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David J. Kelly (Scotland)
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Siege
Siege
by Jack Hight
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A novel about the event that probably created modern Europe, 2 Aug. 2010
This review is from: Siege (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Siege of Constantinople in 1453 is one of the pivotal events in European history, more important than the battles of Crecy, Agincourt or Bannockburn or whichever other nationally important battle your history teacher taught you about. It was the real end of the Roman Empire and the confirmation of the Ottoman Turks as the most powerful state in the eastern Mediterranean. Refugees from the city brought knowledge west into Europe that added fuel to the Renaissance. It really was a last stand, the end of one civilization and its replacement by another.

This book chronicles the last days of Byzantium as Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottoman Turks sets out to make Constantinople his capital. Opposing him is Giovanni Giustanini Longo, a Genoese soldier to whom the Emperor Constantine XI has entrusted the defence of the Queen of Cities. The emperor's niece Sophia is betrothed to Loukas Notaras, megadux of Constantinople, but she is attracted to Longo. While Longo and Notaras try to defend the city the hard line Orthodox clergy plot to preserve their independent church and sabotage any union between the Catholic Church and their own, the Pope's condition for calling on the European Catholics to relieve the city. At the same time there is intrigue and plotting at the Turkish court and in the harem as the Sultan's officials and wives jockey for position and favour. The vizier, Halil, plots with the Sultan's first wife against his unfaithful concubine Gulbehar.

I liked this book, as an adventure and as a fictionalisation of history. The author captures the declining yet cosmopolitan city with its traditions and rituals and those of the opposition, he Ottoman Court (the "Divan") and the harem. The plotting and intrigues are well done and the battle scenes are exciting and fast paced. It's not a work of history but you do get how important an event in European history this was. If you like historical fiction and books about military history then this is one you should enjoy.


Dust and Steel
Dust and Steel
by Patrick Mercer
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A novel which brings history to life, 12 July 2010
This review is from: Dust and Steel (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is the second instalment of a series about the career of Anthony Morgan, a gentleman from Co. Cork who has bought a commission in the British Army's 95th Regiment of Foot. The first instalment concerened the Crimean War and this one follows Morgan through the Indian Mutiny (First War of Independence). It starts with the 95th's arrival in Bombay and the trial and gory execution of some treasonous sepoys and then the army moves north towards the final battle with the forces led by Lakshmi Bai, the Rhani of Jhansi. The Rhani is holding Morgan's erstwhile lover, Mary Keenan, and his illegitimate son by her as hostages.

For readers of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books this book will not be too foreign, there's a loyal Scottish sergeatnt and a dastardly and cowardly snobbish upper class English captain and there's a quest to save a lover. The battle scenes are good and the character of Morgan seems realistic, he's not a hero and feels real fear everytime he goes into battle. The historical background is well researched and although many of the characters are fictional the Rhani of Jhansi did exist and the major battles described did take place.

So if you enjoy novels about Military history here's the late 19th century replacement for Cornwell's Sharpe. The next book in the series takes Morgan into Afghanistan, along the Helmand River, so that should be interesting in a number of ways.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important human story behind so many scientific advances, 25 Jun. 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, African-American mother who died in 1951 of cervical cancer and who, without her or her family's knowledge, had her cancerous cells harvested by scientists at the hospital where she was being treated. These cells were the first human cells which could be cultured, i.e. made to grow and reproduce, which made them vitally important to science. These cultured cells were named HeLa and they were and are used in human biology research in labs all over the world, they have even been sent into space. All the time that that was going on the Lacks family continued their lives in Baltimore, ignorant of their wife's and mother's posthumous contribution to science. When they did find out it was to have a serious and long lasting effect on their lives.

Rebecca Skloot found out about HeLa when studying biology in high school and after graduating and working as a science journalist she determined that she was going to tell the story of HeLa and of Henrietta and her family. She does this very successfully, intertwining her own attempts to build a relationship with the Lacks family, the story of how the HeLa cells were harvested and used by various scientists and the story of the Lacks family. It is this last thread which is the book's strength because the world of the surviving Lackses and a white, biology graduate could not be further apart but Skloot succeeds in documenting the family without judging them or idealising them. Despite the potentially dry subject matter and the even handed approach Skloot takes to the tale of HeLa, she has brought this story to life and it held my attention easily. Her writing is accessible and she doesn't talk down to the reader while explaining the science and telling us the story of Henrietta's family.


