Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fold by Tom Campbell

Very little happens in Fold.

Apart from a few games of poker amongst a group of male friends.

But Fold - so tightly written it squeaks - is a compelling observation of modern manners and rivalries amongst men.

Nick is an odious narcissist with only one interest: himself. All the more surprising considering his lack of success in life. Frustrated by his futile existence, he decides to dedicate his time to bringing down fellow poker player Doug to his level.

Vijay is an accountant, whose comfortable life is augmented with the number-driven excitement of poker. Alan is a computer programmer with a fatal lack of confidence. But don't write him off: anyone can transform their life. Simon is philosopher and academic with a penchant for fine wine. His lack of academic success is mitigated by prowess at the card table.

And then there is Doug. The arrogant, pompous - and wildly successful - Doug. Bane of Nick's life and he-who-regularly-cleans-everyone-out-at-cards.

The story deftly switches from one first-person narrative to another, like a 'word-cam' strapped to each man's head. Using flashbacks and internal monologues, Campbell builds each character, teasing out their foibles, neuroses, hopes and dreams, game by game.

The lack of action is what makes this book a triumph. Because life is like that, isn't it? Often, nothing much happens at all. But we hope, we dream, we scheme, and we play.

Fold, check, call or raise.

Here's the trailer for the book by publisher Bloomsbury.

Footnote: I can't help wondering how much of this reflects the life and times of Tom Campbell. It's tempting to project elements of each character on to the author. Doubly so when you've met him. Tom recently provided consultancy work for my employer, Skillset. He'll have to tell me next time he's in the office.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

How Not to do Accommodation at the Frankfurt Book Fair

ABA Hotel Frankfurt. Where to start?

Well, first of all, with my prudence. Trying to book a hotel two weeks before the Frankfurt Book Fair in a central location for two nights for under 200 euros per night is difficult. I was chuffed to bits to see that ABA had availability. 

That was the first clue.
Location is all, isn’t it? Five minutes walk to the main station. Fifteen minutes to the Messe exhibition halls. It doesn’t get more central than that. 

That was the second clue.
The road - Tannusstrassr - is a long main road heading away from the station. There were plenty of bright lights, all red and pink, twinkling in the distance as we walked down the street. A street populated with men. Large groups of - mainly drunken - men. 

That was the third clue.
The baffled look on the face of the man at reception should have sealed the deal. You could almost hear him thinking “oh dear, another one of those publishers who booked online.” The room itself was spacious and not that bad at first glance. Until you start to settle in. Highlights included:

  • Holes in all the bed linen
  • Grease stain on the mattress
  • Carpet peeling up at the corner
  • Curtain rail hanging off the wall on one side
  • Screaming children - day and night
  • Noise from reception travelling up the stone stairwell 
  • No hot water. For two days. I sneaked in a shower just before I checked out
  • Giant pneumatic drills on building site next door from 8 am 
The room downstairs sounded like they were having fun, with friends round to watch a war film on TV. At least theirs worked. Mine switched on. And off again. That’s about it.

I would have popped out to get a drink, but I didn't dare leave the room. I decided to have some water. Only to discover there was no glass or any other kind of receptacle to drink from.

But you know what? It was so bad, it was funny. Think Bangkok hostel scene from The Beach and you’re almost there. But without Robert Carlisle. Which was a bit of a shame really. He would have added to the ambience.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Race for Life 5km Crystal Palace - photographic evidence

Race for Life 5km Crystal Palace

Sunday saw me stagger around Crystal Palace. I huffed and I puffed. And I did 27 minutes and 35 seconds all the way round the 5km route.

Here's some evidence. Be warned. It involves a lot of sweating and beetroot cheeks. Oh, and Shania Twain.

And of course, some running...

The end is in sight. Check out the Paula Radcliffe style (head rolling, not speed).

This all raised around £800 for Cancer Research. Makes it all worthwhile.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

How to wheeze your way around West Dulwich: a six point plan

1. Inspiration
Get inspired by colleagues at work who've run marathons. Charlie completed the London marathon and Sarah ran the hilly Brighton course. I got carried away while watching the London runners on TV. Next thing I know I've signed up for the Race for Life 5 km on Sunday 5th June in Crystal Palace. I'm very excited at the prospect of getting to run in the National Sports Stadium (bit of an armchair athletics geek if truth be told).

2. Gym kit
Those Primarni jogging trousers are getting a real workout. My house keys have cuts holes in both pockets. I'm running out of t-shirts. Probably need to get a better pair of trainers before the race day.

