A Theory of Nothing (2016) by Thomas Barlow is satire of modern academia. Duronimus Karlof is a scientist at Harvard who takes on a challenge presented by a humanities academic to challenge the laws of nature.
What follows is reasonably amusing but ultimately falls down as the book goes on. The problem is that much of today’s academia has become so ridiculous and so regularly ridiculed that it’s hard to make up fiction that matches much of it. Twitter accounts that feature abstracts of real academic work that are both funny and tragic are very difficult to beat.
It’s not a bad book for a quick, amusing satirical read about modern day academia.
Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization (2009) by Lars Brownworth is a quick history of the Byzantine Empire. Brownworth made a series of podcasts about 12 Byzantine Emperors that he turned into this book.
The book isn’t as in depth as John Julius Norwich’s Trilogy, but the advantage is the book is much shorter. It’s fairly readable.
It’s a bit odd reading books like this, you wonder how many of the facts you retain. I enjoyed the book, it’s given me some idea of the history of Byzantium.
Dreamland: The true tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015) by Sam Quinones describes the remarkable rise in opiate abuse, addiction and overdoses in much of the US. It’s an incredibly dramatic story. The book looks primarily at two related things, the rise of opiate prescriptions and the rise of sales of black tar heroin from Nayarit in Mexico to the US.
The book describes the rise of opiate prescriptions for chronic pain and in particular the role of Oxycontin and the Purdue pharmaceutical company that produce it. Various people and companies, but in particular Purdue, pushed the idea that only a very small percentage of people who are get opiates for chronic pain become addicted. This is presented as a big change in medical thinking from the past where opiate’s were prescribed with great caution because the threat of addiction was viewed as so serious. However, abuse came in with big rises because of ‘pill mills’ where doctors would prescribe Oxycontin to anyone who wanted it and because many of the users had Medicaid cards so they could get Oxycontin worth $1000 for a copayment of $3.
The other side to the opiate epidemic was the arrival of Nayarit dealers across the US. In a poor, hilly part of Northern Mexico opium poppies were grown and heroin made. They would then sell this heroin, virtually uncut, in parts of the US. Initially in parts of the West Coast they would sell heroin in their own way. They would give addicts a number to call and then a driver with a small amount of heroin in bags in their mouth would drive to meet them. They targeted whites, believing that blacks were more dangerous and not worth selling to. The drivers if caught would receive a fairly limited sentence because they wouldn’t carry much product and because they wouldn’t carry guns. The way it was sold also made it much easier to get a hold of. There was no need to go to dangerous parts of town and meet dangerous dealers. Instead a polite, punctual driver would appear with powerful heroin and sell it. The model was incredibly successful first in Los Angeles, then Portland and then across the US. The Nayarit would also not engage in turf wars with other dealers, keeping things non-violent enabled them to keep their cover as well.
These two trends crossed. Many people who became addicted to pain killers transitioned to cheaper heroin that was now available.
The result has been a public health epidemic across the US. It has also effected middle class whites in a way that hasn’t been seen before. Adolescents who got pain prescriptions for sporting injuries wound up dying of heroin overdoses.
The book presents this phenomenal story fairly well. However a few too many characters are presented that become difficult to keep track of and also the book is repetitive to the point where certain phrases are reused. The book also lacks sufficient statistics on the epidemic and comparisons with other countries where Oxycontin is also used and abused. However it’s a pretty incredible read that provides a great view into a remarkable public health crisis.
Expecting Someone Taller (1988) by Tom Holt is humorous fantasy book set in the normal world that uses characters and devices from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a great premise and a good idea. Writers such as Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams have explored similar territory with great results.
The book’s hero is Malcolm Fisher who accidentally winds up as the ring bearer. Various deities and gods then try and get the ring from him.
It’s not a bad book, but it isn’t really funny enough or clever enough to be great. It may also be that I don’t know the Ring Cycle well enough and that humour is really hard to do well in books. For anyone looking for something a bit different who has read all the Gaiman, Adams and others they can find it might be worth a look though.
