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.