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AK (London)

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Journey by Moonlight
Journey by Moonlight
Price: £4.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic of hungarian literature and a must read generally, 25 Feb. 2015
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Hungary - in spite of its modest size - has produced a raft of truly excellent novelists in the 20th century, including Sandor Marai, Arthur Koestler (with talents spanning beyond fiction into many other spheres) to Antal Szerb - the author of 'Journey by Moonlight. At the same time, with the partial exception of Koestler, who on occasion portrayed life from its lighter, more humorous side (for instance in Call Girls), they also look at the deeper, less happy elements of our existence - so an easy read they are often not.

'Journey by Moonlight' fully fits into this mould, being both beautifully written, and dealing with a - delayed I suppose - coming of age, or at least the topics related to it. And while some issues may not resonate quite to the same extent today as they did at the time of publishing - the entrance into a family firm and the associated resistance and the suicide curiosity then prevalent in society - the book is no less excellent for that.

It revolves around Mihaly, who is on his Italian honeymoon with Erzsi - the former wife of a good friend and business partner. The honeymoon is then the catalyst for a journey of self exploration, reminiscing and at times mourning his youth and getting to grips with his current situation. The book spans from Budapest, via various localities in Italy all the way to Paris, and the author does an excellent job of interweaving the past with the current events in the book and at no times does the occasional reminiscing appear forced or superfluous.

The writing - not being blessed with the ability to speak Hungarian I can only speak of the translation - is truly great and is a reason for reading the book on its own.

So overall, if you have enjoyed the other Hungarian masterpieces from the 20th century, such as Embers, or Darkness at Noon, I can only recommend Szerb's book to go with them.

The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 (Essential Histories series Book 20)
The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 (Essential Histories series Book 20)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid, concise account of the Iran - Iraq war; light on military details but convincing otherwise, 23 Feb. 2015
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The Essential Histories format is a good way to read up on a particular historical era or event for those with a limited amount of time, or alternatively, still being in an early phase of exploration and looking for a first overview. The current book is no different - it will give you a good overview of the bloodiest third world post WW2 conflict, namely the ill-conceived Iran - Iraq War from 1980 to 1988.

The author covers the background and reasons for the conflict, and fortunately goes beyond the standard sound bites of just the historical conflict between Persia and the Arab world, or Shia and Sunni interpretations of Islam. Following this are several sections, looking at the military preparedness, the aims of both sides and finally the conflict itself. In such an abridged retelling of an almost nine year long conflict you cannot expect much detail on specific battles or overall ebbs and flows of the battlefield month by month. It is - as to be expected from the series - an overview only.

The book then ends with several mini chapters of analysis, for instance one interviewing Basij PoWs for their reasons in joining, or one on the effectiveness of the military forces and the failures of Saddam's strategic thinking.

The military analysis may fall somewhat short of what I hoped for and there you will be much better served by books such as Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (Studies in War, Society, and the Militar): Military Effectiveness,1948-1991, or by more air force focused volumes such as The Role of Air Power in the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat: 49 (Combat Aircraft) or Iranian F-4 Phantom II Units in Combat: 37 (Combat Aircraft). In essence there is much more to the Iraqi decisions not to proceed further than as far as they got in 1980 than the author presents here.

Still, he does at least present a very good scene setting for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 - something I have not read described in this fashion but which makes perfect sense in hindsight.

So overall a very solid, concise groundwork on the war, which will suffice for those with only a passing interest, or those first looking to dip a toe in the water, before committing to heftier volumes on the topic.

Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard About China is Wrong
Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You've Heard About China is Wrong
Price: £5.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A realistic review of China and the stereotypes surrounding it, 19 Feb. 2015
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Ben Chu is a pretty interesting author to write on China - the product of a mixed Chinese British marriage, with lots of relatives in China and with a sufficiently broad perspective to be able to discuss both the perceptions of the country in the 'West' as well as the situation on the ground.

The book is organized around whispers - for lack of a better term stereotypes - that are held about China and the Chinese. These range from the obsession with learning, to the unflinching acceptance of backbreaking work, to the complete ambivalence towards democracy.

The author then examines each one in turn, usually starting with the historical development of the particular world-view (often being based on little more than guesswork of people never having set foot in the country). The next step is a critical examination and debunking of the 'whisper', with a more balanced view being placed in its stead.

This makes the book relatively refreshing to read and while some sources get used in many whispers, the debunking generally always contains well argued logic and to the point examples casting more than mere doubt on the widely held stereotypes.

