Antifragile: Things That Gain from DisorderAntifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nassim Taleb is an insufferable egomaniac but at least his ideas are noteworthy and interesting.”

Please remind me that I said that in about six years when I’ve finished reading Antifragile as that’s probably going to be the first line of my review.

about six years later

Okay, I’ve listened to the unabridged audiobook and all I can say is nothing has disavowed me of the above notion.

I’ve never met the man but, judging by this book, Nassim Taleb is a complete asshole. But he’s my kind of asshole. Pretentious, egotistical, and probably right.

The book is worth reading for concept of ‘Antifragile’ alone. Taleb invented the term to describe something for which he believes there wasn’t a word:

Things that break easily under stress are Fragile. Things that withstand a great deal of stress, but eventually break, are Robust. But things that actually get stronger under stress are Antifragile.

He bemoans the fact that this word, which he invented, isn’t in the dictionary; as though that somehow proves the need for it.

I told you that he was an asshole.

He then proceeds, at great length, to talk around the subject. Much of the book is taken up by digressions, delusions of grandeur, professions of his own genius, and decrying any naysayers or detractors.

He criticises journalists, academics, economists, doctors, politicians, and just about everyone else for their pomposity, pseudo-intellectualism, insincerity, dishonesty and bullshit.

This is fair comment but it’s hard to take him seriously when his book is deliberately written in a style that is, by his own admission, difficult for us lesser mortals to understand.

A philosophy teacher once told me that ideas don’t have to be true so long as they are interesting, elegant or useful.

Nassim Taleb is no doubt antifragile to my opinions — and the concept of antifragility is genuinely interesting, elegant, and useful — but he can still go fuck himself.

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Operation Enough!: How to Retire Remarkably EarlyOperation Enough!: How to Retire Remarkably Early by Anita Dhake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is part of my “Operation buy nothing but by all means whore yourself as a writer in exchange for goods and or services.” Admittedly, the title needs work.

Anita was kind enough to gift me a copy of her book after I pestered her life out about it. I’d love to think that it was out of recognition of my awesomeness as a writer but it had more to do with Anita’s awesomeness as a human and the fact that in the UK most of us have to pay for Interlibrary Loans. She put me under no obligation to write anything of course but when I want to read a book, blag a copy, and genuinely LOVE it, then by golly it’s getting a review.
Anita Dhake was a lawyer but retired at 33 after saving like a motherf*****r until she achieved financial independence. She wrote about it as Thriftygal on her blog ‘The Power of Thrift’, along with other witty and entertaining ramblings, and eventually this culminated in the book.

‘Operation Enough!’ covers how to achieve financial independence but it’s mostly about the why to, Anita’s personal story, and what constitutes ‘enough’ for you.

Now, taking the financial advice of someone who was only able to retire early because they earnt enough to be filthy rich is a bit like asking the underpant gnomes about what to do with your sock drawer.

But she’s SO FUNNY!

She also has a thing about Judge Judy.

And explains finance using comical avatars.

So what’s not to love?

I’ve done a lot of reading about financial independence. If you want the philosophy try Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker. If you just want to know where to invest your money check out The Simple Path To Wealth by JL Collins. Or read Your Money Or Your Life if you want to kick it old school. Or any number of FIRE bloggers. But none of them are particularly fun or entertaining.

‘Operation Enough!’ is hands down the most fun I’ve had reading about financial independence. If you’re a reader of her blog, you’ll love it. And if you read the book first, you’ll fast become a convert and promptly start reading her blog.

Sure, the advice is pretty straightforward:

“Spend money on what you repeatedly do. After you buy the necessities, you can buy control over your life. Control your time. Do you have autonomy? Are you doing what you want to do?”
But sometimes you just need to be yelled at. The key takeaway bit of wisdom for me was: “The most valuable thing money can buy is freedom from worrying about money.” I agree so much with this! Whenever someone says to me ‘money is just for spending’ I want to punch them repeatedly in the head. The best thing money can buy is freedom and peace of mind.

Operation Enough is an entertaining read. It’s also proof positive that anything is more inspiring if you give it a silly name. I’d love to see more Operations books to come on other subjects. My own operations include Operation Leave The House and Operation Take The Stairs.

