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Vanishing Games
Vanishing Games
by Roger Hobbs
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

5.0 out of 5 stars Great sequel, 1 Sept. 2015
This review is from: Vanishing Games (Hardcover)
Vanishing Games follows on from Ghostman, the young crime writer Roger Hobbs’s debut novel. It is possible to read this book without having read the first, and it is even possible to read Ghostman second, since Vanishing Games gives away almost none of its plot. Still, both books are worthy of the genre, and it would be a shame not to read them in order. If anything Vanishing Games improves on the first instalment, nevertheless, bringing his mentor Angela as a second key character alongside the original hero Jack. Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, the novel takes place in and around Hong Kong and gets the two heroes mixed up in a fight between a smuggling ring and the local triads. As usual, the aim is not just to prevail, but to manage to disappear without trace. Vanishing Games has everything one expects from crime writing, it is informed and fast paced and is, sadly, quickly read. I am eagerly awaiting Hobbs’s next piece.


All That Is
All That Is
by James Salter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Not all that, 1 Sept. 2015
This review is from: All That Is (Paperback)
James Salter’s All That Is tells the life story of Philip Bowman, beginning with his experience as a young naval officer during the Pacific war and going into the 1980s. Bowman is courageous but reflective, less macho and more considerate, more inclined towards intellectual pursuits than his comrades. This leads him, after the war, to a career in publishing. But as a successful as Bowman may be, as comfortable as he may find himself in the literary world of New York or the European capitals, he remains an innocent among women. From a failed, childless marriage, he moves on to a string of affairs in which he often ends up a victim, until he acquires, belatedly, a greater sense of perspective. The book falters a little half way through but then bounces back, and perhaps a three-star rating is somewhat stingy. Yet the plot tends to get lost in multiple side stories apparently designed to add colour to the cast of characters, and these tend to confuse without providing that much social insight. And while this is written with finesse and the occasional wit, neither is All That Is, worthy of, say, the psychological depth of a Saul Bellow. Salter’s novel is very readable, but while entertaining most of the time it ends up feeling slightly pointless.


Nemesis Games: Book 5 of the Expanse
Nemesis Games: Book 5 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Bridging the expanse, 31 July 2015
I found Nemesis Games, the fifth instalment in James Corey's Expanse series, a mild disappointment in that it appears to be mostly a bridging novel, intended to fill a gap between the previous Cibola Burn and a sixth book that is yet to come. Readers should be warned that the alien plot, the rings, and stellar expansion are effectively dropped in this novel - this is no spoiler - in favour of character deepening for the crew members of the Rocinante that have become the heroes of the series. There is a wider plot, of course, involving the politics of the solar system - and here it would be a spoiler to write more - but this comes out as somewhat of an excuse, and even that ends up as effectively unfinished. The series is moreover taking a rather dystopian turn, something that may not be to the taste of all readers. Finally, the authors are at risk of making a fetish of the Rocinante crew members, making it increasingly difficult to let one of them die whilst at the same time increasingly unlikely that they should survive all this. The Expanse series seems set to beat the record of the longest sci-fi set of books since Asimov's Foundation, as it looks far from done with this novel. I intend to continue with it as future instalments come out, even if Nemesis Games did not quite live up to earlier volumes.


Cibola Burn: Book 4 of the Expanse
Cibola Burn: Book 4 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.54

4.0 out of 5 stars Through the rings, 31 July 2015
Cibola Burn is the fourth book in James Corey's Expanse series, a series that seems set to beat the record of the longest sci-fi set of novels since Asimov's Foundation, since it now counts five volumes and shows no sign of nearing the end. Cibola Burn lives up to the quality of the initial trilogy, moreover, picking up where the alien rings were made available for travelling to and exploring new worlds. The crew of the Rocinante, led by captain James Holden, is now firmly in the place of resident heroes. A new world, named Ilus, has begun to be colonised, but predictably who is to do the job is disputed, with a scientific team backed by private muscle fighting for the privilege with a ramshackle group of Belter colonists. Holden is called in to arbitrate, but of course Ilus is not empty anyway, having once belonged to the creators of the rings. Fast-paced and richly characterised, Cibola Burn is a worthy instalment in the series.


