Search This Blog

Saturday 29 December 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (8 of 12)

Anthony Powell’s eighth book in his sequence is The Soldier’s Art and was published in 1968. 

It begins in 1941 with our narrator Nick Jenkins buying an army greatcoat in the neighbourhood of Shaftesbury Avenue, ‘where, as well as officers’ kit and outfits for sport, they hire or sell theatrical costume’. (p5) As ever, Powell provides an excellent scene setting for a humorous interlude where the tailor’s assistant, ‘bent, elderly, bearded, with the congruous demeanour of a Levantine trader’ is convinced he has seen Nick acting on stage, and can’t be swayed from this, ending with ‘I’ll wish you a good run.’ (p7)

England is in the midst of the blitz. ‘Announced by the melancholy dirge of sirens, like ritual wailings at barbarous obsequies, the German planes used to arrive shortly before midnight…’ (p9) and these air-raids are significant, notably towards the end of the book. The targeted populace could only hope and pray the raids were not too long – ‘… the hope that the Luftwaffe, bearing in mind the duration of their return journey, would not protract with too much Teutonic conscientiousness the night’s activities.’ (p10).

Besides pricking the pomposity of individuals, Powell puts in his sights the Treasury: ‘… the cluster of highly educated apes ultimately in charge of such matters at the Treasury.’ (p20)

Again, we’re introduced to several new characters. Cocksidge: ‘… the imaginative lengths to which he would carry obsequiousness to superiors displayed something of genius. He took a keen delight in running errands for anyone a couple of ranks above himself, his subservience even to majors showing the essence of humility.’ (p39) Soper, the Division Catering Officer, who stared at a piece of rejected meat on Biggs’s plate: ‘… to implyu censure of too free and easy table manners, or, in official capacity as DCO, professionally assessing the nutritive value of that particular cube of fat – and its waste – in wartime.’ (p71)

And we meet people from the earlier books, too. Nick is working for Widmerpool now, who has not improved in his manner: ‘We are not in the army to have fun, Nicholas.’ (p72)

Then there’s Chips Lovell who meets up with Nick: ‘I hope there’ll be something to drink tonight. The wine outlook becomes increasingly desperate since France went.’ (p115) How will we ever cope after Brexit…?

Another person from earlier is Mrs Maclintick, who is now sharing a house with Moreland; ‘What lax morals people have these days,’ Moreland says (p216). ‘Small, wiry, aggressive, she looked as ready as ever for a row, her bright black eyes and unsmiling countenance confronting a world from which perpetual hostility was not merely potential, but presumptive.’ (p118)

Charles Stringham turns up in the army, too, having become tea-total, and is quite happy to be an ‘other rank’, the officers’ mess waiter. He makes a telling statement, too: ‘How severe you always are to human weakness, Nick.’

Some characters we’ve known die – victims of the war. The scenes where Nick appears at the aftermath of a bombing are touching though Powell inevitably steers clear of sentimentality and any emotion.

Throughout, and as evinced by the above examples, Powell has a good turn of phrase. ‘I began to tell my story. He cut me short at once, seeming already aware what was coming, another tribute to the General’s powers of transmuting thought into action.’ (p89) And ‘The comparative enthusiasm Farebrother managed to infuse into this comment was something of a masterpiece in the exercise of dissimulation.’ (p194)

We’re barely aware of what is happening in the war, apart from an occasional line such as ‘military action in Syria’ and ‘the Germans attacked in Crete’ (p168) And Germany invades Russia (p219) bringing some kind of hope…

The book’s title comes from Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came: ‘Think first, fight afterwards – the soldier’s art;’ (p214)

Eight books down, four to go. We, the reader, shall soldier on!

Next: 9 – The Military Philosophers.

Friday 28 December 2018

Mystery Weekly Magazine - June 2018

Six crime stories, all varied in setting, characterisation and period, from a Canadian publisher, available on Amazon for under a fiver.   

The cover story ‘Lady Dick’ by Tony Parker is set in the 1950s, when two post-war OSS female operatives are working as private eyes. Present tense relating to the past – ‘We ranged through occupied Europe like angels of death. We owned the night.’ Some great lines, quite slick. 

Next up is a switch, ‘A Ship called Pandora’ by Melodie Campbell, a science fiction outing, a Witness Protection system run by two hard cases, transporting their human cargo to the outer reaches of space for their protection. A nice twist ending. 