The Holy Thief (The Korolev Series)
The Holy Thief (The Korolev Series)
by William Ryan
Edition: Hardcover

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some familiar elements but a new detective appears on the scene, 10 May 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
A mysterious and gruesome murder in a public place is investigated by a divorced detective from the Militia and it involves a rich American businessman in dealings with the NKVD (later the KGB) to sell off Russian treasures. Could we be talking about Gorky Park? No this is the Holy Thief by William Ryan and despite these apparent similarity of plot lines it is an original novel. Set just as the terror of Stalin's purges is starting this shows a more austere, optimistic Soviet era when the 1917 revolution is still a living memory. The main character Captain Korolev is an old Imperial Russian and Red Army soldier who is now a detective in the People's Militia in Moscow. He is assigned the investigation of a dead young woman found in a old church, she has been tortured and killed.

His investigation is of interest to the NKVD and Korolev has to tread with care, always thinking about the political side and the potentially fatal consequences of any mistake he makes, Then more bodies start turning up and the book takes us into the subcultures of early Soviet Moscow - thieves, writers, Spartak Moscow football club and Komsomol Activists all connected by the murders. As another reviewer said some idea of Soviet history is probably essential to follow the plot and real historical characters turn up. The hardship and austerity of 1930s Russia is evoked, overlain with the political terrors of the Stalinist purges.

This book introduces a new fictional detective in Korolev who has a different enough milieau and an unusual back story to make this the precursor to a good series of books. I enjoyed it enough to kepp an eye out for any sequels.


The Temple-goers
The Temple-goers
by Aatish Taseer
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The modern East meets Westernised, 8 April 2010
This review is from: The Temple-goers (Paperback)
At first I had a bit of difficulty working out whether this was a novel or not, the last book I read by Taseer was a travelogue exploring the Islamic world of his paternal heritage. This book is very much about Taseer's maternal inheritance; he is the product of a Pakistani father and an Indian Hindu mother who brought him up, mostly among her extended family in Delhi. So here he is, his first language is English, he has been educated abroad, he seems to feel neither Hindu nor Muslim but he knows he is Indian and yet does not feel comfortable in his Indianess. It turns out that this is a novel but written in the first person with the author as the narrator.

In the book Aatish returns to Delhi to finish off his novel and moves in with his girlfriend from London. He starts going to the gym and meets and bonds with an ambitious, high caste but poor trainer called Aakash. Aakash leads the privileged westernised Aatish through the contradictions and conflicts between modern and old India where consumerism and western liberalism dominate the media and the affluent classes but where not too far under the surface are the sectarian and caste conflicts and superstition and honour systems inherited from pre colonial India. Aakash is remaking himself into a modern Indian but never loses sight of his heritage whereas Aatish is a modern Indian who has little contact with his. The book ends and begins with a sensationalised murder and the very Indian way that it pans out.

I really enjoyed this book, it paints a picture of a society that is evolving rapidly and finding its own identity. The traditional and the modern mix, as they must. The British feature in the novel but as a distant memory, almost like the British look back at the Romans. The characters enjoy drink and sex outside of marriage but go to temple and revere their ancient traditions but they all look forward, even the character who teaches Aatish Urdu so he can read his great grandfather's poems.


Farlander
Farlander
by Col Buchanan
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars An odd mix of ingredients in a fantasy novel, 28 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Farlander (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I stopped reading Science Fiction and Fantasy novels some time ago, I seem to prefer authors like Ian Banks and Ian Rankin now so it was with some misgivings that I started to read Farlander. The story takes place in an imagined, unnamed world where an empire of religious zealots, the Holy Empire if Mann, is trying to conquer the whole world. As the story unfolds one of the last states to resist, the Mercian Free Ports, is subject to a 10 year siege. Nico is a teenage boy trapped in the besieged city who in desperation tries to rob and old assassin, Ash, of the Ninja-like Roshun order, he ends up being the assassin's apprentice learning how to carry out Vendetta against the murderer's of the Order's clients. In his first mission he must got to the capital of the Holy Empire and help Ash carry out Vendetta against the Empire's ruler's son.

The world created by Col Buchanan is, to me, a strange mix of the familiar and the fantastical. There are guns and sailing ships alongside air ships, actual ships that float in the air. There are familiar flora and fauna such as the Pica bird (magpie) but Zebras (called Zel in the book) replace horses. The Mannian religion is a Crowleyesque one of "do what thou wilt" while the Free Ports have a Buddhist type of belief system called Daoism. In the end the story carried me along and as I got further into the book I found myself enjoying it more and more. I am looking forward to the other two books in this trilogy now but they'll be a guilty pleasure.


