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.

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Review: The Silent Deep

cover_jpg_rendition_460_707The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 – Peter Hennessy & James Jinks

My rating: ★★★★☆

The  UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, delivered by four Vanguard-class submarines, is a hot topic that was recently debated and scheduled for renewal by Parliament. This has reopened deeply passionate and dividing debates which centre around the nuclear deterrent’s morality, cost, operational worth and its reflection of Britain’s place in the world. Within today’s increasingly fear laden global security arena these complex debates are afforded an emphatically thorough historical perspective by this behemoth of a book which looks at the history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service since the Second World War.

The book opens with the authors observing the Royal Navy’s famous “perisher” training course, renowned for it’s low pass rate, for potential Commanding Officers of submarines. It largely consists of war games off of the Scottish coast, where the recruits are pushed to their mental and physical limits by carrying out fictional missions with the main aims to evade capture and survive unnoticed. One memorable passage sees a senior officer, who observes and evaluates the officers performances, recognise the deadly trait of hesitation. His reaction is to send for the chef to bring in a raw steak from the kitchen and suggests the recruit should “eat more red meat” to improve their decision making.

After this humorous introduction the book then moves into its main focus on the history of the U.K. Submarine Service. The biggest shift identified since 1945 is the transfer of responsibility for the UK’s nuclear weapons from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. This was born from the increasingly important role submarines played in WW2 and the subsequent race of the superpowers to develop nuclear powered submarines in the 1950s. This revolutionised them into highly effective weapons able to operate undetected for very long periods of time in the ‘silent deep’ of the oceans.

The so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the USA and the UK is a key part of this history. In 1958 the head of the Royal Navy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, secured a bilateral nuclear treaty which saw the US give Britain all of its nuclear submarine technologies as well as the sale of a nuclear reactor kit to Rolls Royce and their customer the Royal Navy. This was achieved by Mountbatten’s courting of the “father of the nuclear US navy” Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was famously rude to his British counterparts, but was ultimately tolerated due to the need for his cooperation for the British to become a nuclear power.

Another common incidence through out this book is that by the time expensive, once cutting edge technology makes it into service it is almost obsolete due to the long term nature of constructing nuclear submarines and their weapons. The lifetimes of the UK’s submarines are planned for decades in the future, but this cycle obviously then has to restart to keep the deterrent credible and crucially for the UK ‘independent.’

One of the most thrilling passages of this book centres on the summit where this independence was stretched to its breaking point. In December 1962 the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the youthful US President John F. Kennedy met in Nassau, Bahamas for tense negotiations over the sale of the new Polaris missile system, which enabled nuclear warheads to be stored and fired from submarines, to the UK. Macmillan managed to secure a generous price for Polaris but was met with the American request that the deterrent be placed under the ultimate control of NATO causing great political unease to the British government. After much negotiation and playing with words, brilliantly charted by the authors,  Macmillan secured the last minute qualification which maintained British national control in “severe national emergencies” akin to 1940. British Sovereignty, in a way, was upheld.

After this the book looks at the Cold War and the constant underwater battles with the USSR. A notable anecdote recalls an operation in 1964 where there were strong disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty about how close patrolling submarines should go to Russian waters. In light of this one officer describes his Commanding Officer, “a man with no respect for the Russians who patrolled as close to the coast as possible preferably with the radio aerial up so he could listen to the test match.” Breathtaking, but hilarious, arrogance in retrospect.

However the Submarine Service become much more covert and through out the 1970s and 80s the warfare evolved into cat and mouse like battles of nerve. The best description of this Cold War is from a former UK submariner:

“Since using even conventional offensive weapons could easily precipitate horrible and uncontrollable geopolitical consequences, undersea warriors measured victory in terms of surveillance, detection and constant monitoring. If you knew your enemy, his vehicle or ship, his location and capability and you could follow or ‘shadow’ him without betraying yourself, you claimed victory by Cold War standards.”

This style of Cold War does however beg the ultimate question are these fantastically expensive machines actually worth the money? The obvious answer to this question is that these weapons deter. It is at times difficult not to come round to this viewpoint under the relentless analysis from the authors and the historical commitment to this principle within the British establishment. However in the Cold War there was an obvious aggressor to deter, the Soviet Union armed to the teeth, but this argument meanders in the latter chapters when such a foe is no longer present.

The history is brought up to the present day. The potential nuclear threats of the 21st century are briefly analysed, with an increasingly hostile Putin-led Russia the main focus, which indicates a prevalence for an effective nuclear deterrent. However this is no overt conclusion on the worth of the deterrent’s renewal but as the authors are historians, and not politicians, this comes with little surprise. The real worth of this book lies in its remarkable levels of detail and breadth of a definitive historical account of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

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.