Monday, 29 December 2014

My year in books 2014

As I usually do at this time of year, I decided to review my year of reading in 2014, what books I've loved, what books I haven't etc. First thing I noticed is that it wasn't a big year for reading for me, only about 25 books read which I'm sure is half my total from 2013. I also picked up and put down a few more books this year. I think this represents general busyness rather than anything else.

I read quite a mix of books during the year, no surprise there but weren't all my usual type of books. I'll look at them genre by genre.

Sci-fi/Fantasy

My most read author of the year was Alastair Reynolds. I finished off his Revelation Space trilogy with 'Absolution Gap', and also read the companion book of short stories: Galactic North. I've also read the first two books in his Poseidon's Children trilogy (the third one is out in early 2015). My favourite book of his read this year though, and a contender for my book of the year was 'House of Suns'. Set in the far future, this was a brilliant, action packed and yet thoughtful and evocative book. It doesn't get much better than that.

I also read the first book in Peter F Hamilton's new duology, 'The Abyss Beyond Dreams', which was excellent. Also went to a book signing and talk in Liverpool, which was really really interesting and the first time I've met him. Really looking forward to the sequel.

Also in science fiction, I read 'Songs of Distant Earth' by Arthur C Clarke, a good classic novel, but quite slow and not anywhere near as good as say The City and the Stars. Also in the classic science fiction line, I read 'Dune' by Frank Herbert for the first time and have to say it was very good.

I've not read much fantasy in a long time, but I'm currently reading the first book in the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, and finding it a really good read.

I've also read a few science fiction short stories this year, but I've picked and chosen rather than reading whole anthologies (except for the Alistair Reynolds one noted above).

Contemporary

I only actually read one that I'd class as contemporary fiction, and that was 'Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore' by Robin Sloan. This is something of a book for geeks, being a mixture of really old books, secret societies and lots of stuff about Google and the internet. Really enjoyed this one.

Classics

I opted for the shorter classics this year, reading 'The Great Gatsby' by F Scott Fitzgerald. It was an interesting read, and did capture the late gilded age quite well. I wouldn't say it was a book I enjoyed, but then again I'm not sure I was supposed to.

I also read 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens just before Christmas. I know the story of course (who doesn't?) but had never read the book before. I really enjoyed it, and found it quite witty in tone, which I wasn't expecting.

It should be noted here that I started reading Catch-22 by Joseph Heller but gave up a few chapters in. I get that it is an important book, but I just couldn't be bothered. It is a long book and would have been a slog. I read for enjoyment, and this wouldn't have been enjoyable for me.

Non-fiction

I'm reading a lot less non-fiction than I used to, but did read several excellent non-fiction books this year. They were:

'Down Under' by Bill Bryson about his exploration of Australia and its history. This is Bill Bryson at his best, funny yes, but very informative. I learned a lot, laughed a fair bit and enjoyed every minute of it. It got the right balance for me, as if I don't learn much from one of his books, I find it quite empty. This though was great.

'Cider with Rosie' by Laurie Lee. Classic memoir of a young boy growing up in a Cotswold village in the early 20th century, before the modern world intervened. Beautiful writing, and a window into a world lost forever.

'Ancient Rome' by Simon Baker. The only non-fiction history book I read this year. I've been interested in Ancient Rome for a while, and this gave a really good telling of the various different Emperors, right up the the fall of the Roman Empire. Fascinating stuff but an easy read too.

'Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different' by Karen Blumenthal. A short biography, very interesting. I like tech and business history. No doubt much less comprehensive than Walter Isaacson's definitive biography (indeed it references and quotes this book often), but so much quicker to read!

Historic fiction

I started out by reading 'A Gathering Light' by Jennifer Donnelly which is a (somewhat) literary historic novel, based around a murder that took place in New York state around the turn of the 20th century, but also a young woman's coming of age story. It was recommended by my wife, and I really enjoyed it, which shifted my reading interests a little. I went on to read two Tracy Chevalier books 'The Last Runaway' about a young Quaker woman who goes to live in America, and 'Remarkable Creatures' about Mary Anning, a real life fossil hunter from Lyme Regis. Both really good books, really evocative of history. These introduced me to a different (and better) kind of historic fiction than I'm used to.

I also then read 'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro, a truly amazing book about a butler in an old English country house (think Carson from Downton Abbey). Another contender for book of the year.

Also read 'Crocodile on the Sandbank' by Elizabeth Peters, the first in her Amelia Peabody series set in the late 19th/early 20th century. Light reading but quite enjoyable.

Oh and then there was Longbourn by Jo Baker, basically Pride and Prejudice but told from the perspective of a servant girl. Interesting, decent read.

Crime/thriller

Last but not least are crime thrillers of which I read several. 'First Daughter' by Eric Van Lustbader was a Kindle Unlimited read, which I really enjoyed. Would definitely read more about this character, federal agent Jack McLure. Also read Jack Reacher book 18 'Never go Back' by Lee Child. A good solid read, but not as good as his early books. Then there was 'Indigo Slam' by Robert Crais which is a decent Elvis & Cole novel but confess I don't remember any more about.

So that's a whirlwind tour of the books I've read this year. A lot of good books, and one or two outstanding ones. I expanded my reading tastes to include some literary books, particularly literary historical fiction which I enjoyed far more than I expected to.

Top three books of the year are:

'House of Suns' by Alastair Reynolds
'Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro
'Down Under' by Bill Bryson

Later, I might look ahead to what I want to read in 2015. But that's it for now.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Blogging re-boot

Well I've been singularly useless at the whole blogging thing recently. When I see recently I mean like the last two months, since my last post was on 1st November. In my defence, I've had two of the busiest months ever for one reason or another, a lot of it to do with work. However I'm bang in the middle of two weeks off, so if I can't write a post now, I might as well give up permanently.

My last post (on 1st November believe it or not) was about a November writing challenge I set myself. Unfortunately I didn't achieve quite what I set out to, but the good news is that I did decidedly better than I did with blogging. I set myself the goal of four short stories during November. I actually wrote two, or three if you count the one I wrote at the end of October. Two were science fiction, one was a historical short story, set during the Christmas Truce of World War One, a hundred years ago this Christmas. That one was for a Daily Express short story competition. I didn't win, obviously, but it motivated me to write and finish in a short time scale, and actually edit and finish it, something I don't always manage. I might publish on here, or share the link, not decided yet though...

So what am I hoping to do with my Blog re-boot? Well it is coming up to New Year, and along with 'Being Less Busy' (which will give me more time to write) one of my resolutions is going to be to write more which includes my blog. Topics will probably vary, as is common with me but include my main areas of interest including books, science fiction, history, science, travel, knowledge & information generally, and also a bit of board gaming... I might do a bit of bookspotting too, as I do really enjoy that, but it is quite time consuming, researching all the books, writing and linking all of the posts etc.

I'm also not going to worry too much about really long or polished posts too, which should mean I post more, but also means I'm off for now. See you tomorrow probably. Byeeeee!


Saturday, 1 November 2014

A November Writing Challenge

Sorry for the long delay - almost a month - since my last post. It's been kind of a busy October, packed weekends and my boss at week taking a three weeks off for a Caribbean Cruise leading me to be rather busy. Hopefully November should be different though...

