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cholser (Perth, Australia)

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Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
by Mike Mullane
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.52

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the right stuff, 7 Jan 2012
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From modest beginnings dreaming of rockets and space in the desert, to reaching the pinnacle of all boyhood dreams, Mike Mullane gives a 'warts and all' account of the twists and turns of life in the 1980s US space programme.
The story is set-up as the ultimate adventure tale, a few great men and women training for years to strap themselves onto millions of tons of high explosive - at the mercy of rubber O rings and fragile panels. He builds up the tension from the selection process to sitting waiting for the countdown, and the sense of appreciation and wonder at entering space is evident. Along with the serious adventure comes a healthy dose of juvenile humour, especially relating to the performing of bodily functions in a weightless environment.
Mullane remains modest and self-deprecating in spite of his enormous achievements and is big enough to admit his failings as a human-being. He categorically rails against PC, which is refreshing and unexpected and in doing so shines a light on the dog-eat-dog world of high achievers effectively queuing up and competing to get into space.
The only clumsy part of the story is what I took to be his unresolved feelings for his colleague Judy, although it is given some poignancy by her ultimate fate.
As the book progresses it becomes more sober, as a reflection of his growing awareness of deficiencies in leadership of the organisation and of the failings of the shuttle programme which lead to such tragic outcomes - this only puts into sharp perspective what a precarious occupation they pursued.
In summary this is an entertaining, accessible adventure story that really gave me an appreciation and admiration for the heroes of the space programme.

The Last Queen
The Last Queen
by C W Gortner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spanish perspective, 10 July 2011
This review is from: The Last Queen (Paperback)
Juana la Loca, the last queen of Spain, narrates her life story which is defined by her marriage to Philip (heir to the Hapsburg Empire) and it's implications/aftermath.
The book weaves an accessible tale of the complex inter-relationships of the great European powers of the time and centres it from the Spanish perspective (the author is half Spanish) - a view not normally considered in Anglo-Saxon writings of history. In addition to this, and what makes it all work, is the love of Spain that infuses the book - descriptions of the smells of jasmine and sounds of water trickling in the Alhambra, to images of the vast arid plains and fierce mountain passes. This deep affection flows from Juana - from her steely resolve to hold the kingdom her mother created, even if it brings her harm, to her reminiscences and yearning to be in her native land when living abroad.
Juana struggles terribly with the conflicts of a sense of duty (invoked by her mother, Queen Isabel) and her marriage to Philip - eventually the forces become so polarised and political scheming overtakes her that it is no wonder she slips into mental turmoil.
Not only is it a great work of historical fiction, based by all accounts on the most accurate information available - because of how congruently it is voiced by Juana it becomes a thrilling, page turning, tragic love-story which left me with a keen sense of the injustices of life of a female ruler in a man's world.

Rabbit, Run (Penguin Modern Classics)
Rabbit, Run (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Updike
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keeping it real, 17 Nov 2010
Rabbit, Run is a claustrophobic book, set almost exclusively in the confines of two rural conjoined towns in country Pennsylvania. The plot revolves around Harry `Rabbit' Angstrom's crisis of confidence in himself and his marriage which leads to his world closing in around him, options narrowing, as he simultaneously dreams of escape.
The most striking aspect is the lack of sentiment - the characters are written in the moment, described by the author without any moral stance or judgement - they simply are who they are, and their thoughts from the most trivial to most intimate are laid bare by the stunning quality of the streams of consciousness flowing from them. They are dark, selfish, caring and content - with Rabbit, often all in the space of a few minutes.
Any humour to be found is black, epitomised by the camaraderie between Rabbit and the well-meaning but deluded Eccles and then taken one notch up in Rabbit's dealings with the cleric's wife. Rabbit's mean and bumbling self-centredness almost borders on farcical and would do if it he wasn't given such a congruous voice.
If you want action packed fast-paced prose this is not the book to read as the descriptions are well crafted but can be lengthy. However it is really worth the effort required to walk in the objectionable main character's shoes - the genius is that while not necessarily liking him or agreeing with him you can empathise and see through his eyes the suffocating world he is trying desperately to escape.
The setting of late 1950's USA could so easily be transported to now bringing with it the spirit of disconnection and need for validation and instant gratification. The universality of the themes, along with the sensational calibre of the writing make this a great human story.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

