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#Bookreview MUNICH by Robert Harris (@Robert___Harris) A solid and well-written #historicalfiction book with few surprises (@FTLOBOOKS)

Hi all:

Today I bring you a book I won in a giveaway by an author I’m happy to finally have read. More of his books to come, I am sure.

Munich by Robert Harris
Munich by Robert Harris

Munich by Robert Harris

MUNICH, SEPTEMBER 1938

Hitler is determined to start a war. Chamberlain is desperate to preserve the peace.

They will meet in a city which forever afterwards will be notorious for what is about to take place.

As Chamberlain’s plane judders over the channel and the Fuhrer’s train steams south, two young men travel with their leaders. Former friends from a more peaceful time, they are now on opposing sides.

As Britain’s darkest hour approaches, the fate of millions could depend on them – and the secrets they’re hiding.

Spying. Betrayal. Murder. Is any price too high for peace?

‘A brilliantly constructed spy novel’ Observer

‘Grips from start to finish … Superb’ Mail on Sunday

Imperium, the acclaimed play cycle based on Robert Harris’s Cicero novels, is running in the West End in summer 2018 – tickets now on sale!

https://www.amazon.com/Munich-Robert-Harris-ebook/dp/B01MR2AXVK/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Munich-Robert-Harris-ebook/dp/B01MR2AXVK/

Hardback:

https://www.amazon.com/Munich-novel-Robert-Harris/dp/0525520260/

Author Robert Harris
Author Robert Harris

About the author:

Robert Harris is the author of eleven bestselling novels: the Cicero Trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, The Ghost, The Fear Index, An Officer and a Spy, which won four prizes including the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and Conclave. He has been a television correspondent with the BBC and a newspaper columnist for the London Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph. His forthcoming book, Munich, coming out in September 2017, is set over the four days of the Munich Conference, and is filled with the real-life characters and events of the time. Several of his books have been filmed, including The Ghost, which was directed by Roman Polanski. His novels have sold more than ten million copies and been translated into thirty-seven languages and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in West Berkshire with his wife, Gill Hornby, and four children.

https://www.amazon.com/Robert-Harris/e/B000APBPA4/

My review:

I obtained a hardback copy of this novel through a giveaway and thank Ash (@FTLOBOOKS) for her kindness and for the opportunity. I freely chose to review it.

Robert Harris is a familiar name for most readers and moviegoers. His novels and popular and many have been adapted to the screen (I particularly enjoyed The Ghost as I have a soft spot for films about writers). But although I have watched several adaptations of his novels, I cannot recall having read one of them, and I was happy to be given this opportunity. After reading it, I understand why he is so popular, and I don’t think this will be the last one of his novels I read.

Until I started to read the novel and later read some of the reviews, I did not know much about the historical background to it. The novel is classed as historical fiction and deals with the Munich Conference, that took place in September 1938, in a last ditch attempt at avoiding war with Germany (and Italy). The novel takes place in 4 days, from the 27th of September 1938 onwards, and covers the meeting between Hitler (for Germany), Mussolini (for Italy), Daladier (for France), and Chamberlain (for England), to try and settle Hitler’s demands for a return of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia (mostly inhabited by German speakers and people of German origin) to German hands. The actual agreement was signed on the 30th, without the presence of the Czechs, who worried the return to Germany of that region would leave them weakened and unable to defend themselves against further German expansion. Harris sticks to the facts, and the novel is divided into four parts, one for each day of the conference, with the historical figures who were present represented fairly accurately, and the events following the correct chronology as well.

What makes it historical fiction is the fact that he introduces into the story two characters who did not exist in reality, and Englishman, Hugh Legat (one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries) and a German, Paul Hartmann (a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance). They had met in Oxford and had also spent some time together in Germany, but had not seen each other in 6 year and had a bit of history, which we learn more about throughout the book. Whilst Legat is a family man and seems to be focused on his career and on doing things by the book, Hartmann is a bit more mysterious and has the heart of a spy. He is not averse to taking risks, has no family, is much more clued on what is at stake, and is seemingly more reckless as to putting others at risk. Of the two characters, perhaps Legat is the one we get to know better and the more recognisable and sympathetic type, whilst Hartmann shares less of his personal life. He is the one calling the shots but we get fewer glimpses of his true motivation and he seems to have less to lose, and that might make him more difficult to identify with but more interesting and intriguing. Both men are highly intelligent and sharp analysts, ideal candidates to become observers and stand-ins for the readers.