I've done quite a bit of writing over the last few years, articles, blog posts and the like, but I haven't done any fiction writing for more than five years. It was a decision I took because I was mostly reading non-fiction at the time, and so writing non-fiction made most sense. However these days I'm mostly reading fiction, and I've been itching to get back to having a go at fiction again. It's November, and so I could do NanoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, for anyone that doesn't know, is a writing challenge each year where you aim to write 50,000 words of a novel in November. However, I don't think it is the best starting point for a return to fiction writing. Even if I achieved it, I'd have a half finished, really crap novel. I don't have any illusions about this. I wasn't a particularly good writer of fiction in the first place, I'm sure I'm a lot worse now. But with practice I can get better - I hope.

So for this November, I'm doing my own challenge. I'm going to try and write four short stories this month, one a week. Each story will probably be between two and five thousand words. This will help me get back into writing, and if by some chance I think any of them are half decent I can always submit them for publication (otherwise I'll probably just publish them on here). I've got a few ideas, but I've not fixed on all the stories to write yet, except that a couple of them will be science fiction, one or two won't be. I'm planning the first now, hopefully will start writing tomorrow. It's a historical fiction story for a competition. More details soon.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bookspotting... A New Approach

Previously when I've wanted to do a spot of Bookspotting, I've set out in a morning to spot books and not seen ANY at all. But when I don't have time for a lengthy bookspotting post I see loads. So now I've got an Amazon 'wishlist' just for bookspotting so whenever I spot a book I go on my phone and add to the list straight away. I just hope no one looks on this list when buying me Christmas presents because not all are to my taste. Anyway, I've been doing this for a bit now and have enough for at least a couple of decent posts. So I'll start at the beginning...

Oh and if you're new to Bookspotting, here's my first bookspotting post which describes what it's all about.

'The Lives of Stella Bain' by Anita Shreve. I've not heard of the book before, but I have heard of the author. She used to be one of my mum's favourite authors (and my wife's as has just been pointed out), and I've bought more than one of her books as birthday or Christmas presents. I've asked my wife, Kate, and she describes Anita Shreve's books as 'evocative' and categorises them as women's fiction. They tend to either be set in the present or in a recent historical (i.e. 20th century) setting. The Lives of Stella Bain, published last year, is her first book since 2010. It features the title character Stella Bain, who has lost her memory after the trauma of surviving WW1 battlefields in northern France. A quote on the front cover describes the book as "Part Downton Abbey, part Atonement and part something else altogether."

'Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro was next up. A hardback copy interestingly, despite having been out many years. I've only read one book by Ishiguro (Remains of the Day), but am keen to read more. This book is set in alternative present day (well, 1990s) England, part science ficiton but written by a master of literary fiction. This book was - deservedly by all accounts - shortlisted for the Booker Prize but is very readable and has received popular acclaim.

'Mercy' by Jussi Adler-Olsen is next, a book until now I'd never heard of. From the name of the author I guessed it was one of a growing crowd of Scandinavian imports and I was right as it is straight out of the Danish bestseller lists. 'Mercy' is the first in a series of 'Department Q' novels, following Detective Carl Morck (there should be a sort of accent thingy, but not sure if Blogger supports Danish letters...). He's been taken off homicide to run a newly created unsolved crimes unit (it's amazing how many literary detectives this happens to isn't it?). The book gets really good reviews and ratings on Amazon, and if you like police procedurals and Scandinavian crime this is definitely one to check out.

Clive Cussler is a name that has been on the bookshelves in your local bookshop/library for decades already, and appears to be still going strong. He is an American author who writes adventure novels and thrillers, while at the same time being a marine archeologist responsible for helping find over 60 shipwreck sites worldwide. Many of his books are maritime adventures which use his knowledge and experience of marine archeology, while also being considered techno thrillers with some alternate history elements. The book of his I spotted was 'The Thief' which is the fifth book in the 'Isaac Bell' series, featuring an early 20th century private investigator. While historical, it apparently features its fair share of cutting edge gadgets including telegraph, telephone and airplanes! 'The Thief' was co-written by Justin Scott, a prolific author in his own right.

Lastly for now is 'First Daughter' by Eric Van Lustbader. I first remember Eric Van Lastbader from my days of reading mostly fantasy fiction, but these days he's firmly in the thriller category, particularly known for taking over from the late Robert Ludlum and writing new Jason Bourne novels. In 'First Daughter' Jack McClure is a federal agent grieving after his daughter was killed in a tragic accident. When his daughter's best friend is kidnapped he is asked to help find her by the girls father... who is just weeks away from becoming President of the United States. This is the first in a series of political thrillers featuring Jack McClure. If you like books by David Baldacci, you'll probably like these books. And this book is available for free on Kindle Unlimited, in the UK at least, so I may just check it out.




Monday, 29 September 2014

Thank You Jeeves

If anyone follows me on Goodreads, they'll notice I've been quite lax recently and not posted any reviews of books I've recently read which is unlike me so it's time to play catch up.

I've never read any Jeeves & Wooster books before, or anything by P.G. Wodehouse and I've long thought this is a gap in my reading landscape which needed correcting. So I did my research and discovered that 'Thank You Jeeves' is the first full length Jeeves & Wooster novel published, so opted for that one. There'd been lots of short stories written before, but bypassed them for now as I tend to prefer novels.

For anyone who's not heard of Jeeves & Wooster, they are the main characters in a series of comedy books by P.G. Wodehouse. Jeeves is an extremely efficient, intelligent and long suffering butler to Bertie Wooster an upper class English gentleman of average intelligence and below average common sense.

'Thank You Jeeves' starts off with Wooster annoying the hell out of everyone with his latest obsession of playing the banjo. He gets told to leave his apartment as he is regularly disturbing the neighbours, and much worse, his butler Jeeves hands in his notice as he can't stand the banjo playing either. Wooster thinks he'll manage fine without Jeeves, but is soon more in need of him that ever when his former fiance suddenly reappears in his life, and a series of scrapes and mix ups ensue.

I enjoyed my first foray into Jeeves & Wooster. The inevitable disasters which befall Wooster are comical, even a bit farcical, as are some of the ways he manages to get out of them, usually with Jeeves help (even though Jeeves isn't in his employ for much of the book). I got on with it a lot better than I do with most 'comic fiction'. Wodehouse writes really well, never quite falling into the downright silly category, and there is good description and setting, interesting characters and a plot that mostly hangs together okay. My only criticism of it was that perhaps it was a little bit long. Now it isn't a long book by most standards, less than 300 pages, but there were a couple two many plot twists and the joke was starting to wear slightly thin in places. I always find comedic fiction feels a little longer than other books as the plot doesn't carry the reader through in the same way, maybe that's just me.

So the slight length issue aside, I really enjoyed this. I will definitely read more Jeeves & Wooster, possibly by reading some of the short story collections. I can see why Wodehouse wrote so many, as Jeeves & Wooster probably suit this length of story best.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Kindle Unlimited Comes to the UK

This week Amazon launched their Kindle Unlimited service in the UK, so I thought I'd take it out for a spin and see if it is any good?

So what is it? Kindle Unlimited is a kind of Netflix (or LoveFilm/Amazon Prime Video) for books. Subscribers can read as many books as they want for no extra charge after they've paid their subscription from a large selection in the Kindle Unlimited library (over 650,000 according to Amazon). You can get a free 30 day trial, and then it costs £7.99 per month.

Other companies, such as Scribd, have tried the subscription book model, but Amazon has the whole Kindle ecosystem to back it up, with millions of people already reading on their devices and apps. There's also a tasty extra in the form of Audio narration on some books, with Whispersync for audio as standard on these.