If you are interested in more than just the odd sound bite about the country (that can be regurgitated at will to people equally modestly informed) this is the book to go for. It provides a more solid understanding and delivers in spades. It reads well with How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region and will help provide you with the insight necessary to engage with China and the Chinese more fruitfully.

Savoia-Marchetti S.79 Sparviero Torpedo-Bomber Units (Combat Aircraft)
Savoia-Marchetti S.79 Sparviero Torpedo-Bomber Units (Combat Aircraft)
Price: £9.59

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A much needed book on the Sparaviero in the torpedo bombing role, 5 Feb. 2015
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The relative dearth of English language sources on the Italian participation in WW2, together with some widely spread stereotypes, has produced a fairly biased and lopsided understanding of the 'lesser' Axis combatant. As such, the book on the operation of the Sparaviero in the torpedo bomber role is a vwery welcome addition, shedding much additional light on the topic of the naval war in the Mediterranean.

The book follows the standard Combat Aircraft format and provides some basic information on the aircraft, the development of the torpedo bombing role and then launches into the operations during the war. While it will definitely not be the ultimate resource on the bomber type in question, it produces a very comprehensive account on the operations in the torpedo bombing role, both in the colours of Reggia Aeronautica up to 1943 and then in the RSI afterwards.

What is fairly shocking is the real determination and heroism of the bomber crews, who performed their duties till pretty much the end of he war, with an aircraft that was soon fairly obsolescent and in spite of limited success. And the losses were very high - still, so was the effort keeping the torpedo bomber units at bay. The book will on occasion allude to other units working in conjunction (flying the CANT Z.1007, SM-84, Ju-87, Ju-88, He-111) but generally does not stray from the primary type covered.

You also get some glimpses into why the units were not more successful, the torpedo failures, the difficulties in evading the heavy defensive AA and the ever heavier air cover in the Mediterranean.

The book comes with the customary colour plates and also has lots of pictorial material - both action shots, as well as plenty of crew pictures.

Overall an excellent effort, with lots of info on the operations of this most famous Italian WW2 bomber type in its important torpedo bombing role - something for the library of every WW2 aviation enthusiast.

Britain's Cold War Bombers
Britain's Cold War Bombers
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good overview of the British bomber designs of the post war era - from the Sperrin to the Eurofighter, 5 Feb. 2015
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The book sets out to give an overview of all the jet bomber projects entering UK service from just after 1945 all the way to today. And while not all would be considered pure bombers - the Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon certainly qualifying for the multi-role moniker - none of the operational ones are left out.

The author starts with jet bomber research and experimentation following WW2, resulting in English Electric Canberra on the one hand - with long service, significant exports and global renown - and the Short Sperrin, which while testing lots of technology in the end never reached operational service (as a low risk back-up to the V Bomber force it got superseded by better designs before service entry was possible).

Following from those come all three V-Bomber designs, with significant material provided also on the nuclear testing, the use of US nuclear weapons, and the design, utilization and issues with domestically produced nuclear weapons. It covers the Valiant Mk.2 as well, which was designed for the low level role from the outset and which could easily have been used as a superior solution to the requirement, making both the Vulcan and Victor surplus to requirements (and leaving the world of aviation a less colourful place as a result).

As expected, the TSR-2 is covered in some detail, as is the Buccaneer, which finally fulfilled the role envisaged for the former not only in the Fleet Air Arm but also in the RAF. Even less prolific types, such as the Supermarine Scimitar (FAA onlx) get their due.

The author covers the F-111K saga in conjunction with the TSR-2 and finally goes into the Panavia Tornado and the Eurofighter Typhoon (the SEPECAT jaguar is mentioned only obliquely).

There is lots of detail, of the personalities involved, the design and flight test programmes, the deployments and changes in broad doctrine... - in short a pretty comprehensive overview is provided in a still compact format, making the book an excellent starter summary on the subject. The pictorial material is mostly black and white but works quite well in conjunction with the text and reading the book in Kindle works very well, with no transformation issues.

Overall, if the post war military aviation is of interest, one almost has to go for the book - not only is it an excellent summary, it is available at a pretty good price to performance ratio, too.

Last Orders at the Changamire Arms
Last Orders at the Changamire Arms
Price: £5.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very different picture of Rhodesia - and one much more realistic than the paradise on earth portrayal more commonly found, 4 Feb. 2015
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Having visited Zimbabwe and developed an interest in the country and its past, I frequently pick up a book dealing with either growing up or living there - and surprisingly many have emerged for such a small place, over such a short period of time.

