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Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
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Best Kept Secret (The Clifton Chronicles)
Best Kept Secret (The Clifton Chronicles)
by Jeffrey Archer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.00

2.0 out of 5 stars An Okay Read, 3 May 2014
Best Kept Secret is the third book in Jeffrey Archer’s series of indeterminate length, The Clifton Chronicles. I reviewed the first volume, Only Time Will Tell, in September last year and gave it a broadly positive four-star review. In October, I gave the second book, The Sins of the Father, a broadly negative two-star review. Between then and now, Archer has hinted that his quintology might just become a septology or even an octology.

This is a bit surprising, because it feels to me like he’s lost interest. He’s now all but abandoned the idea of multiple intersecting plots told from multiple points of view, and is using a pretty straight narrative. He’s abandoned the exploration of different social settings, contrasting the working class Cliftons with the wealthy Barringtons, and keeps the plot firmly rooted in wealth throughout. He’s abandoned many of the most interesting characters, paying only the briefest visit to the protagonist’s mother, for example. He’s abandoned detailed characterisation, relying on new stereotypical new characters about as deep as the paper on which they’re printed. And he seems to have lost all enthusiasm for driving the plot forward.

This volume picks up precisely where the last left off, and hence starts by resolving the inane cliffhanger about a House of Lords vote which, as discussed at length elsewhere, could never have occurred in the first place. The resolution isn’t immediate. It’s strung out for a quite ludicrous amount of time. And after that, we’re launched back into a tale of increasingly unlikeable people being portrayed as saints, and fighting off attacks from people portrayed as two-dimensional villains, against backgrounds with which Archer is personally very familiar – politics and the law, in the main. The villains’ cause is, as ever, aided by utterly moronic decisions by the saints. But, after things hang in the balance for a while, the resolution favours the saints. Mix in some filler passages with plot of no consequence, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.

In my last review of this series, I suggested that books in a series should be either: self-contained, with interesting broader arcs between different types volumes; or part of an epic tale, with smaller arcs satisfying the conditions of the publishing format. This volume, even more than the last, fails to fill either of those conditions. There’s barely any semblance left of an arc reaching back to the first volume, and there are no satisfying arcs within this volume alone. Once again, the amount of plot in this volume that actually contributes to moving the story of the series forward is no more than could be summarised in a couple of paragraphs.

Each of my previous reviews of this series has singled out a ludicrous incident within the plot to demonstrate my dissatisfaction. This time, I’m spoilt for choice. I’ll have to plump for the court case in which a will is challenged. According to Archer, the case is on a knife-edge, with the judge unable to decide whether to place more weight on the opinion of a doctor who never met the writer of the will but contests that ill people can never make wills, or a doctor who actually examined the patient. That Archer spins this out for so long, and comes up with an suitably insane resolution in the form of a crossword, just about out-crazies the brazen way in which he adds a bizarre cameo appearance by Princess Margaret… in Argentina. I’m not even joking.

And yet, even that isn’t the craziest thing about this increasingly infuriating series. No, the most insane thing is that, despite it all, I know I’m going to buy the next volume this time next year. And, in the end, that probably says more about this series than any review I can write. And yet, I still can’t bring myself to recommend it.

The infuriating cliffhanger at the end of this volume, which is considerably less well introduced and for which the resolution is many times clearer than in the previous volumes, only adds to my suspicion that the series would be improved by the story skipping a decade or so. I think that would give some hope of reinvigorating the plot, and maybe Archer’s enthusiasm for it. I’ll live in hope.

Review originally posted at [...]


The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight (Kindle Single)
The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight (Kindle Single)
Price: 0.92

4.0 out of 5 stars A Good, Solid Read!, 3 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I think, like me, many people will have noticed an increase in the price of e-books in recent years. A subset of those people will be, like me, vaguely aware of an antitrust case around the selling of ebooks, involving Amazon selling below cost and Apple trying to disrupt the market. There was news last year that a court had declared that ebook purchasers were due a partial refund, and I felt some excitement at the prospect of a fat Amazon gift voucher (that hasn’t yet materialised). That was about my level of understanding before I downloaded The Battle of $9.99. It was a story that I felt I should know more about, and so I picked up the book to learn.

In this short book, Albanese outlines the revelations from the antitrust court case against Apple. It’s a factual account that seemed fairly balanced in its assessment, and contained some genuinely surprising revelations along the way. For example, publishers whose books were previously sold below cost-price by Amazon now net a lower revenue per title despite increased consumer prices. Indeed, publishers were willing to accept that deal on the basis that the perceived value of books would not be eroded further, on the basis that it protects their profits in the long-term.

