Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

Reading progress update: I've read 62 out of 636 pages.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

Apart from brief glimpses into Persia and Asia beyond the Black Sea, this book still mostly seems to have a focus on the Roman Empire and, um, issues or effects on people mostly located in the eastern region of the European continent, but most definitely not as much focus on Asia as I expected.


For example:

Chapter 2 is titled "The Road to Faiths" and mostly talks about the rise of Christianity.

Chapter 3 is called "The Road to a Christian East". It starts with two and a half pages about the Huns raiding Europe and Persia, then follows up with fifteen pages about the spread of Christianity. 


Chapter 4 promises to deal with the rise of Islam, but also seems to be constrained to the region between Constantinople and Persia.


While somewhat interesting, I am questioning the books focus on the religious aspects. There seems to be a lot of theory about the religions, too, which again is not something I would be looking for in a book about the Silk Roads.

Reading progress update: I've read 26 out of 636 pages.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World - Peter Frankopan

I just finished the introduction of the book, and have come across this in the last paragraph of the Introduction:

"It is easy to mould the past into a shape that we find convenient and accessible. But the ancient world was much more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think. Seeing Rome as the progenitor of western Europe overlooks the fact that it consistently looked to and in many ways was shaped by influences from the east.

The world of antiquity was very much a precursor of the world as we see it today - vibrant, competitive, efficient and energetic. A belt of towns formed a chain spanning Asia. The west had begun to look east, and the east had begun to look west. Together with increasing traffic connecting India with the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the ancient Silk Roads of antiquity were coursing with life.

   Rome's eyes had been fixed on Asia from the moment it transformed itself from a republic into an empire. And so too, it turned out, had its soul. For Constantine - and the Roman Empire - had found God; and the new faith was from the east too. Surprisingly, it came not from Persia or India, but from an uncompromising province where three centuries earlier Pontius Pilate had found infamy as governor. Christianity was about to fan out in all directions."

I have some problems with Frankopan's statements here: is he trying to sell the idea that Rome or the Greek states were not the origins of "civilisation" as the "new history of the world" as the book's subtitle suggests?

If so, what is so new about the idea of Asia developing in parallel and indeed matching Rome and the Greek states on many levels?

What is so new about Persia being an amazing early civilisation in its own right? 


And what is this about Christianity? Are we considering a part of the Med, which had already been part of the Roman Empire as the "exotic east"?


This is why I have stalled at reading the book since picking it up. I really hope that Frankopan's message is different from what I got out of the Introduction, but from what I read so far I have doubts about the book. 


I hope Frankopan develops a better explanation of where he is going with this book.  


Below, just for fun, is one of the personal highlights of my trip to Berlin in April: I finally go to visit the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum. Built around 575 BCE, the gate was one of the entrances to the inner city of Babylon. It was excavated in the early 20th century and a reconstruction using original bricks, completed in 1930.


Reading progress update: Part 2 - The Heart of the Home and Kitchen Science

The Science of Everyday Life - Marty Jopson

Part Two of the book continues along the same lines as Part One, but I found this part a little less interesting. Partly, this was because there was not a lot of new information in this chapter, and partly I could see missed opportunities for explaining other things relating to the following:


- Refrigerators

- Calories

- Dribbling tea pots

- Kitchen scales and the Kilogram

- Induction hobs

- Microwave ovens

- Toasters

- Coffee rings

- Ice cubes

- Candles


I really enjoyed the section on coffee rings, but was ultimately disappointed that the section on the toaster focused on the bread used for toast rather than the appliance.


Also, I found it impossible to read the section on the candle without comparing it to the description of how a candle works in Czerski's Storm in a Teacup. I missed the mention of nanodiamonds being created inside the candle flame.


Also, I still want to read Faraday's "The Chemical History of a Candle". 

Reading progress update: I've read 262 out of 262 pages.

