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The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, it origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

Vintage, 1998, 281 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Grace Notes cover

MacLaverty is from Belfast but moved to Scotland in his thirties. Grace Notes is partly set on Islay, with some scenes in Glasgow. However, Part One occurs entirely in Northern Ireland to where Catherine Anne McKenna is returning to her childhood home for the funeral of her father. She has been estranged from her Catholic parents for years, effectively since leaving home to go to University. They were very strict when she was young, with an embedded sense of right and wrong, and she drifted away from them, her failure to come home one Christmas causing her father to say she would no longer be welcome. In the meantime she has, unknown to them, had a child, Anna, out of wedlock; a child whose father, Dave, “is no longer on the scene.” She still suffers from the effects of post-natal depression but has begun to ascend out of it. While back “home” she takes the opportunity to visit her first piano teacher, Miss Bingham, showing us the roots of her vocation as a composer. Before she leaves again, her mother seems to be coming round to her situation but is still aggrieved at the thought of a grandchild her husband never knew.

Part Two deals with Catherine’s early composing career while a teacher on Islay, her relationship with Dave, Anna’s birth, the descent into depression, Dave’s increasing distance as his alcohol consumption gets out of control, and Catherine beginning to come out of her despond on a beach as she hears in her head a set of notes which will become the new symphony whose first performance ends the book.

The portrait of Catherine’s feelings as she gives birth and the ensuing onset of her depression is finely done and Dave is a familiar enough character if a little undercooked. In the end though the novel is about music (grace notes being non-essential “notes between notes” but which add colour to a piece – the literary equivalent being detail in description of scene and action.) MacLaverty conveys music’s power and atmosphere very well and at one point deploys that tremendous Scottish phrase “black affronted”.

Throughout we get the sense of Catherine as a real person. So too are her parents and Miss Bingham but Dave seemed less of an individual and more of a type. It has to be acknowledged though that there are many versions of him about.

MacLaverty’s skill as an author means the book is very readable. One of Scotland’s 100 best? Better than quite a few which feature on the list.

Pedant’s corner:- Lilliburlero (Lillbulero,) the Ukraine (Ukraine,) “neither of whose name was” (neither of whose names was,) thran (Irish, the apparently identical in meaning Scottish word is spelled thrawn,) Miss Bingham had arthritis (as I read it this was at a time before Catherine went back to Ireland for the funeral and hadn’t yet been told Miss Bingham had the disease,) Capercaille (Capercaillie, more properly Capercailzie as it derives from the old Scottish letter yogh, written as ȝ,) jamjar (jam jar,) huzzies (usually hussies,) a pain in the ass (Catherine is Irish, she would say arse,) “what was bad were her nerves” (nerves is the object of this sentence; its subject is what, so, “what was bad was her nerves”,) the orchestra …. are playing (is playing.)