3. Runkeeper
You can always find out what you need to know on Twitter (they should tell that to famous footballers). Me? I asked the Twitterverse which app to use for training. Runkeeper was pretty much the universal recommendation. But beware. It's only as good as the GPS signal. I live in an area with trees. And clouds. And the wrong kind of air. Or something. Seems to be a problem at times. Still, it's handy to work out local routes.

4. Water
I drink a lot of water anyway. Never more so than when I'm staggering around the streets of SE21 gasping for air. I'm now the proud owner of a runners water bottle complete with handy hole in the middle with grip so it doesn't slip out of my sweaty hand. Water drunk during training to date: 11.2 litres (approximately 700ml per training run).

5. Train
The Race for Life website has a range of training plans. I chose the marginally more ambitious Joggers 5 km plan (rather than beginners/walkers). So far, I've run 54 km in the first 4 weeks of training. I've got another 26.3 km to go before the race. It may be a bit more than that, depending on the GPS. There'll be a few stretches, warm-ups and warm-downs in between.

6. Dedication
There are plenty of people I know who are directly or indirectly affected by cancer. I'm kind of running for them all. But I want to dedicate this race to three people. My father-in-law has recently started treatment for prostate cancer. My best friend's mum has just been diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. Her dad has been simultaneously diagnosed with prostate cancer. Their names will be on the back of my t-shirt on the 5th June.

If you'd like to donate, please go to

Thank you x

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Talk About Local 2011 #TAL11 conference: how to get started with a hyperlocal blog

I have set up a blog for the road I live on. Why? Because we have a residents' association, I didn't know what they were doing and I thought it would be useful to have a local notice board of sorts. I was also inspired by the hyperlocal journalists and bloggers I've met while working at Skillset. And so was born.

But what about the content? What are my neighbours really interested in? Rather than make assumptions, I created a survey to find out. With 200 properties on the road, I was chuffed with 71 responses, the majority of whom were positive about the idea (you can see the full results here). Plenty of people were interested in being kept informed and provided an email address. It got me thinking: could I turn any of them into contributors?

The Talk About Local (TAL) conference in Cardiff last weekend was an ideal opportunity to pick the brains of the best and brightest hyperlocal journalists and bloggers. TAL is run as an 'unconference' format. There's no agenda. All the delegates turn up and volunteer ideas for sessions they want to lead. There was some interest in how to get started and promote your site so I got stuck in.

As we introduced ourselves, the following themes emerged:

  • How do you turn readers into writers?

  • What ideas are there to launch a site and where do you start?

  • What ways are there to grow subscribers?
There were some brilliant practical tips on what to do and how to get started. I've the top ten below for anyone new to the hyperlocal game.

  1. Keep it simple: have a simple name and repeat it all the time

  2. Email: set up a subscription feedburner, think about junk mail and be aware of spam-tastic words (sale, viagra etc); sign up for all emails so you can distribute this out to your local community (mailchimp for particularly recommended for newsletters)

  3. Once upon a time: find and write about good stories

  4. Social media: set up Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc - use all media channels

  5. Conversations: talk to people, pop in and talk to the shop keepers - they can tell you about sales and events, attend events, be seen face to face: from online to offline.

  6. Linking: develop links to/from other sites, think about what stuff comes through the letterbox - can you do deals or link up with them? Link up with local bloggers - interact with them, share ideas/stories, link and acknowledge them

  7. Comments: get your friends to comment to kick things off

  8. Paperwork: produce leaflets, business cards and take them everywhere you go - shops, restaurants, bars

  9. Quality not quantity: keep it in perspective and understand that you can’t do everything straight away, focus on quality. Remember, people aren’t checking hour in hour out so you can stagger and stage things

  10. Shopping: many sites have experienced big spikes in interest when including Tesco opening times at Xmas, Bank Holidays etc (general consensus was this is sad, but true)
We discuss a number of issues in more depth.

Contributors: the hardest thing of all Getting contributors is one of the hardest things to do. You need an editorial disclaimer and have to keep an eye on the quality. Equally, you have to make it meaningful to people so don’t ask them to cover something that doesn’t interest them. Push people in the right direction and don’t overburden them. Check for propaganda and make it clear that they are contributors (you can do this by italicising their text).

Forums: who, what, why, how There were sobering and wise words from Simon at the Ventnor blog on the Isle of Wight. It took them a year to establish their forum and now it runs itself. It was tough at times. You need to remember that it’s a conversation. A robust discussion is a good thing, but it can be difficult to ride out online rows, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. Oliver from The Silhillian blog recommended not moderating comments. If you do pre-moderate, you are approving that comment and will be liable to claims of libel or defamation. You need to be aware of the law.

