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Brian's Book Log - Ongoing

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On 30/09/2021 at 8:28 AM, Chrissy said:

I bought Piranesi in the recent daily deal on kindle, so I am delighted to see that you have given it a 5/5. I am fairly certain I also have Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell around here somewhere. There will be shelf rummaging later! 


From what I can gather people either really love the style of writing or don’t get on with it at all. Fingers crossed that you like it.

 

I got a bit carried away in Waterstones this morning and came away with a rather mixed bag of books.

 

Fiction

Candide - Voltaire

The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller

The Plotters - Un-Su Kim

The Gates of Rome - Conn Iggulden

Knife - Jo Nesbo

 

Non-Fiction

Soldier - Jay Morton

Agent Sonya - Ben Macintyre

Zonal Marking - Michael Cox

High - Michaella McCollum

Angels with Dirty Faces - Jonathan Wilson

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Time for a few updates.

 

Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard (2/5)

I have read two of Ballards other books with postive results. I loved Empire of the Sun, and really enjoyed my time with Cocaine Nights. In this book we follow the story of Robert Maitland who manages to crash his car over a divider and onto a high-speed traffic island below. I got on well with the book as a whole but it failed to grab me in the way that the previously mentioned books did. Ballard's favourite themes are all here and he does a decent job of keeping the story flowing in a compact setting. I find it interesting that this was published a year after Crash because to me it reads like an expanded experiment he may have worked on before or during writing Crash. The 2/5 rating isn't a negative one. I'm glad I read this, but at no point does it reach near to his best work in my opinion.

 

Harrier 809 by Rowland White (4/5)

Roland White is another author whose work I have read a lot of. I'm pretty confident that I have read all his previous work and he really knows how to write engaging aviation non-fiction books. As with his other books, this one is exceptionally well researched and leave no stone un-turned. The focus of this book is 809 squadron who were formed to operate Harrier's during the Falkland's conflict. This isn't an area of military history that I know loads about but I was still left surprised at how much new information White manages to squeeze into his book. Some non-fiction historical books can be dry or full of facts and figures but White turns all the research into a really good tale. The dog fighting scenes are especially good and really impart a sense of drama. I would recommend this book or any of his others to anyone interested in the subjects he writes about.

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I've spent a fair bit of time reading over the last five or so days and as a result I have finished 4 books.

 

Tornado by John Nicol (4/5)

This is another non-fiction book, there is a pattern emerging to my reading at the moment. This book is about the Tornado aircraft and specifically about it's use during Operation Desert storm. Nicol relies mainly on interviews of those involved of which he was one. This lends some real insights to the stories behind the pilots that other books would undoubtedly failed to get. The details about how the missions panned out are an eye-opening read, especially when you find out how much danger the pilots were exposed to in the early days of the campaign. Up to this point I thought the book was pretty good but nothing better than 3/5. However, the later sections of the book about the aftermath were where the book really shined for me. It is pretty emotional stuff when you read about how the families of the pilots who were shot down lived with not knowing if they were dead or alive until the war ended. The stories of reunions, and the families dealing with loss were tough to read at times. The descriptions of PTSD and how Nicol himself was initially against the idea of a psychologist were something you rarely see in modern military biographies.

I had two minor niggles. Nicol can be overly dramatic in his writing at times, especially when describing the aircraft. The other gripe I had was Nicol equating the Tornado pilots to the Lancaster pilots of the Second World War. Without doubt both had levels of bravery that far surpasses my own but the Lancaster pilots operated under such conditions for years and years, not weeks.

 

The Ghosts of K2 by Mick Conefrey (3/5)

Most people can name who completed the first successful ascent of Everest but very few can do the same for the second highest mountain in the world, K2. Although Everest gets all the mainstream coverage, K2 is seen by mountaineers as the mountain, a climbers mountain. For a long time it was believed to be unclimbable and even with the modern advances in equipment and weather forecasting, the mountain still claims 1 life for every 4 people who manage to reach the summit. Over the years I have read a lot of books about high altitude climbing but I hadn't read much about the early attempts to climb K2 so I picked this book to fill thay gap.

