At Risk by Stella Rimington

AT RISK0001Stella Rimington is the former head of MI5, apparently the inspiration behind the casting of Judi Dench as “M” in the James Bond films. Since leaving that position she has written her autobiography and several thrillers based on the spy world she knew. At Risk is the first of her books that I’ve read.

The first adult books I read (as a child and young teenager) were spy fiction as were some of my favourite TV shows at that time. And James Bond films were some of the first non-Disney films I saw. I loved that kind of thing – even though I’m sure I didn’t understand a lot of the “not suitable for children” content.

Considering the content of those books and films, the spy world of my childhood was clearly one of fantasy: world travel, glamour, bravery and ingenuity under extreme circumstances…
All very different from the more authentic (?) world Stella Rimington portrays in At Risk. I place the “?” after authentic because I have no way of knowing whether there is authenticity but I found the situations were plausible and the characters convincing.

Liz Carlyle is Rimington’s intelligence agent from MI5. In this book she investigates an anticipated terrorist attack, liaising with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to track down the suspected terrorists and their target before their plans can be carried out.

The investigation relies on paper trails, computer networks and intuition instead of fast cars, shaken martinis and bedroom exploits. It is more like police work, tracking down leads, following up witnesses, trying to join puzzle pieces together from a headquarters set up in a community hall instead of travelling the glamour spots of the world rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.

In the first half of the book every second chapter seemed to introduce new characters and it took a while to find out where they fit into the overall story. Looking back, there is still one chapter and one couple whose purpose I can’t figure out – maybe I missed something and need to check that part again.

In the later chapters, as we find out more about the terrorists and their plans, we get to see their human side. They are not hard, amoral villains deserving a suitably spectacular and just end to their lives. There are emotional and logical reasons motivating them; and we find there are plenty of shadows between the extremes of black and white, right and wrong in the intelligence and military worlds.

I now have two more of Rimington’s books and I look forward to seeing how they compare, but first I still have a third of The Satanic Verses left to read.

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Buy Less, Read More?

On the weekend I visited my parents. My mum was reading one of her books for the third time. She had read everything in her library at least twice and had nothing new to read.

booksI don’t have that problem. I have a few bookcases and two large cupboards with bowing shelves full of mostly unread books. When I got home from my parents’ place I tried to go through them to sort out things I’d be unlikely to read, but I found few I was willing to cull.

I WANT to read them all. I bought them over many years because they interested me. But I have a problem with time. I don’t have as many opportunities to read as I would like and yet I continue to find more and more books to add to my growing collection.

Why do I keep buying?
One reason is that I don’t want to miss out. Some of purchases are remaindered or liquidated stock. Others are second hand. They aren’t things you can put aside to buy at a later date. Their availability is limited. While I probably won’t read a new purchase immediately, at least it’s there for me to read when I’m ready.

A second reason is my wide ranging and regularly changing interests. For a few weeks I’ll want to read about the space programme and will find a few books about that subject. And I’ll read one or two before moving on to something else, leaving the rest of the books in my to-be-read-later pile.

books2That “something else” may be literature, and I’ll pick up a book or two that has alleged literary merit, fully intending to read something of “quality”, but then I’ll struggle through the first choice, quenching any ambition to read the others (at least for a few months). This also creates the disadvantage of slowing down my reading. It dampens my enthusiasm, ridding me of that “can’t wait to get back to it” drive that ensures I’ll read at every available opportunity. On rare occasions I’ll eventually put the book aside only half read – but that’s something I really want to avoid.

Why do I bother with these “literary” works? Because I’m hoping to come across a gem, something that makes the disappointments worthwhile and surely my own writing can’t be harmed by exposure to “the greats”. And even the books I struggle with usually have moments of recognisable quality.

As well as the above “reasons” for book buying, occasionally I’ll discover the author of a series of books. At Christmas I came across Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s a book I remember from childhood, not through reading it, but possibly through a TV or radio adaptation. I found a copy in a Wagga Wagga bookshop and enjoyed it so much I tracked down all of the sequels in the series. I’ve now read a few of them, but the rest have been put aside for later while I try to catch up on other things.

My current reading projects include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind and At Risk by former MI5 boss Stella Rimington.

SVThe Satanic Verses is one of those “literary” books that I find a struggle to read but I’m determined to get through it. It’s a book I first started maybe 20 years ago and gave up on. This time I want to make sure I finally get to the end. I’ve past the half-way point and have given myself the luxury of taking a break to tackle something easier and more interesting: the Stella Rimington book, an authentic thriller (I naively assume,considering the author’s background) about British security services discovering and trying to prevent a planned terrorist attack.

The Rimington is another purchase (second hand) that led me to buy more of her books, all taking their place in my to-be-read-later collection. And that is often why I continue to buy: one good book leads to another…