Book review: A Delicate Truth

61BJxHoyp+L__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: A charismatic Foreign Office minister recruits an assuming civil servant to be his eyes and ears for a covert operation in Gibraltar named Wildfire. After apparent success, a new Private Secretary, Toby Bell, to the same Government minister becomes suspicious of his master’s highly secretive associations with private security firms & past scandal. Bell is then drawn into a plot to uncover the truth behind Wildfire and what truly happened on the Rock of Gibraltar.

In-depth: Gibraltar was a little while ago all over the news after the triggering of Article 50 in the UK. So it was a happy coincidence when I started my latest venture into le Carré’s canon based on events there.

A Delicate Truth sees a Foreign Office civil servant, Christoper Probyn, recruited for a covert operation to lift a wanted jihadist from Gibraltar. This is done by his boss, Foriegn Office Minister Fergus Quinn. A fiery and charismatic Scot with connections to wealthly, private security companies.

Althought completely inexperienced in any military or field work, Probyn is tasked with feeding back eye witness accounts to help the Minister’s decision making.

Operation Wildfire is told from Probyn’s viewpoint. He listens into a disagreement in the command chain. This is between a soldier leading the British side of the operation, Jeb, and the Minister and his shadowy adviser Jay Crispin, over whether to proceed with the mission. Probyn is whisked away after the operation is apparently completed. Informed of an uncalculated success, Probyn reaps the rewards of a knighthood. As well as the privilege of a plush Caribbean Ambassadorship.

Fast forward three years and Minister Fergus Quinn is still in the Foreign Office. But now with a new Private Secretary, Toby Bell.

Toby becomes alienated and suspicious at the minister’s secretive behaviour. This is down to his past association and scandal with Jay Crispin who runs a private security firm. Breaking his civil service oath, Toby covertly records a meeting between Quinn, Crispin and Jeb. He listens in to them discussing Operation Wildfire.

Meanwhile retired Sir Christopher Probyn enjoys an idyllic, family life in Cornwall. This is rudely interrupted by a shock visit from Jeb from Operation Wildfire. Jeb alleges that the operation was not a success. The target was not lifted, and an innocent mother and child were accidentally killed leading to a cover up.

Probyn is initially sceptical of this revelation from a clearly disturbed Jeb. Yet he begins to question the operation. This leads to the dawning of his career, ambassadorship and knighthood being part of the cover up.

After reaching out to the dangerous Crispin, friend and advisor to his Minister, Probyn remains unconvinced by his reassurances. Particularly that Wildfire was a success and Jeb a mere bitter ex-forces drunkard. Instead Probyn decides to meet with Jeb again to put together a formal dossier on Wildfire to take to his former Foreign Office colleagues.

But Jeb does not turn up to his meeting Probyn, strange for a man so passionate for revealing the truth. Probyn instead reaches out to Toby Bell, his replacement as Secretary to the Minister responsible for Wildfire, for help. This is where Toby Bell and Probyn come into contact. The past clashes with the present, with consequences that threaten to get out of control.

Firstly, Jeb is found murdered. This appears a cover up, as a tragic suicide of a former serviceman, rather than the sinister assassination Probyn and Bell fear. In shock, Probyn visits the Foreign Office with his part of the Wildfire dossier including Jeb’s allegations of foul play. This is met with a very cold reception. Along with the threat of an expensive, life ruining and secret internal trial.

Meanwhile Bell allies himself with Probyn’s daughter Emily. They reach out to the former military colleagues of Jeb’s who were also involved in Wildfire. One former comrade of Jeb’s (‘Shorty’) is tracked down, but is actually part of the elusive Crispin’s private security firm.

Convinced he can flip ‘Shorty’ with the memory of Jeb and military honour, Toby meets him. But Bell is quickly abducted and taken to Crispin in his glistening, corporate HQ. Offered a similar deal to Shorty, to be recruited by Crispin at great financial reward for his silence on Wildfire, Toby refuses.

Returning home, Toby is then ambushed and beaten half to death by unidentified goons. Emily Probyn rescue Toby and the pair flee to a internet café. Here Toby emails copies of Kit Probyn’s damning Wildfire dossier to several national newspapers. A deliciously abrupt conclusion hears the sounds of sirens approaching the café.