Hey, back up a minute. Whisper-what? Basically Whispersync is Amazon's own system whereby if you are reading a Kindle book on multiple devices, it will automatically sync to the latest page you are on, even if you most recently read the book on a different device. This is really good for when you don't have your Kindle with you and want to read for a few minutes on your phone when in the queue. Providing you've got an internet connection (Wi-fi or 3G), it works flawlessly.

Whispersync for audio takes this a step further. Say you've got the Kindle version of a book and the online audiobook version from Audible.co.uk (another Amazon company), you can listen for a few minutes on Audio, then switch back to the Kindle version to read it. Ideal for driving to work when you just have to know what happens next.  Now most people aren't going to buy two copies of a book just so they can do this. This, in theory anyway, is the great thing about Kindle Unlimited. If the book is labeled as 'Kindle Unlimited with Audio Narration' you get the Kindle book AND the audiobook to read free as part of your subscription.

I decided to give this a go. I chose 'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel. It was marked as Kindle Unlimited with Audio Narration. So far so good. I clicked 'Read and Listen for free', which immediately downloaded it onto my Kindle. After loading up the Audible app on my phone I noticed that it had appeared at the top of there too (Although I'm not a current subscriber I have used Audible in the past - if you haven't you can download an Audible app for free from your device's app store). Superb. I started listening to the book while doing the washing up, then migrated to the sofa when I'd finished. Turning off Audible, I picked up my Kindle, selected the book and it immediately prompted me to go to the page I was up to from the audiobook. It worked flawlessly, as did switching back to Audible on my phone later. I was impressed.

That's all very well, but content is the key. Amazon says they have over 650,000 books in the Kindle Unlimited programme, but what does that actually mean? Well it has some impressive headline books including all the Harry Potter books and the Hunger Games trilogy. The reality though is that a large proportion of the books are either classics which would be free anyway, or self-published books from Amazon's own Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. What was also disappointing is that only about 2,000 books out of the 650k have audio narration bundled in free with it.

I was pleased and surprised though to see a good selection of books by Arthur C Clarke in the program. While these don't have free audio, you can add the audio for a discounted £3.99. For the digital and audio versions, this isn't a bad price.

So all in all this is not a bad addition to Amazon's range of services. While you can't search for a book and realistically hope it will be Kindle Unlimited, you can browse a wide range of books and can try lots of new and different books for free. You can also get free or cheap audiobooks as an add on, which can only be a good thing. Will I continue with Kindle Unlimited after the free trial? I'm not sure yet, but it is certainly tempting.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Five Star Reads? Choosing up book by its ratings

Not so long ago choosing a new book to read, particularly by a new or little known author, was pot luck. You might get a good one or you might get a real dud. Even established, popular or critically acclaimed authors are no guarantee you won't get an absolute howler. You looked at a book in the bookshop, read the blurb on the back cover and maybe if you were really dedicated the first few pages. That was usually all you had to go on though, unless there'd been a review in the newspaper or a friend was recommending it. Nowadays however there is such a wealth of information - books reviewed on blogs and websites, discussion forums for like minded readers, automated recommendation tools and more. One of the biggest and best resources to help choose a book though are the millions of customer reviews and ratings available on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. You can easily see what other people thought of the book, and what the average rating of a book gets. How much does this help you choose a good book though, and how can you best use this vast resource?



On its own, a random reader's review and rating might not be as reliable as a critics review. A critic will invariably go some way towards trying to offer a balanced review, if they are reasonably competent. An ordinary reader however reviewing a book on Amazon predominantly relates their own personal review, and their tastes might be very different from your own. What elevates reader reviews and ratings over critics however is when a large number of ratings are combined. This will include a large number of readers of all types with wide variation in tastes. Together, they will form an average rating that is arguably quite a reliable barometer of the quality and enjoyability of a book.

I admit that I often look at a book's rating before choosing whether to read it. Rarely will I start reading a book without a quick check and maybe reading a review or two. As something of a veteran peruser of customer feedback, here are a few pointers to help you better use them to determine whether you might enjoy a book.


  1. Safety in numbers. If there are only one or two reviews they aren't that reliable. Those reviews/ratings could be the author themselves, their wife, best friend, next door neighbour, you get the idea. Authors sometimes even pay people to write positive reviews for them. If there are a large number of reviews and ratings however, it is much harder for the author to influence and will likely contain mostly genuine reviews.
  2. Pay attention to negative reviews. These can often be more helpful then glowing five star reviews, as they will often explain why the reader didn't like the book. You can then sometimes judge whether you might me likely to dislike the same things.
  3. Watch out for irrelevant complaints. There are always some people, particularly on Amazon, who give a 1 star rating which has nothing to do with the actual content or story of the book. This might be a complaint against the website itself because of poor service, or perhaps because there was once a temporary glitch in the system which meant the book was mis-described. I've seen multiple one star ratings because a book was published under one title in a the USA and another title in the UK. People buy the book then are unhappy because they've already read it...
  4. Out of date/earlier versions. You sometimes get poor ratings for a particular version of the book, whether because of a poor binding or lots of typos and copyediting mistakes. This is particularly common with Kindle books. Amazon usually combines reviews for all editions/versions so these all get mixed together. Also, errors in early print runs and Kindle editions often get sorted out within a few months.
  5. Sequel syndrome. If an author writes a book and then writes sequels or later books in a series, then ratings tend to get skewed. The first book has a broad reader base, and this is likely reflected in the reviews and ratings. Sequels and later books in a series are likely to be mostly read by people who have already read the previous books in the series and are already 'fans' of that author or series. So ratings of later books are often higher, unless the author starts to disappoint their fans. 
  6. Not what was expected. The majority of authors write the same type of books each time, and their readership know what to expect. If the author then decides to do something a bit different, it might be very good, but could appeal to a different audience. This is often the case when an author, as most inevitably do, decides to write a children's or young adults book.
  7. Jumping on the bandwagon or sheep readers... Each year, there are a few standout successes in the book world, shifting books in their millions. It will probably be the book everyone's talking about at the office and reading on the train home. There will be thousands of reviews on Amazon, most of them giving it 5 stars. People just don't want to be seen bucking the trend and criticizing the 'in book'. 
  8. When the tough gets going... Some books are just hard work... Catch 22, A Brief History of Time, Ulyssess... Some reviews read, "On the fifth attempt I managed to get through this" and yet still give it 5 stars. If people really work at reading a book, they are almost compelled to look for the good in it, and don't want to think that their time and efforts have been wasted. They "know" it is good, so give it top rating even if they didn't enjoy or really even understand it.
  9. The critics review. This is most common with genre books. The reader likes reading literary and mainstream books and for whatever reason decides to have a go at a Tom Clancy thriller or some epic space opera. Then they'll say things like, "the premise was flimsy", "it was so unrealistic", "it was full of complicated made up things" or "Or I just couldn't empathize with the main character (a little green alien from the other side of the galaxy). No, you don't get it, that's not the type of book it is. Oh never mind...
  10. Look at other reviews by the reviewer. If they've written a bad review, but have reviewed very little else, then they could just be having a rant. If they have written lots of reviews, particularly of similar types of books and ones you like, their opinion could be worth a lot to you.

A final warning. Watch out for spoilers if you are looking through reviews. Most people do flag these up in their reviews so you can avoid them, but not everyone. So if you are the sort that can't bare to find out anything before you read the book, don't get too hung up on reading the reviews. Otherwise, they can really help weed out the duds and free up more time for reading good books you'll actually enjoy!



Friday, 5 September 2014

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me...

