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Found 13 results

  1. The third (final?) instalment in the Red Sparrow series is perhaps the weakest of the novels. What made the series readable was the personal chemistry between Dominika Egorova - a Russian SVR operative - and Nate Nash - a CIA operative. And specifically, it was their chemistry as they engaged in a series of field engagements in and around Europe. In The Kremlin's Candidate, Dominika has become ever more senior in the SVR and has personal access to President Putin. This means much of the narrative is pitched at a strategic level rather than in spy-ops on the streets. Frankly, it is not as interesting. Readers want to know about hairs on drawers, hidden bugs, spy dust. They don't necessarily want to know about the strategy behind supporting the PKK to destabilise the Turkish Government, thereby undermining the NATO alliance. And as Dominika has become more senior, she has left Nate behind. He is a bit part player in The Kremlin's Candidate as Dominika deals with a revolving cast of more senior CIA players. It's just not the same. There are also some bizarre continuity errors. Dominika's ability to see people's aurae, for example, starts to wobble as Nate variously has a purple and a crimson aura. We are told that Dominika has only ever seen one black aura before when we know she has seen more. The timeline also seems to be wobbly as Dominika seems to have aged whereas Nate is still on probation. And there are some things that happen quite obviously as plot devices, there is expository dialogue and the recipes at the end of chapters have become quite tiresome. Despite these failings, there is still a broadly competent story set out - if the reader can turn a blind eye to the occasional gratuitous and puerile sexual references. The pacing is as slow as in the previous texts which does offer space for scene setting. This scrapes into 3 star territory, but it is a disappointing end to a series that started off much better. ***00
  2. When you’ve written a successful book, the temptation is to write the same book again. Palace of Treason is very similar to Red Sparrow - we re-engage with Nate Nash, dashing young CIA officer, and Dominika Egorova, Russian SVR femme fatale. They continue to have ill-advised physical relations with each other and with anything else with a pulse. We know this will not end well. More baddies and moles pop up from nowhere. Some of these baddies are delightfully grotesque if somewhat caricatured. And just like in Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews has no difficulty in killing off leading characters. Dominika continues to see auras. The pace continues to be slow. There is more repetition including, perhaps necessarily, some rehearsing of events of the first novel. There is also some disconcerting jumping of timelines as points of view alter - creating some situations where the reader has already been told the outcome of an episode that is then set out in some detail. This feels clumsy. And The Palace of Treason is just as salacious as Red Sparrow. But also like Red Sparrow, the plot carries the clunky writing and expository dialogue. This is very much a sequel - it would probably feel weird if you read this one first - but if the first one floated your boat (it didn’t float everyone’s boat) then this probably will too. ****0
  3. Red Sparrow is an imperfect thriller, but nevertheless worth reading. The basic premise is that two agents embark on their careers - Nate Nash is a young CIA agent, posted to Moscow and desperate to make an impact - and Dominika Egorova, enveigled into becoming a honey-trap agent by her wicked uncle in the Russian SVR. Inevitably the two hit it off. The story is a constant flow of agents and double agents, rooting out moles and trying to use counter-espionage to double-down on double-crossing deals. It’s quite a slow moving novel which allows plenty of space for conveying the day-to-day life in modern Russia, in intelligence jobs and in embassies around the world. It also gives adequate space to ensure the complexities of the various plots and schemes are fully understood - there’s none of the last-minute breathlessness that blight so many thrillers and leave readers wondering what happened. But there are flaws too. The slow pacing does include quite a bit of repetition. Characters are re-introduced (right down to appearances) every time they pop up in another point of view. There’s also quite a degree of salaciousness. Yes, Dominika attended Sparrow School to learn how to seduce foreign agents, but there’s a fine line between authenticity and pornography. Similarly, some of the violence feels overdone. These aspects are likely to appeal to teenage male readers but may irritate other readers. And then there’s Dominika’s synaesthesia. She can see the colour of people’s auras which gives her a special insight into their mood/character. I never quite bought this - and given that people’s auras never seem to change colour, it may be a useful tool for baselining a relationship but doesn’t seem to offer much for telling how someone