Book Review

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State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

The fact that Mrs Clinton had been assisted by an established thriller writer for this story didn’t surprise me; I already knew of the former from her recently terminated political career, and I thought it might be interesting to discover what sort of a job she could do with a political thriller—politics at a high level being her primary area of expertise—having recently read a ‘what if?’ version of her life, reviewed here, but also without being aware of any of her other fiction writing, such as it might be: she has, according to the book’s flyleaf, written seven other books, including one with her daughter Chelsea, but from the titles, it seems most likely that they are all non-fiction [I could confirm that on t’internet, but, ya know…..], so it is probably a sensible guess that she provided the political ‘dope’, and Penny wrote it up. The latter’s name was vaguely familiar, but I soon realised that I had already read one of her books, albeit eighteen months ago [yay, memory!] and reviewed it here, A Great Reckoning.

It is jumping forward somewhat to reveal this, but I was quite gratified to discover that Penny’s primary protagonist in the aforementioned story also appears here, albeit late in the story and in a minor rôle, but as to what his involvement is, the Book Reviewer’s Code of Ethics absolutely forbids me to reveal it, so I won’t. The real identities of two of the principal characters are, to me anyway, immediately transparent: Secretary of State Ellen Adams is Clinton—having undertaken that function herself, so she should, by all rights, know what she’s talking [sic] about—and former President Eric Dunn [the story being written in 2020] is clearly Donald Trump, whose fictional character features highly in the story, although not as a main ‘player’. Adams’s personality is modelled on a former colleague in Congress, and the former’s best friend & advisor is modelled on her own best friend from school days, so they are well qualified to be realistic; Clinton also, graciously, credits her husband, “a great reader and writer [who knew? Not I] of thrillers, for his constant support and useful suggestions, as always”.

Dunn has been defeated in his reëlection attempt, and “After the past four years of watching the country she loved flail itself almost to death”, a fellow [of Adams] Democrat,  Douglas Williams, has been installed as President; there’s one major problem with that, and her current position in the new administration: “It had come as a huge shock when [Williams] had chosen a political foe, a woman who’d used her vast resources to support his rival for the party nomination … It was an even greater shock when Ellen Adams had turned her media empire over to her grown daughter and accepted the post.” So: she was never going to get an easy ride—self-inflicted? arguably—and her first foray into the literal & metaphorical world of international power-brokering, in South Korea, had been at best a failure, and could easily have been interpreted by those so disposed to do so as a fiasco. Not an auspicious start; so when a bus bomb explodes without any warning during the morning rush-hour in London, Adams suspects that she is going to be tested to the extreme, and that does, indeed, prove to be the case. What follows is a tense whirlwind of globetrotting negotiations, all the while trying to locate a psychopathically murderous arms dealer and prevent him carrying out his heinous threat, when the US government has identified it.

In politics, as in the world of espionage, one of the biggest problems is knowing whom to trust, and in Ellen Adams’s world, the dangers associated with making a mistake are gut-wrenchingly great, especially when highly-placed actors [in the life-rôle sense] remain from the previous administration, and this proves to be very testing & difficult for both Adams and Williams, especially given their previous antipathy, which they have no alternative but to work through, if they are going to thwart the jeopardy. The tension racks up very nicely during the narrative; Adams’s son, his girlfriend, and Adams’s daughter, Katherine, the media mogul, are closely involved, and there is even a literal countdown for a final escalation so, notwithstanding one’s attitude toward America’s militarism & arrogant, Christianity-dominated assumption of global moral advocate status, this is an excellent, albeit simultaneously worrying [if one takes the narrative too literally] thriller for our times. Perhaps it should have ended with the classic [British television, paraphrased] Crimewatch advice: “It’s alright: don’t have nightmares!” The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Macmillan] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-7973-9.

