Category Archives: Books

Coal: A Human History – Barbara Freese

Some saw in the mines scientific proof of biblical flood. Some credited coal with protecting people from the bubonic plague; others accused it of promoting baldness, tooth decay, sordid murders, caustic speech and fuzzy thinking.More recently many of us believed we could burn vast amounts of coal without disrupting the natural balance of the planet. No doubt we have still much to learn about coal, but at least we’ve been able to dispel many of the old myths.

The book talks about the history of coal, since Roman times to modern day. Barbara Freese talks about both the good and the bad sides of the mineral. As the author is an environmental lawyer, the book slightly tips on the bad side of coal, however the research is deep, insightful and entertaining.

Coal is appreciated by Ms Freese as the basis of the Industrial revolution and the rock that made the British Empire and the United States. It significantly improved living standards by increasing on a massive scale the efficiency of industrial processes.

On the other side, the bad environmental effects were constant, from the fumes and hard working conditions to current greenhouse gas problems.

The message of the book is that coal was never popular, but always useful. The author finishes the book on a positive note, such as using coal for in plastics and other alternative uses.

The Art of Manliness – Brett McKay and Kate McKay

Wanted, a man who is larger than his calling, who considers it a low estimate of his occupation to value it merely as a means of getting a living. Wanted, a man who sees self-development, education and culture, discipline and drill, character and manhood, in his occupation. Wanted, a man of courage who is not a coward in any part of his nature. Wanted, a man who is symmetrical, and not one-sided in his development, who has not sent all the energies of his being into one narrow specialty and allowed all the other branches of his life to wither and die. Wanted, a man who is broad, who does not take half views of things; a man who mixes common sense with his theories, who does not let a college education spoil him for practical, every-day life; a man who prefers substance to show, and one who regards his good name as a priceless treasure.

The book is a collection of texts: stories, letters, poems, speeches, aiming to teach a series of virtues in life. The volume is called The Art of Manliness, but the virtues presented can be actually  applied to anyone.

The seven virtues hailed for good life are: manliness, courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline and honour. For each, several texts of great persons, writers, adventurers, are presented, in order to explain and stimulate.

The Art of Manliness is largely a motivational book, showing past examples, stories, ideas, words of great men, to inspire the reader to be a better man. It draws from Greek and Roman writers, American founding fathers, Arctic and American Far-west explorers and thinkers of the 19th century,

The book is a great opportunity to be exposed to the classical literature, particularly to poems. It includes one of the very few poems I like, The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. How much courage and discipline those people had! I quote some of it:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Overall, while not exceptional, the book is useful for inspiration, something to look up to, and, generally, as a compass of life. I took my time to read it.

Morning Star (Red Rising saga: Book 3) – Pierce Brown

My name is Felicia au…” I feint a whip at her face. She brings her blade up, and Victra goes diagonal and impales her at the belly button. I finish her off with a neat decapitation. “Bye, Felicia.” Victra spits, turning to the last Praetorian.

[…]

No child in my family watches holos before the age of twelve. We all have nature and nurture to shape us. She can watch other people’s opinions when she has opinions of her own, and no sooner. We’re not digital creatures. We’re flesh and blood. Better she learns that before the world finds her.

Morning Star is the third and final part of the Red Rising saga. A lot grittier, grey and bitter than the first two books, the volume concludes the story of Darrow. The protagonist, born in the Red low-cast, raised through ranks through deception and skill to be part of the Gold high-class. He then challenged the entire Society’s cast-based structure, by the force of his ideas and outstanding moral compass.

The book was more about Darrow’s friends and allies than his actions. The reader still sees the world through the protagonist’s eyes, but he is no longer in absolute control. Many of the main decisions and actions are taken by others. He is a lot more reactive in this book and depending a lot more on the will of others.

Final chapter in the Red Rising saga, one of the most popular sci-fi space operas in recent years.

The plot is still outstanding, the pace of action superb and the characters that are introduced are memorable. However, the quality of writing is a bit down, a bit struggling. It is still head and shoulders above most scifi literature, but just a little below the world class writing that were the first two books. The author, Pierce Brown, admits that he struggled with the third book. He knew where to arrive with the story, but he did not know how to get there.

