Breakthrough by Michael C. Grumley.

This book, Breakthrough, by Michael C. Grunley, was such an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Yet again, I bought on the basis of a Kindle ad (they’re working for and on me!), taken by the premise of the book and the many, many good reviews – and I was not in any way disappointed.

A combination of action-adventure, sci-fi and techno-thriller, with a large cast, Breakthrough starts by seguing between different scenarios and different characters – from a nuclear submarine beneath the Caribbean, to Antarctica, the Pentagon and a research group studying dolphins and interspecies communication. Incredibly cinematic in style, the narrative holds your attention, gripping you by the throat at times, as the various locations and the people in them are slowly brought together, united by an amazing and potentially deadly revelation.

There are those closest to power who want to act rashly before all the intelligence required to understand what is happening to the world can be gathered. Instead of listening to experts and accepting that their solution presents an even greater and catastrophic problem, there are those who think they know better and refuse to heed any warnings, regardless of the consequences or who they might hurt in the process.

The race is then on to save the planet and the global population, not so much from an outside threat or the inevitable consequences of drastic climate change, but from their very own – people they trust to act in their best interests.

Fast-paced, engaging, with charismatic and relatable characters (including the dolphins!), this is a terrific book that was hard to put down. It was also difficult not to substitute certain characters for well-known figures in contemporary politics which served to add a particular frisson to the narrative.

Enjoyed this so much, I downloaded the sequel (yay! A sequel) and am enjoying it immensely too.

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Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

Where do I even begin with this book? My. God. Having followed the Trump phenomenon since it first became a terrible reality, I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the madness and mayhem that marked not just the campaign, but his first year in office. Boy, was I wrong. Not so much about Trump himself. I think much of what we read and hear and see every day, whether we live in the US or Australia and much of it thanks to Twitter, prepares us for what’s revealed in the book – even when it exceeds our (low?) expectations. What is shocking in the book is the role and attitude of other players – the Conways, Hicks, Ivanka and Jared (known derogatorily as “Jarvanka” – a nickname bestowed by Steve Bannon who utterly despises the pair and Wolff does not hold back in painting them in a dreadful, manipulative light), the Bannons and, never mind the “Mooches” (Anthony Scaramucci) of this crazy world. Their complicity in what is said and done, their desire to promote themselves over and above curbing Trump’s more unrealistic tendencies, gain in wealth and status and shore up a future beyond the President’s tenure, and above the well-being of the nation, to pretend that everything is alright is breath-taking in its awfulness and downright self-servingness.  – No. I am wrong. What they do is actually worse than that. In order, I guess, to reassure themselves things are not as bad as others think, they not only collude but pretend that everyone else outside the White House, whether supporters of Trump or not, and who are deeply concerned about where the country and the man leading it are heading, are somehow nuts or misguided or trying to bring Trump down. As if, somehow, it is everyone else who has it wrong or are misreading the madness. It is really insulting – the chutzpah, the audacity. Yet, they’re all getting away with it. So maybe they do know what they’re doing when they try to project the lunacy within onto the rest of us without.

Notwithstanding this, there are those, according to Wolff, who do everything in their power to try and bring stability to the leadership. This is the reason he posits many people have remained and even accept positions in the first place. But it’s also why many people have either been sacked or left (and there have been so many).

I don’t want to reveal too much of the content. Bannon doesn’t come off well – in fact, few do, though Wolff is sympathetic to the likes of Sean Spicer and others who have been pushed out into the public domain to make sense of and defend the senseless and indefensible, to spin the unpalatable into something not completely outrageous, idiotic and unpresidential.

The people who come off worst are, of course, as we expect, the Trump family, headed by the patriarch whose claim to fame (apart from winning the impossible race) appears to be consistently inconsistent. Beyond them, it is the likes of Bannon and those who see in Trump not so much a figure to inspire loyalty and leadership, but the symbol of a movement, “Trumpism”, which they passionately believe will continue beyond his (inevitable) demise who Wolff makes an effort to understand, even if only ideologically.

Well written, utterly gripping and gob-smackingly awful in parts, I was laughing out loud in incredulity; gasping in disbelief and shaking my head so much, I am surprised it’s still attached to my neck. An easy read (because we know the players, know the premise of the tale), it is still mind-blowing in every bad way. I can’t help but feel one day we’ll look back on this period the way we do other surreal moments in history – when those who never should, never could, did – with terrible consequences.

For those who love politics, culture, celebrity and want to understand the journey and the rationale behind the Trump White House (not sure I can use that word  – rationale – in the a sentence about this subject and have it make sense), this is a terrific book.