Book Review

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Judas 62, by Charles Cumming

From the strapline on the front cover of this book—“He thought the mission was over. Now Moscow has him in their [sic] sights.”—and the photo of a Lada with an obviously eastern European, possibly Russian licence plate, the reader might be tempted to assume that the 62 in the book’s title refers to the year in which the story is set. Not so: the Judas referenced is a ‘hit list’, of Russian intelligence officers, military personnel and scientists living in the West who had been targeted by Moscow for reprisal assassinations, as in the case of the real life victims Skripal & Litvinenko, to name but two. The impression is given that the author, whose name is vaguely familiar [but I am not familiar with any of his other work] knows of what he writes: in his very brief biography at the front of the book, we are tantalised with the information that “Shortly after university, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), an experience that inspired his first novel, A Spy by Nature.” So is it safe to assume that he was recruited? Presumably, he could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us…… not easy, if he is anticipating a numerous readership.

This book is the second in what promises to be some sort of a series [something I seem to be making a habit of: jumping in to a series mid-way, but given the random access nature of public library usage, inevitable], the previous one of which was called BOX88. The significance of this name might have been explained in the eponymous tome, but it isn’t here, other than to impart the information that it is “a top-secret Anglo-American spy agency” which, given the protectionist mentality of both countries when it comes to sharing secret intelligence, does seem slightly implausible, but for the sake of enjoying the story, it is necessary to suspend that disbelief: it is well worth it, however. We are also expected to swallow the fact of a young student, who had not yet graduated from university, being sent into the heart of post-Soviet Russia by BOX88 in the summer of 1993, to exfiltrate a biological weapons scientist, Yuri Aranov, who wanted to defect to the West. That being the case, this story is in three parts: the fairly lengthy narrative of the exfiltration, bookended by events in the present [2020], in which COVID is affecting everything: even the London location of the BOX88 headquarters.

When the protagonist, Lachlan Kite, who is now middle aged, but by now in a senior position in BOX88, finds out that his erstwhile cover name, Peter Galvin, is on the Judas list, assigned the number 62, hence the book’s name, naturally enough, he is concerned; the question is how this could have happened, given that there is an unwritten law in espionage that intelligence agencies do not target each others’ operatives for elimination; but also, Kite is worried for the safety of his erstwhile girlfriend, from whom he is now estranged, but who played a significant part in his covert operation in Russia in 1993. A sting operation is decided upon, to be played out in Dubai, but using better backup facilities than Kite was able to call upon previously. This is a substantial book, of nearly 500 pages, and although the infrastructure of BOX88 is not in the le Carré mould, the plotting & the characters are as believable as he might have used, so this is definitely a book which, for me, easily held my attention all the way through, and the possibility of a further story in the series is implied at the end, so I will certainly look out for another book, be it the forerunner or a sequel; and Cumming has written other series and standalone stories, so I would be happy to find any one of those. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0083-6350-5.

Book Review

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Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Perhaps I am displaying my age, and possibly also—although I hope not; but if so, it is regrettable—some gender stereotyping, but I automatically assumed that a person called Curtis would be male: not so. I know I am somewhat prejudiced against American culture, so perhaps I had better not fulminate, but it now seems impossible to assume a person’s gender from the given name, which makes life somewhat less predictable, and for an older person, that can be occasionally unsettling. This book is categorised as “a novel”, but I eschewed including that in its title, as that is not entirely clear; there is a qualifying line under the effective subtitle—the main title being displayed vertically, over a sepia-toned photograph of a younger Hillary—which reads: “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?”, and this crystallises the “sliding doors” scenario on which this story is based. I can’t say I’m more than slightly interested, in general, in American politics, but they can have far-reaching repercussions & implications, and Bill & Hillary Clinton were two of the best known, and possibly divisive [although that surely comes with the territory?] personalities in recent American political history.

