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R. Darlington "Roger Darlington" (London, England)

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by Simon Mawer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

4.0 out of 5 stars Who is Marian now and what did she do next?, 18 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Tightrope (Paperback)
British writer Simon Mawer - who has lived in Italy for over 30 years - produced a stunning work in "The Glass Room" (2009) which impressed me enormously. His next two novels, published in 2012 & 2015, were a duo with the same central character, the young, idealistic French-speaking Marian Sutro who is a wartime agent and a post-war spy. The first of the novels was titled "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky" to reflect her role as a parachutist with the Special Operations Executive but, in the United States, there was another work with the same title so Mawer's offering was renamed "Trapeze". The second of the novels "Tightrope" has a title with a pleasing symmetry to that of "Trapeze" and picks up Sutro's story two years later, following her harrowing experience in a French prison and the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The two novels have a linking theme as well as the same central character: the atomic bomb. In "Trapeze", Sutro was tasked with persuading a French atomic scientist to escape German-occupied France so that he could support the Allies in the research to produce the bomb. "Tightrope" is largely set in the fascinating few post-war years when the Americans have - and have used - the bomb but the Soviet Union is struggling to acquire the same super-weapon. Some want the USA to press its advanatage by using the bomb in a pre-emptive attack on the USSR, while others believe that world peace would be best secured through enabling the Russians to have their own bomb as quickly as possible.

Mawer is a fine writer with the ability to keep the reader gripped, even though most of the narrative is about period, atmosphere and character with little dramatic action. In Marian Sustro, he has crafted a complex, multifacted character who is a harder, more worldly, more political, more sexual woman than in the first novel. What to make of her and her actions? Marian herself ruminates that "life has no exact meanings, only shades of meaning, hints, versions and contradictions, a confusion of loves and hates, of motives and desires". Or, as the narrator puts it: "The whole damn story is riddled with clichés, heroine being one of them. Traitor being another."

Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance
Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance
by Ian Goldin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unusually wide--ranging and refreshingly optimistic, 9 Aug. 2016
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This impressive and inspiring work is sub-titled ""Navigating The Risks And Rewards Of Our New Renaissance". The theme of the book is that, since around 1990, we have been living in a time which is in effect a New Renaissance and we should learn some of the lessons from the original Renaissance of 1450-1550. In the introductory chapter, the authors write: “For the first time ever, the number of poor people in the world has plummeted (by over one billion people since 1990) and the overall population has swelled (by some two billion) at the same time. Scientists alive today outnumber all scientists who ever lived up to 1980, and – in part thanks to them – average life expectancy has risen more in the past fifty years than in the previous 1,000.”

Goldin & Kutarna, both academics at Oxford University, set the scene by examining how, both in the original Renaissance and now, trade, finance, technology and people have brought the word together and argue that today we are not so much "connected" as "entangled". They point out that "One in every four dollars earned worldwide now comes from selling merchandise to other countries" and that the value of that merchandise has risen between 1990-2014 by over 500%. Over the same period, real per capita income rose in 146 of the 166 countries and territories for which data is available. In a balanced assessment of global trends, they acknowledge that nearly one billion people still live on under $2 per day but, detailing increases in incomes, life expectancy and literacy plus the improving status of women, they insist that "for more people in more places than ever before, now is the best time to be alive".

So why are - especially in the developed world - so many people so downbeat about their lives? The authors point out that: "The media we consume tends to under-report and obscure the broad positive shifts that underlie the present age. These shifts - to new heights of human health, wealth, education, and entanglement - are slow-moving relative to our favourite television dramas and they're expressed in statistics instead of celebrity tweets."

The final chapter of this book, with its unusual span of history, geography, politics, economics, science and art, contains a kind of mini-manifesto for how we can best develop the positive trends in the New Renaissance at a global level.

Goldin & Kutarna advocate a shift to more progressive taxes and the closing of tax loopholes, the use of taxes to discourage public bads like congestion and pollution, the removal of perverse energy and agricultural subsidies, and a rise in inheritance taxes. They argue that we should upgrade overburdened nodes in public infrastructure such as power grids, help poorer countries to strengthen their public health systems, put in place carbon taxes to discourage fossil fuel use and slow climate change, and invest heavily in the world's poor and young so that they can take part in the global gains being made around them. Sounds good to me. More controversially, they recommend: "We should aggressively liberalize migration, which would reinvigorate aging advanced economies and increase the positive spillover of rich world incomes, knowledge, skills and institutions to the poor."