Overall I found the book an interesting read if a little dry in places. Conefrey does a good job of explaining technical details without dumbing it down too much. One thing he does particularly well is to present the facts as they are while also highlighting where there are differences of opinion or differing accounts. I really like this way of dealing with history as it delivers what is known and leaves all judgement up to the reader. So, all in all I enjoyed this book and I think those with an interest in climbing or K2 would also enjoy it.

 

By the Rivers of Babylon by Nelson DeMille (2/5)

I saw an old copy of this on the bookcase of a B&B we stayed at the start of the year and was intrigued by the blurb on the back.

" Two Concorde jets, bound for a UN conference that will finally bring peace to the Middle East, take off carrying dignitaries and a bomb. Forced to crash land, the men and women of the peace mission must make a stand against Palestinian commandos. "

It all sounds quite daft but also potentially a lot of fun so I found a copy online I bought it. Although I wasn't expecting anything amazing with this book I was left pretty disappointed. In fact I was so disappointed by this book that I abandoned it at roughly the halfway point because as much as I tried, I just couldn't get into it. There are far far too many characters and as a result I found none of them to be in the least bit interesting. Although there is nothing wrong with prose it failed to grab my attention, and in a book which is meant to be a thriller that is never a good combination.

 

High by Michaella McCollum (2/5)

Michaella McCollum is one part of the infamous (at least in the UK and Ireland) Peru two who were arrested at Lima airport attempting to smuggle 11kg of Cocaine out of the country. This book is McCollum's account of what happened, her time in prison, and how she came to be released. I'll start with the writing, and then talk about McCollum's account. The writing is functional but no more than that. I don't know if a ghostwriter was used or not but there is little in the way of tension built into the telling of the story. The book starts with an attempt at a dramatic introduction but it is very awkward and clunky in nature. If I compare this book to another in the same genre, Marching Powder by Rusty Young, then there is no contest. Young's book is far better and the writing is heads and shoulders above High.

So that's the writing dealt with, now onto the account itself. McCollum portrays herself as the victim at every single opportunity in this book. She comes across as a spoiled hypocrite who can't understand that actions have consequences. I am willing to accept that she was naive but I don't believe that she had no idea about what she was being asked to do. During the build up to her arrest she constantly tries to pass responsibility for the plan on to her accomplice Melissa. Once they are arrested she claims that Melissa came up with the false claim of gun-point abduction and that she only went along with it because she was scared. While in prison everything positive is because of her doing, every negative is down to Melissa and her family. She claims that Melissa constantly wanted the media involved while she just wanted to keep her head down. Since their release I've not seen a peep out of Melissa, whereas Michaella is constantly seeking out opportunities to cash in on her notoriety so make of that what want.

I think the part that annoyed me the most was an event that she recalls when they were moved between prisons. Someone she had befriended asked her to pass on some stuff to her brother in the new prison. This brother was claimed to be struggling to adjust to life inside and had be wrongfully accused of being a drug dealer when in fact he was a very quiet innocent kind of guy. Michaella sees the brother at the new prison but before she hands over the items discovers that he is one of the prison crack dealers. She is so disgusted about the harm his dealing is causing she keeps the stuff instead. This is the same girl who got caught with 6kg of Cocaine but never reflects on the harm this would have caused others had it reached its destination.

The book is a tie in with a BBC documentary series so my wife and I decided to watch a few of the episodes when I had finished the book. Parts of her account in the book differ from what she claims in the TV series, and other people who were involved in her life who are interviewed don't exactly corroborate her claims.

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My reading mojo is still a bit up and down and I've left it quite a while before writing this so my thoughts will be brief. I really should try and write a mini-review as soon as I finish a book but life gets in the way too often.

 

Black Sun by Owen Matthews (3/5)

A fiction book based around a murder commited on a secret nuclear weapon development site in soviet Russia. I found the book entertaining enough but struggled to bond with any of the characters to care about them that much.

