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    16th April 2014

    Fakebook is an autobiographical story by Dave Cicirelli, a young man who decided to divorce his Facebook updates from reality. He falsely announced via a Facebook status update that he was quitting his job and going travelling. Most of his Facebook friends believed him, and a few close friends were co-opted into posting supportive comments and messages to increase the believability of his tale. The cover calls this an “elaborate hoax”, but I find that description difficult: there’s nothing particularly elaborate about writing fake Facebook status updates, or posting (badly) Photoshopped photographs.

    From this exercise, Cicirelli attempts to make observations about the nature of friendship, life in the digital world, and so on. Unfortunately, his observations are such self-evident truths that they needn’t be demonstrated through this sort of means. Is it necessary to write a book about fooling your friends for six months to realise that friendships change, develop and sometimes disintegrate as lives take different courses?

    For me, the whole book just fell flat. For some people, no doubt, the fictional adventures of “Fake Dave” are rip-roaringly hilarious. I’m sure that there’s a segment of the market somewhere that finds the idea of pretending to unravel toilet paper around a horse and cart on an Amish farm hilarious. I suspect Mr Cicirelli himself is in this market segment. I’m afraid I’m not, and so I found the ever-growing succession of such fictional idiocy a drag. I struggled to get through this book.

    Other reviewers have expressed concerns about the ethics of the deception involved in this project. I’m not overly concerned by that. Nobody is under any obligation to share the truth on Facebook, and I suspect that most events reported on Facebook are fictionalised to some extent to show their author in a better light. This is nothing more than an extension of that idea.

    About a third of the way into the book, there is a delicious moment, however. Mr Cicirelli goes on a date with a girl four years his junior. He explains his online exploits to her, and she gives him short shrift, essentially dismissing the project as deceptive and pointless. In response, Mr Cicirelli calls her immature. He might have done rather better to listen to her.

    Fakebook is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback. I am grateful to Sourcebooks for providing a free review copy of this book.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    19th March 2014

    Room by Emma Donoghue is a novel about a mother kept in captivity in an abductor's shed. It is told from the perspective of the mother's five-year-old son, Jack, who was born in the shed and hence believes that it represents the full extent of the 'real world'. The book, which was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, is a critically-acclaimed bestseller, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2010. The morality of profiting from a novel inspired by someone else's suffering seems a little questionable, even if it has been done many times before.

    In the humble opinion of this blogger, as opposed to the far more informed opinion of leagues of experts, Room has some serious problems. But before I describe the worst of these, I'd like admit that I found the work thoroughly engaging and enjoyed reading it despite the problems.

    The largest and most frustrating problem is with the narrative voice. The novel is told from the point of view of Jack, a five-year-old with an intellect which is unusually developed in some areas, yet lacking in others. I found his voice inauthentic. At one point, he had the intellect to use the word "cells" and understand that they make up the body. At another point, his knowledge does not extend to the word "palm", leading to him referring to "inside hands" or "hand insides". While I understand that his varying levels of language are intended to be reflective of his unusual experience, this does not seem to explain these odd inconsistancies.

    Similarly, there are irritating editing inconsistencies in Jack's voice, which make it seem still more inauthentic: Jack refers to 'Sunday treat', 'Sunday-treat' and 'Sundaytreat' consistently in different passages. Perhaps this inconsistency is reflective of some grander point that I'm missing, but I simply find it irritating.

    My second over-arching concern is one of plausibility. We are told that the door to 'Room' is locked with a four-digit combination lock, and that Ma and Jack regularly try to crack this with Ma calling out different numbers and Jack entering them when they play 'Keypad'. On a four digit combination lock, there can be only 10,000 combinations. Assuming they play 'Keypad' systematically – and I assume that the system is the reason for Ma calling out the numbers – it seems unlikely that they wouldn't have it cracked fairly quickly.

