Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

It’s a shame really that Tom Hanks is so rich that he immediately garners huge publicity for his book without it needing to be any good. These stories could have been good. There’s a lovely touch of humanity to all of them and a great way of noticing the little details that make up characters.

The ‘atta boy’ from the first story, the effort to not slip in the snow in the second story because Virgil has a prosthetic leg, the light touch of the social influencers in an actor’s interview schedule. The little bits and pieces are there but the narrative arcs fall clumsily right around the middle of each piece.

You can’t fill a story with funny and touching details and assume it will make up for having no purpose. Short stories are tough work and they may take a lot less to construct than a novel but that makes them even more important.

I imagine that fans will love this collection as there are traces of Hanks throughout. He uses the details well and it’s an opportunity to catch a glimpse of his life that isn’t hidden too much. The wealthy man who has nothing to do but is happy with his life, for example, but blended with characters from Saving Private Ryan and every interview schedule in “A Junket in the City of Light”.

They are nice enough stories. They could have been better.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks is out now.

Review, Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno

Alberto Alemanno is an academic and an advocate for citizen lobbying and this book fits in well with both of those narratives. The content is well-researched and comprehensive without losing focus on the main purpose: how to lobby as a citizen.

I admit I was a bit impatient about getting to the lobbying part, which doesn’t get addressed until the 30% mark of the book. The theory is important, however, and since I quickly waned in my interest after finding out what lobbying is and how to do it — with some specific and concise examples and a handy instruction section — I can appreciate the effort that went into the first part of the book.

The instructions on how to lobby are clear and accessible and dispel the notion that only a few well-placed people or corporations in society can take part in this type of activity.

One of the latest lobbying actions Alemanno took part in was trying to get glyphosates banned through the EU. The chemical that has been linked to health concerns was renewed for five years through parliament but it could have been renewed for fifteen years. Citizen lobbying has helped in limiting the renewal to a much smaller space of time.

After years of campaigning by NGOs and citizens about its alleged harmful health effects, demonstrated by the four million signatures collected by the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) ‘Stop Glyphosate’ supported by WeMove and Avaaz, no decision-maker could turn a blind eye to such concerns.

Alemanno writes about lobbying the EU but there are legitimate avenues for citizens to have their voices heard in local arenas too and instructions can be found for those as well. When efforts are harnessed in the right way we can all make change happen to a certain extent.  Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society reveals various routes  other than through the traditional forms such as voting. This is called citizen-lobbying and through these years of austerity it’s a nice start to be given directions about how to help.

One example in the UK is the Petitions Committee that provides a mechanism for people’s opinions to be heard. If a petition receives 10,000 signatures, Government will provide a response; if it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will be debated in parliament. So far there have been 44 responses and two debates in parliament.

This book feels like a positive addition to our times, which aims to empower when all around feels like a disempowering exercise to benefit corporations and those already in power. A small read for a greater purpose.

[Also see this book review on the LSE blogs]

Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno available through The Hive (which benefits local bookshops)

Review, Artemis by Andy Weir


People are living on the moon, a mountie is in charge of the almost-non-existent-and-usually unnecessary law, and there is an honest thief about to commit a huge crime that could put the whole planet and its inhabitants in danger.

Welcome to Artemis. (Mostly tourists)

The personal quickly becomes political when the only way for Jazz Bashara to make a lot of money for personal reasons is to commit a very dangerous act. The first rule of Artemis, however, is no fire. As Jazz says, “A fire in Artemis would be a nightmare. It’s not like we can go outside.”

Just as in ‘The Martian’, Andy Weir wades easily into the scientific reasoning behind the reality that would challenge earthians living on the moon.

The explanations are handled well and with a good dose of knowing that living on the moon is exotic and for those of us who don’t know about it, the mundane is thrilling. The tone is similar in that respect to The Martian. There aren’t many writers who could take what is essentially a one-act play and turn it into gripping Human vs Planet super-action. Weir did it then and he does it now. Better than anyone I’ve read, although I’ve not read much science fiction admittedly. Better than anyone I’ve read in most genres at least.

