This is not a book blog. There are lots of book bloggers out there who review lots of books. I’m not one of them. I keep trying to cut down on the number of books I review here. Despite this, in 2020 I reviewed more than twenty.
How does this keep happening?
Firstly, I know a lot of writers. And they (like me) are desperate to see their books reviewed. If people don’t review them, how will anybody know about them? Many excellent books are overlooked by reviewers and readers, especially if they are not published by big publishers with significant marketing budgets. If I can help get some of these titles even a little bit more visibility, I think that will have been worthwhile.
Secondly, I get given books. Some I ask for (mainly through NetGalley), some are offered to me by publishers. Lots of writers complain on social media that no one will review their books but can I suggest they learn from some publishers? Publishers are often criticised for not doing a lot for their authors, but they do seem better at identifying potential bloggers and contacting them than are many writers.
Although people giving you books are not supposed to ask for reviews as a quid pro quo (Amazon, in particular, prohibits this), there is an implicit social contract that demands that you write a review. That can be embarrassing if you hated the book but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.
What do I review?
Basically, I review the books I get given to review. I may come across a book I’ve bought or seen in a library that I like so much I just have to review it, but books sent to me specifically for review get to the top of the pile. This makes my reviewing choices fairly eclectic.
I do try to prioritise books about history as my blog focuses on history. History stretches a fair way, though, from Jennifer Macaire’s prehistoric shenanigans (A Remedy in Time) to Alan Bardos’ excellent story set around the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 (The Assassins). There’s some non-fiction history as well, like Robert Griffiths’ authoritative guide to the Rifles in the Peninsular Campaign (Riflemen) and Jacqueline Reiter’s superb life of the Second Earl of Chatham, The Late Lord. (Both of those books, incidentally, were my own purchases – or more accurately gifts requested for Christmas – which gives some idea how good I thought they were.)
I also include quite a few thrillers (I really do like a good thriller) and even a romance. I’m not generally a romance fan, but I’ve made an exception for Gilli Allan’s excellent Buried Treasure.
How do I review?
I do try to find things to say about the books I review which go beyond: ‘This is a plot summary. I thought it was really good.’ Most of my reviews will be between 500 and 1,000 words, which gives time to get my teeth into how I think the book works.
There are books that I have enjoyed but where I think I really don’t have anything to say about them and these may be reviewed on Amazon but not on my blog.
What if I hate a book?
I generally try to avoid negative reviews but I’m happy to make an exception if the author is well-known and my review is not going to do them any harm. Plus there are famous authors who I think are trading on their reputation to foist terrible books on the public. (Jeremy Paxman’s Empireis a good example.) Once or twice I have felt duty-bound to review something underwhelming and then I just hide the review away and never speak of it on social media. It’s just my opinion and I doubt that people will seek my views out and shun the author. All my reviews are honest but they are always subjective. I hope they encourage you to read books by authors you might otherwise not have looked at.
Here, in no particular order, is complete list of all the books I reviewed in 2020. Click on the titles for a link to the original review.
I’ve loosely categorised them as historical (H), crime/thrillers (T) and non-fiction (NF). That leaves a few over but you can work those out for yourselves.
This is even more subjective than the reviews, but everyone else lists their best books of 2020, so why shouldn’t I?
There are only three non-fiction books reviewed. All three are excellent and you can improve your mind by reading any of them. Money is a quick gallop through the history of finance, brilliantly entertaining and very informative. Riflemen is a wonderful historical study, though possibly a little dense for the casual reader, while The Late Lord is a model of how to write a historical biography.
This is such a broad category that it’s difficult to single out individual titles. A Remedy in Time is gloriously silly and enormously fun but (though it does have real historical content) you can’t compare it with The Assassins, which is not such an easy read but which is packed with detail on the political intrigues that triggered World War I. I was particularly taken with A Murder of No Consequence which used a murder mystery set in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War to explore not only the history of the period but the moral questions that the collapse of civil society gives rise to. It’s a book that deserves to be read.
Having said that it’s difficult to single out an individual title, the historical fiction that was just head and shoulders above anything else I read in 2020 was This Blighted Expedition. Lynn Bryant’s story of the 1809 Walcheren Expedition blends historical fact with gripping fiction in a way that should be a model for writers of historical fiction. Lynn Bryant self-publishes her books. It’s true that there is an awful lot of self-published dross out there, but books like This Blighted Expedition show why it is a huge mistake to dismiss self-published authors as somehow not ‘proper’ writers. It’s my Book of the Year.
