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Brian R. Martin (London, UK)
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The Nazi Hunters
The Nazi Hunters
by Damien Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars The SAS in the Vosges., 18 July 2016
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This review is from: The Nazi Hunters (Paperback)
This book describes the activities of groups of SAS soldiers parachuted into the Vosges mountain region in France, with the aim of carrying out raids on German forces and facilities there, to prevent them being used to defend against Patton’s advancing American army. In this they were highly successful, and the raids themselves are well described in prose that brings out just how dangerous they were and the remarkable characters involved. The price the SAS soldiers, together with the French resistance and local villagers, paid was extremely high, with large numbers of the latter deported from the area to die in concentration camps. Some, for example Max Hastings in his recent book ‘The Secret War’, have questioned whether ‘behind the lines’ activities such as these ever justify the high price paid. Nevertheless, one cannot fault the incredible bravery of both the soldiers involved, and the local population who took the brunt of the ferocious reprisals inflicted by the Germans.

The ‘rules of war’ were grossly violated in acts of brutality, among which were the torture and execution of Allied PoWs, and the book also describes the activities of the surviving members of the SAS. After the war they were determined to track down the perpetrators of these crimes and bring them to justice, hence the title of the book, although this is only about a third of the material. Their determination, despite the fact that officially the SAS had by this time been disbanded, was admirable, and they were successful in capturing nearly all the major German criminals responsible for the horrific acts in the Vosges. Most stood trial, but the courts often handed down ludicrously mild sentences. There is even the strong possibility that a small numbers of the most senior criminals escaped punishment all together, and were given safe positions in the emerging German secret service by the CIA because of their knowledge of Russia, which was now seen by the West as the main problem. It may have been Real Politik, but if true it was also one of the most cynical acts of the Allies.

The subject of the book is not as new as the author claims; it has been covered by earlier writers, but not in so much detail, although the author admits that in interviewing subjects for the material, different versions of events were told and so the result is sometime a ‘best guess’ at the truth. The writing is punchy and in the main very readable, although sometimes there is a little too much detail. Nevertheless, overall it is a book well worth reading to remind us of the sacrifices made by both SAS and local French people in this engagement.


Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age
Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age
by Tom Fletcher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

4.0 out of 5 stars A new view of diplomacy in the future., 12 July 2016
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Tom Fletcher was British Ambassador to Lebanon for the years 2011-15 and for four year prior to that he worked at No.10 Downing Street as a foreign policy adviser to three Prime Ministers, so he speaks with some authority. In this extended essay he discusses the nature of diplomacy, from its earliest incarnation centuries ago to the modern day, and pleads the case for the continuing necessity of the craft, but not in its traditional form, where distinguished leaders, without a clear mandate from the people of their respective countries, and often not even elected, met in secret conclaves to do deals that benefited the nations they represented, but not necessarily anyone else. Instead Fletcher makes a strong case that diplomacy must adapt, and do so quickly, to the rapidly-changing digital world. It has to abandon the niceties of diplomatic bags, secret conferences and the like, and wholeheartedly embrace methods of connecting with the masses of ordinary people via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. He gives interesting examples of how he used these methods during his time in Lebanon. The events he promoted must have horrified established diplomats.

This is not without risks of course, and Fletcher is well aware of these. Leaving aside the fact that ISIS have proved to be masters of using social media for malign purposes, it is a sobering thought that immediately after the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, 4 million people signed a petition demanding a new referendum, presumably because after a few days to rethink they had changed their minds. We also have the example of the Labour Party self-destructing because a popular vote, enabled by the astute use of social media, has resulted in the election of a leader who does not have the confidence of his party’s MPs. One correspondent has commented that we may be moving from democratic representation to democratic hooliganism.

The book has much to commend it, including the fascinating anecdotes and accounts of his personal experiences in Lebanon. These are often moving, sometime humorous, but always very readable, although I dislike the journalise style of numerous one-sentence paragraphs and non-sentences, used presumably in the mistaken belief that they are punchier than well-argued sentences. There is also much repetition of statements about what needs to be done, but far less about how to do it. Nevertheless, this book is an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to the problem of how countries can peacefully co-exist and prosper in a rapidly-changing technological world.


