book review

November 23, 2010

Book Review: Little Bunch of Madmen – Elements of Global Reporting

I got a copy of Little Bunch of Madmen to review for the Frontline Club amongst others on the 1st of October but have since found myself reading, and unable to put it down. It is quite compelling and ever so useful. It has since accompanied me everywhere and has become an indispensable part of […]

February 16, 2009

Surviving a Kidnapping in Chechnya

In 1997, Camilla Carr and Jonathan James were kidnapped and held for fourteen months in Chechnya. Speaking neither Russian nor Chechen, armed with good intentions and a car full of toys, the two Britons had volunteered to help traumatised children in Grozny. They were soon kidnapped, and this book – The Sky is Always There: […]

February 15, 2009

Stalin’s children

I have read many sagas of Russian families, but Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews has facets that make it poignant. It is both tragedy and love story by a distinguished chronicler of the East. Matthews has covered Moscow for Newsweek since 1997 and has witnessed the Chechen, Bosnian and […]

February 13, 2009

A Palestinian journey

Anyone familiar with the Middle East knows that Ashdod is Israel’s biggest port, nearly a quarter of a million people some 40 miles north of the Gaza Strip. What he or she will be less likely to know—and it is no accident—is that until October 1948, when the combined forces of the Israeli army and […]

January 19, 2009

Africa Reading Challenge 6. Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian

Last year, while trying to pick the sixth book for my African Reading Challenge, I explained how I wanted a book that wasn’t self-consciously a book about Africa. I wanted a story, a biography, a self-help guide, whatever, that just happened to be set in Africa. I failed. And as a result didn’t even manage […]

January 12, 2009

The Terminal Spy

There are some stories where even the most diligent journalism cannot answer the basics: who, what, when, where, why and how? When the New York Times’s London correspondent, Alan Cowell, set out to turn his reporting on the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko into a book, he must have known the most he could […]

April 19, 2008

Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy

Nuclear weapons and weapons-systems are never politically-neutral. Nor have they ever been developed openly or debated in democratically-elected parliaments. The Los Alamos project in New Mexico was a top-secret operation. In Britain, the decision was kept secret even from the Labour Cabinet. Likewise the French. The Israelis were so angered by Mordechai Vanunu revealing some […]

March 19, 2008

The Age of Assassins: The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin

Since Dimitri Medvedev’s predictable triumph in Russia’s presidential elections, the future of the Kremlin’s internal power balance has fascinated those who scrutinize events in Moscow. As ever, questions outstrip answers. The central issue is whether the latest choreographed ballot signified a true shift of power away from Vladimir Putin. Since 2000, when Putin came to […]

February 19, 2008

Israel – Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East

When Israel was occupying much of southern Lebanon in 1984, I recall reporting, in a paragraph or two in a larger story, that I’d just been in a trashed Shi’ite village where, amongst other things, a car had been run over by an Israeli tank. That evening I received a checking query from New York. […]

February 19, 2008

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq

Thank God for journalists like Patrick Cockburn: diligent, intelligent, clear-eyed, brave, experienced. In Muqtada al Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, his third book on the country, he assembles a narrative out of the conflicting mash of self-serving accounts, propaganda and rumour over the last bloody five years. In doing so, he renders all of […]

January 19, 2008

A Model American

A Model American, Elsie Burch Donald’s third novel, is a twist on the classic saga of “normal” westerners dumped in weird surroundings. How do they cope? The lead characters are two middle-aged American tourists: Bill Bolton, a rich, successful businessman; and his wife, Marjorie. With them are their guide, Anne Philips, a young Englishwoman of […]

January 19, 2008

Small wars permitting, dispatches from foreign land

Part memoir, part previously-published reportage, Small Wars is a romp through twenty years of Christina Lamb’s career as a foreign correspondent. Her tale begins with a personal invitation from Benazir Bhutto to her ill-fated wedding to Asif Zardari. Lamb displays a talent for putting herself in the right place, where she meets not only the […]

December 19, 2007

Cobra Gold

My heart sank when confronted with this book. Ever since Andy McNab (not his real name) made it big with his SAS tales, a plethora of former SAS veterans has published fictional accounts of their lives and times in Afghanistan/Iraq/Oman/you-name-it. Like celebrity biographies, their tomes dominate shelf space in the lower-end bookshops. I have nothing […]

December 19, 2007

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya

It was with some pleasurable anticipation that I awaited this book from the Frontline’s Books Editor. He wanted “a soldier to review a soldier’s book.” When it arrived, I did what I do with all books before starting to read it in earnest: examine the cover, look at the photos, check for maps. This volume […]

November 19, 2007

French Century – An Illustrated history of Modern France

Brian Moynahan was the Sunday Times roving correspondent in the years before Rupert Murdoch bought the paper and turned it into the mail order catalogue that Don McCullin called it under the  editorship  of Andrew Neil. (McCullin’s public observation was undoubtedly the reason Neil fired him, although war photography and investigative reporting were anyway not […]

