The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Ben Macintyre


Without doubt a true story that's stranger than fiction – to the point that many people involved in the intelligence world refused to believe it was possible, and to believe that the whole thing was a complicated disinformation exercise. It's the tale of Oleg Gordievsky and how he became a spy for MI6 – and how he was caught, released, and then ultimately escaped in an almost comical operation that no-one outside those immediately planning it thought had the slightest chance of success. But succeed it did, taking a man through the Iron Curtain in the boot of a car, and with him details of Soviet defence planning and intelligence operations covering decades.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:36:59 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy

Serhii Plokhy


A surprising history of the Chernobyl accident. Surprising at a number of levels, not least the (small) number of direct deaths, which I always had the impression was higher. Plokhy links the events into the wider run of Soviet (and, later, Russian and Ukrainian) history, seeing the accident as a catalyst for the political changes that followed. While I'd've enjoyed more technical detail, the breadth and depth are welcome.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:32:32 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

Democracy: A Very Short Introduction

Bernard Crick


Should be required reading for everyone. An exploration of the complexity of what it means for something to be "democratic" – and contrasting this with what it means to be populist, majoritarian, and all the other pretenders for the crown.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:29:48 -0800.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

David Wallace-Wells


A view of the climate crisis that clearly aims to instill fear – and succeeds – but which clearly also aims to be a call for action, in which it's a lot less successful.

The author is precise about his goals and limitations, presenting the science and implications of global heating without himself being a scientist. He does an excellent job of doing so, in all the terrifying glory. But beyond that it's hard to see what the book is for. It tries to be motivational, but can't help ending up characterising all the efforts as doomed either on technical or political grounds. That may in fact be true. But by making all action seem futile, it risks either inducing a state of learned helplessness or invoking a spirit of "eat, drink, and be merry", neither of which is helpful especially if the specific claims or predictions of the science are wrong.

And that's a vitally important point. The science all points in the direction of human-caused climate heating with disastrous consequences. But the mechanisms, rates, feedback loops, and other factors are all filled with uncertainty. That's not an excuse for inaction: far from it, it's potentially a huge motivation, because – unlike the impression one might get from books like this – the endpoint isn't certain and it's still completely possible for action on a large enough scale to tilt the balance in positive directions, at least towards lesser or shorter-duration consequences.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:28:29 -0800.   Rating 2*/5*.

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller


Another example of a well-known tale told from an unusual perspective, this time Patroclus' view of his relationship with Achilles. It's an excellent accomplishment, very believable, and compare favourably with Circe, Miller's other work in the same theme.

It's frustrating for the reader that Patroclus just doesn't get it: even when he's referred to as "the best of the Acheans", he still feels he'll outlive Achilles. And there are some anachronisms that frustrate slightly too: the Greeks didn't have the same notion of homosexuality as we do, so many of the concerns and tensions that the book explores (and which are familiar to the modern reader) would have been less serious (and perhaps incomprehensible) at the time. But those are minor quibbles in what is by any measure a great achievement of re-centring a story.

Finished on Tue, 17 Dec 2019 08:20:38 -0800.   Rating 5*/5*.

The Weather Machine: How We See Into the Future

Andrew Blum


Weather forecasting is one of the triumphs of modern technology – and especially computing technology. This book stretches across the technology stack, from the sensors that are collecting the raw data (and how they evolved from earlier systems) all the way to the modelling and processing of that data into usable forecasts, with some very interesting diversions into the sociology and politics of global weather forecasting, and how the rise of privately-owned data streams may improve the lives of many but disadvantage some of the areas of the world most in need of better forecasting as the climate warms.

But Blum manages to do all this without ever really getting to grips with the technology or the science, and that's rather disappointing. It's made worse by side-references to some ideas that could have formed the basis for discussion, for example Edward Witten's discovery of the chaotic dynamics of weather which is what drives a lot of model design. To me that suggests reading this book alongside Chaos: Making a New Science, where the science is more central and the technology therefore more understandable.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:18:13 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.


Robert Macfarlane


A lyrical exploration of underground, in all sorts of senses, from potholing in England to trekking across a barren Norwegian island in search of palaeolithic rock art. It's an amazing journey to be taken on.

And the writing is quite amazing in many places. I've never been a caver (I used to be a rock climber), but the claustrophobia of some of the caving exploits made me squirm and get almost panicky even though I was sitting out in the sunshine. The description of the Paris necropolis and the way it's now a centre for an alternative nightlife is almost beyond belief, and Macfarlane's descriptions of artic villages and treacherous mountains are equally vivd and engrossing. This is one of the few books that really draws the reader in, like standing alongside the author in his adventures. Not to be missed.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:12:13 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

Sherlock Holmes and the Lady in Black

June Thomson


The premise of this book is that Sherlock Holmes, now retired to the coast, is still applying his mind to the mysteries he finds in his vicinity. The problem is that the "mystery" isn't actually all that mysterious, or gripping, or in any way exciting, which means there's never any real sense of Holmes engaging with anything of importance. While I think Thomson captures Holmes and Watson quite well, there's a lot of be desired in terms of plot.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:06:56 -0700.   Rating 2*/5*.

How To

Randall Munroe


What happens when the writer of xkcd puts his mind to common everyday tasks? Hilarity, of course.... and as usual, a lot of fascinating physics.

I would place this in the middle of Munroe's two books. It's far better, funnier, and grown-up that Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, but less fresh than What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. For all that it's still laugh-out-loud funny, grounded in solid physics (albeit in absurd ways), and manages somehow to change the way you might actually look at problems in the future.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 06:04:19 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.