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M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)
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Ukraine Diaries
Ukraine Diaries
by Andrey Kurkov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Raw emotions illuminate the Ukraine crisis, 25 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Ukraine Diaries (Paperback)
This book comprises recent diary entries by someone who is living through very dramatic events in Ukraine.

Don't expect a profound work of art. There are raw emotions here (and very one sided at that). Don't expect a detached historical analysis either. But these shortcomings are also the book's strengths. They are only to be expected in a freshly written diary.

The context pages at the end are useful (I had always thought Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, rather than Western Ukraine - but Kurkov's way of looking at that period helps to explain a lot of the otherwise baffling propaganda currently coming out of Moscow).

In the end this book helped me to understand the current events in Ukraine much better. It is very easy to read and never less than illuminating.

Recommended!


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.00

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Le mal du pays, 25 Aug 2014
Oh I wish I could have made this book last longer! It was over all too soon. It's just too hard to put down.

Murakami takes a rather ordinary story (on the surface), and makes it completely gripping. I remember the scene where Tsukuru is waiting to meet his Finnish friend for the first time in years. How does he create such suspense and anticipation from something so simple?

I liked the musical references. I downloaded Listz's 'Le mal du pays' (I had not heard it before) and listened to it as I read. For me this became the soundtrack to the novel, and I found this added another dimension to it. The stickers were really good fun too!

There is a lot to ponder over and the novel stays with you afterwards. I wish I been able to read something like this as a teenager - it might have helped.

Just a note on the translation - it is very colloquially American in style. For a non US reader this is quite jarring as it creates a dissonance with the Japanese context. A more generalised form of English would have been preferable, and I hope Murakami can insist on something better for his future novels.

Thoroughly recommended. I agree with those who say Murakami is one of the greatest living novelists.


Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction
Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction
by Robin Dunbar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A 'male brain' book, 11 Aug 2014
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The title of this book is misleading. The book is about two models Dunbar devised (a 'time budget model' together with 'the social brain hypothesis'), and their application to human evolution. It is not a summary of human evolution itself, but more a discussion of the application of the chosen models.

The models themselves are interesting (especially the social brain hypothesis), and I found the introductory chapters which set out the models fascinating. I even made a list of all my friends to see if the number came to 150 (it did).

Dunbar comes up with a simple set of mathematical equations (the inputs seem to be brain size; time taken feeding, travelling and grooming; type of food available) and we can then reconstruct every stage of human evolution with precision. Or can we?

Illuminating though the models are, Dunbar goes off the rails in the attempt to apply these to situations millions of years ago. He needs to make heroic assumptions at every stage, and over reliance on his cherished models to the exclusion of other factors blinkers him.

The idea that a complex system, (such as the interaction of a hominin species with its environment) can be reduced to a few equations with minimal inputs is really rather silly. The great difficulties economists have in analysing contemporary human systems shows the extent of the challenge - and the economists are here to observe what's going on in minute detail.

There is a danger of applying mathematical modelling to complex systems - it can give the user a false sense of security and a fair degree of over confidence. The author does not seem to be aware of these limitations.

Dunbar exhibits what I would call a strongly male brain. He evidently feels the urge to put everything into tidy boxes that can be summed up in a few elegantly simple equations. But real life is not like that.

That is not to say that there is nothing of interest to be gleaned from applying Dunbar's models. But these models on their own cannot provide anything definitive, and I am surprised that a book with such a narrow viewpoint is being marketed as a general introduction.


The Summer Book
The Summer Book
by Esther Freud
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Strong emotional pull, 27 July 2014
This review is from: The Summer Book (Paperback)
A life enhancing read, this little book. There is no plot as such - more a series of short stories about life on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland over one summer.

The two main characters (Grandmother and Sophia) are exquisitly drawn. They are both incredibly real - I can't remember reading any other book where the characters are so believable. They are each quirky, argumentative and highly attractive too.

The language is rather unusual, in that it is extremely economical and understated, yet powerfully conveys the landscape as well as the unfolding emotions of the protagonists. There is not a word out of place, or which is superfluous.

The Moomin books were the first I ever read as a child, and they still have a strong emotional pull for me. So it was a delight to find this adult novel having the same qualities.

By the way, I am now planning a holiday on an island in the Gulf of Finland. It's that type of book.

Highly recommended!


Look Who's Back
Look Who's Back
by Timur Vermes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.50

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and subversive, 20 July 2014
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This review is from: Look Who's Back (Hardcover)
A very powerful novel this. Extremely clever. Subtle and subversive. Hilariously funny too.

Making Hitler himself the narrator is a good idea, because you as the reader get drawn in and feel some sympathy with him. How weird and distressing is that? It feels like the author has crawled inside your head and is messing about in there.

