Book review: “A Treachery of Spies” – Manda Scott

Over forty years many of the books I have enjoyed were ‘very good’, some ‘excellent’, and just one was ‘nearly perfect’ (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – you might say that ‘he went on a bit’).

Now I’m excited to share what I consider to be a PERFECT story – Manda Scott’s 2018 ‘A Treachery of Spies’.

The book was recommended to me and it is a pleasure to share that gift with other readers here.

The judgment of perfection is relative, of course. I would categorise this story as an action-thriller with espionage overtones. If that sounds like the kind of story you enjoy I think you will love it.

The story blends two timelines in an inter-connected plot that spans from British-French resistance and espionage in WW2 occupied France, to the modern-day execution of Sophie Destivelle, “… a very old, very elegant lady spy.” Destivelle was a British double-agent during the war. The story turns on her mission to eventually kill Max Krammer, the German officer who turned her into a traitor.

Early in the story, her fear-hate of Krammer is laid bare and we know that she is desperate to kill him. The British need her to get close to Krammer and act as their agent until they give her permission to do that – becoming a British double agent will both wipe the slate clean from her treachery and give her the closure that she needs with Krammer… and so she returns to France.

Scott surrounds Destivelle with an authentic cast of supporting characters and an exciting WW2 storyline. This is one of the story’s greatest strengths – it feels real, like she is giving us true insights into how the Resistance operated in France. Sub-plots around her British handler’s life, espionage and cryptography, deaths in the Blitz, all add colour to a well-drawn tale.

The modern-day murder mystery tracks how Detective Picaut, a French police officer, follows the breadcrumbs from Destivelle’s murder in a car park, through stories of the wartime Resistance, towards links with the CIA and NSA, and a final satisfying showdown that pulls all the strands together.

The other thing which struck me was the technical execution of the writing – it is flawless. I did not notice any typos. The pacing and structure of both action and dialogue were excellent. Descriptions were never intrusive and it was always clear who was involved. It takes years of effort to learn to write in this gold standard style, and Scott has clearly learnt her stuff.

Finally, I must add that the packaging of this story, in the copy I read, was also perfect. The cover design was excellent, the feel of the back cover made the book a pleasure to hold while reading, and the blurb was spot on.

So… what are you waiting for?

‘Sinister yet pathetic’: how the UK was primed for nuclear war | Books | The Guardian

I’m very interested in how propaganda was (and still is) used to influence the general population to accept nuclear weapons, even though it quickly became clear that nuclear war was not survivable in the hydrogen-bomb era.

Taras Young’s “Nuclear War in the UK” is on my reading list for 2021. In the meantime, this short article in The Guardian was an interesting introduction to the topic.

Source: ‘Sinister yet pathetic’: how the UK was primed for nuclear war | Books | The Guardian

Book review: “The Truth Machine” – James L. Halperin

I found James L. Halperin’s 1996 novel “The Truth Machine” a curiously dull-yet-interesting read… an unusual combination.

The cover looked exciting and the tagline of “In the Year 2004 The Truth Will Be Told” promised ‘excitement, adventure and really wild things’… to misquote Douglas Adams.

Unfortunately Halperin chose to tell the story from the rather distant, largely third-person perspective of an AI system called ‘Intel 22g CP-TLMos’.

Although it might have seemed like an exciting idea in 1996 that an AI could be working alongside humans in a very natural way, and in this case as a kind of computerised journalist, by 2020 it felt emotionally bland. There is a great story contained within this book that could have been told from the perspective of any of the human characters – we would then have felt emotionally engaged with the tale instead of observing it from afar.

With all of that said as a massive warning that chunks of the book were like chewing my way through a stack of stale crackers, despite wanting to abandon it several times, there was something in it that made me want to see how it finished.

Spoiler zone: here comes the plot – as a result of his brother being murdered, an intellectually gifted yet socially deficient man called Randall Armstrong (autistic perhaps) decides to build a machine that will report whether people are telling the truth with 100% accuracy. Halperin follows the thread of how such a machine would affect human society quite deeply – just imagine if business people, politicians, everybody, had to be completely honest all of the time… everything would change.