Interzone 269

Interzone 269 cover

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Guest Editorial outlines ten actions you could take to help address climate change problems. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 argues that attempts to open up genre culture to previously marginalised voices are all well and good but that reading genre cannot of itself address the world’s problems, only action can. Nina Allan’s Timepieces2 reflects on the many homes she has had, some of which have fed into her fiction. She hopes she has now settled down. The reviews contain one of Tem’s latest novel Ubo plus an interview with the author. Also covered are the latest novels by Charles Stross, John Scalzi3 and Adam Roberts, the very good indeed Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and my thoughts on The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.
In the fiction, The Influence Machine4 by Sean McMullen is narrated by Albert Grant, the only Metropolitan Police Inspector in 1899 with knowledge of science. A woman has been arrested for loitering with intent as her wagon contains something “scientific”. Her machine can peer into a parallel, more scientifically advanced world. The story is delightful but its ending is a bit weak.
A Death in the Wayward Drift5 by Tim Akers didn’t grab me at all. It features divers in a lake of strange water, things called emissary birds, trees that move and, despite the title, more than one death.
Still Life with Falling Man6 by Richard E Gropp. A man who can see into other dimensions is employed to find when a new nexus opens. These are spaces wherein twenty seven million years goes by in a subjective ten seconds. He gets trapped in one and is counting down from ten. This aspect reminded in part of my own Closing Time (Interzone 89, Nov 1994.)
In A Strange Kind of Beauty7 by Christien Gholson the Scoryax Kahtt wander a parched landscape following the prophecies of scrolls. Their Vaithe find new scrolls and translate the prophecies. Heoli’s find points her tribe to a hitherto forbidden place replete with water.
Set in a globally warmed flooded south Florida The Common Sea8 by Steve Rasnic Tem focuses on a man whose oldest memories are visions of another dying world and who is trying to get by in this one. In part the story riffs on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Pedant’s corner:-
1arm sales (arms sales,) “lies not in the protagonist’s ability to leap tall buildings but in the knowledge that his ability to deploy overwhelming force in a manner that is beyond reproach” (of his ability,) “designed to illicit (elicit,) “the moral and political value of books lays not in the quality of the ideas” (lies not, see earlier quote.) 2Merthyr Tidfil (Merthyr Tydfil.) 3emperox (emperor, I believe.) 4waggon is used throughout. I prefer wagon, “open to the naval” (navel.) “seemed” in a present tense sentence; so, seems, discretely (discreetly,) 5”trying to not think of what lay ahead” (trying not to think of what lay ahead.) “Initiates wore …….to allow easy movement … when we are on the lake” (wore, therefore “when we were on the lake”.) 6”The skin, clothing and furniture remains unchanged” (remain,) “There was very little flora” (flora is plural???) 7Xichoh (elsewhere Xicoh.) 8no where to go (nowhere.)

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

Sceptre, 2017, 283 p.

 Spaceman of Bohemia cover

This is a brilliant debut novel but an odd reading experience, like Science Fiction as if written by Milan Kundera. Some of its tonal quality is, perhaps more understandably, also reminiscent of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris.

The set-up is that a comet has entered the Milky Way “from the Canis Major galaxy” and swept our solar system with a sandstorm of intergalactic dust. Consequently a purple cloud, named Chopra by its New Delhi discoverers, has formed between Venus and Earth. (I wondered here if there is perhaps a nod to M P Shiel’s 1901 novel, The Purple Cloud. Then again there is no reason for Kalfař, Czech born but who emigrated – the blurb says immigrated, there’s an end-point bias for you – to the US when he was sixteen.)

The Spaceman of the title, and our narrator, is Jakub Procházka, a man with a professional fascination with space dust and a professorship in astrophysics. With no other country publicly willing to investigate the Chopra phenomenon, the Czech Republic steps up to the mark, launching him from Petřín Hill on the space shuttle JanHus1. However, the book is not much concerned with the Science-Fictional scaffolding of this premise but more on Jakub’s life before the mission and his mental state while on it.

Not long into his voyage Jakub begins to perceive another living creature in his spaceship, a spider-like being whom he dubs Hanuš, after the maker of Prague’s astronomical clock, and which talks to him and enquires about his life. Kalfař’s writing leaves open the question as to whether this is an actual alien or an hallucination and Hanuš’s philosophy gradually begins to drive Jakub’s actions. Even at the end of the novel Hanuš is still a very real presence to Jakub.

The spaceship chapters are up to the last quarter of the book interspersed with the story of Jakub’s life until he became chosen for the mission. Jakub’s father had been a keen Communist and indeed a state torturer. With the fall of the Soviet Union the family’s fortunes of course changed, not helped by his parent’s death in a car crash, and Jakub’s late childhood, being looked after by his grandparents, was dogged by persecution by his peers. One day a man arrived carrying a rusty metal shoe which he said Jakub’s father once used to torture him. This “Shoe Man” now has the law on his side and causes the Procházkas’ eviction from their ancestral home – a telling reminder that injustice does not only exist under oppressive régimes. The most engaging of these “real life” chapters are those which deal with Jakub’s wife, Lenka, how he met her, their life together, and how, unknowingly to Jakub, they began drifting apart. This is a detailed portrait of a relationship.

