Review: Modern Romance

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: One of the USA’s funniest young comics, alongside a leading sociologist, takes an insightful look at romance in today’s digital age.

In-depth: The best characteristic of this book is it’s ability to introduce in-depth sociological and psychological terms in a funny and easy to relate to way. It looks at how the rapid developments in technology and communication in recent decades have driven changes in the attitudes, as well as the behaviour, of those seeking romance.

The book is centred around the recent changes to perceptions of love and more specifically marriage. The authors identify a shift from the ‘good enough’ marriage model of the war-time/post-war generations. This consisted of finding someone normally from your immediate neighbourhood who was ‘good enough’, so essentially someone who isn’t a serial killer, and then marrying them at a very young age. This is contrasted with the current concept, which views romance and love as the pursuit of the one perfect soulmate who is ‘out there’ somewhere.

Much of the stress of modern romance derives from this conception, but the authors state that although often a much longer, wider and stressful search, the results if successful can be much more fulfilling.

The authors look at how marriages are now taking place at later ages, often coming after a newly emerged life stage of ‘early/emerging adulthood’. Young people can now enjoy experiences previous generations could only have dreamed of, such as traveling the world, trying a number of different jobs before deciding upon a career or taking their time choosing a partner.

Ansari identifies this lifestyle choice as visible in other choices made in today’s internet age. The comforting idea that something of the best possible type is out there for you, waiting to be discovered, drives many individuals in what were once almost thoughtless tasks. Such as deciding which Chinese restaurant to go to tonight? Or which TV series on Netflix to binge next? Now long, online searches, often very dependent on the opinions and views of others, take place before these decision are made. As with romance many people do not just want ‘good enough’ any more.

Ansari looks at the whole host of tools which now drive and affect people’s searches for this romance today including text messaging, online dating sites and apps such as Tinder. By basing the book on focus groups and volunteer case studies there are naturally many cringe-worthy, hilarious or even offensive examples.

One section looks at the minefield of how much people consider the length of time before they respond to interested parties text messages. The book here achieves a wonderful balance of outlining some quite serious scientific research into these areas, which compares the chasing parties to lab animals who have been tested for performing simple tasks for a reward, and the conclusion so eloquently but funnily captured by Ansari. That having the uncertainity of a reward, i.e. a delayed or non existent text response, can “enchance their dopamine levels so that they basically feel coked up.”

Another section looks at dating apps which, after some expected horror stories, also have some reassuringly positive consequences. The privacy afforded by online dating is a blessing, and particularly in more traditional or religious societies. After visiting Qatar the authors outline how youngsters, unable to publicly pursue or obtain romance, use dating apps to organise parties which creates social and romantic encounters simply forbidden elsewhere. Often a hotel room/suite is used a venue and there is the wonderfully ironic use of burkas by young women who can whilst wearing these, anonymously wander into the hotel of the party and find the room where it is taking place.

Overall, and in conclusion, this book is based on the interesting idea that the internet has given people the massive benefits of so much more choice and scope when searching for a partner. However this is wisely, and often humourously, balanced with the many debilitating affects this level of choice can bring.

Have you read this book or anything to do with the world of modern dating or romance? If so, please leave your thoughts below.

Review: Waterloo

Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles by Bernard Cornwell.

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: An enjoyable and gripping account of one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic era, which reads so much like a thriller it is at times easy to forget this was Cornwell’s first non-fiction book.

In-depth: The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is adorned with two giant paintings which depict two major moments in British history and the Napoleonic Wars: the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher at the battle of Waterloo. Although I’m late to the bi-centenary anniversary of the battle, it was on June 18 last year, it was after a long look at the latter painting one lunchtime last autumn that I decided I needed to catch up and read an account of this most famous battle. I’ve finally got round to doing so.

Considering many readers will be aware of the battle’s result and its historical consequences, Cornwell still manages to instil an overwhelming sense of drama into this account. The author explains this: “No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense … We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of the adventures of Sharpe, Cornwell dramatically charts the proceeding days build up to Waterloo, and the entire battle itself, including the many times where victory seemed so close for l’Empereur.