I've been nominated on Facebook to come up with a list of 10 books that have stayed with me for some reason. My interpretation of this is that it's a bit different to a 'favourite books list'. There's some great books that I've loved, but don't really stay with me. To get on to this list, it must have had a big effect on me and not been forgotten. There's a wide variety of genres on this list, both fiction and non-fiction, reflecting my broad reading tastes.
  1. 'Sarum' by Edward Rutherford. This is a giant of an historical fiction novel, weighing in at over 1,000 pages. It can be loosely described as the story of England from the end of the last ice age to the early part of the 20th century, quite a long time span! It follows the fortunes of several families through the ages. It is an episodic book, and there can be long gaps in time between each episode, but through the fortunes of the families in the book they all link together quite nicely. This is a book that really has stayed with me, and I've often talked about and recommended to people.
  2. 'A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Travel book. In the early 1930s the author, aged 18, decided to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople (now Istanbul). This is his account of the first part of his journey. A lot of the book chronicles his journey across pre WW2 Germany, a lost world of sleepy villages, dark castles and a way of life stretching back hundreds of years. This world was wiped out forever by the World War 2. A Time of Gifts is widely considered one of the best travel books ever written in the English language.
  3. 'Cold Mountain' by Charles Frazier. Set during the American Civil War, it features Ada, a young woman struggling make a living from her small farmstead, and Inman a war veteran journeying back home to her. Simply one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, really makes me feel like I'm there.
  4. 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline. Ostensibly science fiction, simply because it is set 50 years in the future, it is basically one huge nostalgia-fest for the 1980s, which I caught the tail end of growing up (I was born in 1980). Really fun book.
  5. 'Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is the best book where nothing happens that I've ever read. It is about an aging butler reflecting on his life. It sounds dull, but is utterly captivating and feels so real. I've only read this recently, but I think it will stay with me for a long time.
  6. 'On Writing' by Stephen King. Part memoir, part advice for wannabe writers. It cuts through the cr*p like no other book of its type I've ever come across. Through numerous clear outs and book purges it has remained firmly on my shelves for over a decade.
  7. 'Small Island' by Andrea Levy. An incredible novel set several years after the end of World War 2, about Jamaican immigrants to Britain and the struggles they faced. I was born more than 30 years after this was set, and until I read this I truly had no idea of the racial prejudice in this country in the post-war years, and what it must have been like for those immigrants, but this book showed me. Truly eye opening, and a great, fascinating novel.
  8. 'Cider with Rosie' by Laurie Lee. Memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village. Very famous book which has been on many a school curriculum however I've only recently read it and loved it. Really takes you back to the dying embers of a bygone era.
  9. 'Jennifer Government' by Max Barry. This book might not make it into my list of absolute favourites, but it is a novel stuffed full of ideas that really make you think. It is set in a future where corporations are far more powerful than governments and employees surnames are named after the companies they work for. It's a book in the same vein as 1984 and Brave New World, but easier to read and more fun!
  10. 'Magician' by Raymond E. Feist. I read a lot of fantasy books as a teenager, but this was by far my favourite. Despite being 800 pages, I must have read it at least half a dozen times before I was 20 and thought about it a lot since. So as much as any books on this list, Magician has stayed with me.
So there it is, 10 books that have stayed with me. A mix of different genres, they won't all be everyone's cup of tea, but then it's my list... As part of this nomination thing, I'll be nominating 10 people myself to come up with their own list over on Facebook...

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Little Free Libraries

I've always been something of a fan of roadside stalls and boxes selling a wide variety of produce. When we drive to visit my parents we drive past many little signs for people selling eggs, potatoes, vegetables, firewood, plants etc. And if you've read any of this blog, you know I love books. Well now there is a growing movement of roadside book stalls, not with books to buy but rather books to borrow. They're called Little Free Libraries and there are thousands of them round the world. They're such a great idea, and what's more they look so cute! Typically each Little Free Library has between about 20 and 100 books available for anyone to borrow, free and with no ticket needed and no fines! These mini libraries promote reading and foster a sense of community.

A Little Free Library by Susan McMullan, Lino Lakes, Maine
Many of the Little Free Libraries are made as little model houses with a tile roof, door and windows. This looks really pretty, but actually has a practical purpose, as it keeps out the rain, allows people to see in and open it up to get books out. There's so many different designs out there, as everyone who makes one puts their own unique creativity to work. Some people have even created their own Doctor Who themed library, made to look like a Tardis!

This isn't just a loose, unconnected trend, it is an organised initiative with lots of support for would be Little Free Librarians. Have a look at http://www.littlefreelibrary.org for more details. On the website, you can find a Little Free Library near you - regrettably there aren't many in the UK at the moment, and none near me, but maybe there will be soon. If you want to have your own, you can buy one, make one from scratch or browse and download lots of plans, how to guides and so on. Register your Little Free Library with the website and you are good to go. I'm actually really tempted to have a go at setting up and making one of these myself and put it in the front garden (if I do, I'll post regular updates with my progress). The only slight snag is this is something of a grey area regarding the law, specifically whether you need planning permission. It sounds crazy, I know, but certainly here in the UK there's a possibility that in some areas, you need permission to erect a freestanding structure in front of your property. Of course, this would only be an issue if someone formally complained, and it would have to be one miserable sod to do that (but there are quite a few of those about...)

I've always liked fun, clever ideas that promote reading, and Little Free Libraries are just the latest in this trend. Next up, I'll write a bit about an earlier idea which is still going... Bookcrossing. In the meantime, keep an eye out for a Little Free Library near you, or better yet, set one up!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Bookspotting: Fantasy themed

Tuesday 29th July. On the way home I sat next to teenage guy, headphones in his ears, reading 'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss. This is a chunky epic fantasy novel, the first book in the Kingkiller Chronicles. The guy could almost be me when I was a teenager, head buried in a fantasy tome, albeit he has a cooler hair style than I had...

Patrick Rothfuss came seeimingly from nowhere in 2007 when 'The Name of the Wind' was published. It received a huge amount of popular claim, as well as critical regard from within the sf-fantasy genre. It centres around the main character Kvothe, who relates the story of his life, the majority of the book being in the form of flashbacks.

Across the aisle from me was a bespectacled young woman in a denim jacket, sat reading a hardback copy of 'The Fifth Elephant' by Terry Pratchett (it actually took me a while to get this, involving many surreptitious glances, as the book mostly remained flat on her lap). It was one of those hardback books with a worn clear book protector, a sure sign that this is (or was) a library book. This is a Discworld novel, number 24 to be precise (he's up to number 40 now). This one features  Sam Vines of the city watch, who is sent on a diplomatic mission to the Northern principality of Uberwald. If you are new to Terry Pratchett and Discworld, I'd start somewhere else though, and if you are a die hard Pratchett fan, well you've probably already read it haven't you.

Normally, I'd recommend starting at the beginning, which would be the first discworld book 'The Colour of Magic'. But actually I don't think this is the best book to start with, there are many better Discworld books. I'd start with 'Mort', the first book to feature Death as a main character. That's just my personal opinion though.

That's it for now. A short post, it has been sat in my drafts for a few days waiting for me to add to it, but think it is better to just post as. More soon.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Bookspotting Returns!



It was waiting at Silverdale train station on Saturday evening to pick up my wife, when I got a text from her (actually a Whatsapp if I'm being pedantic). It said: Malorie Blackman, Noughts & Crosses, Girl, Maybe 20 21'. Isn't she good? It served as a gentle reminder that I hadn't done any Bookspotting for a while. I hadn't actually forgotten, I've just been quite busy and seem to have been rushing for trains a lot, or had my head buried in my own book, not spotting other peoples. I'm a bit less busy, so I'm going to pick it up again, albeit I'll aim for a modest once per week bookspotting post. There's lots of other stuff I want to blog about after all.



