Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground

Walk the Lines coverWalk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason

Full of great London trivia as you might expect, but also surprisingly deep philosophical insights into what makes the city (or indeed any city). I suppose walking over 400 miles gives you a lot of time to think about these things, and it shows. Also Bill Drummond makes a surprise appearance, which is never a bad thing.

★★★★★ 5/5 stars

2014 Reading Challenge

Just like in 2013 I challenged myself to read a set number of books in 2014. This time the magic number was 45. And just like in 2013, I hit the target exactly, although it was much less close run than last year (when I frantically raced to finish my last book on New Year’s Eve). This time I actually finished with about a week to spare.

Here’s the list of what I read. Mostly the usual mix of classic sci-fi and fantasy, programming, random non-fiction.

Favourite fiction? To Kill a Mockingbird. Somehow our class managed to not read this in school, so I thought it was time to catch up on a classic that seemingly everyone else had read, and it didn’t disappoint. A real page-turner, but with true heart.

Favourite non-fiction? This was much tougher to choose, but probably Our Pet Queen: A New Perspective on Monarchy. Short, incisive, fascinating and often funny.

The two biggest chunks of reading were A Song of Ice and Fire books 3-5 and Orson Scott Card’s Ender Quartet books 2-4. Both series did start to flag a bit as they went on. Ender more so; it would always have been hard to keep up to the standard of the amazing Speaker for the Dead, but Children of the Mind‘s plot really did descend into the ridiculous. Not sure if I’ll return to Card’s series, I’ve heard the Shadow books are good but after the bad taste Children of the Mind left there’s plenty of other books I want to check out first.

As for ASoIaF, while A Feast for Crows was a bit of a slog, I’ll join the massed ranks of people waiting eagerly for George R R Martin to hurry up and resolve some of these unanswered questions and cliffhangers!

For 2015 I pondered dropping the challenge entirely. It’s been rewarding, but I want to focus a bit less on reading: it’s absolutely still something I want to make time for, but there are plenty of other things I want to do more of as well (writing, coding, photography, maybe picking up guitar again). There’s also some intimidatingly long books on my “to read” list (Pillars of the EarthI’m looking at you here!) which I found myself putting off at least partially because they would make it harder to hit my target. In the end I’ve decided to scale my goal back to 40 books again this year. Whether I make it is anyone’s guess, but at least it gives me something to blog about same time next year!

Goodreads

My miserable attempts at blogging more have once again been overtaken by work madness. However I did manage to find time to update my Goodreads shelves, which may perhaps be of interest to someone somewhere. After falling a way behind on my challenge to read 45 books this year (Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds was fascinating, but sooooo long!) I’ve had a burst of catching up and am now one book ahead of schedule! We’ll see what the remainder of the year brings…

Foyles

Popped into the new flagship Foyles* store on Charing Cross Road today. It’s very impressive, weighing in at a mighty eight floors (although only six are full of books; there’s also the now inevitable cafe, plus a “gallery” which I didn’t get chance to visit). Diamond Geezer has a much better post than I could write about the place, so suffice to say that I came away with a  couple of books that I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into. Could have spent much longer there, but that would probably also mean spending much more money!

I also enjoyed the many neatly arranged drawers of sheet music, and especially the blank manuscript paper section:

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* Interestingly they don’t have an apostrophe, yet seem to have avoided all the fuss Waterstones had to put up with when they dropped theirs.

A Song of Ice and Fire (so far)

(Don’t worry, no spoilers.)

I’ve been listening to the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire. Just finished book 3 and started on 4. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I’m really really enjoying them. However there are a few things worth commenting on:

  • The narrator is enjoying the “Hodor” bits a little too much. 
  • Tywin Lannister does seem to be doing a really bad Winston Churchill impression.
  • Obviously being an audiobook, I’ve no idea how some of the names are spelled (until I started looking at the wiki). So one unfortunate character will forever in my mind be known as “Sir Anus Fray”.
  • I was warned by a friend to expect a lot of the phrase “nipples on breastplates”. This doesn’t seem to have cropped up yet, but I did notice people do seem to be “taken in the rear” quite a lot (fnar fnar). And everything lasts “half a heartbeat”.
  • “You know nothing, Jon Snow” took a while to show up, but oh lord when it did, it really did. Easy to see why it became a meme.
  • Grrrr… I’ve just started on Book 4 and the narrator seems to have decided to slightly change his pronunciation of a bunch of characters and places. Because it wasn’t hard enough keeping track of them all already.

