Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

Having reviewed The Cuckoo Calling, I thought The Silkworm review should follow closely behind, much as how quickly I read both books. Having only taken the former away with me on holiday, I enjoyed it to such an extent that I purchased The Silkworm minutes after turning the final page. But whether I’m as quick to buy the third instalment by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling remains to be seen.

While the development of the world in which private investigator Cormoran Strike operates remains interesting – full of untrustworthy clients and both underworld and celebrity contacts – The Silkworm is significantly weaker in plot and ideas. Despite what you would assume to be Rowling’s great knowledge of the publishing industry, which provides the setting, the story seems forced in a way The Cuckoo Calling wasn’t.

With the reader having become used to having regular access to Strike’s thoughts throughout, as the novel nears its conclusion it’s noticeable how more distant we get from the main protagonist, a device that ensures the reader is left in the dark to increase suspense but comes across as disappointingly simplistic.

The continuing emergence of assistant Robin, and in particular her fascination with Strike and his life, remains rewarding, and their relationship becomes one of the prime reasons for persisting. But the plot splutters rather than fizzles, with few threads to hand it all together. Unfortunately it all combines to make The Silkworm unsatisfying.

So, rating time:

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) - 5/10

Next up: Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang (Racing Post Books)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

News that JK Rowling is planning a spree of the crime novels she is writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith hardly comes as a surprise given their popularity and the general critical praise (if not acclaim) they’ve received.

She’s currently writing the third in the series, and by happy coincidence I recently read the first two: The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the first of which I’ll deal with here.

I really enjoyed it. If there is a tone of surprise associated with that statement, I suppose there shouldn’t be, because whatever you think of Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for which she's best known, it’s undeniable that she knows her to create a world and characters with whom the reader can identify.

Cormoran Strike has the requisite odd name and compelling behaviour that such private investigators demand, and his relationship with his new assistant is a highlight, as is the enigmatic plotting that is in contrast to the generally gentle pace at which the tale unfolds. Although I consider myself a veteran of this genre, to the extent that I tend to gain more fun in working how the author will get to the big reveal rather than having to work out ‘whodunnit’, there were enough twists and turns to sow a satisfying amount of confusion.

All told, The Cuckoo Calling is an enjoyably easy and rewarding read. If that sounds lukewarm in its praise it’s because the novel is solid rather than spectacular, a criticism that has long been applied to Rowling’s writing. Many argue that the Harry Potter series didn’t do enough to stretch its readers, regardless of their age, but perhaps this view doesn’t credit enough qualities such as a sense of place and character that connect with readers in a way that weightier novels often struggle to.

So, rating time:

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) - 7/10

Next up: The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Danish Dynamite, by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons (Bloomsbury)

What do you get when you put together my favourite footballer when I was a young 'un, one of the most iconic players for the team I support and one of the most entertaining international sides of all time? The answer is Danish Dynamite and, thankfully, the authors haven't made a 'rigtig Jesper Olsen' of what's an incredible story.

The said Olsen was my favourite player growing up, an elegant, tricky winger who, prior to arriving at Manchester United, dazzled for Dutch side Ajax and at international level only to, spoiler alert, make a terrible mistake that cost Denmark so fatally at the 1986 World Cup.

While the story of that tournament (plus the preceding Euro '84 and subsequent Euro '92) will be relatively well known to most of that era's football lovers, who embraced the stylish football played by the Danes, the book's strength is the context in which the tale is told. How Denmark climbed from European qualification also-rans to global tournament favourites, from one of the last countries to cast aside amateurism to one that contributed players to the world's greatest and most successful clubs - and how they reacted to success and failure.

Most of all, though, it's the characters who best connect with the reader, from German-born manager Sepp Piontek to the extravagant talent of Preben Elkjaer to the unsung Jens Jorn Bertelson, and it's through their eyes that Denmark are transformed from a team who treated matches as an excuse for a good time to putting on such a good time that even Diego Maradona called them "amazing".

If I had one significant criticism it's that several passages of the book contain some awkward phrasing that reads as though it's a translation, which may well have been the case. But that's more than made up for by the detail gained through dozens of in-depth interviews, some great anecdotal behind-the-scenes irreverence and simple, effective storytelling that should enhance its appeal beyond mere football hipsters.

