A very expensive poison by Luke Harding

A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia's War with the West by Luke Harding
Published by Guardian Faber Publishing on February 11th 2016
Genres: Politics, True Crime
Pages: 432
Format: Ebook
Goodreads

1 November 2006. Alexander Litvinenko is brazenly poisoned in central London. Twenty two days later he dies, killed from the inside. The poison? Polonium; a rare, lethal and highly radioactive substance. His crime? He had made some powerful enemies in Russia.

Based on the best part of a decade's reporting, as well as extensive interviews with those closest to the events (including the murder suspects), and access to trial evidence, Luke Harding's A Very Expensive Poison is the definitive inside story of the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko. Harding traces the journey of the nuclear poison across London, from hotel room to nightclub, assassin to victim; it is a deadly trail that seemingly leads back to the Russian state itself.

This is a shocking real-life revenge tragedy with corruption and subterfuge at every turn, and walk-on parts from Russian mafia, the KGB, MI6 agents, dedicated British coppers, Russian dissidents. At the heart of this all is an individual and his family torn apart by a ruthless crime.

Russia is something of an enigma to most people in the west, and our perceptions of the country, its politicians, and history are definitely coloured by what we see in the media. Luke Harding’s book seeks to lift some of the veil which surrounds the country in his book ‘A very expensive poison’ which describes the poisoning of a man named Alexander Litvinenko, allegedly or apparently by agents working on behalf of the Russian government. I remember the events surrounding the poisoning, and while at the time there was a lot of noise made about who was responsible for it, nothing ever seemed to come of it, at least in my country.

The author takes us right into the world of intrigue and violence which is going on – often in plain sight – and tells a deeply personal story of what happened, and uncovers the actors who were behind the events, at least to a point. Harding is an experienced reporter, who writes in a clear and very readable style, and you get the sense of his presence there on the front lines. I suppose if a false flag job, or secret mission is pulled off successfully, there is always going to be some element of doubt remaining about the true puppetmasters. The author makes his views fairly clear, and also knows the limits on the information available to him.

I really enjoyed this book, although the story itself is a deeply tragic one, and it provided some satisfying answers about a political assassination which happened not in some strange country, but right in the heart of London. In the current environment, with a significant amount of interest in Russia and its influence in the world, this is a very relevant and cogent piece that should be of interest to anyone wanting to know more.

An intriguing spy thriller worthy of any fiction master… except that it is a true story.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley RobinsonNew York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Orbit on March 14th 2017
Genres: Sci-Fi
Pages: 613
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
three-stars

It is 2140.

The waters rose, submerging New York City.

But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.

Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building, Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.

And how we too will change.

I had, and still have, very mixed feelings about New York 2140. I suspected going in that I would not be dealing with a traditional narrative, and I was not disappointed from that point of view. This is the story of a group of individuals who are living in New York in the eponymous year, after two major ice cap melt events, and after the flooding of the city. The lives of the characters are intertwined and very separate, but they are brought together through a common purpose, and desire for a community amidst the chaos which has ensued.

I was struggling with how to categorise this story, and I realised that it reminded me of the show Friends. There are a group of characters who are each living their lives, with their own goals and passions, but they are all united together by friendship. The novel is a story of their lives and loves, and how they band together to solve the inevitable problems and hardships that face them in a world which is partially submerged, but not what I would categorise as a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society.

The characters are all very individual, and well fleshed out through the story. There are the financial advisors, the quants, the treasure-hunting teenagers, the police woman, the airheaded “internet star” who flies around in her airship carrying animals from place to place, and the list goes on and on. Whether it is for good or ill, they are all given their time to shine, although there is a definite hierarchy of main characters. Robinson paints an interesting picture of the kinds of people who survive and thrive in this new kind of environment, and his world-building is spectacular.

The book is not without its problems, however. There is a very definite overtone criticising the current attitude towards climate science, the financial markets, and capitalism in general. The author lays it on thick and heavyhanded with his own views of what happened to society through the 20th and early 21st Century, which ultimately lead to world being in the fucked-up position it is in the story. I am not against books having a ‘message’ I suppose, and to some degree that has always been a function of the science fiction genre, but this is not subtle and is rather odious in places. The book also is a bit too clever, or aware of itself, as the author deliberately breaks the fourth wall at times out of deep satisfaction at his own cleverness. And I was not okay with that.

While I don’t want to stray too much into spoiler territory, what the residents of the tower do at the end of the book is extremely utopian in nature, and almost drove me up the wall.