Mexico What Everyone Needs to Know
Mexico What Everyone Needs to Know
by Roderic Ai Camp
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.75

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An easy and informative read, 31 May 2016
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I read this book on a holiday in Mexico in 2016. It was an easy and informative read because it takes the form of mini-essays answering 104 questions, an accessible format but one that necessitates a little repetition.

It starts with the headline issues of security and violence and then looks at political, economic and social developments, before backtracking to give quite an extensive historical background to these current issues and developments. Finally there is an examination of Mexico's democratic transition from 71 years (1929-2000) of rule by the same semi-authoritarian political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to the present situation where there is now a genuine contest for power and experience of non-PRI presidents.

Camp is very clear what are the three most important challenges facing Mexico today and how these challenges are inter-related.

First is "its ability to increase its economic growth while simultaneously reducing high levels of poverty". Reasons given are the absence of competitiveness in numerous economic sectors, the lack of labour flexibility, the low levels of transparency, and the high levels of corruption.

Second - which "receives far more attention from American policy makers" - is its security situation. Camp (an American) emphasises that the security problem is in large part created by the economic situation and argues that both Mexico and the United States "are spending most of their resources on the consequences of crime and poverty, not on the causes".

The third issue is the effect that the economic and criminal problems are having on the process of democratisation. The lack of accountability and transparency seriously undermine the rule of law and the promotion of human rights.

It is not a pretty picture but Mexico is a wonderfully vibrant nation.

The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East
The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East
by David L. Phillips
Edition: Paperback
Price: £24.23

4.0 out of 5 stars Quite a heavy read but very informative, 31 May 2016
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Who are the Kurds and what is Kurdistan? Phillips - formerly a senior adviser to the US Department of State during three presidencies and now an academic at Columbia University - explains just how differentiated are the Kurds – “the largest stateless people in the world” – geographically, linguistically and religiously.

The total area of Kurdistan is about 600,000 square kilometres, roughly equal to the size of France, and the total number of Kurds is an estimated 32 million. But there are four major geographic sectors:

North Kurdistan is in Turkey. An estimated 22.5 million Kurds live there. The main language is Kurmanji.
South Kurdistan is in Iraq. Around 8-10 million live there. The main language is Sorani.
East Kurdistan is in Iran. around 4.5 million live there. The main language is Sorani.
West Kurdistan is in Syria. Some 2.5 million live there. The main language is Kurmanji.

Around 75% of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Most of the rest are Shia Muslims but there are significant pockets of Alevi, Sufis, Yazidi and Christian.

The core of this book is two sets of four chapters describing the experience of the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran respectively. The first quartet summarises the history of these groups from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 up to around the time of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The main themes are the repeated betrayal of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and independence and the multitudinous factionalism of the Kurds themselves (there are 16 Kurdish parties in Syria alone). The second quartet looks at the events in these countries in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The main theme is that the Kurds in Iraq are set for independence at last, although none of the countries in the region or the USA wants this and formidible obstacles will have to be overcome for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan to be viable.

The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), now led by Masoud Barzani (the son of the founder), was established as long ago as 1946. Its principal rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was founded in 1975 and is led by Jalal Talabani. In 1992, the KDP and the PUk created a unity administration for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - although they fought a brief civil war in 1994 - and now represent by far the most stable part of Iraq and the most effective opponent of ISIS. Phillips avoids criticism of his friends in Iraqi Kurdistan (where there is a great deal of corruption) but is not averse to challenging the policy of his own country, calling the US approach "self-contradictory", referring to Obama's "ambivalence", and characterising the President's foreign policy as "too deliberative, cautious, and defined by limitations".

"The Kurdish Spring" is immensely informative with lots of names, dates, and events but it is quite heavy-going because of the multiplicty of organisations and acronyms and the sense of despair about the problems of this region. Overwhelmingly this is a work of narrative with little analysis, but an overt sympathy for the plight of the Kurds everywhere and clear support for independence statehood for the Iraqi Kurds.

Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler's Commando Order
Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler's Commando Order
by Eric Lee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.58

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meticulously researched and excitingly written, 27 April 2016
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The only part of the British Islands to be occupied by the Germans in the Second World War was the Channel Islands. No attempt was made to liberate them – that would have been futile – but seven commando raids were mounted and this book tells the story of the most eventful and consequential. It was codenamed Operation Basalt and took place on Sark, only the fourth largest of the islands with a population of fewer than 500, on the night of 3/4 October 1942.

