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Abaddon's Gate: Book 3 of the Expanse
Abaddon's Gate: Book 3 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Cracking, 19 Dec 2014
Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in the expanse trilogy by James S.A. Corey, so if you have not read the first two (Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War), stop reading this review here. For those who are looking to move on to the third volume of what currently stands as a quadrilogy (but remains in progress), Abaddon’s Gate flags very slightly in pace from the first two books, but remains en excellent read. Jim Holden and his crew remain at the helm, at least at the beginning of the book, and Miller even makes a comeback. But enough said: the expanse series is consistently good science fiction, and there is every reason to continue with it.


Caliban's War: Book 2 of the Expanse
Caliban's War: Book 2 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking, 19 Dec 2014
Caliban's War is the second book in the expanse trilogy by James S.A. Corey, so if you have not read the first (Leviathan Wakes), stop reading this review here. For those who are looking to move on to the second volume of what currently stands as a quadrilogy (but remains in progress), Caliban's War does not flag in quality or pace from the first book. Jim Holden and his crew remain at the helm, and the proto-molecule has not disappeared. But enough said: the expanse series is consistently good science fiction, and if you enjoyed Leviathan Wakes there is every reason to continue with it.


Leviathan Wakes: Book 1 of the Expanse
Leviathan Wakes: Book 1 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking, 19 Dec 2014
This is the first book in the expanse trilogy by James S.A. Corey, a new science fiction author who is in fact two writers. The plot begins with the hijacking of a spaceship and soon moves on to the discovery of a highly dangerous alien artefact somewhere around Jupiter. Leviathan Wakes is set is an indeterminate but not so far future in which humanity has colonised the solar system, itself culturally and politically split between Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt. The recovery attempt by the pirated ship's second, Jim Holden, soon intersects with an investigation by detective Joe Miller into the disappearance of heroine Julie Mao, daughter of an interplanetary trade magnate. Meanwhile the artefact threatens to run out of control, with horrific consequences.

Leviathan Wakes is well written, with consistent characterisation, imagination, and occasional humour. The gloomy but unflappable Miller works particularly well as an archetype taken from another genre, namely noir, transplanted into a science fiction setting. I also like that it offers a progressive vision of technology, and a sober but in many ways positive peek at the future, unlike the gloomy dystopias that have become fashionable today. While politics remain as fraught as they ever are, and economic relations, there is progress of a sort. And humanity at least seeks to learn from its mistakes. Leviathan Wakes is well worth reading, and though readable as a standalone, it is the first set in a series of novels (running to four to date) of equal quality.


The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany
The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany
by Richard J. Evans
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Reich instalment, 15 Dec 2014
The Coming of the Third Reich is the first instalment in Pr Evans's trilogy on the subject, the second being on the 1930s Reich and the third on the Reich in WWII. As Evans himself points out at the beginning of this series of three books, published material on the Third Reign runs into the tens of thousands, more than even a professional historian can expect to master in a lifetime. Evans's trilogy, coming from a specialist in the field, is probably the most complete one can expect to find in a single book or set of books. It forms an exhaustive survey, covering social, economic, cultural, and political history, and the student should look no further. All that said, nonetheless, this first volume is less strong than the other two, it overlaps substantially with the second volume, and it can conceivably be skipped over.

The issue with The Coming of the Third Reich, indeed, is that it is neither a history of the Weimar Republic nor a survey of the Reich's origins, but something between the two. As a result, the book has too much of an air of inevitability to it - even if Evans warns against that once in a while. The Weimar regime simply looks doomed from the start: perhaps a fair conclusion, but one that looks too obvious in a book that is explicitly about its Nazi successor. The set of chapters about German history and Nazism at the beginning are likewise awkward. A history of Nazism's ideological antecedents would have worked better, or alternatively a simple, and more neutral, survey of historical works on the question. This volume, finally, overlaps with the next in its account of the Nazi seizure of power from Hitler's appointment as chancellor. The material isn't exactly the same, but the story is, making the whole account repetitive from one book to the next. Overall, finally, I would still recommend the classic account that is Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to the general reader. Yes, it is far less complete than Evans's trilogy and it focuses more narrowly on political history, but for sheer narrative verve, it remains the book to read - or perhaps a combination of Shirer and Evans's second volume, which covers the typically less well known aspects of Nazism.


