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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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Update time.

 

Samurai by John Mann (3/5)

I picked this up as I thought it was a non-fiction book all about the history of the Samurai. Technically it is, but large parts of it are about one particular samurai, Saigo Takamori. I enjoyed the more general history but I do think the book would have benefited from less Saigo. I guess that I am to blame for that as I should have read the synopsis properly before buying the book. Despite this, I found this to be an entertaining and well written book. I still want to learn more about the history of the Samurai though as I feel I haven't completely scratched this itch.

 

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (5/5)

I'll start with a little disclaimer. I 'read' this by listening to the audiobook performed by Joe Mantegna. I am a bit fan of the movies and in fact re-watched them shortly before starting to the audiobook. I'm not sure if I would say the book is better than the movies (the first two at least) but it more than holds it's own. One thing the book provides that the movie doesn't is more backstory for the main characters. Michael comes across as more sinister in the book and there is far more nuance to people like Sonny. There were a few things I didn't care for. I could have done without the prolonged section on how well endowed Sonny was. The sex scenes in general are cringy at best. I also personally could have done with less story for both Johnny Fontane and Nino Valenti but this is a minor quibble.

 

The Code, The Evaluation, The Protocols by Jocko Willink (1/5)

The author has started his own publishing company and published this 'book'. I suspect that mainstream publishers would turn it down as it is nothing more than an expanded blog post. The info isn't bad but there is no depth to it, no structure, and just doesn't justify its existence as a book. It stinks of someone trying to cash in on their fame while they still can.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (4/5)

I've seen a few positive reviews about this book on my Goodreads feed from people I follow throughout the year so I decided to give this a go. As this is based on a well known Greek myth I had a decent grasp of what was going on but was intrigued to see what Miller was going to do with it. Initially I found the story a little slow going as we see the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles start and then develop. At the time I wished it would hurry up but having finished the book I think this was the right approach. This slow paced development really adds quite a lot of depth to their relationship and explains why they go on to being the men they later become. I've read a few historical fiction novels this year and off the top of my head this is probably the best one out of the lot. I have a habit of avoiding reviews before reading a book but reading them after to see how my feelings match or differ from other readers. This gets a lot of 5 star reviews and although I can see why some people loved it, for me it falls just short. I read that some people were disappointed about the change Miller makes to the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles from the source material but I don't see the big deal. If you don't want these kind of changes, don't read historical fiction.

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At the start of the year I set myself a target of 50 books and I've just finished books 100 and 101. I didn't think I would hit 100 books two years in a row but somehow that is what has happened. I don't think I will set myself a target next year as I want to try and spend more time with individual books rather than racing through them which has happened a few times this year.

 

The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter (3/5)

The basic premise of this book is that the comfortable lifestyles most of us enjoy has been very detrimental to our collective health. It's a premise that I largely believe in but perhaps not to the extent that Easter does. This book is his exploration of the topic framed around a month long extreme back country hunting expedition in the Arctic. One of the things he pushes a lot in the book is the concept of undertaking very big personal challenges once a year. These challenges have two rules. Firstly, it should be hard, the chance of success should be no more than 50%. Secondly, don't die. One of the things that makes success unlikely is going in under prepared, especially when he talks about physical challenges. This is one of the points where we disagree about things. It is this kind of thinking which leads to people having to be rescued from remote and dangerous locations. I have personally had to lead a couple off of Kinder Scout in terrible weather because they weren't prepared. Earlier this year a member of mountain rescue in the UK suffered life changing injuries when rescuing some one who went mountain hiking without adequate equipment or training. I agree that people should push their limits and their comfort zone, but when doing this it should be a situation where you don't have to be rescued. Easter also uses phrases like 'studies indicate' a lot throughout the book due to the small amount of research done in some of the areas he looks into. It would have been good if he could have used confirmed, peer reviewed research but I guess if it's not available you have to work with what is out there.

Overall I found this a decent read which raised some interesting ideas.

 

And Away... by Bob Mortimer (5/5)

This is the autobiography of British comedian and entertainer Bob Mortimer. I will put my hands up and admit that i'm lukewarm to the comedy produced by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. I liked Shooting Stars but a lot of the surreal and wacky humour wasn't really my cup of tea. So 'why read the book then?' I hear you ask. Well, like many I have been captivated by TV series Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. I think it's fair to say that this has been an unexpected success, after all, how many people would want to watch two old blokes fishing. As it turns out, the fishing is a sideshow and what makes the TV series so magical is the friendship and honestly between Bob and Paul and their discussions about life. This book contains just this kind of thing. Bob really opens up about how the death of his father affected him growing up and how crippling shyness and depression really hampered his younger years. It is sad reading but it never gets morose and you never feel that Bob wants us to feel sorry for him. He does touch on his TV career but this covers only about 20% of the book which is perfect in my opinion. I wanted to know about Robert Mortimer the person and no Bob Mortimer the entertainer. Humour is thick throughout the book and he had me laughing out loud numerous times.

