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Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
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Them: Adventures with Extremists: Picador Classic
Them: Adventures with Extremists: Picador Classic
Price: £4.49

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What's there is great, but more personal insight would be welcome, 12 July 2012
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Somehow, despite being a virtually card-carrying Guardianista, I'd never read one of Jon Ronson's books. This one seemed as good a starting point as any!

The book describes Ronson's adventures with several extremist groups and conspiracy theorists as he tries to find out more about the Bilderberg Group, who are thought by many conspiracy theorists to summarily control the world. It's long-form gonzo journalism, with the added edge that Ronson is Jewish, while a number of the groups he meets along the way are, to a greater or lesser extent, anti-semitic.

The narrative of the book is engaging, and some of the descriptions are enlightening. But it feels to me like there's a central problem in this book: Ronson seems quite conflicted over his feelings about the people he meets. Occasionally, he plays their beliefs for laughs, but, for the most part, it seems reasonably clear that he likes the individuals whilst finding their viewpoints and some of their actions abhorrent. This was and is always going to be a problem in an ethnography like this, but the fact that there's never any deep reflection on this in the text just gives the whole thing an air of awkwardness.

There's also a slight weirdness in that it seems to me that the point the book is trying to make is that relatively ordinary people can believe extraordinary things with certainty. That's a really interesting concept, but, again, there's no real self-reflection on this. Did this experience make Ronson question any of his own deeply-held beliefs? Has it made him view conspiracies and conspiracists differently? How has this whole experience changed him?

Ronson writes engagingly about the challenge of going through this investigation as a Jew. He reflects on denying his Jewish heritage, and how that makes him feel. Yet the other big questions seem to hang in the air, and I'm left wondering what the gonzo style adds if the majority of the deep personal reflection is cut out of it. I guess it provides a narrative. But it takes away objectivity, and makes us very reliant on the author as the sole source. I'm not sure those trades are worth it if the impact on the author - which is really something I consider to be at the heart of the style - is taken away.

I'm conscious that I've now written three paragraphs of criticism of a book that, on the whole, I enjoyed! I learned the truth about the Bilderberg Group (not that I'd heard of it before reading this book). There were several convincing descriptions of how conspiracy theorists interpret events in a way that supports their own world view (though, disappointingly, little discussion of the degree to which the rest of us do that too). The writing brought the characters to life, and the narrative drove the "plot" forward at a good pace.

All-in-all, while I was a bit disappointed by what wasn't in this book, the stuff that was there was great: I'll certainly read another of Ronson's books at some point in the future. As for the star-rating: I've dithered for some time now over whether to give this 3 or 4; it's somewhere in between. On balance, this isn't a book I'd return to again, and I think its flaws of omission pull it nearer to 3 than 4.


I Remember Nothing and other reflections
I Remember Nothing and other reflections
Price: £3.95

5.0 out of 5 stars A sublimely written, warm, endearing and delightful short book, 12 July 2012
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This is delightful.

It's a short book, full (mainly) of short anecdotes and reflections on events in Nora Ephron's life. Sometimes, these take the form of full-on autobiographical anecdotes, such as her story of how she got into journalism. Others are just straight-out opinions, such as her six stages of her relationship with email. All are joyously funny; some are also quite touching. The whole gives a real sense of Ephron as a person. And the quality of the writing throughout is just sublime.

Some other reviewers have complained about a degree of "bitchiness" in this book - and it's true to say that Ephron's opinions aren't universally positive about everything. But I read these opinions as honestly held, and found them endearing.

There are glorious descriptions of some of Ephron's reactions to the absurdity of celebrity, and the challenges of ageing: from how she reacts to finding a dish named after her in a restaurant, to coping with an inability to remember names.

There's a chapter in this book that deals with Ephron's "flops": her films and plays that have failed to become financial successes. She describes with honesty how this feels, how it can never quite be forgotten, and how the failures stayed with her far longer than the successes. I'm someone who generally advocates embracing and learning from failure, and this chapter really made me view this in a different way. In a creative context, "success" and "failure" are difficult to define: Ephron considers her finest play to be one that commercially flopped. How can one learn from failure when, in the liberal arts, failure is very subjective? I know that's probably obvious to most people, but this chapter really made a mark on me as it helped me realise this for the first time, so I thought that was worth mentioning in my review!

I know that some have been irritated by the brevity of this book. It is very short. Yet I find it difficult to criticise something just because it's brief: this is brief but excellent, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.


