The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright


(Read 15/05/2017 to 17/07/2017)

I started this book because I had realised whilst reading numerous news articles and editorials that I didn’t know very much regarding the territory or how terrorist organisations started in the Middle East and North Africa. As my first book to introduce myself to the topic, the Looming Tower seemed like a good start as it had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. This decision was vindicated as the book turned out to be both informative and a throughly engaging read from start to finish.

The first section details Sayyid Qutb and the influence his writings would have later on. This section outlines the situation in Egypt at the time and how it was reaching turmoil. This eventually led to the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. It then explains how afterwards al-Zawahiri was imprisoned and how these prisons became a breeding ground for the seeds of 9/11. The prisoners held the west reponsible and whilst imprisoned became attracted to militancy.

The next section describes the relationship between the Bin-Laden family and the Saudi royal family. This relationship was forged initially through Mohammed Bin Laden (Osama’s father) who owned a construction company. He was initially awarded a contract by the Saudi king to build new royal palaces and by completing these contracts, Bin Laden Kaiser construction company became one of the world’s largest. After numerous contracts he received another to renovate the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the most prestigious construction contract in the royal kingdom. When Prince Faisal took over in 1958, there was less than $100 in the treasury! Mohammed bailed them out personally, a gesture which sealed the ties between the Bin Laden family and the Saudi royal family.

Osama was religious from the start. A turning point in his early life was when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. He had an apartment in Afghanistan and he put up people in his apartment and ran special military camps. The Saudi government funded Bin Laden’s campaign there. As the tide began to turn, they began to see jihad as an ongoing battle. Zawahiri and Bin Laden met and each was pulled in a direction they never intended to go towards. Eventually both of them would create Al-Qaeda, a vector of Egyptian and Saudi forces and they would lead a global jihad. From the beginning of its creation it was an attractive employment opportunity for many and this his how they gained many followers early on. It began as a critique of the West, particularly the U.S. for the plight of the Arab world. Later when the U.S. helped to kick Iraqi forces out of Saudi, Osama saw their ongoing presence there as a crusade.

The book then switches to the FBI. It begins by telling the story of John O’Neill. He was one of the first to notice Bin Laden and consider him a threat. However he became so obsessed with Bin Laden that his colleagues began to question his judgement. This section also introduced the problems of co-operation between the FBI and CIA. The two units would keep information from each other which would be detrimental in the long run for both organisations and the U.S. when it hampered the response to al-Qaeda.

Then Bin Laden issued a war on America. Their first terrorist attack was in Kenya on an embassy. This attack caused horror around the world to Muslims around the world with the deaths of so many innocent Africans, especially Muslims.

The events right up to 9/11 once again illustrated the lack of co-operation between the CIA and the FBI and how this was ultimately one of their downfalls. I would strongly recommend this book to those who are interested in reading about political tensions throughout the Middle East but like me aren’t too aware of the formation and history of some of the biggest groups and events. The book is extremely detailed and well-paced, providing a solid history and background without becoming tedious. The rest of the book reads like a crime novel, with intricate interwoven stories and events leading to the culmination of 9/11.



The Forever War by Joe Haldeman



(Read between 24/04/2017 – 13/05/2017)

The Forever War is a science-fiction novel set in the future where humans are in war with an alien race. The author uses this narrative background to cleverly discuss some of the issues he lived through whilst he served during the Vietnam War. Unlike other books which I’ve read or reviewed on the Vietnam War such as ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Kerr this novel isn’t a memoir. Instead it uses science fiction themes to describe some of the horrors of warfare and the difficulties of readjusting back to civilian life when you return home afterward.

Similar to the soldiers in the Vietnam War the main character in this novel William Mandella is sent off to fight far away enemies and he isn’t entirely sure why he has to and what the enemy did. The enemies in The Forever War are an alien race called the Taurans who are said to have attacked a human spaceship. Without ruining the story for anyone who wishes to read it the main twist in the story is the effect of time dillation and the effects of relativity on the war itself and the pawns in it. Because time is warped as the soldiers travel it means many years have passed as they travel. This means that in between battles, the enemy has years to research new weapons to counter previous attacks and vice-versa. It also means that as the officers return home after each battle many years have passed on Earth and it no longer resembles anything that they left behind.

The returning home after battles, in my opinion represents the most striking sections of the novel. The dystopian world the officers return to are unlike anything they left behind and the people of Earth are either indifferent or opposed to the war they fought in. For me this clever use of relativity mirrored what most veterans returning from Vietnam must have felt. America changed radically in the time which they were away for and how people didn’t offer them a heroes welcome upon return but instead many of those they came home to were opposed to the war. Haldeman uses relativity to describe the feelings he must have been feeling upon returning from his war in a fascinating way.