Overall I enjoyed the characters and the world which Robinson has created, and the story he has told through a more leisurely slice-of-life style. This is not plot-heavy science fiction, the plot swirls around the characters like the ever-present tides, but it is secondary to the personal relationships that they share. There were some very entertaining moments in the book – mostly involving the airship pilot, including a very memorable scene involving polar bears gaining control – and the treasure hunting teenagers always brought some levity to the story.

I can see how this book will divide readers who are looking for straight up science fiction. I enjoyed the style as a whole, and did not mind some of the philosophical elements, but this ultimately felt too much like the author was beating you over the head with a book on Marxism at times.

three-stars
Rating Report
Plot
three-stars
Characters
five-stars
Writing
four-stars
Pacing
three-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

Whispers Across the Atlantick by David Smith

Whispers Across the Atlantick by David SmithWhispers Across the Atlantick: General William Howe and the American Revolution by David Smith
Published by A&C Black on July 13th 2017
Genres: History, War
Pages: 256
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars

General William Howe was the commander-in-chief of the British forces during the early campaigns of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). He was an enigma, who appeared on multiple occasions to be on the verge of winning the war for Britain, only to repeatedly fail to deliver the final blow.

Howe evoked passionate reactions in the people he worked with; his men loved him, his second-in-command detested him, his enemies feared him, and his political masters despaired of him. There was even a plot to murder him, in which British officers as well as Americans were implicated.

This book will be the first major work on this inscrutable British general for more than 40 years. Previously largely ignored by historians due to a lack of primary source documents upon which to draw, the author's recent archival discoveries, and ground-breaking research means that there are fascinating new insights to be told about Howe's performance during the American Revolution.

Howe's story includes intrigue, romance, and betrayal, played out on the battlefields of North America and concluding in a courtroom at the House of Commons, where Howe defended his decisions with his reputation and possibly his life on the line. The inquiry, complete with witness testimonies and savage debate between the bitterly divided factions of the British Parliament, forms the framework for the book, giving it the flavor of a courtroom drama rather than a standard military narrative history. As Howe struggles to clear his name, the titanic forces at work during the birth of the United States of America rage around him.

Whispers Across the Atlantick is the story of the American Revolutionary War, told through the eyes of the British commander Lord Howe. It interweaves the story of the military campaign against Howe having to explain himself before parliament after the fact. While the author does a steady job of tracking the various players on both sides of the war I really felt that the personal aspect of the war was lost.

Maybe it is my preference for a more narrative style of nonfiction storytelling but I really found it hard to make headway with this book. There just wasn’t enough to keep me interested, and in the end I decided to stop reading about 2/3rds of the way through.

I guess this is one for those with more of an interest in the British side of the revolutionary war, or those who enjoy a more steady pace in their history books, but it wasn’t for me.

I received a review copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

two-stars
Rating Report
Writing
two-stars
Pacing
one-star
Cover
three-stars
Overall: two-stars

The Forever Spy by Jeffrey Layton

The Forever Spy by Jeffrey LaytonThe Forever Spy (Yuri Kirov #2) by Jeffrey Layton
Published by Pinnacle Books on April 25th 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 320
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
two-stars

A shocking disaster threatens to trigger a new Cold War . . . Deep beneath the ice-covered Arctic Ocean, a massive oil spill threatens destruction on an untold scale. Yuri Kirov, a former operative for the Russian Navy and an expert in state-of-the-art underwater vessels, is pressed into duty--America's only hope at limiting the damage. When Yuri's past is exposed by a turncoat spy, he is blackmailed into taking on a risky subsea espionage mission. With the future of his newly adopted country at risk--and his loved ones in the line of fire--Yuri must lead his crew into the iciest depths before tensions boil over--while an unseen enemy pushes both superpowers one step closer to the brink . . .

This book had me unequal parts interested and confused throughout, and while I like a good spy thriller, I like it to at least make sense in the end. The Forever Spy reminded me of one of those Celtic knots where the patterns go around and around and interweave with each other, and you’re never quite sure where one starts and ends. There are so many disparate and discordant characters and nation state players in the mix of this book that meant I struggled to follow who was who, what the ultimate stakes were, and I didn’t care for any of it.

I will admit that I had not read the first book in this series, and had not heard of this author before. But I decided to give it a go anyway – there is always room for new players and new ideas in fiction. It is sad for me to say that there was just too much going on here – a secret submarine plot, something-with-Russians, something-with-Chinese, and all of these moving parts just didn’t make sense as an overall picture.

