About me
Archive
About me

Review: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is a book which has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. But, in the light of the recent outbreak, I thought the time to dive in has come.

The book describes an outbreak of Ebola, which occurred in the late 1980s in Washington, DC, a mere stone’s throw from the White House. The outbreak initially spread among imported monkeys and (I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler) then to a small number of humans. The narrative follows the medical, public health, and scientific teams involved in controlling and tackling the outbreak; describing not just their actions, but also their thoughts, feelings, fears, and reflections.

Preston converts this tale into a page-turning thriller. Much of the content isn’t typical thriller material, but Preston does a sterling job of explaining complex scientific concepts and processes in simple (yet accurate) terms; this is quite an achievement. Preston lends his eloquence to horrifying descriptions of Ebola-related deaths, which, I suspect, some readers might find hard to stomach. He also adds heaps of drama and tension that might reflect the atmosphere of a group of experts grappling with an outbreak of a deadly virus.

However, Preston does tend to lean toward the more extreme end of the physical and emotional range. He certainly has a talent for sensationalism. It is important to consider this book for what it is: a mass-market paperback thriller based on real events, not a level-headed factual report.

This book should appeal to many audiences: those with a passing interest in public health and infectious diseases; those with an interest in how major incidents and outbreaks are coordinated and handled; and those who enjoy a horrifying, suspenseful, and thrilling tale of a race against time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admire the considerable skill of the author in creating a page-turner that stays true to the facts of the case, and in deftly explaining complex scientific concepts. Yet, I don’t think this is a book that I’ll ever re-read; once is enough. Still, I would absolutely recommend it.


The Hot Zone is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

Post sponsored by Amazon

This 2,275th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

You may know that The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989. You may know that it remains one of the 20th century's most critically acclaimed novels. You may know that it was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1994.

Somehow, all of this passed me by. Indeed, when I downloaded it onto my Kindle, I thought it was a new release. Despite having read several of Ishiguro's novels in the past, my addled brain had (very) wrongly confused him with Haruki Murakami.

Yet even with my warped preconceptions, The Remains of the Day blew me away.

It is absorbing, beautifully composed, moving, and deep. The way this novel subtly drew me in and toyed with my emotions put me in mind of a Shostakovich piano concerto: the music does the work of capturing attention and emotion, and before you know it, without any particular effort or concentration, you are drawn into and beguiled by a whole new world.

The novel is narrated by an elderly butler on a road trip in the 1950s. He reflects on his life, and his strive for professionalism and 'dignity'. The characterisation is so complete that when I think of the narrator, Stevens, I think of a person rather than a character. The Remains of the Day is a novel about the nature of relationships: professional, personal, and, almost existentially, with oneself. It has glittering moments of humour which made me laugh out loud. And it has moments of remarkable tenderness – which are almost painful to read – and moments of morality and politics which provide genuine food for thought.

The composition is wonderful. The narrator is not entirely reliable, and infuses much of his commentary with predictable (possibly professional?) bias, but he also accurately reports speech in a way which allows the reader to fill in the gaps. This is hardly an original device, but it is rarely used to such profoundly devastating effect as in this work.

It is a matter of some fascination to me that so many other readers and reviewers describe this novel as 'sad'. Certainly, it reflects on a life which some might consider unfulfilled, and certainly, the tale of the narrator is heart-breaking. Yet I found the novel itself rather life-affirming. The Remains of the Day caused me to reflect on my own life – as all the best novels do – and to reflect with some satisfaction.

If I were to summarise this book in a single word, it would be: beguiling. I mean that in the more traditional sense of the word, both enchanting and mildly deceptive. Ishiguro does all the heavy-lifting in this book, guiding the reader through Stevens's world and gently signposting his flaws. Each word is chosen so carefully as to turn the prose into poetry. This is a challenging book, but by no means a challenging read.

I cannot recommend The Remains of the Day highly enough.

Remains of the Day is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

Post sponsored by Amazon

This 2,257th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: One More Thing: Stories and other stories by BJ Novak

I confess that when I bought One More Thing: Stories and other stories, my expectations were low. I braced myself for a comedian's memoir, not unlike the tens of recent precedents. I foresaw a series of anecdotal tales with varying levels of humour and, if I was lucky, a little pith. I knew Novak only from The Office and, regardless of others' plaudits, I never rated his acting. All of which is to say: I was expecting a car crash.

My expectations were confounded. I thoroughly enjoyed this wide-ranging collection of short stories, which deftly covers every aspect of the human condition. Some stories are a couple of sentences; some are considerably longer. Some are funny; others thoughtful; others genuinely moving. Others miss the mark, but this latter category is by far the smallest. He litters the text with some mildly irritating "discussion questions", which have a tendency to point to the obvious or become indulgently self-aware, but they're easily skipped.

While the stories are clever, however, Novak's ear is excellent. At his best, he crafts lines that live long in the memory, and captures characters and dialogue with the deftness of a literary great. I could write about his use of language all day long, but I'll restrain myself to a handful of examples.

