Power Failure by William D. Cohan [8/10]

William D Cohan Power Failure review

What a story for the ages, under the rubric of “how the mighty crash.” My main awareness of GE comes from a close look at its decades-long battle with Westinghouse for leadership of the power reactor business, and also some acquaintanceship with GE Capital during my business days. I read Jack Welch’s feisty tale of business mastery in Jack: Straight from the Gut and then 2021’s Lights Out by Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann (my review). Now renowned business history author William D. Cohan subsumes all those accounts with Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of General Electric,” a baggy but compendious 130-year narrative that should be required reading for all business afficionados. Cohan seems to have interviewed all the major players and to have read everything ever written about GE. He is a direct, fluent stylist and even though sometimes he launches into sidetracks, none are ever uninteresting and the overall impact is a dazzling encapsulation of a mighty giant’s ascent and ignominious recent descent. Power Failure may well prove to the first and last word on General Electric.

Food for Life by Tim Spector [9/10]

Tim Spector Food for Life review

Reading up on a new dietary regime that I’ve commenced, I stumbled across “Food for Life: The New Science of Eating Well,” by a doctor who has become an epidemiologist and had previously written about the gut biome and common dietary myths. Most mass-market diet books are selling the reader a concept, so they oscillate between explanation and rhetoric. Few indeed are genuinely honest. So Tim Spector’s approach is a refreshing change. His canvas is wide, moving from general dietary issues to a brilliant, fascinating run-through of all the major food sources and food. His approach is always evidence-based (every such book claims this, few deliver, but this one does) and straightforward. The writing style is fresh and clear, pulling the reader through the book. Even where he disagrees with a few aspects of my new diet, I found that I treasured his opinion and read every word carefully. I cannot think of a more useful, more engaging, more philosophically sound modern book on food and what we should eat. Food for Life would make an ideal Christmas gift for many.

The Precipice by Toby Ord [8/10]

Toby Ord The Precipice review

Really, what IS the optimum time for a philosophical/people’s treatise on our ethical responsibilities for future generations and the risks we need to act on now? Although this is not a topic that had been on my radar, having read “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity,” I would say the optimum time is NOW. British moral philosopher Toby Ord has exhaustively weighed up these weighty issues—he must be a prodigious reader, half the book is notes, references, resources, etc.—and cast a sober, analytical net into the future. Dedicated to the future upside promise for the human race, the book is nonetheless a kaleidoscopic look at the various big risks threatening it, from nuclear weapons to the climate crisis, artificial intelligence to pandemics, asteroids to super volcanoes. The author surveys the risks and even ascribes rough probabilities (something that appeals to an ex-actuary like me), with some surprising results, before positing an ethical stance and then proposing grand strategies and offering individual ways to contribute. Anyone reading The Precipice will surely argue with this risk assessment, that moral standpoint, and even those strategies/tactics, but with its rigor, fluid style and clear-sightedness, this book performs a valuable public service that is bewilderingly enjoyable to read and absorb. Much recommended.

How to Be Broken by Emma Kavanagh [8/10]

Emma Kavanagh How to Be Broken review

A fascinating post-pandemic oddity, “How to Be Broken” is a mixture of trauma psychology briefer (from a psychologist who works in military and police field training) and nakedly honest pandemic memoir. The author never dwells on the fact that she is a thriller writer with half a dozen books on shelves, but from the outset, the reader knows that the storyline and the pacing are in capable hands. Smoothly written and earthed by excellent tales from the annals of trauma, How to Be Broken systematically works through the nature of “being broken,” with specific reference to the terrors of a global pandemic, before offering hope for emergence from the damage. My Covid-19 experience was benign, despite being ensnared in one of the world’s most draconian lockdowns, but even I experienced swathes of disorientation and anxiety, and this book enabled me to discern more clearly what I had been through and how I might even profit, emotionally and psychologically, from the experience. Recommended.

Existential Physics by Sabine Hossenfelder [8/10]

Sabine Hossenfelder Existential Physics review

As a failed mathematician who once read about the mysteries of modern physics, I was drawn to “Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions” by the promise of life insights from that exalted discipline. And Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist, gets to work from the start with topics I can recall as baffling way back when. Taking great pains to distinguish what science can prove from more philosophical positions (and here it turns out not only religious advocates and philosophers have views but also countless physicists and mathematicians themselves), she resolutely and clearly explains and analyzes and concludes about …. well, about the tricky shit, such as quantum mechanics, the nature of time, multiverses, soul/mind, free will, the Big Bang/end, and more. On one of the key topics, she shifted my view altogether (to be fair, a friend had primed me, but I had not been quite ready), and each fascinating chapter contains elucidations as educative as any I’ve seen. Employing a dazzling, forward style dotted with casual humor, the author teaches, opines, and wraps up. Existential Physics is, plainly, not for everyone, but if it has any appeal at all to you, it will catapult you on an exhilarating journey, that I guarantee. Wonderful.

