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Reviewing my own book reviews

Yesterday, I published a review of A Series of Unrelated Events by Richard Bacon. A year ago today, I published a review of The Truth about Cruise Ships by Jay Herring. And in between the two, I’ve published some 39 other book reviews. Writing the book review section has become one of the real pleasures of maintaining this blog – I think it’s my favourite regular column.

Yet, I struggle each week to summarise my review in a star-rating out of five. I often write about struggling to do this, and if you are wondering why on earth I bother, it’s because I republish versions of my book reviews in various other places, for some of which a star rating is mandatory.

So, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the last year of reviews and look at the distribution of ratings. I’d expect the distribution to be skewed – I generally choose to read books that appeal to me, rather than ones I hate. Yet, I also try not to give out too many five-star reviews. Taking these factors into account, I’d expect the mean to come out at about 3.5.

Bar Chart

If you look very closely, you’ll notice that this doesn’t add up to the promised 41 – that’s because there were two reviews where I declined to give a star-rating, despite my self-imposed rules.

It isn’t surprising to me that four-stars is the modal figure, but I am a little surprised – despite what I said earlier – that I’ve only given two one-star reviews in a whole year. I’m also surprised to have given eight five-star reviews.

The mean figure is 3.4 stars, which is pretty much where I thought it would be.

So what do I take away from this exercise? I’m pretty much coming up with the balance of star-ratings that I thought I would be, despite struggling every week. I am perhaps a touch too generous with five-star reviews, but, then again, the mean is where I thought it would be. I’ll repeat this in July 2014, and see if things have changed.

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes.

Review: A Series of Unrelated Events by Richard Bacon

Richard Bacon is perhaps best known as the only Blue Peter presenter to be sacked. He’s also the presenter of the afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live, to which I occasionally listen.

A Series of Unrelated Events is his first book. It’s an autobiography of various surreal moments in his life, presented out of sequence and with no connecting narrative. I’m a little unnerved by the use of the word “series” in the title, given that the events described are not chronological. Clearly, “series” does not necessarily imply chronology, but it unsettles me nonetheless. And, as you might imagine, a series of out-of-sequence anecdotes doesn’t add up to a particularly coherent whole.

From listening on 5 Live, I’ve often thought that there are two sides to Richard Bacon. One side is serious, intelligent and insightful. This side is shown most commonly when he’s handling breaking news, or following a long-running news story, or interviewing someone particularly newsworthy and interesting. The other side is faux-blokey, flippant, and a little arrogant. This side is shown most commonly on slow news days, or when he’s presenting one of his many predictable and relatively dull “features”.

Unfortunately, this book is written almost exclusively by the latter side of Richard Bacon. There are some chapters where the former gets a look in: particularly the first, about his sacking from Blue Peter, and one near the end of the book, in which he talks about internet trolls. But most of the rest is written in the faux-blokey style, with “hilarious” anecdotes about subjects like hiding the fact he’d drunk a bottle of wine by replacing the contents with water, people having sex at his wedding, and outsourcing his film review column to a friend.

I suspect that this is a book that could be improved dramatically through the employment of a very good editor. As a first draft, this book is fine: it just needs somebody to point out which of the anecdotes don’t work and should be dropped, explain which bits Bacon should expand with richer detail and wider discussion, and a judicious use of coloured pen to tidy up his often infuriatingly affected writing style.

This perception is reinforced by a number of asides which surely should have been edited. For example, when re-introducing a character from a previous anecdote, Bacon says:

Let’s call him Jack (I can’t remember if I identify him in that earlier chapter and can’t be bothered to check).

Perhaps this is supposed to be humorous. Perhaps I am supposed to laugh. If I read this on someone’s blog, perhaps I would chuckle and roll my eyes. But when I’ve paid for a book, I expect this sort of thing to be edited out. I don’t want to see the process of writing, I want to be immersed in the content. But, as I say, perhaps I’m over-reacting to a joke I didn’t find funny.

Yet here’s another exhibit: there is a chapter which Bacon opens in the voice of Charles Dickens. That is precisely as painful as it sounds, and he gets bored with his terrible impression part way though:

Now read on, as Richard Bacon takes up the story.

That you, Charles. And sorry readers, that didn’t really work out as I’d hoped. He doesn’t half go on a bit.

Again, this is a passage that is more cringe-worthy than funny – perhaps passable on an amateurish blog (like mine). But, as if to reinforce that the editing on this volume has been sloppy, the following appears at the end of the chapter:


Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed that the first half of the chapter was written in the style of Charles Dickens and the second not. This is because the Charles Dickens bit was taking too long and I got bored.

Why repeat what he’s already pointed out earlier in the text? Pass the red pen, please.

I guess what frustrates me most about this book is that Bacon has an interesting career story to tell, and the intelligence and wit to tell it well. Instead, it feels like he’s been left largely to his own devices, and so gone somewhat off piste. As a collection of anecdotes written by a minor celebrity, it isn’t bad… but I’m ultimately left disappointed, because I know it could have been so much better.

I very much hope that Bacon one day has the opportunity to write a decent, considered memoir. Perhaps that’s something one can’t do part-way through one’s career. Perhaps the distance isn’t great enough to allow for proper reflection. But, if he does go on to write one, I suspect I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. And I think there’s just enough promise in the better chapters of Unrelated Events to grudgingly recommend this first draft of history until that day.

A Series of Unrelated Events is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle. Many thanks to Cornerstone Publishing for supplying a free copy for the purpose of this review.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Re-inventing the email newsletter

Until June 2007, this website offered an email subscription service whereby subscribers would receive copies of all posts by email, along with a few added extras now and again. By 2007, RSS feeds and the like made this seemed horribly old-fashioned, and I closed the service.

These days, however, I find myself more and more reliant on curated email newsletters from a lot of my favourite sites. I don’t have the time to trawl RSS feeds which have a low signal:noise ratio – I want somebody to pick out the best bits for me.

And so, today, I’m re-introducing this site’s email service. It is a little different to the one I closed five years ago. This time round, it will consist of a single weekly email with the best posts from this site, and other links and bits and bobs I’ve come across elsewhere but not deemed worthy of posting on here. It will come out on a Sunday, but (unlike the posts on here) it will always be sent in “real time” – so it might be late some weeks, or early others. It will always be freshly baked.

So sign up today – either by following this link, or (if you’re reading this on sjhoward.co.uk) using any of the dark grey boxes. I’ll be sending the first edition a little before midnight tonight – so if you want to collect a complete set, get signed up quickly!

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, Site Updates, .

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