His characters talk to us not as scientists, but like knowledgeable friends.

The characters are real. They want things that are unrelated to the storyline. They live and breathe and exist in creative ways all of their own. The storyline builds around the current crisis faced by the protagonist, hedges a bit to the cultural and the practical – for example, immigration tends to focus in sector-specific work and from certain countries of origin (historically) and on Artemis almost all the welders are Saudis. “We’re just the people who ended up controlling the welding industry.”

Then Weir also brings in the political rulings and structures of earth, the future, the economics of trading blocks and the adjustments needed within the internal runnings of cities at the small and global level.

The intelligence of this intense and thrilling read is astounding. I can’t recommend this book enough. I loved the depth, the fun, the stress, the characters, and the action. And not to forget the science or the mountie who could just as easily have come out of a good Mills&Boon book.

One of my best reads of 2017.

Artemis by Andy Weir is published on 14 November 2017

If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch

If I Die Before I Wake is ex-journalist Emily Koch’s first published book. It’s a crime thriller with the premise that the author has to solve their own murder before they die. The protagonist is male and he is locked-in to his body and unable to communicate with anyone.

The book has had some good reviews on Goodreads already as many advance copies were made available.

It is set in Bristol.

 

Published in 2018 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

 

Students, speak now or forever hold your peace

A property developer has taken a sledgehammer to a 400-year-old Jacobean ceiling  1 in a conservation area of Bristol in order to devalue the property and convert it into student flats. He did it only a day before it was due to be visited by Historic England and hopefully Listed.

The outrage has been huge locally and nationally. But this can’t be the only destruction that has occurred to Bristol’s heritage and it’s certainly not the only building in danger although it was the oldest, so why all the fury now?

The ‘insult to injury’ part of this particular moral, if not currently legal, crime is that the destruction was perpetuated by a quick-profit developer uninterested in  Bristol heritage and looking to benefit from students; some who pay up to £35k a year for their studies.

Students, as I was reminded at a neighbourhood consultation about cutting £30 million from public local services this year and a further £70m by 2021, don’t pay council tax. While the rest of us Bristol residents have seen our council taxes increase yearly, the university has so much money that it is buying property after property. While 17 out 27 Bristol libraries are to be shut down to save money, and others are having their hours reduced, the University of Bristol is spending £75m to rebuild its library.

At the consultation event, to discuss libraries being shut down and millions slashed from already underfunded public services, suggestions were made by people sat at our table of nine. They included ‘make students volunteer their time’ and ‘make the universities pay a certain amount out of tuition fees per student.’ Someone quoted a study citing a number of volunteer hours that students had available to them and the unspoken implication being that those students were withholding help from the city that was providing for them. Other worryingly familiar narratives also included ‘why shut our library down when other libraries are being used much less?’ 2

The Bristol City Council are cutting £1.8 million from the ‘supporting people’ budget and the University of Bristol is spending £300 million redeveloping a new site that will host students who pay no council tax but take up a lot of city resources. There are expected to be up to 5000 additional students in the new development and coming to the city but there will only be 1188 accommodation spaces built by the university itself.  The rest will have to be found in the private rental sector.

A CBRE report quoted by the Bristol Post claims that the current number of 41,000 students will go up to 44,000 by next year. Most of the growth will be coming from the University of Bristol.

A topical paper by the Council in 2014 states: “In recent years demand for student accommodation has placed pressure on the local housing stock often resulting in perceived or actual harmful impacts on communities accommodating students, especially in areas close to the UoB.”

Problems identified have included:

  • Noise and disturbance associated with intensification in the residential use of properties/or the lifestyle of occupants;
  • Pressure for on-street parking;
  • Breakdown in social cohesion;
  • A shift in the character of shops and businesses supporting the community;
  • Unsympathetic external alterations;
  • Poor waste management;
  • A shift from permanent family housing to more transient accommodation;
  • A reduction in the choice of housing available in an area.