The task of the building the Truth Machine is huge and Armstrong gets there except for a small 2% glitch that he eventually only covers by using plagiarised computer code from a competitor. He then has to build a loophole into his Truth Machine so that he can pass tests to say he has never broken the law in the future. Of course, other Truth Machines are eventually built that Armstrong can’t fool, and in the end he has to be held accountable for his crimes, which by then also include murder and perjury – he’s facing the death penalty at that point… what will happen? We actually come to quite like Armstrong, in a distant sort of way, but the sense of jeopardy from his trial at the end of the book remains dull.

Overall I found the Truth Machine interesting as an idea, but the execution of the story severely diminished the overall enjoyment of reading it. Scientists today are still trying to use remote-sensing to detect aberrant behaviours, and this book does give some insight into how the world might change if they ever succeed.

Nuclear weapons treaty: Campaigners hail new era for nuclear disarmament – BBC news report…

Honduras has just ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, meaning that the minimum number required for it to come into force has been reached.

There are currently 193 member states of the United Nations – 122 (63%) of them have approved the accord on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Now 50 states (26% of UN membership) agree that they will “… never under any circumstances develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

This a great step towards ridding the world of these most terrible weapons of mass destruction. A most significant next step would be to see a real move towards to reducing stockpiles and nuclear disarmament by the 5 main nuclear powers: United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France. – these 5 states are essentially holding world safety up to a nuclear ransom… isn’t it time that things changed?

News article: Nuclear weapons treaty: Campaigners hail new era for nuclear disarmament

image: “Nuclear Explosion Fantasy” by Maxwell Hamilton on
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Seeks to Grab a Piece of Asteroid Bennu – Scientific American

NASA is hopefully going to grab up to 2kg of rick samples from asteroid Bennu and give us a fantastic insight into early planetesimal formation in the solar system…

The spacecraft’s first attempt to gather material from the space rock’s surface could become the largest nonlunar sample return in history

Source: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Seeks to Grab a Piece of Asteroid Bennu – Scientific American

Reading through a backlist during the Covid-19 outbreak, I had mixed reactions to these three stories from 1978, 1989 and 1991…

First up was a re-read of “Sigmet Active” by Thomas Page (1978). I had read this around 1982 and it stayed lodged in my imagination ever since — but would it be as good now? The answer was “yes and no”.

‘Sigmet’ is a pilot’s notification of significant meteorological activity. Sigmet conditions make flying very risky and inadvisable. Page blends a fictional US Cold War secret weapons project with the McGuffin of a living plasma in the ionosphere to create a so-so sci-fi thriller. His idea for ‘Project Windowpane’ is plausible enough. The Navy fire an experimental high-power laser at the ozone layer which ‘burns’ a 2-mile wide hole above a test ship called the Knoxville. Windowpane seems to be a success when heat and radiation from the ‘window’ that the laser has opened kills test animals on the Knoxville.

Windowpane unbalances electrical charges in the ionosphere. The ‘plasma creature’ usually maintains the charge balance with lightning. It somehow becomes imprinted with the electrical signatures of every living creature on the surface below the window. A science crew were watching the test from a hardened bunker on an island called Itrek. The plasma creature first kills the easy lower organisms on the island with lightning before attacking the bunker. They survive but their ship, the missile destroyer Adair, is also destroyed by lightning attacks. The main protagonist, Itrek survivor Jeffrey Holden, is then chased around the world by storms created by the plasma creature. Other minor characters are killed off and there is an almost unnecessary love-child side-story.

“Sigmet Active” does still echo with some of the Cold War sentiments that I remembered. Yet, it is also diminished by the prominent homophobic sentiments of ‘Chief Petty Officer Mason’. It is a quick read (218 pages) and yet somehow Page seems to miss the mark. This time around it was neither deep enough on the science elements nor thrilling enough in the chase sequences to keep a strong hold on my interest.

Next up is “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper (1989). This a rock-solid, classy and engaging story that I have not hesitation in recommending. A plague is sweeping across the inhabited galaxy and only the people on the planet Grass seem to be immune. In a diplomatic mission, the Westridings are sent from Earth to learn their secret.

Decadent aristocratic families known as ‘bons’ (like the bon Damfels or bon Haunsers) call themselves the rulers of Grass. They lack education and the ability to support or maintain themselves. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the people in the Commoner Town are experts in technical fields and the real powers on Grass. 

The Westridings spend a lot of time interacting with the bons, who hold themselves aloof. Eventually, Lady Westriding builds more productive relationships with the commoners.