In a clever decision by Kalfař the flashbacks are narrated in the present tense while the story of Jakub’s trip in space and its aftermath are in the past tense. This adds to the dreamy, hallucinatory nature of the space-based sections while the Earth bound sections are agreeably gritty. At one point Jakub sees Laika the dog drift past his ship, “her body preserved by the kindness of the vacuum, denying the corrosive effects of oxygen.” (Quite how she escaped the confines of the capsule she had been launched in Kalfař doesn’t explain, but it had me wondering.) This is of course a touch that borders on magic realism, emphasising the strangeness of Jakub’s voyage, but one of the novel’s concerns is the necessity to fight against or to accept the absurdity, the sheer unlikeliness, of the universe. In Jakub’s world even in space persecution cannot be avoided. Hanuš’s species has been pursued across galaxies by creatures called Gorompeds intent on its extinction. It is a neat touch that while Jakub uses the word humanity to describe our kind, Hanuš characterises us as humanry.

The book is also a primer on the history of Prague, the Czechs, and their achievements. To this end we are shown the martyrdom of Jan Hus (though in an apparent aside which is also a neat piece of foreshadowing Kalfař considers the possibility that Hus might have been replaced by a relative lookalike and lived out his days in seclusion,) the tragedy of Vaclav Havel – a man wanting only to write poetry but who instead became public property – who “lost his typewriter,” the plot of the opera Rusalka and the line from it, “All sacrifices are futile” that seems to apply to Jakub’s imminent demise at the hands (tendrils?) of the Chopra cloud, the impossible dilemma faced by Emile Hácha in Hitler’s office as he was offered ignominy or the slaughter of his country.

As the JanHus1 disintegrates in the purple cloud Hanuš disappears and Jakub is rescued by a “phantom” (deniable, incognito) Russian spaceship. He thwarts their authorities’ intention to detain him forever by interfering with the ship’s controls on its landing descent, making it crash, and so limps on into an afterlife in which everyone but the Shoe Man, whom he confronts in a park and whose complicity in his choice for the mission he uncovers, thinks he is dead.

The strangeness of the part of the narrative taking place in space, the distancing Jakub feels even when back on Earth, is echoed by the question he asks himself, “What if our existence is a field of study in probability conducted by the universe?”

My main thought during reading this is that in the flashback sections it bears far more similarity to a mainstream novel from Central/Eastern Europe than to Science Fiction. Kalfař writes in USian but odd word choices, phrases and emphases sometimes make the text seem like a translation – yet all of these add to the overall effect.

To see an examination of the history – and present – of a small country in the guise of a Science Fiction novel is an unusual but welcome phenomenon. But is this a trick Kalfař can pull off again?

One of my books of the year though, without a doubt.

Pedant’s corner:- the Canis Major galaxy (Canis Major is not a galaxy, it’s a constellation,) spit (spat; I know it’s USian usage but it still grates,) “the creature has ahold of me” (a hold,) a missing start quote mark when a chapter began with a piece of dialogue, “over the clothing lines fastened to poles outside their windows” (clothes lines – clothing line is a fashion industry term,) “a deceptively still malt of sand and rock” (malt? Did Kalfař mean meld?) aircrafts (aircraft,) “cut my parents’ retirement” (is this use of retirement in the sense of pension USian? Or is it perhaps a Czech usage?) A missing end quote mark, “to give her a grandchild” (her was Jakub’s grandmother so that would be a great grandchild.) “Millions of eggs circumvent a small planet” (circumscribe,) “I didn’t know what happened to my wife” (what had happened,) by all standards (by any standards is more usual,) scruff (scurf,) a candlewick (it wasn’t a bedspread; so, candle wick.)
Plus points though for the “whom” in “I’m not sure whom to be angry with” and for the use of wee to mean small.

Collected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy

Picador, 2015, 583 p, including indexes of titles and first lines.

Duffy’s Selected Poems was one of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read. I’m counting this compendium of 10 of her books of poetry as a reasonable substitute. Looking at that Scotsman list I see I have now read five more on it than when I made the original post.

 Collected Poems cover

The book contains poems from nine of Duffy’s previous collections, Standing Female Nude, Selling Manhattan, The Other Country, Mean Time, The World’s Wife, Feminine Gospels, Rapture, The Bees, Ritual Lightning, plus her, as the blurb has it, “much-loved”, Christmas Poems.

