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How Spies Think by David Omand

3.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The image we have of spies has long been tarnished by Bond. It is not a glamourous job and often involves long hours watching and waiting for a target or asset to make a move. For those that collates the information gather from signals intelligence or actual observations have to try and place the pieces together is some semblance of order. This is not particularly easy, especially when you don’t know what the full picture is nor do you know if the snippet of information in front of you actually relates to the task in hand.

Somehow they manage to pull together a picture of what is happening. So how do they do it? One of the methods that they use is the SEES model

Situational Awareness
Explanation
Estimates
Strategic Notice

The first part is gaining a fuller understanding as you are able to of what is happening. The second part is a deep understanding as to why it is happening and the various motivations behind any parties involved. From that, you need to assess different scenarios of what might happen if events unfold in particular ways. The final element is the assessment of any issues that might affect the item under consideration, including events that might be considered as outliers at the moment.

Even though these four stages sound fairly simple, they can absorb a lot of time and effort and things still get missed. It is also important to think of all possible outcomes as the assumptions that are made are often not bold enough. In this book, Omand takes us through the process behind this system in ten lessons and provides lots of examples of how he used these techniques in his time in government and as the director of GCHQ.

It is very detailed, which is kind of what I would expect from someone of his calibre and experience in the role. There are some really useful lessons in here, especially the final lesson on digital subversion and sedition and that seeing is not always believing, especially with the sophisticated. Parts of the book did feel like there were more of a memoir of his time in various government departments and was loosely linked to the lesson being discussed. That was a minor detail though, there are lots of details to take away here and use.

On Fiji Islands by Roland Wright

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The islands of Fuji deep in the Pacific were known as the Cannibal Isles. It was a feared place by many, and they were subject to many influxes of Europeans and Indians over the past 150 years. These slavers, traders, missionaries and those with imperial intentions all had planned on what to do with the islands and its people. The Fijians absorbed these people and have emerged out of the other side with their society, language and lands intact and still their own.

In the early 1980s, Ronald Wright arrived there with his companion, Derek. It was much less of a shock that when he had arrived in Lima together. Even at 3 am the airport seems to be organised and refined and this could be seen in the landscape as they headed out to their hotel. After breakfast Derek popped out to get a paper and appeared back with a young Indian called Krishna, he was offering to be their taxi driver for the day. Setting off they arrived at a cultural centre and had guided tour of a village. The houses were arranged in a circle and it was so quiet they could hear the sounds of the waves.

It’s hard to be a Methodist after eating one

They would spend their time there travelling around to the different islands and learning first hand about the history and culture of the islanders, meeting various people and seeing different places. Cannibalism was a ritual that was carried out to both honour and insult a person and Wright recounts details from his visit to the museum. They developed a unique culture, and they have thankfully still had it for the most part (they have stopped eating people now!).

Most Fujian’s believe that rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and economic advance would cost them their cultural identity. They see land as more substantial than capital, subsistence farming more worthwhile than cash crops and they have been able to continue in these ‘old fashioned’ ways by developing a political system that defends them.

Before starting this review I spent a little while looking up some details about the islands of Fuji. All I can say is that it is utterly beautiful with their idyllic beaches and azure blue seas. Reading this, I get that impression from Wright too, that he loved being on these tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific. Even though he is moving around the islands, it doesn’t completely feel like a travel book as there is a mix of history, culture and his take of the people of Fiji. It is an interesting read though and a good starting point for anyone wanting to know a little more about the place.

November 2020 Review

Another month rushes by and we emergy from Lockdown lite into winter and the coronavirus rippling its way through the population once again. It has been a difficult year in so many ways and whilst I have been distracted at times, books once again have been a solace at times too. I somehow managed to read 16 books during November, probably because of the three poetry books I ended up reading. It was a good month too all good books and finally finished one that I had been reading for absolutely ages. So here they are

I normally only try to do one blog tour a month as reading to a deadline is not always convenient but I promised to do three in November. The first was a book called The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John Donohue and I chose to do this because it sounded utterly mad. It started in a bar and He agrees to head to Vietnam to pass on some beers to friends of his and others who are fighting in the war there. And I was right, it was mad and a heartwarming read.

My second blog tour book was, Lev Parikian’s new book, Music To Eat Cake By. In this, he was challenged to write articles on any subject by whoever sponsored him. So here, you will find essays and musings on birds, cricket, snooker, space travel, a bit more cricket, hiccups, music and a little more cricket. It is hilarious. Read it.