Cornwell brilliantly brings the historical characters to life. Be that the generals of the armies or the soldiers fighting on the battlefield through their private correspondences. The battle is presented by Cornwell as the first meeting of Europe’s two finest soldiers, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. These figures are wonderfully brought to life through tales such as, “He (the Duke) could be sharply witty; long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. “Don’t worry, Madame,” the Duke said, “I’ve seen their backs before.” Also the leader of the Prussian army, whose eventual arrival on Napoleon’s right flank was central to the outcome of the battle, is introduced as the 72 year old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who was famously prone to “bouts of mental illness during which he believed himself pregnant with an elephant fathered by a French infantryman.” Fortunately this delusions did not inflict him on the day.

With Cornwell’s deep military knowledge there is naturally plenty here for military buffs. He makes much of the importance of the geography of the battlefield to its outcome, particularly how it was scouted months before by the Duke of Wellington. The northern, deceptively steep, ridge which the British led forces held throughout the day enabled the Duke to station most of his infantry just behind the top of the hill, thereby shielding them from the murderous artillery of Napoleon’s ‘Grand Battery.’ These were known as Napoleon’s “beautiful daughters” and the sound of their barrages going overhead were wonderfully described by one solider as “being like the noise of a heavy barrel of ale being rolled across a wooden floor above his head.”

The nature of the square formations of Anglo-Dutch infantry is also brought to life in a chapter covering the disastrous mid-afternoon cavalry charges by the French. By forming a square, with sides four men deep, the infantry was able to have a square of bayonets filled with reloading and firing troops which “spat musketry” at the terrified horses. This decimated the French cavalry, which struggled massively in the deep mud caused from the previous evenings heavy rain, for almost no gain and is largely told through the violent memoirs of the soldiers.

In conclusion Cornwell charts the race against time that the battle ultimately became. Napoleon’s forces came remarkably close to overwhelming the British line, victory and winning the road to Brussels but needed to do so by the time the reinforcing Prussian armies fully arrived. The desperate last throw of the dice by Napoleon was to order the advance of his famous Imperial Guard, who were rumoured to never have been defeated and were thus known as ‘the Immortals’, against the supposedly ‘Unbreakables’ which was Wellington’s infantry, whose reputation Napoleon had arrogantly dismissed early in the day. Although these extremes are extenuated by Cornwell this final section, like most of this book, is a real page turner.

Best Quote: “… long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him (The Duke of Wellington) in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ the Duke said, ‘I’ve seen their backs before.'”

Have you ever read an account of the Napoleonic Wars? If you have you may also like my review of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.

Please leave your comments below.

Review: The Rent Trap

41IAfQCUzlL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The Rent Trap: How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It by Rose Walker and Samir Jeraj

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The current London Mayoral election campaigns have unsurprisingly centred around the Capital’s dire housing crisis. This book is a welcome intervention into the debate and focusses on the private rented sector, which has boomed in recent decades to now include some 11 million private renters across the UK.

It explains the reasons and interests driving the sky high rents experienced by so many tenants today and how the interests of landlords are fiercely protected by lobby groups in Parliament. If you’re interested in the intricacies of All Party Parliamentary Groups or Private Members’ Bills, as I strangely am, then these parts are certainly for you.

The picture painted of the private rented sector is a dark one. The simple inability of many to save for a deposit, the upheaval of no fault evictions, the scandal of manufactured letting agents fees as well as the often criminal actions of landlords who do not think many areas of the law apply to them or that their tenants deserve privacy, are all covered in detail. More widely with buy to let mortgages further overheating the property market and therefore pricing out many of every buying their own home, it is now common for tenants to be paying, via their high rents, either the mortgage(s) of their landlords or into their pension, which has the obvious long term affects of denying these assets to younger generations of tenants.

One of this books chief merits, drawn out by its many varying case studies, is the moral case against this current market situation and its social and generational injustices. When interviewed and pushed by the authors over whether they feel the rental arrangements they have are moral or defendable, it is clear the vast majority of landlords are aware of the ridiculous levels of unfairness they are contributing to but quickly choose to ignore it or defend it as merely the way of the market.

This now default viewpoint is dug into with a concise history of post war UK housing policy, which accurately pinpoints the source of many of the market’s problems today as originating from the policies of the Thatcher Governments. These set the market loose from any rent controls, drained councils resources and housing stocks and has led to housing now being seen much like other commodities, as a vehicle to solely make profit, and not to provide safe, fair and secure shelter for human beings. It is clear the authors are uncomfortable with this designation and after reading this book it is difficult not to share these sentiments.

