My  Book  Comments

This is a new page so not extensive
(only just started). I will mainly include books acquired recently

It is not 'Criticism' but my comments

I shall only include books that seem special in some way (good or bad)

Go to Book pages

Birds Natural world and science Music and the arts History and world affairs India Fiction

Bird books (link)

The art of bird illustation by Maureen Lambourne (see above).   This provides a nice well-illustrated guide to the great bird illustrators. It would be pointless if its illustrations were not first class. They are.

Fine bird books (1700 - 1900) by Sacheverell Sitwell. Similar subject to the above, scholarly and beautifully-written (as expected).

Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise by David Attenborough and Errol Fuller' Magnificent.

Birds: the art of bird illustration by Jonathan Elphick. Historical overview. Excellent selection of pictures from the UK Natural History Musem


The natural world and science (link

Wild shots; a new look at photographing the wildlife of Britain by Chris Packham. Surprising. Packham wrote this, aiming to drag wildlife photography into the realm of art. His success is based on excellent examples ( good and bad) of his own work and on the elegance and clarity of his writing. This was written before digital photography but his advice and example are still relevant, as is the fact the he won 'Wildlife photographer of the year' three times. My hero.

Out of the Shadow of a Giant; Hooke, Halley and the Birth of British Science by John and Mary Gibbin (2017). John Gribbin is the author of the magnificent History of Western Science. The 'giant' in the title is of course John Newton. We learn how Newton tried to write Hooke our of history,' borrowing' many of his best ideas including the principles that would form the foundation for the universal theory of Gravity. As well as many advances in astronomy for which Halley was responsible, Newton might have remained obscure if Halley had not encouraged him to write the Principia and then paid for its publication out of his own pocket.

The Fellowship and the story of a Scientific Revolution. by John Gibbin (2007; published in USA). The story of the founding of the Royal Society. Some parts of this are expanded in Out of the Shadow of a Giant. Covers brief biographies of all those involved, and their contribution to the development of experimental science.

Structues, or why things don't fall down by J.E. Gordon (Folio society 2013). Originally published in 1978 by Penguin. Beautifully written for expert or students or me. He enthusiastically discusses all aspects of structure, relating them to everything "from earthworms kangaroo skeletons, medieval crossbows, cathedrals and chinese junks. It is discussed in the Introduction how he believed that good clear explanations and writing were as important as getting a bridge to stand safely. He hated what he called the horrible slimy mess of Anglo-American technicalese, knowing it was easier for academics and professionals to write in jargon than in clear English because of the sheer effort, let alone intelligence, required to do so. I find I never look at churches or bridges or even kangaroos in the same way. A wonderful book.


Music and Arts (link)

Housman country; into the heart of England by Peter Parker (2017). I bought this after an afternoon at the Turner Sims concert hall (Southampton) devoted to Vaughan Williams setting of Housman's On Wenlock Edge for tenor, piano and string quartet. This is based on five poems from A Shropshire Lad. There was a talk about these by Peter Parker, so interesting that I bought his book which he says "might be described as an account of the life and times of A Shropshire Lad". The book includes the whole of the poems which are sensibly numbered so that they can be easily referenced while reading. Beautifully written. This led me to buy a Folio Society edition of The Shropshire Lad.

Sinfonia Eroica; the first great romantic symphony by James Hamilton-Paterson (2016). By one of my favourite writers. Beautifully written and illustrated. The 'technical' musical quotations are useful to those who can follow them but not essential. He starts: "For all the fame of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the 'Eroica', each new generation of concertgoers and music-lovers can probably benefit from being reminded of quite what a ground-breaking work it was when first performed in 1805". The author has a kind sense of humour. A nice example of his approach: writing of the less impressive 'Battle Symphony' he says 'this was admittedly an aberration, although it was to bring Beethoven much needed money, exactly as he calculated. In response to the scholars Kerman and Tyson, both of whom were lifelong academics on generaous faculty salaries, it is not cynicism for an artist to scratch a living as best he may'. Other favourite books, illustrating the diversity of Hamilton-Patterson's interests and achievements are his comic novels set in Tuscany (Cooking with fermat branca, and Rancid pansies); 'serious' novels (Gerontius - a novel based on Elgar's trip up the Amazon); Empire of the Clouds (a magnificent history of British aircraft industry); Blackbird - a love letter to the spy plane. And more.


