Review: Their Little Secret, by Mark Billingham

May 23rd, 2019

Their Little Secret, the latest in the Tom Thorne series of crime novels, offers further proof of why author Mark Billingham is probably the best crime writer in Britain today — and one of our very best writers, full stop. This complicated, deeply human story revolves entirely around an extraordinary woman named Sarah, who at the very start of the book appears as the next victim for a con artist named Conrad, but is actually so much more than that. In parallel with the Sarah and Conrad story is the ongoing struggle of DI Thorne to have a life outside of the Job. His fellow officer, Nicola Tanner, plans a key role in the story and her name now features in the series title. The only thing wrong with this book is that having devoured it in two days, I now have to wait a full year for the next book in the series.

All The World’s A Stage, by Boris Akunin

May 19th, 2019

I read this book in the wrong order as it precedes Akunin’s Black City, which I recently completed. And it does set the stage (sorry – couldn’t resist) for the latter book, with Fandorin now unhappily married to a woman he meets in this one. This book is set in Moscow during the final years of the tsarist regime, before the outbreak of the first world war, and one can sense the impending demise of that regime. Theatre directors are all cultural revolutionaries of a sort, the tsarist police force is useless in the face of ordinary criminals and revolutionaries, and the hero of these books, Erast Fandorin already seems rather weary of the whole business. Still, worth reading as the series itself is a remarkable achievement — and I do wonder if we’ve seen the last of Fandorin.

Back to Linux

May 8th, 2019

Several years back, I had a Linux laptop. But by around 2010 I had migrated to the Apple ecosystem, starting with an iPad, and left Linux behind. Now I’m back to Linux and let me explain why.

It turned out that I hardly use any of Apple’s software products – not Siri, not Pages, not iTunes, not Safari. My software — even on the Mac — consisted mostly of free and open source tools, such as Libre Office, Thunderbird, and Firefox, and I rely on web applications for much of what I do (e.g., TickTick for my to-do list, Diaro for my daily diary, Netflix, Spotify, etc.). I was getting no added value from being with Apple.

Today took delivery of my new laptop, a Dell XPS-13 with Ubuntu Linux 18.04 pre-installed.

I’ve spent the last hour getting re-acquainted and it’s been a happy experience so far.

What I have learned is that migrating from other operating systems to Linux is much easier than it used to be. For example, there’s one-click downloading of software. I was surprised to see that Firefox did not come pre-installed, but installing it, syncing it with my previous version, and making it my new default browser took less than a minute – no technical skills required.

Connecting to wifi and bluetooth was a piece of cake. My Microsoft mouse works perfectly — though I do have to get used to the fact that I now have a touch screen.

The XPS-13 is a lovely bit of kit — it seems so much smaller than my MacBook Air, but it’s the same screen size. The screen resolution is spectacularly good, the memory is quadruple what I had before, as is the hard drive capacity.

The first new app I downloaded (which does work on Mac, but I never tried it there) is Typora. It may come in useful when I write my next book.

More in the days to come as I complete the transition (and learn about all the hard stuff).

Review: Black City, by Boris Akunin

April 22nd, 2019

Boris Akunin is the pseudonym for Grigory Chkhartishvili, one of the most successful crime writers ever to emerge from Russia. His series of books featuring Erast Fandorin span several decades of the late 19th and early 20th century, and have sold tens of millions of copies in Russia.

The English translations by Andrew Bromfield are superb. The books have been described as “Tolstoy writing James Bond with the logical rigour of Sherlock Holmes,” though that may apply mainly to the first ones in the evolving series.

I have enjoyed the whole series, from The Winter Queen up through this book, which is set in 1914 on the very brink of the outbreak of the First World War. This is a complex story, and it helps for one to have an understanding of Russian history. (In parallel to these books, Akunin also writes history books.)

