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Review: Agent Storm – My Life Inside Al Qaeda – by Morten Storm

agent storm

This real life tale of espionage is fast-moving and thrilling. It is a real edge-of-the-seat tale of true grit, the lead character, Morten Storm, leading a bewildering double or even triple life, his journey a myriad tour of far-flung places and his work at the key cutting edge of the War on Terror. After a misspent youth in biker gangs and as a petty criminal, Danish protagonist Storm becomes radicalised and rapidly moves through the chain of command in the developing structure of Al Qaeda and its affiliates across the World. His rise within this world comes through devoted study in traditionalist schools in Yemen where he is enabled to make contact with the critical figures that allow this tale to develop. After a crisis of conscience where he could have easily slipped the other way, Morten realised that his path of jihad was wrong and defected to the West’s security services: Danish PET, British MI5 and mI6 and the American CIA. He begins a life as an agent and provides absolutely vital intelligence on many of the most high profile missions, including the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, scourge of the USA. The true aspects of this story make it stranger than fiction and the rapidly burning tale leads us on a rollercoaster journey of clandestine intelligence meets and very dangerous infiltrations of terrorist networks. What strikes me is how tightly knit the jihadist community is, how Morten seems to have had contact in some way or other with most of the key terrorists that have attacked or attempted to attack Western targets in the news stories of recent years. I loved the down-to-earth attitude of Morten as he reveals a passionate story where his personal sacrifice to the cause was immense. I wish him all the best in the dangerous life he must now lead, in the crosshairs of Al-Qaeda and outside of the protection of security services after becoming a whistleblower. An amazing five star read.

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Review: The Story of Spain by Mark R. Williams

the story of spain

This is a full history of Spain. It gives a good, full overview of the Spaniards, from prehistory through to the present day. The chapters are neat and easily digestable and each conclude with nice references to museums and locations of interest throughout Spain. I felt the book came into its own when discussing the height of Spanish Royalty. I have read more detailed histories of the Moorish period and also of the Spanish Civil War although the chapters in this book were good summaries of these epochs. The book is fast and flowing, without going into an overload of detail. It is a good compliment to my Hispanic Studies course at Cardiff University.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: The Art Of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service – by Gordon Corera

art of betrayal

They say that truth is often stranger than fiction and this book that I have given a 5 star rating reads very fluently and tells the real story of British secret service agents as they engage in the art of espionage across the globe. True heroes and heroines emerge as you quickly flutter through the pages. From SIS’s early war history through to the heavy espionage focus against the Soviets during the Cold War through to the closer to present military escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq, spies are always at the centre of international events, the front line defences of any country and they are especially important to Britain with the remnants of its empire. The shocks of betrayal are often harsh and blunders in espionage can prove very costly. Although the reality is often different to the popular perception of James Bond, some of the adventures and intrigue of the real espionage world are profound tales that push the human spirit to its limits. I think that the most fascinating tale of the book, one which has haunted the halls of Whitehall and Washington to this day, is that of the Soviet super-spy Kim Philby, of the Cambridge Five. Philby rose to the highest echelons of the secret service on both sides of the Atlantic at the height of the Cold War, all the time working discreetly for the Soviet Union, attracted ideologically by Communism. His deceit actively cost the lives of many and severely disrupted many critical operations. The book details not just Philby but also the defectors coming in the other direction and there are some great depictions of the tasks performed by MI6 and MI5 operatives who had to handle these defectors and also run foreign agents behind the lines. The book leaves a hunger for further research and I shall be looking carefully at the fictitious works of Graham Greene and John Le Carré, both of whose real lives feature in this book as they were both at one time secret agents. The book to me tailed off a bit after the excitement of the Cold War and the last chapter on the political blunderings of the failed Iraq War intelligence was a trifle mundane yet overall the book lived up to all expectations and was laid out very well with a very flowing narrative.

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Review: Spain 1812-2004 – by Christopher J Ross

spain 1812-2004

I have read this book as I am doing a university course next year on Spanish History in the Modern Period. The book is devised for language students and at the end of each chapter excerpts in Spanish are provided, with translations, which are really useful. The book has some great side notes, detailing often Spanish phrases for the various political bodies, organisations and specialist terms one encounters in the text. If I was to be critical of the book it is to say that it focuses very much on politics and maybe goes into too much depth at the expense of wider cultural issues. Certainly the last few chapters make tough reading and are perhaps more intrinsically focussed than say the wider world knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and enduring Franco régime. Spain is often an international anomaly in its history, from Empire to international isolationism through to its modern period of more fiercer European integration. There was a lot of detail on regionalism that I found most intriguing, in particular the cases of Catalonia and the Basque country. I feel that the book is well worth reading and now feel suitably historically enlightened about the state and home of the Spanish language. I am sure that I will find plenty of future use of the book as a reference tool.