As a consequence of this convolution, I found it very hard to read, and it took me over a week to finish. At the pace I usually read at, and for a book that is supposed to be a genre thriller, something just felt a little off. I really can’t recommend this book over much more polished works in this genre. It was thoroughly unsatisfying from start to finish.

I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

two-stars
Rating Report
Plot
one-star
Characters
two-stars
Writing
one-half-stars
Pacing
two-stars
Cover
two-stars
Overall: one-half-stars

Australia’s Most Murderous Prison by James Phelps

Australia’s Most Murderous Prison by James PhelpsAustralia's Most Murderous Prison: Behind the Walls of Goulburn Jail by James Phelps
Published by Random House Australia on July 16th 2015
Genres: True Crime
Pages: 336
Goodreads
four-stars

An unprecedented spate of murders in the 1990s - seven in just three years - earned Goulburn Jail the ominous name of 'The Killing Fields'. Inmates who were sentenced or transferred to the 130-year-old towering sandstone menace declared they had been given a death sentence.

Few of us have a particularly good idea about what goes on behind the walls of the average prison – and most of us would like to keep it that way. In Australia’s Most Murderous Prison, James Phelps takes the reader behind the walls of Goulburn Jail, through the eyes of the officers who stand guard over some of the most dangerous and notorious criminals.

To the average reader, particularly those outside New South Wales, the name Goulburn Jail might not mean much, and there is always the danger that using hyperbolic terms in book titles could backfire. Once you dig into the meat of this book however, you will discover the names – and personalities – of some of the criminals who have littered the headlines of Australian newspapers for the last 30 years. From Ivan Milat to Bilal Skaf, and Australia’s very own homegrown terrorists, many of them are locked up in the Supermax unit of Goulburn Jail.

Phelps doesn’t shy away from telling the gritty and disgusting stories of the things that go on behind prison walls. On occasion he gives warnings of extreme content ahead, but after reading everything that has gone before, one tends to get a little numb to some of the worst things inside. There are plenty of examples of nasty people meeting bloody, nasty ends inside, and while it is difficult to feel sorry for many of the inmates, there are definitely some tragic cases. The author definitely takes a sympathetic stance towards the subjects of the book, which surprisingly enough are the guards, rather than prisoners themselves. But one can hardly blame him for not wanting to glorifying the indefensible.

I think this will definitely appeal to fans of true crime, and learning more about some of the escapades, escapes and capers that go on behind the razor wire of prison. It is not for the faint of heart, however, but I think it has an honesty about it that makes it eminently readable.

four-stars
Rating Report
Writing
four-stars
Pacing
four-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
on February 7, 2017
Pages: 304
Goodreads
five-stars

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite fiction authors of all time, with a solid track record of amazing and engaging novels. When I saw that he had written a book about Norse mythology, I really should not have been as skeptical as I was, but that skepticism kept me from reading this book for a long time.

When you think about myths and legends, they are stories that are passed down from generation to generation, and over time they can adapt and evolve. The stories can be unique, as the story teller puts their own particular spin on the old old stories. And that is ultimately what Gaiman has done with this book, bringing his own brand of humour and craft to these stories.

I was not familiar with a lot of the stories which he was retelling, but I gained a greater understanding of them as they were built upon each other throughout the book. You really get a sense of the relationship between the people of that era and their gods, and of just how capricious and mischievous their deities could be.

There is a recent trend in publishing of retold fairytales, and I suppose to some degree this book fits into that category, since it is difficult to otherwise pigeonhole this masterful creation. Not quite fiction, not quite nonfiction, this should really be enjoyed for what it is, without being concerned with what it is and isn’t.

I am sorry Mr Gaiman, I should have known better than to doubt you.

five-stars
Rating Report
Plot
five-stars
Characters
five-stars
Writing
five-stars
Pacing
five-stars
Cover
four-half-stars
Overall: five-stars

Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky

Deep Undercover by Jack BarskyDeep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky, Cindy Coloma, Joe Reilly
Published by Tyndale Momentum on March 21st 2017
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 288
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars

I love a good spy story, particularly the true ones. And the memoir of a KGB spy who lived in America for years without being discovered sounded like a fascinating tale, especially since I love the show The Americans. Deep Undercover is the story of the many lives of Albrecht Dittrich, better known as Jack Barsky, as he moved from the son of East German school teachers, to a chemistry professor, to international man of mystery.

