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P. G. Harris

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Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Flight of the Phoenix, 28 Nov. 2015
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This review is from: Song of Solomon (Paperback)
The Song of Solomon really is the most extraordinary novel. I read it, then,after starting to write a review, realised how much I had missed, went right back to the start and read it right through again. It is a novel which weaves in so many themes and is so rich in imagery, it feels as if it should physically burst its covers. Even now, after reading it twice I feel as if I have only a superficial understanding, constrained my lack of knowledge of the bible and of Greek mythology.

To do the book a disservice, and to boil it down to the simplest essence, it is the story of the quest of one man to discover the history of his grandparents and great grandparents. This is, however, no linear quest, the story is told episodically, with author the author wandering through a plethora of different themes - of the human condition, the African American experience, gender politics, revenge vs forgiveness, etc etc. Just to step one level away from the quest for knowledge, Song of Solomon is more fundamentally about a search for identity.

Milkman (real name Macon) Dead is the son of an affluent slum landlord, also called Macon Dead. His is a thoroughly dysfunctional family. His parents fight a continuous psychological war. His sisters Magdalena (called Lena) and First Corinthians have been expensively educated to the point where they can't find a role in a class and race riven society. In seeking to escape this, Macon strikes up friendships with Guitar, firmly from the "other side of the tracks" and with his father's estranged sister Pilate. Unlike her brother, she is joyously unrespectable, living a sensuous life with no materialistic motivations.

Macon lives a pretty feckless existence, one in which the seven deadly sins appear close to being a blueprint for his life, but it is one of these, greed, and a hunt for mythical gold which sets him off on his life changing journey.

Probably the strongest theme and image of the book is that of flight, but it is a highly ambiguous metaphor. Right from the start to the end there is the question of whether It is a symbol of power and escape or of self delusion and suicide. What is more, it is also at the centre of the book's gender politics, as male characters, Milkman included, carelessly abandon women in their flights to freedom. While I empathised with Milkman's search for his identity, he is also, possibly until a revelation towards the end, an extremely unsympathetic portrait of maleness. In one telling section in the centre of the book, young maleness is typified as being a combination of shallow flippancy and reckless thrill seeking.

Naming also plays a vital part in the imagery of a Song of Solomon. Alongside flight, the search of African Americans for their true names rather than those given by white slavers is crucial to the plot. indeed it could be argued that Milkman is dead until he learns the true identities of his grandparents through a children's naming rhyme.

This is absolutely an African American novel with white America appearing only intermittently in the background as a broadly malign entity, excluding and guiltlessly murdering African Americans. White liberals take a bit of a kicking in the character of a middle class poet who glories in Lena's education while employing her as a maid. The darker side of racial politics is embodied in Guitar, who joins a low level terrorist group and whose presence in the novel asks questions about what is the proper response to omnipresent and occasionally violent oppression. Milkman and Guitar's greed which damages their friendship is symbolised by the bling (to use more modern slang) of a white peacock.

In addressing issues of race, Morrison doesn't portray African American society in any idealised way. She writes of a very human society troubled with sexism, snobbery, jealousy, violence and any number of flaws and vices one could care to name. In fact, another way of looking at Song of Solomon is as a book of contrasts, black v white, male vs female, materialistic vs emotional, aspirational vs nurturing, forgiving vs revenge, responsibility vs freedom.

After flight and naming, the third dominant image was for me that of circularity and repetition with characters right through the four generations of the book making the same mistakes in their search for freedom. This takes its strongest form in the heartbreaking deaths of two of the main female characters which directly mirror events three and four generations earlier.