I’ve read a couple of books by Ragnar Jonasson before, so his publisher kindly offered to send me a NetGalley review copy of his latest, The Girl Who Died.
I’m very thrown by it. Nowadays writers are continually told to “show not tell”. It’s become a mantra that can be taken to ridiculous extremes. It is relatively modern writing rule. Many 19th-century authors “tell” all the time. It can seem a little odd to modern eyes, but it doesn’t stop them spinning a perfectly good yarn. I’ve often thought that we could make a great deal more use of straightforward telling, but this book seems to be told all the time. Let’s take a random sentence (the point at which I stopped reading and started to write this):
“Although he hadn’t said so in plain words, there was no doubt in her mind that he had been coming onto her. He had put his arm round her and angled for an invitation to go up to her bedroom. There was no way she could have misunderstood him, was there?”
There is no showing at all here. We are simply told what he has done and that the girl (the main character) had no doubt about his intent. It’s a simple statement of fact and I can see (indeed in the past I would have argued) that trying to look at the whole thing from “inside her head” can be overelaborate and unnecessary. But the story is almost all told in this tone, giving it a certain flatness.
Perhaps the author is trying to reflect the barrenness of the landscape in which our protagonist finds herself. She is in an isolated village on the very edge of Iceland with a population of just ten people. It’s not only a harsh and unforgiving landscape, but it is socially barren as well. Many of the characters seem to be social misfits. (I suppose they would have to be to live in such a place.) This style could, I suppose, have been deliberately chosen with this in mind.
The trouble is, it is, frankly, just boring to read: page after page of flat prose. And nothing really happens. The rather sad attempt at seduction I’ve just mentioned comes a third of the way into the book and is almost the most exciting thing so far.
There is something more exciting: a murder. Possibly a double murder. It appears, apparently arbitrarily, some way into the book and it’s returned to later. On both occasions it’s inserted in italics presumably to titillate us with the promise that eventually something will happen. But when? Is this something that has happened in the past? Or something that will happen in the future? And who is it who has been killed? We just don’t know. It seems a clumsy attempt to inject some interest where, so far, there is none.
The story is set in the Icelandic winter. So we have a rather dull character, her life so empty that she sees a job in this tiny village as an exciting opportunity, living in an almost deserted settlement in the middle of nowhere, when most of the time it is dark.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest challenges that an author can faces to depict a spectacularly dull life in a way that is not itself dull. I can’t help feeling that Ragnar Jonasson has set himself this task and failed.
I get a lot of books off NetGalley and I feel that there is a social obligation to review them. It’s usually a pleasure. I’ve read many new authors and been exposed to some really interesting novels – including the first two I’ve read by Jonasson. Every so often, though, I come across something which I cannot, in good conscience, give a positive review to. I’ve only read a third of this book, so it may well get massively better, but I’m just finding it such hard work that I’m going to cut my losses at this point.
There is inevitably a lot of subjectivity in assessing any book. Some people may love this. For myself, though, this is going to get one of my very, very rare one star reviews.
Since I started limiting myself to blogging just once a week, a lot of my posts here have been book reviews. I really don’t want this to turn into a book blog, but there are a lot of good books out there and I like to help promote them.
This week I finished two very different historical novels. One was a serious book about the assassination that triggered World War I, while the second was a more tongue-in-cheek adventure set in the Palaeolithic. Both were, in very different ways, excellent reads. Here are my thoughts:
The Assassins – Alan Bardos
The Assassins is a novel based around the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. It was the murder that precipitated World War I, but who was Franz Ferdinand, why was he killed, and how on earth did this start one of history’s greatest bloodbaths?
If, like me, you’ve got some vague awareness that it was all to do with the Balkan Problem and Great Power alliances at the beginning of the 20th century, but you really struggle with more detail than that, then Alan Bardos’s book will, if nothing else, leave you much better informed. In fact, the time spent reading could be well justified purely for its value as a work of historical pedagogy. But, although there is the odd page where there is a danger of being overwhelmed by “facts” about the political situation, the book reads well as a work of fiction. This is mainly because we see events unfold through the eyes of an entirely made-up (at least, I really hope he’s entirely made-up) young chancer in the diplomatic service, Johnny Swift. Swift’s mother had been a governess. He has made it into the diplomatic service despite being, dash it all, pretty much from the servant class. His response to the continual prejudice and unpleasantness that he is exposed to from his superiors is to behave ever more outrageously, seducing his boss’s wife and embezzling embassy funds to feed his gambling habit.