What I found utterly fascinating was his life behind the Iron Curtain, growing up in East Germany which felt almost alien to me. His story is a very ordinary story, a normal family life, but it is set amidst the deprivation, and psychological control of a totalitarian communist regime.

This is a very personal story, and the author does a good job of painting colourful and interesting characters, friends and lovers he meets along the way. In fact, in retrospect, some of the people he meets along the way sound like they have much more interesting stories to tell, particularly the Russian agents who recruited, trained and handled him over the years.

In some ways I felt like this book was a bit of a let down. Dittrich is sent off to the US with high goals as obtaining valid identification documents, and some nebulous task of working his way into a position of influence in high society. Which – by the author’s own admission – seems extremely unlikely at best. I have read the stories of the likes of Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby and other homegrown spies who were just a bit more interesting. Perhaps it is a conscious choice that the author does not speak very much of his intelligence activities, or perhaps he did not accomplish very much, but reading this book you will never know.

By the end of the book I realised that Dittrich/Barsky really isn’t a particularly likeable person, at least as presented in the book. It is difficult to deny his philandering ways, the number of failed marriages, and children left behind in his wake. And while there is a redemption at the end of the book, once his identity was revealed by the FBI, it seems like it was foisted on him by happenstance, rather than by choice

The other thing I found a little odious was the denouement where – mostly because he was trying to get into the pants of his secretary – he converts to Christianity, and everything – including his decades of agnosticism – takes on a rosy glow of revisionist belief in an interventionist god. Religion isn’t my thing, and I could have done without the hardcore proselytising he engages in towards the end. It just felt like a disingenuous end to a story which devolved from a potentially interesting spy novel to something akin to soap opera melodrama.

When I first finished the book I had somewhat different feelings to now with the benefit of hindsight. This was a promising story that I felt pulled too many punches, and lacked details of the most interesting parts of this man’s life, which is the actual spy stuff. I am interested in hearing the stories of the Russians like Sergei, and Eugen… which will probably never happen.

two-half-stars
Rating Report
Characters
three-stars
Writing
two-half-stars
Pacing
three-stars
Cover
three-stars
Overall: three-stars

Traitor’s Gait by Geoffrey Osbourne

Traitor's Gait by Geoffrey Osborne
Published by Endeavour Press Genres: Thriller
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

The Russian space research centre just outside Moscow is surrounded by searchlight and machine-gun towers; the inner perimeter fence is electrified and the place is strongly guarded by the KGB and by the GRU (military security).

But Britain wants the secrets of the space bomb which is being developed there, and the Director of Britain’s SS(O)S has worked out a plan to get them.

It is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in 1969, and so some of the things that would probably be unforgivable in a modern spy thriller must be tolerated. Traitor’s Gait is the story of a small team of agents who must infiltrate a Russian space facility to steal the plans to a wonderful space macguffin before it becomes operational and threatens the world.

I enjoy reading a variety of styles of thriller, from the hard-bitten style of John Lecarre through to more action packed authors like Tom Clancy. Although it is only a relatively short book, the pacing felt a little off at times. There were times when events raced by without stopping for more than a cursory explanation, and there were other times when it was trying to build that core of a novel.

I think with a lot of spy thrillers, you can respect a novel for the time it was written in, but they are not always going to be relevant in today’s society. I felt like the plot was a little James Bondish, which didn’t help with the atmosphere, and to be honest… it just felt a little silly, and the twist and turns that were there wound up confusing me.

I respect the publisher for their efforts to resurrect books that were written way back when, but this book really wasn’t for me. I would have liked it to be a full length novel, to allow the author to explore some of the ideas, and to really flesh out the characters and set up the situation properly.

If throw back old school spy novels are you sort of thing, you might give this a whirl.

I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

three-stars
Rating Report
Plot
three-stars
Characters
four-stars
Writing
three-stars
Pacing
two-half-stars
Cover
three-stars
Overall: three-stars

Trojan by Alan McDermott

Trojan by Alan McDermottTrojan by Alan McDermott
Published by Thomas & Mercer on January 12th 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 300
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars

When MI5 learns that a horrifying new weapon is in enemy hands, agent Andrew Harvey is called in to track it down before it reaches British soil.
The clock is ticking. Andrew and his girlfriend, Sarah, also a secret service operative, have only one lead: a beautiful refugee, desperate not to lose her son. But is she desperate enough to betray everything she believes in? And will she do it in time to help them prevent a terrifying attack?
As Andrew and Sarah race to unravel a convoluted web of subterfuge and exploitation, they discover there is more at stake than even they knew. And somewhere, at the heart of it, lurks a faceless enemy, who is prepared to use everything—and everyone—at his disposal.