So, rating time:

Danish Dynamite, by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons (Bloomsbury) - 7/10

Next up: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear), by West End Producer (Nick Hern Books)

* Here's a preview of this review, where excitement got the better of me.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Why the Danes were dynamite

It’s been a while since I was so excited about the arrival of a book. But look. Just look at the cover of Danish Dynamite, by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons (Russell Enterprises).

One of the most ‘cult’ teams of any era, the Denmark international side of the 1980s was above all an exciting, attack-minded team that thrilled those watching, particularly if you, like me, were a football-mad youngster becoming increasingly seduced by the sport.

Within our family, my general memory, particularly about my childhood, is famed for its terribleness. But there are some things that remain vivid and one is when, perhaps when I was maybe 15/16, the football team I played for decided to get a new kit. And for the first time, after a period of sustained success, the players themselves were allowed to have some input.

My favourite player for a long time was Manchester United’s Jesper Olsen, a slight, quicksilver Danish winger who shined on the international stage but largely failed to deliver on English shores (for any Charlton fans reading, he was the Dennis Rommedahl of his day). But when he sparkled, his effortless balance allowing him to evade the flailing limbs trying in vain to impede his progress, it was a sight to behold (check out this, or this).

It wasn’t only me obsessed with the Danes. Even those with no interest in fashion (me again!) recognised that they wore arguably the greatest kits football had ever seen, the traditional colours of red and white taken to an entirely new level. So when we were given the choice, our group of 20-odd teenagers unhesitatingly selected a kit similar to the Danes’.

There were issues, of course. International and professional football teams largely have dedicated staff to wash their kit; the equivalent for boys’ teams was their mums, who were usually harassed, short of time and resenting it was their turn in the rota. As a result, it wasn’t long before the red and white of the tops washed into one another and produced a new colour altogether…

That none of us were concerned about the fetching shade of pink we ended up sporting tells its own story. Such was the esteem in which Danish Dynamite were held, we were so cool that that even opposing players would tell us during games that they were jealous of our strip.

Just look at that book cover again. I can’t wait…
  • This, published by the Guardian, is a terrific read about the Danish Dynamite team of the mid-1980s.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fevre Dream, by George RR Martin (Gollancz)

This is my first George RR Martin review but by no means the first of his novels that I've read – yes, I'm a big fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but we'll come back to that another time.

Fevre Dream came into my possession via the Wench, who was given it as a present by the Friend of the Wench in recognition of her love (more of an obsession) of the Twilight series. It came with a message along the lines that 'this is a real vampire book', and I can't really disagree.

Published a decade before A Game of Thrones, Fevre Dream provides an early showcase of Martin's ability to create a believable world in which fantastic events occur. There is a pervading sense of secrecy and suspicion, and that the tale takes place in and around the Mississippi River rather than a 'fantasy' universe creates a mood where everyone and everything should be distrusted.

In steamship captain Abner Marsh we have a lead character who ignores his better instincts for too long – and then, when he finally puts things together, comes to regret doing so as he joins a mission that grows ever more dangerous and encounters foes he is unable to overcome.

With its parallels between vampires and slavery – the vampires are trying to ‘free’ themselves from their addiction to blood thirst and hunting humans – Fevre Dream combines an exploration of the long passed way of steamboat life with a riveting reinterpretation of vampire lore, not to mention plenty of thrills and disturbing scenes. Indeed, many of the latter come close to horror, a genre of which I’m not a huge fan, so it’s testament to how enjoyable I found Fevre Dream that this was never an issue.

So, rating time:

Fevre Dream, by George RR Martin (Gollancz) - 7/10

Next up: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear), by West End Producer (Nick Hern Books)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating.
  • Sunday, 18 May 2014

    Bring Me Sunshine, by Charlie Connelly (Little, Brown)

    If for nothing else than the fact that you can guarantee a reference to Charlton Athletic in every book, Charlie Connelly is one of my favourite authors.

    In Bring Me Sunshine, a self-proclaimed "windswept, rain-soaked, sun-kissed, snow-capped guide to our weather", he excels himself on this front by bringing up the mighty Addicks on the very first page - but there is so much more to enjoy in this study of our relationship with our atmospheric surroundings and climate.

