Monday, 25 November 2013

Review: The Banner of the Passing Clouds

The Banner of the Passing Clouds
The Banner of the Passing Clouds by Anthea Nicholson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting blend of historical fiction and magical realism. Great use of real history to inform plot and create some great irony. Heartbreaking, clearly well researched, and quite intriguing. I look forward to seeing what she does next.

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Review: Boys Don't Knit

Boys Don't Knit
Boys Don't Knit by T.S. Easton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very funny, and very dramatic. Alongside the double entendres and hilarious character development (noticing the type of wool a girl's jumper is made of while trying to see down her top), there's a great deal going on about teen (and specifically gender) stereotypes, youth crime, dysfunctional families and the ageing society. Perfect for teen lads, I couldn't get enough of it. I was behind Ben all the way; I haven't been this hooked on a book for a long time, and I've never laughed aloud in public at a book so often. Highly, highly recommended. For everybody.

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Review: The Overhaul

The Overhaul
The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this in India this January. A strange book to read in a foreign country, 'Overhaul' is a lyrical poetry collection grounded in the British (specifically Scottish) countryside. The collection shows Jamie making greater use of rhyming forms, connected series, and impressions of immediacy (particularly with nods to previous elemental use of the moon in self-reflexive moments); however, I think that the strong thesis and narrative flow which made 'The Treehouse' so amazing is missing from this collection.

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Review: Dreams Of Rivers And Seas. By Tim Parks

Dreams Of Rivers And Seas. By Tim Parks
Dreams Of Rivers And Seas. By Tim Parks by Tim Parks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First great novel I've read, and fantastic to read on-site, as it were. Very ambigious, Parks has some great ideas which he gives to a dead character and explores in depth with an immature protagonist. The plot appears obvious at first, but surprises the reader with characters who have more commitment to each other, and less ambition, than we first suspect.
Great depiction of a dysfunctional family, great unobtrusive use of the exotic setting. Doesn't quite take the remarkable ideas into anything memorable or concrete, and the ending is forgettable. However, it's intelligent, interesting, and unlike anything I've read before. Ace

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Review: The Overhaul

The Overhaul
The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this in India this January. A strange book to read in a foreign country, 'Overhaul' is a lyrical poetry collection grounded in the British (specifically Scottish) countryside. The collection shows Jamie making greater use of rhyming forms, connected series, and impressions of immediacy (particularly with nods to previous elemental use of the moon in self-reflexive moments); however, I think that the strong thesis and narrative flow which made 'The Treehouse' so amazing is missing from this collection.

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Review: Snapper

Snapper by Brian Kimberling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: March Violets

March Violets
March Violets by Philip Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Review: Children of the Revolution

Children of the Revolution
Children of the Revolution by Peter Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Really enjoying the new DCI Banks thriller by Peter Robinson. It's always a pleasure to follow Banks's adventures, which are consistently finely plotted and hard to put down. It's not just the convincing characters and well-drawn Yorkshire setting that makes the books so readable, but also the easy way that Robinson keeps the novels contemporary, tracing changes in British society, police forces, and technology through all of the DCI Banks novels since 'Gallows View'.

I'm particularly looking forward to meeting Peter Robinson on 5th August for the pre-release launch of 'Children of the Revolution' at Topping & Company Booksellers in Bath. The book's not out until 15th August, but people will be able to purchase the book, hear Peter read from it, and get their copy signed at the bookshop in Bath. For more details, follow the link below.

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Monday, 22 July 2013

Results time

Ten days ago, I decided that I would achieve a set list of goals within a set period of time. This is what I said I would do:

1) Write 70,000 words
2) Read 5 books
3) Write 4 songs
4) Walk 150,000 steps
5) Learn the kings and queens of England and the dates of their rule
6) Learn how to memorise a deck of playing cards

This is what I actually achieved:

1) I wrote just over 10,000 words
2) I read 3 books
3) I wrote 0 songs
4) I walked 110,000 steps
5) I didn't learn nothing about the kings and queens of England and the dates of their rule
6) I wrote a PAO system, but can't yet memorise a deck of playing cards

This is what I learned:

Setting unrealistic targets leaves you feeling like you've been a bit slack.
A heatwave is not a good time to try and do indoor things.
If you really want to do one thing, do that.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Multi-tasking (research, walking, and a family day out)

Efficiency tip number four: multi-tasking.