I have to assume—lazily, of course, but then again, I’m reviewing it: not writing it!—that the majority of, if not all of the events which occurred before the bifurcation in Hillary Rodham’s life story are true; or, at least, predominantly true. The narrative is actually in three parts: the first is the, presumably, essentially true part, and the following two are Hillary Rodham’s life as she progresses in her career, free of any commitment to Bill Clinton, which she relinquishes in 1974, so a large part of her fictional life must be very different from her real one. Given that this is novel, and not a biography/memoir/hagiography, or anything similar, it is impossible to reveal any other than general details of her later life, which must be discovered from the book. How plausible a life arc it might be is impossible for me to say, but she does seem, from her early life, and stated beliefs & commitments [the narrative is written in the first person], to be the sort of person who would, very probably, have endeavoured to achieve what she does in this story.

Growing up female, albeit white, in postwar America, meant that she would encounter much opposition to her forthright political opinions, so the fact that she espoused & supported causes which promoted women, and people of colour—an underclass at that time—is very easy to believe, but she never considered herself physically attractive, which is why it was so surprising to her that Bill Clinton was attracted to her; and all the more galling when she realised how highly sexed he was. In a nutshell, the latter is the primary reason why she decides not to marry him here: no matter how much he pledged himself to her, which she did believe, he also couldn’t promise, in a way she could believe, that he would never stray, so his post-bifurcation career progresses in a very different way from reality. He doesn’t become president in 1996: this falls to one of the contemporary front-runners, Jerry Brown, with Bob Kerrey as his VP. The following two presidencies are also different: John McCain and Sam Brownback in 2000 and 2004. History gets back on track in 2008 & 2012, with Barack Obama & Joe Biden.

The narrative ends after the 2016 election; outcome not to be revealed; but Donald Trump’s predilection for litigation notwithstanding, he figures highly in this contest, and it is probably well nigh impossible to write something that might have exited his mouth which is [allegedly] so stupid that he couldn’t have said it! Despite this being a novel, in which the author can make the characters do whatever he or she wants, I am not entirely convinced that events could have turned out the way Ms Sittenfeld writes them; also, the conclusion seems to happen very quickly, in contrast to the slow, and very detailed progression from Hillary’s childhood; and, finally, the continual time-shifting can become wearisome—not specifically disingenuous, but why reveal something from an earlier time period later in the book, when it could have been revealed earlier, when that period was covered previously? Having said all that, I did enjoy reading this book, because Hillary [now] Clinton is a very interesting character, who was badly treated by the political circus, the media, and inevitably by extension, the American public: interesting as fiction, of course. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020], by Penguin Random House, London, ISBN 978-0-5527-7660-8.

Book Review

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Triple Cross, by Tom Bradby

This book is the third episode in the Kate Henderson series, and it is a worthy member; the previous story, Double Agent, was reviewed here, so I won’t repeat the backstory for the latest story, or reveal the ending of the previous one, but certain inferences could be drawn from Kate’s situation at the beginning of this one. Kate has now left MI6, and the narrative commences with her on holiday in the south of France, with her two children, and her husband, Stuart, who is permitted to leave Russia temporarily; but not enter Britain, from which he is barred, on account of his earlier treachery. Her children continue to hope for a rapprochement between their parents and, surprisingly [for Kate, as much as for Fiona & Gus] this appears to be on the cards. Almost inevitably though, she becomes aware of being under surveillance while away from their gîte, and manages to lose the pursuit car with some arguably dangerous driving—especially given her passengers—but only to find on returning that the prime minister, James Ryan, has imperiously imposed a visit upon her, and she has no choice but to listen to what he has to say.

There is still a high-level mole in MI6, codenamed Dante, and Kate is to be tasked—all objections ignored—with leading an independent, but also highly secret, for obvious reasons, investigation into the agent’s identity; in the process, also, finally laying to rest any suspicions about the prime minister’s loyalty, which Kate thought had been conclusively proved by the inquiry in which she played a large part before she left the service. There are two prime suspects [although there are others including, awkwardly for Kate, of course: herself]: the current and the former head of SIS, known as C; the current C, Ian Granger, and the previous one, who was always kindly avuncular towards Kate, Sir Alan Brabazon. The links, both direct & indirect, which both of these highly qualified and very clever men had with the Russians, Igor & Mikhail Borodin, who played significant parts in the previous story, would need to be scrutinised in great detail before a decision could be reached. Kate works with a small team, one of whom is her close colleague, Julie Carmichael, but also two others over whose selection she has no choice: Shirley Grove, Ryan’s cabinet secretary [who oversaw Kate’s previous inquiry], and a young [and very hunky] assistant private secretary to Ryan, Callum Ellis.

