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Reviews Written by
M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   

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Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day
Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day
by Michael Axworthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Mind opening, 23 Aug. 2015
I found this book completely fascinating, with a lot of new information which was completely new to me. It opens the mind to an alternate view of the world.

I especially enjoyed the sections on poetry in the middle ages, where one gets the impression that Iran was way ahead of western countries at that time. This period also refutes the ideas of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who think that Islam is and always was especially flawed.

I was rather shocked to learn of Britain's military activity against Iran in 1919 and again in 1941. They don't teach you that in school or on the history channel. Britain has a considerable guilt in creating Iran's contemporary problems.

On the down side, I got a bit stuck towards the middle of the book, where all the rulers and dynasties became quite confusing to follow. I gave it up for another (much better written) book for a while.

But overall very worthwhile and recommendable, at least until someone else comes along to write an alternative.


Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives)
Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives)
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly Written, 23 Aug. 2015
An excellent insight into Shakespeare's life and times. It is also a useful blast against those who go beyond the reasonable grounds of speculation given how little is actually known about Shakespeare.

It goes without saying that this is superbly written, and a breath of fresh air compared to the leaden efforts of so many authors. It pretty much reads itself.

Recommended.


The Forty Rules of Love
The Forty Rules of Love
by Elif Shafak
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Unpredictable, nuanced and thought provoking, 23 Aug. 2015
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A wonderful novel. Completely unpredictable, very original, nuanced and thought provoking.

The tale of Shams and his 40 rules of love is in itself fascinating, both from a historical point of view and as an excellent story in itself.

What I really liked about the novel is the ambivalence of it. Shams has both a positive and a negative impact on those around him. One can understand the frustrations of those who wanted rid of him, while simultaneously being mightily impressed with his wisdom. Similarly in the modern day story, one shares the excitement of the bored housewife escaping her life but at the same times feels a sense of horror as she abandons her children.

Recommended!


Seveneves
Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Problematic!, 21 July 2015
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This review is from: Seveneves (Hardcover)
This story haunted my dreams night after night. It made a strong impression. And yet what a deeply flawed novel this is! I didn't want to like it, yet somehow I did. In a way.

Neal Stephenson gives every impression of being autistic. His prose is horrendous. The characters are featureless, devoid of life and almost ignored, as if Stephenson is unaware of what is going on in humans around him. He shows no response to art, poetry or music. Instead we get masses and masses of ridiculously technical details. He writes as if he thinks the sole purpose of a novel is to exchange data.

Then there is the utter predictability of the plot (I guessed the broad outline of the end hundreds of pages early). Race is addressed in a distasteful way (is Stephenson trying to teach us to be neo nazis?) . A fat wadge of pages at the beginning of part three must count as the most boring piece of reading I ever attempted. And very silly the plot ideas at this point are too.

And then there is that sex scene on page 65, which must be the worst in all literature:

"...he was in Amelia's arms, and she in his, as they got busy making an embryo....He was already thinking about the videos he was going to make to teach his baby about calculus when he climaxed."

And yet. And yet. Yes I enjoyed it a little bit. I am almost ashamed of myself.


Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia
Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia
by Dominic Lieven
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

2.0 out of 5 stars Good insights but poorly written, 19 July 2015
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I gave up on this about half way through.

The part I did read has many intesresting perspectives and insights into the problems facing Russia and the views of its intellectual elite. There are insightful comments on empire and parallels drawn vetween Russia and the other empires of the day.

Unfortunately the book is poorly written. It almost feels like we are reading Lieven's research notes, which he has yet to fashion into a book. This not really good enough - the reader needs to be given more respect.


Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A world apart, 29 Jun. 2015
Here is very readable and enjoyable portrait of contemporary Japan. How fascinating to encounter a society that is so different from the rest of humanity. Pilling uses his journalisitic skills and personal experiences and anecdotes to make this much more than a dry and dusty academic text.

Whilst he obviously has a lot of affection for Japan, he is remarkably even handed, highlighting the negatives as well as the positives, and this tends to give the book credibilty. He is very sure footed on the ecomomic debate, without ever being dogmatic. When encountering a mind set that is so different from our own there is much we can learn. So it is good that the book has a very wide range, from history, to beliefs, politics, the role of men and women and to economics. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Japanese ideas of God, which was very mind broadening.

