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Review: Kanaval – Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haïti – by Leah Gordon

kanaval

Leah Gordon is a former punk artist from London. She is also a photographer and this book reflects upon her experiences of Kanaval on the streets of Jacmel in Haïti between 1995 and 2010. Haïti was the first black republic in the Western hemisphere, a black slave nation that overthrew the yolk of its French European masters. A core component of the revolution’s power was the African-inspired Vodou belief system and intertwined with politics the Kanaval (Creolisation of Carnival) traces its routes to the clandestine slave gatherings in the upland forests of the island. Gordon takes powerful black and white images of the key Kanaval characters and interviews these characters, capturing a series of oral histories from the poor local inhabitants who invest their energy effortlessly, creating characters, making costumes, designing props, organising dance routines and applying makeup, to create this pre-Lentern annual orgy of street theatre and fiesta. We meet the Lanse Kòd (The Rope Throwers), Jwif Eran (Wandering Jew), Papa Sida (Father of AIDS), Oungan (Vodou Priest), St Michel and also the Satanic Zel Maturin (The Wings of Maturin). These characters act out a fight of good versus evil, they challenge the audiences to raise small amounts of money and to reflect upon the political realities of Haïtian life. There is a series of critical essays throughout the book from key researchers of Haïti, that reflect upon the essence of Leah Gordon’s work. The book is enlightening and the images, that can be very disturbing, project an exoticism and spirituality that gives the reader a true taste of the Kanaval performers’ messages and allows the reader a glimpse of the post-colonial ‘Other’ that is the Caribbean.

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Review: Dirty Combat – Secret Wars and Serious Misadventures – by David Tomkins

dirty combat

David Tomkins has led an interesting life, to say the least. Our swashbuckling protagonist begins his autobiography as a tough safe-cracker, self-trained in explosives. His early adventures lead him to prison life where he swaps tales and picks up skills, leading to further crimes. Moving away from his gangster life, Tomkins utilises his explosive skills to full effect by becoming a mercenary. His military adventures take him across Africa, from Angola to Togo and into Rhodesia. Constantly under suspicion at airports from Special Branch and security services, Tomkins becomes a darling of the Press, a true life mercenary who engages in politics at the highest level. Merging his mercenary work with business interests he becomes an arms dealer, strutting around the world, negotiating some stranger-than-fiction deals with some rather salubrious characters. Eventually his mercenary work comes back tot he fore when he is recruited to fight out in Colombia, first arranging an international special forces brigade to attack the FARC and then later, employed by the Calí drug cartel he is delivered a project to assassinate the head of the rival Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar. Ultimately both the Colombian adventures do not achieve their mission goals and later end our hero up in US custody where he returns to the prison system, detailing the flaws of the US Justice system and ending the tale whiling out his time in jail before luckily being returned to his wife and family in the UK. The book is well written and is truly compelling. David Tomkins’ life is surely a worthy tale to be told and I can’t think of many more varied real life adventure stories out there.

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Review: The Repeating Island – The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective – by Antonio Benítez-Rojo

the repeating island

The Cuban author offers a postmodern view of the Caribbean. It is a sociocultural study that encompasses aspects of history, economics, sociology, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and non-linear mathematics, incorporating chaos theory. The book’s aims and theories are laid out in a flowing introduction whereby Benítez-Rojo’s notion of the ‘repeating island’ is explored, through the lens of polyrhythms and meta-archipelagoes. Benítez-Rojo sees in all of the Caribbean a repetitive streaming of ideas, of resistance to slavery, of Plantation culture of postcolonialist discourse. The book focuses on a series of Caribbean authors and poets, from Gabriel García Márquez to the author’s poet of preference, the Cuban Guillén. Critical essays explore how a multitude of creative characters have interpreted their lives in the Antilles, and recurring themes of the cult of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre or of the sacrificed slave Mackandal, reverberate in the author’s dissections of West Indian culture. This book gives a valuable postmodernist insight into the supersyncretic culture that comprises the Caribbean.

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Review: Viviane Élisabeth Fauville – by Julia Deck

viviane elisabeth fauville

You are Viviane Élisabeth Fauville, a 42 year old French woman in the midst of a crisis. You have a child, a young baby, who you nurture and care for, yet your husband is in the process of leaving you. to top off this crisis, yesterday you murdered your psychiatrist. This short novel (written in French) depicts the descent into madness of the lady as she faces up to the guilt of murder. She descends into paranoia and the tale gets increasingly more disjointed as the woman struggles to maintain the regularity of her Paris life while concealing her crime. It is Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ meets J.D. Sallinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’, just in miniaturised feminised French format. A quick, light read and a good way to test one’s foreign language skills.