As ever [or so we are led to believe] in the murky world of espionage and the security services, nothing can be taken at face value, and suspicious coincidences & occurrences which seem too neat or obvious must be considered extremely carefully, which leads Kate, understandably, to reëxamine all the circumstances & personal associations which led to the current situation. Before long, she realises that she has no choice but to make a trip into ‘the lion’s den’, Moscow, to obtain in person from a new agent some information which will finally & conclusively unmask Dante. Unsurprisingly, there are complications, but to reveal any more would spoil the plot: suffice to say that the dénouement, although unexpected, is conclusive, whilst leaving the door open for further instalments in the series, towards which I look forward with anticipation. The Penguin paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-5521-7786-3.

Book Review

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Stasi Winter, by David Young

It is always slightly difficult to review a book which is the latest in a series without revealing too many details of previous stories, which might compromise readers’ enjoyment of them, if they are able to find them; but necessarily, some backstory facts must be given, so I will try to keep these to a minimum, as a reading of the whole series—ideally in sequence, although that is not always possible—is definitely recommended here. I might have mentioned previously that I have some tangential experience of the former East Germany, having worked there for six months, albeit three years after die Wende, the local name for the change in government which occurred after 1989 when the border between the democratic West and the “democratic” East was breached, and the former communist state was dismantled: I will refrain from commenting on the repercussions of what occurred, because opinions are quite polarised, according to one’s political affiliations, but it was an exciting time, and I was privileged, in a way, to have experienced it, even if at some remove.

The Stasi in the title was the colloquial name for the successor to the Gestapo, the wartime secret State police, and it is a shortened form of Staatssicherheitsdienst [State Security Service], which itself is part of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit [Ministry for State Security]. This was a terrifying organisation, not least because it was all-pervasive in East German society, willingly & wittingly fuelling the crippling paranoia with which ordinary East Germans had to contend on a daily basis, even the informers & salaried staff at all levels. The winter is 1978-9, and it was referred to as a “catastrophe winter”, even if not as severe as that of 1962-3, which I remember as being exceptional in Britain. The setting is the far northern island of Rügen, on the edge of the Baltic, which was the location of Hitler’s massive holiday resort building of Prora, built but never used by the Kraft durch Freude organisation [strength through joy] for its intended purpose*. The main authorial device, which has been borrowed from the earlier winter, is that the sea froze to such an extent that escapes to ‘the West’ over the frozen water, by Republikflüchtlinge [escapees] camouflaged by white bedsheets, were possible and did, indeed, take place.

In addition to the police characters, another returning character here is a 20-year old woman, Irma Behrendt, who four years previously had regretfully informed on her own mother, in an attempt to prevent her being sent to prison for inadvisable associations, but which only achieved the exact opposite; this outcome was compounded for Irma by being trapped in the rôle of regular informer. She had had a difficult childhood in the nearby Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost [translated in the book as “severe reform school, dedicated to socialist re-education”], where she had been treated as little more than a slave. Now she has a boyfriend, Laurenz, but he is boring, and she is attracted to the cavalier & piratical Dieter, who is one of the construction brigade working on roads, bridges, and the harbour at the larger town of Sassnitz, at the northern end of the east-facing bay where Prora is sited, Prorer Wiek. Working in a construction brigade is a standard punishment for men who refuse to do national service, which is a step up from imprisonment, the punishment which might have been expected from this repressive régime. Irma is immediately drawn to the potentially dangerous Dieter, and it transpires that he and two of his associates are planning a Republikflucht [escape from the republic], but Irma sees the advantage of joining them, despite the obvious risk, rather than informing on them, as should be her albeit unwelcome duty.