An interesting aspect of this novel is how it’s two central characters (Kit Probyn and Toby Bell) reflect the author’s own life. Probyn is the retired master in Cornwall seemingly with everything, much like the author now. Bell the young, rising star of the civil service which le Carré saw himself as at an earlier point in his life. As always with le Carré, his excellent fiction mixes deeply with the non-fiction of his life.

Thank you for reading. Is this your favourite le Carré novel or is it another one? Please leave your comment below.

Book review: Call for the Dead

le_carre_call_for_dead_penguinCall for the Dead by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

There has been some excellent recent news for fans of John le Carré and his greatest character creation George Smiley: a new novel featuring Smiley will be published in late 2017. This seems like the perfect time then for a review of le Carré’s first book, which was also the first of the Smiley books which long ago appeared to have concluded in 1990 with The Secret Pilgrim.

Call for the Dead, published in 1961, takes place in a London in the midst of the Cold War. The plot sees the intelligence officer George Smiley conduct what seems like a courteous and straight forward security interview with a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, who is then found dead the next day, a suspected suicide, at his suburban home.

Shocked into action by this, as well as his nervous boss, Smiley visits Fennan’s home and is racked with guilt upon seeing his widowed wife who demands an explanation about their interview the previous day. It is at this point that the Fennan’s telephone rings, which Smiley answers assuming it is head office for him, only to discover it is a wake up call from the Foreign Office requested by Samuel Fennan the previous day.

Here, the novel receives it’s name and with it Smiley a purpose. He immediately thinks why a man who was apparently contemplating suicide would request a wake up call the next morning? His suspicions of foul play kick start a murder investigation alongside his trusty companion, Inspector Mendel, from the Metropolitan Police.

Without spoiling the plot, Smiley’s forensic approach to the case, alongside practical support from Inspector Mendel and Peter Guillam, another character to appear multiple times in the le Carré canon, leads to some uncomfortable findings surrounding an East German spy ring operating in London, which then mercilessly attempts to cover it’s tracks to Smiley.

One of the main things which stands out from this novel, written and based in the early ’60s, is how different British society was then. Certain turns of phrase are either out dated and no longer in use or today deemed down right offensive. The Second World War also hangs over this book with an imposing and tragic shadow. Most characters have stories and shared histories from that period, with the history of the conflict providing a central plank of Smiley’s discoveries. Reference to the ‘glory years’ of WW2, where Britain still had (declining) power and ultimately a purpose,  are also implicitly present in much of le Carré’s depiction of the British Intelligence Services. They were his employers when he was writing this book, and the depiction is largely implicit but came to influence much of le Carré’s later, more famous work.

What is remarkable is that this was le Carré’s first book and he is still writing as brilliantly as ever in a completely different world in 2017. As mentioned above his new book out this year, which will include Peter Guillam and flashbacks to Smiley, will certainly be a treat and may well hark back to this rather distant history.

Book review: We

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: In the future dystopian ‘One State’ D-503, the chief engineer on a space programme, begins a journal of his experiences. He soon comes into contact with I-330, a woman who he immediately falls madly in love with. Struggling with uncontrollable emotions D-503 is brought into conflict with the principles of the nightmarish urban society of One State and its mathematical dictates for ‘happiness.’

In-depth: We is often touted as the first great dystopian novel of the 20th century and it’s influence upon the later, and more famous, novels Brave New World and 1984 is not difficult to see. Also the fact that the book was banned upon its completion in 1921 by a fledgling Soviet Union (until the late 1980s) adds to its mythical allure and its satirical and historical value.

We‘s setting is an urban society many centuries in the future where the equalitarian One State has cut it’s self off from the natural world with a walled city of people only identifiable by numbers. Led by ‘the Benefactor,’ a supreme leader ‘elected’ unopposed every year, all citizens wear the same clothes, called unifs, and live in glass buildings where their every moment can be monitored by the state police known as the Bureau of Guardians.

The level of detail Zamyatin imagines in We is astonishing, down to the daily timetables where every hour of the individuals day is dictated by One State. Even sexual intercourse is regulated with individuals having pink tickets which they clock in with their sexual partners at allotted times. Only during this hour is the all out assault on privacy relieved by blinds to cover the glass buildings which house all inhabitants of One State.

D-503 descent into a love fuelled obsession with I-330 brings him into the embrace of a growing revolution within One State. This aims at smashing down the Wall which separates the state from the rest of the world, an Eden like natural wonder full of other human coated in thick hair, and to overthrow the Benefactor.

