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Brian's Book Log - Ongoing

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It's time for another update to my mini reviews.


What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde (4/5)

The second of three books from The Willoughby Book Club I received as part of my 3 month subscription. I assume they sent me this as I told them that I really liked The Kite Runner, once again this isn't the kind of book I would have picked up. The book tells us the story of Nahid and Masood, two young lovers from Tehran in the late 70's. They get caught up in the Iranian revolution in a way that puts their very existence at risk. Escape is the only option so they travel to Sweden on forged passports. The story then jumps to the present day with Nahid fighting cancer and with everyone else in her life. Along the way she reflects on the decisions she had made in her life and how everything turned out.


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (5/5)

Yes, yes, yes. I have always avoided any books and TV shows based around this period of time and social class as it hasn't interested me. My knowledge therefore was very limited going into reading this. I had heard of Mr Darcey but couldn't tell you what book he was in or if he was a character we are meant to like or not. One of the things I aim to do this year with my reading was to tackle some more of the classics and more books written by women and this book meets both criteria.

I wouldn't say this is an easy read but it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I needed to read it in silence as it required concentration and the short chapters really helped me as I could read for a bit and then take a short break. At first I didn't really see the fuss but the deeper I got into the book the more and more I wanted a happy ending for the characters. I enjoyed it so much it went straight on my 'to keep' bookshelf when I was finished, I imagine I will read this again in the future. I still don't care for the era or social class depicted in the book but the underlying story was more than sufficient to make me want to read more of Austen's work.


The Beach House by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge (2/5)

I have an old Kindle in my locker at work which is crammed full of what I would call "guilty pleasure authors" in case I forget to bring anything with me. My criteria is well known authors who write easy to read books which don't require much concentration. On Friday we had a particularly quiet day and I had forgot to bring a book with me so I dug the Kindle out and settled on The Beach House, the first James Patterson I have read. The story revolves around Jack Mullen, a law student who receives news that his brother Peter has been found dead following a night working as a parking valet at an elite house party. No one in power seems all that interested and try to write the dead off as a drowning or suicide. Jack is sure this isn't true but everyone in a position of authority seems to have been paid off, why?

This book was ok and kept me entertained well enough to get me through the shift, it wasn't great and it won't win any prizes but it was ok.


Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron (3/5)

I am pretty sure I have read this before but for some reason I can't find any record of it on my goodreads account. Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun of some repute and has written a variety of English language books. This particular book is about learning to accept yourself and your situation whatever that may be, and how to develop compassion for others in even the most trying of circumstances. Many of Chodron's books are very accessible and approach things in a very practical and pragmatic modern way. This book however isn't one of those, it digs deeper into some of the more esoteric Buddhist ways. This doesn't mean that there is nothing of practical value, in fact there is plenty, but I personally prefer not to have to rely on belief to get results.

This isn't a bad book, it just isn't quite what I was hoping it was.


Edited by Brian.

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Update time. I've not had as much time for reading in the last two weeks as I would have hoped but still managed to finish 4 books.


A Darker Domain by Val McDermid (4/5)

The second book in the Karen Pirie series by Val McDermid. This book is set across two different timelines, 1984 and 2008, with the plot revealing itself as it switches between them. It all starts in 1984 in a community with 2 very different class structures. Most of the people are miners or mining families but there is also the local Maclennan Grant  family who are very rich and own a large estate. The heiress of the family, Catriona is kidnapped along with her baby son. During the ransom payoff it goes very wrong, Catriona is killed and her son disappears and is never seen again. Leap forward to 2008, Tuscany, and a journalist is on a holiday with some friends. One morning while out for a jog she finds an abandoned house and decides to investigate and stumbles on a copy of the ransom poster/noye from 1984.

I really enjoyed this book and as the series goes on Karen Pirie is becoming a favourite of mine. I look forward to reading the next book in the series when I get a copy of it.


Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright & Bradley Hope (3/5)

I found this in a charity shop and the blurb on the back instantly grabbed me. In early 2009, after finishing Wharton School of Business a young Malaysian called Jho Low manages to get up a government investment fund in his native country, funded by the Malaysian government. Over the course of the next 10 years he goes from being a quiet unassuming young man to hosting huge lavish parties frequented by the rich an famous in a variety of entertainment industries. Is this wealth and extravagance a product of his investment vehicle performing well?