It is these themes of feeling lost in your own world you fought to keep safe that resonated the most with me. For me the way the author used science fiction to discuss some of these themes was more enjoyable than the actual narrative or plot itself. I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in seeing how people can use science fiction as a vehicle to convey real world issues and emotions they have experienced.

The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton


(Read Between 04/02/2017 – 23/04/2017)

I decided to read this book because it was on a number of previous year’s books of the year lists. I normally try to read one or two of these books the next year to see what leading minds think were important books of the preceding year. On top of this I was interested to see what could be done in the face of climate change. Oliver Morton decided to look at Geoengineering as a response to one of the biggest issues of our time. He has written for some of the world’s leading journals such as the Economist, Nature and The National Geographic.

The book makes you consider some of the moral dilemmas of Geoengineering and climate change. For instance, one key issue with climate change is that the people who end up suffering the worst from its effects are for the most part, people who are emitting a small amount of carbon-dioxide emissions and are typically farmers or poorer people in developing countries. Another issue is the sheer time it takes to repair the damage we have already done. For instance all big emitters would have to cut their emissions by 100 percent in order for the atmosphere to be stabilized in this century.

This harrowing fact shows the need to take corrective action is now and this is where geoengineering comes in. Geoengineering is deliberate intervention in Earth’s climate to slow down and hopefully reverse the process and effects of climate change and therefore alleviate the planet’s warming. Geoengineering itself is an idea burdened by ethical questions, such as should humans be able or allowed to play Mother Nature with our planet? Throughout our history humans have seen weather and climate being beyond us and the work of gods or forces beyond our control. Therefore many people feel uneasy about tampering in something which is ‘bigger’ than us. However when we see the effects that industrialization and now mass urbanization etc. have done to change our planet, is it not already too late to wonder whether we should tamper with climate?

Even if we were to get beyond the overall ethical dilemma of whether we should or not be running geoengineering projects, many issues would still remain with it. Imagine the issue of regulation of geoengineering projects. Would countries allow planes to fly over their airspace or boats to sail into their waters even though they were helping the planet? I think in today’s security conscious environment it is easy to see lots of countries supporting the idea of geoengineering but opposing some of its practices.

The backdrop to this book is that in 1750 pre-industrial revolution the CO2 levels were 280 parts per million, in 1950 they were 310 parts per million. Today they have reached 400 parts per million. Even after political action on climate change we still continue to rely on fossil fuels. In 2012, 15 years after the Kyoto protocols, solar and hydro generated power still only provided 3 per cent of the world’s energy needs. Whereas in the same 15 years CO2 emissions were more than half as high as they were at the time of Kyoto.

Morton notes that if the world had the capacity to deliver one of the biggest nuclear plants ever built, week in and week out, it would still take 20 years to replace the current amount of coal-fired plants. However we currently build roughly three or four a year and retire the same amount. If we tried to replace coal plants with solar panels at the rate they were erected in 2013, it would roughly 150 years. These figures are just to replace the coal plants, it doesn’t take into account gas and oil, cars, furnaces and ships.

Also renewable energy takes up a lot of room. For instance the rate at which British citizens consume electricity is roughly 40GW. To generate this at one watt per square metre would mean devoting 20 per cent of the area of the country to renewable energy.

With these points it’s easy to see that at current rates it is taking too long to replace how our energy is provided. Also by the time they are provided the emissions will have risen substantially once again. It also takes up too much space, which we are already running out of due to growth in population and the resulting use of land for either living or agriculture to feed this growing population. Against this scary backdrop Morton discusses some of the leading geoengineering ideas and outlines their pros and cons.

I don’t want to give away some of the forms of geoengineering that Morton discusses in the book in case you wish to go and read the book for yourselves. However, what fascinated me most about some of the solutions was the effects they had, not just the productive but also the destructive. Like any solution to most problems in any walks of life there are likely to be adverse effects and this is no different when it comes to geoengineering. As one solution helps one part of the world, it may effect another entirely different part in a negative way. It once again underlined the difficulties that undertaking these projects will pose. But rather than dampen the reader’s enthusiasm for geoengineering projects, it makes the reader consider that there will be have to be clever and careful planning to see which combination contribute the most whilst causing the least damage.

