Quick Review: STATE OF TERROR by Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny (Simon & Schuster)

ClintonPenny-StateOfTerrorUSHCAn engaging, well-written globe-trotting political thriller

After a tumultuous period in American politics, a new administration has just been sworn in, and to everyone’s surprise the president chooses a political enemy for the vital position of secretary of state.

There is no love lost between the president of the United States and Ellen Adams, his new secretary of state. But it’s a canny move on the part of the president. With this appointment, he silences one of his harshest critics, since taking the job means Adams must step down as head of her multinational media conglomerate.

As the new president addresses Congress for the first time, with Secretary Adams in attendance, Anahita Dahir, a young foreign service officer (FSO) on the Pakistan desk at the State Department, receives a baffling text from an anonymous source.

Too late, she realizes the message was a hastily coded warning.

What begins as a series of apparent terrorist attacks is revealed to be the beginning of an international chess game involving the volatile and Byzantine politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran; the race to develop nuclear weapons in the region; the Russian mob; a burgeoning rogue terrorist organization; and an American government set back on its heels in the international arena.

As the horrifying scale of the threat becomes clear, Secretary Adams and her team realize it has been carefully planned to take advantage of four years of an American government out of touch with international affairs, out of practice with diplomacy, and out of power in the places where it counts the most.

To defeat such an intricate, carefully constructed conspiracy, it will take the skills of a unique team: a passionate young FSO; a dedicated journalist; and a smart, determined, but as yet untested new secretary of state.

It will probably come as no surprise that I was very eager to read this novel. I pre-ordered it as soon as I could, and read it right away. (For some reason, I’ve struggled to get into review-writing, hence the delay in publishing this one.) This is a well-paced, quite substantial, globe-trotting political thriller. I very much enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE DAYS TO COME by Tom Rosenstiel (Ecco)

RosenstielT-PR4-DaysToComeUSHCA new president upends Washington norms, and Rena & Brooks deal with cyberthreats, corporate espionage

Billionaire entrepreneur David Traynor has big dreams for fixing a broken government in his first term as president of the United States. In the months before his inauguration, he’s developed daring and, in some cases, secret strategies to solve the climate crisis, force Congress to work again, and rebuild America’s economy — and that’s just the beginning. Everyone in the capital is scrambling to adapt to the new disruptor in chief’s bold agenda, though many, both at home and abroad, also want to see Traynor and his steely vice president, Wendy Upton, fail. Unsure of whom he can trust, Traynor intends to turn to an unusual group of people to advise him, including the savvy and sometimes ruthless DC fixers Peter Rena and Randi Brooks.

Though he is at the height of his career, Rena finds his world in chaos. His personal life is a mess; he wonders if his work — saving powerful people from their mistakes — has become too cynical. When malicious, untraceable cyberattacks related to his past start seeping from the dark corners of the internet, Rena’s doubts overwhelm him. Then an unpredictable tragedy throws the country into crisis, and he must come out of his stupor.

If Rena wants to help the new president salvage American politics, he will first have to reckon with his own demons and come to grips with a world far different from the one he once believed in. With the government and the country polarized and on the cusp of enormous change, Tom Rosenstiel’s The Days to Come is a clever, gripping thriller and a cogent meditation on how to heal a divided country.

In this fourth instalment in Rosenstiel’s Rena & Brooks series, the political fixers and their team are tasked with investigating one of the secret plans the new president has launched. It’s a story of political maneuvering and gridlock, cyber-threats, and some of the most important issues that face us today. I very much enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: OUR AMERICAN FRIEND by Anna Pitoniak (Simon & Schuster)

PitoniakA-OurAmericanFriendUSHCAn engaging political mystery

A mysterious first lady.
The intrepid journalist writing her biography.
And the secret that could destroy them both.

Tired of covering the grating dysfunction of Washington and the increasingly outrageous antics of President Henry Caine, White House correspondent Sofie Morse quits her job and plans to leave politics behind. But when she gets a call from the office of First Lady Lara Caine, asking Sofie to come in for a private meeting with Lara, her curiosity is piqued. Sofie, like the rest of the world, knows little about Lara — only that Lara was born in Soviet Russia, raised in Paris, and worked as a model before moving to America and marrying the notoriously brash future president.

When Lara asks Sofie to write her official biography, and to finally fill in the gaps of her history, Sofie’s curiosity gets the better of her. She begins to spend more and more time in the White House, slowly developing a bond with Lara — and eventually a deep and surprising friendship with her.

