“Dominion” by CJ Sansom is set in a 1952 Britain which, following Lord Halifax’s accession to the premiership in 1940, has become a ”finlandised” satellite state of Nazi Germany.
The plot, about resistance agents trying to get an important person out of the country, is particularly engaging on how fascism and anti-Semitism can creep into a society. It’s very easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, to see how the choices made in 1940 were correct, and accuse those who wished to sue for peace as collaborators or fools. Yet at the time, the horrors of the Great War were still fresh in the minds of many, and essentially decent men like Chamberlain desperately wanted to avoid war. Not everybody who opposed war with Germany was a Nazi sympathiser.
The book is a bit overlong and meanders anxiously too much, but really gets going in the final third. Sansom paints what I think is a very accurate picture of what the road not taken could have looked like. He’s no fan on nationalism, and certainly no fan of the SNP judging by this novel!
Jeff Greenfield is a political reporter for CBS, and his book “Then Everything Changed” paints three What-If scenarios based on real life facts: That JFK was nearly killed in December 1960, before being sworn in as president, that Bobby Kennedy nearly didn’t go through the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, and that Gerald Ford nearly beat Jimmy Carter in 1976. The three stories are not only very informative (Greenfield brings his personal knowledge of US politics and its players to bear) but also quite cheekily written, with asides about what effect these events would have had on other well known individuals.
A great read for the American political junkie. You can get it on the Amazon link here:
I recently published “The Gorgeous War”, a short story on Amazon.com about a product which allowed the great majority of people to be, effectively, beautiful. I wrote it primarily because it’s a subject which fascinates me, in the fact that our society, especially with the rise of handheld devices, is so incredibly visually orientated.
That orientation has had all sorts of curious effects on our society, from the manufacture of political candidates (look at Forza Italia) to the arguable reversal of feminism and the rise of the WAG, to the recent Abercrombie and Finch row, where a business suggested that a selective approach to seeking custom based on the physical attractiveness of their customers might well be a reasonable business model. Odious as it is, I’m not sure they were wrong in their analysis.
There are those who despair at it, who question the fact that we seem to value the beauty of a world class model over, say, a world class research chemist. I’m not so sure: after all, is it right to differentiate between a person who inherited DNA which made them physically attractive over a person with DNA which made them intelligent? Probably not.
Then, of course, there is the reality that physical attractiveness as a general rule has a shorter lifespan than intelligence.
But what would happen if we could manufacture beauty cheaply?We can do a lot now, of course, with plastic surgery and weight reduction surgery, but supposing we could do it at a cost that permitted pretty much everybody to access it?
If there is one political history book you read this year, Dominic Sandbrook’s “Seasons in the Sun: The battle for Britain 1974-1979″ is the one. Sandbrook tells the story (from a centre-right perspective) of Britain culturally, politically and economically from Harold Wilson’s return to power in early 1974 to Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979.
What makes the book so good are the wonderfully human nuggets that communicate the crisis facing Britain at the time. Whether it is some of Wilson’s advisors seemingly seriously considering murdering one of their number, to the exasperation of Tony Benn’s cabinet colleagues at his refusal to accept economic reality, to retired generals and media barons actively considering the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.
But what really fascinates are the facts that contradict the myths of the era, such as the reality that private school numbers actually grew under Labour’s hamfisted efforts to make education more equal.
Or that one education minister in particular closed more semi-private grammar schools than any other in history: Margaret Thatcher.
Or what about the fact that by the end, with inflation threatening to soar into the late 20s, it was the Labour government, at the behest of (amazingly) trades union leaders, which finally got a grip on public spending.
From an Irish perspective, there’s plenty here too. There’s the Ulster Worker’s Council strike, where a fascist mob basically staged a coup in Northern Ireland, but also a glimpse of what might be: In Tony Benn’s ridiculous pouring of public money into loss-making worker’s collectives making products that no one wants to buy, we see what life under Richard Boyd Barrett could be like.
I listened to it as an audiobook, which I seriously recommend as David Thorpe, the actor reading it, does a very credible impression of nearly all the key players of the time. A super, informative, entertaining book.
Within minutes of starting to read “2030: the real story of what happens to America” I knew I was going to love it. In fact, I’ll go one step further. This is my favourite novel of the last 12 months. It’s just plain great.
Set in 2030, the novel tells the story of the issues faced by Americans in that year. There’s a president not only recognising that America is no longer the world’s leading nation but also finally having to confront its inability to add to its massive debt. There’s the consequences for individuals caused by inter-generational strife as a result of senior citizens living far longer than the social security net ever planned for.
It’s also funny in a wry way, exceptionally thoughtful, and full of little future nuggets.
But most importantly, it is very, very credible. Reading it, you can see a direct line from where we are today to where the novel arrives at. This is an indictment of reckless entitlement democracy at its worst.
