Tag Archives: book

Books….and how to read them

I was brought up on Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.

Absorbing each well-thumbed page from the library book, joining in another adventure in the Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads with the Jacksons (John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget) and the Blacketts (Nancy and Peggy) was a childhood joy.

Somehow I can’t imagine surfing the same literary wave of youthful enthusiasm reading those classic stories on an e-book. Or am I just a bookish dinosaur?

A few years ago, many predicted the demise of traditional hard copy printed books. Everyone was jumping  on the digital bandwagon and sales of Kindle – and other e-reading devices – exploded.

But now the jury is most definitely out…..

Some claim that print is fighting back strongly against digital. Others agree that the rate of growth of e-books has – inevitably – slowed, but is still outpacing the printed medium.

Perhaps an objective view of the issue is in this Bookseller article.

Rather than seeing the print book and e-book markets as two counter-vailing forces, it may be wise to figure out how they are working together. If the big fiction bestsellers are now predominantly being bought digitally, then has this created space within book stores to focus on different books? For journalists looking to report on this sector, the narrative might be how digital has helped revive and reinvent print, rather than the other way round.

I’ve got a Kindle, but I still prefer reading a good old hard copy, fingering the arty cover with loving hands, easing a favourite bookmark between the overnight pages as I sink between the sheets, or lapping up the author’s bibliography before diving into the first chapter.

And another interesting development….just this week, Amazon – the digital behemoth, and purveyor of all-conquering e-market Kindles – have opened their first physical store, in Seattle. Clicks and mortar….following the path of other industries, as digital and physical worlds realise they can happily co-exist, after all.

Or will the next chapter paint a different picture…….?



William Boyd

Steve Coles, where are you now…..?

Steve was a finance colleague for The Thomson Corporation in London, when I was working for the group captive insurance business in Bermuda. But on one of my UK visits, we were talking books, and he recommended the author William Boyd.

I even remember that Steve was reading Brazzaville Beach at the time.

Fast forward a few years…..I was back in England, living in Godalming, had read a couple of Mr Boyd’s books already and then had the good fortune to hear him speak at the local college.  He was essentially promoting the publication of Restless, a spy story with a difference and later a very successful TV adaptation, with a stellar cast (Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon).

But he also gave some illuminating insights into the writing process  and his own interesting life. He spent his formative years in Africa, experience used in several novels, including his first published book A Good Man In Africa, then An IceCream War and Brazzaville Beach.

Since then, I’ve read several more books from his impressive output of 17 novels in 34 years, for which he has garnered a significant number of prestigious prizes. He has also written several successful screenplays, some non fiction and a theatre piece. No wonder he’s been called one of the greatest living British writers.

His stories are that elusively perfect marriage of plot, characterisation and style that capture the reader almost as much as they make an aspiring writer seethe with envy.

Even the protagonists’ names tend to be imbued with genius: Logan Mountstuart (Any Human Heart), Eva Delectorskaya (Restless), Lysander Rief (Waiting for Sunrise).

I’m reading Waiting for Sunrise now. Early days, but the author is already luring me into Lysander’s world….the research into Vienna is so meticulous that I’m transported there as soon as I pick up the book. The plot will no doubt unfold like a chess Grand Master’s strategy, ending with the reader in complete thrall to the writer’s skill and mastery of the literary game.

The last time I saw my old colleague was in Sevenoaks. Sainsburys car park. If you happen to read this, Steve, thanks for the introduction to William Boyd. He -and you – have enriched my reading life.

Book review – Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I feel close to Nick Hornby. He was born 3 weeks before me, and his novels have traced a large chunk of my own adult life.

Fever Pitch, his first published book in 1992 , was an autobiographical mini-classic. Except that it was all about a young man’s passion for Arsenal Football Club. Hard to take for a lifelong Tottenham fan, but I could identify with the author’s sentiment, and the writing was fresh, funny and acutely observed.

High Fidelity, published in 1995, was Hornby’s first novel. And damned funny it was too. About a compulsive, list-making, neurotic record collector in north London, it was cleverly transplanted to Chicago for the film adaptation, and beautifully brought to life by John Cusack and an emerging Jack Black.

About A Boy, published in 1998, was very different from Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. This told of the unlikely relationship between a shy young lad, Marcus, and a slightly selfish 30-something man called Will, who didn’t have to work and who was struggling for a focus in life. The movie adaptation is known for finally giving Hugh Grant a role that wasn’t the same one as in all his other films.

Other novels followed: How to be Good (2001); A Long Way Down (2005); Slam (2007); Juliet, Naked (2009); and now Funny Girl (first published in 2014).

Mr. Hornby has chosen to write what feels like a very old fashioned novel, with real echoes of Kingsley Amis. Instead of Lucky JIm, Funny Girl is about Barbara Parker, a young girl crowned Miss Blackpool in 1964 but who rejects the tiara in favour of the bright lights of London. There, she changes her name to Sophie Straw and stumbles into the life-defining role as one half of enduringly popular TV sitcom series Barbara (and Jim). The brackets are important.

