“Oh, here we go again,” says Chris. “I want to organise a meeting with the mafia. In Fairhaven.” “Of course you do,” says Chris. “Any reason? Or was bridge cancelled and you had a slot in your diary?”
Set one week after the eventful happenings recounted in The Thursday Murder Club came to a conclusion, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron are back and the game is afoot once more in everyone’s favourite retirement community. It involves a whole new intriguing cast of shady characters, diamonds, cups of tea, robberies, bus and train trips and a lot of heart, humour and humanity. This time, an old flame turns up most unexpectedly in Coopers Chase with an unlikely proposition for one of our formidable pensioners, while something else dramatic happens to another of our favourite characters. One thing leads to another and soon our four veteran vigilantes are helping the authorities once again, whether they like it or not. As in the first book, the story in this sequel comes with some subtle, insightful and wry observations on life, relationships, ageing, hopes and dreams and the whole gamut of human experience. The pace never slows and the plot is as inventive and fun as ever, with some fiendish red herrings and inventive twists, all told in a tone that is entertaining and compassionate but which also never ducks the reality that bad things do happen to good people. It all goes to produce a charming, touching, hugely enjoyable and engrossing page-turner of a sequel that I flew through in three days and that is as good, if not better, than the original tale.
In May 1941, Ian Fleming went to New York and met James Bond.
Or, rather, Fleming met William – Bill – Stephenson. Stephenson worked with the creator of Bond in the dark world of espionage during WWII and may well have been the inspiration for that quintessential dashing British spy who has now been serving Queen and Country for nearly 70 years.
Stephenson was not a career MI6 spy. In fact, he had made a fortune in Canada after WWI and then created his own private intelligence network. One of his most eager consumers of information was Winston Churchill, still a backbench MP seemingly destined for ever greater obscurity if Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler succeeded in keeping Europe at peace. It didn’t of course, and a small part of the reason for Churchill becoming Britain’s new war-time Prime Minister in 1940 was the valuable and unique information on Nazi rearmament supplied to him by Stephenson.
Impressed by freelance spy’s ability and dynamism, when the MI6 station chief left his post in New York Churchill tapped Stephenson for the role – and then greatly expanded it. Stephenson became head of Britsh Security Coordination, BSC, in the Americas, a powerful role overseeing MI6, MI5, and SOE.
A Canadian millionaire was an unusual addition to what had been a small and modest intelligence operation, dabbling in a relatively small-time influence work, propaganda and refugee affairs. Stephenson transformed the British intelligence operation in New York and North America and achieved feats of espionage that would – and perhaps should – have seen impossible.
Using his own money, the new station chief began much more ambitious, dangerous and potentially disasterous operations with an ultra-secret goal – get the United States into WWII as Britain’s ally as soon as possible. Stephenson was entrusted with this crucial task by Churchill himself and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fate of Britain depended on his success. Stephenson had no scruples about using any means necessary to fulfill his mission.
Reorientating the entire security policy of a foreign nation when the mass of its population was opposed to war was a Herculean task in itself. Stephenson, however, was not unopposed in his difficult endeavours. One of the great strengths and wonderful achievements of Henry Hemmings in Our Man in New York is that he opens our eyes to how very different a world the 1930s were and how our assumptions can be turned on their heads by the reality of that very different time.
For example, the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States did not exist in the 1930s- and indeed Britain was seen in mostly a negative light by most Americans and as an outright enemy by many. Opinion polls in the 1930s regularly found more public support for Germany than Britain, as strange as that might seem to us today.
This is what made Stephenson’s endeavour so intriguing. The wealth and power of the US was evident to Stephenson and Churchill but finding a way to inveigle those resources into supporting the British side would prove a difficult if not impossible task. Not the least of the problems were German agents of influence active in the highest levels of government- as well as undercover spies from the German Embassy – who had the help of many other ordinary Americans sympathetic to the Nazis cause.
It would be a shame to ruin such a marvelous book by giving away any more. Reviews of history books often refer to such works ‘breaking new ground’ and ‘shedding new light’ and this can come to seem a little overused. In this case, though, Henry Hemmings genuinely has done wonders to trace, analyse and synthesise a treasure trove of new material.
The result is a rollicking good read that achieves what is almost impossible – Our Man in New York entices in readers and then regales them with an exciting and significant story of WWII that has almost gone completely untold before now.
Do read it, you won’t be disappointed – it makes the average James Bond plotline seem humdrum in comparison!!!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.