‘Mop Jockey’ by Michael Ayoob is a raw tale told in first and third person about a cleaner with a deadly difference.   

John H. Dromey’s ‘A Detour down Memory Lane’ is a lighthearted investigation into a John Doe’s death. I liked the line ‘a snot rag of prevarications’ meaning ‘a tissue of lies’. [The editor in me will forgive the use of ‘pouring’ instead of ‘poring’ – ‘pouring over a dusty ledger’ (p50)]. A likeable team, lawyer Stephanie and investigator Molly. 

The story ‘Stars’ by Peter W.J. Hayes is a hard-nosed gangster tale where the anti-hero Tank learns that good or bad, lives are transient. 

I found the last story highly enjoyable: ‘The Motor Court’ by Jennifer Collins Moore, where a body is found in a dumpster and two women, usually at loggerheads, reluctantly combine forces to discover the perpetrator. Good dynamic between octogenarian Betty and the owner of the motor court, Eleanor.

If you like crime shorts, try this magazine. Contrary to its title, it's monthly...

Wednesday 26 December 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (7 of 12)

Seventh in the sequence of twelve books that comprise A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is titled The Valley of Bones (1964).

Narrated by Nick Jenkins, we find him in the army now. It’s 1940 and he’s a second lieutenant stationed in a Welsh regiment officered in the main by bank employees and manned by miners.

The title of the book comes from Ezekiel, the passage being quoted at a religious service held in one of the parish churches of the town near the army base: ‘The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and caused me to pass them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley: and, lo, they were very dry…’ (p42) As is the narration here…

The battalion under the command of Captain Gwatkin is moved to Northern Ireland. Gwatkin is a sympathetic but muddled character who strives to endear himself to the men, striving to get the best out of them, even the most recalcitrant: ‘The NCOs and privates do their best. Are you going to be the only one, Sayce, who is not doing his best?’ Farce rears its head when Gwatkin muddles instructions during an exercise. As a result, there’s a snap inspection, an unexpected visit to the Battalion by General Liddament, who voices concern when he learns the men haven’t had porridge. He cannot believe that anyone can dislike porridge; they must be foolish fellows. (p102)

There are an amusing couple of pages poking fun at Lord Haw-Haw’s propaganda and his ridiculous pronunciation. (pp58/59)

As in earlier volumes, Powell can visualise a scene well: ‘Within the (train) carriage cold fug stiflingly prevailed, dimmed bulbs, just luminous, like phosphorescent molluscs in the eddying backwaters of an aquarium, hovering above photographic views of Blackpool and Morecambe Bay: one of those interiors endemic to wartime.’ (p110)

Nick reflects on his past, evoked for example by meeting Brent, a paramour of Jean, an earlier love. ‘… even when you have ceased to love someone, that does not necessarily bring an indifference to a past shared together. Besides, though love may die, vanity lives on timelessly.’ (p135)

Though written in the 1960s, the story is in the 1940s, and we’re reminded how the cost of living has altered: ‘I’ve got a broken-down old car I bought with the proceeds of my writing activities. It cost a tenner…’ (p142) Oh, to afford a car on one’s writing proceeds these days!

The characters are interesting, whether it’s Gwatkin, the unrequited lover, the alcoholic Lieutenant Bithel, CSM Cadwallader, Odo Stevens or Priscilla. Indeed, the least interesting is the narrator himself, Nick.

Yet again, Powell – in the guise of Nick – cannot deal with emotion. ‘It is hard to describe your wife.’ (p143) And ‘… when I had been able to see Isobel and the child. She and the baby, a boy, were “doing well”, but there had been difficulty in visiting them…’ (p178) He’s talking about his own boy who remains nameless! No affection whatever… And it is not mitigated by the words ‘Like a million others, I missed my wife…’ (p180)

Reality impinges but briefly: The summer was very hot. ‘The Germans had invaded the Netherlands, Churchill become Prime Minister…’ (p188) And by the book’s close: the ‘German army were reported as occupying the outskirts of Paris.’

Towards the end of the book, Nick is transferred to be the assistant of the HQ Division’s DAAG (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General) and is surprised by the incumbent’s identity…

Next: #7 – The Soldier’s Art

Editorial comment
Editors can miss things, I know from experience. Here’s one case in point. ‘Rowlands thinks it will be Egypt or India. Rowland always has these big ideas.’ (p19) Somehow, Rowland has gained an ‘s’…!

