few hours of escapist fun and excitement and there’s nothing wrong in that. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: In The Beginning And At The Very End

It’s Top Ten Tuesday (brought to you by the Broke and the Bookish) and, although I’ve already done one post today - read it here - as today’s topic is a favourite of mine, I decided to crank out another.

The topic is beginnings and endings and so I’m doing five of each - five of my personal favourite opening lines and five fantastic closing lines.  What is interesting is that several of the books here - 1984, A Tale of Two Cities to name but two - could have been included both for their opening and closing lines.  In the interests of variety, however, I decided only to include one from each.  So, anyway, here we go……

Opening lines

1.         It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  George Orwell, 1984

2.         It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

3.         The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between

4.         All children, except one, grow up.  J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

5.         In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Closing lines

6.         So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

7.         The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from
            pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.  George
            Orwell, Animal Farm

8.         But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that
            enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be
            playing.  A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

9.         He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.  Richard Adams, Watership Down

10.       Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.  Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

2,454: The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison

Despite it not being set in Paris, and despite it only just being still July, I’m submitting The Whole Fromage as my final Paris in July (run by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea) offering as, firstly, it’s a fascinating book and, secondly, it positively drips (or, as it’s about cheese, possibly oozes) Frenchness.

The author, Kathe Lison, is a Wisconsin-born cheese lover who decided to travel around France to try and understand its cheese obsession better.  After all, in a country with somewhere between 350-400 recognised types of cheese, this leaves plenty of scope for discovery.  Now, of course, covering even a small proportion of these cheeses would be a practical impossibility and so, sensibly, Lison restricts herself to some of the best-known cheeses, such as Camembert, Roquefort and Comté, and a few other classic types, such as various brebis (sheep’s cheese) and goat’s cheese.

Each chapter revolves around visits she makes to local cheesemakers which form the platform for her to explore the history and culture behind them (and indirectly, much of France itself) and current issues and controversies.  In particular, a constant theme is the tension between traditional artisanal manufacture and modern, technology-aided industrial manufacture.

As well as being an entertaining travelogue and an interesting record of the labour-intensive work involved in artisanal cheesemaking and the hard lives of the makers and their families, The Whole Fromage is jampacked with information about French cheeses, such as their basic classification, the processes of cheesemaking, the economics of the enterprise and the intricacies and misleading nature of the AOC system.
It is also full of interesting tit-bits of information.  For example, I didn’t know that the classic white “fleurie” skin on a Camembert is not made by native Camembert mould (which is an unattractive blue-grey) but by the same mould that creates the equivalent mould on a Brie and was introduced to make a more visually appealing cheese.

Equally, I hadn’t realised that most Camembert is now made with pasteurised milk and not raw milk and so can’t be called Camembert de Normandie.  Or that 97% of Roquefort production is carried out by a single company the Société des Caves de Roquefort which is, in turn, controlled by the largest dairy products group in the world, Lactalis, which also owns the iconic Président brand of Camembert and butter.  Intrigued by this, I carried out my own inspection of some very rustic and traditional looking cheeses in Marks and Spencer the other day and, yes, the “traditional” Camembert in its wooden box was pasteurised and not AOC (and a Lactalis brand) and the Roquefort was made by the Société.  So, if you were in the Hayle branch of M&S in Cornwall last Tuesday and saw a dishevelled and sunburnt man in shorts standing by the cheese shelves smiling and muttering oddly, that was me and this was why!

Lison;s technique is not to spend much time with foodies or chefs but to visit the actual cheesemakers and other locals.  She mixes her discussions of history, politics and culture in with her travels and, although sometimes it can feel a little mixed up, her journalistic writing style keeps the narrative moving along and stops it getting bogged down in fact.  I should also point out that Lison has a real knack for describing food and its taste and odor. 

If you like cheese, want to learn more about it or just like reading about foodie travels, this is a must-read book.  The author is generous in praise for other writers on cheese such as the late Patrick Rance and I suspect that, in course of time, The Whole Fromage will be seen as a worthy addition to the cheesy canon.

