Archive for April 2018

Book review – The Panama Papers

‘Interested in data?  I’m happy to share.’  That was how it all started.  The Panama Papers were the biggest leak in history, dwarfing the so-called Wikileaks of 2010.   The former were so-called because of the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the leak, Mossack Fonseca.  The leak of April 2016 shines a spotlight on the use of offshore tax havens and the use of shell companies for the purposes of tax evasion, and providing anonymity to the real (or ‘beneficial’) owners of companies, some of whom wouldn’t want tax and law enforcement agencies catching up with them.  The source of the leaks remains unknown, even to the journalists at the receiving end of the leak, Msrs Obermayer and Obermaier of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany.

Obermayer/maier took it upon themselves to write about their journey from that innocuous first text to the co-ordinated worldwide publication of stories relating to billions of pounds secreted away in tax havens.  The Obermayer/maiers take us through their findings, which include a dozen national leaders using offshore tax havens; Mossack Fonseca representing the interests of numerous individuals listed on sanctions lists; a $2bn trail leading to Vladamir Putin, etc.

While this is all very interesting, it is at the same time unsurprising that this kind of activity is going on. What I found more interesting was how this team of two evolved into a global effort to unearth the secrets of 11.5 million documents.  How do you even go about managing 2,600 GB of information (wikileaks saw 1.7 GBs leaked)?  It’s hard enough managing the storage on my iPad!

Some of the reviews I’ve read suggest that the book ‘reads like a thriller’.  I don’t agree at all.  I found it to be quite a turgid read; interesting but ultimately lacking in pace.  A good thriller pushes and pulls you through the book, as the denouement approaches.  In this case, however, we conclude with the publication of the revelations surrounding Mossack Fonseca and tax havens rather than the ultimate outcomes of these revelations.  While it’s unfair to compare the book to a thriller, and I’m not aware that either journalist has even suggested that the book was like a thriller, it really would have benefited from being published later, once the outcomes of investigations were clearer.  Else, it’s arguably a book about the process of managing a leak and a list of accusations and evidence.  Of course, given the time it takes to investigate such cases it’s perhaps unsurprising that they decided to publish the book when they did.

Published in 2017 and at around 400 pages in length I wouldn’t recommend this as a casual read.  You can find out about the Panama Paper from Wikipedia or The Guardian (which was involved in the investigative efforts) in a fraction of the time it takes to read the book.  If you do want to read it, it may be worthwhile waiting for a future edition (whenever that may be, if ever), which might include an appendix on what’s happened since the original date of publication.

Songs from the Vault

The last few editions of SFTV have been thematic, so it’s about time to return to a random edition.  So without any further preamble…

First up is a tune from the 1950s which has been covered on numerous occasions.  This version of You Belong to Me was recorded by Bob Dylan in 1992 but didn’t see the light of day until a couple of years later when it appeared on the soundtrack to the controversial movie Natural Born Killers.  The soundtrack version includes samples of NBK’s stars, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, which seems oddly fitting…

Original Soundtracks 1 was a project undertaken by U2 and Brian Eno.  With Eno contributing a significant share of the material it was decided that the album would be released under the name Passengers.  The 1995 album featured some great tunes, including Your Blue Room, and One Minute Warning, from the anime film of the same year, Ghost in the Shell.  The standout track for me, and the only single released from the album, is Miss Sarajevo which featured Luciano Pavarotti.  Like One Minute Warning, Miss Sarajevo also appeared within a film. Miss Sarajevo was a documentary about a beauty pageant held in Sarajevo, Bosnia, during the longest siege in modern warfare.  Not only is it the best track on OS1, it ranks amongst the best of U2’s catalogue…

While we’re in U2’s orbit let’s take a visit to Zooropa (1993), perhaps one of U2’s most overlooked albums.  Zooropa has some classic tracks, including Numb, Lemon, and Stay (Faraway, So Close!).  However, for this edition of SFTV I’m going for The First Time, which, like the previous song appeared within a movie (I think the movie theme ends here!), The Million Dollar Hotel.  There’s not too much to say about it, other than I really like the way the track builds from virtually nothing into a multi-layered soundscape…

Something completely different now.  Electronic was a 1990s band formed by and consisting of Bernard Sumner of New Order, and Johnny Marr from the Smiths.  Their self-titled debut album was released in 1991 and spawned a number of hit singles, including The Patience of a Saint, co-written by and featuring a typically deadpan Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys.  Unlike a lot of tunes from the early 90’s, this one’s stood the test of time…

Last up is a track from a very fine album of the 1990s, Placebo’s Without You I’m Nothing (1999).  The album features awesome tracks including Pure Morning, You Don’t Care About Us, and Summer’s Gone.  My favourite (on a par with You Don’t Care…), however, is My Sweet Prince.  It’s a pretty bleak track, referring to two relationships; one with another man and the other with heroin.  It’s musically bleak, too, but it’s the strength of Brian Molko’s vocals that make this a standout track…

I hope you enjoyed this selection of Songs from the Vault.  I promise something a bit more upbeat next time around!