What the conspirators don’t know is that they are being watched by the local Stasi, and they are joined by two VoPos [Volkspolizei, People’s Police officers], Major Karin Müller and Hauptmann [Captain] Werner Tilsner [a Stasi informant], alongside Kriminaltechniker [forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt, from Berlin. Müller had wanted to leave her position as head of the Serious Crimes department of the VoPo, to take up a teaching position at the police college, after some stressful & dangerous previous cases, but it was made very clear to her that this wasn’t an option, so most reluctantly she agreed to head this latest investigation. The head of the Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost has been found dead in suspicious circumstances: ostensibly suicide, but why would an otherwise intelligent woman go out shopping, dressed only in light clothing, in the severest winter weather in living memory? Of course, Karin is only too aware that this investigation could be a poisoned chalice, so she realises that she will have to proceed very carefully, not least because both refusal to comply, and awkward revelations in the case could jeopardise the tenancy of her Berlin apartment, which she shares with her infant twin children and her maternal grandmother, Helga, but also because Tilsner would be reporting back on her every move.

It is not absolutely necessary to have a detailed knowledge of the former East Germany or the German language to be able to enjoy this book, although they undoubtedly enrich the experience. The sense of nervousness & paranoia comes across very well, which elevates this above an average police procedural, and the dénouement, involving a Soviet icebreaking ship, is nicely tense, with a happy resolution for at least some of the protagonists. I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2020, by Zaffre, London, ISBN 978-1-78576-546-9.

*This is a town in itself [although not shown on all maps, for obvious reasons] near the Ostseebad [Baltic resort] of Binz, and there is an English translation of a very helpful website about Prora here.

Book Review

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London, Burning by Anthony Quinn

To people of a similar age to me, the name Anthony Quinn will suggest a well-built actor who starred in many acclaimed films [Wiki here], but this is not the same man: unfortunately, the flyleaf of the paperback for which this review is intended had a very unhelpful barcode sticker inconveniently placed over the author’s admittedly minimal biography, but I could ascertain that Quinn was born in Liverpool in 1964, and as well as being an author of seven fiction and one non-fiction books, he has also been a film critic, so quite culturally fluent. This comes across in the story under review, although it doesn’t strive to be highbrow: it reads very easily, and the characters are adequately believable.

The title is a reference to a famous song by The Clash, which suggests the timeframe of the story, which is 1977: the fag end of the Callaghan government which, like several others for various reasons, was a very poor advertisement for democratic socialism, which had been so successfully implemented by Clement Attlee after the ousting of Churchill in the 1945 general election. The trade unions were responding to the government’s austerity policy [sound familiar?] by flexing their considerable muscles; union membership being then much higher than it is today; and bringing the country to its knees, apparently totally oblivious to the hardship that this was causing ordinary people, thereby paving the way for the disastrous régime of Margaret Thatcher, which was then heralded as a return to common sense and that much-vaunted [and misused] concept: freedom.

The IRA was also active on the mainland, and one of this story’s characters, Callum Conlan, is inadvertently caught up in a terrorist incident. During the narrative, he comes into contact with some of the other characters: Freddie Selves, who is a self-absorbed theatre impresario; Vicky Tress, a young policewoman [as they were then called], who is encouraged to move from uniform to CID duties, and is supported by a senior officer, for only partially altruistic reasons; and an ambitious, as well as obviously noticeably intelligent reporter for a left-leaning news magazine, Hannah Strode. In order, Conlan is an academic who moved away from his native Newry to escape “The Troubles”, but unfortunately, they catch up with him in the form of a younger former school acquaintance, whom he meets when he is working on a building site adjoining the place of Selves’s employment, the National Music Hall. Selves is a lothario, and his latest adventure is discovered by Hannah Strode, who sees a scoop in revealing this. Vicky Tress becomes involved in an anti-corruption investigation at work [very common then and, sadly, not entirely eradicated even now], but she suffers a traumatic incident in the line of duty.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, I feel that the narrative slightly fails to deliver the tension promised by its title; having said that, I wouldn’t want that to be a disincentive for potential readers. Also, without wanting to spoil the plot in any way, there do seem to be some loose ends left at the conclusion, so I wonder if a sequel/continuation is on the cards? The acknowledgements at the end don’t support this inference, but it would strike me as odd if characters are introduced to a narrative, but left with unfinished business; or perhaps, this is just my desire for completeness in a narrative: presumably, time will tell. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown, London] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14428-3.

