Category Archives: Reviews

The Dry

The Dry

The dramatic cover of this book caught my eye several times over a few weeks, online and in the real world.

Eventually it seemed that it was virtually stalking me, so I gave in and acquired a copy. I’m glad to say that in this case at least nothing is lost by judging a book by its cover.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a tiny South Australian farming community beset by drought. Rain has been absent for years, the countryside is parched, times are hard, tempers are frayed and tensions are high all round.

Aaron Falk is a Federal Police detective based in Melbourne, specialising in financial crime. Originally from Kiewarra, one day he gets a phone call telling him his best friend  from his school days in the town, Luke Hadler, is dead – along with his wife and young son. All of them shot with the family’s own shotgun, apparently by Luke.

However, Falk’s own past ties to Kiewarra are far from straightforward – as is the reason why he left the town so many years before.

When he returns ‘home’ for the funeral, his own unfinished business comes back to haunt him in unexpected ways.

Can Falk unravel the intensely personal and intricately intertwined mysteries of the past and the present?

And stay alive while he does it?

 

 

Book Challenges – Yay or Nay?

Last year I read 103 books.

I know because Goodreads tells me so. Or at least Goodreads tells me that I told it that was the number.

Actually it was the number, I didn’t game the system though of course it is possible. It was the first time I had ever consciously kept track of how many books I read over a year.

Thoughts on the experience?

It definitely made me much more aware of how many books I had read, and was reading. How often do you realise that days have gone by and very few or maybe no pages have been read? It’s easy as we all discover to lose time, to get lost in other things, to be the fly in molasses. The Goodreads counter knocked lassitude on the head – ‘You’re on track!’ or ‘You’re 2 books behind’. It never went beyond two, the kick in the pants worked wonders ever time.

Added to the impetus was the % read tracker on my Kindle. Between the two, there was a steady drumbeat of recognition of progress made, or not, and encouragement to stay on track, or catch up.

Over time this did though grow to be a little disconcerting. Only 15% through a book? 1 book behind? Time to up the pace…..maybe speed up? Skip a little even? There were targets to be met after all!!

This was the downside of what was mostly a positive experience. A ticking clock measuring anything inevitably pushes towards a greater tempo, and then greater still, as it counts down, ever closer to the moment on 31 December and the final reckoning. The odd psychological effect was that even though the figure I set was entirely of my own choosing, and no one cared or was watching, and the unseen outcome counted for absolutely nothing, it did assume a significance just by being there. I not sure I liked that feeling, and especially not to have it bound up and instilled with reading – a pleasure and a realm intended to be as enjoyable as it is because it was separate from deadlines and pressures, walled off in its own sanctuary beyond normal space and time, and the everyday world. Though of course really it’s not – but it’s nice to think that way.

It’s easy (and in the grand scheme of thing right) to say that the best response was to just chill, since the grand total was freighted with no meaning – nothing was lost at 98 or gained by 103 books read.

And yet. It mattered. Oddly, and perhaps inexplicably so. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t competing with anyone. As I said no one was keeping an eye on me. I didn’t mention any total or the challenge to anyone, let along invest any importance in reaching the figure.

So why care? A good and puzzling question. A challenge is a challenge perhaps? Losing to oneself is the worst defeat of all? Keeping track highlighted how much time is actually ‘wasted’, as it might be termed, not reading? Maybe 100 books doesn’t seem a very large number? Especially in a  year? With over 1,200 on my Kindle alone? And more to add? And that leaves aside all the paper mounds and pyramids accumulated and waiting to be explored?

In a way I suppose keeping track revealed a tangible mortality of time, a limit that is real and insurmountable. Our thread of life is finite and what we do with the length available, in so far as we can ever know or guess what that is, is a series of choices.

And all of the time a clock is ticking.

Like it or not.

I set the 100 books goal again this year, with a bit more trepidation and hesitation than last.

Let’s see how it goes……tick……tock……tick…….