    There are also odd inconsistencies in the narrative. Perhaps these are designed to establish Jack as a somewhat unreliable narrator, but to me, they simply read as mistakes. For example, it is established early that Jack and Ma play 'Scream', in which they scream daily in the hope that a rescuer might find them. They do not do this at weekends, as their captor might hear them. It is later revealed that their captor has been unemployed for some time – so it seems odd that he hasn't heard them.

    A third major source of irritation in the text is the number of laboured metaphors. I lost count of how many times there is a 'separation', presumably inserted to portend future events in the narrative. However, they are discussed in such a heavy-handed way as to be groan-worthy. Similarly, there is an over-reliance on hackneyed 'life-lessons':

    • "In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time"
    • "Lots of the world seems to be a repeat"
    • "Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear"

    The final source of annoyance is the frustratingly short chapters used. These become particularly irksome in the second half of the book, where short chapters are given which bear no relation to the preceeding or following chapters. At some points, it isn't even clear how much time has passed . Initially, I thought the author had an eye on a film adaptation, which is often easier with shorter chapters. By the end, I thought that the author had scribbled a list of events and experiences she wished to cover, and simply rattled through them.

    Despite these problems, I enjoyed Room. The frustrating elements marred the reading experience somewhat, but the book's positives, by and large, outweighed the negatives. I cannot give a hearty recommendation – and, indeed, cannot begin to fathom its critical and popular success. However, it is not so bad as to be worth going out of your way to avoid it.

    Room is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    5th March 2014

    Just My Type is a book about fonts. It tells the story behind the design of many different typefaces and their designers, and passes judgement on some of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ fonts in common use.

    I have a slightly complicated history with this book. I bought it when it first came out, having seen a number of rave reviews, including a virtually evangelical endorsement from Robert Bound. However, first time round, I didn’t get on with it. I found it dull indeed, and gave up with it after a short while.

    Early in 2014, I decided to tackle it again: I could not accept that so many people whose opinion I respect had so highly recommended a book which I found impenetrable. Second time round, I very much enjoyed it, and devoured it in a couple of days. I enjoyed its humour and levity; its facts and figures; its tales of times gone by and anecdotes of contemporary life in the design community. It was a real treat, a pleasure to read. I cannot understand why I found it such a struggle the first time round. Garfield deftly brings the human spirit to a topic which, at face value, lacks any humanity. He brings type alive in the most engaging way.

    Each chapter of the book discusses a font trend or another similar topic, including the history of how it came to exist, and how it progressed over time. The second chapter, which discusses the terminology of type, has a lovely quote which sums up the combination of accuracy and levity which the author employs throughout:

    In common parlance we use font and typeface interchangeably, and there are worse sins.

    Between the chapters, there are ‘font breaks’, in which Garfield typically discusses an interesting story relating to a single typeface. This structure might seem unusual at first glance, but it works well, setting up a predictable rhythm throughout the book. And, as one might expect, the book is peppered with different typefaces, providing illustration of the points discussed.

    I found Just My Type to be a lovely book – at least on second reading – and it made me genuinely interested in a topic I’d never considered in great detail previously. It was factual, but with a real sense of fun. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

    Just My Type is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    19th February 2014

    I first read this book in 2008, not all that long after it was released, pretty much in one go on a long haul flight. I recently came across it again, remembered the pleasure I derived from it the first time round, and so gave it a re-read.

    The Tiger That Isn’t provides a competent grounding in the very basics of statistical theory – risk, sampling, averages, etc – but does so in a way that is both relevant to daily life and, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Blastland and Dilnot pick examples from many different spheres of life, but with a particular lean towards politics and the media, and explain the basic statistical errors underlying fallacious claims. They largely succeed in doing this in a lighthearted way, and attempt to equip readers with tools which might help them avoid similar mistakes in future.

    One suggestion that I remembered from my first reading of this book is that any Government spending announcement is more easily interpreted if one divides the headline figure by 3bn, which gives an approximation of the spend per member of the population per week.

    Of course, this book does not discuss statistical methods in great detail, and nor does it deal with some of the more complex statistical concepts. It does, however, give a good grounding in everyday statistics to those with a passing interest – I wish more journalists (and politicians) would give themselves a solid foundation of statistical understanding, and this is as good a place to start as any.

