Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wot I'm reading: Big thriller, medium-sized thrills

Terry Hayes: I AM PILGRIM

At almost 900 pages this book redefines the blockbuster thriller. 'Pilgrim' is the codename for a mysterious agent, formerly employed by an ultra-secret government hit squad, now working as a freelance. The grisly murder of a young woman in New York sets him down a trail of hideous crimes across the world linked to a new Saudi terrorist known as the Saracen.

The back-story to the Saracen takes up much of the book's first 300 pages. His father was publicly executed by the Saudi regime, although it is on America that the son's thirst for vengeance soon focuses. He witnesses - and causes - atrocities in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. His travels also take him to Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and, eventually, Europe. He plans an outrage that - more even than 9/11 - will show America the full extent of Islamic terror.

Luckily for us, one tiny piece of evidence sets US Intelligence - and Pilgrim - in pursuit.

This kind of thriller - lone-wolf operative versus fiendish terrorist or terror group - is the stuff of thrillers good and not-so-good.  Dan Brown is clearly the Main Man of recent times although, for my money, Frederick Forsyth is the greatest exponent of this type of story with The Fourth Protocol probably his most audacious plot. I Am Pilgrim is good, even very good, but the sheer length of the book makes this an ultimately exhausting read. Shorten it and it might have been one of the all-time greats. The Saracen is up there with the great villains of fiction (Hannibal Lector, the Jackal, Blofeld) - charismaticplausible, almost pleasingly evil. The Arabian and Afghan scenes are total page-turners, but the first segment set in Bodrum, although not actually boring, does see the pace slowing. Bodrum is a down-market location, Turkey's answer to Margate or Benidorm, but Hayes takes some liberties with the topography to make it appear spooky rather than tacky.. There's a daft boat-dock scene that belongs in a Bond movie from the Roger Moore era and the climax, in Bodrum's Roman ruins, is also disappointingly ludicrous.

The writing is unpretentious and fluid with some choice phrasing here and there. UN HQ beside Lake Geneva is "brilliantly floodlit, totally useless." Terry Hayes could prove to be the heir to Robert Ludlum's throne (Freddie Forsyth's is safe, and Dan Brown has gone off the boil). Ludlum had some great plots but many of his books also suffered from over-writing and loss of pace.

Hayes may well be happy to be seen as the next Ludlum, but I think he could set his sights even higher.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

David at the movies: Flawed genius, flawed movie

The Imitation Game

This is not the first movie to investigate the Bletchley Park team that cracked the Nazi Enigma code and hastened Germany's defeat. This version puts a lot more meat on the bones of the code-breakers' story and, more importantly, gives mathematician Alan Turing the full credit for his role as creator of the Ultra machine that finally broke the code. We now know that Turing is part parent, part midwife, to today's PCs and iPads and Smartphones.

We also know that Turing was a homosexual in an era when gays were prosecuted and cruelly punished, although the writer and director of The Imitation Game seem to be unsure about how far to go in exploring this side of Turing's fatally (as it would prove) flawed genius. Flashbacks to his boarding school days show geeky Alan clumsily and inarticulately in love with a fellow pupil, but his great love in the Bletchley Park period is Joan (Keira Knightley), the only female on the team. Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly catches the adult Alan's equally clumsy courtship of Joan, whom he loves but does not desire. 

The moral dilemma the Bletchley Park team - and the government - faced once they had broken the German code is chillingly presented but the movie's fatal flaw, for me, was in declaring Turing's homosexuality (and its terrible consequences) but not exploring it in any depth. We see the postwar police doggedly building a case against him, but we get few clues as to the kind of gay man he was. Perhaps Benedict was OK about playing gay but didn't want to fully "do" gay? Going the full distance in Brokeback Mountain has not harmed Jake Gyllenhaal's stratospheric career. 

What the Turing movie needed, I think, were a couple of the scenes like Gary Oldman had in Prick Up Your Ears, candidly but not not too explicitly showing Joe Orton's naughty weakness for cottaging and rent boys. The Imitation Game is a visual feast with well-judged performances from the entire cast, but it settles for being a Merchant Ivory-style period piece with (as the poster proclaims) more than one enigma at its centre. This is not the definitive biography of Alan Turing.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

ISIL behead Iraqi children in front of their parents

The story is almost three months old, but this email has only just reached me. It's an appeal for a united prayer for the Iraqi Christians - deeply touching - and I thought I would post it, unedited, on my blog.

Iraqi Christians find sanctuary in the Kurdish city of Erbil

The horror stories about Islamic State's treatment of the people whose towns they have conquered grow ever more grim. Martyring children in front of their parents: these ISIS/ISIL fanatics are taking the world into a new Dark Age.

