Eyes of the Void (The Final Architecture, #2)

Adrian Tchaikovsky (2022)

A thoughtful and well-paced sequel to Shards of Earth. It’s notable for its ambitious premises, but also for its incredibly flawed protagonist and genuinely alien aliens. These include humans hybridised to increase their longevity and robustness, the Parthenon group of cloned female warriors, the Architects dismantling planets seemingly at random and the Originators who developed artefacts that prevent this, and the far more advanced (and inscrutable) Essiel.

The complexity and richness of the book come from the lack of knowledge that everyone seems to have about everyone else and their motives. Why are the Architects destroying planets? Why did the Originators develop ways to stop them? And what exactly are the Essiel up to at all? It makes the plot somewhat akin to a detective story as well as being classic space opera, and that’s unusual: science fiction that ventures into the essential un-knowability of aliens.

4/5. Finished Saturday 3 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything

Oliver Bullough (2022)

A searing indictment of how Britain operates as the world’s largest tax haven.

OK, maybe not directly. But despite frequently seeming to champion global tax reform and the fight against evasion, the UK sits at the centre of a network of facilitators, aided and abetted by laws and customs that make it an attractive site for dirty money.

One can start with the “real” tax havens, many of which are British Dependent Territories. Could their behaviour be changed? – well, the clue is in the name. It could be changed tomorrow, giving them the choice of co-operating with international tax authorities or being cast adrift as newly-independent countries. Some might choose that route, but the fat remains that there’s clearly something attractive in dependency, including access to a legal system that’s largely trusted.

That same legal system is also a facilitator, though. All sorts of ancient laws pop up in unusual circumstances and allow smart accountants to create tax-evading shells, ranging from Scottish partnerships to “carried interest” arrangements originally designed for 16th-century sea captains and now used to shield hedge fund managers. Put enough complexity in place and the trails become impossible to follow.

The question obviously arises as to why this situation isn’t cleaned up, since it’s simply a matter of cleaning-up the law. This is where Bullough’s tale is at its most shocking: the deliberate desire to keep the dirty money flowing through London both to provide revenue and to encourage the network of tax and legal professionals who attract other, hopefully more legitimate, business. Doiing so may make narrow financial sense, but it comes at the cost of protecting money looted by the criminal and the corrupt, and of makinf further looting more likely by making the perpetrators less likely to be caught. It’s a dirty business that’s being encouraged by Brexit and the need to maintain a global presence.

4/5. Finished Friday 2 June, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder

Michael Burleigh (2021)

I was slightly disappointed by this book. I’d expected better of such an eminent historian. Stronger at the start dealing with Caesar (“the bright day brings forth the adder”), Lincoln, and others; weaker later on when it deals with what are more like mass killings in Congo and Cambodia rather than assassinations per se. But it does have an insightful section on Anarchism as a philosophy that embraced assossination and the “propaganda of the deed” more than any other movement of recent times.

The style is quite dense and the timelines not always clear, which is a shame as it covers a lot of ground: perhaps that’s the problem, and a more focused book would read better.

3/5. Finished Tuesday 30 May, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich

Volker Ullrich (2020)

The period between Hitler’s suicide and the final surrender of Germany occupies the eight days of the title. The ways in which different people responded during that time shaped a lot of the post-war landscape, and also caused astonishing suffering that could have been avoided by prompter action.

There was a lot of magical thinking on display, which Ullrich absolutely nails. The idea that Germany under the Dönitz government could fight on in the East while surrendering in the West clearly seemed like a realistic strategy, even though it had been doomed by the agreements reached at Yalta and Tehran. But it was a choice that elongated the Red Army’s rampage through Prussia and solidified the contours of post-war Europe. Ullrich never shies-away from the crimes of the Nazis or the Allies.

There are some interesting explorations of the early careers of individuals who later came to influence, for example the future leaders of both East and West Germany managing to survive Hitler’s death – and Marlene Dietrich’s war following the US Army all through the European theatre.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 2 May, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations

Thomas Morris (2017)

A book that I very much enjoyed, but that simultaneously made me quite anxious: if I had a heart condition it would have been unreadable, I suspect.

The operations chosen are all milestones, ranging from the very first surgeries up to heart transplants, stents, and other modern semi-miracles. The most interesting thing to me was the degree to which a lot of the action was performed in very small communities of doctors, often with very varying degrees of commitment and risk appetite: the same surgeons often re-appear in later innovations.

The part that was most anxiety-inducing was that the translation from idea to successful implementation (or from science to engineering) was frequently log, drawn-out, and filled with dashed hopes and dead patients. I don’t think it could be any other way given the complexities of the procedures being honed, but the names of the early subjects deserve to be at least as well-known as those of the surgeons, for their willingness to take a risk with their own lives in the interests of saving themselves, but also of eventually saving others eben if their own surgery failed.

4/5. Finished Friday 28 April, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)