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Dr. R. Brandon (England)
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The Porcupine
The Porcupine
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Gripping Read on a Number of Levels, 31 Jan. 2016
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This review is from: The Porcupine (Paperback)
This short, but very well written and constructed novel, is really quite thrilling and hard to put down. You find yourself turning the pages wanting to know the outcome of the trial of the fictional Stoyo Petkanov, deposed leader of a former Soviet satellite country. Although a work of fiction Julian Barnes has clearly based the story on the trial of Todor Zhivkov, former General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Many of the actions referred to, including the longevity of the rule of the leader, Zhivkov remained in power for 35 years (1954 – 1989), the early death of the Secretary for Culture who was the daughter of Zhivkov and the fact that Zhivkov was simply tried for embezzlement, are all mirrored in this novel.
I found the story particularly interesting because it raises many questions as to how former leaders of dictatorships should be treated. In this case the public prosecutor finds it extremely difficult to apply the law in a straightforward and legal manner which prevents him from dealing with obvious major crimes against the state of false arrests, curtailment of freedoms, executions etc., and, is the evidence itself that he has been given true? Also the prosecutor faces the problem that not everyone, including his wife, agrees that the trial should even take place. One is reminded of the disastrous Milosevic trial.
A fascinating story on a number of levels and a gripping read. A short beautifully constructed book is so refreshing.


The Record of an Adventurous Life
The Record of an Adventurous Life
by H M Hyndman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.04

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Word ‘Sketches’ of Early Socialist Pioneers and Others, 27 Jan. 2016
This entertaining book contains some 28 chapters on the different places visited and the different people known to Henry Mayers Hyndman (1842-1921) in the course of his interesting career as a political activist. Hyndman was the leader and a founding member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), one of the leading Socialist societies in the early days of the Socialist movement in England. The Democratic Federation, later the SDF, was founded in 1881 and one of its earliest campaigns was in support of Irish emancipation. Hyndman, Oxford educated and financially comfortable, was a controversial Socialist leader almost from the start, and still attracts negative comment to the present day. An early rift occurred between Hyndman and Karl Marx when Hyndman published a pamphlet, ‘England for All’ explaining Socialist and Collectivist ideas and borrowing without attribution ideas that had first appeared in the work of Marx and Engels. Hyndman was outspoken and a strong-willed but nevertheless attracted many eminent characters to the SDF including William Morris, John Burns, Harry Quelch, Belfort Bax, Andeas Scheu, and the Avelings (Edward and Eleanor Marx). Inevitably splits occurred between such an opinionated set of people but in most cases reconciliation later took place, particularly with William Morris.
This book is not a history of the SDF nor a continuous narrative but a series of ‘sketches’ which include experiences in Italy, Australia and America. Hyndman met, and in many cases had long friendships, with many important people and chapters are given over to descriptions and opinion regarding Mazzini, George Meredith, Disraeli, Karl Marx, Clemenceau, William Morris, Randolph Churchill, Wilhelm Liebknect and Jean Jaures, and bywords on many others. Often the chapters leave you wanting to know more but these brief comments are interesting nevertheless.
This is a print-on-demand reprint of the original 1911 copy. The book does not contain an index or reference notes but the chapters are clearly titled and make finding your way around easy. The writing style is good if a little ‘flowery’ by modern standards (Hyndman was a prolific writer and journalist) and the book makes an interesting read for those wanting to know a little more about some of the early Socialist pioneers and leading English statesmen of the day.