    I very much enjoyed my re-read of this volume, and would happily recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the topic.

    Chocolate Wars

    The Tiger That Isn’t is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

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    5th February 2014

    Chocolate Wars tells the history of chocolate manufacturer Cadbury, from founding to controversial sale to Kraft. Interwoven into the story are histories of other confectionery manufacturers whose names have become synonymous with sweets: Fry, Rowntree, Lindt, Hershey, Suchard, Terry and many others besides. Of course, the author is herself a member of the Cadbury family, lending a personal tone to the narrative. Of course, as with any story of this type, there’s a good dose of social history in the mix as well.

    This should be a book I enjoyed. I like a bit of social history, and I like a good business story. I enjoy biographies, and I enjoy chocolate. And this book has won high praise from almost everyone who has reviewed it. Yet I’m afraid that I struggled to get through this book. Others have called it ‘pacey’ and ‘thriller-like’, but I found it a little like wading through treacle in two respects: it was hard to get through, and far too sweet.

    An example of the former from early in the book, there is seemingly endless discussion of the qualities of “Iceland Moss”, a profoundly unsuccessful early Cadbury product.  It felt like there was an awful lot of description of the product, and of its lack of success, but also – and this seems to be a problem throughout – discussion of the intentions and feeling of the Cadbury brothers when developing the product. The evidence cited for drawing these conclusions about motivations is often poor, and feels like it has been imposed, rather than simply reported, by the author. But perhaps this is unfair; perhaps the feelings and motivations were well-researched and accurately reported. But that simply isn’t how Chocolate Wars felt to me: it felt wearingly revisionist.

    As an example of the latter, Chocolate Wars seems to expect the reader to respect the Cadburys for abandoning their principles in favour of profit early on, attempting to reintroduce them as they returned to profit, and then gradually eroding them again. I’m afraid I found all of this rather tiresome. I understand that the family faced a moral dilemma, choosing between values and success, but their continual inability to choose a side of the argument and pursue it is frustrating. There are parts of the narrative where it seems that the Cadbury family are virtually abusing their workers, and yet it seems that the reader is expected to sympathise with the owners, not the workers, whose discomfort is almost brushed over.

    I don’t mean to imply from this description that Cadbury Wars induced strongly negative feeling about the Cadbury family. The book didn’t move me to strong feelings about anything. I am describing my frustrations with the text in an attempt to explain why I found it so profoundly dull – but in doing so, I think I may have inadvertently highlighted the more interesting debates.

    The only way in which this book really affected me was that I bought some Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles, which I haven’t bought for years, after reading an extended description of them in the book. And I enjoyed them.

    I find it hard to fully justify why I enjoyed this book so little, particularly when others have felt so positively towards it. Perhaps it is reflective of my mood as I read, or perhaps I hold some unidentified negative association with Cadbury. I certainly can’t recommend Chocolate Wars, but my single note of disapproval shouldn’t put you off: there’s a chorus of celebration of the brilliance of Chocolate Wars, so perhaps it’s worth reading anyway.

    Chocolate Wars

    Chocolate Wars is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

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    22nd January 2014

    It takes a special kind of effort to be so behind the times that I’m reviewing The Undercover Economist more than three years after it was published, despite having it on my “must read” list for most of that time. As a fan of Tim Harford’s contributions to the Financial Times and his presentation of More or Less, I had great expectations for this book – and I wasn’t disappointed.

    The Undercover Economist seeks to explain the economic theories underpinning everyday life, from buying a coffee to shopping in a supermarket. I was passingly familiar with most of the theories being discussed, as I would imagine that most people would be, but Harford does a good job of fleshing out the details, equipping the reader with economic vocabulary, and showing how the theories work in everyday situations.

