Book Reviews – Summer Edition


I’m an avid reader. I believe voracious is the term. If I am into a book, I can polish it off in a day or two. The title of this blog is a bit of a misnomer, considering I’m not really working. But I have spent a lot of my time recently reading, and seem to be doing a Book Depository order every month. I thought I would do a little write up of my recent reads, so here are my book reviews – summer edition.

I have rather eclectic taste. I mainly read non-fiction history, but I also love biographies, social science and pop psychology and the occasional fiction book. I’ve written about the books I’ve read recently below, and given a rating out of five.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra – Helen Rappaport. ***1/2
Russian history is a rather heavy subject, and often books on it list hundreds of historical names to remember, and not much else. This book is relatively light in that regard – sadly, because the lives of the Romanov sisters were so closeted, they interacted with very few people. It tells the story of the four girls, the struggle of their parents to produce a royal heir, and the role of the girls as ‘secondary’ to their younger brother, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia. They were murdered, alongside their parents and brother, in 1917.  I found it an interesting read, but I would have liked to have known more about the sisters  time in captivity. I’m not sure if the book was lacking information because history never recorded for posterity, or purposefully omitted.

Dark Summit – Nick Heil. ****
I’m a bit of a sucker for stories about disasters. Call me grim. This book covers the horrific 2006 climbing season on Mount Everest, the deadliest season until the disastrous avalanches of 2014 and 2015. It was particularly controversial due to the death of David Sharp, a relatively unprepared mountain climber who sat dying high on the North Col while dozens of climbers past him, knowingly or unknowingly, on their way to the summit and back. The book is a well-balanced account, looking at the death of Sharp (and other mountaineers) from an objective perspective, and its an easy read. A good introduction to the motivations of climbers when looking to summit Everest – very interesting from a psychological perspective.

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks. ***
Birdsong is a fantastic story bookended by two mediocre stories. The first section – the love story – drags on, although I do recognise the need to set the scene. But seriously, did it have to be so long? The last part could be left out entirely, in my opinion, but I guess it recognizes the importance of learning about the past. The middle section is a fantastic read, though, and covers the period where the protagonist fights in World War One in the Belgian trenches, with a focus on the tunneling companies. The book spends a lot of time developing the characters, and though I’m not a big fiction fan, I was pretty invested in the outcomes of some of the mens lives. If you are interested in World War One history, it’s a worthwhile read.

A Streetcat named Bob– James Bowen ***
This is a very light read. That is okay – and expected. It took me a day to read. However, if you are looking for a cheerful (and slightly repetitive) pick me up story, it’s a keeper. It tells the story of James Bowen, a junkie trying to come clean, who befriends a ginger cat. Though the writing is pretty shocking in parts, the story is interesting, particularly Jame’s experience on the streets as a busker and a Big Issue seller. Good reading for a flight or by the pool! The movie is actually pretty cute, too.

But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past – Chuck Klosterman. ***1/2
This was an interesting one. I thought this book was going to be a deep, insightful read about culture, society, and how our perceptions of things like gender, identity and self were all wrong. Instead, it was about pop culture. Its writer, Chuck Klosterman, is actually a pop culture writer, so that makes more sense. I didn’t think to research that beforehand. Oops. Again, a light read, but some interesting ideas about how we may look back in the future for the ‘defining’ song of the decades… and how we might decide which song, or idea, or movie, that might be. It seeks to answer the question, “how will our culture be remembered 100, 500 and 1000 years from now?”

The Wright Brothers – David McCollough. ****
Sometimes, I pick up books like this because I feel like I should learn something about a major historical event or development, and I find them disappointing. Too detailed, or long, or just plain boring. Thankfully, this book was a very straightforward affair, outlining the personalities and achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright. While it is not particularly technical, it provided a clear summary of the origins of the aviation industry for a simple-minded critter like myself. It was also well written and provided a human side to the famous story, which I enjoyed learning about.

Left for Dead – Beck Weathers. *1/2
This book was terrible. The events it covers are incredible, but this book does a terrible job of describing it. Beck Weathers was caught up in the 1996 climbing season on Everest, where he ended up left outside, overnight, high on the mountain. Assuming he was dead, he was left by rescuers who had used up all of their energy to save the other climbers present (with the exception of Yasuko Namba, who also passed away). Beck miraculously survived, was rescued in the highest helicopter rescue ever to take place, and lost various limbs/appendages/his nose. Basically, I think Beck Weathers was looking for a cash grab in writing this story. Unless you want a study in how a husband and wife treat each other when one of them is pretty selfish, give it a miss. Into Thin Air by John Krakaeur is a better account of the 1996 season.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson. ***1/2
While it gets a bit preachy at the end, I quite enjoyed this book. I don’t like books on positive thinking. My favorite ‘self-help’ style book is The Antidote, which recognises that it is okay to feel terrible and not be positive – as long as it’s not a constant state. It describes itself as discussing happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. This book, however, discusses the attachment that people have to achievement, status, money and objects. While not everyone will agree with it – and the writer’s swearing for the first few chapters is really, really annoying – it’s still a worthwhile pop psychology read. I can’t help but feel its all been said before, though.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. ****1/2
While we can’t watch the Netflix series here in Dubai, I heard about this book some time ago and wanted to give it a read. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s set in a world were fertility issues have increased so much that woman are subjected to, essentially, forced breeding programs, with all of their other rights removed. Though it was written in the 1980s, it feels like it could have been written yesterday, and reads extremely well. I enjoy a good bleak book, and this definitely fit the bill!

I’m currently reading Hidden Figures – which I am really enjoying – and have Flight to Arras and Lenin’s Tomblined up.

What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations?


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The 58th Floor is the travel and lifestyle blog of Belinda Birchall, based in Dubai. It provides advice and information on travel throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as useful information for living in Dubai - and anything else of interest!
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