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

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Guardian Angel
Guardian Angel

1 of 4 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 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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 Michael Crichton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £7.99

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: £9.48

4 of 5 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 [...]

Bringing Nothing to the Party: True Confessions Of A New Media Whore
Bringing Nothing to the Party: True Confessions Of A New Media Whore
by Paul Carr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Good Read, 3 May 2014
Writing this review feels a little strange, almost like reviewing the work of a friend, despite the fact that I’ve never even met Paul Carr. Shortly after the turn of the century, his email newsletter, The Friday Thing, became the first I ever parted with cash to receive. The subscription was something like £10/year, and it was well worth it.

I remember when Carr branched out into publishing, and I bought some of their early publications, including the book of paramedic Tom Reynolds’s blog. I bought some of the Amateur Transplants stuff which they published, too. And then I sort of lost track of Paul’s career, until last year, when I discovered NSFWCorp – and promptly subscribed. It’s clear that he has an uncanny ability to make me part with my hard earned cash.

Bringing Nothing to the Party was published back in 2009, but I’ve only just discovered it. It tells the “inside story”, from Paul’s point of view, of The Friday Thing and its successors, as well as the dotcom bubble as a whole. It’s a very personal autobiographical book, also describing his love life in some excruciating detail.

I like Paul, so I’m probably predisposed to liking this book. And, indeed, I did. I think it’s really well written. By his own admission, at this stage in his life Carr was a bit of an unlikeable idiot, and yet he manages to pull of that brilliant trick of using well-judged self-depreciation and humour to make a thoroughly unlikeable character sympathetic. It’s genuinely funny, and made me laugh out loud at points. And it’s also genuinely insightful. It’s fascinating to read the sort of things that were going on in the tech startup community during these heady days.

This clearly isn’t a heavy-weight, profound, life-changing book, but it has no pretentions in that direction. It’s a short, fun and funny autobiographical tale, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review originally posted at [...]

Best Kept Secret (The Clifton Chronicles)
Best Kept Secret (The Clifton Chronicles)
by Jeffrey Archer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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: £1.74

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

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book!, 3 May 2014
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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
Price: £9.48

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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 [...]

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