Posts Tagged ‘review’

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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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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Review: Unspeak — Steven Poole

Posted: September 10, 2015 in reviews
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Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes RealityUnspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality by Steven Poole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Steven Poole is a cunning linguist. 
He disses George Orwell, just to make himself look better, then admits with fake modesty that he’s no expert and just a close reader. 
He quotes Noam Chomsky, disingenously and out of context, just to make Chomsky look like a dick.
He then sets up straw-man arguments so that he can, oh so cleverly, knock them down.

He sets himself the incredibly hard task of taking apart the words of such noted thinkers, intellectuals and luminaries as George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice.
Our governments are lying to us and use language to hide it. Who knew? Who knew.
Some earlier chapters are excellent and persuasive. But often, despite agreeing with the premise of the book, I found myself irritated by Poole’s grating tone of smugness.
He goes off-the-rails at the end, focusing in later chapters almost exclusively on the war on terror. 

Even though this is were we should care most, and his arguments should be strongest, he goes to town with smugness and pushes his own arguments to silly, contorted, linguistic extremes.
I agree wholeheartedly with the original premise of the book. But he’s guilty of using the very tricks and devices he decries “them” for using.

A book that seeks to expose Unspeak ends up full of it.
It’s at the service or humour and political analysis rather than mass murder, of course, but still bullshit and still annoying.
Literary journalism is an oxymoron.

Steven Poole is well-and-truly full of it — and full of himself.

He reviewed reviews of his book on the Unspeak website and his tone is the same there.
Admittedly, I laughed that he quoted Alistair Campbell’s dismissive review of his book, as “”Crap from start to finish”, on the front cover of his book.

I’ve delibereately just blurted out my thoughts rather than write up a proper review — the last thing I want is this guy reading what I’ve said about his book and sending me footnotes.
I’m glad that I read it but I was also glad when I’d finished.

Please let me never be sat next to this man at a dinner party. 
Ok, I admit, I’m just annoyed that he slagged off Orwell and Chomsky.

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Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the typewriter, you tell the truth.

Read Tobias Wolff’s Old School, finally, after years of it being a gift from a friend, and then eventually selling the book and getting it out of the library because it had sold before I’d got round to reading it.

All sorts of thoughts about the book, but first this. If anything, on one level, it says that writers should tell the truth, but none of us do and we all need each other more than we realise. ‘For a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life.’

But plot events and the moment of having just finished it brought back a memory of my own.

When I was a kid, junior school I think, possibly middle, I submitted a poem to the school’s poetry contest. It was verbatim a poem I’d read in a book in the local library. It turned out it was an incredibly famous poem by an incredibly famous poet, but as a kid, I’d never heard of him, I just liked it. And so, of course, I got caught was was due to be bollocked by the headmaster. Despite no doubt being an insufferable swot, though I never really saw myself as that except at the end of another kid’s fist again for no good reason.

And when I went into the headmaster’s office, although he did bollock me, it was with a certain amusement and detached amazement or incredulity. He was a big man, who regaled us with tales of growing up walking barefoot so his feet would toughen and that his one treat in life was that he allowed himself one liquorice stick a month, and so he didn’t need to do anything other than speak to make you feel like you’d been bollocked. He could see that I was nervous, that I was sorry, and the rest of it.

And so it went to the business of giving me lines to do. He set me in front of his typewriter and gave me lines and left the room. Probably to have a quick fag and a cup of tea. Or more likely to smoke a pipe. Anyway, I don’t remember having seen a manual typewriter before, not in real life, though I knew what one was. And this is my first memory of being in front of one. And here I was, as punishment, being asked to write on a typewriter.

I assume the line was I will not lie or I must tell the truth, but truth is I don’t remember. And I only wrote a few copies of the line as the keys kept getting stuck. Again, with amusement when he came back, benign bemusement if you will, he noticed that I’d in fact written bugger all and hardly learnt my lesson at all. But it didn’t matter, and I had in fact learnt my lesson.  (And no doubt, he could see that, as he stood outside with me and sent me on my way). And I walked across the polished wooden floor and that is my main memory of him after all these years.

The sort of Old School headmaster who made a massive impression on everyone there. But whether I could write on the typewriter or not – the keys were heavy and their giant thud astonished me. But I was afraid of breaking the damned thing. And when the keys got stuck, I wasn’t sure what to do, gently coaxing them apart. But yes, that was my first memory of the typewriter and I guess you could say that the lesson is that at the typewriter you tell the truth. Which is why Old School made me think of it.

And my thought on the novel? Aside from it being a gift, and so for all these years my friend has secretly been admonishing me to tell the truth. I enjoyed most of it, and the deliberate derailment of the boy plagiarising and therefore ending up out on his arse and not meeting Hemingway, who killed himself and never visited the school in any case, was masterful. But that leaves it floundering, almost by its own admission and deliberate choice of direction.

Yes, it shows that in many ways this turn of luck actually makes the man of the boy and the truth-telling writer of the liar-pretender but it then goes on to be more about the telling of the tale of the Dean, who also fell from grace, and that the whole association with Hemingway was a sham as he had never been friends with the man as people always suspected or assumed. And although this is told as a ‘this is what led me to be a writer’ and is poignant in its way, it doesn’t satisfy as an ending because – although all those facts and information should be included – it changes from narrative to exposition.

And the main character takes a step back at the end.  To make a point.  But just before that, and this is what I mean by ‘admission’, it says that life isn’t like a well-rounded story but it would have been satisfying had he gone back when invited back as a visiting writer.  And I couldn’t help but think for fucks sake that’s the version that I wanted to read.

Because the derailment would make more sense and all the points could still be made, but without breaking the story and getting away from the narrative.  Because we’d gotten used to the pattern of boys setting at each other and vying for the attentions of a visiting writer, the whole story was about that, and the point well made that the boys fall from grace is what made him a man and led him through the shit of it (of life) to becoming a writer.

Instead of meeting Hemingway, he became that of a fashion himself. And the excellent meeting with the woman who actually wrote the story he plagiarised, when she was a girl at the academy, and she the better writer who dismisses writing as being too selfish and not doing any good. Brilliant.

So then, after that, go back to the school and round it off. With him as a visiting writer, and doe-eyed schoolboys looking up to him. Choosing a story, from the endless pretentious and painful reminders because they’re all so earnest and imitative and bad because dishonest stories, and then the dinner at the school or his reading in the chapel.

And somewhere among that plant the seeds of the revelations about the Dean and all the other stuff. And in his own meeting with the boy. Because after all this we didn’t really get one damned meeting with a writer.  Not really.  So it makes narrative sense for us to see through the mirror and get this ‘prize’ as viewed from the boy-now-man’s own view as the writer, looking at the awestruck boy who is a reflection of his former self.

You can still crack the mirror, you can still bring the house of cards down, you can still show the Dean’s fall from grace and even his return.  But all of this without breaking from the pace, structure, point of view, and narrative dream.  Without jumping too far out and ahead.  Yes, it’s ok to skip the man’s entire life after school in a few brief paragraphs as it did, but go back.

But maybe that’s the point, as made, life isn’t like that. But we know life isn’t like that, that’s why we’re reading books.

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