    Indeed, it's more of a study of the study of the weather conducted by so many famous and not so famous people throughout history, which has enabled us to have a modern-day understanding that enables us to predict and forecast the weather not only for our convenience but, as Connelly shows and it's all too easy to forget, to save lives.

    So we learn about Robert FitzRoy and Francis Beaufort and not only their respective efforts to devise a scale for winds and father the weather forecast, but also disagreements with Charles Darwin on evolution and battles with depression. But the pages of Bring Me Sunshine also contain tales of the crackpots and the charlatans, those convinced that a volley of cannon into the clouds would produce a downpour and those simply intent on convincing desperate communities to part with their money in search of rain for their crops.

    Fascinating though the topics are, it could make for (if you'll forgive the pun) a dry read. So we're grateful for the frequent wry asides and jokes that ensure a book that is as entertaining as it is engrossing.

    I would say that, of course. Full disclosure: I know Charlie quite well, and not only once helped edit and lay-out one of his earlier books (about Charlton, obviously) but I also acted as photographer for his brilliant Stamping Grounds, in which I also feature. Buy a copy here!

    That said, I like to think that my critical faculties aren't influenced by such things as friendship. Indeed, friends of mine within the local amateur dramatic society of which the Wench is a member still regale each other with the story of the time that, when asked what I thought of a particular performance, I tactlessly responded, entirely without humour, by saying it was "the worst thing I had ever seen. Ever.".

    I digress. You often hear authors encouraged to 'write in their own voice' and this is an attribute Connelly has in spades. When he finds something he finds interesting or inspiring, so does the reader, and this ensures you are prepared to follow the map that Connelly has laid out. And if you want to find out what the proper name for the smell of rain is, look no further.

    In many ways a companion piece to Connelly's hugely successful and thoroughly recommended Attention All Shipping (the ‘shipping forecast book’), Bring Me Sunshine is a book to offer you warmth in the winter and to make you shiver on the sunniest days. I liked it. What's more, there's even an extended second Charlton reference in a later chapter - he just can't help himself.

    So, rating time:

    Bring Me Sunshine, by Charlie Connelly (Little, Brown) - 8/10

    Next up: Fevre Dream, by George RR Martin (Gollancz)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • Sunday, 15 December 2013

    Stats not bad

    I've recently been spending some time looking closely at website stats at work, and it prompted me to have a quick delve into the stats of this here blog, whereupon I noticed that my musings had just passed 5,000 views.

    This isn't a particularly large figure, especially for a blog that dates back almost four years, but it's not too bad either given the lack of self-promotion and indeed the fact that for the majority of the first year, when content was being uploaded on a far more regular basis, I largely preferred to keep it out of the public eye.

    As I said at the outset, the entire challenge (including the blog) was primarily for myself, but that approach has changed slightly over the past year, which perhaps make the stats a bit more relevant. Indeed, they show that since the end of 2010, when the challenge (supposedly) finished, 80 per cent of the views have come in the past five months when I have been more actively promoting the blog.

    The biggest surprise come from looking at which reviews or posts received the highest views, though, with the review of Thank You for the Days, Mark Radcliffe's entertaining sort of autobiography, streets ahead of everything else. In fact, it's got almost five times as many views as the third highest post, an assessment of Sex, Bowls & Rock & Roll, a lacklustre comedic turn that I had such little enthusiasm for I barely had the energy to write the review. Maybe people came for the 'sex'?

    In second place is the tale of my exchange with an author, Tom Shone, who kindly got in touch following my review of In The Rooms, and completing the top five are two blogs uploaded as recently as October focusing on Malcolm Gladwell and a new book recommendation service, which were both quite topical - a rarity in these pages.

    It's also interesting to note that there are two obituaries, for Dick Francis and Tom Clancy, in the top 10, while looking at the entry and referring sites and location of audience reveals some further oddities. But that's for another blog.

    Friday, 29 November 2013

    Colonoscopy: Why Titular Colons are More Prevalent in Modern Literature and How it Might Affect Classic Novels

    Quick commiserations to Ed Hawkins, who this week just missed out on the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the Year (see earlier blog) - but the purpose of this posting is to pick up on something else I noticed in this year's longlist.

    It struck me that it's remarkable how modern books, and modern sports books in particular, rely on the use of a titular colon. In fact, five of the six books on the shortlist contain further explanation within their titles, and the same is true of 14 of the 17 on the longlist.