A literary example: just after Robinson Crusoe gets shipwrecked, he goes to check out the ship for supplies. Because he doesn't have much time, he eats the ships' biscuit he salvages as he walks around the ship looking for other supplies. Eating while you walk: multi-tasking. So if I eat chips while walking home from the pub, that's not an unhealthy waste of money: that's just efficiency.

Another example: a fascinating day out with your dad, combined with a bit of a walk, and a bit of research for a story thrown in for good measure. That's three important things (family, exercise, learning) rolled into one!

For reasons of health & safety and because we might've been trespassing, I won't say where these photographs were taken. The first couple show our discovery of an entrance to a World War 2 underground ammunition bunker, a few months ago in the winter. We didn't have torches. The others show our second visit, slightly more prepared, with torches. As can be seen from the photographs, we weren't the first to find it: it's clearly always been a hang-out for youngsters. In addition to graffiti and cider cans, we found some abandoned machinery, the original rails still in place, a series of offices, and a very, very long tunnel. The darkness was incredible. Once we reached the bottom of the stairs and turned into the series of offices, there was next to no daylight getting in. By the time we reached the switching area for the carriages, it was pitch-black without torchlight. If you were to stand in the tunnel and turn off your torches, it was impossible to say which way was forward and which back.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Horrible Histories Rulers song(The English Kings and Queens Song)

Friend at work recommended this video to me as a way of learning the English Kings and Queens. I'm not sure I can keep up with it, and anyway it doesn't give their dates of rule, but it gave me a giggle anyway. Here it is.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

What Would Neil Gaiman Do? (WWNGD)

Yesterday I realised that if I seriously wanted to finish writing a story, and if I seriously wanted to write it by the end of the month, I'd have to write for more than three hours a day. So today, I thought: What Would Neil Gaiman Do? (WWNGD)

So I found out, by reading Fantastic Mistakes: Neil Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' Speech. Here's my review, and here's a link to watch the video online instead of buying the book:

Make Good ArtMake Good Art by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice speech, better to watch on YouTube than to read in a book.

I liked this bit: "Somebody asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult... and I suggested she pretend the she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend to be someone who could."
I also liked this bit: "I learned to write by writing."

There's some hilarious stuff about how to be a successful freelancer (1. Have good work 2. Be easy to get along with 3. Deliver the work on time; but two out of three is fine), and some very wise stuff about the new means of distribution and what this is going to mean for artists of all kinds: he's a man in the know, and worth listening to.

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The upshot of that quick read is this: Firstly, I'm going to pretend that I'm somebody who can sit down and work for another two hours, even though I'd rather read Maddadam. Secondly, I'm going to learn to write by writing.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Review of Dirt Music by Tim Winton

Dirt MusicDirt Music by Tim Winton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quite good, but unevenly plotted. The book creeps up on your slowly, then grabs you, then lets you go, and you wander around for a while thinking 'well, I've been caught once, there's no point in running too far, I'll only be delaying the inevitable', and then you're grabbed and shaken for the finale.

The novel centres on the relationship of Georgie and Fox, and at the beginning of the novel it seems that Georgie is going to be the protagonist: an unattached kind of drifter who will fight hard for a man she really wants. However, most of the character progression and journeying happens to Fox, a loner ex-musician with a dark past, and to Jim Buckridge, Georgie's current partner. While the novel's set up to appeal to women with a kind of romance-novel plot and protagonist, it's actually the two male characters who are most interesting, whose ideas about life and what they need from it are explored, who set each other in contrast.