Even more surprising to Sofie is the fact that Lara is entirely candid about her mysterious past. The First Lady doesn’t hesitate to speak about her beloved father’s work as an undercover KGB officer in Paris — and how he wasn’t the only person in her family working undercover during the Cold War.

As Lara’s story unfolds, Sofie can’t help but wonder why Lara is rehashing such sensitive information. Why to her? And why now? Suddenly Sofie is in the middle of a game of cat and mouse that could have explosive ramifications.

I’ve been a fan of Anna Pitoniak’s novels for quite a while (I read an ARC of her debut, The Futures, quite early), and so was very interested in reading this novel. The premise is undoubtedly going to grab attention, given recent political events in the US. Our American Friend is an engaging, well-written Cold War and political mystery. I enjoyed it. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: THE ANTISOCIAL NETWORK by Ben Mezrich (Grand Central)

MezrichB-AntisocialNetworkUSHC“The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees”

The definitive take on the wildest story of the year — the David-vs.-Goliath GameStop short squeeze, a tale of fortunes won and lost overnight that may end up changing Wall Street forever.

Bestselling author Ben Mezrich offers a gripping, beat-by-beat account of how a loosely affiliate group of private investors and internet trolls on a subreddit called WallStreetBets took down one of the biggest hedge funds on Wall Street, firing the first shot in a revolution that threatens to upend the establishment.

It’s the story of financial titans like Gabe Plotkin of hedge fund Melvin Capital, one of the most respected and staid funds on the Street, billionaires like Elon Musk, Steve Cohen, Mark Cuban, Robinhood co-CEOs Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, and Ken Griffin of Citadel Securities. Over the course of four incredible days, each in their own way must reckon with a formidable force they barely understand, let alone saw coming: everyday men and women on WallStreetBets like nurse Kim Campbell, college student Jeremy Poe, and the enigmatic Keith “RoaringKitty” Gill, whose unfiltered livestream videos captivated a new generation of stock market enthusiasts.

The unlikely focus of the battle: GameStop, a flailing brick-and-mortar dinosaur catering to teenagers and outsiders that had somehow held on as the world rapidly moved online. At first, WallStreetBets was a joke — a meme-filled, freewheeling place to share shoot-the-moon investment tips, laugh about big losses, and post diamond hand emojis. Until some members noticed an opportunity in GameStop — and rode a rocket ship to tens of millions of dollars in earnings overnight.

Like many readers, I was first introduced to Mezrich’s work with the excellent The Accidental Billionaires, the story of how Zuckerberg et al founded, launched and grew Facebook. Since then, he’s published a number of interesting and timely books, and The Antisocial Network is no different. A fascinating and well-told narrative of the GameStop drama of last year, I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS by Craig Whitlock (Simon & Schuster)

WhitlockC-AfghanistanPapersA timely, illuminating, necessary, but strangely limited book

The groundbreaking investigative story of how three successive presidents and their military commanders deceived the public year after year about the longest war in American history…

Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had near-unanimous public support. At first, the goals were straightforward and clear: to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Yet soon after the United States and its allies removed the Taliban from power, the mission veered off course and US officials lost sight of their original objectives.

Distracted by the war in Iraq, the US military became mired in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict in a country it did not understand. But no president wanted to admit failure, especially in a war that began as a just cause. Instead, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations sent more and more troops to Afghanistan and repeatedly said they were making progress, even though they knew there was no realistic prospect for an outright victory.

Just as the Pentagon Papers changed the public’s understanding of Vietnam, The Afghanistan Papers contains startling revelation after revelation from people who played a direct role in the war, from leaders in the White House and the Pentagon to soldiers and aid workers on the front lines. In unvarnished language, they admit that the US government’s strategies were a mess, that the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government. All told, the account is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who knew that the US government was presenting a distorted, and sometimes entirely fabricated, version of the facts on the ground.

Documents unearthed by The Washington Post reveal that President Bush didn’t know the name of his Afghanistan war commander — and didn’t want to make time to meet with him. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted he had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” His successor, Robert Gates, said: “We didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda.”

The Afghanistan Papers is a shocking account that will supercharge a long overdue reckoning over what went wrong and forever change the way the conflict is remembered.

