Review: The Russia Hand

Posted 17 June, 2007 by Li in Books / 0 Comments

The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy
By: Strobe Talbott

Okay, I normally do not read memoirs or autobiographies unless they are really really interesting (prior to picking this book up, I had a grand total of maybe three books that are considered memoirs/biographies). In fact, I initially did not bother picking up this book despite my interest in Russian history and politics but after reading the reviews for this book and the fact that my bookstore was recommending it, I decided to check it out. Strobe Talbott is a very impressive man; his academic credentials, his experience prior to becoming deputy-Secretary of State…very interesting indeed. And he wrote a very concise and clear memoir about his time as deputy-Secretary of State and his hand in Russian-American diplomacy during the Clinton Administration (perhaps another reason why I didn’t want to pick this book up originally). He does give a very interesting look at not only Clinton’s way of handling foreign leaders and relationships and about Yeltsin’s political tactics but he also showed a very interesting and rather detailed glimpse as to how foreign policy is conducted through these summits and visits. He also gives an interesting take on how American-Russian relations were during this period and how important it was especially since they had entered a “post-Cold War” period. The only issue I had about the book was the narrative in Chapter 15; Mr. Talbott had written the narrative chronologically but in Chapter 15, there was a bit of a fling back to the late Cold War period and then the dealings with the nuclear program problems and failed treaties in the 1990s. It’s a bit jarring since the rest of the book proceeded in a relatively well pace and chronologically. Otherwise, a great read, very fascinating and useful if you’re into Russian history, Russian politics and international relations.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Blood Knight

Posted 17 June, 2007 by Li in Books / 0 Comments

The Blood Knight
By: Greg Keyes

The Blood Knight is the third book in Greg Keyes’s Kingdom of Thorns and Bone fantasy series (there are four books in this series). If you have never heard of this fantasy series, I definitely recommend it—it’s a unique series, the detail of the world in which this story takes place is just astonishing and the scope is amazing…Keyes has a knack for weaving all these intricate storylines and colourful characters together for this epic. It’s hard to summarize what this story is about…needless to say, it’s a real mix of politics, love, betrayal, mystery, suspense, war and shinecraft…the world of humans is changing with the reawakening of old forces and at the center of this story is the youngest daughter of the Royal family, Anne Dare. It’s a fairly dark fantasy in my opinion; the terror that these characters face are pretty dark and freaky in a way that I don’t think I’ve really come across in other fantasy series I’ve read, at least not at this level, which makes it even more engulfing. Book Three, The Blood Knight is action-packed from start to finish and the continuity is very much there (though I do hope that there will be some sort of appendix at the end of all this because I’ve been losing track of some of the lesser characters). There is a sense of the hefty risks attached to what’s going on getting even larger. I think this book wraps up much of the political problems that were laid down in book one, I guess to make way for the showdown with the more earth-shattering problems in this world. We do get some revelations, such as about the Sefry and we get to see more development in all of our characters, particularly Anne’s rise to becoming a truly queen-ly figure. The last few chapters were especially a kicker, which means the last book, The Born Queen (coming out in January 2008) will start right off the bat. All in all, a very enjoyable read to a very interesting fantasy series.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Review: Blink — The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Posted 25 May, 2007 by Li in Books / 0 Comments

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By: Malcolm Gladwell

I never read books at the time when it gets real popular and everyone’s reading it. I always wait until the initial craze has died down (I did this with Harry Potter). When this book hit paperback like a month ago, I decided to check it out at long last, see what the craze was all about. The intial concept sounded interesting, th idea that our minds make snap judgements without even completely processing it consciously and in a rational manner. The author goes on to explain that there needs to be a balance, that sometimes this technique doesn’t work in our favour. But it does happen and the author explains it through various examples.