Walker's 'Last Orders at the Changamire Arms' pretty much breaks with the view established in all the previous ones I have read. It is probably much more cynical, exposes the gross inefficiencies, difficulties and tribulations of life in the country, is written in a definitely funny but also somewhat world weary style - and is, because of all of these things, in my opinion a definite must read, if you want to better understand the place and time.

Not being build up like a growing up / coming of age biography like Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood or In the Shadow of the Tokolosh but rather as a collection of anecdotes by an adult (formerly British) D.C. working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Intaf), following some more and some less significant events from Darwin, his friends and acquaintances through the years of UDI and all the way to the first Zimbabwean elections.

After the first handful of chapters it comes across as one of the 'you had to be there to understand' type of books and I was close to concluding that it will not deliver for someone not having grown up in the country in general, the environment in specific.

However if you persevere, there is real gold to be had. Sure - the cynicism never completely vanishes but there is more insight, more balance to the picture - something in between the relatively glowing views of people still fondly remembering the good times (Godwin, Fuller, etc.) and those harshly critical of the Rhodesian regime (for instance Lessing in African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe - not that she is full of praise for the regime that followed).

The author certainly manages to bring across the nostalgia he undoubtedly still feels for the place but does not let this sway him towards a rose tinted view of every aspect of the country. One can see it as Rhodesia's The Good Soldier Schweik and it will probably elicit feelings of fond reminiscing from the people who have been there at the time, amusement from those interested in the country. Not everyone will appreciate the style throughout but I feel it is a very worthwhile addition to a more even handed understanding of Rhodesia - providing amusement and insight in equal doses.

Monitors of the Royal Navy: How the Fleet Brought the Big Guns to Bear
Monitors of the Royal Navy: How the Fleet Brought the Big Guns to Bear
Price: £6.64

5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive overview of this unique class of warships, from construction to use over both world wars, 16 Jan. 2015
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Monitors have been a pretty interesting, if not completely novel approach of the early 20th century to combine the lowest possible cost with the largest achievable fire-power for primarily the coastal bombardment role. Often built to be disposable, and far from usable in open sea conflict due to their poor sea keeping capabilities and low speed, they have proven to be very useful workhorses over the two world wars and on the whole well worth the investment, even if seldom decisive on their own.

The author has used a relatively wide ranging approach to the topic, covering everything from the logic behind them (and the political and operational wishes that led to their design), the design process, the models and individual ships, their operation, upgrading, all the way to the final demise of the individual vessels. You will get details on all the theatres of operation they covered from 1914 to 1945 and beyond, including the development of reliable artillery spotting (with mechanisms all the way to aerial spotting), the best use, etc.

The book has both drawings and pictures that nicely complement the main text and is very well organized and easy to read. Chapters cover different theatres of operation and usefully the author always takes time to set the context, from the overall political situation, the personalities involved, to the difficulties encountered.

Even though the concept has not been resurrected since WW2, the book provides a valuable insight into a useful ship class and will be of interest to most readers on naval matters.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 3, 2016 11:02 AM GMT

The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics)
Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superbly put together account of 'outsiderism' by one of the 20th century literary giants, 16 Jan. 2015
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There are not many 20th century French writers who surpass Camus in fame or importance and 'The Outsider' is one of his best known works. A study of not conforming to social convention, of somehow being integrated into the accepted societal fabric only on the surface, may not shock modern readers to the extent it would have after publication in 1942 and will have perhaps a less emotional effect on more mature readers than the coming of age ones but is fundamentally a very intriguing topic aptly handled by the author.

Mersault, a pied noir in Algeria, who on the whole represents pretty much an average, normal existence is exposed to several - by common definition - life altering experiences, without having the expected, socially sanctioned response to them; something for which he ultimately needs to be judged.

The author does little to make his character unduly likeable, something that must have been more novel for a protagonist back in 1942 than it is today. Mersault may be cold, living in the moment, somewhat sociopathic and only imperfectly adjusted - am outsider - but he also comes across as honest to himself and non-conformist as a result, irrespective of consequences.

The book - in addition to the powerful impact on the culture, and thought provoking message for a teenage audience - is also wonderfully written. The prose is evocative and one really finds oneself at beaches in Algeria, smelling the cooking in the restaurants, the sweat on the buses and trams.

As mentioned, the book will have different effects on readers, depending on age and prior experience. It raises some important questions for adolescents to grapple with, which may well produce a response at an emotional level, whereas it may appeal more at a cerebral level for an older audience.

Possibly not as striking as first written, it - in my opinion - belongs to the 20th century classics that should be read (something that with its easy flowing prose and relatively short length does not require an insuperable effort to do).

