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The Martian
The Martian
by Andy Weir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars A good novel that could be an even better film, 29 April 2015
This review is from: The Martian (Paperback)
Like the hero of his novel, Weir has succeeded against the odds. Originally his work was self-published on his web site chapter by chapter before being picked up by a publisher and enjoying great success. The eponymous Martian is of course a human, Mark Watney, originally one of a crew of six visiting the red planet on NASA's Ares 3 mission. When he finds himself alone in immensely challenging circumstances, he shows amazing resilience and inventiveness and, in a regular and detailed log, considerable wry and dry humour "Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped".

The scientific detail of the writing is astonishing and Weir, the son of a physicist, has described himself as "a space nerd my whole life" and acknowledged that he did "a ton of research for the book as well as lots of thought-experiment science". At first, I wondered how much I could take of the single-person narrative and all the science - which, while making for a convincing tale, is rather heavy - but, after almost 50 pages, the style changes and the format opens out, so that it becomes a real page-turner and the 370 pages rush by.

This is not great literature, but it is grand storytelling. It is not character-driven - indeed we learn little about Watney or anyone else in the account - but it is action-driven. Things keep happenening to make Watney's survival seem hopeless, only for other developments to come along that make rescue a possibility once more. As I read the novel, I kept thinking what a terrific film it would make - especially with less of the science and more character development - and, once I finished the work and checked out the web, I learned that indeed it is to be a movie with Matt Damon in the lead role. It's going to be up there with "Apollo 13" and "Gravity".


An Officer and a Spy
An Officer and a Spy
by Robert Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Literally very hard to put down, 16 April 2015
This review is from: An Officer and a Spy (Paperback)
Harris is one of Britain's bestselling thriller writers and this is his ninth novel. I read his first four - "Fatherland", "Enigma", Archangel" and "Pompeii" - but then left him alone. The reviews for "An Officer And A Spy" were so favourable that I returned to the fold and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed thw work.

Harris usually sets his stories in a specitifc historical period and Ancient Rome and the Second World War are his favourited epocs. This time, he has chosen late 19th century/early 20th century France to tell in fiction form the true infamous story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and only finally exonerated in 1906 - what Harris calls in an Author's Note "perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history".

The novel is written in the present tense through the first person perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, the chief of the army's Statistical Section who played a major part in the exposure of the scandal. It is a lengthy narrative of just over 600 pages, but it covers 12 years (Harris concentrates on the first five) with a host of characters (Harris has a list of almost 50 'dramatis personae' at the beginning). Yet it is a compelling read because Harris is a master storyteller.

It is such a fantastical tale that, if one did not know that it was history, one would find it literally incredible. But the author assures the reader: "None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life." Much of the milieu of the story is the byzantine universe of military intelligence and Picquart refsrs to "the cabalistic world of 'secret intelligence': two words that can make otherwise sane men abandon their reason and cavort like idiots".

Robert Harris was inspired to write this novel by the longtime interest in the Dreyfus affair of his close friend French film director Roman Polanski. The two men collaborated together to produce the film "The Ghost Writer" and now Harris has written a screenplay based on the Dreyfus novel which Polanski is set to direct. There are many dramatic courtroom encounters in the story which should make for powerful cinema.


Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq
Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq
by Amin Saikal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.95

4.0 out of 5 stars A concise but very informed examination of four of the most troubled nations in geo-politics, 28 Mar. 2015
Amin Saikal is an Afghan-born scholar of international affairs who is Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He has written a study of four West Asian countries that are adjacent to one another and rarely out of the headlines, what he calls "a volatile, uncertain and unpredictable zone, with serious implications for changing world order". He is an immensely knowledgeable observer with a balanced and insightful view of events and he writes clearly although a little academically in tone. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he has little original to say about how to sort out the chronic messes that he describes.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are predominately Sunni states, while Iraq and Iran have a Shia majority population (the only such countries in the world except for tiny Bahrain and secular Azerbaijan). Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered recent invasions by predominately American and British military forces, while Pakistan and Iran have 'only' faced drone attacks and economic sanctions respectively. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have some of the veneers of a democracy, but their political institutions are massively flawed, while Iran - the most stable of the states examined - has its own version of elective power that is counterbalanced by a more powerful theocratic elite.

In his commendably short but nevertheless informative book, Saikal has four long chapters and, in the case of each nation, he sets out the complicated mosaic of ethnic groups and a brief account of the recent historical legacy, he examines the current governance and economic performance, he explores the country's position in international relationships, and finally he attempts a look at the way forward.