Acts of the Assassins

Acts of the Asassins cover
Acts of the Assassins

The close associates of a dead insurgent leader start meeting grizzly deaths.

Doubts arise as to whether the insurgent himself is really dead. His diminishing band of companions proclaim not. Bizarrely they believe he came back from the dead.

Disgraced secret policeman Cassius Gallio knows this is impossible. He was in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus – he saw the radical agitator die before his eyes. True, the body was stolen from a tomb but the guards were inexperienced and open to offers. Still he suffered for the embarrassing outcome – busted back down to uniform and posted to the wilds of Moldova.

Now, though with one phone call he’s on a plane back to Jerusalem – the case is reopened, and with it the chance to save himself and possibly the Roman Empire as well.

Even from that short description it’s obvious that Richard Beard’s book is different. A Roman Empire with phones? And planes? The Twelve Apostles as part of a murder mystery? Roman Imperial FBI with Glock pistols?

The premise is intriguing and the setting and background as creative as it is mind-bending and unsettling.

Plotwise the story is a little weak but the concept and context is so inventive that you keep reading to learn more of this odd and unique story world, and of course to find out what happens to the characters in this strange parallel universe.

Not a book that you might ever re-read but one that has enough elements of interest to hold the reader the first time around, and when the end is reached it’s hard not to find satisfaction freighted with relief.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New JihadUnder the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad by Sami Moubayed

Is the Islamic State/ISIS a flash in the pan? Brutal but ephemeral? Or might it be more long-lasting?

Could it even become a ‘proper’ state? Might the ‘Caliph’ one day address the UN?

Dr. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and researcher who tries to answer these questions in Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad.

Based in Damascus, he has the bitter sweet advantage of witnessing the events convulsing his country at first hand, and has interviewed many of those involved. This proximity to sources and evidence gives a unique perspective to his book. An added strength is that he has no particular axe to grind – the tragedy he describes that is the current Syrian crisis is made all the worse by seeming to have no obvious solution and no easy fixes.

In trying to understand ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, he emphasises their ideology as deriving from one specific strand of Islamic thought, and not, as ISIS and indeed some of its enemies would claim, inherent in and intrinsic to Islam itself.

Moubayed traces this extremist interpretation from the 1300s thought of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) to later Wahhabism in the 1700s and beyond, revived in the twentieth century by people such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and continued by modern salafi-jihadism.

He shows that this history is far from irrelevant – it is indeed the central focus of and justification for the ruthless campaigns of ISIS, the Nusra Front and al Qaeda: a return to what they imagine was the purity of the past. Simply return to those beliefs and glory will follow. Anyone rejecting the call stands in the way of regress, and will suffer.

Moubayed describes how the Islamic State based on the city of al-Raqqa in Syria, and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi/self proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, now has all the trappings of a state – a civil service, a police force, an army, an intelligence service, taxes, schools, a capital, a national anthem, a flag and significant income from oil smuggling and border crossing levies. This developing governance structure is staffed by many experienced ex-Iraqi Army officers and former Baath officials.

No less important is a slick and sophisticated communications strategy, taking in social media, as well as print, television, and radio.

Overall, Moubayed concludes, ISIS is a significant threat and one that stands a good chance of creating a functioning and enduring state from the ruins of what was Syria and Iraq.

A sobering assessment from an experienced and talented scholar in an informative and well researched book.

Trigger Mortis

Cover image of Trigger Mortis - Bond is back
Trigger Mortis – Bond is back

Books ‘in the style of’ a deceased author can be hit and miss, but Anthony Horowitz had the advantage of a framework, and even some original passages, written by Ian Fleming himself when creating this new James Bond thriller.

Set in the 1950s, Horowitz manages skilfully to retain the essence of Bond while thankfully jettisoning the more objectionable and dated aspects of the originals.

In Trigger Mortis women protagonists give as good as they get, henchmen have backstories, and Bond has a conscience. But not too much of a one.

None of this gets in the way of a rollicking good story – on the contrary, even as the plot and characters have more depth and satisfying nuances, the action is if anything enhanced.