Review: The Second World War

The Second World War was really bad because lots of people died. I give it 0 stars out of 5.

Oh, I’m actually meant to be saying what I thought of this book by Antony Beevor about The Second World War. Well, in that case, it was excellent.

We learnt about the war a bit in school, but only really in the course of studying in turn Nazi Germany and the Cold War, so some understanding of WW2 was important to both of these. And then like  probably every British person, there’s all the stuff I learned about through cultural osmosis (‘Dad’s Army’, Dunkirk, the Blitz). It’s safe to say my understanding of the war was mostly limited to Europe. So reading this was a great chance to fill the gaps in my knowledge and see the bigger picture.

And what a big, horrifying picture it was. The book opens with the almost unbelievable story of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean conscripted to fight in the Japanese army. Then he was captured by the Soviets, and placed in a labour camp. When Germany invaded Russia, along with many other prisoners he was forced into the Red Army, to fight on the Eastern Front. There he was captured once again, this time by the Germans, who sent him to fight in France. Where, after D-Day, he was captured by Americans.

In some ways, Yang was incredibly lucky. A sadly recurring theme of the book is how often the various armies ignored the ‘laws of war’, either taking no prisoners or abjectly failing to look after those they had taken. Or worse: I knew that the Japanese treated their prisoners poorly, but had no idea before reading this book that they sometimes engaged in cannibalism of them (and this was systematic, not just a few isolated cases).

Yang’s story is also a reminder there are aspects of the war almost forgotten about by many, in that his story began with Japan fighting the Soviet Union. Although this conflict generally isn’t considered a part of WW2 proper, and in fact ended just as the fighting in Europe was getting underway, it had significant effects on the future course of the war. The fighting between Japan and China is also something I knew next to nothing about before this. But then again, I’m sure many Chinese people know very little if anything about the war in Europe. It wasn’t called a World war for nothing, and Beevor does a great job of covering all the disparate parts and stitching them together.

On a different scale, he is also adept at describing the personalities involved, and dissecting their often flawed decisions. It’s remarkable how much in turn the Russian forces, then the Germans, suffered from meddling by Stalin and Hitler respectively. When they managed to leave things to the generals, things usually went better, although this wasn’t by any means universal and there are plenty of blunders by lower level figures described. Even Churchill wasn’t immune, he seemed to be regularly coming up with completely impractical plans, which his military advisers usually managed to talk him out of.

This also means Beevor gives a lot of insight into the internal conflicts, both within a country’s forces, and with their allies. Often pride was a danger, with generals on the same side competing for the prestige of capturing a particular city. The British and Americans regularly clashed over how the war should proceed, and obviously the same but more so with the Russians. Then there’s the Chinese (riven by their own split between Communists and Nationalists), the various French factions. the Eastern European partisans… at times the term “Allies” seems overly simplistic. This becomes especially prominent towards the end of the war in Europe (a topic I’m still particularly interested in, because of how it leads into the Cold War and shapes the Europe of today). Beevor covers all this diplomacy just as well as he does the military campaigns.

There is one aspect of the war that I would have liked to read a bit more about: the science and technology. For example Ultra intelligence from the Allied cracking of Axis codes crops up several times as swinging a particular battle, or saving a crucial ship. But Beevor never really explains where it comes from. Similarly the war concludes with the atomic bombs used on Japan, and he goes into some detail on the decision to use these, but makes no mention of the vast efforts of the Manhattan Project which had led up to them being available. Just a minor quibble, and I understand these things may have been thought too tangential in an already very long book, but to me it seems they could have at least been fleshed out a little, given their crucial effects on the war.

