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Andrew Johnston "(www.andrewj.com/books)" (LEATHERHEAD United Kingdom)
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Resurrection
Resurrection
Price: £3.49

5.0 out of 5 stars A new science fiction tale which bears comparison with the old masters, 22 April 2012
This review is from: Resurrection (Kindle Edition)
This is the first "hard" science fiction book I've read in several years which I've really enjoyed. It's full of intriguing ideas, clever plot twists and a central story which cracks along at a good pace. At just over 400 pages it's a very satisfying length, avoiding the modern tendency to pad novels unnecessarily, and I read it in one day, hardly able to put it down.

At the core is the old idea that the achievements of the ancient Egyptian 4th Dynasty were created by and for visiting aliens, and that much of Egyptian mythology stems from that encounter. However, unlike the disappointing, distorted and disingenuous pseudo-science of Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock this book just sets out to spin a great yarn, and succeeds admirably.

The author paints on a grand canvas, covering three worlds and five millennia, but keeps the story at a human level, by focusing on a number of well-developed central characters: be they good, evil or simply misguided. While throughout the book historical and current stories proceed in parallel, a believable contextual and technical explanation is developed for their linkage.

The science is clever, focusing mainly on the achievements of one of the races who have developed technology several hundred years beyond ours, but based almost entirely on organic solutions. Interstellar travel is handled realistically, with sub-light journeys based on long periods of hibernation, and the quest to recover a lost faster-than-light solution a key part of the plot. However, at no time does the science dominate or become superfluous to the plot.

I had a few minor niggles: The cover notes don't do the story justice, and won't help sales. The character, race and place names are arguably too Americanised and insufficiently "alien". Also my pre-release copy of the book contained a number of odd spelling errors, which suggested that it had been typed without the benefit of a spell checker. However, these are very minor complaints about a very good book.

I enjoyed this thoroughly, and it's restored my faith that it is still possible to write new science fiction work which bears inspection against the old masters. Highly recommended.


Deep Six
Deep Six
by Clive Cussler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Rip-roaring yarn, but also an interesting period piece, 17 April 2012
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This review is from: Deep Six (Paperback)
Ever since we thoroughly enjoyed the film of Sahara, I've been gently working through the back catalogue of Clive Cussler's "Dirk Pitt", novels, alternating between the more recent books and the older tales, the latter in roughly chronological order. On that basis, I've just despatched Deep Six, written in 1984 and set in 1989.

On the face of it, this is a classic Pitt story: maritime mysteries, strong male and female characters, the gradual disrobing of byzantine plots, heinous villainy committed mainly by an evil family firm, and the side of right held up by Pitt, his NUMA colleagues, and a handful of other worthies. At the climax Pitt and Giodano ride to the rescue against a heavily armed force of Korean villains, who have just destroyed a SEAL taskforce, transported on a confederate paddle-steamer! The book's a real page-turner, and you won't want to put it down.

But maybe the most interesting facet of this book, and why I've decided it deserves a review, is as a historical snapshot of the world and America's assessment of it. Some authors deal with contemporary issues and seem to have a remarkable ability to predict real events. Others, Cussler usually among them, avoid the current in order to avoid becoming "dated". Unusually in this book he's tried to paint a picture of the near future, and it's interesting to see what he got right, and what wrong.

The main villains (who have their offices on the 100th floor of the World Trade Centre - some things no-one could have predicted) are motivated mainly by money. The other evil force is a very cold war Soviet Union leadership, even though the cracks were starting to appear by 1984, and in reality by 1989 it was all over bar the shouting. Mere "terrorists" are despatched as possible players early on by the rather dismissive statement "[it's] Too elaborate. This operation took an immense amount of planning and money. The ingenuity is incredible. It goes far beyond the capabilities of any terrorist organisation."

Remarkably Cussler does predict a middle eastern war triggered by an invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but he has it happening in 1985, by Iran. However as a counterpoint, at one point the idea of American forces ever fighting in Afghanistan is treated as an example of the impossible. How times change.

The book is a revealing period piece, and interesting for the references which have been overtaken by history. Ultimately, however, it's a good story and deserves to be read in the spirit in which it was written. Do so and you won't be disappointed.


The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
by Mark Forsyth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A hilarious ramble through the undergrowth of the English language, 17 Mar. 2012
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If you're a closet etymologist or casual linguicist, like me, then this is the book for you. Mark Forsyth leads a merry ramble through the tangled roots of the English language, identifying verbal histories and connections which are sometimes quite mind-boggling.

