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King Rat: The Fourth Novel of the Asian Saga
King Rat: The Fourth Novel of the Asian Saga
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the few Japanese POW novels, 10 Mar. 2011
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From the Second World War, there has been very little literature arising from the Japanese POW camps, compared to the enormous amount based on German camps.
Yet the ordeals suffered by Japanese prisoners were horrific in the extreme, and surely merit more extensive exploration.

This book at least attempts to address that balance.

The story is based in Changi jail, in Singapore. Although obscenely brutal and murderous, it was actually not among the most sadistically genocidal of the Japanese camps.

Clavell - himself a camp veteran - provides a vivid portrayal of the desperate existence endured by the prisoners as the Japanese steadily worked them to death.

Different men respond in different ways to extreme hardship, and `every man for himself ' was a seemingly a commonly chosen option.

One criticism of the book has been that there isn't much portrayal of the dignity, esprit de corps, and self sacrifice which characterised a great deal of the POWs' behaviour.

Instead, Clavell explores the dark side - the pathetic nature of the prisoners' bitter desperation reducing them to pit their wits against each other. `Rat' prevails as the King of this grimmest of Castles.

There's a twist in the tail, however, and relationships readjust dramatically towards the end of the story.

The book has a powerful authenticity, and brings together a fascinating cluster of characters. It's a must-read, if only for the insight it gives into a crucial piece of 20th century history.

Starter For Ten
Starter For Ten
by David Nicholls
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comic Tale of a University `Rite of Passage', 10 Mar. 2011
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This review is from: Starter For Ten (Paperback)
Our anti-hero struggles gamely with his awkward age, social class, and level of self -confidence.

Nevetheless, spurred on by a reasonably high IQ and an optimistic personality, he constructs his social life, which consists of one part fulfillment and three parts disaster.

This evocation of university life is packed with witty observations.(It probably helps if you've had similar experiences to the protagonist).

The characters he meets on the way are fun to be with, and the plot is neat and satisying enough to propel us through his story.

Good fun - our hero enjoys his life, and we enjoy it even more.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy - And Why?
The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy - And Why?
by David G. Myers
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars `Pop Psychology' at its very best, 10 Mar. 2011
For the last couple of decades, psychologists have been steadily uncovering the facts about human `happiness'. Eminent among these is David G. Myers.
Here he sets out the startling evidence on the links between happiness and its various supposed ingredients : wealth; achievement; relationships; age; health; family; work; nationality; gender; and spirituality.

He goes on to explore the effects of happiness on our behaviour.

Move over, philosophers, and make way for a bit of science : this book could change your life !

The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body
by Prof Steven Mithen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If music be the food of love, play on, 10 Mar. 2011
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The power of music is undeniable, and evolutionary psychology has the challenge of producing a credible explanation for its ubiquity.

Professor Mithen convincingly rises to the task in this book, in which music is explained as `pre-verbal' language. (This is certainly a more compelling view than the idea of music being an accidental irrelevance, as some have proposed.)

Drawing from cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, archaeology, and primatology, Mithen carefully assembles the evidence for his theory. He includes an examination of the possible roles for music in sexual selection, socialisation, and spirituality.

His conclusion is elegant and satisfying : Homo Sapens' ancestors evolved a primitive music, which went on to form the core of Neanderthal communication. Homo Sapiens, however, subsequently evolved verbal communication; this left music partially redundant, but it retained for us its capacity to convey emotion.

Next time you find yourself serenading your loved one, this excellent book will help you to understand what you're doing, and why !

Preparing for the 21st Century
Preparing for the 21st Century
by Paul Kennedy
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars More essential reading from the author of `The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers', 10 Mar. 2011
There are a number of similar books which attempt to provide a geopolitical overview. None are as scholarly and authoritative as Paul Kennedy's, published to anticipate the millenium, and still an interesting read.

The opening part of the book is divided into his major themes.
Firstly, population growth. As the human race's survival skillsets advance, so does its population. The world is never far from a global food shortage, though biotechnology has so far kept up. What hasn't kept up, as we know, is the ability to reduce environmental damage. Pollution, water depletion, ozone layer thinning, overcrowding, global warming, etc, etc. (2 degrees celsius doesn't sound much until you hear that a nine degrees shift could trigger another ice age).
Secondly, the relative decline of the West, as the developing world's catches up.
Thirdly, globalisation, migration, and the relative decline in importance of the nation-state.
Fourthly, automation, IT and robotics; and finally, the vital role of increased education at all levels.