If you are a fan of the TV show I think you will love this book.

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12 hours ago, Brian. said:

 

And Away... by Bob Mortimer (5/5)

This is the autobiography of British comedian and entertainer Bob Mortimer. I will put my hands up and admit that i'm lukewarm to the comedy produced by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. I liked Shooting Stars but a lot of the surreal and wacky humour wasn't really my cup of tea. So 'why read the book then?' I hear you ask. Well, like many I have been captivated by TV series Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. I think it's fair to say that this has been an unexpected success, after all, how many people would want to watch two old blokes fishing. As it turns out, the fishing is a sideshow and what makes the TV series so magical is the friendship and honestly between Bob and Paul and their discussions about life. This book contains just this kind of thing. Bob really opens up about how the death of his father affected him growing up and how crippling shyness and depression really hampered his younger years. It is sad reading but it never gets morose and you never feel that Bob wants us to feel sorry for him. He does touch on his TV career but this covers only about 20% of the book which is perfect in my opinion. I wanted to know about Robert Mortimer the person and no Bob Mortimer the entertainer. Humour is thick throughout the book and he had me laughing out loud numerous times.

If you are a fan of the TV show I think you will love this book.

 

 

Interesting.  I've been toying with the idea of getting this, as I've enjoyed Gone Fishing, but I have so many books to read at the moment it would probably end up buried in one of my many TBR piles!

 

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11 hours ago, Raven said:

 

Interesting.  I've been toying with the idea of getting this, as I've enjoyed Gone Fishing, but I have so many books to read at the moment it would probably end up buried in one of my many TBR piles!

 

 

I don't know if you are an audiobook user but the audiobook is meant to be pretty good with Bob narrating it himself.

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Time for my final update for 2021. I've had a bit of a strange year reading wise. I feel like I have struggled a bit with my motivation but somehow still finished up 2021 having read almost 36,000 pages over 106 books. The shortest book was The Code by Jocko Willink (93 pages, 1/5), the longest The Arabian Nights by an unknown author (952 pages, 3/5). I've definitely avoided longer books this year as I have struggled for concentration, whether this is down to the ongoing pandemic uncertainty, the creep of my technology use, or something else, I don't know. I do know that having a constant count on my Goodreads home page due to setting a tatget hasn't helped things. For this reason I will not be setting a target for 2022. I want to read more the books I have been avoiding, especially some of the classics I have on my TBR. I am also going to try and avoid buying any more books in an attempt to work through my increasingly large TBR. I know I've had similar intentions in the past regarding my book buying so lets see if I can last longer than a few months this time.

 

These are my final reads of 2021.

 

Enter the Kettlebell by Pavel Tsatsouline (3/5)

Not much to say here. This is a book about training with a kettlebell and ensuring it is done in a productive but safe way. The content is pretty solid but it could have done with more photographs illustrating certain moves. Fortunately it is easy to find instructional videos online to fill in these gaps. The text can also get a bit juvenile at times. Having listened to quite a few interviews of Pavel in the past I suspect it is his way with humour. This works fairly well in spoken interviews but less well in text.

 

Role of Honor by John Gardner - Bond #22 (2/5)

Part of my ongoing aim of reading all the writing in the James Bond series. I wasn't particularly impressed with the 3rd installment from John Gardner and this one follows the same pattern. In this book James goes along with a plot to appear to have left the secret service under a cloud. The idea being that he will be hired by Spectre and can destroy them from the inside. This is such a flawed plot that I can't believe it was signed off by the publishers or the Fleming estate. By this point Bond has been the number one enemy of Spectre for such a long time that they would never buy the idea that he has turned. The story does flip a bit to justify his approach by Spectre but it still feels totally out of place. I really hope the Garner Bond books pick up soon as he wrote 16 of them.

