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Brian's Book Log - Ongoing

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Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

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Synopsis
Berlin, 1948. Almost four years after the war’s end, the city is still in ruins, a physical wasteland and a political symbol about to rupture. In the West, a defiant, blockaded city is barely surviving on airlifted supplies; in the East, the heady early days of political reconstruction are being undermined by the murky compromises of the Cold War. Espionage, like the black market, is a fact of life. Even culture has become a battleground, with German intellectuals being lured back from exile to add credibility to the competing sectors.

Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the cross-hairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment — to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries? At betrayal? Survival? Murder?

(taken from Goodreads)

My Thoughts

I discovered Joseph Kanon last year during a big espionage binge and read both Istanbul Passage and Defectors. I enjoyed both of them and as I have a bit of an obsession with post WW2/Cold War era Berlin I just knew that I had to read this book. For some reason I have started the year slowly with regards to reading. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, I want to aim for quality over quantity this year but it still took me much longer to read this than it should have. This is usually a bad reflection on a book but I can't say that applies in this case. I can't put my finger on the cause of this, it happens and I am sure it will pass soon.

 

Back to the book. I find Kanon a bit of an odd writer because I don't really care for his characters. It's not that he writes bad characters, in fact I would say the opposite but I never form an emotional connection with them. When one inevitably gets killed off or has something bad happen to them I don't feel the same gut punch that other writers can achieve. It may be just me but I would tend to lean towards it being intentional with his characters not being particularly likeable people. Even the 'good guys' have quite a dark streak and end up doing some questionable things. What Kanon does do though is write superbly well thought out and intricate plots with few flashy attention grabbing scenes. This book is more along the same lines and if I didn't know any better I would swear that Kanon was German as the book is so well researched, especially the geographical aspects of Berlin. Like his other books the tension slowly ratchets up over time until it ultimately comes to a head and something, or someone has to give. I did pick up a few of the plot twists along the way but I don't think that Kanon tried to hide them, they were there as a foreshadowing of what may come in the future.

 

This is another quality book from Kanon covering a small post war era which isn't covered that often.

 

4/5 (I really liked it).

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It's A State of Mind by James Boardman

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Synopsis
Many men wake up one day and wonder how their life has turned into a disaster zone, full of responsibilities and obligations, and no time to truly have fun and be themselves. How much longer are you going to keep waking up to 'Groundhog Day', keep telling yourself you'll do something about it on Monday?

 

This book helps you see why your life has gone off the rails and how to reclaim a brighter future.
(taken from the back cover)

My Thoughts

I have been trying to remember where I found the recommendation that lead me to buy this book. It was somewhere online and although I'm fairly sure it was a forum (or maybe even Reddit) for the life of me I just can't remember. I originally bought it back in August but it has sat on the bookcase since then, all the time with me remaining unaware of exactly what the book was about. I probably should have at least read the blurb but all I knew is that it was a 'self-help' book (I hate that term) targeted specifically at men in their mid to late 30's. It had great reviews on Amazon (I know, I know) and that pretty much sealed the deal.

 

I have a tendency towards spending my free time doing very little. I can quite easily spend the whole day in a YouTube wormhole and before I know it the day is over and I have got absolutely nothing done. Generally I can keep on top of this tendency but in recent weeks it has got the better of me so I decided it would be a good time to give this book a shot. The book promises to teach you how to audit your life, understand the cause of your unhappiness, how to set goals, and how to plan and structure your days to make big changes in your life. Hmmm, not quite what I thought the book would be about, it all sounds a bit dramatic but oh well, I may as well give it a chance. At this point I should say that all the hyperbole on the cover caused a bit of concern to my wife. Any person glancing at the book might assume you are having a major crisis such is the drama invoked. Rest assured, I was interested in how it could help me plan and not thinking my life was a disaster zone.

 

On the whole I like the message James Boardman is trying to get across. I agree with him in a lot of ways, there are a lot of men over 35 who feel a bit lost (midlife crisis?) and whose life has caught up with, especially regarding their health. I also like the emphasis that he puts on reaching out to others for help and how discussing these feelings with friends will help. This is the sort of message that can be lost in books targeted towards men where the 'man up' message is often favoured. Boardman is an ex Royal Marine and he leans on this experience at times to get his message across but it never gets over the top. There is also an emphasis on building a solid support network, again always a good thing.

