Review: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

This is an impressive book. It’s flawed – many chapters could be significantly reduced without damaging the message, the message is often lost amidst rambling anecdotes – but by golly, this is a man who knows how to research. Facts, quotes, conclusions – it’s all here. Kurt Andersen is a journalist by trade, and the quality shows: the writing flows, the arguments are there, though bloated in places, but I’d rather have a skimmable well written book like this than something inferior.

The book starts with the Founding Fathers, skims through the Wild West, and ends with the 45th President of the USA (by both chronology and ranking). With the verbosity, I did feel the thread was often lost but given the history lessons were still interesting, that’s not at all a bad thing. The conclusion was that unkempt religion, unlike the European churches which are reigned in by the controlling powers, allowed people to express themselves uniquely, accepting their own truths and realities.

A fantastic book, highly enlightening for both those within Fantasyland and those who are out.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall

I’m a bit torn with this book. I read it to the end, and did enjoy it, but the second half was a struggle and I skimmed a fair bit towards the end. The problem is that this is a first person psychological thriller, so you’re close to the thoughts of the antagonist, and those thoughts became very repetitive and predictable very early on. Another down vote for me was the final third turned into a courtroom drama, something not mentioned at all in the blurb.

Still, some nice writing, better than a three, so rounding up to a 4.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

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Review: Olive, Again (Olive Kitteridge, #2) by Elizabeth Strout

I wasn’t aware that “Olive, Again” was a sequel until I came to write this review – I thought the “, Again” was because Olive Kitteridge appears in each chapter of this connected collection of short-stories, sometimes the focus, other times just passing through. I didn’t feel I’d missed anything by not reading the first book, this sequel is perfect standalone. 

Elizabeth Strout comes from the Anne Tyler school of writing – small town America, every day characters, and perfect observations of their habits and foibles. This book is marvellously understated. The writing is basic, no frills, but says just what it needs to say – and like Anne Tyler, what isn’t said is equally as important.

Wonderful, charming, highly recommended.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.

How to Have Meaningful Conversations by Sarah Rozenthuler

This book doesn’t discuss day-to-day conversations, what I was expecting, but the Big Conversations (used by Sarah throughout the book) – those chats where the outcomes can save marriages, get that promotion, or start a new way of life. The book started slow, a few too many anecdotes from Sarah’s past, but once it kicked into gear there are some interesting themes, all clearly explained with case-studies. An interesting read, a good 4*!

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

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Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

This book has all the cliches of prison books and films – the framed innocent, the beatings and sexual abuse, corruption and murder – but the most alarming is that this is based on true events over a 100 -year span at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Various reforms outlawed certain abuses, but corrupt regimes are always able to find new forms of torture.

This is an excellent book, mixing the messages of Martin Luther King with the protagonist’s sufferings, well crafted and very good at capturing time&place. My only complaint, hence the four stars, is the ending. The twist was unnecessary and seemed very disjointed, especially after meeting the old friend in the bar after the marathon. I felt it didn’t add to the story, it was just a distraction.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

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Review: The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

Naomi Wood is a very skilled writer – her prose flows like a river, beautiful sentences with wonderful word choices. Her words are lyrical, beats pulsing through the page, all playing in harmony to make the reading a joy. I suspect I’d get pleasure reading her to-do list.

When I finished The Hiding Game, I put it down and decided I enjoyed it. I read it fast, ‘cover’ to ‘cover’ (doesn’t work with e-books) in a couple of days, which is very quick for me (certainly helped by being on holiday!). The problem is that when I considered why I enjoyed it, it was all entirely down to the writing. When I reflected on the story, my main thought was, “Is that it? Not much happened there.”

The basic story is six friends meet at the Bauhaus during the rise of the Nazis. I knew it was abolished by the Nazis as the contemporary, degenerate, style conflicted with their preference for the neoclassical. However, this didn’t come across strongly – the thrust of the book was on the friendships – and as things turned sour, it seemed Naomi hardened on those friendships instead of pursuing what it must have been like living in fear of those days; I never got the sense of being in that period, the tensions and distrust. My main complaint was when that fear was ratcheted up, the book ended abruptly – the conclusion seemed rushed, the betrayals insignificant.

I did enjoy the art descriptions, that was very nicely done, even the story was well executed, but I felt the plot needed more tension, stronger betrayals, and more sense of time&place. I’ll definitely look out for future books from Naomi, she’s got a strong future ahead of her.

3 for the plot, 5 for writing – 4 overall – a very enjoyable read with a few flaws.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

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Review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

This is an excellent book, explaining the tricks of the medical industries, how they can work around the regulator bodies, and how the journalists aren’t censoring their wild claims. There have been a few recent scandals, the MMR and MRSA, which are pulled apart here – showing how the only ‘scandal’ was how people who should know better allowed wild, unfounded claims to escalate. Very entertaining, always interesting, well worth a read.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: The Byzantine World War by Nick Holmes

The oddly titled Byzantine World War mostly covers the rule of Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes and his betrayal and untimely death at the hands of the Doukas family, which led to the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire. The book continues with a brief continuation into the Crusades, with the Fourth Crusade actually sacking Constantinople, the Empire’s seat of power. Oddly titled because the battles and politics were centred around the Levant and modern day Turkey – European and Islamic mercenaries were used, such as Saxons, Normans, Franks and the Uzes, but a ‘world war’ is a adding marketing grandeur!

This is an excellent book. Holmes’s style is chatty without being whimsical, and his conclusions are garnered from multiple sources, even contradicting some well-established theories. I especially enjoyed the political back story running throughout, how incompetent, self-serving schemers were willing to destroy a leader even though he was the last hope of a declining empire. It reminded me of the UK’s Brexit – populist politicians whipping up the country to commit national suicide.

A very good book, very readable, and very engaging.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

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Review: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

Safi Bahcall was a recent guest on the Tim Ferriss podcast. He told interesting stories, like his first date with his wife-to-be, though she believed it to be a business meeting, and how he’d sit in a bar for hours studying a single page of a book to appreciate the use of language. He came across well, charming and engaging, knowledgeable but with humility, so I bought the book he came to plug. And, yep, the book comes across exactly the same way – friendly but hugely interesting.

Loonshots are crazy ideas that die at least three times, are neglected for lack of deployment opportunity until they get reinvented for another purpose and deliver innovative solutions. The book is full of great stories and examples, from radar and sonar, microchips and PARC creations, to the mistakes that prevent people like Jobs from initially succeeding, to how you can structure organisations to allow them to occur (as Jobs finally discovered) – all engagingly explained with a congenial writing style.

An immensely interesting read, highly recommended.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver

This is an intelligent book – from the language, to the character observations and even the clever sub-title (it really is short stories sandwiched between two novellas!). Few people are able to form characters like Shriver, she catches their nuances, their foibles and their strengths, and this makes their behaviour and motivations all the more believable. Some of the stories are little bloated and could’ve benefited from a trim, and I’m a keen reader with a good vocabulary, but I found myself reaching for the dictionary a bit too much – I like the philosophy of keeping prose clear and easily understandable, not attempt to impress the reader with the breadth of your language. Still, very enjoyable, and highly recommended. 5 out of 5!

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.