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Here is a list of some books I have read over the last few years.
Lustrum by Robert Harris
The second book in the trilogy picks up where Imperium left off. Although set in ancient Rome, many of the themes parallel the politics of today and the mess we find ourselves in. If only history at school had been as enjoyable, oh those wasted hours - and don't get me started on geography! Really really good.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Based on a true story. Tells the story of a couple who after the death of their son, make a protest against the Nazis in Germany by leaving critical postcards throughout Berlin. Written in 1947 and brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann. This is an extraordinarily good novel.
Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre
Not on top form here, but even below par le Carre is better than most.
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
I watched the author interviewed on The Daily Show and thought this would be a good read. There are some great moments in this book and not a little humour. My one criticism is the over emphasis on bodily fluid stories.
Country Driving by Peter Hessler
A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. As well as traveling throughout China, Peter takes the time to let us get to know the people he meets and lives among. That he can entertain, educate and make me laugh out loud is a rare gift. His best yet.
Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey
I read the last book by Robert Lacey on Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom, In Jeddah, while sitting on a beach sipping a very nice Sid and Coke. Appropriately, along with the alcohol, the book was also banned. This follow on book brings the story up to date and covers the events since then, particularly focusing on the struggle in the country to find a way forward. While undoubtedly some of the problems of the country can be placed at the door of the house of Saud, the hero of the piece is surely King Abdullah. Time is not on his side and he is probably not making changes as fast as many in the country would like, but hopefully the small steps he is making will show the way for the his successor to follow. Like his first book, this is to be recommended to anyone with any interest in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Impeccably researched and excellently written.
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
This fascinating and engrossing book could very easily be about the lives of Russians under Stalin some 80 years ago. In fact, it is the true story of a selection of North Koreans who have defected to the south over the last few years. There are sadly many states in this world that offer little or no freedom to their citizens, but right at the top, by some margin, must surely come North Korea. Here is hoping the Dear Leader and his gang quickly go the way of Ceauşescu.
The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell
This book tells the story of a group of people living under the oppression of Stalin's Russia, including the tale of real life poet Osip Mandelstam and his fall after writing a poem critical of Stalin. A very impressive change of style by the author. Perhaps his best book to date.
The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
A new author to me, but I glad I discovered him. This is an exciting, fast paced thrill of a book and a perfect change from the previous book on this page. It would make an excellent film.
The Making of the Atom Bomb by Richard Rhodes
I recently watched the excellent BBC documentary on Oppenheimer and this heightened my interest in the subject in general. The book is much more that a history of the manhattan project though, it covers the science, scientists, politics and history of the project from Einstein through to the bombing of Japan and the aftermath. Although some of the science was difficult to follow, the book as a whole is immensely readable, more a novel than a science text. A wonderful book on the making of a terrible weapon.
A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
I caught the end of an interview with the author on BBC World talking about his then new book Typhoon and tried to track down a copy. As I had no luck with that, I started with hist first book and have since read them all. This was a really good read and he gets better with every book he writes. Highly recommended to spy genre fans.
The Inheritance by David E. Sanger
The first great thing about this book is that Obama is on the cover (not McCain), the second is that it is a great read. This book presents the state of the world that the new president has inherited and the challenges he faces in his first term - and boy, does he have his work cut out. Very well written, very informative, very frightening.
bamboo and blood by James Church
The third Inspector O novel, and perhaps the best yet. Excellent.
The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New New Iranian Superpower by Robert Baer
The title of this book is at some odds with the content, as one of the repeating theme of the book is that we don't really know Iran very well at all. Certainly the policies and rhetoric of the West towards Iran does not reflect the realities of how Iran is behaving and will behave in the future. One of the main themes of the book is that we must face up to the fact that Iran is becoming (if it is not already) the major power in the Middle East and the Bush/Blair actions in the region over the last six years have only accelerated that process. The West may not like everything Iran is doing but must face reality and engage with Iran as the de facto Middle East Superpower. My concern with this book is that while Baer clearly knows the region very well and has contacts in very high places, he is perhaps overstating the power of Iran in the region. Since he wrote the book, a number of events have happened that will have a major impact on the region. The collapse in the price of oil will severely restrict the spending power of Iran in the short term at least and perhaps increase internal dissent. The recent Israeli action in Gaza has also shown that Hamas is no hezbollah. The west should certainly talk to Iran but to stand by while they take over the whole region is perhaps asking too much.