Can You Forgive Her? (English Library)
Can You Forgive Her? (English Library)
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Trollope's pride and prejudice, 10 July 2015
Can You Forgive Her? is the first in the six-novel Palliser series, a group of books brought together by a set of common characters, but that does not need to be read in order. The best in the series are probably the two Phineas Finn novels: Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, in which Trollopes elaborates in most depth on the favourite themes that are the British political world and London high society. Can You Forgive Her? is a sensitive and engrossing novel, however. The book has Alice Vavassor for heroine, a spirited young woman of means looking for a role in life. Alice is engaged to the country squire and scholar John Grey, but she remains attracted to her more sulphurous, penniless cousin, George Vavassor. Such is the dilemma in a nutshell, though as always happens in Trollope, there are many sub-plots and a quite wide cast of characters. Indeed, this novel makes a lot of the Pallisers themselves: the young Glencora and the future chancellor of the exchequer Plantagenet, more than all the other books in the series to which they give their name except for The Prime Minister. There is also the highly entertaining story of Ms Greenow, Alice's widowed older cousin, and her pursuit by the farmer Cheesacre and the army captain Bellfield. Alice's story, however, is told with great sensitivity and, mixing with matters of money and politics, is rich and complex in its own right. Trollope, though a male writer, was indeed uniquely perceptive of women's fragile position in Victorian society and to their difficulties, and Can You Forgive Her? qualifies as a sort of Pride and Prejudice sixty years on. The book, finally, can be long-winded (do we really need a thrity-page description of a fox hunt in every one of the novels in the series?), no-doubt because it was serialised and therefore paid for according to length. It remains engaging and a pleasure to read, nevertheless, until the end.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 25, 2015 1:08 PM BST


The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Blackwell History of the World)
The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Blackwell History of the World)
by C. A. Bayly
Edition: Paperback
Price: £22.49

2.0 out of 5 stars A difficult birth, 30 Jun. 2015
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Global history has become hugely fashionable in the last decade or so, and alongside Pomeranz's Great Divergence, Bayly's The Birth of the Modern World is one of its leading titles. Essentially, the book argues that the modern world was not, contrary to established wisdom, of purely Western creation. Or, more precisely, Bayly argues that the rise of modernity was a multi-centred affair until the very last decade of the nineteenth century and early twentieth, when Western domination became more marked. My problem, though, is not so much with the argument as with the way it is made. The book is turgid, laboured, and I have had to force myself to read until the end. It also packs surprisingly little depth in its near five hundred pages. Indeed, many of the examples chosen to illustrate Bayly's point, taken from a global range, are often deployed very superficially and with little regard for their historical complexity, so that the book tends to read like an extended treatise.

The second, more fundamental issue is that Bayly studiously refrains, at the beginning, to explain what he means by modernity. I suppose the intention was to let a pattern emerge and the question answer itself, but in practice this fails to happen, and the book tends to read like a very broad survey or compendium of surveys. Modernity emerges as a laundry list of features: organised commerce, industrialisation, urbanisation, powerful states featuring strong administrations, 'world' religions with missionary movements, and even certain ideas and artistic trends. But this is to describe, not to explain, and in the process the contributions of non-Western societies gets lost, a matter of me-too-ism rather than original role.

And this is also the third problem with The Birth of the Modern World, namely that in its eagerness to raise awareness of non-Western trends, it tends to mix anything and everything. The radical Enlightenment as contributing factor to the French revolution and what followed, for example, are compared to mandarin contestation in eighteenth-century Qing China. The question, though, is to what extent this literati contestation was anything very new, and conversely what influence it actually had over the Qing collapse of the mid-nineteenth century. Just as and perhaps more interesting points might have been made about Chinese freedom of expression and political contestation as antecedents to their European, Enlightenment versions, but this is lost in the effort to make the Qing events count more. A related problem, finally, is that inevitably on such a broad topic, the narrative is drawn from secondary sources. This makes for a very derivative, and often insufficiently discerning analysis, for example on economic matters. The best parts of The Birth of the Modern World remain those that deal with Asia and Africa or the Middle East, and for this material I am giving the book two stars. The book is dry, theoretical, and derivative, though, and it is an absolute struggle to read.


Decoded
Decoded
by Mai Jia
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.05

4.0 out of 5 stars Fairly cryptic, 27 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: Decoded (Paperback)
Mai Jai's debut novel Decoded may be many things, but it is not a spy novel. To some extent it is historical, but it really is a half-psychological, half-philosophical tale. If you expect some sort of cliff-hanger, some mystery in which it is revealed, in a stunning reversal at the end, that such and such character was always a behind-the-scenes puppeteer, you will be disappointed. The story is that of Rong Jinzhwen, a neglected youth from a family of brilliant academics, whose mathematical genius is discovered in his adolescence. Jinzhwen does not necessarily have the personality of a recluse, but circumstances contrive to make him so, and for his fragility to match the depth of his mental abilities. Part of the book is about code-breaking, but the it is essentially written in the style of a biography. At the same time, it is a meditation on genius and the nature and meaning of exceptionality.