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Review: Cartels At War – by Paul Rexton Can

cartels at war

  The author is a military expert and the phrase he coins to determine Mexico’s narcotics problem is a ‘mosaic cartel war’. This book analyses in detail the various cartels that are present in Mexico that operate in a highly competitive, highly profitable, highly illegal, immensely violent global industry. The Mexican cartels mainly provide a distribution service for the drug-producing areas of South America, and provide the market pathway into the riches of the United States. Thus, the problem in Mexico is very much in tandem a US problem and therefore a valid area of study for the US Military. The cartels are vast and all very different: Sinaloa, Tijuana, Gulf, Beltrán-Leyva,Juarez, La Familia Michoacana & Los Zetas – these are the main cartels although subdivisions exist and other splinter groups may assist various different bodies in the distribution and enforcement of the criminal activity. There are alliances among the cartels in addition to disputes and the intra-cartel warfare can be particularly brutal. The Mexican State utilise many strategies from military to political to law enforcement policing, and they are often backed up from the USA with it Merida initiative. Solutions to the conflicts and problem are provided in detail and range from legalisation of drugs, in particular in the USA and also improved military and law enforcement tactics. This study is comprehensive and provides much detail on a very complex subject. I don’t think that any immediate solution is on the horizon for Mexico and for if it is not to exist as a failed state the cartels and their power are an issue which must not be allowed to further escalate out of control.

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Review: The Rise Of Islamic State – by Patrick Cockburn

rise of islamic state

This is an excellent introductory text for those wishing to better understand the complex details of the rise of Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL. From its arrival due to the Syrian Civil War and its cancerous spread into post-war Iraq, this extremist-terrorist Sunni Islamic (Wahhabi) nation/fundamentalist organisation, has been indefatigable. The best minds and theorists on the region have been unable to prevent ISIS success and growth, even with tacit US military support and backing virtually every possible political rival. This book looks at the reasons for this emergence of IS and it briefly analyses the possible solutions to its successful cessation. It is clear that a lot of the problem comes from the wider Sunni-Shia split across the Islamic world. The failure to establish a genuine alternative to the Saddam Hussein régime in Iraq has left a vacuum in particular among the Sunni populations of Northern Iraq where ISIS predominate. The failure of the Assad opposition in the Syrian revolution/civil war has also created the perfect conditions for this new state, the inheritor of post Bin Laden Al Qaeda, and the recipient of such massive Sunni Wahhabist support across the Middle Eastern oil-rich kingdoms. Every player in the region has its interests invoked and post-imperialist powers plus global nuclear superpowers are all involved in the rising anarchistic conflict. What is clear from the author’s well-studied work is that this ISIS / Sunni Revolution situation is far from an anomaly and is a reality and a problem which is here to stay in the short term at least. In order for any solutions for the problem to be found, then studies on the ISIS phenomenon will become ever so important. A great introductory read, packed full of condensed information.

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Review: Women and the Second World War in France, 1939-1948: Choices and Constraints – by Hanna Diamond

women ww2 france

This book focuses on the role of French women during World War 2 and the immediate aftermath. It is clear that the women of France bore the brunt of dealing with the occupier, very often their men away, detained as prisoners of war or, for example, sequestered to work abroad in the Fatherland, Germany. Women had to cope with running family businesses, looking after the family, acquiring food. They may have chosen to either be collaborationists or to have joined the resistance. I found it particularly interesting hearing of the women who collaborated with the enemy, either seeking roles within Vichy or directly engaging with the German soldiers. The shorn heads of collaborators at Liberation cast powerful images in the reader. Women became, I feel, more valued in society as a result of their wartime activities and although they may have gone back to their roles afterwards as second class citizens within the family and society, they did earn themselves suffrage and I feel moved women as a whole towards parity with their male counterparts. The book is written in feminists tones, though without being to alienist to the male reader. It is factual and interesting and provides a good basis for further study for the university course I anticipate studying on the subject of Women in World War 2 France.