is behaving in a specific situation. Ah well, it’s a bit of fun. Then there are the recipes at the end of each chapter. The idea is that a food mentioned in the chapter has its recipes included in a text box before the next chapter. At first this is endearing, but after a while it feels distracting - plus there’s a suspicion that some of the foods are only mentioned in the text because of the need to have a recipe. Overall, though, the drama outweighs the negatives and the story is worth reading. I like the idea of a modern Russian secret service trying to recreate the empire of the Soviet era or, perhaps even, the czarist era. The ending manages to be both reassuringly predictable but also shocking. Good holiday reading - especially while touring through the Stans. I will persevere with the other novels in the trilogy. ****0
  4. Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not. The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates. Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done. The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status. The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake. Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious. ****0
  5. In the era of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and hardened cyber security, how do free and democratic nations balance the rights of their citizens with national security? WikiLeaks Exposed seeks to shed light on the motivations of its founder, funding sources, media partners, and the use of cyber technology to protect leaked intelligence information before it is released to the public. This eBook also examines WikiLeaks use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the Surface, Deep and Dark Web, exploit Linked In to create IC Watch, its connection with the Tor Project, PRG, OVH, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation along with the Wau Holland Foundation. And just how did WikiLeaks aid and abet Edward Snowden's flight to Moscow in search of political asylum? Finally, this new eBook will examine the role Russia played in providing classified information to WikiLeaks and its impact on the 2016 US Presidential Election. Order your copy today on the Kindle Store: Lawrence, Genesys Publishing Edit: Illegal link replaced with BGO/Amazon hyperlinks Amazon.co.uk Amazon.com
  6. The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life. And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously. Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit. In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel. *****
  7. I have searched for another thread relating to my question but have found none, so made to the decision to make my own. I was surprised not to find anything written/asked about the last Tsar's as they are a really interesting family/part of history (having watched documentaries and read a little about them online). I am wanting to buy a book about the Nicholas Tsar and his family, their marriage, ruling, the illness of their son, the reovlution, their execution etc. There are many books out there but I am undecided as to what one to purchase. I was wondering if anyone can give me some advice as to what one to purchase, something that is not too 'heavy' to read. Thanks, Costa
  8. The Vanishing Futurist follows the story of Gerty Freely, a British governess who happened to be working in Russia in 1917, as the Russian Revolution unfolded. In broad terms, her employers flee to the Ukraine and she becomes part of a commune living in the family's Moscow house. One of the members of the commune, Nikita Slavkin, is a futurist who is developing a time travel machine... On the positive side, there is some good exploration of the psyche of a new Russia when it was not clear that the revolution had delivered power to a totalitarian regime. There was still idealism and attempt at dialogue with the new powers. There was a sense of common purpose based on ideology rather than expedience. But on the debit side, the novel drags on way too long, with too many characters, most of whom are indistinguishable. They do not do anything or say anything terribly interesting and when Slavkin finally disappears, the reader is probably beyond caring. Overall, The Vanishing Futurist does not deliver on the promise of the premise and the wonderful cover. ***00
  9. For a brief while, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia was a playground for Westerners. Regardless of whether they were rich or poor, those Westerners could go anywhere, afford to buy anything, and to live in city centre apartments that had once been the preserve of the party elite. Women would throw themselves at these Westerners, hoping for a life of wealth and privilege. Over the space of a couple of years, that window started to narrow; Russia developed its own class of super-rich, designer labels came to the department stores and the streets started to fill with luxury cars. But whilst that window was open, some Westerners enjoyed behaving very, very badly… Martin is a doctoral student at the Moscow State University. He has decided to study the role of women