The novel's full of great depictions of Australia and its people, excellent dialogue, real humour, well-realised supporting characters, and an emotional centre that is convincing and beautiful: I cared deeply about Georgie, Fox, and Jim, and I wanted to know what would happen to them. What let it down for me, and kept me from giving the book five stars, is the slow and meandering final third of the book, where it seems Winton is holding off the resolution unnecessarily.

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Review of Deep Country by Neil Ansell

Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh HillsDeep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neil Ansell spent five years living alone in a small cottage in the Welsh hills: I was expecting a book about why somebody would choose to do such a thing, an analysis of society and its ills, and a description of solitude and what it can do for a person. Deep Country spoiled my expectations for the better: the narrator is transparent, and through him we see the wild in its beauty, matter-of-fact brutality, its permanence. Ansell's prose expels the narrator, and as a result manages to include the reader, to share with startling clarity experiences only possible for a person who has given themselves time to watch the world. A great book about slowing down, and looking outwards.

I've already bought Ansell's new 'Deer Island', just out from Little Toller books, and I'm looking forward to meeting the man when he comes to Topping & Company in Bath to speak about the new book. If you'd like to come along, on 29th July, details here: (drop me a line and I'll put you on the guest list!)

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The half way point: take stock and panic. Plus, efficiency tip number three: how to make decisions.

Five days in. What have I achieved?

1) I've written another 5,000 words of my first draft (out of the goal of 60,000)
2) I've walked 55,554 steps (out of the goal of 150,000)
3) I've begun to develop a PAO system to enable me to memorise a desk of playing cards
4) I've read two books

So... A little bit behind schedule. There's still a lot to do: write four songs, read another three books, learn all the kings and queens of England, more walking... And how to decide which of this list to tackle first?

I find making decisions difficult. Especially when there's several things that need to be done, at home or at work, which all have roughly the same level of importance. In The Dice Man, Luke Rhinehart creates a character who assigns all of his decisions to the rolls of dice, enabling him to make decisions faster and more efficiently (actually, I think he does it as a philosophical experiment, but the upshot is increased efficiency). In the novel, the character ends up as an immoral half-person, whose new freedom has turned against him and made him a slave to chance. It's an interesting book because all of the choices are, deep down, his choices, but he has rid himself of the filters which get in the way of him becoming a rounded individual, open to express every possible facet of his character. In Real Life, by which I mean, in real life, we often stand around trying to decide what to do, when what we really need is to do something. If I get on with one thing, then that one thing will be done, and I'll have more time to do the other thing when its time comes.

With that in mind:
1) Read Maddadam by Margaret Atwood
2) Nice walk in the forest
3) Cash that cheque I've been meaning to cash all day
4) Write a song
5) Work on my PAO system
6) Something completely incredible and unexpected

Here goes:

I'm off to cash that cheque then!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Efficiency, work, the Major System, and your grandmother chest-pressing a huge cup of coffee.

My week of incredible productivity begins in earnest tomorrow: today I had to go to work. If you are trying to write a novel, plus a selection of songs, and get better at knowing the capitals of the world on, is there scope to sneak in a little bit of internet while at work? Perhaps I could think idly about my story while doing an easy task, like the washing up? Perhaps I could flat-out-skive for a half hour, pretend I've got something important to do downstairs, and rapidly read a couple of chapters of a book I've decided to read in a set amount of time?

No. Such behaviour is not only a bit naughty, but also inefficient, which is the worst sin of all. While I'm at work, I work. That's not to say that work doesn't give me the opportunity to practice some important skills.

For example, in order to perform the incredible feats of memory that I aim to achieve by 21st July (including memorising a pack of playing cards), I need to learn the mnemonic system known as the Major System, and develop a personal mnemonic system known as PAO (person-action-object). The Major System is basically a system of turning numbers into consonants, which you can then string together to make words which are much easier to remember than numbers. For example, under the Major System, the number 978 (the first three digits of any thirteen digit ISBN) would give you p/b (the consonants for 9), k/ q (the consonants for 7), and f/v (the consonants for 8). So if I wanted to remember the number 978, I'd make the word bequeath, or bike-foe, or something like that. I'd turn that into an image in my mind (obviously nouns are easiest to visualise), and then I'd remember that image until such a time that I needed the number. Easy.