6 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Same old stuff, 17 Oct 2010
This book presents the current reactionary message relating to religion - as a starting point the central underlying message sits comfortably with me, but it the packaging of the message that lets this book down, in two particular ways.
First, as with Dawkins, is the condescending tone - he takes as his starting point the barely concealed disdain for those so misguided to believe in religious mumbo-jumbo and moves forward in adversarial fashion to create a them and us scenario, the enlightened versus the stupid. Fair enough, you don't have to scratch to far below the surface, and Hitchens has not scratched far, to find contradictory messages in any of the 'holy' texts - that is schoolboy stuff and should be a given - it does not bestow the corollarary that all religious people are thick and backward. My sense of this hauteur and derision is enhanced by the verbose nature of the writing which is exclusive, unnecessary and poorly edited in parts (the use of solipsism and variations a number of times in one chapter).
Second is the scattered and disjointed nature of the content. His attempts to tie each chapter into a theme fail and for me this results in the same point being recycled over and over again, just with different simplistic (barbaric messages of the old testament, suicide bombers etc) examples to back it up.
There appears to be no sincere attempt to meaningfully understand the phenomenon of religion or engage in respectful discourse with believers, and then undermine from a position of insight - until then, books like this will remain solely as smug texts acting as sermons for the converted.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 14, 2013 1:02 AM BST

The Zookeeper's War
The Zookeeper's War
by Steven Conte
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Wasted opportunity, 1 July 2010
This review is from: The Zookeeper's War (Paperback)
To have such a dramatic backdrop (in terms of location/ time period) and potentially interesting characters who are emotionally invested in staying to bear witness on one of histories most pivotal moments, the scene is set for a gripping novel. Sadly it did not live up to it's promise. Starting out in Berlin's zoo, and we all know what is going to happen in the greater picture, I got into the character's heads and wanted to go along to see what happens to them - the Zookeeper with new ideas who had been in the previous war, his Australian wife to bring an outsider's perspective and their cosmopolitan friends.
However things started to go awry as the Aussie character developed into a malcontent and involved herself in the questionable central act in the story. What was going on in her psyche to make her do this and why was her husband so passive (?some of his previous wartime experiences which were never explored)? - too many questions about the character's motivations were undeveloped. This act lead nowhere, provided no great insight into any of the characters and only served to turn her into a particularly unsympathetic character who I lost all desire to read about.
2 stars for the initial setting - the zoo, the city, the decadent atmosphere but unfortunately it all went south from there, which is a shame as it realised none of it's potential to tell the story of Berlin and it's citizens from such a potentially different perspective.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
by Bruce Patton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear, accessible and relevant, 1 July 2010
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This is a succinct insight into the type of conversation we potentially have with a difficult family member, the server who gives you a cold coffee or a tricky business situation. The layout is well structured, breaking each of the main points down further and further to create an easy to follow guide to understanding and navigating an aspect of daily life that most of us evidently don't manage very well.
I read it from perspective of the dispute resolution work I do and it is highly relevant to anyone who works with the general public in any context. It is also clear that what great books like this with universal truths tend to reveal is that it is applicable to all aspects of life, none more so than our closest relationships when we tend to throw all logic and reason out the window in difficult conversations.
Pertinent and varied examples illustrate each point and unlike many of the snake oil 'improve your life in 7 steps' type stuff out there this book is relevant, intelligent and I got to the finish feeling like I'd learned something to use in my daily life.

by Marilynne Robinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surprised, 18 Sep 2009
This review is from: Housekeeping (Paperback)
I picked up this book in a second hand store travelling in remote West Australia - on the plus side was my desperation for a potentially cerebral read, on the negative was the title and a previous attempt to tackle Gilead (the religious stuff left me cold).
Like Gilead it is exquisitely well written, one of those books where not a word is wasted and every description or insight is fresh and poetic. It flows beautifully yet is so dense in quality that you feel it must have taken forever to write.
In narrative terms nothing really happens, and it is exclusively about eccentric females and that is what loses it a star - however the fact that it merits any stars at all on that summation is a testimony to the quality of the writing. It is a celebration of the ordinary, the embrace of coldness and the contentment of loneliness. I have never read a more evocative description of a sunrise or a more filmic image of a burning magazine page, turning silvery-black with the corners curling and tattering.
My first thoughts were that there may be more mystical/female layers that I have missed out and if you get into it on that level it is likely to give even more satisfaction - I have to say I am surprised how many males have reviewed and enjoyed this book so maybe that's it - a beautiful book about not much.