Above all else I hope that Anita keeps writing because she clearly has a gift for it. The whole point of financial independence isn’t that you do nothing for the rest of your life — it’s that you discover your passions and live your dreams once you’ve got all that money nonsense out of the way.

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Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the DreamChoose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream by James Altucher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book.

I want James Altucher to be my friend.

James Altucher is a chess-playing, marketing genius and idiot savant with silly hair. The type of person you’d want to have a drink with. His story is fascinating. He made and lost millions in business and investing several times over before making it as a writer.

I am of course none of these things. But both of us are called James so clearly we’d have a lot in common.

The message of the book is simple: The world has gone to hell. If you want to succeed then you have to choose yourself. That means taking care of your physical, mental and spiritual health. It also means putting yourself first in business and having the courage to pursue your dreams.

Basically all the usual self-help crap that you saw on Oprah or read in a Tony Robbins book but were too lazy to put into action.

He summarises the daily practice as follows:

“For now, the Simple Daily Practice means doing ONE thing every day. Try any one of these things each day: A) Sleep eight hours. B) Eat two meals instead of three. C) No TV. D) No junk food. E) No complaining for one whole day. F) No gossip. G) Return an e-mail from five years ago. H) Express thanks to a friend. I) Watch a funny movie or a stand-up comic. J) Write down a list of ideas. The ideas can be about anything. K) Read a spiritual text. Any one that is inspirational to you. The Bible, The Tao te Ching, anything you want. L) Say to yourself when you wake up, “I’m going to save a life today.” Keep an eye out for that life you can save. M) Take up a hobby. Don’t say you don’t have time. Learn the piano. Take chess lessons. Do stand-up comedy. Write a novel. Do something that takes you out of your current rhythm. N) Write down your entire schedule. The schedule you do every day. Cross out one item and don’t do that anymore. O) Surprise someone. P) Think of ten people you are grateful for. Q) Forgive someone. You don’t have to tell them. Just write it down on a piece of paper and burn the paper. It turns out this has the same effect in terms of releasing oxytocin in the brain as actually forgiving them in person. R) Take the stairs instead of the elevator. S) I’m going to steal this next one from the 1970s pop psychology book Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No: when you find yourself thinking of that special someone who is causing you grief, think very quietly, “No.” If you think of him and (or?) her again, think loudly, “No!” Again? Whisper, “No!” Again, say it. Louder. Yell it. Louder. And so on. T) Tell someone every day that you love them. U) Don’t have sex with someone you don’t love. V) Shower. Scrub. Clean the toxins off your body. W) Read a chapter in a biography about someone who is an inspiration to you. X) Make plans to spend time with a friend. Y) If you think, “Everything would be better off if I were dead,” then think, “That’s really cool. Now I can do anything I want and I can postpone this thought for a while, maybe even a few months.” Because what does it matter now? The planet might not even be around in a few months. Who knows what could happen with all these solar flares. You know the ones I’m talking about. Z) Deep breathing. When the vagus nerve is inflamed, your breathing becomes shallower. Your breath becomes quick. It’s fight-or-flight time! You are panicking. Stop it! Breathe deep. Let me tell you something: most people think “yoga” is all those exercises where people are standing upside down and doing weird things. In the Yoga Sutras, written in 300 B.C., there are 196 lines divided into four chapters. In all those lines, ONLY THREE OF THEM refer to physical exercise. It basically reads, “Be able to sit up straight.” That’s it. That’s the only reference in the Yoga Sutras to physical exercise. Claudia always tells me that yogis measure their lives in breaths, not years. Deep breathing is what keeps those breaths going.”

Don’t worry if you didn’t get all that the first time. He repeats it repeatedly throughout the book.
Repeated repetitive repetition? Sorry, my head hurts.

Anyway, you get the idea.

James Altucher’s honesty is compelling and that’s what kept me reading. It’s why I signed up to his mailing list, listened to his podcast, and downloaded as many of his books as I could get my grubby little hands on.

Like I said, I wanted to love this book. But I came away disappointed. The basic idea of a daily practice, taking better care of yourself and the people around you, and pursuing your creative dreams is perfectly sound. But you could write it on a postage stamp. That’s a stupid analogy. Who would do that? Ok, you could write it on a post-it note. Let’s go with that.

