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Brian's Book Log - Ongoing

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6 hours ago, willoyd said:


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?!

I haven’t read anything else by Rebanks but the info on the covers sounded too interesting for me to put back. I picked up Islands of Abandonment to look at it as it was in a prominent display near the checkout. One of the staff saw me and told me he thought it was really good. The staff in my local Waterstones have always been spot on with their recommendations to me and to complete to BOGOHP offer I had to choose another book so I went with The Sanatorium. 

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Update time. I've really struggled to read in the last month. For a change it's not down to a lack of mojo or wanting this time but stress. 


Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik (3/5)

This is a non-fiction book published in 2019 about how private education is the defining who gets positions of power in the UK. It goes through just how many politicians come from these circles and how their education leads them to believe in their own hype and ability. It also digs into how many people who went to these schools end up as captains of industry and how it is a closed 'mates' network with outsiders never standing a chance despite how well suited to the roll they may be. The book was published shortly after Boris Johnson became prime minister and a lot of Verkaik's observations of how he operates has borne out in the following years. 


Sirens by Joseph Knox (4/5)

Detective Aidan Waits makes a huge mistake at work which effectively leads to the end of his career. He is given a last chance of sorts, an undercover job which although is handed out by his boss, effectively leaves him on his own. The daughter of an MP runs away from home and is hanging around a known criminal who has a history of attracting young women who then go missing. Can Waits find out what is going on without ending up 'missing' himself?

I knew nothing about this book before deciding to buy it a few years ago and it has sat on my bookcase ever since. It wasn't until I finished the book that I realised it Knox's first book and it is a very good debut in my opinion. None of the characters are particularly good or bad, they are all shades of grey and some times the criminals end up being more moral than the traditional good guys. The plot is pretty complex, especially as we get to the climax of the story, but not to the point where it ever gets out of hand. A word of warning though, this is very dark in places. Knox goes to areas that a lot of crime writers understandably avoid but he does so in an appropriate way without being needlessly sensationalist just for the sake of it.


The Mauritanian by Mohamedou Ould Slahi (3/5)

The cover of my copy eagerly proclaims 'now a major motion picture'. I wonder how many people are swayed by this? Anyway, this is an updated edition of a book previously published as Guantanimo Diary. It was written by Slahi while he was held captive for 14 years without ever been charged with a crime. To make matters worse he was granted release in 2010 but due to appeals and delays he wasn't released until 2016. Reviewing this is difficult for me. The content is remarkable, but the writing is nothing special and often drifts into being mundane and repetitive. I guess the best thing about it for me was the questions that I found myself considering while I was reading it. It is clear to me that the US government crossed lines of acceptable detention but where that line lies depends on your outlook on security. In my mind torture is never acceptable though.


The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell (3/5)

As the global financial crisis approached in 2007 an isolated university student decided that he would be a modern Robin Hood and start to rob financial institutions and give the money to those who needed it most. As highlighted by the subsequent police investigation, Stephen Jackley went undetected for so long because he did not fit any of the usual characteristics of an armed robber. He had no criminal background, he was in the wrong age profile, and he wasn't in any DNA database. 

Following his eventual arrest in America, Jackely was diagnosed as having Aspergers. Machell digs into what happened and why Jackely thought that he wasn't doing any harm. Machell uses his interviews with Jackely as the primary source for the book but also interviewed others involved such as his fellow students and the detective who headed up the investigation. Interestingly enough, the detective doesn't buy some of Jackely's claims about the motivations behind his actions. This adds a good alternative dimension to think about as the book comes to an end.


A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion (2/5)

This book is the story of two American women in the invented Central American country of Boca Grande. One of the women is a trophy wife of sorts and the other has a daughter who runs away and joins a terrorist organisation. I can't really say too much else about this as I found it to be pretty incoherent. There isn't really a plot and I actively disliked every character in the book. The only saving grace was that some of the prose is pretty good otherwise it would have got one star from me.




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  • 2 months later...

It's been quite a while since my last update. Moving house has really thrown my reading off and I've only read one book in the last month or so. The who John Gardner books I finished some time in March.


Nobody Lives Forever - John Gardner (4/5)

No Deals, Mr Bond - John Gardner (3/5)


Tunnel 29 - Helena Merriman (4/5)

A non-fiction book based around a BBC Podcast about one of the escape tunnels dug between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Before reading this book I knew there were a number of tunnels dug but I never knew that the construction and susequent escape was all captured on film. Merriman has done a great job in finding and interviewing the people involved. The tale is told in sequential time order and the tension really builds as we reach the climax. Since reading the book I have watched the NBC documentary from 1962 and I am working my way through the podcasts. Highly recommended.

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I seem to be on a bit of a non-fiction run at the moment which often happens when I'm struggling to get into anything. I picked up A Storm of Swords for the first time in ages today so that will be my focus for a while.