Only Time Will Tell (The Clifton Chronicles series Book 1)
Only Time Will Tell (The Clifton Chronicles series Book 1)
Price: £0.59

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A story-telling masterclass, 9 July 2012
Before I started Only Time Will Tell, I hadn't read an Archer novel since I left school, a little over a decade ago.

While reading this tale of a young Harry Clifton growing up, from pre-school boy to seaman, I was reminded of the phenomenal power of Archer's storytelling. Judging his work as a piece of plot-based writing, it isn't great: there are moments of spectacular unlikelihood (the wedding being one that stands out); there are literary cliches of characters littered through the text, from a slightly-eccentric brave old war veteran, to a caddish owner of a sleazy nightclub; and there's a sense that Archer's politics bleeds through the whole book, from the plot line to his turn of phrase. Even the narrative structure is a little hackneyed, with parts of the plot narrated from different characters perspectives (with some repetition, just so the important clues to future events aren't missed).

Despite all of that, this is gripping stuff - a real page-turner of a book. Archer has that rare gift of making the next step in the plot absolutely predictable, setting up a sort of loose dramatic irony, in which the reader can sense what's coming next long before the characters can. There's a sense, as with most of Archer's novels, that each development in the plot is a well-worn device being redeployed in a new setting. This continuous fulfilment of expectations isn't dull, though: like a great piece of music, the certainty of knowing what the next note must be adds to the enjoyment... though just an occasional confounding of expectation might heighten it a little.

There's no author I've discovered that has the story-telling ability of Jeffrey Archer. This is a book that knows it isn't a literary great, and has no pretensions to being one. This is a masterclass in "spinning a yarn" - and it's a very enjoyable read.


Inflight Science: A Guide to the World from Your Airplane Window
Inflight Science: A Guide to the World from Your Airplane Window

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A reasonable inflight distraction - but nothing better than that, 7 July 2012
Inflight Science gives a brief tour of some major science concepts set loosely around the fact that you're supposed to read it on a plane. There are miniature "experiments" to carry out whilst airborne (e.g. throwing a ball of paper in the air and noting that it doesn't fly to the back of the plane).

There's nothing especially wrong with this concept. It's nature means that the explanations are brief, and the science discussed doesn't go much above school-level. Some of the links to being inflight are tenuous at best: syphons are explained because toilets on planes don't use them, for example.

My main complaints about this book are that it's a touch simple, and a touch bland. There isn't all that much about the science of flight, which is disappointing.

All-in-all, it's a so-so book that whizzes through a few probably familiar scientific concepts. It might get you through a short flight, but you won't remember much of it once you land, and there are much better things you could be reading.


Starter for Ten
Starter for Ten
Price: £5.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A very enjoyable, funny, lightweight read, 5 July 2012
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This review is from: Starter for Ten (Kindle Edition)
I really, really liked this book.

Others have had problems with the characterisation in this book - I can only protest that I didn't. I found all of the characters, especially the protagonist, intriguing and mostly likeable. Of course they have undergraduate pretensions, but these are used to highly comic effect, and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions.

The tale was heartwarming and engaging, with very true-to-life dialogue throughout. It is, of course, a wholly lightweight novel, but it doesn't try to be anything else. I would really recommend it.


The Lifeboat
The Lifeboat
Price: £3.95

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great premise, poor execution, 5 July 2012
This review is from: The Lifeboat (Kindle Edition)
I was really attracted to the idea of this book: 39 passengers on a lifeboat struggling for survival, making tough choices, and operating within a tricky ethical and moral framework.

But, for me, the book didn't live up to its promise. The characters were poorly developed - I simply didn't care about them. The single first-person narrative structure lessened the reader's ability to interpret the situation from multiple points of view - and the narrator is a dull, reasonably submissive, self-centred bore. There are too many flashbacks to the time prior to the sinking of the ship, and too much of the story is set after the final passengers have been rescued. The dilemmas were framed in the predominantly Christian ethical framework of the early 20th century, which was very limiting. And, predictably, there was a church figure amongst the passengers on the lifeboat.

This is a short book, but it was a struggle to plough through. It had enjoyable moments and passages, but the narrative structure of the story and the period in which it was set both conspired to constrict the moral and ethical superstructure to such an extent that it ceased to be interesting.

In summary, the premise is great, but the execution is poor.


