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One man's odyssey through the world of books

Updated: 2018-01-20T16:05:35.111+00:00


Julius Caesar - The Conquest of Gaul


Julius Caesar's personal account of his time as military commander (58-50 BCE) in central and north-west Europe is a fascinating read. Caesar has responsibility for an area that mostly covers modern France, Switzerland and parts of Germany and the low countries. Today, his account is often remembered as it contains the first written accounts of Britain and the Britons. But it should also be

Kyle Harper - The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire


I have to admit that I began by disliking Kyle Harper's Fate of Rome. The initial prejudice was because of Harper's use of Malthusian ideas as the intellectual framework for his discussion of Ancient Rome. Reading a book published in 2017 I was surprised to find big chunky quotes from "Parson Malthus" not least because his ideas have repeatedly been challenged and shown wanting. Persevering

Jeannette Ng - Under the Pendulum Sun


What would happen if Victorian England, in all its colonial glory, discovered fairy land? This is the intriguing basis for Jeannette Ng's new novel Under the Pendulum Sun. Catherine Helston is a classic example of her class. A young woman born into a middle class family, the daughter of a minister. Her beloved elder brother, Laon, follows their father into the church and becomes a missionary in

Stephen Mosley - The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian & Edwardian Manchester


Stephen Mosley's The Chimney of the World is a fascinating book about one of the earliest environmental problems for a major industrial city, but for today's activists concerned about climate change and air pollution in the 21st century it will stimulate many thoughts about how we meet the environmental challenges we face. I read this book for two reasons. Firstly I live in Manchester today and

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Children of Time


This is an unusual and sometimes strange novel. It follows two attempts by humanity to colonise and terraform far distant worlds. The first of this is abruptly terminated when human civilisation collapses, but not before colonists have seeded a planet with earth creatures and a virus intended to allow the apes they've left to evolve rapidly into humans.The second expedition follows the second

Eric Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism


There is a growing movement of people thinking about how their food is grown, what it contains and its impact on their health and the environment. Often this is tied up with an individualistic view of improving the world - the idea that you can save the world by simply choosing the best food with the least impact on the planet. Eric Holt-Giménez explains he wrote A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism

Peter Watts - Echopraxia


Despite enjoying the first volume of this short series by Peter Watts, I found Echopraxia to be utterly incomprehensible. The story follows the adventures of a biologist Daniel Bruks who is caught up in a space mission to investigate events described in the first book, Blindsight. That novel was marked by some interesting discussions on the nature of consciousness and humanity, as well as a

Kohei Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature & the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy


Kohei Saito's book Karl Marx's Ecosocialism is a detailed examination of the way that Marx's ideas of what we would today call ecology developed and evolved. Kohei Saito engages closely with all of Marx's work - from his published writings, his unpublished (until recently) notebooks, as well as the margin notes and comments that were made in other peoples' writings. Importantly, Kohei Saito also

Joanne Paul - Thomas More


Thomas More was one of England's most important philosophers. A prolific writer and thinker, his writings and ideas are often neglected today with most people knowing him for his role in Henry VIII's court and his most famous work Utopia. So Joanne Paul's new book that explores and rescues More's work is to be very much welcomed. More's ideas were very much rooted in established ideas, as Paul

Miranda Kaufmann - Black Tudors: The Untold Story


In the months before I read Miranda Kaufmann there was a twitter outcry from right-wingers who objected to the portrayal of some Ancient Romans in a documentary about Roman Britain, as being dark skinned. Despite the assurances of a number of well qualified historians they seemed unable to believe this well established fact.I suspect these same individuals would be hugely outraged to read Miranda

Kim Stanley Robinson - New York 2140


What will life be like for people when global warming has melted the ice caps and climate change has transformed the world's environment? The vast majority of scientists conclude that the temperature rises we can expect by the end of the current century will mean a colossal human catastrophe, unless there we radically reduce the amount of carbon emissions. These changes will mean disaster for

Eamon Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars


This is a fascinating and comprehensive account of the impact of the English Reformation on the people of England in particular how they practised their religion and how they understood their world. Eamon Duffy is a master at mining church records for the minutiae of everyday life, as his wonderful book The Voices of Morebath showed. In The Stripping of the Altars he takes this to a new level,

Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution


I chose to re-read Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution over November 2017, exactly one hundred years since the all to brief triumph of the Revolution it discusses. Doing so allowed me to reflect on what that Revolution meant, but also how it has been portrayed, interpreted and understood since. You don't have to read much of Trotsky's book to see how inadequate the coverage of

Rachel Carson - Under the Sea Wind


Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is probably the most famous ecological work every published. Its clarity and its clarion call for action, as well as the way it located environmental crisis in a system that prioritised "the right to make a dollar" helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. Yet Carson was also a author of a whole number of works that looked at the ecological systems she was

Peter Watts - Blindsight


I'll admit to making a mistake with Blindsight. I bought it thinking it would be a 'hard' science fiction of first contact with a mysterious alien ship along the lines of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Ramaa book that amazed and inspired me many years ago. Blindsight is actually that, but it is much more - it is a novel that probes human psychology as much as speculating about alien culture.

Paul Lund & Harry Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell


The bravery of merchant seamen is often overlooked, and despite the horrific realities of the Arctic convoys during World War Two the experiences of those sailors was often discussed only through accounts of the naval escorts. In 1942 PQ17 sailed from Iceland to the Soviet Union carrying vital supplies intended to alleviate the Russian military crisis during the siege of Stalingrad. What took

Alun Howkins - The Death of Rural England


Alun Howkin's book The Death of Rural England is a sweeping history of the transformation of the English (and occasionally Welsh) countryside in the 20th century. It is a fascinating read, that never loses sight of the fact that the landscape is, and was, shaped by the labours of thousands of men and women and those people today, and their ancestors, remain an integral part of what makes up "the

Lavie Tidhar - Central Station


Somewhere about a third of the way through Lavie Tidhar's Central Station I realised that I had been missing a crucial aspect to the novel. The story was not slow in starting, it wasn't actually going to arrive. There isn't really a plot to speak of. Once I'd got my head out of my somewhat traditionalist approach I was able to open up to a fantastic depiction of a rather more hopeful future than

Connie Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog


In Connie Willis' future world, time travel is possible, but it isn't profitable so corporations have abandoned it, and instead time travel becomes the realm of the historian. But there are catches. Nothing important can be brought back from the past and time travellers are simply not able to visit events of historical importance. The universe seems to have a way of protecting history - changes

Judith Orr - Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights


Judith Orr's book could not be better timed. With abortion rights in Ireland the subject of an upcoming referendum and Trump's desire to roll back key abortion legislation, the issue is once again part of the political mainstream. Orr's new book charts the history of this fight and the context for today's renewed struggles with a focus on Britain and the US, but also surveying the situation

Jonathan Watts - When a Billion Chinese Jump


I will admit that when I fixed picked up Jonathan Watts' book I did not have much hope that I would enjoy it. Books on the environmental crisis and China often fall into crudities about the country something George Monbiot once called a manifestation of old racist tropes about the "Yellow Peril". Happily Watts' book is far better than this and as well as being thoughtful it is also very readable.

Claire North - The End of the Day


Claire North's first two books focused on individuals with odd powers. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was about people who returned to the beginning of their lives with their memories intact upon their death. Touch was about people who could possess other peoples bodies at will. This book however is very different, it's about Charlie, who is employed by Death as her harbinger. Charlie

Robert Kee - The Most Distressful Country


A recent trip to the North of Ireland prompted me to look at the history of Ireland. Robert Kee's Green Flag trilogy is often recommended as a good place to start to understand the historical developments that have led to the anachronistic situation we see today - the north of the Island part of the British State and the remainder "the South" an independent country. Kee's book is not a complete

Andrew Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857


This is an incredible work of history. It describes, in often horrible detail, the Indian Mutiny and specifically the Cawnpore Massacre of the British and the resultant bloody retribution by the East India Company's troops. The author is unapologetic in this, writing in the preface: I have tried to depict the massacres at Cawnpore unflinchingly because though they were more terrible than

Gabriel Lafitte - Spoiling Tibet


Since ancient times people have known that Tibet is an area rich in mineral resources. As China's economy continues to expand at an unprecedented rate, there are greedy eyes looking at the gold, chromium and copper in Tibetan plateau in the hope of making a swift, and large, profit. Gabriel Lafitte's new book looks at what this means for the Tibetan people and their environment. Unsurprisingly