Trojan is a well-crafted thriller which has the underpinnings of reality, as the plotline feels like things we often hear about in the news. British intelligence is charged with tracking down a terrorist group who have used a rather ingenious method to smuggle a dangerous biological weapon into the UK.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly care about the protagonists of the story, but the author did a good job of building an emotional connection with some of the women who were caught up in the middle – voluntarily or otherwise – of the terrorist plot. I thought the author did a good job of ramping up the tension throughout the novel, and all in all I felt this was a well-written, extremely competent thriller.

A solid effort in a crowded marketplace, and I will be investigating this author’s future releases with interest.

I received a review copy through NetGalley from the publisher.

four-stars
Rating Report
Plot
four-stars
Characters
three-stars
Writing
four-half-stars
Pacing
four-half-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

The Conquering Tide by Ian W Toll

The Conquering Tide by Ian W TollThe Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on October 18, 2016
Genres: History
Pages: 688
Goodreads
three-stars

The devastation of Pearl Harbor and the American victory at Midway were prelude to a greater challenge: rolling back the vast Japanese Pacific empire, island by island.
This masterful history encompasses the heart of the Pacific War—the period between mid-1942 and mid-1944—when parallel Allied counteroffensives north and south of the equator washed over Japan's far-flung island empire like a "conquering tide," concluding with Japan's irreversible strategic defeat in the Marianas. It was the largest, bloodiest, most costly, most technically innovative and logistically complicated amphibious war in history, and it fostered bitter interservice rivalries, leaving wounds that even victory could not heal.
Often overlooked, these are the years and fights that decided the Pacific War. Ian W. Toll's battle scenes—in the air, at sea, and in the jungles—are simply riveting. He also takes the reader into the wartime councils in Washington and Tokyo where politics and strategy often collided, and into the struggle to mobilize wartime production, which was the secret of Allied victory. Brilliantly researched, the narrative is propelled and colored by firsthand accounts—letters, diaries, debriefings, and memoirs—that are the raw material of the telling details, shrewd judgment, and penetrating insight of this magisterial history.

Subtitled War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944, The Conquering Tide is a tour de force of American triumphalism covering the first three years of its involvement in the Second World War. If you didn’t pick up that vibe from the front cover, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a fairly one-eyed look at some choice pieces of American history, and the destruction of the Japanese empire.

The book covers the period from 1942-1944, although it is a little fuzzy around the edges for historical context, and broadly paints the picture of American military and industrial might on the warpath as it neatly rolls through the Pacific War with hardly as much as a How-ya-doing? The book does offer for context some insights into the Japanese mindset, through excerpts from diary entries, and interrogations after the war, but its main interest is in how much cigar chomping ass-kickery the Americans managed in this period.

This is an extremely long, extremely impressive book for what it does cover, including action-packed descriptions of naval and air battles between the opposing forces. It also captures a good feeling of both the generals and admirals doing the commanding, and the soldiers on the ground doing the dying. There are some particularly harrowing descriptions, especially of the battle of Guadalcanal, and the aftermaths of naval engagements. But if one were to read this book in isolation, you might be left with the impression that America was the only nation doing the fighting on the allies’ side. The British rate a mention only as being obstructions to American success in the Pacific, with their silly ideas of ‘Germany First’. And I know for a fact that the Australians were present in some of these places doing the fighting and the dying.

As I said at the beginning, this is a triumphant look at history through an American lens. However, I was left with the question of why the author stopped in 1944, as there was still plenty of fighting to do in 1945. We are left on the cusp of the final events of World War 2, including the bombing of Japan, the development and dropping of the atomic bombs. There were certainly enough work put into justifying the use of the atomic bomb, but the book never went there.

I would say that this book is a book of action, and is not afraid of getting down and dirty with the troops on the ground. But it should not be read, or understood, in isolation without the benefit of other points of view. I recommend the excellent book The Fleet at Flood Tide, which describes more of the naval action in 1944-1945 if that’s your thing. I ultimately found this book just a bit too on the nose.

three-stars
Rating Report
Writing
three-stars
Pacing
three-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: three-stars