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.

See review on Goodreads.

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.

Review: Time and How to Spend It: The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days by James Wallman

James Wallman’s Time and How to Spend It is a mixed bag. I found the first half a struggle – trying to overlay a book structure onto your holiday arrangements seems great in theory, but in reality no-one does, or would do, that. Plus, the anecdotes seem shoe-horned into places where they didn’t belong, with a few even seemingly unrelated to the point being make. The writing was wordy and too chummy for describing intelligent lifestyle improvements where a succinct idea economically stated would have a greater impact – it felt as though he wasn’t sure who his audience was. I was on the point of putting the book down, but the second half started resonating with me – topics like status and significance I felt were insightful and helpful. A good read, but you may find like me, some chapters are very skippable.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

Summer Crossing is one of those books that aspiring writers bang out, then, when they re-read it, realise it’s tosh and cast it aside. All great writers have these novels – Stephen King has a few, even J. K. Rowling progressed two novels before abandoning them. Unfortunately for Truman Capote, several years after his death this was found. There is good argument for its release – Capote is an American icon, associated with guys and dolls and rich kids swigging martinis. But there is an even greater reason for it not to be – he didn’t want it published. Yep, there are moments where his creativity and brilliance come through, but the novel is thin – a kind of warm up for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – it’s heavily over-written and he clearly hadn’t heard the phrase “show don’t tell”. An interesting read for historical reasons, but, given it’s shortness, it’s telling that I still skimmed towards the end.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

Because We Say So is a collection of Noam Chomsky’s essays and speeches from the period roughly from 2011 to 2014. Individually, they’re interesting, considered criticisms of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The problem is that collectively, they’re very repetitious – all discussing the same themes of how USA and Israel are the regional troublemakers, and not Iran as those two like to suggest. I would’ve preferred more variety in the essays, as by about two-thirds through, I put this down as I felt this collection had little left to say. But, as individually the essays are informative, unfair to give less that 4 stars.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I haven’t read science fiction for a while. I used to love Clarke and Asimov as a teenager, chuckled at Douglas Adams then had a lull until I was gifted Dune a few years ago. Having just finished Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Walking to Aldebaran, I can see myself looking for more sci-fi novels, and certainly more of his.

His writing is tight – a strong voice with credible characters (well, mostly just the one) and enough exposition to keep it interesting without hand-feeding the reader. The novella is rather far fetched, even for science fiction – the gateways in the Knossos like labyrinth, unrestricted by time and place, are fine, but the roaming aliens seemed a push too far for me. But, don’t think too hard and just enjoy the quality of the writing.

A very solid 4 stars, and a taster that will definitely get me reading more of the author’s works.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life by Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki has had an interesting life, from the early days of Apple, having his shoes polished by Richard Branson, through to turning down the role of Yahoo! CEO (in the days when Yahoo! was still relevant), so there are a few rich seams of stories to tell. Wise Guy is effectively an autobiography with a veneer of self-help – each anecdote of his life is followed with a wisdom section, practical takeaways that we, the readers, can apply to our lives.

Some of these are interesting, such as there’s nothing wrong with being shallow – choose any motivation that works for you – his was the desire to own fast cars to impress the women, but if it gets you pushing yourself, keeps you producing your best work, then so be it. These become a little stretched towards the end yet his likeability and enthusiasm carry the book.

An enjoyable, easy read, from a master of his craft!

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

“Reasons to be Cheerful” is the first book by Nina Stibbe that I’ve read, It doesn’t start anywhere, or go anywhere even, but it was a fun, light, holiday kind of book. The book follows the dramas of Lizzie – it’s very much fiction, and by the end I wanted her to exist, with her common sense and straightforwardness, someone simple but layered, kind and principled. Nina has an excellent voice and a very readable style. One to enjoy beside the pool.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.

Review: The Last by Hanna Jameson

Hanna Jameson’s The Last is an interesting one. The plot follows a group of strangers isolated in a remote Swiss hotel when nuclear bombs destroy the world. Few of the guests have little chance of ever going home -airports were destroyed and society rapidly disintegrates – so they make the most of a bad situation and turn the hotel into a new home for the new world order.

The writing was clean, characters varied and interesting, and most of the cliches of the post-apocalyptic genre were nimbly avoided.

My main issue is with the whodunit mystery aspect – it seemed shoehorned in to give the plot a focus, then didn’t go anywhere, and ended with a very contrived conclusion. Also, the theory that the world could be destroyed by nuclear bombs seemed overplayed – yep, long-term damage would be brutal in an all out exchange, but I’m pretty sure few bombs would land in the southern hemisphere meaning large parts of the world would still be inhabitable. At one point in the novel it’s reported Scotland has been destroyed: no-one would level Scotland – the highlands are so sparsely populated you’d only be killing a handful of people with each bomb!

That said, I did enjoy it, a solid 4 stars, just don’t think about the realities too hard or it’ll break your suspension of disbelief.

Book supplied by Netgalley for an honest review.

See review on Goodreads.