Monday, February 18, 2019

13. Dragoman by Eric Williams

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books in Berkeley, based purely on the cover and trade dress alone.  I read a snippet of the blurb and saw it took place in Communist Eastern Europe and thought it might be promising.  What's neat is that there is a stamp on the inside (see the photo below) for the Hotel Perge, which is in Atalya, Turkey, not too far from where all the action in this book takes place.
It's an interesting book.  Based on the short preface paragraph, the author and his wife seemed to have been one of the few western people allowed to drive freely around Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary at the height of Soviet oppression in the mid-50s.  That's basically the set up here, with Roger and Kate Starte driving in their Land-Rover at first in Romania (Rumania as it is spelled in the book) and then into Bulgaria.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on here, because I was assuming they were spies, but nothing kept developing.  They just acted like plucky and semi-clueless British tourists the world around.  It turns out, that's what they are!  The excitement comes when they run into a pro-Communist British archaeologist who was invited to Rumania to work on a book proving that Romanians were of Slavic descent.  When he got there, he saw the concentration camps and the brutality of the existence of men building a canal and realized that he had been wrong.  Now he was being held prisoner.  They decide to help smuggle him out.
It's all very competently written, though for some reason a bit light.  The consequences are very real, but they don't feel heavy.  It's hard to say if it is the failure of the author to deliver the real fear or if is a success and he is portraying the ignorance of the privileged westerners.  It feels like an escape story tacked on to a well done travelogue.  Oh yes, and with some simplistic individual vs. collective freedom philosophizing.
It is interesting to read about the region during that period.  It sounds geographically quite beautiful (and makes sense that it is becoming a tourist destination these days).  It is also a reminder of living in a truly oppressive system.  While the Communist bogeyman of the cold war was in many ways overblown, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was a near-totalitarian state.  Furthermore, that was not that far in the past.  Today, we have a common perspective on Russia that seems to have forgotten a lot of that, but you see how their understanding of propaganda and coercion has given Putin's Russia a strategic advantage that outweighs their actual military and economic power.  This book was a good reminder of the history behind that advantage.  Fucking scary stuff having military outposts on every road; police, secret service and informers in every neighbourhood constantly watching and reporting on each other and any newcomers.
Eric Williams was an RAF pilot and a POW in WWII and wrote another book about his actual escape attempts called The Wooden Horse.  I shall add that to the list.



Thursday, February 14, 2019

12. Shall we Tell the President? by Jeffrey Archer

Not hair-raising, nor audacious, nor shocking
My friend and co-founder of the MBU gave this to me that he found in the anarchist brewpub and library place near his place.  They have an interesting paperback shelf and he thought I would appreciate this one (and another that will come later), though didn't necessarily expect me to read it. He also had read about the author having a fairly fetid personal history.  I needed something easy in these February doldrums so jumped right on it.

I did not have high expectations.  In some ways, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  It was relatively low-key in the politics (centrist for the time, which is a bit to the left of today's mainstream U.S. politics) compared to nonsense like State of Fear and basically just wanted to tell its story.  On the other hand, it is really generic and honestly not very thrilling at all.  It's an alternate future, where Ted Kennedy becomes president after Carter.  A young FBI agent (who actually hopes to return to academics) takes the call and gets wrapped up in a conspiracy to assassinate the president.  There is a lot of mild American politics/Kennedy assassination fan theory that must have helped make this book successful (as it seems based on the cover).  The conspiracy is pretty lame, nobody does anything cool and the characters are all kind of insipid and dull.  I am going to look up Jeffrey Archer's past now and I hope that is more interesting than what he wrote here.

I wonder if I would have liked it better had it this lovely earlier cover:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

11. Chanur's Venture by C.J. Cherryh

I feel quite bad about the way I treated this book.  The top of the front cover ripped off a couple of days in.  I found it and the next book together at Moe's and I suspect the previous owner had read them both together as they are the same publisher and edition.  Although the pages were hard to keep open and the interiors quite fresh.
The story here is almost a direct continuation from The Pride of Chanur.  Captain Pyanfar is back with her crew trying to work as normally as before the whole flair-up with the Kid when once again the human Tully is dumped in her lap.  It's hard to tell what is going on but the stakes are higher as it appears the humans are sending a war fleet.
I found this book a bit hard to get through.  It really isn't the book's fault, though.  The situation is complex and the various species are probably the closest to truly different than I have ever read in a sci-fi book.  The situation is stressful and the captain responds to it in a very realistic way.  These believable elements manifest themselves in a way, however, that distanced me from the story.  The various species do not understand each other well and in several cases, not at all.  It makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on.  Part of this is purposeful as Pyanfar is also in the dark about a lot of the big political machinations going on around her.  But that level of intrigued coupled with difficulty of understanding what characters are saying (and them not understanding each other), I wasn't really clear or connected with what was going on.
The basic action is clear enough to follow and there is a clear objective, to protect the human and keep the ship alive, so the pages do turn. It's the back story and the politics which are driving the action that I am not clear about.
This book is also psychologically realistic, but this too turned me off.  These adventurous space situations where the stakes are real (such as the status of your family, your life, the lives of your crew and loved ones, etc.) would actually be extremely stressful and mostly very unpleasant.  You get that feeling in this book.  The thing is, those are mostly feelings I am trying to avoid when I read science fiction.
This really is only half the book, basically split in two to sell more copies I suspect.  It ends just as things get going.  I'll crank through the last one, but I suspect that while I'll enjoy the plight of the ship, I'll be unsatisfied with the reveal of the stellar space politics.