The book is written in the third person (extremely well) and alternates the point of view of both characters always making clear who we are reading about. Harris has a way of making characters and events that might feel familiar sound and look intriguing (something extremely difficult when there are so many players involved) and uses descriptions to great effect. As we follow these two characters, who are both insiders of this world of diplomacy and politics but not big influencers and therefore very restricted in what they can do without risking their own lives and those of others, we share with them the wonderment, the worry, and the awe at being in the presence of such important people and at such a momentous event. We also share their frustration at being unable to intervene and change the course of history (and that would have made an interesting speculative historical fiction novel, for sure) that in our case we know will end up in tragedy.

The pace of the novel is uneven. Due to how closely Harris follows the events, there are moments when the leaders are travelling, paperwork is being prepared, or when due to their roles, both characters and not in the thick of things, and although the novel is never boring (because of the great characterisation and the level of detail), it is not a page turner where the rhythm is frenzied and never lets off. There are tense moments at the beginning, then there are the actual meetings between the leaders, which are not witnessed by the two men, and then things pick up again. The secret documents being exchanged, the difficulty in arranging meetings or even exchanging a few words in such circumstances become increasingly clear as the conference comes close to an end, and both men become bolder and take bigger risks. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic (though realistic) but I don’t want to reveal too much.

I am not an expert in this historical period, but I did feel that I got a better insight into the events and also the historical protagonists of the Munich conference thanks to the novel. Reading some of the comments, it seems that many feel Harris has managed to make Chamberlain’s position and manoeuvres more understandable and agreeable, rather than adhering to the popular view that he was too weak and did not handle the negotiation well. Harris explains that after working on a documentary about the subject many years back, he had remained fascinated by this historical event and felt he had to write this book. (He also includes a lengthy bibliography acknowledging the sources he has used to write the book, which will be of great help to anybody looking for further information).

Here some examples of Harris’s writing in this novel:

Legat took out a large white cotton handkerchief and wiped his face. It would not do to turn up red-faced and perspiring. If there was one sin that was frowned upon above all others in the Private Office, it was appearing to be in a flap. (Harris, 2017, p. 10)

…because people believed what they wanted to believe — that was Goebbel’s great insight. They no longer had a need to bother themselves with inconvenient truths. He had given them an excuse not to think. (Harris, 2017, p. 139)

There is a very memorable scene, when shortly after the English delegation arrives at their hotel in Munich, they are regaled by  an oom-pah band playing in the street, in front of the hotel, The Lambeth Walk. Legat, very aptly, describes it as “surreal” (p. 212).

One of the moments that I thought better defined and explained Hartmann and his actions (because he had always been a firm believer in Germany and its nationhood and that had caused some friction with Legat in the past) was when he talks about Hitler and how they had ignored “the power of unreason” (p. 297), that he goes on to explain, saying that people kept making excuses for Hitler’s most extreme and bizarre behaviours (his antisemitism, his ethnic policies…), telling themselves that these were one offs that could be overlooked or ignored, whilst he now believed the most evil and the most extreme ideas and behaviours someone is capable of are what truly define him or her as a person.

I think this book works well as historical fiction and I’d recommend it to people who want to learn more about this particular historical episode without having to read several historical volumes. On the other hand, this is not a thriller or a standard spy novel, and although there are intriguing and mysterious aspects that quicken the pace, Harris sticks so closely to the actual events that he does not introduce major changes or surprises, even when it comes to his fictional characters. A solid and well-written historical fiction book and one that has convinced me I must read more of Robert Harris’s work.

Harris, R. (2017) Munich. London, UK: Hutchinson, Penguin Random House UK.

Thanks to Ash for the book and to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it please remember to like, share, comment, click, keep reading, reviewing and smiling! 