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Very slowly I have been managing to read more as the year progresses. Most of it has been non-fiction as for some reason I find it easier to get into a non-fiction book when my reading mojo is out of whack. Here is a brief summary of some of what I have read since my last update. There are a few other books which I will write more about when I have a little more time.


Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt (2/5)

This book has been generally marketed as explaining why we should all be life long beginners and be searching out new things to learn. I had hoped that it would look at ways to tackle new skills and the different approaches required for learning mental and physical tasks. Instead the author spends the entire book talking about his personal experiences when learning how to play chess or learning to surf. These were relatively entertaining to read but not really what I why I picked up this book in the first place.


The Barbell Prescription by Jonathon Sullivan (4/5)

Probably not the kind of book that many if anyone else on the forum would read. This book explains what strength training approach is best suited to those over 40. I found this to be a really well written book with loads of good information. Although not the most scholarly book ever written it also benefitted from the author dipping into studies at times to back up his ideas.


So Much Things to Say by Roger Steffens (4/5)

Last month I went to watch the musical Get Up Stand Up! which is all about the life of Bob Marley. The show was really good and I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in Bob Marley to go and see it. After the show I wanted to know more about Bob Marley but there are a lot of books to try and choose from. In the end I went for this one as it is described as an 'oral history' and based on interviews with those who were around him during his life. One thing I really liked about this is that you get conflicting views on certain events from those who were there. It is left up to the reader to make a judgement (or not) on what they think the truth is. At points Steffens does note as to why he believes there may be differing opinions and why some may be more valid than others but I always felt that he did this in a fair and balanced way.

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I'm glad you've found some good books recently! That always helps with the reading motivation. 


On 25/06/2022 at 9:52 AM, Brian. said:

Get Up Stand Up! which is all about the life of Bob Marley.

I haven't heard of this but my dad is a big Bob Marley fan, so I'll definitely be recommending it to him!

On 25/06/2022 at 9:52 AM, Brian. said:

One thing I really liked about this is that you get conflicting views on certain events from those who were there. It is left up to the reader to make a judgement (or not) on what they think the truth is.

I would also really like this - it's interesting not only in terms of determining a balanced view of true events, but also of looking at how people might experience/remember things differently. 

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1 hour ago, Jane said:

Good  evening! Is this topic is active now?


Yes, this topic is active. It's a log of what I've read and my thoughts about my reading. I welcome comments from everyone so feel free to post.

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I've read a few books since my last update and despite thinking I would stay away from the Bond books for a while I have read another two in the extended series.


Scorpius by John Gardner (3/5)

This book starts off with the death of a young woman. When the police search the body the only thing she has on her is a bit of paper with a phone number on it. That number belongs to James Bond. James is called into HQ by M to be told the news and on the way somebody tries to run his car off the road. It turns out that Bond only knows the woman in question a little but further investigation shows that she is a member of a cult called The Meek Ones. As James digs deeper into this group they start to unleash terrorist attacks across Britain.

Like many of the Gardner written Bond books I've read so far, this works well in places and not so well in others. As we learn about the ultimate goal of The Meek Ones towards the end of the book it feels pretty rushed and runs out of steam a little bit. This book also straddles the Fleming/Movie Bond line without really deciding which side it wants to come down on. This isn't a bad thing but it's not handled as well as it could have been.


We are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins (4/5)

This is a non-fiction book all about how the investigative reporting agency Bellingcat came about and how they developed their internet based techniques. I picked this book up based on the blurb on the back as I hadn't heard of Bellingcat. The author started out using social media posts and online sources available to all to confirm stories cicrling around the internet. The book is really well written and I found it very interesting reading about how the techniques developed over time. Bellingcat is now a successful company but it is clear that Higgins wants to keep going in the same spirit and without compromising their initial aims. The cases are also fascinating and include the Salisbury Novichok incident, Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the Charlottesville attacks.


SAS Italian Job by Damien Lewis (4/5)

In the winter of 1944 the Allies decided to parachute a small team into Italy to work with, and train local partisans, in an attempt to turn the battle for Italy in their favour. As with the other Damien Lewis books this is written just like a thriller and I couldn't help but love the main characters he picks to base the book around. One of the officers was to fly with the soldiers but told under no circumstances was he allowed to parachute into Italy. He felt that he couldn't allow his men to go into Italy and do something he wasn't to do himself. So he decided to parachute with his men and told the flight crew to report that he fell out of the aircraft knowing full well that no one would believe it. It is stories like this that really bring the SOE operations of WWII to life and the kind of people who were asked to carry them out.


Win, Lose, or Die by John Gardner (2/5)

Book #8 in the Gardner Bond series. In this book James Bond rejoins the Navy to serve on an aircraft carrier as head of security during the visit of British, American, and Russian admirals during a NATO exercise. While the exercise is under way there will be a vital security meeting by the leaders of the UK, America, and Russia. This book definitely lines very far into the movie side of the Fleming/Movie Bond line. The story is packed with action and involves Bond flying a Harrier on more than one occasion. This is one of the weakest Gardner books so far and feels like he has gone through a list of Bond tropes and ticked them off in order. I don't have a major issue with Bond books leaning or borrowing style from the movies but this goes far too far into movie land. I'm really starting to miss SPECTRE as well because although the organisation in this book, BAST, isn't terrible they never have the menace that SPECTRE carries.