A sequence of short chapters each explores a topic, usually identifying a stream of words stemming from a common source, whether that be a Greek, Latin or proto-Indo-European root, a language which has been partially adopted into the English tapestry, or a fount of linguistic innovation such as the writings of Milton. In many cases he threads a route through time, geography and lexical space to words which have dramatically different or even opposite meanings to their antecedents.

While each chapter can be read alone, Forsyth cunningly links them together, with each feeding the next, and the last linking back to the first like Ouroboros swallowing its tail.

The writing is always amusing, and occasionally funny enough to stimulate a laugh out loud. Forsyth reserves particular cruelty for poets, and other specialists in the use and abuse of words. My favourite quote: "[we] should devote a chapter to Samuel Johnson's dictionary. So we won't." Myles Coverdale, editor of an early English Bible, is characterised by "[he] didn't let the tiny detail that he knew no Latin, Greek or Hebrew get in his way. This is the kind of can-do attitude that is sadly lacking in modern biblical scholarship."

This isn't a learned book, and its structure and style preclude any deep exploration of a particular topic. But it will convey a broad appreciation of the mixing of the rich Jambalaya which is the English language, and will certainly pique your interest at understanding where words come from, as well as their immediate meaning.


The Grand Design
The Grand Design
by Leonard Mlodinow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Humour and Philosophy, but Ultimately Unsatisfying, 6 Oct. 2011
This review is from: The Grand Design (Paperback)
Stephen Hawking is not only, without question, one of our greatest surviving physicists, but also, remarkably given his disability, one of the field's great communicators and educators. Having enjoyed his previous writing I was very much looking forward to his insights on the cosmological advances since "A Brief History of Time". However, although this latest book is both entertaining and thought provoking, it ultimately left me frustrated with its failure to properly explain these new scientific concepts.

This is a small and unthreatening book, especially in the Bantam edition, and nicely put together with some apposite cartoons and a series of chapter endplates which develop a recurring graphical theme in multiple contexts. However, in contrast to previous books, especially "The Universe in a Nutshell", it's very light on genuinely explanatory diagrams and equations, forcing the user to try and comprehend complex physical and mathematical concepts from purely textual explanations.

The first third of the book deals mainly with the evolution and nature of scientific "laws", and the meaning of reality relative to our various mental models. This is very interesting, but perhaps a little ironic given the authors' statement on the first page that "philosophy is dead". What other label should be attributed to this discussion?

The next section explains key aspects of quantum theory, in particular wave/particle duality, probabilistic rather than deterministic behaviour, and the effects of observation on the system. That we can now demonstrate this behaviour for relatively large objects, and affect the observed outcome from behaviour originating some considerable time before the observation, is fascinating.

Since Newton science has developed a series of theories describing the workings of our universe, and has then attempted to combine or extend them to provide an ever more comprehensive description. The next section of the book describes this progression. The descriptions of classical physics, relativity and quantum theory are fine, and don't suffer too much from relative brevity as the older theories will be broadly familiar to most readers. However the pages on M-theory are really too brief, and don't adequately explain it. Finishing that section with the fact that M-theory admits 10^500 solutions makes it sound very far from the elegant theories espoused earlier in the book.

The final section of the book attempts to describe and explain some of the most problematical aspects of current cosmology, but in my view doesn't make a very convincing job of it. Cosmological problems include both the fact that universal expansion is still accelerating, and that our current model requires the young universe to have spontaneously "inflated" from coin-sized to many times galaxy sized in less than a second. Neither of these are well explained by current theories as I understand them, and this book doesn't bridge the gap. Earlier in the book the authors pooh-pooh theories relying on "then a miracle occurs", but don't seem to be proposing something much better.

Instead of proposing a theory which explains the observations, the authors seem to be saying that under M-theory all things are possible, and we choose the set of outcomes which matches our measurements. To my mind this is perilously close to saying "God created the Universe as it is", even though the authors are at pains to refute precisely that interpretation.

It feels to me that Physics is on a threshold similar to its position in the late 19th Century, where we are creating progressively more arcane versions of existing theories in an attempt to prop them up, but what is really required is fresh new ideas - the 21st Century equivalents of Relativity and Quantum Theory. This book confirms that need, but its suggested resolution does not convince me.