So, for Afghanistan, Saikal explains how the Taliban and their supporters largely come from the Ghilzai part of the Pashtun community, while former President Karzai and most of his cohort belong to the Durrani segment of the Pashtuns, so that "the conflict within Aghanistan since 2001 has been essentially an intra-Pashtun one". He is scathing of Karzai insisting: "His approach and policies gave rise to politics of patronage, corruption and inefficiency in both the civilian and military spheres at all levels." But he is equally critical of the Americans: "the Bush administration failed to draw up a comprehensive and coherent programme of reconstruction for Afghanistan. The approach that it adopted was piecemeal, poorly coordinated and badly implemented." In this chaotic state, opium cultivation has continued to expand, so that "Afghanistan has for all practical purposes become, once again, a narco-state."

Akthough Pakistan of course has its own chapter, Saikal notes that "Developments in the two countries have been so intertwined that some analysts and policymakers have opted to lump them together under the joint designation, 'Af-Pak'." But Pakistan has its own ethnic mix with the largest groups (in order) being the Punjabis (who back the Pakistan Muslim League political party), the Sindhis (who support the Pakistan People's Party), the Pathans as the Pashtuns are called here (responsible for a Taliban insurgency), and the Baluchis (supporting another insurgency). Political power has oscillated between the PML, the PPP, and the military with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) always massively influential. This is a nation that spends around one quarter of government revenue on defence (which includes a nuclear arsenal) but less than 2% on education and under 1% on health.

Iran is less socially fragmented than Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, with a substantial majority of Iranians being of Persian ethnicity, which has enabled it - unlike the other countries - to have a clear national identity as opposed to the tribal, sectarian or religious identities to which the citizens of the other states adhere. Also, since the Ayatollah Khomeini seized contol of the revolution of 1978-79, the country has had a unique political system that Saikal characterises as an uneasy and fluctuating balance between the 'sovereignty of God' (as expressed through the fundamentalist Shia leaders with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as their shock troops) and the 'sovereignity of the people' (as represented by the elected president and parliament). Saikal sees some hopeful signs following the recent election of President Rouhani.

It is in the case of Iraq that Saikal is at his bitterest about American policy in the zone of crisis following the occupation of the country from 2003-2011. He opines that "Washington's misreading and underestimation of Iraq's complexity boggles the mind" and writes "The United States, as the leading occupying force, could neither fully grasp the complexity of the Iraqi situation, nor put in motion an appropriate and effective post-invasion strategy of political reform, governance and reconstruction for the country." But, of course, Iraqis do not escape his criticisms. We are all very familiar with the divisions and conflicts between the Shias in the south, the Sunnis in the centre, and the Kurds in the north, but Saikal highlights further cleavages between secularists/semi-secularists and Islamists and between centralists and regionalists. He is damning of the leadership of al-Maliki who he insists "has increasingly acted like a dictator, cementing patronage and nepotism as hallmarks of Iraqi governance."

So, what is to be done? Saikal points out that "Neutrality and openness are required of all parties if progress is to be made" (what are the chances of that?). He insists: "political systems must be created to allow for and promote plurality, compromise, moderation and the acceptance of dissent" (he is a fan of the Lebanese model). He suggests revisiting the possibility of a reformist Islamist model (he appears to have in mind Iran under Khatami). In a wider context, he points out the need for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the Indo-Pakistani contestation of Kashmir. A huge and complex agenda then ...


North Korea: State of Paranoia
North Korea: State of Paranoia
by Paul French
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.69

4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful analysis but not as up-to-date as it should be, 25 Jan. 2015
In the global community, no nation is as closed and inscrutable and unpredictable as North Korea, often called 'the Hermit Kingdom' but officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is why I was keen to read French's book. It is a well-written and insightful work, but rather repetitive (it runs to over 400 pages). More seriously, much of the data - and French admits "essentially no reliable statistics have been published by the DPRK since 1965" - is a decade old (especially on the economy on which he writes at length) and the book has the feel of something written 10 years ago and up-dated only minimally.

