The quarterly book review provides a non-exhaustive list of some of the books I read and enjoyed in the previous quarter.
Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer) I always feel mildly guilty reading Archer, given the perjury issues, but this was a hugely enjoyable book. It followed two people from very different backgrounds, their rivalry and their rise to success, in this case in the United States in business between about 1910 and 1960. Archer’s gift, as in First Among Equals (which in many ways is similar and is the other of his I’ve enjoyed most) is in getting you to root and empathise with each of the characters and the path they’re taking.
Sarantine Mosaic – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors (Guy Gavriel Kay) Historical fantasy set in the Byzantine (‘Sarantine’) Empire in the reign of Justinian I, following the life of a mosaicist who gets caught up in the affairs of the great. Like his other novels in this world, there are direct, barely concealed analogues to real-life figures (e.g. Varenna = Ravena) with the fantasy element primarily allowing Kay to have greater control of the narrative. This is a duology that evokes life in Italy immediately after the fall of Rome, chariot racing and Persian rivalries, the rivalries over Arianism and iconoclasm and, above all, the sheer wealth, richness and superlative beauty of Byzantium in the brief era when it stood without rival in the western world as the queen of cities.
Ysabel (Guy Gavriel Kay) A (sort of) departure from his usual fantasy, a story set in modern day Provence, where two teenagers blunder into a 2500 year old rivalry for love which began in the time of the Celts and Greeks. Whilst not as strong as some of his more historical fantasies, Kay’s writing is as compelling as ever and he succeeds in bringing to life Provence and its history. Intriguingly it features a couple of the characters from his Fionavar Tapesty, though it is not necessary to read that to enjoy.
World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (Henry Kissinger) Written in 2014, when Kissinger was in his 90s, this is a magisterial account by a leading 20th century statesman of how we are attempting to create a world order between regions and nations with very different historical conceptions of what that world order might look like. A measure of the book is that it opens with a discussion of the European wars of religion, the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna – and then proceeds to look at similar historical landmarks (and intellectual underpinnings) from Russian, Islamic, Chinese and US history. A fuller review will be coming.
The Square and the Tower (Niall Ferguson) A broad-ranging look at the interaction between networks (represented by the market square) and hierarchies (represented by the lord’s tower) throughout history and how dominance can shift from one to the other. There is a lot of good stuff in here and Ferguson writes as accessably as ever, but I found there was less of a clear uniting narrative or conclusion than in some of his other books. One takeaway for me was that networks are more innovative and can gain advantage accordingly, but that the greater power of hierarchies will eventually – possibly after decades – allow them to reassert control, at least until the next disruption occur.
The Three Body Problem (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End) (Cixin Liu) Quite simply the best science fiction I’ve read in a decade – my full review is here.
The Phantom Tollbooth (Jules Feiffer) Rereading an old childhood favourite, that remains as good as ever. Replete with word play, fresh perspectives and good humour, this children’s book recounts Milo’s adventures in the lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Mountains of Ignorance.
Across the Nightingale Floor (Lian Hearn) An enjoyable fantasy set in an alternative Japan, with good characters and some entertaining twists. I felt the depiction of Japan was less immersive than in Clavell’s Shogun or in Wurts/Feist’s Daughter of the Empire series, but still worth reading.
The Uploaded (Ferrett Steinmetz) Enjoyable and thought-provoking science fiction book in which people have found immortality by uploading themselves to computers. Unfortunately, the dead can still vote and their numbers are such to massively outvote the living, who find themselves increasingly reduced to lives of servitude. Marketed as young adult, but isn’t really, other than that the protagonist is a teenager.
Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy (Tim Harford) The author of The Undercover Economist scores another hit with this enjoyable look at fifty inventions (including theoretical concepts) that have transformed society. The bite-size nature makes it easy to read and Harford also manages to give the book sufficient structure to prevent it becoming another long list. Harford’s blog can also be found here and is well worth reading. http://timharford.com/
The Furthest Station (Ben Aaronovich) The latest in Aaronovich’s excellent Rivers of London series. Featuring ghostly encounters on the Metropolitan line, the novella lets us get to know Grant’s kid cousin Abigail a lot better, as well as linking in some concepts introduced in the first book.
The Truth About Markets: Why some nations are rich but many remain poor (John Kay) Notable for being a book criticising some of the failure modes of markets written before 2008, when everyone began jumping on the band wagon. Kay uses a blend of case studies and theory to explore both the theoretical underpinnings of the free market as well as the reasons why living standards remain so different across the world.