My mum (God rest her) became rather "reactionary" in old age as she drifted down the road to dementia. She wanted to solve the problem of the Middle East by nuking the entire region (she wanted to do the same to Ireland!). I guess that gave me the idea of forecasting a thermonuclear Armageddon at the end of my novel Shaikh-Down. What's happened in Qaraqosh and could soon be happening in Kobani makes me seriously wonder if the world is being readied to enter the Biblical 'Last Days.'

I'd like to believe that prayers can be answered. But we - and ISIS - seem to be praying to different Gods (ecclesiastically it's the same God, of course). Which God is listening, theirs or ours?

Perhaps we need to pray harder. Here's the email:

Urgent Prayer Request

Prayer Request from Dan and Marilyn Wilson Missionaries who are in the areas that are being attacked by ISIS are asking to be showered in prayer. ISIS has taken over the town they are in today. He said ISIS is systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus. He said so far not one child has. And so far all have consequently been killed. But not the parents.
The UN has withdrawn and the missionaries are on their own. They are determined to stick it out for the sake of the families – even if it means their own deaths. They are very afraid, have no idea how to even begin ministering to these families who have had seen their children martyred. Yet he says he knows God has called them for some reason to be His voice and hands at this place at this time. Even so, they are begging for prayers for courage to live out their vocation in such dire circumstances. And like the children, accept martyrdom if they are called to do so. These brave parents instilled such a fervent faith in their children that they chose martyrdom. Please surround them in their loss with your prayers for hope and perseverance.
One missionary was able to talk to her brother briefly by phone. She didn’t say it, but I believe she believes it will be their last conversation. Pray for her too. She said he just kept asking her to help him know what to do and do it. She told him to tell the families we ARE praying for them and they are not alone or forgotten — no matter what. Please keep them all in your prayers.

This came this morning… Just a few minutes ago I received the following text message on my phone from Sean Malone who leads Crisis Relief International (CRI). We then spoke briefly on the phone and I assured him that we would share this urgent prayer need with all of our contacts. “We lost the city of Queragosh (Qaraqosh). It fell to ISIS and they are beheading children systematically. This is the city we have been smuggling food to. ISIS has pushed back Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) and is within 10 minutes of where our CRI team is working. Thousands more fled into the city of Erbil last night. The UN evacuated its staff in Erbil. Our team is unmoved and will stay. Prayer cover needed!” Please pray sincerely for the deliverance of the people of Northern Iraq from the terrible advancement of ISIS and its extreme Islamic goals for mass conversion or death for Christians across this region.
May I plead with you not to ignore this email. Do not forward it before you have prayed through it. Then send it to as many people as possible. Send it to friends and Christians you may know. Send it to your prayer group. Send it to your pastor and phone him to pray on Sunday during the service – making a special time of prayer for this. We need to stand in the gap for our fellow Christians.
"My soul waits in silence for God only; from Him is my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken."
 (Psalm 62:1-2)

Monday, 27 October 2014

Wot I'm reading: (slightly) Gay Paree in the 1950s

JAMES BALDWIN: Giovanni's Room

In the beginning was the word, and the word came from Gore Vidal: The City and the Pillar (1948). In 1953 the word came from Mary Renault: The Charioteer. Then in 1956 came Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, recently given a new edition in the UK and the USA. These three are the 'pivotal' gay novels of the mid-20th-century, and I've now re-read two of them, with Mary Renault still to be revisited.

David, a blond all-American WASP with a mainly heterosexual past, falls in love with a gorgeous Italian barman. Their affair is brief and intense, doomed by David's inability to commit to a homosexual relationship. We know from the beginning that Giovanni is facing the guillotine but we don't know until nearer the end what crime he has been driven to and how much responsibility David bears for driving him to it.

This, because of its time, is a very 'respectable' read with no explicit sex scenes, but it resonates with a powerful emotional intensity. Visibly influenced by the great French writers - Proust, Gide, Genet - the writing is always elegant and occasionally a bit precious: "I felt myself flow towards him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up." In the last chapter, as the story moves from gay romance into melodrama, there are even a few faint echoes of Hemingway.

1950s Paris - "this old whore", Giovanni calls the city - is vividly evoked: her riverside promenades, her louche bars, her Bohemian artists, her sensation-seeking visitors. Beyond his major works which played a key role in the civil rights movement, Baldwin made a significant contribution to the 'canon' of expatriate life and gay fiction. Giovanni's Room may seem dated to the modern reader, but it remains a major milestone in the history of gay liberation.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Censored by GOODREADS

I've just had an email from Goodreads, the website (owned by Amazon) for writers and readers to review each other's books and discuss issues of interest.

"Hi David,

We're contacting you about your recent blog post. Upon review, we determined that the images in your post violated our policy on excessively violent imagery. Given this, we have removed your blog feed from the site. 

