It’s been a while since I’ve posted or shared what’s on my reading list. I figured it’s time for an update.

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently, both fiction and non-fiction, and it is always fun to talk about books, writers, stories and things to learn.

Non-fiction wise, I started off with Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years. It’s a big, thick book – but infinitely readable, and less ideological or political than I anticipated. She makes her stance on things clear – Thatcher could always be counted on for that – but I found the book interesting also as a history of the time, and the personal recollections of what it’s like to live in the PM’s residence. It is a classic of political biography and essential reading for anyone interested in British politics, or conservatism. At times I could feel myself learning something new – that ever rare aha moment that I love more than anything else. There were also moments that provided a context for me, to things I remember from my childhood that I didn’t understand back then. The Iron Lady gives her take – and agree or disagree – it is one way to understand events. Finally there were a couple of laughs. I was a fan of Margaret Thatcher going into the book, and I’m a fan after – but not more so, or less so. The best parts of the book involve the workings of the office, the mechanics and logistics of it – rather than it being an evangelical piece. In this day and age, that is certainly a relief. A good read, if somewhat specialised.

I also read Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland – a look at the corruption and strongmen that have devastated the prospects of Africa. The book had a fair amount of the usual laments about colonialism and the impacts thereof – teetering on repeating the common mistake of overemphasizing the role of foreigners and distant history, while ignoring some of the consequences of local and recent causes. The book takes turns looking at Congo, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Eritrea and other places… and for anyone unversed in African history – particularly those mis-educated by overmuch ‘Postcolonial’ and ‘Critical’ hogwash – the book at least begins to put things in a more rational and accurate perspective. I didn’t enjoy it as much – but then – I lived a large part of my life as a minority in Africa – so as far as that place goes, personally, I’ve had just about all I can stomach. Thank you very much. I’ve lived a lifetime’s worth of brutality, violence, lack of accountability, racial chauvinism, corruption, ineptitude and criminality. Others can revel in such tales if they have the stomach for it… I’ll pass.

The book Extraterrestrial by Avi Loeb is a treat. A short book, it really is one kind of book pretending to be another. On the surface, it seems to be a book arguing that the Oumuamua phenomenon can be used to make a compelling scientific case that we’ve been visited by an alien craft. Usually, of course, given this kind of subject matter, you could just dismiss it with a role of the eyes. The problem here is that Avi Loeb is Chair of Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, founding director of the Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, etc, etc, etc. He does make a good case, though I’ve seen a lot of other scientists explain away the anomalies in ways that preserve our arrogant assumption that we are alone in the universe. What the book really is – is a warning to the scientific community. Like all fields, science is as much at risk of groupthink, consensus opinion and self censorship. In recent years, authoritarian overreach by those claiming to speak for ‘the’ science has become increasingly common – and Loeb argues that there is an orthodoxy present in the astronomical sciences that almost dismiss the possibilities of intelligent alien life out of hand. This is the point the book really tries to make, and I think it makes it well.

Back to history, I read Martin Gilbert’s brilliant The Second World War. The book covers World War Two chronologically – as it unfolded, a paragraph at a time, a chapter at a time, from Poland to Nagasaki. Infinitely readable and accessible, there are no real main characters – and yet it feels like you’re reading a thriller. His prose makes you feel like you have a front row seat to the action – he just takes you along for the whole journey. At times the book makes you wonder if you would have made a good military strategist. Other times you are overwhelmed by the human toll. Still other times it’s almost like you’re brain is taken on a ride much like being in a first person shooter game – and you are right there on the front lines, with the troops. It is a remarkable historical book, a fantastic overview and introduction, as well as the one book I’d recommend if you only wanted to read one book about the topic. It’s really good stuff.

I also re-read Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Thou Shalt Prosper. A thoroughly interesting book that explores Jewish thinking, custom, tradition and doctrine around the fields of work and money. It is a book that I believe every young person should read – regardless of whether they are Jewish or not – as contained in its pages are ideas and truths that will repay ten thousand fold any investment of time and money into the book. It’s not just about money – it is the philosophy of business – that I find myself wholeheartedly in agreement with. Thou Shalt Prosper has some true, valuable gems for anyone and everyone that wants to make a difference in the world, and serve their fellow man, and do the world a world of good through the practice of ethical and sound business. Highly, highly, highly recommend.