The Templar Salvation
The Templar Salvation
by Raymond Khoury
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Rip-Roaring Romp, with Cutting Questions on Christianity, 6 Oct. 2011
This review is from: The Templar Salvation (Paperback)
This is an excellent adventure story, which quickly engages the reader and holds the attention through 500 action-packed pages. At the same time, it raises some thought-provoking observations on how Christianity has evolved, and how the dogma of major religions reflects political rather than spiritual necessities.

When I started the book I was a little bit trepidatious to be reading yet another tale of secrets from the Knights Templar being exposed in modern times. This fashionable seam of subject matter must be close to being worked out, and it's a credit to Khoury that he has managed to extract another fine adventure, even if there are times when the echoes of his earlier book are perhaps a bit obvious, especially in the nature of the revealed secrets, the historical narrative and the watery denouement. Even if there may be scope for a third outing for the central characters, it needs to be against a different backdrop.

Refreshingly Khoury avoids making his heroes into supermen, but the same is not quite true of his villains, all of whom seem to be well-resourced single-minded psychopaths one step ahead of the good guys. A bit more variety there would also help.

Khoury writes well, much better than Dan Brown or some of his other competitors, and the book never lost my focus or interest. The action is well paced, with occasional explosive sequences of high drama. These feel slightly like the the author has an eye on the future film script, but are plausible and reasonably easy to follow. However as much as the action I enjoyed his observations on the formalisation of Christianity by the Romans under Constantine, and the extension of these ideas into yet more possible roles for the mysterious Knights Templar.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with a bit more depth than some others of its genre. I just hope that the author now has the courage to develop a bit more subject matter variety for his excellent writing.


Modeling XML Applications with UML (Object Technology Series)
Modeling XML Applications with UML (Object Technology Series)
by David Carlson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £24.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book covering an important niche, 10 May 2011
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Like many web-related technologies XML and its many derivatives have evolved much more quickly than the support from traditional modelling and development tools. As a result many developers creating XML-based applications are doing so with the crudest of tools, and find it very difficult to either exchange ideas with more traditional developers, or to benefit from the strengths of more powerful tools and modelling approaches. This book sets out to address that issue, and it does an excellent job.
At the same time, the book provides a valuable introduction to a range of XML and e-Business technologies for those more familiar with traditional approaches. I found it answered a lot of questions I had about XML which had not been addressed by reading more typical "how to" books, so this book bridges the divide both ways.

The book starts out by setting out its aim - to bridge the XML and UML communities, and provides a high-level overview of both areas. It then focuses in on the key issue of e-Business integration, both as a common challenge and an area which will naturally affect both communities.

In subsequent chapters the author discusses defining a business vocabulary, and shows how an XML vocabulary can be modelled in UML, or generated from it. Having established this basis the author then discusses a number of XML-related standards, including XMI, XPath, XPointer, XLink, XML DTDs and Schemas, and XSLT, in each case using UML models to explain how the pieces fit together.

Finally, the last few chapters present an overall e-Business architecture based around the examples in the rest of the book, bringing all the pieces together in the context of Web Services.

It's the curse of all technical writers and publishers that whatever you write is rapidly out of date, and this book suffers a little from that. Published in 2001 it views several key standards (such as XSD and core Web Service protocols) as "proposals", and frequently omits details from examples because of this uncertainty. A reader would be well advised to supplement it with more up to date reading around the technical details.

That said, this book is well written, easy to read, and covers a niche which is still almost unoccupied. The companion web site backs the book up with some valuable material, including a free downloadable tool for XML modelling, generation and reverse-engineering.

I'd love David to do a second edition, moderately refreshed to present a 2004 view of the various standards and how they fit together. The core of the book wouldn't have to change. Until that book turns up, I'm happy to recommend this one.


How Long is a Piece of String?: More Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life
How Long is a Piece of String?: More Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life
by Rob Eastaway
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Fun Mathematics, 10 May 2011
This is a follow-up to the earlier, excellent, "Why Do Buses Come In Threes?". While the earlier book focused on those annoying little mysteries of life, this asks a set of different questions, many related to tough decisions such as how conmen get rich, or "should I phone a friend?"

The answers, like before, lead us through a gentle, humorous exploration of mathematics and its relevance to everyday life. Along the way we explore (among others) geometric progression (why all pyramid schemes eventually fail), the geometry of stacking, fractals, chaos theory, the mathematics behind taxi meters, and various uses and abuses of statistics, both to detect and commit fraud.

The two messages of this book are that mathematics is important, and that it's fun. It's in the same vein as the work of Martin Gardener, but with a British slant.