History and World Affairs (link)

Siege; Trump under fire. By Michael Wolff (2019). Bought in error, confusing with the second volume (due in Sept 2020) by Bob Woodward. He seems to adopt the crude language of many of his subjects - especially Trump and Steve Bannon. Describes the 2nd year of Trump's presidency; the 1st was covered in his Fire and Fury. Not a pleasant read about many powerful unpleasant people. Much of the material was from interviews with main people - especially Bannon. Advice: better to waitf for vol.2 of Woodward.

Dereliction of Duty; Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the joint chiefs of staff and the lies that led to Vietnam by H.R. McMaster {1997). To quote a reviewer: "Vietnam did not simply happen; it was not an accidental Cold War collision that killed 58,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese. Men of power and responsibility caused it and left their fingerprints all over it - and here are the names and what they did and said in secret... shielded by a bodyguard of lies, manipulated our country down the road to war and bitter defeat". Grim and gripping. McMaster wrote the book while a serving Colonel in the US army. In 1917 he was appointed National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump. Many were encouraged by his appointment (a wise and moderate person with wide experience of military matters) but he left after one year (the second to do this).

Fear; Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward (2018). The author was one of the pair of journalsists (the other was Carl Berstein) whose exposure of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal led to his resignation. This book is an account of the first year of the Trump presidency. Terrifying. So dangerous was he thought to be by some senior advisors that they had to steal draft orders from the Oval office desk so that he would not issue directives that would jeoparise critical intelligence operations or cause serious international problems.

Vietnam; an Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 by Max Hastings (2018). As always with Max Hastings a very thorough yet readable account in which the experiences of those involved at the 'lower' levels of armed forces and civilians are sympathetically included, along with the obvious political and military aspects. This illustrates the effects on Vietnam of the Dereliction of Duty; Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the joint chiefs of staff and the lies that led to Vietnam by H.R. McMaster (above). Absolutely grpping. Very few politicians or military come out of this well and the 'lower levels' were lucky to come out of it at all. Note: Hastings met many of the politicians on both sides during his work as a journalist in Vietnam and was one of the last to leave by helicopter from the emabassy roof in Saigon. This is mentioned in the Introduction only. Hastings sees it all as a US Tragedy but overwhelmingly as a tragedy for the Vietnames people, of whom forty died for every Amaerican.

Marked for Death; the first war in the air by James Hamilton-Paterson (2015). Comment by J.G. Ballard "I love his elegant and intensely evocotive style: strangeness lifts off his pages likea rare perfume". J H-P states more simply that "I hope to give a vivid overall sense of the air war, together with its consequencesby means of chapters that particularly interest me - such as the medical issues of flying, how aircrew were chosen and behaved , and the relationship between the design of early aircraft and the tasks the military increasingly demanded of them". As always the Author writes clearly, with enthusiasm, expertise.


India (link)

Viceroys. The creation of the British. By Christopher Lee (2018). Not a good book. He starts with a necessary summary of the early days of the East India Company and to roles of Clive and Hastings. He then moves through all the Viceroys from Cannning (1856-1862) to Mountbatten (1947). Obviously it is not easy to cover the relevant history and geography that is relevant but without maps it was very difficult to follow. It is poorly written. It reads as if it had been rather casually dictated and not read through before printing. Every few pages there were whole paragraphs which made little sense. When he makes sense in his writing he writes some good sense and makes some interesting points. Rather a waste of time - much better to read the magnificent The tears of the Rajahs (below).

The tiger and the ruby. A journey to the other side of British India. By Kief Hillsbery (2017). Very good. Well written. A few more maps would have been a help. The author sets out to investigate the lif in India of a distant uncle. In 1841 Nigel Helleck started in Calcutta as a clerk in the East India Company. After eight years in the colonial administration he left his post and disappeared in Nepal. His story, as unearthed, shows a remarkable man, rebelling against the 'colonial norm'. The author's story of the quest is almost as interesting.

Inglorious Empire; What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor (2016). A gift from a good friend (Ram Rajan). The author served for 29 years at the UN, culminating as Under-Secretary General and is a Congress MP in India. Very thoroughly argued and written with much kindness and humour. But devastating. As described on the cover "British Imperialism justified itself as enlightened despotism for the benefit of the governed, but Shashi tharoor takes on and demolishes this position". In the eighteenth century India's share of the world economy was as large as Erope's. By 1947 it had decreased 6-fold. I wrote brief notes on this while reading it and have put these below .