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Review: 2017 War With Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command – by General Sir Richard Shirreff

2017 war with russia

When I first purchased this book I thought it would be a work of non-fiction, but instead I discovered it was actually fiction. The author, a former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, was, in his employment, well-used to war-gaming scenarios with, in particular, Russia. This book, aimed at the general public, introduces many real aspects of NATO and is about a potential imminent future conflict with Russia. The thrills of the well-built characters as they journey through a potential MAD (Mutually-Assured destruction) Nuclear scenario, set in the Baltics, makes the novel a real fast page-turner. I was surprised by the often negative light the author holds NATO in, with its often complicated command structure and this book must have been written with real-life experience. It makes me wonder about shedding defence force budgets and what problems we actually would face were a potential conflict with Russia in Europe actually break out (which of course if you include Ukraine it actually has). In light of the potential Brexit vote in the UK, I think that this book shows the potential value of unity and the necessity of an international alliance in defeating dangerous foes. An excellent read.

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Review: Hidden Dangers – Mexico on the Brink of Disaster – by Robert Joe Stout

Hidden Dangers

Stout’s book is a detailed study of the status quo in Mexico and its relationship with its uber-powerful Northern neighbour. Based in Oaxaca, Robert Joe Stout’s writing often reflects detailed local knowledge and overall, his grip on Mexican and Mexican-USA affairs is profound. The book falls into 5 main chapters where various ‘landmines’ awaiting explosion are discussed. From migration to the cutthroat ‘War on Drugs’, from the environment to political activism and corruption. The poise of Stout is always of an educated man yet he has a Derridean presence, enough to see the wider picture and to target a worldwide readership. I love the way he interlinks words and phrases from Mexico such a ‘Cuatear’ and ‘debajo el agua’. I found the War on Drugs to be a noteworthy chapter – it is very difficult to see a solution to this militarized situation and with 50000 deaths already and 70% of Mexico’s cash being generated by the illegal drug industry, there are no easy solutions to this landmine. The author’s work here builds on other detailed studies I have read on this situation such as Joan Grillo’s ‘El Narco’. I found the chapter on corruption to be where the author was most freeflowing and insightful. The detail in this chapter, combined with direct local knowledge and research gives this book an edge on other contemporary studies on Mexico. Overall, I loved Stout’s revelations in ‘Hidden Dangers’ and as a Translation / Hispanic Studies student at Cardiff University I hope that this book and its contents can be featured on future courses at the institution. Five Star Rating.

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Review: Santa Muerte – Mexico’s Mysterious Saint Of Death – by Tony Kail

santa muerte

This book documents the rapidly growing Mexican folk faith that is ‘Santa Muerte’ or ‘Saint Death’. The iconic image of the skulled woman with a scythe gives hope to many discomforted souls on the fringes of Mexican and indeed global society. From the origins of death cults across the world, to the exploration of the faith’s pre-Colombian roots, the author (not a follower of Santa Muerte) assesses what draws followers to the dark mistress. From its fame spread through the Mexican underworld to its iconic presence in Western pop culture, Santa Muerte attracts new followers in their millions and attempts by the Mexican government and Catholic church to stamp out this ‘abomination’ are so far failing. The book is a nice introduction to the subject and although brief, the author does get to grips with enough material and introduces ideas that can be followed up with further study. A concise and interesting read on a new cultural hispanic phenomenon.

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Review: In Other Words – A Coursebook On Translation – by Mona Baker

in other words

This Mona Baker book is a core text on my Translation (MA) at Cardiff University. We use the text to accompany the Translation Methods Course. The early chapter of equivalence at word level and how to translate non equivalence is particularly interesting, useful and a strong section of the well-written precise coursebook. On occasion there is perhaps an abundance of examples although Baker covers a range of different languages, often straying into non-European, non-standard foreign tongues. In this new edition there is a valuable additional chapter on Ethics and Morality. This is a fashionable area of current Translation research. I feel that the book is an essential read for anyone considering Translation as a profession or those who study it at degree level. To a lay reader, perhaps the in depth detail is a bit profound. However, the book remains very accessible and is an ideal entry level text for students. This book will be well-thumbed in my reference section.

