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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.

This 1,346th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , .

Summer Books: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasA bit of a change of pace for this week’s Summer Books selection – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, once featured as part of Richard and Judy‘s Book Club.

Confounding expectations for a book associated with a daytime chat show, Cloud Atlas soars to levels far above many of the books to be featured in this series of reviews. It has a wonderful central message, which is continually revisited and brought together nicely at the end, and the quality and style of the language over hundreds of years is spot-on.

The book is essentially constructed of six smaller books, each interrupted at a crucial moment in their story – one even midsentence – and returned to later. The story spans from the 1800s right through to a distant future, with each of the different small books being about a different time period, and written in the style of that time period. Because of this, the book could have been enormously gimicky, and been very poorly written, but it wasn’t. Mictchell clearly has the amazing talent required to construct such a story of such amazing ambition, and to transcend both styles and genres.

Whilst this is a marvellous book in itself, it reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in several respects, especially since both are essentially collections of stories-within-stories. However, whilst Traveller was an excellent novel which pushed the boundaries of the genre, Cloud Atlas is far more accessible, much more populist novel that one can just sit down, read, and enjoy, whilst still maintaining a number of worthy themes and messages. This is accessible literature, without descending to the level of Dan Brown.

Cloud Atlas is a very clever novel; in fact, it is so clever that you end up forgetting just how clever it is, and just run along with the story. There aren’t many writers about who can achieve this delicate balance of being smart whilst resisting the temptation to show off and overshadow their own story. That said, I found the first 100 pages or so quite hard going, as I tried to get used to the format of being cut-off mid-flow with no immediate explanation, and some of the stylistic leaps are large. Still, once you get into this book, you won’t come out until you’ve finished.

I highly recommend this book, and if you haven’t read it yet, this summer might be the perfect time to tackle it.

» 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.

This 1,344th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , , .

Summer Books: Beyond Words by John Humphrys

Beyond WordsI once said that on this site, book reviews are much like buses: You wait six months for one, and then several come along at once. Never has this been more true, as I kick off the promised Summer Books series of reviews, which is being published both here on sjhoward.co.uk and over on Trinity Mirror’s Gazette Live.

Less like buses, my quite terrible book reviews often seem to meander around the point, only occasionally reaching any kind of destination, and are certainly not without a few uncomfortable bumps and scrapes along the way. Yet, without further ado, let us begin…

Today, it’s the turn of John Humphrys’ Beyond Words. This is subtitled ‘How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now’. I propose that this subtitle was not submitted by Mr Humphrys himself, thanks to two clues: Firstly, I Don’t Think He’d Approve Of Capitalisation Of The First Letter Of Every Word. In fact, he rails against it in the book. Secondly, his narrative does not address ‘how language reveals the way we live now’. Not really. A much better summary is given by the blurb: “What are the words and expressions that irk, intrigue and provoke John Humphrys?”.

At this point, I should declare an interest. John Humphrys has, over the past four years or so, had the Herculean task of waking me most mornings. His voice, as presenter of Today, has permeated its way into my semi-conscious mind hundreds of times; and when someone’s voice has woken you that often, you feel you know them pretty well. Therefore, provided Mr Humphrys’ book was marginally better than The Da Vinci Code, I was bound to like it.

And like it I do. It’s something of a jolly romp through modern day language. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging, and it makes some interesting points about the development of language. I would say that it follows on perfectly from his previous book, Lost for Words, but I’ve not read it, so I’ve really no idea whether it does or not. But I can say that, as a result of reading this book, I’ll be looking out for that one.

In contrast to Lynne Truss, who, apparently without irony, lamented the decline of formal English in an unnecessarily conversational grammar guide (Eats, Shoots and Leaves), John Humphrys takes a more reflective and analytical approach to changes in language. His tone is equally conversational and laced with humour, but without the repetitive vitriolic condemnation of the reader typical of Truss.

Humphrys’ is a clear, easy book to read. Perhaps it’s the way his voice is imprinted on my brain, but his book reads almost as if one is in the room with him, and listening to a well-argued, highly entertaining monologue. And, unlike lesser authors, Humphrys is not trying to argue that misplaced apostrophes are the cause of social decline: He takes a reasoned approach to his arguments, which makes his conclusions seem all the more valid.

All-in-all, Beyond Words is a great read. It’s interesting and informative, while still be entertaining enough to hold your attention on a nine-hour long haul flight or a relaxing stretch on the beach. This summer, I’d highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the English language.

» Beyond Words by John Humphrys 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.

This 1,342nd post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , .

Summer Books

Summers tend to be quite dull in the political world, and I’m fed up of writing perennial posts about the silliness of the silly season. So this year I’m trying something new.

Starting tomorrow, and for the next ten weeks, I’ll be publishing a book review each Sunday evening both here on sjhoward.co.uk and over on Gazette Live – some of them will be re-versioned copies of old book reviews from this site, some of them will be brand new. None of them will be about the latest best-sellers.

Hopefully, that will keep sjhoward.co.uk looking relatively fresh and active over the summer, but primarily I hope it will be reasonably entertaining for you, dear readers – despite (or thanks to?) my complete lack of skill in writing reviews. I’ll still be here writing other things as usual from time to time, but hopefully my posts won’t reek of desperation in quite the same way as previous years’ summer posts.

I guess we’ll find out over the next ten weeks…

This 1,341st post was filed under: Summer Books, , .

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