Jeremy Hutchinson's Case Histories: From Lady Chatterley's Lover to Howard Marks
Jeremy Hutchinson's Case Histories: From Lady Chatterley's Lover to Howard Marks
by Thomas Grant
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Case histories from the 60s and 70s, 7 July 2016
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Jeremy Hutchinson, now Lord Hutchinson, was one of the leading defence barristers of the 1960s and 70s, who specialised in cases that many of his fellow practitioners considered somewhat sordid and beneath their dignity. There is a long list of such famous cases and some are discussed in the book, including: ‘sex trials’, such as that of Christine Keeler (of the Profumo affair) and D.H. Lawrence’s novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’; spy trials such as those of George Blake; and the prosecutions of a range of anti-establishment characters like Tom Keating (the art forger) and Howard Marks (the drug dealer). Hutchinson seems to have taken delight in defending people on the fringe of society and oddballs bent on making a protest about something or other. Against the odds, he was very often successful and along the way profoundly changed the way the law, and sometime society in general, viewed things. For example, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ included numerous graphic depictions of sex using words that up until then had been considered strictly taboo. That all changed with the acquittal at the trial.

The trials themselves are described in some detail by Thomas Grant in a clear elegant, sometimes witty style, with emphasis of course on the speeches of Hutchinson, but although usually described in very glowing terms (the overuse of superlatives is the only place where the quality of his writing drops) don’t really come across as such in written form. Much time is also given to how the defence was to be constructed and Hutchinson’s interactions with prosecuting councils and the judges. These are very well described and the interactions with latter are often amusing, with judges frequently exhibiting many of the worst prejudices of the time. There is genuine pleasure at an acquittal, but a win is a win to Hutchinson even if it is achieved because of a trivial drafting error in the relevant law rather than a sound logical argument. This emphasises that it seemed to be almost a great game much of the time, with the object being primarily to get one over the opposition.

These cases tell us much about society in the 60s and 70s, but so does Hutchinson’s personal life, which is given in an introduction by Hutchinson himself. He was born into a privileged family and moved effortlessly in the society of leading artists writers, scientists, actors (he married Peggy Ashcroft) and of course lawyers. At one point he mentions he ‘unexpectedly’ inherited a Monet (as one does) that he sold to buy a substantial house. Nevertheless, he cannot be faulted for his commitment to defendants who were definitely not of these classes and who most people probably thought deserved what they got, for example Howard Marks, who was definitely not a’ loveable rogue’.

The book ends with a personal statement by Hutchinson on the state of the law and the bar today. Not surprisingly the 100-year old peer is pessimistic, but maybe this is age talking.


Before the Fall
Before the Fall
by Noah Hawley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable but a bland ending, 6 July 2016
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A plane takes off from Martha’s Vineyard on a short flight back to New York City. It has been chartered by David Bateman, a workaholic media tycoon. Also on board are his wife Maggie and their two young children Rachel and JJ, their bodyguard Gil, and another super-rich couple, financier Ben Kipling and his wife. At the last minute the final passenger arrives. He is Scott Burroughs, a recovering alcoholic and struggling artist who Maggie has met a few times when shopping at the local farmers’ market. With the two pilots and one stewardess, there are eleven people on board. The departure is smooth, but sixteen minutes later the plane vanishes from radar screens as it plunges into the sea, killing everyone except Scott and JJ. Scott, somewhat unbelievably, manages to swim for eight hours in the cold water, in the dark, with a dislocated shoulder and with JJ on his back, before reaching shore. Not surprisingly he is lauded as a superhero by the media, but very soon questions begin to be asked. Who is Scott, why was he on the aircraft, and what was his relationship with Maggie? The boy has formed some sort of a bond with him, so is Scott really interested in the vast fortune that JJ will inherit? The questions are being asked by the FBI, and much more aggressively by Bill, an employee of David’s company who has made his name as a no-holds-barred TV reporter, not averse to using illegal methods to dig up ‘dirt’ on his ‘victims’. He firmly believes that the plane was brought down deliberately and that his boss has been murdered

This is the background. The rest of the book deals with each of the people on the plane in turn. Who are they, how do they relate to each other and is there anything in their histories that might suggest a motive for the crash, rather than a freak accident? There are many possibilities. We learn that the Batemans’ have protection because Rachel was kidnapped some years ago; Ben Kipling is about to be indicted by for illegally laundering money for ‘rogue states’; the woman-chasing co-pilot and the stewardess have an unhappy past relationship; and Scott exclusively paints large canvases of catastrophic accidents, including a plane crash. Other new minor characters are also introduced, but they don’t disturb the main thrust, which is the on-going investigation, increasing media intrusion into Scott’s life, and his developing relationship with JJ and Maggie’s sister, who is now the boy’s guardian, and her unlikable husband, who only thinks about how much money he will have access to. The reader is given a host of potential explanations for the crash.