On a more general note, The Whole Fromage gives a great deal of insight into the changing face of modern France.  As Charles de Gaulle pointed out, amusingly if inaccurately, “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?” and the gradual erosion of rural life and the tension between industry and agriculture is never far from sight in the pages of Kathe Lison’s book.  She comments accurately when discussing the EU’s maligned Common Agricultural Policy that, without its subsidies, the prices of many of France’s most artisanal and traditional cheeses would be out of reach even to the relatively wealthy consumer and would, in consequence, die out and be lost to the world.  How long some of these can survive must be in doubt.

I’d like to thank Crown Publishing for sending me a copy of The Whole Fromage for review and, if you’d like a second opinion before buying this (which you should definitely do), please pop over to the following blogs:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

2,455: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to Paris is another classic Alan Furst spy novel.  Furst specialises in the immediate pre-war period in Europe, a world of shadows and threats with dark clouds of war gathering over the continent.  Into this world of moral ambiguities, Furst sends out his heroes, usually non-professional agents, to engage in espionage against the Nazi regime.

His latest hero, Frederick Stahl, is a Hollywood star, sent to Paris at the behest of his studio boss, Jack Warner, to star in a French production.  Although Austrian by birth, Stahl, at the beginning of Mission to Paris is thoroughly naturalised and comes to Paris with the intention of just oding his job, keeping quiet on the political situation and then getting back to the US as soon as he can.#
It is, however, the autumn of 1938 and there is an overriding sense that France is holding its breath in anticipation of war with Germany.  Furst is masterful in capturing the feel of this foreboding and the range of emotions felt by Parisians during this period.  From the moment of his arrival, Stahl finds himself the target of Ribbentrop’s Foreign Service and its strategy to weaken morale in France by encouraging pro-German and anti-war sentiment.

At first, wealthy and aristocratic German sympathisers in Parisian society try to inveigle and charm him into acquiescence, followed by the sudden appearance in Paris of one of Stahl’s old Austrian acquaintances.  Stahl unwisely agrees to an interview with a newspaper whose editorial policy favours appeasement and gets fooled into making some unwise statements.  It then turns nasty with Ribbentrop’s minions threatening Stahl unless he agrees to their demands.

However, the Germans had not counted on Stahl’s inherent decency and his dislike both for the Nazis and for their attempts to manipulate him.  He offers himself up to the American embassy and becomes an unofficial agent, couriering money into Berlin for an agent in place and bringing back important information on Hitler’s intentions in Poland.

For me, the joy of Furst’s writing lies in his incredible ability to evoke the atmosphere of the immediate pre-war years.  He seems to be especially at home in the Paris of this time, introducing the reader to a rich society of Eastern European emigrés, indolent parasites, corrupt businessmen and near traitorous journalists.  Indeed, by comparison, the scenes in Berlin, Hungary and North Africa seem just a touch lightweight.

Furst’s other great talent is for the creation of tension and fear as Stahl undertakes his dangerous missions and is threatened by the Nazis.  I’d caveat this slightly by making it clear that an Alan Furst novel is not a rip-roaring action-fest but a more sedate exercise with tension coming from the fear of the knock on the door or the tap on the shoulder.  One particular scene, in which one character takes surreptitious photos of top secret papers whilst the wife of a top Nazi bathes in the next room, has stuck in my mind for this reason.

Stahl himself is almost a caricature hero, being handsome and seemingly sexually irresistible (and an implausibly skilful lover) as well as morally upright and brave.  He even ends up preferring the more intellectual and more mature attractions of the emigré who acts as the film’s costume maker to the more obvious appeals of the young aristocratic Parisian, Kiki.  His status as Hollywood star also enables him to escape situations in an almost deus ex machina fashion and it is tribute to Furst that he manages to retain a sense of danger in spite of this.

Mission to Paris is not only a first rate historical espionage novel but is also a lovely period novel with 1938 Paris at its centre.  The parts of the story that describe the making of the film in which Stahl is starring is fascinating and entertaining in its own right and adds extra levels of colour to the overall piece.