A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré
I was a little disappointed with his last book, so I did not know what to expect with his latest. I need not have worried though, as this is a wonderful book, weaving a complicated and engrossing tale as only le Carré can.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of "The Great Railway Bazaar" by Paul Theroux
In this terrific book Theroux follows the route he took some 30 years ago in The Great Railway Bazaar, with a few detours to avoid wars and unfriendly governments. One moan though, if the publisher feels the need to put a sticker ('As read on Radio Four') on the cover, why oh why did they print it on the dust sheet so it cannot be removed.
The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism by Ron Suskind
This book has it's fair share of jaw-dropping exposés on the lies of Bush/Cheney/Blair and co, but that it not what it is about. The book tells the stories of a number of different people, from a US intelligence agent to an Afghan student, and how their lives have changed and are changing against the background of the last few years and how individuals can start to fill the moral void created by the policies of the US/UK. An immensely enjoyable book.
Death by Black Hole: And other Cosmic Quandaries by NG Tyson
Like nearly everyone of my age, I read 'A Brief History of Time' many years ago and like many (I assume), understood very little of it. I am watching the excellent TV series, Cosmos at the moment and this book fits in nicely with that. It is a collection of essays on all matters cosmic and I understood most of it and enjoyed all of it. A very accessible book about a very complex topic with some humour thrown in along the way.
Microsoft Exchange Server 2007with SP1 by Tony Redmond
The full title of this book is 'Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 with SP1: Tony Redmond's Guide to Successful Implementation'. This really does not do the book justice. It is really an encyclopedia of how the many features of Exchange work - not just from an implementation viewpoint, but down to the nitty gritty of the architecture and data structures etc. This is not a read once book, I will be returning to it again and again during the lifetime of our Exchange system. One of the main themes of the book is the use of PowerShell to manage and control every aspect of Exchange, reflecting the need for all Exchange admin's to get up to speed with this new methodology. Despite how good this book is, I would have liked a short chapter covering the step by step process of transitioning from 2003 to 2007.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaren
Describes life in the Green Zone of Baghdad and the mistakes and blunders made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) leading up to the return of sovereignty to the Iraqis. While there were clearly a few brave and talented people trying their best to rebuild Iraq, the major criteria and requirement for a posting with the CPA was to be a Bush supporter. Shortly to be a film staring Matt Damon, this is a very fine book.
Heat by Bill Buford
This is part biography, part auto-biography and part travel book. Essentially it is covers the authors time spent in the kitchen of a famous New York restaurant, learning how to cook from the bottom up and trips to Tuscany to learn from the masters.
The Year of Eating Dangerously by Tom Parker-Bowles
One of my favourite films is The Year of Living Dangerously which made me notice this book. Add food and travel and you have the perfect set of ingredients. Tom, in an exhausting schedule, travels to various parts of the world to sample some of the strangest and yes at times, dangerous food. Always entertaining often very funny. An enjoyable read.
The Company by Robert Littell
It is always great to discover a new author you like. Robert Littell is described by some as the John Le Carre of America. While he may not be quite in that class, he is certainly a very fine writer and story teller. The Company tells the story of the CIA from 1950 to the end of the cold war merging fact and fiction, real and invented characters. An indication of how good a book this is that while over 1,200 pages, I finished it in a few days and never wanted to put it down.
Chain of Command by Seymour Hersh
While many journalists in America failed abysmally to confront the lies of the Bush administration, Seymour Hersh was not one of them. This book, based on columns from the New Yorker, details the truth about many events pre and post the invasion of Iraq. Excellent.
Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg
Many years ago there was a great book, "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder that described the design process of a new mini-computer in a fly on the wall style manner. This book does a similar job on a software project, the Open Source PIM Chandler. As someone who from time to time does dream in code, I really enjoyed this book.
Sleeping with the Devil by Robert Baer
Subtitled 'How Washington sold our souls for Saudi crude', this book by an ex CIA field agent was the basis for the film Sryiana. Despite 15 of the 911 hijackers being Saudi, the American response was to focus some of the blame on Iraq rather than to investigate the Saudi link. This book makes it clear that while the USA knew that the Saudis were supporting and continue to support and fund terrorist groups, USA and big business interests were best served by looking the other way.
Imperium by Robert Harris
After the research for his previous book, Pompeii, Harris clearly had lots of ideas leftover. But this book stands on its own and, in my opinion, is a better read than Pompeii, which is quite an achievement.
The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart
If you watched the excellent BBC documentary No Plan, No Peace recently, you will have seen Rory near the end describing the situation in the south of Iraq after the invasion and occupation. This book details how Rory, then 30, as deputy governor of Amara and then Nasiriyah, attempted to build the framework of a democratic society against the rising chaos of a near civil war.