    From what would ultimately be crowned the winner, Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang by Jamie Reid, to Hawkins' own Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld (which contains a colon but omits any other form of punctuation!), it seems that using a colon has become the norm.

    Although it's by no means a new phenomenon - look no further than Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character - what has been labelled by some as 'colin-isation' or 'title-rrhea' would certainly seem to be a growing trend.

    Perhaps it's in part due to a greater acceptance of academic works, where the colon has long been more prevalent, or the greater competition for book sales and the resulting honed marketing efforts and use of terms that will more readily appear in search engines. Perhaps it's merely that the words that appear after the colon tend to be forgotten as time passes, as is the case with The Mayor of Casterbridge.

    Whatever, the increasing use of titular colons has prompted some pretty witty reworkings of classic novels using the new format. Among my favourites I've found are The Grapes of Wrath, which becomes California Dreamin': Traveling Cheap in the Middle of an Economic Downturn, and Romeo and Juliet, which becomes The Teen Sex and Suicide Epidemic: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself and Your Family. You can find more here if interested.

    Is it something to get worked up about? Probably not. But I wonder if, subconsciously at least, there is anything in the fact that the vast majority of the 100 books I selected for my challenge were lacking in colons?

    Monday, 4 November 2013

    A review of progress

    It's time to get back on the review horse, as no cowboy ever said in The Wild West.

    Considering the fundamental reason for this blog's existence, to chronicle my efforts to read as much as I can, I've always found the reviews a bit of a struggle. When I was initially attempting to read 100 books in a year, the reviews got in the way of the actual reading, and then, since the end of 2010, I have proceeded with my life in the knowledge that some reviews from way back remain outstanding.

    That said, in complete contrast to the sentiments above, finding unexpected literary links and writing the occasional non-review-based blog was among the most enjoyable aspects of the year, perhaps in part because it broke up those reviews. And thankfully, having re-read many of my reviews when I resumed this blog in August, I was pleased to discover that absence had indeed made the heart grow fonder and that I enjoyed going back to peruse my verdicts.

    So, coming soon will be a veritable feast of literary assessment, analysis and opinion, including, at last, the final five books I've neglected for almost three years.
    Those five books were: Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard; Four-iron in the Soul, by Lawrence Donegan; Fevre Dream, by George RR Martin; Bush Falls, By Jonathan Tropper; and Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger.

    What's more, because I've not given up reading over the past 30 months, here's a heads up of just some of the other reviews that will be coming your way in the foreseeable future: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen; Bring Me Sunshine, by Charlie Connelly; Bounce, by Matthew Syed; How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran; The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstein; Trautmann's Journey, by Catrine Clay; Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski; Just My Type, by Simon Garfield; and Eleven, by Mark Watson.

    So, let's get to it...

    Saturday, 2 November 2013

    A sporting chance of success

    It's just turned November and in the sports book industry that means only one thing: the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

    I love a sports book. If that fact wasn't reflected fully during my initial year-long challenge, it's probably because I was deliberately trying to broaden my literary tastes and select books more diverse than what I might normally have chosen. In fact, the few I did read (Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular, Lennie, Mankind, The Best After-Dinner Sports Tales, Penguins Stopped Play, The Beautiful Game, Jelleyman's Thrown a Wobbly and Wodehouse at The Wicket) were generally among my lowest rated.

    Actually, looking back, the likes of Netherland, Even Money, Sex, Bowls & Rock & Roll, Crossfire and Outliers all contained strong sporting themes, so perhaps I didn't stray as far from the path as I thought I had. Regardless, there is less than a month to go until the winner of this year's award is announced, and I've just realised that I haven't read any of them.

    I'm not just talking about the six shortlisted books either. There were 17 titles on the longlist, and I'm struggling to reconcile how none of them have thus far made it into my bookcase.

    It's a bookcase that already contains 95 sports books (it didn't take me that long to count), excluding reference books. Even taking into account that 15 to 20 are related to Charlton that were mostly accumulated during my time at the club, it's a lot more than I thought I owned and, having just checked, contains almost 50 per cent of the previous 25 winners of the Sports Book of the Year award since 1989.

