Sunday, 24 January 2010

#5 The Hell of it All, by Charlie Brooker (Faber and Faber Limited)

I think it’s hard for anyone other than Charlie Brooker himself to get across the flavour of his wonderfully inventive invective so, as my review, here’s an extract from The Hell of it All.

Brooker on ladies’ day at Royal Ascot (published June 23rd, 2008):

“Every year it’s the same thing: a 200-year countess you’ve never heard of, who closely resembles a Cruella De Vil mannequin assembled entirely from heavily wrinkled scrotal tissue that’s been soaked in tea for the past eight decades, attempts to draw attention away form her sagging neck – a droopy curtain of skin that hangs so low she has to repeatedly kick it out of her path as she crosses the royal compound – by balancing the millinery equivalent of Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum on her head, and winds up forming the centrepiece of a light-hearted photomontage in the centre of whatever newspaper you happen to be reading that day, accompanied by a picture of Princess Eugenie in a headdress, and some milky underfed heiress with the physique of a violin-playing mantis, wearing nothing but a diamante cornflake on each nipple and a hat made out of second-hand dentures or something equally avant-garde.”

If you fancy 388 pages of such diatribe, this is the book for you. And don’t forget the equally funny index.

So, rating time:

#5 The Hell of it All, by Charlie Brooker (Faber and Faber Limited) – 8/10

This is my second Brooker book as part of this challenge, and they’ve provided most, if not all, of the highlights so far. That the ratings for both have not reached 9/10, illustrates perhaps how tough a marker I intend to be.

Next up: All in the Mind, by Alistair Campbell (Arrow)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • The challenge turns competitive

    As my few remaining friends will no doubt testify, I’m quite a competitive creature, which is why news of a challenger to my potential 100-book crown excites me.

    It’s strange how things work. Readers may remember that in my first blog, I mentioned how it was a Friend Of The Wench who had first introduced the kernel of the idea from which this blog blossomed. Now he’s back, and after learning of the existence of these very pages, he’s been inspired to try, try, try again and go one better – well, six better, really – in a bid to read a century of books in one year.

    You can read his blog here.

    His late start means I already have an edge – not that I’m competitive or anything, you understand? – so I’m four books ahead at this stage, if already behind my overall schedule if I’m to finish an entire century.

    No matter. Let literature be the winner, and all that…

    #4 Lennie, by Lennie Lawrence with Kevin Brennan (Green Umbrella Publishing)

    I should start with a declaration of interest. I know Lennie Lawrence - in that our paths have crossed a few times, not least following the launch of this book - and I also have a fair amount of working knowledge of a good proportion of the events described in his autobiography.

    I therefore knew that his career as a football manager has entailed some fascinating moments, not least during his incredible time at Charlton Athletic, where he has hero status in most people's eyes - but this book really doesn't do him justice.

    First, some mitigating factors. Lawrence is still employed in the industry, at this time as director of football at Bristol Rovers, so this is no tell-all tale, revealing all sorts of nefarious secrets. It's no surprise that, generally speaking, books by sportsfolk who have not yet reached the end of their careers merely seem to scratch at the surface of the story, rather than reveal all the unseen layers.

    The other important note is that the part of the story with which I am quite familiar, his days with Charlton, has been covered in detail elsewhere, in numerous newspaper articles and other books, so it could be argued that there is little more to say. In which case, why write a book?

    To tell the full story of his career, and to get the inside story on those events, is the answer, and there is no doubt the plot - a schoolteacher rising to become one of the most respected football coaches in the country by his peers - despite some incredible circumstances beyond his control is compelling, even if you've heard some of it before. It's such a shame it's so badly written.

    A previous autobiographical sports book written with the help of journalist Kevin Brennan, Valley of Dreams (HarperSport), told the story of Alan Curbishley's 15 years with Charlton, and was widely considered as being deadeningly dull (again, Curbs is still involved in the sport). Unfortunately, this is worse.

    Mistakes abound. Controversial Charlton chairman Mark Hulyer is wrongly called 'Mike' not once, but several times. The historic number of votes the Valley Party polled in the 1990 Greenwich Council elections is, crucially, one out. And throughout the tome the general tone and grammar of the book is far from adequate, never mind far from perfect.

