Saturday, 30 May 2009

A literary weekend

Sometimes good things all come at once.

It's been a busy but ultimately productive week, and now Saturday's arrived with genuinely fantastic weather, a garden that doesn't need a profound overhaul, and a stack of books competing for my attention.

First on the list is Pete Brown's eagerly anticipated "Hops and Glory" - it's not supposed to be out until June 5th, but according to Pete's blog, it's shipping from Amazon now, and my fabulous local bookseller, the Beckenham Bookshop got my copy in today. Far too soon to tell, but I suspect this will accompany me into the garden this afternoon.

Also arriving today was Gordon Spice's autobiography - a brief excerpt from it in Motor Sport a couple of months ago was entertaining, and while I don't expect it to be highbrow, I'm hopeful it'll be another contribution to worthy books about motor racing rather than the mass produced and badly edited pap that sports writing in general and motor racing in particular seems to attract.

All that makes the current library book, Ivo Stourton's "The Night Climbers", a speculative borrow but one that seems to have some promise very sadly fall down the list a little. It's a paperback, so has the benefit of portability, but given next week is travel free it might be put onto the longer finger.

Capping off a Saturday of literary excitement was an email from LibraryThing telling me I'd got an early reviewer copy of Giles Foden's "Turbulence", so will be looking for that in the mail soon.

As I said at the start, sometimes it's almost as though there's too much of a good thing!

Thursday, 28 May 2009

“Riding the Retreat: Mons to Marne 1914 Revisited”, Richard Holmes

The flat countryside of northern France and Belgium is eerie when viewed with a historical eye. Today the train from London to Brussels hurtles through an emotive landscape, punctuated by periodic glimpses of pill boxes and cemeteries, grim reminders of 20th century European history. A short train ride south from Brussels brings you to the town of Mons, capital of Hainault, and site of the British Army's first engagement of the First World War. With "Riding the Retreat" Richard Holmes, perhaps best known for his magnificent “War Walks” series, incomprehensibly unavailable on DVD, combines a readable history of the opening part of the Great War with a personal and likeable travelogue recreating the headlong retreat on horseback.


When one thinks of the 1914-18 war one cannot help conjure up a picture of cloying mud, trenches, and endless static fighting for gains measured more in yards than miles. This masks the period in August 1914 when the long 19th century ended, when there was truly a war of movement and cavalry was not quite yet the tragic anachronism it would become in a matter of months. It is this war of movement that has largely preserved the Mons area and the countryside over which the British retreated, and this means that to this day the visitor can still see the landscape much as it would have been nearly 100 years ago. Holmes skillfully applies the story of the soldiers of 1914 to what is visible today, and as such brings it to life in a moving, emotional way. Having been privileged to live in Mons in 2007 I found this especially easy to relate to.  Then my apartment, not far from the Berlin Gate to NATO's present day Supreme Headquarters, was just beside the point, in the little village of Casteau, where the first meeting took place, and every Friday I would drive to Soignies, in whose narrow streets the breakneck cavalry running battle ended


Holmes makes the point that August 1914 was one of only two periods when the war could have been comprehensively lost militarily, and this is spectacularly illustrated in “Riding the Retreat”, where the headlong pace of the retreat, is shown by pointing out how units dispersed in Belgium, only managed to reform in western cities such as Le Mans. The point too, that the British were not forced due east, but in a much more southerly direction after Mons is driven home, which highlights the gaping hole the Germans blew in the allied lines, and what made the prospect of success for the Schlieffen Plan much more than a nebulous idea. The speed of the German advance, the disorganised chaos into which the allies were thrown, and the perpetual motion of the retreating British Expeditionary Force describe a very different war from that which we associate with the 1914-18 period.

Affecting and compelling as the history is, this book's real strength is in the travelogue of Holmes and his companions, human and equine, as they make their way through Belgium and France. This aspect of the book is a very human story, with engaging and entertaining characters. Holmes describes the sort of interesting misadventures, lovely people, and fantastic meals that make this a journey one wants to have been part of, and one which it is a pleasure to read about. As such this book, really about a monumental human tragedy, as few of those fighting in August 1914 survived unscathed to November 1918, is one that makes you smile, which is in itself a sort of tribute to the sacrifice made by soldiers and civilians on both sides.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

“Blind Eye”, Stuart MacBride

Aberdeen crime writer Stuart MacBride is often dismissed as an imitation of Ian Rankin, similar, not without his good points, but inherently not a patch on the original much, in fact, in the way his native city struggles in comparison with Rankin's Edinburgh. In both cases this is a little unfair, just as Aberdeen is a different city to Edinburgh, with different strengths and weaknesses, MacBride's general feel differs quite profoundly from Rankin's.