in Russian literature despite not speaking the language and not having much experience of Russian women. But when he meets up with a couple of fellow Western postgrads, he heads to the nightclubs and never looks back. He finds a steady queue of dyevs (his word – from dyevuchka = little girl) wanting to hop into bed and into marriage. There’s a real feel of Martin being a child let loose in the candy factory as he discovers just how far he can push the limits of what could be permissible This debauchery is set against a backdrop of academia. Martin clearly has a passion for literature and each of the six sections of the novel opens with a synopsis of a relationship featured in a Russian novel or play. These give a sense of erudition, a sense that Martin should know better. They also serve as a metaphor for the particular inter-personal problems Martin is about to experience in the forthcoming section. It is well done – it doesn’t feel intrusive or patronising, but it also ensures that readers get the literary referencing even if they are unfamiliar with Russian literature. One of the things that raises Back To Moscow above the ordinary is the complexity of Martin as a person. We know from the outset that things will not end well – Martin tells us – but we don’t guess exactly how things will go wrong. And the ending, when it comes, is very sad. Nor do we fully understand Martin’s motivations at the start of the novel. As they gradually unfold, Martin starts to become a sympathetic character rather than the ignorant brute he might initially seem. Back To Moscow conveys a wonderful sense of place. Moscow is described flawlessly with just the right balance of Russian terminology. The reader might not need the word perekhod to describe a pedestrian subway, or elektrichka to describe a local train, but these words do keep re-establishing the sense of place. There was a sense, too, of the winds of change. Those of the older generation – Martin’s professor and his Russian teacher – seem to adhere to values that seem almost pre-historic, unable to adapt to a new and exciting society. Similarly, we are offered insight into the ordinary young people of the city who don’t manage to get past the face control at the latest nightclubs and, even if they did, would not be able to afford the cover charge let alone the price of the cocktails. This is a special book that captures a special and fleeting moment in time. Yet as the literary references show us, despite the peculiarity of the times, the human dramas are timeless. The Mysterious Russian Soul will continue for many centuries to seek opportunities for melancholia just as it has done for centuries past. *****
  10. The Memory Artist is a story of transition in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s. Pasha Ivanov had dissident parents. His father was taken away when Pasha was young; his mother offered the kitchen in her Moscow apartment as a kind of common room for dissident writers and artists. Pasha grew up to be discreet, learning to quietly mind his thoughts whilst letting life take its course. The novel goes backwards and forwards in time, to Pasha’s childhood, through to his life as a young man at the time of Glasnost, through to adult respectability at the end of the 1990s. The time changes are not always signalled clearly and it can be hard to arrange the events into a coherent sequence. In the same way, the locations shift from Moscow to Leningrad, to a dacha in the woods, and back again. It can also be tricky to arrange the locations with the narrative timeline. This creates an overall feeling that reality is grounded in thoughts and ideas rather than the physical here and now. As moments pass, the memory of them will change and history will become an unfaithful recollection of things that may have happened. The central theme of the novel is the unwillingness of most Russians to engage with past atrocities. Initially, perhaps, the populous was wary of Glasnost having previously been burned by short-lived openness under Khrushchev. But as democracy became more firmly embedded, even as the USSR itself crumbled, the people still showed no interest in acknowledging the horrors of the past despite the best endeavours of a small and ageing band of former dissidents. Perhaps this is from a sense of embarrassment, or maybe a sense that those who had suffered must have done something to bring misfortune upon themselves. Most likely, though, is the wish of a young population to build new lives and seize new opportunities rather than dwell in a past that ever fewer of them had lived through. The novel has a trance-like feel to it. Pasha seems to drift aimlessly. He has a failed relationship; he has not had a job of consequence; he finds it possible to disappear into the forest or into the taiga without ever being missed. Pasha never initiates anything; he is a perpetual spectator. He seems almost to have become a ghost, haunting the empty space between the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. There are set piece conversations, particularly with his girlfriend Anya’s father, Michael Sergeyevich – is