    Harford is clearly an excellent writer, and the book zips along at a fair lick for the most part. There are, however, some parts that drag a little. Occasionally, Harford goes to some lengths to explain the same theories repeatedly in different situations in a way that becomes a little repetitive and unnecessary in parts. I sometimes felt like the speed of the repeated explanations was a little slow, as though I was some way ahead of the book. This was a bit frustrating. But it’s not a major issue. I guess what I’m saying is that a well-abridged version of the book would be no bad thing.

    There are also bits of the book where I feel like Harford strays a little too far into relating a particular point of view, rather than setting out the wider picture as I would expect from a book like this. I am actually interested in Harford’s opinions on globalisation, for example, but don’t think that this is necessarily the place to communicate his point of view (almost) exclusively. I felt that a little more balance would have been welcome in this introductory book.

    But these are niggles. Economics is often portrayed as dry and theoretical, and The Undercover Economist shows it to be anything but. It sheds light on the economic decisions we all make everyday, and the way that we are economically manipulated by corporations and governments – for better or worse. It is absorbing and enjoyable – not words that necessarily spring to mind for books about this particular subject matter.

    So whilst there were some rough edges, I enjoyed The Undercover Economist. And perhaps the best I can say is that the sequel is on my “must read” list… and I think I’ll get to it some time before 2017!

     The Undercover Economist

    The Undercover Economist is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    8th January 2014

    I think, like me, many people will have noticed an increase in the price of e-books in recent years. A subset of those people will be, like me, vaguely aware of an antitrust case around the selling of ebooks, involving Amazon selling below cost and Apple trying to disrupt the market. There was news last year that a court had declared that ebook purchasers were due a partial refund, and I felt some excitement at the prospect of a fat Amazon gift voucher (that hasn’t yet materialised). That was about my level of understanding before I downloaded The Battle of $9.99. It was a story that I felt I should know more about, and so I picked up the book to learn.

    In this short book, Albanese outlines the revelations from the antitrust court case against Apple. It’s a factual account that seemed fairly balanced in its assessment, and contained some genuinely surprising revelations along  the way. For example, publishers whose books were previously sold below cost-price by Amazon now net a lower revenue per title despite increased consumer prices. Indeed, publishers were willing to accept that deal on the basis that the perceived value of books would not be eroded further, on the basis that it protects their profits in the long-term.

    It’s only a brief book, so this can only be a brief review, but it was nonetheless interesting. It was well-pitched, introducing economic and legal terms as necessary without either patronising or befuddling me as a reader with experience in neither. I would have liked a little more discussion about why this story had so little traction with the public at large, particularly compared to similar financial scandals in which consumers felt “ripped off”.  I’d also be interested to read a similar account of iTunes disruption of the music market, but I guess without a antitrust suit, similar revelations are unlikely to meet public gaze.

    Back in the autumn, I reviewed Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski, which examined in much more detail the way in which technology has changed the reading experience. The Battle of $9.99 makes an interesting business-focussed supplement to that book. It’s well worth a read.

     

    The Battle of $9.99

    The Battle of $9.99 is available now from amazon.co.uk in Kindle format only.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    25th December 2013

    I hope all my readers are enjoying a happy and peaceful Christmas Day!

    As it’s Christmas, there is – of course – no book review this week; the next will be published in a fortnight’s time, Wednesday 8th January 2014.

    Merry Christmas!


    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    11th December 2013

    See No Evil is the story of how a “nerdy Jewish kid” grows into Elliot Litner, one of New York’s foremost cardiac surgeons in the 1970s and 1980s, who also happens to lead a second life as Il Dottore, a gambling and sex addict embroiled deeply in the world of organised crime, acting as the house physician to La Cosa Nostra.

    This is a remarkable book, made all the more astounding by the fact that it is a true biography. Felber is an excellent writer, and infuses the text with just the right quantities of suspense, tension, disbelief, and occasional laugh-out-loud humour. The passage in which Litner performs a rectal examination on godfather Carlo Gambino is a stand-out moment which deftly combines all of the above!