 

However, I do have a few issues with the book. There are grammatical mistakes that really should have been picked up during editing including one in the blurb on the back cover. The book is published by Let's Tell Your Story Publishing who seem to specialise in niche subjects so perhaps the onus is put on the author to do the majority of the work. This is a minor gripe compared to my bigger issue which is that the book just feels unfinished and incomplete. Subjects such as being more open with people are touched upon but never really expanded. The chapters dedicated to carrying out a life audit and planning your days are not in depth enough. I was able to fill the gaps but I do have a fair amount of pre-existing knowledge in this area, someone new to the subject could be left scratching their head. There are links in the back on online worksheets which are no longer accessible. A planner has recently been launched so I suspect this might not be an oversight. The worked examples are fairly vague and there is very little detail on setting goals. Just a brief explanation of SMART goal setting would have been a welcome addition.

 

Overall I was left with the feeling that the main aim of the book is to steer more people towards his coaching business. It feels rushed and not in depth enough, and this is a huge shame because I believe the essence of his message is a good one and his intention honorable. A better publisher could have made this a much more rounded book and the majority of my rating is based around the message instead of the product.

 

2.5/5 (It was ok).

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What a shame about It's A State of Mind, it's frustrating when you feel like a book should have been so much better than it was and it sounds like it should have been good. It wouldn't have been hard for them to make the online worksheets available either, even if they directed you to the author's own website to download them, the book isn't that old. At least Leaving Berlin was good though. Have you read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré? 

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I haven't read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold yet but I will probably read it in the next few months. I started to re-read Crime and Punishment last night which is one of my aims for the year. I can only read that at home due to the size of my edition so I will be picking something else to read at the same time when I am out and about. I haven't decided yet but I'll probably have a scan through my Kindle and see what jumps out at me.

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The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson

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Synopsis
Before Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik Police is forced into early retirement she is told to investigate a cold case of her choice, and she knows just the one. A young woman found dead on remote seaweed-covered rocks. A woman who was looking for asylum and found only a watery grave. Her death ruled a suicide after a cursory investigation. But Hulda soon realizes that there was something far darker to this case. This was not the only young woman to disappear around that time. And no one is telling the whole story.
 

When her own force tries to put the brakes on the investigation Hulda has just days to discover the truth. Even if it means risking her own life . . .
(taken from the Goodreads)

My Thoughts

Like many people I have grown to be a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction and am always on the lookout for a new author to indulge in. Although technically Iceland isn't Scandinavian I've always sort of thought of it in that way but had never looked into Icelandic authors. A few months ago I was listening to the 'Simon Mayo Books of the Year' podcast with Ian Rankin and he recommended the writer Ragnar Jonasson, I'm fairly confident that The Darkness was the book he was talking about. That was all the recommendation I needed so as soon as I saw a copy at my local book shop I snapped it up.

 

I found this personally to be a bit of an odd book mainly because of the main character Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She is in her mid sixties and very close to retirement, a retirement that she really doesn't want to have to take. Due to our difference in age and generally demeanor I found it very hard to identify with her but I did grow to like her over the course of the book. Like the best detectives she is flawed but not in the usual ways male detectives are portrayed as in fiction. She isn't an alcoholic, she isn't overly grumpy and she seems to be able to hold down a relationship of sorts without sabotaging it. Like many of our favourite detectives though, she is a loner and can be very abrasive when the mood takes her. Her current mood isn't helped by the fact that she is called into her boss's office and told that she is being made to retire whether she likes it or not. All of her current cases are being handed over and as she won't retire instantly he allows her to fill her remaining time with any cold case she likes. This offer is clearly designed to get her out of her boss' hair but inevitably starts to develop into a big deal.

 

Up until this point the book was probably a 3/5 for me. However, the ended is superbly crafted and as close as I've come to a perfect ending in a crime novel. I can't really explain what I mean without spoiling the book so here comes a spoiler box

 

Spoiler

Far too often I am left a little frustrated that our hero escapes from a seemingly impossible situation. As a general rule I don't mind too much if for example a young detective manages to fight off an attacker because I can see the realism in that. When an aged detective manages to fight off someone much younger and stronger, or is rescued by some previously unseen spark of intuition from a colleague it annoys me. The fact that Hulda is killed at the end of the book was so satisfying in a macabre kind of way. I also really liked that the distance she puts between herself and her colleagues means that no one magically works out where she is and comes to the rescue. I also loved the reveals into her backstory and the final twist which revealed the killer.

 

So that should be it for the series but no, Jonasson is going back into Hulda's history to explore how she became the person she is. I am really looking forward to reading more of Hulda's adventures.

 

This book seems to get mixed reviews from those who have read other Jonasson books, mainly because this is much darker in tone than his other work. I can't speak to that as I haven't read the other books but I welcome the darkness and I look forward to reading more of his work.

 

4/5 (I really liked it).