Lee – an American living in London – has meticulously researched the raid and written a detailed and exciting account of why it was mounted, how it was conducted, and what resulted. The intention was to capture one or more German soldiers in order to obtain intelligence. The raid succeeded in that one German engineer was seized and taken back to England where he provided much useful information. However, three Germans were killed – one knifed and two shot – and those who were shot had their hands tied at the time which caused the German propaganda machine to condemn the incident as a war crime

The entire operation only lasted eleven and a half hours and the commandos were only on the island for four and a half hours, so there is a limit to what can be written about the raid itself, but Lee precedes the narrative of the raid with an explanation of life on German-occupied Sark, dealing with issues of collaboration and deportation, and follows the audacity and confusion of the raid with an explanation of what subsequently transpired, notably further deportations from Sark and Hitler’s infamous Commando Order to kill any British commando whatever the circumstances of his capture.

We think of the ‘fog of war’ as relating to battles but it is astonishing how much uncertainty there is even over such a small-scale operation as Operation Basalt. For a start, the raid involved 12 commandos from the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and 12 Commando, led by Major Geoffrey Appleyard who received a Distinguished Service Order but, even today, we are not absolutely sure of all the names of those on the raid. Only one of the commandos is still alive and he cannot remember. There was even someone who claimed to be on the raid who certainly was not.

As a sound historian, Lee is scrupulously honest in identifying his sources and admitting when there are inconsistencies or doubts and he is notably even-handed in his assessment of such controversial matters as whether the raid was worth it in terms of the intelligence obtained and the German reaction both on the island and on the Western Front.

The Book of Strange New Things
The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A strange novel that will divide opinion, 13 Mar. 2016
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It is not obvious what nationality to assign to Michel Faber. You could call him Dutch because he was born in the Netherlands; you could regard him as Australian since he lived there for a quarter of a century; but many think of him as a Scottish author as he emigrated there in 1993. Equally it is not obvious what kind of novel this is. It is classified as a work of science fiction and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Certainly it is set on a distant planet in "a foreign solar system trillions of miles from home" (but the air is breathable if clammy) and involves aliens (but they speak English although with difficulty over sibilants); yet there is very little science in the text and one could easily view the novel as just as much about religious faith and its absurdity or about deep love and its fragility.

The central character is Peter Leigh, an English pastor with an unconventional background ("I went to the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse") and a non-denominational approach to Christianity. He is selected by an opaque organisation called USIC to travel through "the physics-defying technology of the Jump" to a planet called Oasis and minister to the local Oasans known only as Jesus Lover One, Two, Three ... Peter leaves behind his wife Bea, with whom he communicates (poorly) through a device known as the Shoot, as she faces a world increasingly struck by disasters both natural and human, and he becomes increasingly close to the (female) USIC pharmacist Grainger who is very different from her emotionally-restrained colleagues.

The longer Peter moves between the USIC base and the Oasan community, the more he becomes quietly disoriented. And the further the reader works through the novel, the more one wonders what it is really about. The eponymous "Book" is in fact the Bible and, if that is strange, then so is this work. It is long (almost 600 pages) and the narrative proceeds languildy with very little actually happening, but it is an easy and rather seductive read. At the end of it, though, I'm left wondering if it really deserved the critical praise that it has received and whether it isn't too insubstantial. This is Faber's sixth novel and he has suggested it will be his last. I can live with that.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics
by Tim Marshall
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

162 of 165 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkably clear, concise yet comprehensive primer to geo-politics, 18 Jan. 2016
The sub-title of this book makes a bold claim: “Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”. While it is true that there are 10 double-page maps, there are another 10 smaller maps; the maps do not, of course, stand alone, but are supported by some 240 pages of text; and “everything” is inevitably a subjective judgement.

Having said all that, this is an exceptionally accomplished work with many admirable features: it covers every continent and major nation (except Oceania); it is immensely informative and bang up-to-date; it covers so much material in a commendably concise text; and the writing is clear while the judgements are insightful – all these attributes reflecting Marshall’s experience and skill as a British media reporter of international affairs and global conflicts.

The main theme of the book – reflected in the title – is that overwhelmingly geo-politics has been, and largely still is, shaped by the geographical characteristics of nations and their neighbours. As he puts it: "… the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lakes and seas that constrain us all”.

This central argument is illustrated in detail through 10 chapters looking at different nations or regions:

Russia: He explains the strategic thinking of the biggest country in the world that perceives two military weaknesses. First, the North European Plain that has been the route for successive invasions of the country since the Poles in 1605, leading the Russians to want a buffer of friendly nations to its west. Second, the lack of a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans that was one of the major factors behind the take-over of Crimea so that it retained clear control of the port of Sevastopol.