What the book does tell us is deeply troublimg. Throughout its life-time, the DPRK has been ruled with utter totalitarianism by a succession of three dictators:

Kim Il-sung or Kim 1 or `the Great Leader'- the original dictator who ruled the country from 1948-1994
Kim Jong-il or Kim 2 or `the Dear Leader' - the eldest son of Kim Il-sung who ruled the country from 1994-2011
Kim Jong-un or Kim 3 or the `Great Successor'- the third son of Kim Jong-il and a grandson of Kim Il-sung who has ruled the country since 2011

All of them have followed a peculiar political philosophy called `Juche' said to be Kim Il-sung's "original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought". French describes it as "an indigenous revolutionary doctrine fusing the basic tenets of Marxist-Leninism with elements of Maoism and Confucianism and traditional Korean social systems". The theory is that popular masses are placed in the centre of everything and the leader is the centre of the masses. In practice, it is an attempt to make the nation self-reliant and self-sufficient and involves a policy of `military first' in terms of power and resources.

The reality is that North Korea is desperarely poor and massively dependent on international aid. While it seeks to develop nuclear arsenals, its populace is constantly on the edge of famine. Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. French is clear that no significant political or economic reform is possible within the strict terms of 'Juche' amd observes that "Juche has become, in effect, the state religion and thus major revisions are unlikely".

The last chapter - ironically number 13 - is titled "How will the story end?". French explores a few scenarios - such as mass exodus, economic collapse or military takeover - but concludes" 'It is anyone's guess, however, whether the demise of North Korea will be peaceful or violent, gradual or immediate." Meanwhile North Korea remains what the book's conclusion calls "the world's most dangerous tripwire" with the South Korean capital of Seoul a mere 37 miles away from the DPRK's formidable battery of artillery and missiles.

French repeatedly criticises American policy towards North Korea as being episodic and reactive and there is little sign of that changing. The country which most fears a collapse of the DRPK and is most likely - we hope - to reign in its military escapades and stimulate meaningful economic reform is China.


Gone Girl
Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cracking read, 18 Nov. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Gone Girl (Paperback)
I love the title: short, punchy, alliterative. But I don't normally read crime fiction. Then I saw the film of the novel with the screenplay by the author and I knew that I had to read the book. Obviously I already knew the surprises - and there are some great surprises in this narrative - but the twists and turns and clues came so thick and fast in the movie that I really enjoyed spotting and savouring them in the novel.

To enjoy the film or the book - whichever you access first - the less you know about the storyline the better. Let's just say that the plot revolves around the fifth wedding anniversary of an American middle class couple: Nick (34) and Amy (38) Dunne, both writers who have lost their jobs in New York City and moved to Nick's hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. A great deal has changed in their marriage and neither is the person the other once loved so much

In analysing novels, one usually identifies the point of view or narrator and sometimes finds that one has an unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators and both - in vey different ways - are exceptionally unreliable. At one point, one of them assures the reader: "Don't fret, we'll sort this out: the true and the not true and the might as well be true." This never really proves to be the case - I told you they were both unreliable.

The alternating voices of Nick and Amy are presented in different formats with different timescales but gradually convergence both time-wise and plot-wise to a dramatic finale that is far from being a traditional conclusion. Flynn has artfully constructed a really clever narrative with a richness of interlocking elements and the work is all the smarter for being part crime thriller, part examination of the modern marriage, part expose of the impact of austerity.

It is one of the best novels that I have read for sheer pulling power, as Flynn breaks the near 500-page text into bite-sized sections that one wishes to devour at pace, contriving to end many of the sections with a teasing line that urges you to press on.


War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots
War: What is it good for?: The role of conflict in civilisation, from primates to robots
by Ian Morris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sweeping view of history that offers much for contemplation, 19 Oct. 2014
I went to a meeting at the British House of Commons where Professor Ian Morris set out the main themes of his book and this encouraged me to buy and read it. Morris grew up in Britain and studied at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities before moving to the University of Chicago in 1987 and on to Stanford University in 1995. He is now Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and a Fellow of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University.

The title of this, his third, book is taken from the opening words of a song from Edwin Starr in 1969. It is quite a long work: a main text of almost 400 pages with another 70 pages of notes, further reading, and bibliography. But the historical scope is enormous - the entire history of humankind with a speculative look forward as far as the 2050s - and Morris has a certain narrative flair, so it is a fascinating read.

For all its scope, the book can be summarised in four claims:

1. War has created larger and safer communities.
2. War seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies.
3. War has been responsible for making more prosperous societies.
4. War is now in the process of putting itself out of business.

Expanding on these themes, Morris acknowledged that war is one of the greatest human evils. It has ruined livelihoods, provoked unspeakable atrocities and left countless millions dead. It has caused economic chaos and widespread deprivation, and the misery it generates poisons foreign policy for future generations. Yet, in his view, there is a case to be made that it is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.

