Our Man In Havana

Graham Greene


A study of the dangers and absurdities of intelligence work, in which by definition it's hard to tell if information was made up or is just really, really hard to find.

The book starts off quite slowly and only really gathers pace when the Wormold's inventions start to come out – at which point things get very interesting indeed. It's interesting to compare the slow and rather plodding protagonist to the racier Bond – or even Ashenden, for that matter. Greene almost certainly captures reality more closely.

Finished on Fri, 30 Oct 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance

Catherine Fletcher

An excellent tour through the Renaissance that doesn't steer away from the bits that don;t fit the usual narrative. Whether I'd agree with the subtitle of "alternative" history I'm less certain: it certainly mentions the role of women and the prevalence of slavery more than other books, and also explores the relationship between Italians and Spaniards in the conquest of the New World in interesting ways, though.

Finished on Wed, 28 Oct 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

What Is Life?: Understand Biology In Five Steps

Paul Nurse


A quick and clear introduction to all the main currents in modern biology, especially cell and molecular biology, explained with a fantastic clarity.

The five main chapters and the conclusion all address the core idea of approaching the question of "what is life?" from multiple perspectives. But there's also an additional chapter on how science and scientists need to engage with the wider world, with decision-makers and popular culture, that deserves more prominence than as what is, essentially, an essay sitting slightly uncomfortably with the thrust of the rest of the book.

Finished on Fri, 23 Oct 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Permanent Record

Edward Snowden


The story of a dissident. In Snowden's telling he dissented for entirely principled reasons having found evidence of illegal wiretapping and other activities on the part of his employer, the NSA. And it's certainly true that many subsequent events bear out his story, as Congress has shut down or otherwise controlled the activities he revealed – but without pardoning or exonerating the whistleblower.

It's a story that could only happen in America, though, and some americana show through (for Valentine's Day he buys his girlfriend "the revolver she's always wanted"). But it's really a story of conscience followed to its logical conclusion, regardless of the personal consequences. And even having finished the book it's hard to really know what drove Snowden's actions: sacrificing everything to a principle of liberty that he felt wasn't being upheld seems somehow inadequate.

There's a broader message here too, to do with how the privatisation of government has affected the behaviour and loyalty of the people involved. A system where you can leave government services, become a contractor, and earn ten times the money for the same job in the same facility alongside the same people – simply to reduce the headline staff cost (by replacing it with an enormously larger contracting cost). It's a recipe for self-serving, and also for moving government-developed technology and approaches into the private sector for private profit.

Finished on Thu, 01 Oct 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

Lindsey Hilsum


Hard to think of a better way to tackle the life of such a complex individual in such complex circumstances. This is an excellent read both for its subject matter and for the general experience of war reporting.

I don't think we ever really get to the bottom of Marie Colvin's complexity. though. Perhaps that's inevitable at such a short distance from the events. Lindsey Hilsum avoids the facile explanations (daddy issues, thrill-seeking), but is left with very little else. She (Hilsum) seems to think that the same basic issues drove both Colvin's reporting and her self-destructive personal life that repeated a pattern of unsuitable men: she even shows how Colvin herself knew this was happening and yet seemed unable to escape the pattern. But as to what drove Colvin to the extremes she went to, reporting on stories that even other war reporters thought were too risky, remains in the shade for now at least.

Finished on Mon, 21 Sep 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.


David Boyle

A funny and quite damning indictment of tickbox culture and its pernicious effects. Unfortunately slightly short on meaningful prescriptions apart from resisting the temptation to comply (and accepting the possibly unfortunate consequences for others). Should certainly be required reading for anyone in a position to manage the introduction (or termination) of any sort of appraisal scheme.

Finished on Fri, 11 Sep 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz

Jack Fairweather


A largely unknown story about a man who broke in to Auschwitz – and the successfully broke out again, having formented resistance and collected intelligence of enormous value, only to then be executed by the new pro-Soviet government of Poland after the war.

It's brilliant researched and told. My only criticism is a stylistic one, that the prose sounds breathless and boy's-own, somehow. I think it's because everyone is referred to by their first names, rather than their surnames as would be more common in history books. That's a minor distraction though from a story that should be a lot better known.

Finished on Sun, 30 Aug 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.