The one drawback of this book is that it doesn’t really seem to offer conclusive answers to the vast problem(s) it outlines. Considering the book’s full title, The Rent Gap: How we fell into it and How we get out it, this is disappointing and the only real alternatives offered are piecemeal initiatives such as cooperative housing, community land trusts and the increasing number of Londoners who choose to live on canal boats on the capital’s many now defunct waterways. However these options provide merely a tiny fraction of housing in the UK compared to full property ownership, the private rented sector or even social housing. They do not seem feasible options for a new fourth sector.

However the lack of answers is not really a criticism of the authors, or the book, but merely a indication of the depth of the problems. Also to be fair the regulation of private rented sectors in Europe, particularly in cities such as Paris and Berlin, is carefully considered and seems to offer the most obvious potential answer. Here tenants are allowed much more time, compared to the remarkably short 6 to 12 months afforded in the UK, to stay in their properties if they have done nothing wrong. However this would appear to require a wider transition from the short term desire for steep profits, which dominates many areas of British society, towards a private rented sector offering a more stable, cheaper and longer term option for tenants.

Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

*Warning this review contains potential plot spoilers*

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: In one of the most famous graphic novels of the 20th century an ageing Bruce Wayne returns as the Caped Crusader to save a Gotham overrun by a murderous new gang called the Mutants. His renewed crusade against crime soon attracts all sorts of attention including from past foes, a new police commissioner and even the US Government backed Man of Steel himself.

In-depth: I’ve felt very underwhelmed by the negative reviews of the recently released Batman vs Superman film. Several friends have also complained of its near meaningless as it descends into a massive CGI fest with the only positive outcome, for its makers, being it’s high takings at the box office. I instead decided to purchase the recently published 30th Anniversary edition of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller et al.

I had heard before hand that this four part series formed the basis of the modern, darker and gritty version of Batman (by far my own personal preference) that we have grown accustomed to largely due to the excellent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight films. During reading, this is clear to see in the wonderful, highly self conscious internal thoughts of the characters which make up most of the dialogue.

The story is built up from the crime and violence infested ground of Gotham City. The first part, which gave it’s name to the whole collection, sees an aged, slightly unhinged Bruce Wayne internally fighting the urge to put the Batsuit back on and clear up the city.

From this basis the collection covers much ground and narrative depth; Batman’s origins; Commissioner Gordon’s eventual retirement; the failed rehabilitation of Harvey Dent and his relapse into Two-Face; a first woman commissioner, Yendel, zealously obsessed with bringing the Bat to justice; the recruitment of a new Robin; the return (and gruesome death) of the Joker; a wide array of new technological weapons and the general descent of Gotham into savagery. Even over four issues this is a lot and it offers any Batman fan or newcomer plenty to sink their teeth into.

The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps most famous for its capturing of the Zeitgeist of the time when it was published in 1986. The United States, which here includes Gotham and Metropolis, is racked by Cold War paranoia represented by an escalating crisis firmly within the American sphere of influence on a fictional South American island.

This is coupled with the almost provocatively modern insights which hint at the weakness of civil society. Be that theorists of criminal psychology, represented by psychiatrists defending the Joker and Harvey Dent and instead attributing all blame for their crimes to the Batman. Or the defeatist City Mayor willing to negotiate with the ruthless Mutants gang leader who is instantly slain as soon as he tries to do so. Or the well off lawyer, who of course has never lived in the crime ridden City of Gotham, but defends his clients civil rights against the violence of Batman’s vigilantism.

All these attitudes and characters are satirised and juxtaposed with the reassuringly simple crusade of the Batman. This harks back to the America of the Second World War which was convinced of its role and worth in the world. One can imagine how effective, but also controversial, these reactionary themes were in the 1980s and remain so today.

Batman, like many other superheros, initially served as a form of escapism from everyday life. However Frank Miller’s work dragged Batman, and superheros as a whole, back toward the realities of the real world allowing them to satirise and make cutting political statements whilst entertaining readers.

This underlying ambition is best demonstrated through Superman, here a stooge of the US Government. He is eventually called in to take down Batman after the Government’s disapproval of his vigilantism and its results. However when he is distracted by a nuclear missle launched from the USSR, heroically diverting it from hitting the US, Gotham is thrown into darkness and chaos. My favourite frames are in-fact those after Superman denonates the nuclear missile and is half dead due to his lack of access to the sun.