While spinning one corporate yarn, Novak uses the pitch-perfect phrase

"more than 140,000 distinct units of social media approval"

This phrase could have been uttered in any one of tens of meetings I've endured over the past twelve months. It captures so perfectly that self-affirming desire of so many corporate shills to name things in ways which are understood by everyone but familiar to no-one.

Novak is also possessed of a poetic ability to use adjectives in a metaphorical, rather than literal, way. This seems to have become rarer in recent years, for reasons that I don't fully understand. But Novak has a teacher "nodding without moving their head", and some "bold, capital numbers" to name but two examples.

I feel obliged to single out some individual stories for comment. If I Had a Nickel was, perhaps, the only story which was far longer than its point required. Closure felt tricksy, rather than clever, and didn't make much of a point. Beyond that, most of the stories are pretty good. Some are brilliant.

Recently, I've given poor reviews (in both senses of that phrase) to books by Paul Carr and Dave Cicirelli which cover much the same ground as Novak's One of these days, we have to do something about Willie. And yet, Novak communicates more and gives more pause for thought about the same topics in a short story than either of those two managed in their respective books combined.

The Man Who Invented the Calendar is one of his "Just So" style stories, which I had previously read in the New Yorker without ever mentally attributing to Novak. Indeed, it is one of the weaker of these stories in the book, but I suspect reading it will provide some indication as to whether one might like the book as a whole.

For my money, this book is great. It is a bold and captivating literary debut, and the most thoughtful and enjoyable book I've read in some months. Novak is a bona fide literary talent, and I'll hunt out his next work.

One More Thing: Stories and other stories is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



Shortly after publication, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too. Because: why not?

This 2,247th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: The Everything Store by Brad Stone

The Everything Store, by Brad Stone, is appropriately subtitled Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. I understand that the veracity of the content of this book has been challenged, particularly by Amazon, and I have no way of assessing where the truth lies. With that in mind, I can only comment on the book as it stands.

The Everything Store is so named as Bezos expressed a desire to use the internet to build a store with limitless stock, where one could purchase anything. On reading this, I was immediately struck by the similarity to Harrod’s motto and goal – omnia omnibus ubique – but this is an aspect that is not discussed at all in the book, more’s the pity. I think it would have made a fascinating comparison – the modern retail behemoth and the Victorian equivalent, sharing much the same goals but approaching the problem in totally different ways. But I digress.

Stone’s book gives a comprehensive account of how the company has developed, from it’s small beginnings as a low volume book store, to it’s current world-leading status. It isn’t shy about discussing the financial difficulties Amazon has faced, and indeed still faces. It is difficult to turn a profit on narrow margins, and even more so when one is selling below cost price. It also doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the questionable ethics employed by Amazon, and appears to do so in an even handed manner that is genuinely enlightening.

One particularly good example is the discussion of Bezos’s simultaneous exploitation of and protest against patent law. A lesser author would present this as rank hypocrisy; Stone presents the facts and explains Bezos’s motivation as he understands it. He then allows the reader to determine whether Bezos is acting with reprehensible hypocrisy, or acting in the most logical way possible given the circumstances. I still haven’t quite made up my mind.

The book also gives a comprehensive pen portrait of Bezos as an individual. He is clearly exceptionally driven, possibly to the point of fault, much like his CEO contemporary Steve Jobs. By the end of the book, I was a little tired of reading descriptions of his laugh, but perhaps it is such a dominant feature of his personality that it bears repeating ad nauseam.

To my mind, the book fell down a little when discussing contemporaries and other Amazon executives. The balance between detail and length doesn’t feel quite right in these passages. We are told about many of their childhoods, for example, even though they play a relatively minor role in the story. It feels as though Stone wants to share the detailed background research he has done, rather than concentrating on crafting the broader story and characterisation.

I also found the timeline difficult to follow in some passages. Stone will often abberate from the main timeline to tell the story of how a particular feature or policy developed over time. This means that there is a fair amount of jumping around, and if one doesn’t fully concentrate, it’s easy to get lost.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was engaging, balanced, and informative. The story is told with a degree of page-turning drive that isn’t typical of business books. I’d highly recommend it.

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



Shortly after publication, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and smattering of other places too. Recycling is good for the planet.

This 2,244th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Red Notice by Andy McNab

A few weeks ago, I decided that I should read a book by Andy McNab. After all, he’s an author that sells books by the pallet-load, generally to positive reviews. Red Notice is the first book in a (relatively) new series, and with it being on offer, I thought this would be as good a place to start as any.

The experience was one that I did not enjoy. The plot involved the ‘hijacking’ of a Eurostar train as it passed through the Channel Tunnel. Of course, both an SAS man and his girlfriend were on board. This plot managed to be both desperately implausible throughout and yet also somehow thoroughly predictable. In addition, as I understand to be typical of this genre, a man who is close to death several times over the course of the novel is regularly able to “bounce back” within minutes, running and shooting with the best of them.

There is a an astoundingly badly written subplot about a pregnancy, which is diagnosed in a rather unusual fashion:

“There’s nothing quite like morning sickness on a woman’s breath. It’s unmistakable.”