A Blue Plaque for Agnes Dawson

Photo courtesy of Hilda Kean

Wilfred Risdon was passionate about animal welfare, and Hilda Kean is another campaigner on the same subject, as well as women’s rights, and the rights of working people, both now and in a historical context, in her capacity as an academic. She blogs on hildakean.com, and her latest post deals with her interest in four women teachers she has been researching:

Decades ago I had researched and had published a book I called Deeds not Words. The Lives of Suffragette Teachers, arising from my earlier PhD on history and education. Then I was a school teacher at Quintin Kynaston, a progressive London school, and active in the local Westminster NUT. To be honest I had never been that interested in the suffrage movement, apart from Sylvia Pankhurst, but suddenly came across the way many women teachers activists organised in the NUT to try and get the union’s support for the vote.

http://hildakean.com/?p=3487

Please visit her blog, and leave a comment if you find her work interesting: she will be very glad to hear from you—she was very helpful to me with research material for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black shirt and Smoking Beagles.

Book Review


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The Prodigal Daughter, by Jeffrey Archer

Before I commence this review, I have to state, hand on heart, that I have no affection for this author’s political affiliation, but I hope this shouldn’t preclude me from delivering an impartial review of this story, which must be one of his best known ones. I was in the mood for an undemanding read, after having read a few gripping stories, which I have sadly not had the time to review, thanks to circumstances which have required my full attention for a week or so; also, I do tend to become involved with the plot, which can be somewhat wearing, so the occasional undemanding read is a good antidote to that and, although I can’t speak for most of the rest of his oeuvre, without wishing to be in any way derogatory, this story is relatively pedestrian. It is also one of those ‘neither fish nor fowl’ mélanges of American terminology with British spelling but, given that the story concerns itself with the American version of the subject with which the author was well acquainted; i.e., politics; that is hardly surprising—indeed, I would even go so far as to say that it is appropriate.

Another of Archer’s books, Kane and Abel, with which I am not, hitherto, familiar, must, logically, deal with two of the principal characters featured in this book, yet no reference is made to it in this story so, given that this book details the life stories of both characters, as a prelude to the life of the eponymous daughter, I would be curious to know what else the other story might have to add. This is the story of old money [Kane] versus a Polish immigrant [Abel Rosnovski] who makes a roaring success of the hotel trade, as a result of sheer hard work [a characteristic always applauded in America], and his daughter, Florentyna, who harbours political ambitions, almost from birth, so it would seem; before these can be realised, however, she learns her father’s business, through practical experience, working as a shop assistant, after an exemplary education at one of America’s foremost women’s universities, where her outstanding intellect is nurtured. This intellect is encouraged, incidentally, by an English governess, Miss Winifred Tredgold; although Florentyna only discovers this given name after the formidable woman’s death, towards the end of the book.