As it turns out, it's a huge con involving the Malaysian prime minister, rich Arabian governments, and financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs.

This book is very interesting if a little bit repetitive in places. It is well written but some of the finanical tools used are not particularly well explained and this is a bit of a let down as I had to find out how they work in other places.


Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (2/5)

As an attempt to spread my reading wider I have been buying books that I probably wouldn't have a year ago and this is one of these. I was aware of Jeanette Winterson by name but that is about it. I decided on this book as it is relatively short so if I didn't get on with it wouldn't be a huge drag. The book is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story of Jeanette, a young girl adopted and brought up by her mother in a very religious household. At sixteen she decides to leave the family home for the woman she loves.

I found this book only ok, but as usual this isn't a reflection on the book itself but more that it just wasn't for me. Had I had any first hand experiences covered in the book it probably would have resonated more with me.


Wild Nights by Phoebe Smith (4/5)

I picked this up at my local library. This is a non-fiction book about solo wild camping in the UK but what makes this slightly different from the norm is that it is written by a woman. Phoebe isn't a chancer, she is a writer for some of the big 'outdoor pursuits' magazines in the UK. She decides to set herself a challenge of sleeping wild at the highest peaks in England, Scotland, and Wales, and also the furthest points north, south, east, and west.

This is a really well written book which really made me yearn for the mountains again. I particularly liked the fact that Phoebe talks about the doubts she had about herself when doing the challenge, doubts we all have, and how she felt about her failures and successes.




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The Exphoria Code by Antony Johnston (3/5)

Another one of my charity shop finds, selected because of the blub on the back. Our main character Brigitte Sharp is an M16 computer hacker who is slowly getting back to normal after a field operation goes wrong. In her own opinion she isn't a 'Jane Bond' and she is far more comfortable behind a computer hunting the bad guys at distance. She is a bit of a loner and spends a lot of her time on the internet and in particular on message boards dedicated to the goth scene. She becomes intrigued by some ASCII art published in an obscure french language goth group which leads to a mole in the Exphoria project.


This was a pretty entertaining read but nothing ground breaking. I can't help but feel a bit tired of the amount of computer hackers in a similar mould as Lizbeth Salander appear in books these days. Bridge, as she likes to be known, works for the government instead of being a complete lone wolf but a lot of the other typical characterisations are there. I sussed out who the mole was very quickly but I am unsure if this was intentionally easy to demonstrate how inexperienced Bridge is in the field with real people. Overall it was a good book and I am a little disappointed there isn't a next one in the series yet.


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Update time. I've struggled a little with my reading in the last week for some reason despite having plenty of opportunities.

Since my last update I have finished the following:


The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (3/5)

A non fiction book about the transition into the Trump administration and some of the decisions taken with regards to civil service in the following months. Instead of looking at the big picture Lewis picks certain individuals in civil service and explores their background and what Trump has changed since taking power. It is fair to say that a lot of these decisions were taken hastily and without appreciation of the ripple effect they caused. This was a decent read but both a little repetitive and not up to the same standard as his usual work in my opinion.


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (3/5)

This book follows a black slave called Cora as she tries to escape the cotton plantations of Georgia. I heard about it on a podcast and decided to take a chance on it despite not being the sort of thing I would normally read. In the end I was left a little disappointed by it and had hoped for a lot more from it. It wasn't a bad book, I think the style just didn't agree with me which can happen from time to time. I didn't feel connected to any of the characters and if I'm honest I didn't really care what happened to any of them.


Ready to Run by Kelly Starrett (3/5)

A book about mobility with regards to running. Not much to add except to say it would have been nice if the author had dedicated the end of the book to detailing mobility plans to deal with specific problems. It's all there but you will need to spend time pulling out the bits you think will work for you.


Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky (4/5)

A non-fiction book written by Jack Barsky about his time as KGB agent working undercover in the USA. Living in the west most of the spy books I have read have been about agents working for the west and how they operated. This book is much the same but looks at it from the other side which is an interesting change of view. It is a well written book but Barsky didn't actually achieve much in his time as a spy which makes it all a little mundane when compared to spys such as Aldrich Ames or Oleg Gordievsky.


Gather the Daughers by Jennie Melamed (3/5)

A bit like the M. Night Shyamalan movie, The Village. On an island there is a small community who live by their own rules and stay away from the mainland due to an unspecific apocalypse. In this society boys rules the roost and women are effectively used to keep house and produce children. This is quite a chilling book to read and some of the subject matter is tough going as it involves incestuous paedophilia and rape. Melamed should be praised for the way she describes these acts without actually describing them. She writes as if we are seeing it through the eyes of the children on the island who know no better and who feel it isn't quite right despite innocence of the subject. There are a lot of characters which can be hard to keep up with a times but this is mitigated by the fact that each chapter focuses on one character at a time.


Can't Hurt Me by David Goggins (2/5)

David Goggins is an ex Navy Seal, Ultra runner, and all round bad ass. This book is part biography and part self-help in that it mixes his upbringing with what he took from each event. David is a good speaker and story teller which helps this book but he misses one thing constantly in this book. He repeatedly claims that if he can achieve these great feats anyone can as long as they put the work in. However, the one thing he fails to address is the level of sacrifice his feats have required. He came from a broken home and yet his two failed marriages show that he always put his ambition before family life. I'm not going to criticise anyone for a failed relationship as it can happen to any of us but he doesn't even address the reasons why in passing. His physical achievements have also put an insane toll on his body and could have cost him his life of numerous occasions. "You can achieve this if you are willing to die trying" isn't a good message.

I believe David has a strong message at the basic level and has good intentions at heart, but I cannot get on board with his "at any cost" message. Maybe thats why he is super-human and I am only human?

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Shame most of these reads weren't that great for you. I've heard good things of Underground Railroad but decided it didn't sound like something I would like. It's nice you read a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

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I'd say your reading looks like it's going really well! Especially since there's been a few you didn't hugely enjoy. You're doing much better than me, anyway!


I think you've been kind about Can't Hurt Me, it sounds terrible and a lot like it's promoting a mindset that's mentally and physically harmful. I don't think the author is super human, but I do suspect he has some psychological issues from his childhood that he needs to address.


I hope your next book will be a good one!

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2 more books to add to my list for the year so far.


The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz (2/5)

Book number 5 in the Millenium series, the 2nd written by Lagercrantz after the passing of the originial writer Stieg Larsson. Like many people, I absolutely loved the Larsson written books and felt unsure about another writer continuing the series. I found the first Lagercrantz book ok and picked up a copy of book 5 in a charity shop hoping that it would be better than book 4. Sadly this was not the case and I found it worse. It feels rushed, messy, and unfinished in my opinion. Larsson always made Salander the anchor of the story, everything and everyone came back to her, she was undoubtedly the star. In book 5 she is almost a peripheral character and I would argue that the story would have worked equally well (or badly) without her at all. There is a major event in this book which pretty much passes her by and it definitely should have had a big reaction from her. It's not a bad book per se, it's just not up to the level that it needs to be to be justified as part of the millenium series.


Why we Eat (Too Much) by Andrew Jenkinson (5/5)

This book promises a lot a the cover. It advertises itself as "A practical, accessible guide to understanding the diet myth and the secret to lasting weight loss." Andrew Jenkinson is a doctor and surgeon who specialises in bariatric (weight loss) surgery. In fact, his expertise is so highly regarded that he travels all over the world to consult on cases and pass on his knowledge to others in the medical field. In this book he spends the vast majority of it explaining the science (and some psychology) behind weight gain and loss. This is done in a very concise way and is backed up with numerous sources and at times with case studies of patients he has treated. Where there are differing views in medicine on a topic he explains why there are differing views and why he believes one holds more weight than the other. One of the stand out things in this book is that where the evidence isn't 100% he clearly states 'we believe' or 'we think', this is welcome break from the dogmatic approach often taken in other weight loss books.


