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Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
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One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
by B. J. Novak
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Review: One More Thing: Stories and other stories by BJ Novak, 11 Jun 2014
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.


The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
Price: 5.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Everything Store by Brad Stone, 28 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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.


Red Notice: (Tom Buckingham Book 1)
Red Notice: (Tom Buckingham Book 1)
Price: 3.32

1.0 out of 5 stars Review: Red Notice by Andy McNab, 14 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
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.


Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Browning, Guy (2010) Paperback
Never Push When it Says Pull: Small Rules for Little Problems by Browning, Guy (2010) Paperback
by Guy Browning
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Never Push When it Says Pull by Guy Browning, 4 May 2014
Never Push When it Says Pull is something of an odd-man in my series of book reviews: it was published eight years ago, and is a collection of inconsequential but amusing newspaper columns. Yet I recently re-read it, and enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t resist including it some time.

Guy Browning’s series of five hundred How to… columns in the Saturday edition of the Guardian, which finished in 2009, remains one of my favourite columns of all time thanks its absurdist satirical view of everyday life. This book is the second collection of these columns – a follow-up of sorts to the previously released 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. I read this pretty much in one sitting, but it’s also 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, although reading it at work might be inadvisable if this book makes you as prone to outbursts of laughter as it does me.

If you want a taster of what you’ll get in this book, all Browning’s columns are available on the Guardian website. You can read up on how to use a library (aka brothels of the mind), how to wiggle (after all, pleasure is wiggle shaped), or – if this review isn’t doing it for you – read up on how to sulk. I should confess that I’m writing this review in a coffee shop, and have attracted some strange looks thanks to the outbursts of laughter that re-reading those columns has produced.

I cannot give this book anything other than five stars. It might be the case that the slightly strange humour of this book passes you by, but for me, this is pure comedy gold, and I can only highly recommend it.


On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry into Some Strangely Related Families
On Royalty: A Very Polite Inquiry into Some Strangely Related Families
by Jeremy Paxman
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Review: On Royalty by Jeremy Paxman, 4 May 2014
This third volume in Paxman’s series on British culture 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 joy 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: Its humour gives it easy-read levity, whilst its recurring themes and central message make it thought-provoking and memorable.


Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now
Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now
by John Humphrys
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.56

4.0 out of 5 stars Review: Beyond Words by John Humphrys, 4 May 2014
Beyond Words by John Humphrys was published in 2006 in the wake of the popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves. It’s very much in the same vein, essentially a extended rant about the use of language, though Humphrys’s is rather less instructive. The back cover has one of the most accurate blurbs I’ve read in a long time: “What are the words and expressions that irk, intrigue and provoke John Humphrys?”

Amusingly, the book is subtitled ‘How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now’. I hypothesise that this subtitle was not submitted by Mr Humphrys himself. 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. It is just a jolly romp through the modern day use of language.

This is entertaining, engaging, and it makes some interesting points about the development of language. It’s also genuinely funny. He has particularly memorable rants against familiar targets such as “Your M&S” (“The slogan implies that the product or service has been specially designed just for you personally. It hasn’t. The stuff is mass-produced for a mass market and the business – like almost every other large business around the world – is becoming less and less personal.”) and the Inland Revenue (“‘working with the largest customer base of any UK organisation’” is meaningless because the “customers” simply have no choice).

In contrast to Lynne Truss, who, apparently without irony, lamented the decline of formal English in an unnecessarily conversational grammar guide, 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. And, in fairness, without the perhaps useful instruction that Truss provides.

Humphrys is easy to read. Perhaps it’s the way his voice is imprinted on my brain from years of listening to Radio 4, 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, genuinely funny, and short enough not to labour its points. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the English language.


Digital Fortress. Limited Edition
Digital Fortress. Limited Edition
by Dan Brown
Edition: Paperback

1.0 out of 5 stars Review: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, 4 May 2014
‘Twas the week before Christmas… and doing a normal book review seemed a little anti-festive. So this week, I’m featuring a book by Dan Brown. He’s author who has been pretty universally panned by critics – including me – yet has sold millions of books that “promote spiritual discussion and debate” and act “as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith”… according to him, at least. Whether those aims also apply when he’s pretending to be a woman, I’m not sure… at least cross-gender pseudonyms have a decent literary heritage.