The true explanation does not reveal itself until the wreckage of the plane is found and the two black-box recorders are decoded. They yield surprising information, but the ‘solution’ for me seemed rather bland after the detailed, fast moving, and carefully constructed build up. This is a criticism made by some other reviewers, and I also agree with those who are critical of some of the characters, who are often close to being stereotypes, for example the FBI agent and of course Bill. This is not a conventional thriller, but more a mystery story as a vehicle for a commentary on the role of some aspects of modern society, particularly celebrity and the media. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the novel and will certainly try the much-recommended ‘The Good Father’.


allBIO 8 Litre Compostable Food Waste Kitchen Caddy Liners / Bin Bags - 150 Liners
allBIO 8 Litre Compostable Food Waste Kitchen Caddy Liners / Bin Bags - 150 Liners
Offered by allBIO (UK)
Price: £11.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Strong compostable food waste bags, 26 Jun. 2016
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Previously I have been using All-Green 8L bags, but their recent product has become thinner and are prone to tearing, particularly at the bottom when full. The allBio bags are somewhat smaller than the Al-Green ones, but still prefectly adequate for the standard council-supplied caddies. But the key point is that they are made of thicker material and therefore stronger. Also, they a have a star-like structure at the bottom of the bag which is a big plus over the All-Green ones.


Berlin Red (Inspector Pekkala)
Berlin Red (Inspector Pekkala)
by Sam Eastland
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Berlin agent in the final days of the war., 13 Jun. 2016
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The background to this novel, and first half of the book, is the final weeks of the war, with the Russians only 80kms from Berlin. All hope is lost for the German state, but almost alone, Hitler still puts his faith in ‘secret weapons’, including the V2 rocket, if not to win the war at least to slow the advance of the enemy so that a negotiated peace could be achieved, rather than an ignominious unconditional surrender. However, the guidance system of the V2 still needs perfecting and Hitler is overjoyed when he receives a report that this has been achieved. But unknown to the Nazis, the Britsh have an agent in Berlin who knows about the breakthrough and has acquired a set of plans of the new guidance system. They enlist the help of the Russians, but without telling them why they are so anxious to retrieve the agent, and Stalin entrusts the task to the best policeman in Russia, Inspector Pekkala. At the same time, the Germans become aware that there is someone, probably among those in Hitler’s bunker, who is passing information to the British, and Hitler orders his own best detective to find them. The race is on to find and extract the agent before she is tracked down and arrested.

The second half of the book describes how Pekkala and his companion Kirov get into Germany and make the perilous journey to Berlin, and how the two teams slowly home in on the whereabouts of the British agent. Woven into this are the backstories of the detectives, both of whom have very personal reasons for wishing to find her; and the interplay between real historical characters and fictional ones. The most important example is Himmler, ever striving for more power even as Germany crumbles, and his interactions with his assistant Fegelein. There are also a host of minor characters, ranging from the members of a roving group of Nazi field police tracking down ‘traitors’ and hanging them on the spot, to soldiers defending Berlin against air raids, and the general in charge of the V2 programme. In the main they come across as believable.

This is the first book I have read by Sam Eastland. It is a cleverly constructed and well-written novel and I will certainly look out for others.


Fermat's Last Theorem: The Story Of A Riddle That Confounded The World's Greatest Minds For 358 Years
Fermat's Last Theorem: The Story Of A Riddle That Confounded The World's Greatest Minds For 358 Years
by Simon Singh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A clear account of 'Fermat's last theorem' and its proof., 12 Jun. 2016
The conjecture that there are no whole-number solutions of the relation x^n+y^n = z^n for n greater than 2 was first made around 1637 by the famous mathematician Pierre de Fermat. He left an enigmatic note in a book that read, “I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain”. Fermat was a great mathematician, but when he thought he could see how a proof could be constructed, he often published the result with only few details. Was this another example, or was he simply mistaken? The question remained unanswered for more than three centuries as the greatest mathematicians of the day tried to prove the proposition. Early parts of the book describe these mathematicians and their failed attempts, and it does the latter successfully in a simple, clear understandable way. This background is essential to understand the extent to which finding a solution of ‘Fermat’s last theorem’ became one of the greatest unsolved problems in mathematics and the holy grail of number theorists.