‘Dooley patricularly entering into the idea of a rag.’ (p29) A typo that slipped through; this shouldn’t happen nowadays with spell-checker.

‘… and the bones cames together, bone to bone.’ (p42)

‘Rain had begun to fall again.’ (p86) Rain always falls. Maybe, ‘It began to rain again’ would have worked?

Tuesday 25 December 2018

Happy Christmas

Wishing all readers of this blog a Happy Christmas.

Sadly, there are many who have lost loved ones and this time of year brings with it mixed emotions - memories of happier times but also moments when that loss seems particularly crushing. Quell the pain and dwell on the good times, which remain in the memory always.



Thursday 20 December 2018

Book review: For Kingdom and Country

I.D. Roberts’s second adventure, For Kingdom and Country, featuring Kingdom Lock was published 2015; it is a direct sequel of Kingdom Lock (2014), already reviewed (see here).

We’re in Basra, Mesopotamia, in 1915, with the British against the German and Turkish forces in WWI.

Wilhelm Wassmuss, Lock’s German nemesis from the first book, is plotting to incriminate our hero in the crime of assassination. He is also financing a far-reaching network of spies…

Lock’s involvement with rich nurse Amy is thrust against the rocks, it seems, despite their earlier throes of passion. Lock is supported by his faithful comrade Siddhartha Singh (‘Sid’). Lock and his men are sent on a Commando mission to spike the enemy mines on the Tigris.

Throughout, the period details and the terrain come across as genuine. The map is useful and an improvement on the map in the first book. We continue to empathise with Lock and Sid.

Certainly, some of the storyline seems contrived, notably where coincidences are concerned, but it’s still good Boys’ Own adventure stuff.

Annoyingly, other characters are not developed much; for instance Sergeant Major Underhill and Petty Officer Betty Boxer, both of whom are interesting.

In conclusion, I suspect the book was probably rushed. The final confrontation is confusing, inadequately described. And many threads are left dangling, possibly intentionally with an eye on another follow-up.

Entertaining, but could have benefited from tighter editing.

Editorial comment
These comments may prove useful to writers…

As before, the name Lock is used too often when ‘he’ would suffice.

When only two characters are in a scene, it is not necessary for them to constantly refer to each other by name/rank, and the worst offenders are Lock and Sid conversing. Too many instances to itemise, but, for example: ‘Don’t be daft, Sid… I’m fine, Sid… Nothing, Sid…True, Sid… Yes, Sid…’ (all on p278)

It’s grating to repeatedly encounter ‘was sat’ instead of the perfectly correct and simpler ‘sat’ in the narrative. Again, too many instances to itemise, here’s one, for example: ‘He was sat shoulder to shoulder…’ (p211)

‘Though still a sergeant major, Lock had gained a rare mumble of gratitude from Underhill when he presented him with his promotion to RSM...’ (p179) Of course this is wrong, implying Lock is the sergeant major! The editor should have deleted ‘Though still a sergeant major’.

Both Indian’s were shirtless… (p191) There shouldn’t be an apostrophe!

Over-use of the word ‘up’, often when it is not necessary. An example: ‘… peering hard up at the sky.’ (p280) We know the sky is up… A single page has too many ups and downs, for example. (p377)

Similar, here: ‘… the pinking sky above them…’ (p284)

And: ‘… shadow cast from the moonlight up above,’ (p314)

At least three instances of the misuse of the word ‘populous’ when it should have been ‘populace’ (I noted two: pp331, 348)

‘a sound lost in the aeroplane’s noisy engine’ (p376) This should be ‘a sound drowned by the aeroplane’s noisy engine’, perhaps.

‘Without his shako on, Lock could see that the generaloberst had a head of thick snow-white hair’ (p397) Of course, the shako belongs to the white-haired chap, not Lock!

This next instance is a common conundrum for writers. If you’re riding a horse, you are not galloping but the horse is, yet we tend to say ‘He galloped…’ So it is here: ‘Lock puttered along trying to estimate how far he needed to travel before he should go ashore.’ (p407) It’s the motor launch that putters, not Lock. We know Lock is in the launch, so why not attribute the puttering to the boat? ‘The motor launch puttered along while he tried to estimate…’

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Book review - The Fox

Frederick Forsyth’s return after a fiction hiatus of five years sees his thriller The Fox published before it’s really ready. It seems rushed, for reasons I’ll go into soon, and is sadly unsatisfactory, and I believe the blame can be shared equally between Mr Forsyth and the publisher.

