Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Disappeared

Roger Scruton is a curmudgeonly philosopher; I don’t think anyone would disagree with that description. He’s on the right of the political spectrum. Some of his non-fiction work is brilliant. For example, he penned a Dictionary of Political Thought, which helped me immensely in my university studies. But this is the first novel of his I’ve read and I have to say I won’t be reading another.

The problem is that he uses the novel to gripe. The book is full of weird little observations about the working classes, state education, social services and immigration. For example there’s a family of Shia Muslim’s from Basra and they’re enlightened and the “good” Muslims in the book. The Sunni Muslims from Afghanistan on the other hand are bigoted and bad. A character expresses the view in narration that the difference is like that between “Mediterranean Catholicism” and “forbidding Calvinism”. Don’t get me wrong; characters in books should have views of all different stripes. But when all the observations in the novel are of the sane slant, one can’t help but come to the conclusion that they are Roger Scruton’s views.

Sometimes this leads to blatant exaggerations. For example, repeatedly the police are bashed for cowardice when it comes to crime committed by ethnic minorities. This cowardice it is made clear is in part at least down to the Macpherson Report’s conclusion that the police were institutionally racist. At one point a policeman defends inaction in the case of a woman possibly kidnapped by her family in an honour crime. He cites the case of a head teacher who asked Muslim children to obey the same rules as whites and was vilified. I presume here that he’s referring to the case of Ray Honeyford. But this case occurred in the 1980’s, long before the Macpherson report. Furthermore, while multiculturalism did have a chilling effect, if anything in recent years that has been overturned. The police now take seriously grooming and honour crime, as witnessed by numerous recent cases.

These are just two examples of how a potentially very good novel disappointingly becomes a polemic.

In conclusion, Roger Scruton is a great writer. His nonfiction work is to be admired. I just feel that on the basis of this novel, I don’t think it’s the medium for him to express them. 

The Reaper

This is the account of a US Army Ranger sniper, apparently one of the most successful in the war in Afghanistan. It’s a good book in part because it successfully avoids many of the pitfalls of the military biography.

A lot of these books go on and on about the training, so much so that the reader is like, “Yeah, I get it, it was tough, can you get to the part I want to read about please? Like, what was it like in Afghanistan?” Thankfully, this account gets it just right, the author detailing his training but not in too much detail. Another error authors’ of this kind of book make is to be too macho. There are numerous ex-soldiers who seem to get a kick out of telling you just how badass they are. Again, this doesn’t do this. In fact, despite the number of kills he racked up, he’s quite modest about his achievements. I appreciated that; it made him and his teammates more human and allowed the reader to warm to him as a person.

One of the most contentious issues in the war in Afghanistan has been Special Forces night raids. These are when Special Forces raid a compound in the middle of the night to kill or capture a High Value Target (HVT). Strangely, and despite the controversy these raids garner amongst the Afghan people, this issue hasn’t been covered much in the literature to emerge from the war. Instead drones and drone strikes attract far more column inches. I started reading this book thinking it was going to be the story of a US Army Ranger, which of course it was, but was surprised to find that a number of operations the author writes about are night raids. This was a welcome development as I do find that information on this issue is lacking. The book gave a real insight into these operations and one that is difficult to come by elsewhere.

If I have one criticism of this book it is the writing style. Sometimes it is a little difficult to know just what’s going on. Sometimes things aren’t explained well enough and I found myself confused about who was doing what.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Countdown to Zero Day

It’s difficult to make computer code interesting, much less gripping. Even when you’re dealing with Stuxnet, the world’s first digital weapon, it’s so easy for an author to slip into techno gabble. On previous occasions I’ve tried reading stuff on Stuxnet and it’s associated malware (Flame, Duqu, etc) and most often it’s brought on exhaustion and boredom. I’m not the most knowledgeable about tech.

Which is why Kim Zetter’s new book, Countdown to Zero Day, is such an achievement. She’s taken a story that could so easily descend into a tale of bytes and techno-jargon and brought it to life.