The saga could have had a better vocabulary, more precise wording. More technical research would have made it a hard scifi, a difficult task considering the time horizon, 700 years in the future.

Overall, this is top-class trilogy, certainly among the best in scifi literature. The writing is superb, solid storyline, the plot is tight, full of action, the pace is perfect, numerous creative ideas for a far away future, explanations of why things are as they are, well-developed supporting characters, great balance between simplicity and psychological and moral dilemmas, excellent world immersion, strong moral messages and, above all, entertaining and unexpected developments.

[Features picture: ESA, NASA and L. Calçada (ESO)]

Golden Son (Red Rising saga: Book 2)- Pierce Brown

That’s what Society does–spread the blame so there is no villain, so it’s futile to even begin to find a villain, to find justice. It’s just machinery. Processes.

[…]

Rose petals of a thousand shades fall from the trees as Golds fight beneath them. They’re all red in the end.

Golden Son continues the Rising Red saga, with the protagonist, Darrow, now a Gold. Darrow is staring to navigate the difficult politics of being a part of the Society as a Gold, while trying to create a rift within it. He tries to use the fight between ruling families to create a civil war, weakening the Society from within.

The reader comes to know the final pieces of the puzzle, the ruler of the Society and her coterie, and the antagonist, a brilliant schemer.

Beautiful scifi saga, with action, politics, love and friendships.

The book keeps the same excellent level of writing, perfectly paced action, almost impermeable plot, depth of character and top class editing.

There is a slight drop in the quality of the plot, with a few turns of the action that raise browses.

However, the storytelling remains world class, creating one of the best sci-fi sagas in recent literature.

[Features picture: ESA, NASA and L. Calçada (ESO)]

Red Rising (Red Rising saga: Book 1)- Pierce Brown

I live for the dream that my children will be born free. That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them.’

‘I live for you,’ I say sadly.

She kisses my cheek. ‘Then you must live for more.

Red Rising is the first book and the eponym of the scifi trilogy by Pierce Brown. The saga follows the story of Darrow, a miner in the Mars deep-mines, some 700 years in the future. His kind has a hard life, toiling to extract precious minerals to terraform the world above, that they never see. However, is there more that meets the eye?

Humanity has evolved to colonize the solar system, but not beyond. The society is organized on a hierarchical caste-based system, colours being given by the role they fulfill in the society. Harsh life in the first colonisation of the Moon, centuries ago, made humans to specialize on different tasks and later being genetically modified to better fulfill their tasks. For example, Greys are policeman and soldiers, Blues are pilots are spaceships personnel, Yellows are doctors, and, on top of all, Golds, the leaders. On the bottom of the pyramid are the Reds, the miners and low jobs in general.

Darrow is a Red in the society’s hierarchical caste-based system, skilled in his job, young in age, but old according to his colour. His wife dreams of more, for her children to be free and have a better life, and she is killed by the society. She passes her dream to Darrow, who starts an epic struggle of guile, force and grit for a new society.

This is one of the best series of scifi saga, right next to Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games. Great ideas and plot, excellent writing, characters with depth and motivations, unpredictable plot and excellent pace.

Thinking bigger than the world he is.

Most impressive is the plot, which moves quickly, but with just enough detail to get to keep the reader immersed in the story. So many things are happening, but they are linear enough to be easily tracked by the reader. There are no parallel stories, the reader sees the world only through the eyes of the protagonist, which makes the complex story easy to follow.

Secondly, the motivations, the actions, the plot is credible and realistic. The protagonist is not the perfect guy, with the perfect plan. He sometimes loses, sometimes is out-foxed and out-maneuvered, with real consequences for him. Rarely there are plots with so few holes. Indeed, plot holes exist in the book, but they are few and far apart.

Finally, the writing style is head and shoulders over similar novels, with great grammar, well-researched Latin references and excellent use of English vocabulary. It is clear that the book had a great editor, helping the writer to identify weak points of the story and keep the plot progressing steadily.