Book review – Something wicked this way comes

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a classic dystopian novel (which I highly recommend), portraying a world in which literature is outlawed.  Fahrenheit 451 being the temperature at which paper auto-ignites.  Something wicked this way comes (1962) is another dark offering from Bradbury albeit with a greater element of fantasy.

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The book centres around two teenage friends, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, and the circus that comes to town.  The friends discover that the latter is no ordinary circus and that the circus and its owner, Mr. Dark, have the ability to make their wishes come true.  For the boys this means becoming older.  However, there’s more to the wish fulfillment than meets the eye, as the boys discover to their cost as the circus comes hunting for them.  Only themselves and Will’s father (who wants the opposite of what the boys desire – to become younger) can hope to keep the circus at bay and overcome its malevolent intent.

I read Something Wicked as I was in the mood for something dark, which the reviews suggested it was.  I write this blog, however, in a somewhat confused state about the book.  At times the language seemed overly descriptive and you want the author to just get on with it.  At other times the prose is wonderfully poetic, capturing the magic and adventure of the circus coming to town and the boys sneaking out of the house to witness its arrival.  There are real moments of excitement and tension, such as the when the circus comes after the boys, which had a really cinematic feel to them.  Other dramatic moments however seemed confused and hard to picture.  Perhaps this was on me rather than the author.

So while the book had some great moments, there were times where the book felt confused in what it wanted to be; a serious novel or something that would appeal to younger readers.  I sense, however, that I’m not done with Something Wicked and that I may return to it at some point in the future.

On balance, I’d recommend it and, as ever, leave it up to you to make up your own mind.

Book review – March Violets

Edit: I’d planned on posting this blog in a week or so’s time.  However, Philip Kerr, the author of March Violets sadly passed away on 23 March, so I thought it would be a fitting tribute to post this review when I had the opportunity to do so (regrettably this day being April Fool’s Day (as well as Easter Sunday)).

The Munich Cricket Club is nothing of the sort.  Well, it may be, but the MCC I recently frequented is a German bierkeller off London’s Victoria Street.  While it may sound like the start of a spy novel, it’s simply the place where both of my accomplices recommended to me the works of Philip Kerr, specifically the Bernie Gunther series of novels.

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While Kerr, a Scottish author, was unknown to me, he’s clearly a well known author and a highly praised one at that.  The Goodreads entry for his first novel, March Violets, cites Salman Rushdie hailing Kerr as a ‘brilliantly innovative thriller-writer’.

March Violets (Bernie Gunther #1) (1989) was my recommended starting point.  Gunther is an ex-cop turned private detective/gumshoe.  Think Bogie, Big Sleep, Berlin: it’s a great premise.  Gunther has been hired by one of the city’s wealthiest industrialists to find a diamond necklace taken during the murder of his daughter and son-in-law.  His exploits see him rub shoulders with Goering and Himmler, Gestapo agents and local mobsters.  Like any hard-boiled detective, there’s a femme fatale and romantic interest.  This is all set against the backdrop of 1936 Berlin and the staging of the classic Olympic games, which saw Jesse Owens trouncing the competition and the belief in some quarters of Aryan dominance.

Having just finished watching the excellent TV mini-series, Babylon Berlin, March Violets came along at the perfect time.  If you loved Babylon Berlin, then March Violets will be right up your street.  Kerr offers up a convincing portrayal of what it might have felt like to live in 1930’s Berlin, with nationalism, censorship, antisemitism, and institutional thuggery all on the rise.  The plot, like the aforementioned Big Sleep, is somewhat labyrinthine but never dull.  If you’re content to sit back and enjoy the ride with Herr Gunther, and hope that all will become clear in the end, you’ll be rewarded.

As I type this blog, I can tell you that I’m already way into the follow-up to March Violets; The Pale Criminal, the second book in Kerr’s so-called Berlin Trilogy.  I’ll let you know how that ride pans out, so watch this space!