Jenkinson starts off with a question along the lines of, "If weight gain is based purely on calories in vs calories out and we often eat an excess of calories above what we need, why don't we continue putting on weight forever?" In fact, if you look at the data collected, and weight gain = calories in - calories out, a great many of us who eat western diets should weigh in excess of 300kg, we don't, why is this? This question really sucked me in right from the start and Jenkinson looks at what causes obesity and why it really isn't simply a matter of willpower. Jenkinson then goes on to look at the role upbringing, genetics, environment, nutrition, food availability, etc all come into play.


The final section of the book is a general guide to how we should eat to maintain a health weight. Importantly he states that this is a slow process, he explains how crash diets work (or don't) and why we often end up putting more weight back on than we started with. He is also clear that our genetics pay a part in how we look and if you are naturally a 'bigger' person it is unlikely you can become a super skinny racing snake. This is a crucial message in my opinion. We can all change how we look and more importantly our health but there is no one 'perfect physical state' that will work for everyone.


In case it's unclear, I really liked this book and it is one I will be referring back to time and again.

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Two final reviews coming up to round out the first quarter of the year. I think this must be the best start I've had to a year since I started to track my reading back in 2013. I finished my 25th book last night and despite trying to not get caught up in numbers I can't deny I have developed an urge to go for 100 books for the year. The only issue with this is that I fear it will lead me to go for short books instead of things I really want to read so I will have to be aware to avoid this.


My two favourite books this quarter have been A Man Called Ove and Pride & Prejudice. The two most disappointing books have been The 7th Function of Language and Oranges are not the Only Fruit.


Looking forward to the next quarter I have no real targets except to keep reading regularly and to try and post more often on here. With Covid-19 causing absolute havoc there is a decent chance I will be on unpaid leave soon which would give me as much time to read as I like. Hopefully in 3 months time everything is looking up for the world as it's a pretty sad situation at the moment.


Onto the mini-reviews.


The Backpacker by John Harris (2/5)

I've had this in my wishlist for a long time but I am not sure where this came from as it doesn't seem to be a widely read book. I suspect it might have been a recommendation from either Goodreads or Amazon as I can't see it being a personal recommendation. The blurb advertises it as a non-fiction account of a backpacker's adventures in south east Asia and this is probably best summed up as 'The Beach but for real'. I loved The Beach by Alex Garland and also liked the movie based on it so I had high hopes for this books.

Firstly I will deal with the positives. The book is well enough written, sure it will never win any literary prizes but it flows well and trots along at a decent pace. There was more than enough adventure and detail to keep me interested throughout and did made me wish I was back in SE Asia myself. However there are quite a few negatives. Firstly this is written entirely with the mindset of an immature young man and it is dripping in casual racism and misogyny. All the Asians speak with r's replacing their l's when they talk, eg "herro" instead of "hello", and after a while this gets very tiresome. Every female character bar none is basically a sex object and the stereotypical SE Asian party girl. I don't mind books about the darker and seedier side of life, in fact I often find them enjoyable, but this is just cheap titillation with no end point. There are several Asian countries included in the tale and they are all potrayed in the same way.

Despite these negatives I read it fairly quickly so it would be unfair for me to give it 1 out of 5. Realistically it's probably closer to 1.5 than 2 but that's the nature of giving books scores. One final point, there is no way this book is a true story, it is pure fantasy and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.


The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet (2/5)

I have read one of Binet's other books, HHhH which I enjoyed so I decided to give his more recent books a go. This book revolves around an accident, the knocking down of Roland Barthes just after meeting Francois Mitterrand who is in the middle of a battle for the presidency of France. Police Captain Jacques Bayard is called in to investigate the accident and it soon turns out that Barthes may have been carrying a document with vital importance. Bayard is an everyman type of character and all the people involved in Barthes' life are philosophers and intellectuals so to help him understand he ropes in Simon Herzog.

Every so often a book comes along that makes me feel dumb and this is one of them. I'm sure people with decent knowledge of French intellectuals would find this a blast but I was left grasping the 'standard' plot items with a lot of the rest going over my head. Reading this felt like being in an insane fever dream which is a shame because the underlying plot was really enjoyable. In summary, probably a good book, just not for me.




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