Friday, 25 June 2010

Furst in a hot climate

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma.

My marvellous small local bookshop in Beckenham had a copy of Alan Furst's "Spies of the Balkans" in stock on day of release. I've read the first few pages, and it's clearly a Furst; there's something about his use of place and language that as many others have said, manage to convince the reader you're in 1940s Europe - I'd always thought that this was just smoke and mirrors convincing me as a Gen-Xer that he was convincing until I gave my mother a copy of "Night Soliders". Mum is going to be 81 this year, and lived through World War II, and even though she did so as a child, the fact that she thinks Alan Furst captures what the period was like works for me.

So where's the problem? I would appear to have a new, unread, Alan Furst in my possession; why am I debating whether I should start it now?

Before answering this, let's rewind briefly. Alan Furst was introduced to me by Salon Magazine (read on AvantGo on a Conpaq Ipaq) back in 2001. Prompted by this I picked up "The World at Night" and was captivated. This was a February, and I was commuting listening to Sara Ayers (very obscure I accept) and some of her songs such as "The Waiting Room" - the combination of Furst's brilliance, wintery rain battering against old slam-door South London rolling stock, and Ms Ayre's cold ambient music made for something magical. There's even something about the covers from his works then, which were, and still are, works of art.

This defines Furst. He talks of a world at night, where moral equivalency imposes a darkness on peoples' souls, and where stinging rain slants into the faces of doomed protagonists. He does this brilliantly, and as a reader in fitting surroundings you're physically propelled into his world.


It's a hot June in the UK. I'm about to go to India for a week. It's hot.

I've tried reading Furst in a warm climate before. I got "Blood of Victory" on day of release and treasured it, saving it for a long laconic holiday we'd scheduled for late September 2002 in Umbria. A bucolic quiet surrounding should have been perfect, but it wasn't. Leaving aside that Furst is best talking about cities, it didn't quite work when sitting beside a pool in Italy's late summer warmth. I loved it as a book, but it didn't worm itself into my soul as other Fursts have.

So. I have "Spies of the Balkans" in my hands. On Sunday I do the long multi-leg flight to Chennai for a week working with my development team, and will want many books as support (quod vide) for business hotel bound nights. 

It should be a no-brainer. 

I have a new Alan Furst to read. 

...It doesn't work.

Chennai in Southern India is hot. Rain or shine next week is going to be a very hot week. I'm going to crave moments of quiet when I can savour condensation on the side of a glass to try and cool me down. This isn't Furst terrain. Even although "Spies of the Balkans" is set in Greece, it starts on a rainy winter night in Salonika. This isn't material for a hot climate.

Alan Furst is being left at home.

I'm desperate to read "Spies of the Balkans". For all that I wish he'd return to the sprawling narratives of "Night Soldiers" and "Dark Star" anything he writes is still an immediate candidate for Desert Island Book. Somehow however I know I'm missing something when the environment isn't there. "Spies of the Balkans" is going to go onto the TBR shelf and I'm going to avoid reviews of it. It's going to stay at behind when I go to Chennai and wait for us to be reacquainted in the European autumn. 

Maybe I can swing a Eurostar run to Brussels in November. Whipping through Northern France with sleet stinging against the window is when you should read Alan Furst. He paints a magnificent picture of Europe before and during the fall of man; reading him deserves an appropriate backdrop.

It's late, and I'm writing on my small sitting room netbook. I may well revisit this entry and put in some imagery and hyperlink it so that I can really set this in context, but I liked writing this, and a blog should reflect freshness of thinking.  Goodnight.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"Divided Houses, The Hundred Years War III ", Jonathan Sumption

British QC Jonathan Sumption has been writing his monumental history of the Hundred Years War for over 20 years now, and there's still probably another couple of volumes to go, which at his current rate of writing, will see us through to 2030 or so, a writing project that will have taken almost as long as its subject matter to complete.