Mai Jai's idiosyncratic style contributes to making the novel hard to place. It not so much that the narrative is interrupted with interviews of some of the protagonists, drawing the plot away from the format of a simple thriller and more towards the fictional biography it aims to be. The narrator's voice simply tends to jump around, from one topic to another, from action to general considerations at the oddest moments, from realistic to entirely off-beat scenes, like a cameraman changing lenses mid-way through shooting. Perhaps it is the effect of translation, perhaps Mai Jai aimed to mark his novel as specifically Chinese, an impression that also arises from its very orthodox political ambience. Decoded is an interesting work, but all this nevertheless makes for something of a curate's egg, and at the same time I would only give it a weak four stars.


Gai-Jin: The Third Novel of the Asian Saga: A Novel of Japan
Gai-Jin: The Third Novel of the Asian Saga: A Novel of Japan
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Sequel to Shogun, 22 May 2015
Clavell is good, but it's hard to match Shogun, the original in his Asian Saga series. While Gai-Jin is not a direct sequel to either Tai Pan or Shogun whether in plot or in its central characters, I highly recommend that you try these two other books in the series before you read Gai-Jin, as enough is said in this third book that it will spoil the first two for you.

Anyway, while Shogun had to do with struggle over the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Gai-Jin takes place 250 years later, as Japan is confronted with serious encroachment and the threat of colonisation by the European powers, in the mid-nineteenth century. As usual there is a wide caste of characters and multiple sub-plots, all entwined to make the story the page-turner that it is. The successor to the Tai Pan of the preceding book, Malcom Struan, finds his life threatened after a Samurai attack, while at the same time he is being pursued by the ruling beauty of the foreign community at Yokohama, the penniless French adventuress Angelique. The community itself is a crab's nest of intrigue among its various foreign consuls and spies. Meanwhile, on the Japanese side, the Tokyo-based shogunate is at threat both from a resurgent emperor and an independent, terroristic Samurai movement supported by some of Japan's most powerful local lords, with all the back-stabbing, and indeed front-stabbing, that this can be expected to entail.

The book, finally, has a quite good historical basis, and many of its characters as well as situations are based on people and events that actually existed or took place. In this sense, it is stronger as a historical novel than Tai Pan, which is sometimes quite approximative. The central theme remains Japan's refusal to engage with outsiders, though, and on that count, while his purpose serves the plot well, Clavell probably exaggerates the Japanese xenophobia - actually, in the pre-Meiji era, key Japanese thinkers and political actors seem to have admired European civilisation, especially British, and the book is probably not to be taken at face value as to contemporary mores.


The Oxford History of the French Revolution
The Oxford History of the French Revolution
by William Doyle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Reference on the French revolution, 22 May 2015
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William Doyle’s History of the French Revolution it the best in the genre because it is the most honest and is well written, comprehensive, and informed by up-to-date research. On a subject that, two hundred years later and counting, remains surprisingly controversial – or perhaps not surprisingly, as it has to do with the nature of France itself – no one matches Doyle’s precise, noncommittal voice. The book, moreover, stretches from the last decade of the ancien régime and into the consulate, providing valuable context to the central revolutionary phase of 1789-99. While it is detailed enough to do justice to the rich and varied sequence of events and cast of significant characters, it indulges in no jargon and is easy to follow. It is far superior, finally, to crowd-pleasers such as Schama and to the semi-hagiographies produced by many French historians. For students and for the general reader alike, this is the book to read.

As additional background, whether for students or for the general reader interested in the twists and turns of the historiography on the topic, I recommend François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution (1981) and TCW Blanning’s The Rise and Fall of the French Revolution (1996).


Munich the Price of Peace
Munich the Price of Peace
by Telford Taylor
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The reference on Munich, 27 April 2015
At 1,000 pages or so, it's hard to pretend that Telford Taylor's Munich: The Price of Peace is for the general public. If you are looking for a narrative account, with focus on Chamberlain and British diplomacy, then that is David Faber's Munich, The 1938 Appeasement Crisis. If you are a student or want something more in-depth and covering better French and German politics, however, Taylor's book is the reference on the diplomacy of Munich. The book includes, moreover, a detailed prelude on 1930s international politics, so that it also functions as an excellent overview of that decade. Its information on the diplomacy leading to Munich is extremely detailed, and there is some - though there could have been more - military information. My only reproach, indeed, is that the book sticks very closely to diplomatic reporting and bargaining, and Taylor might have taken more of an outside view on the military balance.

Taylor, an American lawyer, was a Counsel for the Prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials before becoming the author of several history books, most of them dealing with WWII. He had fought in the war, and he went on to become an opponent of both McCarthyism and the Vietnam war. Since the book was published in 1979, it could not factor in later research, in particular the important Hugh Ragsdale The Soviets, the Munich crisis, and the coming of World War II.


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