Review: A Spy Among Friends – Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friends

Telling the remarkable story of Kim Philby, who was probably the most effective spy in history, this book reads fast and furiously, a real page-turner. The book focuses on the dramatic relationship between two friends, both rising stars in the world of British espionage, Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. The intrigue of Philby is that he was working for the Soviet Union after being drawn to communism through his time at Cambridge University, from where a ring of five key defectors were recruited. Philby managed to infiltrate MI6 at a top level, ultimately serving as the liaison officer between US and UK secret services in Washington DC. He had access to information from leading CIA agents such as James Angleton and through his public schoolboy charm he was adept at getting colleagues to drunkenly reveal all their secrets, secrets that he discretely passed to the KGB centre in Moscow, from where he took his orders. Even after the fall of fellow Cambridge conspirators, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby managed to shake the tale of a particularly suspicious MI5 and continued to operate in the clandestine world of espionage. His ultimate confrontation with best friend Elliott, after the game was finally up, left the door open for him to finally defect to a relatively anonymous retirement in Moscow. He chose political ideology over loyalty to friends and the story of Kim Philby is one of ultimate treachery. In his wake he left much damage and must have throughout the Cold War caused the death of hundreds, even thousands of people who were involved in Western operations. The book tells a most exciting tale and its global spanning and most exceptional debauchery and intrigue make it a real life James Bond adventure. Certainly worth a read and proof that real life is often stranger than fiction. Five star rating.

Advertisements

Review: Comandante – Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela – by Rory Carroll

comandante

Hugo Chavez, Bolivarian Revolutionary, Presidente, Comandante. After a failed military coup in 1992, Hugo Chavez managed to democratically come to power in Venezuela in 1999. This book from the Guardian’s chief South America correspondent, Irishman Rory Carroll, based in Venezuela, explores the intricacies of the Miraflores Palace. Inside the opulent walls lies a mystery of intrigue and uniqueness. Chavez lived an exalted life of a philosopher king and his self-styled approach to government made him a twenty-first century caudillo, leading a socialist revolution and upturning the status quo in Venezuela and becoming a major player on the international stage. The Revolution, financed on the whole by incredible oil wealth, upturned Venezuela. Initial progress eventually tumbled into relative chaos although I feel thatChavez on the whole was a success for the people, and turned their lives around, especially the poor. Chavez had a rigorous propaganda campaign,, using 21st century technology in innovative ways that captivated a largely captive audience. I loved the tales of his flagship TV show, Hello Presidente, and hearing of the devotion of Miraflores to the twittersphere was exciting. Ultimately many of the grandiose ideas that kept turning electoral victory after electoral victory for Chavez, proved to be neglected and unrealised goals. There was economic atrophy, unbridled crime, huge corruption and nepotism and unnecessary crackdowns on political opponents. However, the Revolution succeeded in wooing luminaries such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Noam Chomsky and had an incredible friend and supporter in Fidel Castro. This book reads fast and furiously and is entertaining if often unbelievable as it unfurls its ever imaginative hero’s escapades. Five star rating.

Review: Hotel K – The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail – by Kathryn Bonella

hotel k

This is a true account of life in Hotel Kerobokan, Bali’s notorious prison. The story is told through a series of interviews with current prisoners and former prisoners who have been released. The inmates are a myriad of internationals and local Indonesians. Most of the Westerners inside are there for drugs offences, ranging from severe penalties for possession of four grams of hashish, to major international smugglers such as the Bali 9, 3 Australians from it being on death row. Inside the prison life is harsh and we see extremes of violence, drug-taking and dealing and much corruption, especially from the guards. Inside Hotel K, money can buy you anything, from a comfortable cell upgrade, to days out on the beach. Indeed many clients come and go as they please which seems quite shocking. Women are also held at Hotel K which introduces the potential for some wild orgies which often take place. The powerful gang Laskar Bali have the run of the joint and even the guards will not stand up to them. The book is full of compelling narratives and as a reader you get drawn to the colourful characters who are so well-depicted by the author.