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Wow. So, the first book that just about managed to catch my eye in the airport bookshop after an exhausting long-haul flight last Saturday turned out to be a gripping, snarky, and moving re-telling of the story of Antigone ... I loved this.


A review of this will be forthcoming at some point, but I need to get my speech back first.

Reading progress update: Part 1 - The Sustaining Science of Food and Drink

The Science of Everyday Life - Marty Jopson

A long overdue update on the buddy read with Murder by Death of Marty Jopson's Science of Everyday Life:


I'm not sure about this book, yet. The first part  - and, looking ahead, the other parts, too - is made of short sections on different topics in the general theme of Food and Drink, some more interesting (even if somewhat revolting - see Prawn Crackers update) than others. I enjoyed the explanation of why egg whites change colour when heated, I also enjoyed the prawn crackers story, and the description of why onions make people cry. 


I was decidedly less interested in the parts about bread and baking, except that the discussion of the tax implications with respect to cakes and biscuits had me research the UK VAT (value added tax) rules for longer than I ever thought I would - and it was bizarrely fascinating.


The distinctions between taxable and tax exempt may all seem arbitrary and mad, but at least there is a clear acknowledgement that cakes and biscuits are necessities in life and therefore exempt from tax.


With respect to the onion section, Jopson tries to describe why it is that onions make some people cry. I added "some" in this as Jopson doesn't actually go into why onions affect some people but not others. I've not been affected by onions when cutting them in ... decades, so his generalisation made me think about what other generalisations he may have mixed into the "science parts".

Take a knife and start to slice up the flesh of an onion. As you do this, you break open lots of the unusually large cells of the onion. Within these cells are two chemicals that normally don’t come into contact, since they are contained in different cellular compartments. By cutting open the cells you also break these compartments and the chemicals mix. The first of these substances is a group of protein-building blocks called amino acids, linked to a sulphur and oxygen atom. When these sulphur-linked amino acids encounter an enzyme known as alliinase, they produce a highly reactive sulphenic acid. (And I have spelt the word alliinase correctly. It comes from allium, the scientific name for the onion genus of plants, and for reasons unknown the enzyme has an extra ‘i’ thrown in for good measure.) The creation of the sulphenic acid is not the end of the chemistry; a second enzyme gets involved. The grandly named lachrymatory factor synthase gets to work on the sulphenic acid and produces – you guessed it – lachrymatory factor, or syn-propanethial-S-oxide – I think it would be wise to stick with lachrymatory factor in this instance. Now we are getting to the tearful end of the story, as lachrymatory factor is a highly volatile liquid that turns into a gas that floats up to your eyes. It’s possibly surprising that the see-through part of the front of your eye, the cornea, is packed with sensory nerve endings. These are there to detect anything that touches the delicate cornea, and when this happens we unconsciously blink and also produce tears to flush the irritant away. The lachrymatory factor sticks to these nerve endings, fooling them into believing that something hot has touched our cornea. We feel this as a burning pain, even though there is no heat there, and we begin to cry, or to lachrymate, to use the fancy word. There are many chemicals that can cause the same reaction – capsaicin, for example (see here), but it is only onions and their relatives that produce a gas that does this.


Anyway, the onion section reminded me that I have this:



They were a Secret Santa thing, I think, as otherwise I have no idea how I got them... No idea if they work.

Reading progress update: I've read 19 out of 219 pages.

The Science of Everyday Life - Marty Jopson

I've never been a fan of prawn crackers, but the section I've just read about how prawn crackers are made will ensure I'll never ever touch them (with or without the prawn powder). 


At first, I thought the fact that they are made from tapioca was off-putting:

The key ingredient in prawn crackers is tapioca starch, which itself contains some scientific surprises. It comes from the tuberous roots of the cassava plant.

These roots look a bit like sweet potatoes and are a staple crop for large populations of people living in the tropics. Given this, it’s a little alarming to discover that cassava is also a rich source of cyanide and can lead to both acute and chronic poisoning.