The proof was finally given in the mid 1990s by Andrew Wiles, a Cambridge educated mathematician who had moved to Princeton, the centre of American mathematicians. Wiles had first become intrigued by Fermat’s conjecture at the remarkable age of ten while reading a maths book, and he had set himself the task of proving it. Doubtless many young boys set themselves a goal this age, but very few spend the next thirty years working to fulfil it. Wiles repeatedly returned to the problem through his career, and spent much effort understanding all previous attempts. He concluded that if a successful proof were to be obtained it would require entirely new mathematics. His breakthrough came when he realised that there was a deep relationship between two apparently very different topics, called modular forms and elliptical equations, and that this was embodied in the so-called called Taniyama–Shimura conjecture. If he could prove the latter, then Fermat’s last theorem would follow. For seven years he worked exclusively and obsessively on the problem, mainly at home, shunning conferences and not telling anyone what he was doing, until he finally announced in a series a of lectures at Cambridge that he had proved the Taniyama–Shimura conjecture and hence Fermat’s last theorem. Alas, very quickly a logical flaw was found in one step the proof, but fortunately it turned out to be a relatively minor technical error that Wiles was quickly able to correct and he became feted worldwide, far beyond the austere world of number theory.

Did Fermat really have a simple proof of his conjecture? We will never know, but considering that the proof eluded the greatest mathematicians for more than 300 years, and when it did come consisted of over 150 printed pages of mathematics not known to Fermat, and understandable in its entirety by a few even today, it seems very unlikely.

Singh has produced a well-written book that clearly explains a highly technical subject in a simple way, but without ‘dumbing down’. It interweaves the maths with stories about the mathematicians involved, and shows why the problem captivated number theorists for so long.


Snowdrops
Snowdrops
by A. D. Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A morality tale set in the corruption of modern Russia, 27 May 2016
This review is from: Snowdrops (Paperback)
This novel is set in Moscow and is narrated in the first person by Nicholas Platt, a British corporate finance lawyer working in Russia. The background is the deeply ingrained corruption and violence that permeates modern Russia, where small-time crooks with the right connections can become multi-millionaires almost overnight, vulnerable people can be conned out of their apartments (or even murdered) and which are then sold on at a huge profit, and just about anyone in authority from policemen to politicians is taking bribes. It is written in the form of a confession by Nicholas to his fiancé in England, although when she reads it I doubt whether she will still want to marry him. It describes his drift into a personal crisis, where he abandons his sense of what is morally right. This is partly because he is reaching the critical age of forty and thinks his life has reached a turning point where he has to do something new to achieve a partnership in the London law firm he works for. To do this, he assists someone (the ‘Cossack’) to fraudulently obtain a multi-million dollar loan for an oil exploitation project. He tells himself that all is above board, while at the same time harbouring deep suspicions about the legality of the deal.

However, the main plot revolves around his relationship with Masha, a young woman he met on the Moscow underground. He has developed an unrealistic desire for her and fantasises about a life together in England. Masha and her ‘sister’ Katya introduce Nicholas to their ‘aunt’ (the quotation marks are necessary because none of the relationships are what they appear to be). Masha enlists his help in ‘legally’ selling their ‘aunt's’ flat and moving her to a new one in the countryside of her childhood, which she yearns to return to. He is thus drawn into a property scam, where the old woman is conned out of her large valuable apartment in the centre of Moscow. Although Nicholas knows what is happening, and even that he himself will lose the money he loans to smooth the deal, his infatuation with Masha allows him to be blind to reality and he is sucked into this immoral plan. Needless to say, at the end all the actors in the ‘play’ disappear and Nicholas is left to ponder his future.

This book is not a thriller in any sense, and the outcome is known almost at the start, but the fascination in watching Nicholas descend inexorably downwards, while trying to pretend to himself that he is immune to the pervasive atmosphere of corruption, held me to the end. The background detail about the underbelly of Moscow life is convincing, and is doubtless drawn from the author’s experiences when working as the Moscow correspondent of The Economist. His descriptions of the scenery of the harsh Moscow winters and everyday life are also excellent. Some of the characters are rather stereotype: apart from the ‘weasel’ President, most of the crooks are bull-necked thugs, and the girls dress like prostitutes, even if they aren’t. An exception is the ‘aunt’, a simple trusting survivor of the Great Patriotic War whose life is far removed from the rest of the people in the book. She is about the only character one can have sympathy with.

This book is a good ‘first novel’ and I look forward to seeing if the author can write a second as good as this, but away from the Russian background.


The Man Who Knew Infinity: Film tie-in
The Man Who Knew Infinity: Film tie-in
by Robert Kanigel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The short life of a mathematical genius, 15 May 2016
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Ramanujan was born to poor parents in South India, his one advantage being that his family were Brahmins, with a respect for learning. He also had a mother who exercised a powerful influence on him throughout his life, although not always to his benefit. His love of mathematics was inspired by the chance discovery of an old English mathematics book giving a compendium of formulas, usually without detailed proofs. Ramanujan was fascinated by it and quickly started to prove the results for himself. This was the beginning of his love of mathematics, which became so obsessive that he neglected all other subjects, and as a result failed at more than one college to get any formal qualification, greatly frustrating his family. This early time in India is well described in the book and is essential for understanding Ramanujan’s character in the context of his cultural background, and how it crucially affected his later period in England.