 

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim (3/5)

I picked this book up on a recent shopping trip because the cover grabbed my attention and the plot sounded interesting. We follow Reseng, an assassin who is fed instructions on how to assassinate his targets by a shadowy group of people known only as The Plotters. These instructions have to be followed to the letter and when they aren't trouble usually follows. Inevitably Reseng kills someone in a different manner to his instructions and ends up in a fight for his life. I thought this was a pretty entertaining read but I was left bemused by the "Kill-Bill meets Murakami" claims on the cover. The only real link to Kill-Bill is assassins based in Asia (Korea this time) and the Murakami links are invisible to me. The cover also claims it to be hilariously funny, again this was invisible to me. Ignoring the spurious blurb this is a decent book, which despite having a lot going on never gets hard to follow. I'm not sure I will read any of Un-Su Kim's other books but I don't regret picking this one up.

 

Smart Phone Dumb Phone by Allen Carr (1/5)

I have felt myself using my phone far too often this year and my daily screen time has crept up to 3.5 hours a day. This isn't my first foray into reading about phone or digital use and how it is having a negative effect on us but I was intrigued to find out what new advice Allen Carr and his famed 'easyway' had. If I was asked to sum up this book in one word I would use one my favourite words, bilge. I know Allen Carr's book about stopping smoking has been used by many people to quit smoking and that it is very well respected. What I didn't know is that Carr died in 2006 and that this book is therefore written by John Dicey adapting the Easyway framework to fit. Dicey spends well over half the book trying to convince the reader that Easyway will work, it is the only solution, it will be easy, and all you have to do is follow the instructions. I found myself several times almost shouting at the book to get on with it and tell my the instructions. When we do finally get to the instructions they are pretty shallow with some of them being as simplistic as 'ignore email'. To pad the book out Dicey also often jumps into other technology in particular video games. His advice if you play video games? "Just stop, what are you, a child?" Not only does this have nothing to do with the subject at hand but it also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about the modern use and culture around gaming.

There is the odd bit of good advice such as turning off notifications on all but essential apps and to use 'fetch' instead of 'push' for things like email if you can. However, these few good points don't balance out the trash and I was left feeling that this book is just an attempt to cash in on the Allen Carr name. For anyone reading this who is interested in the subject I wholeheartedly recommend 3 books, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, Irresistible by Adam Alter, and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. None of the these books is solely about our use of mobile phones but all of them cover digital addiction as a whole. All of them are backed by scientific research and all of them offer proper advice on moderation along with the reasons behind this advice.

 

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (4/5)

This book contains 366 (1 a day) Stoic passages across 12 (1 a month) different themes. Each one is then explored in a little more depth with each day taking up a single page in the book. You could read this book in a number of ways but I picked it up and read one page per day over the course of this year. I have read a fair bit about Stoicism but I still found some good stuff in here that I hadn't read before. This is a book that I will keep and revisit and it already has quite a few sticky notes and highlights in it from this year.

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First update of 2022. I started the first two of these in 2021 and a week into the new year I have managed to avoid buying any new books.

 

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre (4/5)

This is a non-fiction about a devoted wife and mother-of-three known to her neighbours as Mrs Burton who lived in the Oxfordshire countryside in the 1940's. On the surface Mrs Burton lives a pretty quiet life and had formed good friendships with the other people in her village. Her children go to the local schools and everything is the picture perfect image of rural life. However, Mrs Burton is living a secret life. Her real name is Ursula Kuczynski, she goes by the codename Sonya and she is in fact a Soviet intelligence officer.

This is a remarkable story about the life of one of the my most successful Soviet spies operating in the 1930's and 1940's. Ursula lived all across the globe spying against the Japanese, Nazis, and eventually helped get the secrets which enabled the Soviets to build a nuclear bomb. As I've come to expect from Macintyre this book is impeccably research and very well written. He balances facts and drama perfectly without either being over the top. Macintyre is the master when it comes to non-fiction writing on espionage in my opinion.

 

Fall: The Story of Robert Maxwell by John Preston (4/5)

In the run up to her trial I recently watched a 3-part documentary about Ghislaine Maxwell. The documentary was nothing to write how about but I was left intrigued by the main focus of the first episode, Robert Maxwell. I remembered a little about him from news reports in 1991 when he was found dead just before the corruption of his empire was revealed. I had seen this book pop up a few times as a recommendation for fans of non-fiction so I decided I had to read it. The book really lived up to it's positive reviews and I really enjoyed it. Preston not only presents the factual side of the story really well but he presents potential reasons why Maxwell was the way he was. He does a good job of covering the humanity of his life without allowing it become an excuse for his behaviour later in life.