This kind of system is actually incredibly useful in a working environment. For example: you pack 17 copies of a particular book into a box, then walk over to the computer to take them out of stock.  On your way you're asked by a customer where to find another book; a colleague asks you what date a particular event is happening; you see a book in the wrong place, completely out of alphabetical order, or even (horror!) in completely the wrong section, and you have to put it back immediately; and by the time you get to the computer, you've forgotten the number. Except! You remembered the number 17 as the word 'tick' (using the Major System), and you've imagined a little tic riding on your ear as you run the gauntlet between box and computer: a little tic, whispering sweet nothings in your ear, little snatches of poetry, praising the gleam of your hair and the milky smoothness of your skin, in its tiny little squeaky tic voice. How can you forget that? 17 books. Exactly. So, I'm improving my efficiency at work (woop!), and practising a skill that I want to learn for my own ends.

The Major System is a fun little mnemonic system (well I think it's fun), and it's great because you can use it straight out of the box, and it's easy to learn because the system has little mnemonic hints for every phonetic group (for example the number 2 translates to n, because n has two downstrokes; the number 3 translates to m, because m has three downstrokes). But, it's very difficult to use this system to memorise a deck of playing cards, because it takes so long to create the images. Professional memory athletes use a custom PAO system.

PAO works like this: for every number between 0 and 99, you assign a person acting on an object. For example: the number 1 is Arnold Schwarzenegger chest-pressing a 200kg barbell; the number 2 is your grandmother dusting a vase of fake flowers; the number 3 is Sam Drew drinking a cup of coffee. You want to remember the number 213, you take the person from your first number, the action from your second, and the object from your third: your grandmother chest-pressing a cup of coffee. That's a bizarre, memorable image. Particularly if you spend a little time thinking about it really clearly, and embellish the image with detail: your grandmother is wearing her favourite earrings, the pearl ones, and they dangle down as she lays on the weight bench; her wiry arms are straining with the weight of the huge coffee cup, filled to the brim with sweet milky coffee; she has to lift the cup perfectly straight or the hot liquid will fall on her... Can you see it?

The advantage of the PAO system, once you've created it and learned it, is that you can create memorable images very quickly.

As the week goes on, I'll be creating my own PAO system and researching other stuff to do with mnemonics, and I'll share all my findings with you, you lucky, lucky, people.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sun, fun, and efficiency

I realised this morning that I was already falling dangerously behind in one aspect of my ten-day challenge: my 15,000 steps a day pedometer goal to maintain health (health being a form of efficiency: sure you'd get more writing done if you sat at your computer and ordered pizza online, but then you'd get fat and die, and then you wouldn't get much writing done at all).

Yesterday I only walked 8,000 steps as part of my normal working day. So today I took serious action. I spent the morning in the park reading through my existing work on the novel, and e-mailing myself little synopses for scenes with my phone (mad efficiency points! I was inspired by fantasy writer Peter Brett, who wrote his entire first novel on a mobile telephone on his daily commute), but this didn't add much to my walking total, so in the afternoon I went for a long walk: 22,200 steps. This has brought my total to just over 30,000 steps over the two days, so I'm right on target! On top of that, I got the audiobook of Dirt Music by Tim Winton (the first in my list of books-to-read) and I listened to that as I walked, and again I emailed myself little ideas for my own writing as I went, and managed not to fall in the canal.

All in all, it has been a very efficient day. And also there was outdoors, which is nice. Here are some photographs.

Diary of the most efficient man in the world: sun, solitude, solid results.

After my foray into the Saturday Night Writes #writeclub, I've overslept. Sleeping is not an efficient use of time. At least it's Saturday, and I've got a day off work. In addition to this, my wife's away visiting her folks, and you know what they say: while the cat's away, the mice can achieve tangible results and sit in front of the computer all day in their pants if they want to. But it's a Saturday, surely I should meet some friends and enjoy the sunshine?

