This turned out to be a very cool book. Fascinating from a historical point of view, as well as for general geek kicks. But also very interesting from a social perspective, to see how similar fashions and fabrics were worn by different classes in different eras, before being recycled in various formats for the 21st Century. There’s some truly rugged working-class Victorian workwear and evening-out upper-class fineries made from exactly the same fabric (tweed), as well as general bat-shit crazy costumes for exploration and the likes – you can get an idea from the video.
Sometimes you can raid a second-hand bookshop with great success. The weekend proved very fruitful, as I acquired this massive haul of Penguin crime paperbacks, with their iconic green covers. My collection expands. Also, I was doubly lucky as the chap who served me tends to give random discounts now and then, so the above only cost me £20.
I realise it’s been quite some time since I’ve talked about what I’ve been reading. That’s mainly because I find it so enjoyable to read books without feeling the pressure to talk about them anywhere in a review – it makes me have a great deal of respect for book reviewers. But on my reading pile towards the end of 2012 there have been some very good things and some pretty standard things. Dune needs nothing more said about it, but I’ll chip in with a few thoughts. I enjoyed it immensely. It was intellectually satisfying whilst possessing a sound plot – for me it’s the holy grail of writing, when both of those qualities are done well. Everyone knows the plot by now, and if you don’t then a few minutes of googling will set you right. But I thought it worth mentioning Herbert’s ecological thinking, which was very advanced for his time. The language he uses to talk about systems put me in mind of the work of Fritjof Capra, whose work only had influence many years after Dune was written. There was a culture shift in talking about ecology from it being a very broken down analysis of contained systems to a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach, with materials shifting between them, and Herbert discusses the environment of Arrakis in a very much forward-thinking way for the time. This is also at a time when Silent Spring, arguably the full-scale launch of the modern environmental movement in popular culture, was only just published in 1962. How Herbert describes environmental protection in 1965 wouldn’t be out of place today.
So yes. There’s more to be said about that and, if I can find the time and the inclination to do so, I probably will.
An okay-ish crime novel I read just before Christmas was Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat, by Soho Crime – an imprint I’ve been impressed with in the past. Chinatown Beat tells the story of Detective Jack Yu who is assigned to Fifth Precinct, Chinatown, where he grew up and gets access to places that white American officers can’t. There’s plenty going on from gang rivalries to underground casinos and prostitution rings. Gritty in the properly gritty manner – not for the sheer sake of being violent, that kind the fantasy genre is plagued with, but a much more considered and emotionally resonant kind of gritty, where the shock really comes from the fact that: this is how people actually live.
The crime is fairly so-so, and the chapters were a bit to rapid-fire for my tastes, but it was a satisfying read. Chang has some good turns of phrases scattered about, and sets up mood and character well. The whole didn’t quite come together for me, though.
Other things of note. Gary Taubes’s Diet Delusion, which I suspect should be compulsary reading for any one giving shoddy nutritional advice or who is interested in the science (and history of science) of how our body reacts to different types of food. I can’t recommend this book enough and it will make you angry at the terrible advice, based upon the low-fat diet philosophy, that our governments give today. Taubes absolutely skewers the kind of studies that have been done in the past, and which have been relied upon to provide such advice, and points out precisely why the obesity epidemic and associated illnesses are here to stay.
For 2013 I have a bit of a different aim in reading. Not having studied English at degree level, I want to better familiarise myself with mainstream fiction classics. But I also want to ensure that I’m reading a large number of female writers – hopefully 90% – to make amends for historical ignorance. I started off with Daniel Deronda, which I finished last night. More thoughts soon perhaps. It’s a very big book and needs to be digested thoroughly.
And last year was a big year of historical research for Drakenfeld, and books on ancient civilisations are very much dominated by men (Mary Beard being one wonderful exception), so I’m going to search high and low for female scholars this year as well.
Yes, it’s positive discrimination. No, I don’t care.