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Review: At The Devil’s Table – Inside the Fall of the Cali Cartel – the World’s Biggest Crime Syndicate – by William C. Rempel

at the devils table

Jorge Salcedo signed up to the Cali cartel in order to lead a mission to assassinate Pablo Escobar, head of the rival Medellín cartel and, in Jorge’s eyes, a clear and present danger to the people of Colombia. This ex Colombian army professional was a security expert and although the initial mission, with the aid of British mercenaries, was to fail, Jorge embarked on a flourishing career with his Cali cartel bosses, one that would end in betrayal and the fall of the biggest crime syndicate on the planet. Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela were the brothers at the head of the Cali cartel and Jorge would become part of their inner circle, as a trusted almost family member, in charge of Miguel’s day-to-day security and all the cartel business that that entailed. He would witness the trafficking operation that flooded the US market with Cocaine and would bear party to the intense violence that accompanied his boss’ position, gradually becoming an integral part of all operations. From learning how the sicarios operated, to engaging overseas in Nicaragua and the USA, to witnessing assassinations, Jorge would build up an essential insider’s knowledge of the cartel’s overall business. However, as time wore on, and it became clear that there would be no easy exit for him from the cartel, Jorge became disillusioned and ultimately sought to betray his boss. Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela became the most wanted criminal on the planet and when Jorge fell into the arms of the DEA, his knowledge of daily operations assisted the US and Colombian authorities in tracking down and successfully capturing the head of the syndicate. Jorge and his family fled into protective custody and the Cali cartel was permanently weakened by the ‘chopping off of the head’. This book, well researched clandestinely for over a decade, tells a bloodthirsty true tale of top level narco-trafficking, political corruption, and gang warfare. It is a true page-turner that will engage and grip you from start to finish.

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Review: Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 is the label worn by the firemen on their uniforms and is the temperature at which books burn. We live in a dystopia, where reading and books are banned. Montag is a fireman and it is his job, with the aid of hypodermic needle carrying mechanical hounds, to seek out and destroy all books. He starts to question his mission and reality after encountering the seventeen year old Clarisse, a fresh-faced neighbour who has a more open outlook on life than Montag’s wife, Mildred, who, addicted to sleeping tablets, lives in a television haze, surrounded by four walls of deafening brainwash and who likes nothing more than to gossip with her friends and who manages to lose the love of her husband who is undergoing an awakening. Captain Beatty, Montag’s boss, gets suspicious when Montag calls in sick and pretty soon the firemen are calling at Montag’s house where he has hidden a cache of dissident reading material. Montag escapes and goes on the run, with the help of his only friend Faber, who has supplied him with a listening device and who is awaiting the revolution. Evading capture, Montag disappears into the countryside, only to watch the last war eradicate his former city home in a nuclear explosion, as he sets off into an existence, away from the state and where the book knowledge is kept alive. A decent book, akin to 1984 and Brave New World, the author, Ray Bradbury, explores many of the issues that damage our modern society.

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Review: The Last Empire – The Final Days of the Soviet Union – by Serhii Plokhy

the last empire

When the Soviet Union ended and thus the Cold War ended on Christmas Day 1991, it was probably one of the biggest political events of my lifetime. This well-researched, detailed book, by Ukrainian author Serhii Plokhy, details the last 18 months of the Soviet Union’s existence. After USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were introduced throughout the Soviet Empire, the changing landscape of the union meant many things. Communism was in its death throes and there was a rise of democracy and nationalism and independence movements amongst the various states and peoples that populated the USSR. American influence became more important and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Eastern Europe was surrendered to populist democracies and ceased to be part of the wider Soviet Empire, American pressure continues on the remaining state as the Baltics sought to continue the domino effect. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were supported in their independence by US president, George H.W. Bush and this undermined the Soviet Union as a whole. Rising stars such as Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine and other stars of independence in the EuroAsian nations of the Soviet Bloc, all were coming to the forefront. After a critical putsch, a military / KGB coup in August 1991 that sealed Gorbachev in his Crimea Dacha, these rising stars clubbed together to put down the Conservative hardliners who threatened the President, the Union itself and the status quo of the democratic freedoms they were enjoying. The Coup failed by Gorbachev was left irreparably weak and afterwards, especially the opportunist Yeltsin, capitalised on the successes of their newfound power and ultimately broke apart into a series of independent nations and states, finally managing to seal the death of the Party Centre and Union Centre itself with their creation of the CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States, that would inherit the remnants of the Soviet Union’s power system. The high point of this most excellent detailed political history of the Fall of the Soviet Union, was the detail of the August coup against Gorbachev. This Machiavellian power struggle was an amazing opening of doors and it is a surprise that the whole dismantling of the Empire didn’t erupt into a ‘Yugoslavia with Nukes’ scenario that many were fearing. The book focuses very much on the role of President Bush and his interactions with Gorbachev and…