This is not to say that there isn’t any discussion of the technology behind the remarkable malware detailed in the book. As a journalist for Wired Magazine, Kim clearly knows her stuff. But at no point did I find myself overwhelmed, in fact quite the opposite. I found myself fascinated by how the various viruses and their makers found cunning new ways – buffer overflows, Windows certification, dynamic link libraries – to outwit the security software makers build into their products, the anti-virus software firms, and ultimately achieve the most alarming real-world effects on an industrial plant (Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges). I also found myself alarmed to learn just how vulnerable industrial control software is to cyber attack.

Kim’s book sets all this in the wider context of both the evolution of malware – from teenage hacker in his bedroom, through cybercrime, and onto state actors – and the West’s battle to stop Iran gaining an atomic bomb.  To say this was a pleasant or relaxing read would be an over statement. A running thread throughout the book is now the US has fired the first shot, it will be difficult for anyone to complain if someone else uses a cyber weapon, to say, knock out a power station. It’s a scary thought. This is an important book and I would recommend it.

Five stars

The Lie by Hesh Kestin

This is an alright book. Not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but OK. Basic plot is a human rights lawyer is tapped to be an independent reviewer of what the CIA in recent years has taken to calling "Enhanced Interrogation", e.g. torture. The idea is that whenever the Israeli police want to turn the thumbscrews, they have to run it by Dahlia Barr, our heroine, first.

Of course as readers we can see what going to happen a mile away, can't we? She'll start off opposing torture and then something will happen to turn her world on it's head, a ticking time bomb-type scenario, no doubt one that affects her personally, and she will be forced to re-evaluate her outlook accordingly. That of course is exactly what happens and it's not too long before our heroine is enthusiastically turning those thumbscrews herself. 

This is a short novel and as such the characters appeared to me as little more than sketches. I never got a real sense of them as people. So I found it hard to reconcile with Dahlia so easily jettisoning the values she once held dear. This problem is exacerbated by the book's very real, albeit subtle, though often not so subtle, politics. I read one review that said the book avoids bias on the whole Middle Eastern conflict. Well that reviewer was clearly reading a different novel. The book is full of little barbs towards Arabs and how they live their lives. Israel is portrayed as a plucky little state, which might have made the odd misstep but on the whole is decent, while the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs are a treacherous foe.

Sorry, but I have to give this novel two out of five stars. Read it if you want a short book that wears its politics on its shoulder (whole chapters at the end detailing and glorifying macho Israeli commandos as they rescue a hostage and kill a bunch of Arab terrorists). Avoid if you want something deeper.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Lock Down Blues

Generally I stay away from self-published work. There's a lot of dross out there and my suspicion is always that self-published authors just don't have what it takes to attract a publishing contract. That might sound harsh but as an aspiring novelist myself I believe that writing is about perfecting your craft. You've just got to work at it, keep perfecting and perfecting, until the publishers just can't say no. My suspicion, fair or not, is that a lot of self-published writers just don't have the patience or dedication to do this and so cut corners and cheat. Hence the large numbers of self published work full of glaring grammatical and spelling mistakes.

Whether my view is fair or overly pessimistic, I am happy to say that Lock Down Blues defies my expectations. Instead, it's a well written and well crafted insight into prison life. The author, himself a former prison officer, clearly knows his subject well and this shows. There's no discernible plot as such, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Instead we're treated to the intersecting stories of five lifers: 'Diamond' Perry, a black gangster who robs a lock-up owned by the yards and gets sold out by a bigger criminal; Johnny Scapes, a hairdresser who and drug trafficker; Tony Masters, just an all round unpleasant thug; Culter Grove, a jack-the-lad but vicious criminal; and Brian Lincoln who's caught doing an audacious cash heist. While each of these story stands are separate they do all intertwine towards the end when they end up in the same prison.

Prison life is well portrayed here, no surprise being penned by a former prison officer, and the causal violence in prison is frightening. In particular I was taken aback by the violence meted out to prison wardens - one officer stabbed in the throat and all the other prisoners just stand around and laugh. If this is really what prison is like I wouldn't want to work there.

If I have one criticism it is that sometimes it is a little hard to tell the tales apart and on occasion I had to flip back to see which character was which. Similarly, the end of the book says: To be continued. While I will have no hesitation reading future offering from Ray Wilcox, the author, I do wonder whether he can sustain more in this series without a strong central plot.

All in all I give this 4 to of 5 stars.