Colonel Sun is a James Bond novel written by Kingsley Amis, under the pseudonym of Robert Markham. It’s lot of fun, though descends into a bit of a farce towards the end (consciously, perhaps?), and is rich with the casual racism and sexism of 1968 – though, weirdly, it was probably on par with the Roger Moore films. That said, it’s a bit of a thoughtful and stylish romp.
After starting rather timidly with a round of golf, in which Bond speculates how his life has become rather dull, the action moves to M’s country home – from which M gets captured. Bond attempts to save M, kills one of the assailants, but ends up being injected with something that makes him groggy. He manages to escape, just about, while M is whisked away out of the country. Bond reports the incident to his superiors. They study the body that Bond killed to find some very obvious secret code, which they think was planted, pointing them all towards Greece. So, to Athens with Bond, where he’s anticipating being captured at any moment – this is, he suspects, all part of a ploy by the same people who kidnapped M.
In a bar, Bond saves a lovely young Greek communist called Ariadne Alexandrou from the lurid overtures of an “amorous Turk”. She’s meant to be there to set Bond up, but she ends up falling for his charms. They avoid capture during a shootout at the Acropolis, and she tempts him with “the swell of one firm breast”. Later they have hot sweaty sex.
Meanwhile, on a Greek Island, M is being held captive by the “yellow-skin” Colonel Sun and his two bikini-cald translators/assistants, and there’s a vicious plot involving former Nazis and various agents to blow up a secret conference. Soon Bond discovers he needs to head to the island of Vrakonisi to save M and that’s where he, Ariadne and colleagues head. Their aim is to try and stop the mysterious Colonel Sun of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army from unleashing his dastardly plot. There’s lots of late-night discussions of communism and the political state of post-WWII Europe. Lots of boating action, shootouts, explosions, and general tomfoolery around the Greek islands. And it’s all described with a breathtaking flair. SPOILER: It’s all jolly good fun, but plummets, as I say, into something of a farce when one of the sexy bikini-clad assistants – who is at that point, I kid you not, absolutely naked because the Colonel Sun wants Bond aroused as he tortures him some more – saves Bond from being killed and supplies him with a knife to shove into his enemy’s back. It all went a bit Roger Moore at that point. Austin Powers, even.
Bond is a hard man in this book, a violent killer, and considered a “terrorist” by the enemy. There’s little humour, though weirdly not enough character – which goes against the grain of the rest of the cast. Amis provides some wonderful descriptions of people and places, often delivering a full and rich character within a paragraph. At times it actually reminds me of early J.G. Ballard (how I would love to have seen a J.G. Ballard Bond novel), in its attention to unusual detail, and of freezing a particular scene to analyse its sentiment or key feature. The sort of thing you might get in The Atrocity Exhibition. As a literary device, it does somewhat get in the way of action scenes, but it makes them rather interesting at least.
Colonel Sun is utterly bonkers, and a product of its time, but still remains a cracking and stylish read.
More crime, more studying the form. One book of note in my attempt to dig ever deeper in the psyche of the genre – The Return of the Dancing Master. I don’t know why, but lately I’ve found crime (and spy thrillers) to really float my boat. The engine of the novel keeps the logic-driven part of my mind entertained, while the rest of me relaxes to enjoy the prose or characterisation. All the time, I’m still picking apart methods, plotting, cause and effect. It’s fascinating because I’m conscious I’m now directly overlaying fantasy and crime in my own writing to see where the genres fall apart, so this sort of study is central to my reading at the moment.
The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell, centres on a man called Lindman. He’s a police officer who goes on sick leave when he’s diagnosed with a form of cancer, and while he’s not actually at work decides to keep on going anyway, elsewhere in the country, where he looks into the death of a strange former colleague Herbert Molin. Actually, death really doesn’t do this murder justice. It’s brutal – more of a horrific, slow torturing and eventual butchering. Bloodied footprints are left – prints that form the tracks of a tango where the killer had danced with the corpse.
Of course, there’s the set-up: there’s the drive that keeps things ticking over. Why would an old man who lives in a remote part of the Swedish countryside be killed in such an unusual manner? I often find that the more curious the start of a crime novel, the more the reader will continue reading: surely the job of any thriller writer. Hence the combination of a retired old man and his horrific ending. Clearly, it’s what he did in his past that led to the death, but already the reader is being prompted to search their mind: what could he have done to warrant this end?
