The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End and Further Still

By Catherynne M. Valente

Rating: 4 stars

Written following the US election in 2016, this short piece sees Valente return to Fairyland as she turns her darker thoughts after the worst came to pass into art. It’s Dark and bitter, but does offer some hope in the form of Defiance, of saying No and saying Yes and continuing to be kind in the face of despair.

Book details

Year of publication: 2016

On Liberty

By Shami Chakrabarti

Rating: 4 stars

I can’t, in all honesty, say that I enjoyed this book, but I do think it’s an important one and one that I got a lot out of. I had to read it in reasonably short doses because it would just make make angry. The behaviour of politicians and the media leaves a lot to be desired and Chakrabarti has no qualms about dipping into the mire for examples to illustrate her case.

The fact that people have such short memories that they actively argue that rights accorded to a person purely for being human, without fear or favour, no matter their nationality, colour or creed, are a bad idea strikes me as privilege of the worst kind. The sorts of people so secure in their own station that they lose empathy. As Chakrabarti repeats more than once, we’re all foreigners sometime and somewhere.

I found this book important because it makes a clear and, to my mind, incredibly persuasive, case for universal human rights and gives me the tools to argue for those rights when I would have found it difficult to find the right words.

For full disclosure, I’m a member of Liberty, the civil liberties organisation of which Chakrabarti is director and I passionately believe in what they stand for, so me giving this book a high score is not unexpected. What I really want, and what is less likely to happen, is for those who argue that human rights shouldn’t be universal to read the book. I’d like to give it to Daily Mail readers and right-wing politicians. And, more positively, I’d love to see it in school libraries and other places where young people could read it and use it to help form their opinions.

The book is also highly readable. The arguments are laid out clearly, using examples and counter-examples from her own life and work both in the Home Office and with Liberty. Chakrabarti argues with the passion of a lifelong believer in her subject and the clarity of a trained lawyer at their best. This is a subject that is important for all of us: privileged or poor, refugee or citizen, having rights that we can all call upon against the terrifying power of the state is one of the things that allows a country to call itself civilised. And Chakrabarti shows us just how thin that veneer of civilisation in the UK really is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141976310
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014


By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this political thriller, set just before the onset of the first Gulf War. It draws two very different threads, eventually weaving them into a single whole, although I’m not entirely sure how successfully. The first thread involves deputy sheriff Clyde Banks, his campaign to be elected sheriff and the discovery of a dead foreign student at the bottom of a local lake. The second involves Betsy Vandeventer, a lowish ranking CIA agent, who writes a report that ruffles some feathers and makes enemies in all the wrong places.

Of the two strands, I much preferred Clyde’s story. His small town charm and solid mind, behind a dumb fa├žade make him a pleasure to read. And the fact that he spends so much time carrying his infant daughter around in his car (whether on- or off-duty) just adds to the charm.

The CIA politicking in Washington left me a bit cold. I still don’t know if I entirely understand it, especially the set-up with Betsy’s social circle. I appreciate that it could have been deliberately worked to make the small town sheriff come out better than the conniving federal agents (whether they be FBI, CIA or any other TLA) and, if so, it worked on me.

I don’t usually read present-day fiction, so it was somewhat odd seeing real people popping up in the book; both Tariq Aziz (the Iraqi foreign minister) and President George (H. W.) Bush turn up, in extended cameos. The closest thing that the book has to a villain is James Millikan. A top diplomat, who just wants things to stay under his control so that he can get on with having lunch in expensive restaurants with his friends (such as the aforementioned Mr Aziz). When Betsy’s report suggests that the Iraqis may be up to something funny, Millikan immediately stomps on it, and ‘cobwebs’ the whole thing, which basically seems to involve wrapping everybody remotely involved in so many layers of bureaucracy that nothing could possibly get done.

And that’s depressingly plausible. Despite the copious humour running through the book, the idea that very clever people are doing their best to stop others doing what’s in the best interest of the country strikes me as wholly believable and wholly depressing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099478850
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1996

Devil’s Advocate

By John Humphrys

Rating: 4 stars

In this book, John Humprys steps down from his usual role as devil’s advocate in the interviewer’s chair to take a look at the course of society over the last forty or so years and look at how it has changed, often, in Humpreys’ view for the worse. The two major trends that he discusses in his book are consumerism and populism, both of which, he argues, have infantilized us and changed us from being active citizens to being passive consumers, avoiding any sense of responsibility, offering examples from responses to Hillsborough and the death of Diana to teenage magazines and the way that rating-chasing has dumbed-down television.

In some ways, parts of the book read like a grumpy old man having a rant at the modern world, but there’s a lot in what he says and it makes for some depressing reading. Populist consumerism has penetrated every area of our lives, from how we raise our children to how we perceive our politics. While Humprys can offer no magic bullet to the problem he can make us aware of them. It’s unfortunate that the people most likely to read this book are the ones who are already most likely to be resistant to (or at least aware of) the populist consumer culture anyway.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099279655
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1999

Freedom from Fear

By Aung San Suu Kyi

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of essays by and about the Burmese pro-democracy activist. It’s split into three sections, the first being essays that she wrote before becoming politically active. This contains a biography of her father, the man regarded as the father of the modern Burma; a history of the country written for a younger audience; a comparison of colonialism in Burma and India; and a review of Burmese literature and nationalism. This section shows that she’s an intelligent and intelligible writer with a wide range, but it’s the second section where she comes into her own. This is a collection of speeches and essays after her political activism began. Apart from one very dry and difficult piece about economics, peace and development, they’re all very clearly written and her passion and drive come through clearly. The final section is a series of appreciations of Aung San Suu Kyi written by other people.

The most heartbreaking thing about this book is that it was published in the mid 90s, and more than a decade later nothing has changed. Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest, the military are still in control and it doesn’t look like they’re going to give up any time soon. Reading her words, her optimism and hope shine through: she really believed that the military would talk to her and accept the mandate of the people where her party won over 80% of the seats contested.

This book shows that Aung San Suu Kyi is an intelligent, strong and incredibly capable woman. She’s been called Burma’s Gandhi and I hope that she lives to see her dream of Burma’s transition to a democratic state.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140253177
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year of publication: 1991

Political Animal: An Anatomy

By Jeremy Paxman

Rating: 4 stars

This is a book about politics and the people who choose to enter that troubled profession. It’s written with Paxman’s usual flair and cynicism in which he completely deconstructs the psyche of the sort of person who enters politics and then goes on to turn his attention to the institutions that make up our democracy and demolish those as well. He’s obviously very cynical about the whole enterprise, but not entirely dismissive and ends by noting just how much has changed in the way we conduct politics in the past century and expecting that a similar change will happen in the next century.

I enjoyed the book and enjoyed the insights that Paxman can provide, although it left me feeling somewhat depressed by the whole endeavour.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140288476
Publisher: Penguin UK
Year of publication: 2002

Momentum: The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People

By Mo Mowlam

Rating: 4 stars

These are the political memoirs of Mo Mowlam, detailing her time in Northern Ireland (including the time before government when she was Shadow NI minister) and afterwards in the Cabinet Office. She’s a very good writer, with a personal style that still gets across everything that she wants to clearly. She pulls few punches and makes it clear that she was forced out of the Northern Ireland office while she still felt that she had a lot to contribute to the process. I was reading this just at the time that Sinn Fein announced that they were considering support for the PSNI and I thought how much she’s still missed. I hadn’t realised that people had wanted her to stand against Blair for leader of the party in 2001. That would have been very interesting. I wonder what Britain under its first woman PM would have been like?

Book details

ISBN: 9780340793954
Year of publication: 2002

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