 

Kaizen by Sarah Harvey (2/5)

A non-fiction book I picked up at work about the Japanese way of transforming things one small step at a time. I knew a bit about the concept from a business point of view before reading this book so I wasn't a complete newbie going in. The book promises to take a non-business approach and look at how Kaizen can be used in our personal lives. I found it far too shallow and it provided nothing new to me. You could pick up all of the information by reading a few blog posts on the subject.

 

The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien (4/5)

The first Tolkien I have read and I was left utterly delighted by it. Strong characters, strong plot, very strong setting, you can't really ask for more. Well, perhaps fewer songs.

 

Candide by Voltaire (2/5)

I thought it was ok but I struggled to really get into it. Perhaps I would have felt better about it had I not been struggling from low reading mojo. I also suspect that some of the humour is lost due to the translation.

 

Zonal Marking by MIchael Cox (3/5)

A non-fiction book about the evolution of football tactics in Europe since the early 90's. I have listened to Cox on numerous podcasts and read some of his blog posts so a lot of what is covered in this book wasn't new to me. However, he presents everything in an easy to understand way and in a logical timeline. This really helps to see where the true inspirational tactical advances are and where others merely developed an existing theme. A few diagrams throughout the book would have helped to understand some of the tactical patterns discussed.

 

Bomber Command by Max Hastings (4/5)

Another non-fiction book. This one is about Bomber Command during the Second World War. As you would expect from Hastings, this is a superbly researched and written book. I was caught a little by surprise at how scathing it is in parts but to be fair, these parts seem perfectly warranted having finished the book. There is a section towards the end of the book where he looks at the attack on Darmstadt from the experiences of the residents of the city. It makes harrowing but essential reading when talking about the bombing campaigns of the war. I read it at the perfect time given that it is Remembrance Sunday tomorrow.

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I have finished two books since my last update, both non-ficition.

 

The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms (4/5)

This is a very short book (about 100 pages) about a specific event during the battle of Waterloo. Simms thinks that this area of battle was so vital to victory that if it had gone the other way then the whole of European history would be different. The battle in question is the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte. This whole period of history is pretty sketchy for me but Simms manages to make the battlefield come to life with his writing. There are a lot of different people involved but it never gets confusing. I really enjoyed this brief foray into Waterloo and will be keeping an eye out for a more thorough book in the future.

 

Russians Among Us by Gordon Corera (4/5)

Remember the red-headed Russian spy Anna Chapman? This book is all about Russian sleeper cells and espionage since the end of the Cold War. Most of the books I read about the world of Espionage and understandably based during the Cold War when spying was at its height. Once the Soviet Union broke up the need for spy agencies seem to lessen and so both sides scaled down their secretive organisations. However, there remained on both sides people who thought this was a mistake and the Russians decided to go deep and set up sleeper agents. These agents lived as everyday American families for decades with the intent on getting to know people in power or to identify those who could potentially be turned. This was a really fascinating book into a world away from the James Bond type of spy work that is often portrayed. It is very well researched, covering a number of stories that appeared heavily in the press at the time. The last few chapters also cover the most modern approach taken by Russia via social media. They are far more sophisticated than just churning out fake news but involve setting up and steering groups on sites like Facebook to protest and cause problems. A real eye-opener for sure.

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4 hours ago, Brian. said:

I have finished two books since my last update, both non-ficition.