After the gloriously depicted recovery from this, the final scenes are given to a showdown between Batman and Superman which very almost sees the Man of Steel defeated. Wayne then pulls a concluding trick in convincing the world that he, and the Batman, are dead. The novel concludes with Wayne plotting with Robin and other characters from the DC universe for some grand comeback. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I can’t get my hands on the sequel, the Dark Knight Strikes Again, quickly enough.

Have you read this graphic novel or any others which are similar? Please leave your comments below!

Review: Decline and Fall

By Evelyn Waugh. This review contains spoilers of this novel.

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: After suddenly being expelled from Oxford University Paul Pennyfeather begins a comedic and increasingly dangerous journey through 1920s British society, high and low.

In-depth: I was made aware of this novel, Evelyn Waugh’s first, by David Mitchell choosing it on his Desert Island Discs episode. I purchased it at Hatchards, a wonderful booksellers in Piccadilly, and I was delighted when this store was actually mentioned in this novel.

Known for his cutting satire and black humour, Waugh’s first novel is as funny as it is layered in it’s targeting of all aspects of inter-war British society. On the surface, and for which it gained most attention upon it’s publication in 1928, it is a riotous and funny journey led by Paul Pennyfeather, whose passivity is typical of male narrators of 1920s social satire à la Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, and whose sympathetic willingness to listen draws out the stories of the characters but also leads him into unseen dangers.

The title is perhaps a reference to Edward Gibbon’s famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire series, which charted Rome’s descent from civilised superpower to savagery. It feels as though Waugh’s novel, which includes Churchmen of no faith, drunken teachers who do very little teaching and a prison governer who give dangerous carpentry equipment to homicidal maniacs, is also observing a demise of a once civilised society.

The story begins with Pennyfeather, a young and unassuming undergraduate at the imaginary Scone College of Oxford University, falling foul to the drunken antics of the highly exclusive Bollinger Club. Discovered walking around the college green with no trousers on, after they were stolen by a privileged fellow undergraduate, Paul is swiftly identified as a trouble maker and expelled for his “indecent behaviour”. Desperate for an income he then somehow ends up as a schoolmaster at a unknown public school in Wales.

Most of the first half of the novel takes place at the school, Llanabba Castle, and introduces a number of the schools “preposterous inhabitants”. There is the anxious churchman of Mr Pendergast who constantly doubts his faith, the pathological liar Philbrick and the headteacher Dr. Fagan whose discriminatory views about the Welsh people is rumoured to have mirrored Waugh’s own prejudices. However it is Mr Grimes, who is constantly “in the soup,” which refers to his alcoholism, who undoubtedly steals the show.

From the school onwards Pennyfeather finds himself thrust into a number of adventures which his somewhat benign nature deem him incapable to realise the dangers of. He is instructed to organise a school sports day for the prestigious visit of Ms Beste-Chetwynde, Waugh’s novels are full of seemingly unpronounceable names, and the snobby Lady Circumference, but things quickly descend into farce and scandal.

A loaded pistol is used to start one of the boy’s races which inevitably leads to a boy being shot in the foot. Waugh’s use of characters is ruthless as the reader is later informed that the boy is actually dead in a throwaway comment which receives no follow up or attention.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waugh’s writing is that it introduces characters in settings which appear believable, deep and permanent but then yanks the reader away from them with sudden and increasingly ridiculous plot twists which refresh the story.

The comedy is kept moving as the reader becomes more aware of the importance of pretence to the story. This is achieved via perceived tragedy at the end of part one, as Mr Grimes escapes an unhappy and rushed marriage to Dr Fagan’s daughter by appearing to kill himself (he later reappears and disappears under different guises) and by love in part two as Pennyfeather quickly stumbles into arranging to marry Margot Beste-Chetwynde.

However, visible throughout many of the character’s conversations, are the underlying tensions and barriers of class, race, sex and nationalism. The characters, largely members of high society which seem to obsess Waugh, are often blissfully unaware of the damaging consequences of these rigid structures as they help form the structure of their gossip, wealth and scandal. The most uncomfortable section for the modern day reader deals with the overt racism  of the time but the satire knows no bounds.  Pennyfeather himself fails to realise the perils of Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s grand incomes via the ‘white slavery’ of trading young women, as he is too busy enjoying the public attention he is afforded for their planned marriage.