All the traditional staples of a Bond story are here to be enjoyed – a maniacal villain, a female character with a memorable name, an inventive and dastardly sinister scheme, and perhaps Bond’s most challenging dicing with death ever, all set against a background of Cold War tension and the Space Race.

In Horowitz’s talented hands Trigger Mortis makes for an enjoyable read whether you’re a long-time Bond fan, a dedicated thriller aficionado or just in search of your next good book.

The Salt Of The Earth

The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth

 

How long does it take to plant 2,000,000 trees?

Why would someone give up a safe and lucrative job as an economist with a global institution for the uncertain livelihood of a photographer?

What keeps a person who is steeped in the aftermath of brutal atrocities – and witnesses human savagery up close – sane?

We get an insight into all of these questions in this mesmerising documentary. The range and depth to be found in the experience of the life that Sebastiao Salgado has lived is just hinted at by the variety and profoundness displayed in the previous questions.

 

Serra Pelada Mines - one of Sebastiao Salgado's most iconic images
Serra Pelada Mines – one of Sebastiao Salgado’s most iconic images

Born on a Brazilian farm in Minas Gerais state in 1944, Sebastiao led a conventional life until the age of thirty – earning a Masters in Economics, moving to live in Paris and working on assignment in Africa for the World Bank studying the coffee industry.

He also met and married his wife Lélia Wanick (Salgado) a fellow Brazilian. So far, so usual.

Then one day he picked up a camera Lélia had bought for her studies – and his life changed utterly.

Fascinated and increasingly enthralled, we might even say bewitched, by the world of images, Sebastiao – fully supported by Lélia – made a very radical decision: he gave up his safe, secure and extremely well-paid job as an economist to begin work on a long-term photography project.

If this had failed we might say he was unhinged to take such a step, but with the benefit of hindsight we can say now that it was inspired.

Never an easy path – Sebastiao spent long periods away from his family, which now included children, two boys, along with isolation in remote and difficult, and often dangerous, terrain – his perseverance, dedication and rare talent eventually made Sebastiao one of the world’s most successful photographers.

Ironically, many of his signature photographs came to be taken on the same ground as he had previously trodden as an economist – capturing stills of workers where he had poured over statistics before. Some of his most renowned photos came from coffee plantations; a revolution complete.

A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers

This documentary by German film maker Wim Wender (with the help of Sebastiao’s and Lélia’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) delves with empathy and incisiveness into Sebastiao and Lélia’s lives since that momentous change in direction, the highs and the lows, the various projects – including some truly horrendous experiences in Rwanda and Yugoslavia as both were dissolved by the acid of human hate – and their return to Brazil to begin their new project, the Instituto Terra.

If you can see this film, it will be an enjoyable and enlightening experience, tinged with some sadness of course – a bit like life and a fitting testament to a living lens on humanity’s positive and negative elements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cops and Robbers – The Seven Five Precinct

New York City's Police Precinct Seven Five
New York City’s Police Precinct Seven Five

In the early 1990s one Brooklyn gangster, Adam Diaz, sold a kilo of cocaine for $34,000. He sold roughly 300 kilos a week.

Despite operating in a crime-ridden chronically poor neighbourhood, despite the temptation presented by the vast sums of money involved, Diaz never feared his key shipments of drugs would be intercepted.

He had bought his own police escort.

Precinct Seven Five is a documentary telling the story of Michael Dowd, ‘New York’s Most Corrupt Cop’, whom Diaz paid $4000 a week for his services. And what services they were for a serving New York City police officer to provide to one of his precinct’s biggest criminals.

It’s a truly remarkable tale. Almost literally incredible. The truth seems so far-fetched that it would be almost impossible to get anyone to believe the events recounted over these 106 minutes if this was a summer action blockbuster.

Director Tiller Russell uses interwoven interviews with the real-life people to let them tell their own stories in their own words. Explanatory voice-overs are kept to a bare minimum and this makes for a hugely engaging experience for the viewer.