It’s only a brief book, so this can only be a brief review, but it was nonetheless interesting. It was well-pitched, introducing economic and legal terms as necessary without either patronising or befuddling me as a reader with experience in neither. I would have liked a little more discussion about why this story had so little traction with the public at large, particularly compared to similar financial scandals in which consumers felt “ripped off”. I’d also be interested to read a similar account of iTunes disruption of the music market, but I guess without a antitrust suit, similar revelations are unlikely to meet public gaze.

Back in the autumn, I reviewed Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski, which examined in much more detail the way in which technology has changed the reading experience. The Battle of $9.99 makes an interesting business-focussed supplement to that book. It’s well worth a read.

Review originally published on [...]


My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism
My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism
by Andrew Marr
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book!, 3 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is a thoroughly enjoyable personal history of journalism, written by the then BBC Political Editor, and former editor of the Independent, Andrew Marr.

My Trade certainly delivers on its promise to provide ”A Short History of British Journalism”, but rather than delivering a dry journalistic history, Marr injects copious amounts of humour and panache. He provides many personal anecdotes – some longer and more developed than others, but all entertaining – and passes judgement on developments in the media world, rather than merely reporting their occurence. The personal touch makes the copy much more engaging, and prevents it descending into a super-extended newspaper feature, like so many other books by journalists.

Anybody interested in British journalism would be well advised to read a copy of this book. It provides much background on how newspapers are put together, and how this has changed over the years. It even provides some history on the rivalries between newspapers, looking at (as an example) how The Mirror’s sales declined at the hands of The Sun, and how Marr’s own Independent set out to be different from everyone else, but ended up being much the same.

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

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

This review originally posted on [...]


Living with Teenagers: One Hell of a Bumpy Ride: It's One Hell of a Bumpy Ride
Living with Teenagers: One Hell of a Bumpy Ride: It's One Hell of a Bumpy Ride
by Julie Myerson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Good Read!, 3 May 2014
Back in 2005, 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 (but still-running) Family section, and therein lay the anonymous Living with Teenagers column, a weekly diatribe on the difficulty and horrors of family life in bourgeois England. Specifically, predictably, amongst the London middle-classes.

This book – a collection of these columns – is possibly the least self-aware volume I’ve ever read. The writing is even 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 life-course view that descends into kind of social post hoc ergo propter hoc, with no more validity 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 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.

This review originally posted on [...]


The Tiger That Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers
The Tiger That Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers
by Andrew Dilnot
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A great read!, 3 May 2014
I first read this book in 2008, not all that long after it was released, pretty much in one go on a long haul flight. I recently came across it again, remembered the pleasure I derived from it the first time round, and so gave it a re-read.

The Tiger That Isn’t provides a competent grounding in the very basics of statistical theory – risk, sampling, averages, etc – but does so in a way that is both relevant to daily life and, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Blastland and Dilnot pick examples from many different spheres of life, but with a particular lean towards politics and the media, and explain the basic statistical errors underlying fallacious claims. They largely succeed in doing this in a lighthearted way, and attempt to equip readers with tools which might help them avoid similar mistakes in future.

One suggestion that I remembered from my first reading of this book is that any Government spending announcement is more easily interpreted if one divides the headline figure by 3bn, which gives an approximation of the spend per member of the population per week.

Of course, this book does not discuss statistical methods in great detail, and nor does it deal with some of the more complex statistical concepts. It does, however, give a good grounding in everyday statistics to those with a passing interest – I wish more journalists (and politicians) would give themselves a solid foundation of statistical understanding, and this is as good a place to start as any.

I very much enjoyed my re-read of this volume, and would happily recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the topic.

This review was originally published at[...]


Chocolate Wars: From Cadbury to Kraft: 200 years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalry
Chocolate Wars: From Cadbury to Kraft: 200 years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalry
by Deborah Cadbury
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.89

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Leaves Something to be Desired, 3 May 2014
Chocolate Wars tells the history of chocolate manufacturer Cadbury, from founding to controversial sale to Kraft. Interwoven into the story are histories of other confectionery manufacturers whose names have become synonymous with sweets: Fry, Rowntree, Lindt, Hershey, Suchard, Terry and many others besides. Of course, the author is herself a member of the Cadbury family, lending a personal tone to the narrative. Of course, as with any story of this type, there’s a good dose of social history in the mix as well.

This should be a book I enjoyed. I like a bit of social history, and I like a good business story. I enjoy biographies, and I enjoy chocolate. And this book has won high praise from almost everyone who has reviewed it. Yet I’m afraid that I struggled to get through this book. Others have called it ‘pacey’ and ‘thriller-like’, but I found it a little like wading through treacle in two respects: it was hard to get through, and far too sweet.

An example of the former from early in the book, there is seemingly endless discussion of the qualities of “Iceland Moss”, a profoundly unsuccessful early Cadbury product. It felt like there was an awful lot of description of the product, and of its lack of success, but also – and this seems to be a problem throughout – discussion of the intentions and feeling of the Cadbury brothers when developing the product. The evidence cited for drawing these conclusions about motivations is often poor, and feels like it has been imposed, rather than simply reported, by the author. But perhaps this is unfair; perhaps the feelings and motivations were well-researched and accurately reported. But that simply isn’t how Chocolate Wars felt to me: it felt wearingly revisionist.

As an example of the latter, Chocolate Wars seems to expect the reader to respect the Cadburys for abandoning their principles in favour of profit early on, attempting to reintroduce them as they returned to profit, and then gradually eroding them again. I’m afraid I found all of this rather tiresome. I understand that the family faced a moral dilemma, choosing between values and success, but their continual inability to choose a side of the argument and pursue it is frustrating. There are parts of the narrative where it seems that the Cadbury family are virtually abusing their workers, and yet it seems that the reader is expected to sympathise with the owners, not the workers, whose discomfort is almost brushed over.

I don’t mean to imply from this description that Cadbury Wars induced strongly negative feeling about the Cadbury family. The book didn’t move me to strong feelings about anything. I am describing my frustrations with the text in an attempt to explain why I found it so profoundly dull – but in doing so, I think I may have inadvertently highlighted the more interesting debates.

The only way in which this book really affected me was that I bought some Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles, which I haven’t bought for years, after reading an extended description of them in the book. And I enjoyed them.

I find it hard to fully justify why I enjoyed this book so little, particularly when others have felt so positively towards it. Perhaps it is reflective of my mood as I read, or perhaps I hold some unidentified negative association with Cadbury. I certainly can’t recommend Chocolate Wars, but my single note of disapproval shouldn’t put you off: there’s a chorus of celebration of the brilliance of Chocolate Wars, so perhaps it’s worth reading anyway.

Review originally published on [...]


The Undercover Economist
The Undercover Economist
by Tim Harford
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, 3 May 2014
It takes a special kind of effort to be so behind the times that I’m reviewing The Undercover Economist more than three years after it was published, despite having it on my “must read” list for most of that time. As a fan of Tim Harford’s contributions to the Financial Times and his presentation of More or Less, I had great expectations for this book – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Undercover Economist seeks to explain the economic theories underpinning everyday life, from buying a coffee to shopping in a supermarket. I was passingly familiar with most of the theories being discussed, as I would imagine that most people would be, but Harford does a good job of fleshing out the details, equipping the reader with economic vocabulary, and showing how the theories work in everyday situations.

Harford is clearly an excellent writer, and the book zips along at a fair lick for the most part. There are, however, some parts that drag a little. Occasionally, Harford goes to some lengths to explain the same theories repeatedly in different situations in a way that becomes a little repetitive and unnecessary in parts. I sometimes felt like the speed of the repeated explanations was a little slow, as though I was some way ahead of the book. This was a bit frustrating. But it’s not a major issue. I guess what I’m saying is that a well-abridged version of the book would be no bad thing.

There are also bits of the book where I feel like Harford strays a little too far into relating a particular point of view, rather than setting out the wider picture as I would expect from a book like this. I am actually interested in Harford’s opinions on globalisation, for example, but don’t think that this is necessarily the place to communicate his point of view (almost) exclusively. I felt that a little more balance would have been welcome in this introductory book.

But these are niggles. Economics is often portrayed as dry and theoretical, and The Undercover Economist shows it to be anything but. It sheds light on the economic decisions we all make everyday, and the way that we are economically manipulated by corporations and governments – for better or worse. It is absorbing and enjoyable – not words that necessarily spring to mind for books about this particular subject matter.

So whilst there were some rough edges, I enjoyed The Undercover Economist. And perhaps the best I can say is that the sequel is on my “must read” list… and I think I’ll get to it some time before 2017!

This review was originally posted on my blog, at [...]


Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live
Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live
Price: 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis, 30 April 2014
In Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis counterbalances arguments about the sinister effects of erosion of privacy in the modern world. He argues that openness and sharing, on balance, improve the world. He coins the word 'publicness' to describe open sharing, and argues convincingly that 'publicness' is not the polar opposite of 'privacy'.

This is a book which stimulates thought. I particularly appreciated Jeff's elucidation of the argument that regulation should focus on the use of information that has been shared, rather than the sharing of information itself. I had never considered the concept in this way before, despite it being a common one. I am a doctor: people tell me all sorts of things in confidence because they have a clear understanding that to do so is the best way to allow me to understand their condition, and diagnose and treat them. Occasionally, much of what a patient discloses – which is often deeply private – turns out to be irrelevant. But the code of ethics, not to mention the law, around these interactions means that they can share without fear.

While the patient freely discloses the information, the way in which the information is used remains within their power. They are free to allow me to share it with colleagues if they believe that this might help them (referring them on), or equally free to restrict me from doing so. Even if something deeply embarrassing turns out to be irrelevant, the patient is left no worse off for having disclosed it – and the possibility of benefit was probably worth the disclosure.

This is a single example of the effect Jeff's book has on many of the concepts around privacy and 'publicness'. He helps the reader to assume a different viewpoint on issues. The viewpoint is often one grounded in experiences that the reader already has, or can conceive of, but which they have perhaps not understood from the viewpoint described. This is a powerful technique.

Public Parts also discusses the trickier aspects of online life. It discusses cases where people share things that they perhaps should not have, and where this lack of privacy has caused harm. But he makes a convincing point that we all need to become more 'media competent', and that making the debate about 'publicness' more mainstream will serve to educate and inform, as well as helping to craft social norms in a more considered way.

The style of writing in the book is certainly fast-paced, and I know that others have been critical of this. Few things irritate me more than incomplete, superficial arguments, and so I was a little reluctant to read this book on the basis of those reviews commenting on the fast-paced nature, which I thought would be indicative of superficiality. On the contrary, I found the book well-paced. It discusses issues concisely, not ad infinitum, which I found refreshing. It leaves the reader to do some of the work around thinking through the issues surrounding the arguments. The author does not lead the reader step-by-step through every possible permutation and combination of situations and ideas, as other authors are wont to do.

I particularly enjoyed the discussions around the historical aspects of privacy and 'publicness'. Consideration of these issues is, in my opinion, far too often framed as part of the discussion around modern technology. In reality, there is little that is new about the issues themselves, merely new situations in which they need to be applied. The discussion was illuminated by description of how these debates progressed around the new technologies of the past – from Gutenberg's printing press to Kodak's camera. Similarly, the interviews with leaders in social media (and similar fields) helped to give some real-world perspective on the theories being discussed.

It seems a shame to me that this book has received so little attention in the UK. I get the impression that it hasn't been particularly widely read, which is a shame given that its discussion is relevant to us all. It strikes me that it is a book that could catch on among the political classes, and become widely read via that route. At least, I hope it might.

This book packs an awful lot in to 250 or so pages. It's a genuinely enjoyable read that provides a large amount of food for thought. I highly recommend it.


Fakebook: A True Story. Based on Actual Lies
Fakebook: A True Story. Based on Actual Lies
by Dave Cicirelli
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.91

2.0 out of 5 stars REVIEW: FAKEBOOK BY DAVE CICIRELLI, 16 April 2014
Fakebook is an autobiographical story by Dave Cicirelli, a young man who decided to divorce his Facebook updates from reality. He falsely announced via a Facebook status update that he was quitting his job and going travelling. Most of his Facebook friends believed him, and a few close friends were co-opted into posting supportive comments and messages to increase the believability of his tale. The cover calls this an “elaborate hoax”, but I find that description difficult: there’s nothing particularly elaborate about writing fake Facebook status updates, or posting (badly) Photoshopped photographs.

From this exercise, Cicirelli attempts to make observations about the nature of friendship, life in the digital world, and so on. Unfortunately, his observations are such self-evident truths that they needn’t be demonstrated through this sort of means. Is it necessary to write a book about fooling your friends for six months to realise that friendships change, develop and sometimes disintegrate as lives take different courses?

For me, the whole book just fell flat. For some people, no doubt, the fictional adventures of “Fake Dave” are rip-roaringly hilarious. I’m sure that there’s a segment of the market somewhere that finds the idea of pretending to unravel toilet paper around a horse and cart on an Amish farm hilarious. I suspect Mr Cicirelli himself is in this market segment. I’m afraid I’m not, and so I found the ever-growing succession of such fictional idiocy a drag. I struggled to get through this book.

Other reviewers have expressed concerns about the ethics of the deception involved in this project. I’m not overly concerned by that. Nobody is under any obligation to share the truth on Facebook, and I suspect that most events reported on Facebook are fictionalised to some extent to show their author in a better light. This is nothing more than an extension of that idea.

About a third of the way into the book, there is a delicious moment, however. Mr Cicirelli goes on a date with a girl four years his junior. He explains his online exploits to her, and she gives him short shrift, essentially dismissing the project as deceptive and pointless. In response, Mr Cicirelli calls her immature. He might have done rather better to listen to her.


Prospect Magazine
Prospect Magazine
Price: 0.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much improved tablet edition, 9 April 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Prospect Magazine (App)
The content of Prospect magazine is excellent, as reflected in the high regard in which the magazine is held. The electronic version suffered from poor design, requiring one to zoom and pan around the page to read. However, for larger tablets like the Kindle HDX 8.9", Prospect now offers a much improved app custom designed for tablet reading which represents a significant improvement over the old version. The app is now as good as the content!


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