China: He sets out the importance to China, the most populous country in the world, of the province of Xinjiang conquered in the 18th century and the territory of Tibet annexed in 1951, so that it has secure borders on all sides. Now China is building a Blue Water navy to assert its power in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and it is investing throughtout Asia, Africa and South America to create strategic assets like ports and acquire strategic minerals, metals and sources of energy.

USA: He argues that this is the nation most blessed by geography: a huge expanse territory with no threatening neighbours, vast resources with plenty of navigable rivers and extensive infrastructure, and access to and protection by two massive oceans. He is not one of those commentators suggesting the imminent decline of America: ”The planet’s most successful country is about to become self-sufficient in energy, it remains the pre-eminent economic power and it spends more on research and development for its military than the overall military budget of all the other NATO countries combined”.

Western Europe: He spells out the geographical reasons for Europe becoming the ‘First World’: mild climate, the right soil, navigable rivers, natural harbours, and no deserts or frozen wastes. As for modern times, he sees the European Union as having "worked brilliantly" in locking France and Germany together and preventing further European wars.

Africa: He is not optimistic about the future of the continent. Geography is against it with lots of hostile climates, a lack of navigable rivers, and nation states artificially created by former colonial powers. He describes the Democratic Republic of the Congo as ”the great black hole” that has been home to the world’s most deadly conflict since the Second World War.

The Middle East: He explains the problems created by the drawing of artificial lines on the map by Britain and France after the First World War, the nature of the Arab/Israeli conflict, the failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the nature of the Sunni/Shia divide in the Muslim world, and the growth of jihadist movements which ”may be the Arab version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War”.

India and Pakistan: He reminds us that these two nations – once a single British colony – have fought four major wars and many skirmishes with the Kashmir issue remaining the most serious area of conflict. He despairs of Pakistan which has been in a state of civil war for more than a decade but is hopeful about the continuing economic growth and political power of India.

Korea and Japan: He sets out the territorial disputes over control of various islands between Japan and Russia, China and South Korea respectively, but understandably sees the greatest risk of conflict between nuclear-armed North Korea and South Korea, although he is confident of the superior strength of South Korea and its ally America.

Latin America: Like Africa and for similar geographical reasons, he is not optimistic about the future of the 20 countries in this region. The rainforest, the mountain ranges, the lack of navigable rivers, the lack of cooperation between nations, together with the poverty and corruption, do not auger well for this southern section of the globe.

The Arctic: He explains how climate change has allowed easier access to the region and the discovery of large energy deposits leading to new interest in this part of the world, especially by an aggressively assertive Russia. But the Arctic region includes land in parts of eight countries and there are currently at least nine legal disputes and claims over sovereignty.

This is a work that should be read by every national and international politician (especially in the USA). If it is the only such book they read and they can take all the messages on board, they will have achieved a great deal of wisdom and insight.

Inevitably, one wonders whether geo-politics will continue to be as shaped and constrained as it has been by geographical features and, at the beginning and the end of his book, Marshall hints at some of the factors which may be loosening the bars of these 'prisons', such as air power, the Internet, climate change, and space. For now though, geography remains the most powerful influence on everything from national wealth to military strength and this book is a wonderful primer on geo-politics.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 8, 2016 12:02 PM GMT

Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011
Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011
by Daniel Branch
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A depressing but essential read for those interested in Kenya, 20 Nov. 2015
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Between visits to Kenya by President Barack Obama and Pope Francis in the second half of 2015, I made my first trip to the country and was recommended to read this book to understand better this nation of some 45 million with no less than 42 different tribes, most notably Kikuyu 22%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 12%, Kamba 11%, Kisii 6%, and Meru 6%. This post-colonial history of nearly half a century is a tale of three presidencies: those of the Kikuyu Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978), the Kalenjin Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), and the Kikuyu Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013).

Daniel Branch is associate professor of African history at the University of Warwick in the UK and his meticulously researched work is sadly a depressing read because of the events he records and examines. The main theme of his work is that politics in Kenya has not been about the redistribution of resources between different social classes as in most democracies, but about the calculated assignment of power and influence to different ethnic groups - what is called the politics of recognition rather than redistribution.

He laments: "Elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources." The result - which Branch narrates in grim detail - has been continual ethnic conflict (often promoted by political elites and tolerated by police and security forces) which have frequently resulted in hundreds of deaths and considerable displacement, constant repression of any opposition to the controlling elites with regular political assasinations, corruption of a ubiquitious nature and on a massive scale, and for most of the populace deep-seated poverty and lack of education.

