Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Random Thoughts by Chris Corcoran

Chris Corcoran is a teacher-turned-comedian and children's television presenter. If you are very young (in which case, why are you reading this blog?) you may have seen him on CBeebies Doodle Do. If you're a bit older, you might have seen him co-presenting The Rhod Gilbert Show. That's quite a CV he's got.

So I'm thinking: "This bloke should be funny. He's written a book about random stories he thinks are funny and entertaining for Quick Reads. Funny AND short. Just what I need at this stage for a book a week in 2010."

Each chapter finds Chris recounting an episode in his life that amused him, that he felt he should share with us. 'At the absolute worst, you'll have bought an ideal fix for a wobbly coffee table. And at best, you might laugh out loud on the train.'

At his best, the 'Radio Ga Ga' chapter evokes memories of the school disco, crap songs, youthful inebriation, and child-like priorities. 'Dragon Cabs' and 'Up in London' poke a gentle stick in the side of the Welsh and those from the Valleys (he grew up in Pontypridd, so it's allowed).

At worst, we have a pointless musing in the chapter on 'Health Food Shops'. And the 'I Love Sian Lloyd' chapter should never have made it into print.

Some gentle humour, but overall a bit hit and miss.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns

What do you lose when you read a book solely on the Kindle? That's a question I've found myself considering while writing this review.

I started out thinking this was a fictional cross between an adventurer's story and anthropologist's study: parallel tales of the author, Warwick Cairns, who befriends an elderly adventurer, Wilfred Thesiger, who inspires him to retrace his steps across Africa exploring the area around the Awash River in Ethiopia.

Cairns switches between the two journeys: that of himself and some friends, as they travel by bus, car and camel, helped by Thesiger's adopted sons, to visit the old man in his village home; and that of Thesiger, in 1933, travelling on foot through some of the most dangerous territory in Africa, rife with murderous tribal rivalries.

It's a riveting read, with some nicely juxtaposed observations about how modern life is rather rubbish; even when it's tough walking through a desert. The author occasionally lapses into tirades against what he perceives to be the ills of contemporary society. I take particular issue with the dishwasher example. My life would be hell without one. And my hands wouldn't be quite so soft.

Now, returning to my opening question. In Praise of Savagery (currently available as a 49p e-book) is published by The Friday Project, and their publisher, Scott Pack, plugged the final day of it's availability as a free download at the recent FutureBook conference. Being a bit of a tight wad, I downloaded it there and then.

I had no idea what it was about. I hadn't heard of the author. I didn't know whether it was fiction, illustrated or non-fiction. I wasn't sure what the cover looked like. I didn't know the pagination. It was truly an enjoyable voyage of discovery.

So when I came to write this review, I needed to research the book. Turns out it is non-fiction. It has 256 pages. And Warwick Cairns actually did travel with Wilfred Thesiger in Kenya. It's a rather unsettling feeling, getting all my assumptions wrong, but something I guess I'll need to live with as I continue reading on the Kindle.

And here's Scott Pack's explanation of the logic of offering an e-book for free before publishing the hard copy. Do you think it will work?

Monday, 20 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Get Up To Speed With Online Marketing by Jon Reed

*Disclaimer*

I've written a review for the publishers. It appears on the back cover and inside near the front page. I've known Jon for years and was flattered when he sent me bound proofs to see what I thought. Of course I read it. Let's face it. It's the only chance of getting my name on a book.

Get Up To Speed With Online Marketing is a straight-forward guide to using the web and social media to raise the profile of your brand, business or profile. Despite the fact that I know Jon well and might be, well, a bit biased, I have to say - with hand on heart - this really is a cracking guide.

For those of you who know Jon, he has a dry sense of humour and you get a sense of this in the book. He has direct advice for those flummoxed by the thought of web marketing. Each chapter includes: why it may work for your business; what you need to consider; practical steps to get started; tips to stop you making mistakes; graphs, tables and illustrations to help you picture what needs to happen; and case studies to inspire you.

Drawing on several years running Reed Media, Small Business Studio, and Publishing Talk, Jon starts with a reality check: 'traditional marketing doesn't work: get over it!' He provides a quick overview of online marketing strategy. He then runs through the basics of getting online, the different media you can use, and a crash course on the main social media platforms.

It really is a brilliant beginners' guide to using the web to boost your business profile. And it's got my name on the back.

What more could you want?

Download a sample chapter
Buy the book
Follow Jon on Twitter
Hell, follow ME on Twitter!

Friday, 10 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Dear Granny Smith by Roy Mayall


Roy Mayall is a postie writing anonymously about the demise of the British postal system.

This is a slight book. A personal reflection on what it means to be a postman. He decries the corporate takeover and destruction of the Royal Mail. Through anecdotes of life on his round and recollections of former colleagues, Mayall paints a rose-tinted view of your postman.

That's the problem with this book. I'm not sure I agree. In my experience postmen are surly types who don't appear to enjoy their job. Who leave a trail of red plastic bands scattered in the front garden. And on the pavement. And who fold up 'Do Not Bend' items and stuff them through the letterbox.

Maybe it's because we live in London. That must have some occupational hazards. Unruly school children. Maniacal bus drivers. Dogs. People. Houses. Letter boxes.

If only we had a Roy Mayall on our road.

But hold on a minute. Towards the end of the book, it starts making sense. He stops harking back to the memories of yesteryear and starts to pin down exactly what's gone wrong. These final observations are at the heart of the debate of how much the Royal Mail is a national service and whether it can - or cannot - be privatised.

