Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

As stupid wars go, the First World War takes some beating.  Nobody could really claim victory - it was the beginning of the end for the British Empire, France never recovered as a military force, Austro Hungary vanished off the map and Russia was taken over by murderous freaks - a fate which befell Germany not long after.  This cracking history looks at all the players in the run up to 1914 and asks - what the hell was wrong with them?

Not the biggest player, but the one which fired the starting gun.  To generalise - a bunch of crazy bastards.  One top soldier for years kept a souvenir of an earlier coup against the Serbian royal family - the Queen's breast, hacked off after her murder.  Nice.  These were the kind of people in important roles in Belgrade, and were heavily implicated in the murder of Franz Ferdinand.  Serbia's refusal to help Austra Hungary get to the bottom of the assasination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne led directly to war.  And just a reminder - Britain was on Serbia's side.

A strange, unwieldy construct with two prime ministers and governments, but one head of state.  Serbia was a real thorn in their side, although the best bet for good relations between them would've been Franz Ferdinand becoming Emperor.  This book argues that they had genuine beef with Serbia over the assassination, and perhaps if they'd struck quickly the conflict would've been contained.  Instead those few weeks gave everyone else time to get stick their oar in, with disastrous results.

Serbia's ally, and the reason it started getting out of hand.  There's this idea of Pan-slavism - a historic brotherhood between the Balkans and the Russians, but the alliance may have had more to do with Russia trying to muscle in on the peninsula as the Ottoman Empire retreated.  They wanted control of Bosphorous as a way to get their warships into the Mediterranean.  There was also a deep dread of Germany in Russia, and an escalation of hostilities was the perfect way to get them out of the picture.

Often painted as the villain of the piece, but comes out quite well in this account.  Dragged into things through an alliance with Austro Hungary.  Not helped by Kaiser Wilhem, who seems to have been a total buffoon.  Senior politicians appear to have spent much of their time keeping this dingbat away from any important decision making.  They had to act quickly when it appeared that Russia and France were using this Balkan crisis as an excuse to gang up on them.

Led at this time by the apparently bonkers Raymond Poincare, who really wanted to smash Germany.  For some time before this France had had a crisis of confidence in military affairs because of the Dreyfus Affair.  At this point the pendulum was swinging the other way, things were a lot more gung-ho, and the time seemed ripe for France to have its revenge for the Franco-Prussian War.  There's a fantastic section in the book when President Poincare visits Russia with his rather naive prime minister Rene Viviani, who becomes increasingly sick and neurotic as he realises that everyone around him is rushing headfirst into war.  One of the few people in this book with a a bit of common sense.

Of all the sleepwalkers, Britain was the most....sleepwalky?  Continental matters weren't really on the agenda at this time - Ireland (surprise surprise) was the big issue of the day.  Things were mishandled by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who appears to have been too clever for his own good.  He preferred subtle understandings to cast-iron guarantees, which meant none of the other countries really knew where they stood with him.  He led the Germans to believe that Britain would stay out of things, apparently forgetting that they had a treaty to defend Belgium's neutrality.  Sir Edward then went full tilt into war mode, backed enthusiastically by (surprise surprise again) Winston Churchill.

So, no big villain in this account - just a lot of idiots and nutcases.  And, I suppose, short memories.  This happened after a long period of peace in Europe, and people really seem to forget what war is like.  It reminded me of the run up to the first Iraq War: the excitement about having a proper war again for the first time in years, and the conviction that this time it would all go to plan, and we'd all be home for Christmas.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Solo by William Boyd

At last!  Some proper Bond, and a massive improvement on this guff.  Instead of a pastiche of cliches from the movies, this feels like a smart update of Fleming's books.

It's the late 60s and Bond is sent to a famine and civil war stricken African country to kill a general, and things get complicated.  Like the orginal books, much of the fun here is in the travelling from place to place and soaking up the atmosphere.  A lot of Boyd's other books are apparently set in Africa, and it's clearly a continent he knows well.

The other elements of a great Bond book are also in place - the action's well told and sometimes bone-crunchingly brutal, there are interesting, beautiful and maybe not totally trustworthy women, and there's a villain with a disfigurement - here, it's a Rhodesian mercenary with a wonky face.