The final act centres around another delightful plot twist where Pennyfeather’s wedding day at the Ritz Hotel is cut short by a sudden arrest for the above crime. A prison sentence follows, cut short by the ‘legal death’ of Pennyfeather, elaborately organised by his friends, which enables him to flee to Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s, now married to a Viscount Metroland, grand villa in Corfu. The story ends with a moustached, and thus suitably disguised, Pennyfeather back at Scone College studying Theology once again witnessing, but this time from a safe distance, the antics of the Bollinger Club. Not so much a decline and fall for it’s central character then but more a brief interlude of wild adventure for a man who wandered.

In all, this is a novel which possesses a comic thrust of ridiculousness and savagery which is at times difficult to associate with the 1920s from which it was produced.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

514Qdz6chmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★★

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A tale of childhood in a small town in 1930s Deep South of the United States. Driven by curiosity, particularly of their reclusive neighbours, two children, Jem and Scout, begin to learn more about the world and its workings through a controversial local court case which their father is the defence lawyer in.

In-depth: I was given this book last summer fully aware of its great legacy. Immediately a classic upon publication and now secure as a central part of American literature. However guiltily I do admit that I did not get round to reading it until prompted by the recent sad news of Harper Lee’s passing.

It is safe to say it’s legacy is completely justified. To Kill A Mockingbird is a wonderful tale based around the warmth of childhood innocence and curiosity whilst simultaneously revealing so much more about American society.

Based in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, as seen through the eyes of Scout Finch, the early chapters are a journey through the wonders of long summer holidays from school. Allied with her older brother Jem and their visiting friend Dill, the children take an intrusive interest in their strange, reclusive neighbours, the Radleys, who never appear outside of their home.

However their naturally curious actions are fairly schooled at each stage by their father, Atticus Finch, who is now my favourite character in popular literature. Atticus is a pleasantly reasonable lawyer tasked with the socially difficult task in the 1930s of defending a local black man accused of raping a white woman. Conveying fair and enlightened values of justice and anti racism, which he gently bestows and explains to his children, it is a task which dominates the book.

Perhaps what the book is most famous for is it’s remarkable ability to convey such a depth of events and the ideas behind them through it’s wonderfully readable style. The real beauty of this book is that Lee manages to gently but clearly explain horribly adult concepts such as racism, social class and rape. Managing to do this in what is essentially a children’s book, still regularly taught to school children, is quite something.

Unfortunately I did not read the book when I was at school but it also challenges older readers to consider how crazy everyday concepts or issues which control adult life must appear to children. The tragically predictable verdict, at least to an adult aware of the social context of deep racial divisions, of Tom Robinson’s court case is the biggest shock to Jem and the other young characters. Perhaps these reactions aren’t so child like at all.

In all, one of the easiest and warmest books, exceptional given some of its themes, I’ve read in a long time. Now to watch the film from 1962.

Have you ever read To Kill A Mockingbird? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

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Review: Batman – The Killing Joke

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My rating: ★★★★☆

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

The Basics: In one of the most famous Batman graphic novels, which navigates around a twisted past, the Joker launches perhaps his sickest scheme yet to prove to Gotham that even the sanest are just “one bad day” away from his world of madness.

In-depth: To feel the part in New York City last October I equipped myself with a New Yorker Magazine for a princely $8. In the Goings On About Town section I noticed an exhibition entitled ‘Superheros in Gotham’ at the New York Historical Society. Caught up in my moment of serendipity I convinced my friends to give it a try (it didn’t take much) and we walked through Central Park to the Society.

Unfortunately the exhibition wasn’t as good as we were hoping. It was frightfully small with a no photography policy strictly enforced by over keen security guards. The one highlight was seeing the actual Batmobile from the original Batman TV show. Walking back slightly disappointed I spotted some impromptu book stands where I came across The Killing Joke. My mood improved as soon as I started reading it.

At just 46 pages it did not take long and having recently re-read it I decided to review it on this blog. Admittedly it is the first graphic novel I’ve read and it was the perfect choice. “One of the greatest Batman stories” the friendly guy at the stall told me and he was 100% right.

The story is beautifully simple and as quick as it is intense. It centres around perhaps the Joker’s most disturbing scheme. To prove that Gotham can not and should not maintain it’s perverse commitment to law, order and indeed sanity by targeting it’s leading light Commissioner Jim Gordon and by doing this thereby drawing out his arch nemesis: the Batman.