Rather than dismiss Swift in disgrace and risk an open scandal, the diplomatic service sends him to Vienna to report on the political situation in the Balkans. He is passed from arrogant caddish official to arrogant caddish official, all of whom deny that there is anything to worry about in Bosnia, until he finally ends up in Sarajevo where he quickly learns that there is a violent nationalist movement threatening terrorist outrages.
A series of unlikely, but not incredible, events ends up with him being infiltrated into the Bosnian nationalist movement, mainly thanks to the efforts of Breitner, a disgraced Austro-Hungarian intelligence officer who, like Johnny, doesn’t come from the right background and whose intelligence on the nationalist movement is therefore systematically ignored by the Habsburg administration.
The mechanics of putting these characters into a position which means that the reader will be able to follow in detail the machinations that led to the Archduke’s assassination could be plodding and unrealistic. Instead, Bardos’s mastery of characterisation and fluent writing style carries the reader along with it. In fact, as we move closer and closer to the assassination, I found myself turning the pages desperate to see how it would work out – ironic as we all know exactly what happened.
There is a definite pause in the narrative thrust of the book once poor Franz Ferdinand and his wife (portrayed as easily the most sympathetic character in the book) are duly bumped off. However, Johnny Swift is not just a site cipher created for purposes of plot and Bardos now has to conclude his story. Bardos manages to make us care as Johnny is bounced from meeting to meeting when nobody seems quite sure whether he should be given a medal or sent to prison. Again Bardos fact and fiction really well with Johnny’s Odyssey taking the reader through the key moments that finally lead to war. In fact Johnny is even in the room as Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, delivers the famous line: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
Franz Ferdinand is dead; the world is about to be plunged into war; but what awaits Johnny? Johnny’s ultimate fate is a twist I did not see coming, but at least he’s still alive at the end of the book. I’m glad about that. Promiscuous, caddish, dishonest, and a thorough rascal he may well be, but he managed to make what could have been a boring history lesson into a most enjoyable read and it would be lovely to share his adventures again.
A Remedy in Time – Jennifer Macaire
Jennifer Macaire’s books combine wild action adventure plots against a meticulously researched background. Her latest thriller does not disappoint on either of these.
Although I am pretty sure the book was written before covid, the background is scarily contemporary: the world is being ravaged by a pandemic with no cure. The best possibility of a cure lies in the blood of sabre-tooth tigers (smilodons) which studies have shown carried the virus and from which you could make an antidote. Don’t spend too long worrying about this: it’s mainly an excuse for our feisty heroine (I really didn’t want to say that, but it’s that sort of book) to travel back to the Pleistocene (Macaire loves time-travel adventures), get a sample of sabre-tooth tiger blood and save the world.
What could possibly go wrong?
As if dire wolves, giant beavers, huge salmon with enormous teeth, and mammoths were not enough of a problem (not to mention the smilodons), the expedition is packed with Bad People, anxious to kill Robin and get the vital serum for themselves. Cue murder plots, terrible deaths and a great deal of running through the woods trying to avoid becoming something’s dinner.
Is this a good read? You betcha. Macaire’s writing is fluid and entertaining. I powered through the story. Is it an improving read? Well, oddly enough, it does have quite a lot of fascinating facts about the animals of the time, so you can claim an educational credit. Is it great literature? Of course not. It’s entertainment pure and simple and easy to disdain as commercial rubbish. But it’s huge fun and brightened my day at a time that we all need our days brightening. And, though it’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as hack writing, it’s surprisingly difficult to get right. Macaire scores a bullseye on this style.
‘Coercive control’ is a form of domestic abuse that has started to be taken much more seriously over the past few years, especially since the Serious Crime Act in 2015. It’s not a new thing and there have been many stories and films featuring it over the years. In fact, ‘gaslighting’, when the perpetrator convinces the victim that the abuse is all in their head, takes its name from the 1940 film ‘Gaslight’.