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Review: Cocaine Nation – How The White Trade Took Over The World – by Tom Feiling

cocaine nation

This is an enthralling, well-researched book, that reveals many unknown new facts about the global cocaine industry. The book opens with a chapter focussing on the USA, the biggest market for the Cocaine industry, where 66% of Cocaine users exist. We then enter into the producing and transit phase of the drug and examine Colombia, Mexico and the Caribbean in detail. Colombia has the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels, much responsible for the initial production of Cocaine. The role of the FARC, AUC and the Colombian Civil War is documented and the political difficulties with America’s Plan Colombia and the extreme bribery involved in Colombian political life. In Mexico, we see how the various cartels such as Sinaloa, Juárez, Gulf and Tijuana have gone to war, recruiting the services of such paramilitaries as Los Zetas. The Caribbean covers Jamaica in detail and also Cuba, Haiti and the various tax haven islands. In Jamaica we see how politics have heavily influenced the gang culture and the rise of the Shower Posse is documented. In all of the Western producer country sphere, the USA and its policies is never far from the forefront. The ‘War on Drugs’ in force from many successive administrations at the White House, often focuses on producer and transit countries and is totally supported by draconian United Nations international legislation. The European market, in particular the United Kingdom is the second largest market for Cocaine and some countries here have introduced decriminalisation. In places such as Holland and Portugal, drug use is not penalised. The author explores how users are affected by the drug and explores addiction, in particular the problems of crack cocaine. In the final part of the book we look at possible legalisation solutions although, despite Feiling’s enthusiasm for this to happen, I fear it will be many generations before this becomes politically possible. Perhaps with potential cannabis decriminalisation and legalisation on the agenda, it will open up the doors for other narcotics to follow suit? I enjoyed the book and it really does go into detail on what is an interesting subject and a truly global industry.

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Review: Persian Mirrors – The Elusive Face of Iran – by Elaine Sciolino

persian mirrors

Elaine Sciolino is a female New York Times journalist who had the good fortune of being present in Paris with the exiled future leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomenei. When he seized power from the Shah in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Sciolino was one of the first Western journalists on the ground and she enjoyed privileged access to the new Iranian clerical elite. Iran is a country so alien to us in the West and the lack of knowledge of this ancient culture that is expressed to us in our news and history books made me drawn to reading this book. It is very well written, with lots of detail and the best part for me was the personalised touch. We hear of a woman with a deep commitment to exposing this ‘other’ culture. She writes with the eyes of an American female yet is obviously deeply in love with this country’s people, if not always the ideals of their government. The ways of life are so strikingly difficult. I was overwhelmed by the seeming oppression that the general population live under. There is a remarkable contrast between public and private life and Sciolino was fortunate enough to be invited into the private spheres that would often elude a typical tourist’s quest. The acceptance of senior Imams and clerics and government officials to provide her with sensitive material makes this such a critical read and I found it particularly interesting when her Iranian female friends allowed her into their private spaces, where the public veil of the chador could be lifted. The exploration of various areas of Iran journeyed us from ruins in Persepolis to the rigours of religious life in Qom. There was always an overlook at how the Islamic Revolution was still occurring and the ways that this strict religious governance affects people truly exposes the current national psyche that separates us so much from Iranians in the modern age. ‘Death to America’, a much-repeated slogan in the Revolution must have meant that it was particularly dangerous for Sciolino to research this book, but she demonstrates that things are changing and in fact most Iranians would love to actually visit America and it is this that makes her as an individual, as fascinating to them as they are to her. I think that for anyone who wishes to understand Iran, in its modern situation, especially with the rhetoric…