Though not a Wallander novel, this is unmistakably Mankell: an almost distant, cold prose that allows him to get deep into his characters’ heads. Environment is key, feeding the plot and never merely being a thrown-up aesthetic.
One of the most impressive, and rarely covered traits of Mankell’s crime novels, is that he always sets a couple of plots running side by side – the issue of Lindman’s cancer testing and how it is affecting his personal life, juxtaposed alongside the murder investigation itself. Though Mankell puts a rare happy, chuckling character in the novel – Giuseppe Larson – as a local police officer informally working with Lindman, it’s really Lindman who this novel is about every bit as much as the murder victim.
Mankell is perhaps the gold standard at the combination of the personal and the professional narrative strands. Often themes overlap, sometimes they don’t, but the way they play off each other is fascinating. Mankell is very clever at working the book like this. It’s precisely because of this that he easily creates a page-turner without it ever resorting to the cheap tricks that belittle the phrase.
The reading pile grows. First of note is the Cambridge Latin Course Bk 2 – I previously mentioned that this year I’ve started to learn Latin. Well, I’m almost at the end of the first book, which feels very satisfying indeed. The Cambridge Course is fantastic – I can’t praise it enough. Instead of being hammered with verb tables and the like, it actually takes you step by step through learning the basics of the language, but how it functions in context, too. You gradually layer up your understanding of the various cases, declensions and so on.
From the rest of the books from writers such as Seneca (Six Tragedies), Plutarch (The Fall of the Roman Republic), Juvenal (Sixteen Satires) and Terence (The Comedies), you can see my mind is still very much focussed in the ancient world. It’s stopped being overt research long ago – I mean, I’m not writing about it explicitly in the new series anyway, I’m invoking it. Aside from classical city structure, architecture and so on, I’m now very much intrigued by the mindset of writers at the time (Juvenal in particular is biting and very funny), in order to glean anything useful.
Okay, so I have TEN signed copies of The Book of Transformation to give away. All you have to do is just say, in no more than a sentence in the comments section, why I ought to send a book to you. Then I’ll email the ten best/most amusing/appalling entries purely on a whim; we can then sort out where you want the book sent, and I’ll bung a signed copy in the post to you. Just like that.
I’ll run this until Sunday night.
EDIT: Turns out that, due to the fact that my publishers accidentally sent me more author samples, I can give away a few more. We’ll say 15 copies for now!
Hidden Depths, by Ann Cleeves wouldn’t have been the most likely novel for me to pick up recently, but over the past few years I have been (on and off) trying to become more familiar with different sorts of crime fiction. I’ve come across some wonderful reads such as G.I. Bones by Martin Limón, Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto, and Nightfall by David Goodis. This genre every bit as diverse as science fiction and fantasy – and is not merely the cliché of noir that gets mentioned so often. I imagine the overuse and incorrect use of that word must really piss-off crime readers much in the same way that those who say all fantasy fiction is like Tolkien would piss-off fantasy fans. Anyway, I thought I’d give one of the more modern, traditional crime novels a go – so I picked up Hidden Depths. Well that, and my editor, Julie, keeps banging on about this series on Twitter.
It was actually pretty good. There’s no new territory here. I imagine that’s far more difficult to achieve in crime fiction. To me, the crime itself is merely the engine of a novel: it’s what keeps readers interested, driven to turn pages. Sometimes I think too little attention is given to the mechanics of the crime; sometimes it isn’t cerebral enough, but then again how many crimes are that well thought through? I don’t know the answer to that, but this feeling probably explains why I really appreciated Jonathan Creek mysteries. As a writer who, in a forthcoming series, is dabbling directly in crime fiction, I’m very much interested in the how-dunnit, as much as the who-dunnit.