Most of the book is a run through the history of humankind through the prism of war. He explains how humans migrated from east Africa to the Fertile Crescent in the Lucky Latitudes where agriculture could develop before sea transport around the Mediterraean enabled the first empires to be created. Progress went into reverse when the horsemen of the steppes devastated the Eurasian empires before later the sea nations of western Europe colonised much of the globe. He summarises the main step changes in warfare as respectively fortifications and seiges, metal arms and armour, discipline, chariots, massed iron-armed infantry, cavalry, guns, battleships, tanks, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.

He estimates that, in the Stone Age, between 10-20% of people died a violent death; that, at the time of ancient empires in the late first millennium BC, this figure was down to 2-5%; that, in what he calls the age of steepe migrations from 200-1400 AD, the rate of violent death rose to 5-10% in Eurasia; that, in the 20th century — despite its two world wars, atomic bombs, and multiple genocides — the rate plummeted to only 1-2%; and that, averaged over the world as a whole, today violence kills a mere 0.7%. Of course, these figures are only estimates since there are no reliable statistics before 1500 AD, but he is convinced that the orders of magnitude are broadly correct and demonstrate that overall the world has never been more peaceful. As he puts it: "the evidence of archaeology, anthropology. history, and evolutionary biology seems conclusive".

He acknowledges that, at the height of the Cold War, we had the capacity through nuclear weapons to destroy humankind but he points out that, since a peak number of nuclear warheads in 1986 of more than 70,000, the number has been cut back dramatically (one estimate is a current total of 16,300).

This analysis poses many questions. Is war then in fact a good thing? Without war, would we never have built the nation-states which now keep us relatively safe from random acts of violence, and which have given us previously unimaginable wealth? Is war perhaps the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies? And yet, if we continue waging war with ever-more deadly weaponry, are we running a risk of destroying everything we have achieved?

Morris's conclusion is a controversial one. He supports the notion of the USA as a "globocop" and argues that the best option for the world over the coming decades is to support and bolster the strength of America so that it can continue effectively in this role, even as its economic decline continues remorselessly. He argues that "the next forty years promise to be the most dangerous in history" but believes that, if we can survive this uniquely challenging period, "the computerization of everything" will effectively render war obsolete. Optimistically he asserts: "We are beginning to play the endgame of death". If only ...


Unexpected Lessons in Love
Unexpected Lessons in Love
by Bernardine Bishop
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Love comes in many forms and at different times, 13 Sept. 2014
Bishop wrote two novels in her early 20s but did not return to her first love fiction until 50 years later, after a career as a teacher and a psychotherapist, during which she married twice and had two chidlren from her first marriage. After her retirement in 2010 because of cancer, she went back to novel writing she day after she was told that her cancer was gone and subsequently penned three works - this being the first. She explained: "I remember the delight at being in control of my own story again". "Unexpected Lessons In Love" was published in January 2013 and Bishop died - the cancer had returned - in July 2013.

Unusually - but obviously shaped by the author's life experiences - two of the main characters in the novel are elderly women, one a former psychotherapist and the other a novelist, who have a colostomy (or stoma) and the work describes frankly the physical and psychological nature of this challenge. Both women find love but in unexpected places - hence the title - but other forms of love are explored as well. There is a telling line in the novel: "... love falls where it falls and, like other rare and precious commodities, it must be appreciated and cherished wherever it is found". As a grandparent of a young child, I especially related to the descriptions of the chief character with her grandchildren: "the most important ansd sustaining joy of her life"

Bishop writes well. Not all the characters are fully delineated, not everything is explained, and the conclusion is open-ended, but this is the nauture of the modern novel.


The Post-Birthday World
The Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars All choices have consequences, 31 Aug. 2014
Lionel Shriver is actually a female American novelist who, as a tomboy aged 15, informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel. She is best known for her eighth novel "We Need To Talk About Kevin" and "The Post-Birthday World" (2007) is her follow-up work but the first that I have read (my sister bought it for me). It is quite a long novel - almost 500 pages of small type in my paperback edition - but it is an easy and enjoyable read because Shriver is a fine writer, even if given to some flamboyancy of style, and there are essentially only three characters: American illustrator Irina McGovern, her American policy wonk partner Lawrence Trainer, and their British snooker champion friend Ramsey Acton.