    Unfortunately, going back to review them all would take forever and require thousands of words. I might go into detail about those I'm particular passionate at a later date if the mood strikes me, but while I'm on the subject, it's probably worth a few recommendations.

    Going on the contents of my bookcase alone, if you haven't read Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby; A Season on the Brink, by John Feinstein; Provided You Don't Kiss Me, by Duncan Hamilton, My Father and other Working-Class Heroes, by Gary Imlach; The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss (provided you can stomach the Americanisms); and Friday Night Lights, by HG Bissinger, then you're missing out.

    The first chapter of Hurricane, by Bill Borrows, is also absolutely brilliant (the rest of it is perfectly fine but struggles to match the opening), while the personal nature of this blog means I should also mention Stamping Grounds, by Charlie Connelly, for which I was chief photographer and in the pages of which I feature, and Many Miles... , by the same author, which I helped to edit and lay out.

    At this point, I should also probably declare a personal interest in the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, in that I know one of the shortlisted authors - Ed Hawkins, who has been nominated for Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld (Bloomsbury). That I haven't read it already reflects poorly on me, although it's understandably taking me a while to get past the startling omission of any punctuation whatsoever in the title.

    Anyway, the winner will be announced on November 27th, so good luck Ed. Until then, if you're keen to read some more recommendations about sporting books, look no further than this list (and the knowledgeable comments underneath) of the best 10 sports books you've never heard of.

    Monday, 28 October 2013

    The personal touch

    According to the dictionary I have closest to hand, to recommend something is "to commend to the attention of another as reputable, worthy, or desirable". Someone should really tell the likes of Amazon that.

    A recommendation is a personal thing, it carries particular weight and meaning between two parties because of the relationship that exists between them, which is why word of mouth is such a powerful marketing tool.

    When I clicked on Amazon today, though, the first screen I came to contained no fewer than 29 recommendations while also informing me of five items 'other customers were looking at right now'. From "More items to consider", via "Related to items you've viewed" to "Inspired by your browsing history" there is seemingly a category to cover every eventuality, every click I've made on the site and a suggestion related to everything that I've ever looked at.

    All that's not to say that there is no place for Amazon, which I quite like even though I'm not oblivious to the questionable morals of its tax policy and the effect that such a juggernaut of a retailer is having in innumerable industries and, given the subject of this blog, on smaller booksellers in particular.

    I'm not actually completely against such suggestions, only that the quantity seems wildly excessive. It's a scattergun approach devised by computer programmers that aims to pique your interest and attract further purchases by using evidence gained from the one occasion when you were looking for a Christmas present for your nan.

    Which brings me to a new Tumblr book blog I came across called Go Book Yourself.

    Billed as "Book recommendations by humans, because algorithms are so 1984", to say that it's a straightforward concept would be an exaggeration. Each post merely suggests four other books readers might like based on books they may already love.

    It's that simple, yet because it seems so personal, it's hugely effective. In fact, I recommend it.

    Thursday, 3 October 2013

    Farewell to a friend

    We all have authors whom we read religiously and whose books we devour insatiably regardless of widely held critical opinion; authors whose books we snatch from a bookstore's shelves as soon as they are released.

    After cursory thought, I think I've got three: Dick Francis, Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler (and my library of Cussler books only began when I read a recommendation on the dust jacket of one of his early tomes that "Cussler is the guy I read" by Clancy).

    Sadly, following news on Wednesday that Clancy had passed away, aged 66, Cussler is the only one of my triumvirate who remains alive. Dick Francis died during my original year-long book challenge and I wrote about it here.

    At this stage, I should clarify that I'm only referring to Clancy's 'proper' work - his books rather than the many films (don't get me started on Harrison Ford's age suitability) and video games, In fact, I'm referring solely to those books written entirely by him, and not the money-spinning series for which he contributed ideas but which were largely diluted Clancy.

    Given the amount of literature that exists in the world, I am appalled when I think of the number of times I must have read the likes of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, my personal favourites. My copy of Patriot Games is but a mere tattered memory of what it used to be - indeed, I must write a piece on the particular enjoyment of endlessly re-reading books.

    The Hunt for Red October, a claustrophobic tale of a defecting Russian submariner, was Clancy's first novel, and probably his best. An author who clearly loved being meticulous about his research, he was obsessed with detail and crammed in as much as possible, sometimes to the detriment of the story.

