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Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)

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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.

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking by Cain, Susan (2013)
Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking by Cain, Susan (2013)
by Susan Cain
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Review: Quiet by Susan Cain, 4 May 2014
Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking wasn’t a book I expected to like. It’s part self-help, part autobiography, part popular science, and part personality guide, and for a long while I resisted reading it on the basis that it would likely be unscientific nonsense that would make me angry. Yet the positive reviews kept coming, and I eventually felt that I had to read it to see what all the fuss was about.

I opened the book, still expecting to be angered, and started reading about how the world is made up of introverts and extroverts. I started to feel a little twitched: there are few things that irritate me more than self-help books that segment (often dichotomising) the population on their own spurious terms, and then offer “solutions” for existing as or dealing with a member of a particular segment. The commonest example is the entire industry that has grown up around the nonsense that is Myers-Briggs personality typing. Reading Quiet, though, I was quickly disarmed by Cain’s own discussion of how life isn’t that simple: all people have introvert and extrovert traits, and the population cannot be simply segmented. Behaviours, even, cannot be dichotomised. How refreshing!

And yet, Cain’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject sometimes spills over into long passages which appear to negate her statements about the lack of dichotomy. It also fairly quickly settles into a repeated cycle of discussing individuals who exhibit particular traits, assigning the important traits to introversion, and then discussing some of the (sometimes spurious) science about why introverts exhibit this trait. Occasionally – and especially towards the end – a good measure of “self-help” guidance is thrown in too.

Quiet is also very heavily focused on the USA, both in terms of the individuals discussed, and the cultural context in which the book is set. The central thesis of the book is that quiet people make large contributions to society, and are sometimes less recognised in popular culture because they fight less to be heard. I’m not sure that this is quite the surprising revelation that Cain sets it up to be.

I’m certain that many people find reading this book to be validating: as much is clear from the many millions of words written in praise of the book, with headlines like “Finally” and “Vindication at last”. I waver between thinking that this is a fantastic and helpful to many people, and thinking that there’s a danger of over-validation of preconceived ideas (“I’m brilliant, it’s just that the world doesn’t appreciate my brilliance because I’m an introvert”).

Now that I’ve spent four paragraphs picking fault, I feel that I should emphasise that this is a cut above most similar books, and I largely enjoyed the experience of reading it. There were parts where I metaphorically nodded my head in agreement, which is unusual for this type of book – I’m usually too incensed by the roughshod way in which authors ride over science and evidence. Cain is much more light-footed, and makes arguments that were, at the very least, superficially persuasive enough to sweep me along as a reader, even if they didn’t convince me that the society and the world needed to change.

Dirty Work
Dirty Work
Price: £3.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review: Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston, 4 May 2014
This review is from: Dirty Work (Kindle Edition)
Dirty Work describes the “Fitness to Practice” investigation into the work of Nancy, a registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology. The investigation is triggered by an operation which goes wrong, and Nancy’s inability to deal with the situation.
The author, Gabriel Weston, is an ENT surgeon, and so is possessed of some insight into how these things work. She also has a remarkable talent for describing aspects of medical life in ways that are both accurate and poetic.

A good doctor needs to know how to spin a yarn. That’s what they teach you at medical school, though no one ever says in in so many words. They prefer to give it a safe sort of name, the powers that be. The call it history-taking, this supposedly natural process in which a patient and doctor collaborate to weave a shape out of what’s gone wrong. They make its sound straightforward. And to the patient it probably feels that way. In reality, though, the competent clinical inquisitor is all the while asserting their own semantic frame, encouraging the patient to dwell on key symptoms, ignoring the white noise of emotion, veering away from anything that has no pathological meaning, doing what is necessary to help a diagnosis emerge. The doctor is rewriting the patient’s story while seeming only to bear witness to it.

If there’s part of that which sounds a little uncaring, perhaps a little too direct, fear not. An epiphany is coming…

I began to see that the words a patient uttered were not always what counted most; that there might be a more important meaning beyond what was being said, a contrary melody, if only I could train my ear to hear it.