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Part 2 of the update, part 3 to come.


Brokenclaw by John Gardner (2/5)

While in British Columbia, Bond comes across Lee Fu-Chu and is intrigued by this strange man. He is half Chinese, half Blackfoot, incredibly wealthy, and as is common for villains (and I hate the stereotype) has a deformity. After this chance encounter Bond is tasked with investigating the kidnapping of several scientists who were working on a submarine detection system. 

This is the worst of the Gardner Bond books by quite some margin and I seriously considered giving it a 1 star review. The last few books, and the one I am currently reading are very poor efforts and if I wasn't a completist I would have given up on finishing the series by now. Brokenclaw is a pretty terrible bad guy. Add the fact that Bond is now falling in love with all the women he meets and you get books which are inconsistent with who Bond is meant to be. I am currently reading the next book in the series and I think I dislike that even more than this.


Living Better by Alastair Campbell (4/5)

I heard a podcast interview with Alastair Campbell a few years ago where he talked about writing a book detailing his experiences with depression. This is that book. I have never suffered with depression but recently have had personal experience with the devastating effects of the illness on those who suffer from it and those around them. I've had this book for a while and decided this would be a good time to read it in an attempt to understand it a little better. Campbell is brutally open in his telling of how his depression manifests itself and how it has impacted on others in his family. This wasn't a book I could read in public as it had me in tears on multiple occasions. It is hard reading but thoroughly recommended. 



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This update should bring my up to date with what I have read so far this year. It has felt like I've barely picked a book up this year but I've still finished 31 books so far.


The Snakehead by Patrick Radden Keefe (3/5)

Last year I read another book by Keefe, all about Northern Ireland and the troubles. I really enjoyed it and felt that it was very well researched and written. This book is about New York's Chinatown and the underground crime bosses who ran not only the area but the immigration routes from Fujian to America. I found this a fascinating read which is equally as well written and researched as the previous book of his that I've read. The story is pretty harrowing at times and presented 'as is', warts and all. I will be keeping an eye open for his other books whenever I'm in a bookshop as I really like what I've read from him so far.


Barbarian Days by William Finnegan (3/5)

This book won the 2016 Pulitzer prize for Biography and Autobiography which is how I became aware of it. I don't know much about surfing but I have read the excellent Stealing the Wave by Andy Martin. Barbarian Days focuses on the life of Finnegan and his obsession with surfing. As the book progresses the story travels from youthful exuberance, to adventurous young adulthood, all the while anchored by his love of waves.

I thought in the main this was a pretty good read but I felt like I wanted more from it. As expected there are loads of descriptions of surfing and places he surfed but these start to become repetitive. He also expects the reader to already know some of the terms associated with surfing, a glossary would have helped. I can see why this book won the prize but it didn't wow me in the way it has wowed others.


The Man from Barbarossa by John Gardner (2/5)

After the crushing disappointment of Brokenclaw I decided to plow on with the extended James Bond series. This is the 11th book written by John Gardner and I hoped it was better than his previous effort. This book starts at the end of WWII to set up a story which revolves around a terrorist group called The Scales of Justice who are causing havoc in the Soviet Union. Bond is assigned to a joint operation involving the KGB, French, and Israelis who pose as a camera crew covering a mock war crimes trial.

This book is equally as bad as Brokenclaw and in some aspects probably worse. I almost abandoned this in the early stages as the story just meanders along in a total mess. It is boring, confusing, and the characters are awful. There are so many different characters who are barely developed that it's impossible to care about any of them. The only saving grace is that the ending picks up and finishes with a bit of a flourish. I have read that some people dislike the Gardner books as they move away from the movie Bond and return to the Fleming Bond of the books. I have no issue with this, in fact I like it as the movie Bond often feels too cliched. However I feel that Gardner presents and entirely different Bond from either of these at times with certain things that go entirely against the core characteristics of Bond.


The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomas di Lampedusa (3/5)

I read a few posts on here recently which mentioned this book in positive terms so I decided to pick up a copy to read. The story is about Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina in Sicily who must deal with the changing way of life during the unification of Italy.

Throughout the book we see a man trying to come to terms with a world that is changing around him. He knows that when he dies, his role as prince will never be what it once was. This leaves him in a quandry. Does he become a moderniser and go with the changing times, or does he stick with what he cherishes and risk losing out. His favourite nephew, Tancredi, has joined the rebels and tries to encourage Fabrizio to do likewise but Fabrizio is unsure what to do.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, especially given that it focuses on a period of history I know little about. It didn't grab me in the way it has some here but I am glad I read it. I know there have been several movies made of the story and I really want to watch one of them now.



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