There are different varieties of cassava, and the ones known as bitter cassava contain dangerous amounts of a chemical called linamarin, which is basically glucose attached to cyanide. When the root is peeled, or chopped up, enzymes are released that break down the linamarin and release the cyanide. With this in mind, a vital part of the tapioca starch extraction process is to remove all of the cyanide.

Step 1 is to finely grate the cassava, which starts the breakdown of linamarin and the production of cyanide.

In step 2, you chuck it all in a vat of water and leave it to soak for a couple of days. The cyanide will dissolve into the water, and by changing the water a few times to give the grated cassava a rinse, all of the cyanide is flushed away.

You then take the resulting mush and squeeze all the liquid out. The mush you chuck away and the milky white liquid you leave to evaporate. What remains is a very fine, and very pure, starch powder.


But then Jopson described the industrial process of making prawn crackers:


For bulk manufacture they use tapioca starch, dried prawn powder and a tiny amount of water. The resulting powder is placed in a machine that compresses and heats the starch mixture. The pressure involved is huge, at up to 2 tonnes per square centimetre (about 35 pounds per square inch). At this point the starch melts, flows together and turns into a thermosetting plastic, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s a solid material that goes soft and runny when you heat it. This molten plastic starch is pooped out of the machine in little flat, translucent white discs. You can buy these uncooked prawn cracker discs in Chinese supermarkets and Asian food shops. In this form, as long as they are kept in a sealed plastic bag, they have an enormously long shelf life.

I said the water content at the start of the process was critical and when you drop your plastic starch disc into hot oil it is vital you have the right amount of water trapped inside the starch plastic. Two things happen: first, the thermosetting plastic starch heats up and turns soft and runny again. Secondly, the tiny amount of water it contains vaporizes, turning to steam and expanding in the process. As the specks of water turn into bubbles of water vapour surrounded by shells of plastic starch, the flat disc puffs up and turns into the familiar bubbly crisp. You then whip it out of the oil, before the starch has a chance to start browning and, as it cools, the starch plastic goes back to being a hard and brittle substance. But now, rather than a solid disc we have an aerated mass of crispy, crunchy loveliness. This may seem like a niche cooking method, but exactly the same process is used to make a number of everyday food products from puffed breakfast cereals to popcorn and even those, admittedly inedible, puffed packing worms you find crammed into boxes to protect the contents in transit. Not so unusual after all.

Yum....or rather not. But now we know why prawn crackers look like plastic fillers.


A Student of Weather

A Student of Weather - Elizabeth Hay

A Student of Weather was today's choice read to recover from travel, jet lag, and the unpacking and laundry tasks that come with it. 


I had high hopes for the novel: It's set during the 1930s in depression-hit dust bowls of Saskatchewan and the New York of the 1960s, and it's by a Canadian author.


The last one, the Canadian factor, may have worked against the book. I'm only half kidding. I love Canadian writing. However, I am also reminded of Will and Ian Ferguson's summary of the Canadian literary novel (found in How to be a Canadian):

"Handy tip! Write about a family gathering, a funeral or some sort of homecoming. That's the easiest way to bring characters together without having to construct a plot. And make sure to include the free-spirited sister, the recovering alcoholic brother, the other sister (the one who gave up on her dreams and is married to an abusive and/or aloof man) and - last but not least - the standard-issue abusive and/or aloof father figure. Add to the mix some cryptic dialogue about a past betrayal, maybe a dark secret or two, and half-bake at 40F. Do you see how these things just write themselves?"

The thing is, my assessment of every Canadian novel I have read since the Fergusons' above summary has started with a categorisation: either the book fits the description or it doesn't.

The ones that didn't fit the Fergusons' description were, on the whole, much more enjoyable and interesting reads.


Sadly, A Student of Weather fits the above description to a T (except there was no recovering alcoholic brother, tho there was a brother who died early on... I am counting this as half a point.). What is even sadder, is that I could not find any other aspect that made this book compelling or that kept me from skim-reading some parts.  