Eleanor Marx: A Life
Eleanor Marx: A Life
by Rachel Holmes
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars An Epic Tale of a Woman of Prodigious Talent, 15 Jan. 2016
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I enjoyed reading this interesting and weighty tome about the life of Eleanor Marx, committed international Communist and life-long campaigner for the rights of workers (men and women). I do have a few minor criticisms that prevent me from giving a full five star rating, however. I found some of the sentence construction in the early chapters annoying and had to re-read occasional sentences a second time to extract their full meaning. There are a few historical inaccuracies. For example, George Gilbert Scott did not design St Pancras Station and Annie Besant did not lead the Matchgirls Strike. Perhaps my most serious criticism, however, is that the author intrudes too often into the narrative with her own political views.
The book relates the full life of Eleanor Marx, youngest of the three surviving daughters of Karl and Jenny Marx. Eleanor turns out to be a woman of exceptional gifts and energy. She mastered English, German and French to a level of proficiency that allowed her to translate at numerous conferences for foreign speakers. Later she also mastered Yiddish when she became interested in the life of Jews in the East End of London. She undertook prodigious quantities of work for the various causes she supported. These ranged from acting as secretary and researcher for her father, to supporting various labour unions particularly the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union of Will Thorne, who she also helped with his education. Eleanor was a founder member of the Social Democratic Union (SDF) of Henry Hyndman and provided much work as party secretary and was a very able speaker and campaigner, later being in constant demand at all socialist events. Although there was a rift with Hyndman who supported nationalist rather than internationalist labour policies, Eleanor later rejoined the SDF out of pragmatic considerations and never ceased to campaign for the rights of labour.
Throughout her life Eleanor (and Engels) were keepers of the ‘flame’ of Marxism and both exerted prodigious efforts to bring the often chaotic writing of Marx into print.
Of course, as many will already appreciate, the tragedy of Eleanor’s life was her love and partnership with Dr Edward Aveling. It is hard to understand her liking for this man who was often loathed by others, a man of numerous infidelities, a spendthrift, inveterate borrower and embezzler. It is true, however, that Aveling did have a number of talents which included acting, public speaking and perhaps, most important of all, the ability to work with Eleanor on their numerous campaigns. Eleanor for her part felt sorry for Aveling, a persistent hypochondriac, and seemed always prepared to forgive his numerous transgressions until finally, just when things seemed to be going well, she was confronted with such appalling behaviour that she chose to take her own life.
An epic story of a wonderfully talented woman who, whilst never attaining the leadership role, never stopped working for others but whose own life was to finally end in tragedy. This book will particularly appeal to those interested in pioneers of the rights of ‘man’ and the early labour movement in Britain as well as the general reader.


My Life's Battles (Classic Reprint)
My Life's Battles (Classic Reprint)
by Will Thorne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.59

3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Start But Disappointing Overall, 27 Dec. 2015
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Frankly, this is a disappointing book. I like to read about early Socialist pioneers and I thought the autobiography of Will Thorne (1857-1946), leader of the Gas Workers Union and the first person to secure an 8-hour working day for his workers in 1889, would be of interest. In fact the first five chapters, some 97 pages (total 221), are interesting and cover the early years of Thorne’s employment in Birmingham, his move to London and the Beckton Gas Works as a retort charger, and the gradual formation of the union and the strike for an 8-hour working day. (This pre-dated the Great Dock Strike lead by Ben Tillett). All exciting stuff and very informative, but then the book trails off in interest as Will Thorne becomes steadily more important in the union movement and as a general secretary trails from one congress to another providing us with a list of ‘fraternal exchanges’ and a rather boring travelogue.
We must, perhaps, give credit to Thorne as he was initially illiterate having received no education, later being taught to read and write by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, and here he is writing an autobiography. The style is very simplistic and intrinsically interesting visits such as his trip to Russia in 1916 lose a lot as a result of his lack of narrative skill. It would have been nice to learn more of his animosity towards John Burns and lasting friendship towards H. M. Hyndman, leader of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). In current Socialist writing Burns is now generally revered and Hyndman ridiculed, whereas back in the late 19th century the reverse seems to have been the case.
Only for really die-hard Socialist historians.


A Mountain of Crumbs: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
A Mountain of Crumbs: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
by Elena Gorokhova
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A ‘Light-Touch’ Memoir of Life in Khrushchev’s Russia, 23 Dec. 2015
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This is a good book, interesting and generally well written. It tells of the life of the author growing up in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in the 1960s and 70s. Stalin has not long died and Khrushchev is now the leader of the Soviet Union, so random arrests and executions have ceased but all the other elements of state Communism are still in place.
The early chapters dealing with the very early childhood of the author and the family holidays in a dacha on the Gulf of Finland are, perhaps, the least successful. The writing is a little confused and ‘bumpy’ but as the book progresses so the style becomes much more accomplished and the story more interesting. The book contains a lot about the thoughts and anxieties of a little girl, then teenager and young woman growing up. We read of her first ‘crushes’ and experiences with boys, stories that might apply to young girls anywhere. It is not simply an expose of life in the Soviet Union.
The book puts over the concept of ‘vranyo’ where the speaker makes a required statement that she knows not to be true, and the listener also knows the statement not to be true, but it is a required by the state and these routine observances have to be made in all situations and walks of life if trouble is to be avoided. The lack of goods, things perpetually not working properly, overweening bureaucracy, the mystery of what goes on outside the USSR, all these everyday elements occur naturally in the story so that it has a very ‘light-touch’ and is never a polemic. There is also much about Russian food.
As the author is an English language student (and guide) we have interesting comments on the differences in ‘feel’ or ‘mood’ between the Russian and English languages, English surprisingly appearing by far the most excitable in the view of the author.
This is a good book, quite lyrical at times, and interesting on a number of levels. One wonders what a cultured Russian woman made of life in Texas.