So let’s turn our attention to Digital Fortress, Dan Brown’s first solo novel published in 1998. It has the geek factor in abundance – it’s about cryptography, tries to make arguments about government surveillance, and features a massive supercomputer. Given Brown’s ouvre, you’ll not be terribly surprised if I tell you it’s a codebreaking supercomputer. Called TRANSLATR. Yep, Dan Brown was missing out the final vowel years before Flickr and Tubmblr came along. But I digress.

This is a story about a code that TRANSLATR can’t crack, and a blackmail attempt on the back of that. It’s also about a frustratingly dim cryptographer who doesn’t know the etymology of the word “sincere”. And, this being Dan Brown, there’s a “dramatic” scene in a Catholic church. There’s no earthly reason why the scene has to be in a church, but I guess Dan Brown likes writing about them. And it does divert him for a little while from making irritating errors like confusing “bits” and “bytes”.

But, by some distance, the most irritating part of Digital Fortress was the final thirty pages, where the solution to the whole central conundrum of the book was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out. And, despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of obscure chemicals like freon (in a series of scenes that couldn’t have screamed “Chekhov’s gun” any louder had the phrase actually been included), the central characters are suddenly unable to recall basic facts about basic elements. For a military organisation, there’s an awful lot of insubordination and fraternisation – relationships which end up looking a bit freakishly incestuous (a fact that the characters appear content to ignore).

Now, without wanting to give the game away, how many top secret military installations do you know of which conduct their business under a glass roof? How many buildings do you know of which feature no emergency exits? How did the designers of a military base for cryptographers not see that securing the doors with passwords might be a little… insecure?

Look, I don’t mind suspending my disbelief to some extent when reading a novel. But the degree of idiocy in this book made me half-expect the final word to be “and it was all just a dream!”

Brown has a line he uses in interviews about readers “getting on the train”, by which I think he’s referring to suspension of disbelief. I sort of see where he’s coming from. I get that he tries to write forceful, driving plots where the facts around the edges don’t really matter. But in this volume in particular, the problems with the plot are so big that, to use his metaphor, my train was derailed. Repeatedly.

In the end, I guess one knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book. It’s mind-numbing easy-reading tosh. Sometimes, that’s just what you’re after, just as sometimes, we all have a craving for a pot noodle. But good grief, you’re probably in as much trouble if you think this is good literature as if you think pot noodles are high gastronomy. But heck, it’s Christmas – and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one star.


Cloud Atlas by Mitchell, David 1st (first) Edition (2004)
Cloud Atlas by Mitchell, David 1st (first) Edition (2004)
by David Mitchell
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, 4 May 2014
Last week, I featured David Mitchell the comedian. In his book, he complains about being mistake for David Mitchell the author. So this week, I reasoned, why not feature Cloud Atlas? It’s another book that’s “now a major motion picture” – but I haven’t seen it, so that can’t upset me.

I really liked Cloud Atlas. It has a lovely central message, which is continually revisited and all brought together nicely at the end, and the quality and style of the language over hundreds of years seems spot-on. I’m not enough of a student of literature to know whether it is spot-on, but it was certainly good enough to convince me.

The book is essentially constructed of six smaller books, each interrupted at a crucial moment in their story – one even midsentence – and returned to again 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. This sort of Calvino-esque style could have been gimicky and poorly written, but it actually worked quite well. Mitchell clearly has the talent required to construct such a story of such lofty ambition, and to transcend both styles and genres. And the unusual format is handled so deftly that it almost faded into the background once I got engrossed in the plot.

That said, this isn’t Calvino. For example, whilst If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is also a collections of interrupted stories-within-stories, Cloud Atlas is far more accessible and populist, losing all the self-referential surreal genius that makes the former a masterpiece. Cloud Atlas isn’t Dan Brown-esque, you understand – it does maintain some literary merit, and has some worthy themes and messages. It’s accessible without being trashy.

All things considered, I’d highly recommend this book. Having said that, given the massive hit it’s already been, if you were going to read it you probably already have…! I was going to suggest revisiting it over Christmas, but I’m not sure it has the depth to sustain a second reading. Still, it’s pretty good.


See No Evil: The True Story of a Mafia Doctor's Double Life
See No Evil: The True Story of a Mafia Doctor's Double Life
by Ron Felber
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: See No Evil by Ron Felber, 4 May 2014
See No Evil is the story of how a “nerdy Jewish kid” grows into Elliot Litner, one of New York’s foremost cardiac surgeons in the 1970s and 1980s, who also happens to lead a second life as Il Dottore, a gambling and sex addict embroiled deeply in the world of organised crime, acting as the house physician to La Cosa Nostra.

This is a remarkable book, made all the more astounding by the fact that it is a true biography. Felber is an excellent writer, and infuses the text with just the right quantities of suspense, tension, disbelief, and occasional laugh-out-loud humour. The passage in which Litner performs a rectal examination on godfather Carlo Gambino is a stand-out moment which deftly combines all of the above!

I haven’t read much in the past about the New York mafia, and so was grateful for the background given in the book. Essentially, as well as being a biography of Litner, it is also an insider biography of La Cosa Nostra. My naivety on such subjects led to me being truly astounded by the breadth and depth of the mafia’s reach, and the role that Rudy Giuliani played in curbing organised crime in New York. I don’t think I would ever have been motivated to read about this subject if it hadn’t been for the curious medical angle of this biography, but will certainly read more widely on the topic in future.

I found it somewhat curious that the biographer chose to give the protagonist a pseudonym – Elliot Litner is not his real name – when the description of the various posts he has held and publications he has written would surely make his unmasking very straightforward indeed. That said, I didn’t bother to look it up (perhaps that’s the point).

I love a bit of moral ambiguity in a book, and – as one might expect – this delivers in spades, and with some medical ethical twists to boot. Indeed, the quite brilliant ending of the book arrives when Litner is faced with a clear dichotomous choice between his Hippocratic Oath and his loyalty to La Cosa Nostra. Perhaps I was swept along by the narrative, but I found the ending entirely unpredictable, and the building tension as the denouement approaches was some of the tightest, suspenseful writing I’ve read in a very long time. To say that I couldn’t put the book down is a cliché, but in the case of the final section of this book, it also happens to be true.

Clearly, the veracity of the events described is difficult to ascertain, and I’m certain that a large pinch of creative licence has been used with respect to the well-written dialogue. But for a story as fantastical as this, I can forgive a little bit of fictionalisation and dramatisation around the edges. Parts are so obvious cinematic that it seems unbelievable that no-one has written a movie based on this book.

I’d thoroughly recommend See No Evil. It isn’t the sort of book I’d typically choose to read, but that only made the somewhat unexpected enjoyment all the sweeter.


The Quarry by Banks, Iain (2013) Hardcover
The Quarry by Banks, Iain (2013) Hardcover
by Iain Banks
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Quarry by Iain Banks, 4 May 2014
The Quarry is Iain Banks’s final novel, finished off after he received the news that he was dying of a rare metastatic gall bladder cancer. That background, combined with the fact that I’ve loved many of Banks’s previous novels, makes it hard to write a fair review. But I will try.

The plot is straightforward: Guy, father to teenage Kit, is dying of cancer. Guy invites his old friends to stay with Kit and him, for something resembling a pre-death wake. The relationships between the friends are explored, and their shared past is raked over. The plot, however, is almost irrelevant. It is the detailed characterisation, perfect dialogue and evocative description which do all the work in this novel. The plot is almost beside the point.

The first Banks novel I read was the first he wrote: The Wasp Factory. The Quarry shares much with The Wasp Factory: both are Bildungsromans exploring the nature of the relationship between a strange father and a strange son. This is the sort of thing Banks excels at, as I mentioned in my review of Stonemouth earlier this year. The Quarry is much less extreme than The Wasp Factory: the father is a dying misanthropic bastard rather than a lifelong pathological sadist, and the son appears to have a mild form of autism rather than being a psychopathic murderer. Both The Wasp Factory and The Quarry explore themes of ritual and religion in some depth, as well as the fine line between life and death.

But this is not The Wasp Factory. It isn’t a Gothic powerhouse of a novel featuring graphic murder and torture at every turn. Like Stonemouth, it’s a quiet, subtle novel that explores the absurd horror of everyday life without resorting to comically dark metaphor. The mirror it holds to the absurd swords of Damocles of our pasts and the cruelty of death is plain, rather than comically warped. What this approach loses in shock-factor power, it gains in poignancy.

As always with Banks, the characterisation and dialogue are just outstanding, and the black humour is second-to-none. As always, his prose flows like nobody else’s. His talent as a writer was so obviously superlative that discussing it seems superfluous.

The Quarry is a brilliant novel, and one that I know I’ll turn back to and read again, and – like all of Banks’s work – probably find a whole other level to enjoy on a second reading. Banks was a literary genius. That this is his last novel is a tragedy. I will miss him.


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