Shake Off by Mischa Hiller

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Shake Off by Mischa Hiller

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Kerry King
Reviewed by Kerry King
Summary: Reliant on painkillers to deaden the terrifying flashbacks of the massacre he survived as a teenager, Michel is nonetheless a gifted linguist and a natural in the role he has been groomed for since the time of his rescue, by Abu-Leila, a PLO father-figure and long time acquaintance of none other than The Old Man himself, a certain Mr. Y. Arafat. And in this role of intelligence gatherer and fixer, Michel is no longer a boy from the Sabra and Shatila camps. Sometimes Michel is no longer sure who he is at all.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 328 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Telegram Books
ISBN: 978-1846590887

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Shake Off is the latest from the pen of Mischa Hiller, a student of the John Le Carre universe where the Spies had to Come In From The Cold. Set in the 80s against a backdrop of daggers and cloaks, wests and easts and defectors and double agents, Hiller's protagonist, Michel Khoury, hooked on pain killers and posing as a student, has been tasked with the unlikely mission of scouting for a Cambridge location in which to host secret talks between those Palestinians and Israelis who seek a secular democratic state for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In a Le Carresque landscape of anonymous calls from phone boxes and dead letter drops, Michel, a displaced Palestinian who has been fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of wealthy adoptive parents, who in turn were PLO funded by a man known only as 'Abu-Leila', would not sit out of place. Dedicated and grateful, Michel's multilingualism honed in the years since his espousal, has made him the perfect foot-soldier for Abu-Leila and The Old Man.

For obvious reasons, Michel's assignment is not without a complication or three; these are not modern day times in the sense that we think of them today. There is no such thing as a World Wide Web, mobile phones are in their infancy and untraceable, safe communication is a matter requiring much effort. Add to that a woman that Michel really ought to know better than to become involved with and flying in the face of his own wariness of 'honey traps' (it's easier to believe that a woman finds you irresistible than that she is trying to ensnare you), the mysterious contents of an envelope smuggled out of the Occupied Territories, an enemy back-catalogue that includes Mossad, MI5 and high ranking members of his own political affiliations that do not want a single-state solution and you have the makings of a very fine cat-and-mouse spy thriller indeed, written at a nuts-and-bolts level.

Today, instead of the world becoming a less complicated place – the Berlin Wall being taken apart, piece by piece by a united Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – the opposite has happened; there are now so many ways to communicate that we have forgotten how to be relevant. We live in a world of FaceBook, Tweets and MySpace pages. This is, on the one hand, a fantastic model in demonstrating the joys of free speech. On the other hand it could just as readily be viewed as the puerile spouting of a subscriber's every last opinion, brain-fart and bowel movement. I'm not sure that stuff needs to be recorded for posterity, kicks or simply because you have access to the Internet and nothing better to do with your time?

As such, in this world of Wikileaks and the likes of OK! Magazine and their ilk that, between them, create a veritable media blizzard we live in a world that has become a place where a person's right to privacy is something to be fought over, in a Court of law. Isn't it wrong that there is now an entire generation who have no real idea what the Iron Curtain was? I digress…

And so a certain pencil-and-paper innocence has become lost and I must report a certain level of satisfaction wrung from reading this novel that harks back to simpler times. The plot is superb and certainly an area of history of which I have not previously had much experience, largely due to being in my early teens at the time and being consumed by a healthy fascination with the boy bands of the day, rather than the news stories! I have given Shake Off three and a half Bookbag stars and need to point out that it would certainly have been more if I had felt more empathy with Michel Khoury. He was, at times, not very likeable and whilst I am sure this was probably the point, it did not endear him to me. Similarly, I found some of the passing female characters a little empty and prosaic. There are depths in every human, even if they are shallow ones.

For further reading, we'd like to suggest you take a look at Palestinian Walks: Notes from a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh and perhaps Unveiled: A Woman's Journey Through Politics, Love, and Obedience by Deborah Kanafani, both relevant and beautiful novels of their time. Now, if the Le Carresque spy thing is your bag, you should have a look at The Spy Game by Georgina Harding or if that's not meaty enough for you The Terminal Spy by Alan Cowell, a Pulitzer-winning journalist charting the life and death of a certain Alexander Litvinenko. If that still leaves you thirsty for more and you really want to get into it, you should have a look at Interventions by Noam Chomsky. Older teens might appreciate Going Over by Beth Kephart.

Lastly, we at Bookbag would like to extend our thanks to the fine ladies and gentlemen at Telegram Books for sending us this copy to review.

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