This must be one of the best-timed books of the year. With President Biden’s recent announcement that the American presence and responsibilities in Afghanistan are over, Whitlock’s book has understandably generated a lot of interest and attention (far more, it seems, than the articles it’s based on received). In the days since the withdrawal, it seems as though every article has quoted Whitlock’s book (well, the introduction, mostly). I decided it was time that I got around to it, too, after leaving it languishing on my TBR for a couple months. It is an interesting and quick read, with plenty of illuminating and damning discoveries. It was also somewhat limited, however. Continue reading

Excerpt: SOCIAL WARMING by Charles Arthur (Oneworld)

ArthurC-SocialWarmingUSHCIt is impossible to ignore the influence of social media. In the years since Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have exploded onto our browsers and mobile devices, many millions have found themselves spending more and more time watching their feeds update. “Doomscrolling” became a common word during the Trump years. Social media has connected us with people across the world with shared interests and hobbies. In too-many instances, it has also allowed the worst aspects of human nature to flourish. In Social Warming, Charles Arthur takes a deep dive into the ways in which social media has changed the world and today we have an excerpt for you. First, though, here’s the synopsis:

Nobody meant for this to happen.

Facebook didn’t mean to facilitate a genocide.

Twitter didn’t want to be used to harass women.

YouTube never planned to radicalise young men.

But with billions of users, these platforms need only tweak their algorithms to generate more ‘engagement’. In so doing, they bring unrest to previously settled communities and erode our relationships.

Social warming has happened gradually — as a by-product of our preposterously convenient digital existence. But the gradual deterioration of our attitudes and behaviour on- and offline — this vicious cycle of anger and outrage — can be corrected. Here’s how.

Now, on with the excerpt…

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Quick Review: CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE by Matt Sullivan (Dey Street Books)

SullivanM-CantKnockTheHustleUSA behind-the-scenes account of the 2019-2020 NBA season, by way of the notorious Brooklyn Nets and basketball’s renaissance as a cultural force beyond the game.

The Nets were already the most intriguing startup in the NBA: a team of influencers, entrepreneurs and activists, starring the controversial Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But this dynasty-in-the-making got disrupted by the unforeseen. One tweet launched an international scandal, pitting the team’s Chinese owner and the league’s commissioner against its players and LeBron James. The sudden death of Kobe Bryant, after making his final public appearance in Brooklyn, sent shockwaves through a turbulent season.

Then came the unimaginable. A global pandemic and a new civil-rights movement put basketball’s trend-setting status to the ultimate test, as business and culture followed the lead of the NBA and its empowered stars. No team intersected with the extremes of 2020 quite like the Brooklyn Nets, and Matt Sullivan had a courtside view.

Can’t Knock the Hustle crosses from on the court, where underdogs confront A-listers like Jay-Z and James Harden, to off the court, as players march through the streets of Brooklyn, provoke Donald Trump at the White House, and boycott the NBA’s bubble experiment in Disney World. 

Hundreds of interviews — with Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, executives, coaches and power-brokers across the world — provide a backdrop of the NBA’s impact on social media, race, politics, health, fashion, fame and fandom, for a portrait of a time when sports brought us back together again, like never before. 

Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is, quite possibly, one of the best basketball books available. Counterintuitively, this is in large part because it’s not all about basketball — rather, the Brooklyn Nets and other athletes and personnel who make an appearance, are a lens through which readers see the changing political and social landscape of America. Expertly written, I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: EVERYTHING NOW by Rosecrans Baldwin (MCD)

BaldwinR-EverythingNowUSLessons from the city-state of Los Angeles

America is obsessed with Los Angeles. And America has been thinking about Los Angeles all wrong, for decades, on repeat. Los Angeles is not just the place where the American dream hits the Pacific. (It has its own dreams.) Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. (It has its own compass.) Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically, an independent territory, defined less by distinct borders than by an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny — this is the city-state of Los Angeles.

Deeply reported and researched, provocatively argued, and eloquently written, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now approaches the metropolis from unexpected angles, nimbly interleaving his own voice with a chorus of others, from canonical L.A. literature to everyday citizens. Here, Octavia E. Butler and Joan Didion are in conversation with activists and astronauts, vampires and veterans. Baldwin records the stories of countless Angelenos, discovering people both upended and reborn: by disasters natural and economic, following gospels of wealth or self-help or personal destiny. The result is a story of a kaleidoscopic, vibrant nation unto itself — vastly more than its many, many parts.

Baldwin’s concept of the city-state allows us, finally, to grasp a place — Los Angeles — whose idiosyncrasies both magnify those of America, and are so fully its own. Here, space and time don’t quite work the same as they do elsewhere, and contradictions are as stark as southern California’s natural environment. Perhaps no better place exists to watch the United States’s past, and its possible futures, play themselves out.

