The Real Heroes Of Telemark

Ray Mears


A great narrative history of a minor military exploit that was nonetheless of enormous historical importance: the on-going operation to prevent the Nazis acquiring a stock of heavy water that could be used in making an atomic bomb. But the efforts and hazards dared by the men who took part in the operations are equal to those of any polar explorers, as well as any special forces.

Mears is clearly a lot more comfortable explaining the backwoodsmanship of the participants than he is with the detailed military or scientific history, but that just makes this a unique take on a theatre of war that's been under-studied.

Finished on Wed, 10 Apr 2019 03:59:21 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Shortest History of Germany

James Hawes


Does exactly what the title suggests. As one might imagine it's a rapid race through a lot of history, but the key currents are clear to see: the nature of Germany changes from east to west, to the extent that the two areas remain religiously, politically, and intellectually distinct even to this day.

The effects of geography on history are made clear by the persistence of certain demarcations even when one might not imagine them. The Roman limes, the line of forts on the western edge, define a boundary based on the ease of campaigning in the countryside; there's then another Roman boundary at the Elbe, with the area between the two being the extent of Roman punitive expeditions. But these lines essentially track the borders of the future West Germany, as the Russian, American, and British armies met at the Elbe at the end of the Second World War, freezing what was a Roman boundary into 20th century geopolitics.

Finished on Wed, 10 Apr 2019 03:55:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat

Louise Gray

A study of meat-eating that's somewhat wider than the title might suggest. Indeed, very few mammals (although rather more fish) are actually killed by the author in the course of this book. There are several tours of slaughterhouses, a trawler voyage, some fish farming, and plenty of farm visits to see how the animals are kept and killed.

This book is probably best seen as following in the general tradition of animal welfare, with extensive side journeys into climate change and the human population explosion. Its central message – eat less meat that's been better raised – is far more derived from these sources than from anything to do with killing the animals yourself.

Finished on Fri, 08 Mar 2019 07:35:00 -0800.   Rating 2/5.


B.H. Liddell Hart


A classic book on strategy. While its main message can be stated in one sentence – always approach your goal indirectly – it's a combination of historical military analysis and a distillation of key ideas that can be applied both militarily and beyond. The discussion of First World War strategy is especially strong; the discussion of Hitler's strategy is interesting because it was written while the issue was still in doubt, and so can be criticised for its unreality (making a rational argument to Hitler's henchmen against their achieving final victory), but at least was not shy of making definite and supported suggestions.

I can't recommend this edition of the book, however. The typography and quality of the layout are terrible.

Finished on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 15:04:35 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

John N. Gray


Strawmen as much as straw dogs: weak portrayals of ideas that can then be more easily torn down.

I find it hard to see ow this book achieved so much praise. In part it's self-negating, a modern academic berating all the things that make his own activities possible. But many of the criticisms are also deliberate set-ups, for example telling me (a scientist) what "scientists" think (because we're all the same, you know), and using it to demolish and/or demonise our activities. I would just point out that reading commentaries about science by philosophers and historians isn't the same as practicing, and Gray might find that practitioners have a rather different outlook on their activities.

Finished on Sun, 27 Jan 2019 07:52:38 -0800.   Rating 1/5.


Madeline Miller


The story of Circe, daughter of Helios and witch of the Odyssey, told from her perspective.

It's very much a feminist story, capturing all the incidental abuses to which women in heroic narratives are always subject. It's a pleasure to read and avoids becoming either preachy or too anachronistic: Circe feels like a classical goddess, not like an out-of-time modern. It's also clever how Miller has managed to weave together the "main" part of Circe's story from the Odyssey with the other, lesser-known elements that appear in different re-tellings, in order to make the narrative seamless across Circe's lived experience.

Finished on Sun, 27 Jan 2019 07:48:26 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age

Stanisław Lem


Science fantasy of the first order, this book of short stories tells (mainly) of the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two "constructors" (who are themselves robots) who spend their time making complex machines for the benefit of various patrons. There's a medieval feel to many of the stories, despite the fact that most of the characters are either robots or intelligent machines.

Several of the stories clearly send echoes down through future literature, and indeed other forms of entertainment: in the Seventh Sally, Trurl builds a miniature universe to placate a deposed king, allowing him to control and influence its development in a way that's unmistakably like Sim City. There are machines that tell tales within the tales, and robots who tell of having had their good deeds go awry. When you consider the Polish original was written in the mid 1960's it's all an amazing contrast to the contemporary science fiction and fantasy writing.

Finished on Sun, 06 Jan 2019 09:21:11 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy, #1)

Tade Thompson


Science fiction set in Nigeria gets two doses of otherness, both from the human society and from the effects of alien invasion. This is an excellent debut novel, perhaps a little unsure of itself in terms of the science and sometimes a little uncomfortable in the use of nonlinear narrative, but with compelling characters and an excellent plot line. I'll look out for the sequel.

Finished on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 04:36:25 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Noumenon (Noumenon #1)

Marina J. Lostetter


A voyage-to-another-star novel that embraces the distances travelled, and all that entails. A set of missions are sent out that will take generations to reach their destinations and return. On the way their society evolves in ways that the original missions planners both expect and don't.

This is a book focused on the evolution of human groups and the ways that space travel and dislocation would affect them – and indeed would affect the society left behind. There are unmistakable echoes of Marion Zimmer Bradley's short story The Climbing Wave in how the stay-athomes forget (and refuse to be impressed by) returning space travellers; and of Joe Haldeman's Forever War in how those travellers would be left behind by technological progress, cementing their perceived irrelevance.

Finished on Sat, 29 Dec 2018 04:33:17 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae

Graeme Macrae Burnet


A work of fiction so convincing that the first question the author is asked is, "Is it real?" It tells the (imaginary) story of a murder in a history of (allegedly) found objects, manuscripts, evidence statements and trial reports. The fact that it's set in a real place (Culduie in Wester Ross, looking out towards Skye and Raasay) adds a further layer of realism. It's a classic anti-hero styling, with the protagonist becoming more sympathetic the more is revealed about his less than complete honesty and the enormity of his crimes, that go way beyond what he himself admits. A gripping read.

Finished on Sun, 02 Dec 2018 08:57:20 -0800.   Rating 5/5.