So, I could go on talking about this marvellous book, finding more and more in it, but perhaps I should finish just by saying - it's wonderful, read it.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh but invisible, 21 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a non-foaming shave gel. As such the experience is very similar to using a shaving oil. One rubs it onto one's face, and from that point it is pretty much invisible. The visual guide to shaving is the disappearance of stubble rather than of foam. That said it is a good standard lubricant. Give your face a good wash first, rub this in well and you'll get a nice smooth shave. The feature I particularly liked was the ice effect/aloe vera which give a nice fresh feeling after shaving. Presumably, the ice effect, which L'Oreal claim actually cools the skin, is some form of rapid evaporant.

by Tom Bullough
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't achieve escape velocity, 17 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Konstantin (Paperback)
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Konstatin is a fictionalised account of the child- and young adulthood of the real life Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, father of Russian/Soviet rocket science. The narrative is discontinuous, being told through a series of episodes, sometimes separated by weeks, months and frequently years. This gives the book the feel of a set of photographs pinned to a noticeboard.

Through these still lives from a life we learn of Kostya catching scarlet fever and losing his hearing, of various boyhood scrapes and adventures, of his moving to Moscow to study, his frustrated love for an heiress and the loss of his virginity. In the final section Kostya comes to true adulthood, marrying and settling down to life as an eccentric teacher.

Perhaps, for me, the greatest value of the book is in bringing attention to Tsiolkovsky, a figure of whom I was previously unaware. The names of other pioneers are spaceflight, most notably Von Braun are better known, but if author Bullough is to be believed, Tsiolkovsky was a true visionary, for example in the use of gyroscopes to steer spacecraft. This is nicely brought to life in the final chapter where the idea is turned into practical use on the Voskhod capsule, used for the first spacewalk.

Overall this is an ambitious work, both in its subject matter, and in its structure, and I guess I wanted to like it more than I did. It is a book which aims high, but doesn’t quite get there. The episodic structure is a nice way of covering a great deal of time efficiently, but in themselves the chapters feel incomplete. At one point Kostya and his family are in a carriage under attack by wolves with one of the horses seemingly about to be brought down. The chapter finishes, and the next begins some time later, with no explanation of how they escaped.
It is a book heavy on symbolism, but that symbolism is frequently on the heavy side. Just before Kostya is nearly killed by scarlet fever, he is confronted by a wolf, its jaws red with the blood of a recent kill. As a boy, Kostya, the future rocket scientist, climbs to the highest point of a church and kicks at the stonework, damaging the fabric of the church. In fact, the wolf, as a symbol of peril and death is a constant and repeating motif throughout.

In addition to the somewhat unsubtle symbolism, the writing didn’t excite me. Early on, Kostya and one of his brother are described as being inseparable, and from that point on, I found myself on the look out for the clichéd turn of phrase, which sadly was too easy to spot. Furthermore the speech patterns often didn’t ring true. Too often characters seemingly speak using the antipodean interrogative, with statements of fact ending with a question mark.

Finally the overall concept is slightly frustrating. Author Boughton has taken an historical character and certain facts about his upbringing, and used that as a framework to for creating a picture of what might constitute the making of a scientist. Actually, having learnt about Tsiolkovsky, I found myself wanting to know more about the man himself than about an imagined early life.

by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poor little rich boy, poor little rich girl, 8 Nov. 2015
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This review is from: Purity (Hardcover)
Like its predecessor Freedom, Purity is a deeply ironic title for this novel based around dark and dirty secrets. Author Franzen gives Purity, (known as Pip), the eponymous central character, an emotionally and physical tainted conception and all of the major character are in some way hiding darkness in their pasts. While the central theme is one of corruption, Purity also shares, with Freedom, author Franzen's perspective on how we are heavily constrained by the actions and errors of our parents.

The principal players fall into three main groupings. Firstly we have Pip, a college graduate working in a dead end job and living in a squat/commune where she is besotted with an older, married man. Behind Pip is her reclusive new age mother, who refuses to divulge the identity of Pip's true father. Second we have Andreas Wolf, who we first meet as the dissident son of a senior East German politician, but who later becomes an Assange-like internet transparency fanatic (although Assange is frequently name checked to emphasise that Wolf is not him). In the DDR, Wolf's affections are centred on the troubled Annagret. Finally we have a grouping centred on journalist Tom Aberant, his semi-detached lover, Leila, her handicapped and estranged husband, Charles, and crucially, his eccentric ex-wife, Anabel, heiress to a fortune, seeking to separate from her family. Clearly, from that brief description, names play an important and none to subtle part, the predatory Wolf, the regrets associated with his girlfriend, Tom going off the rails, and above all Pip (more about whom later), nee Purity.