November 19, 2007

3 Para

British Paras are renowned more for prowess on the battlefield than media savvy. However, that reputation may need to be revised with the publication of 3 Para by Patrick Bishop. This book is an account of 3 Para Battle Group’s tour in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, last year. Throughout their six months on the ground, […]

October 19, 2007

Where Soldiers Fear to Tread

Any journalist who spends time in disaster zones comes away with at least a grudging admiration for aid workers. While some are self-righteous, others self-serving, a few simply naïve and more than a few exasperating,  almost all of them earn our admiration. A few, perhaps, win a small touch of envy for having actually “done […]

September 19, 2007

A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja

After Saddam Hussein’s warplanes dropped poison gas on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in March, 1988 a cameraman found among the dead the bodies of a mother and her small son, “her arm outstretched as if to beg for help.” He had “a strong desire to lie down next to her and not get […]

August 18, 2007

Perfect Hostage

Nearly two decades ago, the people of Burma came within reach of achieving the kind of “velvet revolution” that brought freedom and democracy to eastern Europe. The student uprising of August 1988 failed to rid Burma of the generals. Today, the country remains under military control, and its adored opposition leader, the Nobel laureate Aung […]

August 18, 2007

Chechnya – Russia’s “War on Terror”

When three planes smashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, few expected Chechnya to feel the impact. But 9/11 probably had the most far-reaching consequences for the Chechens since Stalin deported the entire population to Siberia in 1944. It also saved the career of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose […]

July 19, 2007

Are We There Yet? Travels with My Frontline Family

Rosie Whitehouse’s account of motherhood  is  about  uneasy   juxtapositions: “The sun  is  shining  and  it’s  exceptionally warm. How can a war start today?” It’s about exploring identity: “Suddenly, I realise I have come to Berlin to find out what really matters when you fall in love with and have children with someone from a different […]

July 19, 2007

Beware Falling Coconuts

The title of this book comes from signs nailed to countless trees all over Asia. A bit like terrorism, the warning is both necessary (hundreds die each year after being hit) and useless (because there is no time to get out of the way). No falling coconut hit Clapham on the head during his stints […]

June 19, 2007

Sand Cafe

There are funny moments in Neil MacFarquhar’s spoof of foreign correspondents holed up in  Dhahran during the Kuwait  War of 1991, but the greatest fun is working out who the characters might be: Thea, exotic female love interest, cable television reporter climbing her way to stardom on a musical voice and thick black fringe (Who […]

June 19, 2007

Blood River

In 1992, I sat on the banks of the great Zaire River and watched Congolese cannibalise their capital, Kinshasa, looting shops, destroying buildings and ripping copper wire from telephone lines. As drunken looters drove brand new cars out of showrooms straight into the nearest walls, one had scrawled on the last remaining unbroken plate glass […]

June 1, 2007

Rumsfeld: An American disaster

Donald Rumsfeld, Andrew Cockburn remarks in this critical biography, is “one of history’s greatest courtiers.” Rumsfeld’s sly performance at the courts of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and the Searle family (who helped him make his financial fortune) prepared him for his final role in George Bush Jr’s White House. Rumsfeld’s flaws emerged early in life. He […]

June 1, 2007

Bomber Boys: Fighting back 1940-1945

Night after night and at great risk, the daring young men of RAF Bomber Command rained indiscriminate death and destruction on Nazi Germany. They scored bulls-eyes on industrial and military targets. They also slaughtered innocents. “It’s a fair assumption that when Tom dropped our bombs women and boys and girls were killed,” one wrote home. […]

May 1, 2007

Another bloody love letter

The Balkans international press corps in the nineties had its fair share of haunted characters. Sitting around in Sarajevo or Vitez of an evening as slivovitz melted inhibitions and loosened tongues it seemed that almost everyone present was on the run from something. Even among this slightly self-conscious Legion of the Damned Anthony Loyd stood […]

March 19, 2007


Jonathan Ledgard’s first novel, Giraffe, is a strange and compelling tale set in the communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s. The story, with its savage climax, about a herd of giraffes captured in Africa and transported to a Czechoslovak zoo is all the more haunting because it is rooted in real events. This is not a […]

March 1, 2007

Intifada: The Long Day of Rage (1)

The first boy was shot at around three o’clock. He was carried past, trying to be brave but sobbing with the pain of his shattered elbow. The next was shot 15 minutes later. The third was shot about 45 minutes after that. By early evening I had counted six seriously injured teenagers loaded into the […]

March 1, 2007

Intifada: The Long Day of Rage (2)

In the foreword to this perceptive and timely book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, David Pratt notes that amid the hatred and bitterness it has generated over the decades, both warring communities cling resolutely to “their respective narratives of victimhood.” Put another way, each has its own version of the events that have locked them together […]