This is the worst kind of ‘effortless prose.’ Lazy, repetitive and sloppily written. Riddled with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors that make it look like you’re reading an unedited first draft.

At one point he even gets bored and announces his word count.

In case you haven’t guessed yet I’m trying to put as little effort into this review as James Altucher put into this book.

I guess it’s harder than it looks.

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Twitter for Writers (Writer's Craft)Twitter for Writers by Rayne Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had this review to write for about a year. That says more about me than it does about the book. But I’ve genuinely wanted to review it all that time and now at last have done so. That says more about the book than it does about me.

Rayne Hall is a professional working writer, mostly of fantasy, horror, historical fiction and non-fiction, with a loyal fan base and an awesome cat called Sulu. I’m not a big reader of the genres that she writes in so her guidebooks on writing, and Twitter in particular, were of more interest to me than her fiction.

Rayne kindly sent me a review copy of Twitter for Writers after I engaged with her on Twitter. Ok, after I pestered her on Twitter. Just kidding. I like Rayne’s writing style and approach to social media, we follow each other on Twitter, and this was the book of hers that I most wanted to read. So I just asked nicely.

Let me say right out the gate that Twitter for Writers is a great primer on how to use Twitter if: 1) you’re an author, 2) self-published or indie and / or 3) you want to use Twitter to sell your books. No more, no less. It’s especially useful to writers who work in similar genres to the author.

The book gives you an overview of Twitter for the uninitiated writer, how to do stuff like build an audience and drive traffic to your website, and is perfect if you write SF, YA, Fantasy, Horror etc and want to use Twitter to pimp your wares without annoying your followers.

As it was a review copy I was asked to give my honest, unguarded opinion, including on which chapters I found most useful or entertaining, but also to speak a little about my background and how I use Twitter.

I’m an NCTJ-qualified journalist, currently working in the third-sector, who blogs and writes fiction on the side. I’ve used Twitter both personally, as an independent writer, and professionally, managing accounts for charities, creative industries and human rights organisations.

My personal account is supposed to be funny but I probably come across as a sarcastic git, part-time pedant and full-time grumpy arse. I even invented the hashtag #unfollowsunday — but the less said about that the better.

I spend an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter. At the time of writing this I’ve over 11,500 followers, mostly fellow writers, but I’ve yet to try my hand at selling books there. So my perspective on the application of this book is skewed in favour of people who promote themselves without shouting BUY MY BOOK with every single tweet.

Rayne offers some solid advice about starting a conversation, rather than a sales pitch, and how to tweet stuff that is relevant to your audience. For example, if you write vampire novels then talk about vampires — not about your novel.

She also gives practical advice on marketing and how to write engaging content, including models of successful marketing tweets, how to strike a good balance between marketing and conversation, and advises you to avoid automated Direct Messages like the plague.

Any fiction writer would do well to take this advice to heart. Far too often writers market at people rather than talk to them. To readers of your timeline all the typical author tweet says is: “Buy my book. Buy my book. BUY. MY. BOOK.”

There was, at least from my perspective, also some advice that was a little questionable. Namely that it’s ok to use non-photo pictures for your profile picture such as a painting or cartoon. There are of course plenty of examples of people that do this, for any number of reasons, but in my not-so-humble opinion it’s dead wrong. This is a just personal bugbear of mine rather than a damning indictment of the book.

People prefer to connect with people. Because psychology. So use a photo of your face. And not just of your ear, eye or forehead. You’ll get much better results with a real photo of yourself — it’s fine if you disagree but I refuse to justify myself to a cartoon squirrel.

And don’t get me started on cat pictures. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean your pictures of your cats. I love cats. Cats are awesome. And Rayne, for example, uses lovely pictures of her cat to promote her books to good effect. Every writer should have a cat — we all need our familiars. It’s just internet memes like lolcats that I can’t stand. No, you can’t ‘has cheezburger.’ Go back to Facebook. At least writers’ cats are good at spelling.

It just goes to show you that there’s no one true way to ‘do Twitter.’ Everyone thinks that they do it better than anyone else. And everyone annoys someone else at some point because they’re ‘doing it wrong.’ And they’re all wrong, of course, because I do it better. Just kidding.