The publisher should do better. The list of books by Forsyth is impressive, with The Outsider following on from The Kill List, below which are two Non-fiction books listed, The Biafra Story and Emeka. Don’t Bantam Press know that The Outsider is non-fiction, being his autobiography?

The story is about a young British man, Luke Jennings, with Asperger’s Syndrome who has hacked into the US security system. Together with his family (mother, father, brother) he is arrested and they're sequestered in a safe place in England. Rather than prosecute him, both the Americans and the British decide to make use of his considerable gifts to tilt the balance of power – to interfere with Russian, North Korean and Chinese computer-linked weapons systems.

Forsyth’s page-turning ability is apparent as he peppers the story with facts and details about the clandestine and political world, even including most recent events, such as the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury and the summit meetings with North Korea. As usual, Forsyth employs his omniscient third person narrative, creating that immediacy of a reporter viewing events unfolding. Unfortunately, that technique here leaves little room for emotion. In truth, I felt that the book reads more like a film treatment than a novel; it was all tell, tell, tell and not much show.

It’s a quirk of mine, but I find it annoying when a character is referred to in two different ways. The putative hero is Sir Adrian Weston. Most of the time, we get Adrian or Sir Adrian. But then he drops in Weston. Bond was always Bond; end of.

The utilisation of Luke is serious wishful thinking, breaking down foreign firewalls virtually at the drop of a hat. Luke’s technical shepherd who directs the lad’s hacking activities is Jeremy Hendricks, who (to tick a box) ‘was gay but made no mention of it, choosing a quiet life of celibacy’ (p13).

Hendricks is an example of poor characterisation. We don’t really get to know Sue Jennings, Luke’s mother, or even Luke, ‘The Fox’ for that matter. We learn a little about Sir Adrian, even delving beneath his skin. But that’s all. The majority of characters – and there are over 30 listed (with organizations too) beginning on p303 – are ciphers. There is no emotional content, so as a reader I didn’t experience any tension when threats were described to silence Luke. Really, Luke is the main character, the reason for the story, Hitchcock’s McGuffin, yet he does not come alive, so then the threat of his death falls flat: it should create concern at least.

Since reading the book, I’ve looked at the reviews. They fall into two categories: excellent thriller, couldn’t put it down and the obverse, highly disappointing with a cop-out ending. I regret to concur with the naysayers.

An aside
I was fascinated to read about a sleeper agent: ‘The agent … masqueraded as a shopkeeper in the West End of London whose British name was Burke. His real name was Dmitri Volkov.’ (p73)

In my Tana Standish psychic spy novel Mission: Tehran (originally published 2009, re-published 2017) states:

Yuri – cover-name Neil Tomlinson – had hired the light cargo aircraft for the day and filed all the flight-plan papers at the nearby airport. He landed in a field a couple of miles away from Fenner House and picked up ‘agent Burke’.
Lieutenant Aksakov had already concealed the Escort behind a hedge and a cluster of trees and thrown the blonde wig and business clothes into the boot.
She was wearing the more familiar hard-wearing green cotton tunic and trousers. For this mission she’d left behind in the car’s boot her water flask, the folding stock version of the Kalashnikov automatic AKM, three hundred 7.62mm rounds and the P351-M radio set with scrambling and high-speed transmission apparatus. The vehicle was detonated to explode should she be unable to retrieve it. Instead, she carried her spring-loaded knife, spare blades, a Makarov pistol and thirty-two rounds. Six grenades and plastic explosive completed her weapons load. (p184)
Glossary: Burke - Code-name chosen because Aksakov specialised in throttling people without leaving a trace and this transitive verb stems from a nineteenth century murderer’s name. (p275)

Coincidence, then…

Editor comment:
There are a few instances where an editor should have intervened; here are just two of them.

1) ‘Though he was more than ten years older than the man at Yasenevo, he had noted the rising star of the SVR when he had been deputy chief of MI6.’ (p90) Of course the rising star of the SVR wasn’t in MI6, though that is the implication here. It should have read ‘Though he was more than ten years older than the man at Yasenevo, when he had been deputy chief of MI6 he had noted the rising star of the SVR.’

2) ‘Under the Shah, Israel had little to fear from Iran…’ (p170) Of course the Shah was never the head of state of Israel. Perhaps it should have read: ‘Under the Shah, Iran posed little threat to Israel…’