    I haven’t read much in the past about the New York mafia, and so was grateful for the background given in the book. Essentially, as well as being a biography of Litner, it is also an insider biography of La Cosa Nostra. My naivety on such subjects led to me being truly astounded by the breadth and depth of the mafia’s reach, and the role that Rudy Giuliani played in curbing organised crime in New York. I don’t think I would ever have been motivated to read about this subject if it hadn’t been for the curious medical angle of this biography, but will certainly read more widely on the topic in future.

    I found it somewhat curious that the biographer chose to give the protagonist a pseudonym – Elliot Litner is not his real name – when the description of the various posts he has held and publications he has written would surely make his unmasking very straightforward indeed. That said, I didn’t bother to look it up (perhaps that’s the point).

    I love a bit of moral ambiguity in a book, and – as one might expect – this delivers in spades, and with some medical ethical twists to boot. Indeed, the quite brilliant ending of the book arrives when Litner is faced with a clear dichotomous choice between his Hippocratic Oath and his loyalty to La Cosa Nostra. Perhaps I was swept along by the narrative, but I found the ending entirely unpredictable, and the building tension as the denouement approaches was some of the tightest, suspenseful writing I’ve read in a very long time. To say that I couldn’t put the book down is a cliché, but in the case of the final section of this book, it also happens to be true.

    Clearly, the veracity of the events described is difficult to ascertain, and I’m certain that a large pinch of creative licence has been used with respect to the well-written dialogue. But for a story as fantastical as this, I can forgive a little bit of fictionalisation and dramatisation around the edges. Parts are so obvious cinematic that it seems unbelievable that no-one has written a movie based on this book.

    I’d thoroughly recommend See No Evil. It isn’t the sort of book I’d typically choose to read, but that only made the somewhat unexpected enjoyment all the sweeter.

    See No Evil is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle. There will be no book review published on Christmas Day, so the next review will be in four weeks: 8th January 2014.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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    27th November 2013

    The Quarry is Iain Banks’s final novel, finished off after he received the news that he was dying of a rare metastatic gall bladder cancer. That background, combined with the fact that I’ve loved many of Banks’s previous novels, makes it hard to write a fair review. But I will try.

    The plot is straightforward: Guy, father to teenage Kit, is dying of cancer. Guy invites his old friends to stay with Kit and him, for something resembling a pre-death wake. The relationships between the friends are explored, and their shared past is raked over. The plot, however, is almost irrelevant. It is the detailed characterisation, perfect dialogue and evocative description which do all the work in this novel. The plot is almost beside the point.

    The first Banks novel I read was the first he wrote: The Wasp Factory. The Quarry shares much with The Wasp Factory: both are Bildungsromans exploring the nature of the relationship between a strange father and a strange son. This is the sort of thing Banks excels at, as I mentioned in my review of Stonemouth earlier this year. The Quarry is much less extreme than The Wasp Factory: the father is a dying misanthropic bastard rather than a lifelong pathological sadist, and the son appears to have a mild form of autism rather than being a psychopathic murderer. Both The Wasp Factory and The Quarry explore themes of ritual and religion in some depth, as well as the fine line between life and death.

    But this is not The Wasp Factory. It isn’t a Gothic powerhouse of a novel featuring graphic murder and torture at every turn. Like Stonemouth, it’s a quiet, subtle novel that explores the absurd horror of everyday life without resorting to comically dark metaphor. The mirror it holds to the absurd swords of Damocles of our pasts and the cruelty of death is plain, rather than comically warped. What this approach loses in shock-factor power, it gains in poignancy.

    As always with Banks, the characterisation and dialogue are just outstanding, and the black humour is second-to-none. As always, his prose flows like nobody else’s. His talent as a writer was so obviously superlative that discussing it seems superfluous.

    The Quarry is a brilliant novel, and one that I know I’ll turn back to and read again, and – like all of Banks’s work – probably find a whole other level to enjoy on a second reading. Banks was a literary genius. That this is his last novel is a tragedy. I will miss him.

    The Quarry is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

    There's a book review every other Wednesday on sjhoward.co.uk. If you want to follow them, subscribe to the book review RSS feed or get the fortnightly review delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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