Why Are We The Good Guys?: Reclaiming Your Mind From The Delusions Of Propaganda
Why Are We The Good Guys?: Reclaiming Your Mind From The Delusions Of Propaganda
Price: £11.39

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The role of the press in both 'informing' the public and propaganda - worthwhile, if repetitive, 14 Jan. 2015
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The author - David Cromwell - is a character with an interesting CV; from a left leaning upbringing, to work in a prominent multinational, in science to finally in an outfit concerned with the quality of reporting (MediaLens). Everyone remembering the Cold War - even in its final, weak incarnation in the 1980s - or even the 1991 war against Iraq will recall the scorn poured on the 'laughable propaganda' presented as news reporting from the opposing side. The author's main premise is that the main purpose of media in the West is little different, if at times more refined - namely to defend the ideology and powers that be from public scrutiny coming too close to the truth.

The party line - namely of spreading democracy, human rights and welfare for all - starts wearing somewhat thin after the rhetoric somehow never manages to fully translate into practice. And the fewer the tangible examples of 'success' - or in the author's words us (the Western, capitalist societal model in the widest sense) being the good guys - one can see, the more support / cheer-leading from the so called neutral media is required to prevent hard questions.

Examples range from blatant and loyal support of brutal, repressive regimes as long as they are on the side of the reporting party, where even highly respected news outlets will turn two blind eyes to developments obvious to anyone, to the various wars fought for freedom and democracy after the Cold War, none of which seemed to have brought either; from Thatcherism to genetically modified foods. The author presents each case with ample support for his position from various experts, compares that to the official reporting on the phenomenon and then mostly confronts the journalists responsible with these facts and records their responses (or lack thereof).

The approach is a relatively transparent instrument for demonstrating the principles behind the rose tinted view of neutral, impartial reporting. Still it does make for tedious reading after a while, even if the author is a suitably capable story teller - there is more repetition than is necessary to bring the points across.

The book then takes on a very bizarre turn towards the end, with Buddhism, Nietzsche and the purpose of existence. While this certainly raises equally worthwhile questions as the rest of the book, it is not seamlessly integrated into the whole and one could ask oneself, if it is really necessary in this context.

And while the author's points are - in my opinion - on the whole valid, he does little in terms of presenting a better credible and reasonable alternative, which is the book's main failing in my opinion. As it is there is a high likelihood of the book appealing to the choir, and doing little eye-opening for the rest. This is not to say that the author's work - especially in the context of MediaLens - is in vain, only that the format is perhaps not optimal for capturing the new generations with a vision of a better future; these are a better bet than trying to persuade current entrenched believers anyway.

Be that as it may it is worthwhile on occasion reminding oneself that the media is far from the ideal, even handed chronicler of events - something the book does adequately well. This in not the same as throwing all aspects of our Western democratic / capitalist approach overboard, even if it has many inherent weaknesses, breeds unfairness - and like any unchecked system breeds the potential for abuse. Given that the author does relatively little in presenting an alternative, more appealing counter-proposal, one will do well to read the book in conjunction with How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region. Here one at least gets a detailed analysis of how the capitalist animal spirits can be bent by appropriate government policies to benefiting the wider population as a whole - whether such a situation is desirable or not is of course up to the reader to finally decide.

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Price: £5.49

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An accomplished guide for enriching one's understanding of Japan, 14 Jan. 2015
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David Pilling - a journalist with extensive in country experience - has done a rare job with this book. Namely he managed to portray a relatively balanced account of Japan, neither falling into the trap of glorifying all aspects of it, nor vilifying it completely - a trap many books on Japan fall into.

The book sheds light on the country from many perspectives, from the Meiji restoration, the economic 'miracle' of the post war boom, the two lost decades from 1989 to the current day, the cultural uniqueness or lack thereof, the recovery after great catastrophes (including the 2011 tsunami), the political and economic landscape, to the outlook for the future.

As such one cannot expect an expert level discourse on any specific topic, the author, however does a good job of presenting informed opinions everywhere and blends the total into more than the sum of the individual parts.

As such you will get a broader and deeper understanding of the country, its culture and the likely further evolution both of its strengths and its problems. If you are more interested in the economic end of the spectrum, reading the book in conjunction with How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region works particularly well.

If you are planning on interacting with the country, its culture or people more intensively, you will do well to start with the book. It is not the be all / end all and certainly not a practical guide to the etiquette of bowing, business card presentation and gift wrapping but it presents a good mental framework for you to put all the other issues into the right context.

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