I hesitate to call it science fiction over satire, but it is both, throwing out “what ifs” in the best speculative tradition of both genres.
I really, sincerely hope that this is not his only novel in this genre, because Brooks has a serious talent for it.
Ever since I was in my early teens, I wanted to be a published author. In fairness to myself, I had no illusions about being the next Hemingway or the next Fitzgerald, that was not the goal. I was reading Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum and later John Grisham and these were what I wanted to do. In short, I wanted to see people reading my books in airports, and made into TV mini-series starring that gruff one from Simon and Simon and one of the lesser girls from Baywatch.
So, I went and did what you are supposed to do. I wrote a 65,000 word novel, The Unisio Agenda, which was pretty awful (a suspended animation Hitler was just one of the minor features in the plot), and sent the first chapter to a load of literary agents, having researched and discovered that these were the fabled gatekeepers to the great publishing houses, or at least had coffee and a bun with them occasionally.
In the following weeks, self-addressed envelopes would make my heart thump just slightly faster as they lay on my hallway floor before telling me very politely that “this was not for us, but best of luck elsewhere”. One or two even gave a little advice on the novel. Not one, to their credit, sent me the fabled “Do humanity a favour and take a hammer to your PC” remarks.
I set that novel to one side, and started on my second, The Ministry of Love. This novel was the result of a running joke with a friend of mine about the government deciding to intervene in people’s love lives for the better, and the more the joke ran, the more I felt there was material for a story. It took me a couple of years to pull it together, but I finished it, and sent it out to the agents, feeling more hopeful that I was now a better writer and perhaps my subject was a bit more commercial. That and the fact that it featured a serial killer butchering celebrities in various creative ways, which I felt was very much in line with the zeitgeist of the time.
Again, the rejection slips came back.
At this stage, the aspiring writer can do one of three things. The first is rail against the conspiracy in the publishing industry to keep his/her unique voice out. The second is to keep trying, normally by writing another novel, and the third is to just accept that it is not to be, and give up.
The first was not an option, because I just didn’t believe it. I had started to read a lot about the publishing industry and realised that it was not a vendetta against me personally, but an industry in crisis. Being an HR manager in my day job, I knew that rejecting a candidate for a vacancy was not a judgement call on their fitness but a reflection that someone else fitted the profile better.
Of course they could not take risks with unknowns like me. Just look at the piles of books on sale now, and how many have to be fronted by a celebrity who (hopefully, at least to the publisher) brings his or her own market with them. It was just too risky for publishers to take a punt on people like me. The “What about JK Rowling, Dan Brown et al?” argument would be thrown back at me, but they were just flashes in the pan. Traditional publishing, through its own economic necessity, was looking less likely as an option.
The second option was to keep trying. A funny thing about writing is that you’d probably do it anyway, in that the desire to commit a story to page is there no matter what. It’s a question of getting it out of your head; so continuing writing is not a painful option. However, there is also a question of ego, which plays a huge role. You can see yourself being transformed from the romantic notion of The Guy Who Is Writing A Novel to guy in Firefly tee-shirt sitting in back room writing his 15th rejected novel about teenage vampires who are allergic to blood but can travel through time. It’s a thin line, and you’re very conscious of it.
Option three is to just give up, leave your manuscript in a drawer or on your hard drive, and carry on with life. Many do, especially when you realise how long it takes to write a novel, and without the validation of publication, you query as to whether you are wasting your life on this?
I say three options, but there is a fourth. The dreaded “self publishing”. Up until recently, self-publishing triggered certain images. An author announcing a new book. Admiration from friends and family, followed by realisation that author has not being endorsed by professionals putting faith through cash on his skills as a writer, but has paid for book to be published. Slightly grimaced “God bless your diligence” smiles all around. Embarrassed author either lashes out at industry for not recognising him, or feels like a fraud, or a nut. Or both.
Then I read about Amazon’s willingness to let self-published authors sell direct for shared royalties, dangling the keys to the kingdom in front of me. It’s here that you make a decision.
You accept that your book will probably never see the light of day traditionally, so you can either wait for the day the Great Editors In The Sky recognise your genius and come calling, or you can put it out there yourself, and that is the biggest temptation of all.
The opportunity to deliver direct to the marketplace, either as a Print-On-Demand actual book or as an eBook. It’s a brilliant strategy by Amazon, because it triggered the “what if” in every aspiring writer like me to put my book out there just to see what happened. It taps into the brilliant “what’s to lose?” section of the writer’s brain. In fact, it even goes one step further, because the old argument, that traditional publishing houses want nothing to do with self-published authors has been killed stone dead. If anything, self-publishing has become a form of showcase for the publishing houses to see how potential authors perform in the market without investing a cent.
