Book review: Vauclain’s Shield

Vauclain’s Shield sees a hardline Russian regime launch a massive and devastating first strike on America, with hundreds of missiles launched. However, Jonathan Vauclain and his assistant, Kerry Enloe, have developed a shield that stops everything moving at speed, including missiles. America survives without being hit by a single missile, resulting in political change in Russia, but Spetznez teams in America armed with nuclear weapons are put on alert by the hardline regime. Meanwhile, in America, the Joint Chief of Staff lost his son in the failed attack and plans his revenge against Russia, whilst Vauclain and Enloe are kidnapped by Russian agents.

Vauclain’s Shield is an excellent novel that moves along at a fantastic pace, but there is no skimping of detail either. There is some action, but the novel does not rely on this to make in an excellent book. The characters are realistic and believable – for example, Vauclain has doubts about his shield because as well as stopping missiles, it causes planes to crash, whilst the Joint Chief of Staff becomes driven by revenge on Russia. I have read other books by Campbell, but this is his best by quite a distance in my opinion. I cannot recommend this book enough and is the best that I have read this year.

Rating (out of 5): *****

Question Time – 5/5/16

The programme came from Manchester and the panel comprised of Lord Lawson (Conservatives), Lisa Nandy (Labour), Michael O’Leary (chief executive of Ryanair), Benjamin Zephaniah (poet and writer) and Isabel Oakeshott (Daily Mail journalist).

The first question asked what odds the panel would give on Donald Trump becoming President. O’Leary said he would give him good odds as he is under-estimated and Hillary Clinton is not a popular Democratic candidate. Zephaniah said that if Trump did become President, he would have difficulty on keeping his promises, citing the proposed wall between USA and Mexico; he added that it would be the end of the world as it is known if Trump achieved half of what he has promised. Lord Lawson said that he is unlikely to win, but that it is not impossible. Lord Lawson added that Trump would be able to move from the promises he has made if he were to be elected President. Oakeshott likened Trump to David Cameron, saying that Cameron used to give strong views to become known and then toning his views down at a later point. Nandy described Trump as an offensive and divisive candidate following his comments towards various groups of people.

Question two asked if moral principles should be used to decide on how to vote on the EU Referendum because the economic impact is difficult to predict. Lord Lawson agreed that predicting the economic impact would be difficult, but it would be beneficial for Europe and that the EU is looking to create a United States of Europe and that being in the EU restricts British sovereignty and democracy. O’Leary argued that Britain leaving the EU would be economically damaging and that Ryanair would invest less in Britain if Britain voted to leave; he also added that Sterling would be damaged by leaving. O’Leary said that Britain should vote to remain in and reform Europe from within. Oakeshott disagreed with O’Leary, saying that the EU benefits big business, but small businesses struggle. She agreed that the economic impact is unknown, but it would not be apocalyptic. Nandy said that the EU is the biggest export market for Britain and there would be an impact on this if Britain voted to leave and that working with European countries is a positive reason to be staying in the EU. Zephaniah admitted that he is undecided about whether he will vote for Britain to stay or leave and the question asked was not answered, with answers focusing on the economic arguments as opposed to moral arguments. He did say that he is in favour of states working together for the benefit of their populations, but that he wants the politicians he elects to be close. He finished by saying that various rights from Europe gave people equality (Oakeshott later countered that Britain often leads the way in morality), but Lord Lawson countered by saying that British laws had established this and that Britain has no control over its borders. O’Leary likened the debate to the campaign slogan used by Bill Clinton and that people vote on economic issues. Nandy agreed that Europe needs reform, but that voting to leave would not give Britain more control over its decisions. Lord Lawson argued that President Obama’s intervention was based on what is best for USA, not Britain.

Question three asked if six and seven year olds should have to go on strike to protest against SATs. Nandy said she agreed with the phrasing of the question and that a visit to her local school resulted in her being told that assessment is welcome, but there have been over 80 changes since September and there is no confidence in the system and that it shows the government have no ideas about how to improve education. Oakeshott described children on strike with parents as exploitative and that standards need to be raised, adding that it allows the identification of which children need support. Zephaniah agreed with Nandy that there is too much change in schools as a result of government intervention. Lord Lawson said that the standard of education was not good enough and that Michael Gove had done a good job of raising standards whilst he was Education Secretary. He described testing as an important aspect in raising standards and keeping them high. O’Leary said that he wanted his children to be challenged and to do well and that life has challenges; he described strikes as the wrong way to protest about the tests.