Synergi Contact Lens Solution Travel Pack 2x60 ml
Synergi Contact Lens Solution Travel Pack 2x60 ml
Offered by MyEyes Opticians Ltd
Price: £8.20

5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for travelling, 5 July 2012
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This contains two 60ml containers of synergi along with a lens case all in a transparent pouch. Perfect and ready-packed for taking on flights.


A Tiny Bit Marvellous
A Tiny Bit Marvellous
Price: £3.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not nearly as bad as it should be, 5 July 2012
This book is a terrible match for me. It's squarely and unashamedly aimed at middle aged women, it's full of stereotyped characters and irritating text-speak, has a plot that's largely predictable from the blurb alone, and a "twist" that's both obvious and pointless.

And yet... I found it really quite endearing. It's a novel of the "mental chewing gum" variety - no thought required - but it's a pretty good example of that kind of book. It has genuine humour and genuine warmth. While the characters were stereotypical, dull, and at times a little irritating, I did begin to care about where their stories would lead: particularly Oscar, whose part steals the show.

Others have documented the style: it's a sort of modern take on the epistolary form, with different characters narrating each chapter in the first-person. And whilst others have become irritated by the writing styles, and particularly that used for Dora, I think it fits together quite well.

Overall, it was a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed it despite myself. I'd definitely consider reading Dawn French's next novel.


The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium series Book 2)
The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium series Book 2)
Price: £3.67

4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, but not quite as brilliant as the first in the series, 5 July 2012
I loved the first book in the series despite it taking a long time to get going. This one was great in the end, but took even longer to get off the ground. Once it took flight, I was totally hooked, but I felt like giving up when it was still stubbornly stuck to the ground about 1/3 of the way through.

I also got really quite annoyed with the frequency the words "for a long time" appear in the Reg Keeland translation. I know that sounds desperately picky, but it really does begin to grate after a while. This phrase is repeated over and over and over. I don't know if it's a problem of the translation or the manuscript: does Sweedish perhaps have a verb modifier indicating that something is done for a long time, which only becomes irritating when it's translated into four separate English words?

The number of loose ends at the end of this part of the series was a little irritating, too. The ending doesn't feel like an ending: it feels like a pause in the narrative. Doubtless, this means I'll go on and read the third in the series, but I prefer each episode in a series to be fairly complete.

The tone of this review seems far more critical than I actually want to be. This book is great - I'd have given it 4.5 stars rather than 4 if I could. It's just that when the first in the series was so much closer to perfection, the small irritating niggles that detract from that level of enjoyment stand out all the more.

I note that this book has a higher average rating than the first - but given that people who hated the first presumably won't inflict the second on themselves, the rating for this book is probably slightly artificially inflated compared with that for the first

So, overall, Played with Fire was great, and very nearly brilliant - I hope the third in the series is even better.


Cheats, Choices & Dumbing Down - a book about exams for pushy parents, streetwise students and tireless teachers
Cheats, Choices & Dumbing Down - a book about exams for pushy parents, streetwise students and tireless teachers
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars A spirited defence of the UK examination system - plus genuinely funny anecdotes, 5 July 2012
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This was quite good, though rather short: it read more like an extended briefing paper than a short book.

There was nothing that struck me as especially ground-breaking in here, but as someone who sat their A-Levels within the last decade, perhaps that's unsurprising. I think it would be revealing to those who are less well versed in England's examination system.

Jerry gives a spirited defence of the exam system, and explains why grade inflation doesn't indicate declining standards: in fact, he makes the point that we should really expected greater grade inflation than we actually have, which perhaps hides the fact that standards in schools are not improving at the rate one might expect from the level of investment. He bemoans schools' lack of action over poorly performing teachers, and their lack of engagement with the detailed feedback data that is provided. This was a little eye-opening: I hadn't realised that teachers had access to such detailed breakdown on their pupils' performance, so as to enable them to target specific areas of their teaching practice for improvement.

There were a couple of decently amusing anecdotes, like the time he was tasked with estimating how much each individual pupil's performance had been affected by the escape of a pet frog during an exam sitting, and these did add a little levity to the book.

I suspect that student and parents of students actively sitting GCSEs or A-Levels, or making choices about what to study, would have a much more active interest in this book than I. But, having said that, as a general reader I found it really quite interesting, and given it's brevity, most people will probably find it a worthwhile read.


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