 

The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms (4/5)

This is a very short book (about 100 pages) about a specific event during the battle of Waterloo. Simms thinks that this area of battle was so vital to victory that if it had gone the other way then the whole of European history would be different. The battle in question is the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte. This whole period of history is pretty sketchy for me but Simms manages to make the battlefield come to life with his writing. There are a lot of different people involved but it never gets confusing. I really enjoyed this brief foray into Waterloo and will be keeping an eye out for a more thorough book in the future.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this too.  My favourite 'more thorough' book on Waterloo (if you mean covering the broader battle) is Tim Clayton's work.  I've yet to get around to reading Alessandro Barbero's 'The Battle', but it's been recommended by people whose opinion I respect.  One book I disliked a lot was Bernard Cornwell's non-fiction effort: it's had rave reviews but I found the prose far too purple, too repetitive, annoyingly written (constant chopping and changing of tense for instance), and there were too many mistakes - mostly of detail but symptomatic of insufficient research and rigour. I've enjoyed some of his fiction (although it did wear thin on me after a time), but this, IMO, was just poor. Bandwagon riding, as he pretty much admits.

 

It's a while since I read it, so my recollection may not be accurate, but I remember Georgette Heyer's fictional account 'An Infamous Army' as being an excellent read.  She was pretty rigorous with her research with most of her historical fiction, so I should think she was here too.  I can also recommend the film 'Waterloo' if you haven't seen it - made in the days when they used extras rather than CGI to create huge battle scenes. It's a bit Anglocentric in that the Prussians and other allies don't really get the credit they should, but it's a fantastic recreation, and recognises quite how close Napoleon came to winning.

Edited by willoyd

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14 hours ago, willoyd said:

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this too.  My favourite 'more thorough' book on Waterloo (if you mean covering the broader battle) is Tim Clayton's work.  I've yet to get around to reading Alessandro Barbero's 'The Battle', but it's been recommended by people whose opinion I respect.  One book I disliked a lot was Bernard Cornwell's non-fiction effort: it's had rave reviews but I found the prose far too purple, too repetitive, annoyingly written (constant chopping and changing of tense for instance), and there were too many mistakes - mostly of detail but symptomatic of insufficient research and rigour. I've enjoyed some of his fiction (although it did wear thin on me after a time), but this, IMO, was just poor. Bandwagon riding, as he pretty much admits.

 

It's a while since I read it, so my recollection may not be accurate, but I remember Georgette Heyer's fictional account 'An Infamous Army' as being an excellent read.  She was pretty rigorous with her research with most of her historical fiction, so I should think she was here too.  I can also recommend the film 'Waterloo' if you haven't seen it - made in the days when they used extras rather than CGI to create huge battle scenes. It's a bit Anglocentric in that the Prussians and other allies don't really get the credit they should, but it's a fantastic recreation, and recognises quite how close Napoleon came to winning.

 

Thanks for the details reply, I shall check out some of your recommendations. I'm pretty sure that the movie is suggested at the end of the book as well.

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On 11/19/2021 at 12:28 AM, willoyd said:

 

It's a while since I read it, so my recollection may not be accurate, but I remember Georgette Heyer's fictional account 'An Infamous Army' as being an excellent read.  She was pretty rigorous with her research with most of her historical fiction, so I should think she was here too. 

The description of the battle in An Infamous Army was used at Sandhurst, the officers training college, as a resource so she must have been accurate.

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Only the one book finished this week.

 

The Gates of Rome (Emperor #1) by Conn Iggulden (3/5)

I've had a copy of this sitting on the TBR for quite a while and although I wanted to start the series I was worried that it would struggle to live up to my enjoyment of the Cicero series by Robert Harris. The series, and Iggulden for that matter gets pretty solid reviews and as I've been in a bit of a reading funk recently I thought it would make a quick easy read. I only skimmed the synopsis on the back and I have only a basic grasp of Roman history but despite this, some of the major characters were pretty familiar to me. I won't say much about the plot except to say that we follow the coming of age of two of Rome's most famous citizens. I thought the book was pretty solid if unspectacular. The ideal way to spend a lazy weekend on the couch sheltering from the cold weather outside. I think it's fair to say that Iggulden plays loose with the real history of events but I don't begrude his for that. I won't rush to read the next book in the series but I do look forward to see what happens next.

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On 20/11/2021 at 5:34 PM, France said:

The description of the battle in An Infamous Army was used at Sandhurst, the officers training college, as a resource so she must have been accurate.

Never knew that. Interesting!

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