Marriage Material
Marriage Material
by Sathnam Sanghera
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dances with Wolverhampton, 28 Nov 2014
This review is from: Marriage Material (Paperback)
As a journalist, Sathnam Sanghera regularly mentions that he is from the disadvantaged and down-at-heals Wolverhampton, and this is the novel. The plot follows the parallel stories of Arjan, from a Sikh family but now living the yuppie life in London, and of his aunt Surinder as an adolescent and young adult forty years before. The lens is on their family, the Bains, who, after immigrating from the Punjab, run a corner store in Wolverhampton. The broader subject, moreover, is the difficulty of immigrant integration in Britain and the troubled nature of its race relations.

The better of the two stories, though they eventually intertwine, is that of the young, smart, and attractive Surinder and her tribulations. Sadly, though, this tends to get curtailed and more space given to the crypto-Sanghera that is presumably Arjan. The novel contains fascinating information about the local Indian community and its origins, as well as on the difficulties of the retail trade. But this was otherwise a mild disappointment. The race-relations issue, based on my own experience, seems overdone for effect. The humour that generally characterises Sanghera's articles is mostly missing. Indeed, the problem may be that the adaptation from journalism to fiction is stylistically challenging. Journalism requires directness because it must fit in so few words: that doesn't always work in fiction. Every so often, the formulations are awkward, the witticisms ineffective, presumably because the text fails to build up to them. Though the novel is readable, I found that Marriage Material fell a little flat.


The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation
The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation
by Richard J. Evans
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.24

4.0 out of 5 stars Reich manual, 25 Nov 2014
As Evans himself points out at the beginning of this series of three books, published material on the Third Reign runs into the tens of thousands, more than even a professional historian can expect to master in a lifetime. Evans's trilogy, coming from a specialist in the field, is probably the most complete one can expect to find in a single book or set of books. The second volume runs from the Nazi takeover of power in 1933 to the very eve of WWII, and I found it somewhat superior to the first. This is an exhaustive survey of the Reich in peace time, or rather in its preparation phase to long-planned hostilities. Social, economic, cultural, and political issues are all covered in great detail. The student should go no further, or rather should begin here and move on to the extensive bibliography. This is the product of many years of teaching and research activity, and it shows.

At the same time, a few minor weaknesses are in my view worth raising. The practice of translating everything from German, even familiar terms and expressions such as Heil Hitler! is sometimes odd. Evans has the Völkischer Beobachter as the racial rather than the popular observer, which doesn't sound right. More substantially, I found that the chapter on economics lacks clarity. Evans, in a laudable effort not to grant the Nazis anything, dismisses their reduction of German unemployment, but actually by his own numbers, even allowing for obfuscation and forced enlistment and labour, one is bound to conclude that their policies did reduce unemployment substantially. Overall, finally, Evans rarely is concise, though that is hardly blameable considering the mass of his material. At the same time, I would still recommend the classic account that is Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to the general reader. Yes, it is far less complete than Evans's trilogy and it focuses more narrowly on political history. But for sheer narrative verve, it remains the book to read.


The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Great account, 25 Nov 2014
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Suetonius' Twelve Caesars is a key narrative source for the period it covers and, unlike Tacitus, it has survived entire and is uninterrupted. Beginning with Caesar himself, in the mid first century BC, it ends in AD 96 with Domitian and covers the reigns of such emperors as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. Organised according to each of these twelve emperors' lives, it contains more or less self-contained if unequal chapters (long reigns are given more space). Thus the story progresses from the civil wars that surrounded Caesar's rise to power, the establishment of the principate under Augustus, and on to the more debauched reigns of their descendents in the early first century AD. It closes with the establishment of a new dynasty, the Flavians, represented by Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.

The introduction appositely remarks that Suetonius was following, in this work, the classical format of eulogy or biography, rather than history, according to classical forms. As a result, each reign is organised topically, beginning with ancestry, going on to civic achievements, then military campaigns, then the given emperor's vices or crimes, and the manner of his death complete with warnings and omens. This means that a reader completely unacquainted with the period may find the overarching story hard to follow, and it is best to be armed with basic knowledge of it. At the same time, firstly, Suetonius does follow a loose chronological progression within each topic he addresses and within each life, and secondly his writing is really clear and easy to follow. Suetonius as historian was impressive, moreover: in addition to testimonies and oral sources, he examined written sources including letters written by the protagonists, e.g. Augustus, and official Roman records, e.g. the treasury's. This is exceptional, indeed to my knowledge unprecedented, for a classical writer. Though sometimes his sources appear to fail him, this is rare and his account is authoritative. Twelve Caesars, in addition to being easy to read, is an essential source on the early Roman Empire.