    For The Hunt for Red October, his publisher reportedly convinced him to cut 100 pages of such technical knowledge and - judging by future bloated works after The Hunt for Red October had established his bestselling reputation and started garnering him substantial advances - as Clancy's clout in the industry increased, the quality of his work suffered as you tried to locate the merest hint of the plot within 10 pages of the in-depth make-up of an atomic bomb or the strategic importance of a missile defence system.

    Let's be clear, though: I loved it. In main character Jack Ryan, the marine who became an investment broker who became a teacher who became an intelligence officer who became a spy who became vice-president who became president (and did so in a manner convincingly enough that you accepted this career path), he created a hero who combined intelligence and bravery with a clear moral compass.

    Clancy's thrillers may have reflected his conservative Republican nature - Ronald Reagan apparently called The Hunt for Red October 'my kind of yarn' - and been the polar opposite of my own views, but it made for a thrilling ride and he will be much missed.

    Tuesday, 1 October 2013

    Glad all over

    Any cursory examination of the books I have reviewed will reveal that Malcolm Gladwell was among my favourite authors of my year spent on the 100-book challenge. I read three Gladwell books - Outliers, The Tipping Point and What the Dog Saw - in quick succession and a further (Blink) soon afterwards, and
    promptly wished I hadn't because it resulted in a near three-year wait for his next opus.

    Thankfully, the wait is almost over with the release of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, what's been billed as a study of the balance of power between the weak and the strong, and how the small outwit the mighty.

    I've been following the pre-release publicity, and it's clear that there has been a backlash to Gladwell's work; complaints that his anecdote-led arguments are too simplistic and that one of the ways he profits, through large scale seminars that regurgitate his work, take advantage of those who hold him up as a modern guru.

    Indeed, there is a revealing Guardian interview with Gladwell that addresses those very points here - while an extract from David and Goliath can be read here.

    For my part, I have no issue with Gladwell's easy-to-follow style of writing; in fact, I would argue that it's his main strength. As a reader primarily of fiction, particularly in my leisure time, if you'd told me in January 2010 that by the end of the year I would have read four largely sociological studies, and gone so far in the evangelical stakes as to recommend and even buy them for friends, I wouldn't have believed you.

    Furthermore, it's prompted me to seek out similar work that I have hugely enjoyed over the past few years, such as Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman and Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed (both of which are highly recommended). So, I can't wait.

    Tuesday, 13 August 2013

    The blog is back

    My name is Matt Wright and it's been two years, seven months and five days since I last blogged.

    I suppose the immediate question is 'why?', and I'm afraid that an escalating workload is the mundane response.

    Without wishing to shine too strong a light on personal matters, it's been a difficult many months, and now I find myself with some time on my hands and an ever-burning desire to keep writing something, anything, I suppose it's natural that I have returned to this blog.

    I should point out that I did indeed read the 100th book of the one-year challenge (it was Catcher in the Rye) in early January 2011, and I have continued to read over the intervening months and years, but I never felt the urge to commit any thoughts to screen, partly due to the time involved.

    Now though, the library is my oyster - or something like that.

    I've mentioned previously (if you've forgotten, that's completely understandable, so check out the links to the right) how books can lift your spirits. So in that vein, I'm returning with a couple of tales/links I've come across in recent months.

    The first couple are heart-warming stories of how art, once created, can take on a life of its own - Mind the Gap  and The Best Author Letter Ever.

    This, meanwhile, is a terrific obituary of the sort that is rarely written in modern times where the hagiography generally rules - Hypocrite.

    So, the blog is back. I've updated the 1-100 list, including links, and I do intend to go back and blog the books I passed over on as part of the challenge, if not those I've read in the meantime. But because you can't live in the past, I'm keen to read and post some new stuff, too.

    I'm looking forward to it.

    Saturday, 8 January 2011

    #95 Player One, by Douglas Coupland (William Heinnemann)

    Player One is one of the strangest books I've read this (last) year. It begins with what seems like the start of the apocalypse, throws together some of the most bizarre characters you could hope to meet, follows them in real-time for five hours as a host of questions relating to religion and the meaning of our existence are explored, and then ends.

    Beautiful blonde Rachel, or 'Player One', is the key character within this setting. Unable to express or understand any emotion, the reader sees everything unfold through her eyes - and perhaps that's why everything is so curiously uninvolving.