Standing Female Nude I have already read. As for the rest:-
From Selling Manhattan we have the embedded metaphor of a poem written as if by a ventriloquist’s dummy, revelation of the stories that roil beneath the surface in a Model Village, Absolutely deploys an impolite word to great effect, Yes, Officer conveys the plight of an accused person, Politico references Glasgow’s coat of arms to deplore the betrayal that was the city’s industrial decline, Mouth, With Soap the purposelessness, in the grand scheme of things, of minding your language, Correspondents and Telegrams relate love affairs carried on through different communication media, and for personal reasons I loved the Jane Avril Dancing fragment of Three Paintings.
In The Other Country, Originally reflects on the experience of losing a part of your identity when as a child your family moves elsewhere while Too Bad seems to be about a hitman. Poet For Our Times rather wonderfully rhymes poet with show it and Serbo-Croat.
In Mean Time, the poem Litany expresses the enduring memory of the shame of speaking outside the bounds of politeness. Stafford Afternoons the lack of surprise in encountering a flasher. Prayer evokes the lyricism of the names from the shipping forecast.
The poems from The World’s Wife are brilliant reimaginings of myths, fairy tales and figures from history from the female viewpoint. Mrs Darwin, Frau Freud, Mrs Sisyphus and Mrs Icarus are particularly biting.
Feminine Gospels contains what its title suggests. Beautiful is about famous women throughout history, and how they were treated. The longest poem, The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High, might as well be a short story.
Rapture’s poems are mostly about love; fine on an individual basis but faced collectively begin to merge into one another. However, the sentiment “Falling in love is glamorous hell” seems about right and “When did your name change from a proper noun into a charm?” captures that ecstatic first flush perfectly.
While some of the poems in The Bees do concentrate on or refer to that insect many do not. Three – LastPost, New Vows and Premonitions – reflect on the possible consolations the reversal of time could bring. The first of those and The Passing Bells derive inspiration from the work of Wilfred Owen. Big Ask examines the evasions those in power practice to avoid embarrassment.
Ritual Lightning must have been a very small volume when it was published on its own, with only 17 or so poems. Liverpool is a reflection on the Hillsborough tragedy, Birmingham demonstrates that extreme Islamophobia is no newcomer to these shores, White Cliffs’s “something fair and strong implied in chalk/what we might wish ourselves” shows up the distance between actuality and sense of self, Pathway is a remembrance of the poet’s father, while The Crown’s last three words, “not lightly worn,” are more a modern day desideratum than a historical truism.
The “much-loved” Christmas poems turn out to be five in number. The 11 page long Mrs Scrooge is of course inspired by A Christmas Carol and reworks that in a reversal. The always joy-dispensing Mrs Scrooge has outlived her husband but still encounters the three ghosts. It derives much of its impact from a pun. The Christmas Truce is a pretty much unadorned celebration of that peaceful interlude in The Great War’s first winter, Wenceslas encourages the charitable impulse, Bethlehem imagines the scene at that first Christmas, Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday does the same for 1799.

Pedant’s corner:- hung (hanged, x3,) Orpheus’ (Orpheus’s,) Goldilocks’ (Goldilocks’s,) span (spun,) “iCallaos! iCallaos! iCallaos! iQuedense!” (those “i”‘s in front of Callaos and Quedense should be upside down exclamation marks,) lay down (laid down,) lay (laid,) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) Señora Devizes’ (Devizes’s,) mistress’ (mistress’s,) leucippotomists (I have no idea what this means,) reindeers, x2 (the plural of reindeer is reindeer.) Colly-Flowre (a deliberate archaism no doubt.)

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg

Titan Hard Case Crime, 2012, 213 p. Content first published in 1959, 1960 and 1962.

 Blood on the Mink cover

The author is my second favourite writer of SF and I read this one for the sake of completeness. Silverberg is not widely known for his crime novels but he knocked a few out in the last dying days of the pulp era when that market for Science Fiction had dried up. Pulp crime was not long in following but that wasn’t Silverberg’s fault. He is incapable of writing anything that is less than readable but this has the vices of its idiom in its lack of ornamentation, of its time in its casual sexism and of its place in an equally casual attitude to the use of guns.