One Soldier's War in Chechnya
One Soldier's War in Chechnya
by Arkady Babchenko
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No punches pulled, 23 Aug 2009
This is a book that grips from the first page to the last. Yes it is disjointed at times and the chronology of events is unclear - I can excuse that because the book is more than just a series of accounts of life as a soldier in the midst of a brutal war. The author really gives an insight into the Russian military machine, how it treats its own and how it views the enemy.
Straight away you are brought up to speed with their realities of life - the gastronomic intricacies of eating dog, drinking fetid ditch water and the resulting dysentry. Worse than this, and for me the most harrowing part of this book, was the description of the systematic, almost ritualised, assaults suffered at the hands of his superiors. The author conveyed his sense of never-ending degradation, despair and loss of spirit in a way that was heart-breaking - it vividly contrasts with Jarhead, he's got nothing to complain about.
There is also a perspective on the Russian mindset in Chechnya, and how this series of conflicts really is their 'clash of civilizations'. It is very much a them and us scenario, with anti-Chechen/Muslim sentiment at the forefront in most of his descriptions of the enemy in an overt attempt to de-humanise them (most notable when they discovered what the silver water jugs in the Chechen out-houses were for).
Reading this book is an experience, and in describing it like that it is a credit to the author who has given such an honest, brave and descriptive insight into this murky piece of history.

by Tim Winton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Great book, flawed subtext, 10 Aug 2009
This review is from: Breath (Paperback)
Being based in WA for the last few years really gives me an appreciation for how this book evokes the smells, sights and sounds of the land and sea here. The thrilling descriptions of the monster seas and the sense of fear and exhilaration experienced by the characters is described so well I almost felt like I was standing on the board myself with a wall of water roaring all around me.
Pikelet's character elicits all those teenage emotions of awkwardness, isolation and trying to find a place to fit in as he moves from the sphere of influence of his parents - the rush of his new world rapidly diverges from the stagnation of the older generation in a small town.
Loonie, with his death wish approach to living, is also entirely authentic and as the pair fall under the spell of Sando you can see how the combination of hero worship and peer pressure spurs them on. To me, the contrast between Loonie's reckless disregard for his own safety and Pikelet's sense of self preservation is a study on the nature of courage.
It's a short book which I read in a couple of days, yet there are so many big ideas, from the visceral action in the surf, observations on growing up in a dying community to the intake/ expulsion of air.
What let this all down slightly was the subtext, which I won't reveal. For me it was too leftfield, and while I can see how it ties everything together, as a device it didn't work for me and gave no other insight to the bigger themes or characters of this otherwise great book.

The Silver Eagle (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles)
The Silver Eagle (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles)
by Ben Kane
Edition: Hardcover

41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can't wait for 3rd book, 8 Aug 2009
I qualify my review by saying I haven't read Iggulden, Scarrow et al, so I came to this series with no benchmark in the genre. The closest my usual interest gets is in reading military history, where my bias lies in accounts of the experiences of the foot soldiers, and that aspect is what drew me in to this excellent series.
Where the Forgotten Legion introduces the characters and plot, from the sweat and dust of the arena to the intrigues of the brothel - the Silver Eagle picks up where the action left off and brings it to another level. The action is relentless and it's scope is epic, blending the wars and politics of the Republic to adventures at the edges of the known world. The characters develop well as the twins mature and become more world-wise and Tarquinius is more dark and ambiguous. This book has been greatly enhanced by the addition of a very informative glossary.
The bottom line for me is that I'm hooked and can't wait to find out what happens next - the mark of a great book.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 6, 2012 9:06 PM GMT

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