The Devil’s Bargain: A review of the book and audiobook of Luke Harding’s ‘Collusion’

Luke Harding’s journalism has given us a depressing but gripping take on one of the most blatant, brazen and frightening political twists of modern times: that Russia, based on it’s existing cod war, KGB and espionage infrastructure has launched cyber war on the West, and, Manchurian Candidate style, installed its own puppet in the Whitehouse. One that fit a template they had for such a candidate: vain, paranoid, ultra-wealthy, and with powerful connections, and the media presence and warped charisma to gull a large percentage of the American presence.
The book alternates between recent events of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, and the larger backstory of Russian politics and espionage. The characters range from the naïve and utterly stupid to the ruthless Machiavel. Guess which one is which. It’s not Trump with his hand rammed up the puppet’s hole and squeezing.
For the audiobook the Russian story can be at times confusing, those long Russian names crossing and criss-crossing can tax the short-term memory. But it is very much worth the effort.
Luke Harding writes with a ruthless objectivity, but he cannot hide his dismay and contempt for Trump his Presidency, those who have profited and helped bring it about, and the amoral ruthlessness of Putin. The narrator, Jonathan Amis, does a good job of switching between a clear, dry delivery and absolute incredulous disgust. The switch from one to the other is sometimes almost comical.
It’s the more intellectual sibling of Fire and Fury.
Read, and pray for the light to dawn.

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The nightmare is real: A review of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury

So you want measured scholarly analysis of the Trump Presidency? You want a sober, analytical dissection of this political phenomenon? Look elsewhere.
Because this is high octane “wait ’til you hear this” gossip, delivered by someone who corners you at the bar with a manic gleam in their eye, flushed with excitement. You try to catch someone else’s eye, to make your excuses and leave, but before you know it, you’re hooked.
This is larger than life (or in a sane world a would be) American grotesque. Like some kind of film where maniacs seize the White House, and you scoff at the implausibility, but snuggle down to a guilty pleasure, because the writer knows what he’s doing.
And I do think that at its core is truth. The direction of travel it tells is attested whenever we read a Trump tweet, or see him on the news. I’d love to dismiss the contents of this book as lurid tittle tattle. But that it is not wise. For the barbarians have breached the gates, and have their torches poised to burn down the city.
Michael Wolff tells a story that is a demonic retelling of the American dream. Donald Trump, surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, power brokers, machiavels and political mercenaries makes a bid for the Presidency. The book reveals that he would like to have lost, as does his wife, the beleaguered Melania. Most of the rest share the conviction that this candidacy is a doomed bid, but one that will bring victory in defeat: an enhanced brand of the wronged ‘man of the common people’ contender brought down by Crooked Hillary. Stocks will soar. Portfolios will go stellar. This sounds plausible. Just as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked horrified to have helped win Brexit, so the Trump team looked visibly stunned and aghast at their victory. Especially Melania. But once victorious, Trump convinces himself that maybe he is the best President ever, and his team resolve to salvage what they can, make the best of it, and rescue Trump from himself, variously.
So you’ll be familiar with a lot of this book’s revelations, which have been well reported. The diet cokes, cheeseburgers, two tv screens in the bedroom, manic rages, air of contempt in the staff, bloody infighting, treason, and more, is all there, told in dry and sardonic tones that occasionally break into open disgust.
There are insights in addition, less well reported, as to why, for example, Paul Ryan is so supine, and of some of the pressures, internal and external, that lead to Trump saying such breathtakingly stupid and beyond offensive things, the “good on both sides” when talking about death dealing fascists for example, and more, too much more.
Wolff also conveys the culpability of large sections of the media, that can’t break out of the hyper-speed news cycle, can’t dwell on anything long enough to let it breathe and cause the damage and concern it should do, before falling into Trump’s trap and speeding onto the next beyond belief stupidity.
Steve Bannon plays a big part in proceedings. Obviously Wolff’s principal source, the book paints a very vivid picture of him, and I think it does give him too much attention. The portrayal steers over too much into anti-hero or likeable rogue. No, he’s a grotesque, eviscerated by even Trump, not worthy of so much attention. He literally has the last word in the book, and shouldn’t.
That said, this is un-missable. Historians are going to have so much fun separating fact from fiction. Grab a copy, because events are moving fast.

A review of the audio-book “Ghostly Tales: An Audible Christmas Gift.”

Here are four classic ghost stories, narrated by Simon Callow.
Cast also includes Sally Phillips, John Banks and Dan Starkey.
The stories are ‘Between the Lights’ by E.F. Benson, ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ by J.H. Riddell, ‘Was It an Illusion’ by Emelia B. Edwards and ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens.

The whole is framed by a linking story of Simon Callow, playing himself, coming to ‘Audible Towers’ one Christmas to narrate the stories for the audio book you are listening to (meta or what?). Sally Phillips plays the producer Josie. There’s a rapport between the pair, and he settles in the recording booth whilst an increasingly unsettled Sally Phillips works on the production. It’s reminiscent of 70’s horror film anthologies, where you got short tales framed by a linking narration with a sting in the tale. And the ‘sting’ here is nicely in keeping with the unsettling mood of the whole. That said, the linking narrative here can be jarring, and have a distancing effect. This is because it serves as an advertorial, with Simon and Josie/Sally eulogising the power of audio books. The whole thing become a bit too cute for its own good, and I wished they had let the stories completely speak for themselves.

Because the stories are humdingers; real atmospheric Victorian ghost stories: the kind where you can smell an English Winter countryside, hear the ticking of a clock and the clatter of horse drawn cabs.
E.F. Benson’s between the lights is a story of psychological dread, as our hero has an apparent waking dream that brings on a mood of depressive terror. The dream is of a prehensile cave and creatures. And recovering on a walk in Scotland, the terrified protagonist finds that the dream has its roots in reality..

In ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy landowner is solved by a ghostly window into the past, whilst ‘Was it an Illusion’ sees a visiting Parson unwittingly uncovering the murder of a child, again through ghostly apparitions.

And Charles Dickens’s classic short ‘The Signalman’ reminds us why Dickens was a master of his craft: a railway signalman is terrified by a recurring ghostly visitor whose visits always immediately precede a disaster. And when the ghost appears again, he must solve the ghastly conundrum of what the next disaster is before it happens. What that is will leave you aghast and turning over the resolution again and again in your minds, studying it appalled from fresh angles.

Given the overall quality, you can’t begrudge Audible their sneaky advertorial and sometimes irritating linking narrative. Overall this is worthy free gift, and shows what a strong series the ‘Audible Original’ range is becoming.

A review of Anna Minton’s ‘Big Capital- Who is London For?’

Anna Minton is a writer, journalist and reader in Architecture at the University of East London. Here she is like a controlled explosion, writing clearly, logically but with anger and passion, about the grotesque inequalities, injustices and absurdities at the heart of our housing crisis.

She highlights how the world’s financial elite, including Russian billionaires, sank their money into London property following the credit crunch and global financial crisis of 2007, as this was the only safe (and lucrative) place for it following the collapse of the banks. To get the best returns, properties are kept empty, or sold into luxury developments.

This means that ‘old money,’ the elites of yesterday, are forced out of the capital into outer London, driving up prices there, and people there move further out, and so it goes on, a rippl eeffect that means the housing crisis is a national one and not just owned by the capital.

Then we have the issue of the gentrification of London’s social housing estates, their demolition, and following sham ‘consultations’ that in turn follow secret ‘financial viability assessments,’ their replacement with accommodation that is beyond its past occupants in terms of affordability. They in turn become exiled from the places they were often born and brought up in, where their lives infrastructures are.

We look at the iniquities of the recent Welfare Reform Acts and just how exploitative and unregulated the private rented sector can be, with high rents, insecure tenure and shoddy conditions, but remaining the only option for lower and mid income households, following the neutering of local authorities as developers and providers of social housing by successive central governments.

To balance this grimness we look at recent successful social activism, in one instance halting redevelopment plans for a Southwark estate, and a group of angry young Mums starting a shaping a formidable protest movement. We look at how local democracy can be renewed, and how in Europe more enlightened policies by central and local government make for positive and progressive models for communities that are truly affordable and equitable.

It’s a brilliant, focused and powerfully argued book, that should make you restless for change.

A review of Charles Marsh’s “Strange Glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

This book has been a faithful companion for a few years of my life now. I have taken an absurdly long time over it, because of the busyness of life, and knowing that I’d never abandon it unread, that I’d always pick up where I left off.

It is a remarkable biography of the war-time minister and theologian. It is so rich in detail, so evocative of the times and places of it’s subject, I felt I had actually visited the places in the book, and met some of the people concerned. We begin with Dietrich’s childhood in a wealthy and connected family, and there are different flavours of the provincial and urban life of the time, of the holidays in mountain retreats studying nature and poetry, of the holiday games and rituals. Then there’s is the young man Bonhoeffer, studying and traveling, visiting sumptuous locations such as Barcelona, transported by the Cathedrals and Orthodox Christianity he encounters there, the parades, the music, the sung catechisms. We watch him navigate University life, cut his exceptional theological teeth, and then travel further and mature greatly in his views and theology in New York and with Harlem churches, where he makes strong connections with social action, protest, political idealism and Christianity.

Tangentially through all this there is the growing horror and dread of the growth and spread of the Nazi movement, including in the Churches. Bonhoeffer’s attempts to organise a dissident group of preachers is described, as the oppression and Nazi barbarity gains momentum.
Bonhoeffer meets Eberhard Bethge, with whom he develops an enduring and profound romantic friendship that at times borders on a possessive mania (on Bonhoeffer’s part). This is an important theme in Bonhoeffer’s life, revealing inner conflicts both in his self and in his theology.

Bonhoeffer is involved, even if it is peripherally with one of the plots to assassinate Hitler, and this seals his awful doom of execution in a Nazi concentration camp. Here the power of the writing to put one in the very shoes of Bonhoeffer has a terrifying and oppressive affect. Charles Marsh views Bonhoeffer’s fate without blinking, he offers no distancing philosophising or sermonising, only Bonhoeffer’s own words.

In it’s description and analysis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings and thought, the book presents these ideas in all their freshness and excitement. That is, the excitement of a faith that is there to change the world, to challenge evil and turn established orders on their head; so the last, the brutalised, poor and oppressed come first in a theology of service and sacrifice, and the first, that is the preening leaders and Churchmen so quick to yoke their faith to the Nazi machine, come truly last as the abominations that they are.

A remarkable work, detailing a remarkable life.

A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Stolen Lives”

“The X-Files: Stolen Lives” is a direct follow up to “The X-Files: Cold Cases” in the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, and various monsters and supernatural happenings menace the world. Grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The show aired for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.

This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprise their roles as agents Mulder and Scully, and they are clearly having a blast stepping into these familiar shoes. And their enthusiasm is infectious. Welcome also to the return of the Lone Gunmen, in an amusing but credulity stretching development here holed up in a secret lair under Arlington Cemetery, and grab your favourite pack of smokes (Morleys) it’s the return of Spender, the Cigarettes Smoking Man, here a tortured clone doomed to die violently and repeatedly. He becomes strangely sympathetic.

He’s not the only clone afoot. There’s a sinister army of them, comprising of old faces from the original show, the titular ‘Stolen Lives.’ These are mainly baddies, the dreaded Syndicate for one, the Cabal responsible for orchestrating the original alien invasion conspiracy. They are ruled over by a fearsome new Prime Elder with an agenda of his own. His identity and some of his agenda are revealed in the final story of this collection, ‘Elders,’ and it’s the conclusion of a satisfying arc that began Cold Cases and has run through both releases. There are stand alone stories here as well, as in the last collection, mirroring the format of the original show. And unfortunately as patchy as the original. It begins with a powerful story of possession that I thought was going to be the start of a whole new arc, it felt so epic. But it wasn’t. It’s chilling, violent, and has a number of real gut punching scenes of visceral power. As a heads up there is a scene of a mass shooting that some will feel especially unsettling and upsetting given recent real world events.

After this there follows a tale of a ravenous swarm of flesh eating Scarabs, that’s ok but feels very generic. Then we find out what happened toAgents Dogget and Reece after their disappearance in Cold Cases. Again, it’s ok, but there’s a feeling of it not quite living up to it’s premise. Just a quick tidying up of loose ends.  

Then the weakest of the bunch, an investigation into Government produced psycho-active substances with a much too protracted gag involving Mulder getting stoned. Real life legal highs are much scarier.

And it wraps up with the superior story arc conclusion mentioned above, and a promising set up for the next series.

On the whole a great, patchy listen, faithful to the strengths and the weaknesses of the original, and taking it in some interesting new directions. And there’s one powerful reveal and link to the original that I have not given away here. Enjoy.

A review of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan.” Vol 2.

This builds on the Titan mythos, leading it in surprising directions that give plenty of hooks to keep us reading. What exactly is the “Berserker Titan” and why is it attacking other Titans? Is it the key to turning the tide in humanity’s war against the Titans?

Characters develop in satisfying ways; Armin must conquer her self loathing and guilt over the event at the end of Book if she is to survive. Mikasa must harness the anger from traumas past and present to fuel her determination to take the fight to the Titan’s to the next level.

Again there are some fantastic set pieces, full of action and horror (although the art avoids full on gore, a single frame of a soldier frozen in horror about to enter a Titan’s huge maw is enough). The soldier’s weaponry is an especially ingenious addition to this series, the system of gas cylinders, harnesses and blades that turns the fighters into acrobatic, air-borne weapons.

Visceral, kinetic, layered and satisfying storytelling.