The Tears of the Rajahs; Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805 - 1905 by Ferdinand Mount (2015). Wonderful book. A history of India seen through the experiences of Mount's ancestors. I read this before Inglorious Empire (above) and so become more aware - as did Mount- of the unsettling 'truths' about what the British did to India. He describes how an ancestor (John Low) "took an active part in deposing three kings, each of them ruling over a territory and population the magnitude of middle-sized European state. He deprived a fourth Raja of a large part of his kingdom and survived three shattering mutinies".

The British in India; Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience by David Gilmour (2018). Very highly praised account of British life in India. It is not typical history, but a huge collection of information about everyday life of all levels of society, all seen through the letters (etc) and Partition in 1947?of the participants with anecdotes galore. I did not finish it.

Partition; the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White-Spunner (2017). The author has commanded Brithish and allied troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, Africa and Asia and is a noted military historian. As stated in the cover blurb "the contributions of Ghandi, Nehru,Jinnah, Churchill, Atlee and Mountbatten are praised and damned in equal measure". A major question he addresses is "did our inability to leave India lead to two of the worst lossed of life in the twentieth century -the Bengal famine of 1942-1944 and Partition in 1947 (yes)? And the British Indian Army had seemed powerless to act. Why?" This account was highly praised by reviewers in UK, India and Pakistan. Totally gripping and made me feel that I had understood what I previously found incomprehensible. Sadly one message that I was left with was similar to the books above by Mount and Tharoor.




Notes on Inglorious Empire; What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor (2016). Notes stimulated by the book given me by Ram.

Wikipedia: The event that led the author to write this book was a 2015 Oxford Union speech he delivered on the topic "Does Britain owe reparations to its former colonies?". The speech went viral on the internet leading to some million views on Youtube. According to Shashi Tharoor, his publisher called him and gave him the idea to transform this into a book. He replied that everyone knows about it. But the publisher insisted that if everyone had known this then your speech cannot go viral to such extent. This inspired him to convert his 15 minute speech into a 330 page book. Hear the speech on YouTube.

The industrialisation of Britain was paid for by de-industrialisation of India.
World-famous handloom weavers were broken up (thumbs and equipment).
Cotton was imported to England, converted to cloth and exported to India.
Clive got so much loot from india it bought hem a number of ‘rotten boroughs’ so he could have his interests looked after in England. Note: Loot was taken and the word also taken. British had the cheek to call him Clive of India as if he belonged to the country whereas he had ensured that a lot of the country belonged to him.
The tax system was changed from tax on harvests (diminished in bad years) to tax on land. The tax was used to pay very high salaries to British administrators and was also sent to Britain. So tax that would have been used previously by rulers for developments in India was sent home.
Slavery. When this was abolished huge compensations were made to slave owners who had been made rich by the slaves, but nothing to the slaves themselves.
Under the Raj about 24 million died of starvation.
In World war II about 4 million Bengalis starved to death as a result of Churchill’s policy of diverting stored grain from Bengal to UK to feed soldiers.
No wonder the sun never set on the British Empire because even God could not trust the English in the dark.
WW1. One sixth of British troops were from India. 54,000 died. Indian taxpayers paid 100 million pounds (not changed to present value). And supplied equipment, animals, food supplies – all from their taxes. In today’s money the total cost paid by India was £8 billion pounds.
WW II. Two and a half million in uniform. At end of the war £3 billion pounds debt (in today’s money), 1.25 billion from India – never repaid. [Note: some of the soldiers were used to stop Japanese advance into India so were a good thing – the only successful bit of British war against Japanese].
Railways and roads built by British for their own benefit. (Note that many countries built these without needing to be colonised to achieve it).
The first railways were from the interior to Bombay to export cotton to UK.
After 1857 (mutiny or India’s 1st war of independence) the railways were extended to rush troops to threatened areas.
Ship building. India used to be the major ship builder in the East but British stopped this so that only British ships could be used for trade from India.

Zhou Haohui: Death Notice. Sunday Times crime book of the year. Set in Chendu, Sichuan province of China. Complex story with many flashbacks. Of course chinese names make it difficult to remember the characters. I found it very odd that the many detectives had few of the usual characteristics of 'Western' detectives. They were always very concerned to make a good impression on their immediate bosses with a lot of attention to saving face. I struggled to the end. Not recommended for those with poor memory.
Abir Mukherjee: A necessary evil. By author of excellent A Rising Man. Continues with English poice captain and his sergeant Surendra Banerjee solving complex crimes in the Princely State in or near Orissa. A good relaxing understandable story with convincing local backgrand and a gentle sense of humour.