The book is not afraid to confront really difficult issues head on. In particular there is the scene where one of Hitler's closest friends, his secretary, brings out a photo of her dead Jewish family. I was wondering where the author would take this scene. Suffice to say the path the scene takes is pretty disturbing.

Comedy can sometimes uncover the truth in ways that 'serious' historians cannot. There are many books about Hitler, but these are gradually creating a caricature of the man. I am afraid they may even be obscuring the truth and increasing the liklihood that a modern day Hitler would gain popular support. In contrast, anyone who has read and understood 'Look Who's Back' is unlikely to vote for those contemporary policical parties whose affable leaders promote racist ideas.

The book feels quite light hearted initially, but as it went along I experienced it as being darker and darker.

I imagined the ending of the novel might bring some resolution, some return to sanity. It doesn't, and the book is all the more provocative for that.

Highly recommended. It should be required reading for every school child.


The Master and Margarita (Alma Classics)
The Master and Margarita (Alma Classics)
by Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Boundless imagination, 20 July 2014
What an incredible imagination! This book has a breathtaking originality. It is like nothing I ever read before. It is utterly unpredictable. The humour is pretty dark. And it has a strongly, and highly attractive, Russian flavour.

It is easy to read and difficult to put down. The settings, in Moscow and Jerusalem are beautifully captured. It leaves you deep in thought for a long time afterwards. I understand this is a cult novel in Russia. Some become obsessed with it. I can see why.

Highly recommended!


Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain's Most Enigmatic Animal
Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain's Most Enigmatic Animal
by Patrick Barkham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully balanced, 28 Jun 2014
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A beautifully written book, carefully paced and superbly structured. I was certainly drawn into 'Badgerlands'. The book is well balanced and non hysterical throughout, even when dealing with very emotive subjects. I especially liked the way the author is positive about the improvements in the welfare and diversity of wildlife in his native Norfolk at the end of the book (a refreshing change from the 'things aren't what they used to be' cliche).

For my own taste, I would have liked to learn a little bit more about badgers' life cycle, their social interactions, their intelligence and sensory capabilities. I would have been willing to sacrifice some if the TB story for this.

However, this is a very small criticism, and does not detract from an excellent book, which I can thoroughly recommend.


Dear Leader: North Korea's senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regime
Dear Leader: North Korea's senior propagandist exposes shocking truths behind the regime
by Jang Jin-Sung
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!, 19 Jun 2014
This is a rare find - one of those books you just can't bear to put down, and which is over all too soon. An excellent adventure story, describing the author's perilous escape from North Korea, which keeps you on the edge of your seat right to the very end of the book. If you like films such as 'the Great Escape', you'll love this. And how astonishing to imagine these events happening in 2004!

But this is so much more. The author is a gifted artist, something of a child prodigy as a musician and as a poet, and it shows. This book is extremely well crafted though out and is beautifully written. No doubt there is some slight embellishment in the name of poetic licence, but this is fully justified in the name of getting the deeper truths out to the widest possible audience. In the meantime I shall seek out his poetry, if I can find it in English.

The message buried within the story is of profound significance. It reveals crucial details about the working of the regime and should be read by all politicians and diplomats involved in any way. And for those of us living in privileged circumstances, it reminds us to cherish and work to preserve our freedoms.

Finally, the story is deeply moving - I was close to tears by the end.

I give it the highest possible recommendation.


The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human
The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human
by Noah Strycker
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Anodyne, 15 Jun 2014
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This is moderately interesting, but the material has been covered elsewhere in a more inspiring manner. Perhaps I am unfair on the author - had I not read these points before I may have been more impressed. I found the 'lessons' from each chapter a bit patronising too.

As it is, I rapidly managed to forget that I read the book at all, and was only reminded by Amazon! It is unusual for any book to make such a small impression on me.


The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes
The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes
by Nicholas P. Money
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Groundbreaking message - pity it's not in English, 15 Jun 2014
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This book has opened my mind and changed my view of the world and of life. I now realise that to focus on the part of life we can see is to lose all sense of perspective.

I was amazed to learn of the large number of different types of microbe. The chemistry of many of these is completely alien to us - if life was found on another planet, we might expect it to be like this. And yet such alien life forms are right here, sometimes living inside us.

The only problem is that the author does not write in English (or at least any form that I recognise) - here is a typical example from page 117:

"These are conidia, clonal spores whose nuclei are mitotic replicates of the nuclei in the parent colony."

I am not normally afraid of scientific language - I have a chemistry degree and read 'New Scientist' every week. But this is ridiculous!

He intersperses this with passages of pseudo Bill Bryson slap stick (the author's favourite word seems to be 'fart'), which is disconcerting to say the least.

This is a pity, for there is obviously a very important message to get across here, and one that needs wider dissemination. I await with eager anticipation a well written book on this subject. In the meantime I recommend reading this book, as the wonderful message just about shines through despite the opaque language.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2014 7:32 PM BST


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