The story of how these deeply flawed characters come to interact in a complex web of love, loathing and deception is told in seven sections which move the action between the contemporary Bay Area, 1980s Berlin, the Bolivian jungle where Andreas has established his cult like Sunlight project, Denver, and Tom and Anabel's college days. Too often a non-linear narrative of this nature hides a weak plot, using temporal discontinuities to over-complicate and withhold facts with no real purpose. On the other hand, in this book, Franzen provides well crafted story where the slow reveal of the true nature of the relationships between the characters feels natural and unforced.

At one level, Purity is a book about the Internet and its power over people's lives, and certainly in one polemical section, Franzen seeks to portray life on line as being akin to Stalinism, with conservative orthodoxy being ruthlessly enforced. However I couldn't get over a view that he writes as a digital immigrant rather than a digital native, and that his true interests are much more traditional. Thus the fundamental story is one of pauper princess. Anabel, as the rebellious heir to capitalism, and Andreas as the dissident son of socialism are both versions of the poor little rich kid. Andreas echoes Jekyll and Hyde, or the more modern version, the charismatic pyschopath.

Purity is a highly self referential work. At one point Charles makes a comment about the number of authors called Jonathan. At other Franzen, refers to the value given to length in the modern novel. Above all, by calling his heroine Pip, he also makes a link to Great Expectations. Certainly Pip's mother is a strong candidate for Miss Havisham, one can have fun making other links, is Andreas Bentley Drummond, is Pip, Pip or Estelle? Having slipped the link into the reader's mind early on, Franzen proceeds to make an overt connection in a later conversation within the book.

Overall this is an entertaining and engrossing mix of journalistic thriller, family saga, and dark comedy. The comedy is very much that of embarassment and discomfort, as in Pip's clumsy attempts to seduce an older man, or her leaving a lover waiting while eating a bowl of cereal. The main weaknesses for me were the stereotypical nature of some of the characters and the way they can change to suit the needs of the plot. Most troublesome is Anabel, who comes dangerously close to being a twisted version of the sexist standard, the manic pixie dream girl, a sort of demonic pixie nightmare girl. At the end of the book, it feels as if Franzen has told his story, had his polemical rants, but realised that he still has some ends to tie off, which he does a little too tidily to be wholly credible altering Pip's character as he does so.

One final, ridiculously generalised thought. Purity seems to me to illustrate once again the difference between American and British literary fiction. The latter is passively miserable with characters sitting around regretting the mistakes of their lives and moaning about the awfulness of their middle class existence. In the former, characters are actively miserable, striving for happiness but suffering in the attempt. In this case, my preference lies with the U.S.

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L'Oreal Men Expert Pure and Matte Scrub - 150 ml
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3.0 out of 5 stars Oh dear, 7 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
First things first, I've used this product for a number of years and really like it. The menthol and peppermint give a nice, fresh, feel and smell and the micro beads produce a mild abrasive effect which gets rid of dead skin highly effectively. A scrub with this prepares the ground for a moisturiser and the end result is a smooth, refreshed feeling face.

But then, in researching this review, I read about the environmental impact of micro beads. Oh dear, this might have to be the last time I use this product

L'Oreal Garnier Pure Active Wasabi Gel Wash - 200 ml
L'Oreal Garnier Pure Active Wasabi Gel Wash - 200 ml
Price: £4.49

3.0 out of 5 stars What Wasabi?, 7 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This product was a bit of a disappointment for me. Given the inclusion of Wasabi in the name I was hoping for something quite invigorating, something with a bit of zing which would make my skin tingle. What this actually is is a perfectly acceptable,if rather sweet smelling skin wash, which seemed to have little connection with Japanese horseradish.

