Review: The Revenge of Analog – Real Things and Why They Matter, by David Sax

April 5th, 2018

To be honest, I bought this book in a small, independent bookshop in San Francisco, where I spotted it while browsing a few days earlier, and not on Amazon. I read it as a paperback, not on my Kindle. And I guess that’s part of the point author David Sax was making: we still use analog for a lot of things and there’s evidence that we increasingly do so.

The sales of vinyl records are booming, physical notebooks (Moleskines are the best known) are selling like hotcakes, and bookshops (as well as physical books) are starting to make a comeback. Sax writes well, and travelled far and wide to meet the people who manufacture vinyl records, paper notebooks, even luxury analog watches made in the heart of the post-industrial wasteland of Detroit.

I was inspired to go out and buy yet another paper notebook (my favourite is Leuchtturm1917 rather than Moleskine), to get out a board game we bought last summer (Pandemic), and to buy my latest novel (The Boy on the Bridge) from a local bookshop rather than online.

Sax isn’t arguing that we all need to do this. He’s saying it’s happening anyway, and he wants to explain why.

Review: Sell Your Book Like Wildfire – The Writer’s Guide to Marketing & Publicity

March 29th, 2018

Rob Eagar’s book is actually a very good introduction to the subject of book marketing for authors. Though lacking in specifics on some things (like how to get speaking gigs), his emphasis is on practical steps like building an author’s website, getting media interviews, and so on. He’s acutely aware of the fact that in today’s market, publishers expect authors to do much more to generate sales of their books, and the days are long gone when an author’s work was done when the manuscript was submitted.

Review: The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey

March 28th, 2018

Having recently read a dystopian novel ruined by a poor ending (The Power), this book works all the way through, from the unforgettable opening scene to an ending that seems, in retrospect, inevitable.

The story is set in a world destroyed by a fungus which takes over brains and turns humans into flesh-eating zombies.

The main character is Melanie, a young girl who is — well, that issue is the subject of the whole story.

The characters in the book are three dimensional for the most part, and one’s attitude to one or the other character changes as the story progresses.

The only consistent feeling is one of sympathy for Melanie, the young girl at the centre of the story.

The question of why dystopian fiction is so appealing to our cultures today is an interesting one, but it was not addressed in the author interview that features at the end.

I was glad to have discovered M.R. Carey and look forward to reading more of his work.

Review: Your First 100 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book, by Tim Grahl

March 9th, 2018

It’s an appealing title, and the book was cited in a rather good article I read recently, so I thought I’d give it a chance. Tim Grahl has some good ideas, and some opinions which I share. For example, he’s convinced that email is a far more effective way of reaching people that social networks like Facebook, and I think he’s right. That’s been my experience as an Internet campaigner. But this short book offers little practical advice — even something as simple as “should I buy ads on Facebook or Twitter” is not mentioned, not even once. And while there are some examples in the book of authors Grahl knows (and has had as clients) their stories are not particularly inspiring. It might have been useful to find examples of authors he didn’t necessarily advise, authors who have made real contributions to marketing their own books. For those of us who write books, learning about marketing them is important. Unfortunately, this book contributes very little to that.

Review: Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

March 8th, 2018

The central plot idea for this book is terrific.

I won’t be giving much away as this appears in the first few pages. A CIA analyst specialising in tracking down Russian sleeper agents in the US stumbles upon a file with photos of some of these. One of them turns out to be her husband. When she confronts him with the question ‘how long have you been spying for Russia?’ instead of denying it, he immediately replies, ’22 years.’

But after this brilliant opening, most of the novel revolves around the heroine struggling to figure out what to do, reminiscing about her relationship with her husband and looking back at decades of deceit and manipulation by him. It is abundantly clear that the husband has been using his wife on behalf of the Russian intelligence services from day one, and yet she is convinced that deep down he really, really loves her and their children. To call this implausible would be an understatement.

For much of the book, not much actually happens. When it finally does, some reviewers have expressed real surprise at the ‘shocking twist’. But if you’ve ever read a thriller, you can see this one coming from a mile away. Need to Know could have been a much better book — it had real promise.

Review: Through Bolshevik Russia, by Mrs. Philip Snowden

March 7th, 2018

I first learned of this book because Ethel Snowden was one of the European socialist and labour leaders who visited independent Georgia in 1920. Georgia was at that time ruled by the Mensheviks, democratic socialists who rejected the dictatorial rule of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In her account of that visit, she contrasted the happy, well-fed Georgians with the people she’d met during her earlier visit to Russia, which is the subject of this book.