I'm enjoying Neil Ansell's Deep Country which talks a lot about solitude. Neil writes about nature the way that only a person who has lived in it as a patient observer really can. He spent five years more or less alone in a cottage in the Welsh hills. On the subject of solitude, he writes:

"This was the pattern of my days, a simple life led by natural rhythms rather than the requirements and expectations of others. Imagine being given the opportunity to take time out of your life, for five whole years. Free of social obligations, free of work commitments. Think how well you would get to know yourself, all that time to consider your past and the choices you had made, to focus on your personal development, to know yourself through and through, to work out your goals in life, your true ambitions.
    None of this happened, not to me. Perhaps for someone else it would have been different. Any insight I have gained has been the result of later reflection. Solitude did not breed introspection, quite the reverse. My days were spent outside, immersed in nature..."

I'm going to take two lessons from this bit of the book for today.
1) Perhaps deciding to be on your own for a day isn't totally weird. If Neil Ansell is allowed to do it, then so am I. I'll spend the day working on my goals and ambitions (Neil would probably not approve), and I won't seek out the company of anybody else. It'll be a social experiment. Well, an anti-social experiment.

2) Perhaps if you've decided to be on your own for a day, you should immerse yourself in nature to prevent yourself going crazy. Neil didn't spend five years on his own inside the cottage in his pants in front of a computer. Nobody should do that, not even for a day, not even if they've set themselves impossible goals which would be best achieved sitting indoors.

A compromise then: I'll spend the day enjoying this glut of good weather we've been blessed with. Plenty on my list I can do outside. Have a great sunny Saturday everyone!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Friday Night Write

Okay, first thing on the list: a complete novel. Or a first draft at least, which should probably be between 60,000 and 10,000 words depending on the story. How do you get a lot of words written in a short space of time? Why, by joining the Friday Night Write Club, of course!

Friday Night Write Club is a Twitter-based organisation, where writers from all over the world get together for half-hour writing sprints. Everybody writes and supports each other, and reports their word counts every half hour using the hashtag #writeclub.

After a working day, I didn’t much feel like coming home and writing. Common sense tells us that after a day of work we’re good for nothing but the pub or the sofa. But I came home, and fired up the laptop, and wrote 2,701 words between 9pm Friday and 1pm Saturday. Whether or not they’re good words remains to be seen, but it’s more than I would’ve written otherwise, and I quite enjoyed it. I’d recommend it: just follow @FriNightWrites on Twitter.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Learn how to increase your efficiency and get more done with Sam Drew!

In January, I decided that for my new year’s resolution I would write a novel this year. I had in fact been trying and failing to write a novel for the previous three years and, not wanting to repeat this failure, I formulated a plan to get it done. Here’s the plan:
January: research and planning
February through to July: write first draft
August: read first draft, plan second draft
September through to November: write second draft
December: final tweaks to second draft, sending the manuscript to publishers, prize ceremonies, etc.

It’s not a great plan, but nevertheless I am trying to stick to it. It’s 11th July, I’ve written about 30,000 words of the first draft, and the first draft’s supposed to be about 100,00 words. So I’m only about a third done. To avoid abandoning the plan, I have taken a ten day period to push hard and finish the first draft. I’ve booked a week off work, so for seven of those ten days I’m completely free. Should be easy.

To make it a challenge, I’ve decided to not only finish the first draft of my novel, but to do a bunch of other stuff I’ve been meaning to do.

