Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Review: Their Little Secret, by Mark Billingham

Thursday, 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

Sunday, 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.

Review: Black City, by Boris Akunin

Monday, 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

Monday, 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.


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

Wednesday, 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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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.

Review: A Berliner’s Luck – Surviving the Third Reich and World War II, by Fred A. Simon

Monday, March 25th, 2019

This short memoir, written by the author when in his eighties, looks back at his experience as a German soldier during the Second World War. I would not recommend it to others.

Sometimes in memoirs, written many years after the fact, a kind of maturity is allowed to creep in, and the author may have some insights in their own behaviour or thoughts when they were younger. Not in this case.

Fred Simon, raised in the USA, was living in Berlin in 1941, drafted in the Panzer Grenadiers, and sent off to fight on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded. Later, while deployed in the Netherlands, he was sent over to the island of Texel to help suppress the rebellion by Georgian troops there.

Not once in this memoir is there any sense at all that Nazi Germany may have been doing the wrong thing, or even that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Simon has lots to say about his many girlfriends, and how he often managed to trick people into getting his way, but not a word about the war, the Nazi regime, and the war crimes in which he certainly played a part.

He wound up living in the USA, where he raised a family, played a role in the Boy Scouts, and never looked back in any meaningful way at what he had done or who he really was.

Review: Forgotten Legion: Sonderverbünde Bergmann in World War II, 1941-1945 by Eduard Abramian with Antonio J. Muñoz

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

There is a tendency, I think, among some who write about the Nazi Germans to become – too put it mildly – somewhat too close to their subject. That is the case with this book by a young Armenian historian.

It describes in great detail but without much of a coherent narrative, the story of the Bergmann battalion, a notorious unit set up by German military intelligence to run commando raids and carry out acts of sabotage in the Soviet controlled areas of Transcaucasia.

The battalion, which included volunteers from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus, was widely praised by the Germans for its effectiveness. The author of this volume goes further, citing many examples of the unit’s bravery, singling out some of its soldiers for their heroism.

By the end, we finally hear the author’s own voice, when he writes: “In this author’s opinion, one thing is clear: whatever the end of that terrible war could have been, the Armenian people were the victors, as they developed an excellent reputation, both in the former Soviet Union and in Europe, of their devotion and love for their people and country.”

And remember: he’s not writing about the large numbers of Armenians, Georgians and other who fought bravely in the Red Army against the fascists. He’s describing those who fought with the fascists, against partisans and others who were resisting the Nazis. This is a one-sided, partisan account that, unfortunately, takes the wrong side.

Review: How to Cure a Fanatic, by Amos Oz

Sunday, March 17th, 2019

This tiny little book, which you can read in under an hour, is a reminder of how much Amos Oz is missed today.

The book consists of two short speeches he gave in Germany in 2002, then a few pages about the “Geneva Accords” of 2003, and then a look back a decade later in an interview.

Oz was a leading light of the Israeli peace camp, a man who believed strongly in a two-state solution and above all, in the fact that both sides in the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians could be right, and have rights. Sadly, few today at least among the political elites of Israel and Palestine, seem to share this view.

And as for how to cure a fanatic, he has some simple strategies, including reading literature and having a sense of humour.

Amos Oz was arguably Israel’s greatest writer, but he was also one of its most decent human beings. May his memory be blessed.