Like many men, I had my suspicions that coercive control was mainly an invention of militant feminism and that, if it happened at all, it happened to weak women who were, to a degree, complicit in their abuse. Since then two separate friends of mine, both strong, confident women, have fallen victim to this sort of relationship. It’s a terrifying problem and people (mainly, but not exclusively, women) need to be aware of the behaviour and its dangers.
This makes Karen King’s latest, The Stranger in my Bed, a timely novel.
Phil and Freya have married after a whirlwind romance. Two years later, the marriage is in trouble with rows that often turn violent. Mind games are being played. But who is the abuser and who is the victim? At this point, though, Phil is involved in a car crash when his brakes are tampered with. He wakes in hospital with no memory of the abuse. All he recalls is the courtship and marriage.
King’s book, then, sets out to tackle several different issues.
It’s a straightforward whodunit. Who tampered with the brakes (and continues a campaign to harass Phil, breaking into his house and leaving threatening notes in his home office)?
It’s (as it says on the cover) a psychological thriller. Is Freya really in danger from Phil or is it all in her mind? Or is Freya the abuser?
It’s a sort of romance. Given the chance to start again, can Phil and Freya rekindle the love that characterised the courtship and honeymoon that Phil remembers or are they doomed to remain in the cycle of abuse?
The story is told in the third person but with chapters from the point of view of different characters. Mainly it’s straightforwardly from Freya’s viewpoint but some chapters are from Phil’s point of view. Phil sees himself as a loving husband. OK, he can lose his temper from time to time, but then his wife, as he puts it “always presses his buttons”. Some of her behaviour (I can’t give examples because of spoilers) goes way beyond what I would consider acceptable in a marriage and I found my sympathies moving to Phil. Karen King’s willingness to forgive the kind of behaviour that would suggest a marriage has already broken down makes me uncomfortable and blurs some of the lines in the book. It certainly doesn’t fit well with the “can they get their marriage back on course” subplot. Surely the marriage is doomed? But, given the structure of many romantic novels, maybe there will be a happy ending after all.
Karen King has a lifetime of writing romance behind her and her writing flows well. All the bits that could be in a romance novel read just as they should. Nice, normal Freya, her handsome sexy husband, their comfortable home, her interesting job. But the ‘psychological thriller’ elements are less comfortable. I felt that there wasn’t quite enough menace for it to work as a thriller. Perhaps that’s what makes coercive control so insidious. It’s very difficult to believe that there can be a real threat lurking in such an apparently ‘normal’ home. Some authors of psychological thrillers introduce a pet animal at this stage – as with the rabbit whose fate gave rise to the expression ‘bunny boiler’ in ‘Fatal Attraction’. Dogs, too, have met grisly ends in plenty of films and books. I have a twisted mind: I miss that sort of peril in a thriller.
In summary, this is a romance author who is tackling an important, and very unromantic, subject. It has meant breaking away from her usual style to explore a new genre and, inevitably, there is some grinding of gears as the drive engages with a whole new terrain. But it’s an important subject and one that her audience probably isn’t that familiar with. It’s well written and carries the reader along and anything that makes people more aware of the issues is to be applauded.
In keeping with my promise last week that I am going to cut back slightly on blogging, I’m going to stop doing all my book reviews as separate Tuesday blogs. So here, as my first Friday book review for a while is a look at Kirsten McKenzie’s latest. Like all of us, Kirsten has had to revise her plans for her book launch because of covid and the book is officially being launched in her native New Zealand in November. It is, though, already available on Amazon and you can buy it HERE.
Kirsten has moved away from her time-shift historical novels to immerse herself thoroughly in horror and The Forger and the Thief is a full-on Gothic novel with all the trademark tropes of the genre: horror, death, and romance, with a suitable side-order of religious references and morality.
The story is set in Florence in 1966. It revolves around five people, although there is a substantial supporting cast. Although they all have names, the chapters refer to them by the iconic types they represent: the Guest, the Wife, the Student, the Cleaner (more accurately the Thief) and the Policeman. All but the Student have guilty secrets in their past and even the Student, though not carrying any guilt, is living with the horror of having survived the Nazi death camps.