So the first book is 'Noughts & Crosses' by Malorie Blackman, spotted by my lovely wife, as her train wended its way through the beautiful North Lancashire countryside towards Silverdale. I've seen this book about before, but didn't know anything about it. It turns out it is a young adult science fiction novel, the first in a long series, set in an alternative world. In this different reality, humans evolved while Pangaea was still intact. Pangaea, as some may remember from high school Geography classes, was a single globe spanning supercontinent which existed before this singular land mass fragmented and drifted apart, creating the continents as they are today. In this alternate world, African people gained an evolutionary advantage, and European peoples were enslaved. At the start of the book, slavery had been outlawed but discrimination and segregation still exists. It's a really interesting way of exploring racism.

Malorie Blackman is the UK Children's Laureate at the moment, and has written many books, including several in the Noughts & Crosses series.

Today I spotted 'Changeling' by Steve Feasey being read my a teenage guy. It is a fantasy book about an orphan living in a children's home who gets a visit from a mysterious stranger, Lucien Charron. He soon discovers that vampires, demons and sorcerers exist, and he is the last hereditary werewolf. It is the first in a series of books for children/teenagers.

Also today I spotted 'The Fault in Our Stars' by John Green. It is one of the most popular books of the year, and I covered this in Bookspotting Day 7.

Finally today, I spotted a middle aged woman reading 'Survivor' by Lesley Pearse. The tagline is 'Reckless, beautiful and a born survivor'. This is actually the third book in the 'Belle' series, but the first to feature main character Mariette (daughter of Belle, who was the heroine of the first two books in the series). Mariette is a not very likeable young woman who emigrates  from New Zealand to London in 1938, expecting the glitzy delights of London's West End, but instead having to live through the London Blitz. This experience changes her for the better...

I've never heard of Lesley Pearce before, but if you like historical family sagas, this should be worth checking out. It's reader rating on Amazon is amazing, average of 4.8 out of 5 with 358 reviews written.  310 people rated it 5 stars, 31 people 4 stars, and only 17 people rated it 1, 2 or 3 stars.

If you are someone that has to start at the beginning, you might want to check out 'Belle' and 'The Promise' first.

That's it for now, should give another bookspotting update at the end of the week.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Board Gaming - What's it all about?

I’m a board gamer, and I wanted to write this article to explain a bit about what board gaming is all about, because most people I talk to don’t get it. “Oh so you play board games?” they ask, like that is just a little bit odd for an adult, “Do you mean like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit?”. They invariably choose those two games, because they are usually the only ones that come to mind, dredging up happy (or not so happy) memories of interminable family games of Monopoly as a child. Board gamers then have a real problem explaining that while yes, those are board games, they are nothing like what they play. But I’m going to have a go at explaining here.


The thing to get across first is that Monopoly is actually a really, really bad board game. I’ll venture that if you’ve got happy memories of playing Monopoly as a child (and yes, I do too), it is as much the sitting round having fun with family and friends that you really enjoyed, not the actual gameplay. You’ve probably put on your rose tinted spectacles and airbrushed out the bad stuff. The problems with a game like Monopoly is that it is almost all luck, there’s precious little strategic decisions to make. Most of the time, you just roll the dice, move round the board and leave things up to fate. Once you’ve bought your properties and put some houses on, you’re really just going through the motions for the rest of the game, there are no real decisions to make. It could on for many hours, you never really know, and the chances are for much of that time at least one person will have been eliminated and will either have gone home, or be sulking in the corner. I mean, how bad is that when you wanted to enjoy a family gaming night together?

Monopoly was created in the 1930s, and in its core gameplay has barely changed since then, but board gaming as a whole has moved on massively, and refined what makes a good game, particularly in the last 20 or so years. Modern board games, while varying enormously, tend to have a lot more skill, strategic thinking and real decisions to make throughout the game. You usually have a fairly good idea of how long a game will take, and no players will get eliminated (and in many of the best games there are good ‘catch-up mechanisms’ so even if you do badly early on, you’ll have opportunities to pull it back and win the game in the end). The fundamental joy of board gaming remains the same – having fun sitting around a table with family and friends – but now that experience can actually be fun and interesting rather than frustrating (and is unlikely to start family feuds).
Many games don't even have a board.

The other common mistake people make when someone tells them about board gaming is to think it’s all about war and fighting, possibly with dwarves, goblins and numerous other monsters. I’m not sure where they are getting this idea from (possibly Risk, another childhood classic, or seeing people playing with fantasy style painted Warhammer figures), but again they couldn’t be more wrong. It is no exaggeration to say that board games can be about absolutely anything. Board gaming can let you experience so many different settings and activities. Ever fancy being a pirate or a Caribbean merchant trader in the sixteenth century? There are plenty of games to satisfy that desire. Want to explore space? No problem. Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of a rich uncle leaving you a fortune with the express instructions to enjoy spending his money? There’s a game for that too. Or how about being one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and doing heroic deeds? What about being a cowboy, becoming a billionaire business mogul or treasure hunting in Ancient Egypt? All of these are experiences and hundreds more you can have by playing board games.
A couple of other misconceptions to clear up. Firstly, there doesn’t need to be an actually board. No, seriously. Board gaming is something of an umbrella term, and encompasses card games, dice games and some other games that don’t involve a board. Also, don’t think games have to be long or complicated, many games are very simple and only take a few minutes to play.


Finally, I wanted to dispel the notion that board gaming is somehow nerdy, geeky or childish? I mean, why should it be? Millions of people spend many hours a week playing alone on their X-Box, or sit glued to their computer screens all evening playing World of Warcraft. Frankly that’s far more nerdy than playing board games, and it’s quite anti-social too. Board gaming, by definition is much more of a sociable activity, involving as it does sitting around a table with people chatting and enjoying playing a game together. It’s said that games like Farmville Candy Crush are social games, but the real social gaming surely has to be board gaming.

This is the first of several board gaming articles I'm hoping to put up. Next time, I'll introduce a few great introductory board games to get started with.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Bookspotting Day 8 & 9

It's been a busy couple of days and didn't write anything down, so am going to have to do from memory. Also, I'm writing this early the following week as it has been a busy weekend too. I'll do my best...

The first book I spotted was 'To Hull & Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain' by Tom Chessmyre, which was being read by a trainee accountant colleague of mine. There has been something of a trend in the last decade or so for writing "warts and all" travel books going to the more unfashionable places off the tourist track and this is one of these. Unusually for this sub-sub genre, the author apparently isn't intentionally trying to be funny, its more of a straight up travel book. A straight up travelogue about reputedly dull places, but it gets fairly good reviews on Amazon.

Next book spotted was 'Deadline'. Only problem was I only caught a glimpse of the cover, and not the title. In turns out that there are quite a few books called Deadline, it is particularly popular in the crime genre - there are books by Craig McLay, Simon Kernick, Sandra Brown, John Townsend... All I saw was that it had a green cover with blood splatter and heartbeat monitor. After scrutinising the titles, I found it was 'Deadline' by Mira Grant. This is Book 2 of the Newsflesh Trilogy (the first book is 'Feed'). It's about zombies... in 2014, two viruses, designed to combat the common cold and cancer, combine to form a new virus that... raises the dead. Book One starts out with two bloggers covering an American election, this book is more political and more nuanced than most zombie novels you'll read.