Some of We‘s most terrifying moments are when D-503’s emotionally instable actions are assigned by One State logic as a symptom of their greatest threat to happiness: possessing a soul. The official solution of One State is a lobotomy of the brain to remove the imagination and any misguided conception of freedom which threatens the happiness of One State’s mathematical logic.

However, even with this, We is no where near as brooding or dark as Orwell’s 1984. The Benefactor is a much more human figure than the omnipresent Big Brother of 1984, even telephoning D-503 at one point demanding him to get to his office. One State’s surveillance, whilst widespread and pervading, does not carry the same malicious threat present on every single page of 1984.

We is also a rather clunky novel, naturally dominated by its arrangement as a diary by the central character, which is sometimes difficult to follow. Its plot is also at times quite muddled with the consequences of some of D-503’s actions often merely disappearing for narrative ease.

Despite this We is above all a fascinating novel for any reader interested in dystopias. It also offers an insight into the thinking behind the twentieth century’s descent into authoritarian dictatorships written just before this history occurred.

What is your favourite dystopian novel? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Our Game

our-gameOur Game by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: Tim Cranmer’s life, of an idyllic retirement winemaking in Somerset, is turned upside down when the love of his life and a spy who he used to ‘run’ in the Cold War disappear. Cranmer’s search for them becomes increasingly desperate and drawn into the dangerous nationalist politics of post-Soviet Russia and the Caucasus.

In-depth: Our Game pits Tim Cranmer, a former intelligence officer of ‘the Office’, in a fraught and brooding chase of the former cold warrior spy Larry Pettifer. Their long supposed friendship, starting at Winchester College and then Oxford University, is revealed to have produced Cranmer’s eventual recruitment of Larry and sees their lives dangerously and confusingly overlap.

When Larry disappears from Bath University, where he had been consigned to retirement from operations after the fall of the Berlin wall, Cranmer receives a late night visit from detectives digging into his whereabouts.

However it not only Larry who has disappeared. Cranmer’s love, the young and beautiful Emma, has also fled with him. Flash backs reveal an unpleasant love triangle where Larry’s eccentric intellectualism attracts the malleable Emma away from the dull practicality of Cranmer. One of the darkest quotes of the book is when Larry explains this by merely stating “You stole my life, so I stole your girl.”

Throwing the police off the scent by pleading ignorance, Cranmer visits his former secret service ‘Office’ to discover that Larry has also disappeared with £37 million of Russian money, in cahoots with a Russian operator he previously deceived on behalf of the Office. This raises misplaced, but uncomfortable, questions for Cranmer about whether he was part of this theft, forcing him into a race against time and authority to get to the bottom of the disappearance.

One of the most intriguing elements of this novel is the fact that although the book is written from the first person perspective of Cranmer, his interpretation of himself is of multiple men and often slips into the third person. The reader feels that the character’s grasp of himself is slipping. This become more pronounced as Cranmer follows Larry’s dangerous footsteps.

The trail leads Cranmer to Bristol, where he identifies Larry and Emma’s abandoned love nest, re-discovering his idealism for downtrodden national rights in the Caucasus. Larry’s theft to fund a radical group of Ossetians rebels in their cause is identified as a punishment for the weak willed West, who refused to intervene or help in this higher cause, as much as for Russia’s brutal history of persecution in the region.

These memories lead Cranmer through a bloody trail via Macclesfield, Paris, Moscow and eventually to the Caucasian mountains. This journey has consequences which detach Cranmer from any possible return to a free or happy life. In Paris he finally acknowledges Emma no longer cares for him and has returned to her previous life, whilst waiting lovingly for Larry to return. However Larry himself is discovered to have been killed as part of a rebellion which leads to Cranmer lament:

“A dead man is the worst enemy alive, I thought. You can’t alter his power over you. You can’t alter what you love or owe. And it’s too late to ask him for his absolution. He has you beaten all ways up.”

It is at this point when Cranmer, with nothing but a vacuum of a life, completes his journey in becoming the man he has been chasing and taking up arms to join the rebellion he has infiltrated. The perplexing question this ending left me was whether this was a journey, to essentially become Larry, Cranmer wanted to make from the beginning?

Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Gorky Park

417fqcppgzl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

The Basics: Three frozen bodies, mutilated beyond identification, are found in Gorky Park in central Moscow. Chief Homicide Investigator, Arkady Renko, is handed the case which quickly begins to grow into dangers beyond his comprehension.