The Mandrake File

I hadn't heard of either this book or this author before being sent a review copy. I'm really grateful to have been introduced to them. Having read The Mandrake File, I am now itching to read more from this author.

The Mandrake File is based primarily in and around Afghanistan. The two main characters are Osama Kandar, an Afghan policeman who heads up the Kabul murder squad, and Nick Snee, an analyst for a shadowy private intelligence outfit called "The Entity". Other colourful characters include the main hit man for The Entity, members of the cop's murder squad and a shadowy former head of the Taliban's governing council.

The story itself details an investigation into a mysterious file, The Mandrake File. The investigation is kicked off after Kandar goes to the scene of a prominent Afghan businessman's supposed suicide, only to conclude that it's murder. The rest of the book involves Kandar determinedly following the case, Nick Snee trying to help him, with The Entity and it's hitman trying to stop the investigation by any means possible.

The author Cédric Bannel is a former French diplomat who served in Afghanistan and it shows. The strength of this novel is in it's portrayal of Afghanistan and how dysfunctional it is post the overthrow of the Taliban by the coalition. The picture painted is of corruption and morally dubious compromises. Everyone has an eye on the coalition's eventual withdrawal - which the Afghans know to be coming - and what will happen after the corrupt and ineffectual Karzai regime goes. The assumption of many Afghans is that the Taliban will return in some form, the only questions being whether they will seize power entirely or join some kind of coalition, and whether when they do return the clock will wind back to the bad old days of pre-9/11.

In fact the author's knowledge of Afghanistan and Afghan society is such that his portrayal of the Afghan characters is much more convincing than that of the Western characters. I was much more taken with the sections of the book dealing with Osama Kandar, than I was with those dealing with Nick Snee and The Entity. I really hope that Kandar will appear in other novels by the author as I would love to see how his story progresses.

There's a concept in screenwriting popularised by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin. Wikipedia defines the MacGuffin as: "a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation." More often than not this is found in films more than books, think of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction where the briefcase is opened giving off a golden glow. We never learn what is in the briefcase, but various characters fight to possess it. In this novel The Mandrake File is like that. I don't think I'm giving away too many spoilers in saying that we never truly find out what it is, just that it has something to do with international corruption regarding Afghanistan. At first this bothered me, but in hindsight I kind of like it. It avoided having to spoil a perfectly good novel by the need to shoehorn in a reason strong enough to justify the actions of the characters. The Entity and it's hitman goes to extraordinary lengths to stop Osama Kandar, commissioning a suicide bombing and then a drone strike to blow him up. While reading I was worrying just what could be in the Mandrake File to justify all this. If there had been a big reveal at the end, as in so many books and films, I think I would have been disappointed. I think it would be difficult to come up with something both plausible and serious enough a justification. But as with Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Bannel's use of the MacGuffin as a plot device allows him to neatly sidestep this thorny problem. Some readers might feel cheated but personally I felt that this worked.

A quick word on the translation. Some foreign novels are let down by the translation but the publishers have excelled themselves. The translation here is flawless and there was none of that clunky turn of phrase all too often found in a translated novel.

I've googled the author and found that Cédric Bannel has written a number of novels. This is the only one to be translated into English so far. Please, please, please Scribe publish some more.

I would give this five stars and thank Scribe publishing for the review copy.

Path of Blood

As anyone who knows me will attest, I'm a current affairs, international affairs, and political geek. As well as crime fiction, I consume a healthy dose of accounts of the world's trouble spots and issues. Path of Blood is a non fiction account of the Saudi state's battle against al Qaeda and quite simply it's brilliant.

There are many reasons this stands out amongst other books dealing with conflicts around the world, but one of the biggest is it's eschewing of what might be described as the Western-centric outlook. Most books of this ilk - be they dealing with the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other - view the world through the prism of America and it's allies. While many try to at least consider the views and feelings of the local populace, this consideration is secondary to that of "our boys fighting on the ground", our political class, public opinion back home.

Path of Blood is I think unique in approaching a conflict almost completely from the perspective of the nation concerned. While American, and to a lesser extent British, political reaction is touched upon, the perspective is almost entirely Saudi. The Saudi royals in charge of their nation's counter terrorism instead of our politicians, Saudi Ministry of Interior officers instead of MI6/CIA, Saudi public opinion, and yes, Saudi jihadists.