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Review: Avengers of the New World – The Story of the Haitian Revolution – by Laurent Dubois

avengers of the new world

Saint Domingue was the Western French-owned side of Hispaniola. French colonists built it up into a wealthy imperial source of plantation economy produce, founded on the settlement of African slaves, products of the Triangular Slave Trade across the Atlantic. The hills and plains were dotted with sugar plantations and vast amounts of coffee and indigo were also produced. White settlers occupied only 10% of the island’s population, however, and as free people of colour (gens du couleur) became more of an entity, laments for freedom, using the terminology of the French Revolution’s decrees, were an increasing weight upon the colonial administrators. Settling African tribesman as slaves, such as the Ibo, proved problematic as they all would rather die at their own hands than submit to their slave-masters. Legends grew such as that of Makandal, and slaves began to plot in earnest. Eventually, a mass slave revolt broke out and the people fought their masters until slavery was abolished. With their new found freedom, the former slaves rebuilt Saint Domingue from the ashes of revolt and further into a final severing of ties with the colonial masters. New generals rose up in the army, culminating in the great Toussaint Louverture, who would lead his people into full-scale revolution against France and ultimately, although he was sacrificed, give way to the final freeing of the colony and the birth of the nation of Haiti, a nation of Blacks and the first successful slave revolt in history

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Review: This is for the Mara Salvatrucha – Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang – by Samuel Logan

ms13

The Mara Salvatrucha is a street gang formed in 1980s Los Angeles, by Salvadoran immigrants. From its outset it has had to be lethally violent and this book details the story of the gang as it migrates across America, through the eyes of traitor and informant, 16 year old Brenda Paz. Brenda was jumped into the gang after falling in love with a local leader. Her bright charisma and personality, earning her the nickname ‘Smiley’, mean that her conscience struggles to deal with some of the more horrific elements of gang culture and after being picked up for a misdemeanour and interrogated about her then boyfriend’s activities, Brenda decides to back out of gang life and turn state informer. She details everything from the gang’s hierarchy, to covert hand signals, to its involvement with many crimes, including murder and agrees to betray the high level men that she has romantic liaisons with. But all is not good in protective custody and Brenda cannot escape the high’s of gang culture. the camaraderie, this Latino street family that gives her all she needs. She slips back into association with the gang, hoping that her betrayal will not be discovered but ultimately she pays the highest price and becomes yet another sacrifice in this brutal gang’s spiral of violence.

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Review: Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal – by Aimé Césaire

cahier d'un retour au pays natal

Aimé Césaire is the father of Martinican literature. In his Cahier, he explores his roots in his native Martinique and looks with an often angry voice at the repression of his fellow islanders. The Cahier is a poem directed at enlightening the views of his fellow countrymen and giving them a point at which to resist their colonial masters, to escape the bonds of Negrédom, the chains of slavery that bound them in the triangular slave trade culture and left them in the sugar cane fields of Martinique. A founding father of the black movement in literature, Négritude, Césaire explores the roots of slavery and his négritude is a self-revealing look at how he is perceived by the world, due to his skin colour. The poetic text is often violent and revealing and he uses a variety of different methods to shock and disturb the reader. One is always looking for an identity of Martinique and the author succeeds in describing the island’s features, its fauna and flora, its colonial past, its poverty and hunger and suffering of the population. As we move through the book, the racial voice progresses until we hear a potent cry of anger about this inequality, the way in which his race restricts his world view and aspirations. I found the book, convenient in its parallel text, usefully translated, and a positive journey into the Caribbean. In the twenty-first century we still have not unshackled racism from our society and slavery is very much alive, if not as a political reality, but as an enchaining colonial restriction upon the black inhabitants of Martinique and its Caribbean cousins. It must be stressed how important a work this must be to natives of Martinique and the foundation point it is for black literature. I studied this book as part of my ‘Imaging The Islands’ course at Cardiff University’s School of Modern Languages.

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Review: Confessions of a Yakuza – by Junichi Saga

confessions of a yakuza

A doctor conversing with one of his elderly patients in Japan, reveals this amazingly quaint story of a Yakuza gang leader. Set in the heart of Tokyo in the early twentieth century, our hero comes from an ordinary background and works his way into a veritable life in the underworld, as a professional gambler, running dice games, which is the heart of the Yakuza’s business. The story has tales of romance from whores and geisha women, to running away and eloping only to cut off his own finger in a ritual apology. There are several visits to jail where he abides by Yakuza rules and etiquette, gaining much respect. He has a stint in the military abroad in North Korea and spends much of World War 2 dodging bombs in Tokyo and continuing to run gambling dens. There is an antiquity to the tales which describe the character is the most personal way. One feels attached to the gangster and one can learn a great deal about the structure of organised crime and what life actually was like to be part of it only last century. One thing that resounded was the deep respect for bosses and between members of the same organisation and indeed rival gangs. I really loved the story and read the book rather quickly. It’s a shame the final part was glossed over and we didn’t get to continue the story up until the death of the Yakuza man