Other tips included think about what locals will google about e.g. local school becomes academy and there are concerns about admissions. You need to remember that you don’t create a community. They are already there. You happen to stumble upon them and provide an outlet for them.

From online to offline: make your site personal Joseph at BlogPreston recommends using events as well. Be at heart of the event (set up a tweet-up) so people get to know you as a real person. You can use these face to face meetings to consolidate the relationship with the reader and/or contributor.

Thanks go to everyone who attended the session. If I’ve missed anyone make sure you comment!

@jonathanlloyd @josephstash @nw3news @rlwjones @saddleworthnews @SteveVbrewer @the_silhillian @ventnorblog @WHampstead

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Island by Victoria Hislop

I first heard about The Island while on honeymoon. We were staying at The Blue Palace near Elounda in Crete. It's a stunning location, with rooms scattered around a beautiful blue bay overlooking the island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga has a complex and fascinating history for such a small island. It was occupied by various people: from Arabs to Venetians, Ottomans to the Leper colony, the last group who lived on the island from 1903 to 1957. People suffering from leprosy were sent from all over Greece. It was an isolated life where supplies were sent across from the mainland village of Plaka by boat.

For several evenings, we would sit and contemplate the shadows of derelict ruins from the comfort of our favourite fish taverna in Plaka. It was hard to imagine what life was like in the leper colony, even when we took the tour around the island.

Victoria Hislop was also inspired by the story of Spinalonga. In The Island she tells the tale of a family. Alexis is about to go on holiday with her fiance. But she has nagging doubts: about her relationship and about how little she knows about her mother's Greek family. It is only when she asks Alexis to take a sealed letter to an old friend in Plaka that the story of her Cretan relatives unfolds.

The Island was published to great acclaim, remaining at the top of the book charts for weeks after it secured a place on Richard and Judy's Summer Reads. She certainly paints a vivid picture of the isolation of the island and the stigma attached to leprosy. However, I found the pace pedestrian at times. When the plot covers a longer time span you lose what is powerful about the book: Hislop is best when she homes in on the claustrophobia of life on Spinalonga or in Plaka.

An enjoyable - but not perfect - summer read.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Flâneur by Edmund White

'A flaneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks - and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.'

So says Edmund White on the back cover of The Flâneur. Drawing on his experience of living in Paris in the 80s, he takes you on a random journey around the city. From St Germain, home to some of the world's finest intellectual minds, to Parc Monceau, close to the Arc de Triomphe, where eminent banking dynasties lived in kitsch opulence.

There are tales of Sartre, Baudelaire, Josephine Baker, Strindberg, Napoleon: painters, philosophers, writers and aesthetes. As White seemingly stumbles upon place after place, you learn about the hidden history and all of the cultural, intellectual and political significance.

This is a fascinating - if at times rambling - guidebook to Paris and an extraordinary way of life.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Kindest Thing by Cath Staincliffe

What would you do if your husband asked you to help him kill himself? Cath Staincliffe provides a heart-rending account of one woman's journey through this terrible dilemma.

The book is tightly written. There is clever use of flashback: taking the reader through the highs and lows of Deborah Shelley and Neil Draper's life together. We reflect with Deborah, while she awaits trial in Styal Prison, on Neil's diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, his fast demise, and how the illness cruelly takes away the passion, power and essence of the man she loves unequivocally.

We learn about their children, Adam and Sophie, their characters and their past. And how they both deal very differently with the pain of losing their father. All the details of their lives ring true. There is no hype. And for anyone who has done jury service, the court scenes will no doubt bring back memories.

There is a searing intensity to the writing. You feel her pain as a mother as she watches - helpless - as her children's lives are torn apart. There is a moving honesty and lack of artifice in her narration as she recounts the build up to the day Neil died.

I wasn't initially convinced of the need for the sex scenes. But on balance, they show - in a realistic way - that this was a passionate relationship with a closeness many would envy. Which makes the loss felt even keener.

The Kindest Thing is a gripping portrayal - told without prejudice - of a family coping with assisted suicide. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Liesel Meminger is fostered by a family in a small town on the edge of Munich. Her life is peppered with vivid memories of her real family before the war, her struggle to survive Allied bombing raids, and the constant threat of the scrutiny of the Nazi party.

Her mama - Rosa Hubermann - hides her heart beneath a mountain of insults and curses. Her papa - Hans - is a quiet man, who watches and waits, keeping Liesel close and calm. Rudy Steiner, her friend and neighbour, thinks he is the athlete Jessie Owens. So fast, he can outrun even death.