'Swimsuit' by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro. Set in 1906 about the ancestors of Patterson's character Alex Cross, this story is about a swimsuit model who disappaers, and then her parents get the phone call the next day. Seems very run of the mill story, but this gets good reviews.

Arabian Nights. Arabian Nights is a collection of South & West Asian folk tales collected together over the course of centuries. The stories vary depending on the version of the collection you are reading, with some of the more famous stories to Westerners - Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor etc - were actually only added in by English translators although they were undoubtedly Asian folk tales. The overall story which 'frames' many of the others is that of a Persian ruler, Sharyar and his wife Schehezerade. I didn't know anything at all about Arabian Nights before spotting this, other than a vague memory of reading some of the stories in a children's book of tales. But it sounds interesting and as it is free on Kindle, I might just have a read.

'The Black Box' by Michael Connelly was next. It is book 18 in the Harry Bosch crime series, about a Los Angeles police detective. I've read a few Harry Bosch books and they are almost universally good. If you've not read any more you might want to go back to one of his earlier books like 'The Black Echo' which is the first book he features in. But generally, the stories are standalone so you could start with any one of them.


'My Autobiography' by Alex Ferguson marked the first sports related book I've spotted. For those of you who don't know him, he was Manchester United manager from 1986 to 2013, a record in top flight English football. He won the English Premier League with Manchester United 14 years in his tenure, along with lots of other trophies and is considered one of the most successful British football managers ever. There's a lot about his football manager days (particularly the last 10 years or so) and various opinions on football.

On Friday afternoon, I spotted a book with 'Death' in the title by Charlaine Harris but alas didn't note down the name. I looked up on Amazon and most of her books have death in the title, so I can't identify the exact book. It was probably one of her books about 'Sookie Stackhouse' novels, which is a supernatural series about vampires. It formed the basis of the TV series True Blood. If you want to check it out the first book (there are 13 in total) is 'Dead until Dark', first published in 2001.

To finish off for the weekend, there was an older lady reading 'Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy' by Chris Harrison. Until I looked this up later, I thought it was a romance novel, it had that look (and the lady reader was in my eyes a stereotypical older woman who reads romance novels) but it turns out it is a travel book about Italy. The author fell in love with an Italian girl, whom he followed back to Italy and then fell in love with the place too.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bookspotting Day 7


The day didn't start well. I normally like to get to the train station in plenty of time so I can spot anyone reading on the platform, maybe even have a nosy in the waiting room. Today though I was running late and the train was already on the platform so I had to jump on. Then I caught a glimpse between the seats at a woman reading a book. Great! Not so much. After shuffling about in my seat to get a better glimpse and can see the book: 'Teach Yourself Further German'. Now all books have value, and I like the variety of books I come across, but in this case I think the chances that someone who stumbles across my blog would be interested in this book are slimmer than most that I spot, not least because you'd presumably have to know a fair bit of German already to progress on to this book. Anyone interested in learning German would probably be best starting with 'Teach Yourself Beginners German' or something like that.

Just as I'm getting off the train, I spot a middle aged woman reading a book that I can't quite read the title of. I focused a bit more as I went past (okay I stared a bit), much to the annoyance of a man who was probably her husband. Luckily I was getting off at that point. Anyway, the book was 'The Testament of Mary' by Colm  Toibin. I thought it was some sort of religious book at first but it turns out it is almost the opposite, some might call it heretical. It is the story of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is bereft after the death of her son. In her mind, he was a vulnerable young man who was surrounded by people who couldn't be trusted. Not the traditional bible story anyway. This book was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.


That was it for the morning. This afternoon I was expecting a quiet journey home, as England were playing. Evidently as they were already out of the world cup nobody was interested though, as the train was as busy as ever. At the station, a woman in her 30s was enjoying herself sat waiting for her train, feet up on her suitcase, reading 'The Fault in our Stars' by John Green. It is a love story about a teenage cancer patient, who falls in love with Augustus at a cancer support group. It is one of the most popular books of the moment, and there's a film coming out any day now at the cinema. It is classified as a young adult book, but from what I've heard just about everyone who reads it thinks it is amazing. It's on my to read list, I really should get to it soon...

In the seats in front of me was a bald young-middling aged businessman who was chatting with colleagues, but there were two books on the table in front of him. Does that count? Were both his? One was a book I'd already seen on Day 4 - 'The View from Castle Rock' by Alice Munro. I'm fairly sure it was a different person reading it though. The second book was 'Light Years' by James Salter. It is the story of a well off married couple who on the surface look very happy but underneath the cracks gradually start to show. The story is episodic and covers a long period of time, each episode covers a dinner party or other social occasion.

Thought that was it, but as I was getting off the train I passed a woman reading a book. I couldn't see the cover, but peered over her shoulder to look at the title at the top of the page she was reading... Further German Part 3. Argh! Same woman I saw this morning.

After getting off the train, I really did think that was it, but crossed paths with a man carrying 'Great North Road' by Peter F Hamilton, fingers keeping his place in the book as he walked for his train. Peter F Hamilton is a science fiction author who writes big, epic space operas - mostly multi book series, but this one is a standalone, albeit 1000+ pages. It is set several hundred years in the future, but set mostly in Newcastle (upon Tyne) in the North East of England. Also partly on an alien planet too, but mostly Newcastle. It is part big space opera, part whodunnit. The world building is excellent, and the story is good too. There's a murdered clone that apparently didn't exist, a mysterious alien and lots of technology, including a world where everything is 3D printed. (In the interest of full disclosure, Peter F Hamilton is a favourite author of mine, he won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I like his books a lot).

Monday, 23 June 2014

642 Things to Write About

While browsing in Waterstones bookshop at the weekend, I found '642 Things to Write About' and just had to have it. It is a book of ideas for writing, along with the space to write in. Of course, I mostly write on a computer these days, but there's still something magicial and putting pen to paper, and this book really encourages that. So I'll probably start off writing in the book, then switch to the computer if it's a longer piece.

This book was written, if you can call it that, by the San Fransisco Writer's Grotto. Basically the editor asked them all to submit via email some ideas to get the creative juices flowing, and that's just what they did. They range from random short prompts such as 'A bad smell and where it came from' and 'Pen an ode to an onion' to longer ideas that may be the basis for a story. An example of this: 'Find a world map or globe, close your eyes, pick a spot. Write about a person arriving there for the first time. I think one of the ones I'm going to do first is 'Write a letter to go in a time capsule to be buried in your garden and not opened for 500 years'. Wow. What would you include in a letter like that? The amount of space you get after each writing prompt - while not enough a lot of the time - is comensurate with whether the idea is big or small etc.


The book has a really nice feel to it, with a very stiff card cover and nicely thick pages. It is a book that just makes you want to write in it.

I've not written any fiction in a long time, years in fact, having written mostly articles for the last few years now. I'm starting to consider having a go at writing fiction again soon though, and this may be just what I need to get started. I may even post some of them on here.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Weekend Bookspotting- a lost cause?

A day trip to Manchester today with my wife and daughter should give plenty of opportunity for Bookspotting. We're visiting Manchester University for an open day. It is kind of a corporate spying/industrial espionage thing (my wife works for Lancaster University) - we're not thinking of going back to university or anything, and our daughter is thankfully about 13 years too young!

Anyway it's an hour's train journey each way, three times as long as my normal commute, and the Manchester train is usually a really busy one, just not on this occasion! No books spotted on the way there, then again we were sat in a more or less empty train! Hopefully there will be more luck on the way back...