In-depth: One of my favourite genres is the last year has been historical fiction. Whether it be full on alternate history, such as the nightmarish rule of Britain by a victorious Nazi Germany, in C. J. Sansom’s wonderfully detailed Dominion, or the violent paranoia of the Soviet Union in Tom Rob Smith’s excellent Child 44 series, such ideas are breeding grounds for great fiction. It was a happy accident then when I stumbled upon Gorky Park, which in all honesty I thought was a new novel, but was actually first published in 1981, as it helped to lay the ground for this type of exhilarating, historical fiction.

Gorky Park sees a beleaguered, chain smoking detective, Arkady Renko, setting out to find the killer behind a brutal triple murder in Moscow’s Gorky Park. It is 1979 and the run-down, paranoid and austere nature of Moscow is offered in frankly amazing detail. As are it’s many brilliant characters. However it is Renko that is the main attraction with his deep personal flaws, including his waning health, rapidly deteriorating marriage and lack of faith in party dogma, which are starkly contrasted with his professional brilliance at his job as a homicide investigator. Think Cracker, but in the Soviet Union in the ’70s.

Without spoiling the plot, Renko’s initial enthusiasm to palm the case off to a notoriously violent rival at the KGB on procedural grounds, is replaced by his increasing obsession with it due to progress in his investigation. The build up of the plot is dark and brooding. Renko is subtly drawn into a dangerous world of institutional rivalry and vested cross border political and economic interests to the detriment of his own personal relationships and safety.

The second part of the novel, which follows the case and abandons the terrifying darkness and loneliness of communist Moscow to move abroad, does admittedly stretch the plot’s creditability almost to breaking point. However the sheer imaginative depth of this novel and its characters is quite something as is, I imagine, is the 1983 film based upon it. That’s now my next to watch.

What is your favourite historical fiction novel? Or how you read any of the other ‘Renko’ novels by Martin Cruz Smith? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: A Murder of Quality

51DygOSAPmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The basics: A strange letter, penned under the fear of death, from the wife of a teacher at a prestigious English private school find its way to the editor of a weekly magazine in London. When this woman is then found brutally murdered, rocking the ancient school and town of Carne, the editor enlists her old friend, George Smiley, to investigate.

In-depth: A Murder of Quality is a welcome change to the more famous le Carré spy novels and I read this in a few short sittings. My attraction to it is its focus on the greatest character le Carré has created: George Smiley. It sees Smiley outside of his role in British Intelligence and instead acting as a quasi-detective. This feels slightly like a impersonation of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it does work and as one of le Carré’s earlier novels it is frightfully direct and short. The chapters are short and end with quick, neat cliffhangers. Any fan of Smiley will enjoy and race through it.

Smiley is without doubt one of my favourite fictional characters. He is epitome of the now perhaps outdated British virtue of understatement. Behind Smiley’s less than impressive physical appearance, he is forever described in novels as a short, “plump” man, lies a razor sharp intellectual prowess. One character in this story captures this perfectly by describing him as:

“Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for.”

What then makes Smiley, a man described as the most “forgettable” they have ever come across, so forgettable that they at times do not realise they are in-fact talking to and confiding in him, so interesting?  The answer is perfectly expanded upon in a small section in A Murder of Quality.

“Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed.”

This desire to go unnoticed is paired with his remarkable abilities to read human desires and characters. He uses these skills to discover the truth behind the violent murder at the heart of this novel, and it is this unswerving nature which makes him one of the most realistic depictions of a spy.

Smiley’s investigation takes him to the ancient town of Carne with its famous private school. This is a very traditional place, much in the mould of a number of real English public schools which quickly spring to mind, with an overbearing and pervading emphasis on the need to preserve it’s ways and customs. The school’s inhabitants are viciously judgemental of one another and le Carré’s account of them at times verges on satire. Even charitable initiatives, such as the local church providing clothing for refugees from Hungary, is almost comically depicted as a jealous, life and death game of power politics.

My favourite passage sees Smiley taking an evening stroll to take a look at the house where Mrs Rode was murdered. The events are brilliantly depicted as a terrified Smiley stumbles upon a dark figure milling around in the house who then approaches him. The simplicity of the terror of the passage is its strength and it turns out to be a local homeless women with severe mental health issues who is widely suspected of the murder.