The final question asked if Jeremy Corbyn’s position as Labour leader should come under threat if Labour performs badly at the local elections. Oakeshott said that he would remain as leader because whilst he may be unpopular amongst MPs, he is still popular amongst members. Nandy said there is too much negativity around Corbyn and that Labour has experienced success against the Conservatives under his leadership. O’Leary said that his position is unlikely to come under threat as Labour are likely to win the Mayor of London election, but that Corbyn is unelectable to large sections of the country. Zephaniah said that Corbyn faces lots of plotting from the media and his own MPs and that he has known Corbyn for a long time and that he is a principled man who does not crave power. Lord Lawson declined to comment, describing it as an internal issue for the Labour Party.

Question Time: 10/3/16

The show came from Dundee. The first question asked if there would be a second Scottish referendum would be inevitable. Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Green Party felt there would be, whilst Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives felt there would not be because the SNP had described it as a once in a generation vote. John Swinney of the SNP argued there would be because the ‘No’ campaign put forward the case that voting to remain part of the UK was the only way to ensure Scotland remaining as part of Europe. Journalist Tim Stanley argued that austerity measures would be forced on Scotland. Jenny Marra said that she thought the UK would vote to remain in the EU, but if the UK did leave, it would be up to the Scottish people to decide. Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats argued that if the UK voted to leave, it would re-open the Scottish independence debate. Rennie also accused the SNP of threatening referendums on Scotland’s future on a constant basis since the result was announced.

The second question asked if we should listen to the Queen’s opinion regarding Britain’s role in Europe following the story in The Sun, in which she is alleged to have favoured leaving. Stanley said that we should only know what the Queen thinks if she wants us to. Swinney agreed that if the conversation was private, it should have remained so. Davidson said that the Queen has remained above politics and that Buckingham Palace is denying a story that has no firm claims behind it. Harvie argued that the Queen taking a side would not be in keeping with her role. Marra also agreed that the Queen has remained out of politics and that private conversations should remain so.

Question 3 asked if the economic argument for Scottish independence is now dead following a £15 billion gap.. Davidson agreed that it was and the figures support this and that all countries benefit from Scotland being in the UK. She added that it was known that oil revenues would drop, which would have affect the economy. Swinney argued that Scotland needs to make the most of the resources it has and favoured looking at Scotland’s economy over a period of time longer than one year and that there are good signs for the Scottish economy. Marra countered that Scotland’s defecit is higher than the rest of the UK. Rennie said that Swinney had said in the past that Scotland’s economy would be volatile due to changes in oil prices. Harvie argued that the SNP’s economic plan was reliant on oil, something opposed by the Greens for both economic and environmental reasons and that oil and gas are not the future. Stanley said that the SNP had gambled with the oil price staying high and that Scotland is stronger as part of the UK.

The fourth and final question asked if the panel would increase taxes to secure the future of the NHS in Scotland. Rennie said there does need to be investment in the NHS and that the Liberal Democrats would increase taxes to improve public services. Morra agreed there is an issue with finance in the NHS and they would put a penny on income tax and protect health spending. Stanley put forward the point of view that raising taxes would not help because the NHS needs to change to reflect the changes in the country since it was introduced. Swinney argued that health spending has never been higher in Scotland and that he chose not to increase tax to pay for higher spending so as not to place a greater burden on taxpayers on the lowest levels of income. Davidson argued that levels of investment in the NHS in Scotland were lower than for the rest of the UK, but Harvie countered by arguing that Scotland should not mirror the spending of the rest of the UK and that people earning more should be prepared to pay more.