    The mood is such that when a sniper starts killing people from the top of a hotel, you don't really care, and while things start at a rollicking pace, the focus shifts from what seems a fascinating wider picture to the lives of a few people, and my interest waned as a result.

    Douglas Coupland is often hailed as a 'visionary author', and while answers are few and between, he certainly poses some intruiging questions concerning the future of the planet and human nature, and there are some nice touches, such as using language you would normally associate with computers/technology to emphasise the disconnect between the characters (a conversation is not 'restarted, it is 'rebooted', for example).

    But the fact I was more interested in what was happening away from where the characters were perhaps best illustrates how involved I was in the story.

    That said, the final appendix dictionary, explaining (invented) terms that will be applicable in the future - "Deomiraculosteria: God's anger at always being asked to perform miracles" - was very funny in places and was worth an extra mark on its own.

    So, rating time:

    #95 Player One, by Douglas Coupland (William Heinnemann) - 7/10

    Next up: Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard (Pheonix)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • Friday, 7 January 2011

    Oh dear, it's 2011

    Seven days into 2011, you're probably wondering whether I completed the challenge - even if it's just because you're hoping I haven't so you can take the piss.

    It's been a long year, but a hugely enjoyable one, even though I fell just one book short.

    Yep, that's right. After 365 days, 119 blogs (so far) and more pages than the Queen, I came up just one novel shy from completing the task I set myself at the start of the year.

    But I'm not too bothered (he writes through gritted teeth). At the very start of the year - and you can look this up to check I'm not lying - I said that the aim of the challenge was simply to compel me to read more, and in that pursuit I have been successful.

    In hindsight, the fact I came up one short, and that a few reviews remain outstanding, suggests that I took on a bit too much. I'm not one for excuses, but my workload has been huge at times and it's taken its toll.

    Indeed, I actually had an entire day - New Year's Eve - to read my final book, The Catcher in the Rye, in case you were interested. Unfortunately, it was on that very day that my company was taken over and, instead of my plan to leave nice and early, I was forced to spend numerous hours dealing with the ramifications.

    Even then, I could probably have finished the book that evening with some dedicated reading, but I'd promised the Wench that I would go to a fancy dress New Year's Eve party with her and I couldn't go back on my word - even if it was to complete a challenge which had taken me the best part of a year. So it's her fault, you understand.

    I do intend to read that 100th book, even if its somewhat belated, and complete the reviews. I also have a few more blogs in mind, and I want to reflect on the year as a whole, so I'll get to all of that over the next few days.

    But for now, I'll end with some congratulations to my nemesis, the Friend of the Wench, with whom I have battled most enjoyably throughout the past 12 months, and who successfully completed his own 100-book challenge. Well done to him - and he's written a nice recap of the highs and lows of the year (and not just because it includes some pleasant words about me). You can read it here.

    Back soon...

    Tuesday, 28 December 2010

    #94 The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (Vintage)

    After The Ministry of Fear gave me such a wonderful introduction to Graham Greene, I'm afraid I was again left slightly disappointed by The Heart of the Matter, my third Greene novel of the year.

    On reflection, I think it's been the pace of The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American which has caused this reaction. Throughout both novels, you feel like you're meandering your way through the story, to the extent that it feels like there is a lack of purpose. That might not be true, but that's the impression created - one which dovetails quite nicely in the attitude of Scobie, the main character in The Heart of the Matter.

    Scobie is a police officer in a war-time African state, forced to endure the heat, the mistrust of colleagues, a struggling relationship with his wife and more. He stoicly tries to do his job and maintain his faith, only to end up with an equally loveless and complicated relationship with another woman and blackmailed by a local gangster.

    It's a story about suffering, whether that's the incidents which Scobie must investigate, his relationships or the inner turmoil he endures, and perhaps because of that, it's a difficult novel to warm to, and rarely enjoyable, for all that it retains the reader's interest.

    So, rating time:

    #94 The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (Vintage) - 6/10

    Next up: Player One, by Douglas Coupland (William Heinnemann)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • #93 The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)

    I've become a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell convert recently, as you'll be able to tell by the fact that The Tipping Point is my third book by the same sociological author in a matter of months. But it's another remarkable book.

