A gripping but inadequate chronicle of the times: A review of Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

I read Bob Woodward and Car Bernstein’s ‘All the Presidents Men’ some time back, as I have always been fascinated by the Nixon Presidency, with all its drama and dysfunction and ‘dark side of Camelot’ themes, as well as the tortured psychology of Nixon himself. Woodward has chronicled pretty much every President since, and has traced the effects of Watergate through successive Presidencies.
Trump, though, is a new low of dysfunction, a new standard of venality and dysfunction in the White House that makes Nixon look the soul of integrity. How does Woodward tackle him? he uses the ‘deep cover’ that has serviced him well in the past, speaking to senior officials off the record. And it does here make for gripping drama. the book is mainly reconstructed dialogue of various situations in the Trump Presidency as harvested from these interviews, with linking narrative and background there, but kept to a minimum.
It works well in conveying immediacy, drama, the white hot moments of critical events unfolding. Trump’s criminal stupidity is of Godzilla proportions, stomping on any good sense that gets in its way, as his beleaguered officials try to steer him, contain him, and snatch documents from his desk so that he can’t sign his own harmful directives.
That all said, I am left feeling that Bob Woodward used his usual playbook, which is very ‘Washington,’ always slightly dazzled by the culture of the Hill and the language and customs of power. And that play-book can’t do justice to the Trump Presidency. This is a Presidency that is tearing up all the norms of political and human decency. Woodward’s style is more suited to days when they were still ascendant, even when they were tarnished by Nixon. Woodward wrote well about that tarnishing. But here, I feel he needs a tougher approach.
Woodward pretty much buys into the idea that the GOP contains heroes trying to restrain Trump. But he ignores why more of them aren’t being more active in defying this President. It is one thing to whisper to a journalist in deep cover, or sneak a document off a desk. Another to really do something that counts, by taking a public stand. And why does Woodward dismiss Christopher Steele’s dossier on Russian Collusion as trash? This is an essential theme and he does not explain his view, or acknowledge its importance.
All in all this is a compulsive read, but inadequate to the times.

As a postscript, I tried to post this review on Amazon, but was blocked, as Amazon says “reviews are being limited because of unusual reviewing activity.”  Go figure.

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A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

For many years now our family has enjoyed the most wonderful Summer holidays in Cornwall.  And it’s at this time that my tradition is to read a book by C.S.Lewis.

Having exhausted his science fiction trilogy, and his essays and works on the Christian faith, I have now turned to the Chronicles of Narnia.  Last year it was “the Magician’s Nephew,” this year “the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

One of the best known and loved of Lewis’s works, the out-line of the story will be known to most.  Children are playing hide and seek in an Uncle’s large house.  One child, Lucy, bolts into a wardrobe and into another world, populated by Fauns. talking animals, and an evil witch who has cast the land in a perpetual Winter, and cancelled Christmas.  Lucy is shortly followed by Edmund, who meets said Queen and is turned to the dark side by a box of Turkish delight.  Then enter the rest of the gang, older children Peter and Susan.

They are befriended by Mr and Mrs Beaver, and taken to meet the land’s power for Good, Aslan.  An epic confrontation between good and evil follows.  What is also well known is how this is modelled on the Christian Gospel, with its vicarious sacrifice to pay the price for evil and treachery, and resurrection and the defeat of evil.

For my money Lewis does this without distorting or spoiling the story.  It is, above all, an engaging, fast paced, imaginative and moving story.  And I think you would feel that with no knowledge of Christianity.  For those of and sympathetic to the Christian faith it offers another level of meaning, and it is skilful how the events do parallel those in the Gospel.  As well as the main notes, we get the torment and persecution of Aslan by monsters echoing the torture and taunting of Christ, and the women watching the tomb and tending to the slain Christ are echoed by Lucy and Susan in this story in their ministering to Aslan at the stone table.  But the foundation to all this, I have to stress, is a really good story.  None of it would work if it wasn’t.

I love also the black and white illustrations by Pauline Baynes, sketches that capture the magic and wonder of the story.

Lewis’s gender politics are dated and have been a problem for many, and hotly debated.  That they were the norm when he wrote does not mean that they do not grate.  There is a line here that made me wince about battles being uglier if women fight.  No, war is ugly whoever fights, and World War One destroyed the notion of wars fought by poetic, chivalrous combat.

It is a problem, but not one in my view that should spoil the story.  We have to be sympathetic to the fact that he was writing in and of his time, and his female characters, Queen included, are so epic.  Lucy and Susan drive the action as much as if not more that their male counterparts.

A wonderful story, well written by a master story-teller.  Young or old, this is here to be enjoyed.

A review of Nick Clark Windo’s “The Feed.”

In ‘The Feed’ Nick Clark Windo weaves a frightening and compelling tale that draws on our addiction to modern technology, the internet and the increasing digital interconnectedness of things, and takes it a few steps further; what if the internet was in our heads and could be access by our thoughts? What if this allowed us to instantaneously access and communicate full sensory experiences, memories and dreams? Where would our reliance on that technology take us? What would we lose? What if we became consciously and subconsciously addicted to ‘the feed’ as this extra neural net is called, and what if it suddenly, catastrophically ‘went down?’ What would happen to individuals and society?

Tom, Kate, and their unborn child are about to find out…

This is a brilliantly constructed, taut, pacy science fiction and horror story that is uncomfortably close to where we are in our current dependencies on technology. There’s a breathtaking opening scene that cleverly communicates through breathless, italicised prose what the hyper-reality of the feed is like. Then the collective double shock at a Presidential assassination, and the failing of the feed. That they are connected is to become disturbingly apparent.

The years pass, and a further horrific development becomes evident; people are ‘taken’ in their sleep, waking to become to other people, prone to violence and terrorism. But taken by who or what?

The writer develops these theme in an imaginative tour de force that I won’t spoil here. The origin of the invaders is poignant and disturbing.

And over half way through this book there is rug pull that is genuinely shocking and that I for one did not see coming, that adds layers of emotional and psychological pain on its protagonists. And there are moments of terrible horror. The book does not give readers an easy out, or an easy ride.

This is a dystopia that is original, plausible, and utterly compelling. Recommended.

A review of James Goss and Douglas Adam’s “Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet.”

When I was 8 or 9 I would tune in and be engrossed by the Phillip Hinchcliffe era of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. They were gothic tales, visceral and horrific at times and for me could be the stuff of nightmares. This is the era that gave us the terrifying Sutekh and his robot mummies in Pyramids of Mars, the body horror of human beings transforming into repellent aliens in The Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom, and more.
Something odd then happened. I entered a new unhappier phase of my life, starting an awful private school away from home where I felt alone and bullied. And Doctor Who changed. Gone was the brooding atmosphere and (often) scary monsters. Instead we got Graham Williams,   then John Nathan Turner producing, with Douglas Adam’s (amongst others) scripts. To me, then, they were naff. Unfunny (but trying for funny), unscary, and not the Doctor Who I loved. Now this may well have been me, transference and all that. But I just could not get along with the new (then) Who.

So I picked up James Goss’s recent telling of ‘The Pirate Planet’ with lowish expectations. I remembered very little of the TV original of the story (apart from the bit where K9 takes out the robot parrot) which spoke volumes to me. What a wonderful surprise, then, to find this an engaging, very funny page turner, with an ingenious story and satisfying resolution.
It’s all a bit of a labour of love for James Goss. He went out, as the book’s postscripts and afterwords explain, to find Adam’s early drafts of the story and struck gold, finding at least three earlier drafts of the story fizzing with humour, ideas and invention, which necessarily had to be curtailed for the small screen.

It’s about a hollow world, like a giant Tardis, that can materialise around planets and literally suck the lives out of them. Valuable minerals are extracted, and some shower down on a brainwashed and duped population. This is ruled over by a shouty cyborg captain with a nice line in oaths, insults and threats, and a nurse hovering at his shoulder to make sure his lumbering robot frame does not overheat and cook his flesh. He has a robot parrot, and a terrified civil servant of sorts he can shout at called Mr Fibuli. But to what purpose does this planet continue its genocidal, planet killing course? What hidden terrors lie beneath the surface, literally and figuratively? And who are the mysterious ‘Mourners,’ a depressed psycho-telekinetic cult that can literally paralyse people with despair?

The 4th Doctor, Roman and K9 are about to find out, over the course of a wonderful, head-spinning, and very funny yarn. Really loved this. Clearly James Goss and Douglas Adams are the archetypal marriage made of heaven.

A great read, whether you saw the original or not, and if like me, you did not get on with this era of Who originally, give it a shot.

A review of ‘Doctor Who: Survival;’ the novelisation by Rona Munro and audio-book read by Lisa Bowerman

Where as I’ve never seen Survival, the audio book made a great holiday listen, and if you are a fan of Doctor Who, especially the Classic series, and thrice especially the Target novelisations, this is something of a poignant treat. Poignant because Survival is both the final serial of the 26th season and also the final story of the entire original 26-year run of the Doctor Who. The story was first broadcast in three parts, weekly, from 22 November to 6 December 1989. The story contained a number of finals, the final regular television appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, of Sophie Aldred as Ace and the last regular television appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.

The audio book is narrated by Lisa Bowerman, who played Karra, a ‘Cheetah-person’ in the tv Survival story, and has also voiced the New Adventures / Big Finish audio drama favourite Bernice Summerfield.

The book’s settings are, variously, Perivale in West London and a dying Alien world. We begin in West London, where the Doctor brings his companion Ace back to her home, Perivale, to catch up with family and friends. Other than Ace being in a real mood about the whole thing, something is very wrong (as it would be). People are disappearing. And a particularly feral black cat watches from teh sidelines, as does the Doctor’s most implacable foe…
It transpire that people are being chased by horse mounted ‘Cheetah-people’ into another dimension, where they run and hide or are killed by for sport by the same cat creatures. Worse, the planet itself is directing everything with a malign force that seeks to compel an accelerated Darwinian struggle and spread it to new worlds. Turns out the Master is stuck on the planet, and needs the Doctor’s help to escape…

The story has a number of characteristics typical of the show of this time. First, it is an original and pacy story. The show had not strayed into interminable story arc territory at this stage. It combines very domestic and familiar settings (London estates, suburbs, youth clubs, and so on) with alien worlds. It is full of the Seventh Doctor’s particular characteristics, the rolling, r’s, a kind but determined and persistent approach, and the familiarity of a trusted Uncle with vert eccentric habits. And the inter-play with Ace, extreme banter and a real bond.
It also has the casual and violent ends of quite a few minor characters (still a trope) that keeps dramatic tension high. You really don’t know who is going to make it (apart from the Doctor and hos companions. Companion death was still relatively rare.

The Master is a strong component in this story. He is thoroughly evil, some of his actions are wholly irredeemable, and yet darkly witty and engaging. We get some intriguing backstory of the Master and the Doctor’s shared story in this novelisation as well
Lisa Bowerman’s narration is really well done. She is clearly enjoying herself, conjuring the 7th Doctor, Ace and others before our eyes, and that is infectious.

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.

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.