I liked the sections where Rayne candidly confesses mistakes she made, lessons learnt, and strategies she tried that didn’t work. And I loved (laughed out loud at) the hilarious aside on weird reasons she gets unfollowed. I’ve been unfollowed for some weird-ass reasons over the years. My favourites to date include because I use British spelling (I’m English), because I like the music of Nick Cave, and the venomous death threats I received because I’ve never read Harry Potter.

To be honest I didn’t learn anything new but no doubt a Twitter newbie would find the book much more helpful. Most of the so-called advanced strategies, such as scheduling tweets, I already do. If I died today you’d still get daily tweets from me until the end of the year. But it was still a worthy read, for me, and validating / reassuring to see the process of another writer and realise that my own process isn’t far off the mark.

The most practical advice I picked up from the book was that if you want a tweet to go viral it should be visual, funny and relevant — and the best size for an image on such a tweet is 512 by 1024 pixels. I think of these as ‘hero tweets’ because the hero image makes it perfect fodder for pinning to the top of your profile. Tweet something visual, funny and relevant — preferably with a call to action such as a link to your website — and people will most likely share it. Pin it to the top of your profile and even casual visitors to your profile will see it and respond.

I came away from reading Twitter for Writers feeling like the sort of person who could write his own how-to book on Twitter but is too lazy to do so. I really should get out more or get off my arse and write something — even if it is just a grumpy guide to Twitter. I could call it ‘Antisocial Media.’ Or, you know, I could just stop drinking whiskey, put on pants and leave the house.

I’m @jamesgarside_ on Twitter if you want to say hi.

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Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No MoneyPossum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money by Dolly Freed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money’ could just as easily be called ‘How to Kill Stuff and Eat it’ as that’s what the lion’s share of this survivalism classic is about.

The true life story of the girl behind the pseudonym Dolly Freed is as fascinating as the book itself but you can google that.

I read it cold, knowing nothing much about it, and all I’m sharing here are a handful of my half-assed random impressions of the book.

What struck me like a blow to the head was how startling, forthright and downright funny it is.

The narrator extols the virtues of laziness, lying and tax evasion and makes no bones about killing animals — so long as you’re going to eat them.

She describes in graphic detail how to rear, kill and butcher animals for food. And more power to her for having the guts to do it herself.

There’s plenty of good, down to earth, common sense advice on homesteading, mixed in with homespun wisdom and the occasional bizarre contradiction.

She laughs at people who are squeamish about, for example, killing rabbits because they’re cute (also delicious) but doesn’t kill possums ‘for totemic reasons.’

In later sections there’s antiquated advice on how to buy a cheap property and do it up yourself. And although some of it creaks and groans like a screen door banging in the wind the underlying principles are sound.

Right near the end it gets really nutty and some of the things she says are outrageous. Gotten into a financial dispute with someone who is trying to rip you off? Don’t get a lawyer — just intimidate them. And if that doesn’t work, kill their dog.

So by all means take it with a giant pinch of salt.

But there’s an intelligent message here — an ecology even — that I’d take any day over any number of ‘white middle-class people throw out all their shit and feel better about themselves’ books that pass for advice on minimalist living.

Own your own property and land. Cut your expenses to the absolute minimum. Learn how to fend for yourself. Become self-sufficient rather than money dependent. And make sure that everything you do supports everything else.

Why throw rotten vegetables on a compost heap for months when you can feed them to rabbits, who shit it out the next day, and fertilise the garden with that instead? Then you raise, breed, kill and eat the rabbits (along with fresh vegetables).

I don’t doubt such advice is nothing new if you’re any type of survivalist, homesteader or sit on your porch with a shotgun. But it was interesting to read a dated self-help book that was still surprisingly funny and, dare I say it, helpful.

I’ll leave you with her closing thoughts:

“Now, then, don’t you have a hobby you just don’t have time to pursue? Golf? Tennis? Partying? Studying? Music? Painting? Pottery? Hang gliding? Whatever? Even fishing or gardening — wouldn’t you like to change these from merely recreation to partly occupation?
Yes? Then why don’t you simply do so?
It’s feasible. It’s easy. It can be done. It should be done.
Do it.”

Now get off of my lawn.

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