Published in September 1920 while she was in Georgia, this book offers a surprisingly balanced and nuanced view of the Bolsheviks in power. Snowden was no fan of the Bolsheviks, and is furious at the “Extraordinary Commission”, the organisation that later became famous as the Cheka, the GPU, NKVD, KGB, and so on. But she meets many decent Bolsheviks, committed to making the revolution work. She is a strong opponent of the British blockade and British support for the White armies of Denikin and Kolchak.

Oddly, she doesn’t mention Georgia even once, though she encounters Russian Mensheviks. By this time, the Mensheviks, who enjoy a kind of semi-legality before the Bolsheviks finally outlaw them, are winning election after election in the local Soviets. But it is not to last.

The book is very clearly written, and Snowden fully understands the unfolding tragedy in Russia. A forgotten gem.

Review: Stalin’s Nemesis – The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky, by Bertrand M. Patenaude

January 24th, 2018

I bought this book when it first came out and when I began reading it, for some reason it didn’t grab me and I put it aside. Having just read it now, years later, I cannot imagine what the problem was.

This is a brilliantly-written and thoroughly-researched study of the very last years of Trotsky’s life, the years of his exile in Mexico leading up to his murder by a Soviet agent in 1940. Patenaude tells the story well, with few signs of bias. Only once does he judge Trotsky negatively, referring to him as “the man who helped create the first totalitarian state, which even now he championed as the world’s most advanced country”.

Much of the story is quite familiar territory, and yet it was still deeply sad to read of the fates of all those involved in this story — the assassin Ramon Mercader feted in Moscow as a hero, the attempted assassin (the painter David Siqueiros, who led an earlier, botched raid on Trotsky’s compound) going on to a glorious career as an artist, and the betrayal by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, once Trotsky’s closest friends in the country and his protectors, who went on to become Stalinists, members of the Mexican Communist Party.

The Trotsky Patenaude discovers is a difficult man and a terrible politician, but a loving husband and father as well. Highly recommended.

Review: Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

January 14th, 2018

This book has been so hyped, so much written about it, that there are probably few surprises in it for the reader. However, there’s quite a difference between spending five minutes reading the highlights and sitting down for five or six hours, immersing oneself in the horror show that is the Trump administration.

In a word, Michael Wolff’s book is brilliant. It’s a political thriller with an absurd premise: that the President of the United States is a complete idiot who is also possibly insane, and that everyone around him knows this to be true.

The first victim of the success of this book of this is its central character other than Trump, Steve Bannon who had the ambition to replace Trump as the next president. If Michael Wolff has done nothing else, he’s put an end to the career of this arrogant fascist and for that deserves our full thanks.

After reading this book, and the noting the reaction to its publication, I’d say the question is no longer if Trump is removed from office, but how. I’m betting on a resignation. But impeachment would do just as well.

If this book makes that happen even one day sooner, that’s more than most authors could ever dream of achieving. Well done, Michael Wolff, and thank you.

Review: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

January 8th, 2018

Imagine a world in which one gender has all the power, controlling the economy, society, politics, and so on. A world in which members of one gender can exploit and abuse members of the other with impunity. Doesn’t take much to imagine that, does it?

Except that Naomi Alderman’s dystopian novel imagines a world in which women, not men, have “the power”.

In her world, given all the power over men that men previously held over women, women behave as badly as men have done. In scenes of increasing brutality and violence, dominant women rape and kill men, and in one harrowing scene, compel a male servant to lick up broken glass from the floor.

The story builds up well, focusing on a handful of memorable characters for whom we develop a certain sympathy. But by the end, the story seems to go nowhere and the unsatisfying ending — while deliberate — remains unsatisfying.

Review: Artemis, by Andy Weir

December 30th, 2017

Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian, was nearly perfect. As I read it, I remember thinking: This is why I used to love reading science fiction. The film version starring Matt Damon, while passable, didn’t capture even a fraction of the magic of a book that was a paean to science.

Artemis, Weir’s second book, is set on the Moon. Like The Martian, its lead character faces a number of challenges, and solves them using science and reason.

And there the resemblance ends. Artemis feels wrong from the very first page and gets wronger as the book progresses. Though Weir gets that a human city on the Moon sometime in next century is likely to be populated by peoples of all countries (Artemis is the name of that city), its component parts are named after American astronauts. One of the four people immortalised in this way is Alan Shepard who was, um, the second man in space after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Weir’s American-centric view of the world — in spite of making his lead character an Arab woman (who is Saudi only in name – she behaves exactly like a young American woman would) — can be summed up in this sentence: “Thank god [sic] Vietnamese uses a subset of the English alphabet.” (I wonder what alphabet the author thinks the French or Germans use — are these all “subsets of the English”?)

The plot is absurd, the characters two dimensional, even the imagined future city poorly thought out. I was so excited when I saw that the author of a great book like The Martian had written another – and so disappointed by this result.