Russell is thoroughly blessed in that the cops and the robbers that form his cast of characters at the heart of the story are all larger than life, almost manically voluble and only rescued from verging into Soprano-esque stereotypes by virtue of the fact that we know they are all real people.

The result is riveting. By times funny, shocking and horrifying, it makes movies like ‘The Departed’ appear understated and restrained – yet these are real people and real events you’re forced to remind yourself every so often, not fictional caricatures.

Michael Dowd
Michael Dowd

Michael Dowd is the hinge on which everything else turns. He joined the NYPD almost straight after high school in the early 1980s. He had no great interest in the NYPD, he just happened to get his result from the Police Department before the Fire Department. The FDNY should thank its lucky stars it never secured the services of Mikey Dowd.

Charming, unscrupulous, up-for-anything ‘Mad Mikey’ cared mostly about being a good cop. He explains this as not being about good policing, about solving crime and catching criminals, but about always, absolutely always, backing up your fellow cops – no matter what.

As Dowd later explained to the Mollen Commission, which investigated corruption in the NYPD, cops who were not regarded as ‘good’ by their colleagues might find help slow in arriving when they needed it. In a precinct like the Seven Five in the 1980s and 1990s – described by cops and criminal alike as a ‘warzone’ with hundreds of reported incidents every day –  slow or no backup could be a death sentence.

This unbreakable code of silence, a blue omerta,  led many of the officers of the Seven Five precinct to serve and protect themselves, with Dowd as their exemplar.

He recalls on camera how he first left the straight and narrow by taking a few hundred dollars to look the other way during a routine traffic stop of a suspected drug dealer. Dowd was short on cash and a long way from pay-day.

Once he’d cottoned on to this new lucrative scheme, things soon escalated and expanded. Other cops refused to work with him until he struck up a connection with relative newcomer Kenny Eurell.

Eurell’s initial idealism soon faded as he was drawn into the murky world of Mike Dowd. Taking a one-off $100 dollars from one of Dowd’s schemes quickly gave way to fully fledged involvement in burglaries, then robbing drug dealers, and eventually working for them – principally Adam Diaz.

Dowd grew so comfortable in the criminal world and so far from his police oath that he set up his own drug dealing racket on Long Island.

Eventually that came led to his ultimate downfall. But that’s an outcome best and ably described on-screen by those who brought it about first-hand.

If you can at all get a chance to see this documentary, do.

It leaves fictional TV and movies in the halfpenny place by a country mile. Truth is not only stranger than fiction but far more dangerous.

Finding the angle of attack

True Detective returned last weekend for season 2 with an all-new cast: Rachel McAdam, Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughan and Taylor Kitsch.

The first series attracted rave reviews, nearly universally. And good it was, if weird in places.

The second season opener followed the same pattern very closely – a troubled moody cop in an interview room, followed by initially disconnected flashbacks. We don’t know nor understand much of what’s going on but it definitely holds the attention with no shortage of dramatic moments.

It’s almost a carbon copy of last year’s episode 1 in structural terms, and last year plaudits followed, to an almost hysterical level.

This year the reviews are more mixed though the story and the actors are if anything better.

It seems almost as if some critics and some publications have decided to adopt a contrarian view as a strategy to stand out from the crowd. Except that many other outfits had the same idea and the pack have ended up in largely the same place. Again. But on the negative side of the argument.

Is it because True Detective is no longer niche? Or new? Or is just uncool to like it when almost everybody seems to?

Is the way to attract attention, readers and web clicks to find an angle of attack whether it’s deserved or not and rain on the parade long and hard, irrespective of what’s actually happening on-screen? Of how good or bad what we’re actually watching is?

A cynical approach surely but increasingly common, online at least. If the Easter Bunny and Unicorns turned out to be real tomorrow, or world hunger and poverty alleviated,  you can bet someone would find a negative perspective in order to chase the viral wave and elbow themselves to the front of the optic queue.

It’s a cheap and tawdry tactic and hopefully one that falls flat.