The second reason this book is so good is that it deals with a conflict that was overshadowed in the West. While Western public opinion was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudi's were fighting an indigenous terror campaign of their own. While the major bombings and massacres broke onto CNN, BBC, etc, on the whole this conflict wasn't covered by the Western media. Not only do the authors comprehensively detail this conflict - that while never seriously threatening to overthrow the Saudi state, certainly posed a serious threat to it - as mentioned above, they do so almost entirely from an intimate Saudi perspective.

A further reason this book is set apart from others of its ilk is due to its access. Quite simply the Saudi state seems to have flung the doors open for the authors. They're granted access to MOI officers to interview, the Saudi royals give interviews, and they're granted access to seized video tapes and transcripts of interrogation of jihadists. The video tapes seized from jihadists in particular are instructive, providing an unparalleled glimpse into the jihadist mindset. Some of it is quite bizarre and reminiscent of the film Four Lions, with the jihadists a combination of sinister and bungling dad's army.

 Finally, this book gives a more nuanced view of Saudi Arabia than the one-dimensional perspective we're used to in the West. Say Saudi Arabia to the average person and after "oil" and "sand", they're likely to think of oppression of women, public beheadings and amputations, and a fanatical nation of Wahabbi's supporting al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalist terror more broadly. This book shows this to be a simplistic picture. Instead, we're shown a nation struggling with modernisation, who's people on the whole don't support terrorism, who are dismayed by the killing of foreigners on their soil. We're shown the real strides the Saudi state has made to both combat terrorism at home and abroad and to stop the financing of terror.

The Saudi security forces clearly don't have the skill set of British/American militaries - for example when raiding compounds they announce their presence though loudhailers demanding the terrorists surrender, thus eschewing any factor of surprise. The raids thus inevitably result in large numbers of casualties and jihadists shooting their way through cordons and making their escape.  But the officers concerned are undoubtedly brave and I was struck by the casualties they took. Some of the firefights described are like something out of the wild west, with jihadists battling away with the security forces for hours.

All in all this is a brilliant read. It gives an understanding of the campaign of terror the Saudi state faced down, the mindset of the jihadis themselves, the readiness and flaws of the Saudi security forces, and perhaps most importantly a more nuanced and sympathetic view of Saudi society than we are used to.

I give this book 5 stars.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

On the strength of it's plot, I Am Pilgrim is a very good book. I would probably give it 4 out go 5 stars. It's very good but not brilliant. Unlike many of those who've reviewed it so far, I wouldn't describe it as mould breaking or particularly original. The main plot revolves around an intelligence agent chasing a jihadi intent on unleashing a deadly biological weapon in the United States. There's a strong subplot involving a murder which has to be solved. Good, strong stuff, but nothing that hasn't been done before.

Having said that there are two things which elevate this book above the norm. The first is the writing. It's very well written, though it's first person - unusual in this type of international spy fiction. I think the reason books like this are normally third person is because when writing a story in first person everything has to be known to the narrator (or how else could the story be told in his voice). There are parts of this book where this is a little problematic. For example, when narrating the activities of the jihadi in Afghanistan, it's not really explained how the narrator would know it all. But the author pulls this off with enough panache to allow the reader to ignore this little quibble.

The most impressive thing about this novel however is it's structure. It's basically a masterclass in how to write a long novel  - 704 pages - without dragging and having the reader get bored. How the author does this is by alternating between the main plot (the impending terrorist attack) and the subplot (the murder investigation). Terry Hayes judges well when he's dedicated a large enough section to each and then switches. He continues this throughout the book and thus avoids the problem that many novels have where the middle goes on to long. That's a problem that can be particularly pronounced in longer novels but at no point while reading this book did I want it to end or feel that it could have been shorter, which just goes to show his skill.

The book was slightly spoilt by the end for me - without giving away spoilers, there's a scene in cave complex where mobile phone reception isn't a problem and I just thought, 'really? They can get cell phone reception down there?' But part of the reason this so annoyed me is that the rest of the books is so good.

All in all I would give this 4 out of 5 stars.