And if you are going to privatise, do you do it properly? Or make a total pig's ear of it? With wave after wave of incompetent management trying to apply different models of modernisation without involving those who deliver the service. You never know, they might even be able to help.

Oh and no prizes for spotting the crafty nom-de-plume.

If you want to read the real day-to-day story behind the book, check out the blog.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Hairy Plug Monster by Leighroy Marsh & Samuel Perry

I've got to admit, this is one of those cheating books. It's mega short and has helped me get back on track with my target of reading 52 books this year.

But this has extra appeal because there's a story behind how I came to get a copy.

I recently visited my friend Michele back in Cheshire. We were chewing the fat, late at night, wine in hand (no straw, since you ask) and she mentioned one of the parents from school who had written a book for his daughter. She told me how lovely it was. Next morning, as I was about to leave, she placed a copy in my hand.

And I can confirm, it is wonderful. There are beautiful illustrations to go with the story. It's all about the Hairy Plug Monster that lives in pipes under the bath. And Maya who gets to know him. A perfect combination of yuckiness, rhymes and a secret world right under your nose.

If you're struggling to find a gift for any child this Christmas, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It's charming.

Have a look at sample pages and illustrations here.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: Snow by Maxence Fermine

Once again, a top recommendation from Scott Pack, Director of Digital Product Development at HarperCollins, but better known as @meandmbigmouth - book reviewer extraordinaire. Much obliged sir.

If you like books called 'Snow' then the compelling and slightly claustrophobic title written by Orhan Pamuk is well worth a go. If you like Japanese novels , I'd recommend one of my favourite authors, Haruki Marukami. If you want something that's a little bit of both, then this is the title for you.

Snow tells the story of the son of a monk, Yuko Akita. He writes poems exclusively about snow. Each haiku is beautiful, and yet, they lack colour. When a famous court poet, Meiji, hears about the legendary snow poet, he visits, advising Yuko to go in search of the master of colour.

Snow chronicles Akita's journey in haiku-sized chapters. Haunting and mesmerising, it weaves a picture of the quest for purity, art and colour.

Written by Maxence Fermine, originally published in 1999 and translated by Chris Mulhern, Snow is a slight, wonderful float across haikus, Japan and snowy capped mountains.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson

I could tell you what this book is about, but if you've read my earlier reviews of part one, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the second in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, then you'll pretty much get the general vibe.

If not, here's a brief synopsis: crack investigative journalist finds himself defending crazy lone female punk researcher as she is set up as the culprit for several murders. Relentless scenes of extreme violence ensue with Lisbeth (punk researcher) managing to incur the wrath of dodgy eastern European and Swedish hoodlums galore as she travels around Sweden seeking revenge. Throw in a history lesson on the Swedish secret service and that pretty much sums it up.

The final part of the Millenium trilogy is not, in my humble opinion, as good as part two, The Girl Who Played with Fire. There's that great big chunk of history of the secret service to contend with. Persevere, as it picks up once you get through the early part of the book. Larsson ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels later on. Maybe he wanted to numb us senseless with the vagaries of the Swedish Civil Service so we'd appreciate the action more. We'll never know.

There are a few insights I've gained from the series that I'd like to share with you.

1. Coffee
According to Larsson Swedes like coffee. They drink it A LOT. In fact, I'm surprised they can function at all. Cafetiere after cafetiere gets downed at all times of the day and night. Apparently they sleep. Although I find that hard to believe. If I drank that much coffee, I'd be attached to a drip in hospital suffering from severe palpitations.

2. Misogyny
Apparently all women want to sleep with Mikael Blomqvist. He is irresistible. In a starting-to-go-to-seed-middle-aged-man sort of way. He can't help it. And it doesn't really mean anything. Plus, he's always good friends with them afterwards. So that makes it OK.

But Blomqvist is the nice guy on the block. And the rest? Well, I've never read about such a motley crew of men, with such a deep seated hatred and contempt for women. From Nazi-loving rapists to Russian spies. Utterly contemptible and stomach churning stuff. It does't paint a pretty picture of Scandinavian society.

But then I found out the series was meant to be called something along the lines of: 'Men who Hate Women' rather than 'Millenium'. Specifically because it WAS about misogyny. So Stieg, I forgive you. And I get it. Sort of. Shame the publishing house bottled it. (This last paragraph should do wonders for my SEO ratings.)

Something I discovered recently. The children's character written by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (who's a feisty ginger-haired girl with mis-matching stockings who is as strong as 10 men and won't take any sh*t from a grown-up) was an inspiration for Larsson when he was developing the character of Lisbeth Salander. That's ace.

So there you have it. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A book a week in 2010: The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn

Following on from my recent dalliance with historical literature, here's the latest review.

Recommended by my friend after I enjoyed Philippa Gregory's Red and White Queens, The Queen of Subtleties is an altogether different proposition.

Suzannah Dunn juxtaposes two lives in the Royal household of Henry VIII: that of his confectioner, Lucy Cornwallis, and of his soon-to-be second wife, Anne Boleyn. The difference here is that Dunn deliberately uses a modern venacular with her characters.

The parallel drawn between unrequited and requited love is clever. But I couldn't help thinking that the link between the two women is tenuous and a little contrived. However, Dunn gets into her stride later in the book. I particularly liked the later life of Anne and her utter lack of self-awareness.

Different to Gregory, flashes of greatness, but a little underwhelming.