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What I’ve been reading this month

Conclave, by Robert Harris, was a political thriller set among the College of Cardinals as they elected a new Pope. A real page-turner with plenty of twists and turns, this novel also had lots of complex layers underlying the surface plot, and a good dose of moral ambiguity. I especially enjoyed the well-written dialogue, in particular the set piece speeches. I’ve no idea how true to life this description of events might be, but this felt like a real insight into the political machinations of the Catholic Church.
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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, was a charmingly woven tale of a 24-hour bookstore, the relationship between its owner and newest nighttime clerk, a mysterious secret society, typography, and – oddly enough – Google’s desire to digitise information. The ideas were so eclectic and the plot so fantastical that it really shouldn’t have worked; and yet its warmth and charm held it together perfectly. I’d have liked to see more of the ending played out rather than relegated to the brief unsatisfying epilogue, but testifies to how beguiling I found the characters and their contexts, many of which will live long in my memory.
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In Cockpit Confidential, commercial pilot Patrick Smith gave his personal take on modern commercial passenger aviation. The book was structured around common questions about flying and occasional longer essays on a variety of aviation topics, often with a historical bent. The questions are varied enough to keep the book interesting throughout (from logistics to customer service to the science of flight). I’m confident that those with a deep interest in the topic will find much to disagree with, but this was pitched perfectly for me as a general reader. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but laugh at occasional appearances of a comical US bias (“Most people have never heard of Tenerife… “), but given that this was written for the American mass market, that was probably a little cruel.
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In The Memory Illusion, South Bank University’s Julia Shaw gave an accessible account of the neuroscience of memory, with a particular focus on false memories. The book had just the right pace to maintain interest, and just the right amount of detail. Unlike many other popsci writers, Shaw commendably pointed the limitations of her analogies and simplifications, shielding the casual reader from over-interpretation and false conclusions. Before reading this book, I thought I had a terrible memory. After reading it, I think everyone else does too!
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Marc Levinson’s acclaimed book The Box provided a fascinating insight into the history of the shipping container and how it transformed the world economy. I gained a new appreciation for the wider impact of logistics in general and transport logistics in particular, but felt that this book was a bit too long and detailed for my passing interest and, as a result, a little bit dull in parts. For example, I could have managed without the detailed expositions of the exact measurements of competing standard box sizes!
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In 1980, Frank Abignale published his reportedly autobiographical tome Catch Me If You Can… and 36 years later, I got round to reading it. Abignale’s exploits seemed utterly unbelievable: successfully impersonating a wide range of professionals (including a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer) for prolonged periods while cashing fake cheques. While his adventures happened a long time ago now, and it’s possibly unfair to judge with 21st-century eyes, the book seemed absent of anything that weighed in favour of its veracity. I felt like Abagnale was trying to con me. In addition, I felt there was far too little insight into Abagnale’s motivation: his oft-repeated line was that this was a fun challenge. But there are tangential references to people losing their jobs and livelihoods over his activities, which one might reasonably expect to at least give him pause. The degree to which this book is interesting and enjoyable seemed to hinge completely on its believability, and I didn’t buy a word of it.
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