Two very small criticisms: I felt there was occasionally a little too much weight to the politicians who happened to be prominent during Pilling's years in Japan (readily available material I suppose, but it perhaps unbalances the book). Also, Pilling is on slightly unsteady ground when discussing the lack of Japan's apology for its actions during World War 2. As only one country (Germany) has shown formal remorse, Japan is in relatively good company, and I am not sure how much this unsurprising fact tells us about Japanese society.

I came away from the book with a strong desire to find out more, and to go and visit. Highly recommended!


The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
Price: £9.49

8 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Angry Shepherd, 17 Jun. 2015
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I admire James Rebanks and the work that he does. I bought this book because I wanted to understand more about sheep farming. And indeed this book taught me a lot. It makes one realise how much is going on behind the scenes in the countryside, unseen to the casual visitor. I also was intrigued by the many parallels between the type of work Rebanks does and the world of work in other professions.

Rebanks has an excellent way with words and his descriptions of the lakeland fells are highly evocative.

However I also came away with a rather uncomfortable feeling. It seems that James Rebanks holds me in utter contempt. My crime? By accident of birth I was born in the South of the UK, and even worse my parents were not sheep farmers.

And here is the book's fatal flaw. It is not necessary to condemn as unworthy 99.99 percent of the human population in order to demonstrate the value of a shepherd's life. James Rebanks displays a very unattractive intolerance throughout the book.

And yet were it not for people like us, the 'great unwashed', who would he sell his food products to? How then would his way of life continue?

I think it is rather sad when people fail to respect each other, and feel disappointed that this book has become so popular. We really need to stick together!

Finally it remains for me to comment that while the book is generally well written, it can be a little repetitive at times and might have benefited from better editing to correct the occasional grammatical error.


The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?
The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?
by Nick Lane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why do we grow old and die?, 30 May 2015
This magnificent book really helped me to understand life much better. Nick Lane was able to hold my interest without ever discussing any life form bigger than an amoeba, which is quite an achievement.

If you want insights into what life actually is, into why we age and die, and on the origins of sex, this is the place to turn. For the first time I feel I properly understand the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The concept of the three basic families of life (bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes) has finally settled in my mind. And finally, I realise what mitochondria are too. So lots of words and concepts that I had read about before without understanding them have clicked into place.

There are some weaknesses though. Nick Lane does not write about science as well as some. He uses too much jargon for someone with a life outside his field to follow, and there were many passages that I did not understand.

Secondly, he does rather have an obsession with the role of energy in biology. This yields many fascinating insights (like the idea that the energy difference across your cell walls is stronger than a bolt of lightening). And perhaps his obsession is understandable as it seems to be Lane's specialism. However, it leads him to lose balance and to over simplify things. Surely energy considerations alone cannot really explain life, the universe and everything!

Still, a wonderful book and a major step forward in the understanding of life. Highly recommended!


Not Forgetting The Whale
Not Forgetting The Whale
by John Ironmonger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read, very original and quite quirky, 9 May 2015
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A wonderful read, very original and quite quirky. Plenty of humour too, and refreshing that we meet a cast of of nice (if flawed) characters along the way - just like real life.

The author brings some deep insights into the state of our world in a very gentle and un preachy way. A lot of research must have gone into this.

Until about nine tenths of the way through I was thinking this was a five star book, but I found the ending just a little too saccharine and Hollywoodesque for my tastes. Still, the truth is I really enjoyed nearly all of it.

Recommended!


Triumph of Seeds
Triumph of Seeds
by Thor Hanson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and wide ranging, 9 May 2015
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This review is from: Triumph of Seeds (Hardcover)
This is outstanding! Don't be misled by the somewhat unassuming title. This is wide ranging, informative, full of humour and very readable.

We learn the amazing story of the seed of an extinct type of fig found in the ruins of Masada, which blossomed into a tree after nearly 2000 years of dormancy. About how the seed (bean) of coffee unlocked the enlightenment. Why rats can gnaw through concrete. And how to kill a spy with a poison umbrella, laced with seed extract.

On the way we have insights into the nature of life (in what sense was the 2000 year old fig seed alive - did it have any ongoing metabolic processes all that time?). We learn a lot about symbiotic co-evolution. Have seeds domesticated humans in the way that they have manipulated many other species? There is the intrguing tale of why seeds contain active ingredients like caffeine. Why do peppers taste hot, and why do all other animals find pepper unpleasant to eat but humans love it?

Hanson has a very original mind, and he is very well read. Throughout he demonstrates wonderful powers of story telling.

Highly recommended


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