There are costs. I commissioned a professional cover designer, ebook formatter, developmental editor and copy editor, and all that costs money, but I reckoned that as I was competing against professional books, I had no choice. Actually, the copyediting turned out to be a huge challenge, and to this day I am still finding typos despite professional eyes having roamed the manuscript on multiple occasions. Interestingly, I also find typos in professionally published eBooks too, which makes me wonder about the format itself.
After much effort, I launched my novel, The Ministry of Love, and a year and a month later, a radically rewritten version of The Unisio Agenda, The Gemini Agenda (now Hitler free). I hyped it a bit on a politics blog I write, and with my modest following on Twitter and Facebook.
A tiny number of people bought my books. Were the publishing houses right? Quite possibly. But here’s the thing: people are buying my books every month, books that would have sat on a hard drive otherwise. I’ve received reviews and emails from people who have read and enjoyed them, and more to the point, I’ve actually enjoyed the whole process. Will I lose money? Probably. But as a hobby, like photography or cycling it has its financial costs but also its pleasures. There are some, like E L James and Amanda Hocking, who will make fortunes from it. There are others, like JA Konrath who see a new business model and a means of making a decent living.
But for me, it allowed me to not quite live an aspiration but get close to it. Will I write another book? Possibly, although the sheer effort required mixed with the feeling that I am just indulging myself expensively will act as a deterrent. There is also the fear, in the back of every self-published writer’s mind, that his friends and family, behind nodding heads and encouraging smiles are rolling their eyes at his putting out this stuff. But regrets? Not one.
One thing that really strikes an Irish reader of Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “The General” are the parallels between De Valera and the general. Both men built a political movement based on a set of personal values, both men had a certain flexibility when it came to using force to overthrow democratic institutions they did not approve of, and yet both men ultimately remained anchored to democratic beliefs. Both betrayed sections of society (The IRA and the French Algerians) who had believed that the men in question were their strongest supporters. Both were replaced by protégés who abandoned large sections of their creed, and left parties that essentially became vehicles for ambitious but politically flexible individuals like Chirac, Haughey or Sarkozy.
Having said that, De Gaulle can also be used as an example of an historical figure like Harry Truman who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, and whose values are those needed. That’s not to say that De Gaulle was without talent. In the 1930s he was one of the few military figures to argue for armour based modernisation in a French Army that spent four times as much on horse feed as it did on petrol, and his book on the subject was found, with approving handwritten notes, in Hitler’s bunker in 1945.
De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, ahead of a potential military coup which he may tacitly have supported, allowed him to create a political office, the French presidency, which remains to this day the most powerful (read unchecked) elected office in the democratic world. To his credit, it did allow him to finally put some order on France’s Italian style political chaos. Where he was not a success was in foreign policy, where his paranoia about the United States mixed with his inability to grasp European unity fully led to France striking dramatic poses on the international stage (like leaving NATO’s military structure) which did little to enhance France’s actual global influence. Indeed, De Gaulle’s opposition, whilst out of power, to the creation of a European Army in 1950 can be traced right through to 21st Century France being unable to defeat Libya without US military help, a task surely a 60-year-old combined (and probably French led) European Defence Force would have been able to achieve.
When he left office in 1969, he left not as a result of the 13 attempted assasination attempts on his life but because the French people had voted against a proposed senate reform (ironically to turn the French senate into something similar to the Irish vocational model). He then came to Ireland, where he made a passionate “Vive Quebec Libre” style speech at a banquest held in his honour in favour of a United Ireland which didn’t get picked up by the media because the microphone broke!
Many people from FDR to the French Left were convinced that he would attempt to become a dictator, and he could have given it a serious go, but he didn’t, in fact securing French democracy (although turning a blind eye to the thuggishness of his secret service). But for resisting that temptation, he deserves the mantle of greatness.
Fenby is always readable, keeping De Gaulle’s tale moving with just enough quotations and anecdotes to keep it interesting.
It’s always a treat when you stumble across a writer whom you really enjoy and have never encountered before. John Scalzi is writing science fiction with a mischievous twist, and I recently listened to two audiobooks (both narrated rather well by Star Trek’s Wil Wheaton. I bet he has strongly mixed feelings at being described that way).
The first, “Redshirts”, tells the story of a group of below decks crew on the Universal Union starship Intrepid, who discover that there is something funny going on with security guys who beam down to planets on away teams, that is, they all keep getting killed really stupidly…
The second, “Agent to the Stars”, is about a race of sentient blobs who decide to hire a Hollywood agent to mastermind their debut with the Human race. I’m surprised that this one has not been snapped up for a movie.
Both are great fun, tip their hats towards all the standards of modern science fiction, and are genuinely funny. And yes, Wil Wheaton does a really good job with the characterisations too.