Question Time: 5/11/15

The show was in Tottenham and the first question was whether junior doctors would be supported if they went on strike. Justine Greening argued that it needed to be discussed by all sides. Victoria Coren Mitchell made the point that the doctors have essentially been told to accept the offer and she would support them. Peter Hitchens said that in his opinion, doctors should not go on strike because of the role they play, even though he sympathises with them. He also mentioned that the health service seems to have lost trust in Jeremy Hunt. Chukka Umunna said that he did not support a strike, but would not condemn them if they did, blaming the government for the situation. Baroness Jones said that the offered pay rise looks good, but there would be lots of hours to be worked and doctors would remain tired; she also said she would support a strike if it happened.

The second question asked if full military action should be taken place against IS following the suspected bombing of a Russian place. Hitchens was against as it is only suspected and not proven and also because it would increase the risk to safety as opposed to decreasing it. Greening argued that they are a threat to the UK and action was needed, although Britain is currently taking place in action in Iraq, but not Syria. Umunna said that there had been missed opportunities for intervention in the past elsewhere and would have no objections to action as long as it was legal and well-supported. Baroness Jones argued that America has been bombing Syria for 14 months and the situation has not improved, so further action is not the answer. Coren Mitchell was unsure because there are no easy answers that would provide a good solution for the people caught up in the conflict.

Question three concerned housing immigrants because of a shortage of housing available. Umunna recommended building more housing, although the availability of space is an issue in his constituency. Greening argued that more homes have been built over the past few years and that help is available for people looking to get on the housing ladder; she added that the problem was caused by a lack of building in the past and would take time to solve the problem. Coren Mitchell described living in London as unaffordable for the vast majority of people. Baroness Jones argued that prices were driving people out of London and that rent caps should be considered along with bringing old properties back in to the market and building more social housing. Hitchens made the point that there have been problems for years since council housing was sold off and that the lack of housing was a mask for economic mis-management.

The fourth question asked if cuts to the police force are endangering the public. Baroness Jones said that the cuts were too large and implemented too quickly, putting the public in danger. Greening said that crime is falling and victims are more satisfied with responses and that cuts were needed due to the economic deficit. Umunna countered by arguing that certain crimes are increasing by large percentages and that the cuts would put the public at risk, with chief constables having told him they could not guarantee public safety; he added that Labour would make cuts to a maximum of 10%, whilst the current cuts would see the budget cut by a third. Hitchens argued that there have been more police recently than in the past, but they are often ineffective due to a lack of patrols on foot, responding to crime rather than deterring it.

The final question asked if schools were becoming joyless exam factories. Greening said no and that regular progress checks are needed for individuals and for schools. Baroness Jones said they are and there should be a love of learning in schools. Hitchens argued there was too much focus on gimmicks and they were becoming joyless exam factories. Coren Mitchell said her daughter would be home schooled. Umunna was not in favour of testing at seven and that more teachers were needed, with class sizes being too high.

Book review: The President’s Nemesis

The President’s Nemesis is set during an election campaign. The President makes an unscheduled stop and Stanley Johnson appears to have been set up in an apparent plot to assassinate him. As events progress, Johnson is a pawn in a game between more powerful players.

The book is part political conspiracy, part psychological thriller as Johnson is manipulated by others to be in a position where it looks like he is trying to assassinate the President. The lengths that are gone to in order to manipulate Johnson are extensive and every aspect of his life comes under scrutiny and attack. There was nothing in the book that had me desperate to read on or strongly recommend it, but at the same time, there was nothing that made me want to not finish it or not recommend it. Not my usual style, but nice for a change.

Rating (out of 5): ***

Book review: Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder is set in the Vietnam War and primarily follows pilot Court Bannister, the son of a famous actor. He is initially known for his famous father, but gradually becomes known and admired for his flying skills, with the novel following him for a year-long tour of duty. Other characters also make regular appearances, notably Toby Parker and Wolf Lochert.

Whilst the novel focuses primarily on the characters mentioned above, the political decision makes are also referenced, with the military shown to be having a difficult job of persuading the politicians of what needs to be done and why. Most of Bannister’s missions are relatively uneventful, which adds to the realism of the novel; the frustrations of the military in politics taking precedence over tactics adds to this.

There are some good action sequences, especially the raid on the airbase and Bannister’s encounter with MiGs. The action is realistic and not over the top, which keeps the realism. Bannister may be the central character, but he flies with pilots better than himself and is not single-handedly winning the war. The breaks from the war-zone to decisions being made in Washington keep the novel progressing well and it effectively shows how quickly the soldiers and pilots become hardened by their experiences.