it coincidence that he shares the name and patronymic of Gorbachev? – with a man staying in the dacha next to Pasha in the forest; and with Oleg, a former visitor to the apartment kitchen in Moscow. These allow for some rehearsal of political philosophy, mostly from a perspective of dissatisfaction. Katherine Brabon absolutely nails the locations. I remember the USSR in the late 1980s and the settings – the parks, the river embankments, The Arbat, the railway system – all spot on. Brabon is also convincing in her portrayal of people living what they believed to be successful lives within a prosperous superpower, eating ice creams and visiting funfairs. Yes there were queues, but there was also a sense of being part of building something with a collective spirit; this may look naïve in hindsight, but it was very much the Soviet psyche of the time. The Memory Artist feels so authentic it is hard to believe it was written by an Australian. This novel feels like a cry from the soul of Russia; from the souls of those forced into labour camps. That we are reading it from the pen of an Australian seems to support the central thesis that Stalin’s victims have been forgotten by a society that has no interest in remembering. ***00
  11. Peach Publishing has today published the second in the Leksin thriller series, Corruption of Power, by G W Eccles “This is the most original and well-crafted thriller I have read all year.” (Lambert Nagle, author) Synopsis: Independent troubleshooter, Alex Leksin, is recruited by Prime Minister Saidov when the plan to reduce Russia’s reliance on an ever more hostile Europe is put at risk. Hell bent on expansion, President Karpev’s strategy is first to shift the markets for his country’s vast energy resources to the East and Saidov has been charged with overseeing a planned pipeline for Russia’s oil through Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to access these markets. Failure could mean catastrophe, spreading the conflict raging in the Middle East to Russia’s own borders. Fearful that the pipeline deal might be tilting off course, Leksin has only twelve days to report back before Karpev is due to sign the pipeline contract with the Turkmen President in Ashgabat. His investigation begins in Moscow at the conglomerate responsible for planning and funding the pipeline. Once the province of larger-than-life oligarch, Lev Usenko, the group is now run by his daughter, Vika, the woman Leksin was once to marry. Trickier still is the prospect of dealing with her embittered brother, Max. Against a background of political corruption, state-sponsored terrorism and increased Taliban insurgency, Leksin moves on to Turkmenistan, one of the world's most sinister countries, right at the heart of Central Asia. Initially his enquiries reveal nothing to cause alarm. Other factors, though, suggest otherwise: wherever Leksin goes, someone tries to kill him; people in a position to help him are assassinated; and information turns out to be misinformation. And when at last he discovers the truth, he finds himself unsure of whom he can trust as the stakes get frighteningly higher. To sign up for the Corruption of Power newsletter, complete the contact form on my website: http://www.gweccles.com/contact.html
  12. Anthony Marra is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which is still my top read of the year, which is saying a lot because it has been a terrific year for me for reading. This is a book of related short stories and even though they were released after Constellation, they feel to me as if they were warm-ups for the book. That being said, they are the dress rehearsal and an excellent collection. If I have a suggestion, it's to do what I did not do, and assume that it's actually a novel. Marra tells one story and then introduces what seems to be an entirely new character and situation, but it turns out that they are all connected in some way. I wish I had kept a flowchart or something. I guess I do that automatically with a novel and just didn't with this book. Don't make my mistake. Because at the end this is a very moving book. As usual with Marra, the language and images are lovely. He is quite a writer, even though his picture on the amazon website appears to show a 12-year old. Recommend highly as long as you pay better attention than I did!
  13. As I mentioned in the thread I just posted on the new Julian Barnes collection of stories Pulse, I can't copy and paste my review of this book in case of copyright so have posted a link to it in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/snowdrops-by-ad-miller-2177729.html I loved this book. It's a psychological thriller that kept me enthralled right through. I have no doubt it'll appear on my top ten books of 2011, along with Tessa Hadley's The London Train which I've also just finished. (I'll post a thread for the Hadley soon.) Again, as with the Pulse thread, if bgo admin would rather not have a link just let me know and I'll delete it, but unlike a blog review I'm not free to post the review up here, just the link.
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