Catch 22

By Joseph Heller

Rating: 4 stars

Bombardier Captain Yossarian of the US Army Air Forces is sick and tired of the whole war and wants out. All he has to do to get out is to go to the squad medic and ask to be relieved of duty. Unfortunately, there’s a catch: Catch-22 – if you’re sane enough to ask to be taken off duty then you’re sane enough to continue flying, but if you don’t ask you can’t be taken off.

Early on in this book, the word that I think that best describes it is absurd. The characters, locations and situations are all absurd, in the best meaning of the word. Heller delights in these absurd, and sometimes grotesque, characters and plays with them with a lightness of language that I found often made me smile, if rarely laugh out loud. This continues mostly throughout the book but the tone slowly changes as it goes on. It becomes less light-hearted and grimmer as the story unfolds, with a truly depressing few chapters near the end that nearly made me throw down the book in despair. But after getting through that, it lifted again and built to a satisfying conclusion.

The core of the book is the Kafke-esque bureaucracy of the military machine and the sorts of people it raises to the top of the pile and how the orders that filter down often have no meaning to those who have to carry them out. Catch-22 itself is a masterpiece of doublethink and it is that and the mindset that created it to keep Yossarian’s squadron flying ever-increasing missions that gives the novel a sense of surreal horror.

The story itself is told in a jump-around non-chronological manner that at first makes it difficult to follow what’s happening, especially since it starts fairly sequentially and starts jumping around only later. Because of this, I suspect that it might be easier to appreciate on a second reading, but even first time round, this was an impressive and evocative satire that certainly deserves a second reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857152203
Publisher: Everyman
Year of publication: 1961

Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It

By Simon Singh

Rating: 5 stars

This book is Singh’s attempt to explain the Big Bang theory to the layman, along with a general overview of how science works. In that regard, he succeeds in both, but moreso in the second goal than the first. Although Singh’s writing is clear and lucid, I think having some background in science and being familiar with concepts in astronomy and cosmology definitely help. Although he keeps the maths to a minimum, there are a few equations in the book (although you don’t have to solve them!), so having a little maths helps as well. This is especially true in the early chapters where he describes how the ancient Greeks worked out the circumference of the Earth with nothing more than observation and basic trigonometry (that’s one for everybody who said learning about sines and cosines was pointless because it had no bearing on the real world!).

From that, Singh then winds the clock forward to the middle ages as he continues the story of cosmology and describes how Copernicus laid the seeds for a heliocentric view of the universe, expanding our view of the universe at every step as astronomy and cosmology show us more and more of the universe we live in, before culminating in the final pieces of the puzzle that cement the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Singh is careful to show both the cumulative (“standing on the shoulders of giants”) and paradigm-shifting paths that science can take to move forward and how they can work in concert.

As well as the science, Singh also weaves the personalities of the scientists into his story, telling anecdotes and providing biographies, but he never lets this get in the way of the science itself, something which is all too easy to do.

Lucid, easy to read and very informational, I really enjoyed this book, telling the story of one of the most important theories in science and through that, explaining the methods of science itself. Highly recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007152520
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year of publication: 2004

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John le Carré

Rating: 4 stars

This was a rather interesting book, and one that I enjoyed quite a lot. le Carré creates a different sort of spy, very different to the glamour of Bond. His hero, Leamas, is burned out and tired of the whole spying game, wanting to “come in from the cold”, as it were, but he has one last job to do before he can do that. Leamas is an intriguing character, tired, burned out and desperately wanting out of the whole game, but dutiful to the last and holding all that tiredness within himself. He’s very much the antithesis to Fleming’s Bond.

As much as anything else, this was a glimpse back into the world of the Cold War, something I only remember from my childhood and a time when the world was very clearly Us vs Them and even if you didn’t necessarily approve of what your own side was doing, anything that countered Them was (grudgingly) accepted.

I’ve heard of George Smiley from other media and this book was also interesting in that it effectively introduced Smiley off-screen, always lurking in the background but only making one fleeting appearance on to the page. As intriguing as Leamas is, I’d like to know more about Smiley (and, I suspect, so did many other of le Carré’s readers, since he goes off to star in several of his own novels).

While I’m not normally a fan of the spy/thriller genre, I definitely enjoyed this story and will be on the lookout for more of le Carré’s work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340739648
Publisher: Sceptre
Year of publication: 1963

Hogfather (Discworld, #20)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 5 stars

Hogfather is, in my view, one of the better New Pratchett books and one that I tend to come back to as an old favourite. It’s got Death, the Wizards, the Grim Squeaker and Susan (before she became really annoying) in a plot that involves belief, questioning one’s place in the world and plumbing.

Death’s continuing desire to understand, and become more like, Humanity plays a central role as he has to take the Hogfather’s place and deliver presents to children all over the Disc, while Susan has to piece together why he is doing it and what has happened to the Hogfather himself while holding on to her own humanity. The wizards spend most of the book doing what wizards do best (bumbling, arguing and eating or thinking about eating large meals) but in a genial manner that I couldn’t help but be charmed by.

This is an enjoyable take on Christmas, with Pratchett’s usual flair and digs, with his humour and observational comedy still strong and in service of the plot, rather than for their own sakes.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552145428
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1996

Batman: Blind Justice

By Sam Hamm

Rating: 3 stars

First time comic scribe Sam Hamm makes a pretty good stab at Batman for this fiftieth anniversary story. After uncovering illegal mind control experiments, at WayneTech, Bruce Wayne tries to shut it down, but is framed for treason and must prove his innocence. Alongside this, we have a parallel story of a girl finding her long-lost brother and contrasting their relationship with the isolation of Batman.

The most interesting stories about Batman have always been about the psyche of what drives Wayne and his constant renewal of the memories of his parents’ death. This story plays on that nicely, without necessarily overdoing it. The art is nice as well, spiky and with a ‘classic’ feel to it, that is appropriate to Batman.

The volume is short, and, for me, at least, doesn’t really linger in the mind very long after putting it down but it’s entertaining enough while reading. Definitely worth a read, especially if your Batman lore is limited (like mine).

Book details

Publisher: DC Comics
Year of publication: 1989

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