For those playing apocalypse bingo, we haven’t had the asteroid yet this year, but there are still a few more days to go. The end of the world is something that has troubled people for millennia.  Adam Roberts normally writes science fiction, so is quite used t thinking about different places and worlds. His take on the end of the world is quite upbeat all things considered.

        

 

Nightingales In November is actually about them all year round. I thought that this was a nicely written book about twelve species of birds and what they do month by month. Increasing from twelve birds to 366, Dominic Couzens has had the difficult job of picking from the 10,000 or so species around the world and condensing them into this charming book. There is much more to fungi than mushrooms on toast and The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley tells all about their hidden worlds.

   

Two more books on birds I read this month were Featherhood and Blood Ties. In the first, Charlie Gilmour writes about the way his life was changed by the addition of a baby magpie. It helps him deal with all of the events of his life and come a little way to understanding his actual father. Ben Crane’s book is about falcons and building a relationship with his son. Both very different and yet have lots of things in common.

        

This is a compilation of poetry art and photography all about Manchester called Mancunian Ways.  I have never visited the city, but this short volume gives a good flavour of its character.  I can’t remember where I picked this volume of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry from, but I liked the previous stuff of hers that I had read. Rapture is about love in all of its myriad forms. Caroline Bird’s latest collection is starting to get onto shortlists, including most recently the Costa. Library had a copy so I got hold of a copy and then someone else reserved it, so it got bumped up the list. I quite liked The Air Year it is very different from other poetry I have read in the past and she digs deep in her emotions to find the words.

We all have blood flowing through us, and in Nine Pints, Rose George takes us around and out of the body in search of this life-giving fluid. It is a fascinating book on all manner of things that will make some people cringe.

The third blog tour that I was on this month was the final book in Peter F. Hamilton’s Science Fiction trilogy, The Saints of Salvation. It is fast-paced and set across thousands of light-years as humanity fights back against the Olyix. Great ending to the series.

TV affects culture as much as culture affects TV and Phil Harrison looks at the way that the British have dances and moved with the box in the corner of our rooms. It makes for fascinating reading.

Having read On Fiji Islands by Ronald Wright, I want to go to the islands. This was his account of staying there in the 1980s and is an enlightening experience,

Vickery’s Folk Flora is the book that I started way back in 2019 and have dipped into for snippets of information about all manner of plants over the past mumble mumble number of months that I have taken to read it. It is brilliant and if you have any interest in folklore, social history or most importantly plants, then you need a copy of this. It is my book of the month for November.

The Age of Static by Phil Harrison

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

I watch much less TV than I used to, and I am very much more selective now about what I choose to watch too. I tend to prefer to watch documentaries on a variety of subjects, occasionally a drama and some humour or panel game. Much like my reading.

A lot of what passes for popular culture passes me by as I have my head in a book normally. I have seen one series of Big Brother, I think it was the second series, I don’t watch Bake Off, though the rest of my family do. I can’t bear the braying alpha males and females on the Apprentice, who seem to think that the only way to get ahead is the trample on all those around them. If fact, almost all the programmes that he references, I haven’t watched…

He has somehow managed to divide these TV programmes into five sections that loosely hang together. The first, Reality TV Reality focuses on Big Brother, the Apprentice and Britain’s Hardest Workers but he also manages to squeeze in, The Office, The Thick of It and Have I Got News For You. When Big Brother first started they took a bunch of people off the street and shut them away under the pervasive gaze of cameras and an intrigued and bemused audience. Not much happened but it was a big success. This lead to more profiling of the people selected to join in and a house that was more spikey and not quite as comfortable as the earlier series. It has made a number of people famous for no other reason than being on there. The Office was not a programme I liked. As I work in an office usually, the little I watched felt far to close to home but to pull off a drama that felt like a cringe-worthy embarrassing documentary takes some doing…

The fascination of seeing people who live differently will never go away and this sort of documentary is never going to go out of fashion. In How The Other Half Live, Harrison considers various programmes that give us a window into these other worlds. The Secret Millionaire is a programme that took the super-rich out of their opulent mansions an into the lives of ordinary people. In principle, it was a good thing, but in practice, it became a way of the show exploiting those in the lower levels of our society and probably showed as much the chasm between those at the top and bottom that is still widening.

I have watched Top Gear since William Wollard waxed lyrical over different types of engine oil and the cars they feature you could see quite often broken down of the side of the road. It was reinvented with Clarkson et al and became a lifestyle show that I must admit has made me laugh a lot. He was a man who didn’t let trivial things like facts get in the way of his opinion and he drove as close the edge as he could. In Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis, he shows how we can all retract into our particular bunkers and by consuming a niche of content from various providers we reinforce our particular world views.