The recently escaped Joker intends to prove a point by driving Gordon mad and show the world that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” It is some bad day for Gordon as the Joker ambushes and shoots his daughter Barbara before his very eyes. Putting a bullet through her spine and having his goons kidnap the distraught Gordon, the Joker then completes what he thinks will be his coup de grâce by undressing the wounded Barbara and photographing her in lurid positions mercifully mostly left to the reader’s imagination by the artist Brian Bolland. It is no surprise that this passage, particularly the use of Barbara as merely a prop to get at her father, caused such a storm after many feminist readers were aghast at its overtly sexist nature.

Having the beaten and stripped Gordon paraded around his new recently acquired fairground, the Joker explains to him his simple choice. He can either suffer the trauma of his memories which through his rationality he still clings to, or choosing the ’emergency exit’ of insanity, flee into the freedom of the chaos which forms the basis of the Joker’s existence and Gotham’s unjust world.

What perhaps makes this novel so famous is it’s revealing of the Joker’s past. Before becoming the Clown Prince of Crime it depicts his failed attempts at being a stand up comedian as well as the crippling anxieties of his fear of failing to support his pregnant wife. That Alan Moore and Bolland are able to present this so deeply in such short spaces shows the intelligence and skill which lies behind every word and sketch in the Killing Joke.

One of my favourite frames is the jump between a tragic past as a failed comedian and husband to the Joker’s scheming at his violently acquired fairground. The (almost)

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The Joker’s past? Deep. Very Deep.
colourless past reaches out to his beautiful wife who is laughing at an accidental joke of his with the reflection of himself in the mirror behind revealing his inner torment of another day of failure. In the next colour filled frame, savagely jolting the reader back to the present, the Joker is instead, in perhaps a rare lapse of sentimentality, reaching out his gloved hand to a ‘Laughing Clown.’ He is met by a reflection errily similar to the previous frame.

The lack of colour in the scenes from the Joker’s past is also significant. Bolland brilliantly chooses single objects to possess the increasingly rageful red which builds up via fly-trapping sticky tape, shrimps and the red-hood worn during the botched robbery where the scared predecessor to the Joker flees the Batman only to fall into a vat of chemicals which produces the Clown Prince of Crime.

The scenes from the past are also deliciously mixed up by the Joker himself, who confused by the madness which now inhibits him, reels off the various other possible personal histories of what sent him over the edge. Such as his wife being murdered by the Mob (in this she supposedly dies in a once in a million electrical accident) or his brother being carved up by a knife welding mugger. This cleverly buys into the wealth of speculative interpretations which exist about the Joker’s past.

Back to the present and after mentally torturing Gordon and believing he has indeed driven the Commissioner mad the Joker gets what he really wants; the arrival of the Batman. After a desperate fight which involves trap doors to doom, knifes, a hall of mirrors and a pretend pistol the Batman eventually wrestles the Joker under his control.

Pleading with him to not continue their duel down the route which will only lead to one of them dying, Batman attempts to reach out to the Joker, briefly hinting at his own knowledge of suffering due to a tragic past, by offering him rehabilitation.

The Joker’s response is, as ever, a joke. Significantly it is about two men trying to escape a lunatic asylum where one offers the other an escape over a bridge of torch light. The joke being you’d have to be crazy to trust the other prisoner to keep the torch on, as oppose to believing you can walk on light.

The Batman then grabs the Joker with the light of the approaching police cars visible. The Joker’s laughter, then uncharacteristicily joined by the Batman’s, fills the night and the final two panels offering an almost completed bridge of light which in the next panel disappears into darkness. Some have interpreted this as the Batman finally killing the Joker, the incessant laughter does suddenly stop, but this is wonderfully left to the interpretation and imagination of the reader.

Review: Bob Dylan – All The Songs

9780316353533The Basics: A song by song account of Bob Dylan’s musical canon to date.

In-depth: As a surprise birthday present this was right up there. Margotin and Guesdon’s collection is mightily impressive and as up to date as is currently possible (running up to 2015’s Shadows in the Night). It is also huge. At 703 pages and a fair weight this hardback is a goldmine for any obsessive Dylan fan or as the authors refer to them: “Dylanologists”.

Using each album as a chapter, with the more significant albums also receiving introductory chapters, Margotin and Guesdon work through song, via an order of technical details, song genesis and lyrics and production. Some outtakes of albums are also considered.

The focus revolves around Dylan’s own creative processes and the level of thought and slow burning genesis is fascinating. There are also little golden nuggets on most songs including noteworthy covers (who knew James Blunt has covered I Want You?) and trivia such as technical musical mistakes which are surprisingly commonplace on earlier tracks. Dylan’s creative processes and influences are so eclectic that the book can only naturally pose as many questions as it can answer, the eternally debated subject of Ballad of A Thin Man is not brought to an end.