This short novel has more characterisation than plot, which feels right for the story it is discussing. It also has a good deal of tension, uncertainty, and occasional confusion.

The work which most affects the protagonist, and the operation in which she makes her mistake, is the provision of surgical abortions. I think this is a shame. There is little in the content of the book that is specific to abortion-related work, and I think it would almost have been more interesting to explore the pressure on Nancy if she were the provider of any other kind of surgery. The subject of abortion – for better or worse – carries a lot of baggage. Weston doesn’t moralise, but the occasional graphic descriptions of the work Nancy carries out weigh, I think, unduly heavily on the mind of the reader. This becomes a novel about the psychological impact of abortion provision, and the myriad other pressures on Nancy are comparatively minimised.

This minimisation feels a bit unfortunate because it removes the focus from Weston’s talent for describing the universal fears and pressures weighing on all doctors, which are less frequently discussed and so possibly more interesting than the specifics of the pressures of an individual line of work:

How on earth will I manage if I am erased, removed, struck off the medical register? I will lose my entire frame of reference. And what would I have to replace it? What is a doctor, if not a doctor? That that title away and there may be very little left over.

I would have liked to have seen these ideas explored further, without the baggage of abortion. Weston’s descriptions and language speak to me.

I have seen that other reviewers have felt that the book fails to emotionally involve the reader with the protagonist, but I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I felt deeply involved with Nancy’s story, and worked through this book in no time.
However, given that I’ve praised the book for its true to life descriptions, I should also caveat by saying that this isn’t consistently true. There are strange lines here and there which ring utterly false. There is a scene in which Nancy – reputedly a registrar – described a consultant “decoding” very common terms like ERPC, D&C, and ToP for her. This is patent nonsense. The terms aren’t even explained to the reader, so there isn’t a clear explanation for why the line exists. These aberrations, while frustrating, are mercifully few.

As a whole, I very much enjoyed this novel. It wasn’t perfect, but there were parts that came remarkably close to perfect. There were some distinctly wrong notes, but they were few and far between. I found the novel made me reflect on my own life and medical practice, and made me reconsider issues I haven’t though about for some years. I found it moving, and somewhat thrilling. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

A Street Cat Named Bob
A Street Cat Named Bob
Price: £3.66

6 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Street Cat Named Bob, 3 May 2014
I should start this review by pointing out that I’m not a “cat person”. I have no particular affection for felines. I suspect that sets me at a disadvantage in terms of enjoying a book about a cat.

This is the story of a drug-addict busker living in sheltered accommodation (James) who takes in a stray cat (Bob) and nurses it back to health. I think a neat parallel is intended between Bob’s recovery and James’s battle with drug addiction – except it doesn’t quite hang properly, as Bob returns to full health within a couple of chapters, whereas James has not completed his drug addiction journey by the end of the book.

There were times at which I found James utterly unsympathetic. His occasionally inexplicably poor choices are related without the insight generated by hindsight that would have made me warm to the character. Because I found the character unsympathetic, I found it difficult to be drawn into the story. And this wasn’t helped by the repetitiveness of the story, and of the emotions described. Really, there are only so many times I can stomach reading about a cat wandering off and it’s owner being worried, or a cat being ill and its owner being worried, or a cat being scared and its owner being worried.

Few things irritate me as much as unthinking anthromorphology, and this is heaped on in spades in this book. We’re constantly told Bob’s thoughts and motivations, and it’s quite possible that over the course of the book he’s ascribed more human attributes than the human protagonist.

In recent book reviews, I’ve been complaining a lot about the standard of proof-reading and editing in recently published books. The standard in this volume is perhaps the poorest I’ve come across. There was a least one point where I found myself unable to follow the plot because a character’s name changed several times. That is pretty inexcusable. Wikipedia is better edited than that.