The story is funny, poignant and nostalgic. Of course it’s well written, as all Nick Hornby books are, but it relies largely on reported conversations between the show’s actors, writers and producers. And – sorry, Nick – it all just feels a little, erm, fluffy. Nothing wrong with that, but somehow the characters didn’t quite have the extra layers that you usually give them. I needed a bit more to peel away….

Perhaps I’m being overly critical because I’ve enjoyed your earlier work so much. And perhaps I’d like to see you embrace the present as much as you obviously do the past.

But maybe I’m just envious. Look at what you’ve achieved in your 58 years, compared to me.

Still, I’ve got 3 weeks to catch up….


Book review – The Circle

Imagine a world where all your online activity is in a single, safe and entirely transparent place.

Imagine a world where tiny cameras – some known, some unseen – are everywhere, potentially eliminating most crime and allowing a disabled person to share the experience of climbing a mountain, as if they were there.

Imagine a world where you can’t be offline and anonymous.

Welcome to The Circle, Dave Eggers’ utopian world where a single all-powerful tech company – think Facebook, Google and Twitter all rolled into one – becomes so integral that governments use its systems to implement democracy. Well, why wouldn’t you when the results of a vote can be known within minutes rather than days, and at zero public cost?

But is this really utopia…..or the end of the free world?

Mae Holland, a young arrival on the Circle’s campus, quickly rises up the ranks. Her own minor offence allows her to see the error of her independent ways, and she succumbs to going fully transparent, sharing her Circle evangelism with millions of followers. A voluntary Truman Show!

Will Mae realise the dangers of the Circle becoming completely closed, or is she really a complete convert?

Dave Eggers raises some challenging questions for our increasingly tech-dependent times. And having worked for a US technology business myself, some of the work practices and ethos certainly resonated.

But somehow, as a story it felt a little contrived and some of the characters feel as though they’ve been parachuted in to the narrative, in order to expound some of the author’s contrary views.

Nevertheless, it made me think…and what more could you want from a book than that?

Book review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

If Mr McEwan were a footballer, he’d be playing up front for Real Madrid, earning £300k a week – net of tax – and even Cristiano Ronaldo would be in awe of his fellow striker.

For here is a writer at the very top of his game.

The Children Act is his latest performance. At just over 200 pages of incisive prose, you may feel cheated when he’s substituted early in the second half, the game long since won by his mesmerising genius.

Don’t be. Just savour the time he’s out there, spraying the ball around effortlessly, developing play between vivid characterisations and subtle plot, before smashing the ball into the net with a heartbreaking, thought provoking finale.

The main protagonist is Fiona Maye, a 59 year old High Court judge. Successful, respected and compassionate at work, her childless marriage is under pressure at home.

A case comes before her which poses a moral dilemma: the nearly 18 year old son of devout Jehovah’s Witness parents is refusing a blood transfusion, which the medical profession knows would save his young life.

Fiona’s judgement has profound implications for the boy, and for herself.

The author’s meticulous research into the legal profession, as well as into medicine, music and the Jehovah’s Witness movement, underpins every word of the novel. Combine that with deft characterisations of complex, flawed people and The Children Act becomes a rewarding read, however short a cameo performance this is.

Enjoy the game.


Book review – A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is probably best known for his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  It won the Whitbread Best Novel Award in 2003, received a stack of other prestigious literary recognition, and has since become a hugely successful stage play.

I haven’t read Dog. Yet. It’s famously narrated by a 15 year-old boy with Asperger’s. Although Mark says it’s rather a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The book is not specifically about any specific disorder.

A Spot of Bother, published in 2006, is about George. 57 years old and retired, he just wants to spend time in the studio in his garden. But he has a nasty lesion on his hip, which he is convinced is cancerous. Even though the doctor tells him it’s just eczema. And he’s worried that his daughter Katie is marrying again – the practical Ray – for the wrong reasons. And his son Jamie is gay. And, oh yes, his wife Jean is shagging David, an old colleague of George’s.

George is something of an outsider. He sees the world in a surprising and revealing way. He has a breakdown. He edges towards madness.

Spot is a damned fine read. The plot canters on. Short sentences. Over 100 short chapters. But it’s all driven by the way the author peels away layer after layer of each colourful character’s  human frailties.

Darkly comic, Spot is brilliantly observed. Very funny. And a bit disturbing. Especially if you’re 57 years old and have recently retired. Like me.

But I haven’t got a studio in the garden. And my wife’s name is Gill. Although come to think of it, I did once work with a David…..

Movie review – Paddington

How useful it is to have young nephews and nieces.

Without Ben (10), Jessica and Lucy (5), Gill and I would have struggled to fit the movie-going demographic at the 10:20 am performance of Paddington at Guildford Odeon on a Tuesday morning, just before Christmas.