But there are secrets. Liesel has several secrets. From Max in the cellar to her collection of stolen books.

And what about death? Death is our narrator. He sees the horrors of war first hand. He gathers up the souls of Dachau, the Russian front and each bombing raid. Each crop of souls he harvests leaves an impression: a range of colours, but occasionally, every now and again, a human heart touches him. Is The Book Thief one such soul?

Profound, beautiful, moving. Zusak's masterpiece is at once charming, gripping and utterly devastating.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Want to know what the evil of modern times looks like?

Sebastian Faulks gives you a damn good idea. But don't let me mislead you. Let me try to explain why.

A Week in December recounts the story of seven people in seven days. A tube drive; a young radicalised Muslim man; a super rich hedge fund manager; a Polish footballer; a book reviewer; a rich, marijuana smoking teenager; and an underperforming lawyer.

Their intertwined stories unfold over the week. How does a footballer meet a stoner teenager? Why would a financier dine alongside a literary book reviewer? What happens when your beliefs and your life are on the line? And how far do you think one banker is prepared to go in search of profit?

As the strands of the story unwind, then intertwine, the sense of impending doom increases. But at the end, the biggest villain of all is not who you think.

A Week in December is a telling indictment of our times and a parable of what may be. This gripping story will get under your skin.

Friday, 14 January 2011

'Nerd Do Well' by Simon Pegg

You can never judge a book by its cover, so the saying goes. However, there are exceptions. And this book is one of them.

It was the picture on the front that originally attracted me. I don't usually buy celebrity biographies. I'd not read one since Russell Brand's My Booky Wook (please don't judge me, it was a Christmas gift). I'm not bothered either way about the genre.

But there's something about that ginger man in black NHS specs grasping a green cocktail that caught my eye.

For the record, I think the jacket is genius. It's geeky, cool, edgy, bright, attractive and humorous. In fact, everything you kind of think Simon Pegg is. Well, maybe not all of them, but you know what I mean.

Pegg's writing bounces along. He switches between a roughly chronological account of seminal moments in his life, where his love of geekery, performance, comedy and film cemented the foundations for his future career, and a fictional account of his super hero alter-ego who grapples (in every sense of the word) with the evil Lord Black and the beautiful thief, Scarlet Panther.

He deliberately avoids detailing his current family life and uses pseudonyms for old flames that he wants to protect. He focuses more on anecdotal recollection of amusing and symbolic moments. All told with his usual humorous skill.

So the first book I read in 2011 gets a massive, geeky, bespectacled, sniggering thumbs up.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: the results

The phone lines are closed. The results have been counted and verified. It's time for a round-up of the Book a Week in 2010 project.

Top ten
  1. Information is Beautiful - David McCandless
  2. The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
  3. The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
  4. The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson
  5. Grown Up Digital - Don Tapscott
  6. One Day - David Nicholls
  7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
  8. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
  9. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby
  10. My Fathers' Daughter - Hannah Pool
  • Art (1)
  • Biography (6)
  • Childrens (1)
  • Fiction (28)
  • Non-fiction (11)
  • Poetry (5)
  • Travel (1)

For the pure joy of reading it, Information is Beautiful gets the top spot. It simultaneously challenged, educated and entertained me. And I love books that make me laugh out loud.

One Day: for making me burst into tears - without warning - on the bus (anyone who's read this will know the exact moment I'm talking about). David Nicholls makes you care for the characters like no other. And it took me back to my Brixton party days in the 90s.

For pure, relentless pace, The Girl Who Played with Fire is head and shoulders above the others in the trilogy. I quite literally couldn't put it down. Which proved quite difficult at work. And in the shower.


Print or e?
I like using the Kindle for non-fiction (Gladwell, Reed) or pulp non-fiction (Larsson). Essentially it's the book snob in me. If I want people to know how literary and well-read I am, I want the physical book to add to my bookshelf for visitors to see. If it seems remotely work related or serious, I'm happy to read it electronically. I also enjoy getting my Kindle out on the tube, to prove how geeky/cool/progressive I am. Please don't think less of me because of it.

It's people, stupid.
A big shout out goes to Twitter and Facebook friends, without whom I wouldn't have read such a diverse and entertaining group of titles. I've still got a big list of recommends. It sparks discussion, debate and suggestions. I love this. While reading is in itself an isolated activity, this exercise has proved that it feeds and develops relationships and communities of interest. No real surprise there, but lovely to experience it first hand on what was a personal New Year's resolution. Thank you guys!

