Book Review: “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir

It’s very simple. If you enjoyed “The Martian” you’ll enjoy this.

It starts out very much in the same way, as a lone astronaut in a crisis far from home, but it’s not a Martian reboot, for reasons which I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to blow the various twists which Weir has quite skillfully put into it.

An astronaut wakes up on a ship to find his two crewmates dead and that he can’t remember even his own name, never mind where he is, or why. I won’t go any further than that, other than it delivers.

I listened to it on Audible (as I do with most fiction) and I find it helps in particular with Andy Weir as he’s quite science heavy (Potato planting, anyone? Martian inside joke there) and I struggle to grasp some of the concepts, but it’s a very well thought through book, even to the point of dealing with issues that “Star Trek” takes for granted.

The one weakness in it is the political aspects to it, which I assume were written pre-Trump and make assumptions that simply don’t apply anymore.

I’m not surprised it has already been optioned as a movie, and I’ll be first in the queue to see it.

Book Review: “Where did I go right?” by Geoff Norcott.

Books like Geoff Norcott’s “Where did I go right?” are much more common in the US, where every aspiring conservative pundit attempts to carve out their niche on the politico-celeb circuit. Owen Jones has probably been the single most successful follower of that career path in the UK, and as a general rule, it is easier to do so coming from the liberal left that from the pro-Tory pro-Brexit right Norcott does. A former teacher turned stand-up comedian, he never set out to be political, but has managed to create for himself a rather niche position, being the centre-right comic that people on the centre and centre-left can actually enjoy. He winks at his left-wing fans rather than tries to disparage them, and if you are offended by Norcott, then let’s assume your threshold is pretty low.

I listened to the book on Audible read by Norcott himself and his stand-up experience has helped him write and deliver a very conversational and entertaining book. What really works is that Norcott doesn’t claim to start from a position of being morally right from the outset: the book is a journey through his childhood and career and those points in his life that shaped his world view, and why he came to be suspicious of the welfare system his own family used, or the casual approach to discipline in the schools he taught in, or his own family’s quite awful experiences of the NHS. All the recounted stories are funny but here’s the thing: there’s not one Jacob Rees-Mogg nanny moment that makes a left-winger go “Aha! That’s why he’s a tory weirdo!”. Every turning point, from traditional Labour family with union rep dad to New Labour to Lib Dem to Cameronite Tory is the result of a logical step. Where he challenged a piece of left-wing boilerplate and decided that it didn’t make sense to him or his aspirations for himself of his family.

One common theme of the book is his constantly meeting upper middle class people who not only believed they knew better than him as to what his class needed, but became quite uncomfortable when confronted by actual working class people like him.

I didn’t agree with everything he said, not surprisingly. But as an insight into how traditional working-class families end up voting Tory, it’s worth a read.

One other thing: it’s quite concise, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. The ability to get across a story in a relatively short volume is a skill.

Great Books I’m reminding you to read: Hellraisers.

Roarin', drinkin' and shoutin'.
Roarin’, drinkin’ and shoutin’.

I know I raved about this book before, but was rereading it, and it is well worth the read. That and the fact that when I first blogged about it, there was only me and a cat actually reading the blog.  Hellraisers is one of those books you read in a single holiday because it is a) quite short, and b) just so chock full of laugh out loud stories that you fly through them looking to get to the next one. The subject is Burton, O’Toole, Reed and Harris, back when men were men who went roarin’ shoutin’ and fightin’ and then delivered their lines perfectly on set.
Whether it was Harris demanding tea and toast in a police station or Reed announcing to crowded pubs that one of his friends had a bigger cock than he did (When he wasn’t shooting at helicopters with his shotgun.) an absolute joy to read.

A good book worth reading: Alpha Dogs

alpha-dogs(Previously published)

Another one for the political junkies, “Alpha Dogs” details the rise and fall of Sawyer-Miller, one of the first political consultancy firms, and a firm that played a major role in bringing down both Marcos and Pinochet. Full of little nuggets of political wisdom, including their polling which told Listerine that as their consumers were the sort of people who obey instructions on products, they could increase their sales of Listerine by 25%, by increasing the cap size by 25%. They also proved, in getting Boston Mayor Kevin White reelected in the 1970s, that voters will vote for a candidate they don’t actually like if they can be convinced that he is a) competant, and b) will use competancy to pursue the interests of people like them.

It also highlighted for me how different Irish politics is from most other western countries, in that whilst politics is dominated by professional politicians everywhere, it is remarkable how in Ireland political issues play such a minor role in elections, something Frank Luntz talked about when he was in Ireland. Irish politicians are far more sophisticated in knowing what makes their constituents tick than any pollster can tell them, yet that knowledge seems to paralyse them into policy inactivity. It isn’t that issues like taxes or spending or immigration don’t exist in Ireland, it’s that an entire political class has managed to pull off the most brilliant political three card trick ever, and convinced voters voting to elect members of a national parliament that those issues have nothing to do with them!