Narrator Nick is a law enforcement agent whose speciality is in subduing his own identity and impersonating less major criminals in order to get to the main players. The plot involves the distributor of very good forgeries of five and ten dollars bills and the discovery and release from bondage of the engraver who made the plates for their manufacture. None of the characters lifts beyond the functional – or typical – but the plot is well-honed and provides the action its intended readership presumably craved.

The two accompanying short stories used to pad out this paperback are from the same era and in similar vein. Dangerous Doll riffs on the counterfeiting game and, as its title suggests, features a femme fatale, while One Night of Violence sees a travelling salesman get caught up in a gangland shootout. In this story I did wonder what on earth the “video set” in a late 1950s hotel lobby might have been.

Pedant’s corner:- bollixed (the British “bollocksed” is much to be preferred,) Klaus’ (Klaus’s, several instances,) Chavez’ (Chavez’s, ditto,) a missing full stop, Kleinjeld (elsewhere always Kleinfeld.)
Plus points for fitted – USian fiction usually has fit as a past tense.

Star Rider by Doris Piserchia

Women’s Press, 1987, 221 p. Another I didn’t catch up with at the time of publication.

Star Rider cover

In Star Rider humans have differentiated into different strains, jaks and dreens. Narrator Lone, or Jade as she becomes, is a Jakalowar (jak.) Along with her dog-ancestried mount Hinx she can teleport easily across space. This is an ability which seems to be mixed in with a sort of telepathy/awareness called jink. All jaks are searching for the lost planet of Doubleluck, finding which would make their fortune. Jade is dogged by Big Jak, who knows where Doubleluck is and wishes to stop her finding it. He traps her but they are attacked by dreens and Jade is imprisoned, without Hinx, on a planet called Gibraltar. Separation from a mount normally makes a jak go mad but Jade manages to stay sane. This middle part of the novel is tonally somewhat at odds with what came before and what is to come. Eventually Jade persuades a dreen mount to let her jink, escapes, finds Hinx again and heads for old Earth where she uncovers Doubleluck inside a mountain. She is chased there by the dreens, whose leader Rulon wants to force her into marriage but who are eventually overcome in a sort of space battle and Jade then reveals to the victorious jaks her ability to jink to other galaxies, a jak goal for millennia.

The twists and turns of the story don’t seem to follow much logic and the text is occasionally embellished with unusual syntax which either I got used to as the novel progressed or, more likely given my attention to the minutiae of text, Piserchia tended to forget about. Neither are the characters very memorable; Piserchia’s focus is more on ongoing plot, with the occasional feminist aside. I would hazard Star Rider is not among the best SF from the 1970s.

Pedant’s corner:- sat (seated, x2.) “As for us humans, we looked at the ground” (I agree “as for us” is the normal phrase but“humans” is the subject of that sentence so it should be “we” humans,) “had showed him” (shown.) “Matbe everything in it was a predator, which meant that everything in it was also a prey,” (not “a” prey, just prey,) grill (grille – is grill a US spelling for this?) “Was sewed up” (sewn,) a missing full stop, abolishment (abolition,) “he removed ten appendixes” (the plural of appendix is appendices,) “there were plenty of game and plant life” (there was plenty,) laid down (lay down.)

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, 2005, 333 p including iv p Preface. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

 44 Scotland Street cover

The narrative of this book covers the lives of various characters inhabiting the titular property and those with whom they come in contact. In the building live Pat, a young woman on her second gap year; her landlord flatmate Bruce, a narcissistic chancer; Irene, a pushy mother, with Bertie, her saxophone playing, Italian speaking five year-old who just wants to be a normal boy; and Domenica, an older woman more wise to the world. Pat takes up a job at an art gallery run by an incompetent set up by his father. Along the way we meet Bruce’s boss, a mainstay of the local Conservative Association, his wife and daughter; Big Lou, who runs a pub in the same street as the gallery; and Dr Fairbairn, Bertie’s psychiatrist – not to mention author Ian Rankin. There are occasional illustrations (by Iain McIntosh) at least one of which gave away an incident yet to occur on the page.

The problem with all this is its genesis as a periodic publication, appearing daily in The Scotsman. As a result none of the scenes is ever fully developed, they are sketched not drawn, and there is too much telling in place of showing. The characters are insufficiently fleshed out, types, not individuals.

