TJH's Shelf

The Universe In Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time and Beyond - Christophe Galfard

A good read for those who want an easy introduction to cosmology and theoretical physics. The first few chapters cover phenomenea which I have already some general idea of (in fact, I find that some details are glossed over) but the way they are written can be quite evocative; there are certain parts which fill me with both wonder and awe at how huge the universe is and how insignificant we are in comparison. However, I find my interest slipping in the last few chapters, maybe because they were dealing with more complex concepts than what I am used to or perhaps that they are so complicated reducing them to simplified form doesn't do them justice. Still, it's a good introduction to the universe if you need one.

A Very Special Year - Thomas Montasser

Now, I *really, really* want to have my own bookstore. Ok, back to the book. A relaxing read for a cool and overcast afternoon, the author's love for books and bookstores is evident throughout the story. But beyond that, he tells a tale of how life's meanderings can lead us to serendipitous occurrences. Books truly *are* magical. And maybe, just maybe, I should just quit my job and see where that takes me. (Poverty and ruin, most likely.)

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World - Lawrence Goldstone, Nancy Goldstone

So this is how collectors/addicts get started, from trying to get a used book at under $20 to spending hundreds of dollars on 1st editions (The really expensive books go for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars but this is out of the authors' league). This book is a good read for those and *only those* who harbour secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of starting their own book collection one day. Now, how does one attend a book auction here in Singapore?

Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes

This book has the interesting premise that Hitler, somehow finding himself alive in present-day (2011) Germany, tries to regain popularity and power with the use of modern media. However, I'm not entirely sure what the author is trying to convey.

If it is trying to portray how a person from the 1940s would cope with modern technology, I guess it is generally successful although some parts appear to be aiming for slapstick humour, and I find them to be quite jarring.

But if it is a satirical piece on politicians and how politics are conducted through TV talk shows and Youtube videos, then it doesn't go far enough. Still, this may be due to the fact that the author is holding back since Hitler is still a sensitive topic in Germany. The book is originally written in German and one scathing review online criticised the book for making light of Hitler and his policies.

However, in light Donald Trump (and Brexit, to a lesser extent), I do feel that this book can be seen as a warning against him. Appealing to xenophobic sentiments? Check. Criticising immigration and employment policies without considering their ramifications? Check. Sound bites which are appealing but have no substance? Check, check, check.

Still, this book was written in 2011, before Donald Trump, and this may be why it didn't go far enough, assuming that it is a satirical piece on politics. Overall, an average book although it may rise in significance after the US Presidential elections.

Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: Lover, Traitor, Hero, Spy (Reissued) - Ben Macintyre

An intriguing story about Eddie Chapman, a British criminal turned Nazi spy, turned British double-agent (which explains his codename, Zigzag). The writing, while not stellar, is solid, providing a detailed account of his exploits. I find Eddie's life to be extremely interesting, and yet, at the end, there is a lack of connection between him and me. He is no paragon of virtue, not by any means, but rather than appearing human, he comes across as a more devious and dishonest (and just as honourable) James Bond. Or maybe, I simply can't empathise with him because his story is really *that* extraordinary. Still, it's a book worth reading especially if you are interested in tales of espionage or less-known aspects of WWII.

After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam - Lesley Hazleton

Highly accessible piece of work into the early history of Islam although I did have my doubts as to its accuracy and detail. Still, considering that it's such a complicated history and that as Hazleton acknowledged, she drew heavily from a 39-volume translation of al-Tabari's historical account of early Islam, it's not really a surprise that she couldn't really go into great depth within a mere 200-page book.

The book seems slightly biased towards Shia Islam and some online reviews have dismissed the book based on this point, but I guess Hazleton had to spin her narrative in a certain direction in order for it to hold readers. I wouldn't say it is a serious work of history but I find it highly engaging as an entry point into the subject; at certain points, I had to put the book down and wonder/despair at the missed opportunities.

All in all, highly recommended but do take it with a pinch of salt, and use it to spur you on to find out more about the topic.

The Princess Bride - William Goldman

A highly enjoyable book, although I find the claim that it was abridged to be confusing. I don't really understand what that brings to the story although upon looking up the issue online, this seems to have given room for the story's further development, even to present-day. Apparently, it also allows Goldman to go straight to the 'good parts' of the story.

Putting the above aside, it is indeed a "classic tale of true love and high adventure", with a simple storyline, with clearly defined heroes and villains. Ostensibly, Buttercup and Westley are the main characters, but Fezzik and Inigo are better fleshed-out, and I like Fezzik the best.

Last but not least, what a lovely cover!!

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

Do you know one of those books which, upon coming to the end, you would close it gently, lay it on your chest, and let out a sigh containing a mix of satisfaction and sorrow that you have finished it? Well, this is definitely one.


Ove is a grouchy old man as the author made clear from the very first page, and having personally been accused of being Oscar (from Sesame Street), I feel for him immediately. But even if you have not been described as being one, I'm sure you have known someone who's perpetually cranky, and the strength of the author's characterisation makes Ove come to life. You *will* like Ove, especially after you get to know him as a person. The descriptions of Ove's grumpiness is so pinpoint that it frequently brought wry smiles to me. At the same time, the writing is just *so* emotive; only now do I know how much feeling can go into the decision of the choice of car to purchase.


