Books – 3 fictional / 2 factual

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I have spent much of my free time during the COVID-19-related lockdown catching up on my amassed pile of unread books. As well as Warriors of the Storm, I have recently read: 

I read Michael Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer in three stages yesterday and this morning. It is a short paperback from around 1971 and my copy was £1 in a charity shop sporting much-thumbed musty pages yellow with age. The first half of the book reads like a drug-induced ramble and is barely coherent action adventure full of all the worst kind of -isms you can think of from that period including sexism and antisemitism to name just two. It’s one of few books I have considered stopping reading and putting straight in the bin. However, I’ve read Moorcock before and usually like his crazy science fiction / fantasy and so I persevered through the absurdity.   

I won’t say I was sold by the end of the book, but the story did become less of a collection of assorted fragments and take on some semblance of a coherent narrative, rather than an Austin Powers adventure written by a thirteen year old boy. I am reliably informed by the usual sources, that the book is part of a long-running series about the flamboyant character Jerry Cornelius, and many of the short chapters were first published in a British and American magazines of the time. It certainly is a patchwork and unfortunately not larger than the sum of its parts.

The Perfect Fool, Stewart Lee’s debut novel, written in a dry period for his stand-up before he ‘escaped his certain fate’, is another misfiring book and contains very little of the intelligence, sophistication and artifice exhibited in his celebrated stand-up routines. I have read his other books – centred on disseminating his routines almost line by line – and rate him as one of the best stand-ups in the world ever, so was keen to read this novel. I’m glad I did, it’s much better than Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer, as it is at least coherent, but it was still rather disappointing.  

The book follows the progress of an eclectic collection of misfits, most of whom are unwittingly caught up in a quest for the Holy Grail, which was, if Mr Lewis’s visions are to be believed, last seen in orbit around the moon. Mr Lewis has a case of amnesia but believes he was once an astronaut. Sid and Danny fuel his fantasies in an online chatroom while they’re not playing in a Dire Straits tribute band in South London. Tracy, a suspected serial killer with a sordid past (Sid and Danny have seen the video), is on the run across America, Luther is an ex-70’s rocker turned recluse (worshipped by Sid), and Bob is a jaded Native American clown (who once sold drugs to Luther). Of course all their fates intertwine by the grand finale. If I’m being kind, and why not I love Stewart Lee, the set up is akin to a Neil Gaiman book (I’m thinking along the lines of American Gods), but the overall story falls a bit flat.  

I guess Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes falls into the same kind of world as the first two books in that it mixes fantasy with contemporary life in a very Gaiman-eseque way. It is the fourth book in an ongoing series dubbed the Rivers of London series and features a policeman Peter Grant with magical powers – think The Bill meets Harry Potter. It picks up the story where it left off in Whispers Under Ground and it feels very much like an episode in a larger story and I entered into reading it with a caveat I had formed from the reading the three previous books.

Grant is still looking for the rogue magician known as the Faceless Man and the story revolves around a tower block in Elephant and Castle designed by a mad architect. To begin with it sounds a lot like the plot of the original Ghostbusters movie but to be fair Aaronovitch does point this out to himself. There’s some good humour, lots of pop culture references, and lots interesting facts about the city and police procedure, but therein lies my main issue with this series and so the caveat I mentioned.

You see, Grant, rather than sounding like a young black PC who has had a secret world of magic open up his eyes, sounds more like a fifty-something white writer with a penchant for science fiction, architecture and the history of London. I don’t like it when the writer leaks through into his characters and this is a good (bad?) example. Another example is Bernard Cornwell’s (albeit wholly understandable, if you read his bio) issue with dogmatic Christianity which pervades his books. If you accept this flaw, then Broken Homes is a good read as part of an ongoing tale, but not as a standalone novel.    

Finally, I read two great non-fiction books back-to-back a month or so ago: Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy and Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944. I decided to read them together as the events of WWII Operation Market Garden laid out by Beevor in brilliant detail in Arnhem follow on from D-Day. The amount of detail is rather overwhelming at times and it is good, perhaps essential, that the author provides glossary, index, maps and photos to supplement the main text.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the Normandy landings would benefit from reading D-Day which is the most thorough account of the planning, preparations, execution and aftermath of the hugely complex Allied plan to take back France. In both books, Beevor also provides accounts from the other side of the battles – from the German foot soldiers and commanders involved. He also points out where the accounts, from both sides of the war, might be untrustworthy and provides his own opinion on the reasons why certain decisions were made and why certain tactics failed, at times politely debunking the work of other less thorough historians.   

The real-life vignettes and anecdotes contained within both books paint a picture of how truly awful it must have been for those involved in the conflict toward the latter stages of WWII – soldiers from both sides, but also for the resistance fighters, hospital workers, clergy and innocent civilians caught up in the fighting quite literally at times on their doorsteps.

I read Beevor’s books not to celebrate the Allies victory over the Nazis (although I am obviously thankful for that) but to educate myself on why it happened, how it happened and why we should never forget it happened. It seems now more than ever with all the schisms happening across the democratic world that we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.

On a lighter note, I also enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of Bob Mortimer & Paul Whitehouse –Gone Fishing which I expect only resembles the actual book in certain places. It’s comes across more of a fun podcast full of quips and banter from the pair of legendary British comedians who recently featured on the really rather good even if you don’t like fishing TV show of the same name.  

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