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Review: The KLF – Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds – by John Higgs

klf

The KLF were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and partly responsible for introducing me to dance music. When they disappeared from the music industry it was a great disappointment and although they featured quite a lot in the press, their whole existence mainly remains an enigma. This book pieces together the fragments that are the KLF. Heavily centred on Bill Drummond’s life we read some truly magic tales. From, as their manager, sending Echo & The Bunnymen on tour to Iceland so he could magically stand on a manhole cover in Liverpool docks, we meet many strange anecdotes about a group that formed and based their philosophy on Discordianism. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu take their name from the Illuminatus trilogy that introduces the world to Discordianism, a worship of Eris, the Goddess of Chaos and where the number 23 is sacred. One thing is for sure is that Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, as the KLF, were totally off their heads. They filled a void in the early 1990s and became pioneers of the electronic dance music industry but they always struggled to fit into the music industry. There is a longing for more and eventually they find their place in the world of art, having burned a million pounds in cash to achieve their status there. I have read recent talk of a reforming of the KLF coming soon and with the 23 year period of their freezing coming to an end in 2018 I truly look forward to them reappearing from the abyss and producing some more enlightening driving beats, something that all of their fans would truly appreciate.

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Review: Gangland – The Rise of the Mexican Drug Cartels from El Paso to Vancouver – by Jerry Langton

gangland

This fascinating subject is explored by the author, Jerry Langton, in a fresh and vibrant manner. He makes the often bloody stories flow nicely into each other. What is for sure is that the Mexican drug war is a nasty business and page after page of horrifying bloodthirstiness attends to this. We read of the different cartels from Sinaloa across Mexico. Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world is a common area for discussion. The author always has his mind on the export role of the cartels and how their actions are affecting populations further North in the USA and Canada. If anything, it is difficult to weave together a fabric of the tale due to the sheer mass of brutalities that have occurred. More people are killed each year in Mexico due to the cartel warfare than in foreign war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is not the first I have studied on this topic in Mexico and I found it very well-researched and full of details, some of which were unknown to me previously. It is certainly worth a read if the topic of Mexican cartels interests you.

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Review – The Legend of El Chapo Guzman – by J.D.Rockefeller

the legend of el chapo Guzman

The subject of the book makes it appealing and gives you the desire to part with the £6 or so it costs on Amazon. El Chapo is a buzz subject a folk-hero, a modern legend. He is head of the Sinaloa Cartel and in charge of one of the most lucrative drug-trading networks on the planet. However, I would seriously avoid buying this book as it is very poorly written and researched. There is nothing here that you would not get from surfing to Joaquin Loera Guzman’s wikipedia. The book is very short and can be read (with difficulty) in half an hour – only 25 pages of large type. It appears, due to the very poor standard of English that it is translated from another language (most probably Spanish). However, a professional translator was not consulted and it is most probably a simple transposition of Spanish newspaper articles, using Google Translate. It really is so poorly written that I can see no other explanation. I think that the author is simply coining in on El Chapo’s name and portraying him also in rather a negative light. I, for one, would not like to cross paths and offend such a potentially explosively dangerous man by character assassination which is basically what this book amounts to. A cheap poke at a cult figure and an attempt to coin in on someone else’s fame. For such a worthy and interesting subject it would pay heed, as an author, to do some proper research, to get on the actual ground in Sinaloa, and gain some true revelations which would be far more interesting than just casually reproducing evidence that is already in the public domain and doing a bad job of that also. A discredit to El Chapo and unworthy of any attention. AVOID!

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Review: Chav Punk Hobbit – The Quest to The End Of The World – by Jason Phillips