A very entertaining read, and the sort of book that political anoraks will need to read with a pen in one hand for marking passages. Or is that just me?

Review: Churchill and Europe by Felix Klos

churchill and europeGiven this week’s events, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Felix Klos’s slim “Churchill and Europe” isn’t really that relevant anymore, as Britain’s European Union chapter comes to an ignoble close.

You would be mistaken, because the book is an eye opener into a time when mainstream British politicians, and not just Churchill, publicly advocated European integration as a vital and worthy national interest.

Eurosceptics have always suggested that Churchill’s endorsement of a United States of Europe in Zurich in 1946 was done in the context of Britain and her empire not playing a role. As Klos argues, not only was that not the case, but by 1947 Churchill himself was head of the United Europe Movement, addressing the Royal Albert Hall under the banner “Europe Arise!”

As a pro-European and one who had hoped that the UK would have stayed in the EU, it’s hard not to read this without a heavy heart. But it’s worth reading if only to see the curious British path where the UK lost its self confidence as it took its European journey. Britain could have led Europe after the war, and moulded it in its image. Indeed, as Churchill himself said to his wife Clemmie, if he had been ten years younger he could have been the first President of the United States of Europe. Well worth a read as a sharply focused look at a fascinating topic.

A good read: The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth

Fourth ProtocolWould-be Irish Senator Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 political thriller “The Fourth Protocol” is curiously topical again. Those people who remember the moderately entertaining movie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan will remember the main plot, about a KGB plan to detonate a nuclear weapon near a US Airbase in Britain. What they won’t know is that particular storyline was only half the plot, with the other half of the plot being the plan to put a Trotskyite unilateralist into Downing street. See where I’m going here?

The book essentially talks about repeating the story, on a national scale, of how the Labour party in 1981 pledged to elect a moderate leader of the GLC, and then having won the election, deposed him with a hardline leftwinger. His name? Ken Livingstone.

As with every Forsyth book, there’s a lot of good background in it, although Forsyth’s right-wing politics comes out in this book more than most of his previous novels. But it’s a good yarn that keep you going to the end. Well worth a read.

An enjoyable book: The Dead Can Wait.

Dead can waitRobert Ryan’s “The Dead Can Wait” is the second of (so far) three novels about Sherlock Holmes’s friend Dr. John Watson in his later years, serving with British forces during the First World War. Watson is asked by a well-known and senior figure in the British government to investigate the mysterious deaths of a number of British soldiers at a top secret establishment testing a new weapon which may change the direction of the war. Assisted by an Irish secret service operative and a former nurse from the front, Watson reveals that maybe he had paid more attention around Holmes than he’d first suspected.

When I read the book, my first question was when are they going to turn it into a TV series, as it has all the prerequisites. Ryan has captured the character of Watson well, making sure to portray the cautious, empathic and decent Watson of the original novels and the Jeremy Brett series rather than the Watson as buffoon which has become the de facto portrayal up until the 1980s.  Mrs Gregson, the nurse turned mechanic turned suffragette is a wonderful foil to the older Watson’s old-school values. The two work together not dissimilar to a WWI version of The Avengers, yet another reason to make a TV show.

Ryan plays tricks with his readers with his writing style to throw a few red herrings about the place, but to his credit they’re honest twists that work by letting the reader make assumptions rather than by deliberating withholding information. It’s an enjoyable story that moves along at a solid pace.

If you’re a Sherlockian, I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And no, I’m not going to answer the obvious question. Read the book! Me, I’ll be reading the other two.

The Ministry of Love. Four years on.

Ministry of loveFour years ago today I published, as an eBook on Amazon, my first novel “The Ministry of Love”. Writing it taught me a huge amount, from the huge effort of writing a novel to the nightmare of typos and proofreading (A dragon finally slayed by the professional services of the excellent Elina Talvitie.) My apologies, by the way, to those who were subjected to the early editions before the fastidious Finn was deployed.

It’s funny what makes you write a book. For me it started as a joke about the government finding love for people (the main plot of the novel) but also diverted into the reality that loneliness is a genuine affliction for many. I remember sitting in a restaurant with two beautiful women, one my girlfriend at the time, and as we had a very entertaining lunch I spotted a diminutive man, with a bad comb over and a moustache, dining alone. Occasionally he looked over at us, not in anger at our laughter, or jealousy at me. In his eyes I could see that he desperately wanted just a fraction of what I had. It was simple suffocating loneliness. It’s a theme that I think is even more relevant today.

Anyway, you can buy it here.