I’d like to thank Random House for allowing me to read Mission to Paris via Netgalley and, as this is my third post for Paris in July, would point you towards the hosts, Bookbath and Thyme for Tea, if you’d like to find all things Parisian and French this month.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

2,456: The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

I have a longstanding fascination with the Paris peace conference that took place during 1919 following the end of the First World War, a conflict that claimed the lives of 20 million people, destroyed three empires and formed the opening chapter of the series of conflicts and struggles that were to define the 20th Century.  Delegations from both victorious and vanquished (but not Germany) set up camp in Paris as did representatives of nations and peoples all seeking land, recognition or restitution.  32 countries were present and, it’s fair to say, for a six month period, Paris became the centre of a world government as the Big Four – the leaders of the USA, Great Britain, France and Italy, essentially redrew the world map, parcelling out colonial territories and creating new nation states.  The high politics, the intrigue and the exercise of global power must have made for a heady atmosphere in one of Europe’s great cities.

Of course, it was all to end in tears with the Treaty of Versailles and its infamous war guilt clause, assigning blame for the war to Germany (and do read Sean McMeekin’s excellent July 1914 for an alternative view of events) and forcing it to pay huge reparations, thus setting up huge resentment within Germany that would prove meat and drink to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.  There’s a wonderful description in Margaret Macmillan’s superb account of the Conference, Peacemakers, where the British and Americans try to persuade Clemenceau to soften France’s demands for reparations, fearing exactly that, but Clemenceau refusing, knowing the impact a softening would have on French public opinion.

In any event, Paris and the Peace Conference forms the backdrop to Robert Goddard’s new novel, The Ways of the World, which also forms my second entry for Paris in July, hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea.

Sir Henry Maxted, a senior but fading British diplomat, is part of the British delegation, advising his political masters on issues of concern to the Brazilian government.  One day, he is found dead, seemingly having fallen from the roof of a Paris apartment.  His two sons, Ashley and James “Max” Maxted, are sent to Paris by their mother to bring back Sir Henry’s body and try to find out the cause of his death.

It soon becomes apparent that Sir Henry’s death may not show him in his best light and Ashley is happy to go along with the French and British authorities’ desire to sweep the death under the carpet so as not to disrupt the Conference.  Not so Max.  A former RFC pilot and war veteran, he is convinced that there is more to Henry’s death than meets the eye and he returns to Paris to discover the truth, risking family disfavour, official disapproval and, possibly life and limb.

I’ve not read any of Robert Goddard’s books before but The Ways of the World is an excellent read.  Goddard draws out the febrile atmosphere surrounding the Conference in full measure and uses it to create a tale where politics, espionage, love, deceit and family dynamics are all mixed to great effect.  The story moves along at a cracking pace and Goddard gives us a rich cast of American private eyes, British spies, Russian emigrés, beautiful women, French policemen and venal aristocrats.

At the centre of it all, however, is Max.  As a courageous aristocratic hero who is determined to seek the truth no matter the cost, there was a risk that Max could have come across as a bit of an anachronistic and unrealistic Richard Hannay type character.  Fortunately, Goddard is much more skilful than that and injects sufficient cynicism, hardness and sexual appetite into Max to make him both credible and interesting.  The dynamic between Max and his former batman, Sam, works, on the whole, well, although sometimes the treatment of the difference in rank jars a little, veering slightly from an old-fashioned master-servant relationship to a more modern partnership of equals.

  That is a very minor criticism, however, of a great read.  Towards the end, I found myself feeling that I didn’t want the book to finish and that I hoped Goddard would use Max as a recurring hero.  I was, therefore, delighted when the book ended without the loose ends having been tied up and being set up for a sequel.  I was even more delighted when I discovered that The Ways of the World is the first in a planned trilogy.  Now, of course, I have the frustration of having to wait for the second instalment.

I’d like to thank Random House UK for allowing me to read The Ways of the World via Netgalley and, as we are, finally, in summer, would heartily recommend this as a cracking holiday read.

Monday, July 15, 2013

2,457: Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah

It’s Paris in July month, jointly hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea and, although I’m late to the party as usual, I’m glad to be here, posting about a wonderful book which I suspect should best be read just before making a visit to France as otherwise it is likely to cause intense pangs of longing to the non-French reader.