I accept wholeheartedly that I do not belong to the target audience for this book. It has received excellent reviews elsewhere, and many people find it heart-warming. Many report that it has opened their eyes to the reality of life on the streets, newly reinforced difficulty of overcoming drug addiction, and educated them on aspects of cat care. Those all seem like fairly worthy results, and I don’t intend to suggest through my own negative review that this book hasn’t earned its place on the shelf of the local bookseller. I applaud James’s tenacity and ingenuity in creatively profiting from the story of his relationship with his cat, for tackling his demons, and for building a better life for himself; I wish him all the best for the future.

All of that said, A Street Cat Named Bob did nothing for me. I was unmoved. I found the book tedious in the extreme. I felt that the material on homelessness and drug addiction has been covered far better elsewhere, and cat care tips couldn’t be further from my personal interests. While others clearly see literary merit in the volume to the extent that they have enjoyed very much enjoyed it, I’m afraid I do not. And as such, I cannot recommend it.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 9, 2014 7:59 PM BST

Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading
Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading
Price: £4.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Burning the Page, 3 May 2014
Jason Merkoski was on the team at Amazon which developed the Kindle. This book gives insights into how the process of developing the Kindle felt, and gives a personal account of Merkoski’s relationship with books and his ideas of where the medium is going.

These multiple strands make the book a bit of a mishmash of genres, which (no doubt) makes marketing it somewhat tricky. Despite this, I felt that it hung together quite nicely as a whole, though it is undeniable that it reads a little more like a flowing conversation than a planned essay.

Merkoski’s passion for books shines through this volume – not least because of the anecdotes he relates about the difficulties of coping with the number of books he owns. Given his love of books, I was surprised by his level of excitement about a future in which books have changed to the degree that they no longer contain the written word. In the medium-term, he imagines books which are intercut with short movies and games – not so far from what we seen on the iPad today. This fills me with dread, because it seems to me that this limits the reader’s imagination.

Yet, despite my reluctance, I can see that his prediction is probably accurate. Blockbuster books already often have filmed “trailers”. Games with written stories and intercut scenes (e.g. the Professor Layton series) are enormously popular. Convergence between formats can surely only become more common.

And his long-term predictions are still more frightening. With strong overtones of sci-fi, he suggests that authors’ imaginations will be “downloaded” into readers’ minds. Again, despite my personal reluctance, it’s hard to disagree that more efficient communication of ideas is likely to be the direction of travel.

The anecdotes about working on the Kindle project which are intercut into the story gave a little insight into the project, and were described with passion and enthusiasm yet were not overdone. They provided a valuable grounding to offset the flights of futurology, and I think the combination worked rather well.

I should point out that the book includes interactive “bookmarks”, which are conversation-starters linked to Jason’s website. Because I read this book pre-publication, I didn’t use these, so can’t comment on how well they really worked. The questions posed often provided food for thought, regardless of the fact that I didn’t discuss them with others online.

All-in-all, this was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read for a little while. It may be hard to categorise or capture in a nutshell, but it was nonetheless thought-provoking and engaging. I’d certainly recommend it.

Guardian Angel
Guardian Angel
Price: £6.37

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Guardian Angel, 3 May 2014
This review is from: Guardian Angel (Kindle Edition)
Guardian Angel is an autobiography penned by Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. In an interesting conceptual move away from the traditional autobiography, it is focussed on only two aspects of her life: her changing relationship with her parents, and her political shift from writing for the left-wing Guardian to the right-wing Daily Mail. As it happens, I think that’s a pretty good concept. The way in which relationships with parents change over the course of a lifetime is a deeply personal yet universal topic, while the political shift is perhaps the most interesting public aspect of Phillips’s life.

If this book was fiction, it would quickly become a literary classic. It would be a tragicomic character study worthy of Ricky Gervais, but with a subtlety in the detail revealing the flawed perspective of the narrator worthy of any classic author. It would represent a fusion of the tools and techniques of some of literature’s greatest works with a modern storyline and sensibility. I, for one, would be raving about it. And so, perhaps I should review it in those terms.