Welcome to Los Angeles, the Great American City-State.

It’s not just America that’s obsessed with Los Angeles. I’ve long been fascinated by the city (even though I’m not sure I’d like to live there). It’s one of my favourite fiction locations, and its diverse and fragmented nature allows for incredible variation in the novels, TV series and movies set within it. In Everything Now, Baldwin does a very good job of showing us the city from a number of different angles — some familiar, some new, all interesting. An interesting and engaging journey through various facets of Los Angeles, I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Upcoming: WATCHING DARKNESS FALL by David McKean (St. Martin’s Press)

McKeanD-WatchingDarknessFallI’ve been reading a lot of German history for work, this year. Starting from the formation of a unified Germany, and stretching to the end of the Cold War, it’s been an interesting exercise. I’m always on the look-out for new books that offer something slightly different to recommend to students and others who might be interested. There are, of course, entire libraries available covering Hitler’s rise and WW2. Many of these books follow a similar approach, which is fine but a tad repetitive. So, when I spotted David McKean‘s Watching Darkness Fall on Edelweiss, it caught my attention: it is an account of FDR’s ambassadors in Europe’s response to Hitler’s rise. I’m really looking forward to reading this. Here’s the synopsis:

The story of how the United States government underestimated the deadly rise of fascism before World War II.

As German tanks rolled toward Paris in late May 1940, the U.S. Ambassador to France, William Bullitt, was determined to stay put, holed up in the Chateau St. Firmin in Chantilly, his country residence. Bullitt told the president that he would neither evacuate the embassy nor his chateau, an eighteenth Renaissance manse with a wine cellar of over 18,000 bottles, even though “we have only two revolvers in this entire mission with only forty bullets.”

Watching Darkness Fall will recount the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and the road to war from the perspective of five American diplomats in Europe who witnessed it firsthand: Joseph Kennedy, William Dodd, Breckinridge Long, William Bullitt, and George Kennan, who all served in key Western European capitals — London, Berlin, Rome, Paris, and Moscow — in the years prior to World War II. In many ways they were America’s first line of defense and they often communicated with the president directly, as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears on the ground. Unfortunately, most of them underestimated the power and resolve of Adolph Hitler and Germany’s Third Reich.

Watching Darkness Fall is a gripping new history of the years leading up to and the beginning of WWII in Europe told through the lives of five well-educated and mostly wealthy men all vying for the attention of the man in the Oval Office.

David McKean’s Watching Darkness Fall is due to be published by St. Martin’s Press in North America and in the UK, on November 2nd, 2021.

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Quick Review: BUBBLEBALL by Ben Golliver (Abrams Press)

GolliverB-BubbleballUSAn excellent account of life in the NBA bubble

A captivating account of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from shutdown to championship, from a prominent national basketball writer living inside the bubble

When NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, the league shut down immediately, bringing a shocking, sudden pause to the season. As the pandemic raged, it looked as if it might be the first year in league history with no champion. But four months later, after meticulous planning, twenty-two teams resumed play in a “bub­ble” at Disney World-a restricted, single-site locale cut off from the outside world.

Due to health concerns, the league invited only a handful of reporters, who were required to sacrifice medical privacy, live in a hotel room for more than three months, and submit to daily coronavirus test­ing in hopes of keeping the bubble from bursting. In exchange for the constant monitoring and restricted movement, they were allowed into a basketball fan’s dream, with a courtside seat at dozens of games in nearly empty arenas.

Ben Golliver, the national NBA writer for the The Washington Post, was one of those allowed access. Bubbleball is his account of the season and life inside, telling the story of how basketball bounced back from its shutdown, how players staged headline-grabbing social justice protests, and how Lakers star LeBron James chased his fourth ring in unconventional and unforgettable circumstances. Based on months of reporting in the exclusive, confined environment, this is an entertaining record of an extraordinary season.

“March 11, 2020, the day that the balls stopped bouncing.” After Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the 2019-20 NBA season was brought to an abrupt end. For the billion dollar business/league, this led to a frantic period of planning and strategizing to find a way to safely save the season. I love watching and playing basketball, but I would be lying if I said the paused season was at the forefront of my mind in the early days of the pandemic. For Ben Golliver, however, the abrupt end to the NBA season was potentially life-changing: the Washington Post‘s NBA correspondent, it meant his job came to a screeching halt, too. As the NBA maneuvered to save the season, Golliver was approved to attend the whole Bubble-season in Florida. This is his engaging, well-written account of those three months.
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