Rating (out of 5): ****

Question Time: 11/6/15

The programme was recorded in Gateshead. Question 1 asked if the Chancellor was right to sell the RBS shares at a loss of £7 billion to the tax payer. Chris Bryant of Labour argued that it was wrong and that George Osborne had not met the criteria he set two years ago. Matthew Hancock of the Conservatives said that it was the right decision and one supported by the Governor of the Bank of England; he also blamed the deficit on Labour, to which Bryant responded by pointing out that Royal Mail had been sold at a loss. Douglas Carswell of UKIP said he was worried that the longer the government held onto RBS, the bigger the loss there would be for the tax payer. Cristina Odone of the Legatum Institute believed that there was a re-visiting of the suspicion of big banks and that smaller banks could be the future. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh of the SNP argued that there was too big a loss for the tax payer and that similar losses had been incurred with sales in the past. Hancock supported there being new, smaller banks and that they should be there to serve the economy. Carswell agreed that changes are needed.

Question 2 asked if 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote in the EU Referendum. Carswell said he was pleased there was a referendum, but believed that the current voting age of 18 is correct. Odone was in favour and believed that they would generally vote to stay in the EU. Hancock agreed with the status quo and that many other things are set at the age of 18. Ahmed-Sheikh was in favour of 16 and 17 year olds being allowed to vote, but argued that there was no way of knowing how they would vote. Bryant was in favour, arguing that people can become parents at the age of 16 and that there is no greater responsibility, so they should be allowed to vote. Hancock said that he was in favour of the debate about the EU. There was an even split across the audience over whether 16 or 17 year olds should be allowed to vote.

Question 3 asked if David Cameron was using dirty tactics in the campaign ahead of the referendum. Carswell argued that it is clear that Cameron wants a ‘Yes’ vote and that he will achieve reform as he is not asking for little. Bryant said he would be campaigning ‘Yes’, primarily because it is in the interest of his constituents. Odone agreed that he was using some dirty tactics and that was motivated by members of the Conservative Party. Hancock said there would be a free and fair election after Carswell accused him of not wanting a referendum. Ahmed-Sheikh’s point was that that EU nationals should be allowed to vote. Carswell argued that it was hypocritical of the SNP to have been in favour of a referendum over Scotland but be against one over Europe.

The fourth question asked if the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ would benefit the North-East. Ahmed-Sheikh wanted to look to make links between the North-East and Scotland and that too many decisions are made with the focus being on London. Bryant argued that there are major problems in the North-East with funding and jobs and that the focus and the economy is too centred on London and the South-East. Hancock appeared to be in favour of regional devolution and that the plan would connect areas in the North as a whole as opposed to just the North-West. Carswell agreed that there is a London-centric economy and that the plan was probably generated in London. Odone believed that investment was going to be on infrastructure, but that funding is also necessary for training and skills, including apprenticeships. Hancock agreed that more local people needed to have a greater say in their own communities.

Question 5 asked why Britain is becoming a surveillance state akin to Orwell’s 1984. Bryant made the point that the digital changes in society allow this because more people are making more information about themselves available, although government protection needs to be proportional. Hancock agreed and said that as technology changes, so do criminal methods and that the laws need to continue to change to offer protection. Carswell argued that on the anniversary of the Magna Carta, a new bill of rights is needed in recognition of the digital changes and that judicial oversight is needed. Ahmed-Sheikh agreed that judges should make decisions over politicians and that further discussion is needed before a firm decision is made. Odone was concerned that a blanket ‘Snooper’s charter’ would not be beneficial as it would be collected and stored by many different companies in different locations; she also argued that a balance between surveillance and privacy is vital.

The sixth question asked when ISIS fascism would be stopped. Odone argued that it would be when the West is secure in it’s beliefs. Carswell agreed with Odone and that great progress has been made in liberal, democratic societies and that past support of tyrants has damaged the reputation of the West. Ahmed-Sheikh favoured education as the best approach to countering it. Hancock agreed that values were of greater importance than weapons. Bryant was in favour of a better understanding and greater opportunities in a respectful society.