The phrase “When good Americans die, they go to Paris” has been ascribed to many authors including Oscar Wilde, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Appleton but, regardless of who first came up with this aphorism, Ann Mah, the author of Mastering the Art of French Eating and a self-confessed lifelong Francophile, must have felt like she’d died and gone to heaven when her diplomat husband is given a three year posting to Paris.  Shortly after arriving, however, their dreams of living in one the world’s most romantic cities are shattered as he is summoned to Iraq for a year.  Lonely and worried for his safety, she is suddenly required to create a new life for herself in a new home.

As well as reaching out both to the expat community, to friends of friends and to the colleagues she meets while volunteering as the programs manager at the American Library, Mah, an avid foodie, encouraged mainly via Skype by her other half, launches herself into an investigation of the history and culture of some of France’s most iconic dishes.  Along the way, she takes trips to their regions of origin, meets chefs and aficionados and partakes fully of some of France’s most renowned fare.

Most of the items she chooses to focus on are brasserie and bistro such as Paris’ steak-frites, the choucroute garni of Alsace and the cassoulet of the South West.  Reading her descriptions of the meals she ate and her encounters with local champions of the dishes is enough to make one’s tummy rumble, something which, in my opinion, is a good indicator of the quality of a book about food.  As well as these staples, she touches on a couple of more unusual regional classics, the Provençal soupe au pistou and the crêpes de sarrasin of Brittany and learns of the real passion with which the locals treat their culinary heritage.  Of course, it’s not all plain sailing - Mah admits defeat at the, how shall I put this, intestinal odour of true AAAAA approved andouillette from Troyes which, to be fair, although I have acquired the taste, I can understand - Mrs F wasn’t overly impressed when I ordered it at the excellent Brasserie Zedel here in London as its odour is truly of the farmyard.  About the only grumble I really had was her contention that aligot, the cheese and mashed potato concoction of the Aveyron region is not very well-known outside the area.  I can’t speak for the US, of course, but here in the UK, it has featured in a Delia Smith cookbook (the bestselling cookbook author of them all here) as well as the late Mireille Johnston’s A Cook’s Tour of France, albeit masquerading under another name - so it’s not exactly a secret.

Mastering the Art of French Eating is part travelogue, part memoir, part foodie investigation but it is, as much as anything, a love letter to France and Paris in particular and a bittersweet tale of involuntary separation.  Mah’s exploratory trips into the French regions are nicely interspersed with the story of her life in Paris, which, although difficult as life can be for the trailing spouse of a diplomat (something even the title alludes with its nudge towards another lonely diplomatic wife in Paris - Julia Child who also found purpose and solace in French cooking), is also full of new experiences.

Mah, the daughter of Adeline Yen Mah, the author of Falling Leaves, is a gifted writer who conveys a real sense of place and of feeling as well as being a dab hand at foodie description.  I thoroughly enjoyed Mastering the Art of French Eating and would recommend it to anyone who likes France, food or travel-writing.  Thank you very much to Penguin for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

2,458: Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt

I have a secret that may surprise you.  It’s not particularly disreputable, certainly not criminal or immoral or even very interesting.  It doesn't involve peculiar sexual practises, religious cults or even an unusual addiction but, for what it’s worth, here goes………….As a teenager I used to play role playing games.

I know, I know.  It’s come as a shock to you to discover that your suave, debonair and erudite host was once a geeky RPG fan but there it is.  Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu – I had a go at them all.  To be fair, I was never THAT into it all, largely because I was at a boarding school where sport was king and geekiness wasn’t.  So my interest manifested more through my accumulation of an extensive set of RPG systems, combined with the occasional game and, in truth, it had all pretty much faded away by the time I hit the Lower Sixth.

It had all started in Switzerland of all places in the summer of 1981.  My prep school had arranged a school trip to a youth centre in Switzerland where we spent a fortnight in immersive French lessons each morning and a mix of excursions (the Nestlé chocolate factory visit is still a cherished memory) and sport in the afternoons.  The evenings were spent in the usual teen and near-teen occupations – video games (primitive Space Invaders and Asteroids), school-type discos, cack-handedly trying to chat up older girls and just hanging out.  The centre was being used by a number of different British schools and I got into an argument about orcs with a kid from one of these other schools.