It works reasonably well on greasy skin,but no more so than many similar products.

The Meaning of Science (Pelican Introduction)
The Meaning of Science (Pelican Introduction)
by Tim Lewens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inform, educate, entertain, 29 Oct. 2015
Pelican books have a wonderful if now not terribly well known place in this country's cultural history. They hark back to a time when popular culture didn't seem to be constantly chasing the lowest common denominator, but where there was a place for intellectual optimism, for a Reithian spirit of self improvement.

The Meaning of Science follows the relaunch of Pelican books in 2014 and its retro light blue cover brings strong memories of parental bookcases.

The content of the book is a cut above much of what is now published as popular science. This is a book which rewards a quiet environment, and full concentration.

It falls into two parts, the first rigorously examining what science is, the second looking at the overlap between science and philosophy

The first two chapters introduce two great scientific philosophers. Popper, who questioned whether science could prove anything (it could only postulate and disprove theories), and Kuhn who cast doubt on whether science advances at all, or is simply a series of revolutions or paradigm shifts, each of which eradicates what came before. These chapters illustrate the beauty and power of the scientific method. Not only does good science inherently involve challenge, but here we have the same thing happening at a meta level, challenging the scientific method itself. Science is something which can be trusted because it doesn't trust itself. Along the way author Lewens also examines Poppers attempts to distinguish between science and pseudo-science, and also shines the light on some of the keys flaws in "intelligent design".

From here, the book goes on to discuss whether science can make a claim to truth, and also the relationship between science and society. The latter examines the balance, the dilemma science faces where massively socially beneficial results have been generated, but not yet completely rigorously verified. When to publish?

I found the second half slightly less satisfying than the first, simply because it seems less in tune with the title. The first part is a philosophical analysis of the soundness of science. The second is more about whether scientific experimentation can help to resolve such philosophical questions as, "is there such a thing as human nature?", "do we genuinely have free will", and "what place for altruism in a world driven by natural selection?". These are all interesting topics in their own right, but I perhaps would've preferred to see the first section expanded further.

I didn't always find Lewens' arguments convincing. He concludes that the case for free will is "not proven" but clearly favours its existence. He does not however make a persuasive case for his preference. Also, in discussing the response to fallout from Chernobyl in Cumbria he suggests that science is inadequate without local knowledge, when, to me it could be argued more simply, the scientists in question were guilty of insufficient rigour. The fault was with the scientists, not the science. That does nod towards another issue , what is science, is it what scientists do?

The fact that I found myself questioning and disagreeing with the author is not a criticism, rather it is an illustration of the beauty of an intellectually stimulating work.

One rather strange omission from the book is the lack of any mention of mathematics. In a work which discusses the ability of science to prove anything about reality, the absence of the most powerful tool in the scientist's kitbag is odd to say the least. Furthermore, in the final chapter Lewens addresses the question of what is and isn't provable by science, but to do so with no mention of Kurt Godel feels incomplete.

Overall however, this is a genuinely excellent book.

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch)
Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch)
by Ann Leckie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The quality of mercy, 28 Oct. 2015
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The final part of Ann Leckie's "Ancilliary" trilogy begins, as did its predecessor, immediately after the events of the previous book. Breq, last surviving Avatar of the troopship "Justice of Toren" is returning to Atheok Station after surviving an attempt on her life on the planet below.

What follows is a mirror image of the previous two works, as the first half is a tale of politics, civil unrest and jockeying for position as the different interests prepare themselves for the inevitable conflict to come.

The catalysts for that conflict and its eventual resolution are the arrivals in the system of a new emissary from the terrifyingly powerful alien Presgar, and of one part of the multiple-bodied ruler of the Raadch empire.

The second half of the book is a full on space opera with warring starships, astronaut/soldiers and alien weapons.