It didn't help that the centre premise of the book is based on a love triangle that features some selfish asshat of a guy and two sisters who fight over his affections (which are always engaged elsewhere and for some reason the sisters just cannot see it)... Ugh.


The writing, tho, was very accomplished and I do look forward to trying the other book by Hay on Mt. TBR, Late Nights on Air.


Seriously, if that one also has a love triangle in it, I will DNF it faster than than I can type out the book title.

The 2018 Mt. TBR Project - End of May Update

May has been a great reading month, but I only read 2 Mt. TBR books. It's been the month of the Roger Moore reading frenzy, the Moneypenny re-read, and the big Forster book grab and re-discovery, so there have been plenty of diversions to explain the lack of progress with the Mt. TBR project. Still, some of the Mt. TBR books that I have read or have managed to start in May were either longish books or demanding a slow approach.

The Silk Roads will probably take some time to finish, it is very heavy on details. 


I have not added the Forster books to Mt. TBR, as there is no question of me not keeping them. How to Stop Time (from the Heathrow book haul) will be added to the stacks for the June update - if I don't finish it in June, that is. I've already started Shamsie's Home Fire at the airport earlier today, so this will not be added to the Mt. TBR.



End of May Mt. TBR:


End of April Mt. TBR: 


End of March Mt. TBR:


End of February Mt. TBR:


End of January Mt. TBR:


Start of the Year Mt. TBR:


The Stats:


Books read this month: 19

Mt. TBR Books read this month: 2


Women / Men / Team*: 57% / 39% / 4%

Fiction / Non-fiction*: 76% / 24%

% of original Mt. TBR read: 45%

% of live Mt. TBR read: 37%


(* - of all books read since 01 January 2018)


Link to the original Mt. TBR (2018) post.

Link to the original Mt TBR (2018) Reading List.


Rules - same as previously - are that I picked a stack of physical books off my shelves at home which I would try to read over the course of the year. Any new purchases are added to the pile. If I pick another physical book of my shelves, I get to take one off the pile and put it on the shelf - as a swap.

Heathrow Mini Haul

I swear the bookshop at Heathrow is impossible to pass by.


I could easily have picked up several Le Carre and several Christie novels, but my inner voice of reason won this morning.


Instead, I went for these two.



Homeward bound

This has been one of the longest shortest weeks ever. As it turned out, the main event and main reason for this trip ended up being a three-hour meeting with the people calling the meeting being quite disorganised. 


And if I hear one more Uber driver tell stories about how people try and give him blow jobs, I am going to flip. Not just me in the car, btw. I still can't figure out whether he was trying to impress the guys I travelled with or whether he was just into being inappropriate. Yet, another experience to make me hate Uber more.


In other words, ... I look forward to going home.



Not my plane, btw, but I am too knackered to move.


Reblogged from MikeDI:

     I recently was cleaning my library shelves and, of course, had to remove the books to do so. Afterwards, as I rearranged and returned the books to their shelves, I thought about the many International Collectors Library volumes and other classics that my late wife and I had purchased many years ago. I don’t recall that either of us ever read one. My minimalist daughter would tell me, “Dad, why do you have these? You never read them.” So, I made a pledge to work one in from time to time in my reading schedule. I invite all of you to do something similar.

    Let’s read classic books! Who’s with me? My first will be As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. My reviews of these works will include a little biography gleaned from Wikipedia. I’m sure most of you use Wikipedia to look things up. Donations to them are appreciated.

     I invite you to reblog this with your friends as I don’t have many.

Reading progress update: I've read 122 out of 560 pages.

54 - Wu Ming

I've come to the spy part, but ... the premise is really preposterous.


To be honest, this book really is not great so far.


I like that it is set in Trieste against the back-drop of Marshall Tito, the Cold War, and the rebuilding of an Italian society after WWII, but the actual characters and stories and in particular the espionage part involving an imagined Cary Grant are ... best described as what I would expect 5 teenage boys to come up with while pretending to be cool and sophisticated.