 

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Dust by Hugh Howey

18866705Riddle me this… why oh why have I taken so long to read the final instalment in this marvellous Silo trilogy, Dust? Why, after being utterly captivated by book 1, Wool, loving book 2, Shift, did it take me over three years to reach for this epic conclusion? Yeah, I don’t know either. Too many great books and not enough time, maybe? Finally, I made the time. What I do know is the wait was well worth it.

I don’t want to allow any spoilers to slip into this review except to say that in this final book, the world as the inhabitants of the various Silo’s know it is about to be torn apart. While the reader has been privy to internal politics and, in book 2, the over-arching or macro-politics and history that led to the silos and the hot-housing of humanity in the first place, in this final novel, the splintering of loyalties, of what’s always seemed to be the truth, of just who are allies and enemies, of how perceptions are created and distorted, reaches a climax.

The sense of imprisonment, of claustrophobia, not just within the dark confines of these enormous cement holdings, but psychically and emotionally, plunges towards the only possible shocking conclusion. Yearning for freedom and having it within your grasp, however, comes at a cost… are the inhabitants of the silos willing to pay the price and what charges might be extracted from them if they do?

Tense, utterly believable, with cracking dialogue and wonderful descriptions that make the reader feel as entrapped as those we read about, this is a terrific conclusion to a stunning trilogy. Only, I get the feeling it isn’t really a conclusion either… I certainly hope not.

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The Coffee House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis

Living in the modern world, it’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t start the day with coffee or that we didn’t consider meeting someone in a café or inviting them over for a cuppa one of the sweetest of leisure time activities. Yet, until travellers explored the Ottoman Empire and encountered the Coffa-Houses in Constantinople, and trade between nations flourished during the Renaissance, coffee was unknown in the western world.

1364758In his book, The Coffee House: A Cultural History, Markman Ellis, does a magnificent job of following the journey of the humble coffee bean, briefly from its growth and cultivation to its fascinating arrival as a drink that signified both civility and sociability across different cultures, but with particular emphasis on England and London during the 1600s.

Described as the “wine of Islam”, coffee drinking, and the various rituals associated with it, were soon embraced by first, traders and merchants (which encountered the bitter drink that was “black as soot” on their adventures) and then by the folk of London, curious for the new experiences and products shipping companies like the Levant and East India brought to their thriving capital.

It was through the establishment of Coffee-Houses, the first a small stall run by a Greek man named Pasqua Rosee, that proved this black, apparently medicinal drink, was a serious rival to ale, beer and wine that English men and women imbibed so freely. Coffee-Houses (of which there were over 80 by 1663) provided men (they were very much masculine “clubs”, though women might serve – and in various ways) with spaces to read the latest news, exchange information about trade and shipping and catch up on all the latest gossip. They were also places were new inventions were often discussed, auctions held, writers and musicians could demonstrate their latest compositions and, most importantly, political views could be aired.

Developing a reputation as centres of sedition, there were attempts to close them down and control the licensing of the venues. It’s indicative of the significant role these places had in Englishmen’s lives that these efforts were not only resisted, but regarded as attacks on the right to freedom of speech as well.

Contrasting with the drunken atmosphere of taverns, Coffee-Houses were renown for their sobriety and thus the kind of clientele they attracted – men of learning or those who wanted to learn (they were later referred to as “penny universities”). They also became important locations for those wanting to reinforce and make social and professional connections. Samuel Pepys, for instance, understanding the role the Coffee-House could play in furthering his own career, quickly abandoned the tavern for the coffee-house and the more useful people he might meet behind their doors.

Egalitarian in nature, Coffee-Houses didn’t stand on formality and, providing a person could pay the charge, he had to sit in the next available seat and engage with whoever he happened to be seated next to.

As time went on, Coffee-Houses became even more numerous, grander in their interiors, offered their clientele more by way of news and spaces to engage freely in debate and even did their utmost to attract particular trades and professions. It’s from the Coffee-House that Lloyd’s of London, for example, was born, along with other well-known institutions – and not only in England – Florians in Venice also started as a Coffee-House.

Filled to the brim with wonderful anecdotes and interesting facts about coffee, those who drank it, ran the coffee-houses and traded in the commodity, Ellis’s book also catapults us into the present and the changing social role of coffee, cafes and drinkers, including information on large coffee-based corporations such as Starbucks.

It was the historical and cultural aspects that I found most compelling. Ellis writes in such a readable way, and with a light touch, that only enhances his meticulous research and makes this book so insightful.

A must-read for lovers of coffee, history and those who simple enjoy learning more about how what was once a luxury commodity became not only ubiquitous but part of so many people’s daily rituals.