I’m lucky enough to work at a great independent bookshop, where we get lots of interesting authors coming to do talks, and I get lots of proofs of books that are yet to be released. I’m actually quite a slow reader. Some of the people I work with manage to read three books a week, while working a full-time job and having a normal home life. That’s almost a book ever two days! So, in the next ten days I’m going to read five books. That’s actually a book every two days. And not piddly books either. I’m going to read:
Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (because I’ve never read him before and he’s supposed to be great, so this is a bit of a treat to myself)
Neil Ansell’s Deep Country (because Neil is visiting the shop at the end of July for the release of his new book Deer Island, and I’d like to have read some of his backlist)
Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper (because Robin is hopefully coming to the bookshop in the autumn, which should be way more exciting to me but shockingly I’ve never read any of her books, so this is me making amends before it’s too late)
Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam (because Margaret is coming to the bookshop for the UK release of the book at the end of August, and I love the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and I’m lucky enough to have an advance copy)
Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season (because it’s the hot tip this year, and I’m lucky enough to have an advance copy)

I used to be a really keen electric bass player, but I’ve slacked off a bit. Recently, I’ve taken up with a couple of guitarists in my area. We’ve done a little bit of jamming, but I haven’t been fully committed to learning the material they’re writing, and I haven’t been contributing anything of my own. So in the next ten days I’m going to write four songs.

I’ve never been into fitness, but I like a bit of a stroll. Recently, too much pizza and chocolate is starting to show, so I’m going to walk it off: apparently we should all be walking 10,000 steps a day to maintain our body weight. I’m going to walk 15,000 steps a day for the next ten days: that’s 150,000 steps in total.

I like to learn stuff. Working in a bookshop, you get a feel for stuff you don’t know about. I know that my geography is bad, and so is my history. So I’m going to learn all the counties of England, all the cities in Europe, and all the capitals of the world. Plus, I’m going to learn all the kings and queens of England and the dates of their rule, same for the prime ministers. Next time I’ve got a week off, I’ll look at other countries’ history, but I feel it’d be a good idea to start at home. As part of this, I’m going to work on my memory so that I can spout off all this amazing learning. I’m going to develop my memory until it’s so good I can memorise the exact order of a pack of playing cards. That’d be neat.

I have a vague feeling that all of this might wind up my wife. To make up for it, I’m going to cook a new meal every day. I generally don’t cook at all, so I guess it’ll be fun.

How will I do it?
By increasing my efficiency and getting more done! To be honest, I don’t know how I’m going to get all that done in the next ten days, but I’ll have fun finding out, and I’ll share all of my findings with you.

How will you know?
I’ll post some samples of the first draft of my novel.
I’ll provide reviews of the books I’ve read.
I’ll perform the four songs I’ve written on a video.
I’ll record my steps with a pedometer and post the updates.
I’ll do a video about the rulers of England and the dates of their rule.
I’ll do a video where I memorise a pack of playing cards.
I’ll test my geography knowledge on, and post my vastly improved scores on my Twitter feed.
I’ll post photographs of the incredible meals I cook for myself and my patiently suffering wife.

Will you care?

Probably not. But having an imaginary audience who will mock me if I fail could be just the motivation I need.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Review of 'Ratlines' by Stuart Neville

RatlinesRatlines by Stuart Neville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ratlines is a complex and thrilling novel. Neville expands on the traditional murder-mystery plot to build something which is a much wider adventure story, pulling in excellent historical detail and a realistic depiction of post-WW2 Ireland. Albert Ryan is a great hero character, and all of the villains and allies are complex and interesting.

The 'Ratlines' of the title hint at a more expansive story than Neville delivers, so that while it seems to broaden in the middle the novel shies away from delivering everything it could and focuses on the narrow rivalry between hero and villain: which is both a bad and a good thing.

Recommended for crime fiction fans, plus anybody interested in historical fiction. Oh, and it's got the most horrific visceral torture scenes I've read, if you like that kind of thing.

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Saturday, 30 March 2013

Review of John le Carre's 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (George Smiley, #5)Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A classic which I completely missed first, second, and third time around, le Carre's seminal Cold War spy novel is understated and intelligent. The variety of viewpoints gives a great breadth to the narrative, and while Smiley is definitely the hero he is an effectively flawed one, and there are other very well-explored characters as well. The novel is slow and thoughtful, dialogue-rich, and not afraid to follow interesting diversions to lend depth to a character and their situation.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

This year's reading challenge

I'm lucky enough to work at a bookshop, with fantastically well-read, intelligent, knowledgeable people. My and my colleagues were at the pub recently, and one of my colleagues claimed to read three books a week. I thought: "Wow, that's a lot of books to read a week!". Turns out, that's about average for a bookseller. So, in an attempt to step up my game, I've challenged myself to read a minimum of 52 books this year, with a goal of reading 156 books. You can keep up with my progress on Goodreads, if you like.