The BBC is a common thread throughout the book and they merit a special chapter to themselves. Harrison goes onto list the flaws of the corporation and the way that it works, especially the delusional attempt to get a balance on every single subject they talk about. I like the BBC, even more so now that I have stopped listening to their news output, but they do make some excellent programmes on a variety of subjects.

In, A Very British Identity Crisis, he considers various programmes that show us as a culture and he begins with those programmes that have increased thousands of waistlines across the country. It feels like a country fair where villagers take their garden and kitchen produce to be judged by the great and the good. Another of the programmes that he uses as points of reference, Downton Abbey, I have never seen or wanted to see for that matter. But I completely get his point that it has been written to show that the English upper class have the right to remain in charge in perpetuity. Glad to see that he mentions the Detectorists, a show that is gently funny, but has quite deep truths in ti and shows that two men can have fallen in love with their local landscape and the history below the soil.

I thought that this was a fascination book. In my opinion, Harrison hits the mark each and every time with his analysis of how culture, society and what we watch on TV act like some grim hall of black mirrors back on society. There are contradictions, what works for one class now days is frowned on in other classes even though the behaviours are the same. There have been certain milestone programmes that have provided a stark, if not shockingly vivid image out our society and the way that it has changed for the better. He celebrates the great TV that has been produced and hopefully still will be but is also wary of those programmes that seek to shame and polarise particular sectors of our society. He rightly bemoans that we are losing that common TV conversational starters as so many people are watching very different things. If you love TV, then why not read a book on it? This is a very good place to start.

December 2020 TBR

It is already the 1st of December! How? I have a very short TBR this month, primarily as I have two aims:

  • Finish my Good Reads Challenge of 190 books and I have got 12 to go
  • Finish all my 2020 requested review copies

So here they are:

How Spies Think – David Omand

Behind the Enigma – John Ferris

One Day in August – David O’Keefe

American Dirt – Jeanie Cummins

Time Among the Maya – Ronald Wright

Fifty Words for Snow – Nancy Campbell

Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics -Peter Geoghegan

 

I know that is five short, so I will be picking some from here:

The Maths Of Life And Death – Kit Yates

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

Letters – Saul Bellow

The Prester Quest – Nicholas Jubber

Mirrors of the Unseen – Jason Elliot

Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

In Search of Conrad -Gavin Young

Travels With Myself And Another – Martha Gellhorn

Toast – Nigel Slater

The Marsh Arabs – Wilfred Theisger

Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy

3 out of 5 stars

Falling in love is a complex and messy business, from the churning of emotions on finding someone who might be that one special person, the passion of an early relationship, the comfort of a steady companion and the turmoil and angst with there are stumbles and breaks.

Many people have written about this roller coaster of love, and Rapture is Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poems about real love. These poems feel raw and are deeply laced with emotion. The poem Venus is about not being able to hold her lover in any intimate way any more but is suffering from insomnia and can watch the transit of Venus. There are poems about waking in the middle of the night and not having them there and the sorrow of not being able to use the words I love you in her vocabulary anymore.

Night clenches in its fist the moon, a stone
I wish it thrown.
I clutch the small stiff body of my phone

This is not the easiest collection to read as she pours her broken heart into these words. The way that she uses language to conjure images of the darker moments of her introspection are quite bleak. Even though it could be quite cheerless, I did like this, but not as much as some of her other collections that I have read like, The Bees.

Three Favourite Poems
Forest
Fall
Land

Nightingales in November by Mike Dilger

3.5 out of 5 stars

We don’t get many different species of birds in our garden, mostly sparrows, the odd blue tit, magpies, lots of pigeons and sometimes doves. I have seen herons on the house behind, and every now and again we glimpse goldfinches and we even had a pair of mallards once! It is a bit of a mix, but mostly we leave them to get on with it. Move away from the houses around and suddenly there are far more birds around, buzzards and the occasional kite wheeling overhead and magnificent swift scything through the air in the height of summer.

Some of what we consider our native birds are actually visitors. Some of them fly here for what we laughingly call our summer before heading vast distances to much warmer climes during our grey winters. In this book Dilger has selected twelve of our well-known birds, the Peregrine, the Blue Tit, Tawny Owl, Robin, Kingfisher as well as some of the summer and winter visitors that we have, the Waxwing, the Puffin, the Lapwing, Bewick’s Swan, the Swallow, the Cuckoo and the bird that the book is named after, the Nightingale.