Anyway, other than that minor point, I thought this was an excellent history of the war as a whole, and certainly more than filled the gaps in my knowledge. Now I have the urge to hunt out scores more books giving greater detail about individual parts of the war mentioned here, which seems like a good sign. I believe Beevor has written a few of those himself, and if they’re up to this standard I really look forward to reading them.

2013 Reading Challenge

Completing Antony Beevor’s The Second World War yesterday evening at about 9.30 means that:

  1. I clearly had a wild New Year’s Eve
  2. I just barely succeeded in my 2013 Reading Challenge to finish 40 books this year.

At 783 pages it was a heck of a way to end, but I’ll save my thoughts on that book in particular for another post.

So, what have I learnt from this?

Reading this many books is surprisingly hard

As evident from only hitting the magic number 40 on the last day, it was a close-run thing. Things never fell too far behind schedule, but I did often struggle to find time to read around the other things in my life. However I managed to resist the temptation to give up, or the almost equally strong temptation to pad my number by reading lots of short books. I certainly benefited from having a few long distance flights, as well as…

Audiobooks

This is something I discovered a while ago, but audiobooks can be brilliant. Once again I did a lot of walking throughout the year, whether with the dog, into town, or just random jaunts to clear my head. Then there’s the large amount of travelling mentioned above: whilst being sat on a plane is an ideal time to read a real book or ebook, there’s all the walking around airports and long waits standing in queues associated with it too (especially you, US immigration). I’ve never understood those people who seem able to walk around with a book in front of their face (and heaven forbid trying to do that and keep the dog under control at the same time!) So audiobooks are a great way to make better use of that time.

With these I mainly caught up on some sci-fi classics, and am currently working my way through A Song of Ice and Fire (which also deserves its own post in the future).

The Kindle Paperwhite is great

My old 3rd generation Kindle finally gave up the ghost mid-way through this year. Actually it was still working, but the battery was clearly knackered and it would never seem to be charged when I wanted it. With the above mentioned travelling in mind, I decided to splash out on a new Paperwhite model.

Whilst I loved my old Kindle too, the Paperwhite is just nicer. The screen is better, the faster refresh is very noticeable, and I actually find the touch screen keyboard easier to use than the physical one. Plus losing the physical keyboard means it fits better in my pocket, and the light comes in handy for reading in the dark. Overall there’s nothing really revolutionary, but it all adds up to a very pleasant and convenient reading experience.

It was totally worthwhile

I’m really glad I decided to do this challenge. It meant I got round to experiencing some great books, some of which I’d wanted to read for a long time. Goodreads gave me just enough motivation, without nagging me and making it seem like a chore. And in what was often a very turbulent year for me personally, it was always nice to have reading, and with an overall goal in mind, to fall back on.

Obviously I’ll be doing it again in 2014. I’m raising my goal to 45, which is hopefully not too ambitious. We’ll see in a year!

 

Here’s the full list of what I read.

Review: The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionarby Simon Winchester

The core of the book is the fascinating human story of Dr W.C. Minor, and how he made incalculable contributions to the first Oxford English Dictionary from his rather unusual dwelling: Broadmoor lunatic asylum. However the book also covers the wider history of dictionaries, and the OED in particular. All this is very well told by Winchester.

★★★★★ 5/5 stars

Review: Dear Undercover Economist

Dear Undercover Economist: Priceless Advice on Money, Work, Sex, Kids, and Life’s Other Challenges by Tim Harford.

Disappointing. I’m a fan of Tim Harford, having enjoyed the original Undercover Economist and Adapt, as well as being a regular “More or Less” listener. This format didn’t really seem to work though. The replies are too short to cover the economic concepts properly. Worse, the concepts often seem to have been shoehorned in. I realise that’s partly for humorous effect, but to be honest I found it to wear thin rather quickly.
There are a few genuinely funny and insightful replies. However I would recommend the original Undercover Economist book as far more informative.

★★☆☆☆ 2/5 stars