The Scorpion’s Fire by Frank Kennedy [7/10]

Frank Kennedy The Scorpion's Fire review

A hugely ambitious space opera series approaches its grand climax. The eighth in the Beyond the Impossible ennealogy (that’s a nine-part sequence; I had to look it up), “The Scorpion’s Fire” sees author Frank Kennedy marshalling his capacious cast of characters—the varied military leaders, some immortal, the diplomats, the politicians, the second-universe villains, the god-in-waiting Royal—for the closing book’s fireworks. The author is as deft and readable as ever, this time circling around the main players, atmospherically using dialogue and interaction to provide a flavor of the complex negotiations underlying unity as the People’s Collectorate prepares for a war to end all wars What little battle action occurs in this book is, as in the previous seven books, thrillingly depicted. What impressed me most as I read was the breadth of the canvas and the clarity with which it was woven into the story. If you have been following the series upon my recommendations, The Scorpion’s Fire will leave you breathless with anticipation for the finale.

Wildlife in the Balance by Simon Mustoe [8/10]

Simon Mustoe Wildlife in the Balance review

An ode to the unbreakable ecological links between the human species and the profusion of animal species threatened by humanity’s global footprint, “Wildlife in the Balance: Why Animals Are Humanity’s Best Hope” is a riot of stories, observations, and ideas. The book careens all over the place, but its central core—the notion that if we drive animals to extinction, we surely shall follow them—is never far away. An eloquent stylist, Simon Mustoe pours his heart out into a plea for a deeper understanding of our essential coexistence with animals and a new path forward. The final two chapters comprise a fervent eight-step “blueprint for human survival” and an animal-focused impact statement. Readers who think they understand concepts such as conservation and biodiversity would do well to enjoy, as I did, Wildlife in the Balance.

The Botanist by M.W. Craven [8/10]

M W Craven The Botanist review

The fifth in the crime fiction series featuring bulldozing DS Washington Poe of the National Crime Authority and his odd-couple partner, Tilly Bradshaw, a super-brilliant but innocent analyst, “The Botanist” is another beguiling M.W. Craven rocket ride. Pitted against the super-clever poisoner calling himself The Botanist, whose specialty is murdering bad folks in locked rooms, Poe also finds himself scrambling to save his forensic scientist pal Estelle, implicated in another no-escape locked-room mystery. If those descriptions signal complexity to you, let there be no mistake: this is classic, complex, clue-based genre fiction, but it comes laced with acerbic humor and dolloped out with clockwork pacing. The author flirts with plot obsession, which is what ended up turning Jeffrey Deaver’s initially pleasing thrillers into self-pastiches, but the jaunty style, the perky characters, and the controlled pacing keep the Craven engine on a steady footing. The Botanist can be read as a standalone, a most enjoyable one, but really, for a series this much fun, do yourself a favor and start back at #1, The Puppet Show.

The Parrot in the Mirror by Antone Martinho-Truswell [8/10]

Antone Martinho-Truswell The Parrot in the Mirror review

Australian-resident zoologist Antone Martinho-Truswell has a roving mind and spirited, engaging pen. “The Parrot in the Mirror: How Evolving to Be Like Birds Made Us Human” is his fascinating notion that some of what we are as humans is the result of convergent evolution matching how birds evolved far, far earlier. Birds broke off from the evolutionary tree of dinosaurs, then, much later, humans evolved on a completely different branch. Yet some of our traits, driven by the pressures of evolution, have ended up being closer to those of birds than to how other mammals behave. The author is a sparkling writer, able to draw the reader along challenging but fascinating routes, turning what could have been turgid academic theory into a marvelous tale. I was drawn to The Parrot in the Mirror by a fascination for the fifteen crane species of birds, one of the more ancient groups of birds, and I found the book to be a valuable read, but I feel certain that many general nonfiction readers would sink into the storytelling.

The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg [8/10]

Dr eat Thunberg The Climate Book review

A brilliantly edited and curated guide to the climate crisis, from the science to mitigation to adaptation to responses, “The Climate Book” is a surprisingly readable tome of impeccable timing. Greta Thunberg masterfully guides the narrative, using her amazing, laser-sharp perspective, by interspersing her own eighteen editor’s/activist’s essays. A spectacular roster of over eighty scientists, professionals, policymakers, and activists (I like the fact that their superb credentials are listed only in the table of contents, when we read them, we’re expected to know who they are) provide the encyclopedic coverage of all the data and issues.

Zeke Hausfather is as lucid as ever covering methane, Katharine Hayhoe sums up the growing frequency and dangerousness of heatwaves, Fredericke Otto tells us about climate change attribution, Peter Gleick shares his insights as the pre-eminent expert on water threats, and Tamsin Edwards sketches out the likely outcomes at 1.5º, 2º, and 4º. The most chilling “hot off the presses” (at least to me) news comes from one of the most passionate, eloquent, brilliant climate scientists, Johan Rokström, warning us that “we have reached an existential fork in the road.” The issue is tipping points. Two decades ago “we still thought that the risk of irreversible changes with large impacts was very low, and that there was only a serious risk at 5–6°C of warming. … Today, our best understanding is that even at 1.5°C, and certainly between 1.5 and 2°C, we are taking enormous risks.” Gulp!

Right here, right now, The Climate Book is an essential compendium and action manual regarding the climate crisis. Everyone is obliged to read it.