    The other issues notwithstanding, a better and more thorough editing process would have led to substantial improvement. It might not have produced a book that lived up to the astonishing feats of a man I admire greatly, but it would have led to a more readable autobiography.

    Just for some contrast, here's a link to another review: click here.

    So, rating time:

    #4 Lennie, by Lennie Lawrence with Kevin Brennan (Green Umbrella Publishing) – 4/10

    Next up: The Hell of it All, by Charlie Brooker (Faber and Faber Limited)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • Wednesday, 20 January 2010

    No blog obituary yet...

    The Wench had a go at me the other day for the first time about the 100-book challenge - and this associated blog - and it wasn't even my fault!

    To briefly recap/explain, my job keeps me fairly busy and involves long hours, at many times to the detriment of my social and family life. I know this, but I quite like to be kept busy, enjoy what I do, and take pride in doing it well.

    I would be lying if this somewhat hectic lifestyle didn't cause occasional problems at home, however, so although supportive when I first ventured forth the 100-book idea - not least because she was the one who first mentioned it - it was left unsaid that, of course, such matters should not be allowed to interfere with or get in the way of other family activities.

    That it took until more than a fortnight into January for an issue to arise meant things were going relatively well, but her hackles were clearly raised when, after I got up at 8am on Saturday morning following a particularly late night the previous night, she awoke to discover me absent, and came downstairs to find me typing away on the laptop.

    "You better not be doing that bloody blog," is a summary of what was directed in my direction, entirely without justification I should add.

    For not only had I got up to watch some of what was an exciting cricket match between England and South Africa, I was actually working. And not only was I working, I was writing an obituary of someone who had died overnight, instantly making her feel guilty as well.

    1-0 to me - not that my lead will last long...

    Monday, 18 January 2010

    #3 Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill

    I like most, if not all, sports, so it's perhaps not a coincidence that two of the first three books I have finished in 2010 are connected by sport; football in the case of Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular (book #2), and cricket in the case of Netherland. It would be a major surprise if there are no more over the course of the year (particularly as I'm already in the process of reading another).

    Although a central theme of Netherland is the narrator's love of cricket, and his quest to play it in a country and city disinterested in the sport and perhaps understandably more concerned with coming to terms with itself post 9/11, there is a bit more going on.

    And, in my eyes, the shame is that with so many interesting issues to explore in terms of multi-culturalism and the disconnected nature of the Dutch narrator and his family, it was curiously unengaging.

    It only really came to life when the story returned to the main character, a mysterious cricket umpire/businessman/crook, yet - ignoring the fact he dies (near the start, so that's not a spoiler) - the book ended without the reader really getting to grips with what he represented, and frustrated as a result.

    So, rating time:

    #3 Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill ((Harper Perennial) – 6/10

    Next up: The Hell of it All, by Charlie Brooker (Faber and Faber Limited)

    Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating

    Sunday, 17 January 2010

    I've started, so I'll finish

    One of the books I intend to read this year is Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which poses a philosophical question: do you need to finish a book in order for it to count to the tally? This might sound daft, but apparently there are those who consider they have read a book even if they have been able to make it to the final page; that it was the book's fault they had been unable to reach completion.

    The latter may be true - the book may well have been awful, and the reading of it a dreadful experience - but the reader cannot have it both ways. If you're unable to summon the perseverance to finish the job, you can't claim the rewards at the end, especially when you're embarking on a barmy exercise such as reading 100 books in a year...

    So what's this got to do with Life of Pi? Well, I first tried reading the Man Booker Prize for Fiction winner soon after it was published in 2001. I attempted to read the Man Booker Prize for Fiction winner again a year later. And I think I've started - and failed to finish - the Man Booker Prize for Fiction winner another couple of times since then.

    I can't really explain why this is. I don't have a problem finishing books, whether they be novels, autobiographies or even encyclopedias, but something about Life of Pi (a Man Booker Prize for Fiction winner, remember) just makes me give up. I know it's critically acclaimed, and I know that millions of people love it, but there comes a point where I just become disillusioned and put it down, to be consigned to a dusty shelf once more.

    So, unfinished books don't count. And, once again, I will soon be attempting to read Life of Pi...

