Book Review: Non-fiction books

By Jim Eagles, Mark Fryer

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Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

The Finish: The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden
(Atlantic $36.99)

The 2011 death of Osama bin Laden prompted US jubilation, but also a question: could he have been taken alive, to face trial? Probably, concludes this account of the operation that got the world's most-wanted man, though why that option wasn't taken remains murky. Bowden also details what a gamble the mission was: almost to the end, the Americans were far from sure they'd found their man. From the first pointers to bin Laden's hideout, to his burial at sea, this is a workmanlike story of how a terrorist met his end.

Deng Xiaoping And The Transformation Of China by Ezra F. Vogel(Belknap Press $55)

A fascinating and detailed biography of the character who was arguably the most influential figure of the 20th century. For good (lifting millions of Chinese out of poverty and giving us all cheap T-shirts and TV sets) or ill (as Mao Zedong's longtime hatchetman and the driving force behind the Tiananmen Square massacre) he changed China and the world.

It doesn't tell us a lot about Deng the man but it does paint an extraordinary picture of a bizarre world where Mao Zedong Thought had the status of holy writ.

Commander by Stephen Taylor
(Faber & Faber $49.99)

Stephen Taylor's marvellous biography of Edward Pellew, subtitled "The Life And Exploits Of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain", reads like a ripping yarn. That's perhaps unsurprising when you remember that Pellew was such a dashing figure that he appeared in the Hornblower books as the young officer's mentor and was probably the model for Jack Aubrey. Like those fictional heroes he was clearly a ferocious warrior, clever naval tactician and caring leader. But also like them he was very human, a naive politician and surprisingly thin-skinned.

The Untold History Of The United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
Ebury Press $39.99)

Yes, that Oliver Stone, the movie director. This history of American foreign policy is the book version of a TV series, and given Stone's involvement, its tone is no surprise. The message, in a nutshell: while Americans may fondly believe their country has spread democracy around the globe, in fact, US power has repeatedly been used to thwart people's quest for freedom, and support a long line of despots. "Untold"? Hardly, and flaws aren't hard to find, but this is still a strong argument for taking American rhetoric with a grain of salt.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
(Fourth Estate, $34.99)

Sombre investigative journalism on the pharmaceutical giants' manipulation of drug tests, misleading or bribing doctors, paying for favourable verdicts from experts and making fools of regulators. It's a demanding read but worth the effort. The book has already started to change the way the industry operates. But there's still plenty to be worried about.

- NZ Herald

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