Surprisingly, what isn’t mentioned is direct financial gain to the city through CIL fund payments by specialised housing premises for students. For example, just one student accommodation company CRM recently paid close to £1m.

In 2014, there were approximately 3800 bedspaces for students in the city centre and another 2489 with planning permission. There could be a lot more being created  without the numbers being known because, since 2010, legislation changes mean that permission is no longer needed for the transformation of houses into multiple occupation premises (Bristol City Council).

The council is set to cut at least £4.1m from the council tax reduction scheme that allows vulnerable people to pay less tax. Public toilets are closing, 1000 members of staff are being made redundant, parks will no longer be maintained, neighbourhood partnerships have been defunded, and a myriad other cuts are being put in place.

The number of student properties however are increasing and they include the University of Bristol’s own accommodation, Dwell housing on Hotwell Road that is registered in tax haven Guernsey and bought for £6.4m, and Unite which owns 14 properties for student accommodation in Bristol. And many others.

There will soon be so little left of Bristol and yet here is a man with a sledgehammer destroying what little we have in order to make profit from students who don’t even pay council tax and whose university has been flaunting its millions around in the city.

To top it all off, housing in Bristol has been a problem for a long time and the increase of housing stock was one of Mayor Marvin Rees’ campaign promises; the University of Bristol is spending millions and charging up to £35k for tuition fees; public services are being cut drastically while student numbers, and their perceived harmful actions, are increasing and taking up private housing just when housing is at a shortfall. People are getting angry and they are going to need somewhere to vent their frustrations soon.

Brexit has already focused anger on immigrants so before the pitchforks come out for the students 3 it’s time to engage that part of Bristol’s community and look to them too for answers to our public funding crisis and student property worries.

Update: (22/10/17) Kerry McCarthy  speaking in parliament asked

The Minister talks about the expansion in student numbers. How often does he have conversations with the local government and housing Ministers about the impact on housing pressures in cities such as Bristol and on council finances, given that students do not pay council tax and developers do not pay the community infrastructure levy? Although those students are welcome, it does come at a cost.

Notes:

  1. This is a metaphor –he, Mr Baio– probably had his construction workers do it for him. Ephemeral Digest does not claim that the owner of Midas Properties caused the destruction himself.

  2. ‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’ http://www.george-orwell.org/1984/21.html
  3. whose number used to include me and will hopefully do so again in the future

Review, The Break by Marian Keyes

‘Myself and Hugh . . . We’re taking a break.’
‘A city-with-fancy-food sort of break?’

If only. Amy’s husband Hugh says he isn’t leaving her. He still loves her, he’s just taking a break – from their marriage, their children and, most of all, from their life together. Six months to lose himself in south-east Asia. And there is nothing Amy can say or do about it. Yes, it’s a mid-life crisis, but let’s be clear: a break isn’t a break up – yet . . . However, for Amy it’s enough to send her – along with her extended family of gossips, misfits and troublemakers – teetering over the edge. For a lot can happen in six-months. When Hugh returns if he returns, will he be the same man she married? And will Amy be the same woman? Because if Hugh is on a break from their marriage, then isn’t she?

What I thought

I happily admit I’m biased when it comes to Marian Keyes because while her writing invariably involves a romance, she primarily writes around the effects of depression, sadness, mental illness and ways of coping with life. Grief, breakups, death, drug addiction, and unplanned pregnancies have featured along the way and have made her much more than a cliche genre author.

In The Break, a single event with a pretty obvious bad guy (the husband for leaving) is traced back over time to the origins of the relationship and what really took place in the dynamics of the family.

Keyes’ writing skills are excellent and, no matter the topic, she consistently shows and doesn’t tell while sustaining more than one -or two- narratives and storylines.

This is a great read.

The Break by Marian Keyes is published on 7 September.

Review: The Last Dog on Earth by Adrian J. Walker

 The Last Dog on Earth by Adrian J. Walker starts off in the voice of Lineker –the dog– and the tempo and voice and narration are just as upbeat and ebullient as you’d suspect a joyful labrador to be. Unfortunately, this dog is pretty much house bound with his agoraphobic (and people phobic) master Reginald who has become utterly antisocial due to personal tragedy at the same time as England (and the world?) and all its political and social systems have collapsed.