Well the day proved uneventful on a Bookspotting front. I visited the big Waterstones store on Deansgate in Manchester,saw lots of books but they don't really count... even in the cafe there were only a couple of people looking at books. I did spot these beautiful editions of Terry Pratchett books though.


They were those lovely cloth-bound hardback books with gorgeous designs engraved (if that's the right word?) directly onto the cloth. Simply gorgeous, and only £9.99 each, hardly any more than the paperback price.

Anyway, back to Bookspotting. It was the way back, and bookspotting is proving to be a bit disappointing still, until we got off to change trains at Preston that is. While waiting for our train back to Lancaster, I saw two young women reading books in a crowded waiting room. Alas I couldn't see what they were reading, but my wife, Kate, came to the rescue, by peering through the window to read the title of the book at the top of the pages the woman was reading. It was 'The Ambassador's Mission' by Trudi Canavan. This is a fantasy novel, the first in the 'Traitor Spy' series, which is a sequel to the 'Black Magician' trilogy. I've actually read the Black Magician trilogy and it is a good story - simple, uncomplicated fantasy but a fun read. I might go back and read the new series some day,there are just so many books to read though...

On the train, there are about five people reading books in my carriage,but they are keeping their books close to their chest making them difficult to identify. I did manage to identify two though: 'The Childhood of Jesus' by J.M. Coetzee. It's about a man and a boy who arrive together in a strange land and have to build a new life there. It is something of an allegory or fable, and not for those who like their books neat with easy explanations for everything!

The other book was 'My East End' by Gilda O'Neill. This is a collection of reminiscences about life growing up in Cockney London, with a bit of history thrown in too. These sorts of books, particularly about the East End of London, are quite popular at the moment.

So all in all a less successful Bookspotting day than many working days, but then as was pointed out to me, there's a lot more people travelling with their families at the weekend, so wouldn't be reading (I am a very good case in point here, my book stayed firmly in my bag all day). Weekdays there's a lot more people travelling alone for work, so more people reading. All in all though, a good day out (and if you are in Manchester anytime and want an eat all you can place for lunch, try out Peachy Keens in the Printworks - it is amazing).



Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Bookspotting Days 4 & 5

An easier day bookspotting today, so I'll dive right in.

The first book spotted this morning, being read by a woman sat waiting for a train at Lancaster train station, was 'Sanctus' by Simon Toyne, book one of the Sancti trilogy. This is an 'apocalyptic conspiracy thriller', you know the type, and a debut novel for this author. It looks like quite a popular book, 413 reviewers on Amazon.co.uk, average rating 4 stars.

The second book spotted was 'Charlotte Gray' by Sebastian Faulks. This was another woman, also sat waiting for a train south from Lancaster this morning. Charlotte Gray is the author's second novel, and a loose sequel to his first novel, the hugely successful Birdsong. In this book, the title character Charlotte is a young Scottish woman who falls in love with an airman. When he disappears while on a mission in France, she follows him as a British secret courier...

That was it for this morning. The afternoon proved even more fruitful, first with 'Ramble On: The Story of our love for Walking Britain' by Sinclair McKay. This describes itself as the 'definitive history of rambling' in Britain. It has got stuff about the Lake District walks of Alfred Wainwright, landowners battles to keep walkers off their land. These tales are all related while describing several walks across the country which the author went on.

The fourth book spotted is 'The View From Castle Rock' by Alice Munro. I've heard of the author before, but didn't know anything about her. It appears she's renowned for her short story collections, and is considered by many to be the best short story writer alive - to back this up she's won the Noble Prize for Literature. This book though is a novel, a fictionalized account of her ancestors starting from Edinburgh (the Castle Rock of the title) and following them as they emigrated to Canada. It sounds very descriptive and slow paced, but moving and beautifully written. Looking at the Amazon reviews, a few reviewers found it dull, but it sounds just my sort of book, so will be adding this (yet another book!) to my long to be read list.

The fifth book is 'The City of Strangers' by Michael Russell. It is a historical crime novel, with elements of a conspiracy thriller in too, set just before the start of the second world war and featuring the Nazi's, the Irish & IRA and America. It's the second book featuring Stefan Gilespie, being a sequel to the first book, 'The City of Shadows'.

Day 5. I don't know if it is the gorgeous sunny weather or something, but there was a lot of people reading today, at the train station, on the train, sat on the tarmac on the platform... Quite a few of them I couldn't identify - one older guy was reading a hardback book that had lost its dust jacket- red bookcloth with no writing on it makes it difficult to spot! Another one could have been a Harry Potter, but only got the briefest glimpse but couldn't be sure. Another was a book I'd spotted last week, which I'm fairly sure was (still) being read by the same person, stood in exactly the same spot at Preston train station as last week. Creature of habit.

So all in all at least 8 or 9 books, but only 3 real identified spots.



'The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden' by Jonas Jonasson. This is the author's second book, after last year's phenomenally successful (and incredibly funny) 'The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared', which was about just what it sounds like but with flashbacks to the man's life - he was involved in some way in of most of the 20th century's most historic events. This new book is more of the same, if you enjoyed the first you should enjoy this.

'The Places in Between' by Rory Stewart. This is a travel book about author Rory Stewart's 6,000 mile journey on foot across Afganistan, between Turkey and Bangladesh in 2002, in the aftermath of the US invastion when the country was in turmoil. He very nearly didn't survive, and only managed the complete his journey with the help and kindness of strangers and his travelling companion.

'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn. Sometimes I only get a brief glimpse of a book, not enough to catch the title. All I got with this one was that it had a bright orange title on the cover and the author was ... Flynn. I remembered seeing Gone Girl before and that it had a bright orange cover. I looked it up and confirmed it was the same book. This is a crime/thriller novel, about a woman who disappears on her 5th wedding anniversary. The prime suspect is her husband, but did he kill her, or is something much more strange going on?

That's it for today folks.




Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Old Books & Forgotten Authors

We went to stay with my wife's parents over the weekend, and while we were there we got given a pile of old books by their elderly neighbour next door. They'd belonged to his wife who died last year. He was clearing out, but didn't want them just going to the charity shop as they'd only end up in a landfill site when nobody bought them.

They were a mix of modern Folio edition copies of classics like Thomas Hardy, and old pocket sized hardback novels which date back to the 1920s.

Thomas Hardy Folio Edition Set

All of them are very nice looking and have a lovely feel to them, much nicer than modern/commercial hardback books. They just make you want to pick them up and read them.

Much more interesting than the modern Folio editions though were the old 1920s hardbacks. These were mostly 'Grove editions' from Grove publishing, and it looks like they were the first time that the books had been published in a pocket edition, making them cheaper and more accessible to the ordinary person (books used to cost up to a month's wages). There were a number of authors represented in the books I was given, but most of them were by two authors: John Galsworthy and Hugh Walpole. I recognised the name John Galsworthy but not Hugh Walpole (actually I thought I did, but I was getting him confused with Robert Walpole who was an 18th century British Prime Minister).

John Galsworthy was a prolific writer who wrote many novels, short stories and plays, but is most well known today for his 'Forsyte Saga' series of books. Galsworthy was popular during his lifetime, but his popularity waned soon after. He was fading into relative obscurity until the BBC made an adaptation of the Forsyte Saga (the first of many) in the 1960s, which revived his popularity.

Hugh Walpole was not so lucky after his death (if anyone can be said to be lucky or unlucky after their death that is). He was a bestselling author in the 1920s and 1930s, but today is all but forgotten - perhaps because he didn't have his books adapted into popular television series like his contemporary, Galsworthy. During his writing career he averaged at least a book a year, and ultimately wrote 36 novels, 5 volumes of short stories and 3 volumes of memoirs. His stories covered a vast range of subjects, his most popular was his "Herries Chronicles", a historical fiction series set in the Lake District. The first book in the Herries Chronicle is "Rogue Herries".