The characters are drawn with a fairly broad brush (though some who are painted very dark do redeem themselves at the end). That’s fine in a Gothic novel and it does mean that, although the story seems confusing at first with several parallel narratives that only slowly come to intertwine, there is none of that flipping backwards and forwards to remember who people are that can take you out of a story. You always know whether we are looking at the woman fleeing an abusive husband, or the concentration camp survivor, or the policewoman (a more significant character than the Policeman, I thought, but casual sexism was all the rage in 1966). There is a lot of fun as we begin to see the links between them.
The narrative takes place in November. The winter rains have turned the river Arno into a raging torrent, which bursts its banks and floods Florence. The River itself features as a character in the novel and the sense of its destructive power is one of the strongest things about the book.
As the river hits town, all the plans and intrigues of the characters are literally swept up in the cataclysm that will leave several of them dead. I’m certainly not going to spoil the suspense by telling you which ones.
This is not a deep and meaningful book but it does race along. Like all the best stories it leaves you wanting to know what happens next. I didn’t start with high expectations, but I was soon caught up in the narrative, putting aside some much worthier books as I rushed on to get to the end.
I live with somebody who understands a lot about money. I don’t mean that she’s great with the household budget (although we seem to keep afloat somehow) but that she understands some of the arcane areas of financial policy that make me very pleased that it’s her job and not mine. She’s always reading books on the financial system, or the pensions industry, and she knows how credit cards work. (You may think you know how credit cards work, but I promise you, you don’t.)
Anyway, I thought it might be nice if I could read something intelligent about money and kid her that I am entitled to view on whether or not Britain is running an unacceptable deficit, just as much as she is. So when Atlantic Books offered me a copy of Jacob Goldstein’s Money via NetGalley, I leapt at the chance to improve my financial literacy.
Goldstein hosts a podcast, Planet Money, and writes about money for New York Times Magazine. He understands his subject and is an excellent communicator. He talks through the history of money from the idea of proto-money – things that had value because of, for example, their use in religious ceremonies – through the use of precious metals as stores of value and into paper money. Paper money is probably what most people today would identify as “real money” but Goldstein goes on to point out that most value now is stored not as paper currency but as digital information on the ledgers of financial institutions.
As the money that we used to settle our debts, pay our mortgages, and trade with, became increasingly detached from any material store of wealth we moved more towards modern financial systems with all the strengths and weaknesses that they have. The strengths include the ability to create money by lending out more than you actually have. While you can’t lend people more gold than you have in your vaults, it’s easy to write promissory notes for more gold than there is in your vaults provided that not everybody cashes them in at once (as in a run on the bank). The extra money that is created in this way and the liquidity that it provides within the economy allows for substantial economic growth. Goldstein argues that times when money is being created correlate well with periods of economic growth while times when money is taken out of the system (for example by increasing interest rates or increasing taxation) correlate with periods of depression. He argues that the principal cause of the Great Depression was the Fed’s policy of raising interest rates in an attempt to maintain a link between the paper money that they issued and their gold reserves.
Whilst the creation of money not backed by any tangible assets allows dramatic economic growth and a genuine increase in wealth, it also allows substantial opportunities for fraud or crashes caused by that foolishness that we call “bubbles”. A good example of both would be bitcoin. It’s worth noting here that, whilst I still can’t claim to properly understand it, the description of the theory behind bitcoin given in this book is the clearest I have ever seen.
After talking us through the theory of the gold standard and the arcane mysteries of shadow banking, as well as more technical terminology (all terribly clearly explained) that I’m not going to fit into a review, Goldstein gets political. The theory behind the euro is examined and found wanting while the ideas underpinning modern monetary theory (MMT) get a much more positive assessment.
The penultimate paragraph of the book mentions covid (full marks for topicality). As we re-examine so many of the fundamentals of the modern world, perhaps MMT and the possibility of governments simply printing all the money that they need and never worrying about paying it back, is not as mad as it may once have seemed
This is a fascinating book full of random digressions that do not make you lose sight of the main argument. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of increasing wealth in terms of the amount of light that you can buy for a day’s work. It includes what is undoubtedly the most impressive illustrative graph I have seen anywhere and the book is probably worth buying for that alone. Even without that graph, though, it is an astonishingly entertaining and informative gallop through the theory of money and how it can be applied in the real world. If you don’t already know all this stuff and want to be able to understand something of what is going on around you (let alone share your opinions on social media) I strongly recommend that you get hold of a copy.