Set the Boy Free (2016) by Johnny Marr is Marr’s autobiography. Marr is a great guitar player who was a co-founder of The Smiths, was in The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and other bands.
Marr grew up as an Irish kid in Manchester, just like Morrissey, he had young parents and from a young age was into music and fashion. School didn’t agree with him, he dropped out early but his talent as a guitar player was found and he joined various bands before meeting Morrissey and in their first writing session days later they wrote a Smiths hit, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. The Smiths became successful very quickly because of the phenomenal talent of Marr and Morrissey and by the time Marr was 19 he was a huge star. It’s crazy to think about. He had also met his future with Angie with whom he is still together after having had two kids.
The book goes into detail about how The Smiths had a meteoric rise to fame and how they were also largely managed by Morrissey and Marr and were fairly chaotic. Their inability to get and keep a good manager seems to have played a part in their breakup. Artistic and personal differences between Marr and Morrissey also drove the split.
From there Marr went on to play with Talking Heads, Paul McCartney, Kirsty MacColl and many others. He seems to have spent his time since The Smiths mainly in studios with other musicians or on the road. Marr, as well as being very talented and hard working must clearly be a good person to work with. The range of his collaborations is amazing. In the book he also describes almost everyone he works with as amazingly cool and talented. He clearly loves musicians as well as music.
Marr became a vegetarian while with The Smiths and then gave up drinking later after he decided that alcohol was taking too much of a toll on him. He then took up running. Marr calmly describes substantial drug use and drinking and why he gave these things up and how he became super healthy. Drug and alcohol crashes are often interesting to read about, the absence of one is a fine thing to read about, but not as flashy.
The book is actually oddly unsatisfying. It’s interesting to read about what Marr has done but it doesn’t really provide much insight into why he is so good and why he was in a band that was just phenomenal. It is very readable, unlike Morrissey’s autobiography. Marr’s great skill is in his guitar playing, not his writing, which is fair enough. There are too many instances of Marr sitting down, writing a riff, others coming and and an amazing song coming out. It’s too effortless. There is a little inadvertent reflection on how good The Smiths were when Marr describes endless questions of their reforming but how his kids were post Smiths and don’t think about. The combination of Marr and Morrissey was something fantastic. There are reasons why so many people can’t help telling you about how much The Smiths have meant to them. Perhaps because it doesn’t explain the magic a bit more this book is a bit of a let down. Perhaps no book could though. However, the book does provide a more prosaic description of a fantastic guitarist, where he came from and what’s he’s done.
Money, Real Quick: The story of M-PESA (2012) by Tonny Omwansa and Nicholas Sullivan is, remarkably the only general book on M-PESA on Amazon. M-PESA is the electronic money standard used in Kenya and set up by Vodaphone for Safaricom.
M-PESA was set up initially as a method for repaying micro finance loans but took off and was adopted for other purposes quickly. It’s been a big success in Kenya and in some other parts of Africa. It has enabled poor people to avoid the high cost of using cash. It’s made it far easier to send money over a distance and it has helped many people obtain bank accounts as well. In Kenya there are 17M users which is about 2/3 of the adult population.
The book covers the story of M-PESA and has a lot of single person narrative tales about how M-PESA is used. It’s definitely an interesting read about an interesting development in electronic and mobile payments.
Tales of the Bounty Hunters (1996) Kevin Anderson is another collection of Star Wars stories that all tie into a scene. In this case it the scene with the bounty hunters collected together by Darth Vader in order to capture Han Solo and Princess Leia.
The book provides stories for Bossk, IG-88, Dengar, Zuckuss and 4-LOM and Boba Fett. The stories range from being quite good to fairly poor. If you’re a Star Wars fan the book might be worth a read. If you’re looking for quality science fiction it’s a dubious proposition.