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Naturally the best sections revolve around the readers own personal favourites of Dylan’s albums, my own being Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Time Out of Mind.

One slight disappointment is that the edition does not deal with the vast wealth of songs, covers and different versions, contained in the excellent bootleg series. Comment and analysis of say, Volume 8 (Tell Tale Signs) or the most recent Volume 12 ( The Cutting Edge) would have been a real treat, particularly the many brilliant songs which somehow did not make it onto studio albums.

This edition delivers on its subtitle of “The Story Behind Every Track” and for any fan of Dylan or indeed music itself is a real treat to be dipped in and out of.

Review: Stalin’s Englishman

stalin copy-xlargeMy rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: A biography of Guy Burgess, a central member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the mid 20th century. Lownie charts Burgess’ education at Eton and Cambridge and recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, through his turbulent career at the BBC, Parliament, the Foreign Office and eventually his flight and lonely exile in the Soviet Union.

In-depth: The title immediately grabbed my attention, although I found it a little misleading as there was actually no personal meeting(s) between Stalin and Guy Burgess as the title hinted at some sense of relationship which I naively grasped to.

Overall Lownie’s account is entertaining as it’s subject was on the surface such a extravagant character. Highly intelligent, charming, often visibly drunk and a homosexual sex addict, Burgess certainly generated a lot of private anecdotes and correspondence which form the backbone of this book.

One of the best is a delightful passage where the careless and presumably drunk Burgess meets his Moscow Centre contact in a London pub to share highly sensitive documents in 1945. Burgess dropped the documents on the floor of the pub, stuffed the dirty papers back into his suitcase and tied it up with string only to drop them again in front of his contact in the lavatory.

However, like the man himself, this book largely centres around English high society gossip about him and whilst his career was certainly interesting in how much of the British Establishment he managed to infiltrate and report back to his Communist masters, very little is dedicated to the most interesting question of why he decided to betray his country. Naturally this question has dominated most accounts of the Cambridge spy circle but seems a little lost in this one which prefers to focus on slightly over emphasising Burgess’ centrality to world events instead.

Indeed some of the most interesting passages of the book are on Burgess’ elite education in England, which with the benefit of hindsight are able to highlight many of the, at the time seemingly innocent, political experimentations with arguments from the Left. It was from this social background and the many connections it afforded Burgess that his destiny was formed. The sheer wealth of the powerful individuals he met, and charmed, is nothing short of breathtaking and includes Winston Churchill, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Isaiah Berlin.

The national scandal of Burgess and Maclean’s fleeing from Britain to the USSR in 1951 is also well sketched out by Lownie. Also Burgess’ exile in Soviet Russia is made out to be just as it was, largely unpleasant for a man who loved the theories of communism but found little comfort in its everyday life or the people who were striving to achieve it. The penultimate chapter is entitled by a Burgess quote of ‘I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!’

It appears Burgess was a highly intelligent, both intellectually and socially, individual who was desperately looking for a higher cause to be able to work towards or achieve. Growing up in the 1930s, before the crimes of Stalinism became widely documented/admitted, he found solace in Communism which satisfied an almost quasi religious desire for a (preferably secret) mission to drive his life. It appears Burgess and his Cambridge spy allies genuinely believed the world was going the way of international-Soviet led communism and wanted to be on the winning side away from the declining British Empire.

Overall Burgess’ life was almost ironically tragic. After betraying his country he ended up living out an existence which was far from the career and social opportunities afforded to him by London and an England he soon longed for again. Expecting a hero’s welcome in Moscow he was instead met with a distinct distancing from power by the authorities and constant surveillance. Towards the end of his life Burgess admitted “My life ended when I left London.”

Perhaps this was fitting for a man whose attitudes to almost every institution of the British establishment was merely that it was there for his convenience and (ab)use. He wasted a life on what now seems, with the benefit of hindsight away from the great struggles of the Second World War and the Cold War, for not all that much.

Review: The Night Manager

By John le Carré. My rating: ★★★★★

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

night managerThe Basics: Jonathan Pine, a night manger of luxurious hotels, becomes involved in the dangerous underworld of the illegal arms trade and it’s shadowy links to Western intelligence services. After losing the woman he loves, Jonathan is driven into the arms of the British intelligence operative Leonard Burr who designates him the mission of bringing down his obsession of “the worst man in the world,” the fabulously wealthy arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper.