I found that the latter chapters of the book dragged on a little but the first half was a fascinating read and therefore I would recommend this book to readers. Even if some of the geoengineering projects mentioned are never even practiced, the book makes the reader consider how delicate our planet is and how every change can have serious unintended consequences. It also forces us to see that the longer we wait and continue the route we are on, the harder it becomes for humankind to reverse and solve it down the line.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline


(Read between 28/01/2017 – 03/02/2017)

The debut novel from Ernest Cline is a guaranteed entertainer for anyone who has a love of retro games or lived through the 80’s. Falling into the latter category meant that this book was a great read. Firstly, I must say how brilliant an idea for a novel this is. It is set in 2044 in a dystopian future where fossil fuels have been depleted and the effects of global warming have led to serious social and economic problems for the earth’s inhabitants. In this age many people have turned to spending their dreary lives plugged into Virtual Reality headsets in an alternative reality call OASIS. This virtual reality was created by James Halliday, who subsequently became the richest man alive. Upon dying, he left 3 Easter Eggs hidden inside OASIS. The prize for finding each of these Easter Eggs would result in the person inheriting his entire fortune and his business. The novel’s protagonist, Wade Watts is obsessed with OASIS and finding these Easter Eggs and 5 years after he finds the first Easter Egg and his life completely changes.

I don’t want to give too much more away about the novel. So I’ll discuss some of the positives and the small negatives about this book. This novel is almost impossible to put down. The story progresses at a steady pace and I found myself completely glued to it over the days I was reading it. From the very beginning I found myself transfixed to what the world was like in this 2044 dystopia. And then I found myself more and more fascinated with Wade Watts and his search for the OASIS Easter Eggs. This all added up to me trying to read chapters of the book whenever I had a moment free and some late nights where I couldn’t bring myself to close the book and get to sleep!

The clues and Easter Eggs that Halliday left in OASIS are linked to retro games and 80 movies. As a person who has always loved gaming, this made the book extremely enjoyable and instantly caught my attention. It made the book really interesting when characters in the novel were discussing or playing games and movies that I had also experienced in real life! I must also stress that you shouldn’t be put off if you aren’t too interested in gaming as I have discussed the novel with friends who have never been too keen on video games and they still really enjoyed it.

The only small criticism I would have of the book is that towards the final quarter of the novel I felt it began to drag on a little bit. I also thought that the ending was too predictable and  obvious. I can’t go in to too much more detail, but these are only small criticisms of a novel I otherwise found impossible to put down.

The Vital Question – Nick Lane


(Read Between (28/12/16 – 26/01/17)

I decided to give this book the privilege of being my first book of 2017!  I heard a podcast on the origins of complex life earlier last year and Nick Lane appeared as a guest giving some insight into the matter. He then mentioned he had recently written a book on the topic and I was immediately interested. I had previously read Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by him. It is still one of my favourite scientific books to this day so I was excited to see what his next book had in store.

The book attempts to answer what Nick Lane sees as a “black hole” in biology. This is the fact that we don’t know why life evolved the way it did and why complex life appears to have only evolved once in four billion years! On top of this he looks to examine why all complex life on Earth shares elaborate traits such as sex to cell suicide, while none of these traits are shared by bacteria.

The first section examines how all eukaryotes all share a common ancestor, which arose just once in four billion years. They all have common traits that are written out in their gene sequences and in their DNA. Lane then goes on to examine what is considered ‘living’? By looking closer at this we see the importance of the environment. We discover that whilst life is about its structure (genes, evolution, etc.), living, growing and reproduction is largely governed by the environment also.

The second section looks at the origin of life and how complex life may have arisen. The problem with complex life is that there are no surviving evolutionary intermediaries that we often see. The fact that all eukaryotes have the same traits such as sex and cell suicide and death, seems to point to a common ancestor, however because this was so long ago, the organisms that were the original ancestors no longer exist.  However Lane makes arguments regarding how energy which plays a vital role in life, would have had a direct influence on how complex life arose and where. If anyone has read Nick Lane’s earlier book, Life Ascending, they will be familiar of alkaline vents. This section outlines how Lane believes these structures had a key role in the emergence of complex life. This is because they provide the exact conditions required for the origin of life:  a high flux of carbon and energy, physically channeled over inorganic catalysts, and then constrained which allows the accumulation of high concentrations of organics.

The third section looks at some of the key traits of complex life.  In this section we learn of the importance of mitochondria for the eukaryotic cell. Mitochondria are absolutely fascinating and has a electric potential of roughly 150-200 millivolts, which when we account for size is the equivalent of a bolt of lightning! The rest of the section looks at how important sex is to complex life, instead of the cloning method many prokaryotes use. It also looks at death and its role in complex life.

