The Stars Now Unclaimed – Drew Williams

Our narrator is travelling the galaxy, trying to atone for her responsibility for the Pulse, a devastating galaxy-wide event. Her view however is very narrowly focused, as a strong believer in the Justified sect. This is a much more battle-based book than I expected, with our narrator pinging from one battle to another leaving a trail of devastation.

Although this book is a powerful page-turner, I found myself finding the key message, that Esa should help the Justified, who essentially kidnapped or conscripted her, more and more problematic. Although one character was inserted to question the Justified’s approaches, she is brought into the fold by the end of the book. This contrasts with an enemy who are presented as irredeemably evil, with gradual depths being added, but never any positive elements.

But the battles are fun, won with cunning and nimbleness in the face of being outgunned. However a bit more damage taken would have been more realistic: far too few characters died to win significant battles.

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The Order of Time – Carlo Rovelli

I was expecting The Order of Time to be mostly about physics, and how general relativity and spacetime work. It is that, but it is also a book about philosophy, our sense of self and briefly, LSD.

It is a short book, well-written and fascinating to read. Different ideas swim to the surface, such as a mention of the development of time zones around the world, which had also been discussed in Blood, Iron & Gold, which I had finished the same day as I read this. And although most historic physicists remain flat and characterless, anyone who Rovelli knew, or knew by reputation, is written with character, and personal anecdote, a much warmer text than many scientific books.

Of course the main theme is scientific. It is a discussion on how time is essential for how we witness the monotonic increase in entropy, and the impact of relativistic changes on the passing of time meaning that the idea of a universal “now” is a mythical construct, possible only across Earth because of our inability to perceive sufficiently small changes in time.

But then we are off again, discussing what exists. A cat? A law? A cartoon character? Ourselves? Rovelli ties all of these pieces back together to give a message on the fragility and beauty of life.

Blood, Iron & Gold – Christian Wolmar

Blood, Iron & Gold is an international history of how the railways shaped society, economies, and even our sense of time. Starting with the earliest simple services, Wolmar weaves a story around how the railway collapsed distances and created nations.

The first three quarters of the book are on the first century of the railway, when much of the international network was built and almost all changes were progress. There is an accounting of the deaths involved in building our railways, and how they were used to control empires, as well as unite countries on a fair footing.

But the story after the start of World War One is more complex. For the first time, the railways are essential in how a war was fought, with rail-based troop transport and supply being vital to the continuation of trench warfare, with all the pointless death involved.

Then afterwards, the decline in patronage, continuing to late in the twentieth century. Wolmar is more sympathetic to the cause of the reduction in lines than might be expected though. He accepts that some of the railway mania had led to excessive construction, and that a sustainable network required some reduction.

It helps that he manges to end on the high note of the twenty-first century rain renaissance, with congestion making the train yet again an attractive mode.

Proofiness – Charles Seife

Proofiness is a look at how numbers are falsely used to manipulate public opinion and sway judicial decisions. He looks at accuracy, rules of statistical error, cherry picking and misleading calculations.

Throughout examples are used, often from headline stories, showing how misleading statistics have changed decisions. Many of the stories are (unsurprisingly for a New York academic) American, but the case we studied in statistics at university of Sally Clarke was included as a classic miscarriage of justice due to bad statistics.

A call for numerical literacy in media, this reads well.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is definitely an imagination-capturing book, with George Washington Black, or Wash, finding his path away from slavery. Starting as a field-slave in a plantation on Barbados, he catches the eye of the owner’s brother, Titch. From there he develops as an artist and scientist.

“I myself will will always go by carriage, even when it ceases to be fashionable and other men accept strangr means of conveyance – steam engines and such. Unholy aerial contraptions.”

The Cloud-cutter, which Wash and Titch use to escape Barbados, is very steam-punk, We’re in 1830 and trialling a hydrogen barrage-balloon. Wash’s role is to sketch the balloon and landscapes through which they will travel. But ultimately Titch’s tendency to walk away from everything results in him leaving Wash without a support network in the Arctic.

“Oh, child, it like nothing in this world. When you free, you can do anything.”

An inspiring story about choosing your own consequences and dreams. About chasing stability, family and memories across the world and through the years.

Of the four I’ve read so far, my favourite of the Man Booker shortlist.

The Long Take – Robin Robertson

One of two books in this year’s Man Booker list that touch on Novia Scotia, but in here is is a pristine place that Walker does not feel able to return to, rather than a place of healing.

As someone who wants to read literary fiction, I approached The Long Take with a degree of trepidation. But although this is classed as a poetic narrative, it generally reads more as a slightly choppy novel: reminisent of short scenes in films.

This is not an easy read, with Walker acknowledging his suffering from PTSD whilst he works his way through life, and poor communities are built with painstaking sacrifice, and destroyed at the whim of a bureaucrat’s pen.

Robertson brings emotions and relationships to life as Walker tumbles through his life, trying to find a way past World War Two, but ultimately turning to embrace friendships with fellow veterans rather than seeking to escape.

Milkman – Anna Burns

Its Man Booker season and I again have my hands on the shortlist.

First out of the pile was Milkman, a novel about an unnamed character in an unnamed city. However I read it as Belfast, as I felt it was meant to be read. Our heroine, middle sister, is navigating a complex social structure where failure doesn’t just impact friendships, but is a matter of life and death.

But as she wanders through her life, trying to remain detached, the milkman takes an interest in her. From that moment onwards she discovers that the safety of her detached life is a facade, and begins to learn who within the community can and can’t be relied upon. The threat of violence is ever-present, and divisions between areas are strongly felt.

But just as the tension ramps up, the mother becomes a figure of light relief, as she courts the real milkman whom she has loved for years.

Not one I would have picked up, but definitely worth reading, especially against the current political backdrop with changes to the Irish border being considered.

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.

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?