As there should be, there's lots of eating and drinking too, but mostly drinking.  Whisky, African beer, dry martinis and emergency African martinis (ice, lime juice, lots of gin)  Boyd's martini recipe is even drier than Fleming's, which was six to one vodka to vermouth.   The one here recalls Noel Coward's advice to wave the shaker in the general direction of France before pouring.  There's also a salad dressing recipe with a hell of a lot of vinegar.

Bond himself comes across as fairly likeable.  He's entering his silver fox phase, and it feels like he's mellowed with age.  A ladies man, but not a misogynist, an agent of post-colonialism, but not a reactionary great white hope saving Africa from itself.  His mind wanders back to his commando days during WWII.  Even his relationship with M has a touch of bittersweet sentimentality.

The plot of the book mirrors this autumnal theme.  We never quite get the whole story (unless I missed something - always very possible) but the suggestion is that the world of espionage is moving on from 007 to something a bit more sinister.  This aspect isn't overplayed, but does give a nice extra tinge of melancholy to the ending, which for once explains why Bond doesn't stay with the woman he's been getting on so famously with.

Extra shout out to the audiobook version - Dominic West bringing his best Eton rather than Baltimore tones to proceedings.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Croning by Laird Barron

Modern cosmic horror from the unlikely sounding Laird Barron.  Aside from the clearly invented name, he's meant to be a one eyed champion dog sledder from Alaska.  It's all too perfect. Is he really the ghost of HP Lovecraft?

The Croning is genuinely unsettling - more so than any book I've read in years.  It concerns the elderly Don Miller looking back on decades of happy marriage with his beloved wife Michelle.  Except he's scared of the dark, he has worrying gaps in his memory, and deep down he knows something is terribly wrong.

What really works is how the reader is always one step ahead of Don.  We know before he does that there's something very sinister going on, even if we don't know exactly what.  And his growing unease and paranoia could just be the onset of dementia.  But you know it isn't.

This is Lovecraft where you actually start to care about the characters.  The small details of domestic life rub up nicely against the vast and unspeakable horror behind the curtain.  And despite it all, there are quite a few laughs to be had, even if they're mostly of the blackest hue.


Okay, I've missed a few books out of late, and I fear they'll have to fall by the wayside.  I'll give special mention to The Kindness of Women, JG Ballard's follow up to Empire of the Sun.  Not really a memoir, because much of it appears to be made up, but it does suggest that Crash is more autobiographical than you'd think was possible.  Electric Eden by Rob Young is also well worth a read - a very entertaining and comprehensive history of British folk music.  Makes me want to pull on an itchy jumper and put one finger in my ear.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Supergods by Grant Morrison

A history of comic book heroes by one of the most important figures in the industry over the past few decades.  Grant Morrison (bald, Scottish, good looking - snap) isn't a writer I know very well, apart from Arkham Asylum which I found totally impenetrable as a teenager, but he's a man who knows and loves his superheroes.  He's also a great writer, making this a blast to read - a lot more entertaining than the history of Marvel I read recently.

Highlights include his textual analysis of the very first Action Comics cover featuring the first appearance of Superman, and a hilarious rundown of the very early Batman B-movies (“Seven actors have played Batman on the big screen, and if you can name all seven without reading any further, your youth has been wasted.”)  He also gives a very personal but pretty comprehensive account of how superheroes and comics have developed over the years, and he argues convincingly about their vital place in our cultural lives - giving us something to aim towards.

Some of it didn't really work for me, and I won't be alone.  I'm sure his druggy trip in Kathmandu was life-changing for him, but no-one wants to hear that stuff - especially not at such length.  Much of his work does seem to hinge on this kind of thing - he's one of these Chaos Magic guys, and despite his rivalry with Alan Moore it seems like they're both in to the same kind of nonsense.  I'm sure they'd both hate that...

As the long hiatus in blogging would suggest, I finished this a couple of months back, so apologies for not remembering much else of use.  It's a really good read, very good on superheroes, bit too much mumbo jumbo for my tastes.  I'll try and rattle out a few more half remembered books soon until I'm up to speed. 

P.S. I've posted a picture of the US edition with this review.  The British one I read had a cover so bad it made me gag a little every time I picked it up.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

An engrossing and heartbreaking book.  It's in the SF Masterworks series, but it doesn't feel like science fiction.

I already knew the plot when I went in (and, of course, I'd seen Lawnmower Man) but if anything the knowledge of how it would end made it all the more powerful.  Things unfold as they should, and there's no cheap twists.

