As Used On the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade

By Mark Thomas

Rating: 4 stars

This book details Mark Thomas’s adventures as an anti-arms and torture campaigner, showing us how shamefully easy it is to buy, sell and broker arms anywhere in the world, including to countries on the EU and UN banned lists. Thomas is somewhat aware that he can be a bit pompous at times and writes in a self-deprecating manner that is humorous and easy to read, but with his righteous indignation never far from the surface. He grudgingly acknowledges that Britain probably does have one of the toughest arms trading regimes in the world, and to show just how tough that is, he gets a group of schoolkids to set up a front company and broker arms and various torture devices all over the world, including to Zimbabwe.

Some of the stories are wonderful, my favourite possibly being the free bus that he charters to take delegates to an arms fair and then makes them donate to anti-war causes in the countries most ravaged by arms before he lets them off. Either that, or the Irish nun he gets to help him set up another front company to prove just how inadequate the British and Irish laws are.

He shows a special contempt for BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace), citing many situations showing just how much they have the ear of ministers right up to Number 10 and how Government will bend over backwards to help them out and to ensure that they get the contracts. And after reading it, the reader can’t help but join him in that contempt, and save some of it for the politicians who are their accomplices.

He also tackles the oft-used argument that the defence industry provides jobs and wealth to the country, by producing figures that suggest that far from this being the case, each job in the defence industry is subsidised by about £13,000, a shocking figure that deserves to be more widely acknowledged.

But despite all his pessimism, he still manages to end on a somewhat positive, or at least hopeful note, after providing evidence to a Parliamentary Committee to strengthen Britain’s arms trading rules and a possible international arms trading treaty.

I’m glad that we have Mark Thomas and people like him fighting for these sort of very important issues and although I’m not likely to get directly involved myself I’m very glad that we have people willing to expose the dodgy dealings of the defence industry and their cosiness to the highest levels of government.

Book details

ISBN: 9780091909222
Publisher: Ebury Press
Year of publication: 2006

For Your Eyes Only (Bond 8)

By Ian Fleming

Rating: 3 stars

I mostly read this because I never have read a James Bond story and wanted to see how different they were to the Bond we know from the films. This is a collection of five short stories and the first thing that struck me was that Bond was only on active duty in two of them (‘From a View to a Kill’ and ‘Risico’). He was sent on a personal revenge mission by M in ‘For Your Eyes Only’, isn’t involved in ‘Quantum of Solace’ at all, except as part of a framing story and has just finished a mission and is at a loose end for a while in ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’.

The Bond of the book felt very different to the suave ladykiller that we’ve come to know from the films, very much more grounded and, frankly, not necessarily likeable. And I was struck that the stories often still reflected the trappings of empire, even though that empire was very much in decline in the 1960s when the book was written. All in all, interesting in an historical sense but I’ll not be clambering to read more Bond books.

Book details

Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 1960

Come, Tell Me How You Live

By Agatha Christie Mallowan

Rating: 5 stars

I hadn’t known before I read this book that Agatha Christie was married to a famous archaeologist. I’m unfamiliar with the subject, so the name Max Mallowan doesn’t really mean much to me, but I was intrigued by the idea of reading about a dig in the 1930s through the eyes of a non-archaeologist, and this book didn’t disappoint. Right from the first chapter, where Christie describes the trials of finding and purchasing appropriate clothing for an archaeologist’s wife, there’s evidence of humour and a light touch that shines through.

She lovingly describes the landscapes they travel through and the characters they encounter, from their enigmatic architect Mac to the Sheikh they borrow the land from to build a house, and with her tongue playfully in cheek as she does so. She sketches not only the travails of being married to an archaeologist (for example being told that the pattern on your dress is from a Mesopotamian fertility symbol) but also the people that make up their household and the the workforce and their attitudes to life and death.

It’s obvious that Christie comes to love the country that she has been relocated to and her reluctance to leave it at the end, when storm clouds are very clearly gathering in Europe, is evident. Not a book to read if you want to learn about Mesopotamian history, but definitely one if you’re interested in the region of the time and in a wonderfully personal memoir.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006531142
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1946

Thank You, Jeeves (Jeeves, #5)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

This is a novel (Thank You, Jeeves) with some short stories tagged on the end. It has, gasp, Jeeves handing in his notice, as he can’t stand Bertie’s banjo playing and the ridiculous, yet really funny, things that follow from that and Bertie’s stay in the country with an ex-fiancée, and the requisite supporting characters.

I also enjoyed the short stories, and actually recognised one of them from a Radio 4 adaptation that I had forgotten about. Now that I’ve had a pretty good introduction to Wodehouse I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more, not to mention the Granada TV series of Jeeves and Wooster which I never saw first time round but have been told many good things about.

Its upper-class antics may not be in line with modern PC thinking, but if you’ve not read any, give Wodehouse a go, he’s really entertaining.

Book details

ISBN: 9781585674343
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Year of publication: 1933

Engineering Infinity

By Jonathan Strahan

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of short stories (mostly) with the theme of “hard SF”, although this is never really defined (a point that the editor notes in the introduction) and some of the stories definitely stray outside this sub-genre. There were more hits than misses in the collection, but it’s the misses that stand out for me, possibly because there was a string of them in quick succession in the middle of the book. There was Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Creatures With Wings (a small Buddhist community is saved/kidnapped by angels/aliens just before the end of the world) and Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone which started off strongly with a drunken sociology professor seeing something impossible in a fragment of old 35mm film but quickly descends into incomprehensibility (for me, at least).

But there are also some great stories. There’s Charlie Stross’s Bit Rot, set in the same universe as his novel Saturn’s Children and the wonderfully named The Server and the Dragon which was an interesting story but really left me wanting to know more about the world that we got glimpses of in the narrative. I had the same problem (albeit moreso) with David Moles’ A Solider of the City, which dropped tantalising hints of the world the story was set in but ignored them in favour of a very narrow story that I found unsatisfying compared to the world.

Both Peter Watts’ Malak and Stephen Baxter’s The Invasion of Venus were fascinating reads because they had the Other at the heart of them. The former got us into the codebase of a non-sentient fighter drone aircraft whose program was altered to make it take collateral damage into account; and the latter had Humans getting really worked up about an incoming alien spacecraft and then feeling the let down when they realise that it wasn’t heading towards Earth.

A decent mix of stories but unfortunately it’s the ones I didn’t enjoy that I remember more than the ones I did.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907519512
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2010

The Dream

By H.G. Wells

Rating: 4 stars

Sarnac is a scientist in a distant, utopian future. At a critical point in his work, he needs a break so goes on holiday with his partner and some friends. After an excursion to a recently excavated site from the early 20th century, he is disturbed by the images he saw and falls into a deep sleep from which he awakes, hours later, having lived an entire lifetime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as one Harry Mortimer Smith. This is the story of that life that he tells.

I really enjoyed this book, with its framing narrative of the utopian future that allows Wells to comment on and criticise his own present through alien eyes. Harry Mortimer Smith is an everyman, and through him, we, as well as Sarnac and his friends, can see the reality of life in the early 20th century.

Much of Sarnac’s incredulity about Smith’s time would stand just as valid about the early 21st century as well. We are still ridden with jealousy and self-doubt, often poorly educated and neurotic to the point where we appear not to care about our planet and our own lives and those around us. Wells’ cautionary tale is just as relevant to us as it was when it was published.

Book details

ISBN: 9780755103997
Publisher: House of Stratus
Year of publication: 1924

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