The narrative takes place through the two voices of Lineker and Reginald who take turns narrating their sides of the story. The conflict they need to deal with is that brought on by the world as they hunt down a home for a 7-year-old girl who comes to their door.

Emotionally, this is a gruelling piece of work and Walker take no prisoners in his sustained literary pursuit of pushing through the worst of society and humanity.

The writing and the theme are excellent. I was very glad to have read it and it was by no means a trivial task to do so.

There were some obvious parallels with concentration camps, and there was a none-too-subtle setup of the book as an answer to how people end up commiting such atrocities. Then there was a bit of an homage to Tolkien at one point with the cloaked figure in a bar being a saviour etc. I won’t spoil the story, I just thought the bar scene was a bit of a wink to readers of this type of ‘journey’ novel.

Ultimately Walker examines the idea of nature and what we can all become with enough pressure and circumstance. The idea is applied to both Reginald and Lineker and I am still not sure which was the toughest to read.

The Last Dog on Earth is published on 7 September, 2017 and is the first of a two-book deal Walker has signed up to with Del Rey.

 

Exposure by Helen Dunmore, Review

Exposure is utterly compelling but equally stressful. Dunmore wrote characters so well and this is a thriller that unfolds by following the lives of people caught up in a tense situation during the Cold War.
I could not stop reading until I discovered whether the characters would be okay, especially since little children were involved.

Dunmore often said she was interested in showing what ordinary people would have gone through in dramatic times and she does this scarily well in this, one of her last books before she passed away last month.

Helen Dunmore had lived in Bristol since graduating from the University of York in 1971 and was the first winner of the Orange Prize. She died at the beginning of June from cancer, which she revealed she had when releasing her book Birdcage Walk. This last book of hers was the only one set in Bristol.

Great Stories by Chekhov, review

Known far more for his plays such as the Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, Chekhov is regarded as the father of the short story as well as the first modern fiction writer. His famous Chekhov’s gun comment is still regarded as some of the best advice for storyline progression:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. … One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”

His short stories are a wonderful example of how he rejected conventional forms to examine the lives of ordinary people in prosaic situations.

His impressionistic depictions of Russian life and the human condition resound with emotional honesty, focusing on character rather than plot and revealing subtle but important truths. Thomas Mann held Chekhov in highest esteem, declaring, “His short stories rank with all that is greatest and best of European literature.”

This compilation of seven tales attests to the timeless appeal of the Russian author’s short fiction.

Selections include “Misery,” an account of a sleigh-driver’s attempts to communicate his overwhelming grief; “A Father,” a meditation on the conflict between rejecting a monstrous parent and giving him his respectful due; “A Problem,” which proposes that criminals cannot reform unless they pay for their misdeeds; and “In Exile,” an examination of whether it is better to dream of happiness or to accept a living hell.

Other tales include “Ward No. 6,” relating a conflict between an asylum inmate and the institution’s director; “My Life: The Story of a Provincial,” in which a rebellious young bourgeois joins the working classes; and “Peasants,” an exposé of the dehumanizing effects of poverty.

If you haven’t read Chekhov since school then I highly recommend picking up this book and diving in. I enjoyed it tremendously.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anton-Chekhov/Great-Stories-By-Chekhov/20352081

Every Which Way Crochet Borders by Edie Eckman

With crochet, a title such as Every Which Way Crochet Borders is beautifully literal. The borders are delicate, colourful, and well explained. The explanations are clear and concise. There is some preparatory content before the borders are written out in patterns.

There are 139 new border designs with step-by-step instructions and symbol charts. The instructions are clear enough for beginner crocheters, and the patterns are creative and fun enough for more advanced hookers.

The styles are creative and fresh, which is brilliant in crochet because there is so much information and so many patterns already out there. I loved this book and would buy it myself. I’d use it for knitting and crochet projects.

Every Which Way Crochet Borders by Edie Eckman is out now.