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Book reviews

#Bookreviews NUMERO ZERO by Umberto Eco and ZERO K by Don DeLillo. Two great writers pushing boundaries #TuesdayBookBlog

Hi all:

I’m still trying to catch up with some of the reviews I haven’t posted yet, and as I was checking, it struck me that two books by two very well-known authors (one who has unfortunately left us since I read the book) had Zero in their titles, and I couldn’t resist to bring them together. I’m not sure there’s much to link them otherwise (one of the writers is Italian, the other from the US, the themes are in no way related, nor are their styles) although it’s true that both of these books are perhaps fairly different to their usual novels. Whatever the reason, here they are.

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

From the best-selling author of The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery, a novel about the murky world of media politics, conspiracy, and murder

A newspaper committed to blackmail and mud slinging, rather than reporting the news.

A paranoid editor, walking through the streets of Milan, reconstructing fifty years of history against the backdrop of a plot involving the cadaver of Mussolini’s double.

The murder of Pope John Paul I, the CIA, red terrorists handled by secret services, twenty years of bloodshed, and events that seem outlandish until the BBC proves them true.

A fragile love story between two born losers, a failed ghost writer, and a vulnerable girl, who specializes in celebrity gossip yet cries over the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. And then a dead body that suddenly appears in a back alley in Milan.

Set in 1992 and foreshadowing the mysteries and follies of the following twenty years, Numero Zero is a scintillating take on our times from the best-selling author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

numero-zero-2

Here my review:

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco. Satire, conspiracy, politics, media… although not sure it’s a novel.

Thanks to Net Galley and to Vintage Digital for offering me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve read some of the reviews by many readers who have followed Eco’s literary career. All seem to agree that this book cannot compare to some of the other novels he’s written, although some like it nonetheless, whilst others are disparaging of it.

For me, Umberto Eco is a writer who’s always been on my bucket list but never quite made it (or perhaps I read The Name of the Rose translated to Spanish many years back, but as I don’t remember it, I’ll assume I didn’t). When I saw this opportunity I decided not to miss it.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Numero Zero is quite different from anything I had imagined.

The beginning of the book is very intriguing, and it presents a writer/translator (Colonna) who swiftly explains his current situation. He is convinced that somebody has entered his house and he is in fear for his life.

Following this introduction to the main character, Colonna goes back to describe how he got there. The background to his current situation is what forms most of the novel, and we only return to the original point very late in the book (when there are only a few pages left).

Colonna describes himself as a loser and he has accepted a very strange job: to record the memoirs of a man who is setting up a newspaper, Domani. Only the newspaper will never get published, and the whole project is a way of manipulating contacts, allies and enemies by a third interested party.

There are descriptions of the reporters, a motley crew, fairly quirky, but none particularly talented or known. The ones we get to know more about are Braggadocio, who’s always investigating some conspiracy or other (eventually coming to the conclusion that it is all part of a single huge conspiracy, involving Mussolini, the Vatican, the CIA, European governments…), and the only woman, Maia, who has a very special personality, but seems the only one with some sense of ethics and morals. By a strange process of osmosis, Colonna and Maia end up in a relationship, the one bright and hopeful point of the whole novel, however, weird the coupling seems.

Rather than well-developed characters and situations, Numero Zero seems an exercise in exposing current society (although the story is set in 1992), the press, media, politics… and their lack of substance. Also the lack of interest in serious stories by the population at large, and our collective poor memory.  As a satire I enjoyed it enormously, and although most of the characters experience no change (we don’t get too attached to them either, as they seem to be mostly just two-dimensional beings representing a single point of view), I thought Maia become more realistic, cynical and enlightened by the end of the book. And I found Colonna’s final reflection about Italy hilarious. (No offence to Italy. I think all the countries are going the same way if not there already. I’m Spanish and I definitely had to nod).

I agree with many of the comments that the disquisitions and tirades of Braggadocio are relentless, but reflect a paranoid character (and perhaps, although he accuses Maia of being autistic, there is more than a bit of obsessiveness in his personality), the comments about the newspaper, how to write articles, and the press I found illuminating (yes, and funny), and overall I enjoyed the book, although as I said, it’s not my idea of a novel.