No wonder the book was Goodreads choice for 2014. There was a bid war for film rights between some of the largest film corporations around (which made the author a multi-millionaire in the process) and likely there will be a movie in the making. A book to read, even if not a scifi fan.

End This Depression Now! – Paul Krugman

There’s another element in the euro crisis, another weakness of a shared currency, that took many people, myself included, by surprise. It turns out that countries that lack their own currency are highly vulnerable to self-fulfilling panic, in which the efforts of investors to avoid losses from default end up triggering the very default they fear.

This is an economics book by the Nobel awarded economist, Paul Krugman, where he presents his neo-Keynesian ideas in dealing with the 2008–2012 global recession. Krugman sees as the solution to economic crisis an increase in government expenditure, to balance the consumer decline in purchasing and reignite the economy. Government expenditure is made by the central bank (Federal Reserve in the US) creating money, with which governmental bonds, for example, are purchased, which in turn are used to make governmental projects or purchases.

In the European Union, the central bank bought eurobonds and company bonds, that is corporate debt, debt used by companies for investment or keeping production, in order to stop the vicious circle.

On macro-economics of depressions: the Keynesian view.

The US indeed had an expansionary economy, but Professor Krugman considered that the level of government expenditure was not enough to alleviate the consequences of the economic crisis. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman, was a history economist and an expert in the Great Depression.

For the austerity policies adopted in several countries of the European Union, he considered that they only create unnecessary pain, calling for the stop of austerity and the end of economic depression.

His economic ideas are drawn from the Great Depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, of which Keynes considered that the government should intervene and balance the private production with public demand, until the economy is reignited. Indeed, largely until the New Deal of President Roosevelt, the Federal Reserve focused mainly on keeping the federal budget and the inflation in check. To recall, the New Deal created numerous public projects, such as government buildings, airports, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and dams, around 35,000 overall.

A critical review comes from the Austrian school of economy, which notes that, despite significant spending from governments, the crisis continued, hence the measures were inefficient. Furthermore, the reasons that created the crisis will not be corrected, if the government kept pouring money.

Professor Krugman got his Nobel prize for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

The book manages to give a solid macro-economy insight into the world economic crisis of 2008-2012, while having an attractive writing style.

Marines (Crimson Worlds 1) – Jay Allan

The new officer AIs were the state of the art in quasi-sentient computers, and the designers had decided that giving them a soothing, human-sounding voice and an active personality would reduce stress on officers in the field. I can’t speak to the psychology of the officer corps in general, but the damned thing creeped me out. And it talked too much.

Marines is the first book of the Crimson World series, a military sci-fi saga with assaults on planets, marines, decrepit governments and futuristic technologies. The book follows the astonishing rise through the ranks of Erik Cain, from a gang member and low strata to major in the space marines.

Jay Allen creates a dystopia, 250 years in the future, where Earth superpowers fight in space among themselves for colonies, resources and warp gates access. Society returns generally to feudal politics level, with a tightly controlled population and only token elections. In this environment, the army provides a refuge for those willing to be in a meritocratic system, a brotherhood of arms.

Space marines and planetary colonies. Intro to the Crimson Worlds saga.

The author promotion of military values is visible throughout the book, rarely any officers or troops being unfit for job. The highest sought-out skill is military experience. Politicians are disdained. Colonists are brave people, willing to preserve democracies and the main reason of the protagonist’s motivation to fight.

The book is well-written, engaging, with good depth of characters. The universe is well described and the author tries to explain why things are as they are are, which adds to the depth of the book.

A drawback is the nearly perfect career of Erik Cain, who skyrockets through ranks without enough explanation why. He tops the academy (how? why was he special?). He displayed brilliance on the field (how? what others would do normally and he did differently and exceptional?). In this respect, I recommend the Man of War series or Star Carrier, also on the blog, who really kept the reader guessing.

The book reads generally as an intro to the series, with a rushed plot and some, but could have been more, description. Maybe next books in the series will have a more twisted plot.