Monday, 18 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

After struggling with Wolf Hall, a friend recommended Philippa Gregory as a lighter, more fluid and engaging read.

I've started with The White Queen. It's the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful, young widow from the House of Lancaster (symbol of the red rose), who climbs her way to the very top of political and royal power by marrying King Edward IV from the House of York (the white rose).

Aided by a pushy mother, she embeds her family in the power structures of the nation. As queen she gives birth to many children, including two young princes, who will never be safe from the war of the roses.

Sounds a bit like Dallas or Dynasty, doesn't it? That pretty much sums it up.

This is a great read. You are swept up in the passion of that first moment when Elizabeth meets King Richard. And that passion never abates, despite all the dalliances that a Tudor king indulges in.

Gregory wears her erudition lightly. This is at times an intense love story; at times a visceral picture of royal rivalries in English history.

Next stop in the saga is The Red Queen. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Silent State by Heather Brooke

At work I spend a fair amount of time talking to journalists and Heather Brooke is often mentioned as pioneering and inspirational in her quest for truth.

You may know her as the one who campaigned tirelessly to expose the scandal around MPs' expenses. It must have been difficult for her to stomach The Daily Telegraph buying the evidence on a disk to expose the abuse of the system.

MPs expenses get a mention in the book, but there's so much more. The Silent State is Brooke's diatribe against the lack of transparency in the British state. She takes us through numerous examples of how our much-celebrated democracy and sense of fair play is, in fact, a myth.

Chapter by chapter, my long-held view was undermined that we have a shining example of openness in politics and society. From the amount of money that's spent on PR and spin for government departments, the civil service and Quangos; to the use and abuse of research and statistics to justify policy.

Brooke rails at the system and blows open the flaws, so often avoided in the press, of our political system. The complete lack of accountability for civil servants - and their ability to destroy lives - makes for a particularly uncomfortable read.

Brooke pricks the reader's conscience by exposing how we are all culpable to a greater or lesser extent. I felt this acutely as she railed against ConstructionSkills, the industry body that receives government subsidy to promote training and skills, as it searched for a PR agency to promote what a good job it does (I work for Skillset, the equivalent body for the creative media industries). It also rang true when confronted with the publishing industry (I've spent 15+ years working in) that takes government (and therefore our data) to package and sell back to, yes, you guessed it, us.

There are too many examples to mention: each would make a pretty decent expose in themselves.

The book isn't perfect. Her tone and style may grate. You may feel that you are being shouted at. Brooke originally comes from the US and trained as a journalist there. Her views are clearly influenced by this and may not be to everyone's taste.

But you can't deny there is some truth in what she is saying: our democracy is not what it seems. We need to wake up and challenge this. It's our democratic right.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

My friend Paul recommended this. "It's gripping and quite short. You need to catch up on your reading, don't you?" He was right on all fronts.

Mohsin Hamid is a journalist and writer based in London. He was originally born in Pakistan, but studied and worked in the USA. You sense that his experience of straddling life in two different countries informs this powerful portrayal of clash of cultures.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about a chance meeting between an unidentified westerner and an anonymous local in a Lahore cafe. What follows is the real-time unravelling of a tense game of cat and mouse.

Gradually, the local befriends the visitor, teasing out - through adroit questioning - certain details, so you realise all is not what you think. As you learn about this man's life; his experience at college in America; his life, love and losses; the tension creeps up on you as it becomes clear that all is not what it seems.

The background of the market contrasts the unfolding scene. During the day it's cacophonous and loud. You will it to be quiet so as not to distract from the conversational skirmish that is unfolding. But as day turns to night, the stalls pack up. A new crowd of shadowy figures creep into the darkening street. You long again for the noise and distraction to dissipate the almost unbearable tension.

I was gripped to the very end. This is a masterpiece. Read it.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

This book should come with a health warning:

1. Do not read on public transport
2. Carry tissues with you at all times
3. Avoid any other activity whilst reading

The Lovely Bones is a lovely book. Thoughtful, emotional and a beautiful depiction of life after a horrible death.

Susie Salmon is murdered by George Harvey, the strange neighbour who likes to build dolls houses. Her death rips the family apart.

But they are not alone. Susie continues to watch over them, following her family as they learn to cope with her death and unsolved murder. That's all I can tell you. You need to read the rest yourself.