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Review: Franco and The Spanish Civil War

franco and the spanish civil war

This book is a nice, concise look at the Spanish Civil War. I used it for revision purposes, to remind myself of some of the details of heavier tomes that I have encountered on this subject. The author’s analysis of the causes of the War are precise and factual, without noticeable bias. The account of the war itself focuses on the political changes and has an underlying reasoned account of why events transpired and their implications on the outcome of the wider conflict. There is an inevitable tragedy to the Spanish Republic, with bitter infighting plaguing all their attempts at retaining democracy. The lurch to the left from within is seen as an inevitable result of the lack of full international support and the Republicans’ heavy reliance on Soviet Aid. Franco’s luck and expert conciliation of his own individual powers can be seen as gifted by not only the over Italian and German military aid but also the insistence on non-intervention by the Allied powers of Britain and France. The different policies of either side, especially in relation to the peasants and working classes and the depth of internal conflict and terror is a shock to any reader’s system. This book covers the principal details of the gruesome conflict that was the Spanish Civil War very well and is a good guide to the key events and a nice summary of the causes, conflict and its outcomes.

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Review: Franco and The Spanish Civil War – by Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses

franco and the spanish civil war

This book is a nice, concise look at the Spanish Civil War. I used it for revision purposes, to remind myself of some of the details of heavier tomes that I have encountered on this subject. The author’s analysis of the causes of the War are precise and factual, without noticeable bias. The account of the war itself focuses on the political changes and has an underlying reasoned account of why events transpired and their implications on the outcome of the wider conflict. There is an inevitable tragedy to the Spanish Republic, with bitter infighting plaguing all their attempts at retaining democracy. The lurch to the left from within is seen as an inevitable result of the lack of full international support and the Republicans’ heavy reliance on Soviet Aid. Franco’s luck and expert conciliation of his own individual powers can be seen as gifted by not only the over Italian and German military aid but also the insistence on non-intervention by the Allied powers of Britain and France. The different policies of either side, especially in relation to the peasants and working classes and the depth of internal conflict and terror is a shock to any reader’s system. This book covers the principal details of the gruesome conflict that was the Spanish Civil War very well and is a good guide to the key events and a nice summary of the causes, conflict and its outcomes.

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Review : Chávez: Venezuela and the New Latin America – by Aleida Guevara

chavez

This book is based on a series of interviews given by Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, to the daughter of Che Guevara, Aleida. Although the book doesn’t cover the entire period of Chavez’ rule up until his demise, it presents a wonderful tale and grasps fundamental insight into the way the mind works of one of the most popular Latin American leaders of the modern era. Chavez, a man of military background, discusses his rise to power in Venezuela, his roots and also the wider world of South America. His relationship with Fidel Castro is striking and his leftist tendencies are very apparent. His goals for the Venezuelan people and socialist objectives cover the first part of the story and he moves onto topics as diverse as the Gulf War and his family in the second, more broken series of short interview chapters. The book concludes with appendices of a TV interview with Hugo and Aleida and also with some of the insider details of the attempted military coup d’etat that took place against Chavez. I found the book to be very insightful and interesting on a subject that I previously understood very little.

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Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Following on from his book on the mercenary force Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill delves into the Dirty Wars of the Bush and Obama era in the War on Terror. The main theatres covered include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Scahill writes about the excesses of the Bush administration, in particular the detainee programs and he deals with how Obama has ratcheted up the campaign against terrorists with the heavy use of drones and targetted killings. There is a focus on American citizen Anwar Awlaki and his rise within the terrorist ranks and how his targetting by the US raised all kinds of legal dilemmas in terms of assassination by his own government. The Osama Bin Laden death is covered in detail, and perhaps extremely relevant, in light of the Kenya bombings this week, the book analyses the rise of Al Shebab in Somalia and also Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The book is very well researched, although I feel that the author is somewhat sympathetic towards the Jihadists and critical of the US government measures to contain them. Obviously, the killing of civilians is wrong from whatever side, and some of the US actions can be compared with those of the terrorists. It is frightening to witness how clandestine operations are from the White House down and the way in which the JSOC has been totally unleashed over the years to a status where it has virtually no oversight, is a scary fact. Since September 11th 2001, the War On Terror has been a real issue to most citizens of the world. Dirty Wars is a book which details this struggle in a very readable, interestign and enlightening manner. I highly recommend this book and believe it is a step up from the Blackwater predecessor. I look forward to future work from the author.