Death of a Dissident by Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko
This book is less about the death of a dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, and more about his life, particularly the last ten years. The final chapters do cover the death of Litvinenko and point the finger firmly in the direction of Putin. The truth of who pulled the strings in the appalling and cowardly murder may never be known, but this book, nevertheless, is a powerful indictment of the evil, lawlessness and brutality that is 'Putin's Russia'.
Murder in Samarkand by Craig Murray
Craig Murray was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan during the early days of the "war on terror". Perhaps unique among British diplomats of the time, he chose not to ignore the obvious stark contrast between the official UK view of the country and the brutal realities on the ground. After a shameful campaign of intimidation and false accusations, he was eventually forced to leave the service. This is an honest, flaws and all, account of the events. A great read.
The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer
This book describes the policies and decisions that led to the invasion of Iraq and the resulting consequences within Iraq. To his credit, Packer is up front in declaring he was marginally in favour of the invasion but is very balanced (and not in a Fox News way) in his reporting. The detail of life in Iraq after the invasion is told through the stories of both Iraqis and Americans, both military and NGO's, and paints a vivid and depressing picture of life there. When originally published in early 2006, Packer still thought the 'war' could be won - I doubt he still thinks that. While reading this book I was repeatedly enraged by the appalling errors of judgment made by US officials, who at the time the book was published all remained in office - unrepentant and as arrogant and dishonest as ever. One of the best books I have read in a long time.
A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church
I don't read many novels, but this one ticked all the boxes. As well as being an exciting and gripping mystery story, it is set in North Korea and shines a light on life in that corrupt and decaying society. Written by an ex western intelligence officer (Church is not his real name). Highly recommended.
Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
The second book from Peter Hessler after his earlier work "River Town". Catching up on some of his students and others as they scatter around China in search of work. This may not be as coherent a piece of work as his previous book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in China.
Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness by Jon Ronson
Very funny. Enough said.
Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliott
While I enjoyed this book, the description of the authors journey and the characters and places visited was overshadowed too much, at least to my taste, by the academic and often rather dull architectural history of the country. I was hoping for a travel book, not a history book. The author's previous book (Travels in Afghanistan) was much more to my taste.
The Mission Song by John Le Carré
I am a great fan of Le Carré, but this book was disappointing by his standards and my expectations after The Constant Gardener. As usual, the characterization and attention to detail is top class, but, as the plot (finally) gets going, the book ends.
The Great War for Civilisation: The conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk
A very big book, in every sense of the word. If you want to understand the Middle East and why it is such a mess, this book, sometimes in gruesome detail, provides the answers. As a first-hand witness to the events of this region during the last 30 years, Robert Fisk is almost uniquely able to definitively document the all too often shameful history.
Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden
This book details the American embassy takeover and subsequent hostage crisis following the 1979 revolution in Iran. This event, more than any other, led to the Mullahs taking power. By the author of Black Hawk Down.
On the Road to Kandahar by Jason Burke
By the author of probably the best and most accurate book on Al Qaeda. This book covers many of the author's experiences in the Middle East and Southeast Asia leading up to the war in Iraq and its aftermath. An authoritative and thoughtful book from a journalist who knows what he is talking about - an all too rare commodity in this genre.
The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind
This book covers the period from the 9/11 attacks until late 2004. It details the progress of the 'War on Terror' particularly relating to the actions of the intelligence agencies. The title is taken from the policy of Vice President Cheney, that a 1% likelihood of terrorists obtaining weapons of mass destruction should be treated as a certainty. This is a very well written and thoroughly researched book that while an engrossing read, left me even more worried about the future.
Hear Ron talk about the book here with some of the passion and anger that is left out of the book.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler
I came across Peter's new book Oracle Bones and decided to start with this, his first book. It is the account of Peter's stay in the town of Fuling, China in the late 1990's, teaching English Literature. Highly recommended.
Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics by James Gleick
Biography of the physicist Richard Feynman. As well as a wonderful account of the life of one of the greatest physicist of the last 100 years, Gleick explains the science in a very accessible way.
The Call of the Weird by Louis Theroux
As they say, Only in America! A follow-up to the TV series Weird Weekends.
Dreamweaver 8: The Missing Manual by David Sawyer McFarland
This web site used to look really bad, now it looks ok. This book, along with the Dreamweaver software was a big part of that.
Windows Forms 2.0 Programming by Chris Sells and Michael Weinhardt
There is no higher praise for this book than to say that Charles Petzold would have been proud to have written it.
From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
Pascal's own story from a tribal village in Burma to the university of Cambridge. Set against the backdrop of the student uprising of the 1980's.