Review of 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What a weird book. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is long and rambling, full of diversions and sub-stories, complex, and actually quite charming.

The novel could be described as magical realism, but includes historical fiction (focusing particularly on the Manchurian Crisis, Communism, World War Two), love stories, and war stories. What starts off as a simple problem (the main guy, unemployed Toru Okada, loses his cat) quickly escalates as he goes on to lose his wife, and then gets involved with various characters with their own stories to tell, and then has a series of symbolic supernatural encounters which throw him against self-doubt, the claws of history, and his powerful brother-in-law.

I came away feeling that there's more to the book than I had taken from it, that perhaps I'm not intelligent enough to appreciate how much genius is in there. I do know that I didn't want to stop reading it, and that the book's imagery, cultural-historical descriptions, and mini-narratives made an impression on me.

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Review of 'The Healer' by Antti Tuomainen

The HealerThe Healer by Antti Tuomainen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuomainen's 'The Healer' is an original and gripping crime thriller. The dystopian near-future setting is well-drawn and central to the bad guy's motive and therefore the plot, so it's not merely a bandwagon-jumping decision to set the novel in a dystopia. It rattles along at a good pace, mixing familiar crime plotting and character archetypes with this speculative-fiction element so that the reader is at once on familiar ground, and exploring new terrain. The novel grabs you and doesn't let go until the intriguing open ending.

The first-person point of view is interesting and original, but not as groundbreaking as the blurb promises. Our hero and narrator is a struggling poet, but this intriguing voice doesn't much affect the narration or the character's mode of detection. The character is original, certainly, quick talking and obviously intelligent, but he doesn't give us many striking images or unique insights into the crime. I felt that this USP wasn't delivered as well as it could have been.

Overall, if you like crime novels you won't be disappointed. If you like speculative fiction and dystopias, you won't be disappointed. If you're looking for a truly original voice, you might be a little bit disappointed.

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Review of 'Moonwalking with Einstein' by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'Moonwalking with Einstein' is a great bit of participatory journalism, and a nice introduction to memory training. You can read it without feeling like you're reading a self-help book, but you still come away with a good idea of the basic techniques and ideas such as the memory palace and the major and PAO (person-action-object) systems for learning numbers.

It's also nicely candid about where memory training falls down: after winning the USA memory championship and going out for a celebratory meal, Foer forgets that he has driven to the restaurant and goes home by train.

It would have been nice if the book offered some analysis of memory training techniques versus 'natural' memories, though Foer's book isn't without investigation of people with apparently exceptional natural memories, and indeed one of the best pieces of journalism in the book is his investigation into Daniel Tammet, author of 'Born on a Blue Day'. I felt that Foer didn't go far enough in his discussions of education, the links between memory and moral character, and the links between memory and landscape (particularly interesting to me as a reader of natural history). But the book doesn't pretend to be an academic book: as a piece of participatory journalism it's well written, informative, and entertaining.

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Review of 'The Examined Life' by Stephen Grosz

The Examined LifeThe Examined Life by Stephen Grosz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a layman, I enjoyed this insight into the psychoanalytic process, and was impressed at some of the chapters as Grosz lays out the reasoning behind his clients' behaviour, in an obviously knowledgeable and not at all arrogant fashion. However, I became a little bored by the short chapters and their pithy conclusions: Grosz rarely goes into a client's long-term treatment in any great detail, and when he does he seems to cut things short just when they were getting interesting. Perhaps this is down to the necessarily confidential nature of the material, or the perceived audience of the book, but I was left wanting more.

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