Quick Review: IMPERIAL TWILIGHT by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf/Atlantic Books)

PlattSR-ImperialTwilightUSA fascinating re-examination of the causes and consequences of the Opium War

As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country’s last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

As one of the most potent turning points in the country’s modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today’s China seeks to put behind it. In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to “open” China even as China’s imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country’s decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China’s advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable — and mostly peaceful — meeting of civilizations that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American characters, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today’s uncertain and ever-changing political climate.

Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight is a substantial, highly readable history of the causes and consequences of the Opium War. This is an extremely fine history: exhaustive, fascinating, and engaging from beginning to end. Continue reading

Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials

ChinaPenguinSpecials-WWI

This series of nine short books is fantastic. I bought them quite some time ago — they were released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — but I have finally caught up. If you have any interest in learning about China, then I would highly recommend these books. Each of them was informative, engaging, sometimes entertaining, and frequently brutally honest. Continue reading

Upcoming: CAREER OF EVIL by Robert Galbraith (Mulholland)

GalbraithR-CS3-CareerOfEvil

I really enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, and have been rather looking forward to the third novel starring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott: Career of Evil. Today, the cover and plot were unveiled, for both the UK and US editions! Here’s the synopsis (from the author’s website)…

When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg. Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible – and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.

With the police focusing on the one suspect Strike is increasingly sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands, and delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out for the two of them…

The novel will be published on October 20th (US) and 22nd (UK), 2015, by Mulholland/Little, Brown. Robert Galbraith is, of course, better known as a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling’s…

Also on CR: Review of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm

Q&A with CATHERINE BAILEY

BaileyCatherine-AuthorPicCatherine Bailey is the author of The Secret Rooms and Black Diamonds — both histories of the British aristocracy. She read history at Oxford University and is an award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. Bailey’s US publisher, Penguin, organised this Q&A…

In THE SECRET ROOMS, you explain what drew you to the story of the Rutland family, that you were researching a book on World War I and asked to see the Rutland archives and when there were obvious gaps in the records you decided to devote your attention on uncovering what the family was trying to hide. What brought you to write about Wentworth House and the Fitzwilliam family, and how did you discover that they also had secrets they were trying to keep buried?

I first saw Wentworth House in the late 1990s when I was researching a documentary film in Yorkshire. The size of the house – the largest in Europe – was breathtaking. Here, it seemed, was England’s forgotten palace. Unlike comparable houses, such as Chatsworth or Blenheim, it was closed to the public. Outside its locality, few knew of its existence. Seeing it for the first time, it looked empty and abandoned. The shutters were drawn; its 18th century façade was black with grime and in a poor state of repair. The image was haunting: I wanted to know what had happened there over the centuries, and what had led to its abandonment.

Over the next few years, whenever I could find the time from my work as a television producer, I researched the twentieth century story of Wentworth House. From architectural journals and newspaper articles, I was able to piece together a narrative. In 1900, the house had belonged to William, the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, the richest man in Britain. His fortune came from coal. Within a 30-mile radius of Wentworth, tens of thousands of men worked in mines in which he had an interest. The Fitzwilliams had powerful connections; in the first decades of the 20th century, the newspapers listed the names of guests at their lavish house parties. They included Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and politicians, famous musicians, writers and artists. Later, there was a connection to the American Kennedy family. In 1948, Peter, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, had been killed in a plane crash with Kathleen Kennedy, the sister of the President. But the details were tantalizingly sketchy; very little appeared to have been written about Wentworth or the Fitzwilliam family. Particularly intriguing, was a photograph, taken in the 1940s, which showed the landscape around the house blighted by open cast mining. Soon after, the Fitzwilliams had moved out. Continue reading

Audio Review: SIX DEGREES OF ASSASSINATION by M.J. Arlidge (Audible)

ArlidgeMJ-SixDegreesOfAssassinationAUDA very good, episodic British political thriller

On a sullen, cloudy July day ten years since 7/7, the happy, confident and optimistic British Prime Minister is visiting a charity in East London. It’s just two months after the general election which saw John Campbell’s government returned to power with a clear majority, the economy is on the mend and the coalition is fast becoming a bad memory. Suddenly, a man appears out of the crowd and shoots him three times in the chest.

Step forward Alex Cartwright (Andrew Scott), MI5 Chief Counter Terrorism Officer who must find out the truth. But it’s easier said than done, as he discovers that whoever ordered the assassination has covered their tracks very well indeed. Along with Ellen Townsend, his trusted second-in-command, Cartwright finds himself embroiled in a race against time which leads him into the murky heart of Westminster… and beyond.

Starring: Andrew Scott, Freema Agyeman,Hermione Norris, Clive Mantle, Clare Grogan,Geraldine Somerville, Julian Rhind-Tutt

This was, for me, another experiment in listening to thriller, rather than reading them. For the main, I really enjoyed this: the performances, production and story are all excellent. The episodic nature was interesting, giving it the feel of a TV series going on in the background (as is normal for me, I listened to this walking about town and traveling). This is not an unusual state of affairs for me, as I often have familiar TV series on in the background while I’m doing low-attention activities. However, because this was brand new for me, I also found myself stopping what I was doing to pay attention. (Once even stopping in the snow so I could give it my full attention.) It’s well-paced, unhurried, but without being plodding. There’s definitely a great British sensibility to it — so different from the US-based or international thrillers I tend to prefer.

If you’re a fan of recent political dramas like the Bill Nighy-starring Worricker trilogy (Page EightTurks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield) or movies like Closed Circuit, then this should appeal. If you just like thrillers, then this should appeal. I enjoyed this, and it certainly made me think more about trying more audio fiction. Recommended.

***

Six Degrees of Assassination is published by Audible. You can listen to the first episode for free.

Review: THE RADLEYS by Matt Haig (Canongate Books)

HaigM-RadleysAn unconventional, intelligent vampire novel

Just about everyone knows a family like the Radleys. Many of us grew up next door to one. They are a modern family, averagely content, averagely dysfunctional, living in a staid and quiet suburban English town. Peter is an overworked doctor whose wife, Helen, has become increasingly remote and uncommunicative. Rowan, their teenage son, is being bullied at school, and their anemic daughter, Clara, has recently become a vegan. They are typical, that is, save for one devastating exception: Peter and Helen are vampires and have – for seventeen years – been abstaining by choice from a life of chasing blood in the hope that their children could live normal lives.

One night, Clara finds herself driven to commit a shocking – and disturbingly satisfying – act of violence, and her parents are forced to explain their history of shadows and lies. A police investigation is launched that uncovers a richness of vampire history heretofore unknown to the general public. And when the malevolent and alluring Uncle Will, a practicing vampire, arrives to throw the police off Clara’s trail, he winds up throwing the whole house into temptation and turmoil and unleashing a host of dark secrets that threaten the Radleys’ marriage.

I really enjoyed this. I also read it quite a while ago, which is why I’m going to keep the review rather brief. It’s a different and original take on vampires – one that blends commentary on contemporary British society, middle-class life and anxieties, and is presented with a deft, light touch. Continue reading

Upcoming: “No Hero”, “Yesterday’s Hero” and “Anti Hero” by Jonathan Wood (Titan)

Wait, the first two of those books have already been published, right…? Well, yes. Now, though, they are going to be published by a better publisher with better distribution and better artwork. This series made a bit of a splash when No Hero first appeared in 2011. Since then, Wood’s original publisher (Night Shade Books) has experienced a number of… troubles. But fans of the series – existing and prospective – have nothing to fear, for Titan Books has recently acquired publishing rights for the Arthur Wallace series! Here are the details of the three books (thus far):

WoodJ-1-NoHero2NO HERO

“What would Kurt Russell do?”

Oxford police detective Arthur Wallace asks himself that question a lot. Because Arthur is no hero. He’s a good cop, but prefers that action and heroics remain on the screen, safely performed by professionals. But then, secretive government agency MI37 comes calling, hoping to recruit Arthur in their struggle against the tentacled horrors from another dimension known as the Progeny. But Arthur is NO HERO!

Can an everyman stand against sanity-ripping cosmic horrors?

No Hero is due to be published in March 2014.

WoodJ-2-YesterdaysHero2YESTERDAY’S HERO

Another day. Another zombie T-Rex to put down. All part of the routine for Arthur Wallace and MI37 — the British government department devoted to defending Britain from threats magical, supernatural, extraterrestrial, and generally odd.

Except a zombie T-Rex is only the first of the problems about to trample, slavering and roaring, through Arthur’s life. Before he can say, “but didn’t I save the world yesterday?” a new co-director at MI37 is threatening his job, middle-aged Russian cyborg wizards are threatening his life, and his co-workers’ are threatening his sanity.

As Arthur struggles to unravel a plot to re-enact the Chernobyl disaster in England’s capital, he must not only battle foreign wizards but also struggle to keep the trust of his team. Events spiral out of control, friendships fray, and loyalties are tested to their breaking point.

Yesterday’s Hero is due to be published in September 2014.

ANTI HERO

What do you do when your best friend becomes a supervillain?

Agent Arthur Wallace is used to dealing with danger that is extraterrestrial, supernatural, or generally odd. But when a drone-strike interrupts his best friend’s funeral, it becomes clear that his next assignment is going to be stranger than usual. When it turns out that the drone was hijacked by a rogue, digital version of that friend… well then nothing is clear to Arthur any more.

Now the man Arthur counted on most is set on destroying humanity in a grand scheme to save the natural world. And the CIA is set on destroying that man. And Arthur can’t work out who the hero is any more. But he has to work out the all the answers fast, because now he’s staring into the bloody maw of the zombpocalypse itself.

Anti Hero, which has not been available before (to my knowledge), is due to hit shelves in March 2015. I’ll be sure to share the artwork as soon as I spot it.

Also on CR: Interview with Jonathan Wood, Guest Post on Living With Consequences