Review: We – by Yevgeny Zamyatin

we

This science-fiction classic was written in 1920s Russia and was cited by George Orwell as a key inspiration for his seminal 1984. We are in the 26th century and following victory in a 200 year war, society has reached its apogee in a walled off universal nation called OneState. All submit to the will of the Benefactor and individuality has essentially been erased. The people have no names and are instead assigned numbers. They live in transparent apartment blocks and have a rigorous timetable for every daily activity, including sex. We see the novel through the eyes of D-503, the number in charge of the building of the INTEGRAL, a spaceship that will advance this technology-rich society even further. O-90 is a female who regularly produces pink tickets for intimate sessions with our protagonist D-503 and all is sailing smoothly until the entrance of I-330, a new woman who begins to spread an ‘illness’ to D-503 as her ancient ideas cause an awakening of his soul. Ever evading the careful monitoring of the guardians, D-503 and I-330 embark on a romantic adventure of nostalgia, setting up discreet meetings in the Ancient House where eventually I-330 reveals her liaisons with survivors beyond the wall who live in nature. They want to hijack the INTEGRAL and eventually lead OneState into a revolution, just as the masses are being exposed to the latest innovation from the Benefactor, X-Ray brains surgery to annihilate the population’s imagination and to create perfect happiness. Zamyatin writes fluently and I found myself rapidly burning through the pages of a story that bears signs of 1984 and Brave New World yet on the whole I feel, is a slightly more romantic tale, less political and the beauty of the writing is that the imagery and ideas are florid in the reader’s imagination. It is a journey, a battle of logic and a futuristic adventure where the dystopia resembles much of our 21st century life almost a hundred years after the author first penned the words. A great, unmissable book, five stars.

Review: The Edge – Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End – by Mark Urban

the edge

Only a short volume, this well-written work documents the weakening of the West in the geopolitical arena. The book first focuses on the reductions in military power of Western nations, both in terms of their military budgets and also their matériel. Despite modern weapons being produced, the volume of forces and the amount of weapons mean that many Western nations and indeed when they are combined in the NATO alliance would struggle to fight in a real nation to nation conflict, in particular with a major power. The author identifies that with the rise of ISIS and Russian annexation of Crimea, the old world order of international relations has been broken down. In the new world order we see rising nationalism, an end to American unipolarity as a superpower and the rise of spheres of influence among growing world powers such as Russia, China, India or Saudi Arabia. A lot of key military figures are consulted for their opinions and most express their frustration with politicians freezing budgets and express their growing concern of standing by to idly spectate international events. There is certainly an unwillingness of Western nations to engage militarily, an identified weakness. The new world may see a decline in liberal democratic values and from reading this book it is clear to identify that the future is most uncertain.

Review: Voices from S-21 – Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison – by David Chandler

voices from s21

Tuol Sleng or S-21 was the secret prison of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Comrade Duch and his workers put to death in S-21 over 14000 enemies of the State. These enemies of the party centre were treated like they were subhuman and animals and eventually all prisoners were ‘smashed to bits’ or annihilated. Like the horrors of the Nazi death camps, the Stalinist Soviet Purges or Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot spared no sympathy for those that stood in his way. Once transferred to S-21, a prisoner could expect to have to fully denounce any fellow conspirators and confess totally to either real crimes or most often perceived imaginary ones. The use of torture was inevitable and screams from the prisoners kept neighbours in Phnom Penh up all night. Documentation for S-21 was immense and workers had to detail every confession and their actions to appease the Party Centre bosses and give the detainment and ultimate executions a quasi-legal framework. The author does a very thorough study of that evidence that is recovered and has interviewed the few survivors that escaped after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Chandler attempts to explain the inhumanity. His obvious sympathy for the victims extends into attempts to understand the mindset of the guards. The psychological insights are profound and this most disturbing case study serves as a warning to our race over any future mistakes that can be made when places like S-21 spring up and crimes against humanity are perpetuated. This dark tale of horror is a compelling read and I have given it a five star rating.

Review: Winter Is Coming – Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped – by Garry Kasparov

winter is coming

Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, is clearly an intelligent man. Having retired from the game he has entered the world of politics and is a key human rights activist. The book explores his frustrations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It is a study of Putin and the way in which he has eroded the democratic institutions bought about by Perestroika and the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. Kasparov tried to align a coalition of democratic oppositionists within Russia yet the force of the state and its poor human rights record left Kasparov no alternative but to fight as an exile from New York City. It is clear from the book that his chess success has made him different to the average Russian. His priveleged life as a global Soviet citizen has perhaps led him further to embrace Yeltsin’s opening up of Russia. I think he hearkens for a Western style democracy within Russia but perhaps Russia itself is not suited to such political freedoms and requires a degree of autocracy for it to effectively function on the international stage. Although I can identify many of the problems posed by Putin, I feel that he has successfully restored a great deal of lost power to Russia and will perhaps be remembered in posterity as a key figure in Russian history. Although he may be a dictator, he is no Stalin and his absolute rule has still brought about many benefits to the Russian State. Can the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine be equated to Hitler’s pre WW2 actions in Czechoslovakia and Poland? Kasparov sets out a case of why the appeasing Western democratic leaders have failed the Russian people in standing up to Putin and he spells out the dangers of the régime, crying out for help. I enjoyed the tactical surprises and clear prose of hearing one of the world’s great mind’s thinking process at work as I traversed the book although I feel that perhaps it is a little unfair on its target and fails to recognise some of the intricacies of superpower politics. It will be interesting to see where Kasparov takes his future life as indeed will it be interesting to see where exactly Putin steers Russia.