Radiant state, by Peter Higgins

This third novel of the “Wolfhound Century” trilogy manages to stand alone – as all good novels ought – and is entirely readable without first reading the other two. Higgins has created a weird alternate reality. I like this kind of “genre busting” – except that it is no longer true to say that the work busts genres. It can be labelled in more than one way, perhaps. Opening as hard sci-fi, it alternates thereafter between political thriller (an assassin trying to kill the president) and weird pure fantasy (archangels and witches and dead bodies wandering through the trackless woods).

Others have done work like this. It owes much in concept to the work of China Mieville.

One thing I do like, though it sets my teeth on edge as someone who loves the explanation, the reason, the exegesis in detail – is that he has not explained himself. He makes no explanation of the strange happenings on what is clearly just an Earth with a place that is, whilst never referred to as such, just Mother Russia. He does not account to the reader for their being two moons, or for the dead yet walking the earth, or for archangels and sprites and other strange creatures coming into the story with no more ado than a ticket inspector on a train or a shop-keeper.

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

I got this book on the basis that it was about Central Asia. A legitimate assumption, perhaps, given it’s title. But no, it is not about “the Silk Roads” as such.

The expression “Silk Road” comes not from antiquity but from a 19th century German historian. Just thought I’d throw that into the pot, so to speak.

Peter Frankopan’s book is a new history of the world, starting in deep classical antiquity, and ending right now in the second decade of the 21st century.

Persia and other middle eastern “silk road” countries are mentioned early on. The importance of the nations and states through which what we now call the “Silk Road” becomes apparent, though Persia -Iran- seems to be considered paramount.

The book makes a detour, in order to gain a wider perspective, into a history of Western Europe and the adventures of Europeans in the New World.

In my view, the latter part of the book is tilted subtly against the west and against America. This is never shrill, but it is there nonetheless. In this, it only really reflects the zeitgeist. Me, I like the West, I like America, and I like what they stand for.

Overall, an excellent piece of work, in the “grand sweep of history” style which does appeal to me.

Sapiens, by Noah Yuval Harari

A very readable canter through the entire history of humankind, from pre-conscious apes out on the Savannah, through to the possibility of post-human cyborgs and immortality.

Harari has taken a humanist and atheist standpoint throughout, which I found challenging and upsetting in places. I was warned by the person who recommended the book to me (who knew I was a Christian) that I would find it challenging. And it is, and rightly so. But my faith in a transcendent, caring and personal Cod is not shaken by the work of this liberal academic. Some might say I’m too thick to understand.

He has expressed some outrageous and refreshing ideas; a key theme throughout the book has been to question the established wisdom on economics, politics, history, culture and language. I was particularly impressed with his chapter on the individual, the market and the state, noting that the free market cannot really survive without the state. He avoids the espousal of Socialism, but manages nonetheless to articulate the main flaws in the free market, capitalist system. He acknowledges that, notwithstanding those flaws, it is that same system that has brought us so far this last five hundred years.

He notes that European cultures prevailed over comparable or even superior Islamic and Asian cultures because of the concept of credit. What he does not say is that there was little choice. Kings came before Parliaments seeking money: they needed credit, generally to fight wars. This development, of itself, fueled the rise of Parliaments and of democracy.

His final remarks on the future seem ill-at- ease and somewhat hurried. He describes a number of ideas as if they were new- ideas like immortality and post-humanity, cyborgs, genetic modification of people, to name a few. Some of these ideas have been discussed by modern science fiction writers such as Paul McAuley, Richard Morgan, and Alister Reynolds, for decades. He goes on to confuse science fiction as a whole genre with that small sub-genre we call space opera, demonstrating a perhaps understandable ignorance of sci-fi at the very part of his work that would call for an understanding of it. But his final chapter does articulate some of the potentially dreadful and also potentially changing possibilities that lie ahead of us.

Overall, refreshingly positive in outlook, once you are past the early sections where you could be forgiven for thinking that the author does not like the human race. Me, I do like the human race. I think it is excellent. I am a member.

2017 in reading

It has been a challenging year in a number of different respects. Difficulties at work, family bereavement, complexities in my volunteer role as a senior Scouter.

I’ve read nearly fifty books in 2017, though some of this reading will have been comfort re-reading – a bit like comfort eating or comfort shopping, but healthier. We’ll look at some of the more edifying reading, as well as some of the comfort food, here.

Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads

I started off the year reading this excellent overview of world history from the standpoint of trade.  Trade goes along roads.  This was a history of the world in roads, and had little enough to do, however excellent and readable, with the Silk Road or with Central Asia.