Set in Baku, this story has Fandorin — who is now in his 50s — on the trail of a revolutionary terrorist known as “Woodpecker” or “Odysseus”. This villain is, of course, a Bolshevik and he has some clear parallels to a young Stalin. Fandorin (and the author as well) have strong views about this: “All ardent revolutionaries are basically psychologically sick,” he thinks.

Without giving too much away, this may be the very last of the Fandorin books (I’m actually not sure about this) — but I certainly hope not.

Review: The Battle, by Richard Overy

April 15th, 2019

This book has now gone through several editions, and was recently re-issued with a slightly different title.

It is a very short history of the Battle of Britain of 1940-41 and in just a few pages, Overy manages to demolish a number of long standing myths about the period. Among these are the idea that the British or Germans at that time were deliberately engaged in terror-bombings of each other’s cities. Or that either the RAF or the Luftwaffe was significantly “better” than the other; both air forces had cutting-edge aircraft and outstanding pilots.

He attributes Britain’s “victory” (he’s not convinced it can be called that) to something rarely discussed: Britain was far better at producing large numbers of Spitfires and other aircraft, while the Germans (despite their having conquered most of Europe) struggled to meet their production targets.

A good introduction to the subject, but not without controversy.


If we can’t get a new government, let’s get a new Left

April 10th, 2019

The Israeli Left failed yesterday in its attempt to change the leadership and the direction of the country. Maybe it’s time to change the Left instead. And let’s learn a lesson from Israel’s history to show us how to do that.

Read my full blog from the Times of Israel by clicking here.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, illustrated by Renée Nault

April 10th, 2019

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been in the news a lot lately. Her book is now considered a classic, a recent television adaptation was a huge success, and a sequel is due out later this year.

The book was first published in 1985, a time when many in the U.S. and other western societies assumed that the women’s movement was making changes that could never be reversed, and that society was gradually becoming more liberal and more tolerant. Today, more than three decades later, Atwood’s dystopian vision increasingly seems far closer than we would have imagined when the book was first written.

This graphic novel adaption is done beautifully, and shows Gilead (the country that used to be the United States) almost as a dream — and a bad dream at that. Highly recommended.

Review: Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography by Noah Van Sciver, Paul Buhle, Steve Max and Dave Nance

April 8th, 2019

The colourful Eugene V. Debs would make a wonderful subject for a graphic novel but unfortunately, this is not the book I’d recommend.

A text-heavy graphic novel that cannot decide if it’s “Debs for beginners” or something far more serious. It is filled with half-ideas, people and institutions that pop in for a moment, are never introduced, and who then disappear a moment later. (Will anyone reading it know who Daniel De Leon was? Or for that matter, William Winpisinger?)

Much is done to show Debs as if he was a 21st century politician, far ahead of his time on issues like race and gender, though one wonders how true this is. (The party he led was hardly free of racism and sexism.)

There are passing references, largely uncritical, about the Bolsheviks and their American supporters.

A not insignificant part of the book focusses on American socialism post-Debs, showing Norman Thomas as a rather nice old man and Michael Harrington in a very critical light.

The authors’ political agenda is evident on every page, but the real Eugene Debs does not come alive here. A pity — this was such a great idea for a book.

Review: Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman

April 7th, 2019

I admit to being a bit of a latecomer to this party, having only discovered Rutger Bregman following his extraordinary non-interview on Fox News recently. This is his best-selling book laying out the case for a number of reforms, some quite moderate (like universal basic income, which even Richard Nixon advocated) and others far more radical (abolishing borders between countries).

These are pretty much all good ideas, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them utopian.

And also, for some strange reason, he’s not mentioned some of the great experiments in social change including the independent Georgian republic of 1918-21, or the kibbutz movement in Israel. Well worth the read.

Don’t vote

April 7th, 2019

If having a prime minister who faces a number of serious criminal charges doesn’t bother you because you think it’s all “fake news” cooked up by the left-wing media, you can relax because polls show that most people agree with you, and that he’ll be re-elected. Don’t vote.

Read the rest of my article on The Times of Israel.