Yes, you read that right – an argument about orcs.  I was a Tolkien obsessive at the time and so was horrified when this kid claimed that orcs were pig-like creatures with snouts and tusks.  Tolkien, after all, had described orcs as, “"squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes... ...degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”  So, not at all porcine then.  Argument ensued, almost ending in blows before he explained that his description came from this really cool game he and his friends were into, called Dungeons & Dragons.  He invited me to come and watch them play and I was immediately hooked.

On my return from the trip, I badgered my mother into driving round all the local toy and game shops until we found the red box basic Dungeons & Dragons set.  I corralled some school friends into playing and my career as a Dungeon Master took off.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since those halcyon days of youth and I haven’t played or even thought about RPGs in years, although I still read some fantasy.  But, when I spotted Of Dice and Men in an Amazon browsing session some months ago, a nostalgic interest slowly stirred and when the publishers, Scribner, kindly allowed me access to the title through Netgalley, I couldn’t resist.

Of Dice and Men combines a history of role playing games in general, but more particularly, that of Dungeons & Dragons with a quasi-memoir of David Ewalt’s experiences in the game.  It tells of the genesis of the game and how it evolved from classic wargames, of the gradual falling out between Gary Gygax and Dave Arnessen, the true founding fathers of D&D and of the complex and chequered corporate history of the game and TSR, the company founded by Gygax.  It touches on its cultural impact, from the scare stories of Satanism to its influence on, and eventual supersession by, video games and is a fascinating insight to a hobby that was clearly much much larger than I had thought.

The sections of the book that deal with Ewalt’s life in the world of RPGs and his gradual relapse into playing raised a few wry smiles and a bit of recognition and I suspect manages to convey the excitement and pleasure of the game even to those who have never come across it.  I found myself getting the urge to play again and to get hold of the old sets (all of which have been lost in various clear-outs).  Unfortunately, games like D&D change; as Ewalt describes fluently, there have been various iterations of the D&D rule system and the current system almost certainly wouldn’t appeal anywhere near as much as the AD&D system I was familiar with.  Most of the other games I came across from what must have been the heyday of classic RPGs are also now out of print.  The world has moved on.

I thoroughly enjoyed Of Dice and Men and would recommend to anyone, but especially reformed players.  About the only criticism I’d make is that the descriptions of the actual games he was playing are probably more of interest to his playing colleagues than to the general reading public.  It’s a minor quibble though and doesn’t detract from the book as a whole.

And if anyone has an old Monster Manual or Top Secret set, I might be in the market…………………

Thursday, July 4, 2013

2,459: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

If you are a more than occasional reader of this blog, you will be well aware that I am a big fan of Donna Leon and her Commissario Brunetti detective series, set in Venice.  I have, however, previously commented that I’ve found some of her more recent instalments to be disappointing as she has let her focus on big picture social issues cloud the actual storytelling.

I’m pleased to report that, having taken time off to write a non-Brunetti novel. The Golden Egg, the 22nd Brunetti novel, is a return to form.  At this point, I’d also like to express my thanks to Grove/Atlantic for allowing me access to the book via Netgalley.

In The Golden Egg, Brunetti undertakes two unconnected investigations - an official one, at the behest of his awful boss, Patta, into what appears to be a minor infraction by the daughter-in-law of the mayor and an unofficial one, at the behest of his enchanting wife, Paola, into the death of a deaf, mentally-handicapped man who worked at their dry cleaners.

Whereas the political investigation turns out, like so much else in the Venetian and Italian body politic, to be a familiar tale of corruption and nepotism, Brunetti’s unofficial investigation into Davide Cavanella is much more interesting, as Brunetti soon finds that there is no public or official record of Davide anywhere.  Suspicious?  Yes.  But for Brunetti, sadness is the overwhelming emotion as he contrasts the lonely and isolated world of Davide with the conversation and love-filled lives of Rafael and Chiara, his children.