To aid casual readers or those who've previously found the subject forbidding the maths is kept at a fairly simple level. Most of the time the concepts are communicated in words and simple graphs, but key equations are included and explained for completeness. The text is easy to read and the illustrations clear and amusing. Although aimed at those new to the enjoyment of maths, it's also a good memory jogger for those with a bit more background.

I thoroughly recommend this book, and also the authors' earlier volume.


The Eden Legacy
The Eden Legacy
by Will Adams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cracking yarn, even if slightly derivative, 29 April 2011
This review is from: The Eden Legacy (Paperback)
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At face value, this is very much a clone of a Clive Cussler story, right down to a hero who is also in the marine salvage / archaeology business, who gets tangled up in current crimes which tie into extraordinary historical discoveries. Like Clive Cussler's novels, it's also well-written with a level of detail which neither patronises nor overly challenges the reader.

Where it differs from Cussler is that most of the protagonists are troubled, damaged people, and Adams takes pains to explain their state of mind and how they arrived there. This makes a refreshing change from the two dimensional "supermen" heroes too common nowadays, but takes a little getting used to in an otherwise quite lightweight yarn.

The novel also has a very refreshing British feel, with several English characters and background elements. In particular the cultural references, banter and even the swearing are distinctly British rather than American, which makes a welcome change!

I liked the structure in which the stories of the central characters progress in parallel with each getting time in each chapter, at least until their paths converge. Coupled with good but eminently readable writing, well paced, it makes the book a real page-turner. Towards the end I found the book impossible to put down, and - I hope this doesn't give too much away - I loved the final plot twist and uplifting ending.

This is a great yarn. As long as you can treat it on it's own merits you'll have an enjoyable read.


Blasphemy
Blasphemy
by Douglas Preston
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A great thriller, which probes uncomfortable ideas at the boundaries of science and religion, 24 April 2011
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This review is from: Blasphemy (Paperback)
Basically, this is an adventure thriller set against a "big science" background, with Whyman Ford sent to investigate problems at what's effectively the US version of CERN, albeit with a handful of staff and Cheyenne Mountain levels of security.

The real meat of the tale, however, is an exploration of how religion interacts with science, politics and society, and how religious extremism of any kind can sponsor the very worst in human hatred and violence, just as much as more moderate spirituality can drive good behaviour. For a change the religious extremists are not Muslims, but American extreme right-wing "Christians", while the moderates are mainly Navajos, both Christians and those who follow the old ways. I haven't previously seen this portrayed in the same way in other fiction.

Although the story also features key characters speaking to God, and the creation of a new world religion, as this is a Whyman Ford tale everything is eventually resolved without recourse to the supernatural, with most driven by much more human causes.

The story rips along at a good rate, keeping you engaged right to the last. The hard science background is well presented and credible, as are the personalities and actions of the key players. It's eminently readable, well up to Preston's usual standard.

I enjoyed this book, and can recommend both it and the others in the series.


Prophecy
Prophecy
by S. J. Parris
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Murky murder mysteries and complex catholic conspiracies, 23 April 2011
This review is from: Prophecy (Hardcover)
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I thoroughly enjoyed S J Parris' first novel, Heresy, likening it to a Tudor Inspector Morse tale, and was delighted to be offered the chance to review a pre-publication copy of this second story starring the same protagonists.

In this story the heretical monk, Giordano Bruno, is back at the French Embassy in Elizabethan London, where he is drawn rapidly into both a catholic conspiracy to invade England, and a related murder mystery when two of the queen's ladies in waiting meet very sticky ends.

The style is very similar to the first book, with Bruno trying to both uncover the truths about the murders, and navigate complex relationships with the other characters. The tale is again told in the first person, but here it makes a bit more sense as you get to understand Bruno's concerns, guilt and frustrations, and the motivation for some of his deeds.

I loved the period detail, particularly the descriptions of Elizabethan versions of well-known London locations. In this book Parris also makes much more use of actual events and personalities, such as Francis Walsingham, William Cecil and John Dee. I could almost hear some of the dialogue being spoken by Geoffrey Rush and Richard Attenborough.

The story is a real page-turner with a steady pace which kept my attention right to the end. However, if I have a slight criticism, it's that some plot twists, such as the murderer's identity, seemed to be signalled very early, while at other times key actions were taken by characters who had not been introduced.

These are minor failings, and overall this is a very enjoyable romp. I look forwards to Bruno's next outing.


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