Knowing better than to jump to this easy assumption Smiley’s investigation continues unabated into the murky personal relationships between the senior teachers of the school. Events in Carne see another brutal murder, this time of one of the schoolboys, which leads Smiley to the unexpected killer who I will not ruin the identify of for readers.

Overall this is a pleasantly brief novel of le Carré’s  to read. I’ve also just discovered there was a TV adaption made in 1991 with an early role for the excellent Christian Bale which sounds like it is worth a look.

Please leave your comments below.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker

By guest reviewer Kate Oliver

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My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: Rising star author Marcus Goldman’s struggle with his second book leads him back to his college mentor Harry Quebert. A few months later, a young girl’s body is found in Harry’s back yard and he is accused of her murder, leading Marcus to investigate the case as his own.

In depth: This novel was translated from the hugely popular 2012 French novel “La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert and has sold more than two million copies across Europe; it’s not difficult to see why. The novel is engaging and utterly absorbing from the first few pages, with the chapter numbers running in reverse chronology, a trick the reader may not notice immediately. It expertly jumps between past and present, with no feeling of confusion or jetlag on the reader’s part. The book is a book within a book; a novel about writing and books and the power of books themselves. It is about writers, the way they write, their inspiration and how books can change the lives of both writers and the readers.

Although the book’s title does not allude to her, the real and intriguing focus of the novel is the young Nola Kellergan, a fifteen year old girl who went missing on August 30 1975 and whose body is found 33 years later in June 2008, in Harry Quebert’s back yard, buried with the manuscript of his greatest novel. Quebert is immediately arrested for her murder but continues to protest his innocence throughout.

Marcus Goldman, the novel’s narrator, is Harry’s protégé and the closest thing Harry has to a son or any family of his own. Harry is a writer, one of the greats of the last century, but peaked with his second book, The Origin of Evil and meets Marcus as his college professor in a small town near Somerset, New Hampshire. And so begins a relationship between the two men, and a dialogue between them throughout the book. Each chapter begins with a snippet of a conversation between them, with Quebert giving advice to Marcus about writing, their mutual love of boxing, and ultimately life. One of my personal favourites includes:

Words are for everybody, until you prove that you are capable of appreciating them. That’s what defines a writer. You see Marcus, some people would like you to believe that a book consists of relationships between words, but that’s not true: It is in fact about relationships between people.

After college, Marcus too becomes a great writer, with his first novel becoming a huge success and leading him to the be the new ‘It’ boy in New York City. However, the pressure to perform as highly with his second novel causes him writer’s block and so he returns to Harry’s coastal home in Somerset to try and cure himself and start writing again. During his stay with Harry, he discovers that during the summer of 1975, Harry conducted a relationship with fifteen year old Nola Kellergan but told no one about it and begs Marcus to do the same. After six weeks, he returns to New York, only to hear shortly after that the body of the missing fifteen year old girl has been found in Harry’s back yard. Sure of his mentor’s innocence, he travels back to Somerset. With the help of the initially moody, yet ultimately cooperative and highly intelligent Sergeant Gahalowood, Marcus undertakes his own investigation into the elusive and intriguing Nola Kellergan and what exactly happened during the summer of 1975.

The twists and turns of this novel are part of its excellence, however this is not the kind of novel that relies solely on big reveals and surprises in order to keep the reader engaged. The author’s style of writing is easy, and a complete pleasure to read and this must be due to not only author Joël Dicker, but also to Sam Taylor who translated the novel into English. The beauty of this novel is in both the story, which is complex without being complicated, but (for me) even more importantly the writing, which doesn’t detract from the story itself, but only enhances it. Its simplicity allows the reader to consider what may happen next and allows us to figure out what happened at the same pace as the narrator, but the author’s command of language means this is the kind of book you want to luxuriate in; one you want to curl up inside and enjoy every single moment of.

I adored this book and wanted to write this review to encourage as many people as possible to enjoy it as well and so I have deliberately left out any spoilers so people can enjoy it first hand as I did. The final quote in the epilogue is perfect, it sums up exactly how I felt about this novel as a whole:

A good book, Marcus, is judged not by its last words but by the cumulative effect of all the words that have preceded them. About half a second after finishing your book, after reading the very last word, the reader should be overwhelmed by a particular feeling. For a moment, he should think only of what he has just read; he should look at the cover and smile a little sadly because he is already missing all the characters. A good book Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished. 