The narrator has a virtually messianic opinion of herself, which lends itself readily to the tragicomic form. The book opens with the narrator grandly describing herself in the third person:

The child lay tensely in the darkness, in a bed that was not her own. A crisis had placed her there, and impending and unimaginable horror which only one person could prevent.

The “unimaginable horror” turns out to be the death of the child’s aunt: no doubt a tragic event, but hardly “unimaginable”. This third person drama continues for some time, before the predictable, but no less comically dramatic, dénouement of the opening passage:

I was that child.

This is a very effective opening to a character study. In a few hundred words, it gives the measure of the narrator, especially her propensity for hyperbole and drama, and the third person narrative structure strikes a strong note of ego. The tendency towards dramatic hyperbole is reinforced early on. The narrator describes her childhood dislike for her paternal grandmother’s “grim slum” – which she also, somewhat inconsistently, describes as a “fine Georgian terrace”. The narrator describes the house’s oval windows, and – such was her dislike for the property –

to this day I cannot look at upright oval shapes … without my heart lurching, absurdly, into my mouth.

The monstrous ego of the character is infused throughout the text, though is perhaps most obviously reinforced by two passages: one, which is far too long to quote, in which she lists a number of perceived personal insults from other journalists (as distinct from multiple passages in which she lists criticisms of her work); and another, in which she describes the magnitude of her level of understanding of “Middle Britain”.

There are issues on which the Mail and I do not agree. I myself seemed to have an umbilical cord to Middle Britain.

Another exemplary passage is this:

Without wishing to sound boastful, I believe that on issue after issues where the evidence is now finally in, I have been proved right.

This latter passage is made more amusing by her citation of global warming as an issue “where the evidence is now finally in”; evidence which, apparently, confirms her view that man-made global warming is a oil-company perpetuated “scam which has hoodwinked millions and cost billions”. Hence, the narrator is comprehensively established as unreliable, egotistical and deeply flawed.

This characterisation groundwork is quite crucial, as the opinions described by the narrator as her own offer a crescendo of offence. Had the character not already been established as a tragicomic creation, the humour in the illogic of the offerings would be overshadowed by the level of offence they contain.

Given the concentration of the book on her own relationship with her parents, it is unsurprising that the narrator proselytises extensively about family structures. There is considerable depth about her own difficult relationship with her father, which she claims inflicted “lifelong harm”. Her father was present, but disengaged. From this, the narrator draws the illogical conclusion that divorce is harmful to children. I hardly need point out that divorce and remarriage in her case may well have equipped the narrator with the strong father-figure she claims to have lacked, where a refusal to divorce removes this possibility. In common with the opinions expressed in the rest of the book, an initial expression of dissatisfaction with the state of “modern Britain” builds to a climax of breathtaking offensiveness.

In this case, the narrator is both “perplexed” and “appalled” by the simple statement of fact that there are circumstances in which it is acceptable for a mother to leave her husband, and thus become a single parent,

and more, that it is her ‘right’ to choose such a lifestyle.

Indeed, the narrator goes on to later describe divorcees and children born out of wedlock as “deviants”, despite undermining even the technical definition of the word by quoting statistics showing that almost half of British marriages end in divorce. Yet, simultaneously, the narrator claims not to be “judging individuals”.

With similar illogic, the narrator accuses the BBC of racism for considering the needs of “Asian and African-Carribbean audiences”, and – with particular poignancy given the publisher of this book – that mainstream publishers will not publish her work because it is too factually correct.

Hopefully, I have now given you a flavour of the structure of the book, and perhaps some sense of the way in which the layers of tragedy, comedy and farce interplay in a cohesive and rather engaging way. Yet there are two other layers to this work which raise it above the level of its peers.

The first of these two additions is the peppering of one-liners which encapsulate all three elements of the main narrative. Most of these are difficult to quote in a review, as they are heavily dependent on some length of preceding material, yet I shall try to give a flavour. There is a long section in which the narrator describes the negative reaction to one of her earlier books, in which she proposed sweeping changes to the British system of education. She then extensively quotes criticism of this work. In response to other writers’ accusations that her proposals went against research evidence, she writes:

So all the teachers, educational psychologists, government inspectors … parents and pupils to whom I had spoken were not evidence, merely ‘anecdote’

To end a defensive rant against her critics with a statement of such profound bathos is, surely, comic genius.

The second exalting addition is the rich vein of unjust persecution running through the book. This juxtaposes the narrators abhorrent opinions with her own sense of persecution at the hands of others. There is one profoundly brilliant passage in which, in the context of her views on Israel, she claims

I could never relax when turning on the radio or TV, opening a newspaper or going to a dinner party, for fear of hearing some libellous accusation or other casual prejudice

The remarkable device of having this narrator complain about casual prejudice demonstrates the lack of insight possessed by the character in an exceptionally clever and highly amusing manner. This point is further emphasised by the inconsistency of opinion presented. Towards the end of her book, she claims

In my view, polarised thinking represents precisely the problem that no so bedevils politics in the UK and America. The left/right argument, which forecloses any balanced approach, simply wipes out any political space on which people can meet and discuss issues on the basis of reasoned debate rather than ideological name-calling.

It is hard to suppress a smile as the character is revealed as a brazen hypocrite, as she herself engages in something close to ideological name-calling:

The left is not on the side of truth, reason, and justice, but instead promotes ideology, malice, and oppression. Rather than fighting the abuse of power, it embodies it.

Of course, the problem with this interpretation of the book is that it is not fiction. This is a book written by one of Britain’s best-paid newspaper columnist, who credibly claims to have the ear of government. Her Gordian knot of inconsistent opinion, pseudo-mortality, and prejudice is what passes for sociopolitical commentary in one of the country’s best-selling and most influential newspapers.

There is some undeniable literary quality to this book, but only when judged beyond its own terms. Within its own terms – that is, as a non-fiction piece – it contains such odious opinions, repulsive arguments and factual distortions that I struggle to believe that it can represent the views of its well-educated author. It feels like it might be pandering of the worst kind, content written purely to falsely reinforce inaccurate prejudices.

As it seems only fair for my “star rating” to judge the book on its own terms, I’ve given it the minimum rating – one star – but hope that doesn’t detract from the qualities that this book does, albeit unintentionally, offer.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 16, 2014 10:14 AM BST

Confessions of a Male Nurse (The Confessions Series)
Confessions of a Male Nurse (The Confessions Series)
Price: £0.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Confessions of a Male Nurse, 3 May 2014
Confessions of a Male Nurse is a sequel of sorts to the successful Confessions of a GP, by Benjamin Daniels. It has a broadly similar epistolary structure, which lends itself well to a series of anecdotes on connected themes.

Confessions of a Male Nurse is a volume that may hold particular interest to those interested in comparisons between the NHS and other healthcare systems. The protagonist is trained in New Zealand, and spends much of the book practising there, but also spends some years in the NHS in London. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that the differences were pulled out very clearly in the narrative, which felt like a lost opportunity.

In both Confessions of a GP and this volume, the protagonists admit some ethically dodgy behaviour. In GP, these felt like genuine dilemmas, and made me appreciate the reasons behind the course of action taken – even when I didn’t agree with them. The confessions in Male Nurse, however, were of a wholly different type. The behaviour of the protagonist often struck me as entirely inappropriate, and the justifications for it were poor. For example, there are several anecdotes in which nursing colleagues are providing wholly substandard care, and causing bodily harm to patients. Our protagonist reasons that, as a bank nurse, he shouldn’t complain or he won’t get work in the institution again. And so, the appalling behaviour continues.

I would like to think that I would not do the same. I’ve never been a bank nurse, but I have been a junior doctor, and I have – particularly when patients have come to harm – reported incidents in which colleagues have made errors. I’ve reported incidents involving senior colleagues on at least two occasions. This isn’t done in a vindictive way. It isn’t done with the intention of assigning guilt. It is done to ensure that incidents in which patients are harmed are fully investigated, and prevented from re-occurring. It may be, for example, that the harm caused to patients in the anecdotes in Male Nurse are not caused by callous individuals, but by a system that is creating dangerous under-staffing, or perhaps by personal issues affecting an individual. Brushing the problem under the carpet and failing to take any action whatsoever perpetuates the problem.

To report such incidents is my duty. I’ve always been aware that doing so might make my life more difficult, and I’ve never done so without discussing it first with the people involved. It made me very uncomfortable to read of someone else protecting themselves before both their patients. But, on the other hand, I guess this is important. If this behaviour is common in hospitals, it is important that we understand it better to prevent it continuing. Perhaps this book shines a light on behaviour that we ought to better understand. Perhaps it offers elucidation of a problem that we should look into further. I’m not sure.

If we put that issue to one side, then the book is quite entertaining. There were moments of frustration where the author’s explanation of diseases and medical procedures were a little out of kilter with reality, but – by and large – the descriptions were pretty good. The narrative structure was a little uncertain, seemingly varying between an epistolary form relating individual anecdotes, and a more formal chronological description of events across chapters, and there were consequently times where I felt a little lost within the narrative superstructure, unsure whether we were in London or New Zealand. But this isn’t a bad book, and I don’t feel it deserves harsh criticism. I’m just not absolutely sure I’d recommend it.

by Micheal Crichton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.39

2.0 out of 5 stars Not Crichton's Best Work, 3 May 2014
This review is from: Airframe (Mass Market Paperback)
Before I read this, I’d never read a book by Michael Crichton. As he’s one of the bestselling authors of recent decades, that might come as a surprise. I thought it was time to correct that omission. As someone with an interest in aviation (I’m a fan of trashy TV programmes like Air Crash Investigation, and also the excellent Flaps podcast), I thought Airframe was the perfect option to fill the gap.

Airframe is advertised as “a fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled thriller from the master of high-concept storytelling”. I have some objections to this description: I don’t think it’s fast-paced, adrenaline fuelled, a thriller, or high-concept storytelling. I found it interminably dull.

This may be advertised as a thriller, but there were only about three short chase passages 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. And it is most certainly not worth sticking with 400 pages of this to reach the damp squib of an ending.

Many have criticised Airframe for containing far too much technical detail about the mechanistic of flight; actually, my pre-existing interest in the topic made those sections some of the more interesting bits. But it’s certainly true that pages of technical description does little to heighten the jeopardy of the plot, considering that this is marketed as a thriller.

All of which is not to say that the book is bad, per sé: It’s just exceptionally 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. I like books which have some sort of impact. This has none. If you like your books bland, you’ll probably get on very well with Airframe, but probably not with me. I struggled to finish it, and cannot recommend it.

Review originally posted at [...]

Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media
Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media
by Nick Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Great, Not Bad Either, 3 May 2014
I’ve been putting off writing this review for a little while now. It’s a difficult one for me. I only read Flat Earth News because so many people had recommended it, and most of them are people whose views I tend to agree with. But I’m afraid I didn’t really like it.

Flat Earth News is Nick Davies’s “exposé” of the practices of the media. Nick is, of course, a brilliant Guardian journalist, and is perhaps the journalist most responsible for the eventual uncovering of the widespread use of phone hacking by members of the press. Unfortunately, he approaches the task of “exposing journalism” with two central premises which I find bizarre.

Firstly, he appears to labour under the wrongful impression that members of the public imagine journalists to be crack investigators who stalk the streets with notebooks and pens, looking for exclusive stories to serve up to expectant readers. Clearly, as an adult who lives in the real world, I know that’s not what a journalist’s job is like. I know that journalists are expected to churn out multiple stories per day, and I know that most of what they write starts out as wire copy or press releases. It’s true to say that I didn’t fully realise the extent of the number of stories they’re expected to file, nor the extent of the reliance on agency copy, but I didn’t think the world of modern journalism was made up of Lois Lanes. This makes the tone he uses for much of the book seem enormously patronising. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt as patronised by any factual book I’ve ever voluntarily subjected myself to as I did by the first third of this book. It’s horrendous.

Secondly, he claims – and repeats ad nauseam – that the central job of any journalist is to tell the truth. Again, I’m afraid I cannot agree with this. There are many parts of any journalist’s job which are equally as important as telling the truth – engaging readers and selling papers being two of the more important ones. He seems to suggest that an ideal newspaper would simply be a list of facts of things that occurred during the day, with few adjectives and no opinions. That is clearly not sensible, as nobody in their right mind would part with good money for something so utterly dull.

Those are the two big, central problems with the book. They are the two which each and every time they crop up made me want to scream. There were times when I actually had to put this enormously repetitive book down and walk away. But, in a way, this is only the start of the list of problems.

When I read books with the intention of reviewing them, I often make notes along the way. I select key quotes, I list the bits I really like and the bits that made me angry. This book caused me to write more notes than any other I’ve ever reviewed for this site, and almost all were in the “bits that made me angry” category. I don’t intend to make all of those points here, but I will share a select few which raised questions in my mind that Davies failed to answer.

Davies has bizarre ideas on what is and isn’t news. He cites a story in which there was a rumour of Terry Leahy stepping down from his role at Tesco. In the face of these rumours, Tesco issued a denial. Davies then criticises news bulletins for continuing to run the story that a rumour was circulating but that it had been denied by Tesco. Does he honestly believe that this story is not newsworthy? Should flat denials always be taken at face value?

There’s a section of this book where Davies criticises the Daily Mail for not having a coherent economic policy. Seriously, I’m not making this up. He talks about the unexpressed and hence unexamined “moral values” which underpin reportage in newspapers, citing the Daily Mail’s treatment of asylum seekers as an example. I’m afraid it’s a little beyond this reviewer to understand how Davies can argue that the Daily Mail’s attitude towards asylum seekers has not been widely acknowledged, criticised and challenged. But, beyond this, he then goes on to suggest that the Daily Mail’s opposition to immigration coupled with its support of free trade adds up to a deeply flawed economic policy. Does Davies honestly believe that a newspaper like the Daily Mail should put forward coherent economic policies? Really? Of course the Daily Mail picks and chooses causes, and of course they do not add up to anything sensible. I struggle to believe that people – including its readers and editor – would argue that the Daily Mail offers a cohesive policy for government, however it presents itself. This feels a bit like criticising Bram Stoker for opening Dracula with the suggestion that all events within the novel are accurate reporting of a true event.

There’s an odd passage in which Davies criticises a newspaper – I forget which one – for reversing its stance on the Iraq war in the face of plummeting readership. Yet I wonder what he believes to be the alternative? If readers are deserting a paper due its opinions, does Davies suggest that it should continue to parrot the same line until it is forced, by lack of readership, to close?

Davies argues that the BBC’s aim to break news within five minutes of it reaching the newsroom is flawed because it doesn’t allow for checking. Does he honestly think that the BBC should only ever report confirmed stories? Does he believe that repeating clearly identified “unconfirmed reports”, as they so frequently do, harms the practice of journalism? Is it his honest belief that if they returned to the old days of checking every detail before publishing that their readers, viewers and listeners wouldn’t desert them in favour of faster rivals? Or does he believe that it doesn’t matter than nobody watches, provided that there is a news outlet of record?

And how does Davies suggest that journalism should be funded? He suggests several times in the book that the funding sources of some campaign groups mean that their view of the world is, by definition, skewed by the funders and should be ignored. So who does he suggest should fund the media? Who has he thought of as a potential provider of revenue to fund totally impartial journalism? He has no answer to this question, but suggests in his epilogue that money saved from moving to digital publication rather than dead tree publication should be reinvested in journalism. The suggestion, of course, completely misses the point that nobody has yet worked out how to make anywhere like the revenue from digital journalism as from print journalism, so there is no money to be reinvested.

Yet, for all of its many faults, I think this is an important book. Strip away the odd proselytising tone, and within this book there is an interesting, informative and detailed “state of the profession” report. There are still those who believe that the Daily Mail prints literal truth, those that don’t understand how news stories are gathered, and those that think that quotes in newspapers are verbatim transcripts of something that someone actually said. For those people, this book would doubtless be an eye-opener.

All of this leaves me with something of a dilemma. I hated this book. I found it patronising, and a real struggle to get through. It’s irritating tone made me frequently set it aside to read something that made me less angry. And yet, I recognise that it is important, and that many people like it. Indeed, many people like it very much. So how many stars should I give? Since there’s no easy answer, I’m going to plump for an arbitrary three.

Review originally posted at [...]

Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients
Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients
by Ben Goldacre
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, Solid Read, 3 May 2014
Perhaps the most important things to say at the start of a review of Bad Pharma is that I think that Goldacre argues convincingly for a sound central thesis. I accept the argument that there are serious flaws in the pharmaceutical industry’s approach to the research, discovery, production and marketing of drugs, and in the pharmaceutical industry’s relationship with doctors (and vice versa). Goldacre’s clear elucidation of many of the issues deserves praise, and makes this a worthy book.

I also, for the most part, enjoyed the conversational tone which Goldacre employs throughout. Normally, I’m irritated by excessive informality in tone, but Goldcare seems to strike a well-judged balance between formality and informality which worked well for me.

I hope, then, that it’s clear that I think this is an excellent book which is well worth reading, for both a general and specialist audience. This is an unambiguous recommendation. But there were a few niggles within that I felt I couldn’t ignore in the context of a review.

Firstly, there are occasions when Goldacre uses slightly sensationalist language without a clear explanation as to why. For example, he repeatedly refers to things – particularly emails – as “secret”, which he seems to use as a synonym for “unpublished”. To me, there is an important difference between something being unpublished, and something being secret. The latter refers to something that has been deliberately hidden and guarded, whereas the former is something that has merely not been conducted in the public sphere. Perhaps Goldcare has a justification for calling things “secret” which isn’t made explicit on every occasion, or perhaps he doesn’t. I don’t know, but I think that use of the term should be openly justified. There are other similar examples where I’d quibble over the use of particular words, too. But these are minor, minor points.

Goldacre argues that the drive for private profits lies behind much of the wrongdoing in the pharmaceutical industry. I think this is probably fair, but there were two points here that I don’t think he discussed in quite the detail I would have liked.

Firstly, the fact that drug companies pursue profits is not really the fault of the drug companies: it is the way we have chosen to structure our society. It could be argued that the pharmaceutical industry should be brought into the public sector, which could serve to remove the drive for profit. I think this is probably unworkable, and could’ve been demolished as a suggestion in a couple of paragraphs, but to me, omitting this discussion meant that there was a bit of a mismatch between saying that profit is the root of all evil within the industry, and a bunch of solutions that don’t address that central point.

Secondly, that motivation doesn’t (presumably) apply to the public sector. I think there are issues in public sector research that are not dissimilar to those seen in the pharmaceutical industry. In particular, there seems to be a frequent problem of publicly funded studies being underpowered. Granted, Goldacre talks a lot about public bodies like the MHRA, but I think that exploring the problems specifically with publicly funded research would have been an interesting exercise, and might have helped reduce criticism that Goldacre is unfairly singling out the pharmaceutical industry.

I also have slight concerns about Goldacre’s demand that every study should be published. In principle, I agree with this completely, and can see the argument for it. But I worry that there are probably oodles of really bad quality trials that are unpublished. So firstly, where do these get published? No journal is going to want to publish a terrible study. And secondly, given that Goldacre also describes a paucity of the skills required to critically appraise studies, is there not at least some risk that bad trials will not be recognised as such? I’m not sure how we navigate around this problem. I suspect Goldacre would argue that if all trials are brought out into the open, then the wheat will separate itself from the chaff, but I’m not entirely convinced.

Overall, I should emphasise again, this is a great read, and an important book. I think it is well worth reading, and I think the niggles I have with it are testament to the fact that the book was engaging and made me consider its arguments. It comes highly recommended.

Review originally posted at [...]

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