Branch describes Kenya as "a half-made place" with a public life of "amnesiac collusion" and " a schizophrenic political system". He explains: "On the one hand, it has a vibrant political society and a free press that routinely exposes corruption scandals and demonstrates the links between senior political figures and electoral violence. On the other hand, groups like Mungiki [a militia suppporting Kikuyu politicians and communities] thrive and its politicians are accused of crimes against humanity." Somewhere between hope and despair, he concludes: "Kenya may never be prosperous or be a nation; but armed with a government that it deserves, it can be a state whose citizens live side by side in peace and enjoy equal opportunities."

Since this book was published, Kenya has had another general election and chosen a new leadership: Uhuru Kenyatta (Kikuyu) as President and William Ruto (Kalenjin) as Vice-President. In 2010, both men were accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of crimes against humanity relating to the violence which followed the 2007 elections that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced 600,000.

by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not great literature but terrific storytelling, 31 Oct. 2015
This review is from: Dominion (Paperback)
British writer Christopher John Sansom's 2011 novel "Dominion" can be compared to fellow British writer Robert Harris's 1992 work "Fatherland" and indeed, in an end note, Sansom describes "Fatherland" as "the best alternate history novel ever written". Both are set in a world in which the outcome of the Second World War is very different from real history with an undefeated Germany and a compliant Britain and both are thrillers involving a great mystery but, whereas "Fatherland" is set in Germany in April 1964, "Dominion is located in Britain in November-December 1952. Sansom makes constant reference to the weather and eventually we realise why he set his novel when he did: it is the time of the Great Smog when for almost a week London effectively came to a halt, making any search or rescue mission especially complicated.

For all its length (almost 700 pages), "Dominion" is tightly focused in time (a few weeks), place (southern England) and main characters (a scientist with a secret, a few members of the Resistance, and a couple of SS and Special Branch pursuers). It is not great literature, some of the dialogue is leaden and expository, and it takes a while for the pace to pick up, but it is highly readable, indeed something of a page-turner.

What makes "Dominion" particularly interesting is the assumptions Sansom makes about how all sorts of real characters would have behaved had Britain signed a peace treaty with Germany in 1940 instead of continuing the war. So he places Lord Beaverbrook as head of a collaborationist British government with a Cabinet including Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell. Winston Churchill - for whom Sansom clearly has great admiration - is the aged leader of the Resistance supported by Labour leader Clement Attlee. Sansom. who was born in Scotland of a Scottish mother, is fiercely anti-nationalist and represents the Scottish National Party as supporters of the increasingly authoritarian British Government. At the end of the novel, the author devotes no less than 18 pages to an historical note justifying his characterisations of various politicians and parties.

If there is a moral to the book, it is expressed by a Slovak member of the British Resistance: " .. you thought fascism would never come to Britain, you had been a democracy so long, and you felt ... special. But you were wrong; given the right circumstances fascism can infest any country, feeding off the hatreds and and nationalisms that already exist. Nobody is safe."

The Martian
The Martian
by Andy Weir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A good novel that could be an even better film, 29 April 2015
This review is from: The Martian (Paperback)
Like the hero of his novel, Weir has succeeded against the odds. Originally his work was self-published on his web site chapter by chapter before being picked up by a publisher and enjoying great success. The eponymous Martian is of course a human, Mark Watney, originally one of a crew of six visiting the red planet on NASA's Ares 3 mission. When he finds himself alone in immensely challenging circumstances, he shows amazing resilience and inventiveness and, in a regular and detailed log, considerable wry and dry humour "Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped".

The scientific detail of the writing is astonishing and Weir, the son of a physicist, has described himself as "a space nerd my whole life" and acknowledged that he did "a ton of research for the book as well as lots of thought-experiment science". At first, I wondered how much I could take of the single-person narrative and all the science - which, while making for a convincing tale, is rather heavy - but, after almost 50 pages, the style changes and the format opens out, so that it becomes a real page-turner and the 370 pages rush by.

This is not great literature, but it is grand storytelling. It is not character-driven - indeed we learn little about Watney or anyone else in the account - but it is action-driven. Things keep happenening to make Watney's survival seem hopeless, only for other developments to come along that make rescue a possibility once more. As I read the novel, I kept thinking what a terrific film it would make - especially with less of the science and more character development - and, once I finished the work and checked out the web, I learned that indeed it is to be a movie with Matt Damon in the lead role. It's going to be up there with "Apollo 13" and "Gravity".

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