Nuanced reality is much more interesting if harder to produce and lets hope it wins out. Or at least survives.

John Wick

johnwick-reeves-church
John Wick

 

Clint Eastwood’s character apparently killed roughly 80 Nazis in Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Keanu Reeves as John Wick makes a hell of an attempt to beat that number in this film.

It’s fair bet to say he probably succeeds.

That might sound a bit monotonous as a plot but it turns out to be rather mesmerising.

We start knowing very little about Mr Wick. He’s obviously well-to-do, lives in an ultra-modern, superbly designed and expensively outfitted if austere mansion in rural New York. He has an expensive car collection.

We don’t know what he does. We don’t know what he did. We don’t know where his money came from.

Gradually we learn a little more. We find out that his wife has just died after a long illness. John Wick is a man in mourning, trying to come to terms with his loss. A thoughtful and foresighted woman, worried that this might be the case, his late wife has organised an intervention to draw John back into the world of life and living.

She has a puppy delivered.

John Wick and Daisy
John Wick and Daisy

And it has exactly the effect she hoped. Gradually man and dog bond. ‘Daisy’ as a final gift from his wife occupies a very special place in John Wick’s life.

The only thing that comes close to being as important is his car – a vintage Mustang.

Then one fine day John and Daisy encounter some Russian mobsters at a local service station, one of whom takes a great interest in the Mustang – so much so that he offers to buy the car, whatever the cost. He expects to get what he wants, the offer becoming ever more a demand and is flabbergasted, furious and then grievously offended when John refuses to either be intimidated or to sell at any price.

The mobster utters an insult in Russian. And John Wick responds fluently in the same language. An insight that raises far more questions than it in any way answers.

Later the same night, John wakes to unexpected sounds downstairs.

The Russian hasn’t taken ‘No’ for an answer.

In a short space of time, John’s life is turned upside-down again.

As he tries to get some semblance of balance back in the days that follow, his past life is revealed – and we realise that the Russians have picked on the worst possible target for a home invasion.

What follows is non-stop action, stylish, sustained and superbly entertaining.

 

 

 

Better Call Saul

Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman
Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman

Does it ever seem that some people are  jinxed?

That, no matter what they do, they just can’t catch a break?

Saul Goodman is one of those people in the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.

Or Jimmy McGill as he is when we first meet him. It’s some years before the riveting roller-coaster that was Breaking Bad. The not-yet-but-just-about-to-become-Saul-Goodman Jimmy McGill is working as a lawyer of last resort from a cramped office behind a nail salon. His office has enough room – barely – for Jimmy to squeeze into with some impressive contortionism. His landlady just about acknowledges his existence. A shipping container would be a jump up in the world.

This first series of 10 episodes explains Jimmy’s backstory and sets up the premise for his looming transformation into Saul Goodman.

When we meet him first, Jimmy’s doing battle with the legal firm where his older brother, Charles McGill, is a senior partner.

Charles’ life has been turned upside down by the sudden onset of electromagnetic sensitivity. His electricity is disconnected, his curtains drawn, he lives in the dark, stores food in boxes of ice and refuses to let any piece of electrical equipment into the house – and he also refuses to leave the house. His only connection to the outside world, his lifeline quite literally, is Jimmy.

Jimmy is attempting to convince his brother’s firm to pay out millions of dollars since it seems unlikely Charles will ever return to practice law. In the meantime, Jimmy is supplying Charles with food, ice, newspapers and a host of other much-needed goods.

His good deeds are slowly driving Jimmy into bankruptcy.  He’s casting about for new and well-paying cases – and everyday he gets more desperate and less scrupulous.

How far will he go? Will he sacrifice himself to save his brother?

Not saying too much to spoil the experience, but the core of the show hinges on the fact that though Jimmy may be a rogue willing to countenance a fair amount of fuzziness around what constitutes legal in his book, he is at heart a genuinely good person while the respectable society he’s so eager to be a part of may not be all it seems.

Funny and genuinely poignant at times – well worth a watch even for anyone who has never seen Breaking Bad.