Faster, pussycat, faster!
There's no room for indolent reading whilst reclining on a chaise longue. You have to think about how and when you are going to read. You need to keep the pace up, a chapter here and there during the day can make all the difference. There are only so many hours in the day, so something's gotta give. Out go morning papers, lunchtime magazines and evening TV. I let this slip a bit, but managed to pull it back at the end of the year because I had a lot of holiday to take, so could read all day, every day.

It's been a blast, and reminded me how much I love books and reading. I'm hoping to keep it up through 2011, but will set myself a different and new resolution. Watch this space...

Friday, 7 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Information is Beautiful by David McCandless

Media140, TED, dConstruct... David McCandless is on the roll call of the all great and good geek camps, unconferences and speaker events knocking around the media world at the moment.

My first exposure to him came from various Information is Beautiful infographics that have gone viral on Twitter over the last two years. I also saw him at a Media140 event in Kings Cross last October.

Have you switched off yet? Are you muttering "bloody media types, what's this infographics bollocks all about?" Bear with me.

David McCandless is one of the most - if not the most - influential creative data journalist of our time. He's published internationally in Wired, The Guardian and suchlike. His blog - Information is Beautiful - contains thoughts and illustrations showcasing his talent. Information is Beautiful is his latest book, based on the blog.

He takes data - boring lists, tables, spreadsheets, facts, figures and statistics - and turns them into intuitive, fun, exciting, interactive graphics and images that make sense of the information, even for a novice or those with Dyscalculia.

Not only is it a stunning piece of publishing - beautiful hardback edition; spot laminate cover; tasteful, contemporary colour palette; matt uncoated paper; gorgeous typography (sorry, book sniffer alert) - it's also a delight to read.

Considering myself a cool media type, I thought I'd at least try to be restrained with this review. The problem is, I can't. From the minute I picked it up, it had me laughing out loud at the gentle piss-taking in the captions. I railed at the injustices in the world that the graphics showed, then marvelled at how he'd come up with such brilliant ways to illustrate data.

I've frogmarched at least three people to a bookshop to buy it. Even my dad, a former IT Director who was around when the internet was first invented, who worked on computers as big as Wembley stadium, was impressed.

And it's not just a nice book to look at. It's got legs as a work of reference. We're going to get another copy in the office for inspiration on how we present our research. If you're struggling to put a presentation together, it's stuffed full of ideas.

McCandless's mind must be a car crash of data and creativity. But he somehow makes sense of the chaos and shows what can be done to make an illuminating and powerful point. It's an exhilarating read.

(Image source: Information is Beautiful by kind permission of David McCandless)
Now go and buy it!

A book a week in 2010: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett is known originally for plays including Beyond the Fringe, The History Boys and The Madness of King George. He has also built a long and successful career as a television and film script-writer, and has become something of a national treasure.

The Uncommon Reader, published in 2007, is a novella about what happens when the Queen discovers books. In this charming and heartwarming story, we see the Queen stumbling across a mobile library around the back of Buckingham Palace. There she meets and befriends one of the kitchen hands, who has his own passion for literature.

But not everyone in the household is pleased. The reading starts to take over from official duties. And the Queen becomes less than compliant.

Bennett provides wry commentary and pokes a gentle stick (apologies Camilla) at the monarchy - more specifically, all the lackeys and advisors - revealing a very royal, and very real monarch, who is starved of intellectual stimulation. He is not quite scathing, but certainly critical of 'the firm'.

This apparently simple tale wears it's quality lightly. Parody, cultural references, tightly written dialogue and characterisation jostle with laugh-out-loud moments.

I *loved* this book. Essential reading.

A book a week in 2010: Waiting to Burn by Angela Cleland

Waiting to Burn is a collection of poems. One of three winners of the Templar Poetry Prize in 2006, Angela Cleland has written a collection full of beautiful memories and reminiscences.

Drawing on classics - there's a smattering of Zeno, Hermes, Eurydice and Orpheus - and contemporary snapshots, she creates pure moments of longing and reflection. She takes the mundane - clothes dumped on the floor, a light - and turns them into startling insights. 'Cardigans' and 'Electricity' are wonderful.

The title poem, 'Waiting to Burn' (in eight parts) is a tour de force of insight into patience, witches and waiting.

Beautiful, haunting stuff.