Please leave your comments and questions below.

Book review: A Small Town in Germany

9780141196381A Small Town in Germany – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

I purchased this book in a small craft fair in St Ives of Cornwall last week. It revolves around the British Embassy in Bonn in West Germany, the ‘Small Town’ of the title, in the late 1960s.

An ailing British Government are desperate to join the Common Market in Europe but due to hostility from France are overly reliant on Germany, as their only European ally, to support their membership. Sound familiar? This fictitious context struck me as strikingly similar to what the UK’s near future could soon look like after the recent EU referendum result.

However this novel was published in 1968 with le Carré firmly on his home turf of the Cold War. It sees a junior Embassy staff member, Leo Harting, go missing with a horde of files containing some of the British Government’s dearest secrets at a time of crucial Foreign Office negotiations in Brussels. Keen to prevent any harm to this Brussels bid, London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to investigate where Harting and the crucial files have got to.

His investigations initially find the Embassy and it’s daily, diplomatic life as one of dour incompetence. However through his amusingly indelicate questioning style Turner begins to build a picture of Harting as a man who slowly weeded his way into positions of undeserved trust, often through romance with female staff or even the wive’s of his male colleagues. Turner also begins to see traits of himself in the missing Harting; a man with a strong, and sometimes destructive, desire for the truth. One character describes Turner as “a man who would pull down a forest to find an acorn.”

Throughout Turner witnesses the civil unrest wrought by a German nationalist politician called Karfeld. As the fast rising Opposition leader Karfeld’s emotive speeches generate an atmosphere of violent student led protests across Germany with some uncomfortable parallels to its dark, recent past. Powerful posters of Karfeld’s populist, anti-British and quasi neo-Nazi slogans embellish Turner’s investigation, which runs against the dual clocks of an impending protest march in Bonn and the upcoming British bid in Brussels.

The search sees Turner discover the missing files and Harting’s noble aim to use them to reveal the true past of Karfeld before he gets into power. Karfeld’s past as a German war hero in Stalingrad is actually shown by British files as a cover up to hide his involvement in horrifying medical experiments during the Holocaust.

As the most frightening element of this novel, this resurgence of neo-Nazism is only matched by the ugly and complete moral flexibility of the British Embassy leaders. Despite his assurances to only want to help Turner find Harting the Embassy Head, Rawley Bradfield, is actually less than eager for Harting’s findings to find oxygen. This comes solely down to his cynical hedging of bets; as Karfeld is viewed not only as a potential future partner to be on the right side of, but also for the short term goal of not rocking the boat and upsetting the German intelligence services with Britain relying heavily on their support in their European application.

This dark conclusion builds on a common theme in le Carre’s novels which paints the world of spying as not a glamorous Bond-like jaunt, but rather a truly dangerous world of cold and unpleasant realities and if need be betrayal. Characters in this book with any professional/career success in this world of spying often carry burdens of a failure in many parts of their private lives, particularly relationships.

Overall this novel contains a surprisingly fresh story from le Carre’s early canon, especially as it was published in between the more famous Cold War thrillers The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. It is a foreboding tale with its conclusion, the fate of the elusive Harting, hanging precariously in the balance until the final pages. Because of this it is a natural page turner which grips your attention from first to last.

Best Quote: ‘Then why look for him?’ – Jenny

‘Why not? That’s how we spend our lives, isn’t it? Looking for people we’ll never find.’ – Turner

Have you read this novel or any other of John le Carré’s? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

Review: A Clash of Kings (Game of Thrones Book 2)

m7uSDn9UoHrkd8hvykAQljwA Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2) by George R.R. Martin.

My rating: ★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George R. R. Martin’s second novel in his Game of Thrones series follows immediately in the bloody aftermath of the previous book with the main story arcs continuing as so; in Westeros, a violent and destructive war between the Lannister’s and the North led by Robb Stark; beyond the Wall, the Night Watch’s expedition to find Benjen Stark and investigate the Wildlings; and across the Narrow Sea in the Eastern lands, Daenerys Targaryen navigating the dangerous early days of caring for her young dragons after the death of Khal Drogo.