"The Post-Birthday World" has an unusual structure. At the end of the first chapter, while Lawrence is on a business trip to Sarajevo, Irina has a dinner with Ramsey to celebrate his birthday and now stands at "the most consequential crossroads of her life". Does she kiss Ramsey and go in one direction or does she show restraint and travel another path? In fact, Shriver enables us to follow both trajectories as, after that scene-setting opening chapter, we have pairs of chapters traversing parallel lives (like the 1998 film "Sliding Doors") over a five-year period (1997-2002). It is artfully done, although rather contrived with one story essentially being the mirror opposite of the other in very detailed particulars. No children are involved which makes the choice facing Irina more open than might otherwise be the case. Inevitably sex is involved and, as a female writer, Shriver has a different take on this with one whole page devoted to the mystery that is the clitoris.

In an author's interview included in my edition of the novel, Shriver describes her novel as "participatory fiction" and asks: "Fully informed of the consequences, you're Irina at the end of that first chapter. Do you kiss the guy or not?" So do you go for "Lawrence's discipline, intellect and self-control" or for "Ramsey's eroticism, spontaneity, and abandon". Irina describes the former as "a fine man" and the latter as "a lovely man". Mr Reliable versus Mr Exciting. Perhaps the characterisations rather verge on caricatures for the sake of clarity, but I know which kind of man I am and I know which kind of woman I have chosen. Many women and most men (I would venture) beyond a certain age will have faced something like this choice and find the novel very telling in its description and dilemma.

So what is the lesson that Shriver wants us to take from the novel? In one of the parallel narratives, Irina writes a chidren's storybook in which the same character has two life stories and, when Ramsey asks her what it means, she explains: "The idea is that you don't have only one destiny ... whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides ... There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future".

It is not difficult - and indeed inevitable - to see "The Post-Birthday World" as having autobiographical features. The protagonist Irina is the daughter of Russian immigrants in New York and Shriver studied Russian in the city and uses the language in the novel. Lawrence is a think tank expert on the Northern Ireland conflict and the author lived in Belfast for 12 years. All three main characters live in London where Shriver is now resident. In one scenario, Irina abandons a long-term partner and marries someone who makes a living with his hands as a snooker player and Shriver gave up a partner of many years and married a jazz drummer. But the novel presents two storylines? In a short biography in my edition of the novel, the writer states: "I'm a sucker for ambivalence".


Hard Choices
Hard Choices
by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and balanced review of most of the world's trouble spots and problems, 10 Aug. 2014
This review is from: Hard Choices (Hardcover)
This is quite a tome: some 600 pages (thankfully no footnotes or end notes). But it covers a lot of ground: the four years (2009-2013) that Hillary Clinton spent as Secretary of State during the first term of the Barack Obama presidency. Her natural abilities, plus a book team of three, ensure that it is well-written, informative and thoughtful, but there are no significant differences of opinion with Obama or criticisms of world leaders because Clinton is keeping her options open for a run at the presidency in 2016. Will she run? She simply states" "I haven't decided yet". I hope she does and I hope she wins. This was my position before reading her memoirs and my view is simply reinforced by reading the book.

When Clinton failed to win the Democratic primary race against Obama, she famously declared: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it”. When Obama won the presidential contest, she had no interest in becoming Vice-President and every intention of returning to the Senate. Then, when Obama invited her to become Secretary of State, she was “floored”, turned it down, and took two weeks to be persuaded.

Obama kept his promise of access and she reckons she was at the White House more than 700 times during her four years in office. In the book, she mentions very few differences with the White House, perhaps the most important being her wish to arm rebels in the Syrian civil war and Obama's decision not to support this approach. It looks to have been a relationship that quickly developed mutual trust and at the end Obama declared that they had gone from "a team of rivals" to "an unrivalled team". She ended up visiting 112 countries and travelling nearly one million miles with more than 2,000 hours (equivalent to 87 full days) in the air. She claims that, over the years, she had developed the ability to sleep almost anywhere at any time (me too).

She describes Secretary of State as being three roles - the country’s chief diplomat, the president’s principal adviser on foreign policy, and chief executive of a department of 70,000 personnel - and she characterises the nation’s foreign policy are comprised of the 3 Ds – defence, diplomacy and development. She makes the usual distinctions in foreign policy between 'hard power' (military forces in its various forms) and 'soft power' (diplomatic, economic and cultural influences) and advocates an approach of what she calls 'smart power' - the right combination of different elements of hard and/or soft power for each particular situation.