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A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration by Jenny Uglow.

imgres-5A Gambling Man, is a scholarly work by Jenny Uglow that covers the first ten years of Charles II’s return to the throne after the interregnum – but don’t let the fact it is rigorous and meticulous in its research put you off. This book is a simply marvellous read. Uglow is a wrier with a light touch and this is written in such a style it’s as if you’re reading an exciting novel. Uglow uses the motif of gambling, of hedging bets, risk-taking and the sort of nature required to succeed as a gambler to explore the impact the return of the king had on English society – specifically London – in the 1660s. It also explores the changes Charles’ return wrought upon English allies and enemies on the continent.

Greeted

with effusiveness by a repressed populace, who welcomed their thirty-year-old monarch with bonfires and dancing in the streets the day he arrived in London after 12 years absence, the city and, indeed, country (with few exceptions, of course) were filled with hope. Restoring the king meant that, surely, those who were secretly royalists or at least prepared to welcome the king, could be restored to their former lives, wealth, trades etc. Even Catholics and other non-conformists, clung to the promises Charles made while at Breda, that he would tolerate all religions providing it didn’t conflict with loyalty to the throne and so too welcomed him with prayers and blessings.

Ready to embrace his new life, gamble with the hearts and souls of his people, Charles’ good intentions were swiftly put to the test.

While Charles’ desire to welcome different religions in the realm was no doubt sincere (in his mind at least, just because one was Catholic or Quaker, these beliefs didn’t exclude loyalty to him), his parliament and the Commons had other ideas. Toleration was swiftly replaced by prejudice and non-conformists suffered.

Though the parliament were initially generous to the king, even before he stepped upon English shores they lavished him with the sort of things he’d been denied in exile: beautiful clothes, objects, food and anything his heart desired, it quickly became apparent that the treasury was broke. This didn’t stop Charles luxuriating in his new status. Women, jewels, ships, furniture, object d’ art, courtiers, games, sexual licence, debauchery, all of these became the hallmark of Charles and the Restoration court.

But this was also a time for fresh ideas in the sciences, innovations in the arts, with music and the theatre (and women players being permitted upon the stage) as well as painting all being patronised and enjoyed by the king. Trade was opened up, new lands discovered and conquered and exotic foodstuffs and people poured into London, bringing ideas that challenged the status quo.

Striding daily among his subjects in St James’ Park, bestowing his touch and “curing” scrofula, dining before them in the Banqueting House, Charles never seemed to forget what he owed his people and how quickly his status could alter. The people loved him for that at the same time they loathed him and those he surrounded himself with for “playing” while the country and city of London suffered: through wars, financial depression, plague and the Great Fire.

It was really the latter that went some way to salvaging Charles’ rapidly diminishing reputation as he worked side by side, along with his brother, James, the Duke of York, and the exhausted citizens of London, to contain the fire that threatened to level the entire city.

(c) Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Barbara Castlemaine. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Unfortunately, the restored love of the people didn’t last long. All too soon gossip about the king and his reckless spending on his many mistresses and bastard children (whom he gifted titles like one does flowers) dominated, at the same time, the Dutch declared war and even sailed into the Thames, sailors were being suborned to serve and people were going hungry, wages unpaid. And all the while, the religious balance and the power the king held over those he governed hung in the balance.

But, as Uglow argues, for all that Charles is remembered as a bit of a wastrel, he was also a clever and astute man who managed those around him carefully. While attention was focussed on his sexual escapades and his spending, and the gossip in the coffee houses and on the streets was about this, his power remained mostly in tact. Gambling on his ability to control his people, Charles’ managed to continually prorogue parliament and (mostly) any attempts to seriously curtail his power. The face he presented to the world was one of loyalty and assuredness, yet behind the scenes, he negotiated with England’s enemy and his cousin, Louis XIV in France, making promises in exchange for much-needed coin, removing the dependency he had on parliament to extend him cash.

Alternately bold and sneaky, loving and cold, rash and contained, succumbing to his base desires, refusing to acknowledge them, Charles was, according to Uglow (and her argument is persuasive) a gambler par excellence, able to conceal his hand and play, despite what people thought, with a poker face, one that left very few prepared when he finally played his cards.

This is a simply marvellous book, full of wonderful and quirky facts, splendid descriptions of the leading and colourful figures of the time, from General Monck and the Earl of Clarendon, to Barbara Castlemaine, Frances Stuart and of course, the tall, swarthy skin, dark-eyed and lustful king himself, Charles II.

For lovers of history, the royal families of Britain, politics, and insights into what make people tick, this is the book for you.

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