However the overwhelming focus, which gives the novel its name, is very much in Westeros where five kings fight for power. The first is the young King Joffrey Lannister, installed after the death of King Robert in the previous book by the hand of his Mother regent, the fearsome Cersei Lannister. This story arc of the Lannister’s is again told through the Imp Tyrion Lannister, who as commanded by his warring father and much to the dismay of his sister Cersei, returns to King’s Landing as the Hand of the King. His chapters are among the best in the book, especially his baiting intrigue against his impatient sister and his sizing up of potential future allies/ enemies such as the all hearing eunuch Varys and the Machiavellian Master of Coin Petyr Baelish.

The other claimants to the Iron Throne are Stannis Baratheon, who rules Dragonstone across a short sea; his younger brother and rival, Renly Baratheon, from the South; the proclaimed King of the North, Robb Stark, and the many factions which follow his banner; and finally Balon Greyjoy, father of Theon whose perspective introduces this family, who as Lord of the Iron Islands aims to exploit the lack of leadership and arms in the neighbouring coastal areas of the North.

Overall this second novel is as brilliant as the first with the sheer wealth of context given to each chapter, character and house almost difficult to believe coming from just one person’s imagination. In the second half the plot picks up its pace and the highlight is undoubtedly the massive battle at King’s Landing between the defending Lannister forces and Lord Stannis’ fleet. Victory for the Lannister’s see Joffrey’s rule of the Iron Throne continue, with it likely to only strengthen with the return of Tywin Lannister to King’s Landing as the Hand of the King.

Other major substantial plot developments are the abilities of Bran, and briefly Jon, as Wargs meaning they can enter the minds of their wolves and even control their actions. This enables Jon to see a massive Wildling army led by the King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, including giants and mammoths, assembling near to the Night’s Watch. This also leads to Jon Snow’s betrayal of Qhorin Halfhand, planned by them both, which allows him to yield to and infiltrate the Wildlings. This comes after his wise show of mercy to not kill the Wildling girl, Ygritte, he had earlier captured.

Bran escapes Winterfell, after it is captured by the turncloak Theon Greyjoy who is eager to impress his indifferent father, along with his brother Rickon, Osha, Hodor and their new friends, Meera and her brother Jojen Reed, who introduce Bran to his powers as a Warg. Theon eventually loses Winterfell to the bastard Ramsey Bolton, whose cruelty is referred to in passing through-out the novel, who sacks Winterfell and kidnaps him.

Favourite plot/story line: Tyrion Lannister’s surprisingly apt turn in King’s Landing as the Hand of the King, with its constant intrigue, is a brilliant story line, but for being a brand new character’s perspective Ser Davos Seaworth’s chapters were my favourite. They introduce the austere and dark regime of Lord Stannis Baratheon, which becomes increasingly reliant on the dark arts of the faith of the Red Woman Melisandre.

Ser Davos is a former smuggler, turned Knight who is loyal to Stannis, who as the eldest brother of the late King Robert Baratheon arguably holds the purest claim to the Iron Throne. Stannis, however, is an overly stubborn, serious man who is little loved by his men and after fleeing to the island keep of Dragonstone, due to the past slight of King Robert’s choice of Ned Stark instead of him as Hand of the King, suffers from a serious lack of swords and shields to take the Iron Throne.

It is the sorcery of the Red Woman, witnessed first hand by Ser Davos, which are the most shocking plot twists of this second book. Particularly; the murder of Stannis’ younger brother Renly Baratheon by a shadow and the birth of another shadow from the Red Woman to infiltrate Storm’s End to murder Ser Cortnay Penrose who refused to yield after Renly’s death. These wicked acts, reluctantly tolerated by Ser Davos, help make Stannis the main challenger to the Lannister’s rule of King’s Landing.

Least favourite plot/story line: Daenerys Targaryen features very lightly in the first half of this book with only one chapter, which I have to admit was pleasing to me as this is my least favourite story in this series so far. The rest of her story sees her and her remaining followers travel the deadly eastern deserts and finally finding refuge in the city of Qarth where she is ultimately unable to secure support for her mission to retake the Iron Throne. She also realises the love her close knight Ser Jorah Mormont holds for her but quickly decides that she does not love him.

Daenerys’ story in this novel concludes after a failed assassination attempt against her sees her brought into contact with Strong Belwas and Arstan Whitebeard who inform her they represent her former ally Illyrio Mopatis, who means to have her escorted back to Pentos so he can help her again.

Best quote: “What sort of reasons do you mean to give them?”

“Gold reasons,” Littlefinger suggested at once.