chav punk hobbit

Jason is a Welsh Musician, and in this short book, he details his most recent Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage experience. He takes the Camino Portugués from Porto, a follow up to his previous encounter with the more traditional, and more widely known and popular, Camino Frances. We find Jason alone in his hotel room in Porto in a dusky predawn, a crazed band post-gig, having departed, and left the protagonist with little money and equipment and a pipe dream to escape yet again on pilgrimage to Santiago. This book is a modern pilgrimage, a journey to self. We are not sharing the voyage of a medieval religious monk, we share our modern chav hobbit’s punk desires. He needs not mass, blood wine and body bread, but wifi, bocadillos and plastic auberge mattresses. Our modern day pilgrim needs not God’s guidance, but is savouring the beauty and tranquility of a rustic, muddy countryside, as his mind ventures into the pilgrim spirit and devours itself in questions of self-exploration. A host of characters is met and through the hero’s transcript of muttered profanities as he describes the lurid animals he meets en route we make friends with a myriad of personalities from dotted around the globe. Most notably, German astronomer-theologian Thomaas and later, Irish reveller and journeyman Eoin. Interspersed with Spanish natives and kind Portuguese innkeepers and waiters, our bubbly hero sounds off his thoughts and shares in the rich tapestry of life of his fellow men, all the time progressing his own mind’s journey and in a self-revelatory manner, touching our soul with more profound deeper and wise philosophy. Jason loves his woman in Wales. He never quite transcends and escapes his homeland of Wales. From the murky sacred Ulla river reminding him of his hometown, Newport, to thinking of his absent grandfather having disappeared to Australia on his journey’s End, nostalgia is always a containing force to Jason, preventing him from moving on and getting the success and desires he so craves from life. Is it money he seeks? He answers and affirmative no and sees it as a means to an end in life’s great journey. He does seek Broadband and Wifi, yet after we lose communications and move out of the realm of technological contact with the outside world, our hero is not lost but finds himself again and can let his hair down properly in…

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Review: The Snows of Kilimanjaro – by Ernest Hemingway

snows of kilimanjaro

Hemingway writes this collection of short stories in a true macho fashion. Hemingway loved his big sports and we venture in this book into many short tales, apparently many autobiographical, of hunting and fishing trips, of bullfights and horse-racing tracks. Sometimes we have to forgive the tough, crude use of language of the era. Wops and Niggers are weaved into the tale and overall the descriptions are oft brutal. This is a man’s book and the tales are all male-orientated. Hemingway never fails to capture the descriptive magic of a scene and even if a tale is only a brief couple of pages, our readers’ imaginations are left with a well-constructed fantastical imager, so typical of the simplistic literal style we associate with this great fiction writer.

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Review: The Stone Roses – War And Peace – by Simon Spence

stone roses war and peace

The Stone Roses are undoubtedly one of the most important bands to have emerged during my lifetime. Their early defining sound paved the way for the explosion of the ‘Madchester Sound’ and the book’s introduction about the seminal 1989 Spike Island gig was grippingly enthralling. We explore the roots of the band and each character tows together to form the inseparable four piece that went on to illuminate British pop and rock. Ian Brown, backed with the guitar of John Squire, Mani’s Bass and relentless Reni on drums form The Stone Roses and this magical tale weaves together their roots and their emergence and dominance of the UK Indie scene. Their exuberant manager Gareth Evans with his excesses reveals some of the excesses of the music industry that ultimately ripped The Stone Roses apart. Bad business with the record label due to mal-considered contracts led to the huge delay on the recording of The Second Coming, the band’s follow up to their 1989 debut masterpiece. The frustration of the recording of this album and inherent personal problems, including drug abuse, led to the breakup of the band. Irrevocable differences kept them apart for over 15 years and although they all succeeded in their own way in private projects it wasn’t until 2011 that the band reformed and it is a happy ending to the book to read about their golden legacy tour across the world, yet again an indestructible four-piece force of the Live Music World. A cracking read and a must for any fan. I was lucky enough to catch them at Finsbury Park in London on their comeback tour and it was a highlight for me musically, a true spectacle.

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Review: Touching from a Distance – Ian Curtis and Joy Division – by Deborah Curtis

ian curtis

I am a massive fan of Joy Division and feel that the band’s greatness has always been tainted by lead singer, Ian Curtis’ early death. He was a modern day British Jim Morrison, a trapped poet, muse to millions. This book, a heartfelt examination of the real man by his loving wife, serves as a poignant celebration of Ian Curtis. The biography is intimate in its detail and we are not just scratching the surface here but getting a true glimpse of what made this dark poet tick. His early fascination with a young death and suicide provide a recurring theme. From poverty through to a point where huge success was imminent and all their material worries would be over, Ian Curtis killed himself at the cusp of true legend status for his band. He has a mixed relationship with his wife, ultimately forcing her to endure a rock n roll affair through his Belgian mistress. He was truly torn and love ultimately did tear him apart. I found the struggle with epilepsy to be the underlying factor that drove Ian Curtis to death. It must have been horrific to live with such a chronic condition and yet he still rarely missed a live performance and maybe the forthcoming trip to America was just one jettison too far? This book is thoroughly readable, a true page-turner. I feel, having read it, closer to Ian Curtis and indeed one of my most favourite bands.

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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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