Sunday, 30 December 2012

Band of Brothers - Alexander Kent

Another late, relatively minor, addition to the Bolitho canon, this one from 2006 and harking back to 1774 with Midshipman Richard Bolitho facing his first promotion board.  Other than that, nothing much happens.  There is a trivial, somewhat muddled, skirmish with Channel Island smugglers in which our hero demonstrates the leadership skills we always knew he possessed, otherwise ... he sits his board, with results we can also see coming.

It's a novella, really, only 128 pages in big print paperback.  Pleasurable reading, but I surprise myself when I conclude that I preferred the Adam Bolitho tale I read a few weeks ago (In the King's Name, reviewed below).

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Juan in America - Eric Linklater

Eric Linklater is not a name on literary lips these days, but in his prime he was enormously popular and critically highly regarded. His wartime radio plays for the BBC were seen as so important to the war effort that they were discussed in broadsheet editorials. His third novel, Juan in America, was a bestseller and whilst it may seem entirely fanciful, Linklater's own travels as a young man were even more incredible - India, China, and indeed America. This is a novelist who knows whereof he writes.

I don't know, but I suspect his work and amatory experiences were not quite so varied as Juan's, who goes from college football hero to bum to slinger of hash, bootlegger, ice cream dispenser, upside-down opera singer and movie extra, and whose conquests include an Amazonian acrobat and a gangster's daughter.

Juan is a direct descendant of Byron's Don Juan. He shares the Don's taste for adventure and the ladies without being either predatory or amoral. He is a likeable companion as we follow his picaresque travels. There are occasional affronts to modern taste - Linklater's handling of black people is not what we would wish, though it has to be remembered that he was writing in America in 1931 and in many ways reflects the attitudes of East Coast Ivy Leaguers of that era. Read closely enough and you realise that, whilst he doesn't seem to rate his impoverished black characters as individuals, he does empathise with their historical plight, "the result of forcibly transporting a people from one continent to another, using them in slavery for several generations, and then bestowing on them a nominal freedom and a position beyond the pale of society."

All in all, Juan in America is a splendid example of English picaresque from the first half of the 20th century. As such, Linklater's rivals in the field were not Huxley or Forster but Priestley and Mackenzie, neither of them particularly popular these days either. But Juan in America has never been out of print in the eighty years since it was written, and that has to be the best kind of recommendation.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Birthdays for the Dead - Stuart MacBride

Strewth, Stuart MacBride writes the blackest of Tartan Noir.  This is his latest, a stand alone outside the Logan MacRae series.  Our protagonist is a cop, like Logan, but a very different kettle of fish.  Ash Henderson is violent, in debt to gangsters and addicted to serious painkiller medication.  But none of those are the secrets that matter - oh no, Ash is keeping something much more relevant hidden from his superiors in order to stay on the Birthday Boy case.

BB is a serial killer.  He snatches young girls coming up to 13, tortures them for a while, and then kills them on their birthday.  Every year thereafter he sends a birthday card to the family - homemade, with a photo of their daughter in progressive stages of dying.  But is his target the kid or her parents?  This is the question posed by Dr Alice Macdonald, the young OCD forensic psychologist brought in to refresh the investigation.

The reason the investigation needs refreshing is that the next victim will be BB's thirteenth thirteen year-old, which has to be significant, right?

To say more would be to risk giving the game away.  Suffice it to say, Ash finds himself on a mission, a race against time.  The pace is unrelenting, the characters richly drawn with deep back-stories, and the plot twists just keep on coming.  The final twist is simply stunning.

A superb example of the genre.  MacBride is surely the next big thing in British crime writing.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

AD 500 - Simon Young

Simon Young is an amazing young historian of the early dark ages.  The conceit here is that a Byzantine civil servant is ordered to write a description of the Dark Isles for his emperor, who fantasises about restoring the lost empire in the west.  This officious bureaucrat has only archives and tall tales to base his account on until he lays hands on a primary document - the log of the last embassy from Constantinople to Britain, which, to say the least, didn't end well.  Young himself purports to be the translator of the later account, thus adding another layer of irony and comment via his copious translator's notes.  The Byzantine scribe, like civil servants everywhere throughout the ages, is scornful and dismissive of anything and anyone outside bureaucratic circles, so his asides on the barbarian Brits can be laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I particularly enjoyed Young/the scribe/the imperial ambassadors' account of the making of an Irish High King at Tara.

"The ritual lasted most of the night and was thoroughly unpleasant.  The king first mounted a stool that had been specially placed and 'mated' with the white horse.  We were encouraged to see that not only our party but also many of the visiting kings politely looked in the other direction and talked of the weather during these awkward minutes or played at board games..."

The wonderful thing is that all these outrageous accounts - even the one above - are based on genuine historical documents from the period.  Young describes his sources in an appendix at the end, so it should be fairly easy to follow up for those who want to go further.

The best book I have read this year - so good, I have already bought Young's subsequent book, Farewell, Britannia.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Unknown - Mari Jungstedt

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish writer who sets her murders on the island of Gotland.  This is, I believe, the third novel featuring dull copper Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas and unambitious TV reporter Johan Berg.  The others are called Unseen and Unspoken, but this appears to be a silly affectation on the part of her English-language publishers - as near as I can tell, the Swedish title of Unknown is something like Inner Circle, which at least has the merit of relevance.

Anyway, this is a tale of ritual murder and archaeology, which on the face of it sounds promising.  Unfortunately it isn't.  Two protagonists means Jungstedt covers all bases with no real effort in terms of plotting or deductive reasoning - if she needs to tell us something Knutas can't know, she simply switches to Berg.  The other problem is that both need to be rounded characters and thus have private lives which are not interesting enough to warrant the space devoted to them.  That said, the stuff with Johan and his new baby is decently done - but the mother of the child is just annoying.

The characters I would have liked to know more about are both spikey women - Knutas's deputy, DI Karin Jacobsson and Berg's punkish camerawoman Pia.  But they remained cyphers, Pia a tool for improbable plot elements.

The book is not without merits.  The local colour of Gotland is well done and there is quite a lot of skill in the way Jungstedt builds the tension in the final showdown.  Overall, though, not for me.  Nordic, certainly, but nowhere near noir enough.