Read an interview with Angela on
Templar Poetry website

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: The Insult by Rupert Thomson

Languishing on our bookshelves, I discovered The Insult while clearing out clutter before Christmas. The other half had read it. It looked well thumbed so I guessed it was a good book.*

Rupert Thomson is an English author who has a decidedly European voice. This is partly explained by a well-travelled life, but I did read the book feeling like it was a very smart piece of commissioning of a foreign translation.

The Insult is about a man, Martin Blom, who is shot in the head in a car park, leaving him in hospital, permanently blind. However, he soon discovers he has a miraculous gift: he can see at night or in darkness. But his initial concerns about the doctor and his treatment continue to growth, even after he has been discharged and settled away from his family, making a fresh start in the city. It is only his search for the whereabouts of his on/off girlfriend that lead him to discover the truth about his condition and that of her family.

We never get to know why he was shot. That's not the point of the book. This is a story set in a twilight hinterland. It provides a startling perspective on what it might be like to lose your sight. You are never quite sure what is going on, but it makes for an engaging, macabre and slightly surreal read. Peopled by a range of shifty and bizarre characters who live on the fringe, it's set against a backdrop of the city in the dark and sulphurous country lakes.

The Insult is a bizarre read that I found strangely unsatisfying in the end. But this is not your average thriller.

(*Mark's enjoyment of a novel is always commensurate with the amount of physical interaction he has with it: pages turned down at the corner when he pops off to get a drink; spine broken into ridges across the cover; corners battered as it's carried around on his commute - you get the picture. This is in total contrast to me, borderline OCD, who groans in agony when they see someone folding a page.)

A book a week in 2010: Test Paper by Linda Cash

This is a collection of poems with a number of ingredients.

Take some fruit;
and some scars on the body,
and cancer.

Add some longing
and lust;
some death
and remembrance of heartache.

Add a questionnaire at the end
that will test your knowledge
of the poet's intentions.

Delightful. Read aloud.

Buy the book

A book a week in 2010: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Published in 1864, Notes from Underground is acclaimed as a precursor to twentieth-century existentialism. (Source: Wikipedia). Fyodor Dostoevsky is better known for Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, but I bought a lovely Vintage Classics collection and thought I'd have a first stab at Russian literature.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the easy introduction that I was hoping for.

Notes from Underground is a stream of consciousness confession of a Russian civil servant. He is one of the most odious, self-obsessed, narcissistic characters ever written. An utterly vile protagonist.

I've never had much truck with existential literature. This wasn't an exception. The turgid and convoluted text takes you through a series of incidents from the protagonist's past. He recounts utterly despicable and mad behaviour; where his treatment of others - from 'supposed' school friends, to his servant, and a prostitute - is appalling.

Notes from Underground was hard work and no fun.

BUT (and here's the good bit) Dostoevsky's genius shines through. As I slogged through with my end of year deadline in mind, I started to feel that by creating the most vile of protagonists, he was completely describing one facet of the human condition.

He has littered the text with references to contemporary philosophical, political and cultural thinking, which provides an insight - if at times a little dry - into Russian society of the day.

None-the-less, this is a challenging read. I may wait a bit before I tackle Crime and Punishment.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Alice by Jane Weir

'Much better read out loud.'

That's what this collection of poetry should have emblazoned on the front cover. I started reading, but kept losing track. But as soon as I started to speak, it all fell into place.

Alice is a collection of poems inspired by the story of Alice Wheeldon, the suffragette and anti-war campaigner who ran a clothes shop in Derbyshire. Jane Weir weaves the clothing among the words: from a scarf to knitting and skeins, trouser suit to coat. It makes it all feel comfortable, like the words fit. (This is a particular focus of her work: she has subsequently gone on to write in more detail around textiles and textile designers.)

Aside from the joy of hearing the sound of my own voice when reading out loud, I felt admiration for the woman that inspired them, and there's a distant yearning and passion you can't quite put your finger, that's very compelling.

This slim volume comes with a CD of Weir reading. I won't bother listening. I doubt she'll be better than me. But I think I'll come back to this again and again: it feels like a classic collection in the making.

A book a week in 2010: BP Portrait Award catalogue

Have you ever been to the National Portrait Gallery?

It's opposite St Martin-in-the-Fields church, just off Trafalgar Square, and is one of the nicest places to meet friends, dip in for a bit of art, then soak up a bit of London history and culture that drives droves of tourists to visit the city regardless of the time of year.

If you're a skinflint like me, the permanent collections are free. You can select by room or collection. The Tudor and Elizabethan section is my favourite: it's nice to see the faces of characters I've read about.

You can also pay a fee for one of the temporary exhibitions - currently showing Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance and Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.