Stephen King On Writing

Perhaps the best and most inspiring read of the year, recommended to me by fellow members of the Woldingham Writers Group.  This was an encouraging and stimulating autiobiography, telling the story of how King wrote his first novel – “Carrie” – in his lunch breaks whilst working at a laundry. 

Stephen King – The Stand

Thought I’d re-read quality fiction after my interest in Stephen King was re-ignited by his autobiography on writing. The opening paragraph is unforgettable, classic Stephen King – “Arnette, a pissant four street burg in East Texas”.  Yet, he is never disrespectful of such a humble place or of the humble folk who hail from ordinary places.  King’s heroes in The Stand are not the Walkin’ Dude or the old lady Abigail, but common folk like Stu Redman, hailing from “pissant four street burgs”. 

Nicholas Monsarrat – The Master Mariner

Read masterly fiction – it should sharpen your eye and make keen your appetite for good writing. This is classic tale weaving.  Our hero Matthew, guilty of cowardice at a battle in the 15th century, is cursed by a witch to live on and on until he learns courage.  Clearly he had not managed it by the time of Trafalgar, centuries later.

David Eugene Smith and Louis Charles Karpinski – The Hindu-Arabic numerals

This is a nineteeth century work on the history of numbers, and is, for something hailing from that era, surprisingly accessible and informative.

Len Deighton – Declarations of War

Another fine writer whose work we would do well to emulate.  Deighton here brings us a series of short stories about war, some with amusing twists in the tail. We read one about the rise of right-wing politics amongst honourable and upright men – ostensibly in the UK – and only in the last lines  do we see the name of Herr Goebbels mentioned.  In another, men battle in the home counties against the German invasion, as the front rolls inexorably toward London.

Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan’s characters are bitter and twisted.  You don’t need to read more than a few dozen pages of his fiction to feel anger and frustration boiling off the page.  Here we have a dark detective story set in the San Francisco of 500 years hence.  An immortal man has killed himself – and it is important to find out why.

Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club

Why did I read this? It was on my daughter’s shelf.  It was certainly compelling, but ultimately a futile read about a futile subject.  And in any case, the first rule of Fight Club is, don’t write about Fight Club.  I should point out that I never watched the film, nor ever will I watch it.

W.H Murray – The evidence of things not seen

For me, the long-awaited autobiography of celebrated Scottish climber and environmentalist Bill Murray.  His work “Mountaineering in Scotland” is one of the best pieces of mountain literature available.  In this longer work we see the whole of Murray’s life laid out before us, from childhood, through his war service as a tank commander in the Western Desert, imprisonment in Germany, and onto his work in Everest reconnaissance in the Himalayas after the war.

Bruce Sterling – Holy Fire

I like Bruce Sterling; this earliest of the “cyberpunk” authors here tells a rather odd story of an old woman who through late twenty-first medical technology, is restored to full health and youth.  The holy fire, I think, is that of youth.

Peter Fleming  – Bayonets to Lhasa

Peter Fleming was the older (and today, less well-known) brother of Ian Fleming. Both brothers were capable and gifted writers. Here, Peter Fleming writes an account of William Younghusband’s assault on Lhasa in 1904.  It is an essential piece of reading for anyone like me interested in Central Asia or in “The Great Game”.

A. N Wilson – Our times

Another sweeping historical perspective work, covering the new Elizabethan era – our times – from the mid 1950’s until the early noughties.  Much changed in the first four decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  But, it might be said that more has changed in the UK since A. N Wilson finished this book, than in all the forty years before.

Geoffrey Wellum – First Light

A delightful boys-to-men account of a youth who longs to fly, joins the RAF, and becomes a great pilot, taking part in the Battle of Britain.  Even as I write this, I am reminded of Robert Mason’s classic “Chickenhawk” which tells a very similar story about a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  But Wellum’s account is stiff upper lip throughout.  Mustn’t grumble, old boy….

J D Vance – Hillbilly Elegy

J D Vance has been condemned as a “poster boy of the right” for his Republican views, but what he surely is, is an example of conquering adversity and winning through against the odds.  It is the story of how a boy from the backwoods of Kentucky,  a hill-billy – made good.  Three things contribute to his success: the faith, love and support of his grandmother; serving in the Marine Corps, and a certain amount of luck.  Other reasons are available: ability, charm etc.  A very inspiring read.

Isaac Asimov – It’s been a good life

I set out deliberately this year, to read autobiographies of great writers.  Find me someone who thinks Asimov was not a great writer, and I’ll find you a fool.  Isaac was blessed with a mind far sharper than most of us, and as a writer was energetic, prolific, and wide-ranging in interest.  John Campbell said of him, I think, “Isaac Asimov once had writer’s block….it was the worst ten minutes of his life”.