In fiction, I read George RR Martin’s A Dance With Dragons. I saw the Game of Thrones and liked it, and started reading the books after I saw the show – and I must say I enjoy them. He is a very good and accomplished writer. A bit on the dark side, but nothing that even the snowflakes can’t handle (unlike some of the books the follow below). I’m not a fan of fantasy generally. I always liked a fair amount of realism in my escapism – if it isn’t possibly real then at least it should be potentially possibly real – so sci-fi was always my preferred spec-fic. Fantasy is just pure escapism – lands that never have existed and never will, stocked by creatures that are as dreamt up as the places they supposedly inhabit. In Martin’s hands, with his clear and apparent understanding of the human condition, you get to travel there anyway and experience it. I still am not a fan of the genre (I really have tried, it’s just not my thing) and I am aware that several masters work in the field (Sanderson, for sure, Martin, and of course our old friend Tolkien). But yeah, if I’m going to go to dreamland, I could do a lot worse than pick George Martin as my guide.

Closer to my field, I re-read Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. A sci-fi classic, the book is very different from the movie. It’s a first person tale of a kid that grows up, exploring a future society through school, then basic training, and finally deployment in the Mobile Infantry. It was written in 1959 and yet it remains cutting edge – a testament to the genius of Heinlein. Decried by some as a fascist or a right-winger, Heinlein was neither. The book makes the same statement the movie does in some ways, though in a more understated way – given the right conditions, we all become fascists if we have to. But it isn’t all that deep nor as political as some modern (or God help us postmodern critics) pretend. It’s a straight forward military science fiction book. And in 1959, it invented the concept of powered armour. You read it today, after tons of movies, games, books and comics and you still buy it – proving that this was a rare master of the genre. Little paragraphs of description do a lot of heavy lifting towards the end of the book (bacon frying) – and you really can picture the horrifying bugs. Great read. Great storyteller.

Somewhat perturbed by just how many popular writers, agents and editors have completely bowed down to the cult of woke, I also decided to cleanse my soul from all the toxic positivity and pronoun-wielding (but noun-redefining) Twitter profiles of some of the industry greats by re-reading some true, hardcore classics. If you haven’t read Joseph Wambaugh, ask yourself if you’re up to it, and if you decide you are, grab his stuff and buckle up. Wambaugh writes cop novels. But not crime solving cop stories, mysteries or even procedurals. Nope. Wambaugh lives in the dark places of cop psychology – the mindset and hearts of those men and women who society place as a barrier between themselves and all the violence and ugliness in the world – and for which they never get proper thanks or even gratitude. Especially these days. His works are brutal, raw and rough – he pulls no punches and spares no feelings and you can find yourself overwhelmed. His The Choirboys is one of my favourite books of all time – it is a literary trainwreck, you can see it coming from the early chapters and it steams ahead to the very thing you fear, and yet somehow you can’t look away… Recently I picked up The Glitter Dome. Talk about harsh. In chapter one I felt so sorry for a character that I wanted to cry. A sad, pathetic, tragic alcoholic figure you pity. A few pages later he had me laughing hysterically. Classic Wambaugh. He can pick you up, drop you on the floor, kick you in your stomach, make you laugh, make you feel guilty that you laughed, and then make you laugh again, all in the space of four pages.

If he wrote today, he might not have been published. And whatever controversies there may or may not be about his work – he delivers in terms of what I want as a reader – I get to take an emotional joyride in a world that isn’t my own and I get to experience it as if I am living it. I like Wambaugh and I like his works – and the kind of industry or system that overcorrects against him is a congame caricature of whatever it once was.

Going forward, I will limit the fiction (I’m going into a new ‘write my own’ phase – and I avoid reading fiction when I’m writing it) – but I do want to read two more before I stick to the nonfics for a while. Post The Glitter Dome I want to read Wambaugh’s The Delta Star (another of my old favourites) – and then I want to re-read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses – buying myself a new copy and gifting a few more to others.

Right or left – the attack on free speech in recent years reached a fever pitch – and sadly – some publishers, associations and ‘trade unions’ have not been champions but accomplices in this.

It is sickening, and makes me ashamed of the industry.

This might mean that some publishers won’t take my work in future. Fine. I don’t want such sell-outs associated with my work anyway. And the gatekeepers are nowhere near as powerful, nor do they have exclusive use of certain channels or skills, that they used to.

I am not talking about being mean to people – or threatening the vulnerable – or attacking those who can’t defend themselves. The opposite, in fact. It is just that religious rights, and empathy, can both be weaponized, and in fact, have been – from the left and from the right, extremes have converged their barrage of attacks against the middle. And the demand that authors, thinkers and even readers and viewers had to self censor for fear of offending the paid critics, the gatekeepers, the publicists, the blue tick brigade and a handful of unscientific academics is finally no longer tenable. It never should have allowed to become as much of a problem as it did, and with Sir Rushdie, some of us have lost our last bits of patience. No more. Left or right, or on whatsoever pretext, free speech in print and in practice now has to make a comeback.

And frankly, it’s about fucking time.