After a couple of introductory chapters, “Hard Choices” does not follow a chronological approach but instead the bulk of the book (some 450 pages) comprises a series of chapters on different countries and regions around the globe: after a general chapter on Asia, specific ones on China, Burma, Afghanistan and Pakistan; then chapters on Europe, Russia, Latin America, and Africa; and, after a general chapter on the Middle East, dedicated chapters on the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, Libya, the 2012 death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Iran, Syria and Gaza. Only at the end are there a few thematic chapters on global challenges such as climate change, energy and human rights. The book is dotted with some fascinating facts and figures on different countries and issues.

A key feature of the Obama/Clinton partnership was the so-called "pivot strategy", an effort to re-focus American attention more towards Asia and so, in a break from precedent, Clinton's first trip was to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China with a first ever visit by a US Secretary of State to ASEAN. Understandably she expresses concern about tensions especially in the South and East China Seas where China is increasingly flexing its growing military muscle. Another distinguishing feature of the new administration was an attempt to “reset” relations with Russia and Clinton even presented a mocked-up reset button to Russia’s Foreign Secretary Lavrov. However, the button was labelled ‘peregruzka’ (overcharged) rather than ‘perezagruzka’ (reset) and the effort soon ran into Putin's belligerence.

For anyone interested in international affairs or global politics - like me - this is a really interesting read which takes us through all the major trouble spots of the world, almost all of which - perhaps most notably the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran's nuclear aspirations and the assertiveness of Russia - remain active. In each case, Clinton sets out the historic background to the challenge and then describes her efforts to improve the situation. Although inevitably in a memoir, the account is somewhat self-serving and there is very little in the way of rethinking, it is a sensible and sensitive review which reflects considerable knowledge, commitment and passion for social justice.

The only real expression of a change of view is in relation to a decision before she even ran for the Democratic nomination: the vote to authorise miltary action in Iraq. She writes: "I came to deeply regret giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt on that vote" and "While many were never ging to look past my 2002 vote no matter what I did or said, I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible".

The theme of the book - captured in the title and alluded to many times - is that all decisions in international affairs are complicated and difficult trade-offs of principle and pragmatism. As she puts it: "Keeping America safe, strong and prosperous presents an endless set of choices, many of which come with imperfect information and conflicting imperatives". She refers to "our classic dilemma" and asks" "Should we do business with a leader with whom we disagreed on so many things in the name of advancing core security interests?".

As she explains: "The question of nations working together on some issues while clashing on others is part of a classic debate within foreign policy circles" and "Straight up transactional diplomacy isn't always pretty, but often it's necessary". In the end, she insists: "As you've seen throughout this book, there are times when we do have to make difficult compromises. Our challenge is to be clear-eyed about the world as it is while never losing sight of the world as we want it to become".


The Circle
The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A simple message but a compelling read, 2 July 2014
This review is from: The Circle (Paperback)
I wasn't sure about reading this novel because - at least in my paperback version - it is almost 500 pages of smallish print with no chapters. But it was recommended to me by Jim Knight who chairs the Tinder Foundation - an organisation promoting digital inclusion - on whose Board I sit. In fact, it proved to be an easy and enjoyable read: it is a very dialogue-driven narrative with regular gaps in the text that makes it something of a page-turner. Unusually for as modern novel, it is remarkably focused in character (24 year old Mae Holland) and place (the California campus of the eponymous company).

What George Orwell's "1984" was to the second half of the 20th century, Dave Eggers's "The Circle" is to the early 21st century: a stark warning of the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance and a defence of the notion of personal privacy.

What makes "The Circle" so chillingly credible - although it is clearly a parody and a satire - is that the company it describes seems to be just a combination and extension of the existing corporate behemoths that already astride the Internet and the Web - the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. And the services that it illustrates seem to be a natural extension of currently evolving technologies - miniature cameras that can be installed any place, tiny drones that can fly anywhere, and wearable technologies that will be with us all the time. In a post-Snowden world, "The Circle" does not appear so much preposterous as prescient.

In the course for the novel, the Circle - "the most influential company in the world" - develops one service after another that increasingly links and exposes information in all its forms, always presenting its innovations as offering a social good (no more child abductions, no more neighbourhood crime, no more political corruption) while step by step stripping away personal freedom and political accountability. So will the Circle be completed - a kind of technological equivalent to the evangelical rapture? If you've read "1984", you won't be too surprised - although the ending is rather sudden and simple.

Eggers is offering us not a prediction but a warning and inviting us really to think of the consequences of the new technologies that enable us to capture, store, connect and access such ever-increasing volumes of public and personal data. It's bound to be made into a film.


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