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No Ordinary Joe by Joe Calzaghe

I was fortunate enough to get to watch Calzaghe fight live, against Mikkel Kessler, in Cardiff Millenium Stadium. I followed him throughout his career and can honestly say he was the most amazing fighter. I believe that his record places him among the very best to have ever graced the sport. The ferocity in how he attacked Kessler and the grace about which he danced the ring, were truly a sight to behold. Joe’s autobiography is an outstanding read. Here we have a legend in his own words. The early years of his fighting career demonstrates how difficult a ladder he had to climb. His training regime was immense and the dedication his father showed him is a tale unto itself. Aside from the boxing and sport side of the book, it is a great story about the relationship between a loving father and a caring and obedient son.  Enzo Calzaghe is as much to credit for Joe’s wonderful career, as the great fighter is himself. I found it really bizarre how Joe was overlooked by the national squad early on and denied the opportunity to represent at the Olympics. It also shocked me how meagre his wages were right up until the latter stages of his career. When you hear of the immense purses available in the sport today, you get the impression that boxing is very lucrative. Joe was world championship material and was still struggling to make ends meet and finance a humble mortgage. It was a shame for me, that the book ended where it did, as it doesn’t cover the final few years of his career, when he really hit the very top and started to get the true recognition he warranted. It would be nice if he one day adds a further few chapters to cover complete the story. Joe comes across as a humble man and his modest upbringing in South Wales and really basic training setup, make his rise to success even more outstanding. His book is an essential item for any boxing fan’s reading list and a lover of sports biographies or a lover of sport in general should give this read a go. Joe is the people’s champion and his book affirms this view.

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

I studied Chinese language for a couple of years and am constantly on the lookout for books about China and its culture. When this jumped out at me from a charity shop bookshelf, at first I thought it was just another dictionary. But I read the back and thought that it would make a good present for my partner and as I had recently bought her the cult erotic tale, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’, I thought she could trump all her friends by encountering the Chinese version. I decided that although I’m not a great lover of fiction and no virtually nothing at all about erotic fiction, because of the cultural aspect, I would give it a go myself. I immediately got drawn into the main character. I loved the way the book was presented. For a student of the Mandarin tongue I fully embraced the way the English was written, in a ‘Chinglish’ fashion, and many references were made to the linguistic differences between East and West. Sex in the Orient is often seen in the West as a taboo subject and it is certain that it is viewed in very different terms throughout the globe depending upon one’s culture. I was shocked in a way to hear this young Chinese girl talk so open about her sexual desires and experiences. It was a real eye-opener. Her journeys across Europe and her liasons were very much down to earth and frank, and to be honest very believable. She didn’t experience the Hollywood romances, other fictional writers may depict. Her boudoir was really rather more grounded in the reality of sex, with disappointment, less than perfect partners and a real animalistic edge to the carnal desire, which did seem rather shocking coming from a woman’s mouth, even if she was from the Orient. The book wasn’t all about sex and I found the travel side of the tale very interesting. The clash of cultures, of civilisations, the differences between East and West were fully explored. Not since I read Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, have I read such a good description of how an alien immerses themselves in a totally foreign culture. For anyone who has travelled abroad, especially travelling solo, it is very easy to relate to the findings made in this book. It’s not the grandiose elements of travel that form the memories of the experience, it’s the little details,…

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Cyberwar: The Next Threat to National Security & What to Do About It by Richard A. Clarke

The author has had a political career which has reached the highest levels of the Pentagon. He is obviously a very driven and intelligent man and his analysis of the new phenomenon that is Cyber War is second to none. The globality of the threat is given a context that is very revealing of the geopolitics which drive the internet. How do nation states handle the use of cyberspace within their own borders and indeed outside their territories? As countries become more and more dependent upon computer technology, the risks faced by cyber attacks become exponentially more severe and critical to the economy and security of a nation. America is perhaps the nation that is most vulnerable, most dependent and most at risk, and Clarke’s high position within the US government system means that he has been placed in the very real environment of deciding upon global cyber was strategy. Some of the facts and figures revealed by the book are truly revelationary. Clarke rates North Korea  as being the nation with the most capacity for cyberwar as it focuses on attack strategies and its near negligibilty of dependance at home on computer networks makes it absolutely resistant to any cyber warfare attacks it may experience itself. I was surprised at the levels of internet usage in countries like Estonia and also South Korea, and the stories of actual cyber attacks that were known to have happened and documented made fascinating reading. I didn’t think that the author ever really stretched the technicalities of what is indeed a very technical subject. He kept most of the book within the grasp of any tech novice reader, with a clear focus throughout on geopolitics.  It’s a good book and I feel will be interesting to look back upon in 10 or 20 years time, to see if any of his prophecies have proved correct and also to gauge how different future cyberspace is. I’d recommend this book to any end user of the internet as your own reliance and dependance on the worldwide web is at risk from the cyber war phenomenon that is discussed..

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