Tag Archives: review

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.

ReWork

The gist of “ReWork” is that anyone can be an entrepreneur but you don’t have to follow the Silicon Valley tradition of seeking venture funding and providing foosball tables. If you do things right — different — you can make a sustainable business in a more traditional, bootstrapped way, and you don’t have to continually grow to be considered a success.

Many of the “lessons,” however, apply to almost any knowledge work. They subscribe to a less-is-more philosophy, and the book follows that example by being a quick read. Like the less-is-more outlook, that doesn’t make it bad, only very targeted.

If you’re looking for a complete framework for running your business, this isn’t it. (But then you’re probably not the kind of person who is likely to start a business I guess.) Instead, it’s a collection of related vignettes touching on varied aspects, from funding to focus to culture.

Much of the advice is so obvious that you wonder why more people don’t do it. But the fact that people don’t is exactly why their business (was 37signals, now Basecamp) has been a success and that writing about how it works doesn’t give away any “secret sauce.” It’s not that people don’t know the “secrets.” It’s more that people don’t have the discipline to stick to the programme.

Overall, there’s a lot of good material in here. If you own or work for a small company where you can potentially put the advice into practice, it’s probably worth a read.

The Prodigal Tongue

Lynne Murphy writes a great blog, which this book is at least partly based on, about the differences between American and British English. Or should that be that this book is based on?

Books like this really make you question everything you write.

Some of the material I was already familiar with, having read it elsewhere, possibly even on her blog, but there were plenty of new facts to keep me entertained. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember where a word of phrase came from. Did I always say that or did I learn it more recently? How do you pronounce words? When it came up in conversation a few months ago, I genuinely couldn’t remember whether I normally said “skedule” and “shedule.” I kept second-guessing myself!

I didn’t, for example, realise that I’d learned so much American baking terminology. I guess I’ve made more cakes since I got married and picked up the lingo. Part of me did think that “batter” was what you use for pancakes and Yorkshire puddings, but, equally, I couldn’t think of a better word for cake mixture. (Turns out there’s a reason for that.)

The other thing I realised is that one consequence of such a heavy US bias on the Internet is that companies such as Grammarly are continually suggesting American English grammar and spelling corrections. (The spelling I’m normally confident enough to override, punctuation less so.) Before reading this book I always thought that the advice was suspect but I thought it was mostly a matter of taste rather than geography.

Even if you’re not into the details of how the two nationlects — a word she coins to distinguish between American and British English — differ, the last chapter still might be of interest. It’s about the growth of the language outside the UK and the US, how it’s now the most popular second language.

Native speakers in Britain and the US make the mistake of thinking that they have no language learning to do: everyone speaks English, so we’ve got it made.

This is absolutely my experience. Many people — including past me — thought that this was true. I guess it’s where the stereotype of Brits talking slower and louder to foreigners comes from. (I don’t think I ever went that far!)

I’ve learned the hard way that just because people speak English, it’s not necessarily my English. They may understand most of the words but there are idioms and pronunciations that don’t translate. Dealing with non-native speakers requires care and thought, which, frankly, is the least we can do since they made the effort to speak our language. I can’t say I always get it right, but I’m conscious of it and make an effort.

Anyway, if you like the blog, you’ll probably like the book. As you’d imagine, it’s well written. It has lots of nice, little facts you can sprinkle into conversation and it’s nicely structured and feels fairly complete.

Changer

I first knew of Matt Gemmell as a Mac and iOS developer on Twitter, so I was curious when he decided to become a full-time writer instead. “Changer” is his first novel, his second came out late last year.

Overall the story hangs together nicely. It’s well structured, the characters are not especially well developed but work well enough for a page-turner-thriller, which is clearly what it was aiming for.

There were a couple of things I wasn’t terribly keen on. The detailed descriptions of the guns and their model numbers did nothing for me. You’d think my love of “exploding helicopter” movies would make me a fan but I’m not sure it added much. On the other hand, the shoot-out scenes generally worked well. In other similar books I’ve often been left confused with who was where and doing what, but no such complaints here.

The other thing that’s generally not to my taste is all the supernatural stuff. I wasn’t really expecting it in a thriller and when it first appeared I had to read the section twice to make sure that I understood it properly! Mostly, though, it was a bit of a MacGuffin, supporting the characters without overwhelming the story, by which I mean that the “solution” was more about the characters than some “magic.” In that sense, my objection is that it was unexpected rather than bad.

So did the author made the right choice, giving up software and moving into writing? Well, I never read his code so I can’t compare but “Changer” was an enjoyable, if slightly unmemorable, romp. I didn’t buy the follow up yet but I wouldn’t discount the possibility.

Note: it’s currently available for 99p on Amazon. Well worth that!

Factfulness

I didn’t mean to immediately buy Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness“. I saw it in a “recommended reads” list (both Bill Gates and Barak Obama suggested it, if I remember correctly), thought it sounded interesting and went to Amazon to add it to my wish list. Fat fingers meant that I tapped the “buy” button instead.

Anyway. As an antidote to all the bad news around at the moment, I decided to read it right away. The narrative that the world is getting worse by many measures, this book argues, is false. I want to believe that we’re progressing but the pictures on TV of Trump and Brexit, famine and war make it hard to accept.

It starts with a questionnaire and, without wishing to steal the book’s thunder, most people will do incredibly badly at it. Worse, in fact, than merely picking answers at random, or “the chimps” as the book calls it.

I’d like to think that I’m better informed than many, if not than the general public than some chimps, but I still did badly!

The book continues with a list of errors that we all make, examples of them and how to spot and avoid them in the future. It sounds dry but it isn’t. Hans Rosling is humble, keen to draw attention both to where he made mistakes and where he made a difference. If anything, his modesty often sounds misplaced. I think it’s fair to say that he had more achievements than failures.

“I don’t tell you not to worry. I tell you to worry about the right things.”

The curse of this book, if there is one, is that we all think we’re well informed and that we don’t need to read it. The numbers show that we’re wrong. I hope that doesn’t make it the least read, most important book I’ve picked this year!