Each chapter covers a month and each of the birds has a short essay telling us the sorts of things that they would be typically doing at that time of year. In January, we read about the Bewick’s Swan who are overwintering as it is much warmer than their summer haunt of the Siberian tundra. Kingfishers are keeping a low profile near the rivers and Tawny Owls starting to defend their territory. In the same month, thousands of miles away in South Africa the swallows flit catching insects around the big game.

By the middle of the year, the days are long, and most of the birds mentioned have bred and are carrying out the thankless task of feeding their young, the lapwings are fairly self-sufficient when they hatch, the kingfishers are just starting to force their first brood out to fend for themselves and the Puffin’s egg is still being incubated. The Peregrine’s chicks are just starting to flex their flight muscles and take to the air.

As the winter closes in the summer visitors will be long gone, the chicks of the cuckoos having managed to follow the parent they have never seen back to Africa, the blue tits are emptying the nuts from your feeder and the robin’s songs have returned and the nightingale is enjoying the warmth of tropical Senegal.

In all these multiple timelines are vast numbers of facts and details, stories and anecdotes about each of the birds and it makes for fascinating reading, especially about those that migrate and how the detective work has found their routes to and from the UK. I personally I would have preferred a separate timeline for each bird through their year, rather than month by month, as I would occasionally have flick back to see what they were up to in the previous chapter. That is only a minor thing though as otherwise, it is a good concept to show how each of these birds live their own separate and intertwined lives. I did love the little sketches of each bird and the beginning of each chapter/month.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John “Chick” Donohue

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for The Greatest Beer Run Ever by  John “Chick” Donohue and published by Octopus Books.

 

About the Book

 

A Crazy Adventure in a Crazy War is the amazing true story of a young man going to take his buddies a few cans of beer – in the heat of the Vietnam war. In 1967 – having seen students protesting against the Vietnam war, some New York City bar friends decided that someone should hop over to Vietnam to buy their various neighbourhood army buddies a beer, to show them that SOMEONE appreciates what they’re doing over there. One man was up for the challenge: John “Chickie” Donohue. A U. S. Marine Corps veteran turned merchant mariner, Chickie decided he wasn’t about to desert his buddies on the front lines when they needed him most.

Chickie set off on an adventure that changed his life forever. Armed with Irish luck and a backpack full of alcohol, he made his way to Qui Nho’n, tracking down his disbelieving friends one by one. But Chickie saw more of the war than he ever bargained for…

 

About the Author

John “Chickie” Donohue joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen and spent several years as a Merchant Mariner after his discharge. His work took him to numerous foreign ports, including Saigon during the Vietnam War. After the war, he became a Sandhog, or tunnel builder, and eventually became the Legislative and Political Director of Sandhogs, Local 147, Laborers International Union of North America, a post in which he served for over three decades. Donohue is a graduate of the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government where he received his Master of Public Administration degree. He is happily married to Theresa “Terri” O’Neil and spends his time between New York, Florida, and West Cork, Ireland.

Peter Farrelly, writer and producer of Green Book, is turning THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER into a movie. In 2018 Green Book won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. Farrelly has also directed and produced Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, Me, Myself and Irene, There’s Something About Mary, and the 2007 remake of The Heartbreak Kid.

 

My Review

Donohue was 26 years old and already a veteran. He was an ex-marine and now a merchant seaman, and he had got together with his friends in the Doc Fiddler Bar in Manhattan. They had gathered there to drink, tell jokes and stories, have a laugh and share the craic. Something that their Irish and Scottish ancestors would have understood completely. They had all seen the protestors who were making a stand against the ongoing Vietnam war, a war that a number of their friends were still fighting in.

One of the guys at the bar suggested that someone, one of the guys present here ideally, should sneak into Vietnam, find their friends, give them a bear hug, let them know they were missed back home, have a few laughs and to hand them a beer. ‘Chick’ volunteered for the mission. It’ll be the greatest beer run ever.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Word got around that he was going and people started to pass him names of family members and the units that they were in. He collected them together but in the cold light of day nerves were setting in. He made a promise to the mother of one of his best friends that he would find him, so he really had to go now. He managed to get a passage on the SS Drake Victory. It was leaving very soon, so he grabbed some things and hurried down to the port. He stopped at a bar to get some beers and after he explained to the barman what he was doing he gave him a great price on them. He was soon on the way in the ammo ship to Vietnam.