The NPG runs an annual competition: the BP Portrait Award. They show the shortlist at the gallery each year where you can jostle with large crowds to catch a glimpse of the winners. I've always loved this - a hangover from studying art history at university where Modigiliani, Manet and Ingres produced some stunning portraits - so I decided to visit in summer 2010.

The first prize in 2010 went to Daphne Todd entitled 'Last Portrait of my Mother'. It is a painting of two adjoining canvases and is a haunting depiction of her mother on her death bed, looking cadaverous, to say the least.

The second prize went to Michael Gaskell's 'Harry': a strong, almost photographic view of a young man showing pride, youth and an underlying vulnerability.

Third prize went to the astonishingly hyperreal 'Tim II' by David Eichenberg. I hovered by this painting for a long time, trying to figure out if it was a photograph. The incredible detail was mind-blowing, showing technical and observational brilliance, particularly as it is set in a workshop (not your average portrait setting).

While I loved David Eichenberg, I didn't particularly warm to the other winners. The catalogue includes all of the shortlist; some 58 portraits out a total of 2,177 submissions. There is an introductory essay written by the novelist Rose Tremain. Through personal reflection she describes what it means to be a good portrait painter. It's a beguiling and modest view, what you would expect from an author of her genre and calibre.

These are favourites paintings from the exhibition, most of which don't totally lose their power when reproduced in a small exhibition catalogue.
  • Ciara by Alan Coulson (page 29): hyperreal was a watchword for this exhibition and this is no exception. The depiction of hair and freckles has you craning forward to check if it's a photograph or painted. I particularly love the downwards tilt of the head. The skin tone is beautifully set against the teal background.
  • Gillian by Miriam Escofet (page 37): reminds me Dutch and Flemish still life and portrait painting with the detail of the fur collar and gilt candlestick. Stunningly detailed.
  • Quena by Eliot Haigh (page 40): the chiaroscuro of this very modern portrait reminds me of Rembrandt, but with mid-twentieth century atmosphere.
  • Sandy Watching by Alex Hanna (page 42): anyone who's watched children watching telly will love this. A brilliant depiction of a child concentrating.
  • Sentinel by Lyndsey Jameson (page 47): Stig of the Dump? Lord of the Flies? In Peckham? You decide.
  • iBeats by Michal Ožibko (page 60): don't let the reproduction of this fool you. This is an EPIC painting. Hyperreal and photographic, the 2.2 x 1.7 metre canvas is a triumph of technical skill. The subject is totally immersed in her iPod world and has an ethereal, almost pre-Raphaelite quality (apart from the white earphones).
  • Chris, Art Critic by Fred Schley (page 67): if only because it reminds me of a former colleague (and it's got that same incredible photographic quality of some other finalists).

A book a week in 2010: Sarah by J T Leroy

What happens when Cherry Vanilla tries to get a bigger Raccoon Penis Bone necklace - a gift and symbol of importance from Glad, the pimp - by visiting Holy Jack's Jackalope, the patron saint of prostitutes?

Claustrophobic and compelling, Sarah is the story of a child born into a life hanging round truck stops who aspires to be the best, but ends up kidnapped by another pimp.

Using a cast full of hateful characters, Leroy recounts in visceral detail the brutal logic and market commerce rules of their world, where strange allegiances are tested by favouritism and betrayals.

Despite all of the squalor and seediness, Leroy is a master of making the extreme matter of fact, and the vile just part of life.

This is one fucked up tale: yet strangely moving and poignant.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Pillars of Salt by Judy Brown

Another collection of poetry from Templar Poetry, Pillars of Salt is sadly, rather disappointing.

I just couldn't get into the poems. There was the odd line that I liked, but overall I couldn't get the feel of Judy Brown's voice. It seemed inconsistent and there wasn't a flow - in subject or tone - that piqued my interest.

Brown covers a diverse range of subjects on memories, regret and family. Some of the language jarred and it lacked a coherence.

Poetry is an immersive, personal genre. Sometimes I like reading on the page, sometimes I prefer to read out loud. Neither worked this time. But I am sure others will disagree vociferously as Brown is a Poetry Society prize winner.

Not my cup of tea.

A book a week in 2010: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea reminded me why I've loved the Book a Week in 2010 project: it can turn into a voyage of discovery. I'd never read any Hemingway before. What a mistake. He's a wonderful writer and I intend to address this omission.

This is a beautiful book: a fable about stoicism, patience, acceptance, joy and endurance. It follows the relationship between a young boy and an old fisherman - pupil and teacher - and the capture of a very big fish.
Hemingway whisks you away to another place, where life is simple, but you feel in touch with universal truths.