As with the previous book, the two things which make Leckie's work stand out from the "Captain Zorg conquers the Thargons" school of sci-fi (although sometimes her naming seems to put her in such a universe), are the relationship driven nature of the story, and the ongoing exploration of the nature of human identity.

A major driver of the first of these is the genderless/feminine nature of Raadch society. The female pronoun is used almost exclusively, although there are hints that some characters may be classed as male. While she could have done the same with more conventional use of gender identifiers, the suggestion that this is a society run by women somehow allows Leckie to write more emotionally rounded, empathetic and realistically flawed characters who enter into difficult, messy, but very human relationships.

The meditation on the nature of humanity identity is given an extra twist here with the entrance of Zeiat (or is it Dlique) the Presgar ambassador, who struggles to understand the concept of identity at all. As a portrayal of an alien mindset, unable to tune into human thinking, Zeiat is one of the more successful and entertaining, even if the humour is, on the odd occasion, a little heavy handed.

Standing above all of this is the character of Breq herself, both the least and most human of the humans. The titles of the three parts almost describe the stations of her development. She began seeking justice, one part of the tyrant Anaander tried to make her a sword in her (Anaander's) war against herself, and here she is the instrument of mercy. And in a satisfying ending, Breq reveals, or possibly discovers her own true identity.

Having said that there is a satisfying ending, and acknowledging that this is a trilogy, the denouement feels somewhat temporary, and leaves scope for a great deal more to happen in this universe.

Two authors who immediately came to mind at the start of this trilogy were Ursula K Leguin and Iain M Banks. The Raadch owe something of a debt to both the Ekumen (as does Banks) and to the Culture. Here Leckie pays a more overt tribute to the latter, referring to ships with convoluted names in "more or less famous melodramatic entertainments", and then later having Zeiat and the avatar of another ship, Sphene, play a convoluted game with impenetrable rules.

An excellent end to an original and intelligent trilogy.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
by Edmund de Waal
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Marcel Proust knew my father... aka the Bunny Book, 25 Oct. 2015
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The Hare with Amber Eyes is a family history. The family in question is that of author Edmund De Waal's paternal grandmother, Elisabeth Ephrussi. It follows them from being successful wheat merchants in Russia in the early 19th century, through being fabulously wealthy bankers in fin de siècle Paris and Vienna, to a diaspora in the 1930s. While De Waal himself is currently a member of the penultimate generation of the family, his primary tale reaches its conclusion with his great uncle Iggie in post Second World War Japan.

De Waal ties the family's history together with a set of 264 netsuke, ornamental toggles for attaching bags to a belt, carved in wood or ivory. One of these is a hare with amber eyes.

Crucial to the family's story is their Jewishness, and it is in telling the story of the Jewish experience in the 19th and 20th century that the book is at its strongest. This is a book which repeats one of history's clearest lessons. The language used to abuse Jews in 19th century Paris is so obviously echoed by the populist xenophobes of 21st century, that the danger they present is inescapable. We don't need to imagine where their views might lead. We've seen it. We saw it in Dachau, Srebrenica, and Rwanda. The horror of the Jewish story has been documented many times, but De Waal brings it once more to raw and painful life by relating the personal impact on his own family.

The second way in which De Waal is successful is in writing a well structured story. This is a tale in three parts, with the optimistic first movement telling the story of the family's rise, but with the growing threat in the background. In the second an idyllic opening gives way to the breaking storm. The third act is a soothing conclusion. While it did take me some time to tune in to the book, by the end I found myself wanting to make time for it, drawn in by the unfolding narrative.

So far so good. However, I may be something of a Roundhead, but this felt to me as almost a pastiche of a book written by a privately educated arts graduate. The near self consciously elaborate prose constantly begs the question, "Beautifully written or pretentiously disappearing up its own fundament?". It is writing which finds too much meaning in inconsequential detail. "They can certainly be thought of as ornamental, even as a sort of enchantment.I wonder about the appropriateness of Charles' wedding present once it reaches Vienna". Seemingly beautiful sentences whose gilding hides an absence of meaning. I would describe the style as Baroque, using the word in a perjorative sense. One might admire a well crafted phrase or sentence, but viewed as a whole it is over elaborately ornate. There is a definite tendency, at its strongest in the early chapters, for De Waal to exercise his vocabulary in an intrusive way, sending this reader to the dictionary more frequently than I would've liked. Oh, and to save others looking it up, "flaneurial" means "at a strolling pace".