 

Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (4/5)

I was inspired to read this by a short review from one of our members, Willoyd. My history of reading ghost or horror stories is hardly what you would call extensive. In fact, if you asked me to name books I had read that could belong in either genre I would struggle to do it even though I know there have been a few. This book is set in 1935 during an attempt for the summit of the Himalayian peak of Kangchenjunga. Having read a lot about modern and historical expeditions in the Himalayas Paver gets the details right and you can tell that she has done her research (she confirms this at the end of the book). The story moves along at a good pace but the real winner here is the atmosphere she manages to create. When needed she creates a feeling of suffocation but is equally adept at making the reader feel the panic of not being able to communciate with someone you can see. There are a few other parts to the story which I thought were handled superbly but I can't really go into without spoilers.

 

I've been lucky to start the year with some great books, long may it continue. I've got two books on the go at the moment, one fiction, one non-fiction. The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle and Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.

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On 07/01/2022 at 11:33 AM, Brian. said:

Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (4/5)

I was inspired to read this by a short review from one of our members, Willoyd.....

 

 

I'm both pleased and relieved you enjoyed it!  I  can also recommend her other ghost novel, Dark Matter, although a word of warning, in that several reviewers feel the two books are far too similar.  I can certainly see why, but actually found I enjoyed them both, Dark Matter perhaps slighly more than Thin Air.  But then I'm a sucker for anything set in the Arctic, or in the Himalaya for that matter!  I'd suggest it worth a try anyway.

Edited by willoyd

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4 hours ago, willoyd said:

 

I'm both pleased and relieved you enjoyed it!  I  can also recommend her other ghost novel, Dark Matter, although a word of warning, in that several reviewers feel the two books are far too similar.  I can certainly see why, but actually found I enjoyed them both, Dark Matter perhaps slighly more than Thin Air.  But then I'm a sucker for anything set in the Arctic, or in the Himalaya for that matter!  I'd suggest it worth a try anyway.

 

After I had finished Thin Air I did read some of the reviews on Goodreads to see how others felt about it and noted the mentions of similarity with Dark Matter. That doesn't put me off wanting to read Dark Matter though so I'll have to see if my library has it in the coming months.

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I think Dark Matter is slightly better, as there is more of a sense of isolation as the story goes on.  Can't say any more of course without spoilers, but it does get seriously creepy!

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Update time.

 

The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle (2/5)

I regularly watch Ben Fogle: Lives in the Wild and one episode had a man called Mark Boyle who lives in Ireland. He decided to live for a year without any money and write a book about it. I find the show fascinating with the people involved ranging from farmers in remote areas to complete hermits living in complete isolation. I have read another book in the past with a similar idea. In How I Lived a Year on Just a Pound a Day Kath Kelly lives in a more urban setting and once her rent is paid she lives for a year spending no more than a pound a day. I found that book a frustrating read because Kelly was inconsistent with her outlook and actions, and she also had a rely on the generosity of others to get by. The same pattern emerges here with Boyle.

Boyle spends the first part of the book telling us what is wrong with capitalism and how money is ruining the world. At this point I largely agree much of what he has to say. It is obvious that the constant need for 'growth' in first world nations is one of the prime drivers behind climate change and environmental damage. There is nothing new here but it is handled well enough and it is primarily this part which earns it any positive marks from me. After this Mark tells us all about his year with no money and how he achieved it. I have an issue with these kinds of books where an author proclaims a very high standard that they have met but when the reader digs into it their are loads of caveats. He lived in a caravan that he was given which he was allowed to park on an organic farm in exchange for a few hours of work a week. He is allowed to use their wifi. He also uses a laptop and a mobile phone but to be entirely fair his electricity is solar generated. Living with no money is great but all these things did cost someone money at some point in time. He managed to do what he did because people gave things to him for free. Sure, he does barter some work for some items but isn't this essentially working for money with the middle part cut out? One big factor that is always missed in these kind of experiences is that he gets to rely on things like health care and infrastructure that require money (taxes) to pay for. A system that although has it's flaws he doesn't contribute to in any way.

He is a very preachy man. Vegans are perfect and anyone who consumes animal products of any kind is evil. He has plenty of fanciful solutions to things but with no practical workable solutions when there are holes in his fanciful ones. He does have a great point about the developed work lacking communities and that this has lead to an increase in people being more selfish. However, the positives are not enough to redeem a book which is idealistic in the extreme.

 

Harvest by Tess Gerritsen (4/5)

Dr Abby DiMatteo is a young resident doctor working for one the best transplant teams in America. She is so promising that she is approached and told that there is the chance she can join the surgery team. This comes with certain benefits including the fact that they will pay off her educational debts. It is really pushed that this opportunity is only open to the very best and only if they are 100% team players. She is very excited in this possibility but notices and anomaly with the way organs are assigned to patients. She has a young patient who is in line for a heart which is then assigned at the last minute to an elderly woman with a rather rich and gobby husband. Abby goes against this and ensures the boy gets the heart. The elderly woman gets a heart the next day and when Abby decides to find out how they found a heart for her so quickly, she soon discovers that something dodgy appears to be going on.