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I'll have to check that book out Brian. I've got into Scandinavian crime recently, and like you I think of Iceland in that category even though I know it isn't.

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I'm about halfway through this, it's an easy read so far.  I'm really intrigued about the ending now but won't look at Brian's spoiler!

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Finished this last night and what an ending, which lifts the book above the usual police procedural.  I've looked at Brian's spoiler now and agree with all he says 

Spoiler

a neat, last minute rescue would have been unrealistic, although I did hope at one point that someone would come!  I did realise that it was heading that way though, and I also suspected that she killed her husband once that story came out.  Poor Hulde!

I must admit that I didn't agree with all her actions though, and some of the problems she brought on herself. such as the early case with the hit and run.  But I did root for her!  would love to see this made into a TV series.

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15 hours ago, Madeleine said:

Finished this last night and what an ending, which lifts the book above the usual police procedural.  I've looked at Brian's spoiler now and agree with all he says 

  Reveal hidden contents

a neat, last minute rescue would have been unrealistic, although I did hope at one point that someone would come!  I did realise that it was heading that way though, and I also suspected that she killed her husband once that story came out.  Poor Hulde!

I must admit that I didn't agree with all her actions though, and some of the problems she brought on herself. such as the early case with the hit and run.  But I did root for her!  would love to see this made into a TV series.

 

I know what you mean about not agreeing with all her actions but the end reveals of her history means it makes more sense. I would be surprised if we don't see this as a series on channel 4's Walter Presents platform.

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A Cold Death in Amsterdam by Anja de Jager

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Synopsis
Set in Amsterdam, the novel introduces Lotte Meerman, a Cold Case detective still recovering from the emotional devastation of her previous investigation. A tip-off leads Lotte to an unresolved ten-year-old murder case in which her father was the lead detective. When she discovers irregularities surrounding the original investigation that make him a suspect, she decides to cover for him. She doesn't tell her boss about the family connection and jeopardises her career by hiding evidence. Now she has to find the real murderer before her acts are discovered, otherwise her father will go to jail and she will lose her job, the one thing in life she still takes pride in
(taken from Goodreads)

My Thoughts

I'm always looking for books set in locations I have a little familiarity with, it's for this reason I have read so many books set in Berlin. However, I have struggled a little to find too many books set in another city close to my heart, Amsterdam. I came across this series somewhere online and after enjoying The Darkness I felt like reading another crime novel with a female lead detective. As much as I love books by Mankell and Nesbo it is nice to have the change of pace that a female leads brings. I avoided reading too much of the synopsis so that I came into the book as open minded as possible.

 

Our lead character is Lotte Meerman who seems to specialise in cold cases. As the book starts she has solved a 15 year old case involving the murder of a little girl. This case is currently in the hands of the prosecutor awaiting trial but she is still haunted by the memories of the case and it is causing her nightmares. To help her avoid the pain these memories brings she throws herself into another cold case investigation involving the murder of a man involved in a financial crime. As she starts digging it emerges that her estranged father, a retired detective, was involved in the original investigation. There are some evidential irregularities and despite the fact that she knows she should hand the investigation over due to the conflict of interest she doesn't and soon gets sucked deeper into a situation she can't see an escape from.

 

I feel a bit conflicted about this book, there were some parts I really liked and other parts that seemed to jar a bit with me. The parts that jarred are probably just down to my preferred style of writing so take what I say with a pinch of salt. Starting with the good stuff, the story is really well paced. There is enough going on to keep to keep the story moving on but not too much that it gets messy. The setting is really well described and being winter really adds an extra element to the atmosphere generated by the writing. I also really liked Lotte even if I did think some of her decisions were a bit crazy. Like all the best detectives she is a bit of a loner but doesn't isolate herself completely from other members of her team. She has some demons but they all come from a place that is completely understandable. Now the parts I didn't  get on with. I found the first person writing a bit hard to settle with in places. I'm pretty confident that is down to me and not the writing as I don't think I have read another crime novel written in the first person and this is why I found it a bit strange. My other bugbear is that I found the mass of people involved a little hard to follow a few times. This again I think is more of a reflection on me rather than the book.

 

Overall I enjoyed the book and I have already got the next in the series on my Kindle for when the fancy takes me.

 

3/5 (I liked it).

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I've started this series too, would like to know more about Lotte's background. I have the second book lined up.