This is also an intensely materialistic book. At times it feels like a catalogue of obscene opulence with De Waal resorting to simply registering the possessions of his ancestors. Like a visit to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire one can appreciate the beauty at first, but after a while it simply becomes wealth without taste. As Clement Freud once filled time on Just a Minute with endless listing, so De Waal fills the page with his forbears' objets d'art. At one point I almost got the impression that the author viewed the loss of life in the holocaust as less of an issue than the loss of material wealth. Certainly the former is covered in a more perfunctory fashion than the latter.

Perhaps I am being unkind when I describe De Waal as a dreadful name dropper. Maybe he is merely faithfully reporting the circles in which his family, particularly his several times removed uncle Charles, lived, but it does have a flavour of "oh yes, my family knew Monet, Renoir, Proust, Freud &c".

The obsession with possessions and historical celebrity felt like a missed opportunity. there were people, members of the family, about whom I wanted to know more. His grandmother Elisabeth, who escaped the constraints of a patriarchal society to become an academic and lawyer would have been a much better subject than the dully acquisitive Charles. Her parents Viktor and Emmy and their complex marriage are characters Would have held more interest than another listing of fine furniture and paintings.

Finally, I can't leave the book without commenting on the title which seems symptomatic of much of the writing in its empty symbolism. It is a title chosen to create an interesting title, it says little about the book to which it is attached. The netsuke are only peripheral to the tale, and within the netsuke, the hare barely features. If he had wanted to use one of the netsuke as a title, he would've been more honest to call the book The Medlar, or The Tiger.

Three stars could be a little lacking in generosity for an intelligent book which eventually drew me in, but I had too many problems with both style and content to award more.

China's Coming War with Asia
China's Coming War with Asia
by Jonathan Holslag
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly misleading sensationalist title, 8 Oct. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a book where the title and blurb seem a lot more sensational than the actual content. What it provides is a history lesson of the modern China, with most attention given to the period after the cultural revolution, as the country moved from virtual isolation to a position of massive economic and political power in Asia. The second thing it does is give an account of how China has actively gone out of its way to avoid conflict, seeking to achieve its aims through diplomacy and political expediency. Only in the very last chapter does author Holstag address what the title suggests is the central theme of the book. The thesis put forward is that while China has kept some of its territorial ambitions in the background, it has not really compromised on any of them. When an economic downturn occurs in Asia, Chinese economic dominance will cause resentment, and fuel nationalism in its neighbours. In turn growing Chinese military might will be used to control shipping lanes, and to push its defence lines further out into the Pacific. This will eventually lead to military conflict with its neighbours, possibly in a U.S.-cemented alliance.

I wasn't entirely convinced. The thesis didn't flow convincingly from the rest of the book. It felt rather tacked on. It is a possible scenario, of course, but I would've liked to have seen other possible futures explored and/or a more well structured case made for the conclusion.

The other major comment to make is that this isn't particularly accessible to a lay reader. That isn't a criticism, if that isn't what the author was aiming to achieve, but if you are a lay reader, you may find it a big of a challenge. As an example, it is taken as read that the reader will know what is meant by 'revisionist power'. I had to look it up.

I also found that major concepts are introduced almost in passing and not given sufficient prominence. Again, as an example, the Party's main strategic aims are mentioned very briefly, and then. A few pages later they are referred to frequently and significantly, and I found myself having to hunt back through the text to rediscover what they were.

For all of my criticisms, this is an extremely interesting book, giving an insight into the development of a world where the Pacific replaces the Atlantic as the centre of the geopolitical world.

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