I get the impression that what distinguishes crime novels from each other, for the most part, is the setting and the characters. Setting is more important than you’d think – you only have to go into a large bookshop, or on Amazon, to see that, for example, there’s a healthy Scandinavian crime section. You don’t really get that for any other fiction genre. When you think about it, that’s remarkable. I’d like my fiction arranged by location, please. And a detective is the perfect vehicle for introducing readers to a particular location, since such characters will have good reason to visit all sorts of people and places without it feeling inappropriate or shoe-horned in.
As for character – well, we all must know that it’s the detective or investigator in question that lends a series its name. When a book makes the transition to TV, people understand it by the detective more so than the plot. We’ve all got our favourites, too – for me, it’s most definitely Kurt Wallander. Nothing much needs to be said on that front.
Anyway, back to Hidden Depths: at first this came across as something of typical cosy crime novel set in Northumbria (for anyone not in the UK, that’s in the far north of England). A woman called Julie Armstrong gets back from a night on the town and finds that her son, Luke, has been strangled, and left in the bathtub – but the body is arranged in a way so that it has been covered with flowers. Later there’s another murder – Lily Marsh, an attractive young teacher is found dead in a rock pool along the coast, again surrounded by flowers. The victim had previously linked a few of the characters together and things get a little more exciting.
Inspector Vera Stanhope comes on the case to investigate. Stanhope is a strong character and takes no shit. Probably not your average detective, she is (as my grandparents might say) broad about the beam, middle-aged, a little miserable. She likes a drop or two (basically, an alcoholic without portraying it as such). There’s a good heart under all her bluster.
The rest of the cast are varied, the types you’d get from any northern town, each of them with enough to make them vaguely credible suspects. I suspect when you prise open any remote community, one finds plenty of unusual behaviour. The task for Stanhope is to link everything together, to find out who’s not telling the truth – and whether or not such lies matter. There’s a wide range of human emotion on display, too, from bereavement to lust.
Cleeves’ prose zips along, though doesn’t opt for much in the way of flair. I do like the way that the third-person really takes on the thoughts of characters with gusto – not many authors do that. The pace is well controlled; it’s a well-engineered book from that respect. Crime is certainly a genre where the trained eye can really see the cogs in motion, and in Hidden Depths, the cogs were functioning perfectly. So, nothing new here. It’s a very traditional crime novel and there’s nothing wrong with that, and ultimately it’s a very satisfying novel.
It’s been absolutely ages since I’ve talked about what I’ve been reading. Most of my time did get sucked up for reviewing for the Ecologist, which only left a week here and there to open books I genuinely wanted to read. So it’s been slow going. I’ve also been sent a couple of books by lovely people I know, and they’ve remained somewhere on the to-read pile making me feel guilty. Most of my reading these days is largely to support writing the Drakenfeld series – it just so happens I really enjoy such material.
Count Belisarius, by Robert Graves, is a splendid book. Set in the sixth century, it tells of a rather dramatic time for the Roman Empire (then again, what part of its history was not dramatic?) Besieged on all sides, and with its heart now in Constantinople, Junstinian’s and Theodora’s reign was a period of one last hurrah for Imperial glory. Belisarius was at the heart of this.
I want to believe in this portrayal of Belisarius and Antonina, since it’s so very rich in emotion and drama. Belisarius is also presented as perhaps the most amazing general in the entire history of the world. Given his staggering achievements, this is believable. Oozing intelligence and tactical mastery, he was also a compassionate, dedicated and loyal individual. Graves’ book also neatly sidesteps the somewhat scandalous picture of them given to us by Procopius’ vicious Secret History.
Of the historical detail and accuracy, I won’t pass comment. I don’t know enough about Byzantine history to do so. But this is an immensely readable and enjoyable book. I’m not sure if an awareness of the period would help with one’s understanding, but I suppose this book – rich in Byzantine colour – could provide a good introduction of sorts. Perhaps the battle details start to bog down the narrative eventually, however this is a book about a talented Byzantine general, so there is going to be a lot of that.
Notable, also, is how Antonina rolls her sleeves up and mucks in with various defences and so forth. So often, in fiction – and especially fantasy fiction – women are rarely seen on the battlefield, let alone having a profound influence on matters, and yet, history proves modern fictioneers wrong again and again…