The book is interesting but its difficulty made it hard to enjoy for me in large parts. Unlike his earlier book, Life Ascending, I found myself lost in many parts of this book and felt it hard to keep up. However I must stress that despite reading a few popular science books, I have no great understanding of  biology beyond a basic level. I only studied biology in school up to the age of 18 so it was perhaps rather ambitious (or silly) to take on a book of this scope. Therefore I would recommend this book to readers who have better scientific knowledge or else to stick to Lane’s earlier and fascinating Life Ascending book, which I found easier to follow.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Image result for the martian book

(Read between 22/10/2016 – 21/11/2016)

The Martian is a science-fiction novel which tells the story of Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who becomes the only living human on Mars when his crew abandon him, on presumption that he has died. When Mark discovers he is alone on Mars he now has to figure out how to survive for as long as possible on a planet that is almost completely uninhabitable. The book flicks between Mark’s Sol’s (days on Mars) and NASA scientists back on Earth, both frantically trying to figure out how to keep Mark alive and they can possibly save him.

The book could serve as an advert for Murphy’s Law! Throughout the novel almost anything that could go wrong, does!  Just when Mark seems to have figured out a way at surviving for the time being, disaster always seems to strike. This keeps the reader constantly on the edge of their seat and hooked to see what happens next.

The novel also displays what human intelligence and sheer will can achieve. Because of difficulties of communication on Mars, Mark is largely left to his own throughout the novel to come up with solutions to lethal situations. The book is inspiring because it shows how combining the intelligence with a strong will to survive can do.

I would recommend this book to readers. It far exceeded my expectations. I had decided to read the book because the  movie came out last year and a friend recommended that I give the book a go first. I decided to give it a go as a break after a few difficult reads and it didn’t disappoint. As well as having really interesting science in the book, it is also a really funny read, with plenty of moments of humour to compliment the stressful ones.

We Are Arrested by Can Dundar

We Are Arrested jacket 150816.indd

(Read 17/10/2016 – 21/10/16)

The last few years in Turkey have seen a shift towards a more autocratic form of rule. With a recent attempted coup in mid July thousands of people in various positions in the public sector have been arrested. And with a sate of emergency in action these people are being arrested without trial and kept in confinement indefinitely. But even before all this journalists in Turkey have suffered career threatening state intervention through the form of censorship and imprisonment.

Over the previous decades, there has been an increased control imposed by the government in the media. Almost all of the newspapers are owned by the government or by pro-government sympathisers. One of the few remaining secular independent newspapers that remains is called Cumhuriyet. And its editor was Can Dundar, the author of this tragic autobiographical tale of how performing your duties as a journalist (reporting the news) can now land you and your family in harm’s way in a country like Turkey.

Can reported on an incident where trucks supposedly carrying aid to Syria were in fact carrying 6 steel containers. Inside these 6 containers were; 1,000 artillery shells, 50,000 machine gun rounds, 30,000 heavy machine gun rounds and 1,000 mortar shells. These trucks were en-route to anti-Assad extremist groups. Can received photos of these trucks on a flash drive from a friend. Despite knowing that there would more than likely be repercussions, Can and others in the Cumhuriyet bravely posted the story.

Erdogan was furious and came out and said that Can would pay a heavy price. The case against Can was on the charges of: providing documents regarding the security of the state, political and military espionage and propaganda for a terror organisation! What follows is a trial, whereby the reader doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at how the court plays with the journalist’s life like a pawn on a chess board, manipulating the charges to ensure that eventually the voices of free press will be removed entirely from the board.

Can was held in solitary confinement in Turkey’s Silivri prison for three months whilst awaiting trial. Here we learn about Can’s time in prison and how it affected him. What emerges is how solitary affects an inmate. The things most people take for granted are suddenly gone. Solitary is a form of torture of the mind and soul and it affects everyone no matter how strong they are mentally.

Some of the chapters whilst he was in prison are some of the most heart wrenching you are sure to find in any book. Whilst inside he misses his wedding anniversary, his son’s birthday and New Year’s celebrations. The episodes where he receives correspondence from his son or wife are tear-jerking moments. We get a real sense of hopelessness and the inability to affect anything on the outside.  Despite the overall sense of gloom surrounding his time in prison, we also get a glimpse into how Can keeps himself busy, which can be very funny and heart-warming.

I don’t want to ruin the rest of the story for those who want to go on to read the book. But I will say that this book is a must-read. It reveals the cruel faith that awaits honest journalists in a country where the government becomes more autocratic. At the time of reading this book, there were 126 journalists in Turkish jails, meaning there were more journalists in Turkish prisons than China, Iran and Egypt put together. The sad part is that Can Dundar is one of the lucky ones; others sit in prisons with no end in sight.

Therefore the book is key reading as a warning of what happens to journalists and media in modern day Turkey, but on top of this the book should be read as an example of what the blind bravery of one man in the face of an overwhelming power can achieve when coupled with the unconditional love and overwhelming support of those closest to him. Whilst reading the book I was constantly reminded of this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

Whilst many of us dream of living by this doctrine, Can Dundar is a journalist who may be quietly assured that he belongs to the very few who continue to do so in the face of unimaginable obstacles.