Have you read this second book of the Game of Thrones series? What were you favourite story lines or parts of it? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Animal Farm

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)Animal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: ★★★★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a striking little novel which fuses an easy to follow short story with a savage political satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by the darker elements of human nature. It charts a farm’s descent from the early hope of a better future, after its animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords, to the encroaching and increasingly perverse rule of the all powerful Napoleon in an unnervingly calm, step-by-step plot. With it’s benefit of (unstated) historical hindsight, alongside the artistic use of animals to represent historical individuals, Orwell’s writing demonstrates a brooding authority which marks the self-serving and tragic implications of each plot development as both frighteningly stark and desperately out of the reader’s control.

Many of the animals represent different social institutions, groups or individuals; Mr Jones is the careless, cruel and often drunk man who initially owns the farm who represents the bourgeois enemy of the suffering proletariat that is the animals; Moses, the tamed raven of Mr Jones, represents the Church, with his persuasive, comforting and distracting tale of a country called “Sugarcandy Mountain” in the sky where all animals go to when they die and live in eternal bliss. Two other characters who stand out are Boxer; an immensely strong and unquestioning horse committed wholeheartedly to following his revolutionary leaders, and Squealer; a clever pig who has such a talented way with words that he “could turn black into white,” who acts as the emergent regime’s mouthpiece spewing its increasingly contradictory propaganda.

After overthrowing Mr Jones the animals, led by the pigs who learn to read and write, decree the seven commandments of the ideology of Animalism on the barn wall to which all agree. Attention is then quickly turned to the labour of the hay harvest but it is just before this when the first tangible chink in the armour of what Orwell calls a ‘fairy story’ appears. Before the hard labour of harvest is carried out by the animals, the cows are milked by the pigs which produces buckets full of creamy, tasty looking milk to which the animals eyes lustily fall aware that all farm produce now belongs to all animals equally. However Napoleon, one of the cleverest pigs, tells the animals to forget the milk for now and to concentrate on the vital work of the harvest. However, “when they came back in the evening it was noticed that the milk had disappeared.”

From this dark hint at the future the animals, led by the naturally more intelligent pigs, proceed to run the farm on their terms rather than under the whim of man. However a rivalry between two of the more intelligent pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, rapidly emerges. This is largely based on their very different natures; Napoleon is used to get his own way and adept at quietly gathering support, whilst Snowball is more expressive of his ideas and a great public speaker who is able to eloquently persuade the other animals at public debates. The two also constantly oppose each other’s ideas.

This rivalry undoubtedly represents an analogy of the great power struggle in post revolution, post-Lenin USSR between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One particularly powerful parallel which stood out to me was the debate around the defence of the farm. Napoleon suggests the animals should be trained in the use of weapons to strengthen their own farm against any human attackers, compared to Snowball’s preference to send pigeon messengers to other farms to spread the word of Animalism to help create unrest and possible rebellion, thereby reducing the amount of enemies. This broadly follows the rival ideas of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country policy which prioritised the internal strengthening of the Soviet Union compared with Trotsky’s ideas of continual international revolution.

Snowball is chased and banished from the farm with Napoleon seizing control and quickly installing fear into the animals. The maxim that Napoleon can never be wrong is adopted and the collective history of the farm’s rebellion is also changed to reduce the prominence of Snowball. Orwell then depicts every stage of the Farm’s descent into a paranoid, violent dictatorship led by the all powerful Napoleon. There are false propaganda campaigns, absurdly fabricated production statistics but yet still famine, show trial purges of former animal allies and blatant compromises of the previous principles of Animalism. Primarily all of these principles are broken but the most obvious are the killing of animals by other animals as well as the emergence of an unequal allocation of labour. This is between most animals having to work like slaves whilst starving and the pigs who very do little other than feast and increasingly live like their former human masters.

The book ends in dramatic and tragic fashion. The remaining ‘lower animals’ take a peek into the former home of Mr Jones where the pigs now live. After inviting the neighbouring human farm owners around to feast the animals outside overhear the pigs discuss their joint interests. Animalism is truly dead with the interests of the privileged few reinforced and the pigs; who sit, talk and drink like their former human enemies, and in fact rule more harshly; are impossible to tell apart from the humans during their heated final words during drunken a card game.

Best Quote: It may be a cliché but it’s hard to look beyond the infamous: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Have you ever read Animal Farm or any other novels by George Orwell? If so, please leave your comments below.