I really can't do justice to this book; there are so many parts that even now leaves me speechless. I can only say that if I am going to be a cranky old man, let me be Ove.


*still in awe*

How to Be Alone - Sara Maitland

Well, this is a book to read if you are in a particular mood...


It's an easy-to-read book which really delivers on what it promises: it examines the common perception of loners that they are "sad, mad, or bad", the history leading up to it, convinces you that it's ok to be alone, and finally, gives you some ideas on how to spend time alone. Only the first two points interest me though; I have no issues with the last two. :p I guess I was really hoping for more on the first two points. So what I find to be more useful was the 'Homework' section at the back which informs you of other suitable books that expand on what was alluded to in this book. Perhaps I will get them when I'm feeling that way again... :D

Apocalypse: A History of the End of Time - John Michael Greer

As a book-hoarder, while there are many books that I promised myself that I will come back to them later, there are very few books that I wish I didn't waste my time reading them; add this to that extremely short list.


I bought this book online and I did so because: 1) I found the title interesting and 2) the price to be attractive (less than $10). That relatively low price is now my sole consolation. I can only lament the fact that I didn't spot this book in a bookstore, for that would bring into sharp focus the fact that the cover carried praise from Jonathan Black, author of another book which belonged on my list of 'Not-To-Read'.


So what's so cringe-worthy about this book? If Greer had stuck to the premise of bringing the reader through a summary of the different apocalypse myths through the ages and religions (which was I what thought it would be), then I guess it could have been a fun read. But nope, Greer has to lump all sorts of different phenomena and events under his 'apocalypse meme'. It's hard to take him seriously when he believes that astrology, religious myths, Fourierism, Marxism/Communism, Y2K, and AI Singularity are all manifestations of his 'apocalypse meme'. His arguments are so weak that they remind me of a recent academic paper I wrote and submitted at the very last minute.


Oh wait, I guess there's one other comfort I can take away from this book: If something so bad can be published, there is hope that I too can be an author sometime in the future.

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

While the writing (or the translation, at least) is certainly evocative, perhaps among the best passages that I have ever read, I still feel somewhat cheated. I had wrongly assumed that the Cemetery of Forgotten Books would take a more central role in the plot. I am, after all, a sucker for books about libraries and bookshops, and the blurb says that there's an *entire cemetery of forgotten books*? Count me in! But to my disappointment, the cemetery only figured in setting up the novel, for it was where the protagonist found 'The Shadow of the Wind', the book that gradually became his obsession.


Still, to be fair, the writing is certainly great, containing numerous passages that left lingering images in my mind. The plot is a slow uncovering of the mystery of the book (The Shadow of the Wind) and its author, and flashbacks are used to this end. But the fact that I made slow progress with this real book (due to real life), made it hard for me to keep track of the many twists and turns that occurred at different times in the story.


You definitely have to read this if you appreciate good writing and prefer a mix of mystery and romance in your books, but make sure you set aside sufficient time to complete its approximately 500 pages in a short amount of time!

Mathematics: All That Matters - Mike Askew

Well, no plot nor narrative to speak of since this is sort of an introduction to Mathematics. It gives an overview of the key concepts in Mathematics, and tries to portray the subject in an accessible manner by showing how we experience Mathematics in the real world, and how we arrive at certain mathematical ideas through common sense. I didn't find this particularly engaging as I more or less already know most of what is covered in the book although division by fractions and power to negative numbers are presented in interesting manners. Only recommended for those with a burgeoning interest in Mathematics; most people will either be bored with it (if you have more than a passing interest) or simply won't pick it up at all.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies - Ben Macintyre

Those familiar with WWII would know that the Normandy landings were one of its milestones but most would not know the espionage operations that went towards ensuring its success, and their extent. 'Double Cross' does an excellent job of introducing the reader to Operation Fortitude - the operation to deceive the Germans about the landing spots, and to keep them away even after the landings.


6 double agents form the core of the narrative, and while the build-up was slightly slow since each has to be introduced in turn, the pace picks up in the middle. Despite having to cover 6 characters, the author did a good job of distinguishing them from each other, and more importantly, making me feel for them, warts and all. And even though the success of the Normandy landings was a foregone conclusion, the final chapters were still enthralling, especially after one realises how much the agents had risked and sacrificed in order to achieve what they did.


An excellent book overall and I will be looking forward to reading more of the author's other works.

Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own - David Toomey

'Weird Life' is an enjoyable book that allows access into a complex topic (Life in the Universe) for the layperson and this is largely accomplished by the jargon-free language in which it is written. It examines the possibility of 'weird' life on Earth itself before moving on to the rest of the Solar System and then proceeding on to the rest of the Universe. I find the last two chapters (Life in Science Fiction and Life in the Multiverse) to have moved too far afield though. In a sense, this progression is logical but because they are too theoretical, it didn't really sustain my interest all the way to the end. It is still an enjoyable book nevertheless, the best of the three that I borrowed from the library.