    Tuesday, 12 January 2010

    #2 Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular: A Riotous Footballing Memoir about the Loneliest Position on the Field, by Graham Joyce

    My biggest issue with Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular: A Riotous Footballing Memoir about the Loneliest Position on the Field, by Graham Joyce, is the title itself.

    I’m not saying it’s not funny because, in places, it is. The book – the tale of a British writer who, aged 52, gets the call to play for the England Writers XI – is witty, often insightful about the oft misunderstood art of goalkeeping, and contains some nice inter-generational touches, where the author examines his relationship with his father through football, in particular.

    But describing it all as ‘a riotous memoir’ seems a bit excessive. Perhaps it’s ironic.

    It’s not among the best sporting books I’ve ever read, but it’s a long way from the worst and, in its favour, I must admit that it’s prompted me to look up Joyce’s more regular fantasy work, in which field he has apparently won many awards. We’ll see if he features again later this year…

    So, rating time:

    #2 Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular: A Riotous Footballing Memoir about the Loneliest Position on the Field, by Graham Joyce (Mainstream Publishing Company) – 6/10

    Next up: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill (Harper Perennial)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • Thursday, 7 January 2010

    #1 Dawn of the Dumb, by Charlie Brooker

    One down, 99 to go!

    I suppose I should start with a confession, though. I actually started reading Charlie Brooker’s Dawn of the Dumb just before the dawn of 2010, having received the compilation of the professional miserablist’s articles for the Guardian as a Christmas present. But I definitely finished reading it in 2010, and as I’ve already stated, they’re my rules.

    In many ways, it’s quite an easy start to the 100-book exercise. As a bit of a misanthrope myself – I think everyone is at heart – I’ve read plenty of Brooker’s articles in the Guide and G2 over recent years, so he’s already preaching to the converted. That said, perhaps it’s only when you read such a wealth of columns in quick succession that you can fully appreciate the limitless levels of his intolerance, counterbalanced by his boundless capacity for abusive tirades.

    If all that sounds deeply depressing, then it’s completely the opposite. As I keep telling people, miserable is funny…

    Anyway, as I said at the start of the year, I intend to write progress reports rather than reviews, so the rating alone will stand as my judgement.

    #1 Dawn of the Dumb, by Charlie Brooker (Faber and Faber Limited) – 8/10

    Next up: Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular: A Riotous Footballing Memoir about the Loneliest Position on the Field, by Graham Joyce (Mainstream Publishing Company)

    In fact, although it’s been a busy week, I’ve already started book number two…

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
  • Tuesday, 5 January 2010

    The ratings system

    For every one of the 100 books I hopefully read this year, I'm going to give a rating out of 10. But then I thought, if I'm going to give ratings, it would probably be best to offer some guidance as to what rating means what.

    Let's get one thing clear straight away. I'm a tough marker. In my eyes, if you're going to use a system from 0-10 then, for god's sake, use the whole range. Take advantage of the options that are available. Not that critics who constantly award 7/10 or 8/10 for mediocrity annoy me or anything...

    In my ratings, 5/10 is average, and if you're going to the trouble of coming up with an idea for a book, finding a publisher (and an agent as well, probably), writing thousands of words, going through the draft and editing process (hopefully), designing and approving an image for the cover, acknowledging all those who have assisted in the book's birth, putting the printing presses into action and then going through any promotional gubbins, then at least make it worth the reader's while.

    I don't profess to know much about the publishing process, so the above is probably just a small illustration of the logistics and time involved in getting a book onto the shelves of a bookstore - or, increasingly, onto the shelves of a giant warehouse before it's sent out through the post by an internet retailer. All I'm saying is, try to make it worth the effort.

    Anyway, throughout this year, my ratings will be based on the definitions below.

    Rating definitions

    0/10 - Not only a waste of time, a waste of the planet's resources

    1/10 - An abuse of the invention of the printing press

    2/10 - I wish the Luddites had won. Just awful

    3/10 - Grim going

    4/10 - Below average. Got through it, but didn't really enjoy it

    5/10 - Average. Must do better

    6/10 - Enjoyable, and passed the time

    7/10 - Very enjoyable. A good book

    8/10 - Very good. A real treat

    9/10 - Unputdownable. Hard to find any areas for improvement

    10/10 - Fan-bloody-tastic

    I presume most of the books will fall between 3/10 and 8/10, but I'm not going to be afraid of using the outer extremities if I feel the need. Hopefully, there will be more in the higher range than the lower.

