The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan (Audiobook)

With a long roadtrip planned, we borrowed an eaudiobook from the library to listen to on the journey. Going through the non-fiction options, this history looked likely to teach us something new.

The Silk Roads promises to provide a new history of civilisation with a focus away from the West and instead focus on the “centre of the world”, stretching from the Mediterranean across Asia. Given that, I was expecting little mention of Europe. However there was constant framing against European history, and Persia’s history was nearly all described as a struggle with Rome.

At least the Age of European Empires gives agency to non-European actors, and acknowledges mistakes and atrocities committed by the powers. The realisation of the confidence trick of empire along with the view of World War One as the conflict between empires and the trigger for the unraveling of the same empires.

The shifting power balances and growth of anti-Americanism throughout the second half of the twentith centenary is also examined through the prism of short-term decision making: nearly every decision being made for the correct immediate reasons, but without consideration for long-term impacts.

The conclusions were bizarre. After China had been mostly ignored for the body of the book, it was suddenly vital in  setting the new agenda. If so important, why had it been left out for so much of the previous 24 hours?

Overall, an interesting history, but much more West-focused than the blurb suggests.

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Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure – Cédric Villani

Villani is a charismatic character who, contrary to the popular image of a mathematician, owes much of his success to collaboration with colleagues. Birth of a Theorem sets out the work necessary to develop his ideas into a full proof, and work is definitely the correct word. He details late nights and long days, emails exchanged on Christmas day, and the frantic development of ideas for conference deadlines.

Villani’s trajectory through academia is impressive, as is to be expected from a Field’s medal winner, and the insight into how much was down to chance meetings and hard work is fantastic. This was also the book that has encouraged me to return to my dream of undertaking a PhD, although not in pure mathematics as I might have expected aged 18.

My only complaint is that my LATEX was never that great, and now is beyond rusty, and I would have expected all the equations in this popular maths book to be displayed in conventional notation, rather than having to do the mental work of converting the TEX script and then understanding the equations, in a field which I don’t have much knowledge of. Somewhere where the editor should maybe have stepped in. But the translation (from French) is very good.

I’m also back to thinking about the Collatz Conjecture again, although even less likely to find a route to a solution than I was a decade ago.

This is not the sort of book I expect to find in my local public library,  but am very glad I stumbled across it there.

The Fever Tree – Jennifer McVeigh

The Fever Tree was recomended to me by my Mum, after she read it as a book club book. I can certainly see why it is popular with book clubs, lots of quotable passages, historical setting, topical themes. But although it has lots of discussion points, this is not a book I enjoyed.

Frances is the most hopelessly self-obsessed heroine I have ever had the misfortune to read about, and only redeems herself a little in the last few chapters, when she learns the value of hard work and loyalty. Until then she is beyond frustrating, never talking to her husband or working to improve their lot.

Not a book I’d recommend to anyone wanting a pleasant read (I advised my aunt not to borrow it), but definitely one that could start discussions.

Twisting the Rope – R. A. MacAvoy

Despite being a good story, Twisting the Rope was a bit of a disappointment as it played less with the idea of Mayland Long as mythical beast. It did feel like MacAvoy wanted to play further with a different type of story but had been expected to produce another Mayland Long book so wrote this story with him and Martha in place. Not to mention the very eighties cover this had with a bikini-clad woman on the cover.

The main mystery was brilliant though, with so many possible motives and a very peculiar setting. I enjoyed how all the pieces fell together for the ending, and intend to reread.

Have you read any jarring sequels recently?

Invisible Planets – Ken Liu

I had been warned by a friend that this collection wasn’t as good as the cover suggested, and that he had had difficulty getting into it. Therefore I started towards the end, on the grounds that those stories were the ones he hadn’t got to. With it framed as such, I found the stories I picked out to be very satisfying.

Having read Taking Care of God, I requested The Three-Body Problem from the library.

Folding Beijing‘s win of the Hugo-award was well-earned. It was simultaneously social commentary on the division of wealth, opportunities and urban space, and a science-fiction adventure with Lao Dao risking his life for a task.

Well-worth flicking through.

5 Days in May – Andrew Adonis

When the general election in 2010 returned no overall control, Adonis had a pivotal role in trying to negotiate Labour into coalition. This looks at how the pieces fell, and what influence the Lib Dems had in the coalition was shaped.

Adonis writes well, giving a fast-paced book that contains depth and interest in what could otherwise be a very dry and dull set of negotiations. Then as he felt unable to publish at the time due to his political position, he takes the opportunity to include an epilogue as to how the coalition worked in reality.

An interesting read for anyone who wants an insight into contemporary politics.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John le Carré

Although spy novels are not usually my thing, after reading The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, I felt that I should read the straightforward novel which the title was taken from. One library reservation later, and I picked up a book that didn’t look anything like my usual taste.

I was pleasantly surprised by this, a layered, complex plot, Alec’s motivation  at least conflicted between personal pride, nationalism and romantic desires. Control, the guiding mind behind this mission, is also opaque in his objectives, and much of Alec’s focus in the later half of the book is on unpicking why he is on this mission.

Of course his downfall is a woman, one who he doesn’t entrust with his position and therefore is made vulnerable to the maneuverings of the agencies. However this book is in a way a period piece, first published in 1964, so the lack of capable female characters is in a way understandable, even if it is one of the things my expectation was that the book would lack.

However this is a genre-defining book, and I am glad to have read it.

Blue Dog – Louis de Bernières

More of a novelette than a full novel (and therefore far less intimidating than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I have had unread for years), the afterword informed me that Blue Dog had been aimed at the young adult market. However I enjoyed it from an adult perpective.

Mick has been sent to live with his Granpa in the outback, and Blue Dog is about how, with the aid of the puppy, Blue, who he rescues, he adapts to this life. How he makes friends, and develops into a promising young man, despite the shadow of the tragedy that saw him sent from his family.

It includes the typical stage of self-discovery, as he discovers attraction to the only woman who comes into their lives, and the thrill of motorbike riding, along with the gaining of responsibility.

One nice touch is the flip-chart on the corner of the page, with the dog setting off to run away.

Damiano – R. A. MacAvoy

I didn’t enjoy Damiano as much as Tea with the Black Dragon, with the characters being less compelling and the setup being odder.

I think the hero already being on first name terms with the Archangel Raphael actually made him less appealing to me, as from there he could only fall. It would have been better in my view if the first book had been Damiano’s father’s death, and he had come into his powers and artistic ability within the story.

Of course it is not all fall, and ultimately he does choose the course of action of maximum growth towards the end. But that the start of the book is just a long drift downwards without much sympathy-building does not help the plot.

Its a shame, because this is well-written and an interesting idea for a plot.

Be My Baby – Chorley Little Theatre

Be My Baby is a very emotional play, set primarily in a home for unmarried mothers and babies. The story is told through dialogue and music from The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las. Each of the mothers is given her own story, with heart-wrenching moments, and there were a few tears in my eyes at various points.

An all-female cast again, with all of the ladies acting well. Sets were well-designed, and I was amused to note in the programme that the beds were borrowed from Bolton Little Theatre – good to see the little theatres working together.

CADOS’s productions have never yet let me down as a night out, and this was no exception