In-depth: I was vaguely aware a couple of weeks ago of a new upcoming BBC adaption of a John le Carré novel. Whilst browsing in a book store in Trafalgar Square it was the front cover of the edition depicted to the left which grabbed my attention. It will surely soon be republished to reflect the upcoming BBC series with its delicious cast of Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. However only after being informed by a member of staff that she was “really glad you are buying that book” and beginning to read it did I realise it was the novel soon to air. Strangely it is only the books of John le Carré which I tend to have read before watching the TV/big screen adaptions of them and this was a happy accident to continue that trend.

The Night Manager was le Carré’s first post Cold War novel published in 1993. It follows the former British soldier Jonathan Pine from his hotel night shifts and his first encounter with Roper, a charismatic but shady British businessman, his beautiful girlfriend Jed and the rest of Roper’s entourage, back through his heartbreak in Cairo after a brief love affair with a Middle-Eastern gun runner’s mistress is cut short by a savage beating and murder. This forces Pine to ‘volunteer’ for recruitment by the British Intelligence services, as much torn apart by intrigue and mistrust as Pine himself, represented by the delightful, Whitehall moulded animals of Leonard Burr and Rex Goodhew. Interestingly in the Beeb’s adaption Burr’s character is to become a woman played by the excellent Olivia Colman.

Informed of his mission to trace Roper down and infiltrate his inner circle, Pine is driven by his natural tendency to fight the good fight but also now by a growing inner rage and need for revenge for the earlier loss of his love Sophie.

The story follows Pine’s development of a ‘shadow’, le Carré/spy talk for a believable cover or back story. This takes him to the quaint but apparently murderous villages of Cornwall, to another brief fling in Quebec whilst deploying his hotelier skills and to working on luxury yachts in the Caribbean where he is crowbarred back into the life of Roper and his crew.

The scene, and the intrigue behind it, which achieves this crowbarring is a wonder. I can only imagine the fun and credit to be done to it by the BBC and Hiddlestone. A staged robbery and kidnapping of Roper’s young son leads to the chance for Pine, now working quietly under board in the kitchen with his shadowed alias, to spring to action and save the day. The inner rage built up from a lifetime of trying to do the ‘right’ thing but often having the opposite effect bursts with Pine giving an overly convincing but violent performance which saves the day, the boy and most importantly Roper’s trust.

The book then turns to the Bahamas, Roper’s glorious island home and the world of selling “toys” or advanced grade weaponry to the highest bidder. Pine’s mission leads him around the dangers of Roper’s wonderfully suspicious lieutenant Corcoran and his seemingly blissfully ignorant girlfriend Jed. This ignorance is not all that it first appears.

Aided by an American planted lawyer called Apostoll who manages to convince Roper that his chief lieutenant, Corcoran, may not be as trustworthy as he seems, Pine is instead recruited into helping pull off the biggest arms and drug exchange Roper has ever attempted with a powerful Columbian drug cartel. Reporting back to Burr the details of the deal and Roper’s world, not including his stealing of Jed’s love, Pine’s operation appears briefly to be going as smoothly as Roper’s luxurious daily life seems to.

However corrupt elements within the political and intelligence classes in America and the UK, who profit off illegal arms sales threaten the operation against Roper. After the Cartel lawyer Apostoll ends up with a Columbian neck tie, Pine’s real intentions and loyalties are betrayed to Roper.

A period of imprisonment and torture within Roper’s superyacht for Pine runs parallel to battles of survival, operative and personal, fought by Burr and Goodhew in the equally dangerous world of Whitehall.

This novel revolves around the fight by people who are presented as genuinely good, Pine, Jed, Burr and Goodhew etc, struggling in a world turn asunder from the apparent moral certainties of the Cold War and the opportunities this new world was affording to individuals with more flexible morals.

Pine’s determination not to betray his mission and Jed, driven by his endless love for Sophie who did not betray him in Cairo even when faced with violence, is eventually rewarded. He and Jed retire to a quiet life in England. However the ending is more ambiguous for the other players. Roper’s Columbian deal appears to succeed thereby rendering Burr’s operation and reputation seemingly in tatters.

Now all there is to do is wait for the first episode to air on BBC 2 on 21st Feb. If past BBC adaptions of le Carré’s works and the cast are anything to go by it is going to be a belter. You can watch the trailer here.