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.