Alice Sebold is a gifted writer with the ability to paint raw emotions through place, sight and sound. You'll float away with a beautiful description of everyday life. And then she hits you, with a sucker punch of intense horror, power and the dark side of humanity.

Before I finished the book, I overheard a heated debate in the kitchen at work. They were disagreeing on the strength of the ending. Needless to say, I left the room so as not to spoil the ending (which, by the way, made me cry. Again).

This is a wonderful book. Read it and weep.

Buy the book and watch the trailer (I haven't seen the film, so can't recommend it).

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize

'A superb epic work. Richly satisfying' Kate Mosse (that's the author, not the model)

'Remind me again: how did this win the Booker Prize?' Suzanne Kavanagh

Wolf Hall is an epic (650 page) tour de force (self-indulgent) piece of literary (at times incomprehensible) fiction. It charts the life and times - in minute detail - of Thomas Cromwell, confident and advisor to the Cardinals Wolsey and More, and latterly King Henry VIII.

Mantel charts the everyday life, politics and culture of the Tudor period with depth; weaving intricate description of place and people, humanising Cromwell with a multitude of domestic and family interactions.

There is no doubt that this is an incredibly well researched book. It took years to ensure that the fiction tied in with historical facts. This, for me is one of two things to admire. The other is how you come to understand and respect Cromwell as a man. Mantel provides an alternative view of some of the most powerful of people in English history.

Put simply, I really cared what happened to Cromwell in his personal and professional life. I felt pity for Henry as he struggled to judge those courtiers around him driven by self-service, power and greed, whilst dealing with his own fallibilities.

Now here comes the 'but', and it's a big one.

The changing narratives are, at times, simply impossible to keep track of. They often slip into a stream of consciousness of who-knows-who. A good two-thirds of the book is so confusing I had to re-read passages. Eventually, I gave up. I couldn't make head nor tail of who was saying what and when, so thought it best to get on with reading it and see what stuck.

This is a real shame. It detracted from the strengths of the book. And it made me feel stupid. Then annoyed. All this meant it took a bloody long time to read: months in fact. It became a chore, not a pleasure.

I can't help feeling that it could have been edited and sharpened to retain the literary gymnastics without losing the reader along the way. Like several smart people I've spoken to who also struggled with this book, I don't have a problem with challenging writing.

I'm at a loss as to how an award-winning title can leave me feeling this exhausted, cross and frustrated.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook

Adam Westbrook is in his own words "a multimedia storyteller, journalist, author and lecturer."

I watched as he gave an articulate and compelling presentation on a panel at the news:rewired conference in January.

He showed an audio slide show telling the story of John Hirst, a man who killed his landlady. It remains one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I've seen.

Audio Slideshow: Hirst v. UK from Adam Westbrook on Vimeo.

Adam made it seem as though anything is possible in multimedia. I wanted to know more, so followed him on Twitter, and discovered he self-publishes too. As a book publisher, this piqued my interest further. He produces e-books as well? So this is what a one-man publishing industry looks like.

I've bought two so far - both out of interest for work (I cover publishing and journalism for Skillset). The first - News Gathering for Hyperlocal Websites - is on my 'to blog' pile. The second - Next Generation Journalist - is covered here.

In Westbrook's view, a 'next generation journalist' is one who works alone or in collaboration. They are entrepreneurs. They won't sit about worrying where the next commission will come from. They get out there and make their own destiny.

In this world you build a portfolio career: spreading your risk across a variety of sectors, platforms and interests. You work with for- and not-for-profit organisations. You use the web to profile and market yourself to different clients and communities. You use words, sounds, images and video: whatever helps tell the story best for its audience.

Westbrook believes people are prepared to pay for services or information from someone with in-depth knowledge and curatorial skills. Chapter after chapter provides tips, ideas and inspiration for different ways to do this. This may involve aggregating content. It may include hyperlocal websites. You may choose a journalism niche or become an 'infopreneur' (don't groan, it really makes sense when you read it).

This book is totally refreshing. It's a handbook on how to make money from the skills and passion you have, and I loved it. It should be on the reading list of every journalism course in the country.

Buy Next Generation Journalist
Follow Adam on Twitter
Hear him lecture at Kingston University
See more of his work