What plot there is centres round the authenticity or otherwise, the disappearance and recovery, of a painting which might be a Peploe; but this is exiguous at best.

McCall Smith perhaps betrays his leanings when he puts these words about The Guardian into the mouth of five year-old Bertie, “Because it’s always telling you what you should think.” Then again it might just have been so he could add the rider, “Just like Mummy.” And don’t all newspapers in effect “tell their readers what to think”?

McCall Smith’s writing is easy on the eye but undemanding on the brain as the whole enterprise is very lightweight, admittedly suitable for quick, and perhaps not necessarily attentive reading. Quite why it appears on a list of 20 Scottish Books everyone should read is beyond me, though. That it is The Scotsman’s list is a bit too much like that newspaper blowing its own trumpet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Matthew’s father, despaired of his son ever amounting to much” (no comma,) a missing quote mark at the end of a chapter – the same speaker started the next so that’s fine – except the chapter number and title came in between, an extraneous quote mark between two paragraphs spoken by the same person, “and there was not reason to imagine” (no reason,) “aren’t I?” (Grrrr. The speaker was Scottish, the phrase is, ‘Amn’t I?’) “She realised sounded grudging” (realised she sounded,) an extraneous full stop at the end of a speech quote when the framing sentence continued, Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “on the shore of their rivers” (shores.)

The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2016, 324 p

 The City of Woven Streets cover

In a society where dreams are forbidden Eliana experiences night-maeres, which she must keep hidden or suffer banishment. She lives in an island city, in the House of Webs, whose head is called the Weaver. All born on the island bear tattoos showing their citizenship with a mark added yearly to show age. The city is prone to flooding by the sea and there is an overhead transport system of gondolas travelling on suspended ropes, and rope bridges between buildings. One day a girl whose tongue has been cut out is brought in to the House. In a certain kind of light Eliana’s name can be seen to be tattooed on her hand. The mystery builds from that point as Eliana comes into contact with a resistance movement, is betrayed by the Weaver and banished to a punishment detachment diving for valuable red coral.

The normal text is interspersed at long intervals with passages rendered in italics and which, apart from starting and finishing partway on a page, have no punctuation to separate them from the rest.

The setting has similarities to Itäranta’s first novel Memory of Water in that there is an oppressive regime from whom secrets must be kept. The City of Woven Streets leans more towards fantasy than, and does not have the clarity nor focus of, that previous book. Eliana’s escape from servitude is fortuitous and the final confrontation seems a bit rushed. This may be due to the pressure of the deadline to which Itäranta refers in her Acknowledgements.

Pedant’s corner – some of these may be due to Itäranta being Finnish. She wrote the book in both Finnish and English – :- span (spun,) lays (lies,) “two less than I have” (fewer,) different than (different from.) “none … come” (comes,) “to join the same queue with him” (as him,) “the Council have pardoned … , who in their wisdom” (has pardoned, in its wisdom,) “the members of the Council raise their right hand” (right hands.) “There is yet another hour less left of our lives” (an hour fewer,) undisputably (indisputably.) “None of us do” (none does of us,) none of them draw nearer (draws.)

The Great War Generals on the Western Front by Robin Neillands

Robinson, 1999, 557 p (including ii p Contents and List of Maps, iv p Acknowledgements and Dedication, 19 p Index, 4 p Select Bibliography,) plus 8 p Photographs.

 The Great War Generals on the Western Front cover

The common perception of British generalship in the Great War – as put forth in many depictions of the conflict from at least Oh, What a Lovely War! through “lions led by donkeys” to Blackadder Goes Fourth and beyond – is of cavalry officers with little knowledge of infantry tactics in charge, of widespread incompetence and callousness, of throwing men rather than competence at the enemy, of safely staying well behind the lines. In this book Neillands sets out the evidence for and against these assertions and as a result comes down in favour of the generals. In many respects for me he was pushing against an open door. It has always struck me that if the British generals were so incompetent and useless how come we didn’t lose the war? Add to that the fact that the British (and Empire) force was the only major Allied combatant (setting aside the short – but still bloody – sojourn of the US Expeditionary forces) that did not suffer a large mutiny or rout and the questions ought to be why, if their leaders were so useless, were British soldiers so steadfast? Why were they so willing to follow orders – and keep doing so?

Despite its all-encompassing sub-title the book is chiefly focused on the British generals on the Western Front, though French and German generals are of course dealt with as necessary. Overall, however, it is more of a complete history of the British sectors of the Western Front rather than a summary of the doings of the generals who directed the efforts there.

Neillands states that it is only British generals that have been subjected to such criticisms as a group. No such opprobrium has been heaped on the French or German generals as a whole despite similar propensities to life squandering, particularly the Germans at Langemarck and the French in Nivelle’s offensive. Plus there’s always Verdun.

For all sides this was a new kind of war (though slightly prefigured by aspects of the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War.) None of the European agonists had been subjected to industrial war of this kind before, though in terms of numbers the French and Germans were prepared for it, the latter also in terms of artillery. All expected a war of movement – and a quick resolution. As it was the trench system came about by accident; in the attempts of both sides to outflank each other in the “Race to the Sea.” And throughout defence held the upper hand.

Like all British armies at the start of a war the BEF was inadequate to the coming task in numbers and equipment; lacking in machine guns and especially artillery. Its astonishing proficiency in rifle fire could not make up for this. It would take time – years – to provide enough artillery ammunition, to recruit, to equip and to train not only the soldiers but also the staff officers necessary for the army to function efficiently (and of these the staff officers take much longer to train.) Until that came about the generals, like the soldiers, had to do the best with what they had, and to learn the techniques and tactics required to succeed. Plus they were fighting Germans; dogged professional soldiers who never gave in easily, the best army in the field – certainly until the end of 1916 (when the British perhaps took over the mantle.)

Among other beliefs Neillands describes as myths is that all British troops on the first day of the Battle of the Somme moved forward in line and at walking pace. There was in fact a large variation in tactics, the generals on the ground being largely responsible for their own formations’ procedures. The sentence attributed to Lieutenant-General Kiggell, after Passchendaele, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” has no provenance and is likely to be apocryphal. Neillands finds it incredible that any general faced with all the reports from the front, aerial photos, requisitions etc could have been unaware of the conditions. Quite why Third Ypres was nevertheless persisted with is a question harder to avoid.

Some criticisms are easily dispatched. Much fewer than half of the British generals were originally from cavalry regiments while an average of one general a week was lost to enemy action, hardly indicative of distance from the front. They were not hidebound tactically but learned from earlier reverses. However, in response to British innovations in attack the Germans continually adopted new defensive tactics and provided new problems to solve.

Neillands contends that the difficulties of prosecuting such a war have not been sufficiently acknowledged by the critics. The generals were from the outset instructed by the British Government to co-operate closely with their French allies. This in many respects tied the hands of both British Commanders-in-Chief, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig. Sometimes this necessary support, as at Loos, led to attacks the British generals did not favour. At the Somme and Third Ypres the necessity to divert German resources to relieve pressure on the French (from Verdun and the consequences of the French mutiny respectively) more or less demanded action.

The static nature of the trench system, the opportunities it gave the Germans to develop defence in depth (from Second Ypres in 1914 till their spring offensive in 1918 the Germans did not launch a major attack on the British Army anywhere along the line,) was a large factor in preventing a breakthrough. Allenby was not a notable success on the Western Front but in a war of movement in Palestine was able to show his capabilities more readily.

The main problem affecting the war’s conduct, though, was communications; which could not be relied on. Amid the smoke of battle, lines of sight were obscured; wireless technology was neither robust nor portable; telephone lines – even buried metres deep – were prone to severance by shellfire; carrier pigeons inadequate. The problem was never properly solved even by the war’s end.

Nor are any alternative strategies entirely obvious. Short of abandoning the war (so allowing Germany to keep its gains) – a course which the Allied Governments never contemplated – there was little option but to carry on.

Another factor affecting the generals was that Prime Minister Lloyd George never trusted them, Haig in particular. Neillands holds Lloyd George partly responsible for the British being forced to retreat by the German “Michael” offensive of March 1918 as he had held troops back in Britain rather than reinforcing the front. The overwhelming force of their initial attack would have caused problems in any case but even in its unstrengthened form the army, though it retreated, nevertheless did not break; the Germans were held.

