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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: 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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Summer Books: Never Push… by Guy Browning

Never Push When It Says Pull

Never Push When It Says Pull

The fifth book I’ve picked for my Summer Books series is perhaps the most summery of the bunch so far: Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Guy Browning.

Guy Browning is one of a very few newspaper columnists whose pieces genuinely make me laugh out loud, thanks to their absurdist satirical view of everyday life. Browning’s How to… column in the Guardian is one of the joys of my Saturday mornings, and this book is the second collection of these columns – a follow-up of sorts to the previously reviewed Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade.

The fact that I find each individual column laugh-out-loud funny means that the book is like a little bundle of hilarity, which, whilst good for me, is perhaps not such a good thing if you happen to live with me or sit next to me on public transport – unless, of course, you like the sound of apparently inexplicable hysterical laughter at random moments, and public book readings from some seemingly crazed idiot.

Unfortunately, like most things in life, the columns lose all humour when read aloud by someone who can’t stifle their manic giggling, and so it’s crucial that you, dear reader, become the first person you know to read this book. And, surely, this summer provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy some light humour.

Alternatively, it’s the perfect book for reading at random, in odd moments – after all, each column is only about 500 words, and each is an individual nugget of joy. Read it when you’re stressed at work and need some light relief, read it while relaxing on the beach, or read it on the toilet. All are decent options…

This is the first of my Summer Books which both I and everybody I’ve shared it with have really enjoyed – so I guess it’s probably a pretty safe summer bet.

» Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Guy Browning is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

An earlier version of this review was posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in October 2005. It has been extensively rewritten for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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Summer Books: On Royalty by Jeremy Paxman

Paxman on RoyaltyAnd so we arrive at the fourth review in my Summer Books series, this week examining Jeremy Paxman’s On Royalty.

This, Paxman’s latest commentary on the state and history of our nation, made for a very interesting read. He essentially presents a well-argued case for retaining the monarchy, whilst simultaneously recognising the manifold flaws, improbabilities, and injustices of the system. And, actually, I rather agree with his point of view – which, to some degree, makes for a less challenging and engaging read. I always think it’s always more interesting to read things which challenge your views, rather than things which reinforce them – though often, things which challenge your views end up reinforcing them anyway.

Paxman uses an awful lot of history of our monarchy, and several throughout the world, to flesh out his argument, and there is obvious potential for this to become very dry and dull – a potential that, fortunately, is never fulfilled. Paxman crafts a cogent, coherent, and entertaining argument, presented with the wry, dry humour for which he has become renowned.

The real beauty of the book is in Paxman’s narrative. It would be easy for a title such as these to lose its narrative thread, but by providing a clear argument running throughout the book, Paxman manages to engage the reader and maintain their engagement, even when explaining complex historical events – albeit in a very accessible style.

Paxman provides a robustly constructed, irreverent, and entertaining guide to an institution he argues is simultaneously (and paradoxically) anachronistic, yet relevant and essential to today’s society. To a person like me – relatively poorly informed about British history – Paxman provides a great introduction and makes a clear argument for retention of the monarchy, whilst also allowing his trademark personality to shine through.

I thoroughly enjoyed On Royalty, and would happily recommend it, especially as a ‘Summer Read’: Its humour gives it appropriate summer levity, whilst its recurring themes and central message make it thought-provoking and memorable.

» On Royalty by Jeremy Paxman is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in June 2007, 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: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Digital FortressIt’s the third week of this series of book reviews, and given that the two featured so far have featured uncontained vitriol towards the Satan of modern literature, Dan Brown, it seems only right that I should “get it out of my system” by doing a whole review of one of his “novels”. And so, without further ado, this week’s selecion has to be Digital Fortress.

As with all of Dan Brown’s “works”, Digital Fortress is by no means deep, considered, or erudite. It’s a shallow page-turner riddled with predictability.

The final thirty pages of Digital Fortress were, perhaps, the worst of Dan Brown’s “writing” I’ve had the misfortune to experience: The solution to the book’s central conundrum was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out: Despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of other obscure chemicals, they are unable to recall basic facts about the most famous of all elements.

In many ways, that’s the least of the plot holes: Why on earth would one build a glass-roofed dome to house a top secret military computer? Given the clear risk of dangerous chemicals sending this top secret computer into meltdown at any moment, why not have emergency exits in the highly secure glass dome? Why secure offices in a department housing the most accomplished cryptographers using security barriers protected with passwords, rather than, say, keys? Why, in a military organisation, is there so much unpunished insubordination? Why, in a piece based around NSA cryptography, does Mr Brown still feel the need to shoehorn in a scene set in a Catholic Church?

It’s all a little bit bizarre. There are so many gaping plot holes, I often wondered if I was about to plunge into one never to be seen again.

Mr Brown even throws some nonsensical romances into the mix, apparently attempting to build interest into which of his flimsy 2D characters would fall in love with which other. Without wishing to give away too much, the whole affair is verging on freakishly incestuous, yet that fact is utterly ignored.

Yet, my most major problem with this “story” is that it is genuinely gripping: It’s difficult to stop reading, because it is so utterly trashily terrible. It’s impossible to resist the lure of reading on to find out when characters are finally going to catch up with the bleedin’ obvious, and to enjoy skirting round the edges of another humorously improbable plot hole.

And so bizarrely, frustratingly, and somewhat disappointingly, I find it impossible not to recommend this “book” – at least on some level. Whilst it’s self-evidently one of the most terrible “works” of modern “literature” my eyes have ever wasted their time scanning, it was actually – secretly – quite entertaining.

Perhaps, in the end, provision of entertainment is the most important function of any novel. It’s just that I find it very hard to truly enjoy any book whose central storyline is rubbish, even if it is gripping. But maybe I’m elitist.

Hey-ho, I guess the best I can say is that you really need to read the thing to know whether or not you’ll like it – which, I guess, is true of any book, and leaves you no better informed than you were at the start of this review… Ain’t blogging great?

» Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in April 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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