The Bricklayer
The Bricklayer
by Noah Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A different sort of procedural thriller, 28 Mar. 2010
This review is from: The Bricklayer (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This novel introduces us to Steve Vail, a former FBI agent with the well worn crime novel trait of having difficulties with authority. He has parted company with the FBI and is now working as a bricklayer but the FBI needs his skills as a man hunter in a complex case where the FBI is being extorted with the threat that the extortionists are killing critics of the FBI, so that the FBI gets the blame. After failing to catch the extortionists and with FBI agents going missing the FBI decide to recall Vail.

I enjoyed this book, despite a few crime genre clichés. The plot is quite ingenious, with a bit of a twist at the end and the author is apparently an ex FBI agent so the detail should be about right. Some of the characterisation is one dimensional but that doesn't get in the way of the story. I will look for the next instalment of the Bricklayer series as I liked the book and the idea is just enough for the Bricklayer to stand out from the crime genre crowd.


Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
by Winchester
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Midget gems but not too many of the horrible black ones!, 30 Dec. 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a book of misadventures and adventures by various authors about their experiences overseas. Like any such comilpilation there are some stories which I did not enjoy as much as others. To me the best travel stories are abou experiencing the environment and people in the places they describe, rather than I went to X and went to this bar and this nightclub. My favourite stories were Nicholas Crane's tale of censussing remote areas of Afghanistan for aid during the Soviet occupation, Simon Winchester's experience of ordinary human kindness and magnificent natural wonders on a short visit to Ascension Island, Tim Cahill's venturing into Turkish Kurdistan in search of the presumed extinct Caspian Tiger and Simon Gandolfi's Patagonian expedition on his Pizza delivery bike.

I enjoyed reading the book and most of these stories don't overstay their welcome. It made a good read over this Christmas holiday whne the snow and the wind have kept my opportunities to venture outside rather limited.


Children of the Sun: The Fall of the Aztecs
Children of the Sun: The Fall of the Aztecs
by Elizabeth Manson Bahr
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping insight into the fall of a civilization, 21 Dec. 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This novel covers the end of the empire of the Mexica, better known as the Aztecs. It starts with Montezuma, the Emperor of the Mexica, learning about the arrival of Cortez and his men. Manson Bahr looks at the Mexica sympathetically, they were a cultured race who developed a great civilization but their religion was based on human sacrifice. She also describes how the Mexica fought wars for honour and captives according to strict rules while the Europeans fought "total war" for subjugation and pillage. The novel takes us through the last years of the Mexica from the captivity and death of Montezuma through the seige of the island city of Tenochtitlan and its fall to the conquistadores. It ends with the Mexica nobility giving up their pagan religion and converting to Catholicism.

Before I read this novel I was only slightly aware of the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and all I knew of the Mexica was their tradition of human sacrifice. I now know that there was more to the Mexica and that their civilisation had some great achievements. The island gardens which still exist in Mexico were one such and here they grew many of the foods which the Spanish brought back to Europe. One faunal error is that the book mentions pheasants and partridges which are native to the Old World and would not be present in Mexico before the arrival of the Europeans. Despite that little bit of ornithological pedantry I did enjoy the book and its telling of one of the most important episodes in human history.


The Meltdown Years: The Unfolding of the Global Economic Crisis
The Meltdown Years: The Unfolding of the Global Economic Crisis
by Wolfgang Munchau
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An easy to undertsand guide to the recent financial crisis - well?, 21 Dec. 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I work in Finance, my life has been directly affected by the crisis but I am not a banker and read this book in the hope that it would give me an insight into how and why the crisis happened, as well as what we need to do to rein in th banks in the future. To that end the book succeeded, it told the story of the banking crisis and its basis in a property bubble but there were still passages I didn't understand. Even where I didn'y understand the book it still gave me a look into the reasons the banks were caught out.

The author is optimistic about the future, stating that the banks will change their behaviour and go back to more traditional banking. As we can see with the RBS, bankers will resist that, and we'll see if as we move out of the crisis and into a more "normal " world whether the banls do change?

On the whole I am glad I stuck with this book. It is easy to follow the reasons for the crisis as it unfolds and the technical desriptions of the complex products the bankers were selling each other are necessary but not easy to understand. One reason for this is that in their very complexity they are not easily understood by the ordinary reader.


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