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Atomic Habits by James Clear

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Synopsis
People think when you want to change your life, you need to think big. But world-renowned habits expert James Clear has discovered another way. He knows that real change comes from the compound effect of hundreds of small decisions – doing two push-ups a day, waking up five minutes early, or holding a single short phone call.
In this ground-breaking book, Clears reveals exactly how these minuscule changes can grow into such life-altering outcomes. He uncovers a handful of simple life hacks (the forgotten art of Habit Stacking, the unexpected power of the Two Minute Rule, or the trick to entering the Goldilocks Zone), and delves into cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience to explain why they matter. Along the way, he tells inspiring stories of Olympic gold medalists, leading CEOs, and distinguished scientists who have used the science of tiny habits to stay productive, motivated, and happy.

(taken from Goodreads)

My Thoughts

I've seen this book pop up a few times in the recommendations of people who seem to make their living from posting YouTube videos. These people are usually trying to either steer people towards clicking on more videos or towards their websites where they are selling guides or 'coaching'. You can probably tell from my tone above that I hold these people with quite a degree of suspicion but I do tend to find their videos quite entertaining. I have an interest in habits and the systems people or organisations develop to deal with everyday life and as this book kept cropping up in lists I thought it was at least worth a go.

 

There isn't a huge amount to say about this book aside from the fact that it doesn't come up with anything new but collects together a host of information on habits in one place. Looking at his short writing history it would appear that this is Clear's first attempt at writing a full book and it must be said that it is an admirable achievement. His writing is detailed enough without getting bogged down in detail and at all times he gets the message across well. Clear has also done a lot of research into the subject matter with citations and experiments dotted throughout in appropriate places. A few minor niggles cropped up during my reading of the book, mainly centered around misunderstood quotes or urban myths used as examples. This book is like a very extended blog post instead of an academic look at the subject so that needs to be considered when reading it instead of taking everything presented at face value.

 

In conclusion, the book was an easy read which on balance I enjoyed.

 

3/5 (I liked it).

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Dead Drop by Jeremy Duns

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Synopsis
An astonishing true story of how the CIA, MI6 and a Soviet defector saved the world in 1962In August 1960, a Soviet colonel called Oleg Penkovsky tried to make contact with the West. His first attempt was to approach two young American students in Moscow. He handed them a bulky envelope and pleaded with them to deliver it to the American embassy.

MI6 and the CIA came to believe Penkovsky was genuine and so the two agencies decided to run the operation jointly. It ran right through the Berlin crisis -- in an astonishing near-miss, Penkovsky learned that the Wall was going to be built four days before it happened but was unable to contact his handlers -- and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which rocket manuals Penkovsky had handed over were crucial in determining what Khrushchev was doing, and helped Kennedy and his team end the crisis and avert a nuclear war. Penkovsky, codenamed HERO, is widely seen as the most important spy of the Cold War, and the CIA-MI6 joint operation to run him has never been bettered.

But had the KGB already 'turned' Penkovsky and were the Russians making sure he saw the information they wanted him to see? If so, it may even have been possible that the whole Cuban Missile Crisis might have been a Russian deception operation.

(taken from Goodreads)

My Thoughts

As far as I am aware Jeremy Duns is primarily known as a fiction author and this is his first proper foray into non-fiction writing. Casting my eye across the titles of his other books it looks like he writes espionage thriller exclusively. I first heard about Jeremy Duns on the Spybrary podcast and then I heard an interview on another podcast although I can't recall which one. Both podcast hosts held his writing in high regard and the descriptions he gave of the Oleg Penkovsky story sounded very interesting. Running a spy inside Russia, let alone Moscow was extremely hard so there aren't too many operations that lasted very long or could be considered to be successful. I just knew I had to read the book.

 

Going into the book I had some passing knowledge of the Penkovsky story from the previously mentioned podcasts but I did not know the details. I'm not sure on how Duns came to write this book but I suspect he was doing some research for one of his novels and just found the story too interesting to leave alone. As a result this is extremely well researched and the appendixes at the back contain loads of great sources and material that has been recently declassified. The book is really well written and really gets into the people behind the story but also explains the climate at the time. In particular the Cuban Missile crisis is well explained and really brings gravity to the seriousness of the whole situation.

 

Probably one of the best aspects of the book is the exploration of how reliable Penkovsky was. It appears to be an honest assessment of a guy, who although was a useful source was also quite conceited and a serial womanizer. You get the impression that he was a bit of a pain in the ass at times but tolerated due to the strength of the information he had. A question has always remained unanswered about Penkovsky. Was he working for the allies or was he in fact a double agent being fed information by the KGB? Duns really delves into this question and I found it hard to disagree with his conclusions and his justifications for these conclusions. He doesn't just present his opinion but always backs it up logically and presents sources where possible, a great way to approach writing a book like this.

 

This is a well researched and well written book. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in espionage.

 

3/5 (I liked it).

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