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 He is epitome of the now perhaps outdated British virtue of understatement.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.

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Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

250px-BatmanDK2Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Basics: Frank Miller’s sequel to his seminal The Dark Knight Returns series sees Bruce Wayne set his sights on liberating a decadent America ruled by a shadowy dictatorship led by Lex Luthor.

In-depth: After recently finishing the excellent and inspiring The Dark Knight Returns (DKR), of which you can read my review here, I naively rushed into purchasing this sequel. However soon after I became aware of the universal disappointment with which this graphic novel is held, which appears to have been constant since its release in 2001, and I definitely share it.

The plot leaves plenty to be desired which I will get to below. What really stands out, even to a amateur admirer of graphic novels such as I, is the shockingly poor quality of the artwork. The sharp and glorious frames of the DKR are long gone; replaced with heavy, over-cartoonish and what appeared to be very rushed drawings which do not make you want to continue reading. Many pages are simply wasted on over futuristic streaks of colour and massively over-sized simplistic characters.

There is also a troubling streak of sexism evident in this novel series. Carrie Kelley, the former Robin in Dark Knight Returns, is now Batgirl in a skin tight lycra suit with accompanying roller skates whilst uttering a weird reference to “swallowing.” This theme continues with largely irrelevant and bizarre TV sex themed news channels filling much of the novel’s narration, in stark contrast to the news readers which were hilariously and mercilessly mocked in the DKR. Wonder Woman is also depicted in perhaps one of the worst frames in the novel.

Regarding the plot; Bruce Wayne, known to the world as Batman but believed dead after his faked death at the end of the DKR, has completed training his army of Batboys, who were the former members of the Mutants gang. Aided by Catgirl and the Batboys, Batman breaks into a number of government buildings to break out imprisoned superheros. The DC universe is fully mined with appearances from many including Atom, Flash, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Green Arrow and Elongated Man; the worst of this sad series of unrealistic and second rate characters who merely flood the pages and take vital space away from the cover character who is simply not in this enough, make up the ranks. Superman and Wonder Woman are relegated by their blackmailing into upholding Luthor’s rule.

After a fierce battle and the successful neutralising of the Government stooge Superman, who is motivated solely by the threatened destruction of his home city of Kandor, Batman unites all of the other heros to overthrow Luthor’s rule which is fronted by the US administration of President Rickard, who is merely a hologram hiding Luthor and his ally Brainiac. This produces an end times battle which consumes the cities of Gotham and Metropolis. Little care is produced by this clunky plot that is so large it is difficult and tiresome to follow at times. It may sound a strange criticism to say of a Batman graphic novel but the story is far too unrealistic and all encompassing, as is the futuristic and undeveloped artwork, and only goes to reinforce an unwelcome contrast to the gritty realism of the DKR. It really is genuinely difficult to believe this series came from the same Frank Miller who also produced the DKR and Batman: Year One.

The one saving grace for me is the interesting, but crowbarred, ending where the former Robin, Dick Grayson, suddenly returns to emulate the Joker with a mad killing spree of Batman’s allies. Grayson then attacks Batman’s closet friend Carrie and nearly kills her before Batman returns. This idea of a former ally driven insane through Wayne’s harsh and abusive training regime is a worthy one, particularly when that former ally then aims to copy and become the Batman’s greatest rival, however it is a late addition to the plot and feels deserving of more attention.

In conclusion Batman battles Grayson but quickly realises that his newly acquired supernatural self healing powers means he will need to take himself down with Grayson into the lava filled void underneath the Batcave. At this point it is Superman; Batman’s external rival in Miller’s universe, now freed after Luther’s overthrow, who comes to Wayne’s rescue, leaving Grayson to his fall into oblivion.

Have you read this graphic novel? Were you as disappointed with it as I was? Were there any saving graces in it? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Our Kind of Traitor

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Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: Whilst on holiday, a young British couple meet a charismatic Russian and quickly befriend him and his family. However his intention to reach out to British intelligence leads them into a dark world of industrial scale money laundering involving the Russian mob, Swiss banks and prominent members of the British establishment.