The latter came about, when in despair at his situation in India, he sent his mathematical notebooks to three eminent Cambridge mathematicians asking for help. Only one, Hardy of Trinity College, saw something remarkable in the notebooks and made strenuous effects to get Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. There were formidable obstacles, not least of which was Ramanujan’s religious beliefs; as a Brahmin he could not travel abroad without being shunned by his community. Eventually, his mother sought guidance from the local god and as a result persuaded her son to travel.

His arrival in Cambridge was to herald the start of one of the greatest collaborations in mathematical history, which would profoundly affect the lives of both Ramanujan and Hardy. The latter quickly realised that Ramanujan’s education had left huge holes in his mathematical knowledge, and he even had only a tenuous knowledge of what a rigorous mathematical proof was. Hardy and his collaborator Littlewood had to tread a fine line between schooling their ‘pupil’ in modern mathematics without destroying his raw natural genius. The author describes this interaction very well and even attempts to explain something of the nature of their research, which was in an area of mathematics called ‘number theory’.

Although the research was very successful, Ramanujan found it difficult to adapt to life in England. It probably did not help that the two men were very different in temperament (for example, Hardy was a passionate sportsman and a confirmed aetheist) and Hardy could perhaps be criticised for driving Ramanujan too hard and failing to realise the lonely life he was living. But simple practical matters, such as the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables during World War I, essential for Ramanujan’s strict vegetarian diet, made life difficult and led to him becoming seriously undernourished. In 1917 he became ill with tuberculosis, and spent periods in a variety of sanatoriums. His stout body steadily became thin and frail and by 1919 it was felt advisable that he should return to India, which he did, but he died the following year at the tragically early age of 32, still working until the end.

Only after his death did the world in general understand what a genius he was, but how his theorems appeared to him is still a mystery. Ramanujan himself always maintained they were ‘revealed’ to him, almost in their final form and he had little interest in formal proofs because he knew they were ‘the word of god’. Needless to say, western mathematicians struggled with this view and spent huge efforts to obtain rigorous proofs. Nearly always Ramanujan’s theorems proved to be correct. What could he have achieved had he received a formal maths education in the formative years between 18 and 26 and lived longer? We can only speculate, but the work that he did in the few years of his short productive life was enough to establish him as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.

Robert Kanigel has written a good book. It is not only a biography of Ramanujan, but there is also much about Hardy and the interaction between the two great mathematicians, both academically and personally. He also is to be congratulated for trying to explain a little of their research, and although not always successful, it does give a flavour of the rarefied world of ‘number theory’ and shows how Ramanujan’s work is still very relevant today.


The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door
by Ruth Rendell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars A social novel with a crime background, 27 April 2016
This review is from: The Girl Next Door (Paperback)
This is not your usual Ruth Rendell crime novel, and if you were expecting it to be one, you will be disappointed. Yes, there is a crime, a double murder of a wife and her lover, but it took place 60 years earlier and solving it is a minor part of the plot. The crime comes to light because the murderer had cut off the hands of the victims and buried them in a tin in a system of tunnels where a group of children used to play. Some house builders doing preparatory work on the site have discovered the hands. The police are informed, but show little interest in a very cold case they have little hope of solving, although readers are essentially told early on who the murderer and his victims are. But the incident brings together those that remain of the group of children, now of course in their seventies, and they form the core of the story.

They mostly live in the district where they grew up, on the London/Essex borders and live quite lives in retirement. Most of the group are frankly rather ordinary and uninteresting, but the discovery of the hands brings out old emotions, and sometimes resentments, in some of them. For example, a couple are moved to visit a dying old lady who used to clean their house when they were children, and another visits his long-estranged father, who had abandoned him as a young child, in his nursing home. This is particularly true of Alan, who by chance meets his former teenage lover Daphne and, somewhat improbably, immediately leaves his wife Rosemary. But he regrets his decision after a short time and tries to return to her, only to find that Rosemary, after initially reacting very badly to the shock, has recovered and in a very short time (also rather implausibly) has established a new life for herself and rejects him.

The murders are eventually solved, but conveniently the 100 year old murderer dies just before an arrest can be made, although this hardly matters because the book is not really about the murders, but rather about old people. It tries to show that they are not much different from the rest of society in the range of emotions they experience and actions they take, for bad or worse. This theme is not new of course and has been explored better by others, but nevertheless the author has made a reasonable attempt to show that senior citizens are not necessarily wiser, just older.


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