It's a series of journal entries by Charlie, a mentally disabled man living in the US in the 60s.  He's encouraged to write down his thoughts by a team of scientists who're experimenting on his brain to make him smarter.  It starts off with childlike spelling and a limited understanding of what's going on around him.  As the process starts to work, you notice the spelling and thought processes start to improve even before Charlie does.

Eventually he becomes the smartest guy in the book - smart enough to realise the experiment is doomed and he'll end up just as he started.  Mercifully for Charlie - and the reader - the decline is more rapid.  In the meantime he gets laid, falls in love, realises that his friends have been mocking him all his life and becomes a right royal pain in the arse as he learns that mo' intelligence means mo' problems.

There are a few pitfalls this book manages to avoid.  Low IQ Charlie is a good hearted soul, but it doesn't paint him as a Noble Savage, who's worse off for having glimpsed over the horizon.  He's convincingly portrayed throughout as his intelligence ebbs and wanes.  He does learn that people aren't as nice as he always thought, but there aren't any villains here.  Also, he doesn't become an insane evil genius like in the Lawnmower Man.

I polished this off in under a day.  I can see why it's a popular book to make kids read in school, which is kind of a pity.  And yeah, I choked up at the end.  Doubly embarrasing because I was on a plane sitting next to a stranger.  Blub.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Death's Head: Volume 2

When I was about ten or eleven, Death's Head was about as cool as it got.  He started off life as a robotic bounty hun.....wait, no - freelance peacekeeping operative - in the wonderful Transformers comic of the time.  Before Michael Bay ruined everything.  He wasn't a Transformer himself and so was gloriously amoral in the manichean world of Autobots and Decepticons.  He had a shiny metal tusked skull for a face, an array of medieval weapons instead of a right hand, and a bizarre speech pattern possibly modelled on the Australian interrogative intonation, yes?  Death's Head was a total badass and I loved him.

Perhaps predictably this collection is a big disappointment.  And I can't really blame the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia, because Death's Head still rocks hard when portrayed by his Transformers co-creators Geoff Senior and Simon Furman.  But in too many of the stories here, he's been shoehorned in as a unwelcome and pointless special guest.  I rather liked his first non-Transformers appearance, which was with Doctor Who.  He's a Marvel UK creation, so it keeps the British thing going, plus it's such an unlikely combination it kind of works.  But She Hulk?  The Fantastic Four?  Iron Man of 2020?  You can feel a once beloved antihero become increasingly pointless as this volume progresses.  It's also a sad reflection on the state of Marvel in the 90s.  These comics for the most part are pretty damn shoddy.

Obviously, he's been killed off and brought back several times, but no-one really cares any more.  Back in the day this robot was a legend.  He killed Shockwave for heaven's sake - possibly the single coolest Transformer ever.  In his defence he was being mind controlled at the time, which meant he wasn't even paid.  Bad for business, yes?

Here's an amusing rundown of his various adventures for the very geekiest among you

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

More humourism from this guy.  This collection's largely about the absurdities of domestic life, kicking cigarettes in Japan , buying a skeleton and annoying airplane passengers.

It's another top notch series of essays which are funny, perceptive and best when the author reads to a live audience so you really appreciate his sense of comic timing.  There just wouldn't seem much point reading this on paper.  It's been a few weeks since I've finished this, but I remember a good essay about his pet spider, another one about putting album covers over the windows to keep songbirds away and a great story about a nasty old woman he somehow befriends.  Coming through many of the pieces though is the clear and very sweet adoration he has for his boyfriend Hugh.  They way he tells it, Hugh could do a lot better.....

Anyway, not much else to say.  I guess if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like.  This must be why critics look down on comedy.  I did have a look on google to see if I could jog my memory, but instead I found this review -

"Well it is descriptional tail of False and total obscure Faults and fancy's of a psycotic gay man of the world. It despicates a abscure seen of the Gay population that is quite obtrusive to the adverage viewer."

Now, if understand correctly, this is just unfair.  Me Talk Pretty One Day is much more focused on Sedaris' sexuality. If anything, this collection shows just how domesticated and sexually unadventurous he is.  Definitely a one guy gay guy.  Unless this very fact is the "abscure seen" referred to.  The description of him as a "psycotic gay man of the world" is admittedly a little more accurate, especially if you're an annoying air passenger.