Tag Archives: reading

Two Brothers

It’s been fascinating watching Ben Elton grow as a writer. I read his first book, Stark, when it first came out. It was political and funny, as you might expect for a stand up comedian. It wasn’t terribly well written, though.

Next came Gridlocked, which was better written but not as funny.

I’d argue that he finally hit his stride with Popcorn, which was a real page-turner, with structure and humour and it was well written.

Two Brothers dispenses with the humour almost entirely, but keeps the drama and everything he’s learned about story writing. The rise of the Nazis provides a familiar structure but the believable characters and unpredictable twists are what makes it work.

His first couple of books may have had me close to tears of laughter. This one has emotion and I was on the verge of very different tears. I say this without hyperbole.

Overall, highly recommended.

Toll

If you read my thoughts on the first book in the Kestrel series, “Changer” you’ll have a good idea of my thinking about the second, “Toll.”

It’s an entertaining, light read. I think that’s the intention, so I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment.

Compared with last time, the MacGuffin didn’t bother me as much. What jarred were the constant info-dumps.

“[Barcelona is] the sixth most populous urban area in the European Union. Within Spain, it is second only to Madrid. But globally, it does not appear in the first ninety.”

I didn’t choose to read Wikipedia! There are even discussions about climate change and Brexit, which I’m not sure is a good idea. The former, at least, is relevant to the story-line (if a bit preachy) but the latter stands only to date the book.

Anyway, none of that is really a big problem. After “Guns, Germs and Steel” I needed something less strenuous and this totally hit the spot.

Armada

Having read “Ready Player One” and seen the film recently, picking Ernest Cline’s next book, “Armada” was an easy choice. “Ready Player One” wasn’t my favourite book, but it was an entertaining read and that’s what I was looking for this time.

It pretty much exactly met those expectations. It’s well written and easy to read. There are all the retro-references you’d expect in a Cline book. The story moves along at a reasonable clip. The characters mostly make sense, though they could have been better developed.

My main problem is that the twists are so well sign-posted that they barely qualify. I suppose that just adds to the “easy to read” quality?

It’s not going to make you see the world differently or amaze you with new insight into the human condition. But not every book needs to do that. As a little light reading it totally hits the spot.

Fuzzy Nation

After reading quite a few non-fiction books I decided that this time I would pick a novel. Having read “Red Shirts” a couple of years ago, I randomly selected another John Scalzi book, “Fuzzy Nation.”

The history of this is a little unusual: it’s not an entirely original story. It’s based on an older story by H. Beam Piper called “Little Fuzzy.” (“Think of this as a ‘reboot’ of the Fuzzy universe, not unlike the recent J. J. Abrams ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science.)”) Not having read that, I can’t compare but I did enjoy this one.

The story revolves around Holloway, a surveyor of a remote planet who finds both a huge seam of sunstones (beautiful, rare) and a race of small, fuzzy creatures who may be sentient (in which case they’d own the sunstones). Holloway is a self-professed asshole and disbarred lawyer, which provides some humour and a dynamic with other characters.

It’s neither long nor complicated, but it’s easy and fun to read; a bit of a page-turner.

It’s not as good as “Red Shirts” but it’s entertaining and worth your time.

The Incomplete Book of Running

After all my fun with Couch to 5K and the Parkrun, The Incomplete Book of Running, about Peter Sagal‘s running experiences, looked like it might strike a chord.

One thing that didn’t strike a chord was the author. I guess if you’re American and listen to NPR and Wait wait… don’t tell me! you might know what you’re letting yourself in for. But I’m British and am more likely to be listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4. I don’t think that this missing knowledge affected my enjoyment of the book, though.

Anyway, his experience didn’t exactly mirror mine. He’d flirted with running earlier in life and got into running longer distances later. The book starts with him running the Boston marathon. I’m still at the point where 5km feels like a long distance and I barely did any exercise beyond walking previously. Still, there were enough parallels that I didn’t feel lost and the writing was easy and accessible.

It’s more about stories and anecdotes than running hints and tips, but it still covers a lot of ground, from training to motivation to the benefits and downsides.

There were certainly some bit where I wasn’t entirely sure if it was funny or just, sadly, true:

The problem with being a midlife-crisis runner is that once you start, you’re already in decline.

Then, towards the end, was this important passage:

The differences between running as a lifestyle and “jogging” as exercise are many and much debated, but the key one is this: You “jog” as necessary exercise, something to endure. You run with the expectation that this outing, today, will be the day when it all comes together.

I’ve not really thought about it before, but I’ve never been quite sure how to describe what I do. “Running” feels optimistic; the speed I go is hardly running. Then again, “jogging” conjures up some of the worst stereotypes, the bright Lycra, the headband.

That paragraph seals the deal: I run. I do do it for exercise, but I wouldn’t say that I endure it. If it wasn’t fun — or at least give a sense of achievement after I finish — I wouldn’t do it, I’d find some other form of exercise.

Overall, it’s hardly essential reading but if you like him from his radio programmes, you might get a kick out this book. For me, it was worth it as a way of figuring out my vocabulary.

TED Talks: The Official TED guide to public speaking

Over the years my job has required me to do varying amounts of public speaking. A few years ago I was doing it weekly to audiences ranging from a handful of people to dozens. I’ve done less recently but it’s something I wanted to get back into, hence this book. TED talks are slickly produced and the speakers almost always appear to be, at the very least, competent, and usually much better than that. That made “TED Talks” a good place to start.

While reading the book I ended up speaking at a conference and I was able to put some of the lessons into practice. Of course I’d only read half of it so I did make some avoidable mistakes. However, it also showed some practical limitations of the book: naturally it’s about the kind of talks given at TED, but most people rarely do that.

My talks are often given at fairly short notice, frequently with a “standard” slide deck that you’re not supposed to edit significantly. The last talk I gave was written entirely by someone else and I only had the time to adjust the slides to work with my delivery style better.

Other than the logistics, the subject matter also differs. If you gave a presentation about your companies product roadmap in the style of a TED talk you’d get laughed out of the room! (That doesn’t stop so many companies trying to ape Steve Jobs, but those are usually also seen as inauthentic.)

And, perhaps unlike at TED, at most places you don’t get to choose how the stage looks. I like to walk around a little. This, I feel, makes the presentation look more dynamic but also means that I can’t look at my notes all the time and I have to engage with that audience; double win! But you can’t always do that. Maybe the stage is too small; perhaps they’re recording and they don’t like you moving out of shot continually; maybe the microphone is attached to the lectern.

What I’m saying is, while the advice is probably great for when you give your TED Talk, you’re going to have to allow for a much greater degree of outside control for most presentations you have to give.

But overall, the advice is good. It covers everything from how to structure the talk, to preparation (including your slides, and whether you should even use any), stage presence, voice and how to work best with your strengths and weaknesses.

Where it lost me, though, are the last few chapters (“Reflection”). After talking about how to give a great talk only at the end does it discuss why it’s important and why you should do it. The little bit of TED history is quite interesting but the book probably could have done without it — presumably if you’re reading the book you’re already convinced — or maybe put it at the beginning as a form of motivation for reading the rest.

Ironically, people who don’t want to ever give a talk are the very people that the last section is really aimed at, unfortunately they’re never going to read it.

Of course, that’s mostly a quibble in an otherwise decent guide. Not everyone is going to want to give talk, but if you do it’s worth a look.