I suspect that, for some crime fiction fans, Leon’s writings can be frustrating as she moves across different sub-genres, sometimes offering a classic police procedural, at others a more philosophically minded story and at others a story that is almost tangentially a crime novel.  They work for me as I feel very drawn to Brunetti’s fundamental decency and humanity.  Working in a decaying political and moral environment that is reflected in the physical decay of Venice, he and his close colleagues, Vianello and the lovely Signorina Elettra, maintain their honesty in the face of cover-up and deceit. 

The Golden Egg is a good example of Leon’s best work, in my view.  It’s reflective, concerned with ideas of language and justice and infused with a warmth that comes to the fore in Leon’s descriptions of Brunetti’s home life, the glorious meals cooked by Paola and their love of, respectively, Latin classics and English literature.  Having said that, I do have to concede that other reviewers are less enamoured of the reflective side of Leon and prefer the more traditional instalments in the series.

In the end, Brunetti tracks down the truth behind Davide’s life and death, although, as with many of the Brunetti novels, there is no comfortable ending with an arrest and punishment.  The solution of the crime is all and the reader can only hope that the perpetrator’s circumstances provide sufficient punishment.

To summarise Brunetti and The Golden Egg, I can do no better than quote Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times:

Meanwhile, the commissario carries on as he always does, solving one crime at a time, reversing one injustice after another, then heading home to drink a little wine, read a little Tacitus and play another little language game with his family.

And, if there is any justice for readers like me, long may he continue to do so.

Other blog reviews of The Golden Egg include:  The Neff ReviewBedlam FarmAngela Savage and stillnotfussed.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'll Never Get Through

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by the Broke and the Bookish) but here goes my list of books that intimidate me.

I’m actually slightly loathe to post on this subject as I’m not convinced I should be admitting that certain books “intimidate” me.  There are books that I find difficult to get through for one reason or another and books that sit malevolently on my shelves whilst I do my best to avoid them and even more books that I know I’ll never buy but I can’t honestly say that books intimidate me.  So I think the nearest I’m going to get to with this is a list of books I feel I “should” but will never actually read.  I hope that’s good enough for you.

So, here goes…………….

1.         Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  I’ve tried, I really have.  Several times in fact.  But I just can’t do it.  Maybe my mind is too literal or too simple.  Whatever.  Gravity’s Rainbow may indeed be, as some people argue, the greatest post-WWII American novel but for me it’s too dense, too scattered, too confusing and, frankly, too post-modern.  I don’t get it and I can’t face giving it another go.

2.         Ulysses by James Joyce.  I’d like to read this.  I love the Odyssey and I know that it’s supposed to be great and its fans love it and all that stuff.  But, every experience I’ve had with Joyce has been bad and I absolutely detest stream of consciousness writing.  So every time I think about reading this, I decide I just can’t do it.

3.         Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  Too much symbolism which always irritates me and so many people claim it’s unreadable that I’m totally put off.

4.         Remembrance of All Things Past by Marcel Proust.  Too long.  Too waffly and philosophical.  And the whole madeleine thing makes me groan.  So sorry, Marcel, it’s not going to be happening.

5.         The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.  Tried it.  Didn’t like it.  Didn’t cope well with the flip-flopping between realist plot and symbolic allegory.  Life is, frankly, too short.

6.         War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  It weighs in at approximately 1,300 pages and has become a by-word for books you’ll never finish but, for me, the length is only an issue because of the lack of a central character or plot.  Maybe one day………maybe.

7.         The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.  I love isolated lines or even sections but there is no way I will ever get through the whole thing.  Too many languages - only three of which I have any real chance of making sense of - and just too dense.

8.         Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin.  Yes, really.  The first volume in the series sits on my Kindle and my finger periodically hovers over it but I never quite have the inclination to click on it.  I don’t know whether it is the sheer number of characters and sub-plots, the combines length of the volumes or the fact that it’s not yet complete and, let’s face it, he’s not getting any younger and doesn’t appear to have any sense of urgency about him but I can’t see myself getting into this.  Actually, if I’m honest, I watched the first few minutes of the first episode of Season 1 on TV but switched it off because I had this weird emotional reaction to some child being pushed out of a window and crippled.  Since then, I’ve just been a bit repelled by it all.