After chapters on these topics, he considers specific national issues in more detail. These summaries , written twenty-years ago, now serve as useful historical contexts.
The key issues he cites for the USA are i) an excess of low-skill immigration, and ii)even then, excessive debt.
For Europe, he sees the priority as a political balancing act: on the one hand, opportunities for a harmonised, free trading, economically stable bloc; on the other, the reality of cultural differences, national interests, and protectionism.
Both China and India's prority issue twenty years ago was how to avoid a Malthusian disaster: now we can witness the success of China's one-child policy, and, to a lesser extent, the reduction in India's fertility rate.
Japan - the powerhouse two decades ago - nevetheless faced at that time some key problems: the potentially unsustainable social costs of its worth ethic; possible stock and property bubbles; and ageing demographics. All three have contributed to Japan's subsequent relative stagnation.
The key themes of developing Southern Asia he cites as cheap labour, strong work ethic, a culture of saving, and low value currencies favouring exports. Latin America: despite economic and political improvements following the disastrous inflation-and debt-ridden 80's, some key problems remain : reliance on commodities, bloated public sectors, and high population growth. His overview of Africa contains a similar narrative as countries edge away from poverty, corruption and instability.
His assessment of the ex-USSR nations, re-read twenty years later, highlights how successfully Eastern Europe has transformed itself.

A thorough, balanced, overarching, Millenial Worldview, still relevant today.

Tony Blair: Prime Minister
Tony Blair: Prime Minister
by John Rentoul
Edition: Paperback

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent & revealing account, 10 Mar. 2011
Highly informative, carefully put together record of Tony Blair's background and early political career.

The edition I read covers the period from Oxford University up to 1997. (Subsequently, the book was updated, so I can't comment on the latter chapters.)

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000
by Paul Kennedy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Modern History, 7 Mar. 2011
A great deal is spoken these days about the political position of the `West'

No assessment can be complete without reference to this exhaustive account by Professor Kennedy, which gives a commanding perspective of all the Western Powers from the end of the middle ages to the late 20th century.

Leaving no room for doubt about the link between economic and military power, Kennedy meticulously charts the rise and fall of the Hapsburg, Spanish,Dutch, English, Napoleonic, Prussian and Russian empires of previous centuries, and the Austria-Hungarian ,Japanese,German, American, Soviet, Chinese, and European power blocs of the 20th.

Written in 1988, the work has obviously lost the immediate contemporary relevance it once had, but as an account of the 500 years immediately preceding this date, it is an indispensable overview.

The View from No.11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical
The View from No.11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical
by Nigel Lawson
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The `Lawson' Decade, 7 Mar. 2011
The eighties are generally known as the `Thatcher' years. It is easy, of course, in retrospect, to view Margaret Thatcher with a jaundiced eye, particularly remembering the caricature she became. Not so easy to find fault with this meticulous and tightly argued account provided by her high-powered Chancellor, Nigel Lawson.

There can be no doubt of Lawson's mastery of the economy, which forms the bulk of the memoirs. Interwoven, as you might expect, is a perceptive and intriguing political commentary, recounting his relationships with, and views on, the Unions, Margaret Thatcher, and his European colleagues.

A Life at the Centre (Politicos Great Statesmen)
A Life at the Centre (Politicos Great Statesmen)
by Roy Jenkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A liberal giant, 7 Mar. 2011
Jenkins' contribution to the centre and centre left of British and European politics is still of great historic interest, and was unquestionably one of the foremost politicians of the 20th century.

Here is an authentic voice : from his modest roots (bizarre that he was sometimes thought of as `posh'), Jenkins eventually became a genuinely great statesman of the type who is now sorely missed. He describes in rewarding detail his intellectual and political maturation, and recounts with consummate modesty his achievements as a cabinet minister, as President of the European Commision, and as founder member of the SDP.

Rather like its successor a generation later, the Labour party of the seventies found itself hamstrung by internal politics, and achieved less as a result. However, anyone who lived through the tumultuous changes in Britain between 1964 and 1990 can take heart from this volume of honest, and impressively thoughtful, reflections.

I found this a thoroughly gripping story from start to finish, and was left with a great admiration for a politician of great vision and accomplishment.

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
by Matt Ridley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution of sex, 5 Mar. 2011
What is sex? It's The Red Queen - nature's way of enabling us to `run in order to stand still'.

It turns out that the purpose of sex is to enable our genes to refresh themselves often enough to outwit our equally `ingenious' parasites.

Sex itself has had to pass numerous Darwinian hurdles in order to prevail as a useful mechanism for survival. Ridley seems to have mastered vast amounts of research, and astonishes us with a scintillating account of the rigour, in genetic, biochemical, and biological terms, of the evolutionary tests which sexual reproduction itself has successfully overcome.

Once we understand the enormous respect which this evolutionary adaptation deserves, we are eager to hear more about it. Maintaining the ruthlessly exacting scientific perspective of Darwinian logic, Ridley surveys sexual selection and mating behaviour in the animal kingdom, including humankind.

For a fascinating new light on your love life, read this book !

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