The Goodreads Team"

The "excessively violent imagery" they object to were photos (like this one) obtained from Facebook of Kurdish women and children slaughtered and terrorised by ISIL terrorists in Syria. There are more disturbing pictures which I chose not to use to reinforce my argument that the medieval treatment of Syrian Kurds, in Kobani and other towns, is taking the world one huge step down a road that leads to Armageddon. The road to Armageddon is a road I took my readers down at the end of my 2009 novel Shaikh-Down.

I am disappointed, shocked even, that a site such as Goodreads should impose censorship on its readers. Extremist groups like ISIL, the Taleban, Boko Haram impose censorship and abolish human rights in the areas they have savagely conquered. A new Dark Age is dawning. The fanatics of Islamic State are the most brutal of the extremists who plague the world today. Goodreads plays into the hands of the fanatics by censoring what their followers can read about ISIL

I hope that those who follow my reviews and comments on current affairs on davidgeebooks will continue to find their way to my pages.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

ISLAMIC STATE: do they want Armageddon? Maybe we should let them have it.

These - from Facebook - are the pictures you won't have seen on TV: women and children shot on the street and in their homes by the jihadi terrorists we have come to know as Islamic State - IS or ISIS or ISIL.

These merciless thugs are carrying out their atrocities in the name of their god - Allah - who perhaps is not your god or mine. If Allah is the god you believe in, you may feel that Islamic State are putting a different "spin" on their version of your god.

But they aren't.

If you look at the history of Islam, it began with blood and destruction. Muslims say "Peace Be Upon Him" when they mention the prophet Mohammed, but Peace is not what Mohammed brought to the seventh-century world in which he lived. He was a warrior who brought death and destruction. His message was "Kill them (unbelievers) wherever you find them," which is what Islamic State, in his name, are doing now - bringing death and destruction to their fellow Muslims as well as to the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq and Syria and soon Turkey. These horrible photos - I'm sorry if they disturb you - are proof that IS has returned Islam to its seventh-century roots.

Plenty of people continue to remind us of the terrors visited on the people of Europe, the Middle East and South America in the name of Jesus Christ by the Crusaders and the conquistadors. The Phalangist Christian militia massacred more than 3,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982. Today, in the Central African Republic, Christian militiamen are carrying out a genocide against Muslims, as others have before them throughout Africa during the long age of Empires. The Empire that goes on longer than all the others is the Empire of Death.

Jesus Christ did not preach destruction; his message, not an easy one, was a message of peace: "love your enemies ... do good to those who hate you". But destruction and retribution have often been carried out in his name, acts which blaspheme the message he brought to the world.

There are those who say the world would be a better place with no religions. They may have a point.

Moderate Muslims - of whom there are millions - need to stand up and declare that the faith of these terrorists is not the faith they wish to belong to. They can find a few of the Prophet's gentler sayings (there aren't many) to shore up their belief.

More than a million people (I was one of them) marched in the streets of London in 2003 against the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq. Tens of thousands of Kurds and their supporters have demonstrated around the world in the last few days to call for logistical support to defend the beleaguered Syrian town of Kobani against Islamic State. We need to hear them. IS threatens the world - East and West - far more than Al-Qaeda ever did. Their 'Caliphate', if we do not halt its expansion, will eventually turn its attention to Israel, the most hated enemy of jihadists, the enemy with the most nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The Kurds of Kobani will not be able to hold off IS on their own.

Maybe it's time for the rest of the world to say, "You want a Holy War (jihad)? Let's get it over with. Bring it on - now!" Perhaps we need a million people to march in London in favour of war this time.

At the end of my 1999 'Arab Spring' novel Shaikh-Down I offered a vision of the world after Armageddon in the very near future. Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem: all destroyed. Arabia - from the Gulf to the Mediterranean - turned into a vast radioactive desert. This is where Islamic State, in the name of Allah, are taking us. They must be stopped. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Wot I'm reading: The Lincoln Lawyer drives on

Michael Connelly: The Gods of Guilt

This is the Lincoln Lawyer's fifth outing. A callgirl is brutally murdered in LA. In today's digital world Gloria had an online pimp who is charged with killing her and asks Mickey Haller to defend him. Eight years ago Haller represented Gloria on a drugs bust that led to a key cartel figure being put away for life. Now it seems the ramifications of that case are connected with Gloria's killing.

Haller's investigations are more legal than procedural, so these books have more talk and a bit less pace than the ones featuring Detective Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's first and foremost creation. The Gods of Guilt has almost as many lawyer meetings and courtroom scenes as a John Grisham, but Connelly's trademark is the sudden moment of violence and the surprise piece of testimony that cracks a case. The trial scenes in The Gods of Guilt are as tense as those in TV's LA Law (fondly remembered!); perhaps it's time the Lincoln Lawyer took to the small screen?