Early in the story, an implacable enmity between the two men is created, when Kane, on behalf of his company’s bank [partly owned by his family], refuses a loan to Abel for the survival of the hotel group which he has just taken over, following the death of its previous owner; subsequent to this, the two men are metaphorically ‘daggers drawn’ with each other, although Florentyna’s actions will precipitate a meshing of the lives of the two families, which is not easily accepted. This does facilitate Florentyna’s political career, however, and many real characters in American politics are incorporated, to give the story plausibility; and people of my vintage should still be able to remember the political events from the 1960s onwards, psychedelic experiences notwithstanding, so there is a certain nostalgia element to the story as well. This is about as much as can be revealed without spoiling the plot, but if nothing else, this is an interesting lesson in American politics, although the venality & aspirational egotism incorporated therein should come as no great surprise. The praise for Archer on the book is characteristically hyperbolic, but I have no hesitation in commending this as a well-crafted and workmanlike narrative. The paperback I read was published in 2017 [original 1982] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-0870-0.

Book Review


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The War of the Poor, by Éric Vuillard

This is a very short book; only 66 pages; and set in a large font [not specified, but probably at least 12pt] with wide line spacing; so it should possibly more accurately be described as a booklet or a tract; but no matter: the subject matter is important. It is essentially true, albeit with a certain amount of permissible embroidery, given its historical setting, for the sake of continuity & completeness; it was translated from the original French, La guerre des pauvres, first published in 2019, by an award-winning author in his own right, Mark Polizzotti. I have a few observations about the significance of the text, including a personal connection but, at the risk of appearing to opt for a lazy response, given the fact that this is a non-fiction narrative, there is no plot, as such, to spoil, so I hope my readers will forgive me for quoting in large part from the synopsis at the front of the book, on the inside front cover.

This story concerns a subject which is very important to me, and it is the story of a man whose “terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived — a moment when Europe was in flux and history was being written.” So far, so hyperbolic: here I could observe that Europe is again in flux [so what have we learned in between?], but surely, the writing of history is inevitable with the passage of time, so that statement is superfluous? “The history of inequality is a long and terrible one, and it’s not over yet [sadly, true]. The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told [definitely]. Sixteenth century Europe: the Protestant Reformation takes on the powerful and the privileged. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer: a complex and controversial figure, who sided with neither Martin Luther, nor the Roman Catholic Church. Müntzer encouraged the poor to question why a god who apparently loved them seemed to be on the side of the rich.”

All well & good, and some of my observations could be seen as prejudice, for which I apologise, but they spring from my agnosticism, so I consider The Church, of any flavour, and religion in general, to be fair game. First & foremost, I was somewhat surprised, but also agreeably gratified, to read of a personal connection with the beginning of Müntzer’s ‘career’ in 1520 when, after emerging as a child from the trauma of his father’s execution, and reading The Bible which was produced with the new-fangled process called printing, “he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt  and Brunswick [Braunschweig], then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.” The beginning of the next chapter nails it for me: “Outside the borders of Saxony [Sachsen], hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater.” For non-German speakers, there’s an added complication: it’s difficult to pronounce—the combination of the ts consonants, followed by the v pronunciation of the German w is admittedly not easy, but not impossible, with practice. I was there for 6 months at the beginning of 1993; so, only two-and-a-bit years after one of the most momentous events of modern times, whose repercussions were to affect the whole of the soon to be reunited Germany for years to come, and the whole European continent, albeit somewhat less so, and to varying degrees in the different constituent countries. At the end of the GDR, Zwickau was where ‘Trabis’ were built, then VW took the plant over.

My overall concern with the story is that, although Müntzer was fighting for the rights of the common man, he was doing so within the confines of Christianity, and expecting his followers to be willing adherents also; it is reasonable to argue that those were the times in which they lived, when morality & religious observance were seen as inseparable, but he did set himself up as a fundamentalist demagogue: “He cited Luke: ‘Bring hither mine enemies, and slay them before me.’ He cited the psalms: ‘The Lord will smash down the old pots of clay with his rod of iron.’ … But … Müntzer introduced another populace, more invasive and tumultuous, a real populace, the poor laity and the peasants. This was a far cry from the catechistic generality of kindly Christian folk; now it was about ordinary people.” It all ended badly, of course: after several armed confrontations, and even a few victories, Müntzer was captured and beheaded, leaving history to be written by the victors. “These scurrilous legends come along to bow the heads of renegades only after they have been denied the right to speak. Their sole purpose is to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order, to which we are ultimately so attached that we surrender to its mysteries and hand it our lives.” Apparently, “Nietzsche took inspiration from him, from the Müntzerese gush and extravagance. But Müntzer is a man of action … He quotes Daniel: ‘Power will be given to the people.’ We’re a long way from Nietzsche.”