There is a lot of pretense in this book, made worse by a focus on descriptions of what people are wearing and whether their choice of wardrobe is elegant or even well chosen.




I'm not sure I will finish this one.



How I spent this Monday.


On planes, for a long, long time. The benefit of this was that I got a chunk of reading done before they dimmed the cabin lights on the cross-Atlantic flight and I got suckered into the movie section.

Berlin Game

Berlin Game - Len Deighton

‘Ever wonder why the Berlin Wall follows that absurd line?’ said Frank. ‘It was decided at a conference at Lancaster House in London while the war was still being fought. They were dividing the city up the way the Allied armies would share it once they got here. Clerks were sent out hotfoot for a map of Berlin but the only thing Whitehall could provide was a 1928 city directory, so they had to use that.

They drew their lines along the administrative borough boundaries as they were in 1928. It was only for the purposes of that temporary wartime agreement, so it didn’t seem to matter too much where it cut through gas pipes, sewers and S-Bahn or these underground trains either.

That was in 1944. Now we’re still stuck with it.’

Berlin Game was my first Len Deighton book and a glorious start to the Summer of Spies.

It was gritty without being  vulgar, it was smart without being pretentious, and the characters were properly developed individuals, not cliches.


We follow the story Bernard Samson, an intelligence officer who has been on office duties for a while but is forced to return to field work to extract a defector from East Berlin. Meanwhile, there is a KGB mole in Samson's London office - and everyone is a suspect, which is literally everyone for Samson, who is a spy, the son of a spy, the husband of a spy.


There was a lot to love about the simplicity of the story, there was a lot to love about Deighton's treatment of the characters, which Deighton describes in his introduction as - 


Finding somewhere, some redeeming feature of those we don’t much like, is a moral duty and a satisfying task.


And yet, there was something missing for me, too. 


The circle of characters involved seemed a little too confined. It worked to create a sense of claustrophobia, but the underlying sense of aversion to anything foreign displayed by many of the characters somehow both works for and against creating a feel of the international aspect of the espionage story. 


I look forward to seeing how this develops in the sequels to Berlin Game.

"I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions."

- Ursula K. Le Guin

The Paris Review, Issue 206, Fall 2013

Reading progress update: I've read 2 out of 352 pages.

Berlin Game - Len Deighton

‘How long have we been sitting here?’ I said. I picked up the field glasses and studied the bored young American soldier in his glass-sided box.

‘Nearly a quarter of a century,’ said Werner Volkmann. His arms were resting on the steering wheel and his head was slumped on them. ‘That GI wasn’t even born when we first sat here waiting for the dogs to bark.’

Barking dogs, in their compound behind the remains of the Hotel Adlon, were usually the first sign of something happening on the other side. The dogs sensed any unusual happenings long before the handlers came to get them. That’s why we kept the window open; that’s why we were frozen nearly to death.

‘That American soldier wasn’t born, the spy thriller he’s reading wasn’t written, and we both thought the Wall would be demolished within a few days. We were stupid kids but it was better then, wasn’t it, Bernie?’

‘It’s always better when you’re young, Werner,’ I said.

This side of Checkpoint Charlie had not changed. There never was much there; just one small hut and some signs warning you about leaving the Western Sector. But the East German side had grown far more elaborate. Walls and fences, gates and barriers, endless white lines to mark out the traffic lanes. Most recently they’d built a huge walled compound where the tourist buses were searched and tapped, scrutinized by gloomy men who pushed wheeled mirrors under every vehicle lest one of their fellow-countrymen was clinging there.


I loved the opening of this book. I hope it keeps up this way.


Currently reading

Disappearing Moon Cafe: A Novel by Sky Lee
Progress: 57/288pages
Devil's Due by Phyllis Bottome
Progress: 39/336pages
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 68%
The Book Lover by Ali Smith