In-depth: Another month passes and another big screen production of a work of the prolific author John le Carré has come. Upon the recent cinematic release of Our Kind Of Traitor, and being another post Cold War book of his I hadn’t come across, I was keen to see how this story from le Carré set in current times holds up. (I have recently read and reviewed his excellent The Night Manager).

This book is set in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the recent great financial crash, a topic which not only indirectly influences the plot but also springs up in conversations throughout the novel.

The story is made up of four acts. First a young British couple; Perry, a restless 30 year old professor at the University of Oxford; and Gail, a high flying and beautiful lawyer at a prestigious London law Inn; are on a luxury holiday in Antigua. Through an impromptu game of tennis they meet the wealthy, charming and outspoken Russian called Dima. Dima quickly builds a bond with the young couple, particularly by introducing them to his slightly bizarre family, which includes his religious mute of a wife, Tamara, and among others, his sad, but beautiful young daughter, Natasha, who is constantly hiding in her books.

Dima’s intentions in befriending Perry and Gail have clear intentions from the start however. He wrongly assumes the young couple as British spies and asks them to contact their masters to help him move to safety in London. Describing himself as”the world’s number one money launderer,” Dima believes his secrets will secure him the safety of the protection of the British intelligence services.

Here begin the second act. Shocked, but equally intrigued, by Dima’s assumption of him as a British spy, Perry returns to Oxford and meticulously draws up a document of all Dima has told him. He then seeks out an talent spotting Oxford colleague for a doorway to British intelligence. Suddenly Perry, and Gail, are in the basement of a Bloomsbury town house explaining Dima’s words to two agents.

Their minder and interrogator, Luke, is a young agent with a not so distinguished past. Married with a young son, he feels he is rapidly growing apart from this young family due to past infidelities and the emotional distancing his career has brought. Keen to repair and rebuild his life, and field record, Luke takes Dima’s story to his superior, Hector. With Hector’s arrival an operation to meet and fully hear out what Dima has to offer is hastily arranged through Perry and, at Hector’s insistence, Gail.

This operation is the book’s third act, and takes place at the 2009 Roland Garros tennis final in France. Meeting at the final, which Roger Federer runs away with, Perry and Gail rekindle their friendship with Dima. A tennis rematch between Perry and Dima is arranged for the next day, with Dima being secretly introduced to Hector in the massage rooms. Hidden within the steam, Hector learns of Dima’s reasons to flee and what exactly he has to offer.

This is that Dima has fallen from the favour of a man called the Prince, the head of his Russian mob (the vory). Fearing for his life, after his close friend was murdered in proxy by the Prince, Dima is being strong armed into signing over his substantial banking assets to the Prince and his likely murder. These assets reveal information on money laundering on an industrial scale, involving the vory, Swiss banks and members of the British establishment including the fast rising Audley Longgrigg MP.

Convinced of Dima’s worth as a asset, Hector returns to his masters in London to win the support to move Dima and, as promised by Perry, his entire family to the UK. In the meantime Hector authorises the lifting of Dima, and his family, to a safehouse in the Swiss mountains until his passage to London can be secured. Perry and Gail’s skills in managing Dima and his family become crucial here as tensions rise as London stalls.

Finally Hector succeeds, although not after upsetting a number of interests in politics and high finance. London wants Dima, but at first only him. To tease out his information and story, before granting the leverage of his family safe haven. Struggling to convince Dima, and himself, that this is how British Intelligence services work, Perry escorts Dima to the airport, and leaves him with Luke, boarding an empty, chartered plane.

Here the book dark conclusion arrives. The plane explodes in the sky, killing Luke, Dima and the pilots. Who instigated this remains unexplained, as does the fate of the rest of the stories characters, which is a troubling but effective end to the story.

Overall Our Kind of Traitor is a harsh tale full of growing tension with the feel of an impending and dark conclusion. However I was not expecting such an abrupt one. Le Carré’s earlier masterpieces of course depict the Cold War, but it is refreshing to read a story such as this which doesn’t require this setting. Dipping his toes into the recesses of modern financial crime, the Russian mob and of course, Roger Federer’s backhand, this is a welcome departure from what you’d expect from le Carré.

Have you seen the new film of this novel? Or what is your favourite John le Carré novel? Please leave your comments below.

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: 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: 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.