    Sunday, 3 January 2010

    The inspiration

    Where to start? I suppose an explanation would be best. The idea – reading 100 books in one year – is simple enough, if not particularly original. I first considered it when The Wench told me about a friend of hers who had embarked on an identical exercise, and it seemed like a good idea for someone, ie me, who loves reading but frequently finds himself without the time or the inclination to do so.

    I imagine there are a lot of people in a similar position to me. Who feel that modern-day life is becoming so hectic that there isn’t enough to pick up one book, never mind 100. As The Friend Of The Wench implied in his own overview at the end of his year’s reading, why bother reading a book when there is a re-run of Friends to collapse in front of on the sofa after a hard day’s work? I like to think that my own television-watching habits includes a bit more quality, but the principle probably applies and, with a bit of effort, I am sure there are many times when I am frittering away time which could be better spent immersed in a good book.

    Of course, it’s not a new idea. Although it was brought to my attention by The Friend Of The Wench, a cursory Google search – to which I may return in future blogs - reveals such challenges have been undertaken for several years. New York comic Leo Allen did it in 2006 (or started it, at least), and more recently there is apparently something called the Cannonball Read, which amused me greatly.

    I’m not setting any hard and fast rules. There are no bets to be won, no contests from which to emerge victorious – it’s just me and my books, so if there is any cheating, I’ll only be cheating myself, as my mum used to say. That said, clearly it won’t be much fun if I read 80 Mr Men books, so each book is obviously going to have to be of a decent length to qualify. Given I’ll be posting details of each book online here, I suppose the worldwide web can judge for itself. Any complaints will be ignored.

    I’m not yet sure exactly what I’ll be reading, either. I don’t intend to re-read any books – I’m fairly positive there are enough new ones out there to get me to my target – but equally, there are no rules, so if the mood takes me, then so be it. I tend to read contemporary fiction by choice, but I’m sure there will be compilations, autobiographies, historical works and much more en route. Feel free to make recommendations – I do believe that an element of reading is to further yourself, to learn something, perhaps to appreciate something you didn’t before, so having a pre-defined list would seem to be defeating the purpose of the exercise at the first stage.

    After that token bit of intellectualism, I should make clear at the outset that there will definitely be some - how shall I put it? – easy-going books along the way. For example, at the insistence of The Wench, who has a decidedly unhealthy interest in the Twilight series given she is a 34-year-old woman, I have already read Twilight and New Moon (in 2009, in case anyone has started counting yet), and feel I have to complete the series. I’ve also got a thing for Dick Francis books, and having been loaned the latest at Christmas by my mum, expect that to feature early on. There will be some more highbrow stuff, though. Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is certainly on the list, and I also intend to read some classics I seem to have missed out on.

    Given this is my opening blog, I’d better get some excuses in nice and early. Reading – and writing – forms a substantial part of my day job, so I generally read thousands of words (most of which I enjoy) every day, anyway. I also get incredibly busy for periods that can extend to five or six days, so I’m not sure how much time will be left for ploughing through the list. The above means completing the exercise is probably a tall order (The Friend Of The Wench managed 94, by the way), but, in my favour, I am a quick reader and I’m pretty determined when I put my mind to something.

    That said, I don’t want this to become a chore. Given the concept behind reading 100 books outlined earlier, it would be a bit pointless, not to mention self-defeating, if I start dreading opening the pages and am doing so just to complete a task rather than for enjoyment. If I fail, I fail, but at least it will be a pleasurable failure.

    So, throughout 2010, I intend to do my best to read 100 books. I don’t intend to review them all (after all, I’m hardly going to have time to get a century of literature in if I also have to write reviews of them all), but I will give them all ratings and supply some hopefully pithy analysis. I’ll also blog about anything that crops up along the way.

    So, to echo the first line of this first blog, where to start? Where better than with a Christmas present, so book #1 will be Dawn of the Dumb, by Charlie Brooker (Faber and Faber Limited).