Stuart MacBride is a highly entertaining author in person, and this sense of fun readily translates into his writing. On this level “Blind Eye”, perhaps even more so than in his previous works, is a deeply funny book. Moments of slapstick violence such as McRae pressing a spade into service as an impromptu truncheon, the light hearted ineptitude of Grampian Police's armed response unit, and the absurdity of a pornographic remake of the Wizard of Oz all serve to make this the sort of book that one very happily reads. The risk of this is, however, that one is sometimes lulled into thinking that this is a comedy (albeit a black one) – the sort of genre that doesn't generally agree with me (think Christopher Brookmyre or Patricia Cornwell's Andy Brazil series) – and to do so would be to do a grave disservice to “Blind Eye”.

For all the levity surrounding DS McRae's investigation there is a gritty darkness underpinning the story. The casual exploitation of the immigrant community, the moral ambiguity of a prostitute rebelling against her violent pimp, and the horrific pattern of graphically described blindings refereed to in the title cut through the humour and serve as an abundantly clear reminder that for all his ability to joke about it, MacBride is still very much best categorised under crime rather than humour.

The universe MacBride has created, with an Aberdeen where it often rains and where provincial journalism can exert disproportionate influence, and a police force whose general activities seem to ring broadly true has become a familiar one which I'm happy to regularly visit. The characters are richly enough developed to be mainly rounded humans in their own right, the central cadre well built up with a novel specific supporting cast that add complexity and depth to the overall experience. Critically in dealing with a city I've known well for many years there are few if any anachronisms or spatial discontinuities that jar, which embeds the work just the right side of plausibility.

Probably a bit more predictable and linear than its predecessor, “Flesh House”, “Blind Eye” is nonetheless a highly enjoyable and readable police procedural that continues the Logan McRae series with some aplomb.

As something of an aside, “Blind Eye” was acquired at Stuart MacBride's launch tour event at Waterstone's Picadilly and this reinforced the impression of him as a highly entertaining human being. His repertoire of stories is well worth hearing and he has a presence in front of an audience which reveals his theatrical background, particularly memorable was his ability to survive a conversation regarding bondage related themes with an audience member who was forced to point out that she was only 14. His ability to handle with courtesy and kindness the more eccentric members of the audience was also a very nice touch. As an author, through his magnificent blog, and in his periodic media appearances he's come across as a genuine and engaging person and it's most pleasing to discover that this impression is also communicated in person.  

Sunday, 10 May 2009

“The Appeal”, John Grisham

Every once in a while John Grisham tries to break away from the very formulaic style that has stood him in good stead through his career and varies his approach. Sometimes this will take the form of a complete departure from the legal thriller genre, such as with the surprisingly good "Playing for Pizza", other attempts stay close to his comfort zone, with more minor tweaks being made around the edges, and it is into this category that "The Appeal" falls.

Centred around a corporate negligance lawsuit against a polluting chemical company "The Appeal" is undeniably a good and compelling read, but it's less easily seen as a pleasant experience. John Grisham is in no way the best advert for the legal profession, but here the process by which 'justice' is served is exposed as a shallow, manipulated transaction utterly divorced from the concepts of 'right' and 'wrong' that should form the basis of jurisprudence. Perhaps this makes it more true to life, but it doesn't make it easy on the reader.

The morally ambiguous picture of law is complicated by the absence of a central character. Thrillers generally should have a hero in them, and there is a conspicuous absence of heroism in the book, and none of them are really at the the true core of the book. The splitting of perspective from the earnest trial lawyers (who, at heart, are ambulance chasers), the supreme court candidate (whose smug superficial piety makes him impossible to warm to), and the hen pecked billionaire businessman (who obviously is the villain of the piece) also means that we're presented with a sequence of ill developed cardboard characters, with whom we have little empathy. While obviously in real life everybody is coloured in shades of grey, literature of this kind does need a core character, who, even if they're imperfect, we inherently want to root for.

Usually polished, Grisham suffers from a number of plot stutters in the course of "The Appeal". In particular, part way through the work we are introduced to Buck Burleson, a former chemical company employee, who now nervously drives a water truck into the poisoned community of Bowmore, nervously fingering a 9mm pistol all the while. Chekhov's dictum holds that if there's a gun in the first act it should go off in the third, and the failure of this to happen here jars noticeably.

Invariably John Grisham charts the corruption and then redemption of an inherently good lawyer in his work. Here however ambiguity remains. Aspirant judge Ron Fisk does go through some form of catharsis, but this doesn't come from self discovery, but instead relies on a level of coincidence almost worthy of Thomas Hardy. This too is only a partial level of redemption, less a road to Damascus as a chipping away of assumptions that is more depressing than affirming.

On re-reading this review I see it does come across negatively, and this isn't fair. For all its faults "The Appeal" keeps interest and was a most welcome companion on both a late evening in a bar by the Bourse in Brussels and then on the Eurostar back to London. Paradoxically the very bleakness at its heart makes it much more memorable than other more generic Grisham works. I'm pleased I've read it, but I'm in no hurry to revisit it at all.