I can see the lurid Surrey Advertiser headline writ large: Paedophile suspect arrested at Paddington performance in Guildford. Handcuffed and led away in front of the shocked audience – average age 12 1/2 – Godalming resident Andrew Morris (57) was heard screaming “but I really do like marmalade sandwiches….”

What a great film this is, no matter what your age. It will appeal as much to my generation, brought up on the Michael Bond book, as it will to the current crop of wow-me-with-special-effects-or-leave-me-at-home children, spoiled by ever larger budgets and CGI trickery.

Having been the subject of countless books and TV episodes, Paddington Bear is coming to the big screen for the very first time in a magical adventure film.

With an all-star cast acting alongside Paddington, Michael Bond’s beloved creation is being brought to life by producer David Heyman (the Harry Potter films, Gravity), director Paul King (Come Fly With Me, The Mighty Boosh) and the Oscar-winning special effects team behind Gravity, Harry Potter and many more.

I won’t spoil the plot. Suffice to say that it’s a heart-warming tale of a talking bear leaving his Peruvian jungle home and arriving in England, in search of a new life and marmalade sandwiches. But London is not as friendly as an old explorer had led his family to believe…and there’s also the wickedly glamorous taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) to contend with.

A splendid cast – of both warm bodies and evocative voices – gives the live action story a magical soul. And clever injections of verbal and visual humour mean it appeals as much to 50 somethings as to 5 year-olds. Really.

Grab a child – preferably one you know – and see it now.

Paddington Bear Movie Poster

Book review – Us by David Nicholls

I feel like I’ve grown up with David Nicholls.

Starter for Ten, The Understudy and the global phenomenon One Day. All written in a similar style, full of wit, poignancy and offbeat characters, I wonder how autobiographical each one is….

Us is a bitter-sweet dissection of the relationship between Douglas – a structured scientist and traditional disciplinarian – and Connie, his wayward, beautiful and artistic wife.

After 20 years of marriage Connie announces that she’s probably leaving Douglas. But they agree to go ahead with their Grand Tour of Europe, probably the last family holiday with Albie, their stroppy and lost 17 year-old son.

The holiday doesn’t quite go to plan and Douglas ends up confronting some of his demons in a series of helter-skelter misadventures across Europe, few of which were on his written itinerary.

As always, the writer’s characterisation is brilliant. Douglas is maddeningly unable to cut Albie much slack, trying to impose a scientist’s logical thinking onto a confused teenager in search of anything but structure, at the same time as Albie wrestles with his own challenges

The Grand Tour mishaps are neatly interwoven with the history of Douglas and Connie’s relationship, and other incidents that give some understanding of the present father and son dynamic. If there is any dynamism in something that’s so broken?

I embraced Us in much the same way I described bookish immersion here.  And I’m already looking forward to the movie version of Us, anticipating who might play the main characters in this deftly woven story.

And please don’t make us wait too long for the next instalment of your literary life, Mr Nicholls……

Book review – Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

I’ve just finished one of those books where you’ve become so engaged – emotionally invested as the psycho-babblers might say – that you’re in a quandary over how to read the last 100 pages.

You’ve come to love the characters so much that you’ve finagled yourself into the narrative too. Well, they won’t notice, will they….?

You want to luxuriate in that booky pleasure and become one of their inner circle of off-the-wall friends….but at the same time you really want to know how the quirky plot will get resolved.

Welcome to the fun and immersive world of Charlotte Street, Danny Wallace’s first novel, published in 2012.

It’s all about a man who one night helps a girl. Just for a second. And there’s a moment between them. But then it’s over. She disappears. But in his hands, he realises he’s still got something of hers…

Her disposable camera. So what should he do? Develop the film? Or forget about her? He develops the film. Of course he does. And he looks at her photos. And that’s when he spots something very unusual indeed…

That’s the official synopsis, lifted from Danny’s website. But it’s really more about the characters than the plot. Well, the plot is clever and funny….but as you turn the 400 pages you live and enjoy, sometimes suffer, the characters’ lives with them long before the clever, funny plot resolves itself.

The narrator and central character is Jason Priestley. No, not the Beverley Hills 90210 Jason Priestley, as Danny’s Jason frequently has to explain.

He’s been a knob. He has a shot at redemption, but blows it. Several times. He gives up hope. He redeems himself just in time. He regains hope.

But wow, the story is weaved brilliantly around that over simplified summary of Jason’s character using some original plot development techniques and a motley crew of friends and passing acquaintances.

I get the feeling Danny is clever and funny. One of his writing techniques is clever and funny repetition…like always mentioning that Jason lives with his best mate Dev on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn’t.

But it’s a heartwarming, emotional, witty, sad, insightful novel that I know you’ll enjoy too.

And yes, it’s also very clever and very funny.