Death of a Red Heroine: Inspector Chen 1 (Inspector Chen Cao)
Death of a Red Heroine: Inspector Chen 1 (Inspector Chen Cao)
by Qiu Xiaolong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Rewarding and Intellectual Story of Exceptional Quality, 17 Dec. 2015
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This is the first of the Inspector Chen series of novels by the award winning expatriate Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong. However, this is not just a run-of-the-mill detective novel, this is a finely crafted work of exceptional quality with serious literary pretensions. The books are set in 1990s China, this first in Shanghai, and depict a rapidly changing and somewhat bewildering society under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer. Thus we have a society in which the old cadres are trying to retain their privileges and power and are being challenged by a new thrusting reformist breed encouraged by their leader. Chen, a cop with integrity, thus has to walk a political tightrope whilst trying to solve a difficult murder case.
The author paints a vivid and accurate picture of the topography of Shanghai (which I have visited), of the living conditions of the different strata of society, of the local food, entertainment and of the quickening pace of change. Chen is depicted as an intellectual poetry-quoting policeman which allows the author to recall lines from Chinese and English poets, a topic in which he was awarded a PhD whilst living in the United States.
The underlying detective story is finely crafted and convincing but this book also presents a painless way of learning a lot about modern China, its life and politics. The book contains no violence and is certainly not ‘embossed-title-airport-lounge’ fair. One of the best written and most engrossing novels I have read in a long time, and unreservedly recommended to those who like their detective novels to contain a strong intellectual element. Difficult to put down.


Arab Jazz
Arab Jazz
by Karim Miskť
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A Bogus Invocation of a Diverse Ethnic Setting, 30 Nov. 2015
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This book was favourably received by some of the heavy-weight newspapers and also mentioned on a recent Andy Marr radio programme but I have to say I was disappointed. The action takes place in the 19th arrondissement in north east Paris, an area of diverse communities including Muslim and Orthodox Jews, and quite different to the inner sections of 'tourist' Paris.
I decided to read the book because of this somewhat unusual setting, and indeed there is much about Orthodox Jews and alienated Muslim youth as well as some good scene setting in the diverse shops and businesses in the area. Again the author chooses to portray his police team in unusual terms, a female secular Jew, Rachel Kupferstein, of Lithuanian background and her partner Jean Hamelot of Breton Communist background. Much is made of disc- and film-ography with frequent references to different works, and many authors and detective novels are also invoked to establish the cultural background of the characters. All this is done well, including descriptive sections where we are allowed to see the thoughts of characters under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Having established this milieu it comes as a great disappointment to find that all these characters and the setting are largely incidental to the main theme of murder and drug smuggling. I wonder if the author was fearful of having Salafists or Orthodox Jews responsible for the awful crimes he portrays.
Other reviewers have spoken of unrealistic sections where segments of the plot are suddenly explained to us in unlikely revelations by witnesses. I agree with these criticisms and might also add that the witness-detective relationships are also somewhat unbelievable. The novel also contains some stylistic ideas such as occasional capital letters that do not add to the narrative.
In essence, a somewhat cobbled together plot invoking a diverse ethnic background that is bogus and largely incidental to the plot. Good in parts.


Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship
Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship
by Andrew Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

2.0 out of 5 stars Worthy, But a Very ‘Dry’ Read, 23 Nov. 2015
This is an economic and political history of Belarus written in an academic style. The author, Andrew Wilson, has clearly carried out copious research in Russian and Belarussian sources to chart the history, or lack of history, in this region from ancient times. The complete lack of any reliable ancient chronicles and absence of any feeling of statehood until recent times makes a lot of the early history conjecture. The first 59 pages cover most of this early history before the advent of the 19th century and something resembling nationhood. The problem with this section is that it is almost unreadable being little more than lists of events, many of which may be myth, with interminable ‘Belarussian’ names of characters who will mean nothing to a Western reader. Unfortunately this tendency continues at times throughout the book.
We are told of the changing borders of Belarus and the notions of ‘belonging’ based mainly on religion rather than statehood and the opposing influences of Catholic Poland (and Lithuania) and Orthodox Russia. A more accessible section follows concerning the changes to the country following the First World War, the Polish-Russian War of 1921 and finally the Second World War. The establishment of the Soviet Republic of Belarus follows with some capital investment into manufacturing concerns such as potash mining and the building of the iconic Soviet tractors. The independent nation of Belarus finally emerges with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and three years later the rise of President Lukashenko, the current dictator of the country. The final chapters are concerned with the minutiae of political manoeuvring that accompanied the rise of Lukashenko and his subsequent manipulation of the following periodic elections in order to retain power. Many details are given of the endemic corruption and self-enrichment of the elite on which the political system in this kleptocracy is based. Reselling of Russian oil and ‘privatisation’ of businesses seemingly being two of the largest sources of the personal wealth of the ruling class.
The problem with this book is that all the interminable detail of the political manoeuvring is indigestible because we are told very little of the main characters involved, so they always remain just names. There is no description of Lukashenko, no personal details other than brief mention of a mistress, not even a decent photograph of the man or the ruling circle. The book is written in a very ‘dry’ character free style which went out of fashion some years ago. It contains no personal ‘colour’. I did finish reading this book and learnt something of the history and politics of Belarus but recommend it only to the most dedicated students of political intrigue and infighting. Disappointing.


The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard's Special Collection
The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard's Special Collection
by Jackie Keily and Julia Hoffbrand
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Nicely Presented Catalogue, 6 Nov. 2015
This is the catalogue published for the exhibition, ‘The Crime Museum Uncovered’ at the Museum of London 9th Oct 2015 to 10th April 2016. The exhibition is the first public display of items from what used to be known as the ‘Black Museum’ but is now called the Crime Museum of the Metropolitan Police. The exhibition covers some 24 notorious or important individual cases, many but not all for murder, from the founding of the collection to 1975. A number of crime themes such as weapons, drugs, terrorism, counterfeiting etc., are also covered. This catalogue very faithfully reproduces all the displays with brief notes and copious high quality illustrations. The notes cover the essentials of each case or topic and explain the significance of the display. The notes are cursory and are not designed to provide the reader (or visitor) with in-depth case details for which reference to books or the internet would be required. I suspect many visitors or readers will want to know more about some of the interesting cases but greater detail would detract from the purpose of the exhibition and make the catalogue encyclopaedic. However, the book is very nicely presented with a brief introduction and history of the collection, and is highly recommended for those who cannot make the exhibition or for visitors who would like a lasting record of the displays and their importance.


Field Grey A Bernie Gunther Novel by Kerr, Philip ( Author ) ON Mar-31-2011, Paperback
Field Grey A Bernie Gunther Novel by Kerr, Philip ( Author ) ON Mar-31-2011, Paperback
by Philip Kerr
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A Real Vivid Thriller of Impeccable Research and Characterisation, 3 Nov. 2015
Another superb Bernie Gunther thriller by Philip Kerr. The plot has far too many twists and turns to even attempt to summarise it but suffice to say it contains all the ingredients Kerr fans have come to expect. We find ex-Berlin cop Bernie Gunther now in Cuba in 1954 at the height of the Cold War but fear not, much of the book is concerned with recollection of events in Europe from 1931 through to 1946. Gunther again becomes involved with real historical characters and takes part in events (well researched by the author) that actually took place and experiences various prison camps that really existed. As always Kerr supplies us with copious snippets of history, that whilst being true, do not usually turn up in mainstream history books. He has a thought provoking and interesting take on events.
The style is impeccable and the writing lucid. The characterisation and descriptions of places are beautifully graphic and so vivid that you can see the scene in your mind’s eye immediately. The story in this, the seventh Bernie Gunther novel contains, perhaps, even more twists than usual but is highly recommended to all Gunther fans and to those new to the genre.


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