In passing Neillands decries the “Pommie bashing” of latter day Australian and Canadian historians who variously claim the British “establishment” was biased against their own commanders and treated colonial troops as cannon fodder. While acknowledging the quality of these troops and the abilities of the Canadian General Currie and the Australian General Monash in particular, he shows most British divisions – and not a few generals – were equally effective.

Some criticisms are harder to defray. Typically there was a failure to exploit initial success quickly (in the case of Cambrai a disbelief in the extent of that success and a lack of preparedness for it) and an all too prevalent tendency to keep bashing away when an attack slowed down, in the belief that the Germans were weakening and “one more push” would prevail.

Yet the final victories – and they were victories, the Hindenburg line was breached, the British Army ended up as far advanced from the trench lines as Mons (where its participation in the war had started) – are not given nearly as much attention as the earlier “failures”. That is an indictment of those who give more weight to the generals’ shortcomings than to the achievements of the men under their direction. It was the war, and its continuation, plus the inability of the technology of attack to overcome that of defence that was the problem.

This is a book that, while not ignoring their faults, attests to the good faith of the British generals of the Great War, men doing their best amidst adverse circumstances.

Pedant’s corner:- “Field Marshal Sir William, Robertson’s father” (no comma,) “Seventy-eight British generals were lost their lives” (no “were”,) “led to the way it in which it was conducted (the way in which,) “over 9, 000,000” (there were frequent occurrences in the text of this extraneous space when a large number was cited and the practice wasn’t consistent,) a missing comma before a quote (x 5,) mache timetables (march timetables?) “we have go back” (have to go back,) “the infantry were mustered” (was mustered,) “Lieutenant-General Sir, Henry Grierson” (no comma,) “including the German and Soviet armies” (Soviet armies? Pre-1917?) ulster (Ulster,) “The force of France were already in trouble” (forces,) “and and” (only one required,) “in orders to denigrate” (in order,) “Readers are invited to look again at the message French sent to Smith-Dorrien again” (only one “again” needed,) “the true state of affairs were brought to the attention” (was brought,) General Franchet d’ Espery (d’Espery, x2,) “gave Haig time assess the situation” (to assess,) “just how grievously the Haig’s command had suffered (no “the”,) “the artillery … were…. their stocks of ammunition” (was…. its stocks,) Bellewaarde (Bellewaerde?) “the BEF were now set upon” (was set upon,) “smoke screen screen” (only one “screen” required,) to cut of the wire (off,) earlier in his book (this book,) any battalions fire plan (battalion’s,) “might wander of their axis” (off,) “that the Rawlinson’s attack” (no “the”,) a missing comma. “This family were not wealthy” (His family was not wealthy,) a missing full stop x 5, XV Corps’ (Corps’s,) with with (only on “with” needed,) “and the defences the Germans were building…… was like nothing seen before” (were like nothing seen before,) “four-battalions-to-a-brigade. Dominion division” (“four-battalions-to-a-brigade Dominion division”,) “the bombardment rose to a crescendo” (a crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) “First Army were …. Third Army were …. Fifth Army were …. (in each case “was”,) “to be launched to on” (no “to”,) “force their forces along the coast, either to withdraw eastwards” (no comma.) “Zero hour for was set” (Zero hour was set for.) “Given his a well-earned reputation” (no “a”,) “three years earlier. Currie had been” (no full stop,) Lieutenant General Sir Kavanagh (Lieutenant General Sir Charles Kavanagh.) “The cavalry were to be commanded” (was to be,) “Tuesday 20, November” (no comma,) Hidenburg Line (Hindenburg, elsewhere correct,) the Middlesex Regoment (Regiment,) General Cardona (Cadorna,) “the main theatre in this war the Western Front” (war was the Western Front,) “that the he had always wanted” (that he had,) “the enemy were preparing an attack” (was,) narrow-gange track (gauge,) “the German armies in west” (in the west,) “for the politicians understand” (politicians to understand,) the United State (States,) “to wait and attack, again in 1919” (no comma.) “This is not the say” (not to say,) Austrain (Austrian.) “The learning curve …. and only starting to rise” (started,) “against the Bolshevik” (Bolsheviks,) “he was named. Presidential Chief of Staff” (no full stop.)

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