I was really intrigued by the concept (the fact that another writer wrote a book, Think, to rebuke this book shows just how profound Gladwell’s argument is). However, after the first two chapters, the enthusiasm weared off; as interesting as the examples were, it seemed like the concepts Gladwell are trying to support through these examples had become repetitive and that some of the concepts used to explain his overarching argument are just too simple to even need 10 pages worth of examples to back it up. I guess my expectations for this book was too high; I was expecting some profound revelation from all these smaller concepts, but in the end, it was just way too simple (I’m not a psychology major and I managed to pick it up 1/4 into the book). The book is interesting in that it does discuss about studies that have been conducted and about specialists who are capable of making such quick decisions. Otherwise, the structure and the argument is simple and straightforward with nothing ultra-unique to add to the idea.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Review: The Alexandria Link

Posted 24 May, 2007 by Li in Books / 0 Comments

The Alexandria Link
By: Steve Berry

For starters, I think Steve Berry is amazing, 1 000% more amazing than Dan Brown. He doesn’t follow a formula in his suspense plots, he always chooses the most interesting historical mysteries as the central issues of his stories and his characters are radically different from one another. This book is the second one featuring the character of Cotton Malone, a former US agent who became a book store owner and resided in Copenhagen. Without giving away too much of the plot, basically what happens is that his son is kidnapped by this fairly obscure organization who wants to prod Cotton into unveiling the Alexandria Link. The plot gets even thicker with political conspiracies back in Washington and political implications. It’s a fantastic read, all of the characters we’ve come to know in the previous Cotton Malone adventure, The Templar Legacy, makes an appearance in this novel. What’s even better is that all the characters’ roles expand a bit over the course of the novel, which is great. I suppose the fact that the entire plot is carrying out back and forth between Washington, Europe and Asia, adds to the pace of the novel.

Initally, I found Stephanie’s strand of the storyline in Washington DC far more interesting than Cotton’s; the political intrigue and the colourful array of politicians made for some very good scenes. Cotton’s strand was a bit slower at the start; then again, his part started with a bam (no pun intended). But those strands, along with Henrik’s (which was also a fun read), came together wonderfully. The implications of the possibilities raised in this novel were quite intriguing, which added to the excitement of it all. Overall, a terrific read, especially if you want to unwind from reading a lot of textbooks and nonfiction (which I was doing prior to reading this book).

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Review: The Children of Hurin

Posted 24 May, 2007 by Li in Books / 0 Comments

The Children of Hurin
By: JRR Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

Being the Tolkien fanatic I am, when I heard that The Children of Hurin was going to be released, I was beside myself. Granted, this story has shown up twice (well, when I was reading anyways) in The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales but seeing as Tolkien’s son Christopher had pieced the story together using all of his father’s notes, I figured it was going to be more fleshed out than the other two versions. And personally, I think it was more fleshed out and far more exciting to read than the previous versions.

For those of you who haven’t read either versions, this story is considered the longest of the “Lays of Beleriand”, stories from the First Age of Middle Earth. It focuses around the family of Hurin, a man who had descended from one of the three houses of Men (I hope I got that right, it’s been a while) and who challenged Melkor (who is even more sinister than Sauron) head-on. His defiance caused Melkor to place curse on all of Hurin’s family, particularly his children, that they may suffer all throughout their life. And his children—Hurin and Niniel—did suffer greatly. It’s a very tragic story; no matter what Turin did, he just could not escape Melkor’s curse.

There were certainly a lot of parts that I don’t remember having been in the story from the other versions, especially those involving Morwen and especially at the end, which I won’t mention of if you’ve never read any of the versions. What’s great about this story is that, although it is set in an earlier age of Middle Earth when none of the defining places we know from LOTR exist, it’s still relatively easy to follow and you don’t need to have read The Silmarillion to understand events that have happened before, really. But technicalities and chronology aside, the heart of the story is still as intact as it was in the other versions (maybe even more so than in the other versions—then again, I haven’t read the story for a few years now): the tragedy of Hurin’s family is very poignant and despite of Turin’s rash decisions and attitude and Morwen and Nienor’s stubbornness, you really feel for this family. I think that’s the key to this entire story: the tragedy of it all. Alan Lee’s illustrations spread throughout the hardcover edition is a plus; his artwork is always a pleasure to skim through and the images he contributed to this story really helps bring the story to life, really. Overall, this is a very enjoyable book to read (all bias aside) and well worth checking out.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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