This was the perfect kind of book for me to read during quiet times at work. It doesn't require much concentration, the plot moves along quickly, and the characters are just about good enough. It's not going to rock anyone's world but it is the second Gerritsen book I've read that fulfills everything I ask from a quick entertaining thriller.

 

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (2/5)

This is one of the books that I have promised myself I will pick up and read this year. I avoided anything too long or requiring too much effort last year and this book falls firmly into the category of requiring effort from me. I quite like reading books I find challenging to read as long as I feel that effort has been rewarded. For me, most classic books that I have liked fall into one of two categories. The first category includes books that I find straightforward to read, for me a book like Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example. The other category includes books that require effort due to their language but that I enjoy enough that the effort is worthwhile, A Christmas Carol fits this description for me. Sadly, as much as I wanted to like this book I just couldn't get on with it and I found it a real plod most of the time.

I liked the character of Moll despite her clear character flaws but the way the children are treated isn't great. I think I could have got on better with the writing if there were fewer preaching blocks of text mixed in at times when I just wanted Defoe to get on with it. Although there is a definite timeline, the plot feels quite frenetic and disjointed. I have been looking forward to reading this for years so I feel more disappointed that I perhaps should do.

 

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (4/5)

I think I bought this about 10 years ago but it has sat on my bookcase since then tempting me to pick it up. As I am determined not to buy any new books this year I have started to read things that I've owned for years it was time to finally read it. The book is about the lives of six North Koreans told over a period of about 15 years. During this period of time life in North Korea changed dramatically and included a famine and the death of Kim Il-Sung.

I've read a little about North Korea in the past but this is by far the best book on the subject I have read so far. The six people Demick chose for the book are all very different. A young girls is particularly rebellious and never likes the regime, while another older woman thinks North Korea is run perfectly and the hardships are caused by outside influences. I knew that all the people featured must have escaped from North Korea but it really baffled me as to why the older woman would choose to leave (she was tricked by her family).

Even though the book was written over 10 years ago it never feels out of date and in fact Demick's predictions on how a future leadership battle will play out are exactly what came to pass. This is a really good book for those interested in North Korea.

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On 23/01/2022 at 2:21 PM, Brian. said:

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (2/5)

 The first category includes books that I find straightforward to read, for me a book like Pride and Prejudice is the perfect example. The other category includes books that require effort due to their language but that I enjoy enough that the effort is worthwhile, A Christmas Carol fits this description for me. Sadly, as much as I wanted to like this book I just couldn't get on with it and I found it a real plod most of the time. ... Although there is a definite timeline, the plot feels quite frenetic and disjointed. I have been looking forward to reading this for years so I feel more disappointed that I perhaps should do.

 

I was equally disappointed with Moll Flanders: a real plod describes it exactly: I gave it a 2 star rating too, finding the writing quite wooden. I know it's very early in the genesis of novels, but it didn't wear well IMO, although I'd be interested to try some of his other work to compare. 

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It is heartening to hear that I'm not alone in my experience with Moll Flanders.

 

My aim of not buying any books in 2022 went out of the window in spectacular fashion this afternoon. I popped into Waterstones for a browse and left with the following books

 

  • Crash - J G Ballard
  • A Book of Common Prayer - Joan Didion
  • The Unusual Suspect - Ben Machell
  • Trio - William Boyd
  • The Sanatorium - Sarah Pearse
  • Islands of Abandonment - Cal Flyn
  • English Pastoral - James Rebanks
  • The Mauritanian - Mohamedou Ould Slahi
  • Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In my defence I did donate a big pile of books to the local charity shop so I am net zero in terms of sheer numbers. I had a notion to try and read more fiction this year but I just can't help myself when it comes to interesting sounding non-fiction titles.

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8 hours ago, Brian. said:

I

  • Islands of Abandonment - Cal Flyn
  • English Pastoral - James Rebanks

In my defence I did donate a big pile of books to the local charity shop so I am net zero in terms of sheer numbers. I had a notion to try and read more fiction this year but I just can't help myself when it comes to interesting sounding non-fiction titles.

 

And they are particularly interesting sounding books - I've read Rebanks's first book, and have EP on my shelves. Islands of Abandonment has been recommended to me by several people.It was on BOGOHP at Waterstone's - presume that came into play?!

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