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Reviews Written by
M. D. Holley (Kent, UK)

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The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria
The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria
by Max Adams
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 19.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Good surface detail but misses the bigger picture, 3 Oct. 2015
A vivid and enjoyable read, which really brings seventh century Britain to life. I was amazed how much is known about this period, both from the written record and from archaeology!

And what a dramatic and atmospheric period it is too, enhanced by the evocative and wonderful names of people, places and kingdoms. Then there is the fascination of the pagan religions and their mixing with early forms of christianity. There is also a wider story going on, as Rome tries to pull its old empire back together using christianity. One can see an early form of the tension between Britian as an island going its own way and the attractions of linking up once again to the continent of Europe.

The author has an excellent writing style and clearly has done a huge amount of research.

However, despite all the brilliant surface detail and excellent sense of atmosphere, the book has a major flaw, and that is in its treatment of religion. Religion is the big story of this era (which started with much of Britain following various older religions, and ended with it being a largely Catholic country subject to the Roman church). Indeed the majority of the pages within the book are occupied with religion. It is a huge disappointment for a book about the period to mishandle this topic, given its significance. The author rightly points out that Bede's history is distorted because his agenda was to show the inevitability and correctness of the triumph of Roman orthodox christianity. But then the author makes exactly the same error himself! He writes as if he believes that the conversion to christianity was an inevitable progression; he imples that christianity was superior to the old religions, that only christians were literate, that only christians could show compassion, display morality and so on (has he ever considered the Greeks, Romans, Chinese or Persians?). Those who returned or stayed loyal to older religions are described as having 'apostasised' as if this was morally delinquent. Nowhere do we have any discussion as to why Rome wanted Britain to become christian, and what the larger geopolitical issues and context were.

So while this is a useful account of a little known era, we really need a book written from a more detached viewpoint to do the story justice.

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and original, 27 Sept. 2015
Many insights and original thoughts on how best to treat elderly people. The book is very well written and is hard to put down.

I found it completely sure footed until the very end, where the author comes out strongly against any form of euthenasia. I found this a bit odd, as he is very keen on freedom of choice, dignity and respect elsewhere.

Overall though this is a very thought provoking and satisfying read.


The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
by Sy Montgomery
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.08

2.0 out of 5 stars Cloying sentimentality mars an interesting subject, 27 Sept. 2015
A deeply frustrating book this!

The passages where the author writes about and interacts with octopuses are really inspiring. But most of the book is not about octopuses. I found it a struggle to get through to the end. It felt more like 2,400 pages rather than 240!

An octopus is an especially fascinating creature because its last common ancestor with humans was so very long ago, and it has therefore developed along a completely different path. The nature of its intelligence, brain structure and emotional life is extremely rewarding to investigate. These aspects are well covered here, albeit briefly.

Alongside the octopuses the author introduces a bewilderingly huge cast of human characters - so many of them that I couldn't keep track. Much of the book is 'Jack said so and so and Anna went there and Bill's wife is not well' and on and on endlessly. It felt like watching someone's badly edited holiday videos. We are burdened with masses of material about the author learning to scuba dive and about the refurbishment of an aquarium. And everywhere the writing is plastered with huge dollops of cloying sentimentality.

My interest in octopuses is well and truly aroused. But I shan't be buying books by this author again.

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

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.


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.


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

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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

10 of 18 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.

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