We’re also a long way from “Power [being] given to the people”, but at least the power of religion is being cumulatively reduced, although we still have some way to go. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-3855-2.

Book Review

Photo by Carlos Nunez on Unsplash

The Ghost, by Robert Harris

Even though I have seen the dramatised version of this story—I think it was a made-for-TV film, rather than a general release film or a TV serial—it was a while ago; unfortunately, the book, which was published in 2007, doesn’t mention this, so I’m guessing that it could have been at least five years since it was on TV, if not more, hence I can’t remember a lot about it. It is interesting to speculate if the publication date was chosen to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the election victory of the prime minister on whom the story is clearly based; or it could have been a complete coincidence. The premise is that a successful British ghostwriter is brought in, somewhat in spite of his own reservations, to complete the ‘autobiography’, or memoirs, of ex-prime minister Adam Lang, who is living temporarily in some seclusion in the Martha’s Vineyard residence of an American philanthropist, while the book is written. Unfortunately, Mike McAra, the former colleague of Lang who was writing the book for him, disappears, presumed drowned, from a ferry travelling back to the American mainland, hence the importation of the unnamed writer [he’s a ghost: geddit?] after a somewhat unconvincing interview process: more of a foregone conclusion.

He very quickly realises that all is not well in the Lang camp, but at first he’s not sure why. He can see that there are tensions between Lang and his wife, Ruth, who is arguably the more intellectually gifted of the pair, but chooses to stay in the background most of the time; she does make volubly clear her frustrations at being cooped up in back of beyond New England, however. A revelation that Lang could be indicted by the International Criminal Court [ICC] for complicity, while in office, in handing over four alleged Al Quaeda members, who were snatched in Pakistan, to the CIA for rendition & torture, during which one of the victims died, contributes to an exacerbation of the paranoia already felt by Lang, and an increase in the unease of the ghost about what he’s allowed himself to become involved with. He’s uncertain about how much he should trust Ruth Lang: she clearly adores her husband, but she appears to be concerned that all might not be right with him, mentally: there is a suggestion of the onset of dementia, and during a walk à deux on the nearby beach, Ruth confides in the writer that Lang seems lost, after having literally lost power, with the sense of impotence that this can bring about, but he can’t move on: he’s stuck—they’re both stuck. Unfortunately, the writer’s doubts about Ruth’s stability don’t help his concerns about his suitability for the task, either: “It was as if some tiny mechanism was missing from her brain: the bit that told you how to behave naturally with other people.”

For me, it goes without saying that a Robert Harris novel will be enjoyable, despite only having read a few hitherto; how much of his own opinion is incorporated in the story is debatable, but he writes convincingly, albeit in the voice of one of the main characters, about how beholden to the USA Britain has become, and the detailing of the many ways in which this is demonstrably true, as a result of action taken during the premiership of this fictional politician, clearly mirroring the one on which the story is based, is scarily accurate. There is a lot more I could say about this story, which reveals Harris’s analysis of the geopolitical landscape, but I don’t want to reveal more of the plot, because it is a very enjoyable read, with sufficient tension to retain the reader’s attention; there is also a neat little sting in the tail. This is a nice little conceit of a well established & demonstrably good writer casting himself in the rôle of a successful writer who dismisses the work of a bad writer [the original author]! There are also swipes at celebrity culture, and the hollowness of the trappings of power. The paperback edition I read was published in 2008 by Arrow Books, London [Hutchinson, 2007], ISBN 978-0-09-952749-7.