9.         Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  Perversely, I love some of his lesser known works but, for the life of me, I just can’t get past the made up language in Clockwork Orange.

10.       120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade.  Seriously, who knew that sex could be so boring?  Dull, repetitive and meaningless, I gave up very early on.  Completely unreadable.

Monday, July 1, 2013

2,460: China's Silent Army by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo

One cannot help but be amazed at the commitment and energy of Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo, the authors of China’s Silent Army.  In 2009, they began a two year investigation into the overseas investments of Chinese companies which, given the nature of much Chinese investment activity, took them to many difficult and even dangerous environments in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America.  It is, therefore, a shame that the resulting book, whilst interesting and thought provoking is marred by a near conspiracy theorist view of China’s intentions.

The book is loosely organised into sections in which the authors visit a country in which Chinese investment has been made and, after recounting their discoveries, link the story to a broader analysis and conclusion.  We see the effects of jade mining in Myanmar, an unlawful Chinese owned casino in Laos, a seller of cheap clothing in Cairo, a massive shopping mall in Dubai selling only Chinese products from Chinese-owned emporia, logging in Russia’s Far East and mining in Zambia amongst others.

The stories are fascinating and speak volumes both to the energy and drive of individual Chinese but also to the explosive and seemingly inexorable growth of the Chinese economy since the days of Deng Xiaoping and the “socialism with Chinese characteristics” theory.  Chinese investments also create local jobs, bring money into local economies and enable the creation of infrastructure in desperately poor countries without many of the strings and catches insisted upon by Western investors.

Cardenal and Araujo acknowledge these benefits but point out the dark side of Chinese investment.  Many of the jobs on big projects are given to imported Chinese labour and local employees are often forced to work for very low pay in dirty and dangerous conditions.  One of the mines described in China’s Silent Army was acquired by a Chinese company from a Western company and the pay and conditions of the local workers were subsequently reduced to an even lower level than those offered by the previous owners.
Furthermore, Chinese companies often act with little or no regard for the local environment or for the human and social costs of their operations.  The rate at which some of the forestry operations described by Cardenal and Araujo are denuding the local forests is breathtaking (and not in a good way) and the exploitation by China of Myanmar’s jade resources without care for the long term economic health of the local area is sickening.  The inflow of cheap Chinese made products that tends to accompany Chinese investment is also problematic, strangling and stifling the relevant domestic market.

All these points are fair and well-made and there is a significant risk that for many developing economies, inviting the Chinese dragon in could lead to severe damage to everyone other than the ruling elite.  It is apparent that much Chinese overseas investment is driven by China’s desire to make as great a short term return as possible without regard to the long term.  Had Cardenal and Araujo concentrated on these issues and toned down the language, China’s Silent Army would have been an important addition to the literature on China’s recent development and a wake-up call to the West.

Unfortunately, a strong whiff of paranoia and conspiracy emanates from the book.  It appears to be Cardenal and Araujo’s contention that China is seeking some kind of economic world domination and that Chinese companies and expatriates are engaged in an unspoken conspiracy to “remake the world in Beijing’s image” to achieve this.  Although there is a level of state coordination of many of China’s largest corporations, this is a fanciful and slightly hysterical viewpoint.  It is true that Chinese state corporations in particular are trying hard to acquire as many natural and agricultural resources as possible and aren’t fussy as to how they do it but this is not so much a diabolical plan to subjugate the world as the necessary consequence of a rapidly growing, resource-hungry economy and the imperative to feed and satisfy a huge population so as to stave off social unrest and threats to the Communist regime.

The future of China is not the binary one expounded in China’s Silent Army.  The choice is not between Chinese world domination and the imposition of a Chinese way or the evolution of China into a Western-style economy.  Either of these might happen but so too may several other outcomes.  The recent credit crunch in China and a slowdown in growth rates are evidence enough of this.

Ultimately, China’s Secret Army is a fascinating read.  It raises many serious issues that need to be tackled both by China and its trading partners.  Unfortunately, it is marred by the prejudices of its authors and its overwrought assumptions of Beijing’s aims.  Nevertheless, it is well worth a read.  I’d like to thank Crown Publishing for sending me a review copy of China’s Silent Army.