So I find myself in a similar situation to when I reviewed Satin Island. I enjoyed it (not as much as Satin Island, but it made me laugh more than once), but it is a novel that’s perhaps not a novel, with not very well developed characters, and an anecdote at its heart rather than a plot. There you are. You decide if you want to read it or not. Ah, and it’s short. 
Paperback:  $ 14.95 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero-Umberto-Eco/dp/0544811836/

Hardback: $19.14 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero-Umberto-Eco/dp/0544635086/

Kindle: $15.13 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero-Umberto-Eco-ebook/dp/B0110ONP24/

Audio:  $ 17.72 http://www.amazon.com/Numero-Zero/dp/B016QTSTCY/

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo
Zero K by Don DeLillo

Zero K by Don DeLillo. The search for meaning and control

Description

The wisest, richest, funniest, and most moving novel in years from Don DeLillo, one of the great American novelists of our time—an ode to language, at the heart of our humanity, a meditation on death, and an embrace of life.

Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body.

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?”

These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.”

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

Zero K is glorious.

zero-k

My review:

Thanks to Scribner and to Net Galley for providing me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve read novels by Don DeLillo before and enjoyed them although I haven’t read all of them. I was curious to read this novel, and I’ve also noticed that Zero keeps appearing in the title of novels I’m reading these days (not sure what it says about me but…).

I’m not sure exactly what to say about this novel. On the surface, it’s a story written in the first person by a character, Jeff, who goes through a very strange experience. His wealthy father, Ross, and his stepmother, Artis, have asked him to go with them to a strange facility, the Convergence, where his stepmother, who is terminally ill, thanks to new scientific processes including cryogenics, is going to be frozen in the hope that in the future they’ll find the cure for her condition and she will live again, seemingly forever. The trip and the experience are confusing and disorienting, as not only is Jeff not sure where he is, but the compound seems designed to make people lose their bearings. Doors that aren’t really doors, rooms stripped bare, strange speeches mixing up seemingly spiritual, philosophical, religious, ecological and economic subjects with a somewhat apocalyptic and sect-like underlying message. Jeff’s father is very wealthy and has invested heavily in the programme, but Jeff isn’t quite convinced. His attempts at finding meaning in the process and get some control over it range from mentally giving names to people, inventing the background for the individuals he meets, trying to imagine their stories… In many ways, that’s the same we, as readers are asked to do. We are not expected to be simply passive receivers of a story or of a meaning but must collaborate with the author and create a joint one.

As a reader, I find it easier to connect to books and novels where I empathise or I’m very interested in its characters. In the case of the main character and guiding conscience of this novel, it’s not a straightforward process. Do we really get to know Jeff? We know how he thinks and what it feels like to be inside of his head, what his relationship with his father and his stepmother is like (at least what he thinks it’s like) and in part two we get to glimpse into a relationship he gets into, although mostly through his references to the adopted son of his girlfriend, a very special boy. Jeff is articulate, erudite, curious, a keen observer and seems to live inside of his head, but he seems to mostly react to others and to the situation analysing everything to death, rather than doing anything or deciding anything. In a way, he’s perhaps as frozen and paralysed as Artis and Ross, but they’ve made a decision, however, egotistical and self-aggrandizing it might be, while he remains the passive observer. For me, Jeff is intriguing, but not someone I feel an easy connection with or I care for. Like him, the novel is engaging at an intellectual level but not so much at an emotional one, at least for me.

This is a novel where action is not the prime component. It is beautifully written and you’ll read some passages many times, as they seem to demand analysis and ongoing exploration. I’m not sure I can say what it is about? Life and death? The future? The meaninglessness of existence? Family relationships? I don’t feel it’s DeLillo’s most accessible story, and definitely, I would not recommend it to somebody who is looking for an easy read and a good story. But if you’re interested in a challenging read and in exploring big themes and personal meanings, this might be the book for you.

Buy links:

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-K-Don-DeLillo-ebook/dp/B018Y1BEQA/

Hardback: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-K-Don-DeLillo/dp/1501135392/

Audible: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-K/dp/B01DFBQUPE/

Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers and the authors (so sorry about Umberto Eco’s death) for the books, thanks to you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, like, share, comment and CLICK!

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