They anchored of Qui Nhon and he thought of a ruse to get ashore. He found the captain and told him about the family news that he wanted to pass on to his step-brother in person. The captain fumed a little and as he had arranged for the shift to be covered let him go ashore for three days. He thought that would be all the time he needed to catch up with the guys and hand them a fine New York beer. Little did he know how wrong he was.

He jumped on the water taxi that had dropped off some MP to help guard the ship. The other guys on the boat were from the 127th MP Company, Tommy Collins unit. And it turns out they knew him and the ship they were going to next he was on! If it was that easy finding his friends he would have this wrapped up in no time. To say Tommy was shocked to see him was an understatement, it was quite an emotional reunion, and he really liked the beer.

He wanted to head north to find Rick Duggan and manages to bump into another of the friends in the jeep that stops to offer him a lift. Kevin is also shocked to see him, but he knows lots of people and helps him blag a lift of a Huey Helicopter that is heading north. In fact, being in civilian clothes seemed to be helping as most of the military personnel though he was from the CIA. The ride in the helicopter was pretty scary and they don’t shut the doors, and the pilots turned off the big fan up top just to scare him. It was early evening when they landed and the guy they spoke to knew where Duggan was. Donohue was told to jump in a fox hole and they radioed Duggan to return.

He only had a day left to return to his ship though and he manages to blag a lift of a chinook, and then wangles his way onto another plane that took him to Phu Cat. That was 17 miles from his destination. He decided to walk overnight, but gave up and headed back to the camp. He was lucky not to have been captured or shot. Arriving at the port the next day he sees that his ship has already departed. He is in so much trouble.

The harbour master recommends that he heads to Saigon and speak to the American Consulate. They would be able to get his out of there. But his arrived in the city happens at the time of the Tet Offensive by the Vietcong. He is now in the middle of a war zone and he is really not sure if he is going to live, let alone make it home.

He survived. We wouldn’t be reading this book otherwise.

It was an experience that changed him and the guys to deliver the beers too and this book is a warm and generous account of his travels. I can imagine that it was terrifying at times. He is a good storyteller, the writing is full of anecdotes about the people that he meets and helps him in his task of delivering the beers to his friends. The photos that he took enhance the writing. I liked this a lot, the writing is light-hearted and conversational. Whilst he was not in the thick of the fighting, he manages to convey the tensions in the country, in particular, the descriptions of the war.

 

Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

 

Buy this at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

 

My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Thing Tours for the arranging a copy of the book to read.

The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

4 out of 5 stars

When the Lost Words was released back in 2017 no one ever thought that it would become a phenomenon in its own right. It was conceived after the OUP dictionary removed several words relating to the natural world and Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris collaborated to produce a stunningly beautiful book that could teach children these words again. The poems or ‘spells’ from that book were put to music and there have been jigsaws and even a game.

This second book that takes the things that worked so well in the first book, the prose and Morris’s exquisite artwork and have packaged them into the more compact version here. As in the first book they have picked animals, plants and insects such as barn owls, moths, oak goldfinches and swifts and many others that have a few verses or lines of prose and then several pages of pictures.

I did like it a lot, Macfarlane’s prose has been deliberately written to be read out loud by parents and children and relies on repetition and rhythm and often onomatopoeia to bring these creatures alive in the pages of this book. It did amuse me that this is described as pocket-sized, whilst it is much more manageable than the first edition, you would still need a fairly large pocket to carry it around in. It is a stunning book, and that is mostly because of Jackie Morris’s artwork, it is so full of life. I did like the glossary at the end of the book with images of all the creatures to be found by the eager young naturalist.

A Bird A Day by Dominic Couzens

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

In the first lockdown this year, people started to become more aware of the wild world around them, helped by the drop in traffic, wildlife that you may not have seen or heard before would suddenly become more visible. Some of the easiest wildlife to see is birds and this book is aimed at those who have discovered that watching them can be endlessly fascinating.

In this new book out, Dominic Couzens has picked a bird for every day of the year. Some of them are obviously linked to that day in particular, so there is naturally a robin in December and birds that are more common in the summer appear in those months in the book. Quite how you only pick 366 birds from the 10,000 or so species that we still have is quite something, but Couzens has managed to get the familiar, the exotic the rare and the unusual in a really nice mix.

The first thing that I did when receiving this was to look up the bird that is on my birthday. That bird wasn’t one that I had ever heard of but it was fairly unique in one of its habits.

It is a beautifully produced book, it is printed on quality paper and feels heavy. The stunning photographs and artworks accompany all of the chosen birds, along with a small piece of text with facts and anecdotes about their behaviour or habitat or unique trait.

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