    The beauty of Gladwell's writing is that he takes everyday familar occurances and applies a microscope to them to reveal their deeper meaning and what they tell us about ourselves and the human race. In lesser hands, the result would be incredibly dry, even boring, but Gladwell chooses his subjects wisely, tells a fine tale and infuses his stories with drama and rich context.

    Two days after finishing this book, which nominally explores 'how small things made a big difference', I was telling someone how vervets are amazingly attuned to other vervets, but despite evolution's greatest efforts, still cannot recognise the tracks made by their greatest predators.

    As Gladwell writes: "Vervets have been known to waltz into a thicket, ignoring a fresh trail of python tracks, and then act stunned when they actually come across the snake itself." Yet vervets are "incredibly sophisicated when it comes to questions about other vervets. If vervets hear a baby vervet's cry of distress, they will look immediately not in the direction of the baby, but at its mother - they know instantly whose baby it is."

    You jump from that to what television programme Sesame Street, a syphilis epidemic and the war on crime in New York, which started with tackling graffiti on the subway, can tell you about how ideas, trends and social behaviours are spread around the world, and how learning lessons from suicide can help combat smoking.

    It's truly fascinating, and my only disappointment is that I'm running out of books by Gladwell to read. And vervets.

    So, rating time:

    #93 The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown) - 9/10

    Next up: The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (Vintage)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • The finish line approaches

    A quick question - what's more important, the reading of the books, or the blogging?

    This is something I've given plenty of thought as the end of the year - and the end of this 12-month, 100-book challenge - approaches. Unfortunately, and sorry for sounding like a broken record, but this is one of my busiest times of the year work-wise, and when you couple that with a Christmas that was anything but relaxing, featuring long drives, gas leaks and lots of cooking, my leisure time has suffered.

    As a result, I've had to prioritise. Rather than a blow-by-blow account of the challenge, I've been forced to focus on the actual reading. But I didn't want any readers to become disheartened by my seeming lack of progress, so I thought it best to post a quick update...

    So, it's been 20 days since my last confession, and I have now finished 98 books.

    These were:

    #93 The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)

    #94 The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (Vintage)

    #95 Player One, by Douglas Coupland (William Heinnemann)

    #96 Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard (Pheonix)

    #97 Four-iron in the soul, by Lawrence Donegan (Penguin Group)

    #98 Fevre Dream, by George RR Martin (Gollancz)

    Reviews will follow, but now I'm starting to consider the all-important question: what will be the identity of my last book.

    Number 99 has been selected - Our Man in Hibernia, by Charlie Connelly. It's a book I've been looking forward to reading for most of the year, not least because the author is a friend - not that I will allow that to affect my notoriously stingy marking.

    But what of number 100. I'll try to keep you posted...

    NB: And The Friend of the Wench is up to 98 as well!

    Saturday, 18 December 2010

    #92 The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom (Little, Brown)

    I had conflicting emotions after turning the last page of Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven. On the one hand, I found the novel, the death of an elderly maintenance man who works at a fairground, overly simple. But it's deceptively effective and, for all that I'm not one for the subject of religion, which is as integral as the title suggests, it was quite moving at times.

    In contrast to The Grapes of Wrath, this isn't a book to dwell on, and it's a nice easy read - just what I needed at this stage of the challenge. And while I bridled a bit at the portrait of heaven which was portrayed, there were a number of nice touches.

    Some background is probably needed. Eddie dies (don't worry, it's not much of a spoiler) and enters heaven, where he meets five people who have influenced his life, or whose lives he has influenced (hence the title) - whether he was aware of it at the time or not.

    It's a clever idea, which doesn't lessen as the book progresses, and speaking (or writing) as someone who's a big fan of the interconnectedness of life, and its holistic nature, I enjoyed the links between each character and the underlying sentiment that although Eddie himself believed he had wasted his life ensuring that the fairground rides were safe, it wasn't until he died that he could appreciate how much joy he had brought to the children through the rides.

    That said, I think it's always difficult when authors or directors start to define concepts such as heaven, because it's always more powerful in the imagination - whether you believe in such things or not, and, having finished the book around a week ago, my biggest criticism is that The Five People You Meet in Heaven doesn't make much of a lasting impression.

    So, rating time:

    #92 The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom (Little, Brown) - 7/10

    Next up: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating