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Summer Books: Looking back

Summer Books

Summer Books

The Summer Books series, which has hopefully kept both sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live readers entertained over the last three months, was an idea conceived back in June to stave off a summer of desperate, straw-clutching silly-season posts about random topics. I think it’s worked rather well.

But it’s also revealed some interesting things about my sjhoward.co.uk readers. For example, the most popular of the reviewed books from the point of view of orders placed through sjhoward.co.uk/shop has been Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Guy Browning. That single book has outsold its nearest Summer Books rival by a factor of almost ten-to-one, which certainly surprised me, considering the relative national best-sellers that have also featured.

So why should this be? Is it because people hadn’t previously heard of Never Push… and liked the sound of it, whereas they’d already read many of the others? Is it because many of my readers are Guardian fans, and have previously enjoyed Browning’s columns? Or is it because Never Push… was the only downright good fun book I reviewed?

Whatever it was, I’d like to thank everyone that’s supported the site by buying the reviewed books (and others!) through sjhoward.co.uk/shop. From the point of view of funding the site, the series has been a remarkable success, with profits from sales of the featured books actually outstripping the sjhoward.co.uk advertising revenue for the summer.

So thanks for your support over the summer – I hope you enjoyed the series, and I hope you’ll stick around and continue to read sjhoward.co.uk into the autumn and beyond.

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Summer Books: My Trade by Andrew Marr

My Trade

My Trade

As we reach the final review of this series of ten, it seemed appropriate that I should return to something at least mildly connected with politics, given that I claim this to be a political blog. Hence, I’ve chosen the thoroughly enjoyable My Trade, by then BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr. 

My Trade certainly delivers on its promise to provide ”A Short History of British Journalism”, but rather than delivering a dry journalistic history, Marr injects copious amounts of humour and panache. He provides many personal anecdotes – some longer and more developed than others, but all entertaining – and passes judgement on developments in the media world, rather than merely reporting their occurence. It’s certainly a very personal history for Marr, and that helps to involve the reader much more than the normal style of books written by journalists, which tend to read something like extended newspaper features.

Anybody remotely interested in British journalism would be well advised to read a copy of this book – which certainly is no chore – as it provides much background on how newspapers are put together, and how this has changed over the years. It even provides some history on the rivalries between newspapers, looking at (as an example) how The Mirror’s sales declined at the hands of The Sun, and how Marr’s own Indy set out to be different from everyone else, but ended up being much the same.

This is not intended to be – and nor is it – a detailed history of the development of the British media. Instead, it’s an enjoyable romp through the subject, stopping off at points of interest – particularly recent ones, and many of which you’d have thought he may have liked to avoid. He goes into some detail about Hutton and the problems of modern journalism, making convincing arguments for his point of view – which is, in part, critical of the BBC which pays him. It’s very clear from his writing that he’s experienced as a journalist, not just because he lists his many and varied jobs, but also because of the detailed insight he is able to deliver, and the apparent wisdom of some of his comments.

Certainly, this is a very easy-going enjoyable read, from a political editor who comes across as an affable kind of chap, and a book which I must highly recommend.

» My Trade by Andrew Marr is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in June 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: Get Dead by Jamie Oliver

Get Dead

Get Dead

The penultimate book in this series of reviews pointedly isn’t a polemic by the most irritating of celebrity chefs, but is rather a wonderfully light but deep book combining the words of writer Jamie Oliver and the wonderful photography of Cristian Barnett, breaking taboos surrounding death.

This is also the only book in this series which has severely limited availability since the publisher, The Friday Project, went into liquidation earlier this year. TPF was a great publisher that took risks on new authors and new ways of doing things, and so if you’ve read any books published by TFP, then you’ll instantly understand that this is no ordinary book about death.

Get Dead deals with the subject from new and unusual angles, in this case through interviews with people with a ‘vested interest’ in death, and presents these alongside quirky facts about the dying process. Did you know, for example, that five times more people commit suicide in the UK than die in Road Traffic Accidents?

It’s amusing without ever becoming frothy, dark without ever becoming macabre, occasionally spiritual without being religious, but perhaps most of all enlightening without being educational. Think of it as a documentary version of Six Feet Under, and you’re not far off.

I read Get Dead over a couple of days as I got utterly addicted, but its an equally good book to flick through now and again, as it will always come up with something interesting and enlightening. It’s certainly a book I’d be happy to recommend, if you can manage to find a copy.

The Friday Project is presently being reborn under the new ownership of publishing behemoth HarperCollins (the first release under their new ownership is the excellent The State of Me, a debut novel by Nasim Marie Jafry about ME), yet whether Get Dead will get a reprint at some point remains to be seen. At the time of writing, there are just over a dozen copies available via sjhoward.co.uk/shop.


This book was originally reviewed here on sjhoward.co.uk in December 2006, but the above review is a new original for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: Living with Teenagers

Living with Teenagers

Living with Teenagers

Week eight of Summer Books brings the second and (I promise) final collection of Guardian columns, and the only book by the most prolific author of them all – the much maligned Anonymous. This week’s selection is Living with Teenagers.

When the Guardian relaunched in its Berliner format, a number of new sections were added to the Saturday edition. One of these was the slightly ill-conceived Family section, and therein lay the Living with Teenagers column, a weekly anonymous diatribe on the difficulty and horrors of family life in bourgeois England. Specifically, predictably, bohemian London.

This book, as the collected edition of these columns, is possibly the least self-aware volume I’ve ever read. The writing is less self-aware than mine, and I take some beating in those stakes. And yet, that’s not a criticism; In fact, it’s what makes the whole thing work.

This is the story of a thoroughly modern parent try, and hopelessly failing, to deal with her three teenagers’ behavioural abberations of varying scale. She suspects her kids are on drugs, she’s shocked when they’re unhappy at the prospect of spending two weeks in an isolated cottage, and terrified by bad academic grades. In essence, she views everything her children do with her own frame of reference, which is not only far removed from theirs, but sometimes appears to reside in an utterly different universe to the rest of us.

Not only that, she views everything they get up to as a direct result of something she’s done at some point in their upbringing: A kind of social post hoc ergo propter hoc, with no more sense here than in a court of law.

Yet the anonymous mother seems genuinely to struggle throughout to be fair and accurate in her reportage, despite being so wildly removed from that goal. And whilst lacking self-awareness in her writing, she is incredibly self-critical, and perceives that she has many flaws as a parent.

Living  with Teenagers warms the heart, in that the imperfect children and the imperfect parents rub along, and genuinely care for and love one another. Yet it’s also wonderfully, unintentionally, darkly comic, and more engaging than I ever expected.

Unfortunately, the wonderful denouement to the series was published in The Guardian long after the book was released: The friends of one of the teenagers found out about the column, and it came to an abrupt end – with Jack given the right of reply.

If you prefer, you can read all of the Living with Teenagers columns online, but nothing’s quite the same as settling down with something akin to a diary, and becoming fully imersed in the world of the anonymous author and her family – you’ll want to intervene in the slow motion car crashes within, you’ll be frustrated at the mother’s inability to keep firm on even a single issue, and you’ll laugh out loud again and again, but I’m certain that you’ll feel a renewed sense of the good of humanity.

» Living with Teenagers is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review has been written exclusively for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: Airframe by Michael Crichton

Airframe by Michael Crichton

Airframe by Michael Crichton

After quite a journey together, we’ve arrived at week seven of the Summer Books series. I hope, dear reader, that you’ll think us close enough by now to share some guilty secrets.

If not, then who can blame you? After all, the largely monological way in which I’m bestowing my opinions upon you can hardly breed intimacy, but I’m afraid the boil of this review needs to be lanced at some point, and now seems as good a time as any.

You see, the thing is, I’ve never read a Michael Crichton. Jurassic Park, Prey, The Terminal Man, Next Sphere, these are all just names to me, or in the case of the first, a blockbuster movie. I’ve never read the original text of any of them, and nor I am sure I have the desire to do so.

However, with Michael Crichton described as one of the greatest and most thoroughly researched writers of our time, I thought I should step into the breach, and given my love for trashy TV programmes like Air Crash Investigation, I thought that Airframe would be the perfect vehicle for my exploration of these new lands.

And so I casually segue into another bombshell of a guilty secret: I hated it. I found it one of the single most dull books I have ever battled through.

Airframe is advertised as a thriller. Try as I might, there were only about three short passage during which I could – at even the most generous push of my imaginations – be described as even vaguely interested, let alone thrilled; and those passages played only the most minor of roles in the plot as a whole.

The story, such as it was, really described nothing more than a particularly stressful week in the life of a dull woman who works for an aircraft company, combining well-rehearsed plot devices about a woman in a male-dominated work environment with well-rehearsed plot devices describing the conflicted life of a journalist.

Frankly, the this novel would be no less of a page turner if it were served encased in a jar of golden syrup.

All of which is not to say that the book is particularly bad, per sé: It’s just bland. Much like magnolia paint, it’s dull but inoffensive, nobody’s favourite, but disliked very few.

I am afraid I am one of the few. When I read, I like to be interested, challenged, even moved – Airframe does none of that. Yet if you like your books bland, you’ll probably get on very well with Airframe: Just don’t expect me to agree.

» Airframe by Michael Crichton is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in March 2005, and has been extensively re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: Returns Next Week

Due to unforeseen circumstances, there’s no book review this week: The Summer Books series will continue next Sunday.

This 1,364th post was filed under: Notes, Summer Books.

Summer Books: Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry

Moab is my Washpot

Moab is my Washpot

I’m surprised to find that we’re already into the second half of my Summer Books series, shocked to find that I’m writing about an autobiography, and amazed to be giving it a good review.

I should explain that I’m no fan of autobiographies, which are all too often shallow, self-important descriptions of dull lives by bad writers. Yet this week’s choice is Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot – not only an autobiography, but an autobiography restricting itself to the first twenty years of someone’s life – How interesting can that be?

Well, so it turns out, very interesting. The late Linda Smith would undoubtedly criticise me for saying so, but Stephen Fry is a masterful wordsmith: He smiths those words like a true master, and it makes for a great read.

This autobiography is a combination of painfully honest recounting of sometimes shocking childhood tales, insightful reflection, and tangential anecdotes and laced with Fry’s trademark humour.

The candour of the recollections is quite remarkable, and Fry’s defence of his childhood upbringing robust, whilst stopping short of becoming a polemic on the rights and wrongs of bringing up children.

There are times when it feels that the drive behind the book is catharsis rather than entertainment, almost as if listening in to a counselling session with Fry. This, combined with a style of writing which feels almost as if Fry is recounting tales to you personally, makes one feel that one really knows the real Fry, rather than the media personality.

This is certainly the greatest autobiography I have read to date. From the reminisce of Matteo, which is a wonderful tale of unrequited love from the basest to the highest level, to the tale of references to moles when revisiting his old school, which is humorous, exploratory, and somehow both flippant and deep, this book is absolutely great.

It comes very highly recommended, and if you only buy one of the six books I’ve reviewed thus far, this should undoubtedly be it. You won’t regret it.

» Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review has been written exclusively for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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