The writing is stunning. I can't wait to read more. The repackaged covers that Arrow have produced are also gorgeous, so this will be a print collection I build, rather than on the Kindle.

Let me know if you have a particular Hemingway favourite that I should read next.

A book a week in 2010: The Dare by John Boyne

John Boyne is the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Dare is a novella published in 2009 for the Quick Reads programme.

Danny Delaney lives at home with his mum and dad. It's the summer holidays and his older brother, who is at university, has decided to travel round Europe, so Danny is on his own. But everything gets turned on its head when his mum is brought home by the police after an accident. Danny can only look on helplessly as his mum withdraws from the family.

The Dare does what Boyne is renowned for: telling challenging and heart-wrenching stories from a child's perspective. He recreates the world of a child during the summer holidays complete with secret hiding places, sun bleached colours, bike rides and other simple pleasures.

But Boyne succeeds best with the powerful depiction of an eight year old's logic and the limited world that it operates in. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith

"Ah," I thought to myself "a bonkbuster about publishing. Just what I need for a bit of light relief." And boy, does Bestseller fit the bill.

Goldsmith takes you on a rollicking, bumpy ride through the world of publishing. With all of its overblown egos, croneys, champagne parties and hidden talents.

Terry O'Neal has spent her whole life writing a magnum opus, but to no avail. Rejection after rejection from literary agents and publishers have pushed her to the limit.

Camilla Clapfish (Clapfish...?!) is an aspiring author who has just finished her first novel living in Italy. When she meets an American tourist on holiday with his mother, little does she know how this will shape and influence her life.

Judith and Daniel are writing a book together. He is an academic, her former creative writing tutor, and now her husband. She is a true talent. They are eeking out a living on Daniel's paltry salary at the university and he's desperate to hit the literary big time. Just how far will he go to get there?

Susann is a successful romantic novelist. She has a lifetime of bestselling novels under her belt, aided and abetted by her partner and literary agent, Alfred Byron. But the latest book is a proving a real struggle to write. And the increasing frustration and impatience of Alf is not helping. At all.

Gerald Ochs Davis is top of the literary tree in New York. As head of Davis & Dash, he controls one of the most powerful publishing houses in the world. His backing of an author can make or break them. But does he still have it? The Fall list - including his own blockbuster - will be make or break.

Set against a backdrop of ruthlessness and immorality, we see the good, the bad and the not-quite-ugly struggle to survive. This is a world where the benchmark of success is your position on the New York Times Book List. And where you are only as good as your last book.

Olivia Goldsmith was quite obviously a flamboyant character. Her acknowledgements page is stuffed full of references to key figures in the publishing world, some of whom make an appearance in the book.

Utter nonsense. Entertaining nonetheless.

A book a week in 2010: Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 by Rob Hindle

The Sheffield Flood in 1864 was a catastrophic event that claimed 270 lives. It is ranked as the 20th deadliest flood of all time by Armageddon Online (hat tip to Wikipedia for link). The cause was a breach in the newly built dam on the River Loxley at Low Bradfield which poured 700 million imperial gallons of water south into the centre of Sheffield. (Source: Wikipedia)

Rob Hindle is a writer and academic based in Sheffield. He's particularly interested in how his writing can help bring history to life. And this collection of poems is about the Flood.

He provides snapshots of the lives of those affected by the tragedy: whether survivors, media observers or the dead. Each poem is poignant and evocative: sometimes because they are truly mundane in tone, describing the day to day as disasters looms, and the character has no idea of what is about to befall them.

But he also portrays all the deformities, tin pans, wrought iron, smog and disease of Victorian life. Nineteenth century existence, warts and all. The first person narratives are interspersed with snippets and announcements from the archives.

This is a powerful and moving collection.

About the publisher - Templar Poetry

A book a week in 2010: The Grey Man by Andy McNab

Kevin is Deputy Manager at a bank in town. He spends his life covering for Mr Symington, the Manager, and daydreaming about how he'd foil a bank robbery.

Linda is Kevin's wife. Even though they don't lead an exciting life, she is happy and content. They are very much in love and will do anything for each other.

Jessica Drake is an actress, well past her prime, playing the lead in Lady Windermere's Fan at the local theatre. She likes to keep her valuables in a bank wherever she stays.

This is a tale of banks, robberies and how far a man will go when pushed.

Written in very clear, straightforward prose, this was an easy read. It won't win any prizes. It isn't complex, highbrow writing. But the mundane life of the characters and childlike writing style - surprisingly - make this entertaining.