The first volume was a surprising gift from a friend's father in 1990 - I'd been the beneficiary of his generosity in the past, as he disbursed the books he accumulated in a career at Irish broadcaster RTE, but I remember being struck that this was a rather more impressive gift than usual. Sadly it remained largely unread through university years - somewhat ironic given the courses in medieval history I took, only picked up when working life and exigencies of a commute impelled me to raid the large unread pile that a decade in higher education can leave you with, and the publication of the 2nd volume reminded me of the first's existence.

Size makes these books daunting, but right from the start, with the lavish description of the funeral of Charles IV in 1328 you realise that this is something deserving of your time. Reading weighty hardback tomes isn't easy on South London commuter trains, especially when you're also trying to juggle a cup of coffee, but some efforts are worth it.

The work is rooted in a traditional highly narrative form of history. As such it may not be scholastic, and academics may legitimately question whether it says much that's genuinely new, but it's probably better for it. Much in the same way as I prefer Runciman's somewhat discredited history of the crusades to more modern interpretations of the Latin East, Sumption's treatment is capable of immersing the reader in the 14th century world, and sweeping you a long with the period's inherent drama.

In terms of location it reminds you that France really is very big, but also that through much of the terrain familiar to British visitors to the continent there runs a rich vein of history when France and England were inextricably linked. It's also a timely reminder that the Hundred Years War was not just a Franco-British affair but in reality a much wider European conflict dragging in the low countries, Spain, and Italy and serving to shape the continent in many ways.

It does also reinforce some key points. Medieval warfare was not perpetual combat - financial realities meant it couldn't be so, and for those whose familiarity with the period is driven by the (admittedly rather good) Medieval Total War computer game or the more elaborate battle scenes in "Kingdom of Heaven", it comes as a surprise to be reminded that warfare was not conducted with a cast of thousands, instead small handfuls of fighting men would in the main shape the course of battle - cataclysmic confrontations such as Crecy or Agincourt (the latter still far from being covered in Sumption's work) very much the exception.

Despite this, it's probably not popular history - it's far too weighty for that, and this is a real shame. History such as this, talking about Kings, Queens, and battles, isn't trendy today, but it's the sort of story that can get people interested and excited. The French to their credit have grasped this with the magnificent visitor centre now at Azincourt, one can only wish that more of this would percolate through in Britain.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

“A Deadly Trade”, Michael Stanley

Crime writing set in Africa can take a number of forms. Robert Wilson's quartet of novels set in Benin paint pictures of West Africa that actively convince you that you would pay a lot of money to never go there. By contrast, the Botswana depicted in Michael Stanley's Detective Kubu novels is an altogether more appealing prospect.

This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise; in contrast to its neighbours, Botswana largely avoided the post-colonial political chaos endured by the likes of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Angola, and unusually also managed to do something sensible with its mineral wealth. Obviously it's not without its issues, in particular rampant HIV infection rates, but in the main it feels like somewhere that could be a credible destination and indeed one with no small appeal. In this light, the centrality of tourist camps in the bush to the plot of “A Deadly Trade” is firmly within the bounds of plausability.

The core premise of multiple murders at the remote Jackalberry lodge camp, builds what ultimately feels like a somewhat overcomplicated plotline. It transpires that everyone at the camp on the night in question has some form of suspicious background and possible motivation. As narrative devices go this ends up feeling a little tired and redolent of the worst excesses of Agatha Christie, and in this case you're left with the distinct impression that there would have been a benefit to at least one of the plot's thread being unpicked in the editorial process.

What more than saves the work however is the persona of Detective Kubu. Here we find a marvellously appealing central character. The rotund detective, enormously food oriented, manages to strike just the right balance between crime fiction's obligatory level of insubordination and a credible level of effectiveness. At times too, he displays a reassuring level of 'crapness' that succeeds, in a very endearing way, of making him very human. In short, he's the sort of policeman you really wouldn't object to having as a neighbour.

My initial reaction was to be sceptical of “A Deadly Trade”, and it took its time to work its way to the head of the 'to-be-read' pile, but a combination of a well executed opening scene and an extremely accomplished sense of place managed to capture attention. For all the exasperation at some of the plot devices, it does engender a distinct curiousity about what's actually going to happen, and it passes the 'does it keep you up at night' test with flying colours. Great literature it probably isn't, but it's well worth a read.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline