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Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
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Live From Downing Street
Live From Downing Street
by Nick Robinson
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engaging retelling of a familiar story, 3 Jan. 2013
Nick Robinson's book is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the history of the relationship between politicians and the media, from the very beginnings of Parliament to the present day. It's part historical and part autobiographical, with the latter part in particular including lots of amusing anecdotes about Robinson's time as a political journalist. Some of these genuinely made me laugh out loud. It also has a lengthy "last word", in which Robinson muses on the future of political journalism, and the opportunities and threats offered by introducing to the UK biased broadcasting in the mould of Fox News.

He has an easy writing style making this an easy relaxed read. He sometimes has a slightly peculiar reliance on turns of phrase which fail to accurately communicate what he means to say: for example, there's a passage where he introduces Gordon Brown's disastrous flirtations with YouTube by saying that politicians have always been keen to embrace technology to communicate their message - something which he's spent most of the first two-thirds of the book disproving.

He gives a very eloquent account of the effect of the plurality of media in the broadest sense meaning that people surround themselves with messages that support their world viewpoint, and the effect this in turn has on perceptions of bias at the BBC. This is something I've been banging on about on Twitter for ages, in a far less coherent manner, and it was interesting to see that the same thoughts have occurred to that organisation's Political Editor. He also gives an interesting discussion of the nature of bias and impartiality, which I very much enjoyed.

There isn't an awful lot of new stuff in this book. I think many people who follow politics in detail are probably aware of the history of the BBC and the historic developments in the relationship between journalists and the press. But Robinson presents all of this with such a clear narrative and in such a clear way that I still found myself very engaged with the content even when he was describing events I knew well.

The lengthy discussion of recent events and media figures - phone hacking being perhaps the most notable example - will probably make this book date quite quickly. Indeed, the mentions of Leveson "whose report has not been published at the time of writing" already make it feel a little behind the times, particularly since Leveson's report covers much of the same ground discussed by Robinson.

Either way, this is well worth a read, and comes highly recommended.


Stonemouth
Stonemouth
by Iain Banks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended, 27 Dec. 2012
This review is from: Stonemouth (Hardcover)
Stewart Gilmore returns to Stonemouth, the small Scottish town of his birth, for a funeral. He's previously been run out of town by a local gang following an incident revealed only late in the novel, and possibly not entirely deserving of the lengthy build-up and sense of forboding. This novel is essentially his coming-of-age story.

This is Banks at his best, so there's plenty of darkness, and dark humour in spades. The strength of this novel is the relative mundanity of the darkness: nobody explodes, nobody floats away with a bunch of balloons, and nobody's brain is eaten by maggots. Granted, there is a little defaecation on a golf-course, but there's nothing in this novel that pushes the boundaries of plausability too far. As with some of Banks's previous novels, the strength is in the evocation of gothic themes within contemporary life.

The story is engaging, and the characterisation is great, with that uniquely evocative description which is a hallmark of Banks's work. In fact, the characterisation here is so deep even amongst the minor characters that I could readily enjoy a return to Stonemouth at some point in the future, with a plot centered around some of those other characters.

Normally, Banks's prose pours from the page. I don't know of any other writer that pulls off the same trick. Sentences are so carefully constructed that they rarely need to be re-read. The dialogue is natural and flowing. There's simply no effort to reading his novels. However, in this book, I kept 'tripping over' the pop culture references littered through the book. I have no idea why Banks feels the need to discuss iPhones, MacBooks, Family Guy, Cee Lo Green and the like so often. They don't add to the characterisation, and don't sit comfortably with Banks's prose, and their inclusion feels like an odd decision which will serve only to make the book date very quickly. It's a relatively minor quibble, but it is a little irritating.

All things considered, I thought Stonemouth was great. Other reviewers have criticised it for retreading old ground. That's probably fair, but I can't honestly say that it affected my enjoyment. This is the first novel I've read in quite some time that I've felt a little disappointed to have finished. As such, it comes highly recommended.


David Mitchell: Back Story
David Mitchell: Back Story
Price: £1.49

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Warm, light and highly readable, 22 Nov. 2012
As with all celebrity autobiographies, if you're a fan of the celebrity, there's a high probability that you'll enjoy the book. If not, you're unlikely to read it anyway. That's a point that's made often, but that probably bears repeating.

The structure of this book is slightly novel, in that it follows Mitchell on a walk around London, with reminisces and comic riffs inspired by things he sees along the way. I think it's fair to say that little of the content is deeply insightful: it's mildly embarrassing to buy underwear; membership of Footlights provides a firm footing for launching one's career in comedy; and most ideas pitched to television companies don't get commissioned.

That said, I like David Mitchell, so I enjoyed the book. The content isn't groundbreaking, but it is at least communicated with warmth and a degree of endearing self-deprecation. And I found the last chapter, in which Mitchell discusses his relationship with Victoria Coren, genuinely heartwarming. Others have described it as overly syrupy, but I disagree - I thought it was lovely.

It's hard to know what else to say, really. Mitchell comes across as a thoroughly likeable guy, and this is a highly readable but equally forgettable walk through a life that has been lived without all that much trauma, distress or heartache. It's a light read that, as a fan of Mitchell, I find it hard not to recommend. But it's hardly life-changing stuff.


One Day
One Day
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but I wasn't moved, 6 Nov. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: One Day (Kindle Edition)
This is a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. It follows two people growing up through the late 80s and the 1990s, with plenty of zeitgeisty stuff muddled into the story to appeal to the large segment of the young to middle-aged book-reading population who also graduated from university and started their "adult" life around the same time. Each chapter covers St Swithin's day in a different year, presented largely chronologically except for the occasional (and largely predictable) dramatic aberration.

It's well written and absorbing, with some relatively detailed characterisation for the genre. But I was left a little bit disappointed. I know that most reviews cite a deep, or a least emotional, response to this story, but I'm afraid I was left unmoved. I don't think this is because I'm stony-hearted, because I find plenty of other literature moving. I just found myself getting a little fed up with it. The progress of the plot is so utterly, teeth-gnashingly predictable that the ending couldn't come soon enough, and the interminable circuitous storylines and ruminations holding it back became just a little bit dull.

I far prefer some of David Nicholls's other books - particularly Starter for Ten, which is a more contained and less self-aware story that has much more humour in it. I think Nicholls is a fine writer of these light easy-read books, and I very much enjoy his work.

I wonder if others' emotional connection to this book is due to it reflecting aspects of their own lives. There's a lot of talk in the reviews of it reminding people of their youth, and perhaps it's that that engenders and facilitates the emotional connection. Perhaps that's why I'm missing out.

Either way, this is definitely worth a read... just don't necessarily expect the depth of response to the material that others report.


The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
Price: £5.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive, funny, and deeply moving, 6 Nov. 2012
The Casual Vacancy is a proper state-of-the-nation epic, deconstructing the casual immorality of the middle-classes with genuine insight, razor-sharp wit, and an unshakable moral compass. Rowling's precise characterisations allow her to deliver a devastating socialist demolition of conservative small-town parochialism through simple storytelling dashed with black comedy. I don't think it's going too far to suggest that her approach is Dickensian, and there's no question that its successful.

This isn't a novel that's thick with plot: it's a ruminative characterisation novel. The plot, which is mainly driven by the younger characters, functions primarily to reveal more about the characters, especially the adults, through their reactions to events. In that sense, the structure is quite old-fashioned, written in the style that most books used to use before everything became short-chaptered plot-driven romps that make for simple scene-by-scene transitions to cinema. This has led to some criticism from those who expect something plot-driven from the Harry Potter author, but I found it both refreshing and brilliant. The authorship is something of a problem for this novel: I suspect it suffers poor reviews because people want Harry Potter 2, and this novel is simply not comparable. It is quite clearly aimed at a totally different audience.

A lot of reviewers have complained of difficulty keeping track of all of the characters in the novel. I can honestly say that I never found it a problem. Again, I wonder if that's due to the recent proliferation of filmic novels withs casts of four or five making people unused to tracking wider ensembles. Or perhaps I'm just sympathetic to the novel because I loved it.

All things considered, it's funny, it's moving, it's incisive, and it comes wholeheartedly recommended by me.


The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience
The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience
Price: £8.54

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting insights, but no good reason for anonymity, 24 Sept. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I'm not sure why this book's author wanted to remain anonymous. Perhaps he's a particularly shy individual. Perhaps he felt it would threaten his future career. Perhaps it was a marketing ploy. But it certainly can't have been because of any shocking revelations or accusations made in the book, because there simply aren't any. And, actually, the associated coyness around mentioning the sport in which he competes makes this book lack a little something. The anonymity is a shame.

That said, it does give a great insight into the life and psyche of an Olympian, much of it backed up by descriptions from named competitors. He describes sometimes a crippling doubt about sporting ability that apparently affects most Olympians; the challenge of a whole career resting on a performance lasting just minutes or seconds; the extraordinary commitment needed to reach the top in a given sport.

The Secret Olympian also gives a compelling description of how National Lottery funding has transformed professional sport in the UK, and peppers the early part of the book with the interesting descriptions of how Olympians found their sport.

There is, as one would expect, detailed descriptions of the seemingly absurd excesses of life as an Olympian: the masses of free kit, the gallons of free Powerade, the inside-story (also well-described elsewhere) of life inside the Olympic village. Though, clearly, this book can't give the inside-track on London 2012, as it was written well before that got underway.

Still, it's a worthwhile read.


Black Rabbit Summer
Black Rabbit Summer
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Not just for teenagers, 16 Sept. 2012
This book is a coming-of-age crime-thriller for teenagers. I'm not a teenager, and I'm not really a fan of thrillers. This book isn't for me. And yet, I thought it was awesome.

The plot centres around of group of friends in their mid-teens. As with any decent thriller, there's sex, booze, drugs and missing people. I've often said that moral ambiguity is the key to any good story, and you'll find that in abundance here.

This book might be marketed to teenagers, but the quality of the writing is very high, better than most thrillers I've read that are aimed at adults. It cleverly interweaves a genuinely thrilling mystery with neat social commentary and acutely observed humour centred around the teenager-parent relationship. The plot is of it's time - it's only four years old, and many of the references are already dated - but the themes are timeless: rich versus poor, stereotypes versus reality, childhood versus adulthood.

There's a brilliant thread of hallucinations and psychiatric disturbance that runs through this novel - and there are key plot points to explain it. I mention this only because it demonstrates that this book deals with complex concepts, and uses really quite advanced literary techniques to make its points. It might be for teenagers, but there's no sense here of writing down to them. And it doesn't pull punches.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Black Rabbit Summer is the extraordinary and memorable ending. Of all the novels I've read lately, this has the strongest ending. And, again, it's not an ending you might expect from a book aimed at teens.

I didn't particularly relish reading this, but it completely surpassed my expectations. It is a teen novel, but that just means it's easy to read. It's a narratively tight well-written gripping novel. I'd recommend it to anyone.


The Sins of the Father (Clifton Chronicles Book 2)
The Sins of the Father (Clifton Chronicles Book 2)
Price: £0.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Little plot, lots of dull filler, 29 Aug. 2012
This novel doesn't stand alone - you must read Only Time Will Tell (Clifton Chronicles 1) first - and has no more than a couple of chapters of plot relevant to the bigger saga. Or perhaps 1.9 chapters, given that the single thread defining this novel is left incomplete. As a result, this short book is stuffed with exceptionally dull filler.

I know that people are generally advised to "write about what you know", but surely no-one can have failed to have groaned when a Jeffrey Archer protagonist wrote a prison diary. Nor when the same protagonist starts armed forces training. Nor when his first book sells well in North America, allowing a lucrative deal to be sealed for its UK distribution. Nor when a character becomes an MP. Nor when the plot moves to the House of Lords. It's as though Archer has taken Private Eye's Jeremy Longbow as inspiration rather than ridicule.

The one advantage this volume has over its predecessor is that the repetitive structure, and the odd affliction of only the first chapter in each section being written in the first person, has been dropped. All other faults of the first volume remain: the ludicrous co-incidences, the politics bleeding through into the plot, the clichéd characters, and so on. Archer has promised "at least" five books in this series: at this rate, I can't imagine there will be many readers left by the fifth.


Roomba iRobot 500 Series Replenish Kit
Roomba iRobot 500 Series Replenish Kit

4.0 out of 5 stars Perfect, 21 Aug. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I received this without a problem, and the parts were simple to switch over. This kit renewed my Roomba to the extent that it worked like it did when it was brand new. Excellent!


Mastering Public Health: A postgraduate guide to examinations and revalidation: A Guide to Examinations and Revalidation ( MFPH )
Mastering Public Health: A postgraduate guide to examinations and revalidation: A Guide to Examinations and Revalidation ( MFPH )
by Geraint Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £41.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Best available single book for MFPH Part A, 21 Aug. 2012
Increasingly known as "the red book", this is a fairly comprehensive textbook for the MFPH Part A examination. The coverage is not perfect, and further reading is probably required in some areas, and there are a few glaring errors in this book, so it cannot be relied upon alone as a sole study-guide for the exam. I understand that a second edition is in production, which should hopefully tackle some of these problems, though I would still be very wary about relying on a single book - especially when it is a book used by most people and well-known to the examiners. It's important to emphasise that this is only a revision book, not a book that will tell you everything you need to know to pass the exam. It covers the important points, but I think that wider reading, knowledge and experience is required to do well at Part A.

All of that said, it is the best available single book for MFPH revision. If you use this alongside the curriculum, the Faculty's extensive bank of past questions, do some of the suggested further reading, and pick up bits and pieces from your own experience and education, then I don't think you can go too far wrong for revision purposes. I'd suggest keeping a copy of something like Statistics at Square One to hand, as the statistics section in particular contains a number of errors.


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