Tall, multi-coloured grass prairies cover almost the entire surface of the planet. Ferocious ‘foxen’ and nightmare horse-like ‘hippae’ live on the prairies are the dominant macro-animals. There is a very dark secret to discover about the circle of life between bats, hippae, foxen and humans, and the ultimate cure for the plague.

The bons behave very strangely during “hunts” when they ride hippae to chase down foxen, which opens a way to reveal the immunity secret. The book never feels slow and Tepper uses several sub-plots to keep us interested as the story unfurls.  Grass has a soft mysticism a bit like Dune with such a strong sense of place that you feel like you’ve been there. Recommended.

Last up is “Synners” by Pat Cadigan (1991), riding the cyberpunk wave from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (1984). I found Cadigan’s tale interesting, but also slow and at times held back with poorly positioned street slang. Her future society is a grimy blend of computer hacking, virtual realities, implanted technology, drugs, streetwise punks, sex and amoral corporations.

The global internet is full of viruses, some helpful, some fun, others dangerous. It now hosts a dataline that beams more information into households and businesses than they could ever consume. This internet controls everything and society would struggle if it was damaged. Many of the main characters create films for the entertainment dataline. They have a strong sub-culture that feels like “sex, drugs and rock & roll”, and the best videos get elevated to a kind of celebrity status. One such creator is a genius known as ‘Visual Mark’, whose atrophied brain has become hyper-focussed on producing images.

Cadigan invents a technology called “sockets” which enables people to connect their brains to the internet for entertainment. The ‘Diversifications’ corporation gets control of that technology and fits sockets to Visual Mark. They don’t know that sockets don’t have anti-virus protections and he is about to have a stroke (‘the big one’). Visual Mark achieves a transference of his consciousness onto the internet via his sockets, barely regretting leaving behind ‘the meat’ that he has outgrown. Unfortunately when he does have the ‘big one’ it also unleashed as the most destructive virus possible on the internet. Other protagonists must then work together to stop this virtual manifestation of the ‘big one’.

There are other sub-plots within the book, but that is part of the problem with ‘Synners’. The ideas are huge but the story crawled through a combination of too many main characters, abrupt scene shifts, confusing slang and an overdone music industry culture that I wasn’t excited about. 

Hacking attempts continue on my old, mothballed website…

Before I finally close my old “russellweb” domain I thought I’d take a look at where the ongoing hacking attempts are coming from. Given that I don’t advertise this old domain (having moved here) and haven’t posted anything new there for months, activity comes from either bots/indexers or hackers… and hacking attempts are very obvious based on the (non-existent) files they are trying to access.

<= I noticed an immediate increase in hacking once the wave-1 Covid lockdowns started to ease across the globe. This is what the story looked like in yesterday’s log files.

I hope everyone is now using ultra-secure, non-repeated passwords with 2-factor authentication wherever possible. The criminality behind these hacking attempts is obvious – if they’re trying to do this on a small mothballed ‘hobby’ site, what are they doing to sites with full e-commerce capabilities and all of our personal details?

I’m writing again after a nice long break…

I started writing sci-fi short stories around 2009, and by 2017 had self-published two novels and an anthology. That had been enjoyable but hadn’t sold very well, so by 2019 I had decided to switch to writing Thrillers. Having reached the mid-point of a first draft for book 2 in my new ‘Lissa Blackwood’ series I decided to take a short break, to recharge and reconnect with my muse.

The rest was superb – I read a lot of books, watched a lot of films and generally relaxed.

And in that relaxation I discovered that my true muse is the experience of living during the closing years of the Cold War. Memories of cruise missile launchers prowling the English countryside, CND protests, posturing by Reagan, and films like Threads, all combined to leave me with a significant fear of nuclear war. That theme came out a little in my first two novels, but I can now see how to really focus on it through my Lissa Blackwood stories.

I’m now working on four projects that will help me to dig deeply into my Cold War memories and emotions:

  • A series of circa 35 non-fiction articles about the Cold War,
  • 12 short stories set within or around Cold War nuclear bunkers,
  • 7 short stories based around the fiction ‘Special Investigations Group’ (SIG) that I created for my series of ‘Lissa Blackwood’ thrillers, and
  • The first 3 novels in my ‘Lissa Blackwood’ series.

It feels great to be writing again, and I’m enjoying exploring both the creative fiction and historical exploration of the Cold War era!

image: Titan Missile by Mike McBey on – CC BY 2.0 license.