The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Witness to Ancient History)
The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Witness to Ancient History)
by Jerry Toner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The real Gladiator, 18 Nov 2014
We may all have seen and enjoyed the Ridley Scott movie but historically it is, sadly, hopelessly inaccurate. The Day Commodus Killed a Rhine tells the real story. Amazingly Commodus did fight, and kill animals, in the arena, and this was related to his eventual downfall. Senators, and his sister, were involved in the plot and there is even, like in the film, a story about an indiscrete little boy playing at fighting - but I don't want to spoil the first few chapters for you. Toner has the full story, or rather he begins with that in what turns, in later chapters, into a fascinating exploration of the games and their role in Roman society. The games were central to the Roman world, he shows. Under the empire, they replaced the political processes by which the popular classes had been able to participate in politics. They consumed huge resources - to the point of having caused some animal species to become extinct - and they were central to Roman identity. While they involved a type of violence we would find repugnant, even unbearable, they were nevertheless not the scene of unrestrained bloodlust or hooliganism. They even had their critics, not least the Christians, though as Toner shows even martyrs were apt to internalise at least part of the circus's ethos. Most importantly, they had their rules. This is a great book, whether for its details on the games themselves or for the wider points it makes about Romanness. Now if only Scott had used Toner as his historical adviser.


Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Diaspora stories, 10 Nov 2014
Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories given its coherence by a common subject: the Indian diaspora. The characters, Indian emigrants and their children, balance between American and Indian lifestyles and mores. They are neither completely at home in one nor in the other country, in one nor the other culture. The problem of the arranged marriage, and its lack of conformity with the American model, is particularly brought to the fore. My favourite story, incidentally, was not the Interpreter, but This Blessed House, where the US-born, MIT graduate and successful executive Sanjeev finds himself outclassed by his charismatic wife Tanima, the trigger being the discovery of leftover Christian paraphernalia in the Connecticut house they have just bought. Slick and quickly read, this is an enjoyable collection, holding lessons for anyone who has been uprooted from their home culture.


Tai-Pan: The Second Novel of the Asian Saga
Tai-Pan: The Second Novel of the Asian Saga
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lesser Shogun, 3 Nov 2014
James Clavell is a master of his art, and Tai-Pan is a highly readable novel. That said, it lacks the force of the earlier-set Shogun, and I found it weaker as a historical novel. Set in 1840-2, during the first Opium War, Tai-Pan revolves around the foundation of the colony of Hong Kong. The somewhat romantic view is that the island was meant to bridge the Chinese and Western civilizations and bring modernity to China. Dirk Struan, a Scot, is the Tai-Pan, the boss of the biggest British trading house. He battles it out with his fellow merchant and arch-rival Brock, with Chinese pirates, and with pompous consular officials for survival and especially to make sure his creation - the colony, just granted to Britain by the defeated Chinese - also survives. The Tai-Pan must escape bankruptcy, murder, and disrepute, while at the same time ensuring his weakling son is made fit to succeed him. The cast is, as usual in Clavell, operatic, also involving many minor characters - the young and penniless English libertine, the Tai-Pan's half-caste son, etc., and multiple colourful side-plots.

While this makes for good reading as an adventure novel, I nevertheless found Tai-Pan mildly disappointing after Shogun - admittedly a hard act to follow. The novel lacks the breakneck start of its predecessor. The hero is not based on a historical character - or else if he is meant to be based on Lindsay or Jardine, the characterisation is grossly off. The history is less reliable, and indeed the Opium War itself is more or less ignored, with no mention even of the siege of Canton. The rather nasty opium trade, of course, is also glossed over. Then the East-meets-West characterisation relies on often similar stereotyping of both Europeans and Orientals - about the importance of saving face, about cleanliness or the lack thereof among Europeans - as in Shogun, so that mores are not found to have changed very much in the intervening 250 years, or to be that different between Japan and China. Clavell remains worth reading for sheer entertainment, and I'll probably persevere with the Asian Saga one at a time and at a safe intervals. But Tai Pan is a weak four stars as a historical novel.


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