Rick Broadbent –  Endurance – life of Emil Zatopek

This was encouraging to me as an erstwhile and very amateur 10km runner.  I first heard of Zatopek when I was just a boy.  I recall reading about his amazing triple triumph at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. That year, he took the gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and in the Marathon.  I found the book much more interesting in the first half, which dealt with Zatopek’s upbringing and his early success as an athlete.  The second half, dealing with his fame and his struggles with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, whilst important enough a subject, I confess I found less stimulating.

 

R.A Heinlein – The unpleasant professional of Jonathan Hoag

Representing the many sci-fi books I read this year, this is Heinlein’s only real horror story.  It would make an excellent movie if only someone would write the screenplay.  The story opens with a man trying to find out from a doctor what the substance is that is stuck in his nails. He goes on to hire a private detective – to find out what he does for a living. After that, things get macabre.

Hampton Sides – Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

This was spot on: whilst at one level, a biography of Kit Carson, at another level, it is a biography or history of the American nation in the late nineteenth century, as the imperial expansion out to the Pacific was made reality by the grit, determination and plain nastiness of men like Carson and his mentor Fremont.  A very worthwhile read.

Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy

A first rate canter through some interesting technical and cultural developments that shaped the modern world.  The book is basically an extended version of some chats given on the BBC World Service.  I wasn’t sure which one of the fifty I would have chosen, if any, as the most important, but if I had to pick any one, it would be the JOint Stock company or the concept the Limited Liability Company or LLC.

Len Deighton – SS-GB

I remember when this came out; I tried to read it then as a youth and could not make headway against it, however well-written it is.  Len Deighton is a master of the written word and you’ll learn a lot by him: read him, emulate him.  Unsurprisingly much-copied, this is the grand-dad of all alternative history spy thrillers.  I was particularly gratified to find in his story that the side-streets around the back of Victoria Station, on Vauxhall Bridge Road, were considered one of the roughest inner city areas in Europe.  Go there now!

Tim Marshall – Prisoners of geography

I go this in a charity shop in St Ives. A most excellent account of history as seen through maps, cartography and the importance of where you live, where your country lies.  Straits, river mouths and estuaries, mountain ranges,  cliffs and forests – these are the difference between life and death, wealth and penury.  Even in the days of cruise missiles and cybersecurity, your location still matters.

The Sparrow, by Maria Dona Russell

Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – a good and readable Sci-fi story. That is praise enough, in the end, in a world where readability and good English seem to matter less and less.

I write that, but I’ve just finished Stephen King’s classic novel “The Stand”. Stephen King is an icon amongst wannabee writers. In all of “The Stand”there are perhaps two or three adverbs. 28 pages into “The Sparrow” and one of the characters is doing something”expressively”. Hmm.

Whilst ostensibly writing sci-fi, she has used sci-fi memes to enable a discussion of such eternal matters as celibacy, pride, marriage, and relationship. Her Jesuits seem believable to me, though her space vehicles and her aliens are perhaps less convincing, and beg more questions than they answer. It’s an interesting point; after all, what is fiction for but to stimulate the discussion of ideas?

Her Puerto Rican priest Fr. Sandoz is the central towering figure; gaunt, hugely capable, prideful, strong. Yet he is utterly destroyed, ruined, by his appalling experiences on the alien world. It was his pride and strength that helped destroy him. He is healed and restored to wholeness in the end, not by the working of grace, nor even by human compassion, but by robust and stern treatment from his superiors at the Society of Jesus. This I find unconvincing – but I believe in grace.

Alpha Centauri is one of the very nearest stars to Earth. That humankind should receive radio signals from intelligent lifeforms from somewhere as relatively close as that, implies that the universe must simply teem with intelligent life around almost every star (in keeping with the ideas of older writers like Poul Anderson or even more modern authors like Stephen Baxter.) But she has not taken this idea forward.

The relativity and ballistics seem fine at first glance. Her space vehicle gets to Alpha Centauri in about 18 years (as seen from Earth) but time dilation makes the journey time about a year as seen from on board. The engines of her space vehicles remain as undescribed as those of Iain M Banks, and are even less convincing thereby. To accelerate at 1G up to light speed, and then decelerate again, as one must to reach Alpha Centauri in less than decades, implies quite remarkable fuel consumption. There are some interesting gaps in her engineering, but in the end her book is not about engines and aliens, but about people and human relationships. An astonishing work and I’m glad I found it.