Not only is this somewhat medically unlikely, it’s also notable that the sex of the baby has been determined at this early stage – far earlier, in fact, than the sex of the baby can be determined. From the timeline of the book, it’s clear that this pregnancy is well within its first trimester.

Similarly, there are some amusing internal inconsistencies sprinkled throughout: a car mysteriously changes from a Jaguar to a BMW in less than a page; the geography of where people are at any one time seems inconsistent (though it is so difficult to follow at times that it is hard to tell for sure).

There are also some passages laden with unnecessary military jargon, which is often used to cover a lack of detail in the narrative. It’s almost as if he’s trying to set up a “Chekov’s gun” scenario, but without the foresight to know specifically what “Chekov’s gun” will be. My personal favourite example:

“The Slime carefully unpacked their geeky stuff from its protective aluminium boxes.”

The dialogue varies throughout from Hollywood-esque catchphrase to speaking in perfectly formed sentences. An ideal example of the former is this cringeworthy passage:

“Unless they were asleep, they were dead. And from what he’d seen of these guys, he knew they wouldn’t be sleeping.”

An example of the latter is when a character reportedly angrily yells at the top of his voice:

“I’ve got an important event tonight and I need my dinner jacket.”

On the positive side, this book does have pace. It also has a stab at discussing some of the governmental politics of SAS work, and even touches on the questionable ethics at times. Unfortunately, these elements are harmed by a lack of any depth or real substance, and a frustratingly frequent repeat of what I assume to be the shallow political views of the author (best summarised as: the SAS are professionals, politicians should let them do what they want).

All things considered, this isn’t a book I’d recommend. There’s nothing especially creative about it, and it lacks any air of authenticity. The writing and dialogue is so poor as to border on comedy. I suggest giving it a miss.

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

This 2,238th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis

In Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis counterbalances arguments about the sinister effects of erosion of privacy in the modern world. He argues that openness and sharing, on balance, improve the world. He coins the word 'publicness' to describe open sharing, and argues convincingly that 'publicness' is not the polar opposite of 'privacy'.

This is a book which stimulates thought. I particularly appreciated Jeff's elucidation of the argument that regulation should focus on the use of information that has been shared, rather than the sharing of information itself. I had never considered the concept in this way before, despite it being a common one. I am a doctor: people tell me all sorts of things in confidence because they have a clear understanding that to do so is the best way to allow me to understand their condition, and diagnose and treat them. Occasionally, much of what a patient discloses – which is often deeply private – turns out to be irrelevant. But the code of ethics, not to mention the law, around these interactions means that they can share without fear.

While the patient freely discloses the information, the way in which the information is used remains within their power. They are free to allow me to share it with colleagues if they believe that this might help them (referring them on), or equally free to restrict me from doing so. Even if something deeply embarrassing turns out to be irrelevant, the patient is left no worse off for having disclosed it – and the possibility of benefit was probably worth the disclosure.

This is a single example of the effect Jeff's book has on many of the concepts around privacy and 'publicness'. He helps the reader to assume a different viewpoint on issues. The viewpoint is often one grounded in experiences that the reader already has, or can conceive of, but which they have perhaps not understood from the viewpoint described. This is a powerful technique.

Public Parts also discusses the trickier aspects of online life. It discusses cases where people share things that they perhaps should not have, and where this lack of privacy has caused harm. But he makes a convincing point that we all need to become more 'media competent', and that making the debate about 'publicness' more mainstream will serve to educate and inform, as well as helping to craft social norms in a more considered way.

The style of writing in the book is certainly fast-paced, and I know that others have been critical of this. Few things irritate me more than incomplete, superficial arguments, and so I was a little reluctant to read this book on the basis of those reviews commenting on the fast-paced nature, which I thought would be indicative of superficiality. On the contrary, I found the book well-paced. It discusses issues concisely, not ad infinitum, which I found refreshing. It leaves the reader to do some of the work around thinking through the issues surrounding the arguments. The author does not lead the reader step-by-step through every possible permutation and combination of situations and ideas, as other authors are wont to do.

I particularly enjoyed the discussions around the historical aspects of privacy and 'publicness'. Consideration of these issues is, in my opinion, far too often framed as part of the discussion around modern technology. In reality, there is little that is new about the issues themselves, merely new situations in which they need to be applied. The discussion was illuminated by description of how these debates progressed around the new technologies of the past – from Gutenberg's printing press to Kodak's camera. Similarly, the interviews with leaders in social media (and similar fields) helped to give some real-world perspective on the theories being discussed.

It seems a shame to me that this book has received so little attention in the UK. I get the impression that it hasn't been particularly widely read, which is a shame given that its discussion is relevant to us all. It strikes me that it is a book that could catch on among the political classes, and become widely read via that route. At least, I hope it might.

This book packs an awful lot in to 250 or so pages. It's a genuinely enjoyable read that provides a large amount of food for thought. I highly recommend it.

Public Parts is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,221st post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Fakebook by Dave Cicirelli

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.

This 2,209th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. This site uses cookies - click here for more information.