The fate of bestselling author Hugh Walpole is the same as many long forgotten authors from yesteryear. Did they deserve to be forgotten, perhaps because they were books 'of their time', or is there more to them than that? What makes one book become a classic and stand the test of time, while others fade into obscurity?

I'm now going to add some of these books to my To Be Read list, both The Forsyte Saga which I've never read, and perhaps some of the long forgotten books which I can, in some small way, bring back into the light of day.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Book review: 'Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore' by Robin Sloan

This is a book I've had my eye on for a while (I mean books, google, secret cults, what more could you want?). It's mainstream contemporary fiction rather than science fiction, but is one geeks will enjoy. Yes you, you know who you are! Anyway here's my review which will also be going up on Goodreads soon.

Clay Jannon, formerly chief web designer at the New Bagel Company, is unemployed and looking for a job. There aren’t that many good jobs about, what with the recession and all, so when he walks past a bookshop with a job advert in the window for a night clerk he soon applies. It doesn’t take him long to realise this is one seriously weird book shop, doubling as some sort of library for a weird secret cult. Or something like that. With the help of friends including best friend from school Neal who made millions from boob simulation software, and girlfriend Kat who works at Google, he sets out to try and figure out what is going on…



This is a very fun, albeit strange book. It successfully brings together the world of old books, even older mysteries and modern technology in a way I’m not sure anyone has before. It is very up to date, and talks a lot about Google, iMacs and Kindles, OSR software and hacker communities. Computer geeks will love this book, as will book lovers. If you are a computer geek and a book lover, well you are probably already firing up Amazon to buy the book…

I enjoyed the book a lot. It was a fun book, you never quite knew what was going to happen next, and the many culture and tech references dropped in were great to see. It might have hidden mysterious and secret societies in common with The Da Vinci Code but it is not a thriller. There’s never really any great physical danger for the characters, it is much slower paced and gentler than that, and all the better for it.

I debated whether to give this book a 4 or 5 star rating. I gave it 5 in the end, it won’t be my favourite book of the year, it didn’t have characters to fall in love with, a plot that keeps you glued to the page or truly beautiful writing, but it was a lot of fun. And that’s what books should be all about.

If you are after a bit of bookspotting, well it's been a busy weekend and no opportunity to spot anything. Working from home tomorrow, then at sport's day at my daughter's school in the afternoon, so next opportunity for Bookspotting is Tuesday.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A Bit of Friday Bookspotting

After a couple of days off, I'm back again for some more bookspotting. Only one book spotted this morning. It was 'Free at Last' by Tony Benn. It spent the whole 20 minutes I was on the train on the table not being read, the woman whose book it was seemed more interested in chatting than reading. Maybe it is the sort of book she wants to be seen reading but isn't enjoying. Or maybe not.


Tony was a career politician, and served as a Labour MP for 47 years between 1950 and 2001. He was very left wing, all for the working man which was very interesting as his father was a hereditary peer. On his father's death Tony Benn was due to inherit his father's title, but this would have prevented him continuing as an MP. He fought for and successfully won the right to renounce his title. He was a great writer, diarist and public speaker (I once went to one of his courses at an economics conference in London). I've always respected Tony Benn as being one of the few conviction politicians - he would do anything as long as it was right, sticking up for his constituents.

He was a real serial political diarist, nine volumes in all spanning thousands of pages. I am sure it would be an amazing experience to read through all of the diaries,you'd learn an awful lot of history and politics as well as find out about a great man. The only problem for me is that I wouldn't want to just read one, I'd want to read them all and that's a hell of a lot of reading.

The train was slightly delayed again this afternoon, so I was hanging around the station waiting for a while. It was literally packed on the platforms, there must have been a couple of hundred people. Literally at least a hundred people must have been on their mobile phones but only one person was reading a book. It took a couple of passes for me to get a clear view. It was 'Scott's Last Expedition' by Robert Falcon Scott. Basically, these again are diaries (it was obviously a diaries day), but in this case, these were Scott's diaries of his expedition to reach the South Pole between 1910 and 1912. He achieved this, but he wasn't the first as Norway's Roald Amundsen got there first. Scott's expedition hit misfortune, and he and his team died of cold and starvation only 11 miles from base camp. The journals were discovered with his body, several months after he died.

I then got on the train, but that was a complete blank, no reading (other than me that is - I was reading of course). It's the weekend now, so I doubt I'll spot anyone reading until next week, but I'll keep my eyes peeled!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Bookspotting Day 2

Okay so I caught a later train this morning to work, and was looking forward to hopefully spotting more books on the 9.38 train to Preston.My logic was these wouldn't be busy commuters but more leisurely travellers so there might be more books to spot. Nothing. No book in sight anywhere, in my train carriage or on the platform (and there was no one in the waiting room -I checked!). Disappointing.

I was getting a slightly later train back, in part because of the thunderstorm and torrential rain about the time I normally leave. The basement at work was flooded and the car park under a foot of water. Got to the train station to find that while all the trains were running normally, the station facilities were not. The waiting room, shop and cafe were all closed, with station staff rushing round with brooms, brushing water out of the buildings and onto the train tracks. Great, I thought, with everyone (literally) flushed outdoors there'll be more chance to spot people reading. I scanned the whole packed platform - nothing. Surely today wouldn't be a complete blank?

I had a few minutes before my train, so I wandered over to the next platform just to see. Nada. Zip. Then right at the end of the platform I saw a woman hunched over a book. Unfortunately I couldn't see what she was reading, and she really was right at the end of the platform, there was nothing beyond her and it would have looked really odd to walk past and then back. Plus my train was about to arrive.



As I walked onto my platform, I passed a guy in a baseball cap reading a big hardback book, probably a library book from the look of it (I've had a lot of those cumbersome hardbacks from the library before now) Despite giving him more scrutiny than was probably wise, I only got a couple of words 'Iron Mountain', so I quickly pulled out my phone to look it up. Sure enough I found the exact book: 'Daylight on Iron Mountain' by David Wingrove. It is the second book in the Chung Kuo science fiction series, a future history about an Earth dominated by China. The first book is 'Son of Heaven'. Interestingly, this series was first started in 1989, so although it is very fashionable and hardly prescient to write now about a future dominated by China, in the 1980s it was more of a long shot. For more information on this series, I suggest reading this Wikipedia article - there's a lot of books!


Then I got on the train and found three people reading books as I walked to my seat! Reading is clearly alive on well, on the 5.28 train to Barrow in Furness anyway! The books were:

'The Impossible Dead' by Ian Rankin - I used to read Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, until I watched a few tv adaptations and got lost between what I'd seen/read and what I hadn't. I've since lost track of what he's been writing, except he finished with Rebus and moved on. Apparently he's got a new character, Malcolm Fox, a divorcee in his 40s. According to one review he is quieter and 'warier of confrontation' than Rebus, but a great new character. Anyway, this is the second Malcolm Fox novel, the first is 'The Complaints'.

'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley. A classic science fiction novel, published in 1931 that accurately predicted many technological and societal changes. Regularly in the top novels of 20th century lists.

'A Feast for Crows' by George R R Martin - Book 4 of A Song of Ice and Fire, which began with Game of Thrones. The woman with this book was obviously reading ahead of the TV series, something I've been considering.

Another good day of Bookspotting, in the end anyway!